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Authors: Stephen Knight

Charges

BOOK: Charges
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CHARGES

by Stephen Knight

©2015 by Stephen Knight

 

Over five billion years ago, a star was born.

The gigantic nebula composed of gas and dust slowly gained mass then shrank to form a spinning disk where our solar system sits today. As gravity pulled more and more of the gas and slightly heavier matter to the center of the disk, massive pressures were induced. At first, dust particles collided, generating miniature explo
sions that released energy. By themselves, these explosions were fairly unremarkable. But as the motes met their fiery ends, in ones and twos then in hundreds, the energy of their demise was transformed into heat. As the collisions increased and began to number in the millions, the heat began to mount.

Finally, the gases in the mix—most notably, hydrogen and helium—caught alight. Over the course of thousands of years, the disk began to collapse upon itself. In an explosion of X-rays and gamma rays, the point of nuclear fusion was reached, and the disk grew smaller and smaller. Fusion stabilized, and the newborn star greedily consumed the remnants of the nebula that had sired it, devouring all the hydrogen, helium, and other compounds it contained.

A billion years later, all that remained was a yellow, medium-sized celestial body that illuminated the local firmament with its bright, shining light.

And the star itself gave birth.

Hurling matter outward from its fiery surface, several of these ejections contained atoms, which adhered to the spinning rock formations. These smaller heavenly bodies also collided with each other. Most of these collisions led to nothing more than obliteration, where gigantic asteroids were reduced to a spatter of rubble. But in some cases, larger rocks subsumed the smaller, taking on their mass. They too spun and weaved through the now-illuminated void, and captured by the new star’s gravity, they swung around it, connected to it by gravity’s leash. Many of these survivors became planets. Mercury. Venus. Mars.

Earth.

It was Earth, only Earth, which through providence alone found the favor of its host. As the sun beamed great energy toward it, the planet Earth formed. It developed a stable geology and a hospitable mantle that rode atop a dense core made mostly of nickel and iron. Tectonic changes allowed for gases to rise to the surface, and when reheated by the sun’s rays, those gases formed a thick, protective atmosphere. This atmosphere, a scant fifty miles high, shielded the terrain below from the sun’s full, withering glare.

As the eons slowly clicked by, man was born. Finding his genesis among simple primates, mankind outgrew his simian shackles and, in the fullness of time, managed to obtain some semblance of intelligence. This intelligence was tested routinely by disease, famine, weather, and, on occasion, war.

But while these were matters of great importance to man, the sun never took notice. It merely continued to be the bringer of life, of light, of warmth. Until the sun decided a change was in order.

Building beneath several cooling areas on the sun’s surface, great energies coiled and flexed. Known as “sun spots,” these cooling regions were a normal occurrence in many latitudes of the star’s surface. In fact, they could be so regular that observers on Earth could predict their formations and what they might yield when they finally gave way. On those occasions, great flares could be witnessed through special telescopes, both from the surface of distant Earth or from orbit around her. Many times, these flares, while clinically spectacular, were of little importance. They posed no threat to Earth and, beyond the sporadic disruption of telecommunications, were rarely commented upon. In fact, solar flares, or the more serious coronal mass ejections, had only interrupted Oprah Winfrey’s show once.

But on the seventh day of June, the sun decided to play a different hand.

The gathering of sun spots on the star’s earthward side had lasted longer than usual, and because of this, they held back a huge amount of stellar energy. When they finally lost their hold, the sun ejected a sizeable—though in comparison to its estimated mass, an irrelevant—amount of itself toward Earth, serenely rolling along in its orbit some ninety-three million miles away. This salvo was full of charged particles of iron and other matter, matter that retained its electromagnetic charge even as it cooled. Racing away from the sun’s surface at a speed of seven million miles per hour, the ejecta fanned out, reaching toward Earth like the hand of an angry god.

It would strike the planet like a mace.

