Authors: Eva Harper
The Cloudy Skulls
A #cloudysandbox novella
Copyright © 2014, Eva Harper
No part of this work may be resold or reproduced in any form without written permission from the author.
Volume 1: The Cloudy Skulls
A hundred years ago Japan was classified as a dead zone by the United Resistance; a place beyond salvage. It was the first of many countries to be abandoned, with the immortal infection spreading like wildfire. Now with world supplies running low, soldiers are sent in to reclaim the zones lost to the undead.
The Cloudy Skulls squadron has set up base just outside of Tokyo, and Second Lieutenant Rin Komatsu has been given command. Air disasters, victim attacks and personal agendas all threaten to topple her reign before she's even been officially handed over. Can she survive her first day? And is it possible for humans to inhabit the dead zones that had been condemned as inhospitable?
The droning hum of the airslicer hover units was almost enough to lull me to sleep. That and the boring technical manuals I was reading on my PCD to try and pass the time. It was a long flight from England to Japan, and for the last hour the only scenery I'd been able to enjoy was the steely grey ocean, and that was only when my view wasn't obscured by clouds. The manual on replacing wall mounted luma panels was boring enough that I gave the ocean another look now that there was a break in the cloud cover. There wasn't much to see from so high up, I couldn't even tell if the water was calm or choppy. Even though I couldn't see much of anything I toyed with the idea that there were small speeders zipping across the waves, or hulking aquacarriers transporting supplies to remote bases, or ferrying refugees from disaster areas. The last bulletin had talked of the crisis in New Zealand, so there were probably thousands of people looking to get away.
The first I saw of Japan was a brown blob on the horizon. It was so small I thought maybe I was imagining things until it started to take shape, and became different shades of brown and green and grey. I felt my stomach twist as the sight of what would have been my homeland. Had things worked out differently I might have been born there, grown up and lived my life out in the bustling heart of Japan. Things weren't different, though, and the entire country had been marked as a dead zone years before I was even born. Nobody lived there now, except the victims, and some of those were from the experiment that sparked the worldwide disaster. The fishing village that had been infected with an elixir that was supposed to give the gift of immortality, but instead gave us something infinitely worse than death. Now the United Resistance, or UR, was putting army bases in the dead zones in an effort to try and reclaim the land we lost. We're losing the war; running low on supplies and land, while the armies of victims keep growing and consuming.
Your squadron, the Cloudy Skulls, has been set up in the old capital,' said the man sitting opposite me, Lieutenant General Parker. 'A perimeter was cleared and the soil burned with chemical, then the base was built on the clean area. Outside the fence Tokyo is wild, though. This is ground zero so all the biggest changes are happening here. It was heavily populated too, so you've got shit tonnes of vics roaming around all over the place.'
The corner of my lips quirked. ‘Glad we have such accurate figures.’
Parker snorted and leaned back in his seat. He was a tall, dark slender man, wearing the navy suit of a United Resistance officer. Grey streaked his closely cropped brown hair and his eyes sparkled when he looked at me. ‘Nobody has volunteered to go out and count ‘em.’
‘Can’t say I blame them,’ I said, looking out again as the land mass of Japan loomed in the distance.
‘Let’s just say there’s more than enough of 'em to take down a base. You’ve already had the training, you know the missions are stealth based. Try and attract as little attention as possible, and you’ll slip by the victims. If they notice you then you’re as good as dead. Or undead. Depends if they chew or devour,’ he grinned, and a gold tooth flashed under the airslicer’s luma panels.
‘Thank you. I’ll try to ensure none of my men get devoured. Or chewed.’
Parker laughed, and lifted his foot to rest on his opposite knee. His trouser leg rode up to reveal a non-regulation orange and black striped sock. ‘Know how many of these new dead zone bases I’ve opened up?’
I shook my head.
‘You’re lucky number fifty. Know how many of the commanding officers for these new bases tell me they’re not going to lose any men?’
‘I’ll guess I’m still number fifty.’
