Chapter Sixteen

WE WORK OUR WAY along the outermost edge of the Unchanged exclusion zone, either just inside or just outside the boundary depending on whose map you're looking at. It's been uncomfortably quiet out here, and we've seen only a handful of other fighters since splitting from the others back at the school. Here, though, things suddenly feel different. Paul and I make our way quickly through the ruins of a sprawling college campus, moving away from the collapsing, battle-damaged buildings, then climbing up a number of terraced soccer fields, stacked like hugely oversized steps. From the farthest edge of the uppermost playing field we're able to look out over a huge swathe of the exclusion zone. In the distance I can just about make out the area of town where Lizzie's sister lived, and I can see all the way across the wide stretch of no-man's-land to the heart of the enemy refugee camp, too. But it's what's directly below us that is of more immediate interest. We're overlooking what's left of St. James's Hospital, and it's crawling with activity. Our fighters are all over it like ants over forgotten food.

"What do you reckon?"

Paul shrugs his shoulders. "Got to be a reason for them being here," he answers, and before I can speak again, he crawls through a hole in a section of chain-link fence and starts running down a steep, grassy slope toward the hospital.

I try to resist for a second and force myself to concentrate on finding Ellis, but then I think about the fact that there must be Unchanged close by, and the temptation becomes too strong to suppress. My mouth begins to water as I sprint down the hill after Paul, desperate to get down to the hospital and start killing. I hear gunfire as I start to run, a sure sign that the enemy is close. Suddenly all I can think about is satisfying my hunger and ending Unchanged lives.

The main hospital entrance has been partially demolished, the automatic doors stuck midway through opening, their metal frames buckled. As I catch up with Paul he's looking for a way around what's left of this part of the site. It sounds like most of the heavy fighting is concentrated around the parking lots and the other buildings at the far end of the complex.

"Cut straight through," I suggest as I squeeze through the gap in the doors. He follows me as we head down a long corridor that has somehow remained surprisingly white and clean and that even now still has the faintest tang of antiseptic in the air. The building feels vast and empty, and our footsteps echo as we run along the hard marble floor toward the battle. A huge, dark, zigzagging crack in one of the walls makes me question my decision to come this way momentarily, but it's too late now and it's worth the risk. We're nearing the fighting. We're closing in on the enemy.

I burst through a set of swinging double doors, then stop at a staircase. Instinct tells me to head down, but the way through is blocked by fallen rubble from a collapsed wall. Paul doesn't wait, deciding quickly to head up and work his way around whatever damage he finds up there. I follow him through more doors, then along another, much shorter corridor, which ends with a sharp right-hand turn. We instinctively slow down when we enter a ward filled with corpses. I start to wonder whether these well-decayed people were just abandoned and forgotten when the war began, but a closer look at their injuries quickly tells me that wasn't the case. A skeletal woman has been skewered with the metal support that once held her intravenous drip, the stained and tattered threads of her flapping nightgown still wrapped around her shoulders. Sitting on the floor to my left, the withered husk of an old man is slumped with his legs apart. There's a vertical scar in the middle of his badly discolored chest, running in almost a straight line down from just below the level of his sagging nipples. At the bottom of the scar, right where his navel would have been, the wound has been forced open and his innards pulled out. This guy's been disemboweled by someone with their bare hands. The ingenuity and brutality of whoever did this is breathtaking. These bodies are old, though. Why are people still fighting here today?

A huge hole in the ceiling and a corresponding hole in the floor farther down the ward force me to concentrate again. I follow Paul as he edges cautiously around the narrow ledge that remains around the dark chasm. I glance down and see a mass of rubble, beds, and bodies directly below, then look up. There are more holes in each floor above us all the way up to what's left of the roof.