 

 

1

 

 

Tony Vincenzo had just sat down in his office and logged onto his computer to check his e-mail when his assistant burst in. “Hey, boss, have you heard the news?”

Vincenzo didn’t look up. He knew Danny Boyleston was dressed as he always was, in a pair of khaki slacks, white button-down shirt, and navy-blue blazer complete with gold buttons. He even wore topsiders. All he needed was a white nautical captain’s cap, and the young man would be ready for the yacht club.

“Just got here,” Vincenzo said. “What’s up?”

“We’re all going to die!”

Vincenzo snorted. “Well, yeah. That’s what happens. Especially when your ratings suck in sweeps week.”

“No, no, you don’t understand. The sun, it blew up!”

Vincenzo raised his head. Danny was standing right in front of his desk, his blond hair slicked back beneath a handful of styling gel, his blue eyes wide with excitement. A sheen of perspiration on his wide forehead made his skin seem to glow. Danny was one of those hopeful theatre types who was forever going to casting calls for off-off-Broadway shows, and at times, his desire to act caused him to inject drama into the most mundane things. Like first thing on a workday.

Vincenzo jerked a thumb out the window behind him, where morning light streamed into the room. “The sun’s up, Danny. Things look pretty normal to me.”

Danny grunted and hurried over to the LED flat screen mounted on the wall facing the desk. He fumbled with the remote then switched on the TV. He flipped through the channels, studiously bypassing FOX, until he came to CNN. Vincenzo frowned at the set, a little irritated at having his morning routine derailed right off the bat, and by his own assistant, at that.

“—could in fact be a catastrophic event,” a talking head said. He was a silver-haired, distinguished-looking man who Vincenzo would have immediately thought to cast as a professor or a scientist in a show. He read the byline on the screen, right above the relentless news scrawl that tracked from right to left across the bottom—“William Ambleton, Astrophysicist.”

“Catastrophic in what way, sir?” the anchor asked.

“Catastrophic in any number of ways, but most notably, the potential for a substantial electromagnetic pulse,” Ambleton replied. “This would have a significant impact on the national power grid, and since the coronal discharge is quite large and spread across a huge area, it could affect every grid on the globe. Earth will be moving through the discharge for almost twenty-six hours, which will expose every nation to the particle bombardment.”

“So we could lose power for a few days, in some areas?” The anchor was one of those vacuous, pre-pressed individuals who seemed to roll off a factory line somewhere. Vincenzo had long ago labeled such individuals as Male Anchor #1.

Ambleton paused, looking at the well-coiffed man across from him as if he were an idiot. “I’m talking about months, perhaps even years. This has the potential to be a very, very serious event.”

“Danny, what’s this?” Vincenzo asked.

“Just watch!”

“Excuse me. You said
years
?” the anchor on the TV was asking.

“Are you deaf?”

“No. No, Professor Ambleton, I’m not deaf. I just have a problem taking what you’re saying very seriously. There have been dozens of solar flares over this past year alone, and the damage you’re claiming might be possible hasn’t happened during any of—”

“You’re confusing a solar flare with a mass coronal discharge,” Ambleton said testily. “There’s a big difference. Flares do give off some electromagnetic outbursts, but a corona mass discharge is an order of magnitudes larger. Look, an entire section of the sun’s surface has erupted, and with great force. The size of the eruption is twice the size of Jupiter. That’s twenty-six thousand times larger than Earth. The wave is moving at almost seven million miles per hour, and its leading edge will strike the planet early this evening. This wave could be full of charged particles that will interact with our atmosphere, resulting in a gigantic corona that will be visible to the naked eye, like the aurora borealis. When that happens, the heavier particles will already be penetrating the ionosphere. The radiation level could be substantial enough that the ozone layer won’t be able to hold it back. And those particles will induce a huge grounding current strong enough to burn out power lines and fry every electric appliance on the planet, except for specially shielded systems that are mostly owned by the military. Europe will be spared most of the first effects because it will be on the opposite side of the planet, but North America and a good chunk of Asia will feel it right away. It’ll be like the power failure that happened in August of 2003, only instead of affecting a portion of the United States and lasting only a couple of days, it will affect
everyone
and could last for almost a decade.”

