Sunday, March 1, 2015

Choking Smoke By Jon Beight

In a future where Earth is sinking towards the sun, two men formulate a plan to use the might of Mother Nature to help preserve humanity; by Jon Beight.

It began like this:

A massive asteroid found itself helplessly heading towards the center of the earth's solar system as the sun exerted its relentless grip. The six outer planets were out of harm's way as the object passed by. The earth was not so lucky.

About one-third the size of earth's moon, astronomers had been watching and studying it for decades. A special team was drawn from the senior members of the commission originally set up to monitor near earth objects traveling through space. They calculated the earth was not on a collision course, but they knew it would be close. The team discussed at length on what actions should, or even could be taken to protect the earth. In the end, being completely frustrated that this was something beyond their control, they conceded they were powerless to do anything.

Finally after years of waiting, it passed by earth. Trailing after it was a wake of energy that buffeted the earth, and left behind a devastated planet whose orbit was now in decay, and a moon that was collapsing in on itself from a violent rebirth in volcanic and seismic activity.

Little by little, the earth was drawing closer to the sun. Little by little, the surface temperatures were rising, the polar caps were shrinking, climates were shifting, and ecosystems were dying.

For planet earth, time was running out.

Roger Pearson and Hank Tilden had never met until this morning. Their instructions from Fire Command North were to go to an area where the deforestation crews were failing to keep control of their fires. They were to get those teams retrained. Hank had picked up Roger and the two were driving north towards the burn crews' encampment. Off in the distance on either side, columns of gray smoke could be seen ascending high into the late afternoon sky.

Hank, a large man with large features, knew just about every back road in every national forest up and down the western states. He knew them so well that FCN wanted him to direct all of their operations from a rear area. Even though he was college educated, Hank wanted no part of it. He couldn't see himself at a desk, leaving others to do the heavy lifting.

Roger, except for the burn scars on his neck and hands, was much more bookish in appearance than Hank. He had been leading fire crews for five years. Still in the Army Reserves, Roger was regarded as an expert in demolitions. He had signed on to work with FCN because he felt it would somehow make the world a better place.

"Ever been to a Pyroville?" asked Hank, motioning toward the one visible in the distance. "Those poor people lead a miserable life."

"I've never walked through one, if that's what you mean. I keep out of towns as much as possible."

"Don't go there unless you have to. They're awful. Nothing but the poorest of the poor, living under sheet metal lean-tos, using whatever will hold them up. Ash swirling everywhere that gets into everything. If you live there you're about guaranteed to contract some kind of respiratory disease or skin disorder."

"That's to be expected, living east of a burning zone. Wealthy people sure as hell won't live down wind of one," said Roger.

"You know, the stench is the worst of it. Everything you eat or drink in there tastes like burning garbage. There's no way I could get used to that. It's a gritty, gray, miserable place to live, if you can call it living."

Roger looked out at the distant, twisting columns of smoke. Rivers of ash and smoke flowed vertically into murky, gray pools, before being swept eastward in the stratosphere. The world has turned upside down, he thought to himself.

"Who came up with the idea of burning trash like this? The ash does its job at filtering out sunlight and keeping temperatures down, but I wonder if it's worth it."

Hank shook his head. "Well it keeps the Pyroville people employed, sorting out the burnable material. I was at a burning zone up near Eureka about two months ago. They're starting to run low on fuel for the fires. They're getting desperate enough to dig up landfills to find whatever they can. I think that there's less worry about toxicity these days."

"It seems to be happening mostly in lower populated areas. I would guess that larger cities won't be far behind."

"Probably not," agreed Hank.

"Have you seen the catapults?" asked Roger.

"Yeah, they're pretty amazing. That whole operation is loud as hell. Those massive trash compactors scream and groan with the pressure they create. Most of the teams that operate them are going deaf, or already are. The catapults are the real show though. Watching a one ton cube of garbage fly into the middle of a fire from a quarter mile away is really a sight. The catapult operators call the cubes Icarus blocks. It keeps the fires going, that's for sure, but what a goddamn mess it all is."

"What do you think of Operation Black Map?" asked Hank, after a period of silence.

"I don't see any alternative. The fuel for the burning zones isn't limitless. Deforestation is a logical next step. We have to do something to protect ourselves."

"OK, that's the company line. I'm asking what you think."

Roger remained silent.

