The rumble of the engine rose up in waves of high pitched growls, waking the otherwise quiet countryside to their presence. He felt a drop of sweat flow down the back of his neck, the cold moisture bringing him to awareness of his surroundings and the men in his team.
With a quick motion, he put aside the rifle and brought both hands to the back of his head, to undo the tight gas mask on his face. Going through the motions of unfastening the leather belt around the mask, he quickly shot a glance up, at the man across from him in the armoured vehicle.
“What you doing, Jack?” he heard the man’s voice as he felt a breath of fresh air pass through his nostrils the moment he took down the straps and finally slipped the mask off his face.
“Relax Saul, we got the shots, didn’t we, we’re good” he spoke, passing a hand through his hair and then letting his equipment sit by his feet.
“Yeah, we got the shots, that don’t mean we’re not gonna get sick” the man insisted, his heavy breathing sounding muffled through his own mask.
“You’re paranoid, Saul” he smiled, looking through his tactical vest for his lighter. “We’re as healthy as it gets, if we keep taking the treatment we’re not gonna get sick, the masks are just our employers’ way of saying, hey, make sure the infected get the idea.”
“This ain’t a joke, man” Saul punctuated, “I’ve seen what happens when you get sick...it ain’t natural.”
“He’s right” came a voice from their right.
“See, he knows what I mean...”
“I meant Jack” interrupted Ivan.
Both men stopped and stared towards the front. The claustrophobic small space in the back of the armoured vehicle was lit by a single faint red light. The shades of bright red to pitch black were painting the inside as a monochromatic picture of their lives at that moment. Stuck in the back of an airtight container, all they could see was each other and their weapons.
“This whole mask thing” said the man, with his pervasively thick accent, “it’s a joke to wear it all the time.” Unstrapping his mask and taking it off, he looked back at Jack. “But nobody tells you that.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked Saul, shifting his eyes between Ivan and Jack.
“It means that you’re either infected or you’re not” he said, drawing Saul’s attention back to him. “Look, as long as we get our shots regularly and we don’t have direct blood contact with the virus, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“But it gets transmitted through air as well” insisted Saul.
“Only if you are surrounded by sick people. And only if they breathe on you” said Jack, finding the lighter and bringing it out from his vest.
“Well, that’s why you don’t go around making out with infected girls, man” said the man sitting across from Ivan, as he laughed and took off his mask as well, taking in a breath and wiping his forehead of sweat.
“It’s not funny, bro” replied Saul, staring at the man.
“Yeah, Saul, it’s fucking tragic” Jack said coldly, resting his head back in his hands. He tried to close his eyes in order to get as little rest as he could before going in. He always hated going around the camps. Hands clasped tightly around his rifle, breathing in stale air from his mask. But what was worse was the feeling of complete powerlessness. All the men and women stuck in the camps were infected, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. There was no cure, only a treatment to follow in order not to join the ranks of the dead.
They had been trying for eight months now to find a way to reverse the virus but they found absolutely no way to break its hold of its victims. And the saddest part about it was that the people in the camps were not even showing symptoms, they were carriers. All it would take would be one of those carriers to break out of the camps and reach a populated area. And then it would start all over again. Quarantine the sick, wait for them to die, take the ones that were still alive against their will and hold them so the virus would not spread even further.
He had been there when they took the first carriers into the camps, had seen their frightened faces as they were loaded onto trucks, heard their sobs and screams. But what was the use of any of it, the infection spread even with all the precautions. There had to be a solution to contain it, a solution that did not involve enslaving people in camps for the rest of their lives, however short they would be.
The growl of the engine slowed to a crawl and they felt the vehicle stop. Then the voice of the main driver came over the radio, “Hey boys, we’re two clicks from the camp.” The man sounded tired and frustrated. “I would take you all the way but then I’d have to spend the night scrubbing this beast down...” his voice trailed off and then returned again, “You know, us guys need to get some sleep as well.”
“It’s fine, we’ll walk” said Ivan into his microphone and then gestured all of them to move out of the vehicle.
