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ABOARD THE QUEEN OF AFRICA DECEMBER 25, 2009, 5:00 P.M. LOCAL TIME
Jane Demming Warner, a professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, had come on the cruise along with her husband, Jacob Warner, one of the leading computer engineers in the United States. It was to be their first vacation together in several years. Jane’s life had long been devoted to the study of comets, meteors, and asteroids; but she had planned to take a break from all that for three weeks, just kick back and enjoy the trip.
Sitting on the still-unmade bed in their stateroom, wearing an old tanktop and running shorts for a planned two-miler on the track, Jane gripped the telephone impatiently, waiting for the connection to be established, grimacing at the clicking and buzzing that she heard on this her third attempt to get through to her colleagues in Tucson. She had a sick sensation in her stomach about this whole thing, compounded by a guilty feeling that she had “deserted” her post at home.
The cruise had been fantastic, everything she and Jake had wanted it to be. During the days, he was cheerfully busy with his seminar activities; and their evenings were filled with splendid dinners, dancing, and strolls on the wide decks of the luxury ship. The stars—she had never seen them so brilliant and close other than through the business end of a telescope. She gazed up at them like a cockeyed “civilian,” as if she had never noticed them before. The winter constellations of the southern hemisphere, so familiar in theory, seemed startlingly fresh in their present reality—a revelation … Finally a voice on the other end of the line.
“Geoff, is that you? It’s Jane. What’s going on there?”
Despite the tenuous wireless connection, Geoffrey Baird’s voice was clear and crisp, his New Zealander accent unmistakable. “Not good news, Jane luv. Not good at all.”
“What the hell is it? Be specific.”
“The missiles”—he pronounced the second “i” very long; she could hear his labored breathing—“They went awry—or at least one of them did. We don’t know whether it was sabotage or what. Who could possibly be that suicidally crazy? What could their objective be?”
“Stop hemming and hawing, for God’s sake,” Jane said, wanting to reach through the phone and shake her friend and colleague.
Just a few hours earlier, she and Jake had sat in the lounge with a group of other passengers watching news of the intercept on a satellite feed from ITN in Great Britain. Jane understood exactly what was at stake and how the nuclear explosives were supposed to thwart the comet that was hurtling toward the earth. Jake had been sipping a Jack Daniel’s with a blissful grin on his face. He was having one hell of a good time away from his lucrative but stressful consulting business. She had been drinking an iced tea and looking at her watch, thinking about the best time to call her friends at the university, knowing they’d be at the lab monitoring the diversion effort closely.
“Jane, we’re not going to make it. Based upon our rough calculations—”
“What do you mean? Who’s not going to make it?”
“All of us, the entire bloody planet. I’m saying we’re doomed. About six hours from now. The impact—”
She could not hear Geoffrey’s words for the roaring in her ears. What was he saying? It couldn’t be … it just could not be what she thought he had said. The mission a failure? The end of the world? Too fantastic, too horrific to contemplate.
“Slow down, Geoff. Have you been drinking or something?”
“No, but I wish I had a good shot of vodka right about now, Jane. We’re looking at the Big Barbecue. I don’t mean to be flip, but I don’t know what else to say or do. We’re all going under one way or the other. Some of the people here have gone home to their families … others of us have decided to stay, ride it out the best we can. There is a chance we’re wrong. But I don’t bloody think so.”
She felt as if she were choking. She couldn’t breathe, and she struggled to speak in response to his news. “Have you told anyone? What about the press, the government?”
“Oh, yes, the big mucky-mucks called Washington. I think they got to the Secretary of Energy or some such. But it’s too late, you understand. Even if we did tell everybody, there’s absolutely nothing any of us can do. We’re toast, as the kids say—or mine used to say, twenty years ago.”
What a decent, smart, agreeable colleague Geoff Baird was. Yet at this moment nothing he said made any sense to Jane Warner, except the first statement about there being an accident or miscalculation. Even though the chances were infinitesimally small, still, there was always a possibility that the so-called fail-safe system would not work. But how could they have missed by such a margin? With all the backup systems and contingency planning? The first time they had tried it, they had done it without seeming to break a sweat. Why now? What in the world … ?
“Geoff, you’re going to have to walk me through this. Please stay on the line.” She dropped the telephone receiver on the bed, grabbed a writing pad from the desk, and picked up the phone again. “Okay, start at the beginning and tell me what exactly happened and what you’re basing your numbers on. I’m going to write all of this down. Maybe there’s something …” She started to say, “something you guys missed,” but she caught herself and did not finish the sentence.
