Read by Max Berendt
Shortly before the end of the world, Kyle, while trying to read an obscured street sign, accidentally ran a red light on the Dalston Kingsland road. The traffic camera blinked away the last points on his much-maligned licence and, as he caught the flash in the rear view, he hurled an expletive through the half-wound-down-as-far-as-it-would-go window, startling a passing hipster into dropping his fairtrade Ethiopean double-decaf soya latte.
He hadn't expected to get his wish – any of them. But even before the penalty charge notice had a chance to drop through his South Tottenham letterbox, the nano-vax claimed the first of its many victims: one Julius Sanneh, its erstwhile inventor. The good doctor had hoped his self-replicating miniature machines would solve global warming, by converting organic waste into its base constituents, water, oxygen, and, crucially, a fine carbon powder rather than the usual greenhouse gases of methane and carbon dioxide.
The problem was, he hadn't quite managed to teach his machines what was waste and what was not, before he turned them on. Kyle sat glued to the all-channels newsflash as a nervous looking junior reporter called time on the end of the world, at 13:04 one Tuesday afternoon, before staring at her rapidly disintegrating hand and dissolving into a dense, sooty cloud.
Presumably, if there had been anyone to turn the camera off or away from her desperate plight, they would have done so. But there wasn't, so they didn't.
Kyle sat watching nothing happen in the now empty studio, then he watched the emergency message test card, and then grey static, until finally the TV clicked off at the same time as the lights. He sat in the dark, awaiting his demise. But, whether for reasons genetic, Kyle's total inertia, or through pure dumb luck, it didn't come. The day that had started sunny turned black, thick smog blotting the sky. Kyle shuddered, remembering the cloud that had briefly held the reporter's form before spreading out across the news desk. He imagined that cloud multiplied by ten, by a thousand, by a million. By the entire population of London.
It was “I would walk 500 miles” coming from his mobile that snapped him out of it. He'd tried his phone earlier, in the aftermath of mankind's televised epitaph, but it had said “Network Busy” and then, an alarmingly short time later, he could get through but there was no-one who would, or could, pick up his call. Nothing but voicemail that would never be retrieved.
He peered at his cracked screen as the Proclaimers ring-tone played on. It displayed a number whose ID he'd deleted years back, too painful a reminder that she never called any more.
“Angeline?” he muttered, wondering if this was a dream, or the afterlife.
“Kyle! Thank God,” Angeline whimpered. “I thought I was the only one... it's been... awful... terrible...”
“Where are you?” Kyle asked.
“At my parents’ place,” Angeline sobbed. “They're... everyone's... oh... oh I need you Kyle! Please, come and get me.”
Kyle wondered, just for a moment, how many other numbers she'd called before she'd got to his. She'd broken his heart, but, from what he'd been able to gather since, he wasn't the first and he wasn't the last.
She was the reason he'd left Scotland, something he previously claimed he would never do. Fled down south and ended up in the heathen hell that was London: doubly forsworn.
But, if it was just Angeline and him left alive...
“I'll be there as soon as I can,” he heard himself say, before the phone cut out and flashed its last ever message, a plaintive: “No Service Available”.
Exiting the flat, not bothering to lock up behind him, he discovered he had a choice of vehicles for the long journey ahead. He could climb into his beaten up Daihatsu with its back seat of takeaway wrappers and energy drink empties, or there, sitting next to it and with the door hanging invitingly open, keys in the ignition and engine idling, was his neighbour's lovingly cared for Audi TT.
Well, why the hell not? he thought. That odious toe rag of an English banker wasn't going to need it any more.
It took him longer to brush the scattered coins and the gritty, black layer from the driver seat and inside windscreen, than it took before he ran into stalled traffic at Tottenham Hale. The gyratory was gridlocked, silent and still.
He half-wished the nano-vax had vanished 99.7% of the cars, as well as their owners.
Abandoning the Audi he walked to the head of the congestion, where the burnt out remains of a minibus suggested that turning drivers and passengers into highly flammable carbon-rich vapours wasn't ideal for road safety.
A sleek Jaguar a short distance beyond the crash was his next choice, but got him no further than the Audi, despite clearer roads. It had obviously idled to the point where the tank contained only petrol fumes. A disappointment, that: he'd always wanted to drive a Jag, but this one wasn't going anywhere. Nor, it seemed, was he. At this rate, he might indeed end up walking those 500 bloody miles.
Trudging over a railway line close to the M25, he looked down on a stalled diesel train and once again thought: why not? Okay, he'd never driven a train before, but how hard could it possibly be? The things ran on rails.
Scrambling down the cutting, he avoided looking too closely at the blackened windows of the passenger carriages. Pulling himself up to the cab, he yanked the emergency door release to gain entry.
A bewildering array of toggles and lights greeted him. What did they all do? But there was a green button next to a dangling set of keys and a swing arm lever that presumably controlled the speed. The rest, he hoped, were optional extras.
He eased the swing arm forward and it pushed back. A dead man's handle: no wonder the ghost train had come to a controlled stop. But now it lurched into eager motion and he “Whoo! Whoo!”'d as it sped up.
