Pink Smoke

By Jessica Peter

From CHM #44 February 2024

Dr. Cecilia Cambruzzi, a top volcanologist of Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, associate professor of geological sciences at the University of Catania, and recent recipient of the Wager Medal for outstanding contributions to the field, was burned out.

She drove her knuckles into her closed eyes as the wall of screens in the INGV’s Catania Operations Room flickered their rainbow in front of her. Mount Etna’s seismic activity was as low as it got, the formations of gas were normal, and Etna hadn’t changed her shape in some time. Yet still Cecilia kept assigning herself to the all-night monitoring shifts.

Carefully tracking Italy’s volcanoes was once the only thing that brought her joy. People and their pettiness disappointed all too often, but volcanoes were greater than humanity. The sheer scope of billions of years of rock formation held a certain magic that the constant droning pressures to publish and achieve could never match. Now, though, even her darling Etna wasn’t bringing her contentment. It was time for a sabbatical, not that Cecilia would ever admit it to her higher-ups. Especially with the way things were going in her department in the last few months.

Cecilia stood, arched her back, and rolled her neck, the little snaps giving her some satisfaction. She checked her watch: 9:30 in the morning. Her heart jumped. That couldn’t be right. Her shift had ended over two hours ago. The INGV offices should be filled with the usual bustle of staff and scientists.

She checked the clocks on all the screens, and sure enough it was well past nine. Given the low priority of Etna right now, perhaps the others had forgotten about her in here and were settling in at their own desks? Cecilia strode out of the Operations Room, only to find that every office was still dark.

Unease gathered in her body, tingling down her fingers, but she refused to panic. Instead, Cecilia calmly but briskly exited the building through the front door to see what was going on. A wave of heat walloped her, her curls immediately limpening. The heat of the Sicilian summer sang to her of prosecco and patios, of walking the evening passeggiata and listening to the chatter of those conversing around her. But today, the streets of Catania were oddly quiet. A hot pink sunset hung in the air with the ragged peak of Mt. Etna centered in the middle.

It took Cecilia a moment of blinking her night-shift-bleary eyes at it to recall, once more, that it was mid-morning. Not sunset, not sunrise.

She gasped and put her hand over her face.

The hot pink seemed to emanate from Mount Etna, dense clouds or perhaps smoke which swirled and thickened around the peak, spiralling like Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

But Etna wasn’terupting. She couldn’t be.

Forgetting her promise not to panic, Cecilia rushed back to the Operations Room and checked all the trackers and feeds. There were no signs of an imminent eruption, let alone one that was already occurring.

Now the quiet of the INGV building was rattling her brain. Had she even seen anyone, heard anyone, on the usually hectic streets?

She ran into the hall and started banging on the doors of the darkened offices. At the research director’s windowless office, Cecilia gave only a quick ‘Mi scusi’ to announce her presence, then ripped open the door.

The motion detecting lights turned on. No one had been here for quite some time.

Cecilia pinched herself, her short fingernails in crimson red against the tanned skin of her arm. She winced at the pain. But didn’t wake up. This was all real.

The building was empty. Even if the pink cloud was Etna, the place wouldn’t be empty. Sure, some of her team would be getting closer to understand the eruption, but the Operations Room would be full of technicians and researchers, frantically calculating potential risk. And Cecilia would know. She knew Etna as well as she knew herself.  Better, sometimes.

A rustling sound came from behind Cecilia. She jumped. Then, she gripped both hands to her pounding heart.

If her colleagues weren’t here, what was that?

The men’s bathroom door opened, and a familiar figure came out. With his chunky headphones over messy dark-blond hair, the Australian graduate student working here for the summer pushed a mop and bucket as he head-bopped to his music, entirely oblivious to his surroundings.

A puzzled chuckle wormed its way out of Cecilia’s mouth, and the young man looked up. What was his name again? David, that was it.

He hit a button on his headphones and pulled them around his neck.

“Oh Dottoressa Cambruzzi, uh . . . Buongiorno?” He winced, then laughed. “Three months here and that’s the best Italian I’ve got.”

His chatter was so normal compared to the emptiness and the ominous pink cloud outside that Cecilia had to center herself for a moment, blinking at him without speaking.

“Dottoressa Cambruzzi?”

