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Distant Suns – Sample Chapters | Time Split

Time Split

Website for the author, Patricia Smith

Distant Suns – Sample Chapters

PROLOGUE

The solitary planet, swathed in a gaseous cocoon, glistened softly, like a sapphire adorning a cloak of infinite black.

Vaporous clusters, mingling in the ether, drifted gracefully above a wash of azure broken only by a lone continent. 

This single landmass had been two at the rise of the oceans, but the movement of the lithospheric plates had resulted in a merging and now, like the spiny back of an immense beast, a vast mountain range ran its length at the point of impact.

All the ingredients had been present from the start and the proximity of the twin suns – a red giant and a lesser yellow star with a biannual orbit – had brought the planet into the habitable zone.

An ocean rich with nutrients, created after the planet cooled from its fiery birth, saw the advent of DNA and the emergence of single-celled creatures which began the pattern of life and the subsequent development of more sophisticated species.

A billion years of evolution had left this world rippling with life.  It wasn’t technological, but it was intelligent.  It was a time before writing and a time before primates, but communication was good and knowledge passed down.  Despite this, an extraordinarily bright star, seen briefly in the daytime sky a thousand years ago, would have never been linked to the end. 

Those by the coast had advanced warning that something was wrong, when the tide suddenly swept an incalculable distance out to sea.  A violent wind followed; then as breathing became laboured and the air thickened, a glow emanated around the horizon.  This was not unusual on a world with two suns, but the speed and intensity with which the light grew was a different matter.  It climbed over the edge of the planet to fill the sky until, further and higher than sight allowed, a wall of blue fire sped towards the land at a phenomenal pace.  

Fear and wonder held some in place, but for those who did run there would still be no escape.

The ferocity of the wind climbed the closer the flame drew.  It ripped at the trees and undergrowth to combine animals and plants in a terror-filled roar.  Then moments later, a sonic blast reached the shore: a solid wall of air which tore across the land to smash any strongholds in its path and leave most dead, or dying, when the inferno arrived and burned all to ash in its wake.

CHAPTER SEVEN

May

Hope Arctic Science Station

“That’s it.  That’s everything,” Gilbert Warren yelled over the noise of the engine, as the last of the supplies were unloaded from the helicopter.  He stepped back, clear of the downdraft from the blades. 

As the noise of the engines changed pitch and rose to a painful shriek, the helicopter began to lift skyward.  Gilbert watched as it steadily climbed and began its journey south.  He waited until it completely disappeared before deciding to join his colleagues inside. 

This was not his first trip to the Arctic, it was actually his third.  The unique beauty and natural rawness always created a feeling of excited awe whenever he arrived.  Despite this, a dreadful sense of vulnerability and isolation still dominated as the last of the choppers flew from sight.  They were a hundred and fifty miles from the nearest landmass and any rescue would take some time to organise.  They couldn’t afford mistakes and he was painfully aware that a bad weather front would leave them trapped for weeks. 

It was 20 below, warm for May, which was the reason for their trip.

For the past month coastguards and weather satellites had been carefully monitoring the progress of a number of large icebergs which had drifted south into the shipping lanes.  An update of the position and status of these frozen, floating mountains was transmitted on an hourly basis to crossing vessels but the British Environment Agency wanted to investigate the situation further.

The four scientists had been at the Hope site, just south of the Eurasia Basin, in the Arctic Ocean, for just over a day now.  They were surprised to discover, upon arrival, they were only thirty or so miles north of the pack ice, which should have been approximately 120 miles further south this time of year.  They had been expecting changes in the region, brought on by a wet and mild winter, but their findings were more alarming than initially anticipated.

“You timed that beautifully,” Sophie Graham, the only woman in the team, said sarcastically as Gilbert stepped back inside.  “We’ve only just finished putting the last of the supplies away.”

“That was the plan,” Gilbert retorted, with a wry smile. 

Gilbert was project leader for the team that was to spend the next month taking readings of ice thickness and global currents in and around the Eurasia Basin.

Terence Stafford, the most senior member of the group, clapped his hands and rubbed them together enthusiastically.  “Right!  Who’s for breakfast?”  He crossed to the stove.  “We must have something hot before starting work.”

Gilbert stooped and raked in a cupboard for pans.  “I’ll help.”

