Monday, January 6, 2020

To Build a Fire 2030 by James Rumpel

Todd is so reliant on technology that he's stuck when his self-driving car crashes in the woods; by James Rumpel.

Night had fallen, ill-lit and frigid, when the autonomous 2029 Ford Helmsman sped past an insignificant sign on a forsaken service road of Wenatchee National Forest. The electric car's barely audible whir suddenly ceased. All lighting on its exterior and in its interior dimmed, then extinguished. Propelled by momentum, the car continued to coast toward a hairpin bend in the gravel roadway. No longer operated by its state-of-the-art self-navigation system, the car jolted slightly as it parted ways with the road and joined the trees and undergrowth in the forest. The vehicle rolled down the steep embankment.

Todd jerked into semi-alertness when the car left the road. Aided only by the dim castings of a full moon woven amongst tree branches, he recognized the skeleton of a fallen ponderosa pine rapidly approaching the vehicle. Still slightly groggy from an unscheduled two-hour nap, Todd's survival instincts took control. Covering his face with his arms, he twisted to the left, ducking below the car's high-tech, though completely inert, dashboard.

The collision was substantial, though not as dramatic as it could have been. Slowed by the dense shrubbery; the car impacted the ancient tree. Todd, secured by his seatbelt, was severely jostled by the concussion. Fragments of polyurethane and glass rained down upon him. Then, all was still.

Slowly raising his head, eyes adjusting to the muted light, Todd examined his immediate area. Barely two feet to his right, a tree branch, the thickness of a telephone pole, had impaled the front windshield of the vehicle before proceeding to pummel the passenger side door, knocking it ajar.

Todd sat in the driver's seat, motionless, except for a significant degree of involuntary shaking. If that menacing branch had perforated the front windshield two feet to the left, he would have been decapitated.

When the rush of panic and emotion eventually receded, Todd noticed how dark it was. The January moon provided the only illumination inside or outside the car. The night was devoid of all artificial light. For one of the few times in his life, Todd experienced natural darkness. Both the car and Todd's phone were completely powerless. Todd set his phone down on the car's built-in charging pad. Nothing happened.

Todd was totally clueless as to his location. Even with the lack of visibility, he knew he was not on highway 82, his proposed route. He craned his neck toward the road atop the embankment. It was not a major highway; it was barely a road at all.

"Car, where am I?" he asked.

No answer. The car offered no sign of any life whatsoever, including the navigation system.

"Phone, what is my location?"

As expected, there was also no response from his phone. The battery was, completely and inexplicably, dead. The phone had been fully charged when he left his family home in Boise just five or six hours earlier. Todd had spent much of the early part of the drive playing League of Legends on the phone. His father never fully trusted the self-driving aspect of the car, always staying totally attentive to the road and surrounding traffic. Todd was nowhere near as inhibited by a lack of confidence in the technology. He had been streaming a movie when he apparently dozed off a short time after entering into the state of Washington. Now, he was thoroughly lost.

"This is not good," Todd said to no one. He, like many Generation Alphas, had a habit of speaking his thoughts out loud, likely due to the amount of time spent asking questions of phones and in-home assistant devices. "Damn, it's cold."

His parents had wanted him to cancel the road trip because of the weather forecast. Temperatures were predicted to drop into the negative teens in western Washington. Todd was adamant about going, there was no way he was going to miss this weekend with his frat brothers. The boys of Beta Sigma Pi of Seattle Pacific University were hosting their annual winter break beach party. An epic party awaited him - well worth the eight-hour drive.

He could only guess how he had ended up on this insignificant stretch of road. Perhaps the navigation system of his father's car had malfunctioned. Begrudgingly, he admitted to himself, that there was a slight possibility that he had incorrectly input the data. No matter the reason the car went off course, the mystery of where he actually was remained. The question of why all the electronics in the vehicle had failed loomed just as large.

Feeling knots of pain in his neck and back, Todd slipped out of the car and scrambled up the embankment to the road. The cold air and wintery breeze slapped him in the face. He found himself chilled and shivering almost immediately. To Todd, extreme temperatures had always just been meaningless numbers. He was beginning to understand what ten below zero actually meant. Shoving his hands deep into the pockets of his hoodie, he found himself wishing he had packed warmer clothing. A pair of gloves or hat would have been welcome. Instead, all he had were the blue jeans and SPU sweatshirt he was currently wearing. The swim trunks and Hawaiian shirt in his backpack were not going to be much help. His mother had insisted that he pack appropriately for the weather, but he had forgotten or, more honestly, ignored the advice.

As Todd examined the road, he discovered that it was no more than a service road, unpaved and rutted. He found himself lamenting the smooth ride of the car. Had its high-quality shock absorbers allowed the car to jostle a bit more, it may have roused him, and he would have noticed the deviation from the selected course. A paper-thin layer of snow lay on the road, making it appear as if a thick coat of ivory primer had been applied. Near the edges of the road, the snow thickened to a depth of four or five inches. Cursing the cold, Todd noticed the back side of a road sign a short distance from the car. With hands, nose, and feet beginning to tingle from the cold, he trudged his way back to the sign. In the dim moonlight, it was difficult to decipher. Seeking a better angle from which to read, he stepped off the road into the snow-filled ditch. His canvas retro Converse sneakers broke through the crisp top layer of snow and sank into the icy white. Small chunks of snow and ice slipped over the top of his shoes and tried to edge their way into his low-cut socks.

