O sky, if I want one day
to fly from this silent prison,
what shall I say to the weeping child's eyes:
forget about me, for I am a captive bird?
- Forugh Farrokhzad
The air was full of the smell of diesel, our Land Rover the last vehicle in the convoy and bearing the brunt of all its exhaust. We drove directly behind two growling trucks and another Land Rover that headed our small procession. Both trucks had their camouflaged covers closed up, but something about the way they handled the roads and the way the thick material flapped in the passing wind made it obvious they were empty. I was thankful that I had not been bundled in the back of one of them, as I imagined so many other evacuees must have been. All of the vehicles had thick off-road tyres that were almost as noisy as the engines, their deep treads roaring against the tarmac as we drove.
“Is that gun yours?” asked the driver calmly. His expression was stern but his face, gaunt and textured by the outdoors, still retained some of the softness of youth. I guessed his age to be around thirty.
“I found it,” I answered him. “I haven't even used it.”
“Good.” He nodded, apparently satisfied. “We're under orders to shoot anyone armed on sight.”
“Armed?” I asked in surprise, and then I remembered the barricade. “Do you get much resistance?”
He turned to me with a look as if everyone but me knew the answer, then turned back to the road. His eyes were a bright brown that matched what little I saw of his short hair from beneath his army cap.
“We've had armed resistance in the cities,” he explained briefly. “It was short but fierce. Then looters picked up their weapons...” He shrugged. Perhaps to him it was all in a day's work.
His uniform and his manner were different from the still-silent pair sat obediently in the back, and I realised he must have been their senior, but what rank he held I couldn't guess. Instead I just nodded and remained silent. Very little seemed to make sense to me anymore, and I decided not to ask questions for a while.
Our convoy trailed along empty country roads, passing huge hedges, woods thick with old and dying trees, and fenced-off farms that shone waterlogged in the sun. As the cool air whipped noisily through the open driver’s-side window I tried to calculate where we were going. I looked out for any road signs that may mean something to me, but none of the names written on them were familiar, and after almost an hour I gave up and broke my silence to ask the driver.
“The nearest safe cap is in the Peak District, about another twenty miles east yet,” he said. “Several smaller camps have just joined this one, so it'll serve a wider radius.”
“How big a radius?”
“Well,” he began reluctantly, the answer clearly not as simple as I'd hoped, “it's not a perfect circle, but give or take, between one hundred to a hundred and fifty miles, excluding the big cities. They all have their own camps.”
“So this one's for people from all the smaller towns in between?”
“Pretty much, yes.”
I smiled, knowing that the camp's radius should be wide enough to cover Alvermere, and it roused a growing excitement inside me as I hoped more than anything that Lucy would after all be in the very place I was being taken to.
The driver then turned and looked me over for a few seconds before asking me where I had come from. I told him that I had started out from somewhere near the Thames in London, although exactly where was still a vague and inaccessible memory. His eyebrows rose in surprise at the mention of London, but the fact I had not been evacuated did not seem to faze him, and he merely remarked that I had been lucky to get out in time.
“They detonated a series of thermonuclear devices last night,” he explained. “One of them was near London. Most of it's probably gone.”
“I saw one,” I confirmed, and my stomach sank knowing that the dreamlike colours had not after all been a dream.
“So you made it all this way on your own?”
“Yes,” I said, “my daughter's in the Lake District.”
He nodded, as if to himself. “You came all this way for your daughter,” he said quietly.
I saw the faintest zig-zag trail of a tear form on his cheek and evaporate, so quickly that I wondered if it had really been there, but neither of us said another word about Lucy.
He remained silent for a while, regaining his military composure, and took a deep breath, as if it could cover over the horror of all that was happening.
“Your daughter should be in this camp then, sir,” he eventually said. “It's the northernmost camp in England.” He paused for another moment and then spoke more softly. “I hope you find her. You've come a long way.”
Although filled with hope, I let the silence continue a little before asking the question that I had still not heard answered. “What exactly happened?”
The solider smiled. “A lot of people have been asking,” he said. “I'm not much wiser than anyone else. The governments have been trying very hard to keep things quiet, although I'm not sure why. It's hard to keep quiet when things start falling out of the sky so hard they knock the earth off course.”
