RATING: PG... for some swearing 
CATEGORY: Challenge - PQL AU (this AU is open)
DISCLAIMERS: This is fanfiction. No profit involved. This story is based on the television series "The Magnificent Seven". No infringement upon the copyrights held by CBS, MGM, TNN, the Hallmark Channel, Trilogy Entertainment Group, The Mirisch Corp. or any others involved with that production is intended.  Elements of this story also reflect the television series "Quantum Leap".  No infringements on their copyrights are intended either.
NOTE: This is in response to the January 2002 Magnificent 7 Challenge, offered by Setcheti: Write (or rather, *re*write) a movie or TV show as starring our favorite Seven guys. An existing AU cannot be used and the story can't be a Crossover either.  All Seven guys must be  used.  My AU is based on the TV show Quantum Leap.
FEEDBACK: Yes please!   comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
DATE: January 23, 2002, housekeeping done January 3, 2010

PQL: Bright Part of the Sky
By NotTasha...who witnessed some of this from the safety of her own backyard

There were times when he dreaded the blue light.  It was bad enough to be yanked from a place where he was relatively comfortable, for PQL had become a home of sorts to him.  That feeling of having his whole world turned upside-down and the sensation of being tossed out into some unknown universe was annoying at best.  The very worst of it was that he hated being out of his element, unable to find his footing.  He was a man that liked to have his wits about him and it was unnerving to find his memory filled with holes.  Leaping, in short, was frustrating as all hell.

He waited for the initial effects to die down, for the blue light to leave him. Finally, once his vision cleared, he began to take stock of the situation. His first impression was of lush growth, of green life that surrounded him. He looked out through a dense woodland.  The tall trees were quiet in the windless air and everything about him was utterly still.  He craned back his head and gazed up at the sky, bright and blue, filtering through treetops. The air was crisp with morning.

A carpet of pine needles covered the ground, further muffling sound. He turned about, noting the tent, the dead fire, the cook stove and rustic looking picnic bench.  An old Volvo -- plum colored with a dented fender -- sat just behind the tent.  Pine needles dusted the vehicle.  The car looked like it had been in service for a decade already, and might last another.

His lip curled as he noted the pit toilets in the distance.

"Great," he muttered, "I'm camping.  Lord, how I love camping."   The statement lacked any sincerity and nobody was nearby to appreciate his sarcasm.  He scuffed at the ground.  Finally, as he completed his circle, he looked out across a small and glass-smooth lake, at the mountain beyond. Its unexpected appearance took his breath away.  The mountain was huge, looming over everything.

He gazed at it curiously.  There was something strange about the lonely peak. He puzzled over it for a moment, wondering why it looked so bare.  Shouldn't a mountain of that size be white with glaciers and snow?  Instead, it looked gray.  “Air pollution,” he muttered, “Acid rain?  The greenhouse effect?  Global warming?”  But he didn't know what to make of it. If his memory didn’t get swiss-cheesed in the leap, he’d have a better handle on what that was supposed to mean.

He walked to the tent and made a quick examination of it, to see if anyone else was in residence.  It was uninhabited, a small shelter, hardly large enough for one man to sleep, let alone sit up. One empty sleeping bag filled it, along with a lantern and a duffel bag.  ‘It appears that I camp alone,’ he thought.

He wore jeans and -- Lord help him --  a flannel shirt and boots.   He found a watch on top of the duffel bag and examined it before he put it on -- a cheap analog Timex with a cheesy ‘date’ feature.  It told him that the time was 7:50; the date was May 18th.  "Too early in the morning for my liking," he uttered.

Hoping to find some idea of who he was, he felt for a wallet, and found none in his pocket.  Well, he was camping.  What would he want with a wallet? Would he need to pay off payoff the bears? To purchase a cappuccino from a passing elk? Maybe a coati-mundi would like to see his ID before serving him alcoholic beverages. “Coati-mundi,” he said aloud, liking how the words fell together.  He shrugged as he realized his surroundings were more temperate than tropical and that a raccoon would be a more likely companion than the coati.

He was, at least, getting some grasp of the situation.  Hopefully Vin would arrive soon and help him with the rest.

Ezra wandered toward the Volvo and opened the unlocked passenger door, snapped open the glove compartment, easily locating his wallet.

