Friday, December 14, 2007

The Day After Tomorrow

Jack Hall stared into his microscope, trying not to let his freezing-cold hands shake the equipment. Outside, the antarctic wind shook the tiny mobile lab. He'd come far for these precious ice cores. The story they had to tell was urgent, maybe very urgent. And now at last he was looking back along the years, back past season after season, layer after layer of ice.

Back his eyes swept through time, past the Middle Ages and the Roman Empire, to the time before Egypt, when the ice got clean and pure and then -- not.

There it was, the layer he was looking for, the year hell had ridden the winds of the world. The ice was thick; the layer was complex, full of particles, irregular. To his expert eye, it told the story of a monster that had marched through planet Earth back then, a storm beyond the wildest limit of the imagination.

He'd read the fossil record, of course. He even knew the time of year the storm had taken place. It had happened in June. North polar temperatures were spiking to eighty degrees Fahrenheit. The fossil record revealed that a herd of mammoths had been placidly feeding on daisies not far from a blooming apple tree when, literally as they chewed their food, they had been frozen solid and the world around them transformed into a roaring arctic hell.

There was no ice in the arctic deep enough or pure enough to confirm the fossil record. But this -- this was the gold he needed. He looked up from his work and gazed out the frosted window of the lab. As far as he could see, there stretched the amazing, twisted, sweeping ice of the antarctic shelf, ice that had been attached to the continent forthousands of years. Overhead, the deep blue antarctic sky spoke eloquently of profound, absolute cold. He laughed a little to himself. The truth was that it wasn't as cold as it should be. Not nearly.

He saw his assistant Frank Wilson come down off the drill rig carrying an aluminum case he knew contained more ice cores. That was good. They needed those critical cores from the same depth, because Jack's case had to be airtight. Everybody from the White House on down was going to try to demolish it. They didn't want to hear what he had to say, he knew that. He was not a politician. His job was to reveal what had happened in the past. It was up to them to act.

He stood up, watching the rig more closely. The drill was still running. But Frank --

"Hey, Frank, what's going on?"

Frank began opening the cores, preparing them for a clean transfer to the Cat's storage locker. "Jason's running it."

Jason was a good kid, but he was also a grad student with next to no field experience. "Is that -- "

At that moment, there was a sort of shudder. It wasn't much, but it shouldn't have been there at all. What the hell was happening?

Then a screaming sound came from the drill. Jack could see that it was turning free. A distant shout echoed. "Oh, shit," Frank said as he burst out of the Cat, down the ladder, and began to sprint across the ice.

What sounded like a ragged, endless volley of rifle shots shattered the profound antarctic silence. Jack leaped up onto the drill rig.

"I didn't do anything," Jason screamed above the screaming of the drill and the explosive cracking sounds.

Behind them, Frank shut the drill down. As the bit whirred to silence, there was a crash just below the rig and what felt like an earthquake. Jack forced himself not to shout the furious curse that came to his lips. The damn ice had given way. This supposedly solid chunk of ice shelf had just -- a damn hole was under the rig the size of a car. He peered down into the blue ice.

Again the drill shifted, and Jason, in his terror, grabbed it. It swung toward the hole, grad student attached.

"Let go of the drill!"

The kid's face peered back, eyes huge, skin as pale as the death that was clawing at him.

Jack leaped forward, balancing on the edge of the rig itself, and gripped the kid's parka. As the drill fell away, he manhandled the scrabbling, terrified student up onto the stable part of the rig. But it didn't stay stable for long. An instant later, the three of them had to jump a four-foot gap just to get off the rig. It yawned below them, easily a couple of hundred feet deep, sudden death waiting inches from the least slip.

Now the rifle shots changed to deeper roars, crunching, and echoing booms. The whole damn shelf was disintegrating right under their feet. Jack watched as the rig started moving away from them, carrying Jack's ice cores with it. He lunged toward the edge.

Frank grabbed his shoulder. "Forget 'em, Jack. It's too late."

What was happening right here and now -- a whole ice shelf unexpectedly disintegrating around a group of skilled scientists -- told him that they were essential. He did what he had to do. He leaped across the widening crevasse to reach them.

"Jack, don't!"

