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‘The Island At The End Of The World’ by Colin M. Drysdale: Free Preview – Chapter Two

25 Oct

‘What d’you think?’ I glanced at Rob nervously.

He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other and back again. ‘I don’t know, CJ. It wasn’t there last time I was here.’

We were anchored in the sparkling turquoise waters of a sheltered bay, fringed with golden-white sand, on the east side of a small island. Off to either side, the island rose in height, rearing up to form towering cliffs that no infected could ever hope to scale. On the shore, lit by the light of the low autumn sun, I could see the crumbling ruins of small stone buildings scattered amongst tussocks of grass. Here and there, sheep grazed peacefully, while seabirds wheeled overhead. Up to the left, a wooden hut stood silhouetted against the background, its well-maintained appearance contrasting sharply with the ramshackle remains of all the other buildings I could see.

The sail from North Rona to Mingulay had, thankfully, been short and uneventful, and now we were here, we were keen to get ashore to see what we could find. Mike, Jimmy and Jeff were already eyeing up the sheep and talking about cooking up as many lamb chops as they could consume without making themselves sick, but Rob and I were more cautious. The hut looked relatively new and in good condition, suggesting there might’ve been people living on the island when everything changed. If there had been, would they still be there? And would the virus be there with them?

Rob’s mood had improved dramatically since we’d finally reached the other side of the Atlantic, and he was almost back to his former, more confident self. It also helped that we’d been able to fish as we made our way south from North Rona, catching more than our fair share of mackerel, cod and fish that Rob called ‘coalies’ which I’d never eaten before, but that tasted great. The result of this was that we were all now well enough fed to start putting back on some of the weight we’d lost on the voyage over. The unexpected presence of the hut, however, threatened to set Rob back, and I could see he was starting to fret once again that he‘d dragged us all this way for nothing. I knew it wasn’t just us he worried about; it was also those we’d left behind. He knew there was a lot riding on our voyage for everyone who was part of the Hope Town community, and our success or failure would pretty much determine the success or failure of the community as a whole. We hadn’t been able to communicate with those back in the Abacos since the radio antenna had come down, and I knew they’d be worrying about what had happened to us and whether we’d been lost.

As we’d sailed down from North Rona, Rob had talked eagerly about taking the shortwave radio ashore and setting it up on the island. This would give it a greater range, and make it more likely we’d be able to contact Jack and the others again, but that was before we’d arrived and found the hut. Now, before we could even start thinking about doing anything like that, we’d have to make sure the island was, indeed, uninhabited and free of the infection.

On our arrival, we’d sailed around the island twice, past the impregnable cliffs that formed the northern and southern ends, and the entire west side, past a rocky beach at the south-eastern corner, which was the only other place where you could hope to land, and past a natural arch that reminded me of the one at Hole-in-the-Wall, where we’d had our first inkling that something bad had happened to the world all those months ago. Mingulay was just under three miles long, and about a mile and a half across at its widest point, meaning it was small, but it seemed to offer us all that we might need: a sheltered place to anchor boats; few places where drifters could come ashore unnoticed in the night; and I could make out what looked like several small streams making their way down to the shore close to the middle of the bay, suggesting a reliable source of fresh water.

A second smaller island lay not far from its southern limit, but this seemed to offer few of the advantages of Mingulay, beyond the fact that it, too, was surrounded by imposing cliffs. For this reason, we focussed our attention on the larger one, and during our circumnavigations, we’d kept a keep close eye on the shore; but apart from the hut and the occasional sheep, it looked as deserted as Rob remembered. The hut, therefore, remained the big unknown: who, or what, might be lying in wait inside?

‘D’you think someone’s been living here?’ Mike was standing next to Rob and me as we gazed towards the island, while Jimmy and Jeff lounged on seats in the cockpit. I picked up the binoculars and examined the hut more closely. It was the size of a small cottage, but it didn’t have the appearance of a home. Instead, it looked more basic and functional. ‘I don’t think it’s a house. It looks more like a glorified shed or something like that.’

I passed the binoculars to Rob, and he examined it too. ‘Yeah, it’s not exactly homely, is it? But that doesn’t mean there aren’t infected inside. Someone’s clearly been doing something here, and they could’ve brought the disease with them. They could be in there right now, just waiting for someone to be stupid enough to open the door and let them out.’

Jeff sat up, worried by what Rob had just said. ‘How’re we going to find out?’

Jimmy sat up, too. ‘Find out what?’

‘We’ve come all this way, haven’t we? We can’t just turn back because there might be infected in there, can we?’ Jeff got to his feet and padded over to where the rest of us were standing. ‘I mean, it could just as easily be empty,’ he looked round. ‘Couldn’t it?’

I ruffled Jeff’s hair. ‘That’s very true.’ I was impressed with how Jeff was coming along. When we’d taken him in, he’d been little more than a child, but now he was starting to develop into an adult, willing to take on responsibilities and take part in discussions about what we were going to do next. I still heard him crying in the night from time to time, but, given what he’d been through, that was only to be expected, and I knew I did the same. Jimmy was growing up too, and while it would have been nice for both of them to have been able to enjoy their childhoods a little longer, in the world we now lived, they had no choice, but to grow up fast. Mike was maturing, too, and becoming a quiet, but sensible young man. As the older brother, he felt responsible for Jimmy, and keeping him alive and safe was his number-one priority. With Jon gone, I knew that Rob and I would have to start relying on him more and more, especially now that it would be just the five of us until the others made the trip across the ocean to join us. And, depending on what was in the hut, that might not happen.

Rob leant forward on the guard rail that ran along the side of the catamaran. ‘I guess one of us is going to have to go ashore and check it out.’ He turned to face the three youngsters. ‘Any volunteers?’

Surprise and shock shot across their faces; much as they tried to act tough, they were still terrified by the merest possibility of encountering any infected, and I couldn’t blame them. The infected had to be seen to be believed: their speed; the anger burning deep in their eyes; the unrelenting violence of their actions as they attacked anyone they could grab hold of, tearing into them, ripping them apart. They showed no mercy, driven, as they were by a virus which had taken over their brains and erased all that had once been human. Now, they were little more than machines; machines the virus used to ensure it was spread as far, and as fast, as possible.

Seeing the looks on the boys’ faces, Rob laughed. ‘Don’t worry, I was only joking. I’ll be the one going ashore.’

I felt my eyes narrow as I replied, ‘No, you won’t; it’s too risky and you’re too important. I’ll go.’

Jeff stepped forward. ‘I’ll go with you.’

He was trying to sound strong, but the tremor in his voice gave away his true feelings; yet, still he’d volunteered. I glanced at him: he was still growing into his lanky teenage body, and this left his movements clumsier than usual. While I appreciated his offer, I knew I’d be better off on my own. I also knew I’d be able to move faster and react quicker if I didn’t have to worry about Jeff’s safety as well as my own. While I wasn’t that much older than him, I’d become like a mother to him and because of this, I felt he was my responsibility in a way I didn’t necessarily feel for Jimmy and Mike. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about what happened to them — I did, deeply — but it was different from how I felt about Jeff. Our shared pain at how, and why, we’d lost those closest to us had created a bond between us that went well beyond how I connected with the others, even Rob, who I’d known the longest. ‘Thanks for the offer, Jeff, but I’ll go on my own.’

Rob let go of the guard rail and straightened up. ‘No, you won’t. I couldn’t ask you do to anything that’s potentially so dangerous. It’ll be me that’s going.’

I scowled at him. ‘Rob, I know you’re the captain, and that means you get the last say, but you’ve got to act like one. You can’t go risking your own life just because you don’t want me risking mine. And besides, you’re not asking me to go; I’m volunteering.’

Rob folded his arms and said nothing.

‘Rob, think about when Bill died. Look at how devastating that was for us. We nearly didn’t make it through that.’ I didn’t like bringing up the subject of Bill’s death, but I felt I needed to make my point. ‘If we lost you, it would be the same situation all over again, and I’m not so sure we’d make it through a second time.’

Rob stared down at the deck, avoiding my eyes. I knew he still blamed himself for Bill’s death, but I also knew this was the best way to get through to him. After a minute, he looked up. ‘You’re right.’ He sighed and sank down onto one of the seats, shaking his head slowly from side to side. ‘When did you become so bloody brave, CJ? I remember when I first met you: you were such a quiet young girl, you’d barely say boo to a goose. Now look at you, and what you’re offering to do.’

‘I’m only doing what I have to.’ I smiled at him, knowing that this was his way of saying sorry for arguing with me. ‘And besides, I’ve had some pretty good teachers.’

 

Whenever I think about how I was before, it always makes me laugh, but sometimes it makes me cry, too, especially when it reminds me of all those I’ll never see again. I was completely different back then, but then again, so was the world. When I first met Rob, I was still just a child. I’d thought I was so grown-up, but with hindsight I could see that I’d been far from it. My upbringing had been sheltered and privileged, so before going on to university, I’d decided to take a gap year and see how the other half lived. In a bar in Cape Town, I’d got chatting to a man old enough to be my father: Bill. It was because of him I’d ended up on the catamaran that was now my home, as part of a crew delivering the newly built catamaran from South Africa to its owners in Miami. And it was almost certainly the only reason I was still alive.

The trip itself had been a nightmare. Jon was a pompous prick back then, and Rob kept himself to himself as much as he possibly could. Only Bill had treated me well, teaching me about life at sea and giving me my first lessons in how to sail a boat. However, while I’d been learning a lot, the longer the experience went on, the more I had been looking forward to arriving in Miami and getting back to my real life in London. Yet, when we reached land again, several weeks after a sudden squall had wiped out all our electrical equipment, civilisation was gone, and with it, everything we’d known before: on the land, humanity had been replaced by the infected, and we had no choice but to remain at sea.

It was only when we rescued Mike and Jimmy that we found out about the disease and what it did to people. While the rest of us fell apart, each in our own way, Bill kept us going, and together we worked out a plan. We’d headed east to the Bahamas to see if we could find any others who, like us, had survived the onslaught of the disease. That was how we’d ended up in Hope Town, although we lost Bill along the way. His loss had been devastating, but after some initial wavering, Rob had replace him as captain. I watched how the others changed and knew that I had to leave behind the stroppy teenager who’d boarded the catamaran in Cape Town, and do a bit of growing up myself. Jack had helped with that: he was the one in charge of Hope Town, although all decisions were made by the community as a whole, and I had learned a lot from him about how to handle other people, and how to survive.

As we both matured, the animosity between Jon and me evaporated and we started to realise that, underneath the facades we used to protect ourselves from the world, we were actually pretty similar. It would be easy to say that we’d just got caught up in the situation, but it was more than that. I’d never believed in the existence of soulmates until Jon — the real, grown-up Jon — and then he was taken away from me. It was Rob who’d killed him, but by then he was no longer the Jon I’d grow to love: the disease had seen to that.

Now here I was, sitting off another remote island on the other side of the Atlantic, offering to go ashore and check a hut for infected. I’d never have been this brave before, and if Jon had still been here, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. But now, with Jon gone, I knew I couldn’t let him down; I knew I had to step up, just as he had. And with no one else around who could do it — not without putting the survival of our little group, and indeed the remnants of the community which remained in Hope Town, in greater danger — what else could I do?

 

The rubber dinghy bumped against the sandy shore, and for the first time in more than two months, I stepped onto land. I felt the ground move beneath my feet, but I knew it was just an illusion caused by spending so much time floating around on the ever-moving surface of the sea. The hand-held radio tucked into my back pocket crackled and I pulled it out.

I pressed the transmit button. ‘What did you say, Rob?’

I let the button go and waited. It was a second before it crackled again. ‘I said, how’s it looking from your end?’

I swept my eyes across the beach and back again before replying. ‘Everything seems quiet, but I’m nowhere near the hut yet.’ I glanced up at it. ‘How do things look from where you are?’

I heard Rob key the microphone. ‘Nothing’s moving, CJ, at least not that we can see.’

‘Roger that.’ I tucked the radio back into my pocket and looked out towards the catamaran, the cabin’s superstructure stretched between its twin hulls and its mast stuck high into the air. The once-white paintwork was now dull, grey and peeling, and I could see long strands of seaweed growing along the waterline. It had been brand-new and sparkling clean when I’d first boarded it in Cape Town, but now, just over six months later, it was a battered and weather-worn shadow of its former self. Given all it had been through, this was no surprise, and I wondered how much more it could take. No boat would last forever, and this was one of the reasons we had to find somewhere where we could live on the land once more; somewhere which was both free of the disease, and where the infected couldn’t reach us.

The others were crowded on to the roof of the cabin, binoculars trained on the island, ready to warn me the moment they saw anything which might suggest trouble coming my way. We’d done this type of thing before and we all knew the drill, but there was one difference: last time, Rob had been armed with a hunting rifle, ready to shoot any infected that got too close. It wasn’t that we didn’t still have the rifle, we did, but we were out of bullets, so it was pretty much useless until we found some more, and I had no idea when that might happen.

