There was a very high chance they wouldn’t survive the car journey, although Katie couldn’t work out which was the greater threat: the mutants outside, or Hayden’s atrocious driving.
She had to be patient with him, though. He was an inexperienced and jittery driver at the best of times, which this definitely wasn’t. They had received the message on the radio – Survival FM, they’d dubbed it – only twenty minutes ago.
“This is it,” Hayden said, sitting down heavily after the transmission had repeated once, followed by the official identification code. “I can’t believe it’s finally happening.”
“They’ve left us a lot of time, very thoughtful of them.” Katie tried to swallow the bitterness in her voice, for Hayden’s sake, but it was difficult.
“Come on, love. Everyone knows this has to be a lightning quick operation. At least we don’t have to wait any longer.”
They had picked up the suitcases that had been sitting, half packed, for two weeks now, and closed them with matching clicks. Then they had gone to the car, a rusty Vauxhall Cavalier that still had a good engine, thanks to Hayden’s brother.
Then they had left. They, and the baby growing inside Katie. All that was left in a world that had ended already.
Now Hayden was revving the engine hard while driving up a steep hill, weaving through piles of debris and gutted, overturned cars that cluttered road and pavement. The buildings on either side were high-rise apartment blocks, teetering piles of broken concrete and smashed glass windows.
Katie saw faces in some of them. Empty, vacant, faces whose one expression was of a deep, murderous hunger.
Katie turned in her seat and stared at Hayden, whose hands gripped the steering wheel so hard she was afraid he might wrench it right off. “We’re in theWarrens, you realise,” she hissed, above the revs of the engine. “If you kill the car here, you kill us both. Watch out!”
A mutant had broken cover from a portico of one of the buildings and was running flat-out along the road to keep pace with the car. Hayden swerved wildly to avoid it, then swerved again to dodge a pile of scrap metal and broken computer monitors.
“How are they so fast? They’re practically dead, aren’t they?”
“No, actually,” Hayden said, and Katie knew that whatever disgust he felt, at these mutated humans who weren’t people anymore, was equally matched by his fascination with them. “Not dead. The radiation wiped out a lot of the things that make them fully alive, in our terms, like their ability to rationalise, or feel pain. They’re like strange animals now, nothing left but the instinct to avoid starvation.” Hayden drifted back from his reflective mood and pointed at the mutant. “Also, have I told you that they don’t sweat? It was one of the last discoveries we made at the lab, before the fire.” Katie shook her head, unable to match Hayden’s removed scientific interest. “Look at him,” he continued. “If he keeps up the pace he’ll overheat and collapse.”
The mutant was so emaciated that Katie could almost see the internal mechanics as he ran: bones connected with sinew and tendon to muscles that were pumping flat-out to keep up the mutant’s desperate pace.
It was hard to watch, because she felt at any moment that the over-extended muscles might burst, erupting right out of his skin.
“He must really be hungry,” she said.
“They’re starving. I’ve heard of them beginning to turn on each other in some places, now that their food supplies are running out.”
“Mutant cannibalism?” Katie shuddered. “Disgusting.”
Hayden floored the gas pedal as they reached the top of the hill, and Katie lurched forwards in her seat.
There was blockade ahead of them: piles of junk, a couple of overturned cars, and worse than that: dozens and dozens of mutants. Hayden slowed the car until it came to a standstill.
“We’ll never get through,” Katie said, and it came out as little more than a whimper.
Hayden’s shoulders sagged and he dropped his hands from the steering wheel. He looked at Katie with a defeated expression.
She raised her eyebrows. “What, then?”
He threw his hands up in the air, anger in his eyes. “Well, you said it. We’ll never get through. But we have to.”
Katie watched while he fumbled with the gears and revved even higher.
The mutants watched them.
“You said they can’t think,” Katie said, the fear making her voice small. “Why are they all here, waiting?”
Hayden shrugged. “This is what the governors were afraid of, why they broadcast the message at the very last minute. They think that the mutants are learning to hunt much better now. Or perhaps natural selection has picked off the less intelligent ones already, now that food sources are dwindling.”
“Hayden!” Katie shook her head. “What the hell are you saying?”
“The more intelligent mutants will gravitate towards each other, to form hunting groups, like a pack. Then they seek out large gatherings of people. More than that, they are identifying our patterns. Where we are most likely to gather.”
“Like the community bases? Or –” horror at the idea made her unwilling to speak it. “The train station?”
“Exactly. So we have to get there fast.”
