25 Short Stories and Novellas Part 26

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That was how it was all over the city on Crazy Sunday, and on Monday and Tuesday too. The behemoths were outside the park, roaming at large from Harlem to Wall Street. Wherever they went they drew tremendous crazy crowds that swarmed all over them without any regard for the danger. Some famous news photos came out of those days: the three grinning black boys at Seventh and l25th hanging from the three purple rod-like things, the acrobats forming a human pyramid atop the Times Square beast, the little old Italian man standing in front of his house in Greenwich Village trying to hold a s.p.a.ce monster at bay with his garden hose.

There was never any accurate casualty count. Maybe 5000 people died, mainly trampled underfoot by the aliens or crushed in the crowd. Somewhere between 350 and 400 human beings were gobbled by the aliens. Apparently that stoop-and-swallow thing is something they do when they're nervous. If there's anything edible within reach, they'll gulp it in. This soothes them. We made them very nervous; they did a lot of gulping.

Among the casualties was Tim, the second day of the violence. He went down valiantly in the defense of the Guggenheim Museum, which came under attack by five of the biggies. Its spiral shape held some ineffable appeal for them. We couldn't tell whether they wanted to worship it or mate with it or just knock it to pieces, but they kept on charging and charging, rushing up to it and slamming against it. Tim was trying to hold them off with nothing more than tear-gas and blooglehorns when he was swallowed. Never flinched, just stood there and let it happen. The president had ordered the guardsmen not to use lethal weapons. Maranta was bitter about that. "If only they had let them use grenades," she said. I tried to imagine what it was like, gulped down and digested, nifty tan uniform and all. A credit to his regiment. It was his atonement, I guess. He was back there in the Gary Cooper movie again, gladly paying the price for dereliction of duty.

Tuesday afternoon the rampage came to an unexpected end. The behemoths suddenly started keeling over, and within a few hours they were all dead. Some said it was the heat -- it was up in the 90's all day Monday and Tuesday -- and some said it was the excitement. A Rockefeller University biologist thought it was both those factors plus severe indigestion: the aliens had eaten an average of ten humans apiece, which might have overloaded their systems.

There was no chance for autopsies. Some enzyme in the huge bodies set to work immediately on death, dissolving flesh and bone and skin and all into a sticky yellow mess. By nightfall nothing was left of them but some stains on the pavement, uptown and down. A sad business, I thought. Not even a skeleton for the museum, memento of this momentous time. The poor monsters. Was I the only one who felt sorry for them? Quite possibly I was. I make no apologies for that. I feel what I feel.

All this time the other aliens, the little shimmery spooky ones, had stayed holed up in Central Park, preoccupied with their incomprehensible research. They didn't even seem to notice that their behemoths had strayed.

But now they became agitated. For two or three days they bustled about like worried penguins, dismantling their instruments and packing them aboard their ship; and then they took apart the other ship, the one that had carried the behemoths, and loaded that aboard. Perhaps they felt demoralized. As the Carthaginians who had invaded Rome did, after their elephants died.

On a sizzling June afternoon the alien ship took off. Not for its home world, not right away. It swooped into the sky and came down on Fire Island: at Cherry Grove, to be precise. The aliens took possession of the beach, set up their instruments around their ship, and even ventured into the water, skimming and bobbing just above the surface of the waves like demented surfers. After five or six days they moved on to one of the Hamptons and did the same thing, and then to Martha's Vineyard. Maybe they just wanted a vacation, after three weeks in New York. And then they went away altogether.

"You've been having an affair with Maranta, haven't you?" Elaine asked me, the day the aliens left.

"I won't deny it."

"That night you came in so late, with wine on your breath. You were with her, weren't you?"

"No," I said. "I was with Tim. He and I sneaked into the park and looked at the aliens."

"Sure you did," Elaine said. She filed for divorce and a year later I married Maranta. Very likely that would have happened sooner or later even if the Earth hadn't been invaded by beings from s.p.a.ce and Tim hadn't been devoured. But no question that the invasion speeded things up a bit for us all.

And now, of course, the invaders are back. Four years to the day from the first landing and there they were, pop whoosh ping thunk, Central Park again. Three ships this time, one of spooks, one of behemoths, and the third one carrying the prisoners of war. Who could ever forget that scene, when the hatch opened and some 350 to 400 human beings came out, marching like zombies? Along with the bison herd, half a dozen squirrels, and three dogs. They hadn't been eaten and digested at all, just collected inside the behemoths and instantaneously transmitted somehow to the home world, where they were studied. Now they were being returned. "That's Tim, isn't it?" Maranta said, pointing to the screen. I nodded. Unmistakably Tim, yes. With the stunned look of a man who has beheld marvels beyond comprehension.

It's a month now and the government is still holding all the returnees for debriefing. No one is allowed to see them. The word is that a special law will be pa.s.sed dealing with the problem of spouses of returnees who have entered into new marriages. Maranta says she'll stay with me no matter what; and I'm pretty sure that Tim will do the stiff-upper-lip thing, no hard feelings, if they ever get word to him in the rebriefing camp about Maranta and me. As for the aliens, they're sitting tight in Central Park, occupying the whole place from 96th to ll0th and not telling us a thing. Now and then the behemoths wander down to the reservoir for a lively bit of wallowing, but they haven't gone beyond the park this time.

