The word “electrocute” would not be invented for another 30 years…

On August 30th, 1859, with a blinding flash of light and a deadly rush of radioactive particles, a massive flare belched from the Sun. It flung more energy outward into space in one second than had been used by all of humankind in its entire existence. The fierce solar wind blasted outward, directly toward the Earth.

One day later a second blast, even more powerful than the first, threw still more of the Sun’s skin Earthward. The particles from the second blast followed in the same path as the first, on a direct path to our home planet.


Bloomington, Illinois
31 August 1859, 7:30 p.m.
E-159 years, 2 months, 12 days

Fletcher Jarvis sat down at his telegraph station with a message to send. The message was destined for up the line. The first Pullman sleeping car to go into service was due to leave the following day for Chicago, and Fletcher Jarvis had to send the confirmation message to the destination station master.

The Chicago and Alton line would carry the inaugural car, and there were ceremonies planned to greet the arrival.

Fletcher Jarvis adjusted his cap, leaned forward, and reached for the key.

The bang and the flash came together. Fletcher’s eyes shut instinctively as he heard and felt the bang. His left hand flew off the Morse code key; his whole arm numb, buzzing. Jarvis thought it felt like he had struck his funny bone, but worse. He smelled a hint of something in the air, and a little plume of smoke coiled upward above his desk. He had no idea what Ozone smelled like.

What in tarnation was that?, wondered Fletcher Jarvis. He blinked several times, shook his arm, and waited for the ringing in his ears to subside. He picked himself off the floor and walked over to the array of batteries connected to the telegraph system. They were warm to the touch; something he had never felt before. Fletcher figured the flash and bang was due to some kind of overload. He gingerly disconnected the batteries from the power bus.

But, seconds later, the usual “clickety-click” of the telegraph characters came out of the sounder. That’s impossible, thought Fletcher. He had disconnected the power, and the whole thing should be dead. But the clicks continued; some of them accompanied by small bright sparks as the sounder’s points met and parted.

Fletcher sat back down and started to copy down the Morse code message. It was Chicago, asking for an update on the Pullman sleeping car. Would it arrive tomorrow as scheduled? Please acknowledge, it said.

Fletcher–once burned–was very shy about putting his hand anywhere near that key again. The message from Chicago repeated. Fletcher stared at the sounder, winced, and looked warily at his key. More clacking sounds.

22, 24, 134

In Morse code shorthand, Western Union style, those digits meant, respectively, “Wire test, Repeat this back, Who is at the key?”

Fletcher grabbed a nearby yardstick and, from a distance, looked away as he tapped at the top of his key. It clicked, but there was no flash and no loud noise like before. He sat down, emboldened, and placed his hand back on the key. There was no flash, no bang.

“Chgo Blmgtn. Jarvis at key. Batts disconnected. Had explosion. No damage. Pullman leaving to arrive tmrw on sched. 30.”

Chicago answered with the acknowledgment, and eventually regular message traffic resumed. Fletcher Jarvis went back to work, sending the scores of messages that had piled up in the basket, and he copied dozens more from Chicago; the memory of the earlier shock fading from his attention.

After a few more hours, the sounder became weak and some clicks were barely audible. Jarvis decided to reconnect the battery bank to the bus. The sounder came to life, but there were no further flashes or bangs until his shift ended.

Although his injury was more emotional than physical, Fletcher Jarvis became the first human to feel the physical effects of the Aurora Borealis; the northern lights. Solar flares had propelled gigawatts of powerful radiation deep into Earth’s magnetic field. The magnetic field coupled with the new telegraph wires on the Bloomington to Chicago line, and induced energy into those wires; energy that searched frantically for ground, as all electricity is wont to do. Ground made its appearance through Fletcher Jarvis’s hand, and nature took her course.

It would be the last time such a massive solar flare would occur with only minor effects on Earth’s technology.

The Oval

White House, the Oval Office
Monday, 28 January 2019, 3:45 p.m.
E+77 days 

J. Louis Lazar, the head of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, escorted a young, sharply-dressed man into the office of the President.

“Mr. President, I’d like you to meet Deon Combs.”

“Mr. Combs, welcome to the White House.”

“Thank you, sir.” Deon Combs stood ramrod straight, his past Air Force service reminding him that he was in the office of the Commander in Chief.

“Deon….can I call you Deon?”

“Of course, Mr. President.” Deon relaxed slightly inside, but still maintained a perfect posture.

President Robert Arden gestured to an empty chair placed in front of the Resolute Desk, with its back to the desk and the front of the chair facing the array of chairs and couches. “Have a seat, Deon.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Deon moved to his assigned chair and slowly lowered himself; taking a moment to settle in. He nodded at the assembled group already seated on the plush furniture: Vice President Deborah Webb, Joint Chiefs Chairman Rutherford Bathgate, Commerce Secretary Fen Marshall, Defense Secretary Rostam Sherazi, and Energy Secretary Fallon Dunne. Director Lazar took his place on a chair on the far side of the right couch.

The president remained standing, by the fireplace at the north end of the office, the portrait of George Washington looking over his shoulder.

“Deon, Mr. Lazar tells me you can explain this forecast of yours.”

