PART I - Survivor CHAPTER 1 – Firestorm
“… with skin the color of coffee, no cream. Don’t you just love the image that evokes?” Matti Raven asked Adam Rainger, her dad’s old navy-buddy. Well, he wasn’t really that old – he was probably ten years or so younger than her dad – but to a sixteen-year-old high school junior, even a low thirty-something was getting up there. She went on describing the latest developments in what she hoped would be a promising future as a writer. “… so, I figured I’d pattern her after me. You know, smart and popular and verrry pretty. I like that phrase, don’t you? I mean the one about skin the color of coffee. It’s so descriptive. And it fits me, too. Don’t you think? It’s, ya know, here I am, as I am. Ya know?”
“Yeah, I think I know.” Adam’s familiar chuckle felt good in her ears.
She smiled as she laid her hand softly on his shoulder and gently patted, a properly raised lady respectfully offering encouragement to a doddering elder. “That’s good. So, what do you think? Is she believable? Will people like her? They’d better, ’cause I’m probably going to use her in a bunch of stories. If she catches on like I hope, I’m thinking of maybe a book – you know, a novel.”
He glanced at her just as she flashed another smile, then paused before arching his eyebrows halfway up his forehead. “A novel? Really? Wow, a book. Do you know that many words?”
She knew he had read all her articles, essays, and short stories, including two published in a national teen magazine, and he had given her many compliments on her talent and her discipline. But their relationship involved a whole lot of teasing, which she loved, so her reaction was practically automatic. As he stopped the car near the front door of the little grocery store on the corner of Main, he glanced over at her. She knew he would be expecting wise-crack of some kind as a come-back, so she just sat silent while gaping at him cross-eyed and with her tongue sticking out one side of her mouth.
She could see he was fighting to maintain a straight face as he reached out and brushed his fingertip lightly across the corner of her mouth, ignoring her protruding tongue as though it was her natural look. He said, “Hmm, looks like you might have missed a crumb of toast or something.”
Figuring the score was about even, she dropped her funny-face, flashed another I-love-you smile, popped open her door, and got out. “Thanks for the ride, Uncle Adam.”
“You sure you don’t want me to wait a couple minutes and give you a lift back home?”
“No, that’s okay. I like to walk, and it’s only a few blocks. Thanks, anyway.”
“Okay, Champion, see you later. And I do like her. She sounds great. Sorta reminds me of someone I know.”
Her smile, as natural as her coffee-toned skin, remained on her face as she waved him out of the parking lot and away north on Main.
When she stepped out the door of the market five minutes later and turned toward home, a relaxed smile graced her face, and a small shopping bag swing in her hand. She didn’t notice the thing hanging in the sky beyond the hills south of town. Her mind was busy going over the recipe for the buttermilk cake for her dad. She hadn’t made one in months, and it was his favorite. Anyway, the apparent size of the thing in the sky, which appeared two or three times the apparent size of a full moon, didn’t make it all that arresting unless its nearly fifty-mile distance was considered – if that could have been judged without knowing the size of such a never-before-seen object. It might have been mistaken for a large bird with unmoving, stubby wings held stretched out and rigid, like a gull or eagle, except it didn’t move, either across the sky as a soaring bird or pivoting as a circling bird, and it was clearly well above the wispy, high cirrus clouds streaking the sky over the Bay Area. Anyway, although her route home was southerly, the trees lining the street pretty much blocked any view of the sky and any objects up there – strange or otherwise.
By the time she reached the second cross street, it no longer mattered. Her leisurely walk home and all the sequential things that would have occupied her mind on such a mission evaporated in puffs of memory all but beyond recall in the moments it took for her neighborhood – her town – to explode in time-stopping chaos.
She couldn’t remember starting her panic-driven run – knowing only that she couldn’t stop.
She just regained her footing from a jarring explosion off to her left when searing-hot air slammed into her from the other side, another fast-moving wall ahead of yet another expanding fireball that gained its full size just before engulfing her. Bright yellow darkened first to orange, and then burnt orange streaked with black turning in on itself as oily smoke roiled liquid-like flames. Noxious fumes enveloped her, displacing the air her lungs sucked in with spasm-inducing wastes. She ducked lower and sprinted past the car no longer visible at the heart the hellish turbulence.
