Extract: Fear of Misery

This is a 10% extract of the book FEAR OF MISERY by F. Fidelio

1: On Another Planet

Marta Oliver

Weightless and warm, with blackness resting like thistledown on closed eyelids, breathing to the beat of the universe and making gently centring waves; here was the genesis of pure hope, the source of the divine knowledge that everything was going to be alright. It was all so simple, so basic. Every time she crawled into the pod, her nakedness like a shame, she knew it was there – that Truth – and went seeking it with a sigh, wishing that she could grasp it for good, like any normal human.

She knows that she had sighed just now, and moaned with it; she felt the vibration in her chest and throat spread through the rest of her floating torso. How long had she slept for? She hopes long enough, and yet not too long. Harry was beyond caring about her absences from the bed but she had some pride as far as the children were concerned.

...There. She feels it fighting to reappear; weak and smothered now, but within a matter of hours it would have the upper hand again. Damn it.

A breath; a happy thought; and then The Exercise before docking with the outer reality.

It was something she had worked on with her therapist. Somewhere between a mantra and a safe-word. As the waves of constricting life began to overpower her, she would remember this womb, and she would remember this body – these relaxed muscles and evenly drawn breaths, simply being and not responding. She would say to herself the words she feels herself speaking now:
Marta – you are safe
Marta – you can choose
Marta – you only need to take one step at a time
Marta – breathe like you are on a mountain top and free as a bird
Marta – hold yourself as if a lover just asked you to dance
Marta – talk softly to yourself, and always listen for the answers

Taking hold of the side handle and depressing the lid-release, she watches the pod hatch lift and the beloved black dissipate into the vague light of the bathroom. Hauling herself back into her fight with gravity, she steps out and into the physical assault of the shower. Great, she thinks, it isn’t morning; she has time to dry her hair and slip into bed.

A slight discomfort fills her chest as the dark beast turns restlessly in its sleep. But Marta is smiling. She pulls out her ear-plugs and pulls on a robe, then finds her way around the isolation tank to turn off the oxygen. She plugs in the hair-dryer and tries not to notice that her shoulder muscles are beginning to tense, fibre by fibre.

Marta – you are safe.

Rather than putting on slippers she pads out into the dressing room that leads to the bedroom, curling her toes into the deep carpet, celebrating sensation. She can see the shape of a sleeping Harry on the bed beyond. Once upon a time, as a beautiful, too young bride, she had longed to lay by his side between sweet-scented sheets.

Marta – you can choose.

Creeping out of the dressing room door she gets one bare foot on the landing and peers down its length to the carriage clock on the half-moon table. It sits timorously under the glowering nineteenth-century portrait of one of Harry’s relatives, and tells her that it is exactly four in the morning.

Something haunting stirs in her at that moment; a memory surfaces, of Sarah and Will scrambling up the stairs towards her, bathed and smelling so good, bursting with news about their new present… She smiles. That idiot puppy had destroyed more household items than all her domestic help over her entire lifetime. But they had been happy back then. Carelessly happy.

Marta wanders down the landing and listens at a closed door with a light shining underneath. Her hand goes to the handle, then hesitates, finally dropping to her side, confidence defeated. She walks on as if in a dream, to another door – this one stands ajar. The room within is gently lit since the curtains are undrawn and a large-eyed moon shines in curiously. Marta sneaks a look, like an opportunistic thief, and she sees what interests the moon so greatly. Somebody. A body. Slumped in the middle of the floor.

She stares with uncomprehending fascination.

‘Will?’

Marta – you only need to take one step at a time.

She staggers forward, and stumbles a little as she lowers herself to the floor. Will is kneeling, keeled forward as if mid-yoga pose.

He’s fully dressed, thinks Marta through a fog of incongruity, but... it’s bed-time. She reaches out and pushes the long, dark hair away from his face,

‘Will?’

The pressure of her touch causes the young man’s body to fall sideways in grotesque slow motion and the open, dulled eyes of Marta’s son stare, unseeing, past her left shoulder.

A silent scream contorts Marta’s face as she endeavours to breathe, and then, a panting wail gains momentum as she scrabbles backwards, gets to her feet and flies down the corridor, throwing herself into the brightly lit bedroom of her daughter.

Blinking and fighting the light with one hand she flails her way to the double bed.

‘Sarah! Wake up! Something…oh, something dreadful has…’

But the teenage daughter, in silken night attire, sleeps soundly the sleep of the departed, her mobile still clutched in her hand.

Marta reaches out for a second time, touches the flawless skin of the girl's shoulder and feels an alien coolness. Her own ragged breaths contrast with the becalmed chest under glossy navy-blue fabric.

Marta – breathe like you are on a mountain top and free as a bird

Slowly, slowly, like the first suited divers, she lifts her leaden feet, passes through the haze of the landing, gasping and feeling her way back to her bedroom. The door opens to her touch, even creaking a little in sick-humoured, ominous portent. She half creeps forward, toward the figure on the bed.

‘Harry—’ the whisper catches in her throat.

Her legs now make their presence felt, trembling violently and buckling before she reaches the divan; before she could reach the husband who lay so incredibly still.

Marta – hold yourself as if a lover just asked you to dance

She crawls the last metres, numb and wide-eyed. Knelt like a child in prayer by the side of the bed, she looks up into the pale, lifeless face of the man she had once loved. She draws herself up to touch it and feels the waxy quality of coolness that is personifying this waking nightmare. Like a child, too, she raised his left eyelid to see if she could find him behind it, but there is nothing.

There is nothing.

Marta – talk softly to yourself, and always listen for the answers

No words would come.

But she listened.

Then she stood up, unsteadily, made her way back to the bathroom, got back into the flotation tank, robe and all, and pulled down the hatch.

Pete Nahal

As dawn began to assert herself, the second-floor Georgian apartment met the new day less confidently, despite its architectural pedigree. Without the night it seemed empty and soulless. In the large living room a few pieces of classic walnut furniture were augmented with kit-form laminate, and the bay-window was fitted with unflattering grey Venetian blinds.
Everything appeared colourless and forlorn as the light slid through the thin metal slats. This was due in part to the layer of dust, and the piles of discarded clothes, books, and kicked off shoes. The wall of bin-bags stacked along the hallway didn’t help either. The stucco grandeur of the ceiling was defaced by grimy cobwebs, and scuffed, panelled double-doors stood open linking to a bedroom. This use was signified by a mattress lying askew on the floor, with twisted bedding and a higgledy-piggledy wall of books and magazines around it. The retro digital alarm-clock no longer worked, or rather, was no longer supplied by electricity since that service had been cut off months before.

As the morning progresses the place feels as though it were waiting to begin breathing; as if opening a window would release a kind of vacuum. So when there is a click and a swish, and a bookcase swings forward revealing a narrow doorway, it comes as an expected relief to the barely moving dust motes suspended in the middle of the room.

Life.

