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The Remnant (Sequel to The Beachhead)

 

Dedication

 

For Brendan, the best son anyone could have.

 

Acknowledgements

 

Throughout the writing of this novel I’ve been blessed to have the usual encouraging and supportive friends around me. Thank you: Brad Childs, Forrest and Margaret Hume, Richard Knowler, Bruce McBay, Don Morrison, Kit Schindell, and Susan Trapp, among others.

Special thanks to my two pillars: Brendan Anderson and Joanne Anderson, and also to Caitlyn Mah.

 

Remnant

[rĕm′nənt]

noun

1. Something left over; a remainder.

2. A surviving trace or vestige: a remnant of their past glory.

3. A small surviving group of people.

[Fourteenthcentury: Middle English remanant, from Old French remenant “rest, remainder, surplus."]

 

Another dream comes . . .

The boat anchors in calm, clear blue water, the sort you can see through right to the bottom. I jump overboard into it, landing waist deep, scatter a shoal of tiny silver fish, and wade to the shore.

My feet quickly dry on pale, warm sand, as fine as powder. Fiona, Rose, Quentin and Kevin are right behind me; I don’t have to look.

We make the island ours. It just happens; no sweat, no stress. Voilà! A hut made with palm leaves and logs appears. How did we make it? It came in dreamtime, which is no time at all.

Somehow even sleeping on the hard floor is wonderfully comfortable. Somehow we all live together without any problems. Somehow we develop magical skills like managing to catch strange fish with nothing more than long, sharp sticks. We light a fire with the lenses from Kevin’s glasses and the cooked fish taste like cod. Somehow fish and milk fresh from the coconuts is enough to keep us all happy and smiling, day after day.

I’m in a separate cabin with Fiona and we are sleeping naked, lying cupped together like spoons, warm and safe.

I roll over onto my back and open my eyes. Morning sunlight filters through the palms on our slanting roof, dust motes dancing in thin shafts of light. I lie perfectly still, enjoying the peacefulness. Without turning my head my eyes move left and I can just see Fiona’s back and hear her soft, regular breathing. More moments pass.

I start to get up and realise I can’t. Suddenly cold fear floods through me and my senses become extra alert.

I didn’t move my head before because I couldn’t. Instead of gentle breaths I now hear something else. My eyes follow the sound, this time slanting to the right.

At the very edge of my vision something crawls. Something very, very bad.

I try to reach out and stop it. But my arm won’t move. My mouth opens but no sound comes out. The hut surroundings begin to fade . . . fading . . . fading . . . fading.

Where am I? I can’t move. I can’t even open my eyes.

Paralysed in blackness, I still know where I am. Same place I was before.

It’s started again. But this time the thing at the edge of my sight is coming.

I can feel its hunger.

It’s hungry for me, for all of us.

PART ONE

FIND

 

CHAPTER 1

WAKE UP

 

A low whirr of machinery penetrated my awareness. Light came on and my eyelids flickered in response. I felt as if I was rising up from a very long, very deep dive. A familiar but unwelcome smell filled my nostrils – the liquid the machine swipes your arm with before a syringe comes down and its needle pierces your skin.

I opened my eyes to slits and immediately knew what I was inside. For an awful moment I felt the terror of claustrophobia then the canopy slid down towards my feet with a quiet hiss.

I clambered out of the medi-pod, my limbs limp and uncoordinated, and flopped naked onto the floor.

It was cold and hard, not soft and carpeted like it should be. Some metal things were pressing against my thigh and sticking out close to my head. The medi-pod was on some kind of big-wheeled trolley, like a hospital gurney. Hospital . . .

I tried to remember what had happened. We’d left the island, Fiona, Quentin, Rose, Kevin and I. Beaten REX. Made it out into the ocean. Then what?

There was a big gap I couldn’t recall. Just vague images of something big looming on the horizon, of turning the boat. Then . . . nothing . . .

That’s what a medi-pod can do to you, I thought. It’s done it to me again.