The sun was setting as they arrived at their base camp, located somewhere in the southern Cascade Range. The following morning Hank and Roger took charge of their crews. After coordinating an all-day operation to burn a canyon from both the north and south, Roger and Hank met at the camp that evening to discuss tomorrow's plan. The two sat down at Hank's field table to go over the topographic maps.

"We've got to hike to the middle fork of the river and torch that canyon." said Hank, as he pointed with a dirty glove to the spot on the map. "FCN thinks this will burn all day, and even with the expected wind they should be able to keep it from hopping into Shield's Canyon."

"If they can't, man, there'll be trouble," said Roger.

"I don't think they realize just how much trouble," said Hank in agreement. "Those guys at FCN-HQ won't leave their desks and get in the middle of anything. It's a joke."

Hank pulled out some jerky from his pack and offered some to Roger before taking some for himself. After a minute of silence, Hank looked at Roger and said, "You know that what we're doing here is pointless, don't you? I mean, once the forest is gone, then what?"

"I do this every day, telling myself that it's for all of us. I suppose it is, but I also think there has to be a better way than this," said Roger as he motioned with his eyes toward the smoke overhead.

"Roger, I've been working on a plan that can bring this burning to an end. The problem is it's dangerous, but I think it might work."

"What do you mean?"

"Look, I have a confession to make. It's no accident you and I are sitting here. I put in the request that you be the other trainer for these crews. I did some research on you. You're still in the reserves. You have a Level Two government clearance for your expertise in demolitions. Your specialty is shattering rock and your clearance gives you access to explosives of all kinds."

Roger stared at Hank. He was not quite sure what to make of this. "Just what are you trying to say?"

"I've got degrees in geology, volcanology, and fire science, and I know that Mount Lassen, Mount Shasta, and the rest of the volcanoes along the edge of the North American Plate will have pyroclastic eruptions. That means dust in the air. They just need a nudge to be woken up. I also know that not that long ago our military conducted studies to understand and harness volcanic power. They wanted to find a way to erupt the ground right under our enemy's feet. At one point they were even looking into how to travel through magma. It was called "Project Coal Walker". I was one of the consultants. They bored huge tunnels that go deep inside the mountain. They set up labs, living quarters, huge supply depots, even a foundry of all things."

"So what." said Roger, "I can't see what this has to do with me and demolit-"

Roger caught his words and began to process what Hank was telling him.

"You get what I'm telling you, don't you?" said Hank.

"That's crazy! That can't possibly work."

"Mt. Lassen is the closest to us and the tunnels there run incredibly deep inside. The rock that holds back all that volcanic energy is, relatively speaking, paper thin. If we can put a deep enough crack in the wall, if we can put enough fractures in it, all that hot gas and rock would come blasting out with nothing to stop it. The dust particles in the sky would be enough to filter the sunlight and we could stop all this burning."

Roger sat speechless.

"Roger, this is why I need you. You have the clearance, I don't. You can get all the explosives, primers, detonators, everything that's needed. You have the knowledge to set it up."

Roger started to leave, but turned back to Hank and said, "Let me sleep on it."

But all night Roger couldn't sleep. He thought back to his youth and all the times he and his father had gone camping. He thought about the last time as well, the year before the asteroid passed by. He remembered it all, the blue skies and the wild flowers, the rhythms of the crickets in the evening and music of the birds in the morning, and the wonderful clear days and nights. Having no time for anything other than his job, he hadn't thought of those trips in years.

The next day Roger and Hank went about carrying out their assignments. It didn't go as planned. FCN somehow misjudged the wind and Shield's Canyon caught fire and was becoming a nightmare. The fire was out of control and rapidly heading towards Roger's base, Ft. Arden, which was the largest military munitions depot west of the Rocky Mountains.

FCN contacted Roger and told him they were sending a helicopter to transport him to Ft. Arden to come up with a plan to contain the fire. Upon his arrival he was met by two representatives from FCN and Colonel Simms, Roger's commanding officer.

The normally restrained Colonel Simms was anxious and began talking before Roger completely exited the helicopter.

"Captain Pearson, let me give you the short version of what's happening. Shield's Canyon is on fire and about one hundred clicks away. The winds are expected to blow in excess of 40 knots, and it will blow the fire directly at us. We want to know if you can use your expertise to stop the fire from advancing and over-running this base."

