Chapter Twelve

KEITH STOPS THE VAN behind a row of overflowing garbage cans, almost directly beneath the high-rise apartments. We each grab our individual bags of weapons and supplies and head for the shelter of the building. The front doors are missing, and the entrance foyer is as trashed as everywhere else. Like an idiot I instinctively press the button to call the elevator. Old habits die hard.

"Don't think that's going to do anything, my friend," Paul whispers sarcastically. I push past him and follow Carol, who's already heading up the stairs, the glowing orange tip of another cigarette illuminating her route through the darkness. There's a woman's badly decomposed body at the very bottom of the first flight of steps, her neck snapped and her decayed face wedged against the wall. She was like us, and that immediately puts me on edge. I step over the corpse and start to climb, wondering pointlessly if she fell or if she was pushed.

For a few minutes we do nothing but climb, our footsteps echoing up and down along the entire length of this dark and otherwise silent stairwell. We move quickly, most of us climbing two steps at a time. It's hard work, but the pain is easy to ignore. It's a perverse reality of my situation: I eat scraps, survive out in the open, and live from day to day, but I'm in better shape than I've ever been. The others are the same. Carol races ahead like a woman half her age. I feel strong and powerful, my body lean, toned, and efficient. Makes me wonder how, when everything was available to me on a plate and all I had to worry about was my family and my piss-easy job, did I manage to fuck everything up so badly? The memory of who and what I used to be is embarrassing. I wish this had happened to me years ago.

"How far?" Carol shouts down from several flights up.

"Just keep going," I answer. We're more than halfway up now. The higher we go, I think, the safer we'll be.

"Wait," Keith yells. I stop climbing and turn back. He's still a floor below me. "Look at this."

"Look at what?" Paul grunts breathlessly as he pushes past and starts heading back down again. I follow him back to floor eight (of eleven or twelve, I think). This floor is different from the others. I passed it too quickly to notice, but the doors leading from the staircase to the rest of the building here have been boarded up. There's plenty of broken glass and other debris around here, but it doesn't look like the barrier has been breached.

"This has been done from the inside," Keith says, stating the blindingly obvious.

"So there might still be someone in there," Carol adds, equally pointlessly.

"Must be Unchanged," Paul says under his breath as he runs his hands over the large sheets of plywood that have been nailed to the inside of the door frame, pushing and prodding in different places, trying to find a weak spot. He finds one near the bottom right-hand corner where the door frame is rotten. He brushes away shards of broken glass with his feet, then sits down on his backside and pushes the board with his boot. When it moves slightly he beckons for me to help him. I position myself directly between him and the handrail of the staircase so he can't move backward, then brace myself as he starts to kick at the wood. The noise is massively amplified by the confines of our surroundings, but in the moments of silence between kicks, everything else remains reassuringly quiet. He's barely forced open a wide enough gap when he turns around, drops his backpack, and scrambles through. Once on the other side he pulls at the plywood and manages to yank away a piece about a yard square. I slide his bag through, then follow him.

We're standing on an empty, relatively uncluttered landing. There are three apartments on this floor, two doors on one side of the landing, one on the other. Two of them are open. I quickly check one over. Its three main rooms are empty and fairly undamaged. There's even the stale, mold-covered remains of a final untouched meal on a table in front of a lifeless TV. The owner of the apartment must have left (or been dragged out) in a hurry. Keith disappears into the other open apartment and reappears on the landing after a few seconds.

"Nothing," he says quietly, "just a corpse on a bed."

"On a bed?" Carol says, surprised.

"Someone's laid out their missus or their mother or something. Dressed her up nice and brushed her hair. Still looks fucking horrible."

"Very touching," Paul mumbles as he presses his ear against the closed door of the remaining apartment. He pushes it gently, but it doesn't move.

"Smash it?" I suggest, my axe ready in my hand. He thumps it pointlessly, then nods his head and moves to one side. I lift the axe and thump it down, the clang of metal on metal filling the air as I mis-hit and catch the Yale lock. I lift my arm again. Keith grabs my wrist before I can bring it down.

"Listen."

I do as he says, but I can't hear anything. I try to pull my hand free, but he tightens his grip and glares at me.

"I hear it," Carol whispers. Then I do, too. A quiet, muffled voice shouting at us from deep inside the apartment.

"Not my..." it shouts, the third word unclear.

"Not my floor?" Keith suggests.

"Not my fault?" Paul offers, shrugging his shoulders. "Get the door open, man, and let's get him killed. It's just some nutter."

I do as he asks, smashing the blade down again and again until the weak wood splinters and the lock gives. I kick it open and peer into the gloom. A well-timed explosion outside bathes everything in ice white light like a camera flash for a fraction of a second, just long enough for me to see that there's someone standing at the far end of a short hall on the other side of the door. I catch a glimpse of his motionless outline, or hers, directly ahead. The door slowly swings shut again.

