Ruby followed Kevin up to the platform beneath the telescope. His laptop sat on a desk, along with an array of control panels and tangled wires. A broad screen hung behind the desk, displaying pages of computer code.
"I've been trying to fix the telescope," Kevin explained. "But I'm no mechanic, and I can't call the university for help. The university isn't there anymore."
"Why bother with the telescope?" Ruby asked. "Isn't everything here on earth more interesting than what's in the sky?"
"Are you kidding me? Haven't you noticed how things have changed?"
"You mean the moon? The thing with 'Sky Cola?'"
"The moon is boring. I mean, yeah, there's an ad there now, but that's just a projection."
"Well, obviously. I mean I can tell that from the little telescope." Kevin pointed out a much smaller telescope in the corner. "The sign glows regardless of the cycle of the moon. Someone has aimed an awfully big light at the moon, and they're projecting an advertisement."
Ruby hadn't considered this. "So if the moon is boring, what else is there? I mean, I see the Big Dipper every night. And Orion. The sky is the same."
"You haven't noticed that there's other planets up there?"
"Big. They're close. Clustered together. I haven't been able to get a good look. That's why I want to fix this thing." He patted the side of the huge white column suspended above them.
"But what about the footage? You said you had footage of what happened. How is that possible?"
Kevin sat at his laptop and typed. "This observatory serves as a data hub for a university network."
"You've got the internet?" Ruby asked, leaning forward over Kevin's shoulder.
"It was out for a while, but yeah, I've got the net... sort of. That's a puzzle I haven't untangled yet. Everything's different, and most of what I find isn't in English. But the university network is still somewhat intact. It's just... different now."
He hit the enter key, and the screen wall changed to display dozens of camera feeds. Most of them were static and a few were blurred and unrecognizable, but some showed actual places. One depicted a desert plain with black mountains in the distance, one showed a bare prairie. A few showed city scenes, most of them unpopulated. One particular frame caught her interest. "Look at that."
Kevin followed her gaze. "Oh, that. Yeah, that's one of the weirder ones. It's a town. You can see people moving around there, but it's impossible. A town shaped like a squashed barrel on a stick."
"Or a hammer."
"Yeah, right. A hammer. People are walking around on that thing, even on the sides and on the bottom. I stared at that thing for a whole day."
"The town is called Holcomb. A friend of mine was there," Ruby said.
"What? Really? Where is it?"
"Don't you know?"
Kevin threw up his hands. "I don't know where any of these places are. These used to be feeds for scientific studies. Volcanoes, wildlife, some of them pointed at planets, tracking their movements. Then..."
"Then everything changed."
"Some yutz on the internet called it the 'Mishmash event'. That's becoming the common term for what happened. Lots of different worlds shoved together into one new one."
"How did it happen?"
"I don't know."
"But you said you have footage."
He nodded. "Take a look for yourself. I'll play you the footage. This will take just a second."
The video feeds all went blank as Kevin tapped at his keyboard. Ruby glanced around the observatory. Hera waited by the door, peering skittishly up at Ruby.
"Hera, why don't you come up here?"
"She won't," Kevin said. "I showed her what I'm about to show you, and she won't come near this screen now."
"Am I going to be scared?"
"I don't know. I find it fascinating." He hit one final key, and the screens came back up. This time, they showed very different scenes: a watering hole where herds of zebra and gazelle stood placidly, a field of flowers, a steam jet at the edge of a volcano, an asteroid. In one, a girl in black lace lingerie lazed on a couch smoking a cigarette.
"What's that one?" Ruby asked, pointing.
"Oh, uh..." Kevin hit a key, and the girl disappeared, replaced by Saturn. "That one wasn't a university feed. Anyway, the feeds are normal. This is Saturday, September 27th, at 1:25 PM."
"That's about when everything changed."
"Exactly. Like I said, I was asleep when it happened, so I pulled up this stored footage to figure things out. And..." He raised a hand for dramatic effect.
Suddenly, all the screens flashed with new activity. It was impossible to follow all the action. One camera now depicted a swamp, a community of frog creatures with wise, intelligent faces gazed up at the camera. In another, a giant bee passed the screen carrying a dog. There were people in many, villages, cities, mud pits, tunnels. Ruby's eyes darted over the jumbled scenes. Over a couple of seconds, these pictures changed, growing brighter, and there was one final blip of light. Then the chaotic action stopped. Many of the feeds went to static. In one corner, a window displayed the town of Holcomb, just as Bryce had described it.
"What did I just see?"
"Two seconds of insanity. I had to slow it down to make sense of it, and it still doesn't make sense." Kevin clicked a few keys, and the feeds returned to their original state before the two seconds of chaos.
"Let's slow down and focus on just one feed." The image of Saturn expanded to fill the whole screen. "Here we have Saturn. Not much to see until..."
The instant the screen changed, Kevin hit a key, slowing down the footage. Now, a futuristic cityscape filled the screen. In the far distance stood what appeared to be an aqueduct, white arched pillars holding a broad channel high above the earth. Buildings were smooth cylinders with black windows. An egg-like vehicle hovered above a black street, the silhouettes of passengers hidden behind tinted windows. A woman in a white pantsuit pushed a surprisingly old-fashioned baby carriage along a walkway, her face frozen in a placid smile. Huge purple flowers the size of trees hung over the walkway, shading the woman's face.
"Where is this?"
"Again, I don't know. As far as I can tell, before and after the so-called mishmash event, this place doesn't exist. There's a few dozen other places like this in the feeds, just as weird. They're all different, but over the two seconds, this same thing happens."
Kevin sped the footage up a little. Now the smiling woman took a slow step. The egg vehicle moved past her. She reached over as if to scratch her arm. As all this happened, the light grew brighter, as if the sun were going super-nova. The woman didn't react. A second in, the aqueduct in the distance melted as if a super hot wave had liquified its surface. Another few frames and the woman and baby carriage began to melt as well. The woman appeared unaware of what was happening. Everything in the scene dribbled to mush like wax sculptures in an oven.
The super-nova effect reached an overwhelming intensity, and then, just as the entire screen turned white, Kevin hit the pause button. "There," he said. "Do you see it?"
At first Ruby saw only shapes in the white light, none of them resembling the city scene they'd replaced.
Then she saw. It was a human figure, almost entirely washed out by the light. A male figure, bald, naked, shown from behind reaching out towards the brightest point of light, frozen in an instant. It looked as if he were trying to grasp a tiny sun of infinite brilliance.
"I don't get it," Ruby said.
"You see this in every feed," Kevin said. "For exactly one frame, you see this image, as if it is everywhere. Even the feeds that were dark during the two seconds of footage show this guy."
"That's... that's weird."
"It gets weirder. These feeds all run at different frame rates and none of them are in synch, but the switch from normal life to this image here is exactly two seconds. I mean down to the nanosecond. Two seconds of alien worlds burning, and then this guy. It's like this wasn't a natural event. Someone engineered it to be exactly two seconds."
"What does that mean," Ruby asked.
"I have no idea."