Dies the Fire
|Author:||S. M. Stirling
|Series:||Emberverse I: Book 1|
|Avg Member Rating:||
The Change occurred when an electrical storm centered over the island of Nantucket produced a blinding white flash that rendered all electronic devices and fuels inoperable. What follows is the most terrible global catastrophe in the history of the human race-and a Dark Age more universal and complete than could possibly be imagined.
Boise Municipal Airport, Idaho
Tuesday, March 17th, 1998
6:15 pm, RMT--Change minus one hour
Michael Havel pulled his battered four-by-four into the employees' parking lot, locked up and swung his just-in-case gear out of the back, the strap of the pack over one shoulder and the gun case on the other. It was a raw early-spring Idaho afternoon, with the temperature in the low fifties; the light had a cool, bleakly clear quality, as if you could cut yourself on the blue of the sky.
He walked quickly across to the door marked Steelhead Air Taxi and opened it with three fingers and an elbow, whistling a Kevin Welch tune under his breath. Inside he set the gear down on a couple of chairs--the all-up weight was nearly eighty pounds--and opened his heavy sheepskin jacket, stuffing his knit cap in one pocket.
That left his black hair ruffled the way it always did, and he smoothed it down with the palms of both hands. The air here smelled a bit of burned fuel and oil, which couldn't be helped around an airport.
"You said the bossman had something for me, Mellie?" he asked the secretary as he went to the pot on the table in the corner and poured himself a cup.
The coffee was Steelhead Air Taxi standard; oily, bitter and burnt, with iridescent patches of God-knew-what floating on the surface. He poured half-and-half in with a lavish hand until it looked pale brown. This was an informal outfit, family-run; Dan and Gerta Fogarty had flown themselves until a few years ago; there was Mellie Jones, who was Gerta's aunt, and six pilots, one Mike Havel being the youngest at twenty-eight, and the most recent hire.
"Yup," the white-haired woman behind the desk said. "Wants you to hop some passengers to a ranch field in the Bitterroot valley, north of Victor. The Larssons, they're visiting their holiday place."
Havel's eyebrows went up; it was a damned odd time of year to be taking a vacation there. Tail end of the season for winter sports, but still plenty cold, and the weather would be lousy. Then he shrugged; if the client wanted to go, it was the firm's job to take him. Steelhead Air did a little of everything; flying tourists, fishermen and whitewater rafters into wilderness areas in summer, taking supplies to isolated ranchers in the winter with skis on the planes instead of wheels, whatever came to hand. There was a lot of unroaded territory around this neck of the woods. He glanced at the wall clock. It wasn't long to sunset; call it six forty-five, this time of year. Two-forty ground miles to the Montana border, a little more to wherever the Larssons had their country place, call it two-three hours...
"They've got landing lights?" he said.
Mellie snorted: "Would Dan be sending you if they didn't?"
He looked over her shoulder at the screen as he sipped the foul sour coffee, reading off the names: Kenneth Larsson, his wife Mary, son and daughter Eric and Signe, both eighteen, and another named Astrid four years younger.
"Larsson... Larsson... from Portland, businessman?" he said. "Heard the bossman mention the name once, I think."
Mellie made an affirmative sound as she worked on her PC.
"Old money, timber and wheat--then Ken Larsson tripld it in high-tech. Used to hire us regular, back before '96, but not lately. Hasn't brought the family before."
Havel nodded again; he'd only been flying for Steelhead since the spring of '97. It was nice to know that Dan trusted him; but then, he was damned good if he said so himself, which he didn't. Not aloud, anyway.
He went through into the office; Dan Fogarty was sitting and chatting with the clients, while Gerta worked behind piles of paper on the desk; there were wilderness posters and models of old bush-planes and books on Idaho and the Northwest on shelves. And a faint meowing...
That was unusual.
The Larsson's youngest had a cat-carrier on her lap; the beast's bulging yellow eyes shone through the bars, radiating despair and outrage. It wasn't taking the trip well; cats seldom did, being little furry Republicans with an inbuilt aversion to change. From an ammonia waft, it was--literally--pissed off.
The kid was unusual as well, all huge silver-blue eyes and long white-blond hair, dressed in some sort of medieval-looking suede leather outfit, her nose in a book--an illustrated Tolkien with a tooled-leather cover. She had an honest-to-god bow in a case leaning against her chair, and a quiver of arrows.
