Chapter Sixteen

On Reaper’s shoulders

Birmingham is the new capital city of Great Britain.

— Government Proclamation, 3:44 p.m. GMT, July 29, 2019

Lucy-Anne was too terrified to ask him about his dreams. Her own scared her enough. So she walked with Rook in silence, and he told her they had somewhere special to go.

“But I need to find Andrew,” she said.

“And you’ve told me where he is. ‘North of here,’ you said.”

“Yeah.”

“Girl…where north of here?” She still hadn’t told him her name, because in some ways it still felt distant to her. It belonged to a girl with other friends, another life.

“Well…” she began, but there was little else she could say. Your brother is alive north of here, she remembered a man saying, and if that was all he’d said, perhaps that thing in her mind would not have snapped. But he had gone on, told her more.

“North is a big place,” Rook said. “And like I mentioned, it’s a wild place.” He looked up at the clear blue sky, speckled with hundreds of dark spots where the rooks kept pace with them. “Everywhere in the city is wild now.”

“So where are you taking me?” she asked.

Rook laughed, and high above Lucy-Anne heard the cawing of many birds.

“Girl, I don’t believe I can take you anywhere. But if you’ll come with me, I’ll introduce you to some people who might help.”

“Why might they?”

He frowned a little, looked away, but then smiled at her again. “Because I’ll ask them.”

The boy seemed friendly enough to Lucy-Anne. And he was strong, not just in his wiry frame, but mentally. He exuded a power that frightened her a little, but alongside that fright she had to admit it turned her on as well. His was a power she had never imagined, and something about the fact he had changed his name made him seem closer to the city. She had come to this place with friends, but they paled when compared to Rook.

“Okay,” she said. “But first I have to pee.”

Rook glanced around, then pointed at an overgrown parking lot beside a burnt-out pub. “Public toilets!” he said, giggling at his own joke.

Lucy-Anne dashed across the road, feeling his eyes burning into her back. His dark eyes. So like a rook’s, she thought, almost lifeless. But the rest of his face made up for it; he always wore a smile, and there were laughter lines in his young man’s skin.

He was dangerous, but for now she felt safe around him.

For now.

Rosemary had told them which way to go. No one really knew where Reaper could be found, but there were rumours. North, across the river, into the heart of the city, and look out for the rooks. One of the boys that runs with Reaper communes with them. Last I heard, they were seen above St. James’s Park.

As they crossed Vauxhall Bridge, Jack remembered a dozen movies that had used this place as a setting. He’d often heard his father describing London as a giant film set, and now here he was, in a depressing movie about a sad future. Two years ago, who could have believed that London would ever look like this?

The Houses of Parliament, once home to the British Government, was a ruin. One half of it looked as though it had suffered sustained bombing, and there was little recognisable left. The other half had burned, and though most of its walls were still standing, they were swathed in a thick green climbing plant erupting with violet flowers. The once-smart lawns outside, where Jack had watched countless politicians being interviewed for TV and Net-News, was a plain of waist-high grass and graceful bamboo.

The Big Ben tower was still there, but the clock faces had been blown out, and Jack could see straight through its upper section. The bell itself seemed to have gone. Perhaps they would find it, if they looked long enough, fallen and covered in moss. But that would gain them nothing. Time flicked at him with its cruel whip, though as yet Jack was unsure why he felt such urgency.

Perhaps it was those dying Irregulars in the underground hospital.

They paused on the bridge for a while, catching their breath, taking a drink and looking down the River Thames. It flowed through a wild place now. Clumps of detritus-plants, branches, broken things-drifted down from upriver, gently bobbing towards the sea. A couple of the old river cruisers were still there, one of them wedged beneath one of the gentle arches of Grosvenor Bridge, the other still moored at river’s edge not far from where they stood. From this distance it looked strangely peaceful and serene, so much so that it seemed out of place. A picture postcard image of hell.

