A COUPLE OF HOURS ago I thought I was a dead man. And now here I am, a backpack full of weapons, supplies, and Ellis's things on my back, walking through the dead ruins of the city I used to call home, ready to help bring the enemy down. This new world order is fickle and unpredictable; one minute you're down, the next you're on top again.
The roads around Sahota's building were reassuringly quiet and empty, and I felt confident and strong. But the moment I saw the first of the Unchanged I began to doubt myself again. There were three of them, huddled together in the doorway of a partially collapsed building, barely visible from the street, just eyes staring out from the darkness. Even after all I've been through, my instinct was still to kill. No one would have been any the wiser, and with my knives and axe hanging from my belt again, I was sure I could have got rid of all three of them without even breaking sweat. But I was scared-scared that if I started killing out here I wouldn't be able to stop again. I forced myself to relax, to overcome the temptation and keep moving. The foul fuckers watched me like hawks as I passed them, but two thoughts kept me moving forward. First, I knew that if I made it into the city there'd be a chance, albeit a slight one, that I might be able to find out more information about what happened to Ellis. Second, I knew that the longer I lasted without killing and the deeper I managed to get into town, the more casualties there'd be when the fighting finally started again. It was easier letting those three live (if you could call that living) knowing that it might bring me closer to killing thousands of their kind.
Unexpectedly, the more Unchanged I've subsequently seen, the easier being around them has become. I still have to fight to control myself each time I see one of them, but their vast numbers act as a constant reminder that to start killing now would be suicidal. Or maybe it's just that seeing them like this, crammed together and on their knees in such desperate, miserable, appalling conditions, reinforces my comparative strength and superiority. These people are nothing.
Christ, I'm cold. I run my hand over my freshly shaved head and chin as I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a grubby shop window. I look like a new man, like I've been reborn on my escape from the mindfuck of the last few days. It was something Sahota said I should do, something I'd never even considered. He told me to try to blend in with the Unchanged masses. While I've been content to wear the same fighting clothes day after day until they're too worn out to be any good, some of the Unchanged, incredibly, still seem to think about their appearance. Sure, standards have slipped, and there are no downtown stores selling the latest fashions anymore, but, to a surprising number of them, how they look still seems to matter. It's all about being accepted, he told me, blending in and being part of the crowd. I saw a woman a minute ago who was still wearing makeup. Why? What's the point? Stupid bitch. It doesn't matter what you look like when you die.
Concentrate on breathing, that's my technique. I force myself to keep my breathing low and level, to move slowly and keep to a steady, deliberate pace. If I start thinking about killing and fighting, I try distracting myself with trivialities, counting lampposts, avoiding cracks in the pavement, trying to remember the names and the faces of people I used to know... It's the weirdest sensation-I imagine this is how a recovering alcoholic must feel. As long as I'm not killing, I'm fine. But if I were to attack just one of them, like the alcoholic falling off the wagon and having his first drink, I know I wouldn't be able to stop. I remember Mallon's catchphrase: The more you fight, the less you get. He was right. If I cause any trouble out here on my own I'll be completely screwed. Stay calm and I still have a chance.
My surroundings are bizarre, not at all what I expected. The streets and buildings on the inside of the enemy cordon look different from all the others I've so far seen. Out beyond the city limits, outside their exclusion zone, everything has been pounded into ruin by weeks and weeks of fighting. Over the weeks and months the Unchanged military attacked us with relentless ferocity and unchallenged explosive force, reducing much of the outside world to a ruined wasteland. Some villages and small towns I've seen were hit so badly that they've simply ceased to exist-just mounds of overgrown rubble are all that's left where they used to be. Here, though, the basic structures of streets and buildings are still largely intact, but they look like they're slowly decaying. Everything is covered in a thick layer of detritus and grime. Ahead of me is a slag heap of uncollected waste, some of it in ripped black sacks, most of it lying loose in the gutter. Rats and other vermin scavenge through the mountain of garbage in broad daylight, suddenly cocksure and confident, no longer afraid of man. Birds peck at bodies, and there's a steady trickle of stagnant, foul-smelling water running away from the huge decaying mound. It pools in the gutter and spreads out into the road, the street drains blocked. It's become a black lake, the gentle breeze making its surface ripple, floating bits of rubbish bumping around like odd-shaped boats.
