Undead uk remember me de.., p.14

Undead UK: Remember Me Dead, page 14

 part  #1 of  Undead UK Series

 

Undead UK: Remember Me Dead
 


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  The attic was large, and wooden boards had been laid across the joists, making it easy to move around. Cardboard boxes were stacked near the entrance hatch, and Breht searched through them. All he found were memories: photo albums, children’s school reports, exercise books, finger-painted pictures and old toys.

  Laying fallen tiles in a square underneath the hole, Breht made a fire using the exercise books. Years of algebra and irregular verbs went up in smoke. When the flames were high, he tossed on a wooden train, then placed a can of water on top of it. Some of the smoke filled the attic, leaving him coughing, and he had to widen the hole.

  There was a water cistern in the attic, and it was half full, though it was probably so full of bacteria after sitting there for a year that Breht was not prepared to drink it, even after boiling. He had his own water anyway. After he’d consumed his hot drink, however, he filled a nearby cooking pot with the stagnant water and put it on the fire before stripping out of his clothes.

  Personal hygiene was important, and not just for fastidious reasons. As Breht had taught the recruits many times during long exercises, living in the same clothes for weeks on end, in the damp and the cold, encouraged the intimate growth of mould and parasites. Years of long wars had taught the army that, and Breht had no desire to get crotch rot or lice. He had more than enough problems as it was.

  When the water had boiled he took the pot off the fire and let it cool before using it, swabbing himself with the soap he’d liberated from the crashed aircraft. He then threw his underwear in the pot and put it back on the heat to boil again, adding history and geography books to the fire to sterilise his jocks. He tossed his socks in for good measure. They were as ragged as hell – more hole than sock – but he expected a few more months of life out of them. Digging out some spare clothing, he got dressed again and lay down on his blanket to relax, nursing a small bottle of whiskey he’d been holding back till now. A few sips was all it took to infuse him with warmth and make him feel good.

  A far cry from the half bottle a day he used to consume while sat at his desk. And that was before his drinking got so bad that he couldn’t remember sitting at his desk at all. He was certain there were days he never even turned up for work, but he didn’t remember any consequences, apart from a raging hangover and a perpetual lack of money. He wasn’t that far removed from being a zombie himself.

  Downstairs in the house, he heard footsteps and thumps, so he knew he wasn’t alone. He didn’t expect to be, but he had no desire to explore today, and they couldn’t get into the attic, so he wasn’t too concerned. He’d gotten used to nightly noises from his undead brethren. They were like noisy neighbours, except they didn’t play loud music or argue all the time.

  It was strange to feel a kind of kinship to the undead. Grotesque, in a way. But he shared the planet with them, and he respected them the way a seasoned hunter respects bears, or veteran divers respected sharks. Failure to respect dangerous animals meant you couldn’t study them and understand them. It didn’t mean you had to get sentimental about them, but it was a kind of fascination that could save your life. It meant treating survival as a kind of co-existence. Breht wasn’t prone to utopian fantasies about total eradication, any more than he expected blanket acceptance of his sexual orientation, whatever people might have campaigned for in the past. He was a lone wolf in a world of wolves, and the world wasn’t his to change. He had no more right to live than a protozoa.

  So he accepted the undead. Up to a point.

  *

  He was asleep when he was woken by a heavy thump. Sitting bolt upright, he drew his sword.

  The fire had died down and it was pitch black in the attic. Below he heard multiple shuffles. The undead had arrived in force.

  There was another thump, followed by a clatter of wood. It sounded like it was coming from the entry hatch. Lighting a candle he crawled to the sound, reaching the hatch just as it was thumped upwards again. The hatch lid fell back down into place. A desperate hiss betrayed the zombie who was jumping up from below, trying to dislodge the hatch.

  Would the zombie be smart enough to grab hold of the edge of the hatch and scramble up? Or was it just a mindless attempt to get at the food?

  Breht slid a heavy box onto the hatch lid. A muffled thud lifted the lid a fraction before it fell back into place again. Undeterred, the zombie jumped once more.

