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Chapter VIII

            Alice Harding, in what she was sure was her last movement, looked around at the crowd behind her. They had pushed down the ramp in the extremity of torture and were staggering up to where she was lying. She tore at her neck and was able to advance one foot farther before she breathed in nothingness for the last time; she was to die and she knew it.
            Air! AIR. She gulped in great mouthfuls of the precious oxygen-filled gas. Then she knew. The track on which the train ran was slowly ascending uphill. When the air escaped from the city, a small pocket was left in the curvature of the roof; this remained filled with air. She was so thankful! Those below her saw her stand up and shout encouragement to them. Some were too far gone to benefit from her cries; more fortunate ones attained her station and breathed with her. They stood there, sucking in great lungsful of the stuff of life while she, not content to remain where she was, ran on ahead.
            Suddenly, before her, she heard the advance of the subway car. The passageway was narrow and she could tell for sure that the subway would exactly accommodate the cars and nothing, or no one, else. She had been snatched from one death to endure a death no less horrible. She hated prolongation of torment; she ran toward the onrushing train. She wanted to live, but it was useless, she had to die; sobbing she advanced closer to the train. Those behind her were torn between two evils: to stay and be crushed by the cars; to go and be suffocated. Some chose one, some the other. Alice Harding went onward. It was just around the next bend, she could tell; she could see the beam of the headlight flashing up and down on the wall in front of her. In a few short seconds it would be all over. She cried loud and long. She yelled, "Lee, I'm coming," once at the top of her voice, and then she saw the cleft in the wall. She could scarcely believe her eyes. She had never heard of a safety hole cut into the wall; she didn't know! The beam of the light upon the cleft grew stronger; it was close, right at hand. Would she make it? She asked this question herself as she made a dash for its protection. She could hear the clanking of the tracks as the wheels of the cars passed over them. Would she make it? It was a few steps ahead; the engine was a few yards beyond that. The second before the train was upon her, she could see the face of the operator in the reflected light. He was frozen with surprise; she could tell that he didn't even try to touch the brake. It rushed upon her; she rushed toward the hole in the wall. Laughing and crying and kissing the cold hard stone, she leaned against its hard surface as the train whizzed by a few inches behind her. She flattened herself more against the wall. The rush of air from the train was cool on her face. It curled about her hair, caressing. She heard the screeching of steel on steel as the brakes were applied. Those poor guys never had a chance, she thought bitterly. Above the roaring and screeching of the engine she could hear shrill inhuman shrieks. But they stopped before the train stopped. Alice turned around so that she could scan the train windows as they passed to see if anyone had survived. The train started back---she was positive that it was time enough only for the engineer to traverse the length of the train into his position in the rear, now the front, for the trip back to the space port. She could see the headlight again playing on the rocky surfaces of the underground passageway. The engine swept by, she held her breath against the acrid smell of fuel, and the lights that were on in the windows of the passenger cars passed mournfully by. Not a soul! Not one person was on the train save the engineer. All were dead: either crushed or strangled for want of oxygen. The last car swooped past her and she came out of her trench. Following the metal rail with the toe of her shoe she at length came out of the blackness of the tunnel into the dazzling brilliance of the sunlight. No attention was paid to her as she walked slowly from the ground. She was the last one; the last survivor coming from North city---all others were dead.
            She silently, thankfully, took a seat on board the great freighter that had been turned into a merciful human carrier. Unthinkingly she braced herself for the acceleration as the ship left its mooring. It did not press her down as it usually did. Very much surprised, she peeped out of the nearby window. The ship was gently coasting along a thick metal track. A segment of the bubble swung open and the ship coasted onto another ramp. Looking back she saw that the door remained open; usually, she surmised, the door was closed and the air that was in the ship's section was pumped back into the dome proper. "Something like a giant-size airlock," she surmised. It didn't close today; there was no one left below to close it. The ship had opened it by remote control; but it had no power to close it. It didn't matter that the air escaped---there was no one back there to use it. Dead. All dead. The great domed cities that were thrown up by a process of years were torn down by a process of days. The outer lock opened and the stronger gravity that the ship encountered bore heavily upon her. It was a freighter, not built for passengers. She was thankful for any conveyance from the planet of sadness. She had lost her beloved husband, loved even though a mutant, her adopted daughter, her apartment, her personal wealth. As the ship soared into the clouds she could see similar earthquakes shaking the whole of Venus. Some shells were stronger, others were weaker than the one that had fallen over her head. Some were lucky, like her; others were not, like him. She could see other ships soar into the sky. The great Exodus was well on its way.
            "He was five; I was twenty-eight." Alice Harding, schoolteacher, cried in her sleep.