I think a lot about Hannibal, and about Carthage versus Rome, and how the Second Punic War might have come out if Hannibal had had a chance to go back home and get a new batch of elephants. Most likely Rome would have won the war anyway, I guess. But we aren't Romans, and they aren't Carthaginians, and those aren't elephants splashing around in the Central Park reservoir. "This is such an interesting time to be alive," Maranta likes to say. "I'm certain they don't mean us any harm, aren't you?"

"I love you for your optimism," I tell her then. And then we turn on the tube and watch the evening news.

Hot Times in Magma City.

by 1995 Robert Silverberg.

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It's seven in the morning and the big wall-screen above Cal Mattison's desk is beginning to light up like a Christmas tree as people start phoning Volcano Central with reports of the first tectonic events of the day. A little bell goes off to announce the arrival of each new one. _Ping!_ and there's a blue light, a fumarole popping open in somebody's back yard in Baldwin Park, steam but no lava. _Ping!_ and a green one, minor lava tongue reaching the surface in Temple City. _Ping!_ again, blue light in Pico Rivera. And then come three urgent pings in a row, bright splotch of red on the screen, big new plume of smoke must be rising out of the main volcanic cone sitting up there on top of the Orange Freeway where the intersection with the Pomona Freeway used to be.

"Busy morning, huh?" says Nicky Herzog, staring over Mattison's shoulder at the screen. Herzog is a sharp-faced hyperactive little guy, all horn-rimmed gla.s.ses and beady eyes, always poking his big nose into other people's business.

Mattison shrugs. He is a huge man, six feet five, plenty of width between his shoulders, and a shrug is a big, elaborate project for him. "s.h.i.t, Nicky, this isn't anything, yet. Go have yourself some breakfast."

"A bunch of blues, a green, and a red, and that ain't anything, you say?"

"Nothing that concerns us, man." Mattison taps the screen where the red is flashing. "Pomona's ancient history. It isn't none of our business, what goes on in Pomona, not any more. Whatever happens where you see that red, all the harm's already been done, can't do no more. Not now. And those blues -- s.h.i.t, it's just some smoke. Let 'em put on gas masks. As for the green in Temple City, well -- " He shakes his head. "Nah. They'll take care of that out of local resources. Get yourself some breakfast, Nicky."

"Yeah. Yeah. Scrambled eggs and snake meat."

Herzog slithers away. He's sort of like a snake himself, Mattison thinks: a narrow little guy, no width to him at all, moves in a funny head-first way as though he's cutting a path through the air for himself with his nose. He used to be something in Hollywood, a screenwriter or a story editor or something, a successful one, too, Mattison has heard, before he blitzed out on Quaaludes and Darvan and c.o.ke and G.o.d knows what-all else and wound up in Silver Lake Citizens Service House with the rest of this bunch of casualties.

Mattison is a former casualty himself, who once had carried a very serious boozing jones on his back that had a heavy negative impact on his professional performance as a studio carpenter and extremely debilitating effects on his driving skills. His drinking also led him to be overly free with his fists, not a wise idea for a man of his size and strength, because he tended to inflict a lot of damage and that ultimately involved an unfortunate amount of legal expense, not to mention frequent and troublesome judicial chastis.e.m.e.nt. But all of that is behind him now. Matthison, who is 28 years old, single, good-natured and reasonably intelligent, is well along in recovery. For the past eighteen months he has been not just an inmate but also a staffer here at Silver Lake, gradually making the transition from victim of his own lousy impulse control to guardian of the less fortunate, an inspiration to those who seek to pull themselves up out of the mud as he has done.

Various of the less fortunate are trickling into the room right now. Official wake-up time at Silver Lake Citizens Service House is half past six, and you are expected to be down for breakfast by seven, a rule that nearly everybody observes, since breakfast ceases to be available beyond 7:30, no exceptions made. Mattison himself is up at five every morning because getting up unnaturally early is a self-inflicted part of his recovery regime, and Nicky Herzog is usually out of his room well before the required wake-up hour because perpetual insomnia has turned out to be an accidental facet of his recovery program, but most of the others are reluctant awakeners at best. Some would probably never get out of bed at all, except for the buddy-point system in effect at the house, where you get little bonus goodies for seeing to it that your roommate who likes to sleep in doesn't get the chance to do it.