“Meteorites?” I asked, eager to confirm the pieces of information I had gathered so far.
He nodded. “One minute they were saying it's going to miss, the next minute they were saying it's broken into fragments but we should be safe.... Then after that they went quiet.”
“They didn't warn anybody?”
“Nope. They didn't want to panic anyone.” He spoke with disdain. “Meanwhile the fragments start raining down from space, as if that won't panic anyone.”
“How bad is it?”
He glanced at me briefly then set his eyes back on the road. “The whole world,” he said simply.
I felt stunned into a reeling silence for a few moments. “I had no idea,” I finally admitted.
“We've drafted in some of the best scientists to help,” he went on. “That's what the nukes are for. We need to push the earth back on track and balance out the atmospheric disturbances at the same time.”
“What's happened to the atmosphere?”
He shrugged. “I don't know that much,” he said. “I've just been heading up evacuations, that's all.”
I felt so small against the scale of what had happened, and after the brief oasis of conversation the rest of the journey marched wordlessly onward through the constant dry roar and rattle of loud engines. I suddenly felt like the earth was fighting us, and the countryside now washing past us was the new enemy. Twisted trees regarded us as we passed under their old branches, reminding us that nothing can be subjugated for long without an uprising.
The trimmed and squared fields and hedges slowly opened out into untameable green and rocky hills as we neared the camp, and great patches of mist stood their ground and slowed us down, the air suddenly thick with damp.
Before long, a meandering bend in a winding road revealed a low, hilly distance covered in row after row of large, round, white shapes as far as I could see. It looked like some huge creature had made its nest and abandoned thousands of unhatched young. The mist hung over the ground all around in a swirling ocean, agitating and parting as we drove through, and we finally stopped by a guarded metal barrier in the stretch of high metal fences that surrounded the whole camp.
It was a vicious mesh of barbed wire, twice as tall as I was, ploughing on around the perimeter as far as the thick and misty distance allowed me to see, shrouded as if it stretched on forever. Makeshift wooden platforms were dotted at intervals of two hundred yards or so all along it, an armed soldier on each one. As the barrier was raised and the convoy drove in I saw that the sentries all faced inwards, and after my years of captivity I instinctively knew they were there to keep the camp-dwellers in, not to keep the unwanted out.
Once inside, the barrier lowered behind us and the vehicles all broke off into separate directions in an ordered and co-ordinated display that seemed choreographed. Once they were out of sight amongst the maze of tents, the Land Rover stopped briefly, and the two soldiers in the back leaped out and walked off together, one of them making an inaudible joke while the other's loud laughter followed us as we drove on.
The tents were huge as we approached, billowing white cathedral domes set out in blocks of perhaps fifteen or twenty, with narrow, muddy walkways between each tent and lanes in between each block wide enough for the vehicles to pass through. Occasionally a block had been left empty to park the trucks and off-roaders, the vehicles all lined up in perfect squares like a display of troops, and some groups of tents were smaller and arrayed in military camouflage. I noticed these all had at least one armed soldier outside the entrance. We headed toward one of these, and as the strange white streets sped by, with grass churned into soft ruts of uneven mud by countless tyres, I held onto my seat and became convinced we would hit someone.
“Why is there no-one around?” I asked, trying not to sound panicked as I kept my eyes fixed ahead.
The driver glanced at me and saw my tense expression.
“Don't worry,” he said. “We won't hit anyone. We have curfews.”
“Curfews?” I took my eyes off the road and looked at him. “Is this a prison camp?”
He laughed. “Some might say so,” he admitted, “but with almost ten thousand civilians we've got to keep order somehow.”
He pulled the Land Rover up sharply, sliding several feet in the mud to a rickety stop outside a large dull-green tent. It was a small hill in itself, and he told me to leave my backpack behind as we stepped out and headed over to it.
Its front entrance was a small porch with a Union Jack sewn into the material next to a zipped-up flap. It was guarded by two motionless soldiers who sprang into rigid life as we walked over, both of them standing to strict attention and saluting in unison. They relaxed back into place once the senior soldier with me had unzipped the entrance and let us in.
We passed through and stood for a moment in the barren grass-floored porch, dimly lit only by daylight filtering through the thick material. Before us was a bewildering cross-cross of zips.