At the end of the ward we reach another staircase. I look down through a large safety-glass window over a vast crowd of people battling outside. Our fighters are swarming around a collection of outbuildings right out on the farthest edge of the site. Standing separate from the main hospital campus, they look like they might have been storerooms or boiler rooms. There are enemy soldiers in every visible window and doorway and more on the roof, all of them now firing relentlessly and indiscriminately into the surging crowd. On the other side of the wrought-iron railings that surround the hospital grounds are their vehicles, ready for them to beat a hasty retreat if we get too close.

Paul's halfway down the stairs, but I stay standing at the window. Something's not right here.

"Come on!" he shouts.

"Wait..."

I watch as another surge comes from deep within the crowd of fighters. People are jostling for position, trying to get closer to the enemy, using each other as human shields by default. A pair of Brutes almost get close enough to strike before they're driven back and brought down by another hail of bullets. Other fighters immediately clamor to take their places, trampling their fallen bodies. Apart from those few brave attempts, the enemy seems to be managing to keep the bulk of the crowd at bay.

"You fucking idiot!" Paul yells at me. "They'll all be dead by the time you get down there."

He disappears, but I don't move. On the face of it this looks like any one of a hundred battles I've witnessed or been a part of before, but there's a subtle difference, and alarm bells are ringing. I sprint after Paul to try to stop him.

"Paul," I yell, just managing to catch sight of the back of his head before he disappears out through an open door. "Wait!"

"We'll tear them apart," he shouts, glancing back at me. "They're sitting ducks."

"No they're not."

"What?"

"They could get out of here at any time. I saw it from up there. They're tight up against the perimeter, and they've got vehicles on the other side waiting to take them out. They're playing us."

"What?" he shouts again.

"It's a fucking setup! Think about it... Their secure area's just a mile or so from here, there's no way they've been cut off from the others, and they don't look like they're out here for supplies..."

"I don't care," he says, thinking more about the kill than anything else, acting like a drug-starved junkie who's desperate for a hit.

"They're not waiting here to be evacuated," I tell him. "They're here to draw us out into the open."

Paul shakes his head, then turns and runs, charging deep into the sprawling, ever-growing crowd of fighters, which now almost completely fills the entire space between the main part of the hospital and the Unchanged-occupied buildings. Bullets shatter windows in the wall high above, and jagged daggers of glass rain down around me. Forced to move, I follow him outside but stay right at the very back of the crowd, using the mass of surging figures as cover and trying to squirm around the edge of the building and head back in the direction from which we just came. Paul's already disappeared-just another face in the swollen crowd of bloodthirsty fighters, all of them desperate to kill. I don't know what's more terrifying, the fact that I think we're being set up or how singularly focused this huge mass of people has become. It's like nothing else matters; the scent of blood is in the air, and they're all behaving like Brutes, prepared to sacrifice anything for the thrill and satisfaction of the kill. The closeness of the enemy and their constant gunfire just seems to rile the hordes and make them even more aggressive. Maybe that's what they want?

I feel like I'm fighting against everyone else here now, and a moment of indecision and distraction costs me dear. Too busy watching what the bulk of the crowd is doing, I don't realize another group of fighters is approaching from behind until it's too late. They push past me, shoving me out of the way and to the side, slamming me against a wall. Before I know what's happening I'm on the ground, desperately trying to cover my head and scramble out of the way as people stampede all around me. The noise of the chaotic battle is muffled and distorted down here, increasing my disorientation. I try to follow the wall I just smacked into, still moving against the tide of people and hoping I'm heading in the right direction. I'm finally able to pull myself back up onto my feet, using a drainpipe for support. I haul myself up onto the top of a metal and glass smokers' shelter outside a blocked entrance door and look back over the heads of the crowd. Almost all of the shooting has suddenly stopped, and I see that our fighters have finally reached the small buildings. They're pouring inside, steamrolling anyone who gets in their way. I stand on the shelter and curse myself for overreacting. Maybe Paul was right. Did these stupid Unchanged bastards really just screw up and get themselves stranded out here?

