A/N – Hello there! I'm happy to announce that this story is finally getting the editing it deserves. It'll be a slow process, but I'll eventually have it polished enough to publish as a Kindle book. It is and always will be free, so read whenever and as many times as you'd like :)
Some things to help you know what to expect –
The story will be told from the perspectives of three different characters, so keep an eye out for whose chapter it is at the beginning.
There will be f/f between the two female characters, and I'm debating on a romantic interest for the male lead.
Last but not least, the chapter titles will be references to songs or literature (mostly songs, it gives me an excuse to find new music or rediscover old stuff :P). I'll put the info at the beginning of each chapter.
That's it, hope you like it!
Radioactive - Imagine Dragons
Welcome To The New Age
Flickers of red light shifted through the darkness, illuminating what the moon couldn't of the large library. I held my own small flashlight between my teeth, directing the cardinal beam downward onto the book in my hands. The scientific title had seemed promising, but as I scanned the inside I found it was only a superficial account of the human body – definitely not the in-depth information about the nervous system that we were looking for. As quietly as I could, I set the book back on the shelf, the only audible sound the slight rub as it slid into place.
I pulled the flashlight out of my mouth, running it over the spines of other books until I found another that looked interesting, and then gripped it between my teeth again to free my hands. As I reached for the book, there was a faint whoosh, and a much louder thud as a heavy text hit the floor, echoing off the high library ceiling. Startled, I jumped, instinctively turning toward the noise as my hand shot to the twelve-inch knife belted to my thigh. Luckily I had a good enough hold on my flashlight that I didn't drop it and add to the clatter. Every other red light in the long row of shelves directed toward the noise, barely illuminating the soldier who'd dropped the book, and I could almost make out eleven inhales as each of us held our breath.
I waited, the only sound I could hear in the dark silence was the frightened pounding of my heart as we all waited for a dreaded response to the noise. My hand was still tensed over the knife, and though it was the weapon of choice among us for its silence, I felt even more comforted by the weight of the rifle strung over my shoulder. After thirty seconds of silence, the red beams shifted toward me, and I could see my limbs outlined by the light as they looked at me for orders. I waited another thirty seconds, listening intently for any sound that might indicate our mission was about to get a lot more dangerous. When none came, I gave an audible sigh.
"As you were," I whispered, just loud enough so my comrades could hear me. Releasing my hold on the knife, I grabbed my light and shined it on the one who'd dropped the book. "Jarvis, be more careful."
"Sorry, LT," he whispered back, and before I removed my light from him I watched him take a firm hold of the heavy book so it wouldn't slip from his fingers.
We'd been searching through Harvard's library for over an hour now, and with almost every shelf scanned we still hadn't found what we were looking for: a book, any book for that matter, that was extremely detailed about the human brain. Not just the different parts and what they were for, but also chemicals, hormones, and affects on the rest of the body – the kind of book that would give a first time reader enough knowledge to be a brain surgeon. There were plenty of biology textbooks about human anatomy, but none I'd seen yet that were specific enough. Nor did it help that a good number of the books had been thrown about and strewn all over the floor in a former chaos. The lack of vision and the layer of dust that reflected my red light back at me made it hard to scan the dropped titles quickly and accurately, and the disorder made searching troublesome.
"Genevieve." There was a quiet whisper behind me as I continued to scan the shelves. The familiar voice belonged to Blake McMahan. "How you doing over here?"
"Well," I started and turned to face him, my flashlight turning his short blonde hair a dark pink and shining back at me in his hazel eyes. At six-foot-three he loomed over me, and I'm sure his broad shoulders and hugely muscular body made him look at least three times my size. "I never got to finish high school, so I don't really know what the hell we're looking for."
His shoulders shook as he let out short huffs of breath in the quietest laugh he could manage. "No shit. I barely know the biology books from the psychology books."
Blake was a year older than me, but he was just a junior in high school when the world fell apart. A lot of us who didn't go from student to dead overnight went from student to soldier, and education had taken a back seat to survival for the last six years. I couldn't say I'd minded, seeing as I never liked school much anyway.
As he answered, I felt the tug of nature calling, so I waved for him to follow me as I started in the likely direction the bathrooms would be in. "Captain Greely needs to let us bring the Doc, instead of sending us out on these pointless searches bringing back books that don't help." Were I talking to anyone else, I wouldn't be expressing such disapproval with the Captain. But McMahan was like a brother to me, and as long as I followed the Captain's orders, he would too, no matter how much I disliked them.
Six years ago, before all of this started, I would have laughed in somebody's face if they told me I'd be listening to some old veteran like he was my own father. If they told me that that same veteran would trust me so much he'd put other soldiers' lives in my hands. If they told me that my new best friend would be an M4. The joke wouldn't have been too funny though, because now I slept with that M4 laid snug across my chest every night. With that twelve-inch, double-edged hunting knife still strapped to my thigh.
