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JOHN ATKINS GOT OUT OF HIS MUD-CAKED GMC
Jimmy and felt the wind slice through his parka. He'd pulled to the side of a country road twelve miles west of Benton, a small town in the extreme corner of southwestern Kentucky. Cornfields lined both sides of the single-lane gravel road. Left standing after the fall harvest, the dry stalks were as tall as a man.
Atkins was lost. Any other time it might have amused the seismologist, who'd made his reputation tracking killer earthquakes around the globe and had never gotten lost. But not when he was running late and it was his own damn fault. He knew he should have called ahead and gotten directions.
The night before, he'd flown into Memphis and rented the Jimmy. He'd driven 150 miles north through Tennessee and crossed the border into Kentucky earlier that morning. Later that day, if he could get his bearings, he planned to meet his old friend Walter Jacobs, head of the Center for Earthquake Studies at the University of Memphis.
He opened a folding map he'd bought at a gas station and laid it on the hood of the Jimmy, holding the corners down against the wind. The gravel road he'd been following for the last four miles wasn't even on the map, and he regretted he hadn't taken the time to pick up a good topographical one before he left Memphis.
Deciding to turn around, Atkins took a final look up the road, which continued on a straight, rutted line through the wind-blown fields. There was no sign of ahouse, turnoff, or barn.
Refolding the map, he heard a sharp, high-pitched sound. Coming from somewhere to his right, it was faint and almost inaudible, but as he listened the noise grew louder. There seemed to be two distinct sounds mixed together: one, soft like wind blowing through dried leaves; the other more shrill.
Atkins strained to hear. It sounded like insects, thousands of them. Maybe locusts. But not in the dead of winter. That was impossible.
Whatever was making the noise was moving fast. In a matter of seconds, the sound had increased in intensity.
Atkins climbed up on the hood of the Jimmy to try to get a better look. He didn't see anything unusual. The cornfields stretched for acres in either direction. The wind stung his eyes. He rubbed them and stared out across the fields, which gently sloped down from low, gray hills. The tops of the cornstalks rippled in the wind.
Difficult to pinpoint, the sounds seemed almost to surround him.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw movement in the field about forty yards from where he was parked. He stepped up on the roof of the Jimmy. Standing there, he watched in amazement as the tawny stalks of corn fell over. They were making the rustling sound he'd noticed. It was as if a huge blade were slashing through them at ground level.
Something was cutting a ragged swath ten feet wide through the middle of the field. And it was headed in his direction.
Transfixed, Atkins watched as row after row of cornstalks pitched forward.
Atkins thought about insects or birds. Thousands of small birds, chirping loudly. Maybe starlings. He'd heard flocks of starlings before. Their noisy chittering was similar to what he was hearing. And they liked to settle in cornfields and gorge themselves.
But how could birds make the stalks fall over in neat rows like that? It was baffling.
The moving furrow was thirty yards away and looked like it would cross the road directly in front of the Jimmy.
The wind shifted and the noise suddenly became clearer, more sharply focused. Atkins still couldn't place it, but decided to get back into the Jimmy and start the engine. He didn't want to meet whatever was going through that cornfield without some protection.
Atkins climbed down on the hood and jumped to the ground just as a gray rat ran out of the field and across the road.
It was the biggest field rat he'd ever seen. Two more rats charged across five feet in front of the Jimmy, disappearing in the cornstalks on the other side. Three others followed. All he saw were gray streaks.
Atkins watched, his revulsion mixed with fascination. During a trip to India a few years earlier, a rat had bitten him when he reached under a bed to find his shoes. It was a nasty wound that had become infected. He'd almost come down with tetanus.
More rats fled the cornfield in a panic. Something had to be chasing them.
The rodents exploded out into the open, four and five at a time. One stopped in the middle of the road and stood on his hind legs. Sniffing the air, its long whiskers twitching, the rat stared at Atkins for a moment before it raced off.
The noise had built to a steady, ear-splitting sound of alarm. As Atkins watched, a row of cornstalks ten feet wide fell forward into the road. A gray, undulating wave of rats swept into view.
Hundreds of them, thousands.
The hairs on his neck standing on end, Atkins ran to the door of the Jimmy. He was stepping on rats, kicking them out of the way, crushing them. One hit him in the chest and hung on, clutching the front of his parka with its claws. He batted it away with a gloved fist. Moving for the door, he tripped and almost fell, just managing to grab the side-view mirror.
The rats kept hurtling out of the cornfield. Atkins opened the door, still kicking at them. They were scurrying under the Jimmy, a dense, squealing mass with long, obscene tails. Atkins jumped inside on the driver's side, killing a rat in the doorjamb when he slammed it shut.
