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«Without warning», John Birmingham

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Everyone’s eyes fixed on the screen, where an impeccably groomed Eurasian woman with a perfectly modulated BBC voice was struggling to maintain her composure.’… vanished. Communications links are apparently intact and fully functional, but remain unresponsive. Inbound commercial flights are either returning to their points of origin or being diverted to Halifax and Edmonton in Canada, or to airports throughout the West Indies, all of which remain unaffected so far.’

 

The women all began to chatter at once, much to Caitlin’s annoyance. On screen the BBC’s flustered anchorwoman explained that the ‘event horizon’ seemed to extend down past Mexico City, out into the Gulf, swallowing most of Cuba, encompassing all of the continental US and a big chunk of south-eastern Canada, including Montreal. Caitlin had no idea yet what she meant by the term ‘event horizon’, but it didn’t sound friendly. A hammer started pounding on the inside of her head as she watched the reporter stumble through the rest of her read.

 

‘… from a Canadian air base have not returned. US Naval flights out of Guantanamo Bay, at the southern tip of Cuba, have likewise dropped out of contact at the same point, seventy kilometres north of the base. Reuters is reporting that attempts by US military commanders at Guantanamo to contact the Castro government in Havana have also failed.’

 

Caitlin realised that the background buzz of the hospital had died away in the last few minutes. She heard a metallic clatter as a tray fell to the floor somewhere nearby. Caitlin had a passing acquaintance with the Pitiй-Salpкtriиre. There had to be nearly three thousand people in this hospital and at that moment they were all silent, the only human sounds coming from the television sets that hung in every room and ward, a discordant clashing of French and English voices, all of them speaking in the same clipped, urgent tone.

 

‘The Prime Minister, Mr Blair, has released a statement calling for calm and promising to devote the full resources of the British Government to resolving the crisis. A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed that British forces have gone onto full alert, but that NATO headquarters in Brussels has not yet issued any such orders. The Prime Minister rejected calls by the Social Democrats to immediately recall British forces deployed in the Middle East for expected operations against the regime of Saddam Hussein.’

 

‘That’d be fookin’ right,’ Aunty Celia muttered to herself.

 

The reporter was about to speak again when she stopped, placing a hand to one ear, obviously taking instructions from her producer.

 

‘Right, thank you,’ she said before continuing. ‘We have just received these pictures from a low-orbit commercial satellite that passed over the eastern seaboard of America a short time ago.’

 

The screen filled up with black-and-white still shots of New York. The imagery was not as sharp as some of the mil-grade stuff Caitlin had seen over the years, but it was good enough to easily pick out individual vehicles and quite small buildings.

 

‘This picture shows the centre of New York, as of twenty-three minutes ago,’ said the reporter. ‘Our technical department has cleaned up the image, allowing us to pull into a much tighter focus.’

 

Caitlin recognised Times Square from above. She quickly estimated the virtual height as being about two thousand metres, before the view reformatted down to something much closer, probably about five or six hundred feet. The Beeb’s IT guys were good. It was a remarkably clear image, but profoundly disturbing. Her brief curse was lost in the gasps and swearing of the other women. Fires, frozen in one frame of satellite imagery, burned throughout the square where hundreds of cars had smashed into each other. Smoke and flames also poured out from a few buildings. Buses and yellow cabs had run up onto the footpath and in some cases right into shopfronts and building facades. But nothing else moved. The photograph seemed to have captured an unnatural, ghostly moment. Not because they were looking at a still shot of a great metropolis in the grip of some weird, inexplicable disaster. But because nowhere in that eerie black-and-white image of one of the busiest cities in the world was there a single human being to be seen.

 

*  *  *

*

2

NORTH CASCADES NATIONAL PARK, WASHINGTON STATE

 

The lower reaches of the Cascades never failed to impress James Kipper. Dropping his backpack for a five-minute rest and a drink of water, he rewarded himself for the morning’s trek with a moment staring down the long, deeply wooded valley up which he had climbed. Snow lay in patches along the well-beaten trail and dropped in wet clumps from the sagging branches of fir and pine which covered the gentle slopes below him in a dense green carpet. He loved it out here. Nature was so powerful, the hand of man so light, you could have been hundreds of years removed from the twenty-first century. The brisk but unseasonably sunny morning had made hiking up the remote valley a rare pleasure for the senses. The air was fragrant with sap and the rich, brown mulch of earth warmed by the sun for the first time in months. A breeze, just strong enough to set the treetops swaying, carried the natural white noise of a nearby stream, running heavy with an early melt. As he stood at the edge of a small plateau he could imagine the landscape below dotted with castles and mounted knights. As the father of a little girl just lately in school, knights and castles and fairytales were seldom far from his mind these days.


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