Shanghai was the front page news that no one knew anything about, after a catastrophic blast inside the city and the initial reports of a contagion, the country became an information dead zone. With my lucky stars though I negotiated my way into being the only reporter to get eyes on the situation on the ground.
I flew to the city thinking this story would be great for my career. I flew there imagining the tabloids clawing for my words like hungry animals. That my first hand account would be pure gold, this story would set me up for life.
Jesus Christ I was so wrong.
Looking back on it now forty years later I should've taken the hint the second I landed in Shanghai, I should've just fled off world before the planetary quarantine.
I used my only favours in the Chinese government to catch an army resupply ship to the city. The troop carrier's three hundred seats were full of young brave men. It's cargo hold where I resided held another three hundred soldiers, many were praying desperately, a lot of them looked like young reservists or 'weekend warriors' as the full time military called them.
The cold, high-roofed cargo hold stunk of perspiration and fear, a constant chant of whispers and soldiers double checking their equipment for the tenth time hung in my ears. One of the soldiers beside me gazed tenderly at a photo of a young woman holding a toddler no older than two. He swiftly tucked the photo back under his vest as a young officer walked by confidently, his uniform immaculate without the sweat stains carried by the enlisted troops under him. He stopped by the young soldier and peered down at him with his hand extended, reluctantly the private relinquished the photo to his commander who gazed at it blankly. "If we fail here, they will die. Die for them." The officer spoke with the barest hint of sympathy. Before he turned away I asked him. "Lieutenant, David Crook, I'm a report..."
"My C.O informed me of your presence on the ship and I have no time for suicidal journalists with big pockets."
"Lieutenant I was told this was a resupply ship? Are you willing to comment on what's happening in the city?"
"We are the supplies sir and all I'll tell you is that you should've run. Only a miracle is gonna keep you alive over the next few days."
That comment filled me with dread but I won't lie I was too rebellious and determined to back down from this. Looking back on this moment I envy the young's unwavering sense of immortality.
I began to feel the ship slow down through my boots as klaxons began to erratically light the cargo bay in strobes of hazard yellow. The three hundred soldiers raised themselves in unison as I nervously collected myself and my gear. I could feel the atmosphere change as a tide of adrenaline washed over me and a fleeting sense of selfish safety among all these trained soldiers. With a high pitched hum the cargo ramp slowly lowered, meter by meter the day's dying sun threw the last of it's light to blind me as my eyes struggled to adjust for a few brief moments.
Before my vision returned fully I was corralled forward by the troops behind me as we disembarked with an anxious haste. No matter how hard I tried I struggled to deal with crowds of people no matter how 'organised' they were and I moved quickly to the side to escape the march. Once free I allowed myself a moment to breathe in the space as the sounds assaulted me from close by and far in the distance
I'd covered warzones before and the sounds of gunfire always seemed to follow a rhythm, halting to maintain accuracy, cool the weapon or to reload. The sound from the city outskirts a few miles from me however was a near constant droning storm coating the atmosphere around me with a constant wavelength or danger. We had landed in what must have been a park before the military moved in, the feeling of grass and soft earth under my boots was a rare feeling. Looking around me though most of the grass was gone. Either ripped up along with the hundreds of trees that were once rooted here or churned under hundreds of feet into the slick mud that near turned this field into a marsh. Remnants of flower beds littered the flat ground, their once beautiful colours now flattened and drowned out of existence by the rows of supply ships near sinking into the mud with their own weight.
A convoy of trucks weeded their way through the crowds of personnel before parking themselves just outside the ships' access ramps including mine. Too many to count I watched motionless at the flatbeds closest to me, their cargo was caged like animals. To this day the sight still saddens and horrifies me.
The cages were filled with civilians near climbing on top of each other without order or prejudice to age or gender, desperately trying to escape their mobile prison, their screams wrenched at my heart as soldiers exited the flatbeds and hesitantly prepared to open the cages. The second they were unlocked the civilians gushed out of the cages like an opened artery, falling harshly into the wet mud as those just behind landed on top of them. After a few seconds some gained purchase to raise themselves up and run, throughout all of this the gunfire from the Wall was drowned out by sounds more animalistic than human. I could do nothing but watch as the mob ran chaotically towards the ship, in a stampede of panic, they trampled over each other without care, the soldiers didn't seem to care less, they had bigger problems.
