After the desperate command over the radio to immediately evacuate the city, the team had to make a quick decision.
Carter pulled out the GPS again and deducted that Heirisson Island was their closest evacuation point.
"Saint Mary's cathedral is just around the corner," he reported, tracing a finger over the screen of the GPS, "from there we'll head towards Langley Park and across the Causeway bridge,"
Ashleign could see he was only just holding it together after Myer's violent death had put him in charge. The young Lance Corporal, had never had a command before, and now, having to face such a dire situation, Ashleign did not envy him.
She noticed most of his attention remained on the GPS unit, even though she knew he had a near photographic memory for maps. Perhaps it gave him a convenient distraction.
They moved out. The once elegant, sandstone visage of Saint Mary's cathedral stood before them as they continued along the road. One of its tall, twin spires had fallen in a twisted heap of stone and slate tile. The slender columns of the large, arcing picture window on the right side, had collapsed under the weight, covering the pavers with shards of glass.
Ashleign noticed in silent dismay, the black scorching left on the pale stone of the damaged tower, and the pile of burning rubble strewn across the courtyard. It was clear what happened here. The cathedral had been collateral damage in a carelessly placed air strike. It reminded her what they all faced if they failed to reach the landing zone of the final evacuations in time.
The team passed in reverential silence, for none had words for the sad sight.
In a cruel contrast, the sky above was thick with choking, black smoke and military aircraft streaked over the besieged city, warning the team of the impending strikes.
The Infected roaming the manicured lawns, confirmed that they should not linger. They had no weapons, or time to deal with them.
Carter broke into a jog as the Infected caught sight of them. Above, an F/A 18 Hornet banked over the business district and fired off a missile at something on the ground to the north of the cathedral. It was getting desperate. They were running out of time and they all knew it.
The team dodged around another large group of Infected as they made their way down Riverside Drive. The long road ran parallel to the Swan river on their right side. The vast river, stretched out far beyond what Ashleign could see, and she could just make out the distant, wooded form, of Heirisson island in the middle of the channel.
She couldn’t tell if there were any Infected on the island, but she watched as a Chinook heavy transport helicopter, circled the island’s air space. Presumably it was scouting for a suitable landing zone for the evacuations. Ashleign watched as the massive aircraft begun to hover over a clear area behind some lanky Eucalyptus trees. Dust from the powerful down draft, obscured everything around it as it set down. Nearby, a Blackhawk gun ship continued to circle the island, providing extra security if needed.
Carter swore. They had already begun the evacuations. They would not make it. Panic gripped the team. Ashleign fought to keep her sudden fear at bay, as they sprinted through a log-jam of abandoned vehicles at the intersection of Plain street.
Some buildings on the river foreshore were ablaze, sending embers dancing over their heads. Out of the corner of her eye, Ashleign spied some Infected that had caught fire, and were heading towards them, like flaming torches. Carter used what ammo was left in Franky’s EF88, to put them down before they could get close.
Ashleign winced with each semi- automatic shot, as the deafening boom reverberated down the street. As she expected, the sound brought more Infected from the surrounding areas. Where there had been just a handful a few moments ago, now, there were dozens. All too interested in the team. The knife in Ashleign’s hand, felt very pitiful at that point.
The two lane road was becoming increasingly narrow, as the Infected moved in around them. Their only option now was to back track and find another way, but that would waste time that they did not have. They needed to reach Heirisson island now! Either they risked missing the evac or they pushed through the approaching Infected, somehow, to keep on to the Causeway bridge.
Ashleign saw the poorly concealed panic in Carter’s hazel eyes, and felt her own anxiety rising in the depths of her stomach. They had to move, they could not stay where they were.
Suddenly, the hornet from earlier banked overhead, rolling towards the Infected now streaming from everywhere around Carter’s team. They glanced up just in time to see two white missile trails, streaking through the air.
The team threw themselves to the ground as a wall of black smoke and fire billowed out to engulf several square feet of the street before them, vaporizing anything it touched. As Ashleign’s vision cleared and her ears stopped ringing from the concussion, she peered up. The fireball had transformed the street into a mess of blackened asphalt, twisted light poles and burning trees. Everywhere she looked, the Infected were reduced to charred corpses with cracked, black skin. The remains still smouldered. The stench of burning flesh, nearly made Ashleign wretch. She slowly got to her feet, taking in the carnage.
Carter threw his fist into the air when he pulled himself to his feet, whooping with delight. Ashleign couldn't help the smile that split her face, watching as the hornet dipped its wing in acknowledgement before streaking off to whatever destination it had in mind.
