Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(8)

The Girl with All the Gifts(8)
M.R. Carey

“You have to go,” she says. She thinks she says. She can’t be sure, because of the heart sounds and breath sounds and blood sounds that are crashing in her ears. She makes a gesture. Go! But Miss Justineau is just standing there, trapped between wanting to run and wanting to help.

Melanie scrambles up and lunges, arms stretched out. And it’s almost like that other gesture, a moment ago, when she asked to be picked up, but now she presses her hands against Miss Justineau’s stomach

touching touching touching her

and pushes her violently away. She’s stronger than she ever guessed. Miss Justineau staggers back, almost trips. If she trips, she’ll be dead. Be bread.

Melanie’s muscles are tensing, knotting, coiling inside her. Gathering themselves for some massive effort.

She diverts them into a bellowing roar.

Miss Justineau scrambles, stumbles, is out through the door and wrenching it closed.

Melanie is moving forward and pulling backward at the same time. A man with a big dog on a leash and she’s both of them, straining against the tether of her own will.

The first bolt slides home exactly as she hits the door. The smell, the need, fill her from toe to crown, but Miss Justineau is safe on the other side of the door. Melanie claws at it, wondering at her own stupid, hopeful fingers. The door won’t open now, but some animal inside her still thinks it might.

It’s a long time before the animal gives up. And then, exhausted, the little girl sinks to her knees next to the door, rests her forehead against cold, unyielding concrete.

From above her, Miss Justineau’s voice. “I’m sorry, Melanie. I’m so sorry.”

She looks up groggily, sees Miss J’s face at the mesh window.

“It’s all right,” she says, weakly. “I won’t bite.”

It’s meant to be a joke. On the other side of the door, Miss Justineau starts to cry.


For a great many reasons, the events of that day will eventually become a soggy, undifferentiated mass in Helen Justineau’s mind. But three things will stand out clear for her until the day she dies.

The first is that Sergeant Parks was right all along. Right about her, and about the risks that her behaviour has exposed her to. Seeing the child turn into the monster, right before her eyes, has made her understand at last that both are real. There is no future in which she can set Melanie free, or save her, or remove that cell door from between them.

The second is that some things become true simply by being spoken. When she said to the little girl “I’m here for you”, the architecture of her mind, her definition of herself, shifted and reconfigured around that statement. She became committed, or maybe just acknowledged a commitment. It has nothing to do with guilt for earlier crimes (although she has a pretty fair understanding of what she deserves), or any hope of redemption. It’s just the outermost point on an arc. She’s risen as far as she can, and now she’s falling again, no longer in control (if she ever was to start with) of her own movements.

The deadline that was set for her is coming on at a rush. She’s expected to choose which of the class will be disassembled on Caroline Caldwell’s table. She has no idea what she’ll do now. All her options seem to be barred in one way or another.

The third thing is almost banal, in comparison. It’s just that the movement she saw over Parks’ shoulder, when he was warning her away from the perimeter, was on the wrong side of the fence. That was what had distracted her, thrown her off her stride for a moment, after the two of them ricocheted off one another and recoiled.

A human figure had been watching the fence from the edge of the woods, almost out of sight among the trees and the waist-high undergrowth.

Not a hungry. A hungry wouldn’t hold a branch aside with his hand to maintain a clear line of sight.

A junker, then. A wild man, who never came inside.

And therefore, she reasons, not a threat.

Because all the threats she’s concerned about right now relate to friendly fire.


If Eddie Parks knows one thing, it’s that he’s sick of this detail.

He was okay with the retrieval runs, as far as that went. The grab-bagging, the soldiers called it. Dirty work, and about as dangerous as you can get, but so what? You knew what the risks were going to be, and the rewards. You weighed them in your hands, and they made sense. You could see why you were doing it.

And that was what kept you doing it, week in and week out. Going into areas where you knew damn well there’d be hungries around every corner. The inner cities, where the population density was highest and the infection spread quicker than the fear of it.

And your life was on the line with every choice you made, every step you took, because there were all kinds of situations you could walk into and not walk out of. The hungries in the city, Christ fu**ing Jesus … they’re like statues, most of the time, because they don’t move unless something else moves. You’re sprayed from head to foot with e-blocker, so they can’t smell you, and you can walk right by them as long as you do it slow enough and smooth enough that you don’t flip their trigger.

