Chapter Twenty-Four

My sleep was deep and sound and yet was interrupted by unwanted dreams.

I walked along a dusty dirt track towards the parched remains of a little village. The sky was a clear, unblemished blue and the sun burnt down with a vicious heat. I had not thought it possible that the power of the dying star could have increased any more but the incredible force and light which poured down from the brilliant yellow orb scorched my face and made my flesh tighten and burn.

There was no escape from the cruel sun - there were no trees to hide underneath and the homes in the village were still a little way ahead. I had no real alternative but to keep walking towards the motley collection of tired, dry buildings. My head dropped with exhaustion and I looked down to the ground. My feet were bare and, as they dragged along the ground, they pulled up clouds of loose dust behind them. The gravel and grit scratched and cut the skin on my soles but the pain faded into insignificance alongside the burning of the sun and my overpowering fatigue.

Each step that I took along the rough ground added more and more to the agony which I felt. It was all that I could do to keep lifting up each foot in turn and I was beginning to rely on gravity rather than any other conscious force to pull them back down and keep me moving along. My mouth was as dry as coarse sandpaper and the pain in my throat made it almost impossible to swallow. Nevertheless, I forced myself on towards the collection of battered buildings and I felt, for some strange and unsure reason, as if something there was calling me. For some inexplicable reason, I was sure that Samantha was waiting for me in the village and it was that feeling alone which gave me the strength to carry on. I knew that it would not be long before I was in her arms again and that when I had found her I would be able to rest.

I stumbled on past the first dry buildings of the village. The little settlement was nothing more than a collection of wooden houses and shops which were separated and split in two by the road which ran through the village's centre. Footpaths led away through dead, parched gardens to the front steps of hot houses. Most doors and windows were propped open and, even from a fair distance away, I was able to see the occupants of each of the buildings I passed sitting in their homes in great discomfort. The only part of their suffocating bodies which moved were their tired eyes as they stared outside and followed my unsteady progress into the village. The people seemed to be as exhausted and as desperate as I was, able only to sit still and to do their best to survive the heat.

Two rows of similar houses stretched out on each side of me and, in between them, the dirt track reached out. It might once have been a busy road but today it was nothing more than a yellow and orange strip of dust and gravel, barely discernible from the remains of the dead grass verges which lined it either side. The rows of buildings ran on for about a hundred yards before the road ended suddenly, its progress halted inexplicably by a large wooden house which straddled the pathway and cut off the village from the rest of the dehydrated world beyond.

It was like an old western film - the dusty ground, the rows of tall buildings and the blinding, relentless sunlight. I stopped walking for a moment and took in a couple of deep, calming breaths of the scorched, moistureless air. I turned around and saw that another building had somehow appeared behind me, trapping me in the middle of a village square. Through the gaps between the buildings I could see all of the way out to the horizon where vast plains of sand stretched out endlessly - there were no hills, dunes or other interruptions to the eternal sea of yellow.

I took another step forward and tripped over a rock which lay at my feet. For several startled moments I lay like a turtle stranded on its back, unable to move and with my exposed stomach baking in agony. The sun scorched my skin and the dirt and gravel on the ground tore into my tender flesh as I writhed in frightened surprise, trying desperately to stand up again. I scrambled to my feet and brushed away the dust from my sticky, burning skin.

I was disorientated and looked up at the large building ahead which straddled the road. I was not sure if it was the same building that I had been walking towards or the one that I was walking away from. I stared as the door began to slowly open. An unexpected sixth sense told me that it was Samantha and I broke into a painful sprint to try and reach her. When I was no more than fifty metres away from the house, she stepped out of the shadows and, when she saw who it was that ran towards her, she left the protection of the shadowy home to meet me in the exposed village square. We sprinted towards each other as quickly as our tired legs would allow but no matter how hard I tried or how quickly I ran, Samantha did not seem to be getting any closer.

With the absolute final reserves of energy that I could summon from my tired body, I struggled to breach the gap between us and to make contact with my love. She was, eventually, only two or three metres away and I stretched out my tired arms to hold her. Just as our fingertips were about to touch, a wind of extraordinary power and unbelievable force suddenly blew from nowhere, knocking me down to the ground. The phenomenal heat and the strength of the gale far surpassed anything that I had ever felt before and I fought to lift my head to see Samantha screaming out in fear. Her words were inaudible and she reached out for me as she struggled to stay stood upright against the monumental force of the wind. I pulled myself across the rough ground and, shielding my eyes from the dust which swirled through the twisting air, I managed to stand up.

As I reached out to hold the girl I loved, a light of terrifying strength shone and I felt my skin beginning to burn and to peel from my body. Despite the brilliance, I could not close my eyes and I watched everything with abject horror- I saw the ground, the buildings, the air and then Samantha burst into flames.

I woke up with a terrified start and sat bolt upright on the pile of straw, drenched with an uncomfortable and strangely cooling sweat. It took a couple of moments for the fact that I had been dreaming to sink in and, when I realised that the world still had a little time left, I felt an incredible sense of relief. That was short lived, however, as I lifted my head towards the wooden doors of the barn and saw, through the gap between them, that brilliant sunlight was flooding in from outside.

Within moments I had collected up the few belongings that I still carried and was running away from the barn along the dusty track which led back towards the road. I passed a farmer who had just left the farmhouse and he looked at me with a mixture of surprise and bewilderment on his face as I staggered past him, already breathless.

I was furious with myself for having slept so soundly for so long and I struggled to find my watch in the pockets of my rucksack. It gave the time as twenty to four and I cursed it for having finally given up for good when I had most needed it.

I hoped that there was still enough time to reach Samantha. Although the sun was already high in the clear sky, I felt sure that it was still early in the morning. It would serve me right if it was too late but I knew that I had to keep going - I couldn't stop or take any more unnecessary risks. This was the last chance I would have to see Samantha before we died.

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