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The CME

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
"We are prospering in the 'Electrical Age,' although it more properly should be called the 'Age of Solar Vulnerability.' Nothing lasts forever in a universe filled with so many unknowns and imponderables." Martin Stebbler, PhD., July 28, 1980

Submitted: July 22, 2019

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Submitted: July 22, 2019

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Yvonne Blaisley wasn't keen about taking a job at the Sunshine Beauty and Tanning Salon when she and Josh moved from Duluth to Nashville almost three years ago.  They'd suddenly picked up and traveled halfway across the country because Josh was asked by Corporate to replace the national manager.  Mike had skipped town with a lot of company money, more than a million dollars, in fact.  The scandal was kept quiet, but of course, everyone knew about it.  You can’t hide a story like that even in Duluth. 

Yvonne thought the Sunshine looked like a 'dump' when she first drove up to it in her dark blue Oldsmobile Cutlass.  Nothing redeemed the shop, which was located in a sprawling strip mall. Flashing neon signs are not her thing like the one that dominated the salon's tinted-glass storefront window.  Unfortunately, hairdressing at the salon was the only employment Yvonne could find on short notice.  She'd left Duluth styling hair ever since graduating beauty school fifteen years before.

After reading the job posting for the Sunshine in the Tennessean, Yvonne reluctantly applied for it.Two incomes were necessary to afford the hefty mortgage on their new home.It took about two years, but Yvonne finally made a lot of new friends and an equally loyal clientele at the Sunshine like she'd had in Duluth. 

Nineteen-eighty was going to be a particularly exciting year for her and Josh.  Their first baby was due in the second week of November, only three months away.  Would their kid have curly, blonde hair like hers, she wondered? They'd tried having a child for so long without any success and had all but given up.  Her mother had mercifully stopped asking if anything was wrong.  It was so annoying and uncomfortable.  The fertility doctors didn't know why she couldn't get pregnant.  One of them, she remembered, had patted her on the shoulder and whispered in fatherly tones, "You never know what the future may bring, my dear."  He charged her five hundred dollars for that soothsaying, and then his receptionist ceremoniously ushered her out of his office.  But he'd been right.  Back home, Yvonne's friends, Bethany and Luke, had adopted an infant boy just years ago after eight childless years.  Then, amazingly, Beth gave birth to a baby girl last summer.  Jessica was beautiful; Yvonne had seen pictures.  Life was full of surprises.

She felt her baby kick and smiled to herself while waiting for Betty Fuller to show up for her 1:30 pm appointment.

xxxxx

Astronomers first observed a small, active region on the sun on Friday, June 27, 1980, which they labeled 'AR6575.'  A sunspot suddenly appeared in this location that grew quickly and haphazardly.  By mid-July, the spot was twice the size of Jupiter.  A few weeks later, it was the biggest spot ever recorded.  More than 2,600 earth-sized planets could literally fall into it and disappear.  This scientific curiosity gained some publicity when news of it filled a column on the back page of Section A of the July 26 edition of the Saturday Times.  Walter Cronkite commented on it two days later on the CBS Evening News.  He interviewed a scientist named Professor Martin Stebbler and beamed him live along with a picture of the spot into the homes of millions of faithful viewers.

Yvonne and Josh were eating their supper while listening to Cronkite talk with Stebbler on AR6575. However, their primary attention and that of most viewers was on the 'real' news.  The big stories were about the more than sixty Americans held hostage in the United States Embassy in Tehran, and the movement of Soviet troops into Afghanistan.  President Carter was quoted condemning the Soviet invasion as "the most serious threat to the peace since the Second World War."  The television audience was more troubled with the possibility of another global war than it was with learning about a scientific oddity located ninety-three-million miles away.  Yvonne bit her fingernails worrying about their unborn baby's future.

“Sunspots are common, and they occur in eleven-year cycles.  Sometimes they produce solar flares, which are intense bursts of radiation,” explained Stebbler.  According to him, another kind of Earth bombardment comes from Coronal Mass Ejections or CMEs that sometimes follow flares. “These monsters are giant gas bubbles that contain billions of tons of charged particles.”  Josh laughed when he heard this and nudged Yvonne asking if she knew that the sun burped?  Rolling her eyes, “What a juvenile’” she thought to herself.  Come to think of it, most men weren't any different, at least when it came to comments about certain bodily functions.  But she loved Josh anyway, in spite of himself.  

