Razor wire fences lay twisted on the barren earth below them, tangled with bloody strips of fabric. Dead bodies decayed, casting haunting shadows in the late afternoon sun. Drifts of snow collected in the ravines and lined up next to broken ridges. Wide swaths of scorched earth crisscrossed the scene, human bones lying in the paths of destruction. Military vehicles lay overturned and abandoned.
"This is awful," Chandra said. "What happened here?"
"An outbreak of Simps," Ruby said. "It looks like the military tried to stop them."
But the destruction that lay below them to the left was only half the story. The broken earth and battle remains touched only the land to the west of them. To the east lay what appeared to be a normal suburban wonderland. Houses lined the city streets, pristine but abandoned. A grocery store with sale signs, shopping carts and cars in the parking lot told the story of life as usual before everything fell apart.
The two realities fused in the middle. The overgrown lawns of the east broke down along the dividing line. Some weeds now grew in the barren land of the battle. A military troop carrier lay upside-down on a suburban sidewalk next to a chalked-in hopscotch game.
"I'm glad Eddie isn't here to see this," Bryce said. "It would break his heart."
"It's breaking mine," Ruby said. "What do you think happened here?"
"It isn't hard to guess. The battle with the Simps started before the world broke. Then the mishmash event happened, and a town appeared to the east. The battle spilled over."
"And what about the people in that town?" Ruby asked.
"The military lost the battle with the Simps. The Simps infected the town."
"This place is awful," Chandra whispered.
"I agree," Basha said, holding up his tracking device. "And the bad news is that our destination is just ahead."
The line that separated the two realities traced diagonally across the once pleasant city, asphalt bisected in jagged little lines. Ahead, two buildings stood fused together, one several stories tall with bars over the narrow slotted windows and razor wire around the perimeter. Its east side lay open, the wall sheared away leaving the rooms of the upper floors exposed to the elements. A sign down its length announced CDC Research.
The second building was only two stories, brown brick, wide windows, with tall, inviting glass doors. A manicured hedge ran around the building. A sign on a stone monolith before it read Gen-Corp Marketing.
"It must have been weird for anyone in those buildings when the world broke," Basha said.
"More like terrifying," Chandra said. "Those signs are in English. What do they say?"
"The one that matters is CDC Research," Bryce said. "It stands for Centers for Disease Control, and it's probably where they studied the Simps."
"So, there could be Simps inside," Ruby said. "We should have brought weapons."
"I've still got the Ord ring," Bryce said.
"Yeah, but you're staying in the car."
Bryce frowned. "I don't like you guys going in there without me."
"It's important that at least one of us stay in the car in case Tim decides to visit or we need a quick escape."
"Well, then you take the ring." He fished the Ord ring out of his pocket and handed it to Ruby.
Ruby took it. "I don't know how it works."
"Neither do I. I've also got the stun baton."
"Basha should take that."
"That's great," Chandra said. "So how do we get in?"
"That shouldn't be too hard." Bryce aimed the car for the Gen-Corp building's roof. "We go in where the walls are missing."
They landed between two roof vents. Before them, the exposed rooms of the CDC lay bare, the support beams of each room hanging low without the outer wall to support them.
"It looks like it might fall on top of us," Chandra said.
"It's lasted this long," Bryce said. "But you should step lightly."
Ruby climbed out of the car first. The floors of the two buildings didn't match up. From where she stood, there was a narrow gap between Gen-Corp's roof and the hanging support beams over an office within the CDC. To Ruby's surprise, the lights were on within the office. "They've got electricity here."
"You think I'll find laboratory equipment inside?" Chandra asked as she and Basha followed.
"That's the kind of thing they'd do here, as far as I know," Ruby said. She pulled the strap of the Ord ring onto her hand.
They hesitated at the edge. Basha leaned into the gap, the stun baton held before him, searching for anyone lurking in the shadows. "Are we sure about this?"
Ruby turned and called to Bryce. "Wait here for now. I'll call you when I know it's clear."
Ruby climbed in, crossed the office and stopped in front of the desk. A laptop sat open, its screen still on.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
"It looks like the computers are still working," she said.
Basha rushed across the room and checked. "But their network is secure."
"You can read English?"
"No, but I know what I'm looking at. I've spent loads of time on the internet since everything changed."
"I didn't see a single computer in Cavaheim," Ruby said.
"You didn't see my room... or the university's technology division. I raided it when they made me king."
"I remember," Chandra grumbled.
"I didn't get to go out much. Jarrock kept me in my room. After the... uh... mishmash event, I got all kinds of signals over the satellite networks. I learned my way around networks like this." He sat down in front of the laptop. "I can crack this network and get Starrik translations in a few minutes."
"I'm not waiting around here," Chandra said. "We need to find a lab."
She moved for the door, but Ruby stepped in her way. "I'll go first."
Building debris, ceiling tiles and scattered paper littered the hallway outside. Ruby waited, listening. She heard faint noise, something she couldn't identify. Down the hall on one side, a row of windows faced a brightly lit interior room. She approached it.
Beyond the windows was a lab. Rat cages lined one wall, and Ruby saw movement within some of them. Lab tables, burners, machines, microscopes... it was exactly what Chandra had been looking for. Ruby scanned the interior.
Chandra moved up beside her. "You see anyone?"
"But there's got to be someone."
Chandra pointed at the cages. "Because someone's been feeding the rats."