Chapter 21 - Expect The Unexpected
“No, keep straight on,” Andrea urged. “If you head towards Lydd, you are getting close to the nuclear power station at Dungeness.”
“Won’t that be a good thing?” Amelie queried. “There will be authorities there that are probably not part of the infection.”
Andrea smiled at the naiveté of the woman.
“If they are still there and human, they will be armed. They won’t let you in. I can tell from personal experience that they are a bunch of hard bastards who will probably have been reinforced by more hard bastards. What can they offer us? Protection? No, I suspect that even if they do let us in, it will be like walking into the lion’s den, especially if they have no central authority controlling them. Here’s another thought, what if they have lost control of the installation? Have you heard of the China Syndrome? Chernobyl? Fukushima Daiichi? What do these things teach us?”
“To stay the hell away from them,” James agreed. “Even here we’re probably still too close to them.”
They had left Rye behind them now and it felt tempting to aim for more remote territory nearer the coast, but the problem was that this same remoteness was a nuclear power station’s friend. Dungeness was one of five active, hot stations in the UK. With that limited number it should be easy to stay clear, or so you’d think. And yet, there they were, within eleven miles as the crow flies from the only one in the south east of England. Typical.
They continued eastwards, avoiding the Dungeness peninsular while staying on the back roads to avoid the gaze of unnecessary eyes. By the time they reached the outskirts of Folkestone they were more relaxed; it’s not possible for anyone to stay on an adrenaline high without exhaustion setting in. The fact that most of them had consumed the better part of one of the two bottles of spirits they carried with them helped. Claire’s driving became sloppy and careless, although the others didn’t seem to notice.
Driving into Hythe on the Military Road they passed a Sainsbury’s on their left quickly followed by a petrol station. Claire slewed the car onto the forecourt, narrowly missing the first set of pumps.
“Whoa!” James cried, startled into the present. “What the fuck?”
“We need petrol,” Claire answered, unfazed. It was mid-afternoon and the only person awake in the car had been Claire - until their undignified entrance into the garage. No-one seemed to have noticed their near-death experience.
“I’m hungry,” Billy said.
“Me too,” Andrea agreed.
“Get me something, heated if possible,” Claire asked, putting her hand on James’ thigh. “I think I’m a little pissed.”
“D’ya think, DiNozzo?” James asked. She just smiled, got out of the car and began fumbling with the pump nozzle, almost as if she’d never seen one before.
James was in no better condition, however, his paranoia was set at maximum and he looked around furtively. Were the police still active? It would just be their luck to be nicked a policeman who still believed society existed. He helped her start the fuelling process off and then raced to catch up with the others as they walked towards the small shop. Amelie stayed with Claire. James wanted to make sure they got the best food in the shop; he was concerned for the health of the foetus, especially considering the alcohol intake. If Claire had to drink to survive, then he wanted to make sure that it at least had the best food possible under the circumstances. He looked over his shoulder and saw Claire half-asleep leaning against the car, Amelie had taken over the refuelling process. Claire had always been a little lightweight on the drinking front.
Inside the shop they discovered that the staff were nowhere to be found. It was a little strange, but not as strange as the empty streets. Maybe James was hypersensitive to the unusual, even under the current circumstances but this felt decidedly odd. Between them they gathered up cellophane covered fresh food from the shelves. Billy tested the microwave and found it still had power. In a moment he was heating a pasty until it was hot and soggy. They others followed suit; they all fancied a warm meal, no matter how mediocre it was. Grabbing carrier bags, they collected more spirits from the shelves behind the counter. Billy gathered up some smokes. From the relieved look on his face, he appeared partial to the weed.
They carried their haul out to the car, James giving Claire and Amelie warm pasties which they gratefully scoffed.
“Let me drive, babe,” James asked.
“Sure,” Claire agreed eagerly. “I’m so tired.”
“I guessed,” James replied, smiling knowingly.
