BAD DREAM, SLEEPING BEAUTY?" the man sitting next to me asks. I nod but don't answer. I rub my head where it just thumped against the window of the van and immediately remember where I am. It's late in the day, I'm on my way back home with three other fighters, and I'm feeling travel sick. Can't remember the last time I went anywhere by road like this. Is it safe? The confidence of the rest of the people in the van makes me feel out of step with everyone else.

The cocky, sour-faced guy next to me is Paul Hewlitt, and he seems to have a far higher opinion of himself and his own abilities than anyone else does. In the front of the van are Carol and Keith, who's driving. As far as I'm aware there's nothing between them, but they bicker, fight, and argue like an old married couple. I feel like I don't belong here. I think I'd rather be doing this alone. Maybe I'm just not used to being with groups of people anymore?

"Will you put that damn thing out?" Keith moans as Carol lights up a cigarette. She blows smoke in his direction, deliberately antagonizing him.

"No," she snaps abrasively, her voice dry and harsh.

"Don't know where you keep getting them from."

"You don't want to know," Paul pipes up.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"I saw you," he says, "checking the pockets of corpses."

"Well, they don't need them anymore," she argues. And she's got a point. But does that make her any different from the Unchanged I saw fleecing bodies earlier?

"You're disgusting," Keith sighs.

"I'm addicted," she answers back quickly, "and I don't want to quit. Cigarettes are one of my few remaining pleasures. Where else am I supposed to get them?"

"At least open the window, then. Last thing I want to do is be breathing in your secondhand smoke all night."

"Hold your breath, then," she grumbles, begrudgingly winding down her window. The cool, relatively fresh air that floods into the van is a relief, and I breathe it in deeply.

I look around at the three people I'm traveling with tonight, and I can't help but feel concerned. I haven't seen any of them in action yet, but I don't hold out much hope. Keith looks like he'd be more at home in his garden than on the battlefield. Carol appears permanently angry. She has bulging eyes and short, dark hair that obviously used to be colored (the dye's grown out, leaving a brassy red tidemark). She has long nails that probably used to be filed and painted but that now look more like talons or claws. She reminds me of a woman I used to work with-a bitter, drink-addled ex-publican. She has the ruddy complexion of a heavy drinker and looks like she'd be happiest either behind a bar or propping one up. Paul, on the other hand, at least looks like he's ready to fight. He's an arrogant fucker. Since we've been driving he's already told me several times what a great fighter he is and how he's lost count of the hundreds of kills he's made. I can see straight through him. His bragging and aggressive talk are there to hide his insecurities. He's struggling just as much as the rest of us.

So, all in all, not a great team. Still, if they help me get closer to finding Ellis, I'll put up with them.

"Give us a clue then, friend," Keith says, glancing back at me over his shoulder. I lean forward to try to get a better view of where we are. The van vibrates intensely and lurches from side to side as we move quickly down a wide, rubbish-strewn road, and it's difficult to see very much from where I'm sitting. The fact that Keith's driving without lights on doesn't help, but when the ominous black shape of a huge enemy helicopter crawls across the early evening sky just ahead of us, taillights flashing in the gloom, I'm thankful that we're hidden.

There's a road sign up ahead. Keith stops the van, and all four of us stare up at it, trying to make out the place names and directions. Much of the sign is covered in a layer of green-brown dirt and moss.

"This is Chapman Hill, isn't it?" Paul says. I look in front and behind, trying to get my bearings. He's right. I bought my last car from a garage close to here, but I didn't recognize the place. Now that I know roughly where I am, though, everything slowly comes into focus, and the streets and buildings begin to regain some semblance of familiarity. This is bizarre-everything looks basically the same, but it's all changed, too. The landmarks and structures I used to know are mostly still there, but absolutely everything seems to have been indelibly scarred by the war. A long line of once-thriving shops is now a crumbling, blackened ruin, almost completely destroyed by fire. The front part of the garage I remember has collapsed, flattening the few dust-covered cars that remained unstolen and unsold. Next to the garage an office building now stands at barely half of its prewar height, surrounded by mounds of rubble that used to be its top five floors. In the fading light it looks like every road and sidewalk for as far as I can see is covered with a layer of dust and debris. The bodies are the only shapes that are easy to distinguish among the chaos. Just ahead of us a skeletal hand is sticking up from a pile of fallen masonry as if its dead owner wants to ask us a question or hitch a ride.

