Archive | February, 2013

When The Comet Came – A Dystopian Short Story About The End Of Civilisation

27 Feb

A PDF of this story can be downloaded from here.

‘Even those who’d voraciously predicted the world would end when the comet came were surprised when it actually happened because it didn’t collide with the moon and send it spinning off into space; the Earth didn’t shake; the dead didn’t rise; there were no tsunamis or volcanoes and the Christians weren’t raised up to heaven. In fact, it took a while for anyone to even realise it was happening.

‘It started with the phones. Just as the comet got close enough for everyone to be able to see it whenever the night’s sky was clear enough the phones went crazy. They’d ring when they shouldn’t and remain silent and lifeless when someone called. They’d suddenly turn off for no reason in the middle of a conversation or get no reception even when there was nothing blocking the signal. The phone companies scratched their collective heads and blamed it on the handset manufacturers. They, in turn, blamed the phone companies right back. There were questions raised in parliament but even though it was inconvenient, everyone got used to it after a while. To be honest it made a nice change to be able to get on a bus or a train without having to listen to three or four half conversations all being shouted loudly into separate little black boxes at the same time.

‘Then the first plane fell out of the sky – you remember it, the one where the engines stopped working just after take off from Hong Kong and it crashed into the sea – that happened the day the comet first outshone the moon. There was a lot of coverage on the news but nobody realised it was anything unusual until the same thing kept happening again and again. It wasn’t just passenger planes but cargo and military aircraft too. There was no pattern, no consistency and every conceivable type of plane seemed equally vulnerable: that got people freaked and pretty much overnight flying stopped. Business meetings and international conferences didn’t happen; Caribbean holidays weren’t taken; stag parties had to settle for causing trouble in their home towns but, on the whole, society carried on as normal. That was until the blackouts started. The comet was visible even in the daytime by then and the rumour-mongers on the blogs and in the tabloids were putting two and two together and were ending up with five almost every time. The politicians appealed for calm and told everyone they’d get someone to look into it but in reality they knew as much about what was happening as the bloggers.

‘As the comet got ever closer, things got ever weirder. People started getting ill without getting better. It wasn’t any strange new disease, it was just that the medicines which had made the pharmaceutical industry so profitable for so long suddenly stop working. Not just one or two but pretty much all of them. We’d have gone online and asked the homeopaths and other alternative medicine types what to try instead but by then the internet had been down for a week and the nightly rioting had started.

‘Still no one could explain what was going on, even when people started dropping dead in the streets. Again, it wasn’t anything new, just your garden variety heart attacks, brain haemorrhages and things like that, but it seemed to be happening a lot more often than before. It wasn’t only the old and the infirm either, without anti-virals to keep it under control flu was cutting a swath through the young and the healthy. It wasn’t one strain, it all of them: Spanish flu, swine flu, bird flu and probably a few others that had never been big enough before to get their own tabloid names. This kept people indoors much of the time and most only went out to collect their government food rations or to go looting – the masks everyone wore to stop themselves getting whatever infections were going around made people bolder since no one could recognise them and it was amazing how quickly we all turned into criminals once we realised we could get away with it. Some ask where the police and the army were while all this was going on but the truth was they were there alongside the rest of us, smashing in the shop windows and breaking into the warehouses.

‘The fact that people spent most of their time holed up in their homes meant that when the first block of flats exploded a lot of people died. Maybe it had happened somewhere else before but how would we know? Both the TV and radio systems had gone down a few days before and every form of transport that had a microchip in it, and that was pretty much all of them, had ground to a halt so there was no way to find out what was going on beyond the city limits. There was no one left to give an official explanation and all we had to go on were the whispers on the street. The more rational said the gas supply must have ruptured, the conspiracy theorists said it was aliens who’d arrived in a spaceship hiding behind the comet. By that stage, I couldn’t decide who I believed more. That day the comet blazed larger and almost as bright as the sun. It was painful to look at and it meant the old concepts of night and day were pretty much meaningless. If the comet was up when it should have been night there was no darkness, if it was up in the day time it was like we had two suns that set at different times. There was no longer any rhythm to life and it drove people crazy: that’s probably why the random attacks started. Before, the violence had mostly revolved around rioting and looting, meaning it was easy to avoid if you wanted to but now it could flare up anywhere at any time and people started leaving the city. I stuck it out for another week but then, as the screaming that echoed through the streets grew louder and more frequent, it got too much even for me.

‘I didn’t know where I was going, I just joined the others traipsing along the road out. I’ve no idea what time it was when I left or how long I walked for. I’d long since traded my watch for food, not that it worked by then anyway, and with the two-sun effect it was all but impossible to tell what time of day it was. I might have walked for a day, it might have been three. By then the city was a distant memory and the flow of people around me had dried up to a trickle. I don’t know where the rest had gone, they just seemed to disappear as we walked; then I became one of them. Suddenly realising I had no idea where I was I sat down at the side of the road to try and get my bearings and found I couldn’t get up again. I watched others stagger on as I keeled over and lay amongst the weeds. I rolled onto my back and looked up. The real sun was just setting but the false sun of the comet still burned high in the sky.

‘I tried to work out what had gone wrong but I couldn’t. There wasn’t anything new; nothing had really changed. It just seemed like everything that could go wrong had gone wrong at the same time and we, as a society, couldn’t cope. I didn’t even know if it really had anything to do with the comet – that might just have been a coincidence, or maybe it was only the last straw. Maybe we’d just pushed the planet too far and finally it had pushed back or maybe we’d reached a critical mass and what happened was inevitable. Maybe our systems were too complex, our machines too complicated, our society too unbalanced between the haves and the have-nots and, unknowingly, we’d been living on borrowed time. The comet’s arrival might have just tipped us over the edge of some physical, social and mental precipice we’d been teetering on for years. Whatever the cause, there was no doubt the world I’d once known was gone. I closed my eyes to try to get some rest but even through my eyelids I could still see the light from the comet.

