THE SKIES OVERHEAD ARE filled with movement and noise. Missiles, mortars, and rockets whip across the clouds and detonate around the city center. Helicopters buzz overhead, some observing, most of them attacking, firing into the crowds below.
The bulk of the refugees follow each other like sheep, sticking to the main roads out of town and not even bothering to consider whether those in front know any more or less about the situation than they do. They run blind, finding the illusion of safety in numbers. There are hundreds of them moving down the wide ring road, which, as many of them must know, will eventually swing around and take them straight back into the dying heart of the city.
There’s another way.
Over to my left is an enormous pile of smoldering rubble where there used to be a multiplex cinema. Still carrying Ellis in my arms, I leave the road and run around the edge of the ruins, following the perimeter of a wide, tent- and RV-filled parking lot that has been almost completely abandoned. On the far side of the site is a steep embankment, along which runs one of the train lines out of the city. While thousands of those dumb bastards have stuck to the clogged and overcrowded roads, I can already see that there are just a handful of people up there following the train tracks out of town.
Ellis starts to move. Thank God for that. It was only a small flinch, but it was enough, and I sense she’s going to be okay. I hold her tight as I climb up the embankment, quickly reaching the top and running along the side of the track, still instinctively watching out for trains I know will never come. My feet dig into the gravel as if it’s wet sand, every step taking twice as much effort as it should.
From this relatively high and uninterrupted vantage point, I can see clearly in most directions. I look back over my shoulder at what’s left of the city behind us. Massive sections of it are on fire now. The skyline has changed incredibly in an unbelievably short period of time. Huge, landmark buildings that stood tall and proud when I arrived here just a few hours ago have been destroyed and have disappeared, changing the skyline forever. Even from this distance and over the endless noise of the helicopters, missiles, and muffled explosions, I can still hear the sounds of thousands of people fighting, and the relief at having escaped with my daughter from the heart of the battle is immense.
I keep running, exhausted but forcing myself to keep going. We’re probably safe at this distance, but I want to get even farther away. The train track snakes away toward the suburbs, the desolate ruins of housing projects springing up on either side of us. Even out here there are people in the streets. I see scores of terrified Unchanged refugees who’ve fled the city and are looking for shelter, only to be intercepted and cut off by people like me and Ellis. Where the hell did so many of our fighters come from? Were they already in the center of town with us? The answer becomes clear as I see more and more of them approaching. These people are coming in from outside the city now, crossing the exclusion zone. Word must have reached them that the refugee camp is imploding. Or is this a planned attack? Are these the advance troops from Ankin’s army?
Another helicopter flies overhead, this one so low that I instinctively drop down to my knees and bend forward to protect Ellis. She shuffles in my arms again and groans with pain. I hold her closer to my chest and look up as the helicopter flies past and away. Then another thunders over us, then another… all of them flying away from the city. I stand up as even more gunships follow the first three. I start moving again, and as the combined noise of the aircrafts’ powerful engines begins to fade, I become aware of another sound, this time much closer and on the ground. Beyond the ruined houses to my right there’s a large expanse of parkland. Even from this distance I can see there’s a huge amount of activity there. There are battles raging in the streets around the park, and a massive convoy of vehicles is beginning to leave the grassland and move off along the surrounding roads. Another helicopter takes off from somewhere close. It climbs quickly into the early morning air, then banks hard over to the left and follows the course taken by the others before it.
Ellis starts to wake up and move. She grunts and squirms in my arms, but I just tighten my grip, determined not to let go.
“Stay still,” I tell her, not knowing if she can hear me or if she understands. “Please, sweetheart…”
The train track cuts through the projects, then runs parallel with one edge of the parkland. I’ve never seen it from this angle, but this place used to be Sparrow Hill Park, I’m sure of it. It’s unrecognizable today. The sprawling expanse of well-tended grass I remember is now a vast, cluttered mass of abandoned tents and trailers. Once obviously filled to overcapacity with refugees, much of it now is conspicuously empty. Huge swathes of the camp have been washed away, and now several stagnant lakes where floodwaters have swept relentlessly through the site are all that remain.
There are people fighting on the track up ahead. I run down the embankment and begin to weave through a dense copse of brittle-branched trees to try to get closer to the park. Already I can see movement on the other side of the trees, and I hold Ellis even tighter as she tries to get away again. Her rage seems to increase the closer we get to the Unchanged. She wants to fight, but I won’t let her. It’s too dangerous here.
Through the trees and I hit a wire-mesh fence. Something’s different here. Can’t put my finger on it, but I sense something’s wrong.
