In the chaos of the evacuation, Michael’s father cuts a reassuring figure. He is not physically imposing: a man of moderate stature, with a faltering gait, he nevertheless carries himself with a reassuring presence as he calls out words of encouragement to those nearby.
‘The unit isn’t too far away now – just another few minutes – and we’ll all be safe before we know it!’
Those who know him best can tell that his voice is too bright, his demeanour too cheery, but they know, too, why he must push through his own anxiety. Against the backdrop of frantic whispers and hurried footsteps, the hisses and squeals of the volcano are growing ever louder.
Michael’s grandmother – a woman of steely determination, in her 80s – walks a short distance behind him. Her pace is rapid, her brow is furrowed, her lips are tight. With one hand, she tightly clings onto a walking stick. With the other, she clutches a bag of treasured keepsakes that she would rather die than leave behind: her wedding veil, a cassette tape of songs she loved as a child in the 1990s, time-weathered pieces of art that her children and grandchildren have made for her in school over the years…
Michael has always prided himself on his ability to run, to dart quickly and effortlessly around all obstacles. Not for nothing has he won the All-Island Schools’ Race two years in a row. His only problem is Murphy, his much-loved Labrador. She trudges resentfully behind him, uttering low groans of protest every time he tries to chivvy her along.
‘Murphy, come on,’ he implores her.
Murphy lets out a deeply pained sigh, plonks herself down on the ground and stares at him with baleful eyes.
‘Dad. Dad! Daaaad…‘
His father turns around, looking slightly startled, and tuts. ‘Pick her up, Michael. The poor dog can’t walk like she used to, I’m always telling you that…’
‘Murphy would love to walk, if she could,’ Michael says disconsolately, staring down at his tired companion. ‘I know she would. She hates being carried.’
Murphy can only gaze sadly at him in return. She is, without question, his best friend. They’ve always stuck together. They were both born during the summer of 2058, after the infamous drought that wiped out five percent of the Island’s population and hospitalised many more…
An enormous wave crashes onto the cliff face directly below them. Michael shivers. Nasty storm conditions have been predicted to batter the Island over the coming days – as if the eruption wasn’t bad enough – and the evidence of that has been quickly gathering all afternoon.
‘Right, that’s it, come on,’ his grandmother shouts impatiently. ‘Michael – just pick her up, right now, and get moving!’
Michael hurriedly scoops up the elderly dog, despite her whimpers of dissent, and hurries along with the crowd.
As they draw nearer to the escape unit, with rows of sleek pods lined up outside, custom-made to fit each Islander, he begins to feel slightly sick. He has been through several practice sessions with the pods in school – all of the Island’s children have – but now that he is faced with the reality of having to use one, he has forgotten everything his teachers told him. The last time the Islanders had to use these pods en masse was shortly before he was born.
And as for the chutes they are supposed to travel through – there are so many of them, pointing up into the sky, further than his eye can travel…
His family have been assigned two chutes near the base of the unit. Michael’s grandmother leads the way, briskly striding to one of the pods nearby.
One of the unit assistants reaches out to her. ‘Let me help, Julianne…’
‘Don’t fuss, I’ll be fine,’ she says briskly, swatting away the assistant’s hand as she lowers herself into the pod and straps herself in. ‘I’ve been dealing with this kind of thing since long before you were born!’ She locks eyes with Michael and his father, to bestow a small smile of reassurance upon them both. ‘Michael, Jonathan: I’ll see you up there.’ Seconds later, the door of her pod has come down, and she is off, whizzing through one of their assigned chutes at breakneck speed.
‘You go next, Michael,’ the assistant urges him brightly. ‘Little Murphy will be going in with you, I take it? Make sure you hold on tight…’
Murphy lets out a worried yelp as the door of the pod smoothly slides down, securing them from the outside world. Through the glass, Michael sees his father shooting him an anxious look. He will not join them just yet – he needs to stay behind and help the frailest Islanders first.
‘Murphy,’ Michael whispers, as soothingly as he can, ‘I know you hate this, but please … you have to stay still. Please.’
The terrified dog writhes around in his arms, scratching at the glass and howling in desperation.
‘Please, Murphy. You know I’ll protect you, nothing can happen to you while you’re with me…’ He plants a kiss on her head and holds her close to his chest as the pod begins to pulsate gently. One last glimpse of his father – who, like Julianne, gives him a reassuring smile – and they are off: the chute walls whizzing around them as the pod picks up speed.
Murphy is now emitting a piercing screech that Michael has never heard from her before.
He closes his eyes tightly as they hurtle onwards.
The risk of crashing is negligible: he knows that. One of his teachers told him that the walls of the chute are fitted with a magnetic lining that automatically repels the pod, so they cannot crash, even as their pod twists and turns at a dizzying speed. He knows, logically, that he is not about to die, but the constant turning – the sharp angles, the loops – are making him nauseous. Murphy is now clawing at his chest, her eyes wild.
‘I k-kn-know, M-M-M-uuurph-ph-phy,’ he attempts to say, stroking her head. ‘It-t-t-t’ll b-b-beee oo-oo-kaaayyy…’
Before long, he notices that the chute is starting to widen.
The pod’s movements gradually become slower and slower, and the chute wider and wider, until they find themselves floating into an orb-shaped chamber. Their pod is suspended and manoeuvred into the correct position by the magnetic lining of the chamber walls. They are now moving towards a small archway set into the adjoining wall, with a landing pad to the front. Julianne’s pod is already there, with Julianne herself standing beside it, frowning as she pulls out her bag to check that all is intact.
Michael’s pod hovers over the shelf for a moment – Julianne spots him and waves, beaming – before landing on it with a gentle thump.
‘We’ve stopped,’ he whispers slowly – hardly daring to believe it – then laughs uproariously. ‘We’ve stopped, Murphy! Everything is okay!’
With immense relief, he presses a button next to him that he has been assured will unlock the door. As it begins to rise, he scrambles to remove his seatbelt. ‘Come on, girl … let’s go.’
Murphy is reluctant to leave the pod – Michael can see that she is still somewhat dazed. She plonks her head over his chest, places her front paws on his shoulders and stares reproachfully at him, as though wondering what calamity is about to befall her next.
‘Ah, Michael,’ his grandmother announces crisply, appearing alongside him and offering a hand to help pull him out. ‘Are you okay? Good boy. Take it slowly, now – don’t rush. Just stand up and step out at your own pace…’