01 Feb Tales from a Rookie Storm Chaser Full Story
If you were to tell me a month ago that walking into a television station in south Nebraska would change my life forever, I probably would have laughed my head off.
I had rode the bus up from the state line on a Monday based off a bland newspaper ad no bigger than a baseball card.
Got storm footage no one else wants? We pay top dollar at Channel 46.
KTHU; the forecast is calling!
There was a little picture of a sun that was smiling and looked like it’s rays were branching off to form golden tentacles.
Below that was a phone number and an address to someplace called Emerald Bay, Nebraska.
Something about it felt off, besides the obvious. Like someone had placed it there for me to see.
See, since I was a little boy I have always had a fascination with the elements that I can’t really explain. Out there amid the thunder and rain, you lose yourself. Call me a dreamer if you want, but I have always felt a connection to Mother Nature that others haven’t. And in a storm, facing life and death… I can’t really describe anything more exhilarating.
Storm chasing was my calling, just like the ad said. And thanks to some amazing footage I had managed to snag over spring break, this seemed like my golden ticket into the business.
So after several false leads and misdirection, I finally figured out where the town was at.
Despite its name, there is no body of water near to Emerald Bay. In fact the only thing that it seemed to have an abundance of was rundown cars just sitting in the street and closed down storefronts that now served as shelters for the homeless and the vagabonds.
Everything about the place felt off to me. Especially because there didn’t seem to be any broadcasting towers in sight.
I made my way to a diner near the main thoroughfare, hoping to get some information.
Of all the buildings so far, it was the cleanest and that wasn’t saying much. There was grime on the floor, mold on the ceiling and smoke stains on the walls.
I tried my best to hold back a gag at the smell and walked up to the counter to ring the bell.
While I waited, I glanced at the breakfast menu and casually saw that Channel 46 was on the tv hanging above it. Strangely there didn’t seem to be anything playing besides the test signal.
“Can I get you some coffee hun?” a voice asked breaking me from my distraction.
When I turned I found myself staring at an elderly woman wearing what looked like a rain smock made in the fifties.
Besides her bizarre clothes, the most notable feature about her was the fact that both of her eyes had scars running across them; like someone had deliberately made her blind.
“No… uh… I’m actually looking for something. Do you know where Channel 46 is stationed?” i asked gesturing to the tv.
“Whatcha going out there for?” she asked as she went ahead and grabbed a pot for me.
“I’m a storm chaser. Or at least, I want to be.“
“We get a lot of those around here,” she agreed absently as she looked toward the road like she was thinking of something.
Won’t be long another will roll in. Always does this time of month.”
I grabbed the remote and started flipping channels to see if any other signals were coming in when the old lady grabbed at my arm, her glazed eyes filled with fear.
“Don’t turn that off.” She snatched the remote away and muttered, “Have to listen for the weather. You can’t go out in a storm. Not here.”
I looked toward the clear skies. “Forecast looks clear to me. Maybe I can get to the station before it hits?“
The old woman looked blankly at me for the longest time.
“Sure. Of course you can. I apologize for that.” She started to wipe the counter furiously.
“Yeah… so, where is the station anyway?“
“You can find KTHU on the outskirts of town, near a group of hills that cast a shadow over any road that led you toward it,” she said as she went back to her kitchen.
I meant to tell her thanks, but she had already disappeared from sight.
Since there didn’t seem to be any running taxis in Emerald Bay, it looked like I was in for a long walk into the middle of the woods.
To make things worse, a soft icy rain began to fall just like the old woman had predicted. The tree cover was just enough though where I knew I wouldn’t catch my death of cold.
Once I got to the foothills, the broadcast station stood out like a sore thumb.
There was yellow graffiti on the outside of their building which looked like it had been on the brick longer than anything else. The roof was slumped in and the windows that weren’t smashed were boarded up. Even the letters for the call sign on top of the building weren’t working, just a flicker of their former selves gently illuminating the foggy woods that shrouded it on all sides. If there was a poster child for forgotten and abandoned television networks, it would probably be in the top three.
Upon entering, a short blonde receptionist popped bubblegum and asked me what I was there for.
I showed her the newspaper clipping and she buzzed someone on the intercom to come up and walk me to the back.
A few seconds later, an imposing older black gentleman walked through a set of double doors and gave me a once over.
“You a cameraman?”
I swallowed hard and responded. “Yes sir, I’m Dillion Pruitt, sir. I’m from…“
“Come with me, thanks Nat,” he ordered waving to the receptionist and walking off before I got a chance to even give him my well prepared speech.
Ten minutes later, I was fidgeting with the tape I brought in my right hand and biting my cheek when a young reporter walked past and started pouring some coffee.
I think I noticed her because of her age. Here was a girl, probably about my age able to lead the life that most only dreamt about. It made me jealous to think that she probably had experienced more adventure than my whole college class combined.
The girl noticed me too. Well, she noticed the old VHS I was holding and asked about it.
“It’s for Mister Kearny, from the F4 we had back at the end of March,” I told her.
Her ears seemed to perk up.
“You a chaser?” she asked.
“I hope to be.“
“Well… The boss is kind of busy. If you want, I can take a look at it to tell you if you’re wasting your time or not,” she said.
I hesitated, surprised by her sudden interest in my footage. But I was too exhausted from the trip up to think of a reason not to give it to her.
“Wait here,” she instructed me.
It was probably only twenty minutes she was gone but it felt like eternity.
When she did return, a stout looking man was at her side; looking anxious and excited all at once.
“Young man! Are you the one that brought us this footage?” he asked.
“Yessir…” His sharp voice intimidated me.
“Where did you get it?” the girl snapped. Her brash words made me even more nervous, like I was being tested.
“During that F4 back in March, I was on the 330.“
“There’s no way anybody could have got this footage. Too dangerous,” the stout man proclaimed and then added with a fluster, “We need to run this by Martin. Have him check for any discrepancies.”
“Hold on,” I said as I stood up. “That belongs to me.“
The girl let out a sigh and took out her checkbook. “All right. How much?”
“What? I don’t want your money. I want a job.“
Her laugh echoed down the hallway this time.
“You’ve got guts. I will give you that. Trust me, you want to walk away from this. So… how much or do I just leave it blank?”
I looked at the stout man to see if this was some kind of joke. But it was clear she wasn’t budging. Neither was I.
“Mister Kearny will be the one to decide what to do about my footage,” I told her sternly.
She gave me another glare like she was about to slap me. Then a smile crossed her face.
“All right, wise guy.. have it your way. I’ll have my dad look at it right away.”
As I took a moment to register what she just said, she snatched an old walkie-talkie off a shelf and shoved it into my open arms before disappearing into the office doors just past me.
The stout man shuffled his head and mumbled an apology, “Sorry about that. Olivia tends to be a bit of a hot head. Comes with being the boss’ daughter, I suppose.”
That explained how she was able to get a job here so young. My jealousy actually felt justified.
“What’s this for?” I gestured toward the walkie.
“Set it to frequency two, when Mister Kearny makes a decision; Liv’ll call you on there,” he explained.
“Do you people not believe in cell phones?“
“Phones calls interrupt signal,” he muttered as I strapped the walkie to my belt.
“She’s right you know.”
Now the stout man was standing right in front of me.
“You should take the money and walk away. No one wants to work here. Her least of all.”
Naturally after my little encounter at the diner, that piqued my interest.
“I don’t have anywhere to go. Nothing to lose. I’ve been to the bottom. Nowhere left to go but up.“
He gave me a lopsided smile. “You remind me of myself when I was younger. What did you say your name was?”
“Dillion, Dillion Pruitt,” I told him.
“Jim Laschar, I’m the chief science officer to this whole shindig, put’Er there,” he said as he gripped my hand and shook vigorously.
It felt like he was going to rip my arm off to be honest.
Once he was done and I stretched my hand a bit, I decided to start asking some questions of my own.
“How long have you been with Channel 46?“
“Huh. Probably nine years now. Since Liv was a teen. Or maybe she was ten? Kinda hard to remember. I still can’t believe we’ve been in business this long,” Jim answered.
“You… like the job?“
“That’s a joke right? Have you looked around kid? This place is a dump. We’re the rejects. Heh. From the looks of you, you’ll fit right in.”
That made me look down at the carpet in embarrassment.
Jim rubbed the back of his neck as though regretting his words and then glanced toward the office door.
“Look… they’ll be in there for a while. Mister Kearny is very particular about this kind of stuff. Why don’t you go get some rest?”
My face was red now.
“I, uh.. I don’t have… anywhere to go…“
“Oh shit. Sorry.” Jim mumbled something under his breath and reached into his pockets to give me a wad of cash.
“Take this. Should be enough for the motel..”
Just then the black man I met earlier stepped through the doors wielding a camera on his shoulder and some sort of spherical metal object under his other arm.
“Hey Martin, you about to head out to meet Caleb?” Jim asked as he walked past us.
He paused in irritation, clearly having other things on his mind and muttered, “Kind of busy. What is it Laschar?”
“This young man could use a lift to the Bad Moon Motel. Think you could help out?”
Martin shook his head and looked at me and then grunted, “Storm’s rolling in. Don’t need to be going anywhere.”
“The motel is still in the safe zone. If you leave now, you should be fine,” Jim suggested.
Both of them seemed to be sharing a private conversation silently as I stood there awkwardly.
Martin sighed and pushed the back door open with his foot. “Come on then.”
I jumped, said thank you to Jim one more time and then ran toward the parking garage behind Martin. A few moments later I was helping him put the equipment into one of their bulky vans. It had the broadcast logo on the side and was entirely painted a bright yellow. Like a school bus.
“Aren’t weather trackers normally painted white?” I muttered as I got into the passenger seat.
“Anything about KTHU seem normal to you?”
I had to give him that one. The short drive to the motel was filled with awkward silence except for the occasional bump in the road and a rumble of thunder. It felt longer than any leg of this journey had so far.
Finally he slammed the brakes in front of the cheap motel on the outskirts of town.
“This is you.”
“Thanks. I guess I’ll see you in the morning.“
Before I stepped out of the van, Martin grabbed my arm and made me look him dead in the eye.
“You’re really set on joining our crew huh?”
“I wouldn’t have come all this way just for a few bucks, if that’s what you mean.“
“Can I give you a piece of advice?” Pat asked. He didn’t sound as mean anymore. It almost sounded like he was genuinely concerned.
“If you’re going to tell me to ditch town, it’s not happening…“
“Nah. You’re too stupid to listen to common sense. But maybe you’ll hear what I got to say about the storms in these parts.”
I turned toward him, excited to hear more. “I’ve heard the weather can be pretty wicked. Hailstones the size of golf balls in the spring. Tornadoes in the summer. Honestly it sounds right up my alley, pun intended.“
“You haven’t heard shit. The storms out here ain’t normal, son. You know why you couldn’t find Emerald Bay on a map? Cause people who come here die. They die and it’s always for the same reasons. The storms roll in and they bring something sinister with them.”
He had a wild look in his eye. It reminded me of the lady in the diner. It was enough for me to not question his word.
“There’ll be one tonight. So listen close if you do want to live. You’re gonna go inside your room, lock the door. Close all the windows and don’t come out until it passes through. That’s important. No matter what you do, don’t go out in a storm. And for the love of god don’t look at it! You hear me?”
I nodded frantically as he pushed me to the curb and added, “One more thing. Keep your TV on Channel 46. No matter what.”
A little voice in my head told me that he was just trying to scare me. After all, if he’s the veteran cameraman on the crew; new blood like me might be considered a threat. But another voice, nagging at that unease I had felt since arriving in Emerald Bay; told me to listen.
That voice grew louder when I walked to the motel office and found the young man running it had the same scars on his eyes as the woman in the diner.
“You looking for a room?” he asked pleasantly.
“Cash or card?” he asked as he took out an old ledger from under the counter. There weren’t any other names on it.
“Cash. I uh.. I brought forty.“
Despite his disability, he was able to take out the exact change I needed from the register and then passed me the correct key card.
“Number 11, on the end. Enjoy your stay,” he told me.
I spent the next two hours looking out toward the town and seeing the storm clouds grow bigger. It did look pretty deadly, and Martin’s words kept ringing in my head.
Despite my better judgment, I went ahead and closed the blinds and locked the door. Then I found the tv remote and switched it over to Channel 46.
Once again, nothing besides the test signal came through and it was so loud that I immediately reached for the dial and switched the set back off.
Over the next few hours, I tried to get some sleep, but I’ve always been something of a lightweight and as the rain started to get heavier I found myself instead listening to it beat down outside.
Amid the strong rain, I heard what sounded like shrieks. It was this low guttural noise that a wild animal makes when beaten by a whip, that’s the best way to describe it.
Car alarms went off. Rumbling noises and tremors shook the motel like a leaf. While distracted by the noises outside, I heard a raspy voice at my door and spun around to hear someone desperately trying to open it.
Instantly I leapt to the handle and pressed my body against it. “Who goes there?” I asked.
“Let me in. Please. You have to help me!!” it sounded like the old woman. She was scratching at the wooden paneling, crying. I kept hearing the storm rage on. I hesitated. Something about her voice sounded off.
“It’s getting closer… please.. I’m begging you…” She was trying so hard I thought she might break the door down.
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry but I can’t…” I told her.
Suddenly her desperate cries for help turned into outrage and feverish clawing. The door began to splinter and I ran toward the dresser. It took all my strength to push it. And even then I wasn’t sure it would be enough to stall whatever was on the other side.
I closed my eyes, listening to the thrashing and praying I made it through to morning.
Above me, the shrieks caused the electrical fan to short and darkness covered the room. The wind was picking up and the whole motel felt like it might cave in. Quickly I snatched up the remote and used the light from the tv to see as she finally broke open the door.
But what stood there was not a human being at all. Her lower body was stretched out like a snake’s with long jagged legs skittering inside as the storm raged louder. Just as she was on top of me, her mouth stretching open to reveal rows of tiny little sharp teeth, the broadcast from Channel 46 began to play.
The snake woman stopped in her attempt to swallow me whole and hissed loudly as the test signal grew louder. I kicked at her face and slammed what was left of the door shut on her as she slithered away. After another moment, the thunder stopped and the air outside began to fall silent until at last nothing remained but that one high pitched sound.
I collapsed on the floor of my room, covered in sweat and confused. Then the walkie on my belt crackled to life. But instead of a voice it was a series of chirps. It took me a minute to recognize the pattern.
>Job is yours.
>If you still want it.
Morning light crept its way into my room less than an hour after I got the message from Olivia Kearny. I probably stared at the note I scribbled for the longest time though, trying to decide whether or not I was in or out of this mess.
Then, before I knew it there was another rap at my door.
“It’s… it’s open,” I muttered. Somewhere between the hours I had managed to stumble back to bed and get sleep. I heard the door crunch, then the newcomer pulled at the blinds and made a loud popping noise right over my head.
Shielding my eyes from the sun, I sat up and found myself staring at the young blonde from the station.
“Rise and shine,” she said, popping her bubblegum again and tossing me some clothes. “Take a shower and put those on. Meet me outside in ten.”
After stretching and letting her leave, I took a minute to peek out the blinds and see what sort of damage the storm had done to Emerald Bay.
Much to my surprise however, the ghost town looked no more desolate or rundown than it had the day prior.
It made me wonder if whatever I had heard and seen the night before was some sort of smoke and mirror set up by KTHU. Was the old woman an actor in on whatever scam they were pulling?
The reason for this doubt is because before I came here I can’t say that I’ve ever heard of that call sign before. Just like Emerald Bay, it doesn’t seem to exist anywhere, not even in the corners of the dark net. How did Channel 46 remain that much of a secret?
After a quick shower, this doubt I I felt that they were hiding something only grew when I saw the impressive outfitted Hummer the girl was driving. There was no way a place like this could afford something like that.
“Busy day today, let’s grab a bite to eat before we head up to the station,” she suggested as she revved the engine.
I tipped my head to her with a polite smile. “I don’t think we’ve been properly introduced miss…“
“Natalie Castello. But you can call me Nat, everyone does. Astronomer and mathematician. Welcome aboard newbie,” she said with a giggle and then sped down the road.
“How long you been with KTHU?“
“Six months. Nice to finally have some new blood. I just hope you last longer than the last cameraman.”
That gave me pause.
“I take it you seem to have job vacancies often?“
“Nick was a good one. I really thought he would make it,” she admitted as she turned the corner and started rambling; “You know the way I see it the boss should be more open with y’all about what we’re up against. It’s not like telling you is gonna change nothin’.”
She spat out gum and pulled up to the front of the diner. “Nobody listens to me anyway, except for Martin. He still remembers what it was like, before all this.”
I kept quiet, too afraid that if I interrupted she might second guess what she was saying and we walked inside.
Unfortunately my hopes of the conversation continuing were dashed to pieces when Natalie saw the diner was full of customers.
All of them seemed to be of the same breed, long faced and bulging eyes and their skin showed signs of severe dehydration.
“Where did all these people come from?” I muttered as Natalie grabbed my shirt and whispered, “Stick close to me.”
We walked up to the counter and she rang the bell, glancing nervously up toward the tv monitor. It was blank.
From the back the old woman appeared and offered a blank stare to both of us.
“Morning Maggie, something wrong with the set?” Natalie asked with a tense smile.
“Storm knocked out the power. Must have blown a fuse cause it hasn’t been working all morning,” she said dismissively as she got out her pen and paper and asked for our order.
Natalie stood back up. “You know what… I think we’ll just take a rain check on that Maggie. It’s the new guy’s first day and he probably shouldn’t be working on a full stomach…”
She grabbed my arm and turned to leave, bringing us face to face with one of the odd townsfolk.
“What’s the rush?” the fellow said with a wide grin. It looked unsettling. “Stay,” a second person insisted and pushed us both down on the shoulders.
“You can’t leave,” the first agreed.
“Natalie… what’s going on?” I asked, still trying to determine if any of this was real or not.
Suddenly others in the diner started chanting the same three words.
you can’t leave you can’t leave you can’t leave
Natalie reached into her purse and grabbed the keys. “On the count of three we’re gonna make a run for it,” she told me.
“What?” their chanting was getting louder.
They were all standing up and staring at us, looking dead eyed.
“Two…” “Natalie I think we should…“
But before I got the words out, she yanked at my hand and we dashed toward the parking lot. The crowd was on us, snapping their mouths like piranha as we pushed to the door.
Out in the parking lot, Natalie clicked the doors open and shouted for me to get inside.
As I saw the townsfolk begin to scramble out of the diner like a flood, I didn’t have to be told twice.
Cranking up the engine, Natalie instantly put the Hummer in reverse.