The address Sahota gave me is a place not far west of here, on the inner border of the exclusion zone. He warned me to stick to main routes and to stay out in the open, no matter how strong the temptation was to try to disappear. I can already see the logic in his advice. The population here seems to be in a bizarre, almost trancelike state of "false calm." For the most part people line the sides of the streets, cramming themselves into the shadows, each of them trying to squeeze themselves into as small a space as possible, almost as if they want to disappear. Some hide in the dark gaps between buildings; others sit behind the wheels of useless, abandoned cars that are never going anywhere again. I glance up at the windows of the places I pass. There are pale faces pressed against the glass, not a single scrap of space left unclaimed. Around me is an apparently never-ending succession of lost, haunted individuals. Alone or in twos and threes, most of them look down at the ground, too afraid to even make eye contact with anyone other than their few remaining trusted friends or relatives. The instinctive urge to kill them is undiminished, but these people aren't even worth the effort. They are empty, vapid shells. As good as dead already.
There are other people moving along the road, many of them going in the same direction as me, some walking aimlessly the other way. None of them seem to have any purpose. They're just drifting, and I do my best to match their slow, purposeless gait. It's hard, like being forced to hold your hand in a bowl of boiling water. I want to run to get through this part of town, but I don't dare do anything that's going to draw attention to me or mark me out as different. There's an unspoken tension and fear here, bubbling just under the surface. Everyone, me included, is being forced to keep their emotions suppressed, terrified by the prospect of what might happen if they let their true feelings show. As much as the thought of comparing myself to the enemy is abhorrent, I realize that everyone here, me included, is doing exactly the same thing. We're all pretending to be something we're not.
Apart from the odd military vehicle, the constant buzz of helicopters scurrying through the air above me, and the occasional rumble of distant, directionless fighting, everywhere else remains unnaturally quiet. I walk along a road that runs parallel with the side of the City Arena, a huge, soulless concert venue I could never afford to go to. There are blockades around the perimeter of the vast building for as far as I can see, and a heavy military presence around the doors and exits. There are scores of empty trucks parked in its various lots. Was this some kind of feeding center? Whatever it was, it looks like it's been decommissioned now, but there are still huge numbers of civilians camped around its outskirts, waiting silently for supplies that will probably never come. In another fenced-off area nearby is a still-smoking mound of corpses. Must be hundreds of bodies there...
I'm distracted by the grim sights all around me, so much so that I collide head-on with someone coming the other way who's obviously paying as little attention to the human traffic on the road as me. The unexpected impact catches me off guard. In a sudden, uncontrollable blind panic, I spring forward and grab the disheveled-looking man by his lapels. I spin him around and slam him down onto the pavement and reach for my knife before... before I remember where I am and who I am. I let him go immediately and walk on, terrified that I've been seen and that my sudden violent overreaction will give me away. I look back and see him scramble away, getting up quickly and sprinting a few yards until there's a decent distance between us. He puts his head down and keeps walking, trying not to panic, frequently looking back over his shoulder. I glance from side to side. There are plenty of people watching me, but thankfully they're all too scared to get involved.
Fucking idiot. Can't afford to make mistakes like that.
I know exactly where I am now. Around the next corner is the PFP-the Parking Fines Processing center, where I used to work. When I see the building I'm immediately filled with a mass of conflicting emotions-disgust that I wasted so much of my miserable former life here, relief that those days are long gone, and, catching me off guard, a painful nostalgia when I remember all that I've lost and left behind. It all seems forever ago, like the memories belong to someone else. Being here again and remembering this place and all that happened here is like watching a TV movie of someone else's life. Christ, there are people living in the building now. I can see them in the windows I used to spend hours staring out from. Could there be a worse existence than that?
Without realizing it, I've stopped right outside the PFP. I'm standing in the middle of the street like a dumb sightseer, suddenly oblivious to everything else around me. The noise of a fast-approaching engine snaps me out of my dangerous stupor. I turn around and see that there's a jeep driving up the middle of the road toward me, flanked by several heavily armed soldiers on either side, their impenetrable face masks hiding their intent. Are they looking for me? The jeep moves forward quickly, the driver making no attempt to dodge or weave through the masses of drifting refugees that litter the street. They jump for cover, staying well back until the troops have passed by. Preoccupied by my irrational fear and not knowing whether I should do nothing or fight, I'm slow to react. A soldier shoves me to one side, and it's all I can do not to kill him. I stand firm and square up to him, stupidly defiant, my face reflected back at me in his visor.
