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Authors: David Moody

Them or Us

BOOK: Them or Us
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For Mum, Dad, and Pete

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Sincere thanks to all those who’ve helped make the
Hater
series what it has become: Both those who’ve read and enjoyed the books (okay, maybe
enjoyed
isn’t the right word), and those involved with the publication of the series (particularly Brendan Deneen and all at Thomas Dunne Books in New York, and all at Gollancz in London).

Particular thanks to John Schoenfelder and Jo Fletcher, without whom 1. these books might never have happened, and 2. the overall story wouldn’t have been half the story it eventually became.

Thanks to my friends and family, especially Lisa and the girls. Ladies, without you all I’d probably have plenty of cash and loads of spare time, but I’d also be bored, lonely, and completely uninspired. I may be becoming a grumpy old man, and I might not say it often enough, but you are my world and I love you all.

Finally, thanks to my late father-in-law, John Tipper, and my mother-in-law, Betty, for introducing me to Lowestoft and the surrounding area. Thanks also to whoever it was who once casually said to me, “I bet it’s easy thinking about the end of the world when you’re staying with the mother-in-law,” and set me on the path to writing
Them or Us
!

 

The Last English Summer

AT THE HEIGHT OF
the last English summer, the skies turned black as coal and never cleared. Backed into an inevitable corner by an enemy that had remained elusive and invisible until the last possible moment, the Unchanged military was left with only one remaining card to deal. And they dealt it, unleashing hell and killing millions. Or had they? Had that final, decisive strike been delivered by those who coordinated the so-called Haters? Had they pushed the button? Whoever was ultimately responsible, the end result was the same. As the vast city-center refugee camps all imploded, over the space of a few short days virtually every major city in the country was destroyed in a white-hot nuclear haze.

“A limited nuclear exchange” was an overused misnomer: limited in duration, perhaps, but not in effect. Although the weapons that had been used (mainly tactical, field-based missiles) had relatively low yields in the overall scheme of things, their combined aftereffects proved to be immense and catastrophic. Many thousands of people, predominantly the tightly packed, panicking Unchanged, perished immediately in the initial blasts (collateral damage, they used to call it). Those who had survived the maelstrom were forced out into the wastelands where their enemies waited for them impatiently: relentless, determined, and with an insatiable bloodlust.

The numerical advantage at first believed to have been held by the Unchanged proved to be another crucial miscalculation based on misguided and outdated assumptions. There may well have originally been an average of three Unchanged for each one of
the others
, but when the typical Unchanged was too slow and afraid to kill even one Hater, and yet a single Hater was so full of brutal hostility that even the weakest of them was capable of killing literally hundreds, that initial statistical advantage was swiftly canceled out, then reversed.

The Unchanged became a vanishing breed. Millions were slashed to thousands by the war. Thousands were reduced to hundreds by radiation sickness and starvation. The remaining hundreds were steadily hunted out and killed.

 

Five Months, Four Days Ago

BEFORE THE BURNS ON
his back and his busted right leg had even begun to heal, they made Danny McCoyne fight again.

He waited deep in the forest of yellow-leaved trees, one of a group of more than forty fighters, sheltering in twos and threes from the dirty black rain, waiting for the next kill. Johannson, the hard bitch who’d ousted the last leader of this pack when she’d hacked him down in the middle of another battle a week ago, knew exactly how to hunt the enemy out. That was why so many people stayed with her now. The hunt and the kill was all they had left.

McCoyne sat with his back against a rock next to a man whose name he didn’t know, sheltering under a limp canopy of bracken and drooping branches. He stared deep into the forest, eyes struggling to stay focused, looking for signs of the movement he knew would inevitably come. In times past he would have been desperate to fight and tear those fuckers apart, but not anymore. Those days were gone, and now he didn’t give a damn. He did it because he had to. The war had taken its toll and left him a hollow man; little more than a shell, just a shadow of who and what he’d once been. Body broken, spirit crushed.