“Just Cecilia is fine,” she said automatically. “David, what’s happening?”

“Just Dave is fine,” he said with a grin, then tilted his head. “Whaddya mean?”

It took Cecilia some time to parse the blended words, but then she did a double take. At him, at the empty offices, and back to him again. “No one is here. Where are they?”

“Huh.” He looked down the hall at the darkness. “Right you are. Don’t rightly know.”

“Have you seen Etna?”

“The volcano?” he asked.

Sì.” Cecilia resisted the urge to shake the young man. “Yes. The volcano.”

“I mostly just clean here. I think the volcano is more your side of things.” He laughed in a way that made Cecilia feel she was in on the joke. Contagious indeed.

“Come,” she said crisply instead of laughing, walking to the front door without looking back. The tap-tap of his sneakers on the marble of the lobby floor followed her.

On opening the door, Cecilia couldn’t help gasping. The pink cloud had expanded and almost swallowed the blue sky; only the far-off edges of blue were still visible.

She turned to Dave as he stared wide-eyed.

“It’s erupting?” he said.

“It’s not erupting. That is what is strange.”

“Hm,” he said.

They stood watching it for some time. Cecilia tried to use her other senses, but she could smell no sulphur or other gases, could hear no explosions or other sounds. It was just a massive pink cloud.

“Where is everyone?” Dave finally said.

Only now did Cecilia turn back to fully look at the narrow streets around them. Catania was quiet. Catania was never quiet. No rumble of traffic, no honks of Vespas, no chatter of tourist throngs or barking of dogs. The rickety cobblestones and the wrought-iron balconies clinging off low-rise buildings were all empty of life.

“Everyone is gone,” she whispered. “Where could they be?”

Dave frowned. “Well I guess they’re at the volcano.”

“At the volcano?” she repeated, feeling like a fool. “All of them? Everyone?”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “I mean, don’t you hear that sort of, I dunno, singing? Music? Really weird stuff.”

Cecilia frowned and listened as hard as she could, but the only things she could hear was the cawing of gulls from the harbor. “I don’t hear anything.”

“Yeah, it’s got a real feeling to it.” He shrugged. “Like you hear that long enough, you’ll be going up. Know what I mean?”

Cecilia frowned. “I don’t. It’s coming from the volcano?”

Dave closed his eyes as a soft smile lit his face. “Nah, kind of from everywhere at once. Not like outside in the world, but inside my head.” Opening his eyes again, he chuckled. “Weird, huh?”

“Yes,” she said. “Weird.”  Why didn’t she hear this mental sound? Perhaps it was due to the same reason that she didn’t quite relate to other people, even those in her academic field; she always related better to the volcanoes than the volcanologists. At least Dave didn’t seem to notice her awkwardness, the way she didn’t meet his eyes when they spoke.

His talk of music, of singing, tickled at the edges of Cecilia’s memories. As they stood and stared toward Etna, she tried to gather the thoughts, but after a moment she accepted it wasn’t happening. She tore her gaze away from the strange pink cloud long enough to speak. 

“If you think they’re on the volcano, let’s look at the cameras.”

Dave nodded and followed her into the building.

In the Operations Room, the grainy livecams showed an orderly queue of people snaking all the way up the volcano. From the bottom, all around the flank, and to the very peak. The thick cloud blocked her view of the crater itself, but the line moved forward every few moments. One figure moved up to the edge, and then they were gone. And then another, and another. . .

“Santa Maria,” she whispered. They were throwing themselves in. Even though she’d left her Catholicism behind long ago with everything else, her lips began forming the prayer. Ave Maria, piena di grazia. . .

“Jesus,” Dave said behind her.

“Yes.” She turned and found him looking at his phone, not the cameras.

His face was white as he tapped furiously, an expression she couldn’t name on his face.

“What is it?” she said.

“Reddit is like weirdly dead. Except for a few people posting. . .” He turned the phone to her.

The first video was a shaky video from the deck of a massive US Navy ship, out in the deep oceans. There was no pink smoke, but there was a queue. A tidy line of people in uniform, mostly men, some with large smiles on their faces. As they reached the front of the line, they climbed up onto the railing and dropped into the ocean.

Some bobbed to the top, but none swam. Some just never surfaced at all.

