The Alien Years, p.1Robert Silverberg
It was the worst of times. Period.
The Entities came, quite literally, out of nowhere, landing in cities all across our Earth: Los Angeles, London, New York, Beijing. Fifteen feet tall and indescribably beautiful—or unbelievably hideous, depending on your point of view—the alien invaders treated humankind in the worst way imaginable.
They ignored us. They made no attempt to communicate with us. They wanted nothing from us. Walling themselves in impenetrable enclaves, enslaving a few willing collaborators with their telepathic PUSH, they casually plunged the rest of the Earth into a new Dark Age without electricity. Communications, governments, banking systems—all evaporated like smoke; anarchy reigned. Our few pathetic attempts at fighting back resulted in murderous plagues and mass executions, quickly convincing us that resistance was futile. The Entities’ silent message was clear: We were allowed to live, but no longer as a dominant species.
But a few refused to believe. A few held out hope. Among them were the Carmichaels: a far-flung family of aviators, soldiers, misfits, hustlers, and hackers. As the world darkened into chaos around them, they ·gathered in their enclave in the hills of Santa Barbara, led by a patriarchal colonel who had learned to hate war in Vietnam and found himself devoting his life, and the lives of his descendants, to keeping the idea of resistance alive. The colonel’s legacy is carried on by an unlikely team: an aging hippie, a cold-blooded Muslim assassin, a prodigal son, and a renegade hacker all united in spirit, who will penetrate the inner halls of cyberspace to kill the mysterious Prime Entity and free the planet the rest of us have all but forgotten how to love.
Robert Silverberg’s vast new masterpiece chronicles half a century of alien occupation, when a family—and humanity itself—rediscovers the courage, the discipline, and the audacity necessary to stand up to an all-powerful and indifferent enemy. Only an accomplished master of science fiction, the author of some fifty novels could command the literary and scientific expertise to bring to life a world exceedingly strange and yet strangely familiar…
The absolute worst of times.
The Alien Years.
Also by Robert Silverberg
Sorcerers of Majipoor
THE LORD VALENTINE TRILOGY
Lord Valentine’s Castle
The Fantasy Hall of Fame
(edited by Robert Silverberg)
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This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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First printing: August 1998
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For H. G. Wells
The father of us all
When the sun no longer shines, when the stars drop from the sky and the mountains are blown away, when camels great with young are left untended and the wild beasts come together, when the seas are set on fire and men’s souls are reunited, when…the record of men’s deeds are laid open, and heaven is stripped bare, when Hell burns fiercely and Paradise approaches; then each soul shall understand what it has done.
— THE KORAN
SEVEN YEARS FROM NOW
NINE YEARS FROM NOW
NINETEEN YEARS FROM NOW
TWENTY-TWO YEARS FROM NOW
TWENTY-NINE YEARS FROM NOW
FORTY YEARS FROM NOW
FORTY-SEVEN YEARS FROM NOW
FIFTY-TWO YEARS FROM NOW
FIFTY-FIVE YEARS FROM NOW
SEVEN YEARS FROM NOW
Carmichael might have been the only person west of the Rocky Mountains that morning who didn’t know what was going on. What was going on was the end of the world, more or less, but Carmichael—his name was Myron, though everybody called him Mike—had been away for a while, reveling in a week of lovely solitude and inner retiming in the bleak beautiful wasteland that was northwestern New Mexico, not paying close attention to current events.
On this crisp, clear autumn morning he had taken off long before dawn from a bumpy rural airstrip, heading westward, homeward, in his little Cessna 104-FG. The flight was rough and wild all the way, a fierce wind out of the heart of the continent pushing his plane around, giving it a scary clobbering practically from the moment he was aloft.
That wasn’t so good, the wind. An east wind as strong as this one, Carmichael knew, could mean trouble for coastal California—particularly at this time of year. It was late October, the height of Southern California’s brush-fire season. The last time there had been rain along the coast was the fifth of April, so the whole region was one big tinder-box, and this hard hot dry wind blowing out of the desert was capable of fanning any little spark it might encounter into a devastating conflagration of blowtorch ferocity. It happened just about every year. So he wasn’t surprised to see a thin, blurry line of brown smoke far ahead of him on the horizon by the time he was in the vicinity of San Bernardino.
The line thickened and darkened as he came up over the crest of the San Gabriels into Los Angeles proper, and there seemed to be lesser zones of brown sky-stain off to the north and south now, as well as that long east-west line somewhere out near the ocean. Evidently there were several fires at once. Perhaps a little bigger than usual, too. That was scary. This time of year in Los Angeles, everything was always at risk. With a wind as strong as this blowing, the whole crazy town could go in one big firestorm.
