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Justin was a little nervous about the plane ride, too. Chris had thought that he might be all excited at the idea, and while Justin did want to go along, Chris could see he was apprehensive. The boy had never been up in a small plane before. It seemed best to make a trial run first, to get Justin accustomed to the idea.

Houston has two airports. One is a new one far to the north of the city, the other an old one near the city, now used mostly by small aircraft. The old nearby airport was Chris' choice, though it meant there would be more witnesses and thus more complictions from curious onlookers. He decided to bring along a few of the gang to be sure things didn't get out of hand.

They found a new looking Cessna 172 tied down by the Cessna dealer's. The door to the waiting room was still locked; Chris broke the glass to get in. It took them awhile to pry open the metal cabinet which had all the keys to the planes. They found it full of keys, all neatly labled with the respective plane's ID number. On the wall behind the counter was a large rack of sectional charts, and with a little effort Chris found all the ones he needed for their journey. He thought it best to get them all now, the place might ransacked or burned the next time they came by. The cabinet of keys was put under the seat of the van.

Chris found the plastic-sealed checklist and handed it to Justin. "These are the things we are supposed to check each time before we fly the plane. On the back are the things to check when we're landing."

Justin read the checklist as Chris went over the plane, doing the checkout more thoroughly than he had since his first solo flights. The tanks were full, so they didn't get any water out of the taps, though the plane had been sitting for several weeks. Then they sat and did a mock flight without starting the motor. Justin learned what the important controls were and where they were located, and he loosened up a bit just seeing how comfortable and familiar with the plane Chris was.

The battery was good; the engine started right up. Chris automatically turned on the radio and reached for the mike before starting to taxi, then laughed at himself. He didn't bother to taxi as slowly as he had been taught, but caught himself looking for traffic before crossing a runway.

They turned upwind on the runway, ran the RPM's up with the brakes locked, then released them. The motor felt strong and smooth, and they were up.

They headed east towards Galveston in a steady climb. It suddenly occurred to Chris that we were much safer out of gunshot, in addition to it being easier to navigate from a good height.

Justin tried his hand at the controls with the plane trimmed straight and level at 10 thousand feet. From up here everything seemed so much more normal. Chris loved watching Justin at the controls. Soon we were approching the Gulf of Mexico.

"Shouldn't we stay over land?" Justin asked. "I mean, in case the engine quits or something?"

"We're high enough we could glide for miles. But you're right, we'll stay within gliding distance of the beach."

" You're doing fine," complimented Chris, and after they'd continued on for a few minutes had him turn back towards land.

Chris got out the large detailed sectional map of the Houston area and unfolded it. Houston area. Radio navigation was out of the question, so they would have to do the whole trip by landmarks. Chris was trying to imagine what it would be like over unfamiliar, flat and featureless terrain, but there didn't seem to be any of that this close to Houston. He was so totally engrossed that at first he didn't notice the motor.

They had been in a slow cruise; suddenly Chris noticed that the motor was overrevving. He crumpled the map down into his lap and looked first at the tach needle sitting in the red zone; pulled the throttle back. Then he noticed the sound of rapidly increasing windspeed and looked out the windshield. There was no horizon, no sky to be seen, nothing but water! They were headed straight down!

Chris began pulling back on the yoke, but the creaking of the wings under stress reminded him to do it slowly and he released a bit of his pull.

As soon as the airspeed dropped to a reasonable level Chris put the power back on and soon they were climbing again.

"We really didn't come that close to getting wet," he said in his most reassuring tone, but they certainly had lost the height that made it safe to venture out from shore. Soon they were crossing the shoreline.

Justin was still acting like he'd almost killed them; it was several minutes before Chris could get him to touch the wheel again, and then only if he promised not to open the map.

There seemed to be a dark cloud directly over Houston, and from a distance it bore a curious resemblance to a funnel cloud. Soon they could see that it was smoke coming from what appeared to be the center of the city.

Chris let the altitude drop to about a thousand feet as they neared town.

"Let's fly over it!" demanded Justin. "I want to see the fire!"

They could see an orangish glow from the base of the column of smoke. It was the old part of the city just north of the center, where there were a lot of wooden buildings. About two square blocks were burning, and they could see a couple of firetrucks on the street at one edge of the blaze.

Justin was all excited. "They won't get any water from the fire hydrants," he said. "I wonder if there's a pond or stream around. Then they could get a pumper truck going." But from the air no water could be seen nearby. There wasn't much wind, at least.

