The long-overdue "big one" hit Salt Lake on Pioneer Day, July 24th.
Aaron's ex-wife had complained for years about money he'd spent on emergency preparedness and earthquake-proofing their home. According to her, they should have used it to move to a nicer place on the east side. This evening, many of the homes on the east side of the valley were in ruins, while his half-vacant house in north Magna had suffered minimal damage.
After enduring the merciless July heat all afternoon without power, running water, or air conditioning, Aaron Jones felt more exhausted than vindicated. With sunset, the temperature dropped to one degree below intolerable, so he sat on his lawn and absorbed what respite it offered. He considered opening the windows on his house like his neighbors, but the air reeked of the lake's salt-rot stink mixed with smoke from fires all over the valley, and he held out hope that they'd restore power by morning. He wasn't sure which was worse--the stench or the heat.
His neighbor shuffled towards him, an AR-15 rifle slung across his shoulder. Aaron raised his head, wiped the salty sweat from his eyes, and offered him a wan smile. "Hey Mackie. You invading me?"
Mackie grinned through his bushy brown beard and patted the rifle strap. "Just warning potential looters." At six-foot-three, Mackie would be intimidating even without the rifle.
"I don't think we have anything worth looting."
"Not yet. But in a couple of days, if we don't get food and water, folks are gonna discover that we've been living in a desert all this time, and might get a little desperate. I'm just letting 'em know that we're armed and they should try another street."
Aaron shrugged. Hadn't he installed reinforced doors for a similar reason? "It's Utah, Mackie. Everybody's got guns." Except, of course, Aaron. He'd had to sell those and just about everything else of value after the divorce. "I'm sure we'll have emergency supplies and utilities fixed up long before people get that desperate. It's not World War III. Just an earthquake."
Mackie shrugged, no doubt happy to play survivalist for the day. "On the radio they say the water level in the lake is still dropping. Half of what it was this morning."
"They said it might have to do with the mining. Something shifted in the quake. So long as it doesn't end up in my basement, I guess. It's just a weird thing."
Aaron moved to stand, and Mackie gave him a hand to help him up. "It's a day for weird things, I guess."
"You hear from Becca and the boys yet?"
"No. Cell service is out. I tried the Beardsleys' landline earlier, but the lines were all busy. I should probably check on them again."
To the west, a tiny rocket shot up and exploded. Somebody was celebrating Pioneer Day, Independence Day's poor Utah cousin.
Mackie made a disgusted face. "Seriously? What kind of dumbass is setting off fireworks tonight? If there's an accident, how long do they expect it to take for a fire truck or ambulance to get around to us?"
A dozen dogs throughout the neighborhood barked at the explosion. A low-pitched bark three houses away worried Aaron the most. "The Kincaid's Doberman can jump the fence if he gets too excited. He's done it before."
"I don't wanna have to shoot the thing. Not its fault its owners left it nearly feral. I hope they're home to take care of it."
Aaron nodded absently, still thinking of his family. Becca planned to take the boys to the parade downtown, but that should have been over long before the quake hit. If they'd gone back home, they should be safe. They probably still had power. Maybe the lines were clear enough to try again.
Mackie sighed. "I should get back to Chelsea. She's having trouble wrapping her head around this whole disaster thing. She keeps saying she's gotta head into work downtown."
"I think we're all still in a bit of shock."
Mackie waved and turned, returning to his house across the street. Aaron went back inside his hot, darkened home and retrieved an LED survival flashlight and two bottles of water. The Beardsleys were older and struggled with the heat. They were in good spirits earlier this afternoon, but Aaron wanted to check on them again and confirm that they had enough water. Maybe he'd ask to use their phone again. He kicked himself one more time for 'economizing' after the divorce by canceling his landline.
He locked his home before leaving. He didn't worry about Mackie's looters, but why take chances?
The last of twilight had vanished behind the western mountain, revealing more stars in the sky than Aaron had seen in the valley since childhood. As silver linings went, it was weak, but it was something.
As he passed the Kincaid's house, the big Doberman in the back yard whimpered once, and went silent. Aaron hated the dog, but he couldn't ignore the pathetic whine. He switched his flashlight on and stepped to the side of the house.