‘I crawled away, looking for shade. Finding a small cave, I pulled myself into the welcoming darkness where I could finally get some rest. I think that’s what saved my life. I didn’t leave again for over a week but I didn’t need to. Enough water trickled down the walls that I could quench my thirst by licking it and I hadn’t been troubled by hunger since I started walking. I only emerged when I realised it was finally dark outside and properly dark at that. I staggered from the cave to find night had fallen and I frightened myself by letting out a scream of delight. I slumped against a tree and watched the first normal sunrise there’d been in weeks. There was no one else in sight but a faint smell of rotting flesh drifted towards me on the early morning breeze from the bodies of people who’d died on the road. I wondered where the comet had gone but I didn’t need to for long. As the sun crossed the horizon I spotted a dark hole on it’s otherwise glowing disk. Our star, the centre of our solar system, had engulfed the comet and brought normality back to our planet.

‘Life will never return to the way it was; too many died, too much was destroyed; but humanity has picked itself up and dusted itself down, and we’re slowly putting our society back together again. Before, I didn’t really do anything productive, I just worked in a call centre where I constantly bothered people who really didn’t want to speak to me. Someone made a fortune out of it but it certainly wasn’t me or those I called. At the end of each day, I’d spend an hour getting back to a flat the size of a shoe box I couldn’t really afford but which was worth so much less than I’d paid for it that I couldn’t sell it and still be able to pay the bank back. Again, someone was making money out of properties and mortgages and other things like that but I was the one drowning in debt. Once home, I’d listen to my neighbours yelling at each other through walls that were too thin because the construction company put profits before quality and eat luke warm ready meals that claimed they were made of beef but tasted like they contained something very different. After that I’d drink too much beer as I stared at a screen of some kind or other, sometimes two at once, until I passed out. In the morning I’d get up and do the same all over again. It was existing but it wasn’t really living.

‘Now, like almost everyone else who survived, I work the land and while I still yearn for the old days from time to time, I don’t really miss them. I’m not saying life isn’t hard but you have to admit it has more meaning and in some ways it’s better than it was before. I’m happier knowing that this is all there is. There’s no push to always have the newest toys or the most money or the hottest clothes; no screens for people to hide behind and no gossip magazines or paparazzi showing us what some brainless celebrity’s been up to with some footballer who should have been at home with his wife and kids. There’s no advertising to make us feel inadequate or unhappy or tell us what we should be doing or how we should be looking; to tell us why we can’t be content if we don’t conform to some ever-shifting norm that someone somewhere has randomly decided is the only way for anyone to live. There’s no corporations left to rape the Earth for profit and no banks to tempt you into debt, then trap you there until you end up working as much to pay their share-holders as you do to feed and clothe your family. Social success is no longer judged by the number of friends you have on some arbitrary website rather than whether any of them will be there for you when you really need it. People talk face to face now, like we’re doing, rather than simply posting impersonal updates to everyone they’ve ever met and quite a few they haven’t. You can live for today without being constantly told that now is so last year and that you should really be concentrating on what will be coming next week; or next month; or next year. Yes, that world came to an end but was it really a world worth saving? Aren’t we better off without it?’

***

Author’s Note: This story is a bit different from those I usually write (still post-apocalyptic but no zombies or other similar enemies to make life difficult for the survivors). I wrote it to mark the fact that this year, two comets should be visible with the naked eye in the northern hemisphere (where I live). These are comet PanSTARR in mid-March and Comet Ison from the end of November onwards. As I’ve noted before, the appearance of theses comets in the night’s sky are likely to lead to an increase in predictions that the end is nigh. This story, at least the opening paragraph, is my response to those people. Within the rest, you are likely to able to spot elements of many other media scare stories, threats and social commentary ranging from the riots in England a couple of summers ago, the recent scandal about horse meat turning up what was meant to be beef ready meals, the financial crisis, house price crashes and so on.


*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print in the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

What’s In A Name? That Which We Call A Rose By Any Other Name… Just Wouldn’t Work!

26 Feb

They might smell as sweet but would roses still be associated with romance if they were called snot blossoms? If Scarlett O’Hara had actually been a Margaret, would Gone With The Wind have worked just as well? Would Rhett Butler’s final words to her have had so much impact if it had been ‘Frankly Margaret, I don’t give a damn’ (I’m thinking the book here rather than the film where the line is slightly different)? And what if his name had been Fred instead of Rhett? Then there’s Mr. D’Arcy, would he have been quite so appealing to Miss Elizabeth Bennet if his surname had been Sidebottom instead? (This wasn’t an uncommon name in England.) Personally, I don’t think any of these alternatives would work quite as well as the original names. Of course, in some cases it’s just that we’re so familiar with the name that’s used for an individual character we can’t imagine it being anything different but in others, choosing the wrong name can ruin the flow of an otherwise good story, especially if, for some reason, it jars with the reader.

This is probably why writers sometimes agonise over the naming of characters, and it’s not just one or two names they have to think about. If there are groups of people in a story, they need to make sure the names work not just individually but also together so that none of them stand out as being odd in comparison to the others. Author’s also got to make sure last names fit with first names in the mind of the reader and that both fit with the time period your writing in. It might be a more common name now but you can’t have a girl called Wendy in a story set before 1904 because it didn’t really exist as a name in its own right before J.M. Barrie used it in Peter Pan.

So, when I’m writing, how do I decide on names for my characters? Generally, I ‘borrow’ them from people I know or have met, not whole names but maybe a first name here and a last name there. I also keep a list of names that I add to whenever I come across a new name that I might want to use at some point (particularly for surnames or for people from different parts of the world where I may struggle to come up with something realistic myself). This list of names also allows me to keep track of what names I’ve used for more minor characters to make sure I don’t use them again when I shouldn’t. This is important because you don’t want to confuse the reader by accidentally using the same name for different bit part players in the same novel and there’s only so many times you can call different people in different stories Bob before regular readers start getting pissed off at your lack of imagination.

I find that characters names often change between different drafts of my work and, usually, it’s only after I’ve written quite a bit about them that their name starts to become fixed in my mind. This is because characters have a funny way of taking themselves in unplanned and unexpected directions as I write and this affects whether a specific name fits them or not. However, before I do fix on a name, I’ll almost always ask at least one other person to read a bit about the character and let me know whether they think a specific name fits. This can sometimes reveal problems that I’d never noticed because I was too close to a character.