I'm about to jump down when I hear something. The noise makes me stop and stare again. Then I see it-a line of armored trucks and jeeps heading away from the back of the buildings. A handful of fighters manage to make it over to the other side of the perimeter fence, but, judging by the number of vehicles now racing across this part of the exclusion zone at speed, it looks like most if not all of the Unchanged soldiers have got away. More people scramble through the buildings and chase after the Unchanged, but they give up quickly and slow down and watch the enemy escape through clouds of dust.

Wait.

The sound of engines is getting louder.

The vehicles are almost of out sight, but the noise is continuing to increase in volume. It becomes vague and directionless and seems to wash and fade before becoming stronger, louder, and more definite again. Then I realize that these engines are above us. I know what's coming next. The enemy's tactics are becoming all too easy to read.

I jump down off the shelter, going over on my ankle and accidentally taking out another couple of fighters in the process. There's an uncomfortable malaise about this place now, with only a few people on the frayed edges of the crowd making any serious attempt to get away. Most of them just stand there, some with their faces pressed against the railings, still watching the Unchanged flee. I'd do something about it if I could be bothered, but all I'm interested in now is getting myself out of here before it's too late.

I start running, pushing my way through crisscrossing bodies and trying to ignore the sharp, jabbing pain in my ankle. Above the roof of the hospital I catch a glimpse of a massive low-flying, slow-moving plane with an enormous wingspan, and I will myself to keep moving faster and faster as I hear the high-pitched whistle of the first bombs beginning to fall. I'm away from the bulk of the crowd but still nowhere near far enough to be safe. I keep trying to force my legs to work harder, but my muscles are burning with effort, and I think my ankle's going to give way at any second. Can't keep moving. I lean against a wall and half hop, half drag myself along, knowing that the building I'm holding on to is about to be obliterated. I can almost see the grassy hill Paul and I ran down now, but it's still too far. I'll never get there. The piercing whine of the fast-falling munitions keeps increasing in volume until it's all I can hear. Then it stops.

Nothing.

A split second later and the air is filled with more noise than I can believe, the power of the blast forcing the air from my lungs. I drop down and cover my head, ready for the world around me to explode. The ground shakes violently, and I curl myself up into the smallest shape possible, waiting for the remains of the hospital building to start to crumble and fall. My guts churn with fear, and I brace myself for what's coming next, knowing that the worst is yet to come...

The noise starts to fade.

Everything sounds muffled. Debris starts falling. In the distance people are yelling for help and screaming with pain.

Was that it?

I tell myself I'll count to thirty, and if nothing's happened I'll try to move. I only get to seven when I feel people starting to get up around me. Did all the bombs explode? Did the Unchanged pilot fuck up?

I cautiously stand up and turn around, not knowing what I'm going to see behind me. The air is filled with spewing clouds of dust, like a thick, dirty, grainy fog that quickly settles and coats everything with gray. As it fades I realize I can still see the far end of the hospital building intact. The outbuildings that were the focus of the fighting have gone, but the main campus is in much the same condition as it was before the attack. The only other thing that's missing is the crowd of fighters, and I realize that they were the target today, nothing else. Those Unchanged bastards have managed to wipe hundreds of us out and still leave their infrastructure relatively undamaged. I don't know whether it's the sight of the unscathed hospital building or the empty space where the crowds of fighters were standing that makes me hate them most.

As the haze settles, everything takes on a bizarrely calm, almost dreamlike state. Those who've escaped the full force of the blast begin to stagger past me, some soaked with blood, others looking like white-faced ghosts, covered in powder-fine debris. Behind those who can walk I see others who've suffered much worse injures. A woman, I think she may have been a Brute, tries to drag herself along the ground. Both of her legs have been blown off below the knee, and she leaves an uneven snail trail of glistening blood behind her. She manages to travel a couple of yards farther before she dies. I shake my head clear and try to force myself into action as a man stumbles closer, walking like a drunk, carrying the lower part of his left arm in his right hand. He's asking me for help, I think, but I can't hear him. Is there something wrong with his voice? I try to answer, but I can't hear my own voice properly either. Everything sounds muffled and low, and I realize the problem's with my ears. I nervously look from side to side, suddenly aware that if I can't hear properly, I'm wide open to attack. I need to get away from here and find somewhere safe so I can get my head together, then get on with what I came back out here for. For half a second I wonder whether I should stop and look for Paul. It's a stupid, pointless idea. He's probably nothing more than a pile of blackened bone and ash at the bottom of the bomb crater now. He was no help anyway. Stupid fucker didn't listen to a word I said.