Mary Maud Gulliver is the first one in, followed by her sullen-faced roommate Annette Lopez, and after them, a bunch of rough beasts slouching toward breakfast, come Paul Foust, Herb Evans, Lenny Prochaska, Nadine Doheny, Marty Cobos, and Marcus Hawks. That's most of them, and the others will be along in two or three minutes. And, sure enough, here they come. That musclebound bozo Blazes McFlynn is the next one down -- Mattison can hear him in the breakfast room razzing Herzog, who for some reason he likes to goof around with. "Good morning, you miserable little f.a.ggot," McFlynn says. "You f.u.c.king creep." Herzog sputters back, an angry, wildly obscene and flamboyant response. He's good with words, if nothing else. McFlynn drives him nuts; he has been reprimanded a couple of times for the way he acts up when Herzog's around. Herzog is an edgy, unlikable man, but as far as Mattison knows he isn't any f.a.ggot. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Buck Randegger, slow and slouching and affable, appears next, and then voluminous Melissa Hornack, she of the six chins and hippopotamoid rump. Just two or three missing, now, and Mattison can hear them on the stairs. The current population of Silver Lake Citizens Service House is fourteen inmates and four full-time live -- in staff. They occupy a s.p.a.cious and comfortable old three-story sixteen-room house that supposedly was, once upon a time back around l920 or l930, the mansion of some important star of silent movies. The place was an even bigger wreck, up until five or six years ago, than its current inhabitants were themselves, but it has been nicely rehabilitated by its occupants since then as part of their Citizens Service obligation.

Mattison has long since had breakfast, but he usually goes into the dining room to sit with the inmates while they eat, just in case someone has awakened in a testy mood and needs to be taken down a notch or two. Since everybody here is suffering to a greater or lesser degree from withdrawal symptoms of some sort all the time, and even those who are mostly beyond the withdrawal stage are not beyond the nightmare-having stage, people can get disagreeably edgy, which is where Mattison's size is a considerable occupational a.s.set.

But just as he rises now from the screen to follow the others in, a series of _pings_ comes from it like church bells announcing Sunday morning services, and a little line of green dots s.p.a.ced maybe six blocks apart springs up out in Arcadia, a few blocks east of Santa Anita Avenue from Duarte Road to Foothill Boulevard, and then curving northwestward, actually reaching beyond the 210 Freeway a little way in the direction of Pasadena. This is new. By and large the Zone's northwestern boundary has remained well south of Huntington Drive, with most of the thrust going down into the lower San Gabriel Valley, places like Monterey Park and Rosemead and South El Monte, but here it is suddenly jumping a couple of miles on the diagonal up the other way with lava popping up on the far side of Huntington, practically to the edge of the racetrack and the Arboretum and quite possibly cutting the 210 in half.

It's very bad news. Mattison doesn't need to wait for alarm bells to go off to know that. Everybody wants to believe that the Zone is going to remain confined to the hapless group of communities way out there at the eastern end of the Los Angeles Basin where the trouble started, but what everybody fears is that in fact it's going to keep right on marching unstoppably westward until it gets to the ocean, like a bad case of acne that starts on a teenager's left cheek and continues all the way to the ankles. They are doing a pretty good job of controlling the surface flows, but n.o.body is really sure about what's going on deep underground, and at this very minute it might be the case that angry rivers of magma are rolling toward Beverly Hills and Trousdale Estates and Pacific Palisades, heading out Malibu way to give the film stars one more lovely surprise when the fabulous new Pacific Coast Highway Volcano abruptly begins to poke its head up out of the surf. Of course, it's a long way from Arcadia to Malibu. But any new westward extension of the Zone, even just a couple of blocks, is a chilling indication that the process is far from over, indeed may only just have really begun.

Mattison turns toward the dining room and calls out, "You better eat fast, guys, because I think they're going to want us to suit up and get -- "

And then the green dots on the screen sprout fluorescent yellow borders and the alarm bell at the Silver Lake Citizens Service House starts going off.

What the alarm means is that whatever is going on out in Arcadia has proven to be a little too much for the local lava-control teams, and so they are beginning to call in the Citizens Service people as well. The whole idea of the Citizens Service Houses is that they are occupied by troubled citizens who have volunteered to do community service -- any sort of service that may be required of them. A Citizens Service House is not quite a jail and not quite a recovery center, but it partakes of certain qualities of both inst.i.tutions, and its inhabitants are people who have f.u.c.ked up in one way or another and done injury not only to themselves but to their fellow citizens, injury for which they can make rest.i.tution by performing community service even while they are getting their screwed -- up heads gradually screwed on the right way.

What had started out to involve a lot of trash-collecting along freeways, tree-pruning in the public parks, and similar necessary but essentially simple and non-life-threatening ch.o.r.es, has become a lot trickier ever since this volcano thing happened to Los Angeles. The volcano thing has accelerated all sorts of legal and social changes in the area, because flowing lava simply will not wait for the usual bulls.h.i.t California legal processes to take their course. And so it was just a matter of two or three weeks after the Pomona eruption before the County Supervisors asked the Legislature to extend the Citizens Service Act to include lava control, and the bill pa.s.sed both houses the next day. Whereupon the miscellaneous boozers, druggies, trank-gobblers, and other sad substance-muddled f.u.c.kupniks who inhabit the Citizens Service Houses now find themselves obliged to go out on the front lines at least three or four times a month, and sometimes more often than that, to toil alongside more respectable folk in the effort to keep the rampaging magmatic flow from extending the grip that it already holds over a significant chunk of the Southland.

