The sun had already travelled far down towards the west when Kande emerged from the doorway under the bridge, and the shadows stretched across the sluggish water. Its rays glittered off the surface, but faintly, weakened by the drifting haze in the air.
Kande squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, leaning back against the ancient stone of the bridge support. Although she’d known, of course, that it would be like this, she was still overcome by a rush of memories of the last time she’d seen all this.
It had been a mild autumn day, with golden leaves still on the trees and carpeting the banks. It had been evening, too, the sun a deep golden-red, the sky a blaze of colour from all the particles in the air. She’d known that it was all poisoned, even then, of course – but she’d never thought it would get quite as bad as now.
Kande was just over seventy years old. She was small but compact, with broad shoulders, built like a little tank, and for all her years was tough and still strong. Her mop of silver hair was crushed down under the hood of her contamination suit, which covered her from top to toe, except for the gas mask over her face. Through its pair of windows, small and thick, her grey eyes peered out at the altered world.
It was a scene of such desolation that she wished she could retreat back into the shelter that lay behind the doorway. Stretching ahead of her, up to the horizon, was a tumble of broken concrete and twisted metal, shattered stumps that was all that was left of once towering buildings, and the river, dead, grey and sluggish as liquid mud.
Kande had been born far away from here, and grown up on the south-western coast, where she’d thought to be a pilot, and had earned a flying licence even before she was eligible to learn to drive. It helped that a relative had had a light plane of his own and hadn’t minded teaching her. She’d never made the transition to a commercial licence, though.
She still remembered the moment she’d decided on the course her life would take. She’d been at the controls of the Cessna, on a flight across country, the sea a band of blue on the horizon behind her and the land below a drab brown. In the middle distance she’d noticed a smudge of black, which as she approached had resolved itself into a gigantic cloud of smoke. At first she’d thought something was on fire below, but as she’d got closer she realised that it came from a forest of factory chimneys, belching out their sooty breath into the noon air. Once she’d landed back at her home airport, she’d tried to find out what she could do about it.
Those were the days when the crisis point was evidently fast approaching, and environmental scientists had imagined that they would at last be taken seriously. Kande had enrolled herself in the University in this city, and stayed on to do postgraduate research. She’d believed, in those days, that they would make a difference, that they could still pull the ecosphere back from the brink. But she – they, all of them, the whole faculty, hell, the entire discipline – hadn’t reckoned with the tenaciousness of corporate greed and the spinelessness of political will. Big Business had proclaimed there was no crisis, the politicians had enthusiastically agreed, and Big Religion had fallen in line. By the time the damage was so great that it was no longer possible to pretend there was no crisis, the people in charge had declared that there was no point doing anything because it was too late for anything to be done. And that was that.
Overnight, the funding had been turned off like a tap, and research labs in environmental studies had been forced to shut down; first, all over the country, and then – for it was still an important country, one that decided the condition of economies across the globe – all over the world. Except for tiny and unimportant labs in tiny and unimportant nations, humanity had turned its back on the environment. And then things had got so bad, so fast, that there was no longer anything to be done.
But some people had seen the writing on the wall in time, and acted.
Far below Kande’s feet, stretching under the river and beyond, into the city, were the tunnels of the old underground railway. They’d fallen into disuse by then, since the government had decided to do away with them in favour of private vehicle ownership, which, as the economists had assured everyone, created jobs and hence wealth. The empty subway tunnels had proved a good place to turn into a secret underground system of shelters, and they had retreated into them while there had still been time, with as much food and water as they could get hold of.
They’d had hopes then, of holding out a few months to years at the most, before humanity came to its senses. But the years had turned into decades, and the world outside had become a poisoned wasteland, where even the air was no longer fit to breathe.
Underground, they’d waited until they’d run out of food and water, and then they’d tried to get hold of food and water, in foraging expeditions to the surface. But even those sources had dried up a long time ago, and in recent times there had been almost nothing to eat or drink. Not that there were many left to eat or drink it anyway.
