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Father Gabriel, as he now liked to be called by his loyal and terrified subjects, was never seen in public these days. But his presence was very much felt. Father Gabriel lived in two rooms at the Ministry Headquarters, one of which connected with the mysterious tunnels that he had had built beneath them. He saw no one but his most private staff, and they were setting eyes on him less and less. Father Gabriel had devised a letterbox system in the wall of his office, through which he passed orders, and received information and meals. Father Gabriel had effectively walled himself up alive.
The City these days lived in a permanent state of shock, numbed by the knowledge that they were living under a President who used supernatural means to keep power. It was worse than living under the vampires even. At least in those days life on the surface had carried on in a relatively normal fashion. These days there wasn't even a veneer of normality. The City Guards had all been rounded up in the Ministry Square and massacred, and the streets were now patrolled by Father Gabriel's elite force ... and the zombies. The latter only appeared at night, but they were much feared by the people. The dead no longer stayed buried, but roamed freely to kill the living.
Rumours had long ago leaked out concerning Father Gabriel's dabblings in witchcraft and voodoo. Many remembered him as he used to appear in the City, a gaunt figure in a black coat and hat. He had been seen represented that way in many old illustrations and woodcuts. Baron Samedi. The King of the Zombies.
The City Guards weren't the only ones to die. It seemed Father Gabriel didn't trust the living, his power was only absolute over the dead, so he set about massacring as many of the intelligent and influential in the land as he could find. In death they would convert solely to his power. Many got advance warning, and fled into the countryside. But the zombies roamed there too. Some managed to evade destruction completely and kept on running, intending to run to the far ends of the earth if necessary.
Father Gabriel was enraged by those who evaded his clutches, and for good reason too. Because he was now certain that Kieran was still alive. He had dreamed about him, had seen those hypnotic blue eyes pressed up against his face. The dreams had so disturbed him that now he hardly dared sleep. Kieran was the ends of the earth, he was certain of that. And those who escaped Father Gabriel's clutches were running to join him.
Meanwhile the City remained in the grip of the zombies. There was no trade, as bars and restaurants refused to open after dark. The knock-on effect meant daylight trading in the markets and shops was muted and unenthusiastic. Father Gabriel, the child genius who had loomed over City finances for years like a Colossus, was now destroying commercial enterprise. No one trusted anyone anymore. Longstanding friendships were broken, new ones were never forged. What was the point of liking someone if tomorrow they could be a member of the walking dead?
The Cage had been reinstated and was to be found in duplicate adorning the City walls. It served as a very cheap incarceration facility for any down-and-outs found sleeping on the streets, and since the collapse of trade there were a lot of these. The Cages were emptied regularly, and the heads of the corpses cut off and stuck up on spikes. This was a precautionary measure on Father Gabriel's part. He didn't want the dregs of society rising up after death and serving in his "army".
The human race had been dying for some time, but now it seemed the future image of the planet was of one populated solely by dead people. The dead were in charge. The dead dictated the policy and rules of society. There was no future for the living. The City had been reduced to the rotten, bleeding heart at the core of the world. The living that were able-bodied, and/or capable of rational thought, fled as far into the wilderness as they could, hoping to evade the long arm of Father Gabriel - King of the Dead, Destroyer of the Living.
It had once been said that the Great Wall of China could be seen from the moon, in more recent times that had also been said about the Great Desert Road. Even now, long past its heyday as a marvel of human ingenuity, it was still an impressive sight. It had been built in a completely straight line, to run for thousands of miles over the yawning white vacuum that was the Southern Desert. It was like some huge, never-ending concrete snake, a permanent testament to Man's ability to conquer the most inhospitable of places if he wished.
Ransey had managed to execute an almost painless landing, a short distance to the side of this road. The others had urged him to fly that little bit further, but he had protested that if they pushed their luck with the exhausted key-card anymore they would probably be in serious trouble.
