The armourer grinned at the men as they stood in a rather impatient line whilst he dished out their latest acquisitions one soldier at a time. The compact clamshell holsters hugged the contours of the revolvers like skin. Jones lifted his, testing the weight in his hand. A soft scratching filled the air as he dragged the ballpoint pen across the pale yellow sheet of paper.
Nodding to the armourer, he picked up the weapon and left the low-lying brick building by the only other door available.
The gun sat in the small of his back, the hard-shell holster nestling against vest. Jones looked up, catching Baker's eye as he stepped out of Colinson's office. Baker's face all but bubbled as he waged war with the mix of rage and sadness, fighting for control as he looked up at Jones. They shared eye contact for a second before Jones nodded and walked away.
A high-pitched wail broke the silence. Jones cursed and sprinted after Baker; the siren meant one thing and one thing only, both men sharing a mutual dread at the thought of what lay ahead.
Central Middlesex Hospital
Janet stared around her, her daughter clutched to her chest as she sprinted through the corridors of the building; a heavy weight lay on her thigh as she ran.
The Sco19 officer bellowed down the corridor as Janet ran; her lungs burned, drawing her to tears with pain. Her teeth felt like bitter shards of ice-cold glass as she sucked in deep, lung-scalding gulps of disinfectant-tainted air.
Maria's plaintive wailing echoed off the walls as she squirmed in fear of the noises around her. Bullets flew past Janet's ears, the screams and garbled cries behind her snapping dead as the rounds found their marks. Looking to her right, she stared at the blood-spattered and sweat-stained form of Kevin as he held the shocked and quivering form of another nurse. The young girl's eyes were glued open with fear as she stared at the wall, driven beyond hysteria.
'Go! Fall back to the roof; a helicopter is waiting!'
The black-clad police officer pushed past them as he slapped a fresh magazine into his weapon and continued to fire, dreading the paperwork that was coming with it, if he lived that long.
He slowly began to walk backwards, his rifle snapping from target to target. Kicking out with his left foot, he watched as the magnetic locks holding the doors open died and the fireproof wood and plastic crashed together. The doors reverberated in their frame as body after body crashed into the solid sheet before them.
The officer peered through the eight-inch wide slit of reinforced mesh safety glass, his eyes tracking back and forth amongst the sea of faces.
The strutting, slathering form that greeted his gaze smiled as it watched the face behind the glass. The blood-laden sneering visage bent low, his head jerking from side to side like a bird's as he skulked closer to the window. The snapped, yellowing splinters of its nails scraped over the stippled, blue plastic coating the door as it pressed its face tight to the glass.
Saliva stained the transparent surface as it licked along the pane, tracing the outline of the officer's face with a viscous red-tinged, mucosa-filled sludge.
A cold reptilian look of calculation simmered in the eyes, holding the officer's vision. He watched, almost mesmerised as its gaze slowly dropped to the right side of the window. The officer's eyes followed the invisible line as he turned his gaze to the wall beside him. His head moved of its own volition as if his own sense of free will had deserted him, replaced by the machinations of something far more sinister than that which stood before him beyond the hospital door.
A dull clunk issued from somewhere in front of him as his eyes latched on to the grey plastic and chrome box on the wall; the splay-fingered indented image of an adult hand glowered back at him. His vision went blue as the emergency fire doors swung inwards. Turning his head once more, he came eye to eye with the grinning cat-eyed form in front him; its stained, gore-covered lips pursed in a mocking kiss.
'I want my mum,' was all he had time to utter before the grinning, bloodstained, Infected launched itself at him in a cackling gaggle of limbs and teeth.
Broadhead Operations Centre
'We have a job, people; the virus has infected three floors of the Central Middlesex Hospital.'
Baker's gut clenched tight as his body went cold. Colinson's words rang in his ears as he thought back to the conversation he'd had with Janet three days before.
They sat around the table in their kitchen, steam curling up between them from the mugs they clutched in their hands, the silence stretched thin like a layer of butter over too much bread. The strain of its tension mounting as Janet stared at the scarred wood of the solid pine table.
Her eyes tracked the swirls and twists of the timber's grain as it wormed away from her. Slowly, she looked up into the eyes of her husband; a soft smile danced in them as he looked back at her before it faded away, any attempt at conversation lost.
