A strange red sky at midnight portends disaster on the other side of the mountains
|"Can't you sleep Barbie?" asked John.
They shared a large sleeping bag in a tent on the edge of the Eastern Rockies outside Denver. John had given Barbara, his wife, the nickname Barbie when they had first met in a beach volleyball game on Malibu beach. He remembered she was wearing a bikini. She was tall, blonde, and athletic. He had thought she looked like Barbie. Despite the intense conversations they had later, by a campfire, which had been more intellectually stimulating than any he had ever had before in his life, the name had stuck. It was a name that made her laugh when he said it and bristle if anyone else tried to. John himself had the same mix of sporting fitness and intellectual prowess she had and was like his wife doing a Ph.D. when they met. However, he was in a different department in CalTech. He was in Computer Science and she was in the Department of Geology and Planetary Science.
"No, sorry, I am thinking about Mum. The move to Kansas City has been very painful for her. I still cannot believe Dad left her for that young bimbo," said Barbara.
"Understood and sorry, but your dad is behaving like a complete asshole on this one. I guess Kansas City is quite a change from California for your mum," replied John.
"Oh forget Dad, he is beyond the pale. He was never there when I was growing up and he was always having affairs. I do not know why Mum stuck with him so long. This last affair was the final straw. Mum wanted a change, but I am worried it is all too much for her to handle."
"Let's get some air," said John.
He unzipped the tent and looked out towards the mountains.
"Wow, look at the sky. It is all red, but there are still stars. I can see the Milky Way, but it is as though the sun is rising in the west," said Barbara.
"At midnight! All of this is impossible. If this were really dawn there would be no stars. The sun brooks no rivals."
"I know that I am a scientist, and should know better, but this sky looks like it is bleeding onto the mountains. It seems the night itself has a big wound which the stars of the Milky Way outline."
John paused a moment seeing things with Barbara's eyes. Then he reached for the radio. All the channels giving back only static.
"The wind has changed since we camped earlier. It was coming from the mountains now it is driving across them. If this was fire or heat we see it would produce this effect. The hot air would rise over the land where it was burning and draw the air from down below towards it to fill the vacuum in an anticlockwise vortex."
John watched as Barbara continued to look with wide eyes, wetting a finger to test the wind and nodding to him when she realized he was right.
"The mountains are like a wall between us and whatever is happening there. Maybe they have saved us from whatever it is," said Barbara.
"Maybe, and they also spoil our view." John replied. He contemplated going towards the mountains to have a look but then shaking his head deciding against that. Barbara was his top priority and he needed to keep her safe.
"Barbie, we need to pack up the tent and start moving away from the redness."
Barbara did not need persuading and nodded her agreement. Silently and without further talking they packed up their things into the travel bags. They folded up their tent in record time and crammed it into its bag. Then, with John carrying most of the stuff, they frog-marched their equipment back to John's pick-up parked 100 feet away. The pickup was parked on the very end of a long dirt track heading East away from the Rockies.
Getting into the vehicle they looked through the window at the red sky over the mountains one last time and then John turned the key starting the engine and reversed the car around to drive back the way they had come just seven hours before. Barbara tried her mobile but everything was dead. John still carried an old atlas which gave all the main routes. Barbara took the atlas out and John watched as she traced a route but really it was unnecessary as he knew the way.
"If we follow this track to its end and then turn onto the main road heading away from the red sky, eventually we should hit a major highway, and then I will find it on the map. We have a full tank of petrol and a spare tank in the back of the truck so we can probably do 500 miles without refueling. I guess we need information also. We should probably not just go back to our flat in Denver but keep going East. Maybe to Mum in Kansas City?" said Barbara.
John nodded, understanding Barbara was trying to calm her nerves by being active. Being nervous himself he concentrated on the road which had a great many potholes. Instinctively he drove slower than normal, more careful of hazards that might damage the vehicle and prevent their escape from the red sky. For about an hour on the dirt tracks, they saw very few cars. The houses they passed were empty with no cars on the drive and then they hit a major highway. The heavy traffic was going the same way they were and many of the cars were full of families and luggage which was unusual at this time of night. There were also large numbers of pedestrians by the roadside heading east.