The gold tooth flashed again. ‘You may have seen an outbreak, or an attack, but they’re isolated incidents. The UR comes and cleans up, disposes of any victims and makes the area safe. A dead zone is somewhere we’ve designated as unsalvageable. Too many victims, polluted resources, destruction on a massive scale. The UR basically said to hell with it, there’s no way humans can ever live here again. We gave the dead zones up.’
‘But now we’re running out of safe land, and running out of food,’ I said, reciting the mission briefings I’d heard over and over. ‘So we have to try and reclaim the lost resources.’
‘Yup. And we do that by sending you guys out in the dead zones. Those places we thought were incompatible with life. So, Komatsu, prepare yourself now. You will lose men. Good men. And lots of them.’
I didn't answer him, and just pressed myself closer to the cool window to watch as we finally began flying over Japan. It was hard to see the destruction that there was supposed to be from so high, and I could almost trick myself into believing I was going to land in a safe area, far away from the monsters that could tear human flesh apart with their hands and had the power to live forever.
The base wasn’t huge by necessity; the bigger the area was, the harder it would be to defend. I was happy with its size, though, it would be big enough to house all my men and accommodate us all comfortably, along with a decent stock of weapons and supplies. There was a water filtration system around the back of the main building to purify the water to ensure it hadn’t been infected when we drank it.
As the airslicer descended the landmarks came into view. Building skeletons reached high into the sky, with shards of glass clinging to frames, and metal girders twisted within blocks of concentrate. The taller buildings swayed in the wind a little and nothing looked particularly stable. The concrete was a mix between brilliant white where early attempts to control the virus had involved potent chemicals, and in other places black with soot when people got desperate and tried to raze the cities. Opportunistic weeds grew between the cracks in the concrete buildings, and it seemed wrong that life could flourish in a city whose occupants were decaying.
The airslicer began to take a sharper descent and slowed down as we neared the base.
'We're getting close,' Parker said. 'Take a look, you'll be able to see your new home soon, I'm guessin'.'
I looked, and a few minutes later I began to see where the crumbling buildings gave way to a huge clearing, in the middle of which was a wire fence housing the military base for the Cloudy Skulls squadron. It was a grey, single floored sprawling complex, with two tall towers for look outs. It was my new home.
Parker joined me at the window, leaning forward in his seat to peer through the thick glass. 'Could use a few potted plants, maybe a plastic flamingo or something to personalise it a bit.'
I said nothing, but I watched as the base grew larger. The runway strip started outside the complex, and passed through the gates in the wire fence then came to a stop in the base hanger. The wheels of the airslicer shrieked as we touched down on the tarmac and began our final home straight run.
As I peered through the window the blur of grey became more distinct. 'Shouldn't the gates be open by now?' I asked, just as the door to the cockpit opened and a panicked man with a pair of headphones around his neck stumbled in.
'Lieutenant General Parker, Sir, we have a problem with the comms. The base isn't responding and the gates are closed.'
Parker sat bolt upright in his seat. 'Take to the air again, we'll circle and wait for a response.'
'We've touched down, Sir, there's not enough room to lift off.'
'Impact in twenty!' yelled a voice from the cockpit.
My heart was thumping against my chest as I watched the gates getting closer and closer, but they still weren't opening. The screech of brakes told me the airslicer was slowing down, but it wasn't going to be fast enough to avoid the impact. I couldn't help but look, though, praying that the heavy metal would swing open to let us pass unscathed. I held my breath as I watched the details of the wire fence come into view and then a flash of colour caught my eye.
'Someone's out there,' I said, and instantly I felt people pressing against me, trying to see out of my window. Other passengers were jostling for position by other windows too, and suddenly the figure came into view. The blob started to split and I realised that there was actually two people; one wearing black who was trying to do something to the mechanisms of the gate, and another in paler clothing that dragged the first man to the ground. They both fought a little and then rolled out of sight.
