I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: it’s not the bars that break you, it’s the patches of sky in between. When you think you’re finally free of your particular prison, only to discover that, actually, you’re in an even worse place than you were before.
When we escaped from the Island, when Lena and me were bobbing away over to the Mainland on that barely buoyant wooden door – with Jimmy, Delilah and the kids a little ways up ahead, lost in that great rag-tag flotilla of Detainees and floating junk – I swear, I never been happier in my life. Why wouldn’t I be? After all those years of being stuck out on that pile of crap, at last I was free. I had the woman I waited all my life for beside me (who, and you probably ain’t gonna believe me, reckons she loves me every bit as much as I love her) and now we could go wherever we wanted. In fact, all around us there was this huge tidal wave of joy and optimism as thousands of Detainees paddled, sailed or merely swam that mile or so back over to the Mainland.
Time and time again defiant cries echoed out into the starry night, skipping across the water, letting those in the City know we were on our way back. Occasionally there’d even be some singing, laughter – dammit, if it hadn’t been for the fact that we were in water, I reckon we might’ve formed a conga line and danced our way across. Old folks and kids, away from that terrible place – the stench, the filth, the casual and constant violence, the Wastelords – off to find a better life. But it didn’t last for long. In fact, it was over almost before it’d begun.
I keep thinking about that expression: ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’, though that don’t exactly do the situation justice. Even before we got ashore, I knew something was terribly wrong.
The thing is, I wasn’t just escaping, I was going home. The city where I lived for over fifty years, the city that, though I never cared to admit it, I used to look longingly at from the Island almost every day. But the closer we got, the less familiar it seemed. Nor was my unease helped by the fact that I could see several of the satellites Jimmy had reprogrammed to destroy each other looked to have started fires that seemed to be – not just bursting into flames, but more erupting.
Opposite me, holding on to the other side of the door, her hair hanging in wet tresses, Lena listened for a moment, her sightless hazel eyes reflecting the City’s unnatural glow. ‘What’s going on?’ she asked.
‘Satellites,’ I replied, keeping my voice as nonchalant as I could. ‘Started a couple of fires.’
A quizzical frown formed on her face. ‘Sounds loud.’
I leant over. As I gave her a supportive hug, the door momentarily slipped below the water under my weight. She was doing her best, but I knew what a challenge it had to be. To leave somewhere she’d been so familiar with, where she could ‘see’ almost as well as a sighted person, to go to a place where she didn’t know one solitary step. I mean, I haven’t said anything to her, ’course I haven’t, but if she can’t cope, then screw a new life, screw freedom, screw everything. I’ll go back and live on that damn island with her. We’ll fix it up somehow.
‘Just echoing amongst the buildings, I guess,’ I reassured her.
And yet there was something about the way those fires were burning, the flames leaping into the night, that felt almost appropriate: as if they were issuing a warning, telling us to keep away, and again I cursed myself for not having found us a proper boat, big enough for all seven of us – four adults and three kids. We could’ve gone round the headland and landed somewhere up the coast, away from all this.
There was a large swell, the sea bucked and broke and for a few moments I lost sight of the land. As it came back into view, another fire glimmered into life further round the bay, in one of the residential areas up in the hills. Was this really all down to satellites, or was it something else?
‘What’s wrong, Clancy?’ Lena asked.
‘Nothing,’ I told her, doing my best to keep up the enthusiasm that had propelled us away from the Island.
She ignored my reassurances, also levering herself up on the door, sniffing the air as if it could give her a better idea of what we were approaching.
‘There’s a smell,’ she said, slipping back into the water. ‘What sort of smell?’
‘I don’t know. Not nice.’
I didn’t say any more, just concentrated on kicking my feet, maintaining the same steady, slow progress as everyone else around us.
The subject I was doing my best to avoid, but in truth had been nagging at me ever since I saw those burning satellites plummeting down from the sky, was how people were going to respond. Without satellites to punish us, there was nothing: no cops, no judicial system, no rules or regulations – no judgement of right or wrong. All we ever had – all we ever needed as far as the authorities were concerned – was satellite policing. In the matter of a few spectacular minutes all law and order had disappeared and I didn’t know how people were gonna react. In fact, tell the truth, I wasn’t even sure how I was gonna react.
