I wrote this piece as an entry for the 2019 Literary Taxidermy short story competition https://literarytaxidermy.com/, for which I received an honourable mention. The premise of the competition was to take an opening and closing line from Fahrenheit 451 and write your own short story in-between, in less than 2500 words. Without further ado here is my entry, TRAILBLAZERS.
It was a pleasure to burn. To see the napalm jelly gout from the end of our flamethrowers and feel the backwash of intense heat. To see the rotten things explode in twisted flames, burning apart, their wretched hearts destroyed. If they had hearts, or something close to it. No one really knew what they were, or why they spread like wildfire. Every time one was cut down with great effort and dragged in chains back to a laboratory it disintegrated into black sludge before anyone could get a good look at it. Not that it would matter anyway. Even if we knew what the hell those things were it wouldn’t help us kill them any better. We already found the best way to destroy those mutant trees, and that’s fire baby.
My men and I have been out on burning rotation for two weeks now. We’ve taken down twenty hectares so far and our time is running out. The sky is choked with blackened ash, and the whole side of the mountain we started out on is nothing but stumps and barren wasteland. My men are taking a break, lounging around in the ash in their orange fire suits with gas masks titled up on their heads, eating, guzzling water, and gazing down at the city. The city that we’ve been tasked to protect. If it weren’t for us, the whole damn thing would be overrun by trees within the month. Then it wouldn’t be no good to anybody.
The cities, that’s where the farms are now. Not like when we was kids, the wide open countryside with corn and wheat, orchards filled with fruit, and rows and rows of vegetables. You could walk up to a tree and pluck and apple without the tree trying to strangle you, and when you bit into that fruit it was crisp and sweet and good. We took our bounty and blessings for granted, and thought we were masters over mother nature. Now the land was barren, and the food was grown in tall green towers, cold and clinical, artificial in all ways. Ark-ollogys the eggheads called them. Each of those towers made enough food for the whole city. Almost the whole country was overrun by the mutants now, so the towers were all we had left to feed ourselves. Their spores spread on the wind, took root almost straight away wherever they landed. Places which used to be dustbowls and hotter than a fry-pan are now overrun with trees. Sounds nice don’t it? Well it ain’t. The trees choke the life outta everything else in their way. And it’s our job to stop them.
It’s not like we sent out our resumes or went in for job interviews. We were prisoners before. Maximum security, lifers, death row. When everyone did the math of fire plus trees equals dead, they needed to find a way of burning the things down without risking the lives of anyone respectable. At first, they used planes and drones. Dropped the napalm from above, carpeted the trees with fire, and made their very own hell on earth. It didn’t last. The ash clouds got too thick, and the air bases got overrun. The trees don’t stop for nobody. And when they got some rain, goddamn did they spread faster than anything you’ve ever seen. The eggheads made special suits, handed out the flamethrowers, and dropped us into clearings or at the bottom of mountains and told us to go nuts.
I took a swig out of my canteen. The water trucks followed us up the mountain far as they could then turned back. They didn’t want the trees getting hold of that stuff. Some of the guys still smoked cigarettes. I didn’t see the point in that when every breath you took was full of smoke and ash anyway. I guess old habits die hard. It was time for us to move. If we camped it would give the trees some time to start creeping their roots towards us. If you’ve ever been woken up in the middle of the night to someone standing over you in the dark, pal that ain’t nothing compared to being woken up by roots wrapping themselves around you, slowly choking your life away. That’s a special feeling.
“On your feet,” I shouted out, the words tearing up my parched throat. The men grumbled at that but didn’t object. They were tired, but they didn’t want to stay out there any longer. It had been a good run this time. Only three dead. Usually the casualty rate was about fifty-fifty. I’m waiting until the day I’m in the other fifty. The men checked their flamethrowers, ignited their pilot lights, and pulled down their masks.
We started to march down the mountain. The heat was appalling, but after a while out there burning you kind of acclimatized. Many of the men had shiny burns pulling their skin taught on their arms, legs, necks, faces. I guess your guts got used to, or at least tolerated, the feeling of being boiled. I panted hard while we walked. Our gear was heavy, and our suits were thick. The men joked and boasted over the comms.
“I cleared more than you today, Bridger,” came Rudolph’s growl over the wire. “You’re buying the first round at Annie’s.”
“The hell you did young blood,” said Bridger. Rudolph had been on the fire team for three months, Bridger for four. That made Rudolph a young blood. “I knew you had shit-for-brains, but I thought at least you knew that three hectares is bigger than one.”
“Both youse got shit-for-brains if you’re only drinkin’ at Annie’s,” said Mack. “The girls there give a burner’s discount. Half-hour for the price of fifteen minutes.”
