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Pestilence Reigns

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A horrific demise caused by a virulent outbreak is only the start of the fall and rise of an entire country as the plague claims countless victims until only a handful of survivors remain. “The mortality rate is one hundred per cent. No one survives…” In the near future, with the world falling apart, Bill Reddings is forced to do whatever it takes to survive as his life is ripped apart and society crumbles around him. A new strain of a deadly plague appears in London, spreading like wildfire and infecting the entire nation. Martial law is declared, as quarantine and disposal of contaminated corpses become top priority. As the disease continues to expand exponentially, bodies begin to mount up. Rumours of a vaccination being withheld circulate amongst the population, riots ensue and towns and cities are plunged into chaos. As quarantine locks down the entire United Kingdom, the watchful eyes of the United Government’s Marine Corps maintain an anxious vigil on the island. The few left alive face slaughter at the hands of fellow survivors or an agonising death by infection: either way, the island will be their tomb. In a world that has fallen to a vile and deadly scourge, only a handful stand strong, pushing back against overwhelming odds, struggling to survive the pestilence that has descended on where they once called home.

Horror / Scifi
Ben Black
Age Rating:

Chapter 1: Patient Zero

“It’s a grave situation we find ourselves in. We can’t predict for certain the full extent of the spread, but we are confident we can contain it.

“Get out of the way,” he screamed, sheer terror threatening to take over his mind. He wouldn’t; no, he couldn’t rest until he’d seen her. His vision swam as he hurtled through the corridor, blind panic making him question if he was even going the right way. He didn’t know what was happening or what was going on, he’d taken off halfway through hearing about her illness. All he knew was that it involved his girlfriend; his soul mate, and he needed to see her; he needed to see Jenny.

The run from the office to the toilets had barely been enough to make him out of breath, but Bill could feel his heart hammering in his chest, almost bursting as he skidded to a halt outside the toilets. A small crowd of people Jenny worked with had started to gather around the entrance, murmurs of intrigue turning to whispers of concern, and angst turning to pity as Bill lurched into view, his mind still reeling. Ignoring their looks, he turned sideways and barged into the crowd, shoving people aside before they had a chance to part and let him through. No one protested, no one offered any words of explanation.

He stormed into the room, the normal lemon-fresh scent of the cleaning products used overwhelmed by something else: a foul, vile stench that was unlike anything Bill had ever smelled before. The cloying odour clung to the back of his throat with each breath, his stomach convulsing as he retched, feeling acidic bile tickle his palette. Grimacing, he swallowed it down and looked quickly around the room. There were a handful of people in the toilets, Jenny’s closest friends showing more concern than the morbid spectators gathering outside, but also showing something a little more. Fear? Terror? Bill couldn’t tell for sure, they all faced one open cubicle and the figure sprawled in the doorway.

She crouched on her hands and knees, head lying limply on the seat, listless eyes staring blankly at the rim of the once white porcelain seat, both her face and the seat speckled with glistening beads of greenish-pink liquid.

Just a few hours ago, Bill had watched her getting ready for work: smiled to himself as he watched her sitting at her dressing table, grooming herself, making sure her hair was just right. While he was at the bottom of the corporate ladder and could get away with throwing jeans and a t-shirt on five minutes before he had to leave for work, she took time to accentuate her lightly tanned skin, full lips and piercing blue eyes with makeup. Not too much, but enough to turn heads when the couple set off for work.

The person that had keeled over the toilet was barely recognisable as a woman at all: a bitter and ragged abomination with rat-tails of sweat-soaked hair plastered to her forehead and perspiration streaming down her face and arms. Wispy black spider legs of mascara crawled down her face, and the whites of her eyes were barely visible through the web of swollen and bloodshot veins. She’d left her suit jacket balled up on the floor by the door to the cubicle, and her shirt was soaked, clinging to her skin. As he neared her, Bill realised that the source of the smell was Jenny, her legs smeared with her own excrement that had pooled around her knees. As he stepped nearer, her body shuddered and heaved, and a belching retch tore from her mouth as her lips parted and she heaved into the toilet bowl, a thick dark substance that seemed to be comprised of blood more than bile, splashing into the half-digested chunks of food already in the toilet.

Bill had seen Jenny drunk, he’d seen her with the flu, and he’d seen her with food poisoning: nothing rivalled the state she was in now, and he couldn’t help recoiling himself as he stepped forwards and gently placed his hand on her convulsing shoulders. Both people recoiled at the touch, Jenny in pain and Bill in shock at her temperature: she was burning up, and no amount of sweat seemed to be having any cooling affect on her.

Jenny’s eyes flickered to Bill, the barest hint of recognition flashing in them, before she convulsed and vomited again, her lips cracking and tearing at the corner as she did so. Bill was speechless; he wouldn’t know what to say, even if he could find his voice. His vision seemed to swim for a moment, and he sank to his knees beside Jenny, the slick of her expelled waste seeping into his trousers, bringing a disturbing warmth to his knees as the sludge oozed across his ankles and sloshed over his shoes. He felt a wave of nausea wash over him as he knelt beside her and sank into the mire, but the moment quickly passed as he steeled himself to touch her back once again, this time prepared for the heat, and kept it there, finally finding a small voice to blurt out the words “I’m here, Jenny, It’s okay”. As far as reassurances went it wasn’t brilliant, but it was the only thing he could think of.

She tried to acknowledge it, tried to force a smile or form a word with her cracked lips, but yet another shudder wracked her body, a wet cough echoing around the curvature of the toilet, amplifying the splatter of escaping fluids and the weak, pitiful moan that followed.

Still leaking and oozing vomit from her mouth, her limbs suddenly gave way, her head bouncing off the pan and her body curling around the seat as her entire body shook, a spasm that brought with it deep guttural roar followed by thick, gurgling noise. Bill panicked, seeing her eyes closed and thinking that she was losing consciousness, and pulled her out the cubicle, a trail of filth and blood streaking behind her as he dragged her into the main area of the toilets. He rearranged her into what he thought the recovery position was. It had been some years since he’d had any basic first aid training, but from what he could remember, as long as he kept her airways clear any and all vomit would slide out her mouth instead of collect in the back of her throat. Her arms continued to flail and her legs kicked wildly, forcing Bill to back off as she spasmed and convulsed on the floor. Finally finding a voice, Bill spun to look at the people gaping at him and snarled.

“Don’t just fucking stand there! Get a doctor!”

“We’ve already called for the ambulance, it’s on the way,” one of the women murmured. Bill didn’t take the time to acknowledge that, or even identify which of Jenny’s friends it was. He tried to hold back the tears, but despite his willpower, the barriers holding them back broke. Salty droplets rolled down his cheek, splashing in the acidic mix of bile, blood and faeces that was pooling around the floor. As the filth seeped across the floor, those already in the room retreated closer to the door, their eyes warily flicking from the pool of rapidly increasing bodily fluids to the crowd peering cautiously in through the door. There seemed to be activity outside the room, distant voices that seemed harsh, abrupt even, but Bill didn’t take much of anything else in, and he certainly couldn’t concentrate on a conversation in another room while his girlfriend lay on the ground looking like she was… What was she, was she dying? He didn’t know what was wrong with her, couldn’t possibly begin to believe a word he was telling her, even though her knew how important it would be to keep her reassured. He couldn’t panic himself, but what could he do? He’d never felt so helpless, so impotent before, and unable to say or do anything meaningful to calm either himself or his girlfriend down. “It’s going to be okay,” he muttered again. “You’ll see.”

He looked up as the voices outside became louder, more authoritative, and two men charged into the room, both wearing a heavy duty white all-in-one suit and a combination of gas mask and helmet covering their heads. Thick gauntlets and boots protected their hands and feet as the boldly strode into the miasma of vomit and blood surrounding Bill and Jenny, each carrying a portable generator slung over their shoulders on thick nylon straps. They each removed their device, setting them down on the ground and checking dials and controls to make sure they were getting purified air circulated into their sealed suits before kneeling down to look over Jenny. One carried a white metal box with an embossed Caduceus sigil on the lid, while the other held a small portable computer in his hand. The owner of the box opened it and started retrieving instruments from it, while the other started to tap information into the computer with a stylus. Their masks and attire were almost identical; the only way Bill could discern any difference between the two was that one wore a chevron on his left shoulder. What Bill did notice, though, was that both men carried a pistol strapped to their leg, not a common sight in England, not even with police officers on duty, and certainly not on the legs of a medic or doctor.

“Are you this woman’s husband?” A harsh, almost metallic and emotionless voice came from the speaker fixed to the side of the mask. Bill looked at him with glazed eyes, trying to look beyond the tinted lenses into the eyes of the man, but couldn’t see anything.

“Are you her husband?” he repeated.

Bill stammered a negative response. Marriage was something they’d talked about once or twice before, but nothing they’d acted on. There always seemed like there’d be another day they could discuss it. “Boyfriend,” he murmured, watching as the man with the medical chest started inspecting Jenny, taking her temperature and checking for response to different stimuli. Her eyes fluttered violently, though her convulsions had all but ceased. The paramedic gently pinched at her skin, and the surface broke, weeping a thin, pale watery fluid that cascaded down her arm and into the mix of fluids already on the ground. The paramedic looked at his gloved fingers, and then displayed them to Chevron. He pushed himself to his feet, tapped another series of commands into his tablet and motioned vaguely towards Jenny with the blunt end of his stylus.

“How long’s she been like this?” Though the voice was muffled and changed by the helmet, the accent was American.

Bill shrugged his shoulders, shaking his head and soundlessly working his mouth. He had no idea what time he’d burst into the toilets, how long had passed since then, or even what time it was now. He glanced pointlessly at his watch, the face smeared in blood and vomit, and he shrugged. He tried once again to look at the man behind the mask, looking up at the towering figure and feeling like a child being chastened by an adult, something he was all too familiar with from his wayward youth. It offered no comfort or reassurance, and the only thing he could see was his own face of utter confusion and shock reflected on the lenses of the mask.

Chevron pulled Bill away from Jenny, allowing the paramedic to work on her from a different angle and turned his emotionless gaze to the few faces still peering through the doorway. “When did this start? How much has she brought up? Has anyone left the floor since this started?”

“About half an hour ago,” someone replied. Bill looked over, finally realised it was one of the girls who worked with Jenny. What was her name, Janine? Janice? Janet? He couldn’t remember, but did it matter? She looked sickly and pale, too, though not as much as Jenny. Beads of sweat prickled her brow as she stumbled closer into the room and offered more information. “She was complaining about a headache, something like the flu, then she was just sick. We rushed her here, and when we saw the blood… Jesus, is she going to be all right?” She swayed slightly as she spoke, and leant against the wall, rubbing her temples and screwing the palms of her hands into her eye sockets.

Chevron ignored the question. “And she’s been vomiting non-stop since then?”

Janine nodded, licking her lips as she did so. Bill nodded his head once to himself; Janine was definitely her name, he remembered that now. She tried to step away from the wall, but her legs buckled beneath her as her feet slipped in the murky fluid seeping across the ground. She braced herself against the wall again, muttering about how it was hot in the room and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead.

“Has anyone else been through here? Left this floor?” Chevron asked, his masked visage moving from her to the kneeling paramedic, who gave a knowing nod in return. “Anyone you can think of?”

“Cleaners?” she muttered, shaking her head. “The corridor’s been vacuumed recently…”

“Window cleaner,” Bill murmured, watching as Chevron tapped the details into his computer. “Some guy cleaning the windows when I was on my rounds before. He… he wasn’t there later.”

“Cleaners, are they’re hired by the company, or internal?”

No one responded.

“They wouldn’t pack up their gear and leave the building, would they?”

Bill shrugged in a non-committal manner, his eyes focussing on Jenny as the paramedic gently withdrew a sterile spatula and scrapped the corner of Jenny’s mouth, pulling a wad of mucus and bile away from her lips and slipping it into a Petri dish and setting it down on the chest by his side.

“Did you hear that Merris?” The paramedic didn’t respond: Chevron must have been using a radio set into his mask. “Yeah, that’s right. Another possible two people. Lock it down; get hold of their schedules. Get three men in the lobby; seal the ducts off,” He paused, tilting his head slightly as if listening to a response. The silence seemed to last a lifetime, and for a moment the only noise Bill could hear was the laboured, burbling breath of Jenny.

“I know,” Chevron snapped, his sudden outburst startling Bill, an explosive outburst that shattered the quiet and made the paramedic look up from his work, no doubt a questioning glance behind the tinted mirrors. “But no one enters, and no one leaves; no exceptions. We have one definite, and at least another thirty Hot Bodies. Get some testing kits up here.”

Apparently signing off the radio link, he looked across at the paramedic again: in one hand he held small square of paper saturated in a solution that he dipped in the sample, then compared it to the chart he held in the other hand. The paper was blue in colour, but it slowly turned black as it soaked up liquids from the bilious sample. He slowly shook his head. “She’s too far gone,” he confirmed. “Stage four, best we can do is take her in, make her comfortable, then sterilise her.”

