Robert Silverberg - Alien Years

By Shirley Cook,2014-11-14 18:30
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Robert Silverberg - Alien Years


    Robert Silverberg


    Carmichael might have been the only person west of the Rocky Mountains that morning who didn't know what was going on. What was going on was the end of the world, more or less, but Carmichaelhis name was Myron,

    though everybody called him Mikehad been away for a while, reveling

    in a week of lovely solitude and inner retuning in the bleak beautiful wasteland that was northwestern New Mexico, not paying close attention to current events.

    On this crisp, clear autumn morning he had taken off long before dawn from a bumpy rural airstrip, heading westward, homeward, in his little Cessna 104-FG. The flight was rough and wild all the way, a fierce wind out of the heart of the continent pushing his plane around, giving it a scary clobbering practically from the moment he was aloft. That wasn't so good, the wind. An east wind as strong as this one, Carmichael knew, could mean trouble for coastal

    Californiaparticularly at this time of year. It was late October, the height of Southern California's brush-fire season. The last time there had been rain along the coast was the fifth of April, so the whole region was one big tinderbox, and this hard hot dry wind blowing out of the desert was capable of fanning any little spark it might encounter into a devastating conflagration of blowtorch ferocity. It happened just about every year. So he wasn't surprised to see a thin, blurry line of brown smoke far ahead of him on the horizon by the time he was in the vicinity of San Bernardino.

    The line thickened and darkened as he came up over the crest of the San Gabriels into Los Angeles proper, and there seemed to be lesser zones of brown sky-stain off to the north and south now, as well as that long east-west line somewhere out near the ocean. Evidently there were several fires at once. Perhaps a little bigger than usual, too. That was scary. This time of year in Los Angeles, everything was always at risk. With a wind as strong as this blowing, the whole crazy town could go in one big firestorm.

    The air traffic controller's voice sounded hoarse and ragged as he guided Carmichael toward his landing at Burbank Airport, which might have been an indication that something special was happening. Those guys always sounded hoarse and ragged, though. Carmichael took a little comfort from that thought.

    He felt the smoke stabbing at his nostrils the moment he stepped out of the plane: the familiar old acrid stink, the sour prickly reek of

    a bad October. Another instant and his eyes were stinging. You could almost draw pictures in the dirty air with the tip of your finger. This one must indeed be a lulu, Carmichael realized.

    A long, skinny guy in mechanic's overalls went trotting past him on the field. "Hey, guy," Carmichael called. "Where's it burning?" The man stopped, gaped, gave him a strange look, a disbelieving blink, as though Carmichael had just come down from six months in a space satellite. "You don't know?"

    "If I knew, I wouldn't have asked."

    "Hell, it's everywhere. All over the goddamn L.A. basin." "Everywhere?"

    The mechanic nodded. He looked half crazed. Again the sagging jaw, again that dopey bozo blink. "Wow, you actually mean to say you haven't heard about"

    "No. I haven't heard." Carmichael wanted to shake him. He ran into this kind of cloddish stupidity all the time, and he hated it. He gestured impatiently toward the smoke-fouled sky. "Is it as bad as it looks?" "Oh, it's bad, man, real bad! The worst ever, for damn sure. Like I say, burning all over the place. They've called out every general aviation plane there is for firefighting duty. You better get with your warden right away."

    "Yeah," Carmichael said, already in motion. "I guess I'd better." He sprinted into the main airport building. People got out of his way as he ran through. Carmichael was a sturdily built man, not particularly tall but wide through the shoulders and deep through the chest, and like all the Carmichaels he had fierce blue eyes that seemed to cast a searchlight beam before him. When he moved fast, as he was doing now, people got out of his way.

    You could smell the bitter aroma of the smoke even inside the terminal. The place was a madhouse of panicky commuters running back and forth and yelling at each other, waving briefcases around. Somehow Carmichael jostled his way to an open data terminal. It was the old-fashioned kind, no newfangled biochip-implant stuff. He put a call through to the district warden on the emergency net, and the district warden said, as soon as he heard who was talking, "Get your ass out here on the line double fast, Mike."

