Authors: Bill Napier
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General
And in Wallis’s office, apocalypse stirs.
“Sir, we have a system interrupt on OTH,” says the major. “We’re losing Chesapeake and Rockbank.”
“Hey Colonel, I’m not getting a signal from the DSPs.” This from Lieutenant Winton, the solitary woman on the team.
“Sir, Ace has just bombed out.”
“What the . . . ?” Wallis says as the images in front of him dissolve once again into snow.
“Sir. We’ve lost Alaska, Thule and Fylingdales. Colonel . . . we’ve lost all coverage on the Northern Approaches.” Wallis goes cold; he feels as if a coffin lid has suddenly opened.
“Okay, soldier, keep calm. Get the general down here. Major, would you get me Offutt? Pino, interrogate REX, get a decision tree on screen Five.” Wallis issues the orders in a level voice.
“Sir, are we under attack?” The nervous question comes from Fanciulli, a tough, grey-haired sergeant to Wallis’s right.
“Pino, where are the warheads?”
“Yeah but we got some sort of EMP . . .”
“Nuts; all we got is cable trouble.”
“Negative, sir.” It is Lieutenant Winton again, her small round face unusually pale. “We have tropospheric forward scattering modes up top, and we’ve lost on VHF. There’s some sort of massive ionospheric disturbance.”
“No way, sir.”
“Colonel we have reduced bandwidth on all—”
An alarm cuts into the chamber and a light flashes red. Somebody wails. And Pino, his face wax-like, mutters a string of profanities as he types rapidly on a keyboard.
“Colonel, Screen Three.”
Covering the walls of the office are enormous screens. Mostly these show arcane lists of data—coded refuelling points, the tracks of satellites in orbit, numbers of aircraft aloft—but one of them is instantly comprehensible. It is a map of the USA. And on the map, red lights are beginning to wink.
“The General, sir.” Wallis looks up at the glass-fronted observation room. General Cannon has appeared, flanked by a civilian and a second general: Hooper, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Wallis snatches up a telephone, but Cannon, impassive as an Indian chief, ignores the urgent ringing.
One of the screens has changed. There is a blurred, jerky picture. Somebody is pointing a camera from an airplane cockpit. They are flying high over a city and the plane is tilted so that the camera can look down. There are skyscrapers, and long straight roads with cars, and parks. The camera pans and there is an ocean wave. It is almost level with the aircraft, and it covers half the city. Here and there, on the lower slopes of the wave, the tops of the skyscrapers protrude,
some of them already slowly tilting over. Wallis stares in utter disbelief. The wave towers high over the remaining buildings; it looks frozen, but white specks are falling off the top and tiny cars are dotted here and there in the broad rising sheet of water. Someone shouts, in a voice edging on panic,
That’s San Diego!
Wallis kills the alarm.
The camera points backwards. It is unsteady, like an amateur movie. The ocean stretches into the distance and the wave with it. There is a long smoky contrail and a glimpse of wing, and racing up from behind is a churning black wall as tall as the sky, and then the camera shakes and there is a helmet in close-up, and inside a young black face, eyes staring in fright, is shouting silently, and then the screen goes blank.
The major gabbles into the phone. Fanciulli, tears streaming down his cheeks, points to one of the big screens. New red lights are winking on virtually every second. Winton is saying Sir, why doesn’t the General answer. Then:
“Offutt, sir.” Wallis snatches up another telephone, the blue one. But already new messages are flashing; lists of names are tumbling down the screens faster than they can be read. Wallis, his ear still to the telephone, stares at the map of the USA. The red lights, each one a Strategic Air Command base scattered to the winds, have formed a broad front, slowly creeping up from the south.
The decision tree is up. REX is requesting more data.
A voice on the telephone. It speaks in harsh, staccato tones. Wallis forces his attention from the advancing wave and listens. He replies, hearing in astonishment that his own voice is shaking and frightened: “Sir, I agree a threat assessment conference . . . no sir, we lack dual phenomenology . . . negative, negative . . . not if we go by the book . . . we have no evidence of hostile warheads or hostile intent . . . agreed . . . agreed . . . sir, how the fuck would I know? Some sort of blast coming from Mexico . . . I urgently advise we do not get Eagle into Kneecap . . . repeat do not get the Chief
aloft . . . no sir, keep the B-2s on the tarmac, their wings would just tear off . . . sir?”