Jack landed on the far side of the crevasse, stumbled, slipped, then regained his footing. He gathered cores as best he could. Some of them crumbled, but he could do nothing about that, not without proper carriers.

When he turned to jump back, he was shocked to see that the gap was widening fast. It was at least ten feet. And then he saw it, hundreds of feet below -- the dark, shadowy presence of the sea. He stared, almost hypnotized by the impossible, unbelievable sight. Nobody had tested the temperature of that water, but it must have been high, way too high, for years.

The ocean currents were already going haywire. What he was trying to warn the world about must already be well under way. He flung his cores to Frank. Even if it meant his life, those cores had to get back to the lab. If he couldn't publish the crucial paper, Frank could and he would.

Jack saw that he had exactly one chance to do this. He unsheathed his narrow, sharply pointed ice ax. He was a powerful man, he made damned sure of that, living and working as he did in some of the world's most dangerous places. He leaped, reaching with all his might, and felt the ax drive into the face of the cliff at Frank and Jason's feet. He dangled there, feeling the ax begin to slip.

Then Frank had him, and he was coming up over the edge.

"You're out of your mind."

"I knew you'd catch me."

Frank shook his head, then both men smiled.

"What the hell is happening?" Jason was not amused.

Frank dropped a fatherly hand down on his shoulder. "The whole goddamn shelf is breaking off, that's what's happening."

"We've got to get out of here!"

"That would be true."

The International Space Station smells like a whole lot of things, but not roses or clean sheets or new-mown grass. You get used to it, though. Slowly. Yuri Andropov would remind himself, when the toilet overheated or the air cleaner went down, that Mir was a whole lot worse. But he wasn't thinking about creature comforts now. He was a professional observer, and he was observing something quite interesting. Looking down at the gigantic storm below, he worked the station's cameras.

"You want to see storm," he said into his mike, "this is storm."

From the nearby space shuttle, which had just completed a docking maneuver with the space station, Commander Robert Parker said, "Most incredible sight, Yuri."

Far below them, a WP-3D Hurricane Hunter from NOAA's Pacific Squadron moved toward the storm, looking no bigger than a gnat against its towering clouds. Superficially, the plane looked like a C-130 cargo craft, but the fat instrument cowling on its belly and its huge, churning props told a different story. Those instruments fed no less that 250 separate weather readings a second to the plane's array of onboard computers, and what they were saying right now was getting some extremely serious attention from the meteorologists hunched over their stations inside the plane.

"Is this normal?" a nervous rookie scientist asked as the plane seemed to leap and flounder across the sky.

"Once we dive in, there's less bounce, more shake. Don't have any loose fillings, do you?"

Up front, Commander Michael Daniels stared steadily ahead. He was recording some powerful gusts across the plane's wings, and he was thirty miles from the storm's perimeter. He'd been doing this for fifteen years, and this was not a usual pattern, not at all.

"Get Goddard on the horn," he said to his first officer, his voice maintaining a calm he did not feel.

At NASA's Satellite Command Center at the Goddard Space Center, Janet Tokada was also reading data output from the plane. But she had even more information. Thanks to NASA's ultra-high-tech scatterometer instrument aboard Japan's Advanced Earth Observing satellite, she could measure wind speeds inside the storm, in areas the plane had not yet reached.

Commander Daniels's voice crackled in her ears. "Control, this is Recon One, do you read me?"

"This is NASA Goddard, go ahead."

"We may lose you in a few moments. Do you have updated stats for us?"

Janet glanced at her science officer. "Here's the TRMM data," he said, holding out a sheet. The estimated internal wind speeds leaped off the page at her.

"Recon One," she said quickly, "we advise that you turn around immediately."

She static.

"Recon One, do you read me?"

"What's the matter, Janet?" her science officer asked.

"This thing is off the charts. It could rip the wings right off that plane."

Commander Daniels continued to fly into the storm, and to listen to the static. The radio automatically searched frequencies, but they were over a thousand miles out in the south-central Pacific, over one of the most isolated areas on the planet, the vast stretch of empty water that spreads south of the Hawaiian Islands. "We've lost them," he said. "Tell the guys to release the dropsondes."

Measuring instruments dropped out of their containers as the plane entered the storm. This was the rookie's moment. It was his job to read and record their transmissions. He sat rigidly at his station, fighting the wild gyrations of the aircraft as he tried to call out his readings.