It is up to the dispatchers at Volcano Central in Pasadena to decide when to call in the Citizens Service people. Volcano Central, which is an arm of the Cal Tech Seismological Laboratory with its headquarters on the grounds of Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the hills north of town, monitors the whole Tectonic Zone with a broad array of ground-based sensors and satellite-mounted scanners, trying to keep track of events as the magma outcropping wanders around beneath the San Gabriel Valley, and if possible even to get a little ahead of things.

Every new outbreak, be it simply a puff of smoke rising from a new little fumarole or a full-scale barrage of tephra and volcanic bombs and red-hot lava pouring from some new mouth of h.e.l.l, is duly noted by JPL computers, which constantly update the myriad of data screens that have been set up all over town, like the one above Cal Mattison's desk in the community room of the Silver Lake Citizens Service House. It is also Volcano Central's responsibility, as master planners of the counteroffensive, to summon the appropriate kind of help. The Fire Department first, of course: that has by now been greatly expanded and reorganized on a region-wide basis, not without a lot of political in-fighting and general grief, and fire-fighters are called in according to a concentric-circles system that widens from the Zone itself out to, eventually, Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach. Their job, as usual, is to prevent destruction of property through the spreading of fires from impacted areas to surrounding neighborhoods. Volcano Central will next alert the National Guard divisions that have been put on permanent activation in the region; and when even the Guard has been stretched too thin by the emergency, the Citizens Service Houses people will be called out, along with other a.s.sorted civilian volunteer groups that have been trained in lava-containment techniques.

Mattison has no real way of finding out whether it's true, but he believes that the Silver Lake house gets called out at least twice as often as any of the other Citizens Service Houses he knows of. He may actually be right. The Silver Lake house is located in an opportune spot, practically in the shadow of the Golden State Freeway: it is an easy matter for its inhabitants, when summoned, to take that freeway to one interchange or another and zoom out via the Ventura Freeway to the top end of the Zone or the San Bernardino Freeway to the southern end, whereas anybody coming from the Mar Vista house or the one in West Hollywood or the Gardena place would have a much more extensive journey to make.

But it isn't just the proximity factor. Mattison likes to think that his particular bunch of rehabs are notably more effective on the lava line than the bozos from the other houses. They have their problems, sure, big problems; but somehow they pull themselves together when their a.s.ses are on the line out there, and Mattison is terrifically proud of them for that. It might also be that he himself is considered an a.s.set by Volcano Central -- his size, his air of authority, his achievement in having pulled himself up out of very deep s.h.i.t indeed into his present quasi-respectability. But Mattison doesn't let himself dwell on that angle very much. He knows all too well that what you usually get from patting yourself on your own back is a dislocated shoulder.

The bell is ringing, anyway. So here they go again.

"Can we finish breakfast, at least?" Herzog wants to know.

Mattison glances at the screen. Seven or eight of those green-and-yellow dots are blinking there. He translates the cool abstractions of the screen into the probable inferno that has burst out just now in Arcadia and says, glancing at his watch, "Gulp down as much as you can in the next forty-five seconds. Then get your a.s.ses in motion and head toward the suiting room."

"Jesus Christ," somebody mutters, maybe Cobos. "Forty-five f.u.c.king seconds, Matty?" But the others are smart enough to know not to waste any of those seconds b.i.t.c.hing, and are shoveling the food down the hatch while Mattison is counting off the time. At the fifty-third second, for he is fundamentally a merciful man, he tells them that breakfast is over and they need to get to work.

The lava suits are stored downstairs, in a room off the main hallway that once might have been an elegant paneled library. The remains of the paneling is still there, rectangles of mahogany or some other fancy wood, but the panels are hard to see any more, because just about every square inch of the room is packed with brightly gleaming lava suits, standing upright elbow to elbow and wall to wall like a silent congregation of robots awaiting activation.

What the suits are, essentially, is one-person body-tanks, solid st.u.r.dy sh.e.l.ls of highly reflective melnar that are equipped with tractor treads, shovel appendages, laser knives, and all sorts of other auxiliary gadgetry. Factories in Wichita and Atlanta work twenty-four hours a day turning them out, nowadays, with the Federal Government paying the not insigificant expense as part of the whole ongoing disaster relief program that Los Angeles's latest and most spectacular catastrophe has engendered. Mattison sometimes wonders why it was considered worthwhile to keep fifteen or twenty of these extremely costly suits standing around idle much of the time at each of the Citizens Service Houses, when it would be ever so much more efficient for the suits to be stored at some central warehouse at the edge of the Zone, where they could be handed out each day to that day's operating crew. But it is a question he has never bothered to raise with anybody, because he knows that the Federal Government likes to operate in mysterious ways beyond the capacity of mere mortals to comprehend; and, anyway, the suits have been bought and paid for and are here already.

