The Spark Anomaly
Arnold Spark stared ahead, trying not to make eye contact as he walked through the dirt-poor village. A black spacesuit clung to his tall frame, and he carried a space helmet tucked underneath his right arm. The suit, like the man inside, appeared to have seen better days. The half-torn nametag on his right lapel read “A. Spark.” Spark’s lined face had the weary look of a man who had witnessed bloody combat. He ran his hands through his short black hair as he walked purposefully through the town.
A soccer ball bounced across his path, chased by a pack of enthusiastic children dressed in rags and brand-new Keen sneakers that made wild animal sounds every time a young foot hit the cobblestone road. A small barefoot girl hid behind a tree, watching the other children play as if she were longing to join in but was too shy to try.
A heavyset elderly woman carrying a small infant in one arm and holding a broom in the other hand came out of an old hovel. The woman, dressed in a worn white dress covered in pale red flowers, swept her stoop vigorously as if attempting to keep the filth of poverty at bay. She recognized Spark’s face and sneered in his direction. She swore at him in a foreign tongue that Spark did not understand. As he passed by her stoop, she swung the broom at his back, and it broke into pieces across his sturdy knapsack. Then she kicked him in the leg but injured her own foot instead. She limped away, swearing at the top of her lungs while clutching the baby tightly to her breast.
Spark ignored the familiar feeling of guilt that was gnawing at his stomach and focused his mind on what had to be done. He reached the edge of town and looked up at the sun, which was by then almost directly overhead. He unzipped a pocket on his left sleeve and pulled out a canteen. Unscrewing the top, he took a drink while staring at the erupting volcano off in the distance. Then he saw the last helicopter take off. They had finally given up all hope. The rescue team probably thought they were all dead by now, but Spark knew there was still a chance.
* * *
By the time he reached the volcano’s summit, the sun had set, and his primary source of light was the bright orange lava pouring over the opposite side of the mountain. Lava flowed and spat through pipes and valves protruding from the crater. It looked as if man had attempted and failed to tame this monumental force of nature. The nanotube-reinforced Cregan pipe looked as if it had been torn apart like tissue paper. Spark knew of no natural force on Earth that could cause that kind of damage.
But somehow the pipes had been destroyed. He’d eventually have to figure out what had gone wrong, but not right now.
The pipe supplying lava to the power station, which was ten feet in diameter, had been ripped in half. The pipe’s base remained safely secured to the opposite side of the crater, but the segment connecting it to the power station feed pipe was missing. The base pipe continued sucking up lava, but because it was only twenty feet long, it recycled all of the magma back into the massive flow. After the gap, the power station feed pipe remained intact, attached to the side of the mountain and gobbling up a river of magma like a large gaping mouth devouring a never-ending meal. The feed pipe snaked down the mountain and then bent to the right, traveling under what had once been the power station. Lava spilled over the lip of the crater to the right of the pipe and then flowed down the mountain, completely covering the power station, which could now only be identified as a small bump in a slow-moving fiery river.
Sweat dripped from Spark’s forehead and vaporized as it landed on the recently hardened lava that lay in rippled waves beneath his feet. Spark snapped his helmet onto his head and flipped up the tinted visor so he could get a better view of the damage. He saw an abandoned Lava Excursion Vehicle, or LEV, resting in a cave that had been carved out of the cooled lava beyond a magma lagoon nearly fifty yards away. The LEV looked like a shiny gold cocoon with tractor-like treads at its base and large ellipsoidal pontoons protruding from its sides, touching the ground. The vehicle could have helped half a dozen workers escape, but it had been beyond the reach of the victims trapped inside the station. Perhaps he could use it.
Spark climbed to the summit and could finally see the power station, which was completely covered with flowing lava. There was no way to reach it from the top. That was why the rescue team had given up. They probably didn’t know that the station had food, water, and an independent air supply to last a week. Spark had insisted on those specifications himself, just in case something like this happened.
He pulled a blueprint out of his knapsack and studied the plans. The only way in was to follow the lava into the pipe. But for that he’d need the LEV.