A thin, young man edges into the grey; a bare, golden torso, and filthy jogging trousers, barefoot, and stealthy. His black hair is long, clearly showing an outgrown cut. He turns to the blinds and pulls off a gas-mask with one hand, raising another with a handgun, and spins slowly into a silent crouch.

He listens.

And waits.

Then, agile like a cat, he rises, flattens himself against the wall and slides to the window. From its edge, he levels his left eye to a gap in the blinds and holds his breath. His eyes dart keenly from side to side and his face is taut.

He looks down to the leafy avenue below. The quiet street.

He notices everything. Everything is important. He sees too many cars. Not new ones. The usual ones. But two, no, three, are here when they should have gone by now. He stops to think.

What day is this, Peter? Have you lost track again? No, it’s Wednesday, it’s definitely Wednesday. Is it a holiday? Got to check. Don’t think so. They are messing with you, mate. Or does it mean something?

He breathes a controlled, quiet breath, his mind racing. Still watching without moving a muscle he waits. It’s as still outside as inside, there is no breeze, the trees watch with him.

And then he sees one, just a glimpse: in black, automatic rifle, body armour – moving behind the gateway of the opposite house, another Georgian creation converted into flats. His heart-rate accelerates. Damn, the bastards are getting close! He flattens back against the wall and pants a little to catch up with his breathing then sidles back to the hidden door.

It’s then that he hears the helicopter; faintly, but there all the same. Blood crashes in his ears.

No!

He steps behind the door and pulls it closed behind him. It seals with a whooshing, sucking sound.

He turns to face the secret room.

This is another world compared to the flat beyond. There is LED lighting, and insulating panels lining the walls, floor, and ceiling. A bunk-bed is pushed against the far wall, the bottom bunk of which is used as a sofa. By it, mounted on the wall with mathematical precision is a bizarre array of weapons; knives, a naginata stick for martial arts practice, a baseball bat, nunchucks, a lead-black crossbow, and the breathtakingly beautiful centrepiece is a ceremonial kirpan dagger in an ornate casing of brass over dark polished wood. On the other side of the bunk-bed, a makeshift kitchen on a trestle table provides the luxuries, while a bucket with a lid provides the necessities. The other two walls, right and left, have shelving units stacked with packaged food and other provisions. Here the living is done, and here, worryingly, is the soul of the apartment.

The young man paces up and down like a caged lion, still grasping the handgun and the gas-mask. Suddenly, he ceases pacing and strides to one of the shelving units. He lays down the weapon and the mask, and pulls out a heavy jacket and Teflon vest.

He will wait.

But if they come, he will be ready.

And they will be sorry on the day they finally catch-up with Peter Nahal.

Annie Baker

So, another beautiful…nearly sunny morning, thinks Annie as she lies with the duvet up to her chin, looking at the net-curtained, condensation-fogged window in her twentieth-floor flat.

‘And I’m still here, Johnnie,’ she mumbles out loud. There is nobody to hear, and yet, someone listens. She lies propped up on pillows, a froth of white curls around a pale, puffy round face, gathering her strength and conviction.

She needs to pee.

‘I know, Johnnie, I know, “Come on old girl, you’ll be all right when you get going.”’ She pulls herself upright and puts her swollen feet to the floor, over the edge of the single bed. The double is no longer practical. She reaches for the nearby walker for support and steps forward into her slippers. Then, leaving the metal frame behind, takes stiff, slow steps to the door of the tiny living room where the bed is set up, and across the narrow hallway to the equally bijou toilet. She hangs on to the disability handle on the wall as she lowers herself onto the seat, wheezing and puffing. After tinkling away for a few moments a particularly triumphant bout of wind heralds the new day, which sets her giggling and doesn’t help the breathlessness.

‘And it’s Wednesday, Johnnie, so I get a visit from Kathy at two, and,’ she continues throughout her move to the bathroom just a few steps away, ‘I get my dinners delivered at four. Woo! It’s a busy day, Wednesday. Got to put my war paint on. Now then,’ says Annie, holding on to the bathroom sink and wheezing at her face in the mirror above it, ‘what d’you say, love? Blue or green eye-shadow? I know it. Green. You always liked green.’

The next few steps of the morning ritual are painfully slow, and regular pauses are necessary to hold a wall or perch on a seat. But finally Annie is in a floral dress, wearing green eye-shadow, rouge, and peach lipstick, sitting in her armchair. Now she needs to rest for a while and recover her strength before breakfast.

She uses the remote to activate the screen opposite, and lifts an oxygen mask to her face, pulling the strap over her curls and flicking the switch on the cylinder. She sits back and inhales deeply, gradually losing the grey haze around her peripheral vision, and watches the recorded quiz-show from the previous evening that she enjoys so much. But she can already feel her eyes growing heavy.

Well, not surprising, she thinks; after all, she had a funny spell in the early hours and restless nights are the very devil. It got so bad that she had to use the oxygen for several hours. But that was alright, Kathy would organise more. So, if a funny spell had to happen, it couldn’t have happened on a better day than a Wednesday... well, Tuesday night...no, early morning Wednesday, whatever… Annie drifted off and her body did its best to repair and recover a little sleep.

She awoke to the sound of a distant helicopter.

Without really processing what had woken her she pulled off the mask and reached for her reading glasses to see her watch. It was ten in the morning.

‘Oh! Johnnie, how could you have let me doze for so long, you silly bugger, I haven’t even had my breakfast yet!’ With this, Annie pushed herself up out of her chair and made her way to the kitchenette as the TV burbled in the background.

‘Eggs, I fancy some eggs, today...yeah, that’s just what the doctor ordered…’

While the wheezing kept her busy she negotiated a frying pan and two eggs into position, set the kettle to boil, then sat down on a chair at a tiny, square, kitchen table while the eggs bubbled and spat. There was a chair on the other side and Annie looked at it pensively.

‘Bugger!’ she swore, irritably, and made her way slowly back to the living room, returning wheeling a stand holding the oxygen and mask. She took a moment while leaning against the work-top with the mask at her face, after which she made a pot of tea and plated-up her two eggs.

It was as she sat thus, contemplating her belated breakfast with relish, holding the mask to her face, that she heard an almighty crash.

The front door was broken open and an armed man wearing black gear from head to foot, including some kind of a mask, strode into her living room, caught sight of her through the gap in the kitchen units, and froze.

Annie’s eyes were like saucers as she stared back and her arthritic joints tightened painfully on the mask.

Was this, then, the day she’d be seeing Johnnie again?

The man was very young, she could see that now. Only a boy, really. He took another couple of uncertain steps forward which brought him to the threshold of the kitchen, and faltered to a standstill. His face was sweaty and tear-stained; he looked at Annie with such an anguish of pleading and hell that she suddenly knew, with certainty, that she never ever wanted to witness again.

Her heart, her poor sick heart, was struggling to meet this challenge and she put her free hand to it, instinctively.

