[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
The dust expanded in a roiling cloud, sweeping outwards from the collapsing buildings. It quickly engulfed hysterical fugitives who found themselves in a supernatural darkness; they had no choice but to seek refuge wherever they could and wait for the light to return, while the ever-present dust collected on their shoulders and coated their eyeglasses.

The dust spread outwards in two separate ripple patterns, slightly off center from each other and displaced an hour or so in time. When the second tower fell, rescue teams had little choice but to wait for the dust to settle or dissipate; working blindly in that gray cloud would do more harm than good.

But to everybody's surprise, the dust didn't settle. The clouds persisted, odd eddies describing vortices and patterns of convection where none should exist. The air did gradually clear, but not because the particulates fell to the ground; rather, the individual structures of the dust formation gathered themselves, crawling back in the direction of Ground Zero. Those trapped within the artificial night felt the clouds roll back, and found their shoulders unsullied, their eyeglasses clean.

The dust clouds concentrated themselves over the wreckage of the two major towers of the World Trade Center, now heaped piles of twisted iron and broken concrete, hissing and popping with waste heat. They formed themselves into an angry cumulonimbus of sorts, a lowering grey cloud. As policemen watched, they could see thin streams of more dust rising from the buildings' battered corpses and merging with the larger mass.

But eventually the flow of fresh dust petered out, leaving a swollen, almost spherical mass of dense particles bobbing gently above the disaster area. It seemed to rise for a moment, and turn on some unseen inner axis, as if scanning its surroundings. Then, with an immediacy only explainable by the direct influence of intelligent purpose, the dust cloud wafted over the police cordons. It turned north on West Street, taking up all lanes of traffic.

"Clear a path!" shouted the police chief into his radio.

Once it was no longer above the superheated wreck of the towers, the cloud of dust showed no ability to stay aloft. A portion of its amorphous bulk extruded in front of it and rolled across the surface of the roadway until the rest of the cloud caught up, and then another lobe would bulge forth, and then another. The cloud looked like a creature with a random number of legs walking daintily up West Street to see the sights of Manhattan.

The police cleared the roadway in front of the cloud. The chief met up with a military general, who was ready to drop the hammer after that morning's attacks.

"We could hit it with an incendiary cloud," he suggested. "Burn it right up."

"It doesn't mind the heat," the police chief reminded the general. "You're more likely to burn down my city than that thing."

"Well, we've got to do something," said the general. "If the terrorists are responsible for this, who knows what kind of mischief it could be up to?"

"Here's an idea," suggested the fire chief. "We'll meet it at the Chambers Street overpass. We'll have pumper trucks ready and we'll spray fire hoses down on it. Water might knock that stuff down."

"Do it," said the general.

The cloud rolled up the street. Firemen deployed on the overpass. The cloud flattened itself out to slip under the overpass, and as it did so the fire crews hit it with the fog nozzles. A chunk of the cloud caved in, and a dirty smear coated the road where the water hit.

The cloud became more chaotic. The fire chief frowned. It wasn't running away, and it wasn't fighting back. What was it doing? "Water off!" he commanded, and the fire fighters obeyed.

The cloud gathered itself around the dark spot in the road where a portion of its mass had been wetted down. It seemed to paw at the dark stain, trying in vain to coax its lost dust skyward. Then, slowly and ponderously, it turned and squeezed the rest of itself under the overpass, continuing its march north.

"Good, we know water hurts it," said the general. "We can get some fire-planes to drop a few lakes on the thing; that'll teach it a lesson it won't soon forget."

"No," said the fire chief and the police chief simultaneously.

"What do you mean, 'no'? We've got to kill the thing!"

"No," the two chiefs repeated.

"With all due respect," grated the general, who was not long on patience, "I don't think that's your decision to make."

"You're in New York City, pal," replied the police chief.

"Yeah, show some respect," added the fire chief. The general didn't like it, but the cloud was left alone for the time being.

It plodded northwards, past the basketball court and the piers, engulfing the cars parked on both sides of the road, but retreating from them on the far side, leaving them perfectly clean. It hiked as far as Canal street and then stopped in the middle of the road. The police and fire chiefs, who were following at a cautious distance, watched the dust anxiously.

"Does it seem smaller?" asked the police chief suddenly.

"Impossible," said the general.

"It's definitely smaller," said the fire chief. Indeed, as they watched, the topmost lobe of the cloud dropped lower and lower, and its diameter shrank in upon itself.

The police chief snapped his fingers. "It's going into the ventilation hatches in the Holland Tunnel!" he said.

"Dammit, it's going to ground!" barked the general. "Colonel, get ready with some depth charges. We're going to flood that tunnel."

"Haven't we had enough of that today?" demanded the fire chief.

"Yeah, no more destroying New York City, thanks!" added the police chief sarcastically.

"Then tell me your bright ideas, geniuses!" shouted the general.

"We follow it," the chiefs said simply. And they did, doubling back to Hudson street to drop down to the tunnel level and the 78.

The cloud filled the entire tunnel. There was no more of this curious striding motion; the portions of the cloud on the top, bottom and sides that touched the tunnel surfaces rolled the cloud forwards. Above ground the cloud had seemed awkward, but moving through tunnels seemed natural for it. It sped down the tunnel almost as fast as the police and fire chiefs could give chase.

And then they were across into Jersey City. The cloud resumed its journey on foot, creeping over the Skyway, and ponderously rolling up the cloverleaf to get on the I-95 southbound. By this time most of the upper-echelon government of New Jersey had joined the crowd following the cloud, which was now something of a procession, creeping along a hundred yards behind the curiously sentient cloud of matter.

