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When the door to their cell opened, Bennett got the answer he was dreading; the guards had a spacesuit for everyone.
‘Aw no. Not a fucking chance,’ he said, backing away, terror in his eyes for the first time in decades.
‘You must help to clean up if you want to stay in here,’ Slade said. ‘Or else you’re gonna be sent outside anyway.’
‘Na-ah. No fucking way.’
‘Think about it. A few hours outside, in the protective suit. You come in, get hosed down, cleaned off, get fed. When things die down a little, you get as much as you can eat, and your job back. With a difference… You get to do what you do best in broad daylight, no more sneaking around.’
‘I dunno, man.’
‘Or you live out there for good – with no suit – and watch your body slowly wither away before your very eyes.’
Bennett thought about it for a second.
‘To me, it’s a fucking simple answer,’ Slade said.
Bennett furrowed his brow.
It did make sense the way Slade had laid it out, but he hated being made to do anything.
He was his own man and didn’t like answering to anybody.
Slade had already pulled on the suit and was struggling to fasten it up.
‘It shouldn’t even take you a second to think over,’ Slade said, furrowing his brow in anger.
Bennett shook his head, muttering obscenities under his breath.
‘Right, it’s an order. Put that fucking suit on now,’ Slade snapped.
‘We go back a long way, bossman, but I’m totally gonna punch your fucking teeth down your throat for this one day,’ Bennett snapped.
‘I’ve saved your life here, man. When are you going to get that through your thick skull?’
Bennett thought about it, saw that he was right, and reluctantly began to put on the suit.
Bennett, in his career as a cullsman – although before it was known as a Population Control Agent, a much more pretentious title he’d never really cared for – had shot people in the face at point-blank range, splattering his own features with their warm blood and shards of skull.
He’d stabbed people, felt their life literally run over his hands, smelt their final reeking breath rush out into his nostrils.
He’d ran people over in high-speed collisions, snapping their limbs and mashing their torsos to a pulp.
One guy had jack-knifed and hit the bonnet so hard that the Volkswagen logo was imprinted on his face.
He’d staged suicides by throwing people out of high rise windows.
And, possibly most spectacularly, he’d engineered gas explosions which had scattered blood and lumps of riven flesh to the four winds.
He’d certainly got his hands bloody.
But the scenes that met his disbelieving eyes outside the shelter of the city’s concrete walls were enough to even stun a grizzled veteran like him into silence.
The space immediately outside the walls of the city was clear, and, at the time, he wondered what the hell he was supposed to be cleaning up out here.
He saw the reason why this region was so clear as they moved further on; no one had gotten this far yet.
About half a mile out from the city walls, a security perimeter had been set up – seemingly overnight, as there hadn’t been a trace of it when Bennett and Slade had sped through on their way to the city.
The spacemen were everywhere, crouching behind a wall of sandbags topped with what looked like bastardised traffic signs.
The guards were heavily armed, their rifles pointed out over the road.
Bennett saw things as they were now.
The city was at the end of a long straight road, maybe five lanes across.
The edges of the highway were walled, to prevent more than five vehicles at a time approaching.
There was a gleaming line of spikes set into the road, ready to burst the tyres of any car coming past the designated stop point.
It was a funnel to give the guards the necessary time to fire.
Like the run leading to the bolt gun in a goddamned abattoir, Bennett thought.
In spite of his job and the atrocities he had to carry out on pretty much a daily basis, he thought people deserved a throw of the dice.
Let the smart and the tough and the brave have at least a fighting chance.
And those who could summon a belly laugh too.
He’d give those funny motherfuckers a chance any day of the week.
Herding them up like cattle was just bullshit and smacked of the mayor’s spineless approach to things.
Further up the road were blacked-out vehicles parked sideways across the road.
Men with big guns sat atop the roadblock, waving their arms to the queue of cars behind them.
The skinny seemed to be that the cars pulled up here.
The guards ordered them to get out.
They then walked down the five lane highway to the checkpoints.
The cars at the front were then driven away by some of the spacesuit men, to form an extra layer of barricade.
The operation was efficient, if callous.
‘You seeing this shit?’ Bennett muttered.
‘Are we nearly there yet, Neil?’ Bennett grinned to the guard on his left.
‘Stop fucking calling me that,’ Neil’s voice rasped from inside the helmet.
Bennett grinned. ‘Well are we?’
The first thing they noticed about the checkpoint was that the Geiger counters were in use again.
The people were herded together into groups of roughly twenty, in the order they had pulled up to the barrier.
If they were all clean, they went to the right, down a single lane of highway towards the final checkpoint.
If one person from that group made the counter beep, they were all taken off to the left, even if the other nineteen were clean.
‘This is fucking horrible,’ Slade muttered.
They watched as the group currently at the checkpoint were slowly analysed by the beeper.
If they were clean they went right.
There were ten stood to the right of the checkpoint, smiling.
The poor bastards obviously didn’t know their slim chance of survival.
‘Do not touch each other. Try not to breathe on each other. The contaminated will be removed from the herd,’ a loudhailer voice said.
The scenes made Bennett’s skin crawl.
He watched as another man, his face soot-smeared, his clothes tattered, his body already emaciated and covered in burns and dried blood, had the beeper drawn round his frame with agonising slowness.
When the guard had completed three glacier-like runs of his entire body, all without a single beep, the man was waved to the right.
The man jumped a full metre in the air, his fist thrusting up towards the sky, his face lighting up in a huge grin.
An involuntary, ‘Get in,’ was bellowed.
He looked to Bennett like he’d just won the lottery.
They watched awhile.
Another five people were deemed clean and joined their compatriots on the right side of the checkpoint.
Then the sixth, a blood-smeared old man, stepped up to the guard with the counter.
The device passed over his arms, head and neck without incident.
A faint sound was produced when the counter passed over his right leg.
The rest of his body was quiet.
The second pass made the device beep louder on his right thigh.
The guard shook his head and beckoned the man to the left. He also beckoned the rest of the group that way.
Some of them went to run.
Others blindly accepted their fate.
It made no difference.
The runners were gunned down, their heads popping like melons struck by sledgehammers.
The man who, mere minutes ago, had looked to be ecstatic, was the last to fall.
His face was graven with terror and despair.
How quickly things had gone wrong for him.
And, seemingly, for the world.
Their bodies were dragged further to the left with the survivors from the group.
There was a whooshing sound and thick columns of fire shot from the weapons two of the guards held.
The flames consumed the bodies.
The thick smell of charred flesh stung the back of Bennett’s throat even through the protective suit.
Their screams mingled with the roar of the flames, creating a hideous symphony of suffering.
Some of the bodies were reduced to gleaming bone.
With some of the others, the flesh simply slid from their skeletons.
They all fell, smoke rising from their seared carcasses.
‘If you suspect you are contaminated then step off to the left on your approach,’ the loudhailer announced.
Bennett shook his head at the atrocity.
‘The fuck? They weren’t contaminated,’ he said, pointing at the blazing ruins of the bodies on the floor.
‘They were close enough to risk contamination,’ Neil said.
Bennett shook his head. ‘But they weren’t contaminated.’
No one else responded.
‘You are to clear the bodies from there and put them in the wagons,’ one of the other guards said.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ Bennett said when he saw the scale of the operation.
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