“I’m glad you two got together,” Jack said. They had not talked much since leaving the Underground again, though the silence was never uncomfortable.

“Me too,” Sparky said grinning at Jenna.

“I don’t know what came over me,” she said. “I thought I’d been shot in the gut, not the head.”

They all laughed softly, and watched an eagle drift majestically along the river’s course and pass beneath the bridge.

“Wow,” Jack whispered. “Wonder where the hell that came from.”

“You know, Jack,” Jenna said, “Lucy-Anne will…we’ll find her and…”

He shook his head. “Knowing she’s alive is good.”

“You believe Nomad?”

“Don’t you?”

“Without a doubt.” Jenna still seemed awkward, and Jack wasn’t sure he wanted to verbalise his thoughts. But really, this was no time for any sort of self-deception.

“Me and Lucy-Anne…I think we were finished before we even started. Thrown together by our backgrounds and histories, not because we fancied each other.”

“Good friends,” Sparky said. “Maybe that’s what you two are.”

“Yeah,” Jack nodded. “What you two did last night…Well, we haven’t done that for ages.”

Jenna blushed and elbowed Sparky in the ribs.

“I said nothing!” he protested. But she was smiling, and Jack laughed.

“Let’s get on,” he said.

“Rooks,” Sparky muttered. “Always spooked the crap out of me.”

“Scarier than chickens?” Jenna quipped.

“Okay, okay, another point to Jenna.”

They crossed the bridge and passed through Parliament Square, keeping their ears and eyes open.

Walking progressively northward, Jack wondered whether Lucy-Anne had already come this way. He thought of their time together and tried to come to terms with what it had all meant. They’d gone through the usual boyfriend and girlfriend moments; kissing and cuddling in front of a movie, drinking cider when Emily was in bed, progressing on to awkward fumblings and gasped moments of shared pleasure. But the physical side had always felt somehow false and forced, and it was the times when he talked Lucy-Anne through her fury, doubt, and despair that seemed most important to Jack now. Doomsday had left her with nothing and no-one, and more than anything, he had been there to help her through that. And it had been a natural process. He did not feel even a tiny bit used, and he was certain that Lucy-Anne had welcomed every moment of their unusual relationship. She was a beautiful girl, but his fondest memories of her were when she smiled an honest and happy smile, rather than when she lay half-naked on his sofa.

If only he’d realised that she’d been so close to snapping.

I’m so bloody grown-up, he thought without much humour. He looked at Sparky and Jenna, saw their shared smiles and the way they sought physical contact, and his envy was a very gentle thing.

Morning passed into afternoon, and in a side street they found a grocers that didn’t smell too bad. The central aisle display of fresh fruit and vegetables was now home to shrivelled black things, like something excavated rather than grown. But there were shelves of tinned foods that had not been touched, and though the labels were faded after two years of dampness, they found some tinned fruit still fit to eat. It tasted sweet, and good.

“Shit,” Sparky said.

“What?” Jack was immediately alert, but his friend was still sitting down.

“The door.”

Jack looked, and at first he saw nothing. Then he made out the faint, curled gleam of a thin wire, nestled by the door jamb. They must have tripped it on the way in.

Sparky was already looking around the shop. “There,” he said.

“Old security camera.”

“Everything in this place is covered in dust apart from that camera’s lens.”

“Reaper?” Jenna said.

Jack stood and browsed the shelves, trying to appear calm. “Doubt it,” he said. “He’s leader of the bloody Superiors. Bet he’s got people who can do a lot more than a trip-wire and a camera.”

“We should go,” Sparky said. “Quickly.” As they fled the shop, Jack saw Sparky giving the camera the finger.

They ran along the street, disturbing a pack of dogs that were worrying something newly-dead just inside a house’s front door. Luckily most of the dogs ran into the house, not out at them, and Jack kicked out at the one mutt that came too close. Its jaws snapped on thin air, but it did not follow.

