May 2 - 7:58 AM
Infinity Fowler rolled her shoulders, trying to loosen muscles that refused to relax. In less than two minutes she would be bridging for the last time. She fidgeted with the language translator on her wrist for a moment then scanned the ragtag group of fellow migrants surrounding her in the bridging chamber—twenty-two in all, ranging from a Marine and his girlfriend to a former President of the United States and her one-legged husband. It wasn’t much of a seed colony for populating an entire world.
A hand grasped hers and squeezed. She turned and gazed into Desmond Weaver’s eyes. He forced a smile, but he was obviously edgy. And for good reason. The migrants really had no idea what kind of world they were bridging to. They only had the promises of Kitty, a fuzzy, human-like being who had already proven to be ruthless and judgmental. However, there was no turning back now. For better or worse, Infinity and the others were about to see their new permanent home.
Infinity turned to check on Armando Doyle. The poor guy had his eyes closed, and his lips were moving slightly as if he were saying a prayer. Armando was the oldest person on the team, even older than President Millwright and her husband. He was also the closest thing to a father that Infinity had, so she hoped his body could handle the bridge and whatever might happen after. She then glanced at Lenny Stiles and his wife Isabelle Millwright. Lenny was holding Daisy, their one-year-old daughter. Daisy had bridged to this world a month ago without any problems, but how would she do if things got rough on their new destination world? And then there was Celia Pickett, who was seven months pregnant. Celia was Xavier Cahill’s partner, and the two had insisted on being part of the team, in spite of the pregnancy. Fortunately, the team included two doctors, one of which was an OBGYN.
“Are they supposed to come here and help us with this, or what?” Xavier asked.
Infinity released Desmond’s hand and shook her head. “Kitty assured me that it would simply happen. At eight o’clock.” She turned and looked at the faces around her. “This is the time for my advice speech, but I’m pretty sure my old spiel would be useless now. Bridging these days isn’t anything like—”
She fell silent. She squinted and raised a hand to shade her eyes from the sun. A breeze tickled the three-week stubble on her scalp and fluttered through the fabric of her t-shirt and shorts. She still had her clothes, even her shoes. She felt Desmond grasp her hand again.
A delighted giggle erupted from Daisy.
“I’ll be damned,” said Hayley Millwright, the U.S. President from Infinity’s original world. “It’s true. Everything Kitty told us is true!”
Infinity’s eyes were now adjusting to the brightness, and she turned slowly, taking in the scene. The migrants’ boxes of supplies were still stacked neatly to the side, held in place by cargo netting, but the people and boxes were now on a wide stretch of golden sand. Beyond the sand was forest, gradually rising up a low hill, with a taller hill in the distance behind it.
She kept turning. Opposite the forest, waves of greenish water were washing up onto the beach and then withdrawing, creating a strip of wet, sparkling sand. A short distance out from shore, the deeper water turned sky blue, with dark patches of coral reef visible below the surface. An island, lined by another strip of beach with forest beyond, was less than a mile offshore. To the left of that was another island, with another to the right. Beyond those as far as Infinity could see were more forested islands, with no signs of any kind of civilization.
“It really is true,” Infinity whispered. She glanced at Armando. He seemed fine. In fact, he was smiling, looking wide-eyed at the scene before him.
Desmond released her hand and pointed. “Look at that, Infinity!”
A shape was breaching the water’s surface a few hundred yards offshore—a creature larger than a whale. Its arched back cut through the surface, with numerous evenly-spaced ridges along its length.
“It’s beautiful,” someone exclaimed.
Infinity stared at the magnificent creature. She squinted. Something about it wasn’t right. It was the ridges. They were too symmetrical, too perfect. The creature’s back went under the water, and its tail emerged before following the body out of view. Infinity was certain now. It wasn’t a creature at all—it was a machine.
The group stood silently for a moment, waiting for the thing to resurface.
Lenny spoke up. “Either I’m high on something, or that wasn’t really a whale. Or any other kind of sea creature.”
