MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
They call it the battle-bus. It was a standard double-decker once—nothing special, one of hundreds that drove up and down the city’s commuter routes, packed with people—until the Civil Defense Force fighters repurposed it into a weapon of war. Long gone are the days when this thing carried students, shoppers, and workers. It might only have been a couple of months ago, but the battle-bus is as much a deterrent now as the all-terrain trucks, armored jeeps, and tactical support vehicles it rides alongside.
On one side of the bus there’s a painted-over advert for a film no one saw. On the other, an equally obscured ad for shampoo. Remember when all that stuff mattered? Remember when we watched films? Remember when we washed our hair and gave a damn about how we looked? Today all that’s important is staying alive.
Metal grilles have been welded over the windows of the bus, slits cut out for the barrels of rifles or the brutal blades of knives or the sharpened points of spears or whatever else the fighters can find to keep those foul Hater bastards at bay. It’s their fault, all of this. Those evil fuckers deserve everything that’s coming to them.
The bottom deck of the bus is packed full of people. Militia fighters pressed up tight against each other, looking combat-ready, feeling anything but. Because unlike the enemy they’re about to face, this is alien to them. You have to match their aggression and speed, that’s the key. They’ll kill you quick if you spend too long thinking about it.
The guy at the front of the line with a Beretta used to be a teacher, but his classroom’s now empty. The woman immediately behind was a stay-at-home mum, but there’s nothing left for her to stay at home for, and anyway, her home’s just a shell, an empty box leaking memories. Now she’s out here day after day, seeking revenge for the slaughter of her family. She’ll tell you she’s just doing her bit to help keep the wheels turning, but that’s crap. Coming out here is vengeance and therapy rolled into one. She realized that when she felt the cathartic rush the first time she skewered one of those vile Hater creatures on the meter-long length of sharpened metal railing she carries with her at all times.
The top deck of the bus is empty, for now. The plan today is simple—same as yesterday and no doubt the same as tomorrow. Find anyone human who’s left alive out here and get them safely within the city’s makeshift walls.
There are more than thirty people in this ragtag convoy of military and civilian vehicles, heading toward one of the largest groups they’ve found in a long time. A scout spotted a pocket of survivors sheltering in a clinic on one of the main routes into town. No one knows who these people are, where they came from, or how long they’ve been here, but they’re still alive and they’re like us and, right now, that’s all that matters.
Damn Haters are everywhere, though. They come from all angles at once and never give up. The way they focus on the clinic is proof positive there are people worth saving in there.
The Haters’ approach is scattershot—many individual attacks combining to become a continuous yet largely uncoordinated blitzkrieg. By contrast there are preplanned strategies and agreed tactics behind the response of the quasi-military Unchanged forces. They approach the battle zone bunched up tight like a rolling road block and then, as they near the clinic, CDF fighters lay down suppressing fire, picking off the Haters now swarming toward them from either side.
Despite their lack of cohesion, however, the Haters are no less effective. Some of them are armed but, for the most part, they are the weapons. Their advantage is both in their numbers and their sheer aggression. Right now, this battle is their only focus. Nothing else matters. They exist for the kill.
The drivers in the CDF convoy keep their speed up, because a vehicle traveling at speed is a weapon of its own volition and a vehicle moving at anything less than full-pelt out here becomes a target. The guy behind the wheel of the bus is still struggling to adapt to what his life has become. He’s been driving buses around the city center and surrounding suburbs for almost twenty years. All he used to worry about was kids doing drugs on the top deck and the stream of drink-fueled verbal abuse he’d be subjected to most Friday and Saturday nights. Today, his bus is a weapon.
Right on cue, two bikers break ranks and accelerate toward the clinic, weaving through the carnage and swerving to avoid random Hater attacks. These are the brave ones, the bus driver thinks as he watches them race away. The men and women on bikes are the ones who risk everything to clear the way for those who follow behind. It’s a vital job they do, because after two and a half months of fighting, there are few roads left passable out here. Upturned and burned-out vehicles, rubble from buildings, and other less identifiable rubbish covers the ground. Grass verges and weeds have been left to grow wild and there always seems to be at least one corpse in view. If not a whole body then a limb or two or, at the very least, telltale crimson stain reminders that the summer rains haven’t yet washed away.
A man appears up on the edge of the flat roof of the clinic, gesticulating wildly, pointing out a route through the debris the survivors left to make things more difficult for their attackers (though even the most optimistic refugee knows it’ll take more than a few car wrecks to stop those blood-crazed bastards getting through). This haphazard obstacle course has at least slowed down the Hater assault, giving the refugees a chance to either fight back or run like hell.
