Preview Of The Outbreak By Colin M. Drysdale
If you haven't already read The Outbreak, the prologue and first two chapters are provided below as a teaser. Alternatively, you can download them as a PDF which you can read on your eReader by clicking here.
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General 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.’
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.’
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!’
I 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?’
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.’
‘I think the virus is here.’
‘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?’
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.’
We 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?’
‘You think the underground’s still going?’
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?’
‘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.
‘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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