The doors closed with a hiss, and the cabin of the mountain cableway smoothly picked up speed as it was carried up at an ever-increasing rate. Kate stood facing the panoramic windows and could barely hold back her tears. That idiot had gone anyway. Left everything – her, his work; he just got up and went without even saying goodbye. He had nothing but contempt for all her persuasion, arguments, threats…
She had never found out which blathering fool had infected him with the stupid idea of going to Cape Town. Jerome had always been stubborn, but sometimes his stubbornness reached such heights that she found it hard to believe in his intellectual maturity. It was so easy to instil something into him, to infect him with an idea – just like a child. He was utterly dependent on his companions and was just like they were: no opinion of his own, only that of the group.
Jerome was sociable and, as suited his temperament, his companions formed quite a large group, so it was virtually a stone cold certainty that sooner or later, considering how they were drawn towards adventures, one of them would come up with a stupid idea.
When one of the dimwits in the group learned that there was to be an unofficial surfing championship in Cape Town this year, was Jerome going to miss such an event? No, not for anything! He was surfing mad and had once been ranked in the world’s top one hundred. He was forever grumbling that the official sport was too greatly commercialised, had lost its soul. It had become a way of making money rather than gaining satisfaction by riding along on the crest of a wave…
And now there was this championship in Cape Town, and a completely unofficial one at that, although it was rumoured that almost all the champions would be going. Or at least the ones who were still respected in the informal coterie of surfers for having remained true to the concept and not having sold their soul for money.
It was as if the fact that South Africa was virtually in a state of civil war was nothing to worry about. Obviously Jerome had not paid it any attention. Anyway, little things like that just add to the adrenalin.
It had all begun two months ago, when unprecedented riots broke out in Cape Town, occasioned by the latest summit of heads of state. Riots at such events were nothing new, but this time they did not end with the police throwing a few smoke canisters, squibs and fireworks.
At first everything had looked as it always did. The chanting of left-wing slogans, bangs from squibs, the howling of police sirens, some water from water cannons, clouds of tear gas rising up from gas grenades fired into the crowd. But at a certain moment, the situation got out of control. The crowd rushed against the barrier again, and this time the water cannon could not push it back. Witnesses among the police told of people literally going crazy, sweeping everything out of their way.
A small group of retreating policemen was cut off from the main group and forced into a narrow alley. The worst of the hotheads were kept at a distance by rubber bullets, but just a few minutes later, stones were thrown at the police. There was nowhere to run and they were pushed back against a high wall. Taking fright, they opened fire with lethal weapons. The demonstrators scattered, leaving eight wounded and four dead on the asphalt. For some time, an ominous silence fell on the city.
This happened in the morning and by lunchtime the news had spread all over the planet like wildfire. By evening, up to half a million people from all over Africa had gathered in Cape Town. This time they were armed, well armed, and it’s hard to get your head around what happened next.
The following day, the armed crowd rushed up to the cordon, opening fire as they went. Return fire followed immediately and, as a result, the number killed rose to dozens. Clashes continued as soon as the second wave arrived. The crowd succeeded in seizing several assault rifles and war broke out in the city.
The summit had to be called off and the heads of state made an emergency departure by helicopters. One escort helicopter was shot down, and eight Special Forces soldiers and both pilots were added to the list of those killed.
But the rioting did not end there, it only grew worse. The rioters, not having managed to exhaust their vengeance and hatred on the police defending the summit, turned their anger on ordinary citizens. A wave of robberies, attacks and murders began.
A state of emergency was declared in the city and a 200,000-strong peacekeeping force from four countries was brought in. For a month, it tried to restore order, engaged every day in what amounted to war in urban conditions.
When the most extreme hotheads were eventually driven out of the city or killed, a fragile peace was established in Cape Town, but riots flared up in other major cities. First Durban, then Johannesburg, and after that Pretoria. Other towns followed. All against all. The country sank into the chaos of civil war.
And that was where her boyfriend was going in search of adventure, to the very heart of it!
“But it’s all been quiet in Cape Town for a long time now!” Jerome had nonchalantly assured her, obviously not understanding what Kate was worried about. “There were riots, but they’re over!”
How much time she had spent explaining something that was obvious to any grown man – that it was stupid to risk your life just for more adventures, it was beyond madness. She had wept, got angry, begged him not to go, but Jerome had been immovable.
Though he had at least promised he’d think about it. That was yesterday evening. She had begun to hope he might change his mind but this morning, when she woke up, she found a note saying he’d be back in three weeks. Oh no he wouldn’t! He might come back in three weeks, but not to her. She was sick to death of his tricks, she’d had enough.
In less than five minutes, his things were dumped into two cardboard boxes, stamped on to pack everything in, and thrown out with the garbage.
