Undead UK: Remember Me Dead, page 21part #1 of Undead UK Series
The library was clearly an old ecclesiastical building, with bricked-up arch windows, gabled entrances and flying buttresses holding the walls up. It was probably a monastery once. The back door, however, was modern, as was the lock. Straightening out two paper clips, Breht set about picking it.
He’d learned how to pick locks when he was stationed for six months on the Falkland Islands. Life in that windswept place was so mind-numbingly boring that, along with a few others, he’d resorted to breaking into the NAAFI stores to get hold of alcohol. Stroking the tumblers with one clip, Breht pulled with the other until he felt the lock turn.
The first thing he noticed when he opened the door was the pile of books that he had to push against to get in. The second was the faint smell of antiseptic, lingering over the odour of death.
The anteroom looked as if the library’s stock had simply been thrown in. Breht had to climb over the pile to get to the door on the other side. When he got there, he found out why the library had ceased to value literature anymore. The public area was filled with beds.
Medical cots had been lined up in rows, with plastic curtains hung from the oak beams. Blankets were draped over the gallery rails on the second level. Book shelves had been pushed to one side, with novels and text books hastily discarded into corners.
Like most public buildings, the library had been converted into an impromptu hospital for the plague victims.
Bad news. That meant there was a burial pit nearby.
Not all the victims had made it there, either. Some were still lying in their beds, dried skin stretched over the features of their skull. If they were really dead, however, they would have rotted by now.
It was time to ditch the heavy backpack. He was near his destination now, and it wasn’t clear that he was going any further. So focussed had he been on getting here that he hadn’t pictured what would come after.
He’d often wondered whether it was because some part of him was certain that there would be no after. He’d been lucky to make it this far.
Removing his backpack, he stuffed whatever he could into his pockets. On further consideration, he took off his helmet as well.
Now he felt truly naked. His only weapons were the Katana and his empty revolver.
You’re crazier than he is. What the hell do you think you’re doing?
Lowering himself to the floor, he entered the room and slithered under the first bed.
Crossing by on the upper gallery was another zombie, either an escaped patient or one of the staff. Breht listened to the shuffles and the groans and timed his movement from bed to bed to coincide with the highest noise. When he reached the fifth bed, he froze as the springs shifted above him.
An emaciated foot settled on the floor by his head. With a creak, the zombie got out of bed and stood there for a moment, perhaps wondering what had disturbed its repose. Breht didn’t dare breathe. The zombie on the gallery had stopped also, as if alerted to something. The silence was so total that Breht felt sure they’d hear his heart beating.
The seconds slid by, then the zombie on the gallery shuffled along. The zombie by the bed leaned and swayed, as if undecided. Breht had seen that action so many times that he knew it was because the zombie was trying to react to two different stimuli at the same time.
Which meant that he probably could hear Breht, or something, but was being overwhelmed by the sound from above.
Breht’s neck muscles quivered as he strained to resist inhaling. Sweat popped on his brow, and he felt it dribble down his cheek. He was afraid that even a tiny drop splashing onto the floor would settle the zombie’s decision making process.
Holy crap, get moving you stinking bag of...
The zombie moved, lurching one foot, then another, in the same direction as the upstairs shuffler.
Breht inhaled as slowly as he could, then slid under the next bed. The feet that had been walking to the other end of the hall changed direction abruptly, coming back to him.
Shit. This isn’t going to work.
Breht took a deep breath before holding it and gripped his sword ready. He thought about how quickly he could roll out and get into action if he had to. It could be awkward. He watched the feet get closer, then go past the bed.
The zombie turned, approaching the side of its own bed. Then it climbed on, lying down again.
Breht’s mouth fell open. He’d never seen a zombie do that before. He’d assumed that they either walked in perpetual motion, or fell down.
And it knew which bed was its own!
The upstairs zombie moaned its way back along the gallery.
It’s like they’re caught in a loop, of the last moments before their death.
It meant surely that some sort of memory process was at work. Filipova had once said to him that it was curious that zombies lost even their short term memory, which was located in the hippocampus in the older, lower part of the brain.
But Breht didn’t think now that was true. Or rather, the zombies had no actual memory of anything they did while they were undead, but maybe responded to the continuous echo of the short term memory they retained at the point of death.
Which means they do remember who killed them. Over and over again.
Breht inched his way more slowly across the floor, pausing and listening every few seconds, taking his time. He felt sorry for the occupants of the beds, and didn’t want to disturb them. These victims were innocent. That thought helped calm him, letting him concentrate on keeping his breathing shallow and his movements stealthy.
Because innocent or not, he didn’t want them triggered into releasing their dark side. He was in the middle of the room now and in a bad position if he needed to fight his way out.
In the centre of the floor was a spiral staircase going down. Leaving the shelter of the beds, he slipped across and crabbed his way down the steps.