Two rats leaped inside before he got the door closed. Atkins kicked furiously at the floorboards, killing one with his foot. Again and again, he smashed at the other with his fists until he finally broke its neck. Something hit the windshield. First one, then another rat slammed into the glass. Pushed along by the frantic hordes still behind them, they were trying to leap over the obstruction in their path.
Horrified, Atkins sat in the Jimmy as the rats swarmed over it, covering the hood like a moving, gray blanket. In their frenzy, they slammed into the windshield and wiperblades. Some were trampled by those charging behind them. Nipping and biting each other, many bled from wounds. The vehicle began to sway as waves of rats buffeted the front bumper. Atkins watched some of them scamper across the sunroof.
He tried covering his ears to get rid of the unnerving sound of the rodents clicking their curved yellow teeth. It didn't work. He could still hear the fierce squeaks and the scraping noise their paws made when they ran across the hood and windshield.
Then, suddenly, it was over.
The last of the rats crossed the road and charged into the opposite field. Atkins watched the deep gouge in the cornstalks move away from him. The rats were frantically racing in a beeline for the wooded hills.
Atkins watched and waited. Nothing was chasing them.
When he reached to turn on the engine, he had to try several times before he could fit the key into the ignition. His hands were shaking too much.
"DID YOU KNOW CHARLIE RICHTER WAS A NUDIST?"
Elizabeth Holleran grinned and kept working with her trowel as she stood next to Jim Dietz at the bottom of a fifteen-foot trench. She'd heard Dietz tell this one before and still enjoyed it.
"That was back in the late fifties when the Seismo Lab was still in that incredible mansion out in Pasadena," Dietz said, scraping the wall of the trench smooth with the edge of his trowel. "I think Douglas Fairbanks owned it back in the twenties. Incredible place. Marble floors, paneled offices, private bathrooms for each professor. They used the billiard room for a library. Laid the seismograms out on the pool tables. It had wonderful gardens. Acres of roses. Charlie and his wife Lillian liked to go out there and walk around in the buff. Not a stitch on. Made a lot of the deans nervous as hell."
"You ever join them, Jim?" Holleran asked.
"He never asked," Dietz said gruffly. "But then Charlie wasn't a very friendly guy. Truth is he was a real SOB. You ever hear how he screwed Beno Gutenberg?"
Holleran had heard that one, too, but she kept digging into the hard dirt without saying a word.
"The two guys were colleagues. One day back in the forties, Beno suggested they use a logarithmic scale to plot earthquakes. That was the breakthrough that helped them come up with the new seismograph. Beno and Charlie worked on it together. Charlie took all the credit, and Beno never challenged him on it. He was an easygoing guy and didn't think it was worth the trouble. Fact is that scale should be called the Gutenberg-Richter scale."
Dietz took a sip from a jug of water. The floor of the trench was littered with crumpled taco wrappers from his lunch. "Charlie just called it the magnitude scale. But if you wanted to call it the Richter scale, well, that was fine with him."
Dietz had been one of Richter's star grad students back in the late 1950s. His stories about the great seismologist were legendary. Holleran and Dietz both taught at Cal Tech's Seismo Lab. They'd become good friends, working almost shoulder-to-shoulder in the deep trenches they'd dug with a John Deere backhoe. Both wore yellow hard hats as they scraped at the compacted sand and layers of soil. They were searching for the buried record of past earthquakes.
Their dig was forty-five miles northwest of Santa Barbara at a place where the Pacific Ocean met the rocky coastline. A desolate spot known as the Devil's Jaw, the southwestern most corner of California. Located on one of the many smaller faults that jut off from the San Andreas, it had produced a magnitude 7.3 earthquake in 1925.
They'd shored the walls of the trench with aluminum plates that resembled planks of plywood and were held in place by steel cross braces. They lowered the shoring into the trench with a hook and chain then used a hydraulic pump to press the plates up tight against the earthen walls.
Holleran and Dietz had carefully measured the depth of each of the soil layers. The technique was like cutting a slice out of a layer cake. Each slice showed a different geological period and had recognizable colors and texture: the hard, yellow-brown color of sand; grayish red clay; boggy peat. The telltale signs of dry years and floods stood out clearly. So did the jagged imprints of the big earthquakes—several of them in the magnitude 7 range.
Both were sweating heavily. It was early January, but the southern California sun was straight overhead and the temperature was in the mid-seventies. They wore shirts, T-shirts, and soiled work boots. Dietz, a bearded man in his late sixties, was a full professor at the Seismo Lab, a specialist on the San Andreas Fault. Holleran was a thirty-two-year-old assistant professor who'd moved to Pasadena after getting her doctorate from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Nearly six feet tall and slender, she towered over Dietz, who barely nudged five-foot-six. He liked to stand next to her in a classroom and tell the students they were the long and short of it. Holleran kept her thick blond hair tied in back so she wouldn't have any trouble with the hard hat.
