Chapter Twenty-Three

IT FEELS LIKE AN eternity has passed before he comes back again. He enters the room hurriedly and doesn't look at me or speak. Unusually, he leaves the door open. I can see two other Unchanged men waiting outside, and my pulse starts to quicken. Is this my execution party? But that goes against everything he said earlier. I don't know what to think. I've lost track of what's bullshit and what's fact.

Mallon removes the strap across my forehead, then lies on the floor and does something to the chains holding my arms and legs down. I try to lift my head and look, but I can't see anything. He's out of sight under the bed for a couple of minutes doing Christ knows what; then he scrambles back up and brushes himself down. He stands on the other side of the room and looks at me.

"There you go, you can-"

Before he's even finished his sentence I've realized the shackles have been detached from the bed frame. I swing myself around in a sudden single, painful movement and use my weight to throw myself forward and stand up. My legs and arms are cold, numb, heavy, and unresponsive, but I know this is my chance to kill him. I raise my aching arms and stretch a length of chain between them, ready to wrap it around the fucker's filthy neck and squeeze the life out of him. I lunge, but he sidesteps easily, then sticks out a foot and trips me. I fall quickly, too fast to put my hands out and stop myself. My left shoulder clips the edge of the chair, and then my head smacks against the wall. I roll over onto my back in agony, head spinning and vision blurred. Mallon stands over me. He looks down, shakes his head, and tuts.

"Do you think I'm stupid?"

He moves the chair out of the way and sighs with disappointment.

"Honestly, Danny, weren't you listening to anything I said earlier? Haven't you worked it out yet? The more you struggle and fight, the less you're going to achieve."

In the confusion of my pathetic, fumbled attempt to attack, I managed to kick the door shut. It opens again, and Mallon gestures for the two men outside to come in. One of them, a huge, evil-looking bastard, grabs the chains hanging from my wrists and hauls me up onto my unsteady feet with worrying ease. If he'd been like us, I think to myself, he'd have been a Brute. He grips my arms tight, and it feels like I'm being squeezed in a vise. There's nothing I can do about it. The other man walks toward me and puts something over my head. It's a pillowcase, I think, thin enough for me to be able to breathe but thick enough to block out the light and stop me from seeing. The chains around my ankles are padlocked together. The floor is cold and wet under my bare feet.

"Stay calm and keep your temper in check and you'll be okay," Mallon says. "Fight back and you'll regret it."

Is that a threat or just a warning to play by his rules? Whatever, the slight glimmer of hope I'd been feeling since Mallon's earlier visit has gone now and has been replaced by fear. What are they going to do to me? I'm completely at the mercy of these foul bastards, and there's nothing I can do about it. I feel like a failure, ashamed that I've been beaten by the Unchanged. Even if I did manage to fight them off, I'm still bound and chained. I'd never get away.

"Move," the huge man standing behind me grunts in my ear, his voice deep, loud, and emotionless. He shoves me square in the middle of my back, and I fly forward, barely managing to stay upright and not trip over the chains between my feet. I almost fall, but one of the men-it might even be Mallon-catches me and pulls me back up.

Head bowed, all I can see is my dirty, shackled feet. My legs feel leaden with pain and weak with nerves as I realize this could be my final walk. All that crap about not fighting fire with fire and trying to break the cycle... it was all lies-a cheap, pathetic ruse to keep me occupied and catch me off guard. And the worst thing of all is how easily I fell for it. I should have seen through the bullshit. They were just trying to keep me pacified to make it easier for them to kill me when they're ready. What am I walking toward? A firing squad? A stoning? The room where I'll be given my lethal injection? I try to stop-try to turn around and fight my way out of this-but the fuckers surrounding me are having none of it. They restrain me, but they don't strike back, not even allowing me the satisfaction of going down fighting. When I stop struggling again, they relax their grip and let me walk on alone. The journey to my final destination feels endless. I think about Ellis, and then about Lizzie, Josh, and Edward, and the pain and frustration is too much to stand. I start crying like a fucking baby, sobbing and shaking and pathetic.