Pull yourself together, I tell myself again as the shock and disorientation slowly start to fade and some clarity returns. I need to forget this place and get back on track and keep moving toward Lizzie's sister's house-and, I decide as I start to hobble away, my ankle still weak, I need to do it on my own. I have to keep away from everybody else because when we're together we become an easy target for the Unchanged to pick out from the sky. Cowardly bastards. Face-to-face they know they don't stand a chance. Long-distance battles are the only ones they can win.

I start to run, slowly at first until the pain in my ankle becomes slightly more bearable. I head back toward the entrance to the hospital I first came through, desperate to put some distance between me and everyone else. I reach the bottom of the grassy slope below the college playing fields, and this time I take a right, moving toward the ruins of a housing project, hoping that the closely packed row houses on either side of the road will provide me with some temporary cover. I tuck in tight against the buildings on my right, hiding in their shadows. As I move past a succession of grim, crumbling facades, I start to think I should maybe stay here for a while. The enemy has already hit this place; what would they gain from striking here again? And now that I've made the decision to only travel alone, would it be better to wait until dark? But then I think about Ellis and the kids at the school, and I know I have to keep moving.

Shit, there's someone in the road up ahead. I crouch down behind a low stone wall in the front yard of one of the houses and watch. Don't think he's seen me, but he's coming this way. He must be Unchanged, I can tell by the way he moves, from his slow, cautious movements and lack of confidence. So why the hell am I cowering like this? Stay calm and consider the options, I tell myself. He's alone, and if he is one of them, I'll just kill him. I must still be shook up from the bombing, because my heart's pounding and I'm suddenly sweating like a pig. I need to face this fucker head-on, whoever and whatever he is. I try to focus on the euphoria I know I'll feel when I end his miserable life.

I grab my axe, then stand up and run at him. When he sees me he immediately reaches for his belt, and I curse my stupidity, certain that he's about to draw a gun and fire-but he doesn't. He backs away, running from me faster than I'm moving toward him, screaming into a handheld radio. Now I'm sure he's Unchanged, and I know I can't let him live. He accelerates, moving with a frantic speed that I can't match. It's a struggle for me even to keep up, but I can't let him go. Have to kill him...

He turns a blind corner. I follow, then stop dead in my tracks. There are three more of them racing down the road ahead toward me, one on a motorbike in full leathers. It's four against one, and I'm fucked. But I can't let it end like this. Do I go out fighting or...? The bike rider lifts what looks like a riot baton and accelerates, and my decision's made. Like a fucking coward I turn and run, not even bothering to attack, the screaming sound of the bike's engine ringing in my ears.

I run through the open door of the nearest house and slam itshut behind me. That should slow the bastards down. Rather than risk heading upstairs in this ruin I instead stay down, running through a ransacked living room and jumping over the outstretched legs of the corpse of a woman that's leaning up against an empty fireplace, looking like she's praying. The kitchen of the house is filled with rubble. There's a gaping hole where a window used to be. I scramble up onto an unsteady counter and jump out through the gap, landing in a concrete yard on my injured ankle. I bite my lip hard, refusing to shout out, and breathe through the pain. In the brief moment of quiet I listen to the echoing sound of the motorbike as it fades and swirls and seems to move away. Then I hear the Unchanged enter the front of the house, and I force myself forward again. I run down a narrow path in the middle of a wild, overgrown lawn, heading toward a tall brick wall at the back of the garden. There's a half-empty water barrel in the corner. I use it to climb up onto the top of the wall, then kick it over to stop anyone from following. Down the other side and I find myself standing in space in the middle of a block of six lockup garages, a row of three on either side. I can either hide here and wait to be found or make a break for it. Apart from going back over the wall there's only one way out. I sprint forward but then stop when the bastard on the bike appears from nowhere and cuts me off, swerving the bike around so that it blocks the road. I manage to weave around his back tire and get past, but I've only taken a few steps farther when I hear him accelerate again. I look back over my shoulder as he rears up, riot baton held ready. I try to change direction again, try to wrong-foot him, but my ankle gives way and I stumble, barely managing to keep upright and keep moving. I feel sudden, searing pain as the baton cracks against the back of my legs, and I hit the asphalt hard and roll over in agony.