Geoff Baird heard her unspoken words. “Sorry to say, Jane, we didn’t miss anything. We’ve run the calculations at least a dozen times already. But, for what it’s worth—here goes.”
MANILA, THE PHILIPPINES, EARLY MORNING, DECEMBER 26
A little boy with a big name, Juan-Carlos Francisco Jaime Triunfo, sat at his mother’s kitchen table organizing his precious collection of Pokémon holograph cards. J. C. was almost nine, a bit small for his age, and he was the youngest of ten children. The day after Christmas was his favorite day. There was, of course, no school. After mass, the family would spend the day together just as they had the day before, and his cousins would come over and there would be kids galore in the Triunfo house—and he would show off his fine collection to all. At midday the family planned a trip to Rizal Park, the greensward in the center of the old Spanish city that looked out onto Manila Bay. There were war monuments and playing fields and picnic nooks, and usually many people throughout the park. The boy loved it, looked forward to it. It was going to be a fine day, indeed!
The old Delco radio with the clock that had stopped working long ago sat on the kitchen table where J. C.’s cards were piled. Only his mother was awake, starting her preparations for breakfast and for the family’s planned picnic lunch, her back turned to the boy. He paid her scant attention; he took her for granted. After all, that’s what mothers did—prepare meals. Nor did he really listen to the music on the radio, or the occasional news broadcast. All was well in the world of J. C. Triunfo.
The Triunfo family was wealthy compared to so many others they knew. The vast majority of people who lived in Manila existed in utter, paralyzing poverty. Foreign visitors who drove the few miles from Ninoy Aquino International Airport into the business center of the city passed the world-class waterfront resort hotels on their left and a high blank wall on their right, which shielded them from the depressing sight of shanty towns and slums. The wall—and the squalor it masked—was a legacy from the Marcos regime. Subsequent democratically elected governments had not improved the lot of these people very much, in part because Muslim rebels in the outer islands drained military and economic resources and political attention.
The table shook slightly, causing the Pokémon cards to move. “Mama …”
Senora Triunfo was paying no attention to her youngest child. She prayed silently as she worked, her lips moving to form the familiar words. It was as natural to her as breathing, as slicing the vegetables into the soup pot or wringing the neck of a chicken destined to be the main dish. The routine of life was a comfort to her, albeit hard, unending labor. Her husband went to work at his factory job at eight A.M. every day except Sunday. He worked only half days on Saturday, Jesus be praised. But he was of little or no help around the house when he was home: he drank liquor and slept, sometimes played cards with friends. He did not beat her or abuse the children in any way. He was a decent man …
“Mama, the table is shaking,” little J. C. said.
Juanita Triunfo, who had survived hurricanes and earth tremors and revolutions, said, “Say a little prayer, niño. God will keep you safe.” She held an unpeeled plantain in one hand, a small glinting kitchen knife in the other. “One of your little cards is on the floor.” She pointed with the knife.
The boy bent down to retrieve his precious possession. He could smell the mingled odors of vegetables and fruits and cooking oil. He was getting hungry and heard his belly rumbling, felt it vibrate. He sat back in the chair. Then he realized that it was not his belly that he heard and felt. The table, the floor, indeed the entire house was rumbling, vibrating slightly, and it blurred his vision and scared him. Then he heard a noise, not loud, not close—he could not tell what it was or where it came from. He had never heard a train, but he knew the sound of cars and motorcycles, of jet airplanes overhead taking off and landing at the nearby airport. What was it?
“Mama!” Now he was really frightened.
The entire household was awake, and everyone, J. C.’s brothers and sisters and father, streamed into the kitchen, their eyes wide open and questioning. What could be happening?
Throughout the city of Manila and the islands of the Philippines, indeed, across the western Pacific region as far south as Australia and as far north as Vietnam and China, the atmospheric phenomenon released by the impact of the comet was spreading its swift and inexorable destruction.
As the Triunfo clan huddled together in the kitchen, they all heard the approaching roar that had first captured the youngest boy’s attention. Suddenly, an emergency message came over the radio, interrupting the music that, for several minutes, had been an inane background noise to the family’s increasing sense of dread. The mother and father pressed all their children, from the eldest daughter, age twenty-two, to little J. C., between them—the protective, parental instinct at work, but to what end?
