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Alex spooned a mouthful of beans and meat. The smell was so good she thought she was going to faint. “Do you know what’s going on?”


“Food first,” said Tom. “Then we’ll talk.”


Despite Tom’s warning, taking it slow with the food was hard, what with her stomach clawing a hole right through her gut. The raccoon was tough and a little gamey, but she was too starved to care. She shoveled down mouthful after mouthful, chasing the food with gulps of tea until her spoon clicked metal and her mug was empty. To her right, Mina let out a plaintive whine, and Alex put her plate on the ground for the dog to lick clean. “There. Don’t say I never gave you anything.”


“That dog eats like a horse.” Tom refilled her mug. “If you’re up to it, we can hit the trail again tomorrow morning. Ellie said you were headed for the ranger station?”


Nodding, she sucked back a mouthful of tea, let it roll around her tongue, tasted the sweetness and an edge of char. Russian something or other, she thought. Her mother had been the tea drinker. “It was the only thing I could think of. I mean, other than going back to my car, but I don’t think my car will start.”


“Yeah, I’d say that’s a safe bet.”


“Do you know what happened?”


“You mean to Jim, or to everything?”


“Yes?” She tried to make it a joke and then thought there really wasn’t anything about the situation that was remotely funny. Ellie came to snuggle, and she hugged the girl close as Mina finished with the plate and came to lie against Alex’s left thigh.


She saw Tom’s eyes flick to Ellie, as if he were debating what to say. “Look, I only have a couple ideas, and not all of them make sense, especially about …” He gestured at his own head. “You know. What happened to Jim or his dad.”


In the firelight, his eyes—she suddenly remembered that they were a strange smoky blue in daylight—were black. For a disquieting moment, she thought of the dead woman with her glasses on a keeper chain and nothing but empty sockets. She wanted to ask about Jim, but she had so many questions, she didn’t know where to start. “Did you feel it? The Zap?”


“Is that what you’re calling it?”


She nodded. “Did it happen down here in the valley?”


“Oh yeah. I thought my head was going to explode.”


Okay, that wasn’t good. The mountain was about twenty miles away. She pushed through the ache in her head to do the math and then wished she hadn’t. Assuming the Zap spread in a circle, that meant it had hit the entire Waucamaw, and beyond. “Are your electronics dead, too?”


“All the solid-state stuff, yeah.”


“So what could do that?”


“Well.” Tom’s eyes dropped to the fire and then rose to meet hers again. “I don’t know for sure. I mean, we’re in the middle of the woods, and we’ve got no way of getting information, you know? But I know the military, and we’re testing out stuff all the time. So, based on that and some other things I know—just putting it together—I think it was an EMP, an electromagnetic pulse. Probably more than one, too. A single EMP’s not supposed to fry people. Actually, I don’t think that’s supposed to happen if you set off twenty. That’s the theory, at least. No one’s ever tested it out before.”


“So, what’s an EMP supposed to do?”


“You ever see Ocean’s Eleven?”


She thought back. “Is that the one with Brad Pitt and Clooney? That’s, like, ancient.”


“My mom likes it. Well, she likes George Clooney. Anyway, this is like that movie. You remember the pinch? What they used to knock out the power?”


Alex recalled Don Cheadle covering his crotch. “I remember something about X-rays.”


“Yeah, that’s what a real pinch would do: release this big burst of X-rays. It takes a lot more power than what they showed in the movie, and a real pinch is way too big to fit into a van. But the X-rays aren’t what caused the blackout they showed in the movie. That was an EMP: electromagnetic pulse.”


“You mean, like a big power surge? That’s what happened to us?”


“I think so. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Take a bunch of EMPs, set them off high enough, and let them spread along the earth’s magnetic field, and you’d fry anything that relies on solid-state electronics. You’d also kill power grids, communications arrays … just zap, like you said. People say there are ways to protect their gear, but again, that’s all theory. Sort of like building a fallout shelter, hoping that the design will get you through the next nuclear war without ever testing whether that’s true.”


“Is that what made my iPod get hot?” asked Ellie.


“Probably. That’s also why the LEDs don’t work but those flashlights with old-fashioned bulbs do. Even if we could find an old tube radio—or a vintage truck or car with a radio—I’ll bet there’s no one broadcasting, at least not around here. If it was a bunch of EMPs, there’s no power, and all the computers would be fried anyway. Low-orbit satellites might get toasted, too.”


