"Hooah!" I heard the soldier above yelling as he drilled the bodies around him with his machine gun.
"Thank you!" I gasped gratefully to the man across from me. The soldier, a handsome asian youth, grinned at me. "No probs, ma'am. You looked like you were having a spot of trouble."
I snorted weakly. " That seems to be a permanent state of affairs at the moment..."
The soldier from the turret clambered back down. Bright orange hair poking out from under his helmet, he looked all of twenty. "That's a few less dmw's to worry about!" He boasted.
"Dmws?" I questioned. The soldiers exchanged a grin.
"That would be 'dead men walking', ma'am. Our little nickname for the fu...suckers."
"Ahh." I restrained the urge to roll my eyes. "Please stop calling ma'am. You're making me feel like a school principal! My name is Lori Nelson." I gestured at Mike who was watching their antics with a bland expression. "This strong silent type here is Mike Bridges."
"Private Jensen, ma'...Lori." The asian lad shook my hand and then Mike's. "The 'ranga is Boyd and the two up front are Doyle and Harris." Doyle and Harris gave a polite wave in response, remaining focused ahead. "I tell ya, it's good to find some survivors at last. I was worried we were going to have to return to base and report to the captain that the patrol was another bust!"
Boyd gave a dramatic shudder. "I heard the captain ripped the last patrol a new one for coming back empty handed."
Jensen's dark eyes twinkled at me. "See, ma'am, you did us a favour by allowing us to rescue you."
My lips couldn't help smiling in response. "Glad we could be of service. Your captain sounds like a real hardass."
"Nah. Anders is okay." Jensen responded. "He knows his stuff."
"At least he doesn't try his damnedest to get us killed, like some fincles I can think of." Boyd snorted derisively.
"Fin..." I started.
"Anders?" Mike leaned forward, interest lighting his grey eyes. "James Anders?"
He shrugged casually, searching his pockets for a stick of gum "I knew him back in Afghanistan."
Boyd slapped his hand on his knee. "Ha! Knew it! Had you pegged for a military man as soon as I saw you! What rank?"
"Sergeant." Mike peered through the window. "Where is your base camp located?"
"At the airport. We'll be there in a few minutes."
I started to feel anxious. The further we travelled, the further we would have to go to get back to the house. "Private Jensen, we have a group back at my sister's house. We really need to get back to them."
"No probs. There'll be another patrol heading out soon. They can pick them up then."
I nodded reluctantly. I guessed that would have to do. As the soldiers turned away to discuss a matter with the men in front, I whispered to Mike. "What does fincles mean?"
He grinned mischievously. "That would be an aconym, F.I.N.C.LE. An effing idiot that no cun..."
"Okay, okay. Sorry I asked."
"Here we are." Jensen nodded. Peering through the small window, I saw we were approaching the airport. At least it had been a airport yesterday. Today it liked something from a war movie with its perimeter reinforced with barb wire and sandbags. Machine guns and rocket launcher were manned by soldiers all along the fence line. I looked around in awe as we passed through the gates. In the lowering dusk, lights shone brightly all over the camp, revealing a chaotic mix of tents, tanks, army vehicles and helicopters parked on the oval.
"Out you come." Boyd called cheerfully, pulling the hummer door open. Clambering out, I took in the sights and sounds. Periodically, machine guns would stutter, no doubt at zombies approaching the fence. Looking at all the lights and personnel, I had no doubt that this camp was attracting a lot of attention from zombies. Uneasy at the thought, I followed Mike and the soldiers through the grounds.
"You'll be perfectly safe here." Boyd said cheerfully. "We've got barricades and guards on all sides - except the river, of course." He grinned. "But then, the crocs do the job of guarding that perimeter for us."
"The refugees are being harboured in arrivals building over there." Jensen nodded to a large building on our left. "But I'm sure we can rustle up a bit of privacy for a military man." He grinned, thumping Mike on the arm. Mike smiled at him before turning to me and wagging his brows mischievously.
As we passed the large glass windows of the arrivals hall, I paused to look inside. There must have been hundreds of people lying across seats and sprawled across canvas beds or huddled in corners. Refugees, indeed. The look of numbness, shock and despair on their faces spoke of horrific experiences. Small children ran and played amidst the adults while older children stood close to their parents, seemingly afraid to let them out of their sight. My heart went out to them.
"What measures are you taking to ensure the virus doesn't spread amongst the refugees?" Mike asked abruptly.
Jensen looked up at him. "You know about the bite thing? Not to worry. The docs are giving all new refugees the once over to make sure they haven't been bitten."
"And if they have?" I hated to ask for fear of the answer.
Jensen looked at me somberly but did not answer the question.
"We're heading to the docs right now, as a matter of fact." Boyd interjected. "They should be able to see you straight away. It's not like they're busy - we haven't found any survivors in several hours."
The doctors were working from an office. The room was full of medical supplies and surgical equipment.
"Hey doc!" Boyd called out as we entered. "Got some new ones for you to check over!"
A man with short salt and pepper hair joined us. "Have either of you been bitten?" Keen eyed and sharp featured, the middle aged man ran his eyes swiftly over me.