En route to the cableway, Kate had still been shaking with rage. But now, the soft humming of the cabin’s electric motors, and the landscape opening up below, calmed her down. Her mood gradually changed to one of humiliation, helplessness and loneliness.
The world outside the window was immersed in semi-twilight when the cabin was enfolded in a layer of dense cloud. The lamps in the ceiling came on at once, adding to the sensation of cool comfort, and the mist outside the window gave the impression that she was actually in an aircraft being carried far away from her problems.
The clouds gradually disappeared as if scattered by a headwind, whistling barely audibly in the door cracks, and the cabin continued to gain height. It was now above the cloud blanket.
The artificial lighting in the cabin was switched off and replaced by the bright rays of the Sun filling everything with dazzling light. It was as if in passing through the cloud barrier, Kate had entered a new life, where there was no place for earthly concerns. All her worries, including those connected with her good-for-nothing boyfriend, had been left behind, down below. Here she would find only crystal clear air and the gigantic lenses of a telescope directed into the depths of space and the infinite abyss of the Universe.
The cabin had slowed down and was now crawling at a snail’s pace towards its destination, visible in the distance from the large viewing platform. Having reached the locking mechanism, it shook, something outside clicked loudly and the cable stopped. The doors made a hissing sound as they opened and cold dry air rushed in at once.
Kate hunched up, put on her woollen cardigan and buttoned it up. The wind here did not blow as it did lower down the island by the water, in gusts. Here, at an altitude of almost 6,500 feet, it blew constantly, never for a second loosening its icy grip. When the weather was really frosty (weather here only meant change of temperature, at an altitude of two kilometres there was virtually no precipitation), it was simply unbearable to stay outside. The wind pierced the body right through to the bones. She left the cabin at a brisk pace and set off to the gates.
The central administration building was a good hundred metres from the cableway station, which had been specially built for the staff of the star laboratory on Tenerife. Since the telescope complex was automated to the highest degree, and had one of the most advanced AIs on Earth, work here usually meant working alone. Staff members replaced each other but rarely met face to face so on the cableway, she almost always travelled in splendid isolation.
Inside, Kate found a small package on her desk. Turning it over in her hands in surprise, and not finding any explanatory note as to who had sent it or for what reason, she raised it to her ear and shook it cautiously. Judging from the dull sounds from inside, it contained sweets.
She hesitated briefly, then carefully opened the wrapping to find a tiny gift box of truffles inside. How perfectly timed! On this miserable morning, chocolates were just what she needed.
She made herself comfortable in her chair, switched on the console at her workplace and put a chocolate truffle in her mouth before taking a sip of her freshly-brewed coffee. The sweet aroma of cocoa and hot coffee certainly had a positive effect. Amazing! It only took a little mixture of simple ingredients to paint the world a different colour. Maybe things weren’t so bad after all? She took a deep breath and immersed herself in her work.
The speciality of the observatory on Tenerife was the observation of the central star of the Solar System, the Sun, whose activity had been increasing anomalously for at least five years now. The number of astronomers throughout the world had also increased and they were gradually beginning to get worried about this phenomenon.
Magnetic storms had become abnormally frequent, and their intensity had increased so much over the last five years that it had been necessary to review their classification. The strongest storms in the good old days were no more than average storms as the matter was understood today. And the storms now considered strong were previously thought of as nothing less than cosmic whirlwinds.
Kate rapidly skimmed through the main astronomical news of her observatory and all the other observatories on Earth over the past night. She dwelt only on the large-type headlines denoting particularly important events.
“Another ten-thousand-year storm has been recorded,” read one such headline over a short article. She grinned. An amusing combination of words: “another ten-thousand-year storm”. It did not seem to bother the author that such events had happened as many as four times in the past two years.
Although the magnetic storms passed unnoticed by most of the planet’s inhabitants, silently raging away somewhere out in space, the severe storms nevertheless caused quite a lot of inconvenience. Apparatus, particularly of the high-precision kind, began to play up. Here and there, in various countries, mobile communication would not work, and in some places the electricity supply failed due to short-circuiting at the substations.
The worst affected were the satellites. Each such space storm put dozens of them out of action. It was said that one big insurance company specialising in the insurance of space apparatus had even gone bankrupt after having to pay compensation for a whole group of space-based apparatus that had become unserviceable at the same time.
Kate read the article and ran her eyes over the main parameters of the oncoming storm, then minimised the document and returned to the readings of the tracking instruments for the past 48 hours. Another “ten-thousand-year storm” (to use the terminology of the article) had taken place on the Sun and was now approaching Earth. According to the preliminary calculations of her observatory’s central computer, in thirty minutes its intensity would reach its peak and it would not die down till the end of next week. Good grief, it wasn’t just very strong, it was also of unusually long duration. If Kate had been writing the news, she might have described it as a “hundred-thousand-year storm”.