“We’ll be here when you get back” was the operator’s last remark.
Taking their rifles and opening the back hatch, they stepped out one by one, into the cold wind and the black night. Saul checked the chamber of his rifle and switched the safety on and then off, checking to see if it still worked.
“Saul, Malach, take the high ground and check the perimeter” said Ivan, slipping back into his role of commanding officer, “I want to know we’re the only ones here.”
“You got it boss” was Malach’s reply as he placed his mask back on his head and gestured to Saul to follow him in his sprint up the nearest hill.
Jack took the opportunity to get the pack of cigarettes he had been craving for since they started the drive and slowly took one out to place it on the side of his mouth. He brought the lighter up and opened it, a low metallic click brought out the flame. He stared through the flame into the distance, the distortion of the image stopped his eyes on the high walls of the camp. Staring at it for a moment too long, he then lit the end of the cigarette and inhaled.
“You want to offer me one?” asked Ivan, smiling.
“Didn’t know you smoked, sir” was Jack’s puzzled reply.
“I don’t” continued Ivan. He passed him the pack and the lighter and watched him as he lit up his cigarette. The fire in his palms illuminated his face, the bald scalp and the scar across the left side of his temple standing out in the dark.
“You know what I don’t get, sir?” asked Jack, placing the pack back in his pocket and holding the lighter to rotate it between his fingers.
“What’s that Jack?” the man asked, looking into the distance as he let out the smoke from his lungs.
“Why are they sending us in there, why don’t they send the army in?”
“Because” said the man, taking away his cigarette between thumb and forefinger, “if they send the army in and it ends up in a firefight, it will be a political disaster for them.”
“So if we end up in a firefight...” said Jack, getting the hang of the talk about politics.
“We get served up for breakfast and they remain with a clear conscience” said Ivan, “bunch of assholes, if you ask me, they don’t have the guts to go in themselves so they send in hired guns.”
The minimalistic approach to his words simplified their purpose down to who they were. Mercenaries, nothing more. Sure, they referred to themselves as contractors, working as security for the company that erected the camps in the first place, Dyna Corp, but they were nothing more than hired guns.
The reality of the situation sank in every other day for Jack as he looked back on the last year. Countless dead, thousands more in internment camps to keep the virus at bay. He tried not to think about them as individuals, it made it much more painful to realise that families had been broken apart to separate out the infected from the rest of the population.
He moved the lighter slowly in between his fingers as he saw reflections off its metallic surface. Then the sound of footsteps approached from his left.
“Area’s clear, sir” said Malach resting his rifle on his shoulder. Saul followed quickly behind him, rearranging the binoculars to fit them back in a pouch in his vest.
“Good, let’s move” replied Ivan, throwing the cigarette by his feet and walking away, not bothering to extinguish the flame. Jack was almost at the end of his when he followed the example and flicked what was left of the cigarette towards the hillside.
“Check your masks, suits, make sure everything is working, no turning back now” Ivan continued as he slipped on his face the grotesque leather gas mask.
Walking in single file, they saw the approaching walls of the camp, a solid grey concrete structure that must have measured at least a kilometre on each side. The searchlights at the top of the four corner towers moved quickly, scanning the surroundings for anything that might want to escape their searching gaze. Just in time, as they came within their radius, Ivan radioed in their location and their team detail. They received back a cold and unwelcoming reply, as they did at all the camps.
“Why don’t they do these meet and greets themselves? They’re already here, aren’t they?” asked Saul through the radio.
“That’s because they’re paid to keep them in, not to risk infection” said Jack, approaching the large metal doors at the front of the facility. “That’s our lucky job, Saul.”
“Yeah, freaking wonderful” said Malach with his usual dry charisma.
“Keep it down, guys, focus” came Ivan’s voice over the radio. He knew the man was a good leader, he had followed him into war zones even before the infection had rattled whatever was left of the world into a frenzy. And the camp was no different from a war zone, Ivan had told him. You need to keep alert and keep a distance between yourself and the population. One moment of carelessness can land a club over your head and two seconds later you’re exposed to the virus.
