I'M WOKEN BY A crash and a muffled cry of pain. I sit up quickly and look around the dark room, struggling for a second to decide where I am. The combination of the acrid chemical smell and the stench of decay helps me remember. Where's Adam? I catch a momentary glimpse of him outside through the open door, hobbling back toward the main building. I grab a knife from my backpack and run after him. I've barely taken two steps out of the chemical storeroom when I hear other voices up ahead. There are people around the front of the cull site. I drag Adam out of the way, stopping only when we're both pressed up tight against the outside wall at the back of the main killing chamber.
"It's Unchanged," he whispers, voice full of nervous excitement. "I saw them."
"Don't know. Heard engines."
What the hell do I do now? Despite what Adam probably thinks, we can't risk taking them on until we know how many we're facing. There could be hundreds of them here, and if they've dared come out into the open like this then they're probably armed to the teeth and ready to fight. What do they want? Maybe they've come to try to get this place restarted? Shit, maybe they're here looking for us?
"Wait here," I tell him, pushing him toward an alcove. "Keep yourself under control and don't do anything until I come back, okay? I'll try to get a better look."
Adam nods and does as I say. I take a couple of steps away from the building and see that there's a metal ladder running from ground level to an access hatch up high. Before I can talk myself out of it I start climbing, trying to limit the sound of my heavy boots on the metal rungs. I pause when I'm two-thirds up and lean over to one side to peer in through a grubby window. The early morning sun is blazing through the windows along one side of the slaughterhouse and the hole in the roof, filling it with light, uncovering every gruesome detail that was hidden in the darkness last night. The Unchanged are inside the building now. I can see a couple of them slowly picking their way through the bodies and debris.
At the top of the ladder I open the hatch and carefully ease myself inside. I'm on one of the narrow gantries running around the edge of the vast room, and I know I'm all too visible up here through the metal grilles. I move toward the side of the room that is still in shadow. I'm right above one of the intruders now. Looks like he's wrestling with a corpse, trying to pry a rifle from the death grip of a decaying soldier. Fortunately he's preoccupied, and I keep moving toward the front of the site undetected. Farther ahead I notice that this walkway's loose. Several brackets and supports have come away from the wall, and it's already feeling less secure. I'm less worried about my safety and more concerned that the creaking and groaning of the metal will cause one of the scavengers below to look up. They don't look like typical Unchanged military or militia. They're wearing odd, mismatched clothing, and they're both weighed down with weapons, far more than they need. They look more like mechanics than soldiers.
A sudden noise makes me catch my breath. I look back over my shoulder and stare down, worried they've found Adam. It's nothing, just another Unchanged helping himself to a dead man's gun.
I turn around to try to get off this unstable walkway, but stop when I glimpse something happening through the large dust- and cobweb-covered window at my side. The reason for the enemy being here has suddenly become painfully apparent. Outside, under the protective gaze of five armed militia fighters, two young women and a white-haired, elderly man are working their way along the nearest pile of corpses, stripping them of anything of value. Inhuman bastards. There must be a hell of a black market somewhere for them to risk doing this, but the fuckers look well organized, and they know what they're doing. Wearing yellow dishwashing gloves, the three of them move along the bodies at speed, each of them working at different heights, snatching rings and watches from the dead hands that stick out of the massive mound of rotting flesh, filling buckets with their stolen booty. A teenaged boy grabs each bucket when it's full, replacing it with an empty one and carrying the stash away out of sight. What I'm watching makes me seethe with hate and anger, but what can I do? There are too many of them to risk taking on alone (and even though Adam's with me, in terms of fighting I still think of myself as being alone). All I can do is wait for them to disappear.
Hang on, something's caught the attention of the grave-robbing bastards below me. One of them stops scavenging and calls to his pals. Carrying several weapons each, they head toward the door in the corner we exited through last night. I run back along the gantry, but before I get to the hatch I know it's Adam. I hear the stupid kid before I see him through the window. Should have known he'd struggle to keep himself under control. The Unchanged are outside now, heading straight for him as he limps aggressively toward them, the sharp tip of his ski-pole walking stick held out like a bayonet. Fortunately the rest of this gang are either unaware or too interested in their haul to get involved. I climb back out through the door and down the ladder. Adam and the Unchanged are out of sight now, but I can still hear them fighting. With half a dozen rungs left I jump down and run around the corner to help, knife in hand. Adam's on the ground, taking a heavy beating from two of them. To his credit he's already taken the other one out. The scrawny little fucker is slumped up against the side of the building, impaled with Adam's metal stick.
