SILENCE. ABSOLUTE, TOTAL FUCKING silence. I stand and watch the other door, waiting for it to open, ready to attack. No one's coming. Is this another setup? More stupid games? Making me wait and trying to get me to panic and crack? Too late for that now.
Both doors are locked, but the skylight above is open slightly. I climb up onto one of the chairs, my hands still bound together, and try to haul myself up. The rattling chains are heavy around my wrists, and the frame of the skylight doesn't feel strong enough to support my weight. I'll pull it down before I-
I drop, spin around, and throw myself at the figure standing in the other door. I swing my chain-wrapped hands at his head, hard enough to decapitate him. He manages to somehow duck out of the way, then shoves me in the gut. I trip over the chair I was just standing on, falling back and cracking my head hard against the floor. I roll over and try to get up, but this bastard's fast. He pushes me back down and plants a boot right between my shoulder blades, stopping me from moving. I brace myself for his next strike, but it doesn't come, and he lifts his foot off. I look back and watch him walk away. Confused, I drag myself up, using another chair for support, suck in a deep breath of air, and turn around to face him.
What? How can he...?
"You must be Danny McCoyne," he says, but I can't answer. "I'm Sahota."
Standing in front of me, wearing a smart, if a little crumpled, pin-striped suit and a remarkably clean white shirt, is one of our people. He's not Unchanged. I do a double take, but I know I'm right. This man is a friend and an ally, and I immediately know we're on the same side. He's short and his build is slight, but he stands tall with confidence and composure. The surprise and confusion he obviously sees on my face are clearly not unexpected.
"Apologies for all the subterfuge and bullshit over the last few days," he says, gesturing for me to follow him through into the next room. He stops just inside the room as if he's remembered something important. He checks his trouser pockets, then pulls out a key and undoes the chains around my wrists. He throws them out into the waiting area and closes the door behind us.
All I can do is stand and stare at Sahota. I don't know what I was expecting, but he isn't it in any way, shape, or form. He's a good foot and a half shorter than me, dark-skinned, with close-cropped dark hair, graying at the temples. He has a neatly trimmed mustache and wears a pair of wire-framed glasses. For the first time in months I'm suddenly conscious of my shabby appearance-dead man's trousers and shirt, no shoes, hair long and shaggy, face covered in stubble and bristle.
"Come in and sit down," he says, ushering me farther into the room. It's a wide, spacious, and relatively clean and uncluttered office-cum-living-area. In one corner is a metal-framed bed, similar to the one in my cell but with clean bedding folded back with military precision. Along one wall are several huge, mostly intact windows (only one pane of glass has been boarded up), and in front of me is a large wooden desk with a single chair on either side. Sahota locks the door, then sits down at the desk with his back to the window. He beckons for me to sit opposite.
"Where do you want to start?" he asks in a clipped, well-educated accent as he pours me a drink and slides it across the table.
"Don't know," I mumble pathetically between thirsty gulps of water. Truth is, I've got so many questions to ask I'm struggling to make sense of any of them.
"Don't worry." He grins. "It's not unusual. You've been through a lot."
"I don't know what I've been through."
He grins again. "We wouldn't have done it this way if there'd been any alternative."
"So what exactly have you done?"
"Which one of them looked after you? Selena, Joseph, or Simon?"
"Looked after me?! That's not how I'd put it."
"And what did he tell you?"
"Lots of bullshit about breaking the cycle, not fighting fire with fire, holding the Hate... He said the more I fought, the harder it would get."
"Did you believe any of it?"
I shrug my shoulders. Truth be told, I'm still not sure what I believe.
"Bits of it made sense."
"Well, some of what he said must have had an effect on you, because you're here and he's still alive. You'd have killed him otherwise."
"He said I was only locked up here because of the Hate. He said the more we fight, the less we get."
"And what do you think about that, Danny?"
"I'm not sure what I think."
"But you must have some kind of opinion. You can't tell me an intelligent man like you lay there alone in the darkness for hours and didn't think about what he'd been told."
"I think he was right when he said we were stuck in a vicious circle and that things are only going to get worse..."
"But I don't understand what difference that makes. What else are we supposed to do? We can't live with the Unchanged, we have to kill them."
"You're absolutely right."
"So how do we win a war without fighting?"
Sahota stands up, picks up his drink, and walks over to the window. He looks out, choosing his next words with care and consideration.
"There is an alternative."
"Is there? I can't see one."
"That's because you're looking in the wrong place. You need to change your perspective, Danny, and that's what this place is all about. That's why we're here. Tell me, before we brought you here, did you ever hear anything of Chris Ankin and his plans?"
"I heard his messages when the war started, and I was with a group for a couple of days. They said they were trying to build an army."
He turns back to face me. "And what did you think of that?"
"As soon as we start grouping together in large numbers, the enemy will blow the shit out of us."