I took a deep breath and started walking slowly up the sandy beach towards where the hut stood on the hill high above it. My eyes moved constantly, searching for anything which might indicate infected were coming, but everything remained still. I worried that the sound of the blood rushing through my ears might stop me hearing something important, but try as I might, I couldn’t get my heart rate down; the fear and adrenaline surging through my body meant I could do nothing to stop it pounding away like a freight train.

At the top of the beach, I stopped and glanced back. There was about fifty feet of loose sand between myself and the dinghy, and I wondered how fast I could race across it if I had to. My legs were still wobbly and I was walking unsteadily. I guessed I wouldn’t be able to run at full speed without tumbling to the ground, and in an emergency, that could be the difference between life and death. I pulled out my radio. ‘You got anything I need to worry about?’

For a moment, there was silence. I continued to watch those back on the boat and I could see Rob scanning the island with the binoculars. Mike was beside him, pointing at something and my heart leapt into my mouth. I considered running, just in case, but I stood my ground, hoping I was misreading the signals. Finally, the radio came alive again, but it was Jeff’s voice, not Rob’s, and I could hear laughter in the background. ‘Mike thought he saw something, but it turned out it was just a sheep!’

I breathed a sigh of relief and turned my attention back to the hut. It was a couple of hundred yards from where I stood, and the ground between me and it was covered in uneven tussocks of grass. Between these, narrow trails wove, which, judging by the small piles of dung along them, had been made by sheep and not humans. In fact, other than the hut, there was no trace that anyone had spent more than a few hours on the island in years. Here and there, in amongst the grass, I could see the remains of long-abandoned buildings: some were little more than heaps of stones; others were more recognisable, with fireplaces and chimney stacks still discernable. I wondered how long it would take until all of what had once been civilisation, for places where I’d once lived, to look like this: abandoned, decaying and overrun by nature. I felt an urge to explore them, but I knew I had to keep my attention focussed on the hut, and on finding out what was inside, before I could do anything else.

I crept forward, placing each foot carefully on the ground, trying to make as little noise as possible. I could hear the cries of seagulls off in the distance as they wheeled and circled above the island, and occasionally the soft bleating of an unseen sheep. Grass brushed against my legs, feeling alien and strange after so long on the boat. I remembered the joy of running, carefree, through long grass as a little girl, chasing others on warm summer days, but that world was long gone. Now, I wondered what might be lurking, unseen, in amongst the long stems, waiting to pounce on me. I did my best to push these thoughts from my mind as I carried on, the hut growing larger and nearer with each and every step.

Before I knew it, I was there, the closed door staring back at me; now was the moment of truth. I reached out my hand and then withdrew it, not sure of what to do next. While the day was sunny, the air blowing in off the sea was chilly, but despite this, I could feel beads of sweat running down the sides of my face. I pulled out the radio. ‘Anything?’

Rob’s voice came back. ‘Nothing.’

I kept the radio in my hand as I tiptoed around the hut, looking for any signs that might indicate what was inside, but I found nothing. There were windows, but they were shuttered, and much as I tried, I couldn’t get them to move. I returned to the door and knocked on it tentatively, half expecting to hear the unmistakable sound of an infected echoing back, but there was only silence.

I lifted the radio and spoke into it. ‘I think it’s clear.’

‘Are you sure, CJ?’ Rob sounded concerned.

‘No,’ I readied myself for what I knew I had to do next, ‘but I’m going in anyway.’

‘Just be careful,’ Rob shot back.

I didn’t respond. I banged on the door again, this time more forcibly, but still there was no reply. Hesitantly, I gripped the handle and twisted it. It moved, but the door didn’t open. I pushed it, first gently and then harder. For a moment, it resisted, then suddenly it gave way and I tumbled forward into the darkness. Even before I hit the rough wooden floor, the smell inside struck me as hard as if I’d been punched in the face. Then I noticed something moving. The only light was coming through the open door, but as I scrambled to my feet I saw a human form moving slowly back and forth. Not knowing what it was, I bolted from the room and out into the daylight, expecting to hear the sound of footsteps chasing after me … but there was nothing. I stopped and stared back at the hut as Rob’s worried voice blared from the radio. ‘What’s wrong, CJ?’

‘I don’t know.’ I paused as I considered the situation. ‘There’s someone, or something, in there, but I don’t think it’s an infected.’

The radio buzzed with static for a second before Rob replied. ‘What is it then?’

I searched the darkened doorway as the door moved slowly in the breeze. I thought about the smell and then I realised what I’d seen. I pulled the sleeve of my jacket over my hand and pressed it firmly across my mouth before stepping back inside. In the darkness, the body moved, swinging gently from side to side, suspended from a coarse rope which had been wrapped around a wooden beam. A thick beard told me the body was male, but it was too dark to see much else. I stared at him, wondering how long he’d been there. His flesh was starting to decay and his belly was bloated, but it must have been too late in the year for flies because there were no maggots eating into his flesh. As I turned to leave, I noticed a notebook sitting open on a table, black writing scrawled across its white pages. I closed it and carried it with me as I emerged into the daylight once more.

‘All clear?’ There was a hint of anticipation in Rob’s words as they emerged out of the radio.

‘All clear,’ I replied, hearing the excitement in my words as I spoke.

As I picked my way back to the dinghy, I thumbed through the pages of the notebook, stopping every now and then to read a sentence or two. It started out as a formal log, a record of the day’s events, but gradually, as time passed, it became a diary and then a confessional, before descending into little more than scrawled ramblings. The final page was dated and I tried to work out how long ago the entry on it had been made. I’d lost track of time, but from what I could work out, it had been written only a few weeks before we’d finally reached the island. Perhaps if we hadn’t been slowed by the storms, we’d have arrived in time to save him. I flicked back a few pages and scanned the writing. Maybe, by then, it had already been too late. I found the final entry again and read the single line scratched onto the otherwise blank page in a clear hand: I can’t go on.

 

Rob ran his eyes over the slowly swinging figure. ‘I suppose we should get him down.’

We crowded round the doorway, staring at the body hanging inside. Once I’d got back to the dinghy, I’d  motored out to the catamaran and returned a few minutes later with the others. Jeff and Jimmy had run ahead excitedly, enjoying the feel of the land beneath their feet. Mike and Rob followed, both concentrating on the task ahead. As we’d climbed up the hill, I’d told them what I’d found and together we’d decided what we should do. Since the infected came into our lives, we rarely got to bury anyone we lost and it felt only right that we should do this for the lone man who had chosen to end his life rather than live in the world the way it now was.

The details of his final days were set out in black and white in the notebook. The hut, it turned out, was a small research station for scientists studying the local seabirds. The man was a postgraduate student, not much older than myself, sent ahead to open up the building for the annual field season, which would have started once the birds returned to breed. Yet, before anyone else could arrive, the disease had appeared on the mainland and swept across the country. He had an FM radio and knew exactly what was happening, but there was nothing he could do about it. Soon, he figured there was no one left who knew he was there, and having been dropped off by a local fishing vessel which had then departed, there was no way for him to get off the remote island.

He survived well at first, eating the supplies he’d brought with him and supplementing them with the wildlife he was meant to be studying, but after a while the birds left for the winter and the last of his supplies ran out. He tried catching the sheep that roamed the island, but they were too nimble for him to corner on his own. His descriptions of the way they’d sprint away as he lunged at them, only to stop a few feet beyond his reach before turning and staring at him, would have been amusing if it weren’t for the desperateness of his situation. Soon, he was reduced to scouring the shoreline for anything edible he could find, living off a diet of shellfish and seaweed.

As time passed, the pressure of being alone started to wear him down. The radio stopped working soon after the outbreak on the mainland began, or rather it stopped picking up any broadcasts because there were no more broadcasts to receive. In the first weeks and months, he’d occasionally see a plane passing in the distance. While he thought there was no way of attracting its attention, its presence let him know he wasn’t the only one who’d survived. Then one day he realised he hadn’t seen it in a while. Days became weeks and weeks became months. Each morning he woke, hoping he’d see the plane again, and each night he’d return to the shelter of the hut, his spirits shattered once again.

He became obsessed by the plane, doing nothing but watching the skies, waiting for it to reappear. He built a signal fire on the tallest point of the island, cursing himself for not thinking of doing so before, but it remained unlit. As winter approached and the days shortened, he’d finally abandoned hope of ever seeing another human being again. He became fixated on the idea that he was the last man on Earth, and he couldn’t cope with the weight of the loneliness that this piled on top of him.

I wondered if I’d have handled things any differently if I’d been in his position. While I’d lost a lot, at least I still had others around me. They’d become my family and they helped keep sane despite the madness of the world I’d suddenly found myself plunged into. If I’d been trapped alone on such a remote island, I’d probably have cracked too, and I may well have ended things in a similar way. If only he’d managed to hold on just a few weeks longer, he’d still have been alive when we arrived, but he had no idea of our plans; that we were meandering our way towards him even as he chose to end it all.

Rob stepped into the hut and I followed. While Rob held the dead man’s legs, I dragged a chair across the room and stood on it, reaching up to cut the rope with a knife I’d brought ashore with me for just this purpose. Rob grunted as he took the full weight of the lifeless body and then carried it outside before laying it on the grass. In the daylight, I could see his hair was brown, almost black, but beyond that I couldn’t make out any other features beneath the bloated and rotting flesh.

Rob wiped his hands on the grass. ‘Where will we bury him?’

As I scanned our surroundings, my eyes settled on a place where a stone wall, topped with a cross, still reached into the sky. ‘That looks like it used to be a church. D’you think there’s a graveyard, too? Maybe we could bury him there. That way, he’d never be alone again.’

The others looked at me curiously. None of them had read the entries in the notebook which I had read, and none of them knew how utterly isolated and lonely he’d felt at the end. Only I knew how important it was for him not to be alone in death as he had been in his last few months of life.

 

‘You see this soil?’ Rob rubbed some of it between his hands. It was light and sandy, but with darker flecks mixed through it. ‘This is why this island is perfect for us. It’s so rich and fertile. It’s not natural though. It’s been made by people over hundreds of years, thousands even. They’d haul seaweed up from the beach and dig it into the sandy soil, filling it with nutrients from the sea. You can grow almost anything in it.’ A chill gust of wind whipped across us, blowing the handful of dirt away. Rob watched it as it went. ‘Well, anything which can withstand the weather.’

It had taken only a few minutes to find the old graveyard, the headstones visible above the undergrowth. Some were still readable, none of the dates more recent than over a century before, marking the point at which the island had been abandoned. Others had been worn smooth by the elements, eliminating all knowledge of who was buried there. We found a spot that overlooked the sandy bay where the catamaran was now anchored and dug a grave using spades which we’d found stored in a lean-to behind the hut. We took turns, Jeff and Jimmy tiring faster than the rest of us, and within an hour we had the grave finished.

Rob and I wrapped the body in an old tarpaulin we’d found with the spades, before carrying him over to the churchyard. In silence, we laid him to rest and marked his final resting place with a short plank of wood Jeff had found on the shore. We didn’t know his name, so we had nothing to put on it, but nonetheless, we felt it was important to mark where he lay.

 

Back at the hut, we set about examining it in detail. Using the spades, Mike and Jeff levered open the shutters which had been nailed in place, while Rob and I opened the windows from the inside. Jimmy hovered by the door, not wanting to enter because of the smell of decay which still hung heavily on the air. With light now filling the wooden building, we could see it clearly: it was part bunkhouse, part research lab, the walls lined with maps and photographs. In one corner, there was a small wood-burning range that, when fired up, would provide heat and warmth, as well somewhere to cook. A roughly made wooden table ran along the wall under the windows, clearly designed to act as a workspace, while against the opposite wall four sets of bunk beds stood, each within touching distance of its neighbour. Two large solar panels lay near the door, next to a small wind turbine, similar to ones I’d seen before on the back of yachts. Alongside them, was a bank of large batteries of the type used to power golf carts. Rob examined these. ‘Looks like a pretty good set-up; it shouldn’t take us too long to get it up and running again. It’s almost like he closed the whole place up, before he …’ Rob’s voice trailed off.

I decided to change the subject. ‘I wonder what he did for water?’

Rob walked over to the small kitchen area beside the range and turned one of the taps on a small sink, but nothing came out. He turned on the other one, expecting the same result, but instead a slow, but steady, stream of water, the colour of freshly brewed tea, emerged.

I eyed the water suspiciously. ‘That looks pretty disgusting.’

Rob cupped a hand under the tap and once it had filled, he lifted it to his mouth and sipped it loudly before letting the rest fall into the sink. ‘Not too bad, and perfectly drinkable,’ he smacked his lips, ‘if a bit of an acquired taste.’

I looked at him disbelievingly. ‘But why’s it so dirty?’

Rob dried his hand on his trousers. ‘It must come from a stream somewhere further up the hill. The peat in the soil stains the water as it runs through it. It always happens when you get water running over peat. It doesn’t look too appetising, but it’s safe enough to drink.’

