Read an Extract from After the Fire:
I sprint across the yard, my eyes streaming, my heart pounding in my chest.
The noise of the gunfire is still deafening, and I hear – I actually hear – bullets whizzing past me, their low whines like the speededup buzz of insects, but I don’t slow down, and I don’t change course. The Chapel is burning out of control, its roof engulfed by roaring fire and sending up a huge black plume of smoke, and the amplified voice of the Government booms across the compound, repeating its deafening demand over and over again.
Pain crunches through me as my shoulder hits the ground, but I grit my teeth and get back to my feet and look round to see what I fell over.
“PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS AND COME FORWARD SLOWLY WITH YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR!”
Nobody is listening. Not the other Governments, and definitely not any of my Brothers and Sisters.
In the distance, back near the Front Gate, the tank rumbles forward, crushing the flimsy wire fence and churning the desert floor. Somewhere, over the engines and the endless rattle of gunfire, I can hear screams of pain and pleading shouts for help, but I force myself to ignore them and keep going: my eyes are fixed on the wooden cabins at the western edge of The Base.
I trip over something.
My feet tangle, and I go sprawling onto the cracked tarmac of the yard. Pain crunches through me as my shoulder hits the ground, but I grit my teeth and get back to my feet and look round to see what I fell over.
Alice is lying on her back, her hands clutching her stomach.
Her shirt has turned red, and she’s lying in a pool of blood that seems too big to have all come out of one person. She’s still alive though. Her eyes are dim, but they find mine, and she looks at me with an expression I can’t describe. There’s pain there, a lot of pain, and shock, and fear, and something that looks like confusion, like she wants to know how things ever came to this.
I hold her gaze. I want to stay with her, to tell her it’s all right and that she’s going to be okay, but it isn’t all right, nothing is, and I don’t know very much about bullet wounds but I don’t think she is going to be okay.
I’m pretty sure she’s going to die.
I stare at her, wasting seconds that the still-functional bit of my brain screams at me for wasting, then run towards the west barracks. Alice’s eyes widen as I turn away, but I don’t see anger in them. I think she understands what I have to do.
That’s what I tell myself, at least.
A figure emerges out of the swirling smoke and I skid to a halt, my hands raised. But it isn’t one of the Governments, with their black helmets and goggles and guns. It’s Amos, his eyes red and puffy, one arm limp at his side, a pistol trembling in his good hand.
“Where’s Father John?” he asks, his voice hoarse and torn. “Have you seen him?”
I hear shots behind me but none of them find their target before I plunge into the smoke.
I shake my head and try to circle around him, but he grabs my arm and pulls me close.
“Where is he? Where is The Prophet?” he rasps.
“I don’t know!” I scream, because the tank has reached the yard and the gunfire is heavier than ever and the fire is leaping from building to building faster than I can follow.
I push Amos as hard as I can, and he stumbles backwards. He swings the pistol towards me but I’m already moving. I hear shots behind me but none of them find their target before I plunge into the smoke.
It’s instantly hard to breathe; I clamp one of my hands over my mouth and nose but the thick, bitter smoke slips between my fingers and I start to cough. I see my fallen Brothers and Sisters all around me as I run, dark shapes that I stagger left and right to avoid. A few are moving, dragging themselves across the ground or twitching and spasming like they’re having a fit, but most of them aren’t.
Most of them are still.
The west barracks appear in front of me, their walls and flat roofs wreathed in acrid smoke. The gunfire is constant behind me, and with so many bullets flying through the air it feels like a matter of time until the inevitable happens. But as long as I unlock the cabins before it does, I don’t care.
I really don’t.
I stumble out of the worst of the smoke and towards the nearest cabin, fumbling the skeleton key out of my pocket. I grab the padlock hanging from the door and there’s a sizzling sound and for the briefest of moments I don’t understand what has happened – until pain explodes through me and I wrench my hand away and most of my palm stays stuck to the metal lock. I fall to my knees, clutching my ruined left hand against my stomach, and a scream that doesn’t even sound human bursts out of my mouth.
It feels like someone has pushed my hand into a jar of acid and is holding it there, and as my brain tries to process the agony everything else fades away: the smell of the smoke, the heat of the fire, the noise of the guns. Grey creeps in from all sides, like the volume on my senses is being turned down. Then something shoves me from behind and everything comes hurtling back as I tumble to the ground.
One of the Governments is standing over me, its face hidden behind its mask, the gaping muzzle of its gun pointing between my eyes.
I drag myself up into a sitting position.
“Hands where I can see them!” It’s a man’s voice. “Show me your hands!”
They tremble as I hold them up above me. “Please,” I say, my voice a raw croak. “Children. There are children in these cabins. Please.”
“Shut up!” he yells. “Not another word!”
“Please,” I repeat. “In the cabins. You have to help them.”
The Government glances at the buildings. My head is spinning and my stomach is churning and I feel like I’m going to pass out from the pain screaming in my hand, but I force my eyes to stay open, force my reeling mind to focus on the dark figure above me.
“Padlocks,” I whisper, and hold out the skeleton key. “Please…”
My strength fails me. The Government looks at the cabin. Looks down at me. Looks at the cabin.
“Sh*t!” he shouts, then grabs the key out of my hand and spins towards the door. I watch him grip the padlock with his gloved hand and slide the key home, and I wonder for an awful moment whether this is all going to have been a waste of time, whether there are some locks that even a skeleton key can’t open. Then the cylinder turns, and the padlock springs loose. The Government hauls the door open and my coughing, spluttering Brothers and Sisters come flooding out, their eyes red and streaming with tears.
“Go to the Front Gate,” I manage to croak. “Stay together. Put your hands up…”
At the back of the crowd I see Honey and I feel something in my chest that momentarily overwhelms the pain in my hand. Her eyes are swollen and puffy and her skin is pale, but her mouth and jaw are set in familiar lines of determination and she’s breathing, if nothing else.
I wasn’t sure she would be.
She helps the last few crying, panicking children out of the cabin and leads them south, towards the Front Gate. The Government races to the next cabin, shouting into his radio for backup, and I feel something break loose inside me, a surge of relief so powerful it’s almost physical. It breathes new life into my exhausted muscles, and I drag myself up into a sitting position.
The children are making their way across the yard, their little hands raised in surrender, and then there’s a rush of movement as Governments come sprinting out of the smoke and scoop my Brothers and Sisters up and carry them out through the gaping holes in the fence. I can hear them crying and shrieking for their parents and my heart breaks for them but they’re alive, they’re still alive, and that’s all that matters, that’s the only thing that matters as the world burns down.
I hear a scream, loud and high-pitched enough to cut through the gunfire and the roar of the inferno, and I turn my head towards it. Near the blazing ruins of the Chapel, two of the Governments have caught hold of Luke and lifted him off the ground by his arms and legs. He’s thrashing in their grip, screaming and bellowing for them to put him down, to let him go with the others, to let him Ascend.
His voice, full of fury and fervour and desperate, frantic panic, is the last thing I hear before everything goes dark.