With the way now, clear, Carter lead them in a full sprint towards the Causeway bridge, only stopping to vault over a tree that had fallen over the road. They reached the water’s edge just as the Chinook lifted off from the island in a shroud of dust.
“No!” Carter bellowed in frustration.
He reached in a pocket and retrieved a flare, which he immediately fired off. The glowing projectile screamed into the blue sky, with a bright crimson tail, climbing higher and ending in a tight spiral and bright flash.
But the Chinook gained altitude and turned to the East, leaving them behind.
Carter stopped and dropped to his knees, exhausted, in the middle of the bridge, hoping the Black hawk would see his flare, but the aircraft went to follow its charge as it flew East toward Armadale, and the last survivors from the fallen city.
The rest of the team stood around Carter, forlorn and lost, wondering what they were to do now.
"Come on Carter, we can't stay here," Jackson urged, looking back down Riverside drive.
Ashleign followed his concerned gaze, seeing the ever present harbingers of death, sprawling out in a mass, over the road the team had just run.
Carter was staring blankly at the island as the dust from the Chinook, begun to settle. He was unmoving, and hadn't realised they had company fast approaching. Again.
Give us a break.
Ashleign scanned the smoke choked sky, hoping to see another transport, but apart from the occasional reconnaissance aircraft and hornet doing a last pass over the city, there was nothing.
Jackson was screaming into the radio, trying to get someone's attention. To no avail. The transports had all gone. None would come back. The only advice they could give them was to try to get out of the city on foot or attempt to take shelter.
Ashleign stared at Jackson incredulously. How were they supposed to get out on foot, with the impending air strikes? She was also not keen on waiting out the strikes that were meant to level a city and everything in it.
Then the radio fell into silence once more, leaving Jackson frozen with disbelief. This was insanity. How could they care so little about their own people? She guessed they were too scared of the impending deadline, to turn around.
That same question was plastered over the faces of everyone as they stood, vulnerable, on the Causeway bridge. The city burned around them, they were constantly tailed by beasts that wanted to eat them. They had been forgotten by their own. They were out of time.
Ashleign’s heart paused upon checking her watch. Ten fifty. The bombings would begin soon. No sign of them yet, but they wouldn't be far off. They had to move. Now.
She turned to Jackson who was frowning at Carter's slumped form. He shook his head. The Lance Corporal would not be moving on his own. He had all but given up, perhaps resigned to a fate of death already. Jackson had no wish to join the dead yet, and he was sure Ashleign and Ramirez didn't either. In any case, he would not give up so easily whilst he still had breath.
He glanced at Ashleign, giving her one of his warm smiles before stepping towards his colleague.
"Carter, how far is it to the Underground?"
Carter continued to stare at the island. After several moments of silence in which the Infected advanced towards them, he finally spoke.
"We have to go through that lot first," he gestured over his shoulder.
"How far?" Jackson repeated, impatience creeping into his voice.
" It's back near St Mary's, like three kilometres or something,"
They had less than ten minutes to run three kilometres if they left at that moment. Damn that's tight. Ashleign couldn't quite believe the situation they were now faced with.
"Give me the GPS," Jackson ordered, ignoring the chain of command that was as broken as the city around them, "on your feet, we are leaving," he pulled his friend to his feet.
Jackson clamped a hand on the other Corporal's shoulder.
"I never wanted this command," Carter admitted, wearily.
"I know mate, I'll take it,"
Carter nodded, and they made for the open, river foreshore at a full sprint, with the Infected bearing down on them.
Ashleign knew the Infected were on their heels, too close, and far faster than they were. Several were close enough to reach out and grab Ramirez, and if Ashleign didn't smash them back, they would have pulled him down to the fate of Myers. His caramel eyes were full of gratitude.
As Ashleign ran, she unclipped one of her remaining grenades, lobbing it at the charging abominations. It exploded, sending at least fifty of the beasts flying backwards, knocking over ten more as they were so tightly packed together. Those at the back of the horde climbed over the piles of corpses, but Ashleign's action gave the team some space. Ramirez added his own grenade to the fray, before continuing down the street.
Something in the sky caught Ashleign's attention as they sprinted by another mess of Infected congregating in Langley Park. She squinted, straining to make out the cluster of dark smudges on the horizon.
The bombers were approaching. Ramirez noticed them as well, as the hulking silhouettes began to take form. He muttered something in Spanish that to Ashleign, sounded like a prayer. They exchanged nervous glances, as three more of the aircraft appeared in the haze of the distance, the sunlight flashing of their metallic hulls.
Ashleign felt like she would collapse at any moment. Her lungs burned with the sustained effort of sprinting. Her legs were lead. From the distressed expressions on her teammates' faces, they felt the same. Still they ran. They had no choice. The bombers glided ever closer, at a rate that Ashleign thought was impossible for the great leviathans.