“The bubbles supercharge the planet's atmosphere when they hit it,” Stebbler continued. “The aurora borealis is one aftereffect of the contact.”  Yvonne nodded at the television knowingly because she’d seen the aurora fill the night sky with undulating curtains of color back in Duluth.  

"There's another consequence of a solar storm," Stebbler exclaimed, looking directly into the camera.  "A CME can wreak havoc on our essential communications networks.  Its fallout can shut down electrical grids, silence radios, and disrupt radar and other electrical systems.  The more electrical devices we have, the more far-reaching are the potential consequences of a solar storm.  We're living in 'The Electrical Age,' which might as well be called 'The Age of Solar Vulnerability,' said Stebbler.

"Is that what the Carrington Event was all about," asked Cronkite?

"Yes, exactly.  The biggest storm ever recorded was reported by Richard Carrington in 1859. The 'Carrington Event' as it became known, was strong enough to disable telegraph communication throughout Europe and North America for several days.  The New York Times carried a first-hand account of a telegraph operator receiving severe electrical burns when he touched his communication key.  But the event purportedly affected individuals in other ways, too.  Lots of newspapers ran stories about people acting funny during and after the CME hit.  For example, The New Orleans Daily Picayune ran a story on September 7, 1859, about residents falling asleep in gutters actually believing they were in their own beds!"  Stebbler closed by observing that massive CMEs were incredibly rare events. 

xxxxx

On August 12, 1980, at 11:00 pm EST, AR6575 shockingly belched a CME of unimagined proportions, hundreds of times stronger than the Carrington Event.  It slammed into the Earth fifteen hours later after it was first observed and reported leaving the sun by Professor Stephen Oglethorpe.  A storm the size of the 'Oglethorpe Event' hadn't bombarded the Earth in probably more than a million years.

xxxxx

Betty arrived at the Sunshine to have her hair curled, and annoying gray roots colored hoping to look the way Butch remembered her twenty years ago with beautiful auburn-colored hair.  She's middle-aged, fun to chat with about anything, especially men.

Betty and Butch grew up around these parts.  Her accent gives her away, Yvonne thinks.  Betty's always trying to lose weight, which has included a never-ending parade of new fad diets that just don’t seem to work well with her metabolism.  She's actually gained a few pounds rather than lost them with the new Scarsdale Diet craze.  Most importantly, Betty’s a great tipper. 

"My you're getting big," Betty observes, looking Yvonne over from head to toe.

Yvonne smiles and rubs her belly.  "Three months to go but I’m already tired of standing on my feet all day," she remarks.

"What's new?" Yvonne asks as Betty settles into her chair, and she wraps a shiny, plastic-coated floral-printed bib around her, tying it in the back.  She doesn't want to spill hair clippings or anything else on the pretty yellow blouse that Betty's wearing. Yvonne's wearing a blue maternity dress rather than the tired-blue uniform that no longer fits her.  Mr. Charles Miller, the owner of the Sunshine, decided last year that uniforms would add a touch of class and professionalism to the staff.  Yvonne disagreed, but when it comes to Mr. Miller, she keeps her thoughts to herself.  He doesn't listen to anyone's opinion but his own.

"Not much," says Betty. "We got a call from Butch, Jr. last night, and he's doing well with his new job at Delta."  Butch's working ridiculous hours again for the telephone company.  The postman's looking better each day," she laughs.  Yvonne snickers with her, but wonders whether Betty's really joking.

A few minutes later, Debbie Smith comes sauntering into the salon.  A red blouse, short, tight black skirt, and stiletto heels complete her ensemble.  Yvonne thinks that she looks more like a hooker than a university professor, but what does she know?  Everyone in the Sunshine knows that Debbie's a professor.  Just ask her.  Actually, you don't need to, she'll be the first to tell you who she is and how important is her research. 

“Hi, ladies,” Debbie says, fluttering her left hand in the air and strutting past them toward tanning booth number four.  Yvonne and Betty just smile and nod. 

Yvonne can hear Betty mutter, “What a rig,” under her breath, and then both women giggle.

Debbie comes to the Sunshine because of its proximity to the University and also because she likes the way Doris Phillips cuts her hair. She's been through a dozen hairstylists over the years, including Yvonne, and none of them has ever trimmed her hair correctly, except Doris, who has worked at the salon since it opened.