They come in two sizes, bulky and bulkier. Mattison hauls the three nearest suits out into the hallway and hands them to people of the appropriate size, which creates s.p.a.ce for the others to go into the storage room and select their own suits for themselves. As usual, there is plenty of jostling and b.u.mping, and some complaining, too. Herb Evans is just barely big enough for the bigger size suit, and might be better off with the smaller one, in which he could move about less awkwardly; but he always wants one of the big ones, and the one he has grabbed right now has also been grabbed from the other side by Marcus Hawks, who is six feet two and has a better claim to it. "I got it first," Evans is yelling. Hawks, not letting go, says, "You go get one that's the right size for you, you little dumb motherf.u.c.ker," and Mattison sees immediately that they both are prepared to defend their positions with extensive disputatory zeal, perhaps for the next three or four hours. He isn't surprised: the denizens of Citizens Service Houses are not, as a rule, gifted with a lot of common sense, but they often make up for that by being extremely argumentative and vindictive. There's no time to let Evans and Hawkins sort things out; Mattison strides between them, gently but firmly detaches Evans's grip from one arm of the suit and Hawkins's from the other, and sends the two of them in opposite directions to find different suits entirely. He takes the big one for himself and moves out in the hallway with it so that he can get himself into it.

"As soon as you have your suits on," Mattison bellows, "head on out into the street and get on board the truck, fast as you can!"

He squeezes into his own with difficulty. In truth he's a little too big even for the big size, about an inch too tall and two or three inches too broad in the shoulders, but by scrunching himself together somewhat he can manage it, more or less. There's no way he can stay behind when the Silver Lake house gets called out on lava duty, and he doesn't know any tailors who do alterations on lava suits.

The big olive-green military transport truck that is always parked now in readiness outside the house has let its tailgate down, and, one by one, the suited-up lava fighters go rolling up the slope into the truck and take their positions on the open back deck. Mattison waits in the street until everybody is on board who's going on board, twelve of the fourteen residents -- Jim Robey, who is coming slowly back from the brink of cirrhosis, is much too freaky-jittery to be sent out onto the lava front, and Melissa Hornack is disqualified by virtue of her extreme obesity -- and two of the four staffers, Ned Eisenstein, the house paramedic, and Barry Gibbons, the cook, who does not suit up because he is the one who drives the truck, and you can't drive a truck when you're wearing a thing that's like a small tank. The remaining member of the staff is Donna DiStefano, the actual director of the house, who would love to go along but is required by her official position to remain behind and look after Robey and Hornack.

"We're all set," Mattison tells Gibbons over his suit radio, and swings himself up onto the truck. And away they go, Zoneward bound.

Early as it is, the day is warming up fast, sixty degrees or so already, a gorgeously spring-like February morning, the air still reasonably clear as a result of the heavy rain a couple of nights before. This has been a particularly rainy winter, and Mattison often likes to play with the idea that one of these days it'll rain hard enough to douse the f.u.c.king volcanoes entirely, but he knows that that's impossible; the magma just keeps coming up and up out of the bowels of the earth no matter what the weather is like on top. A volcano isn't like a bonfire, after all.

The rains have made everything green, though. The hills are pure emerald, except where some humongous bougainvillea vine is setting off a gigantic blast of purple or orange. Because the prevailing winds this time of year blow from west to east, there's no coating of volcanic ash or other pyroclastic c.r.a.p to be seen in this part of town, nor can you smell any of the noxious gases that the million fumaroles of the Zone are putting forth; all such garbage gets carried the other way, turning the world black and nauseating from San Gabriel out to San Berdoo and Riverside.

What you can see, though, is the distant plume of smoke that rises from the summit of Mount Pomona, which is what the main cone seems to have been named. The mountain itself, which straddles two freeways, obliterating both, in a little place called City of Industry just southwest of Pomona proper, isn't visible, not from here -- it's only 700 feet high, after six months of building itself up out of its own acc.u.mulation of ejected debris. But the column of steam and fine ash that emerges from it is maybe five times as high, and can be seen far and wide all over the Basin, except perhaps in West L.A. and Santa Monica, where none of this can be seen or smelled and all they know of the whole volcano thing, probably, is what they read in the _Times_ or see on the television news.

As the truck heads east along the Ventura, though, signs of the disaster begin to show up as early as Glendale, and by the time they have crossed over to the 210 Freeway and are moving through Pasadena there can be no doubt that something out of the ordinary has been going on a little further ahead. Everything from about Fair Oaks Avenue eastward is sooty from a light coating of fine pumice and volcanic ash that has been carried out of the Zone by occasional blasts of Santa Ana winds, and beyond Lake Avenue the whole area is downright filthy. Mattison -- who is a native Angeleno, having grown up in Northridge and Van Nuys and lived for most of his adult life in a succession of furnished apartments in West Los Angeles -- thinks of the impeccable mansions just to his right over in San Marino, with their manicured lawns and their blooming camellias and azaleas and aloes, and shakes his head at the thought of the way they must look now. He can remember one epic bender that began in Santa Monica and ended up around here in which he found himself climbing over the wall at three in the morning into the enormous sprawling garden of giant cactus at the Huntington Library, right down there in San Marino, and wandering around inside thinking that he had been transported to some other planet. It must look like Mars in there for sure these days, he thinks.

At Sierra Madre Boulevard the truck exits the freeway. "It's blocked by a pile of lava bombs just beyond San Gabriel Boulevard," Gibbons explains to him via the suit radio. "They hope to have it cleared by this afternoon." He goes zigging and zagging in a south-easterly way on surface streets through Pasadena until they get to Huntington Drive, which takes them past Santa Anita Racetrack and brings them smack up into a National Guard roadblock a couple of blocks just beyond.