She took another truffle from the box and carefully placed it in her mouth, as if fearing it might collapse on its way there. Groping with her free hand, without taking her eyes off the monitor screen, she firmly closed the box and pushed it away from her, so as not to be tempted by the intensive aroma from these small pieces of cocoa-sprinkled art.
Apart from the typical inconveniences caused by the magnetic storms, flares of solar activity had recently become increasingly strongly correlated with the riots raging with unprecedented ferocity on every continent on Earth. The events in Cape Town during the last summit had coincided precisely with the peak of such a storm.
Her thoughts drifted back to Cape Town and her good-for-nothing boyfriend, who at that moment was no doubt lying somewhere on a South African beach with a cocktail in his hand, and Kate had to make an effort to push them away.
Here on Tenerife, there was no reason to fear large-scale riots, because there were no large towns on the island. All the same, these storms gave Kate a headache. Her observatory specialised in studying the Sun, so as soon as the next cosmic storm appeared on the horizon, her telephone rang constantly with calls from journalists from everywhere on the planet.
It wasn’t just that explanations to one interested party after another took up a lot of her time, they also kept on misquoting her. In search of a sensation, phrases she had used were taken out of context and given a panicked tone.
The news channels, whether by agreement or not, had played a dirty trick on her. All the reports about disturbances on the Sun were accompanied by her photograph, shamelessly taken from the observatory’s webpage. Not only that, it was probably the worst photo of her ever taken. She was now renowned throughout the world as “Miss Cosmic Storm”.
The first call was not long in coming as Kate compiled the preliminary analysis for predicting the basic parameters of the storm. Those were the rules. Their observatory had to warn spacecraft operators, power companies, ships, aircraft and everything else sensitive to cosmic bad weather. She could have just ignored the ringing, of course, but the boss had forbidden it. This sort of publicity aroused people’s interest, including those with money. After each interview, particularly one with a photo of the pretty astronomer, contributions flooded in (and for Kate, dinner invitations).
She looked at the phone and let it go on for several rings in the hope that the caller would lose patience and hang up, but in vain. She sighed and pressed the ‘Connect’ button.
“Observatorio del Teide, Reyes.”
“Good morning, miss. I am a journalist and would like to ask you a few questions about the forthcoming magnetic storm warning,” replied a voice in quite good but rather slow Spanish, with a strong English accent.
“Hello,” replied Kate in English to speed up the conversation. Studying at Oxford had polished her English to the extent that she could speak it as fluently as her native language. “Fine, if it won’t take too long.”
“Thank you!” The caller’s voice immediately switched to English, enabling them to converse much more quickly. “First question. Is it true that a gigantic magnetic storm is moving towards us?”
“Well, gigantic is not quite the correct description, but you are basically right. The ejection of solar material was really strong,” replied Kate. Unlike her colleagues, she had taught herself to speak to non-specialists in language they could understand, using incomprehensible terms only sparingly.
“Your colleagues from another observatory think that this time the storm will be so strong that serious cataclysms can be expected.”
“As far as I know, this is the first time we have experienced such a storm…”
“So the rumours about a mega-storm are not an exaggeration?”
“I don’t know what these rumours you refer to are, but the storm is a strong one. We are conducting observations of such phenomena as the ejection of solar material, which has been causing magnetic storms here on Earth for a relatively short period in cosmic terms, only for about two hundred years. Over this time, we have not really observed a storm on this scale before. However, that does not mean this is the first time mankind has been faced with such a cosmic phenomenon, just that we did not have any electronic apparatus to record it or be affected by it so they passed us by unnoticed.”
“What effect does it have on people?”
“It does have some effect. You may get a headache, feel out of sorts, but that will probably be all, even this time. Humans are not creatures who react strongly to changes in the magnetic field.”
“So our lives are not threatened by this storm?”
“If you are expecting the sky to fall down or for us all to be struck by lightning, then no.”
“Maybe it will not have a huge effect on the body, but it is thought that the storm will have some effect on the mind.”
“I can’t say anything about that, it isn’t my specialty. It seems to me that you know more about this question than I do. I and my colleagues here at the observatory only study the astronomical consequences of solar activity. You’d do better to ask a doctor about how the storms make people feel.”
“Tell me, how much does the intensity of this storm exceed the norm? Maybe from that we could draw some sort of conclusions about what awaits us?”
“Do you mean its effect on people or on machines?”
“More on people. Yes, I’m more interested in people’s health.”
“You can hardly expect a reliable answer from me, I’m not a doctor. But on the whole, small storms pass by unnoticed, while others of only slightly greater intensity can suddenly bring a whole host of problems. In a certain sense, their effect is nonlinear, to put it in scientific language, therefore it is difficult to predict.”
