Point of no return
News from London is contradictory and confusing. Official sources talk of at least nine separate terrorist attacks, including explosions at the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament, London Bridge, Leicester Square, and Buckingham Palace. A source at Scotland Yard has said that several terrorist cells are being actively pursued through London, and that more attacks are feared. There is still no clear news of which chemical or biological agent has been deployed. Eyewitness accounts tell of military roadblocks, bulldozers piling bodies in public parks, and execution-style shootings to contain certain areas of the population. Whatever is true, it’s certain that this is a tragedy of extreme magnitude, and CNN will, of course, be broadcasting throughout the day to bring you updates as and when they become available.
— CNN: Tragedy in London, 12:42 p.m. EST, July 28, 2019
Sparky crouched down low, a knife held in each hand, relying on the light from everyone else’s torches to give him sight. Jack stood beside him to the left, but Sparky took a step forward, insisting that he be the first.
Jack had once seen his friend get into a fight with someone twice his age and a foot taller than him. The man had stormed in with fists waving and a shit-eating grin, catching Sparky one on the chin. Sparky had staggered back, ducked down, kicked him in the nuts, and when the guy fell over Sparky put the boot in. Thirty seconds later the man was out cold.
Sparky was not one to mess with, and he’d never been afraid of the sight of his own blood. Jack knew what Sparky’s brother had become, and sometimes, like now, his friend actually scared him.
More shadows darted from the tunnel at the other end of the room. Torch lights flickered and bobbed after them, but the dogs possessed an almost supernatural ability to dodge into darkness.
The first hound emerged from behind a stone column and jumped at Sparky. Jack almost laughed: it was a King Charles Spaniel, its black and white coat smeared with mud, long ears flopping back as it leapt at his friend. But the laughter died in Jack’s mouth when he saw the animal’s teeth, its lips pulled back in a furious growl, and he realised how wild this dog had become. If anyone had ever stroked it with affection, the animal’s memories of such moments were long forgotten.
Sparky stepped to the side and lashed out, but the dog snapped at his arm, catching his wrist with its sharp teeth. Sparky grunted and dropped a knife.
Jack took two steps and kicked the dog just as it landed on all fours. Distracted by the taste of Sparky’s blood, it had not seen his foot coming, and his boot caught it beneath the jaw. Its head jerked up and back with a sickening
Sparky knelt beside the dog and buried his remaining knife in its throat.
The animal squealed and howled, kicking its back legs, pinned to the ground by the blade. The sounds it made were piteous, and Jack glanced back at the others. He was pleased to see that Emily had her face buried in Jenna’s shoulder.
“Look out!” Lucy-Anne shouted. She came toward him in a blur, and for a moment Jack was disorientated, his girlfriend’s torch flashing across his eyes and blinding him to the shadows.
Something hit him in the hip. It was warm and wet, and he realised that was a dog’s nose nuzzling at the fat of his waist, and beneath that was the warmth of blood as its teeth broke his skin and it tried to burrow inside.
“Pitbull,” Jenna said. “They were banned years ago.”
“Someone forgot to tell that one,” Lucy-Anne said. She was with him now, standing with her back to his so that together they could see all around. “Lucky. You must have caught it just right to drive it away, but it’ll-”
“Lucky? My guts are pouring out and-”
“Don’t be a wimp,” she said, her voice high with panic. “Just a scratch. Sparky?”
Sparky stood from the dog now lying dead at his feet, wiping his knife quickly on its coat. His face looked grey, eyes deep and dark. His right hand and wrist were black with blood. “Yeah.”
“Get your torch out,” Lucy-Anne said.
“Here they come!” Jenna shouted.
Light beams wavered and flashed, shadows danced, and within those shadows were the dogs. Jack could not count them, and in the chaos of the next couple of minutes he made no effort to do so. He simply fought. He kicked and punched, swung his torch, slashed out with his knife, edging close to Emily and keeping her at his back so that she was sandwiched between him and Jenna.
Rosemary seemed to drift in and out of the light, her arms and legs twisting and thrashing as she did her best to keep the dogs away from her flesh.
Jenna had started using her knapsack as a weapon, swinging it back and forth and-if a dog chose the moment between swings to come at her-kicking out with her heavy boots. Dogs yelped and growled, people roared and screamed, and Jack tried to stay focussed.
