Escape Pod 821: Payday Weather


Payday Weather

By Matthew Claxton

We wound our way up the curving canyon roads in overloaded pickups and hatchbacks, corners taken too fast, sagging bumpers kissing asphalt, engines redlining from effort and heat. Our procession passed an exodus going the other way — sleek luxury EVs and fat-tired cargo haulers — heading for safety, away from the hills and the scrub and the smell of smoke on the wind. We were happy, arms hanging out of windows, slapping time to the songs on the speakers. From behind the wrought-iron gates of a mansion, a sleek couple looked up from overseeing their packing and stared.

“Could fucking smile,” Kerry said. “We’re here to save their shit.”

I leaned out the window of Kerry’s ancient Nissan and took in a lungful of dry air. There was the familiar SoCal hydrocarbon and ozone reek, but underneath that was the taste of dust scoured from high mountain passes, of charred pine and scorched chaparral.

The Santa Ana winds were dancing out of the desert.

It was September. The skies above L.A. and Ventura and Orange County hadn’t seen a drop of rain since March.

Payday weather, Kerry had texted me that morning, her senses tuned like a bloodhound’s. She’d caught the change before it had made the morning news.

Winter that year had been wet. Mudslides had flung clifftop houses off their pilings. Spring had garlanded the hills in wildflowers. The pines and the pale-barked eucalyptuses in the canyons had shot up a foot, and grasses and shrubs had spread. SoCal had been green, green like my dreams of home, back in Tacoma.

By March, the rains had run their course. The dry settled in, the heat. Record high temperatures, two, three, four times a month. The land turned brown. All those trees and shrubs and wildflowers had been reduced to fuel.

California was going to burn. We were going to make some money.

Kerry pulled into our target cul-de-sac, gave her door one last cheerful slap before she cut the engine.

The rest of our informal crew pulled up, barbarians summoned to battle. Trailing Kerry were a Toyota pickup that wallowed under a home-made plywood camper, a pair of old mini-vans, and a raw-boned girl named Dare who rode a Vespa, mattock slung across her back like a Viking axe.

We parked in front of a big house, three stories of angular white concrete and polarized windows. Way too many plants around the perimeter, all of them voluptuously green despite the no-watering orders.

“You hear from Deke?” Kerry said, surveying the crew as they arrived. Marking newcomers, saying hey to the veterans of previous seasons.

“He moved to San Francisco,” I said. “Got a full-time doing wildland fire suppression.”

“State? Feds?”

“Private. Some timber lease hired their own guys.”

“Ha! Still a mercenary, like us.”

From the back seat, Kerry’s newest recruit finally extracted himself from under piles of equipment. “I thought we were independent contractors,” said Joaquin.

“Right,” Kerry said. “We do a job for a paycheck. We can work for SafeZone, or Sec2, or SoCal Fire Prevention. But we can skip from one to the other, as it suits us. Such is the glory of capitalism.”

“I’m only registered for SafeZone,” said Joaquin.

“Shane didn’t tell you?” Kerry said, nodding at me.

I grinned. “Thought I’d let you share the good news.”

“Joaquin, Sec2 just announced they’re going to be accepting SafeZone’s credentials. No running through that fucking test and fitness checkup a second time. They’ll scrape your creds from the SafeZone app, and you can just switch right over.”

Joaquin got it right away. He was only nineteen, but Kerry wouldn’t have brought him along if he wasn’t bright.

“We’re going to bid up the rates?” he said.

“Hope so,” Kerry said. “Happened last year up around Oakland, with SafeZone and Phlare. We were up to twenty-seven an hour, plus bonuses for rapid response.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But we’re with SafeZone for now. Don’t mention it to the on-site supervisor, okay?”

“I’ll keep my mouth shut,” said Joaquin.

Kerry grinned like a jackal.

She was the oldest person I’d ever seen working contract fire suppression. I’d met her two years before, first year I’d been in L.A., first year since I’d walked away from the wreckage of my life in Washington State.