“What do we do today?”  Twenty-six-year-old Lewis Carver was the youngest of the four and this was his first trip to the Arctic.  His flight in had only served to stoke his exuberance when the helicopter passed the icebergs in the far North Atlantic and the frozen Arctic Ocean had first come into view.

Sophie beckoned him across the room where she stood beside a computer, waiting for the system to boot.  “We always check the weather before we do anything.”

Once the computer finished loading, Sophie showed Lewis how to log into the Eagle Alaskan weather station. 

Lewis pointed to the screen as the weather systems over the Arctic were displayed.  “What’s that mean?”

Sophie raised her voice so the two cooks could hear.  “A front of low pressure, being driven by 60-mile-an-hour winds, is heading south, south west.”

Gilbert crossed from the stove and checked the display. 

“It’s hard to tell whether it’ll hit the base,” she continued. 

Gilbert studied the image for a few seconds before voicing his concern.  “I’ve seen these storm systems suddenly change direction in the past.  Today we’ll just set up the equipment and stay near the camp.  The core samples can wait until tomorrow.”

Raithwaite, North Yorkshire, England

Thomas Taylor slipped over to his wife’s side of the bed.  Stretching out lithely, he snuggled his face into her pillow and gently breathed in her scent, still warm on the cover.

“Sally!  Make a cup of tea?” he called, as the toilet flushed.

“Okay.” 

Seconds later he heard a scream.  He threw back the covers and leapt out of bed. 

“The house is flooded!” she shrieked as he ran to the landing.  “Water’s halfway up the stairs.”

Thomas stared for several seconds, disbelieving his eyes, before deciding on a course of action.  “I’ll check outside.”  He returned to the bedroom and pulled back the curtains to find only the roofs of cars visible above the water level – which climbed five foot up the front of the houses opposite.

Sally came up behind and peered around her husband.  “What’s going on?” 

“I don’t know.  The river must have burst its banks.” 

He left the window and began to dress but quickly stopped when his wife burst into tears. 

“Everything will be ruined.”

He hurried over and held her close.

“It’s typical,” she sobbed.  “Just when we get the house finished.”

“It’ll be alright.”  He looked down and wiped her eyes with his thumb.  “Come on, don’t cry.  It’ll be fun to start again.”

She laughed.  This was why she loved him so; only Thomas could turn such a horrible situation around.

“Come on,” he urged, “let’s get dressed, we have to get outta here.  Wear something light, it’ll dry quicker.”

Sally pulled on some cotton trousers and a shirt, then followed her husband to the stairs. 

Thomas, leading the way, tentatively approached the water line, then stopped just before he was forced to make the plunge.

“Don’t get it in your mouth; it might be full of sewage.”  Then he moved to the next step down.  

Thomas grimaced, as the water soaked through his trainers and pants.  “Strewth, it’s cold,” was quickly followed by a gasp when the level reached his groin.  As he arrived at the ground floor he turned and watched Sally carefully pick her way down the stairs.  The water by now had reached his chest and he was concerned that his petite wife might have to be carried.  “Can you manage?  Will you be alright?”

She left the final step to discover only her head and shoulders remained dry.  “Yes, we’ll just have to take it slowly.”  She shuddered as her skin turned a delicate shade of blue.  Cautiously they waded through the water but, when they made it to the door, the step outside proved too much.

“Wait here,” Thomas instructed.  “I’ll see if I can find out what’s happening.”

Outstretched arms helped to maintain his balance as he moved slowly away from the house.  It was impossible to see below the first few inches of the murky water, so Thomas had to rely more on memory than sight to make his way safely up the drive.  Flower borders and cars had to be carefully negotiated to prevent a fall and uneven paving on the path outside increased his feeling of vulnerability.  He steadied himself, where possible, on the roofs of nearby cars, until finally the situation improved when the road started to gradually climb, a short way from the house.  The water level reduced as the incline increased and by the time he rounded a bend outside of the estate, only his lower half remained submerged.  He looked ahead where a small group were gathered in the square on the edge of the village.  Amongst them was Harry Dobson, a neighbour from across the street.

“Harry!  Do you know what’s happening?” Thomas called as he drew near to the large man who stood with his eight-year-old daughter on his shoulders.  She looked cold and scared.

“Hello, Cara,” Thomas said, trying to soothe the child.

