Chapter 2 – Realisation

Skidding to a halt in the foyer of the building, Daniel mentally regrouped and walked over to the reception desk. The lass sitting behind it was a pretty young girl. She looked like the sort that would normally have been making sure her perfect nails remained that way, and would only help if it didn’t impact her busy social schedule. Not today, she looked like death warmed up; her hair dishevelled like a bad wig, her face was the colour of cigarette ash, and her eyes, bloodshot with dark rings below them that accentuated their large, doe-like appearance, gave her an evil Betty Boop look. He had seen the symptoms before, about a thousand times before, and all just this morning. Her stare was vacant, but he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t always like that, so paid little attention to her gaze when he tried to speak to her.
“Hello. Hello? Are you okay? You don’t look very well.” No response. “Hello.” He waved his hand in front of her, her eyes began to follow it as he moved it back and forth. He thought he was getting her attention so he withdrew it again, not wanting to appear rude. She returned to the vacant stare. “Bloody hell,” he said, trying one last parting comment, spoken slowly so she might understand, “I’m going up to my office. Thanks for your help.” Nothing.
Giving up, he walked to the lifts and pressed the up button. The Perspex index board hanging on the wall showed that his company resided on the third floor. Good, didn’t need her assistance after all. A small bell rang and the lift door in front of him opened, revealing a man standing in the middle of the mirrored chamber. He just stared unblinkingly.
“Excuse me, are you getting out?” Daniel asked him. Blank stare, ashen face. “Another one. Right, I’m taking the stairs,” he said, speaking to himself once again. He would be damned if he would end up trapped in a confined space with this guy.
The stairs were to the right of the lift column, so he began trudging up the six flights to his floor. While walking he called Janet on his mobile phone. She picked up on the fourth ring, by which time he was getting anxious.
“Hello?” her voice came over the earpiece, much to his relief.
“Hi, love. I’m sure glad to hear your voice.” The relief flooded through his body.
“Are you alright?” she asked, concern edging into her voice.
“I’m okay. It’s everyone else I’m worried about. Something’s wrong.”
“What? Listen, I’m just about to go around to the library. I won’t be long. Was your train journey okay for a first day?” She wasn’t listening, or couldn’t hear what he said.
“Listen to me, something’s wrong today. There’s …” The phone line crackled in his ear.
“Sorry Danny, I can’t hear you. The signal is crap. Look, I won’t be long, an hour at most. I’ll take my mobile in case you need to get in touch. Love you.” The line went dead.
“Fuck,” he said, trying to redial. An engaged signal greeted him. “Shit.”
He ran the last three flights and came to the entrance door. It was slightly ajar. It should have been locked, accessed only by key card. Feeling rather more nervous than he expected to be on the first day here, he gingerly pushed at the door, opening it just enough to get into their own reception area.
“Hey, Danny. Welcome!” Daniel jumped at the voice coming from behind him. It was Rob, his American associate and friend.
“Jeez, you nearly gave me a heart attack!”
“What’s up?” Rob was always an upbeat, relaxed kind of guy, a little too much waist-height padding, typical for IT systems workers. All that time in front of a screen, however, he compensated for by using the gym every day, and was quite fit in spite of his daytime immobility. He had a small beard and his hair was thinning on top. Daniel liked to rib him about it, professing that his hair had slipped down his face. He never said it within hitting distance, though; Rob was quite a bit bigger.
“There’s some weird stuff going on out there. I can’t explain it.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’ve been here overnight, sorting out the servers, ready for today.”
“Well, it’s giving me the creeps. Have you seen the receptionist downstairs?”
“No. When I got here the desk was empty. I used my key to get in,” he said, holding up a plastic magnetic card.
“Is there anyone else in yet?”
“I think I heard someone a little while ago. Let’s go see.”
Daniel was grateful to have Rob’s company as they walked the length of the corridor, looking in each office as they passed it. They saw no-one.
“Strange, I could have sworn I’d heard someone.” Rob said, looking bemused.
“I noticed the front door was open a bit when I arrived. Perhaps he or she went out again?” Daniel offered, hopefully. Somehow he didn’t want anyone else to be there. He had the distinct impression that he and Rob were two of the few normal people around right now.
At that moment, they heard a cistern flush. It came from the women’s lavatory. They both turned to face the door, Daniel’s nervousness passing to Rob; fear and yawning were both highly infectious to humans. They waited, holding their breath. They could hear clumsy footsteps. Whoever it was, sounded like they were struggling, trying to walk. A thump reverberated against the door, making the two jump; it sounded as if the person had fallen against it in an effort to stand upright.
Slowly the door began to open. It was Marilyn, the office administrator. Rob and Daniel let out a collective sigh of relief. And then looked again. Rob’s jaw fell open; this was his first encounter with one of the sick today. For Daniel, his stomach lurched; he had thought he was safe in the office.