The chain-link fence surrounding the back and side yards shuddered and swayed back and forth with a metallic rattle.
Had the dog escaped? He peered over the fence. Most back yards in Magna were not well kept, but the Kincaid's was little more than a patch of dirt used as a private junkyard. Weeds and a discarded oven, the remnants of a months-old upgrade that never made it to the landfill, obscured the narrow section of the yard that he could see.
Another firework went off in the air with a loud, crackling report. Other dogs in the neighborhood went nuts again, but the Doberman was silent. If it had escaped, it must have found a safe place to hide. As the yellow illumination faded, the fence shook again.
He returned to the sidewalk as a police car pulled up. It slowed to a stop beside him, and the officer peered out. "Jones, is that you?"
Aaron couldn't see her face in the darkness, but he knew her voice.
"Hi Gretchen. I mean, Officer Wallace. I guess you're on duty right now?"
They'd been introduced by mutual friends in April. Both recently divorced and just on the other side of forty, they shared a practical mindset that Aaron found refreshing. He later admitted to himself that there was something about an athletic woman capable of kicking his ass that he found mildly attractive. But it had been too soon for either of them. After a dinner and a movie together, they agreed to a simple friendship. For the time being. With her schedule, the only time they'd seen each other since then was one accidental meeting at midnight at the 7-Eleven.
"Gretchen is fine. Everybody's on duty. There's no fast way in or out of Magna right now, so Unified has us patrolling our own neighborhoods."
"I didn't think we were hit that hard."
"The 201 collapsed in both directions. Between debris and people acting like idiots on the roads, it's a mess. We had a rig roll over on 111 that won't be cleared until morning. Even with that, we're lucky. East side got hammered. They say it might have been as much as a 7.2."
Aaron nodded as if he understood what that number meant. He vaguely recalled that a seven or higher was considered really bad. That explained the damage, but not the lake. "Have you heard anything about why the lake is draining?"
She shook her head "No. I'd assume it isn't at the top of their priority list."
A smaller set of fireworks flashed behind some houses. The crackling report mingled with unintelligible shouts.
Gretchen muttered something under her breath. "If you see anyone setting off fireworks, please ask them to cut it out. The last thing we need tonight is more fires..." she trailed off. "Who is that guy toting the rifle on his back?"
Aaron glanced over his shoulder. "That would be my neighbor, Mackie Henderson. He's harmless."
"Good to know. I think I'll go have a friendly chat with him about gun safety even in a disaster, just to cover all bases. Is there anyone you know of on this street with emergency needs?"
"Not that I've heard. I'm about to go check on the Beardsleys. They're an older couple up the street."
"Let me know. They can still Life Flight people out if necessary." She paused, and her voice took on a softer, less official tone. "Be safe, Jones."
"You too, Gretchen."
She exited the car to speak to Mackie, while Aaron continued to the Beardsleys'. Next time, he promised himself, when the world wasn't in quite as much turmoil, he'd ask her out again. Maybe.
Years ago, when he installed the steel-reinforced door on his storage room, Aaron fantasized himself a hardened survivalist, providing for his family and protecting them from the horrors of war, disaster, or two-legged predators. He curtailed his home improvements and extended emergency preparations as they reached the limits of his budget, his temperament, and his marriage.
Even his low-key approach to the basics of 'doomsday prep' contributed to Rebecca's leaving. At least she claimed as much. The suggestion that they might have to defend themselves against desperate people horrified her. Becca claimed to want to help people, especially the poor. Her brand of help involved joining community activists and petitioning the government to do more.
When she complained about his lack of interest in the less fortunate, he volunteered the family to work at a senior center. She found herself too busy to join them. He and the boys had a pretty good time, although the kids admitted it only grudgingly. Becca patronized them with faint praise, and then explained how a few hours of volunteer time wouldn't put a dent in the problems in the state. "You need to think bigger," she explained.
People in the neighborhood rallied around him when Becca left. Neighbors he'd never known well invited him for dinners, and introduced him to their single friends, like Gretchen. He made more friends in the months after Becca left than in the years they'd lived here as a family.
Now, in the midst of a disaster, he could only pray that his boys were safe. Becca too, because they needed her. In the meantime, he had many more people to worry about.
So much for being the hardened survivalist.
