...."Yee-haw! Ride 'em cowboy!" Sanderson Spears yelled from his chopper as it rocked and swayed and shimmied first one way then another, threatening every second to spin completely out of control. He had come from Nevada, across northern Utah, over the Great Salt Lake and into southeastern Idaho on his way to Yellowstone. He meant to follow the Idaho-Wyoming border as far as the Grand Tetons - to get a ring-side seat to the spectacle. His timing was off by a couple hours.
He had just crossed Bear Lake on the Utah-Idaho border and was navigating his way northeastward across the Caribou National Forest when it happened. The date was November first, the year 2070, the time 4:59 P.M., Mountain Standard Time.
In one instant Craig Pass, Sylvan Pass, Pelican Cove, Dunraven Pass, Mount Washburn, Mount Holmes and a hundred lesser peaks disappeared. Yellowstone Lake burst into a soaring geyser that turned to steam a hundred feet up. The Petrified Tree melted. All roads leading in and out of the Park turned to dust. The air above Yellowstone exploded in a series of shock waves strong enough to topple Mount Hancock at the southernmost point of the Park and turn the top of Huckleberry Mountain, at the northern edge of Teton National forest, into a river of mud before proceeding southward, eastward and westward. The waves were felt along a 500 mile radius, toppling half the trees in the Teton National Forest, Shoshone National Forest, the Gallatin, Beaverhead and Targhee National Forests.
Sanderson Spears was a hundred-fifty miles away when it hit. The wave weakened sufficiently beyond the first seventy-five miles to keep him aloft, though it spun him around and blew him off course by several miles, forcing him to make an emergency landing when he regained control of his chopper. He found himself at the southwestern fork of Bridger National Forest, where Lincoln County, Wyoming compresses to a huge panhandle extending north to Teton County - some fifteen miles east of where he lost control. He made for a clearing on the southern face of Indian Mountain and set down. Fifteen minutes had elapsed. Spears got out and inspected his chopper for signs of damage. Finding none, he got back in and prepared to return to the air.
Just as he did, a cloud of ash, steam and lava shot thousands of feet into the air above Yellowstone with a deafening roar that sent a second series of shock waves, stronger than the first, resounding across the Rockies in every direction. Trailing fast on the heels of these next waves was a spray of white hot ash that incinerated everything in a seventy-five mile radius and darkened the afternoon sky to where the burning forests reflecting back upon themselves from the ashen covering turned the entire region a blood red.
Spears could feel the heat spreading all around him. A bush here or a tree there exploded in flame; but not everything became tinder for the inferno. The intervening miles between Indian Mountain and Yellowstone cooled the ashes, as it had calmed the waves expanding from the exploding Park, enough to spare things not in their direct path. Spears waited out the storm surge, which lasted half an hour and left a dark gray quilt over the landscape, threatening to grow thicker as it cooled.
"It's now or never," Spears resolved as he started his engine, which, in turn, started the blade rotating, which swirled the ash that had already settled on the chopper into a choking cloud that made it nearly impossible to see. Momentarily, this cloud cleared. Still unable to see more than a few hundred feet ahead, Spears lifted off the mountain and headed southeast, toward the Continental Divide, his chopper surrounded by ash which the rotating blade just barely kept from clogging its inner mechanism or covering the windshield.
His instruments at first were useless; the blast had disrupted the earth's magnetic field, cloaking north, south, east and west in a blanket of silt. Spears relied entirely on his sense of direction to guide him through Lincoln into Sweetwater County toward his destination. Even the signposts on the ground - Fontenelle Dam and Resevoir, Green River, US Route 187, Interstate 80 - were blurred or blotted out entirely. Nevertheless, Spears managed to remain on course through Sweetwater County and halfway through Carbon County, where the Continental Divide, which had forked east and west through the Great Divide Basin, joined again north of Medicine Bow National Forest.
At this juncture, more than 200 miles from Yellowstone and almost to the Colorado border, the ash began to thin, and Spears' instruments again began to recognize the directions they were designed to register. Spears looked down through the ash as if looking through a very closely spaced grate. His eyes were drawn to something on the ground which he had difficulty identifying. He tried several phenomena before he found the right fit. It was not a trick of light, not a forest fire, not a waterway polluted with the blood of dead animals. What he saw, looking down, was, ironically, the last thing on earth he expected to see. It was a river of lava, flowing along the eastern flank of the Rockies, following the Continental Divide southward through the Great Plains.
