It could’ve been ten minutes or ten hours later for all I knew when I awoke. There was no natural light, and the fluorescents hummed unchangingly. I was alone, but as I sat up I could see movement from soldiers through the windowed door.
Suddenly conscious that I was absolutely starving, I swung my legs off the bed and stood up. The metal floor was cold under my feet, and my legs felt a bit shaky. Slowly I stepped towards the door, my goal the messroom.
There were men and women in combat fatigues milling around the main corridor, many of them preparing for some patrol or something. They gave me curious looks, but said nothing. I would’ve been curious about them too if I hadn’t been so hungry. They didn’t look like trained soldiers; their ages ranged from very young to retirement age, and they didn’t have that poise that so many career military have.
“Food.” I murmured. “Where can I get some food?”
An older woman with dyed red hair, grey roots now so long that her pony tail looked as if it were striped, waved me towards the room I’d identified as the mess hall. I nodded thanks shyly and stumbled over there, holding my stomach as hunger pangs nearly doubled me over.
The mess hall was another large metal box, with long trestle tables and benches. It didn’t seem to be meal time for anyone, but there were boxes of crackers on the tables, and large plastic bottles of water. I attacked a pack of crackers, tearing it with my teeth, and stuffing my face as full as i could. The resulting wadded paste was hard to get down, but deliciously salty. It hurt my stomach to eat, but I couldn’t stop.
“Slow down, might get mistaken for a glombie.”
I recognised Jacques’ voice and whirled around, face still full of crackers.
He grinned and there was a twinkle of laughter in his dark eyes.
“Or a chipmunk, whichever.”
I took a large swallow of cracker paste and nodded in greeting. I looked down at what he was carrying in his hands, which turned out to be a pair of army boots.
“Probly too big for you, but better than nothing.” he offered, holding them out.
“Thanks.” I said, taking them from him.
They were a little big, but he’d thought to bring a pair of thick socks, and that helped pad them out.
“How long was I asleep?” I asked, once the boots were laced and I was standing in front of him, still nibbling on crackers.
He shrugged. “’Bout twenty three hours?”
I let my eyes go wide, I hadn’t expected it to be so long.
“We should get you a gun; you know how to use a firearm?”
I shook my head. Nothing in my former life had seemed to warrant learning how to shoot.
Jacques sighed. “Oh well, better teach you that too.”
I knew I should be more upset about the situation, but everything seemed so unreal i felt like my emotions were woolly and distant. All i felt capable of was reacting to the little daily things that reminded me of normality.
He led me out of the mess hall and to another room which was basically a big weapons locker. He handed me a pistol - “to start” - as he put it, and grabbed me an olive drab jacket on the way out. I stuffed my pockets with ammunition as instructed, and then followed him along the main corridor and up the stairs one level. There was a shooting range here; seemingly makeshift.
“Ok, this is how you load.” he showed me how to load the pistol. The bullets felt smooth and heavy, and the gun felt strange in my hands, like an armored animal coiled to strike.
Once he’d made me practice that a couple of times, we moved on to actually shooting, something I was very timid about.
Awkwardly I stood how I was supposed to, with legs apart and shoulders braced, so that the recoil wouldn’t destroy my aim or push me off my feet. Jacques looked me over critically and made adjustments, telling me to keep my gaze fixed on the target at the far end of the long room. It was nothing more than a shop mannequin, already shredded with dozens of bullets.
As I lifted my arms and aimed, he stopped me with a tsk, and stepped in close to correct my eyeline. His breath was warm on my neck, and I felt myself flushing. He seemed oblivious as he finished and stepped back.
“Now gently, gently, squeeze the trigger - don’t pull -”
He was interrupted by my doing exactly what I was not supposed to do, pulling the trigger in a jerky motion rather than squeezing it. The gun bucked under my hands like a snake, and the bullet ricocheted off the metal ceiling.
Jacques laughed as he ducked; he seemed the only person I’d met so far who seemed able to summon a sense of humor under these bleak circumstances.
“Try again!” he said with a grin, and traced an imaginary line from the gun barrel along my arm.
Breathing deep, I squeezed the trigger gently, and was rewarded by the bullet actually grazing part of the mannequin in front of me.
“Great!” he encouraged, “Now try doing that while you’re running for your life.”
I gave him a sideways look to see if he was joking, but his face had settled into an expression of serious pensiveness. He saw me looking, and shrugged.
“Keep practicing.” he said.
For the next hour, until my arms were aching, I practiced shooting that stupid mannequin. I never quite managed to get a headshot, but I did manage to hit it in the chest my last three shots.
“Not bad.” declared Jacques by the end of it. “I need some tea, let’s take a break.”
Feeling pretty good about myself I followed him out of the target range and back to the mess hall. The kitchen led off it, and there was a filled kettle already sitting on the burner. Milk was the condensed canned kind, and the teabags had a dusty staleness, but it was very good to have a cup of tea. I drank mine slowly, taking surreptitious glances at my companion over the rim of the mug.
His hair still seemed too long to be a proper soldier’s, but I had already gotten the impression that half the people dressed that way were not career military. Maybe it was the almost cheery way he dealt with things, but I felt quite at ease with him, even though I knew nothing about him.
“Were you always a soldier?” I asked impulsively.
Jacques shook his head. “No, I was,” here he gave me that wry grin and shook his head in disbelief, “a physics professor, if you can believe that. But these days it’s just all about survival; no time for quantum theory.”
