Chapter 15

 

Men go to a fire for entertainment. When I see how eagerly men will run to a fire, whether in warm or cold weather, by night or by day, dragging an engine at their heels, I’m astonished to perceive how good a purpose the level of excitement is made to serve.

– Journal, 1850

There’s a big difference between surface fire and crown fire,” said the Pendragon Chromlis Furcifer to the L’ung assembled in the belly of the hover. “Surface fires move along the forest floor, burning through the understory.” She was reading from notes that scrolled down her forearm.

Wait, what’s understory again?” asked Her Grace, Jacqueline Kristof, who was the youngest of the L’ung.

Memsen pinched the air. “You mustn’t keep interrupting, Your Grace. If you have questions, query the cognisphere in slow time.” She nodded at Penny. “Go ahead, Pendragon. You’re doing a fine job.”

Understory is the grass, shrubs, dead leaves, fallen trees — that stuff. So anyway, a surface fire can burn fast or slow, depending. But if the flames climb into the crowns of the trees, it almost always rips right through the forest. Since the Transcendental State doesn’t have the tech to stop it, Spur will have to let it burn itself out. If you look over there… .” The group closed around her, craning to see.

Spur had been able to ignore Penny for the most part, although Cape kept scowling at the L’ung. Memsen had explained that Penny’s research topic for the trip to Walden was forest fires.

The hover was not completely proof against smoke. As they skirted the roiling convection column of smoke and burning embers, the air inside the hover became tinged with the bitter stench of the burn. This impressed the L’ung. As they wandered from view to view, they would call to one another. “Here, over here. Do you smell it now? Much stronger over here!”

They had dissolved the partitions and made most of the hull transparent to observe developments in the burn. Just a single three-meter-wide band ran solid from the front of the deck to the back as a concession to Spur and Cape; the L’ung seemed totally immune from fear of heights. Spur was proud at how Cape was handling his first flight in a hover, especially since he himself felt slightly queasy whenever he looked straight down through the deck at the ridge 1,500 meters below.

From this vantage, Spur could see exactly what was needed to contain the burn and realized that he didn’t have the resources to do it. Looking to the north, he was relieved that the burn hadn’t yet crossed Lamana Ridge Road into the wilderness on the far slope. Barring an unforeseen wind change or embers lighting new spot fires, he thought he might be able to keep the burn within the Littleton valley. But he needed dozens of trained firefighters up on the ridge to defend the road as soon as possible. To the west, he saw where the flames had come close to the Sukulgundas’ farmstead, but now the burn there looked to be nothing more than a surface fire that was already beginning to gutter out. Peace and the team with Engine No. 4 should have no trouble mopping up. Then he’d move them onto the ridge, not that just three people and one ancient pumper were going to be enough to beat back a wall of flame two kilometers wide.

Where you see the darker splotches in the forest, those are evergreens, the best fuel of all,” said Penny. “If they catch, you can get a blowup fire, which is what that huge column of smoke is about.”

To the east and south, the prospects were grim. The burn had dropped much farther down the ridge than Spur had expected. He remembered from his training that burns were supposed to track uphill faster than down, but the spread to the north and south, upslope and down, looked about the same. As soon as the first crews responded from nearby

Bode Well and Highbridge, they’d have to deploy at the base of the ridge to protect the Commons and the farmsteads beyond it.

The head of the burn was a violent crown fire racing east, beneath a chimney of malign smoke that towered kilometers above the hover. When Spur had given the Ezzats and Millisaps permission to save as much as they could from their houses, he’d thought that they’d all have more time. Now he realized that he’d miscalculated. He reached both families using the hand-tell and told them to leave immediately. Bash Ezzat was weeping when she said she could already see the burn sweeping down on her. Spur tried Comfort’s tell again to let her know that her farmstead was directly in the path of the burn, but still got no answer.

DiDa,” said Spur gently. He’d been dreading this moment, ever since he’d understood the true scope and direction of the burn. “I think we need to pull Livy and her people back from the creek to Blue Valley Road.” He steeled himself against anger, grief and reproach. “There’s no time to clear a line,” he went on. “At least not one that will stop this burn.”

I think you’re right,” Cape said, as casually as if they were discussing which trees to prune. “It’s simple, isn’t it?”

Relieved but still anguished, he hugged his father. “I’m sorry, DiDa.” He couldn’t remember the last time they had been this close, and was not surprised that Cape did not return his embrace. “Should we send someone to the house?” he said, as he let his father go. “Have them pack some things? Papers, furniture — there’s still a little time.”

