Just one week to go until CHOKEHOLD hits the shelves. Here’s the first chapter for you…
Fifteen Miles East of Cambridge
The first few enemy figures appear on the horizon, and the fighters lying in wait for them are desperate to engage, starved of conflict. It’s been too long. These fuckers have had it coming. These fuckers will be shown no mercy.
It’s taken weeks to get to this point. Every meter of mud has been fought for; every reclaimed centimeter of concrete and tarmac has been won at a cost. They’re not going to give it up now, not after all those sacrifices, all those lives lost. There’s no going back. It’s them or us.
Word of the approaching attackers spreads quickly along the front line, accompanied by a nervous tension that borders on excitement. Some of these men and women dare to dream that the bulk of the bloodshed is behind them now, that this is the last push of the final war. There’s an unspoken belief that each new bloom of violence will bring them closer to restoring some semblance of normality to what’s left of their lives.
The service station is accessed by a single road that splinters off what used to be one of the major routes into Cambridge. The main road had been midway through a massive, years-long rebuild-and-regeneration program when the war began, and here, alongside the services, lies the abandoned remains of a construction base the size of a small town. The fighters used the roadworks equipment to strengthen and fortify their position while secreting their armored vehicles and heavy weapons among the highway maintenance vans and flatbeds. Diggers were used to carve deep trenches at a distance from the main buildings, and the ballast, soil, and scree they excavated now protects the service station itself—great drifts of the stuff used to block access, strengthen walls, and camouflage metal and glass from view. Inside the building, the familiar plastic façades of long-gone restaurant chains and fast-food outlets remain, reminding people what they’ve lost. But the rawness of their pain is eased knowing that what they have here is more than almost everyone else.
It’s October, but it doesn’t feel like it. Since the bombs dropped, the climate has gone haywire. The sun has been hidden for weeks behind a layer of dirty, stodgy cloud that looks so heavy it feels like it’s about to drop from the sky and smother everything. Gray, muck-filled rain hammers down constantly, leaching color from the landscape. This part of the country was notoriously prone to flooding, and the unprecedented rainfall has had a dramatic effect. Much of the land around here is now submerged. There are stagnant, filthy lakes where towns and villages used to be. Rivers run along once busy roads.
The cold is bone-deep. Day before yesterday, there was sleet. Sleet just after the end of summer! And people are saying things will get worse before they get any better.
Another squad emerges from the service station to bolster the numbers on the front line. Ali Varn climbs down into the trench and works his way along to take up his position. “Gents,” he says as he pushes past, and the two fighters he nestles himself between acknowledge him with the most cursory of grunts. Varn wipes his face and spits to clear his throat. They used to worry about the toxicity of the rain, but not anymore. They’ve all spent days and weeks soaked to the core, and anyway, there are bigger things to worry about. No point worrying about your long-term health when getting through each day is an achievement in itself. A little bit more radiation’s not worth writing home about in the grand scheme of things, Varn thinks. Home. Now there’s a concept he’s struggling with. What’s home these days? This trench? The service station? The derailed train carriage he sheltered in for days on his way to get here? The car trunk he hid in immediately after the bomb? No one belongs anywhere anymore. It feels like the entire population of the country has become nomadic. Feral.
Varn’s glad he has a military background. There are plenty here who don’t. He pities the civvies who’ve come into this without any real experience of fighting, though it’s getting harder to tell the difference. None of them look like soldiers anymore. They’ve all lost weight, skin hanging off their bones like baggy suits. The woman next to him looks sick as a dog. Her hair’s patchy. Bomb-style, he calls it. Big, raw-looking bald spots on her scalp. He knows he doesn’t look any better himself, but that’s the price you pay for picking a fight in the middle of a nuclear winter.
Up ahead, a spotter is flat on his belly with his mud-smeared face peering over the top of an artificial dune that was built here for the purpose of keeping watch. Only the whites of his eyes are visible from up ahead. He turns back and gives a signal to the troops and the bosses watching from the service station. He holds up seven fingers for seven incoming attackers, then gestures with his fist, indicating they appear to be unarmed.
