‘The Outbreak’ by Colin M. Drysdale: Free Preview – Chapter One

19 Jul

The Outbreak Cover DesignI stared down the length of Buchanan Street. It was amazing to think how much it had changed since I was a kid. Back then it had been little more than a cut-through from one shopping street to another, but now it was awash with posh boutiques and fashion-hungry shoppers. Even the steps I was sitting on were new, built on what had literally been a bomb site in my youth. Now, in its place, stood a concert hall where the more cultured could come to listen to operas and orchestras, but for most, it was a place to rest from the hustle and bustle of the street, eat lunch, meet friends or just watch the crowds going by. I glanced at my watch; it had just gone quarter past twelve, but the street was already packed and, as usual, Tom was late.

I’d met Tom not far from this very spot, just after I’d graduated from university. He was working as a street entertainer and helped me turn juggling from a hobby into a lucrative money-spinner. For the rest of that summer we worked a patch halfway down the pedestrianised street, performing our show four or five times a day, and earning enough money to ensure that I didn’t have to think about getting a real job right away. Soon, I’d wasted a couple of years. Well, not really wasted, as I’d had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t something I wanted to do forever and I thought I should at least try to make use of my marine biology degree.

Tom wasn’t pleased, but he understood, and whenever I was in town I’d make sure I made time to catch up with him. He was still working our favourite spot, and every now and then he’d persuade me to join him in a rerun of the old show. Whenever I did, I was reminded both of how much I enjoyed it, and why I didn’t want to do it for the rest of my life: it was just too nerve-wracking, especially the finale which involved flaming torches, blindfolds and some unsuspecting volunteer we’d dragged from the audience.

As an alternative to juggling, I’d taken a job as the resident expert for a whale-watching company in the Azores. I’d intended it to be a stepping stone to a research career, but as my first summer there wore on, I realised I’d found my niche in the world and that I wanted to stay. I’d worked my way up until I had the knowledge and the connections I needed to start my own company. Ten years later, I was living the dream: I spent my summers on the west coast of Scotland, taking tourists out on my forty-five foot sailboat to see minke whales and other local wildlife, while I wintered in the Canaries doing a similar thing, but with different whale species.

Like the birds, each spring and autumn, I’d migrate between my summering and wintering grounds. And each time I passed, I’d stop off in Glasgow to meet up with Tom. A couple of days of drinking too much and talking over old times twice a year were enough to keep our friendship going.
 
The day before, I’d sailed up the Firth of Clyde on the west coast of Scotland, past the lighthouse on Ailsa Craig, keeping clear of a red, white and black ferry as it made its way from Ardrossan on the mainland to Arran, the southern-most of the inhabited islands in the Firth, and on past the cooling towers of the Hunterston power station. As I turned eastward into the river itself, the land closed around me. The residential town of Helensburgh was to the north, while the more industrial Greenock lay to the south. Ahead, the span of the Erskine Bridge stretched from one side to the other, a hundred feet above the water. Few people ever approached Glasgow this way these days, but for me, passing under the bridge always meant I was home, even though it would be several more hours before I’d reach the city itself.

As I sailed on, I was eager to see what had changed in the six months since I’d last visited. Glasgow had been making a concerted effort to redevelop a river front that had once been dominated by shipyards, and there was always something new. This time, it was the sleek metal lines of a new museum squatting beside the water. I saw that the tall ship I usually tied up next to had been moved down to a new berth beside it, meaning that I’d have the floating pontoons just west of the city’s exhibition centre all to myself.

By sunset, I’d settled in and phoned Tom to tell him I was back in town before arranging a time and place to meet the next day. After that, I turned on the TV: things had been getting pretty weird in the last couple of weeks, and I wanted to see what the latest news was. What I found out wasn’t good. It seemed they’d finally confirmed this new virus everyone had been talking about was, in some way, linked to the violence that had been bubbling up here and there in various US cities, and to the unrest that had been erupting across the Caribbean. Nobody seemed to know how it had got into the US, but rumours suggested a contaminated drug shipment out of Haiti. Yet, that didn’t quite seem to fit with the way it was spreading, especially in the islands. I was just about to switch it off when they cut to some breaking news, and I watched in horror as Miami descended into chaos, live on air and right in front of my eyes.
 