“You mean no forecasts are possible?”
“Not scientific ones, no. Purely speculative forecasts are always possible, but we do not make them. We deal in science.”
Hitting his head painfully on the back of the bed, John woke up. As an old sea dog who had spent most of his time away from dry land since becoming an adult, he usually did not react to the caprices of the weather when it decided to play around with the ship. So what, a bit of bad weather, it happened at least once a fortnight.
But this time the huge tanker was being tossed up and down as if it were a small fishing boat. If he hadn’t been so tired after a long shift that had ended several hours ago, he would probably have begun to worry – the icy waters of the leaden ocean outside were really throwing the ship around. The elements were raging in earnest. In spite of his nineteen years at sea, he could not remember a storm like this.
He stretched out his hand to the switch directly above his bunk and switched on the light, flooding the cabin with dim light. His neighbour’s towel, hanging on the back of his bed, was swinging from side to side in time with the ship. He couldn’t hear any snoring, so his neighbour must be on watch. He didn’t envy him that in such weather, he really didn’t.
John himself had been lucky this time. On taking up his post the previous morning, the first thing he did was to look at the weather forecast. Along their route, a fair-sized weather front was moving in from the south. Storm-force winds and intensive rain with thunder and lightning were expected. If the front held its course, there was a reasonably good chance that it would pass them by unnoticed.
Unfortunately, instead of the weather front slowing down, it had speeded up and covered their ship by the evening. The tanker maintained its course and found itself at the very heart of the bad weather.
After handing over the watch, John went outside briefly for some fresh air on the way back to his cabin. Standing on the deck and taking deep breaths to fill his lungs with oxygen and get ready for sleep, he groaned as he looked towards the south, from where leaden, almost black clouds were creeping in. Lightning flashed every now and then, illuminating the clouds from within and making the picture look even more ominous than before. The thunder could not yet be heard, but experience suggested that he would surely have to sleep with earplugs in tonight. As for the rocking… In this respect, experienced sailors are like children. The more it rocks, the better they sleep.
The extreme bad weather was throwing the tanker about on the waves, making her groan as if in real physical pain. Like a wounded beast, the ship shuddered along the length of its huge metal structure. Although mildly choppy seas were hardly noticeable on such a gigantic vessel, a severe storm could still stop you sleeping. Today, even his seagoing experience was not enough to guarantee undisturbed sleep.
A mighty wave struck the ship’s side once again, making the towel swing even more vigorously. The lamp flickered, plunging the cabin into semi-darkness for an instant, then came back on again.
Something was not right. An invisible mist of alarm hung in the air. John could not see it, and it was nothing to do with the dim light, but he could feel it subconsciously. At critical moments, he sometimes imagined he could smell danger, that he could literally sense its odour in the air.
It was nonsense, of course. Danger has no smell. Bad weather, thunder, storm-force winds – they have a smell. The turbulent ocean smells different at such moments. Severe bad weather had quite often caused emergency situations, or worse. Over the long years, his subconscious had got into the habit of filling his head with alarming thoughts as soon as the weather took a turn for the worse.
What had happened to Severin, for instance, some five years ago. This young lad, whose cabin had been at the other end of the corridor, had somehow got the bright idea of leaving the bridge during a storm without bothering about a safety line. The bridge itself was the height of a twenty-storey building above the surface of the water and the waves could not reach him. Its windows kept being splashed by waves hitting the ship below, but they were unable to reach the very top. Ship’s regulations strictly forbade such actions, but Severin was alone on the bridge and there was no-one around to stop him. He opened the door and went out, probably for a breath of fresh air or a smoke. At that moment, an unusually high wave covered the bridge from the very top, taking the young seaman with it.
An hour and a half later, when his replacement, Rajesh, found no-one on watch, he did not realise what had happened at first. As he explained later, he thought that Severin had gone to the head. But after five minutes had elapsed, he realised there was something wrong and quickly looked in every corner where his shipmate might be concealed. Failing to find him, he looked at the CCTV recording.
When it became clear what had happened, the tanker was already forty nautical miles from the ill-fated place where Severin had been swept into the sea. Even in a storm of moderate intensity, as on that day, a search would have been hopeless due to limited visibility, oncoming darkness, and ignorance of the precise coordinates of where the man had been swept overboard. Severin had been dressed in an ordinary sweater, sports shirt and jeans, which at a sea water temperature of 41 degrees Fahrenheit meant certain death within half an hour. By the time the crew discussed plans to rescue him, he was certainly no longer alive. The master took the decision not to return to search for him and continued on course.
