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The Eris War
Volume II: The Dragon from the Isles
Book 1: Independence Day
Chapter 2: The Times They Are a-Changin’
Transfixed, Cathy and I stared at the scene before us. Sinking to the floor in front of the set, not bothering with the cushions or floor-pillows, we stared in horror at the sobbing news commentator. Had he had a nervous breakdown, right here on camera? Finally, raising his face from his hands once more, tears streaming down his cheeks, he said, “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen. You see . . . the general manager of our station, George Putnam, along with two of the owners and three of my colleagues were . . . were up there in Seattle when it . . . when it went. And . . . and my mother . . . my mother –” He broke down again, racking sobs convulsing his body. When he was at last able to get himself under control, he looked up at us again and continued, though with great difficulty: “It’s . . . it’s gone! It’s all gone! Seattle is . . . gone. All of Western Washington is gone, all the way from Bellingham to Vancouver! Vancouver, BC, and Victoria are . . . are gone, too. Tacoma, Everett, Port Townsend, Yakima, Wenatchee, Bremerton – it’s all gone! Gone!” His hands still trembling badly, slowly he pivoted and, pointing up at the great screen behind and above his desk, he said, “This is what just came in via satellite reconnaissance photos, a few minutes ago . . .” On the screen was something which, at first, looked like a view of the moon – except that the moon didn’t glow with its own light, and wasn’t mostly covered with clouds. This did, and was. The screen showed a vast area which, though heavily overcast, was brilliantly lit here and there with the burning reds, flaming cadmium, and blazing yellow-white of great fires, or perhaps burning lava flows. . . “Oh, shit!” I hissed, unthinkingly drawing in a breath. “What is it?” Cathy marveled. “That looks like pictures I’ve seen of Mauna –”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the commentator was saying, “what you see there on the screen above me, here, is . . . what is left of Western Washington and the southwestern tip of Canada after a, a thermonuclear bomb was apparently detonated in Puget Sound, resulting in a, a tremendous volcanic explosion involving the entire area. This is . . . this is a . . . all that’s left of Western Washington is . . . a crater . . . ” Then he did break down completely, unable to go on any longer. As he stood there sobbing, another, older man came into the room and, gently taking the younger man’s arm and steering him off camera as the latter still sobbed brokenly, came back to take his place before the camera. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his deep voice husky with emotion, “I’m George Lansing of KTTV television news, taking over for Jim Rothman, the young man who has just left. Please excuse him – his mother and other relatives were living in the Seattle area at the time the . . . disaster occurred. “To fill in for those of you who have just tuned in, about 45 minutes ago a strong earthquake shook the Los Angeles area and the rest of Southern California. Initially estimated to be about 6.5 on the Richter earthquake scale in the first few minutes after the quake, this quake is now believed by scientists at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California to have been the ‘daughter’ of a far larger one that took place at about 4:30 a.m. Pacific Standard Time this morning, roughly two and a quarter hours ago. That quake, the epicenter of which was somewhere between Puget Sound and Mt. Rainier in Washington State, had a magnitude exceeding 9.5 on the Richter Scale. Exactly how great that earlier quake was, we are not yet sure, and may never be, because of the difficulties involved in measurements of its magnitude due to the particular nature of the quake. In addition to everything else, due to rebound and ricochet of the energies of the first quake throughout the crust and mantle of the Earth, in nearby states and Canada a number of such ‘daughter’ quakes were generated. These quakes, taking place at varying times depending on the nature of the crustal bedrock and the mantle under the regions in which they occurred as well as distance from Washington State, where the first one occurred, had magnitudes ranging from 3.1 near San Diego, California and Tijuana, Mexico to over 8.0 in places in Northern California, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and Canada. (By the way, this morning’s original earthquake in the Pacific Northwest was apparently completely unrelated to the impact of an asteroid a kilometer in diameter slightly east of Liverpool, Nova Scotia at about 2 a.m. East Coast Time this morning, more on which shortly.) “Damage estimates as far south as Southern California and as far east as Colorado so far indicate that even that far away, the earthquake and the ‘daughter’ quakes it eventually spawned did as much damage as a quake in the 5.0-6.5 ranges. And in Northern California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, the impact of the initial quake itself, felt even at that distance, was at least that of a 7.8-8.5 earthquake. In the latter areas, whole forests were knocked down by the shock, while cities such as Redding and Yreka in Northern California now look as if they had suffered a quake of the magnitude of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. According to all reports, the cities of Corvallis and Salem, Oregon are virtually nothing but flaming rubble; although odd quirks of the shock of the quake somehow left some buildings standing even there, subsequent fires starting as a result of the quake as well as red-hot debris from the disaster in the Puget Sound area have begun growing into what threatens to become a firestorm sweeping through much of that state.” As he talked, the view on the screen behind him continuously changed as satellite cameras swept across the blasted, blazing terrain, gradually revealing a panorama of Hell itself that covered