Chapter Seven

The End of Beauty

The culprits for these cowardly acts are still at large. All Londoners should remain at home and await further instructions. Do not attempt to flee the city. Do not attempt travel of any kind. Further attacks are expected. The prime minister will be giving a live statement on all TV and radio channels at 7:00 p.m.

— Government Statement, all-channel broadcast, 6:15 p.m. GMT, July 28, 2019

They lowered the clematis back across the window and ate the food they had brought. The church was still a beautiful place, but the air was marred by the knowledge of what lay beyond. Once they left here, Jack suspected they would be leaving that beauty behind.

The robin returned to watch them eat. Sparky threw a bread crust its way, but it hopped back and ignored the offered food. Jenna crumbled the crust from a jam tart and sprinkled it across the undergrowth. The bird watched her, head jerking this way and that as though expecting ambush at any minute.

Emily crawled forward with the crusts from her own sandwich. She broke them into many pieces, then held out her hand as far as she could stretch.

“Not a chance,” Lucy-Anne said, but she grew still as they watched the little bird. It hopped from the wisteria and came close, eyeing them all suspiciously, but was apparently unconcerned at Emily’s presence.

Jack saw that she held the camera in her other hand, the lens trained on her hand offering the crumbs.

The bird hopped closer, hesitated, then jumped into Emily’s palm.

Jack heard her intake of breath. He wished he could see her face.

Eventually the bird hopped away, and their small group was taken with a flutter of excitement. They finished their food and passed a water bottle around, all of them aware that every mouthful and swallow brought them closer to leaving this place.

“I never liked London,” Sparky said. “Shit-hole. Bloody place made my brother what he was.” He toyed with a long leafy plant stem, winding it around his finger. “What he is.”

Jack was surprised. Sparky rarely talked about Stephen, and certainly not to an audience. Sometimes, after a few ciders, the two of them would discuss him for a while, but it always ended up with Sparky getting angry, his voice turning hard and exuding violence. Jack had always thought that talking, really talking, was just what he needed.

“How?” Jenna asked, and Jack could have kissed her.

“Went there to join a band,” Sparky said. “Mum and Dad didn’t want him to go, said he should stay on in school and go to university. More they said that, the more determined he became.” He laughed. “Band was called Deep Shit. Steve liked that, said that when they made it big he could always answer people asking what he did by saying, ‘I’m in Deep Shit.’ Well, he soon was.” He drifted off, concentrating far too hard on the plant stem. Jack noticed his friend’s face flushing.

“What sort of band was it?” Jenna asked.

“Punk. Real punk, not the pop sort that was popular a few years back. Music with bollocks. But the singer, Charlie, was a waster. He wasn’t really there for the music, not like Steve. He thought they’d make it big, make loads of money, do what they want. Thing is, he spent it before they made it. Booze and drugs, and girls attracted by the glamour of it all.” Sparky shook his head, as though amazed for the first time at what had happened to his brother.

“It’s strange what some people see as glamorous,” Rosemary said. Sparky glanced up, and for a moment Jack thought he was going to shout her down. But then he nodded.

“Yeah. Steve never did, not really. But being aware of how crap all that stuff was…it didn’t help him. Mum and Dad blame him completely, but I blame them. Never let him do anything he wanted. Kept him at home, trying to protect him they said, because they had this thing about how big and nasty the world was. They knew it was, ‘cos they saw it all on telly, read it in the papers. Huh.”

They waited quietly, letting Sparky take his time. Even Emily was silent, leaning against Jack as if for protection from where this story was going.

“So he rebelled,” Sparky continued. “What a bloody cliche, eh? He took the drugs to get back at Mum and Dad. Least, that’s what I think. They just blamed him, disowned him, never took his calls. And he stayed there in London when the band fell apart before it had really begun, and…” He started crying.

“I think we all know the story from there,” Rosemary said after a while, and Jack winced and closed his eyes, because now surely Sparky’s fury would fly.

But sometimes grief can overcome fury, and smother it. “That’s just it,” Sparky said, his voice sad and lost. “None of us knows, not really. We know what happened to London. But something like that…it’s not one story, it’s a million. That’s why I want to find him. Need to find him. To hear his side of the story.” He lowered his head again and wiped at his eyes, unashamed in his sadness.

After a minute or two Jenna stood and went to him. She sat by his side, not touching him, silent, but Jack could see that her simply being there meant the world.

Jack and Emily went first. The churchyard was even more overgrown than the ruined building itself, and it was impossible to hurry without risking a fall. There were still gravestones showing their humped grey shoulders above the undergrowth, and hidden beneath would be tomb slabs and other promises of broken bones. But the lushness also provided good cover, and they crawled their way towards the church’s boundary.

