Chapter Fifteen

Over the last few weeks I had been finding it difficult to get to sleep in the heat but that night, with the temperature having increased further still and the thought of losing Samantha in my mind almost constantly, it was proving impossible. I lay naked on my bed in the half-light, tossing and turning restlessly for what felt like hours. As the time approached three o'clock, I switched on the television set in the vain hope that the flickering light and noise from some inane late-night programme would help me to lose consciousness.

Of the four channels that I had access to on my set, three had closed down for the night. The one remaining station had nothing better to offer than a cheap, shabbily made discussion programme. Although the subject had originally been something else entirely, the members of the audience could not help themselves from continually referring to the incredible atmospheric conditions which I was trying unsuccessfully to forget. There seemed little point in watching the programme at first but I was steadily drawn in as I watched the audience fighting and squabbling amongst themselves. The host of the debate seemed intent on whipping the studio into an uncontrollable frenzy and he soon succeeded.

The theme of the programme seemed to have originally centred around changes to licensing hours and laws but, in the confusion, that had been quickly forgotten. Now two men stood face to face in the centre of a garish studio set, pointing accusing fingers and shouting incomprehensibly at each other. One of the men made a casual comment aimed at the other and his adversary quickly replied with a well-aimed right hook to the jaw. The first man lay stunned on the ground in front of a shocked audience for a moment before quickly jumping up and leaping onto his attacker. Within seconds, the easily provoked fighting had spread like an angry bushfire through a parched forest as grown men and women hurled flailing fists and spiteful words at each other. The terrified and the pacifists in the crowd followed the example of the show's host as he dived off the set and ran for cover in the hidden depths of the television studio. Amazed, I watched for a few more seconds before reaching out and fumbling for the control to switch off the set.

I sat in the suddenly silent darkness and tried to comprehend what I had just seen. As the heat had dried out the unsuspecting world, so it also seemed to have drained all patience and understanding from a high percentage of the planet's population. All it had taken was a single spark to set light to the whole of the television studio and I realised that it must have been similar emotions which had caused the violence we had seen in the city earlier.

The pointlessness of the violence made it a hundred times more frustrating - where was the sense in punching the man next to you when he had as little control over events as you yourself did? There was nothing that anybody could do and I saw little point in arguing over something which could not be proved or disproved until it was too late.

I lay back down on my warm and wet, sweat-soaked bed and pulled a single light sheet up over my body. My eyes slowly began to become accustomed to the low gloom again and I looked around my bedroom. Outside there was an almost constant soundtrack of muffled bangs, crashes and screams and, as I screwed my eyes tightly shut, I wondered if it would be worth waking up again in the morning.

I eventually managed to fall asleep for a while but even that brief respite was interrupted by a dream:

I was sitting at my kitchen table. It took a while for it to register that it was my kitchen as the room appeared to have changed so much. The walls were dirty, dusty and brown and empty cupboards and shelves hung wearily from the walls.

Dressed only in filthy cotton trousers and a pair of battered running shoes, I stood up and walked towards the sink. My throat was dry and I had an incredible thirst which I needed desperately to quench. The draining board was stacked high with soiled crockery and cutlery and was illuminated by a brilliant, almost incandescent light which flooded through the broken glass of the kitchen window.

I pushed a pile of plates to one side and managed to find a relatively clean glass. I held it up to the tap and turned the handle slowly. Stiff and resistant at first, the tap gradually began to turn and a hesitant trickle of brown water spilled out of the faucet. As quickly as it had begun, the water stopped flowing again and the plumbing of the house groaned loudly to let me know that it was as dry as the world outside.

Desperate to find something to drink, I walked towards the back door which creaked open as I approached, letting more brilliant light pour inside. I stepped outside and immediately had to shield my unprotected eyes from the blazing heat and light which flooded my senses. My exposed skin prickled and I could feel it quickly burn under the vicious rays of the raging sun.

The garden was as dead and dirty as the house from which I had just emerged and all that remained of my fish pond was a dry pit in the middle of the starved lawn. At the bottom of the pit, the rotting carcasses of my pet fish baked on the dried, cracked mud surface. The world was silent at first, but I slowly became aware of sounds of movement from the front of the building. I crept closer to the shadows of my home and stalked along its side to investigate the commotion.