    "Where do you want me?"

    "The nastiest one's a little way northwest of Chatsworth. We've got planes loaded and ready to go out of Van Nuys Airport."

    "I need time to pee and phone my wife, okay?" Carmichael said. "I'll be in Van Nuys in fifteen."

    He was so tired that he could feel it in his teeth. It was nine in the morning and he'd been flying since half past four, and battling that bastardly east wind, the same wind that was threatening now to fan the

    flames in L.A., had been miserable work every single mile. He was fifty-six years old, no kid any more, the old juices flowing more sluggishly every year. At this moment all he wanted was home and shower and Cindy and bed. But Carmichael didn't regard firefighting work as optional. Not with the possibility of a firestorm always hanging over the city.

    There were times when he almost wished that it would happen, one great purging fire to wipe the whole damned place out.

    That wasn't a catastrophe he really wanted to see, not even remotely; but Carmichael hated this giant smoggy tawdry Babylon of a city, its endless tangle of clotted freeways, the peculiar-looking houses, the filthy polluted air, the thick choking glossy exotic foliage everywhere, the drugs, the booze, the divorces, the laziness, the sleaziness, the street bums, the street crime, the shyster lawyers and their loathsome clients, the whips and chains, the porno shops and the naked encounter parlors and the massage joints, the virtual-reality chopshops, the weird people speaking their weird trendy lingo and wearing their weird clothes and driving their weird cars and cutting their hair in weird ways and sticking bones through their noses like the savages they really were. There was a cheapness, a trashiness, about everything here, Carmichael thought. Even the grand mansions and the fancy restaurants were that way: hollow, like slick movie sets.

    He sometimes felt that he was bothered more by the petty trashiness of almost everything than by the out-and-out evil that lurked in the truly dark corners. If you watched where you were going you could stay out of reach of the evil most or even all of the time, but the trashiness slipped up sneakily around you no matter how well you kept sight of your own values, and there was no doing battle with it: it infiltrated your soul without your even knowing it. He hoped that his sojourn in Los Angeles was not doing that to him.

    There had been Carmichaels living in Southern California ever since General Fremont's time, but never any in Los Angeles itself, not one. He was the first of his tribe that had managed somehow to wind up there. The family came from the Valley, and what Carmichaels meant when they spoke of "the Valley" was the great flat agricultural San Joaquin, out behind Bakersfield and stretching off far to the north, and not the miserable congested string of hideous suburbs just over the hills from Beverly Hills and Santa Monica that Angelenos understood the term to connote. As for Los Angeles itself, they ignored it: it was the cinder in the eye, the unspeakable blotch on the Southern California landscape. But L.A. was Cindy's city and Cindy loved L.A. and Mike Carmichael loved Cindy, everything about her, the contrast of her slim pixy daintiness against his big blunt burly potato-nosed self, her warmth, her intensity, her playful quirky sense of fun, her dark lively eyes and glossy curling

    jet-black bangs, even the strange goofy philosophies that were the air of life to her. She was everything he had never been and had never even wanted to be, and he had fallen for her as he had never fallen before; and for Cindy's sake he had become the family Angeleno, much as he detested the place, because she could not and would not live anywhere else.

    So Mike Carmichael had been living there the past seven years, in a little wooden house up in Laurel Canyon amidst the lush green shrubbery, and for seven Octobers in a row he had dutifully gone out to dump chemical retardants on the annual brush fires, to save the locals from their own idiotic carelessness. One thing that just about every Carmichael grew up believing was that you had to accept your responsibilities, no complaining, no questions asked. Even Mike, who was as near to being a rebel as the family had ever produced, understood that. There would be fires. That was a given. Qualified pilots were needed to go up there and drop retardants on them and put them out. Mike Carmichael was a qualified pilot. He was needed, and he would go. It was as simple as that.

