Saturday 28th May 2065
The Trossachs National Park
Paul Harrington was using the guide’s seat at the front of the luxury touring coach. At some of the locations, he would accompany the guide and passengers when there was a stop, but on this occasion, he’d opted to stay with the coach. Paul wasn’t interested in watching anything on television, but when it was close to the time for the mid-day news he switched on the main monitor.
Although he was situated on the southeast boundary of the national park and at a reasonable altitude he recalled it wasn’t a great place for radio or television reception. Even the signals for mobile telephones were hit and miss in this area.
The newsreader’s face and the studio backdrop were hazy at best, but the sound was clear.
“… and in the past half hour, it has been reported that President Donald S. Trumpton Jnr of the United States has once again issued a casual suggestion to the warring factions in the Middle East, and in the Far East. We have a recording of a statement released from the Whitehouse one hour ago which is thought will upset the leaders in the conflicts. The newsreader shared the screen with a view of the Oval Office in which the outspoken US leader was seen to smile and shake his head.
‘The rest of the world is fed up listening to you people arguing among yourselves—just get back over your borders in the Middle East and the Far East, and stop bickering. Plenty of us tried to help you over the years. As my father would have said when he sat in this office—get over yourselves. You shouldn’t have big toys if you don’t know how to use them.’
The newsreader inhaled deeply. “The President of the Federation of European Nations has made an impassioned plea for President Trumpton to retract his statement and apologise, but it seems there will be no apology forthcoming. There has been no response from the Middle East region, but the leader of the Southeast Oriental Peninsula has insisted on an apology—we will keep you informed—”
The broadcast faded and when it returned, the topic was about the renewed space-race. Having disassociated itself from the International Space Programme, the United States had launched a rocket with an advance crew of six engineers to land on the Moon. This followed the unmanned craft which landed on the Moon one week previously. The US stated it would establish a base to enable experimental habitation. America would be first.
Paul poured himself coffee from his thermos. “We’re finally going to have a couple of guys living on the Moon and we can’t be at peace with each other on Earth—well done Mankind.” The coach driver stepped down and walked around to the front of his vehicle to appreciate the majestic mountains of the Cairngorm National Park.
“Meanwhile, I’m happy to appreciate a world within a world.” Paul sipped coffee and stared in disbelief as a herd of red deer trotted along together on a hillside less than a mile away.
For an hour the thirty-five-year-old was content to relax, sitting on a large boulder near the coach. Apart from seeing the deer, two kestrels appeared, hovering and diving like tiny missiles when they saw prey. A mountain hare trotted past and so too did a fox. Paul marvelled at the abundance of wildlife to be seen simply by sitting still in such a beautiful setting. The highlight of the day occurred when a golden eagle soared overhead on broad wings.
A light buzzing saw Paul reach for his mobile phone. He checked the screen. “Hi Dawn—how’s it going with you guys up there?” He held the device out of the direct sunlight so he could see the tour guide’s lovely face when she spoke.
“Paul, have you been keeping up with the news?”
“I tried earlier but it was a bit sketchy, so I’ve been sitting outside the bus to watch nature.” He laughed. “I couldn’t watch much more anyway—that pig-headed windbag across the pond makes his country look bad.”
“Reception is better up here and one of our group has just shown me a news clip on her tablet—that blundering fool Trumpton is still shit-stirring with the Middle East and the Far East.”
“Yeah, I caught the statement about the President of the EuroFed asking—”
“Paul, that was ages ago—please watch the news bulletin that’s on now—we’re on our way back down the mountain.”
“Whoa, Dawn, it can’t be that bad—you guys should be up there for ages yet.”
“Please, just watch the bulletin, Paul.”
The driver got up and lifted his thermos. He climbed into the luxury coach, sat on Dawn’s regular guide seat and switched on the TV monitor. The newsreader was Nick Fowler.
“… and further to the comments by the Whitehouse earlier, the Middle East and Far East nations have issued the American president with an ultimatum.” The man at the news desk appeared visibly shaken. “The statement from the Middle East says, ‘You have spoken to us disrespectfully for the last time, and you now have one hour to appear on international media and make a public apology. The representatives of the Middle East Alliance will initiate strikes on your irksome fleets which are so far from home.’’ The reporter’s eyes glistened and he swallowed hard before continuing. “The statement from the Southeast Oriental Peninsula goes further and states, ‘If you do not make an apology or stand down from your exalted position, many of your countrymen will pay the price. Can you protect your spacecraft, Mr President?’ There is so far no response from the US.”
Paul shook his head. “You stupid, pompous bastard, Trumpton.”
The British Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Clarissa Jefferson appeared on the screen, standing in Downing Street, as she had—only twice since her recent election win. ‘I will not lie to you my fellow citizens—we are in a dire international situation. We have for some days been suggesting that individual preparations are advised—’ The screen became a haze of colours and the sound distorted into unintelligible whining and whistling.
“Damn it,” Paul changed channels and found the same problem. Five different channels all had the same hazy image of the first black woman Prime Minister of the UK, but her words were swallowed up in the ether. Paul returned to the channel likely to give the strongest signal.