They tried to lose themselves, hoping that they would shake off any potential pursuers. But then they heard the sounds of motors in the distance, and they paused at a street corner, panting.

“We can’t be caught!” Jack said.

“We have to hide.” Jenna was pointing at doors both open and closed.

“They might have the whole area wired.”

“Well, we can’t just stand here arsing about!” Sparky said. “Come on!”

They ran along another street, climbing over a huge wreck where a lorry and several cars had crashed and burned. Jack was aware of a charred skull staring at him through one smashed windscreen, but then something flashed overhead that distracted his attention. A helicopter, its sudden appearance explosive in the street, engine sound dwindling rapidly as it headed away…and then started to turn.

“Chopper chopper!” Sparky shouted, giggling nervously.

“We can’t be caught!” Jack said again. “This isn’t fair!” He thought of his mother and sister crawling out of London through the dangerous darkness, his father somewhere to the north, and Lucy-Anne wandering the street alone as she searched the ruin of one of the world’s largest cities for her lost brother. And such a weight of responsibility pressed down on him that for a moment he could not move, crushed there on that burnt car’s bonnet and staring into the skeletal eyes of someone sorely missed.

“Come on,” Sparky said, tapping his leg.

“Jack!” Jenna shouted.

Another helicopter appeared above the end of the street, lowering itself slowly between house rows, rotors so close that they whipped dust from the buildings’ facades.

“There!” Jenna shouted, pointing at an open door across the street. “We can go through and try to find-”

“Look!” Sparky shouted. He pointed, but there was no need. The darkening of the sky was obvious.

The helicopter pilot was concentrating so hard on not crashing into the houses that he can’t have noticed the flock of rooks gathering above him. There were hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, swirling and waving in complex patterns that were as beautiful as they were disturbing.

“Over there!” Jenna said. Along the street, halfway between where they stood and where the pilot was readying to land, someone emerged from a house. Rooks roosted on his shoulders and head, and though it could not be heard, Jack saw that he was whistling.

The helicopter was ten feet above the ground when the rooks dived into its spinning rotors.

“Down!” Sparky shouted. He pulled Jenna down beside him, Jack fell beside the burnt out cars…but they all had to watch.

Thousands of birds exploded in puffs of black and sprays of blood. The houses beside the aircraft were coated in clumps of wet feather and meat, and the combined calls of dying birds was louder that the protesting engine. Some dived into the main rotors, other curved down and flew into the rear rotor blade, their suicides instant and without hesitation.

The helicopter’s front windshield was quickly obscured by a mess of diced rooks, and it tipped down and to the left.

Sparky shouted something else, but the noise was too great, the chaos too confusing to hear. The aircraft tilted and hit the ground hard, and the still-spinning rotors smashed across the front of a house. Shards of shattered brick zinged along the street like shrapnel from an explosion, ricocheting from the ruined cars, smashing windows, and whistling overhead. Jack felt something hit his leg, and the impact point quickly turned wet and numb.

The motor squealed, crunched, and then exploded with a pained grinding of metal. A section of brickwork fell from the front of the house directly into the blades, and one of them snapped away, spinning skyward and disappearing over the terraced rooftops. An avalanche of roof slates slid down onto crashed helicopter.

The remaining rotors stopped spinning, broken and dipped, and the aircraft settled at a slant against the house’s wall.

Jack could not move. He looked from the ruin of the helicopter, to the boy with rooks on his shoulder, then back to the aircraft. There was movement there, though it could have been the shuffle of dying birds twitching wings or tail feathers. More slates slipped from the roof. An upstairs window fell forward and smashed across a broken rotor blade. The house was still shifting, and the rest of it could come down at any moment.

There were still hundreds of rooks circling above, and the mysterious boy watched them.

A side door on the helicopter creaked open. Two soldiers fell out, stumbling away from the wreck and quickly bringing their weapons to bear.

Behind the boy standing in the house’s doorway, Jack saw a shadow move. As it emerged into the light, he could see her face.

