Night had long since passed through into sunrise and Arthur had spent most of the day at the helm of a helicopter. In that time Arthur, X and Sfret had left the major metropolis and were cruising at a reasonable height, zipping over the countryside and farmyards of Southern France. As the rotating canopy cut through the air, Arthur was amazed at the complex combination of advanced gearwork that rendered terrific power to a special canvas spiral with minimal movement of his feet on the driving mechanism and without any effort1. Menaced only by a few ducks driven south by instinct to escape from the coming apocalypse, the scene was rather pastoral and awe-inspiring. X tied his shoes around the wooden frame and dangled his toes over the ledge of the 'copter, letting the wind stream between his toes.
The countryside, Arthur decided, agreed with him. He breathed deep lungfulls of the chilled, crisp air of the higher altitude afforded by the helicopter, taking in the surrounding vista of rolling fields and distant hills. His mind wandered as he did so. Temporarily he forget the zombies in Paris, Anna in the clutches of Mary and Sreka... that home felt very far away....
'Arthur!' X interjected sharply.
Arthur, startled from his reverie, realised the helicopter was listing badly. He corrected it by peddling faster and drawing the paddles back into his chest. The canopy ceased groaning under the strain of the unequal passge of air underneath its arches. 'So S-s-sorry,' he puffed under the effort.
'S'alright,' said X, holding onto the central post for support as the list was corrected. 'I think we'd better land. You've been going on this thing ever since Paris.'
'It's easy when you get the hang of it,' said Arthur 'but I think you're right. We'll take it in turns in future. Besides, it'll be dark soon.'
'What about Sfret?'
'Hmm? Oh, he's all huddled at the back in the basket, murmuring something about 'make it go away'.
'Oh my — he's agoraphobic, remember? This high up he must be terrified.' X looked back towards the rear of the helicopter: 'How are you doing back there?'
'I'll be fine!' came the plaintive cry from the basket suspended over the rear of the 'copter. Hundreds of feet above the ground, made of wicker... with lots of tiny gaps just big enough to peer through....
'We'd better land — if not for Sfret, then to pick up some supplies,' Arthur said.
'There is a garrison on Gibraltar — if we can make it there we can try to contact London and maybe they can get us to Egypt?' volunteered X.
'Mmm, let's just hope it's not gone like Geneva,' Arthur replied darkly.
'Well we can avoid the worst of it up here, but you're right. There's no knowing what we'll find in Gibraltar,' X conceded, 'not to mention the simple fact that the west of Africa is a long way from there and Gibraltar is a long way from here. We'll need food and water for the journey.'
Far below, in the gathering gloom, a welcome thing appeared: lights flared in the windows of a remote farmhouse as lamps were lit and shutters drawn. Arthur watched from behind a low cloud as the sun began sinking below the horizon, ushering forth another blood-red sunset, another such as had begun setting over Paris only 24 hours ago when their steps were haunted by mindless zombies chanting 'Rasputin! Rasputin!'.
X caught sight of Arthur's face. 'No zombies. Let us hope, eh?' he ventured.
'I hope,' said Arthur, begining to glide the 'copter down in a spiral like a sycamore seedling. They landed presently between the chicken coops and the vineyard....
The effects of the End of Days had not yet reached this isolated French farmhouse, and so the same things that always go on in isolated French farmhouses were going on. There was a chilly quality to the light in the studio despite the guttering candles dotted around the shelves and the wooden floor. Juliette, the passionate young oboeist who had withdrawn to the countryside after a tragic car accident made her lose her faith in the life she had known, gazed sullenly into the eyes of Christophe, the callow yet toned young stranger she had hired to pose for her attempt at a photographic elegy for her deceased father, the famous yet emotionally distant architect.
There was a long pause.
'Do you love me?' Juliette said.
There was a long pause. Christophe turned over slightly on the bed and looked at the ceiling. 'I must be up early tomorrow,' he said.
There was an even longer pause. Shadows flickered on the wall.
'I want to die,' said Juliette.
Time stretched out in silence between the two.
'Giscard will pay me to work in his yard,' said Christophe — adding, after a pause, 'I need money.'
There was a long pause.
'I have money,' said Juliette.
There was a long pause, interrupted.
Where the emotionally-fraught exchange might have gone none can tell, because at that moment there was a hammering at the front door and a voice with an English accent yelling: 'Coo-eee! Anybody ho-ome?'
