Red alert. Dr. Flare Haich checked the communication link embedded on her timeband. It continued to flash, waiting for her response. The last time she saw the Space Weather Prediction Center's highest alert level was during the solar maximum of 2032. A geomagnetic storm at the height of the sunspot cycle brought down dozens of satellites and the South American power grid. That was two decades ago, just after she moved her lab to this underground tube they dubbed the Triple-S. The last two sunspot cycles ranked among the calmest periods of solar weather ever recorded.
Voices echoed in the empty hallway as she strode past the doorway to the tiny break area and glimpsed three graduate students crowded next to the vending machines. Reflected light made their familiar faces glow blue.
"What's Madam Sunspot up to now?" she overheard one of the men say.
"Probably trying to fry the rest of the world."
"Shhh, she might hear us," the young woman scolded.
Flare learned long ago to ignore what people said about her or the Empress Project, but that particular nickname--Madam Sunspot--always caught her attention. She walked on, grinning to herself as she thought of her mother. She would've had a few choice words for those grad students. The real Madam Sunspot, Dr. Evelyn Haich, was a stickler for proper titles. Her mother's coworkers hadn't held a grudge against five-year-old Flare for repeating the nickname, though it was the last time anyone dared to refer to her mother as anything but Dr. Haich. Flare wasn't concerned that her coworkers at the Triple S didn't find her as intimidating.
It was only five in the morning, so she wasn't surprised to find the corridor deserted. She had been resting topside when the alert came in. Like most groups with laboratories in the tunnel, the Empress Project's offices were above-ground. As she walked, Flare sensed the hallway's gentle arc, which would have completed a circle had they finished the Superconducting Super Collider. But work on the SSC halted in the final decade of the Twentieth Century and the huge complex was abandoned.
That changed soon after 2012's Mayan event. Until then, scientists thought the atmosphere protected Earth from the worst effects of a solar flare's energetic bombardment. On December 21, eight minutes and nineteen seconds after leaving the Sun, the strongest wave of high-energy particles ever observed knocked out satellite communication and air transportation on the sunlit side. The radiation storm it spawned raked across the night side. The next day--without advance warning from satellites that would have alerted the world to the approaching event's unprecedented strength--a plasma shock wave and geomagnetic storm continued the devastation. By the time the Mayan event ended, a half billion had died. Almost three million died when their planes crashed or high-speed Maglev trains derailed, and many other fatalities occurred in hospitals as power grids and back-up generators failed worldwide. The high-energy solar particles--radio, X-rays and gamma rays--also proved hazardous in more direct ways, causing miscarriages, stopping cardiac pacemakers and disabling solar panels, cell phones, cars and GPS systems. In the following decades, cancer rates skyrocketed and fertility rates plummeted.
The Mayan event made shielding sensitive electronic equipment from any such future solar anomalies a top priority. The abandoned fourteen-mile tunnel soon became home to as many government and private industry groups as could jam into the Super Solar Shield Facility, or Triple-S. Others salvaged what they could of their communication and transportation technology and safeguarded it in retrofitted Cold War missile silos or the concrete bunkers of deserted Strategic Air Command bases.
Flare sighed. The corridor's gleaming white tiles stretched on in front of her. Sensing her approach, overhead lights snapped from dim to bright as she entered each section. Through the glass walls that lined both sides, she gazed into darkened laboratories. A gentle breeze of cool, stale air left goosebumps on the exposed skin of her arms.
The Mayan event had taken its name from apocalyptic predictions based on an ancient Mesoamerican calendar. Flare found herself scorned by other scientists because she agreed with the doomsayers on two points: first, the timing in 2012 was significant, and second, where the super flare's shock wave first struck was no accident. To prevent a bigger catastrophe, she'd worked her whole career to prove those points and gain support for her Empress Project. But it took a different mindset to accept that sunspots and super flares were communication from a sentient being. It required a paradigm shift as great as when Copernicus claimed the Earth wasn't the center of the universe.
In their first two attempts to communicate, Flare's parents had aimed the powerful electromagnetic pulse toward the Sun from the Navy's matte-black floating decks. Electro Magnetic Pulse Radiation Environmental Simulator for Ships (EMPRESS) technology simulated one of the three components of a nuclear bomb's electromagnetic pulse--the very slow pulse that heaves the Earth's magnetic field out of place for hundreds of seconds.