I tried to speed up our progress, kicking a little harder, but we immediately collided with this old couple rolling back and forth on a water barrel. I apologised, gave them a shove, my legs starting to protest at this unfamiliar exercise. I ain’t any kind of swimmer, not with this bulk, all my energy goes into keeping me afloat, but I needed to get ashore and find out what was going on.
I don’t know how you can tell if buildings are friendly or not, but as the long, jagged bottom jaw of the City began to loom over us, I got the distinct impression that these weren’t – just an endless row of preformed concrete, each gravestone slab a statement for a different commercial concern, and dominating them all, like some huge black mausoleum, was the new Infinity building.
That is one helluvan intimidating construction. Even from the Island we were aware of its day-to-day progress, how it grew and grew, but up close it’s something else. It looks more like a fort or prison. There’s no access on the ocean side, just rows and rows of windows on the upper floors, whilst on the very top sits its golden crown: that squinting two-eyed symbol of theirs. Talk about appropriate. I know they’re supposed to be media, but that don’t mean we want them spying on us all the time. And anyways, ‘supposed to be’ is right. Those Infinity Specials who came over to help the Wastelords search for us on the Island didn’t look like security personnel to me, more like something closer to military.
We reached that point where the ocean’s swell flipped over into waves and our wooden crates and boxes, the sealed drums and even the occasional small boat started to bump into each other. Fortunately, at that same moment, my feet touched the bottom.
I took Lena’s hand, warned her about the rapidly growing chaos in front of us and began to splash through young and old celebrating at having made it across. They were all whooping it up, hugging each other, congratulating everyone within earshot, high-fiving and shaking hands. Up ahead, dotted around the beach, I could see several small groups of seated Mainlanders, probably wondering what the hell was going on, where this endless line of flotsam and jetsam was coming from. Though there didn’t seem to be much in the way of a reaction: as the fi t dripping Detainees waded ashore, collapsing onto the sand, they just stayed where they were, in anonymous huddles, barely even glancing our way.
Finally Lena and me managed to weave our way through everyone and everything, splashing up onto the litter-strewn urban beach, the only injury a bruised shin I collected from a plank tossed at me by a wave.
‘Big Guy!’ shouted a familiar voice, and I turned to see Jimmy pegging his way over; Delilah and the kids – Gordie, Arturo and Hanna – following on behind. ‘You okay?’
‘Fine,’ I said, turning to Lena, who promptly gave an encouraging smile.
‘Wow! Can you believe it?’ Jimmy marvelled, gaping round at the City, shaking his head, his straggly old scrap of a ponytail, the only hair on an otherwise bald head, flapping from side to side. ‘How cool is this?’
I nodded, doing my best to shelve my concerns, more surprised than reassured by how quiet it was. ‘What d’ya think, kids?’
All three of them stared at the towering buildings in front of us. Hanna, as ever, wordless, Gordie shrugging his usual indifference, whilst Arturo was plainly more impressed.
‘Can we live up there?’ he asked, pointing to the very top of a tower.
I shook my head. ‘Nope. We’re getting out of this place as fast as our legs can carry us.’
I turned to Lena to fill her in on where Arturo wanted to live, but she was more interested in getting her own view of things by repeatedly sniffing the air, maybe still trying to identify that bad odour. A fire flared up – somewhere on the other side of the block, crackling away like the multiple breaking of branches, an orange glow bouncing off the walls – and she gave this little nod, as if she’d been expecting it.
‘Where is everyone?’ Gordie asked, as surprised as I was that our welcome committee consisted only of a few disinterested stragglers sitting on the beach.
It was eerie. Apart from the occasional passing automatic bus, most of which seemed to be empty, the bay road was practically free of traffic. It didn’t strike me so much as a ghost city, more a heavily preoccupied one – as if somewhere something big was going on.
‘Thought we might have to fight our way up the beach,’ Delilah commented, putting her arm round little Arturo in case he needed her protection.
