A golden halo surrounded me as I opened my eyes. Bright sparks flew across my vision, making me jerk and blink. Quickly they faded, leaving only pale sunshine behind. I blinked again, and tried to take in my surroundings.
My last memory was of lying down to sleep in my darkened room, the open blinds casting slats of light across the ceiling. I’d been tired from work, heavy with sleep. Those slivers of light had suddenly grown intolerably incandescent, and I’d blinked.
And now here I was, standing in the middle of a wet field, in early morning light. A faint mist floated up from the long grass, causing the whole landscape to seem wrapped in golden gauze. There were no animals or people in sight, but at the lower end was the dark green edge of the forest, a brooding mass. I seemed to be on the side of a hill. Turning around, i took a step upŵardsl, and recoiled in shock as the cold dew soaked my foot. I glanced down reflexively and noticed for the first time that I was barefoot, wearing only my black cotton pajamas.
Convinced that this was now all a dream, I climbed slowly to the top of the hill. A chill breeze whipped against me, lifting my brown hair from my shoulders as I surveyed the area.
It was a gently rolling landscape of cozy rurality; fields and woods dotted with little clusters of houses. The road twisted here and there around them, finally arrowing off to a jagged line of faint grey which must’ve been a town.
Something caught my eye; far in the distance, along the high hummock of the hill I saw a straggling group of runners coming towards me. Not sure what to expect, I raised my hand and waived. None responded, and as they came towards me, I began to feel a sense of unease. They didn’t run like joggers, but madly, wildly stumbling, their arms flailing and grasping.
My heart began to pound, the urge to flight taking over. Their mouths were open, dark holes in pale faces, bedraggled and covered in dark smudges. I backed away a step, and then turned to run, not caring if I looked stupid in front of them. The grass batted at my feet and legs, leaving wet trails as I started to run along the crest of the hill in earnest. Maybe this was just a dream, but as in most nightmares, i felt the threat as horribly real.
Wildly I looked from side to side down the hill, and spotted the road that wound along the bottom. At its closest point it cradled the other side of the hill I ran on, and as my gaze fixed on it I suddenly saw a jeep parked there. Light glinted off something in the passenger seat, and I realised that I was being watched through binoculars. I stopped running, wondering what this meant.
The glint disappeared and the passenger door was flung open. A soldier emerged. it was too far for me to see his face clearly, but he beckoned me urgently. Floating over the sound of the breeze came his shout, and it shocked me out of my daze.
“Run! They’re behind you!”
Instinctively I looked over my shoulder. He was right; off to the side, coming lengthwise up the hill, the runners were close behind me. I had a momentary glimpse of open mouths and wild eyes, ragged clothing and suppurating wounds, before fear took hold again and I dashed away from them, careening down the hill towards the parked jeep.
The soldier urged me on, and I could hear the revving of the engine. It was easy to go fast down the hill, but hard to avoid tripping, and before I knew it, my foot caught in a tussock of grass and I fell rolling. The momentum sped me downwards, and I landed bruised and scraped at the bottom, jumping to my feet with the alacrity of terror. A hand grabbed my arm, and I cried out, trying to pull away, before the soldier’s face came into view.
“Move it!” he yelled, and I obeyed, stumbling into the front seat. He pushed me further in until I was half crouched between the front seats.
“Go!” someone else shrieked as he slammed the door shut. Hands slapped against the windshield as the vehicle growled into action, leaping forward so that I fell backwards, my back hitting the legs of the soldiers in the back seat.
Completely bewildered and terrified, I hunched there, hardly daring to look around me at my saviors.
“Are you bit, are you bit?” One of the soldiers in the back seat pushed me away roughly. He was young, with wide scared eyes and the beginnings of blonde stubble. The soldier who’d beckoned me turned around and shook his head.
“No, I saw, they didn’t touch her.”
I looked him over warily, seeing him as the main agent of my strange experiences. He was tall and slim in a wiry kind of way, with fringed dark hair that seemed longer than the regular army would allow. His black-brown eyes focused on me and a wry smile twisted the edge of his full lips before disappearing into a scowl.
“What happened up there?” he questioned me intently. “Where did you come from?”