  Checking that the box was secure, Breht dragged another one over. The boxes juddered as the zombie attacked the lid again.

  Breht didn’t think the zombie would be able to lift the hatch now, but he wasn’t sure. The Night Madness gave the undead extra strength as they exerted themselves beyond human limits. They didn’t have to worry about exhausting themselves, or conserving energy. They didn’t care what damage they were doing to their bodies. Only hunger mattered.

  Breht sat back. He didn’t know what time it was or how long he’d have to wait until dawn, but he needed to sleep. If only his neighbours would let him. Unconsciously, he patted his chest, feeling the .38 bullet he kept in his pocket. All this time he’d kept it, ready to be slipped into the chamber of the pistol. Ready for the final moment. As moans drifted up from the street outside, Breht wondered when that moment would come.

  Maybe it’ll never come at all. Maybe you’ll break your neck instead, or get overwhelmed and torn apart. One mistake is all it’ll take.

  Breht pulled his hand away from the bullet and gripped the sword tight. He didn’t want to contemplate the issue. Certainly not at night, when his thoughts were at their darkest, for a gloom settled on him when he realised how alone he was. Not just alone, but apart. Even at the church he felt apart. Before Simon Cann, it was never something he thought about. Afterwards, it was the only thing on his mind.

  The realisation that life would never be so sweet again.

  In spite of the thumping, sleep crept up on him. One minute he was shaking his head to stay awake, the next he was lying on the floor, with the sunlight streaming in through the hole in the roof. The sword was abandoned on the floor, and the hatch lid lay still. As he stared up at the lazy sun motes, he listened to the bird song and realised everything was quiet now.

  He’d made it through another day.

  18

  Breht watched Zak and Nobby abseil down the outside of the castle wall. He’d been maintaining a lonely vigil at the top of one of the towers, looking out across the hills, when he’d spotted the two tying ropes to the top of the battlements and preparing themselves for a descent. Nobby carried a shovel, and it appeared that they were planning to bury Harris.

  It was a bold move, and Breht stood fascinated as they unhooked themselves at the foot of the wall, disturbing the cloud of flies that hovered over Harris’s body. With a bandana tied across his nose and mouth, Zak unstrapped Harris’s rifle. Nobby then proceeded to shovel soil over the body.

  Breht cocked his rifle, thumbing off the safety. The majority of the zombies in the far meadow were still oblivious to the presence of the two, but a few zombies lingered on the tracks, near the fallen fence.

  Unperturbed, Zak drew his sword and stood guard while Nobby worked. A single zombie caught the glint from his blade and broke into a shambling run, dumbly trying to climb the fence, then discovering the easy way in.

  Breht hesitated. The Trilux sights on his rifle lacked the magnification of a sniper scope, and a single shot would alert the horde in the meadow, sparking a stampede. With his finger on the trigger he watched as Zak faced up to the zombie. Knees bent low and sword held high in a two handed grip, the ex-special forces soldier waited until the zombie was almost upon him. The Katana swept down in a blur, and the zombie’s body collapsed, its head rolling away.

  Nobby shovelled soil as fast as he could.

  Breht couldn’t help but be impressed with Zak’s poise as he waited for the other zombies on the track to shuffle over to him. Several deft sword strokes later, they were left lying on the ground, their decapitated heads staring at the sky.

>   Nobby whistled that he’d finished, and Zak walked calmly back to the ropes. Harris’s body was now completely covered over, with the shovel stuck in the ground as a marker.

  “Impressive,” said Cobb flatly, joining Breht on the tower.

  “It is,” admitted Breht.

  “I take it you weren’t invited to take part either.”

  “No. Is that significant?”

  “Could be.”

  “Didn’t you know they were going to do this?”

  Cobb shook his head. “I wasn’t consulted.”

  Breht wasn’t particularly bothered at being out of the loop, but he noticed that Cobb watched the two climb back up the ropes with cold, narrow eyes.

  “Basic courtesy, don’t you think?” said Cobb when he realised he was being observed.