There was a time not long ago when Danny McCoyne fought without question.
When all the Unchanged have been hunted out and destroyed,
he used to tell himself again and again,
then things will start to change. When the enemy is extinct, the rebuilding will begin.
The longer the war continued and the more intense the fighting became, however, the less likely that seemed. The level of damage inflicted on everyone and everything was severe, the scars indelible. So why did he bother? Why not just turn his back on the rest of them and walk away? The answer was disappointingly simple: His body had been badly damaged, and the reality was that, right now, he couldn’t survive on his own. For the moment, McCoyne’s options were stark: If he wanted to stay alive, he’d have to stay with these people, and if he wanted to stay with these people, he’d have to keep fighting and killing.

They’d been waiting out here in the dying forest since before dawn. It was lighter now, but McCoyne struggled to estimate the time or even how long they’d been here in the undergrowth. The heavy, smoke-filled sky was dark and had been that way since the bombs. He’d barely seen the sun since the morning he’d lost the last thing that mattered to him, his final tangible connection with the man he used to be.

Johannson’s tactics were uncomplicated and effective. Faced with little alternative, many of the Unchanged who had survived the blast had gradually returned to the outskirts of the city the fighters were now camped close to, taking cover in those few buildings that had remained standing after the shock wave and firestorm, figuring that an inevitable slow death from starvation and radiation poisoning would somehow be preferable to an equally inevitable yet immeasurably more violent death at the hands of their enemy. Johannson, however, had other plans. She had at her disposal a core of dedicated fighters, desperate for action and almost Brute-like in their passion for Unchanged blood, who’d do anything she demanded just to kill again. She sent a squad of them into the city to flush the enemy into the open, rounding them up and herding them toward the waiting Hater hordes.

Was this it? McCoyne sensed a sudden murmur of activity around him and caught a glimpse of movement up ahead. His heart began to pound hard, beating too fast, making him feel dizzy with nervous anticipation. He remembered the excitement and exhilaration he used to feel at moments like this, but now he just felt sickness and dread.
Can’t do it
, he told himself, trying to picture the moment when the Unchanged finally came into view and he had to attack,
I can’t fight anymore
.

Then they came.

Rustling undergrowth and snapping branches heralded the arrival of the fittest. Two relatively strong Unchanged stumbled through the forest, too terrified of what they were running from to think about what they might be running toward. They zigzagged through the trees, looking behind them twice as often as they looked ahead. Johansson’s fighters waited, fighting against their basic instincts, swallowing down the Hate and desire to kill until their leader gave the signal. They’d learned to obey her, safe in the knowledge that if they didn’t, they’d be dead, too. Do what she says and you’ll get to kill. Fuck with Johannson and she’ll break you in two.

Johannson stood up and revealed herself just a few yards ahead of the farthest forward Unchanged, who, unable to stop in time, ran into her suddenly outstretched arm at full speed. It caught him across the windpipe and he dropped hard onto his back, too stunned to react.

“Kill ’em!” she screamed, her deep, hoarse voice echoing through the trees.

There were eight Unchanged in view now and still more following, all of them splitting off in random directions like a herd of panicked deer. They were attacked from all sides as fighters emerged from their various hiding places, dragging their enemy down and tearing each one of them apart, anything between three and ten focusing on each individual Unchanged.

As usual, McCoyne lagged behind. In spite of the sudden frenzy of the ambush and the chaos all around, his reticence hadn’t gone unnoticed. There were others with worse injuries who moved faster.

“You don’t kill, you don’t eat,” a ruthless and far stronger fighter called Bennett said as he shoved McCoyne out of the way to get to another Unchanged. It was a young woman, directly up ahead now, creeping back through the trees, thinking she hadn’t been noticed and trying to get away again before it was too late. McCoyne forced himself to follow, legs heavy as lead, body aching, head pounding. Then, before Bennett had got anywhere near the lone woman, a Brute appeared, charging through the undergrowth. McCoyne pressed himself back up against a tree to get out of the way, terrified as the powerful, barely human killer approached. He shot a quick glance at the Unchanged the three of them were converging upon. Christ, she looked bad: so pitifully weak he knew that even in his own miserable state he’d have no problem killing her. Badly burned in the bombings, her skin was blackened, her face a haunted mask of scar tissue with the whites of her eyes the only remaining visible features. She dragged herself along, aware of the danger ahead now but resigned to her fate and unable to do anything about it. She glanced back over her shoulder—every additional movement requiring massive effort—then seemed to shrug and falter. McCoyne could see more killers approaching now, at least another three.