This happened when I was writing For Those In Peril On The Sea, where I had a character that had somehow morphed into an early-twenties American college drop out from a rich background. He hadn’t really started out that way and I’d originally had the name John in mind for him. However, when I ran this passed by girlfriend (who also happens to be a great editor) she found it just didn’t sit right because it didn’t feel American enough. She then suggested dropping the ‘h’ and changing it to Jon which worked so much better that I was a bit annoyed this simple change hadn’t occurred to me on my own.

In terms of matching first names to last names, this is something I don’t usually have to think much about. This is because I primarily write in a post-apocalyptic/zombie genre where I’m dealing with small groups of survivors who know each other well. In these situations surnames would rarely, if ever, be used. In fact, in For Those In Peril On The Sea, only one character is specifically given a surname (the others have them in my head but they’re not mentioned in the book itself). This is a character known as CJ, which are the initials of her first and last names (Camilla Jamieson). She’s a posh English girl in her late teens, so the name Camilla fitted with her background but you could see why she might prefer to go by her initials (it’s much younger and trendier). This issue weaves itself into the story because it allows one of the other characters to call her by her full name when he wants to annoy her. Changes in the relationship between these two characters can then be followed by changes in what he calls her (at first Camilla or Cammy just to wind her up but later her preferred name of CJ as he starts to respect her).

Looking back across my own writing for this piece, I find that I tend to use short names, mostly ones with a single syllable. I’d not really noticed this before but I think it’s because I feel that longer names slow down action sequences and these are often a key elements in my stories. Names like Jon and Jane seem to work better in such scenes than ones like Jonathan and Jamillia. Of course, this might just be personal preference.

On the subject of names, there’s one more thing to consider. This is whether the reader will easily be able to work out how a name is pronounced. This is because many readers will bond faster with a character who’s name they can actually hear in their own head as they’re reading a book than one they can’t. For example, unless they’re of some sort of Celtic extraction, most readers will have much more affinity with a character called Rory (the English translation) rather than Rhuairidh (Scots Gaelic) or Ruaidhrigh (Irish Gaelic) just because they have no idea of how it should sound. This doesn’t mean that there’s not a place for difficult to pronounce and unfamiliar names, it’s just that you’ve got to use them sparingly and only when it’s relevant.



*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

The Importance Of Transmission – Or How Could I Catch A Zombie Disease?

25 Feb

For a zombie apocalypse to happen, you need two things: Something to turn people into zombies and a way this can be transmitted from person to person. Without transmission, any zombie outbreak will have, if you excuse the pun, little bite to it, and this is what I want to consider here. So what do I mean by transmission? Well, transmission is how whatever’s turning people into zombies gets from one person to another. The method of transmission will determine both how easily it can spread and how easy it will be for you to avoid picking it up. Here, I’m primarily thinking of diseases or parasites that turn people into zombie-like creatures, whether natural or man-made) rather than something that would raise the dead (this is because I’m trying to keep it biologically feasible). Also, I’m not going to consider other things that could turn people into zombies (such as chemicals).

So how could a zombie disease be transmitted? The traditional route is through a bite that breaks the skin, allowing saliva from an infected person to get into the blood stream of someone they attack. This is certainly a well-established way of diseases passing from one person to another. For example, this is the way that rabies (probably the closest thing in the world today to a real ‘zombie’ disease) is transmitted from one person to another. However, transmission through bites is actually quite an inefficient route for a human disease to move between victims. This is because human teeth are pretty poorly adapted for biting and you have to bite someone pretty hard to get through the skin. Also, this mode of transmission would be easily foiled by something as simple as a thick leather jacket (think of the kind stuff that bikers traditionally wear). This means that any zombie disease that only spreads through bites will spread slowly, at least at first. Only once you have a critical mass of infected people will it really take off. It would also be quite easy to avoid picking up a zombie disease from a bite – you just don’t let someone who’s infected close enough to get their teeth into you.

Other less tradition routes of transmission could allow a zombie disease to spread both with greater ease and much, much faster, making it easier for a zombie apocalypse to get off the ground and bring the world to its knees. For example, a disease can also spread through contact between bodily fluids and what are known as mucosal membranes (things such as eyes, noses and mouths) or existing wounds. This would mean that someone could get infected not just from a bite but also from things like blood and saliva getting onto your face when you’re bludgeoning in the head of the person trying to bite you. This mode of transmission features in the film 28 Days Later (one of my all time favourite post-apocalyptic stories ) where one of the characters is infected with the rage virus by a drop of blood falling into his eye, and would allow the disease to spread a lot quicker and easier. This is because killing people infected with a zombie disease will be very, very messy and there will probably be blood and guts flying everywhere. It will be much harder to protect yourself because all it needs is one drop of blood to end up in the wrong place and you’ll be a goner.

Similarly, a zombie disease could go air-borne. This would make just being in the proximity of someone who is infected very dangerous, after all they wouldn’t need to bite you, just breathing in your general direction might be enough. If this is the case, you’d probably never want to go outside without a face masks and filters to avoid catching it. As we all know from our own experiences with flu, air-borne diseases can spread very fast and one person can infect many, many others in a very short space of time. This makes the prospect of an air-borne zombie disease extremely terrifying. I mean, what if it was as easy to pick up as the common cold?

There’s also the possibility that a zombie disease could be water-borne. Take something like typhoid or dysentery. These are normal diseases you can pick up from unclean water but what if you could contract a zombie disease in the same way? If this were true, one infected person could infect many, many others without even going near them. It would also be much, much harder to avoid – All you drinking water would have to be passed through something like a reverse osmosis machine to filter out the disease before you’d know it was definitely safe to drink and such machines are not exactly common outside of the sailing community. Just think what would happen if the public water supply somehow got contaminated (maybe by the body of an infected person ending up in your local reservoir). This means that a water-borne zombie disease could start an epidemic very easily. However, there’s still at least a chance you could avoid catching it if you have the right equipment.