Lately, the professor’s been coming in to tan.  Steven, who also teaches political science like her, invited Debbie on a Caribbean cruise with him before the start of the new academic year. She'd readily agreed to go.  Both were previously married, and know what the other's looking for.  Debbie’s all about free vacations, even if it means being fondled and groped a bit.  Actually, Steven's okay looking, and she knows how to handle him.

Spending most of the summer indoors means Debbie’s complexion is lily-white.  These tanning beds, which were only installed a couple of months ago, promise a dark summer tan in just a matter of a couple weeks.  She decided to give one a try, and besides, she wanted an all-over tan!  She already sees the difference in her skin tone and is really pleased with the results. "Steven will be impressed," she thinks while grinning wryly to herself.  Debbie’s such a tease.

Booth four is her favorite because its walls are painted hot pink.  After locking the door behind her, she carefully hangs her clothing on pegs that are positioned on it.  Removing her shoes, she neatly places them under the tanning bed.  Taking a small tube of tanning accelerator gel from her purse and methodologically rubs it on all the places she can reach.  Last, she sets the bed timer for eight minutes, adjusts her tanning goggles, lifts the lid to the bed, and climbs in, pulling it down on top of her.  Sometimes, in the brief time that she bathes in the warmth and solitude of the bed, Dr. Debbie is even able to dream up a new idea to argue about with her colleagues.

Back in the hair salon, and without any warning, the ceiling lights suddenly explode, sending tiny glass shards spraying through the air like razor blades.  At that same moment, a blinding light comes from inside of the hairdryer that's pulled down over Betty's head.  It looks as though Betty's crowned with a halo.  She doesn't look peaceful, however.  Her eyes roll up, and for a brief moment, her body twitches and trembles like she’s having some sort of violent seizure. Then Betty goes absolutely rigid and slumps down in the chair, revealing her charred head.  There are odd little clumps of short, smoking, blackened hair sticking out randomly all over it.  The smell is gut-wrenching.

During this time, which probably doesn’t last more than a few seconds, Yvonne just stands there, mouth wide open, but silent.  Her eyes and nose are receiving visual and olfactory signals, but they aren’t registering in her brain yet.  She has a few superficial cuts on her arm.  Blood trickles from one of them.  Finally, a connection is made among all of her senses. Yvonne’s eyes widen, her hands jerk up to her face, and she stands there helpless and screaming.

Back in booth four, Debbie's been tanning for about three minutes when the timer explodes out of the bed's lid.  It bounces off the nearest wall and finally settles on the floor.  Debbie doesn't know anything about that or the screams coming from the other room, because she's already dead.  Her last thoughts were about going shopping for a bikini, and whether the United States should get militarily involved in Afghanistan with ground troops.  Fortunately, the heatwave that fried her and the thousands of small, glass slivers that sliced her body into ribbons were so quick and intense that Debbie never suffered any pain.

Turning away from the grotesque remains of Betty and regaining a fragile semblance of composure, Yvonne whispers hoarsely to herself, "Is Debbie okay?"  She runs to booth four in the dimly-lit salon.  Knocking vigorously on its door, "Are you alright in there?"  There's no answer, so she asks again, and tries the door.  It's locked.  Adrenaline rushes through her as she slams her weight against it.  The fragile frame splinters, and the door swings inward violently.  The floor is covered with broken glass.  The tanning bed is still closed.  Horrible-smelling smoke forms a curtain at the seam where the bed opens and closes.  Yvonne has her answer, Debbie's definitely not going on a cruise anywhere.  Dazed and confused, Yvonne staggers toward the light, to the entryway. She exits the salon averting her eyes as she passes Betty's still-smoldering corpse.

Outside, the sun is shining.  The air is fresh, but the scene that confronts her is chaotic and surreal.  The parking lot is a jumble of vehicles and people. Some cars rest in designated spaces.  Others are randomly scattered in the roadway or sit motionless half in and out of spaces.  A few drivers sit behind steering wheels looking perplexed, repeatedly trying to start their cars without success.  Others stand around their vehicles, some with open doors, scratching their heads in confusion, mumbling to themselves.

