“What’s going on?” I said as we watched with intent through the windscreen, the convoy running in the opposite direction to rushing troops laden with weapons and green ammunition tins. McCole didn’t reply, but turned in his seat, scowling, still distracted as he pulled a map from the pocket of his combat trousers. Knowing I wouldn’t get an answer, I turned back to Cassie sat opposite and reached across the gap between the two bench seats. She didn’t pull back as I took her hands. A warm smile appeared across my lips, mirrored by hers, she was as pleased as I was we were going back to collect our friends, her family, finally taking the first steps to get out of this nightmare. Surrounded by Britain’s finest armed to the teeth and expert in how to deal with these creatures, we were safer than we’d been for days.
A growl rumbled from my belly as I looked into her eyes across the gap. She rubbed her stomach and smiled. We hadn’t eaten since this morning, but soon we could worry about those everyday things again. Soon we would have all the food we’d need and could eat together in safety.
Turning back through the windscreen, I watched the rear of the lead vehicle as it guided us around the perimeter fence. To the occasional drill of gunfire, smoke stacks slid in and out of view, their colour a rainbow of greys depending on how close they were to burning themselves out. I watched as fields of green stretched out on the horizon, as a car park empty of all but a few cars went passed, then finally the first buildings of the village came into view. Around we continued in our wide circle until the direction changed with a sharp turn pushing me back against the cold metal, our speed not slowing as sentries, then the fence, flashed out of sight.
McCole picked up the radio handset clipped to the dashboard.
“Take a wide circle down the Boskennal Lane and come out at the head of Land’s End Lane, go cross country if you need to,” he said releasing the button.
“Sir, that’s the main entrance?” the questioning voice came back.
“That’s an order, Private Curtis,” McCole said, his tone not inviting a reply and he got none. Cassie and I continued to watch out of the window as we followed down the deserted streets. St Buryan wasn’t a large village by any stretch of the imagination, but still it felt so eerie to see no people, no traffic each way we turned. The only signs of life we saw were from the past. Windows smashed, drying pools of blood, walls peppered with bullet holes, cars smashed, their metal crumpled around trees and buildings.
Still, we carried on around the streets, turning right and right again, slowing only to bounce up curbs, the Defenders taking the green fields with ease, all to the occasional background of gunfire. I watched as McCole picked his rifle from its stand in the footwell and inspected the chamber, then did the same with his side arm. We turned right again back onto the road and before long the front Land Rover’s brake lights lit and stayed on, our vehicle slamming to a halt a few metres from its back. The radio came alive with the same voice from the last call.
“I count fifty Cords all heading to the FOB sir, along Land’s End Lane.”
I let go of Cassie’s hand and together we leant toward the windscreen.
“How far out?” McCole replied.
“Half a click,” the voice said as he released the button.
“A second wave,” McCole said, but not down the radio which he was hooking back to the dash.
He spoke again, but this time it must have been using the radio on his headset. I watched him tense, turning to scowl in our direction.
“Back up,” he said, his voice betraying no emotion. One by one the convoy turned, the rear vehicle taking the lead as we made our way out of the village in the opposite direction, finding a second roadblock whose sentries I couldn’t see despite being sure they were watching us. The gunfire receded each moment, leaving the drone of the Land Rover’s engine only broken by the occasional pop of a distant explosion. It was another ten minutes before I could be sure we were on the reverse of the route Cassie and I had taken to get to the hospital in our stolen Land Rover.
With my eyes trained and constant on the back of the lead vehicle, I guided us through each turn, gaining confidence as the roads unfolded as I’d expected. About half way to our destination and along the road that would take us all the way, the brake lights of the lead vehicle shone as it reached a scattering of houses staggered either side of the road. A voice I hadn’t yet heard came over the radio.
“Sergeant. We have a Cord in the centre of the road. About a hundred yards forward.”
“Cord?” I said, knowing now I’d heard correctly. McCole ignored my words, instead speaking into the dashboard radio.
“Just follow protocol soldier, you’ve done this before.”
“Cords?” I said again, this time turning back, watching as Cassie shook her head.
“Sir, it’s not giving a classic reaction,” he said. I could hear the worry in his voice.
“What do you mean?” McCole said into the radio.
“He appears to be feeding on a body,” the voice replied.
“Feeding?” McCole replied.
“He’s staring right at me.”
“Move forward and engage, soldier,” McCole said, not hiding his annoyance.
“We should turn around,” I said, leaning forward to get his attention, but he shook his head and opened his door, climbing out, stretching the cord of the radio.
I stood, pushing aside the perspex covers of the roof hatch and stared forward, ignoring McCole’s shouts for me to sit back down. Looking passed the gunner in the lead vehicle, I could see something bent over a body in the road. Just as the voice had described, he was staring in our direction. At that moment the understanding hit me. They’d named the creatures after the fungus. Cord, short for Cordyceps. As I congratulated myself, the radio came alive, the lead Land Rover slowly rolling forward.
“Bullshit soldier,” McCole shouted down the radio, but the words were so loud they would have heard from the other vehicle. McCole let the radio go, leaving his rifle on the seat as he walked out to the side to get a better view. I looked up to see the creature was heading our way, his speed building as his mouth snapped open and closed. I turned back to McCole who stood for a moment unmoving before he flinched up to meet my eyes.
“You seen these before?” he said, the colour running from his face. I nodded, barely able to breath as the bubble I imagined around us popped. They hadn’t seen the worst of the worst, hadn’t seen the creatures who gained such extraordinary speed when they took over their host.
“Sir?” the voice said over the radio.
“We need to get away,” I shouted as we both turned back ahead to see the creature had already covered half the distance. McCole’s reply went unheard as the air lit up with a bone chilling scream, followed by a chorus of searing replies.
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One