The last possible mode of transmission I want to consider is a vector-borne zombie disease (something my fellow writer Jack Flacco reminded me about today in a comment on another of my posts). This is a disease that can be spread not just from bites from other people but by bites from other animals too. The vectors wouldn’t catch the disease so they wouldn’t become zombie animals; instead they’d just transmit it from one human to another. Think malaria and mosquitoes here. A vector-borne zombie disease would be truly frightening and almost unstoppable. One vector could infect many, many people and, depending on what the vector is, it could be almost impossible to avoid them. Almost anything that is small and feeds on human blood could be a vector for a zombie disease but I’m only going to consider two of the most common: Ticks and flying insects.

If a zombie disease was transmitted by ticks (small, blood sucking relatives of spiders), then it’s likely to spread slowly but inevitably, especially in areas of open countryside (the model here is something like Lyme disease). However, they are relatively easy to avoid by keeping away from such habitats and doing things like making sure you don’t leave your legs uncovered. With a tick-borne zombie disease, what you’d probably see is the disease flaring up here and there on an unpredictable basis. This would make fighting it very difficult as we’d never know where it would strike next.

If a zombie disease was transmitted by flying insects, we’d see a very different pattern of infections. Once someone in an area got infected with a zombie disease, it would rapidly spread from person to person whenever an insect bit one person and then another. This would result in a disease front that spread rapidly across a region. People fleeing from infected areas would only make the spread happen faster. And no matter where you were, you’d never be safe from the risk of infection. I mean, have you seen how hard it is to keep every mosquito, midge or fly out of your house on a hot summer’s night? A zombie disease that was transmitted by flying insects would be a truly terrifying prospect because it would be virtually impossible to either stop or avoid.

So what’s the conclusion of all this? Well, if a zombie disease were to ever appear, you’d better hope that the only way it’s transmitted is through biting as that will give you your best hope of being able to both avoid it and beat it. If it develops the ability to spread by any other means (and why wouldn’t it since many other diseases do?), you might not believe it to be possible, but you’ll be in even deeper trouble than you were before!



*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Can Animals Become Zombies?

22 Feb

Those of you who have read my posts before will know that when it comes to the question of whether a real life zombie apocalypse could actually happen, I say yes, but not if it involves your traditional, re-animated corpses. Rather, I favour the premise of an infectious disease (whether natural or man-made) that turns living people into zombie-like killers. As I’ve explored in previous posts, there’s actually no scientific reason that such a thing couldn’t happen and there are plenty of diseases already out there that have to potential to take over the human brain.

In this post, I want to explore something slightly different. This is the question of whether animals can become zombies. Why is this important? Well, it all revolves around the idea of disease reservoirs. A disease reservoir is a population of animals where a disease can circulate outside of humans. Think, for example, of rodents for the plague, bats for the Ebola virus and many different animals for rabies (now there’s a real zombie disease for you!). For humans, diseases with animal reservoirs can have very different epidemiologies than diseases that are restricted to our own species. In particular, they’re much harder to eradicate and can suddenly flare up again somewhere new even when we think we’ve beaten it. Look at the Ebola virus. It circulates in other animals (the exact species involved aren’t known but many suspect fruit bats) and every now and then it leaps across to humans, killing tens or hundreds of people before melting away again only to strike reappear somewhere else a few years later. This is what makes it so hard to study and control, and so damned scary too.

So where does the zombie apocalypse fit into all this? Well, if a disease were to appear that was highly infectious and that caused people to act like zombies but was limited to humans, we’d have a chance of beating it using the traditional medical approaches of using isolation and containment to break the cycle of infection. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be hard, or that it wouldn’t involve a lot of hard choices that could mean a lot of lives being sacrificed, but it might at least be possible. It would also mean that if we can survive long enough, there’s a chance that the epidemic would burn itself out. After all, humans can’t last forever without eating and those infected with the disease are likely to starve to death once they’ve run out of fresh humans to feed on.

If, on the other hand, the zombie apocalypse were to be caused by a disease that has an animal reservoir, we’re well and truly screwed. This is because it would be so much harder to fight. We could contain an area from a human perspective but would we notice an infected mouse sneaking out? Or a bat? What happens if the reservoir included birds as well as mammals? We’d never be able to isolate any individual outbreak and we’d have them popping up all over the place. Birds as a reservoir of a zombie disease would be particularly scary since the sea would act as no barrier (there goes all my plans for how to survive when the zombie apocalypse comes!), allowing it to leap from continent to continent and reach even the most remote islands on the planet.

Animals infected with a zombie virus would also be much harder to protect ourselves from. Humans are big, we can see them coming and they’re relatively easy to keep out or kill. But what about rats? It is said that in many cities, you’re never more than a few feet from a rat and if we’re talking about a rodent disease reservoir here, then they could easily appear out of nowhere and bite you before you ever even knew they were there. If we look at rabies we can see this happening again and again, so there’s no reason to believe that the same couldn’t happen with a zombie disease. Again, think what would happen if it could infect birds and not just mammals. Fences and barricades wouldn’t be able to keep them out and we’d never be safe in our compounds or mountain hideaway or where ever we choose to make our last stand against the infected because death could come from the sky at any moment. You might think caves and underground chambers would be safe but what about bats? They’re perfectly at home there and remember they’re one of the most common sources of human rabies infections in many countries so they’re not as harmless as you might think.

So what does all this mean? It means that if we’re ever faced with a true zombie disease, after containing the initial outbreak (if we can), one of the most important things we’ll need to do is to determine is whether animals can get too, and how many different species can carry it. We could then amend our strategies depending on what we find. If the disease cannot cross the species barrier, we can, to some extent, breathe a sigh of relief. It will be difficult and it will be bloody but it will be beatable – even if all we can do is hole up somewhere and wait for the disease to burn itself out. If, however, animals can catch it as well and transmit it back to us, then we might as well give up there and then. Even if we can somehow get it under control in the human population, we will never really be free of it. There will always be the risk of it flaring up again and again whenever humans and infected animals meet and even if we survive the initial outbreak, we will never be safe again. It’s a depressing thought and it means that all we can do when the worst happens is hope for the best: that animals can’t become zombies too.