The basement area was pitch black. He took out a torch and switched it on. The batteries in the torch were old and nearly spent, the light not much better than a lit cigarette end. He waited a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
He found himself in a catacomb, the alcoves in the corridor occupied by filing cabinets and book stocks now, instead of sarcophagi. Passageways branched off left and right. Treading carefully, he listened to the faint echoes of dragged feet and guttural, low moans. The further he travelled, the closer the moans got. It was night down here, so the undead were being drawn to him. Stealth was of little use to him now.
He quickened his pace, hindered by the poor light from his torch. The moans grew louder and more urgent. He reached the end of the passage, finding only bare wall, passages going left and right, and cursed. In his head he consulted an imaginary map, trying to keep in mind which way was north. A foot scraped close behind him. He took the right-hand passage, running now. He was certain it would be down here, but when he got to the end, the passage turned right again, going back towards the stairwell, and again, the wall was bare.
The theory that brought him here didn’t look so good now.
He doubled back towards the junction, intending to take the left-hand passage this time, and fully expecting to have to confront a zombie on the way, when something in an alcove caught his eye. He stopped, shining the torch. In the back of the alcove was a door – an old door with iron studs. He might have spotted it the first time if some idiot hadn’t placed a filing cabinet in front of it.
Yanking the cabinet over with a clatter that filled the tunnel, Breht took out his paper clips. The lock on the door wasn’t exactly medieval – which was a good job as Breht had no idea how to pick one of those – but it wasn’t the most modern either. Gripping his torch in his teeth, Breht fiddled with the lock, conscious of having alerted almost every zombie in the building. The passages echoed with their grunts as they exerted themselves to shuffle faster towards him.
The lock was stiff, and the paper clips kept bending out of shape when he tried to turn it. Combining three clips together and twistin
Before him stretched another tunnel – an ancient, arched tunnel, with no turn-offs, and no sign that anyone had used it for years. Centuries maybe. It would lead him to either the church or the castle – Breht wasn’t sure which.
He just hoped it hadn’t collapsed or been blocked off after so many years.
A dark cloud base hung low over the Welsh hills, the peaks hidden, and the rain drizzled down over Conwy, turning the stones the same colour as the sky.
“They used to build escape tunnels from castles,” said Zak, “usually to a church like that one there.” He pointed to the tower of St Mary’s church in the middle of the town.
“Think there could be one here?” asked Breht.
“Nah, I checked. Rock’s too hard to tunnel through. Would have got flooded anyway, this close to the river. No, we’ve got no shortcuts to the other end of town. We’re going to have to walk there.”
That didn’t sound promising, carrying a load of wood.
“Couldn’t we go for a gateway that’s closer?”
“What for? We’re going to have to make the journey some day. Might as well be now.”
Breht thought that maybe they could wait for the morale of the community to recover. The weather had broken and the summer was long gone. It had been raining for over a week now and the castle had rapidly become an uncomfortable place to inhabit. The towers were leaking, with water dripping down the steps. People were sleeping in puddles, and the wind at night made the cold stone feel colder. Jennifer’s tomatoes never ripened and she’d picked them off green. Food supplies were low. When they’d planned the expedition the day before, they found that the Land Rover wouldn’t start. In spite of Zak’s best efforts, he couldn’t get it to go and people were grumbling now at the prospect of carrying the heavy panels across town. Colin had spent the night cutting them down to make them more manageable, and it hadn’t improved his mood.
“I’m not sure. People are worried about the food. They’re saying that a supply run should be our biggest priority now. I’m inclined to agree.”
Zak gave him a look of contempt. “Et tu, Brute?”
“I’m just saying. If we can stock up now, we’ll be supplied and ready for the next push. Maybe even get another vehicle. It’s logistics.”
“Logistics my arse. Everyone’s just got cold feet. If we back down now, we’ll never get them to go out. And there’s nothing wrong with the food supplies. Jennifer assures me we’ve got enough to last another couple of weeks, so there’s plenty of time to forage for more. Someone’s spreading rumours, and when I find out who it is, I’m going to can them. You need to tell your mate Filipova to button her lip.”
“Filipova’s not the rumour-spreading type.”
“Well somebody is.”
“It’s not her.”
“Who is it, then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then don’t contradict me until you know otherwise.”
Breht didn’t bother replying.
Zak took a deep breath and spoke in a gentler tone. “Look, your loyalty is admirable, but I think it’s misplaced, that’s all.” He ran a hand through his wet hair. “We need this bloody rain to stop. It’s getting on everyone’s nerves.”
Breht was inclined to agree, but he didn’t want to point out whose nerves. “We can break the tents out again.”
Zak looked grim. “Not if I can help it. We need to get these people into those houses. This winter’s going to be murder and they’re not used to roughing it. I don’t want to lose anybody, so stick with me on this. I know it’s hard, but it’ll be worth it. You can see that, can’t you?”
Breht wasn’t sure. “I can see what you’re trying to do.”
Zak stroked Breht’s arm. “You think I’m crazy. But I love you all the same. Just remember that.”