A flash of yellow to his left marked the third attack by a dog he thought was a Labrador, though it was ragged and thin. Its fur was streaked dark, its muzzle wet with blood. Jack hoped it was its own.
As the animal leaped, he ducked low and thrust up with the knife. The dog’s paws scraped the side of his head and it howled. He felt a gush of warmth across his hand. Swinging his torch around, he was just in time to see the wounded animal dragging itself away between stone columns.
He looked around at the others. Sparky was fighting the pitbull, using his feet and knees to keep it away from him as he slashed out with his knife. His right hand was hanging by his side now, and blood had darkened his jeans. The dog was mad, foaming at the mouth, growling, scrabbling at Sparky’s legs with its claws and gnashing its teeth. For every wound the boy put in its body, it gave him one back.
Behind Jack, Jenna still had Emily. His sister seemed unhurt, though she was looking around with unbridled terror. He hoped she did not try to run. Jenna hefted her backpack, caught Jack’s eyes, smiled.
Lucy-Anne had picked up Sparky’s dropped knife and was kneeling on the ground, stabbing repeatedly at a meaty mess that had once been a dog. For an instant Jack thought it was the King Charles Spaniel that Sparky had brought down, but then he saw that this animal was larger, its legs black and brown. She stabbed, slashed, hacked, and though the creature was obviously dead, her rage seemed to be growing.
“Jenna,” Jack said, glancing back at his sister and friend.
Yet again, Jenna seemed to read his mind. She glanced past Jack at Lucy-Anne. “Go,” she said. “I’ve got Emily.”
Keeping an eye out for the injured Labrador, Jack hurried across to Lucy-Anne. As he drew close she span around and crouched, bloody knife in one hand, the other held out for balance. And for a moment shorter than a blink, he thought she was going to come at him. Her eyes were white pools in a face smeared with blood, her teeth bared, and she reminded him of one of their crazed attackers.
“It’s dead,” Jack said. A waving torch beam played across the corpse at Lucy-Anne’s feet. Steam rose.
Lucy-Anne’s eyes closed slightly, her lips softened over her teeth, and she stood.
“Watch out!” Emily called.
A yellow blur erupted from the shadows and struck Lucy-Anne from behind. She went down, eyes widening in surprise now rather than fury, and dropped Sparky’s knife. Jack actually heard the wind knocked from her as she hit the ground, the Labrador falling on top of her.
He went to help, but not fast enough. The dog bit into the back of Lucy-Anne’s neck, jaw working as it tried to penetrate skin, flesh and gristle. It shook its head, and as Jack thrust his knife between its ribs Lucy-Anne shrieked, a terrible sound that turned wet.
Sparky appeared by his side, kicking at the dog even as Jack stabbed it again. It died with a violent shudder. Sparky heaved it off, and Jack had to use his knife to prise its jaws apart, away from Lucy-Anne’s neck. Someone kept their torch played on her, and Jack wished he could not see so much detail.
“The other one?” he asked.
“Dead,” Sparky said. “All four, dead. Let’s just hope there are no more.”
“This is the same pack,” Rosemary said.
Sparky surged upright, and from the corner of his eye Jack was aware of a flash of movement, a growl of anger. “You led us down into this!” Sparky said. He grabbed Rosemary by her coat’s collar and almost lifted her, pushing her back against one of the stone columns. “We followed you down here, and all the time you knew what could be waiting for us!”
“I was afraid you wouldn’t come!”
Lucy-Anne was moaning before him, Emily was crying, face pressed into Jenna’s neck, and now Sparky was about to beat on the old woman. Jack knew they did not need this at all.
“Sparky!” he shouted. His friend turned. “I need you here. We’re through it, but we’re all hurt.”
Sparky let go and came slowly to Jack’s side. He was looking down at Lucy-Anne. There was so much blood.
“I’ll help her first,” Rosemary said. “Then you, Sparky. Then Jack. I think Jenna and Emily are unhurt, so-”
“You’re not laying your pissing hands on me!” Sparky said. “No way! Bloody witch.”
Lucy-Anne groaned again, trying to roll over onto her back. She raised one hand and clawed at Jack’s boot, her fingers hooking into a lace. He felt her pull as she tried to sit up, but he leaned forward and eased her back down, whispering to her, telling her everything was going to be all right.
“She needs you now,” he said, looking up at Rosemary.
