Aphelion Issue 287, Volume 27
September 2023
Long Fiction and Serials
Short Stories
Flash Fiction
Submission Guidelines
Contact Us
Flash Writing Challenge
Dan's Promo Page

Red Sky

by George Schaade

"We've got one!"


The thin man at the door gulped some air, "Colorado."

Jack stood up so quickly that he bumped the table and spilled everyone's coffee. He led the way as they all rushed out of the break room and into the general office. A small group was gathering around one cubicle and that was where Jack headed.

"How long ago?" asked Jack.

"About a half hour ago," said the gangly man. "Joanne has a friend in the governor's office there."

As Jack approached, the crowd parted until he was standing directly behind the woman seated at the computer. The screen had several windows open. In the center was a streaming chat box with real time contributions from government agencies in Colorado and D.C. In one corner was a map of Colorado. The rest of the screen contained graphs and charts that were idle at the moment.

"What do we know, Joanne?"

"Not much. It's still early," Joanne said over her shoulder. "Someone called in a red sky sighting a few minutes before ten Eastern Time. It was spotted in south central Colorado. Local first responders are moving in now, so we should have more info soon. Governor Conway is sending the National Guard into the area and he's asked that it be called a disaster area, even though we don't know much yet."

"I assume FEMA has been notified but someone should give them a call to be sure. And what about the Secretary, has she been informed?" asked Jack.

"I'm on it," responded the gangly man.

"Here we go," said Joanne. "NESDIS is sending us a recording from one of their satellites."

Joanne opened another window that showed a jumble of greens, grays, and blacks. The picture started moving in a jerky manner feeding one frame a second. At one point, a light pink oval shape began to appear in the lower part of the image. The oval was north-south oriented and it was about twice as long as wide. As more frames were added, the oval moved slightly west. At the same time, it evolved from pink to red. It stayed red for a few seconds, quickly changed to purple; then in a single frame, it became white. The next frame showed a brown and black shape.

"Wow," whispered someone behind Jack. Everyone was stunned as they watched the video begin to loop.

"Okay," Jack broke the trance. "Who are the closest people we've got? Dallas or L.A.?"

"Dallas," said Joanne. "They could probably be there in a couple of hours."

"Good," Jack turned to face those standing around him. "We've trained for just this situation. Get to work, people." As everyone headed to their desks, Jack turned back to Joanne. "You want to go?"

The young woman's head snapped around and she showed a wide grin. "You know I do."

"Gather as much information as you can and come to my office in about ten minutes."

Jack headed across the room to his office. His secretary stopped him before he went in.

"Secretary Winslow on line one."

"Thanks, Sarah. I need three tickets to Colorado for tomorrow morning."

"Where in Colorado?" she asked.

Jack thought for a second. "It's near Pike's Peak. Just get us there as fast as you can. We'll also need a car and accommodations for at least a week."

The gangly man walked up to Jack. "FEMA is mobilizing. The Secretary..."

"Is on line one," Jack interrupted with a smile. "Come in the office, Frank."

Jack motioned Frank to take a seat and picked up the phone.

"Madame Secretary... Yes, we'll have people there in two hours and I'm leading a team that will leave tomorrow...Yes, we're working on that now...Will do, goodbye."

Joanne appeared at the door.

"Come in, come in." Jack pointed to a chair and flopped down in his own. "What did you find out?"

"The Colorado red sky began at 7:57 a.m. mountain time and lasted twenty seconds. It was approximately two miles long and one mile wide. The epicenter of the flash down was about 38.8 degrees north and 105.1 degrees west. This puts it just west of Sentinel Peak and the town of South Fork. A worker at Elk Creek Reservoir north of the event originally reported it. His description was consistent with a Type 2 flash down. So we're looking at 30,000 degrees Celsius." Joanne looked up from her notes. "The area isn't populated but there are hiking trails and camp sites. It's in the Rio Grande National Forest which should help with our investigation."

"When do we leave?" asked Frank.

Sarah stepped into the office. "You leave from DCA at 9:30 tomorrow morning."

* * *

"Trask, can you still hear me? What's happening?"