A faint glow from a candle somewhere in the Beardsleys' home illuminated the cracked living room window. As he knocked, he felt foolish worrying about them. After all, the Beardsleys grew up in an era when any sort of climate control was a luxury. They knew how to take care of themselves in the heat better than he did.
Nobody answered the door. Could they have just gone to sleep? In the darkness with no power, it made sense, but it was unsafe to leave a candle burning. He knocked harder, and called to them through the door. "Tony, Emma? It's Aaron from down the street. I'm just checking to see if you need anything."
When nobody responded, Aaron began to feel his concern was warranted. He placed the water bottles on the porch, opened the door, and stepped inside. The house smelled strange, like the sickly-sweet odor of spoiled fruit. A thick round candle sat on the dining room table in the next room. Behind it, pieces of the shattered sliding glass door littered the floor in an explosive pattern. The brilliant LED light from his flashlight glistened off a pool of fresh, smeared blood.
A dozen horrible scenarios raced through his mind, from an attack by the Kincaid's Doberman, all the way to Mackie's imagined looters. Few of the scenarios ended favorably by Aaron charging solo to the rescue.
Gretchen would know what to do. He hesitated to leave for some reason, his stare fixated on the reflection of his flashlight beam in the blood-washed linoleum. He closed his eyes and shook his head to clear it, and left the house.
He found Gretchen's cruiser around the corner another block away. Inside, she used a closed, industrial-strength laptop as a desktop to fill out forms. She looked up and spotted Aaron. Her smile faded when she saw Aaron's face clearly.
"What is it, Jones?"
"I think there's been an accident or something at the Beardsleys'. Maybe a break-in. There's blood."
Gretchen swore softly. "Get in. Show me which house."
He squeezed into the passenger side as she pushed the computer mounting to the side to give him some room. She turned the car around and drove back to his street, scanning the sides of the road as she made her way slowly to the Beardsleys' driveway. Before getting out, she keyed her radio and spoke briefly with the dispatcher.
Aaron followed her to the door, still partly ajar as he'd left it. Gretchen called, "Police Department. Is anybody home?"
Silence. Gretchen turned back to Aaron. "Do you have any first aid training?"
Aaron nodded. "Some."
She nodded and took a deep breath. She made a face at the odor. "What is that?"
Aaron shrugged and shook his head.
"You stay here at the front door until I call for you, okay?" She drew her Glock and held it ready, aimed forward and a little low near her chest. She activated the light attachment as she entered. She crept into the dining room, carefully avoiding the blood pool as she arced the brilliant light around the debris. Something caught her attention to the left, and she slipped noiselessly around the corner and out of Aaron's sight.
Her light held steady for several seconds. Aaron waited. Gretchen made a sighing sound, and then fell to the floor. The handgun's light beamed up against the far wall.
"Gretchen? Are you okay?" he called. She didn't answer. "I'm coming in anyway," he announced, turning on his flashlight and following her path.
Around the corner, behind a double-sized doorway, he heard a dragging sound and a muffled pop. A voice in the back of his mind screamed about danger, but something dulled his sense of alarm. He moved unsteadily towards the hall behind the dining room.
Pale, fleshy horror protruded through the opposite doorway. Aaron's body froze and his vision tunneled as his mind reeled through mundane but impossible explanations for what he was seeing. The nightmare illuminated by his light in the doorway resembled a colorless giant millipede. Its body was over three feet in diameter, extending around the corner and out of sight. Instead of antennae, several whip-like tentacles surrounded its mouth, each capped by a barb that glistened in the light. Two of the barbs were embedded into Gretchen's prone body. The rest of the tentacles wrapped about her as it pulled her limp form across the floor feet-first into its mouth.
Eyes rolled back, she offered no resistance, though her right hand still curled around her handgun. Her legs and hips had already disappeared into the creature. The monster's head spasmed quickly in a compression, shattering bones with muffled snaps.
Gretchen's eyes widened, and a quiet, strangled cry escaped her lips. Whatever poison rendered her helpless hadn't completely anesthetized her against the agony of being eaten alive. But as the tentacles pulled her inches further into the monster, her face lost all expression again and her eyes rolled lazily back.
