Future Tense

“All That Burns Unseen”

A car with headlights on is seen behind a foggy pane of shattering glass.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

The plane had no pilot. Vaughn, who had wandered into the cockpit to find someone to talk to, found herself more startled than shocked by this—after all, her boss had said about half the flights going up to the fires were self-flown—but there had certainly been a pilot when she’d boarded. He must have disembarked in Cold Lake, where they had stopped so briefly that Vaughn hadn’t even bothered unfastening her seat belt. Either way, the Hercules was now, undeniably, flying itself. Vaughn gingerly sat in the co-pilot seat and peered out the window.

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At last she could see what the windowless cargo bay had hidden: the land crawling past with the illusory dawdle caused by altitude and parallax. No flames, which she thought was odd. Only smoke, a solid granitic wall as if a mountain had broken loose from its bedrock and gone for a stroll. Somewhere the burning went on though, the great burning, trees gone and grass gone and the land itself on fire. It had smoldered all the snowless winter and now, in February, it had burst back to life. During her lifetime every season had become fire season.

I saw him. I know I did. I saw his face in the amber light, alone, in his old chair next to the wall. The first wall that would burn.

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Vaughn kneaded the gel armrests. She hadn’t slept in about 30 hours but she felt electrically, almost painfully awake, refusing to honor this sensation with its true name of fear, telling herself only that she was nervous to be back in the field.

As the Hercules landed she imagined a gray bird descending through the gray smoke, becoming invisible. Although she saw no smoke enter, the thick odor of burning peat filled the cabin before touchdown. Sharp taste of whiskey in her mouth.

“You got ID on you?”

“Vaughn Collins.” She held out her tablet with the code ready to scan. “I’m with the province. Air monitoring division.”

“Mm,” said the airstrip supervisor, whom Vaughn had already clocked as a kind of one-woman unwelcome committee. Her grunt expressed something like Oh Christ, so now the government shows up, and it’s some goddamn kid. “You got all your gear in there?”

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She jerked a thumb at the ancient pickup—once white, now matte gray—that Vaughn had painstakingly backed out of its tight squeeze inside the Hercules. The agency decal on the door boasted three parallel scratches as if it had been clawed by an animal rather than bumping into the concrete wall of the work parkade.

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“Yeah. It’s just portables,” Vaughn said. “The permanent stations are down but we need data about the air in town. PM 2.5, SOX, NOX.”

“Just you?”

“Just me.”

The woman signed her work permit while Vaughn looked around, her eyes watering over the respirator. Everything was blanketed in ash, so the charred black landscape she had expected looked as if it had snowed instead. The LED monitor attached to the Operations Centre tent behind her said it was 36.9 C. Exactly body temperature: hers from this morning, actually, the number she’d entered into her Solitary Work app.

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Vaughn retreated to her truck and drove off the airstrip, heart pounding. She felt as if she’d been hit on the head hard enough to split her brain in two: half of it wondering where to test and set up her monitors, half desperate to wrench the steering wheel to one side and off-road to the house.

Ash rained down slowly in flakes as large as a paperback book. That she had expected; planes couldn’t land at the regular airport because they choked on gulped-in ash, but the oil company airstrips outside of town were still usable. The government, she’d been instructed to tell them, is very grateful for the assistance.

Although as far as Vaughn knew, she was the only government person up here; and because travel to the wildfire emergency area was strictly forbidden to nonofficial personnel, she’d had to beg without seeming as if she was begging.

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Had her boss been suspicious? It was hard to say. Vaughn thought about the older woman’s mild-mannered, expressionless face on the monitor. Here was someone you wouldn’t want to play poker with: “Well, it is true that most of the local permanent stations aren’t reporting.” No inflection, no value judgment at all, nothing to work with.

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“The power might be out,” Vaughn had replied, forcing herself to pause, not to sound too eager. “I can try to get them back online. And then we’ll have good regional data … and the last big fires, you know, we did send up a team in the MAML to get data from inside the town. For emergency personnel. You know how it is.”

