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The walls of the rune hut, as Adam had called it, shuddered under the onslaught of the tropical gale but otherwise stayed firm. The storm was subsiding, but very slowly indeed, and occasionally a gust still hurled itself at them, as though warning them not to get too complacent.
"How long have you two had this place then?" said Joby, lying up close to Kieran on his bed-roll. The others were all heaped on the old bed in the corner like a pile of a coats at a party.
"You never brought me here".
"I have now. Go to sleep".
In the morning an ominous silence had settled over the island. The birds hadn't returned, and their absence was noticeable. The earth squelched in the dampness, even the tropical sun hadn't dried it out immediately as it normally did after a downpour. Adam circled the outside of the hut, taking in the flattened ferns below him, and trying to see through the binoculars how far the ocean had managed to penetrate the land. From this distance though it was impossible to tell.
He felt dizzy with tiredness, the same kind of taut and unpleasant sensation he used to feel when he first began drinking heavily on an empty stomach. The walk from the beach to the rune hut the night before had seemed interminable and frightening. Once they had reached the hut he had collapsed on the stained mattress between Lonts and Ransey, and fallen asleep immediately.
"You look like you could do with some more kip", said Ransey, who was now sitting in the doorway of the hut "Why don't you pop back in and have another couple of hours? We won't be going anywhere. I'm going to need at least another couple of days before I can finally crack all the workings of the key-card".
"I suppose we need to check the air-buggy for further damage though", said Adam.
"The others can do that".
"Whilst the poor old git catches up on his sleep I suppose?"
"Don't be so stubborn", said Kieran, appearing behind Ransey "And do as you're told".
"But what about Lonts?"
"We'll take him with us. He doesn't need bottle-feeding you know!"
"Structure's still sound", said Hillyard, gloomily "It's just the cockpit window really that's gone, where Yentzi got bounced out of it".
"But that's important surely?" said Kieran, sitting in the front passenger seat "How are we going to manage without that?"
"Keep at a low speed, and fly low", said Hillyard "It won't be comfortable, but as far as I'm concerned these things are never ideal".
"I don't see how the hell we're going to get all the way back to the City in this thing", said Joby, stooping down low as he paced around inside the back of the buggy "I don't think it'll make it".
"It won't", said Hillyard "It'll be enough just to get us to dry land, then we can find our own way from there".
"It's still a bloody long way", said Kieran "It could take us years to get back. There's about six million miles-worth of desert in-between".
"I don't think it's all desert", said Hillyard "There are some areas of civilisation, few and far between I know, but we might be able to pick up some form of transport here and there".
"How long would it take us if we had to walk it entirely, from the first bit of land to the City?" said Kieran.
"About two-to-three years at a wild guess".
"Not exactly going to have Gabriel quaking in his boots yet then am I?" Kieran exclaimed "Talk about The Long March!"
Afterwards they went down to the waterfall to collect fresh supplies of water and to have a wash. They had got considerably muddy on the previous day's walk, and the dried-on mud took a lot of effort to shift. Kieran finished first, and went to doze on the bank whilst the others splashed around.
He fell asleep for a while with the sun on his eyes, and then woke up suddenly, feeling a great urge to scream. Someone had been pressing down on his face. All he could see were huge black eyes staring out of a horribly disfigured face. He let go of restraint and did scream, screamed wildly in fact until Joby got to him. He couldn't stop screaming until he was reassured by Joby's grey eyes hovering anxiously in front of his face.
"Gabriel", Kieran wept "He was here".
"He can't be, Kiel. He's at the other end of the earth", said Joby "You've been dreaming again that's all".
"He was here, Joby!" Kieran cried "Pressing down on me. Oh shit, I can't stop shaking. Hold me please".
"It was just a dream", said Joby, holding him close "There is no way Gabriel can be here, not unless he's got a flying carpet or something!"
"He was so ugly Joby, so hideous", Kieran shivered "Not at all like how we saw him at Mundaba Heights. That was just a disguise, cosmetic camouflage. But the eyes were the same, black and fanatical. I'll never forget it. It's how I imagined the Gorgon must have looked. Perhaps I'm turning to stone, am I?"
"If you don't stop going on I'll have to give you a smack round the chops", said Joby "And I don't want to, so pack it in. Gabriel isn't the Gorgon, and he isn't here. You dreamt about him, that's all. It's this place I spect, it's enough to give anyone the creeps".
"I'm sorry", said Kieran, and took a few gulps of breath to steady his nerves "I haven't frightened Lonts have I?"
"A blade of grass moving would frighten Lonts! No, he's alright. Hillyard's scrubbing him down. They can't hear us very well over the sound of the waterfall", Joby sighed "I wish we could do something to stop you getting these dreams. They're turning you into a bag of nerves".
"That's what Gabriel wants, Joby. I wish we'd found out more when we were at Mundaba Heights. I wish we knew what was the matter with Gabriel. Can you think of any clues or impressions you got when you were there as to what's wrong with him?"
"Only that habit of his of disappearing into the sewers at night. But I haven't really got a clue what that meant".