The doors opened inwards very slowly with a sound of mechanical actuators moving to pull the two large metal slabs with a determinate purpose. He saw the threshold across the ground, a thick red line that signified only one thing to him, death awaits those stupid enough to do this job. Having crossed half a dozen already in his time with the team, what could one more do to make it any worse?
Stepping over the line, they all braced their rifles against their shoulders, moving forward with trained apprehension. When Ivan finally radioed back the command team in the towers, the doors slammed shut much faster than they took to open. Nice to see such a design feature, thought Jack, shifting his eyes back towards the team and their surroundings. You had to keep a keen eye on everything that moved, Ivan had said, you never know when that shadow that you overlooked would prove to be a guy pushing you into an ambush.
Jack tried to understand their anger and hatred towards the corporation but he could not grasp it fully. After all, the population within the camp was receiving healthy rations and housing. He knew that to be segregated to a prison-like facility would prove too much for some and they would harbour all the rage that they could towards the people that put them there. Why can’t they see we’re protecting the rest of the world from the infection? Why can’t they see we’re not the enemy here?
“Hold!” said Ivan, raising a fist into the air. They all stopped dead in their tracks and moved to form a circle looking around themselves, assessing the thin metal buildings around them. “Up there” pointed Ivan, ahead of them and to their right, as they all turned to see the rising smoke in the distance.
The camp was organised into five districts, each separated by high walls and gates. The first was where the newest structures were located, the best heating and water piping in the whole camp. It was where the population that had connections on the outside were located. They had paid the corporation considerable amounts in order to enjoy the benefits of the newest shipments that came to the camp first. The second, third and fourth districts in most camps were the ones with most numerous population and largest ones. It was where the majority of the people stayed and enjoyed mediocre care and sometimes faulty heating. The fifth district was like a very crowded solitary confinement. It was the area with least care given to its occupants and where the violent members of the carriers were taken after they had assaulted a camp member or the occasional medical visitor from outside.
“Command, this is team alpha six, I am seeing smoke in the distance can you verify that, over?” was Ivan’s question on the radio.
After a brief pause, the voice of a woman came over the radio, “Alpha six, this is command, we can verify that the smoke is coming from a fire started in district five” she said, sounding very certain and as if it was not the first time it was happening. “Can your team secure the perimeter and calm the population down, over?”
“Understood, command, over and out” said Ivan as he clicked off the conversation. “Seems like we came at just the right time.”
“Man, why does it always have to be district five?” Saul sounded both frustrated and defeatist. “Why can’t we just have one visit where some crazy-ass bastards don’t try to cause havoc?”
“Maybe they’re having a barbecue” said Malach, dryly.
“Come on, we knew this was coming, sharpen up” said Ivan, looking at them all through his mask. “We need to break up this party and get out with no casualties, understood?” There was no reason to let him down, they all responded with a very clear affirmative.
Walking down the gravel and sand streets through the first and second district, they noticed at most corners people standing and staring, some were old, others were in their mid-thirties. He saw only one child among them, tugging on the hand of her mother as she was pulled away from the street and into the nearest building. She probably had no idea where she was and what was happening around her. He couldn’t decide if it was lucky for her not to know why she was there or if it was as tragic as it appeared.
The majority of people had no clean clothes as there were no services provided for them to do so, a spartan existence, he thought, to the extreme. For a second, he wondered how it felt like to go on, day after day, not knowing when the cure for the infection would be found. Sitting in those squalid conditions, receiving the minimum necessary in order to make it to the next day. It would drive anyone to try to get out of there.
Reaching the lock gates to the fifth district, they took positions around the door. Calling it in, the locks clicked loudly and the door moved open. What they stepped into was a far cry from the relatively peaceful conditions they left behind. Fires were started on the streets with wood gathered from beds, cupboards and benches. It did not look as if the population was chaotic, on the contrary, there was no population to speak of in the buildings they passed by or on the streets.