“Wait a minute, wait a minute.” Alex pressed a finger to the drillbit of an ache in her right temple. “Why does it have to be everything? Maybe it’s like you said: just over the Waucamaw. That’s still a lot of territory, but—”


“Have you seen any airplanes since this”—Tom waved a hand—“this Zap?”


Alex’s jaw tightened. “No. That doesn’t mean anything.” A lie: the Waucamaw was isolated, but she’d seen plenty of lacy, white contrails stitched against blue sky from high-altitude planes before the Zap.


“You remember 9/11?”


“Not me,” said Ellie. She sounded subdued and a little shaky, and Alex hugged the girl a little closer. “I wasn’t born yet.”


“I wasn’t much older than Ellie is now. All I remember is what we saw on TV and the principal calling a special assembly,” Alex said.


“I was ten, and that’s about all I remember, too,” Tom said. “But my dad was overseas when it happened. Right after, all the airplanes in the U.S. were grounded. No planes from anywhere were allowed to enter our airspace for days. My dad was stuck. He didn’t make it home for another week.”


“So?”


“So, what I’m saying is that we haven’t seen any planes. The Zap happened six days ago. Either no one’s allowed to fly, or the planes can’t fly.”


“So we got attacked?” Alex’s thoughts jumped to Aunt Hannah, all by herself in their condo off Lake Michigan. Hold on, if it only happened here, she’s fine. “Like 9/11?”


Tom nodded. “Or some big accident. The military tests weapons systems all the time. Those are the only things I can think of.”


“Is that how come the moon’s blue?” asked Ellie. “Alex said the sky doesn’t look right. Is that why?”


Tom’s eyebrows rose with interest. “What have you noticed?”


“Just that the stars are a little hazy.” She wished Ellie hadn’t brought that up. Wrapping her head around what Tom was suggesting was hard enough. She gave a hurried explanation and then added, reluctantly, “The sunsets are weird. They’re too red. Would a bunch of EMPs do that?”


Tom raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “Your guess is as good as mine. Some stuff fits. Other stuff doesn’t. For example, the sunsets? In Iraq and Afghanistan, they’re also very red, but that’s because of all the dust and sand.”


Would dust account for the haziness of the stars, too? That made sense. But what could kick up that much dirt? For her, 9/11 was more of an impression than something she really remembered. She’d been young, so the attack didn’t make much of a dent. Images of crumbling towers and pillars of smoky ash were about all she could recall. Ash and smoke … All of a sudden, she wished she could boot up a computer and search for sunset and smoke and red. Aloud, she said, “So we don’t know anything for sure.”


“Not without more information,” said Tom. “All I know is that one EMP, at the right altitude and over the geographic center of the U.S., is enough to take out North America.”


“One?”


“That would account for why there are no planes and why our electronics don’t work.”


“What could do that?”


Tom looked unhappy. “Two ways I know of. Either a nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude—”


“Nuclear?” Alex thought of mushroom clouds on the horizon, firestorms, and radiation sickness. Of ash and smoke. “If it was a nuclear bomb over the Waucamaw, wouldn’t there be a cloud?”


“Depends on where it was detonated,” Tom said. “If the bomb went off high enough, we wouldn’t even see the flash.”


“Well, I don’t like that,” Ellie quavered. “What’s the second way?”


“An e-bomb, one designed to release an EMP.”


Neither alternative sounded good. This was like when Barrett gave her the pros and cons of radiation: There’s a chance of more burn injury or knocking out your brain stem, but at least your bone marrow will be unaffected. “Which do you think it was?” Alex asked.


Tom shrugged. “Either? Both? I don’t know. North Korea’s got bombs, Iran’s making nuclear weapons, Israel’s already got them, and there’s Russia. An e-bomb isn’t that hard to make either. You can look on the Internet for the schematics. I’m sure our military has them. But you’ve got the same problem of delivering them to the target as you do with nukes. If you’re talking large scale, that means missiles. But then the chances that someone sees you coming are high. They’ll counterattack before it’s too late. If it’s a bad enough attack, they’ll lob everything they’ve got. They call it mutually assured destruction, which is just another way of saying the scenario’s a no-win situation. You attack us, we’ll blast you back to the Stone Age and take the world down with us.”

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