Blake and I turned slowly down a short hall at the end of the long building, and with a sweep of my flashlight I sighted the door with the circular blue 'women' sign on it. It didn't matter to anyone nowadays which restroom I went in, but I didn't mind maintaining certain formalities every once in a while. When we reached the door I pushed it open just a hair and pulled the knife out of its sheath, careful not to make a sound. With my ear pressed against the opening I held my breath, listening for the slightest noise coming from the other side. Usually it would be the deep, steady breath of a sleeping Feral that would let us know we weren't alone. Sometimes there'd even be the slow shift or footstep of one roused from slumber.
Now, however, my ear reported silence. With my knife in one hand and my flashlight in the other, I pushed the door all the way open, scanning the bathroom and stalls with Blake at my side. Finding the area empty I set my backpack down and made my way into one of the stalls, leaving it wide open so I could make a quick comeback in case we fell suddenly under attack. McMahan wouldn't mind. He'd stay where he couldn't see anyway.
"So," I started, just to make conversation while I took care of business. "Casey, huh?"
I couldn't help teasing him about the newcomer who seemed to have already developed a crush on him. A quarter of our settlement's soldiers were constantly out looking for other survivors, but these days it was getting rare to find people who needed somewhere to call home. There were three types of people left. The normal folks like us and most other survivors, who formed groups with close companions, usually family or friends from before. The foragers, who preferred to go it alone because they thought it was less conspicuous and therefore safer. They survived by scavenging, and trading the goods they found with groups for things they needed.
Then there were raiders, though most groups of raiders had their own names for themselves. They were dangerous, all of them. They took what they needed, or simply wanted, and killed anyone who got in the way. I suppose the only good thing about the raiders was that a lot of them went after Ferals with guns blazing, making life easier for the rest of us. But even then they were loud, creating a raucous everywhere they went, and if you were near enough to hear them then you were near enough to get caught in the bloodshed. We weren't here to start wars with the uninfected, so whenever we could, we avoided them. Fortunately, that worked out for us most the time, because we traveled in a big enough group that they rarely wanted to engage in a firefight.
Blake chuckled, and there was a pause as I heard a metallic click, followed by a deep inhale. I'd learned over the years it was true what they always said, about your other senses being more alert in the dark. It was so true that as Blake inhaled I could hear the soft crackling of hot embers, and I knew he'd lit a cigarette. "She's cute," he said slowly, almost as a question, like he was avoiding the topic.
As I came out of the stall I was still buttoning my jeans. "Cross your fingers," I told him, reaching for the handle on the sink faucet. He made a show of crossing his fingers as I gave it a twist, and a huge grin spread over my face as water poured into the basin. I'd turned the handle with a red 'h' on it, and even though the water didn't come out hot, it wasn't freezing, courtesy of warmish summer nights in Boston. "What's the matter? She's not your type?" I asked him, and then added, "Shine your light over here, will ya?"
It had been ages since I'd looked in a mirror, and as he directed the light over, I almost wished I hadn't. With grooming having taken a back seat to, well, almost everything, my black hair went from wavy to downright frazzled, like it hadn't been brushed in months. At least I kept it cut short, the tips barely reaching my shoulders. And there was so much dirt on my face my normally fair complexion looked murky. Really, I was a muddled mess, and the dirt speckled the smooth skin of my thin cheeks in such a way it almost looked like I had freckles.
"No, she is my type. I just don't want a girl." I'd begun splashing water over my face to clean off the grime, but when he paused at that I passed him a teasingly suspicious look. "Shut up," he laughed, catching the gay joke behind my glance. His face was illuminated in a reddish glow as he puffed on the cigarette. "I don't need to be out on missions worrying about the girl back home worrying about me. You're enough of a worry for me already."
"I can take care of myself." The glare I gave was half serious. I knew that he knew I could take care of myself, but I didn't want him to start doubting it.
I wiped the water off of my now clean face and shook it from my hands. My skin looked better, but now I could tell exactly how much sleep I wasn't getting. My eyes were usually such a soft, light brown that they were almost golden, but in the dim of the flashlight they looked dark and sullen. So did the bags beneath them, which were exaggerated by the heavy shadows in the room. I couldn't wait to be back at camp where I could finally catch up on much needed rest.
At least my clothes were in okay condition. Which was good, considering they were about the only set I had aside from the light sweater in my backpack and the winter coat back at camp. My dark brown tank top had faded to a leathery beige, and the edges along the neckline and waist were only slightly frayed. My dark blue jeans had held their color nicely, though they too had incurred a small tear over my left knee. The shirt and my jeans hugged every inch of my skin and nonexistent curves tight, which I preferred since I didn't have to worry about baggy clothes getting caught on things if I needed to run from something, or someone. Though I wouldn't mind an extra pair of clothes, I wouldn't trade my tan combat boots for anything. The soft leather was worn and pliable, and the durable sole was molded so perfectly to my foot that sometimes it didn't feel like I was wearing shoes at all.
