The weather on takeoff from L.A. was as freakish and wild as Tom had ever seen it. Strong gusts at random, from every direction. Blame events in the Southern Hemisphere for that. But once you were above the atmosphere, the weather problems all went away. The six-passenger ship flew itself--or rather the automatic pilot made the decisions. Human pilots were a passenger courtesy, about as necessary to this flight as feathers. Which was fine with Tom Wagner, because it left him free to entertain his special VIP, the woman who had been brought aboard incognito and at the last moment.
"No, ma'am. You won't see the supernova from here." She was sitting next to him, and he leaned across her to point south. "It's thataway. But we're flying a great circle suborbital between L.A. at thirty-four degrees north and Washington at thirty-nine degrees. What you want to see is down at sixty degrees south. To get a peek at it we'd have to go a lot higher than a suborbital flight."
Janet Kloos stared south anyway, taking her cue from his pointing finger rather than his words. She looked to be in her late thirties, but Tom knew she was a fair bit older than that. As he recalled it from the last campaign, the Vice President was pushing fifty. Apparently political life agreed with her.
"And it can have these terrible effects on the weather," she said. "Even from so far away."
"Yes, ma'am. It certainly can." Her words confirmed his first impression. Janet Kloos was a certified pilot, qualified to fly a ship like this one. Her naive questions about the suborbital jump had been for Tom's benefit. She wanted him to feel comfortable, and the easiest way was to make it clear that in spite of her status, he, not she, was in charge here.
Which was fine with him. Know-it-all passengers on the flight deck were the hardest of all to deal with.
"It will get worse before it gets better," he went on. "According to the forecasts that I've seen, the effects should peak in another couple of weeks. After that it will gradually dim, and then things ought to head back to normal."
"Not in some places." She stopped staring south and leaned back in her seat. During this portion of the suborbital trajectory the ship was close to a free-fall condition. "I see the State Department reports, and I'm not giving away secrets when I tell you that we've been lucky. There are major storms crawling up and down South America from Tierra del Fuego to Panama. Australia is waterlogged. South Africa's being washed away into the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, fifty percent of the topsoil already gone. There's never been anything like it since they started keeping records. The East Indies, too. The Sulawesi trade delegation back in L.A. were just telling me that they cannot possibly make their export shipments. They can't even feed themselves."
Tom nodded, but he was hardly listening. He cast his eye quickly over the banks of instruments--all normal--and then stared north. If there was nothing to see to the south, there was plenty to look at in the opposite direction. It was an aurora, and like none that he had ever seen. He checked their height. Eighty miles, close to maximum and right in the middle of the main altitude of auroral activity. Soon they would reach apogee and begin their downward glide. That was a shame, because the display was worth watching from this vantage point for as long as you could.
He caught her attention and pointed to the left. In the north, the sky was on fire. Streamers of pink and red and yellow-green trailed across the starlit heavens.
"Aurora borealis," Tom said. "Northern lights. The strange thing is, I've heard nothing from the solar observatories about a big flare."
"It's absolutely gorgeous. I've seen the aurora before, on transpolar flights. But nothing like this.
"Ahhh!" She had suddenly gasped. Tom came close to doing the same. Overlaid on the trailing wisps of the aurora the whole sky had lit with an intense flicker of blue.
"What is it?" Janet Kloos had been leaning over Tom for a better look at the aurora, but now she sat straight. "It's everywhere, in front and behind and overhead. What's causing it?"
Tom did not answer. When the flash of blue came he had felt a tingle through his whole body. In the next moment he thought that he had gone blind. He was staring at the instrument panels, and seeing nothing. At the same moment as he stabbed the controls for a general systems reboot and circuit breaker reset, he heard a warning whir of gyros.
"What is it?" Janet Kloos said again. He noticed a harder note in the Vice President's voice.
"I don't know. But we've lost the computers, main and auxiliary. I'm trying to bring them back up."
Trying, and failing. All the lights on the panel and in the cabin had died, that was why he had at first thought that his sight had failed. But lights were not the worst problem. Tom knew every control, even in the dark. He was working the correct switches. The trouble was, nothing responded. Lights would not come on, servos sat lifeless. When he pulled on the control stick it responded sluggishly. It felt as though the hydraulics were working, but every electric amplifier had failed.
The ship was slowly turning, dipping at the nose. Tom knew the cause--there had been a slight forward pitch at the moment when the controls failed, and it was continuing. He would have to correct it manually.
"Can you fly it like this?" Janet Kloos, thank God, had her fear under control. Tom was not sure that he could say the same for himself.
"Sure. But I may need you to take the dual controls and give me a hand. I'm feeling a lot of resistance."
For the moment that didn't matter. The problems would start in another few minutes. At that point they would be flying at more than four thousand miles an hour, returning to the atmosphere. The angle for reentry had to be just right. The automatic pilot normally took care of that, but it was dead.
How could it fail, with triply redundant logic and servos at every stage? But it had. The flight had become his responsibility, to work the hydraulic controls himself with no power-assist.
The door in the rear of the cabin opened. "What the hell are you doing up here?" It was a male voice, slightly intoxicated. "You've switched all our goddam lights off. Oops." He was peering at the turned face of Janet Kloos, pale and greenish in the glimmer of the aurora. "Ms. Vice President? I'm sorry. I hadn't realized that you were on board. Can we get lights back there?"
His smug expression suggested that he had known very well who was in the cabin. He had come forward to complain on a dare or a boast--"See, I went up there, and I told the Veep . . ." He had no idea that there was real trouble.