Poor Marilyn, she looked dreadful. Pretty much the same as the rest of those unfortunate souls Daniel had seen so far, except there was a spark of recognition in her eyes when she saw her colleagues. As she smiled, drunkenly so it seemed, her dry, cracked lips stuck to her teeth and her vivid scarlet lipstick was smudged all around her mouth.
“Hi, guys,” she gurgled, and then coughed. Her throat appeared partially blocked, her ability to speak was almost gone. The cough continued, racking her body until the two men winced at the sound; it had to be painful. Suddenly blood gushed from her mouth, a pool collected at her feet of some strange viscous red and green fluid, a bizarre mixture of blood and a thick, stringy green saliva.
“Bloody hell,” Daniel exclaimed. “Let’s get you sitting down, quickly.” He put a hand under her left arm and Rob stood to the right, holding her from the other side. Gently they half-dragged, half-carried her to the nearest office, and helped her into a chair near the door.
“Can you get her some water, Rob? You know where all the facilities are.”
“Sure thing,” Rob said and left the room, somewhat grateful to be away from the appalling sight of the woman. Blood and drool had begun to stream down her front, her white silk blouse taking on an unfashionable emergency room look.
She was trying to talk, but nothing other than a slight hiss and some gurgling could be heard.
“Don’t try to speak,” Daniel said gently, trying to stop her from exerting her lungs. Marilyn was fading fast, her eyelids drooping now and head nodding as the last vestiges of muscular control were lost. With a final death rattle, she sighed her last and her body went slack. Daniel caught her as she slumped down in her seat and laid her gently on the ground next to the chair.
Rob dashed back into the room and came up short, seeing her lying on the floor.
“Damn, she’s gone. Isn’t she.” A statement, not a question. Daniel just nodded, too shocked to react properly.
Looking up at last, he spoke. “We have to get out of here. Something is doing this, whatever it is. I don’t want to die.”
“If it’s outside, what are we going to do? Where will we go?”
“I have to get back to Jan, now. She’s in danger. She’s at the bloody library.”
“Surely the librarians aren’t that bad?” Rob quipped, trying to stop Daniel from freaking out. He still had not understood their dilemma.
“What? Oh, yeah. Good joke.”
“Sorry, man. Inappropriate, I guess. Have you seen more of this shit out there? Are there more people sick like this outside?” Rob asked, trying to understand what was stressing his friend out.
“Not like this, no. But everyone seems to be coming down with something. Janet was ill this morning, we both assumed it was a cold. I’ve got a cold, too. At least I hope it’s a cold. Is there a window here that looks out over Cannon Street? See what’s going on.”
“Yeah, follow me. I’ll show you.” They ran from the room, Rob leading the way. There was a panoramic window on the other side of reception and the view, on any other day, would have been amazingly beautiful.
Today, however, it looked like a scene from Bedlam; lots of people milling around, some running and screaming. A few looked like they were actually being chased down by groups of the afflicted, their minds focused on bringing down their prey. “Looters,” Daniel mumbled, unconvinced.
“Do you think this is widespread?” Rob asked, not really expecting an answer. As if in response to his question, a huge explosion erupted on the south side of the Thames, the percussion of it shaking the window in front of them. A massive fireball hurled itself into the sky, leaving a smoky trail so that it resembled the mushroom cloud of a small nuclear detonation.
“Bugger me!” Daniel said, voice fading as he watched the incandescent ball curl into the morning sky.
“Let’s turn the telly on, see if the news is covering any of this. Someone has to know what’s going on.”
“Good idea,” Daniel agreed. They walked back to the reception area where a sixty inch plasma screen had been hung to amuse waiting visitors to the company. Turning it on, it was already tuned to Sky News, where they saw a talking head expounding on what was happening, views of London behind him. The volume came up and at last they could hear what he was saying.
‘Scenes like this are being seen all over the world. Emergency services are stretched to the limit, and hastily convened calls are going on, as I speak, between the UK Prime Minister and the President of the United States as well as with the leaders of other countries. No-one has yet been able to give a definitive answer to the question on everyone’s lips, ‘what’s going on?’
In the background, the camera switched from London to New York, where another reporter took up the story.
‘Although the scenes are frightening and there appear to be a large number of injuries, at the moment the problems appear to be limited to a relatively small area in the USA, mostly New York and some of the eastern seaboard.’
The picture switched to Mumbai, where a similar scene was unfolding.
Rob switched the volume to mute. “I have to call Sandra, see if she’s okay.”
“Sure, Rob, that’s a good idea. I’m sure she’s fine though, this appears to be happening a long way from Colorado.”