"Sure you can, pipsqueak," Blake teased, letting go of the cigarette when I reached for it.
I rolled my eyes, and after taking a breath of smoke and handing it back to him I grabbed my backpack. By now I was accustomed to people taking jabs at my size. It wasn't so much my lack of height, which at five-foot-five was pretty average. It was more about my lack of brawn. I was thin and, quite frankly, frail looking. It probably didn't help that my clothes were snug and food rations were tight, neither adding much bulk at all to my frame. Even so, people learned quickly not to mistake my weight for a weakness. The Captain had taught me early on how to handle myself, and what I lacked in strength I made up for in marksmanship. Put a gun in my hand and I'd shut anyone up real quick.
McMahan followed me back out to the main part of the library. Some of the guys were still looking through the shelves, and the rest of them were huddled near one of the few wood tables that hadn't been overturned, whispering sportily to each other. Instead of making my way over to them I strolled quietly to the librarian's counter to search for anything useful. There wasn't much in the drawers beside pencils, staplers and paperwork. The same went for the mess that littered the countertop. I did find a box of Mickey Mouse bandages, and with a smile put them inside my backpack. One of the hardest things about an apocalypse was keeping morale high, and I knew the kids would love those little bandages. Who can't smile when there are happy kids around?
I'd almost given up on searching for anything else that might be of use when at the far end of the counter I spotted a lonely cupboard. My eyebrow raised curiously as my made my way over to it, and when I opened it, I fought to hold back a grin. Blake craned his neck over the counter to see what had caused my reaction, and he laughed and shook his head as I discreetly put the bottle of brandy into my backpack.
"You know how much trouble you're going to be in when the Cap finds out Mr. Putnam's been getting all that alcohol from you?" he asked, his face a mixture of amusement and disapproval. Alcohol was allowed back at camp, but because we were camped in the middle of a forest and didn't want people stumbling off into the wilderness, it was monitored carefully and only given in small increments at mealtimes.
"Hey, we're allowed to trade goods and services with each other," I chuckled, giving a shrug that let him know I wasn't worried about it. "Old man Putnam is the best weapons expert at the camp. Why do you think this thing looks so pretty and handles like a dream?" I pointed to the rifle over my shoulder, and then joked, "Besides, he's a quiet drunk."
"Whatever helps you sleep at night LT," Blake teased.
He only called me 'LT' when he was messing with me, but he was the only one who got away with taking digs at my 'rank'. When the Cap first assigned me as the lieutenant in charge of twenty other soldiers, those soldiers didn't take it too well. Mostly because I was one of the few who wasn't military before everything fell apart. Also, it was because of my age. I was just fifteen when it all started. I was lucky the Captain took me under his wing after I lost my family, and three years after he did he decided he trusted my decision making enough to put me in charge of the first platoon.
When he first gave me the title, I didn't know enough about military life to even know what a platoon was. Needless to say, I didn't get much of a response when I tried to give orders. The Cap had told me to 'whip 'em into shape and show 'em who's boss'. Based on his advice, at the beginning I'm pretty sure all my soldiers thought I was just some dumb bitch. Even after three years of leading the group, I was still learning things I wasn't aware I should know in the first place. But they'd learned that for every decision I made, their safety was the most important thing to me. So for that, they trusted me, even if some of them still thought I was a bitch.
Before I could respond to Blake's jest, there was a collection of flickering blue lights in the corner of my eye, coming from the direction of the entrance to the building. That flickering of lights was how we recognized friendlies in all the pitch-black silence. Because if we went around sneaking up on each other it would only get a good number of us killed. And we always used red or blue. I was told it's because those colors didn't mess up that our eyes were already adjusted for night vision. I'd never tested it to see if it was true or not, but there was no need to test it when I never found a problem with it.
The people coming in the entrance was Bravo squad, the other half of my twenty soldiers, returning from the hospital across the river. As the ten lights flickered off and they filtered into the library, Blake looked at me for instruction. I nodded my head toward the new arrivals, prompting him to go get information. I think the technical word for it was debriefing, but I tried to avoid giving those kinds of orders out loud just in case I got the lingo wrong.
"Oh, hey," I whispered quickly to stop McMahan before he got too far. He paused, and in the moonlit darkness I could see him turn back to face me. "Find out if the rest of Alpha found anything useful too."
After what faintly looked like a nod, I saw him turn and head off. Now that I was alone, or felt more alone in the darkness, I was beginning to feel as tired as I looked. I fell back into the cushiony chair behind me, folding my arms across the top of the counter and resting my head on top of them. The Ferals were active during the day, which meant if we wanted to survive on these missions we had to do all of our traveling at night. During the day we hid somewhere, resting until it was safe to move again. I'd never been the kind of person who could fall asleep easily unless I was somewhere intimate and comfortable, and the fact that we hunkered down when the sun was blazing didn't help either. It was always too bright.
