“Blackstart,” by Brenda Cooper

Illustration by Michael Duah

This story is part of Overview: Stories in the Stratosphere, a collection of science fiction stories, art, and speculative timelines exploring the near future of the stratosphere, published by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and edited by Michael G. Bennett, Joey Eschrich, and Ed Finn. From Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Martian, great science fiction stories have shaped how we think about voyages into deep space — but what kinds of gripping confrontations and adventures might unfold in near space, above the clouds? Overview provides several compelling answers to that question, created by renowned science fiction authors, working in collaboration with designers, illustrators, and experts in fields ranging from human spaceflight and signal processing to law and tourism. The book is free to download in EPUB and MOBI formats, as well as through Apple’s iBooks Store. Learn more at http://csi.asu.edu/books/overview.

July 18, 2027, 11:30 PM

Katharine Wilson peered down at the lights of Phoenix through a small window. Up here in the stratosphere, in a shared observation room on the Voyager tourist balloon, the temperature hovered at about seventy degrees. Below her, even though it was almost midnight, the megacities of Phoenix and Tucson suffered through a hundred degrees, even in the dead dark of night. Brutal.

The affable pilot, Bran, smiled at her. “Your turn.”

“Thanks.” Finally, the view she had paid for — a chance to sit in a clear room high above the Earth. As she started down the short hallway, her wrist buzzed and she looked down to see “Happy Birthday” scrolling along her forearm. Her heart quickened for a moment, then fell again as she realized it was merely a robo-greeting from a communication company she used to run.

She had imagined something like the glass walkway above the Grand Canyon on steroids. Indeed, it was clear, but metal supports bisected the glass so often that looking down felt like seeing through a clear version of a stained-glass window. Padded dots at the joints were designed to hold her weight. She crept onto them, knees and hands on the round cushions.

She made out a dark wildlife corridor, a seam between the two desert cities. Rural areas lined the corridor, and lights and streets and cars marched in ever-denser and brighter lines into the two cities. The green and red lights of an airplane blinked by below her. She searched for Arizona City, where Carmen had chosen some stupid uniform job instead of following Katharine into business. Their geosynchronous position put them just south of the small town.

The least Carmen could have done was send a birthday note. Katharine did that much for Carmen every year.

She’d expected Carmen to come with her. It had taken a year to secure two slots. Carmen had turned her down just last month, muttering something about training at her job. At least the spare slot had sold for a profit.

Katharine shook herself, took a deep breath, and braced to roll over for the real view she’d come to the stratosphere for. A friend had told her it was worth ten times the price of the ticket.

As the pilot had suggested, she felt her way through the careful turn, settled her haunches and back and head against the pillow-dots, and then opened her eyes to see the stars. Only a few struts blocked this view. Stars. More than she had imagined existed. Bright lights. The foggy river of the Milky Way. Her breath caught in her throat; she let it out slowly. As she took air back in, the stars seemed to fill her. Awe. More. Her stomach rolled and she felt like a feather loose in the universe. Dizziness took her in waves. If she weren’t lying down, she’d fall. She closed her eyes again. To her surprise, they were damp.

So small.

She felt so big, so much a part of everything, and so small. How could she feel both of those things at once?

Katharine rolled over, looking down. She hadn’t expected the stars to unsettle her so. Being higher than an airplane suddenly felt too high, and the struts she had hated gave her a way to feel connected to human ingenuity. She reached her hand to her throat and felt the jewel her daughter had given her. A geode, really, polished, and full of smart gear. It ran half of her personal systems. “Call Carmen,” she whispered, her head still light and dizzy.

A whisper came in her ear. “Calling Carmen Wilson.”

In three rings Carmen’s voice cut through. “Yes, Mom. I can’t talk.”

“Just for a moment? It’s so beautiful up here.”

“Oh yeah,” Carmen said. “The balloon. I forgot. Can you call after you come down next week? This is my first solo patrol and people go crazy on hot nights.”

