Climbing out of the manhole cover next to their truck, the men stood looking back at the building that had been their target. They were now approximately one hundred and fifty yards from their ingress point to the MI5 mortuary. Gerard fell to his knees when he saw the conflagration.
“Oh, Jesus,” he cried. “Now I know what they meant by safe.”
For miles around the fire could be seen raging, the intensity of the smoke so dense it could even be seen against the night sky, the underside of the plume illuminated by the roaring flames and street lighting. He looked at his men-in-arms and wondered if they saw the same thing: an end to everything they knew and loved. From their slumped shoulders and crest-fallen attitudes he was certain they did. He snatched his hood off and hyperventilated, sucking in great gulps of fresh air into his lungs, at the same time forcing himself not to give up, not to collapse physically and mentally. He was watching his worst nightmare as it came to pass. A few others copied his action and tore their hoods off to breathe more deeply; the filter in their suits limited the amount of air they could draw on each breath.
“I want you all to put them back on in a minute. You know what happens if you inhale that stuff.” He took a final few gasps of normal air and pulled his hood on once again. “Come on lads, don’t lose it now. A lot depends on us.”
“Let’s get around to the front of the building, all the exits back here are secure; we have to protect the men and women of the emergency services. They have no idea what nightmare they’re about to walk into.”
Together they quick-marched to the embankment entrance and stood by as the fire trucks arrived; this call-out appeared to be a six truck emergency. Gerard looked around the milling personnel for the fire commander and quickly located him; he stood between the fire trucks and the inferno, monitoring the actions of his men and offering appropriate encouragement as they fulfilled their tasks, rolling out the hoses and locating the water faucets under the pavement.
“Are you the Commander of this detail?” Gerard asked as he approached the man.
“Yes?” he replied questioningly, confused and more than a little alarmed by the unexpected sight of the man approaching him, clad in what appeared to be a biohazard suit and carrying an assault rifle.
“Sir, we haven’t met. My name is Gerard duBois. I am the officer in command of this emergency. I require you take my advice and to instruct your men to don their breathing apparatus as a matter of urgency.”
“What are you on about?”
“Please don’t delay any further, you need to comply immediately, for you and your men’s sake; we can discuss the reasons once I know that your personnel are protected against the contamination.”
Despite his misgivings, the word contamination sunk in and the commander acted, shouting an order to the fire crews so that all of his men stopped what they were doing and put their visors and air cylinders on.
“Thank you, sir,” Gerard said appreciatively. “What is your name?”
“Frederickson, Station Commander, A Division.” The man’s eyes still showed a lurking suspicion of these people who, for reasons unknown had already been on site when the emergency services arrived, a mere four minutes and forty five seconds after the alarm was received. “Can you tell me who you are? Why you are here? Or are you affiliated with them?” he said, jerking his thumb in the direction of the burning building.
“Sir, I regret to tell you that I cannot be more specific than to say we are indeed just that, and have been authorised by the Prime Minister himself to take whatever actions are necessary to secure this scene. As you must know, this location is a critical site for our security services and the fire must be brought under control as quickly as possible. The smoke you see carries a germ that WILL affect everyone who breathes it in. It kills ninety nine times out of a hundred.” He decided not to tell the Commander the devastating news about the post death re-animation.
Even through his breathing equipment Gerard could see the Commander’s face blanch as realisation set in; prior to the moment he had put on his own breathing apparatus Frederickson had been able to smell the smoke. Professional to the end, he quickly recovered his composure. “So it’s pretty much fatal, that’s what you’re telling me.”
“I’m afraid so, sir.” Gerard admired the stiff upper lip of the man; a lesser being would have crumbled at the news of his almost inevitable demise.
“I understand. Keep this information to yourself, would you? No point in scaring the lads before we have to.”
“Of course.” Gerard turned back to the building. “What’s the fastest way to kill this type of fire?”
The commander looked long and hard at the blaze, mentally calculating what needed to be done to resolve the situation.
“For a starter we’re going to need more pumps,” he announced finally. Stepping up into the cabin of one of the trucks he got onto the radio, calling more units to the site.
