I'd like to thank a number of people for their help and support.
First, and perhaps most obviously, to John Schoenfelder at Thomas Dunne Books in New York and Jo Fletcher at Gollancz in London; thank you both for your tireless enthusiasm, observations, recommendations, guidance, and suggestions.
To my family and friends, thank you for your patience, tolerance, and unwavering belief and support over the last few years as I've negotiated this particularly crazy section of my haphazard and largely improvised "career path." Particular thanks to my long-suffering wife, Lisa, who never questions why she regularly catches me researching subjects as diverse and unsavory as genocide, germ warfare, secret underground bunkers, torture techniques, and countless other topics!
Finally, and most important, to those of you who've read and enjoyed my previous books, thank you for coming back for more! Particular thanks to those readers who've been with me since the very early days of giving away thousands of free downloads of Autumn and all my subsequent adventures with "Infected Books." Some of you read Hater when it was self-published in the summer of 2006, and you've been waiting since then for this sequel to arrive. It's finally here and I hope you enjoy it. I promise, you won't have to wait anywhere nearly as long for the conclusion to the trilogy!
To everyone I've listed above and to anyone else I should have mentioned but didn't, thank you.
THE CAUSE OF THE Hate (as it had come to be known on both sides of the uneven divide) was irrelevant. At the very beginning, when the doubters had been forced to accept that something was really happening and that the troubles weren't just the result of media-fueled, copycat mob violence, the usual raft of baseless explanations were proposed; scientists had screwed up in a lab somewhere, it was an evolutionary quirk, it was a virus, a terrorist attack, aliens, or worse... Thing was, people were quickly forced to realize, it didn't matter. You could bullshit and postulate and hypothesize all you wanted-it wouldn't do you any harm, but it wouldn't do you any good either. Within days of the belligerent population finally beginning to accept that the shit had indeed hit the fan with almighty force, no one talked about the cause of the Hate anymore. Hardly anyone wasted time even thinking about it. The only thing of any importance to the non-Hater section of the populace now was survival. And the so-called Haters? The one-third of society who had changed? Those previously "normal" people who, without warning, had each become savage, brutal, and remorseless killers? The only thing that mattered to any of them was destroying every last one of the Unchanged (as they labeled their enemy) until none remained alive.
Before it had actually happened, the popular assumption in most apocalyptic films and books was that the population as a whole would immediately bind together against their common enemy and either stand united and fight back or take cover and hunker down when it became clear that something of Armageddon-like proportions was looming on the horizon. They didn't. Whether it was because many of them simply chose to bury their heads in the sand through fear or denial until it was too late, or whether it was instead just their stubborn refusal to abandon their homes, material possessions, and daily routines, no one knew. No one cared. A cynic might suppose that the effects of the Hate had been camouflaged by an inherently bad-tempered, mistrusting, selfish, and greed-driven society, but the exact reasons for society's lack of reaction were neither clear nor important. The bottom line was that the extent and implications of what was happening weren't fully appreciated until it was far too late, and the repercussions were devastating. This, it was painfully apparent, was no ordinary war.
In many ways the situation the Unchanged found themselves facing was indefensible. This conflict wasn't faction versus faction or army against army; it was individual versus individual, more than six billion armies of one. Beyond that, the Hate didn't care who you were, where you were, or what you were. You were simply on one side or the other, your position in this new, twisted, fucked-up world decided without your involvement by unknown variables and fate. Within weeks command structures at every level were compromised. Organizations fell apart. Families crumbled. The Haters were everywhere and everyone, the whole world beaten up from the inside out.
The ratio of Unchanged to Haters was generally thought to have settled somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1. In spite of their enemy's ferocity and apparently insatiable bloodlust, their greater numbers and preexistence gave the Unchanged an early advantage that was quickly squandered. With no time or inclination to look for a cure (could the condition even be reversed?), separation and eradication soon became the only viable option for survival. Conveniently ignoring lessons learned through history and any moral arguments, a halfhearted attempt to cull the Haters failed dramatically. Almost overnight the Unchanged plan of attack was forced to become a plan of defense, and their first priority was to make their people defendable. Civilians were herded together, major city centers quickly becoming swollen, overcrowded, undersupplied, understaffed refugee camps. Once they'd successfully separated "us" from "them," the Unchanged theory went, they'd head back out into the wastelands and hunt the fuckers out.