He turned the tap off again, but as he did so, I realised that, despite all that was here, something was clearly missing. ‘There’s no bathroom.’ I looked again. ‘Or even a toilet!’

‘I guess there must be an outhouse somewhere.’ Rob peered out of one of the windows. ‘Maybe round the back.’

Before we could discuss this further, Jeff and Mike entered the hut, followed by Jimmy

‘What is this place?’ Jeff was examining one of the maps that were pinned to the walls.

‘It’s a research station. They used it to study the breeding habits of seabirds.’ I walked over to him and peered at the map. It showed an outline of the island, with a cluster of coloured pins stuck in at one end, each labelled with its own unique number. ‘I’m guessing these must be nest sites. I wonder what species they are.’

‘How’d you know that?’ Jimmy was now looking at the map, too.

I pulled the notebook out from where I’d tucked it away for safe keeping. ‘I read about it in here.’

Rob took the notebook and flicked through it. ‘Anything useful in it?’

‘I don’t know.’ I took it back. For some reason I didn’t want anyone else reading it. ‘I’ve only skimmed it so far.’

Mike eyed the notebook, obviously curious about what it might contain. ‘Does it say how he ended up here on his own?’

‘Yes. He came here ahead of the main research team,  to open up the field station and get it set up for the season, but there was an outbreak on the mainland, starting in Glasgow, and no one ever came back for him.’ I tucked the notebook away again before anyone else had a chance to take it from me, and looked round. ‘You know, we could turn this into a pretty civilised little place.’

Jeff wrinkled his nose. ‘What about the smell?’

With the windows open, the scent of decay was already starting to dissipate, but it remained strong, assaulting our senses with every breath. Below where the body had been hanging, there was a damp spot where fluids dripping from it had accumulated. As I walked over to it, the smell intensified. I pointed to the fluids. ‘Once we clean that up, I think it will go away.’

Jimmy stared at the damp patch. ‘What is that?’

‘Liquid human.’ Mike laughed as he saw his little brother recoil in horror.

Rob chuckled, too. ‘Not the best way to put it, but I guess it’s accurate.’

For some reason, their flippancy annoyed me. After all, we were talking about another human life here, but I didn’t say anything, figuring we each had our own ways to deal with things like this. Instead, I dug into a cupboard under the sink, finding some bleach, a scrubbing brush and some rubber gloves. Taking these out, I set to work, scrubbing the wooden floorboards as hard as I could. While I did this, Rob organised the boys, and together they took the solar panels outside. Soon, they had them set up and connected to the batteries, and by the time I’d finished, Rob was standing by the doorway, his hand on the light switch. ‘Here goes nothing.’

He flicked it and the fluorescent light which ran along the centre of the room pinged and flashed a couple of times before finally coming to life. The youngsters clapped and whooped in celebration, causing me to smile. It was a small thing, but it marked our first step towards taking back the land — or at least a tiny little part of it that we could hopefully, one day, call home.

 

‘You two go that way, this time. I’ll go this way, and we’ll see if we can trap it against that wall there.’ Mike glanced at Jimmy and Jeff. ‘Okay?’

The two younger boys nodded.

‘Let’s go then!’ With that Mike set off, the other two a few feet behind.

The three of them had been trying to catch a sheep for the last hour, but they were having little success. Just as had been described in the notebook, no matter what they tried, the sheep outfoxed them. It would let them get within a few feet, but no closer. The sheep didn’t run far, though, and once it felt safe again, it would stop and turn, bleating belligerently at its pursuers. The effect was comical, but I could imagine that for a hungry man, alone on the island, it would have been soul-sapping.

While the boys chased sheep, I continued to tidy up the hut, moving things around, making space here and there for our stuff. Every now and then, I’d come across something of the dead man’s and each time I made sure I put it somewhere safe. I didn’t know quite why, but it felt like the right thing to do.

When I was finished, I walked to the door and examined my surroundings. Thirty feet from the back of the hut was another, much smaller wooden structure I hadn’t noticed before. Above the door, stencilled in white paint, was the word ‘Toilet’. Below this hung a handmade made sign, which said ‘Unoccupied’. I wandered over and opened the door, finding a simple wooden bench with a round opening that led to a deep, dark hole cut into the ground beneath. There was no plumbing, just the hole and an aroma to match its crude functionality. I closed the door again, unsure how I felt about using the outhouse. It wasn’t what I was used to, and it would be unpleasant to have to venture outside to use it in bad weather, especially at night, but it would do the job it was designed for: keeping the inhabitants of the hut separated from their waste in such a way as to avoid the risk of contamination and disease.

Down below in the bay, I could see the boat riding gently at anchor. Rob was standing by the stern where he had two fishing rods dangling over the side. As I watched he grabbed one of them and started reeling something in. Moments later, I saw him pull a fish about the same length as his arm from the water and drop it onto the deck. I grinned, knowing we’d eat well tonight. I turned my attention to the island itself. The land nearest to the hut was green and fertile, and judging by the number of ruined cottages I could see, it had once supported a substantial population. Certainly, in the past, it had supported more than there were of us, even once the other people from Hope Town arrived. Further off, the island was more rugged, but in a world where infected roamed, this ruggedness was an asset that would prevent them from being able to make it ashore along most of its coastline. Coming here had been a risk, but Rob’s gamble had paid off: this really did look like the perfect place to establish a community where we could live our lives, as far from the threat of the infected as was possible.

 

Chapter Three

 

‘Mingulay calling Hope Town, come in Hope Town.’ Rob released the transmit button for a second before pressing it again. ‘Mingulay calling Hope Town. Come in, Hope Town.’

Again there was silence. I glanced at my watch; it wasn’t our usual check-in time, but there might be someone listening on Jack’s boat nonetheless. We were all back on the catamaran, having spent the afternoon exploring the island and double-checking that there really was no evidence of infected ever having reached it. Rob explained the local currents, and how they’d carry any drifters which came from the nearest inhabited islands away, rather than towards, us, making this very unlikely. Now we were anchored in still calm waters, it had only taken Rob a matter of minutes to climb up the mast and re-secure the radio’s antennae near the top. Once he’d finished, we went inside to see if this was all we needed to do to re-establish contact with those who’d remained behind in Hope Town.

The radio hissed for a moment and then Jack’s soft southern American accent emerged from it. ‘Mingulay, this is Hope Town. You can’t believe how good it is to hear your voice again, Rob. I was beginning to think we’d lost you. Are you all okay? Is everyone safe?’

‘We’re all fine, Jack. It wasn’t the easiest of crossings,’ Rob shook his head, remembering just how bad the voyage had been, ‘but the important thing is that we got here in the end.’

‘That’s great to hear, Rob. You had us all worried for a while there when we lost touch.’ Jack sounded relieved, and it was clear that our apparent disappearance had …

***

Part one of this free preview can be found here, while part two can be found here. If you wish to download a PDF of all three parts to this free preview, you can download it from here.

If you have enjoyed this preview, you can purchase a complete copy of The Island At The End Of The World from  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0170JS9WE.

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‘The Island At The End Of The World’ by Colin M. Drysdale: Free Preview – Chapter One

24 Oct

Ahead of us, silhouetted against the rising sun, was the first land we’d seen in almost two months. It was little more than an isolated rock rising above the ocean, but it was land nonetheless. More importantly, it was the first landmark we’d seen since the night we’d lost the GPS satellites, and with them, our ability to know exactly where we were. We’d all taken our turn trying to use the sextant and make the required calculations, but while Rob was  the best at it the resulting positions were still too erratic for us to have any idea of where we really were. This meant that since the satellites went down, we’d been navigating by dead-reckoning and little else. Rob had told us to try to steer due east at all times, meaning that, based on our last accurate position, we should reach land somewhere around northern France. Yet, the ocean currents we were sailing with were strong, and they’d been pushing our catamaran northwards with every passing mile. How far off course they’d pushed us, we didn’t know, and this meant the land we’d now spotted could be anywhere between Cornwall and the Faroe Islands.

‘Hey, CJ, is that a lighthouse?’ Jeff was shielding his eyes from the early morning sun and squinting towards the horizon.

I screwed up my eyes, trying to get a better look at the island, and the object that I could just make out perched on its summit. ‘I think it is.’

Jimmy picked up the binoculars and started to raise them up to get a closer look when Mike batted his arms down.

‘What d’you do that for?’ Jimmy sounded hurt. Mike rarely treated him as roughly as that.

‘Jimmy, you’d be looking straight at the sunrise.’ Mike sounded exasperated. ‘You’d burn your eyes out.’

‘Oh,’ Jimmy replied sheepishly, ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’ Then, after a brief pause, ‘Thanks.’

Mike ruffled his younger brother’s hair. ‘Not to worry, that’s what I’m here for.’

I watched the scene play out in front of me: it seemed so normal, and yet the world we now found ourselves in was anything but. At nineteen, I was only a few years older than Mike, but while Mike played the role of older brother, more often than not, as the only woman on board, I ended up playing the role of mother to all three boys. I didn’t mind it most of the time, but every now and then, it would cause friction between us, and I sometimes wished that Rob, as the only other adult on board, would act more like a parent and not just as the captain of our little crew.

Rob and I had been sailing across the Atlantic when everything changed, and when we had finally reached the other side, we’d found the world we’d known before was gone, all because of a disease. It sounded so unlikely, but this was no normal disease. Humans had lived alongside the rabies virus for as long as they’d been on the planet: an uneasy truce meaning that while the disease killed people, it did so slowly and they rarely passed it onto others before they died. Then someone decided that humans should strike back. They created a vaccine in an attempt to wipe out the virus, but that wasn’t what had happened. Instead, the vaccine caused it to mutate. Suddenly, it became more virulent, but less deadly. People were now overwhelmed in hours or minutes, rather than weeks or months, and it no longer killed them; it just took over their brains, turning them into violent killing machines that attacked anyone close to them, thus passing on the disease. Spurred on by its increased contagion, the mutated strain of rabies spread like wild fire, bringing down country after country, taking over the land mile by mile, until all that was left of humanity were a few scattered groups, clinging on in remote outposts, where they could somehow avoid the disease, and the infected it created.

There had been four of us on the boat originally: Bill, Rob, Jon and me. Bill had been our captain and Rob his second-in-command, while Jon, just a few years older than me, came next in the onboard pecking order, and I, as youngest and least experienced, came last. I was born Camilla Jamieson, but everyone’s called me CJ since before I can remember. Everyone, except my mother when I was in trouble and Jon, who, when we’d first met, insisted on calling me ‘Cammie’, just because he knew  how much it annoyed me. Rob and I were both British, while Jon and Bill were American, and together, the four of us had made up a barely functional crew. At least, that was how it was in the beginning. Then we’d discovered that in our absence, the world had changed beyond all recognition, and we’d realised we’d need to learn to work together if we were to have any hope of surviving.

Our numbers grew to six when we rescued Mike and his younger brother, Jimmy, just off the coast of what was left of Miami. By then, they’d survived a week on their own, and I doubted they’d have been able to keep going much longer if we hadn’t found them when we did. We dropped to five when we lost Bill, but then we’d found the Hope Town community, nestled in a sheltered anchorage in the northern Bahamas. Jeff came on board after his family were killed, making us six again. Then we lost Jon and were back down to five. I still thought about Jon a lot, cried over his loss and why it had happened. I hadn’t known him long, and at first, I’d despised him, but as the situation had worsened, he stopped acting like a spoiled brat and started acting like the grown man he was. That was the Jon I’d fallen in love with, and that was the Jon I’d lost. I wasn’t alone in having lost someone: everyone who’d survived as long as we had had lost people they loved, but knowing this didn’t make my pain any less.

Hope Town had been an oasis in a world fallen apart; a little piece of normality that we hoped would allow us not just to survive, but to live, despite all that had happened … only it didn’t last. The second hurricane had been unexpected and brutal, and only six of the twenty-seven boats in the community made it through intact. The storm had shown us that Hope Town wasn’t a place where we could survive forever, and it was Rob who’d come up with an alternative plan. There was a remote, uninhabited island he’d once visited, which he thought would allow us to regain a toe-hold on the land and give us a better chance of rebuilding our lives, far from the threat of the disease. The only problem was that it meant we’d have to cross the Atlantic to get to it, and the others in the community were unwilling to take the gamble of leaving Hope Town and crossing an ocean, without knowing exactly what they were heading for. After all, it seemed like the virus was everywhere, and how was anyone to know whether Rob’s remembrance of an island was any safer than where they were now?

To solve this problem, Rob had offered to sail ahead, so that he could report back on the situation using our shortwave radio. Then the others would have all the information they’d need to decide if they wanted to follow, or not. By then, Hope Town was just a reminder of what had happened to Jon, and I was more than willing to go with Rob. Jeff was keen to go with us too, for similar reasons, plus we’d become like a family by then and we didn’t want to be split up. Mike and Jimmy felt the same, so the five of us had set off, the three boys seeing it as an opportunity for adventure after having been cooped up in the anchorage in Hope Town for so long.