We turn right, and I trip through another doorway, stubbing my toe on a low step. This must be it. I'm led across a wide, open space by one of the men before being stood still-exposed, prone, and vulnerable. I feel him tugging on my chains, removing the shackles from my feet; then I hear the clink of metal on metal as another chain is wrapped tight around my waist, then attached to something behind me. I wait and listen as he walks away again, heading back in the direction from which we just came. I'm left here alone, swaying slightly, wrists still bound, my heavy legs still stiff and aching after endless hours of inactivity. I lean forward until the slack is taken up and the chains become tight enough to support my weight. I look down at my bare feet and the grubby, years-old carpet, crying pathetic tears of anger and desperation that bounce and splash off the floor. What will I see when they uncover my head? Will they even bother? Maybe they'll just shoot me blind. I picture the two men standing at the other end of the room on either side of Mallon, both of them holding guns aimed in my direction. They could fire at any second. These might be my last few seconds of life. My legs feel like they're about to give way, but I'm determined to stand proud and defiant and face this like a man. But this wasn't how it was supposed to end...

The pillowcase is whipped off my head and dropped on the floor. I close my eyes for a split second, then open them wide again and look up. Mallon is backing away from me. He's the only other person here. I'm standing alone in a large, open room, chained to the back wall by an industrial-strength bracket. The fear starts to lessen, and uneasy, tentative relief takes its place, but I know it's not over. Just because he hasn't killed me yet doesn't mean he's not still going to. The room is bright and cold. There are windows along one wall, but they're too far away and too high to see through. I can see the very tops of distant trees and the squally, rain-filled sky, nothing else.

Mallon watches me intently, then turns and leaves. The temporary relief immediately disappears with him. What happens next? Is this another gas chamber? There's no pipework or exhaust fans that I can see, but there are red and brown splashes and stains on the grubby wall behind me-blood, shit, and Christ knows what else. There are two filthy buckets over to my right, one of them full of water. Waterboarding? Torture? But I don't have any secrets or restricted information, so what can they hope to get from me? Or is it worse than that? Is Mallon about to start playing masochistic games with me? Rape me, even? Whatever he decides, there's nothing I can do about it. But when it happens I'll fight the fucker until either he's dead or I am.

He's back, this time carrying more food and a pile of clothes. My last supper?

"Move back," he says, watching me carefully. "Right up against the wall."

I do as he says, shuffling backward but not risking turning around. Mallon edges forward to the spot where I was standing, watching me constantly. He puts down the clothes and the food, then moves back again. He sits down a safe distance away.

"Help yourself."

Stunned, I can't help speaking. "What?"

"I said help yourself. The food tastes like shit today, but it's warm and it's better than nothing. And the clothes are from a dead man, I'm afraid. But hey, they don't stink of piss like yours do!"

I don't move. He gestures for me to come closer, and I slowly start to edge forward, moving like a bear circling a bloody lump of fresh meat in the middle of a trap. Is the food I'm shoveling into my mouth poisoned? It wasn't before. I sit down cross-legged and start eating, too hungry to care. I can't tell what it is I'm eating, and he's right, it does taste like shit, but that doesn't matter-it's food. It's finished too soon, and I wash it down with another bottle of stale, lukewarm water.

"Better?" Mallon asks, stretching out on the floor and appearing surprisingly relaxed. "I'll get you some more later. There's soap and water for you to wash with in one of those buckets over there. Scrub yourself down, Danny. Get rid of the stink and try to make yourself feel human again."

I don't argue. I get up and move over to the buckets. They're just inside the reach of the chains. I take off my soiled shorts and rip off my shirt (the shackles on my wrists preventing me taking it off any other way), then start to wash. There's an inch of disinfectant at the bottom of the other bucket, and its purpose is obvious. I drag it closer to the wall, turn my back on Mallon, and squat and shit. I wipe myself clean on the torn clothes I've just discarded.

