As Fire Response Marshal, Chuck Seager had a high life insurance. His wife had long left him but his estranged adult son, Sammy, in New York Island would stand to inherit something at least, if he perished. The future was a strange, remote place in Chuck’s mind – he didn’t much care to dwell on it, nor the past. Living in the present was better. It was practically the only way to live for a marshal.
The community people would always look at him with a mixture of respect and morbid curiosity. He could see it in their eyes, ‘why would he do this for a career choice?’ Every year for the last five, he had lost ‘brothers’ in the fire service to the flames. His skin was leathery, his eyes were hard, weathered by the harshest elements. He had seen things no one could dream up in their nightmares. When you left the city walls during a flare up, you were at the mercy of nature at her worst. The forest fires were bad enough, but the grasslands, when they ignited, it was a bore wave of flames, a golden tentacled monster that tore through a landscape faster than a man could run, devouring every morsel in its way.
California was becoming unlivable, a furnace – either just unbearable heat, or unbearable heat combined with huge fires – that was the hard reality of life on the west coast. With most of the towns and cities now cinders, the only people stubborn enough to stay, resided together in the dugout communities, big holes in barren land, with fire-proof buildings, motes and tall heat retardant shielding. They were small cities and completely self-contained, bar the supply flights in the winter. People from cooler climates called them ‘fire ants’, a nickname the inhabitants took without smiles of endearment.
Chuck knew a call was coming, you could mistake it for a sixth sense, but it was an instinct developed from experience, the air, the sun, the hot winds, he just knew.
The radio buzzed to life with static and the urgent, scratchy voice of a scout drone operator from the tall flight control tower in the centre of the city.
“Fire response, fire response, this is a code red. We have a grass fire that’s found the pines in sector five, it’s tearing up the mountains with a north easterly wind, a mother with her three children is requesting help at Fir Cove Lake – the cabins side. They had been on a hike when the camp evacuated. They’re cut off – fire from all sides. I advised them to enter the water, as deep as they could stand. Roads are only passable by fire trucks. I can barely see a path. A load of trees on the road and a lot of fire.”
“This is Marshal Seager, I’m on my way, tune into my truck – come back and guide me through.”
It took Chuck five long minutes to pull the gear on, thick gloves and boots, a closed helmet with a slim backpack breathing system, strapped about his fire-proof suit, complete with coolant webbing. Chuck had been inside fire many times before, he knew what his body could cope with in the suit, and he braced himself for sustained pain ahead. Fire was in equal measures mesmerising and terrifying when there was nothing else to see in front of you.
He would go alone, less life to risk. No auto AI car could navigate the changing environments on the road, but still, his fire truck was state of the art. It had a smart windscreen that could see through flames and smoke, to visually filter out everything but the road, it had a shell and wheels that resisted high temperatures, fire and heat. To gaze upon, it resembled a huge white shining pebble with three wheels either side, and it had the flashing blue and red emergency lights curled over its smooth roof. When he shut the door behind him, it was like a sanctuary, an airtight pod, an environment contained to itself that could keep him alive whilst the earth burned beneath him. He flipped the beacon on so the drone could ping his GPS.
There were only two trucks left for sector five and he was the only driver on duty. They were parked facing the exit barrier, as if waiting for their unknown judgement.
Driving out from the barriers of the dugout community was always hard, like leaving a mother’s arms, abandoning yourself to the unknown. Over the horizon ahead, the massive plume of rising smoke was choking out the sun. It hung in the air as it grew and mushroomed in size, then lurched to the right, a gust pushing it up and out, fanning the black fog over the land. The truck rumbled up the straight road toward the forest, the tarmac was already beginning to melt into sticky tar. A black pinprick of an object appeared far up near the terrible cloud, the drone, it hovered closer to the truck with its cameras swivelling, inspecting objects and paths to weigh up immediate options.
“Good to see you, drone one.”
“It’s Zach, call me Zach.”
“OK buddy, you new? It’s usually Jim.”
“Fresh out of training, I’m afraid. And Jim’s off duty, apparently on reprimand for a bar fight.”
“Ha! Let me guess, he punched Deputy Holden like he promised he would… To be fair, Holden had it coming, can’t begrudge him that… Well, that’s okay, as long as you remember the training and don’t screw up, we’ll get along fine.”
The filters on the windscreen were on fifty percent so Chuck could see the first rolling clouds of smoke smack into the nose of his vehicle. It was the beginning. It would get so much worse. He took a long slow yogic breath, controlled, deliberate, a way to calm any nerves that may tingle with alarm at what he was about to face. Fight or flight was no good to him, it drained his reserves, it was panic, and panic got you and those needing your help killed in a flash.