“Lucy-Anne!” Sparky shouted. She withdrew at the sound of her name, but they had all seen her. Jenna glanced back at Jack, shocked and afraid, just as Sparky stood and started running diagonally across the road.

One of the soldiers raised his gun and fired.

Jack blinked against the shot, and in the space of that brief darkness he dreaded what he would see when he looked again.

Sparky was still running, hunched down now, and Lucy-Anne had appeared once more, eyes wide with shock, waving him towards her and shouting for him to Run! Run!

He won’t miss a second time, Jack thought, looking along the street at the soldier. The Chopper was changing his stance, settling into a proper shooting posture this time, and behind him the other soldier was taking aim as well.

“Run, Sparky!” Jenna shouted, and the second soldier looked their way.

The circling rooks dived, silent and fast. They moved like a single slice of night, and somewhere in their cries as they powered into the two soldiers, Jack was sure he heard gunshots. The men disappeared, replaced by a vicious cloud of pecking, clawing birds.

More people tumbled from the helicopter. Two soldiers fired into the birds, oblivious to whether they were hitting their companions, and the third man retreated behind the wreck, talking into something in his hand. Jack recognised him: grey hair, short…Miller.

As Sparky reached the house and Lucy-Anne greeted him with a confused smile, two doors on that side of the street but closer to the helicopter crashed open. The several people that emerged must have been rushing through the gardens and houses to get here, and Jack guessed they were sorry they had missed all the action. They certainly looked like fighters. One was short and dressed in black, and Jack had difficulty focussing on him…almost like a shadow where the sun still shone. Another carried a variety of guns and knives, her eyes milky white and blind. They darted across the street and approached the downed helicopter, working well together, their movements fluid and rehearsed.

Jenna had run after Sparky, and as Jack climbed across the last of the burnt cars, he looked that way, too…

…and saw his father emerging from an open doorway close to the helicopter.

“Dad,” he croaked, his voice hoarse.

His father looked so different. Still tall and trim, but his face carried so much more than his forty-five years now, and his mouth was cruel, laughter lines turned into creases of worry and stress.

“Dad!” Jack shouted at last.

Reaper turned and looked directly at him. For that moment, they were the only two people in the street. Nothing else mattered. Here was his father, missing for two years and considered a lost cause by his wife. Jack tried to welcome a rush of memories similar to when he and Emily had found his mother, but the memories he found were more elusive, and less joyful. They were tinged by the present, and the blank mask that this man had become.

Not even a smile.

“Dad, it’s me, Jack!”

Reaper took one step towards his son, then stopped. He turned and said something to the blind Superior now standing by his side, and Jack was terrified that the order had been given to kill him. But the Superior merely walked towards the downed helicopter. Miller was at the ruined aircraft, screaming into the thing in his hand. Two soldiers flanked him, guns at the ready, and rooks were settling all across the wreckage. More circled above, and yet more pecked at red things scattered across the street. Dead birds, dead people; meat was meat.

The second helicopter returned.

“Over here!” Sparky called. He and Jenna were with Lucy-Anne now, and they retreated into the house’s shadow.

Jack wanted to run. But even when the helicopter’s machine guns opened up, tearing chunks of masonry from the terrace’s facade, smashing holes in roofs, shattering those few whole windows that remained, all he could do was look at his father.

The helicopter was hovering above the opposite row of houses, and Reaper faced up to it as bullets impacted all around him. He seemed to be drawing a long, deep breath.

Jack dropped to his stomach just as his father screamed. It was a short, sharp sound, but louder than anything Jack had ever heard before in his life. A grunt of unimaginable volume, it caused a storm of movement across the street: dust and shrapnel was driven away as though by a huge storm; bodies of dead rooks fluttered through the air once more; windows and doors, all but untouched on that side of the street, blew inwards.