The Guardsmen, seeing a truckload of mirror-bright lava suits, wave them on through. Gibbons, who is undoubtedly getting his driving instructions now direct from Volcano Central, turns left on North Second Avenue, right on Colorado Boulevard, and brings the truck to a halt a little way down the street, where half a block of one-story commercial buildings is engulfed in flame and red gouts of lava are welling up out of what had until five or six hours ago been a burrito shop. The site is cordoned off, but just beyond the cordon a bunch of people, Mexicans, some Chinese, maybe a few Koreans, are standing around weeping and wailing and waving their arms toward heaven -- the proprietors, most likely, of the small businesses that are getting destroyed here.

"Everybody out," Mattison orders, as the tailgate goes down.

Firefighters are already at work at the periphery of the scene, hosing down the burning buildings in the hope of containing the blaze before it sets the whole neighborhood on fire. But the lava outcropping has been left for Mattison and his crew to handle. Lava containment is a new and special art, which the Citizens Service House people have gradually come to master, and the beleaguered Fire Department guys are quite content to leave that kind of work to them and concentrate on putting out conventional fires.

Quickly Mattison sizes up the picture. Things are just in the very early stages, he sees. There's still hope for containment.

What has happened here is that a stray arm of the underlying magma belt that is causing this whole mess has wandered up through the bedrock and has broken through the surface in eight or nine places along a diagonal line a couple of miles long. It's as if a many-headed serpent made of fiery-hot lava has poked all its heads up at the same time.

For just one volcano to have sprung up out here would have been bad enough. But the area now known as the San Gabriel Valley Tectonic Zone has been favored, over the past year or so, with a whole mult.i.tude of them -- little ones, but lots. The Mexicans call the _Zone La Mesa de los Hornitos_ -- that means "little ovens," _hornitos_. You can cook your tortillas on the sidewalk anywhere in the affected area.

The lava pool here is maybe eleven feet by fifteen, a puddle, really, just enough to take out the burrito joint. The heat it's giving off is, of course, fantastic: Mattison, who has become an expert in such things by this time, can tell just at a glance that things are running about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Lava at that temperature glows yellowish-red. He prefers to work with it glowing bright-red, which is about 400 degrees cooler, or, even better, dark blood-red, 400 degrees cooler than that; but he is not given his choice of temperatures in these situations, and at least they are not yet into the white-heat stage, which is a b.i.t.c.h and a half to cope with.

It is the heat of the lava, and not any fire from below, that has set the adjoining buildings ablaze. Volcanoes, Mattison knows, don't belch fire. But you push a lot of red-hot material up into a street like this and nearby structures made mostly of beaverboard and plywood are very quickly going to reach their flash point.

The flow, so far, is moving relatively slowly, maybe ten or twelve inches a minute. That means the lava is relatively viscous, and thank G.o.d for that. He knows of flows that come spurting out fifty times as fast and make you really dance. At the upper surface where the lava is coming into contact with the air he can see it congealing, forming a gla.s.sy surface that tinkles and clinks and chimes as inexorable pressures from below keep cracking it. Mattison watches odd blobs and bulges come drifting up, expand, harden a little, and break, sending squiggles of molten lava off to either side. A few big bubbles are rising too, and they seem ominous and nasty, indicators, perhaps, that the lava pool is thinking of spitting a couple of little lava bombs at the onlookers.

The pumping truck that has been supplied for Mattison's crew this morning is strictly a minor-league item, but it appears adequate for his needs. The region has only so many of the big-ticket jobs available, just a handful, really, even after all these months since the crisis began, and those have to be kept in reserve for the truly dire eruptions. So what they have given him to work with, instead of a two-and-a-half-ton pump that can move thirteen thousand gallons of water a minute and throw it, if necessary, hundreds of feet in the air, is one of the compact Helgeson & Nordheim tripod-mounted jobs sitting on top of an ordinary flat-bed truck. It's small, but it'll probably do the job.

An auxiliary firefighter -- a girl, couldn't be more than fifteen, Latino, dark eyes glossy with excitement and fear -- has been delegated to show him where the water hookup is. Every one of the myriad little munic.i.p.alities in and around the Zone is now under legal obligation to designate certain hydrants as dedicated lava-pump outlets, and to set up and maintain reserve water-tanks at ground level every six blocks. "How far are we from the nearest dedicated hydrant?" Mattison asks her, speaking like a s.p.a.ce invader from within his lava suit, and she tells him that it's back behind them on North Second, maybe a thousand yards. Has he been provided with a thousand yards of hose? She thinks he has. Okay: maybe she's right. If not, the firemen can lend him some. Lava containment is considered a higher priority than fire containment, considering that uncontrolled lava flows will spread a fire even faster than burning buildings will, since burning buildings don't move through the streets and lava does.