She’d made up her mind to leave while there was still time, while she could still leave on her own terms. There had been others who had left over the years, plenty of them, but there had still been a kind of hope that things might get better, and with what equipment had been left they’d carried on the research they could. Now there was nothing left, not even hope.
Kande walked down to the mud by the edge of the water, where the debris was less of an obstacle and walking slightly easier. Thick greyish-green lumps of weed grew here on the mud, of a kind she had never seen when she’d been young. Even the pattern of life was changing.
As the sun sank and the temperature dropped, a thin mist began to accumulate over the surface of the water, and licked at Kande’s knees as she walked. It was probably harmless vapour, but seemed sticky and poisonous, so that she had a strong desire to get away from it. Clambering up an inclined slab of stone, which had probably once formed part of the collapsed roadway above, she climbed onto the embankment.
Even softened by the last of the day’s light, the devastation was amazing. Kande had known, of course, of the conflicts that had marked the final struggles of those who had remained on the surface – the battles over food, and water at first, and then over shelter and breathable air. But that knowledge hadn’t prepared her for the devastation that she saw.
It was almost as if an angry giant had stomped all over the city, crushing everything under his boots in a rage, and kicked over what was left. Here and there still upright buildings poked their heads over the desolation but they were only shells, windowless and scorched by fire.
“Don’t go,” the man who had once been the scientist in charge of the laboratory, then her lover, and was still the leader of those remaining in the tunnels had said. “You don’t know what it’s like there. Trust me. I’ve been up to the surface, you haven’t.”
Kande had looked at him. Once he’d been young and had the looks of a minor movie star, and then grown fat, bearded and rubicund until he looked vaguely like Santa Claus. Now he still had the beard, but the fat had fallen away and he looked like nothing more than a tired old man with not an original idea in his head, nor the capacity for one.
“I can’t stay here either,” she’d said, trying to sound as kind as possible. “There’s nothing left here. In another year, at the most, you’ll all have to leave too, or starve. I’d rather not wait.”
“That’s silly. In another year things might be better.”
She hadn’t even bothered to reply to that, concentrating on packing her things in her rucksack. He’d followed her around, looking as hurt as though she was leaving him for another man and as though whatever was between them hadn’t been over for fifteen years.
“What will you do out there?” he’d asked. “It’s not even as though you know where you’re going.”
She’d shrugged, checking to see that she’d taken all she wanted. It was little enough, she’d thought, not even filling the rucksack – the accumulated possessions of a life. “It’s not as though you know what you’re doing, hanging around here,” she’d said at length, not looking at him. “As I see it, at least I’m trying for some kind of control over my own destiny.”
“You’re old, damn it,” he’d said. “You don’t have much destiny left, do you?”
She’d grinned mirthlessly. “All the more reason to make use of what time I have left.”
“All right, go” he’d said, waving his arms. “Get out of here. Do whatever the hell you want. But remember, out there everything’s poisoned – even the air!”
She nodded now, imperceptibly, inside her gas mask. As the sun set, the river, below the embankment, began to glow from pollution in the water. The air, too, became almost visible, clouds of greenish and yellow phosphorescence drifting low over the shattered street, so that she had a little light to make her way along and didn’t have to use the precious torch she’d purloined from the stores when nobody was looking. Or, rather, she amended, he’d known for sure that she was taking it, but he hadn’t said a word. And she’d known he wouldn’t.
Something scuttled from between her feet, squeaking, and disappeared into the shadows, making her jump involuntarily. It was too small and quick to get a look at, and when her heartbeat got back under control she realised that it was probably only a rat. Still, it proved that animal life still existed among the ruins, and she searched until she found a stout metal rod with a twisted, jagged edge. It was heavy and unwieldy, but would serve as a weapon – she hoped.
It was too warm for comfort inside the suit, and the sweat began to trickle down her face under the gas mask. She wished she could take it off, but that would be a stupid error. After all these years, the air was still full of poisonous gases, and likely would be for years more. Somewhere, factories were still pumping smoke into the air, she was sure. If they could find raw materials, and a source of energy, people would continue polluting, and telling themselves they had nothing to lose.