Right now I was so tired that I'd almost dozed into an alert half-sleep, until there was a clunk of someone settling down on the counter next to me. "Ma'am." I could hear the grin in the greeting even before I picked my head up.
I plastered on a smile and returned the salutation. "Kellan."
Kellan Wieczorek. Everyone just called him Kellan because his last name was so hard to pronounce. I still wasn't even sure I knew how to spell it correctly. He was the definition of tall, dark, and handsome. Six foot, medium-length black hair that curled at the edges like those perfect Roman statues. He was built like one of those statues too, with a smooth jawline and lean muscle that rippled beneath his shirt. To top it all off he had the most gorgeous green eyes I'd ever seen. Believe it or not, he had the biggest crush on me. If it wasn't clear because he tried hitting on me any time we shirked the formalities of rank back at camp, it was obvious in the way he leered at me.
He was a good seven years older than I, but when he flashed that perfect, goofy grin it was young and playful, almost enough to make me forget about the age difference. So what's the problem? Why didn't I settle down or at least sleep with the man? Because he was far from modest about his conquests around the camp, and with nearly a hundred and twenty females alone, he had a decent pool to fish from. The way I caught him looking at me sometimes told me I'd only be another conquest, only another piece of meat to spoil and toss away, and just thinking about it made me feel dirty. It was a shame too, because he was quite a looker. Unfortunately for both of us, my self-respect hadn't died with the rest of the world.
"You look tired," he mused from his seat on top of the counter, ruffling his dirtied hair with a hand so it didn't look quite so grungy.
"I could think of safer places to be than Boston," I offered as an explanation for why I couldn't sleep. Before the epidemic, big cities meant more people and more excitement. Now they just meant more Ferals and more danger. Until we were back at camp I wouldn't be able to fully relax. Even if I managed to doze off, my senses remained alert for threats, meaning I didn't really get adequate rest.
Kellan nodded understandingly, and then leaned back over the counter and extended a hand to my shoulder. "You want a massage or something?"
The second he touched me I reclined back in the chair, as far as I could with the bag and rifle at my back, taking myself out of his arm's reach. "I'm good, thanks."
He gave a smug grin, only visible because he was close enough that I could make it out in what moonlight shone through the large skylights in the ceiling. Did I think he had real feelings for me? No. Aside from a physical attraction, I think he just enjoyed the challenge. That flirty curve in his lips confirmed repeatedly that it was all a game. Hey, at least I was winning.
Before Kellan could come up with some coy comment, Blake returned, and he stood silently at the edge of the counter until Kellan lumbered away. "The rest of ours found a couple books they think might work for the Doc." He started his report in a quiet whisper, leaning forward so I could hear him. "Bravo scavenged what they could from the hospital, but they only found a few supplies. There was a clan of Ferals near the pharmacy. Said one squad could take care of it if you wanted to hit it for meds."
I sat there for a moment, taking in what he'd said. So far this assignment hadn't yielded anything of importance, and I hated making any travels longer than two days for nothing. I also knew for a fact that the camp was running low on things like antibiotics, and insulin for the one or two diabetics. Getting those things, however, meant a fight. I grabbed my flashlight from the clip on my belt loop, shining it at the silver windup watch on my wrist to check the time. Ten minutes until three, which meant we had a little over two hours until sunrise. Two hours to get over to the hospital, get the supplies we needed, and find somewhere to hide.
I gave a deep sigh, running the options through my mind. Then I whistled two short hoots, the first one high and the second low, the signal that I wanted someone's attention. It was quiet enough not to give us away but loud enough they could all hear me. "Powers," I whispered loudly.
There was a shuffling through the dark as Powers, Bravo's leader, found his way to Blake and I. "Ma'am?" he asked expectantly when he got to the counter.
"You guys scout roof access from the hospital?" I asked quietly.
Rooftops were our hiding place of choice when we were away from camp. Normally I'd have thought it was crazy. Trapping yourself at the top of a building with only one way down while the Ferals roamed the earth beneath you. Hell, in high school I used to yell at the television whenever I'd watch scary movies and the characters would run upstairs to escape the killer. As crazy as it was, it was perfect. It wasn't that the Ferals couldn't climb or walk up stairs. They very well could. During the day they went looking for food. They might be stupid sons of bitches, but they had mind enough to know there was nothing to eat on rooftops. If we could get in quietly enough, they'd never even know we were there.
"Yes ma'am," he answered quickly. Powers was military before the breakout, and he definitely knew what he was doing. Sometimes, though, I preferred delegating to the nonmilitary. I got squeamish being called 'ma'am' all the time, like I was somebody's grandmother. Somebody's twenty-one year old grandmother... Gross. It was even worse when they called me sir. I didn't mind LT too much though. It felt more like a nickname. "The hall was clear when we passed through."
