Chapter Thirty-Four

As we ran along the open road in the direction of the beach, the sounds of the village in turmoil behind us soon faded away and were replaced by the noises of the sea crashing against the shore. The road was empty but for the two of us running along and, as we made a speedy descent of a steep hill, I could see that hundreds of desperate people were gathered on the crowded beach below, each one searching for relief from the tortuous conditions.

The road began as a straight and hard tarmac track which then twisted and turned down the hillside, becoming more and more dusty and sandy with each passing metre. It was eventually reduced to little more than a narrow path which wound its way between high sand dunes and onto the golden beach. As the ocean came into full view, I noticed that a thin, ghostly mist hung over the whole scene. Lighter than a fog or a seasonal sea-mist, it took a few moments before I realised that the haze was, incredibly, a film of steam which rose steadily from the surface of the salt water as it evaporated in the relentless heat. The muffled sounds of the waves crashing onto the dry shore that we had heard as we had approached the beach began to change and as we neared the tide line, the noises became clearer and more distinct. It was not long before they became recognisable as the sounds of the hissing, spitting water beginning to churn and of hundreds of terrified people murmuring with fear.

For as far as I could see in either direction along the beach, people's tired heads bobbed up and down in the frothing surf. Other figures sat motionless in the damp sand and let the seething water wash over them in a vain attempt to keep the relentless heat from burning and scorching their already tender flesh. I did not know what relief the water would offer but I looked towards Samantha to see if that was how she wanted us to spend the time which remained.

'This way,' she said as we ran onto the golden sand. She pulled my hand and led me along the beach towards what looked, in the darkness, to be a virtual cliff-face in the distance. The evening gloom and the sea's haze may have made it look steeper and more imposing than it actually was and I had little choice but to trust Sam's instincts and follow her.

'There's somewhere that we can shelter up there,' she said breathlessly as we stumbled and tripped through the light sand. 'It might be better than this.'

Without questioning her judgment I followed her but I did not know why we ran. I could not think of anywhere that would be strong or safe enough to protect us from the violent energy pulse which I was sure would strike soon. Although I would have liked to have been alone with Samantha, I thought that the beach was as good a place as any to stop. The people there seemed more tolerant and at ease with each other than those in the village and to have actually found somewhere where the people weren't fighting or arguing made an important difference in the hours of the dying night.

'Can't we just stop here?' I asked. 'Is there really any point in going on?'

I was still tired from my journey and, although I did my best to hide my fatigue from Sam, I knew that I could not keep running for much longer. She stopped, turned around to face me and held me tightly.

'Let's just go a little further. It might be better up there.'

I was sure that Sam knew as well as I did that we were in a hopeless situation but her optimism (which I guessed was just for my benefit) deserved reward. I went along with her and with her wishes.

We stumbled quickly on through the fine sand which was so dry that we churned up plumes of yellow dust behind us as we ran. The tiny grains quickly filled my trainers, rubbing against my skin and getting into my open blisters and wounds, increasing the discomfort that I already felt. We dodged past bewildered onlookers who lay slumped in the sand, studying us with bemused ignorance as we blundered past them. Samantha caught her foot on a piece of petrified driftwood and she tripped, landing on all fours on the hot ground. She laughed, stood up and brushed the sand from her clothes.

'Silly sod,' she said. 'And with all these people watching...'

Sam was cut off in mid-sentence as the first warm wisps of a strong wind began to blow across the beach. She looked at me, concerned, and I returned her frightened gaze. As the wind's strength began to quickly increase, I felt my legs weaken and my bladder loosen.

Frightened, I looked around frantically for somewhere to shelter. The wind began to gust with real force and started to lift the loose sand from the beach until the air was filled and we had to cover our eyes to protect them. Sam pointed in the direction of a nearby beach hut and I grabbed her hand and pulled her towards it. The people around us were as scared and confused as we were and they stumbled back in the direction of the sand-dunes at the edge of the beach. Literally hundreds of figures crawled out of the sea and sprinted away in a vain attempt to find some safety. They all knew as well as I did what was to follow.

I looked out towards the horizon and, through the clouds of swirling sand, saw that the colour of the sky had begun to change. Like ink on blotting paper, bright yellow and white light spread quickly through the blackness from the area of the sky into which the sun had disappeared hours earlier, and reached out towards the beach with sharp, savage, white-hot talons of heat and luminosity. I watched and my fear and disbelief made it impossible to turn away as the light devoured the darkness and swept quickly in the direction of the shore.

Sam tugged at my arm and dragged me away from the sea towards the little hut. We fought our way through the screaming, terrified crowds and made our way to the little building which was, thankfully. being ignored by the startled hordes. With my hands reaching out in the darkness, I stumbled on, praying that I would feel the dry wooden door of the hut before the heat and light arrived. The cruel, driving wind was behind us and it seemed to push us towards the building. The sandstorm was blinding and I almost collapsed with relief when my hands finally reached the wooden door.

