I’ve seen dust storms in Denver before, but there’s something different about this one. I can’t put my finger on it. It seems so…I don’t know…red. And why is there so much dust in the air anyway? It’s not all that windy right now. It looks like the dust is falling from somewhere high up in the sky. It’s not being picked up off the ground and blown around by the wind. But that’s impossible. Dust doesn’t just fall from the sky like that, especially not in the winter. What could it be…? Mesmerized, Mitch Johnson continued to watch the red dust fall as he drove towards the Denver International airport.
“And planes don’t fall from the sky like that either,” he said aloud.
Mitch’s attention was diverted from his thoughts about the weird weather when he heard what he thought was a car backfiring. He looked up and saw a plane dropping much too fast for a safe landing. He was driving to the airport to catch a flight to Washington D.C. to attend a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. He had recently been awarded a prize for his work on the effects of planetary gravity on comets and was an invited guest to present a paper on the subject. It was quite an honor for such a young astrophysicist from the University of Colorado. Well, 34 seemed young to him.
It looked like the jet engines were surging and then flaming out. He heard the popping sound of the surges a few seconds after he saw the flames. But what really caught Mitch’s eye was the strange blue glow around the nose and engines of the aircraft. “What the hell is that?” he asked aloud. It was now apparent that the plane was in serious trouble. The likelihood that the crew would be able to land the jet dead stick on final approach was looking very slim.
Mitch quickly pulled over, grabbed his iPhone out of his shirt pocket and began shooting video of the aircraft. Just as he started recording, the engines popped once again and then miraculously restarted. And not a moment too soon, as the plane was less than 1,000 feet above the ground. He continued to record the landing, hoping to catch another sighting of the strange electrical glow on the leading edges of the plane, but it was not repeated. In an amazing demonstration of deliberate control, the pilot kept the nose up as the engines came back up to speed just in time to prevent a certain crash landing.
The jet finally slammed down roughly, a ways past the normal touchdown area, bounced noticeably and careened down the runway. Denver runways are very long, but it was obvious that this plane wasn’t going to be able to stop in time. It burst into the field past the end of the runway and ended up in a small ravine a few yards short of a roadway. Incredibly, there was no fire. Mitch had been on a flight from Las Vegas to Burbank that had overshot the runway back in 2000. He could just imagine the horror the passengers and crew must be going through right now.
He put his iPhone back in his pocket and raced to the end of the runway which was less than a mile away from where he had stopped. Even though there were many vehicles headed in that direction, Mitch was able to drive to within a dozen yards of the jet. He was one of the first to arrive on the scene. Most of the passengers had already escaped down the emergency slides and were milling around. He was surprised when one of them ran up to his truck as he stopped, clutching tightly at a leather briefcase.
“Can you get me to the terminal right away?” asked an old man with wild and frantic eyes. “I’ve got to catch a flight to Washington D.C. and I don’t have time to wait around for the emergency crews.”
Mitch stared at the old man slack jawed, but only for a second. “What are you, crazy? We’ve got to see if anybody’s hurt and help them!”
The old man looked around and said, “Look, nobody’s hurt. The pilot did an amazing job and got us down safely. We all got off the plane okay and now I need to catch my flight. Will you take me or not? I don’t have time to wait for a shuttle bus.”
Now Mitch was certain that the old man was crazy. He got out of his truck and began making his way toward the plane to find a member of the flight crew. The old man was right in step behind him but Mitch didn’t stop. He ran quickly down the little ravine and approached a uniformed crew member. “Is everyone alright?” he asked when he came to a man who appeared to be the captain. Surprised, the officer whirled around and looked closely at Mitch, tying to ascertain if he was a passenger.
“I saw the landing from where I was stopped along Airport Boulevard. In fact, I got the whole thing on video. Are you okay?” Mitch repeated.
It finally registered with the captain that Mitch was neither a passenger nor rescue crew. His eyes left Mitch’s face and resumed looking around at the passengers. He was trying to determine for himself the answer to Mitch’s question. “I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’ll be shocked if nobody is seriously hurt but so far everyone seems to be off the plane and uninjured.”
