Them or Us
By David Moody
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2011 David Moody
All rights reserved.
THE BONFIRE OUTSIDE THE ransacked Unchanged shelter is burning out of control. The morons who were supposed to be watching it have been distracted, squabbling over food. There's a momentary flash of flame and a sudden loud explosion and they scatter, running for cover like frightened kids on Bonfire Night. Probably just an aerosol can or something similar lying too close to the heat, but whatever it was, Llewellyn's not happy. He grabs hold of one of them and kicks his legs out from under him, then he drags the scrawny little bastard nearer to the fire and pushes his face into it, screaming and shouting at him. Sobbing, the little man reaches into the embers and attempts to salvage some of the meat that's been roasting to pacify Llewellyn, who yells at him again, then kicks him in the side of the head, knocking him out cold. The way the fighters treat the others makes me feel sick to my stomach. I look at the man lying flat on his back and I think, That used to be me.
I'd rather keep my distance, but my feet and hands are numb with cold, so I walk toward the bonfire to try to warm up. In a year that's so far been filled with hundreds of fucking miserable days, this must be the worst yet. The gusting wind cuts through me like a knife, making the already subzero temperature sink further still, and the air is filled with sleet, which blows into my face like a constant hail of tiny needles. I'm less than a yard from the fire now, but I can still hardly feel it.
Wilson, the kid-wrangler, is still struggling. He's managed to get one of them back into the van, but the other one's causing him problems. The kid doesn't want to go back inside. He's constantly straining on his leash, desperate to break free and escape out into the wild where he belongs. Three men have got him cornered, but he refuses to give up. He drops to the ground and scuttles away quickly, crawling under the legs of one particularly slow and clumsy bastard. It'd be laughable if it wasn't so pathetic. The feral boy gets up and bolts for freedom, but he's still on the lead. His sudden movement catches Wilson by surprise and almost yanks him over, but he manages to stand his ground. By chance the kid starts running in my direction and, between me and the bonfire, finds his way through suddenly blocked. He stares up at me, and that moment of hesitation is time enough for Wilson and two others to grab hold of him and manhandle him to the ground. They wrap the long leash around him several times, binding his arms and legs tight to his body, then carry him over to the van and throw him in the back, screaming with frustration and rage.
I feel increasingly disconnected from all this bullshit. In some ways it was easier when I was just another face in the crowd. I guess I should feel something — pity for the kid, or the guy Llewellyn knocked out, or the Unchanged even — but I don't. I feel hollow, like every nerve in my body has been cauterized, and I don't give a shit about anyone or anything. I watched Llewellyn's men clear out the Unchanged hideout with ferocious speed and brutality just now and I didn't give a damn. Some bodies were dragged out and thrown on the fire still screaming, others just left on the ground where they'd been killed.
It's been a long time since we found an Unchanged nest like this, and the effect it's had on these fighters is frightening. It's been a release for them — a chance to get rid of some of the pent-up anger and aggression they've been forced to keep swallowed down since the rest of the Unchanged were wiped out. There's an empty void in these miserable people's miserable lives now. Before, when the war was at its height, the hunt and the kill kept them occupied, but now there's nothing. Infighting, bickering, and abusing the nonfighters alleviate some of their frustrations, but they're no substitute. Oh for the days when there were still plenty of Unchanged to kill, I've even heard them say, those who are able to construct such considered sentences, that is. Frequently their conversations are nothing more than a series of increasingly aggressive nods and grunts.
"Food," someone next to me says, jabbing me in the gut with a bony finger. It's a woman my height with dirty, pockmarked skin and clumps of lank yellow-white hair missing where her scalp is scarred. I take the chunk of greasy meat from her — half a leg of something or other, not sure what — then take a deep breath and force myself to bite down and chew. It tastes as bad as I expect, tough and barely cooked. I feel warm blood and grease dribbling down my chin and running down the insides of my throat, but I force myself to swallow, then bite again. And again. And again until the whole damn thing is finished. I throw the bone onto the fire, and it's only then that I allow myself to look at what it is I've just eaten. I'm not surprised when I see the rest of Llewellyn's men tearing strips of flesh off what's left of a dog's carcass. Dog is one of the easiest meats to find these days, along with rats and birds. They all feed off the scraps of the world, and we feed off them. Three of the fighters argue over what's left of the food. The woman who just gave me mine hangs back dejectedly, waiting for scraps and licking grease off her fingers. She sits on the ground next to the guy Llewellyn laid into. He still hasn't moved.
