Read Into the Fire Online

Authors: Peter Liney

Tags: #FICTION / Science Fiction / Action & Adventure

Into the Fire

INTO THE FIRE

Jo Fletcher Books

An imprint of Quercus

New York • London

Copyright © 2014 Peter Liney

First published in the United States by Quercus in 2015

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by reviewers, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of the same without the permission of the publisher is prohibited.

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.

Cover design and illustration by Ghost

e-ISBN 978-1-62365-446-7

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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, institutions, places, and events are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons—living or dead—events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

www.quercus.com

To my mother

CHAPTER ONE

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 leaned 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 around 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 around 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 judgment 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 apologized, 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, while 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 first 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 marveled, gaping around 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, while 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 odor. 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.

“Good question.”

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 around 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 behavior 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 toward 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.

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