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“That’s true.”

You know how it is: lawsuits from paramedics and firefighters who had gotten too much smoke, countersuits from government and respirator companies, counter-countersuits, articles everywhere, shouty opinion pieces. You know, Vaughn wanted to say. Just in terms of optics. Better if we have our own monitoring data. And yes of course all the private firefighters and security guys have air monitors of their own. But our data will be public, transparent, reliable. Government still means something to some people. Send me up there. Show that we can be trusted.

She hadn’t said: I had a dream. I dreamt my mother abandoned my father to the flames. I haven’t heard from them for three days. Their names aren’t on the list of evacuees. No one knows where they are. “Collateral damage of wildfires,” everyone says. “These things happen,” everyone says. We have reached the limit of what remote sensing can tell us and I can prove nothing but I have to go.

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Vaughn paused at a crossroad, then cautiously rolled on. Few vehicles were moving through the gloom; the streetlights and traffic lights were out, and the buildings still standing were dark under their cloaks of ash. She thought of old movies filmed with this same yellowy filter over the lens: apocalypse, end of the world. You knew it was the end of the world because of the light. Every now and then someone’s high-viz stripes glared out and vanished at once, like some bizarre modern cryptid consisting of a two-dimensional X. Police cars cruised at walking pace down the center of the roads, all their lights off.

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As Vaughn turned and headed for the residential neighborhoods, the randomness of the fires became more apparent. A row of 10 houses, eight burned; a row of 12, two burned. It seemed no one had been able, or had bothered, to fight the fires within town. With the reservoirs, rivers, and lakes empty for a decade, the glaciers all gone, municipalities had resorted, like the rest of the world, to firefighting powders and foams. Supposedly they were less dangerous than they used to be. Vaughn still didn’t like the idea of breathing the stuff in.

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Huge splotches of orange and red marked a few houses, showing which ones probably had their own systems. They were becoming more common after the last bad year; residents couldn’t store enough water, but tons of chemicals didn’t take up much space. It was like anything else, Vaughn figured. You couldn’t buy your way out of natural disasters, and the climate was everyone’s climate, but a certain level of safety and comfort had a price tag.

All the cafes and restaurants were closed, even the gas stations, but a charity had set up a big red tent marked with white reflective crosses on the next block. She left the truck idling and joined the short lineup of exhausted, ash-covered emergency personnel filing past the white folding tables inside. As she was about to leave with her sandwich and water, someone called, “Miss. Miss!”

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“Yes?”

“That’ll be $15.80!”

“Oh. Uh. Sorry.” She fumbled out her phone and tapped it on the man’s paypad. “Um, can I get a receipt?”

He huffed impatiently as he printed it out and threw it at her rather than handing it to her. She pocketed it and put her head down, scuttling back to the truck.

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Warm egg salad. Lovely.

The city had been told to evacuate; the oil companies had flown out their employees. But some people wouldn’t leave and some people couldn’t leave. Most of those still here, the beneficiaries of her purported monitoring data, were trying to keep a sliver of society functioning, getting folks to the hospital, urging people to buy a place on the charter buses still ferrying residents out of town. But technically you couldn’t make anyone leave.

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Slowly the wasteland around her grew flatter, becoming a horizon of leveled houses, twisted fences, compressed cars. She remembered the videos she’d watched last night: The fire looked like a tornado because it was a tornado, a pillar of flames spiraling through the trees, tearing open the firebreak trenches like wet paper. She felt sick, thought about pulling over, kept going.

Maybe there was no house to go back to. Maybe just a burnt spot on the ground.

Her phone pinged, startling her: a message from her boss. Checking in! Your plane texted me to say you landed. Everything ok?

She said, “New message. Everything fine. Checking status of permanent stations. Send to Sabrina.” Her voice was shaking, throat already raw.