With painstaking attention to detail, they scoured the walls of the trench for bits of carbon—fragments of ancient leaves and twigs, bits of wood or coal. When they found one, they gingerly placed it in an aluminum foil pouch. Each fragment, no matter how small, was considered "black gold."
Holleran's specialty was using these small pieces to date when the fault had ruptured in an earthquake. By using radioactive isotope carbon 14 to date the fragments, she could calculate how old the beds of sediment were. Major earthquakes that had ruptured the fault over the millennia had broken these beds, forming offsets—dark tears and creases that stood out in the exposed soil like marbling in a cake. Holleran measured the lengths of the offsets with a steel tape that hung from the top of the trench.
During the last six months, over vacations and breaks, she and Dietz had dug three similar trenches, each one crossing the fault like the rungs of a ladder. They'd identified six great quakes along that short, but potent fracture in the earth, which branched off the San Andreas Fault fifty miles to the east. The oldest dated to A.D. 235. There had been quakes in the time of Muhammad; around 1215, the year of Magna Carta; and about the time Jamestown was founded in 1607. The dates showed, on average, a moderate to heavy quake every sixty years. The last one had struck nearly seventy-five years earlier, which meant the fault was due for a major rumbling.
Later that afternoon when they'd finished for the day, Dietz and Holleran relaxed on a rocky outcropping that faced the ocean. They sat in the sun and drank cold beer with two of their lab assistants, graduate students who worked as gofers and helped operate the equipment. They shared a cramped trailer that had electrical hookups for a telephone, three computer terminals, and a refrigerator.
Holleran loved this part of California. The desolation of the place, the wild shoreline and plunging cliffs. To the east a sawtooth line of yellow hills retreated into the haze. She liked to walk those hills alone, carrying a couple of sandwiches and a thermos of tea in a day pack. It was hard to believe that Los Angeles was just a two-hour drive straight down Highway 101.
So far that city and the rest of California had been incredibly lucky. The big quakes in 1812, 1838, 1857, 1927, 1940, and 1952, for the most part, had gone off in remote areas such as Devil's Jaw. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was another matter entirely. The quake, a magnitude 8.2, and the subsequent firestorm touched off by broken natural gaslines, had almost destroyed the city. More than two thousand people died. If the same thing happened today, the death toll would be staggering.
On the wall of her bedroom was an enlarged black-and-white photograph from the San Francisco earthquake. It showed a young woman, hands on her hips, standing on a hilltop, staring out at the burning city as smoke poured into the clear sky. Holleran saw the haunting photo every day. It helped her put a human face on the disasters she'd spent so much of her life studying, helped her keep the cold numbers in the right perspective.
One of the grad students had gone to the trailer for more beers. When he returned, he told Holleran she had a phone call. The man had left a message, a telephone number and his name, Otto Prable.
Dietz said, "Otto Prable! Now there's a name from the past. What do you think that man's worth these days, ten, twenty million?"
Holleran was surprised. She hadn't seen her former professor in more than three years. Prable was a brilliant man. There was simply no other word for it. He'd become a highly paid consultant since he left the university ten years earlier, a geophysicist who was an expert on weather and climate. He'd done extremely well providing long-range global weather forecasts to clients that included some of America's largest agribusinesses and utility companies. He'd made a fortune.
Holleran had taken a couple of postdoctoral courses with him on climatology—how hurricanes, drought, volcanic eruptions, and other natural forces influenced the planet's weather. He was one of the most mesmerizing teachers she'd ever had, a superb lecturer who insisted that his students think for themselves.
He'd been disappointed when he couldn't persuade her to switch from geology to atmospheric physics. She wondered if he had any idea how close he'd come.
Prable lived just a few hours down the coast in Mesa Verde.
Wondering what he wanted, Holleran walked to the trailer and dialed the number. It rang and rang. Just as she was about to hang up, Prable finally answered.
"I've sent you a package," he said without any introduction or greeting. "A videotape and some computer disks. I've also sent you a key to my office. My papers are there. I want you to study the material and do what you think best."
"Doctor, what's the matter?" Holleran said. His voice sounded weak, far off. Something in his tone immediately put her on edge.
"I have pancreatic cancer, Elizabeth. It's terminal. Please watch the video. It will explain everything. It's very important that you do this as soon as possible."
The news stunned her. She hadn't known that Prable was sick.
"Doctor, where's Joanne? Let me talk to Joanne." Holleran knew and liked Joanne Prable. She'd taught English literature at Berkeley. A warm, good-humored woman. She and her husband were inseparable.