"How many at the pharmacy?"
"Twelve," he told me, and after a short pause added, "Scattered."
"Thanks." That was all I needed to know from him, and with a nod at my dismissal he strode back to where he was before I called him.
"Twelve Ferals ain't bad," Blake whispered, his voice taking on urgency as our time was ticking away. "And they'll be sound asleep for another two hours at least."
"It's not ideal either," I told him thoughtfully. I didn't like taking risks, and would have been much more comfortable if we weren't going to be in such a confined space. "But if we wait until to tomorrow then we'll have to send Bravo back for another recon, and it's a whole night's walk just to get back to the vehicles." He nodded, and I knew we both mentally added to the list how we'd run out of food yesterday. As much as we hated it, food was heavy and bulky. If starving for a couple days meant not being weighed down when we had to run, it was worth it.
"Do we have to raid the pharmacy?" His voice sounded so hopeful it made me seriously reconsider.
But I shook the doubts away. "Doc was complaining that they were running low on supplies last month. If we come back with nothing, Cap is sending us right back out."
He nodded again, and then leaned forward with his elbows over the counter. "Twenty-one soldiers are a bit much though, don't you think? We draw too much attention in that enclosed space and we won't have a cavalry to call in."
"What are you thinking? Keep one from Bravo and send the rest to scout the rooftop?" I squinted through the dark, wishing I could read his face to get a better idea of what was going through his mind.
Blake just mhm-ed. "Yeah, that way we got a straight getaway to the roof."
"Okay," I agreed, glad I had him to bounce ideas off of. I don't know if I would have survived this long without him. I flicked my light over my watch one more time. Two minutes until three. I gave a long, high-pitched whistle to signal a meeting, and waited while everyone gathered near the counter. I didn't bother standing up from the chair to talk to them. They couldn't really see me anyway. "We're going back to the hospital." I heard a soft groan or two when I paused. Couldn't say I blamed them. "Alpha squad, we got the pharmacy. Hit and run, we get in and we get out. Quick and quiet. Hatfield," I paused again to address the one other girl in our platoon. "You're coming with Alpha to dispatch the Ferals. Powers, I want you to take the rest of Bravo and make sure we have a clear path to the roof."
I could see the faint outline of heads bobbing up and down in understanding. "I don't want to hear a single gunshot in that building, got it?" More nodding. "Questions?" Because we were running out of time, I was glad that no one spoke up with a question. "Let's move."
As I finally stood I clicked on my light, turning the lens from red to blue. From what I gathered, we also used blue when we wanted our beams to blend with the moonlight. Red was for when we didn't want to be seen from afar, I guess. That's what one of my soldiers told me anyway – that red light doesn't travel as far as blue or white. He said it was a physics thing. I never quite reached physics in school.
I led the way to the entrance of the library, the footsteps behind me soft but comforting. At the door I poked my head out, closing my eyes and straining my ears for the sound of any nearby disturbance. It was eerily quiet except for the wind, which howled around the corners of the building and only made it more frightening. I could never be sure if it was the dark that scared me or just the thought of what I knew was lurking in every obscure corner, but in my growing discomfort I shifted my flashlight to my left hand, and used my right to unsheathe my hunting knife. That in hand I opened my eyes, scanning the moonlit outlines for any movement other than the quivering of plants in the breeze.
As I took my first, silent step out of the library I took a deep breath through my nose, utilizing every sense I could to aid my reduced vision. The stench that met my nostrils only succeeded in reminding me of another reason I hated the city. It reeked of death and decay. After six years the visual evidence of death was long gone, but the smell remained. Like it had soaked into the concrete and into the very foundations of the district, only to seep from the cracks in the sidewalk. To flow from the leaves of the increasingly untamed shrubs and trees, which had soaked it into their roots to thrive. To serve as a constant reminder of everything we'd lost, and in case we grew too comfortable, to remind us that we could be next.
A shiver traveled up my spine, so with another deep breath as I tried to calm my nerves, I led the group left and away from the library. It was strange, walking on a college campus and knowing that there was probably nobody left, and that nobody would ever learn here again. The branches of the trees that lined either side of the narrow road had grown lengthwise above us, creating a thick canopy and shutting out the glow of the moon. Even though the blue lens of my flashlight blended well into the night, I refused to shine the beam back and forth lest the movement caught a Feral's eye. Instead I kept it on the ground in front of me, illuminating a few feet ahead so I wouldn't trip on anything.