No.” Cape turned and cupped his hands against the transparent hull of the hover. “If I did something silly like that, the farm would burn for sure.” He lowered his face into his hands as if to shade the view from glare. But the afternoon sun was a dim memory, blotted out by the seething clouds of smoke.

Spur shut his eyes then, so tight that for a moment he could feel muscles on his temple quiver. “Memsen,” he said, his voice catching in his throat, “can you put us down by the Sawatdees’ house?”

Spur got more resistance from Livy than he had from his father. It took him almost ten minutes to convince her that trying to dig a firebreak along Mercy’s Creek was not only futile but also dangerous. When it was over, he felt drained. As he flopped beside Cape onto one of the chairs that Memsen had caused to flow from the deck of the hover, the hand-tell squawked. He groaned, anticipating that Livy was back with a new argument.

Prosper Leung?” said a woman’s voice.

Speaking.”

I’m Commander Do Adoula, Fourth Engineers. My squad was on CR in Longwalk but we heard you have a situation there and we’re on our way. We can be in Littleton in half an hour. I understand you’re in a hover. What do you see?”

The handover of command was subtle but swift. Commander Adoula started by asking questions and ended by giving orders. She was coming in four light trucks with thirty-seven firefighters but no heavy equipment. She approved of Spur’s decision to stop the burn at Blue Valley Road, and split her force in two while they were speaking, diverting half to the ridge and half to help Livy on Blue Valley. She directed the local firefighters from Bode Well and Highbridge to dig in on the south to protect the Commons and requested that Spur stay in the hover and be her eyes in the sky.

When they finished talking, Spur slumped back against his chair. He was pleased that Adoula had ratified his firefighting plans, relieved to be no longer in charge.

The Corps?” said Cape.

Fourth Engineers.” He folded the hand-tell. “They were on CR in Longwalk.”

That was lucky.”

Lucky,” he agreed. He spotted the High Gregory whispering to Memsen. “How are you doing, DiDa?”

You know, I’ve never visited the ocean.” Cape blinked as he stared through the hull at the forest below. “Your mother wanted me to take her there, did I ever tell you that?”

No.”

She always used to ask if we owned the farm or if the farm owned us.” He made a low sound, part sigh and part whistle. “I wonder if she’s still in Providence.”

Spur didn’t know what to say.

Cape frowned. “You haven’t been in contact with her?”

No.”

If you ever do speak to her, would you tell me?”

Sure.”

He nodded and made the whistling sound again.

A burn this big is different from a surface fire,” said Penny. “It’s so hot that it makes a kind of fire weather called a convection column. Inside the column, bubbles of superheated air are surging up, only we can’t see that. But on the outside, the cooler smoky edges are pouring back toward the ground.”

Yes, yes.” The High Gregory pointed, clearly excited. “Watch at the top, to the left of the plume. It’s like it’s turning itself inside out.”

Awesome,” said Kai Thousandfold. “Do you remember those gas sculptures we played with on Blimminey?”

But that’s going to be a problem for Spur and his firefighters,” said Penny. “It’s like a chimney shooting sparks and embers high into the atmosphere. They might come down anywhere and start new fires.”

Is anyone going to die?” said Senator Dowm.

We hope not,” Memsen said. “Spur is doing his best and help is on the way.”

Don’t you wish she’d shut up?” muttered Cape, leaning into Spur. “This isn’t some silly class. They’re watching our life burn down.”

They’re from the upside, DiDa. We can’t judge them.”

And how does she know so much about how we fight fires? Look at her, she’s just a kid.”

That had been bothering Spur too, and it was getting harder and harder to put out of his mind. When had the L’ung had time to do all this research? They had arrived the day after he had first spoken to the High Gregory. Had they known ahead of time that they were coming to Walden? Was all this part of the plan?

Memsen says they’re special,” he said.

Spur.” The High Gregory signed for him to come over. “Come take a look at this.”

He crossed the deck to where the L’ung were gathered. The hover had descended to a thousand meters and was cruising over the Joerly farmstead.

There,” said the High Gregory, pointing to the woods they had tramped through that morning, a mix of hard and softwoods: birch and oak, hemlock and pine. In the midst of it, three tendrils of gray smoke were climbing into the sky.

Those are spot fires,” said Penny. “Caused by falling embers.”