John listened with bated breath for a few seconds, not that it made any difference in the roar of the raging elements, and thought he could hear rapid steps somewhere above him. Someone ran past at full pelt, loudly slamming a door. There was nothing unusual in the crew dashing about on a night like this. When high seas are running, there is always something happening, or breaking loose, or smashing. The crew now on watch would have to run to put things right.
Something like a cry of despair suddenly reached John’s ears from the depths of the steel monster groaning under the impact of the waves. He screwed up his eyes as he strained to hear, but at the very next moment, another wave washed over the ship’s side, filling the interior with dull sound. The cry either stopped or was simply drowned out in the noise and when the wave fell back and settled down, it was no longer audible. Or had there never been a cry? He knew his ship well enough to be sure that when bending under the force of the elements acting on it from all sides, she might produce any sound, creating the impression that somewhere in her depths there was a wild beast roaring or a baby crying inconsolably.
John hunched up. It was always colder in his cabin than he liked. In all his time at sea, the only thing he had never gotten used to was the cold, although he didn’t mind it when jumping into icy water. Plunging into the foaming liquid, the first few seconds caught his breath and it seemed his heart was about to stop, but this quickly passed and left him feeling unusually exhilarated. What really irritated him was the light cold draught that sneaked in treacherously from the corridor and made the whole cabin as cold as a tomb. This cold ran across the floor and filled the space as it crept upwards. No, he had never managed to get used to it.
He lay where he was for a few more seconds, putting off the moment he would have to jump out from under the blanket, wondering if it was worth getting something warm from the closet. Then he threw the blanket off him quickly and stood up. He hurried across to the closet and got out a warm but exceptionally prickly blanket and ran back to his bunk. His feet felt frozen stiff at once. John threw on the blanket and, after a few seconds, felt a pleasant warmth enveloping him. Now even the bad weather outside didn’t bother him. As for the blood-curdling sounds… Well, you could ignore them if you tried.
As soon as he closed his eyes, he felt sleepy. In a little while, his consciousness would be immersed in the world of dreams, leaving unpleasant reality outside. The woollen blanket was doing its job splendidly and he was thoroughly warm now. He put out the light in the cabin. The sounds of the storm were gradually beginning to die away in his head when the sound of a shot penetrated his fatigued consciousness.
It was as if an electric shock had passed through his body and his sleepiness vanished instantly. What was it? Shooting? Or had he imagined it? Watches on board ship often lasted for a day or more, and John knew that after a certain level of fatigue, the body, on hitting the pillow, would never get to sleep despite the fatigue. It seemed to be buzzing and wouldn’t let the brain relax. On such nights he would sleep superficially, periodically waking up from nightmares. Was his tired mind playing tricks on him or was there really something wrong happening on the ship?
Experience at sea suggested that when in doubt, check it out. Better not to waste time on useless guesses. He threw off the blanket and got out of bed, quickly put on his trousers, threw on a shirt and pulled a sweater over it. He groped for his shoes in the dark, put them on and tied his shoelaces. Then, trying not to make a noise, he went to the door, cautiously opened it a little and looked along the corridor as far as he could through the narrow crack, first one way, then the other.
There wasn’t a soul in the corridor. Everything looked normal, nothing suspicious. John opened the door a little wider. Of course, to an outsider, he would look like an idiot now, fearfully sneaking a glance into the corridor, but if there really was something wrong, it would not be very wise just to stroll around the ship. Better safe than sorry.
He carefully took a step into the corridor and closed the door behind him as quietly as he could. After thinking for a few seconds, he fetched the key and locked it. That flimsy lock would not even withstand a good kick, but at least if the door was closed, it would indicate that no-one else had been in there in his absence.
John slowly went in the direction of the stairway to the bridge. Here in the corridor, the severe weather made itself felt even more resoundingly than inside his cabin, making it sound even more ominous. The bright light illuminating the staircase gave him courage. In his attempt to move as quietly as possible, he had involuntarily stooped over. Now, he was rather ashamed of his fears. Good grief, just like a total greenhorn! He quickly ascended several flights, no longer paying attention to the sound of his footsteps, and soon reached the bridge.
To his surprise, there was not a soul there. He went up to the navigation instruments and glanced at the screens. Everything looked normal. The ship was proceeding along its course. It was more than 600 miles to the nearest dry land, not counting some tiny uninhabited islands to the starboard.
The radar picture was constantly recorded by the computer throughout the voyage. He switched on the recording and wound it back several hours. Cargo ships and other tankers had passed them several times at a considerable distance, but not a single vessel of any kind had approached them in all that time. As was to be expected.
John went right up to the panoramic window and looked out. The ship was illuminated by powerful floodlights, but the bows could not be seen because of the heavy rain. The bright lighting inside the bridge prevented him from seeing the ocean. Instead, there seemed to be an absolutely black abyss all around him, with only occasional light wave crests visible here and there.