The man moved his mouth as if to speak, but failed.

There was something so terrible in his expression that it pushed Annie strangely beyond her fear.

She removed her mask carefully.

‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you to knock first?’ she said, then smiled; it was a smile that said: I see your pain, I can be your friend if you need me to be.

The young man gasped and sank to his knees, struggling to breathe against the sobbing that was beginning. Genuinely fearing for his health, Annie made as if to stand, but that triggered a violent response.

He found his tongue roughly and angrily, ‘No! No, stay where you are! Do you hear me?! Stay here, and don’t leave, stay quiet and…and…Oh, Jesus, I never… I… I can’t… this is…’ He gritted his teeth and roared like an animal in pain, raising veins and suffusing his face with a puce under-skin veil while he continued to stare at her as if she terrified him.

Then, abruptly, he turned and fled.

Annie stared after him for a moment. Slowly she put the mask back up to her face, steadied herself on the table-top and looked over to the empty seat, ‘I thought I was for it there, Johnnie,’ she wheezed into the moulded plastic. ‘Next time, I’d appreciate a bit of heroic whatsname, chivalry, if you please.’

The wheezing got worse and whined into a laugh between frayed breaths as she imagined her husband waggling his eyebrow at her and informing her laconically that chivalry is dead. Annie laughed to her full rattling capacity, knowing only too well that this was hysteria, but, well, what can you do when you nearly snuffed it, again, and your dead husband was a smart-Alec comedian even when he was supposed to be busy pushing up the daisies in Greenway Cemetery?

The laughter turned to tears for a while.

It took another few minutes after that to clear the grey spheres from her peripheral vision and to stand up. She grabbed a tea-towel and wiped her eyes, said, ‘bugger’ when she saw her eye makeup all over it, and then dragged her oxygen flask into the living room and sat down in her chair in front of the TV. She had listened to the tone of the young man when he had said to stay there, and stay quiet.

‘He wasn’t messing, Johnnie’, she said under her breath as she turned off the volume and watched the subtitles roll.

They were telling her that a killer virus had erupted across Europe, beginning in Finland, of all places. That it was travelling the globe. That there had now been confirmed outbreaks all across the UK, and many large urban and suburban areas had been quarantined – no-one allowed in or out. Anyone trying to break this blockade would be shot on sight, the risk of contamination was too high with such a virulent airborne disease. No-one was to leave their place of abode. The affected areas would be cleared. Bodies would be burnt. Vaccines were being developed. Treatment centres would be set up within the Quarantine Zones for survivors. Help-apps and telephone numbers were given out. Annie’s hand twitched as it responded to the thought that she should take a number down, but a second thought paralysed it.

She watched on.

Crying and terrified interviewees. Worried about relatives. Worried because they had visited an affected place just the night before. Doctors describing the symptoms, as far as they knew them, and advising anyone with concerns to report to their local hospital. Local hospitals overrun with panicking people, crying women, screaming kids, angry men. Politicians saying the military was deployed, all hands were on deck. Police and army officials begging for public co-operation in the face of extreme emotions. Barely controlled panic. Curfews enacted. Ban on movement of civilians. More warnings of the shoot to kill policy around quarantined areas.

They showed maps of the affected places. Firstly, the Quarantine Zones, where people were ordered to keep to their houses.

And then they showed the Isolation Zones, the hot-spots where it was reported that everyone had died or was dying… no-one to enter or leave, on pain of death...

‘Oh, Bugger,’ said Annie slowly and profoundly under her breath as she stared at the map on the screen. ‘Bugger it. What is it about Wednesdays? Now then, Johnnie, this is going to take some thinking about.’

She got up and returned to the kitchen table. She drank her cold tea and ate her cold eggs, impervious to the buzzing of the helicopter. She frowned into space and Johnnie sensitively refrained from interrupting.

2: Intensive Care

Lenny Fabergé

He felt his foot tapping on the floor of the vehicle, more biofeedback than he needed; he stopped it with immense willpower. He put the key in the ignition, and his heart filled his mouth. This had to work. If it didn’t they were all dead.

Was there another way? Shit, he couldn’t think now. It was time to reciprocate the unexpected with the unexpected. And they surely wouldn’t expect this…

So much had happened in the last hours that sitting on Toby’s bed and playing snap seemed a century away. A world away. The poor kid. He had been on the ward for weeks in that oxygen tent, and last night was his last night. Today he was to be free to breathe the open air again. So, the game of snap at one in the morning was meant to head off a six-year-old's mutiny against doctor’s orders; Toby got some rare one-to-one distraction on the night-shift, until he fell asleep with half a handful of cards still to play. And he, Lenny Fabergé, AKA Egg, sitting beside the bed on a small metal chair, had rested his head for a moment and woken-up three hours later, alive.

That had never been a remarkable event before today. He was forty-eight, but never worried about heart attacks, and had his hopes and dreams, like any man, despite the tough times everyone found themselves in. No, he expected to awake. He didn’t expect all the kids to do so all the time, that being the nature of hospitals and the nature of his ward. But never in his wildest nightmare could he have imagined being woken by one of them screaming like that. He winced at the remembrance and strained his knuckles white on the ambulance steering wheel.

So, there he was, woken by piercing sound and adrenalin to the heart, starting up, throwing the heavy plastic walls of Toby’s oxygen tent over him, and running around to the next bed, to Jo, calling her name softly. The girl was a living skeleton of twelve years, with long, dark hair; she made a ghoulish sight sitting in the dimness, bolt upright and staring.

Staring and screaming.

He engulfed her in his big arms but her tension did not melt. He took her pale face between his hands and said quietly, ‘Jo, it’s OK, it was just a dream.’

Jo began to cough, the remnants of the pneumonia that her anorexia had invited in. She managed to focus on him and shook her head in a stilted, twitching manner, ‘No, Egg, look…’ she breathed.

He pulled out the drip from her arm that she had badly wrenched by sitting up violently, and whilst he closed off the flow and hung up the drip-line he had slowly looked around the windowless hospital bay at the four other beds, at the four other little occupants. Low light spread in from the open corridor, muting the colourful decorations and bedding. He got up and went across to Ben in the bed opposite. He put his hand to the five-year-old’s cool head and slipped his fingers down to the carotid artery.

He breathed out softly. This was going to cause trouble; no way was this kid up for the Great Promotion in the sky. He plaited his brains trying to think what could have happened…Had he missed something? Was there something mentioned at the handover meeting that…

‘Egg?’ Toby was at his elbow.

‘Hey, mate, let’s have you back in bed for a moment, come on,’ he said quietly, trying to guide the boy back to the tent.

‘But I think Douglas is really poorly.’

The kid in the bed opposite to Toby had a severe ENT infection; but a face like a balloon, sinus drain and antibiotics did not make him a high-risk case. Still, Egg hurried over with a deepening sense of unease.

