The underground tunnel from Spitfire’s Rise was too small for Kate to stand up inside. Whenever she tried, the soil would scrape off the ceiling into her hair. But it was the sensory chaos of a mud massage against her head that bothered her, rather than any effect on her appearance.
Another fifty-ish metres before the trapdoor to the grassy hill. Raj was nearly there, barely patient enough to wait for his girlfriend.
‘Come on,’ he whispered in the darkness.
Kate took a deep breath. Normally she only broke the rules on Sundays, but today she and Raj had a special reason for sneaking outside. Raj reached the trapdoor, pushed it open, and natural light flooded into the tunnel. He barely gave himself a moment to acclimatise before hauling himself up onto the grass.
Kate dipped her head a little further and walked along the last wooden planks before the exit. Last year, McCormick’s idea of an underground tunnel had sounded great: an opportunity to enter and leave Spitfire’s Rise without using a visible entrance that might give away its location. But it had taken a long time to dig half a mile, and the claustrophobia of those months had stayed with her.
‘Before we do this,’ Kate said as she approached the grass-covered trapdoor, ‘are you sure we’ve still got the date right?’
‘It’s his birthday, Kate. And even if it’s not, celebrate him anyway.’
May sixteenth. Her brother’s birthday. James Arrowsmith, autistic like Kate but in a completely different region of the spectrum, had turned nineteen just four days before Takeover Day. His profound disabilities were so complex, and his reliance on routine so strong, that nothing at all was allowed to change for his birthday. Wrapped presents and birthday songs would have been intimidating to him, but he had spent the day happy with how people had treated him.
He had eaten his dinner with a birthday candle. But he had done that every day for the previous eight years. On his eleventh birthday Mum and Dad had placed a battery-powered candle on his plate (not scaring him with actual fire, of course), hoping he would tolerate it without becoming anxious. Even as a seven-year-old, Kate had wondered whether the candle had truly been for James’ sake or their parents’. But James had loved the flashing light, so much that he had demanded it the next day. The day after, too. Before the family knew it, every single dinnertime all year round needed to feature a battery-powered flashing candle on James’ dinner plate.
On his nineteenth birthday, the candle had returned to its original meaning. And Kate remembered spending the day looking at him with beaming smiles: even during her time at Oakenfold Special School, after her escape from mainstream, smiles had been hard to come by. So that day with her brother must have been wonderful.
Wow, the world had changed. James was now twenty years old, celebrating with whatever routine he had established in the depths of New London’s Inner City prison. He had been in there for almost a year, assuming he was still…
Maybe he really is alive.
But maybe he’s not.
Maybe he found Mum and Dad.
But maybe he didn’t.
As was always the case, the worst part was not knowing. Even after almost a year apart, Kate’s co-dependency with her brother remained strong to the point of enormous anxiety. And with no facts to guide her, every possibility could float around her mind. Especially the worst ones.
Kate shook the thoughts out of her head, and climbed through the trapdoor. She gripped a hand against the overgrown grass, and used it to pull herself up. The wind was soft, but cold. The sky had probably been clear all night, judging by the temperature.
‘Never stops being beautiful, does it?’ said Raj.
Kate looked up. Raj had already stopped searching for clone patrols, but perhaps he had not tried hard. They were almost unheard of in the countryside now, twelve months after the end of the purges. Instead he sat himself at the top of the hill and admired the view, waiting for Kate to join him, and then closed his eyes to pray in silence.
Kate sat herself on the grass next to him, thinking about how curious it was that she and Raj Singh had ended up together: two Oakenfold Special School students who had never spoken back in the old days, largely because Raj was in a class specifically for dyslexic students who could barely read their own names. There were some great thinkers in that class, but none who would be able to complete a formal written exam. Raj himself had been a genius at anything that required visual-spatial thinking, and could come up with bright ideas that would never have crossed Kate’s mind, but his inability to record his brilliance on paper had left him in a class at the other side of the school to her. But here they were a year later, the autistic girl and dyslexic boy, going out after however many years of not noticing each other’s existence.
She sat herself on the grass, and found that Raj was right. The Hertfordshire countryside was a fine place to spend a war. Not all soldiers had picturesque villages and winding rivers outside their living quarters.
The Citadel of New London was somewhere on the horizon, a grey line only visible on a clear day. Many of Kate’s fellow Underdogs (and classmates from Oakenfold) had died in that grey line somewhere, and almost everyone she loved was somewhere in the prison inside it.
She dropped her head, her gaze landing on the village before her. A year without humans had not done much to dent its beauty. The church looked old anyway, as did most of the houses. The village looked antiquated rather than abandoned.
She looked at Raj, whose eyes were open again. Whichever god he worshipped, he had finished praying to them.
‘You know what feels really weird?’ she asked.
‘We’re four days away from a whole year in Spitfire’s Rise. And I still don’t know the name of our street.’
‘Be thankful,’ said Raj. ‘McCormick played a smart move, getting Ewan to rip up road signs so nobody could give our location away.’
Then making him rip some up from other villages too, so Grant couldn’t just look for the place without road signs.
Kate smiled, as if the memory had been a good one. In reality it had been terrifying whenever Ewan invited her along. Destroying road signs whilst trying not to read them, since the less they remembered the better. Trying to remain unobservant, whilst looking for clone patrols that were still scouring the countryside. Knocking down every village sign within half a day’s walk to the east, and a full day’s walk to the west so that Spitfire’s Rise wouldn’t be located in the middle. Every village’s name and identity lost for the safety of thirty-two people, most of whom had since…
‘What would you call this village?’ she asked to distract herself. ‘If you could name it for yourself?’