Kande realised that she’d been walking, unconsciously, in the direction of the University, where she’d worked before they’d moved the laboratory underground less than a week before they’d have run out of funds to keep it going. It was not really a surprise, because the laboratory was where she’d spent so many years working, and it was the one place in the city with which she’d been familiar. She’d never cared to get to know the rest of it, the theatre district and the main drag with its towering malls, the remnants of one of which she was passing now. Obscurely, the sight of the gutted ruin pleased her. Back in the day, when the environmental scientists been pleading with everyone to do something about the coming catastrophe before it was too late, the politicians and the media had accused the likes of her of plotting to take away peoples’ simple pleasures. That would teach them!
She’d been walking for hours now, and the night was well advanced. Long ago, she’d left the river behind, and now she was passing through an area where most of the buildings were, in comparison to those by the embankment, relatively intact. Many years ago, this had been one of the great thoroughfares of the city. Even now, although it was still dotted with the rusted carcasses of vehicles, it was easier going than earlier. The glowing vapours by the riverside had dissipated, too, but she wasn’t ready to take off her mask quite yet. The entire city lay in a depression surrounded by higher land on which the industrial estates had been situated, which meant it was still flooded by the effluvium of those temples of economic progress.
She’d rested as much as she could before setting out, and had eaten what passed for a good meal, but the slow plodding pace the terrain and the uncertain light forced on her made her legs and back weary. She wanted to sit down somewhere for a while, but she had a distinct feeling that it wouldn’t be safe. She realised then that this feeling had been creeping up on her ever since she’d left the river, and been growing imperceptibly stronger. It was almost as though something was watching her, waiting for her to display some weakness, let her guard down for an instant –
Kande spun round, metal bar raised awkwardly at chest level, ready to lash out, but there was nothing there. But, more than ever, she was sure someone – something – was watching her, from the shadows, circling closer and closer, preparing to charge.
It was at that precise moment that the sound started.
It began as a low moan, as of pain, and rose swiftly into a shriek of anguish that split the sky, echoing from the deserted buildings and the forgotten cars. Again it came, the echoes making it impossible to locate its origin, and then there was another, surely from behind her this time, and another, now to her right. All around her, the noise, and she did not know which way to turn.
She fumbled the rucksack off her back and pulled out the torch. After the hours of darkness the yellow beam of light was almost dazzlingly bright, and she screwed up her eyes involuntarily.
When she could see again, the first dog was already out in the open, watching her.
It stood beside the skeleton of a car, a large white animal with heavy muscular shoulders and ragged ears. It trotted forwards a few steps, stopped, raised its muzzle and howled again, to be answered by another not far away. Kande could see them now when she swung her torch around, slipping from shadow to shadow, coming steadily closer. Bending quickly, she picked up a stone and threw it at the first dog, the big white one. It moved aside a little to avoid the clumsy missile, but that was all.
Kande had never been afraid of dogs. In her younger days, before she’d left all else behind to concentrate on her research, she’d made a practice of gathering bread crumbs and scraps to feed the strays on the street corners, something which had not endeared her to the shopkeepers. She’d ignored their hectoring and kept on feeding the dogs, a thin young woman surrounded by a forest of waving tails, and finally the shopkeepers had relented and left her alone.
But those had been friendly dogs, not a feral pack on the hunt.
The first dog, the big one, began walking towards her, stiff-legged, head held low. Its broad muzzle wrinkled, exposing huge canines, and its voice was a low, almost musical rumbling in its massive chest.
Kande backed away from it, slowly, keeping the beam of the torch focussed on its face. She’d seen videos of wild dogs, and she knew it was trying to intimidate her into running. The rest of the pack would be behind her, waiting for her to break and run. Then they’d come in from all sides, darting under her guard and biting at her legs and underbelly. Once she went down, that would be the end. They’d rip her to pieces. The suit would only prolong her agony by keeping her alive that little bit longer.
