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Monique hadn’t wanted to believe her eyes.
She had already tried to convince herself that she wasn’t looking at Benny, but she knew from twenty feet away and that certainty only grew with proximity.
She scrabbled up the slope, not caring that she had trampled what was, in old money, several thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of pounds worth of devices.
Benny’s faded brown head looked utterly out of place poking out of the multi-coloured stack of tablets and I-phones and laptops.
She threw a few tablets to one side while she made space to free the bear without damaging it.
She already knew that it was Benny, without further inspection, but still she had to confirm it.
The thick line of black thread that she’d herself sewn his right ear shut with, shortly after Josie had cut her first tooth.
She smiled as she remembered her daughter chewing remorselessly on his ear until the bright yellow stuffing had popped out.
The left eye was missing, replaced with one of Monique’s husband’s red cufflinks.
They’d always joked that the red eye made him look like Arnie at the end of the Terminator.
Mon’s husband had often said that the never-washed bear would survive a nuclear war better than most of humanity.
Monique emitted a pained grunt as she recalled this.
More little things hit her; things that to everyone else in this fucked up world were just little marks on a stuffed bear, but to her it was the last link to her before life.
It was her daughter’s childhood preserved.
The tiny teeth marks still embedded in the remaining eye.
The white marks on the bear’s belly from where Josie had thrown up on him so much as a baby that the stain had never quite come out.
The small pouch they’d cut in his lower back to keep Josie’s teeth safe for the tooth fairy.
Her heart broke ever more when she found that there was still a gleaming tooth in there, dried blood encrusted on its outer edges.
She hugged it tight to her chest as though it was a long lost relative, and in a way it was.
It was the last physical evidence of her child’s life.
Benny still had Josie’s smell, since she’d slept with it every single night since she’d been born.
The only things that were new were the bloodstains on its back.
Those had not been there before.
And the realisation of what they represented took her sorrow to new depths.
Monique held the bear for an eternity, sobbing uncontrollably.
It seemed her hopes for her daughter had been in vain.
When the tears dried up, she just stood, staring at Benny at arm’s length.
She looked at it for so long that its smiling face no longer made sense.
She had no idea what to do.
It felt as though the world had just collapsed around her shoulders.
The frail strand of hope she’d clung onto had been chainsawed clean through.
Josie would never have left this bear.
She’d have died with it in her hands.
And the thought of what she would have gone through.
Tia’s voice echoed sickeningly in her head: This is the farm. Where our food is produced.
The thought made her heave, hurling the remnants of the morning’s pancakes all over the mound of expensive – but now useless – technology.
She puked until there was nothing left on her stomach, then she slowly shuffled her way out of the warehouses and back to her car.
Monique had sat in stunned silence, staring at the bear in her trembling hands.
It seemed entire days passed while she sat there, though it was an hour at most.
She sniffed Benny occasionally, the scent of her daughter still housed within its fur.
She sobbed harder than she ever had in her life.
Finally, she knew what she had to do.
She pulled the big bag of guns from the back of her car, locked and loaded and set off back into the Freelands in search of King Solomon.
She nodded to the guard who Tia had cleared her access with.
On her way in, she again saw the factories and thought of what Tia had said.
She had to see if her daughter was in there.
The scenes appalled her and she vowed to set the bedraggled prisoners free.
You gotta get your medicine right, Bennett’s voice said in her head.
She ducked into one of the factories and looked round to see the guard patrolling the corridor had gone.
She was startled for a second then looked up to see that he had begun climbing up the ladder that was leant against the side of the cages.
‘Hey, he’s going for the keys,’ said one little girl whose entire body was fish-belly white with faded burns.
The hope in her voice was enough to lift Monique’s spirits a little.
‘I hope the prick falls and breaks his fat fucking neck,’ a man who looked like a skinny Santa chortled through a mouthful of blood and shards of teeth.
The guard grabbed a huge set of keys from a hook on the top level.
Monique knew what she had to do.
She ran in and shoulder-barged the ladder as hard as she could.
The guard screamed as he clung on to the edges of the cage, the keys forgotten about in his desire for safety.
The heavy key ring plummeted to earth with a crash.
A man with a mad look in his eyes was in the cell to which the guard was desperately clinging.
‘Hey, there,’ he said, wiggling his eyebrows up and down like two mating caterpillars. His grin widened enough to almost split his face in two. ‘Remember when I first came in here and you beat the crap outta me and pissed right in my face?’
The guard groaned as the man raised and lowered his eyebrows rapidly then began swinging his flaccid penis around like the handle of a skipping rope.
Still grinning, he took aim and pissed all over the guard’s face.