"Yes sir. I've studied Shield's Canyon for just this scenario. There are some areas where the canyon narrows and the hillsides are steep with plenty of granite. There is one place I can plant some charges and blow the hell out of the canyon wall. That should make a significant fire break. If nothing else it would offer a place to fight the fire."

"Get whatever you need, manpower, explosives, vehicles, and get it done. Too much is at stake here."

Roger signed out an LMTV and had it loaded with fifteen-hundred pounds of C-4, blasting caps, remote detonators, drilling equipment, a generator, and climbing gear. Speaking with the FCN representatives, he said, "I need Hank Tilden to assist on this. He knows the roads through this area a lot better than I do."

"We'll get him here by chopper right and brief him on the way," said one of the representatives.

Hank arrived about twenty minutes later. He went straight to Roger's vehicle and got in. Roger pointed to a spot on a topographic map and said, "This is where I want to set the charges. Can you get me there?"

"No problem," replied Hank.

Roger talked as he drove. "Hank, I did a lot of thinking last night. I thought about what we're doing to the land, to the earth, to us. This deforestation is crazy and I don't want to be a part of it anymore. I'm in."

"Good. You know, no one at FCN miscalculated. They had it right. There was never any danger of the fire getting into Shield's Canyon."

"It was you?"


"Alright look, I requested about four times the amount of C-4 I really needed to get this job done. Someone is eventually going to figure that out and want to talk to me. When we blow this canyon, I plan on taking out the road with it. That will slow them down, but not for long. We will have to move fast to get to our primary. So start looking for the fastest way using back roads."

They arrived at the blast site and began to set up. Roger donned the climbing gear and as he worked around the cliff face, he filled every seam he could with C-4. It was more than enough to close the canyon. He pushed in the blasting caps and connected them to a receiver. Smoke was beginning to be a problem as he shouted to Hank to get on the radio and tell FCN they had fifteen minutes to get everyone cleared out.

Hank was repacking the LMTV when Roger returned.

"Hank, are you set to go?"

"Just about. You?"

"Yeah. Which way are we headed out of here?"

They got in the vehicle and Roger drove off slowly in the direction Hank pointed. When they reached a safe stopping point, Roger turned on the transmitter.

"Hank, tell FCN they have thirty seconds and give them a ten second countdown."

Roger walked to a clearing that provided a good line of site to the cliff face. He turned on the transmitter and steadied himself. He could hear Hank give the countdown.

"Ten. Nine. Eight..."

Roger's thumb was poised on the M35R remote detonator. He preferred these because the signal didn't transmit until the detonate button was released. This gave him a last chance in case something was wrong. It had saved him more than once.

At the three second mark, as Roger pressed the button and held it down, he said aloud his favorite expression:

"I am the hammer of Thor, held by the iron glove."

"Two. One. Fire in the hole!"

Roger released the button. There was a strange delay, almost as if it didn't go off. Then it went off. The ground rumbled and then it roared. The canyon wall became liquid as the earth cascaded down to the canyon floor and continued up the other side, a fluid wave of crushed rock, timber, and dust. As the rush of earth stopped, it was clear that Roger knew what he was doing. In front of him was the firebreak in the canyon that would stop the fire's advance. The road they drove in on was now impassible.

Meeting back up with Hank, Roger retied the soot stained handkerchief over his nose and mouth. "Well, we're committed now. Do you really think this is going work?" he asked nervously.

"Well if it doesn't, we're screwed," replied Hank, as he blew the ashes out from inside his goggles. Even if it does work, we're screwed anyway. Let's get moving."

With that, Roger put the LMTV in gear and proceeded down the road, disappearing into the ghostly swirling cloud of smoke, ash, and dust.

Arriving at Mount Lassen, it took Hank no time to find the entrance to the deep tunnels. The twenty foot chain link gate was locked but Roger used C-4 to cut through the hinges.

The concrete tunnels were a web of entrances, intersections, and exits as they made their way around and through the mountain. The width and height of the tunnels made them a marvel of engineering. Hank kept directing Roger on which way to turn as the pair made their way further toward the center of the mountain. Finally Hank told Roger to stop.

"This area here, where the rock is exposed, is where the wall is at its thinnest. The exposed area extends for over a mile. This is where they were trying to figure a way to travel underground so they could launch surprise attacks. Take a look around and tell me what you need."

"We're going to have to drill enough holes to make a perforation. Get the drill hooked up to the generator."

Roger started marking where he wanted Hank to drill. He exploited every seam, every potential weak spot, and every defect he could find in the rock. As Hank would complete a hole, Roger came behind him and rammed C-4 into it.