I wash myself as best I can, then dry off with a blanket that Mallon throws over to me. I pull on a pair of trousers that just about fit, then wrap the blanket around my shoulders to keep warm. I walk toward Mallon until the chains are at full stretch. Bastard just sits there and looks up at me. He knows I can't reach him.

But then-to my complete amazement and disbelief-he throws a bunch of keys and some other stuff out of reach and stands up. He waits, psyching himself up; then he walks closer, so close we're almost touching.

"All we need-" he starts to say, but I shut the fucker up. I grab his collar, spin him around, and slam him down on the floor. He tries to fight me off, but I brush him aside. He's had this coming for too long. I drag him nearer to the back wall, his stumpy, pudgy, pathetic limbs flailing, then take up the slack from the chain around my right wrist and wrap it around his neck. He splutters, showering me with foul Unchanged spittle, and his already bulging eyes grow wider still. I pull tighter, feeling his life slipping away, focusing on the image of him lying dead at my feet.

"Kill me," he says, his breath a hissing, choked whisper, "and you've lost everything."

I pull harder, feeling the chain digging into his neck, constricting his windpipe and cutting off his air supply.

Then I stop. What did he say? Is he right...?

He flops over onto his front, gasping for breath, and starts to crawl away. He's barely gone a yard when I snap myself out of this stupid malaise. I reach out, grab his leg, and drag him back, feeling myself getting stronger by the second. I roll him over and form my hand into a chain-wrapped fist. I'm ready to smash it into his face when he speaks again.

"Break the cycle."

I punch him, just catching his jaw as he turns his head away. I straddle his out-of-shape body, a knee on either side to stop him moving, ready to end his miserable life. My left leg is wet. He's pissed himself with fear.

"Now who stinks of piss?"

I lift my fist again, and he raises his arms to cover his face.

"Please, Danny. Show some control. Kill me now and they'll leave you chained up here to rot."

I pull my fist back even farther. If I hit him this time I know I'll finish him.

"Think about your family. Think about what you could do if you got out of here."

Bullshit.

Is it?

He's right about one thing-I'm still chained to the wall and I can't escape this room. And I know he only mentioned my family for effect, but how can I do anything to help Ellis if I'm stuck here and left to starve? I can see the keys on the floor, well out of reach.

Against my better judgment-against everything I feel and believe-I stand up and step back. Mallon scrambles to safety, holding his mouth and spitting blood onto the floor. Is the fucker going to leave me here now? He staggers away, then stops. Still rubbing his jaw, he turns around and grins, blood covering his yellow-white teeth.

"You did it! I knew you could!"

"What?"

"You did it, Danny. More to the point, you didn't do it."

I don't understand. He sits down, exhausted, breathing heavily. I walk as far as the chains will let me.

"I gave you a chance to kill me, and you didn't take it. You almost did, but you stopped yourself. You held the Hate."

"Only because-" I start to explain. He holds up his hand to stop me talking and washes out his mouth with water from my bottle. One of us must have kicked it across the room in the fight. He spits red-tinged water out onto the dirty carpet.

"Doesn't matter why," he says, "fact is you did it. Takes a person of intelligence to do that. Someone who can look beyond all this hatred and fighting and see what's really important."

Patronizing bastard.

"I made a mistake and you got lucky."

He shakes his head. "I don't think so."

"I do."

"No," he says, his voice suddenly more serious, "you're wrong. This is what happened-I gave you an opportunity to kill me, which you instinctively tried to take. But, before you could do it, you stopped and weighed up the pros and cons. And you realized your choice was pretty stark: kill me and rot here, or let me go and survive."

Bastard. He's right.

"What's important," he continues, "is the fact that you overruled your instincts. Like I said, you held the Hate."

