Home > The Girl with All the Gifts(9)

The Girl with All the Gifts(9)
M.R. Carey

That’s how he feels today, when he takes Gallagher’s report.

Gallagher, K., Private, 1097, 24 July, 17.36

In the course of a routine clearance sweep of the woodland north-west of base, I was involved in an incident which transpired as follows immediately below.

I was bait, Devani was pacing me with the heavy auto, and Barlow and Tap were clean-up.

We verified a large group of hungries stationary in the Hitchin Road, close to the Airman roundabout. They were skin and bone, mostly, but none of them looked too far gone to be a threat.

We set up in the wood, as per operational parameters, and Devani dropped me off at the roundabout. On Lance Bombardier Tap’s orders, I was not wearing e-blocker.

I proceeded to go upwind of the hungries and waited until they clocked me.

Whereupon, having clocked me, they pursued me for several hundred yards, off the road and into the woodland, where I proceeded to—

“Jesus wept,” Parks says, putting the report down on his desk. “You proceeded to proceed? Just tell me what happened, Gallagher. Save this bollocks for your autobiography.”

Gallagher blushes to the roots of his red hair. His freckles disappear in the general incandescence. On anyone else, that blazing face would mean a consciousness of having screwed up, but there’s a long list of things that would make Gallagher blush like a schoolgirl, including for example a dirty joke, any exertion more taxing than a parade march, or a single sip of bootleg gin. Not that you tend to see this soldier drinking all that often – he’s as skittish around alcohol as if the army he signed up with was the one that offers you salvation. Parks extends the benefit of the doubt a little bit further and a little bit thinner.

“Sir,” Gallagher says, “the hungries were right up my arse. I mean, they were close enough so I could smell them. You know that sour stink they get, when the grey threads start showing through their skin? It was strong enough so my eyes were watering.”

“Thready ones don’t normally get this far out from the cities,” Parks muses, not liking the news.

“No, sir. But I’m telling you, this bunch was ripe. Couple of them had their faces all fallen in. Clothes had mostly rotted off them. One of them had lost an arm. Don’t know whether it had been eaten off of him, back when he first got infected, or if it had fallen off since, but yeah, these weren’t newbies.

“Anyway, I was running back towards where Tap and Barlow were set up, behind that big stand of beech trees. There’s a hedgerow there, and it’s pretty solid. You’ve got to pick your spot – go through it where it’s thin enough not to slow you down too much. And you can’t see what you’re running into, obviously.”

Gallagher hesitates, seeming to wince slightly. His memories have hit a barrier a lot more solid than that hedge.

“What did you run into?” Parks prompts.

“Three blokes. Junkers. They were just walking along on the far side of the hedge, where they couldn’t be seen from the road. There are blackberry bushes all along that stretch, so maybe they were picking fruit or something. Except that one of the three – boss man, I reckoned, on account of his kit – he had a pair of binoculars. And all three of them were armed. Boss man’s got a handgun; the other two have got machetes.

“I broke out of the hedge about fifty yards away, heading right at them.” Gallagher shakes his head in unhappy wonder. “I shouted at them to run, but they didn’t take any notice. The bloke with the gun drew down on me, and he was this close to blowing my brains out.

“Then the hungries burst through the hedge right behind me, and he sort of lost his concentration. But the three of them were still blocking my way, and this nutcase still had his gun pointed right at me. So I barged him. It’s not like there was anywhere else to go. He got one shot off, but he managed to miss me. Don’t know how, at that range. Then I hit him full on with my shoulder and kept right on going.”

The soldier stops again. Parks waits, letting him get it out in his own words. It’s clear that this whole thing has freaked him out badly, and it’s part of Parks’ job, sometimes, to take confession. Gallagher is one of the greenest of the buck privates. If he was born at all when the Breakdown came, he was still sucking on his mother’s tit. You’ve got to make allowances for that.

“Ten seconds later, I’m back in the trees again,” Gallagher says. “I looked over my shoulder and didn’t see anything. But I heard a scream. One of the junkers, obviously. And he went on screaming for a hell of a long time. I stopped. I was thinking about going back, but then the hungries popped up right behind me and I had to get going again.”

Gallagher shrugs.