How long can the LEV survive inside the pipes? Spark wondered. Spark recalled Donald Cregan briefing him on the critical heat transfer system that kept the vehicle from being destroyed. Cregan had explained that the coating covering the craft’s exterior was made out of the same heat-resistant material used to protect spacecraft during reentry. However, the coating alone wasn’t sufficient to protect the LEV’s occupants. Nanotube fibers channeled heat from the undercarriage to black fins protruding from each side of the vehicle behind the doors like miniature biplane wings. Fans installed in front of the fins blew air across the hot surface to dissipate the heat, like a car radiator fan but much more powerful. As long as the craft was open to the outside air, everything worked fine. But inside the tube, the lava superheated the air. The fins wouldn’t dissipate the heat, the engine would eventually fail, and he’d be trapped. Spark’s timing had to be perfect.
He looked at the LEV and considered his approach. Towering cliffs nearly three hundred feet high protected the LEV from either side. The simplest approach would be to travel across the river of molten rock. But in that direction the path was blocked by lava spewing out of a damaged pipe. He’d have to turn off the control valve at the pipe’s base.
Spark reached into his knapsack, pulled out five flexible poles, and attached them at two predefined attachment points. He hit a button on the side of one pole, and the poles came to life, walking around like a stick figure puppet. Two poles became arms, two became legs, and the fifth became the body and head. A pair of metallic hands sprang out of the ends of the arms, and a small video camera poked its way out of the neck and quickly began to survey the scene.
Spark plugged a keyboard into a port on one of the robot’s arms and began to program its instructions. Then he attached a temperature-resistant rope to its back. The robot took a running start, leapt across the crater, and grabbed the large wheel that controlled the lava flow blocking the cave’s entrance. The robot tied the rope to the pipe and tried to turn the valve, but it didn’t have enough leverage and struggled to place a single foot on the beach. A wave of lava crested and enveloped the small robot’s leg. The robot attempted to keep hold of the wheel, but the force of the stream separated its hands from its arms. The flowing river of molten rock consumed its body as the video camera head looked left and right before disappearing under the surface. Spark watched the two disembodied hands lose their grip and then plop to a fiery death.
Spark tied the other end of the rope to the charred remains of a large tree that had had the misfortune of growing next to this violent pit. He grabbed the rope and inched across the crevasse. A wave of lava peaked. He pulled on the rope with all his strength, lifting his legs just in time to avoid the deadly stream. He pulled himself across and grabbed the bottom rung of the wheel. Not wanting to make the mistake as his recently deceased electronic companion, he pulled on the wheel and flipped himself onto the top of the pipe. From there, he turned the wheel and cut off the flow of lava blocking his access to the LEV.
He leapt from the pipe and landed safely next to the LEV. He opened the door, pulled himself inside, and flipped on the power. Lights and buttons filled the small vehicle’s interior. A large window at the front allowed Spark to navigate. Spark tested the controls: they were still operational. The small vehicle inched its way out of the cave onto the pool of lava. Spark steered the LEV across the burning lake until he reached the large feed pipe consuming the lava river. He steered the vehicle into the pipe and then hit a button to retract the pontoons. The LEV’s roof scraped the top of the pipe. The tube turned suddenly downward, and the LEV plummeted fifty feet before hitting the bottom. The tiny vehicle twisted sideways, wedging itself in the pipe.
Spark could tell that the craft had blocked the lava flow, causing immense pressure to build up against its side. He twisted the controls, trying to free the craft, but it was no use. The LEV’s walls began to buckle, and he had only seconds before it collapsed. He unscrewed a nanotube Cregan panel from the wall and then opened the side hatch. He laid the panel on a lava stream leaking under the craft, then he stood upright and began to surf down the stream. If it hadn’t been for the liquid cooling tubes that ran through his suit, he would have been burned alive. He heard the LEV implode and knew that the lava was surging toward him. He saw an intersecting pipe going up and grabbed hold of a rivet protruding above his head, pulling himself up as the pipe beneath him filled with lava.
He slowly began to climb hand over hand, rivet to rivet. Slipping repeatedly, he used his legs to span the pipe and regain his balance, then he continued to climb. The lava began to rise.
Spark wedged himself in the pipe and pulled a diagram out of his knapsack. He looked around, trying to identify some recognizable feature that he could use as a point of reference. The lava came to within inches of his feet, and the blueprint burst into flames.