The first part of the voyage went like clockwork, and we’d reached the halfway mark within a couple of weeks. Then, as suddenly as if someone had flipped a switch, it all started to go wrong. First, we lost the GPS satellites, meaning we no longer knew exactly where we were. Then the storms started: one after another, they rolled over us in what seemed like an endless procession, slowing our progress to a snail’s pace, sapping our morale, and even threatening to sink us at times. With the storms, we lost the opportunity to fish for fresh food and, instead, we had to survive on the rapidly dwindling supplies we’d brought with us from Hope Town. For Mike and Jimmy, this didn’t matter too much because the seasickness that came with the storms meant they could barely keep anything down for more than a few minutes after having eaten. From then on, for the most part, they remained in their bunks or hunkered down in a corner of the cockpit, staring off into the distance, looking grey and gaunt.

The storms meant Rob and I needed all the help we could get to keep the boat moving forward, but the seasickness meant the two brothers were in no condition to help, and at thirteen, Jeff wasn’t able to take on much in the heavy weather. This left just the two of us, and I was hardly experienced enough to remain alone on deck in such strong winds. The result was that Rob had barely slept for more than a few minutes at a time for I don’t know how many days. I could tell this was wearing him down, taking a heavy toll on him both physically and mentally. Rob wasn’t a natural leader and he’d only took on the role when we’d lost Bill. While he’d grown somewhat used to being in charge on board when we were still in Hope Town, he’d always had Jack and Andrew to talk things over with and to share responsibilities. Out on the ocean crossing, we were on our own again, and I could see his old insecurities pushing their way back to the surface, especially after the radio antenna had been damaged and we’d lost contact with those who remained in Hope Town.

At first, Rob talked to me about how he was feeling and the pressure he felt he was under. He was regretting bringing the boys, and now thought he should’ve left them behind, taking others with more sailing experience instead. He worried about whether we’d be able to find our way to our destination without the help of the GPS satellites to tell us which way to go. He was concerned that the whole trip might fail; that Mingulay wouldn’t prove to be the answer to our problems that he hoped it would be … and what that might mean for those we’d left behind.

As the storms continued, day after day, week after week, I noticed Rob was starting to talk less and less, both to me and to the others, and when he did speak, it was only to bark orders. Before my eyes, he was sinking into himself, just as he had after Bill’s death, and this worried me deeply. I needed Rob to keep it together because, without him, there was little chance the rest of us would survive. Yet, I couldn’t tell him this because it would just add to the pressure he was already piling on himself, and so make the situation even worse.

Eventually, the storms eased and Rob could finally get some rest, but no sooner had he gone below than the island appeared over the horizon to our south-west. By my reckoning, it would be several hours before we got anywhere near it, and this left me torn between letting Rob catch up on some much-needed sleep and calling him out on deck so he could see that we might finally be close to reaching our destination. After a couple of minutes deliberating, I came to a decision. ‘Jeff, take the wheel. I’m going inside.’

Jeff jumped to his feet and was over at the helm in an instant, eager as always to help. His had been a sailing family and he’d grown up around boats, so despite the fact that, at thirteen, he was the youngest of the three boys, he was generally the one Rob and I turned to first when we needed an extra set of hands. Jimmy was a few months older than Jeff, but he’d never been on a yacht of any kind before we’d rescued him and his brother as they fled from the disease. At sixteen, Mike was the oldest of the three boys, and he’d been gradually building his sailing skills, soaking up everything Rob taught him, but then came the storms and the seasickness, and he’d barely been able to stand much of the time, let alone assist us with running the boat. Looking at him now, I could see he’d lost a worrying amount of weight over the past few weeks and was little more than skin and bone. I made a mental note that we’d need to do something about that as soon as we were able, but before we could, we’d need to rebuild our stores because there was little food of any kind left on board.

As I approached the glass door of the cabin, I noticed my reflection and saw that Mike wasn’t the only one who’d lost weight. I’d never been particularly fat, but now my cheeks looked sunken and hollow. Some of the girls I’d gone to school with, back before everything changed, would’ve given anything to be this thin and would’ve said I looked amazing, but to me, after all that had happened, I just looked tired and ill. I took a step closer and examined my reflection in more detail. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d looked at myself so closely, and was shocked by the face that stared back. Before all this, I’d been the type of person who’d always had perfect hair and make-up, and a tan to die for. Now, my hair hung dull and lifeless, caked in salt and tied back in a functional ponytail to keep it out of the way. My face was weather-beaten and my skin was flaking away on my cheeks and nose. For the first time, I noticed wrinkles around the corners of my tired-looking eyes and dark bags beneath them, while my lips were blistered and peeling. It was mid-way between my nineteenth and twentieth birthdays, but I looked so much older and more haggard. I shrugged to myself: there was nothing I could do about it and given all the other problems we now faced, my appearance barely registered as something to worry about. Maybe if Jon had still been here, I’d have cared more, but with him gone, there seemed little point.

I slid the door open and stepped inside, seeing Rob curled up on one of the seats, using his waterproof jacket as a makeshift blanket. I left him sleeping for the time being and walked as quietly as possible across to the chart table, to see if I could work out the name of the island we were now approaching, and therefore, where we were. We had a chart laid out on which we’d marked any positions we’d calculated using the sextant, but rather than forming a neat line indicating our route, they were scattered all across the ocean, some of them hundreds of miles apart, even though they were meant to mark positions on successive days. I looked at the one I’d calculated the day before, and tried to work out which island was closest, but the map was not detailed enough, showing as it did, the whole of the North Atlantic.

‘What’re you doing in here? Who’s looking after the boat? What’s happened?’ I turned to see Rob struggling to his feet. I wasn’t the only one who was looking worse for wear. Rob had the same dark bags under his eyes that I did, and both his hair and beard were unkempt and uncared for. There were flecks of grey in them which I was sure hadn’t been there before and, like me, he was starting to resemble someone much older than his actual age of forty.

I did my best to calm him down. ‘Don’t worry. Nothing’s happened. Jeff’s got the wheel and it’s calm enough now for him to be able to handle it.’

Rob yawned and stretched. ‘So how come you’re in here?’ He was clearly on edge, fretting about what might be going on outside. He’d been like this for weeks and I was worried that if the pressure he was putting on himself didn’t let up soon, it might send him over the edge.

I felt my lips crack as I tried to give him a reassuring smile. ‘I was just coming to wake you, actually.’

Rob frowned. ‘So something has happened?’

I shook my head. ‘No. It’s just that there’s an island out there. I think we might’ve made it.’

‘An island?’ Rob turned, weaving his head back and forth as he tried to see it out of the windows at the front of the cabin. ‘What island?’

‘I was just trying to work that out. It’s got a lighthouse …’ I ran my eyes over the chart, trying to see if there were any lighthouses marked on it, but there were none.

Rob scooped up his jacket. ‘What does it look like?’

The question confused me. ‘The island?’

‘No,’ Rob moved towards the cabin door, ‘the lighthouse.’

I replayed the image of the tall, narrow building in my mind. ‘Like the one in Hope Town, but all white.’

Rob nodded. ‘That sounds promising!’

Before I could ask why, Rob had pulled on his raincoat and stepped out into the cockpit. I took one last look at the chart, then followed after him. Outside, Rob was already on the foredeck, binoculars raised, taking care not to look too close to the rising sun as he stared at the slowly approaching island. I went forward and stood beside him. He must have felt my presence because he lowered the binoculars and smiled for the first time in weeks. ‘I think it’s Flannan … or North Rona. Either way, it’s Scotland somewhere.’

I scrunched up my eyes, trying to get a better look at the distant island, but it didn’t work. ‘How can you tell?’

He held the binoculars out to me. ‘Because of the shape of the lighthouse and how it’s built.’

I took the binoculars and examined the tower, but I couldn’t see anything distinctive. ‘It doesn’t look that much different from the ones in the Bahamas.’

Rob grinned. ‘Exactly! It means they’re British. The lighthouses in the Bahamas were designed by the same people who built the ones in Britain: they all have the same basic layout. And if they’re British, then there are really only two that are this far out.’ He took the binoculars back and lifted them again, this time scanning the horizon to the left and right of the island. ‘I can’t see any other islands, so I’m guessing it’s North Rona. Even if I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter, it still means we’ve made it.’ He turned and strode back towards the cockpit, calling back to me as he did. ‘Come on. Let’s see if we can find something we can have as a celebration.’

I watched him walk away, noticing a spring in his step that I hadn’t seen in a very long time. I smiled to myself, knowing that with Rob’s spirits back up, we were in a much better position than we had been when he was weighed down by the responsibilities of leadership.

***

Part one of this free preview can be found here, while part three will be posted tomorrow (25th October 2015). If you wish to download a PDF of all three parts to this free preview, you can download it from here.

If you have enjoyed this preview, you can purchase a complete copy of The Island At The End Of The World from  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0170JS9WE.

‘The Island At The End Of The World’ by Colin M. Drysdale: Free Preview – Prologue

23 Oct

‘Hey, Jack, what’s that?’ Andrew pointed over the older man’s shoulder. The two of them had been sitting in the cockpit of Jack’s large sport-fishing boat since before the sun went down, drinking rum and coconut water. It was the first drink either of them had had in many months, but for the first time in what seemed like a very long time, it felt like they had something to celebrate. Around them, four sailboats that, like Jack’s boat, had clearly seen better days, rode at anchor, while further off, the shorelines of low-lying islands were just visible in the darkness.

A chart lay on the table in front of the two men, a series of small crosses marked on it, each with a date pencilled alongside in Jack’s neat, but spidery handwriting. Rob and his crew had been gone for almost two weeks, and today, they’d reached the point of no return; they were now closer to their journey’s end than to its beginning. If everything carried on as well as it had until that point, they’d reach their destination in another couple of weeks, and that would be when they’d finally find out if it had all been worth it; they’d find out if Mingulay was still the paradise that Rob remembered, or whether it was as infested with infected as the islands which lay all around the shallow channel, in a remote corner of the northern Bahamas, where Jack’s boat was currently anchored.

Jack turned to look where Andrew was pointing and saw a bright light burning high in the sky. It was moving fast towards the western horizon, but before it got there, it seemed to hit something they couldn’t see and explode. Glowing fragments radiated out in all directions, colliding  with other invisible objects and causing further explosions. Soon, it seemed like half the sky was filled with glowing, burning balls of fire that spun through the heavens. They were bright enough to mask the stars, and the night was now so filled with light that Jack could clearly see the people on the decks of the nearby boats as they gazed upwards in awe and fear. These five boats — six if you counted the one that had departed two weeks before — with a total of twenty-seven people on board, were all that was left of the once much larger Hope Town community.

‘I don’t know, Andrew.’ Jack placed his glass carefully on the table in front of him. He’d heard people talk about this type of thing back before the world changed. Then, it had been little more than idle speculation, but now it seemed like it was becoming reality. The Earth’s orbit was crammed with defunct satellites, old booster rockets and other pieces of abandoned junk, left there by what had, until not so long ago, been a thriving space industry. This meant there was always a risk that one of the active satellites would be hit by a piece of trash zooming around, high above the Earth, at unimaginable speeds. If this happened, the satellite could be thrown out of its assigned position and into the path of another one, damaging both of them. Once started, this could happen again and again, destroying satellite after satellite, until there was nothing left: it was an unstoppable chain reaction, called by those in the know ‘the Kessler syndrome’.

In the past, space agencies had to constantly manoeuvre their space craft to prevent this from happening. Now, with no one left to monitor the risks and order the appropriate actions to be taken, it seemed like it had finally come to pass. It was a measure of just how badly humans had screwed up their planet that in a little over half a century since they’d first ventured into the space which surrounded it, they’d made even that uninhabitable.

Jack frowned. ‘Andrew, turn on the GPS.’

Andrew eyed Jack curiously. ‘Why? We already know where we are.’

‘I just want to check something,’ Jack answered in his soft, southern American accent.

For a moment, Andrew hesitated, but the note of concern in Jack’s voice made him obey without further questioning. Leaning backwards, Andrew pressed the power button on the GPS set into the bulkhead behind where he was sitting. He watched as the screen lit up and it started to search for the signals it used to work out where they were. Soon it had picked up the required four satellites and had provided a position.

Jack nodded towards the machine. ‘Go to the receiver page.’

Andrew pressed the appropriate buttons and the screen changed. Now, it showed a plot of all the satellites the GPS was picking up signals from, and their positions relative to the boat.

‘Shouldn’t there be more than that?’ Andrew was staring intently at the screen when one of the dots on it vanished. ‘Hey, where did that one go?’

Jack walked over and stood behind Andrew. Just as he got there, another satellite blinked out, then another.

Jack’s forehead furrowed. ‘This isn’t good.’

Andrew glanced at him. ‘What d’you mean? What’s happening?’

For a man in his sixties, Jack still had a surprisingly large amount of hair, but like his beard, it was as white as snow. As the wind ruffled through it, he reached up and did his best to flatten it down again. ‘It’s the satellites, Andrew. Something must have gone wrong with one of them. They’re crashing into each other. If this goes on much longer there won’t be any left.’