I made eye contact with a man for a split second as he trampled a young woman, desperate to reach the ship with his child in his arms and recoiled at the haunted, primal look in his eyes. The majority of the crowd's clothes were torn and dirtied beyond salvation with the only colours I could see being mud or blood with the lingering scent of human waste breezing past my nostrils.
Once they were in the ship the ramps started to raise and a chilling choir of terror and despair competed with the firing of the ships' engines until the ramps finally clamped shut and they departed to a destination unknown leaving the muddied wasteland and myself with a haunting emptiness.
I stood watching the ships fly into the forgotten distance until I saw a small boy walk in front of me, no older than ten walking alone hopelessly into the empty field. He seemed lost in a state of limbo, clutching a useless toy gun, his innocence clearly lost to whatever horrors he had seen back in the city.
"Hey kid!" I stopped him with my hand, upon closer look he was emaciated, I could feel his bones poking through his skin and clothes. "Where's your parents?"
He simply swung his head from side to side, I knelt down, trying in vain to wipe dried blood from his cheek which came away in crumbles that fell effortlessly from my fingers, a few of the boy's teeth were missing too.
I heard my name being shouted by a soldier waving at me to approach him, standing with a weary looking squad beside a battered APC. I lifted the boy to my hip near effortlessly as I walked swiftly towards them. As I drew closer to the soldiers, little alarming details caught my eye, their exhausted posture a stark contrast to the straight-backed troops i flew in with as well as their stained and torn uniforms. Their body armour was littered with scratch marks penetrating the protective metal. The APC was more alarming with deep stretches of armour designed to resist bullets and explosives gouged out leaving gaps a few inches deep. Every now and then there were pieces of armour that looked almost melted away.
"David Crook?" The Sergeant asked as my eyes followed the lit cigarette bouncing in his lips.
"I'm Sergeant Takumi. Your riding in with me and my boys then we'll take you to our C.O." He looked at the child with the briefest hint of disdain. "Did he come in with the refugee trucks?"
"Yes, do you have any spare food? He doesn't look like he's eaten in days." I asked without any belief they would provide any.
Proving me wrong a young private with a bandaged eye rustled an energy bar out of his trousers and handed it to the boy who almost tore it out his hand and ripped the wrapping in a starved frenzy before devouring it in a few heartbeats.
"Jesus" I exclaimed.
"I know," The Sergeant muttered as he hawked and spat before continuing to smoke. "f**king animals in those camps are merciless when it comes to the food. We're leaving in five, we cant leave him out here alone, there's MRE's in the sledge he can have. Doubt he'll survive another evac rotation without the calories." Hastily the Sergeant picked out another cigarette, looking at me he motioned it towards me. "Need a smoke before we leave?"
"No thank you. I quit a few years ago."
"That'll change before the end of tonight I guarantee you. You armed?"
"I'm a journalist sergeant, I'm here to report not to fight." I was shocked, never in my time being attached to a military element had I been asked to carry a firearm.
"Cheng give him your sidearm." The Sergeant turned towards the half blinded Private.
"No way Sarge!" Cheng protested.
"Sergeant I'm not fighting! If that's what you expect of me I'm gone!" I knew there was no way for me to go back but I was determined.
"Shut it Cheng!" Takumi wrestled the pistol from Cheng's holster. "You can get another one from the dead pile back at the Wall." He growled before he stormed towards me. Forcing cold, handheld death into my hands before grabbing my collar to pull me so close we were nearly nose to nose.
"Now you listen and you listen real close civvie, hell is real and your coming with us to it's f**king gates. The only reason I'm taking you there is to hand you off to the Captain so my family gets a flight off world. Once that's done I couldn't give two shits about you, once they get over the Wall again and trust me they will, if your taken your gonna leave one round for yourself. Got it!"
I could smell the tobacco coming from his breath as he spat those words at me, his grip tightening my collar to where it near strangled me but I held my eyes to his threatening glare. With everything I'd seen since I landed my nerves were already close to being fried and despite being a reporter I never took well to people putting there hands on me. The pistol was still cold in my hands and without thinking about it I pressed it into Takumi's thigh.