Sometimes Varn thinks the anticipation is worse than the fight. No matter who you are or which side you’re on, it’s nerve-racking waiting to kill when you’ve only got a club and a rusty blade for company, but that’s the way it goes these days. He knows it’ll only be seconds before the battle begins, a minute at most, but that’s plenty long enough to think and rethink and overthink what’s about to happen. Will I survive, or will this be the day my luck runs out? Are any of the attackers any good? Are they here because they know we’re here, or are they just randomers who’ve stumbled across the outpost by chance? He thinks that’s likely the case, because Chappell’s done a good job of keeping this place well hidden. Word in the ranks is that Chappell was a pen pusher before all this, that he put the office into officer, but credit where credit’s due, he picked up the rules of engagement pretty quickly.
The massively reduced population numbers mean there’s more room to hide out here, more space to disappear, but everyone knows that counts for nothing because it only takes one brief encounter to fuck it all up. Meet one of the opposition coming down the track toward you, and you can bet the little you still own that this will be the day only one of you gets where they were going. Varn knows he has to fight and keep fighting, that there are no second chances. He tries to visualize himself bludgeoning the enemy ’til there’s nothing left of them but blood and broken bones.
This looks like something from the Somme, the troops on the front line armed with rudimentary weapons. There are guns and munitions held in the stores, but Chappell’s saving those for the big one, whenever that might be. Until then, they’re relying on aggression and physicality to see them through.
The spidery figures continue to creep forward. Jittery. Uneasy. The spotter signals again, letting the troops know that contact is imminent, and Varn knows he has to strike first, kill before he’s killed. He blinks with nerves and shuffles from foot to foot, toying with the weight of the metal club in his hands and shifting his grip, imagining caving in someone’s skull, battering their face to a pulp and not stopping until they’ve breathed their last.
There’s an expectant, apprehensive hush. Vacuum-like.
Wild. Skittering. Frantic.
The first of them tries to pull up fast when he reaches the edge of the unseen trench and realizes he’s about to go over, but his speed and the rain and the greasy mud combine, and he skids and slides and drops into the deep dugout. Varn swings wildly and clubs the man hard around the head and face. They’re not human . . . ignore the screams . . . ignore the blood . . . It makes him feel sick to the stomach, but he does it just the same.
More of them spill into the trench ahead and behind. There’s a mass of chaotic movement right along the narrow space now, everyone fighting for their lives. Varn lifts his club to take out the next of them, but in focusing on one, he loses sight of another. Despite just being slashed across the back of her legs with a machete, this woman still has enough energy and hate to thump her stubby blade down between Varn’s shoulder blades. They collapse on top of each other, both dead in seconds.
The trench is filled with violence. There are more attackers than the spotter first saw, and this next one’s all arms and legs. He drops to the ground with a wet thud, then spins around so fast he loses his footing. Initially appearing weak and spindly, the reality is he’s anything but. There’s wild fury in his eyes as he faces one of the troops, both of them knowing that whatever happens in the next few seconds, one of them won’t survive. The kid—because he is just a kid—digs his fingers into the muddy walls on either side to get a grip, then throws himself forward and is impaled on a fearsome-looking metal spike the soldier holds out in front at the last second. The kid whimpers and looks down at the weapon sticking out of his chest and sounds almost disappointed that the fight’s over before it’s really begun. He tries to pull it out, but there’s so much blood pouring out he can’t get a grip. His hands slip and slide as the soldier pushes the spike deeper.
The line between attack and defense is blurred more than ever. At times like this, it’s impossible to tell who’s a Hater and who’s Unchanged.
The pissing black rain makes it even more difficult to see who’s who and what’s what, but enough remains visible for the soldiers in the trench to know that the sudden burst of fighting is over. For now. Another short-lived, small-scale attack has been successfully repelled, and the service station base has been defended for a while longer.