My stomach's already churning, reacting to what I've just forced down into it. I don't have the same capacity for food I used to, but I don't refuse it. I guess I'm fortunate that Hinchcliffe likes to make sure I'm well fed (being in with the man in charge has its advantages), but eating isn't something I derive any enjoyment from anymore. It's a necessity now, a chore. How food looks and tastes isn't important. All that matters is making sure you get enough nutrition whenever you can. I've learned not to ask questions — you eat what you're given and you deal with the consequences afterward. And after what I've just swallowed, I know there will be consequences ...
I help myself to a mug of coffee (is it coffee, or just lukewarm dirty water?), which helps take the slightest edge off the overpowering aftertaste of dead dog. The bitter liquid provides some welcome heat for a couple of seconds, but it fades quickly and leaves me feeling twice as cold. Doesn't matter how many layers of clothing I wear these days, I never seem to get any warmer. I'm so thin I sometimes think I might snap. Sometimes, when I look down at my body or catch sight of myself in a window or mirror, I have to look twice to be sure it's me. There was more meat on that dog leg I just ate than there is on my whole body. If they shoved a skewer up my ass and roasted me over the fire, there'd be a lot of disappointed people going hungry.
It's suddenly quieter out on the street, with most of the fighters either busy eating or clearing out the Unchanged hideout. Apart from the "cook" (who's now trying unsuccessfully to pick a rogue scrap of burned dog flesh out of the embers of the fire) and her unconscious mate, there's an ocean of space between me and everyone else. It doesn't bother me. I'm used to it. If it wasn't for Hinchcliffe, they'd have probably gotten rid of me by now. Fact is, I've been damn useful to him and he knows it. I can't match the anger and aggression of most of the people he surrounds himself with, but I can do things they can't, and that, he regularly tells me, makes me valuable.
I guess he's right. Days like today help me secure my place in Hinchcliffe's empire. If it wasn't for me, they'd never have found this nest of Unchanged. He'd had people out here looking for supplies, and the dumb fuckers couldn't work out why the stuff they'd been stockpiling kept disappearing. It was me who set the traps and left the bait and tracked the Unchanged back to this place. It was me who told Hinchcliffe and Llewellyn where this shelter was and how best to attack it. I'm the one who spent the last couple of days underground with those foul fuckers, sitting on my hands, swallowing down the Hate like bile and forcing myself not to kill them until Hinchcliffe's men were ready and in place. If it wasn't for me, none of this would have happened. My own self-preservation is all that matters now, and I have to stay focused on that. If that means playing Hinchcliffe's games for a while longer and keeping him on my side, then so be it. The sooner every single last Unchanged is completely dead and buried, the sooner the war will be over.
There's a sudden flurry of activity around the entrance to the Unchanged hideout again. The door flies open and Patterson, an enormously powerful man, drags a small Unchanged kid out by its long blond hair. The kid is only five or six years old, and she screams with panic and pain. Patterson is visibly struggling to stay calm and not kill her. He could snap her neck in an instant, but he's under orders not to. His fear of Hinchcliffe and Llewellyn is even greater than his desire to kill this kid. Instead he simply picks the girl up and throws her into the back of another van. Hinchcliffe says that Unchanged kids are important. He says we need to understand them.
"Good result," Llewellyn says, startling me. "I was starting to think this holding the Hate business was just bullshit you were using to get out of work and get yourself more food. I've just spoken to Hinchcliffe. He's pleased."
"How long's it been since we last found any of them?"
"More than three weeks," I tell him. "Three of them in the basement of that church, remember?"
"Whatever," he grunts, obviously not really interested. "Anyway, get your stuff together. We're heading back."
He walks away, and I watch as the last Unchanged bodies are dragged out of the shelter and dumped on the fire beside me, the noise and smell of crackling, burning flesh making my stomach churn again. Scavengers are rifling through what's left of the Unchangeds' already ransacked possessions, emptying backpacks, crates, and boxes, looking for anything of value but finding next to nothing.
All that time those miserable bastards spent hiding in that godforsaken shelter ... all those hours and all that effort, and for what? Why did they bother? Did they really think they'd be able to survive here indefinitely? They might have stayed hidden for another couple of days or as long as a few months, but they must have known that someone like Hinchcliffe or Llewellyn would have been waiting for them. It was inevitable. I guess that's the one thing we all still have in common: We just keep going. Them or us, even when common sense says it's time to stop struggling and roll over and play dead, we all still keep fighting to survive, whatever the cost. It would have been easier if these people had just given up a long time back. Same result, much less pain and effort.