"Maybe we could pick some people up and get more information?" said Barbara.
"Yes but no large families or groups that look like they might try and take the vehicle for themselves. Does the radio work now?" said John.
Barbara tried the button turning through the static and finally finding a working channel.
"... much of the West Coast is underwater as the land is burnt away by the red dust. Whole cities appear to have dissolved in flames on the Western side of the Rockies and then just sunk into the sea."
"What?!" said John.
As they listened they heard a story of a meteor shower that had caused a highly inflammable red dust to fall on the west coast. Once ignited it seemed almost impossible to put out. It was literally burning away the surface of the earth as if it were some kind of impossibly strong fiery acid. Only when the land fell below the level of the ocean and it was drowned in the waters of the Pacific did it finally seem to put the fires out.
As they drove John noticed a single mum with a baby carrier and a rucksack walking on the side of the road at a distance from the other groups of walkers. They stopped for her and she got into the passenger seat with her baby.
"Thank you so much for stopping, I do not own a car. My name is Martha and this is Sam, my son," said Martha.
She was a pretty brunette with long hair tied behind. Her wide green eyes looked both frightened and grateful. She fussed with her baby making a safe space for him between her rucksack and the seat
"No problem, we are heading as far away from the red sky as we can go, is that OK with you? Sorry, we do not have a baby seat but I will drive carefully," said John eying her in the driver's mirror.
"Oh yes thanks, the news stations keep dying out, some kind of interference I guess. This is all very end times isn't it though I cannot remember reading about a plague in Revelations like this one. So I was flipping through channels before I left home to find out what was going on. It seems much of the western USA is burning or underwater but the east coast is alright. People are moving east whenever they can. The firemen have been trying to dump saltwater on the flames from the air but the planes cannot fly over the burning land it is so hot. Apparently, the convection currents are too strong and the air too hot. Some planes have even exploded over the hot zones. The newsmen say that the meteors have stopped coming, that the dust does not burn through solid rock and we just need to wait now for the fires to burn themselves out. I did not really understand most of it. The commentators were saying things about destabilized tectonic plates and big earthquakes."
This was Barbara's pet subject area but John thought even she appeared a little confused and doubtful as to what might happen now.
"Basically the weight of the dirt on top of the eastern edge of the Pacific plate and much of the western edge of the North American plate has been removed. This should make all their movements faster and easier. But much of whatever is happening is now under the ocean with probably small islands of hard rock popping out. In fact, the entire dynamic of the region is now changed. Scientifically it is fascinating even if it has cost millions of lives." said Barbara.
There was silence as John and Barbara both absorbed that and John continued driving east.
They arrived in Kansas City, dropping off Martha near the center as she had friends there. They drove on and twenty minutes later John parked the pickup in Barbara's mother's drive. As he did so he saw Jane Foster, Barbara's mother, come out of the house. They were on first-name terms and he called out of the window.
"Oh thank God you made it," said Jane. They got out of the car and Barbara went into the house with her mum while John focused on bringing their luggage in. When they were settled they sat down for a cup of tea. John asked Jane what she knew.
"Well it has not come over the Rockies, and seems to be slowing now, so many of those who fled from Denver probably did not need to but I am so glad you came. Barbara, I am sorry to tell you that your father and his girlfriend are dead and much of the west coast is now underwater."
John noticed that mother and daughter shared a look and it was clear that neither one really cared about the death of Barbara's dad. He knew that so many tears had been shed on the way to this moment. The man had ripped his wife's family's lives and hearts apart with his shenanigans, and now all that remained was a cold acceptance of his demise.
"This means Malibu beach is gone, I loved that place, and all the places we lived in and the friends we made in California," said Barbara.
"Hey Barbie, we will always have Malibu beach," replied John. He moved to hug her as the real tears started flowing.
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