They both stared at the screen, watching the signals vanish one by one. Soon, a message flashed up, telling them that there were no longer enough for the GPS to calculate a position. A few minutes after that and the last satellite disappeared.

‘Christ!’ Andrew’s attention was drawn back to the chart and the line of crosses that snaked out into the middle of the Atlantic. ‘How’s Rob going to know where they are? How’re they going to get there safely?’

Jack gazed up at the still-burning objects racing through the sky far above them. ‘They’ve got a sextant. Jon told me once.’

Andrew was much younger than Jack, and unlike the older man, he was local, having lived almost his entire life on the nearby islands. Or at least that was where he’d lived until the infected came and drove him, and the other survivors, from them. He shifted nervously on his seat. ‘Do any of them know how to use it?’

‘I don’t know.’ Jack hesitated momentarily and then carried on more quietly. ‘I hope so.’

Suddenly, the peacefulness of the night was shattered by a single roar, followed by another, then another. Jack’s eyes shifted from the sky to the nearest island. There, he saw infected emerging from the remnants of buildings and out of the bushes. They were staring up into the night sky, reaching out towards the brightness. They didn’t know what it was, but they assumed it meant their favourite prey was near, and for them, that was humans. They milled around, howling and moaning in frustration, unable to find anything worth attacking.

Jack took his binoculars and examined them. It was the first time he’d seen infected in such numbers since the night the hurricane had ripped their community apart, killing many who’d survived the infected’s initial onslaught. Most of them were thinner and more emaciated than ever, yet still the urge to attack, to rip, to kill, burned deep within their hearts. Here and there, amongst these skeletal figures, Jack spotted ones that were different: some had bellies bulging from their otherwise withered frames, while others seemed to have suffered little or no hunger at all. These infected had clearly been eating recently and regularly, and Jack wondered how they were sustaining themselves. Surely there could be little left for them to feed on? All the stray dogs, the feral cats and the rats must have been consumed by now. And yet, while most looked close to death, some of the infected were clearly not just surviving, they were thriving. There must be some resource they were consuming that others were not. Did this mean the infected were doing something different now? Or had these individuals always been there, and were only now visible as the others thinned? Jack wondered what this might mean for their ability to survive. They’d always assumed the infected would eventually starve to death, but did this mean that maybe they wouldn’t? Or at least, that some of them wouldn’t? Maybe they’d always be there, lurking in the shadows, waiting to attack the moment they tried to return to the land.

Jack lowered his binoculars and picked up his drink again before draining it. As he did so, a creeping sense of despair started to work its way into his mind. Every time the situation worsened, they’d adapted to it, but just as it seemed like they were about to get back on top, something else happened and it would worsen some more. The hurricane had shown them they couldn’t hope to survive in the Abacos in the long term, not with the infected on the nearby islands, the drifters in the surrounding sea, and the ever-present risk of more storms. Yet, Rob had come up with a plan that might just save them all, and he and his crew were now halfway across the Atlantic to check it out.

If it turned out to be a viable option, the other boats in the community would all need to be able to follow in Rob’s path, but with the loss of the GPS satellites, this would be much more difficult than they’d originally anticipated. Indeed, without a working GPS, Rob might not even make it to Mingulay in the first place. If that happened, the rest of them, those that made up what was left of the Hope Town community, would have no other option but to stay in the Abacos, and then their only chance would be if the infected died off sooner rather than later. And now it looked like some of the infected were able to survive, even though there were no humans, or seemingly any other animals, left on the land for them to feed on. If Rob’s plan failed, one way or another, Jack couldn’t help but think that it would signal the end. It might be long and drawn-out; it might take years; but still, looking back, they’d see that Rob’s failure to find a safe haven where they could rebuild their shattered community marked the point where the end had begun.

***

Part two of this free preview will be posted tomorrow (24th October 2015). If you wish to download a PDF of all three parts to this free preview, you can download it from here.

If you have enjoyed this preview, you can purchase a complete copy of The Island At The End Of The World from  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0170JS9WE.

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

20 Jul

The Outbreak Cover DesignWe made our way over to the stairs and crept slowly down to the entrance. I peered through the window in the door; there were bodies on the flag stones just outside, lying like rag dolls, limbs at odd angles, covered in blood. Many had chunks of flesh missing from their arms and faces, and one had a leg missing. My eyes searched around, stopping when I saw it lying several feet away. Despite the carnage, there was no movement.

As quietly as possible, I unlocked the door and inched it open. I adjusted my grip on the machete I was holding and nervously stuck my head outside. Everything was still. I crept forward to the edge of the stone steps where I could finally see not just down Buchanan Street, but also up the street to the right; it, too, was littered with bodies. Off in the distance, I could make out some movement, but nothing closer. I beckoned the others to follow and together we picked our way along Buchanan Street, alert to any signs of life.

As we passed the dead lying in the street, I couldn’t help but stare. Some bore deep wounds and had clearly been killed by those with the virus; others had bruises and broken limbs, and looked more like they’d been trampled to death in the stampede. We reached the steps at the entrance to a shopping mall and I glanced through the glass doors: bodies were piled at the base of the escalators, some having fallen from a great height. Above them, I could see others hanging over handrails, held there by the mass of people that had pushed up from behind in a desperate bid to escape. In amongst the bodies, there were movements from those trapped in the crush, or who’d been so badly injured they couldn’t get up again. Then I saw him: a man dressed in loose-fitting chinos and an open-necked Oxford shirt, both of which were soaked in blood, chewing on the face of a teenage girl. From the way she was lying, I could tell both her legs were broken, but the fall hadn’t killed her; she was trying to fend him off, but she was no match for him and he buried his teeth into her flesh again and again. Knowing there was nothing I could do to help and unable to watch any longer, I turned away, feeling the bile rise in my throat as I did so.

Then I felt the ground tremble beneath my feet. It was something I’d felt hundreds of times before and I knew exactly what it was. I looked at Tom. ‘You feel that?’

‘Yeah.’

‘You think the underground’s still going?’

‘Must be.’

The tremors stopped as the subway train pulled into the station which lay directly below us. Then I heard a sound, so faint at first I wasn’t sure it was real, but as it grew louder and louder, I became certain it was. It seemed to be coming from the glass-covered entrance to the station thirty yards further down the street, and sounded like distant thunder.

Iliana gripped Tom’s arm. ‘What’s that?’

Not having an answer, Tom and I shrugged. Suddenly, I realised I could hear screaming and shouting mixed with the noise itself. Then the first person burst onto the street, running as fast as he could. He glanced back and stumbled over a body lying in front of him. He scrambled to his feet, without even bothering to look at what he’d tripped over, and started running again. Another person appeared, but this one looked different: he was dishevelled, with blood dripping from a wound on his left cheek. He chased after the first man and was quickly followed by another and then another. Soon, people were streaming from the entrance, and it was clear they were infected. As one, we turned and raced up the street and back to the stone steps. At the top, I stopped and looked back: the man was still running, but the infected were closing in behind him.

‘Oi, up here,’ I waved as I shouted. He saw me and changed direction. Iliana was already inside and Tom was holding the door open as he yelled at me. ‘Ben, you’ve got to get back in here now.’

‘We can’t leave him out here; they’ll kill him!’ Turning back to the man, I saw he was at the bottom of the steps, with the first of the infected only a few yards behind. I sprinted over to Tom, and got there in time to see the man reach the top just as the heads of the pursuing infected came into view. He made it to the door with only moments to spare and we slammed it shut, but before we could get the lock turned, the infected hit the door like a freight train. The force threw us backwards and clawing fingers appeared around the edges. Tom and I pushed as hard as we could against the door, but it wouldn’t move: the fingers of the infected were stopping it from closing.

Shaking with fear, I turned to Tom, ‘What the hell d’we do now?’

He looked at me, terrified. ‘Use the machetes?’

I felt the weight of the long metal weapon in my hand, and I gripped it tightly, wondering how things could have changed so fast. I swung the blade and sliced off half a dozen fingers; blood spurted across the walls and the floor. I swung it again and again until the door was clear and we could finally get it closed and locked.

Tom and I sank to the floor, both of us breathing heavily. Iliana had her phone out again and was desperately tapping away, while the man was sitting on the bottom of the stairs with his eyes fixed firmly on the door behind me. I felt it move, but the lock seemed to be holding. I surveyed the severed fingers that lay strewn across the floor. Suddenly, I felt sick.

‘How’d you end up with that lot chasing you?’ Tom’s voice trembled with fear. I looked at the man properly for the first time: his face was ashen and he couldn’t have been more than eighteen at the most. He turned to Tom. ‘What?’

Rather than push him to relive what he’d just been through, I held out my hand. ‘I’m Ben. This is Tom, and that’s Iliana.’

The teenager stared blankly at me for a second before taking it. ‘I’m Daz. Well, Darren really, but everyone calls me Daz.’ He paused for a moment. ‘You guys got any idea what’s happenin’ out there?’

‘Did you see what went down in Miami last night?’ Tom got to his feet and glanced through the window in the door. The infected could sense we were inside and were still clawing at it, blood from the stumps of their fingers smearing the glass: even their injuries didn’t slow them down.

Daz’s eyes drifted towards the floor. ‘Yeah.’

Tom avoided making eye contact, too. ‘We think the virus which caused that is here.’

‘Fuck!’ A puzzled expression appeared on Daz’s face. ‘I thought they’d closed the borders or somethin’, so that couldn’t happen.’

‘I guess they were too late.’ I thought about this. It was odd. Of all the places for the virus to suddenly appear, the centre of Glasgow seemed one of the most unlikely. I could see it happening at Heathrow, or Gatwick, or even somewhere like Manchester Airport: they all had plenty of connections to the US, but as far as I knew Glasgow only had two direct flights: one to Newark, and the other to Miami. That’s when it struck me: the morning flight from Miami would have arrived just before the borders had been closed; someone on that flight must have been infected and they must have made it as far as the city centre before they turned.

‘So how’d you end up being chased by our friends out there?’ Tom nodded his head towards the door as he looked at Daz.

‘I stayed over at a pal’s last night in the West End an’ was just headin’ into town for a bit before goin’ home. I got on at Hillhead an’ sat down in the first carriage. I was just textin’ this girl I met the other night, tryin’ to get her to go out for a few drinks later when we pulled into the next station. There was this young boy lying on the platform with people crowdin’ round him. Before I could see what was goin’ on, the train had moved past. Looking through the doors which connect all the carriages, I could see a fight breakin’ out at the far end. I thought it was just a bunch of Neds messing’ around, an’ I went back to my phone. At the next station, I looked up again and saw the fightin’ had spread to the next carriage. I could see people strugglin’ with each other an’ that.’

Daz took a deep breath and looked quickly at each of us in turn, as if he was checking we were ready to hear what he had to say next.

‘We moved off again, but I kept watchin’. Just as we arrived in Cowcaddens, a man burst into my carriage and tried to force the door shut behind him. He was covered in blood an’ was shoutin’ somethin’ I couldn’t quite make out. Everyone turned an’ stared at him, an’ the train lurched forward; he lost his footin’ an’ fell onto the floor. The door burst open again an’ these people just started pourin’ through. Except they weren’t actin’ like people, they were actin’ like animals, attackin’ anyone they could get their hands on. They were covered in blood an’ one of them was rippin’ into some poor woman’s face.’

He shook his head, as if trying to rid himself of this image. It was a few seconds before he carried on. ‘As everyone started to crowd towards my end of the carriage to get away from these people, I was squashed up against the door. Just before the first of them got to me, I felt the train slow an’ I realised we’d pulled into Buchanan Street. The doors opened an’ I was pushed onto the platform by the people behind me. The same thing was happenin’ at the other doors an’ soon there were all these people on the platform. I scrambled to my feet an’ started runnin’ up the steps. I heard this sound behind me, an’ I looked back an’ saw all these people chasing me, their faces screwed up with anger an’ blood on them, on their hands an’ all over their clothes.’

There was a loud bang as one of the infected threw itself at the door with enough force to cause it to shudder alarmingly. Daz jumped as a look of panic flashed across his face, but when he realised we were still safe, he steadied himself, closing his eyes for a moment before speaking again. ‘When I got to the top of the stairs, I ran into the first turnstile, but it didn’t move so I jumped over it. Then I heard a crash and l glanced over my shoulder. It seemed that the turnstiles weren’t working for them either an’ instead of leapin’ over them, they were just pilin’ up against them; the ones in front being crushed by those comin’ up after. I slowed down, thinkin’ I might’ve gotten lucky, but one of them made it through by climbin’ over the bodies of the others ahead of it. Then another made it, an’ another.

‘I sped up again an’ headed for the escalators, takin’ them two at a time. I could hear the people comin’ up behind me, an’ the noises they were makin’ were echoing off the walls around me. It was pure terrifyin’.’ His voice faded out and he took a deep breath before carrying on.

‘Anyway, I think you pretty much know the rest from there.’ Daz was staring down at his shoes. He slammed his fist into his thigh. ‘Fuck! I can’t believe this is happenin’ here.’ He looked up. ‘What the hell’re we goin’ to do?’

