Chapter 7

The Fire

Kana looked down the tunnel as far as she could. Electric bulbs in the tunnel provided only dim orange light. Peering into the darkness, she turned and looked down the tunnel in the other direction. Then she let out a huff of frustration. 

She said, “Una! You should have been paying attention. Now we are lost.”

Una looked down the tunnel. Her white plastic face reflected the electric lights. She mirrored Kana’s frustrated pose. She looked at Kana and said, “Lost!”

Kana examined the walls of the tunnel. Rusty streaks ran down the stones. Ancient mildew darkened the cracks. Kana muttered, “I left a mark around here somewhere.” She paced back and forth next to the wall then said, “Or was that the other tunnel? Are we under the temple?”

Una put her hand underneath her chin and made a mechanical sound that mimicked a “Hmmmm…”

Kana sighed in frustration and said, “Okay, Una, we have to check with topside. Let’s go!”

Una echoed, “Go!”

Kana began trotting down the tunnel with Una trotting along behind her. Kana turned left at the first intersection and, within a hundred paces, found a ladder leading to a manhole. She climbed up the ladder, lifted the grate, and poked her head out. From street level, she looked up at a black night sky, bright windows, and an empty sidewalk. She called down to Una, “It’s the one with the weird tea shop and fish market!” She let the grate fall with a clang and climbed back down the manhole. “I knew it!” she said as she reached the bottom. She began trotting back down the tunnel the way that she came.

“I knew it!” echoed Una.

Suddenly there was a deafening sound and the ground shook. Instinctively, Kana dropped to her hands and knees. The sound was followed by several booms and a rush of air. Kana stood up and wiped her hands on her pants. She turned to look at Una. Una stared back at her.

Kana asked, “Do we run toward the terrifying noise or away from it?”

“Away!” responded Una.

Kana stood chewing her lip anxiously. “Not this time, Una,” she said.

“Toward!” responded Una.

Kana began running down the tunnel, noticing mostly her own breath and the tunnel lights. She chanted to herself as she ran, “It’s just the excitement. Don’t panic. It’s just the excitement. Don’t panic.”

She reached the first intersection and paused. She looked at Una. “Which way?” she asked.

Una shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

Kana felt her hair brushing against her face. “That’s odd,” she said, “there is wind in the tunnel.” She looked down each direction of the intersection. “The wind is blowing toward the noise?” she guessed.

As she ran, the wind increased in strength. Far ahead, she saw that there was light in the tunnel. As she continued running, she passed a point where the electric bulbs had all turned off and the light ahead was the only visible guidance. “Is that a cable car headlight?” she asked Una.

“No,” said Una.

They turned a corner and then the source of the light was clearly visible. Flickering flames illuminated the entirety of the tunnel. The wind was rushing toward the fire. In the firelight, it was clear that the tunnel had collapsed on top of a cable car train. Crushed cable cars and debris were piled underneath a gaping hole in the top of the tunnel. Kana began walking toward the fire. 

Una tugged at her hand and groaned, “Away!”

Kana shook loose and continued walking forward. As she got closer, she could see the splintered wood of crates, fallen metal beams from the tunnel supports, and the tumble of tunnel walls and ceiling. Suddenly there was a hot rush of air and a burst of flame that rose up from the fallen debris.

Kana stepped back and shook herself as if rising from a nightmare. She looked at Una and then back to the fire. 

Kana whispered, “Away.” She took a few steps back and said again, “Away!” She turned and started running.

There was a deep booming noise and another rush of air. Sounds of falling masonry echoed in the tunnel. Kana kept running until the firelight was replaced by the glow of electric lights. She climbed the first ladder that she saw, pushed open the metal grate, and emerged onto the street. She bent over gasping and coughing, then sank down to the pavement to recover her breath. Una emerged from the manhole and knelt down with her plastic hands resting on her knees. 

Kana stood up and looked at the empty street and the brightly lit windows. She tried to yell but it came out as a gasp and a whisper. “Fire!” she wheezed. She stamped her feet in frustration and tried again. “Fire!” she whispered, unable to make sound come out of her mouth.

Una turned to look at her and echoed Kana’s call. “Fire!” whispered Una.

Kana blinked away hot tears and gasped, “Una, you stupid nubot, you have to say it louder!”

“Fire!” whispered Una again.

Kana yelled at Una, “No! Like this! Fire!” This time she managed to say it at a normal speaking level.