Bile mixed with fear in my gut; I leaned to one side and vomited on the floor. Plain black and white tiles. At least they would be easy to clean. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, raised my groggy head and looked around.

I was in a big, open-plan hospital room.

The ceiling was light gray with narrow rectangles of fluorescent lighting. A pair of long angled spotlights hung over the medi-pod like robot arms. Bizarrely, to one side of them dangled what looked like a small showerhead. Over against the wall metal trolleys held monitors and other unknown equipment. Between them sat two large green cylinders, heavy and metallic. I wondered what kind of gas they contained, and if I’d had any of it.

In a distant corner, a table with a chair behind it looked strangely forlorn. Other humans. Teens, like me? The thought failed to cheer me.

Carefully avoiding my puke, I pushed against the floor with my arms and stood upright. The bones in my legs felt like straws encased in jelly. A wave of dizziness flooded my head and I held onto the side of the gurney until the light-headedness passed.

I wondered where Fiona was until it made me dizzy again. A steel sink was mounted on the wall behind the gurney and I staggered over to it, turned on the tap, and rinsed my clammy face with cold water. I swished out my sticky, foul mouth and swallowed a little of the water. It helped revive me a bit. With my back propped against the sink I decided what to do next.

A curtained window ran along most of the far wall. I made straight for it, stumbled and almost fell several times. The unsteadiness came back. Hitting the floor would have hurt and I just managed to stay upright on my cold, bare feet. I had to see through that window.

The curtains were watery blue patterned squares, with horizontal red lines, the sort of thing that nearly makes you sick simply looking at it. I found the middle and yanked them aside. My eyes opened wide in recognition and suddenly I wasn’t woozy anymore.

Blue-black ocean extended all the way to a cloudy, light blue horizon. Waves moved ceaselessly from my left to my right. I was high above them. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. I was on some kind of very big ship, forging its way to an unknown destination.

Forcing myself to look away from the water, I studied the room again. There were typical hospital swing doors with steel panels at either end. I picked the one on the right.

No panic bars to push, just steel handles. I grabbed the handles and yanked them. Locked.

I rushed to the opposite doors, my heart beating fast with both effort and fear. Pulled on the handles. Also locked.

I peered through the little wire-meshed window set into the door and saw something move.

 

* * *

 

My heart started beating again. I’d only seen it for a split second, down at the end of the corridor, before it vanished out of sight back into the shadows. A small, quick movement – the back of a foot? – then it was gone. A cold shiver ran down my spine and I suddenly felt exposed and vulnerable. I told myself I’d seen a rat. Ships are full of rats, right? But I didn’t believe it. I turned away from the door and crossed to the table I’d noticed earlier.

The chair behind it was pushed in neatly and the tabletop was bare, not even a stray pen lying on it. I sensed it hadn’t been used in a long time, and it didn’t have any drawers. No use to me. I went around the room, opened every container and cupboard. Eventually I found what I was looking for: a weapon.

The long, rectangular pack said ‘10 Sterile Disposal Scalpels’ on the side. I ripped it open and shook the contents onto a metal tray. They were individually wrapped. I peeled the end of one open and carefully extracted the scalpel. It had a washed-out green colour handle and looked just like a paper knife I’d had back in the Beachhead, only the blade didn’t retract. Very carefully I prised off the hard plastic cover over the blade. It was narrow and wickedly pointed, but barely longer than my finger joint. I touched the cutting edge along my thumb. Instantly a red line appeared and drops of blood began to dribble. It was the sharpest thing I’d ever encountered. I wiped my thumb and put the cover back on the blade.

Clothes were my next priority, if I wanted to go anywhere. There were tall, grey metal lockers along one wall. I went over to them, discovered they weren’t locked, and opened door after door. Near the end of the row I found my clothes, the same ones I remembered wearing last. I grabbed the hanger off the rail and quickly got dressed. The clothes were pressed and smelled faintly of chemicals, as if they’d been cleaned by some automatic process. I pulled on my shoes, went back to the scalpels, and stuffed them into a deep side pocket in my pants.