She hopped into the front passenger seat while the others climbed in the back. James looked up at the security cameras, the signs next to which announced they had ANPR capabilities. He shrugged at the camera, got in and drove away. He wondered how long the guilt of what once was illegal would last. At the upcoming intersection, he indicated left to stay on the main road, and laughed. That particular automatic response would stay the longest, he reckoned.
“So where now?” James asked. He’d crossed the Town Bridge over the Military Canal, an 18th Century defensive construction against the might of Napoleon. The streets remained eerily empty as they approached the seafront. No-one was asleep now.
“Let’s find an hotel,” Billy suggested. “They’re likely to have food and we can hide and defend ourselves pretty well in some of the older ones.”
“Maybe,” James replied, remembering their encounter at the Bull.
“That worked so well before,” Andrea piped up sarcastically.
“Fuck you, lady,” Billy replied angrily. “At least I’m trying.”
“Yes, you are,” she retorted.
“Oi,” James interrupted. “Stop that shit. We’ve all had too much to drink, I get it. And we’re all tired and afraid. Let’s not fall out over nothing.”
The car lapsed into silence briefly.
“Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll get us to the seafront and we can decide from there. There might be a boat we can use to cut us off from them. Let’s see. A boat will probably give us more options.”
In the absence of disagreement, James followed the signs to the seafront until he was forced to bear right with the road as it began to follow the shoreline. Disappointed that there were no boats along the shore, he kept driving to the end of the road where he spied a couple of beached boats ahead that looked like commercial pleasure craft. It appeared that someone had tried to get one of them off the dry cradles but had only succeeded in getting it down to the water, not in it. The tide was in now, the water lapping at the stern. The individual or individuals had been so near to success, James thought; he wondered why whoever it was had stopped their endeavours. A shiver of nerves kept him alert.
Bringing the car to a halt, James asked the passengers to stay inside. He stepped out, looked around carefully and jumped over the low brick and stone wall, before stumbling onto the beach. Still no-one in sight. This was beginning to freak him out. People just don’t disappear, certainly not in such numbers. Cautiously he wandered over to the boat and noticed innumerable footprints in the sand. They were random, indicating no particular direction of movement. Whatever had happened, it had been recent because the footprints were relatively fresh and sharp. He studied the area around his position, trying to find where the unseen trap was. It didn’t help that his brain was fogged by alcohol. He liked a drink, but the mid-afternoon had always been the worse time for him to partake. It made him slap-happy and incautious. He fought his drowsiness and breathed deep the fresh sea air.
Climbing up the boat’s wooden docking cradle, he peered into the vessel and saw no-one. Small drops of blood could be seen on the gunwales along with slug or snail trails, their silver paths obvious. A wet hand had tried to grab for purchase but had slid off, leaving a line of nail claw marks and even what looked like a bloody nail held sticky to the surface. All of this indicated the owner of the hand had been terrified of what had befallen him or her. He looked down below the marks to the sand and could tell that someone had landed heavily, possibly even face first. Whatever had happened, the body was gone.
Jumping across the small gap and onto the deck, James landed quite heavily, stumbling on a coil of rope. Looking around to see if something had been disturbed by his inelegant arrival, he saw nothing and so moved quietly towards the galley doors, one of which swung gently in the sea breeze. Bracing himself to jump back quickly if something or someone lurked, he opened the door quickly and peered inside. It was empty. Clearly only used for basic storage, there was little space available in which to hide. He relaxed.
“You must be James,” a voice sounded behind him. He spun around to see a man sitting in the stern, looking quite relaxed and at home.
The man ignored his confusion.
“You probably don’t know me, but then why should you? My name is Doctor Peter Ericson.”
The name dimly rang a bell, something about a loon… and then the penny dropped. This was the bastard accused of starting all this crap. As he looked at the man he noticed earwigs racing across his face and the odd slug moving under his hair. The more he looked the more he saw. It made him want to vomit. The man was a menagerie of horror. The doctor smiled and James saw what lay within and it caused his world to sway, go black and white before he passed out.
When he awoke he could see the doctor standing over him.