"Return to your seat, please." Tom guessed that the seat belt
sign was not working, along with everything else. "We have an electrical problem. Tell everyone to buckle up until we're sure it's fixed."
As he spoke he was working the attitude controls, getting a feel for the level of resistance of the mechanical gyros. He could correct their attitude, with a good deal of physical effort. But that was only the beginning. For a landing--any landing, anywhere--he needed engine power. Without thrust the suborbitals had the gliding angle of a lead brick. He had already tried for a preliminary one-second engine burn, without success. He couldn't ask for ground assistance on possible landing points, because the communications circuits were dead.
The ship's environment was still close to free fall, but the nose was steadily turning farther downward. Tom hauled on the control to work the gyros and begin to bring them level. As he did so he caught sight of the forward view. The ship had tilted far enough that he could see the Earth beneath. They were past the midpoint of their high arc.
It would be ten o'clock at night below, local time. They should be seeing, even at this altitude, the scattered patches of light that signaled urban development. Tom saw nothing below but total darkness.
"Where are we?" Janet Kloos was working the controls with him. She knew, thank God, exactly what to do. "The last time I looked at the locator display we were over Nebraska."
The locator display was dead, along with everything else. But Tom understood the implied question. Nebraska still had lots of wide-open spaces where you might not find a city for a hundred miles.
"We're past Nebraska, ma'am. We're over Iowa, or maybe Illinois."
"So where are the cities? There must be a large-scale power failure down there."
Before Tom could answer--and what could he answer?--a pinprick of bright orange suddenly blossomed below, then as quickly died.
An explosion--of an aircraft, out of control and smashing into the ground at high speed?
In silence, he and Janet Kloos worked the controls together, bringing them back to an even keel. When the angle of attack felt right and he sensed a faint hint of atmospheric lift from the ship's stubby wings, he turned again to the instrument panels. The computers refused to come back on-line. The communications circuits were dead. There must be plenty of fuel--they had started from L.A. with full tanks--and the ship's reactor was presumably still working, since it did not depend on electrical power. But all that became irrelevant when the engines would not fire. The ship was a dead lump of metal and plastic, racing through the upper atmosphere.
Janet Kloos was holding the ship's angle exactly as Tom had set it. She said, "I've never done an unpowered descent. How much speed do you need to avoid a stall?"
Tom's respect for the Vice President increased. Her thoughts were running on the same lines as his own.
"About four hundred. These suborbitals weren't designed to glide."
You could land a ship like this at four hundred. Tom had done it, himself, in training--during daylight, with assistance from the automatic pilot, and with a long, clear runway awaiting his arrival.
It was night, there was no automatic pilot, and the land below was dark and unknown.
Tom thought, We're going to crash, and I have the Vice President on board.
And then, in a flash of grim humor, Vice President? Hell, we're going to crash with
me on board.
The ship was racing down through the atmosphere in its long arc of descent. Tom, with no information except the feel of the controls, guessed that they were already around twenty thousand meters. The buffeting from wind currents was no more than usual, and the faint glow of frictional heating and ionization looked familiar and normal. As the descent continued, that glow faded. It would have been easy to imagine that everything was under control.
Janet Kloos was not fooled. She had released the dual controls. Now she was leaning forward and to the right, staring down at the ground. "Where are you going to put us down?"
The question of the moment. A four-hundred-mile-an-hour landing speed sounded like nothing compared with suborbital speeds ten times that, but a normal touchdown was at less than one-fifty.
"Do you see anything down there?" Tom's question didn't sound like an answer to hers, but it was.
"I'm beginning to. The aurora helps. Now that my eyes are used to the darkness, I'm beginning to see outlines."
And so was Tom. In every test that he had ever taken, his sight had been judged exceptional. Especially in low lighting. Owl eyes, one tester had said. But owls didn't land at four hundred knots.
The terrain below was gradually appearing as faint contrasts between dark gray and total black. Since their trajectory had not changed, they should be descending toward the suborbital field fifty miles west of Washington. If he could direct them in to that, they had at least a chance.
He glanced at the backup altimeter. That ought to be working; it used air pressure rather than computed absolute position. But it was too dark to see. His guess was that they had descended to around five thousand meters. They had maybe four minutes more flying time.
Below he saw rugged terrain, ranges of wooded hills. The Shenandoahs? If so, they were getting close. He could hear the sound of rushing air on the streamlined body. That was unusual; during a normal powered descent it was masked by the noise of the engines. Should he say something to the passengers? If so, what? And how could he do it, with no cabin address system?
They were descending fast. Tom saw a broad river valley, and for a moment he had hopes. Then the hills were back, rushing closer beneath them. Their slopes seemed covered with soft, gray feathers. It was easy to imagine that you could land on that downy surface, and it would serve to brake your movement. Tom knew better. At four hundred miles an hour, those soft, pliable branches would chop the ship into small pieces.
He gripped the control stick more tightly. Janet Kloos reached over and placed her hand on his. "We're not going to make it, are we?" she said quietly.
"I don't think so." Tom tried to match her calm. "Not unless something opens up in the next few seconds. It's all trees down there."
The banality, the normalcy,
of their comments struck him. Last words ought to be epic and memorable, even if there was no way to record them. Were the flight recorders working? Probably not, since everything else had failed.
Her hand was still on his. The sound of air on the ship's body had risen to a scream. The topmost branches of the forest streaked by a few meters below. In the final moment before the world ended, Tom had enough self-control and curiosity to think a final question: What killed us? From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Aftermath by Charles Sheffield. . Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.