They had reached the far outskirts of the city and the distant, rolling thunder of explosions made the team halt. Their terrified gazes were fixed on the great tongues of flames that billowed around the maze of buildings like a raging river around rocks.
Ashleign thought she could identify the bombers, C17 Globemasters. She frowned. They weren't usually utilized as bombers. They were heavy transports.
"They rigged the damn transports as bombers! They're firebombing the city!" Carter's eyes bulged.
"Of course they are. What's losing one city compared to a whole country? The C17 is the biggest thing we have. Just imagine how much explosive one of those can carry," Jackson frowned at the six Globemasters circling the far side of the city, as three more closed in.
Ashleign knew the C17 was a formidable aircraft. At 174 feet long, with a wingspan of 169 feet, its payload would be massive. She wasn't sure exactly how much it could carry, but she suspected judging by its incredible size, it was upwards of seventy thousand kilograms.
What she did know, however, they couldn't stay out in the open if they were to have any chance at surviving this.
The damaged cathedral was a blur as they passed it and sprinted down the empty streets towards the train station. Finally, as the C17 continued to drop their incendiary payload over East Perth, the ornately paved courtyard of the station came into view. Along with another large horde, roaming around the open space.
The team fought off a few Infected if they got too close, but their only thoughts were of making it to the glass and metal mouth of the station entrance.
Suddenly, they were blasted with the deafening roar of jet engines as one of the hulking Globemasters banked low overhead, barely five metres from the tops of the skyscrapers. Ashleign hadn't realized they had gotten so close! She thought they were all over to the North and East. This one must have broken off from the formation to start on this side.
She tapped Ramirez on the shoulder, urging him on, as she redoubled her own pace despite the agonizing protests from her body.
There was no way the pilots could have noticed them. Even if they did it was too late. The loadmaster and crew had already sent the first pallet of high explosives on its way.
The concussion from the pallet's impact with the ground was fierce.
It hit, less than five hundred metres away, just as the team found refuge inside the station. If they had been outside for a few seconds more, the shockwave alone would have crushed them.
Ashleign lay prone, covering her head with her arms as the incredible heat singed her skin. She clenched her teeth against the abrupt pain, hoping the flames would not reach them where they lay at the foot of the escalators.
To her relief, after what felt like an eternity, the flames receded.
The darkness inside the station was absolute. Only a few streams of pale light filtered from above. The acrid stench of smoke, explosive residue and melted plastic made Ashleign choke. She could feel someone against her shoulder, slowly shaking off the shock. She heard him groan and she leant over to check he was alright. She heard a feint but definite yes, in accented English.
To her right, she heard someone walking around, or she hoped it was one of them and not the Infected stalking them in the blackout.
One of the others must have had the same thought, for a powerful beam of light split the shadow to illuminate at least fifty Infected nearby.
Again they were trapped. Above, the city and the very ground beneath it, was quaking and burning with every fire bomb dropped. Before them, death loomed.
They sprang to their feet, aching heads forgotten in the face of a more immediate threat. Ashleign was pleased to see that all who had entered the Underground were in one piece. For now at least.
That was not to last long. Everything happened in a rush. When the Infected came at them, they retreated back towards the escalators, wondering if they should risk going outside again. This idea was blasted away with the next incendiary, as a second shaft of flame exploded into the station.
Something sounded like it was collapsing above them. Ashleign threw herself to the tiles again as the furnace illuminated the darkness around them. The entire foyer was packed with Infected.
"That's it, we're done," Franky exclaimed in panic.
"Shut up Jones," Jackson growled, glancing around.
His eyes darted to the left of the dark platform, his flashlight illuminating an abandoned train. Its automatic doors lay open; without power, they would stay that way. No way they could escape the Infected there.
"On top," he gestured, "let's hope they won’t get up there,”
Ashleign was sceptical of their chances, but they had no other option.
They sprang to their feet again, sprinting the fifty metres to the train as the Infected lunged at them. Jackson took a great running leap, spurred on by adrenaline, to grab the narrow lip above the long window. He hauled himself up over the edge.
Carter grabbed his outstretched hand as it was offered and he too scrambled on to the train's roof. Ramirez followed.
Ashleign flattened herself against the cold metal of the train as the Infected closed in. Jackson held out his hand and she had to kick one in the head to stop it from biting her. She was about to clear the edge when something caught her ankle and pulled her back, threatening to break Jackson's grip on her hand.
