Undead UK: Remember Me Dead, page 4part #1 of Undead UK Series
“The parasite is mutating quickly,” said Dr Filipova.
“What do you mean?” said Breht.
“You saw how your corporal reanimated so swiftly. It used to take days for the infected dead to come alive again, now it is taking hours. Perhaps less.”
“I thought you boffins said it was a virus?”
“That was the initial consensus, yes. The parasite induces viral symptoms, which fooled many of us into looking for anti-viral solutions. We lost a lot of time that way. In a sense, the parasite is a virus, and it is transmitted through fluid, but while a virus is only concerned with reproduction in neighbouring cells, the protozoa, which is what the parasite is, releases chemicals to control the action of the whole organism. This particular protozoa, I believe, accumulates in the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain, attacking neurons and infecting the cerebellum. Once entrenched, it manipulates its host to bite other humans, passing copies of itself through the saliva, thus propagating its spread to new sources of food. And it keeps its host alive, even when the host should otherwise be dead.”
Breht couldn’t help shuddering. “And where did this protozoa come from?”
Filipova looked at him. “They are within you now, at least in their original primeval form. We are born with them in our gut, and for thousands of years it has been one of many microbial parasites that we have co-existed with. Why they have mutated now into their current form – well, that is the question, and I am afraid I have no answers.”
The train had stopped on an embankment, and they were on the roof. In the distance, across ploughed fields, was the A5, gateway to North Wales. It was clogged with nose to tail traffic that didn’t move.
“If you think you know what it is, can you create a cure to defeat it?”
Filipova took a deep breath and held it for a moment. “It depends on what you mean by defeat. Malaria is another condition caused by protozoa, and scientists have worked for over a century to eradicate it, but have still been unable to formulate a working vaccine against it. And Malaria is far simpler than what we have now. I mean, with a fully equipped laboratory, unlimited funds and access to the greatest minds in the world, we might be able to come up with something that at least deals with one of the stages of infection. But with the way things are now?” Filipova shook her head in despair. “And that is not to mention that, even if we could prevent further infection taking hold, we still have the problem of millions of those... things... walking around, outnumbering us. They are the real danger now, even without further infection. A vaccine won’t magic them away.”
“No,” agreed Breht. “But if we were less vulnerable to their bites, we’d be able to eradicate them better.”
Filipova equivocated. “Have you considered a suit of armour?”
“I was hoping for a more serious answer.”
“I’m sorry, that is all I have, and, for the record, I thought it was a good answer. Take a look around. A thousand years of civilisation has been destroyed. Even if all those infected were to disappear now, we would still be back in medieval times. In fact, considering how paltry the population levels currently are, perhaps back in the dark ages.”
Breht frowned. “It’d still be better than the Book of Revelations scenario we’ve currently got. Throw in a few locusts, and we’d have the full monty.”
Filipova nodded grudgingly. “That’s good. I like that.”
“Glad somebody does.”
One of the other scientists called out from below. “Dr Filipova, we need your help.”
“You’ll have to excuse me,” said Filipova to Breht.
When Filipova was gone, Breht turned to the three other soldiers on the roof, each one scoping the distant road with their sights.
“What have we got?” he asked.
“Zulus all over the shop,” said Nobby curtly.
“You can’t tell what they are from here,” said Cobb.
“You want to go over there and introduce yourself to find out?”
“Watch your tongue, Private,” said Breht.
Nobby turned, sneer mode on. “Private yourself.”
Before Breht could reply, Harris spoke. “I’ve tried to get base on the radio, Staff, but there’s just nothing.”
“Could we be out of range?”
“No, Staff, and I’ve been trying all the way here. I’m not picking up any of the police frequencies, either.”
“So the radio’s broken?”
“No. I picked up some amateur chatter earlier, someone in a flat in Manchester asking for help.”
“Yeah, it’s miles away. He must be putting out some watts, but I’ve lost him now. Since then I’ve had some nutter playing a song on a loop.”
“What’s the song?” asked Cobb.
“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It, And I Feel Fine.”
“I suppose a sense of humour never killed anyone,” said Breht. “Anyway, there could still be a comms problem with base. We just have to find a way of getting there.”
“Are you mad?” said Nobby.
Breht glared at him. “I’m not going to tell you again, Private.”
Nobby turned to face him. “Or what? You still think you’ve got the Queen’s authority behind you? Or anyone else’s? You heard Harris. Base isn’t responding. In case you’d forgotten, the barracks is back in that town, and the only thing separating it from civvie street is a barbed wire fence, which I don’t think is going to stop the roadrunner zulus. They’ve got concrete blocks to stop suicide bombers, but they haven’t even got a real gate. You saw the streets when we left. Seriously, what do you think their chances are? There’s probably only a few mags of ammo left between us. How long do you think we’ll last if we try to make it back? And what are you expecting to find?”
Breht didn’t want to let Nobby’s insubordination go, but he was making too much sense. He turned to Cobb.
“Hate to say it, but I think he’s right,” said Cobb.