I could see a subtle change in his eyes and felt his grip on my collar loosen as I spoke with my voice low enough so his comrades couldn't hear or see this development. "Sergeant I couldn't give two shits about you either and if you don't take your f**king hand off me I'll use this on you."
Takumi simply grinned. "You got balls civvie I'll give you that, lets go." He fully released me from his grasp and waved a hand motion to his comrades to enter the APC.
I picked up the boy, who had turned into a motionless husk after consuming the energy bar and followed inside, seating him beside me at the rear of the vehicle as the engine rumbled to life behind us and we began to speed towards the Wall. Inside the windowless APC I couldn't see the rows of lifeless apartment towers that stretched throughout the entirety of the district of Hangzou after the swift and merciless evacuation. There was little to no chatter for the squad for a majority for the journey the only audible stimuli was the military communications coming through the vehicle's radio which was frequently interrupted by an uncomfortable static. From what I could gather things seemed quiet at the Wall for now.
To his credit Takumi handed the kid an MRE not long after we set off and despite being designed to keep a healthy soldier on they're feet for 24 hours or more he devoured it without pause, no matter how many times I tried to slow him down. The last thing I wanted was for him to be sick and be weaker than he already was. I couldn't help but notice the numerous empty magazines and the pungent human stink emanating from the squad, god knows the last time they had the chance to take a shower. Looking closer I could see the heavy weariness that they wore on their faces, the ones that were awake anyway as I could only see Takumi, Chang and another with their eyes open.
The radio came alive with screams and gunfire sounding in the distance. "A carrier just birthed in pen seven, we need incinerators here now!"
Another voice rung with authority. "This is Captain Zhu roger that, burners are on the way. Ramparts prepare for possible attack!"
"Those scanners seriously need to slow down and be more thorough." Takumi loaded and cocked his rifle. The sound of the rifle's ejection port slamming shut woke the rest of the squad from their feather light sleep. " Ready up. We're five minutes out and they've got a burster in one of the pens. You know what that means."
All of this meant nothing without understanding what was really happening in the city. "Seriously Sergeant What the hell is going on here?"
"We're under attack."
"By who? The Uni's haven't made a move in nearly a decade." Apart from the separatists I couldn't think of anyone who would have the audacity or resources to hit Earth.
That question got me an uncomfortable laugh from Takumi. "I'd rather be fighting the entire Uni fleet than these things, I dunno what they are, I've never seen anything like them in my life."
"They're demons." A young private pointed out.
Cheng spat blood onto the floor. "More like dragons. Taller than any man and they're as black as the void. They got no eyes, just teeth and claws that look like they were shaped from steel. He paused to spit out another thick wad of bloodied phlegm before reaching inside his mouth for a few seconds, with a sharp tug he pulled out a single tooth before tossing it. "You seen those scars on the side of the APC, a single one of them rushed us when we were extracting from perimeter duty."
I didn't quite believe what I was hearing, the human race had explored and surveyed hundreds of worlds and the worst species we ever encountered were insectoid or predators no bigger than dogs. "Where did they come from? An asteroid? Is that what brought down the Gatekeeper?"
"Maybe the commanders know," Takumi answered. "But the Gatekeeper blew internally in orbit thankfully otherwise..."
Takumi was cut off by the child beside me retching. I reached down to rub his back, trying to reassure him if he was about to be sick but he simply started to cough at first. I lifted him up onto my knees as I began to pat his back but the coughing became even more violent and I held him closer to my chest.
I gazed up to see the squad's eyes wide in alarm and trained on the boy, suddenly he retched again and my shirt felt drenched in an unsettling warmth. I looked down to see my chest covered in vomit and blood but the coughing grew even more violent and the child began to convulse in a spasm. Suddenly I panicked and without thinking held him tighter against my chest as he shook uncontrollably into me. The surreal quiet of the APC vanished as he let out his lungs in a chord ripping scream against my ear, near deafening me. Somehow I lost control of his spasms and he slipped from my grasp, landing harshly on the floor he continued to convulse, his scream silenced as he struggled to find his next breath.