The soldiers traipse back toward the outpost buildings, swapping places with the next watch. The troops are based in a dilapidated-looking hotel alongside the main building. There’s relative comfort inside with individual rooms and real beds and space to think and breathe, because it’s important our fighting boys and girls stay strong, isn’t it? The civvies, on the other hand, bed down wherever they can find a space in the concourse of the service station next door. A group of them is ordered outside to clear the bodies from the trenches.
There’s little talk among the civilians; nothing much to say. Everyone’s got a job to do, and that’s all there is to it. Dealing with the dead is as straightforward as it sounds. Grab a corpse by the wrists or by its ankles, wait for someone to take the other end, then carry the body over to the pit and chuck it in. A body is a body once they’ve breathed their last—doesn’t matter who or what they were before. We come in the same way, and we all go out the same way in the end.
The pit is an enormous hole in the ground that was originally for the footings of a new bridge spanning the A14. It’s almost certainly the largest mass grave ever dug on British soil, and that’s a record that’ll likely stand, too. Bigger pits may well be dug, but finding enough corpses to fill them will be another matter altogether.
Two of the men—Parker and Dean—go everywhere together. They’re a tag team, they tell people. Dean’s struggling with the weight of the Hater corpse they’re shifting. He loses his balance, then loses his footing, then almost loses his grip altogether. “I think you need a holiday, Dean,” Parker says, sarcastic.
“Wouldn’t say no. A couple of weeks by the sea would do me the world of good.”
They reach the pit where another civilian is directing operations. “Quit talking,” he tells them. “Minimal noise out here, remember.”
“Jesus, Joseph,” Parker sighs, “give us a break.”
Joseph Mallon’s not impressed. “You need to take this seriously. Give those Hater bastards an inch and they’ll destroy everything.”
Parker and Dean swing the corpse between them, then hurl it into the pit. Parker shakes his head. “These ones are dead, remember? You need to take it easy, Joe. You’ll give yourself a heart attack at this rate.”
Joseph ignores him.
Another man delivers the next corpse by himself. He’s odd-looking, this one, with thick-lensed glasses and bad comb-over hair. The dead Hater is draped causally over one shoulder. “Wait,” Joseph says before he can dispose of the body. “Drop that one.”
The other man does as he’s told and lowers the corpse to the ground. Joseph quickly pushes him out of the way, unsheathes a blade, then plunges it into the Hater’s temple. He then rolls the body into the pit and watches it drop heavily into the mass of tangled limbs below.
“Can’t afford to take any chances,” he says. “Thought I saw his eyes move.”
The other man seems taken aback. “I’m pretty sure he was dead anyway.”
“Pretty sure’s not good enough anymore,” Joseph tells him. “Haters think in black and white, and we have to do the same. I got caught out before. Won’t let it happen again.”
The two men walk back toward base. “What do you mean?” the other man asks.
“I fucked up. I made a mistake and gave some of them a way in. I thought I was doing the right thing, thought I was helping all of us stay alive, but I got it wrong and people died. Thousands of people. I tried to tame them, but they’re too far gone. They’re anything but human now.”
They reach the service station entrance. The glass outer doors are permanently wedged open, no longer automatic, and the heavy revolving door beyond can now only be rotated with brute force and much effort. The space between is like an airlock; a shelter from the wind and rain and noise.
“It’s Joseph, isn’t it?” he says, catching up.
“I’m Peter, Peter Sutton.”
“Good for you.”
“What you were saying out there just now . . . I’m sure you weren’t completely responsible.”
“No, maybe not, but I contributed, and I’m damn sure I’m not going to let it happen again.”
“We’re all going to have to work bloody hard to get through this in one piece,” Peter says, taking off his glasses and wiping them, “but it’s not impossible. We’re well organized here, and the chiefs have a plan.”
Joseph shakes his head. “If you think this place is going to be your salvation, friend, then I’d think again. The only person you can rely on these days is yourself. You’d do well to remember that.”
“Keep your head down and your mouth shut, Peter, and you might just get through this.”
Some familiar faces for you already and we’re only on page 8.