The Long Cold Night
Prologue: A Universally Cruel Joke
Bill Patterson moved about the observatory quietly, clutching at his cup of coffee the way a mountaineer clutches at his support rope. The giant telescope waited patiently for its target, much more so than Bill’s assistant Jeremy Powers.
“I hope the filters are working right this time,” he said as Bill found a seat.
“The sun will crest in forty-seven minutes,” replied the elder scientist. “Relax till then. You’re too jumpy. Go watch some internet porn or something.”
A few thousand miles away, Janice Rand tried desperately to ignore the man snoring behind her. His name was Gary, just another stranger she had chosen to give her a thrill for a night. Janice was described as “promiscuous” by some of her male colleagues while women that knew her simply referred to her as a slut. Her job as co-host of a morning news show kept her busy enough to elude the type of relationship her mother would approve of. Still, since her teen years, she had known that sex was fun and that love was certainly not required.
Now in her mid-thirties, she also knew that men her age could not always be counted on for the lengthy sessions she wanted. The man next to her was celebrating his twenty-first birthday at the club she met him in last night. After they spoke for a few minutes, she knew the perfect gift she could give him. She skillfully guided him during a marathon of lovemaking, bringing him to orgasm twice and in the process allowing several of her own.
As she slipped out the door, she smiled at the man and hoped she would be a very good memory for him. She seldom saw the same man twice and only one had been a partner multiple times. His name was Ray Granger, a reporter for an almost defunct newspaper in her hometown. They attended high school together and had the same outlook on life. Neither especially wanted a “normal” life and placed career ahead of everything. She had no idea that the universe was conspiring to bring herself and Ray to a situation neither had expected or planned for.
In the observatory, the sun had lifted just beyond the horizon and the powerful telescope was sending the first images to the monitor in front of Jeremy.
“Well, the filters are working this time,” he said. “Beautiful images.”
“Forty double-d cups make beautiful images Jerry,” answered Bill sarcastically. “Telescopes make interesting images.”
“How did a randy old goat like you ever make project leader?” replied Jerry. “Did you screw old lady Mansfield to get the grant?”
“Oh God no!” said Bill in mock horror. “It was old man Mansfield I had to drill.”
While the pair laughed at the off-colored joke, the sun readied itself to deliver a fatal blow at the third planet away from it. Solar flares had the ability to disrupt electromagnetic fields, resulting in communication problems and fuzzy cable channels. They could do much worse, but as it had never happened, the worst was still theory.
At the monitor, Jerry suddenly bolted upright and immediately began ordering the telescope to save images.
“Jesus Christ Bill,” he said excitedly, “you need to see this! I’ve never seen anything this intense!”
Bill made his way to the monitor, ready to pepper the conversation with sexual innuendos once more. His eye roved across the monitor and then towards the computer images and a low whistle was all he could manage.
“I bet that’s even bigger than the ’03 flare,” he said. “In fact, I’m willing to bet it’s bigger than anything we’ve ever seen. Better try to plot a course while I get a hold of NASA.”
Forty minutes later, frenzied calls were being made to the White house. Top scientists plotted the flare repeatedly with the same results each time. The sun had always cared and nurtured Earth, allowed it to grow and feed the human population there, and now it was about to play the cruelest trick ever on it. The flare would hit the planet full force in five days and life as we know it would be changed for an undetermined time.