“Buckle up,” she warned me.
A few of the patrons from the diner were weaving their way into the road, but that didn’t stop her. I let out a gasp as she plowed the vehicle into the first one and then picked up speed.
I gripped the seat and looked back toward the pedestrian we had just run over, only to find he was already standing back up and staring at us ominously.
“There’s a walkie in the center column. Switch it over to frequency 2,” she ordered as she made the next block.
I opened the middle console and reached for it, a burst of static filling the air as I saw more of them rushing toward us faster than wild dogs.
“Nat; this is only meant to be for emergencies…” that was Martin’s voice.
“Martin we’re coming in hot, get the garage open now,” she ordered him.
“Shit. Seriously?” the black man muttered as she stepped on the gas and passed from the city streets into the backroads.
The strangers were still coming though, running down the trails like a flock of angry zombies. Shrieking and hollering as I spotted the gate to the station.
“Hold on,” Natalie ordered as she twisted the steering wheel hard, another attacker knocked aside.
We drifted straight through the old metal doors as she slammed on the brakes and I heard the townsfolk begin to beat down on the station, desperate to get inside.
I fumbled out of the car and watched as they kept scratching at the metal with their bare fingers until at last; a strong deafening noise emerged from all throughout the station.
The strangers began to thrash and bang their heads against the glass, angrier than ever before. Then they all collapsed onto the ground, writhing and shrieking mindlessly.
Natalie grabbed my arm and pulled me inside as Martin closed the garage up completely.
“What the hell Nat? They almost breached us that time!” Martin muttered as we walked quickly down to the control room.
Jim was inside handling the controls, watching the monitors as the group of thirty something individuals kept flopping about on the ground like fish out of water.
“I’m sorry… I’m sorry. I went to grab Dillion and… I thought we had time to grab a bite to eat…” she said anxiously.
“Goddamnit girl, you know not to go into town after a storm!” the black man said as he paced the room and then turned to Jim. “Is it working?”
“Give it a few more seconds,” the stout man replied as he looked toward my face.
“You okay son?” Jim asked with a smile.
I clenched my fists, looking from Natalie’s pale face to Martin’s stern one and then muttered, “I would reallly appreciate it if someone told me what the hell is going on around here.“
A few seconds later, the townsfolk stopped shaking. Then I heard a door slam behind me and Olivia entered the room.
“That should be good Jim,” she said.
The stout man reached toward a control panel and the sharp noise stopped, leaving the room silent except for the awkward tension between the group.
“What the hell happened?” Olivia asked.
“It’s my fault… I didn’t know the power would be cut. I just wanted to grab a bite to eat…” Natalie fumbled over her words and the younger girl sighed irritably.
“We’ll deal with that later. Go watch the phones or something. Jim, start up the generator. Dillion, you’re with me.”
I blinked a few times and then followed her down the hallway wordlessly. I was too anxious and excited to meet her father to ask any more prying questions about the things I had just seen.
After a short brisk walk, she knocked on the door and a raspy voice shouted, “Come.”
She pressed the metal frame open, making it give a sharp creak and then we found ourselves standing in a smoke filled room.
Amid the clouds of cigarette smoke, sat an older balding man wearing square glasses and a pressed suit.
“Did the signal push through?” the man asked, his attention completely focused on Olivia.
“For the most part. But there’s a problem at the diner again,” she said.
“I heard,” he said taking another smoke.
I coughed softly, and his eyes briefly flickered toward me before going back to his daughter.
“Make sure the back ups are online. And dock Natalie’s pay by a week,” the boss decided.
She nodded and stood there for a minute before gathering that her father wanted to talk to me alone and then left the room as quickly as she had come.
“So you’re the chaser,” the old man said dryly, reaching into his pocket to grab a lighter.
“Yes sir. Dillion Pruitt,” I said extending my hand to him. But he left it lingering in the air as he put out the cigarette and muttered, “Olivia tells me you had to come quite a ways to reach us.”
“I’m originally from Missouri sir,” I told him.
“Well, Dillion Pruitt from Missouri, I hate to break it you but we’re not hiring right now,” he said.
“What? But the ad-“
“Said we were looking for footage, which we will compensate you for and give you enough extra to make it back home,” he said as he reached for his checkbook.
“I told your daughter I didn’t want your money.“
“Maybe not. But I’ll give that to you and something more. This contact info is the best way to get yourself a job at any news agency on the east coast. You’ll be able to pursue your dream of chasing death anywhere you want,” Mister Kearny said sliding the info across his desk.
I took a look at it, having no doubt in my mind that it was a legit offer. But instead I simply passed it back to him and replied, “I appreciate the offer. But after everything I have seen these past few days, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline.“
He nodded absently, tapping the business card on the desk before commenting, “Who did you lose?”
“Nobody chases storms with a zeal like this except for one reason and one reason alone. You lost someone in a storm. Someone close.”
I opened my mouth to make a reply but before I got the chance, another person slammed on Mister Kearny’s door.
“Sorry to interrupt boss, but I got a signal,” Jim said as he cracked the door open.
That was enough to make him sit up straight. “What? How?”
“Martin’s probe. Caught the tail end of it just outside the county line. Looks mighty promising,” Jim said excitedly.
Before Mister Kearny had a chance to respond, his daughter pushed the door open and remarked, “Don’t even think about it. We still haven’t heard from Caleb.”
“Who’s Caleb anyway?” I asked recalling the name as Jim spread a map out right in front of their boss.
“It’s all flatland out there. Should be a done deal, we could get in and out before anything went sideways,” Jim insisted, ignoring my inquiry.
“And who’s going to be manning this little expedition, Laschar? You?” Olivia snapped.
Jim rubbed the back of his head and muttered, “Look Paul, we might not get a chance like this for a good long while. Me and Nat can watch the base and we can do this. We have to.”
“There’s no way I’m leaving my father’s life in your hands!” Olivia snapped.
“Enough!” Mister Kearny said sharply as he looked at the chart and then toward me.
“You familiar with these roads, Pruitt?”
I glanced at the map and nodded, “Yeah. I could get you there no problem.”
“What? You can’t be serious,” Olivia said as her dad grabbed something from under his desk and then leaned on it to stand up.
It took me by surprise as I saw him lean against a crutch and then realized his right leg was completely gone.
“Martin will have his hands full with the camera and I sure as hell can’t drive,” he said dryly.
The old man tossed a pair of keys to me and remarked, “Congratulations Mister Pruitt, it looks like you’ll get to chase that dream after all.”
If I thought my time with KTHU was already strange enough then the items we loaded up for our chase were the icing on top.
Martin and I gotten thirty feet of rope and and three different compasses, along with enough food and fuel for a day and then electrical, computers and a spare tire. Last but not least were the weapons. Two crates of c4 and a couple of old hunting rifles and harpoon guns.
“Are we off to chase storms or do war?” I chuckled nervously as I lifted the last crate of wiring.
As we made it back out to the garage though, we were stopped short to find Olivia blocking the driver side of the weather van.
“If I can’t talk you out of going then I’m coming with you.”
Mister Kearny leaned against his crutch and muttered, “Out of the question.”
“You’re right, it is; cause if you don’t let me go I’ll cut your fuel line and then you’ll up a creek until Caleb gets back,” Olivia snapped back. Her father flared at her angrily, looking like he was ready to smack her face and said, “You wouldn’t dare.”
She got right in his face. “Try me.”
I held my breath, unsure what might happen next.
“Fine,” Mister Kearny decided as he took his crutches and slid them into the van as well. Then Martin helped him in and gave Olivia the stink eye as well.
“Hold down the fort for us Jim,” Olivia called out to the stout man that was checking the garage door for any breaches in defense. Then we were off.
“Quickest route is down the interstate,” Mister Kearny said as we got on the road out of town.
“Bad idea. We should take the 515. Get us there in half the time,” his daughter chimed in.
“The 515 takes us out of the way,” the older man snapped. Then they began to argue.
“No it doesn’t! They’ve opened it back up!” “How do you know?” “I was there a month ago with Caleb.” “You went without me??”
“Hey!!!” Martin shouted as we drove out of town. “I’ve got an idea.”
The two stared at him as we passed the motel.
“How about we let the new guy decide. Fair?” he suggested once he had their full attention.
Olivia glared at me, “Sure. Whatever.”
I hated being stuck in the middle, but it seemed like the best option so I checked the map again and then made a decision, “Olivia is right. The 515 will get us there quicker.”
Mister Kearny made a humph and then closed the little window between the back of the van and the front, leaving Martin and I a chance to finally talk.
It took me another two miles before I got the nerve to say anything.
“I never got a chance to tell you thanks, for the other night.“
Martin kept his eyes on the road and shrugged, “It wasn’t anything.”
“I’m alive because of you. Nobody else on the team saw fit to do that,” I told him.
“Hate to lose you before you even get started,” Martin muttered.
Behind us I heard the father and daughter begin to bicker again and I chuckled, “They always that way?“
“Didn’t use to be. Things changed after the mom left. Or so I been told. Wasn’t around for that leg of the journey.”
“What happened?” I whispered as we made our turn onto the open highway.
“The way Jim tells it, she was tired of this life. Of Emerald Bay, the storms, everything. But… Paul couldn’t give it up. He just couldn’t. So they went their separate ways…” he glanced toward the rear of the van and added, “It messed up Liv pretty bad. In fact I would say that she hasn’t been the same since.”
I nodded and watched as the miles flew back, considering everything that I had seen so far since joining the crew.
“This life isn’t for everyone I suppose. Not for a family anyway. I guess that makes us lucky huh?“
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Loners. We don’t have to worry about that sort of thing. Nothing between us and our dreams except the sky and earth,” I told him.
Martin clenched the wheel a little harder and didn’t respond. From what I gathered, I had said the wrong thing and the conversation was over.
So for the next four hours we listened to the occasional radio broadcast and followed the charts where the monitor took us.
Finally we reached a stretch of the 515 about 5 acres wide with nothing but green grass and power lines dotting the road.
“This should be a good spot, Martin,” Mister Kearny said. We parked a few feet off the road and then Olivia began to help her father set up a tripod while Martin checked the cameras.
The sky was so still and quiet, it was kind of hard to believe we were even tracking anything. In fact, come to think of it; I had checked my phone on the way out and hadn’t seen a blip on the Doppler. So what had we been following?
While everyone else got to work, I fiddled with the controls to familiarize myself with the van and how to handle it. I wanted to make sure I could switch between the gears and get us going at top speed if necessary. I didn’t want to come up short on my first chase.
Popping open the glove compartment, I saw a few stray papers and slid them out to take a look. Insurance and maintenance were pretty common, but there were also quite a few articles on missing persons. I recognized one of the names.
Nick Sanchez. Was that the same Nick that all of them were talking about?
“Dillion, can you check to see if the feed is still running?” Olivia shouted to me, breaking me away from my reverie.
I shoved the papers back into the glove compartment and nodded absently to her before giving the thumbs up.
Then my eyes turned to the horizon and I saw a rumble of lightning ripple across the distant clouds.
“There she is…” Mister Kearny said excitedly as he adjusted the tripod.
The clouds were rolling in rather fast, much swifter than I expected. And as soon as they crossed a patch of trees, several alarms on the computers began to go off.
The lightning began to stop and simmer in the clouds as all of us watched with bated breath. The air itself seemed to change and grow heavy.
Then the funnel began to form. Mister Kearny shouted excitedly and shouted, “Martin, start up the camera.”
“I think we should probably get back in the van…” Olivia said hesitantly as the sharp bursts of wind grew stronger and the swirling clouds grew more intense.
Suddenly, sky and earth met to form a tower of dust and debris on the horizon and a twister was barreling across the farmland.
“I need to get a good angle,” her father insisted as Martin got everything in place. Olivia ignored her father and pointed toward me. “Get ready to go.”
“Don’t listen to her!” Mister Kearny barked as the winds nearly pushed the tripod over. The funnel was right across the road. Maybe only 10 miles away.
“I think I’ve got the signal,” Martin shouted. The old man was staring toward the tornado with fierce excitement, waiting another moment until Martin confirmed it and said, “Yep. We’re locked on boss.”
That was all it took for the old man to finally listen to reason and get in the van.
“Drive Pruitt,” Olivia told me as Martin kept himself steady and the back doors open.
“Keep the speed steady, we can’t get too far from it,” her father added as I stepped on the gas.
The massive black and grey clouds swirled and destroyed everything in their path as we made it down the highway, Martin dangling halfway out the back to get the right shot for his boss.
“Anything?” Mister Kearny asked. The black man narrowed his eyes and muttered, “Too weak. Could be anything.”
“Damn it. Dillion take us closer,” the old man barked.
“You’re kidding right?” I asked with a surprised look on my face. Already powerlines were being snapped up like toothpicks to be pulled into the storm.
“This is what you signed up for isn’t it?” Kearny countered with a wicked laugh as the raging twister filled the air with its roar of devastation.
The choice was made for me a second later as some of the powerlines fell down on the road and I yanked the steering wheel hard to turn about. Now we were driving straight toward the funnel.
“Get in the fields, right alongside it,” Kearny said. “Dad!” Olivia said in surprise. “Martin, get the guns ready,” he said ignoring her as I picked up speed.
We were almost there. I felt my heart beat out of my chest as I pulled the van into the long stretches of farmland and the tires began to bump wildly. One little pitfall and we could go flying.
“I got it. We’re back in business,” Martin said excitedly as another computer screen lit up. The tornado was ripping straight toward our van.
“Open the hatch,” Mister Kearny ordered. His daughter complied and pushed the roof to the van open as he lifted himself up and yelled out, “Give me the gun!”
Martin was right there below him, loading the weapon and tossing it up as I clenched the wheel harder and prayed to God that we could make it past the funnel.
“Steady, Dillion. I need to get a clear shot,” Mister Kearny yelled. I must have given them all a look that showed how insane this all was but I didn’t say a word, I just kept driving.
Kearny pointed the rifle right toward the tornado as I felt the van bump and nearly lift out of the air. “I think we hit something,” I said as we kept wobbling on the right side. But he was ignoring me, and with a look of satisfaction on his face; he fired a shot straight toward the twister.
I heard a scream, it sounded like a banshee howling. It was coming from the storm. “Give me another. We need to make sure!!” he snapped passing the gun back to his cameraman. Martin loaded it up again and then looked toward me as I turned my eyes away from the road. “Dillion! Watch out!!”
I swerved to avoid a billboard, the van hitting stalks of corn as the tornado ripped the massive metallic structure to shreds and Mister Kearny clutched the roof. In those few moments I lost control of the wheel.
The storm was nearly right on top of us, one of the billboards pylons had come smashing down a few feet from the van as Mister Kearny climbed back inside and slammed the hatch shut.
“We need to get out of here, step on it Dillion!” Olivia shouted. “We’ve already blown a tire!“
“We’re so close!” Her father growled as the screaming grew louder. “I can do this!”
Before we got a chance to object, the backdoor to the van swung open and flung itself into the storm. It was barely hanging on. Then he raised the gun again, and fired another shot.
This time there was no mistaking the shrieks that we heard. A rumble filled the air. I saw streaks of lightning cross the funnel and something move from within.
“What the hell is that?” I shouted.
Suddenly more debris began to rain down on us as Olivia pushed my leg down and muttered, “Drive god damn it!!”
The other door to the van was flung open and dangling as well as we made it to the highway. Then from amid the storm something spun out and hit the road behind us like a rocket.
“I need the rope! Martin!!” Mister Kearny shouted anxiously. A moment later the two of them had prepared the harpoon gun and I watched from the rear view mirror as the thing from the storm began to move.
It was about the size of two grown men. It’s body was like that of a overgrown toad with its legs twisted backward and it had two extended arms that resembled that of a praying mantis.
Just as it stood up, I saw from its back long thin bony wings extend toward the heavens. Then it shrieked and it started toward the van.
“Don’t stop!” Olivia told me as I drove around the downed power lines. The damaged tire causing the van to bump and grind on the road.
The creature screamed and flew toward us with lighting speed. It’s long claws smashing against the road like boulders hitting the pavement and knocking up more debris.
Martin lifted the heavy harpoon gun and took aim. “I need you to keep straight!” he demanded. I clenched the wheel again, doing my best to comply as sweat rolled down my face.
Suddenly the creature was on the roof of the van, it’s claws smashing and thrashing at us like we were a tinker toy. I twisted the wheel to try and throw it off, our tires skidding and our vehicle went spinning. Martin dropped the gun and the massive flying monster slashed straight into his right shoulder.
The cameraman screamed out and Olivia fumbled to grab the harpoon gun as the creature shrieked and prepared for a second strike. It was all over in a matter of seconds. Olivia fired the weapon straight at the creature’s face as Mister Kearny let out a few rounds. It fell from the back of the moving vehicle with a thud.
Martin collapsed in pain in the passenger side as Mister Kearny shouted out a few colorful words in victory.
“Turn us back around,” he ordered. This time I made sure the look I gave him told him I thought he was crazy.
But just as I was about to make an objection I saw that the funnel cloud had dissolved. The sky was clear. All that remained was a path of death and a severely wounded monster.
I pulled the van up right beside it to get a good look. The thing had skin as grey as the storm, with strange rows of teeth where it’s eyes might have been. It had a face like that of an angler fish and a disjointed spine that seemed to not be fully formed. It was breathing in and out rapidly, the way any dying animal might.
Mister Kearny hopped out, chuckling to himself softly as he grabbed the other harpoon. Then he slammed the second sharp prong straight into the creature’s skull.
Once the monster lay still, he looked toward me and Martin and gave a nod of approval.
“Wrap it up boys. Time to go home.”
By nightfall we had made it back to the station on a spare.
It was bad enough driving on only three good tires and having a monster’s corpse stink up the whole van but on top of that Martin’s injury just seemed to be getting worse with each passing moment.
Long strange streaks of dark grey we’re spreading across his upper chest.
Olivia was monitoring him, keeping a cool rag on top of the wound as he kept screaming every other minute at the top of his lungs.
But you wouldn’t know it if you saw Mister Kearny’s face. His features were like those of a man that had just bagged a prize elk on a mighty hunt.
I decided once we were settled, it was going to be high time that I had a serious talk about all of this.
Once a few miles out, Kearny radioed to get a stretcher ready. Natalie and Jim were there at the garage before we even pulled up.
The blonde gasped as she saw Martin’s injury, rushing to his aid and Jim moved the stretcher toward the passenger door.
“That’s not for him! Move the bug!” Mister Kearny instructed kicking open the van door.
Jim hesitate for a second and then complied by helping Olivia lift the creature onto the stretcher and dragging it toward the lower stairs.