Ready to go. Where to? I had to find Fiona, Rose and the guys, assuming they were on board. Then we would find out what was going on and figure out how to get off this ship. There had to be a way out of this room. I looked all around, thought about the big window and the much bigger drop beneath it. There was no elevator anywhere I could see, so no way down to lower levels. I scanned the ceiling and noticed something for the first time.

The familiar fat, round eye of a surveillance camera. I had no way of knowing if it was on or off, or if there was someone watching me at the other end.

Maybe something. Another REX.

There was nothing I could do about it so I tried to ignore it. The only ways out seemed to be the doors on either side, both of which I knew were locked. I leaned over the narrow end of the gurney and trundled it and the heavy medi-pod on top of it into the middle of the room, between the doors.

Which one? I chose the exit on the right – I hadn’t seen anything outside that one. Giving the surveillance camera a last stare, I summoned all my strength and shoved the gurney as hard as I could towards the double doors.

The width of the room allowed me to build up a nice little sprint. At the last moment I let go of the gurney and dived to the right. From the floor I watched as the gurney crashed loudly into the twin doors. They separated immediately, bursting backwards like cardboard flaps. The gurney shot on through, the medi-pod toppled off and slammed onto the floor ensuring the doors couldn’t reclose. Success.

If there was anyone else close by they were bound to have heard it. I got on my feet, hid by the side of the open doors, and took out a scalpel. I didn’t want to risk taking the blade guard off – one mistake and I could cut the end off a finger or worse – but at least I had it ready.

I waited a couple of minutes. Nothing happened.

Another look at the fish-eye on the ceiling. Is the lens moving, following me? Too far away to be sure.

The corridor outside extended about the same length as the room and then turned to the right. I took a deep breath, stepped over the medi-pod and went out.

Outside, the air seemed cooler on my sweating skin. I listened, ears alert for the slightest sound. Still nothing. Cautiously, I walked down the corridor to the bend at the end. Stopped again. Listened.

Was there something there? Someone? I swallowed hard; felt a lump in my throat. My feet froze into blocks and I couldn’t make myself go on.

At the same time, someone came around the corner. Not Fiona, not Rose, not Quentin, not Kev. Not any other teen. It was the sort of person I hadn’t seen for a long time. For years, in fact.

An adult.

But not like how I’d ever imagined or dreamed an adult could be.

CHAPTER 2

 

REACT

 

He had his back to me and was shuffling along with small, backwards steps. His shoulders and upper body were bent forward and his arms outstretched in front of him. He was dragging something big and heavy along the floor.

Instinctively I stepped towards him, assuming he needed help. When I got closer, thank God, some kind of premonition made me pause. I stopped in my tracks, pressed my back against the wall so that he wouldn’t be aware of me, and quietly observed.

He rounded the intersection and dropped whatever it was he was carrying. I could now see him in profile. He was wearing tattered black sweatpants and a t-shirt that had once been white. Now it was filthy grey with big ripped holes in the chest and arms. His hair was long and bedraggled, speckled through with white, and he had a tatty, untrimmed beard. Under it all he might have been around forty, maybe younger, it was hard to tell. He sniffled loudly and rubbed snot from his nose with a grimy hand then leaned over again and grabbed his heavy load on the floor. As he pulled it toward him I realised what it was he had been dragging.

A dead human body. A corpse or part of one anyway; it looked incomplete. Headless.

He raised one of the dead limbs – a leg – to his mouth. I could hardly believe what I was seeing. Noisily, he began chewing at it, slurping the red, exposed stump of an ankle.

I took a step backwards, ready to run. As I did so, the adult paused his grisly work and sniffed the air several times, his nostrils expanding like an animal. Then he slowly turned his head. His watery gaze fixed on my face and cold fear ran up and down my spine.

Transfixed, I examined his face: the open sores on his nose, cheeks, and above his eyebrows, oozing milky yellow puss. His eyes: unnaturally bright, gleaming silver as if lit from behind. His expression became unmistakably malicious. He dropped the leg, his eyes still fixed on me.