The shout struck the helicopter, and it went into a spin. Bullets raked along the street as its guns continued firing, tearing up the ground a few feet from Jack’s face and ripping through the tangle of crashed, blackened cars. Then the shooting stopped, and the aircraft dropped as though punched from above. It hit the row of houses and sank in, rotors shredding two roofs of tiles and timber and filling the air with chaos once more. Walls blew out, floors collapsed, and the sudden quiet after the crash was stunning.

Jack lifted himself and looked around to make sure everyone he loved was okay. Sparky and the others peered out from the house once again, and along the street the other Superiors picked themselves up, dusted themselves down.

Reaper stood where he had been before, staring at the downed aircraft. He smiled.

Jack looked at the new wreck as well, and through the ruin of a house’s facade he saw movement as people tried to climb from the twisted metal and piled masonry.

The second shout came without warning. More directed this time, still the volume was agonising and unbelievable, and Jack fell to his knees with his hands clasping bloodied ears.

The helicopter exploded. It was a small blast, but the fuel tanks ignited, and the fire spread quickly.

People started screaming.

Reaper was smiling wider now.

“Dad, get them out,” Jack said.

“Never call me that,” Reaper said. Jack realised that he was more than aware of what was happening, who had found him, and why Jack was here.

It simply did not matter.

The screaming from the burning helicopter was terrible, and Jack walked back and forth with his hands over his ears, hating what he was hearing but unable to do anything about it. He felt the heat of the flames on his back as he turned to his father, and past him to the house. Jenna and Sparky were standing by the front door, holding each other as they watched, but Lucy-Anne was trotting along the street with the boy with rooks on his shoulders.

There were a series of smaller blasts from the fire as ammunition ignited, and the last of the screams was cut off.

“No,” Jack said, not wanting to see his dad like this, not wishing to believe the man who had loved him and read to him and played football with him could be standing here with the burnt-flesh smell of his victims hanging in the air. And smiling. He was still smiling.

Jack ran past his father towards Sparky and Jenna, and as he passed he muttered, “Bastard.”

“You okay?” Sparky asked.

“Yeah. You?” Jack’s friends nodded.

“You’re bleeding,” Jenna said, nodding down at Jack’s leg. There was a wound in his calf that poured blood, and his trouser leg and shoe were sodden.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Can’t feel it.”

“Your dad’s nice,” Sparky said.

Reaper was walking slowly along the street, his shadow dancing beside him as he passed the flaming wreck. The fire had spread to the houses’ structures now, and smoke was seeping from the roofs of buildings several doors along. Soon, the whole terrace would go up.

“I can’t give up on him,” Jack said.

“Jack, he could kill you.” Jenna stepped forward and held his face in her hands, and he saw the pity in her eyes. He hated that.

“But he won’t.” Jack ran along the street after his father, and he heard his friends coming along behind him.

Reaper had reached the first downed helicopter, where his Superiors were flanking Miller and two surviving soldiers. The soldiers each nursed a broken arm, and looked around in obvious terror.

“Miller,” Reaper said. “It’s been a long time since we were face to face.”

“And I remember what happened then,” Miller said.

Reaper smiled and lifted his shirt, displaying an ugly, bubbled scar across his stomach and hip. “Smarted for a bit,” he said, nodding. “But I’m much stronger now. Just ask your barbequed friends.”

Miller glanced along the street toward the burning helicopter, then he saw Jack, and his eyes went wide.

“Dad, Emily was here too,” Jack said. “But she’s gone. We found Mum and they’ve left together, and I want you to leave too.”

“With you?” Reaper asked.

“Yes,” Jack nodded. “Dad…” He could not hold back a tear, and he wiped it angrily from his cheek. “Mum’s given up on you. She says you’re…too far gone.”

Reaper held up his hands and turned around, looking at the rooks still circling, the fire spreading along the street, the Superiors standing casually around the captured Chopper and his two soldiers. “Why would I ever want to give all this up?”