You can get yourself in really deep.

Then some clumsy bastard trips over a loose paving stone, or sneezes, or just scratches his ass, and one of the hungries whips its head round, on the sound or the movement or whatever the hell, and once one of them clocks you, it’s monkey-see-monkey-do for all the rest. They go from zero to sixty in half a heartbeat, and they’re all running in the same direction. So then you’ve got three choices, two of which will reliably get you killed.

If you freeze, the hungries will roll over you like some kind of gangrenous tsunami. They’ve got your number now, and they won’t be fooled no matter what you smell like.

If you turn and run, they’ll take you down. You can build up a bit of a lead at first, and even think you’re winning, but a hungry can keep up that same loping run pretty much for ever. He’s never going to stop, he’s never going to slow down, and over the distance he will take you.

So you fight.

Broad sweeps, below the waist, full automatic. Bust their legs, and they’ve got to drag themselves on their hands to get to you. Changes the odds a little. And if you can get yourself into a narrow place, where they can only come at you one or two at a time, that helps too. But you would not believe how much damage those fuckers will take and still keep moving.

And some days you’ll stir up a different kind of opposition. Junkers. Survivalist arseholes who refused to come into Beacon when the call went out, preferring to live off the land and take their chances. Most of the junkers stay well away from the cities, like any sane person would, but their raiding parties still tend to see any built-up area for fifty miles around their camp as their very own preserve and property.

So when a Beacon grab-bagger patrol meets a troop of junker scavengers, the fur is going to fly every time. It was a junker who gave Sergeant Parks his scar, which isn’t romantic and understated like a duelling scar but a horrific, pucker-edged trench that crosses his face like a bend sinister on an old coat of arms. Parks tends to gauge the mettle of a new recruit by how long they can look him in the eye first time around, before that monstrous thing makes them take a desperate, abiding interest in their own boots.

But what makes all the aggravation of grab-bagging worthwhile is the stuff that’s still sitting around in all those houses and all those offices, waiting to be taken. Old tech, computers and machine tools and comms hardware that hasn’t been touched since the Breakdown – stuff that you can’t even make any more. They’ve got people back at Beacon, tech people, who know exactly how this stuff works, but the knowledge isn’t any good without the infrastructure. It’s like there used to be a whole factory for every frigging circuit board and every frigging piece of plastic. And the people who used to work in those factories are the ones who right now are so eager to chew their way through your Kevlar to the tender parts underneath.

So that old stuff is literally priceless. Parks gets that. They’re trying to find a way to remake the world twenty years after it fell apart, and the goodies that the grab-bag patrols bring home are … well, they’re a rope bridge over a bottomless canyon. They’re the only way of getting from this besieged here to a there where everything is back in good order.

But he feels like they lost their way somewhere. When they found the first of the weird kids, and some grunt who’d obviously never heard about curiosity and the cat called in a fu**ing observation report.

Nice going, soldier. Because you couldn’t keep from observing, the grab-baggers suddenly get a whole slew of new orders. Bring us one of those kids. Let’s take a good long look at him/her/it.

And the techies looked, and then the scientists looked, and they got the itch to kill a few cats too. Hungries with human reactions? Human behaviours? Human-level brain functions? Hungries who can do something besides run and feed? And they’re running na*ed and feral through the streets of the inner cities, right alongside the regular variety? What’s the deal?

More orders. Requisition a base, a long way from anywhere. Mount a perimeter, and stand by. They’d been raiding the ragged hinterlands of Stevenage and Luton, so RAF Henlow seemed to fit the bill. It was more or less intact, it offered plenty of space both above the ground and in reinforced bunkers underneath it, and it had a functional airstrip.

They dropped in, and then they dug in. Disinfected. Decorated. Waited.

And in due course Dr Caldwell came along with her white coat and her bright red lipstick and her microscope, and a letter from Beacon with a whole lot of signatures and authorisations on it. “This is my show now, Sergeant,” she said. “I’ll take that building over there and the sheds on either side of it. Go get me some more of those kids. As many as you can find.”