He looked pretty young to be a university professor, but I did believe him; he radiated an aura of intelligence and confidence.
“What about you?”
“Uh, I work in a university as a studio technician.” I answered vaguely. My job before coming here seemed completely irrelevant now. He looked at me blankly. “You know, sort of like a teaching assistant.”
His expression changed to one of excitement, and he opened his mouth to ask me another question. But he never got to ask it, because suddenly the air was filled with the blaring sound of klaxons.
“Uh oh, that’s not good.” Jacques said as if speaking to himself. He grabbed the semi-automatic he’d laid down on the bench, and headed for the stairs.
“Stay here!” Jacques shouted, pointing back at me as he stopped at the foot of the stairs.
My heart in my mouth, I nodded obedience, hanging back against the wall.
Everyone else had disappeared up those stairs, and I found myself alone, listening to the dim sound of gun shots reverberating above.
Too tense to just stand and listen, I busied myself with grabbing a canvas bag and filling it with food, water and ammunition. This took longer than it should’ve because every time there was a loud burst of gunfire, I stopped and cringed, wondering what the hell was going on up there.
It didn’t seem like things were dying down either, which made me even more uneasy. Feeling alone and useless, I dithered with the idea of going up the stairs and just poking my head out to see what was going on.
I was just putting my foot down on the first step, when there was a loud boom and the whole area shook violently, throwing me against the railing. My ears were ringing but panic took over, and I threw myself up the stairs as the dust rained down on me. I heard the sounds of running on the steps above me and saw figures coming towards me. For one dreadful moment I thought they were these ‘glombies’ and fumbled futilely for the pistol in my bag.
As they came closer, i could see they were soldiers, and in a panicked retreat.
“Emergency exit, emergency exit!” yelled one of them, South Asian with her long black hair in disarray. Behind her were the sounds of shots and screams and a strange kind of animalistic roaring.
She pushed me along in front of her, propelling me to the back of the base. With her were around ten others, all wild eyed and tripping over themselves in their hurry to get to this exit.
There was the high pitched crackle of a walkie talkie and I heard a man’s voice yelling.
“Rally Point A! Make for Rally Point A! Abandon base! Repeat, Rally Point -!” it cut off suddenly in a whine of static.
The woman led us through the control room where I’d met Chalmers. At the back of it was a round door like a porthole. She spun the lever to open it and started to wave us through.
“Once you reach the top, run like hell, don’t wait for anyone.” she ordered. Fear sweat was rolling down her temples and her dark eyes showed barely contained panic.
She pushed me through near the start of the group, and I found myself in a long vertical tunnel, clinging to a metal ladder. The soldiers in front of me were already climbing upwards through the gloom cast by emergency lights. Gulping with apprehension I started to follow them.
It was very hard climbing that ladder when all my muscles were shaking and the bag bumped against my hip with every movement. The air was stuffy and claustrophobic. I could hear the clanging of people climbing above and below me, the panting breath.
It felt like the climb went on forever, but eventually one of the soldiers above me reached the top and I heard the creak of the tunnel lid being pushed off. A gust of cold air swept down the tunnel and daylight streamed in, making us all blink.
I saw the top soldier haul himself over the rim and disappear, while the men in front of me scrambled up after him. Soon it was my turn, and it was like being decanted into hell.
After the dark tunnel i was suddenly in a bright wide open space; tarmac leading into grass on the edge of a wood. The noise was a cacophony of screams and gunfire. I wavered there, on the edge of the exit, trying to get my bearings.
I managed to focus on one of the soldiers running away towards the wood and started to run after him. All of a sudden i heard screaming close behind me. Whirling around i saw a disordered pack of people that must’ve been glombies had attacked a woman who had just emerged from the exit. As i watched in shock, one of them lunged at her and bit her in the throat, tearing out a great chunk of flesh. Blood gouted, and i remember thinking it strange that she was fumbling in her pocket while being eaten alive.
Then the world exploded and i was knocked flying, landing on my back in the grass, staring stupidly up at the blue sky. How could it be so blue when such terrible things were happening? All i could hear was the ringing in my ears. My vision blurred as i twisted over onto my hands and knees. My face was wet, and when i touched it it came away red with blood. Shaking i clambered to my feet, attention snapping to the sight of more attackers incoming.
Ignoring the smoking flesh and blood tainting the grass i reached into my bag and brought out the gun Jacques had given me, so long ago it seemed now. A voice inside me screamed to run, but i could see figures closing in on all sides. Sobbing with despair i raised my gun and aimed at the closest glombie, a large overweight man dressed in half a tracksuit. He stretched out his arms to me, fingers working. Gulping with loathing i shot at his chest. The first bullet whined uselessly past him.
My hands shook as i fired again. This bullet took him in the arm but he was still coming. I could see movement out of the corner of my eye and cringed inside, preparing to turn and flee, even though i knew they’d bring me down within a couple of strides. Now i understood what that woman had done, blowing herself up in her last extremity of agony rather than endure being eaten alive. I raised my arm again, determined to end my own life, and jumped as the fat man’s head disintegrated into a cloud of red dust before me. A shadow loomed up beside me and i spun on my heel, gun pointed instinctually to fire in that direction. A camo clad arm batted my hand aside, and i almost wept with relief when i saw who it was.
“Jacques!” i yelled, my voice tinny and distant in my ears.