Less than four months ago, when the last frosts of winter had finally thawed and the first green buds of the year's new growth had tentatively started to appear, this public park had been a frequently empty and underused oasis of lush greenery buried deep within the drab gray concrete heart of the city. It was a place office workers used to escape to during lunch breaks or take a shortcut through on their way to or from work. A place where kids playing hooky from school would hide and drink stolen alcohol and smoke cigarettes and carve their names on wooden benches and tree trunks. A place where elderly shoppers with too much time and too many memories would sit and talk to anyone who'd listen about how the country had gone to ruin and how things used to be so much better back in their day... and it had to be said, they were right.
Tucked away in the long shadows of office buildings, shopping malls, convention centers, and multiplex cinemas, what used to be a vast and open expanse of grass was now covered in cramped rows of ragged, refugee-filled tents. Two soccer fields had become helicopter landing pads, constantly in use. The patch of soft asphalt where children's swings, merry-go-rounds, and slides used to be had been commandeered to house heavily guarded and rapidly dwindling stockpiles of military equipment and supplies. The changing rooms on the far side of the park were now a hopelessly inadequate field hospital. Next to the small, square redbrick building, a tall wooden fence had been erected all the way around the park's four concrete tennis courts. They had, until three weeks ago, been used as a makeshift morgue, but by then the number of stacked-up corpses awaiting removal had reached such a level that the cordoned-off area had become a permanently lit funeral pyre. There was no longer any other way of hygienically disposing of the dead.
Before his mother had tried to kill him and he'd been dragged screaming into the war he'd desperately tried to isolate himself from, Mark Tillotsen had sold insurance in a call center. He'd worked hard and had enjoyed (as much as anyone enjoyed selling insurance in a call center) the job. He'd liked the anonymity of the role, and he'd taken comfort from the safety of the daily routine, the procedures and regulations he hid behind, and the targets he worked toward. In his last development review, just a month or so before the Hate, his manager had told him he had a bright future ahead of him. Today, as he trudged slowly through the afternoon heat toward a convoy of three battered trucks bookended by heavily armed military vehicles, he wondered whether he, or anyone else for that matter, had any kind of future left to look forward to.
Mark hauled himself up into the cab of the middle truck and acknowledged the driver. His name was Marshall, and they'd traveled outside the city together several times in recent weeks. Marshall was a stereotypical trucker, more at home behind the wheel of his rig than anywhere else. His arms were like tree trunks, with fading tattoos hidden beneath a thick covering of gray hair. He gripped the steering wheel tight in his leather-gloved hands even though they weren't moving. His head remained facing forward, his expression sullen and serious. To show no emotion at all was better than letting Mark see how nervous he really was. This wasn't getting any easier.
"Fine," Mark replied quickly. "You?"
Marshall nodded. "People today, not supplies."
"Helicopter spotted them on infrared, about three miles outside the zone."
"Don't know till we get there."
That was the end of their brief, staccato exchange. Nothing more needed to be said. Although it was widely believed that the Change was over and by now you'd know whether the person standing next to you was going to rip your fucking head off or not, conversations between strangers remained brief and uncomfortable and only happened when necessary. You constantly trod a fine line; to ignore someone was dangerous, to overreact was worse. You didn't want to give anyone reason to believe you might be one of them. All that Mark knew about Marshall was his name, and that was how he wanted to keep it.