“I hope so, sir. I have been able to use the motion of the planets, and their magnetic fields, to help predict what the Sun is going to do.”

“And apparently, from the briefings I have, you think it’s going to be a big problem in the near future?”

“That’s right, Mr. President. My forecast model says the Sun is due for a large Coronal Mass Ejection in just under a year’s time.”

“And, Deon, what do you propose we do about that?”

“There’s nothing we can do to prevent it, Sir. All we can do is prepare for it.”

“That’s why I have all these fine people joining us today, Deon.” The President gestured in a sweeping motion. “We wanted to meet you, size you up, and see if you’re the real thing. We have to make some serious decisions–all based on how much faith we can place in you, and in your forecast model. Louis says you’re brilliant.”

“Mr. Lazar is very kind.” Deon shifted in his straight-basked chair. “I am quite certain there will be a massive flare. The only thing we cannot be sure of the exact timing.”

“And timing is important because…?”

“Even though I…we…know the Sun is going to throw off the flare, the CME, we still need to know where the Earth is in relation to that flare. If it misses us then the effects will be more manageable, or maybe nothing at all.”

“And if it hits us?”

“We will be thrown back 150 years in technology, Mr. President.” Deon looked at the round rug–the edge of which met the tips of his impeccably shined shoes. The motto, “E PLURIBUS UNUM” looked back at him, inverted, cradled on the wings of the eagle. “It would be a catastrophe, Sir.”

The President stood, thoughtful, his arms crossed, his brow furrowed.

“Could everyone except Deon leave the room, please. Wait for me in the Cabinet room? We’ll not be long.”

The President and Deon watched as the assembled members of Cabinet rose and shuffled out of the Oval Office, through the secretary’s office. When the door closed behind the last of them, the President turned to Deon.

“Son, how old are you?”

“I’m 33, sir.”

“Holy Moses. I’m about to decide the fate of the United States–maybe the world–and I sure hope you’re smarter at 33 than I was. Deon, swing that chair around and we can talk over here at the desk.”

Deon did as directed, carefully turned his chair 180 degrees, sat, and took in his new surroundings. The door to the outside concourse was off to his left. A Marine Corps guard stood at attention, his back to the glass-paned office door, facing the Rose Garden. The windows straight ahead, behind the President’s chair, showed the gray-brown frosted grass and tree branches of a late afternoon January day in Washington.

The President moved to his chair and Deon met his gaze.

The President smiled. “Son, in the next few days I have to decide whether to commit money, troops, and whether to use the power of government to take over the country’s entire economy. I don’t expect you to grab the significance of all that, but I may have to exercise the power of this office to an extent never before used-even by Franklin Roosevelt in the Great Depression and the Second World War.”

Deon swallowed, and the President continued.

“I’m getting estimates from my Cabinet of millions of lives at stake if this thing happens. I need to know how solid the chances are. I know what I’m being told in these briefing notes, but I want to get it from the source, from you, Deon. How certain are you that this flare is going to happen? Give me percentages.”

“I’m as sure as one can be, Mr. President, that the flare will happen. The real issue is the exact timing of the flare in relation to the Earth’s orbit. In my mind, with my calculations, I think the chances of a direct hit are 65%, a damaging glancing blow 20% and a miss is 15%.”

“So it’s going to happen for sure?”

“Yes sir. It’s not really ‘if’ but ‘exactly when.’ My forecast model has it narrowed down to a 36-hour period between noon Eastern Time on January 7th and midnight on the night of January 8th. I also have the Earth moving into the path of a direct hit at that same time. The closer the flare is to the middle of that 36-hour window, the higher the chances of a direct hit. That’s the best I can do.”

“And there’s a 15% chance this thing might miss us?”

“Yes, Mr. President, and even if it does miss us, it could have severe consequences. It could destroy most or all of our geostationary satellites, and could also ruin our GPS network and other satellite-based systems.”

“Alright, Deon.” The President leaned back in his chair. “I have one more question for you.”


“What are the chances anyone else, anywhere else, with the same intelligence and education as you, might have also figured out this planetary motion theory the way you did?”

“I’m not sure, Sir. I think it’s highly doubtful. They tell me I have an ability to ‘see’ things that others can’t. My theory dawned on me after reading a science article over a hundred years old. Until that point, I had only a hint of a pattern, but it was not a predictable pattern. That article gave me the clue of what to look for, and it was there.”

“How did you validate your theory?”

“My boss asked for, and Director Lazar approved, some supercomputer time that allowed me to run regression tests. Those tests matched past solar activity with planetary orbits, specifically the orbit of Jupiter. Jupiter was most important, but it turned out that all the planets’ orbits are needed for the formula to be accurate beyond about 30 days. Without that I would have not been able to verify the theory so fast. It would have taken years–maybe decades.”

“How many countries have such supercomputers?”

“Japan, some European countries, maybe Russia and China. They are available to practically anyone, for a price.”

“OK, Deon. You’re ex-Air Force–is that right?”

“Yes sir. I did five years.”

“I respect that a great deal, and although you are no longer in the armed services, this conversation has military implications, national security implications, and I’m asking you to keep it just between us.”

“Of course, sir.”

“And by ‘between us” I mean just you and me, and not including members of the Cabinet, including those who were just in this office a few minutes ago, and also Director Lazar. Understood?”