This kid was dead too.

Not a mark on him, not a sign of disturbance, not a hint of why. He flew to the other two beds and felt cool necks for pulses that were not going to be there.

He had never known panic in his life before today. That was the moment. There's a first time for everything, his old gran used to say in her musical Jamaican tones.

He had surveyed the two children staring wide-eyed at him and told them calmly, ‘Toby, hop back in bed and Do-Not-Move, either of you – that’s an order! Understand, Privates?’

They had both nodded in dumb show, and he had raced around the corner into the broad corridor which was the spine to which all the bed-bays and private rooms connected. He had headed for the section desk, hoping to find backup, but instead found Dot crumpled on the shining floor. He was dreading being right, so when, as he rolled her corpulent frame over, her unblinking eyes refused to focus, he did not check her pulse. He stood and picked up the phone, dialling the internal emergency number, hearing himself breathing heavily. The internal line was following the motif of this horrifying ride: dead.

Returning to the section desk he turned the key of the locker beneath the inside of the counter. He pulled out Dot's bag and found her smartphone. It lit-up but there was no connection. Since the polar-shifting had increased solar-flare disruption, local-nets were the means of service and no-one really relied on them one hundred per cent. It could mean something, or it could be the usual Sod's Law.

Egg ran on a little way and, after trembling in indecision and bewilderment for a few seconds, pressed an emergency response button on the wall, and waited.
Nothing happened.

So he ran on into another bay. This one had curtains that he wrenched back as if real light, not phantom night lights, would mercifully illuminate normality.

Instead, it revealed that each bed was a coffin…

He pulled at his dreadlocks, standing in the middle of a morbid stillness.

A sudden burst of life propelled him into the next bay, and the next, past prone figures of more colleagues, more lifeless phones, still no response to the alarm back down the corridor; and at the last section he shouted for somebody, anybody, at the top of his lungs.

He then ran on into the next department, and the scene was the same. Sporadic staff, lifeless; and beds full of death.

Here he hung out of windows and shouted, but saw no sign of life, no traffic, not even as he leant out of a window three floors above the A&E entrance.

Egg had run through nearly the whole East Wing before he remembered the kids.
He had been speeding along a large wide corridor with glossy floors and huge windows to either side of him. The thought had made him swear loudly, his pumps made a strangled squeaking sound as he braked, and span around.

He had returned to the bay of the children’s ward to find the two living souls where he had left them, more or less. Toby had not gone back to bed but was sitting, white and quiet in the bed beside Jo, who was trembling convulsively.

‘What’s going on?’ she cried out when she saw him, and then burst into tears.

He had struggled to get his breath as he joined them on the bed, forcing himself into calmer body language than fitted his skin and the perplexed horror that gripped his mind.

‘Well,’ he had said, flailing for something sane to say, ‘I don’t know yet. That’s the honest answer. But, you’re alright. Listen to me, Jo, you are fine.’ He had adjusted the nasal tubes hanging at her neck which were attached to her oxygen line, and looked thoughtfully at Toby, ruffled his hair and said, ‘We’re all fine’.

He rested his elbows on his thighs and leaned forward, rubbing his hands over his face for a moment, letting his brain race.

And then that genius little kid had said, ‘Why don’t we watch the news?’

Ignoring the fact that they were surrounded by corpses, he had said, ‘Yes. Good thinking, Toby. Jo, we’re moving you to a sofa in the family room, OK? Toby, find an extra jumper. I’m going to turn the TV on, wait for me here.’ Implicit in this was the fact that he was on a corpse-clearing mission.

He had cleared all death from sight; yanking curtains across beds at the ends of bays and sliding poor Dot, Dot whose voluptuousness had made night-shifts a little more tolerable, out of sight behind the desk.

But the family room had held a poignant moment. Sitting on the sofa, head lolled back as if in desperately needed sleep, was a thin, mousy woman in her twenties, the mother of a little girl on the ward. Her daughter was one of the increasingly rare car-crash victims, who had lain in a coma for eight long months. Until this morning.

A box of tissues lay by the young woman and she held a teddy bear in one hand. Oh, he had thought, you are finally released from your agony. Then he lifted her gently and moved her to the next bay, on a bed behind a curtain.

He had dressed both kids – to keep them warm he thought and said, but some watchful wariness from his army days also spoke silently to him. With Toby on his hip and the fragile Jo loaded into a wheelchair holding her hands over her eyes, he cruised them along the corridor and into the family room. The toys and colours surrounding them contrasted so starkly with the horrors witnessed that all three turned their attention to the TV with a sense of total surrealism. The kids had sunk back into the squashy sofa, exhausted, and Egg had pulled up a stool.

He started out intending to choose the news channel but, apparently, normal programming had been suspended and almost every channel had activated their own news service.

So, they were in the middle of a plague.

That was the gist of it.

This was not good news. Egg had a wife and children two hours away.

After five minutes of few facts and a lot of emotional filler, he’d gone and sat between the kids on the sofa, tension so high that it made his ears whine. It was the same for the kids, they pulled themselves up out of their physical slump and listened hard.

The hospital was in an Isolation Zone. Ringed about by a Quarantine Zone. Because everyone in the Isolation Zone was known to be, or assumed to be, dead.

‘So why aren’t we, Egg?’ Jo had asked him warily.

‘Because we aren’t,’ he answered, straining to keep processing the newsreader’s words. ‘They say there are likely to be survivors, and they know more than us…’

Suddenly he went weak with relief. National maps of the areas of the outbreak showed that his home, his wife, his kids, were all mercifully centrally placed in an unaffected area.

Sit tight, baby, he had thought.

After that, what made his ears prick up was the information about their Zone. Specifically, that the very hospital they sat in was a centre for survivors to report to.
Egg pulled a, ‘well, whaddayouknow’ face at the kids who looked hopeful.

‘My dad can come for me!’, Toby had said eagerly, displaying his infallible trust in good and love and implicit safety.

Jo stayed silent.

Egg knew that she was thinking hard. Life had been slightly more complicated for her. She was anorexic, conflicted, and an anxiety lightning-rod. There was not one relationship she trusted and had faith only in her own self-control, which was slowly killing her.

So, continued the newsreader, the phones were down as part of an isolation protocol, and control of this killer-virus was the aim of every government action…

As he listened, Egg couldn’t get it out of his head that if all three of them hadn’t been on oxygen, they would not now be goggling at the outside world via a screen but floating around as newly disconnected souls.

His fingers had twitched restlessly.

But what respiratory virus kills in a matter of hours? He asked himself repeatedly. As a soldier and a nurse, he wanted to know where the sweating, blood, vomit, sputum and diarrhoea were. When had the symptoms of pain and discomfort shown themselves, and, the gut-wrenching question – had his few hours of sleep been at the expense of lonely agony in four children who were his responsibility?