Over the past few days they had heard news about the approaching comet and the mission to deflect it; but this news had barely registered with them. They were vaguely aware that this sort of thing had happened before and that there was no imminent danger. At least that was what the news broadcasts had said …
“Emergency, emergency, emergency,” the voice on the radio repeated. “The government requires that all persons should seek shelter immediately—”
The family listened, but within seconds the radio was dead and the increasing roar was deafening, causing the young ones to cry out in pain and fear. The older children and adults looked at each other incredulously, expressions of panic now impossible to conceal.
The room—the entire house—heated up to an incredible degree: rising quickly to one hundred, then one hundred twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Within thirty seconds it was nearly two hundred degrees! A smell, an acrid, foul odor of burning plastic and rubber and other unidentifiable substances, wafted in with the hot wind. The temperature continued to rise at a rapid rate and mercifully the family lost consciousness.
Within minutes their home burst into flame, consumed by the firestorm that sucked oxygen and flesh and every material substance into its wake. The Triunfo family and all they had ever known ceased to exist.
WASHINGTON, D.C., LATE AFTERNOON, CHRISTMAS DAY
Senator Christopher P. Hartwyck of Delaware sat in his office in the Hart Building on Capitol Hill staring at the paperwork that littered his desk. He’d had very little sleep the night before and had dragged himself in to the nearly deserted building several hours ago. As a single man, never married, with no children, he was devoted to his job and wanted to keep it for as long as he could; so he spent every waking hour in his office studying briefing papers and reading correspondence from his constitutents—or out campaigning perpetually among the people of his state. The problem was, even though he had what he wanted, he was not a happy or contented man. Sometimes he got into a funk, feeling lonely and lost, despite family and friends and career … Is this all there is? he would ask himself.
Just a week ago, at a meeting of the Technologies Development Oversight Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, overcome by boredom, he had struggled to stay awake and focus on the subject of the hearing called by the chairman. Facing the two-week Christmas recess, the Senate tried to clear up as much business as possible—often to little effect. The upcoming intercept launch was the topic in question, and everything seemed to be running smoothly, according to the techno nerds who testified. So what was the big deal? We did it before, no problem, and we’ll do it again—nuke the confounded planet or comet, or whatever it was. We need a hearing for this?
But now, on Christmas afternoon, as Senator Hartwyck attended desultorily to his legislative paperwork, an uneasy feeling gnawed at his gut. Something that one of the engineers had said about the chances for success. “It is a near one hundred percent certainty that the missiles, at least one of them, will find the target and deflect it from its course.”
“A ‘near’ hundred percent?” one of Hartwyck’s senate colleagues had inquired.
“Yes, we can never state any scientific fact with absolute certainty.”
“And if it goes awry? What then?”
“Senator, you will not need to call another hearing, that’s for certain.”
The sparse audience tittered appreciatively, and there was scattered applause. The subcommittee chairman gaveled the room to order, and the young senator from Delaware slipped from the chamber unnoticed. He had walked back to his office that day with the exchange ringing in the back of his mind.
But he couldn’t linger too long at his desk—he would be late for dinner at his parents’ home in Wilmington. He planned to drive there. Well, no time like the present. He carried his trench coat, just in case it got cold. It was about fifty degrees, warm for early winter, but you couldn’t count on weather any more, the patterns and temperature swings were so wide and frequent. Not like when I was growing up, the senator mused.
He would not call his childhood as he remembered it idyllic—the word was not in his normal vocabulary. Nor would he term it privileged. Others certainly would: prep school at Lawrenceville, Yale College and Law School, summers at Rehoboth Beach, a few years in private legal practice, election as state attorney general when he was only twenty-seven, the U.S. Senate four years later. It seemed a predestined path, a gifted existence; almost too easy, he sometimes thought. Who knows how far he would go—president of the United States?
The young senator negotiated the D.C. grid, running through a few red lights (there was sparse traffic, no cops), until he reached the famed Beltway that would carry him to Interstate 95 North and home. He fiddled with the car radio as he merged onto the fivelane asphalt road at sixty miles per hour.
Hartwyck reached for the cellular telephone in the passenger seat—an automatic gesture. Why wouldn’t you be on the phone while you were driving, legal or not? He dialed his parents’ number. The radio played country music, his favorite cultural vice. He reached over to the glove box and fumbled for a cigarette from the pack he kept there. Many times over the past several years he had tried to quit smoking and failed: sometimes he stayed off for a few weeks, or even a few months. But holidays, and work pressure, and driving—all of these were triggers that made him want a cigarette. He wanted one now.