Then he saw it. Four rivets where the outer wall attached to the pipe. He climbed ten more feet until he reached them. He pulled a clay-like substance from his pocket and molded it onto the side of the pipe over the rivets. He attached a detonator and hit a ten-second delay button. He looked down. The lava was near his feet again. He wouldn’t be able to escape the blast.
His helmet cracked as it slammed against the back of the pipe. He started to slide down toward the lava and grabbed the newly formed hole in the pipe. Superheated noxious fumes billowed into his face through the helmet cracks, but he held his breath, pulling himself through the hole and into a small room. The lava wasn’t far behind, gushing through the hole and pooling on the floor. He pulled off his helmet and ran out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
“Spark, what the hell are you doing here, you bastard?” yelled a muscular, graying man who glared at him malevolently.
“I thought you could use some help, Sam,” Spark said, trying to catch his breath. As he leaned against the doorframe, he surveyed the room. Dim red emergency lights illuminated the several dozen people lounging around the room and dripping with sweat. They all stared in his direction, but none of them had the energy to move. Spark saw that his beautiful semi-circular room’s panoramic window was completely covered with flowing lava, and a large LEV stood in the center of the room. Some brave soul must have managed to drive it in just in time.
Spark hurried to the emergency ladder.
“Couldn’t they have sent someone else? You should be in jail!” Sam sneered, following after him.
Spark reached the ladder and pointed at the ceiling. “We need to put a shaped walkrinite charge up there and on the floor right here.” Spark pointed to an area on the floor, and then he put his foot on the first rung.
“Walter’s dead,” Sam said.
“Dead?” Spark stared at Sam.
“He was fixing the transdrival conduit when the explosion occurred.” Spark shook his head and stared at the ground. Sam put his hand on Spark’s backpack. “Did you say you have walkrinite?”
Spark nodded. “We have to hurry. Can someone come up the ladder with me? I could use some help setting the charge.”
“Don’t help him. We should leave the way you came in,” Sam said, wagging his finger.
Spark pointed to the utility room. “I came in through the piping. Lava is now flooding the room. We don’t have much time.”
Sam stormed toward Spark. “You moron! You just killed us. Our oxygen would’ve lasted for days but now because of your stupidity we only have a few minutes before the toxic fumes kill us.”
“Right. Which means we don’t have time to argue,” Spark said as he started to climb.
Sam grabbed Spark’s backpack and pulled him off the ladder. Spark fell awkwardly to the floor. “Let’s get into an LEV, blow a hole in that window, and escape,” said Sam.
Spark shook his head. “Even an LEV can’t withstand the pressure of a thousand tons of lava that will pour in through the window.” Spark stood. “By blowing a hole in the ceiling and floor, we can divert the lava flow. Then we blow a hole in the window and escape in the LEV.” Spark began to climb.
“Stop him!” Two men grabbed Spark around the waist. “Three holes will just bring more lava into the room. Get his knapsack and lock this idiot in the other room.”
“You’re going to get yourselves killed,” Spark said, struggling as they dragged him into a side room.
“Joe, set the charge. Everyone else, get into the LEV. Move it!” Spark heard Sam say from behind the door. Spark looked around. He was in the five-story-tall electric processing room. Electric circuitry lined the walls. Spark climbed a wall ladder to the top, unzipped a pocket on the side of his pant leg, and withdrew two balls of explosives. Spark heard a faint BOOM, which meant that Sam had just blown a hole in the window. Spark didn’t have much time. He attached a charge to the ceiling, molding the walkrinite into a large circle. After attaching the detonator, he set the timer.
He grabbed the sides of the ladder with his arms and feet and slid down all four flights. Then he attached the second charge to the floor.
Lava began flowing down from the ceiling. He attached the detonator to the walkrinite and hit the button, then he leapt behind a large generator. Nothing happened. The lava poured into the room, destroying the equipment. Spark grabbed another detonator and jammed it into the charge. He changed the timer to one second, hit the button, and pulled his hand away.
The explosion threw him across the room, landing inches away from the lava. He rolled away and jumped through the hole in the floor.
Spark fell fifty feet through the air and landed in Lake Onchuponchi, which was now boiling hot. His head, covered in burn welts, broke the surface. He looked up and saw a wall of lava about to hit him. He quickly swam to shore and raced along a steaming, partially hardened lava flow. He looked back just as the others escaped in their LEV. For the first time in a long time, he smiled.
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