Zach began his job, as an airborne guide through the ever-changing labyrinth of the disintegrating roadscape.
“Both forks in the road ahead can lead to the lake, the right one is quicker normally but don’t take that one, it heads for the slopes, where the fire is raging its worst. Take the left and meander the lower road. It’s pretty gnarly, I know you’re an old hand at this but the fire is breaching the road in multiple places and trees are falling as we speak.”
“No problem, Zach, let’s go. Punch your cam view to my monitor.”
Chuck flicked a switch which let a wet oily substance ooze from tiny pores on the vehicle’s shell. It was a nano liquid that cooled and countered heat and flame and now was the right time to deploy it, as the first flames reached out from the roadside and licked the bodywork.
“Here we go,” said Chuck to himself.
The truck bounced over splintered pieces of fallen trees, that had become messy bonfires mid-road. They resembled termite’s nests, poking up in little hillocks. The fire that crowned them flattened for a second as the truck squashed them flat with its bulk, the fingers of flame exploring the axels. A few red lights began to flash on the dashboard, but nothing to worry about. Chuck had seen it all before. There was a tremendous sound, a roar, as a tall tree smashed over the roof of the truck into ragged black pieces of wood and ash. The whole cabin rocked side to side but no momentum was lost. It was a robust kind of war horse, the truck was doing what it was designed for, shaking off the inferno’s wrath.
The flames had become a solid wall of colour, so Chuck switched to full windscreen filter, the road edges appearing neon with a graphic overlay, defined from the fire.
The coolants in the vehicle and the suit were now fizzing about their conduits, bringing the heat back down to manageable.
Chuck could make out the unmistakable shapes of large animals, horses, bloated, black and burning beside the road. It took a long weaving meandering drive to reach the edges of the lake. He had had to reduce his speed to a crawl at times, where the road vanished and chaos reigned. At the lakeside, all the buildings were ablaze when the truck arrived but no signs of life could be seen. How could they? This was an unimaginable place.
“Nothing could survive that,” said Zach, “We are too late.”
“Put your cameras on the lake, Zach. They might have made it, that’s what you asked them to do.”
The drone hovered low over the lakeside, where the jetty was sparking and falling away strut by strut into the steaming grey water. Sure enough, almost obscured by the ethereal mists, were three bobbing heads, lapped by intermittently disturbed ripples.
“I have eyes on two children and the mother, but one is missing… Wait, I have eyes on the third child, Jesus… the third did not make it, repeat, there are only three to rescue…”
Chuck could hear that moment all fire rescue operatives felt upon their first sight of a dead body they felt responsible for.
“Zach, stay on the survivors. Three to rescue. Let’s work on getting them out.”
“The mother, she’s crying loudly, wailing. She’s clutching them real tight to keep their heads up above the surface, looks painful, unsustainable. You need to hurry… She’s seen the drone, she’s shouting.”
Chuck accelerated over the bumps and pits so he bounced in his seat. Finally, he swung the truck around close to the water’s edge and unclicked his seatbelts with a practiced speed. Once through the tight one man airlock of the truck, he pulled the latch to open the heavy external door.
‘Here it comes…’ he thought. That heat, that shock of fires and intense burning. The door slid open and with every inch it revealed a scene straight from Hell. There was a crawling discomfort clinging to Chuck’s every pore and follicle beneath the tight, hot costume.
“I’m out…” he said matter-of-factly.
Every step was painful. He had scooped up a compact bag from the door well, which contained thin, tightly folded, emergency heat suits. They were nothing like his state-of-the-art fire suit, but they would be enough for a minute or two for retrieval from the scene.
The ground was sandy lakeside dirt and pebbles, nothing to worry about. The nearest flames were about a metre away – long lashing spears of flame darting toward the water but never enough purchase to reach it. A forest fire up close, can melt your clothes to your skin, your helmet to your face, it was a miracle Chuck could withstand it at all, even with the best gear.
He found his bearings with the broken bits of remaining jetty where the canoes and small pleasure craft would often launch. All that remained now, were three desperate survivors. He could see they were blackened with soot and ash, despite being in water. The mother looked like she was in her early forties, hair tightly scrunched into a bun on her head, her once clean white T shirt now torn and dirty, revealing a bra and bloodied skin. She was grimacing and screeching in a kind of continuous panic. Over one shoulder was a boy, around ten years old, Chuck guessed, almost unconscious but clinging to her, and under her other arm, being held up in the water, a younger girl in dungarees and pigtails, crying unconsolably but thankfully, fully awake and uninjured. It was the rule of rescue, or triage, if they’re crying and loud they’re OK, it’s the quiet and silent ones you attend to first.