“Fire!” repeated Una, speaking normally.

Kana shook her fists at her side. “Like this, Una… Fire! Fire!” she said at an elevated volume. Una echoed her raised voice. Kana’s face was flushed with anger and she screeched, “Fire! Fire!” Una screeched along with her. 

Kana clenched her fists at her sides, drew in her breath, bent over and yelled, “There is a fire in the freight tunnel!” at a volume that could be heard far down the street.

Windows lit up as lights switched on. Doors opened. Kana looked at them angrily and muttered, “Oh, now they come outside… now that they can hear me?” She ran down the street yelling, “There is a fire in the freight tunnel!”

Kana ran in the direction of the tunnel fire, trying to determine its location above ground based on its location in the tunnels. As she got closer, she saw rising smoke that was illuminated from below by the orange light of fire. She ran toward the smoke, which was now billowing high above the rooftops. 

 A crowd had already gathered outside. The fire chief was directing people to stand back and several firefighters were putting up a cordoned perimeter around the building. A firefighter came out of the front entrance to the building. He ran to the fire chief and began reporting, his tempered glass mask still covering his face.

The fire chief said, “I cannot hear you! Take off the mask!”

The firefighter reported, “The explosion damaged the structure. The stairway to the upper floors has collapsed and is filled with debris. There is a hole in the foundation that goes all the way to the tunnel. Smoke and fire are pouring out of that hole. The building is burning in several locations. The only remaining exit is the front entrance. The stairway access to the basement is blocked by debris. We can hear voices from the basement, but we cannot see anyone. The building is structurally unstable. Depending on how quickly the fire burns, it could all come down in less than an hour.”

The fire chief commanded, “Take two humans and two bots, bring axes. Get access to the basement.” He called over another firefighter and ordered, “Get three more people, take the fire escapes on the east and west sides of the building. Check the second and third floors for occupants.”

Two steambots pulled a fire hose to the front of the building and took it with them through the broad front entrance. Another steambot brought a second hose to the front of the building and aimed the spray into the second story windows. 

At the hydrant, two firefighters opened the hydrant pump access. As they slowly worked the enormous hydrant pump, the fire hose began delivering a steady stream of water at a higher pressure. 

The fire chief called, “I need a heavy on that hydrant pump!” A firefighter ran to his call. The fire chief said, “Take two people. Go to construction sites or anywhere you can find a heavy industry steambot. I need power on the hydrant pump. We do not have time for this!”

The firefighter ran to get assistance. Then there was a faint rumbling sound and the ground shook. The fire chief turned to see two heavies, Ryoki and Nanako, coming around the corner of a building. Their steps resonated. Their huge arms swung as they lumbered forward. Nanako strode directly to the hydrant pump. The firefighters saw her coming and got out of her way. Her metal body, as tall as a house, began rapidly working the massive hydrant pump. The steambot handling the hose was blasted off his feet by the pressure. People cleared out of the way and Ryoki went to the steambot that was now laying on its back, barely holding on to the fire hose. Ryoki picked up the steambot with one huge hand. He lifted the steambot up, holding it higher than the roof of the building. The steambot tucked the firehose firmly under its arm and directed the geyser from the fire hose into the interior courtyard of the burning building.

The fire chief ordered, “Find a way to block air flow in the tunnels! Hang tarps from the tunnel ceiling. I don’t know. Whatever it takes. Right now the building is a chimney and the tunnels are supplying the air. I need that air flow blocked as soon as possible!”

The wind flowing through the building made a deep suction noise as it drew air from the tunnels and blew it upward in a giant smoking whirlwind. Flames appeared in the front windows of the building. Then the glass broke and smoke began pouring out. 

A firefighter reported, “The building is clear except for the basement! We got eleven people out of the second and third floors. The first floor was already clear. They are still working on clearing the basement stairwell. There is a lot of debris.”

The fire chief said, “The only remaining exit is the front entryway. We must keep the front entrance open until everyone is out! Focus a hose on the front entrance and try to keep it intact!”

The building made an ominous groaning noise and the roof collapsed in two places. Flames emerged from the holes. There was a second groaning noise and the front of the building began to sag, slowly collapsing in the middle. As the building sagged, the broad front entrance started to crumple under the weight of the second and third floors. 

Ryoki set the steambot down and used his enormous hands to raise the front entrance of the building back into place. Nanako stopped pumping and went to help him. She knelt down and put her shoulder under the entryway, then her engines roared as she began lifting. Ryoki got down to his hands and knees, positioned himself inside the entrance of the building, and raised himself until he was supporting the building with his back. 