Sometime in the night I must have fallen asleep, because I woke in the morning to find I was still sitting in the saloon. The television was still on and the news was even grimmer than before: Miami, it seemed, had been overrun. It was still unclear what had happened, but all indicators pointed to it having something to do with the disease; the one they were calling the ‘Haitian Rabies Virus’. It seemed that it was now jumping from person to person, being passed on when infected people attacked others. The Governor of Florida was trying his best to reassure everyone that they’d get things back under control, but his eyes and the slight quiver in his voice told a different story. They were sending in the National Guard and trying to enforce some sort of quarantine, but it was too little too late.

At nine, the Prime Minister came on. He looked like he hadn’t slept and his usual air of self-confidence was noticeably absent. He stumbled over his words, but his concern and his intentions were clear: Britain was sealing its borders to stop anyone who might be carrying the disease from getting in. I knew other countries would follow Britain’s lead, but I wondered if it would work: if people were pushed hard enough, they’d always find a way in. I hoped the Americans would somehow get it under control before it spread much further, but it seemed unlikely. It was dark in Miami by then, and all that could be seen on the live news feeds were flames leaping high into the air.

Just after eleven, I remembered I’d agreed to meet Tom at twelve and tore myself away from the news to walk the mile or so along the riverside to the city centre. As always, I was struck by how much Glasgow had changed over the years. When I was young, the riverside had been little more than a wasteland of abandoned shipyards, but gradually it had been transformed. Now, both sides of the river were cluttered with oddly shaped buildings, clad in metal and glass, which housed cinemas, media companies and conference facilities. These seemed to sprout and multiply with every passing year, and I could see the steel skeleton of the latest addition rising up into the sky.

Further on, I passed under the bridge which carried the railway lines to all points south and turned north, crossing Argyle Street and walking up Buchanan Street itself. I looked at my watch: I’d arranged to meet Tom at the steps of the concert hall in fifteen minutes’ time. Usually, a walk up Buchanan Street would have been a leisurely stroll, while I gazed at the sandstone architecture and watched the people moving around me, but this time it was different; I couldn’t get the thoughts about what had happened in Miami out of my head and I was so distracted that I almost walked into a pair of mounted policemen as they plodded in the opposite direction.

When I reached the top of the road, I climbed the steps and sat down to wait, my eyes drifting lazily across the people on the street below. Mostly, they were shoppers, but here and there were gaggles of foreign exchange students talking excitedly in languages I couldn’t understand. Further down the street, I could hear someone playing a guitar, while closer to me a man in a dark suit prattled on about God through a tinny PA system. Around me, on the steps themselves, some were eating an early lunch, or maybe it was a late breakfast. Others, like me, were waiting for someone and would glance at their watches every now and then. A few feet away, some teenagers were hanging around the base of a tall statue, the boys trying to climb on to it, the girls laughing and taking photos of each other on their phones. I wondered how many of them had seen what I’d seen on the news. They all seemed so calm while I was churning up inside, worrying about what would happen next. Maybe they’d been reassured by the Prime Minister’s announcement at breakfast time, but for me, all it had done was reinforce just how worried those in the know must be.

I saw Tom in the distance. He’d just emerged from the underground station further down the street, a battered suitcase in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other. I knew the case would contain his equipment: juggling clubs, flaming torches, three large machetes and a bottle of paraffin. As he passed a living statue dressed as a vaguely familiar character from Scotland’s past, he dropped some loose change into his hat. It was a ritual I knew well: Tom always thought it was good luck to start the day by giving another busker some money, and that he’d get more in return for doing so. He’d do the same on the way home as a thank you to the universe for another successful day.

Once he was closer, I could see that, as ever, little had changed. Unlike me, he still sported his long hair, currently tied back in a ponytail, but then again, despite being a few years older than me, he could still get away with it. The beard was new, but it was little more than stubble, so it was hard to work out if it was a fashion statement or just laziness. He wore the same black leather biker jacket he always did and dark jeans. Again, he managed to carry off this youthful, rebellious look, while others, including myself, had been forced to smarten up as we grew older.