She shouted in terror, watching the Infected crowd in beneath her. Ramirez appeared next to Jackson above and threw half of his body over the side to grab Ashleign by her vest, pulling her free of the gnarled hands. She crumpled in a heap between her heavily breathing teammates.
Franky jumped, desperately trying to find foothold on the slick glass, clawing up for the roof edge, just out of reach.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Ashleign screamed at Carter, who was refusing to help their teammate still on the ground. She rushed over, shooting Carter a sharp look.
"Grab on!" She called down to Franky, who didn't hesitate to obey. She managed to pull him up as the Infected below grabbed for his legs.
"Shouldn't have wasted your energy," Carter said spitefully to Ashleign.
"Haven't we got enough things trying to kill us, without your help?" she retorted.
"He should have thought of that before he got Myers eaten!"
"Nothing can be done about that now! We have slightly more pressing issues," she stabbed a finger towards the Infected piling up the side of their refuge.
"They're going to get up here," Ramirez cut in, sliding away from the edge, "it's not high enough. We have to figure something out right now!"
"We're not going to make it like this," Jackson said quietly. He'd been quiet for the several long minutes while they were arguing.
"One of us has to distract them," he said.
"Distract them how?" Ashleign frowned.
"Get their attention and run like hell back outside, get them to follow,"
"Who in their right mind would volunteer for that? It's suicide!" she stared at him in horror.
"I vote Private Jones. He might just redeem himself," Carter added without humour.
"Are you out of your head? No way I'm going down there!" Franky protested emphatically.
"Of course not, why would I think anything else?" Carter spat back.
"Oh, you'll volunteer yourself then?"
"Enough!" Jackson exclaimed, "no one has to volunteer. I will do it,"
"No Warren!" Ashleign objected, grabbing his arm with wide-eyed dismay.
"It's ok Ash, we all know it's the only way,"
"No, there has to be another option!"
Jackson shook his head, grey eyes full of dejection and resignation.
“There's nothing else for it. I do something now or we all die here,"
Ashleign shook her head even as she knew he was right.
"But what if I do it instead?" She said.
"No, Ash, I won't let you,"
"That's not fair,"
"Go and find your family. You're Mum lives on the coast right?"
She nodded weakly.
"No one will be looking for me, you know that," he said, with a resigned smile.
"That's no reason to throw yourself to the Infected! What about me? I care about you. Is that not enough?"
"Don't do that, Ash. I care about you, that is why I am volunteering. I would rather die than see you hurt. You'll be fine without me,"
He turned to Carter, who was silently watching their exchange, glancing between them with momentary curiosity. His expression darkened when he met the other Corporal's gaze. It was unflinching. Ready.
Ashleign dropped her gaze as tears prickled the backs of her eye lids. It reminded her how much she cared about him.
"You should head to Armadale, see what's left of Charlie, if there is anything," she vaguely heard Jackson say.
In that moment, all of the memories they shared flashed through her head. Including the few nights they had mistakenly spent together in the early days of basic training. She had not regretted them, but they both knew it could not continue with them training so close together and their future deployments would make it impossible.
Still, she had found herself several times through her army career, wishing it could have been different for them. Now, she realized, those feelings had not subsided. Seeing the stubborn set of his jaw, she knew there was no convincing him to change his mind. He would sacrifice himself for them with his stupid bravery. Her chances of having him for herself, gone forever. She hated him for it, hated herself for letting him get to her. This was precisely what they were trying to avoid.
"What will you do?" Carter replied with poorly concealed emotion, bringing Ashleign back to the painful present.
"Well, I have two grenades left, I can clear an area for me to jump down, at the same time you guys pop smoke. Hopefully they'll follow me, and leave you guys alone,"
"Ah, guys?" Ramirez cut in, gesturing to the side of the train, where the Infected were piling themselves up the wall of the cabin, much like they experienced at the library.
"We're out of time," Jackson observed, his quivering voice betraying his outwards calm.
The windows of the train, overstressed by the combined weight pressing on them, finally gave way. Diamonds of glass burst inwards and the growing tower bodies toppled over the vacant seats.
"Give me your grenades, private," Jackson said to Franky.
Jackson drew in a deep breath, as he took the three explosives. He glanced at Ashleign, who refused to meet his gaze. He noticed the glistening of unshed tears in her eyes. He reached for her hand, ignoring their teammates' questioning stares.
She looked at him then, eyes full of pain.
"I can't wait any longer," he said, holding her hand against his cheek.
Ashleign felt the prickle of stubble, the warmth of his skin and a new wave of sadness flashed through her. She had to glance away to stop herself from bursting into tears.
"I love you, Ash. You were the family I didn't have," Jackson lowered his voice enough to avoid being overheard, but both of them knew the others had likely already put the pieces together about their relationship.