Aaron stood hypnotized, unable to tear his attention away from the creature. Too late, a distant part of him realized that the rotten-fruit miasma must be a drug. His immediate mortal peril registered in an abstract way, but his lethargic brain dismissed the unreality of it all, rapid-firing a mental snooze button. He was as helpless as Gretchen.
Only the tiniest part of him paid attention as Gretchen's midsection disappeared inside the creature's bulk. It made a compressing spasm again. Her eyes widened, staring unfocused and horrified in one last moment of tortured awareness as blood erupted from her nose and mouth.
Her right hand twitched, firing the gun randomly. The ear-splitting report and muzzle flash shocked Aaron into a brief control of his faculties. He stumbled backwards, clipping the corner of the dining room table with his thigh. The candle flickered. The pain shocked him into another moment of clarity and control. His flashlight fell from his grasp as he staggered towards the front door.
He almost made it before the poisonous fumes re-exerted control. He stumbled as his nervous system rebelled, but his momentum helped carry him through the front door. He tumbled down the porch steps, pain shooting from his ankle as he collapsed on the walkway. At first, the toxin deadened most of the pain. Each gasping breath of lake-stink helped clear his head. Fortunately for his sanity, a cloud of unreality still obscured the memory of what he'd just witnessed, like a fading nightmare.
A firework explosion overhead finally expelled his stupor. He struggled to stand, favoring his injured ankle. Down the road, Mackie and Chelsea lay on their lawn, not moving. Had they fallen victim to the same creature? Were there more monsters like it? Aaron staggered his way towards them, shouting as he drew close, "Wake up!"
They both sat up, confused. Mackie propped himself up with the butt of his rifle.
"What the hell happened to you, Aaron?"
"Gretchen's dead. Something killed her."
"What? Who's Gretchen?"
"The cop. Were you attacked, too?"
Chelsea squinted at Aaron from beneath the brown bangs of her pixie cut. While not much smaller than average, she seemed almost childlike next to her boyfriend. Two years older than Mackie, she seemed to enjoy that impression. "We were stargazing. Are you on drugs?"
"Something killed Gretchen. The Beardsleys too, maybe. It might follow me. If you see it, shoot it. Don't let it get close."
"Shoot what? I don't know what the hell you're on about, Aaron." Mackie pulled back on the charging handle of the rifle and let it spring forward to slam a round into the chamber with a confident snap. "But I can see you're scared."
A dirty black Ford F150 screeched around the corner to the north, engine roaring and horn blaring. As it passed them, the driver slowed and shouted at them through the open window. "Get out now! They're everywhere!" His duty complete, he hit the accelerator.
Chelsea put her hands on her hips as she stared after the taillights. "Lots of people losing their heads tonight," she muttered as the truck skidded around the corner. Seconds later, the tires screeched, followed by the crunch of crumpled metal. The engine sputtered into silence.
Chelsea made a pfft sound. "Crazy people tonight. We should see if he's okay."
Mackie glanced at Aaron. "I'm getting flashlights. And more ammo. Just in case."
Aaron stared up the street towards the Beardleys'. The moonlight and stars provided dim illumination--not quite enough to see clearly, but enough for his imagination to form a monster lurking in every shadow. And in the back of mind, he saw the foggy vision of Gretchen's death in an endless repeating loop.
Mackie opened his door and gasped. "What's that smell? Chelsea, did you leave the 'fridge open?"
Aaron half-screamed, "Don't go in there! There's another one in your house!"
"Another what?" Mackie demanded.
Aaron struggled for an answer. "Crawler," he answered, thinking of the millipede-like legs.
Mackie looked at him strangely. Before Aaron could come up with a clearer explanation, Chelsea pointed down the street. "Hey, I think it's that guy."
Mackie abandoned the door and rejoined them. "That guy" was the driver who had warned them, running in their direction. He shouted at them between ragged gasps. "Road's blocked! They're eating people in their cars!"
The man slowed his pace, then stumbled. Two long, pale shapes emerged from behind a house, almost glowing in the moonlight. He took two more steps, and then stopped as the worm-like creatures glided towards him.
Mackie stood dumbfounded for a moment, then took aim with the rifle. His first two shots had no effect. On the third, one of the creatures stopped, flailing with its tentacles, and curled up into a ball. The second creature ignored its companion. It stabbed the stranger with two of its tentacles, and wrapped the others around him. It pulled him down to the sidewalk and dragged him head first into its mouth.