Prable didn't answer. Holleran heard his heavy, irregular breathing.
"Please put her on the telephone."
"Read and study all the materials," Prable said. "Promise me that."
"I promise, doctor. Now please put your wife on the line. Let me talk to her." Afraid he was going to hang up, she wanted to keep him talking. She sensed that something was terribly wrong.
"I can't do that, Elizabeth," Prable said after another long pause. "My wife is dead. My dear, beloved Joanne. She wanted me to do it. Begged me to do it. Oh, dear God, and I listened to her."
Posted January 15, 2004
If you enjoy Crichton, or have any interest in the central Midwest, this is definitely a novel you need to read. Aside from a very few technical mistakes in the book, I think this newspaper journalist from St. Louis did a wonderful job bringing the possibility of these quakes to life. Most of the small details, such as the towns and topography, are real and accurate. This book really hit home for me...the town I live in is in the New Madrid Seismic Zone, and is mentioned several times throughout the story. This book is very graphic in it's descriptions of the widespread damage, as well as the physical and emotional stress that would be inevitable if a quake of such magnitude were to happen. There are a few twists I was not expecting, but overall this is a GREAT book I recommend to everyone!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 21, 2001
Nature unleashes war on the Midwest US. I'm sure if I had picked apart the technicalities of seismology, history, or architecture, I might have been disappointed; however as a layman it is a great read. Not perfect but recommended. If you liked Jurassic Park or the movie 'Independence Day,' this book will be interesting to you. In fact it will make a great movie. This book really makes you think, especially after the twin tower and Pentagon attacks. Our country is vulnerable to a number of disasters, and a massive earthquake like this certainly could happen. ENJOY!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 20, 2001
This book was great. A little too much technical information, which made it a little hard to understand. But overall great job. Looking forward to more books by Peter Hernon.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 7, 2000
To bad his editor did not catch simple mistakes. I was surprised that the Texas panhandle town of Amarillo was really in the piney woods of east Texas. Besides that, I enjoyed it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 4, 2000
Having never read anything from this author, I was a little bit skeptical about the book...but decided to give it a try. I thought it was a great book and I struggled to put it down...and then rushed through my other chores and daily duties so that I could sit down again and continue the adventure. I highly recommend it for anyone that wants to 'escape' with a good book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 3, 2000
I took pause when the 'president' was referred '...at 52 to be the youngest president.' This isn't even close (to JFK) But when the author caused the Plague to occur in 1650 rather than 1350, I simply stopped reading. Simple, simply verified, facts such as these are disgraceful. Moreover, they cause me to doubt the scientific premises of the novel. I wrote Putnam for a refund, but never got a response. Extremely disappointing. robyn dixonWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 26, 2000
I too, like an above reader, am a native Memphian and was drawn to read a novel based on the earthquake threat that lies in the Mississippi River Valleys future. I had just moved to Memphis in 1990 when an earthquake prediction, on the scale of what is written about in the book, was made and saw the resulting near panic of everyone from St.Louis to Memphis in the days prior to the expected dates. I thought the novel was very interesting although its characters were not increadibly deep. The novel does hit a few slow parts, but they pass and are usually build ups to some kind of climax latter in the novel. Finding the characters pooling in Memphis, the lies, the cover ups, the warnings and then the disasterous quake that levels the city is fairly well written and researched. The author even made the scenes of destruction that of the level that could be expected in quakes of the magnitudes desribes. Even though Memphis is leveled, the rubble is burning in feirce fire storms, and the survivors fight for survival, our heroes fight to prevent another quake(s) from occuring. Some would find the ending cheesy, but there really wasn't any other way of ending the novel short of having Memphis turned into the worlds largest salvage yard and St.Louis becoming the newest underwater attraction on the mid-Mississippi River. If you are from Memphis and don't like the idea of major landmarks collapsing, the city's skyscrapers falling over onto each other, or your house and neighborhood being redused to rubble and then that rubble looted then whats left burned to a crisp in a fire storm...don't buy this book! For everyone else...good book, quick read, would be a good movie.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 2, 2000
The story keeps moving and is real enough to keep you from saying no way that could happen, and not overly sappy as natural disaster stories tend to be. Great read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 3, 2000
as disaster novels go, this one picks a disaster not too much touched upon, the new madrid fault zone. it's not as well known as california, though if you've taken any geology classes you know that this is the biggest, and has the most potential for destruction. some of the science seemed pretty good, some seemed pretty bad. the characters weren't all that great. the best thing about this book is drawing attention to the new madrid area.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 5, 2000
Posted January 5, 2000
Posted April 12, 2009
No text was provided for this review.