Ashleign wanted to confess everything she felt for him, but the words caught in her throat and came out as a sob. Instead, she leaned forward so that her forehead rested lightly on his, taking in his scent for the last time. Tears, rolled freely down her face, and he knew she returned his feelings.
He reluctantly drew away, holding her gaze with a sigh.
"Time to go," he squeezed her shoulder in the familiar way as he turned to Carter.
"Are you ready?"
Carter nodded silently.
"Smoke ready," Jackson ordered.
Ashleign fumbled on her belt for her only smoke grenade, going through the motions in a daze while the others did the same. When each had theirs in hand, Jackson shuffled over to the edge. Immediately, the Infected reached for him, growling with excitement and redoubling their efforts to climb the train car.
He drew in a sharp breath, shooting Ashleign a lingering stare, before pulling the pin on his shrapnel grenade. He tossed it into the throng of writhing bodies just as the smoke grenades behind him erupted into an opaque veil, screening the team. Then, he was gone. Into the void left by the grenade.
Ashleign could hear his shouts over the riled growls and shrieks of the Infected. An explosion as another grenade detonated, blasted her ears, making them ring uncomfortably in the confined space.
She could hear Franky's rapid breathing from where he cowered at the far side of the car. It grated on her ragged nerves. She tried to block it out. Tried to focus on anything else. She could hear Jackson taunting the Infected behind the smoke, getting them to follow him. As he detonated a second grenade, the tattered remains of Ashleign's self-restraint broke. She threw herself in blind rage, across the roof at Franky and they nearly toppled off the far edge.
"You spineless worm!" She spat, as she grabbed him by his Kevlar vest.
Ramirez and Carter made no attempt to stop her, just stared at her in surprise.
"You would sit back and watch for a second time while someone sacrificed themselves for your sorry hide?"
She knew it wasn't Franky's fault, but as the blood roiled in her veins, at that moment she didn't care. She needed someone to blame and he was the one she chose.
"One wasn't enough for you?" She punched him then, square in the face. He sprawled backwards, glaring at her with wild eyes, blood spilling from his nose.
Ramirez grabbed her in attempt to stop a second hit, but she pulled out of his grasp and in a single moment of pure rage, she sent a man to his death.
She kicked out at the prone Private, her boot connecting solidly with his torso. The force of the kick sent him sliding off the edge nearest the Infected as they surged after Jackson.
Franky scrabbled frantically for anything to grab, but his fingers found no purchase. He hit the edge of the platform before crumpling onto the platform.
As the smoke screen begun to thin, Ashleign could make out his form. He tried to get up, but he was clearly injured. Her anger had vanished at the same time he slipped over the edge. Now it had been replaced by terrible fear and remorse. She had not intended for it to go so far. She had also not intended for the Infected to see it.
Half a dozen of them, swarmed him in less than a minute.
Ashleign pulled herself back as the tunnel echoed with Franky's screams.
Carter let out a low whistle, cocking an eyebrow at Ashleign.
"Well now, I didn't expect that," he commented as casually as if he was speaking of the weather.
"Don't you even care that our teammate was just eaten alive?" Ramirez glared daggers at him.
He looked at Ashleign with such disgust that it made her wither. Well, she had just killed a man in cold blood.
Carter shrugged. "Just like he cared when Myers was eaten alive,"
"He was scared! He had every right to be!"
"We were all scared!" Ashleign added, her previous anger returning, "but we all still did what we had to do! Some even did more than they should have,"
Tears blurred her vision and she had to look away.
"How are either of you, any different from him? You have a death on your hands too," Ramirez asked, as his anger grew.
"We are not cowards. That is the difference," Carter hissed, glancing at Ashleign. As he did so, his expression softened, and he let his own grief for the loss of a good friend, show on his scarred face.
"I'm sorry, Ash. I didn't know you were...friendly with him,"
"It could never have worked, but I still loved him," she didn't know why she would confess this to Carter. She had never really confided anything to him before. Maybe she believed she would feel less burdened by regret if she told someone. She was wrong.
The Corporal sighed, but said nothing, lost in his own thoughts of family that he might also have lost.
"Franky died because you loved someone you weren't supposed to?" Ramirez interrupted.
"Shut up about Franky!" Ashleign snapped, "he wasn't even half the man Warren was,"
"It doesn't mean he had to die for it!"
"Myers and Warren didn't have to die for his cowardice!"
His argument caught on his tongue, as a distant explosion on the surface made the whole structure of the train tunnel quiver. Debris rained down on them. In her grief, Ashleign had momentarily forgotten about the airstrikes and that their troubles weren't over.