With one hand held high to protect my face and with Samantha holding tightly onto my waist, I fumbled in the dark confusion to find a latch or a handle to let us inside. As the world around us began to brighten, and the heat behind me started to make the skin on my back prickle uncomfortably, I located a metal latch and. with shaking hands, quickly opened the door. We stumbled inside and I slammed the door shut behind us, having to fight against the gale to keep it closed.

The building was comfortingly dark inside but the walls shook with the force of the hot wind which tore along the beach. In the sudden gloom I could just make out the shape of a little boat in front of me and I grabbed Samantha and pulled her down to the ground underneath the vessel's rounded hull. For the briefest of moments, we sat huddled together, listening to the deafening noise of the wind, waiting for the inevitable and wondering if this would be the last pulse, the one which would burn up the planet around us.

The wind seemed to die for a fraction of a second before the light struck. The walls and roof of the ramshackle hut were paper thin and full of holes and cracks through which brilliant white light suddenly poured, criss-crossing in the darkness and burning our naked skin wherever it touched our bodies. The building shook in the maelstrom and it threatened to be torn from its weak foundations and smashed to pieces. Thankfully and miraculously, it stayed erect. I buried my face next to Samantha's and tried to be strong for her. With the fear and confusion all around us, it was impossible to keep my composure intact and I cursed myself for sobbing and for allowing her to hear me. She had chosen to spend this precious time with me and I felt that I had a duty to protect and reassure her despite the fact that I needed as much help as she did. I held my breath and closed my eyes, sure that the end was imminent. The force and ferocity of the incredible wind which battered us and the brilliant light that filled the room and scorched our flesh left me convinced that I had only moments left to live. I was surprised and yet still terrified when the effects of the pulse began to subside and some semblance of normality was restored.

For a few unsure moments we sat still, holding each other tightly and breathing in huge gulps of the dry, burning air. I gradually opened my eyes and saw that, although the light had faded, there was still an unusual, unexpected glow coming from outside. I stood up and pulled Samantha to her feet so that she stood next to me. I wiped her hair from her face and held onto her tightly as I leant against the little boat for support.

'Up there,' Sam cried and she pointed to the corner of the hut where the sloping roof met the thin, battered wooden wall. I followed her gaze and saw that the dry wood had begun to smoulder and burn. With a startling rapidity that took us both by surprise, the entire roof of the building caught light in seconds. The flames flickered and I noticed that the walls were alight too. I grabbed Sam's hand and pulled her quickly through the door and out onto the beach.

We stood together on the red-hot sand and could do little but stare in disbelief at the sight that greeted us. Those people who had been unable to escape the power of the energy pulse, those who had been caught in the full might of its incredible light and heat, lay dead or dying around us. Those that had stayed in the sea emerged staggering from the bubbling, spitting salt water with the skin on their bodies scalded and blistered. The air was thick with the smell of meat roasting and I quickly realised that it was the pungent odour of hundreds of bodies burning around us. The sounds of the crashing waves and of the water evaporating were drowned out by the pitiful cries of people screaming in agony.

Sam pulled me in the direction of the cliff-face that we had originally headed towards. I looked back over my shoulder to see that the hut we had sheltered in moments earlier was now well ablaze, as were all the other little buildings dotted along the length of the beach. As I watched, the roof of the hut collapsed and the building crumbled to the ground, sending a thousand red hot embers flickering and dancing into the suddenly still air.

We ran through the sand which burnt us where it touched our bare skin. Scattered all around the beach lay the bodies of the dead, scorched and charred where they had been unable to escape the energy wave and, next to them, lay those who had survived the pulse but who screamed out for help. I ignored their cries - there was nothing that could have been done for any of them and, even if I had been able to help, there would not have been much point. I knew that none of us would suffer for long.

Both Sam and I were crying. I had not noticed when the tears had first began to run down my face and I could not stop them, no matter how hard I tried or how brave I pretended to be. I prayed that we would be able to soon find somewhere where we could hide from whatever was going to come next but I knew that even the strongest of shelters would offer little protection from what I expected would soon strike the planet. Every little wind that blew, the slightest breeze which came off the churning sea or the faintest whisper of movement in the night air sent us into a blind panic, fearing that the deadly light and heat were about to return and that the end was at hand.

We eventually reached the end of the beach and stood at the foot of the cliff. Thankfully, it was nowhere near as steep and impassable as it had at first appeared and Samantha quickly began to climb up its jagged face. A narrow path wound and twisted its way through the sharp, sandy rocks and dry, burnt vegetation towards the highest point.

With no thought of the possible consequences and with little consideration for our safety, we clambered up the steep hillside, hoping desperately that we would reach the summit before another deadly energy pulse struck.

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