I could hear the infected still hammering at the door behind me. ‘Well, we can’t go back out there.’

Tom stared at me. ‘Are you saying we’re trapped in here?’

Iliana looked up from her phone. ‘We could try the other door. It leads onto the street by the bus station. We might be able to get out that way.’

‘Sounds like a plan to me,’ Tom grabbed his machete. Which way?’

‘Up here!’ Iliana shoved her phone into her pocket and raced up the stairs. We followed as she led us through a maze of empty corridors. I wondered where everyone was, but then I realised it was still too early for the concert hall to be open, or even for many of the people who worked there to have arrived. Eventually, we reached a solid-looking door and Iliana stopped. She put her hand on the handle, then hesitated before withdrawing it again. ‘What happens if they’re out here, too?’

Up to this point, none of us had considered this possibility. I pressed my ear to the door, but heard nothing. I eased it open as quietly as I could and peered through the gap. The street looked deserted and there were no bodies in sight. It looked like the horde of infected hadn’t passed this way. I glanced back at the others. ‘I think we’re in luck.’

‘What’re we going to do once we get out there?’ Iliana sounded scared.

‘We need to get out of the city as soon as we can. We need to find a car or something … anything,’ I hesitated for a moment, ‘Ehm, any of you happen to know …?’

‘Know what?’ Daz looked at me enquiringly.

‘How to steal a car?’ I glanced round nervously as the others shook their heads.

‘What are the chances?’ Tom snorted. ‘Four Glaswegians and none of us knows how to nick a car!’

I stifled a snigger, knowing Tom was just trying to lighten the mood. ‘Not really the right time, Tom.’

I opened the door a second time, and risked poking my head out. I could see a portly middle-aged man in a business suit prowling round a car, slamming at the windows as he tried to get in. As quietly as possible, I pulled my head back in and turned to the others. ‘D’you want the good news or the bad news?’

Tom put his ear to the door, trying to work out what was going on outside. ‘What’s the good news?’

‘I think I’ve found us some transport.’

Tom pulled away from the door. ‘And the bad news?’
‘There’s an infected man between us and it.’

Daz glanced at me. ‘What d’you mean?’

‘There’s a woman out there sitting in a Range Rover, so she must have the keys. The trouble is there’s one of them trying to get to her. We’ll have to deal with him before we can get to the car.’

‘How’re we going to do that?’ Tom asked worriedly.

I looked down at the machete I was still clutching in my right hand; it was already covered in blood from where I’d severed the fingers of the infected as they’d tried to get inside. The very thought of what I was about to suggest made me feel like I was going to throw up. I swallowed hard. ‘I guess we could use these.’

‘And do what exactly?’ Tom was staring at me.

‘Take it out, you mean?’ Daz was staring at me, too.

Iliana gulped, disbelievingly. ‘You’re going to kill someone?’

‘Yes.’ I closed my eyes, wondering if I could bring myself to do it. ‘I don’t think we have any other choice.’

Tom shuffled his feet nervously. ‘Have you ever done anything like that before?’

‘No.’ I stared at the ground. ‘Have you?’

Tom shook his head.

As we looked at each other shiftily, I heard the sound of breaking glass outside followed by a roar. I opened the door and stuck my head outside; the fat man had broken through the front passenger window of the Range Rover and was trying desperately to reach the woman in the driver’s seat. He was, however, sufficiently rotund that he couldn’t fit through the window and she remained beyond his grasping hands. As I watched, she swivelled round in her seat and started kicking him as hard as she could. Soon there was nothing left of his face but a mass of blood and broken bones. Finally, he stopped moving and lay still, half in and half out of the car.

I turned back to the others. ‘Looks like we won’t have to deal with him after all.’

They looked at me questioningly, but before they could ask, I turned and ran out of the door; seconds later, I heard them follow. I was halfway to the Range Rover when I noticed a distant sound; I glanced round to see a crowd running towards us. By the way they were moving, I had no doubt they were infected. When we reached the Range Rover, Tom and I tried to pull the lifeless body from the window, but the man’s bulk meant he was tightly wedged. Up the road, the infected were rapidly closing on us. I called out to the others, ‘Daz, Iliana give us a hand!’

While Iliana grabbed one of the man’s legs, Daz remained staring at the approaching crowd. ‘What?’

‘Daz, we need to get this body shifted.’

Daz turned and gripped the man’s jacket. With all four of us pulling and the woman pushing from inside the car, we finally got him free. The infected were now only fifty yards away.

The woman pointed out of the broken window. ‘The keys! I need the keys. I dropped them in all the confusion.’

I scooped them up and tossed them to her. She caught the keys with her outstretched hand and hastily shoved one of them into the ignition. She turned it, but the engine didn’t catch. She looked up. ‘Are you getting in or what? We need to be ready to go the moment I get the engine going. It’s always a bit temperamental, especially when it’s cold.’

We didn’t need to be asked a second time. Tom pulled open the front passenger door and jumped in while Daz, Iliana and I piled into the back. It was only once we were inside that I realised the woman wasn’t alone: a young boy was clinging to her side and she had one arm wrapped protectively around him; huddled in the back behind the driver’s seat was a teenage girl, tears streaming down her face as she shook with fear. The woman turned the key again: still it didn’t catch. ‘Damn thing never starts when you really need it to.’

I stared wide-eyed through the windscreen: the nearest of the infected would be on us in seconds. The woman glanced up, but she didn’t panic; pumping the accelerator, she twisted the key for a third time and the engine spluttered into life. ‘Finally! Now let’s get the hell out of here.’

She slammed the Range Rover into gear and floored it. Without even blinking, the woman drove straight into the mass of infected charging towards us. Even with the SUV bearing down on them, they kept coming; not even trying to get out of the way. Blood sprayed across the windscreen as we hit the first one, and I felt the car judder as we drove over its body. There were so many of them ahead of us, I worried they might be able to bring us to a halt. If that happened, we’d be dead in seconds. Looking round, I saw we were just coming up to a crossroads. I leaned forward and pointed. ‘Turn right here.’

As the car skidded round the corner, narrowly missing another one coming in the opposite direction, Iliana was thrown against me, pushing me hard into the door. I reached around, searching for a seat belt, but with four of us crammed into the back seat, I couldn’t find one.

‘Where’re we heading?’ The woman yelled over her shoulder.

‘If we can get onto Great Western Road, we should have a pretty clear run out of the city. Turn left there,’ I pointed again, ‘and then keep left at the next junction.’

The woman braked hard and shifted the SUV down a gear as we overtook an empty bus on the inside, before throwing us round the next corner. She shifted back into a higher gear and accelerated again. As we left the city centre behind and crossed the bridge over the motorway, I glanced down, wondering if I’d made the right decision; the road below was packed with stationary cars, and infected were streaming between them. Some people got out and tried to run, but were dragged to the ground before they got more than a few feet; others stayed inside and locked the doors, but the infected simply smashed through the windows to get to them.

We reached the east end of Great Western Road and I saw the route ahead was blocked with traffic. ‘Shit! How’re we going to get passed that?’

I felt a jolt as we mounted the kerb and I was thrown upwards, my head slamming into the roof. There was just enough room for us to squeeze between the shop fronts and sandstone tenements on one side, and cars parked along the side of the road on the other. As we sped along the pavement, forcing panicked pedestrians to dive out of the way, I looked into the cars that were jamming the road; the people inside seemed to have no idea of what was happening in other parts of the city. We passed a junction where one car had rear-ended another; the passengers standing round as the drivers exchanged their insurance details. Given the circumstances, this seemed rather pointless, but they had yet to find out why.

Ahead of the accident, the road was clear and the woman steered back onto the tarmac and slowed down. She turned to Tom, ‘I’m Claire, by the way; this is Jake.’ She smoothed the hair of the small boy clinging to her side. ‘And that’s Sophie.’ She nodded to the teenage girl in the back seat: she was no longer crying; instead she just looked terrified, not only by what was going on outside, but by having these strange people, who’d appeared out of nowhere, waving machetes and wearing bloodstained clothes, in the car with her.

Tom leaned across from the front passenger seat and shook Claire’s hand. ‘I’m Tom.’ He twisted in his seat. ‘That’s Ben, Iliana and Daz.’

I waved when I heard my name. Tom carried on. ‘How did you end up with the big guy attacking you?’

‘We were just picking up some tickets for a concert we’re going to next weekend, and it took longer than expected, and then Jake needed to go to the toilet. When we finally came out, it seemed like everyone, all the people and the traffic, had just vanished. We were about halfway back to the car when the “big guy”,’ she looked at Tom, ‘as you so eloquently called him, appeared. I could see almost immediately that there was something wrong with him; I think it was his eyes. Anyway, he started running towards us and I knew we had to get to the car as quickly as possible. I fished out my keys and pressed the button to unlock the doors, but Jake slipped and I dropped the keys as I picked him up, so we got into the car in time, and got the doors locked, but I couldn’t drive away. God knows what would have happened if you lot hadn’t come along when you did.’

I caught Claire’s eye in the mirror. ‘From what I saw, you were doing pretty well on your own.’
 
We drove by grand sandstone buildings and the glass palace of the Botanic Gardens and then, as we passed over the brow of a small rise, for the first time I could see the hills that lay beyond the city. They looked so close and my spirits soared: surely we were going to make it out. We dropped into a dip and then up over another rise.

‘Shit!’ Claire jammed on the brakes and we skidded to a halt. The road ahead was filled with queuing traffic. ‘What’s this all about?’

I leaned forward, trying to get a better look. ‘Must be the lights at the next junction.’

After a minute of just sitting there with nothing happening, Tom noticed something odd. ‘How come there’s nothing coming the other way?’

Now he mentioned it, I realised I hadn’t seen a single car pass in the opposite direction for a while.
‘This can’t be good.’ I opened the rear passenger door and stood on the SUV’s sill. I was high enough up that I could see down to where several police cars, their blue lights flashing, were parked across the road, just on the far side of the junction. Beyond that, the road was clear as far as I could see.

I called down into the Range Rover. ‘It’s the police. It looks like they’re setting up a roadblock.’

I heard another door open and saw Claire appear on the other side. She stared down the road.

I watched her reactions: she didn’t seem surprised; instead, it was more as if she was trying to work out what to do next. I nodded towards the police cars. ‘What d’you think that’s all about?’

Claire glanced back at me. ‘I guess they’re trying to contain the outbreak before it spreads too far.’

‘But why are they setting it up around here? We haven’t seen any infected for a good couple of miles.’

Claire stared off down the road again. ‘I’m guessing they’re doing it here exactly because the infected haven’t reached this point yet. Anyway, whatever the reason, I don’t want to be stuck on this side of it.’

Ahead, at the crossroads, a police van pulled up and two uniformed men got out. I saw them pointing to the road which led off to the right and I realised it must still be open, at least for the moment.

‘We’ve got to go!’ I shouted to Claire. ‘Pull onto the other side of the road and turn right at the junction.’
We both dropped back into the SUV and slammed our doors. As Claire pulled out and accelerated down the opposite carriage way, I noticed Jake was now sitting on Tom’s knee. Tom had slipped his seat belt on and was holding Jake tightly to stop him being thrown around. We were at the crossroads in seconds and with the policemen waving at us to stop, Claire turned right and then stood on the brakes again: two police cars were already blocking the road ahead.

‘There!’ Iliana pointed over Claire’s shoulder to where a narrow lane led past a row of blonde sandstone town houses. Claire revved the engine and pulled the car to the left, throwing Iliana against me once again. We sped down the street, running parallel to the main road, separated from it by a grassy bank and a low stone wall. Soon, the lane ran out, but a wide pedestrian path led back down to the road. The Range Rover juddered as we leapt onto the kerb for the second time. After a few seconds, Claire jerked the wheel to the left and pulled us onto the road again, well beyond the roadblock.

‘Woohoo! That was way cool; like a video game or somethin’.’ Daz squirmed round so he could see out of the rear window. ‘No one’s chasin’ us. I think we got away with it.’

As we raced along the deserted road, I noticed the trees which now separated the two carriageways were just coming into blossom. I’d always loved driving along this road in spring when the cherry trees were in full bloom: on a sunny day, it could beat almost anywhere in the world, but today, all I could think about was getting out of town as quickly as possible. We passed under a railway bridge and immediately ran into another queue of traffic. Claire didn’t brake. Instead, she bounced over the kerb and we sped down the pavement once more. Suddenly, the unmistakeable silhouette of a tank emerged over the top of the cars ahead of us. As we got nearer, I could see machine guns mounted on armoured jeeps and heavily armoured soldiers manning a barricade spread across the road ahead.

‘No wonder they didn’t bother following us; it looks like they’re pretty serious about containing this thing.’ Claire adjusted her grip on the steering wheel. ‘Hold on.’