Whatever happened, she mustn’t break and run.
The big dog was closer now, and she swung her crude club, almost connecting and making it jump back for a moment before advancing again, more cautiously, weaving back and forth. Its growl had deepened to a snarl, and it seemed only a moment before it would duck under her club and hurl itself at her.
Something bumped her rucksack from behind, large, hard and unyielding. Cautiously, she rubbed herself against the obstruction, not taking her eyes from the dog, and realised that she had backed herself against a wall.
This meant, at least, that she was temporarily protected against attack from behind by the rest of the pack. She began sidling along the wall, making passes at the white dog with her club, but her arm was tiring fast. The dog seemed to know it too, and had started to feint, forcing her to react each time by lunging at it as best she could. It was an intelligent dog, and brave, and in other circumstances she would probably have enjoyed making its acquaintance. But for the moment she only wanted to get as far away as possible from it.
From the corners of her eyes, distorted through the thick windows of her mask, she saw some of the other dogs of the pack, approaching. Less bold than the big white pack leader, they came warily, ready to back off if necessary, but they came. If she let her guard down, they’d lose their wariness and be all over her.
The wall behind her disappeared, so suddenly that she almost fell over backwards into darkness. Stumbling in an effort to regain her balance, she realised she had inadvertently passed through a doorway and was inside the building. And there was the door, just by her right hand. Throwing down the club with a clang, she hurled herself at it.
With a snarl, the dog charged.
It came rushing forwards, leaning into the attack, massive haunches pumping. It came so fast that she had only got the door halfway closed when it struck, ripping at her thigh, managing only a bite of the contamination suit. It twisted, trying to rip the mouthful of suit away, and as its teeth slipped off the tough fabric it fell. It was up in an instant, but Kande had finally slammed the door shut, throwing her shoulder against it. She felt the thud as the dog hurled itself against the door, its fury palpable through the wood, barking frenziedly. The other dogs were shouting too, raucously, the whole pack just on the other side of the slab of wood. She leaned against the door with all her weight, and after a while the noise outside abated. The last she heard of it was harsh panting that faded gradually in the distance.
Kande decided to go no further that night. The torch’s batteries needed conserving, but she had to expend a little more power to check her surroundings. She was in the tiny hallway of what had evidently once been a block of flats, with doors opening on both sides and narrow stairs ascending opposite. The nearest of the doors, to her left, was ajar, and, pushing it cautiously open, she entered.
The room was fairly large and had probably once been luxuriously furnished. The carpet on the floor was so thickly covered with dust that at every step she took puffs of it rose into the air, but it was soft and deeply-piled, and the furniture which remained looked expensive and quite possibly – Kande was no expert in such things – antique. The curtains over the windows had flowery patterns on them, faded but still visible in the torch’s light, and a framed print of flowers hung on one wall.
It was, in other words, a room so feminine that it filled her with revulsion. But she was only going to stay for what was left of the night, so she merely snorted and moved on to check over the rest of the apartment. It consisted of a bedroom with a double bed, which was shrouded in dust, a tiny kitchen, absurdly small compared to the size of the other rooms, and a bathroom with rust stains on the pink porcelain of the sink, complete with a washing machine which took up half the space.
Shaking her head at the pretentiousness of it all, Kande returned to the living room, slapped the dust off one of the chairs, and sat down, turning off her torch. It would have been useless in any case, because the dust she’d raised filled the air, and even though the gas mask filtered it out she felt her throat tightening reflexively. The darkness flooded in, and she leaned back, feeling the weariness in her limbs.
Idly, she wondered what he was doing now. She remembered the last she’d seen of him, his liver-spotted hand on her arm as he once again tried to dissuade her from coming. She’d looked away from his face, because the look in his eyes made her feel as though she was abandoning him instead of merely leaving while she still could.