In the distance, they heard a loud booming voice, it had a metallic hint to it, as if it was speaking over a megaphone. The fires distracted their attention enough to wander down half the distrct until they pinpointed the source of the voice. Coming to a clearing, they saw a large group, it must have been hundreds of people, standing around a large burning pyre. Before them was a man that spoke through his megaphone, wherever he had managed to procure one from was beyond them.
“Jack” said Ivan, as they all closed in to speak quietly. “I need you on top of one of these buildings. This is not looking good, I need you to have clear shots, you got it?”
“Yes, sir” he replied as his heart rate accelerated, adrenaline pushing its way through his blood.
“Me, Saul and Malach are gonna confront him, we can hopefully resolve this all peacefully, but if we don’t, I need you to be ready.”
“Understood, sir, I’ll be in radio contact.”
He took a street behind the buildings that stood in front of the clearing and found a large empty crate sitting on its side. Placing the rifle sling around him and settling it on his back, he jumped on the side of the crate and pushed with his right foot against the wall to his right. Once on top, he placed one hand on the corner of the building and jumped backwards to push himself up with his legs from the opposite structure. One last jump was all it required to have both his hands on top of the two-storey building and with a final effort, he pulled himself upwards, on the flat roof of the thin metal house below.
Getting into position at the edge of the roof, he saw the crowd gathered into the square. In front of them stood the man shouting at the top of his voice through his megaphone, behind him the blaze of the fire. He looked at him through his rifle scope, he was a man in his early forties, dressed in a black sweater and faded blue jeans. Looking closely at his face, he could see the sweat pouring down the sides of his face, he was exhausted and yet he kept on going.
“Do you know why we’re here?” he heard him say, “We’re not infected! This is all a plan to thin out the world’s population, and we were immune!” The speech was that of a man who was determined to have his voice heard.
“What’s your status, Jack?” said Ivan over the radio.
“I’m in position, sir” he replied and the looked again through his scope.
“They don’t want people to know that their plan won’t work! They keep us here until we’re all dead!”
“Hey” he heard Ivan’s faint shout below in the square. “Come on, time to break this little theatre up.”
“Ah-h, see! They send their dogs to deal with us!” the man said, as all attention shifted to the three man team standing with weapons at the ready. “They come to silence us! They don’t like the truth!”
The crowd began shouting and jeering at the team. They were holding wood panels like torches and waved them menacingly as they started moving slowly towards them.
“Jack, drop him” came Ivan’s command over the radio. “Drop him or we’re all dead.”
“Sir?” he responded back.
“This must have been his plan all along, get us in here and get our guns, this way they can escape. We need to put and end to this now!”
He waited and looked as the crowed converged, moving slowly towards them. His heartbeat was breaking a new speed record as he breathed quickly and felt his palms sweat up inside his gloves.
“Take the shot, Jack!” shouted Saul over the radio.
He assessed the situation. The man was riling people up to attack his team. If he took out the head, the body would fall. They would disperse, he hoped. He took a deep breath and lined up his rifle. Focusing only on the target in front of him, he let out the breath and held the grip firmly. Placing his forefinger on the trigger he checked one last time and pulled it.
The echo of the shot could be heard booming over the top of the crowd. He saw the round go through the man’s chest and into the ground behind him. The body fell. The screams of the people erupted as they looked back at him. Most of them fled in panic towards the streets leading away from the square. Some stayed and charged towards the team. They were either determined or deluded.
Several well placed shots brought the charging few to the ground as quickly as they had begun their maddening run. Jack checked the rest of the people now fleeing to the dilapidated buildings and the streets surrounding them. There was nothing more he could do there, they needed to get out fast. But first he wanted to see the man’s face. He had seen it through his scope, now he wanted to see with his own eyes. What could possibly make the man take the actions that he did?
Jumping down to the crate and then the ground, he dashed to the centre of the square and the body of the man he had just shot. Approaching, he slowed down until he was almost over him. He took his rifle and placed it over his shoulder. Why did you make me do this? You think this is what I wanted to do when I woke up today? His questions remained unanswered.