“They want you to join with them,” Jack said. “Break out of London.”

Reaper waved a dismissive hand. “I know they do. But they have no vision, no ambition, and no idea of what’s coming.”

“And you do?”

“Of course.” He pointed at Miller. “First, this bastard gets his comeuppance. Not sure quite how yet, but we Superiors are imaginative. Then after that…well, that’s for me to know, not you.”

“I’m your son!”

Reaper smiled sarcastically. “What’s your name, again?”

Sparky and Jenna were behind him, and Jenna touched his arm. “We should go,” she whispered.

“I’m not leaving yet,” Jack said. “Lucy-Anne?”

Lucy-Anne looked at her three friends from across the other side of the circle, stepping closer to the bird-boy as she did so. “My brother’s still alive somewhere,” she said, and her voice sounded different. Older? Wiser? Jack wasn’t certain. Changed, for sure. “Rook said he’ll help me find him. And there’s something…” Lucy-Anne trailed off, frowning, and then several rooks fluttered down and landed on her shoulders. She grimaced for a couple of seconds; then she looked at Jack and smiled.

“Say your goodbyes, Chopper bastard,” Reaper said. The blind Superior drew a throwing knife and knelt, drawing her arm back ready to unleash the weapon.

“They didn’t get out,” Miller said, kneeling and raising a hand in useless defence. “Emily and your mother, Jack…we caught them in the tunnels. The other Irregular put up quite a fight for an old woman. We have them in Camp H, and if anything happens to me…”

Reaper muttered something, and the Superior held her throwing stance.

“You have ten seconds,” Reaper said. “And I’m only giving you that because you mentioned the camp.”

“You know all about it!” Miller said. “It’s where we take you freaks when we want to cut your brains out, slice and dice them and examine them under-”

“You call it Camp Hope,” Reaper growled.

A shadow streaked out from behind the fallen aircraft, denying the sun its rightful touch, and Miller flipped backward as something struck him in the face. The shadow was a man, standing beside the Chopper and leaning down, his hand raised for another blow.

“I don’t like being called a freak,” the shadow man said.

“Leave him, Shade,” Reaper said. “I’ve just thought of a nicer way for him to die.”

“The soldiers at Camp H are angry,” Miller said, staring directly at Jack and ignoring the blood on his own face. “They’ve all lost friends these past couple of days, and I’m a friend to them all. There’s no saying what they’ll do to your mother and sister before they kill them.”

“Dad,” Jack said. “Reaper. Please! He has Mum and Emily.”

“I don’t know those names,” the Superior said, but this time he did not meet Jack’s gaze.

“But I do,” Jack said. “And whether you recognise them anymore or not, you wouldn’t kill your own wife and daughter, would you? After everything that’s happened?”

Reaper stared at Miller, who stared at Jack. Jack shivered. A rook cried out and Lucy-Anne shifted slightly, a bird on her head fluttering away as though called somewhere else.

“Please, Dad,” Jack said, lifting his voice above the roar of the spreading flames. The air was redolent with the stench of cooking flesh, and he felt sick. But he had not come this far to lose everything, and everything now rested on his father’s shoulders.

On Reaper’s shoulders.

“Those two,” Reaper said quietly, and a blink later the soldiers either side of Miller both slumped to the ground with knives protruding from their throats. One of them gurgled and clutched at the blade with his good arm, but the blind Superior’s aim had been true, and they died quickly.

Miller gasped and stood up, staring defiantly into Reaper’s eyes.

“Ready?” Reaper said, grinning. Miller did not respond.

“You’re a monster,” Jack hissed. “A beast, worse than him, worse than all the Choppers. You can save people who love you, here and now. But what do you choose, Dad?”

His father did not react. Jack felt movement around him, and he knew that Shade was somewhere close by, ready to strike.

“Reaper! What a name. Who chose that? You should be wearing your underpants on the outside and have a good reserve of one-liners.” Jack snorted. “You’re dressed in black, I’ll give you that.”