The woman came. Jack backed away slightly, but he would not let go of Lucy-Anne’s hand. He watched as Rosemary laid her hands on the girl’s wounds, and he remembered the way it had felt when she had been healing the knife wound in his leg. There had been an intrusion there, an invasion of his flesh, but then he had passed out. Now, it was his turn to watch.
Rosemary healed Lucy-Anne’s wounds from the inside out. Her hand seemed to enter the girl’s torn neck, neither aggravating nor enlarging the existing wounds. Her fingers went deep. Then she slowly withdrew them, the tendons on the back of her hand flexing and stretching constantly, the fingers moving like individual living things as they emerged. By the time Rosemary had removed her hand fully, Lucy-Anne had stopped groaning.
The woman kept her fingertips in contact with the torn skin until it was healed over, and as she sat back with a sigh Jack leaned forward with his torch, searching for where the ugly bite marks had been, seeking the torn flesh, but finding smooth skin marred only by a smear of drying blood.
The others were silent. They had all been watching.
“That hand?” Rosemary said, nodding at Sparky’s tattered right hand and wrist. The boy came forward, and Rosemary went to work again.
They waited in that subterranean room for an hour or more. Rosemary healed Sparky’s hand and Jack’s hip, and then she went back to Lucy-Anne and touched her more minor wounds. There were cuts and scrapes, bruises and bumps, and Rosemary’s hands fixed them all.
Jack sat with Emily for a while, hugging her and talking with her. She no longer seemed to be afraid. He was once again stunned at how resilient his young sister was, and he wished he could live in the moment like her. The dead dogs disturbed her somewhat, but only because of the bloody meat of their injuries. The amazement at what Rosemary was doing seemed to wipe fear from the slate of her mind, and she watched wide-eyed as the woman touched cut skin and healed it without leaving a scar.
“It’s just amazing,” she said, over and over, and Jack could only agree. But he was still shaken by the attack. And however benevolent Rosemary’s touch was now, he could not help wondering how much more she had decided to keep from them.
Jenna came and sat beside them, and she and Emily giggled over something Jack could not hear. The girls had always been close-Emily seemed to be the sister that Jenna had never had-and right now Jack was very grateful for that. He tried not to feel selfish, but sometimes he needed time. Sometimes, he needed to be on his own.
And other times, there were things he did not want Emily to hear.
“Alligators?” he said, kneeling beside Rosemary. The old woman had sat against one of the side walls, resting her head back against the stone and closing her eyes. She seemed tired. Jack did not care. “Snakes? A pride of lions? What more will we have to face before we get there?” He was speaking quietly, but he was aware of Sparky watching him from across the basement. They’d arranged two torches so that they gave much of the room a diffused, even light, and Sparky had taken it upon himself to collect the four dogs’ corpses into one pile.
“Hopefully no more,” the woman said. “Jack, listen to me. You’re the leader of this little group, whether the others realise or acknowledge that, or not.”
“We have no leader,” he said.
“Not true. You know that. I think maybe it’s because you have Emily, and you have to keep rooted. Have to stay strong.”
“I’m looking after her.”
“I didn’t come here for compliments,” he said. “I came to ask you: Is there anything else you haven’t told us?”
“About the tunnels, and the route to London? No. The dogs attacked me, I escaped, and the rest of my journey was uneventful. But about London itself? Yes, there’s plenty I haven’t told you. Some amazing things, and some horrible.”
“Like the Nomad?” Jack asked, fishing for information. “We heard about that. A thing haunting London from before, untouchable and tortured. A legend, I suppose, but it sounded amazing
“A legend?” Rosemary said, shrugging and glancing aside. “Perhaps. London is full of them, now. There’s so much you’ll have to find out for yourself.”
Jack looked across to Emily and Jenna, then at Sparky dragging the last dog’s corpse across the ground. Lucy-Anne sat against a stone pillar, looking at the knife Sparky had let her keep, its reflection travelling the room as she turned it slowly in her hand. He considered what Rosemary had said, and nodded.
“That’ll do for now,” he said. “But you know the trust is damaged, don’t you?”
“I know. And I wish I could do something to repair it.”
“Tell us the truth from now on,” Jack said, standing. “That’ll do, for a start.” He walked away, but paused a few steps from Rosemary. He turned around and patted his hip where the dog had chewed into him. “Rosemary. Thanks for…”
The old woman nodded and smiled.
