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Daybreak Zero

John Barnes - Author

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ISBN 9781101475898 | 432 pages | 01 Mar 2011 | Ace | 18 - AND UP
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A year has passed since the catastrophic event known as "Daybreak" began. Seven billion people have died. Washington, D.C., has been vaporized. The United States barely avoided a second civil war between two rival governments that rose from Washington's ashes. And "Daybreak" isn't over...

One:

loop lightly through the clouds

Above the former I-84, along the Idaho-Oregon border. 5:51 PM PST. Wednesday, July 9, 2025.

A black flag, grayed by the blowing desert dust, snapped and yanked at the pole at the Ontario, Oregon, airfield. From the rear cockpit of her Stearman biplane, barely five feet behind the roaring engine, Bambi Castro couldn’t hear the cracking and booming of the flag in the wind, but even a quarter mile above, she could see the way the flag bent the pole. It would have been a scary landing, but now she wouldn’t be landing.

The black flag meant CONTAMINATED FUEL HERE, DO NOT LAND. The biotes that had spoiled the aviation fuel on the ground at Ontario were as contagious to avgas as refrigerator mold was to cucumbers. The most common strains of biote could turn the fuel in the Stearman’s tank to yellow-orange vinegar, lumpy green goo that resembled baby diarrhea, or brown sludge that reeked of cheese, but there were thousands of one-off biote strains that might do something equally bad. If any biote contaminated the Stearman, the whole fuel system and engine would have to be pulled out, boiled, and reinstalled, taking one of the last dozen working airplanes in the United States out of service for weeks.

Bambi banked right and pulled the stick back, putting the Stearman into a circling climb. Coming around to the west, the propeller and engine roared even louder at the hard work against the wind. Didn’t even get a chance to warm up, she thought; even in July, she needed a couple of sweaters, gloves, helmet, and scarf at cruising altitude, a mile and a half above the high desert and with the plane’s propeller and motion putting a hundred-mile-an-hour wind always in her face. Well, nothing to be done for it; she couldn’t land here and she needed to get above and upwind as quickly as she could. I’ll need to drain and check at Baker City. Gah. One more thing between me and dinner and bed.

Holding the stick with her knees to keep the Stearman spiraling upward, Bambi dragged the Ontario mailbag from the front cockpit and rested it on her lap, tearing it out of its paper grocery bag.

Mostly Athens bureaucrats bashing antlers with Olympia bureaucrats, but the mail must go through.

She pointed the nose north to cross west, to the windward, of the field. With the stick between her knees and her feet steady on the rudder pedals, she gripped the eyebolt that protruded from the concrete-filled tin can in her right hand, and balanced the mailbag and streamer on her left. She whipped the weight downward in a seated slam dunk and tossed the mailbag and streamer across her body over the side.

The mailbag rig cleared the stabilizer; the weight pulled the rope to the mailbag taut, and the red streamer unfolded behind, fluttering down onto the former golf course by the airfield.

Ontario was screwed. All the fuel on the ground would have to be burned, and the tanks, pipes, and hoses scoured with boiling water and disinfectant, and then there would be a three-month quarantine to confirm that exposed fuel was no longer becoming infected. Their mail would have to wait for a train that had a decontamination car—perhaps twice a month, because there just weren’t enough steam locomotives.

Actually, I could give a shit about the nice folks in Ontario. I’m about up to my own ass in trouble.

Bambi had pushed hard to reach Ontario today—taken off from Pueblo as early as she could get the ground crew to forgive her for, and then flown all the way to Ogden, Utah, on the first hop; on the way she’d dropped mail to Rangely, Vernal, and Provo, but she’d elected not to land because that exposed the Stearman to the dangers of biotes and nanoswarm. She had planned to land only at Ontario, with Baker City as her only Plan B.