I can't argue. I want to, but I can't. I sit down opposite him. I should have killed him, but I didn't. What does that make me? I feel strangely dirty and defiled, as if I've just made the most embarrassing, basic mistake, like a teenaged boy caught jerking off by his mom. In the distance I can hear the muffled thump and bangs of explosions. Elsewhere the fighting continues. It should have continued in here, too. I should reach across, grab hold of him, and kill him now. But I don't.

"So how did it happen to you?" he asks, mouth still bleeding. "I've told you my story, Danny, what your people did to my family. Now you tell me yours."

I say nothing.

"Come on... what have you got to lose by talking to me? Face facts. I could have had you killed when you first arrived here, but I didn't. I could have done it myself, but instead I've fed you, watered you, I haven't tortured you... You don't have any information I want, no top secret plans of attack... There's no need for you not to speak now. You've already done the hard part; now finish the job. Break the cycle. Talk to me like the rational human being I know you really are. It's up to you."

I can see the frustration in his face. Truth is, I'm not trying to be defiant now. I'm thinking about what he said. Either he's right and I've got nothing left to lose, or it's too late and I've already lost it all. Or is my sudden pathetic weakness just a result of the physical and emotional stress of captivity? Have I just lost the ability to think straight?

"Back in your room yesterday," he continues, "you flinched when I mentioned your family. Those things I found in your bag, the doll and the clothes... Do you want to start there? Are they trophies or reminders?"

I try hard to hide it, but my reaction when he mentions my family is disappointingly obvious. He immediately picks up on it.

"So what happened? Were you with them when you changed? Are you carrying around some kind of guilt because you killed the people you used to love?"

Can't help myself. He's hit a nerve. "My only guilt is that I didn't kill them." My voice sounds loud and overamplified, alien and strange.

"Tell me more..."

"I was confused, disoriented," I tell him, my words sounding angry, strangled by emotion. "Should have killed them, but I didn't. They caught me off guard."

"Partner?"

I nod my head.

"Kids?"

"Three. One like me, two like you."

He looks confused. "One like you?"

"Ellis, my daughter."

"What happened to her?"

I'm about to tell him, but I stop myself, suddenly remembering that I'm talking to one of the Unchanged. Don't want him to know she's the reason I came back to the city.

"Her mother took her," I answer, spitting out the words. He nods slowly, trying to make it look like he understands.

"Must be hard to deal with," he says. "I mean, I thought I'd had it bad, but at least I know what happened to my family. I know they're both dead and I've had closure, but you, you don't have a clue where any of them are or even if they're still alive."

"I should have killed them," I say again.

"I can't begin to imagine what you've been through. The realization you were a killer must have been hard enough. How did they get away?"

"I was disoriented. I'd kill them in a heartbeat if they were here now."

"You didn't kill me."

"No, but I-"

"You're from around here, right?" he interrupts.

"Depends where here is."

"What about the other two kids?"

"Two boys. One older, one younger than my girl."

"Really tough," he says quietly, shaking his head and rinsing his bloody mouth out again. "So how have you coped?"

Is he mocking me now?

"I've killed as many of you fuckers as I've been able to find," I answer, feeling my body start to tense up again.

"Except me."

"There's still time..."

"Okay," he says quickly, leaning back and looking up at the ceiling, "but has it actually helped? Has it got you any closer to getting your daughter back? I presume that's what you were heading back to the city for?"

Christ, I have to give him his due, he's good. That one came from out of nowhere.

"I'll find her if it's the last thing I do."

"That's good."

"Is it?"

He nods his head vigorously. "Of course it is. It shows there's more to you than just wanting to fight and kill all the time. You still give a damn about your daughter, and that means you've still got a chance. Honestly, Danny, most of the people like you who come through here are complete no-hopers, only interested in killing. You, you're different. You're thinking further ahead than the next battle."

"Doesn't mean I won't fight. Doesn't mean I won't still kill you."