“Yes sir, Mr. President.”

The President stood, followed immediately by Deon. “Son, I want to thank you for your help. I’ll need your understanding in these coming months. You will see things in the news that might not make sense, and there may be things you expect to see but have not made it into the news. Understand…everything I do from this point on is to protect public safety and the national interests and security of the United States.”

“Of course, sir.” Deon suppressed the urge to salute.

The president pushed a button on his desk, and the his secretary’s door opened immediately. “Mrs. Lewis will help you find your way back out. Thanks again, son.”

“Thank you, Mr. President.” Deon was escorted from the room by the President’s secretary and handed off to a West Wing intern. Eight minutes later he was clearing the security station at the Southwest Gate, and shortly after that he was through the checkpoint and onto 17th Street.

1. Washington

80 Days Earlier
Washington, D.C.
Friday, 9 November 2018
E-3 Days

“The Sun is on fire.” announced Mike Evans, science reporter with the Washington Observer.

“No shit, Sherlock,” replied next desk neighbor, political reporter and best friend Hewitt Blackwood, distractedly. “It’s what the Sun does.”

“Not like this,” replied Evans, turning his flat screen monitor toward Hewitt’s desk.

“Jesus,” said Hewitt, “I’ve never seen that before.”


70 Days Earlier
Washington, D.C.
Friday, 31 August 2018
E-73 Days

Hewitt Blackwood leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. He had been writing up a storm to buy an early start to the long weekend, but he was not done yet. He had only one more story to file. Congress was headed home for Labor Day, and the “bad news” press releases had piled up in the morning. Typical for a Friday, thought Hewitt. Political offices released good news on Mondays, to take advantage of the early week news cycle, and they released bad news on Fridays, when they knew the public’s attention would be diverted to recreation—especially on a long weekend.

Military base closures, staff changes, resignations—Hewitt had to sift through all of them to decide which merited ink and space at the Washington Observer. Hewitt worked Capitol Hill most of the time, filing stories for his own paper and sometimes through the wire services for publication in dailies “back home” in America’s 535 Congressional and Senate districts. He had decamped from his office on the Hill, and returned to his desk on the expansive, bright, floor of the Observer.

It had been a long week. With mid-term elections imminent the buzz around Capitol Hill was deafening. Hewitt was up to his eyeballs in political stories and had to separate the wheat from the chaff. Those eyeballs were getting sore, and the glare didn’t help. The fluorescent lights were bright enough, but were no match for the scene outside: Sun washed concrete, with only a few pools of shadow cast by the scattering of a few large elms around the building and along the street, made Hewitt squint as he stole a glance out to the real world.

“Mike, do we absolutely have to take the boat out this weekend?,” whined Hewitt to his neighbor at the next to his left, nearer the window.

Mike Evans was the paper’s last full-time science reporter. Despite their different branches of journalism, Mike and Hewitt had become the closest of friends. They had been desk-mates for almost 10 years. They co-owned the Scribes’ Pride, a small sailboat that was the focus of family and weekend time on Chesapeake Bay.

“This is the only weekend I’ll have available, Buddy,” replied Mike. “If you want to delay the job you’ll end up having to do it all yourself, because I’ll be away for the next three weekends.”

“And I’m away for that wedding on the weekend of the 29th,” said Hewitt. “Shit. OK, let’s stick with this weekend. We don’t have anything tropical moving up the coastline. Let’s take that as a sign from above. How’s your day looking now, Mike?”

“I’m pretty much done. Some rewriting, but nothing new is brewing. I should be able to blast off by mid afternoon. What about you?”

“I’ve got one left. I’ll have it filed in about an hour if I can get another coffee into me.”

“Do you want to try for Monday to take the boat out?”

“Yeah, give me a couple of days to get the cobwebs out. By Labor Day I’ll be good to go.”

“OK, Hew.”

Mike turned back to his computer, while Hewitt leaned forward and let a soft groan escape as he slowly raised himself out of his chair; empty coffee cup in hand.

“Poor baby,” said Mike.

“Screw you,” replied Hewitt.

Mike smiled contentedly as he scanned his copy.


2. Shady Side, Maryland

Labor Day, 3 September 2018
E-70 Days

On the drive to their rented berth at the marina, Mike and Hewitt caught each other up on the long weekend so far.

Mike reported the standard man-with-young-family activities at his suburban Virginia home. Time at the grill, games with the kids, some yard work, movie time with Laurie.

Hewitt’s weekend was less bucolic. He lived in the City, on N Street NW, near Georgetown University, where he moonlighted doing evening classes as a lecturer in journalism. With the new academic year about to start, Hewitt had hit the books and worked on his planned assignments for the coming semester. He had to keep his classes up-to-date on all current news, so it wasn’t just a matter of taking last year’s material and recycling. The Observer kept his apartment lights on, but Hewitt’s added income from Georgetown was a big help.

While Mike had been settled down and married to Laurie for over a decade, Hewitt was still officially a free agent. He and Valerie, his girlfriend of four years, had talked about moving in together. But it was just talk for the time being. Valerie worked as a press relations officer for a Washington lobbying firm. Her schedule was as hectic as Hewitt’s. Still, the pair found time to sail the Scribe’s Pride out onto the Bay once or twice a month in the summer.

