“It's perfectly fine if you smoke,” Professor Harrington told Laramie as he hefted a brick of plastic. He promptly set it down and took out a pair of binoculars. “This material is designed to be non-reactive to heat. I tested it.”
Laramie waggled an unlit cigarette in his lips. “How?” he asked.
“He took a batch home and threw it in the oven,” Carlos said as he returned. “How goes it, Harry?”
“The heat is definitely too great to approach,” Harrington said. “I'm also very concerned about the structural integrity of that storage tank. If it fails, there is a very strong possibility that it would result in a blast powerful enough to ignite the underground tanks.”
“That's a risk we're gonna have to take,” Carlos said. “What kind of safe range are we talking about?”
“For practical purposes, there is no safety margin,” Harrington said. “In the event of a truly catastrophic blast, there is no structure in the vicinity that could not be damaged or destroyed. If one takes into account the likelihood of secondary brush fires, the entire general area is at risk.”
“Then it's all or nothing,” Carlos said. “We do this thing now.”
“Hey, Dr. W,” Laramie muttered, “what happened to the oven?”
Carlos shrugged. “Well, I saw that kitchen 'fore and after... an' I say it needed takin' out anyway...”
“Let me get this straight,” Meg said as she was hustled off to Farther, “they're going to try to put out the fire with dynamite?”
“It has been done,” Ling said calmly. “In principal, it's no different from blowing out a candle. A sudden pressure wave disperses the oxygen, and possibly disrupts the fuel supply, and then the fire can no longer burn.”
“Who did it?” Meg pressed as she boarded the bus between Joe and Ling.
“I understand the Soviets have used air-dropped explosives to put out a forest fire,” the doctor replied.
“Oh, right, the Russians did it, so it must be a good idea,” Meg said.
The inside of Farther was well-furnished, though the overall look of the fittings and furnishings was Spartan. The entrance stairs ascended to a central corridor that went between a kitchen counter positioned behind the driver's seat and a typical push-together dinette. The bathroom was behind the dinette, and beyond it was a rear living room with a comfortably threadbare couch that converted to a bed. Meg sat on the couch between Ling and the two men, and Dianna and Janie squeezed in next to Joe. The students boarded, except for Laramie, and then the bus drove away with Dr. Carradine.
“I woulda liked to take you with me,” Carlos said, “but it just wasn't meant to be.”
“You always were a softie,” Elayne said. She pushed a button that started a countdown on the LED timer wired to three bricks of explosives under the hood of the Baja Bug. Laramie made the last adjustments inside the cab, and then jumped back as the Bug went cruising toward the gas station.
“Should we run?” Elayne said.
Carlos shook his head. “If this don't work, it won't matter.” He did not resist or protest when Elayne took his hand. Laramie lit a cigarette.
Lashing on the steering wheel held the Bug on a straight course across the road. “If it does, we spend tonight together,” Elayne whispered. “Accept, or disagree by three. One, two..”
As the Bug rolled into the gas station, flames ignited the canopy, and the rest of the vehicle went almost instantly ablaze. “Wednesday, and we can talk about the weekend,” Carlos muttered.
The lash-up began to fail, sending the vehicle yawing left and then back to the right. Then it went into a loop that brought it straight into the thickest part of the flame. Carlos put in ear plugs and dropped to a crouch behind an El Camino. Laramie and Elayne followed suit. The Bug erupted from the flames like a slow-moving meteor on slug-like molten tires. Carlos exhaled, and then ducked.
After the dramatic flames, the explosion was almost anticlimactic. There was an oddly dull KRRUUMMPPFF as what had been a smoking, flaming VW Beetle became, by all appearances, only smoke. Carlos and his companions did not see it, of course, but they were jolted by a profound shockwave that made the utility coupe rock like it was going over a pothole. From the rear of the bus, Meg saw the column of smoke lurch back like the Tower of Pisa in time lapse.
Carlos slowly raised his head to peer over the hood of the Camino. The view was obstructed by a deeply embedded remnant of a Beetle wheel well. The smoke was thicker than before, but there was no sign of fire except a hint of a red glow, right around the apparent center. He untensed, and started to smile, until he heard a creaking sound like the groan of a dying brontosaurus. “Elayne,” he said, “you can have tonight, too.”
