There had been some oddities since the start of the war. Weapons that didn’t have quite the intended effect they were supposed to and cities that vanished overnight. That was when people starting moving below ground. What had started with single bunkers turned into networks and then communities, all of which expanded deeper and further until whole cities were living beneath the earth’s surface. One piled on top of the other, layer and layer jumbled together. Headquarters had estimates, approximations for population sizes and military capabilities, but most of the time they were blind to what was going on outside their organisation. Top-side they could keep watch; most of the satellite feeds that had existed before the war were now under Headquarters’ control. However, there were still some areas that Sasha couldn’t view remotely from her office. She had to send men to gather in-tell, survey blind spots and dispatch enemy forces using those hidden spots to encroach further than they should. It didn’t matter if she was practically running on a skeleton crew, to have influences over the surviving world powers she had to make it look like Headquarters was still as formidable as ever.
James was sick of the topside. There were bugs in his mouth; his shirt stuck uncomfortable to his back and no matter where he looked all he could see was more of… well nothing.
‘This used to be a city?’ he asked, pushing vines out of his way as they tracked through the mass of jungle undergrowth. ‘You have to be kidding me right? There’s nothing here but trees and-’ A bug flew into the back of his throat and the rest of the sentence was lost to a choak.
‘You’re forgetting the cats,’ Hughes said, lingering beside James as he doubled over coughing. He waited until the boy was done spitting and then nudged him forward, pressing on to keep up with the rest of the group. He’d already been demoted once in the last month and he wasn’t prepared to deal with the fallout of losing the Director’s baby brother. ‘Before the war there were zoos and safari parks, but they abandoned them when the war erupted and the animals ended up escaping. The ones that weren’t eaten by the others just kept roaming.’
‘So we’ve got wild animals to contend with as well,’ He slapped at his arm and his fingers came away red with mosquito juices. ‘Bloody brilliant.’
Hughes shrugged. He was taller than James by a head and a bit, not that it was difficult when James was one of the shortest people around the base. Thin as a beanpole and stringy as the beans themselves it wasn’t hard to see why the lad was deemed good for nothing. He examined the world around them and the soldiers with the same look. One that said he was too good to be there and if they gave him chance he would explain to them exactly why.
‘It’s nothing new really; all animals are wild these days. These ones are just a little more likely to eat you instead of you eating them.’ Hughes grabbed onto James arm and yanked him back. The bear trap snapped upwards, its metal teeth gnashing against each other as it sealed shut. James yelped, falling into his saviour.
The rest of the unit turned. O’Hara lifted his helmet and scratched his forehead, studying the trap with distaste.
‘Still got all your legs?’ he asked.
There were five men in the unit; Hughes, O’Hara, Cricy, Mick and Skegs. James was pretty sure that none of those names were real, or at least, not the names any of them had been born with. That was the way with most of the Headquarters soldier. They didn’t want to think about who they were before the war so they became someone new. It wasn’t as if the war looked like it was going to be finished during their lifetimes, so it didn’t really matter what they called themselves, there was nothing else for them but the work. James could pick them apart by the badges on their arms but other than that they all looked the same. Camouflaged uniforms and low helmets with visors. All of them one and the same. They shifted back into formation, O’Hara at the front with his machete, Cricy, Mick and Skegs following with James second from last and Hughes bringing up the rear. Babysitting the tourist and O’Hara put it.
‘We’re here.’ O’Hara tapped one of the tree trunks with his hunting knife. ‘Welcome to Nurmberg boys.’
James peered past them to see exactly what it was that O’Hara had been pointing at.
‘Is that a bird?’ he asked, squinting at the faded engraving someone had roughly scored into the bark.
‘Eagle,’ said Crecy. ‘Old crest or somethin’, not that it matters too much, nothin’ left to represent.’
‘Oh,’ said James quietly as they started moving again. ‘What happened exactly?’
‘Bomb,’ explained Hughes. ‘Not sure what kind exactly, but it went off and took the city with it. Everything top-side was levelled and within three years this was here.’
‘You mean the forest?’ James asked.