The road in front of my house had become a single, uninterrupted queue of people. Shabbily dressed and slow moving, they stumbled in exhaustion together along the street like drops of water trickling down a drying stream. Occasionally, someone would fall to the ground but their plight would be ignored. The people behind them would step over their inconvenient bodies or, if they had enough energy, kick them to the side of the street like a piece of discarded rubbish. Save for the shuffling of hundreds of pairs of feet on the rough ground, the people were silent, suffering quietly as the sun's evil rays burnt and charred their tender, exposed flesh.

Instinctively, and without realising what I was doing, I joined the queue. My arrival was unnoticed and unacknowledged and the pace of the walk was uncomfortable. The movements of the masses were slow and forced but no-one had the energy to move any faster. All around me, the people were as dishevelled, ragged and parched as me. They seemed to drag themselves along, shuffling their feet step by painful step, and most were unable even to lift their heads.

The line of people (which was between ten and fifteen bodies deep in places and which seemed neither to have a beginning or an end) stumbled towards the end of the road in which I lived. There, the queue joined a street which was unfamiliar and which I was sure I had never seen before. Relentlessly, I was swept onto the new road which seemed to be fed from all angles by queues similar to the one which I had become a part of. From every side poured thousands upon thousands of weary, slothful walkers who all headed in one mysterious direction. Despite the effort of the walk, I managed to lift my head for a moment and saw that the route I followed led directly into the dilapidated, burnt-out shell of a dead city.

About a mile ahead of me, huge, grey concrete towers stabbed the brilliant blue sky and I turned my head away once more as the radiant sun rose high above the tallest and most central of the skyscrapers. The sound of footsteps increased as hundreds of thousands of tired walkers converged on the ruined city. The noise reached a rumbling crescendo before being suddenly replaced by an empty silence.

The queue stopped moving. I did not notice the sudden change of pace until I had walked into the person in front of me and the person behind had collided with my back, but the lack of movement was definite and inexplicable. Slowly, and with a considerable amount of effort, I and millions of other people lifted our exhausted heads up to look towards the dusty, dead remains of the city.

My eyes burned with pain but it proved impossible to tear my attention away from the town and the sky above it. The buildings rose from the ground like the meat-stripped ribs of a rotting animal carcass. The crowd stood in stunned silence as, from its high commanding position, the sun began to burn brighter still, to glow with an unimaginable luminosity and then, finally, to light the whole sky with an agonising brilliance. A terrifying wind settled suddenly on the millions of people, blowing many off their feet and down onto the dry ground. Unmoved, I lifted my hand to shield my eyes from the brightness and screamed in agony as the world became white and the flesh was burnt away from my body.

It was five o'clock when I woke. The single sheet which I had pulled over my body in the night was soaked with sweat and the air in my poorly ventilated bedroom was close, warm and choking. Slowly in the darkness, I sat up and tried to settle myself after the shock of the nightmare dream which still burned clearly in my mind. After a few quiet, calming minutes had passed, I stood up and felt my way through the gloom to the bathroom. Once there I filled the sink with cool, clear water and held my face under the surface until I emerged free of sleep and having escaped completely from the confusion of the dream.

I dried my face with a soft towel and looked at myself in the mirror. In the harsh electric light I appeared almost unrecognisable and I had to rest against the bath for support. For the best part of an hour I stopped there, silent and shaking.

I eventually stumbled back to bed but there was little to be gained from staying there - the bed was wet and uncomfortable and I had virtually no chance of getting back to sleep again. Instead, I went downstairs and made a drink to ease the burning dryness of my throat. For a while I did little but wait for the morning sun to rise and watch it from the comfort of my armchair. I thought about switching on the television or the radio but I decided against it - I felt sure that I would only be subjected to more of the chaos I had already seen and heard or that I would be reminded of a normal world which was long gone but which I prayed would soon return.

At seven o'clock, I went back upstairs to wash and dress myself. I stood in front of the wardrobe and automatically reached for one of my work suits. I quickly replaced it and chose instead to put on a light pair of jeans and a T-shirt. I was tempted to collect a few things and head for Samantha's house but I resisted the idea. Although I had used it as little more than a convenient excuse yesterday, there really were things at the office which I did need to collect. I decided to drive there quickly before getting ready to follow Sam later in the day.

Throughout the long, early hours of the morning, I was constantly haunted by the images from my dream. The most frightening aspect of the nightmare vision was the fact that, if the heat and energy pulses continued to increase as they had been doing, such a terrible fate might really await the world.

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