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Yuki: Looks like another week of rain, according to the radio.
Assistant: It’s gonna be a jungle outside before we get a chance to do anything. Seems like it only stops raining in the middle of the night.
Yuki: The house and lab are as clean as they’ve ever been. So, there’s that.
Assistant: Yeah, but there’s nothing left to do. I’ve gone through some of the rooms a million times it feels like.
Yuki: I mean, that just leaves us more time to work in the lab. We also have this week’s excursion.
Assistant: We do. That’ll at least kill some time. Where are we off to this time?
Yuki: Rural Australia. And they’re having quite the opposite experience as us. Most of the country is in the midst of a drought. No rain for weeks on end. And it’s peak bushfire season.
Assistant: …There’s no in-between here, is there?
Normally, the vast green landscape of Nadjam Valley catch the eyes of thousands of tourists and motorists annually. Those staying locally, take their guided wine and cheese tasting tours often take themselves for a wander after being led around for hours. The spot in question is just after the welcome sign on the valley’s only road in from the east.
Every single person that enters the valley from this road (barring those riding shotgun checking their phones or consulting their maps) is treated with a sight becoming increasingly rare in the metropolitan areas of the capital cities: brilliant, untouched natures as far as the eye could see. No new housing developments, no shops, not even public park space: only swaying grasses, trees and flowers, and a gentle river flowing toward the CBD several kilometres down the road.
The dark foliage from the trees off the side of the road perfectly frame the the vivid light green of the fields down the slope. Beyond, hazy purple mountains stretch across the land, the sharp angles give way to the bluest skies that no aircraft blemishes.
This past year, the green never came. Fresh out of winter, spring bore week after week of stale, warm air with temperatures that spiked hard—well outside the summer months. What little rain found its way to the valley evaporated on impact. Yellows and browns took over the colour pallet and the wooshing of the leaves and grasses were replaced with eerie scratching and crackling. The wine output was halved or worse and tourists and weary motorists didn’t bother having a break and a stretch.
Today, that view is deathly black and glowing a horrifying orange. A line of flame engulfs the valley faster than any human can run. Ash flutters down on the hellscape and embers rise and spread the chaos.
Holiday-makers were the first to flee; their long-weekends cut short, decided to bicker over refunds from a safer locale. Residents started to leave in droves or donned their fire brigade uniforms. Most business owners followed suit, but many, still, stayed behind, manning garden hoses, ready to curb the flames at the doorstep.
Bruce Anderson is one of those men; as a Nadjam Valley volunteer firie, he was in charge of helping out those in town that chose to stay behind. Plenty volunteers were already on the far edges with the tankers. After hopping around residents where he could, he decides to give his place another dowsing.
‘Oi, Brucey!’ a voice calls from the gravel driveway of his home. Bruce loosened the grip on the trigger of his hose. The arching stream that had been crashing down on his roof faded into a mist. He squints his eyes and catches a glimpse of old Tom Clarke, the librarian, standing behind the open door of his Commodore.
‘What’re you still doin’ here, old man?’ Bruce yells against the wind.
‘Checking on you. Got all my stuff and heading out.’
‘Making sure everything’s set here. I’ll be catching up with the guys on the east end later.’
‘They aren’t there!’
Bruce rolls up the hose and turns off the spigot. He jogs over to Tom. ‘The hell you talking about?’ Tom is hacking up a lung now, tears streaming down his dirty face. ‘Go on, get in your car—you have enough trouble catching your breath as-is.’
Tom hocks a loogie and sits down behind the wheel. ‘They’re gonna call it soon—too late to leave. Blokes all left, water trucks all abandoned near the vineyards down that way,’ he said, pointing eastward.
‘Shit…figures,’ Bruce sighed. ‘Go on, get out.’
‘What about you?’
‘I was planning on staying up here with the boys anyways. Help keep the buildings and grounds damp. Guess I can scrap meeting them on the outskirts, yeah?’
‘Go! I’ll be fine,’ he raps the bonnet of the clunker and turned back to his homestead. ‘There’s gotta be bloody someone left in this town,’ he says under his breath. Bruce turns on the sprinklers in his front and back lawns and gives his place one last look before he heads to the vineyards.
