by Jon Crout
Fear was a daily watchword on this troubled island. This evening those present on its northern edge bore witness to an unholy bleakness. The surface of the water danced in macabre fashion as the unrelenting rain churned its surface. The wind drove the downpour horizontally, and the absence of any electric light rendered the night impenetrable. Those on guard duty patrolling the Lines would struggle to see any incursion from those they were meant to be looking out for. Their flash-lights strained to pierce the gloom, and just reflected the persistent deluge. Yet there was no alternative, no way that the borders could be left unguarded. The consequences were too terrible to contemplate.
In an old minibus, two bedraggled figures on western duty did their best to keep their minds on the job. The vehicle perched close to the drop where the motorway had become interrupted. The windscreen was long gone, so to try and escape the rain the occupants sat further back, peering out from under the hoods of their plastic ponchos, gripping their weapons intently in cold, wet hands.
“It makes me nervous, not being able to see properly to the other side.” Joe was a skinny, twitchy young man. Every few seconds he would shine his torch hopelessly into the night.
“I can see well enough,” sneered Brian as he stared through the infrared sight on his rifle. “We’ve got a couple of shufflers coming this way, just in line with the Sails.”
Joe raised his own weapon, looked towards the old monument, and could barely make out the two once-human shapes edging slowly towards them. He had tuned out the noise of the rain on the vehicle roof after sitting out there for more than three hours, but now that some sort of positive action was required, Joe found it anxiously distracting. His companion barely moved. Minutes passed, and Joe did nothing but stare ahead as the rain hammered down and the wind shook the bus. Eventually Brian slipped into a front seat, and got into a firing position. Without deviation, he said “there are two of them you know”. Joe took the hint and climbed into the driver’s seat. He raised his own weapon. He could see the two figures much more clearly now. A man and a woman of similar height were meandering slowly towards the gap in the road, uncanny silhouettes in the dark. Brian leaned forwards ever so slightly. The sound of his shot was quickly lost in the wind. Joe saw the woman’s head snap back, and she landed across the bonnet of one of the abandoned cars that littered the carriageways on the other side. Whoever had done the job of blowing up a section of the motorway had done a clinical job. Seawater flooded the chasm between the two sections of road. Big lumps of concrete protruded upwards, but the edge was very definite. There was no traffic these days, but if there had been, no one would have been able to use the ‘Park and Ride’ any more. Similar detonations on the other roads, paths and the railway had ensured that the island was truly cut off from the mainland in a self-imposed quarantine. The continuously rotating patrols at each of these former crossings ensured that no one or no thing ever made it onto the island. Joe, Brian, and all their fellow residents belonged to a community that had survived by evolving a mentality founded on strict rules and constant vigilance.
“Come on, you streak,” Brian urged, “take your shot, he’s getting away!”
The other figure had started moving slowly in the opposite direction. Joe gripped his rifle, but his target was passing between cars, and getting difficult to see. He squeezed his trigger, and the figure was gone.
“Did I get him?”
“You winged him at best, you idiot. Head shot, head shot! It’s got to be the head, or you might as well not bother!”
“How do we know?” asked Joe.
“You’ve seen the films. Do you not remember your basic training? Week one is almost all Romero, with a bit of Walking Dead, before it got silly. Head shots or nothing!”
Joe frowned. “Why do we even bother? None of them ever get across. We could save our ammo. And what if they ever found a cure?”
“For being shot in the head? I don’t think so!”
“No, for the condition, the infection, whatever it is?”
It was Brian’s turn to furrow his brow. “Look, stop with that nonsense, those are the dead come back to life, so any chance we get we should blow their brains out, so they don’t overrun us and eat ours in our sleep.”
The wind and rain eased, and the brain-stained night gradually became a grey day. The morning relief patrol arrived on bicycles.
“Anything to report, you numpties?” came the call.
Joe and Brian climbed out and stretched. They saw Jackson and Campbell grinning at them.
“I bagged one, this berk let one get away,” sniffed Brian.
“And what about the Ka?” asked Jackson.
“Well, she landed on the bonnet,” said Brian, a bit confused.
“No, not ‘car’, Ka. There’s one over there, on the other side of the gap.”
“So what? There’s lots of cars over there.”
“Yes,” came the reply, “but that one wasn’t there yesterday.”