    The phone rang seven times at the home number before Carmichael hung up. Cindy had never liked answering machines or call forwarding or screen-mail or anything like that. Things like that were dehumanizing, mechanistic, she said. Which made them practically the last people in the world without such gadgets; but so be it, Carmichael figured. That was the way Cindy wanted it to be.

    Next he tried the little studio just off Colfax where she made her jewelry, but she didn't answer there either. Probably she was on her way to the gallery, which was out in Santa Monica, but she wouldn't be there yetthe

    freeways would be worse even than on a normal day, what with all these fires goingand so there was no sense even trying her there.

    That bothered him, not being able to say hello to her right away after his six-day absence, and no likely chance for it now for another eight or ten hours. But there was nothing he could do about that. He took off from Burbank on emergency clearance, firefighting authorization. As soon as he was aloft again he could see the fire not far to the northwest. It was denser now, a greasy black column against the pale sky. And when he stepped from his plane a few minutes later at Van Nuys Airport he felt an immediate blast of sudden unthinkable heat. The temperature had been in the low eighties at Burbank, damned well hot enough for nine in the morning, but here it was over a hundred. The air itself was sweating. He could see the congealed heat, like droplets of fat. It seemed to him that he heard the distant roar of flames, the popping and crackling of burning underbrush, the troublesome whistling sound of dry grass catching fire. It was just as though the fire was two miles away. Maybe it was, he thought.

    The airport looked like a combat center. Planes were coming and going with lunatic frenzy, and they were lunatic planes, too. The fire was so serious, apparently, that the regular fleet of conventional airborne tankers had been supplemented with antiques of every sort, planes forty and fifty years old and even older, converted B-iy Flying Fortresses and DC-3S and a Douglas Invader and, to Carmichael's astonishment, a Ford Trimotor from the 19305 that had been hauled, maybe, out of some movie studio's collection. Some were equipped with tanks that held fire-retardant chemicals, some were water-pumpers, some were mappers with infrared and electronic scanning equipment glistening on their snouts. Harried-looking men and women were in frantic motion everywhere, making wild gestures to each other across great distances or shouting into CB handsets as they tried to keep the loading process orderly. It didn't seem very orderly.

    Carmichael found his way to Operations HQ, which was full of haggard people peering into computer screens. He knew most of them from other fire seasons. They knew him.

    He waited for a break in the frenzy and tapped one of the dispatchers on the shoulder. She looked up, nodded in a goggly-eyed way, then grinned in recognition and said, "Mike. Good. We've got a DC-3 waiting for you." She traced a line with her finger across the screen in front of her. "You'll dump retardants along this arc, from Ybarra Canyon eastward to Horse Flats. The fire's in the Santa Susana foothills and so far the wind is from the east, but if it shifts to northerly it's going to take out everything from Chatsworth to Granada Hills, right on down to Ventura Boulevard. And that's only this fire."

    "Holy shit! How many are there?"

    The dispatcher gave her mouse a couple of clicks. The map of the San Fernando Valley that had been showing on the screen went swirling into oblivion and was replaced by one of the entire Los Angeles basin. Carmichael stared, aghast. Three great scarlet streaks indicated fire zones: this one out at the western end of things along the Santa Susanas, another nearly as big way off to the east in the grasslands north of the 210 Freeway around Glendora or San Dimas, and a third down in eastern Orange County, back of Anaheim Hills. "Ours is the big one so far," the dispatcher said. "But these other two are only about forty miles apart, and if they should join up somehow"

    "Yeah," Carmichael said. A single wall of fire running along the whole eastern rim of the basin, maybewith ferocious Santa Ana winds blowing, carrying airborne rivers of sparks westward across Pasadena, across downtown L.A., across Hollywood, across Beverly Hills, all the way to the coast, to Venice, Santa Monica, Malibu. He shivered. Laurel Canyon would go. The house, the studio. Hell, everything would go. Worse than Sodom and Gomorrah, worse than the fall of Nineveh. Nothing but ashes

    for hundreds of miles. "Jesus," he said. "Everybody scared silly of terrorist nukes, and three carloads of dumb kids tossing cigarettes can do the job just as easily."

