David Koepp is high on the list of “writers whose work you definitely know, even if you don’t remember their names.” Koepp’s name is all over modern blockbuster cinema: He wrote 2002’s Spider-Man, the first of Sam Raimi’s trilogy about the wall-crawling superhero, and adapted Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park into the first film in the ongoing dinosaur franchise. He co-wrote the first of Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible movies, and the first (and last) of the stillborn Dark Universe movies, The Mummy, also starring Cruise. He wrote the 1993 cult crime classic Carlito’s Way, starring Al Pacino and Sean Penn, and the propulsive 2022 thriller Kimi, currently one of our contenders for the best movies of 2022.
Koepp also wrote or co-wrote David Fincher’s Panic Room, Ron Howard’s The Paper, Robert Zemeckis’ dark comedic fantasy Death Becomes Her, and Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Whether you love or hate any of those movies, you’ve almost certainly seen his work on screen.
Koepp is also a director — his films include the creepy Kevin Bacon ghost story Stir of Echoes, the propulsive Joseph Gordon-Levitt action movie Premium Rush, and the deeply weird Johnny Depp movie Mortdecai. And in 2019, he became a novelist with the bioterrorism thriller Cold Storage. His latest book, Aurora, has been optioned for a Netflix adaptation, which publisher HarperCollins says will be directed by The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Strange Days director Kathryn Bigelow.
Aurora is a Crichton-like “scientific thriller” based on real-world predictions about the possible outcomes of a large-scale geomagnetic storm on modern society. The novel centers around two locales: In Aurora, Illinois, a woman named Aubrey is looking after the 15-year-old son of her predatory ex-husband Rusty, who’s currently in the process of divorcing his latest wife. With the storm coming and the nationwide power grid predicted to go down, Aubrey scrambles to prepare and then to survive in the suburbs.
Meanwhile, her estranged, fantastically rich Silicon Valley CEO brother Thom has a $30 million bunker prepared for any contingency, and he faces completely different problems as the lights go out. Below, read an excerpt from Aurora, which arrives in stores on June 7.
What was suddenly clear to Aubrey was that she’d learned exactly nothing from COVID. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She had learned once again that wildly unexpected events do happen in life and that they can last way longer than you’d ever imagine, with much more far-reaching consequences. Therefore, it’s only basic common sense to stock up on supplies and hope the dreadful day never comes. She’d become mindful of the fact that she was no longer a solitary person in this world but, rather, the sole caregiver for a moody teenage shithead, and that she had a moral obligation to be prepared to provide for them both. Things happen. Be ready.
Her first step, eighteen months ago, had been to find out exactly what a person would need in the next big emergency. She’d googled “basic home disaster kit” and found hundreds of hits to choose from. The first few were sponsored, overpriced duffel bags jammed with too much of the wrong stuff, but a few links down she found an article with a dot-gov suffix, so she’d clicked on that. The handy checklist seemed to cover everything, not just for another deadly virus but for earthquakes, fires, power outages, even a dirty bomb explosion. Dutifully, she’d printed it out and taped it to the rust-proof black steel storage rack she’d bought on Amazon for $200 and put together one rainy Saturday, just around the corner from the basement stairs.
Aubrey stood in front of the rack now, staring at the two-page disaster checklist, which she’d even laminated before taping it to the support on the right side. She’d gotten off to a great start. The lamination, she felt, was a particularly heads-up touch. One item had been crossed off, the very first on the list: download the recommended supplies list. There was a neat black line drawn through it, a line so straight and true that it fairly shone with confidence and pride in one’s farsightedness. Yes, she’d done that.
The rest of the list, however, was clean, white, and unmarked. The storage rack itself held precisely one item, or eleven, depending on how you wanted to count them, a cardboard sleeve that had once held twelve cans of Goya Black Beans. One of the cans was missing, and she remembered clearly the day she’d made them as a side dish and discovered that both she and Scott despised Goya Black Beans. She’d only bought them because she’d read they could be stored for long periods of time, but, damn, you could hang on to those eleven cans of beans for a decade and still not eat them.
The rest of the storage rack was unburdened by survival supplies. There was no stored water, no battery-powered or hand-crank radio, no NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert, no flashlight, first aid kit, extra batteries, whistle, dust mask, plastic sheeting, duct tape, moist towelettes, garbage bags, wrench or pliers, local maps, extra cell phone with charger and backup battery, extra prescription medications, sleeping bag, or matches in a waterproof container. There was no anything else from the list at all.
Aubrey stood staring at the empty storage rack in despair. “That’s pathetic.”
The voice had come from behind her. She turned and saw Scott at the base of the stairs. She turned back, in no mood to be harassed. “I’m aware of that.”
“You didn’t stock up on anything?” “No. Did you?”
“I’m fifteen. It’s not my job.” She didn’t answer. Scott sensed a soft spot, so he pressed on it. “Did you really need to come down here and look at the rack in order to figure out there was nothing on it?”
