THESE PEOPLE ARE SURPRISINGLY well coordinated. There are seventeen of us here now including me and Adam, another group having just arrived on foot through the trees to the east of the cull site. I've stumbled into the middle of a preplanned rendezvous, and I'm going to take advantage of it while it lasts. They won't be here long. Sticking together in large numbers is dangerous. It leaves us exposed.
They work quickly, hiding their vehicles in the shadows of the building and stripping the site of weapons and anything else of value. Guards patrol the perimeter constantly; others watch from the roof. The two most aggressive fighters are positioned one at either end of the building. As I walk toward the chemical storeroom with a short, stocky man, I notice that the fighter out back is shackled. She has a heavy-duty chain padlocked around her waist that's anchored to a metal stake driven deep into the ground.
"What's all that about?" I ask quietly, not wanting her to hear. He takes off his glasses and cleans the one remaining lens on the bottom corner of his shirt.
"You've not come across Brutes before?"
"That's what we call them."
"Them? You make it sound like they're different from us."
"Not really," he sighs, like it's an effort having to explain. "They're the same as us, but extreme."
"Are you the guy who was hiding here?"
"I wasn't hiding, I just-"
"Why didn't you attack?"
"When those thieving bastards first turned up this morning, why didn't you attack them?"
"Because I didn't know how many of them there were. I didn't know what weapons they had and-"
"Exactly," he interrupts, replacing his glasses. "You knew there was a good chance you'd have been killed if you'd tried anything."
"It wasn't worth the risk."
"Don't blame you," he says, leaning up against the side of the chemical storeroom and shielding his eyes from the climbing sun. "I'd probably have done the same."
"So what's your point?"
"The point is a Brute wouldn't have held back. They can't. They catch a scent of Unchanged and they'll hunt them down and attack, no matter what the odds are."
"Useful, though. They make good guard dogs! Always on the lookout. Just look at her."
He nods over in the direction of the woman tied up at the back of the killing chamber. She's almost constantly straining against her shackles, trying to break free and go after the enemy she knows is still out there somewhere. I'm transfixed by her face, flushed red and full of rage, and yet, in a different light, she doesn't look like a killer at all. When she relaxes, her features are surprisingly soft, gentle, and feminine.
"She could just be someone's mother."
"She was. Her name's Pat. She had someone with her when we first found her, someone who knew her before the change. She was a teacher in an elementary school. Hard to believe, isn't it? A well-respected pillar of society, cornerstone of the community, great with kids, wouldn't hurt anyone... you get the picture."
"My brother was a Brute," he continues. "From sheet metal worker to a killer like that overnight."
"What happened to him?"
"We lost him."
"Oh, he's not dead, I don't think. When I say we lost him, I mean we lost him. Clever bastard slipped his chains and got away. Christ knows where he is now. Don't suppose it matters as long as he's still killing. Your friend in here, is he?"
He slaps the wall of the chemical storeroom.
"What?" I mumble, still thinking about this guy's missing brother and forgetting what we came out here for. "Yeah, sorry. He's in the back."
By the time we clear the doorway and are ready to move him out, Adam's just about regained consciousness. He's still in a bad way-pale, clammy, and barely able to move. We fashion a stretcher from wood stripped from the walls of the main building, and between us we carry him back to the others.
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