Time to move. Marshall started the engine of the truck, the sudden rattle, noise, and vibration making Mark feel even more nauseous and nervous than he already was. Remember why you're doing this, he repeatedly told himself. Apart from the fact that going outside the so-called secure zone allowed him to escape the confines of the shitty, cramped hotel room where he, his girlfriend, and several other family members had been billeted, willing militia volunteers like him were paid with extra rations-a slender additional cut of whatever they brought back. More importantly, going out into the open and watching those evil bastards being hunted down and executed was as close to revenge as he was ever going to get. And Christ, he needed some kind of revenge or retribution. Through no fault of his own his life had been turned upside down and torn apart. Like just about everyone else, he'd lost almost everything and he wanted someone to pay for it.
The truck lurched forward, stopping just inches short of the back of the vehicle in front, then lurched forward again as the convoy began to move. Mark glanced back across the park as a helicopter gunship took off from its soccer-field landing pad before taking up position overhead, their escort and their eyes while they were outside the city.
A single strip of gray pavement weaved through the park from a central point, running through a large, rectangular parking lot (now filled with military vehicles), then continuing on as a half-mile-long access road with copses of trees on either side. As the track curved around, Mark shielded his eyes from the relentless afternoon sun and looked out across this bizarre militarized zone. How could it have come to this? He'd played here during school vacations as a kid; now look at it. The village of tents and trailers made it look more like a third-world slum than anything else. Or perhaps a badly organized humanitarian response to some devastating natural disaster-the aftermath of a hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, or drought?-although nothing like that ever happened here. He forced himself to look up from the never-ending crowd of refugees that seemed to cover every visible square yard of land, forced himself to shut out their constant cries and moans that were audible even over the rumble of the truck, and forced himself to ignore the foul, rancid smell that filled the air. He concentrated instead on the tops of the trees that swayed lightly in the lilting early summer breeze. That was the only part of the world that looked like it used to in the days before the Hate.
It was a relief when they reached the access road and Marshall followed the other vehicles around to the right. Even here, though, there were people everywhere, crowded in and around the trees, desperate to find shelter and shade. There were more of them here than when he'd last been out with Marshall. He focused on one particular woman who sat cross-legged on the grass, desperately trying to hold on to a hysterical, squirming, screaming child. Surrounded by her few remaining possessions gathered up in plastic bags, she gently rocked her terrified, inconsolable little girl. He found himself wondering what had happened to this woman to bring her here. Had she had a partner? Had they turned against her? Had there been more kids? She looked up and caught his eye, and he quickly looked away. He forgot her almost immediately, suddenly preoccupied with his own insurmountable problems instead. Mark's girlfriend, Kate, was pregnant. Much as he tried to deny it, he wished she weren't.
The convoy moved away from the densely occupied heart of the city and out through the exclusion zone. This was a bizarre and unsettling place. In the wake of the panic and terror caused by the onset of the Hate, under military orders the authorities in cities like this had pulled the remaining population inward, housing them temporarily in stores, office buildings, high-rises, and anywhere else that space could be found. The exclusion zone (which was generally between half a mile and two miles wide) was an area of dead space, a desolate strip of no-man's-land wedged between the hordes of overcrowded refugees and the city border, which was patrolled from the sky. It was a place that had been abandoned rather than destroyed and that now stood like a vast and dilapidated museum exhibit. They drove past the front of a modern-looking school, its buildings empty when they should have been filled with students, the knee-high grass making its athletics track look more like a field of crops overdue for harvest. At the front of the convoy a military vehicle that had been fitted with a makeshift snowplow-like attachment cleared the road of a number of abandoned cars that had been stuck in a frozen, unmoving traffic jam for weeks.
The closer they got to the border, the worse Mark began to feel. Desperate not to let his anxiety show (for fear of Marshall misreading his reaction), he leaned against the window and forced himself to breathe in deeply, frantically trying to remember the relaxation and stress-control techniques he'd been taught in the "Dealing with Customer Complaints" workshop he'd been sent to last December. Christ, it didn't matter how many times he did this, he still felt woefully underprepared. No amount of relaxation methods and calming techniques would prepare him for what he was about to face.