I grimaced, casting apprehensive glances around at him and his compatriots. He seemed to be older than the others, who were uniformly young, scrawny and radiating fear. The driver had chocolate skin and a tight buzzcut, but what struck me most was the tic of fear in his jaw as he drove, screaming along the country roads at high speed.
“Answer the question,” he said, “how did you avoid infection? This whole area’s hot.” Although his tone was brusque, I sensed an undertone of pity and empathy.
“I..I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” I tried to keep the incredulity out of my voice, but it was hard not to start panicking, “I was just going to bed, and then there was this light, and...then I was here.” I trailed off, covering my mouth with my hand so they didn’t see the wobble as I tried not to cry.
“Hey,” he reached over and shook my shoulder, not unkindly, “get a grip, we need you lucid. We’re near base,” here he gave a wry snort of suppressed laughter, “you’ll be as safe as anyone under the circumstances. But we need to know what happened. Are there any other survivors?”
The soft burr of his accent had been bothering me for some time now, and as I realised where it came from, a chill settled over me.
“Where am I?” I asked suddenly, blind panic starting to take over. “Am I in England? Am I? I was in Canada half an hour ago, I swear it!” I drove my knuckles into my mouth and looked at them wide-eyed. “This is a dream, this must bel just a dream.” i repeated the mantra over and over to myself.
My dark-haired interrogator frowned and a flush came over his pale skin. He glanced at the mousey haired kid who constituted the fourth soldier of the party, and jerked his head. “Give her something to calm her down, Jones. If she starts going off, it’ll bring the glombies.”
Jones, fished in an olive drab pouch and fished out a jar of small blue pills.
“Put this under your tongue and let it dissolve.” he said efficiently, handing one pill to me.
I was about to protest, but the idea that this was all a dream took hold of me again, and i wondered dully if this pill was a symbol for wanting to wake up. Maybe I would take it and wake up back in my own bed, staring at the light from passing cars streaming through the blinds.
It was bitter under my tongue, and the constant jerking of the jeep threw me around, so that I had to brace myself against the legs of my fellow travellers. I didn’t have much of a view of the outside, only able to see patches of grey sky through the windows from my low position. But shortly a change in the demeanor of the soldiers told me that we must be close to their base. There was a mixture of anticipation and tension as they readied their weapons.
Again, the one who seemed to be their leader, looked around at me.
“Be ready to move. Follow me, exit on your right. Don’t stop, don’t make eye contact, just get inside the door. How you feeling?”
I nodded and breathed deeply, feeling the weight of the sedative. “Calmer.” I managed to say.
His lips curved again in that wry smile. “Good. Keep close.”
I thought the jeep would slow down, but instead it sped up, and i heard the loud pop of gunshots over the revving of the engine. Sweat beaded the driver’s face as he slammed on the accelerator. Darkness covered the windows for a moment, and as we passed through it, he spun the wheel and screeched to a halt. Instantly they were flinging open the doors and diving through them. I followed as best I could, gasping at the cramps in my ankles as I scrambled after them. I had a dim impression of grey walls and high barbed fences. The tarmac was hard under my feet as I focussed on the camo back of the man in front of me. A hand grabbed me by the elbow and hurried me along. I could smell stale sweat and fear as the leader pulled me to run faster. More gunshots sounded, but i didn’t look round, trying to concentrate on the tunnel vision of the man ahead.
Suddenly a huge dark rectangle loomed in front of us and I was pulled through it. A harsh clang sounded behind us as the door swung back into place. Fluorescent light cast sharp shadows, showing me a corridor lined with metal. I was gasping for breath, my legs shaking, and the four soldiers around me didn’t seem much better. They leaned against the walls, shivering, some with eyes closed. The leader recovered first, taking a final deep breath before he stood erect and lowered his semi-automatic rifle.
“Well, we made it.” he told his fellows, “let’s check in.”
“How long?” burst out the soldier with the blonde fuzz suddenly. “How long can we hold them off?”
The leader shrugged. “As long as we have to.” he countered, and then turned to me. “You - what’s your name? Come with me, we need to report this.”
“Rachel.” I stammered, balling my hands into fists to try and stop shaking.
