He looked straight through me and raised his rifle. I jumped again as i heard the shot, and stumbled as he dragged me aside, out of the way of a falling body. But there were more behind and around us, coming in fast.
I had time to take in that he was accompanied by a small knot of young soldiers and then we were running again, heading towards the woods.
“Interference!” yelled Jacques over his shoulder.
Immediately one of the soldiers rolled what looked like a couple of grenades behind us. The sight made me speed up, remembering the fallout from that poor woman’s death.
I tensed as i ran under the cover of the wood’s edge, expecting an explosion at any second. But instead all that happened was tendrils of smoke curling up behind me, turning into dark billowing clouds which hid everything behind us. The soldiers around me scattered, and before i could stop in my confusion, Jacques had grabbed my elbow and pushed me down into the undergrowth.
A branch grazed my leg as I went down, and I was about to voice a protest, when he pushed me further down with a hand on my back, until we were both lying prone in a tangle of blackberry briars, leaves and mud. Above us smoke fluttered and blew about, obscuring everything. I could hear thrashing and howling on the other side of Jacques, and turned my head to see if I could see what it was. My line of sight crossed his, and I froze as I saw the fear in his face, blowing his pupils so that his already dark eyes seemed pitch black. His mouth was pressed into a grim line. He returned my gaze and his hand on my back gripped tighter in warning.
Suddenly the thrashing sound increased and was punctuated by an outburst of high pitched screaming, reminding me of a rabbit caught by a fox. Terror overwhelmed me, and I struggled to get free of Jacques. He shook his head very slightly, and pressed me further into the mud. The screams went on and on, causing us both to flinch and shudder. Jacques squeezed his eyes shut, and I could tell he was having as hard a time as me keeping silent and still.
After what seemed like an aeon, the screaming faded and the thrashing and howling moved off away from us. Tatters of smoke drifted away, revealing dank mixed woodland. I stared up at the green leaves and mossy bark, listening for any sound. By the tension of his body, I guessed Jacques was listening too.
Finally he scrambled to his knees, pulling me up with him. He crouched there looking around, until a few other heads popped up from the bushes. There was a moment when we all looked at each other, trying to figure out if anyone was actually a glombie. Then the moment passed without anyone attacking, and I felt myself heave a sigh of relief.
Still without speaking, Jacques used hand signals to tell the other soldiers to move out, and we cautiously stepped through the wood, keeping close to the trees. Stepping through a deep bank of leaves and moss I saw what looked like a short tree trunk lying lengthwise. As I got closer I realised it was actually a body, a soldier. He was ripped and tattered beyond all recognition, and I felt my gorge rise. This was what we had been listening to, the sacrifice which had placated the glombies and allowed us the chance to escape.
I turned my face away, and was grateful when Jacques pulled my arm to hurry me forward.
It was slow going, getting through the wood. We went at a snail’s pace, stopping at every sound, hugging the trees and constantly on the lookout for any sign of glombie attackers.
When we came to open copses or fields, Jacques directed us around the edges, keeping us under cover. The tension was exhausting, and I found myself flagging after only a couple of hours. I stumbled continually in my over-sized boots, making it hard to keep up. But Jacques drove us on, allowing us only a few moments of rest to eat some power bars under the shadow of a large oak. The breeze was chill, blowing through my thin pajamas so that I shivered continuously. My power bar was stale and dry, making it difficult to choke down. I was only halfway through it when the others were done and back on the move.
Still no one spoke, communicating with hand signals only. Once we saw a farmhouse in an open field off to the side, and immediately they all crouched down nervously, practically crawling past it until it was gone behind the trees.
“Couldn’t we check it for supplies?” I dared to whisper, breaking the silence. “Or rest for a bit?”
The other soldiers jumped a little at the sound of my voice, and turned hostile glares on me.
“Ssh.” whispered Jacques, casting his gaze around warily, as if my words had summoned something terrible.
His wariness paid off, and he drew our attention to something in the distance ahead, moving through the forest in random, juddering movements, first fast in one direction and then doubling back slowly, like a dog casting around for a scent. Instantly, he and the soldiers raised their weapons, but Jacques seemed to have second thoughts, and raised his palm in a ‘stop’ motion. Shouldering his rifle he brought out a pistol with an elongated barrel. Squinting at it I realised the long barrel was actually a silencer. He took a deep breath and sighted his aim carefully, waiting for the perfect opportunity. The rest of us remained frozen, watching what we could now tell was a glombie woman pacing back and forth. She hadn’t seen us yet, but her random movements eventually turned her in our direction. I saw her eyes widen, and her mouth open in the beginning of a long howl. It was cut off by a silent blossoming of red from her temple. Her grey hair described a wild arc as she fell poleaxed to the ground.