As I work my way around the wire-mesh fence looking for a way through, the penny drops. The Unchanged troops are evacuating. It’s their stock response when they realize they’ve lost control of a building, an area, or even a city-withdraw as many of their people as they can to a safe distance, then bomb the hell out of what’s left. I saw it at the hospital, at that office building with Adam, and a hundred times before that. Christ, now I know exactly what happened to London. They lost control, the same way they have here. And their response then? They leveled the fucking place. More than ever, I have to get us away.
Ellis manages to free one of her hands and slashes at my face. Blood dribbles down my cheek, and when I lift up my hand to wipe it away she shoves both her fists up under my chin and pushes my head back, then knees me in the gut and breaks loose. She runs along the edge of the park, and I sprint after her toward where a section of fence has collapsed up ahead. A truck has crashed through and come to a sudden stop wrapped around the base of a tree trunk. It can only just have happened. The half-dead driver is Unchanged. He’s hanging out of the door, and when he sees us he starts groaning and begging for help. Ellis jumps up at him, the force of her sudden attack throwing him back across his cab. By the time I get up to her he’s already dead, but she continues to kick, punch, and slash at his lifeless body, her aggression and instinct taking hold. I grab her hair and pull her back toward me, then manage to get a grip under one of her shoulders and drag her back out into the open.
“Off!” she yells, her voice guttural and hoarse, sounding more like a warning howl than a properly formed word.
“We have to go, Ellis. Can’t stay here. Too dangerous.”
I drag her behind me into the park. She’s still kicking and thrashing furiously, but her short arms can’t reach my hands to break my grip. I run across the boggy grass toward the chaotic activity up ahead. There’s a bottleneck at the single exit, where jeeps, huge trucks, and other armored vehicles are all vying for position to get onto a track that’s barely wide enough for any of them to get through. All around the vehicles, refugees and soldiers on foot try to escape from the park. People fight with each other to get away, but there are no other people like us here. This is Unchanged versus Unchanged.
A khaki-colored Land Rover pulls away and skids through the mud before coming to a sudden halt at the back of the ever-growing line of vehicles. No one pays us any attention as I run toward it. The driver tries to weave through the stationary line and push his way in, his only concern getting away from here before the inevitable carpet bombing begins. But there’s no way through for anyone. A helicopter hovers overhead, broadcasting a pointless announcement that is all but inaudible over the strain of so many impatient, overrevved engines.
The driver of the Land Rover is distracted, arguing with one of the other soldiers in the back. This is our chance. I haul Ellis up close and whisper in her ear.
“Kill them, honey.”
I yank open the back door of the mud-splattered vehicle and literally throw her inside. I slam it shut again and wait for several anxious seconds until the bloody face of one of the soldiers is smashed up against the window, cracking the glass. I pull the front door open, drag the driver out onto the grass, and stamp hard on his face until he stops moving. I jump into his still-warm seat and lock the doors. Behind me Ellis stands on the chest of one of the dead soldiers, ripping out his throat with her bare hands.
“Good girl,” I tell her. “Now sit down and hold on.”
The way ahead is still impassable, and there are more soldiers running toward us now, more interested in the vehicle than in either their fallen comrades or us. As the nearest one reaches for the door I shove the Land Rover into reverse, skidding back across the grass and knocking one of them down, clattering over his broken legs. Into first gear and I accelerate. We struggle to get traction on the wet, greasy ground for a second, but the soldier’s body helps the wheels to finally get a grip, and we career away.
“Hold on,” I tell Ellis again as we slip and slide through the mud. I follow the curve of the boundary fence, looking for the way we used to get in here and hoping I’ll be able to squeeze around the other side of the truck and get out again. There it is. I accelerate up over the collapsed wire-mesh fence, the side of the Land Rover scraping along the side of the beached truck. I steer hard right, then hard the other way, then change direction again as we weave through the trees. Behind me Ellis is thrown from side to side, the soldiers’ bloody corpses providing her with some cushioning.
“Put your belt on.”
She doesn’t react. I wrench the steering wheel hard over again, then grip it tight as we burst out through the trees, crash through a low picket fence, then swerve onto a narrow residential road that’s swarming with people who scatter as we power toward them. Ellis slams herself up against the window, beating her hands against the glass, desperate to get outside and kill.
There’s a traffic island up ahead, and the rest of the traffic that’s managing to escape from the park is driving around it. I accelerate the wrong way around the island, then force my way into the line of fast-moving vehicles. We hurtle along a wide road that’s virtually clear on one side, more refugees diving out of the way as we approach. The road climbs up over a high flyover supported on huge concrete struts, and now I know where we’re heading. This was obviously the Unchanged military’s main route in and out of their refugee camp. In less than a mile we’ll reach the highway. I’m distracted as the truck in front smashes into a person trying to sprint away, sending them spinning over the crash barrier at the side of the flyover and tumbling down a sixty-foot drop. Our speed is such that I dare only look down for a fraction of a second, but I see that the area of town below us now resembles a vast battlefield. Escaping refugees have collided head-on with an army of our fighters marching into the city. They’re no match for our people. I look down over a bloodbath of unprecedented scale and brutality.