Roger checked the reception on his cell phone. It looked okay, so he re-dialed his partner. As he listened to the ringing, he looked up at the tall pine trees that surrounded him. The thick forest was difficult to walk through, but it also afforded him some cover to hide him from the government helicopters. When Trask didn't answer, Roger adjusted his backpack, checked his GPS, and stumbled forward between the trees.

A few minutes later Roger's phone buzzed. "Hello. Trask? Where have you been?"

"Sorry, Rog." Trask's rough, gravelly voice was occasionally mixed with a broken signal. "Some soldiers came along and told me I couldn't park where I dropped you off. I drove up the hill some more and actually found a better spot. Now I can hear you better and when I look out to the south I can see a bit of the flash down zone."

"Really? What can you see?"

"The forest green just stops and beyond that it's gray and brown. There are also a few wisps of smoke scattered in the area."

"Great," said Roger. "Get some pictures and video of it. I should be close to the edge of the burn. If I don't get stopped by the Feds, I'll call you back soon. Bye."

A few minutes later Roger reached the periphery of the burn left by the red sky. Most trees were still standing and they held their pine needles, but the needles were brown and dead. The undergrowth between the trees was blackened as if by a flash of fire. Scattered about were small dark objects with whiffs of smoke dancing in the breeze.

As Roger crossed into the zone, he heard the crunch of each step on the dry, scorched grass. He dropped to a knee and removed his backpack. Putting on his headset, he called Trask.

"Can you hear me? I'm at the flash down area."

"I hear you, Rog," said Trask. "What's it look like?"

"It's like the red sky that hit the forest in southern India a few years ago. Everything is withered and charred. One of the first things I noticed was the smell of ozone but that doesn't make sense. That stuff should have dissipated within hours after yesterday's flash down. If it is ozone that could mean that a flash down is more than just plasma. I'm going to collect an air sample."

The sound of a helicopter slowly got louder. At one point Roger became worried and moved closer to the trunk of a tree, but soon the sound began to fade as the chopper moved on.

"Trask, can you see any choppers?"

"I can see one now moving off to the east."

Roger stood and eased out into an open area. "I'm going to get some more samples. Let me know if you see another helicopter."

After taking some soil samples and radiation readings, Roger bagged a dead bird and what appeared to be a squirrel. He checked his GPS then moved deeper into the flash down zone. A few minutes later, he carefully crossed a hiking trail and headed into a region that seemed more burned than what he had just left. Roger pulled a camera from his backpack and began filming the area around him.

"All right, buddy, that's enough. Put the camera down and your hands on your head."

Roger was startled. He spun around to see three soldiers. They were not pointing their rifles at him but they were ready to use them. Roger had been caught in these spots many times; in many countries. He knew the procedure. He did as he was told.

The soldiers took Roger's bag and headset, emptied his pockets, and marched him down the trail to a dirt road. There he was put in a military vehicle and driven south. Eventually they pulled into a campground that had been commandeered for first responders and government officials.

Roger was ushered out of the vehicle then walked through the compound. There were three large RVs in the middle that were surrounded by multiple cars, ambulances, and military trucks. Soldiers and civilians quickly moved between several tents and canopies.

Suddenly Roger spotted a familiar face. "Jack! Jack Ross!" Roger broke from his escorts and headed to a dark-haired man under a nearby canopy.

Jack stared in amazement as Roger pumped his hand. "I'm sorry. Have we met?"

"No, but I certainly know the director of the National Red Sky Investigation Service. I'm Roger Albert."

Frank stepped up from behind Jack. "You're the guy that writes those books about red sky events. You claim there's a conspiracy and the government is withholding information."

"Red Sky: Everything They Won't Tell You," Roger gave Frank a big smile. "I'll get you an autographed copy if you like."

The soldiers had been politely waiting but now they took Roger by the arms and began to lead him away.

"Wait," said Jack. "What was he doing?"

"The chopper first spotted him with their infrared," said a soldier. "When we caught up to him, he was filming."

"Help me out here, Jack," pleaded Roger. "Otherwise I've got to get my lawyer and make bail. It's all a real hassle that just ends with me paying a piddly fine."

"Sounds like this has happened to you before," said Jack.

"In many countries. Come on, Jack. I'll tell you how I predicted this red sky."

Jack gave a short disbelieving laugh. "No one has ever predicted a red sky event. Why should I believe you?"

