HEAVY CLOUD FILLED THE sky during the late afternoon and early evening. As darkness fell we were called into the main upstairs function room and weapons were handed out. I was given a gun, a few rounds of ammo, and several grenades, but I don't think I'll use them. More to the point, I don't know how to use them, even though Julia and one of the others tried to show us. I'll stick to my blades.
Since this war began I've fought alongside hundreds of men and women, maybe even thousands. Who they were and what they were capable of didn't seem to matter until now. But, standing in the bizarre surroundings of the run-down social club, I looked at the ten other fighters heading into town with me and tried to imagine how each of them would fight and kill. The two women-Julia and Sophie-seemed totally unfazed, ready to face anything. Most of the others were similarly focused. Only Parsons and a guy called Harvey seemed as nervous and agitated as I felt. Harvey is a huge, lumbering bulk of a man. He wears glasses with ridiculously thick lenses, and he suffers from acute asthma. He sounds like Darth Vader, and he has appalling halitosis. You can smell him and hear him long before you see him coming. Poor bastard. He comes across as being a bit backward, and I wonder how much of what's happening he truly understands. Still, he must have something between his ears if they reckon he'll be able to keep control of himself in the city surrounded by Unchanged. I'm not convinced.
We left the social club before 3:00 a.m., splitting into four pairs and one group of three, staggering our departures and each of us taking a different, prearranged route to the rendezvous point in town. I'm with Craven, the computer guy, and he reckons we've been walking for almost an hour. We follow the towpath alongside a canal that cuts through what used to be a busy residential area. This place used to be a vibrant, noisy suburb of the city. The nearby university caused the local population to swell during the school year, and the narrow streets were full of cheap shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, and pubs. Everywhere is silent now. The only resident I can see is floating facedown in the murky canal.
The towpath has taken us almost all the way into the very center of the city. We reach a steep flight of steps that lead back up to the street. As we climb them, our closeness to the heart of town becomes apparent. We emerge among lifeless crowds of terrified Unchanged who don't even look at us when we pass them. I expected this to be infinitely harder but I'm somehow able now to swallow down my emotions, hold the Hate and not start killing because I know they'll be dead before long anyway. Seeing Sahota's plan realized will result in many more deaths than I could ever cause by myself. If everything happens as predicted, the city will have fallen by this time tomorrow. Maybe I can bear to be with them because, for the first time in as long as I can remember, the Unchanged are not my only focus. I have another agenda. Since we left the social club all I've been able to think about is getting deeper into town, giving Craven the slip, and heading for the Prince Hotel. I'll search for Lizzie, and then, when I've made her tell me where she last saw Ellis, I'll use the chaos as cover and try to get away.
"Down here," Craven says, changing direction and leading me along a tight passageway filled with people. I look into their vacant faces, and I feel nothing but contempt for them. They remind me of what I used to be before the Hate-beaten, wretched, resigned. They cower in the shadows, waiting for a salvation that is never going to come. The Hate has stripped away their identities and their purpose. They are empty, just waiting for death to come along and end their misery. Standing here, ankle deep in this scum, there's apart of me that wants to stay and see Sahota's plan fully realized. I want to watch these people burn.
The road we're now following runs along the edge of a military enclosure. Everything looks so different tonight, but I'm sure this used to be a council depot. Tall railings surround the place, and there's a massive concentration of soldiers at the gates. The enclosure is comparatively well lit, thumping gas-driven generators powering floodlights. The number of refugees under our feet here is greater, too, attracted like moths to the light and noise. Craven and I weave through the milling masses with our heads held high, without a fucking care, and no one even gives us a second glance.
"I can see why Sahota picked this spot," I say quietly as we begin a slow descent down the packed, sloping main street that leads to the town hall. Even now it's still an impressive focal point of a building, a huge, mock-Grecian hall complete with ornate carvings and rows of massive white stone columns. The civic square around it is seething with people, most of them camped out on the cold, hard ground, wrapped up in coats and blankets, their misery illuminated by more well-spaced lights. There are signs that there used to be something like a soup kitchen operating from here-abandoned tables, empty gas cylinders and tins of food, plastic plates and cutlery blowing in the suddenly vicious wind.
"It's perfect," Craven agrees. "There are thousands of them here, and they're all at breaking point. They probably came here looking for food and shelter and got neither, so they just dropped where they were standing and gave up. They'll riot in a heartbeat once we start on them."
I look around as we pick our way through the sprawled masses. He's right. There's an unspoken tension in the air here, much more fractious and intense than any I've felt before. There's an uncomfortable standoff between civilians and the military, too. I don't know which side is more wary of the other. Maybe that's the real reason why the soldiers are here in such numbers?
We move past a large stone statue, and seeing its distinctive dark outline strikes a sudden chord. For a second I remember this place as it used to be. On the rare occasions I'd get a proper lunch break from work, I'd sometimes walk here to get away from the office and everyone in it. Once or twice I met Lizzie here before the kids were born.
"There's Sophie," Craven says, nudging me in the ribs with his elbow and nodding over to where she's standing on the opposite side of the square. "Go find yourself a spot."
We separate as planned. Each of us will disappear into the crowd until the time to attack comes. It'll look less suspicious if we're all spread out, not that it matters; when the fighting starts no one will care who threw the first punch or fired the first shot. I find a narrow gap midway along a low wall, between two sleeping refugees, where I stop and wait. There's a still-functioning clock on the side of the town hall, just visible from where I'm standing. It's approaching four. Just over two hours to go. The Prince Hotel is no farther than a mile from here. I'll wait for a little while before I make my move. If I go off too fast there's a chance I'll be seen and followed.
Trying not to make it too obvious, I look around for the others. Craven and Sophie I've already seen. I see Parsons way over to my right and another man whose name I don't know sitting perched on the plinth of the statue in the center of the square. Harvey is leaning up against the same wall as me, a little farther along. His size makes him easy to pick out in the crowd.
There's Julia, too, sitting right in front of me, just a handful of people between us. I catch her eye and, stupidly, almost acknowledge her. She has a dirty blanket draped over her head, all but the top half of her face hidden. Bitch is staring straight at me, watching my every move.
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