“I'm going to help you,” he said as he zipped up the porch entrance behind us. “I lost my little girl.” Then he smiled faintly, looking at me and remembering what it was like to be a father. “We'll find your daughter.”
“I'm sorry,” I said.
He held out a hand. “My name's Grant.”
“Silas,” I replied, shaking his hand.
His smile broadened into a silent understanding as our hands shook firmly, then he quickly unzipped the main entrance and we entered a huge round room lit in strange angles from standing floodlights placed around its perimeter.
“We've just got to check you in,” he explained briefly, but I barely heard as I looked around me in wonder at the regimented array of desks all lined with bright laptop screens, almost all of them manned by young soldiers who talked into headsets and hammered upon keyboards. There were generators humming somewhere outside, feeding in cables which lay bound in clumps along the solid panels that made up the floor, wrapped in warning tape and powering equipment I couldn't even identify. The older senior officers rushed between them all and spoke in authoritative voices, demanding and giving out information.
We walked in and stopped in front of one of the desks, and the blonde-haired and exhausted female soldier who sat behind it asked for my name without looking up at me. I told her, and there was a long silence as she typed into her laptop and then began searching through a small mountain of papers while a printer next to her started whirring.
“You'll be in fourteen point oh-oh seven,” she finally said, and she smiled up at me with blue eyes and a face that was pretty but desperate for sleep, handing me a sticky label with a serial number and barcode freshly printed onto its thick paper. I took it from her, unsure what to do with it.
“Thanks,” said Grant. “Could you just look someone up?”
“Sure,” she said.
He turned to me. “What's her name?”
I was taken by surprise. “Oh, er, Lucy,” I told the girl. “Lucy Stanley... Wait, it might be Lucy Shaw.”
I drew in a sharp breath and held it as my fists tensed. My memories were still so clouded I couldn't remember if her name had changed after Kate had remarried. Frustration swirled like the mist outside as I stood amidst more waiting, more typing, more background noise of orders being given and taken as I looked around at the organised chaos surrounding me.
“Sorry, no-one by either of those names,” she said. She looked up at me apologetically for a moment and then resumed her work as if I had simply disappeared.
“That can't be right,” I said. “She has to be here. This is the nearest camp...”
“We'll get you to your bunk first,” said Grant, “then we can look for her.”
He held my arm and firmly marched me back out into the tent's porch, and I shook myself free as I felt the heat rise inside me. He zipped up the entrance behind us, and I turned to him and held up the barcode, as if he would suddenly see how ridiculous it was.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” I demanded angrily. “She's not even here! What now? Am I trapped?”
Grant looked at me with the controlled intensity of an experienced soldier, his grip just as steely as his stare as he grabbed my arm again.
“If you'll just come with me,” he said slowly, enunciating as if to a foreigner, “then I will help you to find Lucy.”
He resumed his lead out of the army tent and toward one of the white tents. Confused and tired, I quickly picked up my backpack from the Land Rover and followed him, our footsteps soft and noiseless in the mud.
As I went I noticed that there were numbers stencilled in black onto the entrance of each tent, marking what looked like an area code and an individual identification number. Eventually we stopped outside one of them, and Grant gestured inside. I looked at him, and before I stepped in he said to me, very quietly, “Don't say a word about your daughter. I can help you.”
I frowned. “How?” I asked him.
“I'll be back,” he said simply. “Just don't kick up a fuss, they won't stand for it here.”
I paused, wondering with an ominous dread what exactly that could mean, then I went through.
There was apparently no porch on these tents; the entrance was merely a zipped-up gap in the wall. Once inside, I was standing on a lightweight green mesh of a groundsheet, small clumps of dying grass and damp mud still squeezing through its tiny square gaps. The daylight was unhampered by the tent's material, its whiteness magnified until it almost seemed brighter in here than outside. The material was held in its rounded shape by a spidery lattice of thin metal, and what looked to be a large gas heater stood tall in the middle and dominated the space. Its top was rounded by a large reflective metal dish that reminded me of a wide-brimmed hat.
As I walked in further I saw that I was circled by about twenty wire-framed beds with fold-up hinges, arranged all the way around the edge of the tent with their feet all pointing at the heater, so that they formed a shape like a huge clock face.
