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The two men skulked silently through the filthy streets like starving rats, skin deathly pale, eyes blinking wide, both of them looking from side to side in constant, never-ending fear of attack. They ran frantically through the collapsed ruins at the edge of the town, arms overloaded with the food they'd unexpectedly managed to scavenge, fear and adrenaline driving them on, temporarily masking their physical pain. Their bodies were wrecked: exhausted and underfed. It was the first time either of them had been out in the open in more than two weeks but, as the physically strongest members of the last remaining group of Unchanged in the area, this was something they'd had no choice but to do. Including the straggler who'd found them a few days back, there were only thirteen of them left now. Both Fisher and Winston knew that none of them would last much longer if they didn't have food.
Fisher froze. "Up ahead. Top of the road. Two hundred metres."
Winston grabbed his arm and pulled him back against the wall of the nearest building. He watched the Hater in the distance. Was it alone or part of a pack? His eyes were failing and it was hard to tell anything from here, but it looked like a young boy, probably one of those feral kids like the one that had killed his dad last summer. It paused on the dotted white line in the middle of the road, sniffing at the air like a hunting animal trying to catch a scent. Winston forced himself to remain completely motionless and prayed that Fisher would do the same. Even the slightest movement or noise might give them away and that'd be it – months of constantly struggling to survive ended in a heartbeat (maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing, he thought). He watched the figure up ahead as it began to move again, very slowly at first, then sprinting away at speed when something in the distance caught its eye. Winston didn't move until he was completely sure it had gone. In those unbearably long moments, he asked himself again (as he did at least once every hour) why he was even bothering to try and stay alive? Why not just give up and get it over with? A few seconds of agony and it would all be over and he could stop at last. The fear of death had always been enough to keep driving him on until now, but life was rapidly losing its appeal. Imagine the relief, he thought. No more running. No more hiding. No more crying. No more sitting in silence in the dark with the others, freezing cold, doubled-up with hunger pains, feeling himself draining away, just waiting for the inevitable . . .
"We're clear," Fisher said, his voice just a whisper against the icy wind. Winston pushed himself away from the wall and ran forward again, just managing to keep his balance as he tripped down the kerb, narrowly avoiding the crumbling edge of a huge, egg-shaped crater in the road where the skeletal body of someone who had once been like him lay face down in several inches of dirty rainwater.
Another few minutes of breathless, stop-start running and hiding, and they were almost there. Winston dropped the supplies he'd been carrying in front of the wooden fence then quickly lifted up the third panel along from the right, his fingers numb with cold. Fisher hurriedly climbed through the gap then reached back for the tins and boxes they'd collected. He stood up again and took the weight of the panel so the other man could follow him through. Winston paused to snatch up a can of fruit that Fisher had missed, and to check they hadn't been seen. Behind them, everything appeared reassuringly silent and still. A flurry of grey, ash-like snow drifted down, each flake settling on the ground for just a fraction of a second before melting away to nothing. The remains of the town where he used to live looked as lifeless as Winston felt. The gaping doors and broken windows of battle-damaged houses offered unwanted glimpses into a world he used to belong to but which he was no longer a part of. A dead world. Their world.
"Get a bloody move on," Fisher said anxiously, teeth chattering. Winston pulled his head back and Fisher quickly dropped the panel down with a welcome thud, blocking his view. Between them they snatched up their food then scrambled down a steep, grassy bank towards what once used to be a permanently busy road but which was now just a desolate, wide grey scar lined with rusting wrecks.
In their pitiful condition, the two men both struggled to control their descent down the muddy incline. Wearing dead man's shoes two sizes too big, Fisher fell near to the bottom of the slope, dropping most of the tins and packets he'd been carrying and filling the silent world with ugly, unwanted noise. He frantically scooped everything back up again, still constantly checking his surroundings for movement, before racing after Winston who'd been too scared to stop.
Beneath a bridge, midway along an otherwise featureless concrete wall, was a corrugated steel roller-shutter and, another couple of metres further along, a metal door. Dirty grey, and with once important warning signs now obscured by a layer of black-speckled grime, the door was well camouflaged. Several freshly smudged handprints around the handle and the edges of the frame were the only faint indications that it had recently been used. Precariously balancing his supplies with one arm, Winston hammered on the door to be let inside. Several seconds passed – several seconds too long for his liking – before it finally swung open inwards. An emaciated, skeleton-thin man armed with a nail-spiked baseball bat appeared. He frantically ushered Winston and Fisher indoors then peered down the road in either direction before shutting the door again.