“Hayden, what are we going to do?”
He looked at her, then, and Katie was amazed that he could smile like that when there was a wall of solid death in front of them. He took her hand and squeezed it, and then rested their linked hands for a moment on her belly, which was just big enough to count as a baby bump.
“Hold on tight,” he said. The engine revved, and he released the clutch smoothly. The car shot forwards, gaining speed, and Hayden switched with expert ease, like he’d been drag racing since he was tall enough to reach the pedals. Katie felt herself grinning and wanting to cheer at this turnaround, even though she didn’t know what would happen in the next few seconds.
The car sped forwards, and the mutants kept on standing there with nothing but hunger on their faces. Katie felt a thud as the car hit the first of them, and then they were surrounded by faces, fists and feet all hitting the car and slamming against it again and again. They lurched towards the car, bouncing back even after they’d been hit, their faces so determined that Katie screamed helplessly and pushed herself back in the seat.
She heard a smash and wheeled her head around to see a fist come through one of the back windows and hook around the door of the car. They heard animal sounds: snarling and growling, like they were being attacked by a frenzied pack of coyotes.
The arm scrabbled for purchase on the inside of the car but the shards of glass in the window frame were biting deep into its flesh and making ugly, terrible lacerations. Inside, the mutant’s flesh was red, and its blood scarlet, which made Katie sick with the realisation that the mutant had once been a real human being with a job and a family and normal thoughts.
Katie felt deeply disturbed as she watched the arm give up the fight and drag away from the window.
She looked ahead to distract herself, and screamed at Hayden to keep going.
“What’s it look like I’m doing?” he yelled.
They lost a wing mirror, and Katie felt a clang as the front bumper came unstuck, half of it falling halfway to the ground. Then, finally, there was clear space ahead. The mutants still hung onto the car on either side, but they were falling away, giving up and retreating.
“How far now?” Katie asked, rubbing her belly repeatedly, calming herself rather than the baby inside who had not had to witness what she’d just witnessed.
“Not far at all,” Hayden said, sounding surprised and relieved. He let the revs drop now that they were cruising smoothly towards the train station, the last outpost in the city. The message had told them that today was the last day. The city was overrun, and the survivors were evacuating.
The last train was at 11.05, if anyone was still counting the time, on Sunday July 17th, if anyone was still counting the days.
When they pulled up at the station, the main entrance was blocked with a wall of old pallets, corrugated metal and security fencing.
“Are we at the right station?” Katie asked, feeling panic prickle its way through her nervous system. Outside everything looked quiet and still, and there was no visible way in.
Hayden said nothing, just grunted and parked the car haphazardly with a hard jolt on the footbrake that made Katie wince. He got out, then ran around to open Katie’s door. Her legs felt weak as she took his hand and let him pull her out of the car.
“In, in, in,” he said.
Katie felt exasperated. “Tell me where, will you?”
“Side door.” He went up to the pallet fence, took hold of a large bit of wooden panelling, and pulled. It swung upwards on a disguised hinge.
Hayden grinned. “See?”
Katie’s irritation melted. She grinned back, and went inside. They ran up some stairs, hearing the sounds of people ahead of them. Voices, shouting, something like the old sound of commuters on a Monday getting ready to depart on a busy platform, but amplified a thousand times with fear. Chaos, up ahead, and chaos behind.
They got up onto the main platform and Katie felt her hope dissolve. The train had not arrived yet, and the platform was too crowded. People were everywhere and in all the spaces, and for a minute the mass of them was terrifyingly like the mutants, because there was only one emotion – abject panic.
Hayden grabbed at a man who was pushing past them.
“What’s going on here?” he shouted, trying to raise his voice above the noise.
The man grimaced. “The mutants know the train’s coming. One of the scouts saw them all moving together, like an army. They’ll be here soon. I have to go!”
“So fast!” Katie hissed, thinking of what Hayden had told her about their instinctual intelligence. “How did they do that so fast?”
Hayden wasn’t listening. “The train doesn’t leave for another twenty minutes!” he called, but the man was already pushing away from them through the crowd.
“It hasn’t even arrived yet, love,” Katie said, her voice wobbling.
Hayden took her hand. “Don’t be afraid. It’ll come.”
Gradually, the noise on the platform grew less, and the people became quiet, and there were only murmured conversations, interrupted now and again by the wail of a frightened child.
“God, Hayden, why hasn’t it come yet?”
Hayden shook his head and pulled Katie closer to him.