Chuck had to raise his voice through the mask as he waded into the water up to his waist. It was like sinking into a hot bath.
“What’s your name?” he yelled above the crackly and exploding fires.
“…Jenny! Can you get us out?”
“That’s what I am here for, Jenny. My name is Chuck and we have drone support,” he said stoutly, pointing up, as if trying to project a sense of control and positivity.
It was then he saw the boy face down in the water, burnt and still alight in patches on his jumper, where the ebbing lake had not extinguished the sparks.
“Sorry… We’ll come back for him, but now, you need to put these suits on. Pass the boy to me and get your daughter in a suit.”
Chuck passed her two suits, which had been neatly folded, and tossed the bag into the lake. The daughter found her footing and stumbled along with her mum, who was still holding her chin up above the water – this would be a hard logistical challenge. All three of them edged as close as they dared back toward the shoreline, until the water level was below their knees and they could wriggle into the special clothing.
Chuck pulled the suit roughly up over the weak boy’s feet. The child was trying to help but was slumped against Chuck for support, out of energy. Finally, with awkward stops and starts, the suit was on, complete with a visor hood to protect his face. As Chuck was so close now, he noticed the big ugly heat blisters around the boy’s cheeks and nose. The boy’s eyes were extremely watery and red but not just from tears. A forty foot wall of fire can take your skin off at a distance, can reduce your features, draw out your moisture with pain. He held the boy’s hand as he turned to guide the mother. With reassurance from the marshall, they were finally all dressed in the protective gear. Chuck turned to the near hovering drone and gave a solid thumbs up of confirmation.
“Let’s move out!” bellowed Chuck over his commlink.
With that, as if in rebuke, the mountain began to slide, at first a little snap in the earth, like a latch had released the topsoil, and then, a river of flames tumbled downward at an angle all at once. The flow crashed toward the riverbanks and swallowed up the fire truck and the last remnants of the cabins, in one unstoppable movement. The bulk of the truck had thankfully shielded them from the worst of the landslide. The drone had to swerve and ascend abruptly whilst Chuck yanked the three family members back further into the lake. The girl and the boy dunked under for a couple of seconds before Chuck and Jenny grappled them back to the surface and began to swim haphazardly in a circle. The fire was a crackling, screaming, exploding cacophony of raw sound. In the water, the three little pink bodies felt smaller than insects, less than air, doomed.
Some freshly dislodged timber from the jetty was in the lake with them and in seconds they realised they had the basics of a makeshift raft. They clung to a large plank of wood and kicked their legs so they drifted further toward the middle of the lake.
“Zach, now is the time for some options!”
“I hear you, Sir. I’m gonna take a scout around the lake edge, hang in there!”
The drone tipped on one side and zipped away, clinging to the contours of the lake, looking for anything that could be a survival opportunity.
Jenny was tired, distraught for sure, but more worryingly, very tired. He could see that clearly. Holding up two children and more than that, losing hold of one, that was a burden to exhaust the hardest of minds, let alone an unsuspecting mother on a field trip.
“Are we going to make it?” she asked, just to talk, just to ask any question and ground herself. Her eyes looked dead already.
“We’ll make it…” said Chuck, delivering a standard answer back, one that had no weight of evidence and they both knew it.
The water was a welcome serenity in the storm of flames. It gave them a slim margin of comfort, an untouchable substance immune to fire, offering a cooling contrast, but the steam rising across the surface seemed ominous, like the infection of heat was steadily poisoning the lake.
Chuck surveyed the lake border in all directions. It looked hopeless. A fire tornado was swirling into a blood red vortex on the opposite side, reaching up to the black, smoke clogged sky.
“Chuck, I have something. To the right up ahead, an abandoned boat, looks like the fire burnt through the rope and it is adrift in the water. Could offer you a solid floor to rest up at least.”
“Good, well done…. Come on, all of you, kick your legs – there is a boat up ahead.”
The boat was a single mold, modern, family fishing vessel with a small cabin, it was a lifeline. A ladder was poking into the water on its backboard – an addition for swimming, so once they reached it, one by one they dragged themselves like carcasses onto the deck of the vessel.
“Chuck, you can’t stay on that boat for long. The smoke – the heat, it’ll be too much, you know it.”
