The grey mud was gooey beneath Maximilian Roher's feet as he sprinted down the beach. Behind him there were shouted voices from within the forest and gunshots rattled through the air, silvery bullets glistening in the sun glowing behind the mass of clouds gathered above. To be honest Max didn't really know what he was doing there, down on the endless beach as his legs carried him onwards while his mind was screaming at him to stop.
Two had died already. Amanda had been shot twice, in the back, as they had just escaped the food warehouses and had died before they'd got her back to the van. Max could still remember her bright blue eyes fading as the blood spilled across the van's bonnet. Ethiel had been shot barely five minutes ago; a stray shot from a Guardsman firing randomly down at the beach. Max, as well as every member of the team running alongside and around him, were increasingly aware that they could be hit at any moment.
Max struggled up to the top of a muddy hill, scrabbling with his hands and feet. The mud was freezing cold and littered with stray crystals of ice that sparkled like diamonds. Underneath the surface layer the mud was frozen hard and provided a strong grip, but as Max pulled his hands out of the mass of sludge they were raw and blistered from the cold. It was the coldest autumn he had known throughout his fourteen year life and he was secretly dreading the winter.
Max reached the top of the ridge as another hail of bullets rained down upon them. Max took a moment to glance back over his shoulder at the gaunt trees painted with frost lying behind him and the lean shapes wrapped in warm trench coats of the Guardsmen darting from tree to tree, long rifles in hand.
"We're at the Fence!" someone shouted. Max didn't know who but still ran towards it, almost sliding down the other side of the hill. The Fence was not like any of the stories he had been told; instead of being a hundred metres high with thick, steel bars and watchtowers every mile it was just a small, wiry fence. It was about four metres high and made up of barbed wire frozen in the frost. One member of their party, a man in his twenties named Francis, was busy cutting it away with a knife. The rain of bullets had stopped now; the Guardsmen had no chance of shooting over the ridge, but now they would be advancing onto the beach.
"Come on!" Francis ordered, holding up the wire to make the tiny hole he'd cut seem bigger. Max struggled through, the wire scraping his flesh and tearing his relatively thin winter clothes, but after almost a minute of agonising struggle he was through, onto the beach.
He had really joined the looting party to prove them wrong. He didn't need to gain respect; he'd done that weeks before and had proven himself a man in their eyes. He had joined the party to prove that Tyler Keane and Glen McKartney were indeed wrong about the beach. He had sat before them alongside his friends, both as children and as adults, to hear them tell tales about the Fence and the endless grey sea that lay beyond it. They said that the beach was bare and desolate, merely a lump of grey-brown sand and sharp stones barricading the land from the thick, grey sea that went on forever. They had sat before the campfire in the 'Torial camp, the firelight glistening in their eyes, but he had never truly believed them. They were just stories; they could possibly be true. He stood, awestruck, as he gazed out across the beach, and realised that they were right.
The beach was just a mass of muddy sand of a deep greyish colour but with hints of deep, sandstone brown. Along the edge of the shore were the skeletons of wooden boats, pitiful carcasses of humble rowing boats lined with faded plastic seats and littered with oars snapped in two, once-tall yachts with their masts ripped off and flung into the mud and their sails torn and ripped alongside mighty canal boats and even the corpse of an ancient steam liner lay further up the beach. In some Max thought he could glimpse ashes or even decaying bones sticking out of the sides as a warning to all who pass the Fence.
The sea itself was grey and dreary, froth-tipped waves sliding up the beach and swamping Max's feet before retreating back to the ocean. There was nothing beyond the sea save for a few pillars of rock standing in stark contrast to the pale horizon. Max thought he could glimpse Guard Island, a mountain of hard rock half-submerged by water and providing a resting place for the immense Guard Complex, a mass of towers and cramped dormitories within which the Guardsmen spent their lives after tours of duty on the island. Max pitied them but hated them too for all the precious lives they had taken from him.
"Guardsmen! Guardsmen on the beach!"
It was Alexander, a gruff, half-Scottish half-Irish giant of a man in his late fifties. His voice was queer; it seemed to have no distinct accent at all but instead kept switching between the two he knew. Of course, there was no Scotland now and no Ireland, but Alexander made it seem like they were still proud, strong nations.
Max hadn't realised that he'd strode all the way down to the water's edge. He heeded Alexander's call and turned to face him. Alexander was alongside Francis and both were rattling off shots with bulking automatic rifles. Bess, a fat old woman with barely any hair on her pinkish scalp, nudged Max and handed him a smaller gun, an M-11. Max needed no tutorial; he'd used the same weapon many times before, both in the practise yard of the 'Torial encampment and in real combat situations against real Guardsmen. Max hadn't killed anyone yet, but he was sure he would if needed.
"Get off the beach! Get back to the Fence!" Francis was calling earnestly. Max struggled up the beach, his boots trailing in the mud. After it became impossible for him to go any further in them he wrenched them off and flung them into the sea, nursing his bruised red feet for a mere second until he began to run up to the Fence.
By the time he had reached the Fence Max's feet were sore, cold and bleeding slightly from the mass of sharp stones and viciously pointed shells hiding beneath the mud's surface. He quickly forced himself through the hole in the Fence and ran after a shouted command from Alexander.