Sfret was stretching his legs in the chicken coop when X lumbered back into the yard under several baskets of food. He scuttled out and lifted a lid. 'Baguettes, cheese, wine, snails... little green things with knees... hmm. Well, I suppose this will be fine,' X muttered as he contemplated the haul from the larder.
'Were the inhabitants zombies?' Sfret inquired.
Arthur strode back into the yard, brushing his sleeve. 'Difficult to say,' he said. 'They were artistic, y'see. The girl asked me to top her and the fellah offered to sleep with me. Bloody peculiar lot if you me.' He gave a shudder of existential dread.
'You feel it, too?' asked X. He hopped into the pilot seat of the helicoptor.
'Yes,' said Arthur, 'we're definitely out of our milieu. Let's get away from these angst-ridden coffee-sippers and back to shooting bad guys.'
'Hear, hear!' offered X as they shot up into the air and lurched off across the dark countryside.
From the window, Juliette watched them go. The sound of the rotors faded and the silence lengthened. She heard Christophe come in from checking the race results on the television. 'I will burn my pictures. I wish I could burn this whole house.'
There was a long pause.
'Cerveauuux...'2 said Christophe.
There was a long, puzzled silence before Juliette rallied. 'You do not love me. But I love you.'
There was a long pause, and then a crunch.
Meanwhile, in Italy, Mary and her cohorts had arrived and disembarked from the truck that had carried them over the Alps, discardng it in an underground car-park. Now they were taking the more leisurely route to Egypt. They were all currently sat in a gondola, the gondolier singing a song that Anna was sure was Rene and Reneta's 'Save Your Love'. So sure that she wouldn't have minded skipping out on her captives and risking a lukewarm death in the Venician canal. She was very uncomfortable. Apart from the obvious cacophony that was a former chart number one, having spent so long in a car boot and having the indignity of Sreka believe she had the beginnings of Stockholm Syndrome when she had started to wink at him. This was, however, the inevitable result of being unable to scratch, her arms tied to her hips.
'— for Roma and for me...' finished the gondolier.
Anna released a sigh of relief.
'... What's a-matta you, hey!'
As the gondola bearing Mary and her band nipped beneath the last arched bridge of Venice's canals and emerged into the wide expanse of the lagoon which surrounded the sunken city, she pointed to the far side of the dock. 'Wake up, boys — there's our ride!' All along the causeway stood some of the world's most imposing cruise liners.
'Ven ve built der liner in Muder Russia — dey were bigger!' Sreka observed, his deep accented growl betraying his Soviet upbringing.
Mary couldn't resist. 'But Andrei, dearest, they didn't float though, did they?'
'This is true.'
Vandeveer scrabbled forward and peered over the prow at the marina terminal. 'How are we going to get on board one of those things?' he enquired.
'Oh, we'll find some handy local bar. There'll be some travellers of some sort; you know the type, Vandeveer — gullible, easily manipulated. We'll make friends, fetch some whiskies and then we'll play poker. By the time I'm through with them we'll either have their tickets and the shirts off their backs, or the funds to afford passage of our own,' Mary said, smiling that smile again.
At the back of the gondola, amid the gurgling sloshing of the water around the strong stern of the craft, Anna sat grumpily, arms crossed, in the shadow cast by the baritone. She'd put up with trilling renditions of'justa wun cornetto!...'
and'livin' la vida loca...'
but the lastest mauling of'down at copa copacobana...'
was simply too much to bear.
'Enough already!' she said, flinging her arms up in frustrated surrender.
The baritone, rested the pole in its stand, allowing the gondola to drift for a moment bent down and lifted up his hat, which shaded his bald head.
'Or what?' said von Trapp menacingly.
Anna just glowered. She was trapped, and she knew it.
Von Trapp detected her quandary: 'You could swim for it, I suppose,' he mused airly, 'but...' he glanced down at the brown depths of Venice's muddy channels, then back at Anna with a wide smirk, 'I wouldn't recommend it.'
'Von Trapp!' shouted Mary down the length of the craft.
'Yes?' he said, taking hold once more of the steering pole and expertly moving the gondola into the central waterway.
'We won't make it across there on open water with that stick you're holding. The lagoon is too deep. Let's alight here and go find some young fools before those ships set sail.'