I was running through the physical and proficiency test for SafeZone on a high school sports field in Pasadena, temp already in the high nineties before Easter. Everything smelled like smoke. The school hadn’t burned, but the Chaney Trail fire had swooped down on nearby cul-de-sacs six months before, wiping a couple of blocks clean. School was empty when I was there, remediation crews hauling out carpet and books that stank of smoke and tossing them into color-coded dumpsters in the parking lot.

I was nervous as hell, soaked with sweat as I ran through the obstacle course, threw on turnout gear, knocked down targets with a hose from fixed distances. After the last phase, swinging a mattock, shoulders burning with lactic acid, I staggered across the finish line and collapsed on the artificial turf. Up close, I could see the smooth divots where the green plastic had melted under the rain of cinders.

From the bleachers, a celebratory whoop was directed my way, followed by clapping.

I pushed myself up. My phone beeped. I’d passed with sixty-two seconds to spare.

My solo cheering section was a woman pushing sixty, grey hair short and spiky. Caucasian, but with that deep-brown leathery skin some white people get when they spend thirty, forty years out in the sun all day and put no faith in sunblock. She descended onto the field to shake my hand.

“Good run!” she said. “You a pro?”

“Former,” I managed, one hand on the stitch in my side. “Tacoma FD.”

“Typhoon Roke?”

I nodded. Three weeks after Roke made landfall, the city had filed for bankruptcy. I’d been two years into the job. Last in, first out.

“Good to see more folks who have some experience get in,” the woman said. She held up her phone — an old-style one, rigid, screen cracked in a starburst at one corner despite the heavy case it wore — and I saw she had the SafeZone app open. “You ever want to team up, you let me know. We message all the time.”

“Team up?” I said. “I thought we just checked the app and show up where they tell us.”

“Oh, honey,” she said. “You got a lot to learn.”

Kerry taught me well. How to move in packs, organized, with people you could trust to have your back in a fire. Just as important, how to maximize your earnings.

When SafeZone sent out a call for fire suppression, they didn’t just take any qualified person who smacked that big red button on the app. What if someone down in the O.C. accepted a job fighting a fire up in Ventura? Hell, just getting across a couple of miles of town during rush hour could let a place burn to ashes before the contractors had showed up.

That was why the old Nissan was packed to the roof with camping gear. Fire season, we lived in the hills, which was fine by me. It meant saying goodbye to a house I shared with seven roommates, and to long days stringing together gig work (driving, delivery, furniture assembly) that barely paid the rent. I didn’t even get the bottom bunk in the room I split with Gabriel from Houston (Hurricane Florenda), and Jim from Tulsa (the Oklahoma E-5) was always stealing my cheese slices out of the fridge.

If I had a good season, real good, I might finally be able to rent my own place, despite the stain left on my credit score after I walked away from the mortgage on my storm-smashed condo in Tacoma.

“How long before it’s real fires?” said Joaquin.

“Not long,” I said. “Someone’ll do something stupid.”

Kerry nodded. “Bless all idiots with cigarettes, campfires, and rusty mufflers dragging on the road. Until then, though, it’s shit work.”

“Prep stuff isn’t so bad,” said Joaquin.

“It’s not because of the work,” I said. “It’s because the clients are still here.”

“Heads up,” Dare muttered. “Homeowner at 10 o’clock, incoming.”

Big guy, fifties, booking it across his driveway straight towards us. His skin was the deep walnut you only got with the really expensive melanin activators, even the palms of his hands the same shade. Almost as eerie was his lustrously black hair, the sheen on it like Rock Hudson shot in Technicolor.

“Good morning sir,” I said, stepping forward with Kerry. I wished like hell the supervisor would get there so he could take the brunt and we could get on with our work.

“That–that motherfucker is not to be protected, you hear me?” Mr. Homeowner bellowed.

“Pardon me, sir?” Kerry said.

“That motherfucker!”

A thick finger jabbed at the next house on the cul-de-sac. Just as big as his, but Mission-style. The neighbor’s circular driveway was clotted with blocky blue security company vans. White-gloved crews were busy hauling out paintings and gilt-and-embroidery furniture that looked like they came from a costume drama, getting it all out of the way of the fire.