Spur didn’t believe it. He’d been worried about spotting all along and had swung from side to side in the hover looking for them. But he’d decided that not enough time had passed for embers from the burn to start raining down on them. The convection column towered at least five kilometers above the valley. He stared at the plumes of smoke rising from the woods of his childhood with sickening dread. From right to left they were progressively smaller. Three fires in a series, which meant they had probably been set. What was his duty here? He was pretty sure that his scooter was still in the barn at Diligence Cottage. He could use it to get away from the burn in plenty of time. Cape could monitor the progress of the burn for Commander Adoula. Besides, if someone was down there setting fires… .

Someone.

Memsen,” he said. “I’ve changed my mind.”

The hover glided to a stop above the unused field nearest to Diligence Cottage. Spur stepped back as guard rails flowed out of the deck around the ramp, which slowly extended like a metal tongue toward the sweet clover below. Cape, who was standing next to Spur, was smiling. What did his father think was so funny?

We can stay here and wait for you,” said Memsen. “If you have a problem, we’ll come.”

Not through those trees you won’t,” said Spur, “No, you take Cape back up so he can report to the commander.” The hover shuddered in the windstorm caused by the burn. “Besides, it’s going to get rough here before too much longer. You need to protect yourselves.”

This is exciting.” Her Grace, Jacqueline Kristof clapped her hands. “Are you excited, Spur?”

Memsen turned the girl around and gave her a hard shove toward the rest of the L’ung.

DiDa?” Spur wanted to hug his father but settled for handing him the tell. “When the commander calls, just explain that I think we might have a torch and I’m on the ground looking. Then just keep track of the burn for her.”

Yes.” His father was grinning broadly now. “I’m ready.”

Good. Memsen, thanks for your help.”

Go safely.” She clicked her rings.

Spur held out his hand to the High Gregory but the boy dodged past it and embraced him instead. Spur was taken aback when he felt the High Gregory’s kiss on his cheek. “I can see much more luck for you, friend Spur,” he murmured. “Don’t waste it.”

The hot wind was an immediate shock after the cool interior of the hover. It blew gusty and confused, whipping Spur’s hair and picking at his short sleeves. Spur paused at the bottom of the ramp to consider his next move and gather his courage. The pillar of smoke had smothered the afternoon sun, sinking the land into nightmarish and untimely gray twilight.

Nice weather we’re having,” said Cape.

DiDa, what?” He spun around, horrified. “Get back up there.”

Cape snapped him a mock salute. “Since when do you give the orders on this farm, son?”

But you have to, you can’t… .” He felt like a foolish little boy, caught by his father pretending to be a grownup. “Someone has to talk to the ground. The commander needs to know what’s happening with the burn.”

I gave the tell to your know-so-much friend, Penny. She’ll talk Adoula’s ear off.”

The ramp started to retract.

What I have to do is too dangerous, DiDa.” Spur’s face was hot. “You’re not coming, understand?”

Wasn’t planning to.” Cape chuckled. “Never entered my mind.”

Spur watched in helpless fury as the hatch closed. “Then just load whatever you want into the truck and take off. You’ve got maybe twenty minutes before things get hot here.”

The hover rose straight up and away from the field but then paused, a dark speck in an angry sky.

See what you’ve done?” Spur groaned.

Don’t worry. They’ll run before too long.” Cape clapped him on the back. “I don’t know about you, but I have things to do.”

DiDa, are you… ?” Spur was uncertain whether he should leave Cape while he was in this manic mood. “Be careful.”

Capability Roger Leung was not a man known for his sense of humor, but he laughed now. “Prosper, if we were being careful, we’d be up there in the sky with your strange little friends.” He pointed into the woods. “Time to take some chances, son.”

He turned and trotted off toward the big house without looking back.

Spur knew these woods. He and Vic and Comfort had spent hours in the cool shade pretending to be pirates or skantlings or aliens or fairies. They played queen and castle in the pukpuk ruins and pretended to be members of Morobe’s original crew, exploring a strange new world for the first time. They cut paths to secret hideouts and built lean-tos from hemlock boughs and, when Vic and Spur were eleven, they even erected a ramshackle tree house with walls and a roof, although Cape made them take it down because he said it was too dangerous. Spur had been kissed for the first time in that tree house: In a contest of sibling gross out, Vic had dared his big sister to kiss his best friend. Comfort got the best of it, however, because her back dare was that Vic had to kiss Spur. As he pulled back from the kiss, Vic had punched Spur in the arm so hard it left a bruise.