‘Give him some for me,’ one of the female prisoners shouted.
‘And me,’ came the voice of a young boy.
The guard was left steaming and soaking, but not daring to wipe the foul-smelling piss off him as he needed his hands to hold on to the cage.
The man wiggled his eyebrows again and grinned even more – although Monique had first thought this impossible – then he opened his mouth and clamped down hard on the guard’s hand.
Blood spurted from the guard’s fingers.
He screamed and let go with that hand.
Instantly, his other hand struggled to take the strain.
The man bent in and bit the other hand, hard enough that Monique heard the clack of his teeth shearing right through the flesh and hitting bone.
The guard screamed and, despite his survival instinct, let go of the cage.
He fell from roughly thirty levels high and splattered over a ten foot radius.
Monique watched the dark pool of blood growing around his twitching body until one of the voices stirred her into action; ‘Don’t just fucking stand there! Get the keys! Get us out of here.’
‘Yeah,’ the chorus of voices went up.
She nodded, tearing her eyes off the guard’s dying body, now one with the concrete floor.
She straightened the ladder, gulped cos it was one hell of a height, and set off up it.
After a nerve-wracking climb, she reached the top.
She grabbed the heavy set of keys with one arm, not liking the flex in the ladder as she took her weight on her other hand.
She threw the keys down.
Another set followed.
There were ten sets of keys in all and she managed to drop all of them into the grateful hands of the waiting captives.
They eagerly started trying the keys in the locks on the fronts of their cages.
Even if they had the keys it could still take hours to get them free – each keyring had close to a hundred keys on it.
But the people had the time and the desire to get free.
Most of them anyway.
‘You’ll only make them mad if we try to escape,’ came one pitiful plea. ‘Think of the rest of us. We’ll all be punished because of your stupidity.’
The owner of the voice was a gaunt man whose skin seemed to be crusted over with dried shit.
Flies feasted on his extremities.
‘We’re getting out of here if it kills us,’ came the reply from a teenaged girl, one of the lucky few who’d had the keys dropped into her cell.
She was quickly trying each key in the lock of her cell, moving them methodically to the back of the ring when she knew it was no good.
‘Yeah,’ came the cry of an old woman whose head was supported by bare spine.
It looked as though the flesh around her neck and chest had been eaten away.
She was reaching through the bars, waiting patiently for the man in the cell next to her to hand her the keys when he was done.
‘Only one way out of here,’ the skinny Santa said, giving his head a particularly vicious ram into the cell bars. ‘And that’s in a fucking body bag,’ he laughed, dark blood oozing from between his broken front teeth.
‘What’s going on?’ a little blind boy shouted.
‘We got the keys,’ someone hooted. ‘We getting areselves outta here.’
Sounds of hope came from all around them.
Most of the prisoners were elated at the news.
Others were too weak or too dejected to try to escape.
Monique could see at least a dozen who were just curled up in their cells like drying leaves.
The first lock snacked open and the teenaged girl came out.
She walked strangely, due to the cramped confines of her cell warping the bones in her legs.
Nonetheless she was grinning from ear to ear.
The woman in the cell next to hers was already repeating the ritual with the keys, trying to free herself.
‘Wow, it’s everything I ever dreamed it would be,’ the girl breathed, staring dreamily around the shit-encrusted prison as though it was a tropical island.
Monique heard a particularly urgent cry from one of the cages.
She looked up to see a man reaching through the bars towards the keys that had landed in the next cell.
The boy in the cell was probably in his early teens and was staring retardedly at the keys.
Monique felt a creeping wave of nausea when she saw that the lower halves of the boy’s forearms were a mass of raw, bloody tissue.
In places the bone showed through the slick mass of bloody meat.
She recoiled in horror when she noticed that the wounds were also on the inside of his biceps, distinctly crescent-shaped, like tiny bite marks.
The realisation that the boy had been eating his hands and arms made her retch again but there was nothing in her stomach to come up now.
The wounds on his biceps wept blood and a clear fluid that dripped down his arms and into the cage below.
‘Are you going to get the fucking keys or not?’ the man bellowed.
The boy shuffled round, his face twisted into a mask of agony.
Monique saw that his feet were also chewed down to the bone.
The white bones of his feet peeked out of the bloody ruin.
It must have been torture to walk on the bare bones, hence the pain on his face.
He shook visibly from the effort of moving.
Then he curled up against the edge of his cell and brought his forearm to his mouth.
Monique looked away when his teeth clamped around the bloody lump of flesh on the back of his wrist, but she heard his agonised sob as his own teeth tore into his skin.