"Get back to the van! Get back to the van!" Alexander hollered, his booming voice audible even over the rattling of his own M-25. "I've got y'all covered! Go!"
Max struggled back over the ridge and joined the two at the top of it. The Guardsmen were a few hundred metres along the Fence and were sprinting towards them along and by the muddy ridge, leaving the open ground between them and the forest clear. Max rattled off a couple of shots as he saw a movement in the bushes growing thickly down one side of the ridge, waited for the right moment and leapt like a panther into the air. He sprinted down the ridge, shooting to the sides in no particular direction and reached the forest before he'd even known he'd done it.
"Come on, get in," someone yelled at him, opening the door of the van wide and holding out a hand. Max grabbed it and pulled himself in before the door slammed shut.
"How many more?" another man, named Frederik asked. He was small and mousy, with glasses perched on the edge of his nose and a wispy curl of white crowning his forehead.
Max thought for a moment. "There's Alexander and Francis down there," he replied at last. "And Bess. I don't know if anyone else's still down there."
As if to mark his words the two figures of Alexander and Francis appeared over the top of the ride and sprinted down to the forest floor. There was no sign of Bess.
Frederik put his foot down on the accelerator and the van burst into life. The noise was annoyingly loud and had caught the attention of several Guardsmen through the forest. Max ducked as a hail of prickly bullets reduced the windshield to minute fragments. When the firing had paused he pointed his own gun out and fired randomly into the darkness between the trees. The bullets splintered wood and sliced through the air with a faint whistling sound, but none got their mark. Already the Guardsmen were advancing, darting strategically from tree to tree. The first man, Jeff, was firing off bullets whenever he saw something move and eventually he heard a grunt of pain in the darkness.
Finally Alexander and Francis arrived, panting painfully from the long run and the endless shooting. Jeff pulled them into the van and they drove off without a second thought along the winding path through the forest.
"Wait!" Francis ordered, looking back out of the shattered windows. "We can't leave Bess!"
Frederik was stubborn. "We were almost killed out there. We can't go back now. I'm sorry," he added, looking into Francis' enraged eyes. "We have no choice."
Eventually the noise of gunfire subsided into the distance and Max finally permitted himself to breathe a sigh of relief. It had been a close shave, but they had accomplished their mission and he had discovered the truth. The truth that there was nothing outside the island, merely a dead beach and a space of grey-blue sea twinkling in the sunlight occupied only by them and Guard Island. It was a depressing thought and Max was decidedly morose as they left the Guardsmen behind and skidded along down the frosty half-track between the lean tree trunks all around them.
It was growing dark when the van slid to a stop down the path. The engine died softly, the roaring sound disappearing as the wheels stopped turning and finally halted.
"What is it?" Max asked as Frederik disembarked to inspect the petrol tank. He came back seconds later, torch in hand.
"They shot the petrol tank," he explained. "We've got barely enough to make the next mile." His face was sullen. He beckoned for Max to come out to join him.
The night air was cool and bracing for Max, especially for his bare feet dragging themselves through the crisp, frosty leaves that crackled as he strode over them. Frederik held his torch steady, the thin beam of pale light shining on the fuel tank and Max leant in to survey the damage.
They had hit the tank three times. THe first two had seemed to bounce off, leaving only a small dent in the flawless metal but the third had hit at an angle. A white scrape glinted in the torchlight while a trickle of black petrol slithered lazily out of the angular hole punched into the tank and hit the frozen ground with an ominous drip.
Max nodded slowly. He knew a punctured fuel tank when he saw one. "It's gone. The faster we go, the more the petrol is going to leak."
"Can't we put in any more?" Alexander demanded, leaning out of the van. "We've got plenty extra in the back; we looted it from a truck we saw goin' along b'fore we got to the ware'ouses."
Max shook his head. "Any more pressure and it will collapse. Then we'll have lost the petrol and any chance of driving this thing back to camp." He patted the side of the van gently and there was a silence, marked only by the constant dripping of the petrol, as Max thought.
Finally Max broke the silence. "We'll need something to support this and to cover up the hole. Fred, do you think you could get some strong fabric and tie the ends to the underside of the van? We can use that as a cradle for the tank, to make sure it doesn't cave in. And find something to cover up that hole; something that won't let the oil through. Then fill it up, and we can go!"
Alexander was nodding, but Francis shook his head. "It's getting dark. We'll wait until the morning. Frederik, can you fix it now?" The old man nodded and opened the back of the van, shining his torch inside. Alexander and Jeff moved to help him.
Francis took Max to the side. He was quite a tall man, yet Max was already the same height as him. "You did well, Max," he grinned a him in the darkness. "I knew you gained so much respect for a reason. I'm grateful you're here with us." Max smiled back, glowing with pride. Francis was one of the 'Torial's most respected active members, a part-time advisor to the Council of Ten and a redeemed Guardsman who had been betrayed by them and had helped the 'Torials out on many daring raids. To be praised by him was just... exhilarating.
"Now," Francis added, striding back to the van. "Get the tents out of the back and set up camp." Max obeyed, and as he lay back later than night, looking up at the patches of bright stars between the stark grey trees there was a smile of pride on his face and a warm glow inside.