"No," he shook his head as he repeated. "No. It can't be. There can't be ash and lava. Not both. I won't allow it!" he quipped. "No scientist in his right mind would! It's one or the other. So you might as well go back where you came from - because you're not allowed! Humanity will not tolerate this sort of insolence! You are way out of line, mister - way out of line!"
Spears steered his chopper directly over the lava, suddenly realizing why he had taken so long identifying it: it was just now advancing; he had come upon it as it was beginning to make its move. He could see the wall of lava reaching southward along the Divide, see it covering one after another tree in its path. He sped ahead, descended, and hovered over the treetops so he could watch the lava advancing.
"My God!" he exclaimed, "It's twenty feet high!"
It was already into Colorado, moving from Medicine Bow into Routt National Forest. Again Spears speeded up, to hover over Muddy Pass, fifty miles to the south, to see whether the lava would follow the nearly ninety degree sweep of the Rockies to the east; or turn to the west, leaving the Divide; or squeeze between Muddy Pass and Rabbit Ears Pass to continue due south; or possibly stop altogether.
Its path, though Spears could not tell for the ash, was being determined, not by the Continental Divide, but by a fault the explosion had created, which ran almost parallel to the eastern ridge of the Rockies. This fault followed the sudden shift of the Divide to the east at Muddy Pass; followed the Rockies through Arapaho National Forest in Grand County; halfway through Rocky Mountain National Park; to the boundary of Grand and Larimer Counties; then again southward - but only as far as Mount Audubon, just inside Boulder County. There, it diverged, taking another turn to the east, to guide the lava flow southeastward between Boulder and Longmont, then along the boundary of Adams and Morgan Counties, where it merged with another rift running through Colorado, running almost directly north and south. A man made rift.
The explosion rocked the entire western half of the United States - from the Mississippi to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico - with the force of a ten point earthquake on the old Richter scale, toppling tens of thousands of homes, nearly all of them already abandoned; ripping forests to shreds; reducing entire towns and cities to rubble; collapsing ceilings and walls of caves throughout the west; virtually knocking out whatever remnants of power remained.
Every street lamp, every covered walkway, every ramp in Pod City was destroyed. The residents would no longer enjoy their nightly stroll beneath the stars; the city would no longer reflect itself against the night. The only way in or out - the ramps leading from the pods to the edge of the trench - lay in a crumpled heap atop the corpses of those who had sought refuge. Only the pods remained above ground; below ground, the storerooms, ballrooms, assembly halls and conduits remained. The power grid continued to function, bringing heat, light, air and cooling to the people of Pod City, who were merely inconvenienced by the blast, nothing more.
"When it's safe," they were told over short circuit TV by their new leader, "we'll send crews out to assess the damage and see about restoring our city to its former state of livability. In the meantime, relax, enjoy your day, continue as you were, rest assured you are in no danger. These units were designed to withstand any assault nature sends our way."
Even as these words of reassurance were rolling off the tongue of the spokesman, the people at the northern end of the trench were being roasted alive in their pods. These were the substandard units, the units whose structural weakness had allowed tiny irregularities in the material to precipitate hairline cracks in the unit when subjected to stress. The explosion opened microscopic channels in the outer hull; and, though the material itself could withstand heat in excess of five thousand degrees, the wall of lava worked through this protective barrier to fill the hollow space between it and the inner wall, turning the interior of the pods into an open oven. The residents ran, screaming, through their pods, watching their skin turning bright red then bursting into an oozing juice of blood, water and pus which dripped onto their carpeted floors. Some made it to their pod's hatch, opening it only to be swallowed in a sea of lava. The ice cold pods of the cryogenics began signaling their sleeping zombies to awaken; those who could, did, only to be covered in flaming refrigerants inside their caskets.
The lava flowed through Pod City faster, slower, then faster, then slower again, according to whatever incomprehensible design engineered its inception. It began flowing, beneath the cover of ashes, at five fourteen P.M. It reached Colorado at six fifty-nine P.M. It veered from the Divide at seven thirty-two. It reached the trench that housed Pod City at eight eleven. By nine P.M. half a dozen families had been burned beyond recognition, along with hundreds of corpses on the trench floor....