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This is no country he knows, and no place he ever wants to see, even in the shuttered madness of his worst dreams. But Richard Jane survived. He walks because he has no choice and at the end of this molten road, running along the spine of a burned, battered country, his son may be alive. The sky crawls with venomous cloud and burning rain while the land is a scorched sprawl of rubble and corpses. Rats have risen from the depths to gorge on the carrion, and a glittering dust coats everything. It hides a terrible secret as new horrors take root. He walks on, with one hope.
It was just an inevitable result of so much open space. You grew used to the silence quickly, especially coming a little inland, away from the waves. You went beyond that super-attenuated aspect, flinching at every sound, every shadow. You learnt the beats of the humdrum quickly. It would spook him now, to see someone moving through the streets, or hear them calling to him from a rooftop. But he had to hold on to the hope. Accidents happened. People survived. It could only be a matter of time. No hope here, though.
The sword came down in a desperate, choppy arc, but it was too shallow, the action of a man who visualises what he wants crucial seconds before the physicality behind it can be achieved. Jane felt the tip describe a curve across his chest. There was a sting, massive heat, but the damage was only superficial. If anything it enlivened him. He was utterly, joyously conscious when he shot a round into the man’s open mouth. Jane lay on the ground hearing only the slam of his heart and the torture of his lungs.
Jane found a new rucksack. Brendan found some maps of the north-east, but they couldn’t work out how far they had come. It didn’t matter. Knowing you were twenty miles or 120 miles from Newcastle didn’t detract from having to cover that distance. Ignorance was bliss, in a way. The days tumbled into one another. Jane couldn’t be sure if it had been three or four or five since Bamburgh. Angela’s breathing began to become more laboured, no matter how much Ventolin she took. But at least the road wasn’t so bad and Brendan could push her in the wheelchair for fair stretches before she had to get out to circumnavigate a damaged section.
I have to find him. ’ ‘Family,’ Chris sighed. ‘Shit. My dad is in his eighties. He’s got diabetes, angina … Lovely little combo. ’ ‘He’s in Sydney, right? ’ Jane asked. ‘OK, so calm down a minute. It might be that this is localised after all, a UK thing. We don’t know if it’s global. ’ It hadn’t occurred to him for a moment that it might be. ‘If it’s global, it isn’t terrorism,’ Nance said. ‘It isn’t “oops, I pushed the meltdown switch” at the power plant. ’ ‘It can’t be global,’ Jane said. Chris turned his head to the window.
He restocked his supplies. He found new boots and clothes. He replaced the filters on his mask. He broke down at the side of the road and screamed and cried and wished things were different. He wished himself dead. His checks on conurbations he passed through became less thorough. He didn’t want to pick up any more dependants. He turned and looked back at the way he had come. He used the binoculars to see if he could find evidence of the figure he had seen in the white scarf. Already he was beginning to think it had been an hallucination.