"Exactly right. We're still outnumbered, and they still have a structured military with a just about operational chain of command. We'd only be able to take the fight to them on limited fronts, and yes, they'd probably blow us out of the water. While we're concentrating on one of their cities, the others would still be standing strong. They've already shown they're willing to sacrifice thousands of their own to try to wipe us out. You've only got to look at how they lost London -"
"What did happen to London?"
"You didn't hear?"
"Not really, only a few details."
"It was early on, before these refugee camps were set up. It wasn't something we planned; rather it was something they couldn't prevent. The capital was too big for them to defend, too sprawling... London showed us what we could achieve. The fighting on the streets must have been incredible. I almost wish I could have been there. There were hardly any of us in comparison to them, but the panic we caused was beyond anything we could have hoped for. They reached critical mass..."
"Critical mass? I don't understand."
"The point of no return... the point where it was impossible for them to regain any order, where the number of individual battles was so high and the fighting so intense that they could no longer separate them from us. They didn't know who was who anymore. The only option left to them was to destroy everything."
"They destroyed London?"
"The whole city and everyone in it. Wiped out thousands of our people, but they took hundreds of thousands of their own with them."
We're digressing, and I'm confused.
"I still don't understand. What's that got to do with you holding me here?"
"In the end it was their confusion and panic that destroyed London, simple as that. But like I said, if we'd attacked with an army, they'd have seen us coming and wiped us out before we'd even got close."
"You said I was looking in the wrong place..."
"That's right, and so were they."
"Still don't get you. Look, I'm sorry, you've spent days fucking with my brain, and I'm tired. Stop talking in riddles and just explain."
"Have you ever heard of a text called The Art of War?"
"I've heard the title. Don't know anything about it, though. Never read it."
"It's a Chinese guide to warfare, written by Sun Tzu more than two thousand years ago."
"And? What did he know about us and the Unchanged?"
"Nothing at all! But even though this war is unique, some of Sun Tzu's tactics for fighting remain as valid today as they were in ancient China. He said that all warfare is based on deception. We have to fool our enemy-make them believe we're weak when we're strong, make them think we're miles away when we're next to them. 'Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him.'"
Sahota recites the script perfectly from memory. He waits for a reaction from me, but my head's still spinning, and I can't make sense of anything. He senses my confusion and explains.
"They're expecting us to fight head-on. As far as they can see, our only tactic is to fight and keep fighting until we're the only ones left standing. When you get deeper into the city you'll see how that stops them from interacting and-"
"Wait a second," I interrupt. "What do you mean, when I get deeper into the city?"
Sahota grins and pours me another glass of water.
"They're expecting us to run straight at them with fists flying, screaming in their faces. What they're not expecting is for us to be standing beside them and alongside them. We're going to go deep into their cities to stir up trouble and cause them to panic. Then, when they're too busy tearing themselves apart to notice, Ankin's army will come into play. We're going to make them destroy themselves from the inside out."
"But how are we supposed to do that? Get within a few yards of any of them and all we'll be able to do is fight."
"Is that right? Didn't you learn anything from your time with Joseph?"
It finally makes sense. That's what this place is about.
"Holding the Hate..."
"That's exactly it," he says, sitting down again and leaning toward me. "Thing is, this is the only way to teach someone how to do it. If you're not held or restricted in some way, you'll kill them before you realize what you're doing."
"Joseph and the others are just puppets. They have no idea. They genuinely believe what they tell you, but it's all just bullshit in the end. Joseph's the best-or the worst, depending how you look at it. Some days all I want to do is kill him myself."
Sahota's eyes are wide with excitement. "Think of the advantage this gives us, Danny. We know who they are, but they can't tell us apart until we start fighting. They won't even know we're there until it's too late."
"We're having to move fast. For various reasons things are deteriorating rapidly in the city. Normally we'd have given you a few more days here to make sure you understand, but time's a luxury we no longer have. This is the perfect time for us to do this. Think you're up to it?"
Talk about being put on the spot. I fumble for an answer for a second, before realizing that there's only one thing I can say.
"Good man! That's the spirit! As soon as they told me about you I knew you'd be a good candidate."
"What do you mean by that? Who told you...?"
"We send people out looking for battles. They wait on the outskirts of the fighting, watching out for people like you who manage to demonstrate some degree of control and don't just attack. Let's face it, we'd be wasting our time trying to teach this stuff to Brutes, wouldn't we?! No, we need people like you who are able to take a step back and consider the options before committing to an attack. People who use the Hate and control it rather than letting it control them."
He looks me straight in the eye. "Tell me, do you remember when you first stood next to Joseph and didn't attack?"
"And what were you thinking at the time, Danny? Were you thinking what he was saying was right, or were you just toeing the line to get the best out of a bad situation?"
The memory of the last few days is filled with confusion and uncertainty, the distinction between "us" and "them" suddenly unclear. But now that I'm away from my cell and Sahota has put his question so simply, the answer's clear and unequivocal. Everything has been brought back into sharp focus.