An older woman, fashionably dressed in a white blouse and blue skirt, stands rigid about twenty-five feet from Yvonne.  She clutches a small, black purse firmly in one hand.  Dropping the bag, she reaches and pulls at her hair, eyes bulging, moaning in terrible plain.  Another woman with short blonde hair stands rocking in place, looking skyward, screaming hysterically.  Yvonne realizes that she's actually hollering words, "It's Armageddon, it's Armageddon, it's the end of the world," she repeats.  A tall man dressed in a smart, gray suit walks purposefully over to her and slaps her face several times, not really hard but sufficient to catch her attention.  It works because the woman looks at him, becomes silent, and faints into his arms.

Filled with inexplicable fear and horror at what she's seeing and hearing, Yvonne looks away from her immediate surroundings west toward downtown.  Black smoke rises vertically from numerous locations along the skyline.  In the distance, an airplane spirals downward out of control.  The sight of it makes her shiver, and she closes her eyes.  She hates to fly; a lot of people are going to die very soon, she realizes.

No longer capable of standing, Yvonne slumps to the sidewalk curb pulling her knees close to her chest.  "What's happening? What's happening," she repeats to herself, rocking slowly back and forth.  A hand touches her shoulder, and she jumps. 

“Hey, Yvonne.  It’s okay.  It’s just me, Peter.”

Staring silently at his face for an uncomprehending minute, recognition finally dawns, "Peter, he manages the smoke shop three doors down.  We speak to each other almost every day.  He's a nice man, a family man," she tells herself.

"You alright? 

"No.  Two of my clients back there, Betty and Debbie, are dead," she says, pointing with a shaky hand back at the salon. 

"Dead?  Are you sure?"

"Yes."  Lacking any emotion in her voice, she continues, "they were electrocuted or something when all of the lights suddenly exploded."

"Christ, what the hell's going on?" It’s a rhetorical question.  He knows Yvonne doesn’t have a clue any more than he does.

She shrugs, bows her head, and closes her eyes.  "I don't know,” she whispers, as if saying these words any louder will invite more horror.

Yvonne's baby kicks hard, and she involuntarily lurches forward, clutching her stomach.

Peter looks more worried than before and grimaces.

"It's just the baby kicking."  A slight smile crosses her face at the thought of her unborn child. 

Reaching his arm around her shoulders, "It's going to be okay," he attempts to reassure both of them.

Skepticism clouds her face, but she acknowledges him with a pat of his knee as if this comforting action will make everything better.

"What's wrong with all the cars in the parking lot?" 

"I'd say the electronics have failed in them," says Peter.

"Did you see that man smack the crazy lady in the face?"

Before he can answer, a loud cracking sound followed by a brilliant flash of light fills the sky off to the east.  The two of them hunch down, not knowing what to expect next.  Nothing follows. 

Peter points to where thick, black smoke billows into the sky. "The main electrical substation for Nashville is over that way.  I think it just blew up!"

Yvonne nods, but her mind begins wandering again, not able to accept the events happening around her.

Two terrified boys, eyes bulging and peddling bikes as fast as they can, rush by. 

Peter looks around but doesn't see any unattended bicycles.  He's anxious to get home and check on his wife and kids.  But he's also conflicted leaving a very pregnant woman by herself in this frightening confusion and potentially dangerous situation.

"Hey, I need to get going and make sure that Mary and my boys are okay.  I can jog there in less than two hours.  I only live about eight miles from here."

She looks at him, frightened and begs, "Please don't leave me.  I'm scared.”

His eyes pleaded with hers.  Lips pursed; she nods with understanding.  "Be careful," she says with resignation.

“Yvonne, how far do you live from here.”

“About the same distance as you do but over on the north side, near Shelby Park.”

"Okay, listen to me," squeezing her shoulders tighter, "You know your husband is as anxious to get to you as I am to make sure my family's alright.  He's on his way here now."

Yvonne nods, knowing he's right.  "Josh is on his way," she mumbles absently.  "He'll be here soon."

Peter gets to his feet and offers both hands to assist Yvonne to her's.  He hugs her and then reaches into his pocket and pulls out a set of keys that he hands over.  "These go to my shop.  There's an office in the back with a locked door and a small bathroom.  Use them if you want.  There's also a loaded handgun in the top drawer of the filing cabinet."

Yvonne reluctantly takes the keys.  "A gun," she questions, eyes wide, "Why would I need a gun?"

 

 


© Copyright 2020 rick-54. All rights reserved.

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