“Trusting man,” Ezra said with a yawn. But of course, the only  ‘camp robber’ he might expect was of the blue jay variety and he doubted that the bird could run off with the thing.  He flipped open the wallet as he continued walking out of the camping space and onto the dirt road that joined one camping spot to the next. "Coati-mundi," he said again, for no reason except to hear some sort of a noise in that otherwise silent place.

He discovered that his name was Daniel Mansell.  From the expiration date on the license, he knew that the present date was sometime before June 1984, and that he was under 45 years old and hailed from Vancouver, Washington.  He wondered vaguely if that was anywhere near the Canadian boarder, and then pulled from his leap-fractured memory the knowledge that the city in question was on the opposite side of the state, on the Oregon border.  He found a coupon for 'Chex' cereal that expired December 31, 1980.  Well, he was gathering more information all the time.

He flipped back the license and looked at an aged photo. The man in the picture matched the face on the license.  It was a formally posed photo; Daniel (looking younger than the license) was standing behind a seated woman -- a wife no doubt. Three young boys were grouped around them.  Ezra glanced to his hand and back at the photo, noting that the man in the picture wore a wedding ring, but his hand currently held no such jewelry.  He ran his thumb along the area where the ring should have been. There was no tan line, no impression left.  “Divorced,” he murmured. "And for some time."

The credit cards told him little more.  The man shopped at Sears, Montgomery Wards, and Meier and Frank, and that he had a Fred Meyer's check writing card. He pocketed the wallet and continued walking slowly along the camp road. The stillness of the day was surprising.  Somehow, he expected birds to be singing, animals rustling about, or at least other campers chatting and starting their fires for the day  -- campers do tend to arise at ungodly hours.

He glanced about the campground and saw no sign of anyone else in residence. His eyes came upon the outhouse again and he figured they had good reason for avoiding this place.  Why in the world would anyone want to stay where there were no flushing toilets?  No hot water…no showers for God's sake?

He leaned against a tree and sighed. At least it was peaceful here. Maybe the leap would be easy this time? Maybe he was being given a vacation of sorts? He deserved it, he figured.  They all did. Vin especially. Of course Vin would enjoy this much more than himself. This was definitely Tanner’s element. "Give me a five-star hotel next time," he shouted. "Room service! A sauna and health club facilities!" There was no answer.

"So, what the hell am I supposed to be doing?"  he asked the sky.  “Who am I to help?”  Of course, there was always someone to help – someone’s bacon to pull from the fire, some life that needed to be put back together, someone to meet and get to know and then leave behind without even hearing a word of gratitude, without a goodbye. His last leap had put him with the task of reuniting a family. He’d spent five days with a group of kids, driving them home to their parents.  It had been hectic and aggravating and tiring.   He’d enjoyed it… in a way.  He missed them…in a way.

Enough of that!  He grimaced and rubbed the back of his neck.  He was getting too self-pitying.  Time to get to work. With a slow step, he walked about the small campground, but still sighted no one else. "Coati-mundi," he said again, just to hear another voice. He certainly had found a lonely place to leap into. Not a soul in to be seen.

Yawning again, he returned to his camping spot and knew why Mr. Mansell had chosen this particular place.  It had a beautiful view of that mountain.  He gazed out across the lake again.  As he scrutinized the scene, he realized that the disconcerting grayness of the peak seemed to be due to a layer of dirt. There must have been a city nearby, or maybe a factory of some sort that had deposited all that soot on it.  Strange, because the sky seemed so bright and clear – no sign of a haze was visible. It really was a beautiful day. He stared at the mountain, trying to understand it all.

The sound of the Imaging Chamber door slamming open made him jump.  "Mr. Tanner," he called. "Please, observe the tranquility of this spot and try not to…"

"Get in the car!"  Vin shouted as he ran to the Leaper.  He was in front of Ezra in a moment and would have grabbed him if he could.  "Damn it, Ezra!  Get in the car and get the hell out of here!"  His eyes were wide and he was obviously agitated.

Ezra knew better than to delay when Vin actually became upset about something. He hustled toward the car, asking, "Why?  What's happening?"

"Do you know what today is?"  Vin asked as he hurried alongside Standish.