"Problem?" he yells, his wretched face just inches from mine. I can feel bile rising in my throat, a noxious, nauseous terror building up inside me, and I don't know if I can keep it down. Can I stand to let him live? When all I want to do is kill, doing nothing is almost impossible. But I force myself to remember being back in the cell with Joseph Mallon, and remembering the fact that I was so easily able to fool him gives me much needed strength. Act dumb, I plead with myself. Let this one go. You'll kill thousands more when it's time...
"No problem," I answer, and I back down and slope away, trying to mimic the reaction of the countless other cowards milling around me. I feel his eyes burning into me, but I don't allow myself to look back. I keep walking...
Ten seconds and nothing's happened.
Don't look back.
Another ten seconds. Have they moved on?
I turn the corner and I know I'm safe.
Last time I was here I got caught in the crossfire between groups of armed police officers who had suddenly found themselves on opposing sides. I ran for cover along with hundreds of other people, each person as scared and confused as the next. That was the day, I recall, when everything really changed. That was the day the Hate took over. Strange how what was such a terrifying experience now seems, with hindsight, like nothing out of the ordinary. I'm harder now, stronger. Back then I was just one of the crowd, trying to blend in with the masses and not be noticed. Today I'm here to kill them.
This vast public square is no longer the empty, underused space it always used to be. For as far as I can see the ground is covered with a sea of temporary shelters of endless different colors, shapes, and sizes. I can't help looking into a few of those that I pass, and inside each of them I see more refugees desperately hoping that their flimsy cardboard, wood, and polyethylene structures will keep them safe inside and everyone else out. The occupants of one shelter are both dead. The green-tinged corpses of a middle-aged couple are lying together motionless, entwined and unnoticed. The stale air inside the small space is thick with flies.
Squatters have taken over the public toilets and moved in. They used to get vandalized every other week and were used more as a pickup point for gay men than anything else. A man and woman sit on chairs in the dark doorway, like a king and queen surveying their particularly grim kingdom. A fierce-looking, half-starved dog tied up with rope keeps everyone else at bay.
There's a patch of land up ahead that's unexpectedly empty. As I get closer I see that the road there is covered with streaks and puddles of drying mud, making it look like a dried-up riverbed. Flash-flood water seems to have washed away huge numbers of improvised tents, leaving an expanse of muddy block paving slabs visible. Weeds are sprouting in the gaps between the slabs. The council used to spend a fucking fortune on this place-I remember hearing someone from another department bitching about it-now it's just as godforsaken as everywhere else. Incredibly, though, a street clock I walk past is still working. It says it's coming up to 3:00 p.m. and it's a Thursday, for a fraction of a second I feel an instinctive swell of relief because the weekend's coming. Christ, how stupid is that? Itmakes me realize that no matter how much everything has changed, the effects of years of conditioning are going to take more than afew months to disappear. Has the clock been maintained purposely for precisely that reason? Does it help the Unchanged masses cope if they know where they are in relation to their old routines?
Something on the far side of the square has caught my eye. Covering virtually the full width of two adjacent buildings from ground level to a height of about six feet are what looks like hundreds of posters. As I get closer, I see that it's a huge collage of photographs of people that have been pinned, nailed, and stapled to massive sheets of plywood used to board up the buildings. I move nearer, figuring it's safe to do so because there are other Unchanged milling around here, too. It looks like nothing out of the ordinary. I've seen similar displays in films and on TV before, shattered populations coming together to share their grief and build an improvised shrine to remember the friends and family they've lost. Maybe Lizzie's picture is here somewhere? I start to look along the rain-blurred and sun-bleached pictures.
I stop and stare at a random face, one of hundreds, no more or less remarkable than any of those above, below, or around it. It's a man in his late forties with a mop of curly dark hair, a short beard, and dark, angular-framed glasses. There's writing in the space below his face. It says, "James Jenkins. Killed his wife Louise and daughter Claire." There's a similar scrawled message on the next picture: "Marie Yates. Murdered everyone that mattered to me." These aren't the faces of victims, I realize, these are their killers. Christ, is my face up here somewhere? I panic and start quickly scanning the display, suddenly self-conscious, hoping I'll find my picture before anyone else does. Wish I hadn't shaved my head like Sahota said. I should have stayed hidden beneath that layer of stubble and shaggy hair. Then, bizarrely, I find myself making a sudden U-turn, hoping that I actually do manage to find my photograph because that, I tell myself, would be proof positive that Lizzie's been here.
It won't make any difference.
I force myself to move on, knowing that I can't afford to waste time. Somewhere in this stinking, unhygienic, overcrowded wreck of a city, the woman I used to share my life with might still be hiding. And if I can track her down, she'll be able to tell me what happened to my daughter.
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com