“My boys have gone to the police station to see if they know what’s going on.”  Harry pointed down the road.  “They’re just coming back now.”

The two teenagers struggled as fast as they could through the water towards the group before breathlessly reporting their findings.

Thomas hurried back to the house.  “We’re being moved into camps further inland,” he called once he was within earshot of his wife.  “The entire area is flooded.  Your parents’ street is under water as well.”

“Camps!” Sally repeated, scarcely able to believe what she’d heard.  “For how long?”

“Until the waters drain away.”

He reached the door and turned his back to his wife.  “Come on, I’ll have to carry you.  At least up the street.”

“Was it caused by the rain?  It’s rained a lot recently.”

“It’s not just here.  East Anglia and Northern England are below water as well.  The coastal defences were breached last night.”  He looked over his shoulder as Sally climbed aboard.  “Apparently, the sea levels are rising.”

Quintin Distribution Centre, Angola, Africa

Tasha Richardson looked around as she stepped out into the baking heat. 

The brick walls of the distribution depot stood three stories high and focused the rays of the Sun.  The bleached white, concrete yard soaked up the relentless heat and only thick leather boots provided enough protection for her delicate feet.

She sighed and took another sip of water, then repositioned her hat to offer more shade.  Her pale skin was thickly smothered in factor 50 sun cream, giving her the appearance of a geisha girl.  Her swept-back, blonde hair, stuffed firmly beneath her hat, was dry and unmanageable.  She’d been forced to admit, but only to herself, that she’d been unaware of what to expect when she’d offered her services as a volunteer.  But, a month ago, it seemed to be a good way of seeing more of the world whilst on a study break.  Fluent in French, Arabic and Portuguese, Tasha had particularly asked to be placed in Africa, but working in the office at the distribution centre in Luanda, Angola, wasn’t what she’d had in mind.

She pushed against the frame of her glasses, when the glare of the Sun escaped the corner, and started to make her way across the depot.  Luanda was just like any other city apart from the merciless heat.  It was a world away from the open plains and stunning wildlife Tasha had envisaged.

“Tasha!”

She stopped and turned in the direction of the voice.  Tony Henderson was hurrying across the yard towards her. 

A large man of ample girth, he found it difficult to walk quickly in this heat, never mind run.  “Tasha, could you travel with Laurence Urwin?” he gasped as he drew close. 

“Where’s he going?”

Tony paused to regain his breath.  “He’s travelling to the Gideon centre.  It’s about a half day’s journey.”  Then as an afterthought, “Do you know Laurence?”

Tasha shook her head.

Tony shrugged his shoulders; it didn’t matter.  “I know you’ve been keen to get out of the office, so when Laurence asked for an interpreter I suggested you.”

“Does he know how to get there?”

“Yes.  He was there last month.  He’s keen to be off, he wants to get back tonight, so you’ll have to go now.  Is that alright?”

Tasha nodded.  “Yeah, sure.”  She was happier than she was letting on; it was an opportunity she’d waited a long time for.

Tony guided her towards the lorry.  “He has enough food and water for the journey.”

A hulk of a man was sitting inside the cab.  A sprawl of brown hair cascading down his back and a full beard made it difficult for Tasha to define his features.

“Laurence, this is Tasha.  She’s your interpreter.”

He opened the passenger door and held out a hand for Tasha to take.  “Hi.”  He hoisted her into the cab.

“What are we transporting?”

“Grain, dried milk, flour and medicines,” Laurence replied as he pulled the lorry around and drove out of the depot.

“How long has there been food problems in this region?”

“Two years – they’ve had a drought for two years.”

They joined the main road then stopped, a short while later, when the traffic lights turned red. 

Tasha looked at the buildings nearby.  “You’d never think there was anything wrong, inside the city.”

“Cities are always the same – very insular.”  Laurence pulled away when the lights changed to green.  They turned onto the central highway.  “It’s too easy to forget the suffering of others when you’re cocooned in bright lights, supermarkets and restaurants.”

She stared out the window as the high rises whistled by.  Mountains of steel, competing for space and racing for the sky, filled her view beyond the road.  Eventually the skyscrapers gave way to flats and finally houses, and the further from the centre they travelled, the greater the signs of poverty became.