"Well," Keith says impatiently, "you just here to sightsee or are you gonna tell me which way to go?"

"Sorry," I answer quickly, forcing myself to snap out of my trance. "Keep going straight for another mile or so, then it's a right. I'll tell you when we get closer."

Keith's about to pull away again when Carol stops him, leaning across and grabbing his arm.

"Wait. Something's coming..."

There's an intersection up ahead. She watches it intently.

"There's nothing," Keith whispers, instinctively lowering his voice. "You're just overreacting again. It's like the time-"

He immediately shuts up when a short but powerful and fast-moving convoy races across the crossroads in front of us. It's just three vehicles long: a huge, military juggernaut at the front followed by a battered single-deck civilian bus, then a heavily armed jeep bringing up the rear. They move with reckless speed-far too quick to notice us. Keith waits. He glances over at Carol, who remains perfectly still. Eventually she nods. On her signal he moves off again.

"Can we get through that way?" he asks, slowing down at the point in the road where the convoy crossed our path.

"You want to follow them?" I reply, surprised.

"They've done us a favor and cleared the road. Yes, I want to follow them."

He's right. There's a clear line through the debris where the vehicles have just been.

"It's a little farther, but yes, this'll get us to roughly the right place."

He nods and pulls away, and I can immediately see the sense in his actions. We're able to move with more speed now, and the clear channel makes it easier to follow the direction of the road. I sink back into my seat and turn to face Paul.

"Are we safe out here?"

"Truth is we're not safe anywhere," he answers quietly, "but I haven't seen much trouble here recently."

"So what was all that about?"

"Looking for survivors, I guess," he says, shrugging his shoulders.

"That's what they'd say," Carol interrupts, turning around to face us both and blowing out smoke through the corner of her mouth, "but there can't be many of them left out here now. They just come here to take potshots at us."

"Which way now?" Keith shouts, fighting to make himself heard over the noise of the engine. There's another intersection looming, but yet again I'm struggling to work out where we are. In the distance I can see occasional flashes of red from the brakelights of the three Unchanged vehicles. They're heading straight into the center of town, the last place we want to go. I glance from left to right and back; then I see a large, familiar-looking pub, and I know where I am again. The building appears intact at first, but I can see from here that the back of the structure has been almost completely destroyed, leaving the relatively undamaged frontage standing like something from the set of a movie. I went to a going-away bash for someone from work there once. Or was it a birthday party...?

"Straight ahead takes us closer to them, so do we go right or left? Come on, for Christ's sake, we don't have time to screw around like this-"

"Left," I answer, biting my tongue, determined not to let my anger show. These people don't understand how hard this is for me.

We follow a familiar route, and I realize this is the way I drove to the apartment with my father-in-law the morning of the day before I killed him. Retracing the last steps I took as one of the Unchanged is unexpectedly unnerving. The road runs past the front of a row of houses before swinging up and left over a bridge that spans the highway below. Keith stops the van when we're halfway across. I press my face against the window and look down at the once-busy road below. One side of the highway is relatively clear-the debris no doubt brushed aside by heavy, but infrequent, Unchanged traffic. The other side is a single clogged mass of stationary vehicles. Some look like they've simply been abandoned, others like they've been picked up and hurled over the median strip. It looks more like a rusting scrapyard than a road.

"Busy tonight," Carol says. I look up and see that she's staring down the highway in the other direction. I follow her gaze, and for the first time I can clearly see the enemy-occupied heart of the city. Silhouetted against the last golden yellow light of the rapidly fading sun, the tall buildings in the center of town stand proud and defiant. Even from here, still several miles away, I can see that the refugee camp is filled with movement. Planes and helicopters flitter through the darkening sky like flies around a dead animal's carcass. The fact that there are lights on in some of the buildings takes me by surprise. They still have power! Keith starts driving again. I keep my eyes fixed on the buildings in the distance, watching them until they disappear from view.

"All right?" Paul asks, watching me as I crane my neck to keep looking.

"Fine," I answer quickly, hoping he doesn't pick up on my unease. There must be tens of thousands of Unchanged here, and I know that every last one of them has to die before the war will be over. Seeing their city center stronghold makes me appreciate the enormity of the task ahead of us. It makes me realize that Chris Ankin might be right. We're going to have to work together to defeat this enemy. Copyright 2016 - 2023