I grab the shoulders of one of his attackers and slam him down onto the dusty ground. His body rattles with the impact, and the look on his face is one of surprise more than anything else. Before he realizes what's happening I stab my knife into his chest, aiming for his heart. The blade's stuck in his breastbone. No time to pull it out. I run straight at the other one, punching the side of his head with enough force to knock him over. He scrambles back up, shakes his head clear, and rushes at me, holding a rifle by the barrel and swinging it around like a club. I duck his first clumsy strike, then, while he's still off balance, thump my axe into the base of his spine. I shove his face down into the dirt to muffle his screams until I'm sure he's dead.
Need to get under cover. We're out of sight and there's no sign of them yet, but the others will come looking for their people before long. Adam's out cold, and my already slim chances of winning this one-sided fight have just been slashed even further. All I can do now is get out of the way and wait for the rest of these fuckers to move on. Trouble is, I realize as I shove my arms under Adam's shoulders and start dragging him back toward the chemical storeroom, when they find the bodies of three of their own they're not going to go anywhere. Then, as I reverse through the door and look back, I realize the tracks Adam's feet have left in the gravel and dust will lead them straight to us.
I dump his useless, groaning bulk in the space on the floor where I slept last night. There's a dribble of blood running from the corner of his mouth, but I can't tell if it's just his mouth that's cut or whether his injuries are more serious. The way they were laying into him, I wouldn't be surprised if his insides were well and truly fucked.
I stand up to lower the roller door back down, but it's too late. There's already another one of them standing over the bodies, and this one looks like he actually knows how to use the powerful rifle he's carrying. He's calling for reinforcements, but he hasn't seen me. I duck down behind more of the acidic-smelling chemical sacks and watch him through a narrow gap between two waist-high piles. All I can see is his boots. As I'm watching, another two pairs of feet approach. I don't think they've seen the tracks in the dirt yet, but it's only a matter of time. It's not like there's anywhere else around here I'd be hiding. I try to stay calm and prepare myself mentally for the fight, working out which one I should attack first and which way I should run. Maybe running is the only option? Sorry, Adam, I think this is where we say our good-byes. Can't see any way of getting him out of here now. Poor bastard's three-quarters dead anyway.
Another two of them join the first three. Five to one-those are bad odds in anyone's book. I'd have been better off taking my chances and lying flat on a pile of corpses. Wish I'd thought of that sooner. Perhaps I can still get over to that open grave...?
Here they come. One of them starts to walk toward this building. Christ, I don't even have my knife with me. It's still buried to the hilt in the gut of one of them. Maybe I can reach my backpack from here...
Wait. They've stopped.
Something's distracted them. Figuring I've got nothing to lose, I slide across the floor to try to get a better view of what's happening. They're starting to move back toward the front of the building now. Can't see why, but their weapons are raised. This is my chance to make a break for it. I get up, grab my backpack, and run back outside, then stop when one of the enemy scavengers goes flying past the front of the chemical storeroom. He skids along the ground, thrown like a rag doll, eventually landing in a heap in the dust a few yards from my feet. Another one of them reappears, this one running backward, trying to fire his rifle and at the same time retreat and defend himself from whatever it is that's attacking. I'm right out in the open again now, my curiosity and bewilderment forcing common sense to take a backseat, and I can finally see what's happening. The cavalry have arrived. Halle-fucking-lujah. At precisely the right moment a van full of our people has turned up at the site, and they've got two powerful and incredibly aggressive fuckers in tow who are making short work of any of the Unchanged stupid enough to stand in their way. The way these two are fighting is savage and brutal in the extreme, and it's awe-inspiring to watch. They move with an agility and speed that belie their otherwise ordinary appearance. Totally focused on the kill, they are oblivious to everyone and everything else around them.
The old man I saw stripping corpses is hobbling toward me, a look of absolute fear plastered across his weathered face. He runs straight at me, yelling for help, too terrified to realize I'm going to kill him.
"Get out of here," he tries to warn me, barely able to breathe. "They'll-"
I end his sentence before he has a chance to. I grab his shock of white hair, yank his head back, and punch him hard in the throat. He collapses at my feet, choking. I snatch a knife from my backpack and finish him off. Suddenly feeling fired up and alive, I sprint down toward the battle that's raging at the front of the building, desperate to kill again.
By the time I get there it's over, the suddenly one-sided fight ended with incredible speed, force, and brutality by seven other people like Adam and me. None of them questions me. There's an immediate, unspoken trust between us, and within minutes I'm helping them dump the bodies of the Unchanged with the thousands of others already here.