“Problem is, we’ve just moved. We don’t know any of the neighbours yet, and her parents aren’t even close by anymore. So without me …” he left the sentence unfinished.
“Yeah, I get it,” Daniel agreed. “We’ve gotta leave this place before it gets too bad out there, but do make that call. I don’t want you wondering if she’s okay all the way back to my place. We’ll check again when we get there.”
Rob picked up the reception phone and dialled home. A look of happiness replaced his frown as she picked up the receiver at the other end.
“Hi, babe. It’s me. I just wanted to call you, make sure you’re okay. I know it’s gone one in the morning. I guess you haven’t heard yet. When I hang up, turn on the TV. Something weird’s going on here and in New York. No-one can explain it,” he paused, listening, “Yep. Will you stay at home and not go to work? Please? Thanks, love. I’m in the office. I’m going with Danny to his place. If I think it is getting worse, I’ll try and get a flight home before they close the airports. Yep, I promise I’ll be careful, okay. Love you. Call you later. Bye, bye.” He hung up and looked at Daniel. “Right. Let’s get going.”
“Okay, we need a plan of action. What have we got that would work as weapons around here?”
Giving it some thought, Rob replied. “We have some fire extinguishers; you could use their weight or fire them at attackers. It might give us an edge.”
“Anything else?” Danny didn’t like the idea of the extinguishers, a little too clumsy for a real fight.
“A couple of packing knives, some unassembled desks. The legs are steel, we could use them as bats.”
“Sounds good. Let’s do it.”
Together they collected their makeshift arsenal. It still felt like a lightweight proposition as far as Daniel was concerned. What he’d have loved was a gun, a fucking big gun. And plenty of ammo. They’d just have to work with what they had to hand. Collecting their limited weaponry together, they had to pass through the reception to leave; unfortunately Marilyn stood in their way, swaying unsteadily.
“She’s alive!” Rob said, disbelief in his tone. She was staring at them, standing between them and their exit. Drool was pouring steadily down her front now, blood was caked on the side of her face from where she had lain. It had dried in patches on her cheek and down one side of her chest, the carpet lending it’s texture to the dried colouring, giving her a hideous, matted appearance. A slow, malevolent hiss was escaping from her mouth, her eyes deadpan, her gaze moving uncertainly between the two men.
“Marilyn,” Daniel said, in a gentle voice so as not to spook her. “Are you okay?” Stupid bloody question, and for his pains, she began to focus on him, edging her way forward, arms slack and by her side. He stepped toward her, his natural concern for a work colleague overtaking common sense.
“I wouldn’t,” Rob said, bracing himself to defend Danny if the worst happened.
“It’s okay. It’s only Marilyn.” She picked that moment to launch herself at him, teeth bared. The approach was clumsy, and Daniel easily sidestepped her attack. Expecting to land on him, she fell to the ground as the air in front of her was now empty. She growled in frustration. Daniel bent down to help her up once more.
“Get back, Danny!” Rob shouted, “can’t you see she’s fuckin’ nuts? That isn’t Marilyn, she’s like a zombie.”
As if to support his conjecture, Marilyn, or the thing that was once her, stood quickly and turned on Rob. She ran at him and he brought the fire extinguisher up and caught her in the chest. The lads both heard her rib cage crunch and she staggered backwards under the power of the blow.
“Jesus! You must have crushed her chest,” said Daniel, stating the bloody obvious. He was getting good at that.
She looked down at the damage, fingering a rib that was now protruding through her top, gore hanging off it. Looking back at Rob, her face contorted with rage and she lunged once more at him. Thwack! Daniel’s fire extinguisher connected with the side of her head. In what seemed like slow motion, they looked on as her head imploded under this new force, before finally bursting outwards as if under pressure. Blood and brain matter went everywhere, most of it seemed to splash back and cover Daniel. Marilyn fell and was still.
“What the hell? She just stood there, ribs sticking out and everything. How could she still be standing?” Daniel asked no-one in particular. Today was getting weirder, he thought. And that was no easy feat. And it was still only half past eight in the morning.
“Dunno. Your headshot seemed to do the trick, though. Keep that in mind and let’s get out of here before someone comes and sees what we’ve done.” Both of them were instinctively worried that they had done something to break the law. Weren’t politicians always going on about using minimum force, or something. Would killing, if that’s what it was, count as minimum force, today?
“I don’t need telling twice,” Daniel agreed. “Let’s use the stairs, there’s some bloke in the lift, and he doesn’t seem to want to get out.”
Daniel grabbed some tissues off the reception counter and wiped his face and fire extinguisher, removing the worst of the gore. He felt unclean. He didn’t feel sad at ending Marilyn’s life; he somehow doubted he had actually been the death of her. If he had, then she had died twice.
Copyright © 2013 David Kingsley Roberts


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