WARNING DANGEROUS MAGNETIC FIELD AREA - ELECTRICAL INTERFERENCE POSSIBLE - Wenatchee National Forest

Stomping the snow off of his shoes, Todd made his way back to the relative warmth of the car. Could the magnetic field be what caused the car and phone to lose power? For a brief second, he prepared to ask his phone if this was possible, then realized the futility of that plan. Inside the car, the temperature was not as bone-chillingly cold, but it was far from comfortable. The wind howled through the busted windshield and door, circling the car's interior like a vulture waiting to pounce on carrion. Grabbing his backpack, Todd extracted the shirt and shorts he had planned to wear for the beach party and used them to block the open airways as much as possible. Despite his best efforts, it was still miserably cold. He stuck his hands under his shirt, into his armpits. The heat of his own body warmed his frosty fingers. Still, he was starting to feel a pinching sensation on the very tips of some of his fingers. Worse still were his feet. The shoes provided very little protection from the cold and now that they had been covered in snow, they seemed to be doing more harm than good. Stomping on the floorboard of the car only helped a tiny bit.

"What am I supposed to do?"

He had no idea how far he would have to walk to reach any kind of help. At the same time, he couldn't imagine having to stay in this cold for the entire night. Perhaps there was something in the trunk he could use.

"Car, open trunk."

When the car refused to cooperate, Todd realized he had no clue as to how to open this vehicle's trunk manually. He had never had to do that before. He, once again, exited the relative shelter of the car to investigate. Feeling along the frozen plastic of the car's rear proved to only make his hands raw. Recalling a television commercial he had seen a few years back, he tried waving his foot around under the rear bumper of the car. This odd-looking behavior only yielded additional failure. It wasn't until after he had returned to his seat in the car that he remembered that cars often have manuals in their glove boxes. Leaning over and reaching under the massive limb that occupied most of the passenger side of the car, he was able to open the compartment and withdraw a thick paper booklet. The glossy paper felt bitterly cold to his hands as he, with disturbing difficulty, paged through to find the instructions he needed. Holding the page to the window, taking advantage of the feeble moonlight, he found instructions. Under the car logo, which could be unlatched and swung to the side, was a lock in which the key could be inserted to open the trunk. Upon completing this task, he was rewarded with a small red box, labeled "emergency kit". The frigid metal box stung in his hands, what little moisture his fingers maintained instantly froze to its surface.

Yelping in pain, he pulled up the latch on the box cover; his fingers bitten by the icy steel. Inside, he found a thin blanket, like those given out by airlines. Todd quickly wrapped the blanket around himself, digging his hands deep into the cotton fabric. Also in the emergency kit, he found a couple of gluten-free granola bars. He hadn't even realized that he was hungry. Would the act of digesting food help his body to create more heat or make him colder? That would have been another good question for his useless phone. As he contemplated the question, his eyes fell upon the real prize. Next to some bandages and a rock-hard bottle of water was a small beacon of hope. The box's grand prize was a multi-purpose gas lighter: the type his father sometimes used to start the grill. For the first time all evening, a slight smile emerged on Todd's ashen face. He just needed to start a fire.

It soon dawned on Todd that he had no idea how to start and maintain a fire. The internet could have told him to begin with tinder and small kindling sticks placed under the larger logs, arranged in a pyramid shape. Todd had never learned this. Why would he ever have to? When would he ever need to start a fire? And if he ever needed to, he could simply ask his phone for instructions.

After a couple of minutes of frustration trying to light a single, damp log, Todd remembered the car owner's manual. He set the paper booklet on top of the log and used the lighter to ignite the pages. Glorious fingers of flame wiggled upward as the booklet burnt. Todd held his hands close over the flickering fire and put his face as near as he dare. The ecstatic moments of reprieve from the cold were all too fleeting, however. The book was completely consumed in a minimal amount of time. The short-lived blaze had not generated enough heat to coerce the log to join the fiery dance. His paper supply exhausted, Todd looked feverishly about the car for more possible fuel. Unable to find anything of useful size that was flammable, Todd stared dejectedly at the lighter.

Todd had an epiphany. The lighter had fuel in it. Grabbing his party shirt from the passenger window, he proceeded to lay the shirt on the ever-so-slightly scorched log. He placed the lighter on top of the shirt. Taking another solid piece of wood in his aching, blanket wrapped, hands, he attempted to smash the gas reservoir of the lighter. With each blow, the vibrations sent waves of pain convulsing through his fingers. Driven by his own anger and frustration, he continued to strike the lighter. Often a misplaced swing would send the lighter careening off the log into the snow. Each time he retrieved it and continued his assault. After minutes, Todd was rewarded with a tiny crack in the base of the lighter. A small trickle of gas dripped onto the shirt. He had hoped for much more. In his mind, he pictured a gas-soaked cloth tied to the end of a long stick; a torch that could be used to start blaze after blaze. In reality, he ended up with very sore hands, a few drops of gas on his Hawaiian shirt, and no way to light a fire.