"Check my website. Talk to my partner. It's true. Isn't that what your department is all about? If we can predict them then maybe we can figure out what they are. Think of the lives that could be saved."

"Here's his website." Joanne was at her laptop. "Four days ago he posted that a red sky event would take place in the Rocky Mountain area."

"Well, you didn't exactly pinpoint it," said Frank.

"I knew almost exactly where it would be, but I didn't want a bunch of my followers flocking to the area and then getting zapped. As for me, I was waiting on it in my South Fork motel room two days before the event. You can check on that."

"How many events have you successfully predicted?" asked Joanne.

"Just this one," Roger said sheepishly. "But I nailed this one. I've got my computer model worked out now."

Jack thought for a second and turned to the soldier. "Could you put him in my custody? I'll make sure he doesn't get into any more trouble."

"We haven't processed him yet so that's fine by me," said the soldier. Then as he handed the backpack to Roger, "Stay out of my zone, Mr. Albert."

Roger sighed in relief. "Thanks, Jack."

"Sit over there please." Jack motioned to a chair just outside the small tent. "As soon as I'm finished here, we'll talk."

While Roger called Trask to tell him how to get to the campground, Jack and his team huddled.

"What are you doing?" asked Frank. "He could write some stuff that makes us look really bad."

"He could also give us a big boost," said Jack. "Good publicity translates to more funding which we desperately need. Look, we won't give him anything that's vital. We'll keep him on a short leash."

"I'm curious about this program he says can predict red sky," said Joanne. "And if need be, I can use that to divert his attention."

"Sounds like a good deal to me," said Roger as he stepped up from behind the group. He handed a computer disk to Joanne. "There you go. If you have any questions, I'll be glad to answer them. And let me just say that it will be an honor to work with you guys."

* * *

Jack looked around the room to make sure everyone was there before he began. The small theatre-style screening room had about twenty people milling around and talking.

"If I could have your attention, we'll get started." The light chatter stopped and everyone looked to the front of the room where Jack stood in front of a large screen.

"Thank you. First, I'd like to make some quick introductions. I'm Jack Ross, Director of NRSIS; my colleagues Joanne Weston and Frank Parr. This is Roger Albert who I'm sure you've heard a lot about lately. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bains is there in the corner. We also have representatives from NOAA's National Weather Service, England's Red Sky Emergency Bureau, NASA's Skywatch, the NASA Advisory Council, and over there is Jerry Feldman from NESDIS, the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service. He'll be speaking to us later.

"Let me bring all of you up to speed. The last two weeks have been very hectic. When we first looked at Mr. Albert's red sky event program, we were surprised by its simplicity. Scientists and observers have been trying to explain red sky events in terms of atmospheric conditions and geophysical formations since a Paleolithic man depicted a flash down in the Lascaux cave. But the more data we collected, the more theories were created, and the farther we removed ourselves from the answers we sought. That isn't to say we didn't learn anything from all the hard work; to the contrary.

"Sir Isaac Newton's observation of a red sky led to his discoveries on the electromagnetic light spectrum. Plate tectonics, solar flares, gravity anomalies, magnetism, radioactivity. They all stem from work on red sky."

Jack shook his head and smiled. "Sorry. As you can see I'm quite passionate about what I do. Anyway, Mr. Albert's program is based more on the history of red sky events than the science. Jerry will have more on that later. The screen behind me is a real time picture of an area just north of the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific. A big thanks to our friends at NASA for the images.

"We're here because the red sky program predicts an event that will take place here," Jack pointed to the screen. "sometime in the next hour. When this happens it will validate the integrity of the program and we begin a new era of dealing with red sky. Unfortunately our breakthrough in understanding the program came two days after the Pokrovsk red sky that killed almost 6000 people in eastern Russia. Of course, the size of the death toll was due to the event happening in the early morning. This program will eliminate the fears of a nighttime red sky or any red sky for that matter."

Roger leaned over to Joanne and whispered, "Remember the old medieval saying 'Red sky at morning, people take warning; red sky at night, a terrible plight.' I guess we'll have to rewrite that one."

Jack continued, "While we wait, please feel free to talk among yourselves, and enjoy the refreshments in the back."

The crowd broke into smaller groups that softly chatted as they kept an eye on the screen. Jack drifted between the groups, greeting old friends and answering questions. A stout older man with a gray beard approached Roger.