The car, a two-year-old Audi compact with about nine thousand miles on it, was like a little space capsule into which Hartwyck could escape and speed along the highway of his dreams … sometimes driving out into the Virginia countryside for miles and miles, where he saw more horses and cattle than human beings. That is what he longed for most, escape, but he didn’t know where to or why, couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
A news bulletin interrupted the music: “We have been advised by the President and the Federal Emergency Management Agency that all persons must seek shelter immediately. The comet that was headed for Earth may, in fact, approach our atmosphere, causing disruptions in various parts of the world. We do not have word yet on when this might happen, but sources at NASA say it could be within the next several minutes. The likeliest point of contact is the Pacific Ocean off the California coast. We do not know what effect this may have in the Washington, Maryland, Virginia area, but we will monitor the situation closely and keep you informed the best we can. We repeat, the President of the United States and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have announced …”
Hartwyck hugged the far left lane of the Beltway at seventy miles per hour, listening but not comprehending what was being said. In his mind he kept hearing the words “a near one hundred percent certainty … a near one hundred percent certainty …” The radio crackled with intense static; he changed stations, but it was the same, AM and FM. Then dead silence.
As he drove, Senator Christopher P. Hartwyck saw a shadow, like an incredibly heavy black cloud, fall over the landscape. He kept driving. As he held to the curve he saw other cars veer off to the right, saw some of them waver and crash into the wall there as drivers panicked. He did not know what to do. He looked through the front windshield into the patch of sky and saw a huge object—a rock? a plane? very large; it seemed as large as the moon, perhaps larger … and it was on fire! It was falling toward Earth, toward him. His heart pounded. He drove on. Seconds later, he and every living thing within a twenty-mile radius was pulverized by the impact of the million-ton fragment.
ISTANBUL, MIDNIGHT, LOCAL TIME, DECEMBER 25
The ancient city, also known through its complex and colorful history as Constantinople and Byzantium, throbbed with life in the darkness that lay like a blanket over the urban landscape of spires, minarets, and tall modern buildings.
Kadijah Raouf Baker walked from the four-story modern office building where she worked as an assistant secretary in a textileimport firm toward the omnibus stop a few city blocks away. She’d had to work an unusual night shift on a special year-end project, so she would be arriving home in the early hours of the morning. Her husband, Necmettin, would have to feed and bathe their twenty-month-old son and put him to bed. He was good that way, and she thanked Allah for Necmettin—a skilled physician, a good and attentive husband, a worthy and decent man.
The street was wet from a day-long rain, and there was a distinct winter chill in the air. Kadijah pulled her hijab—the traditional Muslim woman’s headscarf—more closely to her face. She wore a loose-fitting woolen coat and ankle-length, long-sleeved dress, but no gloves; she did not own a pair. She and Necmettin were by no means poor, but they watched their money very carefully and spent little on personal comforts. They owned a fifteen-year-old automobile, a German import with nearly two hundred thousand kilometers on it. Necmettin drove it to and from the hospital and occasionally to the seashore for a family trip … but fuel and taxes were extremely steep, and often city traffic was so clogged that it did not pay to drive.
Kadijah smiled at the thought of her husband and son safe and snug at home. She would be there soon enough.
She waited at the bus station for more than a quarter hour, her back turned to the biting wind. Headlights and tires played on the slick, rutted street before her in a near-hypnotic rhythm as cars jerked and honked and splashed along. She did not look up the avenue because she knew that would slow the arrival of the bus … and she laughed silently at her superstitious attitude.
Even with all the hard work and worry in her life, she had faith that Allah watched over her family—including her parents, siblings, and in-laws. All is well in Allah’s peace for those who call upon His name. She gripped her canvas bag at her side in a new gust of wet wind. Her own times of personal discomfort or suffering were offered up to Him for the sake of her family and her country. It was expected; it was the will of Allah.
Moments later, Kadijah sat on the swaying open-air, doublelevel omnibus as it sped along in the sparse after-midnight traffic. Exhaustion pinned her to the bench, and she fought to keep her eyes open. She did not want to sleep past her stop, halfway across Istanbul in a quiet residential district. She looked around at the other passengers on the bus: a shrunken old woman swaddled against the wet chill and the demonic forces of the night, sitting like a brown nut with black eyes, unmoving; a young couple, perhaps in their late teens, snuggling and discreetly holding hands, the girl’s face shining, her brows black and tapered, the boy’s face smooth and handsome in a childish way; another man, middle-aged, weary like Kadijah herself, hands and face soiled from some kind of heavy labor, but alert and taking in the sights on the bus itself and along the streets. This man watched the young married woman watching him, a look of challenge and interest in his deep-set eyes.