The diseased world turned hesitantly. The people of the island lived every day with fear and uncertainty. Yet they also had focus, and they had a leader. Walker had been the one to pull it all together. It had taken a long time, and had been a painful process, but bit by bit, people had listened. They had found a way that worked for them. Walker had presented choices in compelling terms, and with a bit of momentum had set in motion the decisive actions that had made survival a reality and provided some hope. It had been Walker’s plan to source and strategically use explosives to cut them off from the mainland and develop the policy of conservation of resources, which saw meticulous rationing of food, careful use of ammunition and access to fuel only when absolutely necessary. Yet even with all the training, organisation and sense of community, Walker knew that their situation was unsustainable. Something was going to give eventually. There were constant reminders of the dangers life now presented shuffling along neighbouring shores. The islanders could not be shielded from these very obvious reminders of the decimated world beyond, and one more thing was becomingly abundantly clear. This could not possibly be random migration. There was some terrible and unfathomable design behind the increase in numbers. Walker realised that without knowing the reason for the decaying masses trying to get at the island, there was no way of knowing their chances of continued survival. And this bugged the hell out of her.
The sign held up in the windscreen of the Ka had read ‘We need to talk’. Walker had come to see it for herself. The weather had broken, and she surveyed the visitors with a pair of binoculars handed to her by a sentry. Once she arrived on the scene, more signs followed. The next one asked ‘Please don’t shoot.’ The next said ‘Catch the can’.
After the initial news reports, panic had set in both locally and nationally. Some people had fled the city hoping to find loved ones, or some sort of refuge elsewhere. The reports became more serious, until they stopped completely. Walker had moved quickly to galvanise local resources, using her contacts and social media. Once the decision had been made to cut the island off from the mainland, the real work of organising a new community had begun. When mains electricity had ceased, generators had made the use of power possible, but under the new regime items such as mobile phones had been deemed an extravagance. Communications these days were a bit primitive.
The figure that got out of the car was a tall, pale figure with a penchant for leather, his coat, gloves and boots all as black as the sunglasses obscuring his face. His slight frame belied the strength needed to hurl a tin can from one side of the concrete gully to the other. Inside was a message:
‘We have information to your advantage. You have something that we want. Can we please come to discuss our proposals further?’
There was enough paper for Walker to write a reply, and Brian threw it back. After some toing and froing, the details of a tête-à-tête had been thrashed out. A dinghy was sent across alongside the old Portsbridge roundabout and fetched the individual that had identified himself only as Lionel. The meeting was convened in the lido. Two chairs sat opposite each other. Lionel had come alone, as instructed. Walker was accompanied by a contingent of guards and deputies.
“When you hear what I have to tell you, you may very well want to kill me,” began Lionel.
“I have given all my people very strict instructions not to harm you,” replied Walker, her curiosity piqued. “Unless something happens to me, or you manifest such a clear threat that action is necessary.”
“An interesting, and subjective qualification,” observed Lionel wryly. “But I will explain myself, and you will see that I have no choice but to come to you like this. You see the affliction that has blighted the world, is not death. It is an infection. It can be cured.”
“You know this to be true?” Walker was sceptical.
“There is research to be recovered from your university that we are sure can reverse the condition. It is not in a form that would be easily understood, and would need to be found and removed by someone who understood what they are looking for.”
“Not me personally, but my associates.”
“And these associates, they represent the infected?”
“My dear lady, they are the infected.”
Walker was aware of murmurs behind her. “How can this be?”
“When first bitten, or infected, an individual develops compulsive manic symptoms that cause them to attack, bite and spread the affliction. They lose their mind. But this passes. Second stage sees people return to a normal mental state, but with the unfortunate symptoms of flesh necrosis and physical decay. We do not yet know if the cure will just halt or reverse the process, but we are hopeful of continuing the research.
“The infection can only be spread through contact. The dead do not return as animated corpses. There is no need for you to build the funeral pyres on which you have been cremating your deceased.”
“You have been watching us?”
“For some time.”
Walker tried to get some measure of the visitor, but found it impossible while he wore his shades. “What do you propose?” she asked him.
“I ask that a few of my associates be allowed supervised access to the university. We will need to come and go from the island. In return we can guarantee you escorted and unmolested foraging expeditions off the island. We can help you get supplies, anything you are running short of, we can help you with.”
Walker thought hard. “We have worked very hard to keep the island infection free. Why should we take the risk?”
“Because with your help we can make everywhere infection free. Apart from access, our requests would be simple. Firstly, no more killing, no more ‘head shots’. These are ill people, not target practice. Secondly, we would ask that you all refrain from using the ‘S’ word. We find it offensive.”
Walker looked confused, and turned to her compatriots. Brian stepped forward and whispered in her ear. She turned back to Lionel.
