Ember loaded another pallet of jars into the lorry. She wasn't entirely certain what it was that was it the jars, they seemed to be labelled in what she thought might be Polish, whatever it was the label read 'Flaczki'. Out of curiosity she took one of the jars and looked a bit more closely at it. It seemed to contain a sort of pale brown broth with strips of something unidentifiable inside it. Pork perhaps? According to the best before date the whatever, it was had another week to go. It certainly didn't look very appetising to her, but then she had probably eaten worse after a night out, back before the Pandora Event had put a stop to that sort of thing.
She shrugged and turned to head back into the supermarket. Had she just heard something? A sharp cracking sound in the distance? Stopping she cocked her head to one side, listening in case she heard it again. All she could hear now though was Ronan approaching with another trolley load of something. The trolley clanked and rattled as it crossed the tarmac, perhaps that's what she had heard. A distant crack and a much closer clank could sound much the same when one wasn't really paying attention.
A bead of sweat ran down her forehead from her hairline and into her eye stinging a little, the effort of loading and unloading the supplies had begun to take it out of her. On an impulse she flopped down on the ground, her back propped against the wall of the supermarket and pulled out one of the bottles of water she had purloined for herself earlier.
“That's the way big man, you carry on, I'm going to have a wee break!” she called to Ronan as he passed. She waged the water bottle at him by way of a wave. Ronan grunted something unintelligible at her in response and carried on.
Chuckling to herself Ember took a long pull on the water which was cold and refreshing from its time spent sat in the unheated storeroom.
Above her, the sun was shining in an almost clear sky but the air itself remained cool. Upon the mountains around the town, snow was clearly visible. It might have been a beautiful day except for the occasional sickly patches of red or purple foliage in the distance where once it would have been green. Even at this distance, the alien flora made Ember shiver. It was beautiful in its own way but it didn't belong here. Where it grew the native life withered and chocked until the alien flora had remade a little more of our world in the image of the Other-Verse. Ember frowned a little as she took another mouthful of water. Those people left alive now might be the last generation of humans to ever remember what their home world had once looked like.
Ember's contemplation was interrupted by the sound of radio traffic from behind the lorry the team were loading. Straining her ears to try and make out the message, she got to her feet and unslung her crossbow from her back. “Ronan, that you?” she asked as she moved slowly towards the truck, still trying to make out the words from the radio transmission, but without any luck. “Yep. Two seconds...” Somewhere in the pit of her stomach, it felt as if a knot was forming, her palms began to sweat even as her mouth seemed to grow dryer. The plan had been to keep radio traffic to an absolute minimum once the teams hit their target buildings so the chances were that if anyone was on the radio now it meant something had either gone wrong or was about to. Had the drones spotted something coming their way or had one of the other teams hit a problem?
The radio traffic had stopped by the time she rounded the back of the lorry and caught sight of Ronan. His usually stern expression was even more so now. Deep lines had formed on his brow and his eyelids seemed heavier, his gaze sharper. “ W'sup dude?” she asked. “QRF has been committed,”
Ember took a moment to process what that meant. Someone was in trouble and all of a sudden she realised what it was she had thought she heard earlier. She cursed herself for writing it off as nothing more than the sounds from Ronan's trolley. It had been a distant gunshot. Swallowing hard she asked Ronan if they should head over to help, although she hoped he would say no. She had been in enough fights lately to last her a lifetime and wasn't sure she could handle another one so soon.
Ronan seemed to think about it for a moment before shaking his head, although the gesture lacked conviction. “Message wasn't meant for us, I think we trust the QRF and Esther's team to handle it unless we get the call to go help.” It seemed to pain Ronan to say it. At the mention of it being Esther's team in trouble Ember had a momentary thought that whatever the danger was, if it couldn't be handled by Esther on the one hand and the QRF with the big 50 calibre machine gun and massive armoured MRAP on the other then she doubted that she and the three musketeers would be much help. She pushed the thought aside and flushed slightly. “Best crack on then,” she said and with that, she slung her crossbow over her shoulder and went back into the supermarket.