Heard the sound of a mouthful of flesh being torn away from the bone.
The idea that someone could be so hungry as to eat their own flesh was somehow the worst thing about this place.
She looked back up to the boy to see him contentedly chewing a mouthful of his own forearm.
Ribbons of blood and thick yellow pus ran down from the corners of his mouth.
She felt her stomach lurch and looked away, vowing never again to look at the kid.
The insane look in his eyes would stay with her for a very long time.
The little girl was still looking around the room.
Already another of the prisoners had managed to free themselves.
They shambled out of the cell on unsteady legs, a look of childlike wonder on their faces.
Best get out of here, Monique thought, but was unable to take her eyes from the scenes of the people desperately trying to escape.
The thin Santa jarred his head into the bars again.
The sound was lost among the clamour of the voices all pleading to be next to be the receiver of the keys, but Monique saw a thick arc of blood spray out from the top of his cranium.
The old man grinned like an idiot and reared back for another strike.
Monique again looked away.
Behind them a man let out a deep cry of victory as his cell door came open.
As he was on the tenth level, his dash to freedom was ill-advised as he fell to the floor and shattered both of his legs then lay, screaming, in a spreading pool of his own blood.
More horribly the thin woman in the cell next to him dragged him closer and sunk her teeth in like he was the answer to her prayers.
Monique turned away, finally learning her lesson not to watch the scenes in the cages.
Behind her she heard the sounds of the feet of the liberated tide of broken humanity.
I’d best get out of here before they all get loose, she thought.
She knew that desperate people were often the most dangerous as they would do just about anything, and things didn’t get more desperate than the poor bastards locked in those cages.
She moved out of the warehouse, shielding her eyes from the glare of the sun.
Behind her a roar of equal parts fury and relief rang out, audible even through the din of the cows lowing over the loudspeakers.
The guards pulled bemused expressions as the liberated prisoners surged out of the warehouses.
The freed cattle began charging loose in every direction, uncontrollable, like blood spurting from a slit artery.
The guards around the central piece of grassland were startled to see the escapees.
Gunshots began to ring out, cutting through the recorded lowing of cows and the cacophony created by the wave of deformed ex-prisoners.
Monique saw a young girl fall, the back of her head blasted away by the shotgun rounds of one of the guards.
She collapsed in a heap, already in a huge puddle of blood.
Monique couldn’t help but feel she was one of the lucky ones.
More of the escapees fell, but some of them managed to reach the guards.
Though their bodies were wasted, they were running on sheer desperation.
A small boy flung himself bodily at one of the guards, knocking his rifle up in the air.
The boy’s face was a picture of bloodlust.
His blackened teeth clamped down tight on the side of the guard’s throat and tore loose a huge chunk of flesh.
Blood sprayed out, lending the boy’s face a look of utter insanity.
He sunk his teeth in deeper, shaking his head back and forth like a rabid dog.
Clouds of gore spurted from the wound in the guard’s throat.
He fell back, his hand twitching weakly around the stock of his gun.
The boy didn’t seem to care that his enemy was already dead.
He seemed to just be hungry.
He chowed down with glee, blood smeared all over his grinning face.
Monique backed away, making sure not to be caught up in the carnage.
She was watching all of the escaped cattle, her eyes darting between them.
They charged all around the central grassland, seeking either retribution or sustenance from the guards.
A few more of the escapees fell, some of their bodies chewed away by bullets or shotgun rounds.
But there were too many of them for the guards and soon they were being feasted upon.
Monique backed away into the shadows of one of the other warehouses before they could finish their meals.
She watched them fighting to be the first to the fallen guard’s bodies.
They were like animals.
She hated what man had become.
But even more she hated those who had made him become this.
The escapees fought over the carcasses, shoving and biting and striking each other to get to the fresh meat.
The hunters had become the hunted.
Predators now prey.
She had time to muse on this briefly before she heard a scream of rage and saw a small girl pointing over to her hiding place.
She ran faster than the escapees; their limbs seemed to be warped from their time spent confined in the cages.
The majority of them seemed to have their spines and legs curved in funny places and seemed to run with a waddling gait, that, under very different circumstances, might have been funny but in this case just added to the bemusement and terror that she felt.
She ran into the other warehouses.
She gunned down the guards in there, opening the massive gates in each paddock to release the hundreds if not thousands of blood- and shit-spattered emaciated humans inside.
Then she climbed onto the warehouse roof and used her scope to scan the crowd for her daughter.
It was a seemingly never-ending task, but she had all the time in the world to do it.
When she was sure her daughter wasn’t part of the herds in the warehouses, she began her search for King Solomon.
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