"May 18th," Ezra said with a grin.  He glanced at his watch as he opened the car door. "And it's just past eight in the morning."  He would have gone farther with the information he'd gained, but Vin cut him off.

Tanner gestured toward the mountain.  "That's Mt. St. Helens.  It'll erupt at 8:32."

"Good Lord!"  Ezra paused for a moment as he drew in the implications.

"Get the hell out of here, Ezra!"  Vin demanded.

Frantically, Ezra patted his pockets.  "Keys!"  he shouted.  The car was unlocked, but that wouldn't help to get it started.

"Check the visor… under the seat… the glove compartment!" Vin suggested, shifting from one foot to another in his anxiety. "Damn it!"  he shouted.  "Hurry!"  His frustration was mounting at his inability to help his friend.   "I'll check the campsite."

"Found them!" Ezra shouted as he dropped the passenger visor.  The key fell and he had it in the ignition in seconds.  The Volvo roared to life.

"Thank God," Vin exclaimed and then centered the handlink on Ezra. He flashed into the car as the gambler put the Volvo into gear and it flew backward out of the parking spot, onto the camp road and, in a second, he had it rocketing toward the exit of the park.

Ezra slammed on the brakes as he reached the end of the camp road that dumped him onto another dirt road.  Panting at the sudden excitement, he looked to the left and then the right as the cloud of stirred dust engulfed them.  There was no sign to direct them to 'a place that doesn't get blown up.'

"Which way," Ezra demanded.

Vin studied the handlink and declared, "Right."

The wheels kicked up more dirt as they left primitive campground behind.  "How long to we have?"

"About twenty minutes, give or take."

“I’d prefer to take right now,” Ezra responded, as the car careened down the road. "How far do we have to go?"

"It's not too far, but it's gonna take a while because of the roads.”

Ezra groaned, wheeling the car around a sharp turn and jostling it over a series of chuckholes.   ‘There goes the suspension on this one,’ Ezra thought ruefully as he fought to keep the careening vehicle on the narrow road.

Vin continued, “We just gotta go west.”

“West -- Go west young man.” Ezra murmured as the Volvo swerved near a 100-year old tree.  “Which way are we headed now?”

“Ah, east.”

“But you said…” Ezra looked furiously at Vin.

“We gotta go east to get to the main road."

"How long will that take?"

"A while..." Vin mumbled.

“There isn’t a faster route?”

“Ain’t a whole lot of roads here, Ez.  And the ground ain't exactly flat around here.  The roads twist all over hell."

"Great," Ezra mumbled, pressing his foot down and getting more speed out of the little car.  "So, does that mean I'm going to be burnt like last Sunday's toast?"

Vin poked at the handlink and gave it a discontented whack.  “Well, Mansell probably didn’t get toasted, Ez.”

“Oh,” Ezra raised an eyebrow.  “That’s good news, my friend.”

“Ah, well, it says they figured he got suffocated under about a ton of ash.  Body was never recovered.”


Trees whipped by as the old Volvo tore down the mountain roads, heading east when they really should be heading west.  The wheels skidded on the loose-packed road as Ezra maneuvered it around a sharp turn and he was thrown to one side, and then back.  Another series of potholes jerked the car around violently, further drawing the vehicle out of alignment. Trees kept trying to leap out in front of them, and Ezra did his best to avoid them.

They drove on in silence for a short time, Standish concentrating on the road, and Vin fiddling with the handlink.  The road seemed to go on forever, twisting back and forth as it came down the mountain’s feet.

Ezra exhaled slowly and ran the back of his hand across his brow. “When are we going to make it back to paved and civilized roadways?”

“Not too much farther.  We got a bit less than fifteen minutes before it erupts.”

“Hmm,” was Ezra’s response.  “That’s encouraging.”

“The trees don’t get flattened where we are, but they’re all gonna be killed here, along with anything else that’s living,” Vin answered truthfully.

Ezra raised his eyebrows.  “That’s good to know,” he responded.

“We gotta keep going until we cross the Toutle River.”  Tanner kept punching at the handlink, hoping that Ezra would be able to get better speed when they reached the paved road.