Almost all of the beds were occupied, and scattered clothes and last-minute belongings were spread out across the muddy floor or hanging out of hastily-packed suitcases. Only one or two of the exhausted occupants even looked up or acknowledged me as I walked in with just my backpack.
The muted silence felt thick in the air, and hushed voices carried from somewhere nearby reminded us how thin the walls were.
A young dark-skinned woman with tangled and unmanaged hair that had once been straightened looked up at me and smiled a tired smile. She was holding a sleeping child of perhaps three or four, and she pointed helpfully over to an empty bed just a few beds away from hers, and I thanked her and went across.
There was only a damp mattress and a folded off-white towel placed unevenly on the wire frame, and nothing else. Exhausted, I sat down on the edge and dropped my backpack to the ground. The bed next to me was sagging slightly under a large middle-aged man with an old white T-shirt and an overgrowth of greyish facial hair. He lay for a few moments after I arrived, his hands folded on his rotund belly and his eyes staring at the ceiling, then he suddenly looked over at me as if I'd woken him.
“Oh, sorry,” he said lazily in a low, slow, fed-up voice. “I took your blanket. Here.”
He reached down beneath his bed and picked up the screwed-up dark brown blanket, tossing it to me.
“Thanks,” I smiled, catching the heap of rough, thick material, but he said nothing in reply as he lay back down again. I looked at him quizzically for a moment. He looked so big. I wondered why he needed so many blankets with a belly that big to keep him warm.
Shaking the thought from my head I dropped the blanket next to me and buried my aching face in my hands. I wondered how much longer this would go on, how much longer I would hold out, or even how long the world would last. Nothing in this camp was permanent. I looked around at the hopeless faces, men and women of all ages, children and adults resting and sleeping on any available surface, the only sound that of subdued chatter and low moaning. The fold-up beds, the sparse equipment, all of it was ready to pack up and move on at a moment's notice.
I knew I couldn't stay. She was not here. It was that simple. If she was not here then I couldn't be here either. I remembered with a tense frustration that Rose's letters had mentioned Lucy being unwell, and I began to suspect deep down that their front door would be sprayed with that same symbol as Luke's. If that was the case, as I became more and more convinced it must have been, then I would have to go and get them from the house myself.
Unfortunately I had got myself filed away in this strange, regimented city, my capture being the price I’d paid for discovering that she wasn’t in here. I would have to find my way out of here somehow, perhaps under cover of darkness.
I lifted the backpack from the ground and let its weight bounce onto the mattress. I was parched but, looking around, I knew that no-one must catch wind of the supplies I had in there. I could already sense that this was the type of prison place where a small thing like that might get me mobbed or even killed.
There was a large plastic container on top of a stool next to the heater, and I got up stiffly, inertia already settling painfully in my knees, and made my way over. There was a small tap on the side toward the bottom, and I pushed it tentatively. A drop of water splashed out onto the ground, and with a relieved smile I stooped with my open mouth beneath it and poured a mouthful of water in, gratefully swallowing. I looked around, almost feeling guilty, but no-one was looking at me, and I helped myself to a little more before going back to my bed.
As I sat down I heard the voice of the large man in the next bed.
“You're new,” he said simply, still staring up at the ceiling as he lay. “Just be careful with the supplies.”
“Don't worry,” I assured him. “I didn't have much.”
“Good,” he said, then there was a long pause where I wondered whether he had finished.
“They give us a ration per tent,” he went on to explain. “It's based on how many registered people are in there. At first, people started fighting over the food and water, but they soon put a stop to that.”
He fell silent again. “Oh?” I prompted, looking over at him.
“It's the army,” he said, gesturing vaguely around him. “They didn't have time for squabbles. They just shot anyone trying to steal food or water.”
I nodded. “Point taken,” I said. I picked up the cotton towel, now worn, harsh and stained. “What are the towels for?” I asked him.
He turned to me with a smirk. “You'll find out in the morning,” he said.