“Don’t mock me, child!” his father cried, and Jack gasped at the effect of his father’s voice. It struck him like something solid, knocking air from his lungs and sweeping his legs from beneath him. Jack hit the ground on one arm, managing not to cry out at the sudden pain.

But Reaper was frowning at him now, and there was something going on in his mind other than violence. Jack could see it. He could sense it. And as he closed his eyes, he felt his father’s confusion as past struggled with present, to define the future.

He felt it.

I can feel what he’s thinking! Jack thought, and the taste of the Nomad’s finger flooded his mouth. But now was no time for wonder.

“Your friends?” Reaper asked, nodding at Sparky and Jenna.

“Yes. My friends.”

“Ten minutes.”

“What do you mean?” Jack asked, standing slowly.

“You have ten minutes. I’ll wait here with my friend Miller, chat to him, perhaps try and persuade him to tell me a few things I’ve been wondering about for some time. And in ten minutes I’ll let him go. By then his people will be coming for him, and they’ll be after you. All of them.” He nodded at the Chopper, looking him up and down like a cut of meat. “And look at him. He’s hungry for you.”

“We think Nomad touched him,” Miller whispered. He looked at Jack, and Jack could taste the Nomad, and feel the excitement in the Chopper’s mind as if it were his own. He sees something in me.

“There is no Nomad,” Reaper said.

“You of all people-”

“She’s a myth!” Reaper whispered, a terrible sound.

“I lured you in,” Miller said to Jack. “That nice picture of your mother?” He feigned taking a photograph. “And I thought you would be enough, but now that you’ve been touched by her…” He was amazed, and terrified, and there was suddenly so much more Jack needed to know.

Jack ran his tongue around his mouth. And deep inside he could feel a dreadful, wonderful change already beginning.

“Dad, please will you-”

Reaper glared at him, and there wasn’t a hint of anything other than malice in his eyes. “Nine minutes, fifty seconds.”

“You’re not my father,” Jack said, and Reaper only shrugged.

“Come on, Jack,” Jenna said.

But there was one more thing to try, one last time. “Lucy-Anne, are you sure?”

She shook her head and drew closer to Rook. “My brother. But I’ll do my best to dream the best for you.”

Jack frowned, because he did not understand. But at least the guilt of leaving Lucy-Anne had been lifted from his shoulders. And it was a good thing, because the responsibility already weighing on him would crush him, given half a chance.

“Jack,” Sparky said. He and Jenna were already retreating along the street.

“Nine minutes, forty seconds.”

Jack walked quickly through the line of Superiors-the blind knife-thrower, the shadow man, Reaper-until he was standing face to face with Miller. The man’s eye and nose were bleeding, but he did not flinch.

“Rosemary is yours,” Jack said.

Miller snorted, shook his head. “I don’t conspire with freaks.”

“Someone’s been giving us away.”

Miller only shrugged.

“Fair enough,” Jack said. “But if Reaper does what he says and decides to let you go, remember this: I swear, before everyone standing here, that if you or any of your scumbag friends lay a hand on my mother or sister, I will fucking kill you.”

Miller blinked and looked down at his feet.

“Nine minutes, twenty seconds,” Reaper muttered.

“All right!” Jack shouted, spinning and walking past his father. “We’re going!”

He followed Sparky and Jenna as they jogged along the street, and every fibre of him was screaming to look back. But he and Lucy-Anne had said their goodbyes. Miller had Jack’s vow fresh in his mind. And his father…

His father was dead.

Nine minutes, Jack heard as they rounded a corner and ran, the three of them sprinting as fast as they could. They passed dead things and living things that had fed on the dead. They smelled cooking meat on the air from the people they had just seen killed. They had no idea where to go next.