"Of course not, but from where I'm sitting, killing me would be the worst thing you could do. How would it help? Like I said earlier, you'd just be fighting fire with fire. Just stop for a second and work your way back, Danny. Think about everything that's happened to you to bring you to this point. The Hate has taken everything you ever had. It's stripped you of your soul and your identity. It's stopped you functioning as a human being."

"It hasn't. I know exactly-"

"You've lost everything because of it... your family, your home, your daughter. If it wasn't for the Hate you might still be with her now. Christ, man, it's even cost you your dignity and your freedom. You've spent the last two days lying in a bed of your own piss, tied up and caged like an animal. And at this precise moment in time, you're close to losing control of your future, too. If I wanted to I could walk out of here right now and not look back. I could leave you here alone to starve and die. You don't know where you are, how many other people are here, what's on the other side of the door to this room... Face it, Danny, right now all you have is me."

He stops talking and waits for me to respond, but I can't. All I can do is stare back at his barely human face. Is he right? He shuffles forward until he's just within reach. Is he taunting me? Testing me?

"People tell me I'm wasting my time with your type. They tell me you're no better than animals, that you've got dog blood running through your veins and you should be rounded up and shot."

"I don't care what they-"

"You know what I tell them? I tell them they're wrong. But you're the only one who can really decide who's right. If the boot was on the other foot and I was your prisoner, Danny, what would you do now?"

"I'd-"

"Stupid question. We'd have never got to this stage. You'd already have killed me. You could do it now if you want to, but I think you're better than that."

He moves forward again. I move to scratch the stabbing itch by my right knee, which has just returned, and he flinches. He's trembling. Is this just part of the act, or is his fear genuine?

"Cooperate with me and prove the rest of them wrong. Show me you can control your emotions and I'll help you. I can get access to records. I could try to find out what happened to your daughter."

That doesn't ring true at all. It smacks of desperation, and he knows it.

"Bullshit."

He shrugs his shoulders. "It might be, but what have I got to gain? More to the point, what have you got to lose?"

Head's spinning. Can't take all this in. Can't think straight. My heart says kill, but something's telling me to wait because he's right, fighting has got me nowhere. And if there's even the slightest chance he'll be able to help me, should I take it? He leans back and picks up the keys. He takes one of the keys off the ring and throws it over to me.

"For the chains around your wrists," he says. "Take them off and finish getting dressed."

I do as he says, stretching my arms and flexing my muscles. The freedom feels good after endless hours of being wrapped in chains. I walk back across the room to the pile of clothes. All the time, Joseph stays seated on the floor. He's within the reach of the chains around my waist. We both know I could kill him if I wanted to. He's terrified, I can see it in his eyes, and that gives me strength to hold my nerve. I hold the Hate.

Maybe I'll give him a chance. If he lets me down, I'll kill him.

v

THE TORRENTIAL RAINS WERE unexpected, weather forecasts a long-forgotten luxury. The flash floods wreaked unprecedented destruction on the city center refugee camp and its densely packed population. Those living out on the streets bore the brunt of the pain as almost a month's worth of rain fell in less than two hours, literally washing away scores of people and their few remaining belongings. Blocked and broken drains stopped the water from draining away, transforming many streets and pavements into stagnant lakes. The basements and ground floors of countless buildings flooded. Almost half of the military base in the municipal park was washed away, with a huge number of refugee-occupied tents being lost. Then, to add insult to injury, as quickly as the rains came, they disappeared. Thankfully the sun remained hidden behind a layer of heavy cloud for most of the day, but the summer heat and a few sharp bursts of sunlight were enough to dry out and bake the bedraggled world below. Every outdoor surface was caked in a layer of foul-smelling mud, a grubby tidemark on building walls a grim reminder of how high the floodwaters had climbed. Huge mountains of rain-soaked garbage and waste began to ferment, the insect population feeding on them seeming to multiply by the hour.

Constant helicopter patrols continued to police the border and the exclusion zone. All scheduled missions outside the city were temporarily abandoned as, for once, the already severely depleted military forces turned their attention to the thousands of people supposedly in their care. Their orders were simple: Get as many people off the streets as possible (living or dead), then clear the major routes through town.