“She’s advanced pretty quickly. At least at this stage there’s not long left, right?”

Bill heard the words of the attending men, but didn’t understand the true meaning of it all. Nothing that was going on around him really sank in. Another two men pushed their way into the room, both wearing the same thick white suits and carrying a collapsed gurney between them. They set it down on the ground, gently manipulating Jenny on to the mesh fibre that made the surface of the moveable bed: no matter how gentle they were, though, her body didn’t agree. Skin flaked away where the men made contact, and where the flesh stretched it cracked and peeled, weeping a pink watery fluid of blood mixed with pus and mucus.

“Might even be stage five,” Chevron offered. The paramedic nodded in agreement, and Bill struggled to his feet, his eyes widening in alarm as he saw the strain being put on Jenny’s skin, and he tried to voice his concern, tried to order them to stop, to be careful, but his throat locked. He stepped forwards, but Chevron placed a firm hand on his chest without looking, a silent warning to stay back and let his men do their job. After strapping her down, the two men stood and lifted the gurney, the scissor-legs of the device expanding and locking in to position before wheeling her towards the door, watching as the morbid crowd scattered as they approached them.

“I’m coming with you,” Bill finally managed to say, taking a stumbling step towards the doorway. His clothes were caked in the filth from the floor, still warm and clinging to his limbs as he moved, and the tiles beneath his feet were slick with spilled liquid. He stumbled over to the set of basins and clung to them while he tried to regain his composure, his filthy hands smearing the ceramic with bloody handprints and smudged fingerprints. He fumbled for the tap, rinsed his hands and splashed his face, then numbly stared at the bloody stranger staring back at him in the mirror.

“We wouldn’t leave you like that,” Chevron motioned towards the gore covered clothing and bloody effigy in the mirror before taking hold of his lower arm and guided him out the room, effortlessly moving across the slippery surface like a man who’d done this a thousand times. “You’re a biohazard yourself.”

As he was ushered out the room, Bill turned to Janine and reached out to touch her arm. His fingers made contact with her skin, and she recoiled, not in revulsion from his bloodstained hands, but from the pain the contact made on her suddenly delicate flesh.

Janine looked at the decrepit form that had once been Jenny McClaren, her friend and workmate, now glassy-eyed and listless; clothing and hair matted and thick with vile-smelling bile and mucus, watery blood trickling from her gaping mouth. She could tell just by looking at Jenny, that there was no pulling around from this: every shudder brought a fresh moan of agony from her, each retching heave bringing more vital fluids. Even with these thoughts of Jenny’s condition, and possible expiration, Bill managed a choking plea. “Phone Brian for us, let him know we might be late for drinks tonight.” The gravity of the situation hadn’t even come close to registering in Bill’s mind: everything was happening too fast, but his thoughts were jumbled by the shock of the events unfolding, or just a naturally optimistic disposition that let him see the silver lining of every cloud. In his eyes, in his inability to grasp the serious nature of the situation, the couple were going to be late for a social event. Bill’s eyes seemed to glaze over for the briefest of seconds as a thought formed in the back of his head, then nodded. “No, just tell him we’ll see him tomorrow.”

Janine’s response was a slight nod as she slowly raised a shaking arm up and placed a pale hand in front of her mouth, stifling a choking cough that escalated into a rattling fit. Pulling her hand away from her mouth, she frowned at the bloody spatters in the palm of her hand and then looked expectantly up to the paramedic. Without missing a beat, he dropped his chest and opened it back up, retrieving another Petri dish as Janine broke into a fit of coughs and the crowd at the door shuffled back even further. Chevron slapped the paramedic on his shoulder as he motioned past, dragging Bill with him as he exited the toilet and into the crowded hallway.

The corridor seemed more alive than it ever had before: doors to offices were open, and people were milling around them, half drunk cups of tepid coffee in their hands as they gawked at the men in white, the wheeled frame that was being pushed down the corridor, and the gore-covered Bill as he stumbled along behind him.

“Get back in your offices,” Chevron shouted, his voice crackling over the speaker as he looked around and motioned to the largest crowds murmuring to one another. They didn’t move, looking over Jenny’s prone form, them turned back to look at Bill’s dishevelled appearance. They spoke in hushed tones, but loud enough for Bill to hear them as they walked past.

“Looks like she’s been beaten up,” the first of the wild accusations came, something so far from the truth it was almost laughable.

“That’s her boyfriend,” another whispered, pointing to Bill with an outstretched finger of a hand wrapped around the handle of a mug. “I heard he was high on drugs, took a knife to her.” The office rumour mill seemed to be quick off the mark, no matter how far off target. “Jesus, will you look at all that blood.”

“Look at his eyes… he looks like he’s still off his face, doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doin’.”

“Crazy bastard… Are they the police?”

“No, I’ve seen them on the news. Soldiers. Marines. They’re all over now…”

“No wonder they called the Marines in, the fucker’s covered in blood… Jesus, what did he do?”

“What are they doing here? Why not the cops?”

“Get back inside,” Chevron stopped mid-stride, turning to face the trio of men and motioning towards the office behind him. His voice no longer seemed flat and emotionless, but threatening, a voice that wasn’t used to having people disobeying him. He squared up to the men, feet set shoulder width apart, hand resting a few inches from his holstered pistol: the office workers didn’t push their luck any further, slinking back into the office and turning to their colleagues, helping to spread rumours amongst the uneducated. No doubt the story would spiral out of control, but Bill didn’t care, he was more concerned with Jenny’s wellbeing.

“Is this what’s happening in London? What’s been in the news?”

Bill looked up at the woman who approached the men – the Marines – as they marched towards the lift and the two men holding the doors open; guarding them, maybe? He didn’t recognise her as someone that worked in Jenny’s office, but she seemed concerned. Bill didn’t know what she was talking about in London, though: he didn’t pay much attention to local news or current affairs.

“Stay in your offices until further notice,” Chevron said, offering no further explanation and pushing past her, continuing to tap details into his computer and making sure Bill followed the gurney: he needn’t worry, Bill had no intention in leaving her side.

The lift was cramped already with the wheeled stretcher and the two men charged with transporting Jenny: it was even more of a tight squeeze as Bill was ushered into the cage by Chevron, who held his thumb down on the button to hold the doors as the paramedic returned up the corridor, his cleansuit dripping with fresh bloody bile from his shoulder and chest where someone had recently vomited on him: Janine was no where to be seen. His shoulders were slumped forwards and his steps staggered, and he motioned towards the toilets behind him while absentmindedly wiping some of the vomit.

“Another one, stage three,” even through the distortion of the speaker, he sounded tired. “In this corridor alone, I’ve seen another three people who look like they’re on the verge of stage two, and maybe a handful at stage one.”

“Okay, keep everyone here, lock it down. I’ve got a squad working its way up from the ground floor. Call it in, Code Black; initiate Damocles protocols and key in the locus for home base to catalogue.”

“Hey, what the hell’s going on?” a demanding voice shouted from the other end of the corridor, loud and authoritative that seemed to silence the murmuring crowds that were starting to spill out into the corridor. A man in his late fifties wearing a grey suit and a tie as red as his enraged face glared angrily at the blood-soaked carpet and men in the elevator. A few groups of people seemed to melt back into their offices, making themselves scarce, while those workers that were more brazen lingered in the corridor, eager to see how the confrontation would play out. “Some of us are trying to work here!”

“I’ll handle this,” the paramedic said in a lowered tone through the speaker in his helmet, slapping Chevron on his shoulder before turning and walking back up the corridor, dropping his medical chest to the ground and resting his hand on the butt of his holstered pistol as he walked. “I need everyone to remain in their offices.”

“I demand to know what’s going on,” the man didn’t raise his voice any more, but he didn’t lower it, either, his shrill tone cutting through the low buzz of conversation that had struck up as the paramedic stepped forwards.

The two men guarding the lift stepped forwards and flanked the paramedic on either side.

“It’s not your concern,” the paramedic’s calm voice seemed louder now. Was he raising his voice, or had he just turned his volume up? “Remain in your office until further medical assistance arrives. You will all be briefed when they arrive.”

“You’ll tell us now,” the vocal man demanded, striding purposefully down he corridor, making sure he kept to one side of the blood trail.

“You will all be briefed,” the paramedic repeated, “When they arrive.”

“It’s like that stuff in London,” muttered someone close to the paramedic. He turned to look at them, neither confirming nor denying the statement. “Jesus, it is… I… I’ve got to call my dad.”

As one, a number of people still in the corridor reached into their pockets or bags, pulling out a wide variety of mobile phones and expertly flicking through menus or tapping numbers in, raising them to their ears and waiting expectantly for an answer.

“I’ve got no signal,” the first of many people shouted up, complaining that they, too, were unable access a network connection. Another screamed in dismay when they discovered the landlines had been cut off, too. The man with the red tie reached into his jacket, pulled out his palm computer and tapped at the screen, then threw it down to the floor, snarling as he did so.

”What have you done?” he demanded. “Did you do this? How?”

The rest of the corridor erupted with similar accusations, and they people started to step forwards, angrily waving useless mobile devices, each protesting their own case that they should be entitled to phone their husband, their wife, their brother, their mother to tell them what was going on, to ask if they’d heard anything. It was typical mob mentality, the rest following the lead of the alpha pack leader when they knew they outnumbered the paramedics and his friends.

Calmly, the paramedic drew his pistol, raised it and fired above the heads of the crowd, the deafening gunshot instantly silencing the crowd. Some dropped to the floor, others dropped their mobiles and displayed open palms, as if the devices were weapons and they’d been told to disarm; some stifled screams by covering their mouths with balled fists, and others simply stared open-mouthed at the paramedic’s smoking weapon, and the two troopers beside him that slowly raised their submachine guns, panning them slowly back and forth across the crowd.

“You will all be briefed,” the paramedic slowly reiterated his previous statement as he turned his head from side to side, “When further medical assistance arrives.”

The doors slid shut and the lift jolted before slowly dropping down the shaft, the dumb-struck silence of the corridor mirrored in the cage as it lowered from the floor and down towards the ground level.

“Fuck,” Bill muttered, to himself more than anything else. What was going on?

He looked down on Jenny as he waited for the gentle, warm voice of the lift to announce their arrival, and noticed that her eyes were sealed with a build-up of puss and blood that seemed to be scabbing over. Her breathing was short and laboured, her body shaking as if she were cold, though she remained hot to touch, and her skin still continued to rip and joints where her unconscious form was jostled by the journey. He still couldn’t understand what was wrong with her, how she’d changed so much in the few hours he’d spent away from her, from a healthy, lively young woman to someone who looked like she was moments away from death’s door.

They’d been looking forwards to going out tonight, their mid-week meeting with their friends for a meal and some drinks. Bill hoped that Janine would pass the message on to Brian and explain what had happened: he really didn’t feel like explaining everything to him, he’d rather someone else did that for him. In the maelstrom of her violent illness, it was all he could do to cling to something relating to the normalcy of their life: this whole scenario hardly seemed real, and he could barely process events unfurling around him: the discharge of the gun had left him feeling numb and confused, even more so than when he had upon first finding Jenny in the toilets.

The lift announced they’d reached the lobby, and the doors cycled open, splitting down the middle and parting to reveal the lobby.

It wasn’t the lobby that he and Jenny had arrived for work in. The black marble floor, large reception desk and low glass coffee table were still there, as were the collections of up to date newspapers and magazines for visitors to read through while waiting for their appointment, and the pair of receptionists that manned the desk. Both were friends of Jenny, though whether they wore the same concerned expression others on the upper floor had, Bill couldn’t tell. The route from the lift to the main doors had been cocooned in a tube of rigid polythene, a sterile corridor with hollow inflated walls that connected the lift directly to the main doors and sealing the rest of the building off from the casualty and her escort. At the end of the corridor, Bill could see where the security turnstiles had been uprooted and cast aside to make way for the opaque tube, the gaping holes in the floor where the barriers had been torn up hastily repaired with quick-setting foam sealant to keep the floor as close to level as possible. A pair of men, wearing the same white cleansuits as every other intruder in the building Bill had seen, were finishing off the refurbishments at the turnstiles, a collection of crowbars and hammers being hastily pushed into a tool chests so the way was clear for the procession of Bill, the gurney and the three men to pass. Chevron pointed to them, indicated to the lift behind them with a nod of his head, and they reacted to the unspoken command by grabbing a pair of bulky assault rifles from a supply rack near the corridor wall and charging into the lift.

The distance from the lift to the exit wasn’t that far, but Bill felt like it was an eternity as he plodded along behind Jenny, unconsciously reaching out to brush aside a strand of hair that was stuck to her forehead, and recoiling when the very contact of his fingers with her skin made the her flesh peel and crack, bringing a fresh stream of pink watery pus sluice down her temple and spatter on the floor.