Valerie was brilliant, and a babe. Mike and Laurie liked her, too. Despite Mike’s feigned reluctance to hear about Hewitt’s escapades as an unmarried man in D.C., he secretly had enjoyed living vicariously through his best buddy Hewitt. And Hewitt was not shy about recounting his amorous encounters in past years, although recently his stories and depictions had tailed off dramatically. Mike figured that Hewitt was simply settling down, and developing a little more discretion as he and Valerie got more serious. Mike was right.

“Val and I didn’t do much of anything,” Hewitt lamented. “I was into the books and she spent most of the weekend at a conference in Town.” We got together for Dinner on Saturday night, and she stayed over after that. But she was gone Sunday morning before I even woke up.”

“Well,” Mike consoled, “look on the bright side. It gave you more time to work on your prep on Sunday, right?”

“I guess so,” replied Hewitt, looking vacantly out the window over the passing countryside. He enjoyed these drives to Maryland, and seldom wanted to take his own car. He was content to watch the farms and trees and well-kept properties slide by on his way to coastal Maryland. It reminded him, just a little, of the countryside around his hometown of Joplin, Missouri. Long stretches of highway, trees, mostly flat ground. Washington and Joplin were almost 1000 miles apart, but in Hewitt’s mind, when he squinted—they could be the same place.

The journey from Missouri to Capitol Hill was not a straight line for Hewitt Blackwood. After high school graduation in 2000, he attended the Park School of Journalism at Ithaca College in Upstate New York. He had just started his sophomore year when the 9/11 attacks stuck. The media coverage of the attacks and their aftermath provided Hewitt and his classmates with a real-life laboratory in which to study the news and how it was delivered.

On graduation in 2004 Hewitt had planned to return to Missouri, but was drawn to Albany after an on-the-job apprenticeship turned into a State House assignment for the Jamestown Patriot newspaper in western New York. He worked the Albany beat for four years, occasionally filing stories that went beyond Chautauqua County and were picked up by wire services for statewide and sometimes national distribution.

As he got more comfortable in his craft, Hewitt Blackwood got restless. By 2007 he was sending out portfolios to newspapers around the country. The Washington Observer replied, among others. The paper liked his writing, attention to detail, and good grasp of politics. It offered him a probationary, junior reporter, job for an initial six months. Despite the risk, Hewitt accepted. He started with the Observer in early 2008, his probationary period turned into a permanent offer, and he moved up in the pecking order over the ensuing years. He was now, at the tender age of 36, one of the senior reporters at the Observer.

Newspapers are notorious for not making reporters rich, so when a guest lecturing opportunity at Georgetown turned into a permanent, part-time gig, he snapped it up. He was a long way from being a full member of the faculty, but was slowly working his way into becoming a fixture on campus for students of American Studies.

Valerie was Hewitt’s first really steady, emotional relationship, after a young adulthood of carousing and partying and hooking up. The only other serious connection he had after arriving in Washington was with a congresswoman from Ohio who was several years his senior, but striking and very good in bed. Hewitt became her Washington recreation, her release—too old to be a “boytoy.” She was discreet, almost too much so, and Hewitt became expert at using back entrances and service elevators to meet her in hotel rooms and apartments over the three years they “dated.” She had a reputation back home in her district as a strong family-values woman. A sordid affair with a young reporter would have dashed all of that. When she was swept from office in the 2012 election tide, it all ended—and just in time for Hewitt. He had enjoyed the physical nature of their relationship, but knew it was never going to be more than that. Even for a horny 30-year-old man, the rocking sex was not enough. But, while it lasted, it was a great apprenticeship in women’s studies, at least of the physical kind.

Valerie’s arrival in his life a few years later allowed Hewitt to become a more rounded person. She didn’t use him to sate any craving; rather, she genuinely seemed to like this rascal and saw in him someone she could spend her life with. Hewitt, though, was poor at reading the signs. He couldn’t tell how serious she was about their relationship.

The ring of Mike’s phone jolted Hewitt out of his semi-consciousness. Mike stabbed at the Bluetooth button on his steering wheel after seeing the caller ID flash on his radio’s display panel.

“What’s up, Dear?” he asked Laurie.

“Maddy just told me she needs glue sticks for school tomorrow. Can you stop somewhere and pick some up before you get home?”

“Sure thing. Not sure what’s open but I’ll grab a package somewhere. Say hi to Hew.”

“Hi Hewitt. Are you behaving yourselves?”

“Hi Laurie-babe,” Hewitt exclaimed cheerfully. “We’re a little behind because we stopped at a strip club in Forestville on the way out. I had to drag him out, but he’ll be back home in time for supper.”

“Gee, thanks,” replied Laurie. “Drive safe, you perverts.”

Mike laughed and hit the hang-up button. “You are a real piece of work, you prick.”

“You’re welcome,” said Hewitt. “You know she loves it when I try to make you into a ‘play-a,’” gesturing with air quotes.

Mike and Hewitt arrived at the marina, cleaned out the cupboards of perishable food, prepped the Scribe’s Pride for storage, arranged for the haul out and parking, and by late afternoon were on their way back to D.C. along the number 4 highway; soon to turn in to an extension of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Don’t forget your glue sticks,” reminded Hewitt.