“Tony said you hadn’t been out of Luanda yet,” Laurence said as they finally left the suburbs and entered the open plains.

“Not by choice.  I’ve always wanted to see the African wilderness.”

“Not like this, you wouldn’t,” Laurence told her flatly.  “I drove through this region two and a half years ago.  The land was then lush and green.  It supported a vast and diverse range of wildlife.  Look at it now.”

Dust, kicked up by the lorry, swirled around the vehicle like a yellow fog.  Beyond the road, the parched earth was barren for as far as she could see.  Shrivelled shrubs and naked trees stood like the bleached bones of lost lives, and deep cracks, like the shadows of storms, littered the hardened soil.

“The heat caused the biggest problem.  As the summer arrived, it just got hotter and hotter.  It’s been the hottest summer on record.  There’s still water in the wells and below ground but it was the end for most of the rivers and lakes.  Tankers carrying fresh water travelled to the Gideon centre a couple of days ago because the situation was getting desperate.  It won’t be long before the city starts to feel the effects.”

The pair travelled for a further hour – only the gentle twang of country and western music breaking the silence – before they noticed a work party near the road up ahead.

“Are they doing repairs in this dreadful heat?”

“They’re probably burying bodies.  When I passed this way last month the landscape was littered with dead animals and cattle.  I’d heard mutterings about work parties being organised to dig graves to stop the spread of disease.”

As the lorry drew near, the workers stopped digging.  It was a welcome excuse for a break.  They stepped back and once the vehicle had passed, they waited for the dust to settle before continuing. 

Tasha peered out the passenger window and glimpsed the emaciated body of a male lion to the side of a freshly dug hole.  Sadness swelled in her gut and she returned her eyes to the road.  “I see what you mean.  This isn’t what I thought I would see.”  Her attention drifted upward and she suddenly noticed a light, glowing brightly in the sky.  At first, she thought it was a low flying plane, but when it continued to stay stationary, curiosity overwhelmed.  “What’s that?”

“What?”

She pointed upward, squinting in a vain attempt to clarify the object.  “That.  There.  In the sky.”

Laurence glanced in the direction of her finger.  “That’s Jupiter.”

She looked around surprised.  “In the daytime sky?”

He nodded.

“You can’t usually see it in the daytime sky.  Can you?”

“No.  At one time you couldn’t, but you can now.  It’s been increasing in brightness for the past six months.”

“Why now?  Why should it suddenly become brighter?”

Laurence looked at Tasha, aghast.  “I can’t believe you don’t know what’s been going on.”

A flush of colour filled her cheeks.  “I’d heard something was happening to the planet,” she admitted, a little flustered, “but to be honest I don’t pay too much attention to the news.”

“Jupiter’s becoming a sun.”

“A sun!”  Tasha glanced at Laurence, then suddenly her face opened up into a smile.  “You’re joking,” she laughed. 

“No, I’m not.  The solar flare that caused the massive power outage across North America and Europe four months ago came from Jupiter.”

Her face once again fell when she realised he was deadly serious.  “Is that why it can be seen in the daytime?”  She returned her eyes skyward.

“Yes.”

“So how do you know all of this?”

“Astronomy is a hobby of mine.  I love it out here.  No light pollution; it’s great.  But that aside, it’s actually been all over the news,” he snorted.  “I’m also an environmentalist.  I’ve been fighting against global warming for over a decade now.”

Tasha scanned the desolate landscape.  “So do you think this is caused by global warming?”

“I don’t know.”  Laurence shook his head absently.  “I really don’t think anybody knows.”

Hope Arctic Science Station

“Where’s Lewis?” Gilbert called over the howl of the wind.  A storm had blown up within minutes and he wanted the team inside.

Terence moved his mask.  “At the drill site,” he yelled, then quickly returned the thermal protection to his face. 

The Arctic wind had dropped the already subzero temperatures a further twenty degrees; it would take seconds for any exposed skin to begin to freeze and even their high-tech clothing was proving inadequate.

“Stop what you’re doing and get inside with Sophie,” Gilbert called.  “I’ll get Lewis.” 

He lowered his head and began to push forward against the driving wind.

The drill site was less than a hundred yards away but he knew that the storm could leave him disorientated and lost in just a few feet.  He followed the station wall until he encountered the first of a number of poles holding a guide rope which provided a safe lead around the camp. 

