Airliners falling from the sky. Mass starvation. Roving gangs in lawless cities. Highways transformed into "nightmare paths of exile."
That's the American Armageddon envisioned by Bill Forstchen, a history professor at Montreat College in Black Mountain.
It's also a doomsday threat invoked by Forstchen's longtime friend, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.
Their apocalyptic scenario: EMP, an electromagnetic pulse triggered by a nuclear explosion high in the atmosphere, crippling electrical grids, infrastructure and society as we know it.
"Newt's been the only candidate to aggressively point out there is a national security threat with EMP," says Forstchen, 61.
The former House speaker leads the Republican presidential contest in South Carolina a month ahead of its Jan. 21 primary. Nationally, he's tied with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Gingrich and Forstchen have co-authored nine books since a publisher brought them together in 1994, just before the then-Georgia congressman was elected House speaker. Most of their books are historical novels set during the Revolution, the Civil War or World War II. A novel about the Battle of Yorktown is due out next year.
But recently they've drawn attention - and criticism - not for a collaboration but for the theory explored in Forstchen's 2009 book, "One Second After," and extolled by Gingrich.
EMP attack, aftermath
The book, set at Montreat College, is a science-fiction account of an EMP attack and its aftermath.
Writing the introduction, Gingrich said an EMP burst, triggered by an enemy nuke, would "throw all of our lives back to an existence equal to that of the Middle Ages. Millions would die in the first week alone."
Forstchen says he and Gingrich began discussing such a book in 2004 after a congressional commission on the EMP threat issued its report. The commission called EMP "one of a small number of threats that can hold our society at risk of catastrophic consequences."
But critics say the alarms are overblown.
Time magazine called it one of Gingrich's "wackier ideas." Some scientists, even if not dismissing the threat, argue that it's not as great as proponents suggest.
"It's a theoretical possibility but it's overblown...," says Yousaf Butt, a nuclear physicist and consultant with the Federation of American Scientists. "If you have a nuclear weapon and you want to have an impact on a city, the easiest thing to do is set it off."
Writing last year in The Space Review, he said while some vulnerability to a nuclear-triggered EMP is real, "a much greater threat to the U.S. electricity-grid infrastructure is from a powerful once-in-a-century type solar storm."
However, a Wall Street Journal editorial this month applauded Gingrich while chiding EMP's skeptics.
"Few imagined a terror attack using airplanes against the twin towers or anthrax in letters," it said.
Way Gingrich relaxes
Forstchen stands by his book - and the partner who has become a friend.
Their first book was an alternate history of the post-WWII world. On subsequent efforts, Forstchen says, they would get together for a couple of days to outline a project, then delve into research. Forstchen will get boxes of books from Gingrich, all annotated. They exchange drafts with color-coded edits.
"This is not some vanity job where he puts his name on the top and I sit in the basement like a slave," Forstchen says. "He's engaged in this process from the very beginning to the end."
They frequently email each other about historical, not political subjects such as the context of a Winston Churchill quote.
"It's the way an intellectual guy like Newt relaxes," Forstchen says.
From his home in Black Mountain, Forstchen says he watches in disgust as Gingrich is ripped by rivals and ridiculed by critics.
"When Newt raises these points, it gets rather frustrating to see the response from the opponents rather than debating him on the issues," Forstchen says. "If we can keep it to the issues, I think Newt will be president."