On their way into the tunnel from which the dogs had emerged, Rosemary pointed out the evidence that this basement had once been below a church. In the corner beside the tunnel mouth stood a font, its water bowl cracked and covered in moss. The little water that stood in there was so black that it could have been blood.
“I wonder if the church is still up there?” Jenna said, looking up at the ceiling. “And if it is, maybe someone’s in there right now.”
“We’re in a different place now,” Lucy-Anne said, her voice was low and quiet. She felt haunted. She wondered just how close she’d come to dying, and she thought about asking Rosemary the next time they had a quiet moment. But on the other hand, she wasn’t sure she really wanted to know.
“This tunnel’s another reason I think this was a church,” Rosemary said. “It’s long, and there are a few places where it used to branch off. I think it might have been an escape tunnel between churches hundreds of years ago.”
“Escape from what?” Emily asked.
“Persecution,” Jenna said. “People of one religion not liking people of another. Hunting them. Sometimes killing them.”
Emily snorted. “That’s just
They left the basement room splashed with droplets of their own blood and the promise of rot. Sparky and Rosemary went first this time, Lucy-Anne walking on her own behind them, the others following her. Jack approached her a couple of times, but she gave him a distant smile and shook her head.
As she walked, she tried to remember the other strange dreams and nightmares she’d been having. But though she knew they were there, they kept themselves hidden well away.
Emily walked just ahead of him, filming again. He could see the viewing screen of her camera, and noticed that much of the time it was focussed on Lucy-Anne’s back.
“So who do you think left the picture of your mother?” Jenna asked quietly. She was walking at their rear. Jack glanced back at her and shrugged.
“At first, I thought it was obvious. Her. Rosemary. But now I’m not so sure. She swore she didn’t put the pictures there, and why would she lie if she did? We’d already committed to coming in with her. We’d have committed to it even if she told us about the dogs.”
“She was just being cautious,” Jenna said. “I guess there was always a chance we’d never meet them.”
“A chance, yeah.”
Emily must have heard them chatting, because she turned and walked backward for a while, training her torch and the camera lens on them. Jack gave her a thumbs-up, and Jenna laughed and waved.
“The intrepid explorers venture deeper into unknown territory…” Emily whispered into the microphone, hurrying on ahead until she walked beside Sparky. He gave her a goofy grin and started making faces at the camera, obviously enjoying the attention.
“So if it wasn’t Rosemary, then who?” Jenna asked. “Bit of a coincidence.”
“A lot of one,” Jack agreed. The tunnel was wider here, and he and Jenna started walking side by side. It was easier to talk that way, and he enjoyed making eye contact with her. She was a good friend. “I dunno, I feel a bit…”
“I know,” Jenna said. “You know your mum’s alive, but Sparky and Lucy-Anne are walking into the dark.”
“That’s one way of putting it.” Jack smiled and reached out, squeezing Jenna’s shoulder. She surprised him by leaning in quickly and giving him a strong hug, then going on ahead.
“Your turn to bring up the rear,” she said. “The quiet we’ve left behind gets heavy after a while.”
“I’ve got big shoulders.”
They went on, and Jack discovered that Jenna was right. Before him was subdued chatter, the sound of shoes scraping the floor and clothes brushing against the walls. Behind him…nothing but darkness and silence. They both took on weight very quickly.
He thought a little about what Lucy-Anne had said before the dogs attacked, about dreaming it. Strange, but she was a strange girl. Back when they’d still been sleeping together, she’d frequently woken up with a start, always claiming to not remember the nightmares that had woken her. She’d suffered more than all of them, he supposed, being left on her own in that big, empty house. She must have a head full of nightmares.
The tunnel ended in another room, smaller than the basement where the dogs had attacked. From here Rosemary led them through a series of small chambers and connecting tunnels, and here and there they passed through tumbled walls, crawling and squirming their way through narrow gaps. Beyond, they entered a place that kept its origins a mystery: tunnel or cave? It was difficult to decide, and Jack spent half an hour trying to make out which was the case. The place had an uneven floor and fissures across its walls and ceiling, but here and there he was sure he could make out tool marks.
Sparky’s shout startled him from his contemplation.
“Hey, you lot! I’m bloody starving! Rosemary says there’s a place up ahead where we can stop for lunch.”
At the mention of food, Jack’s stomach rumbled. The fact that he was still hungry after what they had been through, he saw as a good sign.