The abandoned tanker sits on the service road between between the commercial fields. No hoses deployed…no equipment even in mid-use when those in charge decided to get the fuck out of dodge. Further up the road, beyond the ‘welcome’ and ‘goodbye’ sign, flames sweep across the tarmac. Half the roads leading out of town are now out of commission. The odds of him leaving, even if he wanted to, are against him now.
The keys to the truck are sitting on the driver’s seat. They really have split.
Bruces gazes down at the popular photo-op spot, a charred skeleton of its former glory. ‘Best get to it, then,’ he says to himself.
He hoses down the unaffected areas nearest to him before he puts out the smaller flames that continue to spread. He knows it is futile, but at the same time, he can’t sit back and let it happen. There is one moment (several, really) that he seriously contemplates taking the truck down to his place and hold the fort as best as he can.
And still, Bruce persists and continues keeping all the portions of the field he can, clear. A large gust kicks up. It fans the flames he is actively fighting, and brings in heaps of smoke from the other active blazes.
How in the hell did all of this start up? Bruce wonders. The closest active bush fire is hours away…there’s no way they could have popped over that fast.
A wave of black smoke overtakes his body and interrupts his thoughts. Bruce’s eyes slam shut and burn. Tears stream out like a busted water main. Smoke finds its way into his lungs and he hacks and wheezes so hard he swears he feels his ribs crack. The rush of the wind and the rumble of the flames overwhelm him. He collapses next to the truck; his hand desperately tries to find the door handle.
The sounds and the heat fade.
Now there is calm. The burning sensation in and around Bruce’s eyes are gone. The tears, once flowing, have long-since dried. The unbearable heat that surrounded him has vanished. A cool breeze wafts over him, not unlike a stuffy room relieved by an open window. Skies are far from clear; the scent of smoke is still alarming and still hides every square metre of blue.
Bruce groans and lifts his hand—it is all he can do. His body is exhausted and refuses to move just yet. He studies the smoke and what he thinks are actual clouds floating lazily above the insanity.
Are those clouds?
He squints his eyes and concentrates…something is definitely moving separate from the black plumes. The shape and the way it moves is all wrong…it’s note a helicopter or a water-bomber. All is quiet now. No mechanical sounds…jet engines…nothing.
Bruce chuckles to himself. It looks like a person—head, shoulders, and all. Oh Christ, that’s funny, and he doesn’t know why. His light snigger gives way to a full-blown hysterical laugh; tears once more threaten to well up. The corners of his eyes sting.
A yellow-white glow appears beyond the smoke and starts to grow in intensity. Bruce stops laughing as the grey parts and a cone of light shines through. At its widest, it probably can encompass the whole of the suburb.
And then it narrows and grows brighter…then wider and dimmer…and back again, like a stagehand trying to adjust a spotlight. The light freezes in place, its focus toward the town.
What the fuck is that?
The wind picks up again, and blows directly down on him. It is warm…and growing hotter and hotter.
A hot-white flame bursts through the grey and a glowing beam connects the earth to the heavens. Bruce groans again and turns his head away; he averts his eyes from the blinding heat. Seconds pass, the familiar sound of erupting flames grow and grow as his exposed skin burns. Bruce dares to open his eyes and gaze upward, but not directly at the streak of light. Curiosity gets the better of him and he locks on to the thing wreaking havoc. He can’t be sure, but he swears that he sees wings that span an awesome length. Aside from that, there’s a vaguely humanoid shape.
The light beam slowly skirts the landscape and leaves a black trail in its wake. Flames several metres high erupt from the scorch marks.
The moment Bruce realises what he sees flying around him, he screams. Everything is burning around him now. He feels his skin burst open; his insides are cooking. The pain is mercifully short-lived as his body is drenched in light and all of existence becomes a white nothingness.
Assistant: Wait, what the hell was that!?
Yuki: I…don’t know. The scanners are going crazy, but they’re not recognizing the object. It’s directly affecting the surrounding environment, but the energy source is not emanating from the same dimensional plane.
Assistant: So, it’s like us?
Yuki: Yes. But it’s doing what we cannot. An unnatural entity to this world could cause irreparable damage to the universe.
Assistant: What do we do?
Yuki: You’re about to be less bored, because we gotta find where this thing comes from and figure out a way to stop it.