We waited a little while longer, to see if there were any more, but when it seemed to be clear, Jacques waved us forward, reholstering his pistol. Chastened by the close call, I didn’t speak again, allowing myself to be guided through the seemingly never ending patchwork of countryside, keeping well clear of any human habitations.
It was dusk before we reached our destination, a farmhouse complex with a large barn separated from the main buildings. An orchard provided cover behind it, and I could see a cluster of vehicles parked nearby. One of these was almost a tank, with a weapons turret poking out from the roof. Silently we trudged through the darkening trees, the scent of apples hanging heavy in the air. I was too tired to watch for danger, preferring instead to trust in my companions. Jacques had kept me close to his side, and I was glad of that, knowing that he was probably my best chance for survival.
The soldiers became more cautious as we neared the barn, heads turning this way and that as they searched for any warning signs. We stopped at the bottom of a long ladder which went up one side wall until it reached a large opening, more of a door half way up, than a window.
Jacques cupped his hands to his mouth, and let out a soft call, sort of like an owl. It wasn’t very realistic, but it also didn’t sound very human, which was probably the point. There were a few seconds of silent waiting, and then a returning call came from the dark opening above us. Jacques nodded, and the soldiers started to climb slowly up the ladder, taking their time in order to be as quiet as possible. I was last before Jacques, and found it hard going, my arms and legs feeling like lead already. But eventually I pulled myself wearily over the top rung and into the darkness.
I stopped there frightened, realising that I was suddenly surrounded by people. Straggling knots and individual soldiers crouched all around the upper level of the barn. Piles of dirty straw crowded the edges, smelling strongly of must and damp. Hearing Jacques reach the top behind me, I moved aside, clasping my arms across my chest in a defensive posture. The many eyes which had gleamed at me out of the dark now turned towards him, and I felt a lessening of tension in the room. Jacques crouched down, pulling me down beside him. A slight figure crawled out of the gloom towards us, and I recognised the south asian woman who had led our retreat from the base.
“Divya.” whispered Jacques in welcome.
The woman named Divya nodded in return and then tossed her head, indicating those around her.
“This is everyone so far.” she whispered back, so low her voice was almost inaudible.
“Chalmers?” questioned Jacques quietly.
She shook her head, and I saw Jacques shoulders slump a little. He bowed his head and sighed, then raised it and looked around at the waiting soldiers.
“We’ll head out at dawn,” he stated in a soft whisper, “I’ll take first watch.”
Those around him nodded and hunkered down, drawing in on themselves in preparation for sleep. The only sound was of soft breathing and the occasional rustle of someone moving to get more comfortable.
Squatted next to Jacques close to the opening I watched as he pulled himself up against the edge of it, stretching his legs out in front of him, rifle cradled in his lap. His head turned towards me for a second, and I felt the intensity of his gaze on me. Without speaking he motioned for me to lie down. Not sure where to go I looked around until I spied a free corner, and then started to crawl towards it, trying to make as little sound as possible.
I curled up against the wood beams, feeling the roughness of the hay around me. It helped to warm me a little, but not enough. My thin pajama trousers were torn and wet, and even the fatigue jacket that Jacques had given me back at the base didn’t really help to keep the chill out. My hip ached where it met the hard floor, and I found myself shivering uncontrollably. I was very tired, but every little sound made me start in fear, my eyes flicking open.
I could’ve sworn i didn’t sleep a wink, but suddenly someone was shuffling next to me, the welcome warmth of their body radiating through the thin cloth of my clothes. I tensed, wondering surreally if I was about to be the victim of another kind of assault. It seemed unlikely given the utter lack of privacy, but I was so tired I wasn’t thinking clearly. I brought my hands up to fend the person off and only relaxed a little when i looked up and saw the familiar tousled bowl cut outline of Jacques’ head. He inclined his head towards my neck and I heard his voice speak incredibly softly.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered in my ear, so close his breath was warm on my skin, “just cold.”
A cynical voice inside me noted that although that was true - it was bloody cold by then - he’d definitely made a deliberate choice about who to share body heat with. But I couldn’t deny that under other, less stressful circumstances, I would’ve found him attractive, and my sense of self-preservation added another layer of consideration. If someone liked me, they were more likely to try and make sure I stayed alive.
All this went through my head in an instant, before I was overcome by extreme weariness and a need for comfort. He felt solid and warm as he wriggled one arm underneath me and used it to pull me closer. I sighed and let my head rest against his chest, curling in towards him to maximise the heat of contact. His arms encircled me and I felt the tension drain out of him. He rested his head in the curve of my neck and his breathing deepened. My own breath began to match the rhythm of his, and I felt real sleep overtake me.
I was alone when the pale light of dawn woke me. It was cold enough to see my breath. I stretched my aching legs and looked around to see what was going on. Away from the opening Divya and Jacques were crouching in some intense conversation, prodding what looked like a map on the floor between them. The rest of the soldiers were going through the motions of waking up. I perked up when I saw one had a bag full of power bars that he was handing out. Feeling my stomach grumbling at the mere thought of food, I crawled over to him and held my hand out, then smiled a hello as I saw it was Private Jones, the one who’d given me sedatives when I first….my train of thought splintered, and the smile faded.