Stumbling in the sudden darkness, Fisher and Winston followed the short access corridor down towards pool of dull yellow light around the main store where the others were waiting. They kicked other people's belongings out of the way then dumped their hoard in the middle of the room. The other survivors hiding in this dank, highways agency storage depot – those who were conscious and still sane - all looked on in disbelief. Sally Marks said what everyone else was thinking. "Where the fuck did you get all that?"
Fisher dropped to his knees and began examining the treasure they'd found outside. He grabbed can after can, holding each of them up to the weak light from the single remaining battery powered lantern in turn, struggling to read the labels. Around him, stomachs growled with hunger and mouths began to water at the prospect of food. Corned beef, tinned vegetables, soup . . . how long had it been?
"Where did you find it?" Sally asked again.
"Where he said," Winston answered, pointing at the man in the corner who'd recently arrived. Thank god he'd found them. He said he'd been following the road for days since his last hiding place had been discovered by the enemy, and he'd tried to take shelter in their hideout, not realising it was already occupied.
"And how did you find it?" Sally asked him, unable to make out his face in the shadows.
"I already told you," he answered. "I saw it just before I found you lot. Couldn't carry it all myself."
"Does it really matter?" Winston sighed.
"Yes it does."
"Remember that corner shop by where the coach station used to be?" Fisher volunteered.
"On Marlbrook Road?" Sally asked.
"That's the one."
"But we've been there before," she said. "Christ, we've been there hundreds of times before."
"Well did we just walk past this stuff all those other times? Did you find a hidden store room we hadn't found before? Open a door you hadn't seen? Someone put this stuff there for us to find, you dumb bastards. It was one of them. It's a trap you fucking idiots, and you walked right into it."
"What the hell does it matter?" Winston spat angrily, struggling with the ring pull on a can of fruit chunks, his fingers numb with cold. "No-one followed us back. We only saw one of them in all the time we were out there, and that was just a kid from a distance. If this was a trap then it didn't work. This place is dead. Even they don't come here anymore."
"He found us," she said, pointing at the man in the corner again.
"That was just luck," Winston argued. "He's like us, Sally. He found this place the same way we did."
Sally shook her head in despair and walked far enough away into the shadows so that no-one could see her. She leant against the wall and massaged her temples. Maybe Winston was right. She'd over-reacted, and not for the first time either. Every day the pressure of being cooped up in here was getting harder and harder to handle. A year ago, all she'd had to worry about was getting the kids to and from school and getting to work on time. Hiding in a disused highways storage depot with strangers, eating cold food from a can, shitting in a bucket in full view of the others, fearing for her safety every second of every day . . . if she'd known what her life was going to become, she'd probably have ended it when the troubles first began.
They tried to make the food last, but more than half of it was gone within an hour, starved stomachs finally gorged after weeks of being drip-fed scraps. It didn't matter. Eating was a distraction which helped reduce the tension in the shelter for a precious few minutes. Sally looked around at the few faces she could see in the low light. Eight-year-old Charlotte stared back at her from the corner where she always sat, surrounded by a barricade of traffic cones and bollards she'd built around herself, her face as pale as ever. The two other children sat close by, Chloe fast asleep, eleven-year-old Jake dutifully sitting beside her, drawing shapes in the dirt with a stick. On the opposite side of the room, Jean Walker and Kerry Hayes spoke together in hushed whispers about nothing of any importance. Sally had thought Kerry beautiful when she'd first met her, but her young body had been ravaged by hunger since they'd had to lock themselves away in here. Her full figure had wasted away to nothing. She looked anorexic now: all protruding bones, stretched skin and straw-like hair. In the diagonally opposite corner, Brian Greene did his best to disguise the fact that he was crying again . . .
A packet of stale biscuits (what luxury, Sally thought to herself dejectedly) was being passed around. She took one, but stopped before she ate it, distracted suddenly by a low rumbling in the distance.
"Did anyone hear that?"
"Hear what?" Kerry asked, immediately concerned, yellow eyes bulging in the light.
