Several hundred years into the future and oil supplies have run out. Society has descended into chaos. Governments have lost control over their states, which have now split up into tribal factions, each desperately trying to gain the upper hand and feed its members.
Astoc heard them again.
His ears were quivering in the chill air, listening to the clamour of attack borne on the breeze. Everyone was preparing for battle, but he had heard them half an hour ago ... but no-one ever believed him. He was the omega. The bottom of the pile. And yet he is the one telling this story.
They had been camping in a dell not far from a lake. The water was fresh, so it had attracted quite a crowd. One gang had broken into the old hydro dam in a vain attempt to win some spark. But Eagle-Eyes and his posse had got there first and found nothing but the spoils of rust and rats.
Eagle-Eyes himself was now crossing the dell towards him. He was called Eagle-Eyes for a reason. He took speed, through his connections with an in-shadow drugs trafficking team. He paid a fair whack for it, too - but no-one ever made the slightest suggestion that the ching that went towards it could be spent on other things, such as good food from honest traders.
"Oi, Astoc, on your feet," Eagle-Eyes barked. "We've got some luggers from Red Wing out eastwards, towards the bunker. They should be on us soon."
"So I was right, then," said Astoc grumpily.
"No, you were not right. You said they were now coming. It's been half an hour. What are you on, scruff?"
"Nothing. What are you on?"
"You know full well what I'm on and a phat lot of good it'll do you. Shut your trap and get a move on."
Such were conversations with Eagle-Eyes. Short, snappy and concluding with an order or insult. Astoc daren't push the barrier any more - he had forced Eagle-Eyes to toe the laser before and wished he hadn't.
And, as Astoc had predicted, there were soon piles of men, scrawny and starved but carrying salvaged weapons from an abandoned military base the other side of the lake. Eagle-Eyes had known they were approaching. His gang wouldn't have got there in time.
The weapons were rusty, however. Cartridges got jammed inside the rifles; the tasers were useless; and the knives were so blunt they literally bounced off the Kevlar jackets that Eagle-Eyes' posse had managed to find.
"Astoc, what are you doing?" shouted Lent, a brawny man who had actually taken a liking to him, despite his pitiful ranking. "Don't stand still, you'll get yourself killed!"
There were too many Red Wingers to count, and despite their rusty weapons, they seemed to be holding the line rather well. Astoc drew his knife (the only weapon an omega was allowed) and charged them as usual, The sight of a sixteen-year-old boy, with long, greasy hair and almost devoid of muscle, was enough to make many of the Red Wingers laugh derisively.
That was where Astoc's strength was.
He looked weak and hopeless but concealed lightning speed and a hunger for bloodthirst. His meagre skills weren't recognised by the alpha at all (but then again, Eagle-Eyes was usually high), but they were testament to his survival. Omegas usually survived for six months at the most. Astoc had been omega for four years and still hadn't kicked the bucket.
Astoc slashed and ripped, kicked and elbowed, tripped and tumbled - by the middle of the brawl he had killed twice as many people as Eagle-Eyes had - though maybe that was because Eagle-Eyes was doing all the bossing around.
Though the Red Wingers were numerous, they had soon been eradicated Astoc still didn't know why gangs made stupid charges like that - any move the Black Wings made was carefully planned, calculated and organised.
That was why the Black Wings were the richest and healthiest gang in the area - they used their heads.
"Come on then, skevvies - spoils!" Eagle-Eyes cackled. "We'll eat like Ancients tonight!"
The only thought that kept Astoc going was "I'd rather be omega among the great than alpha among the puny." But that never was a complete comfort to him - there couldn't be anything much worse than to be condemned to a life of obeying others. Constantly.
Eagle-Eyes had forced this upon him. But soon, Astoc would challenge him. Eagle-Eyes was as high as a kite ... all Astoc had to do was pull the strings ...