When we reached an intersecting road we veered right, and hardly five hundred feet later we were crossing the bridge. It was almost peaceful, the lapping sound of the water against the riverbanks and the reflection of the sky dancing over the surface. There were a few scattered cars on the short bridge, and I ducked behind each one for cover with Blake at my side, advancing only when I was sure the path ahead was devoid of life. All of the cars had been sitting there so long that the flat tires had cracked and dried, and began to blend with the asphalt. As I approached the last car at the very end of the bridge I slowed. The door was open, and while I'd never known a Feral to hunker down in vehicle, it didn't hurt to be prepared.
My grip tightened on the knife in my hand, and I crouched behind the tail end. When I heard every footstep stop behind me, I pitched myself toward the open door, shining my light inside, prepared to stab at whatever lay inside. It was empty, and satisfied that we could continue, I started forward off the bridge. From what I gathered on the map, it was only about a mile further to get to the hospital, a forty-five minute walk when moving as cautiously as we were.
More cars and trucks littered the street, which we used for cover as we followed the road along the side of the river. I could see the outline of a large building coming up in the distance, and in my excitement at almost being done for the night, I felt my pace pick up. As I left my spot behind the bed of a truck to zigzag to the next vehicle there was a throaty growl, the clunk of something hitting a car, and then a grainy skid. I pushed Blake back behind the truck and dove behind it myself just as a pair of Ferals fell into the road, and I resisted the strong urge to bolt in the opposite direction. Six years fighting these things, and the flight instinct never dwindled.
I peeked around the tail end of the truck just enough to catch a glimpse. Every time I saw one, I didn't want to believe they used to be like any of us. One of the Ferals was completely unclothed, whatever attire it had been wearing before becoming infected had since worn out and fell away. It looked like the other had on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, both holey and frayed and thinned beyond recognition. In what little moonlight lit the pair, you could tell by looking at the naked one that they were thin and bony.
One thing I was more and more sure of with every encounter, Ferals were no longer human. They were vile, vicious animals. Back before there were hardly any of us left, there was a theory going around about what caused the outbreak: it was a parasite that spread only through saliva. The government had been working on some kind of weapon, and something about the parasite destroyed the complex parts of the human brain. Killed everything that made us empathetic or civilized, and turned us into savage, territorial creatures incapable of logic or rationalization, incapable even of speech. When Ferals caught a glimpse of an uninfected, it attacked for two reasons: it was protecting its territory, and it was hunting a meal where meals were scarce. Either way, even if you had the man or gun power to defend yourself, it was best not to be seen at all.
The gaunt figures ahead of us were making a racket, letting out barely human yowls as they clawed and snapped at each other. They were fighting over something, though I couldn't begin to venture what. If they kept it up, one would undoubtedly kill the other, but before that, they'd draw attention. It was likely any Feral in the vicinity had already heard the noise, and with us crouched down nearby, that was the last thing we needed. The noise hadn't brought any other Ferals out yet, but I had to do something before we got caught by more than we could handle.
Knife still in hand, I checked to make sure none of my soldiers were visible, then I brought the butt end of it hard against the side of the truck. The metallic thud rang through the night, and as both Ferals stopped their scuffle, and both of their heads shot in my direction, I pulled back behind the cover of the truck. It was dead silent for a second, and with the slap of bare feet headed our direction the fear really started kicking in. Before I had time to chicken out, I put my flashlight back onto my belt and pushed Blake toward the side of the truck, the opposite side the Ferals were coming up on.
He already knew what I wanted, and with his own knife held secure in his hand he started to wrap around to the front of the truck. The patter of feet got closer, and once it went by us on the opposite side of our cover we circled all the way to the front end. I took a deep breath, preparing myself for the worst. Then the footsteps stopped, and I could picture the Ferals standing there, knowing they'd heard something from this exact spot but not knowing what it was. Before they had time to do much searching, Blake and I rushed out of our spot so swiftly and silently I could almost hear the whoosh of our knives in the air.
Like the Captain had trained me to do, I wrapped my left arm around the Feral's eyes to keep it away from its mouth, and then brought my knife through its neck as deep as I possibly could, that way it couldn't scream. Blake completed the same motion I did, though he didn't have to jump to reach its head like I needed to. It took a few seconds for both of the lifeless bodies to collapse, and once they did we stood there for a quiet minute. It sounded like we'd shut the Ferals up quick enough that no other ones were wandering around yet. When I was satisfied we were safe I clicked my light back on and waved it forward and back through the air, motioning to the others to keep moving.
I led the rest of the way to the hospital at a brisk pace, moving from cover to cover hastily. It was no longer excitement at seeing the building in the distance that made me hurry. It was the pair Blake and I had dispatched. The Ferals were already stirring from sleep, probably because of the painful scarcity of food. I knew even I would have a hard time sleeping, the way my stomach was cramping with hunger, I couldn't image how little the infected were finding to eat.