“No, Scott, I was well aware there’s nothing on the rack. I came down to get this.” She tore the laminated list off the upright and headed for the stairs, brushing past him. He stayed where he was, staring at the empty shelves.
“I hate those fucking beans.” “So do I. Are you coming?” “Where?”
“To the store.”
He turned and looked at her. She was now at the top of the stairs, and he at the bottom. He furrowed his brow. “The thing hits in, what, four hours or something? Do you have any idea how many people are going to be at the store? Do you honestly think there will even be anything left at the store?”
She took a breath, trying to quell the anger that was rising in her, competing with panic as her dominant emotion. “It’s not going to get any better if we wait. Meet me at the car.”
She went upstairs, got her purse, and pulled out her wallet. A hundred and eleven dollars was, frankly, more than she usually carried, and she was pleased she at least had that much. They’d stop at the bank on the way, take the daily limit off her debit card, and put everything they could get at the Piggly Wiggly on her Visa while the machines were still working. Even if they bought every single thing on the list, in double quantities, it wouldn’t last them more than a couple weeks, but there was no point thinking that far ahead.
She scooped up her keys and headed for the front door, pulling her bag over her shoulder. Scott came up out of the basement and drifted toward the TV, which was tuned to increasingly frantic cable news. Scott’s eyes were big, his spiking anxiety belying the adolescent cool he was attempting to project.
Aubrey turned back, picked up the remote, and shut the TV off in the middle of the anchor’s breathless speculation about the duration of the impending worldwide power outage. Scott turned on her. “You don’t think we need to know that stuff?”
She took a step forward and looked up at him. He’d passed her in height about a year ago and she wasn’t used to it yet. At least it was good for her posture. She stood, ramrod straight, and looked into his icy blue eyes, the same color as his father’s.
“No. We don’t. What we need is to get to the store, now.”
He looked at her, his cheek twitching. The kid was practically biting a hole through his face, either in anger or fear. Probably both.
Aubrey softened her tone. “You know, I read once that if you’re sad, you’re living in the past. If you’re anxious, you’re living in the future. But if you’re at peace, you’re living in the present.”
“And if you’re completely fucked, you’re living with Aubrey.”
The urge to slap him was overwhelming. She even pictured herself doing it, in the surge of adrenaline that ran through her body. She saw her arm recoiling, right hand back over her left biceps, and then slicing outwards in an arc, her backhand catching him fully on the right side of his face. She saw his head snap to the side and the angry red patch grow on his cheek. She saw him turn back to her, shock in his eyes, his fingertips going to his inflamed skin, and she saw the expression on his face that said, “Wow, I have completely misjudged this lady and I better pull my shit together right this fucking second.” Somehow, seeing that scene play out in her mind was enough, and she didn’t need to live it.
Instead, she spoke in a level voice. “I’m sorry your parents dumped you, Scott. I’m what you’ve got. Get in the car.”
She turned and walked out.
In the car, she slammed the door, started it up, and waited. She’d made a strong, unkind play for control and now just had to hope she’d commanded enough of his respect to get through the next few hours. Her eye caught movement and she looked up, into the rearview mirror. They weren’t the only ones in the neighborhood who’d heard the news, and everybody was headed somewhere, doing what needed to be done while it was still possible to do anything at all.
Norman Levy, the eighty-eight-year-old former college professor who lived at the near end of the block, was standing in his front yard, holding a boxlike contraption in front of his eyes and staring directly into the late-afternoon sun. Aubrey half smiled for the first time that day. Of course Norman was informed and interested. He was never anything but that.
She turned and looked back at her house. Impatient, she pressed the flat of her hand on the center of the wheel and let out a long, fat horn blast. Scott came out a minute later, the screen door slamming behind him, shoving something thick in his front pocket. He left the front door hanging half open behind him. Jesus Christ, this is one hell of a disaster sidekick I ended up with.
Scott got in the car, shut his door, and stared straight ahead. Aubrey put it in reverse and pulled out, faster than she meant to, the front end bottoming out on the uneven sidewalk.
The bank had closed an hour early, and the line for the ATM cubicle snaked out the door and halfway down the block. Scott and Aubrey sat in the car for a moment, just staring at it.
“That line’s at least a half-hour,” Aubrey said. “Puts us behind at the supermarket. Do it or not?”
Scott had his phone out and was tapping away. She rolled her eyes. “Can whoever you’re texting please wait until we—”
He cut her off, reading from the phone. “It says the average ATM can hold as much as two hundred thousand dollars, but almost none of them do. In off-hours, it’s more like ten thousand.”
Aubrey’s eyes skimmed the line in front of the bank, counting fast. “That’s gotta be thirty people. Closer to forty.”
“What’s the most you can take out at once?” he asked. “Six hundred dollars.”
He shook his head, firmly. “Even if we waited, that thing’s gonna be empty by the time we get there.”
“I have a hundred and twelve dollars on me,” she said. “That’s it.”