  Nobby didn’t strike Breht as being the courteous type. And Zak... well, he was just strange. “It’s not a big deal.”

  Gathering up the ropes, Zak looped them over his shoulder and headed off along the battlements, job done. Nobby, on the other hand, looked up at the two observers in the tower and held up his fist. “That’s how we do it,” he called.

  Breht thumbed the safety back on and tightened the strap on his rifle so it was hands-free across his chest. “Seems pleased with himself,” he murmured.

  “He should be,” said Cobb, watching thoughtfully as Nobby swaggered away. “He’s managed to brown-nose himself into second position.”

  Breht felt surprised. “It’s not a race.”

  “Oh, but it is,” said Cobb. “There’s a power struggle taking place, and you’ve just witnessed one of the moves.”

  “No,” said Breht incredulously. “That’s just Nobby being Nobby.”

  “Yeah, and I think our friend Nobby needs to be taken down a peg or two.”

  “Can’t see why.”

  “Can’t you?” Cobb eyed him closely. “You’re not very ambitious, are you?”

  “Not particularly. None of that stuff matters now.”

  “Did it ever matter to you in the past?”

  “Can’t say I ever gave it much thought.”

  “So how did you make staff sergeant?”

  “Don’t know. I just did.”

  “And that was it?”

  “Yes.”

  “Nothing more to it?”

  “No. I was just put forward for it.”

  Cobb laughed. “Oh my God.”

  “What?”

  “You amaze me. I worked my arse off to make corporal, yet you make it sound like they just handed you your stripes.”

  “Well they did.”

  Cobb laughed again. “And you have no idea why.”

  Breht felt a little offended. “Hey, I did the same as everybody else. I did my job, and I didn’t get any special favours.”

  “If you say so,” said Cobb, still amused.

  “They set out to clobber me.”

  Cobb shook his head. “You’ve got it so wrong, my friend. The word back at the depot was that you were untouchable. Everybody liked you and you had no idea. They covered for you when other blokes would have been thrown straight out. You were lucky.”

  Breht frowned. “Didn’t feel that way.”

  “Trust me, you were, But hey, that was then and this is now.” Cobb gave him a sly grin. “We can make this work for us.”

  “How so?”

  “It’s year zero, and there’s no rules. You can start over with a clean slate. Look at Zak. He’s literally king of the castle. You want to be a general? A president? There’s nothing to stop you.”

  “There’s a few million zombies who might disagree with you there, if they knew how to.”

  “Nah, that’s nothing compared to trying to work your way up through a system that’s pitched against you. It doesn’t matter now if you didn’t go to the right school, got the right qualifications or greased the right palms. There’s no establishment to fight against, no worries about whether you’ve got the right accent. Doesn’t matter if you’re working class. The Ruperts of this world, with their inheritances, stiff upper lips and family connections, they’re all gone. It’s like Kipling now, isn’t it? Anyone can be king.”

  Breht wasn’t sure what Cobb was getting at. “What’s so great about that? You really want the responsibility of keeping all these people alive? You think Zak’s got an easy job?”

  There was silence for a while, and Breht couldn’t read the reaction on Cobb’s face, but finally Cobb said, “That’s what I like about you. Feet firmly rooted in the ground.”

  He turned and left, and Breht got the sense he’d insulted him. How and why, he wasn’t sure, but he felt confused. Looking out from the tower, he saw again the zombies stuck in the river mud. They too had their feet firmly in the ground.

  And they weren’t going anywhere.

  19

  “The soil’s too thin.”

  “Are you sure?” said Zak.

  Colin, the weather-beaten farmer, dug his spade into the grass. It only got halfway down before it hit something solid. “This is just turf laid over the castle floor for the tourists. It’s all rock. You can’t grow crops in this.”

  Jennifer, Zak’s girlfriend, looked crestfallen. She was holding seed packets in her hand. “Perhaps we need more soil for the root vegetables, but we can plant tomatoes and beans. I’ve grown them in bags of compost, before. It would be wonderful to have some fresh salads this summer. Just think how marvellous it would be to eat something that’s not from a tin.”