The storm had sprung up with frightening ferocity but had been raging for ten minutes now and he was surprised that Lewis had not yet returned. 

Whipped up ice and snow brought visibility down to no more than four feet and as Gilbert grasped the pole, he was pleased for the additional security of the perimeter guide.  The first yard followed the station wall but as he moved away from the protection of the building, he felt the full force of the wind battering his body from the front and side.  As he pushed forward into the blizzard, a shadowy figure started to take form up ahead.

“Lewis!” he called, but the wind carried his voice away and Lewis didn’t hear.

He appeared to be struggling with something, and it was only as Gilbert drew closer he realised one of the drill bits was jammed.

Gilbert leaned into the wind and waved to catch his attention.  “Lewis!  Come on!  Leave it!” he yelled at the top of his voice.

Lewis looked around and raised a hand to acknowledge he’d heard.

Gilbert beckoned.  “Leave it!  Come on, let’s get inside!”

Lewis released the drill piece and began to follow his safety tether.  He had just reached the guide rope when suddenly a shudder rippled through the ice.  Both men stood rigid, fixed to the spot in terror.  Gilbert looked down.  He tried to see the cause; then it happened again.  This time it was more violent, almost like a quake.  He waved his hand urgently.  “Come on!  Let’s go!”

Lewis took one step forward, then the ice at the point of the drill bit gave way and he suddenly disappeared. 

As the guide rope in Gilbert’s hand pulled tight, the next pole along was dragged from its seating and vanished off the edge of the newly formed fissure.

“Lewis!” Gilbert screamed.  He quickly moved forward until he neared the edge of the crevasse where he lowered himself down and looked over the brink. 

Lewis was clinging to the pole ten feet below, his hold made all the more precarious by the ferocity of the wind.  Battered off the jagged wall of ice, he bounced and scraped with ever increasing force in the relentless gale.

“Hang on!” Gilbert screamed. 

Lewis glanced up, before quickly returning his gaze to the icy cliff.  He’d lost the feeling in his hands and his left arm had been injured in the fall.  Ice crystals whipped up in the gale stung his face and it was starting to hurt to breathe.  Every attempt to improve his hold had been foiled by the wind and his legs were wet from the plume created when the shattered ice shelf hit the Arctic Ocean. 

Gilbert stood and took a firm hold on the rope.  He wedged his feet into the ice, then began to heave Lewis upward.

Lewis went rigid as he felt the rope lurch but quickly realised he wasn’t falling when he slowly began to rise.  At an agonising pace he inched up the shelf face with snow and ice falling from above, where the rope dragged against the edge.  The nearer to the top he drew, the more ferocious the wind.  It buffeted and bashed him off the face until suddenly – just short of the top – the pole jammed into compacted snow.

“Gilbert!  I’m stuck!”

Gilbert felt the pole wedge but didn’t have the strength to pull it free.  The pounding wind and frigid air were taking their toll.  As he stood and held the weight, he couldn’t decide what to do next.  They were stuck here, locked in their struggle against death, neither able to go forward nor able to go back.  Then suddenly, from behind he heard a voice. 

“Gilbert!  What’s going on?”  Then, “Dear God,” Terence gasped as he saw the situation.

Lewis also heard Terence speak and had just braced himself when suddenly, he lunged upwards as the pole was dragged free.

Terence pounced as Lewis’ arms cleared the precipice and he hauled his colleague onto solid ground. 

Sophie had started to pace when the door to the station burst open and Lewis was dragged in.  A trained doctor, she immediately knew the danger when she saw his pale, translucent skin.  “Keep him away from the heat.”  She went to work.  “What the hell happened?” she asked, as she peeled back his clothing to reveal frozen flesh.

“A section of the shelf broke away,” Gilbert stammered, shaking uncontrollably. 

“The shelf?  How much?”

“I don’t know.  Either way, we’re gonna need to be airlifted out the moment this storm breaks.  I think we’ve got quite enough information to make our report.”

The full version of Distant Suns is available at the Kindle Store at  www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B006LWWLSK  and www.amazon.com/dp/B006LWWLSK   Distant Suns is also available in EPUB format at:  http://www.lulu.com/shop/patricia-smith/distant-suns/ebook/product-20920746.html

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Monday, January 9th, 2012 Distant Suns

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