She touched the scarf that covered most of her face, finding comfort in the anonymity that it provided at this moment.
The bus rocked suddenly, as if it had hit something, and Kadijah looked up and out the window. The street was covered with water, at least a meter high and rising! But there had been no rain for a few hours … was this seawater that somehow had risen unexpectedly? In this part of the city? Very unlikely; she had never heard of such a thing before. The driver of the bus attempted to maneuver the vehicle forward, but the water rose rapidly to what seemed to be two meters, then three, and suddenly the bus itself was floating like a boat.
Some of the passengers screamed, but Kadijah remained calm, gripping a nearby pole and swinging around to look out at the streets and buildings. She prayed that her husband and child were safe, that she would soon be able to see them, if the flood had not yet hit her neighborhood. All about the bus, water poured into windows and doorways, sweeping pedestrians off their feet and lifting cars and trucks in its wake. The bus itself rocked and floated and picked up speed as it passed buildings at the second-story level. The young woman could look into some of those buildings and see people there running to the windows, shouting to each other.
As she looked south, in the direction of the Sea of Marma, she noticed a crimson light illuminating the night sky and obscuring the stars. Odd … ominous. Then, a black wall rose in her vision, blocking out everything else, looming taller than any building in the city. It seemed distant, but how could it be far away and so huge? What was it? A thick mist fell over the bus and blew in through the open sides, like rain but warm—then hot, like a shower …
Kadijah knew then what it was: a wall of water. A tidal wave. But how, why? The blackness built and grew closer and a roar of wind and water pierced her ears. She could not hear the others screaming, nor herself, as the weight of the monster wave crushed the fragile omnibus and all its passengers and engulfed the city that had been the capital of empires for nearly two thousand years.
ABOARD THE QUEEN OF AFRICA DECEMBER 25, 2009, 9:00 P.M. LOCAL TIME
Jane Warner had not rested or eaten a bite of food throughout the remainder of the day. She skipped dinner with a mumbled excuse to Jake. Many times she had been tempted to make a phone call: to friends at the lab, to family members, to someone—anyone in the outside world. She did not say anything to her husband, nor any of her fellow passengers, for fear of creating a panic. But during the dinner hour she did approach Dr. Hardy, the leader and organizer of the cruise, and within a few minutes of her conversation with him, he suggested they contact the ship’s captain. She agreed, and Johan Nordstrom, the tall Norwegian, joined them in Dr. Hardy’s stateroom. The three sat around a low glass coffee table in comfortable chairs. A tray of drinks lay there, untouched.
“Captain, Dr. Hardy, I know that what I have told you sounds fantastic; but I have it on excellent authority—and I have run the numbers myself, several times now.” She glanced down at the maroon carpet on the floor of the room, finding it difficult to look at them directly. “The impact will occur at about eleven our time, which is about four in the afternoon on the East Coast, one P.M. West Coast time, in the States.” Each man looked at his wristwatch. “Yes, just two hours from now,” she confirmed.
Hardy removed his glasses. A widower, in his early sixties, he had a kindly if somber face, and a full head of hair streaked with gray and white. “What shall we do about it? I cannot really accept this—emotionally, that is. Intellectually, I do understand what you are saying, Dr. Warner, and I believe you, but—” He shrugged and gestured helplessly with his hands, unable to finish his statement.
Nordstrom, too, was taken aback, rapidly processing Jane’s information and the implications for his ship, its crew and passengers. Inevitably, he thought of his family in Oslo, which made his heart pound painfully. There was time to contact them, and he was determined to try, before he began to prepare his vessel for … for what?
“I ask the same question as Dr. Hardy: What must we do? How will this—this thing affect us? Can you tell us, please?” His calm, polite tone barely masked the fear and sadness he was feeling. Like the American engineer, his well-trained professional mind fought to overcome the primitive, emotional responses of the human animal.