The ship, running into the next wave, rose up, reached the peak, stopped for a few moments and then rushed down the other side. As the bow end hit the water, tons of foaming water shot up into the air on both sides, clearly visible in the illumination of the floodlights. In such weather, there was no possibility of boarding the ship from the sea or the air.
He turned back to the monitors and started looking at the relays from the observation cameras. Pressing a button, he switched from one camera to another. Most of them were not providing images. This was strange. Cameras occasionally became unserviceable and this happened more frequently in bad weather, but not this many at once.
John switched to the next camera, which showed the crew room. Instead of the usual image of a large table in the centre and a number of sofas around the walls, there was only a blank screen. He pressed a button, trying to switch on the camera, and the image appeared at once. So it was not broken, it had only been switched off. Perhaps the others were not broken, either. Who on earth would want to switch off the cameras?
He looked more carefully at the picture. The cabin was empty and there was nothing suspicious about its appearance. He could see an open bottle in a cup holder standing on the table next to the long sofa on which Miguel usually sat. Although the image was not very clear, the choppy sea was shaking the beer about so that even from where he was, he could distinguish a layer of light foam close to the neck. Miguel had let an open bottle still full of beer out of his hands? Now that was something new!
Suddenly, in the corner of the image, something grey bolted towards the door. Had he imagined it? John pressed the recording rewind button, but all he saw was a message in the centre of the screen:
RECORDING NOT AVAILABLE
For some reason, the image from the camera had not been recorded…
He again began to feel worried. The crew room was six decks below the bridge and was accessible both by the internal staircase and the external one. If he chose the dry, warm and safe route – the internal one – he would not be able to reach the crew room without making a noise. Footsteps on the steel stairs could be heard inside the staircase from two decks above and below.
John considered if it was worth taking the risk to try and get there by going outside. The risk was considerable, since the storm was still raging furiously. Apart from the danger of being washed overboard, he might simply be blown off by the wind. The case of Severin was still fresh in his memory.
Although there were special ropes on board for use in extreme weather conditions, attachable to a broad belt around the waist, his body resisted the idea of going outside to face the raging storm. He didn’t want to, but it looked as if he’d have to… The thing was, his clothing was not suitable for walking about outside, where the air temperature could be as low as 47 degrees Fahrenheit.
John went to the closet where the emergency suits were kept. Taking the first one to hand, he slipped into it. It was of thick rubber, orange on the outside, and smelled not only of rubber but also of fish and the sea. Pulling the hood over his head, he quickly zipped up the suit from crotch to chin. It fitted snugly around his body and head.
Pulling the hood cord down, he tied it so that only the oval of his face was exposed, from just below his mouth to just above his eyes. All the rest was protected from the cold and water by a layer of rubber. Now for the safety rope.
He stepped right up to the closet. The rubber of the suit created a sound familiar to his ears with every movement he made. Feeling about in the closet, he pulled out a rope, put on its belt with a wide strap on one side, groped for the snap hook on the other end and moved towards the door to the outside.
No sooner had he got outside than he was hit in the face by a shower of icy splashes that beat all over his suit, but the rubber prevented the water and cold from reaching his body. The drops of water and rain beating mercilessly against the suit were even pleasant in a way, something like a massage.
John lost no time in taking the snap hook to the handrail and pressing hard on it until it clicked tight. Making sure he was firmly attached, he finally released the grip of his other hand on the rail and, stepping carefully, began to descend the iron staircase.
Every twenty seconds, a shower of splashes hit him as the next wave struck against the ship’s side. In the intervals in between, intense rain poured over him as if trying, in combination with the gusty wind, to deliberately knock him off his feet.
He descended the staircase placing his feet as far apart as his suit would allow, holding onto the handrails with both hands. The raging storm created such a roar that there was no fear of his heavy footsteps being heard. Stepping so unguardedly on the corrugated metal steps in clear weather, the noise would surely have been heard some hundred feet away, but now all sounds were drowned out by the roar of the wind and the noise of the leaden water of the ocean raging twenty metres below.
Having gone down four flights to the deck two decks below, he stopped to get his breath. The cookhouse, which would normally be empty at night, was on this deck. John went up to the porthole and looked in. The main lighting was switched off, but the diode lights set in the floor still marked out the passageways. In the otherwise total darkness, their light was sufficient to enable him to see something of the interior.
There appeared to be some sort of movement in the far corner and he pressed closer to the porthole, but the drops of water on the glass made the already poor visibility even worse. He leaned back and passed one hand over the glass to wipe away the splashes, but the rubber suit could hardly have been worse for this purpose. It stuck to the glass and refused to slide across it.
