Authors: TR Nowry
The solar oven worked perfectly, as long as someone was available to keep it oriented toward the sun. If the boat traveled in a straight line, the oven only needed adjusting every hour or so, but in practice, it needed tending every fifteen minutes. Fortunately, it heated a few hundred pounds of common bricks to 500 or more degrees in as little as four hours of quality sunlight. Those bricks retained enough heat in that highly insulated box to cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two days, so long as they didn't need to broil anything. Rice and beans only needed boiling, fish was best fried or lightly baked, then just kept warm by the bricks.
After adjusting their recipes, the troublesome oven started to suit their needs just fine.
Ava and her mother settled into shifts aiming the oven, while the older children and Jason took turns wrestling the sail and fishing. Radio reception during the day was nonexistent, but they had a large library of CDs and freshly charged batteries.
Melatonin came in handy with keeping everyone on their shifts. Nathan, Ava, and Makayla largely keep off the pills and on days, while Gina and Jason chemically adjusted into nights. For the first time since he had met her, they were on the same shift.
Jason worked the controls as the sail figure eighted across the night sky. "It should have taken just a week or two, Gina. It's only about two thousand miles; even at just ten knots, that's two weeks at the most. We're two months into this and, by GPS, we're only about halfway there. But by the knots on the little speedometer, we're averaging fifteen knots. To keep with the winds, we have to zigzag some, but that couldn't—"
Gina punched him in the arm. "Could we have been fighting some sort of cross current flowing down from Alaska, running toward Mexico? I mean, that would explain why we keep drifting south."
Jason shrugged. "I really don't know. Maybe the GPS thing is broken. I mean, it's for roads and such, got it secondhand for fifty dollars. This isn't exactly what it was built for. But, it seems to be working right.
Fortunately, we packed all the canned and dried food from the cupboards. No resale value. And, we stocked up, just in case. Packed some kerosene because it had a kerosene stove. I figure another month or two, but I don't know. The compass is reading right. It agrees with the GPS, it's just our GPS speed doesn't seem to match our," he plucks the instrument in the console "speedometer thingy. Currents are the only thing that make sense of that. Like a giant ocean-sized riptide. This thing is shaped like a barge, so, it should be very prone to the whims of currents. It isn't aerodynamic at all. Or, uh, water dynamic, I guess. Kind of a big square slab instead of a sleek, arrowed hull. It could be worse. We could be paying rent on this thing."
She laughed. It was junk, but they did own it. And as long as they could catch a shark or a decent-sized fish every now and again, they could last indefinitely out on the open sea. She kept the radio adjusted while he steered the ship.
The late night talk show of choice came on. This time, they caught it from the beginning with the all-important first hour where they recapped the news. The icecap was melting at an expedited rate. Panama had, in the blink of an eye, submerged, and the Atlantic and Pacific were draining into each other. The raw current, they figured, would cut Panama as deep as the Grand Canyon in less than six years. All this crosscurrent was adding to their navigation problems. Tapping such a rushing current could cut their trip down to days, but they had to steer clear or risk getting their remains shot into the Gulf of Mexico after being bashed across whatever boulders were left of Panama.
CO2 had been, belatedly, let off the hook by most of the world, now that carbon cap and trade had fulfilled its true purpose and destroyed most modern economies. The sun, and the sun alone, had pushed polar climates up by fifteen degrees through properties that were still poorly understood. It was difficult to hear the complete story with the AM station fading in and out, but it seemed like the latest theory had an increased flow of charged solar particles disrupting the Earth's magnetic shield around the poles. The net effect of which was to toast the poles while leaving the shielding over the middle latitudes unaffected, something nobody had predicted was even possible. Nobody knew the sun could destabilize the shielding over the poles so easily, nor keep it up indefinitely. The reverse effect, it seemed, could also cause an ice age within a decade, more or less at the sun's whim. Like an ozone hole on steroids.
The ugly heavy metal shipping container had been a kind of blessing. The metal shielded them from more of the sun's wild bursts of radiation than anything short of a cave could do. The civilian wandering islands were almost mobile caves themselves, and had repositioned near the equators where they continued to function unaffected by worldly events.
The newly commissioned, but still incomplete, twenty-five square mile Mobile Island was serving as a temporary airport hub in the Middle East, where all hell was breaking loose.
Jason looked at Gina as they listened in silence while the host grimly paused for a commercial. "Riots seemed to be happening everywhere, and we only have a flare gun. Mexico didn't look so inviting anymore. Perhaps we should try further north, if there was anything left of California."
Gina was equally grim, "Heading north is easier said than done. Finding the winds might not be possible. But from the news we just heard, it might be our only option."
Gina fiddled with the dial as it faded, catching a sister station that seemed to be transmitting the same show, just ten seconds behind.
". . . Now, we shift to our NASA spokesman on the phone," the host said, "I guess, I'll just turn it over to you now, Pete, what have we learned?"