The air traffic controller’s voice sounded hoarse and ragged as he guided Carmichael toward his landing at Burbank Airport, which might have been an indication that something special was happening. Those guys always sounded hoarse and ragged, though. Carmichael took a little comfort from that thought.
He felt the smoke stabbing at his nostrils the moment he stepped out of the plane: the familiar old acrid stink, the sour prickly reek of a bad October. Another instant and his eyes were stinging. You could almost draw pictures in the dirty air with the tip of your finger. This one must indeed be a lulu, Carmichael realized.
A long, skinny guy in mechanic’s overalls went trotting past him on the field. “Hey, guy,” Carmichael called. “Where’s it burning?”
The man stopped, gaped, gave him a strange look, a disbeliev
“If I knew, I wouldn’t have asked.”
“Hell, it’s everywhere. All over the goddamn L.A. basin.”
The mechanic nodded. He looked half crazed. Again the sagging jaw, again that dopey bozo blink. “Wow, you actually mean to say you haven’t heard about—”
“No. I haven’t heard.” Carmichael wanted to shake him. He ran into this kind of cloddish stupidity all the time, and he hated it. He gestured impatiently toward the smoke-fouled sky. “Is it as bad as it looks?”
“Oh, it’s bad, man, real bad! The worst ever, for damn sure. Like I say, burning all over the place. They’ve called out every general aviation plane there is for firefighting duty. You better get with your warden right away.”
“Yeah,” Carmichael said, already in motion. “I guess I’d better.”
He sprinted into the main airport building. People got out of his way as he ran through. Carmichael was a sturdily built man, not particularly tall but wide through the shoulders and deep through the chest, and like all the Carmichaels he had fierce blue eyes that seemed to cast a searchlight beam before him. When he moved fast, as he was doing now, people got out of his way.
You could smell the bitter aroma of the smoke even inside the terminal. The place was a madhouse of panicky commuters running back and forth and yelling at each other, waving briefcases around. Somehow Carmichael jostled his way to an open data terminal. It was the old-fashioned kind, no newfangled biochip-implant stuff. He put a call through to the district warden on the emergency net, and the district warden said, as soon as he heard who was talking, “Get your ass out here on the line double fast, Mike.”
“Where do you want me?”
“The nastiest one’s a little way northwest of Chatsworth. We’ve got planes loaded and ready to go out of Van Nuys Airport.”
“I need time to pee and phone my wife, okay?” Carmichael said. “I’ll be in Van Nuys in fifteen.”
He was so tired that he could feel it in his teeth. It was nine in the morning and he’d been flying since half past four, and battling that bastardly east wind, the same wind that was threatening now to fan the flames in L.A., had been miserable work every single mile. He was fifty-six years old, no kid any more, the old juices flowing more sluggishly every year. At this moment all he wanted was home and shower and Cindy and bed. But Carmichael didn’t regard firefighting work as optional. Not with the possibility of a firestorm always hanging over the city.
There were times when he almost wished that it would happen, one great purging fire to wipe the whole damned place out.
That wasn’t a catastrophe he really wanted to see, not even remotely; but Carmichael hated this giant smoggy tawdry Babylon of a city, its endless tangle of clotted freeways, the peculiar-looking houses, the filthy polluted air, the thick choking glossy exotic foliage everywhere, the drugs, the booze, the divorces, the laziness, the sleaziness, the street bums, the street crime, the shyster lawyers and their loathsome clients, the whips and chains, the porno shops and the naked encounter parlors and the massage joints, the virtual-reality chopshops, the weird people speaking their weird trendy lingo and wearing their weird clothes and driving their weird cars and cutting their hair in weird ways and sticking bones through their noses like the savages they really were. There was a cheapness, a trashiness, about everything here, Carmichael thought. Even the grand mansions and the fancy restaurants were that way: hollow, like slick movie sets.
He sometimes felt that he was bothered more by the petty trashiness of almost everything than by the out-and-out evil that lurked in the truly dark corners. If you watched where you were going you could stay out of reach of the evil most or even all of the time, but the trashiness slipped up sneakily around you no matter how well you kept sight of your own values, and there was no doing battle with it: it infiltrated your soul without your even knowing it. He hoped that his sojourn in Los Angeles was not doing that to him.