There’s a battered red Vauxhall Astra parked across the clinic door. Another survivor climbs out through a ground-floor window and jumps into the driver’s seat, releasing the handbrake and letting the car roll back enough so it clears the door. He’s given an unexpected shunt by a vicious Hater who hurls herself at the front of the Astra with scant regard for her own safety. The guy behind the wheel scrambles over into the backseat as the filthy, half-naked woman repeatedly smashes first her fists and then her head against the cracked windshield. He’s seen too many Haters like this before. They are the very worst of the worst. The only thing that matters to them is the kill. She punches the glass again and breaks through, slashing her skin. She doesn’t even notice, totally focused on the terrified man she has cornered. She rips the broken windscreen away with shredded fingers, only stopping when an ex–bank clerk shoots her in the back at point-blank range from the relative safety of the battle-bus.
Fifteen minutes ago this place was silent as the grave, but there are Haters everywhere now. They’re still swarming out of the shadows like insects, converging on the convoy with an unquestionable, unspoken collective aim: to kill everyone not like them, to wipe out every last one of the Unchanged.
A number of particularly agile attackers focus on the bus instead of the clinic, hanging off the metal grilles and trying to climb up onto the roof. Most are dislodged by the rudimentary yet effective weapons brandished by the resistance fighters; speared, stabbed, and slashed. One makes it as high as the top deck before being shot in the chest through a window by a fighter who’s just raced up the stairs.
More Haters are streaming through the gap that’s opened up in front of the clinic now that the Astra has shifted. The guy still stranded in the car crouches out of sight in the footwell, waves of Hate flowing along either side like he’s caught in a flash flood. The bikers try to draw them away, buzzing around like flies. It works to a point, but luck has just run out for one of them. He’s brought down by a pack of feral Hater kids who take him out in a pincer movement, then fight with each other to be the one who strikes the killer blow. One of the kids is shot, the force of the blast blowing the scrawny child off her feet, but the others don’t even notice, don’t even look up.
Another vehicle joins the fray. It was tucked out of sight behind the battle-bus until it was needed. It’s a Ford Ranger—an ugly, angular pickup with bull bars at the front. The driver uses it as a battering ram, punching a hole through the attacking hordes, mowing scores of them down with a remorseless, almost Hater-like brutality.
Inside the clinic, the twenty or so people who’ve been sheltering here have realized this is a full-on rescue attempt, not just an attack. It was impossible to be sure when everything kicked off, but now there’s a desperate scramble to gather up supplies and belongings and whatever else they can before the battle-bus reaches them. There’s no time to plot or plan or explain—just wait for the nod then run. The nervousness is toxic. Standing on this side of the door it’s impossible to know exactly what’s happening out there. The air is filled with screams of pain, shouted orders, straining engines, constant collisions, and gunfire. It’s a cacophony of noise which washes and swirls, confusing and directionless, filled with anger and hate coming from both opposing sides.
The lookout returns from the clinic roof and pushes through the mass of people waiting to leave. He barks a one-word order to the person at the front. “Go!”
The woman nearest the door is in her mid-thirties. She’s brandishing a gun she’s not sure how to use, but when she shoves the door open and the first Hater appears, she shoots. The recoil nearly wrenches her shoulder from its socket. The people behind push her forward and though she manages to take out another Hater with something of a lucky shot, two more drag her down and kill her before she’s even realized she’s been caught.
The killing of the woman leaves a gap that’s wide enough for most of the refugees to pour through. It’s less than a twenty-meter dash from the front of the building to the waiting battle-bus, and though twenty meters is nothing, today it feels like a marathon. The exodus from the clinic is a chaotic mass sprint for the line. People who’ve worked with each other for weeks to stay alive now compete to survive, and several of the slowest are isolated and picked off with ease by the Haters. One guy—late teens, maybe early twenties, all full of swagger and talk until he got out here—is traumatized. He stops running and just stands there in the midst of the madness, numb. He’s swallowed up in the blink of an eye. Dead in seconds.
It’s utter chaos out here now, people everywhere. The only distinction between the two opposing sides is the level of aggression on display, the ferocity of the fighting. To the casual observer it looks like a mass brawl that’s growing exponentially. The Haters are incensed by the close proximity of their Unchanged prey, intoxicated by the insatiable bloodlust which consumes them, more and more of them running straight at the bus and straight to their deaths. Bodies pile up—it looks like there are more people dead than left fighting now—and then everything changes.