“I saw it too,” Desmond said. “It was mechanical.” He turned to Infinity with his brows raised.
Infinity gritted her teeth and then scanned the area around them. She was still trying to wrap her head around the realization that Kitty’s promises appeared to have been sincere. This place looked exactly like what Kitty had described, although Kitty hadn’t said anything about mechanical whales. The animal-like machine seemed completely out of place in this otherwise pristine setting. What did it mean? Kitty had informed her that another intelligent species already inhabited this world, and that this species would not be a threat. She had even fitted each migrant with a wrist translator to allow communication. The machine in the water had to have been created by these other beings and therefore shouldn’t be a threat either. So why were Infinity’s instinctual alarms going off throughout her body, opening wide her adrenaline floodgates?
“We’re too exposed here,” she said. “We need to get off this beach.”
Vic Shepherd said, “I know we’re supposed to let these other beings find us, but I agree with Infinity.” Vic was one of only two Marines who had survived the brutal trial of extinction forced upon the humans by Kitty’s people.
Infinity scanned the water. The machine hadn’t surfaced again. She pointed to Emily Sanchez, Steven Irizar, and then Gideon Stead, three former National Guardsmen, all of whom she trusted. “You three get the cargo net off the supply boxes. The rest of us will spread out and find a suitable site to set up a camp where we’ll be less exposed.” She turned to the others. “Groups of three. Stay close to each other. Even if the beings living here are supposed to be friendly, that doesn’t mean there won’t be predators, jagged rocks, or a hundred other things that can kill you. We need an area with solid, flat ground that’s not visible from the beach or the water.”
“Good God, look at that!” exclaimed Alexander Millwright. He was gazing down the beach to the west, away from the rising sun.
Infinity turned. It was a creature—this one real flesh and blood—lumbering out of the surf and up the sand, apparently headed for the forest. Several more of the same species were walking up the beach in the distance beyond this creature, and even more were starting to appear among the waves. Infinity swung around and saw more of the creatures emerging along the beach to the east. Each creature walked on four legs, with its massive belly and thick tail dragging in the sand.
“Uh, heads up, everyone,” said Gideon. “One’s heading this way. Damn, these things are big.”
The creature hauled itself from the surf, apparently with considerable effort, and headed straight up the beach toward the migrants. This one was only fifty yards away, and it now became obvious that its chin was higher than the top of Infinity’s head. Even though it was lumbering, it could probably outrun a human if it wanted to.
“Get on top of the supply boxes!” Infinity ordered.
No one had to be told twice. The migrants swarmed up the cargo netting, which started to stretch and pull the boxes over toward them.
“Spread out around the gear!” Desmond cried. But it was too late. The netting came loose from the opposite side, and the migrants collapsed on top of each other, followed by a portion of the boxes. Fortunately, the lighter boxes had been placed on top of the stack.
The creature was now twenty yards away.
Infinity grabbed two people by their arms and hoisted them to their feet. “Move behind the boxes, now!”
The rest of the migrants got up and began scrambling to the back side of the collapsed stack.
Infinity gave one of the stragglers a shove then pressed in behind the group. She peered around the edge. Now ten yards away, the creature’s true size nearly took her breath away. It had to be at least four times the mass of an elephant. Greenish-brown skin, wrinkled and sagging, glistened in the sunlight. Its head was wide and flat, almost like that of a hammerhead shark. Two eyes, perhaps four feet apart, stared straight ahead as it continued waddling forward.
The creature paused only a few yards from the stack of boxes. Infinity considered ordering the migrants to run to the trees and, if possible, climb out of the creature’s reach, but something about its single-minded determination to make its way straight up the beach gave her pause. Like the others of its kind to the east and west, it seemed only concerned with getting to the forest.
The monster proceeded forward and began climbing over the boxes.
“Get out of its way!” Infinity cried.