*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

When Death Came To Flannan Isle – A Short Zombie Story Set In A Scottish Lighthouse

20 Feb

You can download a PDF version of this story for reading on your computer or ebook reader by clicking here.

When Death Came To Flannan Isle

We sat round the wooden table as we did for lunch every day. It was the only time the three of us got to eat together since one of us was always on duty at breakfast and supper.

‘So will this be your first Christmas on a rock then Jim?’ Murdo spoke in between mouthfuls of food. He always ate fast, shovelling in heaped spoonfuls one after another. He’d barely have time to chew one before the next was on its way. It was disgusting to watch; but hypnotic too. It seemed impossible for anyone to eat that fast without choking yet somehow he managed it.

‘Aye, that it will.’ While Jim was almost twenty-one he still had the slender frame of a lanky teenager. He’d only been working the lights for a few months and was still very much learning the lighthouse keepers’ trade. He was just an occasional; someone sent to fill in whenever one of the permanent staff was needed elsewhere. Flannan Isle was his first deployment on a far distant light: one that was little more than a cluster of white-washed building on a pinnacle of granite jutting out from a restless sea. It was only on the far distant lights that you really felt the isolation. It could be weeks, sometimes months, before you got to speak to anyone other than your fellow keepers. All six of the tiny islands that surrounded the one with the light on it were uninhabited and, as far as I knew, they always had been. The nearest place with other people was Lewis some twenty miles to the west. Given that we had no boat it might as well have been on the far side of moon and anyway it was hardly a great metropolis. For real civilisation you’d have to go more than a hundred miles to Inverness and that could take days.

‘Well, we mightn’t have much and there’s no drink but we do alright, you’ll see.’

I smiled across at Jim, ‘Don’t look so forlorn. A dry Christmas never killed anyone and you’ll be home by Hogmanay. I’m sure you’ll more than make up for it then. 1900, the start of a new century; it’s bound to be a night to remember. And I’m sure that not all the pretty girls in Aberdeen are taken.’

Murdo huffed, ‘You ever been to Aberdeen? Ugliest women I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet.’

‘Bet you didn’t let that stop you though.’ Jim shot his reply back without thinking. Once he realised what he’d said, he turned as white as a sheet. There’s a very strict pecking order in lighthouses and it wasn’t an occasional's place to make fun of a head keeper with twenty years experience under his belt.

For the first time since I’m known him, Murdo’s spoon stopped half way to his mouth. At first he had a look that seemed to be a mixture of surprise and anger but after a few seconds a broad grin spread across his weathered face. ‘You’re right there laddie!’ He emptied his spoon and carried on eating as fast as before, laughing to himself and shaking his head from side to side. ‘You’re right there.’

Not wanting to put his foot in his mouth again, Jim rose from the table and walked over to the window to check on the weather while Murdo and I finished our lunch.

Jim had only been there for a few second when he cried out, ‘Hey, there’s a boat out there; not really a boat, more like a dingy.’

Murdo leapt to his feet, sending his chair crashing to the floor behind him. ‘There’s only one reason you’d get a dingy out here. Someone’s in trouble. John, you come with me, Jim lad, you stay here.’

Murdo had worked on lights long enough to know it probably meant a ship had gone down and that the sailors were making for the nearest land as it was their only hope of survival. Once we knew they were there, it was our duty to do all we could to help. At first Jim seemed like he was about to protest but he must have thought better of it because he said nothing. Even though he was just an occasional he knew the rules as well as the rest of us: no matter what happened someone always had to stay in the light.

Murdo and I grabbed our oilskins and headed down to the east dock. As we did, we watched the small wooden boat grow slowly closer. The man at the oars looked spent but somehow was still managing to power the boat towards the shore. Once on the dock, we could see he wasn’t dressed for the sea. He was wearing what look like an expensive tweed suit as well as a collar and neck tie.

Murdo waved his arms over his head, ‘Hey, you. Over here!’

The man didn’t look round but the direction of the boat shifted until it was heading straight towards where we stood. When the boat finally touched the shore, he collapsed across the oars.

‘John, you stay here, I’ll get him.’

Murdo moved with a speed that belied his size and within a flash he’d shimmied down the ladder leading to the water and leapt into the wooden dingy. The first thing he did was tie it to the dock. Next Murdo shook the man but he didn’t respond. Unperturbed, Murdo scooped him up and threw him over his shoulder before climbing back up to the dock. The man seemed lifeless, his head lolling back and forth with every step Murdo took.

Once they were on the quay, I could see the man properly for the first time. He was probably in his early thirties and had one of those thick moustaches that seemed so fashionable these days amongst the middle classes. I glanced at his hands: while they were blistered and bleeding from rowing I could tell they weren’t the hands of a worker. His skin had the blue-grey tinge of someone who’d been out in the cold too long. I glanced at Murdo, ‘We’d better get him inside as quick as we can. See if we can get him warmed up.’

‘Warmed? What’re you blethering on about man? He’s burning up.’

I touched the back of my hand to his forehead and withdrew it immediately; he was so hot it was like touching a kettle that had just boiled on the stove.

***

‘They’re following me .. They’re going to kill me … Captain … God … Someone … help me …’

We looked on helplessly as the stranger thrashed around in Jim’s bunk. His skin was still tinged with grey but he was sweating so profusely that the sheets beneath him were sodden. While he’d not regained consciousness he was murmuring deliriously. Although I couldn’t make out all the words I could tell he was petrified about something.

Jim scratched his head thoughtfully. ‘He doesn’t seem like a fisherman or a sailor or anything, does he? How d’you think he got all the way out here?’

Murdo shot him a look that could curdle milk straight from the cow. ‘Jim, that’s none of our business.’

‘But …’

‘Our duty is to care for him as best we can not meddle in his private affairs. Whatever he’s been through is between him and god,’ Murdo paused for a moment, ‘Or maybe him and the police.’

Suddenly the man sat bolt upright and his eyes sprang open. For a second he just stare off into the distance then he started to scream. Before any of us could do anything he collapsed onto the bed, the sound of his cry still echoing around the small room.