"Transmission is up and good. I am seeing wind speed at -- at -- one ninety. That is one ninety! Hold on. That is one ninety-five."

Up front, Commander Daniels heard the unbelievable, fantastic numbers but could not react, he was too busy keeping the airplane running. He gripped his controls, struggled to read his vibrating instruments. Beside him, his skilled copilot adjusted the bite of the props. They reduced airspeed, increasing the shake, rattle, and roll but diminishing the threat to the airframe.

"Two hundred," came the young voice from behind, "two ten, two twenty, two thirty!"

This was a typhoon with wind speeds equivalent to that of a tornado. It was fantastic, unbelievable. But it was also no place to turn an airplane, not one that was so close to its design limits, and probably past them when it came to crucial areas like wing roots. Commander Daniels flew on, largely because he dared do nothing else.

The wings fluttered so wildly that the sound of creaking metal rose over the surging roar of the props. Commander Daniels thought helplessly of his people. If the aircraft disintegrated, they were all dead. Chutes would be useless in this maelstrom.

"How far to the eye wall?" he asked his copilot, his calm, decisive voice betraying nothing of his inner feelings.

"Eight niner clicks."

Less than a minute. That would be a maybe.

When they burst through the wall of the eye, the silence was so deep that the rookie laughed with relief. "Wow, that was some ride!"

The others were silent. They all knew the same thing: this airplane had to make it out the other side or they were going to have a real bad day. "Let's hope this monster never makes land," one of them said quietly.

It was pitch-dark at noon on the Big Island, and Aaron was damned concerned. No, he was scared. Shitless. And he was doing something he would normally have considered a total waste of time. He was watching the news. This typhoon was, like, some kind of a sea monster. Hundred-and-ninety-mile-an-hour winds? What was that about?

He could hardly hear what the weather maven was saying, though, because ole Zack had surf-punk music blasting out of his monster Jensen loud enough to actually drown out the damn storm.

"It's gettin' gnarly out there, Zack. Maybe we oughta split."

Zack belched. They had done about umpteen quarts of beer last night.

"I'm serious, man. Everybody else is gone already."

Zack looked over at him. Zack's eyes were red. "Don't be such a wuss. How bad can it be if the damn TV still works?"

Bang. Then darkness. Silence. Then, as Aaron's ears adjusted to the absence of the Dirt Surfers, he heard the roar of the wind, and oh my god.

And then something else, which was -- damn, ripping? Plus, crashing noises, glass breaking.

"What the hell is that?" Zack said.

"It's the house getting torn apart, man."

This whole part of the island had been evacuated yesterday. But Zack had not believed, not in anything except what promised to be the most humongous surf in the whole history of the world. And Aaron had stayed with him, because he was that kind of guy, and plus Zack had said, "Do you believe?" and that had always done it for this surfer. Now he was feeling damn sick about it, oh, yes.

He peered out into the darkness and flying rain. No way was he going anywhere near the beach in this. Yeah, there would be surf all right, surf enough to grind you to pulp. Then he saw a door tumbling through the air as if some giant had tossed it. The next house over was right up at the end of the road. It would be taking the storm head-on. Then he saw a piece of a window, then a whole damn couch.

"Jesus Christ, Zack, that's our neighbor's house going past, is what that is!" They had to get the hell out of here, and right now. He went to the door, threw it open -- and had it just grabbed right out of his hands by a wind that was like a living thing...that knew they were there.

"Come on, man!"

This time Zack did not argue. Not even he was that insane.

They struggled down the stairs, heading for the carport. As they reached the ground, Aaron felt water come up into his shoes, then up to his calves. The whole place was flooded. He jumped into his ancient jeep and dragged the key out of his pocket. So scared he could barely function, he jammed it into the ignition.


Okay, do not piss in your pants, that would not be good, boy-o. Zack would not forget that, nosir! He turned the key again. But then he realized that Zack wasn't in the car. There was a noise; he turned around and saw that Zack was tying his damn board to the roof rack.

"What the hell are you doing? Forget the board, Zack!"

At that moment, there was a series of noises like firecrackers going off -- big firecrackers. The slats that closed the side of the carport tore away in rapid succession. Now the storm came roaring in, a creature with an evil voice, and it was calling their names.