Perhaps he would be sleeping, inside the carriage of the abandoned subway train which they’d long ago converted to living quarters. More likely, he’d be awake and going over the results of the latest air sample readings – readings which had not changed in a year or longer, perhaps because the equipment no longer worked properly – and trying to convince himself things were getting better. Maybe he was thinking of her, but she hoped not. She didn’t want to hurt him, even inadvertently. He wasn’t a bad man, never had been.
Her mind slipped to thoughts of what he’d said, and she acknowledged that from his viewpoint he’d been making sense. Where was she going, with only the food and water she had in her rucksack? How far could she get? Even if the dogs didn’t get her, what other dangers lay in wait in the ruins of the city? Even if she found food or water, how could she know if it was edible or just more poison?
Hell, she thought, I don’t even dare take off this mask to eat or drink what I’m carrying with me. I must be insane. But she wasn’t insane. What was insane was remaining inside the subway tunnels waiting for the end. What was insane was being left with no choice. At least she was exercising a choice.
Somewhere not too far away, a dog howled. The pack was still around, then – naturally, because this must be its territory. Gripping her club, Kande stared through the thick eyepieces of her gas mask into the darkness and waited for the dawn.
She woke suddenly, her heart thumping and mouth dry. She’d had no memory of sleepiness, let alone falling asleep. It was still dark outside, no trace of light leaking past the curtains on the windows, but she had the indefinable feeling that hours had passed. Something had woken her, but what? A sound?
Even as she strained her ears, listening, the sound came again.
If it had been the old days, she’d never have given it another thought. It was merely the blat-blat of an unmuffled motorcycle engine, coming steadily closer. But who would be using a motorcycle here, in these ruins, at this time of the night?
Carefully, trying not to disturb the dust, Kande stood and walked over to the nearest window, gently lifting the corner of the curtain enough to look out into the street. She could see the beam of the motorcycle’s headlight, a pale wavering glow, steadily approaching. A few moments more, and the bike came to a stop almost directly opposite the window, and the headlight blinked out as the engine was switched off. The pillion rider, a dark shadow, swung an awkward leg over and stepped off, while the person in the front seat hunched over the handlebars and seemed to be waiting for something.
Kande had almost decided that the better part of valour would be to drop the curtain and retreat back into the room when she heard the other engine. It announced itself with a discordant grinding, clearly audible through the gas mask and contamination suit hood, and another pair of headlights swept briefly over the window, making her duck reflexively.
When she looked again, the car was standing near the motorcycle, its arthritic engine still running and its headlights illuminating the scene. At least two people could be seen near the car, talking to the two who had arrived on the bike, and Kande could see another person at the wheel. Whatever the discussion was about, it wasn’t going well. She heard voices raised in argument, and suddenly there was the gleam of light on metal, a knife blade raised high.
Someone screamed, shrilly, and the shadows merged, scuffling, one going down, another suddenly breaking away and running across the street towards her. Before Kande dropped the curtain and stepped smartly back, she saw that it seemed to be the same size as the pillion rider of the motorcycle. She heard the door of the building squeak shrilly, and running footsteps on the other side of the wall. The next moment, the door of the apartment, right next to her, slammed open.
If Kande had been younger and faster, she would undoubtedly have given herself away. It was her slowed reflexes more than anything which kept her frozen where she was, in the darkness next to the window. In her black suit and mask, she was invisible.
The person who had run in fumbled to close the door, pulled across the nearest chair and pushed it under the handle, and stood panting. Apparently, the others outside hadn’t noticed precisely which door had opened and closed so abruptly, and Kande heard them rush through and up the stairs at the back.
There was a long moment of silence. Kande stood frozen in place, trying not to breathe, while the other person in the room stood in the same attitude of watchful stillness. Then, stepping softly, the shadow moved to the window, within touching range of Kande, and pulled the curtain back.