He went silent again, and I lay back on my bed. The sun was going down, but even after it had dipped below the hills the darkness was never quite complete. Arrays of lights snapped on outside, shining a perpetual dawn upon the tents and projecting shadows with strange and impossible shapes. Voices shouted to us from outside the thin walls, reminding us of the curfew. They warned that anyone breaking it would be shot without question, and that anyone not already in their own bed had ten minutes to find it.
There was a brief flurry of activity around the tent, but it settled back into an uneasy silence before long. I lay with my eyes closed, listening to the rustle and murmur of life all around me, of thousands lying in their beds just like me, trapped by curfew, and the occasional voice or laugh from passing guards. As I pulled the damp blanket over me against the creeping chill I wondered how I had managed to be recaptured and trapped once again, after such brief freedom.
I slept lightly, and early in the morning our tent number was called out by a barking voice. Following everyone else's lead, I rose quickly, grabbed the towel, and headed out of the tent. On my way past the heater I felt a gentle wave of warmth, presumably just enough to keep us all alive overnight, and then I was suddenly out in the brisk and damp air. We filed to another tent on the edge of the camp which, from the outside, looked the same as all the others, but once inside I saw it was divided up into several flimsy partitions. We were all herded into them, one apiece. There was a wooden palette to stand on that was already half-sunk into the muddy floor, and we were given two minutes to undress and put our clothes and towels into a thick, dark-green waterproof sack. We were then all showered by murky, lukewarm water for a further five minutes, and then given five more minutes to dry and dress in the cold air before the next tent-load was ushered in. I imagined that taking the worst of both army life and prison life must be something like this.
We had our bracing showers every morning, the tents in our block on rotation so that sometimes I was awoken early, other times later. Three times in a day bells were rung and we would go to whichever set of military tents we had been assigned to, and line up under the hidden and watchful gaze of soldiers, and one by one we were handed our rations. It was usually a handful or two of dried meat and fruit, sometimes with bread or nuts, but rarely anything to quench a real appetite. Whether this was due to real lack or just to keep us weak, I never knew, but I was glad for the small morsels left in my backpack, and for the book I had kept carefully wrapped. While my rations of food kept my body fed, reading the book's poetry in the relative quiet of night kept my soul fed.
Days of it went by, days of waiting, wandering between tents, desperate for more details about what had happened, but people were suspicious and protective of their rations, and those that talked could not tell me any more than Grant and poor Luke had already explained.
“It was staged from the start,” said one intense-looking young man with a tangle of fiery red hair. He had invited me into his tent, several blocks from my own, and we sat on the edge of his bed while he talked feverishly. “Has anyone actually seen the meteorites hit?” He emphasised certain words by elongating them, making them stand out like islands amongst his rapid-fire sentences.
“I don't know,” I replied. “I didn't see them.”
“Exactly. But we all know someone who's seen the nukes go off.”
“So you're saying there were no meteorites?”
“It's all nukes,” he grinned. “Think about it. What better way to tear down civilisation and rebuild it from scratch?” He tucked his legs under him and sat cross-legged on the mattress. “It's fear!” he said as excitedly as a scientist making a new discovery. “Fear for our own survival is the strongest motivator. Here we are, willingly letting ourselves be evacuated and herded into places like this.”
He gestured around at the tent and its occupants, and I nodded. He had a point. He carried on for a while, full of ideas and new connections sparking constantly in his mind, and eventually we shook hands and I left, thinking over everything he had said. I didn't see him again, but when I began to ask people whether they had seen the meteorites hit they all said, “You've been speaking to the redhead haven't you?”
The momentum his theory had gained was soon shattered, however. Eventually I spoke to someone who had seen them streaking across the sky, and had seen the unearthly clouds of dust their impacts had thrown up. He was an elderly but spritely man, who assured me they were more terrifying than any nuclear weapon.
There were others I met over the days. Some who had witnessed them thought that all of this was God's final judgement on a sinful world, and that the earth would soon collapse and send us all on our way, either to be carried into heaven or cast into hell. Some had calculations of their own making, piecing together prophecies and calendars with wild-eyed proclamations that Nostrodamus or the Mayans had got it right all along and we had merely miscounted. It seemed that all the believers had their scriptures, and they all agreed that the end was here, ready to send us either ascending to freedom or descending into everlasting darkness.