Their second attempt doubled the strength of the first signal. Both mimicked the sunspots' polarity, which reversed with each eleven-year cycle. When it was time for their third attempt, the Department of Defense had ceased Empress testing because of environmental concerns. Her parents knew it could be their last chance to prove that sunspot cycles were more than just a natural occurrence. Again they doubled the strength of the electromagnetic pulse and added a visual component. The 2012 Earth Flare was their first attempt at two-tiered communication--spectral and electromagnetic.
Flare jumped and turned toward the voice. "Oh, I didn't hear you coming."
"Sorry to startle you."
"Yes, well...I'm surprised to see you here so quickly." Now she clearly heard the staccato tapping of Beth's retro spiked heels, which matched her iridescent fingertip-length party dress.
"I ended up at a friend's place just down the street," Beth said, smoothing her dress. The short, pert, twentyish pixie had cafe-au-lait skin, a cap of red-streaked black hair that hugged her earlobes and an impressive intellect. She was one of two grad students who survived last year's funding cuts. "Rick's on the way here."
"That's good. We'll need the whole team to get this documented correctly," Flare said, as they slipped through the sliding glass doors bearing the yellow crocodile insignia. Somehow Dr. James Braxton had beaten them to the laboratory and had already begun checking telemetry from STEREO II, the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory.
"What's the damage, Jim?" Flare pressed the response button on her timeband as she crossed the room to where he stood, letting the Joint Committee know she had arrived. A fortyish man slightly over six-feet and slim, Jim had on the same rumpled khakis and short-sleeved red t-shirt with a yellow crocodile embroidered on his right pocket that he'd worn yesterday. Even his short, brown hair was tousled, which made her think he hadn't slept at all. Her clothes matched Jim's except for a red ball cap, which she wore to cover her unruly graying hair.
"Too early to say for sure," he replied. "We're still getting mostly soft rays, but it's just moving from the precursor to the impulsive phase."
Flare nodded. X-rays were among the by-products of violent eruptions of plasma that arched back down and slammed into the surface of our middle-aged star. Soft rays were those just beyond the wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light. "What's the duration?"
"Seven minutes and counting."
She whistled softly. "I guess that explains the alert level." That was a long time for a flare's precursor phase, when all three phases usually totaled only seconds. In the final phase, the radio waves, hard X-rays and gamma rays emitted in the second phase would decay.
"Beth, you check the magnetograph readouts from the Data Observatory, and I'll verify the wind speed."
They searched for any sign of a plasma shock wave like the one in 2012. Those disruptions compressed the Earth's magnetosphere on the day side and extended the night-side tail. When the magnetosphere decompressed, trillions of watts of power rocked the upper atmosphere.
Rick entered with a nod toward Flare and few whispered words to Beth as the team gathered around a conference table. Pointing to a display screen, Flare summarized: "The duration was eighteen minutes, X18 confirmed. Solar wind speed was more than one thousand kilometers per second, but no associated plasma shock wave."
"As you predicted, it was directed to an uninhabited part of the Pacific," Jim added.
Flare pulled her projections and plotted the results, displaying the data on the wall screen. The measurements matched the predictions almost exactly. With a few keystrokes, she sent simultaneous copies to the ten leaders from the Space Weather Prediction Center and National Science Observatory who comprised the Joint Committee. She requested permission for the Empress Project to proceed as planned.
As they waited for a response, Flare pulled up the next screen, showing predictions for a series of rapidly escalating solar events in the coming days. "We don't have much time. The next one, at double the strength, will be tomorrow at about this time. Its projected target is the Chesapeake Bay."
A beep grabbed Flare's attention. She turned toward a communications monitor and accepted the incoming call from the National Science Observatory.
"Yes, Secretary Dade?"
"The Joint Committee denied your request to implement the Empress Project." Perhaps it was the brief squint that narrowed his gray eyes or the way he emphasized the words "Joint Committee" that made Flare think the middle-aged Asian-American didn't agree with the decision.
"What do you mean they denied it?" Flare struggled to control her anger. "You know what will happen."