Job done, the driver of the battle-bus blasts the horn, and the purpose of his signal is clear: We’ve got as many as we’re going to get. Time to get out of here.
A volley of grenades is launched in the general direction of the now abandoned clinic. Are the munitions thrown by a Hater trying to flush out any remaining Unchanged, or by an Unchanged fighter wanting to wipe out the scores of kill-hungry Haters now crowding into the building? Whoever is responsible, the result is the same. The right wing of the clinic explodes outward, belching blossoming flame then acrid black smoke. The detonation causes a momentary distraction which allows the Unchanged convoy space to change direction. Bikes and jeeps weave in and around the butchery, doing what they can to protect the battle-bus as it turns a slow and clumsy arc in the debris-strewn road. Inside, its passengers cling on for dear life. Those refugees who’ve made it to the top deck crouch and hide below the seats. Of the twenty or so people who left the clinic just now, only seven have survived.
The convoy accelerates back down the road, only to be met by another wall of Hate coming the other way. What’s left of this world is rarely quiet and the concentrated din coming from this particular trouble spot has attracted Haters from miles around. They’re coming here in droves now. The driver of the Ford Ranger accelerates into the crowds again, swerving and skidding to bring down as many of the enemy as possible, but his dogged resistance comes to an abrupt end as he’s rammed from the side by a flatbed truck carrying more Haters. The entangled vehicles collide with a bus shelter. One Hater finishes off the driver of the Ford, the others race toward the battle-bus.
There’s a lone figure lying on top of the shelter who steadies himself as it shakes and groans with the violent impact. He’s separated from the street-level madness by the narrowest of margins, little more than a couple of precarious meters of dead space. This is the last place he’d be if he had any choice, but it’s been his best option today. He found the survivors in the clinic several days back and he’s been in the vicinity ever since, biding his time and waiting for someone to come mount a rescue operation. He knows that everything comes down to what happens in the next few minutes. He’s not as scared as he thinks he maybe should be. He’s been in tighter spots than this before and he’ll no doubt be in tighter spots again. Assuming he survives, that is.
Matthew Dunne exists on the periphery of everything, living on the fringes and moving through the shadows. It’s how he’s managed to stay alive in the days and weeks he’s been on the run. How much of it is down to luck he’s not sure, but one thing’s for certain—no matter how long he’s managed to last so far, he only gets to fuck up once. Is today the day his luck finally runs out?
Matt’s been up here for almost a day and a half, watching the drone activity overhead, knowing it could all kick off at any second. This was a decent-sized group, large enough to warrant a full-scale rescue attempt. The waiting’s over and he knows that any second now he’s going to have to make his move. He just hopes his body won’t let him down. He’s been flexing his legs as best he can all day, but lying still like this, he’s worried he’ll have cramped up. He won’t know for sure until he has to run.
All he carries with him is a rucksack half-full of scraps and a rock climber’s ice axe he found when he spent time hiding in a sports store week before last. So far he’s only used it as a tool, not a weapon, but it’s good to have the option. This is everything he owns. Everything he hasn’t yet reclaimed, that is. He’s hoping the rest of his life is where he left it in the middle of the city just a few miles from here. That’s assuming there’s anything left of his hometown, of course, but the signs are good. The increased air activity indicates there’s something still worth fighting for around here. He just won’t know what it is until he gets there.
Fingertips outstretched, Matt pulls himself nearer to the edge of the shelter roof to see what’s happening. Jesus Christ—the carnage is worse than he’d imagined. Endless chaos in every direction, pitched battles still raging, bodies everywhere. He always feels a pang of guilt: I could have done something … I could have helped … but he also knows that if he had, he’d likely be dead, too. Keeping his distance like this is the only reason he’s lasted so long out here.
Just ahead, the driver of the bus slams on the brakes as a Hater on a motorbike cuts across in front of him. The size difference between the two machines is vast, but it’s still instinctive for the bus driver to hold back and not use his vehicle as a battering ram. An Unchanged soldier behind the wheel of a jeep, however, has no such qualms. He hits the Hater in the saddle side-on with full force, sending both the killer and the bike skidding across the street and leaving an unexpected swath of clear space.
This is it. Time to move.