More of them are coming, their Unchanged faces hidden by motorcycle helmets, face masks, visors, and scarves. I try to stand up, but one of them slams me back down, pinning my arms to the ground. Another one holds my legs. I struggle, but they're too strong. There are too many of them.

"Just do it," I yell at them. "Fucking do it! Kill me now and get it over with."

Yet another one appears, looming over me. I can see this one's face. He looks me up and down, then pulls the plastic stopper off the tip of a hypodermic needle with his teeth and spits it out. I try to arch my back and get away, but I can't do anything to stop the fucker from thumping the needle hard into my chest.

iii

WITHIN WEEKS THE MECHANISM for the ongoing distribution of food and medical aid to the population of the refugee camp had begun to falter and fail. In retrospect it had seemed a large-scale but reasonably straightforward undertaking, but, as what had originally been envisaged as a short-term operation dragged into its fourth month and with no end in sight, the situation continued to rapidly deteriorate.

The initial ground rules and hastily cobbled-together official procedures had been simple. Under military control, all resources were to be coordinated via the City Arena-a vast, cavernous, ten-thousand-seat concert venue. Its huge, soccer-field-sized concrete floor had been cleared, and all rations, supplies, emergency aid, and "collected" foodstuffs were held there under armed guard. Trucks full of provisions were shipped out to ten nominated distribution centers within the huge camp on a daily basis-a movie complex, the town hall, two sports centers, and various other similar-sized public buildings. From these centers food was distributed to the city's population, who carried ration books with their identification papers.

By the beginning of the second month, supplies had already dwindled to dangerously low levels, the authorities having severely underestimated both the number of refugees requiring rations and the duration of their enforced incarceration. Similarly, they'd overestimated their ability to source and replenish food stocks. Officially acquired (looted) food continued to enter the city on a daily basis as a result of frequent military excursions, but it was nowhere near enough. More importantly, no more food was being produced. No crops were being grown and harvested, no factories were operating, every transportation and distribution system had been rendered unusable...

By midway through the second month, supplies had fallen to such a low level that the daily restocking of the ten distribution centers was reduced to every other day. By the beginning of the third month, deliveries were only being made weekly.

A black market emerged on the streets, and for a short while it thrived and flourished. Also in month two, a militia faction known colloquially as "the Milkmen" because of the herd of stolen cows they kept penned in on the heavily guarded field of a local soccer team, assumed control of two of the distribution centers. The irony of small-time criminals dealing in milk and occasionally beef alongside the usual staples of drugs and weapons was not lost on either the military, who tolerated their activities (it took some of the pressure off them), or the poor bastards forced to trade with them. Business boomed temporarily until the basic economic principle of supply and demand could no longer be applied. Food, water, and medicines became both the commodities and the currency. The demand was inexhaustible, the supply nonexistent. Trade stopped. The militia groups closed their doors, emerging only to attack and raid other distribution centers to continue to feed and water themselves. When even the black marketeers could no longer source enough food and water for their own needs, infighting took hold, and their previously untouchable operations imploded.