‘… and so my friends, it grieves me to ask that you are prepared and resilient wherever you may go to protect yourselves. Please go now to your safe havens, and may God watch over us all. Goodbye.’ The Prime Minister’s tears were flowing before she was ushered away to her car by two men in suits. Even as she made her statement some of the media were leaving equipment behind and running from the famous street.
“What the fuck—” Paul stared at the screen in disbelief. “This has to be a well-acted rehearsal—it doesn’t end this way—it takes days and weeks of protracted international discussion—”
A seasoned newsreader appeared on screen, and it was a face that any viewer would recognise from his days as a war correspondent. He was rarely seen inside a studio environment. “Hello, this is Mark Stanton, taking over the ongoing bulletins. If you are still watching this programme for whatever reason, I’ll be staying with you for as long as we have power to transmit.”
Paul had a strange sense of foreboding. He’d watched Mark Stanton report from a dozen war zones. He’d been shot twice, and the man was never phased, but he was now broadcasting from the comfort of a London studio and for the first time, his features bore traces of resignation—fear that something terrible was about to happen.
A glance at his phone told Paul that he’d had three missed calls from Dawn up on the mountain. Paul’s device was registering the incoming signal but giving no alert to the user. It was a sign that he’d have no sound if he tried to speak to Dawn. Not for the first time, he was astounded at being so high up in altitude but not being able to capture a strong phone signal.
On checking his watch his thoughts raced. Time was passing fast, as it did when everybody would have liked a little bit more. Paul had a superb knowledge of his surroundings and the journey time to the nearest towns or villages, but for personal satisfaction, he pulled out his digital screen map and measured the time and distance to those places closest to the present location.
If he didn’t know at which point on the mountain trip Dawn had the passengers, it was impossible to tell how long it would take before they reached the coach. The forestry was too dense on the lower slopes and without a drone there was no way to see if they were still on the mountain higher up. He tried to locate her with her personal transponder which ought to show on the local area map—nothing. A great day for malfunction— not communication.
Paul took several deep breaths and scrolled up and down, left and right on the map screen. “Nearest large town, Fort William. Nearest small towns, Drumgask to the north, and Pitlochry to the south—nowhere within ninety-minutes, even if I was driving a bloody car.” He looked to the mountainside and forestry again—nothing.
He went inside the coach and rapidly tidied the seats on both sides, lifting coats and other items and placing them in the overhead lockers. “Best be prepared for a worst-case scenario and a race to somewhere safe—but where?”
When he’d done all he could, Paul turned up the volume on the TV monitor when he saw the ultimate professional staring blankly at the camera. There was no sound. Below Mark Stanton on the screen was a rolling headline: ‘Latest … the United States 4th Defence Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea retaliates as it is pounded by missiles from the Middle East … the United States 5th Defence Fleet in the Indian Ocean retaliates as it is bombarded from the Middle East … the United States manned rocket to the Moon has disappeared from scanners … The United States declares war … intercontinental missiles prepared … Russia has warned of retaliatory strikes … intercontinental ballistic missiles fired from submarines in both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean …’
The TV monitor died—no sound—no screenshot—nothing. It was as if it had no power source.
Paul checked his watch. “No chance of reaching a town of any size now—where the hell are you, Dawn?”
“Paul … Paul … Paul.” The cries were coming from the forest.
The driver looked along the two minor tracks across the road. Dawn was running toward the road from the left track. Behind her were a line of people in a variety of outfits but most were dressed ready for a day going up a mountain to sightsee and have a picnic at altitude. The young woman at the front of the line looked unusually anxious, and those in her wake looked distraught. Some were crying as they ran.
Paul stepped out onto the narrow road to let them see it was clear to run straight to the bus. “Get onboard—Dawn, don’t try to talk—please, just check off the passengers. Remember, we’re looking for forty people.”
“What … are we … going to … do … Paul?” She said as she threw her backpack onto the bus between her seat and the driver’s seat. “Where can we go?”
“I have a plan—count these people off and get the air conditioning working for me.” He turned to the passengers as they approached. “Please … take your time … and get to your seats.”
Some people were walking because they were tired, and others supporting them with an arm around the shoulders. The people were aged between twenty-five and fifty, but apart from three, they were all British citizens, so at least no language barriers.
A muscular black man in his late twenties came out of the track with his arm around a woman in her fifties. He whispered something to her and though she was crying, she nodded and tried to smile. She thanked him and walked to the coach.
“Hi, Paul, I’m Calvin, and I’m the last one.”
Calvin glanced over his shoulders and seeing nobody else around he looked the driver in the eye. “Have we got any hope of reaching somewhere?”
“I’ll make a brief announcement when we get going—thanks for keeping your head and helping Dawn.”
The two walked toward the coach.
“Your guide did a great job calming them enough to get them moving,” Calvin said. “We nearly had a riot up there, and we’ve got a couple of people who want to throw blame around locally. It’s not your fault. You and Dawn get them organised and I’ll watch your back, mate.”
Paul nodded his gratitude.