“That’s twenty-nine minutes longer’n you need Mack,” said Rudolph. The men laughed, the laughter of scared men, exhausted from their work, knowing their luck could turn on a dime like it had for so many others. Their laughter died when thunder rumbled overhead. The flames lit the clouds menacingly from below, and it was as if heaven had turned to hell above.
“Did those wet-boys at the weather bureau screw it up again?” said Rudolph.
“Don’t matter if they did,” said I. “We’re getting down to that city rain, hail, or shine.”
“Shine my ass,” said Bridger, “what are we, fucking mailmen?”
We could not stop. To stop was certain death. If we continued forward in the rain, a bookie would at least give you and death almost even odds. The raindrops came in slow at first, plinking off our fuel tanks and spotting our goggles. Then the heavens opened, and a torrent of rain began to fall on the mountainside. The fires began to fizzle and die, and steam billowed into the sky. There was a great creaking and rustling on the wind. We panicked, knowing the things were on the move, and started running down the blackened hillside toward the twinkling city lights.
We made as far as the foothills before the things stopped us. We had not seen them move into place to block our path in the dark.
Where before there had been nothing, there was now a wall of silent trees. All of us came to a halt, unsure of what to do. The trees were packed together tightly, gnarled chunks almost touching, the canopy so tightly interlinked it may have belonged to one massive tree. The dark branches seemed to beckon us under the eaves, twigs shaped like skeletal fingers curled in welcome. Come and see what lies in the heart of the woods.
“Aw, shit,” said Rudolph. “No way we’re getting’ through there. We gotta go back.”
A few of the others murmured their agreement.
“No,” said I, and they stopped talking. “There’s no going back. The only way we’re getting home is through them trees.”
“You’re crazy boss,” said Mack. “We ain’t getting through that, even if we had air support.”
“If we push through together we should just make it. We got enough fuel. Just.”
Even through their masks the men looked doubtful, standing in their orange fire-suits in the rain. The trees seemed to be shivering, moving slightly closer, though unwilling to creep too near to the flamers. One by one the men began to see the truth in what I said. Up the mountain lay death, and to both our sides. The only way out was forward and down the slope.
“Alright, boss, we’re with you,” said Rudolph. “Lead the way.”
I had the men form up in a wedge, with me in the front. We would spew fire to the front and sides, with some men covering the rear. The mutants wouldn’t surprise us from behind. Another fire team had learned that lesson the hard way just last month. The rain was still falling hard.
“Set your flamers to rock-and-roll you bastards,” said Bridger. The men called back in a war cry, and began to advance behind me, their flamethrowers blasting fire into the wall of trees. A hole formed quickly as the mutants shrunk away from the intense heat, and we started to move forward and through the line.
The heat raised by the inferno was brutal and all-encompassing, the worst I had ever felt in my career. We could see nothing above or below or ahead, just a great wall of orange flames scorching and burning every piece of wood and bark it could latch onto. The roar of hot air was deafening, the trees were screeching in pain and misery. Even the rain could not help them now.
“Hot damn we’re doing it,” shouted Mack over the comms. He was one of the men bringing up the rear. “We might actually get—”
His words were cut off by a blood-curdling scream. I took a chance, glanced back over my shoulder, and saw him being dragged off into the trees. He had tripped on an exposed root, which latched onto his ankle and would not let go. One down. We kept moving.
“Come on, push!” I yelled into the comms. Slowly, painfully, we moved through the trees. I felt like I would collapse from heat and thirst at any second. Every fibre of my being was bent on surviving the heat and pushing through. At long last the trunks began to thin. The end was in sight, though strangely the heat was lessening. I had no idea where my men were, and I couldn’t hear anything over my own ragged breath and the racket of the burning. We exploded out of the trees and into an open field, the city lights twinkling below. I turned around to help the rest of the men push through, and when I did there was only one left. Bridger sprinted from the trees, cast his flamer aside, and collapsed before me. I crouched and pulled the man to his feet, his weight almost bringing me down to the ground with him.
The fire raged before us. It had spread rapidly, its heat too much for the rain, which was starting to ease. The mutants fled from its warmth. We had blasted through the line of trees like a meteor, and behind us the path closed with a wall of flame. None of the other men could have possibly survived. At least in our line of work there wasn’t any expensive funeral to pay for. Free cremation, one of the perks of being on a fire team.
“We got through boss, we got through,” laughed Bridger. “Hot damn I’ll be taking up the offer at Annie’s tonight.”
“Keep the celebration to yourself,” said I. “We ain’t there yet. Who knows what’s between us and home.”
I took Bridger’s arm around my shoulder and turned to look at the city lights. It had been close, closer than I’d ever experienced on a burn. I could make out a water truck crawling up the hill toward us and I breathed a sigh of relief. But I wasn’t ever an optimistic man. There would be plenty of time for celebration, and honouring the dead, later in the night.
When we reach the city.