That man (had it been a man? I couldn't be sure) had been dead for some time, but he'd outlived the plague. He still had a gun in his hand, so I assumed he'd died fighting. On the evidence so far, it looked like Basra was still as violent and deadly a place as it had been before The Cull.

And I'd come here by choice. Bloody moron, Keegan.

The stairs were littered with junk. It was all the stuff I'd have expected: toys, prams, CDs, DVDs, clothes, a bike, some chairs, computers, TV sets. But the CDs and DVDs had Arabic titles and lurid cover pictures; the computer keyboard had a strange alphabet; the TV sets were old square cathode ray boxes, not widescreen or flat. The big picture was the same, but the details were different. It was disorientating.

This place had been taken to pieces, but it seemed like most of the stuff had just been thrown around for a laugh rather than salvaged and squirreled away.

I negotiated the wreckage and made it to the third floor without stumbling across any other recent casualties. I risked a glance through a shattered windowpane, and could see a group of three young men, machine guns at the ready, cautiously moving through the car park below. It wouldn't take much for them to realise I'd come into this block; one whiff of the doorway should do it.

I needed a hiding place, fast. I ran down the corridor, trying to decide which flat to hide in. Some still had their armour plated doors firmly locked shut from the inside, entombing anyone who'd sheltered there.

One door was decorated with a collection of human skulls, hanging from hooks in the shape of a love heart. I gave that one a miss. Eventually I just ducked inside a random door and pushed it closed behind me. I was about to slide the large metal bolts home when I realised that the bolt housings had been ripped from the wall when someone had kicked their way inside.

I turned to explore the flat, and found two long-dead bodies lying sprawled on the sofa. The one in the dress, with the long red hair, had a bullet hole in the middle of its skull. The other, presumably her boyfriend or husband, still held a pistol in his boney fingers, the muzzle clasped between yellow teeth. The flesh was long gone; all that remained were tattered clothes and bones, picked clean by rats that had long since moved elsewhere in search of food. I imagined that most of the locked doors in this block concealed similar tableaux.

It was the kind of thing I'd seen many times before, but again, the details were different. The sofa was a bright orange with the kind of swirling patterns that my gran used to like, and it was hard to tell which was more grotesque: the corpses or the wallpaper pattern. It was like some awful seventies throwback. But in the corner there was the first widescreen telly I'd seen here. New technology, old furniture; it was plain that Iraq had been changing when The Cull hit, caught between a brutal past and an uncertain future that at least promised shinier toys.

But Iraq hadn't moved forward into a bright new day of flat-screen HD tellies, democratic freedom and plush modern furnishings. It had bled out in a slow parade of mercy killings and suicide pacts.

Just like everywhere else.

'And Lee, listen, your mother…'


'I've seen what this disease does. And I want…'


'Lee, I wouldn't ask…'

'Dad, no. Please. Don't ask me to do that.'


'No. I'm not like you. I couldn't do something like that. I just couldn't. I won't give up hope.'

Right. First things first. I needed to sort out my shoulder. I took a quick walk through the flat but found only the abandoned fragments of other people's lives. I looked out the bedroom window at an expanse of sandy scrubland. It took me a minute to realise what I was looking at, but when I did it was all I could do to stop myself throwing up.

Lined up on the ground were three rows of impaled corpses. Maybe fifteen or more people, all with their hands tied behind their backs, lying with their faces skywards, sharpened wooden stakes protruding from their shattered ribcages. The stakes had been dug into the ground and then the victims must have been flung on to them. And pushed down. Recently, too; the flies were still buzzing.

I'd seen some pretty horrible deaths in recent months. I'd been responsible for a few of them. But this was far and away the most awful thing I'd seen.

I stood at the window for a minute or two, feeling the first stirrings of panic.

After all that had happened to me in the last hour, it took a field of impaled sacrifices to make me start panicking. That's a good indication of how fucked in the head I was at this point. Running, hiding, fighting for my life, killing people who were trying to kill me; all this had become part of an ordinary day. A year ago I'd have been a shuddering, stammering wreck. But now that stuff barely even touched the sides. I just got on with it.

A few weeks previously I'd stopped looking at myself in mirrors, started actively avoiding my own reflection, scared of what I'd see. I just kept telling myself to get on with it. Things to do. Sort it all out later. I think I imagined some sort of quiet solitude, a retreat or something, where I'd go and try to get my head straight once I'd got everything done, ticked the final item on my list of jobs (take out milk bottles, finish geography homework, defeat army of cannibals, iron shirts, fly to war zone and rescue Dad from enemy combatants who like impaling people).

I suspected that if I allowed myself too many moments of introspection I'd go mad.

I shook my head, impatient with myself.

Stop being maudlin.

Things to do.

Fix my shoulder. I was pretty sure it was only dislocated, not broken, and I knew how to sort that. You just grit your teeth and shove your shoulder really, really hard against a wall or something and it just snaps back in. Simple. I'd seen it in countless films.

It'd most likely hurt a lot, so I picked up a piece of wood from the floor, part of a smashed doorframe, and shoved it into my mouth. I didn't want any screams bringing my pursuers right to me. Then I stood before the bathroom wall and calmed my breathing, focused, and slammed my dislocated shoulder into the wall as hard as I possibly could.

The pain blinded me and I was unconscious before I hit the floor.

'All right, Lee. Look, I gotta go. Look after your mother. I love you.'

'I love you too. And make sure you come find me, 'cause if you're not back in a year I'm going to come find you!'

'Don't joke. If I'm not back in a year, I'm-'


'Dad? Dad, you there? Dad?'

When you've been unconscious as many times as I have, you learn a few tricks. The most important is not to open your eyes until you're fully awake and have learned all you can about where you are and who's there with you.

I was bleeding, hungry and thirsty, and I ached all over from the crash and the kicking, but I was still alive.

The most obvious thing was that I wasn't lying on a tiled bathroom floor. I was sitting up, with cold metal cuffs binding my hands to the chair back. Someone had captured me, then. I'd probably screamed as I passed out and they found me where I dropped.

The second thing was that my shoulder hurt like hell and I still couldn't move my arm, so I hadn't managed to relocate it. Thanks a bunch, Hollywood.

The air was still and dry and there was no wind, so I was indoors. I listened carefully, but I couldn't hear anybody talking or breathing. I risked opening my eyes and found myself staring down the lens of a handy cam.

It took a minute for me to realise the implications. I craned around to look behind me, and saw that I was sitting in front of a blue sheet backdrop with Arabic script on it. That's when I really started to panic. Could I really have flown halfway round the world just to end up in a snuff video?

It took a lot of effort to regain my composure, but I calmed myself down, got my breathing under control, forced down the panic and concentrated on the details of the room. Dun, mud brick walls, sand floor. Single

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