He came toward me, moving stiffly as if his upper body was permanently rigid, his eagerness greater than his ability to move quickly.

I backpedalled until I was nearly back in the doorway. He followed me, almost matching my speed with his shuffling gait. I took several more steps back. Too late I remembered the medi-pod on the floor behind me, tottered backwards and fell on top of it. The foul adult moved even faster until he was standing over me and a grin appeared on his black swollen lips. A terrible stench of sweat and rotten meat filled my nostrils. The skin of the man’s face looked saggy and stretched, and his cheeks swayed a bit as if there was only liquid beneath. I couldn’t take my eyes off his puss-filled sores. A bizarre thought filled my mind.

Don’t dribble on me.

I twisted over on all fours, scrambled onto my feet again behind the medi-pod, and ran back into the room. Then I felt it in my hand: the scalpel. Somehow I’d kept a grip of it. I pulled the guard off the tip and angled my body sideways, one leg behind the other. I stretched out my arm like a spear, locked my elbow and wrist, the scalpel gleaming at the end. I thought how ridiculous the little blade must look to my attacker.

“Stop!” I shouted, “This is razor sharp!”

It didn’t seem to register with him at all. He kept grinning like a madman and raised claw-like hands, tipped with long, dirty fingernails. A low growl burst from between his lips. Then he broke into a stumbling run straight for me.

 

* * *

 

I had to stand my ground. Our eyes locked while he ran towards me. Sweat trickled down my armpits and my straight arm began to tremble. I cursed myself in my head and tried to stay steady, stand fast, keep my body hard.

The adult picked up speed, his arms wide and claw-fingers extended so there’d be no escape. In about two seconds he’d be on top of me. At the last moment I closed my eyes tight.

Umph. I hit the floor flat on my back with his knee in my belly. The impact knocked the breath out of my lungs. I was terrified the adult would stay on top of me and pin me down but he fell over to my right side, taking my outstretched arm with him. Winded and fighting for breath, I couldn’t move. Tears of rage and fear rendered me nearly sightless. Any moment now the adult would grab me and then . . . ?

Eat me? Don’t be crazy. But whatever it – he – does won’t be good.

Air wheezed back into my chest and I wiped my eyes with my left hand. The other hand felt trapped, stuck in something. I turned my head to the right to find out why and nearly fainted.

The scalpel had pierced the adult’s left eye and sunk deep into his head. I was only holding the end of it, the last couple of centimetres. There was warm, sticky white stuff all over my hand. I pulled it away and wiped my fingers on the man’s t-shirt. He lay perfectly still.

Well, he would, wouldn’t he, with a scalpel in his brain?

I got up and waited till my breathing calmed. My eyes never left the body lying on the floor but there wasn’t a twitch out of it. I went to the sink and spent several minutes washing the gunk off my hand.

What had just happened? How was it even possible? My biology knowledge wasn’t great but I knew there was a hard bony skull protecting the brain. The scalpel had gone right into the man’s head as if it was a pumpkin.

A soft, rotten pumpkin.

Some sort of terrible disease? I’d have to figure it out later. It was time to get going. I wrenched my gaze away from the man on the floor and looked around. Listened hard.

If there was one aggressive adult around there could be others. And I didn’t fancy having to use another of the little scalpels to defend myself. Next time I wouldn’t be so lucky with a perfect strike through an eyeball. There had to be something else here I could use.

I searched the cupboards and closets again and found what I needed on an odd kind of fold –up stretcher, one with webbing between the poles. According to the label, it was the kind used in awkward outdoor situations, like when you had to get an injured climber down from a mountain.

Or when you had to get injured teenagers off a boat.

On one side of the metal frame, sticking straight up, was a piece of aluminium tubing about the length of my arm from shoulder to hand. For holding an IV drip, I guessed. I detached the tubing at the bottom – there was only a metal pin holding it – and had my weapon. Light, sturdy, nice and long, with nasty square clasp and pin at one end and an oval ring at the other.