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Figures the plane would be a nark. Cars had been driving themselves since she was a kid, but only planes were allowed enough intelligence to talk to people and decide what to say. Her truck had been upgraded to almost that bright, supposedly. But she’d thought of that before leaving.

At the first station, she parked, put on her flashers, then got out a roll of aluminum duct tape and a folding stepladder. Her breath hissed and roared in the respirator as she climbed onto the roof of the truck and covered the protruding knob of what she sometimes thought of as its conscience (locator beacon, messaging center, speed governor) with thick layers of the tape, paying particular attention to the transmitter. Only when the red locator dot disappeared from her tablet did she climb back inside and turn onto the back roads leading to her parents’ house.

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She thought: I cannot take it back now. I cannot say it was a mistake. What am I doing?

Farther from town the trees had burned again and again and again over the decades, and the scientists had been wrong about one thing; they had said that burned places would not burn again for a long time, because a landscape where most of the fuel had been used up was much harder to reignite. They would act as natural firebreaks, protecting what lay beyond them. But between the heat and the tornadoes and the drought and the collapsed jet stream, fire just did whatever it wanted these days.

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Vaughn drove through a Tunguska-like clutter of angled trunks and vertical charcoal, sweating despite the A/C in the truck. When she had been growing up, only a handful of people had lived out here. That had changed as people declared themselves “sick” of living in close proximity to their neighbors in the city, and bought huge acreages to live in splendid solitude. Dozens of cars hunkered on the sides of the road, their molten hubcaps drooling brightly into the ash.

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Couldn’t be helped, Vaughn thought as she edged past, occasionally nudging the cars aside with the truck. When the fires came you had to evacuate yourself; no one would come to get you. Sometimes that meant leaving with a full tank of gas. Sometimes it meant leaving with fumes, and getting as far as you could before hoping someone could pick you up. You couldn’t even avoid it with electric cars; if your car didn’t get the emergency signal unlocking extra range to let you evacuate, you’d be stuck there with all the gas-burning plebes you mocked the day before. And your hubcaps would be melted too.

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She thought of her mother’s car, her pride and joy, an imported Range Rover with white leather upholstery. Thought of it steering her mother around town as grandly as any limousine while she painted her nails in the back or chatted to her friends. You saw it coming a mile away with that flawless, rainbowy-black finish.

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Not on the road. Okay. Okay. Okayokayokay. Good.

She turned off the pavement and onto the gravel road leading to the house, and immediately had to turn on the wipers as ash began to rain down faster than the truck’s motion could blow it off. The air monitors rattled faintly in the back in their padded rubber cages.

The speedometer’s needle wobbled, then dipped below double digits as she rolled through the darkness, crunching over burnt wood and broken windshields. Mom’s Range Rover would manage this easily. So she got out, right? She put Dad in there and got out.

Vaughn reached inside herself experimentally, tentatively, looking for anger, and found only fear again. I lied to get here. I’ll lose my job. Something happened. I’m too late. Why am I such a failure? Let me check my phone again.

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Her windshield exploded, and adrenaline stretched out the moment so long between the sight and the sound that she merely watched it happen, paralyzed with disbelief, before she slammed on the brakes and the blam! of the impact caught up to her.

For several seconds she didn’t move, staring at the shattered glass in its cradle of film. Perfect bull’s-eye. Right in the middle. Something dark on the white hood, sliding off.

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She got out cautiously and put on her respirator, one hand outstretched in the hot gloom. An owl? A raven, overcome by the heat and smoke?

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Only a firefighting drone, sprawled and humming as if dazed in the middle of the gravel path. It was far bigger than she expected, though admittedly she’d never seen one up close, only watched them fly on the news. Nearly 6 feet across from wingtip to wingtip, hex-printed carbon fiber, its center bulging with its load of chemicals.

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Vaughn started to drag its surprisingly light carcass off the path, then hesitated as it began to beep. Wiping sweat off her forehead, she used her damp wrist to clean the ash off the drone’s tiny readout screen, exposing a string of garbled numbers and letters. “Hit your head, huh?” she murmured, and put it back down.