Neither the little guy nor Hanna had ever known any life but the Island. Gordie lived on the Mainland for a while, but it was probably too long ago for him to clearly remember. As for Lena, she lived here ’til her early teens, but without sight now that probably wasn’t a lot of use to her. Again I gave her a squeeze, our wet clothes so impregnated with the grime of the Island that they felt all cold and slippery, like fish. I was a little concerned I might be overdoing it, being too attentive, but I couldn’t help but worry about her, especially with that confused little frown that kept tangling her brow.
‘They say anything?’ I asked Jimmy, indicating the nearest group of Mainlanders, five or six of them sitting in a circle.
‘Nah. Barely seemed to notice us.’
Delilah grunted. ‘Addicts or alcoholics,’ she muttered, as if she knew such people all too well. ‘They wouldn’t know if we beamed down from Mars.’
Just at that moment, the fire on the other side of the block must’ve found a new source of fuel ‘cuz there was a sudden loud explosion and flames shot high enough in the air to appear over the rooftops.
Several of the Detainees screamed and crouched down on their haunches, as if expecting the world to fall in on them, but as the flames subsided, they laughed nervously at their own behaviour and got to their feet. I gave Lena another squeeze, told her it was all right, and just as I knew she would at some stage, she pulled away, going to talk the kids, as if she’d had enough of me and my fussing.
I turned to Jimmy, at last having the opportunity to voice my concerns. ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ I muttered. ‘Where is everybody?’
He shook his head, plainly every bit as worried as I was. ‘Beats me.’
And it wasn’t just us either. A lot of the Detainees had been determined to celebrate being back – to kiss the ground, do a little dance, whatever – but slowly they were falling silent, as if no longer sure it was a cause for celebration. Most of them just stood there, gaping at the City as if expecting to see something terrible come out of it at any moment. Nor did it help when an automatic bus came into view engulfed by flames, still following its programmed route, still making its usual stops, but passing by like some disintegrating mobile beacon, with sparks and embers flying off into the night.
‘Shit,’ Jimmy muttered.
By now there was quite a crowd huddled all along that narrow strip of sand. The slower ones were still arriving, wading through the lazily somersaulting water, their eager smiles fading as they caught the general mood.
‘Let’s go,’ I said to the others.
Again I caught that frown on Lena’s face, but I insisted on leading her away, making sure Jimmy, Delilah and the kids were right behind, deliberately taking a route past the nearest group of Mainlanders, just to see what they’d do, if they’d give any indication of their attitude towards us.
At first they didn’t so much as glance our way, and I thought Delilah must be right, that they were so far out of it, nothing mattered. There was this woman sitting there with her outstretched partner’s head in her lap – it kinda spooked me – she suddenly locked onto us, giving out with this squeal, pointing over. Immediately the others turned our way, also getting het up, starting this chorus of plaintive wailing. In that moment, the flames of the nearby fire exploded into the sky once more and I caught a glimpse of their faces. They looked like ghouls, pale and lifeless, their eyes so dark and recessed you could barely make out a pupil.
I just kept on walking, pretending I hadn’t noticed. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one guy trying to struggle up, apparently about to give chase, but he simply didn’t have the strength. We left them howling away behind us, stretching out their arms, begging us to come back.
‘What was that all about?’ Lena asked.
I hesitated, still mindful of not adding to her concerns. ‘Nothing.’ She paused for a moment, then gave this long irritated sigh. ‘Clancy, if you don’t stop this, I’m heading off on my own.’
I didn’t know what to do. No matter how concerned I was about her, I also knew she was more than capable of carrying out such a threat. ‘Just a bunch of addicts with crap in their heads, that’s all,’ I muttered. ‘Like Delilah said.’
At that point, Jimmy came sidling over to me, positioning himself on the other side to Lena, making this face, gesturing back at the group. Behind us, I could hear Gordie and Arturo teasing Hanna, making these wailing sounds, circling around her, baring their teeth as if they were about to attack. ‘Zombies!’ they kept chanting, though she just ignored them, walking on with this superior air, like you just got to expect that kind of crap from boys. I nodded at Jimmy, all the while mad at myself for communicating with him in a way Lena couldn’t see. I also gave a slight sigh of relief that he, along with everyone else, hadn’t spotted what I had – leastways, what I thought I had. That guy lying on the beach with his head on the woman’s lap, the only one who didn’t react – there was a good reason for that. He was dead. Those people’d had a corpse amongst them. And yet, the oddest thing of all was, the way they behaved, it was almost as if they thought we could’ve saved him.