“Hold your fire!” he heard Ivan shout as he turned back and saw what he was cautioning Saul against. A girl that could not have been more than four years of age was walking slowly towards them.
“Is daddy ok?” she asked with a faint and thin voice.
Shit. “No, honey, stay back” Jack shouted as he ran to keep her away from the sight of the blood.
“Is daddy sleeping? Why is he sitting on the ground?” she said, holding close to her chest a dusty and torn doll.
“No, no, daddy is just...” words escaped him as he came close to her and sat down on his knees to look at her eyes. “Daddy is just...he’s not feeling well, ok, honey?”
“He shouldn’t sleep on the ground, he says it’s bad to sleep on the ground” she continued as he could see fear in her eyes. Then he realised what she saw. A gas mask staring back at her, frightening and destroying whatever was left unbroken in her mind. He reached with both hands to take hold of his mask straps, tearing it off as quickly as he could.
“Jack!” shouted Ivan.
“It’s fine, I’ll be fine, just give me a minute, ok?” he said, turning his head halfway to look at the men behind him. Then he turned to look at the girl.
“Who are you? I’m not supposed to talk to strangers” she said, apprehensively.
“I’m not a stranger, I knew your dad, ok?” he said calmly, trying to smile. He had just shot her father, a lie was not going to make anything worse. “Hey, so, where’s your mommy? Is she around?”
“Daddy said mommy went away” her soft voice replied to him as she grabbed her doll even tighter. “He said she’s looking out for us...” she trailed off and then looked with sad eyes into his, “I miss her...”
“I bet you do...I bet you do, honey, so do you have anybody else to go to?”
“Daddy...” she replied, not understanding the question.
“No, besides daddy, who takes care of you?” he asked, his voice breaking midway as emotion almost overwhelmed him.
“I want to see daddy” she said, as she was close to tears. She pulled the doll close to her and rested her head into it.
“Jack” he heard a voice calling him from behind?
“Look, can you give me a fu...” he shouted and then stopped himself. “Just give me a minute, alright?” His eyes shifted back to her as he saw her gaze searching him, trying to understand who he was. “Hey, do you have a name?”
“Gloria” she said, shyly covering her mouth with the doll.
“Ok Gloria, I’m Jack” he said, extending a hand forward. He almost cried as her soft, fragile grasp shook his hand. “The thing is this Gloria...daddy is going away as well, but here’s the thing...he said I can look out for you.” He got no response out of her but continued nonetheless, “Would you like that? Would you like us to take care of you? I’ll take you away to a hospital, ok? They’ll take care of you.”
“I don’t like hospitals” she said, as she looked down.
“I don’t either, honey, but it’s gonna be good for you, ok?” He looked at her trying to gauge her reaction. She slowly moved her eyes up and stared into his.
“I’m tired” she replied, as she wiped her eyes and held the doll with one hand.
“When we get there you can sleep, ok? It’s all gonna be fine, and we’re gonna see daddy later, ok?” He hated himself for lying to her but he needed to do something.
“Ok” she replied, as she extended a hand forward. He looked at her and sat with tears in his eyes as he took a hold of her hand and smiled.
“I just need to talk to my friends and then we’ll go” he spoke softly as she sat down, on the cold ground. Moving away from her, he came to the group.
“What was that about?” Ivan asked, impatiently.
“Sir, that’s her father over there” he replied, not pointing in order to not attract her attention.
“Jesus fucking Christ...” Ivan said as he let out a deep breath and rolled his eyes back.
“Sir, she’s got nobody else...”
“It’s not our problem, Jack, they’ll take care of her” said Saul as he moved in closer to the conversation.
“Look, sir, that girl has nobody left here looking out for her. We can’t just leave her like this...not after what I did.”
“You can’t let your guilty conscience make decisions for you” Ivan said, quietly in order to avoid shouting. “Where do you want to take her? They’ll never let us go back with her...and you...”
“We don’t go back then, I know a doctor that works in a hospital in a nearby shelter, I can trust her, she’ll keep shut about it. Sir, I’ll take every test you want and we can also do it for her...to see if she has it.”
