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“What is it, mate?” Sparky asked.

Jack held out his hand, and Lucy-Anne gave him the photograph. He moved carefully away from Sparky, showed Emily, and the little girl burst into tears. Then he held up the photo for them all to see again, and Lucy-Anne scolded herself for not realising before.

“Mum,” Jack said. “That's my mum.”

Chapter Four

Family Outing

…and the British Government has restricted all movement into and out of London. All airports in the UK have been closed, with over five hundred flights diverted to French, German, and Spanish airports, and more than two hundred turned back to their countries of origin. At this time, the agent used in the attack has not been identified, and it is not known whether it is chemical or biological in origin. Pictures still being transmitted from inside London show soldiers in NBC suits barricading roads, and bodies piled by roadsides. There is no official word on casualties, although an unnamed source inside the Ministry of Defence describes the death toll as “catastrophic.” The British prime minister is expected to make a statement shortly.

Homeland Security Threat Level is maintained at Severe/Red, and the American public is asked to be on their guard.

— CNN, 12:20 p.m. EST, July 28, 2019

Mum's still alive.

The words were fresh in Jack's mind as they left Camp Truth and headed through the woods. Rosemary and Lucy-Anne went as a grandmother and her granddaughter going to visit friends. Sparky and Jenna were pretending to be boyfriend and girlfriend, a prospect which delighted Sparky and seemed to annoy Jenna immensely. And Jack and his sister Emily were on a family outing. If anyone asked where their parents were, Jack would only have to say “dead” for the understanding to hit home, and he hoped someone did ask, because his mother was still alive!

Emily fluttered around in excitement, filming everything in sight. Jack wanted to tell her to save the batteries, but he knew she had several spares and a solar recharger, and he liked seeing her so absorbed in something. He could always tell the difference between her being simply distracted, or completely involved in something that took her away from their sad reality. Now, she was just a little girl chasing butterflies.

When they emerged from the woods and walked along the main road, traffic was light, and nobody seemed to pay them any attention. A police car zipped by, pale face at the window. Closer to the bus stop, Jack held his breath as a Capital Keeper wagon roared past. It had once been an army truck, but the camouflage paint had gone, replaced by the now-familiar deep Royal Blue.

“I wonder where they've been,” Emily said. She was so bright. Most kids her age would have asked where they were going.

Their bus was on time, and they sat halfway along the top deck. The sun beat through the windows and made Jack sweat, but he enjoyed the heat. He looked out and watched the world go by.

He saw a field full of cows, and a car that had been stopped by the police, its occupants made to sit beside the road with their wrists bound while the officers ripped the car apart. He saw a lake where people rode jet skis, and three houses set back from the main road that had been burnt out, their blackened windows looking like sad, cried-out eyes. And amongst the faces staring from cars and lorries passing them by, he saw blank sadness that spoke volumes.

Normality, for these times after Doomsday.

“Mum's still alive,” he whispered in Emily's ear, and she grinned.

The journey took a little over an hour, and they were both glad to get off the bus. They weren't used to travelling so far.

They followed the directions Rosemary had given them, watching out for the shop names, and when they passed the Beckham Bistro, they left the pavement and headed down the narrow, rubbish-strewn alley between buildings. At the end of the alley they crossed an area of undeveloped ground. Glass crunched underfoot, and a wild dog barked at them and stalked slowly away. There were lots of wild dogs now-as well as cats, parrots, and snakes-their owners killed in London, and though there were frequent culls, numbers seemed to be increasing. Before Doomsday Jack could remember his father being fascinated with cryptozoology, the study of exotic animals living wild in Britain: wolves, bears, black panthers, cougars, and alligators, all were rumoured to be thriving. He wondered what his dad would make of this.

They crossed the area of rough ground, passed between two blocks of flats that had seen better days, then exited onto the towpath beside a canal.

As they passed beneath a metal road bridge spanning the canal, something changed. It took Jack a moment to spot exactly what it was: everything had grown silent. No more buzzing flies, no rustles in the overgrowth alongside the towpath, no barking from beyond the hedges and walls. It was spooky as hell, and he didn't like it one bit.

“Jack-” Emily began, her voice shadowed with worry.

Someone jumped down from the bridge's underside and pressed something against his back. “Do what I say, or I blow your kidneys all over your shoes.”

Jack glanced at Emily, and her face broke into a smile.

“I really wish I'd had my camera ready for that one,” she said.

“One of these days, Sparky…” Jack said, turning around.

“Yeah?” Sparky was still pointing his finger-and-thumb gun. “You and which army?”

“I thought we were meeting under a viaduct?”

“Just along there,” the boy nodded. “Couple hundred yards. I decided to wander back here, make sure we weren't followed, or nothin’.”

“Everyone get here okay?”

“Fine.” Sparky grinned, rubbing his cheek. “Jenna gave me a right slap on the bus when I tried getting frisky, though.”

Jack examined his friend's red, slightly swollen cheek. He nodded. “Good.”

“Let's go!” Emily said. She ran along the towpath, scaring several ducks into the water.

“You've got to help me look after her, Sparky,” he said quietly.

“You know I will.” Sparky slapped the back of Jack's head, hard, and laughed. “But you know something? I think she'll be looking after us.” Behind the laughter he was deadly serious, and Jack reminded himself yet again how blessed he was with friends.

They descended from the towpath down a steep slope, and when they entered the damp shadow of the viaduct Jack felt a chill that had nothing to do with temperature. Rosemary, Jenna, and Lucy-Anne were waiting for them there. Lucy-Anne gave him a nervous smile, but he could see that she was excited, too.

“We're about to leave the world you know,” Rosemary said, and Jack's chill seemed to settle into his bones.

The brick arch of the viaduct leaked in several places, raining water down around them and turning the ground into a quagmire. Jack had often wondered what would happen if such a canal bridge were to collapse. Would the whole waterway drain away down here? Would everything in its path be washed away? The red brick was swathed in moss, and from the ruts in the ground it appeared that the leaks had been dripping for a long time.

“It's less than ten miles to the Exclusion Zone from here,” Jenna said. “We're walking the rest of the way?”

“Not used to exercise?” Rosemary asked, smiling.

“I love walking,” Jenna said. “It's just that…won't we be seen?”

“Only if people look in all the wrong places. Like I said, we're leaving your world, going somewhere different. Slipping between the lines. It's not a quick journey, but we'll follow paths that will take us all the way into London, undetected and safe.”

“And your friend Philippe showed you the way?” Lucy-Anne asked.