everything from the northern reaches of Vancouver Island, BC to Vancouver, Washington. Vast clouds of roiling steam and heavy overcast covered most of the region, but between gaps in the clouds, especially over the western portions of Washington State, there could be seen blazing-red and bright yellow spots testifying to what must have been enormous fountains and floods of lava. Nothing at all could be seen of Puget Sound, which was completely obscured by the rolling cloud-packs and fogs formed of the water from its basin that had been boiled away by magma. It took me quite awhile to absorb the full import of what he was saying. At first I thought it was some sort of grisly practical joke, or maybe something like that old Orson Welles’ radio production of War of the Worlds, meant as entertainment but looking entirely too much like a real news show. Gradually, however, I began to think that perhaps everyone at that station had simply gone completely mad, so that what they were reporting was nothing but their own delusions. But that, too, was only transient wish-fulfillment. I ran through several more possible scenarios in my head as explanations for the lunacy we were watching, ranging from some sort of strange plot by the current presidential administration to justify instituting martial law and the final blow to constitutional law and the Bill of Rights in this country to an alien
invasion. But finally, with great reluctance but no viable alternatives to fall back on, I was forced to accept the horrifying conclusion that the news announcer was quite sane, and reporting nothing other than fact. It wasn’t entirely surprising. We had already seen strange days these last few weeks. They had begun, appropriately enough, exactly two weeks before, on July 2, a Saturday – appropriately enough, since Saturday night is, according to my wife, ruled by the planet Uranus, Lord of the unexpected, the deviant, the warped, and the just plain strange, and thus Weirdsnight, and Luna, ruler of, you guessed it, lunacy and lunatics – when the two of us were watching television and Cathy tuned into the local news broadcast on Channel 5. When the channel came on, the announcer was saying: “— sudden falls of fish over Boston and Philadelphia have provoked a storm of outrage on the part of frightened citizens in those cities, who are demanding that officials do something to –“ “You really wanna hear that, darlin’?” I had asked Cathy, who was the current Wielder of the Remote. “Sounds like Channel 5’s signal’s gotten crossed with NBC’s again – if that wasn’t a lead-in to a Saturday Night Live show, I don’t know what is.” “Wait a minute, Rich, that does look like the news. See, that’s Jim Fargus, the regular announcer on there,” she had said. “Well, all right, but it sounds like some sort of joke or something. Maybe he’s reading another of those Weekly Tattler articles for fun, the way they did a few days ago.” “Shh, let’s see what he says.” Now he was on another story: “Costner has definitely opted to direct The Angels’ Masquerade, taken from Robert Heinlein’s 1950s novel, Sixth Column. When asked if he thought current developments would delay the shooting schedule for the new film, Costner asserted that he felt it would not, since they do not plan to begin filming until early June of this year. Asked who would play the lead, Costner stated that they had not yet made a choice, but that Harrison Ford was a –” “I heard about that,” I told her as the announcer went on to mention some of the other actors who’d been considered for the lead and other starring roles. “Costner really is going to do the film. I was reading about it in People Magazine on break at work.” “Sounds like it might be pretty good,” she told me. “I wondered when somebody who might really be able to do something with them would get around to Heinlein’s novels – whoever did Starship Troopers, back in the ’90s, had all the feel for the material of a blind cretin with a hangover, and The Puppet Masters wasn’t all that great, either. It’s about time somebody with some real talent had a crack at it.” “Costner? Hey, he was the oaf who produced David Brin’s The Postman! He might as well have jacked up the original novel and run a completely different one in under it to have come up with the script he did – I can see dropping the bit about the big computer up in Corvallis, by then we all had PCs to burn, and big mainframes like that weren’t the big deal they were back when Brin wrote the novel. But Costner left out some of the best dramatic parts, not to mention one of the best characters, George What’s-His-Face, the former soldier who –” “Dear, please, let’s listen to this, okay?” “Oh, all right,” I grumbled, settling down to watch with a bad grace. “Greenspan declared that if present trends in the economy continue, a moratorium on increases in interest –” “Er, sorry, Rich, maybe we should try some other channel,” Cathy told me, holding up the remote. “Or maybe we could watch tonight’s episode of Terrible Swift Sword – it’s about the Battle of Chickamauga this week, I think.” “It’s a no-brainer, Kath’ – all blood and guts and no real history to it. Better we turn off the TV and put on a video from that Bruce Catton series. We haven’t looked at all of them yet, and I’d like to see more of them.” “Okay, let me give it one more try,” she said. “If I still can’t get something worth a damn, that’s what we’ll do. Here, let’s try Channel 93, the local non-stop news station. They should come up with something worth watching,” she said, hitting the channel button. Jackpot. “— direct from Lompoc, California, a few minutes north of Santa Barbara on US Highway 101. . . . Take it, Gerald . . . ” “Thanks, Mark. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Gerald Wilson of KTSR news, reporting from Lompoc, California, concerning an incident that began about an hour ago here in this small seaside town. The incident involved a roadside, er, restroom maintained for the benefit of passers-by on US 101 by Mr. and Mrs. Bennington, at the edge of whose property in Lompoc the, er, restroom is situated.”