Terror engulfed her – so overwhelming only the heat of the flaming maelstrom surrounding her could penetrate. But beyond the fear, deep inside where her inner being – her very soul – resided, a great sense of devastation worse than the holocaust about her threatened to freeze her thudding heart. Icy claws of paralyzing grief tore at her insides even as the world blazed about her. All she had known, all she had loved, had died, destroyed in the flames. All she could think – if thinking could describe the unreasoning bedlam that roiled her mind – was that she, too, would die unless she kept running. More and more of those agonizing memories of her life blanked out with each step, and reflex drove her on as an extended hand, unthinking, jerks away from a hot stove … and she ran on.
She staggered and slowed when a cloud of hot ashes swirled about her face, turning her dark brown skin to ghostly gray. It stung her eyes and filled her gasping mouth with choking, bitter paste … and she ran on.
Terror rocked her with each searing shock wave. Winds set swirling by the immense updrafts above block after block of burning neighborhoods carried sparks and embers that burned her skin where they touched. She cupped her hands over the bare skin of her face and ears, sacrificing exposed hands and arms in futile attempts to protect the more sensitive areas from the blistering heat that engulfed her … and she ran on.
Cooler … darker … safer.
Not words; not pictures; just impressions, perceptions, feelings—but vivid—more so than any wish. They suddenly just appeared uncalled in her seething mind. Superimposed like ghostly, photographic double-exposures over the raging inferno through which she fled, they were as hard to focus on as shadows flickering through a memory. She could almost see a place that was cooler … and darker … and safer.
The rupturing gas tank of another car she had raced past just two houses back blossomed into another smoky orange fireball that reached halfway across the street and higher than many of the trees lining the street … and she ran on.
Wet feet … feels good … tastes bad.
“Oh, yes! Yes! Soak my feet … drink more and more and – wha … what?”
A strange perception of cool water washing blistered feet swept through her mind, water that soothed but smelled and tasted stagnant and muddy, fleeting but memorable.
Before she could pursue the thought beyond the back-of-the-mind argument that her feet were not wet or blistered – not yet, although the pavement threatened to melt the rubber right off the soles of her sneakers if she didn’t keep moving her feet – terror pushed back in, obliterating anything else she might try to focus on. And she ran on.
She didn’t think about where she was running to, only what she was running from. Fire and death reigned behind her, had destroyed everything she loved, everyone she loved. It would destroy her, too, unless she kept running. But the fire was in front of her, too. If she kept going forward, she would die. But she couldn’t turn around and go back. She would be consumed just like the homes and cars and trees and lives behind her. And if she stayed here in the middle of the street, she would die, bursting into flame like another tree. She had to keep running, and so she ran on.
Danger in the dark … strange smells, musty-moldy … better than hot … fear.
They were just impressions, less than thoughts.
Her mind screamed, What dark? There isn’t any dark!
Tears streamed down her face and mixed with sweat that evaporated as fast as it formed, drying her skin to parchment. The strange impressions jarred her back from the panic whose talons clawed at her mind.
What musty-moldy smell? I can’t smell anything but smoke!
Half a block ahead another car, this one in a driveway, went up with a muffled whump, forcing her mind back to desperate survival.
On she ran, veering left and right as needed to avoid blazing trees, cars in driveways, cars at the curb, cars in the street, all blazing or ready to blaze, searching for some protected hole, but she could find nothing that the terrible heat would not reach into.
Cool air with river smells and animal smells and hole smells in (deep, dark place). Might be danger in (deep, dark place), but more danger out (blinding flashes of heat and light).
This time the impressions were strong, detailed, and even more vivid than before. They overwhelmed her other thoughts like a boosted CB radio signal suddenly inserting its own messages on neighborhood receivers.
Thrown off balance by the insanity of the games her mind played, she stumbled and recovered to a slowed shuffle. The thoughts that invaded her too-busy mind were still only impressions and perceptions, and she was certain they were not hers. Their strangeness was enough, though, to edge out the still immediate peril surrounding her, at least for a moment or two.
She glanced about.
Swirling embers sparked new blazes wherever they landed. The constant roar of the firestorm through which she fled was like the snarling voice of an insane, voracious beast feasting on the town. Created by rising heat sucking in oxygen-rich air from surrounding areas, the beast would feed until it starved for fuel, but not before every living thing in the area writhed in throes of death.
Could it be that someone was calling out to her? Or, maybe they weren’t even calling to her, just calling out. But, no, there was no one, just a burning town. Besides, she hadn’t heard anyone; she was positive.
