Kilgore sat alone at a metal table in the furthest, darkest corner of the bunker mess hall. The wide, low-ceilinged room was largely empty. Only the occasional noise from the kitchen and the constant, piercing electrical humming of the strip light above his head disturbed the silence.
Spence ambled casually into the hall and fetched himself a tray of food. With only a handful of other people eating there (none of whom he knew well) he walked over towards Kilgore.
“Mind if I sit here?” he asked.
Kilgore jumped with surprise. His heart pounding, he looked up at Spence with dark, tired eyes and shook his head. “Go for it,” he mumbled, quickly looking down into his food again. He played with his fork, stirring the lukewarm, piss-weak stew, pushing lumps of meat-substitute around and making tracks in the gravy but not actually eating anything. Spence sat down on the bench directly opposite.
He’d come across Kilgore on a couple of occasions before they’d been ordered underground. He’d always had a reputation for being a moaner – the kind of person who would instinctively complain and whinge pointlessly and continually about everything he was ordered to do. The kind of person who made the simplest of routine tasks seem like some huge and practically impossible undertaking. An incessant talker and compulsive liar, he wound the officers up and he wound his fellow soldiers up. He wound everyone up.
He was crying.
Spence shuffled awkwardly in his seat and began eating, wishing that he’d chosen another table. The other man’s show of emotion made him feel uncomfortable and uneasy. He hated it when he heard people crying down here. It reminded him of his own sadness and the constant emptiness he felt. The three hundred or so people he’d been buried underground with were, generally, hardened, professional and well-trained soldiers: men and women who’d been conditioned to suppress their emotions and just get on with doing whatever it was they’d been told to do. But that was becoming more difficult with every passing day, almost every hour. The fact that some of them were showing emotion at all indicated just how grave, unpredictable and uncertain their situation had become. And the longer they spent below the surface, the worse it got. No-one seemed to know what they were doing or why. No-one knew what had happened or what was going to happen next. By now they’d all heard about the condition of the infected world above them from the few advance parties which had ventured out and managed to return, and that only served to make their time underground even more difficult. What did the future hold for the millions of people left on the surface, scarred by plague? More importantly, Spence thought, what did the future hold for him and for the rest of them underground?
The tap, tap, tap of metal on plastic disturbed his train of thought. He looked at Kilgore again. His hand was shaking. He could hardly hold his fork still.
“You okay, mate?” he asked.
Kilgore looked up again and shook his head. More tears. He wiped them away on the back of his sleeve.
“No,” he replied quietly.
“Want to talk about it?”
“What’s there to talk about? What good’s it going to do? What good’s any of this going to do? We’re stuck down here, you know. I tell you, mate, there’s no fucking way we’re getting out of here.”
“Why d’you say that?”
Kilgore dropped his fork into the middle of his plate and took a swig from a mug of cold coffee. He leant back in his chair and ran his fingers through his wiry hair. For the briefest of moments he made eye contact with Spence before his emotions overcame him again and he looked away. Eventually he cleared his throat, composed enough to try and talk.
“You been up there yet?” he asked, looking up at the low ceiling above their heads.
“No, thank God,” Spence answered quickly.
“It was my first time outside today,” Kilgore explained. “I was shitting myself. I’ve never seen anything like it. I tell you, you can’t even begin to imagine what’s going on up there until you see what’s happened to...” He stopped, took another deep breath and tried again. “Fucking hell, I can’t even...”
“Take your time, man,” Spence said quietly, figuring he needed to know what Kilgore had seen. Kilgore closed his eyes and tried to compose himself.
“Sarge says we’re going above ground. He tells us we’re going on a walkabout looking for survivors in Ansall. You know Ansall? Little town just outside Hemmington? Anyway, we’re ready and outside in minutes, before we’ve even had chance to think about it. I put the mask on and I’m standing there in the suit and that’s when it first hits me. I’m standing there thinking about what I’ve heard it’s like. I start thinking Christ, get a fucking hole in this suit while we’re outside and I’m dead. I’m thinking, catch the suit on a nail or a door handle or whatever and I’ve fucking had it. We’re all feeling it. No one says a bloody word. Then Sarge gives the nod. We get into the transport and he gives them the order to open the doors.