Breht let out a long breath and looked up the track. “All right, then. Our other option is we carry on until we make contact with someone else. We’ve got enough diesel, and if we keep moving, we’ll be okay.”
“And when we run out of diesel?” said Nobby.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, Private.”
“Best option we’ve got, I think,” said Cobb.
“Okay,” said Breht. “Cobb, I’m promoting you to acting corporal.”
“No need for that, Staff.”
“Yes, there is.”
“Yeah,” agreed Nobby. “And while we’re at it, you can demote yourself. I’ll follow Cobb, but not you.”
Breht lost it. “What is your problem?” he said, squaring up to Nobby.
“You,” said Nobby, stepping up to him. “You shouldn’t even have those stripes. You’re a washout, and you know it. It’s thanks to you we’re in this mess. You should have stayed on the bottle.”
“I’m warning you, Private.”
“Warning?” leered Nobby. “That’s you all over, isn’t it? Just words. Come on, let’s have it out, you and me, now. See what you’re made of.”
“I don’t have to prove myself to you.”
“Yes you do. You’re a faggot. A shirt lifting, kiddie-fondling faggot.”
In the face of such unequivocal hatred, Breht hesitated. Whatever resolve he had been propping himself up with since his withdrawal, collapsed. Cobb and Harris stood silent, unwilling to intervene on his behalf. Nobby outmatched Breht in the weight and muscle department, and was younger and fitter. It shouldn’t have come to this, but Breht didn’t feel up to the challenge. Suddenly, he lacked the will.
A scream from within the train interrupted the showdown. Breht scrambled down the ladder and ran into the carriage.
The grandmother lay on the floor, eyes glazed, and Filipova pumped the old woman’s chest, unable to get the heart started again.
He didn’t even know the old woman’s name. He was a fuckup, and he shouldn’t have even been in charge.
“Staff Sergeant, we’ve reviewed the details of the case, and our finding is that you displayed gross errors in judgement.”
Breht stood ramrod stiff in the colonel’s office. Seated by the colonel were the major and the captain of the training battalion.
“The tribunal has ruled in the army’s favour, finding serious discrepancies in former Private Cann’s accounts of his whereabouts during the time of the allegations. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that you are not facing a court martial. However, as commanding officer of this battalion, I am concerned by some of the details of your account and what appears to be a lax attitude with regard to your duties and responsibilities. You were placed in a position of great trust, Staff Sergeant, and it is my view, and the view of my subordinates, that you have betrayed that trust. Your actions have compromised the army’s reputation, and the reputation of this training establishment. I no longer consider you a fit candidate to lead recruits, and were it within my power, I would have you thrown out of the army. As it happens, the evidence of your actions remains vague, and a more detailed investigation would only be detrimental to this establishment and bring it into further disrepute, and I have no desire to drag this battalion’s name through the dirt. As you have opted not to resign, I feel I have no other choice other than to transfer you to an administrative post in Brigade Headquarters, away from here. For this reason alone, you will retain your rank and your pension rights, and consider yourself lucky to do so. Do you wish to appeal this decision?”
Breht stared straight ahead, a storm of shame roaring in his ears. He thought he was going to faint. “No, sir.”
“Good, I would have advised against it anyway. Consider yourself dismissed, and I hope I never see you again.”
Breht floated serenely through the rain, lying face down on an improvised raft of tied-together aircraft life preservers, carried by the river current. The raft was about as stable as a pool airbed, and he didn’t dare move much in case he tipped himself over. Filipova had told him once that the protozoa parasite could survive for a limited time in water, and while the chances of swallowing river water with protozoa in it were small, he didn’t want to be the first to test the thesis. With his gloved hands dipping into the water, he steered himself gently round the bends, keeping clear of the torn branches that gathered along the river banks.
The low lying fields on either side were bereft of life, the flattened long grass and the tide marks of debris showing the extent of recent flooding. Willow trees trailed leafy stems into the swirling brown water and cow skulls lay embedded in the mud that would one day consume them completely, their rib bones collecting debris and weeds. Up ahead, a stone bridge emerged from the drizzle, and a white painted riverside pub offered shelter from the constant downpour, with wooden tables and benches on an overgrown lawn and a menu board that had been wiped clean by time. Beer glasses on the tables filled up with dirty water, and two zombies in long, flowing dresses turned their gaunt faces to look at Breht as he drifted by. Gliding serenely across the grass, they entered the water and promptly sank from view, the dresses floating above them like jellyfish.
A zombie in jogging kit ambled across the bridge until it saw Breht passing beneath. Vaulting the parapet, it leapt from the bridge, landing close by with a splash before it too sank from sight. With their perforated organs, they lacked the buoyancy to float, and Breht didn’t think he had much to worry about. He concluded that travelling by water was probably the safest way to get about in this new world.
He got a shock, therefore, when the deceased fitness freak broke the surface again, its grasping hands propelling itself towards him. Paddling hard, Breht surged forward like a surfer desperate for a wave. The zombie sank, leaving a slick of oily fluid on the surface, only to resurface closer, fingers reaching for the raft. Breht kicked out at it, nearly rolling the raft, and paddled furiously, drawing away. For a few seconds it looked as if the zombie would catch him, then it disappeared. Further back the two undead ladies lurched back onto the shore like two grotesque sirens, dresses trailing in the water. Breht flailed like a madman until his arms were leaden and the bridge was left behind.