The smoke screen had vanished and besides the few Infected that still feasted on Franky's body, the platform was empty. Well, at least something had gone to plan. Even if that plan meant the death of someone she cared for deeply.
She was assailed with another flash of grief that would have crippled her if she'd let it. She could not let it.
"We need to move while they're distracted," Carter said after a few moments of listening to the Infected.
"And go where?" Ramirez hissed, "they're bringing a city down on our heads,"
As if to prove the point, another tremor dislodged some tiles off the wall.
Ashleign covered her head as some wiring in the ceiling worked loose by the quake, sparked just above her. She cursed, trying to slow her breathing. Her heart hammered in her chest.
What would they do now? The city above was dying, engulfed in fire and sickness. They were alone, forgotten in the dark. Ramirez hated her and her team was broken. All they could do now was wait. Wait and hope that the fire raining down from above, like the wrath of angry Gods, showed them mercy. Mercy they didn't deserve.
Something further down the tunnel sounded like it collapsed with the next airstrike.
All of Ashleign’s instincts screamed at her to run, get out of the tunnel, but they could go nowhere.
"We should get off the train, the tunnel might collapse," she commented, shining her flashlight into the bottomless gloom ahead of them.
"And contend with them?" Ramirez scowled down at the Infected still distracted by the bloody corpse.
"There's only a few, we can deal with them," Carter replied with a nod.
"Yeah, and when we bring the rest of them back here, and undo the work Jackson did, you can sacrifice someone else to distract them,"
Ashleign turned on the Puerto Rican, gritting her teeth so that she kept her voice low.
"I sacrificed no one! It was an accident!"
"Just like your relationship with Jackson was an accident,"
"That is none of your business!"
"It is, if it affects me,"
"How does it affect you?"
"It affects all of us, that is the reason it's forbidden,"
"Is this really necessary right now?" Carter cut in, "we don't want our friends there getting any ideas,"
The sound of crunching bones echoed loudly in the thick gloom.
"Ah it's making me sick. We should move,"
Ashleign nodded. She too had enough of the awful sound. It reminded her of what she had done.
With a reluctant scowl from Ramirez, they quietly slipped off the edge of the train car furthest away from the Infected and moved down the dark tunnel. They didn't dare turn on their lights for fear of making themselves conspicuous.
There, they waited in the shadow, listening to the rumbling of thunder above them, hoping the concrete and steel ceiling didn't collapse. Ashleign closed her eyes, sensing Ramirez's hate resonating off him like an aura. She could almost see his glare cut through the darkness to impale her.
She lay her head back on the cold concrete, wishing she could have traded places with Jackson. She let her guilt swallow her like the darkness around her.
She didn't know how long they waited, for time seemed somehow unimportant in that tunnel, like it had abandoned them completely. She realized she had fallen asleep, and inwardly chided herself for the lapse. But what had woken her?
Silence shrouded her as thick as the darkness and she immediately wondered if she had been left alone. Her heart pounded, loud in the silence, as shadows, conjured up by her subconsciousness, danced on the walls.
Were there Infected lurking in the tunnel, waiting to find her? She just managed to stop herself from switching on her flashlight to find out.
She jumped as she heard the exaltation of breath to her left, imaging wild visions of the Infected waiting to feast on her. She shuddered.
Carter's questioning whisper flooded her with relief.
"Sorry, I fell asleep," she said, feeling foolish.
"Listen," Carter replied before pausing.
"I don't hear anything," Ashleign frowned.
"That's my point. I don't hear anything either. Maybe they've finished?"
Ashleign strained to hear any sign of the bombers on the surface, but only more deafening silence met her ears.
"Do you think we should risk it?"
"Well, I'm not particularly interested in staying here in the dark forever. Who wants to volunteer to take a look?"
"I believe we have been here before," Ramirez growled from opposite Carter. It sounded as if he sat on the other wall of the tunnel to distance himself from them.
"We'll all go," Ashleign interjected before another quarrel could begin.
They gingerly retraced their steps back towards the platform. It too was quiet and to everyone's relief, empty. The Infected must have been attracted by the explosions outside and followed them. Good riddance. Ashleign thought, as they made their way towards the beacon of daylight streaming in from the escalators.
They climbed from the rubble. Ashleign raised her arm before her face, shielding her eyes from the harsh sunlight that stabbed at her after being trapped underground for so long. The acrid smell of smoke hit her before anything else. It stung her nostrils and throat, forcing her to cough. As her vision adjusted to the great, over powering light above, she saw the carnage wrought by the fire bombings.