“A
decade
?” Male Anchor #1’s tone bordered on derisive. Vincenzo had to agree with him. Either Professor Ambleton was off his rocker, or he was one hell of a fear-monger who’d managed to find an outlet to preach to millions of people. “Dave Solen in Los Angeles, what do you have to say to this? Is Professor Ambleton right?”

A split screen appeared, and another wizened visage graced the television. The new fellow looked rather tan and hearty, not at all like Ambleton, whose bow tie left one with the impression that he was nothing more than a pencil-necked geek. Dave Solen—who, the byline declared, was a senior scientist at JPL, as well as an author—smiled disarmingly at the camera and let out a brief, good-natured chuckle. The man had obviously had some training, and Vincenzo wondered if the Solen was a frustrated actor who had gone into science when his big break never came.

“Well, there’s some truth to what Willie’s saying, but the fact of the matter is, these kinds of mass ejections are incredibly rare, and we don’t know a lot about them. Now, it’s true that this ejection is a big one, but there’s not a remarkable amount of evidence to lend credence to what Professor Ambleton is saying.”

Ambleton responded with a bit of snark in his voice. “In 1989, there was a solar incident that caused substantial damage to the power grid in Quebec, and the visible spectra could be seen as far south as Texas. This discharge is much larger. It can even be seen now as a halo effect around the sun!”

Vincenzo kicked back in his chair and spun around to face the window. Holding up a hand to try to filter out some of the bright light, he looked up at the sun, just barely visible between two nearby skyscrapers. There was definitely
something
diffusing the sun’s glow. “Huh.” He turned back to the TV.

“The halo doesn’t prove anything other than the fact that a discharge has occurred,” Solen said, still smiling, Self-Assurance Personified. He was one of those white guys who shaved his head but still wore a beard, and Vincenzo was sure that he was one of those men he would probably detest in real life—all light and grace on camera, a raving prima donna off. “We’ve been monitoring the sun spot activity in that region of the sun for months, and we knew that something would happen. We figured it would be a flare, but we at JPL weren’t terribly surprised when a corona mass ejection event occurred.”

Male Anchor #1 asked, “So, Doctor Solen, you’re saying that there’s very little chance, or at least a
reduced
chance, that this discharge could interrupt the power grid here on Earth?”

“Oh, we’ll see some pretty lights, at least in the northern hemisphere,” Solen said, still wearing his winning smile, his pale eyes twinkling in the studio lights. He looked far too chipper for a guy who had supposedly been rousted out of bed at three in the morning to go in for an interview, so Vincenzo decided the guy had tooted some nose candy to get him going. Surprised, he actually felt the nut job Ambleton was more viewer-friendly. At least the scientist seemed sincere in his conviction that Mother Earth was going to end that night, whereas Solen came across as someone who wanted to sell a few cartons of snake oil.

“No electrical grid is prepared for this,” Ambleton said. “If I’m right, there are only a few hours to prepare. Whatever you need, you’d better get it before seven o’clock eastern time, because after that, you might very well be out of luck.”

“And what would our viewers need to consider obtaining, Professor?” Male Anchor #1 asked. It was obvious that he was smirking away on the inside, but he was still professional enough not to let it overtly show.

“I’m an astrophysicist, not a prepper,” Ambleton said, “but I imagine as much water as possible would be a great start. Suitable shelter for the colder months. Enough prepackaged food to last at least a year, until the game population starts to rebound.”

“Anything else you can think of?” Male Anchor #1 asked.

“A gun,” Ambleton blurted. “In fact, several guns. And as much ammunition as you can manage.”

BOOK: Charges
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