"Couple of miles," Marshall said, startling Mark. He sat up straight and readied himself, his heart thumping ten times faster in his chest than it should have been. They were well outside the exclusion zone now, and even though there were no signposts, physical boundaries, or other warnings marking the Change, he suddenly felt a hundred times more vulnerable and exposed.
"Did you say we're out here for people today?" Mark asked, remembering their brief conversation when he first got into the truck.
A double pisser. Excursions outside the city were always more risky and unpredictable when civilians were involved. More importantly, if they weren't out here collecting supplies, there'd be nothing for them to take a cut from when they got back.
"Look on the bright side," Marshall said under his breath, sharing Mark's disappointment and almost managing to smile. "Loads more of those cunts die when the public are involved."
He was right. As soon as the first civilians took a step out of their hiding place, hordes of Haters would inevitably descend on them from every direction. Maybe that was the plan? Easy pickings for the helicopter and the forty or so armed soldiers traveling with them in this convoy. He wondered what kind of state the survivors they rescued would be in. Would they even be worth rescuing? He couldn't imagine how they'd managed to last for so long out here. Christ, it had been hard enough trying to survive back in the city. If these people thought their situation was going to get better after they were rescued, they were very wrong.
The road they followed used to be a busy commuter route into town, permanently packed with traffic. In today's baking afternoon heat it was little more than a silent, rubbish-strewn scar that snaked its way between overgrown fields and run-down housing projects. Sandwiched between the first military vehicle and the squat armored troop transport bringing up the rear, the three empty, high-sided wagons clattered along, following the clear path that had been snowplowed through the chaos like the carriages of a train following an engine down the track. Still bearing the bright-colored logos and ads of the businesses that had owned them before the war, they were conspicuously obvious and exposed as they traveled through the dust-covered gray of everything else.
Mark stared at the back of a row of houses they thundered past, convinced he'd seen the flash of a fast-moving figure. There it was again, visible just for a fraction of a second between two buildings, a sudden blur of color and speed. Then, as he was trying to find the first again, a second appeared. It was a woman of average height and slender build. She athletically scrambled to the top of a pile of rubble, then leaped over onto a parched grass verge, losing her footing momentarily before steadying herself, digging in, and increasing her pace. She sprinted alongside the convoy, wild hair flowing in the breeze behind her like a mane, almost managing to match the speed of the five vehicles. Mark jumped in his seat as a lump of concrete hit the truck door, hurled from the other side of the road and missing the window he was looking through by just a few inches. Startled, he glanced into the side mirror and saw that they were being chased. His view was limited, but he could see at least ten figures in the road behind the convoy, running after them. They were never going to catch up, but maybe they sensed the vehicles would be stopping soon. They kept running with a dogged persistence, the gap between them increasing but their speed and intent undiminished. He looked anxiously from side to side and saw even more of them moving through the shadows toward the road. Their frantic, unpredictable movements made it hard to estimate how many of them there were. It looked like there were hundreds.
Marshall remembered the place they were heading to from before the war, a modern office building in the middle of an out-of-town business park; as part of his job in his former life he'd made deliveries to a depot nearby on numerous occasions. He was glad he was following and not leading the way today. It was getting harder to navigate out here, and he'd convinced himself they had farther to go than they actually did. Everything looked so different out here beyond the exclusion zone, the landscape overgrown and pounded into submission after months of continuous fighting. A reduction in the number of undamaged buildings was matched by a marked increase in the level of rubble and ruin. There were more corpses here, too. Some were heavily decayed, sun-dried and skeletal; others appeared fresh and recently slaughtered. Christ, he thought to himself, not wanting to voice his fears and observations, what would this place be like a few months from now? There were already weeds everywhere, pushing up through cracks in the pavements and roads and clawing their way up partially demolished buildings, no municipal workers with weed-killer sprays left to halt their steady advance. Recent heavy rainstorms and the relative heat of early summer had combined to dramatically increase both the rate of growth of vegetation and the rate of decay of dead flesh. Everything seemed now to have a tinge of green about it, like mold spreading over spoiled food. The outside world looked like it was rotting, and the stench that hung heavy in the air was unbearable.
