I MUST BE GETTING close now. I thought I knew the address Sahota gave me, but around here it looks so very different from how I remember. I'm back out on the farthest edge of the refugee camp, heading for the border with the exclusion zone. The number of Unchanged around me has quickly diminished as I've moved out from the center of the city again. It's a relief not to be surrounded by them and not to have to constantly struggle to keep myself under control. The buildings here are more empty than occupied. There are one or two Unchanged almost always in sight, but they make every effort to ignore me and slide back into the shadows when I approach.
I stop outside a fortified house, metal grilles and bars covering its windows and doors. The houses on either side have been destroyed, but this one looks like it's managed to escape much of the fighting undamaged. Curious, I walk down a dark, narrow passageway between the house and the rubble of its nearest neighbor. The badly decomposed body of an Unchanged man lies facedown in the middle of an overgrown lawn, military fatigues flapping in the wind around his skeletal limbs. He's been dead for several weeks at least. Was he the owner of this place? The back door's been pried off its hinges, and I go inside. Most of the furniture has been used to blockade each room, leaving just a chair, a small table, and a bed in an upstairs bedroom. The remains of boxes and boxes of supplies cover the floors, and the walls have been daubed with pointless, empty slogans. death to the haters is one, kill them before they kill you another. There's nothing of value left here. I leave the house, shaking my head and laughing to myself at the pathetic Unchanged who clearly spent so long trying to defend and protect what was his. Total waste of effort. He'd have been better off taking his chances in the center of town with the rest of them.
The wreck of a truck blocks the road ahead. It's over on its side like a beached whale, the contents of the overturned Dumpster it was carrying now scattered across the entire width of the road. I clamber through the clutter and continue down a sloping ramp toward what was once a busy local shopping area. My footsteps echo around the small, drab, square plaza. Half of the open space is submerged under a shallow pool of black, germ-filled water. At its deepest point a dead soldier's booted foot sticks up above the rippling surface like a shark's fin.
Around me are a succession of abandoned and looted stores-a bookmaker's with signs in the window advertising odds on an international soccer match that never took place, a fish-and-chip shop, a takeout pizza joint, a hairdresser's, a general store... I don't waste time looking in any of them. If there was ever anything useful in there, it would have been taken or destroyed by now.
I cross the plaza diagonally, feeling increasingly uncomfortable and exposed as I walk around the edge of the lapping lake of dirty rainwater, a Hater deep in Unchanged territory. Are they watching me? Eager to get under cover, I quicken my pace and head out between another two deserted buildings. Then I finally see the place Sahota sent me to find. The Risemore Conservative Members Club is as ugly as everything else around here, a squat, square, redbrick social club that looks like it might actually have benefited from having a bomb dropped on it. I used to do all I could to avoid places like this in the days before the war. When I was little, before he walked out on us, my dad used to drag me out to his drinking club some weekends. I'd sit there with him, bored out of my mind, having to make one can of Coke last for hours while he got drunk, smoked, read the paper, argued with his equally drunk cronies or sat and watched piss-poor comics, singers, and variety acts that, by rights should have been banned from performing in public. As I edge closer to the club I automatically build up a mental image of what it's going to be like inside: loud, stale, musty, a heavy fug of cigarette smoke hanging in the air, grubby, sticky carpets, uncomfortable plastic-covered seating with the stuffing hanging out...
I can't get in through the front entrance; an impassable mound of fallen masonry blocks the door. I go around to the back to look for another way in, cursing my naivete. I was never supposed to get in through the front. You don't want just anyone to be able to stroll up and knock on your front door if you're trying to coordinate a terrorist cell, do you? Is that what I am now, a terrorist? A suicide bomber without the bomb? Or am I the bomb?
A narrow, brick-walled passageway runs from the front of the building straight through to the back, opening out into an enclosed but largely empty parking lot. Can't see anyone around here, or even any evidence that anyone's been here for a while. There's a fire exit, a strong, metal-clad doorway. I hammer on it with my fist and wait for an answer, starting to doubt whether I'm at the right place. A mangy tabby cat darts out from under a hedge behind me, racing across the parking lot and scurrying for cover under an overflowing Dumpster. Instinctively I whistle for him. I used to like cats.