They found somewhere beautiful. It was so unexpected that Jack had to blink several times to make sure everything was real. They climbed some stone steps and emerged inside a ruined church, its walls blackened by an old fire, charred ceiling timbers littering the floor, windows long-since vanished and steeple tumbled down. But the walls were still solid, and because the roof had gone, the insides were a riot of wild undergrowth, unchecked for many years. A thick, heavy curtain of clematis covered two walls, smothering window openings and bursting with pink and yellow flowers. Another wall hung with wisteria, swinging with pendulous sprays of mauve blooms, and the final wall, below which the remains of what may have been an altar lay in ruins, was home to a gorgeous, heavily thorned yellow rose. The floor of the church was awash with colour and a low, tangled plant that Jack could not identify.
“Wow,” Jenna said. Nobody else could think of anything more suitable, so they stared around in silence.
“Sorry,” Rosemary said. “I forgot to tell you about this place, as well.”
Jack smiled. And then Emily was running, dashing here and there, filming, lifting shrub branches and delving beneath, and a robin landed on a bush close to where they all stood.
“Seems quite tame,” Lucy-Anne said. “How close are we to people in here?”
“We’re right on the edge of the Exclusion Zone.” Rosemary spoke quietly, as though to mention those words could spoil this place.
“This has been ruined for more than two years, though,” Sparky said.
Rosemary shrugged. “I assume so. Just another part of the route that Philippe gave me.”
“So where to from here?” Jack asked.
“A dangerous part,” the woman said. “The riskiest when it comes to being seen. A dash across the old churchyard, then over a narrow road that used to lead to a housing estate. It leads nowhere now, but it’s still close to the Exclusion Zone, and there may be military patrols.”
“After that?” Lucy-Anne asked.
“Down again. A dried-up stream that leads to an old sewage treatment works. A tunnel. Then under the Exclusion Zone, and we’ll be in London.”
“We’re that close?” Sparky said.
Rosemary nodded at the clematis-covered wall. “It looks like a clear day. Take a look.”
Sparky glanced at Jack, frowning, but Emily had been listening and she was there before all of them. She snuggled herself through the trailing clematis plant, pushing through with the camera, and then they all heard her intake of breath. Jack did not realise just how much she had been nattering commentary at the camera until she stopped.
“Emily?” he said.
“It’s all gone.” Her voice was very small, and very vulnerable.
Sparky and Lucy-Anne pulled aside the hanging plants, and the four of them pushed their way through, standing beside Emily by one of the empty window openings.
They had all heard many stories of the Exclusion Zone, read plenty of eyewitness accounts of what it looked like, and over the past two years there had been at least a dozen drops of photographs of this place close to Camp Truth. But some things simply had to be seen.
Jack could barely believe that such talent for destruction could exist in humankind.
There were buildings around the church-houses, shops, and the blocky outline of an old school. They all seemed to be abandoned. Beyond them, to the east, was a place where similar buildings had once stood. Now, there was only ruin. No wall had been left standing, and the piles of rubble, some higher than Jack’s head, disappeared into the distance. They reminded him of scenes he’d seen of the Sahara, only these dunes were of brick, slate, and stone, rather than sand. Many areas had been scoured by fire, scars on the grey landscape that had reduced the rubble to dull black boils. A few tree stumps were visible, but even these had been bulldozed down or destroyed in explosions.
Here was the Exclusion Zone, created by the Choppers to protect the rest of Britain from what had happened in London. Here was the terrible evidence of the government’s scorched earth policy, an attempt to create an unbreachable cordon across which no one could go, and nothing could come. Here was destruction, and beyond, perhaps two miles distant, Jack could see a line of buildings standing in the hazy summer heat.
There was London. There was the Toxic City. And somewhere beyond the boundary of those buildings-maybe even in one of those he was looking at right now-his mother, and perhaps his father.
“We’re so bloody close,” Sparky said.
“What have they done?” Lucy-Anne whispered, her voice broken, face wet with tears. Jack touched her, and she fell shivering into his embrace. He felt the wetness of her tears against his shoulder, and his own eyes blurred.
“There’s no going back now,” Jenna said.
“This sight is something many of you may have imagined, but never seen,” Emily said, slowly panning the camera across the staggering ruins. “But viewers, beyond this image is a lie about to be uncovered. Prepare yourselves. Soon, you will witness the truth of the Toxic City.”