“Stop touching her,” snapped Chevron, opening a pouch on his belt spraying a white circle of paint around the seepage, leaving it as an indicator for an orderly to come and clean it up. Bill murmured an apology and continued to follow them, watching with half an eye as outside the sealed corridor, he could see the shapes of other people in white suits marching back and forth, the opaque nature of the walls making the appear like phantoms moving on another plane of existence, watching from the other side as they approached the front door.

They cycled open automatically as they approached them, splitting down the middle and revealing what had once been the main car park outside. Bill had come in to work this morning with Jenny and they’d parked there, the same spot they’d parked in for years: Bill certainly didn’t remember the oversized polythene tunnel that had been bolted to the concrete frame around the door and embedded in the floor, nor did he remember the thick mounds of sealant surrounding the door to make sure the building and tunnel remained perfectly airtight. The corridor extended for twenty feet ahead of them, the vestigial remnants of the car park outside as ethereal as the shadowy figures inside the building: Bill couldn’t help but look to his left, as if he expected to be able to make out their car still parked up in their space: instead, there was nothing but a blur of shapeless colours and more white figures striding purposefully back and forth.

The procession came to a halt at the end of the short corridor, an obstruction made from a solid inch-thick rigid plastic that slowly ground open as a soldier outside operated a set of controls on the hastily erected structure. Chevron ushered Bill into the room first, then guided the gurney in after him before turning to the two soldiers accompanying him.

“Go back upstairs, help out with the lockdown. I’ve got this.”

The pair nodded and spun on their heels, jogging back the way they came and vanishing back into the building, leaving Chevron alone with Bill and his girlfriend in the enclosed chamber. The door cycled shut, and machinery outside the room started rumble to life. Bill looked feverishly around, and although his escort showed no sign of being startled or wary of the noises, he felt on edge, looking from left to right as a row of lights flickered to life just below the ceiling, then panned downwards, a purple beam of ultraviolet light that swept across his skin, a tingling sensation washing across him as the sterilising light scoured his skin. He looked at his hands as the light left them, noticing a fine white powder that coated his skin. He looked down on Jenny and could see similar residue on her, though these were stained with spilled blood.

“Just burning off any surface infection we may be carrying on our skin or clothes,” Chevron explained, his gaze remaining fixed on the opposite wall, and the sealed door that could only be their destination. “Might be too late for you and her, but there’s more than just the two of you involved here. Stay still.”

A spurt of white, ice-cold gas sprayed up from the grated floor, a sudden gust of air tainted with a chemical, antiseptic taste that clung to Bill’s mouth as he spluttered at the sudden jet of air. The miasma lingered in the chamber for a few seconds, then with a deep droning sound, the tainted air was flushed from the room and replaced with fresh. Bill gasped at the air for a few seconds, coughing up the taste of the thick disinfectant as the second set of doors rolled open, revealing a short length of polythene tunnelling linked to the opened back of a large transit van.

The interior of the vehicle was a flat metallic black in colour with a handful of bulbs fixed to the side panels, with space for a gurney on the left side of the vehicle, and four fold-down seats running along the right hand wall; another paramedic already occupied one of them. He nodded at Chevron, then stood up and moved towards the opening, the low roof meaning he could only do so in a crouching shuffle. The two men lifted Jenny up into the van and locked the gurney down in to place, then ushered Bill into the vehicle, pushing him down into one of the seats. While the medic went about his business of attending to the catatonic woman, Chevron pulled out his data pad and started to tap the screen, banging on the wall of the van with his other hand to signify that they were ready.

The rear doors swung shut and there was a pop-ripping sound as the entrance tunnel was torn away, and the lights flickered slightly as the engine of the vehicle growled to life, a deep and powerful sound that shook the confined space of the van as it shuddered and pulled away. The jarring movement shook Jenny on her gurney, resulting in her skin tearing more, the lesions weeping more pale pink fluids. Chevron motioned towards the wall behind Bill, and he numbly acknowledged him as he fumbled with numb fingers for the seatbelt. He finally clicked it into place, and Chevron looked down as his computer, his fingers dancing over the touch -sensitive screen. Without looking up from his work, he spoke to Bill.

“We’re supposed to interview everyone we pull in that we can. Build a case history; map out locations, project disease vectors, work out the R0 number, things like that. So, I’m going to ask you a few questions about you and the patient…”

“Jenny,” Bill interrupted him. “Her name’s Jenny.”

“Of course,” Chevron said, still not looking up, then went on, resorting to inputting details into the computer with a stylus again. “Fucking machine, it’s never been the same since they forced through the firmware update last week.”

“Maybe it’s been affected by the iron curtain dropping on the office?” offered the medic attending to Jenny, looking up from his task at hand long enough to offer a shrug. “With the network there smothered, it could be picking up interference from the proximity of the dampening cloud. My readouts have been crashing too often in the last couple of days.”

“Maybe,” Chevron returned the shrug, lowering the computer back into a pouch hanging from his webbing. “Some genius makes us update to an untested firmware just as the shit really hits the fan, only Military Intelligence could come up with that.”

“Maybe it was because the shit was hitting the fan.”

“These things are meant for light field-work, op reports and observations, shit like that, not cataloguing hundreds of infected and working out the next potential hotspot,” Chevron growled, grabbing a clipboard hanging from the back of the door. “Sometimes you just can’t beat version one. Okay, names?”

“Bill,” he answered, his eyes fixed on Jenny. “Bill Reddings. She’s Jennifer McClaren. Do you need me to spell that?”

“I’ll manage. My name is Sergeant Hankins, that there is Medic Technician Allman.”

Bill watched mesmerised as Allman continued to go about his business, hooking up intravenous feeds and applying dressings to her opening wounds. He registered the introduction with the briefest of nods and murmuring of an incoherent acknowledgement.

“Can you remember when the patient may have started displaying signs or symptoms of this disease?”

“No. Nothing. I mean, I don’t know. What… what are they?”

Hankins shook his head with an audible sigh that carried over the speaker, then handed Bill a laminated sheet of card. Bill took the sheet, but didn’t look at it, instead keeping his eyes fixed on Jenny. Hankins continued to talk. “You haven’t seen any of these pinned up in work, or in newspapers? Not heard about it on the news?”

Bill slowly shook his head, his eyes briefly flicking down to the card as he skimmed through the first few lines of text. Inflamed nasal membranes and bloodshot eyes, aches and pains, blood that took longer to clot; diarrhoea and fever, nausea and vomiting: ruptured lesions, bruised flesh, and organ failure. With a shaking finger, he pointed to the first handful of symptoms. “She had a cold a week ago, with dry eyes and a streaming nose. None of the others that I can remember.”

“You’re sure?” Hankins made a note of it on his chart, and the medic stopped attending the sick woman while he stopped and looked over the sergeant’s shoulder. He pointed to the clipboard with a bloodstained glove and murmured something Bill couldn’t hear. Hankins continued; “Once the first signs start, they normally go through them all. It burns through their metabolism.”

“So maybe she doesn’t have this… this thing after all?” Bill looked up; hope creeping into his voice and handing the card back over. The van jostled as it rolled over a bump in the road, bringing a fresh tear to Jenny’s skin and another gout of watered blood spraying across the opposing wall. The medic hastily returned to her, and Hankins shook his head again, making another note on his clipboard.

“Mister Reddings, I assure you that Jenny has contracted this disease, and we will do everything we can for her. I still need some answers to some questions.”

Bill shrugged his shoulders, watching Jenny as her body shuddered with pain, a deep sigh turning into a burbling groan as a spray of blood gushed from her mouth and splashed the medic and the wall.

“Have either of you come in to contact with anyone who may have had these symptoms?”

Bill didn’t respond; his gaze remaining fixed on Jenny. Hankins grabbed him by the shoulders with a vice-like grip and physically turned him to face him, then adjusted his seat, trying to block Bill’s view and keep his attention focused. He repeated the question, and Bill responded with a nod.

“Richard,” Bill muttered. “Jenny’s Dad. He’s been ill, like the flu. It’s been hanging on him a couple of days. We’re supposed to drop some medicine off for him after work…”

“Richard McClaren, I see. What can you tell me about him? About his… flu?”

“He travels a lot for his job. Something to do with sales and conferences; he was in London a few days ago. He blames the plane for his being ill, travelling in a tin can and breathing everyone else’s air: his words. Flying disease machines, he calls them.”

“When was this?”

Bill shrugged his shoulders, looking down at his feet as he shuffled them back and forth. Hankins nodded, wistfully grabbing his computer once more tapping a series of commands into his computer. He couldn’t access any passenger manifests from his portable terminal, he’d have to wait until he arrived at their destination. “Where does he live?”

“Saint Aves Gardens. Number seven. It’s in Edgly. Can you see that someone get him some medicine? Jesus, and Jenny… Tell them about Jenny… Their number’s in my phone… Ah shit, my phone’s in my locker…”

“We’ll sort everything out, don’t worry,” Hankins tapped at his keyboard and fed in the address details, knowing that as soon as the details were confirmed in the system, a squad similar to his own would swoop on their home and control the situation there by whatever means needed. His masked face looked back up from the computer. “You mentioned London. Do you keep up with the news? Do you know what’s going on in the capital?”

Bill shrugged, his face a blank slate. “I don’t watch the news that much. I prefer the music channels in the morning. Jenny, she used to get too worked up at the news, she followed bits and pieces here and there.” A smile played across his lips as a memory flickered in the back of his mind; he even laughed softly to himself. “I remember she got really pissed when Kilmer took over from Anderson in the United Government. Shouted at me like it was my fault an American president was still in power over more than half the world. Then she started to scream on that it was Anderson and his private militia of bullies that made the world a lot more dangerous. Bred terror, didn’t control it.” He held his hands up in mock surrender. “That was Jenny, that was what she was like: easily wound up, full of opinions, and not afraid to speak out. That’s why I tried to avoid the news.” His smile cracked, and he quickly returned to his dour mood, eyes fixed on Jenny’s prone form.

“Well, if it wasn’t for bullies like me… forget it. You people…” Hankins shook his head, angrily stabbing more details into the keyboard. “London, a couple of weeks ago, people started exhibiting these symptoms. It’s a virus, burns through the body’s immune system, then the body: sometimes the mind. A fever, the brittle skin and weeping sores like she has there. So far, the mortality rate has been one hundred percent.”

“Fuck,” Bill whispered, as the situation finally seemed to hit home.

“There’s no easy way to say this. I’m afraid to say that there’s no chance of survival, and it’s almost certain that you’re infected. And you’ll go the same way.”

“Need to work on your bedside manner, Hankins,” the medic said as he sat back from Jenny, casting a glance over his shoulder at Bill, “Poor fucker’s shook up real bad.”

“It’s not my job to act the concerned doctor, and it’s not my job to sugar coat the truth. It’s my job to bully the world and breed terror. That’s what your girlfriend thought, right?”

Bill shrank back from the conversation and felt his shoulders droop, sitting in silence as he dropped his eyes and stared listlessly at the watery blood that pooled on the floor around his blood-soaked trainers. The rest of the journey passed him by in a blurry haze of meaningless conversation, the constant drone of the engine and the rocking motion of the vehicle as it mounted speed bumps and dipped into potholes.

Queen Victoria General Hospital had been open for business for over a hundred and fifty years, steadily growing in size over the decades as the size of the city around it expanded. Though there were other hospitals in and around the city, Victoria General had always been considered the main hospital that housed most local specialist departments. Originally a squat, two-floor construction with a large portion devoted to mental health wards, the building had undergone a series of renovations, the most recent being a ten year project that had culminated in a fourteen storey building made of steel, concrete and glass that towered over the surrounding buildings, providing a grand view of the surrounding city for any of the occupants of the building. The architects had wanted to build higher and spread further, but local residents had protested the planning permission. With the construction complete, the finishing touches now involved landscaping the grounds to make the mounds of barren earth more presentable, and to clear away the piles of rubble and inert machines that had been left behind by the construction crew.

The ambulances would normally drop off their casualties at the front of the building by the accident and emergency entrance, but the van continued around the side of the building, and Bill lurched in his seat as the vehicle pitched forwards and trundled down a ramp. It lurched to a halt, the engine idling as Bill could hear muffled conversations outside, and then the rattle of chains as a shutter was hauled open. The vehicle moved again, and Bill could hear the shutter closing behind him. The van continued on its downward journey, listing from side to side as it doubled back on itself, then stopped once more, this time the engine cutting out with a gurgle. The lights flickered once more, and there was a flurry of activity outside, followed by more voices and thumps on the side of the vehicle. The rear doors swung open, flooding the van with blinding light more intense than the internal lighting had been. Bill held his hands up to his eyes and almost fell out the vehicle, stumbling as his feet came in to contact with the pitted tarmac outside.

