98

“What happens now?” Madison asked Judy.

“We wait,” Judy replied, motioning with her chin toward the array of screens on the wall.

Madison shifted her attention to the screens. She noticed that if she watched carefully, the positions of the discs representing the different pebbles were changing very slowly. The world map underneath the circles didn’t have states labeled, or countries for that matter, so she tried to find a landmark to figure out where she was on the map. She knew Chicago was near the southern tip of Lake Michigan, and she knew Omaha was about halfway between that point and the Rocky Mountains which were pretty easy to pick out. There was a pebble not too far south of that midpoint. She held her hand up, so the disc was blocked by her extended index finger, and she waited. It emerged to the right, so it was moving slowly eastward and maybe a little north.

She turned to ask Judy a question, but she was gone. “How big an area will each pebble knock out?” she asked the NASA administrator, who was standing with Mr. Black watching the wall of screens. Everyone was watching the wall of screens, it seemed.

He turned to face her. “Depends on the latitude. An electron moving through a magnetic field will be diverted somewhat. That’s how TVs used to work, before we all switched to flat screens.”

Madison furrowed her brow, nodded, and pretended to know what he was talking about. Physics wasn’t her strong suit.

“So in some places, the burst of electromagnetic energy will be more concentrated, and in some places it will be more spread out, depending on the earth’s magnetic field at that point. That pebble just south of us is going to cover the whole continental United States, except maybe Florida and the Dakotas. The coverage will be kind of U-shaped. That one over there is going to overlap in the southeast, and that one up there is going to cover Canada and the northern US. There’s actually going to be a lot of overlap, if they all detonate.”

“If?” she asked.

“Well these things are thirty years old, and they’ve never been tested. It’s possible that some of them have been damaged by collisions with other space junk, or their electronics have failed for some other reason. It’s also possible that some of them aren’t pointing the way they are supposed to be, and their gamma radiation will be directed harmlessly into space.”

“Orientation matters?” Madison asked.

“Yes. Remember these are directed energy weapons. The direction that the pebble is facing will make all the difference in the world. But as you can see, there are a hell of a lot of them up there. A few hundred not detonating correctly probably won’t matter.”

“What are we waiting for?” she asked. “I kind of thought it would be immediate. Like nanoseconds.”

“E1 will be instantaneous, once they explode. But there’s a time delay on the self-destruct. Otherwise the first one firing could have knocked out our ability to get the message to all the other pebbles. We are waiting for the timers to count down.”

“Madison!” Jenny yelled as she entered the room. She ran to her daughter and hugged her.

“Hi mom,” Madison said nonchalantly, although she was secretly overjoyed to see her mother. “Did they hurt you?”

“What?” Jenny asked. “Oh, no. It wasn’t like that. They forced us into these big black SUVs and drove like hell to this place. They asked us questions the whole ride and then locked us in a room when we got here.”

“You getting along with Lucas okay?” she asked.

“We decided a truce was preferable to killing each other,” Jenny said.

“Hey Phil. Hi Lucas,” Madison said with a little wave. “We’re waiting for the apocalypse. Wanna watch?”

Jenny looked at her with a puzzled expression. “What are you talking about?”

“They didn’t tell you?” Madison asked.

“No,” Jenny said. “They asked us a ton of questions, but they didn’t answer any of mine. What’s going on here?”

Madison took a deep breath and sighed as she exhaled. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Hey Judy, do you still have that tablet I used to take your gun?”

“You took her gun?” Jenny asked.

Judy smiled and handed Madison the tablet. “She never turned off the safety,” Judy said. “Nobody was ever in any actual danger.”

“What?” Madison asked. “Oh my God. So why didn’t you just take it away?”

“Like Malcolm said, there was time. We needed to give the President time to contact world leaders,” she explained.

“The President? Of the United States?” Jenny asked.

Madison handed her the tablet. Her story still filled the cracked screen. “Read this,” she said.

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