“Right, yeah,” responded Mike. “What would be open on Labour Day?”

“Probably any Walgreens or Rite-Aid would have a school supply section, and most of those should be open.”

“Yeah, good idea,” replied Mike. “Maybe we should get them now before we get back into the city.” Just rounding north of Joint Base Andrews, Mike turned off the highway and made his way up to a drug store, where he quickly picked up Maddy’s glue sticks. Back in the car, the two resumed their trip into the city.

“It’s a shame to miss a few more weekends of likely very good weather,” said Hewitt.

“I know,” replied Mike. “I’m not looking forward to these next three Saturdays away.”

“What’s up, anyway?” asked Hewitt.

“Next weekend we’re visiting Laurie’s folks in Hagerstown. It’s a little too far for just a day trip, so we’re going to stay up there Saturday night and come back on Sunday.The girls haven’t seen their grandparents since they got back from Europe a few weeks ago, so there will be presents I’m sure,” chuckled Mike.

“The week after that Laurie has a show in Chicago, and I’m going with her to that. We’ll be leaving on Friday afternoon and coming back Sunday night.

“Then, the third Saturday, I’m in New York at a talk by Ted Koppel. Remember him?”

“Sure do,” replied Hewitt. “I watched him every night on Nightline when I was in college. What’s he up to these days?”

“He’s got some speaking gigs about the book he wrote a couple of years ago called Lights Out, and I’m going to one of them in Manhattan.”

Hewitt furrowed his brow, trying to place the title. “Is that the one about cyber attacks on the power system?”

“You got it. It’s a really scary book. Did you know that you could knock out all the power in America just by hitting a certain few big transformers at the right time?”

“That’s a little far fetched isn’t it?” queried Hewitt.

“Well, I’m going to find out. I have an interview booked with him when I’m up there, and I hope to dig in a little bit.”

“Sounds interesting,” replied Hewitt. “Me? I have the next three weekends off, basically, but I’ll have lots of prep to do for my classes so I’ll be able to stay busy. Then, on the last weekend, Val and I are going to the wedding of one of her sorority sisters up in Pennsylvania.”

“Jesus, hold me back,” said Mike, feigning excitement.

“I’m actually looking forward to it. I want to see her reaction to the whole wedding scene. We’ve been together for a while, but this is the first time we’re going to a wedding together. I’m looking for hints on her feelings about marriage, and I’m just too scared to ask in case I’m reading it wrong.”

“Well, look at you,” laughed Mike, “all settled down and such. So you think you might pop the question?”

“I’m not sure. We never really talked about it so I don’t know how she’ll react. She might not want to take that step right now. I’ve been waiting for something like this wedding to maybe break the ice on a conversation.”

“Well if she’s favorable you’ll want to be ready. Have you thought of a ring?”

“No.” Hewitt looked down at his hands. “Well I’ve thought about it but not actually looked. I’d have no idea where to start. I would like it to be a surprise, so I’ve avoided asking Val any questions.”

Mike slowed for the gathering traffic as they approached the bridge across the Anacostia River. The drive to Hewitt’s place took Mike past all of his favorite D.C. landmarks: the Jefferson Memorial, the Tidal Basin, through the Mall on 17th St. NW, past the Washington Monument, the Ellipse, the Executive Office Building, and up toward Dupont Circle.

“Well, my friend, it’s a shame you don’t know anybody who could help you with a jewelery purchase.” Mike exited right to take the 395 along the river. “Oh, wait a minute, I believe I’m married to one of the fastest-growing independent jewelery makers in the United States. Did you ever think of that?”

“Well, yeah, I guess so.”

“Jesus, man, I guess we’re going to have to drag you kicking and screaming into wedlock. Val is your perfect match, and you’re going to lock this down now.”

Hewitt gazed out at the people strolling under the trees along Maine Avenue. “What if she’s not ready?”

“Then she’ll tell you a date when she is ready. In the meantime you can bang your brains out and just enjoy the finer things in life. Don’t worry about it.”

“What if she says ‘no’ altogether?”

“Well,” said Mike, thinking carefully, “you’re young enough to start over if that’s a dead end.”

Mike stopped the car in front of Stu’s apartment in Georgetown.

“See you tomorrow, loverboy,” he said, waving Hewitt out of the car.

Hewitt flashed Mike a glance, and then grunted as he stood upright on the sidewalk. Try as he might, Hewitt was unable to some back with a sharp-witted retort for his best friend. He just waved, nodded, and made his way to the entrance.


Mike pulled the car into his driveway in Chevy Chase 20 minutes later, and got out to find the girls playing in the yard while Laurie stirred through some paperwork on the deck.

Mike put the glue sticks on the kitchen counter and slid the patio door aside to join Laurie outside in the fading September sunshine. He sat in the chair beside hers and looked out at the kids, playing with a bubble maker and watching the wispy, rainbowed, orbs drift up into the trees.

“What do you think Val’s ring size would be?”

Laurie sat bolt upright. “Well it’s about fucking time!” she yelped, before clamping her hand on her mouth — hoping the girls were out of earshot.