“I understand. It is almost inevitable that the term would proliferate, but I will instruct everyone to mind their language if we proceed. I will need to consult with the people. Come back tomorrow and we will have an answer for you.” She stood up. “Before you go, please tell me, what is your personal interest in this? Why have you come to represent these people?”
Lionel remained seated. He removed his Ray-Bans and revealed his own bleached and bloodshot eyes.
“Scummer!” shouted Brian.
“What did we just agree?” asked Walker.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
Walker was shocked, just as much as those with her, but she felt a duty not only to her own people, but to any that might be saved.
“I apologise, Lionel. The dinghy will take you back across, we will confer, and speak to you again tomorrow.”
And so it began.
To start with, the visits were brief, and would only be a few visitors at a time. They were always under armed escort, and verbal exchanges were minimal. After some weeks, a degree of familiarity crept in, and the guests that had, until recently, been the focus of gut-churning hatred, were now becoming familiar, and relations became almost cordial. Not that all signs of tension and mistrust disappeared. Walker and Lionel held regular catch-up sessions to discuss how things were going.
At one such session, Lionel had a request.
“We still haven’t quite found what we need, but we are sure it is in the records or data banks somewhere. My client’s want to know if you will agree to longer visits and more visitors at a time?”
“In light of the conduct of the shufflers, I mean the infected to date, I see no problem.” Walker looked a little embarrassed. “We are trying hard to use appropriate terminology. To avoid awkwardness, do you have any preferred term of reference?”
“We would like to suggest ‘The Changed’”, Lionel replied quietly.
“I will consult with our City Committee, and confirm the response to your request when next we meet,” Walker promised.
And so it continued.
Before long more and more of The Changed were coming to the city. They asked if they could stay over in some of the empty properties, rather than travel every day. Some central streets were fenced off, and subject to curfew conditions, some were allowed to stay. As the people of the city got used to the Changed coming and going, they started to realise that they were not all the same. Some were more friendly than others, some had interests beyond the hoped-for cure. Individuals or groups would perhaps barter, and there was even a Changed versus City football match. Some island people were hostile to the newcomers, yet most made an effort. The negative terms in which they had once spoken of those they saw as a cadaverous infestation to be wiped out were largely refined to more polite descriptions. Most individuals from each side understood that the word ‘Zombie’ was outdated and inappropriate, but that did not stop one faction of the Changed re-appropriating the word. Soon after improved relations at the ghetto meant that the curfew had been lifted, the newly achieved accord was undermined terribly by the ZDL march along Winston Churchill Avenue.
Despite this, the Changed earned their improved standing. They were a community beyond the city borders, and were able to do what was necessary to get the electricity and fresh running water back on. City residents were able to venture forth, and be guided by their new allies in where to best gather precious supplies, or where to best avoid trouble. The Changed actively encouraged as many different city people to visit the northern parts, and they all returned safely.
Yet something troubled Walker. She saw the amazing results of this most unlikely of integrations, and could see clearly the ways in which quality of life for the city residents had improved, along with their general chances of surviving into future generations. What she still failed to see was any sign of tangible results from the science clique that continued to work out of the university. She resolved to get some answers at the next meeting.
A bus came into the city over the repaired carriageway of the Portsbridge roundabout. It was full of migrating Changed residents, and Brian climbed aboard after it passed through border control, to take over as driver. Their destination was Eastney, which had recently become the new home for their expanding community. A pallid, corpulent older man with holes in his face and bite marks in a rancid ear started smiling at him.
“What’s your name, son?” he asked.
“You don’t say? Why me and all my friends just love Brians, don’t we folks?”
A few of the other passengers murmured some acknowledgement. Brian felt uneasy. He looked at the grinning corpse face resting above an incongruous One Direction t-shirt, and wished they wouldn’t talk to him.
“Oh no, hang on, did I say Brians? I meant brains!”
All the other passengers fell about, and the boy band fan tried to give him a wink, which was difficult without any eyelids. Brian turned away, and climbed into the driver’s seat, longing for the days when he was allowed to shoot them through the head.
When the bus was fully unloaded, and the last resident was out of sight, Brian heard a banging and muffled shouting. The bedraggled man that fell out of the luggage compartment was clearly not one of the Changed. He was gaunt, pale, ill-looking, but definitely not one of them.
“I’ve come to warn you,” he burbled. “You can’t trust them. They’ve done it in other places too, you’re being tricked and when they’re ready they’ll just harvest you one by one!” Then, in true melodramatic fashion he passed out. Brian loaded him on the bus and headed for the Guildhall.
