IT'S BEEN PISSING DOWN rain for the last twenty minutes. There's no shelter here, and I, like everyone else, am soaked to the skin and freezing cold. I've been crouching down beside the wall trying to keep myself covered, but the rainwater's running down across the gentle slope of the packed square now, forming deep puddles around my feet. The conditions don't bother me-I'm getting ready for what amounts to a suicide attack, surrounded by Unchanged, and a little water is the least of my problems-but when other people start to move around me I know I need to go with them to keep up the illusion. I follow two of them, stepping over the person immediately to my left, who hasn't moved in as long as I've been here. Someone grabs my arm, and I know who it is before I turn around. I can hear him breathing.

"Is this it?" Harvey asks, his voice low but still too loud. "Is it time?"

I shake my head. "Not yet, too soon. I'm just getting out of the rainwater."

I try to move, but he keeps hold of me.

"Where you going?"

"Somewhere drier."

"I'll come."

"No, it's better if we split up. If people see us together they'll get suspicious."

"Doesn't matter. Not long now."

"I know, but-"

I shut up when the deafening rumble of a sudden, booming explosion fills the air. There's a moment of silent shock in the square, everyone taken by surprise. It lasts no longer than a second; then all hell breaks loose around me. The mass of people who'd been sheltering on the ground begin to get up and scramble for cover. Is this it? Has the signal to fight been given early? I look around, but, apart from Harvey, there's no one I recognize anywhere close in the mass of refugees suddenly crisscrossing all around me. My arm is grabbed again.

"It's not time," Julia yells in my ear, shouting to make herself heard over the noise filling the square. "Don't fight. This isn't it. Get up toward the statue."

I do as she says, sensing her following my every step. I look up and see that a surprising number of the people in the crowd ahead have now stopped and are standing still, looking back in the direction from which I've just come. Other panicking refugees continue to weave around them. One of our men is already standing on the statue. He sees us coming and beckons us closer. He points out into the distance.

"Some dumb fucker's got their timings wrong."

Still being shunted from every angle, I pull myself up next to him and look back. Behind the town hall a high-rise office building is on fire. There's a necklace of fierce flame burning about two-thirds up the side of the building, and it's taking hold with incredible speed. I can see people in the windows above the flames, illuminated by what's happening below them. Some have started to jump, choosing instant death when they hit the ground over waiting for the fire and smoke to get them.

"This isn't right," I say, thinking out loud, trying to shield my face from the torrential, driving rain.

"What isn't?" the man next to me asks as he reaches into the pockets of his jacket for weapons.

"Why there? If you want to cause panic at ground level, why start fighting halfway up a high-rise?"

"It wasn't us," Craven shouts, wading through the masses to get to us.

"How do you know?"

"Helicopter. You can see it sticking out of the side of the building. Looks like it was just an accident. Guess it was only a matter of time. You can't look up in this place without seeing something in the air. Everything's so dark that buildings like that must be pretty hard to make out, and in this weather it's even worse. Idiots must have flown straight into it."

Julia plucks Harvey from the crowd and pulls the five of us closer together, no longer concerned with trying to remain invisible. The other people around us couldn't give a damn who we are or what we're doing.

"We have to keep waiting," she says. "This is only going to help us."

"We should do it now," Craven argues, "capitalize on it. Sahota wanted more groups-"

"We wait," Julia orders.

I stare at the crash for a few seconds longer, watching the flames crawling and licking up the sides of the high-rise, swallowing the tail of the helicopter. The fire moves with incredible speed, seeming to eat up the higher floors of the building in massive gulps. The destruction is beautiful, almost hypnotic. But then something happening down here at ground level tears my attention away from the building. People. They're starting to flood into the already packed square. As if a dam has burst its banks, a deluge of desperate refugees is suddenly washing toward us, forced out from their flimsy shelters and squalid refuges around the base of the burning building. Some are injured. Others are coughing, their lungs filled with acrid smoke and dust. Most, though, are just panicking-going with the flow of everyone else around them. Their fear and confusion is invigorating. To experience their terror this close makes me feel superior and strong. They're running blind from the immediately perceived danger without giving a second's thought to what they might be running toward.

Suddenly the air is filled with more thunderous noise. Another explosion. This time it's in the opposite direction, and I'm sure this has to be one of ours. A swollen balloon of flame billows up in the darkness about half a mile from here. It disappears quickly, but its aftereffects remain. Surely another surge of refugees will start moving this way and will hit the others head-on?

"That's enough," Craven says. "Come on, Julia, let's just do it. We won't gain anything from waiting."

They can do what the fuck they like. I'm going. This is my last chance to find Lizzie before all hell breaks loose, and I'm going to take it. I climb down off the statue, and then, leaving Craven and Julia arguing, I start to move back through the crowd. I glance up at the clock on the side of the town hall as I'm swallowed up by the masses. Quarter to five. If Julia has her way I've still got an hour. Or have I? Has the fuse already been lit?