They moved quickly through the dense trees, the lush woodland.  It would all be gone in a matter of minutes. It was difficult to imagine that all this beauty would be destroyed, that the perfect peak would be shattered and left forever disfigured. There was nothing to be done about it; this was part of nature; this was how the earth worked.  They weren’t here to keep Mt. St. Helens from erupting, nothing could stop that. They were here to save Daniel Mansell.

 Ezra’s mouth was drawn to a thin line, his hand were tight on the steering wheel and his eyes intent on the road ahead.   “Road coming up,” Ezra announced. “Hallelujah!  It looks like blacktop!”

“Left!”  Vin ordered as they came closer.

The car slowed only enough to make the sharp turn, the tires screeching as they finally met with pavement.  Ezra pushed the gas pedal fully to the floor and they shot down the road as it twisted toward the west.   The road was as empty as the campground, giving Ezra all the room he wanted to maneuver.

Tanner consulted the handlink.   “You’ll make it to the bridge in about ten minutes.”  He looked up, hoping he could see it, but the road turned and twisted around the hilly ground that surrounded the volcano.  The century-old trees further obscured the view.

Ezra nodded, speeding onward.  They’d make it in time, as long as he kept the car pressed to its highest speed. Standish blinked at the trees that flew past them, a constant greenish blur.  His heart thudded and he glanced to Vin more than once, just glad to have to Observer with him.

And then his eyes fastened on a pickup and camper at the side of the road, coming up fast.  His eyes went wide when he saw the small family standing beside it – a man and two children.  “Oh damn,” Ezra murmured.

“Shit,” Vin responded.  “Ez…"

There wasn’t time to think.  Ezra slammed on the brakes.  The Volvo shimmied to a stop, accompanied by the stink and screech of burning rubber.  “Can’t leave them,” Ezra muttered.

The camper was parked at a lookout spot.  A man with two children stood near the edge of an embankment. The father clutched a camera in his hands, and the children had been posing with the mountain in the background, but their eyes now all fastened on the Volvo and its driver.

The father glared, and stepped forward, shoving his two kids behind him. He opened his mouth, obviously ready to shout his feelings in regard to Ezra’s dangerous driving.

Before he had time to speak, Ezra rolled down his window and shouted, “Get in!  It’s going to erupt!”

The kids, a boy and a girl, both looked excited and turned toward the mountain.  “Really?”  the girl asked as she clutched her older brother’s hand.

“Cool,” the boy responded.

"I thought something might happen.  We felt an earthquake not too long ago." The man nodded enthusiastically, holding his camera ready, expecting the usual ‘display’ that they’d seen over the past few weeks – a nice plume of smoke, a geyser of steam, a puff of magic dust, something exciting to talk about with the neighbors. “Thanks,” he said. “Gonna get a prize-winning shot this time.  Front page of The Columbian!”

“It’s going to explode!" Ezra shouted.  "This whole area is going to be buried in a matter of minutes.”  He didn’t want to frighten the children, but no one was moving.  “Nothing here will survive.”

“Ez, we gotta get out of here.  NOW!  It’s going to go in about five minutes.  It's gonna take us at least that long to get to the bridge.  We gotta get cross it, Ez.  Now!"

The family hadn’t moved yet. The man looked at him suspiciously.  The kids were excited.  Finally, the man turned away from him and spoke to the boy, "Come on, Drew, climb on that rock.  Let's get a really good picture this time."

Ezra looked on in disbelief as the man encouraged his kids to move further away. He threw on the parking brake and left the idling car.

"Ezra!"  Vin shouted as he stepped away from the car, moving directly through the side of the vehicle to follow Ezra.  "There's not much time.  Get 'em moving now."

"It's what I'm trying to do!" Ezra growled between his teeth.

The man looked up in alarm as the Leaper strode toward him and again he put himself in front of the children.  "I don't want any trouble," he said, trying to sound menacing.

Standish didn't stop moving until he was inches from the man.  “I’m from Washington Geological Services and have surveyed the situation,” he barked out, hoping that an official capacity would give him some credence.  "That earthquake you just felt is nothing compared to what's about to happen. We have registered harmonic tremors throughout this area at an alarming frequency.  The eruption is imminent.  IMMINENT!  This entire region will be utterly destroyed.  Either get in the car or commit yourself and your children to a horrible entombment!”

The man's face went white as Standish spoke.  Finally, unable to think of anything else, Ezra added, "Please!"