Over the road, into the ditch, right, and then left. It sounded so easy. But Rosemary’s directions could not convey distance, nor the fact that there were great swathes of vicious stinging nettles all across the churchyard.

They moved slowly, carefully, doing their best to avoid the nettles and always listening for noises that may warn of danger. In the distance Jack could hear motors, so faint that there was no way of telling whether or not they were approaching. Closer, there was only the singing of birds, and the soft, secret whispers of plants moving in a warm summer breeze.

When they reached the edge of the churchyard, they followed the boundary wall until they found a grilled gate. The hinges looked rusted, but there was no lock or chain, and Rosemary had told him that she’d come this way.

“Ready?” Jack asked.

Emily nodded, rubbing at a rash of stings across one forearm. “Need some dock leaves.”

Jack smiled. “Mum always told us that, didn’t she?” Emily tried to smile back.

Jack leaned against the gate and looked back along the road. Nothing. Then he turned and looked toward the Exclusion Zone. He could see where the road finished in a pile of rubble, the tarmac crushed and cracked by whatever heavy vehicle had been used to demolish so many buildings. Again, nothing. They seemed to be completely alone.

The Exclusion Zone spooked him. So many people had lived there, and now they were gone, along with all trace of their existence. A place that had once been so full of life was now barren and sterile. The breeze lifted drifts of dust-clouds across the broken landscape, and he could imagine they were something else.

“I’ll go first,” Jack whispered. “If you hear or see anything wrong, go straight back to the church.”

“And leave you?” Emily’s eyes went wide, the mere thought of being parted from her brother patently terrifying.

Jack touched her shoulder and squeezed. “Don’t worry,” he said. He could think of nothing else to say. “I’ll go first.” This was so dangerous that if he was seen, there would be no easy way out for any of them.

Cameras? he thought. Microphones, satellite surveillance, dogs? They wouldn’t leave the Exclusion Zone unwatched or unprotected, surely? But Rosemary had come this way, and that was all he could hold on to.

He gave Emily a quick kiss on the cheek, pulled the gate open and ran. His feet kicked up dust from the road, grinding in the grit on its surface. It was only two lanes wide, but it seemed to take forever to reach the other side and fall into the ditch.

The ditch was filled with nettles as well. Jack gasped as they touched him across one arm and beneath his chin, raising sore welts that would take hours to fade away. He squatted, turned, and looked back at the church. Nobody shouted, nobody came, no vehicles sprang to life. He could almost believe that he had made it.

Cautiously, he lifted his head above the edge of the ditch and looked across at the gate. Emily was there, staring right back at him. He gave a thumbs-up and she smiled, returning the gesture. Then she slipped through the gate and followed his route across the road.

“Careful!” he whispered as she dropped in beside him. “More nettles!”

“I’m okay.” She had her camera out again, Jack noticed, and she poked it over the ditch to get a shot of the church.

“Come on, the others will follow soon. We need to get back under cover.”

“I like feeling the sun.”

“Me too,” Jack said. But after only three or four hours underground, up here he felt so exposed.

They moved slowly along the ditch bottom, doing their best to dodge the worst of the nettles, stomping on those they could not bypass. When a telegraph pole cast its shadow across the ditch Jack looked up, expecting to see a camera fixed to its side and swivelling to follow their progress. But all it held were two limp cables, long since cut.

The ditch branched left and they went that way, following Rosemary’s directions. A shopping trolley blocked their path, and Jack felt a weird rush of nostalgia for something so innocuous. Years ago, before Doomsday, some kids had probably swiped this trolley and used it for a bit of fun: rides along the road; jumping hastily erected timber ramps. Then they’d dumped it, and it had been here ever since, rusting into the landscape as the world changed around it. He wondered where those kids were now, and whether they still had fun.

He climbed around the trolley and helped Emily, then they went on until the ditch ended with a narrow culvert, much too small for them to enter. Jack paused, frowning, and looked back the way they had come.

“We came the right way,” he said. “I’m sure.”

“Here,” Emily said. “Is this what she meant?” She was looking over the top of the culvert, filming across ground level at whatever lay beyond. Jack stood beside her.

The large area before them held several ground-tanks, all of them covered with heavy metal covers. Pipes and frames hung over them, many bent and twisted by some unknown force, and rust stained much of the metal.

“Sewage treatment plant,” Jack said.

“Oh, great. That’s going to smell just lovely.” Emily panned the camera around and lowered it, dropping back down to sit in the ditch.