High above the line of trucks, the helicopter suddenly banked hard to the right and dropped down. Mark leaned forward and watched its rapid descent, knowing that the sudden change in flight path meant they'd reached their destination. Despite an irrational fear of heights, at moments like this he wished he were up there picking off the enemy from a distance rather than trying to deal with them down at ground level. Not that he was expected to fight unless he had to, of course. His role was simply to get as much food, supplies, civilians, or whatever they were out here to acquire into the trucks in as short a time as possible. He wasn't stupid, though. He knew that these missions were often little more than thinly veiled excuses to stir up as many of the enemy as possible, draw them into a specified location, and blow the shit out of them. Their uncoordinated, nomadic behavior and apparently insatiable desire to kill made them surprisingly easy to manipulate and control. Any activity outside the exclusion zone would inevitably cause most of them within an unexpectedly wide radius to surge toward the disturbance, where they could be taken out with ease. And if civilians, soldiers, or volunteers like him got hurt in the process? That was an acceptable risk he had to get used to. Anyone was expendable as long as at least one Hater died with him.
The convoy swung the wrong way around a traffic circle, then joined the road that led into the business park. Once well maintained and expensively landscaped, it was now as run-down and overgrown as everywhere else. The snowplow truck smashed through a lowered security barrier, then accelerated again, bouncing up into the air and clattering heavily back down as it powered over speed bumps. Mark could see the office building up ahead, the sun's fierce reflection bouncing back at him from its grubby bronzed-glass fascia. He tried to look for an obvious entrance, but at the speed they were approaching it was impossible. He clung to the sides of his seat and lurched forward as Marshall, following the lead of the driver in front, turned the truck around in a tight arc and backed up toward the building. He slammed on the brakes just a couple of yards short of the office, parallel with the other vehicles.
Mark didn't want to move.
Marshall glared at him. "Go!"
He didn't argue. The tension and fear suddenly evident in Marshall 's voice were palpable. Mark jumped down from the cab and sprinted around to open up the back of the truck. He was aware of sudden noise and movement all around him as soldiers poured out of their transports and formed a protective arc around the front of the building and the rest of the convoy, sealing them in. More soldiers, maybe a fifth of their total number, ran towards the office building's barricaded entrance doors and began to try to force their way inside. A burned-out car surrounded by garbage cans full of rubble blocked the main doorway.
"Incoming!" a loud voice bellowed from somewhere far over to his left, audible even over the sound of the swooping helicopter and the noise of everything else. Distracted, he looked up along the side of the truck toward the protective line of soldiers. Through the gaps between them he could see Haters advancing, hurtling forward from all angles and converging on the exposed building with deadly speed. Like pack animals desperately hunting scraps of food, they tore through holes in overgrown hedges, clambered over abandoned cars, and scrambled through the empty ruins of other buildings to get to the Unchanged. Mark watched transfixed as many of them were hacked down by a hail of gunfire coming from both the defensive line and the helicopter circling overhead, their bodies jerking and snatching as they were hit. For each one that was killed, countless more seemed to immediately appear to take their place, all but wrestling with each other to get to the front of the attack. Some of them seemed oblivious to the danger, more concerned with killing than with being killed themselves. Their ferocity was terrifying.
Mark heard the sound of pounding feet racing toward him. He spun around, ready to defend himself, but then stepped aside when he saw it was the first of a flood of refugees who were pouring out of a smashed first-floor window. He tried to help them up into the back of the truck, but his assistance was unwanted and unneeded. Sheer terror was driving these people forward, every man, woman, and child fighting with every other to get into one of the transports, desperate not to be left behind. After weeks of living in unimaginable squalor and uncertainty, and with their hideout now open and exposed, this was their last chance-their only chance-of escape.