There had been Carmichaels living in Southern California ever since General Fremont’s time, but never any in Los Angeles itself, not one. He was the first of his tribe that had managed somehow to wind up there. The family came from the Valley, and what Carmichaels meant when they spoke of “the Valley” was the great flat agricultural San Joaquin, out behind Bakersfield and stretching off far to the north, and not the miserable congested string of hideous suburbs just over the hills from Beverly Hills and Santa Monica that Angelenos understood the term to connote. As for Los Angeles itself, they ignored it: it was the cinder in the eye, the unspeakable blotch on the Southern California landscape.
But L.A. was Cindy’s city and Cindy loved L.A. and Mike Carmichael loved Cindy, everything about her, the contrast of her slim pixy daintiness against his big blunt burly potato-nosed self, her warmth, her intensity, her playful quirky sense of fun, her dark lively eyes and glossy curling jet-black bangs, even the strange goofy philosophies that were the air of life to her. She was everything he had never been and had never even wanted to be, and he had fallen for her as he had never fallen before; and for Cindy’s sake he had become the family Angeleno, much as he detested the place, because she could not and would not live anywhere else.
So Mike Carmichael had been living there the past seven years, in a little wooden house up in Laurel Canyon amidst the lush green shrubbery, and for seven Octobers in a row he had dutifully gone out to dump chemical retardants on the annual brush fires, to save the locals from their own idiotic carelessness. One thing that just about every Carmichael grew up believing was that you had to accept your responsibilities, no complaining, no questions asked. Even Mike, who was as near to being a rebel as the family had ever produced, understood that.
There would be fires. That was a given. Qualified pilots were needed to go up there and drop retardants on them and put them out. Mike Carmichael was a qualified pilot. He was needed, and he would go. It was as simple as that.
The phone rang seven times at the home number before Carmichael hung up. Cindy had never liked answering machines or call forwarding or screen-mail or anything like that. Things like that were dehumanizing, mechanistic, she said. Which made them practically the last people in the world without such gadgets; but so be it, Carmichael figured. That was the way Cindy wanted it to be.
Next he tried the little studio just off Colfax where she made her jewelry, but she didn’t answer there either. Probably she was on her way to the gallery, which was out in Santa Monica, but she wouldn’t be there yet—the freeways would be worse even than on a normal day, what with all these fires going—and so there was no sense even trying her there.
That bothered him, not being able to say hello to her right away after his six-day absence, and no likely chance for it now for another eight or ten hours. But there was nothing he could do about that.
He took off from Burbank on emergency clearance, firefighting authorization. As soon as he was aloft again he could see the fire not for to the northwest It was denser now, a greasy black column against the pale sky. And when he stepped from his plane a few minutes later at Van Nuys Airport he felt an immediate blast of sudden unthinkable heat. The temperature had been in the low eighties at Burbank, damned well hot enough for nine in the morning, but here it was over a hundred. The air itself was sweating. He could see the congealed heat, like droplets of fat. It seemed to him that he heard the distant roar of flames, the popping and crackling of burning underbrush, the troublesome whistling sound of dry grass catching fire. It was just as though the fire was two miles away. Maybe it was, he thought.
The airport looked like a combat center. Planes were coming and going with lunatic frenzy, and they were lunatic planes, too. The fire was so serious, apparently, that the regular fleet of conventional airborne tankers had been supplemented with antiques of every sort, planes forty and fifty years old and even older, converted B-17 Flying Fortresses and DC-3s
Carmichael found his way to Operations HQ, which was full of haggard people peering into computer screens. He knew most of them from other fire seasons. They knew him.
He waited for a break in the frenzy and tapped one of the dispatchers on the shoulder. She looked up, nodded in a goggly-eyed way, then grinned in recognition and said, “Mike. Good. We’ve got a DC-3 waiting for you.” She traced a line with her finger across the screen in front of her. “You’ll dump retardants along this arc, from Ybarra Canyon eastward to Horse Flats. The fire’s in the Santa Susana foothills and so far the wind is from the east, but if it shifts to northerly it’s going to take out everything from Chatsworth to Granada Hills, right on down to Ventura Boulevard. And that’s only this fire.”
“Holy shit! How many are there?”
The dispatcher gave her mouse a couple of clicks. The map of the San Fernando Valley that had been showing on the screen went swirling into oblivion and was replaced by one of the entire Los Angeles basin. Carmichael stared, aghast. Three great scarlet streaks indicated fire zones: this one out at the western end of things along the Santa Susanas, another nearly as big way off to the east in the grasslands north of the 210 Freeway around Glendora or San Dimas, and a third down in eastern Orange County, back of Anaheim Hills. “Ours is the big one so far,” the dispatcher said. “But these other two are only about forty miles apart, and if they should join up somehow—”
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