When the Levee Breaks
There was no warning. But then, there never is.
His world exploded.
The site was a spiderweb of pipes and steel, sprawling over the earth like the screensaver on his computer. There had been a pinprick of light, maybe a welder’s torch, maybe a cigarette lighter had flashed, and then everything had gone white.
An acrid cloud rushed past Ted, carrying gravel and bits of shale that stung like hornets. Within the cordon of string surrounding the bench where employees were allowed to smoke, the ground trembled beneath his feet. Ted didn’t fall. If you were close enough to get knocked down, you weren’t ever getting up again. The site was designed to funnel explosions upward; to keep destruction of company property to a minimum. Small comfort to those who might be stuck in the flames.
Men he’d known for years; shared beers or fistfights with—sometimes both. Friends
A high-pitched whine filled his ears, but Ted had to imagine the sirens and screams shooting through the crackle of flames and the smaller, secondary blasts. He squinted, trying to get a better look.
It was all he saw. Hell, they’d see the flames from Edmonton. His cigarette fell from his lip. He’d promised Susanna he’d quit. We promised each other a lot of things when we got married. Ted fumbled for his cell, his fingers numb. The emergency response numbers were programmed into the phone, and he scrolled down, frantically looking for the water-bomber team. Site fire response wouldn’t be able to handle this—if they were even still alive.
The metal left standing in the wake of the blast started to twist and crumble inward. Greasy black clouds flared and plumed, filling the air with the stink of burning oil and melting PVC. He could see more explosions. One following another like footsteps marching in time.
And then something stepped from the fire.
It was too big to be real. Shaped like a man, but the height of a building, it stepped out of the inferno grinning like the devil himself. Ted dropped his phone as the creature tore a length of metal from the ground and held it aloft, brandishing it like a club. The challenge the creature bellowed at the sky somehow cut through Ted’s deafness, reaching some primal part of him. Louder and more terrifying than anything he’d ever experienced. He wanted to scream, but no human cry could scare away what towered over the wreckage.
The creature’s hair and beard were made of the same flames it had stepped from. Smaller tendrils danced along its bare arms and chest, where a man’s body hair would be. Its every breath came out in gouts of smoke, quickly welcomed by the burning work site. Its coal-black skin cracked and broke, the molten lines leaking lava. Its eyes were the blue of an acetylene torch, and it grinned with broken teeth of white metal.
Smaller forms followed the thing out of the fire. They could have been man-shaped, but they were oddly hunched, dragging themselves over the rough ground like wounded dogs. They screeched and pawed at the earth, rubbing up against the legs of the giant. It patted their heads with rough familiarity, before allowing them to retreat into the flames.
Rattling its rough sabre in the air, the giant opened its mouth to roar the deep belly-laugh of a Bond villain. Through the screaming in his ears, Ted heard a sound like lock, lock, lock. The creature turned to join its servants in the blaze, but as it strode away, explosions flaring with each step, it paused and looked back over its shoulder.
Their eyes locked. In the intensity of the creature’s gaze, Ted felt he could’ve caught fire. He looked away as the creature spoke in no language heard on Earth. And yet deep in the core of his being Ted understood what the words meant.
“I will burn the world.”
Ted sank to his knees and stared at the fire.
It was over an hour before a rescue worker found him. His phone remained on the ground, unused. He hadn’t even called Susanna to tell her he was alive. That he still loved her.
That it was the end of the world.
Thunder Road is available in print:
McNally Robinson Booksellers (my home store, and the most likely place to get a signed or personalized copy)