“It’s dry down here,” Jack said, joining her. “And I doubt this has been treating anything for a couple of years.”

Emily looked up sharply, lifting a finger to her lips.

Jack looked back along the ditch, and moments later he saw the shapes coming towards them. Sparky first, bent over so that he could not be seen above ground level. Jenna followed him, and behind her came Rosemary and Lucy-Anne, Jack’s girlfriend keeping close to the older woman.

“I don’t think there’s anyone around,” Sparky said when he reached them. “If we were seen, they’d have come for us by now.”

Jack could not help recalling some of the stories from the drops close to Camp Truth-kidnappings, disappearances, executions. And he could see in Jenna’s haunted eyes that she was thinking the same. Her father had been taken, and returned, but now he was a different man. A lesser man. Capture would mean the end for all of them, whether that end was death or something else.

“You need to lead us from here,” he said to Rosemary.

“It’s not far,” she said, gasping for breath. “We’ll be out of the sun again in a minute.”

“And next time we see it we’ll be in the Toxic City,” Lucy-Anne said. Her eyes were hard, and when she glanced at Jack he sensed a shocking distance already growing between them.

“We still like to call it London,” Rosemary said. “It hasn’t been toxic for a long time.”

Lucy-Anne nodded, still looking at Jack. What? he wanted to say. What is it? But he had never really understood her.

Sparky stood, looked around for a long time, then nodded. Rosemary climbed from the ditch and hurried across an area of long grass until she stood on concrete paving between metal tank covers. The others followed.

Beside the closest tank cover, there was a small hatch in the ground. The cover was metal as well, but light. Rosemary took a hooked metal manhole key from her pocket, curved it into a recessed ring in the cover and swung it upward. As she started down the small concrete staircase revealed beneath, she glanced up at the others. Her face softened, and for the first time Jack wondered whether she was a mother, and if so, where her husband and children were right now. He felt terrible for not asking, but now it seemed too late.

“It’s not far now,” Rosemary said.

“Back down into the dark again,” Lucy-Anne said. There was something in her voice Jack had never heard before. He thought maybe it was fear.

“Yes, dear, but not for long. We’re almost there.”

“If there’s anything else you need to warn us about-” Jack began.

“The dogs are dead,” Rosemary said. “You killed them, together. I can’t pretend the city isn’t dangerous, but then you all know that, don’t you?”

Emily separated from the small group and trained her camera on them. “The final descent before we rise into the Toxic City,” she said. “And then we’ll go to find who we came for.” Even keeping the camera before her eye could not hide the tear that streaked her cheek.

“I’m not afraid,” Lucy-Anne said. But as she followed Rosemary down, every jerky, determined movement she made was testament to her lie.

Lucy-Anne was afraid of her nightmares.

The dogs from her dream had come and bitten her, and after everyone had set off from the ruined church, and it was only her and Rosemary left, she’d asked the old woman how close she had been to death. Its teeth nipped your spine, Rosemary had said, but I touched it and made it better.

How close? Lucy-Anne had demanded.

Very, Rosemary had said, before rushing across the road into the ditch.

Now, descending back into the darkness once again, Lucy-Anne waited for other nightmares to make themselves known. She refused to believe it had been coincidence, because after what she’d been through that would be too cruel.

But if not coincidence…what?

Have I had nightmares about falling? she wondered, and her feet reached the foot of the ladder. Rats carrying plague? But there were no vermin that she could see down here. My friends, killing me? She looked around at the others, and she suddenly wanted to fold up and cry out at the betrayal her imagination was capable of.

“Nearly there, everyone!” she said, amazing even herself with her upbeat voice. “We’ve been waiting for so long, and now we’re almost there!”

Smiles were exchanged, and they went on their way.

To begin with, their path was simple. After descending the concrete steps they found themselves in a long tunnel that ran the length of the sewage treatment works, with shorter tunnels projecting off at right angles. The smell was subtle and subdued-much to Emily’s obvious relief-and just before they reached the end, Rosemary opened a metal hatch in the wall. They took it in turns, squeezing through, shining their torches on the opening and into the tunnel revealed beyond. This one had a low ceiling that meant they all had to crouch down, and cockroaches scuttled away from their torch light.

This tunnel ended with a blank wall, but an opening had been smashed through, revealing an uneven, sloping route that led deeper. They followed Rosemary, emerging into a large, brick-lined chamber that seemed much older that the treatment plant built just beside it. It was the converging point of four large sewage pipes. This place did stink, even though none of the pipes seemed to be carrying very much. One of them trickled a small, steady flow of dirty water into the chamber, but the other three appeared dry.