A moment later she picked it back up again and turned it over. Her tiny fire extinguisher in the truck was meant to deal with engine fires, nothing bigger; this drone contained enough chemicals, potentially, to shower an entire house. (But I don’t need that. Right? The house is fine. Fine.)

The drone’s beeps grew in volume and urgency as she scrabbled at the locked hatch, and finally she gave up and stuffed the whole thing into the back of the truck, pressing it against the canopy to fit. Deal with it later. Consider it a potential asset.

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Through the bars of the burned trees she glimpsed oddly unsettling things, like dioramas built inside a jail cell: a house entirely untouched, still surrounded by green grass and topiaries clipped into mythological beasts, everything covered in firefighting foam. A security guard stepped out from behind an orange unicorn and gestured vaguely at her with his gun: Keep moving. No looting. Another row of houses, all three burned flush to the ground with slender white dust-devils of ash dancing between them like ghosts.

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“Prepared to deploy,” the drone said from the back.

“No you’re not,” Vaughn said automatically, not glancing at the rear-view mirror. “You fell right out of the sky.”

The drone fell silent. She tightened her grip on the steering wheel and fluttered the gas, then slowed down again. Not enough water up here to fight fires. Those days were gone. Glaciers a memory. No lakes, no ponds, no bogs. No snow most years. Any rain that did come couldn’t soak into the bare, hydrophobic soil; ash-slides and mud-slides wiped out whole neighborhoods and that wasn’t water you could use either. I need your chemicals. Hand them over. She said nothing. It felt a bit highwayman-ish.

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“Run diagnostic?”

“Sure,” she said, concentrating on the road.

” … Cannot initiate diagnostic. Run diagnostic?”

Vaughn sighed and pulled over again, but took her time drinking some water and eating a granola bar from her handbag before climbing awkwardly into the back and clicking on the overhead light. The label above the drone’s readout panel claimed it was an Odonata M-1278. She tried looking up troubleshooting guides on her phone, then tablet, but neither was getting signal.

“I mostly review monitoring reports, you know,” she said, scrolling through the commands on the drone’s screen. “I barely even remembered how to calibrate the portables. How do I get your chemicals out?”

“Dampenex™ canister currently at 95 percent. No refill needed.”

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She put a screwdriver into the hatch’s lever and leaned, then stopped upon hearing the carbon-fiber creak. No good breaking it and getting a faceful of the stuff. “Uh … open canister access.”

“No refill needed.”

“Open access for diagnostic purposes.”

“No refill needed.”

She snarled with frustration. Just about everything had a mind of its own now, machine learning paired with remote operation, but nothing was infallible under extreme conditions. Not humans either, she conceded, but the main thing was that in the end humans could show cunning against its foes and machines simply could not. And nothing about an emergency was black and white enough to train them.

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She didn’t realize she was crying until she crested the hill and saw what remained of the house, and then she had to park at the top, dry her face, then roll cautiously down to the gravel driveway at the bottom of the lawn. The heat had not been cut a whit by the smoke; she began to sweat as she opened the truck canopy and got out her toolkit and flashlight.

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Here, to her surprise, she could hear the fire, a distant crackle of burning peat like rapidly boiling water. There was another, stranger sound, mechanical, repetitive; she paused and cocked her head, listening over the noise of her breath in the mask. Scraping and thudding. One of the rich neighbors must have an automated system for digging firebreak trenches around the house. Smart: then you didn’t have to blanket the whole thing with chemicals. It wouldn’t do you any good if another firestorm started, but if it was moving along the ground, your house might be spared. Of course, that steered it right at your neighbors, but you also had to count on them not having enough money to take you to court and prove it.

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“Diagnostic complete,” said the drone. She ignored it and headed to the house, her boots silent in the inch of fresh ash. The numerical keypad had burned away, leaving an exposed square of circuitry, but the deadbolt below it let her inside.