The woods were dark and unnaturally quiet as he padded down the path that led past Bear Rock and the Throne of the Spruce King. Spur heard no birdsong or drone of bugs. It was as if the trees themselves were listening for the crackle of fire. When he first smelled smoke, he stopped to turn slowly and sniff, trying to estimate where it had come from. Ahead and to the north was his best guess. That meant it was time to cut off the path and bushwhack south across the Great Gosdog Swamp, which had never been very great and always dried up in the summer. His plan was to strike out in the direction of the smallest of the three fires he had seen from the hover. He knew he was getting close when it started to snow fire.

Most of what floated down was ash, but in the mix were sparks and burning embers that stung the bare skin of his arms and face. He brushed a hand through his hair and ran. Not in a panic — just to keep embers from sticking to him. To his right he could see the glow of at least one of the fires. And yes, now he could hear the distant crack and whoosh he knew all too well. The burn was working along the forest floor, he was sure of that. Crown fire sounded like a runaway train. If he were anywhere near one, he’d be deafened and then he’d be dead. Spur finally escaped the ash fall after several minutes of dodging past trees at speed. He hunched over to knead the stitch in his side, then pressed on.

The wind had picked up and now was blowing west, not east. He thought it must be an indraft. The burn that was crashing down on them had to suck air in huge gulps from every direction in order to support itself. Maybe the wind shift would work in their favor. A west wind would push these outlying spot fires back toward the burn itself. If the line of backfire was wide enough, it might actually check the advance of the burn when the two met. Of course, it would have to scorch across the best parts of the Millisap and Joerly farmsteads first.

In the gathering darkness, Spur decided to start trotting again. It was taking too long to skirt around the last fire to Mercy’s Creek. And unless he saw something soon, he was turning back. He had to leave himself enough time to get away. And he wanted to make sure his father hadn’t done anything crazy.

Intent on not tripping over a stone or root, Spur never saw the windblown curtain of smoke until it closed around him. He spun around, disoriented. He had been panting from running, so his nose and mouth and lungs filled immediately. It was like trying to breathe cotton. His eyes went teary and the world was reduced to a watery dissolve. Had he been out with Gold Squad, he would have been wearing goggles, a helmet and a breather. But here he was practically naked, and the smoke was pervasive and smothering. He was coughing so hard he could taste the tang of blood and then his throat closed and he knew he was about to choke to death. In a panic, he hurled himself flat against the forest floor, desperately searching for the shallow layer of breathable air that they said sometimes clung to the ground. A stump poked at his side but as he laid his cheek against the mat of twigs and papery leaves, he found cooler air, rank but breathable. He tried to fill his aching lungs, coughed up mucus and blood, then tried again.

Spur didn’t know exactly how long he lay there, but when he came to himself again, the haze of smoke had thinned to gauze and he knew he had taken enough chances. He had learned the hard way at Motu River that he was no hero. Why was he at it again? No more; get to the cottage, get on the scooter and get as far away from fire as possible. He pushed himself up on hands and knees, coughed and spat. His nose felt as if someone had pulled barbed wire through it. He sat back on his heels, blinking. It wasn’t until he brushed at the leaf litter on his face that he realized he’d been crying. When he finally stood, he felt tottery. He grabbed a sapling to steady himself. Then he heard a twig snap and the rustle of foliage being parted. He ducked behind a beech tree that was barely wider than he was.

Comfort came trudging toward him, her face hard, eyes glassy. One look told him everything. She had changed out of the gingham dress into a pair of baggy work pants that looked like they must have belonged to Vic. Over a smudged and dirty t-shirt, she wore a crude burlap vest to which were attached three liquid-fire grenades. They bumped against her chest as she approached. She looked weary, as if she’d been carrying a weight that had pushed her to the very limit of her strength.

He had thought to leap out and overwhelm her when she passed, but she spotted him when she was still a dozen meters away, and froze. He stepped from behind his tree, his hands held in front of him.

I won’t hurt you,” he said.

In the instant he saw mindless animal panic in her eyes, he thought her more alien than any upsider. He had spooked her. Then she turned and sprinted away.

Spur ran after her. He wasn’t thinking about the burn or his village or simplicity. He ran. He didn’t have time to be either brave or afraid. He ran because he had loved this woman once and because he had watched her brother die.

As a girl, Comfort had always been the nimblest of the three of them. In an open field, Vic would have caught her, but scooting past trees and ducking under low branches, Comfort was faster than any two squirrels. After a couple of minutes of pursuit, Spur was winded. He wasn’t exactly sure where they were anymore. Headed toward the creek, he guessed. If she thought she could cross over and take refuge in her own house, she truly was crazy. Suicidal.