And then, the big one: were they still at risk? It had only been half an hour since they had potentially exposed themselves…

He looked at his hands. He had touched both kids after dealing with the dead bodies. The shock had driven basic precautions out of his head.

Too late to do anything about that.

Should he put them all on oxygen masks, though?

Yes. Yes, it couldn’t hurt. Plans started forming in his mind. He put several on hold while he covered both his charges with blankets and announced that he would make breakfast. The kids were drained now; he switched over to a digi-film, put the remote in his pocket and went in search of portable oxygen kits. He made high-dose vitamin drinks, sandwiches, and instant soup in the unit kitchen. While the water was boiling he tipped out Dot’s huge tote-bag and packed it with food and drinks from the cupboards.

There was a campsite feel as he dumped the bag, handed out the food and drink and explained about the oxygen. To the children he said only that they needed to stay ‘topped-up’. Jo looked at him with a steady expression and he assumed that she had sussed him. But she was badly shaken, even receiving the glass of high energy drink and taking an instinctive sip without thinking. She nursed it protectively, thoughtfully. It was momentous. Nobody on the planet could have got her to touch anything to her lips yesterday.

Then he had explained the Next Step.

He was going to see if there was anyone else in the hospital who had survived. That was tough because it reminded them all of the limp little bodies they had left behind in their bay, and it scared the kids, he saw that. Jo’s face said, ‘please don’t leave us’, and Toby was curious but uncertain.

‘What about the ghosts?’ he had asked.

‘What ghosts?’

‘You know. When people die they get ghostified. There’s stuff left, coz sometimes they don’t know that they have died…and they haunt castles and throw pans at their wives and things…’

Egg had smiled, ‘People don’t have to die to do that, mate’, at which point Jo’s mouth had twitched up at the corner, and in her dark world that was laughing until you pissed yourself. ‘Don’t worry, private, you’re nice and sane, you don’t hear voices do you? So why’d they bother you, eh? Anyway, they’ll all be too busy chatting with each other, there’s so many of them. And figuring out a nice walk to go on, or finding their way to a railway station to take a ghost train home to their families.’

This grim logic had appealed to Toby’s sense of world order and he settled to his sandwich. After sorting out toilet needs, and giving strict instructions to leave the oxygen masks on, Egg made to go – pointedly putting on his mask, and lodging the small cylinder in his pocket.

He had shut and barred the family room door from the outside. He didn't know why, it just made him feel like he was doing everything he could. Did he expect zombies, for crying out loud?

Finally, he started out on his mission.

There had been other people on oxygen through the night. Some would sleep fitfully and remove it in the early hours such as the elderly and advanced cancer sufferers; some would be unconscious, even on life support, too ill to move and in need of attention. And there was the neonatal unit at the other end of the central corridor.
This was where he headed first.

The first sight to greet him was a female nurse slumped in a chair – she was new on the ward, young. And Jeannie, the paediatrician was sprawled on the floor in one corner of the room. Her brown curls had mercifully splayed over her face.

There were five intensive care incubators. The first baby, well, Jeannie had obviously been called to see it before she died. It lay grey and splayed like the stuff of horror films. The next incubator held a prem, a tiny monkey-like scrap, only its lungs moved with the aid of the respirator – Egg began checking all the settings, feeding tubes and drug protocols as he moved around. The next two covered units contained larger babies, one recently out of heart surgery, heavily sedated with a raw gash across her chest, and one suffering an infectious fever, but still breathing.

And the last, with sleepy blue eyes and a healing abdominal wound, looked confusedly at Egg and stretched a small hand up in greeting.

‘Hang on, soldier,’ he said gruffly, ‘I’ll be back for you.’

Reluctantly, he moved on.

Back in the corridor, he had heard the helicopters. He was not inclined to run to a window, he knew this was where the cavalry was headed, his job now was to get to people who may need him, literally in the coming minutes.

He made his way towards the end of the wing where he had got to previously, and took the stairs up to the next floor. To geriatrics…where, sadly, his theory had proved correct. Even a severe case of emphysema had removed his nasal tubes and paid the price.

So, he had jogged up the next set of stairs and as he was entering a wide glazed corridor, with a grey shining floor on a gentle gradient to the next wing, he saw a figure approaching.

A bald, portly man in his late sixties was running yet staggering at the same time, mouth gaping and eyes seeming to protrude from his head. His bathrobe flared open to reveal a fresh crimson wound down the centre of his blinding white chest, surgical staples placed like a human-suit zipped up to the neck. Thin plastic tubes from his arms were whipping around him as he flailed down the slightly sloping floor towards Egg, who had run to catch him as he fell forward and sank down, breathless and grey-faced.

Egg pulled off his face-mask, ‘Take it easy, mate. I know, I know…’

‘They’re…killing…us!’ the man had rasped, clutching desperately at Egg’s arm, and after making one manic try to get onto his feet once more, his new heart had spasmed and stopped.

Egg had laid the still, warm body to the floor as if it were made of china, and got up, feeling old, feeling weary. With a huge rose-like blood-stain on his chest he walked on to the far double-doors the man had just come through, and had forgotten to replace his breathing mask. He had entered the central corridor and passed several treatment and storage rooms before approaching the glass panels of a ward door.

Through them he saw movement.

It was a soldier, all in black and wearing a full-face gas mask; he began walking away from Egg, down the short row of beds, checking the occupants one by one using his rifle to poke them hard in the belly.

Thank God, Egg had thought, the cavalry is here, they must have landed them on the…

Just as he had placed his hand on the door, the soldier had raised his weapon and shot a patient.

In the head.

He couldn’t see that it was in the head because the curtains were partially pulled around the bed. But he knew from the angle. It was a lethal shot, delivered with precision.

He had pulled back like he’d been burned and heard movement farther down the corridor – two men were talking, too far away for him to hear specifics.

Shitshitshit! They were just cleaning up, of course! He could have kicked himself for being so complacent. He was just a contaminated rag. And the kids were…damn! But they weren't checking for symptoms, didn’t know there were people like him and the kids who were symptomless… Then again, he knew it didn’t matter now. The orders had been given to clean up.

And now he had a decision to make.

A choice to take.

Quickly.

It was amazing how it had all come back to him. He slid the small oxygen canister from his pocket and slipped himself through the swing door as the soldier in black walked on to the last bed on the right. In a whole universe of split seconds, Egg had reached the back of the man, helped by the half-shielding curtain, and swung the metal cylinder.

- Chapter 4
- Vital Targets
- A. High section
- Nr. 12. ...shock to the carotid artery, jugular vein, and vagus nerve.
- For maximum effect, the blow should be focused below and slightly in front of the ear.

The soldier had turned slightly towards him, helping the efficacy of Egg’s blow, gracefully slumping onto the bed and avalanching to the floor.

Egg barely acknowledged the corpse of the young woman who occupied the bed. He had wrenched the curtain around to shield himself from view and began to strip the soldier of his equipment and clothes.