I hurried to the exit doors, eager to make up for lost time. At the end of the corridor a grisly sight awaited me. The corpse that the adult had been dragging along the floor.

It was male, completely naked and mercifully headless. The torso was all there, though the ribcage was exposed and the belly gaped open. A long, pink intestine dangled out onto the floor. It looked like the rest of the internal organs were missing. The right arm was present but the left was gone, ripped off at the shoulder. The right leg was complete down to the ankle but the left ended with a long, diagonal slash at the thigh, revealing the femur nesting in a mass of shiny red muscle.

I leaned over and vomited bitter yellow bile onto the floor.

When my heart had stopped pounding, I straightened up and listened again. Nothing. I stepped over the body and crept around the corner. There were multiple rooms to left and right, and intersecting passages at the far end. I opened the first door very quietly and saw only an empty hospital bed.

Down the long corridor I tried each room in turn until I came to the tenth one on the right. The door wouldn’t open. Slowly I released the handle so as not to make a sound, but at the very last second it gave a loud click.

Something in the room stirred, moved. I pressed my back against the wall and raised the metal pole, ready to strike. The door opened. My hands became a vise around the pole and I tensed to bring it down like a hammer the instant a puss-filled adult appeared.

It happened lightning quick. A black-haired head popped out. Simultaneously a familiar voice spoke.

“Took your time, didn’t you?”

Too late; just a millisecond too late. I was already swinging the pole down to crack his skull open like a walnut.

 

CHAPTER 3

TEAM UP

 

There was no way I could stop myself in time. I did manage to change the angle of the downward swing slightly as the long rod slashed through the air. It missed the tip of Kevin’s nose by about a millimetre and smacked against the side of his left hand.

“Owww . . .” Kevin howled. He raised his hand, clutched it with the other one and did a little dance of pain. His feet seemed to get catch on each other and he lost balance and fell over. He came crashing down and bashed the back of his head against the sharp edge of the door frame.

“Owww wow oww . . .”

“Sorry about that,” I said feebly. “You all right?”

He said nothing but gave me a look that spelled daggers. I stepped over him, pulled him into the room and shut the door behind us.

Kevin moved away from the entrance, took a blood-stained hand from his head and pointed.

“The big bed on wheels. Shove it in front of the door again. The wheels lock when you press that pedal down.”

I tossed the metal tubing on a chair and did as I was told.

“Nice to see you,” I said.

Kevin went to a washbasin and rinsed his injured hand under the tap then took some paper towels and cleaned the back of his head. “The back of my hand hurts like hell,” he said, looking at me accusingly, “And I can’t see what I did to my head.”

“Sit in this chair and I’ll take a look,” I told him.

“I think you’ll be okay,” I said after I’d given him the once over, “It’s just a surface cut. I think it’s forming a scab already. Now let’s talk. You got the same story as me?”

“Which is?”

I told him about waking up and what I’d found out about where we were. He nodded as I spoke.

“Me too,” he said, “I woke up in here, on that bed. Can’t remember how I got here either.”

“How’d you know I was coming?” I asked him.

He nodded towards a small desk across the room. “I managed to get the computer booted up. The big screen there showed me live footage from your room. I could see you running around in the nude, emptying cupboards. Then the screen froze until five minutes ago when it showed you walking down the corridor outside.”

“See anyone else around?” I said.

He shook his head. “Took a quick look outside at the hallway and decided this place gives me the creeps. Came back in here and put the bed across the door.”

“Why didn’t you try to find me?”

“You could have been anywhere.” He grinned. “Anyway, I knew you’d come and get me sooner or later. And I wanted to work on the computer.”

My eyes lit up. “Think you can get inside the mainframe?”

Kevin rolled his eyes. “You’ve got to be joking. I keep telling you: I’m not the Hacker King. All I’ve been able to get are a few images and I don’t even know how I did that. I’d need a lot of time to do more.”