Martin nearly collapsed though as he got out of the van and Natalie and I had to use our combined strength to get him inside.
“I’ll take him to the bunker,” she offered. I nodded and followed the others up to the control room.
Five minutes later Mister Kearny had grabbed a bottle of bourbon from his office and a pack of Marlboros and was insisting we needed to celebrate.
When Olivia and I didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm he sighed and pressed on one of the intercoms to speak with the doctor downstairs.
“Is the specimen secure?”
There was a pause and then a sharp crackle. “As good as it can be. I can start the examination immediately,” Jim said.
“Good deal. Grab yourself a bite to eat and get to work,” Kearny said before popping open the bottle and pouring himself a glass.
Just as he finished, Martin let out another cry of pain that reverberated through the station and I muttered, “Maybe the Doctor should focus on our living patient first.“
“You should have a drink and relax Mister Pruitt, we owe this victory to your fine skills behind the wheel,” the old man said.
“I appreciate that, but maybe its time to start talking about the elephant in the room.“
Olivia took a glass from her father and downed it before remarking, “I’m sorry, I thought this was what you signed up for.”
I slammed my fist down on one of the panels and remarked, “I came to chase storms. You never said a thing about going out to bag and tag the damn Jersey Devil!“
Mister Kearny chuckled. “Settle down boy.”
That just made me more upset. I hopped up and snatched the drink out of his hand, getting right in his face.
“You’re going to tell me exactly what is going on around here, and you’re going to tell me now!“
A crack from a shot gun caused me to jump back as a bullet zipped straight through the short gap between our faces.
I looked toward the stairs to see a newcomer standing there wearing a long duster and a low brimmed hat. The gunslinger swirled his weapon in his right hand and then slung it back into his belt holster before walking down toward us.
Olivia placed her drink down and shouted, “Caleb! Thank god you’re all right!” She ran up to the gunslinger and hugged his neck.
He hugged her back and then marched up toward me, grabbing some cashews out of a little bowl beside me and crunching them.
“Beacon is in place, boss,” he muttered as he quickly sized me up.
“Who the hell do you think you are?“
“I’m sorry, weren’t you listening? Caleb Mitchum, trapper, hunter and all around bad ass,” he paused as he pushed me away from his employer and added, “The bigger question here is who are you and why is the great Paul Kearny putting up with your bull shit.”
“Caleb, this is Dillion; he’s our new camera man,” the old man gestured to me as the hunter grabbed up another handful of snacks and walked toward a control monitor.
He looked at one of the screens where Natalie was getting Martin rested and listened to the black man scream before chuckling.
“I swear. I leave you for five minutes and the whole operation goes to pot…” Caleb said.
“We got one though, Jim’s started the extraction,” Olivia said excitedly.
“Well that’s the first bit of good news I’ve heard,” he agreed as I crossed my arms and growled, “I’m sorry, but who is this guy!!“
The hunter cocked his gun and rammed it straight under my adam’s apple. “Are you deaf?” he snarled as he backed me up against a wall and added, “Then let me clarify again for you. I’m the one that has kept these people alive for the past three years. And you…”
He gently placed his finger on the trigger as he gave me a glare, “You’re the one who’s head I’ll blow off if you ever put a finger on any of them ever again. Are we clear now?”
I swallowed hard and muttered, “Clear as crystal.”
Caleb held the weapon against me for another long moment and then laughed before turning toward the Kearnys.
“Now that we’ve got that cleared up. Let’s go see the bug,” he said clasping his hands together and moving toward the exit.
Olivia and her father followed him at a slower pace and right before they left the control room, the hunter paused and looked toward me, “Dillion; aren’t you coming?”
I nodded and darted my eyes down to the floor as the three of us followed the newcomer down the stairs and into the station’s basement.
A series of long winding corridors later led us to what looked like had once been a maintenance room of some kind. But now thanks to Jim it had become a makeshift morgue.
The creature lay on the metal slab with its multiple appendages strapped down to the side and a long tube running into its skull, like the kind you might find used for oxygen in surgery.
Jim was just finishing up a couple of lights as we walked in and watched from a small observational ramp.
Thanks to the additional illumination it was clear to see that the places where Martin and Kearny had struck the creature had completely calcified.
In fact most of the grey skin now seemed to have hardened to the point where only an extremely sharp blade had the chance of penetrating the shell.
As if reading my mind, Jim hooked up a bone saw and began to slice at the creature’s chest. It sounded like a drill smashing into solid earth.
Behind us the door swung open again and Natalie walked in, gripping the metal banister as Jim kept cutting.
“How is he?” Olivia whispered to the blonde.
“Resting. But in a lot of pain. Anything yet?” she replied.
“You know I can hear you,” Jim interrupted as he made another incision.
“Well?” Mister Kearny growled.
Laschar wiped sweat from his brow and remarked, “This would probably go a lot faster without so many prying eyes.”
The rest of the crew ignored him though as blade hit the strange organic material within the beast.
It smelled like dead fish. A moment later, the blade hit something metallic and Jim stopped the saw before turning to Caleb.
“Grab me those incisors,” the doc ordered. Passing the tool to the stout man, Caleb and the rest of us watched as he used the curved metal tool to spread the creature’s chest wide open.
From under the twisted bones and fatty tissue, something gleamed like a diamond. Jim repositioned the surgical instrument and then carefully extracted what looked like a long metal tube.
Once out of the creature, he proceeded to grab a few cleaning towels and wipe blood and guts off the discovery.
“Well?” Kearny said again this time more insistently.
“A watched pot never boils,” Laschar quipped as he sat on a rolling stool and scooted over to a set of computer screens.
Grabbing what looked like some sort of extension cable, Jim cleaned it properly as well and then connected it directly to the side of the metallic object. Immediately a series of zeroes and ones began to appear on the screen.
“We’re in business,” he said excitedly.
Olivia squeezed her father’s hand excitedly.
But the moment of happiness was short lived. A second later a frown crossed Jim’s features.
“Shit. Shit shit shit shit shit,” he mumbled as he began to input a long algorithm of code.
“What? What is it?” Olivia said releasing her father and walking down to the screen to see what he saw.
“Laschar, what’s going on?” Kearny asked.
“Just give me a second..” he said as he typed furiously. But a second later the screen went black.
“God damn it,” he said pushing himself away from the screen in frustration.
The air in the room seemed to grow heavy as I waited for some type of explanation.
“It’s not a match,” Jim muttered as he looked to his boss for an apology.
“You’re sure?” Kearny asked as he checked the screen himself.
“Positive. The second it left that cluster, we lost it,” he confirmed. Kearny pushes him aside and ran a few numbers himself.
“Try it again,” he demanded.
“Paul, I know my stuff,” Jim said with a deep sigh.
I waited as they stared down each other and finally Caleb broke the silence by saying, “This is exactly why I told you not to go out without me.”
Olivia gave him a glare and marched out of the room. Then Natalie grabbed at the bar again and muttered, “Mister Kearny… what does… um… what does that mean for Martin?”
The old man sighed and looked at her with that look that only meant more bad news.
“You know what it means Natalie….”
She shook and tried her best not to cry. Then she ran out of the room as well.
“Natalie!” I called out.
“Let her go. There’s nothing to be done,” Caleb advised.
I stared at the three remaining members of KTHU and ran my fingers through my hair again before muttering, “Okay someone please tell me what is going on.“
Jim shook his head and muttered, “You dense son? Martin’s infected. Probably got less than twelve hours.”
My jaw dropped. I looked toward Kearny for confirmation and the old man simply nodded.
“Well, we have to do something. Find an antidote for these god damn things,” I insisted.
“That would just be wasting valuable resources,” Caleb pointed out.
“So what? We just let him die?! Is that what happened to Nick too?” I shouted in response.
Mister Kearny let out a long sigh and then turned to Jim and muttered, “Laschar, see to it that Martin is comfortable.”
He started hobbling up the stairs to me and I muttered, “Look I don’t care what your guard dog over there says, I demand an explanation for all of this. Right now.“
“I don’t want to tell you again, boy,” Caleb said reaching for his pistol.
Mister Kearny waved his hand dismissively and remarked, “No, no. It’s ok. Dillion is right. I do owe him that much, all things considering.”
Caleb didn’t seem to like that, but pushed the door open for his boss and added with an icy glare at me; “Fine. But I’ll be joining you so don’t even think of losing your temper again.”
I sighed in relief and responded, “That’s cool with me. Lead the way.“
Caleb held the door open once more as we reached Mister Kearny’s office, his steely gaze never wavering.
I did my best to ignore it and go inside as Paul placed his crutch down and then took a seat.
He fumbled in his drawer and got his smokes before offering me one and then turning to Caleb and muttering, “If its all the same to you, I would like to talk to Mister Pruitt privately.”
The hunter narrowed his eyes but didn’t dare argue with his employer. Instead he walked toward the door and said, “Fine. But I’ll be right outside.”
Once we were alone, Mister Kearny lit one of the Marlboros and gestured for me to take a seat.
“I’d like to stand if it’s all the same to you. Nerves are pretty much shot,” I responded crossing my arms.
“Are you second guessing your decision to join KTHU?” he asked.
I let out a long sigh.
“I knew from the moment I got here something was off. But this shit, monsters and who knows what else? I want in, I want to help. But I can’t do that unless someone tells me what the hell this is all about.“
Kearny let out a laugh. “You really are something.” Then he looked longingly toward the blacked out windows of his office.
I let the silence linger for a moment, and then decided to repeat the very same question he had asked me that morning.
“Who did you lose?“
I knew the answer but I still wanted to hear it from his own lips. He let out another puff of smoke before responding, “My wife. Reneé Alastair Kearny. This would have been almost thirty years for us.”
This time I took a seat. “What happened to her?“
“To answer that I’ll have to tell you everything I know about the storm. Why it is we do what we do,” he answered. Then he proceeded to push aside clutter on his desk to reveal a map of the tri-County area. I clung to every word he said.
“It was 1999 when we first encountered the storm. Olivia was no more than a few years old, still nursing. Back then we were just like you, wet behind the ears and searching for a thrill. Storm chasing was Reneé’s idea,” he explained as he pointed toward a red scrawled circle on the map.
“We found Emerald Bay by accident. Followed a tip by a fellow tracker that said he’d seen lots of strange storms in this area. When we got here and checked our equipment, we started to think his claims were an over-exaggeration.”
“It wasn’t long after that we were proved wrong, weather around here is unpredictable because it doesn’t follow the rules of nature,” he paused, staring me down before adding, “As you’ve seen, something else is at the heart of these storms.”
“The creatures?” I guessed to which he nodded absently.
“Course we didn’t know that back then…that first storm nearly killed us. We had to run from town with barely the clothes on our back. Having an infant only made things worse, those… beings, whatever you want to call them; could track us for miles.”
“That was how we stumbled upon this place,” he gestured about randomly and added, “Scrambled inside and managed to turn on the signal. It was the only thing that saved our life.”
“Hold on… are you telling me this station was already here? How long has KTHU been here?” I asked in surprise.
“Hard to say but when we checked the broadcast the last one was from July 12, 87,” Mister Kearny said as he lit his next cigarette and scooted his chair over toward a safe hidden behind a bunch of other clutter. He opened it up and tossed me a VHS tape with that date on it.
“What’s this?” I asked as I noticed that it didn’t have any other marking.
“That… what is happened to the crew before us,” Kearny said and then gestured toward the old TV set on the left wall.
I walked over to it and inserted the tape, waiting as the grainy images appeared.
Several people were appearing on what looked like a closed circuit network. There wasn’t any sound but it was easy to see what was happening. The stations was being invaded, by those strange creatures that held human skin over their bodies like a coat. Their eyes were glowing amid the static as the crew did their best to fight them off.
But it wasn’t enough. One by one they were picked off to be slaughter, the maddened creatures ripping them to shreds like paper. It wasn’t long until none were left standing and the screen went dead.
“The same proved true of every last tape we found. All of them were gone,” Kearny told me and then laughed.
“I almost forgot. Been so long… there was one survivor and you’ve already met him.”
I paused and then remembered a few choice words spoken to me when I had first arrived.
“Jim? But how?” I asked.
Kearny shrugged. “Laschar was barely cohesive, his spine bruised in three places and babbling like an idiot. It took a few days before he finally recovered and once he did, he hardly had any recollection of what had happened.”
I scratched my head and realized that explained why the whole place had so much wear and tear.
“So you just decided to take up the call and do what? What exactly does this station do?“
“As I’m sure you must have guessed, we learned pretty quickly that the signal that the tower emits causes a paralyzing effect on the creatures that masquerade in this town. Jim knew little else except that the broadcast couldn’t be interrupted. Naturally we wanted to leave, but there was a problem… during the initial attack Reneé was attacked. Jim said it was an infection and she wouldn’t last long if we didn’t do something,” he said solemnly.
“That’s exactly like with Martin…. Why didn’t you say anything earlier?“
“Because it wouldn’t make a difference! My wife got lucky because we acted quickly,” Paul snapped back.
“What do you mean that it wouldn’t make a difference?? Tell that to Martin!“
“The only way to stave off the infection is by capturing one of those things alive… I swear we almost lost her anyway,” Kearny looked away and then muttered, “After that we discovered the connection between the monsters and the storms and as dangerous as it sounded, we decided to start tracking it.”
“And that’s all you know?“
“That’s all you need to know,” Kearny said firmly.
“That’s not good enough,” I growled.
“The only thing we can hope for now is that Martin goes peacefully,” the old man declared darting his eyes away.
I slammed my fist down forcing him to keep his attention on me. “You know I think I’ve figured out the real problem here…. It isn’t that these monsters are too dangerous. It’s that you’ve given up the fight before you even get started. Just because your wife died doesn’t mean all hope is lost!“
“Don’t dare lecture me about things you hardly understand! You’ve been here three days and this station has been here thirty years! It knows things you couldn’t even comprehend!” Kearny snapped back.
Caleb was at the door, overheating our outbursts.
“I told you to keep a level head,” the hunter warned.
“Shut the hell up. You’re just as bad as him.“
“Dillion, I understand what you’re trying to do. You want this all to be wrapped up nicely and have a bow on top. But that isn’t how the world works. Monsters or not, people die,” Kearny told me and then sighed and said, “I’m done talking for now. We need to rest and recover before the next run.”
I looked at him with disbelief, and growled, “You haven’t answered all my questions yet.“
Caleb stepped in between us, his hand level with his belt as he muttered, “Maybe you didn’t hear but the boss said he was done talking.”
I gave them both the stink eye.
“This isn’t over, I added and then walked out, frustration and anger filling my every thoughts. It was sickening to think that they would just let one of their comrades die when there might be a chance at saving them.
I walked to the first floor, pacing back and forth randomly as I tried to think of a solution. I came across a vending machine and used it as an outlet for my feelings, kicking and slamming my fists against the old machine.
“Took your money too huh?” a voice said to my right, startling me. I looked over to see Natalie there, her eyes puffy and red from the tears she had shed.
I gave her a half hearted smile and said, “I just needed something to hit.“
She nodded, slumping against the wall and muttering, “I guess I should give that a try sometime.”
I nodded, standing alongside her and muttering, “How is Martin?“
Natalie looked away, clearly not wanting to talk about it.
“It doesn’t look good,” she said finally.
“You two are pretty close, huh?“
“He’s saved my ass more than once. I just wish… I wish I had been there. Mister Kearny says I’m not cut out to be a field agent, but I know that if I had been there things would have turned out different,” she lamented.
I didn’t know what to say to make her feel better, so instead I gestured toward the large syringe she was carrying, “That for him?“
“Yeah. Would you believe this shit is enough to knock down three full grown men? Jim gave him a dose about nineteen minutes ago and it’s hardly even making a dent,” Natalie said with a hollow laugh.
“Its just going to get worse, isn’t it?“
She nodded, trying her best not to cry as she muttered, “And there isn’t a bloody thing we can do about it.”
What Mister Kearny had told me concerning his wife flickered across the back of my mind. “Maybe there is…” I said as I grabbed the syringe and said, “You said this was strong right? Like it could knock out an elephant or something?“
“Yeah… probably. Why?” she asked.
“What if we used this on one of those things,” I said excitedly.
Natalie didn’t seem to follow, her face a mix of confusion.
“Those things can offer an anti-venom for Martin, but only if we bring one back alive.“
“What? How do you know that?” she whispered, her eyes sparkling with excitement and a hint of concern.
“Kearny. He’s told me but he has given up already because he thinks it’s too risky, but with this…” I paused and gestured to the drug. “We can go into town and snatch one of those things.“
Natalie bit her lip, she was excited but also nervous.
“We can’t… I mean, we shouldn’t. The boss would kill us if he found out,” she said anxiously.
“If we do nothing Martin will die.“
She hesitated for another moment but then nodded to show she was onboard with the scheme.
“All right, how do we do this?” she asked with a shaky voice.
“The weather van still has some weapons in the back. If we leave now, we can get back before day break and no one will be the wiser.“
Natalie was trying her best to contain her assignment and we agreed to meet in the garage in ten minutes. I went to the break room to gather a few more supplies.
I thought our plan would be fool-proof but we ran into a snag the second we stepped into the garage bay.
Caleb was standing there, leaning against the van and wiping his hands as he finished refitting new tires on it. He tipped his hat up and gave us a long sigh.
“You know, something told me that you might try something stupid Dillion…” he said and then gave a sneer toward the blonde and added, “But you Natalie, I thought you knew better.” “Caleb… we have a plan. We can save Martin’s life,” she pleaded.
“I’m sure you probably think that you do. But I’m afraid I can’t let you leave. It’s not safe, you know that Nat.”
I clenched my fists and scanned the floor to find something that could cause a distraction. Then I kicked an old oil barrel toward him and shouted, “Run Natalie!“
The blonde hesitate for a moment as Caleb jumped out of the way and the barrel slammed the back of the van. Then finally she got up the nerve and dashed to the driver’s side.
Caleb reached for his gun and aimed for my head as I pulled the passenger door open and told her, “Start the engine!!“
She glanced into the mirror and revved it up as Caleb bounded toward the van again, but she peeled off before he had the chance.
Pressing the button inside the console for the garage door to open, we zoomed out to the dark country roads around the station as Caleb was left watching us from the shelter of the darkened parking space.
“Oh god we are so dead later,” Natalie muttered.
“Not if this works,” I countered as we made our way out of the woods and onto the road that led to town.
I checked the gear we had and muttered, “It’ll be simple. We go in, grab one of the weirdos and get out. They won’t even know we’re coming.“
Suddenly Natalie slammed on her brakes and I shrieked, “What the hell?“
But as I looked out toward the horizon, I saw was she had come to a stop.