Tom waved distractedly as he clambered up the steps and sat down beside me. ‘Sorry I’m late. I got caught up in the news. You see what’s been going on in Miami? It’s fucking mental!’

‘Yeah,’ I stifled a yawn. ‘I was up most of the night. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.’

Tom took a draw on his cigarette and turned to me. ‘You know about this kind of thing. Can you explain all this virus stuff to me?’

I shook my head, ‘I’m a marine biologist, Tom, not an epidemiologist.’

‘But you know more about this sort of thing than I do.’ He took one last drag on his cigarette and dropped the end onto the step below before grinding it out with the toe of his boot. He slowly blew out the last of the smoke, waiting for my answer.

I thought for a moment or two before I replied. ‘I really don’t know much about this kind of thing, but it seems to be something different from anything that has ever happened before.’

The disease had first appeared in Haiti, where a vaccine trial had been taking place. It had all seemed manageable at first, meaning that it had earned little more than a footnote on the evening news. When it first leapt to Miami and on to other US inner cities, the reporters started investigating and asking awkward questions. Contaminated drugs were blamed at first, but then it started spreading from person to person as they attacked each other. Still, it had all seemed like something that could be dealt with, and as I’d watched the news broadcasts while I sailed north from the Canaries, it looked like there was little to worry about, particularly not where I was heading. All the experts reckoned the outbreak would burn itself out eventually.

Then Miami happened, and it was while watching all that go down that it had started to dawn on me that this wasn’t something that would simply go away if we waited long enough … this was something which was here to stay.

‘Ben, are you listening to me?’

‘Huh?’

I turned round to see Tom had taken out his tobacco tin and was rolling another cigarette. He looked up at me. ‘I asked what you thought about what happened in Miami last night.’

‘I think it’s a mess, and I’m not too sure if there’s anything they can do about it, not now; there are just too many people who are infected or who’ve been exposed. The system’s not set up to deal with something this big. I’m just glad that it’s over there and we’re not.’

Tom placed the cigarette he’d just made between his lips as he prepared to light it. ‘So you think the PM was right to close the borders?’

‘Damn straight! I think it’s probably the first time in his life he’s actually done the right thing at the right time. It’s the only way we can stop it coming over here, at least for now.’

Tom took a long draw on his new cigarette and blew a steady stream of smoke into the air. ‘Maybe if they can keep it out long enough, someone will be able to come up with a cure.’

‘I doubt it.’ I leant back on the steps, watching the people around me. ‘They’ve been trying to cure rabies for 150 years, and they’ve got absolutely nowhere. Once you start showing symptoms, that’s pretty much it.’

‘Shit!’ Tom paused for a second and we both stared off down the street. ‘Did you see the footage where the man got ripped apart by those children?’

I had; I think everyone had by then. A reporter had been standing in the street doing a piece to camera somewhere in Miami when some kids appeared out of nowhere and set upon him. The oldest was maybe about ten, the youngest was dressed in Spiderman pyjamas and couldn’t have been older than four or five at the most. The cameraman dropped his camera and ran, but it had carried on broadcasting live to the world. The reporter tried to fight them off, but there were too many of them. Eventually, he stopped moving, but the children kept on attacking him. The network finally pulled the plug when they’d started eating him, but not before everyone watching saw the oldest child tear open the man’s abdomen and pull out his intestines.

I looked beyond the end of the street, across the Clyde and out to where a group of wind turbines turned slowly on the distant hills. There seemed to be no way the virus could be stopped now; it had grown too big and spread too far. I wondered how the world would cope, and how long it would be before it found its way through the closed borders and into Britain.

I took a deep breath. ‘Look, Tom, I think this is it: the big one. Sooner or later it’s going to turn up here and we need a plan for what to do then.’

‘What d’you mean?’ There was a confused tone to his voice.