"I was playing with him. Stringing him along. Doing what he wanted me to do just to get food and freedom..."
"Exactly! A perfect answer! From the moment you decided not to kill him, you were in control."
This is too much to take in. Sahota watches me intently, and I'm uncomfortable under his constant gaze. I try to look anywhere but back at him. The sun breaks through the heavy gray cloud cover momentarily and streams in through the dirty office window. Christ, I've been so preoccupied with this bizarre conversation that I'd forgotten my newfound freedom-in the back of my mind I still think I'm chained to the spot. I get up and walk around the side of the desk.
"You local?" Sahota asks.
"Don't know yet," I answer. "That depends where local is. Where exactly are we?"
"Not far from the hospital where we picked you up. A couple of miles maybe."
"A couple of miles in which direction? Farther away from the city center or...?"
My words trail away to nothing as soon as I look out of the window. I know this place. Sahota's office overlooks a narrow parking lot. Beyond that, the long, overgrown back gardens of a row of once well appointed but now derelict houses stretch away. Beyond the houses is a small, sloping, oddly shaped patch of parkland, the brightly painted swings and slides of a children's play area looking strangely at odds with the chaos of everything else I can see. A narrow track between two of the houses connects the parking lot to the road, and a huge wrought-iron gate prevents anyone unwanted from either getting in or getting out.
"Is this-" I start to ask.
"Holy Sisters of the Poor, to give it its original title," he explains, standing beside me and looking down. "Strange place, this was."
"Part convent, part nursing home. Ideal for us."
He's not wrong. The huge, strong, brick-built complex is like a fortress. Built in the middle of what used to be a fairly affluent area, and hidden from view by houses on all sides, it's set back off the road and surrounded by enough tall fences, gates, and walls to keep even the most determined intruder out. Most people wouldn't even have known it was here at all. From what I remember, this used to be a convent, which became a church-run, community-funded rest home. I'm sure Lizzie's dad, Harry, had a friend living here for a while...
"This is Highwell, isn't it?"
"We're on the border between Highwell and Steply, to be precise."
"About two miles from the center of town."
"Yes, so we're..."
"Already in the city. Right on the innermost edge of their exclusion zone."
"Christ... How many people like us are here?"
"Not many, just me and a couple of others at any one time. Apart from me this place is almost exclusively staffed by my team of idiot Unchanged pacifists who think they're saving the world. As soon as people like you have learned how to control their emotions I send them out into the city. Like I said, the situation's deteriorating rapidly out there. We don't have a lot of time to waste."
For a moment all I can do is stand in silence and stare out of the window. Beyond the parking lot and the houses, everything appears completely lifeless and still. There are the usual telltale signs of battle, and everything appears even more overgrown and wild than I remember, but the world otherwise just seems abandoned and empty. The longer I look, though, the more I see. In the distance a single helicopter flies toward the city center, visible only in the gaps between the tops of trees. There's a pile of corpses in the park, dumped in a flower bed. Closer, in the shadows of the parking lot directly below, several Unchanged carry bags of supplies between one building and another, constantly looking over their shoulders for fear of attack. Along the road to my far right, a battered car is slowly approaching. It enters the complex through another gate and narrow passageway, then stops in the shadows of the tall perimeter wall. I watch as two Unchanged deliver another fighter like me, his arms and legs already tightly bound. It strikes me that the irony of what's happening here is beautiful; these fools think they're working toward some kind of salvation, but all they're doing is training their own assassins.
"I've set up a number of sleeper cells right in the heart of the city," Sahota says. "I want you to join one of them."
"Okay," I answer quickly and without thinking through any implications. It'll get me out of here, and right now that's the most important thing.
"I'll get your stuff brought up, and I'll give you directions, contact information, and some supplies. Get out there, get used to being neck deep in the enemy, then find your cell."
"And then you sit and wait for the signal."
"When the time's right, all the cells will be instructed to take up positions deep in the heart of the city. Then, when we're ready, each cell will start fighting, causing as much panic as possible. Just imagine it, Danny... sudden swells of violence, loads of them in random locations, and all happening at the same time for no apparent reason. The enemy won't know what's going on. They won't even see us there. They'll look straight through us and turn on each other, and it'll be beautiful, like dropping a match into the gas tank of a car. Before you know it, the whole city will be tearing itself apart. Think of it... we'll be less like terrorist cells, more like cancer cells."
It sounds magnificent. All too easy.
"So all we have to do-"
"All you have to do," he interrupts, correcting me, "is get in there, wait until we're ready, then cause as much mayhem and carnage as you can."
I stare out of the window again, trying to fully appreciate the importance and danger of what I'm being asked to do.
"This is an honor, Danny. You've shown incredible strength and self-belief to get this far. What you're going into the city to do will never be forgotten."