This is the prologue for my novella The Lindworm of Santa Monica. This piece was originally uploaded to my Patreon site for my supporters, along with the following chapters. This should give you a good idea of my writing style.
The Lindworm of Santa Monica - Prologue
The plane rattled and shook as it hit an air pocket and jostled the smokejumpers sitting in the back. Outside, thick tan smoke plumed in the distance. They were at the jump site. One by one, the firefighters went through their rituals of checking their gear, kissing pictures of loved ones, or offering up a quick prayer. Einar rolled his shoulder, feeling his metallic arm pull at the skin where it met his natural body. The burn scars across his chest and over his back made a natural skin attachment impossible without extravagant skin replacements that came with an equally extravagant price tag. Instead, he wore long sleeve shirts and gloves, keeping the artificial limb out of sight. But that didn’t stop the itching and the tugging, a reminder of where man met machine.The door opened and an immediate rush of air pulled at everyone in the cabin. The first smokejumper didn’t hesitate; he was out of the plane even before the door latched into the open position. Einar shuffled forward, not having to wait long before it was his turn. He glanced out to make sure his teammate was clear before dropping his shoulder and letting the wind yank him out of the aircraft.
As soon as he was in the open air, the HUD in his helmet flared to life, forcing him to shut his eyes against the sudden glare as it tried to compensate for the daylight. After a couple of blinks, he saw the yellow lines overlaying his view indicating the target landing zone and what would hopefully become their control line. A warning flashed in the upper right corner of his screen letting him know that the program couldn’t find a clearing for a projected safe landing. His chute automatically opened, jerking him as it unfurled and slowed his descent.
Now that he was once again vertical, he looked at the fire. It was still relatively new, but picking up speed quickly. When it was first called in, it was little more than a small brush fire. But the conditions had been dry for weeks now, and the team had enough experience to know it would spread wildly within hours, if not faster. Already, several trees were shrouded in flames that licked up over the canopy and danced in a dangerous wind.
The warning in the corner of his screen changed from yellow to red, and a bell echoed through his earpiece. Einar tucked up his legs to get them out of the way, trying to keep them from getting caught on the top of the trees. His speedy descent soon carried him past the treetops and into the canopy. He twisted and turned, kicking off of branches and trunks in a thunderous cracking of wood as his momentum forced him through the top layers of vegetation. His thick suit helped to buffet him from some of the blows, but hindered his movement. With a sudden lurch that sent him rocking forward, his chute caught and forced him to a stop. The impact knocked the wind out of him and it was a moment before he was able to force air into his lungs again.
“Svensson, you copy?”
Einar took a few deep breaths before responding. “Copy.”
“What’s your status?”
Einar twisted around, spinning on the lines keeping him aloft. It was a twenty foot drop to the ground, but there were no rocks he could see. He closed his eyes and forced himself to relax as he reached up and pressed a button in the center of his harness. The parachute detached from his gear pack as he pressed it, sending him into the dirt below. Einar hit with his legs first and immediately crumbled, rolling onto his front and keeping his pack from hitting the ground.
“On the ground about twenty yards from the control line.”
“Good. Head to the control line and work north until you meet up with Danvers. Once we get that line set, we need to burn out the area.”
Einar picked himself up and jogged in the direction indicated on his display, dodging around trees until his HUD displayed a yellow line laid over the ground in front of him. This was the edge of their control line. With smooth motions, he unslung his pack and started grabbing his equipment before it even hit the ground at his feet. Within seconds, he was spraying down trees and brush with flame retardant. He worked fast, but was meticulous as he moved in large strips up and down the control line. Even a small gap in protectant would render the control line useless. When he had to stop to refuel his sprayer, he risked a glance in the direction of the blaze.
Orange light filtered around the tree trunks and provided a general glow on the horizon. The fire was not a threat yet, but it was moving faster than they anticipated. At this rate, Einar didn’t know if they’d have time to set the control line before the fire reached them. As he turned to continue fireproofing, a nagging sensation pulled at the edges of his consciousness and he paused. It sounded like a scream, but when he strained, he couldn’t hear anything. Einar shook his head and continued his work.
A second time he paused, closing his eyes and tilting his head to try and make out the noise. But all he heard was his own breath through the respirator. He held it, and could barely make out the sound of the fire crackling over the creaking of trees in the wind. There was nothing there. Just as he was about to return to his duties, pain flooded through his entire body and dropped him to one knee with his hand to his chest, gasping to try and take in air. His sprayer lay discarded by his boot.
“Svensson, you alright? Your vitals just spiked.”
The voice on the radio sounded thick at first, like cutting through a fog. When the dispatcher called his name again, it came through clearly and Einar pushed himself to a standing position. There was still the lingering sensation that something was wrong, that someone was in pain, in the direction of the blaze.
“I’m alright. Just thought I saw something to the west past the burn zone.” He struggled to keep his voice steady. His heart pounded with so much intensity he could feel it in his wrists. He forced himself to calm down, matching his breath to his heart rate and using that to slow it down.
“Probably heat mirage. Wind picked up and you’re running out of time. Set that control line and scrap the burn out.”
Einar squatted down and picked up his sprayer. But as his hand curled around the handle, an image flashed through his head. A man and a woman in a clearing, wearing large backpacks. The man was trapped with a heavy branch over his legs. His partner was trying to pry it off of him, but it wouldn’t budge. The fire edged closer, licking at the edges of his vision.
With a shake of his head, Einar was once again aware of his immediate surroundings. He turned to the west and ran, leaving most of his gear behind. It would serve as a marker to Danvers if he didn’t get back in time. There was no doubt in his mind about what he saw and what he needed to do. He couldn’t leave the hikers to their fate. His instincts were always right, and he wasn’t going to doubt them now.