He took one glove in his teeth and pulled his hand out of it, keeping his grip on the handrail with the other. Suddenly, there was a bright flash of lightning, illuminating everything around him for a moment. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the shadow of a huge wave. His heart instantly sank into his boots. He feverishly reached out with his bare hand for the nearest handrail, but his bare wet palm only slid along the metal without being able to grip it. At the next moment, the wave hit the ship’s side, broke up into a billion big splashes and came down on him like a waterfall. The impact was so strong that he could not hold on with one hand, was swept off his feet and thrown against the handrail. He was hit painfully in the stomach and caught his breath as the upper part of his body toppled over the handrail. He couldn’t hold on and flew down towards the ocean.
The rush hour in the subway, whether morning or evening, was the very time David hated the most. People, pressed together like sardines in a tin, stood swaying slightly with blank faces, waiting for their stop. Unfortunately he did not have a car, and it was too far to travel between work and home twice a day on foot or by bicycle. So he had to put up with these daily journeys, shutting himself off mentally by putting on headphones and turning up the volume.
He felt much more at ease immersed in the world of electronic music. There, in the computer world, was where he lived. He only appeared here in the real world when circumstances required – and did so very unwillingly. If it hadn’t been for the need to pay the bills, he would have kept his contact with people to a minimum. It was so hard, having to waste so much time with them in various stupid and pointless conversations…
Unexpectedly, the carriage braked sharply, filling its interior with the unbearable screeching of metal wheels against steel rails. The whole crowd was shifted forward by inertia, carrying David with it. The train stopped and became silent.
David sighed with irritation. Tired after a long working day, all he could think of was finally getting home, taking a shower, eating and flopping down on the sofa. Now the moment when his back would touch the soft sofa had been postponed indefinitely while the subway train stood here in this damned tunnel.
“Attention please!” A loud voice rang out from the loudspeaker. David pulled the headphones off one ear.
“For technical reasons, traffic in the tunnel has been suspended for an indefinite period. Please exit the carriage and proceed along the emergency platform in the direction in which the train was moving to the next station. We apologise for the inconvenience.”
The people in the carriage started grumbling. Several indignant comments were heard and an instant later, a sound arose like the murmuring of innumerable bees.
“This is unheard-of!”
“I’m not going anywhere!”
“I haven’t paid good money to walk along a stinking tunnel!!”
David wearily closed his eyes and passed his palm across his face. He just didn’t have the strength for indignation, he was just too tired. And he didn’t see much point in shouting at the empty air anyway.
He stood still for a little longer, waiting for people to start leaving the carriage, but it seemed that most of them preferred to stay where they were to demonstrate their anger at this monstrous injustice. It was a waste of time and, in particular, a waste of the time he had to rest before the next working day began.
Realising that nothing was happening, he finally decided to act. He pulled the headphones off completely, wound the cord around them and put them in his pocket. After looking around, he touched a man in a dark coat standing in front of him on the shoulder.
“Let me pass, please.”
The man turned around, leaving the way free for him as far as was possible in such a packed crowd. David pushed past him with difficulty, and also past several other passengers, who gave way before him as they felt the movement behind them. Reaching the door, he pressed the emergency release button. Something squeaked in the doors in front of him, but the two halves stayed in place. He grabbed the handle of one door and pulled it sideways. The door gave way, leaving a clear exit.
The emergency platform was only three paces away. David jumped and felt his shoes sink into the soft soil of the tunnel. It felt like some sort of disgusting mess. He looked around. The platform was raised a good metre above the ground. It wouldn’t be easy to climb onto it, he needed steps. A little way ahead of him he saw something of the sort and, listening to the squelching of his shoes in the mud, he set off in that direction. The commotion from the train was still echoing all along the tunnel.
After several steps, he noticed that the noise had ceased. He stopped and looked back in surprise. It turned out that the whole carriage was watching what he was doing with interest, like birds in the wilderness, incapable of taking any initiative themselves. David shrugged his shoulders and continued on his way.
When he had climbed onto the platform, he saw before him a tablet shining with a dull green light in the darkness. If it was to be believed, it was about a mile to the next station, but a hundred yards away in the opposite direction there was an emergency exit to the surface.
There was no sense in going on to the next station, since traffic appeared to have stopped on the entire branch line, so David decided to make for the emergency exit. When he reached it he found it was a well with iron rungs leading vertically upwards.
Without pause for thought, he clambered up. Fortunately the subway line was not very deep, it seemed to him. There was no illumination in the well, so he scrambled upwards by sense of touch, hoping not to stumble on anything in the darkness. He could hear the revolting squeaking of rats all around him.
A minute later, and shuddering with revulsion, he reached the hatch. Moving the heavy iron disc to one wide, he stood open-mouthed – instead of the starry night sky, he saw wavy green strips. The Northern Lights were spread out before him.
The Northern Lights in these latitudes?
