Ruth and Paul threw themselves into a hollow, shutting their eyes, as the flash burst across the sky. Then they tensed and covered their ears in anticipation of the imminent explosion. The shockwave blasted over the ridge a few seconds later, shaking the bushes and ripping leaves off some trees in a nearby copse.
Ruth had seen it first - a bright spot among the high cirrus clouds, silently swelling to a dazzling glare as it approached the earth. The day had been warm and pleasant, with the optimistic smell and sounds of Spring. Ruth ventured out in shorts and a summer-weight shirt and tied back her dark hair to let the air to her skin. She was ready for warm weather and some energetic climbs. Paul wore walking trousers and a bright yellow tee shirt, with a broad-brimmed hat to protect the top of his head, which his hair no longer covered. They had packed their rucksacks with everything they might need for the predictable risks of a country walk.
"I'm going to the top to see what damage it's done"
Paul straightened up and began clambering out of the hollow.
"I'm coming too"
They mounted the hill together and stared, lost for words. Three miles away a mushroom cloud blossomed from the dark centre of what used to be Brighton. A ring of fire was working out from the base of the smoke column, but there were few complete buildings left for the fire to consume. Wherever they looked they could see flattened offices, houses, trees - proud vertical lines replaced by blasted horizontals.
Paul looked grim.
"We might have been killed if we'd been on top of the ridge. The after-blast destroyed more than the initial explosion. I can't see how anyone could have survived on his side of the Downs."
Ruth shaded her eyes with her hand.
"Look down there … I can see someone on the hill."
She began running.
Mark lay face downwards, with one arm twisted awkwardly at his
side and blood oozing from a gash on his forehead. He was on the
exposed side of the hill, but partly protected in another hollow.
"OK, I've got a first aid kit- we'll see what we can do for you."
Ruth was rummaging in her rucksack.
"What happened?", asked Mark.
"It was a meteor… we saw it coming and threw ourselves down before it hit. The shockwave must have caught you from behind."
"I thought it was a missile attack. That's why I was keeping my head down. I've never heard anything so loud - ouch."
"Sorry, I'll try not to hurt you too much, but this arm's broken, and your forehead is going to need some cleaning up. We don't have any pain killers, I'm afraid."
At the sound of a distant siren Paul looked around and saw the
first sign of rescue activities as a flashing blue light approached
from the Worthing direction.
"They won't get very close with the state of those roads."
On the approaches to the town they could see piles of overturned and disabled vehicles with a few signs of movement indicating survivors. One of the flyovers looked precarious and there was no safe route for emergency vehicles to reach the stricken town. Dotted on the hillside below them they noticed motionless grey bundles where sheep had been grazing minutes earlier.
Paul helped Mark up, and used his rucksack to prop him in a sitting
"You had a lucky escape."
"Yes, I'd only just come over that little ridge when the blast
hit me and threw me on the ground."
Ruth poured Mark some coffee from her flask.
"Oh, thanks. If that was a meteor, it must have been enormous to make an explosion like that."
Paul stood up and stared at the devastation.
"I doubt if it was bigger than a small car. It's the force of impact that matters and that thing was travelling straight down at several times the speed of sound. That's why you didn't hear it coming. But I can't think what the odds would be against it hitting a major town."
The fire was still spreading outwards among the crippled buildings, but the burnt out centre was already clearing to reveal an enormous crater. There was just enough breeze to blow the smoke out over the sea; just enough ventilation to keep the flames burning brightly. Emergency vehicles, unable to reach the town, were parking on the approach roads in helpless groups, their lights flashing forlornly. The three watchers heard the clatter of helicopter rotors approaching and felt very small in the face of an unimaginable emergency. At another time, they would have been able to call an ambulance for Mark, or even a helicopter. Now he was an insignificant problem on the edge of a major catastrophe.