The most striking thing was the one filming. Behind the camera, you could hear him screaming and begging for the others to come back, to stop. But they didn’t care.

Dread tickled up Cecilia’s spine as she looked at the livecams behind her.

“It’s happening everywhere,” Dave whispered and took his phone back, flipping through screens with dawning horror on his face. “These people are swimming out into a lake without an opposite shore. This city has the pink cloud like here, but I can’t see what else is happening. Oh God. . .”

“Dave,” Cecilia choked out. “Look at the screens behind me.”

He studied them and they together watched as the line moved forward. It had to be hundreds, thousands of people. Dropping one after another into the crater. 

Only then did the memory Cecilia was trying to grasp hit her full force.

A few months ago, Dr. Alessandro Messina had summoned Cecilia to his office at the university. They’d drifted apart since he’d supervised her dissertation a decade earlier, with Cecilia more interested in how new knowledge could improve society’s responses to volcanoes, and Alessandro more interested in how he could use new knowledge to plump up his CV. Or so it seemed to her. Still, it had been so long that she was curious what he’d request her for.

“Ciao, bella,” he’d said upon her entry, and Cecilia’s back immediately went up. She’d managed to make it through the five years of her PhD with him, but for some reason, she’d assumed he would change after she had a doctorate too. How wrong that was.

“What is it?” she said tightly, expecting anything but what actually came. 

Her previous supervisor, ambitious and misogynistic yet always excessively scientific, began spewing nonsense. Of impossibly old beings beneath volcanoes, of haunting songs beneath ocean waves, of the possibility of harnessing it all. Of power, beyond anything imaginable.

Cecilia’s logical mind rebelled and she almost walked right out without another word. But she made herself stay. She made herself spit out the next words.

“If any of that is true, why would these old things give you power? Why give it to anyone?”

“Ah, if I were the one to learn to wake them. . .” Alessandro had sat back in his armchair and stroked his salt-and-pepper mustache with a smug smile on his face. “Why wouldn’t they?”

It was spoken like someone who had only ever been in a place of privilege, someone who’d had their success handed to them on a silver platter.

Cecilia strode out, disgusted by his falling for conspiracy theories, disgusted even more by his plans of what to do with them.

Only now, here, in the INGV Operations Room, she wondered if it was all true.

“What do we do?” Dave finally said.

“We have to try to stop them.”

* * *

The drive through Catania on the back of one of INGV’s 4x4s was quiet. And far, far too quick. Nausea churned Cecilia’s gut. She was already beginning to mourn for the city that once was.  

“You all right?” Dave said.

“Fine, fine,” she said. “As well as I can be.”

He grunted in acknowledgement and turned back to stare at the empty streets. They couldn’t be the last two left. There had to be someone else who couldn’t hear the lure like Cecilia, or who evidently didn’t listen like Dave. Cecilia didn’t let herself ponder whether Alessandro was set up like a king somewhere as people threw themselves to their deaths.

At least the fact that there were other people filming the horrors gave her a small measure of hope. It wasn’t everyone.

They reached the bottom of Etna and the end of the line. Like the men on the Navy ship, the faces of the people in line were blank and unfocused, some with smiles pasted on that seemed so unnatural it sent the tiny hairs on Cecilia’s arms raising.

“It’s so weird. I just. . .” Dave trailed off, his gaze fixed outside at the people. “Do we stop here?”

“I think we should go closer,” Cecilia said, trying not to look too hard at the people beside her. “Get the ones most at risk.”

Still, as she slowly drove uphill, she opened both windows and shouted in Italian, “Come with us! We’ll take you back to Catania!”

“You don’t have to do this!” Dave joined her in English. 

There wasn’t even a flicker of response, like she and Dave were invisible. Inaudible.

Wetness gathered in Cecilia’s eyes against her permission as she caught the shapes of the people in line. Large, small, young, old, from the oldest seniors leaning on canes to children barely able to walk.

Please, God, don’t let this have been caused by my people. She swallowed down the emotion and kept driving steadily, as far up as the truck could take them. The pink smoke settled around them as they drove, making everything hazy and tinted.

Dave became more and more unsettled as they climbed, shifting in his seat, his call-outs to the people in line slowing and finally stopping. Cecilia closed the windows.