The townsfolk were standing there all in a row, almost like statues; staring straight toward us.
And as we looked about I realized there were more of them in the tree line, ready to pounce.
Natalie gritted her teeth and muttered, “Got any more bright ideas?”
There had to be at least fifty of the bizarre people standing in our way as Natalie and I tried to decide what to do next.
“We should go back to the station,” she muttered. A soft brisk wind was picking up.
“We can do this. Remember we only need one,” I told her as I gestured toward the main thoroughfare and declared, “That path should take you straight through town. The motel has a feed that connects to KTHU. If we can lure one of them there, we can use the signal to paralyze them.“
“You make it sound so easy,” she said dryly as the group of townsfolk began to advance.
“We can do this. Just don’t stop driving,” I told her as I got one of the guns loaded and added, “I’ll watch the back.“
Natalie gripped the steering wheel a little more firmly as the wind picked up and I heard a crackle of thunder cross the sky. Another storm was beginning to brew. We needed to act and act fast.
Shifting back to first gear, the blonde let the tires spin for a second and then accelerated head on to the line of people.
Our speed kept climbing as the line simply stood there, staring oddly at our vehicle like it was something they had never seen before.
Abruptly the crowd began to move as one, pushing their way toward the weather van with their teeth gnashing. Several of them leapt up nearly thirty feet in the air and landed smack on the van’s roof as Natalie plowed into the line.
I cocked the rifle and aimed it toward the roof as the ones that had managed to latch on started to try and claw their way inside. I let he first round out, blasting a bullet straight through an old man’s skull as he shrieked to claw at me. Then Natalie turned a corner and the next two fell off.
It wasn’t over yet though. Not by a long shot. More townsfolk had gathered as we drove down the Main Street toward the motel. It actually surprised me to see so many of them here. Had they all come with the storm?
Several skittered across rooftops and buildings almost like roaches, and I pushed myself up to the roof to take aim and keep the van safe.
Reloading the rifle, I fired another shot as one of the jumpers flew across the town-square.
“We’re coming up on the motel,” Natalie said. There were at least a dozen younger athletic men waiting that stood in our way. A glance at the speedometer told me we had already reached 55mph.. but the way these newcomers were looking, something told me it wouldn’t be enough.
“Give it all she’s got!” I told Natalie as I fired a shot at the closest male. The bullet didn’t even seem to faze him.
75mph. We slammed hard against the row of dangerous townsfolk like they were a brick wall. I fell onto the floor of the van, the rifle sliding out to the parking lot. In a matter of seconds they were on us.
One male reached with his muscular arms and tried to pry the back door open as I stood and kicked him off. Then I grabbed the next gun, and told Natalie. “Stay here!“
I aimed the weapon straight at the next attacker’s skull, his guts splashing everywhere as the blonde shouted for me to stay put. Instead I made a run for it, pushing my way to the motel room I had stayed at a few nights before. They were right behind me, screeching like banshees and clawing at the ground for any chance to hook me.
A second later I turned the tv on, and Channel 46 started working its magic.
But these things, I don’t know why; it didn’t seem to work. They were affected by the strong noise but still kept coming.
I fired at the next one to try and enter the room as Natalie turned the van back around. I only had six bullets left.
I raised my weapon to fire again, and then heard the most peculiar horn in the world. It sounded like a jingle of some kind.
The creatures heard it too and the group moved to see where it originated from. A short second later, a long camper trailer smashed into the dozen and crushed them under its wheels.
I held my gun steady as the camper spun its wheels around and knocked out the other stragglers that were thrashing at the hotel windows. Then from the driver’s door, a familiar face flashed. Caleb.
He hopped out and went to check on the weather van first, grabbing his tow line and muttering under his breath as Natalie tried to apologize.
“You can save it for when we’re back at the station,” he snarled as he checked the tires and then hooked up the cable.
I looked toward the thoroughfare, noticing more of the townsfolk crawling their way out of the abandoned buildings.
“We should… probably get in the camper…” I advised Natalie.
A few moments later the swarm of crazed people were on us, running toward the camper as one. Caleb took out his twin pistols and began to fire as he climbed back into the driver’s seat and shouted, “Hold on to something….”
The long trailer jerked backward, a few of the townsfolk bouncing off the windshield like bugs as we drove in reverse down the highway. The weather van lurched and moaned against the road as it was dragged down the street.
Caleb shouted instructions to us as more of them latched to the side of the trailer, banging repeatedly on the metal.
“The signal! Put it on frequency 10!!” he shouted again.
I didn’t even hesitate. The piercing sound was enough to knock them all off the camper and then as we drove I saw more of them collapse in a state of shock. Caleb shouted excitedly and declared, “Take that ya sons of bitches!!”
I looked toward Natalie and then at the syringe we had somehow managed to keep hold of. I gave her a look, but before she had a chance to guess what I was thinking I opened up the side door to the trailer and jumped to the road.
I hit the ground running as I heard Caleb shout another colorful expression and I moved toward one of the shaking townsfolk. Standing right over top of them, I got the syringe ready and plunged it straight into their neck.
Caleb swung the camper back around, the broadcast still causing its lulling affect on the others as the one I had drugged went still.
“What the hell is wrong with you Pruitt?” the hunter snapped as he pulled the camper up alongside me.
“You can berate me later. Right now we need to radio Jim and tell him to set up a transfusion.“
He said a few more cuss words and helped me lift the man into the camper as Natalie got the next syringe ready and injected it in the other side.
“You really think that wasn’t enough?” I said as we drove out of town.
“Better safe than sorry,” she said with a nervous laugh.
We had made it. Now it was just a matter of getting to Martin in time.
Back in the station, I saw Olivia waiting for us as we pulled in and Nat closed the garage.
She walked over and slapped me across the face. Then she turned toward Caleb and said, “Let’s get it on the stretcher.”
I rubbed my cheek softly and followed behind as we carried the unconscious man to the bunker. Martin’s screams of pain filled the air as we got closer.
Inside the closed quarters, Laschar was already setting up another IV as we lugged the man on the bed next to Martin.
“You really got one,” he said, pausing for a moment to marvel at the creature that hid beneath human skin.
“Doc, maybe we could… speed this up?” I suggested. He nodded and got to work, setting up a picc line in the creature’s neck.
Natalie was biting at her nails as Martin kept screaming. Caleb and Olivia lingered near the door, unable to watch.
The cameraman writhed and screamed even louder as the transfusion began, a slow drip of the creature’s blood pumping into his own.
“You really think this will work?” Natalie whispered.
“It has to,” I said taking her hand and squeezing it as Martin kept begging for death.
An agonizing thirteen minutes later, we could see the first signs of success. The strange dark scars near his wound were clearing up. He was calming down. The anti-venom inside the creature was doing the trick.
“I told you, I told you!” I said excitedly and then noticed that Olivia had left the room. Caleb was still there though, looking no more happy than the minute he had met me.
“Congratulations, looks like he’ll live to fight another day,” he said tipping his hat and departing. Was that his way of saying a job well done?
It was another six before Laschar confirmed it. “He’s going to still need some rest, but I think he’ll make it,” he said. Natalie leapt and cried excitedly hugging at me and then rushing to Martin’s side.
I smiled, pleased with the good deed and after another moment let them have their privacy.
I wandered the corridors of the station for a moment, still feeling my heart pumping loudly from the rush we had experienced in town. I wanted to go find Kearny, rub it in his face that I had proved him wrong.
But instead I found myself going to the roof.
The darkness was still casting its shadow over all of Emerald Bay and the storm I had spotted earlier was now getting ready to drop its first bit of rain. The wind picked up and I looked out toward the city, and toward the horizon; still trying to make sense of everything that I had seen since coming here.
Behind me I heard a lurching noise and turned to see Olivia stepping out of the stairwell to join me.
She was smoking one of her father’s cigarettes and letting her long dark hair rustle in the wind as we stood together silently.
“You did good work out there, Pruitt,” she said looking up at me. For a moment our eyes met and then she rubbed her neck uncomfortably and remarked, “Dad said that you should know that.”
“Too stubborn to tell me himself?” I asked.
“He doesn’t want you to get a big head,” Olivia pointed out and then remarked, “By the sound of things it’s probably too late for that though.”
I sighed and remarked, “Look… I’m sorry about what happened with your mom. But that is no reason for you to just give up on people…“
Her soft admiring gaze quickly turned to one of rage.
“What do you know about my mother?” she asked accusingly.
I hesitated, realizing I had struck a nerve and raised my hands defensively. “i know it was hard what you went through… but all I’m saying, is that it may be time for you and your old man to move on. And that’s the truth.“
She dropped the cigarette and pushed herself right up in my face, jabbing a finger at my chest.
“Don’t you ever talk about my mother. And don’t presume to know me. You don’t know what the hell I’ve been through!” she smacked me across the cheek again and then growled, “And if I ever hear you say something about her again, so help me I will make sure Caleb blows your head off.”
She turned away and stood at the opposite corner of the roof as I quietly shuffled my head, embarrassed for being using such poor words.
As we stood there, the rain began to fall and she finished her cigarette before remarking, “Don’t stay out here too much longer or the Storm’ll get you.”
I nodded absently glancing toward Emerald Bay again when something amid the tree lines caught my eye.
“Olivia…” I said catching her attention before she went back inside.
“I think we might have a problem…“
She walked over to where I stood to get a better look, her eyes widening as she the large group of maddened townsfolk bounding through the trees.
Coming straight for the station.
That was enough to describe our predicament as Olivia bounded down the stairs to the control room. I was right beside her as I heard the sky open up and the rain begin to fall.
The last thing I saw was at least a hundred of the citizens of Emerald Bay about to hit the station like a flood.
Olivia ran through the maze-like corridors toward the bunker, shouting to me to find her father. I made it to the control room, surprised to see Mister Kearny was already there.
“Turn the signal on,” I told him frantically.
He shook his head, glaring at me before gesturing to the system. “One of the generators blew a fuse… we’re on a recharge.”
Only a few dim emergency lights came on as he turned his attention to me and growled, “I hope you’re happy, Mister Pruitt. You may have just doomed us all.”
I didn’t say a word as I heard the crowd slam against the station’s wall, their gnashing claws scraping the bare concrete.
From behind me Caleb entered the control room carrying several rifles. He tossed one to Kearny and remarked, “We need to block up the lower corridors. Anything that they could use as an entry point.”
“Shut down the other access points to the breakers. We need this place dark, they can’t do much in the dark and that’ll give us the advantage,” Kearny remarked and then gave me one of the guns.
“Don’t think for a second this makes us even. But we need all hands on deck right now,” he said as he grabbed his crutch.
“What should I do?” I asked, still racked with fear over the incoming onslaught.
“Keep the radio on and listen for our signal. Once the basement breaker is pulled, someone will need to go up to the equipment room and do that one as well,” Kearny instructed, following Caleb out.
I nervously stood there in the control room, listening as the townsfolk began to climb on top of one another to search for a window. Some of them even managed to reach an arm in through the beat up windows. I aimed the gun and fired at the first, a shriek of anger reverberating throughout the group.
I stood there for at least an hour, watching as the creature’s struggled to find a way in. The emergency systems were still allowing me to watch the monitors and see everyone else hard at work.
Caleb and Mister Kearny were in the lower tunnels, using every sort of debris to block the paths that the creatures might find as they went. Olivia was in the breakroom, setting up what appeared to be a trap of some kind. Laschar was grabbing spare boards and reinforcing the windows to keep them from breaking in that way….
I froze as I scrambled and checked the monitors one more time. Where was Natalie, and more importantly; where was Martin?
Then I caught sight of them, running through the halls toward the garage. Where they… making a run for it? I watched breathlessly as the duo arrived at the garage and Natalie went to the weather van, opening the back to haul out one of the crates.
The C4. I smiled and realized that if anything might stop these beasts, it was that.
I pressed on the intercom and shouted, “Natalie! Come up to the control room! Bring the goods with you!“
The two seemed surprised to hear my voice over the loudspeaker, but they didn’t question it.
It was three minutes later that Caleb and the older Kearny managed to cut the power in the basement. The whole station went dark, and I listened as the storm rattled the building like a cage.
A glimmer of light hit my face from above and I saw Olivia enter the control room carrying a couple of flashlights.
“This’ll have to do the trick until dad grabs the night gear,” she said tossing me one and then looking up toward the windows where the creature were almost to the roof.
“This is my fault,” I muttered, watching the beasts finally reach the roof and listening as they searched for the stairwell.
“We can distribute blame later,” Olivia said dryly. Another moment later we heard the shattering of glass above. They were in the building.
I holstered the rifle, listening as something got close to the door and aimed, my heart beating out of my chest as it swung open to reveal Martin and Natalie coming in with the C4.
“Jesus,” I said letting out a sigh as the two placed the crate down on top of some of the computer consoles.
“Is that really a good idea to have that here?” Olivia asked, stepping away from the explosives.
“Better than it not being here,” Martin said as he clenched his side. He still wasn’t fully recovered.
“They’re moving across the computer room,” Olivia said as she heard several bits of equipment fall over against one another. The creatures were pushing everything out of their way to get in, to find and kill us.
Behind me the radio crackled to life, making me jump a little. “Has anyone gone to the computer room yet?” Caleb said in between bits of static.
I swallowed hard and looked toward the ceiling where the creatures continued to rattle around blindly searching for the next exit.
“There’s uh… a bit of a problem,” I muttered over the walkie.
“Well we’re kinda pinned down here. Once that second breaker gets switched off we can restart the system,” Caleb said irritably.
“Roger that,” Olivia said passing the radio to Natalie and then taking one of the guns still lying about along with one of the crates.
“Come on Pruitt,” she ordered. I nodded dumbly, gripping the rifle and following the stream of light her flashlight cast on the narrow corridor.
Above us every move we made was mimicked by the monsters, their sounds growing louder as Olivia cocked the gun and we turned the corner. Jim was right there, having successfully barricaded the stairwell.
“That should hold them,” he said triumphantly. But his victory was short lived as I realized that was exactly where we needed to go.
“Move aside Laschar, we’re going through,” the younger Kearny demanded.
Jim’s eyes widened as we heard the shrieks continue.
“Liv, you go up there; it’s suicide,” he argued.
“Dad’s downstairs. We’ve got hostiles on all sides. If we don’t get the signal up and running we’ll be dead anyway,” she countered and shoved him the c4.
“We’re going up there if anything besides us comes back, blow them to hell,” she growled.
Laschar was too awestruck to argue as we made it past the barrier and I cocked my gun. Olivia listened for a moment as the creature’s scurried to another part of the room. “The breaker is on the left side. Right past the fire extinguisher,” she paused, reaching for the handle.
“You ready Dillion?” she muttered.
I nodded, too scared to even say a word.
The door popped open and the two of us walked in with guns at our shoulders.
The room was bizarrely quiet. A few gentle noises came from the west and I shot a flashlight to see if the monsters were coming. But they were too smart. They were waiting for us.
“Come on,” Olivia said keeping her back to the door as we moved up the long stretch between two rows of equipment.
Then there was a scream. I cast my light to the ceiling and saw one of the men twist his neck toward me before pouncing down. Kearny shot him to kingdom come, but just as his body crumpled to the floor; three more men took his place.
I pushed back the opposite direction as they crawled toward me, mouths agape and an angry growl resounding through the room.
Before I knew what was happening, I was firing; picking them off one by one. One of the larger consoles toppled over as we passed by and Olivia gave a sharp nod toward where the fire extinguisher was hanging. “Think you can make it?” she asked as she quickly reloaded. The blind creatures were scrambling over their fallen comrades, bone and blood splashing everywhere as they tried to attack.
I leapt over the fallen console, my eyes set straight on the breaker. But two more larger women were blocking my paths. Their skin was barely clinging to their body as they screamed toward me. I lifted my rifle to fire, but another male attacked from behind. He pushed me to the floor and a long tube like tongue slid out of the man’s mouth.
Another blast ricocheted across his skull and he toppled over with a scream as Olivia helped me up. I snagged the extinguisher as I saw more of the creatures moving toward us from the east.
Pulling the pin, I aimed for them and fired; the mist spreading out to give us a few extra moments. The people stopped and shrieked louder, clearly angered by the device. Olivia was almost to the breaker. Then another console toppled over and pinned her down.
“Are you hurt??” I shouted. “Just switch it on and off,” she insisted.
From the mist came something that made me freeze in my tracks. The people had started to conjoin together and form something that resembled a human ladder. Their mouths were stretching open and gripping the sagging flesh together as the large fleshy creature skittered over the turned over console, towering over me like a bear.
Several of their arms stretched open the amalgamation of flesh, revealing massive pincers that moved toward me to crush my body like a twig. I pressed my back against the wall and pulled down on the breaker, knowing that if I died at least the others could be spared.
Then from the darkness came a spark of light.
Something glimmered in the shadows and I saw it move straight toward the creature’s torso. Then I heard a voice.
I didn’t hesitate. I jumped to the floor as the creature let out another cry and then blew up from the inside out.
As the innards of the bizarre monster splashed across the stained brick, a figure emerged from the shadows.
“Jim,” Olivia said as she got back up on her feet.
He looked at the disheveled mess of flesh and muttered, “I got tired of waiting.”
Olivia gave him a laugh and then muttered, “We need to get back downstairs.”
We went down carefully, listening as the other creatures tried in vain to find another way in. “I’ll stay behind. Give the word over the intercom and I can throw the switch,” Jim told us. Kearny’s daughter gave him her rifle and we left the way we came in. Once in the control room, Olivia was about to give the word to radio her dad, when we both noticed that Martin was nowhere to be seen.
Natalie was in tears gripping a chair as we went down the short flight of stairs. “Whats going on? Where’s Martin?” I asked as Olivia snatched the radio and called to the basement.
“Dad? We’re ready when you are,” she said. I focused my attention on Natalie. “Natalie, look at me! Where is Martin?“
“He said… he said that it wouldn’t stop because they were after him. Even with the signal up… he said this was the only way….” the blonde girl said.
A second later Olivia gave the word over the intercom and we watched as the power came back on.
My eyes scrambled to the monitors. I didn’t see the cameraman anywhere inside the building.
“He’s on the roof,” I realized.
I rushed back up the stairs, calling out to Olivia, “Start the broadcast! I’m going to stop him!!”
I don’t think I have ever ran that fast in my whole life. The sky was still storming as I reached the exit, and spotted Martin looking toward the edge in a rain smock. I moved to leave the stairwell, but one drop of rain nearly caused my arm to swell up.
“Martin!!” I screamed, desperate to get his attention.
He turned toward me, the storm howling louder as the broadcast tower came to life. Channel 46 was back on the air.