“What happened?” Mitch shouted after the captain, who had turned to find the rest of his crew. He had to run after him and repeat the question.
“It’s this damned red dust,” yelled the captain. “Look around. You can see how thick it is. It got sucked into our engines and caused them to flame out. We lost them on the way in at 30,000 feet and barely got them going just in time to land. It’s a miracle. If you got that landing on video I’d like to see it. I didn’t think we were going to make it.”
The old man suddenly jumped between them and grabbed the captain’s arm. “Look,” he said, “my name is Manny Volynski. Here’s my card. I was on that plane but now I’m leaving. I don’t have time to wait for the rescue crew.” And with that, he turned and hurried up to the road on a trot toward the terminal.
The captain stared at the card for a second, looked up and stared at Manny, who was already out of earshot and then spun back to Mitch. With desperation in his voice, he asked “Will you go after him? He can’t leave until the authorities get here.” Wanting to protest but seeing that it would be helpful to the overwhelmed captain, Mitch went back to his truck without a word to get the crazy old guy and bring him back.
He sped up the road and pulled in front of the old man cutting him off. Jerking open the door, he jumped out and confronted him. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Look, Mitch. I just got off a plane that almost crashed because it sucked up dust from your comet that is now falling all over the Western United States. We were lucky just to get out of California let alone make it all the way here to Denver. I’m going to Washington D.C. to try one more time to convince your buddies that this thing is much more dangerous than you’ve been telling people. Now are you coming with me?”
Mitch let go of Manny’s arm and stepped back with a look of shock in his expression. “How the hell do you know me and what do you mean by ‘my comet’?”
“Come on! It’s named after you since you discovered it. You’ve been all over the news telling people how wonderful it is that we will have such a close encounter with your great comet. Don’t you realize by now that this dust is from your comet? I tried to tell you about this a long time ago but you never listen to guys like me.”
It finally dawned on Mitch that he knew this old man. He was the guy that kept showing up at astronomical conferences claiming that the earth was going to be visited by a planet in the near future. Even worse, he argued that a rendezvous with this planet would bring catastrophic changes to the world and disaster for people everywhere.
Seeing that Mitch recognized him, Manny continued. “I told you that this would happen. I even tried to tell you what’s going to happen next, but you had me thrown out of the last conference. Do you believe me now?”
“Believe what, old man?” Mitch snapped back. I only believe that you’re crazy. I promised the captain that I would get you back to the plane. Now get in!”
The desperation was evident in Manny’s eyes as he almost shouted, “You of all people should believe me. You know comets and have published papers on the effects of planetary gravity on comets. This comet is so large that when it passed by Saturn, it was pulled slightly closer to the sun. It went behind the sun at a steeper angle and is now coming a lot closer to earth than you have told the media. In fact, it’s coming tail first. We’re starting to pass through the tail and you know it. This dust is from your comet!”
Mitch did some quick mental calculations and began to put things together. He had been too distracted by his preparations for the trip back East and hadn’t gone to the observatory last night. Manny could be right. He hadn’t seen the trajectory of the comet as it came from behind the sun. Perhaps this dust really was from the comet. He forgot all about the captain and the plane. Now he only wanted to get back to his observatory.
“Get in,” he said to Manny. “I need to get back to the university.”
“Haven’t you been listening to me?” replied Manny. “It’s too late for that. You don’t need to make any more observations. The evidence is all around us now. We need to get to your conference and convince all the other astrophysicists what is really going on. They’ll listen to you and the governments of the world will listen to them.”
Although he wasn’t convinced at all, Mitch realized that they still had time to catch the flight, and he didn’t want to argue with him anymore. Manny got in and they drove towards the parking garage, arriving just in time to catch a shuttle to Concourse B where the United Airlines flight to Washington DC should have been boarding. The gate was strangely vacant and passengers were crowded around the counters. They had been in such a hurry that they hadn’t noticed that no planes were boarding or taking off.
“What’s going on?” Mitch asked a traveler at the back of the crowd.