    "But this time it wasn't cigarettes, Mike," the dispatcher said. "No? What then, arson?"

    Again that strange stare and blink, much like the one the field mechanic had given him. "You serious? You haven't heard?"

    "I've been in New Mexico the last six days. Way off in the outback." "You're the only one in the world who hasn't heard, then. Hey, don't you ever tune in the radio news when you drive?"

    "I flew there and back. The Cessna. Listening to the radio is one of the things that I go to New Mexico to get away from having to do.For

    Christ's sake, heard what'?"

    "About the E-Ts," said the dispatcher wearily. "They started the fires. Three spaceships landing at five this morning in three different corners of the L.A. basin. The heat of their engines ignited the dry grass." Carmichael did not smile. "E-Ts, yeah. You've got one weird sense of humor, kiddo."

    The dispatcher said, "You think it's a joke?"

    "Spaceships? From another world?"

    "With critters fifteen feet high on board," the dispatcher at the next computer said. "Linda's not kidding. They're out walking around on the freeways right this minute. Big purple squids fifteen feet high, Mike." "Men from Mars?"

    "Nobody knows where the hell they're from."

    "Jesus," Carmichael said. "Jesus Christ God."

    Half past nine in the morning, and Mike Carmichael's older brother, Colonel Anson Carmichael III, whom everyone usually spoke of simply as "the Colonel," was standing in front of his television set, gaping in disbelief. His daughter Rosalie had phoned fifteen minutes before from Newport Beach to tell him to turn it on. That would not have occurred to him, otherwise. The television was here for the grandchildren, not for him. But there he was, now, a lean, long-legged, resolutely straight-backed and stiff-necked retired army officer in his early sixties with piercing blue eyes and a full head of white hair, gaping like a kindergarten kid at his television set in the middle of the morning.

    On the huge state-of-the-art screen, set flush into the pink ashlar facing of the Colonel's recreation-room wall, the same two stupefying scenes had been alternating on every channel, over and over and over again, for the entire fifteen minutes that he had been watching. One was the aerial shot of the big fire on the northwestern flank of the Los Angeles basin: black billowing clouds, vivid red tongues of

    flame, an occasional glimpse of a house on fire, or a whole row of houses. The other was the grotesque, unbelievable, even absurd sight of half a dozen titanic alien beings moving solemnly around in the half-empty parking lot of a huge shopping mall in a place called Porter Ranch, with the sleek slender shaft of what he supposed was an alien ground vehicle of some sort rearing up like a shining needle behind them out of a tumbled cluster of charred cars, nose tilted upward at a 45-degree angle.

    The camera angles varied from time to time, but the scenes were always the same. A shot of the fire, and then cut to the aliens at the shopping mall. The fire again, looking worse than before; and then cut again to the aliens in the mall. Over and over and over.

    And, over and over and over, the same string of words kept running through the Colonel's mind:

    This is an invasion. We are at war. This is an invasion. We are at war. His mind could handle the fire part of it readily enough. He had seen houses burning before. Huge catastrophic fires were an ugly part of California life, but they were inevitable in a place where thirty-odd million people had decided to settle in a region that had, as an absolutely normal feature of the climate, a dry season lasting from April to November every year. October was the fire month, when the grassy hills were bone-dry and the diabolical Santa Ana winds came roaring up out of the desert to the east. There was never a year without its batch of fires, and every five or ten years there was a really monstrous onethe Hollywood Hills fire of 1961, when he had been in his late teens, and that one right down below here in Santa Barbara in 1990, and the huge Bay Area blaze that wiped out so much of Oakland a year or two after that, and that Pasadena fire on Thanksgiving Day, and on and on. But this other thingalien spaceships landing in Los Angeles, and, so they seemed to be saying on the tube now, touching down also in at least a dozen other places around the worldbizarre visitors, very likely

    hostile and belligerent, coming without warningintruding, for God only

    knew what reason, on the generally peaceful and prosperous place that was the planet Earth in the early years of the twenty-first century

    That was movie stuff. That was science fiction. It hammered at your sense of the orderly structure of the world, of the predictable flow of the events of life.