In the faint light filtering in from outside Kande saw a girl. She was dressed in a faded denim jacket, over whose padded shoulders her thin, triangular face looked even thinner. Her hair, stringy and ragged, fell over her forehead and hung limply down her back. When she leaned against the windowpane to look down the street, Kande saw that her eyes were red and inflamed, rimmed with crusted purulent matter.
The girl was dangerous. Kande was no physical coward, but she knew that the worst mistake she could make was to approach her. She looked as though she was poised on the edge of violence at all times, and, when she was scared, as she obviously was now, she would be even more aggressive. Kande couldn’t see a weapon on her, but was sure she carried one. Her sort would never be unarmed, even for a moment. Even the big white dog earlier had probably been a much lesser danger than she was.
The situation was getting rapidly impossible. The sky outside was lightening rapidly, dawn creeping onto the world. Soon she could no longer remain hidden – the girl must see her. Even if she didn’t, the others, who from the faint noises were probably searching upstairs, would finally arrive and break the door down. She wondered why the girl hadn’t realised it herself. Did she imagine she’d be safe in here? Kande wondered just what had happened outside, who she was, and who the people hunting her were.
But it was pointless speculating about all that. Time was precious now, and Kande’s first responsibility was clearly to herself.
There was only one thing to do, and much as she hated to do it, Kande acted. Waiting until the girl turned away for a moment, she stepped softly forward, raised the club she’d been carrying for so long, and brought it down in a vicious arc. As the girl collapsed, Kande stepped quickly over her to the window and looked out.
In the half-light just before dawn, the car and the motorcycle were picked out in degrees of shadow. Something dark lay beside the car’s rear wheel, knees drawn up and arms thrown open wide. There was nobody else to be seen, not even a sentry.
Pausing only to pick up her rucksack, Kande pushed the window open. It stuck partway, but left enough space for her to clamber out onto the windowsill and drop to the ground. She was about to trot down the street when she had a sudden thought. Crossing quickly, she went to the car, ignoring the corpse on the roadway, and looked inside. No luck, the key was missing, and she hadn’t the faintest idea how to go about starting the engine without it. Nor did the motorcycle have a key. But if she was right and the girl had been the pillion rider, then the driver was probably the one who’d been stabbed. And if so, the key should be –
Less than a minute later, Kande was astride the motorcycle, the engine throbbing between her legs, a faint yell in the distance fading as someone from the building caught a glimpse of her from a window. She rode as fast as she dared, the contamination suit clumsy and the mask making for restricted vision, but every revolution of the tyres pushing her towards safety. At the first opportunity, she turned into a side street, and then into another, until she was reasonably sure that if anyone found her, it would be by accident. She wasn't worried about the car. From what she'd heard of its engine, it would never be able to catch her as long as she was on the bike.
It had been many years since Kande had last been on a motorcycle, but one never forgot how. She had loved biking back then, ignoring the helmet law, her hair blowing in the wind as she drove for tens of kilometres out into the country and back, her only relaxation from University and the laboratories. She’d become very well known, the biker woman who drove, as they said, as well as a man. But those days were long past.
Kande had long since given up all plans of going to the University. She didn’t know what was going on in the city, but obviously the danger level was extreme. Swinging the bike onto another, broader, street, she drove towards the east, determined to get as far as she could out of town. After that, she’d see.
She’d almost made it out of the outskirts when the bike ran out of fuel.
She’d known, of course, that it was coming, the needle on the fuel gauge hardly flickering above zero for the last few kilometres. Still, it was with a sense of acute disappointment and near grief that she heard the splutter of the dying motor and steered the bike to the side of the road. Propping it on the kickstand, she took the precaution of taking the key with her. Nobody would be able to chase her on it, assuming they could find petrol for the tank.
The sun of late morning was hot, beating the sweat out of her skin as she trudged along, miserably uncomfortable inside the suit and the mask, and tired, hungry and intensely thirsty. However, she dared not stop to rest, and after seeing the pus-encrusted eyes of the girl she’d hit, she was even charier of removing the gas mask.