I shook my head, a little taken aback by his manner.
"Been in the daintree area in the last week?"
We shook our heads again.
"Well, then there shouldn't be an issue. Go in those booths over there," He nodded towards temporary cubicles in the far left corner of the room. "and strip." Knowing that the doctors were thorough with their checks went a long way to reassuring me that this place wouldn't pose a risk to my family. Although the high profile of this camp still concerned me. Surely they should be trying to be as unobtrusive as possible? I shrugged the thought off as I headed for a booth. I was hardly Sun Tzi, military strategist extraodinaire.
After we were given the all clear by the doctor, Mike and I were met by another young soldier who introduced himself as Harris. Jensen and Boyd had left to report to their captain. We were led to a tent which I guessed was where the soldiers were staying.
"Please wait here until someone comes to collect you." The young man requested politely before leaving.
Mike raised his brows, looking around at the basic but comfortable accommodation. "Not bad digs, really."
"You must be highly regarded, sergeant, to warrant such luxury." I said drily, but my heart wasn't in it. My mind was on Sarah. I was feeling increasingly frustrated, knowing she was getting sicker every minute that she was without the antibiotics I had in my bag.
"We'll be out of here soon, Lori." He said gently. He was really learning to read me well, I realised with some discomfort.
I looked away. "I hope so. If something happens to Sarah..."
"It won't." He said it with so much confidence that I actually believed him.
"Why, are we due a miracle again?" I asked wryly.
"Probably. But we won't need it because you're just too damned stubborn to let anything happen to your kid."
"Hey!" I paused. "You know, I have absolutely no idea whether to be flattered or offended by that comment."
"Neither. It was an observation, not flattery." A mischievous glint came into his eyes. "If I were trying to flatter you, I would comment on your cute nose, your perky..."
"Hey!" I felt my cheeks reddening and hoped the lighting was poor enough to stop him noticing. I doubted it, though. Very little seemed to escape his notice.
"What?" He gave me his most innocent look.
"You are such a stirrer." I sighed, exasperated. Turning away, I placed my backpack on the little picnic table and stretched my back. Mike lay down on the camp bed, feet hanging off the edge, and closed his eyes. Unable to rest, I paced the tent. In the distance, the staccato sound of gunfire provided counterpoint to nearby vehicle engine noises and voices yelling instructions.
"You're wearing me out, Lori." Mike was watching me. I pulled a chair out and slumped down beside him.
"What's taking so long? I have to get home, Mike!"
"Give them a few more minutes. Then I'll go hunt down Anders and make him give us a vehicle."
I studied him, unsure if he was being serious or not. "Isn't that, like, treason or something, punishable by death?"
He laughed. "I don't think it will come to that."
Harris poked his head through the flap. "Captain Anders would like to see you now."
Jumping up, I through the tent flap. Machine guns rattled left and right. Were they firing more frequently now, I wondered nervously, it seemed like they were. Night had now fallen, making it impossible to see anything beyond the lights of the spotlights in the camp but I knew there were zombies there. The thought chilled me.
Anders was standing with Boyd in his tent, albeit a larger and more comfortably equipped tent. He turned as we entered and smiled welcomingly. He was a slim sandy haired man with intelligent blue eyes and angular features. Not surprisingly in the circumstances, he looked rather tired. Mike strode forward and met him with an enthusiastic handshake.
"Bridges." Anders grasped Mike's forearm firmly. "I am gratified to see you alive."
Mike grinned. "Better than the alternative."
Anders raised his brows. "Indeed."
Turning to me, Mike beckoned me closer. "This is Lori Nelson, a good friend of mine." I glanced up at him, surprised and secretly pleased.
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am." Anders voice was clipped but polite. I smiled and shook his hand. "Nice to meet you, too. I am very grateful to you and your men," I nodded at Boyd. "for rescuing us. Mike and I were having a 'spot of trouble'."
Mike grinned. "Speak for yourself, Lori. I was doing just fine."
Anders' lips twitched. "Same old Bridges, I see. Might I ask what you were doing at the centre? I assume not shopping?"
"In a manner of speaking. We needed medicine for Lori's daughter."
Anders frowned. "She wasn't bitten, was she?"
"No. Yes." I rushed in. "She was bitten but that's not why she's sick. At least not directly."
Anders looked sympathetic and sorrowful. "I'm sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, there is no cure for being bitten yet. It seems to be 100% fatal."
I looked at Mike pleadingly as my tongue seemed to be tied up all of a sudden. He understood and stepped in.
"The limb was amputated immediately." He said crisply. "She doesn't have the virus, just a normal infection of the wound."
Anders turned to Boyd and requested that he leave. He turned back to us with a concerned look. "Amputation. Well, that would be a first. Maybe we could swing it..." Seeing our puzzled looks, he explained himself. "There is a zero tolerance policy in place. If the doctors determine that she is infected..." He paused.
"What?" I demanded.
"The doctors have been instructed to make sure any infected person is ...humanely euthanased." He looked a little discomforted at the expression on my face.