“Can’t the cops deal with that?”

“Sometimes that’s me. Sometimes I fight fires. Sometimes I’m a medic. I gotta go.”

“Carmen?”

Nothing. Her daughter had hung up on her, on her birthday.

Movement caught her eye. Not movement. The movement of lights. No. Loss of light. It looked as if someone had flicked a switch and turned three-quarters of the lights below her off.

Her breath fled as the implications sunk in. At midnight, it was hot enough to kill people. Whole neighborhoods, maybe whole cities (who could tell from so high!) were now dark and hot, and soon would be light and searing. Self-driving cars would run without power — for a while. But not without communication. They depended utterly on the data cloud.

Carmen!

She breathed, waiting.

The lights didn’t come back. She clutched her jewel.

“Katharine!”

The pilot. Bran. She took a last look at the darkened ground, at the sparseness of the points of light. Then she followed Bran’s voice, climbing backward and reaching for the floor with her toes. As he took her hand to help her turn in the tight space — or maybe to comfort her — she asked, “What do you know?”

“The power is out. Worse, I can’t communicate with anyone at home base. Just with the other Stratollites — they’re the unmanned version of a Voyager.” His face was colorless, his blue eyes wide. “Will you help calm the cabin?”

Of course he knew she was an ex-CEO. The other eleven tourists were a mix. Five high school kids sent on a grant from the government. Two solo engineers — maybe from rival space companies. One of them had bought Carmen’s ticket. An old couple, heirs to some food fortune and likely to be of little help. A young couple from China who hadn’t said a word in English, maybe didn’t even speak it. She grimaced. “I’ll help.”

As soon as she started to gain order, Bran retreated to the cockpit.

The din of questions, squeals, and worries took a while to organize into four teams, all making notes about what they saw. Luckily, one of the students spoke Mandarin.

Almost nothing moved below. Here and there, the flash of a siren. Classic cars or maybe tractors with human controls.

From time to time, she tried calling Carmen. Nothing.

As soon as she could hand temporary control to the older couple, Katharine headed into the cockpit, where Bran labored over a screen built into a white plastic table. “What do you know?”

“It’s a hack. Eco-idiots of some kind. Whole damned western grid. Texas to California. Power companies are cleaning up the hack now.”

She swallowed. “They’ll have to blackstart.”

“Blackstart?”

“Bring it up from the outside in, one piece of the grid at a time.”

The look on his face told her he still didn’t get it.

“By hand. They have to bring it up by hand.”

He swallowed, his thin Adam’s apple bobbing. “That will take too long!”

“Yes.” Days? “They’ll have to get the right people to the right places.”

“How are your fellow tourists?”

“I’ve organized teams to pinpoint lights. Where there’s power, there will be cooling. One of the engineers got the nav computer to help geocode the lights. We’re making a list for the people on the ground. Can you get the data to them?”

He looked relieved, as if her competence made his life twice as easy. Maybe it did. “I think so. I’ve set up a comms relay between Stratollites. I’m talking to emergency managers in Texas.”

“Do they have time for us?”

“Some. We’re a priority because of the heat.” He nodded toward the window. “There’s a few satellite phones working down there, but regular communications channels are dead. Bring me your map data?”

She nodded. “I have to make a call first.”

“I told you, all communication is down.”

She smiled. “I think I can figure something out.” She was a communication exec, but before that she had been an engineer. Carmen had a jewel that matched hers. Katharine just needed to link the two.

July 19, 2027, 3:00 AM

Carmen walked as fast as she could manage while still looking like a real public safety officer, rather than a frightened one. Sweat ran down her back, bathed her face, and invaded the backs of her knees. It could only get worse.

The streets were full of newsbots and automated police, which was to be expected. They were also full of lost, hot families. Walking. It was hot enough for dead cars to be uncomfortable, but in two hours when the sun came up they’d turn into ovens. So people abandoned them. Families carried children and walked dogs, or carried dogs and walked children. Older people tried to help each other. The streetlights shed yellowed light on worried faces.

