I stop briefly at this point. The finer details of my brief stay with HDC are catching up with me after being subdued for so long. Kristine pressures me; wanting to hear more.. I know I must vent careful. That terrible time of imprisonment is pent up in me like the pressure in an overcharged gas cylinder.
“Did they hurt you? What did they want? Tell me the rest”
Kristine is a good listener and I reluctantly continue.
The kidnappers offload us after a short ride on the back of the truck. We stumble into a high-fenced basketball court in the centre of town. An aging gent hawks over us as his soldiers scream us into a rough rectangle.
We are introduced to “Major Hadley”, boss of the show by an overenthusiastic acolyte. With a suitable period for us to gape in awe, Hadley inducts us personally; a singular honour that all new ‘recruits’ must suffer through before being processed and billeted.
Major Hadley is an anachronism in dress uniform. His closely cropped white hair and a neat white moustache; the large calibre pistol that hangs loosely from a gnarled fist. We listen quietly, totally frazzled by his delusional, rambling diatribe. He believes in two responsibilities: ensuring the survival of humanity, (by the frequent use of available females that please his eye), and the bolstering of his thinning ranks, (any males who can hold a gun). We should be proud to turn our lives over to his service.
It’s a bad joke with no punch line.
I choke on the ‘saviours of the human race mumbo jumbo’ that he attempts to shove down my throat. Unable to help myself I deliver an alternative speech between Hadley’s measured words, encouraged by my fellow detainees titters. It goes something like this.
“...in the conspicuous absence of any new directives from the DOD, that’s Department of Defence for those of you who don't know...”
(Spelled DED since most of them got first goat the serum),
“...I have suspended my service to the Army,”
(From when, WWII?)
“...I undertake to a that higher power above us, to maintain law and order,”
(Whose laws? His? God’s???)
“...protect the populous,”
(Tell that to the old bloke one of your kids shot in the back.)
“...and defend viable infrastructure. I authorise the use and removal of essential items to ensure victory over the enemy.”
(What enemy? All you’re doing is looting and kidnapping at gunpoint, you fuck!)
We can all clearly see the ranks of removalist trucks parked around the place with men unloading ‘essentials’, like mini bikes and TV’s.
“The greater metropolitan area is under my jurisdiction and answers to me alone.”
(Oh great! Tin pot dictator owns all he surveys.)
A rumbling of dissent is spreading as some of the people around me agree with my assessment.
I’m just about to shout ‘Heil Hitler’ when an angry teenager, with muscles in his crew-cut, elbows through the crowd, bearing down on me. He stands on my toes and shouts in my face.
“Maybe your smart mouth should take a rest! If you do not desist, the last thing you will be saying is goodbye...to all your teeth!”
His zeal is dangerous to people who don't have the desire to be a fanatic.
People like me.
Hadley glares at me too.
“Only here five minutes and already making friends?”
I desist as requested, mindful of the battered stock on the grunts pump-action shotgun. I sense my clean slate being marked by a prick whose authority could make life very hard for me.
We are further subdued by what happens next, which I am to learn is commonly used to remind us who is on control here. Three ragged people, two men and a woman are brought before us. They have suffered severe beatings and standing up straight is difficult. Like us they are cowed and silent, only our hands aren’t tied, and the guns pointing at them are being cocked.
Hadley presides over a brief ‘court martial’, accusing them of breaking a number of obscure rules. The ceremony ends shockingly when, without warning, a firing squad riddles them with bullets. Their bleeding bodies are dragged away.
I am numbed by this callous treatment. Already resentful of my abduction, now I want to get back at this smarmy quasi-religious loony and his gang of kids with guns
When Hadley estimates the lesson has sunk in we’re asked to express our enthusiasm for HDC by volunteering for active duty. The ones who step forward are motivated by incentives such as better rations and owning a gun.
I hang back, vowing to irritate and leech off this regime like a tick on a dog’s back. Overeating and not making my bed in the morning might not crumble its foundations, but I can make damn sure their oiled machine has a few rusty patches.
My turn comes to be processed and I feign a brain injury to spite them. I enjoy the census-taker’s irritation at having to write down my name as Nimrod Jerkweed, with ‘no fixed abode’ for my previous address. The officious bastard wants me to tick boxes and fill in a questionnaire as well. I insert random rubbish to skew whatever purpose these utterly useless statistics will serve.
I’m relegated to a support role as an ‘auxiliary labourer’, which pretty much means I belong to a slave class. This status has job requirements that I know will be done slowly and poorly. On the upside, at least I’m not female, or even slightly attractive to men. Being segregated for Hadley’s gang’s private use’ would be even less pleasurable than cleaning dishes and unblocking toilets.