As the end of month three approached, the City Arena was all but empty, and eight of the distribution centers (including those previously run by the militia) had ceased to function. Of the three remaining sites, the Arena was now being run by the military, purely for the benefit of the military. One of the distribution centers housed in an old warehouse continued to be maintained by a rapidly dwindling group of do-gooders who were stupid enough to still believe in helping other people and who dutifully handed out almost microscopic portions to the ever-growing crowds continuing to line up outside the building twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Truth was, the only reason they were still in business was because they drip-fed provisions, literally a mouthful at a time. Perversely, the sheer mass of desperate refugees both protected the distribution center from the threat of militia attack and isolated it from the military authorities and supply routes.

This morning, the last remaining functioning distribution center-housed in a long-empty factory building-collapsed. The food supplies had finally run dry, and the news predictably caused a riot. The military commander responsible, overseeing the center from a safe distance, wasted no time in locking the site down and ordering the execution of the three hundred or so rioting civilians trapped inside. The public had to be controlled, whatever the cost. Disorder like that couldn't be allowed to spread. The implications were unthinkable.

***

Three-quarters of an hour ago, Mark had left the cramped hotel room for the first time since returning from his final shift as a volunteer. Kate had pleaded with him not to go, but what choice had he had? He had a duty to provide for her and his unborn child, not to mention the other family members they'd found themselves unwillingly imprisoned alongside.

Walking the streets was a bizarre and frankly terrifying experience, and he quickly realized how much he missed the security of traveling with the military. Even being outside the exclusion zone with the army, surrounded by Haters, felt safer than this. He desperately tried to keep himself to himself, looking at the ground whenever he passed anyone else or looking over the heads of the crowds he walked through. He didn't know where he was going or what he was hoping to achieve, but he had to keep trying. He couldn't just sit there with the rest of them and wait for something to happen. They were starving, cold, and frightened, and he begrudgingly felt responsible for all of them.

Mark made his way in the general direction of the factory building where he, Kate, and the others had collected their rations in the past. He walked via Leftbank Place, an area of waste ground that had been planned for redevelopment for years. That was never going to happen now. He struggled to see through the never-ending mass of temporary shelters that blanketed the ground, making it look more like a third-world slum than anything else. The remains of entire families sat huddled together under polyethylene sheets, desperately clinging to their last few belongings and each other. For a while it made him almost feel grateful for the relative comfort and security of the hotel room where he and the others had been billeted.

It was obvious as soon as he got near the distribution center that it had closed down. Where he'd expected to find uneasy, virtually silent lines of people he now saw only an empty space. Any space was at a premium now, so the fact that people were completely avoiding the site was a bad sign in itself. He'd already decided to turn around and head back to the hotel before he saw bodies being dragged away. A drifting plume of hazy gray smoke drifted up from behind the large, boxlike building. He knew that was the smoke from a funeral pyre-a typical military cleanup operation. They burned all dead bodies now to stop, or rather slow, the spread of disease.

He changed direction gradually, so self-conscious and afraid of everyone else that he didn't dare make any sudden alterations to his route, paranoid that people were watching him. He found himself at the base of the McIver Tower -the building where he used to work-and he allowed himself to look up just for a moment and remember. Up there, on the seventh floor, was where he'd spent endless hours before all of this had happened. Up there, alongside around one hundred and fifty co-workers, all sitting in front of identical computers, wearing identical headsets and working toward identical targets, he'd sold insurance and dealt with people's claims. Those were the days, he thought, almost daring to smile, when a burst pipe or a broken window was considered an emergency... It all seemed so trivial and unimportant now, but it had mattered then. Not just to him, but to everyone. He'd struggled with the monotony of the job at times, but he'd have given anything to return to the boredom and routine of his former life now. He stopped by a telephone booth to look a little longer and tried not to look suspicious, avoiding making eye contact with the man who was sitting on the floor inside it, his back pressed against the door to prevent anyone else from getting in. Mark counted up to floor seven of the office building, then worked his way along to the window nearest to where he used to sit. There were people living up there now. Even from down here he could see them, hundreds of them packed in together, desperate for space. Around the base of the building, in a low-walled, rectangular area that had once been an exclusive parking lot reserved for company executives and senior managers, was an enormous pile of redundant computer equipment-hundreds of unneeded screens, keyboards, and tower units thrown out as the floors above had been emptied to make room.

