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The Alien Years
By Robert Silverberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1994 Agberg, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
SEVEN YEARS FROM NOW
Carmichael might have been the only person west of the Rocky Mountains that morning who didn't know what was going on. What was going on was the end of the world, more or less, but Carmichael—his name was Myron, though everybody called him Mike—had been away for a while, reveling in a week of lovely solitude and inner retiming in the bleak beautiful wasteland that was northwestern New Mexico, not paying close attention to current events.
On this crisp, clear autumn morning he had taken off long before dawn from a bumpy rural airstrip, heading westward, homeward, in his little Cessna 104-FG. The flight was rough and wild all the way, a fierce wind out of the heart of the continent pushing his plane around, giving it a scary clobbering practically from the moment he was aloft.
That wasn't so good, the wind. An east wind as strong as this one, Carmichael knew, could mean trouble for coastal California—particularly at this time of year. It was late October, the height of Southern California's brush-fire season. The last time there had been rain along the coast was the fifth of April, so the whole region was one big tinder-box, and this hard hot dry wind blowing out of the desert was capable of fanning any little spark it might encounter into a devastating conflagration of blowtorch ferocity. It happened just about every year. So he wasn't surprised to see a thin, blurry line of brown smoke far ahead of him on the horizon by the time he was in the vicinity of San Bernardino.
The line thickened and darkened as he came up over the crest of the San Gabriels into Los Angeles proper, and there seemed to be lesser zones of brown sky-stain off to the north and south now, as well as that long east-west line somewhere out near the ocean. Evidently there were several fires at once. Perhaps a little bigger than usual, too. That was scary. This time of year in Los Angeles, everything was always at risk. With a wind as strong as this blowing, the whole crazy town could go in one big firestorm.
The air traffic controller's voice sounded hoarse and ragged as he guided Carmichael toward his landing at Burbank Airport, which might have been an indication that something special was happening. Those guys always sounded hoarse and ragged, though. Carmichael took a little comfort from that thought.
He felt the smoke stabbing at his nostrils the moment he stepped out of the plane: the familiar old acrid stink, the sour prickly reek of a bad October. Another instant and his eyes were stinging. You could almost draw pictures in the dirty air with the tip of your finger. This one must indeed be a lulu, Carmichael realized.
A long, skinny guy in mechanic's overalls went trotting past him on the field. "Hey, guy," Carmichael called. "Where's it burning?"
The man stopped, gaped, gave him a strange look, a disbelieving blink, as though Carmichael had just come down from six months in a space satellite. "You don't know?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't have asked."
"Hell, it's everywhere. All over the goddamn L.A. basin."
The mechanic nodded. He looked half crazed. Again the sagging jaw, again that dopey bozo blink. "Wow, you actually mean to say you haven't heard about—"
"No. I haven't heard." Carmichael wanted to shake him. He ran into this kind of cloddish stupidity all the time, and he hated it. He gestured impatiently toward the smoke-fouled sky. "Is it as bad as it looks?"
"Oh, it's bad, man, real bad! The worst ever, for damn sure. Like I say, burning all over the place. They've called out every general aviation plane there is for firefighting duty. You better get with your warden right away."
"Yeah," Carmichael said, already in motion. "I guess I'd better."
He sprinted into the main airport building. People got out of his way as he ran through. Carmichael was a sturdily built man, not particularly tall but wide through the shoulders and deep through the chest, and like all the Carmichaels he had fierce blue eyes that seemed to cast a searchlight beam before him. When he moved fast, as he was doing now, people got out of his way.
You could smell the bitter aroma of the smoke even inside the terminal. The place was a madhouse of panicky commuters running back and forth and yelling at each other, waving briefcases around. Somehow Carmichael jostled his way to an open data terminal. It was the old-fashioned kind, no newfangled biochip-implant stuff. He put a call through to the district warden on the emergency net, and the district warden said, as soon as he heard who was talking, "Get your ass out here on the line double fast, Mike."
"Where do you want me?"
"The nastiest one's a little way northwest of Chatsworth. We've got planes loaded and ready to go out of Van Nuys Airport."
"I need time to pee and phone my wife, okay?" Carmichael said. "I'll be in Van Nuys in fifteen."
He was so tired that he could feel it in his teeth. It was nine in the morning and he'd been flying since half past four, and battling that bastardly east wind, the same wind that was threatening now to fan the flames in L.A., had been miserable work every single mile. He was fifty-six years old, no kid any more, the old juices flowing more sluggishly every year. At this moment all he wanted was home and shower and Cindy and bed. But Carmichael didn't regard firefighting work as optional. Not with the possibility of a firestorm always hanging over the city.