Something finally shook free in the man.  He grabbed the girl and shoved her at Ezra before going after the boy.

Ezra lifted the child in his arms and ran the short distance to the car. She gasped in surprise, and Ezra only had time to say, "It's okay, darlin'.  Everythin' is going to be all right," before he opened the rear door and pushed her into the seat. The boy followed, physically thrown in beside his sister by his father. The rear door was slammed shut as the adults took the front seats. In the next second, Ezra put the car back into gear and sent it hurtling it toward the yet unseen bridge that Vin had promised.

Ezra looked about as he drove.  For a startled moment he couldn’t find Vin.  ‘Don’t leave me, Vin,’ Ezra thought, almost panicking.

His heart leapt when he heard the Observer speak just outside the driver’s window, “Keep goin’, Ez.”

Ezra turned sharply, seeing Vin riding alongside the car, and sighed in relief.  Ezra had to remind himself that his friend was a hologram at this point and that the laws of physics didn’t apply to him; still, it was odd to see him just floating there alongside the speeding car.  “How much longer?” Standish asked.

“Three minutes before it goes.”

“We’re not going to make it.”

“You’ll do fine,” Vin said, lowering his head and staring at the handlink. “We'll get caught up in the edge of the ash-fall. The Clarion says the depth will taper off pretty fast after the bridge.  There's a hill that'll protect you.”

“Thank God,” Ezra responded, his eyes on the road ahead.  “We can hope.”

“Sir,” the man beside him said, looking bewildered.  “Are you okay?  What do you mean, 'we’re not going to make it'?”

He’d almost forgotten about his passengers.  “What’s your name?”  Ezra redirected.

“Ah, Todd Athens,” the man replied.

“Mr. Athens, I swear to you, I’m going to do my level best to get us all to safety.  Hang on.  It might get a bit...bumpy.”

The children in the backseat turned around in their seats, watching the mountain with interest, waiting for something to happen.  It filled the rear window, ominous and huge, appearing and disappearing as the road wound around the uneven ground.  As trees cloaked it, Todd held his camera ready.  “Buckle up, Connie, and sit tight.  Andrew, look after your sister now.  Everything is going to be fine.  Maybe we’ll get some good shots to show your Mommy.”

Todd leaned out the passenger window, snapping another shot as the Volvo kept its pace.  “Perfect,” he said.  He was nervous, but excited at the same time.  The children didn’t really understand what was going on, enjoying the race through the forest.

They kept going -- trying to outpace nature in it most destructive state.

“You’ll be at that bridge in a couple minutes, Ez. Almost there,” Vin said helpfully.

The man turned toward Ezra and asked, “When’s it going to do its thing?”

Ezra didn't even have to look at Vin to get the answer.  “Got about 45 seconds, Ez,” Vin stated quietly.

Standish sighed in resignation.  “Soon,” Ezra replied.  “Too damn soon.”

Beyond the car everything was green and lush.  Wild rhododendrons bloomed in the shade of the Douglas Firs. Trillium and primeval-looking ferns filled out the shady spots under the brush.  Moss draped over limbs. A yearling buck, startled by the quick passage of the car, bolted further into the wilderness, toward a land he always knew would be safe. A crystal stream cascaded down a rock face, creating a pretty little waterfall. It rippled beside the road, crossing under it at a culvert and continuing on its path unobstructed.  A cottontail nestled in the security of her home, her little ones tucked in around her.  She was nervous, keeping still, because stillness was what always saved her in the past. Bold chipmunks trailed along a limb overhead, chattering and calling to one another.  They moved apprehensively, unsure of whether to go to their burrows or to flee across the treetops. They didn’t understand why.  Trees that had stood for generations held their branches out as if exalting in the morning sun, and above it all the sky was blue and bright.

It was a beautiful, perfect day.  Everything filled with life and color, as it had always been, as it was supposed to be.

Vin nervously handled the handlink as he rode alongside the filled car, just beside Ezra.  “It’s going to happen,” he said softly, ominously.  “Now.”

The world rumbled.  Ezra felt it through the wheel of the speeding car, felt it as the trees swayed, heard it as the air filled with the horrible sound of a mountain being torn to pieces.