  Colin, not a man to beat about the bush, gave her a condescending look. Jennifer, in a flowing kaftan dress and beads, was clearly not the kind of person he wanted to take seriously. “You’re too late for a summer crop, and this isn’t compost. There’s no nutrients in it – it’s all been taken by the grass.”

  Jennifer turned to Zak. “We can fertilise it. With human poo.”

  Zak showed her a kindly face. “It might not be enough, flower.”

  Breht was struck by how odd a couple they looked. One, a government trained killer and ex-mercenary, the other an ageing hippy. Beauty and the beast. He would have loved to know how they met, because he couldn’t for the life of him imagine how they got together. But then they were both throwbacks to a different time. He the hardened warrior, and she the follower of peace and love. Neither of them really fitted into the consumerist, conformist society that existed prior to the fall, which is maybe why they’d sought seclusion in a house in the hills before descending to set up a commune in the castle.

  Perhaps, in their own way, they were both romantics.

  Colin, on the other hand, was a dour realist. “Bring me a few lorry-loads of silty soil, and I might be able to do something. But with this? Not a chance. And you’d still have a problem with drainage anyway.”

  “But we can try,” said Jennifer.

  “Try all you like, love. You’re wasting your time.”

  As Colin walked away, Jennifer muttered, “He’s so negative. I’m going to plant some seeds anyway.”

  Zak squeezed her shoulder. “Give it a shot. We don’t have anything to lose.”

  Breht cleared his throat. “You wanted to see me?”

  Zak gave him a broad smile. “Yes. I thought we’d have another chat.”

  “What about?”

  “Oh, anything really.”

  Zak took him on another circuit of the castle grounds. The place was getting organised now, with people assigned to food distribution and drawing water from the castle well. The tents had been cleared away from the grass, with sleeping quarters moved to the draughty towers. Wooden walkways were being dismantled and a lean-to erected to shelter the generator, propane gas tanks and kitchen burners. A latrine pit was dug, albeit a shallow one, and a tarpaulin laid over a frame to provide privacy. Someone was even attempting to rig up a shower and washing facilities.

  “I’ve always loved castles,” said Zak. “I can remember going to Warwick Castle on a school trip, and they’ve fascinated me ever si
nce. In Lebanon I got a chance to explore an abandoned Crusader castle. It broke my heart when the Israelis flattened it in the civil war.”

  “What were you doing there?”

  “Oh, very hush hush,” said Zak, then caught himself. “What am I saying? None of that stuff matters anymore, does it? I was sent there undercover to 'facilitate links’ with the Christian Falangists, as our government put it. Bunch of murderers, they were. A sordid affair, and not something to be proud of, but at least I got to see some of the country. To me, it was a massive museum, and the fortresses were fantastic. Told myself I’d own my own castle, one day. Never thought it would be done like this, though. Certainly didn’t think I’d be besieged in one. Still, it could be worse.”

  “Could it?” said Breht carelessly.

  “Yes. This winter, for instance. There’s only so much foraging we can do before supplies run out. As you can see, we’ve got problems growing food. And if we don’t get everyone into warmer shelters, hypothermia will take its toll. So, much as I like this place, we need to move out eventually into those houses outside, and start using those gardens to grow crops.”

  Breht felt the distance between the reality and the fantasy, but chose not to comment.

  “We need to take back the town,” concluded Zak. “And we need to start now.”

  “And how do you propose we do that?”

  Zak studied his own feet. “Simple really. We block up all the entrances in the town walls, then we clear out the town.” Zak looked up at Breht. “Actually, it’s not simple at all, and it’s probably more work than I can handle. So I need help. Your help. I need to split volunteers into teams to work outside the castle, and I need you to take one of the teams. Be my right hand man. Between us, we can do this.”

  Breht sighed. “I told you, Cobb’s the one you want. He’s got command experience, and he knows how to handle himself. And he’s competent.”

  “But he’s not the one,” insisted Zak. “Why are you holding back?”

 
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