Luckily, we reached the hospital without another sighting, and I snuck toward the entrance of the large building. I could hear Blake's footsteps close behind me as we crept near the walls. When we got to the main doors at the lobby I took a step forward, ready to push them apart, when both doors went sliding open. The electronic whir and swoosh was so unexpected I gasped and jumped back, thankful I'd never been a screamer when frightened. As far as I knew, electricity everywhere had failed not long after the outbreak, and it had been almost six years since I'd seen anything electric without using a generator. Whatever power plant or back up system was powering the hospital had to be the last working one in the country.
Even worse than the hammering of my heart from the doors – the lights inside were automatic, and the second the doors whooshed open the interior lit up, bright white light flowing into the dark night. Powers hadn't mentioned any of this during debriefing.
Blake was still chuckling quietly at my reaction, and now that it wasn't so dark outside, he could see it when I glared at him. "Get me Powers," I told him, and he turned to the soldier directly behind him.
There was a quiet murmuring down the line, and eventually Powers had made his way up to me. "Ma'am?"
"What the hell?" I whispered angrily, motioning toward the illuminated building.
"We went in through the back," Powers said, "Didn't make it all the way to the lobby." Then he leaned over and pointed to a darkened window inside, at the very back of the lobby. "That's the pharmacy. Lights weren't automatic anywhere else." I followed the direction of his finger to a hallway near the darkened window of the pharmacy. "Second we reached that hallway we saw the Ferals outside the pharmacy and turned back, but there's a stairwell right in there."
I studied the inside for a minute, considering his words. Alpha squad didn't have time to go all the way to the back of the enormous building, just to come back through the inside to where we practically were now. There was close to an hour before sunrise, if the Ferals were even still sleeping to begin with. I also couldn't leave Bravo out here or in the light of the lobby like sitting ducks, waiting for us to dispatch the Ferals by the pharmacy so we could all go up the stairwell to the roof together. It was too late for that.
I sighed a leaned my back against the wall. "Take Bravo around back, the way you went the first time, and head to the roof," I instructed Powers, "We'll meet you guys up there. Make sure Hatfield stays."
In the faint light that filtered out of the building, I could see Powers hesitate. He knew as well as I did that if we separated right now, Bravo squad wouldn't be near enough to have our backs if something went wrong. But I wasn't risking the whole platoon for a couple meds. After a few seconds of studying me unsurely, Powers nodded and hurried back down the line to gather his group.
"Blake," I started, turning toward McMahan. "If the Ferals are still sleeping, we surround them, and wait for my order to strike. If they're awake…" I stopped because I didn't want to think that they could already be waking. If that were the case, we'd have to go in for unconcealed hand to hand.
Blake nodded before I finished, already knowing what I was thinking, and started to whisper the order down the line. I waited until Bravo squad had disappeared around the corner, and then took one last look into the lobby, jumping once more when the doors, which had closed, slid open again. The two-story entranceway was completely lifeless, and our footsteps echoed off the high, empty area. For some reason, the silence was creepier in the light. I was used to the chatter and laughter back at camp during the day, and the fact that this bright place was dead quiet was frightening.
I didn't bother clicking off my flashlight as we made our way carefully toward the dark hallway, which would lead to the pharmacy. Though, I was slightly aggravated at the burning the illumination of the building caused in my eyes. Night vision was crucial, and now we'd have to go into the pharmacy partially blind until we readjusted. Reaching the start of the closed-off hallway, I set my hand on the doorknob and pushed on it, and then I pulled the door open inch by inch, praying the hinges wouldn't squeak. When I had it all the way open I tiptoed in, closely followed by Blake.
The hallway branched off in two directions. To our right was the longest stretch of it, and I could see a door-less area not far down, which must be the pharmacy. Straight ahead was the shorter stretch, and Powers was right, there was a stairwell just a few feet ahead, next to some elevators that I'm sure would work if we tried. I veered right, taking my time in the newly dimmed area and giving myself occasion to see again. I risked shining my light ahead, looking out for any Ferals making their way down the narrow corridor.
I had my back against the wall, facing away from the lobby, and the moment we neared the pharmacy I could smell them. It was the wretched stench of crammed together bodies that hadn't been bathed in years, along with the decaying scent of something they must have feasted on. My stomached lurched with disgust at the smell, and I stopped at the edge of the wall, knowing I could peer around it and catch a glimpse of the Ferals.
I held my breath, straining my ears for the sound of any shuffling, listening to see if they were awake or not. When no sound but raspy wheezing came, I poked my head around the corner and lifted my light around the open area in front of the pharmacy. The dark blue beam of my flashlight hit something reflective. A pair of open eyes. Instinctively I drew back behind the wall, tensing my fingers around my hunting knife to comfort the wildly unnerved beat of my heart. I expected that I'd been seen, and waited for some kind of holler before being charged.