The silence was broken by the chirping burble rolling out of the radio that sat on the far edge of the table. Janet hurriedly pushed her chair away and stood, muttering quickly about needing to feed Maria. Baker sighed deeply; he knew something was wrong. Things hadn't been right for almost a month, even before Maria's birth. Things had taken a sudden twist; something had changed, not only in their relationship, but in Janet herself. And if he was to admit it, himself as well.
Baker sighed as he lifted the mug and emptied its contents down his throat before rising from the table and walking across the kitchen to the sink. The cold water shocked his skin as he rinsed out the cup, his hand gliding over the inside of the ceramic mug as a soft squeak issued up from inside of it. The skin of his hand tugged at the glazed surface of the pale blue vessel. He emptied out the water and turned off the tap as he set the dripping mug on the draining board.
Turning, he walked out the kitchen; his booted feet thumped against the floor as he walked towards the front door, the sound echoing back of the near deathly silence that had enveloped their home in the last four months. He stopped momentarily and quietly looked in through the gap between the door and doorframe leading into the small room where his daughter slept. He silently watched the suckling form of his daughter as she drank, her fingers wrapped in Janet's shirt, the nub of her mother's nipple clasped between her lips.
Janet looked up and saw Derek watching. A wan smile crossed her face as she locked gazes with him. Quietly, she beckoned him in and watched as he stepped softly into the room.
'I am working at Central Middlesex for the next three weeks. Not sure how my hours are going to play out, so I am going to take Maria with me.'
Derek nodded as he smiled down at Janet. 'Okay, darling; no problem.'
Baker turned and left the room. Janet watched, tears stinging her eyes as he walked away—no goodbye, no parting kiss, nothing. He simply left. With a heavy heart and a deep feeling of dread, she knew something had irrevocably changed and it wasn't for the better.
Baker felt his stomach lurch and his inner equilibrium twist like a snake in a whirlpool as his mind bounced itself back to the here and now, his mind flaring like a comet ploughing into the sun. He fought the need to vomit as he nodded grim-faced at Colinson. The man's question drifted out the door into the cold light of day long before Baker's mind even registered he was being spoken to. Colinson motioned for Baker to hold off as the other team commanders filed out of the room. Baker stopped and turned, walking back through the rows of chairs until he stood opposite Colinson.
Concern tinged Colinson's voice as he spoke, watching Baker for any hint of falsehood or avoidance that may have wormed its way into his reply.
'Fine.' Baker's voice was flat, emotionless, the normal jovial inflection in his accented tones gone. It left his voice a dull, monotone parody of itself. Colinson's hackles went up as he gauged Baker's reply.
'Well, that's a load of crap! What's going on?'
Baker didn't bother to avoid the question; he simply let it crash over him and ignored it completely. He knew that Colinson was reading him like a badly written children's book, but at that moment, he just didn't care.
'Nothing.' Again, his voice was as flat as a sheet of polished glass. Colinson nodded; he could see Baker was stonewalling and no matter how he phrased a question, it wasn't going to be answered any time soon. Changing tactic, he grimaced inwardly as his professor's nasalised tones invaded his mind.
Now remember, David, if you can't get into their mind with kindness, there is always the proverbial sledgehammer of reverse psychology that we know as blunt-force nastiness
Colinson shrugged off the subconscious lecture and ploughed on.
'Derek, I need your head in the game; this isn't a simple smash and destroy. There is a high civilian population in and around that hospital. A lot of lives depend on us keeping our heads together and getting this done quickly. I can't send you in if you're not one hundred percent. I need to know your shit is squared away; we don't need another Panjshir.'
Baker's eyes flared red as those words left Colinson's mouth. His feet shifted as he prepared to lunge, then before he could register what was happening, he was staring at the ceiling. Colinson's blonde-haired head peered down at him over the top of an outstretched hand.
Baker slapped the hand away and pushed himself to his feet, his eyes burning with undisguised rage. Colinson stepped forwards, his open-palmed hands slamming into Derek's shoulders. 'What the fuck is wrong with you? Come on, damn it, tell me. You're a god damned SAU operator; fucking act like it!'
Derek bounced off the wall, file cabinets clanking from the force of his impact against the plasterboard.
Baker's eyes blazed as he stared at Colinson, his teeth clamped together so tightly his gums were slowly starting to bleed. He shook with rage and self-loathing. He was angry not only with himself but also at life and his situation. The problems between him and Janet that, for all his rumination and late night pondering, he could not understand. The widening gulf between them that he couldn't—no matter how much he tried—find a way to bridge.