Then the tank failed, and thousands of gallons of fuel spilled straight into the smoldering heart of the blaze.
Carlos smiled and waved at the returning crew and the rest of the fleet behind them. The worst of the spilled gasoline was being siphoned away with Yellow Pup's pump into a tank trailer that had survived the blaze. “It didn't go quite the way we planned,” he said, “but everything worked out all right in the end. Don't it always?” He cracked a smile at Laramie, who looked at Elayne, who gave a sly smirk.
“It's just like my old man used to say,” Carlos continued expansively as he led Harrington through the remnants of the gas station. “`You can fight fire with anything if you got enough of it.' Anything that disrupts the fuel-air mix enough can do the job... even if it's six thousand gallons of petrol.”
The spillage alone was enough to fill the newly-appropriated 1500-gallon tank trailer. Carlos and his crew quickly calculated that there was more than enough gas to fill every vehicle in the fleet, including the Yellow Submarine's tank, and every can and drum they carried along, and still have at least 10,000 gallons left over. Then Dr. Carradine pointed out a yellow 3000-gallon GMC Brigadier tank truck with a 2000-gallon trailer in tow. After long and loud, Dr. Carradine convinced Carlos to add it to the fleet, though the vehicle was promptly dubbed Jack Lemon.
“Looks like we’re headed for the Big Five-Oh,” Laramie said to Carlos.
“Nay,” he said. “We’re due to lose a few any day. In fact, I’d say we’re overdue.”
Meg stayed back at the shopping center. It was dominated by a sizable general store well-stocked with canned goods and other non-perishable foodstuffs. The students also uncovered a stock of beer, which was promptly snatched up for an epic celebration. There were also several outlet-style shops, including a toy store. Only when Meg saw children lining up outside did she realize how many there were, at least two dozen.
Dianna led the first troop of half-dozen inside, and Meg followed. The toys were rather incongruous mix of knock-offs, and nondescriptly generic toys. Meg took special notice of a little boy who seemed almost magnetically drawn to the cheapest and cheesiest of toys, the army men, rubber bugs, plastic dinosaurs, and other trinkets that one was more likely to find as arcade prizes and party favors than for sale.
Dianna was clearly giving the boy special attention, too. She walked up behind him and said, “Remember, you can have one.” He nodded with a mournful frown. He appeared to be torn between bags of astronauts, robots, and supposed dinosaurs that looked less like prehistoric life than a bad acid trip.
“Can I see those astronauts?” Meg asked. Tommy handed them over. Meg confirmed on cursory examination that the space men were copies of figures from a moon-landing playset her big brother had received for Christmas sometime before the event became reality. She even recognized most of the out-of-scale vehicles, including a wheel-shaped space craft.
“That's a space station,” Tommy said. “It spins so people don't float.”
“No,” Meg said, “it's a lander.” She pointed to a crude picture on the Spanish-language packaging. “Look, the picture shows it standing on those legs...”
Tommy shrugged. “It's just a picture. Sometimes they get things wrong.”
Janie walked up to her mother, carrying a cheaply-made but quite large monster truck. “Mommy?” she said. “Something died in here.”
“I'm Meg,” Meg said to the boy while Dianna investigated. “What's your name?”
“Tommy,” he said.
Meg couldn't help feeling a hint of nostalgia. “I'll tell you what,” she said. “Nobody said that grown-ups can't get their own toys. So I'll get this, and you can play with it later. Maybe you can tell me more about spaceships.” Tommy looked both ways, and hugged her.
Dianna returned. “It was a bird,” she said.
“Birds scare me when they're dead,” Janie added.
By then, the children had made their picks, or simply lost interest, and Dianna escorted them out. She clearly noticed the bag Meg was holding, but her only reaction was a hint of a smile. Then Meg saw that Dianna was holding the bag of ostensible dinosaurs.
As Meg stepped out of the store, she sneezed. Abruptly, Dr. Carradine was by her side. “Professor Wrzniewski believes we should talk,” he said.