They stumbled out of the vehicle and surveyed their surroundings with trepidation. It was an awesomely bleak place. Apart from the road the only features to be seen were a few rocky crags, and the occasional dead stump of a tree. Nothing had flourished in this part of the world for hundreds of years. The heat was simply too intense. All plant life was fried before it had a chance to live.
Joby climbed up onto the road, which stretched away relentlessly towards the distant horizon. What else he saw of the road didn't feel him with hope. The concrete was broken and cracked, completely missing in some places. No one had driven along here in decades.
"Ransey was wrong", he said, when Adam came over and joined him "This road doesn't connect to anywhere. No one's probably used it in years. What the fuck are we going to do?"
"Follow it", said Adam "And see where it takes us".
"It might not take us anywhere!"
"All roads lead somewhere, Joby. This one must finish at a certain place".
"That isn't necessarily so", said Joby "It might have led somewhere once, but who's to say it does now? This is hopeless, Adam. Look at us! We're stranded in the middle of nowhere. We haven't got much in the way of supplies, and I dread to think how soon we're going to run out of water. It could take us years to walk this, and we might never see a fucking soul".
"Stop it Joby!" Adam cried "What's done is done, and I don't keep you around so that you can go to pieces on me!"
"I'm sorry, Adam", said Joby, looking suitably shamefaced.
"I should think so", Adam aimed a mock punch at his jaw "I expect that kind of thing from Lonts, not you".
"It's a worry though isn't it?"
"Yes it is. Ransey told me this road eventually leads into the jungle, although how far we are along it none of us can tell. And if we reach the jungle we're merely swapping one wilderness for another. But he also thinks we should come across the odd pocket of civilisation, a farm say, or a hamlet. That's what we're counting on".
"And if we don't?"
"Well, you'll just have to find some way of cheering me up won't you?" Adam laughed, shakily "Come on, it's time we got a fire going. It gets very cold in the desert at night, and we haven't any warm clothing with us".
"Freeze by night, boil by day", said Joby.
"That's what you get for holidaying in exotic places!"
Joby helped Kieran to collect twigs from the dead trees to build a fire. Back at the camp Lonts was telling Hillyard that he wasn't slicing the fruit small enough.
"If we do run into trouble out here", said Joby "I vote we kill Lonts and eat him".
"Poor wee Lonts", said Kieran.
"What do you mean, poor wee Lonts! He's probably coping with this better than the rest of us. Everywhere's frightening to him, so this place isn't going to make any difference".
"Hey look", Kieran pointed at a small lizard which slid over a nearby rock "Another living thing! Perhaps we should take that as a good sign".
"Why?" said Joby, who was starting to shiver. He rolled down the sleeves of his shirt, the only remotely warm garment that he possessed "God, it's so quiet here. There's not a sound to be heard. Makes you realise how noisy the island was really. I mean, there you could always hear the sea, or the birds, or the wind in the trees. Here, there's just nothing".
"Do you miss the island already?"
"Yea. Particularly now, at twilight. We'd often go and sit out on the rock wouldn't we?"
"What the hell's taking so long?" Adam snapped, suddenly appearing near them "We could all freeze to death whilst you two canoodle over here!"
It was frightening how cold it got. Everyone put on all the clothes they possessed, which wasn't saying a lot, and huddled round the fire. But they had no blankets, and could only sit as close together as possible to generate body heat. With tension in every bone and muscle they slept very little, and set off the following day feeling exhausted. They reluctantly left the shell of the air-buggy and set out along the Great Desert Road.
They soon realised what an impossible exercise it really was. The sun was so strong it seared into their minds. Water was severely rationed, skin blistered, their hair was so damp with sweat all the time that it never had a chance to get dry. They walked in silence, as talking used up too much energy. Even Lonts cottoned onto this pretty quick, and copied the others in their wordless, dogged walk.
After the first day Adam rearranged their schedule so that they set off at dawn and walked until the heat became unbearable. Then they rested until early evening and walked again until midnight. On the third morning Kieran woke up shivering so much that Ransey feared he was in the early stages of hypothermia. Without any more ado he stuck Kieran's feet under his armpits and squeezed them.