David crawled out, shook himself and looked around, hoping to find out where he was. He was now standing in the middle of a pavement and it did not appear to be a street he knew. After turning around and around a few times in a vain attempt to see at least one familiar landmark, tall building or TV tower, he got out his smartphone. The ‘No Signal’ icon showed up in the corner of the screen.
He smiled ironically and switched on the map. There was no dark blue spot indicating his current position. Apparently the smartphone was awaiting a signal from the navigation satellites enabling it to determine his position. Time went by, but the spot did not appear. Eventually a message came up:
NO SIGNAL. DEAR USER, SIGNALS FROM THE NAVIGATION SATELLITES ONLY COVER THE DIRECT VISIBILITY ZONE. PLEASE MAKE SURE THERE ARE NO TALL BUILDINGS BLOCKING YOUR VIEW OF THE SKY.
He looked around sceptically. To the right there was just emptiness, a huge field overgrown with weeds with a low wire fence around it. Most of the paint had flaked off the wire and the fence itself was sagging in several places.
In front and behind there was only the pavement without a single tree, to the left of which ran a broad street. The nearest building was a gas station about a hundred metres away, little more than two storeys high. He sighed in disappointment, put his smartphone back in his pocket and set off for the gas station.
The lights were still on inside, but the flimsy door was locked. David pulled it back and forth a few times, but in vain. Then he knocked on the glass. The scared face of a young salesgirl peeked out from behind the counter.
“We’re closed!” she shouted, shaking her head.
“I only want to ask you something!” he shouted in reply through the glass of the closed door.
The salesgirl hesitated a few seconds, then signalled him to come over. David obediently approached the window, which had a talking device installed. He bent over the silver chest-level microphone.
“Thank you, miss. Could you call me a taxi?”
She nodded, lifted the receiver of the nearby telephone and began dialling a number, but stopped before completing it. Then she pressed ‘Disconnect’ several times. Obviously not satisfied with the result, she pressed it a few more times.
“I’m sorry, sir, the telephone isn’t working,” she replied with a slightly apologetic look.
The situation was gradually beginning to irritate David. He swore to himself.
“Tell me, how do I get to Fulton Park?”
The salesgirl gestured towards the road.
“Go along this street as far as the bridge, then turn left at the first intersection. That street crosses Fulton Street, so you should be able to manage from there.”
“How far is it, do you know?”
She shook her head.
“I’ve no idea, I only come here by car. But on foot, I think it should take about an hour and a half.”
David swore under his breath, thanked her and went back to the street. Maybe he could hitch a ride.
He stood under a street light to make himself well visible and started thumbing. Cars flashed by one after another as if they hadn’t seen him. Looking after the tenth car to ignore him, he returned to the pavement and started walking.
The street looked an unnatural colour, reflecting the green Northern Lights. Looking up, he could see the strips of light high in the sky, waving slightly as if being blown by the wind. If it had been his day off, the evening would have been ideal for a walk in the fresh air. The light created a pleasant atmosphere of the unusual and mysterious.
Since moving to the city four years ago, this was the first time David had walked in this part of it. Looking around him, he could not say that it was a place he would like to live. He himself lived in a district that was not one of the most expensive, but it was certainly better than this one. Scruffy buildings, garbage on the pavements, stray dogs; there were none of these where he lived.
He had already passed three vacant lots and there were houses dotted about, once lived in but now abandoned, with windows broken or wide open. A light from a wood fire could be seen in one of them. What a depressing place!
He looked far ahead of him. Where the city centre ought to be, a strange reddish light could be seen. David’s apartment block was at the other end of town, but its windows looked out directly onto the city centre. He had often admired the skyline with its range of different-coloured lights as he sat nursing a beer on his balcony. But he could not remember any illumination like this.
Half an hour later, he saw the bridge over the river that the salesgirl had mentioned. To his dismay, David noticed a group of people standing right in the middle of it. Somewhere within him he felt an unpleasant foreboding and decided to wait in the next side street till they had gone. He was a stranger here and did not know the ways of the local riffraff, so better safe than sorry.
Without changing pace, he turned into the next side street as if that was where he had meant to go all along and stopped in the shadows, never taking his eyes off the bridge, where they were arguing loudly about something, as if trying to sort something out. This went on for several minutes, then two people suddenly separated from the crowd. One of them was leading the other, who had his hands behind him as if they were tied. Leading him to the edge of the bridge, he started shouting in his face. From where he stood, David could not make out the words, but the sense of the ‘discussion’ was clear.
Suddenly another one left the crowd, went up to the first two and extended his hand towards the second one. At that distance, it was not possible to see clearly what he was holding in his hand, but the gesture was quite unambiguous – he was aiming a gun at him.
[END OF THIS SAMPLE]