Bill had been to the hospital a few times in his life: visiting a sick friend, the odd broken or dislocated finger, and once with Jenny for a failed pregnancy, barely two months in. There’d been a lot of blood then, during the miscarriage. They hadn’t even realised she‘d been pregnant until she’d lost the baby. At least then, Bill knew what the cause of the bleeding was. Now, though, it was a mystery.

He’d never seen the subterranean storage unit that served as both the ambulance storage and delivery bays, but even if he had, he wouldn’t have recognised them. The drab grey walls had been painted a clinical white, and recently, too: the smell of fresh paint still lingered in the air, mixed with disinfectant and a heady mix of exhaust fumes from the vehicle. Rows of halogen lamps had been set up every fifteen yards, each on a frame seven feet high and angled outwards towards the centre of the cavernous room. Pipes ran the length of the ceiling in all directions, some hastily boxed in with sheets of plasterboard, others wrapped in grimy lagging that hung from the conduits in lazy loops. Bill gathered his senses and looked around him, looking over his shoulder at the entrance ramp he had presumed the van had entered, and the shutter being rolled back down and locked into place. Bill assumed that it was identical to the shutter at the top of the ramp, a silver barricade with a second, smaller door the right size for a person built in to it. As the final bolt was locked in to place for the shutter, the access door opened and a pair of men dressed in identical white HAZMAT suits stepped through, each cradling a submachine gun in their arms; not the standard medical equipment Bill would have expected to see.

All around him, men in similar clothing were milling around the loading bay, some armed with weapons, others carrying computer tablets similar to that one Hankins carried. There were a handful of doors running along one wall, each sealed with sheets of thick polythene and barricaded with large packing crates or stacks of equipment; the only exit leading out of the bay other than the large shutter over the roadway was a pair of double doors to the far north, guarded on each side by a pair of stoic armed guards and painted freshly with a black triple-bladed biohazard symbol on a red background.

Technicians and medics burst through these doors, three of them almost collapsing over one another as they fumbled with an out-of-control gurney. They quickly attended to transferring Jenny from the back of the van, while another medic rushed to Bill’s side, grabbing his wrist and checking his pulse, then looking at the monitor attached to his forearm. Bill glanced at it through the corner of his eye, noticing that although he couldn’t understand most of the display, there seemed to be a lot of flashing green and amber numbers. One of the medics pulled a strip of plastic from their terminal and slapped it around Bill’s wrist, the white material covered in a series of numbers and holding a black microchip that each technician and medic took turns to scan the device.

“Bill Reddings,” announced Hankins as he calmly stepped out of the van and made space for more people to rush in and attend to Jenny. People feverishly typed into their keypads while he attacked his own terminal, sending what data he had on to the other people, and then handing over the paperwork with the rest of the information. “Most of the information’s in these files already. If there’s anything corrupt or missing, well, blame the genius behind the updates.

“The patient is Jenny McClaren. I’m assuming it’s short for Jennifer. It looks like patient zero in this case is her father, Richard, recently returned from London on a business flight. Details are in the files, I need someone to access the flight manifests for that flight and track down all the people on there. I’ve got a containment squad going out to do a snatch and grab on their house. We can’t afford anyone to slip through the net on this. Call in other centres if we need.

“They work at the Colecs building down town. There’s a lockdown in place there, I’m expecting people coming in from there within the hour. Sort this guy out; I’m going to have to arrange an overflow. Fuck me, we’re not set up to cope with this.”

Hankins spun on his heel, the last comment aimed and only himself, and left Bill in the company of the medics: some peeled away to wait for the next load of potential patients, while others guided Bill and Jenny across the annex towards the double door they entered through. Bill stayed close to the gurney, gripping the side of the trolley and blinking rapidly, trying to fight back the tears as he vowed to be strong for his girlfriend. Behind him, a two man crew rushed to the van they’d just travelled in and sprayed the interior with a high powered steam cleaner, swilling the interior out and watching as the watery blood washed out the back and gurgled down the drainage trough that ran along the centre of the annex. The sights and sounds of the room vanished behind him as the doors swung shut, and Bill found himself in a long corridor lined with doors on either side, each secured with a sheet of steel secured to the door and bolted in place with heavy deadlocks. Numbers and letters were painted on the doors, many of them fresh and still glistening wet, as though they’d just been applied. Beside each door, an electronic readout lay embedded on the wall, some blank and inactive, others populated by a collection of words and numbers that Bill couldn’t make out through a combination of moving fast and eyes blurred with tears. His hand was peeled off from the gurney as Jenny was wheeled into one room, and Bill led into another. He murmured a wordless protest and tried to follow her, but a pair of guiding hands clamped around his shoulders and kept him on track into the examination room. Before he could turn around or protest any further, he heard the sounds of locks snapping into place.

“Strip,” one of the men demanded, producing a plastic sack from a pouch hanging from his webbing and opening it. Bill looked at him; slack jawed as he tried to work out the basic instruction he’d been given. He prompted him again with the simple one-word command, and Bill slowly cooperated, fumbling at his belt and shirt with numb fingers and handing each piece of blood-soaked clothing across to the waiting man. When the sack was full, and Bill was left naked and shivering in the sterile room, he was pulled roughly over to wall and told to stand with his feet outstretched and palms pressed against the wall. Without warning, a lukewarm liquid splashed against his back, a constant stream of something that had an overpowering smell of disinfectant. It had a thicker consistency than water, almost slimy, and Bill spluttered as the stream swung around and sprayed his face before working over the rest of his body.

As suddenly as it had began, the spray stopped, and Bill stood naked and shivering, teeth chattering as he leaned against the wall, feeling violated and as if he’d done something wrong. He wasn’t sure if he’d have the strength to keep upright if he were pulled away from the wall, not even sure he could move even if he knew where to go. He could hear hushed whispering between two people, and the soft tapping of keys, and he waited for the next instruction, feeling the thick liquid slipping own his face and dripping off his nose and chin, splashing in the pools forming around his feet. He felt a thick, soft robe being draped around his shoulders, then was pulled away, guided towards a low examination table and pushed gently down to a seated position. He pulled the robe in tight around him, embracing its warmth, and watched as the two medics looked over him and compared notes on each other’s terminal. While they did this, Bill looked around the room, taking in what he could while he wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve.

The examination table he sat on was central to the room, with a low table to one side that held a silver tray and an assortment of medical instruments, all sealed in plastic pouches. In one corner there sat a chemical toilet and a sink, and in another, a low table and stool. A grid of thick black metal pipes mapped the ceiling, with a nozzle pointing towards the floor every fifty centimetres, and a trough running around the perimeter of the room, linked to a drainage system. Bill had no idea what the nozzles were for, but suspected that they’d be used for cleaning, similar to the steam cleaning that had been employed in the back of the van. Despite the overpowering stench of disinfectant that clung to his skin, he could still detect something else in the air, an underlying and unpleasant scent he couldn’t place.

“The infected person is your girlfriend,” said the taller of the men, setting down his datapad on the table and picking up a sealed set of instruments. “Hauffman’s Degenerative Syndrome is extremely contagious, especially in the early stages: when was the last time the pair of you had intercourse?”

“This morning,” Bill murmured, a hot flush of embarrassment washing over his face.

“And how many times during the last week?”

Bill scratched at his head then shrugged his shoulders, working through things in his mind. He didn’t keep a mental record on every time he and Jenny had been together. “Four,” he guessed. “Maybe five times. I don’t really keep count.”

“And have there been any other partners during that period?”

“What? No!”

“Just asking the standard questions. No need to take offence. Any children? Pets? Anyone else you shared the house with?”

“None,” Bill shook his head, “No. Just us.”

“We’re going to need to run some tests,” the talkative medic announced, peeling open the plastic pouch he held and producing a needle from it, flicking it with his forefinger and motioning for Bill to lower his robe and expose his arm. “You not allergic to standard needles, are you? Or anything else?”

Bill shook his head, and the medic quickly jabbed the needle into his arm and flushed the contents of the syringe into Bill’s system. The liquid was cool, jolting his nerves as the foreign material rushed through his system, and he instantly felt his arm begin to tingle.

“Well, it wouldn’t matter anyway, you’d get the shot regardless: just nice to ask. I need you to lie down, and we’re going to start running some tests.”

“Tests?” Bill murmured, his words already starting to slur and his jaw becoming sluggish, unresponsive even. He lay back on the bed… or was he helped back? His mind was starting to fog over, his senses tingling as if they were slowly being shut down, and he couldn’t keep track of what was happening. He struggled to keep his eyes open, trying to watch what the medics were doing as they broke open each sealed packet and laid their contents out on the tray. One of them looked down on him and motioned with a slight nod.

“He’s fighting it.”

Bill’s eyes closed, his mouth working soundlessly as his eyes flickered behind his eyelids. He felt drunk, dangerously close to unconsciousness, but he managed to fight and maintain some level of consciousness. He could feel electrodes press against his chest and being taped in place, needles being pressed into his body, and cold metal instruments pressing against his flesh.

“Give him another shot, he can’t fight it forever.”

Another rush of cold liquid found its way into his system, and Bill gave an involuntary shiver, and the swimming quickly turned into a sinking sensation, as he seemed to slip further away.

“How far along do you think he’s gone?” the words were distant and ringing with an echo to them, sounding like they were talking into a tube, and became fainter and fainter with each passing second. “Ten bucks say he’s not here a day before he hits stage five.”

“You kidding me? The poor bastard was covered in that shit, look at his clothes. Twelve hours, tops. Easy money, my friend, easy money. And you know where that money’s going, right?”

“I can’t keep track. Is it Crystal? Or Jill? Which is the stripper of the month now?”

“Fuck you, I’m putting that girl through college; I think of it as a public service.”

“And that’s what you tell your wife?”

“I tell her I need to buy my own food because the shit they serve in the mess tastes like dog shit. And lets face it, that’s not too far from the truth, is it? Pass me the…”

Bill lurched upright with a startled yelp, clutching at his chest where he thought the monitoring equipment had been attached, then rubbed at his arm where he thought the sedative had been injected: he felt nothing but bare skin. He looked around, bleary eyed, and reached out to one side, fumbling for the bedside lamp and flicking it on.

He recognised his bedroom instantly, the walls a warm pastel orange in colour, the wooden furniture a natural oak with flooring to match. Orange curtains drawn shut over a roller blind, a large television hanging from the wall with a blank screen, and stack of paperbacks balanced precariously on his nightstand. He sat motionless for a moment, looking at his shaking hands, then pressed them against his face, visions of his nightmare still swimming in his head. He fished around on the floor, grabbed a half-empty bottle of water and took a swig, swilling it around in his mouth before swallowing it.

“Jesus,” he growled to himself, looking to one side and at Jenny who lay beside him, fast asleep and as perfect, in Bill’s eyes, as she had been last night when the two of them had returned from drinks with Brian.

The ordeal of the testing procedure and the events leading up to them still haunted Bill, even days after. He was sure that eventually they’d be put behind him, but the vivid memories were currently burned into his mind, and he couldn’t shake them while he slept. Jenny, it seemed, was able to still get a sound nights sleep, but she was still recuperating: the doctors had said she’d take days before she was back to normal, but the sedatives would help her sleep and recover. Maybe Bill would help himself to a couple of those pills, if it would mean he would get decent nights sleep.

He rolled on to his side, grabbing one of the paperback books and thumbing through the aged yellow pages, finding the ripped piece of paper that acted as a book mark, and started reading, hoping it would help him drop off. It was a trashy science fiction book he’d had since he was a child, the storyline predictable the first time he’d read it, even more so the seventh time he’d read it. A few minutes passed, and he found he wasn’t really reading any of it, skimming through the pages, missing paragraphs out or even reading the same line three or four times before realising. Letters swam on the pages, swirling around one another, and he rubbed his tired eyes. Sighing, he closed the book and tossed it back on the pile, smiling as he felt Jenny roll over, snuggle into the back of him and drape her arm limply over his waist. She kissed his back, murmuring softly into his spine as she pressed herself closer and asking what was the matter.

“Can’t sleep,” murmured Bill. “Bad dreams.”

Another wordless murmur came from Jenny, and she scratched weakly at Bill’s stomach, her long nails tickling him in a not-unpleasant sensation. Her hand slid down, and he twitched involuntarily, grinning at the intimate contact and the sensation of Jenny pressing herself even closer. She kissed his neck, nibbled playfully at it, clambered over him and pinned him down on his back, brushing back the blankets as she lay on top of him. She was warm to the touch, almost burning up. Her hands were slick on his shoulders, soaked with sweat as she moved in rhythm with Bill, rolling her head and continuing to murmur to herself as she leaned forwards and planted a kiss on Bill’s forehead, leaving behind a thick smear of what Bill thought to be lipstick, her lips smudged red as she grinned, the skin around her mouth cracking and trickling blood. Panicking, Bill wiped his face and looked at the blood that stained the back of his hand, then back to Jenny.