They climbed onto the coach and as Calvin went down the aisle to take his seat, Paul turned to his guide. “If we can keep it together, Dawn, we’ll get through this. Is everybody on board?”
“Yes, we’ve got everybody now—I want to help, but what can we do?”
“Sit down and switch the mike through for me.” Paul climbed into his seat and lifted the thin extendable arm of his mike so that it sat between him and the windscreen. He started the engine and out of habit checked his mirrors before pulling out onto the road. Nothing had been on the route since they’d turned up in the morning.
Passengers started shouting a variety of worries before Paul got a chance to speak.
“Where are we going?”
“What are we going to do?”
“Are we all to die out here?”
Paul hit the air horn three times and the noise went down to a murmur. “Please … listen to me, and don’t interrupt.” He glanced at Dawn and shook his head. “I’ve tried to keep up with the bulletins but we’ve lost the national media services—both radio and television. We’re at least two hours from the nearest town—” Shouting and screaming ensued until Paul slammed on the brakes.
“Listen to me—we’re all in this together, so if you want to stand a chance, shut up and listen.”
A man in his forties stood up. “Who gave you the right to say what we do?”
Paul stood to face him. “Have you got a better local knowledge of the Highlands than me?”
“Well fucking sit down and shut up—I’m trying to save our lives—all of them.”
“I don’t think I like—”
“Hey,” Calvin said, standing. “Do as the man says—he has a plan.”
Paul got behind the wheel and set off again. He addressed the passengers as if it were a regular rerouting service call. “I’ve checked all the possibilities and we have to prepare for the worst-case scenario. I’ll repeat—we are two hours from the nearest town. Any village out here will not appreciate a coach-load of people trying to break into their safe place—none will be large enough.” He swallowed. “I’m taking us to a location which will be big enough to take all of us, but I need you to trust me and not panic—it will do no good.”
As the bus speeded up, Paul used every available inch of road, leaning the big luxury vehicle into bends and as they climbed gradients there was no oncoming traffic to negotiate. The task was made slightly easier.
Paul could hear mumbling and cursing in the rows of seats behind him, and occasionally there were screams from people realising the full impact of what they were trying to escape from.
There was a blinding flash and for a few seconds, the world was intense white light—no colour and no shade. Paul was temporarily blinded and at sixty miles per hour in a coach on a Highland mountain road, that was not good. He bluffed for a few seconds by holding course in what he hoped was the middle of the road—what did he have to lose?
A man shouted. “Oh my God—look over there at the sky.”
Paul glanced to his left or as he knew it—westward. “Oh, shit,” he murmured.
Dawn turned to him. “What is that, Paul?”
“It’s the rising mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.”
“How come we haven’t felt anything?”
“All we’re seeing is the column of the thing as it rises into the stratosphere—it could be miles out in the Atlantic. The head of the mushroom cloud has already disappeared beyond the cloud base.”
“Why would anybody send a missile into the Atlantic?”
“To take out submarines or shipping which is carrying missiles.”
“Oh … I don’t know if I can handle this—”
“I need you, Dawn—we all need you to remain strong. You always handle pressure, but this will be a testing time for all of us.”
The guide nodded and briefly closed her eyes.
“Jesus Christ—look at that wave!” The voice was an older man and his tone expressed his fear.
The wave was many miles away to the west, but even as rose high and collapsed onto the land it told a story in itself—a tsunami … off the coast of Scotland. It could only be more terrifying if you knew how many towns and villages were underneath the water.
As he slowed a little and steered around the next right-hand bend, Paul knew he should be able to look north and see the Great Glen between the peaks, but from the altitude they’d reached, he could now see there were fewer lochs, but they were much bigger than they should be. The watercourses were reacting fast to the displacement of the eastern Atlantic.
As the bus straightened onto the next section of road, the nearest mountain loomed ahead and the passengers were in a fresh panic regarding why the bus was going so fast. The murmurs, screams and shouts started again, but now they were ignored by the driver who was on a mission. He accelerated as best he could, and then the road levelled.
“Everybody hold on—brace yourselves for a bump.”
Dawn gripped her seatbelt. “What is that … black line?”
“It’s a gap in the road … wherever the explosions are … no matter how far away, they’re affecting the structure of the plates under the planet.”
“Paul … the black line … the gap is getting wider … Paul … Paul.” Dawn gripped her seatbelt and raised her legs, bending them at the knee to place her feet on the dash.
Paul took the coach up to a speed never intended for such a machine, except on a test track. At eighty miles per hour the black line on the road ahead was being approached at a non-negotiable rate—it was a do or die choice and Paul was making the call on behalf of himself and his passengers.
When he was less than one hundred metres away it was obvious that the fracture in the road was at least three metres wide and expanding. Was the other side of the road descending?
Paul took the heavy, but powerful machine and its passengers onward, accelerating with every ounce available to him. At less than fifty metres away from the widening crevasse, the coach was travelling at ninety miles per hour. The only thing blocking out fear for the man behind the wheel was the level of noise behind him.
He kept eyes open, his foot down—hard, and focused on the other side of the increasing gap.