"How many?" Carol asks.

"Just one that I can see," I answer. "Pass me the flashlight, Keith."

Keith switches on the flashlight, but before he can pass it to me, the door flies open and the figure throws itself at me. The force of the sudden, unexpected attack takes me by surprise. I trip over my own feet as I stagger back, and before I know what's happening, I'm lying flat on my back with a foul-smelling fucker right on top of me. He grabs the collar of my coat and lowers his face until it's just inches from mine. His breath is so bad it's making me want to puke.

"Not my fight," he shouts, peppering me with spittle. "Not my fight-"

Keith smashes the side of his head with the flashlight, sending him reeling.

"Not my problem," he sneers, trying not to laugh at his own joke. The man who attacked me rolls over and gets up and stupidly starts walking back toward Keith again.

"Not my fight," he says, blood running down his face. "Leave me alone. It's not my fight. Get out of here..."

Keith lunges forward again, flashlight held ready to strike, sensing the kill.

"He's one of us, Keith," Carol warns, but it's too late. He swings the flashlight around and smashes it into the man's face again. He drops to the ground, and this time he doesn't get up. Keith shines the light down. Christ, Carol's right. He was one of ours. Keith looks at him with disdain, then steps over the corpse and goes into the apartment.

The small, squalid place is like a cocoon. The door I broke down hadn't been opened for weeks. The air is musty and stale, and the rooms are filled with boxes of supplies. On closer inspection, we find that almost all of the supplies have been used up. The dead man on the landing hardly had any food left.

"He'd done well to last this long," Paul says, watching me as I check through more empty cartons.

"If you ask me," Keith says, wiping the flashlight clean on a floral curtain, then opening a door into another room and glancing around it, "people like that are as bad as the Unchanged. Not fighting with us is almost as bad as fighting against us. You don't have a choice whether or not you want to be a part of this war. There's no opt-out clause for anyone."

"That was his wife, you know," Paul says, following me out onto a small veranda that overlooks what's left of my hometown. I've been out here for a while, just getting some air.

"What?"

"The guy Keith did in, that was his missus lying on the bed next door."

"How d'you know?"

"Found a photo of the pair of them together. Lovely couple," he murmurs sarcastically.

"Was she like us?"

"Nah, one of them."

"But he couldn't let go?"

"Looks that way. Probably killed her, then regretted it. True love, eh?" he jokes. "Never runs smooth."

"You're not wrong. My other half was..."

"I know. Bad luck, man."

"What about you?"

"Good question."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I've been with my girlfriend for three years now. Then all this happened..."

"Was she Unchanged?"

"No, nothing like that. We stuck together for a while after the Change, then just drifted apart. Just didn't need each other like we used to."

I glance across at him. He's hanging his head out over the high balcony next to me, staring into the distance.

"I guess relationships and stuff like that have had to take a backseat with all this going on."

"You're not wrong," he sighs. "You know, I was thinking the other day, I haven't had a hard-on for weeks."

"Thanks for sharing."

"I'm not complaining," he says quickly. "It just hadn't occurred to me before. I've stopped thinking about sex, stopped looking at women... hope to God this is just temporary."

I'm the same, although I don't bother telling him. It's just a question of priorities, I expect. When the fighting's over, things will get back to normal again.

I look out toward the city center in the distance, glowing like the embers of a dying fire. There's a strange beauty to the devastation tonight. This place always seemed ugly and oppressive to me before, but these days I see wonder and detail in things I used to look straight through. The Hate has opened my eyes. The area immediately around this high-rise-the place I used to call home-is dark and largely silent, just a few small fires and the odd flash of movement visible through the early evening gloom. From up here tonight the world seems vast and never-ending. There are clouds looming on the horizon, swallowing up the stars. There's rain coming.

"What're you thinking?" Paul asks after a couple of minutes have passed. "Not still thinking about my dick, I hope!"

"Just how massive the world feels tonight," I answer honestly as I watch a lone helicopter leading a distant convoy of Unchanged vehicles across their so-called exclusion zone. "First time I've been back here in months. From up here I can see where I lived and where I worked and everything in between. Can't believe I used to spend virtually all my time in the same few square miles of space. Kind of makes you feel insignificant, doesn't it?"

"The best thing about this life of ours now," he tells me, "is how open it's made everything. All the walls and barriers that used to hold us back have gone."

"I've been thinking about my apartment. It was just barely bigger than this place, and there were five of us living there. Five of us! How the hell did we ever manage to cram that many lives into such a small space?"