    The Colonel had read only one science fiction book in his life, The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells, long ago. He hadn't been the Colonel, then, but just a tall, skinny high-school kid diligently making himself ready for the life that he already knew he was going to lead. It was an intelligent, entertaining novel, but ultimately the book had annoyed him, because it asked an interesting questionWhat do you do when you

    find yourself up against an utterly unbeatable enemy?and then had

    supplied no useful answer. The Martian conquest of Earth had been thwarted not by any kind of clever military strategy but only by the merest of fortuitous flukes, a convenient biological accident. He didn't mind tough questions, but he believed in trying to find good answers for them, and he had been expecting Wells to supply something more satisfying than having the invincible Martian conquerors succumb to unfamiliar Earthly disease bacteria even as the armies of Earth lay flattened and helpless before their advance. That was ingenious of Wells, but it wasn't the right kind of ingenuity, because it left no scope for human mental ability or courage; it was simply a case of one external event canceling out another, like a tremendous downpour suddenly showing up to extinguish a raging forest fire while all the firefighters stood around sucking their thumbs.

    Well, here, strange to say, was Wells's book come to life. The Martians actually had landed, real ones, though surely not from Mars. Descending out of nowherewhat had happened to our orbital early warning systems, he wondered, the space-based telescopes that were supposed to be scanning for incoming asteroids and other little cosmic surprises?and,

    if what he was seeing on the teevee was any fair sample, they were already strutting around very much like conquerors. Willy-nilly, the world seemed to be at war, and with creatures of a superior technology, evidently, since they had managed to get here from some other star and that was something we could not have achieved.

    It remained to be seen, of course, what these invaders wanted. Maybe this wasn't even an invasion, but just an embassy that had arrived in a singularly clumsy way. But if it was war, the Colonel thought, and these creatures had weapons and abilities beyond our fathoming, then we were about to get our chance to deal squarely with the problem that H. G. Wells a hundred years ago had preferred to finesse with an expedient nick-of-time gimmick.

    Already the Colonel's mind was beginning to tick through a litany of options, wondering about which people he needed to call in Washington, wondering whether any of them would call him. If indeed there was going to be war against these aliens, and he was intuitively certain that there would be, he intended to play a part in it.

    The Colonel had no love for war and very little eagerness to become involved in it, and not just because he had been retired from the armed services for close to a dozen years. He had never glamorized war. War was a nasty, stupid, ugly business, usually signifying nothing more than the failure of rational policy. His father, Anson II, the Old Colonel, had foughtand fought plenty, and had the scars to show for itin the Second World War, and nevertheless had raised his three sons to be soldiers. The Old Colonel had liked to say, "People like us go into the military in order to see to it that nobody will ever have to

    fight again." His eldest son Anson had never ceased to believe that. Sometimes, though, you simply had war thrust upon you without any choice, and then it was necessary to fight or be obliterated, and this looked like one of those times. In that case, retired though he was, he might have something to offer. The psychology of alien cultures, after all, had been his big specialty from his Vietnam days onward, although he had never imagined having to deal with a culture as alien as this. But still, there were certain general principles that probably would apply, even in this case

    Abruptly the idiot repetitiousness of the stuff they were showing on the screen began to irritate and anger him. He went back outside.

    Wild updrafts from the blaze buffeted Carmichael's plane as he took it aloft. That gave him a few bad moments. But he moved easily and automatically to gain control, pulling the moves out of the underground territories of his nervous system. It was essential, he believed, to have the moves in your fingers, your shoulders, your thighs, rather than in the conscious realms of your brain. Consciousness could get you a long way, but ultimately you had to work out of the underground territories or you were dead.