Behind us, the other Detainees were starting to follow our example: splitting into groups, going only with those they trusted, dithering over which direction to take.
We’d just about made it to the road and started to cross when I heard a chopper. I looked up, and there, wouldn’t you know it, rising off the top of that massive dark edifice, was an Infinity Dragonfly.
‘Shit!’ I groaned.
I tugged Lena, and shouting to the others to follow, ran towards the far side of the road. Delilah was grumbling away somewhere at the back, asking why I was making such a fuss, until the chopper swooped down, lights blazing, buzzing over the heads of the Detainees.
‘Stay where you are! Do not leave the beach!’ a female voice commanded. ‘Do not leave the beach!’
‘Keep going!’ I told the others, scrambling over a low wall and ducking down behind.
‘Leaving the Island is a Crime Against the State,’ the voice boomed. ‘Do not leave the beach!’
There was a momentary stand-off, the Dragonfly hovering menacingly, the Detainees looking at one another, wondering what to do. I mean, strictly speaking, it was a Crime Against the State, and ’til only a couple of hours ago, punishable by death from a satellite. But what the hell did that have to do with Infinity? They were supposed to report the news, not make it.
Maybe the same thought struck the other Detainees – or maybe the prospect of freedom, so tantalisingly near, was just too much. Whatever, one group suddenly made a dash towards the road and the shelter of the buildings on the far side and immediately others followed. The Dragonfly wheeled in their direction, about to issue another warning, I thought, maybe intimidate them further by flying lower over their heads, but in fact, it opened up with its lasers.
‘Noooo!’ Delilah screamed, and Hanna buried her face in her hands.
I swear, if there was one moment when all our optimism, our hopes for a new life, came tumbling down, that was it. What the hell were they doing? What gave them the right? And they weren’t just stunning people either. They were blasting them to pieces. Everywhere you looked, Detainees young and old were getting cut down. People were screaming, running this way and that, some managing to escape into the City, others so panicked they just ran blindly back into the sea.
The Dragonfly ceased firing and the woman again warned everyone not to leave the beach, this time mentioning something about ‘emergency powers’.
‘Let’s go,’ I told the others.
‘Big Guy!’ Jimmy protested, fearing we’d be spotted.
‘Come on!’ I urged, glancing up, seeing another chopper leaving the Infinity roof.
That was all the persuasion anyone needed. I took Lena’s hand and began to run as fast as this hulking old frame was able, calling at the others to keep up. Where we went exactly, I don’t know. It just became this mad headlong dash down alleyways and through back streets, clinging to cover and shadows, desperate to get as far away as we could.
At one point we turned a corner and came face to face with this huge blaze. I never seen anything like it, roaring and crackling away, not only sending flames several blocks into the air, but occasionally shooting them out horizontally, so they ignited other buildings. The heat was that intense, even from a hundred or more yards away, we had to back off and find another route. Nor was anyone doing anything about it. It had just been left to burn, to consume whatever it wanted. For sure there were no emergency vehicles around. I guess there were just too many fires and not enough resources.
A couple of times, no matter how much we tried to avoid it, we literally ran into Mainlanders. The first group were like those on the beach – pale, ghostly; we were gone before they could even react – whilst the others more or less ignored us. Amongst everything else that was going on, I guess we weren’t exactly a priority, just more patients loose in the asylum.
After a while, especially for us oldies, pain and discomfort began to overwhelm adrenalin and we were forced to stop, gasping for breath, begging the old ticker to calm down. Jimmy tried to be smart, to freewheel on the moving sidewalk, but it stopped the moment he got on and wouldn’t start again ’til he got off (it scans you, looks for your credit implant, usually on your wrist or behind your ear).
I started searching for signposts and the quickest way out of the City, though actually, apart from what happened on the waterfront, things hadn’t been anywhere near as bad as I’d expected. Most streets were more or less functioning as normal. On the other hand, it was disturbingly quiet and I wondered if, maybe, we hadn’t come across the main event yet.