“Go back inside Pruitt,” Martin declared.
“Not without you,” I insisted. I didn’t care about the dangerous rain. I stepped out and cursed softly as the burning storm hit my arms and neck.
“Damn it! Dillion go back! Don’t you see that this ain’t gonna stop!” he said. I scrambled to find cover, looking over the edge. Most of the townsfolk were paralyzed. But there were a dozen or so larger men that still were trying to reach the station.
“They want me. I’m a part of it now,” he explained softly as the storm raged on.
“What the hell are you talking about?” i screamed.
“This is how it has to be,” Martin said taking a step toward the precipice. “Tell Natalie…” I could see his eyes glaze over as he struggled to find the words. “Tell her I’m sorry…”
“Martin!” But it was too late. He went over the edge against the roar of more thunder.
For the next hour we hunkered down inside the station and listened as the stronger creatures tore Martin’s body apart like it was a chew toy. Kearny insisted we cover the monitors so we didn’t have to see the carnage play out. Still, with each passing moment the rain pelted the building, the wind howled and then at last, it was over.
In the morning light, we gathered to give the cameraman a small vigil. I wanted to go out and see if anything was left to bury, but Olivia said it still wasn’t safe.
So instead we gathered some of the corpses of our enemies and made a bonfire in the garage. None of the crew really had much to say, it was just a moment of silence. I didn’t know him well but I had to admire and honor his sacrifice.
But some of what he said still lingered in my head and as Jim bandaged the wounds I had gotten on my arm, I reflected on those words.
“What did he mean when he said he was part of them now?” I whispered. Laschar gave me a look, but didn’t respond. I turned to the others for an answer and Olivia muttered, “He was infected.”
I nodded, recalling that was the reason her father had been reluctant to even help the cameraman, but it still didn’t answer my question.
“The signal didn’t hurt them either, what was up with that?“
“Is this really the time for these questions,” she sighed irritably.
“What? It’s distracting me; that’s how I cope,” I muttered as I watched Jim finish the last wrapping.
Nobody said a word so I decided to turn the topic back over to retrieving his body. “It isn’t right for us to just leave him out there to rot,” I insisted.
“It’s what he would want,” Caleb commented.
“You can turn off the broadcast Jim, their done hunting for now,” Kearny remarked.
“What provoked them anyway?” Caleb rolled his eyes. “Oh I don’t know, how about the fact that you snagged one and then brought it back here?”
I felt my mouth go dry again and had nothing to say. I had feared that was the case, but hadn’t wanted to be confronted with those facts.
“We made it out of town… we were in the clear,” I said.
“Told you they could track for miles… but this was more than that, Pruitt. You took what was theirs, they only acted on instinct to get it back,” the older Kearny remarked.
Natalie was doing her best not to cry, both of us feeling like fools for endangering everyone with our foolish behavior.
“What are these things anyway?” I muttered.
Kearny sighed and lit a Marlboro.
“Think of them like a colony of ants or bees. They act as one, using frequencies that help them coordinate, strategize and ultimately attack,” he explained.
“A colony… so the ones we’ve seen so far, they are the drones?“
Kearny nodded and gestured toward the dim light that peeked through the shattered windows. “And the soldiers. That’s why they aren’t harmed by the signal, they are on a different frequency. One we haven’t quite figured out how to interfere with yet,” he muttered.
“You’re telling me that this whole time you’ve been here you’ve never dealt with this before?” I asked in surprise.
“Yeah, you got to bring all the bad luck,” Caleb said with a sneer.
“*Seriously though, it can’t be a coincidence.”
The hunter gave a long sigh. “Of course it isn’t you dipshit. And if you hadn’t been so dense to go play the hero, then maybe you could have given us more time to explain this shitstorm that you signed up for.”
“I’m not the one who was ready to give up on Martin!” I snapped rising to my feet. I saw Natalie growing more emotional as Caleb snarled, “Oh yeah, great job saving him. Lot of good that did huh?”
“It sounds to me like you just feel guilty for not doing shit,” I snarled.
Caleb bounded across the room, staring me straight in the eye. “You know what, you’ve been nothing but trouble since you got here,” he said.
“Enough!” Kearny snapped.
The hunter gave me an icy glare and backed down as the older man grabbed his crutch and walked toward the center of the room. “Dillion did what any of us would have done… or rather, what all of us should have done,” he muttered as he finished his smoke.
I gave him a nod. “I appreciate that, especially coming from you.” “You tried your best, and you failed. I think the guilt alone will be enough to make you second guess the next time you want to disobey an order,” Kearny said evenly.
There was another moment of awkward silence.
Caleb stood up and stretched and muttered, “While I appreciate that we’ve all decided to let bygones be bygones, we do need to focus on our next step. The beacon.”
I felt too tired to fight so instead focused my attention on this turn in the conversation.
“You mentioned that before what is it?“
Caleb looked at me again, clearly not wanting to share anything with me but gestured to Jim before remarking, “Let the man who designed it explain.”
Laschar smiled nervously and then turned on one of the monitors that displayed a radar of the surrounding area. “Okay so, you know how we explained that these things are like bees right? Well, awhile back Martin and I theorized that maybe if we built a type of transponder we could mess with their signal, control the way they move.”
“Well, the beacon was exactly that. We built it to send out a matching signal to the one that we’ve recorded whenever storms roll in. And, if these past few days have been any indication; it looks like it’s working and the storms are becoming more frequent,” Laschar explained excitedly.
“Wait hold on, I don’t understand… are you saying that you actually want the storms to come here?“
“We’ve been tracking them for years, Pruitt. Monitored their patterns and determined how they operate. But for the past four years our goals have shifted to one singular objective,” Mister Kearny said as he gave a wicked smirk and added, “Find out where they originate from and knock out the colony.”
It took me a moment to process all of what they had just said and I sat down on the back end of the weather van.
A few things still weren’t adding up. “Why did we go out and snag one of them then? What was that for?“
“The beacon can only transmit one way,” Jim explained and when he saw my confused expression, he grabbed some paper and cleared off one of the desks.
“Okay, so imagine…. that this coffee cup is us okay?” he muttered as he grabbed a few other items nearby.
“Now this donut here is the transponder, it’s sending out a signal; causing the storm to form one cohesive and predictable pattern…” he paused, drawing a ring around the two objects.
“So, in order for us to receive that message we would need something to coordinate with… which is where the probe came in. Martin sent one out when we were hit by that first storm, and the plan was for it to lead us back to the nest,” he explained. I nodded, the pieces starting to form a complete picture as I stared at the makeshift map he had made.
“But the creature died… so you lost signal. No transmission received so you couldn’t pinpoint where the creatures were coming from,” I said.
“Precisely,” Jim said, surprised that I caught on so quickly. I shook my head and looked toward Kearny. “How can you even be sure there is a nest? You’ve been doing this since your daughter was little, what makes you think you even have a chance of stopping it?“
The old man gave me a stern glare but it was actually Caleb that answered the question. “Because if we don’t, eventually something will happen to all of us; the way it did to everyone else that found this place. Channel 46 will go dark and when that happens… the whole world will go to shit,” he said.
I shook my head in disbelief. “You’re talking about hunting down a force of nature like it’s a wild animal… it just doesn’t sound possible,” I admitted.
“Oh and suddenly you think you know better?” Caleb snarled as he pointed toward Natalie who was still standing dazed in the corner and adding, “Need I remind you what happened the last time you acted on your own?”
“At least I did something! All you care about is this stupid hunt, like you think it’s a big game trophy or something,” I snarled.
“You watch your tone,” he growled.
“I’m sorry, does someone have a guilty conscience?“
That was the last straw for the hunter. He punched me square in the jaw. Before I had a chance to react he was slamming his foot in my chest.
I heard Olivia and Natalie asking for him to stop, but Mitchum wasn’t listening. His anger toward me had finally reached a boiling point.
Then, just as he was about to hit me in the face again; we heard a low growl from outside.
Caleb paused and all of us looked toward the covered up monitors.
“They are still out there…” Natalie said nervously.
“Move the blankets, Jim. Let’s see,” Kearny instructed as Olivia helped me off the ground.
All of us watched in stunned silence at one of the exterior monitors where we saw what remained of Martin’s body.
The drones had torn off both his arms and devoured the majority of his chest cavity. But most of his face was still hanging on along with other vital organs just sagging off the side like discarded trash. Natalie held her mouth and screamed softly as we saw something move in the tree lines.
It was one of the monsters. It had discarded its human flesh and stretched itself to full size, towering over Martin’s body like bear. In another moment, it used its long pincers to drag his body into the woods, leaving the forest floor empty at last.
Jim turned to comfort the blonde as she continued to grieve. After another uneasy silence, I asked the question that must have been on everyone’s mind. “Why would they take his body?“
Kearny didn’t respond but Caleb was checking the radar again. Flashes of activity could seen a few miles north. “I think they’re taking him to the nest,” he realized.
“Let me see,” the old man said, his interest suddenly piqued at the possibility that they still had a chance to find whatever prize he sought to claim.
“Could be… its hard to say. We don’t get good signal here, too much interference from the tower,” Caleb said as he turned off the monitor and had a thoughtful gaze.
“But… if we got out to the transponder… we could track them easily from there. As long as we didn’t lose the signal here, we could triangulate it and then broaden our range,” he said softly.
“You really think that would work?” Olivia said with a surprise.
Jim turned his attention to the conversation and ran a few equations before nodding slightly, “Possibly. Martin did have a tracker on him when he… well, you know. He must have expected this would happen.”
I looked toward Natalie, still trying to come to terms with everything as Caleb set up a plan. “We can move all the equipment we need into the camper and use it to head for the beacon. Jim, you could coordinate from here,” he said excitedly.
“Hold on. You’re seriously thinking about going out there again? We’ve barely had a chance to even recuperate.“
“If we don’t go now the signal might be lost, and this time for good. We don’t know how long that particular beacon will even last. Jim, what do you say; could that work?” Caleb asked, turning back to the stout man.
“Theoretically… yes…” he said as the hunter clapped his hands excitedly. “But… I think I need to be the one going out there. I built the beacon so I’m more familiar with how it works.” “Okay, sure fine; you can go,” the trapper said dismissively.
“Hold on,” Olivia muttered raising her hands and looking toward her father. “We need to think this through. Who’s staying here to man the station? And more importantly, without Martin who will handle the camera equipment?” she asked.
The old man pursed his lips together, considering all of the alternatives and then muttered, “I think it will need to be you, my dear. You know this place inside and out.”
Olivia looked like she wanted to object, but didn’t say a word about that; instead focusing on the issue of equipment. “You’ll need a driver and someone else to help with the set up, Jim can’t handle it all,” she growled.
Kearny took a look at me. I knew exactly what he was thinking. “I can run the camera,” I decided. “All right then. Looks like I’m the driver,” Caleb said excitedly getting ready to leave the room.
“Not so fast,” Mister Kearny declared as he leaned on his crutch and then jabbed a finger toward the hunter. “You’re a much better gun then anyone else here, Mitchum; and that means you would be better suited to stay here and protect my daughter in case those things come back for round two,” he snapped.
The trapper looked offended that he wasn’t going to get to go but instead of arguing he remarked, “Okay, then who do you suggest as a driver?”
Kearny looked toward Natalie. The blonde’s mouth gaped open. “Me..? Sir….”
“You said yourself you wanted to do field duty. This is your chance,” the old man declared.
I didn’t bother putting my two cents in. I knew they wouldn’t listen anyway. Instead I turned to Caleb and said, “I’ll help you load up the camper.“
Driving out of Emerald Bay the second time for a storm chase felt so much different than before, given all that I now understood.
Especially when it came to the people who I now worked with.
Natalie was at the wheel, her trim figure looking so minuscule against the bulky frame and yet I had seen quite recently just what sort of fighter she was.
In the back Jim Laschar was watching the monitors, his eyes dashing back and forth between screens to get a better idea of where we were headed. To think of how many times he had been through this and yet he still always wanted more.
Then there was Kearny. Paul Kearny was standing up near the very rear of the long camper, staring toward the road that we had been on as he used the door to prop his body up. From this angle as the sun dipped low again over the horizon, he looked like a captain at the mast of a ship; watching the open ocean as his crew set out for adventure.
But this wasn’t an ordinary voyage we were embarking on by any means. I was beginning to get the feeling that we were the Pequod and he was our Captain Ahab.
The roads north of Emerald Bay were scarce with life or even crops. Just dead earth and scars that ran crisscross, making the whole place look like a barren waste.
According to Jim, we still had about thirteen miles to go before reaching the beacon. And the screen showed the storm was moving to the northwest, lingering near the mountains. Could that be where this supposed nest was they were so eager to find?
I didn’t know what to make of any of it, and from Natalie’s tense expression it seemed clear she was nervous too.
“Is this your first time out here?” I asked her as I came back from the mini-bar, offering her warm coffee.
She yawned and took it before saying, “No… uh. Actually my second. The first didn’t go very well…”
I placed my beverage down in the cup holder apologizing quickly, “Sorry, I didn’t know…“
“It was a winter storm. Strong south east winds moving across the Stateline that Mister Kearny wanted to track, and I wanted to prove I was valuable for more than just crunching numbers,” she said as she looked into the horizon distantly.
I didn’t say a word, listening as she recounted the experience.
“Back then, it was me, Nick, Caleb and of course the boss. We were in high spirits because Jim had just managed to figure out how to build a probe and it was time to go and test it on a live storm, the radar picked up some fluctuations and so we went without hesitation,” she clenched the wheel nervously.
“It was actually thanks to my astronomy that the probe even worked at all. I worked side by side with Jim. The math was perfect. Everything should have been perfect.”
I looked toward the road, the realization of what happened dawning on me. “Nick died, didn’t he?“
“The storm was too strong. The calculations were off. We couldn’t stand up against it,” Natalie said as she reflected on the event with a glazed look in her eye. “But Mister Kearny… he insisted we push forward. He refused to believe we could fail.”
I thought back to the chase a few days ago where Martin had been hurt and how Paul had acted similarly. Was he really so blind to this pursuit that he was willing to risk anything and everything for the sake of the hunt?
“I’m sorry… I shouldn’t have brought it up,” I admitted.
“It was right after that Martin and I got close. He told me there was nothing I could have done for Nick…” she paused and looked toward me. “I guess that’s just a forecast for our whole relationship huh?”
I leaned over and sipped some of the coffee.
“What made you decide to stay?“
“I guess the mystery of it all. What the storm is, and maybe a part of me wanted to fight back after what happened with Nick. Mostly it was Mister Kearny though. He was insistent that my concepts for the probe were spot on, and with more work it could be perfected,” she gestured toward the sky adding, “Six months later it looks like maybe he was right.”
She laughed nervously as we kept driving and I glanced back toward the rear of the camper where our boss stood.
“What do you think is keeping him here then? I mean, why is he doing all this?“
Natalie looked me dead in the eye. “Isn’t it obvious? Revenge,” she answered. I nodded, realizing she had come to the same conclusion as me. The storm had taken what he cared for most.
“I just hope that it hasn’t transformed into blind rage,” I said softly.
Neither of us said a word for a long time as we passed the next stretch of road and I spotted something off in the distance.
I leaned forward, seeing a glint of sunlight reflect off of the object and Natalie remarked, “That’s the beacon I think.”
I banged on the back of the camper to get the others attention. Kearny and Jim came up front as Natalie slowed the camper down.
“Good work. Looks like she’s still intact,” the old man said. Natalie pulled the camper alongside the highway and turned off the engine as Jim and I started to gather extension cables to reach the device.
“I’m surprised no one bothered it out here,” I said as we lugged the long cords over the grass.
“Not many people use these old roads. Lots of ghost towns out here,” Jim mused as he opened up the paneling on the side of the cylinder and punched in an activation code.
I looked about the barren land, spotting a few mountains off to the south; but besides that he was correct: there wasn’t a sign of civilization for miles.
“Come on, work dangnabit,” Laschar said smacking the beacon on the side.
“Problem?” Kearny asked as he gingerly walked over.
“It says it’s connecting, but I’m not picking up anything. Should be right on top of us actually,” Jim admitted in confusion as he looked up.
There wasn’t a cloud anywhere to be seen, nothing but clear skies.
“You got the coordinates right and you’re patched into home base?“
“Maybe that’s the issue.. I need to start running the algorithm for the triangulation…” he said as he rushed back to our vehicle.
Kearny was ruffling his hair and looking about. The air was colder and Natalie hugged at her body.
“Something feels wrong about this,” she muttered.
Laschar made it to the camper and turned on the equipment there as Paul kept scanning the clouds. “Hey Jim! Bring me a flare gun!” he shouted.
The stout man was back at the beacon in a heartbeat and passed the flare to his boss.
While Jim started working on the code, Kearny grabbed his crutch and moved to the side of th camper.
“Natalie, help me with this ladder,” he demanded.
I watched as the blonde pulled the ladder down and Paul climbed up on top of the camper. Then, using the roof satellite he pulled himself up and aimed the flare gun toward the heavens.
A second later he fired and the flare streaked upward quickly. I watched until it disappeared from sight and frowned. It exploded across the sky, revealing something hidden.
The empty sky began to swirl, pushing clouds together into a central mass. Then a streak of lightning burst across the newly formed storm as it kept growing bigger.
Jim hit the monitor again and said, “I’m picking up something now but it’s going to take a minute to transmit.”
I kept looking at the swirling clouds as they got darker and darker and the wind picked up.
“I don’t think we’ve got that long..“
A low deep noise boomed from the storm. It sounded like the waking of a mighty beast. Then, as I watched with morbid fascination; the clouds seemed to form the shape of an eye.
“I think we need to go,” Natalie realized as she saw it too. Meantime Paul was smiling but when he noticed our distractions he called out, “Dillion! Natalie! Don’t look directly at it!!”
I rushed up to the ladder and shouted back, “Sir, we need to move and I mean now.”
The equipment in the van was already registering wind bursts up to 33mph.
Lightning crashed down only about thirty feet from the beacon and Jim held his chest, frightened at the close proximity.
He quickly detached a flash drive from the device and rushed to the camper muttering, “I’ll compile it on the road.”
Paul was climbing down from the roof as the roads of the storm grew louder. Then the funnel began to form. It was larger than before, at least the size of an F3. The camper was rocking before it even touched the ground.
“Get in,” I said as I helped Mister Kearny inside.
Once the doors were shut Natalie wasted no time pulling onto the highway.
“Dillion, the camera. It’s the only way we can monitor that thing without it hurting us,” Paul told me.
The twister hit the ground to the east of us with a reverberating crash. With the speeds rising over 90mph on the equipment scanners, It could easily become an F4.