“Oh, that’s pleasant,” Sparky said. “Reminds me of Lucy-Anne’s armpits.”

Lucy-Anne did not reply. Sparky looked at her and she raised an eyebrow, and that was enough to make him smile.

“Rats everywhere,” Jenna said. They did not seem to bother her, but Emily remained close to Jack, even while she trained her torch around the walls and filmed what it revealed.

“You’ll see a lot more,” Rosemary. “But there’s always a balance. Lots of wild cats in London now, and they keep the rat population down.”

She headed off, confidently aiming for one of the large sewage pipes.

“We walk through there?” Lucy-Anne asked. She hated this; she had never been afraid before. She could not prevent herself from shaking, and she’d seen the way Jack had been looking at her: concerned and confused.

“Not for long.”

The pipe swept this way and that, branching left and right, but Rosemary did not hesitate at all. She took one branch that narrowed considerably, but they were happier to bend almost double, accepting the burning pain in their knees and back, rather than crawl. There was dried stuff here, sewage and dead rats and other things they could not so easily identify.

And at last Lucy-Anne found something to cling onto and calm her, and that was the memory of her family. Their smiles and voices drove away the threat of forgotten nightmares. Whatever happened in the near future, she was determined of one thing: she would discover the truth.

That’s what drove them all, she was sure. Not the sense of injustice, and the knowledge that the government had lied to them day in, day out, since Doomsday. It was family that made them able to do this. Jack’s and Emily’s parents, and Sparky’s brother. Even Jenna, who had lost no one on Doomsday, was coming here to avenge what they had done to her father since then.

She felt a momentary flush of hope and determination, and pride in her friends. If they weren’t half-crawling through a pipe coated with dried shit and dead rats, she’d have hugged them all.

She could imagine Sparky’s reaction to that.

Lucy-Anne giggled. She tried to stop, but couldn’t. Her torch light shook as she laughed, and they all paused because they thought something was wrong.

“No!” she said, shaking her head even though none of them could see much down here. “No, it’s okay, its…” Her laughter turned manic.

“Gas down here sometimes,” Rosemary said, her voice low with concern.

“Nobody strike a match,” Sparky said, and that only made Lucy-Anne laugh louder.

The sewers ended in another large chamber, and in this one they found a dead body.

It was a woman, sitting back against the wall, long hair tangled across her face and down one side of her head. She wore jeans and a heavy ski jacket, and rats had eaten her eyes.

That’s what Jack noticed first, and what he could not help looking at again and again. He jerked his torch back at her face, knowing he should not, knowing that he should be turning the other way and leading Emily across the chamber and into whichever sewer they had to walk along next…and rats had eaten her eyes!

“Oh,” Lucy-Anne said, backing away against the wall of the chamber. But she kept her eyes open.

“Rosemary-” Jack began, but she cut in.

“Not when I came through!” she said. “She wasn’t here when I came through.”

“You know her?” Jenna asked.

Rosemary went closer, stepping carefully across the lower part of the chamber, dodging still-wet pools of raw sewage.

“Jack…” Emily said. She lowered the camera. “I don’t think I want to film this.”

Jenna was with them then, holding Emily’s hand and turning around so that they both faced away from the body.

“No,” Rosemary said. She had lifted the woman’s hair from her face and stepped aside, allowing torchlight to fall there. “I don’t know her.”

“Then what the hell is she doing down here?” Sparky said. “You said you’re the only one who knew this route, you said that Philippe bloke told you the way, and-”

“Lots of Irregulars come down below London,” Rosemary said. She turned her back on the body, hiding it from view. “To escape, to hide. There are some that can’t handle what’s happened to them, and…” She shrugged.

“She killed herself?” Jack asked.

“Maybe.” Rosemary returned to them, leaving the dead woman behind. “Or maybe she was dying anyway, and she wanted to do it alone.”

“We’re still under the Exclusion Zone, right?” Jenna asked.

Rosemary thought about that for a while, then nodded. “Just. But soon, we enter an old Tube station that has been abandoned for years, walk along the line, and then we’re there.”

“So there’ll be others?” Jack asked. “More people below ground?”

“There are plenty. But I doubt we’ll see them. As I said, most of them come down here to be alone.”

There was a heavy torch by the dead woman’s left hand, and to her right an empty whiskey bottle lay on its side, a plastic bowl upended beside that. Last meal and drink.

“I wonder what she could do,” Rosemary mused.

“That’s someone’s mother,” Jenna said, angry. “Someone’s sister.”

“We should go,” Jack said. “I don’t want to stay down here anymore. Rosemary, I just want to get there and see the sun again. How far?”