The constant movement and heavy rain are disorienting, and I'm struggling to get my bearings. I push my way deeper into the hordes of Unchanged and manage to almost reach the farthest edge of the civic square before I realize I'm moving in the wrong direction, the burned-out ruin of a nightclub looming up in front of me. People are tearing along an alleyway at the side of the ruined building in both directions, none of them making any progress. I turn around and walk straight into Parsons. He stands in front of me and blocks my way, looking as desperate and lost as one of the Unchanged. He has a grenade in his hand.

"Is this it, McCoyne?"

"No," I tell him, "not yet. Julia says we should-"

"I think it's time."

"Not yet," I say again, having to shout now to make myself heard. "She's up there by the statue. Go and speak to her. See what she says before you-"

"It must be time," he shouts over the rain. "I can't stand all this waiting-"

"Parsons, don't! It was just a helicopter crash. And the other explosion-"

He doesn't say anything else. Instead he just pulls the pin from his grenade. A sudden surge from the crowd shunts him sideways. I try to move back as he manages to get his balance and stand straight again.

"Throw the fucking thing!"

Disoriented and racked with nerves, Parsons just looks at me. I shove him hard in the gut, sending him tripping down the slope, colliding with refugees and knocking them over like bowling pins. He topples back and is gone, immediately snatched from view by the hordes. I put my shoulder down and run as fast as I can in the opposite direction, forcing my way through the masses. I trip over a body on the ground and stumble forward, barely managing to stay upright. Instinctively, I reach out and grab hold of another startled refugee, using him to haul myself back up and keep moving forward. He tries to grapple me down, but I just push him out of the way, knowing that in seconds I'll be the least of his worries. This one has more spirit and fight than most. He manages to cling to the corner of my coat, and I yank it from his grip, then duck to one side when he takes a swing at me. I try to focus on getting away and not panic. I shove him down and glance back over my shoulder, praying that I won't be able to-

For a fraction of a second the world is filled with brilliant white light and a noise so loud I think my head's going to burst. I'm thrown down by the force of the explosion behind me, and for a moment all I can do lie still, sandwiched between fallen Unchanged. I pick myself up, using the bodies around me for support. I look back again, and I can see a space in the crowd and a dark, shallow pit where, just seconds ago, countless people were crammed together. Now there's nothing, just a layer of bloody, smoldering debris. I turn and run as the shock quickly fades and panic again begins to fill the air.

People are running in every direction away from the square now, and I allow myself to be carried along with them, using their bulk as camouflage. None of them know who or what I am, and none of them care. Away from Julia and the others I'm suddenly as irrelevant and unimportant as everyone else, and the anonymity is welcome and reassuring. Running shoulder to shoulder with the enemy, I realize the desperate need to kill these people I've always felt has all but disappeared. Maybe it's because these people are all dead anyway? There's less than an hour to go now until Sahota's moment of glory, but I don't think the city will last that long. A phalanx of helicopters thunders overhead. One of them breaks off and begins firing on some unseen target close to the burning high-rise, causing the crowd around me to start moving with even more panic and speed.

Above the heads of the stampeding masses I see something I think I recognize-the distinctive angular outline of a tall, recently built apartment building. As I run toward it there's another sudden detonation and the front of the building explodes outward in a swollen bulge of fire and heat. I turn away from the immediate blast and duck down as thousands of tiny shards of glass begin raining down around me. Most of the crowd instinctively tries to turn back and run the other way. Dumb fuckers. I keep moving forward, knowing that the ground around the center of the blast will be relatively clear now with just the dead and dying to get through. I run past the burning stump of the building, zigzagging through the carnage, dodging chunks of concrete and twisted lumps of metal and flesh. I look up and see people trapped on the upper floors. A woman falls from a third-floor window and lands on the pavement just ahead of me, shoved out by the terrified crowds behind her, hitting the ground with a wet thud like rotten fruit. It's wonderful to see. Part of me wishes I could find somewhere safe around here to sit and watch the whole city burn.

I'm back to shoving my way through the enemy masses again in seconds. I thump heads with another man, and he pushes me away angrily, his eyes full of hate. Instinctively I reach for my knife but force myself to let it go, fighting against everything I believe in. The need to kill might have subsided, but the desire's still strong. I'm like a junkie who's been clean for years but who's now surrounded by an endless supply of his drug of choice. Once I start killing, will I be able to stop? If I lose control now, all hope of finding Lizzie will be gone forever, and although I don't want to have to face her again, without Lizzie there's no chance I'll ever know what happened to Ellis. This is my last chance.

There's another momentary gap in the crowd at the middle of a once-busy crossroads. This place used to be one of the busiest intersections in town with backed-up lines of traffic all day, every day. I climb up onto the roof of an abandoned MPV-the kind of car I always wanted-and look around me. The Prince Hotel is, I think, still about half a mile farther in the direction I've just been running. Apparently endless swarms of people continue to try to escape the carnage behind me, fighting with each other to make it through the madness. As more explosions suddenly light up the area around the town hall and the civic square behind me, the beauty and simplicity of Sahota's plan comes sharply into focus. Did Julia cause those last blasts, or Craven or one of the others? Has she finally given the order to attack? If it's like this now, I think to myself, how bad will it be by six o'clock?

A helicopter crawls across the sky overhead, illuminating me momentarily with its sweeping searchlight, filling the air with thumping noise. I jump back down to the road and keep running. Copyright 2016 - 2024