Jim stared at him wide-eyed, ‘I think he’s dead.’

‘Don’t be daft, laddie, people don’t just drop dead like that. John, check him.’

I leaned forward and placed my cheek over his mouth but felt no breath; I put my hand on his chest and felt no rise and fall; I held my ear against him but there was no heart beat. I straightened up again and glanced round. ‘Jim’s right. He’s dead.’

***

‘You don’t think whatever killed him’s infectious do you?’

‘If it is, me and Murdo are more at risk that you are. You never went near him and we both touched him.’

‘But he’s in my bed. And on my sheets!’

Murdo put one of his massive hands on the boy’s shoulder. ‘Jim lad, we’ve got other things to worry about.’

‘Like what?’

‘Like what to do with his body. I mean, if we don’t do something with it soon, it’ll start rotting.’

If Jim had looked worried before, he looked worse now. ‘Rotting?’

‘Aye. When someone dies with a temperature like that, they’ll start going off much sooner than usual.’

I scratched my beard as I tried to come up with a suggestion. We had nowhere to store a body and the soil on the island wasn’t deep enough to bury someone so that option was out; it seemed there was only one answer left. ‘It’ll have to be a burial at sea.’

‘Shouldn’t we keep the body for the police to look at or something?’ Murdo and I turned to Jim.

‘You’ve been reading that Sherlock Holmes rubbish again, haven’t you lad?’ Murdo turned away, ‘Bloody Conan Doyle, filling young boys’ heads with his modern rubbish. There’s no way we can tell anyone about this until the relief boat arrives on Boxing day. He’ll have rotted away to nothing then. No, John’s right; It’ll have to be the sea for him.’

***

‘Right, Jim lad, you grab his legs and I’ll grab his shoulders.’

We were standing round Jim’s bed trying to avoid staring at the man’s dead body. Murdo had laid some old sail cloth we’d scrounged up from the stores along side him. As was traditional for a burial at sea, we were going to sew him into in it along with a few sizable rock we’d gathered from the land that surrounded the lighthouse. They’d act as ballast, making sure he didn’t float to the surface again as he started to decay and bloat.

Jim grabbed the man’s ankles and then let go almost immediately. ‘Jings, he’s still roasting hot!’

Murdo lent forward and slid his arms under the dead man’s shoulders. ‘It’s just him starting to rot; now grab his legs.’

That was when the man moved. It was just a shiver but it was definitely a movement. Jim and Murdo were too busy to notice it but I did. Then his eyes flicked open. They were no longer blue; instead they were milky grey with dull black pupils – there was no doubt these were the eyes of a dead man. He twitched again. This time Jim noticed too. He screamed and leapt away from bed.

Murdo stayed where he was. ‘What’s gotten into you laddie?’

Jim was now standing tight against the back wall staring at the man. ‘He … he … he … he moved.’

‘Don’t be daft Jim lad, dead men don’t move. It’ll just be gas escaping or something like th …’

Murdo never got to finish what he was saying. The man’s hands swung up, grabbing his hair and pulling him downwards. Murdo was caught unaware and despite his size he toppled forward. He screamed as the dead man sank his teeth deep into his neck until blood spurted across the linen sheets and the white-washed wall behind him. Murdo struggled but the dead man had locked onto him and refused to let go. He bit Murdo again and again. On his throat, his face, his shoulders; any part he could reach. As more and more blood sprayed from his body Murdo started to weaken. Finally he stopped moving and his body went limp. Still the dead man kept attacking, his teeth slicing into his flesh, his hands tearing at Murdo’s now lifeless body.

‘Jesus, John, is Murdo’s dead? I think I’m going to …’ Jim made for the door but got only half way before he threw up.

The sudden movement caught the dead man’s attention and he seemed to noticed Jim and me for the first time. He pushed Murdo’s body to the floor where it landed in a crumpled heap. We watched, horrified, as he pulled himself to his feet and started to stumble towards us. His movements were stilted and sluggish as he lurched forward, Murdo’s blood dripping from his mouth and face.

I swallowed hard, ‘Jim, we’ve got to get out of here.’

Jim remained where he was.

I took a step forward and grabbed him arm. ‘Jim, we need to get out of here now!’

That was all Jim needed to release him from the fear that was rooting him to the spot and together we turned and ran into the main room. Behind us, we heard slow, shuffling steps as the dead man started to follow.

‘What’re we going to do? That’s a dead man back there and he’s coming after us.’

‘I don’t know Jim, just let me think for a minute.’

‘But he’s coming …’

Just then the dead man staggered into the room, letting out a low, visceral moan as he did so. I looked round for something I could use as a weapon. My eyes settled on the gaff hook we used to help land the fish we caught to liven up our otherwise dull diet. I grabbed it and swung it hard at the man’s head. The sharp point pierced his skull just behind his left ear and sank so deep into his brain that the tip emerged from the centre of his forehead. Almost instantly the man crumpled to the ground, pulling the makeshift weapon from my hand. I’d have said he died if he hadn’t been dead already but something, some life force, certainly left him. Still neither Jim or I was keen to approach. We’d seen what happened to Murdo when he’d been caught by surprise and we didn’t want the same to happen to us. Minutes passed without any movement and I finally decided it was safe. I knelt down next to the stranger’s body and examined it. His shirt had come loose and I could see what looked like a bite mark on his side. It was deep enough to have drawn blood and while it looked a couple of days old, there was no sign it had started to heal. Instead, it remained a festering wound that oozed a thick, black liquid.

To my right, Jim let out a startled yelp, followed by a scream so filled with pain it could only have been made by a dying man. I leapt to my feet and spun round to find Murdo standing behind Jim, his massive arms wrapped round him, his teeth buried deep into the side of his head. Jim feebly tried to fight but the damage was too much. After a second he went limp and Murdo let go of his body. As it fell to the ground Murdo turned towards me: his eyes were clouded and lifeless; his skin as grey as the granite beneath our feet. Blood oozed from the bites that covered his head and neck as he lurched forward, arms reaching out towards me, hands grasping the air. I tried to free the gaff hook but it was too firmly embedded in the dead man’s skull. Realising that Murdo would be on me in seconds, I left it there and ran for the stairs that led up to the top of the lighthouse.