"Thank you, George, it's an honor to be on your show again tonight. I just wish we had something better to discuss," Pete said. "As you know, we have a large array of satellites now focused on the sun. The changes in the solar jet stream have increased solar flares to record levels. In the last few months, we've learned more about the structure and science behind flares than all of science had learned in the four hundred years that came before it. X class eruptions are far more common than. . . "
The signal faded while Gina tried to tune back to the previous frequency.
". . . That's right, George," Pete continued, "until the 1990's, we had thought that solar flares as big as the X class were rare. Now we know better. Thanks to observations from instruments like the Hubbell, we now know that it is rather uncommon for stars like our sun to have as stable and consistent an output as we've enjoyed in the past. Most stars, of the same class as ours, vary their output by as much as twenty percent from time to time. See, most stars are classified by how bright they appear and by their spectrum. However, when a star like ours starts to go through an intense flaring period, like ours appears to be, its spectrum, when seen from a distance, shifts. It's brightness shifts, and to observers from outside our solar system, it appears to be a different class of star.
Since we've only been able to study the spectrums of other stars for the last century, we never observed a known star to shift like this. And when we did, we attributed the difference to human error, improved equipment, or closer orbits and such. We completely dismissed the idea of solar storms this big and this powerful as being common occurrences."
"So, what can we expect now?" George calmly asked.
"Well, the short answer is, we don't know. Nobody does. Everything is just guesswork. But our best guess is that these storms can last years, or more likely decades and centuries. We now believe that the Little Ice Age was triggered by the sun dimming, the reverse effect if you will, for a period of only five decades. But the repercussions from those five decades gave us four hundred years of an ice age. Supercomputers, satellites, and a lot of intellectual capital are guessing that it will take less than a decade to melt every pound of natural ice everywhere on the planet. From there, even if the sun returns to a period of calm, it will take hundreds, if not thousands of years to rebuild the polar ice caps, regardless of how you factor in the impact of CO2 and greenhouse gasses."
"Has NASA recanted on the importance of greenhouse gasses, officially?" George pressed his guest.
"Officially, no. But you have to understand, our budget, our entire budget comes from the politicians in government. We, officially, always support the political 'science', especially when it has total control over our budget. But all research that receives money from outside parties always finds a way to prove the 'science' those backers endorse—"
"So," George said, "officially, NASA sees the flares, sees the effects on the magnetic shield around the poles, is measuring the melting happening before their very eyes, and still says CO2 caused it all."
"Officially, yes. Look, back in the days of the Dark Age, the official scientific consensus was that stars . . ."
Gina quickly dialed in the sister station.
". . . days of the Dark Age, the official scientific consensus was that stars couldn't change their brightness, ever. Well, a supernova occurred and one star, for a week, was bright enough to be seen during the day, and bright enough at night to read by. It was recorded by every society around the world, except one. Europe refused to believe their own eyes—"
"It's remarkable that you would pick that example," George said what Jason and Gina were thinking.
"Well, it isn't by accident. The scientists of that day got ALL their funding from the church, or from the king by way of suggestions by the church. And the church believed that stars stayed constant forever. Today's political church sees things the same way, and is paying the bills. Officially, the government never makes any mistakes and CO2 is thus the only legitimate cause, ignore your lying eyes is our policy."
George sighed over the radio, his depression conveyed well across the long and awkward pause. "Well, uh. . . hmmm. . . coastal cities are being evacuated. FEMA is so overwhelmed that they are subcontracting all their distribution logistics to Wal-Mart. Lobbying for funding seems like semantics when we're talking total government collapse, but, I only have you for another twenty minutes, and arguing the politics seems like a waste of that. What are we looking at in the short term?"
"Well, our jet stream here on Earth has shifted too. Mild weather is everyone's best guess. An elongated spring, a few weeks of summer, and a long fall, with almost no winter. In the past we had the year without a summer, I suspect we'll have several years without a winter. The good news is, that will probably mean extra growing seasons. At the very least, it means that Canada and Siberia will continue to provide the world with an abundance of food. . . "
They lost the signal again, but this time they lost the sister station as well.
Jason worked the figure eight as they sat in silence.
Gina eventually stood and turned on her flashlight. "I'm going to check what's left in the hotbox of the oven. You hungry for anything?"
"Yeah, I smelled some fresh bread, maybe a fish sandwich? Remind me to try to bring all of this up with the rest of your family at breakfast, ok. We should vote before turning north."
Turning north added two additional months to their trip. Progress was so slow that they often anchored during the mornings when the winds and the currents pushed against them the hardest south, only to start moving again when the wind turned north in the afternoons. Late evenings and into the nights was when they made most of the ground, according to GPS. At best, when not anchored, they managed to drift east instead of south.
By the time they ran out of dried split peas, the GPS started showing them one hundred miles west of Santa Barbara. More disturbing than the vegetable shortage was they had yet to meet any ships at sea. Where had all the boats gone?
Surely they should have stumbled across a few fishing boats by now.
The radio suggested that the closer to the coast they got, the stronger the southern current would get and the more drifting they should expect. The radio had been clear most nights and they had picked up lots of information. But the mystery of where all the fishing boats had gone was baffling. Jason suspected that small craft may have been grounded because of the treacherous coastal currents, which was scary enough to contemplate, but another thought lingered in his mind. They could be confiscating small crafts for rescue purposes.