The flesh around her neck and shoulders was tearing again, cracking and peeling, sloughing away in strips to reveal muscle and bone. He felt a warm wetness wash over his thigh and groin, and he looked down in terror as he could see blood oozing across the bedding, soaking in to the mattress and pooling around him like a leaking waterbed. Despite her deterioration, Jenny continued to writhe, screaming as her body twitched and convulsed, her stomach clenched and she spewed blood and bile across Bill, the harsh acrid stench of vomit and blood catching in the back of his throat and making him gag.

“Mister Reddings.”

Bill’s eyes flickered open, his muscles contracting as he tried to lurch upwards from his prone position on the bed, but he couldn’t more, a tight band of nylon cutting across his shoulders, another across his stomach and a third pinning down his ankles. “Mister Reddings,” the voice repeated again, a blurry white figure circling him as he felt the restraints loosen and fall away from him. Bill’s brain slowly kicked into gear, the sedative he’d been given still clouding the edges of his mind as a pair of hands slowly raised him to a sitting position. Another needle pressed against his arm, a new cocktail of drugs introduced into his system, and he could feel the cloud begin to dissipate and the events before rushed back to him in crystal clarity: Jenny’s illness, the underground facility he was in, the hose down with the disinfectant… he pressed his hands to his chest, realising that he was no longer naked, but instead he wore thin paper clothing: a shirt and a pair of trousers with an elasticated waist, and a pair of thin soled slippers.

“Mister Reddings,” the medic stood before him: he couldn’t tell if it was one of the two that had stripped and performed tests on him, or a new one: the uniform clean suits and external speakers of the masks made it hard to differentiate one person from another, and all the medical personnel wore the Caduceus sigil on their shoulder: the only person he’d been able to identify amongst the crowd so far had been Hankins, and there was no sign of him in the room: just a single medic and pair of armed guards standing motionless behind him.

“You can come and see Miss McClaren now. You need to hurry up if you want to say your goodbyes. I’m afraid she doesn’t have much time.”

He slipped off the bed, his legs shaking and weak as the remnants of the drugs in him continued to seep out his system. He pressed the balls of his hands into his eyes, screwing them tight and rubbing away the crust of sleep that had built up there, then scratched furiously at his chin: there seemed to be more than a days worth of stubble on his chin, but that wasn’t possible, was it?

“How long have I been here?” he asked, his mouth dry and his throat feeling like it had been stripped.

“Nearly forty hours,” the medic barely looked at his watch. “Miss McCalaren’s lasted a lot longer than we’d anticipated, but it seems like she’s nearing the end of her time here.”

“Where’s she going?” Bill asked numbly, stumbling towards the open door and passing the two guards, both of them seemingly involved in a conversation they’d decided to keep private: their head nodded or shook, and the larger of them shook his shoulders slightly in silent mirth.

“I can get a wheel chair if it would make it easier for you,” the medic offered, but Bill shook his head, half-tripping out into the corridor. He felt strong enough to walk if he took his time; if he moved too quickly his head would swim drunkenly, and he’d have to stop and lean against the wall to recover.

“I’ve got other patients to attend,” the medic said as he stepped into the corridor behind Bill, tapping one of the armed guards on the shoulder “Can you take him and bring him back?”

The tallest nodded, snapping his submachine gun up and fall in step behind Bill, nudging him in the small of the back with the muzzle of his weapon, even though he showed no sign of hesitation in going onwards. His companion followed his lead, his speaker snapping and crackling as he nudged the controls for it, activating the external output.

“I have to say goodbye,” Bill muttered, his mouth still dry. “Are they taking her somewhere? Special care? A specialist doctor?”

The larger of the armed guards chuckled dryly to himself, motioning onwards with his weapon and pointing him towards another pair of guards that stood by a door at the far end of the corridor. “She’s in there still, but if she’s a real good girl, she’ll be going upstairs soon,” he answered, his voice a slow, American drawl that Bill had only heard in films before now, typical of the southern states.

“Is that where the specialist is? I want to go with her…”

“Boy, you’ll be joining her upstairs real soon, don’t worry about that now. See, that’s where the ashes are dumped, all the dead get burned, and the remains disposed of with the rest of the medical waste. She’s as good as dead, and Christ, you’re probably next.”

He chuckled, a deep and throaty laugh, and his companion turned his masked face to stare at him. Though Bill couldn’t see his face, he could tell by the body language that he was visibly upset. “Jesus fucking Christ, Jason, keep that shit on a secure line; mouthing off in front of this guy or anyone else… show a little fucking professionalism, or at least some common fucking courtesy, you heartless son of a bitch. That’s his girlfriend in there, how’d you like it if your girl…”

“Big fucking deal, Mike, she should already be dead, you heard what those squints have been saying in the barracks. This is that one they were talking about, the one crawling with the disease. Like a dirty whore, like she’s fucked every infected person in London before they died. Maybe even after. They’re surprised that she’s still alive. Three minutes time that bitch croaks, we torch the room, flush it out and deliver the remains for disposal while another poor bastard is dragged in here and forced to wait out the end of their days in there. In the mean time, this bastard here’s sitting in his room, waiting to start bleeding out his ass, then he gets char-grilled and the circle starts again. You know this ain’t what we signed up for, Mike, you telling me looking after the sick and dying is what you signed up for? Lock ’em up and let ’em rot, that’s what I say. I ain’t no babysitter.”

Anger and rage built up inside Bill, something he hadn’t felt so strongly in years, and curled his fingers into a tight fist, his hands shaking and knuckles whitening as he felt his muscles tense. He raised his fist and lunged forwards with a deafening scream, his fist connecting with the abdomen of the larger man. He was wearing armour beneath the sterile suit, which absorbed the brunt of the blow, but the sudden action was enough to make the large American stumble back and falter. He tripped over, and Bill went down with him, raining a flurry of useless and ineffective blows against his armoured torso then scrabbling for the mask, his finger seeking out the catches of the protective casing.

The two guards by the door sprang to life, diving on to Bill and pulling him up, while the soldier referred to as Mike grabbed Jason and pulled him up to his feet, keeping his body between him and Bill as the opinionated American fumbled for his weapon.

“Stand aside, Mike, I’m gonna plug this fucker now, save us all some time.”

“Back off, you insensitive shit,” screamed Mike, knocking him back with both hands and keeping him well away from the still-snarling form of Bill. “If he didn’t do something, I was sure as hell going to. There’s a line, Jason, and you crossed it.”

Without warning, Bill broke free from his captors and lunged again, this time swinging a right hook around, connecting with the large man in the side and finding an opening in the armour pads. He stumbled again, but this time kept himself up by toppling against the wall.

“That all you got?” he snarled, lowering his weapon and stepping forwards. “Your girlfriend hit me harder than that when I was fucking her last night!”

“What the fuck is going on here?”

The familiar voice of Hankins boomed down the corridor, and everyone froze, spinning to face the man at the far end of the corridor. He strode purposefully towards the rabble, his hand instinctively lowering to his sidearm, as he looked first from Bill, to Jason, then back to Bill. “We are here to do a job, you ignorant bunch of assholes, and our job is look after the people here, make sure infection is contained. It is not to taunt, degrade or belittle the prisoners, and I hope, Miller, that this is not your bullshit again. Fuck up one more time, and you’ll be scrubbing the rooms of the infected out using your toothbrush. Your name’s already been mentioned in more than one report going to TacCom. They can see to it that you’re stripped of rank, and I can see to it that you’re stripped of your protective clothing, do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal, sir,” Jason Miller reluctantly saluted, and as he did so, Bill leant over and spat a wad of phlegm on to his visor. He showed remarkable restraint, not flinching or even attempting to wipe it off. He turned to face the corridor he’d just walked down, holding his weapon tight against his chest.

Hankins leaned closer to Miller, the communication travelling through a closed circuit between the two. Hankins’ head wobbled as he talked, and Miller nodded solemnly before reaching up with a gloved hand and wiping his lens. Finally finished with the soldier under his command, Hankins turned to face Bill. He reached out, grabbed the flimsy coverall that Bill wore, then pulled him in closer to him, close enough that Bill could hear the slight crackle of the external speakers and the gentle rasping breath of the man behind the mask.

“My men here have a job to do, Mister Reddings, and to be honest, breeching protocol and taking you half way across the complex to go and see your girlfriend is not standard procedure. This is a courtesy I’ve extended to you, you ungrateful bastard, and behaving like this is like throwing it all back in my face. If you pull any more shit like this, I won’t have to pull any of my men back off you because I’ll personally blow your diseased brains out all over the fucking wall, do you understand?”

Bill nodded numbly, feeling intimidated by the closeness of the soldier and the butt of the weapon strapped to his belt that pressed against his stomach. He motioned to the door at the far end of the pushed Bill in that direction, and then nodded to the gathered soldiers to fall in line behind him and follow in a loose formation. The rest of the short walk was conducted in silence; the only noise he could hear was the soft squeak of army boots on the tiled floor and the rustling of Bill’s paper garments. All the doors they passed were locked, the electronic readouts embedded on the wall beside each door flashing red with the word “purge” on display. As he moved, Bill could hear a clicking accompanying each step, and he looked down to one side, he could see Jason Miller nervously playing with the safety catch of his weapon.

He’s afraid of me, Bill thought to himself, afraid of me, and Jenny, too. He’s afraid of everyone here; he doesn’t want to catch what we have.

It was the first clear thought Bill could remember having since finding Jenny, the first moment of clarity amongst a sea of jumbled thoughts, and of course it made perfect sense. If the situation was reversed, he’d be scared, too, scared of what he might bring home to his family.

Only Jenny is my family, he thought as he stopped in front of the door. Hankins reached out with his gloved hand, punched the code into the touch screen and watched as the word “unlocked” flashed up, accompanied by the sound of the deadbolts as they slipped out of place.

Bill reached out, placed his hand on the door, but paused as Hankins grabbed his arm, the physical contact almost making him jump. He turned to look at him, and maybe it was just a trick of the light, but Bill was sure that, after all the attempts he’d made, he could finally see a glimpse of the man behind Hankins’ mask: he thought he could see fear.

“Mister Reddings, I must warn you Miss McClaren is seriously ill. We’ve been monitoring her, and as I told you, her condition hasn’t been getting any better. The damage the viral infection has done is irreparable. Her kidneys and liver are failing, and we’re unable to keep her hydrated. She’s not the first to suffer from this plague; there’s been hundreds of infections, mainly in London, but now they’re spreading quicker and further than anticipated, despite our efforts to contain it.”

“I’ve already told you, we don’t watch the news,” Bill muttered, casting his gaze at the door again.

“Yes, that’s right,” Hankins consulted the datapad still fixed to his arm and tapped it with the tip of his forefinger. “Of course. There’s been so many through here… All infections have one hundred percent mortality, the final moments of life can be… there’s no way to sugar coat this, but you need to be aware: horrific and painful for all parties concerned. There’ll be convulsions, and she will suffer; she’ll actually be in agony. Any painkillers we administer don’t do anything at this stage, the body losses liquids, including drugs, quicker than they can be administered. The only way we can make it quicker...”

Bill’s eyes dropped to the pistol hanging around his waist and nodded, his vision blurring as the true gravity of the situation sunk in to his confused mind. “Remember, this is a major breach in protocol; ordinarily, you’d never be able to see anyone once they’re in the final stages, but in this case…”

“I’m dead already,” Bill felt a half-hearted laugh burst from him. If Hankins was surprised at the speed in which Bill had grasped the fact his partner was dying, and that he would be following shortly after, he gave no indication of it as he cycled the door open and guided Bill into the room.

“Fucking miserable bastard,” Jason Miller muttered to no one in particular, still flicking the safety catch of his weapon as he watched Bill and Hankins slip into the quarantine chamber and the door slid shut. “What’s the plan, keep the fucker in there are let him burn with his bitch? Kill two birds with one stone.”

“Until he shows signs of being infected, we can’t just kill him,” scorned Mike, his vacant helmeted gaze staring at him. Jason could imagine him rolling his eyes, like he did when they played poker and he told a bad joke or story. “And you better keep your shit in line, Hankins’ll run your ass ragged if he catches you mouthing off again. I don’t think he can strip you naked, but he can make sure you wind up looking after the corpses, or wiping down the holding rooms.”

“What the fuck ever,” snorted Jason, making a show of inspecting his wrist. Though he couldn’t see his watch, he knew that it was coming up to his shift change. “I’ve got better shit to shovel than watching some weirdo fuck a corpse that’s still warm and bleeding. I’ve got a game of poker to thrash some rookies at to pay for my next night of leave.”

“Still trying to hook up with that nurse?”