Mark looked down at the man in the phone booth again. He hadn't moved. Was he just sleeping? He casually tapped the glass with his knuckles, but the man didn't react, so he did it again. Then, moving slowly, he shook the door. Still no reaction. Was he dead? Whatever it was that was wrong with him, Mark saw that he had a plastic grocery bag tucked inside his filthy raincoat. It had to be food. Other than weapons and drugs, food was the only thing worth hiding now. He kicked the glass again, this time cringing inwardly as a couple of other people either turned around or glanced up before remembering themselves and looking away again.

The appearance of a small boy walking along the wall around the base of his old work building distracted him. The poor kid looked hopelessly lost and exhausted, all life and energy drained out of him. It said something about this crisis that even the kids were affected to such an extent. He'd seen film of children playing resiliently around the ruins of their homes in World War II bombsites before now, and other footage of kids laughing and running through disease-ridden subcontinent slums, but this... this was different. Even the most innocent and naive members of society knew how dire this situation was becoming. The boy shouldn't have been on his own. Who was he with? Was he lost? Abandoned? Orphaned? He'd adopted the same safe, emotionless, and almost vacant gaze as everyone else, trying to separate himself from the rest of the world but unable to escape its close confines. Mark had no way of knowing if this kid was okay or if he was sick or... He forced himself to stop. He had to look away and block him out. He couldn't afford to care.

This morning, before he'd left the hotel, Mark had argued with Kate. Neither of them had meant for it to happen, but once they'd started shouting, weeks of pent-up frustrations meant neither of them could stop. Kate was becoming increasingly claustrophobic in the hotel room, and the lack of privacy was driving her insane.

"What am I supposed to do?" he'd said to her. "Until things change, this is all we've got. There are no hospitals or clinics or-"

"So what happens when the baby comes?"

"We deal with it."

"How?"

"I don't know... we get some towels and water like they said and-"

"What towels? Where's the water going to come from? Christ, Mark, I won't even be able to wash the kid. We don't have enough water to drink, let alone-"

"Calm down, Katie. You're just-"

"Calm down! Jesus Christ, why should I? I'm fucking terrified, and you're expecting me to give birth to our baby on the floor of a hotel room in front of my parents."

"It's months away yet. Four months. Think how much might change in another four months-"

"Think how much worse it might get."

"Now you're just being stupid."

"I'm scared."

"We're all scared."

"I'm scared about the baby."

"Millions of women give birth every year, don't they? And they used to manage before hospitals and-"

"It's not that-"

"What, then?"

"I'm scared about what our baby might be. What if it's not like us? What if it's one of them and it...?"

"Don't be stupid. I'm normal and you're normal. Our baby will be normal, too."

"But what if it isn't? You don't know that for sure, do you? No one knows why we're like we are and why they're different..."

She was right, of course, but he kept on trying to persuade her that everything would be okay, doing his best to keep up the bullshit and pretense because it was all he could do.

A sudden noise nearby diverted Mark's attention back to the present. There was a disturbance deep in a crowd of people on the other side of the road. He couldn't clearly see what was happening. It looked like a fight-someone had probably cracked under the strain of the impossible situation that they, and everyone else, found themselves in. The sudden, unexpected outpouring of long-suppressed emotions provoked a range of reactions from the other refugees nearby. Some ran. Some did all that they could do pretend it wasn't happening. Others forgot where they were and all that they'd been through and responded with the most basic, natural of reactions and fought.

Mark didn't give a damn what was happening or why. Taking full advantage of the situation and the distraction it caused, he shoved the door of the phone booth hard. When the lifeless man on the ground still didn't react, he pushed the door again until there was a wide enough gap for him to squeeze his arm through. He grabbed the man's grocery bag, shoved it inside his coat, and walked back toward the hotel.

***

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