MY NAME'S PRESTON," A disarmingly confident, oily man says, grabbing my hand and shaking it vigorously. I already know I don't like him. He's too loud and in-your-face. He reminds me of the senior managers I used to despise at work; the higher up the corporate ladder they managed to climb, the more arrogant, obnoxious, and smarmy they became. He's wearing a bizarre combination of military garb and civvies. His clothes make him look like someone's dad going to a costume party as a World War II general.
"Good to meet you, Danny. You had some food?"
"Excellent. Have you been introduced to anyone?"
"I've met a few people. I don't know if-"
"Great," he says, interrupting me again. Irritating little shit. Apparently he's the self-appointed leader of this cell and I've been granted a personal audience (as, I've learned, are all new "recruits"). We're sitting in the back of a beaten-up van, just him and me. The heat is suffocating. He's propped the doors open.
"Look, I-" I start to say.
"So what have you been up to, Danny?" he asks, his hat trick of interruptions complete.
"Since the war started. What have you been doing with yourself?"
Is this a trick question? What does he think I've been doing? I've fought whenever I've been able, done all I can to get rid of the maximum number of Unchanged. Does this guy think I'm just some lazy shyster, hiding out here in the middle of nowhere, waiting for the war to end?
"Good. On your own?"
"Generally traveling on my own, fighting with others whenever I've had the chance. Look, what's all this about?"
"You killed many?"
Now he's beginning to annoy me. Idiot. I've a good mind just to leave. His questions make me feel uneasy, inadequate almost. I don't think I could have fought any harder, but how does that stack up against everyone else? For the first time it occurs to me that I don't know how "good" a fighter I actually am. Is my tally of victims higher or lower than average? Does it matter? As long as we're all killing, does anyone care how quickly, enthusiastically, or effectively we do it? I suddenly feel like I'm in one of those pointless personal progress review meetings I used to have at work. Have I hit my agreed Unchanged corpse target for this month?
"Plenty," I answer, "but I haven't been keeping count."
"Too many to keep track of, eh?" He grins. Patronizing bastard.
"Something like that."
"Have you noticed their numbers are dropping off? That there's fewer of them around to kill?"
"And do you know why that is?"
I shrug my shoulders. "Could be any one of a number of reasons," I reply, suddenly feeling like a little kid put on the spot in class. I'm being deliberately vague, not wanting to give this joker an opportunity to make me look stupid, playing cat-and-mouse games with the truth like I used to with my supervisor and managers back at the council. "I know it's not because we've killed them all."
"If only that was the case. The real reason is that they're continuing to concentrate themselves together, completely pulling out of areas like this. Tell me, have you heard of Chris Ankin?"
I stop and think. The name sounds familiar. Then I remember, Chris Ankin was the politician who recorded the message I heard when the war first began. After I got away from the slaughterhouse that night, his was the voice that finally explained what was happening to me and why. I kept a copy of that message on a phone I found and replayed it again and again until the battery died and I threw it away.
"I know him. I thought he was dead."
"He wasn't last time I saw him."
"And when was that?"
"About ten days ago. Have you been following his messages?"
"Haven't heard anything for weeks."
Preston turns around and searches behind him. He pulls out a laptop from under one of the front seats and turns it on. I watch as it boots up, staring at the start-up screen graphics and messages as if I were watching a Hollywood blockbuster. It makes me feel unexpectedly nostalgic and empty, remembering things I haven't seen or thought about since my old life ended. After several minutes the machine is ready. With the speed of a computerphobic two-fingered typist, he logs on and opens a video file. At the bottom of the screen a number of small icons and speech bubbles appear, then disappear, as programs try pointlessly to search for updates via networks that no longer exist. A haggard and tired-looking, pixelated face (Chris Ankin, I presume) appears in a small window, which, after much cursing, Preston manages to enlarge to fill the screen. By the time he passes the laptop over to me, the politician's already in full flow. His voice is distorted by the tinny speakers but is still recognizable and strangely reassuring.
"When your enemy's tactics change, you have to reassess your own tactics, too," he explains. "From the earliest days of this war, fate and circumstance have combined to make us underdogs. We are, however, underdogs in numbers only."
I glance across at Preston, but he doesn't look back. His eyes are glued to the screen. Even though he's probably heard this a hundred times already, he's still hanging on Ankin's every word.