Several buildings before the station entrance had collapsed into smoking piles of rubble. The row of street trees that edged the facade, had been obliterated by the incendiaries, leaving blackened trunks in front of destroyed shop fronts. Trash and rubble were strewn across the destroyed pavement, and the street itself, was on fire.
Ashleign glanced at Carter by her side. His horrified countenance reflected her own, and they exchanged speechless glances. She peered out into the burning city.
The bombers had completely destroyed Perth. The twisted skeletons of great buildings smouldered above, wafting voluminous effusions of black smoke into the sky. Some were still ablaze, adding their smoke columns to the dark haze that hung like a macabre blanket over the dead city.
Through this smoke haze, Ashleign could see skyscrapers in the distance that had great rents in their sides, exposing the ruined offices within.
The great city of concrete, glass and metal, was now a twisted shell, broken, blackened and torched. The vibrant, green parks and reserves were but charred wastelands, littered with debris and the dead. Now a graveyard for thousands.
Behind them, Ramirez uttered a quiet prayer, momentarily forgetting his anger and the three of them stood paralysed, unable to move, unable to think. What else were they to do? The city was empty, its defences gone, its life snuffed out. Now just blackened bones and streets for ghosts.
For all the destruction however, the Infected were still there. There was a large group of the cretins, roaming the shattered streets just a few hundred metres from where the trio stood. The attempt at removing them had failed and the air force had abandoned any further attempts. Or perhaps they had misjudged the effectiveness of their bombs, wrongly thinking they had succeeded.
Helplessness fell heavy over Ashleign, the weight of which almost buckled her knees. Her thoughts then turned to her mother, her poor, semi-senile mother. She hoped this mess had not reached her in her nursing home in Rockingham, even as she knew that by now, it surely would have.
How could she have gotten out on her own? Would the nursing home staff get her out? Would her father have been there? Would they even have time?
Ashleign couldn’t stop the insistent thoughts from swirling in her head, but instead of answers, there were only more questions. She had to find her, but she couldn’t just abandon her duties, her teammates. She didn’t know what to do.
“We have to get to Charlie,” Carter’s voice was hollow.
"I’m not going anywhere with you,” Ramirez growled.
“You’ll do as you are told, Private. I am still your commanding officer,'
“I would happily take a court martial over murderers,”
"How far do you think you'll get through that on your own?" Ashleign interjected, stabbing a finger towards the street swarming with Infected.
"I think I'll take my chances. At least I know I won't get stabbed in the back!"
“ I don't care," Carter yelled." I'm done with your accusations. I'll report you as being KIA!"
"Let's get going to Charlie, and find a way out of this mess," he pulled out the GPS, studying it for a moment before starting down the street.
Ashleign nodded and walked after Carter, glaring back at Ramirez, who had made no move to follow them. After a few long moments, Ashleign saw him turn down a side street and disappear. What he would do on his own, she didn't much care. He would probably die soon enough in any case with no one watching his back. Hell, there was a good enough chance they would not make it to Armadale.
What would they find there if they did? Were there people still alive? Surely there had to be. She told herself, as they set off East.
Fire glinted red and angry off the calm waters of the swan river as they made their way back down riverside drive. Even the sun had hidden its face, plunging the broken city into pale shadow that sent a shiver down Ashleign's spine. There was nothing left here for them, they had no choice but to leave. But it was a long way to Armadale.
"Do you think we should try to find a vehicle? I don't relish walking to Charlie," Ashleign asked, glancing around at the abandoned cars stopped dead on both sides of the road, in a kilometre long traffic jam.
"Someone could have left their keys behind in a hurry," Carter said, peering in through the windows as he walked along the column.
Ashleign shrugged, "well if there's no keys, I know how to hot wire if it's old enough,"
Carter stopped and gave her an incredulous look.
"What? My brother taught me a few things before he disappeared,"
"And how did he know how to?"
"I don't really want to know how. He was involved in a lot of shady business," her tone told him that it was a sore point, and not to pursue it.
At the head of the column - seemingly the cause of the traffic jam - was a black Jeep with a smashed in windscreen. The driver was still in the seat, face a bloody mess, as was the rest of the corpse, as they soon saw.
Dry, crusted blood smeared the entire front of the SUV and coagulated from an open festering wound on the dead person's neck. Ashleign couldn't tell through all the damage, if they had been male or female. Not that it really mattered to them now.
They had been attacked by the Infected, obviously dying from shock or blood loss before they could become infected themselves. Ashleign did her best not to vomit.
Carter screwed up his face as he was hit with the stench of death and blood.
"Let's move on," he said with a hand to his face.
Only a few metres away, Ashleign found an older model Land Rover that she believed she could work with. They approached cautiously, but it too was abandoned. She ducked under the dash board while Carter stood watch at her back.