As we approached the commercial district and the up-market shopping area I began to realise how right I was. You could feel the atmosphere starting to change. There were more people, a simmering clamour, and gradually, one sound that overwhelmed all others. I didn’t recognise it at first. It was like a plague of insects, the cry of a thousand cicadas on a warm summer evening, but as we got closer, it finally hit me. It was a mass accumulation of alarms, hundreds and hundreds of them, all different notes, different kinds, all futilely signalling their premises had been breached, crying out for help that plainly wasn’t gonna come. And as we turned the corner into one of the main shopping streets, finally we saw where everyone had gone.
From one end to the other, as far as you could see, it was bedlam, with store after store being looted. People were using baseball bats, sledgehammers, scaffolding poles, anything to smash their way in. Within minutes, sometimes seconds, they re-emerged laden down with so much stuff they could barely carry it. Their first few steps outside were always that bit tentative, taking a quick glance up at the sky, just to reassure themselves the satellites really weren’t working any more.
‘Jesus,’ I groaned, my thoughts immediately going back all those years to the Good Behaviour Riots, when the state stopped paying the kids to stay out of trouble.
‘Quite a party,’ Delilah croaked.
I turned to Lena to explain what was going on, but she cut me short.
‘I can guess.’
‘You’re better off not seeing this,’ Delilah told her.
I don’t know why, but I glanced at the kids, concerned how they would react. I wasn’t altogether surprised to see Gordie looking just that little bit interested.
‘Anything you fancy?’ I asked.
He just shrugged and looked away, and I realised I’d gone too far. ‘Sorry,’ I said, patting him on the shoulder.
Again he shrugged. That kid’s got a whole dictionary of them, and each and every one’s got a different meaning.
‘I was out of line,’ I added, but he still didn’t seem that bothered. The one good thing about what was going on, leastways as far as we were concerned, was that, amongst it, the presence of a small group of Detainees was unlikely to be noticed. And you know, I don’t condone such behaviour – no matter what I used to get up to in the old days, I’ve now come to see all crime as wrong – but as we made our way down that street, and despite all the mayhem, I couldn’t help but feel that little bit relieved, that if that was it, their generation’s version of anarchy, then maybe we were getting off lightly. But I should’ve known better.
We hadn’t gone more than three or four blocks before we heard it – a different sound this time, more potent, more threatening. In fact, it reminded me of being on the Island on a foggy night. There were the same wild shouts, the same frightened screams, the same summoning of madness.
I guess we could’ve worked our way round it, but our curiosity got the better of us. There was an open area, set back from the street, and something was really burning away in there. As we approached you could hear this kind of low grumbling, like an explosion that couldn’t quite reach its detonation point but was furiously trying, and finally we came face to face with a scene which was much more in line with what I’d been expecting.
There was this shiny new shopping centre – it couldn’t have been open for long, but all eight or nine floors of it were blazing away like it was made of rice-paper. And dancing all round, high on drink, drugs or merely adrenalin, thousands of rioters were, not only looting everything in sight, but burning it down as well. Most of the outside of the building was glass, and just as we rounded the corner some of its huge panes reached a point where they simply exploded, showering debris down on those below.
‘Jesus! Not cool!’ Jimmy cried, instinctively backing away.
All around us flames were leaping into the air the way they might when you light a barbecue – the same curve and character – but a thousand times higher, a million times more potent. The whole world was alight. Worse still, there was a pitched battle going on. People were fighting all over, and it didn’t take long to work out why. Looters were wrestling with looters, trying to steal what had already been stolen. A lot of them were armed with clubs or knives. I actually saw one guy stabbed to death by a gang of girls. I was going to get over there, try to stop them, but it was too late. They just grabbed up his stuff – shoes, a handbag, maybe for his girlfriend or something – and ran off. Not going far before they spotted someone else who had something they wanted, a teenage couple, and immediately surrounded them. Everywhere we looked people were being beaten, even slain, for something that was never theirs in the first place.