“We completed the mission. Tap and Barlow had set the traps up right on the finish line. Hungries ran into them, got themselves stuck in the barbed wire, and after that it was just clean-up.”

“Petrol or lime?” Parks asks. He can’t keep from asking, because he’s told Nielson no more petrol for routine bake-offs, but he knows for a fact the quartermaster is still signing off on ten-gallon drums.

“Lime, sir.” Gallagher is reproachful. “There’s a pit by the road there that we dug out back in April. We didn’t even half fill it yet. We rolled them in and shovelled three bags in on top of them, so they should render down nicely so long as it doesn’t rain.”

This purely operational stuff perks Gallagher up a little, but he becomes sombre again as he gets back to his own story. “After we were done, we went back to the hedge. The boss man and one of the other two were lying there on the ground, right where I’d seen them before. They were really badly chewed up, but they were still twitching. Then the boss man opened his eyes, and I verified—” Gallagher catches himself slipping back into report-speak, stops and starts again. “He was crying blood, the way they do sometimes when the rot’s just getting into them. It was obvious they were both infected.”

Parks is impassive. He saw that punchline coming. “Did you finish them off?” he asks – the bluntness deliberate. Call a spade a spade. Make Gallagher see that it’s all just business as usual. It won’t help him now, but it might take the edge off later.

“Barley – Private Barlow – decapitated them both with the second bloke’s machete.”

“Mask and gloves on?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you retrieved their kit?”

“Yes, sir. Handgun is well maintained, and there were forty rounds of ammo in one of the packs. Binoculars are a bit cack, to be honest, but the boss man had a walkie-talkie too. Nielson thinks it might work with our long-range sets.”

Parks nods approval. “You handled a tricky situation really well,” he tells Gallagher, and he means it. “If you’d frozen when you came through that hedge, the civilians would still have died – and most likely they’d have held you up long enough to kill you too. This is a better outcome all round.”

Gallagher says nothing.

“Think about it,” Parks persists. “These junkers were less than a mile away from our perimeter, armed and tooled up for surveillance. Whatever they were doing, they weren’t just out taking the air. I know you feel like shit right now, Private, but what happened to them isn’t down to you. Even if they were lily-white. Junkers choose to live outside the fences, so they take what comes with that.

“Go and get drunk. Maybe pick a fight with somebody or get yourself laid. Burn it off. But do not waste a bastard second of my time or yours with feeling guilty about this bullshit. Drop a penny in the poor box, move along.”

Gallagher comes to attention, seeing the dismiss looming.

“Now dismiss.”

“Yes, sir.”

The private rips off a smart salute. Mostly they don’t bother these days, but it’s his way of saying thanks.

Truth is, Gallagher may be green, but he’s far from the worst of an indifferent-to-sod-awful bunch of soldiers, and Parks can’t afford to have him join the walking wounded. If the lad had killed the junkers himself, gutted them and made balloon animals out of their colons, Parks would still have done his best to put a positive spin on it. His own people are his priority here, first and last.

But somewhere in the stack, he’s also thinking this: junkers? On his doorstep?

Like he didn’t have enough to bloody worry about.

13

The week goes by, slow and inexorable. Three Mr Whitaker days in a row reduce the class to unaccustomed lethargy.

Whether by accident or design, Sergeant stays away from Melanie. She hears his voice yelling transit in the mornings, but he’s never visible when she’s taken out from her cell, or when she’s brought back to it. Each time, she feels a surge of anticipation. She’s ready to fight him again, and declare her hate for him, and defy him to hurt her some more.

But he doesn’t come into her line of sight, and she has to swallow all those feelings back into herself the way a rat or a rabbit will sometimes reabsorb into its womb a litter of young that it can’t safely give birth to.

Friday is a Miss Justineau day. Normally this would be a cause of intense and uncomplicated joy. This time, Melanie is afraid as well as excited. She almost ate Miss Justineau. What if Miss Justineau is angry about that, and doesn’t like her any more?

The start of the lesson does little to reassure her. Miss J has come back unhappy and preoccupied, folded in on herself so that her emotions are impossible to read. She says good morning to the class as a whole, not to each individual boy and girl. She makes no eye contact.

She tests the children with short-answer and multiple-choice questions for most of the day. Then she sits at her desk and marks their answers, writing the test scores down in a big notebook while the class works on sums.