“I love it when you talk dirty,” Mike replied, deadpan. “He’s scared shitless, though. He’s thinking of the end of the month.”

“Scared of what? She’s been ready to go for a year now. She was wondering if he’d ever get around to it.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Why the hell don’t people talk about this stuff together instead of waiting and worrying?”

“Are you kidding me?” Laurie replied. “Is this Mike Evans speaking? Do you remember how we got engaged? Do you remember that I had to propose to you?”

“Well,” Mike replied. “It shouldn’t always be the man anyway, what about equal rights?”

“Equal rights my ass. You were too scared to ask me, and Hew’s the same way. You guys crack me up. All investigative-reporter-and-shit, asking politicians and scientists the tough questions and getting to the bottom of things, and you can’t even investigate when your girlfriend might be open to becoming your fiancée.”

“So, if you’re finished, are you happy or sad?”

“I’m thrilled, and Val will be too. Her clock is ticking and his deadline was running out. She’s been waiting for Hew to show he was settled down enough to be serious.”

Mike, looking perplexed, asked, “How do you know all of that?”

“Girls talk, my dear. While you and Hew are pulling on ropes and throwing beers at each other, we’re in the back of the boat with our wine and our stories. Luckily for you two, most of our stories are good ones,” she said with a wink. “She’s crazy about Hewitt.”

Mike sat back contentedly, smiled, and looked at his watch. “I guess I should light the grill.”

“The steaks are in the fridge, dear,” Laurie replied, giving him a ‘thumbs up’ sign.

“Oh, Mike?”

Mike stopped and turned around to face Laurie.

“She’s a size six, and wants a traditional solitaire on a plain band. Cut and size not important. I can do something up and give him a sweet deal.”

Mike smiled, shook his head, and went inside.


3. Boulder, Colorado

Space Weather Prediction Center
Monday, 22 October 2018
E-21 days

Deon Combs glanced up at his computer monitor at the little patch of black and gray surrounded by bright yellow. It was a computer rendering of the Sun. The little black patch was right on the edge of the visible solar disk, and about to rotate out of sight, at least for the next 13 to 14 days. The reminder of the Sun was pure, clean, bright yellow. Not another blemish in sight.

Deon worked at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Prediction Center. He was a space weather forecaster.

Deon had been pondering that little black patch for several days. Now that it was sliding out of view he hoped it would still be there two weeks later when that region rotated back around the Sun’s other side. If it was still there in two weeks, his confidence would take a huge jump.

Deon had a theory; a strong hunch he was keeping to himself for the time being. On three previous rotations there had been a spot in that same part of the Sun’s surface. Now it had lasted though the fourth transit, and he was struggling with what inferences he dare draw from what appeared to be the dogged persistence of one active region.

Every time a sunspot forms on the Sun or rotates around its edge into view, it is given a serial number. If the same region rotates out of view and then back into view two weeks later, it gets a new number. This disappearing active region was numbered 13200, and — Deon believed — had had former numbers of 13179, 13166, and 13158. If still existed in two weeks’ time it would be given yet a fifth serial number. Deon considered it to be the same beast, albeit a relatively small beast.

Growing up in Detroit, Deon was interested in science from the time his father took him into the recording studio where he worked. Deon was fascinated with the way sound moved and was captured on reels of tape. He decided as a young boy that he wanted to work in the field of sound engineering or electronics. With his family unable afford college, Deon’s interests led him to apply to the United States Air Force in the hope of getting a technical trade involving electronics of some sort.

After aptitude testing, Deon was offered the trade of Geospatial Analyst, which involved receiving and interpreting images to identify items of interest to military intelligence and tactical staff. He started as an Airman First Class, and worked hard to perfect himself in his trade. Soon, his superiors noticed that he had the ability to see patterns and shapes that others could not. Deon’s uncanny ability to pick out targets, camouflaged buildings, hidden aircraft and artillery made him a much-sought-after analyst.

Soon, Deon was offered a SOAR award (“scholarship for an outstanding airman”) to attend college and get his degree. He chose geomatics, and upon return to the Air Force, he was commissioned and worked as an officer. His duties included a temporary assignment to the Air Force Academy to assist with research and instruction in Geospatial Intelligence.

It was on a field orientation trip with one of his classes from the Academy that Deon first visited the Space Weather Prediction Center up the road in Boulder. Later, when it came time to decide whether to re-engage for another five years or leave the military for a quieter life, Deon approached the SWPC to see if there were any openings. With a spate of recent retirements, there were; and Deon made the transition to civilian life as a solar forecaster. As he was about to discover, his new career was not a quieter life at all.

During his study of the Sun, Deon was particularly taken with the lifespan of sunspots. Most last just a day, or even less. Some persist for several days and — rarely — still others can last for a month. But Deon had a hunch that the solar conditions favoring the formation of sunspots — even if they appeared to be random — could eventually produce a sunspot that could last for months. And, with this particular active region, Deon figured he was watching the first real live one of his short career.