The relentless gunfire and the thunder and fury of the helicopter overhead continued undiminished. Mark tried to block out the noise and concentrate on getting as many people as possible into the truck. Ahead of them, the soldiers were being forced back. Marshall revved the engine, his only way of letting Mark know he was about to leave. Terrified of being left behind, he ran forward and hauled himself up into his seat, leaving more refugees to try to cram themselves into the truck.
"This is getting shitty," Marshall said, nodding over toward a section of the defensive line of soldiers that appeared dangerously close to being breached. "We're going to-"
Before he could finish his sentence, a gap appeared in the line where a Hater woman took out a soldier as he reloaded. She knocked the soldier to the ground, leaped onto his chest, and caved his head in with a soccer-ball-sized lump of concrete. As the soldiers on either side tried to react and defend, one gap became two and then three and then four. In disbelief Mark watched as a huge beast of a Hater manhandled another soldier out of the way and smashed him up against a wall. The soldier continued to fire at his attacker, but the Hater seemed oblivious to the bullets that ripped into his flesh, continuing to move and fight until he finally dropped and died.
The speed and strength of the enemy were bewildering and terrifying. Marshall had seen enough. Following the lead of the truck to his right, without waiting for order or instruction, he accelerated. Unsuspecting refugees fell from the back of the truck and immediately began sprinting after the disappearing vehicle, but they didn't stand a chance. Haters rushed them from either side, taking them out like animal predators preying on plentiful, slow-moving game on the savannah. In the distance the last few civilians spilled out of the building like lambs to the slaughter.
The third truck-the one that had been parked immediately to Marshall 's left-hadn't moved. Mark watched in the side mirror as Haters yanked the doors of the truck's cab open and dragged the driver out, swarming over him like maggots over rotting food. Within seconds they'd enveloped the entire vehicle and were massacring the refugees who'd fought to get in the back to be driven to safety. As the distance between the truck he was in and the building behind him increased, all Mark could see was more refugees and stranded soldiers being wiped out in countless brutal, lightning-fast attacks. Above them all, the helicopter continued to circle and attack, its gunner's orders now simply to destroy anything on the ground that still moved.
Those Haters who had escaped the carnage outside stormed into the building, looking for more of the Unchanged to kill. More than twenty of them moved from room to room, sweeping over every last square foot of space, desperate to kill and keep killing. One of them sensed something. In a narrow corridor he stopped beside an innocuous doorway that the rest of them had ignored. There were dirty handprints around the edges of the door, and he was sure he'd heard something moving inside. It was the faintest of noises, barely even audible amid the chaos of everything else, but it was enough. He grabbed the handle and pulled and pushed and shook it, but the door was locked. He took a hand axe from an improvised holster on his belt and began to smash at the latch. One of them was still in there, he was certain of it. He could almost smell them...
The short corridor was empty, and the noise of his axe splintering the wood temporarily drowned out the sounds of fighting coming from elsewhere. Ten strong strikes and the wood began to split. He hit the door hard with his shoulder and felt it almost give. Another few hits with the axe and another shoulder shove and it gave way. He flew into the dark, foul-smelling room and tripped over a child's corpse that had been wrapped in what looked like an old, rolled-up projector screen. An Unchanged woman-the dead child's mother, he presumed-ran at him from the shadows. Instead of attacking, she dropped to her knees in front of him and begged for mercy. He showed her none, grabbing a fistful of hair, then chopping his axe down into the side of her neck, killing her instantly. He pushed her body over. She collapsed on top of her child, and he looked down into her face, her dead, unblinking eyes staring back at him. He felt a sudden surge of power and relief, the unmistakable, blissful, druglike rush of the kill.
The room was filled with noise again as the circling helicopter returned. Taking cover behind a concrete pillar, he peered out through a small rectangular window and watched as more of the fighters still out in the open were taken out by machine-gun fire from above. Then, without warning, the helicopter turned and climbed and disappeared from view. He listened as its engines and the thumping of its rotor blades faded into the distance.
Danny McCoyne knew he had to get out of the building before they came back. He'd seen them use these tactics before. He knew what was coming next.