“Oh God!”  Todd uttered, sitting backward in his seat so that he’d be facing his children.  His eyes grew huge as he watched.  "Oh, God," he said again.  His children started to cry.

Ezra looked to the rearview mirror again, watching in disbelief as the mountain fell apart before his eyes.  He expected an ear-shattering explosion, but instead there was only a low rumble, a bone-shaking rumble that seemed to fill him and turn him to jelly.  St. Helens shape-shifted behind him.  The world wasn’t supposed to behave like that.  Mountains didn’t turn to liquid!  Nothing that big should ever be allowed to fall!

His mirror filled with the gray as the mountain started rolling toward them, as he kept the car pegged out at its highest speed, even as he slalomed down the winding road.

Vin turned to watch, absently lifting a hand as if he could hang on to the side of the car.  The north side of the mountain had fallen away in the largest landslide ever recorded by modern man.  The ancient glaciers vaporized, combining with the rock that had once comprised the peak and the gasses from within the mountain, creating a deadly super-heated wall that rushed out to fill the valley.  A dark cloud, fiercer than any thunderhead, bigger than a nuclear mushroom cloud, billowed above, vomited from the volcano's belly.

The initial wave hit them, as if a hand had shoved the car, sending it careening momentarily toward the side of the road.  Ezra kept his hands firmly on the wheel, fighting it.  The car skittered and nearly turned sideways.  Ezra gritted his teeth, corrected their path and kept them heading toward their target.

“Good job, Ezra,” Vin said, doing his best to reassure the obviously rattled southerner.  “It’s okay.  We’ll stay ahead of the worst of it.  Not gonna get hit by the pyro..pyro..”

“Pyroclastic flow?” Ezra tried.

“Yeah… that.  We’re not going to bet mixed up in that.  Just gotta get beyond the worst of the ash."

"Oh God," Todd muttered.  "Pyroclastic flows?"

Ezra only glanced at the man before returning his attention to the road.  They rounded another turn and the mountain disappeared again, but the cloud was already rising above the tree-line.  It looked almost like a living thing, greedily engulfing the stately Douglas Firs, a hand - clawing and tearing at everything in its path, a monster devouring.

The children screamed and huddled in their seats as their father continued to utter, “Oh God,” over and over.

A stink of rotten eggs filled the air as they raced away from the chasing cloud.  Ezra tore his attention from what was behind him, focusing on the road ahead.  “We can make it,” Vin encouraged.  He kept glancing back.  “You’ll make it, Ez.  Ain't got a doubt about it.”

“Lord, I hope so,” Ezra whispered as the car continued its frantic speed and the wall of ash and dust and bits of a mountain came at them. They hit the crest of a hill going 100 mph, downhill was even faster.  The bridge suddenly came into view, still several minutes away.  “Almost there,” Standish exhaled.

“Daddy?”  Connie whimpered as she watched the black wall come at them.

“Ezra,” Vin said, facing backward, his face taut with fear.  “Roll up your window.”

Ezra complied as he kept the car at its pace.  Todd followed suit and rolled up his own, looking frantically from the cloud that was nearly upon them, to the man who was driving.

“Hold on,” Ezra stated as the black overcame them.

Where the day had been bright and blue, it turned to utter gray in the matter of a second.  The debris came down on them, sounding like sand and pebbles as it showered on the roof. Ezra braked , losing sight of the road ahead. It disappeared as the thick, dark air wrapped around them. The car slowed to a snail’s pace as color was stolen from their world.

“Shit,” Ezra exclaimed, and pounded on the steering wheel. The kids in the back were crying openly, both the girl and the older boy.  Their father had an arm around each of them and they huddled across the seat.  A dark gloom settled as the sun was snuffed out. Ezra turned on the headlights and found that they did little good in the ash-filled air. "I didn't make it! Damn it!" Ezra turned toward his closed window, seeing Vin still just outside.  The hologram leaned in, foregoing any sense of reality.  “It’s gonna be okay, Ez.  Just keep driving.”  He put out a hand as if to lay a reassuring hand on Ezra’s shoulder, but could only lean close to him.  “You’ll do fine.”

