Chapter Twenty-One

Cooper

Nineteen days we'd been underground. More than four hundred and fifty hours without seeing daylight or being told what was happening or why we were there. There had been little to do in the bunker from virtually the moment we had arrived. Once our equipment had been unpacked, stored and checked our general duties were done save for occasional mundane domestic tasks. No-one left the base so there was nothing to get ready or repair. We ate, cleaned, exercised and slept but other than that we did little else.

Time and time again I had thought about the moment when the orders would finally come and, occasionally, I had actually looked forward to it happening. In many ways it seemed preferable to just sitting there and waiting. No-one talked much about what might have happened above ground. Whether anyone actually knew or not I wasn't sure. There was a small part of me that didn't want to know because there seemed to be some bizarre safety and comfort in ignorance. I tried not to think about my family and friends that were left out there but with nothing else to do it was difficult not to remember them.

The not-knowing made me question my priorities - I had joined the forces to protect people and yet there we were, tucked up safely underground while the rest of the population - and everyone that had ever meant anything to me - endured whatever it was that was happening to the world. Good or bad (and we all knew in our hearts that what was happening was a million times worse than just bad) we all needed some answers.

I might even have deserted if I'd been able to get outside. When the orders finally came I didn't want to move. It had been rumoured that the first party was about to leave the base but I hadn't expected to be among them.

The hours between being told I was going and the moment we left the bunker disappeared with incredible speed. The briefing before we went above ground answered a handful of questions, but it also left me asking countless more. The base commander pleaded ignorance, and I had to admit that he was convincing. I had known Richardson - or I had, at least, been aware of him and his reputation - for more than seven years since I was first posted out of Danford and I had no reason to doubt his honesty. What would he hope to gain from lying now that we were about to leave? The situation up on the surface was obviously so dire and hopeless that hiding the truth from the troops would only hamper our mission.

He talked in very general and nonspecific terms about a disease or virus. He couldn't tell us where it had come from or how, but it had swept across the country with unprecedented speed and ferocity on the morning we came below ground. We had been close to being caught ourselves, he told us. The soldiers heading to other bases had not been so fortunate. Richardson explained that the disease had also been found in other countries and that its virulent nature made it likely that the rest of the world had been infected.

Much of what he told us was presumption and some of it little more than pure speculation. Nothing he said could be quantified or substantiated. Tests and air samples had shown that the disease was still present outside.

Whatever kind of germ it was, it sounded stronger and more resilient than anything anyone had come across before. We were to wear full protective gear whilst outside. Any contamination and we would be unable to return to the bunker. There were orders to shoot and kill any of us who did not comply. A minimum of two days in the decontamination chamber would follow our planned five hours outside. One of the medical officers fumbled his way through a briefing on the physical effects of the disease.

It was obvious from his manner and the lack of any hard facts or statistics that most of his words were uncertain and, in all probability, untrue - they had to tell us something. He talked about a violent infection causing internal swellings and leisions which would most probably result in death or, at the very least, severe pain and secondary infection. He talked about many thousands of people being killed outright. He talked about the possibility of others surviving, but in what condition it was not clear.

He told us to be prepared to come across many, many casualties.

Our mission was to assess the situation in the nearest city and then report back. No further operations could take place until our initial assessment had been made. After the briefing we spent an hour preparing our kit and the transport and putting on our protective gear. I was scared. I sat in the transport with the others and shook and sobbed like a child.

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