I grabbed onto the handle above the window and felt Iliana brace herself against me. Ahead of us, a metal barrier blocked our way; on the other side of it, a slip road curved off to the left, away from soldiers. If we could somehow get to that, we could at least keep moving. Suddenly, there was the sound of gunfire and the windscreen exploded. Ducking down, I looked through the shattered glass; at the right-hand end of the main barricade, three men in army uniforms, machine guns raised, were firing at us.

Despite the gunfire, Claire kept the accelerator pressed to the floor as I felt more bullets slam into the car.

‘Why the hell’re they shootin’ at us?’ Daz was crouched as low in the seat as he could get. Before I could answer, Iliana’s face exploded and Tom screamed. ‘Fuck, I’m hit!’

The teenage girl crammed in beside Daz screamed too.

‘Sophie, are you alright?’ For the first time Claire sounded panicked.

‘She’s fine.’ Daz called out. ‘She’s just scared.’ There was a moment’s pause as he swallowed. ‘I think Iliana’s dead, though.’

Claire looked across at Tom. ‘What about Jake?’

‘He’s fine,’ Tom winced with pain. ‘It’s just me that got hit.’

Claire turned her attention back to the road ahead just as the Range Rover crashed through the barrier. The car skidded and Claire had to fight hard to keep it under control. I felt the SUV slide across the tarmac and we side-swiped the barriers on the far side, causing Iliana’s body to rattle back and forth between Daz and me, sending blood flying in all directions. Claire wrestled with the steering wheel, managing to keep us moving in the right direction. She glanced at Tom’s shoulder. ‘Don’t worry, it looks like it’s only a flesh wound, but we’ll need to get some pressure on that pretty quickly so you don’t lose too much blood.’ She turned to me. ‘Are we out of their range yet?’

I nervously inched my head upwards until I could see out of the back window: the soldiers were no longer in sight. I breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Yeah.’

‘And they’re not following us?’

‘No.’ I wondered why this was. Maybe we were still inside the cordon they’d set up to stop people leaving the city. If that was the case, we’d need to find another way out.

‘Good.’ Claire stood on the brakes. Tom yelped as he was thrown against his seat belt and Iliana’s lifeless body slammed into the back of his seat. The car screeched to a halt and Claire jumped out. She pulled open the back door. ‘Sophie, you need to take Jake.’

The teenage girl got out and took the small boy from Tom, kissing his head and stroking his hair before climbing back into the car. I glanced at him. He seemed listless, almost as if he was unaware of all that was going on around him.

‘You,’ Claire pointed at me, ‘get that body out of there and then help me get him,’ she pointed at Tom, ‘into the back seat.’

I opened the passenger door, stepped out and reached back to the car. I grabbed Iliana and pulled, but she didn’t move. I changed my hold to get a better grip and tried again. This time I managed to drag her lifeless body out of the car and there was a sickening thump as it hit the ground. I glanced down and saw that Iliana’s blood, mixed with flecks of her brains, was now smeared across my jacket; I had to work hard to stop myself throwing up. Trying not to look at Iliana again, I helped Tom out of the front seat, while Claire disappeared round the back of the Range Rover. She reappeared a second later carrying a rectangular black bag.
‘Get him in here.’ She pointed to the back seat, and then she looked up at me. ‘D’you know how to drive?’

‘No, not really; not cars at any rate.’

Claire turned to Daz, ‘What about you?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Good. Get up front and let’s get going again.’

Daz slid behind the wheel as I clambered in the passenger side. I heard Daz fiddle with the seat, moving it back and forth until he was comfortable. All the time I was watching Claire: she’d torn Tom’s shirt open and was pressing a thick white pad she’d taken from her bag against a ragged wound in his right shoulder.

‘Why aren’t we moving?’ Claire glared at Daz as she worked on Tom.

‘Where’re we headin’?’ Daz looked from Claire to me and back again.

I thought for a second. ‘Try the tunnel. We might still be able to get out that way.’

The Range Rover leapt forward as Daz floored the accelerator. I turned my attention back to Tom and Claire. She seemed to know what I was thinking. ‘Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.’ She smiled at me. ‘I’m a doctor.’

‘Fuck! More polis.’ Daz was pointing ahead, where three police cars were parked — lights flashing but empty — across the road leading to the tunnel that I hoped would take us under the River Clyde and out to Glasgow’s Southside. At first, it seemed like our path was blocked, but then I saw they’d been positioned too far forward and there was a way for us to get past. ‘Daz, take that slip road to the left and then turn sharp right. We can get round them.’

‘Gotcha!’ Daz barely slowed as he followed my instructions and soon we were on the road that led down to the tunnel. With no other cars around, Daz was able to push the Range Rover to the max and we were doing about eighty when we shot into the darkness. As a kid I remembered playing a game where you had to try to hold your breath from one end of the tunnel to the other. Going at the legal maximum of thirty, I’d never managed it, but at the speed we were going now, it would have been easy.

Ahead, the tunnel descended and then turned slightly to the left. The sound of the engine roared against the concrete walls and was thrown back through the broken windscreen. Suddenly, I saw something ahead: blue lights from some unknown source flashing in the gloom. A second later, first one police motorcycle, then two more, shot round the bend and passed us in the opposite direction. I turned and watched them disappear up towards the entrance, wondering what they were doing coming through the wrong side.

‘What the hell’s that all about?’ Daz slammed on the brakes and we skidded to a halt: a sea of shadows danced on the tunnel wall, thrown there by some unseen light. Then they came into view: a mass of people charging towards us, their yells and screams echoing all around. There was no mistaking it: these were infected.
‘We need to get out of here!’ I shouted.

Daz looked across at me, scared and starting to panic, as he struggled to find reverse. ‘I’m trying!’

By the time he finally found it, the first of the infected were only a few feet from the car. He stood on the accelerator and the engine screamed as we shot backwards, doing a speed that the reverse gear was never designed to do. At first, it seemed like the infected were able to keep up, but slowly the gap between them and us widened. By the time we reached the entrance of the tunnel, we were well clear of them, but I could still hear the noise they made as they chased after us.

‘Where now?’ There was an urgency in Daz’s voice as the car continued to shoot backwards.

‘What about your boat? You said it’s at the exhibition centre, that’s not far from here, is it?’ Tom was leaning forward, his shoulder tightly bandaged.

‘Okay, that sounds like a plan.’ I glanced round. ‘Daz, aim for that slip road there.’

Daz stomped on the brakes and then put the Range Rover into first gear. He pulled sharply on the steering wheel as he accelerated, spinning it round. We bumped across the central divide and shot up a slip road which curved back on itself as it rose above the entrance to the tunnel; below, I saw the infected emerge and scatter. Soon, we were speeding along a broad dual carriageway, heading back towards the city centre. Our side of the road was empty, but the other was jammed with cars held up by yet another police roadblock. Some of the drivers had got out of their cars and were arguing with the policemen. They were so intent on shouting at each other that they didn’t notice the first of the infected sprinting towards them. In seconds, they’d been pulled to the ground, and as more infected streamed between the idling vehicles I turned back to face the front, knowing what was about happen and not wanting to see it.

Daz was squirming round, trying to figure out what was going on behind us. ‘How far’re we goin’?’

I leaned forward to get a better idea of where we were ‘There’s a pedestrian bridge over the road. We can use that to get across to where the boat is.’

Daz squinted through the windscreen. ‘Where?’

‘There! Right there!’ I pointed ahead to where a narrow metal bridge spanned both carriageways of the road we were on. The other side was still filled with cars, while ours remained clear.

Daz hit the brakes, bringing the Range Rover screeching to a halt. I looked back at Tom. ‘Are you okay to run?’

Tom stretched his shoulder tentatively. ‘Yeah, I should be.’

I turned my attention to Claire. ‘You good to go?’

She nodded. ‘Where’re we heading?’

‘Just over the bridge, and then it’s about fifty yards to the boat. You can’t miss it; it’s the only one there.’

‘Let’s go!’ Claire grabbed her black bag and leapt out of the car, quickly followed by the rest of us. Daz helped Sophie over the metal railings which ran along the side of the road, while Claire lifted Jake across. As we started to run up the sloping ramp of the bridge, I heard a shout and turned to see Claire begging Jake to run, trying to make him understand the urgency of the situation, but he just stood there, staring vacantly at her. I stopped and waited for her as she grabbed Jake’s hand, trying to pull him forward, but still he refused to move. I heard a crash in the distance and then a scream, and I looked round to find people running between the cars on the other side of the road. They didn’t appear to be infected, but they were running from something, and I had little doubt as to what it was. ‘Claire, infected! You’ll have to carry him.’

Claire scooped Jake up and within seconds she was level with me; together we ran after the others. At the top of the ramp, the bridge turned sharply to the right, taking us out over the dual carriageway. To the left, was a railway line and a stationary train. Within its carriages, I could see people wrestling with each other: blood splashing onto the windows as people fought for their lives.

Turning away, I saw infected on the road below us, chasing people down and attacking those they caught; screams and snarls mixing with the sounds of idling engines. By the time we were halfway across the bridge, I could see Claire was struggling to keep up. I held out my arms. ‘Here, I’ll take him.’

As she passed Jake to me, I could feel his body was limp and his skin was warm and clammy. As we ran on, his head bounced against my shoulder as he drifted in and out of consciousness.

Claire and I caught up with the others at the far end of the bridge where another ramp led back to the ground. Some of the infected on the nearby road must have heard Claire yelling at Sophie, urging her on, because their heads snapped round, and within seconds, they were sprinting after us. As we raced across the car park to where the boat was tied up, I glanced round; we were well ahead of the infected, but they were closing fast, their screaming and howling audible even above the sound of the blood pounding in my ears. I tried to judge the speed they were moving at, and the distance we still had to cover, but the fear of what would happen if they caught us clouded my mind. All I could do was hope and pray we’d get there with enough time to not only get on board, but also get far enough away from the shore to be safe. 

Chapter Three

‘Tom, get that rope; Daz, help Claire!’ When I felt we were close enough, I’d passed Jake back to Claire and raced ahead, reaching the boat seconds before the others. Once there, I ran along the dock and untied the front rope from its cleat on the pontoon. Following my orders, Tom did the same with the one at the back, while Daz leapt on board before turning to take Jake from Claire. Sophie was still a few steps behind and Claire waited to help her on board before climbing on herself.

As soon as the ropes were free, I looked back: the infected were only twenty yards away. As I pushed the front of the boat away from the dock, I shouted to Tom. ‘Get on!’

He didn’t need to be asked twice, and the moment he landed on the deck, I jumped on myself. I ran down the side of the boat and leapt into the cockpit. When I reached the wheel, I pressed the starter button, and breathed a sigh of relief when the engine immediately burst into life. I glanced over my shoulder: the first of the infected had reached the pontoon and were pounding along it. I slammed the throttle forward, causing the engine to scream in protest, and turned the wheel, taking the boat away from the dock. One of the infected, a man, perhaps in his late twenties, ran alongside and threw himself towards us, but we were just out of his reach. I watched as he fell into the water and sank from sight. Back on the dock, the rest paced back and forth, roaring with frustration at our escape.

As I manoeuvred the boat towards the middle of the river, I heard the sound of another, more powerful engine approaching at speed. Looking upstream, I saw a …

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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) or part two (chapter one) these are available here and here.

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

‘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***

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

18 Jul

The Outbreak Cover DesignGeneral McDonald burst through the door without bothering to knock. ‘Sir, that was the Americans; it’s official: Miami’s been overrun.’

‘I know. I’m watching it happen.’ The Prime Minister nodded to the large television on the wall of his private office, a grim look on his face. On the screen, CNN was showing grainy footage from a security camera on what seemed like a permanent loop. ‘I don’t think they’re going to be able to contain it. If this thing can bring down Miami, imagine what would happen if it reached London.’

The General turned to the TV. On it, hundreds of people were surging through downtown Miami, attacking anyone they could catch. The footage froze for a second and then the mob stormed down the street again. After watching it a third time, he turned back to the Prime Minister. ‘The Americans, they’re sure all this is down to this new virus?’

‘They’ve not made it public yet, but they’re 100 per cent on it.’ The Prime Minister puffed himself up. ‘I heard it from the President himself.’

‘And there’s no cure?’

The Prime Minister rose and walked over to the General. ‘No.’

‘No treatment?’

‘No.’

A thin layer of perspiration started to form on the General’s forehead. ‘There’s no vaccine?’

‘I’ve got people looking into it, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anything viable.’ The Prime Minister strode back to his desk. ‘And even if there was, people probably wouldn’t take it: they’d be too scared of what it might do to them. You’ve got to remember … it was a vaccine that caused the virus to mutate in the first place.’ With a sigh, he slumped into his chair. ‘Anyway, it’s all academic. At the rate it’s now spreading, there isn’t enough time, even if there was something promising we could work on.’

General McDonald moved over to the window and leant on the sill, gazing at the people walking along the street several storeys below. ‘In that case, we need to start thinking about ourselves. We need to close the borders; we need to do all we can to make sure the virus doesn’t get in.’ The General turned back to face the room. ‘And we need to do it now.’