I turned to him. ‘We need a strategy, just in case. We need to think of a place to go where we’d be safe. Somewhere like …’

I never finished the sentence. Something had caught my eye: a riderless police horse galloping at full speed up Buchanan Street, scattering people left and right as it went. Once it was nearer, I could see it was foaming at the mouth and dripping with sweat from the exertion. It turned left and headed up the next street. From behind, I could see what looked like blood smeared down its right side. The horse made it across the first road, but at the second a speeding taxi smashed into it, bringing the animal crashing down onto the vehicle. Tom leapt to his feet. ‘What the hell was that all about?’

‘No idea.’ I jumped up, too, ‘I wonder what spooked it.’

‘And where’s the policeman who should have been keeping control of it?’

While everyone else around us was still staring at the accident, and the people rushing to help, I turned to look back down Buchanan Street. All seemed normal and you’d never have guessed that a runaway horse had just galloped along its length. Then, at the far end, something changed. At first, I couldn’t really see what, but something was different.

‘Hey, Tom, look down there.’ I craned my neck, trying to get a better view. ‘D’you see anything odd?’

Tom did the same. ‘What d’you mean?

‘Down at the far end, by Argyle Street.’ I pointed to the spot I was talking about. ‘Something doesn’t seem right.’

At the bottom of the street, everyone was pushing and shoving against each other, as if they were trying to get away from something.

‘Ben,’ Tom dropped his half-smoked cigarette onto the ground, ‘I don’t like the look of this.’

Suddenly, a wave of people started surging towards us. Soon, it seemed like the entire lower half of the street was moving as one. Then I noticed something odd. While everyone in the approaching crowd was running, some, it seemed, were chasing and grabbing at the others.

I thought flashed into my head. ‘Tom, we’ve got to get off the street right now.’

‘What? Why?’

‘I think the virus is here.’

‘How?’

‘I don’t know, but look at the crowd. See that person there?’ I pointed to the man I meant. ‘And that one there? Look how they’re acting! I think they’re infected.’

‘Shit!’ Tom eyes darted across the crowd. ‘Are you sure?

Before I could say anything, the man seized an elderly woman and pulled her to the ground. As the pair struggled, they disappeared from sight amongst the crowd, but soon the attacker was back on his feet and had chased down someone else.

‘Frickin’ hell!’ Tom ran his hands through his hair. ‘Ben, what’re we going to do?’
I glanced round. At the top of the steps was a series of doors; I knew we had to get off the street and we had to do it now.

‘Let’s get inside.’ I ran up the steps. Behind me, Tom grabbed his case and followed. The first door I tried wouldn’t move, nor would the second. I kept going, eventually finding one on the far right which opened. Once inside, I locked the door behind us and looked round to find a flight of stairs leading upwards. We raced up them, all the time glancing back over our shoulders. At the top, we emerged into a restaurant filled with empty tables set for lunch.

A blonde waitress in her mid-twenties appeared through what I presumed was the door to the kitchen and hurried towards us, shouting. ‘Hey, we’re not open yet. You need to leave.’

I pushed past her and ran up to the windows which stretched from floor to ceiling. From there, I had a clear view down the length of Buchanan Street.

‘I said: we’re not open yet.’ The waitress strode towards us. ‘Are you deaf or something?’ Finally, she reached a point where she could see the street below. ‘Hey, what’s going on out there?’

The stampeding crowd had now reached the entrance to the underground station. I searched for the people who were chasing the others, but I couldn’t find them. I wondered where the infected had gone; maybe I’d got it wrong. Then I realised it wasn’t that they’d disappeared, it was that almost all of them were now infected.

I tried to say something, but I couldn’t find the words. Instead, I just stared, paralysed by fear and disbelief at what I was witnessing.

As the crowd reached the statue in front of the steps, the people lingering there, watching the aftermath of the crash further up the next street, finally realised what was happening around them and they scattered. Some ran up to the locked doors, while others sprinted along the street to the right. As I watched, the first of the infected reached the steps and raced up them, while the rest followed those who’d fled up the next street. One man climbed up onto the statue’s plinth and started to pull a woman up after him, but before she was beyond its reach, an infected grabbed her legs. There was a tug of war between the two, with the woman screaming in the middle. Then another infected grabbed hold, then another. The man refused to let go of the woman even though I could now see her guts spilling out onto the street. He tried to keep his footing, but there wasn’t enough space and he slipped, falling into the mass of infected people which were now feeding on the woman’s remains. They set upon him, clawing and tearing at him until he’d been pulled apart and scattered across the street.