Deon’s theory had been incubating in his mind for some time. The sun is a machine, he thought, and machines can be analyzed and understood as mechanical devices, and not just random forces of nature. In his spare time, and when he was assigned to the research desk at the SWPC, Deon pored over decades of solar data — looking for patterns that nobody else had seen. His theory, starting to gel after three years at the forecast center, was that there was a massive internal magnetic field or some other force that was invisible — except when its own rotation brought it close to the Sun’s surface. He figured if he worked hard enough at cataloging and linking past events, he would eventually be able to predict the rotation of this internal field. For the time being, he kept the work to himself.

It was almost time for the morning briefing, and Deon was still thinking about whether to make the suggestion that there was something unusual about this particular active region on the Sun. The Sun does not have a solid surface, so it is more art than science to pinpoint the same zone each time it rotates into view. Deon was working on how to identify unique magnetic signatures in active regions so they could be confirmed as persistent — even if they disappeared for two weeks at a time around the back side of the Sun.

There were two main workstations at the forecast office; staffed around the clock. One forecaster sat on the left of the office and analyzed the data coming in from the Sun. That forecaster also kept in close touch with the forecast center’s main clients such as NASA and the US military. The other forecaster, seated on the right of the office, was responsible for verifying the incoming data, and generating the office’s published products to the wider world. Alerts, warnings, watches and routine messages originated with the right-seat forecaster.

On this shift, Deon was seated on the left and was on data analysis. As the Sun was mostly quiet — near this lull in activity that comes regularly every 11 years — Deon had to spend less time talking to clients and had more time to pursue his own research. But, for the time being, it was only a theory. Humanity still knew very little about why the Sun behaved as it did. New theories and ideas were being proposed regularly, but there was still only a vague consensus about the broader strokes. Deon’s thinking was, for now, likely just more flotsam in a sea of ideas.

At the 0910 briefing it was Deon’s responsibility, as the left-side forecaster this week, to present the current picture of the Sun and Earth to an assembly of staff at the Center. Since shift change that morning at 0600 Deon had been preparing the slides that would form the background of his briefing. With just a few minutes to spare, Deon saved the slide package to his computer and stood.

“Good morning, everyone,” Deon opened. “Here is the situation today. The only active region is #13200, and we expect it will have rotated around the east limb by the end of the day. The remainder of the solar disk is clear of any visible sunspots, although there are some bumps in the 2800 MHz radio flux data that do not correlate well with what we are seeing in the visual range. There have been no CMEs and no flares on imagery. The few pores we do see are widely dispersed and we do not think they will coalesce for at least the next several days. We should continue spot-free unless something rotates into view and surprises us. Right now our peek around the edge of the limb reveals nothing of concern.”

As Deon spoke an image of the Sun lit up behind him, with departing sunspot 13200 on the very edge of visibility. Then, a graph of the 2800 MHz flux strength appeared.

“We expect the next three days will deliver quiet conditions, although the geomagnetic field has been unsettled to active in the last six hours. We believe this is due to the overall increase in solar wind speed from a few small coronal holes. We have a higher proton and electron flux than we did in yesterday’s briefing, but we do not think this will increase much further.”

With that, the briefing wrapped up and the staff went back to their posts. The researchers returned to their computer models in the Spaceweather Prediction Testbed. Administrative and technical staff began to build the day’s briefing into a published forecast. The Air Force liaison phoned his operations center with the daily update from his perspective. The right seat forecaster — this week it was Priya Bannerjee — picked up the phone, pressed a few keys, and started her recorded message:

“Solar-terrestrial indices for 22 October follow. Solar flux 83 and estimated planetary A-index 9. The estimated planetary K-index at 1500 UTC on 22 October was 1. No space weather storms were observed for the past 24 hours. No space weather storms are predicted for the next 24 hours.”

Priya hung up the phone. “Deon, you looked like you had more that you wanted to say during the briefing. What’s on your mind?”

“I think region 3200 is actually the same region that we saw as 13179, 13166, and 13158,” replied Deon. “I think it’s recurring but I’m not sure of it, and I’m not sure if it really makes any difference. But if it is recurring it may validate a theory I’m working on for longer term forecasting.”

“Interesting,” said Priya. “Do you think it’s going to be back in 14 days?”

“Yes, I do, and if my theory is right it may give us a little trouble the next time by.”

“Really? The sun is so quiet lately. I can’t remember what a good CME looks like.”

Priya was fibbing, and Deon knew it. She knew exactly what a Coronal Mass Ejection looked like. Frightening, wild, explosive, deadly. A “good” CME was violent, but harmless, as only the ones pointed at Earth posed any danger. The chances of an Earth-directed CME were always slim, because Earth was tiny and the Sun’s reach was vast.

“Well, we may see a CME out of this next rotation,” replied Deon. “If we do, I’ll be ready to be a little more bold about my theory.”

4. The Theory

In his Air Force career Deon developed a reputation for being the “image whisperer;” someone who could detect patterns and lines in what everyone else thought was a random scattering of pixels. He had even been tested, to try to discover why he was so much better at interpreting images than anybody else. The testing showed his talent wasn’t simple above-normal color vision, and it wasn’t exceptional visual acuity. Deon’s gift lay somewhere in his very special brain.

Even as a child, Deon could “see” patterns in music, in nature, and practically everything around him. He was drawn to ripples in the sand at a water’s edge, and sometimes very regular and repetitive patterns made by cirrus clouds high in the summer sky. Stripes on insects and the spots on birds’ eggs all made sense to Deon; even if he could not articulate exactly why.