"Someone f**king help him!" I screamed as I knelt beside him, trying in vain to hold his thin body still.
Takumi called a halt to the vehicle, it stopped immediately as the Sergeant leapt out his seat towards us. He gripped the boy's shirt, now slick with fresh blood over old and dragged him out my hands towards the door. The tremors became impossibly worse as Takumi ripped the door open, lifted him off the floor with one hand and unceremoniously threw the child from the vehicle.
"Takumi! What the f**k are you doing!" I screamed as I slipped on the blood slickened floor trying to reach him.
"Private. Your incinerator!"
Finally on my feet I rushed towards the private and wrapped my hands around the weapon, trying desperately I screamed as I tried to wrestle it from him. Before I could react I saw his elbow shoot towards my face and my vision swam as I felt my head strike the floor. "He just needs help!" I shouted at the Sergeant as he floated in my sight, I could taste the metallic blood against my teeth as I heard the incinerator's pilot light spark to life.
"This is a mercy." Takumi growled. Suddenly a single shot rung out through the vehicle and my ears as the colours of fire swamped my vision. Fighting against the pain and nausea I darted towards him, my vision clearing with every horrified step. I remember shouting but there were no words as I threw Takumi into the driver's cabin without him making any effort to resist.
I stood at the open doorway gazing in horror at the burnt remains. The body lay there contorted in his last agony, burning away. Unrecognisable bar the silhouette of what was once a healthy, young boy with his dreams ahead of him, the clothes were mostly burnt away onto his dead skin with the heavy, sickening scent of cooking meat filling my nostrils. Soundless the body began to contort in spasms again in the flames, the subtle sounds of dirt being shifted beneath the body were overtaken by a deep bone-breaking snap as blood sprayed outwards from the chest.
Tiny specks of boiling blood splashed against my cold face, I was in too much shock to recoil from that or the immense heat as I saw something emerge from the post mortem wound. Squinting my eyes I peered into the flames and saw something snakelike rise from the wound, writhing in the inferno the creature let out a thin, blood curdling screech before it died. For the next few moments I stood frozen in horror, watching lost as innocence slowly turning to ash.
I felt hands around my arms as I was guided back to my seat, I didn't resist. My legs were moving on a guided autopilot before I was gently lowered onto the seat. Without a word said I could hear in another reality the vehicle shift back into motion towards what must be hell on Earth. An almost silent high pitched tone rung through my brain, propelling my nausea into new heights as my mind's eye locked onto the image of birth from death. My memory replayed the screams, the gunshot and a rapid staccato of breaking bones, the roar of the flamethrower. I didn't remember the flames being hot anymore but the blood staining my skin near penetrating my very being.
I looked down with razor sharp clarity at my ruined shirt, the blood had soaked into the fabric, painting me in a dark crimson that I could feel sticking to my bare chest. My head swam again and my stomach revolted, I couldn't move as I almost passively vomited over myself. It continued for a painfully long minute and just when I thought I would throw up my stomach acid it stopped.
My mind flashed to the child and his rejection of his last meal, I coughed out the last mouthful of vomit as my vision flashed back to normality. I clutched at my chest tightly, my breathing spiralled out of control as I launched up, one of those things was inside me, I was going to die.
"Relax David, its not airborne." Takumi said calmly as he eased me back down. "Your gonna be fine, they spread by parasites just ease down."
He repeated those words over and over until I could feel my breathing return to some sense of normality. Breathing deeper and deeper I inhaled my own scent and nearly threw up all over again. I rubbed my hands through my hair as I could only imagine the state of how I looked, my hair felt wet and i realised I had just rubbed the boy's blood through it. His death flashed through my mind again and it uncontrollably replayed the horror, punishing my sanity with strike after strike. All I could remember for the rest of the journey was that I wept uncontrollably, without care of shaming myself. I know the men beside me were numb from the horror. For me that numbness never came. I hoped it never would
I can still see that boy lying on the road, nameless and alone in the silent abandoned streets of what should have been home. His only companion being the winds of time that would slowly carry his ashes to somewhere lost in that wasteland of memory.