NONE OF THE BASTARDS I'm out here with today trust me, and the feeling's entirely mutual. Typically, the only space left in the convoy of vehicles returning to town is in the back of the van with the captured Unchanged kids. There are three of them being held in a padlocked wire-mesh cage that's bolted to the inside wall of the van, and the only other thing in here with them is me. They cower away from me even though there's an ocean of space and the metal barrier between us. They huddle together in the farthest corner of the cage, backs pressed against the wall, a lad in front and two younger girls behind him. He watches my every move, flinching whenever I change position, occasionally spitting and swearing at me when I get too close, too scared to look away. One of the girls is completely motionless, staring vacantly into space over the boy's shoulder. I do all I can not to look at any of them, partly because I don't know what Hinchcliffe's planning to do with them, but also because looking at the children makes me remember the things I try hardest to forget.
The van driver treats me with as much contempt as he does the children. I'm literally stuck in the middle here, not belonging on either side, and at times like this I can't help wondering what's going to happen to me when the Unchanged have finally been eradicated and I've served my purpose. Until we found the group we just killed, there hadn't been any sightings in weeks. For all I know these kids might well be the last three left alive and my "talent" for holding the Hate could soon be worthless. I've no doubt Hinchcliffe will chuck me back onto the underclass scrap heap just as quickly as he plucked me from it.
The van slows unexpectedly, the engine sounding like it's on its last legs, and I'm immediately on guard. I get up fast, and my sudden movements are met with another volley of spit and swear words from the boy in the cage. I look out of the windows but I can't see anything. The days are short and the nights long now, and the light's fading rapidly. I'm guessing we're well into January by now, but the days, weeks, and months seem to have all melted into one another and become a single dragging blur. No one even mentioned Christmas or New Year. I didn't think about them until long after they'd gone.
The tired engine threatens to stall, but, with much cursing, the driver just about manages to keep it ticking over. He overaccelerates and steers up the curb, and I brace myself as the van lurches from side to side. There's a body in the middle of the road behind us. Looks like it was a Brute. Haven't seen any of them in a while. They're a dying breed. The war was all they had, and they hunted for kills at all costs. My guess is most of them ended up back in and around the irradiated remains of the refugee camps, and those that survived are now just roaming what's left of the countryside, looking for Unchanged that are long gone. This guy I know, Rufus, says the Brutes are a warning, that there's a lesson to be learned from what's happened to them. For what it's worth, I think he's right. I'm not sure what the lesson is though.
We've almost made it back to Lowestoft. It's an almost bearable place to live (in comparison to everywhere else), but conditions have steadily worsened. I'm sure there are other places like this around the country, and I often wonder if I'd be better off elsewhere. I can't bring myself to call this a community, because that word conjures up all kinds of nostalgic, old- fashioned images of people actually getting along and working together for a common good. Lowestoft is just a place where people with nowhere else to go have drifted together. The most aggressive fighters rule the roost now like some kind of prehistoric elite, propped up by the subservient underclasses who live off the scraps they discard. Lowestoft limps along from day to day for now, but the bottom line remains; those who can hit the hardest are the ones who benefit most, and these days no one has bigger fists than Hinchcliffe.
There's definitely a problem with this van. No doubt it'll be dumped as soon as we get back to town. The rest of the convoy has long since left us behind, and the driver constantly curses and overrevs the engine to keep it from dying. We swerve again, weaving between the wreck of a car and a pile of crumbling masonry from a battle-damaged building like we're on a racetrack chicane. The Unchanged kids are safe in their cage, but I'm thrown around the back with every sudden change of direction. Eventually I wedge myself into position between the side of the van and the cage and stare out of the window, trying to stay focused on the barely visible glow of the moon behind the dense cloud layer. My guts feel like someone's mixing them in a blender. If I don't get out of here soon we'll all be seeing more of the dog I ate earlier.
* * *
We reach the gate across the bridge spanning the A12 at the bottom end of town, little more than a pair of tall metal doors removed from a building, their hinges welded to the back of two trucks parked facing away from each other. These gates don't need to be particularly strong — there are enough guards around to prevent anyone getting inside Hinchcliffe's compound. Pity the poor fuckers who are stationed out here in the cold. Having visible guards positioned at these key points helps the population to remember who's in charge here, and the underclass maintain a cautious distance. Even if any of them did get inside, they wouldn't last long.
We have a delivery of Unchanged kids to make. We're through the gate now, and I can see the drop-off point looming up ahead. Silhouetted against the purple-black sky is the distinctive angular outline of a group of industrial buildings that Hinchcliffe simply refers to as "the factory." It's an ugly, sprawling mess of a place — a redundant relic of the past. Protected from the ocean on one side by a strong seawall, this used to be a seafood processing plant and was probably a major local employer churning out tons of food every day to be shipped around the world. Even now after it's lain dormant and useless for the best part of a year, the stench of rotting fish still hangs over it like a poisonous cloud. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Them or Us by David Moody. Copyright © 2011 David Moody. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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