The cloud headed south through the Garden State, through Elizabeth and Edison and Allentown. It chose the 295, bypassing Philadelphia, and it rolled sedately through Cherry Hill. A great silent crowd met the cloud at Paulsboro, standing on building roofs to get a closer look at the strange phenomenon that was literally sweeping the nation. It crossed the river into Delaware at Wilmington and rejoined the 95.

"I think it's headed for Washington," muttered the general. "Goddammit, it is. It's headed right that way."

"Aw, you don't know squat," sneered the New York City police chief.

"I've had it with you!" shouted the general. "You're not in goddamned New York City any more, so you can just shut up! We're going to soak the thing and that's final!"

"Now just hold on a second," protested the mayor of Trenton.

"It doesn't seem to be dangerous," added the Governor of Delaware.

"C'mon," pleaded the New York City fire chief. "Let it go a little longer. We want to know what it's doing."

"If it gets within whistling distance of Washington," snarled the general, "I'm going nuclear. I'm serious." But everybody ignored him.

The cloud tirelessly beat its way down the Delaware turnpike, skirting along the northern edge of the Chesapeake Bay. By now all the major news outlets were tracking every detail of the cloud's progress; the air was thick with helicopters. Local area law enforcement was generally unsuccessful at keeping the road perfectly clear of gawkers and mischief-makers; some college kids in Elkton crossed the cordon and actually lay down on the road in front of the cloud (which passed over them harmlessly), and one enterprising young lady live-blogged images of herself standing in front of the cloud wearing a French maid's outfit and carrying a feather-duster (she made the cover of Newsweek). These moments passed with some amount of stress on the part of authorities, but in the end no harm was done.

And then it was across the Susquehanna. The town of Riverside greeted the cloud with a small parade, including a marching band and hordes of children with American flags. If the cloud noticed it gave no sign. A lone old man greeted the cloud at Clayton; he wore his faded Vietnam-era fatigues and saluted smartly as the cloud passed by. It paid him no notice.

The cloud took side streets through downtown Baltimore. The mayor had evacuated the city just in case, so there were no traffic problems, but a majority of citizens had ignored the order, so a great many spectators watched the cloud, slow but graceful in its own drab way, billowing in a stately fashion through the streets of town. It rejoined the 95 on the far side of Baltimore proper and made its way to the intersection with the beltway. There it stopped.

"It's deciding where to go," said the general. "It's getting up its nerve. I'm sorry, you soft-hearted weenies, but if it chooses to keep on going to Washington DC, I've got no choice. I'm blasting that thing."

"What's it waiting for?" wondered the New York City fire chief. The cloud sat at the intersection, bobbing silently.

"Didn't you hear me?" demanded the general. "I'm taking it out, with water, or weapons, or whatever else seems like a good idea."

"Look!" said the police chief, pointing down the beltway. Something was approaching from that direction; it looked like a miniature tornado. And in fact that was exactly what it was – or, more accurately, a dust devil. The fast-moving vortex of dust approached the larger, slower mass, circled it once, and then dove into its heart. The two masses of particles merged, and the larger cloud swelled with this infusion of new material.

"Where did it come from?" the fire chief wondered.

"West," said the police chief. "It came from the site of the plane crash, in Pennsylvania."

The procession of cloud-followers was silent, then, digesting this. But they had no time to ponder, because the cloud was moving again. It was continuing its march down the 95, directly towards Washington DC.

"Okay, that's enough of that," said the general. "I'm bringing in the jets to take care of this the military way."

The wheels of the New York City police chief's car peeled out on the pavement. The chief's car accelerate towards the cloud, then dove directly inside it. It did not emerge out the other end, although the hood of it could be seen dimly through the leading edge. The fire chief grinned.

"Looks like you're going to have to take out some ground zero first responders, ace," he said, and gunned his own vehicle to join the police chief in the cloud. The general fumed impotently, but the New Yorkers had him over a barrel.

South and west the cloud crept, over the rim of Rocky Gorge, down to the Capitol Beltway, and it cut through town on Baltimore and Rhode Island. It crept within blocks of the White House, which almost made the general's head explode, but mercifully passed east of it, crossing the National Mall on 14th on its way to the bridge over the Potomac.

At the Pentagon the cloud paused again. Another dust devil emerged from the ruin of the military headquarters and united with the larger mass. Now swollen larger than it had been even when it started its journey, the cloud began the last leg, crossing South Washington Boulevard on its way to the Arlington National Cemetary.

The procession behind the cloud continued on foot. The dust rolled up Bradley Drive and into the heart of the cemetery, passing rows of white headstones on either side. It went cross-country as it crossed Eisenhower and climbed the hill towards the amphitheater, its forward progress slowing to a crawl with the difficulty of climbing an incline. But it made it up to Roosevelt and wafted the last few yards along the paths to its ultimate objective: the Tomb of the Unknowns.

The dust cloud swirled around the simple stone tomb, turning around itself until it formed a discernable vortex at its core. Faster and faster it rotated until the vortex tip became a sharp point and descended to the ground. It cut through the sod like a hot knife through butter, digging up a trench a yard wide and twenty yards long. Then the cloud elongated, its material becoming more slender as it tightened its radius around the axis of the vortex. The thinning cloud grew darker and darker as it became denser and denser, a black tornado spinning ominously over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

And then the spinning stopped, and the suspended matter dropped. It dropped right into the trench the cloud had dug, a solid line of gray detritus. The earth churned up by the vortex still lay to the side of the ditch; all it needed was somebody to fill it in.

"Nobody touch that stuff," whispered the general.

"Shut up," advised the fire chief.

"Yeah," added the police chief, "and somebody get me a shovel."



September 2012

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