Which made him pick up the pace, despite his fatigue. He ran so hard he thought his heart might break.

She had almost reached the creek when the chase ended abruptly. Comfort got reckless, cut a tree too close and clipped it instead. The impact knocked one of the grenades loose and spun her half around. She went to her knees and Spur leapt at her. But she kicked herself away and he skidded past and crashed into a tangle of summersweet. By the time he got to his knees she was showing him one of the grenades. He could see that she had flipped the safety and that her finger was on the igniter.

Stop there,” she said.

Spur was breathless and a little dizzy. “Comfort, don’t.”

Too late.” She blew a strand of dark hair off her face. “I already have.”

He stood, once again holding his hands where she could see them. “What’s this about, Comfort?”

Vic,” she said. “It’s mostly about Vic now.”

He’s gone. There’s nothing you can do for him.”

We’ll see.” She shivered, despite the heat. “It was my fault, you know. I was the one who recruited him. But he was just supposed to pass information.” Her voice shook. “They must have bullied him into becoming a torch. I killed him, Spur. I killed my brother.”

Listen to me, Comfort. He wasn’t a torch. It was an accident.”

The hand holding the grenade trembled slightly but then steadied. “That’s not what you said this morning when you were off your head.” She gave him a pitying look. “You said you tried to save him. That I believe.”

He took a half-step toward her. “But how does it help anyone to set fire to Littleton?” Another half-step. “To our farms?”

She backed away from him. “They could stop this, you know. Your upsider friends. They could force the Cooperative to settle, put pressure on Jack Winter to do what’s right. Except they don’t really care about us. They come to watch, but they never get involved.” Her laugh was low and scattered. “They’re involved now. I hope that little brat is scared of dying.”

But they do care.” He held his arms tight to his sides; otherwise he would have been waving them at her. “Memsen has a plan.” Spur thought he might yet save her. “You have to believe me, Comfort. There are going to be talks with the pukpuks.”

Right.” Her mouth twisted. “And you didn’t see Vic torch himself.”

Besides, did you really think you could burn them up? The High Gregory is safe, Comfort. Memsen and the L’ung. Their hover came for us. That’s how I got here so fast. They’re in the air,” he pointed backward over his shoulder, “waiting for me over the cottage.”

When he saw her gaze flick up and away from him, he launched himself. He grabbed at the arm with the grenade. They twirled together in a grotesque pirouette. Then, unable to check his momentum, Spur stumbled and fell.

Comfort stepped away from him. She shook her head once. She pressed the igniter on the grenade.

It exploded into a fireball that shot out two long streams of flame in opposite directions. One soared high into the trees, the other shot down at the forest floor and gathered in a blazing puddle at her feet. She screamed as the grenade fell from her charred hand. Great tongues of flame licked up her legs. Her pants caught fire. Her singed hair curled into nothingness.

Spur screamed too. Seeing it all happen all over again was worse than any nightmare. When Vic had set the liquid firebomb off, he had been instantly engulfed in flame. Spur had tried to knock him down, hoping to roll his friend onto the ground and put the merciless fire out. But Vic had shoved him away. With his clothes, his arms in flames, Vic had found the strength to send Spur sprawling backward.

Which saved Spur’s life when the second bomb went off.

But this wasn’t Motu River and Vic was dead. Comfort, his Comfort had only grenades, designed to set backfires, not bombs designed by pukpuk terrorists. The lower half of her body had been soaked in liquid fire and was burning but he could see her face, her wild, suffering eyes, her mouth a slash of screeching pain and that last grenade still bumping against her chest.

Spur flew at her and ripped the unexploded grenade from the vest. He swept her up in his arms, taking her weight easily with a mad strength, and raced toward the creek. He had the crazy thought that if he ran fast enough, he would be able to stay ahead of the pain. He knew he was burning now but he had to save her. He had never had a chance with Vic; take some chances, his father had said, and the High Gregory had warned him not to waste his luck. But the pain was too fast, it was catching up to him. Comfort’s screams filled his head and then he was flying. He splashed down on top of her in the cool water and she didn’t struggle when he forced her under, counting one, two, three, four, five, and he yanked her up and screamed at her to breathe, breathe, and when she choked and gasped, he thrust her down again, two, three, four, five and when he pulled her up again she was limp; his poor burned Comfort had either fainted away or died in his arms but at least she wasn’t on fire anymore.

Neither of them was.