Back | Next


June 24, 2050. What remained of California had been written off as frontier. Too little American influence. Hardly anything left recognizable or worthwhile after the Quake. In this, the midpoint of its first century, the new millennium held little in common with all the technological greatness which had preceded it.

Far up here though, all the tragedy and ruin seemed part of some other world. Lost to view from the great wretched masses, a tiny bit of rare technology tracked silently along the border of near-space, headed toward a far distant Midwestern retrieval site and the complex network of couriers waiting to deliver it into anxious scientific hands.

Accompanied only by the low hum of its motor, Solar High Altitude Powered Platform 216B6 and a dispersed fleet of its siblings cruised the thin North American air nonstop. Some performed the routine daily function of measuring ozone concentrations and dust content of the upper atmosphere. Others gauged the polar magnetic shift or the growth of unexplored quake rifts some twelve miles below. But certain units, like 216B6, were dedicated specifically to watching the sun itself for the dreaded signs of its healing.

Bursts of intense solar radiation had long ago fried all spy, weather, and communications satellites into useless orbiting junk. So this type of inexpensive vinyl glider had become the government's feeble eyes to the outlands of both space and ground.

Powered by a toothpick prop and pusher-type electric motor, SHAPP 216B6 ran directly off the harsh sunlight during daytime hours and a bank of lightweight membrane batteries at night. The SHAPP's optic orange color had long been faded to a pale yellow. Made brittle by constant immersion in lethal ozone baths and high-altitude acid sleets, its fuselage and wings were riddled with pinholes from micrometeorite hits and passage through volcanic dust clouds.

Still, the glider doggedly held to the 100 mph pace programmed at its launch those many weeks ago. Leaving the NASA/Crop Research Division research station at Fort Collins, Colorado, 216B6 traversed the great wasteland of America, spread dimly out 60,000 feet below. It crossed cities broken down to kingdoms, towns fallen to clan rule, regions sterilized by the North American Flu epidemic—or worse.

Ironically, none of the damage had resulted from war. Not a nuke had fallen. Not a gun had been fired. All the ponderous volumes on nuclear winter were just so much idle trash, for after a couple million years of putting up with mankind's antics, it seemed Mom Nature herself had finally decided to intervene. Realizing her error in sparing the rod, she now meant to yank the rug from under her sloppy tenants through the simple, but effective, mechanism of global hunger.

Politically, Washington had held out the longest among its worldwide counterparts. Then it too followed the rest of the world in closing down its bankrupt central government. But where even the Wall Street crash of 120 years prior had at least left a rubble pile from which the nation could rebuild, here now was only a smoking crater. The grand experiment was over; Uncle Sam, dead—and left unburied.

A hasty bureaucratic reorganization was devised that split the country along supposedly more manageable, regional lines. Blocks of states were cleaved from their federal union and turned back to the cloisters of their decentralized origin. A series of smaller governing offices were temporarily opened throughout the land. And a reunification was planned after the crisis had been stemmed. So, at least in concept, the nation survived.

But all that was meaningless to the SHAPP. Flying solo so far above the ruinscape, its own life was nearly over. Earlier, 216B6 had banked away from its outflight over the California peninsula. It departed the distant rubble of the Great West Coast Quake and left behind the tricky wind patterns flushed upward by the recontoured land.

Obeying the final orders of return and descent geared inside its old-fashioned clockwork brain, a dozen hours from now, the broad-winged glider would begin a prescribed aerodynamic death ritual of gentle, descending corkscrews. Its valuable data would be wrenched free and thrust into the waiting hands of a complex courier network.


Back | Next