She kept her face turned to the print, ignoring him. He'd been raised to consider that sort of behavior impolite, but then, she was probably used to ignoring the chauffeur, and his family hadn't had many employees.
Havel grinned at the thought. His dad had worked the Iron Range mines from the day he got back from Vietnam and got over a case of shrapnel acne picked up at Khe Sanh; his father had done the same after getting back from a tour of Pacific beauty spots like Iwo Jima, in 1945; his father had done the Belleau Wood Tour de France in 1918 before settling down to feed the steel mills; and his father had gone straight into the mines after arriving from Finland in 1895. When the mines weren't hiring, the Havel men cut timber and worked the little farm the family had acquired around the turn of the century and did any sort of honest labor that fell their way.
Kenneth Larsson matched the grin and stood, extending a hand. It was soft but strong; the man behind it was in his late fifties, which made him twice Mike Havel's age; graying blond ponytail, shoulders still massive but the beer gut straining at his expensive leather jacket, square ruddy face smiling.
"Ken Larsson," he said.
"Pleased to meet you, Mr. Larsson. Havel's the name--Mike Havel."
"Sorry to drag you out so late in the day; Dan tells me you were on vacation."
Havel shrugged. "It's no trouble. I wouldn't be bush-flying out of Boise for a living if I didn't like it."
That brought a chuckle. You can see he's the type who likes to smile, Havel thought. But he hasn't been doing a lot of it just lately, and that one's a fake.
"Midwest?" Larsson said shrewdly. That was a lot to pick up from a few words. "Minnesota? Got some Svenska in there? We're Swedes ourselves, on my side of the family."
Not much of a surprise, with a moniker like that, Havel thought. Aloud he went on:
"Not too far off, both times. Michigan--Upper Peninsula, the Iron Range. Finn, mostly, on my father's side. Lot of Swede in Mom's father's family--and her mother was Ojibwa, so I'm one-quarter."
He ran a hand over his jet-black hair. "Purebred American mongrel!"
"Havel's an odd name for a Finn," Larsson said. "Czech, isn't it?
"Yeah. When my great-grandfather got to the Iron Range about a hundred years ago, the mine's Bohunk pay-clerk heard Myllyharju and said right then and there: From now on, your name is Havel!"
That got a real laugh; Signe Larsson looked charming when she smiled.
"My wife, Mary," Larsson went on, and did the introductions.
Her handshake was brief and dry. Mary Larsson was about forty, champagne-colored hair probably still natural, so slim she was almost gaunt. She had the same wide-eyed look as her younger daughter, except that it came across as less like an elf and more like an overbred collie, and her voice was pure Back Bay Boston, so achingly genteel that she didn't unclench her teeth even for the vowels.
That accent reminds me of Captain Stoddard, Havel though; the New Englander had led his Force Recon unit across the Iraqi berm back in '91. He had that thin build, too.
The son and eldest daughter were twins; both blue-eyed with yellow-blond hair, tall--the boy was already his father's six-two, which put him three inches up on Michael Havel, and built like a running back. Eighteen, the same age as the pilot had been when he left the Upper Peninsula for the Corps, but looking younger, and vaguely discontented. His sister...
Down boy! Havel thought. Jesus, though, I envy those hiphugger jeans.
An inch or three below his own five-eleven, short straight nose, dusting of freckles, and...
Jesus what a figure... twenty-eight isn't that old...
"Mike's one of my best," Dan said.
"Glad to hear it," Larsson senior said.
Everyone bustled around, signing forms and collecting coats. Havel helped with the baggage--there wasn't all that much--buttoning his coat but glad to be out in the clean chill. Then he did a walk-around of the Piper Chieftain. The ground crew was good, but they weren't going to be taking a twin-engine puddlejumper over the biggest wilderness in the lower forty-eight.
Larsson's eyebrows went up when Mike loaded his own baggage; a waterproof oblong of high-impact synthetics with straps that made it a backpack too, and the unmistakable shape of a rifle case.
"Something I should know about?" he said.
"Nope, Mr. Larsson," Mike said. "Just routine; I'm a cautious man.
Larsson nodded. "What's the gun?"
"Remington 700," he said. That was a civilianized version of the Marine sniper rifle. "I used its first cousin in the Corps, and it makes a good deer rifle, too."
Signe Larsson sniffed and turned away ostentatiously; possibly because he was an ex-Marine, or a hunter.
Oh, well, he thought. I'm dropping them off in a couple of hours, anyway.