“I’ve called for another ten, which should do it. In light of what you’ve just told me, I’ve had to ask for them on a voluntary basis – this isn’t exactly a standard fire scene, even the hazardous materials are worse than usual – we may or may not get a full contingent. Those that do come will start to arrive in about five minutes, give or take. I’ve warned them to don their breathing apparatus before they get here. As for the fire, we’ll start by flooding the basement – that appears to be the source of the problem.”
He strode off giving orders to his men and directing their efforts in such an easy and calm fashion Gerard couldn’t help but be impressed – the Commander was like a man facing a firing squad without a blindfold, all the while casually smoking a cheroot. As for the crews, these were good guys going about their day-to-day routine and it was an unspeakable tragedy that most of them had already breathed enough of the deadly smoke to have been infected. Now they had only a few hours to live. He suspected that even if the firemen knew their fate they would most likely all stay to do what they could until they no longer functioned as humans; at which point, in spite of his regret, Gerard’s men would have to contain any ensuing violence the only way possible.
His own troops were making themselves useful by cordoning off the surrounding area and detaining curious onlookers. Whilst actively discouraging members of the public from approaching the cordon, any that disregarded such warnings and tried to take footage on their mobile phones were made to lie face down on the pavement upwind and about a hundred yards away from the blaze, allegedly for their own safety. Hopefully this precaution would be enough to keep passers-by from becoming infected or, in the unfortunate scenario that they were, they could be readily restrained for easy management and dispatch. Gerard was starting to fervently wish that reinforcements would arrive soon or the whole situation would get out of hand; the number of detainees was growing significantly and he only had a limited number of troops to contain them.
Turning his attention back to the fire Gerard noticed a couple of private security guards emerging from the front of the building. Their clothing was so hot they appeared to be smouldering in the cool night air. The awkwardness of their gait and the staring, manic quality of their eyes told Gerard all he needed to know – these two must have breathed in huge quantities of the deadly smoke to turn them into zombies this fast. More infected people flooded out behind them; night time workers, spies or administrators – who knew – came pouring through the glass doors and ran out into the street, excited and attracted by the activities of the firemen.
“Lads!” Gerard called up through his throat mic. “I need four of you over here, now. We’ve got trouble at the front.”
Four of his men left the others at the cordon and came rushing over to assist. With an urgent chatter of suppressed automatic fire, the infected began to fall in their tracks.
Gerard looked closely at the people attacking his men and got the shock of his life; two of them had turned into the feline ones with the long teeth and elongated limbs that they had encountered earlier in Leicester. As if to emphasise their new size, the clothing they wore was torn and hung loose, revealing sinewy, muscular, smooth-skinned and greyish limbs that moved effortlessly, mimicking a cat’s predatory motion. Instead of looking like awkward and diseased humans as did the rest, these looked like they could run swiftly on all fours but appeared equally at home on two; still frighteningly fast. Their hands were a combination of thick, articulated fingers capped off by large, tough claws, and their feet were bare having burst out of their shoes as they grew in the same way. How could this be? He and Christopher had assumed that this sort of advanced transformation took some reasonable time, at least a couple of hours, but what he was seeing running towards his men was unheard of up to now; it had taken a mere twenty minutes or so since the explosion had rocked the building.
“Hold your fire,” Gerard called and the slaughter abated. “Keep these buggers covered; I want a closer look at them.”
In response to the ceasefire the two changelings stopped their headlong attack focusing their unblinking gaze on Gerard. For a few moments they stared closely at each other in a stand-off, Gerard lowering his weapon deliberately pointing it at the ground; all the while the zombies apparently trying to work out Gerard’s intentions. Their jaws worked, resembling an excited chewing motion, chattering in tense expectation, their enlarged teeth shining yellow in the fire’s light. The eyes had made an equally stupendous change as they had transformed from the bloody sclera seen on the slower, more human – if that was the right word – looking undead. Instead their pupils had the look of a cat, a vertical black slit replacing the previously round, normal eyes of the victim. The irides were a bright, golden yellow and Gerard reckoned that if he could just shine a torch into the eyes they would have reflected back green like a cat.