“It is possible,” Jane replied, “that we will be crushed by fragments of the comet, or engulfed by huge tsunamis, or assailed by fire from the sky, flames that consume everything including our oxygen, or annihilated in some other way I can’t even think of. In short, I don’t know the answer. Or perhaps we might be spared. I’m dealing with numbers and uncertain suppositions.” Then, seeing the the look of horror and incomprehension on each man’s face, Jane continued: “Captain, I feel that we should do nothing until we know more—except maybe you want to confine all the passengers to their cabins by eleven P.M. Some kind of curfew, with whatever excuse you need to use.”
“Sounds like a wise suggestion to me,” Hardy volunteered, and Nordstrom agreed.
So, about ten thirty, the passengers were notified of the eleven o’clock curfew, with a severe weather forecast attached. The evening had been in full swing, with continuing Christmas celebrations and cocktails or dinner being served in a number of dining rooms, many of the children still awake playing with the toys they had received earlier in the day.
Jane paced back and forth in her stateroom. Jake Warner had retired early, after a busy day of kibbitzing and cocktails, and a post-dinner poker game. She was jealous of his carefree state of ignorance. As the fateful curfew hour approached, she slipped outside and went to the port-side deck rail, looking into the black sky. Cloud shards swept past the spectacular showcase of stars.
A few minutes later, straight ahead, as she looked west northwest, she saw a thin horizon line—a dirty yellow glow—that had not been there before, that was not supposed to be there at this time of night. As she watched, transfixed, the line began to turn red and widened to a band that appeared to be approaching the ship.
She heard a piercing scream, a shriek really, in the distance from another deck level. Then nothing. She stood silently, gripping the handrail, feeling the sweat of her own palms. Then another sound, a man’s voice shouting and others responding—doors opening and closing. Down along the deck passage where she stood, two doors opened and people came out and, like her, went to the railing and looked into the sky.
Next, she heard words from some of her fellow passengers: “I was on the telephone and it went dead.” “They said there was some disaster.” “What’s happening out there—look!” “I’m scared to death. What is it?” Jane began to walk slowly along the deck as more people came outside giving vent to expressions of alarm. The sky glowed more brilliantly red, and the air around the ship became increasingly warm, then oppressively hot.
Within minutes the captain came on the loudspeaker system, sounding businesslike and composed. He stated that the glow around the ship was in some way related to the comet, which apparently had made contact with the earth. The possibility of danger for the ship—and for the world—was still unknown; but there was good reason to hope for the best. He urged everyone to remain as calm as they could, and to keep the children indoors. He stated that the ship appeared to be totally secure and undamaged and that all passengers and crew were accounted for and unharmed. He assured that all systems—radar, sonar, and particularly radio—would be kept on high alert, in an effort to make contact with other ships or people on shore.
Jane heard a child start to cry, and then another. Within minutes, the emotional atmosphere was charged with fear and despair. Jane could see, however, that the children served as a calming influence on the adults. She was not a parent herself, but she could imagine how powerful is the impulse to spare one’s children from anguish. Like the father in Life Is Beautiful, which won an Oscar several years ago—the father who, for the sake of his young son, made a game out of being in a concentration camp—the parents among the passengers put on the performance of their lives.
Passengers started to gather in clusters, exchanging rumors and bits of information. Jane overheard one animated conversation among a group who had been talking on telephones or listening to short-wave radios in their cabins. She heard them repeating certain key phrases which had been gleaned from sources in various parts of the world: “red sky,” “awful heat,” “roaring fire,” with an occasional “Oh my God!” She could not stand it any more and went back to her own cabin, where her husband had awakened and was standing half-naked outside their door.
By this time the sky was incandescent, pulsing like the light atop a police car, and the temperature was well over one hundred ten degrees Fahrenheit.
She touched Jake’s arm. “I’m going to speak to the captain,” she said.
“He told us to stay in our rooms. What the devil is this? It’s hotter than hell out here. Is it some kind of nuclear war or something?”
As calmly as she could, she gave him the sixty-second version of the disaster. “It’s the end of the world as we know it, Jake,” she concluded. “You were too busy having fun today, I didn’t want to spoil it for you.” She left him standing there stunned, and ran up toward the bridge.
Encountering one of the ship’s officers, she asked what news was coming in from the outside world. “None,” was the reply. “Not a sound.” Then the officer reaffirmed what the captain had said: that the ship’s systems were all functioning, antennas in place, skilled operators anxiously rotating dials. But no signals had been detected—not for the last half hour. He barred her way toward the control center, saying, “The captain ordered it, ma‘am—and that means everybody. That’s his exact words, ma’am.”
