Saturday, 21 September 2019
CHAPTER 22 EXCERPT
We stole the car from beneath a broken streetlight at the end of a quiet road then headed north out of the city. We must have passed a thousand surveillance cameras, and every light overhead took the shape of security drones patrolling, lenses penetrating through the smog, searching out renegade bombers and AWOL police officers wanted for murder. Despite my paranoia, it seemed that the checkpoints had not yet been updated with orders to look out for a man and a woman in their thirties travelling out of the city. We slid through with ease – lovers heading for an illicit weekend in the countryside, the guards smiling knowingly as they waved us on.
With the effects of the vodka wearing off, Kate rode beside me in silence as the lights of London were peeled back to reveal dark stretches of countryside and, beyond, quiet motorways with the blinking lights of service stations like outposts, or lighthouses in the darkness. She came alive again as we reached unfamiliar roads, squinting at the map and tracing our way over its illustrated lines. My wrist throbbed as I drove, our headlights pushing the darkness away before it sprung back into place behind us.
An hour or so outside of London, travelling along a long, narrow road leading through a pine forest, we saw the blast of a S.T.A.R rocket overhead, trailing red jet fuel as it raced towards the stratosphere.
“Look,” I said, but Kate was asleep, her head resting on her shoulder.
With my guide out for the count, I followed the map as best I could, driving with it folded around the steering wheel. Each turn in the road revealed yet another empty expanse, each dark road looking much the same as the last one. A few miles more and the petrol light blinked its angry red eye. I consulted the map, then turned off towards a main road in search of fuel. The first petrol station we came to was closed, the windows boarded up. The next was open and near-deserted, a lone teenage assistant staring out from the office at the empty forecourt. I bought fuel and food and returned to the car. The teenager took no special interest in us, but the cameras at each corner of the forecourt and the two behind the counter would already be relaying my image to the central database, even as we drove off.
Kate, awake now, rummaged through the carrier bag of assorted foodstuffs and held up a squashed chicken sandwich that looked like it might survive a nuclear fallout. “We’re not in the capital anymore,” she said.
“That’s true,” I replied, my eyes on the white lines in the centre of the road leading us onwards. I didn’t tell her that I’d never been this far from home before, either.
We crossed an old suspension bridge over a slow-moving river and Kate pointed to our approximate position on the map. Soon, we were among arable fields, beyond which lay row after row of long metallic huts, stretched out beside the road. Signs on the huts read ‘Artemis Agriculture’, and I realised that we were passing through one of the in-vitro meat processing plants owned by a subsidiary of Vangelis. Faintly, we could hear the sound of the cows, milling about in their enclosures, waiting for another DNA sample to be taken then multiplied in the lab to form a thousand synthetic-meat burgers.
“They’ll see us,” Kate said. “We should get off the road, away from cameras.”
But there was nowhere to turn, so we carried on, flanked on either side by the sprawling facility until, ten minutes later, the woods took over again and swallowed us up. We turned onto a B road and managed another twenty miles before the car began to make a noise like a bag of spanners being kicked down a flight of stairs. Kate and I looked at each other. Evidently, we had both surpassed the extent of our automobile expertise. The car shuddered and slowed and then we were coasting down the side of the road. Another few metres and we came to a dead stop.
“That’s that, then,” Kate said.
We got out of the car.
“We’re not too far away,” I said. “We can walk.”
“Someone will see the car,” Kate said. “But then, they’ve probably been watching us since London, anyway.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Either way, let’s get away from here, quickly.”
We set off into the trees. After a few minutes the car disappeared behind us. The woods were much the same as woods had always been in Autumn; silence, bare trees, brambles clinging to our trousers. We pushed forward, heading in what I hoped was a generally north-easterly direction towards the black circle on the map. Towards answers. A group of large black birds flapped up from a bare ash tree as we passed. I squinted after them in the morning light, looking for wires or blinking LED eyes. The drones up here, Bagby used to joke, had all gone off-grid and turned feral. Now, they roamed the northern skylines in flocks, migrating on the air currents like metallic crows.
We carried on, crossing a dried-up stream turned to mud, then scrambling up the opposite bank. The sky above was grey and featureless. A short while later we came to a tumble-down wall of old stones, overgrown with moss.
“This could be it,” Kate said.
“Keep an eye out, we don’t know what to expect,” I said as we climbed over.
We’d only gone a few steps further when a woman appeared from the trees ahead of us, carrying a shotgun. “You’re right there,” she said.
Before Kate or I could react, she was joined by others, men and women emerging from the trees all around us, hunting rifles and battered old shotguns in their hands. The first woman was tall and dressed in dark trousers and a bomber jacket. Her red hair was shaved close to the sides of her angular head with a short crop on top. An angry scar ran from her eyebrow to her ear.
I tried to make eye-contact. “Look,” I began.
Before I could come up with something to say, Kate took the initiative. “Lower your guns, please. We don’t want trouble. We’re just looking for a friend,” she said, taking a step past me towards the woman.
“Kate,” I said.
The strangers eyed us, some through the eye holes in their balaclavas.
“She’s right…we’re looking for a friend,” I offered, but the woman held a fist up for silence and my words died between us.
She took a step forwards and looked us up and down. “I think it’s time you met the boss.”
She reached out to take Kate by the arm. I reached for my weapon instinctively, before I remembered that I’d left it back in London, beside a dead man. The woman, very much alive, stepped forward and cracked me across the forehead with the butt of her gun. I fell down among the leaves as the world turned dark.