‘Some things are too beautiful for words,’ answered Raj.
‘Stop avoiding the question,’ Kate said with a laugh. ‘I think it should have some kind of posh name… something-borough or something-ington. What about you?’
There was a noticeable pause before Raj gave his answer.
‘It wouldn’t be right for me to try.’
‘Oh, come on.’
A much longer pause.
Is that nervousness? He’s looking at his feet… that means worrying, doesn’t it?
‘…My taxi to Oakenfold took me through this village every day,’ Raj said. ‘And I could read the sign well enough, so, yeah.’
Kate’s heart stopped. Or at the very least, she could no longer feel it.
‘All along, you’ve always known-’
‘Yes, Kate. I know the name of this village. But nothing more than that.’
Nothing more was needed. Kate’s arms and legs began to lighten, as if somebody had switched the gravity off beneath her.
For all my years of fighting anxiety, it still doesn’t take much. Even the smallest thing.
No, this is not the smallest thing. My boyfriend just told me our lives are in real danger. He only needs to screw up once, and, and…
‘McCormick knows,’ Raj continued. ‘I was honest with him about it. That’s why he’s not sent me anywhere for a while. Nowhere I could get captured, anyway…’
Raj fell silent. Kate heard it too. A creak came from the grass-covered trapdoor, and by the time they turned their heads around Mark was halfway out.
‘Back inside,’ he grunted. ‘Now.’
‘Oh come on!’ said Raj as if he had just lost a life in a videogame. ‘We’ve only just come out!’
‘And now you’re coming back in. Move.’
Mark Gunnarsson, by far the fiercest student in Oakenfold – even more so after his year in a youth offenders’ institution – spoke with a surprisingly calm voice. With a reputation like his, he never needed to shout. His stony face and piercing eyes were enough of a substitute for raw volume.
‘Three minutes, mate,’ offered Raj. ‘It’s her brother’s birthday.’
‘It’s his birthday inside too,’ Mark answered, standing himself upright on the grass. ‘Now, McCormick’s woken up the whole bloody house and got us searching the place like you’re properly missing. And I already lost an hour to Ewan getting ready for his precious raid. Get inside so I can go back to sleep.’
He held an open hand towards the trapdoor, his shoulders hunched and his face humourless. There was little volume in his voice. He didn’t need to add any to his natural sense of authority.
Kate rose to her feet, as did Raj at her side. As their heads came close on the way up, she whispered into his ear.
‘How did they know we were gone?’
‘Don’t know. We did the same as every Sunday.’
It didn’t take her long to work it out.
‘It’s not Sunday,’ she said. ‘All the other days Jack wakes up early to power the generator, so he must have…’
When she turned to the trapdoor, Mark was gazing at the sky with widened eyes. Something was wrong.
The sound was distinctive enough. Maybe because there was nothing else in the countryside. Or maybe because a year had passed since they had last heard the sound of an aeroplane.
Somewhere to the east, a fleet of them were heading for the grey line in the distance. But Kate had never seen aeroplanes that fast. They weren’t usually that shape either, but it was difficult to tell from so far away.
‘Missiles,’ Mark whispered.
Kate gasped. It would explain why there were so many of them, flying in no particular formation, and at a steep downward angle. Someone, somewhere, had launched an enormous missile attack on New London Citadel.
‘What kind?’ asked Raj, his panicked voice far louder than it should have been while out in the open. ‘Nuclear?’
‘I doubt the world would attack Grant with anything less,’ said Mark, with icy irritation in his voice rather than urgency. ‘They’d never win a long war against him, so they might as well try wiping him out in one go.’
‘With fifty nukes?!’
‘Only one needs to get through.’
‘Like I said. Get inside.’
Mark threw himself into the tunnel first, with Raj a couple of steps behind. Even with an imminent nuclear explosion, not close enough to kill them but close enough to blind them, he insisted that Kate go down first. She waved a dismissive hand and swore at him. It was no time for chivalry.
Raj got himself to safety, and Kate sat down with her legs dangling into the trapdoor hole.
Before she jumped, she could not stop herself from looking up.
There was an explosion – lots of explosions, but they were all tame. Whatever had been fired at New London, the Cerberus system had it covered. Grant’s near-impenetrable network of defence missiles rose from the corners of the Citadel, making it look like a giant birthday cake, and intercepted the threat with a series of detonations. By the time the smoke started to clear, it was obvious that nothing remained in the sky. A couple of seconds passed in silence, and then the soundwave reached Spitfire’s Rise. The explosions had lost their volume over the many miles in between, and sounded little louder than tame fireworks. But those inside the Inner City prison must have been in a state of utter panic.
‘Kate?’ shouted Raj from the tunnel.
‘It’s over, guys,’ she answered. ‘New London’s safe.’
The internal conflict gave her a heavy heart. The world may have been a better place if Nicholas Grant had died in a nuclear firestorm, but at least James would survive his twentieth birthday.
Raj’s head popped up through the trapdoor, and he caught sight of the smoke.
‘What the hell was that about?’ he asked.
Kate had no idea how to respond.
‘Something big,’ she eventually said.