“I paid for protection. Truong over there paid. Vasquez, Simmons, we all did! But not him. Cheap fucker thinks he can rely on us to pay your frankly exorbitant fees, and he’ll be included. But you are not to help him out!”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. Kerry managed to keep a smirk off her face, because she was a true professional.

“We’re going to establish a zone of control to protect your home, sir, and the others we’re contracted for,” I said. “If it protects his, it does, if not, then it doesn’t.”

“I just don’t want him to get a free ride–”

“We compromise our work to let the fire get your neighbor’s place, it makes it more likely you get burned out,” I said. “You want that? Take it up with the supervisor.”

“Fine. Fine,” said the homeowner. “Just get going.”

“Soon as our truck gets here sir–well, speak of the devil.”

Rounding the corner was the big SafeZone equipment van, self-driving, proprietary shade of red that was close-to-but-legally-distinct-from the paint job on LAFD trucks. The supervisor hopped out, his tablet unfurled, checking as each of our names acquired green tick marks now that we were within the geofenced job site. My phone pinged. Now we were on the clock, earning.

The supervisor wore a short sleeved dress shirt and a red tie that screamed “assistant manager of a failing Burger King.” He tapped the screen of his tablet and tried to say something. Kerry and I walked right past him and started hauling out gear.

Chainsaws, tanks of fire retardant foam, mattocks, axes, spare hard hats, even drip torches — not that we’d be using those, not yet.

Until the fire made its appearance , it’d be prep work. We’d be securing homes, and according to the app’s map, there were a dozen in a mile’s radius that had already signed up for the Prevention & Protection package, plenty to keep us busy for a couple of days even if no fire came over the crest of the hill.

“Hey!” the supervisor said.

“Help you with anything?” Kerry said, checking the charge of a chainsaw.

“Don’t you want the full briefing?”

“Shane read it to me on the way up here,” Kerry lied. She headed around the side of the house, head darting left and right. She was clocking brush that was too close to the building, anything that could act as a bridge for fire to move from the chaparral of the canyon right up to the house, garage, and pool house.

Kerry didn’t need the fucking briefing. No app was going to tell her anything she didn’t already know about fire. She knew how it moved, where it fed, and how to starve it.


Six days later, though, the fire had failed to arrive.

Not that there wasn’t fire to be fought. It stalked other parts of SoCal all week, flaring up in the hills around Laguna and blotting the beach with smoke before the water bombers doused it. It raced through Orange County, harrowing parks and ravines, taking out clusters of houses, until the Army Corps of Engineers bulldozed firebreaks. Houses and schools and daycares and corner stores were reduced to scraped concrete, dusted in ash.

But in L.A. County, all was quiet waiting.

“Bullshit,” muttered Joaquin as we sat on a curb next to Kerry’s car, watching TV on her phone. CNN’s map showed us in the middle of a broad and fire-free spread. “Prep work doesn’t pay enough. I made more landscaping.”

“The fires’ll come,” Kerry said.

“Maybe we should head down south,” I said. “Orange is getting plenty.”

“The crews are already full-up there, ‘cause too many other people had your bright idea,” Kerry said. “We go down there now, we’ll wind up sitting on our thumbs. No money at all. Trust me. You can smell the fire coming for this place.”

The Santa Ana winds hadn’t slackened. A week of desert air scouring the canyons, leaving Angelenos rubbing dry eyes and smearing cracked lips with Chapstick. They said the Santa Anas made people crazy, but all I saw was fear. The homeowners and their nannies and chefs and gardeners passed us with eyes wide and watchful, like we were harbingers.

“I got a cousin in Irvine. I could sleep on his couch,” said Joaquin.

“We sit tight,” Kerry said. “I been fighting fires longer than you

been alive. It’s coming.”

“But…”

“You got my word on that,” Kerry said. “There’ll be fire here.”

I thought she was putting up a good front, her famous intuition finally run out. But the next morning, she shook my foot through my tent flap. I poked my head out, and the black line of hills was outlined by a dancing orange glow.

“Told you. Get your boots on.”