Sounding as if he were desperately trying to stifle a fit of giggles, the newsman continued: “At about 8:30 a.m. this morning, July 2, 2022, Ms. Martha Duvalle, a resident of San Luis Obispo and CEO of Pacific Entertainment, Inc., a video-rental chain with headquarters in San Luis Obispo, who was driving south on Highway 101 toward Ventura, California for a business conference with members of related California industries, stopped in Lompoc to use the roadside . . . facility so kindly maintained by the Benningtons for the use of travelers. Upon . . . preparing to use the . . . facility there, Ms. Duvalle heard a noise apparently coming from underneath the . . . seat within the little structure. Shouting that ‘someone is down there in the potty!,” she ran from the restroom toward the Bennington’s house, which was nearby, and began knocking on their door. “Mrs. Bennington, who was inside the house at the time, let Ms. Duvalle in, and, upon hearing what she had to say, called the California Highway Patrol, who arrived at the scene about five minutes later. The Highway Patrol officers then proceeded to investigate the, uh, roadside facility, and soon determined that indeed there did seem to be someone or something down in the large, uh, holding chamber beneath the seat within the restroom, though whether who- or whatever it was had gotten there voluntarily or had somehow fallen in and become trapped, they could not tell. So they called for a large crane to come out to the scene. Upon arrival, the crane operator was directed to lift up the restroom’s above-ground portion, so that police could get a clear view of who- or whatever was beneath it. ” On the screen, under a beautiful, clear springtime sky, on the west side of US Highway 101, a blond, brown-eyed young man whose face couldn’t keep from breaking out in a grin in spite of all his efforts, stood before the cameras. He kept tugging nervously at his windbreaker’s collar with the hand not holding a microphone, a displacement gesture that may have been an expression of the effort it took to keep from breaking out into laughter as he continued to make his report. A little way behind him were two Highway Patrol units and a gigantic crane, from whose long, long arm dangled what was for all the world a typical old-fashioned Chick Sale, one with two doors, each of which had a classical crescent moon carved in it. Beneath the crescent on one of the doors it said “Setters”; under the other was the legend “Pointers.” The “Setters” door hung askew, its top hinge not completely fastened to the door-frame. Next to the crane was parked a police van, into the back of which two disgusted-looking ChiPpies were helping someone clad in a complete scuba-diving wet-suit, complete with face-mask, flippers, and oxygentanks. The stark black rubber suit gleamed in the sunlight as if covered with slime, as did the flippers and the green oxygen tanks. To one side of the crane was parked a white Cadillac, next to which stood a mortified-looking man in his forties or so, who kept looking around wildly at everyone and everything as if he couldn’t quite believe it was all real. “We have just learned that the . . . gentleman you see being helped into the police van by Highway Patrolman is Mr. Abraham Stark of Santa Barbara, California, one of the wealthiest individuals in Santa Barbara County and one of the board members of Santa Barbara Management and Development, a major realty company headquartered in the city of Santa Barbara. When the crane lifted the upper portion of the . . . facility off the ground, the Highway Patrolmen who had responded to Mrs. Bennington’s call found Mr. Stark down inside the . . . containment chamber underneath the . . . facility, dressed in the scuba-gear that you can see him wearing.” Behind him, one of the ChiPpies slammed the van’s back door and locked it. Then, along with his partner, he climbed into the front of the van, which was soon making its way out onto US 101 in the southbound lanes, toward Santa Barbara. The man standing next to the Cadillac, shaking his head as if dazed, likewise got into his vehicle and followed the van southward on 101. “Mr. Stark, who is 69 years old and has lived in the city of Santa Barbara all his life, is a well-known and highly respected citizen of Santa Barbara city and county, and his sudden appearance in the, er, holding chamber under the, er, facility there was quite a surprise –” Putting his hand over his mouth as if to stifle a coughing fit, the reporter briefly turned his face away from the camera. When he turned back again, his face was devoid of expression – except for his eyes, which gleamed impishly. “Uh, at any rate, Mr. Stark’s son-in-law, William Hartson, who is himself, an executive of Santa Barbara Management and Development, came out at once to see what had happened to his father-in-law when the police called him shortly after discovering Mr. Stark in the, er, roadside facility. You saw him there a few moments ago, getting into his car to follow the van carrying his father-in-law back to Santa Barbara. Mr. Hartson, who Mr. Stark’s power of attorney, will represent Mr. Stark in business and legal functions until it is determined whether Mr. Stark is in good health, and how and why he came to be under the, uh, facility this morning.