“Those bloody doors slide open and Christ, for a minute it looks fucking beautiful out there. You don’t realise how much you miss daylight until you see it again. I tell you, the world never looked so good as it did this afternoon. It’s about one o’clock and it’s beautiful. The sky’s blue, the sun’s burning down and there’s not a fucking cloud in the sky. We roll up to the top of the ramp and for a few seconds everything’s all right. For a couple of seconds it feels good and you start to think everything’s going to be okay. It feels good just to be getting out of this fucking place for a while. Even though we’ve all got our masks on it feels good to see with real, natural daylight for a change and to be able to see trees and grass and hills instead of fucking concrete walls and metal doors.
“I had Smith sitting next to me. You know Smith? The big guy with the crooked nose? Anyway, we start moving away from the base and he suddenly sits up and starts staring out of the window. He’s cursing and pointing and we all crowd around to look at whatever it is he’s seen. And that’s when we saw them. People. I was thinking we should stop and try and help them but then I remembered what I’d heard from the others who’d already been out there. Sarge stops the transport for a second and we watch as they keep coming towards us, all slow and awkward like their legs are numb. I could only see a couple of them at first, but they kept coming. They’re coming out of the trees and from around the side of the entrance door and I counted at least thirty of them before we started moving again. I could see even more in the fields around us. From a distance they looked normal, just slow moving, but when they got closer you could see that they were sick. Fucking hell, they looked like they were rotting. Their skin was all discoloured - grey and green - and on some of them it looked like it was hanging off their bones like it was a few sizes too big. Others looked like bloody skeletons, all shrivelled up and dry. Jesus, you’ve never seen anything like it. Sarge screams at the driver to ignore them and keep moving and she puts her foot down. She drives into a couple of them – there was nothing she could do, they just walked out in front of us. I watched one of them go down. We hit it so hard it virtually snapped in half. Its legs were all fucked up. But then I look behind and watch as it tries to get up again. Fucking thing’s lying there with both its legs smashed to fuck and it’s trying to get up again!
“We just sit there in silence for a fucking age. No one says anything. No one knows what to fucking say, you know? Anyway, we follow the track away from here and we see more and more of them everywhere. Christ knows how they know where to go, but it’s like they’re all moving towards the base. They stop and turn around when they see us and start following. I mean, we’ve got to be doing about thirty or forty miles an hour and these things are following us like they think they’re going to catch us up! We get onto the main road and start heading for Ansall and I’m thinking about what we’re going to find there. I’m thinking fuck, if there are this many people out here in the middle of nowhere, what the hell are we going to find in the town?”
Kilgore paused to finish his drink. Spence said nothing. He just stared into the other soldier’s face. He starting to regret hearing about what Kilgore had seen, but at the same time he had to know.
“The roads were an absolute fucking nightmare,” Kilgore continued. “It was like someone had flicked a switch and everything just stopped. I tell you man, everywhere you looked all you could see were bodies and crashed cars. Christ, I saw some fucking horrible sights out there. Anyway, because we’re on the road now the driver puts her foot down and speeds up. Our truck’s heavy enough to just smash through most of the wreckage. I started getting freaked out by it all, and I could see that it was getting to the others too. It’s the sheer bloody scale of it. Everything’s been wiped out up there, you know, there’s nothing that ain’t been touched. I felt myself starting to panic. It was so bloody hot in the suit, and the truck was like a fucking sun-trap, and all I could think about was the taste of fresh air and all I wanted to do was take off the mask and feel the sun and the wind on my face and... and then it occurs to me that none of us are ever going to feel any of that again. And then I start getting really fucking frightened thinking about whatever’s in the air that’s done all this. I’m thinking about getting my suit ripped again and not knowing about it until it’s too late. I can see Fraser’s face opposite me. His eyes are darting all round the place like a bloody mad man.
“We get to Ansall and I don’t mind telling you I was scared shitless. I’ve never been so fucking frightened. I mean, you’re like me, you’ve seen plenty of service, but I tell you, you ain’t seen nothing like this. Remember last winter when we were stuck in that school in the middle of that fucking gunfight that went on for days? Well this was worse. At least back then we knew who the enemy was and we could shoot back at them.