    This was nothing, after all, compared with the stuff he had had to deal with in Vietnam. At least today nobody would be shooting at him from below. Vietnam was where he had learned all he knew about flying through thermal updrafts, too.

    The dry season in the swampy south of that unhappy land was the time of year when the farmers burned the stubble from their fields, and things were all smoke and heat down on the ground, with visibility maybe a thousand yards, tops. That was in daytime. More than half of his combat missions had been at night. A lot of the time he flew during the monsoon season, notable for thick sideways gusts of rain, a time that was nearly as bad for flying in as the field-burning season was. The Viet Cong folks and their buddies of the North Vietnamese Army battalions generally preferred carrying out troop movements mostly during bad weather, when nobody in their right minds would be flying. So that was when Carmichael had been up there above them, of course.

    The war was thirty-plus years behind him, and it was still as fresh and vivid in his life as though it had been Saigon and not New Mexico where he had just spent the past six days. Because he was too much the family bad boy to have gone docilely into the Army as he had been expected to do, and nevertheless was enough of a Carmichael so that he would never have dreamed of shirking his obligation to help his country defend its security perimeter, he had been a Navy pilot during the war, flying twin-engine turbo-prop OV-10s as a member of Light Attack Squadron 4, operating out of Binh Thuy.

    His tour of duty had been twelve months, July 1971 through June 1972. That had been enough. The OV-10s were supposed to be observation planes, but in Vietnam they flew close support for an air-cavalry pack and went out with equipped with rockets, Gatling guns, 20-millimeter cannons, strapped-on clusters of cluster bombs, and all sorts of other stuff. Carrying a full load, they could barely make it up higher than 3500 feet. Most of the time they flew below the clouds, sometimes down around treetop level, no more than a hundred feet up, seven days a week, mostly at night. Carmichael figured he had fulfilled his military obligation to his nation, and then some.

    But the obligation to go out and fight these firesyou never finished

    fulfilling that.

    He felt the plane responding now, and managed a grin. DC-3S were tough old birds. He loved flying them, though the newest of them had been manufactured before he was born. He loved flying anything. Flying wasn't what Carmichael did for a livinghe didn't actually do anything for

    a living, not any morebut flying was what he did. There were months when he spent more time in the air than on the ground, or so it seemed to him, because the hours he spent on the ground often slid by unnoticed, while time in the air was heightened, intensified, magnified. He swung south over Encino and Tarzana before heading up across Chatsworth and Canoga Park into the fire zone. A fine haze of ash masked the sun. Looking down, he could see the tiny houses, the tiny blue swimming pools, the tiny people scurrying about with berserk fervor, trying to hose down their roofs before the flames arrived. So many houses, so many people, great human swarms filling every inch of space between the sea and the desert, and now it was all in jeopardy.

    The southbound lanes of Topanga Canyon Boulevard were as jammed with cars, here in mid-morning, as the Hollywood Freeway at rush hour. No, it was worse than that. They were even driving on the shoulders of the road, and here and there were gnarly tangles where there had been accidents, cars overturned, cars slewed around sideways. The others just kept on going, fighting their way right around them.

    Where were they all going? Anywhere. Anywhere that was away from the fire, at least. With big pieces of furniture strapped to the tops of their cars, baby cribs, footlockers, dressers, chairs, tables, even beds. He could imagine what was within those cars, toomounds of family

    photographs, computer disks, television sets, toys, clothing, whatever they prized the most, or however much of it they had been able to stash before the panicky urge to flee overtook them.

    They were heading toward the beaches, it seemed. Maybe some television preacher had told them there was an ark sitting out there in the Pacific, waiting to carry them to safety while God rained brimstone down on Los Angeles. And maybe there really was one out there, too. In Los Angeles

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