By John C. Weil
Dead frogs by the hundreds of thousands washed up on the shorelines of ponds, streams and marshlands across America.
They floated onto the steam beds and river banks with bloated bellies and limp, hardened legs. On the thick, mucky banks of Alabama's waterways, tadpoles died with deformities: three extra legs, one eye. Some struggled for life, flopping about in pain.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bruckman waded through a muddy stream to examine them, scooping dead frogs in a net. He wore glossy, knee-high black boots and baggy khakis. A heavy down coat helped his broad shoulders cast a wide shadow. The coat protected him against the cold this Fall day. With the wind whipping their hair across their faces, a team of scientists stopped at various points along the stream, drawing water samples in long vials, or lifting brown-green frogs with rubber-gloved hands into plastic bags for examination.
They glanced at Bruckman, noting the concern on his expressive pale face. He pushed his snow-white hair off his furrowed brow. When he appeared upset, it was time to worry. They knew Bruckman was usually stoic, in complete control of every situation.
Then his cell phone sounded a Mozart tune. He flipped it open. "Bruckman here. What's the bad news?"
"This is Team Six, Mr. Secretary. We're twenty miles due south. We found a blue-tinted pond... And thousands of dead bull frogs."
"Blue? What caused that?"
"We are going to bring samples to the lab for analysis. But if you ask me, it's no chemical we've ever seen."
"Mr. Secretary, this will sound crazy... But the water here turns to a murky liquid. Minutes later it thickens, but the surface is still soft like JELL-O. After that it hardens suddenly, unexpectedly, m a matter of seconds. It can trap you in the stuff before you can move. We're trying to cut a man out of the pond right now."
Bruckman frantically motioned for everyone to wade out of the stream. "Move fast," he yelled.
Team Six leader spoke up again, shouting into the phone in a panic as he watched the changes in the pond by his feet. "Look at that!... It's changing to a harder surface... There's no chemical that could make it do this."
As Bruckman hurried toward land, the water around him quickly changed density. His men began diving for the embankment. Bruckman felt his legs being pressed together as if in a vise. He screamed, "Help!"
His assistant reached out and got hold of his hand. With help from another man, they pulled Bruckman from the water. The surface immediately hardened. He yanked off his water-resistant leggings, then watched as they hardened on the embankment. Breathing hard, with the other men scattered about, Bruckman asked, "Team Six leader? Are you there?"
"Two more of my men are trapped! We can't cut them free!" Then he screamed, "Sir... Parts of the water... We can walk on it."
As Bruckman's driver sped recklessly along the interstate at over one-hundred miles per hour, he called the lab from his government-issue midnight-blue Crown Victoria with tinted windows. Eight black SUVs with revolving lights and high-pitched sirens followed closely behind. The high-speed caravan weaved in and out of slower traffic.
The lead lab technician answered Bruckman's call.
Bruckman asked, "Do you have a chemical analysis?"
"Yes. It's nothing we have ever seen."
"Is it a combination of chemicals?"
"It may be. But we can't break it down. It won't allow us to do that... It doesn't match any chemical we know."
Bruckman digested that one. "Okay, let's discuss an issue that we might be able to do something about. Any indication how the frogs died? How can we protect wildlife?"
While he talked, the technician examined a huge vat they had filled with the blue water. It was a mix of chemicals and dead bullfrogs. "The water in the vat has already turned to rubber, like JELL-O," he said. "And it happened right before my eyes. Bullfrogs are now frozen in place, as if in suspended animation. To be honest, we have no idea what kills the frogs. They die long before the water hardens."
Then he said, voice cracking. "We don't even know what makes the water harden, Mr. Secretary. Frankly, I'm scared to death."
"You told me you would have an answer by now!"
"I'm sorry. This has us stumped."
Bruckman took a deep breath and finger-combed his hair back. Up ahead, a green highway sign spanning three lanes said, "Washington D.C. 50 miles." The driver asked in the speaker, "To the Pentagon, sir?"
"No. To headquarters."
Bruckman said back into his cell phone, "Let's get a handle on this thing. How quickly did the water harden?"
"Seconds. Yet there's no indication when it's going to happen. Some water remains blue with no other changes for hours. Some changes in a few minutes. What's worse is that I couldn't pierce the surface with a gunshot. Not even a sledge hammer or a high-velocity drill will penetrate the surface. Acid or other chemicals have no effect. It won't melt, burn or soften. A fifty-gallon vat of water now weighs close to six-thousand pounds."
"Keep this to yourself. Has there been any report of a meteor strike in the southern states within the past month?"
"We talked to NASA, the military, checked satellite reports, consulted meteorologists..."
"They all said no?"
Bruckman hung up. As far-fetched as it sounded, he had to check that nothing foreign had been brought to the earth by an unreported meteor strike in another country. He felt stupid even asking the question. But he quickly called a key contact at NASA. "Do a check with our friends around the world."
"Will do," the contact said.
Bruckman glanced fearfully at a muddy stream that ran alongside the interstate. The surface was covered with bullfrogs. Every few seconds another dozen bobbed up like green buoys. Even with the windows of the Crown Victoria closed, the smell of dead frogs was overwhelming. But this stream did not turn to JELL-O, and it did not turn blue. "Why?" he asked himself.
Without masking his concern, he instructed the driver, "I know we're moving fast. But I need to get back to the lab as quickly as possible. Inform the other teams."
The driver slammed the accelerator to the floor. The car surged forward
with a roar. In moments the other vehicles caught up like a long blue