“I’m Sgt. Jacques,” the leader nodded to me, and then waving a hand to encircle his three comrades, added “these are Privates Jones, Parks and Hamilton.” He shrugged. “Not that ranks matter much anymore.”
I bobbed my head slightly in awkward greeting, but they were already turning away from me. Glumly I followed them down the corridor, the only sound the knock of their boots against the grilled metal floor.
We passed through a sliding air tight door, branched off down another corridor which looked exactly the same, and then down at least four flights of stairs until we came to a more open level with several rooms on either side of a wider corridor. Here three of the soldiers turned and entered what looked like a mess room. For a moment i saw other men and a few women look up curiously at me. Their faces were uniformly tired and despairing. I was about to go into this room, but Sgt. Jacques beckoned to me to continue down the corridor towards a door at the end.
“Major Chalmers is the highest rank we’ve got left,” he talked conversationally as we walked, “he’s alright, he’s kept us together since it all went to shit. He’ll want to know about you.”
I gulped. “But I don’t even know about me.” I protested, hating the whine in my voice.
Jacques shrugged. “You’re another Survivor,” his intonation added the capital letter, “and that’s unusual these days.”
“What happened?” I dared to ask finally as we reached the door. “What was wrong with those people?”
Jacques looked back at me with a strange expression on his face as the door slid open.
“You really don’t know, do you?” he seemed about to say something else, but before he could another, older man, appeared in the doorway.
“Sir.” Jacques greeted him with a casual salute.
Chalmers nodded and then his gaze lit upon me and his eyes became sharp and intense.
“A survivor, after all this time?” he asked, looking quickly at Jacques.
Jacques lifted his shoulders in what was becoming a familiar shrug.
“Sort of. We were on the way back from foraging, saw this light at the top of a hill. Then there was Rachel.” He gestured towards me and raised his eyebrows.
Chalmers raised only one eyebrow, and looked from Jacques to me and back skeptically.
“Well?” he challenged me. “Explain.”
Only the calming effect of the sedative stopped me from breaking down. This didn’t feel like a dream anymore, and I felt very confused and frightened.
“I don’t know.” I repeated. “I don’t know about any of this. I was in bed, nothing seemed special. And then I blink, and I’m here, and I don’t even know where here is. Survivor of what? What’s happening?”
Jacques and Chalmers glanced at each other meaningly.
“Amnesia? Ptsd?” Chalmers asked him.
Jacques frowned. “I don’t know. I wish Argyll was still…” he sighed and bit his lip. “We need more expertise than Jones to figure out what’s wrong.” He turned to me. “Are you sure you don’t know anything about the ELE?”
I slumped, putting out my hand against the back of a hard chair to steady myself. The room was starting to pulse, as tiredness and shock compounded with the sedative I’d taken, and I felt it hard to stay upright.
“No.” I said shortly. “I don’t know anything. Can you please tell me what’s going on?”
Chalmers squared his shoulders and breathed deeply, as if preparing himself for something unpleasant.
“There was a viral outbreak. The infected are cannibalistic and rabid. Its spread through bodily fluids. Society has….” he paused, and his jaw tightened, “collapsed. We are -”
“That’s impossible!” I yelled blearily, interrupting him. “Everything was perfectly fine when I went to bed! This is insane, this is not happening.”
I stopped and grabbed the chair back as the pulsing became stronger, the room swaying in time with me.
Quickly Chalmers stepped forward and steadied me, seating me in the chair. I gasped and closed my eyes, trying to stop the whirling.
“You need rest, we can talk about this more later. Jacques?”
I felt rather than heard Jacques’ answering nod as he plucked me out of the chair and carried me out of the room. I was afraid to open my eyes, the dizziness was very alarming. I clung to his solidity as a rock in the middle of chaos, burying my face in his chest. It smelt of unwashed fatigues and dampness, but it was warm and comforting. It was hard not to reach out to keep hold of him as he deposited me on a camp bed, alone in what looked like some kind of lab. I watched as he retrieved a thin blanket from a wall cupboard and covered me with it.
“It’ll be ok, you’re safe here.” he reassured me quietly, as if talking to a frightened child. Which wasn’t far off how I felt at that point.He seemed to be looking down on me from a great height, his voice remote and booming. I let my eyes close again, and passed into darkness immediately.