I let it go. “Wise move staying inside,” I said. I’d left my encounter with the adult for last. Now I told Kevin all about it, and the corpse on the floor, and watched his mouth form a silent “Wow” at the end.

“Like a zombie,” he said.

I shrugged. “Well, like a really diseased, crazy adult anyway. I hope I didn’t catch anything from him.”

Kevin pushed his chair back, further away from me.

“Relax, Kev.” I went over and sat on the windowsill. “Thing is, there might be more sicko adults around here and I might not be so lucky next time.”

He thought about that for a few seconds. “So what next?”

“We find Fiona, Rose and Quentin then we get off this ship as quick as we can,” I replied.

“And the sickos?”

“We avoid them if we can. If not . . .” I picked up the metal pipe and swung it in the air. “Maybe our cruiser’s tied alongside. Failing that, there are bound to be other boats on board.”

As soon as I said it, there was a loud click and the computer screen lit up.

 

* * *

 

The air in the room seemed very still as my eyes met Kevin’s. “Someone wants to show us something,” I said.

The large flat screen displayed an image looking down from above. I took this to mean it was from a surveillance camera on the ceiling. At first I thought the picture showed the hospital-like room I’d come from, as there were the same sinks and counter tops. Then I quickly noticed differences. There was no medical equipment in this room, no sophisticated electronics. Instead there were row upon row of wheeled metal trolleys full of wire racks, what looked like giant round vats, and endless cupboards and shelves. Everything was made of the same shiny grey metal. It triggered something in my memory.

Behind the dining room in the Beachhead. The kitchen where we recycled and cleaned.

“Why’s it so quiet?” I said.

“No sound, just images,” Kevin replied.

The overhead camera panned around for a couple of minutes and I grasped that we were looking down on an enormous kitchen, presumably also on the ship.

“There might be food there,” Kevin said.

“I don’t see any.”

“Maybe it’s in storage. See those big doors at the far end? They could be freezer rooms. We should go there.”

I shook my head and stood up. “It’s tempting, I’m getting hungry too. Something tells me neither of us has eaten solid food for a long while. But finding the others is our top priority. We need to get going, search room by room.”

Kevin was still staring at the images as the camera continued to pan around. His hand reached out towards me.

“Will, you need to come back and look at this.”

“Look at what?” I leaned down and peered into the screen.

There was someone in the room. Over on the right side, hunkered down in front of a cupboard. The door was open and the person seemed to be searching inside. It was impossible to see who it was.

Then a hand reached out, closed the door and revealed all. Long auburn hair, pale skin. A familiar face.

Rose! I shouted it into the screen even though I knew she couldn’t hear me. She stood up and now I was a hundred per cent sure. I grabbed Kevin’s shoulder.

“Come on, let’s go find her.”

“How?” he replied, “We have no clue where this is or how to get there.”

“It might take a while but we’ll do it.”

“Okay. You’re in charge.”

We grinned at each other, suddenly cheered. I glanced back at the screen. And froze.

Rose looked behind her as if she had heard something and walked across the room to what turned out to be elevator doors. The camera zoomed in and I could see the call button lit up. Someone was coming.

Long seconds passed. The call button went dark and my mind registered the ping of arrival of the elevator car. The doors slid apart and two adults came out. The camera zoned in on them.

Both wore torn, ragged clothes. Both had long, matted hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in months. Both displayed weeping cuts and sores on their bare arms, and dark stains on their faces. Especially around their mouths.

Two more sickos.

The two adults’ eyes fixed on Rose and they went straight for her. The camera moved to show her in close up.

The look on Rose’s face was pure terror.

CHAPTER 4

 

GO BOLDLY

 

“We have to find her,” Kevin gasped.

No kidding.

“Ok, let’s go.” I began to pull the bed away from the door.

“Wait,” Kevin said, “I need something to protect myself. A weapon.”

I looked all around, up and down. There wasn’t anything in the room that we could grab quickly and use. That meant trusting Kevin with a scalpel. I pulled one out of my pocket and held it out.