They named it the Wildwood Canyon Fire, though I didn’t hear that until two full days later. We were clocking long hours, in the news instead of reading about it. Spraying houses with crimson fire retardant foam, dousing cinders, setting up sprinklers on rooftops. And we were already getting paid full rate, firefighting rate.

It had started less than a mile north of us, in the canyons.

The wildland firefighters — the proper ones, county and state, Australians and New Zealanders on exchange during their wet season, prisoners in orange jumpsuits and ankle trackers — attacked it where they could, hacking firebreaks.

We had a narrower front to deal with, but fewer people, no tanker drops, no drones and helicopters loaded with water.

Pay went up two dollars an hour.

We earned it.

At noon on the third day, we slumped on the white-painted curb in a line, sucking down electrolyte-laced water the color and temperature of piss.

The clink of glasses made us look up.

Coming up the sloping street was a woman in her seventies or eighties, balancing a tray covered in mismatched jelly glasses. Ice cubes rattled in brown liquid.

“I just… I live down the slope a ways, and I thought you could use some iced tea,” she said. “Since you’ve been working so hard.”

Kerry got up first and smiled. “We’re not allowed to take gifts from clients, I’m afraid,” she said.

“Just iced tea?”

“We could lose our contract,” I said.

“Oh… I, I mean, I’m not a client.”

“Which house are you in?”

The woman indicated with the jerk of her chin.

The canyon was like a geologic strata, each switchback separating out different eras of construction and economic classes. The rich were up near the top, but just one loop down there were houses three, four decades old, solidly built middle class houses. Some had been replaced by micromansions with underground pools, others had been broken up into illicit boarding houses, the driveways crammed with aging cars and loops of charging cables. A few still had their original owners, Gen Xers living on pensions that barely paid the property taxes.

“I’m Charlotte,” she said. “I’m afraid I couldn’t afford… Well. I’m just glad you’re here.”

I got up, smiling. “Well,” I said. “If you’re not a client, I guess it’s okay.”

The others lunged for the iced tea. She’d brought exactly enough for everyone. It was sweet, so thick the sugar almost crystalized on my tongue. I drained the glass and chewed the ice before putting the glass–Kermit the Frog on a bicycle with Fozzie Bear on the side–gently back onto the tray.

“Thanks ma’am. Which house did you say was yours again?”

She indicated it, accepted our thanks, and headed back down the slope.

Kerry sidled up to me. I already had my phone’s screen unfolded, a map of our containment plan called up.

Kerry glared at the green, blue, and red zones splayed across a map of the neighborhood.

“Shit,” Kerry said. “She’s just outside the zone.”

I ground my teeth around the last ice cube.

“If we extended the line of protection here…”

It was a matter of a couple of degrees on the map. More work, of course. Scrub to slash, layers of protective foam to spray onto the chaparral. On the map it would be a small thing. On the ground it meant scrambling up and down the slopes and ravines, dragging our mattocks and chainsaws, backpack tanks of retardant foam.

And we wouldn’t get paid more for it.

Kerry squinted at me, eyes black and unreadable in the tanned furrows of her face.

“Wind could shift, y’know?” I said. “Don’t want to let the fire flank us. Gotta be cautious.”

She nodded. “I’ll tell the supervisor.”

I clapped her on the shoulder. “Thanks.”

“Oh, fuck off, Shane. She reminds you of your grandma, doesn’t she?”

“My grandma died sitting at a slot machine in Atlantic City because she wouldn’t leave when Hurricane Jonah hit. I just appreciate someone who knows how to make good iced tea.”

“Too much sugar.”

“You Californians don’t know shit about iced tea.”

We told the crew about the change. Most of them just nodded, taking our lead. The next time we had a break, under the blue-white glare of the LED street lamps, I saw Joaquin checking out the containment plan maps. He caught my eye, and I shrugged. He grinned back. No troubles there, then.

We worked two streets over that afternoon, new clusters of clients, and camped after dark in the park, too tired to even pitch tents. The app screamed me out of a fitful sleep at three in the morning — back to the cul-de-sac, the big houses. I rubbed sleep from my eyes and stared through a grid of monkey bars at a sky turned the colors of hell.