Nothing. Not even the scuttle of footsteps heading our way. It took a minute before I calmed enough to venture another look. The pair of eyes was gone, and I was comforted to find each of the Ferals were fast asleep. I thought I could make out the dismembered and decaying skeleton of a cat in the corner, the source of the second unpalatable smell.
This was it. I started forward into the den. I knew my comrades were behind me, even though we were all being so guardedly silent that I couldn't hear them. The Ferals were a scattered heap of stinking bodies, breathing heavily throughout the small area. Some huddled together, some retired on their own a few feet from the others. I slunk around the edges of the clan, body tense and ready should one of them suddenly wake up. Thankfully, Powers had counted correctly, and there was one of us for each of our opposition. I moved around until I was at the far side of the pharmacy's foyer, standing directly above a Feral.
I kept a close eye on the mangled female beneath me, with my peripherals watching until a blue light illuminated each Feral, until we were set in position to ambush and destroy. My heart was beating so torturously fast I was sure everyone in the room could hear it. Never before had we needed to compromise ourselves like this in such a tight space, and the stimulating flow of adrenaline had me itching to finish it. Shortly, it appeared that each of my soldiers was in position, so I took my eyes off the Feral to glance up and make sure.
Each of them was tensed with a knife in their hand, ready for the assault. I glanced back down to pick the spot I'd thrust my knife, and there they were. Another pair of glowing eyes, looking straight up at me. The second the Feral's eyes met mine my heart dropped with terror. It's like the creature didn't recognize me until we locked gazes, but once it did it mobilized. It let out a long, blood-curdling scream, so full of fury and animosity I felt my veins ice over.
"Now!" I shouted over the wailing and before any of the other Ferals could react.
The one beneath me had already began to scramble up, so I made a jab at its midsection with my knife, trying not to get my arm anywhere it could bite at me with its mouth. I only managed to swipe across its lower stomach, and as it stood it let out another furious yell, and its hands extended toward me. I ducked out of the way as it lunged, and the moment I heard it hit the wall I turned and pinned it from behind. I could barely keep it in place because it was frenziedly pushing back against the wall and struggling to break from my hold. Before it could escape I plunged my knife deep into its back.
It threw its head back and howled in pain, putting me in the perfect position to get my arm around its neck. I grabbed it from behind and pulled it away from the wall, exposing its front where I drove my knife into its chest to put it out of its misery. I tossed the lifeless body aside and took frantic breaths to calm me down. Everything was quiet behind me, and when I turned I counted my soldiers, hands on my knees while I continued to gasp past the horrified pulsing in my chest.
"Everyone good?" I asked, lifting my light to each of my companions. A few of them whispered 'yeah', the rest nodded. "McMahan, Garcia, Hunt and Lee, give your packs to someone and stand guard out here. The rest of you, fit as many meds and supplies in the bags as you can."
I grabbed Blake's backpack from him and shuffled into the blackened pharmacy behind the rest of my guys. I hopped over the pharmacist's counter and scanned the shelves, picking out the drug names I recognized as ones the Doc had used many times, mostly painkillers and antibiotics. It appeared we weren't the first ones to raid the hospital, because while there were still more supplies than we could carry, it was clear the shelves had been half-emptied. Along with the meds, I grabbed as many bandages and wound-cleaning materials as I could fit.
When everyone was finished loading up we headed back out into the foyer, and then down the hall toward the stairwell. There had to be at least twelve floors to the building, tempting me to see if the elevators really worked or not. Instead, we jogged silently up step by step. We had to be close to the ninth floor when something caused me to stop. In such an enclosed space the smell was overpowering, but I couldn't hear or see where it was coming from. I took a cautious step forward to shine my light up the next bend in the flights of stairs, and the moment I got there something came crashing down at me, jaws wide and ready to take a chunk from my flesh.
I used the Feral's momentum to turn it and push it away from me and into the wall. It barely touched the concrete surface when it ricocheted and leapt again, knocking me onto my back on the stairs. I threw my hands around its neck, trying with all my strength to keep its teeth away as it pushed all its weight down on me, snapping at me. It seemed almost as quick as it had started, it was over. There was a low crack as Blake broke its neck, and I shoved the no longer struggling creature off of me and clambered to my feet.
"Goddammit," I growled, more from shock than anger, and then I gave McMahan a thankful pat on the shoulder.
I picked up my flashlight off the ground and searched around for the knife I'd also dropped, and once I found it I started upwards again. We reached the roof a few flights later, and I took a watchful glance around, looking for Bravo squad, before going all the out. Bravo was huddled near the center, and when I got there I collapsed onto the surface of the roof with a deep sigh.
Blake plopped down next to me, and with a chuckle he rummaged through the backpack I'd thrown off my back. He pulled out my sweater and draped it over my eyes to shield them from the light when the sun came up.
"Thanks," I gave him a grateful smile. Then I folded my hands behind my head and finally took a somewhat-relaxed breath. "Goodnight."