“How goes the search for a cure?” Walker asked.
Lionel smiled. He rarely spoke quickly, and gave nothing but considered responses.
“We have almost got what we came for. I am hopeful that we may be just days away from a breakthrough.”
“It seems an awfully long time to extract and implement research that was supposedly already largely completed?” Walker tried not to sound accusing.
Lionel turned things back on her.
“What possible motive could we have for not achieving the earliest possible end to our labours? Our flesh is weak, and no one knows how long these affected forms can survive without some restorative process. Why would we delay?”
“Your flesh may be weak, but according to every source available to me, even the most decayed Changed has jaw muscles that can rip through muscle as if it were paper.”
“Really,” Lionel shrugged, “you shouldn’t believe everything you see on television.”
There was a knock at the door. An aide entered hurriedly and muttered as quietly as he could in Walker’s ear. She tensed, and never took her eyes from Lionel’s sunglasses.
“Please excuse me for a moment.”
She returned a few minutes later, with Brian and Jackson following behind her. She did not sit down this time.
“A man has made his way here in secret. He claims to be from another community like this one, where the Changed have integrated on some pretext and gradually taken over. He alleges that human beings were then imprisoned and indiscriminately taken away and eaten.”
Brian gripped his rifle tightly. Lionel was unmoved.
“My dear friends,” he began, “this is a regrettable development. In light of our long friendship, I feel that there are things that you need to know.
“When you saw us on your shores, and thought we trying to get in, you were only part right. We were just as much trying to make sure that you did not leave.
“There is no way that you can understand what this Change is like until you experience it for yourself. The appetite is exquisite, and the satiating is divine. In most fantasies of this type, the exponential rate of decay is unchecked. In reality, for us to be able to continue to satisfy our desires, the situation had to be managed.
“You have seen how successfully both communities have existed side by side. In many cases, newly infected people can manifest the Change, and show little external sign that they are now different.”
“I know one when I see one,” snarled Brian.
At that moment Jackson jumped at him and knocked him to the floor. Jumping on top of him, he leant down and bit the tip of Brian’s nose off. The shocked Walker made a move for the dropped rifle, but Lionel was too quick for her.
“Once we enjoy the ecstatic rush of fresh flesh, the victim soon turns, and the mania sets in. After infection, the individual is totally unpalatable. Proper controls are necessary to ensure our larder communities endure, and do not become contaminated. Once the mania subsides, our new recruits are largely indistinguishable from their former selves.” He looked at the blood-stained Jackson. “Unless an over enthusiastic diner has taken a chunk off someone’s face.”
Brian was hunched on the floor, convulsing. Walker was aghast.
“We will leave you two alone,” Lionel said, “I hope you enjoy getting to know the new Brian.”
Lionel and Jackson left the meeting room, closing the door behind them.
And so the Change continued. Perhaps nine tenths of the city residents turned out to have been discreetly feasted on, and secretly Changed on their excursions out of the city. The remaining healthy humans, or ‘Lunchboxes’, were rounded up and taken to Whale Island. The gates were locked, and they were left to their own devices. Joe removed himself to a distance from the main group. He was distraught to know that Walker was gone, and that things had become so desperate. When they had formed their island community they had unanimously decided on one thing above all else, and that was that they would never knowingly submit to the infestation. They had planned their own ultimate solution to prevent themselves becoming what they feared the most. Only a fraction of the available explosives had been used to isolate Portsea from the mainland. The rest had been mined into strategic locations beneath the city.
Joe cradled the radio device in his hands. He hid himself, and watched as the stranger from the bus unexpectedly revealed the marks on his arm that showed he had already been gnawed upon before he could deliver his warning. In a matter of minutes his infectious mania had spread, and the frantically slavering city folk hunted down their last few remaining compatriots. Lionel was visible at the gates, frowning, but doing nothing.
It was all so despairingly too late. Wondering if there had ever been a cure, Joe pushed the big red button. The ground shook like a thing awoken angrily and prematurely from an aeon long slumber. He looked forlornly at the device when he realised the force of the explosion had not been enough to destroy the island. The ground continued to shake violently as it ripped itself from the bedrock.
The island city lurched further away from the mainland in surprising fashion. It gained distance from the newly wrought shoreline as the sea fought violently to fill the gap left by the receding land mass. Joe wondered if the cataclysmic event of the island finally sinking, or colliding with the much larger island to the south, would be what killed him, or the terminal disappointment of becoming a snack for his former peers, or worse, becoming….well, quite frankly, he was so hacked off, he nearly used the ‘S’ word.