“Feel that wind,” said Kerry.

She was right. Stronger than it had been in days, damn near a gale.

Kerry’s Nissan took the switchbacks like a rally car, heeling over on long-dead shocks. On the second-to-last turn, her headlights caught a glimpse of Charlotte packing a cardboard box into the back of a white sedan.

“Glad to see she’s getting out,” Kerry said.

“Our protection line’s good,” Joaquin said.

“No line can hold back fire when it really wants to burn,” Kerry said. “Remember, take care of yourselves. You think you’re in danger, you pull back, no matter what the fucking app says. We do our job, but we don’t really work for these people. We don’t even work for SafeZone.”

“I know, I know,” I said.

“Right. If L.A. really wanted to protect its people, they’d have hired real firefighters.”

I shot her a look.

“What do you think we’ve been doing out here?” I said.

She tightened her grip on the wheel and swung us around the corner. “We’re mercenaries. Don’t ever forget that.”

Dawn came in sudden bursts, orange sunlight pushing its way through the grey plumes that streamed overhead. The wind threw cinders in our faces, then whole burning brands from the pines, sweet and spitting sparks like comet tails.

The fire made its own winds, contrary and mean. Joaquin stumbled down the slope before noon, insisting he’d seen a fire twister dancing from peak to peak in the distance before the smoke closed in again. No one called him a liar.

Visibility was shoulder to fingertip, no more. The SafeZone app resolutely refused to release us. ‘Exercise caution!’ it blinked from the screens of our phones.

Finally, at two in the afternoon, another crew spelled us. We’d worked the maximum amount allowable, and we collapsed on the curb. All the lawns on the cul-de-sac were black with cinder marks.

Our client, Mr. Angry Homeowner, was still there, for some reason.

“Why the fuck aren’t you doing anything?” he shouted.

“Relief crew’s working the line,” Kerry said around a mouthful of power bar. “Why are you still here? You want to die or something?”

He sputtered.

“She’s right,” I said. “It’s fifty-fifty on your house. You’re inside when the fire comes, they’ll have to identify you by your DNA. Dental records won’t cut it, your teeth’ll go like popcorn. Fire’s that hot.”

“If you’d do your jobs, like you’re being paid to, there shouldn’t be any threat!”

He was a spitter when he got going. We should have put him on the line, I thought, doused the flames.

“We’re paid shit,” Joaquin said. “You want us to go back on the line right now? Pay us.”

The furor had attracted the supervisor, emerging from the SafeZone equipment van. He trotted over, skinny tie flapping.

“You’re already being paid!” bellowed the homeowner.

“Twenty an hour? You want to do this for twenty an hour?” Joaquin stood up fast. He was four inches shorter than the homeowner, at least. He was also all ropy muscle, callused hands strung with taut tendons.

The homeowner took a step back.

Normally, I would have tried to defuse things. Or Kerry would have. But fuck it. This guy had been riding us every time we’d come near his house.

“You heard the man,” I said. “You want more help, open your wallet. App isn’t paying. We’re off the clock until someone is.”

The supervisor started shouting something about the contract, about having us all thrown off the app, banned for life. Just by asking for money directly from a client, I was violating about half the terms of the multi-page contract I’d clicked okay to when I’d signed up with SafeZone.

But Kerry stood up. “Lots of other outfits would be glad to have us right now,” she said. “Cinders just set off a big fire in North Hollywood.  Two, three dozen houses could go up. Sec2 is offering a bonus for the next hundred people who can get there. We’re all signed up.”

The supervisor blanched.

I felt something awful and powerful then. We could walk. We could walk away, and in the time it would take SafeZone to round up another crew our size, the hillside would burn to ashes. For a moment, that was what I wanted. A cleansing, of every wood-and-stucco insult to the canyons. I pictured it in a year, manzanita and lord’s candle colonizing the dry ground, the roots of ponderosa pine buckling the pavement.

“I want them back on the line,” the homeowner said. “No fucking arguments.”

The supervisor glanced at his phone. Folded the screen and slipped it back into the clip on his belt. Nodded.