There were times when he almost wished that it would happen, one great purging fire to wipe the whole damned place out.
That wasn't a catastrophe he really wanted to see, not even remotely; but Carmichael hated this giant smoggy tawdry Babylon of a city, its endless tangle of clotted freeways, the peculiar-looking houses, the filthy polluted air, the thick choking glossy exotic foliage everywhere, the drugs, the booze, the divorces, the laziness, the sleaziness, the street bums, the street crime, the shyster lawyers and their loathsome clients, the whips and chains, the porno shops and the naked encounter parlors and the massage joints, the virtual-reality chopshops, the weird people speaking their weird trendy lingo and wearing their weird clothes and driving their weird cars and cutting their hair in weird ways and sticking bones through their noses like the savages they really were. There was a cheapness, a trashiness, about everything here, Carmichael thought. Even the grand mansions and the fancy restaurants were that way: hollow, like slick movie sets.
He sometimes felt that he was bothered more by the petty trashiness of almost everything than by the out-and-out evil that lurked in the truly dark corners. If you watched where you were going you could stay out of reach of the evil most or even all of the time, but the trashiness slipped up sneakily around you no matter how well you kept sight of your own values, and there was no doing battle with it: it infiltrated your soul without your even knowing it. He hoped that his sojourn in Los Angeles was not doing that to him.
There had been Carmichaels living in Southern California ever since General Fremont's time, but never any in Los Angeles itself, not one. He was the first of his tribe that had managed somehow to wind up there. The family came from the Valley, and what Carmichaels meant when they spoke of "the Valley" was the great flat agricultural San Joaquin, out behind Bakersfield and stretching off far to the north, and not the miserable congested string of hideous suburbs just over the hills from Beverly Hills and Santa Monica that Angelenos understood the term to connote. As for Los Angeles itself, they ignored it: it was the cinder in the eye, the unspeakable blotch on the Southern California landscape.
But L.A. was Cindy's city and Cindy loved LA. and Mike Carmichael loved Cindy, everything about her, the contrast of her slim pixy daintiness against his big blunt burly potato-nosed self, her warmth, her intensity, her playful quirky sense of fun, her dark lively eyes and glossy curling jet-black bangs, even the strange goofy philosophies that were the air of life to her. She was everything he had never been and had never even wanted to be, and he had fallen for her as he had never fallen before; and for Cindy's sake he had become the family Angeleno, much as he detested the place, because she could not and would not live anywhere else.
So Mike Carmichael had been living there the past seven years, in a little wooden house up in Laurel Canyon amidst the lush green shrubbery, and for seven Octobers in a row he had dutifully gone out to dump chemical retardants on the annual brush fires, to save the locals from their own idiotic carelessness. One thing that just about every Carmichael grew up believing was that you had to accept your responsibilities, no complaining, no questions asked. Even Mike, who was as near to being a rebel as the family had ever produced, understood that.
There would be fires. That was a given. Qualified pilots were needed to go up there and drop retardants on them and put them out. Mike Carmichael was a qualified pilot. He was needed, and he would go. It was as simple as that.
The phone rang seven times at the home number before Carmichael hung up. Cindy had never liked answering machines or call forwarding or screen-mail or anything like that. Things like that were dehumanizing, mechanistic, she said. Which made them practically the last people in the world without such gadgets; but so be it, Carmichael figured. That was the way Cindy wanted it to be.
Next he tried the little studio just off Colfax where she made her jewelry, but she didn't answer there either. Probably she was on her way to the gallery, which was out in Santa Monica, but she wouldn't be there yet—the freeways would be worse even than on a normal day, what with all these fires going—and so there was no sense even trying her there.
That bothered him, not being able to say hello to her right away after his six- day absence, and no likely chance for it now for another eight or ten hours. But there was nothing he could do about that.
He took off from Burbank on emergency clearance, fire-fighting authorization. As soon as he was aloft again he could see the fire not for to the northwest It was denser now, a greasy black column against the pale sky. And when he stepped from his plane a few minutes later at Van Nuys Airport he felt an immediate blast of sudden unthinkable heat. The temperature had been in the low eighties at Burbank, damned well hot enough for nine in the morning, but here it was over a hundred. The air itself was sweating. He could see the congealed heat, like droplets of fat. It seemed to him that he heard the distant roar of flames, the popping and crackling of burning underbrush, the troublesome whistling sound of dry grass catching fire. It was just as though the fire was two miles away. Maybe it was, he thought.