“All flights have been delayed by the dust storm. A plane from California barely made it in. Some others weren’t so lucky. Take a look at the news on the monitors.”
This was not good. How could this be happening? Mitch thought to himself. Just yesterday it had been his face up on those monitors telling the world that this comet was no cause for alarm and that we should be in for some spectacularly beautiful sunsets. Astronomers a century ago caused great panic when they announced that comets contain poisonous cyanogen gas and that earth would pass through the tail of Haley’s comet. People panicked, nothing happened and astronomers learned not to share some things.
Not at all certain that he wouldn’t be recognized, and not wanting to explain himself, Mitch ducked into a lounge area to think. Yes, he knew that this comet was different. For one thing it was bigger than any comet he had ever seen. It was almost the size of a small planet. In fact, nobody had been able to get good measurements because of the way it was approaching the sun. They were hoping to make those observations today, but he had to catch the flight to the conference. No, this was just not good at all.
“I tried to tell you, but you just wouldn’t listen.” It was Manny again. Mitch had forgotten about him with all the excitement of the cancelled flights and the news of the dust storm displayed on the airport monitors. Manny sat down next to him at the bar. “That’s not a comet. It’s a planet and it’s going to cause a whole lot more destruction before it gets to where it’s going. You can warn the people and help them prepare.”
“Prepare for what?” Mitch exclaimed. “Manny, you’re not a scientist. You are not an astronomer. You know nothing about the world we live in. We spend our lives making observations and making sense of the things that fly around out there in space. You spend your days digging old myths out of books and manuscripts that contain nothing but folk tales. There’s no precedent for all your conjecture and theory. Your ideas of an ancient polar configuration of planets could not possibly be correct.”
It didn’t look like the falling dust was going to let up soon and Manny had wanted to talk to Mitch for a long time. This had turned out to be quite fortuitous that Mitch just happened to show up when the plane went off the end of the runway. Although Manny’s wife had died years earlier, he had tried to stay close to his daughter in California. He was very proud of her. She was a research scientist and worked at the UC Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. But she didn’t go in much for his theories either.
Manny was much calmer now. He sensed an opportunity to finally make his case to someone who had the background to understand what he had researched, discovered and written about over the years. He threw out an easy question. “If I can tell you what’s going to happen next and then what’s going to happen after that, will you at least consider that there may be something to these myths and theories that can help us?”
Mitch sighed. “Go ahead old man. It doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere right away. I think I already heard enough of your ideas at the last conference but I’ll listen just this one time. Hopefully they’ll let us board the plane soon. What have you got to say? If this dust doesn’t let up in five minutes, I’m going back to Boulder.”
Manny pulled a picture of his daughter out of the old worn leather briefcase that he always carried with him. It contained his charts and diagrams that he used to explain his ideas to anyone who would listen. The flight attendant told him to leave it behind when they jumped down the emergency slide but he took it anyway. “Do you see this picture of my daughter, Cynthia? She’s just like you – a scientist. She’s a seismologist – graduated from Cal Tech. She doesn’t believe me either, but she’s about to get a lot more data to study over the next few weeks than she has had in her 27 short years of life.”
As a scientist, Mitch didn’t believe in love at first sight, but there was something in those intelligent blue eyes that stared back at him from the photo. He was surprised at how deeply he felt emotions stirring within him at the sight of the beautiful girl. He had suppressed any kind of romantic feelings over the years as he dedicated himself to his work. Wait a minute…this was just a silly picture. What was he thinking?
Manny continued, “As the planet gets closer to earth, this dust we’re experiencing will be mixed with ash. Besides bringing jets down out of the sky, the dust will mix with the water supplies of the earth and cause them to be polluted. It will kill fish and will be a real problem to major metropolitan areas that will soon be without water. The ash will cause much sickness and death to anyone who is exposed to it. They must stay indoors.
“After a little while this dust is going to turn to hail sized pebbles. That will make some racket when it comes down. It will knock out power and communications systems all over the world. It will also take out most of our satellites. Think about how that will affect our way of life. Then we’ll pass though some sheets of petroleum-based material that will mix with the pebble-sized hail and catch fire as it falls through the atmosphere. Spontaneous fires will erupt all over the world, burning forests and cities alike. This is not unprecedented by the way. It was the cause of the Peshtigo fires of 1871.