The front of the Land Rover clips a lump of concrete, and I almost lose control. I try to focus again as we start to descend toward the highway, Unchanged military vehicles ahead of us and behind. Ellis starts throwing herself at the door, trying to get out, oblivious to the danger.
“Sit down,” I shout at her, reaching into the back and trying to grab her arm. I manage to catch her wrist, but she won’t budge. Christ, she’s strong. She straightens her legs against the back of the front seats. The harder I try to pull her forward, the more she resists.
As this road widens and merges with the highway, two vehicles try to pass me at once, a truck on one side and a jeep on the other. Still struggling with Ellis, I accidentally ram the cumbersome truck. It veers off to the right and hits the metal barrier running along the median and spins. The back of the truck jackknifes and blocks two of the three lanes behind us. I glance up into the rearview mirror and watch as more vehicles smash into the truck, filling almost the entire road with a tangled mass of crashed traffic. Other trucks and vans manage to swerve around the wreck and keep moving.
Ellis lunges at me from the back. I lift my hand to protect myself and manage to get a hold under her armpit. I drag her forward, flipping her over through a full turn, bringing her slamming down hard on her back on the passenger seat.
“Sit down!” I yell at her, the volume of my desperate voice seeming to finally have some effect. She backs away from me and moves toward the door, pulling up her knees and curling herself into as small a shape as possible. “Put your belt on, Ellis,” I tell her. “Do it!”
When she doesn’t react I ignore her, focusing my attention on getting as far away from the city as possible, passing a large armored transporter on the inside. There’s a flash of light and a thunderous noise directly above me, and I brace myself for another missile explosion, but it’s just more helicopters, their pilots and passengers fleeing from the fallen city along with everyone else. I glance at the dashboard for a fraction of a second-as long as I dare-and I see that we’re doing more than ninety miles an hour. More than a mile a minute. We might be six or seven miles away now, maybe more. Is that far enough?
“We’ve got to get away from there, you understand?” I yell over the noise of the engine, looking over at Ellis. She cowers on the seat next to me, half naked and covered in blood and grime. Her huge brown eyes stare back at me unblinking. Poor kid’s in shock, traumatized by everything that she’s seen and done since we were last together. If only Lizzie hadn’t taken her away from me. She’d have been better off with me there to explain everything. “Listen, we’ll find somewhere safe to stop, then we’ll-”
Her eyes dart away from my face and toward the windshield. She looks up, scanning the white clouds above us. I follow her gaze, then look down again and steer quickly out of the way as we almost hit the back of a slower dark green vehicle. We rumble over the hard shoulder, the tires brushing the edge of the grass verge and churning up clouds of grit and dust. I yank the Land Rover back on course, the sudden movement making us both slide over to the right. Ellis’s gaze remains fixed, staring into the sky.
“What is it?”
She doesn’t answer, but it doesn’t matter. I can hear it now. Even over the Land Rover’s straining engine and everything else, I hear a high-pitched whine. And then I see it-a single dark speck racing across the sky toward the city at an unimaginable speed. Must be a jet or…
Fuck… It can’t be…
The accelerator pedal’s already flat on the floor, but I try to push it down harder still when I realize what it is I’m looking at. With one hand on the wheel, I reach across and shove Ellis down. She yelps in pain and protest and tries to fight me off, but I ignore her cries and keep pushing. She slides off the seat, and I shove her harder, forcing her down into the foot well.
“Get down!” I scream, my voice hoarse with panic. “Get your goddamn head down now!”
She looks up again, and all I can see is those beautiful brown eyes staring back at me. She tries to move again, but I push her back.
“Don’t look up, Ellis. Whatever you do, don’t look up-”
Then it happens.
There’s a sudden flash of intense white light, so bright that it burns. I screw my eyes shut, but I can still see everything as the incandescent light and sudden, scorching heat wrap all the way around us, filling the Land Rover, burning my skin and snatching the air from my lungs. It fades almost as quickly as it came, but the darkness that takes its place is equally blinding. I’m thrown forward as we smash into another vehicle ahead of us, and in the fraction of a second I’m looking out, I see that the highway has become a single solid mass of smashed cars and trucks.
A howling wind swallows up the Land Rover and hurls us and everything else forward again. I try to reach out for Ellis, but I can’t find her. I lean over, but I can’t feel her. She’s not moving. The Land Rover’s spinning now. Feels like it’s rolling over and over, being hit by debris from all angles. I’m thrown back in my seat again, and the back of my head smashes against the window.
Try to move but I can’t. Try to focus but I can’t. Try to speak but…