"I'll never forget the sight of him in this dream", said Kieran "It was the worst one ever. He wasn't just disfigured, it was as if his whole face had been eaten or burnt away, leaving just the eyes, like a Virus victim".
"He wasn't melting this time then?" said Joby.
"You really think they are just dreams don't you?"
"Look Kiel, we've met Gabriel. Unfortunately. We've been up close to him. I won't say he looked normal, but he didn't look like a freak either. And he wasn't wearing make-up or a mask when we were at Mundaba Heights, so there can't be anything disfigured about him".
"But I think there is!" Kieran protested "He had no face!"
"You were dreaming", Joby insisted "Now come on, let's get back to Adam. Sitting around here won't do you any good. I'll give the others a shout".
For the rest of the day Ransey gave them regular bulletins on how the progress on the key-card was coming along. Hillyard viewed his increasing optimism with increasing dismay, and it added to the general atmosphere of uneasiness within the hut. Adam gloomily began slicing pineapples for supper. Suddenly Lonts started pacing the floor restlessly, and Adam knew from experience what this was a sign of.
"Joby, could you take Lonts for a walk?" he said, without looking up from his food preparation.
"Why can't we just shove him outside the door like we normally do?" said Joby.
"Because I think he wants a crap".
"Well just send him out. He isn't going to go very far".
"Joby, don't argue. Anything could happen to him if we sent him out alone".
"With any luck", said Joby, sourly.
"Have I done something to upset you? Oh alright. God, I get all the fun jobs".
Lonts was taken down into the ferns, and Joby waited impatiently whilst he performed his duties.
"It's just like having a dog having you around", said Joby "Except it'd be more fun having a dog. It'd be better company".
"You're fed up aren't you?" said Lonts, standing up again.
"Mind your own business".
"It's because Adam sent you out with me. I know why he did, it's because he wants to be alone with Kieran".
"Hillyard and Ransey are there", Joby protested.
"They don't count though. It's you he wants to get rid of, he's fed up with being in a three and wants Kieran to himself. You're just in the way".
"I don't know what comes over you, dickhead", Joby exclaimed "Every few weeks you start stirring things. There must be a full moon due or something".
"Don't you believe me?"
"No. I know Adam better than that".
"Oh", said Lonts, and put his thumb in his mouth.
"And I'm not going to start listening to a loony like you anyway".
"I-I don't know why I said it", said Lonts, sounding distressed "I don't know why, I ..."
"Come on", Joby grabbed Lonts by his nightshirt and pulled him along.
"I'm sorry, Joby. You're my friend. I didn't mean it".
"And you think I don't know you by now anyway?" said Joby, and glanced anxiously up at the sky "It's clouding over, I think it's going to rain again. Let's get back".
"There's somebody watching us".
"Oh it's probably only the bogeyman, come to get you for telling such lies".
"Over there, Joby. Look!"
Joby caught a glimpse of a snatch of white amongst the ferns in the far distance. He suddenly felt very afraid and a long way from the others.
"What is it, Joby?"
"I don't know. Now don't mess me around. Let's get back".
When they got back to the hut both Joby and Lonts were babbling about seeing white figures outside, but found the others unresponsive and preoccupied with their own matters.
"Nobody listens to me", said Joby, throwing himself onto his bed-roll "Everyone thinks I'm a fool. That's why I keep being set to mind the lunatic".
"That is a contradiction in terms", said Adam "If you were a fool I wouldn't trust you with minding him. And don't refer to Lonts as the lunatic. It's not kind".
"My turn to go and shake hands with an old friend", said Hillyard, leaving the hut with an almost ceremonial air.
"It's like a public convenience round here", said Joby.
"I thought you might think of Lonts as a little brother", said Adam, and was rewarded with a look of great disgust.
"The last thing I want is another bloody nutty brother", said Joby.
Hillyard was gone some while and when he finally returned he was practically weeping with despair. It took several minutes for the others to calm him down enough to get any sense out of him.
"What happened to you?" said Adam.
"We've got to get off this fucking island", Hillyard wailed "We're trapped here. There's things all around us".
"Hillyard!" Adam snapped "Talk sense".
"I saw this thing standing up near the waterfall. It looked like one of those zombies. It was all sort of decayed-looking, and really pale, as though it had no blood in it".
"I told you we saw something", said Joby "Nobody ever listens to me".
"Shut up, Joby", said Adam "Did it do anything, Hillyard? Move towards you, shout at you?"
"No, but it was looking at me all knowing like. As though it knew for sure that it was going to get me, and so it could afford to wait".
"That's rubbish, Hillyard", said Adam "You couldn't possibly have sensed that".
"You said yourself that you felt we weren't alone here", said Joby.
"I'm not disputing the fact that you lot saw someone", said Adam "I just think Hillyard's reading far too much into it. I don't believe we're in any danger as long as we keep ourselves to ourselves and don't go trying to smoke them out. After all, we've lived here over a year and stayed unscathed. Now calm down Hillyard, I don't expect you to go to pieces on me".
"But what are we going to do?" said Hillyard.
"We are going to get a good night's sleep that's what we're going to do, and tomorrow we're going to see if what Ransey has done to the key-card actually works".