Door still locked, she noted numbly as she entered. Okay. And no tire tracks, nothing outside. Like freshly fallen snow. So they got out before that ash fell. Right? Logic makes sense here, right?

The living room was familiar and unfamiliar, the structure the same, but entirely redecorated. Her mother’s work no doubt; she had always hated her family’s penchant for trinkets and photos and posters and books, which were all filed under “clutter” in her mental catalog.

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Vaughn swept the flashlight back and forth: yes, the charred armchair next to the burnt wall, which she could have just walked through if she had seen it. Crisped flowers in a blackened vase. Everything covered in ash.

Kitchen, dining area, both bedrooms: nothing. Terrible to find something (a corpse? just bones?) and just as bad not to. Absently, she flicked light switches as she came in, forgetting that the power was out. I told them to get solar panels. Everybody has them now. There’s blackouts and brownouts all the time, even in the city. I’d get them if I could. My building won’t allow them. Vaughn could hear the conversation in her head as clear as anything, including her mother’s distress: “But they’re so ugly, baby.”

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Well, they would have gone up with the roof, which was more than half gone; the dim orange light pouring through it rendered everything shadowless, reduced her depth perception so that she stumbled into walls and corners. “Mom?” she called, muffled. “Dad?”

Silence. No. Not silence. Something … outside? Inside? “Dad?”

“What?”

Vaughn yelped. Then she turned and looked at the basement door.

“ ’Course I yelled for ’em.” He sipped from her bottle of water and frowned. “This tastes like plastic. Did you leave this in the car?”

“No, I just got it in town,” Vaughn said. “So you heard them? The search and rescue team? And they couldn’t hear you?”

“Don’t try that tone of voice on me. You think I’m lying?”

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“Of course not, Dad.”

He drank again, and Vaughn managed to grab the half-full bottle just as his grip slackened around it. It was cooler in the basement than upstairs, but Vaughn was still sweating; her father, meanwhile, had asked her for a blanket as soon as she came in, and had wrapped it around his filthy pajamas.

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She had been so shocked all she could do was give it to him before saying anything else. Her mother called once a week or so, giving no hint that he had deteriorated so much or so suddenly. And he had been fine at Christmas.

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Vaughn waited for him to talk, to at least express surprise at her unexpected appearance. He said nothing and took back the water bottle, swirling it around before drinking again.

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“What happened?” Vaughn finally said, looking around the little room, which contained no more than a bookshelf and the rickety twin bed on which they both sat. “I’ve been calling and calling. Where’s Mom?”

“Well, she went over to her friend’s place. You know the one. With the horses.”

“I … what? When was this?”

He glared defiantly at her. “Monday.”

“She went to Cordelia’s place on Monday?

“Got a problem with your ears? That’s what I said.”

“But the fires … ”

“Watch party, she said. They got that solarium and they were going to watch the, you know—” He waved a hand vaguely. “The planes and those little robots and stuff dropping foam on the fires.”

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“I … and then she just never came back?”

“I told her to go. She was tired of stayin’ in the house with me,” he said shortly. “Kia’s in the garage with a full tank. Told her if it got hairy I’d just head out and we’d meet up at one of the evac centers. But I came down here to get a book and … just started having some trouble walking. Is all.”

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Vaughn wound her fingers together and stared at the tangle, her ears ringing. A mini-stroke? Something else? She almost said And you didn’t have your phone with you? but of course he didn’t; he hated his phone and never charged it. She focused on her boots, the crisp prints of the ash she’d tracked onto the pale-blue carpet, and on his sock feet with the skinny hairless shins visible where his pajama pants had rucked up. This is my fault. I should have made them move in with me. I should have

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He lifted the water bottle and paused. She waited for him to say Well, I’m glad you showed up, anyway. He said, “What’s that noise?”

Even leaning on her arm he couldn’t manage the stairs, so Vaughn eventually ignored his yelling and put him in a fireman’s carry, clutching the banister and pausing after each step. All she could think of was how she never could have done this in the old days. But he was so diminished, he was like a charred tree, hollow on the inside. She knew she should be grateful instead of horrified. Maybe both. Both is okay, right?