They dropped down to about 500 feet and circled back around to the two firetrucks; now it was apparent that they were parked by a supermarket. One firetruck was apparently a tanker, and it sprayed what looked like a tiny stream of water on the side of the building that was smoking while a line of kids emptied the store into a ladder truck.

"I guess they're getting all the bottled liguids," observed Chris. These were the only good source of drinking "water." "I hope they know when to quit."

It was obvious that their feeble stream stood no chance of delaying the fire for long. After the young firefighters exhausted what water was in the tanker truck, all they could really do was wait for the fire to burn itself out.

The airplane was attracting quite a bit of attention, and a few kids took time to look up and wave their arms. As the Cessna swung around again and headed back towards the airport, Chris wondered what would it would be like as food and drink got scarcer. Cities didn't seem to stand much chance.

As they left the fire Chris wondered again if he should be doing more. It seemed as if it were his responsibility to try to take on the impossible task of trying to organize the whole world. But these children began dying as soon as they reached puberty. Chris reminded himself that if he had any resposibility, none could be more important than to find what role he had had in starting the Death. He could only hope that the answer would somehow lead to a way to stop it.

"Every adult on earth couldn't stop the Death, so how can you, Mr. Tilman?" It was the question that occured to him without his wanting to hear, the doubt that weakened his efforts.

"Ah yes," he answered, "but I'm the one who started it. Here I stand at beginning and end of a ring of death that goes around the globe. But there's a gap; the circle hasn't quite closed. There's one left."

As they turned for final approach, Chris knew why he couldn't waste time becoming king, no matter how much order he might bring to the chaos. He would be king of a dying nation, a nation with no one of reproductive age. As they touched down, Chris just wanted to get his things together and get back up into the air as quickly as possible.

"Are you coming?" Chris looked into Justin's green eyes. Chris wanted him to so much, but wasn't convinced it would be the best for either of them.

"I won't go anywhere without Carey," said Justin. "But I won't let you go alone. You might need help. Who's going to hold the wheel while you read the map?"

Chris tilted his head back and laughed; then he saw that the boy wasn't smiling. "You're not joking, are you? Are you sure you want to try it again?"

"No way, I hated it." There was nothing but cold determination in those green eyes, and Chris knew the boy really was frightened. "But who is going to do it?"

The plane would fly straight and level with very little attention as long as there weren't any kids pushing on the yoke, thought Chris, but he couldn't bring himself to say it. And he made up his mind. The boy really would would be as safe with him as in a dying city.

"If Carey comes, then we need someone else, too, to help take care of him."

There was a sudden flash of anger in Justin's face. "I can take care of Carey better than anybody! He turned and kicked a dent into the side of the van.

Chris opened his mouth to explain, but Justin was too busy talking to listen. "How can you say that?" he said in a voice shaking with rage. He was drawing his foot back for another kick when Chris grabbed his shoulders and spun him around. His face was streaked with tears.

"Wait, wait, wait! That's not what I meant." Chris put a hand on each side of the wet face, and the boy stood still, but he still looked ready to explode. "You can take better care of Carey than anybody on Earth, I know that, really. But this is no picnic; there will be times when I will need serious help. We will have to fight, maybe, for food or fuel. We may have to do things we can't even imagine yet, things where Carey can't be involved. And we can't leave just leave him unattended for a few hours or maybe a day or two." Chris could see that he had touched upon an area where Justin had bottled up feelings.

"So we have to decide who's going to come with us." Chris pressed him for an answer. "We have to get going soon, there isn't a lot of time. Who's Carey with now, while we went flying?"

"With Tony Graham. He was going to take Carey with him to the shop."

"How about Tony then? He seems nice enough."

"Yeah, he likes Carey okay too. But I don't know if he would leave the shop that long, in case something might happen to it. He even sleeps there now, you know. And he and Travis are really close. Besides, Carlos thinks Tony is really important to have around."

"Well, maybe you should ask him, anyway."

"How long are we going for?"

Chris thought for a moment. "We have to stop once for fuel on the way; if that isn't a big problem, and if we leave before dawn, we could be there before dusk. If we can find the place okay, well, I think if we find any answers at all we'll get them within a day or two. We refuel again on the way back, and even if we break up the trip with a sleep somewhere along the way, we should still be gone no more than a week. Do you think he would go for a week?"

"It doesn't seem like so long. Maybe if he can get someone to watch the shop. Let's go ask him now. Besides, it's time to pick up Carey anyway."

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Copyright ©1995 R. Verner

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