"What the hell?" howled Mackie.
Chelsea screamed. Aaron realized with horror that she wasn't looking at the man, but at their own house.
Another creature emerged from Mackie's open front door, even larger than the one that killed Gretchen. It flattened itself to squeeze through the doorway.
Mackie fired four shots into the monster. Four holes blossomed along its body, oozing fluid that seemed black against the pale skin in the moonlight's glare. If the shots even caused it pain, it didn't seem to react, only waving its tentacles about as if to sense the source of its irritation.
"My house," Aaron shouted. "Now!"
Mackie reached around with his free arm to support Aaron and they raced to the door. Chelsea easily outdistanced them, and began pounding uselessly on the locked door. While Aaron fumbled for the keys, Mackie fired three more shots. Aaron opened the door, sniffing the air before entering.
He smelled nothing but the too warm, once-comforting odor of his own home. It was safe. "I think we're okay," he said, motioning the couple inside, and locked the door behind him.
Aaron felt his way through the kitchen until he found the drawer with the flashlights, handing Chelsea and Mackie one each. "I have supplies downstairs. We can load up my SUV in the garage. Once we're loaded, we can try and make a break for it."
Chelsea shook her head vehemently. "Like that guy in the truck? No way!"
Aaron didn't have an answer. Could they take a different route? What other choice did they have?
Something large thumped against the door. The door vibrated in its frame, but held. Barbed tentacles scraped randomly against the siding as the creature felt for other ways in.
Mackie frowned. "You had those reinforced against break-ins, didn't you?"
"Sure, but it wasn't rated against monsters."
Another weighty thud sounded from the side of the house, followed by the exploratory tapping and scraping.
Chelsea's eyes widened. "How are we getting out of here?"
"We'll need to be fast once we get the garage door open. If you start smelling something like rotten fruit, hold your breath. It's poisonous. Chelsea, come with me. Mackie, can you, uh, cover us or something?"
Mackie hefted the rifle. "I'm not sure how much ammo I have left. Just hurry."
Chelsea followed Aaron as he limped down the stairs into the basement, while Mackie stood guard above. Aaron's storage room took up a third of the space, protected by a heavy steel-framed door. He'd quit locking it after the divorce. There was nothing left that felt worthy of protection without his family.
Aaron turned on a battery-powered lantern that sat on the nearest shelf. "There's a first-aid kit on that far shelf. We'll need that, at least three days' worth of food and water."
"No gas masks?" Chelsea asked.
He wasn't sure if she was serious or teasing, but he chuckled. "You know, in all the emergency preparations I made, I never once even considered getting gas masks."
"Those would have been handy right now. Or when the lake stinks really bad." A whisper of a grin appeared on her face. "So what does the poison do, anyway?"
Aaron was about to answer when the sound of cracking glass came from living room. He froze. The window had broken during the quake, but was held in place by the earthquake-resistant film Aaron had put over it. Each aftershock had brought new cracks, but the film had held. He hadn't felt a new aftershock, but some of the weakened glass might have just snapped under the load.
Aaron peeked up the stairs. Mackey held the rifle ready, looking towards the living room, but didn't seem alarmed. Aaron returned to the storage room.
Seconds later, wood and glass exploded upstairs. Mackie's rifle roared several thunderclaps. Something huge writhed in pain, pounding against the wall in the hallway above.
Aaron held his breath before he reached the stairs, his ankle painfully complaining but supporting his weight. Mackie stood still at the top of the stairs, his smoldering rifle tip resting on the floor. His flashlight lay fallen on the carpet at his feet illuminating a giant writhing white crawler. Its mouth was missing, replaced by a goo-streaming hole. Its tentacles flailed randomly. Mackie's shoulder bled where the one tentacle had yanked its envenomed barb free.
Aaron reached the top of the stairs just as a second crawler appeared behind the first. He grabbed Mackie, who neither resisted nor responded. Grabbing the man around the chest from behind, Aaron pulled him down the stairs. Mackie tipped backwards, two hundred thirty pounds of dead weight hitting Aaron as he shifted his weight to a lower step on his injured ankle. Pain exploded as his ankle gave way, wrenching even worse than before, and both men tumbled backwards down the stairs.