“Well, what do you suggest?” barked Chuck angrily, beginning to feel a hopelessness with the rookie drone pilot, with the surroundings, something he hadn’t experienced fully before. Protocol said that it was Zach’s job to act, Chuck had done all he could and had simply run out of ideas and almost run out of time.
Silence on the commlink.
As the smoke barrelled across the water, the three watched in shock as the drone, their only help, fell from the sky like a rock, straight down into the water, as if its electronic heart had stopped midair.
With the same, the boy began to croak and splutter and moan. The sounds of someone dying slowly are unmistakable to those who know. The brain forces the sounds out, like they are the most basic noises of resistance to the darkness, the paralysis, the other side of the line.
“Chuck, you have to do something…” she begged. “You’re a fire marshall, you have to do something!”
Chuck turned the boy on his side, in the recovery position. He was still breathing faintly. Chuck dared not remove the protective face guard on the boy – he sensed the smoke inhalation would finish him off in moments.
“It’s his birthday today, do you know that?! It’s his birthday. We went for a hike to celebrate!”
“The best I can do is give him chest compressions if his pulse stops. I’ll do that, but he’s still fighting it out right now. Just talk to him, keep him in this world.”
The little girl was sobbing relentlessly. It felt like the end of time was watching them, assessing them, with dark staring eyes.
“I’m here Bobby, I’m here. I love you, mummy loves you so much…”
Chuck stood up on the deck, and stared out at the horrific scene, partly to fade out Jenny’s desperation. It was hard to listen to her. These situations, these days, they were so vivid in colour and pain and relentlessness. ‘What had happened to this world?’ thought Chuck, sneering at the fury of fire.
The heat was stifling, it could finish them all. It was a matter of time.
Twenty minutes later, the boy was dead. There was nothing Chuck could do. He tried but it was obvious, it was pointless. Two children lost in one day – it was beyond a parent’s cruelest punishment.
Jenny was curled into a ball on the deck, shaking and crying – inconsolable. The girl, her last remaining soul, was wrapped around her like a shell, like a blanket of comfort, reminding her painfully, she was still a mother.
Chuck decided it was time to get back in the water. It was too hot on deck. It was suffocating. He tried to talk to them but they were in a far off place he could not reach or penetrate anymore. At one point he grabbed the girl but she fought him off and then the mother joined in with crude punches to his body.
“We get in the water now, or we all die,” he said calmly.
Jenny kicked out against his legs and it hurt. The little girl reverted to clinging to her parent and did not look up again. The fire crackled and crackled nearby, like a taunting devil in the woods. ‘There is nothing you can do now,’ the fire whispered.
Chuck backed away and lowered himself into the water slowly, footstep by footstep on the rungs of the little silver ladder.
“Please…” he said, one last time, but they just lay there, screaming and miserable in their personal prisons of disbelief. He fully submerged into the lake and pushed off from the ladder back to the buoyant plank of wood. The smoke seemed to swallow them up on the boat, as if his abandoning the scene had let the predator in to finish them off. The water was now black like oil, bar the teasing reflection of red dancing flames.
Seconds turned to minutes, minutes turned to nothing, time became meaningless, like the fire would never stop.
“I’m going to die here…” mumbled Chuck.
“Not on my watch!” a voice came from the commlink. It was Zach.
“Where are you? Zach, do you have another drone here?”
“Better than that big man, look to your left on the shore.” Through a momentary gap in the smoke clouds, Chuck made out the outline of a large egg-shaped vehicle and flashing blue and red lights.
“I borrowed the other truck, the captain ain’t happy but he couldn’t stop me… I’ll get fired for this you know, can hardly operate this thing and apparently it costs more than I earn in my whole career! That’s what Cap said just before I switched off the radio. I should have asked for more in the interview!”
Zach was clearly feeling more alive with this misadventure, more excited, more irreverent.
Chuck was already kicking his legs and moving toward the truck through the water.
“Zach… No survivors…” said Chuck without explaining, his voice almost breaking with hurt.
There was a long minute as the information was processed and then Zach formed his thoughts.
“Not true, one survivor. That’s one more than anyone expected, Sir.”
At the shore, an outstretched hand was already waiting at the airlock in the fire truck.
“If we can’t save each other, we should get different jobs,” said Zach through his helmet.
“You did good, you did real good. I’m gonna make sure they don’t kick you out Zach, in fact, you need to be in the field, drone ops don’t get paid enough I heard.”
They embraced momentarily in relief and shut the door firmly behind them, the blaze rudely denied its last desires.