As the houses fell away and the brown desolation of the country opened around her, Kande once again began to feel that she was being followed. After last night’s encounter with the dog pack, she had even more reason to trust her instincts – but, even though she turned round again and again to check behind her, she couldn’t see anyone, not even the hulking white dog with the wrinkled muzzle and tattered ears. Surely if it were the people in the car, they’d have attacked her by now, not merely hung back watching?
Her thoughts were growing confused as hunger and thirst joined hands with her physical weariness, and she became conscious of her seventy years as she hadn’t been in a long time. If there had been trees on the roadside, she might well have sunk to the foot of one and rested, hidden follower or not; but except for thick patches of scrub bushes, no vegetation survived by the roadside. The few remaining trees were leafless skeletons.
She was beginning to stumble and weave when she saw the airport. It lay to the left of the road, a tiny control tower perched like an afterthought on the roof of the blocky red terminal building. The runway stretched on either side, flat and empty, but for a hangar in the distance, its metal doors and walls promising shelter.
Desperate energy flooding back into her limbs, she shambled off the road and across the runway towards the hangar. It loomed above her as she approached, far larger than she’d thought it from the road, and the steel doors were almost shut, wide open enough only to squeeze through.
Squeezing through the crack, she stopped with the shock of surprise.
There on the concrete floor stood a Piper Cub.
It had been decades since she’d last seen one, but there it was, still in its bright yellow paint, looking as fresh as though it had only just rolled off the factory line. Reverently, almost unbelieving, she walked up to it and touched the propeller. The blade turned at the pressure of her hand, slowly but steadily, and with mounting excitement she realised that it might still even be usable.
“But where could one fly with it?” she asked aloud, her voice a murmur inside the gas mask.
“As far away as possible,” someone said right behind her. “To someplace where the pollution hasn’t killed everything yet.”
Slowly, heart thudding, she turned. “You.”
“Of course.’ He raised his contamination-suit clad arms, an embarrassed grin on his bearded face. His gas mask dangled from one gloved hand. “Who else could it be?”
“It was you. You followed me.”
“I really couldn’t let you go wandering off to the middle of nowhere alone, could I now?” He stepped closer, but warily, as though she was a dangerous animal. “I’d thought you might make for the old airport, you being a former pilot and all. I saw you in the distance a while ago, and, well...”
“I didn’t want you to think I was keeping an eye on you. I saw you come in here, and wanted to take a look to see if you were all right. I swear that was all.”
Kande stared at him. “How’s the air?” she asked at last.
“The air?” He sounded surprised. “Breathable.”
“Whoo.” She pulled off her gas mask and sighed deeply. “Air! I needed that.” She looked at him, and then back at the plane. “Come on,” she said briskly. “Since you’re here, you might as well make yourself useful. Help me get this going.”
“You’re sure?” he asked doubtfully. “You’re sure you want to do this?”
“What the hell else can we do? This place is more lethal than you think, I can assure you. Now let me see if we have some fuel. Let’s have a look at those cans over there.”
Much later, when they’d managed to push open the doors of the hangar, and wheeled the little plane onto the runway, she paused to wipe the sweat off her face. “What if we crash somewhere?” She looked at him. “Not that I’m saying we will, it’s just something to consider. What if we crash and burn?”
He shrugged. “Got to take a chance sometime. Besides, I trust your piloting skills.”
“Thanks for nothing,” she snorted, sliding into the front seat and frowning over the primitive instrument panel. “Let’s see if I can at least get it into the air.”
“Told you,” he said a few minutes later, as the little yellow plane lifted somewhat unsteadily off the runway. “I trust your ability.”
“You’re a good man,” she said quietly. “Not the best, don’t get a swollen head – but there are worse. Much worse.”
He grinned from the rear seat. “That’s why you’re taking me along?”
“Well, you are an old coot, but so am I.” She glanced back at him over her shoulder. “This plane’s an old coot too, but there’s a world outside, and some of it’s probably still fresh and new. All we have to do is find it.”
The plane flew on towards the gathering dusk.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011