What she did see propelled her back into the nightmare. One of those … things, those flying things – she refused to think of them as flying saucers – swept past just above the inferno it created. They weren’t saucers. They looked a little like airplanes … or maybe flying wings with stubby wings and a bulbous middle section where the pilot probably sat. But, since there was no clear canopy, she wasn’t even sure they had pilots. They were about twenty feet from wingtip to wingtip and eight or ten feet from nose to tail, except they had no tails. She didn’t even think the wings were true airfoil wings that allowed them to fly but were merely long, flat protuberances on each side. They moved about too slowly, at times, for any aeronautical effects. They floated or zoomed or darted back and forth, even stopped to hover or go in reverse at times. They changed direction abruptly and without slowing in violation of all the hard and fast laws of physics she was aware of. They simply couldn’t do what they did, but they did. But she was only peripherally aware of these things; she didn’t have time to think about if they were piloted or how they stayed aloft nor, at that point, did she care.
Fighting against panic as she coughed and gasped for breath in the searing, smoke-filled air, she spun about, searching for someplace – anyplace – that might offer a refuge from the terrible, searing heat. Even if it was only for a few moments, she might be able to think clearly enough to –
She stopped turning.
Again, a double-exposure, but this one was a scene of raging flames approaching down a wooded draw superimposed over her own view of that same scene before her, but from a lower angle.
On the west side of the street, a ten-foot deep gully between sloping, tree-topped banks filled the gap of forty feet or so between two yards. It was one of the brush-choked creeks meandering out of the hills west of town, snaking through several blocks of residential neighborhoods, and finally to the narrow river bisecting the town. Right here, though, where a railing lined the edge of the sidewalk on the south side of the street still eight blocks from the river, the creek went underground. She realized where she was.
The creek bed narrowed to six feet or so where it entered the dome-shaped, concrete lined tunnel beneath the street and beneath all the properties between there and the river. It hadn’t rained for a couple of months, so it had three or four feet of air space above the dry concrete floor. She wouldn’t have to go all the way to the river to escape the terrible heat, just a little way beyond the entrance.
Glancing down, she saw the reflection of still water right below her, not ten feet below her burning feet. The creeks never carried flowing water during the rainless summers, but occasional low spots allowed ground water to seep to the surface. Such a pool was right in front of the tunnel where once flowing water had washed out the dirt at the lip of the concrete. Although it was only inches deep, it was so inviting. She paused long enough to fantasize plunging her burning feet into its coolness. Then she remembered the strange feelings, impressions that had jumped into her mind, and she knew, albeit with déjà vu uncertainty, that the muddy little pool was their inspiration.
But, how? How could I have –?
Her attention jumped back up the creek to where wind-whipped flames rushed through the trees and brush just a hundred feet away, rushed down the creek toward her like a flood of orange water spewing smoky-colored foam, and they would be at the tunnel entrance within seconds.
She rounded the end of the low railing and, with her first step on the steep slope, fell back onto her rump and slid the rest of the way. The sturdy material of her jeans protected her from sharp twigs and stones, but her skimpy polo shirt did little to shield her from the thistles snagging at her as she slipped past. The flames bore down on her as her feet splashed through the little pool, and at the same time her mind reeled under a bombardment, a hodgepodge of thoughts, impressions, feelings and perceptions, all without words.
Danger! Fear! Frighten away! Bite! Danger behind! Danger ahead! Fear! Bite! Fear!
They hit her like the storm of foam-flecked barking of a junk-yard dog, but without the barking. Matti staggered from the impact of the mental assault as she turned away from the wave of heat surging down the creek bed ahead of the rushing flames. Fetid, cool air blew on her face from the tunnel before her, but she could feel the skin on the back of her neck reaching the point beyond which it would surely cook. She ducked her head and dove into the darkness.
Fear. Go away! Danger! Go away! Bite! Warning!
Accompanying the almost-verbal thoughts was an urgent, open-mouthed snarl close-by in the darkness. She reached back out to the muddy pool and scooped up a palm-full of mud. As she smeared it across the tortured skin on her neck, cheeks and forehead, she peered into the blackness before her. At first she could see nothing, still night-blind from the glare of fire-enhanced daylight behind her, but within seconds the approaching flames filled the first several feet of the tunnel with wavering, orange light. Curving to the right, the tunnel disappeared into a well of ink as its sloping wall blocked the fire’s light.
Go away! Fear. Bite warning!
On one side of the tunnel she could make out a large shape crouching low just beyond the bend. A pulsating growl rumbled, sounding more menacing each time its maker drew a quick breath. Two eyes glowing orange in the reflected light glared back at her.