‘Let’s go,’ I told the others, though they were almost too stunned to move. ‘Jimmy!’
‘Can’t we help?’ Lena asked.
I turned to her, saw those sightless eyes registering such confusion. ‘No. We can’t.’
When I took her hand there was a moment of resistance before I managed to persuade her that there was no other choice, that anything else would only be putting us all in danger, and we took off as quickly as we could. The kids having to be told to keep up, as if they would like to have stayed a little longer, that what we witnessed wasn’t much more than entertainment to them.
I mean, that was it, that was what I feared more than anything, that the loss of the satellites would result in total breakdown, and I should’ve known that was where it’d be, in the home of designer labels and luxury goods. We saw two bodies on the sidewalk, still lying where they’d thrown themselves out of burning buildings, but we just kept going. This might’ve once been my city, my home, but having seen what I had I didn’t want to spend so much as a night there. I wanted to wake in the morning in a quiet country lane, or at the very least a leafy garden suburb, on the threshold of the countryside and freedom.
What I didn’t appreciate was how hard I was pushing everybody, including myself, to achieve that goal.
A little later, Jimmy came pegging up to Lena and me, his limp worse than I’d seen it in a while. ‘Big Guy, we have to stop soon,’ he told me. ‘Lile can’t go much further.’
‘We gotta get out of this city,’ I told him.
‘Tonight?’ he exclaimed.
‘Uh-huh,’ I replied, not letting my pace drop for a moment.
‘Clancy,’ Lena protested. ‘We’re too tired.’
I was about to argue the point, but looking at her, realising how much more difficult it must’ve been, that she’d been hanging onto my hand running into nothingness ever since we left the Island, I saw I had no choice. ‘Okay,’ I sighed, a little reluctantly. ‘Just for a few hours.’
We took a couple of side streets into an unfashionable area where things were a bit more downmarket, less likely to be of interest, and eventually came across this old abandoned carpet store. Lord knows how long it’d been since it was in business – long enough for rust to have melded shut the padlock and grille. I forced them apart, wrenched the wire aside, then kicked the front door open. The first thing we saw was the welcome sight of a pile of carpet offcuts, in all colours and sizes, that we could use to sleep on. Lena and me grabbed a handful and retired to the back office, Jimmy and Delilah pretty well flopped out where they were, whilst Gordie and Arturo did the same. Only Hanna spent any time choosing exactly where she wanted to be, ending up at the far end of the room, as far away from those boys as possible.
The moment I lay down, I realised I was every bit as tired as everyone else. Every muscle and bone in my old body seemed to be setting up a chattering protest. And yet, with Lena asleep in my arms within minutes, I was wide awake, thoughts whipping around my head like trash in a typhoon.
What do they say about never going back? This was supposed to be my home. Okay, so we were nowhere near my patch, but I had the feeling that even if I was, even if this was my old street, I still wouldn’t feel warmly disposed towards it.
To think we imagined this place would be heaven – okay, so not our idea of heaven exactly, but someone’s, maybe. Only a few hours ago we’d been making our way across from the Island, so excited to be free at last, at where we were going. Now look at us. So far we’ve confronted addicts, looters, arsonists, murderers – though all of them pale in comparison with Infinity. I mean, what the hell’s going on with them? Have they taken over law and order? And what does that mean for us?
Just at that moment, Lena stirred in my arms, almost as if she could sense my fretting. ‘You okay?’ she mumbled out of the dark, plainly only half awake.
‘We’re only stopping for a few hours,’ I reminded her. ‘I want to be away from this place as soon as we can.’
I waited for a protest that I was being obsessive, but there was none, and I realised she’d already fallen back to sleep. I kissed her on the forehead. I mean, whatever or wherever, I’m still the luckiest dumb old big guy in the world. No question.
The last thing I reminded myself before I finally succumbed to that unfamiliar darkness was that it was up to me. I would have to get everyone up at first light, ignore their inevitable grumbling and get them out on the road. Too bad if they hated me for it. Above everything, we needed to get away, out into the country, and resurrect our bid for freedom and a better life.
Though, in fact, did I but know it, it was already too late.
Excerpted from Into the Fire by Peter Liney. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Liney.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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