Cobb came up onto the battlements. “Everyone’s ready to go, boss,” he said.
“Okay, let’s get to it.”
Breht lingered a while on the wall, looking towards the mass of zombies in the mud. He wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but there seemed to be less of them every day. The gap between the closest zombies and the shore had gotten bigger, as if the zombies that should have been there had broken free. Breht looked for muddy footprints near the waterline, but if there had been any they would have been washed away by the rain.
The rain. It’s the river level getting higher, you fool, that’s all.
Breht turned and descended the steps.
The column waited at the gates, in the formation they would be using as they traversed the town. The carpenters were in the middle, carrying their wood and tools. At the front was the shield wall, led by Breht and Zak. The flanks were guarded by the shotgunners, while Nobby and Cobb formed the rearguard.
Breht looked at his troops. He didn’t want to call them recruits any more. They’d been hardened by constant training, so even Sarah the teacher looked like she’d shed a few pounds. Breht himself had engaged in even harder training, sparring with Zak every morning. With rations as they were, he’d lost his flab, getting as lean and sinewy as Zak. The exhilaration of fighting had perked him up. He was getting better and quicker, and felt immune to the weather as he got used to the spartan conditions. After losing his mojo in the office, it felt strangely satisfying to get back to the kind of outdoor living he’d endured, and enjoyed, on the farm and in his early army days. Maybe this was what Zak meant about embracing the apocalypse.
His little squad, however, didn’t look so contented. “This is a big operation,” he said to them. “But if everyone sticks together, we’ll get through it. We’ve proved that already. Look to the person to your left or your right for reassurance. You’re not alone.”
They gave him bedraggled looks. All of them, bar Sebastian’s girlfriend, wore glasses, and they were struggling to see clearly through the rain drops. Sebastian had been wearing contact lenses, but he’d run out of contact lens fluid and had switched to his spectacles. They all looked decidedly unwarlike.
“Just watch out for each other,” he added. “I’ll try and keep you out of trouble as best I can.”
Breht and Zak led the way out of the gates. Descending the grass slope by the castle, Breht caught a glimpse of the undead crowd in the river. They became more agitated at the sight of movement.
A zombie in pyjamas shuffled towards them on the road. “I’ll let you take this one,” said Zak.
Breht was not honoured. Gripping his sword in both hands, he closed the gap, readying himself for the swing. The zombie’s torn fingers scratched the air and Breht lifted his sword high and brought it down to chop the zombie’s neck.
It wasn’t as easy as he thought. The blade embedded itself into the flesh, splashing out dark clotted blood, but failed to cut the spine. Breht had to lean back as the zombie’s hands reached for his face. The blade was stuck and Breht judo-kicked its face to free it, but as soon as it was released, the zombie lurched at him. Zak slipped round behind it and decapitated it with a single swing, the head bouncing off Breht’s chest.
“You’re using the wrong part of the blade to cut,” said Zak. “The Katana’s tip-heavy. Stay further back and use the last third of the blade, the Mono-uchi, for better cutting. Extend your arms, flick with your wrists at the end of the swing and let the weight of the blade do the rest. If it ent
“Right,” said Breht, breathing hard.
“It’s just like using a baseball bat, except you pull it in a bit at the end of the swing to aid the cut,” said Zak.
“Can’t say I ever played.”
“Me neither. Prefer cricket, myself, but you get the gist.”
Breht wasn’t sure he did. “Did you learn that at Samurai Fighting School?”
“Hell, no. That kind of thing is designed to slash at an opponent to make them bleed. Won’t help you with this lot. We’re not sword fighting, we’re executing.”
Zak demonstrated by lopping the head off another zombie.
The route to the gateway was simple enough. It wasn’t a long journey – the town was small – and the depleted zombie population came at them slowly and singly. Breht managed to behead one zombie before they got there, while the guns remained silent.
The arched gateway lay at the end of a narrow street, which Zak managed to clear by himself. The panels were rushed over to block the gap, and the carpenters got to work. Breht formed his shield wall to protect them, flanked by the gunners. The undead slowly funnelled into the street from the other end, growing in number as the work continued. Breht realised that they were blocked in now, and would have to fight their way through all that to get back home.
Glass shattered in the upstairs window of one of the houses that overlooked them. An undead occupant, still wearing their death gown, crashed out, falling to the street. Before Breht had a chance to act, a shotgun blast had taken off its face and splashed its brains over the wall. Up on the town wall battlements, another zombie lurched into view, ready to throw itself on the carpenters. Cobb took it out with a neat headshot.
“Okay,” said Zak. “Everyone knows we’re here now. Stay sharp.”
The coalescing undead mob got closer to the shield wall. Meanwhile, the work group were having problems. The power tools were shorting out in the rain, and they were having difficulty drilling into the stones. Some of the crew were pressed up against the panels, struggling to prevent the zombies from pushing through from the other side.