The line has gone dead.
There is a stench of fresh vomit. Wallis feels a tug on his sleeve. The major has apparently lost the power of speech; he is staring ahead, as if looking at his own death. Wallis follows the young man’s line of vision. The wave of red lights is now passing in a long arc from California through Kansas to Virginia. Its progress is slow but steady over the map. It has almost reached the Rock.
“Sir, we’re buttoned up. Hatches closed and filtration on. Sir?”
But Wallis is looking helplessly up at the observation room. The civilian and the generals look stonily down.
Then it reaches them.
Buachaille Etive Mor, Glencoe, Scotland. 0630 GMT
The young man opened his eyes with a start, some dream fading from memory, and stared into the dark. Unaccountably, his heart was thumping in his chest.
At first he could make out only the flap-flap of the canvas inches from his head, and the
of the wind around the guy ropes. And then it came again, a distant roar, deep and powerful, coming and going over the noises of the storm. Puzzled, he strained his ears.
Then it dawned.
He shot out of his sleeping bag and tugged frantically at the rope lacing up the front of the hurricane tent. The knot was an impenetrable tangle and the noise was growing in intensity. Desperately he scrabbled in the dark for a bread-knife, found it, cut the rope, hauled back the canvas and pitched head-first into the dark night.
The blizzard hit him with a force which made him gasp.
For a panicky moment he thought to run into the dark but then remembered where he was: on a mountain ridge next to a precipitous drop. And the roar was coming from the gully below.
He dived back to the tent, and felt for the paraffin lamp and a box of matches. The wind blew the match out; and the
next and the next. The fourth match worked, and he hooked the glowing lamp up to an aluminium pole. He looked around. Snowflakes like luminous insects were hurtling from the void into a circle of light about ten yards in radius around the tent; he could just make out the edge of the ridge, about twenty yards away.
A cone of bluish-white light rose out of the gully, passing left to right before disappearing from the man’s line of vision.
Avalanches don’t come with blue lights.
The man’s legs were shaking, whether with cold or relief he didn’t know. The light cone was drifting up and down in a sweeping pattern, snow hurtling through the beam.
It occurred to him that a man in a Glencoe blizzard, dressed only in boxer shorts, probably had a life expectancy of minutes. Already his back was a mass of sharp, freezing pain. Hastily, he reached in for corduroy trousers and sweater, pulled them on and slipped into climbing boots. He tripped over untied laces, picked himself up and ploughed through deep snow to the edge of the ridge overlooking the Lost Valley. The sweater, he realized, bought him at most another five minutes: the wind was going through it like a chainsaw through butter.
The light cone rose and approached. It was scanning the mountain slopes. Suddenly light flooded the ground around him. An intense spotlight rose into space and approached; the roar became overwhelming; the ground vibrated. Dazzled, the man caught a glimpse of a whirling rotor passing straight overhead. A giant insect, a yellow flying monster of a thing, circled him and then sank towards a sloping patch of snow about thirty yards away. It almost vanished in the blizzard kicked up by its rotors. It tried to settle down, backed off, tried again, but its undercarriage slithered over the snow and the machine slid perilously sideways towards the edge of a precipitous drop. The pilot gave up and rose over the man’s head.
A spider emerged in silhouette from the side of the machine, and began to sink down on a swaying thread. It settled on to the knee-deep snow within arm’s length of him, resolving itself into a young airman in a khaki-coloured flying suit. “Flt Lt A.W.L. Manley” was stencilled on his helmet. “Doctor Webb?”
Webb stared in astonishment, and nodded.
“You’re coming upstairs. Quickly, please.”
St-Pierre de Montrouge, Paris. 0730 Central European Time
Five hundred miles to the southeast, in Paris, the Atlantic storm had softened from the harsh reality of a potentially lethal blizzard to a bitter, wet, gusty wind.