At least the hack had happened at midnight. It was possible no one had died because of heat. Yet.

Soon she would meet up with her boss, Ruthanna. Even though she had finished enough training to work on her own, Ruthanna had promised to check in with her at intervals. They had a planned meet-up location: a convenience store that Carmen had never imagined they’d need to use. Who expected a disaster on her first solo?

A young man carrying a toddler on his shoulders came over to her. “Miss?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have water?”

“The city is working to get emergency stores to you. But I don’t have distribution information available yet. Are you completely out?”

He looked resigned, and worried. “We had some in the car, but we already drank it.”

“Find a place that will be shady.”

“I know. But how will you find us?”

“Stay near major streets.”

“I’m Bolo.” He bounced so the sleepy toddler smiled. “This is Ricky.”

“I’m Carmen. Good luck.”

“Will we be okay?”

She couldn’t tell him yes. Not with the heat that was set to lick up over the horizon. “I hope so.”

He glanced up at his child. “We have to be.”

She smiled at Ricky. “We’ll do our best.” She was supposed to help these people, but all three of her communication channels had died. The convenience store was only two blocks away. Maybe she could learn something there.

Bolo left.

“Carmen!”

She blinked. Her mom? Didn’t she know there was an emergency? “Yes.”

“Are you okay?”

“Sure, mom.” But oh! “How did you reach me? I mean, I know, the jewel. But it’s not short-range.”

“I patched together a relay. We can talk to other balloons up here.”

Her mom was thinking about other people? “Do you have any news?”

Carmen stopped dead, listening, as her mom told her about the hacking, and that there might be a day to get through. A day in 127-degree heat. “Is there help coming?”

“Not for hours. Not with all the dead cars blocking the roads. But I do have a list of locations with power.”

Carmen let out a long breath. “How many?”

“There are three close to you.”

“What kind of power? Will it stay on all day?”

“How would I know that? I can see lights. Look, can you get a file?”

“None of my personal comms work. But I can find a way to write. Can you hold on?”

“Of course.”

One block down, Carmen spotted the convenience store. She had been half-afraid of looting, even though in reality that would probably come later. But Ruthanna stood in front of the store, and she had three other officers with her.

Carmen broke into a jog.


3:30 AM

Bran gestured for Katharine to come into his small office.

She nodded. “Just a minute.” She spoke the last three GPS points she had into her comms, and after Carmen acknowledged receipt, she slid into Bran’s office and closed the door behind her. “What’s up?”

“Did you reach your daughter?”

“I did. I gave her all the points we’ve recorded.” She glanced out the window, wincing at the light that had started to glow along the far horizon. “We won’t be able to see power via light soon.”

“No. But split your team. Send half to rest. Then I want you to watch for anything moving, especially vehicles.”

“We’re so high!”

“Use the tourist binoculars.” He smiled gently. “It won’t be for long. Five Stratollites designed for Earth observation are heading our way. By tomorrow, we’ll be tourists again.”

Hopefully she’d be sleeping by tomorrow. She’d been up twenty-one hours already, but she didn’t plan to sleep while people below her fried. “What about the power? Any news?”

“They’ve tried three cold starts, and they’re going to have to do the blackstart you mentioned.”

She barely managed to refrain from saying I told you so.

“They have engineers on the way. Please watch for their copters. The local fire stations have water trucks. It’s not potable, but they can use it for cooling. Those are going out. And there’s three military cargo planes on the way. PHX can take them. Distribution will be hard. Tell your daughter. Does she have any on-ground comms?”

“The amateur radio networks have come up.”

“Thank God for people who love retro,” Bran muttered.

“The biggest problem is there aren’t many sets or operators anymore.”

Bran tapped something on his screen. “One of the phone carriers has set up some kind of testing relay people can use with phones.”