The carpet square on the basement floor provided little cushion between Aaron's head and the concrete. Brilliant sparks twinkled before his eyes in the semi-darkness as Mackie fell on top of him with a groan.
No longer holding his breath Aaron caught a whiff of the disabling aroma. He pushed and pulled at Mackie's limp form, using his good foot for leverage, but the six feet to the storage room door seemed miles away.
A dark shape blocked the glow of Mackie's flashlight at the top of the stairs.
Chelsea appeared and grabbed Mackie by his arms and pulled him back into the storage room with adrenaline-fueled strength. Aaron followed in a half-crawl, each foot of distance slower than the last as he slithered away from the stairway. They cleared the door as the monstrous arthropod slid soundlessly down the stairs.
Pleasant numbness crept through Aaron's body. Chelsea slumped against a storage rack of beans, her face neutral.
In the light from the electric lantern, the creature hesitated. It raised its tentacles aloft like antennae, sensing the air. In Aaron's mental haze, it felt like he was watching a movie while half-asleep.
The last conscious part of his mind allowed him to kick at the door with his wounded ankle. Pain seared through the anesthesia, jolting him back into alertness long enough for the terror to drive him. He forced himself to a seated position, and threw his body across the two-foot gulf to slam the door closed and latch it. A moment later, the creature thudded against the door.
Aaron pushed himself backwards as the tentacles on the other side of the wall tapped out their investigation, hunting for any weaknesses. The poison regained its control and overcame him. He collapsed next to Mackie on the floor. His conscious mind railed against his helpless body, uselessly warning of mortal danger on the other side of the door, but there was nothing he could have done even with his full faculties. He stared at Chelsea, who stared back, expressionless.
"I'm sorry," he tried to say, but it only came out as a sigh.
His eyelids drooped. At least it was a comfortable way to die.
He awoke to a sharp pain in his ankle as hands, not tentacles, moved him. He opened his eyes in terror as two haggard men in EMT uniforms lifted him onto a stretcher.
"What's going on?" He blinked and tried to move, but the grogginess wouldn't go away.
One of the men spoke. "Please hold still, sir. The girl heard us looking for survivors outside, and came out to tell us you were here. You've been poisoned, but not as badly as your friend."
"Is Mackie okay?"
"He should be."
The EMT looked at him sorrowfully. "We didn't find any other survivors in your house, sir. I'm sorry."
"They weren't here. They live with their mom in Fruit Heights."
"That's outside the evacuation zone. The only attacks so far have been south of the lake. All three of you are very lucky. We haven't found many survivors this close to the lake. Your house is solid, and it looks like one of you killed one of those things in your living room. Based on the damage, it looks like they tried pretty hard to get in here, but this room is built like a bunker. It's the only way you survived the night."
"But everyone else. . ."
The man nodded. "You saved who you could, in the middle of a swarm of those things. That's more than any of us could hope for."
Aaron sighed. It gave him no satisfaction, but at least Mackie and Chelsea were still alive. For the first time, he was grateful Becca had custody of the boys. They were safe. They had to be. He'd find them, and help keep them safe.
"What happened to the . . . the other crawlers?"
The second man spoke. "We guess they fled underground again as the sun came up. Maybe they don't like daylight. The only ones we've found are dead. Some people think that there may have been over a thousand of them in caves under the lake, and that the earthquake caused the caves to flood and wake them from hibernation or something like that. And that's the least crazy theory I've heard. They're gone for now, but we've got the National Guard covering us outside, just in case."
Aaron winced as the first EMT moved his foot to examine it. The lingering poison made it hard to focus, but it no longer blocked pain. "Your ankle might be broken," the EMT said.
Aaron took a deep breath, fighting the wooziness, and frowned. "What did you mean by evacuation zones? Or that they are gone for now? Do they think the crawlers will come back?"
The second EMT answered as they buckled him down to take him up the stairs. "If their nest is flooded, they won't be gone for long. We have to get everyone out of here by tonight."
"You think the crawlers will be back tonight?"
"Authorities are calling this whole area infested. Until we exterminate them, they'll be back every night."