Jason smiled, nodding his head. Both movements were hidden by the helmet and mask, and as he saw another pair of soldiers appear at the far end of the corridor to relieve them, he lowered his weapon and raised his hand, offering Mike a high-five. Reluctantly his friend returned the gesture, and the two walked away from their guard duty, lazily saluting their replacements with just the tip of their fingers brushing the brow of their mask before returning to the decontamination chambers.

“That nurse will be mine, trust me. And I hear she likes to have her temperature taken with a rectal thermometer, too, if you know what I mean.”

“You’re as subtle as a sledgehammer,” Mike shook his head grimly. “I know what you mean.

Bill stood by the closed door, sensing Hankins shifting his weight from side to side behind him, and stared at the figure lying on the bed before him as he took a tentative step forwards. He looked back over his shoulder towards Hankins, as if seeking approval to approach his girlfriend, but the mirrored faceplate was as emotionless and blank as always, with not even the barest hint of body language to indicate it was okay. He took a chance, taking a short step forwards and focussing on Jenny.

She wore a white gown made of the same paper material as the clothing he wore, and had a thin white sheet draped over her legs and distended abdomen. Her limbs were painfully thin, with pale, opaque skin pulled tight and splitting across joints and oozing blood diluted by pus and mucus. Bill tried to ignore these, tried to pay no attention to the pink stains on the sheet that were slowly seeping across the clothes and sheet. He kept his eyes focussed on her face, a sallow and gaunt countenance that looked less like Jenny the closer he got, until she slowly twisted her neck and flickered open her eyes, each movement of her head, each fluttering of her eyelids flaking away more skin and weeping more watery blood.

Bill stopped at the head of the bed Jenny lay on, casting a glance down to the surgical tray beside her and the empty vinyl pouches that lay scattered on the surface: some were labelled as plasma, some as platelets, and some saline. Electrodes snaked out from beneath her clothing and into the portable ECG unit that hung from the side of the bed, the sound turned off but the illuminated screen flashing with a slow, weak pulse that barely registered on the machine. The only noise Bill could hear in the room, other than the continuous thumping of his heart in his chest and the rush of blood in his ears, was the rasping and laboured breath of Jenny.

Her eyes eventually fixed on Bill, and he could just make out the washed out and cloudy pupils pulling in to focus, barely distinguishable from the lifeless, pale grey irises; a stark difference to the effervescent, bright blue shine Bill was used to seeing staring back at him. It took her a while to recognise him, and even longer to draw her pale, parched lips into a slight smile, or at least that was how Bill decided to interpret the motion. They scraped back across dry gums, cracking in the corners and washing teeth already gummy with dried blood with another coating of watery fluid. Her mouth returned to its relaxed, normal state and she gave a rattling sigh, her lungs filling with mucus and blood. Bill instinctively reached out for her hand and took it in his own, instantly regretting it as her skin flaked and cracked at his touch, her raw weeping flesh coating his hand with more blood. Jenny didn’t seem to notice her skin tearing and flaking away, and despite the warning that Hankins had given him, he could only hope that she had still been given some painkillers to take the edge off her suffering.

Bill stared at the helpless form his girlfriend, racking his brains as he tried to think of something to say. But what could he say? Jenny clearly had enough of her wits about her to recognise him, so it was more than likely that she would know what was happening to her as she lay dying. He opened his mouth, a torrent of words and emotions that he wanted to say but couldn’t. How could he summarise the years they’d shared together, the love and affection, the tender moments they’d shared? Any sentence he tried to string together seemed to become awkward and clunky, choking him as the stumbled and stammered through a long string of wordless noises. His eyes began to blur again, tears streaming down his face as he tried to blink them away, then wiped the back of his sleeve across his face. He could feel his lip trembling, and he tried to fight it back, opening his mouth as he tried again to speak, but this time his words came out in intangible moans and howls of anguish and pain. He shuffled forwards, his tears trickling over his tear and dripping off his face, splashing on to Jenny’s parched skin. Where each droplet fell, her skin flaked and cracked, peeling apart and exposing raw flesh, looking as Bill imagined a gunshot wound would: puckered skin surrounding bloody, ragged flesh seeping with fresh blood.

With slow, agonising movements, Jenny’s arm twitched, and she slowly lifted them, reaching out with her hand and curling her fingers around his. Her skin ripped and tore apart, skin flaking away and dropping from her like desiccated rose petals. Bill managed half a smile, saw the corners of Jenny’s lips pull in the slightest inflection of a smile, and finally found his voice.

“I love you,” he muttered, wiping at his nose with the back of his free hand and smearing blood across his lips. It wasn’t much, but it was all that Bill could think of saying. He just hoped it would be enough. There’d never been any doubt that the two didn’t love one another, and the words were bounced back and forth between each other every day, but Bill had never meant the words more than he did at that point, when he felt it mattered the most.

“Love…” Jenny choked on her words, her voice breaking as her throat strained to work. She paused momentarily, trying to swallow and moisten her tongue, grimacing as she did so. “Love… you…” With a gurgling cry, her voice cut out as her vocal cords snapped, turning her words to thick, choking wordless shrieks, as piercing as the screams of a banshee.

Her hands pulled away from Bill’s, startling him as they spasmed and twitched, flailing wildly and tapping out a silent death tattoo in the air. Each movement snapped skin and tore ligaments: her fingers sagged and drooped as tendons ripped and ruptured, spraying what little diseased blood she had left in her across both Bill and the floor around him. Bill dropped to his knees, sobbing uncontrollably as he watched his girlfriend writhing on the table, watched her wasted flesh peel back and split, exposing wet, raw muscle tissue oozing with watery pus. Even if he shut his eyes, he could still hear her thrashing, hear her blood spatter and drip on the floor, hear her skin rip and peel away as it brushed against her clothing.

Footsteps approached Bill, and he looked up briefly, seeing Hankins stride purposefully across the room and unsnapping the fasteners of his holster, pulling the pistol free and drawing back the slide, the clicking of the weapon drowned out by the tortured screams of Jenny as another spasm tore through her body, and she sat bolt upright, her midriff shredding with the exertion and becoming slick with gore as her internal organs started to seep through her ruined body. Bill turned away, closed his eyes again, weeping into his hands and trying to block out what was happening.


The sounds of Jenny’s death throes ceased after the crash of the gunshot, and for a moment Bill thought he had lost his hearing altogether. Then, the sound of a brass bullet casing dropping to the ground, the tinkle of metal on ceramic tiles, followed by the sounds of a different kind of empty shell slumping to the table, this one fleshy and lifeless.

Bill felt a heavy hand clamp down on each shoulder, hauling him to his feet, turning him away to avoid having to look at the dead body on the table. Though he couldn’t see Jenny any more, he could see the fresh blood and brain matter spattered on Hankins’ clothing.

“What now?” Bill asked numbly, looking down to his hands, turning them over and looking at the blood that he, too, had been splashed with. “Do I… Do I have to sign something?”

“The room gets purged and cleansed, the remains sealed up and disposed of. Then…”

“Can I watch? Bill asked, stopping at the door to the room before Hankins could open it for him. “I want to watch.”

“Outside,” Hankins opened the door and pushed him through, slamming the door shut behind him and locking the bolts in place, sealing the room shut. He stepped over to the control panel beside the door and thumbed a short sequence into the pad, pointing to a metal hatch in the door and motioning for Bill to flip it open, revealing a porthole no larger than his fist. He pressed his face up to the glass, focussing on the fresh bloody copse that dominated the viewport. “Are you sure? It’s nothing spectacular.”

Bill nodded a definite, feeling that he needed closure, or at least a certainty that Jenny’s suffering had well and truly ended. He watched as Hankins finished inputting the code, then turned his attention back to the room, watching as the black pipes that spanned the ceiling started to rattle and shake, the nozzles dropping an inch from their housing and spraying a thick, gelatinous liquid into the room, coating the floor and walls, while a second set of nozzles hosed the bed and its occupant with a concentrated stream of the same viscous liquid. Each nozzle ignited with a spark, and Bill recoiled from the window in surprise as the fluid coating everything in the room burst in to flames, instantly turning the room in to a raging inferno. Bill’s vision blurred with tears, and the shape of Jenny became obscured by the conflagration, flames wrapping around her and consuming what was left of her corpse. His body shaking uncontrollably as he wept, Bill collapsed against the door, his head pressing against the glass and his palms pressed flat against the door. He could feel the barest glimmer of heat from the other side, and his hand slid down the door, reaching for the door handle as the thought flashed through his mind that he should be in there with Jenny. Hankins snatched his wrist, pinning it to the door, then tried to pull him away, but Bill shook his head. “I have to see,” he insisted. “I need to see.”

“Don’t do anything stupid, then,” Hankins hissed.

Bill continued to look through the glass, watching the incandescent white and yellow flames danced around the room, scouring the room for what seemed like hours to Bill, until they sputtered and died. Thick smoke curled towards the ceiling and the extractor fans that activated upon the flames extinguishing, clearing Bill’s view into the room.

The previously sterile walls were ashen and charred, coated in a layer of soot and grime, while the scorched bed held the blackened remains of a skeletal form surrounded by mounds of ash and debris. The nozzles retreated back into their enclosure, then a second set lowered in to place, a set that gleamed silver that Bill hadn’t seen before. They opened up with powerful jets of steam, the high-pressure gas wiping the soot from the walls and floor as their slowly panned from side to side, before jointly turning their attention to the remains on the table. Ash spurted into the air and the scorched, brittle bones were knocked from the table on to the floor, cracking and shattering as they impacted against the tiled floor. In agonising slow motion, Bill watched as the skull bounced once, then fragmented into a handful of misshapen pieces, leaving nothing recognisable left of the woman he loved.


He fell to the ground and let out a keening wail, burying his face in the floor as more tears streamed from his eyes, and he felt more hands grab him, pulling him up on to his feet. He didn’t put up any restraint, but he made no attempt to help himself, allowing himself to be lead back to his room, his feet slapping the floor as he marched in a catatonic state. The door to his room – his cell – was pulled open and he was pushed in.

“We’ll get some clean scrubs for you,” Hankins said as he pulled the door shut. “Wait here.”

Bill sunk to the floor, still sobbing and nodding to himself.


Wait for fresh clothes.

Wait until a bullet would scramble his brains and his body incinerated in the basement of a hospital.

Waiting was all he could do.

The monitor room stank of stale sweat and cheap coffee, with a lingering haze of tobacco that hung thick and heavy in the humid air. The air conditioning hadn’t worked since the outpost had been set up beneath the hospital; the reason Hankins had been given for the unit not working had been to ensure contamination didn’t leech in from the outside world. The truth, in Hankins’ mind, was that the United Government Marine Corps had more to deal with than a malfunctioning fan. Still, despite the cloying and uncomfortable surroundings, it was one of the few places on base that Hankins, or any other soldier, could be without their HAZMAT suit. He didn’t mind watching the security feeds or filling in his daily reports if he could do it in the comfort of his skivvies: the suits they had to wear were didn’t allow the body to breath for a reason, but that didn’t mean that Hankins was comfortable to sit and fester in his own sweat for hours on end. At least in the monitor room he could enjoy a good cigarette, a foul cup of coffee, and the air on his skin, no matter how humid.

He stared at the bank of twelve monitors that covered one wall of the room, three screens tall and four across, the datapad that controlled the feeds propped up on his knee as he tapped the cycle button at a leisurely pace. The top row of monitors was blank, linked directly to the holding rooms: Hankins didn’t need to see those rooms, he knew exactly want was happening in those chambers of disease. Each room packed with twenty corpses apiece, ready for cremation and disposal. In the last couple of days, the rate of infection and contamination had rapidly increased, not just around his base of operations, but the rest of the country. So much so, that Hankins had been given a field promotion to Lieutenant seven days ago while this particular disposal facility was under his command. Men were spread thin across the country; with multiple facilities having men stripped out and transferred to new facilities every day.

He took a long drag from his cigar, tapping the ash from the smouldering stump into the crystal ashtray he’d placed by his side and studying the active screens. One monitor showed three of his men unceremoniously piling corpses into one of the holding cells: with many of the infected people now dying before they could even record any details, the single person disposal method was no longer a viable solution, and mass sterilisation and cleansing had become part of the norm as far as operating procedures were concerned. Sometimes, there still looked to some vestigial trace of life in the fresh cadavers as they were loaded into the incinerators, but Hankins knew that had to be an illusion, or just the final death spasms of the unfortunates. He’d stopped overseeing the cremations now, completely removing himself from interaction with any infected. There was too many to keep track of now, anyway, and he didn’t want to waste his time trying to catalogue the dead before they were fed into the flames. His gaze flickered to the next pair of monitors, both showing different views of he entrance to the compound. A pair of guards, one on either side, waving and directing the now-continuous flow of body-bearing vans. Any doctors, technicians and medics still on site were now nothing more than porters and corpse handlers: cure and cause was no longer an issue for TacCom, just control. They were fighting a losing battle to keep the spread of the disease confined, and for just a few moments, Hankins found himself wishing he were still in Brazil. He may have been under enemy fire there, but at least his enemy was a tangible threat he could actually see and shoot at, and he didn’t have to wear a HAZMAT suit in the jungles and favelas.