All of their passionate speeches and revelations fired great panoramas in my imagination, and their reasons were so convincing, and the sense of things ending so widespread, that I began to wonder if perhaps they were right.
Amongst the thousands held in the camp however, those who talked were few and far between. Even with those in my tent, there was an unspoken distrust of one another, all eyes on anyone who so much as edged close to the water container that had to serve all of us for a day at a time before being replaced. We were being kept in tight check, and the strain had solidified all walls between us.
The soldiers were always armed and always in pairs, patrolling the paths between blocks of tents both day and night. They largely ignored anyone walking out of doors until it was time for one of the three daily curfews that, between all of them, covered much of the day and all of the dark hours.
Everyone had learned to fear them. I could feel the simmering resentments all around me, but any roar against our restraints lay deeply buried. Its stagnant and resigned air hung thick in the mist, still clinging to the ground as far as the eye could see.
The only welcoming face was the girl with the small boy who had pointed me to my bed on my arrival. Her name was Laura and all we had in common was the need to decompress, if only for a moment, against the intense suspicion that would otherwise stifle us. She sometimes came and sat with me and talked with me for a while. She often spoke about her childhood in Zimbabwe, and her escape to Britain, only to end up here. I would listen, fascinated and mesmerised by her face. She had the most flawless black skin and high cheekbones, her eyes always wide, and she spoke with a quiet voice that was thick with a Shona accent.
“Look at Michael,” she laughed, pointing to her son who was running around the tent in his muddy blue jeans and striped T-shirt, stopping to look up at its tired inhabitants with shy curiosity in his round eyes, and then he would start running again before anyone had a chance to even say a word to him.
“He was so scared when all of this started.”
“Don't you ever want to leave?” I asked her.
“Of course I do,” she said, lying back on my bed and closing her eyes. “But where would we go? This is the only place with food and water, shelter...” she shrugged. “Maybe if I didn't have Michael,” she smiled.
“There are places,” I told her. “A person can live out there.”
She sighed and said nothing, and I knew that even without Michael, she and I were too different. Just like most of the others around her, she had been too softened by domestic comfort to break out into the freedom of the ruined cities that felt like playgrounds to me. But then, I knew that anyone who might have ventured out would have the looming threat of nuclear terror hanging over them, and this had driven them to hide where they had been told was safe.
“What do you believe?” I asked her.
She opened her eyes to look at me, and she simply said, “I believe God will look after each one of us as he sees fit.”
Despite all of their dramatic colour, of all the beliefs and prophecies I had heard, I hoped more than anything that hers was right. I looked down at her, her skin like velvet and her wild hair now spread out on the bed behind her, and I felt the faint and sharp twinge that memory always brings as it resurfaces. She reminded me of the angelic woman back in London who had helped me to escape, and for all I knew may have been incinerated. Because of that, she reminded me of Kate too, and I wanted to hold her, press her against me, and promise her I would sacrifice everything to keep her safe.
I didn’t, because I knew I would not be holding Laura, I would only be holding the memory of someone else.
She closed her eyes again, and the heater clicked on automatically, as it did every few hours. I sighed as I stared up at its downward-angled bars beginning to glow at us like glaring eyes. Even with her next to me, her breathing now softening into sleep, I felt alone.
My restlessness built as the days passed through a second week and still rolled on without a glimpse of Grant's return. My wounds seemed reluctant to heal, sore and painful scratches that I washed twice a day with the soap I kept hidden, but they burned at night as I tried to sleep. I felt like I was ebbing, all vitality soaked into the endless fog, and it kick-started something deeper, a primal survival with the kind of ferocity that fills cornered animals. Even Kate's book was no longer enough to keep me sane.
There were more new arrivals, and soon all the beds in the tent were taken. With so many packed into one open space, I kept my backpack hidden and shared my small and dwindling food only with Laura and Michael when the others slept. She told me that everyone else had had their things searched and that any food or anything that could be used as a weapon was confiscated. I realised that Grant had purposely spared me this when he had told me to leave my backpack behind before checking in. Even if he never came back, I thought, he had given me this much.