'You want to know what's wrong? You really want to know what's wrong? Well, I don't fucking know; I ... do ... not ... know.'
Baker smashed his fist into the wall, his hand crashing through the paper-backed plasterboard. Flecks of pink coloured powder floated through the air. Wrenching his fist from the wall, he stared at the blood dripping from the creases of his fingers as it slowly pulsed from his knuckles. He flicked his hand, watching as the red globules of ruby coloured blood arced and splattered across the dull-grey painted plaster of Colinson's office wall.
Colinson observed the unfolding situation silently as Baker vented his anger. He looked on with impassive eyes as Baker rinsed the plaster from his torn knuckles in his office sink. The chilled water gushed from the tap, splashing in a never-ending torrent over the ripped and slashed skin. With utter indifference, Baker slowly picked the pieces of stained gypsum from between his fingers.
Droplets of his blood slipped free of his skin, falling into the water, twisting through the flow as they stretched into a diluted mist of blood. Their once ruby red forms lost as the water pulled them apart. Its unfeeling form decimating their tender morphing droplets as it swirled around the white porcelain sink.
Baker snorted at the question. 'Not particularly, I know for a fact that my knuckles will be the size of a midget's balls by tomorrow.'
Colinson smiled wanly. 'Not what I was asking and you know it. What's going on between you and Janet? You were both fine at the New Year's party.'
Baker winced at the memory. He turned to face Colinson, a dull lifeless smirk playing across his features. 'Then, mate, you're not as good of a skull scooper as you think you are. Shit hasn't been straight between me and Janet since before the baby was born; and to be honest, bud, I don't know if it ever will be again. I just don't know how to fix it. Fuck, dealing with a dozen Infected in nothing but a mankini and armed with a damned tooth pick would be easier than figuring this shit out.'
Images of the party danced through Baker's mind despite how he longed to forget that night. The party itself had gone down brilliantly; the events after had been some that the unit wouldn't easily forget. Returning with two men down was never an easy thing to witness, especially for the women. Their expectant gazes were some that would haunt Derek for as long as he remained bound to the earth. The looks on their faces as they watched them walk away from the rain-slicked parade grounds and the sudden shattering of all their worldly dreams as they saw the two black rain-drenched bags atop the chromed steel gurneys.
'Honestly, I don't know what it is. It's not baby blues or anything like that; Janet has been to see the postnatal nurse and all that crap. It's just something has changed with us, and I can't for the life of me figure out what it is; it's driving me nuts, Dave, it really is.'
Colinson nodded as Baker spoke. Lifting a box of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, he pulled one out before offering the open packet to Baker. It took a lot of willpower for Baker to refuse, but he did. Shrugging, Colinson slipped the now closed packet into his shirt pocket as he picked up the polished-steel Zippo lighter. A soft click issued from his hand as he flicked open the petrol-filled metal lighter and ran his thumb over the striker wheel. Light flared over Colinson's features as the shard of flint sparked against the bevelled disk.
Smoke curled from his lips as he drew deeply from the cigarette before speaking again. A cloud of blue-tinged smoke issued from his mouth, then with a soft, contemplative tone he spoke.
'How you been sleeping? Both of you, not just yourself.'
Baker laughed sardonically. 'What's that when it's at home? Look, Dave, this isn't the time to do this shit. We make it back in one piece, we can sit down and talk as long as you want.'
Colinson sighed as he weighed up the words he was about to put forth.
'Derek, you're grounded; until I can do a full evaluation or you're cleared by Conerly, you're off the duty roster. It's not something I wanted, but I can't have you in the field like this. Richards and Stabbler are going in with Team Three. I am sorry, mate, but that's how it is.'
Baker stopped his movements as he listened to Colinson. Turning, he glared at his friend and fellow officer.
'My wife and daughter are trapped somewhere in that hospital—the hospital where my daughter was born; nothing is going to keep me away.'
Derek continued to hold Colinson's eyes as the man slowly mulled over Baker's words.
'I'm sorry, Derek, but the decision is final. Until you're cleared, you're shelved. Combat operations can—and do—go on without you.'
Baker's jaw clenched, then without saying a word, Baker shoved Colinson's office door open and walked out. Sighing, Colinson sunk into his office chair. With a deep sigh soaked in regret, he cursed, tossing the small steel lighter across his desk and onto the floor where it lay glinting in the afternoon sun.