Eric Larsson grinned at his sister with brotherly maliciousness. "Hey, maybe he could shoot you a tofu-lope, sis, now you're back on the vegetarian wagon. Nothing like a rare tofu-lope steak, charred outside and all white and bleeding goo on the inside--"
She snorted and climbed the rear-mounted stairs into the Chieftain.
Havel admired the view that presented, waited for everyone else to get in, and followed. He made discreetly sure that everyone was buckled up--it was amazing how many people thought money could buy them exemption from the laws of nature. Then he slid into his own position at the controls and put the headphones on, while he went through the checklist and cleared things with the tower and got his mind around the flight plan.
That had the bonus effect of keeping out the Larssons' bickering, which was quiet but had an undertone like knives. It died away a little as the two piston engines roared; he taxied out and hit the throttles. There was the usual heavy feeling at the first surge of acceleration, and the ground fell away below. His feet and hands moved on the pedals and yoke; Boise spread out below him, mostly on the north side of the river and mostly hidden in trees, except for the dome of the state capital and the scattering of tall buildings downtown.
Suburbs stretched northwest for a ways, and there was farmland to the west and south, a checkerboard between irrigation canals and ditches that glinted in quick flashes of brilliance as they threw back the setting sun.
He turned the Chieftain's nose northeast. The ground humped itself up in billowing curves, rising a couple of thousand feet in a few minutes. Then it was if they were flying over a mouth--a tiger's mouth, reaching for the sky with serrated fangs of saw-toothed granite. Steep ridges, one after another, rising to the great white peaks of the Bitterroots on the northeastern horizon, turned ruddy pink with sunset.
Some snow still lay on the crests below, and under the shade of the dense forest that covered the slopes--Douglas fir, hemlock, western cedar, great trees two hundred feet tall and spiky-green. Further north and they passed the Salmon river, then the Selway, torturous shapes far below in graven clefts that rivaled the Grand Canyon. A thousand tributaries wound through steep gorges, the beginnings of snowmelt sending them brawling and tossing around boulders; a few quiet stretches were flat and glittering with ice. The updrafts kept the air rough, and he read the turbulence through hands and feet and body as it fed back through the controls.
Larsson stuck his head through into the pilot's area.
"Mind if I come up?"
The big man wormed his way forward and collapsed into the copilot's seat.
"Pretty country," he said, waving ahead and down.
Pretty but savage, Havel thought.
He liked that; one of the perks of this job was that he got to go out in it himself, hunting or fishing or just backpacking... and you could get some of the hairiest hang-gliding on earth here.
"None prettier," the pilot replied aloud.
Poor bastard, Havel thought to himself. Good-looking wife, three healthy kids, big house in Portland, vineyard in the Eola Hills, ranch up in Montana--he knows he should be happy and can't quite figure out why he isn't any more.
He concealed any offensive stranger's sympathy, and switched the other set of headphones to a commercial station.
"Damndest thing!" the big man said after a while, his face animated again.
"Yes?" Havel said.
"Odd news from back East," Larsson said. "Some sort of electrical storm off Cape Cod--not just lightning, a great big dome of lights over Nantucket, half a dozen different colors. The weather people say they've never seen anything like it."
Mary Larsson brightened up; she was Massachusetts-born herself.
"That is strange," she said. "We used to summer on Nantucket when I was a girl--"
Mike Havel grinned to himself and filtered out her running reminiscences, and Larsson's occasional attempts to get a bit in edgewise; instead he turned to the news channel himself. The story had gotten her out of her mood, which would make the trip a lot less tense. Behind her the three Larsson children were rolling their eyes but keeping silent, which was a relief.
The voice of the on-the-spot reporter cruising over Nantucket Sound started to range up from awestruck to hysterical.
They're really sounding sort of worried, there, he thought. I wonder what's going--
White light flashed, stronger than lightning, lances of pain into his eyes, like red-hot spikes of ice. Havel tasted acid at the back of his throat as he jerked up his hands with a strangled shout. Vision vanished in a universe of shattered light, then returned. Returned without even after-images, as if something had been switched off with a click. The pain was gone too, instantly.
Voices screamed behind him. He could hear them well...
Because the engines are out, he realized. Every fucking thing is out! She's dead. And I'm a smear on a mountain unless I get this thing flying again.
That brought complete calm.
"Shut up!" he snapped, working the yoke and pedals, seizing control from the threatening dive and spin. "Keep quiet and let me work!"