He turned to her and nodded, an unidentifiable emotion filling his face.

Moments later, she stopped the truck and turned to him. “We’ll have to walk from here.”

Dave nodded, pale and shaky.

“Will you be able to do this?” Cecilia asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Yes. I can do it.”

They climbed out onto the black and craggy ground, as comforting and familiar to Cecilia as her own kitchen. The pink hung around them, but this deep inside, you could barely notice it. There were none of the key volcanic scents; not the rotten-egg stench of hydrogen sulfide or the lit-match sharpness of sulfur dioxide. Just a faint hint of ozone. The smoke felt like nothing but a whisper along Cecilia’s bare arms.

The crater was in sight now. Cecilia’s gaze was drawn to it as the first person in line took a casual step and went in, bouncing once off the edge. A quick, sharp sizzle was the only sound. No scream, no reaction. Cecilia flinched violently as if it had been her.

The nasty burn scar on her calf from years ago marked how quickly lava could destroy human skin, and Etna’s crater was brimming full of lava.   

She turned to David, whose face was ashen. Quickly, she squeezed his hand for a moment. He nodded a thank you for the comfort, and then dashed across the rocks toward the line of people, nearly stumbling on the loose stones in his haste.

“Come on man,” he said to an older man in line. “You know better than this.”

Cecilia expected nothing, so when the man turned to Dave and started muttering, she jumped.

“What was that?” Dave’s voice peaked in anxiety. “I don’t speak Italian. Cecilia, Cecilia!”

She came closer to find the man was repeating the same thing over and over and over again. “We’ve found it. We’ve found it. We’ve found it.”

Cecilia repeated it in English to Dave and he blanched under his tan.

The old man turned back to the line and became an automaton once more, ready to throw himself into the volcano.

These people couldn’t do this. They couldn’t all do this.

“I get it,” Dave whispered, giving Cecilia another horrible chill.

Then she caught a familiar face. That tanned skin and salt-and-pepper mustache. Dr. Alessandro Messina stood in line, his face as blank as the others’.

With a scream, Cecilia yanked the sleeve of his seal-grey blazer. He knew Etna; he knew better.

Alessandro shrugged her off like she was nothing but an irritating insect, and Cecilia fell backwards, scraping her hands on the sharp rocks.

“If this was you, damn you,” she growled at him as tears spilled onto her cheeks. She turned to address everyone at once from her place on the ground. “What are you all doing!?”

Cecilia turned back to Dave, but he wasn’t standing behind her anymore. Frantically she looked around and found him in line, in front of the old man.

She jumped to her feet and ran to him, gripping him with both hands. Dave’s face was empty. Unfeeling, unknowing.

“Dave! David!” she yelled right into his face, but to nothing. “No, no, no.” A massive, choking sob came out as she gripped both of Dave’s sleeves and pulled.

“Don’t you dare,” she said, tugging with everything she had and having as little success as with Alessandro. “Don’t you fucking dare leave me like this.” Fat tears rolled down her face.

Dave blinked. Once. Again. Cecilia’s hope lifted. Then his face slackened, expression sinking into bland nothingness.

“Per favore, Dave. Please.” Cecilia dropped her head against her chest, her energy depleted. If this was the end of Catania, perhaps it was the end for her too.

Then something shifted under her hands. For some reason she couldn’t fathom, Dave moved out of line.

“Yeah,” he nodded, blinking as if waking up. He tipped one half of his mouth into an almost-smile and raked a hand through his hair. “We better get back down. Nothing we can do here anymore, and this pink stuff can’t be good.”

Cecilia gripped him in a quick hug and dashed away her tears, surprised at how important this one young man had become to her.

The enormity of the whole thing ripped through her. This wasn’t just here, wasn’t just them. The whole world was emptying. Of humanity, at least.

Etna still stood, suddenly oblivious to how the people around her behaved. For another billion years, rocks would shift and re-form; volcanoes would remain. There was a certain magic in it.

End.

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Jessica Peter writes dark, haunted, and sometimes absurd short stories, novels, and poems. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. You can find her writing in Haven Speculative, The NoSleep Podcast, and Brigid’s Gate anthologies, among other places. You can find her at www.jessicapeter.net or @JessicaPeter1 on Twitter.

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