Mattison picks Paul Foust and Nicky Herzog, who are two of the least befuddled of his people, to go with the girl from the Fire Department and set up the hose connection. Meanwhile he and Marcus Hawks and Lenny Prochaska get to work muscling the pump rig as close to the lava as they dare, while Clyde Snow, Mary Maude Gulliver, and Marty Cobos set about uncoiling the hundred yards of steel-jacketed hose that's connected to the pump and running it in the general direction of North Second Avenue, where the water will be coming from. The rest of his crew begins unreeling the lengths of conventional hose that they have, ordinary firehose that would melt if used close in, and laying it out beyond the reach of the steel-jacketed section.

Mattison can't help feel a burst of pride as he watches his charges go about their ch.o.r.es. They're nothing but a bunch of human detritus barely out of detox, as he once was too, and yet, goofy and obstinate and ornery and bewildered and generally objectionable as they are capable of being, they always seem to rise above themselves when they're out here on the lava line. Or most of the time, anyway. There are a few p.i.s.sant troublemakers in the group and even the good ones have funny little relapses when you least expect or want them. But those are the exceptions; this kind of work is the rule. Good for them, he thinks. Good for us all. He's quietly proud of himself too, considering that a couple of years ago he was just one more big drunken unruly a.s.shole like the rest of them, a.s.siduously perfecting his boozing techniques in every bar along Wilshire from Barrington to Bundy to Centinela and so on clear out to the ocean, and here he is calmly and coolly and effectively running his own little piece of the grand and glorious Los Angeles lava-control operation.

"Can we get a little closer, guys?" he asks Hawks and Prochaska.

"Jeez, Matty," Prochaska murmurs. "Feel the f.u.c.king heat! It's like walking into a blast furnace wearing a bathing suit."

"I know, I know," Mattison says. "But we'll be okay. Come on, now, guys. An inch at a time. Easy does it. We're good strong boys. We can handle a nice hot time, can't we?" It's like talking baby-talk, and Hawks and Prochaska are big men, nearly as big as he is and neither of them especially sweet-natured. But he has their number. Their various chemical dependencies had reduced them, in the fullness of time, to something that functioned on the general level of competence of babies in diapers, and they need to prove over and over, now, that they are the tough hard macho males they used to be. So they lean down close and work with him to drag the pump rig forward and get the nozzle aimed right down the mouth of the lava well.

The suits they're wearing are actually quite good at shielding them from the worst of the heat. They can withstand a surprising amount of it -- for a time, anyway. The melnar is very tough stuff, and also, because it is so shiny, it turns back much of it through simple reflective radiation, and there's interior insulation besides, and a coolant network, and infrared filters, and two or three other gimmicks also, all of which makes it possible to walk right up to a 2000-degree lava flow and even, if its surface has hardened a little, to step out onto it when necessary. Still, despite the protection afforded by the lava suit, it is quite apparent from the warmth that does get through that they are standing right next to molten rock that has come spurting up just now from the Devil's own domain.

The hoses are hooked up now and Mattison has the nozzle directed to the place he wants it to be, which is along the outer rim of the lava flow. He sends a radio message back to Foust and Herzog out by the hydrant that they're almost ready to go. Then he gives a hand signal and it travels back and back along the line, from Mary Maude to Evans to Cobos to Buck Randegger, or whoever it is that is standing behind Cobos, and on around the corner until finally it reaches Foust and Herzog, who know for sure now that the hose line is fully connected, and the water begins to flow. Mattison and Hawks and Prochaska grip the nozzle together, slowly and grimly playing it along the edge of the flow.

The purpose of this operation is to cool the front of the lava well sufficiently to form a crust, and then a dam, that will cause the continuing flow to pile up behind it instead of rolling on down the street. This is a technique that was perfected in Iceland, and indeed half a dozen grizzled Icelanders have been imported to serve as consultants during this Los Angeles event, frosty-eyed men with names like Svein Steingrimsson and Steingrim Sveinsson who look upon fighting volcanoes as some kind of Olympic sport. But one big difference between Iceland and Los Angeles is that Iceland sits in the middle of a frigid ocean that provides an infinite quant.i.ty of cold water for use by lava-fighters, and the distances from sh.o.r.e to volcano are not very great. Los Angeles has an ocean nearby too, but it isn't conveniently placed for hosing down lava outbreaks in the San Gabriel Valley, which is inland, thirty or forty miles from the coast. Hence the system of munic.i.p.al water-tanks all along the borders of the Zone, and a zillion tanker trucks trundling back and forth bringing ocean water with which to keep the tanks filled, Los Angeles's regular water supply being far from adequate even for the ordinary needs of the community.

Any lava-cooling job, even a small one like this, is a ticklish thing. It isn't quite like watering a lawn. You are dumping 60 -- degree water on 2000-degree lava, an interaction which is going to produce immense billows of steam that will prevent you from seeing very much of what you are in the process of doing. But you need to see what you are doing, because as you build your lava dam along the front of the upwelling what you may all too easily achieve is not the containment of the lava but, rather, its deflection toward something you don't want it to hit. Like the fire truck down the block, for example, or some undamaged buildings on the opposite side of the street.