The fire door opens, catching me off guard. I spin around and find myself face-to-face with a tall, powerful, nasty-looking bastard covered in tattoos. Thank God we're on the same side.
"I'm looking for Chapman," I tell him, remembering the name Sahota told me to ask for.
"I am," I answer without thinking.
"And who are you, you fucking idiot?" he sighs, taking a step forward and forcing me away from the building, into the middle of the parking lot. He rests his hand on the hilt of a monstrous knife with a vicious serrated blade.
"My name's Danny McCoyne," I answer quickly, trying to sound confident and disguise my nerves. "Sahota sent me here."
At the mention of Sahota's name the thug visibly relaxes. He looks me up and down again, then stands to one side and ushers me into the building. I do as he says and wait for him to follow as he pulls the door shut again and secures it with a heavy wooden crossbeam. He leads me through the ground floor of the building. My eyes are slow to adjust to the darkness indoors, and I trip down off a slightly elevated wooden stage area. He looks back at me and shakes his head.
Inside, the club is as dilapidated as everywhere else, nothing like the stupid, outdated image I'd had in my head. The floor is littered with the broken remains of off-white polystyrene ceiling tiles. Makes me wonder-if the ceiling's this bad, how strong is the rest of the building? Disappointingly (but not unexpectedly), the bar has been completely stripped. There's a row of spaces on the mirrored wall where the liquor dispensers would have been. Christ, I could do with a drink just to calm my nerves. I feel more anxious in here than I did back in the center of town when I was up to my neck in Unchanged.
My chaperone doesn't want to talk. He leads me along a wide corridor, through another, much smaller second bar, then up a long staircase. There are four doors leading off a square landing. Three of them are open, and I can see at least one or two people in every room. He opens the remaining door, and I follow him into a large function room, which is almost as big as the main bar area we walked through on the floor below. It's sparsely furnished but largely undamaged. There are several wooden crates of supplies stacked up against one wall. A guy is sitting by himself at a table in the far corner using a laptop, and there's another asleep on a mattress under a window. As soon as I enter the room a woman gets up from where she's been lying on a threadbare sofa. She's hidden by shadows, but something about her is familiar. I'm sure I've seen her before. Is she Chapman?
"Who's this?" she asks. Her voice has a trace of a gentle Irish accent, which is beaten into submission by the abrasiveness of her tone.
"Says he's looking for you. Says Sahota sent him."
My unwilling guide disappears, his job done. The woman walks toward me, stepping into the light. I immediately recognize her, but I can't remember where from. Was it this life? My old life?
"The slaughterhouse," she says.
"The slaughterhouse, few days back. You're trying to remember where you saw me before. You were there with the guy with the smashed-up hand and foot, and I-"
"You were the one telling me not to bother with him 'cause he'd be dead soon," I interrupt, suddenly remembering where we met.
"That's right. And he was. I'm Julia Chapman."
"You're a happy soul, aren't you?" I say sarcastically as I shake her hand, recalling how blunt and matter-of-fact she was when we spoke before. She nearly crushes me with her viselike grip. She's just trying to let me know who's in charge.
"I'm a realist," she answers, "and I'm focused. And so should you be. I tell you, when this war's finished, I'll be the first one up dancing at the fucking party and the last one to sit down. Until then, though, all I'm interested in is fighting."
"Bit of a coincidence, though, finding you here."
"I thought you were busy recruiting for Ankin's army."
"I still am."
"So why are you here?"
"To make sure Sahota gets the right people, too."
"What? Are you trying to tell me you followed me into the city?"
"I'm not trying to tell you anything, but yep, something like that. There were a few more people involved, and it wasn't just you we were watching."
"Don't believe you."
"Believe what you like, pal, it really doesn't bother me. Thing is, we are where we are, and where we are is here. It's what we do next that matters most."
"If you say so."
I wonder if she always talks this much bullshit or if she's trying to impress me and exert her authority. She looks me straight in the eye, and for a second I think she might be about to throw a punch. She bites her lip and turns away.
"Come here. I want to show you something."