Still running, Jack pulled the bloodstained photograph from his jeans pocket. Knowing it had been taken by Miller or his Choppers made it feel tainted. He turned it over, felt around its edges, his suspicion already hardening into certainty. And without actually feeling or touching it, he sensed the small metal square cast into one corner of the card. It was like a smell in his mind, a taste on his vision. He ripped the photo in half, ignoring the sight of his mother’s face cut in two.

“What’re you doing?” Sparky panted.

Jack tore and tore again, then held up the thin metal device. He did not have to tell either of his friends what it was.

The sound of helicopters grew in the distance, and Jack threw the tracking chip through a smashed shop window.

Once the hunters, now the hunted, the three friends ran deeper into the Toxic City.

When the ten minutes were up, still they ran. Helicopters buzzed overhead, motors echoed around street corners, and they were the centre of attention.

The pain in Jack’s injured ankle was awful, and as he ran, the Nomad’s taste came to him again. The pain ended, and he coughed up something that looked like black rice. Spitting it out, he wondered, What the hell’s happening to me? But really he knew.

Sparky lifted a grating in the pavement outside an old greengrocer’s, and Jack and Jenna slid down the steep chute. Sparky lowered the grating and followed them down.

In the darkness, they huddled together at the rear of the basement. It was empty and unused, and there was the faint scent of old decay from one dark corner. They kept away from it; they had seen enough dead things.

“You think it was only that photo?” Sparky asked.

“We’ll soon find out,” Jack said. He felt so lost and alone, and he could not help imagining what Emily and his mother were going through right now. Whenever he blinked, he was presented with terrible possibilities: Emily strapped down with probes being driven into her eyes; his mother on her back, chest plate cracked, and her heart beating in her open chest. He wanted to cry and rage at the visions, but he knew that for now, silence was their friend.

And now he felt different inside, constantly changing, an astounding potential swelling so large that he was surprised he did not burst apart. I know things, he thought. I can see things. He looked at his hands and knew they could heal. When he blinked, he saw constellations of power across the insides of his eyelids. The Nomad had seeded a change within him, but he was not yet sure how he could tell Sparky and Jenna.

“So what now?” Jenna asked.

“Now, we rescue Emily and my mum.”

“Damn right!” Sparky said.

“And then home,” Jenna sighed.

“No.” Jack shook his head. “And then back into the city.”

“But-”

“Jenna, if you had a chance to rescue your father from what he’s become, would you take it?”

“You think there’s really a chance?” Jenna asked, and Jack looked away, because the possible answers to that question were tearing him apart.

“I can’t ask you both-” he began, but Sparky punched his arm and grabbed him in a headlock.

“You even suggest we leave you on your own, and I’ll break your neck,” his friend growled.

Something drove along the street. The vehicle skidded to a halt, and boots thumped the pavement. “Every house,” someone shouted in the distance, “every room, every basement!”

“Oh, hell, that’s not good,” Sparky said, letting Jack go.

“It’ll be okay.” A curious calm settled over Jack, and every time he remembered Nomad’s face, and tasted her finger in his mouth, the calmness intensified. He closed his eyes and breathed deep. When he opened them again, someone was sliding down the chute into the basement.

Torchlight probed the darkness.

“Still and quiet,” Jack whispered, holding his two friends’ hands.

The soldier was just a shadow behind his heavy torch, a silhouette spiked with weapons and breathing heavily with fear, or excitement.

Jack closed his eyes and opened his mind, and instinct found something new.

“What the hell-”

“Torch hit me right across my eyes, and-”

“As if we were invisible!”

Jack hushed them both. “Nomad touched me,” he said.

“The first vector!” Jenna gasped.

“And still contagious. I feel so much. My senses, broadening. I know things I shouldn’t. Not just one thing, but many. It’s scary.” But even he knew that his voice did not sound afraid.

It sounded exhilarated.

They waited in the basement while the searching Choppers melted away into the distance.

And later, when Jack and his friends started making plans, he saw the careful glances they cast his way, and he sensed their unease.

As if he was no longer the Jack they used to know.

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