Oh shit. If Ontario’s infected, what about Baker City? Baker was even more exposed to the wind off the desert; from here to the coast there were dozens of gas stations whose abandoned tanks seeped foul-smelling goo, thousands of houses where vinyl siding had decayed into slime, and tens of thousands of abandoned cars and trucks sitting on their rotted tires, their fuel tanks reeking of vinegar, refrigerator mold, or spoiled milk. A single spore from any of those could bring ruin, as one probably had for Ontario.

Well, I can’t fix yesterday’s poor planning now. At eight thousand feet she leveled off and throttled up; the little plane shook with the effort of flying into the wind. Below her, the brown scrub and dirt of midsummer late afternoon sent up unpredictable thermals, and swirled with thin gold and gray dust; to her right, big piles of cumulonimbus roiled above the mountains. Late-summer afternoons out here were a nightmare for a tiny powered kite like the Stearman.

She rechecked instruments. Oil pressure, temp, tach, airspeed all fine, altimeter and compass as they should be. The little tank of lye solution that sprayed the alternator and spark coil, preventing nanoswarm from taking hold, was low.

The fuel gauge said Make Baker soon.

Half an hour later, ten miles out of Baker City, she dared go no closer; the storm squatted over the little desert town like a Rottweiler guarding his bowl. She turned ninety degrees right, heading northeast. If some clear sky opened to her left, soon, maybe she could get around the north edge of the storm and follow it in to land behind it.

The little Stearman shuddered and jerked in the gusts; Bambi thought too much, uselessly, about shear and stress on a canvas biplane wing. She climbed as high as she could, opening the throttle wide, burning more fuel but it was a race she had to win.

Half an hour later she had lost. In her fight with the storm, she had been hoping to beat it with a quick right cross; but it turned out the storm packed a mighty left haymaker. Off to her left, more thunderheads sailed toward her like God’s own galleons.

She might barely make it back to Ontario, but that would sacrifice the precious plane.

She could land on a road, but to sit through a storm on the ground the Stearman needed shelter—a high school gym or a good-sized auto repair shop—because the wind could slam the little fabric-and-wood biplane around like an empty cardboard box. Besides, even if she had known where there was a suitable building with a landable field or road, everywhere outside the towns in this country there were biotes and nanos on the ground, wrecks on the highway, bandits and tribals in the burned-out buildings.

Running as fast and high as she could, Bambi followed the road to the Snake River, and the river into Hells Canyon, toward the last friendly sunlight, hoping to see a place to land.

In the depths of the pine-lined canyon, the Snake River was already in darkness; the road beside it occasionally looped up into the light. Can’t land where I am, and dead in a short while is better than dead in a really short while.

Still running from the storm, Bambi turned due east out of the canyon, over even wilder country, crossing the low range of mountains.

There.

Where a low saddle in the mountains to the west allowed daylight through, she found a long almost-straight stretch of highway, and a few buildings surrounding a dirt parking lot. She came down quickly in a big semicircle; no wires or poles, either, and the pines weren’t moving; the storm winds had not yet come this far.

To give herself as much road as possible, Bambi came in about twenty feet above the treetops, descended into the shadowy tree-surrounded meadow enclosed by a curve in the road, and touched down in the long, straight uphill stretch she was aiming for.

The wood-spoked tail wheel bottomed on its springs, the Stearman slammed down like a brick, and the greased-linen tires made a heavy whump! on the road. The tail wheel lifted momentarily, sending her heart into her mouth, but the plane settled onto its wheels, and she rolled smoothly up the hill in the mountain twilight, idling the engine to keep some forward way with the propeller; the tops of the Douglas firs were still in sunlight but the road was dim.

She passed a shield sign for US 95, and mile marker 178 as she taxied over the top of the rise. She throttled back further but the engine gasped like a dying fish and the prop stopped cold; out of fuel. Well, it got me to the ground.</p>

With no brakes on the wheels, rolling down the gentle slope, she used the flaps to hold the plane down against the hill and keep it from taking off like a hang-glider. At the open gate in the chain link fence to her right, she turned in an awkward pivot into the parking lot. No cars, just a couple jeeps and horse and canoe trailers by the building. Must’ve been a summer resort only, with almost no one here on Daybreak day.