It took too long, he felt; he even had to use the guy’s knife to slice off his dreadlocks so the helmet fitted. But this was his only chance. If he was seen moving in civilian clothes he was toast.

He had flexed his shoulders, adjusted the hat and mask, bunched his gloved hands into fists and then relaxed them before stepping purposefully out from behind the protection of the curtain, and headed for the door.

Damn. A soldier stood in the corridor a distance away to his left, if he knew the soldier he had just taken out there would be trouble. Egg raised a hand to his ear to half shade his visor hoping to disguise the skin-tone mismatch between the individual who had entered the ward and the one presently exiting.

The soldier down the corridor raised his gun a fraction in salute. Egg’s earpiece crackled, ‘All clear?’

Egg had said, ‘Check,’ given the thumbs up in front of his visor, turned his back and made a show of looking in the next two rooms as he beat his retreat. Sweat was gathering in his mask as he exited the second room and saw the man only half-acknowledge him then turn away. Slipping out of the department door Egg had belted away down the gently sloping hall corridor and past the crumpled bleeding mess that once was a man.

He took the stairs three at a time and flew into the next glossy hallway which was echoing to the faint sounds of fire-engines. Somebody had burnt the toast. But he wasn't toast. No. And wasn’t going to be.

All brain circuitry was firing, like explosions in a fireworks factory, as he took the next flight of stairs.

Get out or die.
Get out with the kids or without?
Can’t hide. This place is going to get busier.
Fire-exits, stairs and wheelchairs; stay unseen, or brazen it out…?
Were the soldiers working their way down, or down and up?
How long before the main force arrived?
Would they arrive, or was the whole ‘hospital as an evacuation centre’ a ruse?

He had reached the children’s ward, with heaving breath and one last question pirouetting in his mind…

What to tell the kids?

He pulled off the helmet and face-mask, and threw aside the chairs that barricaded the door. His ears sang high-pitched and predictable as a one-stringed violin.

Jo looked over the back of the sofa like a prairie-dog and relief flooded her gaunt face as Egg opened the door and strode in.

He felt a curious light-headedness, ‘Well, what do you think?’ he had asked, with a hyper-bright voice, doing a cat-walk spin for the astonished girl.

‘Bloody hell, Egg, what happened to you?’

Egg had walked up to the sofa and found Toby fast asleep.

‘Jo,’ he said softly and urgently, reaching over to put a hand on her arm, ‘I have to level with you, the army is here and they aren’t on our side – they think we’re sick and they aren’t in a question-asking mood so we have to leave, now.’

He moved to pick up the bag of provisions and sling it over his shoulder, then pulled the wheelchair up to her, ‘Hop into this, Private, and wrap those blankets around you – make sure we can flap some over your face, we might have to get you to play dead. And follow my lead with Toby, OK? I need you, soldier, d’you get me?’

Jo looked at him solemnly and nodded.

He leaned over and kissed her forehead, ‘I’ll be back in a second…’

He put his mask back on and dived into a treatment room where, with adrenalised hands, he grabbed a medical sample travel pack and a needle and syringe which he pulled from their packaging and put together shakily.

He didn't have time for this. But it could be a lifesaver…

With a nervous glance at the far end of the corridor which joined them to the main hospital, he ran back out and down to the neonatal intensive care. Here he sucked a full syringe-worth of Jeanette’s blood, stowed it in the sample pack and tossed it into the bag at his side.

Then, refusing to look anywhere other than the unit holding the fifth and fittest baby, he glanced at the charts, grabbed her medication from the open drugs cabinet, opened the plastic casing and lifted her out.

She was sleeping soundly.

Evie. Evie North. And the chances were good she’d survive. He bundled her up in a blanket and left a flap to cover her half-sedated eyes.

Turning a shamed face from the other tiny occupants, he loped back to the family room with a thudding heart.

This would never work.

Jo sat slumped in the chair, wrapped like an old woman, with the requested loose flap, and Toby sat up on the sofa rubbing his eyes and yawning, but he had stopped mid-way when he saw Egg.

‘Good, eh?’ Egg had exclaimed, bright and brittle with suppressed panic as he moved swiftly into the room. He grabbed a cushion and laid it on Jo’s lap, making a groove to nestle the bundled baby into, since the girl didn’t have the arm strength to hold her for long. ‘The cavalry's arrived and… well, the coolest thing happened! I, er, met an old mate from my army days…So I get to join the fun, kit and all.’

Jo looked down at the baby and up in wordless surprise.

‘Another member of the squad, soldier, just don’t teach her any bad habits. And now comes the boring bit,’ he continued, swiftly, addressing himself with manic cheerfulness to Toby. ‘We’ve got to leave here, move to another place, but it’s OK,’ he hastened to add, seeing Toby’s face cloud with worry, and began wrapping the boy in a blanket. ‘Everyone will know where we are, even your dad. But,’ he had added with a suddenly serious face, ‘this is professional soldiering. Very serious business. They won’t take kindly to any messing about – I’ve got the job of moving you lot, but it has to be quick and has to be quiet. No mistakes, or I’ll be in trouble. You don’t want me to get in trouble do you, mate?’

Toby looked offended, ‘No, Egg.’

‘Well, OK then. You’ll have to do what I say and no questions, in fact, no talking at all, do you understand? These guys are really grumpy, tough buggers. So my job is to get you down to the ambulances and drive you. I’ll wheel Jo, and you, Private, I’ll be giving you a fireman’s lift. Know what that is?’

‘On a ladder?’ Toby had suggested, hopefully.

‘Nope, it’s this…’ and he had tossed the skinny boy over his left shoulder, the blanket flapping over his head. Toby giggled, but Egg said sternly, ‘Ah, ah, ah! What did I tell you? No noise!’

‘Sorry Egg’, came the muffled response.

‘No problem, mate, just let’s pretend you fainted because I was so tough and scary – that’ll impress them. OK, here we go.’ He had adjusted both gas mask and helmet, then, giving Jo the thumbs-up and a silent sign to cover-up the baby and her own face, he set off into and along the corridor weighted with dread.

This was never ever going to fucking work – what did he think he was doing?

Plenty of exchanges were to be heard on the ear-piece in his stolen helmet. The hospital must have been crawling by this stage. Egg feared interruption at every metre, every doorway.

And when he cruised down the corridor, walking agonisingly slowly, he expected to hear a shout, feel a bullet…

But nothing happened and the lifts were working, somehow unexpectedly, making the trip down to the basement a blast.

When the lift settled and the doors opened, engines echoed loudly in the cavernous hospital garage, and everywhere was movement. All the vehicle access doors were up, and although Egg and the kids were still masked by the dimness at the rear, light and fresh air poured in.

Seven, maybe eight, soldiers were walking between the rows of vehicles with purpose. Not just ambulances either, there were more trucks outside of the building. The chaos of life was almost beautiful, Egg would have cried with relief but these vital living humans had now become associated with instant death. His joy was muted and confused.