The homeowner pulled out a money clip and gave each of us a stack of bills. I folded them and tucked them into my pocket without even counting. I could feel their weight. Even if they had all been twenties… well, the one on the top had been a hundred.

Payday weather. God bless Kerry and her intuition.

We cut our break short, guzzling water. I wished Charlotte was still around to bring us iced tea, but mostly hoped she was off in some school gym evac center, her family photo albums safe from the flames.


It happened fast, when it finally happened.

The wind picked up. Joaquin was on our local network, coughing.

“Say what?” I said. “Didn’t read you, Joaquin, say again?”

“Can’t find Kerry!”

I checked her last position on the map. The app said she was upslope and to the north. At the edge of our control lines, the extended stretch we’d added to try to protect Charlotte’s house down the slope.

Before I could put the phone away, red all-caps letters flashed across the screen:

MAXIMUM DANGER LEVEL. WITHDRAW IMMEDIATELY TO SAFE DISTANCE.

“No shit,” I said.

I found Joaquin cradling one arm, his mattock gone. “You okay to get to the road?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll find Kerry. Go!”

It took me ten long minutes, even with the phone. Burning pine branches slapped me across the face, clattered on my helmet like fiery hail. Sheets of fire whipped across our control lines, fingers licking at trees and turning them into bonfires in seconds. I slipped through the gaps in the flames.

Kerry wasn’t in the fire, but she wasn’t far from it. I found her slumped in the lee of a rock, breathing hard and fast. The fire had grabbed her left side. She’d rolled and patted out the worst of it, but her shirt and trousers still smoldered.

“I fucked up,” she said.

“I gotcha, Kerry,” I said, tucking her midsection over my shoulder, standing.

“So sorry,” she said. “It’s my fault. Never should have…”

“Not your fault,” I said. “We shouldn’t have extended the lines this far. I was the one who wanted to do that. I messed up.”

She didn’t say anything. Sometime before we reached the road, she passed out. I handed her over to the paramedics and fished the keys to her Nissan out of her pocket while they put an oxygen mask on her face.

I drove Joaquin and Dare out of there, Dare’s Vespa lost when the tires melted to the asphalt.

The next morning, we had another job, but we never went back to that hillside. It was gone before dawn. The asshole’s house was destroyed. So was his neighbor’s, the one who cheaped out on protection. So was Charlotte’s, rubble filling her basement. Forty houses in that canyon went, despite the best efforts of SafeZone and Sec2 and the aerial firefighting drones LA County deployed, too late to do more than contain the damage to one neighborhood.

I texted Kerry at the hospital, and she texted me back often enough to let me know she was alive.

keep working, she texted. don’t let the season go to waste on my account.

I did. I needed the money, despite that fat wad of bills.


I was in Silverlake when the LAPD caught up with me. The detective held up a plastic evidence bag holding a black rectangle, its surface crater-pocked with heat.

“Know what this is?” she said.

“A phone?”

“We found it in the woods near Wildwood Canyon. ‘Bout a twenty minute hike off the trail, down in some scrub. See this? Back’s been pried open.”

“Yeah?”

“Someone set a timer on the phone, wired it up to a bundle of old railroad flares, tucked those into a big drift of pine needles.”

I thought of Kerry’s side smoldering as I’d hauled her down the hill, the smell of burnt skin impossible to block out even through the hot reek of the fire.

“SIM card wasn’t in there,” the cop said. “Older model, not one of the new flexible ones. You know anyone who still uses a phone like this? Upgraded recently, maybe?”

I shook my head. “I guess a lot of people have an old one somewhere at home,” I said. “But I don’t know.”

She nodded, made a note on her own phone. “You think of anything, you call us.”

“Will do.” I pocketed the card she gave me.

By the time I visited Kerry in Good Samaritan Hospital, I’d just about worried that card into pulp, folding it back and forth.

She was doing okay, the doctors said. She was more confident than they were.

“I’ll be back on the line this season,” she said. “Couple of skin grafts. They’re going to take a few patches offa one leg and slap ‘em on the other.”