"That wasn't living, that was just existing."

"I can see it now, but when you're in the middle of it you just make do, don't you. You try to make the most of what you've got..."

Paul nudges my shoulder, and I look across at him. He gestures out over the city.

"All of this, my friend," he says, "is ours now."

ii

IN A SITUATION WHERE everybody was either on one side or the other and there was no in-between, ascertaining who was who was a priority. A DNA-based "test of allegiance" had been developed early on, and from it the Central System had been born. It was little more than an electronic checklist-a massive summary of names cribbed from the electoral roll, voters' roll, and births, deaths, and marriages records. The details held on each person were sparse: name, sex, date of birth, last known address, whether the person was dead or not, and, most importantly, whether he or she was Hater or Unchanged.

Many records-no one knew exactly how many-were incomplete or inaccurate. Up-to-date information was increasingly hard to find. Data gathering had been carried out at cull sites, evacuation camps, temporary mortuaries, military checkpoints, and anywhere else there was a controlled flow of civilians. Within the first two months of the crisis, however, that flow had been reduced to a trickle, then a drip. The thousands of bodies lying rotting in their homes, in overgrown fields, or on street corners remained unaccounted for, blank records returned should anyone inquire about their names.

The quality of data wasn't the only problem with the system. Administration, backups, integrity, access rights, security... the speed and chaotic nature of the Change meant that these and so many other aspects of development were truncated, attempted halfheartedly, skimped, skipped over, or simply abandoned altogether. Nevertheless, the ever-decreasing number of people still using the system continued to do what they could, believing that, eventually, what they were doing would prove worthwhile.

Almost thirty-six hours since he'd been back to the hotel room. He'd managed to catch a few hours' sleep in the back of one of the empty food trucks this afternoon, but Mark was still exhausted. Volunteers were becoming increasingly hard to find, and they weren't about to let him go until they had to. He continued to do it because of the promises of extra rations (which had, so far, been fulfilled) and because he felt safer being on the side of the people who had the biggest guns. The city streets were increasingly ugly and unsafe places. Better to walk them with the protection of a little body armor and a weapon, he thought, than without.

All that aside, Mark decided, when I get back to the hotel this time, I'm not coming out again.

Over the past few days he'd begun to sense a change in the air-a difficult situation becoming impossible, a slight risk becoming almost a certainty. Things were deteriorating, and the rate of decline was accelerating. He hadn't completely given up hope of some semblance of normality eventually being restored, but he knew things were going to get a lot worse before they got any better.

Processing. Of all the jobs they had him do, he hated processing the most. Maybe it was because, bizarrely, it reminded him of working in the call center? Perhaps it was just because it was so desperately sad. Those people who today still staggered into the military camp after months of trying to survive alone were little more than shells. Traumatized. Empty. Vegetative.

Heavy rain lashed down onto the roof of the tent, clattering against the taut canvas. A steady drip, drip, drip hit the corner of his unsteady desk, each splash just wide enough to reach the edge of his papers. Hot days and generally clear skies frequently meant cold nights, and even though it was cloudy tonight, it was still damn cold. He warmed his hands around the gas lamp while he waited. Wouldn't be long. He'd just had word that a food patrol had found another few stragglers hiding in a warehouse storeroom, drowning in their own filth. Kate had worked here when they'd both first arrived in the city. Back then there'd been a steady stream of refugees coming through here 24/7. Now there were just a handful being processed every day.

"Should have seen him, Mark," Gary Phillips said, sitting on the dry corner of the desk. "He went fucking wild when we found him."

Phillips had been out in many of the same convoys as Mark over the weeks. This afternoon he'd won the toss and had taken the last available seat, leaving Mark to fill the desk job. Now he was back telling Mark in unnecessary detail how one of the survivors they'd found had gone crazy when they'd arrived at the warehouse. Mark wasn't sure whether it was Phillips's way of coping with what he'd experienced or whether he derived some sick pleasure from watching refugees suffer. Whatever the reason, Mark didn't tell him to shut up or fuck off like he wanted to do. Instead he bit his lip and put up with Phillips's pointless drivel. Better that than to show any kind of reaction that might be misconstrued.

"It was just unbelievable, I tell you," Phillips continued, still pumped with adrenaline. "There were six of them shut in this fucking storeroom smaller than this tent. They'd used up just about every scrap of food they had, but on the other side of the door there was a warehouse still half full of stuff. Too fucking scared to put their heads out into the open."

"Gets to us all in different ways, doesn't it?" Mark said quietly, drawing lines on a piece of paper with the longest ruler he could find and writing out the questions he needed to ask. All the photocopied forms had been used up weeks ago.