"Thought I heard something," she said, already beginning to doubt herself. "Sounded like an engine."
"There's nothing," Fisher said quickly, scowling at her. "Just them moving around up there. Either that or your imagination . . ."
He was probably right. She couldn't hear anything now. Sally passed the packet on to the man sitting next to her – the new arrival. He'd hardly spoken since he'd got here but it was obvious he was as desperate as the rest of them: a scrawny bag of skin and bone, a haunted expression etched permanently onto his weary face. He took the biscuits from Sally, then passed them on without saying a word.
He waited for a few minutes longer before quietly getting up and slipping further back into the shadows. He stepped over and around a couple of bodies – one sleeping, one dying – then made his way through to the part of the cramped storage depot shelter which they used as a toilet.
Sally tried to block out the foul noise of the man pissing from a height into a metal bucket, and was relieved when it finally stopped. She waited for him to come back, but became concerned when he didn't immediately return. The rest of the shelter was almost pitch black but she got up and felt her way along the cold, damp walls until she found him. He was lying on the ground on his back, trying to force the roller-shutter open. A chink of light spilled across the floor where he'd managed to get his fingers under the shutter. With a grunt of effort he lifted it up another six inches.
"What the hell are you doing?" Sally asked, standing directly behind him. He didn't answer. Didn't even look at her. Instead he kept working, shoving his hands further under the shutter and forcing it up another couple of inches at a time. He rolled over onto his front and was about to try and slide through the gap when she grabbed the heel of his boot and pulled him back.
"Don't panic," she pleaded with him, keeping her voice low so the others didn't hear. "Please don't do anything stupid. I know it's hard being trapped in here but don't-"
He crawled back and stood up. Catching Sally off-guard, in a single sudden movement he spun around and reversed their positions, pushing her up against the wall. He covered her mouth with his left hand, barely needing to use any force, then sank a knife deep into her belly.
"I'm sorry," he said, keeping her mouth covered to stifle the noise. "It's better for all of us this way. Trust me."
He lay Sally's body down, waited until he was sure she was dead, then wiped his bloodied hand clean on her jacket and slid out under the roller-shutter.
In stark contrast to the desolate silence an hour or so earlier, the road outside was now full of movement. Several battered vehicles and a group of eight armed figures had gathered a short distance from the storage depot doors. Danny McCoyne picked himself up again, brushed himself down and wearily walked over to talk to Llewellyn who marshalled the movements of the fighters from the back of a pick-up truck.
"Had fun in there, McCoyne?"
"They're fucked," he grunted. "They won't give you any trouble."
"Eleven of them left. Three kids. Few basic weapons. All of them are pretty weak. A couple of them are virtually dead already."
Llewellyn nodded then gestured for his soldiers to take up their positions. An arc of five figures armed with blades, bludgeons and the occasional gun formed around the doorway and waited. A transit van reversed back towards the roller-shutters. The driver got out and moved around to the back.
"Wilson," Llewellyn bellowed at him, "let them go."
On his command, Kevin Wilson, chief kid-wrangler, yanked the van doors open and dragged two small children out on leashes. Naked and covered with grime, they struggled to escape, one of them trying to bite through their lead. When a terrified Unchanged face appeared under the roller-shutter for a split second, the children both lunged forward and threw themselves at the gap with furious speed. It was all Wilson could do to untangle himself from the leather straps and let go before he was dragged inside with them.
Exhausted, McCoyne leant back against Llewellyn's pick-up and waited for the inevitable. Barely half a minute passed before the other door into the shelter flew open and a crowd of terrified Unchanged were flushed out, running straight into the arms of the waiting Haters. He looked on as fighters starved of enemy kills for too long vented all their anger and frustrations on the helpless refugees now flooding out into the open. One of them–Kerry, he'd heard her called-managed somehow to escape, weaving around two fighters who both threw themselves at her at the same time. She'd barely made it another twenty metres before they caught her. One tackled her halfway up the grassy bank, grabbing hold of her spindly legs and thrashing feet. The other thumped an axe into the small of her back, brutally severing her spine. She was already dead but they continued to fight, overcome with the euphoria of the kill and not wanting it to end, slicing and hacking at the woman until what remained of her body had been spread across an area several metres wide; a bloody swathe of violent red in the wet yellow grass.
Copyright © 2011 by David Moody