Fade to Blue
by Jeff Hall
|part 1 of 3|
2015 A.D. / Year 3 A.R. (After Rifting)
Brent pressed against the wall and held his breath. He gripped his assault rifle like a life preserver and dared not move, for Death crept through the central plaza of the shopping mall on a hundred segmented legs.
The moon peeked through broken skylights overhead, casting nightmarish shadows among the tables and chairs that were strewn about. In the gloom, Brent saw the undulating form of Death pause, then turn toward him. Its meter-wide head bobbed up and down, antennae testing the air. In a few moments he would be able to see his own reflection in its score of sapphire eyes.
The sound of clicking mandibles broke the silence.
He exhaled through clenched teeth.
The thing paused. A shrill hiss rent the air.
Brent pulled the rifle up and squeezed the trigger. Orange flame spat, bullets sprayed.
The creature squealed and reared its front half up in the air, then charged.
Brent sprinted across the food court, weaving between overturned tables and chairs. Over his shoulder he saw the thing flow part way up the wall, curl back around to the floor then squirt after him. He redoubled his efforts but he knew he couldn’t outrun the crawler. He’d seen the bigger ones overtake cars.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw a children’s play area with its maze of interconnected tubes and slides. He veered toward it.
The crawler turned also and snaked across a rubble-filled fountain in the middle of the plaza. It closed the distance with frightening speed.
Brent eyed the entrance to the first series of tunnels as he approached. He mentally compared its dimensions with those of his pursuer’s bulbous head. It was going to be close. He put everything he had in one last burst of energy and leaped the last few meters, diving into the tunnel just ahead of the crawler.
The entire structure shuddered from the impact of the crawler and continued to shake as the hissing creature tried to force its bulk into the too-small tunnel. The plastic tubing cracked and split. The narrow metal bands that held it together began to stretch and deform.
Brent spun around, rifle held ready. The crawler’s salivating mandibles were only a meter away, but its forward progress was temporarily halted. Then the shriek of distressed metal filled the air — the crawler lurched forward a few centimeters.
He snatched a grenade from his belt, pulled the pin and rolled it down the tunnel to the crawler.
Turning, he clambered through the remainder of the maze. Seconds later he felt the dull thump of the concussion grenade. A shock wave propelled him forcefully from the far end like a shot from a cannon. He struck the ground rolling and came to his feet, ready to fight.
He relaxed at the sight of the quivering remains of the crawler. Steaming innards and shattered pieces of the creature’s segmented carapace littered the floor. He stooped and picked up a claw, carefully dislodging it from a charred piece of chitin.
The thing’s curved talons were wickedly sharp, hard as a diamond and highly prized city-side. He tucked it into his belt. If he ran into a trader he could probably use it to bargain for ammo or gasoline. His search for more was interrupted by a faint clicking sound from deep within the building.
Crawlers lived in hives. Where there was one, there were almost certainly more. His imagination populated the dark hallways of the mall with dozens of the insatiable monsters, weaving their way sinuously toward his position.
Time to go.
Cautiously he picked his way out of the abandoned building, creeping around overturned benches and display cases. Broken glass littered the faded carpet, along with invading weeds.
In the parking lot he negotiated around the rusted husks of automobiles. Suddenly, bright lights blinded him.
“Drop your weapon and put your hands up!”
* * *
Brent lowered his rifle to the ground and raised his hands. The lights flickered as four camouflaged figures materialized. He squinted against the glare, taking in their military uniforms.
Great. How could I be so stupid?
He silently cursed his grumbling stomach. If he hadn’t gone off on a wild goose chase after food in the mall, his erstwhile quarry might not have stumbled across him. Three soldiers squared off in front of him. The fourth, an older, gray-haired man with a thick mustache, stood off to the side.
“State yer name and business,” ordered the middle soldier, a heavy-set man with thick, beetling brows, a stern look on his face and a single, silver bar too-prominently displayed on his collar.
“Brent Peters. Uh, just on safari in the interior, lieutenant.” He tried to sound sheepish, as if he were reluctant to admit it. It was well known that a few eccentric adventurers occasionally bribed their way out of the fortified cities to go ‘hunting’ in the interior. He groaned inwardly when he realized he’d blurted out his real name. Too many years of strict obedience drilled into him.
The soldier studied him intently. He sneered. “Rich-boy getting yer kicks out here while we’re riskin our lives preserving the American freakin’ dream.” He spat a glob of tobacco juice into the dust by Brent’s boot. “What’cha shootin’? Pigeons?” He slapped his leg and guffawed. His two companions relaxed and joined in.
“Crawler.” Brent’s terse reply brought their laughter to an abrupt halt. The two outside troopers paled visibly and pulled their rifles up.
The lieutenant scowled. “How big?”
Brent shrugged. “Little one. Seven, eight meters maybe.”
The lieutenant’s scowl deepened. “Yer full of it. Ain’t no city boy gonna face down a crawler and live to tell of it. One took out our tank three days ago and half my platoon along with it.”
Brent pulled the large claw from his belt and held it out. “The rest is just inside if you care to investigate. Quite a mess. Be careful, though. Probably stirred up the whole hive with all the racket.”
The lieutenant glared at him for several moments. His demeanor changed abruptly.
“Well, you must be one helluva shot, mister.” He gestured for the other soldiers to fall back. “I guess you saved me some trouble. We were getting ready to bivouac here.” He turned and shouted. “Douse the lights, morons! Let’s ease on down the road a ways.” He turned back to Brent. “Why don’t you join us for mess if yer solo? This locale is kinda overrun. Could use another rifle in the company for the night.”