I still didn’t understand how I’d come to be here, and I’d had no hint that this was anything other than a one way trip.
Feeling the weight of circumstances, I chewed my power bar slowly and tried to focus on my surroundings. Although there were at least fifteen people in the barn loft, they all maintained an eery silence, going about their business without speaking. Noone stood up, and they all avoided the barn opening, presumably so that glombies wouldn’t notice anything.
Once everyone was awake, Divya and Jacques became the centre of attention. Realising this, they stopped their conference and looked around at the group.
Divya cleared her throat and started to speak in a soft voice just above a whisper. I had to strain to hear her, but even this level of noise seemed to make everyone anxious.
“We can’t wait for anyone else,” she began, giving the surrounding soldiers a challenging look, “and we can’t stay here. We’ve heard nothing from any other bases in this area for weeks, but the last contact Chalmers had with HQ said they were heading north.”
She paused, and many of the soldiers looked at each other questioningly.
“There’s too many of us to go together, we’ll attract too many of them. So the plan is to split up and make for York. There’s an airfield on the outskirts that could still be viable.”
Jacques nodded at this. Divya shot him a smile and continued.
“I’ll lead the main group with the Vector and the Mastiff,” she told them. “We’ll try and push through the M1. Sgt. Jacques,” she waved a hand towards him, “will take a smaller group in the Foxhound. They’ll take the side roads, aiming to run parallel to the A1.” she stopped and flashed the group a wan look. “It won’t be easy, but this way at least some of us should make it. From there, we’ll head through the parks until we’re north of Inverness. There’s some MoD installations up there, and a smaller population equals less glombies.”
She crawled crab-wise over to the barn loft opening and peeked out. I saw her brow furrow, and she turned to look back at Jacques, her face shadowed.
“We need to go now.” she stated bluntly.
A chill ran through me at her tone. Instantly everyone else snapped into focus. She and Jacques started pointing at individuals and motioning them towards the ladder. I waited uncertainly while soldier after soldier ran to the ladder and started climbing down. They all seemed to know what they were doing, and now that the plan was set, there seemed to be no more thought of caution or concealment. I, on the other hand, didn’t even know who I was supposed to be going with, or which strangely named vehicle was which.
From outside came a distant howling, peppered with the sound of gunshots. The glombies had found us.
Jacques noticed me hanging back and strode over, one eye on what was going on outside.
“You’re with me, move!” He pushed me towards the ladder and then aimed his rifle at something in the distance, pulling the trigger once, then twice.
“Hurry up!” complained a soldier waiting for me to descend the ladder.
I gulped, looking over the edge. Past the orchard I could see a stream of running figures barrelling towards us out of the woods and fields. Although my legs felt like jelly I climbed down the ladder as fast as I could, and then looked around frantically.
“What the hell does a Foxhound look like?!” I yelled at noone in particular. The howling and gunfire were increasingly in volume and intensity now, and i could see running glombies reaching the edge of the orchard.
I took a step backwards in fright, and then spun as I heard the sound of shots behind me. Some of the glombies must’ve been in the main farmhouse complex and they were now running towards the cluster of vehicles at top speed. Suddenly a barrage of shots sounded from the largest vehicle, mowing down the farmhouse glombies and shattering the windows behind them. Someone had made it to the turret, and was intent on taking down as many as possible.
A hand on my shoulder made me jump.
“What are you doing? Get a move on!” yelled Jacques, pulling me along with him towards the vehicles.
“I didn’t know which one!” I screamed in protest over the chaos of noise.
He gave me a look and dragged me along faster. The Foxhound was a relatively smaller vehicle compared to the others, but with an impressive array of armoring and external gadgets. Jacques pushed me in the back door and jumped in the front passenger seat.
“Go!” he yelled to the driver, while I looked around the interior at my new companions.
There were four other soldiers in the back with me, three men and one woman. They cradled their weapons anxiously and kept looking out of the small side windows. I hadn’t seen any of them before, or the young driver. I could hear the howling loud and clear over the engine now, and something banged against the side of the vehicle, making us all jump.
Swearing, the driver slammed on the accelerator, and the vehicle leapt away. There was a lot of banging outside, and it bumped around as if going over many speed bumps. It was only when blood splattered the front windshield that I realised those were not speed bumps we were going over but bodies.
Clinging to my seat, I craned my neck to look out of the window. There was a seething crowd of glombies behind us now, flying in all directions as the larger vehicles of Divya’s team plowed through them. Some of the shots had ignited hay in the barn, and tongues of pale flame surrounded by darker curls of smoke were enveloping the scene. A scene that we were leaving at high speed.