“Are you crazy, Jack” Ivan retorted, “if she has it? if? She’s spent months among infected people, what do you think?”
“Sir, please, we can’t leave her here...we might as well put a bullet through her brain” Jack said back to him, not breaking eye contact.
Ivan walked off and then looked around. He saw the pyre still burning, the dead bodies at the end of the square. Then he walked slowly back and met Jack’s gaze.
“How?” he simply asked. “How do we get her out of here?”
“Sir?” Saul and Malach came closer, not understanding his meaning.
“If we tell them that we were told to get a young subject for research back at headquarters they might believe us.”
“He’s right, sir” said Malach, “they don’t care as long as they know that we’ll take her straight to HQ.”
“You too, man?” asked Saul in disbelief.
“This shit is on all of us, you got that?” said Ivan, looking fiercely through his gas mask at Saul. “We take her to Jack’s contact, get him checked out, then we get to HQ, understood?” he demanded.
“Yes, sir” the man said, letting out a breath and placing his rifle back on his shoulder.
“Let’s just hope this contact of yours can keep her mouth shut, Jack” Ivan said, turning to him.
He waited in the brightly lit room on the side of a bed. Moving his eyes to the clock on the wall he saw and acknowledged the time; three hours had passed since he had shot a man. They had gotten lucky that Jessica was still there. He wouldn’t know what he would do without her. In a world where millions had died and everything was crumbling slowly around him, she was always there for him.
The door unlocked and into the room came Jessica, her raven dark hair brought his attention to her gentle red lips and the fact she did not have a mask on.
“You’re not wearing one. Either it’s a good thing or I’ve infected the whole hospital” he said, smiling. A gesture she returned.
“I’ve checked your blood Jack...and rechecked it. It’s negative for the virus” she replied, her kind eyes lighting up as she saw him again.
“Whew. I’m...I’m relieved. Thanks, Jess” he said, blinking and taking in a deep breath.
“I still can’t believe that you took off your mask” she frowned at him in a friendly manner. “I mean, you are the king of careful, what happened, Jack?”
“It’s a really long story, Jess, and one I would rather not tell tonight.”
“Fair enough, you can leave that one for later” she waved the thought away, “but riddle me this. What did my analysis of the girl’s blood say to me?”
“That’s not really a riddle”
“You’re right, I’m not playing fair” she replied, smiling ear to ear. “Her blood’s negative for the infection.”
“What?” he fixed his eyes on her and could not believe what he heard.
“Exactly what I said...she’s not infected. Where did you say you found her again?”
He could not focus on her words, the idea that a person living among the infected could develop an immunity was bewildering, not to mention impossible. Had the man been right? His words still resonated with him and every time he looked back on them it was with pain and guilt.
“Sorry?” he replied, looking at her again.
“Where did you find the girl?” Jessica asked insistently, raising an eyebrow to his wide eyes and frozen face.
“Oh...I...it’s a...” he replied slowly.
“A long story, I know” continued Jessica, laughing. “Anyway, she’s a very lucky girl” she said, looking at the charts she held in her arms. “Wherever you found her, she must have had absolutely no contact with the virus...it’s amazing, isn’t it? That after all this time, there are still safe zones” she said, looking at him again.
“Yeah, it’s quite...something” he replied, trying to smile.
He did not want to succumb to guilt but felt a deep sense of understanding. The man had been right. They were not infected. How could they be? The girl had no trace of the virus in her system, and neither did he. It could either mean that the injections he had taken were working and the girl had kept away from the infection for months on end. Or it could mean exactly what the man had said, that the virus was not choosing its victims. That something else or someone else was.
Looking at his hands, he clasped them and rubbed them together before getting down from the hospital bed. Embracing Jessica, he realised the official tests had always been done by Dyna Corp HQ and they could have easily forged them.
Remembering the trigger he pulled, the memories came back to him. He had thought the man was just instigating people, trying to escape. But now his words resonated strongly within himself.
The bastard was right, he was right and I shot him.
© 2012 Radu Daniel Hurmuz