"Old cure for hypothermia", he explained.
Kieran tried to laugh but his teeth were chattering too much.
Several days passed in the same relentless fashion. Every time they found a clump of rocks near the road, they set off to examine them thoroughly in the hope of finding something liquid.
"Even if we find only a few maggots it's a good sign", said Adam "And we could always eat those. They're supposed to be quite nutritious".
They were out of luck even on that level. All that was achieved from such forays were a bruised toe for Ransey, and a torn nightshirt for Lonts. He had fallen off one rock and ripped the garment up the middle. It now flapped around him like an unbuttoned pinafore.
"This is hopeless, Adam", said Hillyard, during one afternoon rest "We can't just keep walking like this".
"Hillyard, we have no choice", Adam felt that he would weep if he had to explain it one more time "We can't go back, there's nothing there, we have to keep moving forwards. It's our only hope. And don't you dare suggest giving up and just lying here".
Food got dangerously low. It was hard to do several hours walking on a near-empty stomach, with no prospect of getting re-fueled properly when they rested. Feet got blistered and infected, leg muscles seized up. It was all so hopeless.
"They're rotted, Adam", said Joby, looking at the paw-paws Adam had pulled out of their rucksack at their next pitstop.
"I know", said Adam, quietly "But they're all we have".
"I wouldn't joke about this", said Adam "But we may be able to get some juice from them".
"All you'll get from eating them is a gippy stomach", said Ransey.
"There is nothing else!"
"We've had it then", said Hillyard "This is it. We've been walking for a week and we haven't seen anyone or anything. There are no settlements round here, and no one's driven out this way in years. We've had it".
"Try and sleep", said Adam "Perhaps when we wake up we might be able to think of something. I refuse to believe this is it. We haven't done all we have done, and come all this way, just to die out here!"
"Why not?" said Ransey, despondently "Whoever said life had to make sense?"
"So, do we all just lie down and wait for it?" said Joby,. strolling with Adam in a wide circle around the rest of the group, who were sleeping "Wait for death, I mean".
"Something will turn up", said Adam "It always has before".
"We've used up our nine lives", said Joby "We can't keep expecting something to turn up".
"This is the place where hope dies and dreams fail", Adam muttered "I think I must have read that somewhere. I expect you're too young to have ever thought about death very much, but I have sometimes. I often wondered where I would be when it finally happened".
"I don't want to ... die", Joby suddenly broke down and gave huge racking sobs.
"Come on now", said Adam, folding him in his arms "Even at your age you've lived more than most people put into eight lifetimes. You mustn't be greedy. Shout, scream and punch me if it'll make you feel better. After all, if it wasn't for me you could be back in our own time with a wife and kids by now. Living in a nice house, and going out for steak dinners for a treat. Holidays in Acapulco".
"Now you're making fun of me", said Joby, sniffing violently "I'd probably have a mortgage the length of a life sentence, bratty kids who were always whining about wanting new clothes, and some wimpy bird of wife who spends all that holiday in Acapulco you mentioned going on about how she's missing the office or mummy, or both. That's exactly the sort of tart I'd have ended up with. Like my Mum. Shouting at my dad in the street to blow his nose and then telling everyone how useless he is".
"And I took you away from all that", said Adam "And brought you into the desert to dehydrate and starve to death instead".
"Are you scared?"
"Who do you think'll go first?"
Adam didn't reply. He sat down on the rocky sand, and pulled Joby down next to him.
"You think it'll be Kiel don't you?" said Joby.
"He's so thin, Joby", said Adam "You are too, and I haven't got much on me to speak of, but he's like a human matchstick. He has no fatty reserves to fall back on. Nothing to fight with. That's what frightens me, more than what'll happen to myself. Such a waste too. He'd have made a magnificent President. He's matured so much this past year, I could see him slowly growing into the role. It's all very sad indeed".
"I've still got that watch you gave me for my twenty-second birthday".
"So I should hope! It cost me an absolute fortune".