With a slight hesitation he left the lift. But he mustn't ever hesitate. Hesitation would be the end of him and his pathetic platoon.

He squared his shoulders and steered the wheelchair to the nearest ambulance, breathing hard and unable to process the talk in his ear because it was also full of torrents of blood and his brain had seized up. They made it around to the back of the vehicle before several of the guys milling around noticed him. They were dressed as Egg was, and he had noticed nothing in their eyes or body language to alarm him, only that they regarded the human bundles he carried with reservation. The 'corpses' seemed to repel the others from his personal space. Useful, said a tiny, wily part of his brain.

He swung round and banged once on the rear doors of the ambulance, ‘Time to start! Go get some ghoulies, boys.’

They stood back, watching mawkishly as he opened a door and stepped up into the vehicle, flopping Toby down onto one of the fixed stretchers. He managed to put a finger on his lips surreptitiously and flapped the blanket fully over the boys face. Then he jumped down and noticed that the two soldiers were distracted as – blessed, fucking, beautiful hell – another lift-shaft opened and two guys appeared pushing gurneys loaded with bodies.

As Egg had carried Jo and the baby gingerly into the ambulance, talk on the ear-piece informed him that the West-wing was burning, and the rest of the East Wing was to be cleared. A lot of pissed off shouting, a lot of troubled consciences suffocated behind orders to give and orders to carry out. Wow, that was a job and a half, clearing the East Wing. But burning the West Wing was smart, probably by design rather than accident now he came to think about it since it had the larger number of wards. The East Wing held mostly out-patient services, A&E, maternity, operating theatres. No, no-one had burnt the toast, they had deliberately lit the bonfire.

He shut the rear door as things warmed-up around him.

Egg went purposefully to the driver’s side and did what he had hoped wouldn’t be necessary, removing a rather obese driver who had died at the wheel enjoying a very luxurious panini and coffee. Egg had opted to go to the other side of the ambulance and drag the guy into the passenger seat rather than ditch him and raise suspicion. He threw a discarded ambulance blanket over him, slammed the door, and hopped into the driver’s seat.

He had sat watching in the wing mirror as trucks began to arrive filled with guys in gas-masks and bunny-suits. These plastic-wrapped troops unloaded like an avalanche as he waited for an opening to back out and get away.

It seemed to take forever.

This wasn't good. Not good at all. The back wasn’t locked, anyone could open it. He waited, and a soldier appeared at his window. With a clipboard.

God help us, thought Egg and opened the window.

‘Fully stacked,’ he shouted through his mask at the pale, enquiring face behind its own transparent shield, making a ‘full-up-to-here’ gesture with his hand at the top of his forehead. He indicated the ex-driver next to him and grimaced.

‘OK, Point A as per the briefing,’ the man shouted back and made some notes on the paper. ‘Then I think you guys are on perimeter and catchment duty, right?’

Egg tried to look unimpressed, ‘Something like that,’ he said, and closed the window. He started up the engine and backed out to a triumphant chorus of reversal beeping and suddenly he was out in the sunlight and that had never felt more surreal. His chest was now heaving and he could feel sobs building up, but up ahead there was a checkpoint at the exit from the hospital car park. Some serious-scale body-moving vehicles were coming along the road beyond. But the barrier was a flimsy one.

For a split-second, Egg contemplated putting his foot to the floor and relieving his pent-up terror, but instead he slowed to a stop, engine still idling, and opened the door staring hard at the guy by the side of the road. He was armed, but significantly less teched up than those Egg had seen in the hospital, then again, he had more at his disposal than the crowd of bunny suits they were bussing in.

The lad wilted under Egg's frown, and bleated, ‘Destination?’

‘Hell and back,’ growled Egg, ‘otherwise known as Point A.’ He swung the door closed with force, and sat staring ahead, waiting for the bar to be raised. It was, and he drove on, against a tide of more bunny-loaded three-tonners.

He felt as high as a kite.

He was out. They were out.

What the hell came next? Who the hell could say?

How in the name of all that was holy would he get back to May, his beloved May and his own kids? That, he decided, he would not contemplate. Because he could not contemplate failure.

3: The Lie of the Land

Daisy McKendrie

That was the thing about being wee, she thought to herself – experimenting with a little philosophy – it came in handy sometimes. Apparently, so did living life with nothing to lose. Except Shabba. She ruffled the fur on the neck of the black short-haired mongrel that looked at her intelligently. She couldn’t actually see the dog in this pitch blackness, but he always looked intelligent and, somehow, inexplicably, cool. Hence the name.

She felt the dog sit up and lean against her as she squatted, waiting, and was glad of the warmth in the chill of the dank narrow pipe. She slipped her arm around the dog and huddled up tighter, getting a sloppy lick into the bargain. She sighed, sniffed, shivered, and continued to wait. Somehow, that’s all she could think to do for the moment.

The world had gone mad. Madder than normal.

Daze McKendrie was no stranger to the underbelly of life and the evil of humanity. She had seen things that would make your hair curl – forget eating your crusts, my friend. But this morning, in the grey light, in the grey city, she had seen the devil’s festering underbelly, with swollen mammary glands that indicated a procreation and a nurturing of evil the like of which she could never have imagined.

When the gathering at the squat had got out of hand last night, she had made a judgement call that enough was enough and had headed out into the street. She noticed quite a few people she didn’t recognise as she walked. It was a big city, sure, but when you had lived on the street, for a while anyway, you knew them in a whole other way than those with a home to go to. If you were lucky, tough, smart, or, more likely a bit of all three, you survived the street, and you learned to know your peers. And last night there had been Visitors. It freaked her out and she had altered her route until it occurred to her she was heading away from her pit and would be better off crashing in the crypt.

The old church was a huge, soot-blackened rectangle with churchy decorations slapped on it, which had been empty for as long as anyone could remember. It was the haunt of teenage Goths until about one in the morning, when even the roughest or coolest had gone back home to mummy. Weirdly, this kept the druggies away – they came back in the daytime.

It was odd, the church, since it had no land around it, just a railing at the pavement edge and a drop down to the long-ago smashed windows that lit the crypt below street level. The place was a nightmare to walk through if you didn’t get it right since the floorboards were rotten. This made it a perfect place for her to kip down in an emergency.

She snatched up a bundle of flat-packed cardboard boxes stacked by a large bin in the lamp-lit street, then headed down an alleyway running back between the church and a neighbouring run-down plot. She felt through a hole in the wire-mesh fence surrounding this land and pulled out a sturdy wooden plank. This she slotted between the church railings, opposite a half-shattered window, and fed it through until the far end was supported by the window ledge and her end rested where the railings were concreted-in. Then she deftly vaulted the railings, lifted the cardboard over, and tip-toed her way across the makeshift bridge over the one-storey drop. When she had squeezed through the smashed window, Shabba trotted over the plank too, his tail waving gently.