I follow her out of the room and across the landing. We walk through another part of the building, where two more fighters are resting in the shadows. They glance up at me as I pass them, but they don't move. We go out onto a narrow veranda, then use an unsteady stepladder to climb up onto a debris-strewn flat rooftop. There are large puddles of water covering much of the ground. A pair of deckchairs have been left under an improvised stretched-out tarpaulin shelter. The views across what remains of the city from one direction and the exclusion zone on the other three are vast and panoramic. Looks like they've been using this place as an observation post.
Julia leads me to the edge of the roof on the side of the building that looks out over the refugee camp in the center of the city. The view is incredible, not just because of its scope, but also because of the sense of scale and perspective it gives everything. In every other direction all I can see is abandoned buildings and immense swathes of empty land. Our land. No trace of the Unchanged.
"Takes your breath away, doesn't it?"
Julia's soaking up the view, staring with palpable hate deep into the city where hundreds of thousands of refugees are cowering in squalor. Their closeness still makes me feel uneasy.
"Is this what you wanted to show me?"
"It is, but don't just look at it, think about it. Feel it, even. All across the whole country, our enemies are hiding together in places like this. Thousands of them crammed together in the space of just a few square miles at a time, stacked on top of each other, hardly able to breathe. Now turn around and look at what we've got. Out beyond the city boundary you can walk for miles and hardly see anyone."
"I went back to where I used to live," I tell her. "Couldn't believe what little space we had..."
"And you know what makes it worse?" she continues, not listening. "Those idiots still have faith in the people who are supposed to be leading them, not that they ever see them or hear anything from them. Christ, they don't even know who they are. They're just clinging desperately to the structures and organizations that used to keep their pathetic little lives ticking along, trusting in a system that was dying long before we ever appeared."
"Can you believe we used to-" I start to say before she interrupts. Her over-the-top enthusiasm for all of this is frightening.
"You know, some of those fuckers still think they're going to be protected and that everything's going to work out all right for them in the end. Thing is, you and me and everyone else knows different, don't we?"
"They'll never win," I answer quickly, standing my ground as an unexpected gust of wind threatens to blow me forward. "They can't."
"And that's why what we're going to do is going to have such an effect. We're gonna pull the carpet out from under their feet."
"How many of us are here?"
"Including you, ten."
"Is that enough?"
"We're not the only group. There are others. I know Sahota wants to get more than a hundred of us in place when the time's right."
"And you think this is going to work?"
"No question. The Unchanged can't trust each other. Christ, they can barely bring themselves to look at the person next to them anymore. I mean, there's never been any real trust between strangers, but now they've got it into their heads that anyone could turn on them at any second. So there's real fear in the air in there, a tension and uncertainty that's never going to disappear. The more of them that cram themselves inside the city walls and the longer they're in there, the more that fear increases."
"So we just walk in there..."
"...and light the fuse. They're right on the edge. I give 'em a week at most, ten days if they're lucky, and that's without us getting involved. No food, no sanitation, no medicine, the floods-"
"Makes you wonder how they've lasted this long."
"Have you been in there yet?"
"Coming here just now."
"So you know what it's like?"
"I saw enough..."
"Thing is, they're all out for themselves, whether they'd admit it or not. Every one of them will do all that they can to survive, screw everyone else. Self-preservation means everything to them. It's all they've got left."
"So when do we do it? When do we go in?"
"It's up to Sahota. He'll know when the time's right."
"And how will we know?"
"We'll know, trust me."
"So do we just sit here and wait?"
"We do tonight, maybe tomorrow, too. Then we'll be told to get into position. Could be hours after that, might even be days. We get in, bury ourselves deep, then explode. It's a small sacrifice to make."
Sacrifice? The word makes me go cold. I'll fight alongside these people, but I don't intend to sacrifice myself. Not while there's a chance Ellis might still be out there.
"So we do enough to push them over the edge, then get out?"
"We do enough to push them over the edge, then keep pushing," she answers quickly, sounding annoyed by my obvious lack of enthusiasm. "What we do in the city is all that matters. You don't think about the future, getting out, leaving the fight... anything like that. If you're left standing at the end of all of this, well done. If you're not, then that's too bad. This is way bigger than any of us."
With that Julia walks away and leaves me alone on the roof. I watch her go, feeling like I've just shut myself away with a group of kamikaze cult members.