It was late one evening when the ground began to shake. Beds rattled, the heater in the middle vibrated with an unholy clatter, its wide top now resounding like a cymbal, and huge shadows suddenly shot across the tent wall with disconcerting size and speed as one of the standing lights outside capsized in a loud shatter of glass. I sat up, panic now mixing with the restless rise of excitement, the thrill of knowing that this was my chance.
I reached down and pulled my long overcoat and backpack from under the bed, struggling to put them on as I was shaken carelessly from side to side, and I heard the sudden shouts and footsteps of soldiers gradually drown in the rising clamour of their terrified civilian charges. The noise and chaos only fuelled my own surging energy and confirmed my escape.
The shaking died down so suddenly it left a void that felt deep enough to fall into, and I steadied myself as I stood up. I hurried over to Laura's bed and saw her staring up at me in the semi-darkness.
“Come with me,” I hissed above the noise outside, “I'm getting out!”
There was panic and confusion in her eyes as they met mine, windows into a world without thoughts of escape, but she sat up quickly and grabbed my arm. Pulling me to her, she kissed my lips and then let me go.
I paused, frozen by the softness of her kiss, then with an ecstatic smile I ran out through the tent's entrance. I prayed for a clear way through the running soldiers and the grinding off-road flatbeds with searchlights mounted on their backs, watching them surge past in waves just far enough away to let me run unseen. Other inmates broke curfew out of panic and stood looking lost and dazed, and I beckoned to them as I ran, pulling some of them in my wake, knowing they had no idea where they were headed. In no time there were soldiers appearing as if coalescing out of the dark shadows between tents, manifesting into form purely to shout orders and push people back inside with the cold blackness of their guns, but all the way along there were civilians walking out, seeing us and joining in the mad run to nowhere.
I rounded a bend and was immediately faced with another soldier, unfazed and raising his weapon instinctively.
“Get back to your bunk, now!” he roared.
There was no “sir” or “please” anymore. There was only the briefest look of shock in his eyes as adrenaline rushed into my arm and flung out a right hook. It connected so firmly with his chin that I heard a faint crack as he limply fell straight down, concussed, and flushed with guilt I ran on as fast I could.
I heard a faint cheer behind me, and as I looked around I saw several of the people following me stop at a nearby tent entrance and drag the downed soldier inside, already taking his weapons. I was causing chaos, leaving whirlpools and pockets of uprising behind, and the surge of rebellion threw me onwards.
People began to run past me, no longer following but just running for the boundless joy of escape, and at the sight of a Land Rover approaching I leaped into the entrance of the nearest tent just in time to feel the deep rumble of another quake building quickly from deep down beneath me.
I lost my footing and fell onto the dry grass as the ground shook once more, and the chaos seemed to pause while the earth rumbled. Those in here who hadn't been panicked by the noise before now sat up or leaped out of bed only to fall, and I looked up at the mighty heater towering above me and saw its proud head still glowing red hot. Its immovable weight began to rock unsteadily, and my eyes widened with the potential that I had somehow missed before.
“Everybody out!” I called, then yelled it again, louder as I willed myself up against ground that shifted like liquid beneath me. As the quakes died down, everyone in the tent stirred into action, and they clambered for clothing and filed around me and out. I ran against the tide and toward the still-rocking heater, and rammed shoulder-first into its unforgiving solidity. It swung ponderously between one direction and another, uncertain of which way to go, and I backed up and ran into it again with a roar, the impact jarring my bones.
Slowly, like a giant toppling tree, it relented to gravity and leaned further and further until it crashed over, its red-hot elements landing on one of the beds so hard that its springs collapsed. Thick cables were still connected to the heater's base like roots beneath, feeding the current that now resisted directly into the mattress and sheets, and quickly set them smouldering and then burning. I cried out with the flush of victory and then ducked out of the tent.
As I’d hoped, the crowd of civilians spreading out from their burning tent brought every surrounding soldier like moths to a bulb, and I ran towards the tight gaps between the tents and threw myself through them, my momentum driving me on and crushing whatever was left in my backpack. I began to hear gunfire in the distance as I went, but I could not tell whether it was from the soldiers or from the civilians with their stolen guns, and I forced my aching muscles to hurry.
Finally I burst free into a clearing, and first stumbled and then ran as my eyes caught sight of the fence and barriers at the front of the camp. I felt a wild wind push me toward them, drawn as inevitably as two magnets, and then suddenly I was hit by a wall of white light so blinding it bounced me painfully backwards.