"God. I am an idiot."

Mind clouded by fear, anger, self-loathing, pain, and any of dozens of other emotions, Todd attempted to get the fire started by rubbing two sticks together, hoping to create a spark. It only took seconds for him to realize the utter futility of this task. Dejected, Todd returned to the car. He huddled as tightly as he possibly could into the blanket, fighting off tears.

"What can I do?"

He considered trying to walk back along the road. He had no idea how far he would need to trudge to find help. Maybe moving would allow his blood to flow better, bringing him warmth. He soon admitted to himself that he didn't have the energy or the desire to go out into the cold once again.

His mind flashed back to a classic movie where the hero survived in vicious cold by cutting open an animal and climbing inside the carcass. He couldn't remember which movie it was; he never could remember movies. There was really no reason to go through the mental gymnastics of over-thinking something when all you needed to do was look it up on a phone. He didn't have an animal to slice open, but he did have the car's bucket seats. Surely, they had foam inside. He could, at the very least, insert his hands or feet for warmth. He soon was hit with the realization that he had no way to cut through the leather. The emergency kit had not included a knife or scissors, and the plastic orange warning triangles would, clearly, not be of any help. If he hadn't destroyed the lighter, in his abject stupidity, he could have started the seats on fire.

"This is all my fault..."

"Mom and Dad were right. I guess I am never going to see the boys in Seattle."

Teeth chattering, feet throbbing, hands and face buried in the cheap blanket, Todd figured this was it. Who would have ever dreamt, that in this day and age, someone could find himself on the verge of freezing to death? What a miserable way to go.

He sat in the car for nearly another hour, fighting off sleep, yet at the same time, inviting it. He tried to make peace with himself. If he were to survive this, he would do things differently. He would listen to his parents. He would learn to live life in reality, not exclusively through his technology. He would do things, not just watch.

A flash of red snuck between the lashes of his nearly-closed eyes... then another. Opening his eyes, Todd saw amber reflected in the trees ahead of him. Slowly, turning his head, he looked back to see a rescue vehicle parked by the road sign. A warning light perched atop its roof, sending circles of glorious color bouncing off branches all around. Soon a man, dressed in a thick parka, opened the driver side door of the car.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

Todd managed a slight nod, momentarily unable to talk, either out of weakness or out of joy. The hulk of a man threw a thick woolen blanket around Todd's body and lifted him onto a gurney. As he rolled Todd to the ambulance, the man said, "We were lucky to find you. When the lo-jack went out on the car, your parents were able to pinpoint your location somewhere in this vicinity. They called our local authorities and this is the only place that made any sense. What in the world were you doing here? You're about as deep into the forest as anyone ever goes."

The man continued rambling, not allowing Todd to drift off to sleep. "The magnetic field interferes with anything electrical, usually just draining batteries. Only gas-powered cars can drive this stretch of road, and even they have difficulties at times."

Todd's rescuer put him in the back of the toasty warm ambulance and immediately checked him for frostbite. "You definitely have early stage frostbite, but I think we will be able to get you through this without losing any toes or fingers. You might be hurting for a while though." He removed Todd's shoes and socks and replaced them with thick wool stockings. He rubbed Todd's hands, putting a warm lubricant on them. "I'm going to turn the heat up a little bit more and get you something warm to drink. Is there anything else you need?"

Todd thought for a second and then nodded, "Yeah, could I borrow your smart-phone. There's a movie I am trying to remember."

5 comments:

  1. I liked this tale. Barely SF, could happen today. I kind of doubt any gas powered vehicle built in the last 30 years would survive that magnetic field either, given they too have batteries and computers. But still an interesting, believable, even meaningful, story.

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  2. Interesting study of dependence on technology. This sort of thing crosses my mind nearly every time I use my GPS...shiver. ;)

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  3. Absorbing and plausible near future tale, 100 years on from Jack London's incredible story. This time dark humor funny lucky Todd had "helicopter" parents to save him he he.

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  4. Great story and outstanding ode to Jack London's "To Build a Fire," one of my favorites. I liked how he said things out loud as if talking to phones,etc. I think would have liked it to end like London's did though, with him freezing and his last thought: "I should have listened to them...." Just me.

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  5. An homage to Jack London. Excellent description throughout. Todd's character--his insouciance and lack of preparedness--comes through strongly. The depiction of the environment, a character in itself, made me shiver, so vivid was the description. I enjoyed reading this story very much, but do feel that there was slowness in the plot at times and the unanswered question of why he was in an area with a magnetic field was disappointing. I think that element of the plot could be better developed or deleted altogether. Also, Todd's regret at not listening to his family and his despair about the situation he is in is, at times, redundant. Overall, an intriguing tale of survival--man vs. nature--written by an intelligent writer who possesses great skill. Thank you.

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