‘Yep,’ grinned Cricy. He turned and began walking backwards so he could look at James as he talked. Cricy was known for being something of a biology nut and he’d been itching to visit what was left of Nuremberg for years. ‘Just like it sprang up overnight,’ he grinned, showing two lines of perfectly straight white teeth. ‘Well weird, but the stuff that started showing up after that!’ He whistled between his teeth. ‘Dam! I’ve seen at least twenty plants since we got here that are supposed to be extinct! Twenty man!’
‘Yer we’ve got it Cricy. This place is some sort of Eden for freaks like you,’ muttered O’Hara. ‘Keep your eyes on the mission. We’ve got reports of life-signs, big human like ones, and there ain’t meant to be any humans out here.’
‘Maybe the science is wrong,’ suggested James. ‘I mean they only showed up yesterday and if there were humans living up here shouldn’t they have been showing up like forever?’
‘Ain’t the science,’ said O’Hara. ‘Somethin’ is going on in this place and it’s weirder than a few extinct shrubs.’
‘They weren’t shrubs.’ Cricy protested. ‘They were-’
‘I don’t give a dam Circy! I told ya. Mind the mission and not your precious plants!’ O’Hara shook his head and took a swing at the vegetation, grunting as the blade stuck for a second.
The group fell into silence and kept trudging. Each tree they passed James kept his eyes peeled, trying to spot another mark like the one he’d seen earlier. If there were people living up here perhaps that meant topside was becoming safe again. Perhaps they didn’t have to live underground anymore? He pushed the thoughts back down where they belong. They were dangerous and stupid, his sister always told him so.
When the light started to fail O’Hara ordered them to make camp and James was left to meander around the edges. He didn’t have the strength the rest of them had, they were mountains of muscle and he was all sinew. Granted he could climb mountains, but trekking through jungle where every step involved getting slapped in the face by branches was somewhat draining.
‘Hey Circy?’ he called, wandering over to the soldier. Circy was fixing the last of the guide ropes on one of the tents.
‘Yer, what?’ he snapped, annoyed that O’Hara had confiscated his plant samples on some reasoning about possible contaminates being introduced to Headquarters.
‘That mark on the tree, the eagle.’
‘What about it,’ asked Circy.
James leaned forward.
‘I want to know who drew it,’ he said.
‘Drew it?’ Circy repeated. ‘How the hell am I supposed to know? Been there as long as I can remember.’
‘Then who found it first?’ James asked. ‘It can’t have just appeared.’
Circy shrugged. ‘Always been there I guess. Maybe some other soldier put it there to mark the outskirts of the old city? Might be a pathfinders mark.’
‘It’s less than half a day’s walk from the drop off point,’ said James. ‘No soldier would have the time unless he stayed behind, and units don’t split up unless absolutely necessary.’ He felt a flush of pride as he recited basic protocol for unit excursions.
‘Then I give up. It’s a mystery and let’s leave it at that.’
James’ face fell and he swallowed his reply.
‘I suppose,’ he said, not sounding convinced.
‘Dam right,’ grunted Circy, finished with the tent at last. ‘Only thing that’s important right now is who’s cooking.’ He stood and waved at the rest of the unit. ‘Oi, O’Hara! Who’s chef tonight.’
O’Hara hurled a ration packet at Circy feet.
‘Every man for himself,’ grinned the leader. ‘Who knows, this match may even taste half decent.’
As the night drew further on James watched the rest of the soldiers turn in, all except O’Hara who took first watch. He didn’t bother asking the soldier about the eagle, he was probably get the same answer as Circy had given and he was working on his own theory anyway.
He didn’t panic when he noticed movement outside of camp. He probably wouldn’t have even spotted it if he hadn’t been searching. The blade against his throat however was a little more than unnerving.
‘Step away from the boy and declare yourself,’ growled O’Hara, three steps behind James before he could even so much as squeak. O’Hara had his pistol level with the stranger’s head, barely bothering to take notice of the animal skins clothing the man.
‘O’Hara,’ James croaked. ‘I think I might have found who drew that eagle.’ Beads of blood began to slide down across his jugular as he swallowed by the stranger’s blade didn’t move. O’Hara clicked the safety off his gun.
‘I said let him go,’ O’Hara growled. ‘Now.’