As Zack jumped into the car, the house above them groaned and actually damn well lifted and blew right off into the darkness and the spray. Frantically, Aaron turned the key, and the starter ground and ground, and finally -- finally -- the engine fired. He pulled out into where the road used to be and started out toward the highway. Something black came bounding toward them, looking like a cardboard box being blown by the wind, except that it was no box, it was a huge steel dumpster coming down on them like death itself. It hit fifty feet in front of them, then rose up into the air, its lid clanging open and closed, open and closed. All they could do was watch as it came closer and closer. They heard it smash into the surfboard and rip it away.

Aaron hit the gas, the tires spun, screamed, then caught, and they shot off up a road that had become a wind-whipped river, praying to God that they'd reach the highway before the ocean did.

It was a sunny day in Arlington, Virginia, sunny and kind of hot, actually, as Sam Hall went up in the elevator to his dad's apartment. He had Laura and Brian with him because it was pretty cool to basically have this, like, entire apartment to yourself, which he did.

"Where's your dad?"

"Who knows? Halfway around the world somewhere, as usual. Last email I got was from McMurdo Sound."

"Does he know you come here when he's out of town?"

He knew Laura thought he was completely uncool. He knew that. Like, a professional wuss like him would never be allowed to come into his own dad's apartment unless he was under total supervision. Okay.

"Actually, yeah. I'm taking care of his plants for him."

And also actually, the African violets were not doing so hot.

"I see," Laura said touching one of them, "you've got quite the green thumb."

Uncool again, totally uncool. Sam got a damn glass of water from the kitchen and soaked them. Their dead bodies, that is.

"Uh, I think you're overwatering them," Brian said.

"You think?"

They were floating, actually, dead sticks in muddy goop. It was not pretty. "Uh, Sam, my boy, where are we supposed to sit?"

The living room was a trifle messy. Sam swept a pile of National Geographics off the sofa and cleared some space. If you wanted National Geographic, this was the place to come. His dad had every National Geographic that had ever been printed, and possibly a few more. They were interesting, though. Sam had been looking for pictures of Antarctica. He wanted to see where his dad was. Truth be told, his dad was incredibly cool. Not many fathers, like, dared the edge. Brian's dad worked somewhere deep in the Agriculture Department. He looked like a big fat loaf of bread in a suit.

"I think we should start with English lit," Laura said, "and then tackle art. We need to -- Sam?"

Sam had turned on The Simpsons, in part to actually watch the show, in part to display the incredibly cool gas-plasma TV that was hanging on the wall like some painting or something. It was like Dad to sort of automatically buy the coolest thing in the world and then forget he even had it. Dad was neat that way. There was something about knowing what the best stuff was and having it and also being uncaring about it that just made him -- well, fact was, Sam was a teenager who really liked his father. So call him crazy.

"Sam, you can't study and watch TV at the same time!"

"I'm multitasking, Laura, my dear. It's great mental exercise."

Brian muttered, "My dear..."

Laura said, "New York is in four days!"

"You make it sound like the real, actual Olympics. It's the Scholastic Decathlon."

"Decathlon sounds like the Olympics."

"It's a ridiculous name, Brian."

"My mom always calls it the Quiz Bowl," Brian said. "I hate that."

"What they ought to call it is glorified Trivial Pursuit," Sam muttered. It was a good episode. He wanted to watch this. Homer was going to save Marge from a destruction derby by drinking beer. Sort of.

"If it's so meaningless, why'd you join the team, Sam?"

"What can I say? Because it was there. Life is essentially meaningless."

"Existential philosophers for five hundred," Brian yelled. "Who is Jean-Paul Sartre?"

"Don't encourage him." Laura picked up the remote and muted the TV.

"Stop that."

"No. You want to watch TV or you want to get ready?"

Sam snatched the remote back and she fought him for it, which was kind of nice while it lasted. But it didn't last long.

"Do not turn on that sound."

Instead, he turned off the TV entirely. "It's off. See?"


Now she would find out the grim truth. "So quiz me."

He'd almost said "kiss." What would that have done? Nothing good, probably.

™ & © 2004 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpted from

The Day After Tomorrow

by Whitley Strieber
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