Sound died to somebody's low whimper and the cat's muted yowls of terror. Over that he could hear the cloven air whistling by. They had six thousand feet above ground level, and the surface below was as unforgiving as any on earth. He gave a quick glance to either side, but the ridgetops nearby were impossible, far too steep and none of them bare of trees. It was a good thing he knew where all the controls were, because the cabin lights were dead, and the nav lights too; not a single circuit working.
Not good, he thought. Not good. Not... fucking... good.
He ran through the starting procedure, one step and another and hit the button...
Nothing, he cursed silently, as he went through the emergency restart three times and got three identical meaningless click sounds.
The engines are fucked. What the hell could knock everything out like this? What was that white flash?
It could have been an EMP, an electro-magnetic pulse; that would account for all the electrical systems being out. He sincerely hoped not, because about the only way to produce an EMP that powerful was to set off a nuke in the upper atmosphere.
The props were spinning as they feathered automatically. She still responded to the yoke--Thank God!--but even the instrument panel was mostly inert, everything electrical gone--the artificial horizon and altimeter were old-fashioned hydraulics and still working, and that was about it. The radio was completely dead, not even a flip of static as he worked the switches.
With a full load, the Chieftain wasn't a very good glider. They could clear the ridge ahead comfortably, but probably not the one beyond--they got higher as you went northeast. Better to put her down in this valley, with a little reserve of height to play around with.
"All right," he said, loud but calm as the plane silently floated over rocks and spots where the long straw-brown stems of last year's grass poked out through the snow.
"Listen. The engines are out and I can't restart them. I'm taking us down. The only flat surface down there is water. I'm going to pancake her on the creek at the bottom of the valley. It'll be rough, so pull your straps tight and then duck and put your heads in your arms. You, kid--"
Eric Larsson was in the last seat, near the rear exit.
"--when we stop, get that door open and get out. Make for the shore; it's a narrow stream. Everyone else follow him. Fast. Now shut up."
He banked the plane, sideslipping to lose altitude. Christ Jesus, it's dark down there.
There was still a little light up higher, but below the crestline he had to strain his eyes to catch the course of the water. The looming walls on either side were at forty-five degrees or better, it would have been like flying inside a closet with the light out if the valley hadn't pointed east-west, and the creek was rushing water over rocks fringed with dirty ice.
Thank God the moon's up.
He strained his eyes... yes, a slightly flatter, calmer section. It ended in a boulder about the size of the mobile home he lived in, water foaming white on both sides.
So I'll just have to stop short of that.
In. In. Sinking into night, shadow reaching up. Gliding, the valley walls rearing higher on either hand, trees reaching out like hands out of darkness to grasp the Piper and throw it into burning wreck. Lightly, lightly, bleed off speed with the flaps but don't let her stall, keep control...
Then he was nearly down, moving with shocking speed over the churning riffled surface silvered by moonlight.
"Brace for impact!" he shouted, and pulled the nose up at the last instant, straining at the control yoke. They were past the whitewater section; it should be deeper here.
"Come on, you bitch, do it!"
The tail struck, with a jolt that snapped his teeth together like the world's biggest mule giving him a kick in the ass. Then the belly of the Chieftain pancaked down on the water and they were sliding forward in a huge rooster-tail of spray, scrubbing speed off in friction. And shaking like a car with no shocks on a real bad road as they hit lumps of floating ice. Another chorus of screams and shouts came from the passengers, but he ignored them in the diamond clarity of concentration.
Too fast, he thought.
The boulder at the end of the flat stretch was rearing up ahead of him like God's flyswatter. He snarled at death as it rushed towards him and stamped on the left rudder pedal with all his strength and twisted at the yoke--the ailerons would be in the water and should work to turn the plane. If he could--
The plane swiveled, then struck something hard below the surface. That caught the airframe for an instant, and inertia punched them all forward before the aluminum skin tore free with a scream of rending metal.
Then they were pinwheeling, spinning across the water like a top in a fog of droplets and shaved ice as they slowed. Another groan from the frame, and he shouted as an impact wrenched at them again, brutally hard. Loose gear flew across the cabin like fists. Things battered him, sharp and gouging, and his body was rattled back and forth in the belt like a dried pea in a can, nothing to see, only a sense of confused rushing speed...
Then the plane was down by the nose and water was rilling in around his feet, shocking him with the cold. They were sinking fast, and there was almost no light now, just a gray gloaming far above.
With a gurgling rush the icewater swept over the airplane's cockpit windows.
Copyright © 2004 by S. M. Stirling
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