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Outside the wind had picked up. Flames peeked above the tops of the already burned trees and the air was hot enough to sting her hands and the exposed strip of skin above her respirator; she glanced behind herself, terrified, to see that her father had pulled one of her mother’s silk scarves off its hanger in the hall closet and was slowly tying it around his face. His blue eyes, sunken in lined pits of dehydration, seemed very far away, as if for a long time he had been talking himself into facing something like this alone, as if he had written his own eulogy, and Vaughn told herself to stop thinking that and found that she couldn’t. They were living lives at only one remove from hers but it was enough of a remove for this to happen.

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She took a deep breath, making her filter cartridges wheeze. The truck was barely 50 yards away, but she needed to catch her breath before carrying him again. Above the black streaks of the treetops something groaned and wailed—the noise they’d heard from the basement. And now it stumbled into view, exactly like a giant for a moment: head, torso, swinging arms.

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No, of course not. Only a pillar of dirty-looking reddish flames, striding clumsily toward the truck, kicking up the ash in great clouds. Vaughn stared, mouth open. There was nothing to burn at its feet; it seemed to carry its own sun deep within, holding it jealous and close. What need had it of wood, of peat, of any earthly fuel? It laughed, it blazed with disdain.

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But the truck was fuel. The truck would burn, the tires would explode. Poor silenced thing, and she had taped over its mouth before it could call for help. It didn’t matter. There was no signal, the satellite phone was in the glove compartment, more fool she, and no one would come anyway. They were not like the Cordelias of the world, with a number you could call anytime to say Come protect my house or Come drive me to safety.

For a long time, too long, she watched the vortex stumble closer to the truck, spitting bits of burning shrapnel all the way to where she stood in the doorway, tiny flecks of pain against her skin. The truck pinged and cracked as it approached. No way out. “Back inside,” she said over her shoulder. “Can you walk? We have to get back down to the basement.”

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“I—”

His words vanished in a different roar; Vaughn ducked from the stooping thing, protecting her face with one forearm and flinging the other back at her father, which he adroitly avoided.

But it was the drone, buzzing low on rotors making an awful grinding noise that Vaughn felt certain had grounded it in the first place. It banked past the house like a swallow, swept over the truck, disappeared for a few heart-stopping seconds into the pillar of flames, then burst free, trailing what at first seemed a cloud of perfect darkness, like a plane with a dying engine, but Vaughn suddenly realized was its firefighting powder. It wasn’t spraying through the nozzle in a broad sheet as it was designed to—it was coughing out in spurts through the nozzle and around the hatch—but it was spraying all the same.

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The drone circled the truck, spattered a broad delta of the stuff across the driveway, and vanished again into the trees; Vaughn cried out without realizing, or knowing what she had said, then spun and grabbed her father’s stick-thin arm. They both winced. “Now,” she gasped. “Quick. Hold your breath.”

“What was that? Friend of yours?”

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“Some guy I picked up. Come on!” She shoved her shoulder under his armpit, knocking her mask askew, and dragged him over the fresh slurry of powder, ash, and gravel. The light was tall, golden, menacing, clear enough now to cast shadows of the burned forest around them. For only a moment, as she shoved him into the passenger side, did she search for the shadow of the drone. But it was lost in the general confusion, and as they fled she told herself she had not abandoned it, only left it to do its job, what it was meant to do, and surely soon (in minutes!) it would fly away home just as she would.

“No.”

“No what?”

“No, I don’t accept your resignation.” Sabrina didn’t frown or smile; Vaughn debated doing one or the other, but her face wasn’t obeying instructions at the moment. They stared at each other for so long that if the signal indicator in the bottom of the screen hadn’t remained green, Vaughn would have assumed that one or the other had lost their connection.

“Where are you, anyway?”