“An hour.”

“An hour.” Lucy-Anne was staring at the woman, torch playing unwaveringly on her mutilated face.

“Lucy-Anne,” Jack said. “Come on.” He stepped before her, blocking her view and wanting so much to reach out and hold her. But the distance was still there, and he didn’t think he had arms long enough.

The sewer ended in a place of chaos. The pipe had ruptured and smashed, and the solid ground around it had apparently been washed away by some vast underground flood. The void left behind looked precarious and in danger of collapse at any moment. Roots hung dead and shrivelled from the ceiling, and the fractured ends of underground pipes and ducting protruded like broken bones. Rosemary led them across, stepping around and over rocks and cracks in the ground, towards a small crawlspace at the other side.

“This is narrow,” she said, facing the group of friends. “But not very long. And on the other side, there’s the abandoned Tube station.”

“Are we under London yet?” Jenna asked.

“Almost,” Rosemary said. She looked up at the roof and the others shone their torches there, as though they could see all the way through. “Very close now. This is part of what they did to the Exclusion Zone, part of the damage.” She shook her head, and just before she turned away, Jack thought he saw tears.

She was right, the crawlspace was very narrow. But they pulled their way through, lured by the promise of an easy walk and the end of the beginning of their quest.

Jack and the others had seen a few grainy images of London’s Tube network since Doomsday, smuggled out with other pictures on memory cards tied to pigeons’ legs or dogs’ collars. They usually showed stations they were familiar with, only a little run down; litter on the platform, dust thick on the tiles, the spaces illuminated by heavy torches or small fires. But the place they found when they emerged from the crack in the earth was very different.

“Where the hell are we?” Sparky asked.

Jenna laughed. “I think it must be Christmas!”

The meagre light from their torches reflected from dozens of mirrors arrayed along the platform and down on the line, glitter balls hanging from the ceiling and smashed glass swept in drifts against the platform wall to their left, flooding the station with light. Swathes of bunting zig-zagged back and forth just above head height for the full length of the platform. In many places, tiles had fallen or been smashed from the wall, but the blank gaps left behind had been painted with luminous green, yellow, or blue paint. Halfway along the platform, there was even a crazy tree made from heavy wire, pinned with hundreds of small passport-sized photographs. Jack went to the tree and saw that each photo was of a different person. Some smiled, some frowned, some stuck out their tongues.

But among this colour and the enthusiastic splash of light, there was no sign of recent human habitation. Plenty of rats, true. And Jack saw footprints-a dog’s? A wolf’s? — which he was sure were trodden in dried blood.

“This station’s been out of use for almost twenty years,” Rosemary said. “Really was the end of the line! So those who lived underground-and there’s always been a lot of them-adopted it as their own. Decorated it, slept here, used it as a retreat from above. The stairs are blocked off, and I suppose there must have been other ways up and down, but they’ve long gone.”

“Where are they now?” Jack asked. “If they were…you know…moved from society anyway, how come they’re not still here?”

“Doomsday touched everyone,” Rosemary said, “and Evolve seeped everywhere. There are places in London that are graves. Huge graves. You’ll see one soon, but…there’s no way I can really prepare you for it.” She looked around the group, and her expression truly startled Jack for the first time. She was an old woman, with the eyes of someone who had known far too much sadness, but she looked at them as though she were sorry for them all.

“It’s sad,” Lucy-Anne said.

“’Course it is,” Sparky said. “Life’s sad, and shit.”

“No, no,” Jack’s girlfriend said. “This place. Even those who wanted nothing to do with the outside world were affected. Don’t you see?”

“I see,” Jack said, and he meant it. Lucy-Anne looked at him, and he felt included in her thoughts for the first time since they’d left Camp Truth.

“Well, I want to leave,” said Emily. She had filmed the station, but the red light on her camera was no longer blinking. “Feels weird down here. Haunted.”

None of them disputed her choice of words.

They walked along the old underground line, constantly aware of the flicker of movement just beyond the influence of their artificial light; rats, moving away, but not too fast. Jack guessed they’d had a fine feeding season a couple of years before, and maybe these descendants of those fattened things remembered the taste of human meat.

When they reached the next station it was grim and drab, and half of a train carriage protruded from the tunnel at its far end. The station name had been torn from the wall and smashed from the tiles, as though identity had no place in this new world.

“From here, we go up,” Rosemary said.

“About bloody time,” Sparky said.

None of them stopped walking, because they were all ready to see sunlight once more. But the mood between them was tense…and excited.

Here was the Toxic City.

Here was London.

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