“Shit,” Jim muttered as I moved to the rear and got the camera ready. The back of the camper also doubled as a equipment carrier for the heavy camera so setting it up wasn’t difficult even as Natalie picked up speed.
I turned the lens toward where we had come from and watched as the massive tornado devastated the flat lands. “That thing is moving pretty fast…” I said watching it rip past us on the horizon.
Our equipment now rose to 150 wind speed from this distance. The storm pushed its way past us, striking against a body of water right off our view and I checked the maps.
“We need to turn around.“
“Are you crazy?” Natalie asked.
“It’s intercepting us,” I said as the funnel was moving toward a bridge we would have to cross.
“We’re not gonna make that,” Laschar agreed. Natalie pushed the camper to its limit. But it wasn’t enough. Almost 2000 yards away the mighty twister smashed the bridge apart like it was nothing. Concrete and slabs of pavement flew up into the restless cyclone in a matter of seconds.
Natalie slammed on the brakes and turned the wheel as sharp as she could, our tires skidding and avoiding some of the debris as we moved toward the side of the river.
I held the camera steady and heard the storm roar louder as more massive chunks of stone and cement flew past us.
One of the windows in the back shattered and our vehicle barely made the U-Turn, but somehow Natalie managed to keep all four wheels from lifting off the ground.
“Bloody hell,” Jim said as he hung on for dear life.
Soon we were speeding down the highway in the opposite direction. The storm was not far behind. At this point our equipment couldn’t even register the top speeds it was reaching but it had to be over 200mph.
Kearny quickly scrambled for a map. “We need to find shelter,” he muttered.
From behind us, the inhuman shrieks began to rumble across the storm and I watched several of the creatures burst out of the tornado and fly across the heavens.
The whole sky was alive with this storm’s fury as I kept recording. I briefly glanced away from the lens to get a better look with my own eyes, only to find myself covering them as a direct glance was like staring at the sun. It hurt so much I had to turn away and cuss softly. It took a few seconds for my eyes to refocus.
“Nobody ever listens,” Paul quipped as our own pedometer reached 77mph. “That thing is catching up!” Jim muttered to our frantic driver.
“I can’t go any faster!!” Natalie screamed frantically. The storm was almost on top of us.
This chase had now become a hunt, and we were the prey.
“Here. It’s an old train yard. They probably have some well fortified bunkers there, enough to even withstand this,” Kearny said pressing the map to the dashboard.
Natalie’s eyes darted back and forth between the chart and the road as she struggled to keep from losing control.
“Can we make it there?” she asked.
Before Paul could answer, one of the creature’s latched onto the roof of our camper, causing the whole vehicle to shake.
“Hell,” Jim muttered, grabbing the flare gun and then shoving the roof hatch open.
He aimed it toward the creature’s abdomen and let it rocket straight through the beast.
It exploded in fire and the creature shrieked again as it fell, colliding against the side of the camper as we turned a sharp corner onto a dirt road. Dust and more debris kept spinning in the air as the twister took a short cut, smashing up farmland.
I could see the train yard that Paul had mentioned about 13 meters away. But the twister was picking up speed.
There was a long stretch of tracks across the road where I saw an old freight engine sitting. The cyclone was almost on top of it.
“Come on, come on.“
But it was too late and I knew it. The train didn’t stand a chance. As the massive storm hit it, it was flung like a tinker toy. Natalie swerved right as she saw the metal and gears fly about chaotically.
The air pushed around us. The camper crunched as it went over a part of the tracks and into the yard.
The train hit the back of our vehicle and sent us up in the air. Natalie lost control. I held my breath and watched as we spun through the air. Equipment crashed down around us, the windows shattered, Mister Kearny bashed his head against one of the counters and Natalie screamed. Then the world went black.
When I came to, the first thing I heard was the howl of the storm.
Wind pressed against my face as I carefully opened my eyes, then I saw the damage that had been done.
We were upside down. Natalie was dangling with her seatbelt on. Glass was scattered all across the roof along with everything else we had carried with us. Jim was injured but breathing, blood gushing from his side as he pulled out a piece of shrapnel and checked on his boss.
“Paul, are you okay? Paul?” Laschar said as he checked the old man’s pulse and head. “He’s unconscious,” he muttered. I crawled slowly across the broken glass to where Natalie was at. The whole front window was busted open and more dust and debris was being pushed in toward us by the second.
Out across the train yard I saw the tornado continuing to wreck havoc, smashing up stray train cars and sending them flying in every direction. Besides that, there was the threat of the creatures themselves; and while I lay there trying to get my breath back I counted at least half a dozen.
They were skittering about the tops of the long metallic trailers, shrieking in the air and searching. Searching for us.
“Are you okay?” I asked Natalie as she opened her eyes slowly.
“I think I’ll make it,” she muttered as I helped her unbuckle and slowly crawl down to the roof of the camper. “We need to get somewhere safe,” I told Jim as I scanned the train yard again.
“How about that?” I was pointing toward a large metallic building that looked like it was used as a switch station for some of the tracks.
“It’s better than nothing,” he agreed as he pushed the heavy equipment out of the way and gently pulled Paul up to a sitting position.
“Jesus, he’s heavy… I don’t think I can lift him alone,” Jim said. “You’re also injured,” I pointed out as I turned my head toward Natalie and muttered, “Do you think you could help?”
She nodded and got her breath back, helping pull Kearny toward one of the side doors on the camper and kicking it open. Wind pushed her hair in her face and Natalie looked toward the twister.
“Do you think it will come back for us?” she asked nervously as Jim held the door open.
“If we make a run for it, we might make it,” Laschar remarked, crawling out of the door and against the side of the vehicle.
Natalie and I were next. We each took hold of one of Paul’s arms and dragged him out toward the pavement. The gash on his head looked deep, and I worried that the stress we were putting on his body might do even more damage; but we had little choice left.
Natalie laid him down on the ground to catch her breath as Jim clutched his side. Then from above us we heard a low growl. One of the creature’s was moving about near the tires that still spun wildly in the air.
“Don’t move…” I whispered as we hunkered against the side of the trailer. If these things were blind then there might be a chance that it wouldn’t know we were here, I reasoned as we listened to it claw at the metal underbelly of the camper.
Another creature scurried just out of our view in-between two train cars and made a low howling noise, it sounded like it was a call of some kind. Then the one above us flew off toward the tornado as we watched. Even from this distance it was hard to look directly at the storm, the blinding light it would cast causing me to keep my eyes down.
“Let’s go,” Natalie said as she hunched down and placed Paul’s arm over her shoulder. I did the same on the opposite side of him and we lifted up together, his dead weight making it nearly impossible for us to even move at all.
Together we moved as one across the train yard, Jim kept his back toward us and held the minuscule flare gun tight to his body but so far the creatures didn’t seem to be paying us any mind.
That changed a moment later. Something like a blaring horn sounded out across the sky.
The funnel started to push back up and the creatures made their way into it as it disappeared from sight. Then the rain began to fall. The second it hit my neck with it’s burning power I let out a cry and nearly let go of Paul.
“Shit!” Jim shouted as he tried to cover his head and started picking up speed.
Then from the downpour came something large. I was having a hard time making sure I didn’t trip over my own feet as Natalie and I followed Laschar toward the master switchboard, but from what I could tell it was at least three times as large as the monsters we had dealt with before.
The burning rain was almost enough to make me want to give up, but we finally made it inside the metallic structure and I laid Paul down, checking him for wounds as well.
“Shit. How the hell we gonna get out of this?“
“The storm can’t last forever right…? I mean, it’ll move on,” Natalie reasoned. Laschar didn’t seem too sure but he was so exhausted that he didn’t argue with her.
From the entrance we saw the rain get harder and more intense. The train cars we had just ran past were now barely visible in the downpour.
But something else was. It stood above the train cars like a beast out of ancient mythology, slowly prowling the train yard with low guttural sounds. I could barely make out the outline of the beast but it was enough to send a shiver down my spine. Then it turned its enormous head toward us, six rows of eyes glowing in the rainstorm; and let out a deafening screech.
“Keep moving,” Jim told us gesturing toward one of the old rail cars.
I didn’t have to be told twice. Natalie was out of breath and hurting but she pulled it together to get Mister Kearny inside the rail car. The creature was moving toward the wide mouth of the structure. I saw long tendrils gaping from its mouth just as Jim slammed the door shut.
“Is this going to keep it out..?” Natalie whimpered as we listened to it move about the station. I listened as it pushed aside train cars with its long legs like nothing. In the tiny slots that were cut into the train car I could see its scaly back zooming by. Was it hunting for us?
The rail car jostled for a moment and shook, and the three of us fell to the floor and hunkered down. It could be on us at any second.
Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the creature let out another noise and pushed its way out the back. We waited another three minutes and then finally relaxed.
I moved to check Jim’s wounds, frowning as I realized that it was more severe than I realized.
“You’ve lost a lot of blood,” I muttered as I gave him my coat to press against his side.
“I’ll be fine,” he said as he slipped his hand into his pocket and pulled out the flash drive. “What matters is we kept this safe.”
The rain kept pelting against the roof as we stayed there, listening to the creature search the yard. Finally Natalie muttered, “How are we going to get out of here?”
Jim was in and out of consciousness from the blood loss but still trying his best to give us answers.
“If… ya get my laptop, we can patch this back to home base and send a message… for help,” he muttered passing me the flash drive.
“I can’t go out in the storm,” I objected and then added, “*Lets wait and see if it passes through.”
I looked down at his wound again and wondered if the way he was bleeding he would even have that long. He needed medical attention.
As he slipped into unconsciousness again, I pushed the rail car door open and climbed out to the station floor.
“Where are you going?” Natalie asked nervously.
“To find a first aid kit, keep this door closed until I get back.“
It was eerily quiet as I moved toward the side of the switch station, nothing besides the sound of the rain and the occasional burst of thunder. What were the creatures doing, I wondered as I pushed open the door to an old control room.
A few moments later, I found what I was looking for and smashed the glass to reach the kit. There was some gauze and some needle and thread and a few other tools to help me sew up Jim.
Then I froze. Somewhere behind me, I heard the sound of footsteps on the stairwell. I kept the kit close to my body and barely craned my head out to take a look. One of the blind creatures was crawling up the railing, and just as it opened its mouth to smell again, I realized it had detected my presence.
I ran. I ran faster than I think I ever have. I pushed right past the creature in those split seconds before it had a chance to react and then leapt down to the station floor.
It turned about, made a loud scream and jumped toward me.
I was at least 19 yards from the rail car. The monster was moving faster than any Olympic athlete. I knew it would be on me in a matter of seconds.
The door slid open and Jim was standing there, holding the final flare. “Get down boy!” he shouted. I dodged out of the way as the creature came barreling.
Jim took a step out to fire, but suddenly pain in his side made him cripple over. In a second the creature was on top of him and the gun fell to the floor with a soft skitter.
Rearing it’s head back, the monster dug it’s pincers into Jim’s chest, slashing opening his skin like paper. Laschar screamed and tried to reach for the gun.
I was closer. I got up, grabbed the weapon and pointed it toward the beast. It fired and hit it in the lower torso and for a brief moment it kept ripping into Jim before the flare finally went off and it fell backward with the explosion.
“Shit,” I ran to Laschar’s side and looked at his new wounds. They were deep. Far too great for me to treat with a mere needle and thread.
Natalie panned her head out to look and covered her mouth in shock. Then she crumpled down and began to cry.
“We’re never going to make it out of here,” she said nervously. Jim was gasping for breath, some of the cuts had hit his lungs and he knew that it wouldn’t be long. He grasped my arm and made me look him in the eye.
“Dillion. When it happens… make it quick..”
I stayed by his side as he kept bleeding out, struggling for air.
Then he was gone and the station was silent once more. Nothing else filled the air except another rumble of thunder.
Three hours passed and the storm raged on.
Natalie and I moved Jim’s body into the rail car where we had decided to wait out the storm. But, as we sat there and I looked at the dead man and the unconscious one next to him; I was beginning to think that might not happen at all.
Every half hour or so I checked Mister Kearny’s pulse to make sure he was all right. He seemed to have no major injuries but after being unconscious for so long, there was no telling what the blow to his head had done.
“I think we need to radio for help,” Natalie said after another roar of thunder crashed across the sky.
“The only way would be to reach Jim’s laptop, and that’s in the trailer remember?“
“Those things are going to find us eventually, we have to do something!” she insisted.
“I know, I know,” I said and trembled as the cold air pushed in again. It was luck alone that had kept us alive. But revealing ourselves now guaranteed that the creatures would react. Meaning there was only one chance to make this work.
“Fine. Let’s do it,” I decided as I moved toward Jim’s body. Despite the fact that I felt wrong violating a corpse, I knew for us to make it through the rain we would need cover. The burns we had experienced from the storm already were enough to cause mild scarring on my exposed hands. Any worse and I wouldn’t be fit to help anyone, I thought.
I carefully took Jim’s coat off and used it to drape over my shoulders. Natalie had a hard time not weeping again as we stared at the man that had tried so hard to save us.
“Do you even think we stand a chance?” she asked as I pushed the rail car door open.
I didn’t bother responding. It would be pointless to give her false hope. Outside a crash of thunder made me jump and I hunkered down near the wide door to stare toward the overturned camper. It was probably only thirty feet away.
“I need you to act as lookout,” I told Natalie.
She nodded and placed her back against the massive metal door as I kept Jim’s ragged coat wrapped around my head.
The wind seemed to pick up the second I stepped out in the torrential storm. It was so hard to even see the area around me, but I kept my eyes straight ahead.
Even when I heard another of the beasts howl amid the thunder, I didn’t waver. I found the door we loosened earlier and shimmied inside on my belly. Once inside, i pulled my body up to a crouching position and looked about.
Jim’s laptop was turned over amid the other debris. Just as I reached for it, I heard the hiss of a creature from above. I hunkered down again as it clawed at the tires above my head and slowly pulled the laptop over to me.
I stayed as perfectly still as I could as the creature searched for me. As I lay there, I felt the temperature change. The rain began to lighten and the sky cleared. Was the storm past? I didn’t hear any noises from above so I decided to take a chance and crawl back out. A gentle drip of gasoline glistened on the side of the camper. I got a little bit on me as I climbed out and looked up.
That was when I realized the storm was waiting. A rush of air pushed its way back down to the train yard. I heard Natalie yell in the distance as the funnel hit the ground, flinging debris toward me. It struck with such force that it knocked me off my feet.
I fell right down next to the puddle of gasoline that had formed next to the camper, a crazy idea forming in my head as the tornado moved straight toward me.
Getting back on my feet, I moved to the rear of the camper where we had packed our auxiliary gear and flung open the door. Another pile of trash collapsed at my feet. I pushed aside the papers and found Mister Kearny’s personal backpack as the storm grew closer.
I felt the camper begin to move and said a prayer. My one shot was about to slip away. At last I found it, Paul’s cigarette lighter.
Quickly I lit a flame and moved toward the trail of gasoline. I snatched the laptop up and hollered our toward the twister. From within its mighty frame, a booming growl came back.
The funnel turned toward me, pushing straight toward the camper. I didn’t waste another second. I tossed the lighter toward the gas and watched as flames spread toward the camper.
As I ran for cover near some of the scattered debris, the whole vehicle went up in flames. At the same time, the tornado smashed against the hood of the camper. Immediately the flames jumped to the twister and I heard a howl of pain. It didn’t take long before the entire funnel was sucking up the fire and spreading it into the core of the storm.
Natalie came running to my side as I stood mesmerized by the tornado. Then at her urging we pulled back to the makeshift bunker. A few moments later the cyclone was completely gone. My crazy plan had somehow managed to hurt the damned thing.
I let out a sigh of relief and checked Jim’s laptop, even more excited to see that it had withstood the whole ordeal. I started up his system as we returned to the rail car.
Evening was starting to fall across the land as I finished uploading the flash drive to his program.
“Son of a bitch this isn’t gonna work,” I said as I watched the upload slow down
“It’s the metal roof, upsets the signal,” Natalie said grabbing the laptop and gesturing for me to follow her out to the open air.
About thirteen minutes later, I was patched through to the station. Natalie let out a squeal of delight as I sent out our location to Caleb and Olivia. After that, I checked the radar and watched as the storm moved to the northeast. “It’s moving toward the mountains,” I realized as I watched its speed increase. Where could it possibly be going?
“Do you think you actually hurt it?” Natalie whispered. I didn’t know what to say to that, it seemed unreal to consider that we even stood a chance against something that powerful.
Instead of focusing on that problem, I decided to address a different one.
“You know a thing or two about astronomy right?“
Natalie nodded and I gestured to the night sky that was forming around us. “Maybe I’m seeing things, but does it seem like some of these constellations aren’t right?“
She squinted and looked up, and just as she was about to make a statement; we heard the most bizarre noise come from within our shelter.
It was so inhuman that it caused both of us to jump. I turned about and Natalie said nervously, “Did one of those things stay behind?”
“Stay behind me,” I ordered as we moved toward the entrance and I found an old steel pipe. That was when I realized the noise was coming from the same rail car where we had been hiding earlier.
“Paul!” I called out passing the laptop to her and running up to the doors of the car.
What I saw next defied all explanation. Jim’s body was convulsing, twisting on the floor like a rag doll. Something was crawling it’s way out of his mouth, it resembled this spidery web of slime; and latched onto his body to cover his face with a coat of brown skin that sealed his dead eyes closed.
His legs and arms bent over awkwardly to form a sort of distorted crab like appearance as I watched. Then the tendrils began to slide their way down his skin, fusing his body parts together to create a tough exoskeleton.
All the while the sounds emerging from his corpse were enough to send a cold chill down my whole body. Behind him, I saw Mister Kearny stir. It was probably the most inconvenient time for the old man to finally come to, but there was nothing I could do to stop him from seeing what was happening.
Paul pushed his body back against the wall of the rail car as Jim continued to twist and reform, his skin and muscles now being stretched to their limit.
Mister Kearny caught sight of me and slowly crawled over to where I was at for help to break free, trying his best to keep his eyes from being distracted by the horrors that were happening to his friend.
I didn’t hesitate to grab Kearny by the arm and pull him out of the rail car. Then I slammed the door shut and began to jam the metal rod into the handle. Anything to keep this monstrous corpse from breaking free.
Natalie was standing close by, listening to the screams that sounded so much like the man she had known for the past six months.
I helped Kearny get away from the car as Jim’s body started to ram agains the side, desperate to be out of the confined space.
“Help me,” I asked Natalie since the old man didn’t have his crutch. In another moment the latch was free. I couldn’t help but to look back.