An hour later the train was once again at a standstill. Something was evidently wrong. Every time he tried to coax it forward it buzzed harshly and refused to move. He'd tried using the keys to turn it off and back on again, but to no avail.
It and he were also, surprisingly, lost. Initially the tracks had followed the canal and the motorway and it hadn't worried him that he didn't recognise the names of the small stations they'd passed through. But now he was surrounded by fields and trees, with neither road nor station in sight. Just a windsock for a small airfield, itself more field than runway.
Well, Kyle thought, needs must ...
Of course, he'd never actually flown a plane before either. But he'd practised for hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator back in the day when that was a thing. He'd wanted to fly a Spitfire, but found the simulator too realistic and the Spitfire too unforgiving, so he'd spent most of his virtual time in a Cessna just like the one currently parked at the end of the thin strip of tarmac. He was ready for this, he was sure.
Plus, how ineffably cool would it be to swoop down on Angeline's ancestral pile, a heroic Adam to her beautiful, distraught and ever so grateful Eve?
As Kyle's ideas went, this one was one of his shorter-lived. He came to in a ditch, feeling thick blood drip from his broken nose and watching stars drift along the edges of his vision. Flying a plane was a lot harder than it looked.
Perhaps he should abandon his attempt to travel all the way to Scotland. Find a nearby farmhouse, scavenge some supplies, and start planning for an uncertain future, alone. Perhaps Angeline would have to do the same. After all, how else could he get there?
Two weeks later Kyle pedalled up the long driveway towards the granite edifice of Angeline's family home, glad his arduous journey was nearly over. Even this last stretch was a slog, his tanned thighs burned with the steep incline. As he cycled past the rampant griffins atop the pillars of the inner courtyard, his jaw dropped at the sight of a dozen luxury cars: an assortment of Maseratis, Lamborghinis, and one angular wedge he was sure he'd only ever seen before on Top Gear.
A cohort of tall young men, dressed in ill-fitting tweeds and mostly carrying shotguns, appeared on the grand house's steps, looking distinctly unwelcoming. He thought he recognised one or two; they were all very much Angeline's type. She eased her way through them, looking stunning, as ever, but no happier to see him.
“Ah... Kyle...” she said with a frown, as though he were a delivery man inconveniently arriving on the wrong day. “I didn't think you were coming?”
He squinted up at her. “It wasn't easy,” he said, by way of reply.
“No... I suppose not.” She took in his swollen, still livid nose, the thick stubble on his chin, and the sweat-stains on what remained of his trousers after he'd hacked off the legs. “I'm afraid there's not much room for you here.”
Kyle observed the strict hierarchy of the men the stone steps; the split lips and black eyes of those nearest the bottom, the tallest and fittest cradling their superior looking weapons and firing daggers at each other from the top. Angeline and eight of her exes, all heavily armed and battling for dominance. He wondered how that was going to work out. Perhaps it was best to let nature take its course.
“No worries,” he shrugged.
He free-wheeled his way back to the bottom of the curving drive, thinking about the array of shotguns and the dead stag draped over the nose of the muddied Ferrari. He'd assumed he'd have to learn how to farm, once the canned goods went past their use-by date, but with all those unattended sheep and cows, and all the deer and other game that Scotland was so famous for, perhaps hunter-gatherer was a better way forward.
Hitting the main road at speed he almost ran straight into the convertible E-type Jag, in racing green. As he picked himself out of the hedge, the driver, a young woman with the voice of Patsy Stone from Ab Fab, called out: "Terribly sorry! I didn't think there was anyone left to crash into!"
He protested that he was okay, while looking at the sorry wreck of his bike. The lass, who improbably turned out to be called Eve, helped him into the passenger seat of the motor, smiling as he ran a loving hand along the walnut dash.
"Liberated from the Classic Car Museum at Newburn Hall," she chuckled, then glanced up the road Kyle had hurtled down.
“Any luck up at the big house?"
He shook his head. “Couldn't find a way in,” he said. “Besides, it'll be a pig to keep warm come winter. But there's a cosy hunting lodge the other side of the loch, with fresh water, a wood burning stove and just about everything a couple of survivors might need."
He pulled the seatbelt over his shoulder, fondly remembering the love nest that Angeline had so quickly grown out of. "And I know where they keep the keys.”
(c) Liam Hogan, 2016
With stories in 21 anthologies, multiple Liars' MVPs, winner of the Sci-Fest LA's Roswell Award 2016, the Worthing WOW Festival's Writing for Children Prize 2016 and the Quantum Shorts Contest 2015, Liam Hogan might actually be kind of okay at this short story lark. All he needs to do now is stop killing everybody off and write a bloody novel. http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/
Max Berendt studied drama at Manchester University and trained at Mountview. Theatre credits include The Trial (BAC: Total Theatre Award), Peer Gynt (Arcola), Journey’s End (West End), and The Devil is an Ass (The White Bear). Max works regularly as a voiceover artist and in immersive theatre. Most recently in Door in a Wall's Appetite for Murder.