The bottom-most row of monitors displayed the main annex of the facility, and the large pile of corpses that lay in the centre of the compound, a mound that was constantly added to with each van arrival.

“Fucking ridiculous,” he growled, stubbing the cigar out in the ashtray and moving it to the surface of the black lacquered desk before him. He kicked his feet up on to the surface and screwed the balls of his palms in his gritty eyes. “Just stop sending the bastards here, send the fuckers to another hospital, for Christ’s sake. We ain’t got no fucking space for any more dead.”

“We’re in the same position as every other disposal facility in the country. Actually, there’s some places that are worse than here. The numbers of the dead and infected are mounting up, and none of the other facilities have the capability to deal with the volume. Have you read the daily reports?”

Hankins turned slightly so he could make out the shape of Mulligan, his second in command, standing ever-patiently behind him. He could make out the shape of the data tablet he held in his peripheral vision, and held his hand out, accepting the device but placing it on the desk without giving it a second look.

“I know you’ve already read it, Mulligan, so why not just give me the general rundown and save us all some time?” Hankins sipped at his cup of instant coffee and grimaced. The cups were polystyrene and were always too hot to handle until the coffee itself was lukewarm. Hot coffee, like many other things, was a luxury. He scrolled idly through his own datapad, bringing up a shot of outside the base’s armoury and the guard standing vigilant over the weapons store.

“Most reports are the same, content wise. Increase in activity, rise in infection, nothing we don’t already know ourselves, to be honest. General Maxis…”

“Am I supposed to know him?” Hankins raised a hand to stop Mulligan mid-speech. Mulligan sighed, snatching up the datapad from the desk and tapped a short series of commands into it, replacing the monitor screen displaying the armoury with a picture of an older man, grey haired and with a face lined with deep wrinkles and creases. He was clean-shaven, but looked as stern as any General that Hankins had seen in his time in the Marines. “He’s the doctor in charge of all the information we’re compiling, the driving force behind mapping out the spread and predicting the trends for future infection. He’s the one that distributes the reports every morning.”

“Not interested,” Hankins sighed. “I don’t give a fuck who pulls this shit together. Over the past three days, how many corpses have we burned? Seven hundred? A thousand? Two thousand? Nobody knows, because we’re not keeping accurate records: we’re too frigging busy to do anything like that, I doubt anyone’s keeping accurate records. Probably just blowing smoke up the old man’s ass to keep him sweet. As long as the Brass has someone dancing to their tune, they don’t care.”

“Other facilities aren’t taking the same blasé attitude you are,” Mulligan tapped a command into the datapad he held, brought another report up on screen and motioned towards it. Hankins scanned over the first few lines of the report before turning away, his attention quickly waning: he had other things on his mind. “General Maxis has confirmed the bodies are still considered hot after death. We were already working on that assumption. But, there’s been a few cases of corpses vanishing from the larger stations in central London.”

“Vanishing? Missing corpses?” Hankins scratched absentmindedly at his head, then grimaced as he swallowed the last of his fetid coffee. “Who the fuck in their right mind is going to lift a diseased corpse?”

“Intel suggests that it may be terrorists. Maybe even the Cartel,” Mulligan scrolled the report on-screen down a few paragraphs. “The most basic form of biological warfare. Throw one out of a helicopter over a densely populated area, or wire one to explode and dump it in a subway during rush hour…”

“Wait, do they think this whole plague is something that’s been engineered by the Cartel?”

“That was a theory that was debunked four days ago. It’s all in previous operation reports.”

“Yeah, those bastards spend days on end cooking up recreational drugs in tin pans in jungle huts, I guess something this viral and deadly is too complicated for a meth lab jockey.”

“So they’re treating these facilities as high security risks now. We’re stepping up to Priority Omega for security, which means unlocking the armoury and breaking out the heavier weapons: automatic shotguns and assault rifles. It’s also going to mean our guys pulling double shifts for duty, which I know they’re going to grumble about. We need to keep a lookout for suspicious characters, make sure no one just wanders down here and helps himself or herself to a cadaver. I know, what are the chances?”

“Anything else on cures or vaccines?”

“Nothing. Whatever it is, it’s got everyone stumped. There’s still no one that’s survived ten days after exposure to the disease.”

Hankins nodded to himself, taking control of the monitors once more and bringing up a new view. All twelve monitors flickered to life to show the images from the one holding cell that still held a sole survivor. A man wearing grubby paper clothing, his hair unkempt, his face covered in dark stubble and his eyes surrounded by heavy shadows stalked moodily from one side of the cell to the other. Every now and then, he’d bang on the walls or the door or brush some dirt from the bench before sitting on it, only to leap back up to his feet and prowl the confines of his room again.

Bill Reddings had certainly looked better.

“Nine days he’s been in there,” Hankins said, rubbing his jaw thoughtfully. “I’ve not mentioned him in any of our reports, but I think it’s going to be something Maxis here wants to know about as soon as possible. In another twenty-four hours, he should be dead. But he doesn’t look like he’s dying, does he?”

“He looks pretty healthy, to be honest,” Mulligan agreed with a cursory nod.

“And that’s what I don’t understand. This guy here is what I’ve been spending most of my time puzzling over. This is what I’m thinking about; fuck reports from Essex about bodies that they’ve miscounted and people working out that corpses are still carrying diseases, we knew that shit from day one. We’ve got a fucker right here who, for all intents and purposes, is immune to this fucking thing.”

“Mind if I ask why you’ve not mentioned him in any reports?”

“If I say we’ve got a guy who’s immune, and then he haemorrhages out in transit, I waste everyone’s time, and we all look like assholes. This promotion gets stripped off me, then the next thing we know some shit-for-brains fresh out of the academy has us polishing our boots while we’re off duty. At least tomorrow we’ll have proof of someone who’s immune to this.”

“We still don’t know that he’s immune yet,” Mulligan shook his head.

“I’m pretty fucking confident he is,” Hankins said, grabbing his own datapad and compiling all the notes and observations into one file and encrypting it before sending it on to General Maxis. He smiled and Mulligan. “I’m that confident. Look at that guy; he fucked his girlfriend the morning she died. He should be just as dead as her days ago.”

Hankins stared at the screen with the prowling figure of Bill Reddings for a moment longer, then sat back with hand hands behind his head.

“Imagine if this guy’s the key. Imagine if this is the cure; this is where the answer lies. And we found him.” His chest swelled with pride as he spoke. Maybe the temporary field promotion would become a more permanent thing if this were the case.

His thoughts were broken by a shrill alarm that pierced the still of the room and one of the monitors sparked to life with a flashing message advising of an ‘incoming communication’. Hankins smoothed down his closely-cropped hair and thumbed the accept button, looking directly at the lens of the camera that was positioned in the centre of the array of monitors, watching as the screens flickered and cut to the face of General Maxis. Wearing a combat helmet and with a respirator hanging loosely around his neck, the man before him was a far cry from the file photo of him. Dishevelled, bleary eyed and with a dark spray of stubble over his jaw line, he looked less like a paper-pushing general and more like a front-line private who’d spent the last week just spitting distance from enemy lines. Hankins gave a short, smart salute from where he sat, but Maxis returned it with the briefest nod of his head.

“Am I speaking with Lieutenant Hankins?

“Yes sir,” he had the sudden urge to fidget, to adjust his collar or check his hair: talking to higher ranking officers always made him uncomfortable, and he never knew what to do with himself. He gripped the console in front of him, allowing himself to drum his fingers. At least then, with the camera focused on his head and shoulders, the nervous motion that would be reflected in his arms would look like he was typing.

It was all about the image he was putting across.

“These files you’ve sent. Tell me. Is this for real?”

“Of course,” Hankins nodded. He was cut off before he could end it with the formal addressing of the General: he clearly wasn’t in the mood for trivialities or protocol.

“Tell me why you didn’t feel it was important to tell me about this until now? You’ve been holding this man for nine days now, and there are no visible signs of infection still? Why is this coming to light now? This could be the break we’ve been looking for.”

“Or it could have been nothing, sir. With all due respect, how fucked off would you be if I made you travel halfway across the country just to watch another man die? I had to be sure. We still aren’t one hundred percent sure…”

“Certain enough to throw this information into my data feed now, though. Twenty-four hours until we know for sure: you’re undoubtedly read the reports, the missing bodies.”

“Of course,” Hankins nodded, noticing Mulligan roll his eyes at the response.

“If this person does hold the key to a cure, or even a vaccine, then the bio-terrorist threat is almost instantly negated, and the country can get back to normal. It’s… it’s just what we need. There are a lot of things I need to tie up here, gather a surgical team and a virologist: with all air traffic grounded, even for a General, it’s going to take me a while to get up north to your station; ten hours at least. Make sure there’s a room prepped for the vivisection…”

“Vivisection?” Hankins flicked his eyes from the screen to Mulligan, then back to the video screen.

“It’s the only way; we’ll have to check each system, compare them to those of an infected person. We’ll need to catalogue organs, freeze blood samples; the whole process will need to be documented on video. What about his family?”

“It’s all in the files,” Hankins said, fighting to maintain his composure and make sure that his voice didn’t break. He had no idea that unveiling a cure to the disease would actually entail cutting up the man while he was still alive. He watched as General Maxis frowned and looked down at the files before him, but he decided to fill in the blanks. “No siblings, no parents, his girlfriend is already dead, her parents are, too. He won’t be missed by anyone.”

“That makes this easier for us at least,” Maxis nodded grimly, then sighed. “Make sure you get everything prepared. You have ten hours. Until then, keep him comfortable”

The screen flickered and died, and Hankins let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, rubbing furiously at the back of his head with sweating palms and trembling fingers, then looked at Mulligan. His face was a pale as Hankins imagined his own was.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Mulligan finally broke the silence between the two men. “They’re going to cut him up alive?”

“Yeah,” Hankins muttered, shrugging his shoulders, then slouched back in his seat, returning the view of one of the monitors to the feed from within Bill Reddings’ holding chamber. “Poor bastard.”

“It doesn’t feel right,” Mulligan agreed, watching as Hankins went about the business of stabbing his data pad with his forefinger, accessing the hospital database and securing an operating theatre. They couldn’t risk transporting the patient up into the hospital itself, but a couple of technicians could disassemble the room and set it up in a more secure environment. “I mean, are we just going to go with this?”

“What can we do? We can’t let him go; an order’s an order. Jesus, I know this is fucked up, but what choice do we have?” Hankins rubbed his eyes, then reached into a drawer beneath the desk and pulled out a battered silver hipflask. He popped the top, took a swig of the potent mix, then offered it to Mulligan, who accepted and knocked back a mouthful himself before handing it back. “Okay,” Hankins finally muttered, playing idly with the cap to his flask. “Get out there, oversee this prep for the surgery, and get someone to clean him up, too. I’ll… I’ve got some reports to write.”

Mulligan nodded and left, leaving Hankins to wrestle with his conscious. While he was right and he couldn’t stop Maxis from the planned dissection of Bill Reddings, whether he was alive or dead, that didn’t mean it didn’t weigh heavy on his conscious. If it hadn’t been for him submitting the report…

No, he thought to himself. Just doing my job. If the death of one man could save millions, then wouldn’t the sacrifice be worth it? He turned his head to look at the notice board he’d erected by the monitor, the few collected trinkets and photographs he’d managed to pack before being withdrawn from Brazil. He raised his flask, tilted it towards the one picture he had of his old squad taken moments before a Cartel had launched a mortar attack on them.

“Fucking Brazil,” he muttered, knocking back the remaining contents of the flask and his eyes scanning the collection of trinkets and trophies. His gaze fell on the central piece of his montage, a tattered and dog-eared postcard of the colossal statue of Christ the Redeemer looking down on Rio de Janeiro from his perch atop Corcovado Mountain. He grinned grimly, opening his drawer and pulling out the half-empty bottle of vintage whiskey, the one he used to top up his flask. “I guess I know what God would do,” he said, pulling the cork stopper from the bottle with his teeth and spitting it on the floor. He toasted his previous squad once more, then turned to the monitors and toasted his prisoner and potential harbinger of the cure. “I know what I’ve got to do…”

Hankins woke up, the acrid tang of the whiskey still thick in his gummy mouth. He’d barely had two sips from the bottle before falling asleep in his chair; he wasn’t surprised he’d fell asleep, though; it had been almost forty-eight hours since he’d last had any rest. He rubbed his eyes, grinding the balls of his palms in his eye sockets, and then checked his watch. He’d been asleep for five hours; Maxis would be on well on his way now, he hoped that Mulligan had taken care of the preparations while he’d been resting.