So you have to wield your hose like a sculptor, dancing around squirting the water with great precision, topping up the dam here, minimizing its height there, all the while taking into account the slope of the ground, the ability of the subsoil to bear the weight of the new stone, and the possibility that the lava you are working with may suddenly decide to accelerate its rate of outflow from fifty feet an hour to, say, fifty feet a minute, which would send the flow hurtling over the top of your little dam and put you up to your a.s.s in lava, with the hose still dangling from your hand as you become a permanent part of the landscape. Which is why the faceplate of your lava suit is equipped with infrared filters to help you see through all that billowing steam that you are busily creating as you work.

And there is other stuff to consider. Coming up out of the core of the earth, along with all that lava, are various gases, not all of them nice ones. Chlorine, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, all kinds of miasmas are likely to head swiftly surfaceward as though carried by a giant blowpipe. These are all poisonous gases, although you are more or less protected against that by your suit; however, traveling upward with the gases may be fragments of incandescent lava that will go up like a geyser and come down all over the neighborhood, including right where you happen to be. Therefore you want to listen, as you work, for strange new whooshings and bellowings and hissings, and in particular for the sound of something like an old-fashioned locomotive tooting its horn as it heads your way. Mattison has beaten a quick retreat more than a few times, sometimes taking his pump with him, sometimes abandoning it and running like h.e.l.l as a highly local eruption starts nipping at his heels.

However, none of that happens this morning. This Arcadia thing is just a teeny-weeny little isolated lava outbreak with no special complications except for the owner of the burrito stand. Mattison, aided expertly by Marcus Hawks, who is just eight months out of a crack house in El Segundo, and Lenny Prochaska, whose powerful forearms bear needle tracks that look like freeway interchanges, deftly creates a low wall of cooled lava across the front of the outbreak, then adds a limb up its right-hand side and another up the left to form a U, after which they concentrate on hardening the new lava wherever it comes curling up over the boundaries of their wall. The cooling process is very quick. Along the face of the wall, the temperature of the lava has dropped to the 500-degree level, at which heat it is hardly glowing at all, at least not at the outer crust. Mattison figures that the crust he has built is maybe three inches thick, a skin of solid basalt over the h.e.l.lish stuff behind.

Of course, lava is still oozing steadily from the ground at the original exit point, and probably will go on doing so for another six or seven hours at this site, maybe even a day or two. But the dam should hold it and keep it from welling out into Colorado Boulevard, which is an important thoroughfare that needs to be kept open. Instead, the lava will go on piling up on the site of the burrito stand, forming a little mountain perhaps fifteen or twenty feet high. Unless, of course, it decides to break through the surface a couple of dozen yards down the street instead, but Mattison doesn't think that's going to happen at this site.

He sometimes wonders what life is going to be like around here when all this is over, the volcanoes have died down, and the whole eastern half of the Los Angeles Basin is littered with new little mountains in the middle of what used to be busy neighborhoods. Are they going to dynamite them all? Build around them? On top of them? And where are they going to put the freeways to replace the ones that are now mired in cooling lava that soon will be solid rock?

h.e.l.l, it's not his problem. That's one of his mantras: _Not my problem_. He has enough problems of his own, currently under control but not necessarily going to stay that way if he borrows trouble from elsewhere. _One day at a time_ is another phrase that he has been taught to repeat to himself whenever he starts worrying about things that shouldn't matter to him. _Easy does it_. Yes. _First things first_. These are absolutely right-on concepts. Somebody else will have to figure out how to repair Los Angeles, once all this is over. His job, which will last him the rest of his life, is figuring out how to operate Cal Mattison.

The fires in the surrounding buildings are just about out, now. One of the firefighters comes over and asks him how he's doing. "Under control," Mattison tells them. "Just a little tidying-up to do."

"You want us to stick around, just in case?"

Mattison thinks for a moment. "You got work nearby?"

The firefighter points. "There's a whole line of these things, from the freeway all the way down to Duarte. If you don't think the lava's going to pop, we can move on south of here. There's a bad one going on on Duarte, just at the Monrovia line."

"Go on, then," Mattison says. "We get any problems, I'll call you back in."

Real executive decision-making. He feels good about that. Time was when he never wanted to be the one who made the call about anything.

But he's confident of his own judgment right here and now. This job has been handled well. There's a high in that feels like half a fifth of Crown Royal traveling through his veins, smooth and fine and warm.

The firefighters go away, leaving just two of their number posted as supervisors during the wrap-up and report-filing phase of the job here, and Mattison, signalling back down the line to have the hose shut down, moves forward onto the lava dam. It can be walked on, now, at least by someone equipped with tractor treads like his. He tests the crinkly new skin. It holds. Dainty little tinkling sounds are coming from it, the sounds of continued cooling and hardening, but it supports his weight. It's a little like walking on thin new ice, except that what is behind the fragile surface is molten rock instead of chilly water, and if he falls through he will be very sorry, though not for long. But he doesn't expect to fall through, or he wouldn't be up here.

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25 Short Stories and Novellas Part 26 summary

You're reading 25 Short Stories and Novellas. This manga has been translated by Updating. Author(s): Robert Silverberg. Already has 238 views.

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