“Really?” She’d read about that for years. The companies had fought it. “Which carrier?”

“People’s Radio.”

It had to be the smallest. Still, she’d relay that to Carmen. Any port …

“Someone is also working on making a network out of the cars. They’re just stopped, but most of them still have power.”

Another good idea. “How long till the power’s back?”

“No one knows,” Bran said. “I’m going to nap for an hour. Please send in one of the engineers.”

10:00 AM

Carmen pulled her sunglasses out of her pocket. Since she was the only one able to communicate with her mother, they’d set her up on a rooftop patio on the tallest building in town, with a walkie-talkie to the Emergency Operations Center.

Someone had used a camp stove to make instant coffee for her and the amateur radio operator that shared her table. The bitter taste helped keep her awake while she wrote notes and coordinates on her paper.

Arizona City had fallen quiet. Her pencil scraped audibly across the paper. A few generators hummed, and voices wafted up from the streets. Most people were holed up, trying not to melt.

It could only get worse.

1:00 PM

The teenagers in the main room had been excited all night, but now they were exhausted. Katharine had kept four of them awake, split the engineers between shifts, and sent all of the other adults to bed. The midday heat beat down on the desert below her. The teenagers sat spread out, looking down, watching for flashes of light that were really signals for help. It required focus, and Katharine moved from watcher to watcher, encouraging them and telling and re-telling them how important a job they were doing. At one point, one of the boys looked at her and said, “Sit down and rest. We’ve got this for an hour.”

He reminded her of Carmen.

She sat.

From up here, mountains that she’d climbed looked like clods of dirt struck from a giant’s shoes, and the houses like grains of sand. In the far north of her view, the Salt River was a thin line of silver, and directly below, the Gila River looked like a gray hair. At the farthest edges of the incredible view, water became visible again, the pathetic remains of nearly-melted glaciers sticking to the tops of mountains.

8:15 PM

The table around Carmen had filled. The cars had turned out to be an effective relay, and the amateur radio had saved countless lives. There were two operators now, chattering back and forth to each other as they accepted slips of paper with data that needed to be relayed and wrote answers. Dusk had begun to fall on the eastern side of the city, but the heat felt as unrelenting as it had an hour ago. Ruthanna came up her. “That was pretty phenomenal first solo day.”

“Yeah.”

“Take a break. Some of the cavalry has arrived up above, and we have communication with two other Stratollites.”

“How?”

“Amateur radio.”

Carmen laughed. She touched the jewel that had kept her in communication with her mom, marveling yet again that the two of them could work together. A whole day, and not one word about how stupid it was to want to help the poor, or how she should accept her inheritance and become rich and powerful.

9:00 PM

Freed of her duties by the second shift, Katharine headed back into the observation bubble. The bright pink and orange sunset had finished falling off the edge of the earth, and the streets below her were dark again. Maybe even darker — some of the emergency power had spent its batteries or gas or whatever it had been running on. It probably wouldn’t cool for a while. Bran had told her power would return soon, and she had chosen this place to watch.

Time passed. An hour. Two.

Light bloomed along the horizons. It spread toward the cities below her from two directions, then three, then from everywhere.

Katharine touched her jewelry, asked it to call Carmen. It took a moment to connect. “Do you see it?”

“Yes.”

“You did great.”

The line went quiet for a long moment, and then Carmen said, “You never told me that before.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Happy birthday.”

Katharine smiled. “Thanks.” She rolled over, and this time when she looked up at the stars she didn’t feel nauseous at all. She felt connected. Starlight fell through the balloon, through her, and all the way to the ground below.


The team that collaborated with Brenda Cooper on this story was focused on communications and disaster response, and included Daniel Bliss, Joe Caspermeyer, Michael Duah, and Carmen Noriega.

To read the rest of Overview: Stories in the Stratosphere, and to see more original art for the project, visit http://csi.asu.edu/books/overview.