The sound of the train arriving caused many people standing around Katie and Hayden to cry, or cheer, or both. The overall sound was euphoria, which Hayden would have said was a hysterical emotion. It made Katie more afraid, and her legs sagged. Hayden held her upright.
“Now,” he said, “let’s not all panic at once.”
“But we have to get on the train!”
“I know. Just move slowly.”
The train was the length of the platform and had extra carriages only accessible through the inside. Queues of people waited at every door, being admitted one at a time by station guards who somehow managed to keep order.
“They’re doing a very good job,” Katie murmured. “I’d be getting on that train as fast as I could if I were them.”
“Then nobody would be able to leave,” Hayden said, his voice flat. “Come on, let’s join that queue.”
They went, and waited, and slowly the queue trickled forwards, while the minutes fell one by one. Everybody in the station glanced now and then at the giant clock above the platform.
At 11.00 Katie reached the train, and got on. She turned, expecting Hayden behind her, and found herself face to face with the man who had told them about the mutant army.
The man looked frightened. “How the hell should I know, I don’t even know who he is.” He tried to push past her but her hands came up automatically, blocking him.
“Hayden. My husband. He spoke to you on the platform.”
“I didn’t see him!” he yelled, shouting right into her face. “Get out of my way!”
Katie felt panic and rage fighting to get out of her chest and through her throat. She felt her hands form fists, and felt the fists connect with the man’s shoulders. He staggered backwards, his anger muted for now, fear back in its place.
“You pushed in front of him, didn’t you!” she screamed. She looked for the guard whose job had been to maintain control, but the orderly queue was breaking up; he was arguing with several people at once. Fear was paramount now and the final semblances of order had begun to scatter and vanish forever.
Katie held herself steady and looked again at the man in front of her. People were swarming around them, ignoring individual dramas and surging forwards like an army of ants moving in unison. The train was beginning to fill up.
The man closed his eyes for a second and took a deep, shuddering breath. His eyes opened again. “Calm down,” he said, in a voice that shook with barely controlled hysteria. “I expect he’ll still get on.”
“Expect?” Katie moaned, suddenly exhausted and past her final reserves of strength.
She tried to keep breathing as she moved forwards with the crowd. Her legs were not working properly, but she moved all the same. There was no way back, and no way ahead except the crush of people. She put her hands over her belly.
Then she found herself falling out of the line of people and coming to rest in a corner by a window. She scrabbled desperately at the window catch, but it was stuck in place.
She peered out and saw a flood, a mass of frightened people still on the platform. They had faces that she couldn’t distinguish from each other.
“Oh God,” she murmured, rubbing her belly. “Hayden, where are you?”
She searched for his face, and then for his green fleece or his brown student’s satchel. He was nowhere to be seen.
Now there was a roaring sound as the engines of the train shuddered into life. At the same time she heard the shouts of people on the train as they moved towards the windows, voices gasping and screaming soft, muted screams.
“Look, it’s them!” she heard one man close to her say, in a quiet voice, to someone beside him. She felt cold, and sick.
The mutants had come. They had broken through the makeshift wall and into the station. The people left on the station began running, trying to keep pace with the train. A man ahead tried to jump onto the step and catch hold of the door. There was a thud, and he fell back onto the platform. She couldn’t see if he was still conscious.
“A guard hit him!” someone up front cried. “A guard, one of the guards on this train!”
Katie watched the crowd of people, feeling her breathing come hard and heavy, racking and sobbing through her chest.
Some couldn’t run as fast as others. The mutants behind them were catching up, and they were thin and ravenous, some of them skeletal; easily distinguishable from the living, thinking people trying to outrun them.
Katie cried out as she saw one man caught in between three mutants, who pulled at his limbs and tore into his flesh with sharp teeth and hungry, vacant eyes. In their instinctual feeding they became animated again, growling and snarling like a pack of wild cats.
The man was torn apart on the platform. Most people were screaming and running. A few others had turned to stand their ground, and were fighting the mutants with whatever makeshift weapons they had to hand, or bare fists.
She didn’t know where Hayden was. Tears streamed down her face as she whispered to herself, to the baby, over and over again.
“I love you. I love you, I love you.” She stroked her belly in time to the rhythm of the train as it moved out of the poisoned, dying city, towards a place that the governors had designated ‘safe’. But she couldn’t believe them anymore, because where was Hayden? How could the world be safe without him?
There was only a place, unknown, and a displaced future.