“It wasn’t really you I came to see,” he announced. “I want to speak with Doctor Andrea McLean. She’s been quite troublesome to me, although I take my hat off to her, not even I realised the importance of alcohol in the bloodstream. I’d hate that little piece of information to spread to the wider world.”
James sat up quickly, struggling to breathe, his throat closing over at the overwhelming stench of sweet putrefaction and wet, dank soil that was all around him. He gasped, feeling like death was seeping into every pore. Doing his best to stay away from the doctor, this vision of horror, he looked across to the car but couldn’t see it. The whole seafront, from the road he had driven down, all the way down to the shoreline in all directions was swarming with thousands upon thousands of people, all of which were obviously infected. They certainly explained the stench.
“You bastard! What have you done with Claire?” he shouted, turning on the doctor in fury. Without thinking, he lunged and grabbed the man’s lapel, shaking him violently. In the blink of an eye several of the infected had come aboard, appearing to slither more than walk and forced their way between James and the doctor, breaking his grip on the man. The doctor straightened his jacket before replying. James stood, braced and angry but frustrated and impotent at being so outnumbered.
“She is safe, as are the rest. As long as they remain inebriated.”
“I know who you are, you’re that mad fucker who they say started all this,” James accused his captor. “Why would you do such a thing?”
“I felt obliged to maintain a stable world order,” the doctor explained with the patience of omnipotence. “Through all this, I can ensure all this happens.” He waved his hands expansively at his creations.
“But you’ve killed millions! That’s hardly stability.”
“Not killed. Definitely not killed. You are still young. You have an idealistic outlook, no doubt. I imagine you still think your government, in spite of what you see right in front of you, has you best interests at heart. They use national security and democracy as a soporific for the masses. If you opened your eyes and truly looked you would see that the world is in chaos. Politics is a joke - not that it hasn’t always been so; man uses politics and religion to destroy, hate, and suppress - and what’s so funny, if that’s the right word, is that these days most people don’t give a damn as long as they can get onto Facebook or whichever platform is their preferred poison, even in countries where they are in complete poverty. Colourful screens are the new gods; you can ask it the meaning of life and it actually gives you an answer - even if it is wrong. Personally, I am stunned at how something so potentially beautiful as social media has become so poisonous; it’s used more to attack than love. Living together in isolation. Well, no more. If people want to live as zombies, then I’m happy to oblige, in a very real sense. Now we can begin to save the planet - from us.”
Noticing the doctor used the word ‘we’ and not ‘I’, James could see that the doctor actually believed his own rhetoric. Right or not, he was putting an end to the Human race. The doctor was killing the patient in order to save it.
James slouched on a bench, clutching at his chest as a desperate pain rived his chest apart, his heart-break physical at the inevitable loss he realised he was about to suffer. They had lost their fight to escape; the baby wouldn’t be born and he’d never lie again with the one person he felt truly at peace with. It would have been better to come into contact with Robby back at the mall, ending it then instead of building hope for the future.
Out of the corner of his eye James saw movement in the mass of zombies. After a moment he gasped as he saw Claire, then Billy, Amelie and Andrea making their way towards the boat through the crowd. The throng made room for them to pass.
“Nooo…” he moaned.
Ericson looked down benevolently at the frightened group as they approached and then smiled broadly as he spied Andrea.
“Now here’s someone who will truly understand and appreciate what I’ve done,” Ericson stated and turned to James. “You may not believe me, but some of what has happened was a result of unintended consequences.”
“No shit,” James replied.
The doctor pretended not to hear.
“Serendipitous but fortuitous, if you will,” Ericson said to no-one in particular.
As the world succumbed to the infection, a new intelligence emerged. The ubiquitous nature of the new beast meant no-one left could escape detection, and, no matter how long they held out, were subsumed into the whole. Like a sponge, or more precisely a telepathic network of individual organisms connecting to become a larger unified worldwide entity, it was controlled from a single point, Doctor Peter Ericson, its neural ganglion. It was with a sense of irony that the King of Slugs resided in the Garden of England, Kent. Now there would be no more wars, no more religion, and best of all, no more PPI adverts.