It seemed then that there was no safe way to get about in this frightening new reality.
Night time was the worst time. That was when the undead acquired extra senses. Maybe their degenerated optical nerves could see infra-red. Maybe it was just because sound carried better in the night. Either way, it was a dangerous time for the living to be out. Breht floated past town houses, conscious of the deepening gloom and knowing he had to find shelter. Opulent riverside properties stared vacantly at him, inviting him into their cold embrace. It was a mistake he’d made before, and he wasn’t about to do it again. Not unless he wanted to be woken by the sound of desperate scratching on the door.
He’d locked himself into the secure room of a house once. Just one house among many. So what were the chances of his house being singled out by the undead? As it happened, plenty. The dead simply homed in on his location, keeping him awake all night. In the morning, they were still there, so Breht waited them out. Two days later, with the door straining under the press of relentless bodies, he was forced to escape out of the window, trying to ignore the decaying mob that stared up at him from the street as he swung precariously from the plastic gutter, struggling to get his leg up onto the sloping roof tiles.
After that, he was careful only to choose places with better escape routes. And to stay out of towns.
Floating into this town was not, therefore, a good idea. He estimated he had about an hour of dull light left. Not a lot of time to secure his lodgings for the night.
He needed to do it, though.
It was a picturesque town. A wealthy town, steeped in history and majesty. Church steeples loomed out of the mist, stone gargoyles staring sightlessly with biblical disdain. Gabled Edwardian houses drew closer to the river bank, their sloping gardens the epitome of good taste and landscaping. Rotting wooden arbours, tangled with vines, shared their space with leaning bird tables and sculpted copies of Greek statues coated in lichen and moss. Silent stone fountains overflowed with pools of green water in this Eden of decay. Arched bridges with crumbled coats of arms embedded in their pillars spanned the river. Private school buildings with centuries of heritage drifted by, their mounted sun-dials useless in the gloom, and boathouses that once rang with the shouts of rowing teams stood desolate and forlorn.
Wary of being dive-bombed by more zombies, Breht halted under one of the bridges, putting his hand against the stone pillar to hold himself against the current. The patter of the rain against the water was relentless, but under the shadow of the bridge, nesting pigeons cooed. Breht wondered what his next move should be.
Past the bridge was a park that sloped down to the water’s edge. Faded signs advertised river cruises, but the wooden docks were submerged. Ice cream kiosks stood abandoned, paint flaking off their boards. A wooden bandstand entertained nobody now. A war memorial statue of an angel wielding a spear dominated the centre of the park. Majestic trees lined the asphalt paths. Grand Victorian terraced houses bordered the road that ran along the edge of the park, and the remains of a medieval wall stood alone amid overgrown flower beds, orphaned by the ravages of time and town planning. A children’s play area introduced a less formal aspect to the park’s grandeur, and the block concrete building of the council swimming baths bludgeoned the history to death with the blunt insertion of post-modernity.
None of that caught Breht’s eye, however. Nor even the grey, listless shapes of the undead who lurched and staggered across the park. No, it was the large, circular church that dominated the skyline at the top of the slope.
It was a drum of limestone, with a pil
The man’s posture, and his occasional change of facing, denoted his status as some sort of guard. Breht watched him for a while, just to be sure he was one of the living. It had been a while since he’d seen anyone alive, and sometimes his wishful thinking had mistaken the distant figure of a zombie for a living human. Usually because they were standing still. The undead moved differently to the living, however, and Breht waited until the guard stretched his legs for a slow walk around the rim of the tower to confirm that he was indeed alive, and not just a facsimile of life.
Breht paddled into the reeds gathered at the bank and slipped into waist-high water, tying his raft up. The undead swayed and staggered around the park, unaware of him, and the guard continued his circular patrol.
It was likely that there were a group of survivors at the church. It was solid enough to provide the right kind of shelter, and large enough to house a sizeable community. If they had survived this long, they were probably well established, and he could trade for supplies. All he had to do was get across the park.
From his pack he drew out a catapult, a powerful metal framed slingshot usually marketed as a hunting catapult, though Breht had never achieved that kind of accuracy with it. He could hit the plate glass windows of the nearby swimming baths, though. Searching through the weeds, he dug out a couple of large pebbles, and loaded one into the sling. Drawing it back, he released the tension and watched the pebble fly.
The swimming baths were further away than he thought, and the stone fell short, skipping uselessly across the children’s play area. A zombie turned at the sound and wandered over, looking confused as it lingered near the swings. Breht kept his head down until it wandered off again, then loaded another pebble. Pulling the elastic as far back as he could, he released the pebble high into the air, watching it arc over the climbing frames and slides. The plate glass windows were tall, floor to ceiling, and the pebble flew straight through one of them, causing a large section of glass to fall onto the concrete path, shattering crisply.