April 10 - Before sunrise
Infinity Fowler glanced up at the stars just as the first hint of sunlight began spreading across the eastern sky. She sensed that something wasn’t right. The air felt dry, almost prickly, as if the static electricity might make her hair stand on end at any moment. And the sounds were different, too. No, not different—missing entirely. Normally, in the minutes before sunrise, she could hear the deep thrumming of billions of winged arthropods gearing up for a new day, vibrating their wings to warm their bodies. She would also hear endless layers of chirps, trills, and buzzes as creatures both large and small attempted to attract mates. But this morning the landscape was silent.
Infinity closed her eyes and tried to resume her meditation. She slowed her breathing, focusing on the path of each breath as it made its way into her lungs, where the air’s oxygen was exchanged for her body’s carbon dioxide waste. She held each breath for nearly a full minute, which was easy because the atmosphere on this version of Earth contained more oxygen than the air on her own world.
Her skin prickled. She cursed silently and opened her eyes. A flash of light from above caught her attention. She glanced up and her chest clenched tight. “What the hell?” she said aloud, although she was alone on the rocky hillside.
A green glow was fluttering almost directly above her, high in the atmosphere. The glow began to expand, stretching to the east and to the west in a throbbing line, like a row of dancing green spirits. The glow quickly reached the horizon in both directions, then it began expanding north and south, adding spectacular columns of red and orange alongside the original row of green.
Infinity got to her feet. “No, no, no. This can’t be happening.” The dancing lights were now covering the entire sky. It was a massive aurora borealis—northern lights. She only knew this because she had witnessed such displays on her own version of Earth in the months leading up to the planet’s destruction. Auroras had become more frequent and more expansive toward the end, but even in the last few days of Earth’s existence, she hadn’t seen anything as spectacular as this.
Another movement caught her eye, this time a dark splotch to the east, standing out against the glowing sky. The splotch was getting larger, changing shape, its edges surging and shrinking. Infinity could hear waves of clicking and fluttering, which grew louder as the dark cloud expanded. She realized the cloud wasn’t growing—it was getting closer. It was a swarm of winged creatures. The clicking and fluttering continued to grow until its roar was deafening.
The creatures didn’t rise as they closed in on the hillside. Instead, they flew directly into the sheets of bedrock and patches of moss. Thousands of pigeon-sized bugs began smashing into the hillside around Infinity. She dropped to her knees and covered her head with her arms. One of the creatures hit her neck, knocking her onto her stomach. She pulled her legs underneath herself, trying to make her body a smaller target. Still she took another half dozen hits as the suicidal creatures rammed full speed into her back.
Finally, the bombardment stopped. Infinity opened her eyes and sat up. The hillside around her was covered with the broken bodies of a type of creature she had never seen during the nineteen months she and the other colonists had lived on this world. Whatever the creatures were, something had screwed with their ability to navigate.
The rising of another sound drew Infinity's attention to the slope behind and above her—the pounding of heavy, chitinous feet against bedrock. Six black tiger beetles, each weighing at least four hundred pounds, were sprinting southwest along the summit. Running beside them was a much larger shimmermoth, its wing-like sensors flopping up and down with every galloping step. Infinity had never seen a shimmermoth run so fast, and it was rare to see one with a group of tiger beetles. The two predator species usually avoided each other.
She whipped around and scanned the scene below, a vast, moss-covered plain dotted with framework hills that resembled overturned teacups. The moss and hills looked strange in the light of the multi-colored aurora above and the steadily-rising sun in the east. The plain was now illuminated enough that she could make out groups of various arthropod species, both predators and moss grazers, fleeing toward the south.
The timing of all these bizarre events was too perfect to be a coincidence. Just yesterday afternoon, her old boss and friend Armando Doyle, along with a physicist and a handful of Marines, had miraculously bridged to this world wearing clothing and carrying weapons. This should have been impossible. Armando had promised to return today at noon to extract any of the colonists who wanted to leave. This had come unexpectedly. Infinity’s tiny colony had been surviving on this world for over a year and a half. Now, only twelve hours after Armando’s appearance, some weird atmospheric or geologic event was causing massive auroras and panicking the wildlife. No, it couldn’t be just coincidence.
For all these months, Infinity had been trying to shut out her haunting memories of her own dying Earth. Now those memories came rushing back with a vengeance.
She grabbed her tunic and shorts, both made from isopod belly skin, and pulled them on. The clothes were now splattered with the goo of suicidal flying arthropods, but that hardly seemed important. She started down the hillside but only made it a few dozen steps before she heard a deep rumbling that seemed to be coming from the north. She stopped to listen. The hillside jerked abruptly beneath her, and she toppled onto the moss. She struggled to get to her hands and knees, but the ground kept shifting.