A sailboat wouldn't work for rescues, so confiscation of their boat wasn't a big risk, but they might not be able to sell it either, for the same practical reason. And since most of their money was tied up in it, that was a huge concern.
His watch said it was 2:17 AM Thursday when a light appeared in the distance.
Gina grabbed the binoculars and stuck her head out the window. "I can't tell what it is, but I see flashes of blue and red," she said, bringing her head back in from the wind.
"Well, we'll know soon enough, I suspect. I reckon we ought to turn up the lights on the sail, huh?"
She twisted the dial to its brightest setting as Jason continued the figure eights. He checked the charge on the batteries. The extra lights had maxed-out the stern generator, and the batteries had stopped charging. But the lights were attracting attention, for good or bad. With the lights on the sail, hundreds of feet in the air, they could easily be seen for miles, well over the horizon. The figure eights probably made it look like a circling prop-plane in distress.
At ten knots, they couldn't outrun a canoe. They just kept course and waited as the mysterious light in the distance slowly grew bigger.
"This is The United States Coastguard. Bring your vessel to a halt now and prepare to be boarded," boomed from the loudspeaker as four searchlights roamed across their boat.
Jason dropped anchor and used the charge on the batteries to reel in the massive parasail while the rest of the family assembled near the stern.
In a matter of minutes, armed guardsmen were walking every inch of the decks.
"Stop what you're doing," the man shouted to Jason as he stormed the tiny control room, weapon drawn.
"I would be happy to," Jason said, but didn't release the controls, "but if I do, the sail might crash into your ship, or mine."
"Stop what you're doing, now!"
Jason let go of the controls, and within seconds the sail slammed into the water between the two ships.
The crash sounded like a bomb going off and the wave rocked both ships, but fortunately, none of the armed guardsmen overreacted.
Jason held his hands up, then gestured to the controls, "If I don't finish bringing in the sail, even now that it's crashed, it'll fill with surface currents and we'll start to drift south, fast. Anchor or no anchor."
The guardsman radioed it in, then agreed to let Jason back behind the controls, heavily supervised.
For several intense minutes, every inch of the boat was searched and inspected. IDs were confiscated and checked over the radio. All members of the family were separated from each other and questioned individually.
"So," Jason said when the family was finally reunited on the stern of the ship, "what uh, or, where can we bring this thing into port? I mean, you can see we came all the way from Hawaii, we've been months at sea. Where can we put ashore and get some dirt under our feet?"
The guardsmen looked at each other, "Even if you could battle the currents near shore, which you can't, and even if you could keep from getting ripped apart on all the debris and submerged structures, which you can't, the coasts have been completely evacuated for about a hundred miles inland. We've had six tsunamis in the last month, that's over one a week—"
"Then," Jason asked, "just where can we go?"
"We're US citizens," Makayla said, hands on her hips, "and you're telling us we can't enter the US?"
"That's about the situation, Ma'am," the guardsman said.
"Now, just wait," Jason said, watching the mother boiling to a good steam, "surely there is some assistance you can render. Coordinates to where we can put in, somewhere to get more food and fuel for our stove. How about going up to Alaska or Canada? Can we put in there?"
"We can't prevent you from putting in at Canada, but their coasts have been evacuated too. Even if you survive getting to shore, there will be nobody for miles."
"What about returning to Hawaii?" Ava asked.
"There isn't much there to return to," the guardsman said.
"Look," Gina said, "you've given us a long list of can'ts, how about a few cans."
"They're radioing in on that right now. It takes time. Usually about an hour."
"Well," Makayla said, wagging her finger at the armed men, "you've been here at least that long already!"
Jason jumped in again, "If I get the maps, can you show us where the new currents are, maybe some indication on how the trade winds have shifted and such, some hazards to look out for? We've heard some things about Panama, but can't get any information about how it affected the currents down south."
The guardsman silently nodded, "Keep at least three hundred knots from Panama, you'll never survive it."
The other guardsman spoke up, "And that's if it doesn't get any worse, and that's the one direction that everything seems to be flowing."
"What about looting and riots?" Nathan asked, "Is that why you boarded so fast with guns drawn and everything? Are the riots that bad?"
"Some. Looters are about all you'll find on the coasts."
"Should we be worried about pirates—" Jason started.
"No, I wouldn't—"
"Alaska out of the question?" Jason asked again.
"For your boat, it is," one guardsman put it bluntly.
It seemed like they had survived a biblical flood, and were still somehow screwed. It didn't hardly seem fair.
After three hours of waiting, the family was given a choice by the coastguard. Because they were verified as citizens, they could officially put in a mayday and be rescued. The coastguard would deliver them a hundred miles inland by helicopter, and release them with nothing but the clothes on their backs. The guard would also be required to sink their crude little boat with all of their possessions.
The second choice was that the coastguard would release them with an official warning to venture no closer than one hundred knots from the coast of the US. Any closer would be a violation punishable by fines, confiscations, and possible imprisonment.
It was not an easy decision, and the coastguard was in no mood to wait long for their answer.