As was his custom, the professor left his apartment at 7:30 a.m. precisely. Dark clouds swirled just above the rooftops, a newspaper streaked along the road and a solitary pigeon was attempting a speed record; but he was well clad in trenchcoat and beret, and as usual he walked the two hundred yards to the Café Pigalle. There he took off his sodden trench-coat and sat at the marble bar. Without waiting to be asked, Monique served him two strong espresso coffees and a croissant with butter and strawberry jam, which he consumed while watching the early morning Parisians scurrying past.
At eight fifty, as he always did, he set out along the Rue d’Alesia, jumping over the flowing gutters and avoiding the bow waves from passing trucks. He turned off at the church of St-Pierre de Montrouge and headed briskly towards the Sorbonne. He had no reason even to notice the man purchasing cigarettes at the kiosk. The man was squat and bulky, with grey hair close-cropped almost to the scalp. His bull neck was protected from the rain by the pulled-up collar of his sodden jerkin. A policeman stood on the edge of the pavement next to the kiosk, his back to the professor, watching
the flow of traffic through the little waterfall pouring from the brim of his sodden cap.
As the professor drew level with the kiosk, the squat man suddenly turned. “Professor Leclerc?”
Startled, Leclerc looked into the man’s eyes, but they showed no expression. “Who are you?”
From the corner of his eye the professor saw a big Citroën pull up, the rear door open and another man step out: thin, tight-lipped, with eyes set back in his head. Suddenly, and instinctively, the professor was afraid.
“Please come with us, Professor.”
“Why? What is this?”
“I do not know. A matter of national security. Get into the car.”
Thinking assassination, Leclerc turned to run; but powerful arms seized him, held him in a painful neck lock. He wriggled furiously, his beret falling to the ground, but another pair of hands twisted an arm behind his back. Half-choked, he tried to shout but he was pushed into the back seat of the car, one man on either side of him. Leclerc forced his arm free and hammered on the rear window. The policeman turned away a little more, his back squarely to the professor. The driver took off swiftly, cutting into the path of a taxi. The man at the kiosk tidied his newspapers, the Parisians scurried by, and the policeman, water streaming down his shiny cape, tossed the beret into a litter bin while keeping his eye firmly on the glistening rush-hour traffic.
Baltimore, Maryland. Midnight
The warm ocean which powered the Atlantic storm was also dumping its energy into the far north of the planet; here the air, turned away from the sun, was exposed to interplanetary cold; here, it responded to the Earth’s ancient rotation, and circulated anticlockwise around the Arctic Ocean: a huge
blizzard howled out over the pack ice and the seals, the killer whales and the sunless wastelands.
The blizzard rampaged over the pole, down through Alaska and the North West Territories, passed over a thousand miles of Baffin Island, and howled through a few Inuit hunting groups who knew it as the Chinook, a hostile force which drove itself up nostrils and winkled out tiny gaps in snow goggles. The blizzard was still a blizzard over Quebec Province and New York State but, far from the oceanic heat engine, it was beginning to die. Even so, swirling along Broadway and Times Square, the dying snowstorm could still send late evening theatre crowds scurrying into warm bars, and traffic cops into a state of sullen paranoia.
Passing over the Great Lakes, the wind went into a rapid decline until, in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, it finally died, leaving only snowflakes drifting down on sleeping houses: a traditional Christmas, all Bing Crosby, Silent Night, and Christmas trees glittering from a million dark windows.
In at least one Maryland suburban home, however, the night was neither still nor silent, and the owner barely heard the chime of the doorbell above the party hilarity and the raucous dance music. Reluctantly, Hilary Sacheverell detached herself from her white-haired, tall dancing partner, and weaved a path through the party. In the hallway she stepped over a young couple sitting together on the floor, backs to the wall. She opened the door, a smile half-formed on her face in expectation of late arrivals. A gust of freezing night air wafted around her exposed shoulders and she shivered.
Two men, in their thirties, one white, one black. Strangers. Snow sprinkled their heads and dark coats like tinsel decoration. A black Buick convertible had somehow snaked its way through the Mercs and Dodges which cluttered the driveway. A third man, in the Buick, just discernible through its dark windscreen. The woman was suddenly alert.
“Mrs. Sacheverell?” the black man asked.
She nodded uneasily.
“Is your son here?”
“We’re looking for Doctor Herbert Sacheverell, ma’am.”
“Herby is here,” she said. “Is there a problem?”