"And if it doesn't?"
"Well, how good are you at building a raft!"
"What do you think they saw?" said Ransey, quietly.
In the dim light from the window Adam could see the blurred outline of his face, looking strangely vulnerable without his spectacles. Ransey was lying on the left-hand side of him. The rest of the hut was filled with snores and heavy breathing.
"I haven't a clue", said Adam "But I'll admit it makes me nervous. Even so, as I said no one's approached us at all over the past year".
"Yea, but we stuck to our end of the island then didn't we?" said Ransey "The beach, and the bit directly in-land. We weren't any kind of a threat to them. Perhaps they're suspicious as to what we're doing up here".
"With any luck we'll be away from here by this time tomorrow. Do you think the key-card will work?"
"By all accounts it'd better", said Ransey, gravely.
"Very reassuring Ransey, I must say".
"I always find it's best to be upfront with people".
Hillyard erupted into a fit of coughing from the other side of Lonts, and turned over heavily. He didn't wake up though.
"I have to take notice when he gets so upset", said Adam "It's not like Hillyard otherwise. I wish the last resident of this place had left more clues. They obviously knew something, hence the runic symbols and the ash branch".
"I think my heart's beating too fast", said Ransey, nervously.
"Mine's been doing that at night for years. I live in mortal terror of it suddenly stopping".
"You'll have to pick a less stressful lifestyle".
"I thought I had, living on this island. How wrong can you be!"
The rain, which had come on during the night, continued the following day. The gales had returned, and the whole island felt as though it was being battered and flattened into a new shape. The men made their way to the stranded air-buggy, and Ransey climbed into the cockpit with grave solemnity. He sat punching the control panel until the relevant lights sprang into action. He felt as though he could breathe again, and he gestured excitedly at the others that all was well.
The rest of them were standing saturated in the rain, but immediately started shouting and laughing with relief. In the din Joby didn't hear the slithering footsteps behind him in the bushes, but he did manage a shrill scream as a flaky hand was placed around his neck. Kieran beat off the ghoulish-looking creature that had appeared, and Hillyard stabbed at it with his hunting-knife. It cried out in rage and flayed its arms about, making wild grabs at anyone it could clumsily locate. From the skin which had grown over one eye, and the festering sores on its body it was obvious that this mutant was in the advanced stages of the Virus, for so long now believed to have been effectively contained in the Valley of Freaks.
"Don't stand there fighting with it!" Ransey roared, impatiently "Get in!"
They hauled themselves into the back of the air-buggy, and managed to slam the door just as the creature hurled itself against the bodywork, hammering on it with its fists like a child in a tantrum.
"Get moving, Ransey!" said Adam "A friend of his has just appeared on the other side!"
"I'm trying", said Ransey, through gritted teeth "But it's difficult taking off from a flat surface. These things need a slope or a drop to work best".
"Well you haven't got either, so get on with it!"
"Oh fucking hell, there's millions of the bastards", said Joby.
A whole legion of the Virus victims had appeared out of the bushes on all sides. They were all wearing the remnants of what seemed to be a white uniform, now tattered and stained beyond all recognition. All were in the final stages of the dreadful sickness, all so deformed and diseased that they were barely recognisable as human. They had spotted the gaping hole where the cockpit window should have been and were now plunging at it frenziedly. Ransey fought off all the hands and whipped the air-buggy forwards. It suddenly skimmed along the grass, crashing a course through the bushes.
Eventually they left the ground behind them, and flew up into the sky, blinded by the rain which drove in through the glassless window.
"We might get a bit of turbulence", Ransey joked, weakly.
"Just find some land, Ransey", said Adam.
He looked below him at the island which now lay far underneath. Paradise was being buffeted by another storm. It was barely recognisable as the place which had offered them a haven for so long.
They were frozen, chilled to the marrow. Although they had flown out of the cloudburst, and were keeping to a fairly low altitude the temperature had plummeted inside the air-buggy, exposed as it was to the cruel elements. Kieran had climbed into the front seat and strapped himself in next to Ransey. Adam had made Joby and Lonts lie on the floor, in order that he and Hillyard could take the back seats.
"I hope we're going in the right direction", said Adam.
"I know what I'm doing", said Ransey "Bloody backseat drivers!"
A few hours later they came upon the first tip of land. The excitement was subdued though as it was followed by mile upon mile of empty desert.
"Look", Ransey shouted "I can't guarantee this thing's going to last much longer. Just taking off from the island used up a lot of what power I could give it. We're going to have to land on the first bit of solid ground we see".
"If there is any", said Joby, from the floor.
"If I'm going in the direction I think I am", said Ransey, checking his gauges "We should at some point soon come upon the Great Desert Road. It runs for thousands of miles across the southern part of the desert. It's used as the main connection point for a lot of the settlements hereabouts".
"You're not going to land there!" said Hillyard.
"Whyever not?" said Adam.
"There are rumours about it".
"Oh not that old chestnut again", said Adam, waspishly "I'm going to start calling you Angel!"
"I have no choice, Hillyard", said Ransey "At least there we have a chance of connecting with civilisation. If we crash in the desert itself we might never get out again".
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