MARK HAD TO FIND more food. He didn't want to think about what would happen if he didn't. Impossible choices would have to be made. How could it have come to this? Kate had to eat, she was his obvious priority, but who next? Gurmit Singh could go to hell as far as he was concerned, but what about Kate's parents? Her dad was in his late seventies, her mom not much younger... could they really justify wasting precious supplies on them at their age? Christ, what was he thinking? Leaving them to starve? He himself needed to eat because he couldn't stand the thought of Katie and their child trying to survive in this nightmare world without him. Then there was Lizzie. What was her position in the pecking order? As for that thing she kept tied up in the bathroom... Mark cursed the day he'd agreed to let her stay with them.
The hotel room diagonally opposite 33 was empty. He'd heard noises there a while earlier and had watched through the peephole in his door as the occupants had fled. He wasn't sure exactly what had happened; someone cracking under the pressure of this impossible situation and being hunted down as a Hater, he guessed. The soldiers hadn't come to investigate (they never did anymore), and there were at least two bodies still in the room, but he didn't care. As soon as he'd seen the rest of them thunder down the stairs in panic, he'd known he'd have a couple of minutes to get in there, strip out anything of value, then get out before other refugees claimed the precious space.
Mark felt like an amateur forensics investigator trying to piece together a murder scene as he stood in the small room and stepped over the first corpse. It was a mirror image of the room where he and the others were living. A woman lay on the floor, her face pallid and gray, savage welts, bruises, and scratches covering her neck. In the opposite corner, a man who he'd assumed was either her partner or her brother sat slumped with blood pouring out of razor slashes across his throat and wrists. The cuts were still dripping. He was the one who'd snapped, Mark assumed. Looked like he'd taken his sudden aggression out on the woman, then killed himself with regret. Another pointless waste of lives.
No time for sentimentality. He began searching for food, looking in the corresponding hiding places to those he used himself in the room across the hall. There were a few scraps; nothing much, but it was better than going back empty-handed. At least he'd be able to-
A piercing scream cut through the uneasy silence. He knew immediately that it was coming from room 33. He grabbed the food and ran, tripping over the outstretched legs of the dead woman as he frantically sprinted back. He already knew what was happening. He could hear her. She was loose.
Mark reached for the door and pushed it at the exact same moment Gurmit Singh pulled it open from the other side. In a single movement he raced into the room, dragging Singh back inside and kicking the door shut behind him. He couldn't risk him getting out and telling anyone what they were keeping in here, not that they'd be able to understand him anyway.
The kid was on the bed, naked but for a dirty gray undershirt, her wrists still bound together with a plastic tie but her legs free. Her tiny hands were wrapped around Kate's father's throat, and she was repeatedly yanking his head up, then slamming him back against the wooden headboard. Kate and Lizzie both tried to pull her off the old man, but she refused to let go, her small but strong clawlike fingers digging into his skin and holding on. Mark pushed them both aside and wrapped his arms around the little Hater's waist. He backed away from the bed, dragging both the girl and the old man with him. Lizzie pried her daughter's fingers off Kate's father's scrawny neck, then shoved him back up onto the mattress. Behind her Kate's mother screamed, a constant, vile, eardrum-piercing, high-pitched wail of absolute terror and bewilderment.
"What the hell happened?" Mark asked between grunts of effort as he struggled to hold on to Ellis. He wrapped his arms tighter around her chest, restricting her movement. She leaned her head forward and bit down into his forearm; the sleeve of his thick jacket protected his skin. "Where's her fucking gag gone?"
Before anyone could answer, Ellis jerked her head back again, cracking against Mark's chin. He bit down hard on his tongue and yelped with pain. Less than half his size, she continued to move relentlessly and with incredible ferocity, refusing to give up despite the fact that, for now, he had her held tight. He knew that if her hands hadn't been tied, several-if not all-of the people in the hotel room would almost certainly have been killed.
Ellis made another desperate bid for freedom, arching her back, then relaxing, doing it again and then kicking her feet back, catching Mark full in the balls on the rebound. She managed to wedge her foot against the nearest wall and pushed, the sudden movement catching him by surprise and sending him reeling backward. The sickening thud as he slammed against the opposite wall made him lose his grip. Ellis squirmed away from him and raced back into the room toward the old people in the bed, but Kate was waiting for her. She smashed her across the face with a heavy telephone directory. Stunned, Ellis dropped to her knees.