“Here, take this. But for God’s sake don’t take the blade cover off before you’re ready to use it. It’s lethal sharp.”

He gave me a look that said: ‘You’re one to be talking about weapons safety’ and took the scalpel.

I raised the metal tube high and opened the door.

Empty corridor. No sounds. I turned right, away from the ward and the grisly corpse, and Kevin followed behind. At the end of the corridor we came to another corridor at right angles, an elevator, and a white staircase.

“Three options,” I said. “Which one?”

Kevin threw his hands up in the air. “We don’t know if we’re fore or aft,” he replied.

I frowned. “What does that mean?”

“Prow or stern. That’s what the front and back of a ship are called. We have no clue where we are on this thing.”

“So which is it gonna be?” I screamed at him in frustration.

“We have to find the galley,” Kevin answered quietly.

“What?”

“The kitchen on a ship, it’s called a galley.”

“How’d you know this stuff?”

“Same as on Star Trek,” he replied, as if it was obvious.

I guess nerds have their uses. Including distracting me and calming me down at crucial times. But this still wasn’t getting us anywhere.

“What about the elevator?” Kevin said.

“No way of knowing if this is the one we saw.” I didn’t trust it anyway. Someone or something seemed to be manipulating us and I resented it.

“Let’s take the stairs,” I replied, “It’ll be quicker.”

“OK. Up or down?”

“I choose down,” I said.

We hurried to the bottom, our shoes clattering on the bare metal steps. Below, there was another long corridor. At the end we entered a large room with blue couches, easy chairs and a big TV screen. Some kind of recreation room but there were no people in it, normal or sicko. Past it was another smaller room, filled with computers and consoles. An internet room? The screens were blank, lifeless. No time to investigate them now.

We hurried on and came to more stairs. At the bottom there was yet another long corridor. This ship must be enormous. We went through twin doors at the end and found ourselves in a large, fully equipped fitness room like the one in the Beachhead. There were plenty of metal bars and other stuff here that we could weaponize, but all of it was too heavy to carry.

Past an elevator to more stairs. Would they ever end? We entered a laundry room, ran past a wall of washers and dryers, kicked aside the white plastic laundry baskets in our way.

At the end of the laundry room there was only a blank wall.

“What . . .?” I cried. Sweat trickled down my forehead. I kicked the wall in frustration then swallowed hard, fought back panic. I tried to chase away images of what might be happening to Rose but they kept coming back into my head. Ugly, puss-oozing hands holding her tight. Great slobbering mouths near her neck . . .

What the hell was I going to do now?

 

* * *

 

No time for regrets. No time to stand still. “Quick, go back,” I said.

We ran through the laundry room until we found an elevator at the other end. I pounded the call button again and again. The light came on and I could hear a door closing somewhere above us. Time seemed to have slowed right down to a trickle. I leaned my hot, sticky forehead on the bare metal of the elevator doors and felt frustration welling up in me like lava. I swallowed it down and tried to calm my pounding heart. My brain cleared a little.

“Kick me,” I said to Kevin.

“What . . .?”

“Kick me. Hard. Please.”

“What for?”

“For being an idiot. We should have taken the upstairs corridor all along.”

“Why?”

The elevator doors finally opened after what had seemed a century of waiting. We rushed inside and I pressed what I estimated was three floors above. Back where we’d started.

“Because where there’s a hospital ward, the patients have to be fed, right?” So the kitchen is probably on the same floor. For food trolleys and stuff like that. The living quarters are probably higher up still.”

“Hmm . . . maybe.” He didn’t sound convinced. And in my heart of hearts I knew I could be just as wrong as last time.

“Well, let’s see,” Kevin finally agreed.

The elevator pinged and the doors opened. We ran down the hallway. Up ahead I saw twin doors, which meant a big room on the other side. I hurtled through them, not caring if there were twenty sickos waiting for us on the other side. My eyes raced around our new surroundings.

...

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