Daze took a good look at him when they got inside and saw no sign that they had company.

Good.

She pulled-in the plank, stowed it, and edged around the wall to her left, where the wood was safely resting on a masonry shelf, until she got to what used to be a cupboard built into the brick wall. It was oblong and at her chest height, behind the altar area, probably for the holy booze, she liked to think. She started to lay out her cardboard mattress. She hadn’t drunk much, it was going to be hard to really sleep. Out from each of her doc martin knock-offs she pulled a folded reflective survival blanket, jumped up onto the ledge, followed by the perky hound, and proceeded to wrap and tuck the thin foil around them both. Soon there was only a silver cocoon to be seen, moated about by the musty depths of the crypt.

She had slept. What woke her was the tension in Shabba’s body and the vibration of a silent growl. She had trained him not to growl unless given a sign since it drew attention to her. She pricked-up her own ears and resisted the urge to move in her crinkly state. More kids? Someone off their head? She actually couldn’t hear anything in the building. Someone must be on the path outside at the back… Then she heard a vehicle rumble into movement and slowly move on. Too slow. Why so slow? She felt as if she might still be asleep and dreaming, maybe.

What if they're at it with the search-parties again? She lay rigid, listening, even as Shabba settled down.

She remembered the search-parties with horror. They came all last year. Although, she reminded herself, it was a rare occurrence for one to use a vehicle. As the reluctant ranks of the street-dwellers had been swelled by continued economic devastation, the resentment of this new underclass, forced to spill over into the realm of the homeless, was aimed at the old-style homeless – the beggars, the misfits, the mentally unwell, the dangerous and the predators. The typical human hierarchical imperative of kicking the cat after being kicked yourself fuelled the New Homeless to channel their hate. Like a paranoid middle-class defending their real-estate prices, they worked the street as a new community; they ‘cleaned-up’ the gutters that they were forced to inhabit.

It had been a phase though, since these New Homeless eventually made their way into new kinds of communities which conquered derelict or public land. They became neighbourhoods of tent cities and abandoned office blocks, they got busy with organised queueing for government welfare, hijacking communal pigswill collections, stealing, conning, and rioting to defend food gardens on squatted land. Those who weren't compulsorily drafted into the Land Forces stabilised at the bottom of the ladder, running out of people to beat and kill. Some ‘self-medicated’, some lost hope, some quietened down – for the time-being.

Daze had survived that period of unrest thanks to the fact that she was neither mentally ill, stupid, or ever drugged-up. She drank, and that was one thing, but she was canny, too canny, and she had Shabba as an alarm system and weapon. She had a nose for serious trouble and always did what she had done ever since she was thirteen and left her northern land for the big city in the south – she headed in the opposite direction to it.

So as she lay there, trying to take her cue from the now relaxed Shabba, she had wondered if she would have to move on again soon. She had tried to think happy thoughts; about the guy she had met in the train station who had given her the sheets she was lying under. The guy whose lap she had ridden in the dark luggage-room in a surprise attack of desperate passion and vulnerability. He had gone. She could have gone with him, but she didn’t, even though he had asked her. But he had smelt so good, and the thought of him filled her with a spark of normality. None of the others who wanted to have her was his equal.

In the end, daylight was fingering its way cautiously into the unholy building when she had heard the distant helicopters, and wondered what time it was. Shabba got up with attentiveness and looked curious too.

‘OK, Shabba, let’s go and see what all the excitement is about,’ she had said, and they reversed the ritual with the blankets and the plank, heading along the back passageway and its weedy tangle, with a pit-stop at a convenient burst of shrubby undergrowth for the morning’s essential business.

While in the process of pulling up her leggings she heard screaming and gunfire. Ducking down again she grabbed the dog and drew him to her.

Past them on the path came a youth with a shaven head and a plethora of face-piercings, running for his life.

Daze watched his oncoming terrified face. Saw him suddenly flung forward, and his head explode like a watermelon. She shrank, wincing, even further into the scrubby mess and held an admonishing hand on the dog’s muzzle as footsteps approached, passed, and she opened her eyes to see through the twiggy, green screen that a man in black lifted the youth, and dragged him away with some kind of double meat-hook harness. A small truck pulled-up at the exit of the passage, where the man in black unhooked the harness and walked on as if he had simply put out the recycling bins. The truck disgorged a couple of men in white plastic suits who picked up the youth with half a head, and loaded him into the back of their vehicle.

The truck moved on out of view.

Daze had heard herself panting as she caught up on the breath she had denied herself. What the hell was going on? An official search party? She thought fast – where could she go, safely? Wouldn’t be safe to go back to find the guys at the squat. So she found herself creeping warily to the end of the alley and heading in the direction that the vehicle had come from – no point putting herself in the way of those people. No point getting shot at. What was that, anyway, army? She rarely saw guns discharged, it was a smuggler’s tool, a police-line riot obligatory, but she had never seen that…

Judging it safer to take the back routes she knew, it made the going slow, and at first, Daze had been too shaken to notice the lack of people. Eventually, when passing the rear entrance to a café she knew who served breakfast, she finally realised that there was no sign of life anywhere, not even an indication that the city had opened up for business and the night traffic had shut down for the day.

The strip clubs still had their doors open and the tacky breed of basement bars that had proliferated several years ago to sell affordable hooch were all open, inviting, and empty. She went into the backs of properties and entered them, getting bolder and bolder, grazing on drinks and food as she went, until she finally gained confidence and curiosity enough to go to the front of shops and look out at the empty silent streets.

Had the whole world been sucked-up into a space-ship, or what? she wondered, confused. She had noticed only one solitary cat slinking around.

The sense of unreality was beginning to creep her out by the time she entered the back of a tiny, grubby, Chinese takeaway, where an old flat-screen TV was playing. She slipped into a booth, screened from the shop front, and watched it while Shabba sniffed the floor and hoovered-up food spilt from a container. She lit a cigarette from an unopened box she had found in the kitchen.

After one puff she had sworn under her breath and the cigarette had burned-on, unheeded.

By the end of ten minutes the cigarette was done and she had been paler and more confused than ever.

It didn’t make sense.

So, there had been a plague and she was in Plague Central. The plague had hit in a matter of hours. Yet everyone had been cleared? At least from around here they had, otherwise, where were all the dead bodies? Any survivors in this area were to go to the station for quarantine and evacuation.

So why was that guy shot in the head? He hadn’t looked sick. Looters? Probably, looting – likely, and never popular with those charged with keeping social order. If your whole family was dead, of course you’d want to land some luxury goods, wouldn’t you? Well, no, not really. But scum was scum and it floated to the top whatever caused the turbulence.

But, hell, thought Daze, what if I'm infected now? Her stomach dipped and filled with dread. She threw the cigarette stub away from her as if it was contaminated. The latent panic was rising…

She was going to die.