The airport looked like a combat center. Planes were coming and going with lunatic frenzy, and they were lunatic planes, too. The fire was so serious, apparently, that the regular fleet of conventional airborne tankers had been supplemented with antiques of every sort, planes forty and fifty years old and even older, converted B-17 Flying Fortresses and DC-3S and a Douglas Invader and, to Carmichael's astonishment, a Ford Trimotor from the 1930s that had been hauled, maybe, out of some movie studio's collection. Some were equipped with tanks that held fire-retardant chemicals, some were water-pumpers, some were mappers with infrared and electronic scanning equipment glistening on their snouts. Harried-looking men and women were in frantic motion everywhere, making wild gestures to each other across great distances or shouting into CB handsets as they tried to keep the loading process orderly. It didn't seem very orderly.
Carmichael found his way to Operations HQ, which was full of haggard people peering into computer screens. He knew most of them from other fire seasons. They knew him.
He waited for a break in the frenzy and tapped one of the dispatchers on the shoulder. She looked up, nodded in a goggly-eyed way, then grinned in recognition and said, "Mike. Good. We've got a DC-3 waiting for you." She traced a line with her finger across the screen in front of her. "You'll dump retardants along this arc, from Ybarra Canyon eastward to Horse Flats. The fire's in the Santa Susana foothills and so far the wind is from the east, but if it shifts to northerly it's going to take out everything from Chatsworth to Granada Hills, right on down to Ventura Boulevard. And that's only this fire."
"Holy shit! How many are there?"
The dispatcher gave her mouse a couple of clicks. The map of the San Fernando Valley that had been showing on the screen went swirling into oblivion and was replaced by one of the entire Los Angeles basin. Carmichael stared, aghast. Three great scarlet streaks indicated fire zones: this one out at the western end of things along the Santa Susanas, another nearly as big way off to the east in the grasslands north of the 210 Freeway around Glendora or San Dimas, and a third down in eastern Orange County, back of Anaheim Hills. "Ours is the big one so far," the dispatcher said. "But these other two are only about forty miles apart, and if they should join up somehow—"
"Yeah," Carmichael said. A single wall of fire running along the whole eastern rim of the basin, maybe—with ferocious Santa Ana winds blowing, carrying airborne rivers of sparks westward across Pasadena, across downtown L.A., across Hollywood, across Beverly Hills, all the way to the coast, to Venice, Santa Monica, Malibu. He shivered. Laurel Canyon would go. The house, the studio. Hell, everything would go. Worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, worse than the fall of Nineveh. Nothing but ashes for hundreds of miles. "Jesus," he said. "Everybody scared silly of terrorist nukes, and three carloads of dumb kids tossing cigarettes can do the job just as easily."
"But this time it wasn't cigarettes, Mike," the dispatcher said.
"No? What then, arson?"
Again that strange stare and blink, much like the one the field mechanic had given him. "You serious? You haven't heard?"
"I've been in New Mexico the last six days. Way off in the outback."
"You're the only one in the world who hasn't heard, then. Hey, don't you ever tune in the radio news when you drive?"
"I flew there and back The Cessna. Listening to the radio is one of the things that I go to New Mexico to get away from having to do.—For Christ's sake, heard what?"
"About the E-Ts," said the dispatcher wearily. "They started the fires. Three spaceships landing at five this morning in three different corners of the L.A. basin. The heat of their engines ignited the dry grass."
Carmichael did not smile. "E-Ts, yeah. You've got one weird sense of humor, kiddo."
The dispatcher said, "You think it's a joke?"
"Spaceships? From another world?"
"With critters fifteen feet high on board," the dispatcher at the next computer said. "Linda's not kidding. They're out walking around on the freeways right this minute. Big purple squids fifteen feet high, Mike."
"Men from Mars?"
"Nobody knows where the hell they're from."
"Jesus," Carmichael said. "Jesus Christ God."
Half past nine in the morning, and Mike Carmichael's older brother, Colonel Anson Carmichael III, whom everyone usually spoke of simply as "the Colonel," was standing in front of his television set, gaping in disbelief. His daughter Rosalie had phoned fifteen minutes before from Newport Beach to tell him to turn it on. That would not have occurred to him, otherwise. The television was here for the grandchildren, not for him. But there he was, now, a lean, long-legged, resolutely straight-backed and stiff-necked retired army officer in his early sixties with piercing blue eyes and a full head of white hair, gaping like a kindergarten kid at his television set in the middle of the morning.
On the huge state-of-the-art screen, set flush into the pink ashlar facing of the Colonel's recreation-room wall, the same two stupefying scenes had been alternating on every channel, over and over and over again, for the entire fifteen minutes that he had been watching.
Excerpted from The Alien Years by Robert Silverberg. Copyright © 1994 Agberg, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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