Before any of the fighters could react, the Brute struck. It leaped through the air with a grace that belied its stature, its powerful body naked and lean, still manlike in appearance but its movements more animal than human now. The creature covered the girl’s entire face with one large hand, then slammed her head against a rock, caving in the back of her skull. With a flash of awe-inspiring violence and speed, it stamped on her chest, crushing her ribs, then yanked her right arm from its socket with a single powerful tug. It ran deeper into the woods, carrying the spindly, blood-soaked limb like a trophy and leaving its dying enemy spurting blood into the leaf litter. One of the fighters booted the woman’s disfigured face. Then the rest of the fighters moved on, each of them desperate to be the one who made the next kill.

McCoyne stopped and waited for them to disappear. Johannson was close; he could see her beginning to move toward him as she finished killing another. She stumbled momentarily, tripping over the trailing legs of her victim, then steadied herself as she crashed through a brittle-branched bush into the clearing where McCoyne was hiding. He quickly grabbed the collar of the Brute-kill, lifted the woman’s head inches off the ground, then punched her jaw and dropped her back down, making sure the leader had seen him, hoping to give the impression that he was the one who’d struck the killer blow. Johannson made momentary eye contact with him, and he relaxed, relieved that the boss had seen him at work, satisfied that she’d fallen for his pathetic, improvised deception.

“Keep fighting,” she grunted. “More coming.”

She grabbed his shoulder, hauled him up onto his feet, and dragged him back into battle.

*   *   *

Many hours later, in an empty warehouse on a hillside near a long-deserted factory, the group took shelter from the heavy, polluted rain that had been driving down all day and all night. It was cold, more like February than August. Some heat and light came from a pyre of Unchanged corpses, but ringside seats were reserved for Johannson and her most prized fighters. McCoyne and the rest of the hangers-on—the weak, the injured, the old, the indifferent—sat on the edges and took what they could, begging scraps and trading anything they’d managed to scavenge during the course of the day for a few meager mouthfuls of food.

Soaked through, shivering with cold, and unable to sleep, McCoyne stared into the darkness outside. Another endless night. The fear of being attacked kept him awake, but when he did manage to lose consciousness, nightmares would inevitably wake him again. He dreamed about the bombs every night, remembering the heat and the light and the impossibly huge mushroom cloud of smoke and ash rising up over the vaporized city; horrific images forever burned into his mind. For a few days immediately after the attack, the bombs had given him a misplaced sense of relief, comfort almost. He’d sought solace in the fact that such unspeakable horror had been unleashed and he’d survived. The bombs were the ultimate symbol of the Hate—how could things possibly get any worse?

As the night dragged on, McCoyne remembered a conversation he’d had many weeks ago with a friend. They’d talked about vampires and werewolves and other fictional creatures from the past, and had come to the conclusion that although they were still alive, the monsters he and the rest of his kind had come to resemble most of all were zombies. Back then he’d tried to imagine what would happen to the undead once the last of their prey had been hunted down and destroyed. Today he decided he’d found the answer.
This
was all that remained: this constant, never-ending purgatory. Dragging themselves through what was left of their world until their physical bodies finally failed them, all of them desperate to satisfy an insatiable craving that would never be silenced. Nothing else mattered anymore. Their lives were empty but for the hunt and the kill. It was an inescapable paradox: By destroying their enemy they were also removing their own reason to live.

He curled up in the darkness on the outside edge of the group and tried to rest, knowing that he somehow had to build up his strength for tomorrow. The hunting and fighting would begin again at daybreak.
Who I used to be and everything I’ve done before today counts for nothing
, he thought to himself as he tried to shut out the noise of the animals around the fire.
If I don’t kill tomorrow, I’m dead
.

BOOK: Them or Us
11.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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