Brent couldn’t believe how readily they accepted his story. Obviously they assumed that because he was a normal, he was not a threat. How naïve.
Then it occurred to him that they might not know exactly what had happened to the other convoys. Or, more likely they believed that the missing units had fallen victim to denizens of the rift zone. Regardless, he knew he was playing a dangerous game if he stayed with them.
When the floodlights dimmed he got a good look at their vehicles. Three hummers formed a semicircle and behind them idled a big rig. The tractor-trailer had been white at one time but now sported a shabby camouflage paint job. A shiver ran down his spine at the sight of the bright blue ‘X’ painted on the side of the trailer. That marking signified special cargo. Detainees. Blues.
“So, whatcha think, Peters?”
Brent shook himself. “Yeah. I think I’ll take you up on that offer.”
The lieutenant flashed a tobacco-stained smile. “Well, alright then. You got wheels?”
Brent nodded. “Be right behind you.”
The lieutenant bellowed at his men to load up.
* * *
The night closed in on Brent as he drove his jeep behind the military convoy, alone once again, except for the specters of the past. The faint, red lights of the hummer in front of him became vengeful eyes that demanded reparation for his sins. He bit his lip and tried to make out the tractor-trailer.
Was it possible? Could she be..?
Two years in the interior had brought him face to face with things that would have broken a weaker man. It had been months since he had slept for more than a few minutes at a time, not that he wasn’t exhausted by the constant battle to stay alive or the struggle to find his next meal. Rather, he feared sleep with its dark nightmares of fire and blood and screams for mercy. He knew he couldn’t right a wrong with more wrongs, that the end didn’t justify the means, but he no longer cared. He had to find her, no matter the cost.
He slammed on the brakes when the hummer in front of him slowed almost to a stop. The pockmarked asphalt of the street had abruptly turned into oddly rippled blue stone. In the outer edge of his headlights the weeds that lined the road were also blue, and of a grotesque, alien cast as was the white picket fence that meandered along the side of the road, now a cerulean wall with spines projecting out of it at irregular intervals.
The convoy resumed its forward progress, carefully negotiating this local manifestation of the Change.
The further one penetrated into the rift zone, the greater the evidence of the Change, woven into the landscape in eerie swaths of blue. Its insidious reach tainted forests, rivers, buildings and whole cities alike. Where it chose to manifest itself, nothing escaped its clutches. Not plant life. Not creeping things or animals. Not even man.
After a short time the road returned to normal. The convoy picked up speed as it put distance between itself and the blue area.
Several miles later they slowed and turned into an open lot with a large three-sided structure standing in its center. It might have been some sort of parking garage or equipment shelter at one time. Most of the area around it was clear. It would be easy to defend. A good choice for a camp.
The soldiers searched the immediate surroundings and declared it safe. They began the process of setting up a temporary camp, pulling out tents and folding tables. There were fourteen of them, four in each hummer and two in the truck. All were heavily armed.
Quickly they formed a half-circle around the open end of the building with the hummers and tractor-trailer and set up their gear in its center.
Brent parked his jeep as close to the rear of the trailer as he could without raising suspicion. He got out and eyed its doors while pretending to inspect his vehicle. It took every ounce of willpower he had to restrain himself from running to it and throwing the doors open. The sight of a heavy padlock gave him pause. He pulled out an axe and was fingering its edge when two of the soldiers walked over to the trailer doors.
“It’s been a long trip. I says we pull one out and have a little fun. They’s a few lookers in this bunch.”
The other screwed his face up. “Man, you’re crazy. With a blue?” He spat. “That’s disgusting. Not to mention illegal. You know the laws about mixing it up with a blue.”
The first speaker snorted. “Law? They ain’t no law out here but us. Now, c’mon.”
He reached for the padlock.
Brent gripped the axe and took a step toward them. But before he could get any closer another figure appeared.
“What in the hell are you two up to?” It was the gray-haired man he’d glimpsed earlier, when the soldiers had accosted him at the mall. His voice rose in pitch as he admonished the soldiers. “You know this cargo is no-touch. Get away or I’ll call the lieutenant!”
The first soldier puffed his chest out and snarled. “Back off, you old souse. Mind yer liquor and let us handle the cargo.” He advanced threateningly on the old man.
Brent chose this moment to step forward. He addressed the old man. “Is there a problem here?”
The old man jumped at Brent’s sudden appearance. “I...er... no, I don’t think so.” He shot a glance at the soldiers.
The first soldier glowered at Brent. He looked at the old man then back at Brent. After a moment’s hesitation he turned on his heel and stormed off. The second followed a moment later.
The old man pulled a flask from his hip pocket, unscrewed the cap and raised it to his lips with a shaking hand. After several gulps he replaced it and turned to Brent. He nodded at the axe.
“Planning on chopping some firewood, son?”
Brent shook his head. “Fires aren’t a good idea out here. They tend to attract... things.”
The old man studied him for a moment. Then he extended his hand.
“Colonel Charles Foster, United States Army.” His hand was cold and clammy. “How about joining the lieutenant and me for supper. Nothing like gov’ment food — guaranteed to bring on heartburn or diarrhea, if not both.”
Brent exhaled a long sigh. “How can I turn that down?”
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Jeff Hall