The grey matter was forming scales down Jim’s legs and chest, long stretching sinew and sharp bones pushing out at all angles as the transformation was complete. We all started to run.
Out in the open air, i checked the horizon to see just if there was anywhere to hide. But most of the other cars had been devastated by the tornado. The creature that had taken control of Jim’s body was bounding toward us faster than a cheetah.
Than, from somewhere off in the distance I heard the sound of an engine. We helped Kearny get to the closest overturned trailer for cover, and I spotted a yellow weather van driving up at top speed.
Caleb, Olivia; I realized with excitement rushing over me. The creature was almost on top of us. But they were faster. The van slammed hard against it, sending it flying as they hit their breaks.
Caleb jumped out, guns blazing as he looked toward the monster.
“Wait!! Wait!!” Natalie begged him with tears in her eyes as he walked over to the wounded beast. “It’s… it’s Jim…” she explained.
I could tell the statement shocked Caleb as much as it did us as he stared down at the dying monster. I thought I saw sadness in the monster’s eyes and hesitation. But then the hunter made a decision, pointed his pistol toward its skull; and opened fire. He didn’t stop until his bullets were gone.
Olivia was at my side a moment later, checking her father for injuries. “How did you get here so quick, I just sent out the signal an hour ago?” I asked.
“We were in the area… sorry dad, but I just knew something was wrong when you didn’t phone in,” she explained.
“You left the station… unmanned?” Her father asked, a panicked look in his eyes.
“Yes and no. We managed to make sort of a mobile broadcast for us while we are out and about, we followed your general direction and picked up Dillion’s signal about nineteen miles back,” Caleb explained.
Kearny still didn’t look very happy with either of them. “It isn’t safe out here,” he muttered.
“No kidding,” Olivia said as she got him up and added, “We need to get you back to the station and recover.”
“We can’t do that, not now,” Paul said looking toward the dead corpse of what was once Jim Laschar. Now that my adrenaline was slowing down, a few stray pieces to this puzzle were being put together.
“This was never about tracking a storm,” I realized.
“What are you talking about Pruitt?” Caleb muttered.
Kearny’s face was filled with emotion, he knew I had figured it out. “I think I owe you all an explanation.”
We got out in the open and decided to take up the conversation on the road north. Paul insisted he would explain everything once we were safe, and after twenty minutes of driving I decided we had waited long enough.
“Well, I think this is a good resting spot. It’s getting dark,” I suggested as we turned on the roads toward the mountains. The storm was hovering over the forest in front of us, swirling and growling on the horizon. At least a dozen of those demons could be seen with each clap of thunder.
“We can keep going,” Kearny insisted. I sighed, my patience having grown thin.
“Look, I’ve tried to wait; I really have. But this is getting old. Enough is enough; Either you tell the story, or I’ll just come out and say it,” I warned.
“What is he talking about?” Natalie asked. Olivia shared a good long glance at her dad before squeezing his hand and saying, “There’s no need to hide anything anymore. They’ve proven themselves more than capable to handle themselves.”
Paul smiled at his daughter and sighed.
“The creatures that we’ve encountered so far from this mighty storm, they don’t come from out from some hellhole… they come from right here. From people like you or me,” Kearny said with a sigh.
Natalie shook, the truth hitting her like a ton of bricks.
“That’s what Martin meant isn’t it..? That he would become part of those things,” she said, her voice cracking. The Kearnys held a long guilty gaze to confirm it.
“Why didn’t you tell us?“
“Would it make much difference if I had? You’ve questioned everything that I have done since you got here,” Kearny pointed out.
I looked toward the two people in the front who were remaining quiet. “You knew about this didn’t you?“
Caleb and Olivia didn’t make a response.
“Why would you keep this from us?” Natalie muttered angrily.
“Because it makes it easier not knowing. To believe that the people you care about are simply gone altogether is a far better fate than what really happens,” Olivia spat back.
I could hear the frustration and guilt in her voice. I also saw pain and loss. I turned to her father and saw those same feelings in his face as well.
Something finally clicked in my head and I realized the secret they had been keeping from all of us.
“What really happened to Reneé?“
Kearny didn’t seem to have the strength to respond. But Olivia did.
“It was supposed to be an ordinary chase. We had been traveling across northern Kansas, thinking we had been tracking a storm back it’s source… I think we probably drove for six hours, but still couldn’t make heads or tails of the area around us. The storm was affecting everything, even the spatial reality around us. North, south, east and west simply didn’t exist. That was when my mom came up with a theory. Sounds cheesy but she said that we weren’t in Kansas anymore,” Olivia paused and looked toward the rolling landscape around us. “We had gone inside the storm.”
“*It treated us like we were insects trapped inside a spider’s web,” Paul spat.
As if I’m response we heard the storm rumble across the sky again.
“What happened next?“
“Reneé came up with a plan to push our way out. It was risky but we didn’t know what else to do. We set up charges near to what we believed were the edges of the storm. We thought if we just hurt it, it would let us free.”
“But instead the storm pushed back. Hundreds of those drones swarmed from the sky, ready to tear us limb from limb. But even when the situation seemed impossible, my mom didn’t give up,” Olivia added.
“She sacrificed herself. She found a way to push one last time but knew that it only work one time. We watched as she was taken right in front of our eyes and we couldn’t do a thing about it.”
“The storm fell away but the aftermath lasted a lifetime. My wife was taken from me, changed into one of those beasts against her will,” Paul admitted. Caleb had slowed down the van.
We were almost at the mountains.
I crossed my arms, contemplating everything that the Kearny’s had just told us. It was a lot to take in.
“That’s why you’ve been trying to find this particular storm isn’t it? You think your wife is inside?“
Paul nodded, too exhausted to hide anything else.
“How can you be sure that she is still alive?” I asked.
Olivia bit her bottom lip, “Each storm has particular patterns, we followed the patterns.” But her voice showed a hint of doubt and that told me all I needed to know.
“So you don’t really know. And you’ve dragged us out here to… do what exactly? To save her?”
“To put her out of her misery,” Paul declared solemnly. Even those words seemed to take his daughter by surprise.
“Years ago, I might have thought differently. That I could work some miracle to change what happened. But the facts are clearer now then ever. My wife died that day. And the storm took away whatever was left. Since then all that she has been is a puppet on a string. Her and every other person that this damned thing took from us,” Paul said as he took his daughter and tried to comfort her.
But Olivia pulled away. Her face told me everything I needed to know. “You said… you would never give up on her,” she muttered angrily.
“I haven’t. But this is the only way, for her to finally be free,” Kearny declared.
Olivia shook her head and as Caleb stopped the car she jumped out, her eyes filled with tears.
Natalie wrapped her arms around herself and shivered again. But even despite all of these revelations, I still had my doubts about Paul’s plan.
“We don’t stand a chance of destroying this thing. The odds are stacked against us. This is like going up against a god. You saw what happened to the camper. To Jim. We nearly all suffered the same fate!!“
Paul shook his head. “You hurt the monster already, Dillion. When I heard what you did to that thing, you restored faith in this plan. I know now that we can make it. We can blow the nest back to whatever hell it came from,” he decided firmly. I couldn’t help but to show the same disgust as Olivia.
But my reasons were because I had common sense. Even Natalie was getting upset.
“You still haven’t changed since the day we met. You’re so blinded by revenge that you don’t care about anything else! Oh you put on a good show. But you don’t care about what happened to Jim, or Martin or Nick or any of the other people that have blindly followed you!!” she screamed.
“That isn’t true,” Kearny said in defense but it was only half hearted. Her words had cut him to the core.
But it was too late. I saw him for the broken man he was. He would pursue this course to the grave to get his revenge.
“I need a smoke,” I said stepping out to the open air. It was almost midnight, the only light in the sky coming from the trembling dangerous clouds.
Olivia was standing out in the nearby field staring up at the stars. In the distance we heard the storm continue to rumble. She wiped away tears as I joined her.
“Some team we are huh. No communication at all. We’re no team at all,” she laughed.
I sighed and slipped my hands in my pockets. “Do you really think your mom could be saved?“
She shrugged and lit a smoke as she said, “You must think I’m a damned fool for believing that lie for so long.”
“*It’s not stupid to have hope,” I replied as she passed a cigarette to me.
“Even false hope? God. How could I have been so stupid?” she muttered.
“Well. There at the end, before Caleb killed the monster… I saw some part of Jim still inside it. Like he was ready to die and didn’t want to hurt us.“
“I’ve seen it before too. I know that these things can still have some bits of humanity in them,” she insisted.
I looked back toward the camper. “Either way… your dad isn’t going to stop until we find this nest. What are we going to do once we get there?“
“We have to do everything in our power to save those people trapped inside… maybe that really does mean destroying it though,” she said with a sigh.
I frowned, a crazy idea racing through my mind.
“Maybe we can do both?“
Olivia tossed the cigarette away. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“The nest is like a control tower right? That’s where the primary signal that controls them come from… so we just have to interrupt that broadcast and replace it with our own.“
Her eyes sparkled with that same spirit I had seen when we first met. She was ready to give it a try.
“We can’t tell dad,” she declared just as I was about to return to the van. “You think he’ll try to stop us?“
“He’s had one mission since that day we lost mom. Nothing we say will change that, Dillion. We have to keep him thinking we’re all in agreement,” she looked frustrated that she would have to tell such a lie, but I knew she was right.
“I know he’ll hate me. But if it works and we can save at least some of those poor people… then it has to count for something, doesn’t it?” Olivia asked desperately. I told her it did.
As we moved back to the weather van, we both saw someone standing there near the driver’s side door. Caleb.
“You were listening?” I asked.
“It’s my job to watch out for y’all,” Mitchum said with a shrug as he stretched his legs.
“Go tell the old man we’ll be back on the road in a tick. I have to go piss,” he added walking away from the van.
Olivia got into the back of the vehicle as I followed Caleb.
“Coming to watch Pruitt?” he teased.
“*Look.. I know we’ve butt heads before. But if Olivia’s plan is going to work, we have to work together,” I told him evenly.
“Pretty crazy idea you had there, to interrupt the nest’s signal,” he muttered as a gust of wind blew thru the nearby tree line.
“Do you really think it will work?” Mitchum asked as he zipped up his pants.
“I don’t know.. honestly I’m not sure about any of this anymore,” I admitted.
“Not a good idea to get her hopes up like that if you aren’t 100% sure. It’ll just make things worse in the long run,” Caleb advised.
“I haven’t heard you offer any words of wisdom.“
“My role here is simple. Keep them safe. I’ll do whatever I have to in order to do that,” he paused as he looked me dead in the eye and growled, “That includes keeping them safe from themselves.”
I didn’t have to ask what the hunter meant. He was prepared to stop the Kearny’s if necessary, if their agendas got into the way of their own survival. I couldn’t argue with that. I knew it would need to be done if it got that far.
“Just promise me you’ll give us a chance,” I insisted.
Mitchum nodded and shrugged. “Can’t talk any of you out of anyway right?” he muttered as he got back in the driver’s seat.
Natalie was reviewing the radar, trying to get an idea of how close we are.
“I think… once we go in those woods, we’ll be inside the storm,” the blonde said checking her charts again. The forest wasn’t registering on the radar at all. Just a black hole that sucked in everything around it. The storm was likely holding everything within it as a prisoner. And given what Reneé had to go through to break free, I was starting to get nervous about going in.
Caleb turned the key on and we drove toward it. Olivia gave me a weak smile. Paul was focusing on the changing landscape.
It’s hard to really explain what happened when we entered the storm. One minute we were just staring at the starry sky and then we were engulfed in total darkness.
The forest felt dead. It was still and not a sound came from anything except our own engine.
Everything felt backwards. The air was heavy and my body felt tense like it was hard to breathe. Our instruments weren’t working at all.
“Shit this is creepier than I expected,” Caleb admitted. We only got about a couple of miles in when the van died.
“What’s wrong?” Paul asked.
“Not sure. Something just killed all the power,” the hunter responded.
Kearny looked outside the van toward the quiet clearing we were in. “We’re nearly there. The nest is close, I’m sure of it,” he declared.
We sat there in the dense forest for another moment, trying to get the nerve to step out. Mitchum was finally the one to decide to make a move and grabbed a few weapons before opening his door.
“The drones are probably off protecting their hive,” he reasoned as he peered out toward the unknown. It was so deadly quiet that it gave me chills.
Then we heard something shuffling in the brush. Caleb aimed his gun to fire. But only a small squirrel ran across his feet. He laughed nervously.
“Told you. Nothing to worry about,” he said with a smirk.
Then something much larger howled from the forest. Natalie gasped in terror as it reared up behind the hunter.
It grabbed ahold of Caleb’s upper body and pulled him into the woods.
As soon as the creature disappeared from the tree line with Caleb, the forest went silent again. Olivia jumped out of the van, her eyes frantically scanning for any signs of life as she called out his name.
“We need to move on foot and do it fast, they’ve probably taken him to the nest,” her father insisted.
I helped him out with gathering our gear in one place, making certain I had everything to enact his plan along with that of his daughters. Caleb’s sudden disappearance was enough to keep him distracted that he didn’t really pay the extra bits of gear any attention.
“What the hell is happening? What do they want from us??” Natalie screamed anxiously. That was a question I knew we didn’t have time to ask, so once we finished loading up two backpacks, I helped Paul with his crutch and remarked, “I know you want to do this yourself. And you’ve proven that you don’t let your disability stop you. But this is going to be different. We are going to be up against monsters larger than life.“
“I think I should echo the words you gave me when I told you not to take this job,” Paul quipped as he strapped a rifle on his back.
We moved to the spot where Caleb was taken and Olivia examines the ground, noting the displacement of brush and leaves and using that to gauge which direction he was dragged in.
“They haven’t killed him… why haven’t they killed him?” she muttered as she saw little scratch marks on trees where Caleb had tried to hold on for dear life. Despite the fact that I had never particularly liked the hunter, I felt sorry for him. It was fate worse than death from what Paul and his daughter had described on the drive up.
Olivia took the lead, following the small trail up through the mountains. The forest was dense here and all of us did our best to stay close to one another. But even then, I felt disoriented and lost. There weren’t any stars in the sky, jus the continuous swirling mass of the storm. As we got closer, the displacements of the trail became more apparent as though Caleb were fighting again and the creature was having a hard time. Unfortunately these scuffles that caused marks on the surrounding folia were making it difficult to determine which way to go.
We paused at one of these when Natalie checked the atmospheric pressure using the small portable laptop she had opted to bring. “The readings are off the charts in the valley to the north. Might be what we are looking for?” We climbed to the next ridge to look down toward it; my mouth agape at the sight.
From the heavens to the forest canopy was a massive funnel that seemed to span the size of four football field. It had to be the largest tornado I had ever seen. It wasn’t moving though, simply swirling with a huge amount of intense gusts of wind in the valley that Natalie had identified. The scanners showed the speeds were reaching almost 330 mph.
The nest had to be inside. “How the hell are we going to go in that? If we even get close it will rip us to shreds.” Paul watched as the funnel continued to destroy everything in the surrounding area and thought for a moment.
“At those speeds, even these demons couldn’t possibly get close to return to the nest so that must mean they have another entry point. Perhaps underground tunnels of some sort?” he suggested as we climbed down toward the next ridge. Even at this distance we could hear the howling of the winds. Natalie’s eyes widened at his suggestion and she said, “That’s it! Yes I remember when I checked the radar… before the storm was here, I noticed there was an abandoned mine not too far.”
“A network of caverns could do nicely for a colony of overgrown ants,” Paul agreed.
“Hold on I brought a few maps from the van.” I tossed down my pack carelessly and one of the transponders I brought rolled out onto the forest floor.
Olivia froze as her father looked at it.
“What’s this?” Mister Kearny asked picking up and then looking toward me for an explanation.
His daughter opened her mouth to explain but I had already conceived of a convincing lie.
“When we get inside the nest we’re going to need a distraction if we want to destroy it. Creating a confined broadcast using the equipment from the station will be perfect. The drones won’t know what hit them, and we can blow the place sky high.“
Paul looked at it thoughtfully before placing it back in the pack.
“Good thinking Dillion. Next time share with the class and we could have brought the rest,” he said as I took out the map and nervously glanced at Olivia. She remained quiet as I spread out the chart to show the others.
“Do you remember which parts of the radar matched up with our road trip from Emerald Bay?“
Natalie studied the charts as Olivia focused on finding the trail again and we moved south. The trees themselves shook violently with each step. It was like walking through a wind tunnel even from the distance we were at.
“These might be the mines,” Natalie suggested passing the map back to me and pointing toward one of the landmarks.
“But I’m afraid in here I can’t make heads or tails of anything, it’s like a whole other world,” she admitted shivering as the cold finally hit.
I paused, remembering how the cold always seemed to imply we were close to the storm and looked toward several slopes that ran along a river. “They are attracted to the cold…“
On a hunch I followed the stream south, marking a few trees as I went. That was when I saw the mine. And even more exciting I saw a few of the drones flying inside.
“Looks like we found one of the entry points,” Paul said patting my back in enthusiasm.
“How will we get inside?” Olivia asked. I watched the drones come and go for a few minutes, noting their patterns and muttered, “Looks like there is about a ninety second gap between them. We’ll have to make it quick.“
With the howling winds at our back and a timer counting down in my head, I grabbed Olivia’s arm and all four of us moved as one.
The stream of water trickled straight into the mine, and once inside, it wasn’t difficult to guess which way to go; there were literally dozens of fresh bones scattered down the mineshaft guiding our way. Most of them were animals but as we followed the dense dark corridor, I gathered that the creatures had also used this place to dispose of other remains as well. “This is like their sewage system,” Natalie realized as we came to a wide open area that had stairs leading up. Most of it was covered in green sticky goo or dead skin, but we didn’t have time to be concerned about the aesthetics when Caleb’s life hung in the balance.
The climb led us up and out to another mineshaft where we saw hundreds of drones lining up to make their way toward a shining bright light. They seemed to pay no heed to us as we slowly moved on the side of the corridor toward this illumination.
“The nest?” Olivia guessed.
Paul looked down the next long tunnel, frowning as he realized something.
“I think we may already be there,” he said as he gestured toward the rows and rows of cocoons. It looked like some sort of twisted nursery, with dozens of fresh corpses being forced into the webbing by larger drones.
“They are drawn to the cold, it makes sense that an underground network like this would be ideal for them. And the storm protects them from above. Without the right know how, anyone who came close would be obliterated.“
“Or worse,” Olivia said as she covered her mouth and pointed toward a cocoon about seven rows down.