"Have you actually done this before?" he asked, as Ashleign pried off the plastic trim to expose the wires underneath the steering wheel.
"Yeah, twice," She answered, feeling a twang of pride.
"I'm going to ignore that,"
"Well, you asked," Ashleign pulled out a handful of coloured wires and studied them.
After a few silent minutes Carter gestured down the street, "ah, you might want to hurry up, we've got company," he said apprehensively.
Ashleign swore, trying hard to remember what she'd leaned. Finally, she picked some wires that she thought were right and hoped for the best. She stripped back the plastic coating and touched the wires together. The Land rover sputtered to life and Carter scrambled in the back seat as Infected lunged for him.
"Move it!" He shouted, as the abominations pounded on the glass. The vehicle surged forward as the tempered glass splintered into a spider's web around the impact. The Infected hung on and Ashleign had to swerve into a rail to dislodge it with a wet thud and sharp scraping of metal.
Carter climbed into the front passenger seat and exhaled audibly, arching an eyebrow at Ashleign in amazement.
"Full tank," Ashleign announced as she glanced at the fuel gauge.
"Good, let's get the hell out of this graveyard," he studied the GPS and they turned South East away from the smouldering skeletons of Perth, through the outer suburbs that had not escaped from the raining fire. It was all the same, all dead, all burned, twisted and eerily empty. Not even a stray dog or cat. Nothing but the Infected. They had spread everywhere. It wasn't looking good for Safe Zone Charlie.
She exchanged anxious glances with Carter. As the Land rover reached the edge of Armadale.
The inky black smoke rising heavy into the sky before them, confirmed what they had been dreading. They knew Charlie’s fate before they even saw it. But when the hastily erected, canvas tent city spread out before them, they were left speechless. It too was destroyed. No survivors. The army tents decimated by fire, blood in rivulets in the dust. There had been thousands of civilians here. Men, women and children, spared in the city, only to die painfully, or to become Infected themselves, in the place that was supposed to be a safe refuge. All gone.
The checkpoint at the entrance to the camp- the first line of defence- hadn't stood a chance. Judging by the hundreds of spent ammunition cases littering the ground, the sentries had put up a good fight. But one they were destined to lose. The sentries were nowhere to be seen, likely roaming between the tents looking for new victims.
Ashleign slowly maneuvered the Land Rover around a blackened impact crater that was strewn with various body parts and dark blood. Bile rose in her throat.
Gone, everything was gone. Just the Infected here too. Were there any survivors left anywhere?
She glanced at Carter, and he stared back, solemn and pale faced, as they drove up to a twisted wreckage of a helicopter. She noticed it had the same slim-line profile and stubby wings of the helicopter that had gotten them out of the tight spot in the office building.
It was perhaps the same one. Ashleign thought despairingly.
Everyone she cared about was dying around her.
"I have to find mum. She's over in Rockingham," she suddenly said, driving past a row of abandoned army vehicles lined up just beyond the camp. They were untouched, as if everything around them was undisturbed.
Carter frowned, "Rockingham? Ash, that's on the coast. The only way to get there is to go back through that!"
"Maybe they weren't hit yet," she replied ignoring him.
He sighed heavily, peering at her with sympathy from the passenger seat.
"I'm sorry, Ash, but Rockingham is probably just like this,"
"No! You're wrong!" Ashleign slammed her foot on the brakes suddenly, whipping them both forward. She knew he was right, but how could she believe it? That would mean - her family- gone? No, they couldn't be.
"Ash," Carter said calmly, "we need to go inland, away from the city, and the Infected,"
"But what about our orders?"
"No one is here to give us orders,"
"Then what do we do?"
Carter sighed. "Stay alive, until we can link back up with the army,”
"We need, food, shelter, weapons, anything we can carry. We should try to find a supermarket or camping store somewhere,"
"You think there will still be people working at those places?" Ashleign asked sceptically.
Carter frowned at her. "No I don't,"
"What is this the apocalypse? We can't just take things! We're not petty thieves," Ashleign objected emphatically.
"Look around! I'm not sure that applies at this point. We find the things we need or we die. Personally, I didn't come this far just to die because I can't eat. I'm sure you don't want to either,"
Ashleign sighed. No, she didn't want to starve, but she didn't want to become a criminal.
She stared blankly at the burning camp, and in the distance, the smoke haze over the dead city reminded her that perhaps, after all, it was the apocalypse and she would have to grow accustomed to survival at any cost.
With a last despairing glance at the old world, she turned the Land Rover to the East and drove on into the new, unknown world where their future was not guaranteed.
Author Notes: The rest of the story will continue in separate installments.