"Pleasure to meet you, Mr. Albert. I'm Terrance Patterson from NOAA. I just wanted to express my congratulations and thanks for your accomplishment."

Roger smiled and shook his hand. "Thank you. Everything has happened so quickly. It's like a dream."

"I've worked thirty years at NOAA," said Terrance. "I've come to understand natural events like hurricanes, tornadoes, and thunderstorms, but not red skies. I know that a flash down can produce enough radiation to kill even the most radiation resistant organisms like the bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans. I've learned that a typical red sky can have an energy release of about 1044 joule. But I've never understood what it actually is and why it strikes where it does. How did you do it?"

"You know it all started with my childhood fascination with red skies. I started collecting all kinds of information about them but their history really interested me. I remember reading about how Constantine defeated Maxentius at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 because a red sky wiped out most of Maxentius' army along the Tiber River." Roger smiled. "Of course, God got most of the credit for that one. But it was that story that started me compiling a data base of when and where red skies appeared throughout history."

Terrance gave a soft laugh. "I still don't know how that..."

"There!" Frank exclaimed from the front of the room.

Everyone turned to the screen where a pink circle had formed in the stratosphere above the mid-Pacific Ocean. The color deepened and evolved into a brilliant red that was a sharp contrast to the dark blue of the ocean. In a few seconds, the circle became purple, which was quickly followed by the white of a flash down, and then it was over.

"Congratulations again," Terrance said to Roger with a smile. "Now maybe you can come up with programs for some other natural disasters."

The video of the Pacific red sky repeated a couple of times then stopped as Jack and a redheaded man walked to the front.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Jack. "We can now predict red sky events."

Applause and cheers rang from the group.

Jack smiled. "But there's more good news. Jerry Feldman of NESDIS will explain."

"Thank you," said Jerry who cleared his throat as the crowd settled into their seats. "As Jack's team analyzed Roger's computer model, they shared the information with all of us at NESDIS. After awhile it became apparent that the program worked because there was a pattern to red sky events throughout history."

There was a murmur from the group.

"That's right, a pattern," continued Jerry. "Once you figure leap years into the equation the pattern is approximately 83 years long. So the size, shape, and latitude of the event we saw today was the same as an event 83 years ago. That would be a red sky that hit the Belgian Congo in 1929. The longitude changes due to rotational variations, but the time between events, the sequence, remains the same. And because of that, we can accurately predict each red sky." Jerry paused. "We've been collecting the right data for centuries, but we never put it together in the right way until now.

"It was this sequencing that lead me to revisit a 1960's theory involving gamma-ray bursts. As we learned back then red skies have some similar characteristics to GRBs but they're not the same. Cosmic rays from an exploding supernova would do far more damage to the earth and its atmosphere than any red sky. But, like I said, this theory pointed me in the right direction. Satellites and high altitude balloons have detected neutrinos during red sky events and neutrinos are not affected by magnetic fields; therefore, their trajectories will point straight back to their origin. All of the red skies we've tracked this way point to one place, the star Mintaka in the constellation of Orion."

The room fell silent. Jack stepped forward.

"For hundreds of millennia energetic atomic nuclei have raced across 900 light years of space to strike the earth in a specific sequence. The precise pattern tells us that this is not a natural phenomenon. Our planet has been targeted by an alien intelligence for a very long time. There is one question we now have to answer. Are they trying to send us a message or trying to kill us?"


© 2014 George Schaade

Bio: George Schaade is a retired history teacher living in the Big Thicket forest of East Texas. He's been an avid SF reader since he was first introduced to the genre by Robert Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. Although he occasionally ventures into fantasy or horror, his true passion is writing science fiction for his wife, Cathy, and anyone else that will listen. His publication credits include "Tough Negotiator" published in Anotherealm Magazine Sep. 2012, "Clothes Call" published in Strange Halloween 2012 by Whortleberry Press Sep. 2012, and "No Beginning, No End" published in Strange Lucky Mysteries 5 by Whortleberry Press March 2013 publication. His last Aphelion appearance was "Soigné Voyage" in July, 2013.

E-mail: George Schaade

Comment on this story in the Aphelion Forum

Return to Aphelion's Index page.