Loud cracking sounds erupted from different points around her, and sheets of fractured bedrock began sliding down the hill. Infinity launched herself upward just in time to avoid being crushed by one of the sheets that was at least twenty yards wide. She came down hard on the sliding sheet of rock and rolled to the side until she tumbled off its edge. She then steadied herself with outspread arms and legs and watched the rock sheet as it continued hurtling down the slope like a colossal sled, gouging out massive amounts of moss and soil as it built momentum. The rock was sliding directly toward the framework mound her colony had painstakingly converted into a multi-unit residence—it was going to destroy Mossview.
She got to her knees and screamed, “Desmond! Gideon! Get everyone out!” But the roar of the heaving ground drowned out her voice completely.
The rock slab leveled out at the base of the hill and kept sliding. It slammed into Mossview’s base, breaking through the framework of girders as if they were made of paper. It came to a stop with only a few yards of its bulk still protruding from the mound.
“Desmond!” Infinity cried as she got to her feet. With the ground still shaking, she sprinted down the slope but then fell again near the base of the hill. As she was getting up, she saw the colony’s livestock—dog-sized hermit crabs and half-grown, thousand-pound isopods—crashing through their enclosures and scattering in panic. The colonists began emerging from Mossview. Infinity started running toward the structure, counting people as they came out. At least eight, including one of the kids, Lenny and Isabelle’s daughter Daisy. But Desmond wasn’t with them.
“Desmond!” she cried again.
Four more had emerged by the time she reached the group. Desmond and six others were still unaccounted for. She dashed past the colonists and ducked through the doorway. “Desmond!”
“Over here, Infinity. You okay?”
“I’m fine.” She made her way through a corridor paneled with eight-foot sections of isopod carapace and entered the central chamber where the colonists gathered for meals. It was still dark in here, with only minimal light coming through the smoke vent at the mound’s peak. “Where are you?”
“Here! I’m okay too, but we’ve got a problem.”
She muttered a curse. He was in the section of Mossview nearest the hillside, which probably meant someone had been hurt by the sliding rock. Otherwise he would have cleared everyone out by now. She entered another corridor and made it about ten yards in before her path was blocked by collapsed framework girders and the edge of the sheet of rock. Apparently the rock had completely destroyed the largest apartment in Mossview, where Àurea, Sarah, Tyrone, and their six-month-old boy Brooks slept. Infinity peered through the gaps between the girders and saw Desmond to her right, crouching by the edge of the slab. She continued searching and found the two National Guardsmen, Gideon Stead and Steven Irizar, to her left.
“I don’t see any sign of them,” Desmond said.
“Nothing here either,” Gideon reported.
Steven said, “Maybe they got out ahead of us.”
Infinity noticed a dark red puddle seeping out from beneath the rock, creeping toward the shattered pieces of framework girder at her feet. For a moment she simply stared, hesitant to speak up in case the puddle wasn’t actually what it appeared to be. The red liquid rippled slightly as the ground continued shaking. Reluctantly, she touched the puddle and then smelled her finger—definitely blood. “One of them is beneath this rock, maybe more,” she said. “And I didn’t see any of them outside.” The words came out as if she were simply making an observation about the weather, rather than reporting that four members of her close-knit colonist family had been crushed to death by tons of solid rock.
Desmond, Gideon, and Steven made their way toward her, ducking through openings in the framework and stepping over broken pieces until they were standing at her side.
Gideon silently kneeled by the pooling blood and stared at it. He leaned closer to the two-inch gap between the rock and the ground. “Tyrone! Sarah! Can anyone hear me?”
Nothing. Gideon tried again. Still no answer. He stood up. “Jesus Christ, what the hell’s happening?”
The ground started trembling harder, as if in response.
Infinity just kept staring at the expanding pool of blood, trying not to think about the possibility that it was from baby Brooks. Finally, she pulled her eyes away. “I don’t know, but it’s major. The animals are going nuts out there. And before the quakes started, an aurora filled the entire sky.”
Desmond stared at her. “What?”
She shook her head slightly. “I’ve got a really bad feeling about this.”
Shouts from the colonists outside rose above the rumble. Gideon and Steven started moving toward the front doorway.
“Come on,” Desmond said. “We have to get away from the hillside before more rocks come down.”
Infinity tore her gaze away from the blood one more time and then turned to go. As she took her first step, the ground beneath Mossview heaved, throwing her upward. She hit her head on one of the girders, and then she and Desmond fell to the ground in a heap. The massive rock sheet, which had also been thrown upward, crashed back to the ground with a stomach-wrenching thud. The air filled with cracking and rattling sounds as the framework above Mossview’s central chamber collapsed. Hundreds of girder shards came crashing down, filling up the chamber and blocking the path to the front door.
