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Vision was his only sense, and he looked on in mute amazement as the birds flew into the jet engines mounted on the wings, hundreds upon hundreds, until the engines blew, flames and charred feathers bursting across the sky. But still the birds didn’t stop, and Glauber watched with an almost fascinated terror — not even feeling the drop in altitude, the ferocious rocking of the plane’s fuselage — as the broiling, seething mass succeeded in ripping the entire wing off, sending it spinning away across the sky in an almost balletic display.

Glauber was still watching the wing spiralling down to earth when the first of the birds smashed through into the cabin, the pressure reducing, anything unsecured — luggage, food, drink, magazines, bodies — being sucked out by the vacuum. But then more birds entered, and nothing else could be sucked out, and Glauber felt the entire aircraft start to spin and understood that the other engines were lost, maybe the entire wing too.

His attention was now focused inside the aircraft, and he saw, through the incredible shaking and spinning of the fuselage interior, how the passengers were entirely covered in birds, little broken bodies smeared over people’s features, and he couldn’t recognize anyone any more, there were just hundreds of people covered in bird — terrible, bloody, greasy, broken bird.

And then Glauber’s window broke open, and he too was covered in bird, a terrible mass of tiny bodies breaking across his face, and he realized — too late — that more than anything else in the world, he finally wanted to scream.

4

Sirens blared in the background, almost deafening James Carter as he addressed the television camera, which picked up the scenes of chaos surrounding him — storefronts smashed and broken, people still escaping with clothes and sneakers from the sports store behind, and with wide-screen TVs and computers from the electronics store to the side. One of the buildings was on fire, along with several of the cars which lined the normally peaceful street, the flames licking perilously close to Carter as he gave his report.

‘I’m here on Hudson Boulevard,’ he announced over the din of rioters and looters, ‘where chaos is running rampant. After the giant statue was seen to move last week, there have been more strange incidents all over the world — domestic pets have attacked their owners, birds have destroyed large passenger airplanes by flying into them in huge numbers, zoo animals have gone on the rampage, fish have been dying in their millions. And some people believe that these unexplained incidents are heralding the end of the world, the Apocalypse.’

Carter flinched instinctively as one of the cars behind him erupted in a huge fireball, then continued, ‘Already, apocalyptic cults are emerging, driving people into a frenzy, claiming all sorts of things — but the bottom line is that we are all doomed.’

Carter looked around to survey the carnage behind him, then turned back to the camera. ‘Whether that is true or not,’ he went on, gesturing to the destruction of the neighbourhood, ‘it is clear that their words are having an effect. Earlier this evening the first riot broke out, here on these streets. The police managed to arrest the main offenders but now the looters have moved in.

‘It starts here, but mark my words,’ Carter said gravely, ‘it will spread. This is only the beginning.’

PART TWO

1

‘They’re behind us,’ Leanne Harnas whispered urgently across the cabin of the fast-moving SUV, almost as if she expected her pursuers to be able to hear her.

Karl Janklow could see the headlights in his rear-view mirror. Three vehicles, approaching fast. Gaining on them. His nerves threatened to get the better of him as he manoeuvred the vehicle down the treacherous, snow-covered mountain road. Huge trees veered up on either side of him, cutting out all natural light from the stars and moon and making the route seem all but impassable. And yet he knew the road was just fine; indeed, he’d driven this way home for the past three years. He tried to rein in his paranoia. So there were vehicles behind them; so what? Plenty of other people lived off base, many of them in the same small town as Janklow did.

But this time, Janklow had no intention of ever going back; he and Leanne had discussed the matter at length, and both had decided that they needed to go public with what was going on at the base. And now that they had made that decision, and acted upon it, the fear that they had been discovered was running cold through both of them.

‘If they knew,’ Leanne said, ‘why didn’t they stop us at the gate?’

Janklow increased speed, the big SUV threatening to tilt over and go spinning into the trees at every turn. He shook his head. ‘I don’t know,’ he answered, knowing it was a lie. He knew the reason. Colonel Anderson had let them leave the base so that they could be killed out here, in the wilderness. Away from prying eyes.

His foot pressed the accelerator harder, and the wide tyres struggled to keep a grip on the icy forest road. He saw the headlights fall away behind him and allowed himself a grin of triumph.

It was short-lived; the lights were back again just moments later, closing the gap even further. Should he risk turning off into the treeline? If he could just get round the next bend fast enough, break through a gap into the trees and turn his lights off, Anderson and his men might go shooting straight past them.

It was worth a try, he decided, increasing his speed even more as they shot towards another corner.

‘Slow down!’ Leanne screamed at him, as she felt the tyres giving way under the heavy vehicle. ‘We’re going to—’

The sound of automatic gunfire drowned her words. In the mirrors, Janklow saw flashes of light erupting from the vehicles behind him. He felt the impact of bullets hitting his car, heard the windows shatter. He struggled to control the car as one of the tyres was blown out.

He turned to Leanne to tell her to hang on but saw only her lifeless body sagging in the seat next to him, head lolling uselessly on her chest, a round having blasted straight through the back of her seat into her body. Only then did he realize that the windscreen was covered in blood, pierced and webbed where the bullet had passed out of her body and carried on forwards.

He felt instantly nauseous, and vomited over the steering wheel and dashboard even as another tyre was blasted out and his car finally, spectacularly, went spinning off the mountain road into the trees beyond.

* * *

Colonel Easton Anderson stepped out of his jeep and smelt the air, picking up the scents of gun smoke and leaking gasoline. Good. This business would finally be put to rest.

Not so very long ago, Karl Janklow had seen the computer of a technician who had been working on the base’s covert sub-programme. The technician had gone straight to Anderson to tell him. Anderson had chastized him for his lack of attention to security but was happy the man had had the balls to admit he had messed up. They had put surveillance on Janklow straight away, and Anderson was perturbed, although not entirely surprised, when the computer expert had started to hack the internal system. Anderson had ordered some files to be moved, others to be changed, but there was still enough to alarm anyone looking.

Anderson had allowed Janklow to probe, all the while monitoring his every step. Although it appeared that he had stumbled upon the covert project by accident, there was always the possibility that he was working for someone else — the police, the government, a foreign government. Anderson was responsible for the programme’s security, and he had to know if there was someone behind Janklow.