Feeling some concern about the military's reaction to the amount of explosives he had taken, Roger began to wonder if they had begun a search. His concerns had merit. It didn't take Colonel Simms very long to figure out that not only did Roger not use anywhere near the C-4 he had requested, but also that they were not coming back to the base.

Colonel Simms wasted no time in dispatching a search team. Satellite imagery revealed the direction Roger and Hank had taken. Finding them inside the mountain would be another matter.

The search team made its way to the entrance of the tunnels and, upon finding the blown gate realized they were on the right track. They broke into four squads and fanned out.

Roger and Hank were finished with the explosive placement when Roger turned to Hank and said, "We have a problem here. The M35R's transmit signal needs line-of-sight to work. Do you know what I am telling you?"

"I kind of figured that out when we were packing the holes. I got no problem with it. What the hell, they're going to put us away for a long time anyway."

Roger was turning on the detonator receivers when he heard the sound of an engine. He soon realized it was a military vehicle. As the search team came into view, Roger placed his thumb on the transmitter button and waited.

The vehicle stopped hard. Six soldiers jumped out. As they positioned themselves behind various protected places, they pointed their weapons at Roger and Hank, who had taken refuge behind their LMTV.

For a moment there was silence as the two parties stared at each other.

"Beehive, this is Yellow Jacket Two. We have them in sight. Suggest all personnel clear the mountain. Do you copy?"

A static covered, broken voice from the radio said "Copy. Will begin immediate evac. Proceed as directed."

"Captain Pearson! I am Staff Sergeant Bracken. Both of you have been officially labeled as rogue. Colonel Simms has given me orders to take both of you back for questioning regarding the amount of C-4 you have in your possession. I am further ordered to shoot to kill both you if you fail to immediately comply. Do you hear and understand me?"

"We hear you Staff Sergeant, loud and clear," Roger shouted back, "but as you can see, I have my thumb holding down the button of an M35R remote detonator that will cause over one thousand pounds of C-4 to explode when I release it. I fully intend to release the button, whether you are here or not. You have three minutes to get out of here."

Staff Sergeant Bracken trained his rifle on Roger's head. "Captain Pearson. You have exactly three minutes to disarm the detonator. Following that, both of you will lay face down on the ground in the prone position. You will then interlock your fingers behind your head. If the next move you make is anything other than disarming the detonator, we will open fire. The clock is ticking Captain."

"Hank, this is it. He's not going to budge. What do you think?"

"I think we finish what we started".

Roger nodded in agreement.

Roger took a deep breath. "Staff Sergeant, I believe that the path we have taken is the correct one. I also believe that since you do not intend to leave, you must agree with us. Therefore, I have stepped up the time table."

Roger held his hand firm on the button and shouted, "I am the hammer of Thor, held in the iron glove. Fire in the hole!"

Staff Sergeant Bracken gave the order to fire.

The bullets never reached their targets.

It ended like this:

Outside, the mountain became momentarily silent. Then, sensing an unknown danger, birds took flight from every tree as animals ran blindly in every direction. The surface of the mountain shuddered, rocks began to tumble, and a dust cloud began to rise.

Inside the mountain, the walls holding back the super-heated gas and rock were weakening. The pressure from inside the volcano was more than the ruptured walls could stand and the fury was released. The side of the mountain came loose and slid away, exposing the blast site. Hot gas and ash rampaged through the steep canyons and gentle valleys, incinerating everything in its path. A plume rose into the stratosphere, the jet stream grabbed hold of it, and began dispersing the fine particles.

In the weeks and months that followed, filtered sunshine was accomplished without the misery of burning trash or deforestation. Scientific committees were formed and plans were drawn up to activate the other volcanoes along the Ring of Fire and elsewhere. The estimation was one hundred years of controlled sunshine. For the inhabitants of the earth, life had become bearable again.

But for planet earth time was running out.

1 comment:

  1. Good story and an interesting idea for preserving the planet under adverse circumstances. Kudos for that. Relentless exposition, however, drug the narrative down and kept the tension from mounting. Some of the dialogue was in the "as you know, Bob" category. Also, an asteroid doesn't "find itself helpless" unless it is sentient. The plan to use the volcano was such a good one it's hard to see why the government didn't endorse it. I liked the poignancy of the ending. Would like to have seen it built up a bit more.