“Oh, um.” She should have been able to look that up on Vaughn’s Solitary Work app. Vaughn blushed, hoping the camera didn’t pick it up; she had confessed to everything except muzzling her truck. “I’m at the Best Western. The power’s back up and they have a backup generator. But I—”

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“Listen.” Sabrina sighed. “Right now, you and I are the only ones who know about this. Yes, you did travel on false pretenses, but I’m the one who approved it. Furthermore, you did set up all the portables, and you got three of the five stations online again. Upshot is, your letter here says ‘fraudulent expenses,’ and we’ve just discussed that the work was done, so that’s not correct.”

Vaughn blinked. “So … no, then.”

“So no. I always knew when you were out of your depth you’d suddenly figure out how to swim. Although I don’t know that I’ll be sending you to the field again anytime soon.” Sabrina smiled at last, a fleeting but warm twitch. “Your voice sounds terrible, incidentally. Weren’t you wearing your PPE?”

“I was, I swear.”

“Where’s your dad?”

“I put him on one of the army flights back to Edmonton. Practically had to duct-tape him into his seat, but they left a couple of hours ago.”

“And did you get ahold of your m—” Sabrina hesitated, perhaps seeing something in Vaughn’s face.

Vaughn flinched minutely, even though she knew the question was inevitable. In her anger and frustration and shame she had even considered lying about it—a little white lie, hurting no one. Now she found herself unwilling, almost for the first time in her life, to cover for her mother’s neglect. “I did, yeah,” Vaughn said. “She was at a friend’s house. She figured Dad would be all right at home and then the fire took out the phones and cut them off from each other.” Not quite true; not quite a lie. She took a deep, shaky breath.

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“Well. I’m glad to hear everyone is okay. Let’s talk tomorrow.”

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“Thanks.”

Vaughn hung up and stared at herself in the darkened window for a while, back-lit by the lights in the hotel room. She’d eaten, showered, and changed, but she still felt vaguely inhuman: more like an animal going through the motions. She had not confessed the dream to anyone; she realized she was afraid to go to bed in case she dreamt something even worse. When she closed her eyes she saw the bloody streak of the twisting flames reflected in the sides of her truck, bright against the dull ochre of the light.

She put her boots on and went outside, where the tight lid of the day’s heat had lifted an inch or two; the wind, too, had shifted away from town. As she watched, the streetlights in the parking lot flickered once, twice, then went out. A faint collective groan went up from the hotel bar next to the lobby, which cheered her for some reason. Life goes on, hockey goes on. How do you live through this except by focusing on what’s in front of you and ignoring everything else?

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After a moment, she realized that what she had taken to be a shadow on her truck canopy was something else: manta-ray silhouette, dusted with ashes, its branding scorched away. Vaughn laughed, startling herself with the noise, and walked out to the parking lot. “So you did make it. How did you find me?”

” … Refill needed.”

“Yeah, I bet.” She ran a hand over the drone, looking for a power button, finding nothing. It must be buried inside the panel menus somewhere, along with information on where to return it. She felt strangely light, as if something had just been lifted from her. “I’ll get you a refill. In the meantime, can you … like … not draw attention to yourself overnight? Can you sleep?”

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“I can sleep.”

She patted it again, feeling silly, but when she returned to her room it was with a sense of safety or even protection that she hadn’t felt in a long time. For a while she sat in her pajamas, weighing her phone in her hands as if waiting for something. Then she turned it off, unplugged the alarm clock, and went to bed.

Read a response essay by a journalist who covers wildfires and the chemicals used to fight them.

Read More From Future Tense Fiction
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales
The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane
Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland
Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter
The Wait,” by Andrea Chapela
Ride,” by Linda Nagata
If We Make It Through This Alive,” by A.T. Greenblatt
Good Job, Robin,” by JoeAnn Hart
Empathy Hour,” by Matt Bell
The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees,” by Cat Rambo
Out of Ash,” by Brenda Cooper
This, but Again,” by David Iseron

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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