"Perhaps someone'll find it in centuries to come, except I keep forgetting there will be no one to find it, there won't be anyone left".
"Oh perhaps the aliens'll land and find it instead".
"You are always so strong".
"Rubbish!" Adam snorted "I remember plenty of occasions when you thought otherwise".
"That was just me being a pillock, but you are strong. I don't know how you do it sometimes".
"Old age", said Adam "And the love of a couple of bad boys".
"What are we going to do then?" said Joby, nervously "Just lie down and wait for it?"
"We have no bullets or lethal injections, so I suppose it will have to be that way. We could try clubbing each other to death with a rock I suppose. Oh God, perhaps I'm going to have to smother Lonts. We can't leave him here alone, and he might outlive us all".
"It doesn't feel real does it?"
"The important events in life never do, Joby. I remember when I was arrested in Antibes, it all felt like a bad dream. I don't think it occurred to me that it was all really happening until my first night in prison, and even then I thought it was all some sick joke and they'd let me out in the morning. Anyway, you don't want to spend the last moments of your life listening to some batty old fool going on about his misspent youth!"
"No, it's alright. It felt the same for me when we first crossed over at Henang. Or when I woke up next to Kieran in Beane's cave. I kept thinking, this is daft, this sort of thing doesn't happen, not really. And certainly not to blokes like me", Joby sighed "It's getting dark. Do we stay here, or start walking again, just for the hell of it?"
"What's the matter with Lonts?"
The boy had sat up suddenly, detached himself from the sleeping group, and was now running towards them. His torn nightshirt billowed out behind him, exposing the full length of his thin suntanned body.
"Adam!" he cried "I can hear noises. Over there. Up front. Voices. I think".
"Oh fuck off Lonts", Joby cried "I can do without you and your fantasies now".
"No hang on, Joby", Adam got to his feet "He might be onto something. Are you sure you heard it, Lonts? You weren't dreaming?"
"Of course he was", Joby muttered.
"No. Voices. I heard voices", said Lonts "Real ones. Real people. And music. I think".
"Coming from directly up the road?" said Adam.
Lonts nodded breathlessly.
"Let's wake the others, Joby", said Adam "We might not have to die just yet!"
The road had taken a small but significant lurch upwards a few miles further along. The incline had been enough to obscure the next part of the road from their view. As they trod wearily up the small hill the noises Lonts had heard got distinctly more defined. There was the rough chatter of a large group of men, some kind of soft guitar music and, most hopefully of all, the clink of glasses.
"Perhaps we're all hallucinating", said Joby "Or we've caught Lonts's insanity".
"It looks real enough to me", said Adam.
They were standing at the brow of the small hill. Below them the road wound on towards another horizon, but tucked at the bottom in front of a large rock a white clapboard house. Sounds of serious drinking were coming from inside the building.
They ran down the hill towards it, whooping and screaming excitedly. Inside the house the entire ground floor had been knocked through to form one large room. One wall was taken up entirely by a huge picture window overlooking the road ahead. The room was full of plastic tables and chairs, the seats of several of which were torn. The whole place looked like what it was, a cheap roadside diner and bar. At that moment though it looked like Heaven.
There were a handful of customers dotted about, all of whom appeared to be trying to make as much noise as possible, singing along raucously to a terrified-looking guitarist, or arguing over dice and cards. All of them were wreathed in cigarette smoke, some of it smelling rather sweet. The tall glasses of beer in front of them looked like the drink of the gods.
When Kieran and his gang entered the room the noise stopped as suddenly as a tape clicking off. The customers, some of whom looked fairly disreputable themselves, stared in disbelief at the newcomers, who certainly were an odd-looking bunch. They were starved and filthy, wearing ragged clothes. The youngest sucked his thumb and hung onto the eldest's elbow, his nightshirt was ripped open and allowed the entire bar a free look at his undersized genitals.
Kieran removed his straw hat and tried to shake some dirt and sand from his fair hair. He then stared at them with his startling blue eyes. In return, the customers, each one to a man, rose respectfully to their feet.
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