“I can hardly see!”  Ezra gestured ahead in irritation.  The ash was falling like snow, already coating the hood of the moving car.  The air outside was so filled with the stuff that he could see only a dozen or so feet ahead.  The sky seemed to throb around them, echoing the power of the volcano behind them. Only the western sky was visible, a patch of blue battling the horrible gray.

“Drive toward that bit of sky,” Vin stated.  “Just keep goin' west.  I can lead ya with the handlink if it gets too bad.  You can do it, Ez.”

Ezra nodded, his hands tight on the wheel, his eyes focused on the bright part of the sky.

"You're doin' fine."  Vin pressed a few buttons on his handlink and tried to keep his face still as he read the latest tidbit of information.  "Just keep goin’ as long as the car lasts."

“The car?” Ezra quizzed.  He stared at the dash in front of him, as if he couldn't believe this car could betray him, then he turned toward the Observer.  “What’s going to happen to the car?”

“Sir?”  Todd was trying again, not knowing what to make about the driver's comments.  “Are we going to make it?”

Vin answered, “Car’s gonna get choked.  Filter’s gonna get all clogged with the ash.  Hopefully you’ll make it out by then. Make sure your air vents are closed.  You shouldn’t breath in the stuff.”

“Everything’s going to be fine,” Ezra stated as he shut down the vents. He didn’t know if he was lying or not. “Just stay calm.” The Volvo coughed and sputtered.  “Everything’s fine,” he repeated, watching the needle on the radiator monitor start to rise.

He drove toward the only light in the sky.  Thankfully, the bright spot didn’t seem to be getting any smaller, didn’t seem to be drawing away.

“Wind’s blowing east,” Vin explained quietly.  “We’ll be out of this soon. ”  The ash continued to fall around them, like colorless confetti falling after a celebration – but lacking all jubilation.  It was getting thicker on the ground, building up quickly, leaching away the life.

Tanner glanced downward and figured that there was already several inches built up on the ground and that it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. All around him, the trees, the green growth, the road and the hillsides were becoming coated in the choking ash, turning the land behind him into a lifeless field. Farther to the east, all life was snuffed out, trees had been laid down like matchsticks by the force of the blast, the ground sterilized in the tremendous heat, tons of debris dumped into pristine lakes -- the land was turned to a moonscape in a matter of seconds.

People died.  Many people died.

The old Volvo whined and groaned as it fought for air. The engine heat climbed.

Vin squinted at the road ahead, poked desperately at the handlink and then smiled. A sign appeared ahead of them.   “We're at the bridge!  You made it, Ez!”   He could make out the words 'South Fork of the Toutle River' on the placard.

"Praise be," Ezra sighed and suddenly they were on the promised bridge. It seemed a curious thing to finally reach it, yet to still be in the horrible grayness.  Somehow Ezra had hoped that a curtain would open and allow them to drive beneath the brightness again.

“Just get your ass across it.  This bridge is going to be wiped away in a few minutes,” Vin informed.

“You neglected to mention that earlier,” Ezra said casually as the car started its halting way across.

“Didn’t want to burden you,” Vin responded with what he hoped was a sarcastic smile.  Inside, he was scared to death.  Huge logging equipment, giant dismembered trees, mud and melted glaciers, houses and animals would be hurtling through here soon, taking out the bridges and everything along the banks.

“Lovely,” Ezra groaned.

Vin frowned. He'd hoped it would be better.  They were definitely entering a much safer territory and could probably ride out the rest of the day here, but it would be better if they found some sort of rescue.

On cue, as soon as the front wheels made it to the roadway again, strange lights came into view through the murk.  Reds and blues swam in the distance, creating a weird dance in the nearly-opaque air. “What the hell,” Ezra muttered, watching the bizarre sight.

“It’s the police, Ez,” Vin said with a grateful sigh.  “Catch up with them!"

“Thank the Lord,” Ezra replied.  “We’re going to be all right,” he announced to the passengers.  “Help is at hand.”

“Ez,” Vin said distractedly, noting that the lights were getting fainter.  “They’re leavin’. Probably were guardin’ the edge of the Red Zone ‘til now.  They’re going to be gone in a minute.” The Volvo sputtered consumptively, announcing that it wouldn’t last them much longer.