“Good,” I said. “Good.”

“What’s on your mind?”

I told her about the detective, about the phone off the hiking trail.

“Fucking arsonists,” she said.

“Kerry… when I dragged you down that hill, you kept apologizing. Said you were sorry for something.”

“Sorry you had to carry my old ass all that way.”

“That’s all?”

She kneaded the bedsheets with her hands. Dabs of clear antiseptic gel on the burns on her arms left slug-trail smears.

“You think I set that fire.”

I said nothing for a long time.

“No fire, no money, right?” I said. “Fire wasn’t coming. So…”

Kerry gave me a long, hard stare.

“What if I did?” she said. “Going to call the cops?”

“People got hurt, Kerry, they lost their houses, not just rich folks…”

She shook her head. “Don’t think you’re calling anyone. Even if you’d seen me do it, you wouldn’t. Because you know we’re not real firefighters. We’re contract fire suppression, remember?” She spat the words, like they were too bitter to hold long in her mouth. “We do what we do for money, Shane. They won’t let us be real firefighters.”

“That why you did it? You thought we could get more money out of that asshole?”

She pushed herself up in the bed, tips of her fingers pain-white where they dug for purchase in the sheets. One arm shot into the bedside table drawer.

She threw her phone onto the bed in front of me. Same beat to shit old phone, same little starburst crack in the upper left.

She could have used another phone, bought one somewhere. But I knew she hadn’t. It wasn’t her.

My hands shook, and nausea twisted my guts. Relief that she hadn’t done it. Guilt at my accusation. My mouth was too dry to spit out an apology.

She could read my face well enough, I suppose, because her voice softened a little.

“The fire was coming for that hillside, Shane. You could read the land as well as I could. Dry, too much brush. It was just waiting for a match, and I knew there would be one. Kid with M-80s, tossed cigarette, dry lightning, maybe. And if it hadn’t been one of those, well, those nice folks who bugged out and left us there to fight the fire? Ask yourself how much insurance they’ll collect for all the art and antiques and cars that burned up there. Some of which will turn up for sale overseas in a couple of months.

“When the fire’s coming, you can get out, or you can get paid. We weren’t the only ones putting ourselves in the way of money, that’s all.”

“Kerry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, I…”

She waved a hand. “Water under the bridge.”

It wasn’t. But I left her hospital room.

I had to get back to work. There were still fires, still calls pinging my phone every hour or two, and Joaquin and Dare and the others were already back on the line in El Segundo.

I headed out to join them. Green check mark popped up bright on my phone, and I grabbed my gear and went back to making money.

Kerry was wrong about being back on the line that season, even though it was a long one. I texted her a few times, and she sent messages back, but they were terse.

LA County hired six hundred firefighters the next spring, biggest ever intake. Federal money, state money, special levy. Something had to be done about the fires. That’s what they kept saying.

I did the interviews, the physical tests. Ran through them, out-sprinting guys younger and stronger looking than me. I saw plenty of folks I knew there, people I’d spent time on the line with. We were lean and marked with small scars. Our hair was singed at the nape of our necks where sparks had found purchase below our helmets.

I know I did well. But when the hiring lists went out, I was ranked in the mid-seven hundreds. So sorry. Thanks for applying. Try in the next hiring period. Maybe next year.

No one trusts mercenaries.

I called the only person I knew who would understand. It went straight to Kerry’s voicemail.

I left a message telling her I didn’t make the cut. Told her about the looks I got from some of the senior firefighters there. Let her know I’d put our bonus pay from Mr. Angry Homeowner to good use and moved to a new place, just one roommate instead of seven.

“Hey,” I said at the end. “I just… I wanted you to know you’re the best firefighter I ever worked with.”

I didn’t know if she’d be able to hear the way my voice cracked at the end.

She didn’t call me back, and I didn’t really expect her to. Kerry had never been one for talking about feelings.


Yesterday I woke up scrambling to grab my phone, my hand moving before my brain was in gear. No message on the screen. Took me a minute to realize what had jolted me from a sound sleep.

I could smell the Santa Ana winds, the taste of desert air on my tongue.