"Well, she's not infected." I said through gritted teeth. I didn't want to even think about what that policy would mean to other families. Not now.
"If you choose to bring her here, it's a risk you need to be aware of." He said sympathetically.
"There's no way I'm taking that chance!" I exploded, turning to Mike. "Mike, we've got to get back home!"
"Calm down, Lori." He raised a pacifying hand, eyes on Anders. "Is there anything you can do? You have my personal assurance that the child is not infected."
"How long ago was the girl bitten?"
"Thirteen hours." I responded promptly. Anders nodded thoughtfully.
"And her symptoms are...?"
"She has a fever and signs of sepsis." At his raised eyebrow, I added an explanation for his benefit. "I'm a nurse."
"Well, she is approaching the outside window for incubation... If she hasn't developed the virus in the next couple of hours, I believe I can persuade a doc I know, to give her the all clear."
I ran a hand through my hair in frustration. "Captain, I appreciate your help, but that's a big if. I am not going to take a chance of my daughter being put down like a dog!"
"Of course." He nodded. Straightening, he appeared to come to a decision. "I am prepared to give you my assurance that your daughter will be safe here. If Bridges says she is not infected, that is good enough for me."
I looked at Mike who nodded reassuringly. Turning back to Anders, he extended his hand. " 'preciate that, Anders."
As the captain shook Mike's hand, I struggled with my anxieties. I wanted Sarah in the care of doctors but, in spite of Mike's confidence in this man, it felt like a big risk to bring her here. I believed Anders meant what he said but what if he couldn't honor his promise to keep her safe? What if the doctors had the power to override him? Was that a risk worth taking?
Mike spoke up as I stood silent. "Anders, we need to hitch a ride back to the house with one of your patrols."
"Of course. I'll walk you over to the team myself." Anders hesitated. "However, we have recently been given orders to evacuate all civilians and troops so you need to be aware that you don't have long to make a decision about joining us. If you miss the last transport, you will be on your own."
"I see." Mike's voice was suddenly alert. "When will the last transport be leaving."
"Five hundred hours." Anders' voice was casual but as he moved to a nearby table to pour some water, I saw the tightness in his face. "I will instruct the last patrol to check on you." Handing us a glass of water each, he caught Mike's eyes. "I hope you will seriously consider coming with us."
Mike turned abruptly to me. "Lori, will you collect our backpacks, please?"
I gritted my teeth and spun on my heels. I didn't need to be a rocket scientist to pick up on the underlying conversation going on in that room. If he needed me gone to talk more frankly, then so be it. Boyd was waiting outside the tent with a ready smile.
"Hello Boyd, I hear you guys are pulling out."
"Yes, ma'am. I think headquarters finally decided fighting dead guys is a waste of time. Can't say I disagree!"
"So the quarantine is being lifted?"
"No need. We've blasted the roads in and out of town. No dmw's getting out unless they can swim." He grinned.
I returned the grin automatically as my mind raced. "But where does that leave the people who are still alive in this town?"
He jerked his thumb at the gym. " That's why we've been sending out patrols all day, ma'am. At this point, it's become a search and rescue operation to find as many survivors as possible and then get them the hell out of town."
I nodded stiffly and headed towards our tent. To all appearances, the people in this town were being written off and abandoned to their fate. There was no way that all the survivors could be found in one day. Surely we could expect more from the people who were supposed to protect us?
I hurried to the tent and grabbed the backpacks. The need to see my daughter was so strong that I felt almost sick. As I left, I saw Jensen bellowing at some men to follow him. They rushed past me towards the gates. Uneasily, I stared after them, wondering what the emergency was. Hopefully, nothing that would delay me leaving. I felt a little guilty at the selfishness of that thought but, hey, I'm human.
Mike smiled at me as I entered the tent. He and Anders appeared to be poring over a map.
"Ah, excellent." Anders straightened. "If you are ready, I will take you to the patrol team now. They will be heading out soon."
"Thank you!" I burst out appreciatively. He blinked at my vehemence and nodded warily. Grabbing his hat, he exited the tent with me and Mike in tow. Boyd fell in beside me. All around us, soldiers were packing equipment into trucks, taking down tents and checking weapons. A sense of urgency seemed to have filtered into the camp in the last half hour. I guessed there was a lot of work to be done before the army could pull out of town.
As we passed the arrivals hall, still packed with shell shocked civilians, the sporadic gunfire on the nearby barricades suddenly became prolonged and numerous. Anders and Mike looked up, instantly alert. Urgent voices could be heard on the wind yelling orders. As one, we all ran towards the gates, where the ruckus seemed to be located. Bringing up the rear, I wondered why the hell we were running towards trouble when we should be running the other way, but the thought disappeared as quickly as it came. As the gates came into sight, I caught my breath.
The spotlights illuminated a scene both horrific and unbelievable. A mass of bodies, maybe thousands deep, moved towards the gate and surrounding fence. It was a dark, flowing, implacable tide of death - and it was coming for us. Under the glow of lights, the old, the young, the torn and bloodied, staggered towards the camp mindlessly and with utter singlemindedness.