He looked over the bank of monitors once more, focusing on Bill Reddings in his cell first. He’d taken to doing exercises in his room, something he’d done sporadically throughout his incarceration: probably more out of breaking the boredom and monotony than anything else.

Beside that screen, more visions were displayed of the mounds of corpses outside the incineration rooms. They didn’t seem to have changed much in the last five hours, which meant that either the facility had shut down while he’d been asleep, or the number of infected and dead had continued to steadily climb. There didn’t seem to be anyone tending to the corpses, nor was there anyone operating in the loading bay. In fact, the loading bay seemed to be vacant, the main door closed and locked down. He cycled through some more images, finally coming across the camera facing the entrance into the armoury. Mulligan was there, the doors cranked open all the way, and he was in the process of handing out assault rifles and shotguns amongst the soldiers gathering around him.

“What the fuck?” he demanded, fumbling for his headset and spinning on his chair, storming towards the airlock seal between the communication and surveillance gear and the outside world and pulling his suit on. “Mulligan, what the fuck’s going on out there?”

“Jesus, I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for ten minutes, you’ve sealed yourself in there and not been responding to anyone,” Mulligan’s words were rushed and urgent. “I made a call in your absence, we’re breaking out heavier weapons.”

“What the fuck for?”

“We’ve lost contact with other incineration stations: there’s reports of riots happening out in the town, there’s a large crowd gathering and making their way towards the hospital: that’s why we’ve sealed off the loading bay.”

Hankins scowled as he hammered some commands into his datapad, bringing up a view of the exterior of the loading bay’s sealed shutters. Sure enough, a crowd of about twenty or thirty men and women had gathered outside the entrance. Some stumbled around listlessly, the camera catching their vacant expressions as they pawed at the shutter, while others rapidly paced back and forth, savagely snarling at each other, occasionally swiping at one another with hands shaped like claws. They jostled, pushed and pulled their way to the front of the crowd, battering the shutter with their hands, then wandered away for a moment before starting the whole process again. They acted as if they were on different drugs, Hankins able to identify more than a one different user from his time served in the favelas of Brazil: he’d seen it all there, and seemed like he was seeing it all over again.

“Fuck me,” he’d seen enough, sealing up his suit and pulling his helmet on, hooking it up to a fresh air filter. The confines of the mask meant that his whiskey-tainted breath soon overcame him: though he hadn’t had that much to drink, the fumes and the aftertaste was still overpowering, and he could feel the alcohol sweating out his body beneath the airtight suit. “Has there been anything said from upstairs? The hospital?”

“They’ve locked it down, closed off Accident and Emergency. They’ve asked for a couple of men to keep an eye on things, and to keep the patients already sealed in under control.”

“Makes sense,” Hankins admitted as he stepped out the control room, into the corridors and rushing to the armoury. Less than fifty metres away, and around a pair of blind right-hand turns, he almost crashed headfirst into a trio of soldiers as they rushed for the elevator and the hospital upstairs. They were all gripping Hammersmith TAC1 assault rifles, the urban choice for the Marines and the weapon they were most familiar with since they’d all used them everyday in Brazil. Some of the weapons still bore traces of jungle camouflage, a reminder that it hadn’t just been a large number of personnel that had been pulled out with little notice. All the weapons were loaded with a single thirty round magazine and fitted with a laser target, but none of the men seemed to be carrying any extra ammo. There was no indication that there was any need for more ammo, but if what Mulligan had said was correct, and there were riots moving towards the hospital – and the crowd forming around the sealed entryway into was a clear indication that something was happening – then they needed to be prepared.

“I’ll send someone up with a box of ammunition,” Hankins promised, lightly slapping one of them on the shoulder as they passed by, “Just in case.”

By the time he arrived at the armoury, Mulligan was the only man left there, an assault rifle slung over one shoulder and another held in outstretched arms, waiting for Hankins to arrive and relieve him of the weapon.

“The closest station to us is about ten miles north: we can’t raise that on secure coms, not even using conventional phones. Our datapads are getting nothing from any servers, either internal or external: communications within the building are patchy at best, breaking up, and we’re not sure how long we’ll have those.”

“Damocles protocols,” Hankins murmured, tapping his datapad: just like he’d been told, there was no connection to anyone outside the immediate communication network. It was as if the protocol they employed on infected buildings in an attempt to neutralise panic amongst the potential infected and their families, or to stop tip-offs reach the fear-mongering press, had been employed on themselves. “Have we tried to work around this?”

“Only for the last hour,” Mulligan muttered, tossing him his datapad. Hankins scrolled through the pages of override commands and code that had been input, all to no avail. “We can’t break through to the external servers to upload the commands to lift the block. Maybe if we had a hardline out here…”

Hankins dropped the datapad and grabbed the assault rifle he was offered; slapping a magazine into the weapon and hauling back on the cocking lever to make sure the weapon was primed. “There’s a crowd gathering outside the main loading bay, I need some men on there: make sure they’re kitted out with shotguns, though, it’s close quarters down there.”

“You don’t really think we’re going to need to open fire on them?”

Hankins grunted, shrugging his shoulders. “You haven’t seen them, they look pretty stoned out their skulls. Warning shots above their heads should be enough to scare them off. If not… well, no one said our job was going to be easy. And make sure we have a couple of guys working on the bodies; they’re starting to stink this place up, and fuck knows what they’re still festering with. Now, walk with me Mulligan: what do we think they may be advancing on the hospital for? Any reasons we can think of?”

The pair marched away from the armoury, Hankins leading the way as he navigated the labyrinthine corridors of the underground facility and wandering aimlessly towards the main hub of the sprawl, the loading bay. Mulligan shrugged his shoulders,

“Panic? Stress? Maybe they want to see their dead families one last time. Maybe someone spread some bullshit propaganda about there being a cure or a vaccine.”

Hankins stopped outside the sealed door leading to Bill Redding’s cell and paused, looking at the heavy door, the flaking biohazard symbol that had been painted on it already fading. The paint used on the markings all over the facility was only ever meant to be temporary, and re-applying the markers and warnings was low on list of Hankin’s priorities. He went to rub at his face, forgetting about the helmet he wore and tapping his gauntlet against the glass faceplate. “You think it’s possible word about him got out? Someone that’s immune?”

“Not likely: three people know he’s still alive; you, me and General Maxis. No one else.”

“Maxis,” Hankins sighed, looking at the datapad still strapped to his arm, at the time ticking by on the main interface. “He’s less than five hours out, and with coms down, we can’t warn him about the riots.

“If there’s anything serious happening out there, the convoy he’s travelling in will pick it up, reroute to a new destination until trouble blows over.”

“I just hope it does,” Hankins nodded, continuing on to the unloading bay, pushing his way in through the double doors and looking at the mounds of bodies still piled up in the area: overflowing from the wooden pallets they were stacked up on. A handful of corpses had started to turn, the shrunken limbs sticking out the pile of varying ages and colours: the disease didn’t discriminate against age, sex or race. “There must be a way to get a message out of this, or to get something from the outside. Get someone up on the roof with a portable radio, see if we can piggyback the signal from the local police force.”

“Miller’s the radio expert,” Mulligan responded somewhat apprehensively. “He’d be the best man for the job.”

“Well, where is he? Get him up there.”

“He’s… he’s out,” Mulligan shuffled his feet nervously. “He had a pass for the night.”

“I didn’t authorise any passes to be handed out, especially with the quarantine we’re supposed to be enforcing,” Hankins growled. “We’re spread out thin on the ground as it is, people being reposted left, right and centre. Its just madness to let anyone else wander off base; especially with the increased cases of infection.”

“I’ve been dealing with them,” Mulligan announced, his shoulders drooping slightly. “Jesus, John, you keep these guys cooped up in here for a weeks without any form of R&R, they’re going to go crazy. Remember when Miller almost took down Reddings when he first brought him is? You keep people cooped up all the time, there’s going to be all kinds of crazy flying around. Even in Brazil, we got time off, right?”

“Using my first name won’t appeal to my better nature for this one,” Hankins warned him, pointing a finger and poking him in the chest. “And in Brazil, leave meant we’d go to the local village, hit the bar and then hit on the local girls. The only thing we had a chance of picking up was crabs or gonorrhoea, not something that bleeds you from the inside out.”

“You were going to the wrong bars,” Mulligan laughed softly to himself. “Look, I’m sorry, I may have over-stepped my margins…”

“Forget it, it doesn’t matter; for now, at least. When’s his pass run out?”

“He’s due back on duty at oh-six hundred hours.”

“There’s still a few hours to kill then,” Hankins sighed, tilted his head and leaning against the wall. Beyond the piles of discarded bodies, the locked shutters were rattling and squealing, protesting as the crowd on the other side pressed in close to them and tried to push through. “Hopefully those shutters hold out for long enough. Christ, Mulligan, what the fuck is going on out there? Can’t even send out a runner to have a look, it’s not safe. If we can’t get a radio tech on the roof, at least get me a sniper and a spotter; someone who can tell us what’s going on up there. We’ll need to see if we can get the internal intercoms working reliably, at least we’ll be able to communicate with other floors.”

Mulligan didn’t have a chance to answer: a sudden noise rattled down the elevator shaft and echoed around the walls of the facility. It was a muffled sound that Hankins instantly recognised, and he could tell by the way that Mulligan reacted that he, too, recognised the sound for what it was: a gunshot. He held his breath, hoping that it had just been an accidental discharge: though his men were professional, even the most disciplined could drop the ball, especially if they were stressed or tired from pulling double shifts of duty. He waited for a moment, hearing muffled screams; the obvious reaction most civilians would make, and then another shot: then another, and a fourth, followed up by the rapid-fire banter of an assault rifle.

“That doesn’t sound like a warning shot,” Mulligan turned back the way they’d came, but Hankins stopped him, placing his hand against his chest to stop him from moving.

“Keep an eye here, make sure those bodies get burned and that we keep at least two men on guard duty: I’ll go check upstairs, and keep an eye out for Miller. If you see him first, get him up on the roof with a radio mast.”

Hankins didn’t wait for the response, setting off back down the corridor, towards the command centre, then past it to one of the lifts that would take him up to the hospital proper. He hammered the call button and waited, the sounds of the gunfire almost continues and almost drowned out by the echoes of his breathing trapped in the confines of his helmet. As an afterthought, he hammered the datapad on his wrist, seeing if he could activate the emergency alarm for the base. The system didn’t respond, and he knew he’d have to activate it manually from the command centre; he turned to go back towards it, but the lift arrived, and he quickly made the decision to stop into the cage, thumbing the button for the ground floor: Mulligan could activate the alarm.

The ascension was quick, and it reached the pinnacle of its journey within seconds, the doors grinding open on to a hastily erected airlock that doused Hankins with an antiviral spray. The intensity of the gunfire increased, the sounds of screaming intensified, and Hankins forced his way through the airlock, his need to see what was going on in the foyer overriding any safety protocols that had been drummed in to him. A long corridor lay before him, dark and vacant, terminating at the foyer. Normally filled at any time of the day with visitors, patients and medical staff, the atmosphere of the corridor seemed oppressive. Doors to wards and off-shooting corridors had been sealed tight, and behind dark glass, the barest flicker of movements could be seen: people sealed away, safe from the conflict. A small child pressed himself up against the glass of one of the doors as Hankins strode purposefully by, a young boy who gave a small, curt salute to the passing officer. Hankins smiled behind his mask, remembering the awe he felt the first time he saw soldiers in a parade when he was just a young boy. A pale hand appeared around the boys shoulder, ushering him away from the window. A ghostly visage of a young woman appeared higher up in the window, her face showing more fear and anxiety than the young boy, before she quickly retreated into the murky darkness of the room beyond. They were relying on him and his men for protection: while Hankins had been left in charge of the disposal facility, he’d never dreamed he’d be dealing in a combat situation. Feeling his heart beating faster and his breathing become deeper, he tucked the stock of his rifle in tight in the crook of his shoulder and stepped in line behind the soldiers already in position.

He felt his throat lock as his eyes fell on the scene of carnage before him; the thundering blasts of the shotguns, the rapid stutter of the assault rifles, the screams of moans of the crowd outside as they slowly advanced on the shattered glass windows that made up the front of the building. Glass had shattered and spread over the people who had already fallen under the gunfire, sparkling like stars scattered over the corpses and twinkling with the magnesium-white muzzle flashes. Despite the downed bodies, the crowd seemed undeterred by the carnage, and continued to press onwards towards the hospital. Hankins stumbled and lowered his weapon, the sight before him overwhelming him as another two solders appeared behind him, one lugging a crate of ammo, the other a clutch of grenades in a green canvas sack.

Lost in the heat of the moment, Hankins dropped his rifle from numb fingers and tried once more to blindly operate the pad on his forearm, his eyes fixed on the scene before him: if ever he needed to reach the outside world and call in reinforcements, now was the time.

“Holy fuck…”

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