There was a noise behind us and I turned to find the waitress talking rapidly into a mobile phone. I didn’t recognise the language, but from the way she spoke, I could tell she was as confused and horrified by what was happening outside as I was.

I returned my attention to the window: the crowd was starting to thin as the main mass passed us and headed away up the next street, those who had the disease pursuing those who didn’t. Here and there, small knots of infected squabbled over bodies, pulling at them with their hands and teeth, feasting on those they’d killed. After a while, even those stragglers had dispersed in search of others to attack, leaving the street devoid of life. Nothing moved, and if it wasn’t for the bodies scattered along its length, it would have been impossible to believe what had just happened. Yet it had, and I was struggling to take it all in. I just didn’t understand it: where had the disease come from? How had it made the leap across the ocean? Was it just Glasgow or was it in other places in Britain, too?

It took a few more minutes of standing there, transfixed by the devastation, before I managed to get my brain back into gear. ‘Tom, we’ve got to get out of here. We’ve got to get out of the city while we still can. You think we could make it to my boat?’

Tom was still gazing down at the street. ‘Where are you tied up?

‘Down by the conference centre.’

‘I don’t know.’ Tom looked at me briefly before returning his attention to what was happening outside. ‘It’s a long way to go.’

We both stared out of the window, but nothing moved.

Tom was the first to act. He stepped forward and leant against the glass, looking from side to side. ‘Where’ve they all gone?’

I moved forward to stand beside him. ‘I guess they must have chased the crowd as they ran away.’

Tom was now eyeing up the far end of Buchanan Street. ‘If we can make it to the river front, I think we should have a pretty clear run from there down to where your boat is. There won’t have been many people down there at this time of day.’

Suddenly something struck me. ‘Have you got anything we could use as weapons?’

‘What?’ Tom looked confused. ‘Why?’

‘Because if we run into any of them, we’ll need to be able to defend ourselves.’

‘You mean like …?’ Tom’s voice faltered; he cleared his throat. ‘You mean like kill them?’

I shifted uneasily; I didn’t like the idea of it any more than he did, but if we did meet any infected, we’d have little choice: it would be them or us. ‘If we have to.’

‘Jesus!’ Tom was as white as a sheet. For a moment he stood still, then he knelt down and opened his case, ‘I’ve got these.’ He pulled out the large, curved machetes he used as part of his act. They weren’t sharp, but they were still formidable weapons.

I picked one up, and ran a finger along its length. ‘They’ll do.’

By then, the waitress had turned off her phone and spoke to us for the first time since the crowd had rampaged up the street, her voice trembling. ‘What’re you going to do?’ There was a trace of an Eastern European accent in her voice.

‘You saw what happened in Miami last night?’ I glanced across at her and she nodded. ‘Well, the same thing’s happening here. We need to get out of the city as quickly as possible. I’ve got a yacht down on the river. If we can get to it, we can get out of here. D’you want to come with us?’

She glanced at her phone and then out the window before coming to a decision. ‘Yes.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Iliana.’

I held out my hand. ‘I’m Ben and he’s Tom.’

She looked at Tom as if seeing him properly for the first time. ‘Hey, I know you; I’ve seen you before. You’re the juggler, aren’t you?’

Tom gave a slight bow, used to people recognising him like this, ‘That’s me.’

I turned and stared out of the window again: still nothing moved.

‘Right,’ I took a deep breath and felt my body start to shake as I thought about what we were about to do. I looked at Tom and saw he was shaking too. I did my best to calm myself. ‘Let’s do this.’ 

***

Part three of this free preview will be posted tomorrow (20th July 2014). If you wish to download a PDF of all three parts to this free preview, you can download it from here. If you missed it, part one (the prologue) is available here.

***

***The Outbreak by Colin M. Drysdale will go on sale on the 21st of July 2014 in both paperback and Kindle eBook formats. To purchase, click here***

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