“It’s Caleb, he’s still alive,” she said excitedly. “Dillion. Give me the charges and Natalie and I will get to work setting them along these passages. I think as long as we make no sudden moves the colony won’t view us as a threat here,” Paul said gesturing toward the drones that were blindly following the light.
I looked toward Olivia for confirmation. She nodded and I passed it to him before following her down the webbing toward Caleb.
“How are we going to do this? There’s literally hundreds of people here being prepared to change into these things… we can’t save them all.“
“I don’t know yet,” she admitted as she took out a knife and began to cut away at the cocoon.
The whole webbing vibrated as she did and I nervously looked about hoping none of the creatures would notice.
As Caleb was freed from his trappings and gasped for air, she muttered, “This is a colony right, so there’s got to be like some kind of queen? The one giving out all of the commands. That’s where we need to interrupt the signal.” As Caleb kept coughing up blood he pointed weakly toward the light that we saw from above. But before I had a chance to look toward it again, something in the caverns above stirred. It had a growl deeper than any of the creatures I had encountered before. And as I looked up to get a better view, I realized that was because it was at least twice as large as the massive entity we had encountered at the train yard. This one had giant legs like rose stems with thorns poking at and driving into the tunnel walls along with more than a dozen strange openings on its body which resembled miniature mouths with rows and rows of gnashing teeth.
As it got closer I saw the main body had dozens of dangling feelers that blindly searched for prey and I grabbed at Olivia to get out of there. She refused to do so until I helped with Caleb as well.
The creature screamed so loud that I was sure the whole colony shook. There was no where to hide from its wrath. All of the drones responded to its shrieks as we ran through the dark paths. We moved to one of the massive chambers with more cocoons like the one that Caleb had broken free of, which had tons of tons of disturbed webbing as well, the hatchlings had woken. Now we found ourselves staring down the lifeless eyes of newly hatched monsters, half turned from their old human bodies to eat us alive.
I raised a gun to fire and told Olivia to get behind me. Then the whole colony was down on top of us.
There was no way we were going to live. I saw that from the moment we had entered the room. The numbers were too great.
I figured though that if I was going to die, the least I could do is see to it that Olivia and Caleb made it out alive.
I could tell from the hunter’s labored breathing that he wouldn’t be able to help in this fight. So I shot at the closest of the drones and then shoved them both toward a side corridor of the labyrinth.
“I’ll hold them off!” I told the two of them as I gritted my teeth and watched the massive throng of beasts breathe down on me.
Honestly it would have been over in just a few seconds. But I didn’t count on the explosions. A set of detonations shook through the tunnel, ricocheting rocks and debris toward the horde. At first, I was sure the blast would not be enough to make a difference. Then in front of me the floor to this level of the mine simply collapsed.
More rock, dirt, mud and debris fell to block the monsters from reaching me as I heard a voice shout from above.
“Don’t stand there like an idiot Dillion! Run while you’ve still got a chance!!”
Paul. I figured he had set the explosions up, but the timing felt wrong. Had he decided to come to our rescue instead of focusing on his main task? Because now with the new devastation that rocked the mine, any stragglers connected to the colony were coming out of the woodwork.
There wouldn’t be enough time to enact Olivia’s plan. We still didn’t even know how to reach the core. Part of me wondered as I ran if Paul had suspected what we were up to. But no, as he began to climb away from the upset colony I realized his main concern had actually been for our safety.
I pushed my way to where Olivia was at, keeping an eye on all the surrounding tunnels as I heard the shrieking grow nearer. Caleb was having a hard time even standing up.
“He’s choking,” I realized. He gestured toward one of the packs where we had brought a few simple hunting knives and Olivia passed him one. We both watched as he stabbed himself near his rib cage and a burst of black slime spewed out onto the floor of the tunnel.
At the same time his breathing returned and Caleb said, “Spiders. God damn why did it have to be spiders?”
I looked at the ooze that had suffocated him and watched as hundreds of miniature spiders hatched from the slime, shrieking and trying to find their host again. “There’s no end to them,” Olivia said pulling Caleb away and checking his wound.
“We should have just told your dad what we were doing. At this rate the way he is going, we’re going to get buried alive,” I told her.
The hunter ripped off part of his shirt to patch up the wound, wincing as he stopped the bleeding and limping down the tunnel.
“It’s a temporary fix. That big one above is like some sort of surrogate womb for the queen. It was holding the eggs but I gathered it wasn’t the source. We got to get to the core if we want to do any real damage,” the hunter explained as we made our way back to the main corridor.
I spotted Natalie and Paul setting up more charges above us and called out to them. The monsters were working as fast as possible to bridge the gap using their own bodies as stepping stones. It reminded me of the way their flesh and bone had mixed together during their attack on the station.
“Dad!” Olivia said covering her mouth in shock as the creatures moved closer.
“We need to send out the signal now!“
“No! We’ll ruin any chance we have of finding my mom!” Olivia stuttered. I shook my head and pointed above. “If we do nothing, your dad is going to die.“
She bit her lip and nodded. Tossing the backpack down, she took out the supplies necessary for creating a small receiver and Caleb and I watched the perimeter. A few of the stronger soldiers were searching for us. I passed Caleb his gun back and muttered, “Are you sure you can handle this?“
He sneered. “Don’t be going soft on me Pruitt. That’s not your style.” Then he cocked his weapon and pointed it toward the wide mouthed opening, “Now let’s give them hell.” We rained down what ammunition we had on the first wave, sending the beasts flailing backward as Olivia worked as quickly as she could.
“If you could speed this up I think we would all appreciate it!” I said kicking away at another drone. They were going to overpower us in a matter of seconds.
A sharp burst of noise echoed in response. She had done it. The monsters collapsed in fury as Olivia stood up and said, “This isn’t nearly enough to bring the whole thing to its knees but it should buy us some time. Come on!”
Caleb kicked away another drone that writhed as we ran up the next mineshaft to the upper levels. The light we had seen was growing brighter and brighter, but Paul and Nat were nowhere in sight. What if we were too late?
Ahead of me, Olivia’s eyes caught sight of something and she froze; causing me and Caleb to nearly run into her. I was about to berate her for being clumsy when I saw it for myself.
“What in the hell… is this…” Caleb said as we stepped into some sort of antechamber. The entire structure of the room didn’t resemble any of the rest of the mine, because instead of the usual rocks and gravel that held up the tunnels we saw nothing but rows and rows of thick vines and webbing. It looked like skin.
The walls themselves were moving and throbbing the way a heart would when pumping blood. And with each resonance that passed through the veins, long streaks of light flowed in and out. Those same streams of light were moving toward a central part of the wall, a canvas of urchin like nodes that all interconnected and vibrated together. This was the core, of that I knew there was no doubt. And then from the urchins of sinew and flesh we saw something begin to form. Each one of the nodes had the structure of a face but without eyes or nose. One by one they transformed, their neutral gray faces forming a massive wall of conjoined mimics.
Then there was a newly formed mouthpiece, and their voices echoed through the chamber; shaking us all to the bone.
“We…. are…. Storm..”
We were listening to the sound of corpses making a chorus of unholy noise.
Olivia stood closer. Somehow she was able to shake the bizarreness of this encounter and asked a question.
“What is this place?”
“Between? Like between life and death?” Caleb asked as he stood alongside Olivia.
“Everything. Nothing. Chaos. Order..“
“How is it even communicating with us?” Olivia asked.
“Same way as those drones. They remember what it was like to be human. They mimic. It’s all an imitation.“
“Why? Why is this happening? What do you want?”
They shifted, their sliding flesh twisting and reforming to grow a larger amalgamation of their neutral faces.
“Grow. Spread. Renew. Become.“
“Everything they learn, they remember. Look at this place. It’s a network. This is unnatural,” Caleb said gesturing toward the streaming lights. As I stared at it I realized he was right.
“But… but how. There’s no way it could travel so far, even with the storm.“
I heard a rifle cock and all of us looked toward the other entrance to see Paul standing there, blood dripping down his face as he took aim at the massive creature.
“Because this ain’t the only one,” he declared.
“What? You’re saying there’s more of this nastiness out there?” Caleb said, his words echoing in the chamber almost endlessly.
“See for yourself. This nest is small. It’s strong, to be sure. But this is like the tip of the iceberg. Everything here is new growth, desperate to expand and choke everything in its path,” Kearny said.
The shrieks of the colony grew louder from behind him and he gestured toward the way we had come in. “We were fools to ever come here. You need to leave before it’s too late.”
Olivia started to object and show him the receiver she had built, but I saw the seriousness in Paul’s face.
“You knew we would try to set up a broadcast.“
“And I knew you would fail. You’ve had your fun. Now it’s time to kill these sons of bitches,” Kearny answered.
Olivia stared at the skin map, her eyes filled with wonder and excitement. “Dad don’t you see? This confirms everything. The storm keeps them alive. Mom… she’s still out there!”
“Wake up girl. It’s over for her,” Paul snapped.
“How can you say that?” she said angrily.
“I can’t let you throw your life away the way I have Olivia!” Kearny said desperately.
That was when I saw something dangling from his belt. It shone in the unnatural light of the room and I immediately realized what it was.
“He’s got a bomb!“
Natalie backed away nervously when we realized it was about the rest of the C4. Enough probably to devastate this entire colony.
“Dad… don’t do this.”
“Has this always been a suicide mission for you?” Caleb asked in irritation. Paul’s determined eyes stayed on his daughter.
“Once this place is gone, we can be free. The storm will be gone.”
“But you just said yourself there are others out there. This accomplishes nothing!” she screamed.
The monsters were pushing their way into the room. Only the broadcast was slowing them down. From the eastern wall, the faces formed a larger cohesive frame.
A body. It stepped out from the wall, still fresh and new and tied to the surface of the core with vines that I guessed acted as umbilical cords.
Then the body opened it’s new eyes and stared toward all of us with mild fascination. Paul’s face alone told me it was someone he recognized.
“Reneé… it is you,” he said softly as he stared at the creature in amazement.
“She’s Alive…?” Caleb asked. He didn’t want to believe it. Neither did I.
“I am. I was. I am again.”
“This isn’t your wife.“
“I am what comes next. For all,” she said gesturing toward the bomb that Paul held ready to destroy everyone and everything.
“Did you not realize that this was inevitable? That nature would always take its course?” she asked in the most soothing and sickly voice.
I looked toward Paul, the screeching corpses that were desperately trying to overcome the signal and then understood.
“This was a trap. It was a trap all along. It views us as a threat.“
“Because of the broadcast?” Olivia guessed.
“Humans have always impeded nature. That must end,” Reneé’s body responded coldly.
Paul shook his head, staring toward his daughter.
“No. No I won’t let that happen. Olivia, listen to me. No matter what you think… this thing is not your mother. You have to leave this place. Protect the station. Protect all of us!” Kearny demanded.
“Dad don’t!” she said but it was too late. He had pressed the detonator and flung himself toward the core.
The nest collapsed.
I found myself free-falling, scrambling to grab ahold of anything solid as the mine tumbled in over itself.
When I hit the ground every ounce of my energy was pushed out of me. I don’t know for sure how long I lay there, but when I did have the strength to move around the place had dissolved into madness. The creatures were skittering everywhere about the walls, confused like a ship with no compass. I realized as I watched that it had to mean the last detonations Paul had made were a success and the core of this vile place was gone for good.
I heard a grunt not far off and saw Caleb push aside some of the debris to get to me. His whole face was covered with the smear of blood and soot. “Can you walk Dillion? We need to get out of here,” he said.
I nodded weakly and looked up as the thrashing sounds of the monster turning on each other grew louder. It would not be long before all of them had killed one another.
We made it through a portion of the mine shaft that was still intact, and Caleb took out his only weapon left; barely aiming it toward the next turn as we heard someone approach.
“Natalie!! Olivia!!” I called out as the two girls reunited with us in that dark tunnel.
Both of them gave the faintest of smiles under the circumstances, and we all knew there was still a long ways to go before we were out of this. Though I guessed that Olivia would want to mourn her father’s passing, now was not the time.
Caleb and I took the lead as we all pushed through the debris to find a way out. We were as careful as we could be, knowing that one false move could cause more of the place to collapse.
We had been going at it for almost thirty minutes when I heard the familiar rush of air from somewhere above us.
“The surface! We’re almost there!!” I said excitedly. We began to climb as rain hit the edges of the opening. I flinched, expecting to find it the same scorching storm we had fought for so long. But instead I was surprised to see that this didn’t hurt us at all. Had the destruction of the core allowed nature to return to some sense of order?
I couldn’t pause to think about it rationally, because each passing moment the wailing of the creatures was growing louder. They were tearing apart anything that came in contact with them.
With each notch of the ladder, the entire nest shook and collapsed more and more, widening until at last we were out. The four of us caught our breath there on the edge of the mine, the raging wind and storm that had protected it now was nothing but a few gusts. Above us though lightning continued to crash and burn across the sky. A few bolts struck near the open maw of the pit we had just climbed out of and I heard the roses of the monsters.
“We need to get to the van. Now.” Caleb pulled Olivia up and we felt the dirt beneath us begin to shake from the blasts of plasma that struck barely twenty feet away. The rest of the abandoned mine became a sinkhole quickly, pulling trees and other debris nearby into its abyss.
I looked down at the angry creatures, their frenzy becoming more and more concentrated with each moment. They were opening their mouths wider and wider overtop each other, teeth scraping against sinew as they formed a larger unit. It reminded of the horrific creature we had seen attack us at the main station, but this was ten thousand times bigger.
The menagerie of flesh and teeth climbed toward us with rapid ferocity. I scrambled to my feet and ran.
The wind howled as we pushed through the woods. The whole sky was growing darker as the monster rose. It had to be the size of a building roaring to life as it pursued us.
“Do we have any explosives in the van?” I screamed. Olivia nodded furiously as we ran with all our might. Caleb pulled out the keys and tossed them to me as we got closer.
I pulled open the door and revved the engine as the creature towered above us. Caleb grabbed one of the rifles and started to fire at its chest. Dozens of the smaller beasts fell to the ground screaming as I shifted to first gear.
Natalie opened up one of the floor compartments and took out the last of the c4. “Light it up!!” Olivia told her as the massive body of flesh crashed through the trees.
I swerved toward the open highway as the storm crashed against the sky louder and louder. I thought that we weren’t going to make it. And then Caleb grabbed the explosives and chunked them straight toward the maw of this hideous beast.
The heavens were aflame with the shower of blood and fire. Our van shook and tumbled across the prairie, barely staying on all four wheels as the monster gave out one final scream.
As they were burned and torn apart, the clouds cleared and a quiet returned to the sky.
I slowed down and looked at the rear view mirror, the bodies of the monsters burning to ash on the highway as I finally caught my breath.
It was over. Finally.
Even though we were in the clear, the drive back to Emerald Bay was laced with sadness. With the back door of the van gone I could see Olivia hanging her feet over the back bumper, watching the horizon fade away. She had lost everything. And I felt responsible for this because of the foolish plan I had concocted. I resolved when we got back to the station I would talk to her about it.
Driving into town felt so different than it had the first time when I caught the bus. If it felt like a ghost town then, I would wager this drive was nothing short of complete abandonment. There was no signs of any life, even in the diner or the motel. The people that had come with the storm had rolled out just as quickly.
Once back at KTHU, Natalie helped me unload the van and I watched Olivia tiredly climb out and announce she was going to bed.
“I can’t even imagine what she is going through.” Nat gave me a sigh. “I can… and it’s the worst feeling in the world,” she responded.
I finished setting things away and wiped sweat from my brow, exhausted from the long run we had returned from. It felt like the first time in ages that I had actually gotten a chance to rest.
When morning came, clear skies continued over Emerald Bay and I found Olivia in the break room making coffee.
I knew it was time for me to set things straight.
Her eyes drifted toward me and I muttered, “I was thinking… wondering really, if you wanted to have a… a memorial service for your father?“
Olivia nodded absently as she finished what she was doing but then she said something that surprised me, “He’s not dead.”
“He’s part of that storm now… or I guess, part of the larger one anyway. Another cog in a greater machine,” she said as she walked toward the control room.
“You think the storm… changed him?“
“The right word is probably assimilated. You were right, Dillion. The whole thing was always a trap… the storm wanted us to come for it,” she said bitterly.
“You mean it took advantage of your father’s greed, so that it could discover everything about KTHU?“
“I believe so. Which means we have a lot more work ahead of us,” she said as she started to switch on the consoles and check Doppler.
Caleb was already there, having fixed some of the older breakers and muttering, “And here I thought we were gonna get a holiday….”
“So it was for nothing,” I lamented.
“Dillion, aren’t you listening? My father is alive. And my mother too! I would call that discovery a win. It means these last three years weren’t in vain,” Olivia said.
“But we don’t know if we can even save them, or any of the other people that have been changed by this… force of nature.“
“That’s a battle we can fight another day. We’ve got time to lick our wounds, and prepare. The storm is gone for now, but it will be back,” Caleb said.
Before I got a chance to ask another question, the door behind us swung open and Natalie came in holding several thick yellow envelopes.
“I found these near the front door, looks like the runs kept coming even while we were away,” she commented passing the packages to Olivia.
“Whats all this?“
She responded by opening one of them and tossing me a bundle of cash. My eyes widened in surprise and Caleb laughed. “It’s payday, Pruitt! Or did you think we did this for nothing?” the hunter asked.
I looked at the bundle of bills and muttered, “Wait. What? Where does all this come from?“
“Don’t know. Dad didn’t know either, it just shows up every week and we use the funds to keep the station running and our bodies warm and well-fed,” Olivia responded as she counted it all up.
“And you never see who delivers it?“
“I mean, it’s an anonymous drop,” Natalie said with a shrug.
“I guess that answers one question,” I muttered.
“Yeah. Channel 46 is full of surprises,” Caleb laughed as he yawned and added, “I’m headed to the bunker to get some sleep.”
As he left I turned to Olivia and commented, “Seems like every time I learn something it just gives me more to ask.“
“You get used to that,” she said dryly. “Generators need a chance to recharge. And we’re gonna need to start testing different frequencies out. Might need more power,” she muttered as she started to get to work.
I set the money down and offered to help.
“I don’t think we can get this all done alone,” Olivia admitted.
Natalie was watching from the steps. “I could run another ad… maybe we could scrounge up some help?” she suggested.
I reflected on the past week or so, all of the things I had seen and experienced as a member of this crew.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Olivia agreed.
“Okay what do you think it should say?” Nat asked.
Neither of them seemed to know for sure, so I offered a suggestion.
“Seeking help at Channel 46 for unique storm chasing.“
I paused and gave them both an awkward smirk.
“Some experience required.“