"Don't!" Lizzie shouted, running toward her daughter as Kate stood over her, ready to strike her again. She shoved the other woman out of the way, then crouched down and thumped a hypodermic needle into Ellis's bare thigh. Ellis yelped with sudden pain. With the needle still stuck in her skin, she spun around and lashed out at her mother with her bound hands, managing to scratch her nails down her cheek, leaving three parallel bloodred lines.
Then she stopped.
Eyes glazed, she tried to stand up again. She took two steps forward, then fell and hit the grimy carpet, face first. She tried to pick herself up again but was out cold before she'd lifted her head.
The room was instantly silent. Even Kate's parents became quiet-her mother in shock and her father concussed. Gurmit Singh, who'd been cowering against the door with his hands over his head, stood up and reached for the handle. Mark also stood, the throbbing pain in his balls beginning to subside, and shouted at him.
"You open that door and go out there and you won't get back in again. Your choice."
Singh looked at him. Mark didn't know for sure whether or not he understood, but was relieved when he hesitated with his hand on the latch, then stopped and trudged slowly back to the armchair he'd claimed as his own. He stepped over Ellis's inert body and pointed down at her.
"Evil," he hissed. He jabbed his finger at the door. "Nasty bitch! Get gone! Not here!"
With Kate busy dealing with her suddenly catatonic parents, Mark held Ellis still as Lizzie lashed her legs together with a length of nylon clothesline, then gagged her again. She rubbed antiseptic cream from an almost empty tube on the countless sores and abrasions that covered Ellis's skin, caused by weeks of struggling against her bonds.
"What the hell happened?"
Lizzie shook her head, wiping away tears and trying to stay in control.
"I'm running out of pills. I've been giving her half doses. I was just trying to clean her up... I thought she was out cold, but she must have just been asleep or she was trying to trick me or..."
She stopped speaking and began to sob, stroking her daughter's lank, greasy hair. She shuffled back as Mark dragged Ellis into the bathroom and chained her to the base of the sink pedestal.
"How many of those shots have you got left?"
"That was the last one."
"And the pills?"
He backed out of the bathroom and shut the door. Lizzie didn't answer until it was fully closed and her daughter had disappeared from view.
"A week at the most."
"What am I going to do, Mark?"
"That thing has to go," Kate interrupted, shouting from across the room and pointing accusingly at the bathroom door. "Get it out of here, because if you two don't, I will."
He walked over to her and reached out to put his arms around her, but she pulled away. She leaned against the wall and slid down it, cradling her distended belly.
"That thing," Lizzie sobbed, "is my daughter."
"She was your daughter," Kate quickly replied. "Christ knows what she is now. She's more animal than human."
"I know that, but what am I supposed to do?" Lizzie asked, sitting on the floor opposite and holding her head in her hands. "You tell me what I'm supposed to do."
"Just get rid of her. She's one of them, Lizzie. She won't stop fighting until she's killed us all-"
"I know, but-"
"She killed your boys. How can you ever stand to be anywhere near her when she took your sons from you?"
"I can't," she immediately answered, pulling her knees up to her chest and bowing her head, ashamed by her own admission. "I don't want her here either, but I don't know what else I can do. I'm her mother and-"
"You could turn her over to the military."
"You know I can't. We've been through this. As soon as they've got her they'll put a bullet in her head."
"I can't let that happen," she snapped with sudden anger evident in her increasingly desperate voice. "You're right, Katie, I should never have brought her here, but what else could I have done? If I just let her go now, she'll start killing, and they'll hunt her down. Even if I could get her out of the city she wouldn't survive. She won't be able to find food or keep warm or look after herself or-"
"Tough. We should just do it."
"How would we get her through the crowds?" Mark asked, trying hard to remain practical and focused and not let fraught emotions cloud the situation.
"Pump her full of drugs, then. Give her everything you've got left. Kill her, for Christ's sake."
"Katie-" Mark began to protest.
"I can't hurt her," Lizzie sobbed. "She's my daughter, my own flesh and blood. Regardless of what she's done or what she might do, I still have to protect her."
***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com