As he got closer to the blaze, red-orange light consumed the entire horizon and Einar felt the heat of it through his suit. The smoke grew thicker, the wind blowing it into his face and making him blink and squint instinctively despite knowing it was shielded. He marched forward, confident in the direction, without being able to explain how.
“Svensson, what are you doing? We’re not doing a direct attack!”
Just as the dispatcher’s voice came through, Einar caught a glimpse of the man and woman from his vision. They were both covered in ash, their exposed skin red and showing the telltale signs of burn damage. The man was still trapped under the branch, one end of which was pinned under the exposed roots of a gigantic tree. The edge of it was charred and splintered with a pile of shards on the ground. Einar was surprised the man maintained consciousness when the thick branch fell on him. There was no way to move it, but the woman continues to strain, trying to get enough leverage for her companion to get free.
Tendrils of the fire licked at the tip of the nearby trees. Even without his helmet on, Einar knew he wouldn’t be able to hear anything over the roar. He rushed to the branch, nudging the woman out of the way. He grabbed the branch in his right hand, wrapping the metal fingers halfway around the perimeter.
His fingers crushed the wood, sending up a shower of splinters as if it was made out of cheap Styrofoam. The sharp edges cut through his protective suit, exposing the metallic digits as Einar reached up and grabbed the remaining section, squeezing once again. He heard the snap of the branch as he broke it in two. Einar grabbed the end and with one single heave, threw the limb off of the trapped man.
Looking down at the victim, Einar’s screen jumped to life, calling out injuries and highlighting them in his display. Both legs had severe lacerations and were possibly broken. The program recommended hospitalization, or barring that, emergency splinting until professional assistance was available. Einar reached down and grabbed the man’s wrists, hoisting him over his shoulder. The woman moved to help, but Einar shook his head and nodded in the direction of the control line. She ran several steps before turning to see if Einar was following. She continued to glance over her shoulder every few steps as they made their way to safety.
“Sorry, dispatch. Saw movement in the woods and checked it out. Found some hikers. They’re going to need medical attention. Guy’s pretty banged up and can’t get out on his own.”
“We’ll straighten that out later. Just get across that control line.”
Sweat dripped from his eyebrows and down into his eyes. He reached up to try and wipe them clean only to smear his palm against the outside of his visor. It felt warm in his suit, even more so than just from the exertion. Dropping his shoulder, he barreled forward, stumbling as fast as his feet would keep up. His heavy boots caught on an exposed root. Einar dropped a knee, sliding on it to keep from dropping his passenger. The woman stopped and turned to look back, but Einar waved her ahead as he took a moment to catch his breath before standing up once again. The man on his shoulder was shouting something, but it was lost in the chaos.
With a grunt, Einar rose to his feet and moved forward once again. He needed to get these people somewhere safe. The yellow line appeared on his visor and he saw the ground and trees treated with the flame-retardant chemicals. Danvers saw them coming and sprinted across the line, coming to take Einar’s burden. As soon as the weight was lifted from his shoulder, Einar was tempted to collapse, but the fire dancing around them drove him forward. Even in his suit, the heat was taking its toll. He felt it seeping up his arm through the rips in the glove and sleeve. The sensation stirred up something inside and he ran forward with a newfound burst of speed, easily outpacing Danvers and catching up to the woman as they entered the control line.
On the other side, he collapsed onto the ground, staring up at the sky and panting. He knew that he should be watching the flames, making sure the control line held, but that part of his consciousness felt far away and quiet. It was several breaths before he was able to focus on his surroundings once again. Sitting up, he saw Danvers kneeling on the ground with his gloves off. The young smokejumper had his trauma kit open and was treating the man’s wounds as best as he could. The woman cradled her companion’s head in her lap. Both of her hands were cupped around one of his. They murmured softly to each other, too soft to make out what was being said. Seeing them safe made him smile and the tension oozed out of his shoulders. They might be hurt, but they were alive.
Einar stood up, the noise capturing everyone’s attention for a brief second. The woman smiled, her eyes red and wet. Einar gave her a nod and a small wave before turning back to stare into the smoke.
The wind was still strong, but the control line was holding. Flames licked at trees, but they failed to catch. Even the smoke cooled and thinned out as it crossed the line. A roar overhead announced the arrival of an airtanker, soaring low enough that it almost scraped some of the tallest tree tops. It passed overhead and dumped a cloud of chemicals on the blaze just past the control line. Smoke curled and thinned as the flames tried to survive amidst the onslaught.
Through the clouds, one patch of forest continued to burn, unimpeded by the chemicals. If anything, the flames in that area seemed brighter compared to their surroundings. Heat shimmer turned the trunks into misshapen black and brown squiggles, wreathed in orange. And through the middle of it strode a man with hair black as soot. He paused and looked right at Einar, tilting his head as he gazed at him with golden eyes. For a moment, that gaze enraptured Einar, holding him in place.
“Come on.” Danvers clapped Einar on the shoulder, getting him to turn in his direction in time to have a pack shoved against his chest. The words were muffled, and Einar had to watch Danvers talk to understand what was being said. “We need to get the weekend warriors out of here in case there’s a blowup and it crosses the line.”
“My comms are out.” Einar shouted back and pointed at his ear before holding up both his hands and shrugging.
Danvers leaned in close and raised his voice. “Yeah. Dispatch told me. Must’ve gotten fried. I filled them in on your latest insanity. We’re to escort these two out and back to one of the trails. And then you’re buying a round. I knew you wouldn’t make it three jumps before you pissed of HQ again.”
Einar grinned and gave a thumbs-up before taking his gear pack and slinging it over his shoulder. When he turned back to the control line, the flames on the other side sputtered and the only thing that moved was the occasional dead branch dropping to the ground.
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