Looking around Ember saw Dominik, still driving the forklift and making his way back outside with another pallet of boxes. Further in Shamus was loading up another of the hand trolleys. Waving at Dominik as he passed Ember made her way towards Shamus, passing a set of swing doors which lead from the store room to the public area of the store. As she passed the doors the sound of something heavy crashing to the ground drifted trough them and she froze. For a moment even her breathing stopped, she could hear the thump of her heart in her chest growing faster as the sound came again. Eyes wide and fingers trembling she took her crossbow from her back once again and began to sink to a crouching position as slowly as she dared. Her eyes slid to the left, trying to catch site of the doors and slowly she began to turn her head in the direction of the sound.
The swing doors were partly ajar but from her position she couldn't see through them. There was no light spilling through the gap anyway. In a horse whisper that she hoped would carry to her friend but not to whoever, or whatever, was on the other side of the doors she said, “Shamus,” “I heard it too,” he answered softly. He was already creeping towards her, his bat gripped in his hands.
* * * * * * * *
Ember could hear Ronan approaching from behind her, the now familiar rattles and clanks of his hand trolley were growing louder. Frantically, she waved a hand at him while never taking her eyes from the door. The corners of her mouth twitched upwards slightly as she heard the sound of his trolley fall silent. After the briefest of moment, he appeared at her side and in a low whisper asked, “What's up Em'?” “There's something moving about in there,” As if to underline her point a loud crashing sound came from the far side of the door. Involuntarily Ember tightened her grip on the crossbow until it dug into her hand painfully.
Ronan scuttled over to where Shamus was crouched and the two Irish men spoke in hushed tones, too quietly for Ember to make out. Nodding, Shamus crept back outside only to return a short time later with Dominik. The Swiss had his assault rifle at the low ready, his expression stern.
A sound like that of something heavy being dragged across the ground could be heard from beyond the door.
Ember swallowed hard as Dominik outlined his plan to the rest of the group. Whatever was in the main shopping hall of the supermarket they didn't dare leave it at their rear without knowing if it was a threat or not. Nodding in agreement Ember felt her pulse quicken as she began to tremble ever so slightly at the prospect of facing an unknown danger in the dark. She took three deep breaths to steady herself, in through the nose and out through the mouth, slowly and controlled. It always had a calming effect on her, letting her focus on what had to be done rather than any anxiety she may have about doing it.
With the plan, such as it was, outlined the four nomads made themselves ready before Ronan and Dominik lead off and through the doors.
Ronan eased the door open as silently as possible with the barrel of his shotgun. Once the door was wide enough, Dominik swept in, his rifle panning left to right as he peered into the darkened room, alert for any movement or danger. With him inside, Ronan followed, Shamus taking his position holding the door open. Then it was Embers turn. Tilting her head to one side and then the other she moved forward, her crossbow at the ready, and followed the first two men inside.
Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the gloom inside the main room before the forms of Dominik and Ronan swam into view. Row upon row of shelves ran the length of the large hall. Up ahead of her Dominik switched on the flashlight that he had attached to the bottom of his weapon.
From where the nomads had entered they had a perfect view down the length of two isles. Simply by moving along the top of the room, they would be able to look down each aisle as they passed it, checking for the source of the sounds. That was something at least. If the shelves had run the other way, across instead of down, then they would have provided perfect cover for whoever or whatever was in here.
The four nomads split into two groups, Ember and Dominick took the isles to their right while the two Irishmen moved along the top of the Isles to the left.
Somewhere in the darkness, something moved. Ember was suddenly aware that she had stopped breathing, her ears were straining in a forlorn attempt to pinpoint the source of the sound. Glancing at Dominik she saw he was moving in a low crouch, his weapon ready, the torch attached to it shedding a re-tinted light. His face was a picture of concentration, his jaw set, his eyes narrowed but following the beam of the torch as he swept it around. He sniffed. Something in the air had caught his attention. Ember found herself mimicking his action and as she did, a faint whiff of something unpleasant and now all too familiar caught at the back of her throat.
The stench of decay and rot grew stronger as they moved along the tops of the isles. As they cleared one aisle and peered down the next they saw that this isle had been the freezer section. This part of the building was warmer by several degrees than the store room with their open roller shutters. With the power, off much of the food had begun to decay. The stench of it seemed to roll up the aisle like a wave and Ember gagged. Coughing and spluttering for a moment she fought to hold onto the contents of her stomach.
Further down the aisle, something heard her.