Desmond got to his feet and pulled Infinity up. “This way!” he shouted. He climbed onto the rock slab and started crawling toward the opening the rock had created. Infinity scrambled onto the slab and followed just behind him.
As they emerged from what was left of Mossview's structure, Infinity looked up at the hillside. An even larger sheet of rock was sliding directly at them. “Shit, look out!” she cried.
She and Desmond lunged to the side and jumped to the ground just as the second rock slammed into the first, shoving it even farther into Mossview. The entire mound collapsed, sending razor-sharp girder pieces flying in all directions. One piece caught Infinity’s shoulder, sending a shockwave of pain down her arm. She crouched and raised her arms to shield her face. She glanced at her shoulder. Luckily, the shard hadn’t cut through her tunic.
More rock slabs and boulders were sliding and tumbling down the hillside.
She grabbed Desmond’s arm. “Come on!”
They started running away from the hillside along the perimeter of Mossview's rubble, stumbling every few steps as the massive quake's aftershocks rumbled on. Infinity could see the other colonists several hundred yards ahead steadily making their way to the northeast, trying to put some distance between themselves and the deadly rocks.
To the northeast, another framework mound collapsed, this one at least twice the size of Mossview.
The other colonists stopped once they had put about a quarter mile between themselves and the hillside, and Desmond and Infinity quickly caught up with them. She counted fourteen people besides herself and Desmond, which meant that Àurea, Sarah, Tyrone, and baby Brooks were definitely gone.
For several long minutes, nobody spoke as they all tried to stay on their feet. Infinity watched the hillside for dislodged boulders that might roll out this far.
“What in God’s name is happening?” Hayley Millwright asked. Hayley had once been the President of the United States, before the group’s own version of Earth had been destroyed. Her husband, Alexander, had lost most of his right leg shortly after bridging to this world, and she and their daughter Isabelle were now standing next to him, helping to stabilize him.
Poppy Safran, one of the colony’s med techs, pointed to the east. “Oh crap. Everyone brace yourselves!”
Infinity turned just in time to see a wave approaching. But it wasn’t water. It was the ground itself, buckling violently, toppling framework hills and throwing rocks and soil into the air. There was no time to respond—the wave was upon them.
Infinity grabbed Desmond’s elbow just before the ground beneath them heaved and threw the colonists several feet into the air like rag dolls. They all hit the ground in a screaming, flailing pile. Infinity got to her hands and knees and watched the wave continue speeding west. It hit Mossview’s remains, scattering the already-destroyed structure into an unrecognizable jumble, and then it ran into the hillside. The entire hill shuddered, shaking loose impossibly large expanses of rock, which began sliding and tumbling down the slope.
Infinity got to her feet. “We’re still too close to the hillside. We have to go!” She helped Lenny to his feet. He was still holding baby Daisy in his arms. The little girl’s eyes were wide, but oddly she wasn’t crying. Gideon and Steven took over helping Alexander, and the group started moving away from the hillside as quickly as the trembling ground would allow.
Infinity looked back over her shoulder. Most of the flat sheets of bedrock were coming to a stop at the base of the hill, but dozens of irregular pieces were continuing to roll and bounce across the moss. A boulder the size of a small house was tumbling directly toward the fleeing group. “Everyone stop!” she cried. Two other smaller boulders were approaching on the left, so she grabbed Desmond’s hand and began pulling him to the right. “This way—move it!”
The boulder crashed by just behind them, each impact gouging the earth and vibrating Infinity’s bones.
“Oh my God, things are about to get worse,” said Reece Eagleton. Reece was the FEMA administrator who had overseen SafeTrek Bridging’s attempts to evacuate human colonies in the days leading up to Earth’s collapse. Reece was now pointing to a rising column of debris to the east. The plume was miles away, and it had to be at least half a mile tall.
Infinity watched as the outer edges of the dark cloud began falling slowly back toward the ground. The plume wasn’t smoke at all—it was dirt and rocks. She stared in disbelief. What kind of force could possibly blast that much solid material half a mile into the sky? She noticed a deep roar coming from the direction of the plume, growing louder by the second.
“We have to get to the bridge-in site,” Desmond said.
Infinity turned to him. He was right. The entire planet was tearing itself apart, and soon no place would be safe. They had to get off this world.
“But Doyle and the others aren’t coming for us until noon,” said Eagleton.
Infinity frowned at him. “Maybe they’ll come early. If you have a better idea, spit it out.”
Eagleton shook his head. “I’m not disagreeing, just stating facts. They’re coming at noon. Not only that, but the bridge-in site is three miles away.”
Infinity glanced at the debris cloud again. “Then we’d better move our asses.”
If you enjoyed reading Chapter 1 of Bridgers 5: The Trial of Extinction, you are going to
LOVE the rest of the book! It is now available on Amazon.
LOVE the rest of the book! It is now available on Amazon.