“When asked by the Highway Patrolman who helped him out of the, er, holding chamber what he was doing there, Mr. Stark replied –” For a moment, the reporter looked as if he were about to lose his hardwon composure, but, finally getting the better of himself, he continued, “Mr. Stark replied that he had always wanted to, quote, ‘look at ladies’ bottoms while they used the potty.’ He said that, figuring out that this was an outstanding way to go about realizing his, er, ambition, he had therefore rented some scuba gear, driven out to Lompoc from his home in Santa Barbara about 5 a.m. this morning, slipped into the scuba gear, and entered the, uh, containment chamber of the facility by raising the toilet-seat and letting himself down through the hole by holding onto the edge of the hole until he could let himself drop the rest of the way.” His self-control suddenly breaking, the reporter doubled over in laughter. “Take it, Mark! Oh, this is just too rich –” Suddenly the scene shifted back to the announcer in his studio at KTSR-TV. “Uh, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve temporarily lost contact with Gerald Wilson, our man at the scene in Lompoc, California, where a strange incident involving a roadside . . . potty took place about an hour and fifteen minutes ago. We’ll try to get more coverage from Gerald in a few minutes, once our . . . technical problems are solved, but in the meantime –” “This is crazy!” I snorted. “What were you saying earlier about the National Enquirer, dear?” “What’s the matter, sweetheart? An hour ago, you were telling me how bored you were,” Cathy told me with a grin. “Do you know who that is?” said. “I mean, I don’t know him, myself, but Abraham Stark is about the last person I’d ever expect to see involved in something like this! His great-grandfather was one of the great ‘robber baron’ railroad men of the 19th century, and he’s related to at least half the great California families. He’s filthy rich – part of it inherited, part of it from his own business dealings. Guy’s no Pat Wall, I’ll give you that, but he’s right up there with Ross Perot, or just about. “I have to admit, darlin’, the rich aren’t necessarily angels – in fact, being rich can give people a great deal more scope for genuine wickedness than the poor ever dream of – but normally you never hear about that. It’s all behind closed doors. For a man like that to put himself in a position in which he was virtually guaranteed to get caught at something that stupid, he must have been out of his ever-lovin’ mind! Maybe the poor bastard has Alzheimer’s or something like that.” This was almost as silly as the story we’d caught last month about the 19 people (not counting the alligator, the boa constrictor, the wallaby, the skunks, the owls, the moose-head, the hornet’s-nest, an unknown number of jugs of Wesson Oil, and the 45 pounds or so of prime garbanzo beans) who somehow all squeezed into the same classic 1965 Volkswagen bug, which had been stolen from the garages at the Santa Barbara County Fairgrounds, where the annual Classic Car competition was being held at the time, and took a wild ride together along West Camino Cielo, a trip which ended catastrophically (not to mention in terminal embarrassment) in a crash just off Buckboard Road next to the Silver Bullet Tavern. Television camera crews had come running at the first reports of the VW wildly careering down West Camino Cielo. Upon reaching the crash site, they had gleefully shot endless feet of film, not to mention an enormous number of gigabytes of digital video and photographs, of Santa Barbara County emergency personnel trying to free the car’s unhappy inhabitants, alligator and all, from the vehicle. It didn’t help matters any that the human portion of said inhabitants were all stark naked and had all too obviously been participating in an all-out orgy with one another as well as their non-human associates when the crash occurred. It had been the laugh of the decade at the time. This, however, promised to be much funnier – “Listen. The announcer’s saying something,” Cathy suddenly told me, making urgent shushing motions at me, her expression now one of intense alertness as she concentrated intently on what the commentator was now saying.