'Oh god, we're going to crash!' screamed a female officer on the other side of the aircraft, and it broke the magic spell that had enchanted them all, so everyone ran back to their seats and buckled themselves in. I sat myself down and had just slotted my seatbelt in place when I was jerked forward violently. I gasped in pain as the seatbelt crushed my ribs, and all around me the sound of clattering metal ripped through the air. One of the wings caught in the fence as we sailed through it and was torn clear off, but the gates seemed to give way to the body of the airslicer and we went barrelling through, too fast as the brakes weren't working hard enough. Without the left wing the slicer tipped to the side and the screech of metal grinding against tarmac made me cringe and grip the sides of the armrests until my knuckles turned white. All I could feel was how fast we were going, and my blood was pounding in my ears as I was sure we were going to smash into the back of the hangar. The friction of the wheels against the tarmac slowed us down a little, and even inside the airslicer I could smell burning rubber but we slowed down enough so that when we finally crashed into the far wall of the hanger it was a more sustainable accident. That's what Parker called it afterward, but all I remembered was the loud crack as my skull hit the back of my seat on impact; my vision went grey and I felt sick and lightheaded for a few moments while lights flashed and sirens wailed all around me.
There was a long moment after the impact where everyone just sat silently in their seats, as if waiting for something else to happen, or for somebody to be the first to speak. I didn't have anything to say, but I was the first to move and undo my seatbelt, then I rose shakily to my feet. My first thought was to get to the door of the airslicer, but the panel beside the door was dead, so I removed it and began trying to fiddle with the wires.
'Here, let me,' Parker said from behind me, pushing me aside. He slammed his shoulder into the thick metal door with a terrific heave, but nothing happened.
'Korean steel,' I told him, resisting the urge to roll my eyes. 'You're going to dislocate your shoulder.'
Parker drew back, rubbing his shoulder and scowling. The thick material of his uniform hid any muscles, but from the force of the thud I was sure he had taken care of his military physique. 'Dammit, we got anything to jack this open with?' he was speaking to the co-pilot now, who was hovering beside us and looking a little green.
'S-sure,' the co-pilot said, hurrying off to the cockpit. He hadn't been gone more than a second when his scream pierced the air.
I was nearest so I reached the cockpit first and got a good look at the scene; the windshield had caved in and the pilot was slumped back in his seat, his face, torso and arms shredded and bloodied. The co-pilot had collapsed into his own chair which was littered with glass, and his face was paper white as he stared at the corpse. Glass crunched beneath my shoes as I walked over to the pilot and closed his eyes. I swept shards from the control panel and the computer system sprang back to life under my touch. Every soldier gets at least basic pilot training so I knew where to find the door release, and moments later I heard the tell-tale click from the main room and felt a rush of cold air.
When I turned back to the door Parker was leaning against the frame, his dark eyes on the pilot. He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. 'Not meant to lose people before the damn fighting starts. Such a waste.' He turned to the co-pilot who was trembling in his seat. 'Come on, son, let's get you out of here. You don't need to see this.'
I gave the pilot one last look before following them outside. The sun was shining but the wind was icy cold, it was a typical winter day. Somehow that felt wrong; we'd nearly died in an airslicer crash, and we were standing in a dead zone. I'd thought that everything would be different in Japan, that maybe the air would smell different, or the ground would feel strange, but I could have been standing back on a base in London for how similar it felt.
The officers were huddled in a group lamenting about how traumatic the crash had been, but I was more interested in the gates, or rather the figures I had seen there from the airslicer. I started to head in that direction when Parker called me back.
'There should have been a team here waiting, but the co-pilot said communications broke down just as we started to land. And as you can tell the gates were never opened.'
'They must have been opened, or we'd have crashed into them. We went through,' I pointed out.
Parker shrugged. 'Drive an airslicer at something, it gives way.'
'Then I'm going to put in a request for stronger gates, because with how hard we were braking we shouldn't have broken them.'
Parker just hummed at that, and followed me as I walked toward the gates. Under the heat of the sun I could smell the freshly laid tarmac, which still looked so smooth and perfect. Everything about the base had that brand-new feel to it and looked as if it had just been unwrapped. There was no stray gravel on this part of the runway, no chips in its surface, and when we made it to the gates the metal was still shiny and polished, where it wasn't dented and scratched from the crash.