“It was still bright, but between the buildings the streets were dark and cold. Coming into the shadow from the sun made it difficult to see what was happening. We stopped on the edge of this little market and Sarge tells us to get out and start having a look around. We were supposed to be looking for survivors but all I could see were people in the same state as those we’d seen back here. The first one I saw up close was this little old lady. She’s half-dressed and her tits were hanging out and they’re all cut up but not bleeding. I’m just stood there thinking that this is someone’s mom and that my mom could be like this somewhere, and the rest of my family and probably yours too. And when you start thinking about home you get this urge to just get in a car and try and get back there to find out what’s happened to your folks and your girl and... and you know there’s no point.
“Fraser calls out for help and I look around for him. He’s holding his weapon out in front of him and he’s moving towards this building. It looks like an office or something and I can see there are people trapped inside. They’re stood there banging their hands against the glass, and it looks like it’s a real effort for them to move because they’re sick. The door’s been blocked by a motorbike that’s crashed and gone skidding along the ground. I help Fraser shift it out of the way. We move it and he throws the door open and straightaway the people start pouring out into the open. I only have to see them for a second to know they’re just like all the other poor bastards we’ve seen already. One of them walks straight into me and I look into its face. There’s nothing there. I swear, not a single bloody spark or flicker of emotion. Not a single fucking sign of life. It’s not even breathing. These bloody things are dead but they’re still fucking moving!
“Sarge gets on the loudhailer. He’s shouting the usual crap about how we’ll help them if they cooperate and he’s trying to get them out of the buildings and into the market square. I turn around to look back at the others and, fucking hell, there must have been a couple of hundred of the bloody things getting close to us already. They’re crowding round us and they start reaching out and trying to grab hold of us when they get close enough. I’m thinking about my bloody suit again and I keep pushing them away but they keep coming back for more. Sarge fires a few warning shots into the air but it doesn’t make any difference. Next to me Fraser starts hitting one of them and the fucking thing doesn’t even notice. Every time he hits it he’s doing more and more damage but the damn thing just keeps coming. Its fucking face is falling to pieces but it keeps on coming.
“Every way I turn now I can see more of them. We’re looking at Sarge for some instruction and he’s just looking back at us, as scared and as clueless as we are. I lose sight of him when a couple of them rush me. I lose my footing and before I know it I’m on the ground with them on top of me. There’s no weight to them. All I keep thinking is be careful of the fucking suit, make sure you don’t get cut. I’m punching and kicking out but the bloody things just won’t give up. I manage to get back up and I can see that we’re surrounded. And there are more and more of them coming out of the shadows all the time. I notice that Wheeler’s heading back to the transport and I can see the driver’s already back in her seat getting ready to leave. I’m thinking fuck orders, I’ve gotta get out of here, and I start pushing my way through the crowd.
“Fraser’s the last one back in. He tries to shut the door but gets caught by one of them that manages to grab hold of his leg as he climbs up. I’m watching and I can’t look away and I’m thinking that this can’t be happening. It’s a kid, probably not even fifteen, and its body is so light and empty that it’s hanging off him and Fraser’s just dragging it along. It’s got hold of his boot somehow and he’s using the butt of the rifle to smash its hand away. He pushes it off and tries to shove it back out the door. Wheeler leans out and pulls the door shut but the bloody thing isn’t out. Its head and shoulders are fucking wedged in and Wheeler’s banging and pulling at the door, trying to get it shut. The kid’s got one arm inside the transport and it’s still trying to grab hold of Fraser. He just stands there, lifts up his rifle, and blows a fucking hole in the middle of its face. Wheeler opens the door while we’re driving and kicks what’s left of the body out onto the street.”
Kilgore rubbed his eyes and looked up into the light above him momentarily before dropping his face and letting his head hang down again
“And that, mate,” he mumbled, trying unsuccessfully to light a cigarette with nervous, shaking hands, “is just about all that you, me and everyone else who’s stuck in this fucking place has got to look forward to. We either spend the rest of our time buried in this fucking hole, or we end up stuck out in that bloody mess up there, shrink-wrapped in a fucking plastic suit until whatever it is that’s done all this finally catches up with us.”