Matt slides off the bus shelter roof, drops down, and starts to run. There’s plenty of stiffness in his legs and his speed is a fraction of what it needs to be. He accelerates through the pain, half-sprinting, half-limping toward the convoy, dividing his attention between where he’s trying to get to and everything in between. This is the part he couldn’t plan for: once he’s reached the convoy, how does he get their attention and get onto one of the vehicles without being shot at, impaled, crushed by Haters, or all three?
There is another option. There’s a footbridge up ahead, spanning the width of the wide road. He was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but he always knew it probably would. Same end result but with a hundred times the risk.
His pace increases with each step as the stiffness in his bones subsides. Thankfully, it looks like his usual trick is paying dividends—the madness continuing to unfold all around the stop-start convoy is enough of a distraction to enable him to race along the fringes of the battle unnoticed. The less fuss and noise he makes, the better his chances.
The convoy’s still moving, but it’s like driving through treacle. They’ve probably got enough muscle and firepower to get through, Matt thinks. Just about. He overtakes then runs ahead. Almost at the footbridge.
Matt swerves around the back of a Hater woman as she attacks a lone Unchanged soldier who’s crashed his jeep and is running for his life. The soldier scrambles for his rifle but the woman’s speed and ferocity is too much. He makes eye contact with Matt for the briefest of moments, eyes wide and desperate for help, but Matt just keeps running because the longer he’s out in the open, the greater the chance this’ll be the day it all goes wrong and he ends up like the poor fucker he’s just ignored.
There are still more Haters coming, wave after wave of them pouring into the street like a pitch invasion at the end of a football final, desperate to spill Unchanged blood.
Matt makes himself stick to his plan (for what it’s worth) and ignore the panic that’s rising in his throat like bile. There’s a nagging voice in his head screaming you’re fucked … you should have stayed where you were, you idiot. But Matt’s had enough of waiting. He’s been taking baby steps home for weeks and now that he’s almost made it back, the temptation to sprint for the line is impossible to ignore. He was always going to have to make a move like this sooner or later. He’s starting to think later might have been a better option.
He’s a couple of meters short of the footbridge, and about fifty meters ahead of the slowly advancing battle-bus. In front of him is a mob of between twenty and thirty Haters, all of whom have him in their sights. Matt runs straight at them.
He takes them by surprise when he darts left and pounds up the spiral slope onto the footbridge; a long, wheelchair-friendly, corkscrew climb upward. Looking down through the railings, he sees waves of them coming after him. The pursuing pack splits, racing toward the opposing ends of the bridge, cutting off his escape. They’ve got him trapped and they know it. All exits reduced to zero.
Or so they think.
Matt’s one step ahead of the game. Always has been. Can’t afford not to be. These days a split-second advantage is all that separates the living from the dead.
He’s halfway along the length of the narrow bridge, exposed and in full view. And as the resistance convoy finally picks up some speed, the enemy’s focus shifts to the lone idiot up high. Matt stops. He just stands there and waits as Haters come at him from both directions. The fastest are terrifyingly close. He can almost feel their breath on him, can smell their doglike stench.
Timing is everything.
Just one second longer …
As the nearest Hater lunges for him, Matt climbs up onto the safety railing and jumps off the bridge. He lands hard on top of the battle-bus as it passes underneath and he hammers the serrated pick of the ice axe down through the metal skin of its roof, giving him a solid anchor. He wraps the nylon strap around his wrist again and again and holds on for all he’s worth, the strap so tight that if he was to be thrown from the bus, he’d likely leave a severed hand behind. He flattens himself down and spreads his weight, maximizing his surface area to reduce the risk of being thrown off, at the same time hoping the street-level fighting will continue to be more of a distraction than him being up here. He has visions of bayonets and gunshots coming up from the top deck to try and force him off.
What have I become?
Sometimes Matt’s unrecognizable to himself. The journey home has changed him. He looks back at the seething crowds he’s left behind on the bridge, baying for his blood, and thinks I’m not like you. The Haters are dangerous as hell, but they’re increasingly predictable. He’s trained himself to think like them and anticipate their next move, then do the exact opposite. And then he thinks about the people in the battle-bus. I’m not like you, either.
Facedown. Breathing hard. Relieved but nervous. (Relatively) safe for now. It’s only now that Matt allows himself to believe he might finally have done it. Next stop, home. Nine weeks, three days, eight hours since he was last there. Back to Jen. Christ, he’s missed her. The thought of seeing her again takes the faintest edge off the painful emptiness he’s felt for weeks.
Copyright © 2019 by David Moody