The following piece was presented at the Jersey City Writers’ monthly genre event–Worlds of Ruin: A Literary Celebration of Apocalyptic Science Fiction. Please enjoy. A video of the reading by Jack Halpin can be viewed here.
When Bandaralampung and Bandung and Semarang erupted in Indonesia, everyone saw it as just some more yellow or brown people suffering so there could be something interesting on the National Geographic Channel. A bunch of volcanoes in The Philippines blew up next, and scientists started popping up on news shows saying they were concerned. An earthquake hit Taipei, and we saw the usual footage of people clawing at the wreckage with their bare hands, a child holding its weeping mother’s hand, an old lady pulled from the rubble after x number of days with no food and only rainwater to drink.
Japan got people’s attention. Japan was our bulwark against Chinese expansionism. And they were like us, or at least they liked American things. They were nonthreatening and polite, so we felt bad when Akagi Volcano blew up less than 60 miles from Tokyo.
As the eruptions and earthquakes moved up the Pacific Rim, scientists said the Earth was expanding under the Pacific Ocean. The Earth’s core was growing hotter, and was pushing up on the Pacific Plate. The Crust was cracking. “Like painting a balloon,” one scientist said, “then filling it with hot Jell-O until the paint cracked.”
The East Asian ash drifted all the way to our West Coast and blocked out the sun. Streetlights and headlights were on 24/7. It got cold, then snowed. Kids slid down Mulholland Drive on surfboards.
The volcanoes in the Andes started going off. Lava ran through the streets of Santiago. Earthquakes flattened Quito. Poison gases killed thousands of animals. In Guayaquil it rained dead birds.
The President went on the tube and said sorry, America isn’t sending more aid to anyone because we might need it ourselves.
When Mount Redoubt, outside Anchorage, blew up and buried Elmendorf Air Force Base under a foot of ash, they put 5th Air Wing—that was us, strategic B-52 bombers–on DEFCON 3: we had to be able to mobilize and get airborne in fifteen minutes. Mobilize to do what, nobody seemed to know. Our ancient B-52s had been designed to nuke Russians.
“We’re working on it,” the President said after San Francisco rocked with a 7.2 quake, “we’re addressing the, uh, circumstances, and looking for a solution.”
We got our orders and flew north. We stopped to refuel at Eielson and my Radar Navigator slipped on the icy tarmac and executed a one-point landing on his head. The only qualified replacement was a kid who was visiting his folks after completing Radar Navigator training. He was a little Asian guy who barely came up to my chin. He looked like he still played video games. But a new guy was better than no guy, and I wasn’t going to scrub the mission. The Radar Navigator was the only one who could acquire targets and deploy weapons.
When we were airborne we got new orders. Charlie, my Co-Pilot, pushed his headphones tight against his ears and asked command to repeat.
”They’re having us nuke volcanoes.”
“We’re dropping nukes into volcanoes to reduce the pressure on the Pacific Plate.”
“It gets worse. We’re dropping B61’s. They’re saying cruise missiles could be compromised by lightning, there’s huge lightning around volcanoes, so it’s gravity bombs for us.”
I switched on the intercom. “Hey new Radar Navigator, you ever drop a B61 into a volcano?”
“A volcano? No sir. Negative.”
“Then we’ll both be in the history books.” The first coordinates came over the radio, and the kid punched them into the weapons system.
“Kamchatka Peninsula, sir. East coast of Siberia, north of Japan. Shivverlunch—Shivverlock—Shivversomething Volcano.”
“We don’t have to pronounce it, we just have to drop some ordnance into it. You think you can do that?”
“Who knows, sir.”
I flew low and slow over What’s-its-name Volcano. The kid dropped the ordnance.
”Swish!” Charlie grinned. “Nothin’ but net!”
The kid had put the bomb smack dab down the middle of the crater. Right after we reached our safe standoff position, the mountain exploded. Lava spewed out like we had dropped an M80 into a paint bucket. We all hollered and told the kid “Nice shooting!” but things got quiet as we watched the mushroom cloud climb higher and higher. It looked like the training videos. We had never seen one in real life.
Farther south the kid nailed Karymsky Volcano, then dropped one right down the throat of Koryasksky.
“I’m going to buy you a steak dinner,” I shouted, “if the planet is still intact.”
We cruised south at 50,000 feet. Headquarters said the scientists couldn’t tell yet if the bombing was helping, but to keep up the good work. We were cleared for Japanese airspace, and over southern Japan we received our next target.
“Punch in 32.750286/129.877667.”
“Yes, sir.” There was a long pause. “Sir?”
“What is it?”
“That’s Mount Unzen, sir.”
“We don’t have to pronounce it …”
“Nagasaki, sir. Mount Unzen is only sixty klicks from Nagasaki.”
“I see the irony, son …”
“My grandparents live in Nagasaki. They remember the atom bomb. All the old people do. I don’t think we should bomb Nagasaki again, sir.”
We bucked and swayed through some cloud cover, and the target came into view. The city sprawled to the west.
“Sir, do we have to attack this mountain?”
“You don’t pick the targets, airman. Shut your trap and do your job.”
“No can do, sir. My sister is down there visiting my grandparents. We have to pick another mountain, sir.”
“Charlie, take the stick and circle the target at 10,000 feet.” I slid down the ladder to the Radar Navigator’s position and grabbed the kid by the collar. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? I gave you a direct order!”
“I’m sorry, sir! No can do!”
I looked at the video array, then leaned over and grabbed the targeting joystick, even though I knew only the Radar Navigator could arm a weapon. I shook the kid. “Damn it! How do I do it?” The kid grabbed me in a bear hug and activated the ejection seat. The wind punched the air from my lungs as we shot out of the plane. My chute popped and the kid was ripped away from me.
The mountain belched a huge plume of ash. The aircraft disappeared into the ash, then reappeared. I waved my arms. “Get out of there!” Blue lightning leaped from the ash cloud to the plane. It rolled right, stalled, and dove nose-first into the mountain. I vomited.
As I got close to the ground I saw the kid’s chute hung up in a tree.
“You mother fucker!” I screamed as I drifted by. “You fucked my mission and you killed my men!” The wind blew the kid toward me and I saw that he had smashed into the tree so hard half his face was caved in. I wondered how his sister would feel now.
It’s been six months and twenty-seven days. The scientists say the Pacific Plate’s contortions have slowed. But every day the cracks in the walls of my cell grow longer and wider. I measure them carefully. My jailers are constantly looking out the window at Mount Unzen.
Tomorrow I will hang for the war crime of attempting to nuke the City of Nagasaki. My lawyer gave me this pen and paper in case I wanted to write something. I laughed at him. The world was coming to an end. It’s cracking like paint on a Jello-filled balloon. My jail cell might collapse in an earthquake before they get to hang me tomorrow. The whole city could be smothered in toxic gas.
I’m writing this in case somebody, someday cares that I tried. Tell anyone who will listen that I did my duty. The world is literally falling apart, but I did my duty. I loved my country as much as that kid loved his sister. Hopefully more. Nagasaki is still standing. The cracks in my jail cell widen every day. I’m glad that kid navigator is dead and that his sister is alive. He did nut up for her.
Tomorrow they will hang me. I will no longer be part of the paint on that expanding balloon. Ashes to ashes. My one consolation will be that I no longer care.