Hadley has chosen his HQ well. The nearby multi-story car park has been repurposed into a fortified camp to typical military specifications. Hadley’s red, grey and yellow flags festoon the towering structure to arrogantly advertise their occupation. They’re pretty sure of themselves, I’ll give them that much.
We, the lesser inductees who refused armed combat or were rejected on medical grounds, enter the car park compound to an ever increasing bombardment of unsynchronised electronic dance music. The noise blares from a dozen stereos and TV’s that are attended by tight knots of young men and women. These lower tiers are the domain of the faithful, and they’ve crammed every square metre with the spoils of war. Dusty, high performance cars, prestigious caravans , and dozens of portable toilets also jostle for space. The sneering young men and women who live here have reasonable comforts and we are reminded that they are not about to share by jeers and threats which move us along at a faster rate.
We’re taken to a supply clerk on the third floor and issued with a thin roll of foam and a blanket each. The stockpile behind the fat guy, who dispenses our new belongings with bored resentment, will rot before it is ever used up. Nevertheless he refuses to give me an extra roll of foam and blanket that I request to ease my bad back. They obviously don’t care that it’s getting cold at night. I guess unnecessary hardships are meant to be reminders of our lowly status.
The value of real estate in the high rise garage is defined by the reach and ownership of a power lead. Jealously guarded cords tangle and clump together as they trail back to roaring generators. There is only one way to claim a space within reach of this electricity. Take the spot from someone weaker. Fights ensue as some of our strongest lads and lasses do just that. I see guards who have watched gleefully wade into the fights with clubs and fists.
We, the less agile and injury prone skirt the bloodied fighters and continue up the next ramp. The unpowered mid-levels have unclaimed sheltered corners that the weakest of our group collapse into.
I continue upwards, gradually culled of any followers until I reach the lonely floor one down from the rooftop. Here I sit and contemplate my misfortunes in peace.
My choice of abode is continually manned by minimal lookouts. These duty-bound souls circle past my perch at regular intervals. Occasionally they attempt conversation to relieve their boredom but soon learn to avoid me as I mutter to myself, sometimes screaming in the dark to unnerve the more flighty looking ones.
Nightfall allows my timid explorations of this concrete prison to go unnoticed. I test the multiple exits which are well barricaded and heavily guarded. Palleted consumables are piled high around the lower levels perimeters. This clever stockpiling method eliminates the need for camp members to venture outside for supplies.
And prevents the dissatisfied from escaping.
The inflexible kitchen roster is delivered to me by my new crew-cut pal. He punches me nearly unconscious when I circle the days that best suit me and hand it back. I seems my services are demanded daily, or else!
Always slightly late, I obediently show up at my place of work in the basement each morning before sunrise where Hadley’s chefs cook feverishly on a fine collection of expensive European stainless-steel appliances. I chop and peel, gobble leftovers, and play with knobs and gauges whenever a back is turned. Misreading chilli measurements and substituting salt for sugar are regular calamities, and the unhappy chefs are much abused by their dissatisfied customers. Only my dim-witted facade spares me from a harsher punishment that the beatings I get when occasionally I’m caught red-handed.
My elderly workmates shun me. I’m warned not to rock the boat. They are deathly afraid of angering the authorities here, believing it’s better to be treated like an animal in an evil empire than to face the horrors outside these walls.
I’m not so sure I agree.
Day by day we play our parts in this hellish play. I watch uncompromising trainers transform youngsters into killers on the parade ground by day, and hear the steroid- injected party’s go on into the night. HDC’s bully boys practise their craft against the rest of us on a whim. They are only loosely governed, and Hadley’s eagle eyes only seem to see transgressions when he wants to.
We learn Hadley’s guarantee of safety from the Parasites outside has no bearing on our treatment inside the camp. ‘Unfortunate incidents’ occur regularly. Rapes, shootings and beatings, perpetrated by hyperactive teens hefting guns. These occurrences do not endear them to those of us who have none.
It is also evident that third class citizens are nothing more than unconsenting numbers in a rigged game of lotto. We live in fear of being the winning for the week. The swiftly applied death penalty has no room for retrial. Hadley executes at least one dissenter every week, and there are plenty of us to choose from, though I manage to remain merely annoying and never threatening. These murders are usually carried in front of the latest collection of new ‘recruits’.