She bumped along the central aisle, slowing to a stop as the saggy, soft linen tires dragged on the gravel.

The chain on the door of the big steel storage building yielded to the bolt cutters from her emergency kit. Grinding through rotted plastic fittings and glides, the metal of the tracks and wheels shrieked as the big door rolled up on its counterweights. The last gleams of daylight revealed nothing scary like bears or dangerous like people. The room smelled musty and unpleasant, like a furniture store that had been closed up too long, reeking of rodents and decay.

The wood-and-fabric Stearman was so light that with effort, Bambi could drag it into the big building by its tail. She tied off the wing and tail eyebolts to pillars. She couldn’t force the door down manually, but the Stearman was at least secure against the wind; it could stand a little rain. She grabbed her gear from the forward cockpit.

In the last shimmering gray glow of twilight, the sign on the little house said VISITOR CENTER. Oh, good, I’m a visitor. The door was unlocked.

Her candle lantern revealed racks of brochures, a toilet whose seat had crumbled into dust, a steel shelving unit with piles of paper-covered clay-like goop that had probably once been office work trays. The leather sofa and desk chair must have been well-enough sealed to keep biotes out of their foam lining. Unlike some places she’d slept on some missions, there was no wildlife to chase away or mummified corpses to drag out and bury.

Bambi set the candle lantern on the desk and unpacked her emergency radio. The glass jars had clean, unbroken seals with no trace of nanoswarm’s white-gray crusts around the edges, and the transmitter went together easily. She cranked the little magneto to charge the capacitors, pausing every few minutes to wipe all the contacts with a lye-soaked rag; no visible nanoswarm was forming. Inside the little electroscope made from a baby-food jar, the aluminum-foil leaves did not sink perceptibly while she counted off twenty seconds orally; the capacitors were holding charge. Time for the less-fun part.

Night and storm had arrived while she worked on her radio; it was full dark and pouring. In flashes of lightning she made out a wooden post at about the right distance. Rather than get her clothes wet, she stripped, put her boots back on, and ran to the post, trailing the modified 100-foot extension cord behind her. She clipped the booster-cable clamp on and dashed back. If she hadn’t gotten too turned around in the dark, her antenna probably ran east-west, so the mountainside should reflect it in the right direction easily.

To avoid getting water near the radio transmitter, she toweled off with her dirty shirt, put on her spare, and made sure no drips lurked anywhere. When she checked the radio, the electroscope’s leaves hadn’t descended discernibly; that was very good.

She’d practiced her Morse religiously, and now she made that key clatter, sending her message three times before the electroscope’s leaves collapsed together, indicating the energy in the capacitors was gone. She cranked it up again and sent five times before the charge again dissipated; repeated the process a few more times.

No immediate response clicked in the earphones of her crystal rig. She sent CL (dah-dit-dah-dit, dit-dah-diddit, the code for going off the air), and left her phones on while she dug into her pack and fixed herself a cheese and jerky sandwich. When she blew out the candle, her watch showed only 9:30. She put her gun and axe within reach of her sleeping bag on the big leather couch, and positioned the headphones by the chair cushion that was her pillow, so that, in the forest silence, any signal might wake her.

Days like this could make you wish the great majority of the human race hadn’t died in the past year, and there was still Internet, cold beer in the summertime, and cybercrime.

Heather O’Grainne is gonna freak when she hears a plane is down. I sure hope that radio message got through somewhere, or it’s gonna be hell for everyone else till they find me. The thought that Heather would be on top of this, and meanwhile she had food in her stomach and a warm dry place to sleep, put things in perspective. As Bambi drifted off, the last distant lightning flickered, and the rain settled to a soft patter. The radio will wake me up, and it’ll be Heather.


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