As he turned onto the clockwise carriageway of the M25, choosing the central lane to express his lack of commitment, Vespasial tried not to think about the frailties of existence. He had sensed the on-coming wave of distortion when he had been about half way along the slip road. He had felt it approach and wash over him. Solid columns of crawling traffic on his right had become empty space suddenly.
It was as if the motorway's much repaired surface had dipped suddenly, sinking across its entire width to divert three lanes of traffic downward at a certain point, shunting them into oblivion to create space for the vehicles in the ever-full slip roads. Vespasial and the motorists ahead and beside him had moved naturally into the vacuum. He knew, without looking in his mirror, that there was nothing behind him, that the slip road was as empty as the motorway to his rear, clear to the limit of his vision.
Only he remained unsurprised by such a bizarre turn of events. He could see heads turning, collisions being narrowly avoided as his fellow voyagers marvelled at their sudden free access to precious motorway territory. He had acquired an event horizon. Anybody who was out of his field of view, along with their immediate environment, disappeared when a distortion wave passed over him.
Vespasial was soon enclosed again. Vehicles zoomed up from beyond the rearward horizon, revelling in the chance to put on a touch of speed, leaving the slowing down to the familiar crawl to the last possible moment. The miracle was soon lost in the 18 mph grind. It had happened but the proof, in the form of free road space, had gone.
Half an hour later, Vespasial felt another distortion wave sweeping up on him, manifesting itself as a weak but definite force lifting him out of his seat. The sensation of a mild reversal of gravity grew stronger. He tried to look both forward and back, through the rain-speckled windscreen and into his rear-view mirror.
The wave passed over him. He felt it rush ahead. His eyes had been focussed on the mirror, so there were still vehicles behind him. The road ahead was clear. Had he imagined hearing the whistle of a jet airliner climbing nearby, perhaps out-bound from Gatwick? A flight crew, passengers and millions of dollars worth of aluminium and electronics might have been once. Now, for certain, they no longer existed.
Vespasial started his windscreen wipers. They were soon smearing oily droplets into a distorted glaze. He found himself wondering again about the range of the phenomenon. Did his personal version of out of sight, out of mind expand with practice or with time? Would he be able to depopulate France during future distortion waves? Would he, by sunset, be depopulating Africa and other parts of the world behind him and far beyond his ken?
Some pretentious bastard had said once on Vespasial's television that whatever he personally [i.e. the pretentious bastard] did not experience did not exist. Vespasial wondered if only he was experiencing distortion waves. It would be ironic if the great destroyer could be wiped out like his victims by coming into range of a fellow sufferer, who had no idea that others were struggling to come to terms with the same disturbing erasure process.
The next wave rolled over him at the Warling interchange, while the traffic was moving at a brisk 43 mph. Vespasial managed to stay aware of the vehicle in front while he looked in his mirror. The white Transit van had no right to brake so suddenly. Vespasial had rammed into the back of it before he realized that it was dangerously close. The man behind, whose life he had preserved with part of his attention, slammed into the back of his car.
Everything happened so quickly. There was a sharp pain in his back, a sensation of a spurt of hot wetness then no messages at all from his legs. They seemed to be trapped, however. Bright red and yellow flames with trailing streamers of black smoke surrounded his car.
The police report on the incident would suggest that someone had been brewing up with a camping stove in the back of the Transit van. The stove had been upset by the impact, spilling fuel, which had ignited, carrying a flame to petrol from a damaged fuel tank.
There was a mild sensation of warmth, but Vespasial found that his main problem was an inability to breathe. As the fire spread, it devoured the oxygen in its greedy heart. Vespasial found himself blacking out. His last thought, as the paint on his bonnet started to sizzle and blister, was that life would have been very lonely if he had continued to push out of existence everyone nearby who did not have his direct attention. He would not have enjoyed being the last man on the planet. ■