The migrants scattered left and right as the boxes groaned and then gave way under the creature’s weight. Survival gear and plastic container fragments shot out in every direction as the creature flattened the entire stack. Apparently oblivious to the humans, the monster plowed right through and continued on its path. Its tail, five feet thick at the base, slid over the devastated boxes, grinding camping gear, jugs of water, and food packets into the sand and leaving behind a trail of mucus-like goo.
The creature proceeded to the forest’s edge as if nothing unusual had happened. The migrants stared at their gear and at each other in bewilderment.
“Well, damn!” Gideon said.
Infinity kneeled and pulled a cylindrical bag containing a three-person dome tent out of the sand. Two cracked tent poles protruded through a hole in the bag, and the entire thing was coated in slime.
“Hey, you guys need to come see this!” It was Desmond. He had followed the creature to the edge of the trees sixty yards away and was staring into the forest.
Infinity dropped the damaged tent and made her way to his side, along with Lenny, Xavier, and a half dozen other migrants.
“Check this out, it’s amazing,” Desmond said, pointing at the creature’s hind legs.
The massive slime monster had pushed its way into the forest and was now resting in a swamp at the base of the hill. The water appeared to be a foot or two deep and was churning with the activity of fish or other aquatic animals that had obviously been disturbed by the intrusion of a monster a million times their size.
“I’m sure it’s not finished yet,” Desmond said. “Wait for it.” His face had a look Infinity had seen many times before—he was fascinated by something, probably something that had no bearing on the group’s current dilemma.
Infinity sighed. “Desmond, we don’t have time for—”
Her words were cut off by a fart-like explosion from beneath the creature’s tail. The water bubbled and splattered as it was displaced by semi-transparent gel. And the gel kept coming, barrel-loads of it, squirting out and tumbling over itself as if the monster intended to fill the entire swamp with the stuff. Infinity and the others stepped back as the gel threatened to flow over their feet.
“I’ve seen a lot of wicked-cool shit in my days,” said Lenny, who was now carrying Daisy on his shoulders, “but this may take the proverbial cake.”
“It’s laying eggs,” Xavier said.
Infinity looked closer. The gel was actually riddled with dark, walnut-sized objects, more-or-less evenly spaced throughout the stuff. Presumably these were embryos.
“It’s an amphibian,” Desmond said. “Something similar to a salamander.”
“And a honkin’ big one at that,” Lenny added.
Infinity shook her head. “Okay, nature lesson is over. We’re wasting time if this thing isn’t a threat or a food source. It doesn’t seem to want to eat us, and it’s too big for us to kill.”
“Someone forgot to bring her curiosity cap,” Lenny said.
Infinity glared at him.
Lenny grimaced. “Sorry, just thought some levity might help.”
Another gurgling eruption came from between the monster’s hind legs, and the spreading egg mass forced the humans to take a few more steps back.
“Infinity’s right,” Desmond said. “Let’s move what’s left of our supplies off the beach and out of sight.”
“We need to create a defensible camp,” Infinity added. “If all the level ground in the area is swampy like this, we’ll have to carry the stuff through the water and up the hill.”
They moved away from the egg-laying creature and returned to the others who were already busy gathering the scattered and flattened gear. At this point, some of the giant salamanders up and down the beach were starting to lumber back to the sea, apparently finished laying their eggs, while others were still emerging from the surf and heading for the forest.
“You gotta be kidding me.” Vic said. “Grab what you can and move it to the side!”
Infinity turned to look. The monster they’d observed was headed back to the water, dragging itself along the exact same path as before—directly at the supplies.
The migrants began frantically grabbing the remaining boxes and loose items, but there wasn’t time. They were forced to stand back helplessly as the creature plowed right over most of the stuff again, crushing lanterns, cookstoves, and water filters, shredding tents and sleeping bags, and grinding everything into the sand.
If you enjoyed reading Chapter 1 of Bridgers 6: The Bond of Absolution, you are going to
LOVE the rest of the book! It will be available on November 26.
LOVE the rest of the book! It will be available on November 26.