Chapter Thirty-One

I'M SCAVENGING DOWNSTAIRS FOR food, hunting through deserted kitchens and bars that have already been ransacked countless times before, hoping to find an overlooked stash of supplies to supplement the crappy rations I've had since I got here. At the back of a counter, tucked away behind a lifeless cash register, I find three small packets of peanuts. I swallow the contents of the first in a single mouthful, then do the same with the second. I shove the third into my trouser pocket for later. There's precious little time to think about food these days, but when I do get to eat I realize just how much I've missed it. Maybe one day I'll get to eat a proper meal again, if I survive the next couple of days, that is.

There's a half-open door behind the bar I hadn't noticed before. I lean inside.

"Who the hell's that?"

I back out of the low-lit storeroom quickly, startled by the voice from the darkness. The door lets some light in, and I can see someone in the corner, sitting wedged between two piles of empty boxes.

"Sorry, I..."

The man looks up and shakes his head. I recognize him from last night. His name's Parsons.

"Doesn't matter, my friend."

I've only been awake for a couple of hours, but already the drawn-out tedium of waiting to fight is getting to me. The idea of a conversation-any distraction-is appealing.

"What are you doing in here?"

"Keeping out of the way."

"Why? You pissed Julia off or something?"

"Show me someone who hasn't."

I know what he means. Being around Julia reminds me of working for Tina Murray, my sour old bitch of a supervisor back at the PFP. Wonder what happened to her...?

Parsons gestures for me to come closer. I do as he says, then slide down the wall and sit next to him. It's stiflingly hot in the social club this morning now that the sun's up, but the dark storeroom is refreshingly cool.

"So are you ready for this?" I ask. "Ready to go out there and start fighting?"

"'Course I am," he answers, almost too quickly. "Can't wait to start killing again. Can't wait to see them panic when we get given the word."

There's an awkward silence.

"You don't sound convinced."

The silence continues as he thinks about what I just said.

"I'm not. I mean, don't get me wrong, I know what's got to be done and I know this is probably the only way to make it happen. It's just that..."

"You don't want to die?"

"Exactly."

"Me neither," I admit. "Who does?"

"No one in their right mind. They're all talking about this battle like it's a holy war or something, and it's doing my head in. I don't want to be stuck in the middle of the city when they level the place like they did London."

"But it's got to be done. You can't deny that."

"I know... I'm just nervous, you know?" he admits, keeping his voice low. "I can't stand all this hanging around. You know what it's like when you know you've got to fight, you just want to get on and do it."

He's right. It's a relief to find someone else who's willing to speak candidly about how they're feeling. Most everyone else is too busy spouting propaganda and bullshit bravado to dare admit that they're apprehensive about what's coming. They talk like I imagine Brutes think-focused on the kill at all costs.

"You been here long?" I ask.

"Got here about half a day before you."

"And were you at that convent place with Sahota?"

He nods his head.

"We've all been through that. Quite the eye-opener, eh?"

Parsons stares into space, thinking hard. I sense there's more he wants to say, but he's not sure whether he can speak. Perhaps hethinks I'm testing his dedication to the cause? I study his tired face. He looks about ten years older than me, and I wonder what it is we have in common that made us both suitable fodder for Sahota's organization.

"So did you believe any of it?"

"What?"

"All that stuff the Unchanged were spouting at Sahota's place? Breaking the cycle and all that crap?"

I don't answer immediately. Can I trust this man? Now I'm wondering if he's the one testing my allegiance.

"Some of it," I answer, being deliberately vague. "What about you?"

"I agree with most of it up to a point. What Sahota said scared me more, though. I get the feeling they're just using us as-" He stops suddenly.

"Problem?"

"Listen..."

I quickly get up and go back out into the bar. Someone's banging on the outside of the fire exit I entered through yesterday. Apart from me and Parsons there's no one else down here, and I realize it's up to me to confront whoever's out there. I move quickly across the room, grabbing a broken pool cue to use as a weapon, then stand by the door and wait. The hammering continues. The door's solid-no way of knowing who it is without opening it up.

"Do it," Parsons hisses from across the room. Cowardly fucker, why don't you come over here and open it? Rather than argue, I take a deep breath, tighten my grip on my pool cue bludgeon, then open the door. There's a teenaged girl standing in front of me, looking as tense and unsure as I did when I first arrived here. She only looks about fifteen. She's one of us.

"I'm looking for Julia Chapman," she says, her voice surprisingly confident and strong.

"Who is?" I ask, remembering back to my first encounter here.

"My name's Sophie Wilson," she answers, handling the situation far better than I did, "and I've got a message for her from Sahota."

I let her in, quickly glancing around the back of the building to make sure she hasn't been followed before shutting and barring the fire exit.