“The falling debris will get larger and larger until it comes down like artillery shells. It will last for days and will wipe out the crops of the earth, burning them all up. About this time the earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic activity will begin in earnest. Nobody has ever felt earthquakes like the ones that are going to be caused when the planet comes close enough that the gravitational pull rips the tectonic plates apart with a force that is indescribable. Our planet will be covered in clouds and smoke and ash that get thicker and hotter by the hour making it more and more difficult to breathe.”
“Stop!” shouted Mitch angrily. “I’ve heard enough of your doomsday prophecies. This is just a comet coming by. It’s not going to cause the end of the world and you can’t go around telling people this kind of stuff. It will cause pandemonium and mass panic. Where did you come up with all this crap? Oh wait, don’t tell me. You read it in some ancient manuscript that you believe tells the story of what really happened sometime in our past. Well, I don’t believe it and you have no evidence for all this nonsense.”
“I didn’t say it would cause the end of the world,” Manny replied. It will just cause a whole lot of destruction. The planet is not going to hit us. It is going to come up alongside us and overtake us in the same orbit around the sun. Eventually it will come so close that the magnetic poles of the two planets will align. Because the oncoming planet is larger than the earth, they will rotate at a much slower speed. When that happens, you had better hope that you are not living anywhere north of a large body of water.”
“I know I’m going to regret this, but dare I ask why?” Mitch questioned.
Manny was almost gleeful as he finished his description of the events of the coming weeks and months. “You know that right now, the centrifugal force of the earth causes a large bulge of water at the equator. When the earth slows down, where is that water going to go? Back to the poles, of course! Boy I would love to see that view from space when it happens. Think of all the water in the Gulf of Mexico. Anybody who lives in the states around the Mississippi river is going to be wiped out by onrushing water. And the same goes for the Northern California coast and the Northeastern seaboard.”
“Are you through? Mitch asked incredulously as he stood up to leave.
“No, but that’s enough for now. I wouldn’t want to overwhelm you,” said Manny. Just concentrate on what I said first about this dust turning to pebbles and the possibility of fire from the sky. You can read about all the rest of the stuff in my books. It’s all there. It’s just too bad that you haven’t read them. You could help save people.”
Mitch was sorry that he had agreed to listen to Manny. He felt like he should say something to make it clear that he never wanted see this old man again but just then a news report on the airport monitor caught his eye. Everyone was crowding around to see the live video feed of an incredible scene coming from Seattle. It looked like heavy hail was falling; only it wasn’t hail. It was sand and pebbles falling in sheets like rain. But the most shocking thing was that some of it was coming down with fire. Yes, it was fire from the sky, something he and his colleagues had said many times could never happen.
Within a few moments it was gone, but not before several fires had broken out in the city. Looking away from the TV and out the windows of the airport, Mitch could see that the red dust had finally stopped falling. Flights would soon be boarding and leaving.
“That’s just a sample of what we’re in for,” said Manny, at his side again. “The dust and hail will be back and will be more widespread with each passing hour. We’ve got a small window before travel becomes impossible. I’m going to that conference to try to make a difference. It would sure help if you could introduce me and let me present evidence from the historical record. It’s all right here,” he said as he patted his briefcase.
Mitch took a long look at Manny although he was still skeptical. He said nothing as they got in line to board the plane. He was thinking. It would be career suicide to associate himself with Manny Volynski. He could play it safe, walk away right now, and go back to his telescope at the university. In light of the events of the day, his colleagues would understand if he wasn’t at the conference. But if what Manny said was true, then what would it matter? A career is nothing compared to saving humanity.
“Come on, Mr. Volynski. I want to look at those documents in your briefcase. Let’s go save the world and that beautiful daughter of yours.”
“I didn’t think you noticed,” smiled Manny, as they boarded the plane.
Copyright (c) Tim Malone 2009 – Painting of meteoroids (c) iStockphoto