I saw a radiator grille flash directly in front of me and realised that something must have braked suddenly and hit me. I held a hand up to my eyes as I still reeled and staggered backwards, my stomach bruised.
“Silas!” roared an angry voice. “Silas!”
The spotlight lifted away from me and clunked off, and in the painful shadows it had left of my vision I saw a figure leaping out and walking over.
“What are you doing?” Grant demanded. “I told you I'd help you!”
“I don't know what I'm doing,” I admitted breathlessly. “I don't really have a plan, I just need to get out.”
“I know it's been a few days,” he said apologetically as he led me back to the Land Rover and sat in the driver's seat. “I was waiting for the next quake,” he explained. “When the soldiers mobilised I was going to come for you.”
“Well I'm sorry,” I said with a hint of desperation as I sat next to him in the front. “It just seemed so long.”
He rammed first gear into place, and the heavy wheels churned the mud further as we span off toward one of the green clusters of military tents.
“Where are we going?” I asked as panic rose once again.
“Don't worry,” he assured me, stopping outside them. “Come with me.”
He leaped out and rushed inside a smaller tent, and against all better judgement I followed him in.
To my relief there was no-one else inside. It was filled with makeshift grey and dark-green metal shelves, many of them empty but others still carrying neat rows of olive or camouflaged packages lined up on them. Grant quickly grabbed one and emptied it onto the grass.
“Wear this,” he ordered, and then picked up an empty military bergen that was almost twice the size of my backpack and mottled with army woodland camouflage.
I looked down at the private's uniform that lay on the ground and, knowing there was no time and no pride left to lose, I stripped out of my clothes and quickly dressed in the thick uniform while Grant simply placed my backpack inside the bergen and stuffed my old clothing on top. He then filled any remaining gaps with small packets that he assured me were dried food. Within two minutes we were both soldiers, and once I had grabbed the bergen we hurried out and climbed back into the Land Rover, roaring toward the front gates.
“You'd never get out alive dressed as a civilian,” he explained above the noise of the spreading riot behind us, and the soldiers at the barrier saluted him as we slowed down.
We stopped while he wound down his window and spoke to the guard on his side, and I sat staring straight ahead and avoided eye contact with the guard on my side, praying that he would not speak to me. I jumped as I heard a clicking sound from his gun, then silently cursed myself, hoping he hadn't noticed.
Suddenly the barrier lifted, and with a jolt we shot forwards, out of the camp and into the night. The headlights snapped on with two pencil-thin beams that looked insignificant against the weight of darkness that covered over the hills.
We bounced over the rocky grass and onto the road, and I held onto the door and wondered how he knew which way to go. The stripes on his shoulder meant nothing to me as I glanced over at his uniform, and I wished I knew enough about the military to decipher what rank he was.
“Thank you,” I said aloud when we were clear of the camp, and he just turned to me and smiled a rare smile.
“You've come all this way,” he said, shaking his head as if he still couldn't believe it.
Once the camp's lights and noise were far behind us he slowed down and then stopped. He leaped out, leaving its engine still running.
“It's got almost a full tank,” he told me. “It's yours.”
“It's mine?” I asked in disbelief.
“You'll find her,” he said. “I know you will.”
“What about you?”
“I belong back there,” he said. “There's nothing for me to break out for.”
I clambered over to the driver's side, and Grant held out his hand, and I shook it. “I hope you see her soon,” I said.
I closed the door, and as I revved the engine Grant snapped a salute. “Good luck, soldier!” he said.
I saluted him back and pulled away, and once his lonely figure had been swallowed up into invisibility behind me I sped up, driving fast along the road, bouncing over the cracks and holes hidden by the night.
Fresh air battered in through the open window, and I felt a passion awaken as I left everything behind. I was finally casting off everything that had ever been left to settle against its inclination to fly, and I felt the roar from the engine's throat as I opened the throttle. I flew into the darkness, leaving behind the fire that had erupted from inside of me to assault the prison’s thin walls back there.
Like ants under attack, they would swarm over the revolution until it was tamed, and only when I was too far away to ever be found again would they even notice I was gone.