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while they've flown). I was driving along Interstate 40 through Texas when I came to a
part of the highway where the median had been burned.
The median is what a lot of Interstates have instead of central crash-barriers; essen-
tially it's a shallow V of ground, maybe a hundred feet broad, between the two carriage-
ways. If something goes pear-shaped on one carriageway and a vehicle - especially one of
those colossal American trucks - starts heading towards the other carriageway, it doesn't
smash through a crash barrier into the oncoming traffic or even bounce off it to hurtle
across its own side of the road, it just trundles down towards the bottom of the gently
sloped median. This is actually a really good idea, if you have Texan amounts of land to
play with.
Driving at the then legal limit of 55 miles per hour - which I was dutifully doing,
though I did seem to be entirely the slowest vehicle on the road - for eight hours a day, for
five days, through mostly very flat scenery, can tend to create an almost Zen-like trance
state in the driver. I tried to keep myself alert by constantly changing radio stations, at-
tempting to identify passing cars and trucks, and just generally looking around for any-
thing interesting. For an hour or so, the median to my left had been just a near-featureless
green blur of grass, like the land on either side of the Interstate. Then suddenly the medi-
an was black. Burned black.
I looked in my rear view mirror and saw where a ragged line separated green from
black. It looked kind of odd, too, because the land on either side of the Interstate - low
hills rising to a blue sky - was still luxuriantly green with long, breeze-ruffled grass.
Probably somebody had thrown a cigarette out of their vehicle window and the wind
had fanned the flames along the median (and nothing burning had been picked up by the
wind and blown across either carriageway to ignite the grass beyond). It struck me that it
must have looked distinctly weird at the time, to have seen a line of advancing fire mak-
ing its way along the median while the countryside on both sides it was unaffected. If it
had happened at night and you'd seen it from some distance away, it would have looked
even stranger.
I wondered how I could use this idea, this image. I thought of myself entirely as a sci-
ence fiction writer at the time and one of the neat things about being an SF writer is that
you get to extrapolate. I always interpreted this as carte blanche to grossly exaggerate, to
take every idea to its non-Earthbound limit, and this was exactly what happened to this
I started thinking about a long line of land sitting in a sea or lake, and the fire spread-
ing from end to end. Or maybe a circular island, a sort of thin doughnut shape; that burn-
ing. Of course the fire would go out eventually … Unless the circular island was so big
that the plants left behind after the fire had passed had time to grow back before the fire
circled back round again (I'd read about - or seen on Life on Earth - plants in Australia
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