Melanie isn’t thinking much about the sums, which she finishes in a few minutes. They’re just easy calculus, most of them with single variables. Her attention is focused on Miss Justineau, and to her horror she sees that Miss Justineau is crying silently as she works.

Melanie searches her mind frantically for something to say. Something that might comfort Miss J, or at least distract her from her sorrows. If it’s the marking that’s making her sad, they can switch to a different activity that’s easier and more fun.

“Can we have stories, Miss Justineau?” she asks. Miss Justineau doesn’t seem to have heard. She goes on tallying up the test scores.

Some of the other kids sigh or tut or fidget. They can see that Miss Justineau is sad, and they clearly think that Melanie shouldn’t be bothering her with selfish demands. Melanie sticks to her guns. She knows the class can make Miss J happy again if she’ll only talk to them. Her own happiest times have always been here, like this, so how can they not be Miss Justineau’s happiest times too?

She tries again. “Can we have myths of Ancient Greece, Miss Justineau?” she asks louder.

This time Miss J hears. She looks up, and shakes her head. “Not today, Melanie,” she says, and her voice is as sad as her face. For a few moments she just stares out at the class, almost like she’s surprised to see them there. “I have to finish these assessments,” she says.

But she doesn’t go back to the notebook. She keeps looking at the class. There’s kind of a frown on her face. It’s like she’s the one who’s doing hard sums, not them, and she’s reached one that she just can’t work out.

“Who the hell am I kidding?” she asks really quietly.

She tears up the tests, which is surprising but the kids don’t really mind, because who cares about test results? Only Kenny and Andrew, when they’re trying to outscore each other, which is really lame and stupid because Melanie is the best in the class and Zoe is the second best, so the boys are only fighting for third place.

Then Miss J tears up the notebook. She rips the pages out a few at a time, and shreds them with her hands until they’re too small to tear any more. She drops the pieces into the waste-paper basket, only they’re too small and light to fall straight. They turn in the air, spread out, make a mess on the floor all around it. Miss Justineau doesn’t mind. She starts to throw the pieces up in the air, instead of just dropping them, so they spread out even further.

She’s not happy exactly, but she’s stopped crying. It’s a good sign.

“You want stories?” she asks the class.

They all do.

Miss Justineau gets the Greek myths book out of the book corner and brings it to the front. She reads them the story of Actaeon, which is scary, and Theseus and the Minotaur, which is even scarier. At Melanie’s request, she winds up with Pandora again, even though they all know it. It’s a good way to finish off the day.

When Sergeant’s people come, Miss Justineau doesn’t look at them. She sits on the corner of the teacher’s desk, turning the Greek myths book over and over in her hands.

“Goodbye, Miss Justineau,” Melanie says. “See you soon, I hope.”

Miss Justineau looks up. It seems as though she’s about to say something, but there’s a bump right then as someone – one of Sergeant’s people – gets hold of Melanie’s chair from behind and takes the brakes off. The chair starts to turn.

“I need this one for a moment,” Miss Justineau says. Melanie can’t see her any more, because she’s been turned mostly away, but Miss Justineau’s voice is loud, like she’s very close by.

“Okay.” The soldier sounds bored, like it’s all the same to him. He moves on to Gary’s chair.

“Good night, Melanie,” Miss Justineau says. But she doesn’t go away. She leans down over Melanie, her shadow falling on the arms of the chair and on Melanie’s hands.

Melanie feels something hard and angular being shoved down between her back and the back of the chair. “Enjoy,” Miss Justineau murmurs. “But keep it to yourself.”

Melanie leans back, as hard as she can, squaring her shoulders against the chair’s bare metal plates. The something is wedged against the small of her back – completely out of sight. She has no idea what it could be, but it’s something that came from Miss Justineau’s hand. Something Miss Justineau has given to her, and only her.

She stays in that position all the way back to her cell, and all through her straps being untied. She doesn’t move a muscle. She keeps her gaze fixed on the floor, not trusting herself to meet the eyes of Sergeant’s people without giving the secret away.

Only when they’ve gone, and the bolts have shot closed on the cell door, does she reach behind her back and slide out the foreign object that’s been lodged there, registering first the solid weight of it, then the rectangular shape, and finally the words on the cover.

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