I stood out on our little square of back patio in my boxers, staring through the haze at the hills.

The phone buzzed in my hand.

Payday weather, it said.

Host Commentary

By S.B. Divya

And that’s our story.

The author has this to say about it: Living on the west coast of British Columbia, with family in Southern California, it’s impossible not to think about wildfires and the climate crisis. This story was written between the destruction of most of Paradise, California in 2018, and the burning of Lytton, British Columbia, in 2021. The spark was a news item about wealthy celebrities in California hiring private firefighters to save their mansions. Surely, as fires continue to grow in intensity, some tech entrepreneur will say “Is there an app for that?”

Like Matthew’s family, I also live in Southern California, and wildfires have become an unfortunate aspect of our daily calculus. At my house, we have a plastic bin full of precious items that we can grab if we’re in a hurry. We have a paper taped near the garage that lists what to grab if we have very little warning, and what additional items to get if we have the time. I’ve had many friends who’ve had to evacuate their houses with as little as 15 minutes warning. My parents and grandmother once made a late night drive to get away. I’ve been within single digit miles at home, and ash fell through the ceiling vents once at my workplace.

And it’s not just SoCal that’s feeling the heat. Much of the western US and Canada have had massive wildfires in recent years due to a combination of drought, climate change, and fire suppression. Along with polar vortices, bomb cylones, mega floods, and rising sea levels, none of us is immune anymore.

Many of the solutions proposed to ease the effects of climate change involve technology. The software-driven, gig-based method of fire fighting in this story strikes me as entirely plausible. This is near-future science fiction that’s barely speculative, but it’s an important story to tell. Right now, over 3000 minimum-security prisoners, including juveniles, are employed by California to fight wildfires. Unorganized labor is always ripe for exploitation, and when combined with tech-driven gig work, a mercenary firefighting force would be no exception. “Payday Weather” highlights just how precarious such work can be. That said, I’m deeply grateful to anyone who puts their life on the line to save our homes and our lives.

Join us again next week for another wonderful story from the Escape Pod anthology, now on sale worldwide in paperback and ebook.

A quick reminder that Hugo nominations are now open. If you’d like to nominate Escape Pod, we are eligible in the Best Semiprozine Category. You can also nominate Mur and myself together for Best Editor, Short Fiction, and all of our original stories are eligible for Best Short Story. You can also nominate my first novel, Machinehood, if you’re so inclined. Anyone who has a supporting or higher level membership for WorldCon can nominate for the awards, and you can register for that at chicon.org. For more information, visit our website at escapepod.org.

Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution noncommercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Do go forth and share it.

If you’d like to support Escape Pod, please rate or review us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or your favorite app. We are 100% audience supported, and we count on your donations to keep the lights on and the servers humming. Last year, Escape Pod reached a total of two million downloads. That’s amazing, and we appreciate every one of you!

You can now donate via four different platforms. On Patreon and Ko-Fi, search for Escape Artists. On Twitch, we’re at EAPodcasts. You can also use Paypal through our website, escapepod.org. Patreon subscribers have access to exclusive merchandise and can be automatically added to our Discord, where they can chat with other fans as well as our staff members.

Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.

And our closing quotation this week is from Chief Edward F. Croker, FDNY, who said, “They were not thinking of getting killed when they went where death lurked. They went there to put the fire out.”

Thanks for joining us, and enjoy your adventures through time and space.

About the Author

Matthew Claxton

Matthew Claxton spends his days working as a newspaper reporter in the damp and verdant suburbs beyond Vancouver, British Columbia. His short stories have appeared in Mothership Zeta, Podcastle, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection.

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About the Narrator

Trendane Sparks

narrator Trendane Sparks
As a mascot performer, one is often seen and not heard. As a voice actor, one is often heard and not seen. At some point, the universe will balance out. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tren usually records at night when things are the most quiet and edits during the day. You can imagine what that does to one’s sleep schedule! But, BattleTech and Shadowrun audiobooks aren’t going to narrate themselves…yet.

Find more by Trendane Sparks

narrator Trendane Sparks
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