"Since day one, our enemies have been retreating. The way we've fought this war put them on the back foot from the beginning, and it's a position from which they've struggled to recover. The fact that our two opposing sides were so closely intertwined before we realized we were two opposing sides has made it all but impossible for them to isolate themselves and defend against us. We're practically invisible to them, and that has strengthened our hand dramatically. But now, now that we're months into this campaign, the position is beginning to change.
"With every day that passes, our people have become more and more diffuse. We each move from fight to fight, from battle to battle, going wherever we're needed. As a result our numbers are increasingly spread out, and the enemy has taken advantage of this."
"What's he talking about?"
Preston glares at me. "Just shut up and listen."
"They've pulled back into the hearts of their remaining cities, pulling their people closer together and drawing them in from the outside. There's strength in numbers, and we need to do something similar. We need to stop fighting as individuals and form a coordinated attack force, an army if you will."
"But they'll hunt us out. If we start grouping together in large numbers, they'll find us and-"
Preston sighs and pauses the video. He rubs his eyes and shakes his head.
"This is so much bigger than you and me, Danny," he says. "We're just cogs in a machine, and we're expendable. Ankin's not talking about setting up a military force with sergeants and captains and the like. He's just trying to get us to work together and coordinate our efforts."
"I understand that, but-"
"We have to start making better use of the people and resources we've got, and start hitting the enemy where it hurts. If we can do enough damage to start them off, they'll destroy themselves. You heard about London, didn't you?"
"No. I haven't heard anything for weeks."
"It happened incredibly quickly. We lost thousands that night but they lost many, many more."
"How? What happened?"
He seems surprised that I don't know.
"The mother of all battles," he explains. "We came at them from all angles, caused so much panic and confusion that they lost control. In the end the only option left for them was to destroy it completely."
"And we can make the same thing happen again and again if we learn to fight smarter. We don't have any choice. Our only alternative is to wait out here in the wastelands until they decide to come out into the open again and hunt us down, but by then it'll be too late. We have to act now."
"So what do you want from me?"
He looks straight at me and puts down the laptop, giving up on the video. This feels ominous. He's going to ask me to sign up and join his happy brigade of killers, I know he is. Thing is, apart from Adam, I've spent weeks fighting alone. Do I really want to go back to being one face in hundreds again? I've never been any good at taking orders.
"We want you to fight with us," he says, unsurprisingly. I bite my tongue. "The more of us there are, the better our chances will be. Tell me about yourself, Danny. What your skills are, where you're heading..."
"Don't know where to start."
For a moment I truly am flummoxed. No aspect of my former life has any bearing on me today, and as far as skills are concerned, what does he expect me to tell him? That I've got a Certificate in Dismemberment? A PhD in Asphyxiation Techniques? The sudden protracted silence is uncomfortable.
"Well, what did you do before all of this?"
"I worked in an office."
"Okay, what line of business?"
"Processing parking fines."
Preston pauses to try to get his head around the banality of my prewar existence.
"Not much call for that these days," he sighs without a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "Any special skills? Military or police experience?"
I feel suddenly inadequate. What we do is instinctive, not taught. My answer is automatic and stupid.
"I was in the Scouts for a while."
"Don't screw around," he warns. "I'm serious."
"So now you're just drifting without a purpose? Spending your time hiding behind the corpses of our people?"
"I wasn't hiding," I snap quickly, annoyed by his tone. "We were just passing through."
"That's what they all say."
Truth is, I have been as directionless as he's implying-but now I've got a reason to keep moving.
"Actually," I announce, "I'm heading home."
"Home? Why the hell would you want to do that? What possible reason could you have for wanting any connection with your past life?"
"I want to find my daughter."
He looks up, his interest suddenly piqued.
What do I tell him now? Have I made a mistake admitting I want to look for Ellis? Does he think I'm less of a man because of it? A weaker fighter? That I'm in league with the enemy even? Do I even know why I want to find Ellis? What am I hoping to achieve? Life with her could never be like it used to be again, so why am I bothering? As much as the thought of who and what I used to be now disgusts me, I wonder if that's the real reason I want to be with her again. Maybe I'm just trying to bridge the gap between today and all that happened in the years before now. This uncomfortable silence seems to last forever. I open and close my mouth to speak, but no words come out. Then Preston speaks for me.
"She's like us, isn't she?"