To exacerbate our already perilous existence, if we get sick we must hide the fact most carefully. Parasite possession has never been a well understood science and a fear of ‘catching a dose of Parasite’ prevails amongst the less educated. Overeager young guns will cure your sniffles permanently if they decide you’ve been infected. Remonstrating with a paranoid, gun-wielding psycho often results in death or permanent disfigurement.
Weeks pass under these appalling conditions. I will gloss over the specifics. HDC soldiers patrol the city every day, bringing home less ‘volunteers’ and eliminating even fewer Parasite Hosts.
The invasion appears to be over.
This rumour spreads and the camp gets rowdy. Hadley is well aware that bored, restless soldiers are an ingredient for trouble. He quells the increasingly violent conflicts within their ranks by ordering more executions.
Hadley’s ideal world of conquest and kingship is under threat and he must have grown deeply concerned to make his next decree. He sends scouts deep into unknown territory, beyond the city suburbs, searching for trouble and finding plenty.
The scouts discover a ‘nest’ of Parasites. Excited reports return. A huge, engorged, Queen Parasite has been sighted, being carried by a hundred Hosts . They took her underground and now infest the railway tunnels on the city’s outer rim. Hadley is pleased to regain his focus.
A plan of attack is formulated and eradication squads are swiftly formed up; over-equipped and under-experienced.
They return jubilant. They have fried the nest with flamethrowers. The happy celebrations only mean double shifts for me. Rat droppings give their soup a gritty texture.
They’d lied a bit. If Hadley had the balls to go with them on these missions he would have found that out earlier. Regardless, inaccuracies in the soldiers’ stories make him suspicious. Eventually he extracts the truth from an unfortunate Officer. It seems the Host contingent was so large the soldiers had run out of flamethrower fuel before they could fight their way through to kill the Queen.
‘She’ must have been displeased by their incursion. Host activity increases around the city and the soldiers are kept busy fending them off. We are rudely awakened several nights running by guards taking pot shots at wandering fiends when Hosts discover our location.
More raids are slated, but this time the squads return depleted of members. The Parasites have multiplied tenfold in the area and are prepared to die in large numbers to thin our troops. Officers turn a contemplative eye towards conscientious objectors and malingerers to fill holes in their ranks.
I tighten a resolve to leave before conscription seals my fate.
Not being a particularly proactive guy, I have a tendency to wait until my hand is forced. That terrible day of action arrives early the next morning. The Parasites have brought the fight to us.
The day begins with a klaxon's bellow that jerks me from a broken sleep. I wipe my eyes, and hurry to the edge of the building to see a mass of slow movement converging on our fortress. I immediately run for cover.
The Hosts fight with strange passiveness. They concentrate their shuffling numbers on several positions until the weakest is overrun. When they finally break through, ‘Poppers’ are engaged to sacrifice themselves in our midst. The release of those tiny monstrosities from bursting stomachs’ scatters our troops in terror.
I manage to squeeze into a steel locker. The limited view from its vent displays more than I want to see. The torn open bodies crawl with those scuttling things that seek the closest soldiers; biting and clawing.
Bullets fly in all directions. The concussion of grenades, machine gun fire and angry howls and screams punctuate the savage fighting. A bullet ricochets off my cabinet. The dent is at groin level. I stare down at the near miss in terror and block my ears from the terrible screams of overwhelmed soldiers. Hosts shuffle by me. Those gunned down are replaced by endless reinforcements.
The combat continues in isolated pockets all day and into the night. Ammunition must be running low by the time a Lieutenant barks an order to hold fire, fall back, regroup, and retreat.
Hysterical ‘abandon camp’ shouts begin to ring out as the order is translated. Disordered, running figures pass my locker in different directions followed by shambling horrors and more spasmodic gun-fire.
The panic is highly contagious. I too am ill with it. Heroically I open the rattley cabinet door to sneak away into the night I had no choice. A cramp was making my leg kick spastically and the other one had gone completely numb.
My discreet escape route collects others who have hidden throughout the fighting. We group up, tolerating each other’s presence for an entire day while we run and hide in various houses and shops. The distant crack of rifle fire and the rare boom of larger explosives make us cringe less often as the sounds of war taper off and then occur no more.
The second day fades, dominated by nerve-wracking silence. Several times scraping footsteps pass us by, locking our muscles in whatever inconvenient pose we happen to be in at the time. We’d win a group mime competition hands down.
The bravest of us all slips in and out, whispering reports of Hosts filtering away from the battleground in several distinct directions. They are carrying the spoils of victory. Whole bodies, in a live state. And not so live body parts. We rejoice the closure of the HDC camp in silent contemplation.