Ahead of the motley collection of vehicles that crawled slowly along Arley Road, groups of soldiers on foot moved from building to building through the early evening darkness. One of the snowplow-fitted trucks was used to clear a route through, pushing tons of sodden waste toward the gutter and leaving a noxious, three-foot-high drift of garbage in its wake. Hazmat-suited soldiers followed it along the freshly scraped pavement, pulling corpses from the mire and loading them into the backs of the yellow refuse and recycling trucks that had been recently commandeered from the now-dissolved city council.

A group of three soldiers emerged from a building that had once been a large house but in more recent years had been converted into office space. By flashlight, one of them spray-painted a simple message onto the brick wall beside the door, a message for those who followed.

37 INSIDE

6 DEAD

20 MORE

Ignoring the countless frightened questions and the grabbing hands of the refugees who surrounded them, the soldiers moved on to the next building. Thirty-seven survivors, six bodies to remove, space for twenty more inside.

There was a sudden loud thump on the door of room 33. Mark jumped up from the space on the damp floor where he'd been trying to sleep and ran to the door, tripping over Kate's father's leg, which hung out of the bed. He pressed his eye against the spyhole.

"Who is it?" Kate asked, standing close behind him.

"Soldiers."

"Don't let them in."

"I have to."

The lead soldier thumped the door again and yelled for them to open up.

"Don't," Kate pleaded.

"If I don't open it they'll batter the damn thing down."

Before she could protest he pulled the door open. Three soldiers barged through, pushing him to the side. They stood in the middle of the room, each of them shining a flashlight around, exposing every corner of the small, cramped space.

"What's going on?" Mark asked, positioning himself directly in one of the beams of light.

"Assessing space," the soldier replied, looking around, his voice devoid of interest or emotion. "How many you got here?"

"Five of us. And five's more than enough. There's barely enough room as it is. We can't fit anyone else in-"

"Who?"

"What?"

"Who's here?"

"Me, my girlfriend, her parents, and my cousin's wife. And my girlfriend's pregnant. Like I said, there's no room for anyone else."

One of the other soldiers made a note on a clipboard. The others continued to look around. Kate forced her way between them, stopping one of them from getting around the side of the double bed. She stood in front of him, thrusting out her pregnant belly for maximum effect.

"He told you. There's no more space here."

The soldier ignored her, moving her out of the way, then ducking down and glancing under the bed. He shined his flashlight onto the bed's occupants, the two wizened, starving, elderly refugees shaking in fear under the sheets like characters from a Roald Dahl story.

"Your parents?"

She nodded. He spun around. Lizzie sat on a chair in front of the bathroom door, her legs drawn up beneath her, nervously chewing on her nails. She kept her eyes down, refusing to look up. Mark tried diplomatically to coax the soldiers back out.

"My cousin's partner," he explained, keeping his voice low so she couldn't hear him. "He was, you know... one of them? She lost her kids, and it's really fucked her up. Honestly, man, it's not a good idea to put anyone else in here with us. What with the baby coming and-"

"Not my decision, pal," the soldier said.

"But I've been a volunteer," he protested. "I've been outside the city with you. I've been-"

"Not my decision," he said again. With that the soldiers left the room. Mark slammed the door shut and leaned against it, staying there until he was sure he'd heard the door to the next room opening. He started to walk back to the others, but Kate stopped him.

"We can't go on like this," she whispered. "We should find somewhere else for her. It's not safe here."

"And where exactly is safe these days?" He sighed, leaning back against the door again.

"But she's-"

"She's family. They all are. Your family, my family... our family. We stick together, and that's all there is to it."

"But Mark-"

"Would I ask you to throw your parents out?"

"That's different-"

"Is it? I'm not talking about this again, Kate. It's a pointless conversation. She's family and she stays. No one's going anywhere."

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***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com

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