The fire chief called, “Keep the hose on the heavy! Keep his head cool! If he dies we lose everyone! Keep his body cool! If he loses the temperature differential, he will lose strength!”

Two firefighters turned the hose toward Ryoki. The water hissed and boiled as it touched the metal surfaces of his enormous frame. Smoke, steam, and flame completely obscured the entrance of the building. Nanako bent her knees and got a new grip on the front wall. Her engines roared again as she lifted. The structure cracked and pieces of the facade fell onto the street, splintering into flaming chunks. Nanako was unable to hold enough of the building to keep it in one piece. The entire front of the building cracked down the middle and the two massive pieces collapsed onto her partner. The momentum and force of the fall flattened him onto the ground. Nanako screamed. She placed her hands under the huge flaming beams and tried to lift them off of her partner. Ryoki made a vast and inhuman noise that seemed like a cry of pain, but then he placed his massive hands onto the ground and fired his engine with a single prolonged blast. There was a sound of metal twisting under the force of his effort. One meter at a time, he lifted the entire front of the building until his body once again formed an open archway to the interior courtyard. The pair of heavies stayed in that position as flaming chunks of building collapsed around them. Smoke and flame poured out of the entrance. The stream of the fire hose landed on their metal frames and burst into steam. Finally, shadowy shapes appeared in the smoke. Humans and bots crawled underneath the opening created by Ryoki’s body. 

A firefighter reported to the chief, “Basement clear! All occupants accounted for!”

The chief confirmed, “Basement is clear?”

The firefighter replied, “Clear, sir! No one left behind.”

The chief commanded, “Get that heavy out! Push the building off of him if you need to!”

Ryoki began tilting his body to tip the weight of the building off of his back and allow it to fall into the courtyard. As he tilted, the third floor of the building entirely collapsed and crashed into the second floor. The force of the fall flattened Ryoki against the ground. Flaming wreckage collapsed around him, entirely concealing his body in the fire. Nanako roared rage and frustration as she threw her body against the front of the building. The remains of the upper floors tilted backward and exploded into flame as they fell toward the inner courtyard. She thrust her arms into the center of the second floor to prevent its collapsing weight from landing on Ryoki. The structural beams cracked under the strain. The building disintegrated into burning wreckage that knocked her over as it toppled into the street. Nanako pushed herself back to a standing position. She lifted chunks of flaming detritus and flung them. Her huge arms grappled flaming beams as she dug through the fire looking for her partner.

Kana stood frozen and uncomprehending on the sidewalk. As Nanako searched through the fire, Kana could take no more. She turned and ran without thought or direction. She had no sense of whether she was running toward something or away from something. She felt only blind panic as she ran through the empty streets of the city. 

The sky was beginning to lighten as Kana’s exhaustion overtook her. She recognized a familiar alley and she walked into it. She climbed a ladder and settled into one of her sleeping boxes, nestled underneath the eaves of a store. She lay there, breathing shallowly and holding her knees, drifting in and out of sleep. 

Two days passed that Kana did not later remember. Una brought her food and water. Kana stayed in her sleeping box and stared at the birds and clouds. Sometimes she would dip briefly into sleep and then wake screaming.

The funeral took place on a grassy hill with a view of rice fields. Ryoki’s enormous body was covered in a huge white sheet. It looked like a small house draped in a table cloth. Guests stood scattered around the hilltop. Humans in black kimonos were interspersed with steambots. Heavies stood in a wide perimeter, their black armbands fluttering in the wind. Nanako knelt by Ryoki’s body, covering her face with her hands.

Kana walked through the gathering. Her eyes were weary and she dragged her feet. Una trailed behind, close enough to catch Kana if she were to fall. Una saw Saga in the crowd.  She pulled Kana gently by the hand and brought her to stand beside Saga. Una tapped Saga’s hand, who looked down and noticed Kana wearily bobbing her head and drooping where she stood. Saga knelt down and placed a hand on Kana’s arm. Kana climbed weakly into Saga’s lap and rested her face against Saga’s neck. Exhausted tears poured down Kana’s cheeks. She had enough strength to lift her arm around Saga’s shoulder. Saga held her tight, kissed her head, and ran her fingers through Kana’s hair. In just a moment Kana was asleep. Saga held her while the priest chanted the sutra.