And so it was with the Sun. Deon knew that—like the Earth’s surface weather—a day-to-day forecast was often a tough call. But, as was already widely known, the Sun had a roughly 11-year cycle of activity. On a broad scale, it was a safe bet to predict that the Sun would be mostly free of sunspots for an extended period of time, followed by several years of higher activity—taking roughly 11 years to complete and restart. But, even in those alternating quiet and active periods, the damned thing could surprise.

In the fall of 2018 the end of Cycle 24 was drawing near. Since 11-year cycles were first identified and counted, it would soon be time to declare the start of Cycle 25. But even that declaration would be done retroactively—as months of historical “smoothed” data would be needed to verify the switchover between old and new.

Solar Cycle 1 began in 1755, but nobody alive at that time had any idea. In fact, Cycle 1 was not formally identified until almost 100 years later by scientist Johann Wolf, who used reliable sunspot counts as far back as was available at that time. He determined that the oldest data pointed to a new cycle beginning in 1755, so that retroactively became Cycle 1.

Not all cycles last precisely 11 years, and not all of them have as well defined peaks and valleys from one to the next. Several cycles from about 1790 to 1830 could barely be called “peaks” at all. This was later called the “Dalton Minimum” after the meteorologist who noticed it at the time. There have been other minima, and maxima throughout human history, where the Sun would be quiet for decades, and then come back to life. The present era is largely more active than has been recorded in history.

These additional variations didn’t make Deon’s job any easier. Still, he saw a harmony and a synchronization in the Sun’s behavior over the centuries. He also saw, within especially recent and well-visualized cycles, patterns that were fitting well into some predictive modeling he was working on.

Although he was still not very close to the “why” question, he was getting more comfortable with the “what.” Let the eggheads worry about why it was happening, he figured. All he needed to wrestle with in the short term was whether his models could accurately forecast the next “big one.”

The bare bones of his theory posited some internal feature lying deep within the Sun’s composition. This feature, which he decided to call “the donut,” was a rotating, circling, wobbling presence of magnetic energy. The rotations, wobbles, and circles made the thing hard to explain to others—but Deon could see it in his mind.

When this donut wobbled close to the Sun’s surface, perturbations would appear and magnetic loops and whirls would spring from the surface, separate, and then reconnect. These loops and whirls would, usually, dive back below the surface as quickly as they appeared, and were recorded by astronomers as ordinary, random, sunspots. Correlating the donut’s motions with the Sun’s own rotation—as well as the effect that the planets were having on the Sun itself as they orbited the star—had been preoccupying Deon for some time.

He was getting ever closer to a model he could rely on. Using his latest “donut run,” Deon was able to work backward in time to see the past 8 cycles—all the way to Cycle 17 in the 1930s. His predicted sunspot values, looking back and compared against real observations, were verifying nicely—with only a few exceptions.

Better still, Deon’s short-term models for the last two cycles were validating very well. And with the last four rotations of active region 3200 he believed he now had a close grasp of all three planes of motion of his solar donut. His prediction for the edge of the donut to pass right out through the sun’s surface, the photosphere, and for region 3200 to expand markedly in size. When the active region was scheduled to reappear on the 4th or 5th of November. If his model was right, that region—even with a new number—would have persisted for five rotations and would emerge next time as a very large sunspot.

It was time to share his theory; at least a small piece of it.

Deon drafted a one paragraph message, which read as follows:

This prediction is made on 22 October 2018. Active region 3200 will persist while on the back side of the Sun and rotate back into Earth view late in the evening (UTC) of 4 November 2018. The region will be associated with a very large and well-developed sunspot, with an associated increase in solar flux to at least 125.

Deon Combs

Deon printed and signed the draft, and sealed it in an envelope. When Priya returned from the lunch room with her coffee, Deon held up the envelope and passed it to her.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s a prediction for active region 3200. I want you to keep custody of my theory for the next two weeks. Can you do that?”

“Sure,” Priya replied, “but if you’re quite sure something is going to happen shouldn’t you be telling someone as soon as possible?”

“I thought of that,” Deon said, “but even if my prediction holds it will not be a massive event. I don’t think anyone will be in danger, and I doubt anybody would take action on it anyway at this stage, because my theory is unverified. Plus, this next rotation will either make or break my theory altogether, so I’m willing to wait one more time to see if I should put it out there.”

“Okay. Is this the donut thing you mentioned to me a while back?”

“Yes, my latest donut run has predicted a big upswing in this region, and if this one pans out I think I’ll have the donut nailed.”

“So what will I do with the envelope on the 5th of November?”

“Actually, you can open it whenever you like. I just want you to be a witness that I gave it to you today, two weeks in advance of the date that I describe inside.”

“Wow, that’s interesting. You must be pretty pumped.”

“It’s been a long time with lots of number crunching. If this model verifies I’m going to need more computer and processing time to run some predictions. I hope the director will authorize it. Then, I’ll need time to publish.”

“This could be a very big thing for you, Deon.”

“Maybe, but I hope I never see the next big one coming. If we get knocked back into the Stone Age I’d rather not have it named after me.”