"I know, but this was a bit fucking extreme by anyone's standards. Anyway, the soldiers force the door open, not knowing what they're gonna find in there, and this guy comes charging out, convinced they're Haters. Fair play, they gave him a chance, which is more than I'd have done, but the dumb bastard wasn't listening. He just kept coming at them."

"So what happened?"

"What do you think happened? Fucker didn't stand a chance. They put so many bullets in him I thought he was gonna... What's the matter?"

Mark nodded toward the entrance to the tent. Phillips stopped talking and looked around. Behind him stood an elderly couple, who, if you looked past the emaciation, and their haunted, vacant stares, could have just stepped out of their house to go out shopping together. Their surprisingly smart clothes, albeit drenched with rain and streaked with dirt, looked several sizes too big for them. Phillips jumped off the desk, feet splashing in a puddle of mud, grabbed a chair, and placed it next to the one that was already opposite Mark.

"I'll leave you to it," he said. "See you around."

With that he was gone. Mark gestured for the new arrivals to sit down. He hated doing this. It was hard. Damned hard. Too hard. He watched as the man sat his wife down, almost slipping in the greasy mud, then sat down next to her. Christ, after all they'd probably been through, he was still managing to be a bloody gentleman. He'd probably been looking after his wife for so long that he was hardwired to do it. She'd no doubt be the same, darning the holes in his clothes and checking he'd had enough to eat when both of them struggled to find any food and the world was falling apart around them. The couple huddled together for warmth, rainwater running off their clothes and dripping from the ends of their noses. The woman sobbed and shook, her shoulders jerking forward again and again. Her husband couldn't help her or console her. He tried, of course, but she wouldn't stop. He turned and faced Mark and stared at him, begging for help without saying a word, eyes filled with tears, mouth hanging open.

"Okay, what are your-?" he began to ask, stopping short when a low-flying jet tore through the air above the park, sounding like it was just yards above the roof of the tent. The gut-wrenching noise and blast of wind made the canvas walls shake and the woman wail and screw her eyes shut. Her husband took her hand in his and gripped it tight. Mark waited a few seconds for the jet to completely disappear before trying again.

"What are your names?"

Nothing.

"Do you have any identification papers with you?"

Nothing.

"Do you have any credit cards, letters... anything with your names on it, or an address?"

Nothing. Mark sighed and held his head in his hands, barely making any attempt to hide his frustration and fatigue. He looked up again, reached across the table, and gently shook the old man's wet right arm. The man reacted to his touch, shaking his head slightly as if he'd just been woken from a trance.

"Can you tell me your name?"

"Graeme Reynolds," he finally answered, his voice barely audible over the rain.

"Okay, Graeme," Mark continued, looking down and scribbling the name at the top of the form he'd drawn up, "is this your wife?"

He nodded. Mark waited.

"What's her name?" Mark asked finally.

Another pause, almost as if he were having to dredge his memory for the answer.

"Mary."

"Your date of birth?"

No answer. Graeme seemed to be looking past Mark now, gazing into space. Waste of fucking time, Mark thought to himself. He's gone again. What's the point?

"Wait there," he told him, although he knew the man wasn't going anywhere. He got up from his chair and walked across the dark tent to another table, where he added the couple's names to a register and entered the same names against the next available address in another file. He wrote out the details on a slip of paper and took it back, wondering if anyone was ever going to collect the files and update the Central System. When he and Kate had first started volunteering, the system had been updated religiously by a dedicated team tasked with keeping the information as accurate as was humanly possible. Now, whether it was because of a lack of functioning computers, a lack of trained operators, or any one of a hundred possible other reasons, the system seemed to be falling apart as quickly as everything else.

Mark handed the slip of paper to Graeme. He took it but didn't look at it.

"Take that to the next tent," Mark told him, unsure if there was anyone left working there tonight. "Those are your billet details. The people next door will give you ration papers. When you're finished there, they'll send you to the food store. They'll give you something to eat if there's anything left-"

He stopped speaking. Neither of them was listening. Poor bastards were barely even conscious. They didn't know where they were, who he was, what he was doing, what he was trying to tell them... Graeme and Mary Reynolds didn't move. He looked long and hard into their empty, vacant faces and wondered, as he now did with increasing and alarming regularity, why he was bothering. What was the point? When the fighting's over, he thought, will we ever return to any kind of normality? Or have we gone too far for that? Is this as good as it's ever going to get? All trust, hope, and faith gone forever... nothing left but fear and hate.

Mark stood up, took Graeme's arm, waited for his wife, and then led them to the next tent. Without even stopping to see if there was anyone there, he grabbed his coat and the heavy wrench he always carried with him for self-defense and left. He went out into the rain and walked, determined not to stop again until he was back in the hotel room with Kate and the others.

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