Standish quickly laid his hand on the horn and sounded an alarm. “Don’t leave us behind, damn it!” he shouted as he honked again, three quick beeps, followed by three long and three short again. “Come on, don’t go!” he yelled as he repeated the S.O.S.  The eerie lights continued to move away in the thick gloom.  The ash fell all around them, growing deeper and denser with every minute, muffling every sound outside of the pulsing growl of the volcano.

Ezra had to slam on his brakes as he nearly ran into something in the road. He squinted at a shape in the shook his head as he recognized a roadblock that should have kept them out in the first place.   He jerked the wheel and he maneuvered around the sign.

“Keep honkin’, Ez!”  Vin demanded.  "They don’t know you’re back here."

Once more Ezra laid his hand on the horn and set it off, long and loud. He swore he wouldn’t move his hand until they turned back to get them. The alarm filled the air and the already hysterical children covered their ears and screamed.  “Come back, you bastards!”  Ezra shouted.  “Don’t you dare leave us behind!”

He smiled and glanced triumphantly toward Vin when he saw the spinning lights stop moving forward.  A spotlight shone out of one of the vehicles, trying to cut through the thick air. He pulled his hand from the horn and honked another S.O.S, flashing his lights to match the sound.

The red and blue lights came closer.  The spotlight continued to hack through the gray air and finally found them.

“Thank God!”  Todd uttered as the Volvo continued to sputter and cough.  He sobbed as he leaned back over the back seat and drew the two children to him again, holding them tightly to his chest.  The camera that was supposed to have taken such wonderful shots of a ‘real volcano’ sat unnoticed on the floorboards.

“You did it, Ezra!  You saved ‘em.”  Vin poked at the handlink.  “Athens and his kids would have died in that camper if it weren’t for you.  You saved ‘em and Mansell, too.”

Ezra sank down in his seat as the Volvo gave one last valiant attempt at moving forward and then died.  It coasted a short distance as the police cars continued toward them. Thoughtfully, Ezra set the brake and patted the dash. ‘Thank you, noble steed,’ he thought.

“Vin,” Ezra sighed, watching the first police car pull up beside them and seeing the anxious officer within.  The policeman was hardly more than a kid, looking frightened, but determined to help.  “Next time, I’d prefer not to fight with Mother Nature.”

“You and me both, pard,” Vin responded.

“Isn’t it about time I got out of here?” he asked, glancing about at the evil dark sky.  "I'd really like to get out of here about now."

Todd looked curiously at him for a moment, but didn't seem to care that his driver was talking to himself again.  Their rescue was at hand.  The officer gestured urgently for them to get out of the Volvo and into the cruiser as the second police car pulled alongside the driver's side of the car. The kids were already out of their seatbelts and opening the doors. Outside, the ash still fell, bizarre and gray, changing everything in their immediate world.

“Sir,” Todd extended his hand. “I don’t know how to thank you, to repay you for saving our lives.  Me and the kids… we would have… My God, we would have died if you hadn’t stopped for us.”

The gray ash blew in through the open door.  An unnerving thrum could be heard in the air as the volcano belched into the sky.  The stink of sulfur filled the air and the primitive need to flee ignited Ezra.  'Lord, get me out of here,' he prayed.

Ezra extended a hand, but instead, Todd embraced him.   “Thank you,” Todd said tearfully, and then tore himself away, jumping out the door and following his children to the first police car.

“That was nice,” Vin commented.

“Yes,” Ezra said as he shoved open the door and stumbled out. The ground felt so strange beneath his feet, sandy and shifting. He covered his mouth and moved toward the other cruiser. “It is nice to be thanked every now and again.” He smiled at the thought as he climbed into the police car's rear seat and shut the door.

"You okay?" the officer asked.

Ezra nodded and sunk into the seat, not wanting to have to speak or do anything.  Vin followed him, staying near.

“Damn!  What the hell's happening?" the officer asked.

"It erupted," Ezra responded simply.

"Jeez, you said it!" the policeman said as he turned the vehicle. "You're lucky we came back. Me and Ted were gonna get our asses out of here.  It’s like hell on earth here."

Ezra sighed.  “It’s getting better,” he murmured.   The two police cars turned and headed toward the bright part of the sky. Ezra’s eyes fastened on the blueness, the only note of color that could be seen.

The blue light finally caught him.  He sighed, grateful, and he left the gray behind.

THE END - by NotTasha

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