The peaceful moment over, and with visibly tensing shoulder muscles the two feline zombies leapt at the soldiers. Anticipating the attack they were quick off the mark; multiple shots caught the creatures in their heads and they collapsed alongside their lesser companions, bloody and broken on the pavement at Gerard’s feet.
The fire commander looked on in amazement and horror as the bloody scene unfolded before him. Gerard could see from his body language that Frederickson’s mind was racing trying to decipher the improbable images that he had just witnessed and was now full of indecision; he was probably torn between doing something to stop the slaughter he had just witnessed, or the more likely scenario, to remain on the side lines of something he clearly didn’t understand. After a moment’s thought, his brutalised brain allowed him to see the deadly intent of these apparently zombified creatures, and he finally realised that without the armed men and the protection their firepower offered, his brigade would have had a lot more to contend with than merely fighting a blaze.
With wailing sirens that woke the sleeping locals and deafened those still walking the streets at that hour, the additional fire engines arrived on the scene; as soon as the huge vehicles came to a halt their men immediately leapt out and began erecting ladders and unreeling hoses. The other units were already pouring water into the basement of the building at massive rates of flow; anyone left inside still alive would surely drown in such a deluge. In spite of this it didn’t appear to be having a perceivable effect on the intensity of the blaze; the fire began to glow in the windows of the lower floors as it made its way ever-upwards. By now more than a dozen hoses were pouring water from the bowsers and mains faucets but to no avail.
The threat of attack by these zombie-like creatures from the building was now nil, hopefully; at least a couple of dozen bodies lay on the approach steps under the majestic arch leading to the entrance as well as on the pavement in front of the old building, their heads shattered and bloody. No more had emerged since the first firefight as the lower front area of the building was now fully ablaze and the glass from the large windows was sporadically bursting explosively outwards from the intense heat.
If there were more people inside that had turned into these hell spawn then it was essential that the whole building was fire suppressed. When finally doused Gerard’s men would have to go from room to room clearing it of any survivors, assuming them to be diseased; otherwise the corpses would be incinerated and become part of the pall of smoke that slowly drifted over residential areas, spreading the problem exponentially westward. Seeing that the security of the firefighting crews was assured, at least until they, themselves, turned, Gerard watched fascinated as the firemen used all their experience and training to try and quell the flames. Unfortunately it was becoming clear that the water was only exacerbating the situation.
“Why is that?” he asked of the commander, pointing at the increasingly intense fire. “Why isn’t it going out?”
“They may have something flammable stored down there,” Frederickson began. “Some sort of accelerant, we simply don’t know. It’s probably the worst possible building to be set on fire; we know next to nothing about its layout and what really goes on in there. For all we know even the blueprints of the building they provide us with are significantly less than accurate.”
Signalling to one of his men, they drove a so far unused unit forward. It had a water cannon mounted at the front above the cab, very much like emergency fire vehicles seen at airports. A man climbed onto the roof of the vehicle and directed the nozzle at the flames. Turning it on, foam surged in a white frothing arc and slopped down into the bowels of the building. After a while still there was no appreciable difference. Would they ever get this damned thing under control, Gerard wondered. Just what did those bloody spooks do in that place?
The inability to quell this conflagration was surely due to more than just setting a few booby traps to prevent the retrieval of the corpses stolen from the disaster in Leicester. As far as Gerard was concerned, it brought to mind the infamous Greek Fire, a mythical substance that burned more fiercely the more defenders tried to quell its fury. But that couldn’t be right, could it? Could it be the infected corpses themselves that burnt so brightly? It was certainly something to think about. There was a precedent on Earth whereby new life was brought about by fire – bush fires. Perhaps this infestation’s best hope of continuance was naked flame, maybe it had evolved to use it to procreate and spread its seed. What a terrifying thought.
Now was as good a time as any to call headquarters and let his superior, The Father know what was happening. And pass on his thoughts about the disaster in London and the seeming impossibility of bringing the situation under control anytime soon.