***

I’ve been hiding in the light for five minutes now. I can hear Murdo slowly but inevitably getting closer and closer. There’s one hundred and eighty five steps between the bottom and the top of the tower and I’ve listened to Murdo clamber up every single one of them. He’s moving unsteadily, bumping off the walls, stumbling here and there but then again he’s dead so I have to give him credit for still being able to get up the stairs at all. It’s given me time to make a plan though and I’m ready for him when he finally steps into the light. It’s only three o’clock in the afternoon but the darkness is starting to grow outside and I should be getting the light ready to send its signal out into the night. Instead I’m preparing to kill Murdo … Or whatever it is I need to do to stay alive. After what he did to Jim, I’m under no illusions as to what he’ll do to me if I let him get his hands on me. I’ve known Murdo for eleven years but I’m not going to let him do that to me; not over my dead body – or his.

As Murdo lumbers closer I back off towards the door to the balcony that surrounds the outside of the light. In my hand I’m grasping the leg of a chair that I’d broken into pieces so I’d have some sort of weapon to defend myself. I step out into the sea air and wait for Murdo to follow. Like a bloodhound he tracks my every movement. Even though his dead eyes don’t see any more he knows where I am. Maybe he hears me or smells me or something but however he’s doing it, he definitely knows where I am. I wait for him to step through the door. The change in temperature seems to disorient him for a second or maybe its the wind that’s starting to whip around the light as the sun goes down. I take my chance and smash the chair leg into his skull sending him spinning towards the guard rail. I hit him again and again but he won’t go down. Finally I pull back and swing as hard as I can. I catch him across the side of the head and send him over the edge. Unfortunately I swing with such force that the chair leg slips from my grasp and spins off into the gloaming but it doesn’t matter; Murdo is already falling the 75 feet the ground. Even dead, there’s no way he’s surviving that sort of fall.

I’m peering over the rail looking at Murdo’s shattered body just to make sure he’s properly dead when I feel the bite on the back of my neck. I spin round to find Jim standing behind me, my blood dripping from his open mouth. Without thinking I grab his shirt and throw him over the guard rail. He’s so slight that it’s not difficult for someone like me. I don’t like doing it but I can tell from his eyes that he’s dead already; he just doesn’t seem to know it yet. I’m guessing he will when he hits the ground. I slump onto the deck of the balcony knowing that all of this is finally over and wondering how I’m going to explain it to the lighthouse board but after a couple of minutes I notice something. There’s a heat radiating out from where Jim just bit me; I can feel it spreading throughout my body. That’s when I finally put two and two together. The dead man had been bitten by someone, he bit Murdo, Murdo bit Jim and Jim bit me: whatever it was that killed him while making him walk again, it was infectious and now I have it.

I leap to my feet not knowing how long I have but I have to do something to break the cycle of infection. None of these bodies could be here when the relief ship arrived and nor could I.

***

It had taken all my strength to load the three bodies into the dingy and row it out to where I knew the water was more than sixty fathoms deep. It seemed only fitting that whatever the disease was it was leaving Flannan Isle the same way it arrived. One by one I heave the bodies over the side, knowing that they’ll never surface again not all the way out here. I say a prayer for each of them in turn. I’ve cleaned everything up at the lighthouse so no one will ever be able to work out what happened; it’s better that our families don’t know. After all the exertion I’m exhausted and I sink down into the bottom of the dingy. It’s now dark and I can make out the stars above me in amongst the clouds. I can feel the movement of the small boat as it’s lifted up and down by the swell passing underneath me. I no longer have the strength to do what I intended; to throw myself over the side with my pockets filled with rocks. I can feel the infection, whatever it is, burning through my veins. It’s only a matter of time before it kills me and then I don’t know what will happen. I stare up at the sky. I can see the constellation of Orion just above the left hand side of the boat. I try to get up but I no longer have the strength. All I can do is lie here, hoping that it won’t hurt as badly as it seemed to hurt the dying man we’d rescued from the dingy less than half a day before. The new century is only a few days away but I know I’ll never see it dawn.

***

Author’s Note: The lighthouse on Flannan Isle is a real place off the west coast of Scotland (click here to see its location in Google Earth – this requires that you have either Google Earth or a Google Earth Mobile app installed on your ebook device) and this story was inspired by a real event that took place there in 1900. It has entered Scottish mythology and in many ways it is our Marie Celeste or our Bermuda Triangle. I touched on it towards the start of my book For Those In Peril On The Sea where one of the characters is reminded of the memorable line ‘Three men alive on Flannan Isle who think on three men dead’ from the poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson about Flannan Isle. The basic summary of the story is this: On Boxing Day (as the day after Christmas is known in Britain) of that year, a relief ship arrived to find the lighthouse deserted. Some say that there was untouched food left on the table but no signs of struggle, although this part may well be fiction. No trace was ever found of the three lighthouse keepers that should have been manning the light and to this day no one really knows what happened to them; to all intents and purposes they just disappeared into thin air. For more information about this mystery, click here.

I’m in no way implying that this is what happened (I just thought it was an interesting premise for a story) and, out of respect, I have specifically chosen not to use the real lighthouse keepers’ names for the characters in this story. In addition, I’ve set it in the preceding year (1899) rather than 1900. Without any modern technology, this would have been a time when the men keeping a far distant light such a Flannan Isle would have been cut off from the rest of the world for much of the time, and this adds to the tension within the story since the lighthouse keepers know there’s no way they can call for help from the outside world. It’s just them against whatever is happening to them.