Just like that. Like she was ordering fast food, back in the days when there was fast food and you could order it.

Looking back on it, that was the point where Parks’ life stopped making sense. When he stopped being a grab-bagger and became a hunter and trapper.

It’s not like he wasn’t good at it. Hey, he was shit-hot. He realised right out of the gate that you could spot the oddballs, the kids who were different, by the way they moved. Hungries toggle between two states. They’re frozen in place most of the time, just standing there like they’re never going to move again. Then they smell prey, or hear it, or catch sight of it, and they break into that terrifying dead sprint. No warm-up, no warning. Warp factor nine.

But the weird kids move even when they’re not hunting, so you can tell them apart. And they react to stuff that isn’t food, so you can get their attention – with a mirror, say, or the beam of light from a torch, or a piece of coloured plastic.

Cut them out of the pack. Not that there’s a pack exactly, because the hungries always treat other hungries like they’re part of the scenery. But get them to come out where they’re alone, and exposed. Then drop the nets.

He and his team took thirty in the space of about seven months. It wasn’t even hard once they got into the rhythm of it. Then Caldwell told them to stand down and wait for further orders. Said she had enough material to work with.

And how messed up is this? Suddenly Parks is in charge of a kindergarten. He finds himself defending a base that isn’t doing a damn thing apart from nursemaiding these little hungries. They’ve got their own rooms, the same pallet beds as the soldiers, weekly feeding (which if you ever want to eat again yourself, you don’t want to see), even a schoolroom.

Why a schoolroom?

Because Caldwell wants to know if these spooky little monsters can learn. She want to see inside their heads. Not just the hardware – she’s got her operating table for that side of things – but the squishy stuff too. Like, what are they thinking?

Here’s what Parks is thinking. The regular hungries are clean compared to these kid-shaped monstrosities. At least you can tell that the regular hungries are animals. They don’t say “Good morning, Sergeant” when you kneecap them.

There isn’t a whole lot more of that he can choke down, to be honest. The blonde one … Melanie. She’s test subject number one, for some reason, even though she was about the eleventh or the twelfth one he bagged. She scares the shit out of him, and he can’t explain why. Or maybe he can, and he doesn’t like to think about it. Certainly a part of it is that unfailing good-little-girl smarminess she’s got. An animal like that, even if it looks like a human being, should make meaningless sounds or no sounds at all. Hearing it talk just muddies the waters.

But Parks is a soldier. He knows how to shut up and do what he’s told. In fact, that’s his speciality subject. And he gets what Caldwell is doing. These kids – presumably the kids of junker families that got trapped and bitten and infected – seem to have some kind of partial immunity to the hungry pathogen. Oh, they’re still flesh-eaters. Still react in the same way to the smell of live meat, which is the sign by which ye shall frigging well know them. But the light inside their heads didn’t go out, for some reason – or not all the way out. They were living like animals when the grab-baggers found them, but they rehabilitate really nice and they can walk and talk and whistle and sing and count up to big numbers and all the rest of it.

Whereas their mummies and daddies are in the wind. If they all got taken and fed on as a family unit, the adults just went the same way as everyone else who gets bitten. They turned into full-on brain-dead monsters.

The kids got stuck halfway. So maybe they’re the best hope of finding an actual cure.

See? Parks is no fool. He knows what’s being done here, and he’s served that purpose silently and uncomplainingly. He’s served it for the best part of four years now.

Rotation was meant to happen after eighteen months.

There are other people in the same boat, and it’s fair to say that Parks is more worried about them than he is about himself. That’s not bleeding-heart bullshit; it’s just that he knows his own limits better than he knows theirs. There are twenty-eight men and women under his command (he doesn’t count Caldwell’s people, who mostly don’t know what an order is), and with that small a number, base security needs all of them to be combat-fit and ready to respond if a situation develops.

Parks has doubts about half his muster, at this point.

Doubts about himself too, insofar as he’s a non-commissioned officer effectively acting as a field commander for a unit maintaining a fixed post with civilian liaison. The minimum rank for that billet, if you go by regs, is lieutenant.

Parks has his own scripture, which doesn’t meet regs at many points. But he knows when his centre of gravity is compromised. And just recently that’s how he feels more days than not.

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