The tension throughout the ship was now palpable. The sky continued to glow unnaturally, and the heat coming from every angle created the feeling that the vessel and everyone aboard was in a pressure cooker.
After an hour—an agonizing hour—the red glow diminished, the sky turned a murky purple-blue, and the heat started gradually to ease. The immediate crisis seemed to have passed. Jane and the others felt relieved, dazed, and most of all, bewildered.
The first shock wave arrived at a little past four in the morning with a dull thud and a shuddering of the ship. But there was no visible damage, and Captain Nordstrom again gave a brief and calming message over the loudspeaker system. Three hours later, the Queen of Africa felt a second impact, this time from pressure coming around the world the longer way. Close to the comet’s point of impact, the blast effects had been cataclysmic. But for these survivors, so far distant, the explosive force posed no danger either to the ship or to any passengers.
Shortly after the first shock wave passed, a large ocean swell, some fifty feet high, surged under the hull. Nordstrom and his officers had been on the alert for just such a contingency, and had positioned the ship so that the wave presented no threat to the vessel. Still, the sudden rise and descent was an unwelcome surprise to nervous systems already stressed to the maximum.
The night hours eventually passed; but the sun did not appear at its usual time. There was a heavy gray cloud cover, tinted with patches of red, particularly to the northwest, where as was later discovered, fires were raging on the land. Then, in midmorning, instead of the the sky brightening, light began to wane. Abruptly, the ship was plunged into total blackness. The outside temperature, which had been alarmingly hot, and then moderated, now began to plummet. Soon the deck railings were covered with thin sheets of ice.
Inside their seagoing coccoon, most passengers felt relatively comfortable. But their mental and emotional state was anything but untroubled. In a strange way, incredulity served to avert panic. The situation was beyond anything these people could ever have imagined, or learned to fear, so that they were dazed almost more than they were frightened.
About noon, the captain spoke again, giving reassurances about the well-being of the ship. “We were refueled and provisioned at Richards Bay the day before yesterday,” he said, “so we are amply supplied and capable of cruising, if need be, through several weeks of dark and cold. Besides, my meteorologist has every expectation that the skies will soon clear.” It was fairly obvious to all listeners that this “expectation” was based more on hope than on science.
Several times during the afternoon, the captain repeated his reassurances, although since he had no new information, they became less and less comforting. Finally, Jane Warner contacted him to say that she had checked her figures one more time and was now ready to report on her conclusions. So, shortly before dinnertime, the captain was able to tell his anxiously attentive audience that he had something of interest to relate. With that, he informed them about Dr. Warner and the telephone discussion she had held with her fellow academics in Arizona. He concluded his remarks by announcing that Dr. Warner would deliver a lecture that evening, revealing what she had learned from her colleagues, and sharing with everyone her analysis of their situation.
THE AFTERMATH: A NOVEL OF SURVIVAL. Copyright © 2001 by Samuel C. Florman. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
Posted January 2, 2006
The Aftermath: A Novel of Survival by Samuel C. Florman is a very well-written book, although not very attention grabbing. It provides information on how to survive with the natural resources in Southern Africa when the world has been wiped out. Much of the book is meetings between the engineers aboard the Queen of Africa, a ship that survived the impact of a massive comet on Earth. The people in the meetings debate on how to prioritize their goals. Said meetings go on for pages, causing the reader to lose interest. The repetitiveness of the book gets annoying after reading it for about fifty pages. Since the Earth has been destroyed, for the most part, and their ship has sunk, the people have to start life from the beginning. There is also another group of people, who became named the Focus Group. They met in a line-dancing class and eventually just ended up talking about what was going on in the community. Wil Hardy, a scribe for the secret meetings, is part of this group. The others are not and don¿t know what happen at these secret meetings. There are six in this group, three girls, three boys, and they end up pairing together and getting married. That¿s very predictable, which usually snags the fun right out of a good read. Pretty boring, huh? Things get a tad bit exciting, however. Soon enough, a mad pirate queen, who has renamed herself Queen Ranavolana, tries to conquer Engineering Village, the village of the Queen of Africa¿s survivors. There is about one page of suspense, for she attacks in the middle of a wedding, the Focus Group¿s to be exact, and then her plan fails. The one interesting character that gets things moving gets shut down. That¿s where the interesting but ends. I would recommend this book for someone that likes boring books or has nothing better to do.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.