*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Apocalypses Now – Why 2013 Is Likely To See A Rise In End Of The World Predictions

18 Feb

In 2012, much was made of the supposed Mayan prediction of the end of the world. It never happened (obviously or I wouldn’t be writing this now) but 2013 is likely to see a whole new clutch of apocalyptic predictions. Firstly, with Pope Benedict’s unexpected abdication last week, we have suddenly been thrust into the era of the Prophesy of the Popes, also known as the Prophecy of Saint Malachy. This prophecy provides predictions of all the popes over a period of more than five hundred years, However, Pope Benedict corresponded to the penultimate prediction. If the prophecy is to be believed, this means the next pope will be the last one and will oversee both the fall of the Church of Rome and the start of the biblical apocalypse. I think a lot will be made of this in some quarters outside of the official Catholic Church, but if you examine the predictions in full, they’ve been pretty inaccurate so far, and there’s no reason to believe this one will be any better.

After the Prophesy of the Popes comes comets. From an astronomical point of view, 2013 will be a particularly interesting year as not one but two comets will enter the inner solar system this year and both promise to be clearly visible from Earth. One (Comet Ison) is predicted to become brighter than the moon and may even be visible in daylight for a brief period of time. The appearances of comets in the night sky has always inspired end of the world predictions and not just in the dim and distant past. Those of us who were around in the mid-1990s will remember Comet Hale Bopp and apocalyptic predictions it inspired. Top amongst these was the Heaven’s Gate cult who believed that there was a spaceship hiding behind the comet that was going to spirit them away to a better place. Tragically, this lead to the mass suicide of the cult’s leader, Marshall Applewhite, and 38 of his followers when the comet reached its closest point to Earth. Given the current popularity of the genre, this time round, we’re more likely to hear predictions of zombie uprisings rather than aliens, but I think there’s still going to be a lot of chatter.

Both comets are already visible to those with telescopes but the first, Comet Panstarrs, will start to become much more noticeable to anyone living in the northern hemisphere in mid-March. Whether it will be clearly visible to the naked remains to be seen and this is likely to determine exactly how many end of the world predictions it inspires. The second, Comet Ison, will be visible towards the end of the year and is likely to be much more spectacular. We’ll get to see it both as it approaches the sun and as it moves away again. It’s already being called the comet of the century by some commentators and the brightest comet in human history by others.

If it lives up to the hype (and comets don’t always do this), we’re likely to hear a lot of predictions from both religious and non-religious camps. Of the latter, I think the most common will be talk of a zombie apocalypse, possibly spawned by a disease brought to us in dust from the comet’s tale. This has always been popular in zombie lore and I think it will crop up again and again as the year progresses. The release of the movie World War Z in June, and it’s likely worldwide success, will also bring zombie uprisings further into popular culture increasing this likelihood, so this will be something to keep an eye on.

Of course, I’m not arguing here that any of the above events means that the end of the world is really coming, just that I think it’s going to be an interesting year for those who are fans of all things apocalyptic, zombie or otherwise.

***

If you’d like to read a short post-apocalyptic story I’ve written to mark the visits of comets Panstarrs and Ison to the inner solar system this year click here. It’s called When The Comet Came.

*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Zombie Chemistry: Could It Bring The World To An End?

15 Feb

So far on this blog I’ve considered some real zombie diseases and also whether genetic engineering could bring about a zombie apocalypse, this time I’m going to turn my attention from biology to chemistry and consider whether a chemical agent could also result in the collapse of civilisation. This type of scenario is probably best known the 2010 movie The Crazies where a town’s population is turned into violent psychotic killers after their water supply is contaminated by some unnamed toxin (the original 1973 version had a slightly different plot based around a release of a biological agent). There’s also been a lot of speculation recently over zombie-like attacks by people who have been taking a drug called methylenedioxypyrovalerone (also known as MDPV or, more popularly, Bath Salts).

There’s a lot to be said for a chemically-inspired zombie apocalypse. For a start the original zombies from Haiti were thought to have been people who had been drugged so that they could be controlled by others, so there’s a nice bit of tradition there (although we’re talking a very different type of zombie in that instance). Secondly, if someone got their hands on the right chemical, it would be frighteningly easy to affect a large number of people either by contaminating the water supply, food supplies or even just by releasing a gas.

So what sort of chemicals are we talking about here? There’s two basic possibilities here. The first is some sort of psychoactive drug. ‘Bath Salts’ would be one such option, but so is old good old favourite LSD. Given in sufficiently strong quantities to people who aren’t aware they’re taking psychoactive drugs can have devastating effects. This issue is actually recognised in law in some countries where it is possible to launch a defence called ‘involuntary drug-induced automatism’. This defence hinges on the fact that if you are given drugs and are not aware of it, you effectively lose control and become a zombie (or automaton as zombies are referred to in legal language). I can’t actually track down a case where this line of defence has been successful (although there’s quite a few cases where it’s been tried), but it’s allowed meaning that many legal systems recognise the possible existence of this type of chemical zombies! However, while psychoactive drugs could create a huge number of zombies in a short space of time, almost all such drugs will wear off to a greater or lesser extent in a relatively short space of time. This means that while this could induce widespread mayhem and madness, it’s unlikely that a zombie apocalypse could be triggered by a psychoactive drug administered surreptitiously to an unsuspecting population.

The second type of chemicals that could create zombies are those that cause damage to the brain rather than just mess around with it’s chemistry (as psychoactive drugs do) and they would be considered toxins rather than drugs. If you damage certain parts of the brain, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, this can reduce impulse control and increase the propensity for violent outbursts. Again, the possibility of this type of ‘zombie’ is recognised by legal systems in many countries where if you have brain damage that can be shown to have affected your ability to control your actions you can use this as a legal defence. You could imagine that if you found a chemical that damaged just the right part of the brain it could turn people into violent killers. This damage would be permanent and the person would be stuck in this state until they died. This means that such zombies could be around for a very long time and that has much more of the hallmarks of a true zombie apocalypse.

While chemicals have the potential to create zombie-like humans, there’s no known way such zombism could be transmitted from one person to another through bites or other injuries. Given that this is a key element of most zombie apocalypse scenarios, it would mean that any sort of mass violence caused by chemicals wouldn’t really be a zombie apocalypse as such.

If it happened, though, who’s going to argue over semantics: it’d still be scary as hell to have to live through!


*****************************************************************************
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK, and available as an ebook and in print the US from the 21st March 2013. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.