I lead her through the eerily quiet building, Parsons following us at a cautious distance. I take her upstairs to where I last left Julia talking to Craven, but she's not there. He points up at the ceiling. I double back and head up to the roof, covering my eyes at the sudden brightness. The sun is huge in the clear sky high above us. Julia's sitting on one of the deckchairs under the tarpaulin, looking into the city through a pair of binoculars. She lowers them when she hears us approach.

"This is-" I start to say.

"You Julia?" Sophie asks. Julia nods. "Got a message for you from Sahota. He said to tell you that I'm the last one."

"What else?"

"He said: Town hall, south side. Six a.m. Five others."

Julia looks at her for a second, absorbing what she's been told. Then she nods her head.

"Thanks. Get some rest while you can. There might still be some food left downstairs. Ask one of the others and they'll show you."

Sophie heads back down without question, leaving me with Julia. Parsons hovers behind us nervously.

"What did her message mean?" I ask, feeling like I'm the only one who's not in the know.

"It means there's as many of us here as there's ever gonna be. It means it's time."

I look straight ahead, determined not to let her see how nervous I'm suddenly feeling.

"South side?"

"South side of the town hall is where he wants us to base ourselves," she answers, looking through the binoculars again. "It's where I thought he'd want us to be, close enough to the military to cause them problems, far enough out not to be suspicious."

"And five others? What was that all about?"

"Five other groups like ours. That's not so good. We were hoping for double that. Should still be enough, though."

"And where will they be?"

"Don't know, and I don't care. All I know and all you need to know is that we'll go where we're told to and cause fucking chaos when the time's right. Between six groups of us, their military won't know which way to turn. The panic will spread fast, and before you know it the whole city will be fighting. And if we do it right, before long there won't be a city left."

"There won't be anything left," Parsons mumbles under his breath.

I sit down on the edge of the roof and stare into the distance. The Unchanged camp looks like a massive, dirty black machine from here. Clouds of gray smoke billow up from between buildings like belching exhaust fumes. Helicopters buzz through the air like flies around a corpse. There's no point denying it, being this close to the enemy makes me want to march in there and start killing. Or it would if I didn't feel the odds were stacked against us. It's probably just me. Perhaps I'm at fault? Maybe I should have more faith? But like I keep telling myself, I don't want to die.

"Just imagine it," Julia says wistfully, looking deep into the distance. "Imagine when we start to fight and they start to run, when they panic and try to get away from us, then run straight into the next battle. Christ, it'll be beautiful. It won't take much, you know; just the minimum of coordination from us will be enough to start it off, and they'll do the rest themselves. It'll be a chain reaction. We'll be able to sit back and watch them killing each other."

I know I should keep my mouth shut, but I can't.

"Except we won't, will we?"

"Won't what?"

"Once we're in there, there's no way back out."

"Doesn't matter. All that's important is wiping out the enemy."

"But at what cost?"

"We can't coexist, end of story. The cost is irrelevant."

I'm making things worse for myself, but I can't help it.

"What good is winning if you're dead? What did they used to call that, a Pyrrhic victory?"

"A what?" Parsons asks.

"A Pyrrhic victory," Julia sighs. "It's when you win the battle, but the end result leaves you fucked, too."

"Great," he grunts.

"You're wrong," she says to me, putting down the binoculars and standing up, "and you need to stop talking like that."

"How am I wrong? Once we're in the city, there's very little chance of any of us getting out alive, is there?"

"It's a sacrifice we have to make."

"And where will your pal Sahota be when all of this is going on? Watching from his office? When we're gone, who's left? Just kids and Brutes?"

She shakes her head. "You come up with an alternative and I'll listen. Do you want the Unchanged to survive?"

"Of course not, but-"

"But what?"

"But there's got to be a better way."

"If there was, don't you think someone like Sahota would have come up with it by now? If there was any alternative, don't you think we'd have tried it? None of us wants to die."

"My point exactly."

"But if your death results in the death of hundreds of the enemy, thousands even, then it has to be worth it."

I don't bother to respond. She's bought into this completely, like a brainwashed old-school terrorist about to embark on a jihad. Even if my death were to result in tens of thousands of Unchanged being killed, I still don't want it to happen. And what about Ellis? I'd rather fight steadily and have this war drag on for years than sacrifice myself today. I can't stand the thought of not seeing her again.

Julia's not going to let this go.

"You need to focus on what's coming," she says, a sneering, threatening tone in her voice. "Craven said you were looking up information about your family earlier. Forget them, whoever and whatever they were. Your only allegiance now is to us. Nothing else matters apart from what we do when we get back into the city."

She stares into my face, then walks away, stopping before she disappears down the stepladder.

"If you screw up when we're in there," she warns, "then so help me, I'll kill you myself. This is too important for an idiot like you to fuck up."

I watch her go, shaking my head in disbelief. Parsons quietly takes her place in the now empty deckchair. I forgot he was here.

"Thanks for the support."

"I'm with you, pal," he says, shielding his eyes from the sun, "but I've got enough sense to keep my mouth shut."

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