The Prime Minister sat silently for a full minute, hands together in front of his face, the tips of his index fingers touching his lips, before he spoke again. ‘You’re right, it’s our only choice. How long will it take?’
The General glanced at his watch. ‘It can be done within the hour.’

‘Right,’ the Prime Minister placed his hands on his desk and levered himself to his feet, ‘I’d better make an announcement before everyone starts to panic.’

He was halfway to the door when the General cleared his throat. The Prime Minister froze as General McDonald started to speak again. ‘There’s something else we need to discuss …’

The Prime Minister turned, the anger clear on his face. ‘You really think this is the time to be discussing anything else?’

‘Yes.’ The General stiffened. ‘We need to decide what to do if the virus gets in.’

The Prime Minister took a pace towards the General and bellowed, ‘But you said closing the borders would stop that from happening!’

General McDonald had to stop himself taking an involuntary step backwards. ‘No, sir, I said it’d minimise the risk. There’s a big difference between the two.’

The Prime Minister remained where he was, his face contorted by fury and confusion as he tried to work out how best to respond. After a few seconds he gave up and walked back to his seat. When he spoke again, it was in a resigned tone. ‘So what are the options?’

The General swallowed nervously. This was the moment he’d been dreading. He knew what they’d have to do, but he wasn’t sure he could convince the Prime Minister to agree to it. ‘There’s only one viable option, sir.’

‘If there’s only one bloody option,’ anger rose in the Prime Minister’s voice again, ‘why do we need to discuss it?’

General McDonald did his best to sound self-assured, but inside his stomach was churning. ‘Because of what it would mean we’d need to do.’

‘And what would that be?’ The Prime Minister spat the words out.

‘If we get an outbreak …’ The General’s eyes flicked subconsciously from the Prime Minister to the television and back again. ‘If we get an outbreak, we’ll need to seal the area off. We let no one in.’ He locked eyes with the Prime Minister. ‘And no one out.’

‘No one?’ The Prime Minister sounded incredulous.

‘Absolutely no one.’ There was a steeliness to the General’s voice now. ‘No matter what.’

The Prime Minister closed his eyes momentarily, almost as if he was readying himself for the answer he knew was coming before he even asked his next question. ‘People aren’t just going to sit there quietly while something like that,’ he jabbed a finger towards the TV, ‘happens. They’re going to try to get out. What will you do then?’

The General leant on the desk, bringing his face close the Prime Minister’s. ‘We treat them as unfriendlies, sir’

‘What on earth does that mean?’ The Prime Minister shot back.

The General could feel the warmth of the Prime Minister’s breath on his face. All the nervousness he’d felt about raising his plan with the Prime Minister was now gone, replaced by something closer to confidence. He looked the Prime Minister in the eye once more. ‘We take them out.’

The Prime Minister pulled back in disgust. ‘You’re talking about killing people? British citizens on British streets?’

‘Yes.’ The General straightened up. ‘It’s the only way to contain something like this.’

‘Bloody hell!’ The Prime Minister put his head in his hands and rubbed his eyes. This wasn’t why he’d gone into politics. He might have expected to send troops to keep the peace in a far-off tropical jungle, or to keep the right people in charge of a strategically important scrap of desert, or maybe even the illegal detention of some would-be terrorist or other, but never this.

He thought about it for five minutes, wrestling with all the possible outcomes, knowing that if he made the wrong decision it would dog him for the rest of his career. If he agreed to the General’s plan and it turned out things weren’t as bad as they seemed right now, then he’d always be the Prime Minister who’d ordered the shooting of British citizens. Even if it didn’t actually happen, it would still get out that he’d given it the green light and his career would be over. Yet, if he vetoed the General’s plan, and things went wrong, he’d be responsible for everything that happened as a result, and his opponents would never let anyone forget it. Finally, he spoke. ‘Okay, get it set up. Do whatever you need to do.’

The Prime Minister got to his feet and strode towards the door once again. When he reached it, he turned and addressed the General one last time. ‘But it’s your head on the block if anything goes wrong.’

‘Bloody politicians!’ the General muttered under his breath, as he pulled out his mobile phone and selected a number. When it was picked up at the other end, he said only four words and hung up. He leant against the desk, staring at the TV screen, hoping against hope they’d never need to implement the order he’d just given.
 

***
 

‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re starting our descent into Glasgow International Airport. If you’d like to fold your tables away and return your seats to the upright position, we should be on the ground in about twenty minutes.’

Michael did as he was told, but as he shifted in his seat, he could feel his shirt, soaked with sweat, sticking to his back. Despite the dryness of the air in the cabin, his skin felt clammy: he hoped he wasn’t getting ill, that this wasn’t the first sign of the infection. He glanced down at his arm. Even though he couldn’t see them, he could feel the scratches burning underneath the makeshift bandage. If the homeless man who’d attacked him had been infected, then he would be, too. Yet, there was a good chance that the man hadn’t even had the disease. After all, there were only a few pockets of infection here and there in the US, and the Government was managing to keep a lid on it, unlike the situation in Haiti or the other islands to which the disease had spread so far. Maybe the man who’d attacked him had just been drunk or high; there was no way to know for sure. He’d simply sprung out of nowhere and lunged at Michael as he’d tried to get into his car. Michael had managed to push him away and scramble behind the wheel, but the question lingered in his mind: why had the old man attacked him?
He pushed these thoughts from his mind because it didn’t matter; he’d be on the ground in a few minutes and then he could see about getting some treatment for whatever was going on. Michael glanced at his watch. It was just over twelve hours since the man had attacked him and if he was infected, he didn’t know how much longer he’d have before it was too late. Maybe there was someone at his work he could call who would know what to do: they’d created the disease after all, so they might know how to cure it, or at least stop it getting worse; that was if he even had it.

Michael had always known running a field trial so early in the development phase of the vaccine was risky, but they’d heard rumours that one of the major pharmaceutical companies was working on something similar. Even though they were a multinational business, they still couldn’t compete with big pharma. If they didn’t get their vaccine on to the market first, they’d be pushed out, meaning years of research, and more importantly, millions of dollars, would have been wasted. That’s why he’d given the go-ahead for the trial in Haiti, despite the inherent risks he knew it would bring.

No one could have foreseen this, though; that the vaccine would cause the rabies virus to mutate, to become more virulent, but less pathological. It no longer killed; it just drove people mad, made them violent: all they wanted to do was to attack others, kill them, tear them apart. It was the virus doing its best to ensure it was passed on; the virus was taking control of people, turning them into machines, to make as many copies of itself as possible and then infect others. It was no surprise — that’s what viruses had evolved to do — only their vaccine had somehow caused it to change. They’d thought the siRNA molecule they’d created would make the virus more susceptible to the immune system, allowing the body to fight it off on its own. Instead, it had made it stronger, almost indestructible. This hadn’t happened in the lab mice, or the monkeys, or the pigs; it had only happened when they’d tried it for real on humans. There was no way anyone could have predicted this, and by the time they’d realised what was going on it was too late: the mutation had happened and it had started to spread.
 

***
 

Michael lay on the bed in his hotel room, staring at the widescreen television, watching the disaster in Miami as it continued to unravel before him. For once, rolling news was living up to its billing: things were happening so fast that new reports really were needed every hour. No one was quite sure how it had happened, but somehow hundreds of people infected with the disease had suddenly appeared near the port. They’d rampaged through the city, attacking people; not killing them, just bringing each one down long enough to infect them before moving on to the next fleeing target. The infection had reached a tipping point and was now spreading like wildfire. The Governor had sent in the National Guard, but there was nothing they could do, not with so many people being infected so quickly. Michael knew diseases; he knew this disease: there was only one way this was going to go now and it wasn’t good.

Despite the air-conditioning in the room, Michael was still sweating heavily; the scratches on his arm still burned and his body was starting to ache. He tried to tell himself it was just a reaction to what he was seeing on the television, but deep down he knew it was the infection. The only question left now was what was he going to do about it? If he’d still been at home, he could simply have taken his gun and blown his brains out; messy, but quick. But he wasn’t, he was in Scotland. He’d only ended up in Glasgow because it was the first flight out of the US he’d found when he arrived at the airport the previous afternoon. He was hoping for somewhere more exotic, but he figured Glasgow would be a start. He knew people would come looking for him as soon as anyone outside of the company found out he’d been the one to ignore the risks and give the okay for the trial. He knew he had to get out of the country before that happened. By the looks of things, it was just as well he did or he’d have still been in Miami, watching all that was happening there in person, rather than on TV from half a world away.

As he was leaving Glasgow airport, Michael had passed a convoy of armoured vehicles heading towards it. He’d heard on the cab driver’s radio that Britain was closing its borders and sealing itself off in the hope of stopping the disease getting in. Now, in the safety of his hotel room, he wondered how many other countries would follow suit. He laughed grimly to himself: little did they know it was already too late; the virus was already here; he could feel it coursing through his veins. It had been almost eighteen hours since he’d been infected and Michael knew he didn’t have much time left. He knew he had to kill himself before he turned and infected anyone else. That way, at least he’d do some good.

He thought about how he could do it. He didn’t want to cut himself; that would be too difficult. Hanging was off the cards; there was nowhere in the hotel room he could suspend himself from. He went over to the window and considered jumping, but he was only two storeys up and that wasn’t high enough. Then it dawned on him: an overdose. Quick, painless and it would be easy enough to get hold of the drugs to do it. He could leave a note saying he was infected, warning people to dispose of his body properly. That would work. All he had to do now was to go out and purchase the painkillers, and hope that he had enough time to return to his room before the disease finally overwhelmed him.
 

***
 

The mounted policeman nudged his partner and pointed down Argyle Street. ‘Effin’ drunks,’ he looked at his watch. ‘Just gone midday an’ he’s aff his heed already.’

‘He’s better dressed than your average Jakie, though,’ his partner replied.

‘Bein’ rich don’t stop you bein’ an alkie, does it?’ He watched the man stagger a few yards further and then collapse. A knot of people quickly gathered round to gawk. ‘I suppose that’s the cue for one of us to get involved.’

‘Usual way?’

Rock, paper, scissors had been their way of deciding who got to do any unpalatable tasks ever since they’d first been teamed up. ‘Yep.’

‘On the count of three.’ They held out their fists. ‘One, two … three.’

‘Bugger! That’s the fifth time in a row you’ve won. How the feckin’ hell are you doin’ that?’ Still grumbling about his run of bad luck, the policeman slipped from his horse and gave the reins to his partner. He spoke into his radio, calling for an ambulance as he walked towards the small crowd. When he got there, he knelt down beside the man; he was unconscious, but still breathing … just. The policeman put a hand on the man’s neck: his skin was red-hot and his pulse was racing. Then the policeman noticed something unexpected: there was no smell of booze. Usually drunks reeked of the stuff, especially when they’d had enough to pass out. As he stood up, a thought flashed through his head: maybe the man was sick rather than drunk. It couldn’t be the disease the Prime Minister had talked about on the news that morning, the one from Miami, could it? He hesitated for a moment and then reached for his radio again; better to be safe than sorry.

Suddenly, the man’s eyes snapped opened. His breathing was now slow and steady: something had changed. The man sprang to his feet and lunged at the policeman, clawing at his face and throat, sinking his teeth deep into his neck. The policeman punched his attacker as hard as he could, sending him staggering backwards into the surrounding onlookers. A woman screamed as she jumped out of the way and the man seemed to notice the bystanders for the first time. He leapt onto the nearest one, pushing her to the ground and biting savagely at her face. In an instant, there was pandemonium, with people tripping over each other as they tried to scatter. Distracted by all the movement, he broke off his assault on the woman and went for a middle-aged man who’d fallen and was now scrabbling to get back to his feet. He was only on him for a moment, just long enough to bite and infect him, before he went for another, then another, bringing each one down before moving on to the next.

In all the confusion, nobody noticed the injured policeman slump to the ground, his wounds searing with pain as the infection took hold. Suddenly, he was burning up, his heart was pounding, his breathing growing shallow. He tried to work his radio, to get a warning out, but he was losing coordination in his fingers; his eyes drifted out of focus and slowly his world faded to black.
 

***
 

‘Sierra six-one to base. Sierra six-one to base. Man down, I repeat, man down. We need backup. We’re on Argyle Street. There’s a man, he’s gone berserk; he’s attacking everyone.’

The voice on the radio crackled with a mix of panic and confusion, and it was clear to all who were listening that something serious was happening. ‘Scott’s down. He’s been injured. I think he’s unconscious. Hang on, no it looks like he’s okay. He’s getting back up.’

The voice sounded relieved, but only for a moment. ‘Shit! He just bit a woman … Now there are more of them. People are just attacking each other.’

Fear replaced panic in the voice. ‘It’s just like on the news; it’s like what happened in Miami!’
Those listening heard the transmission key being released, only to be pressed again a fraction of a second later. ‘I’m getting the fuck out of here!’

***

Part two of this free preview will be posted tomorrow (19th July 2014). If you wish to download a PDF of all three parts to this free preview, you can download it from 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.***