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Part Four: Freedom Bound

Upon returning to the apartments, the first order of business was to prepare fall-back protection, no matter how inadequate it might prove. Gathercole had trained Crispin in the basics, and inscribing a protective circle was a matter of drafting skill and practice – not a mystical talent. Crispin drew the signs and symbols around Hodgson’s bed and applied the waters and the garlic oil in the way he had been instructed. While he did this, Gathercole set to, breaking apart the radios and the boxes of his devices and working at them in a feverish state of technological possession.

It took almost every moment of the day, a lot of coffee, a great many biscuits and some of Crispin’s special tincture to get the radio-pentacle fixed.

“Má huáng,” Crispin explained, as he so loved to do, though Hodgson was barely paying attention. “Friend of mine in the war was a recruiter for the Chinese Labour Corps, swore by the stuff. Keeps you awake, keeps you sharp, stimulates the senses. Saved my life at Cambrai…”

“Friend, hmm?” Gathercole looked up from the intricacies of his wiring and valves with an arched eyebrow. “Why are you making nice with the uxoricidal spectre bait?”

Crispin paused, mid anecdote. The pause drew on a fraction too long.

“It means wife-killer,” Gathercole broke the silence. “Though how you can forget with the poor woman’s corpse still down there in the floorboards I do not know.”

“Like you, I saw enough death in the war. It’s a familiar friend,” Crispin muttered, resentfully.

Crispin dropped into a sullen, pouting silence after that, grumpily handing over screwdrivers or pliers as Gathercole demanded.

In the end, though, the task was done. While the boxes and aerials of radio-pentacle were not as neat nor as tidy as they once had been, they held a charge and hummed reassuringly. The power to the house had been restored with a judicious re-wrapping of fuse wire. The restored power ran into a rack of squat-looking batteries which, in turn, powered the peculiar devices.

Gathercole sat back on his haunches, legs akimbo, either side of the boxes of exposed wiring, valves and crystals.

“The bloody thing should work again now and should be able to carry more of a charge. If we lose power, the batteries will hold everything together, and I’ve grounded the whole thing more. It’s as good as I can get it in the time we have.”

Crispin checked his pocket watch. “By the almanack, we have about half an hour left before sunset is fully upon us. Is that when the thing will manifest again?”

Gathercole nodded sagely and began to move the radio-pentacle into position, stepping carefully over the chalk pentagram and the symbols and signs that had been employed in the absence of power to secure Hodgson’s person against the spectre.

Hodgson, for his part, had not slept a wink – and without the aid of coffee or tincture. As the sun began to dim and the light through the cracks in the curtains turned a honeyed, smoky yellow his agitation became worse and worse, shaking in terror on the bed he had not left all day.

They checked and re-checked everything, took another dose of the tincture and settled in to wait, standing this time, alert to every creak and rattle of the house as the cooler air of the night set in. Crispin started at every sound, chewing the inside of his cheeks with tension. Hodgson had regressed to the state of a terrified child, huddled under his sheets and blankets, shaking like a bicycle on cobblestones and whimpering from his huddled ball. For his part, Gathercole stood firm, fixated upon his dials and needles, distracted from fretfulness by a screen of numbers, readings and calculation.

Slowly that same sense of pressure and weight filled the room, the sense of an oncoming storm, the air drew tight and oppressive, stuffy. Crispin reached out a hand and squeezed Gathercole’s shoulder, they shared a nod and as a pair swivelled their heads to watch the bed.

Slowly, imperceptibly at first the shadows lengthened, the light dimmed. Coloured bulbs had not been found in time, so they had replaced only a few fittings in the other rooms with the original bright bulbs. They began to flicker and to seem to dim and then virtually the only light remaining was that of the kerosene lamp. Flame, at least shielded flame, seemed resilient to this ab-natural power.

“The flame isn’t electromagnetic, d’you see?” Gathercole whispered to Crispin, who had taken his hand. Gathercole squeezed it, but then unwound his fingers to rend to his dials.

The shadows gathered about themselves in a manner painful to the eye. Not just an absence of light, but a sort of ‘anti-light’ that seemed to pull the very ability to see from one’s eyes. Gathercole swallowed and looked away.

“Crispin, tell me, in as much detail as you can manage, what is happening. I must tend to the radio-pentacle.”

“It’s darker, like smoke, gathering, perhaps more like a storm cloud. Right at the edge of the pentacle.”

Crispin carried on, raising his voice against the increasing hum of the machine and the stifling, leaden air of the room that robbed every sound of its treble.

“It seems more powerful than before, denser.”

“We need more power,” Gathercole twisted the loose, newly installed dials all the way up.

The aerials crackled and sparked, a sickly, violaceous aura surrounded them, flickering and waving like a flame and giving off the stink of ozone that had become all too familiar.

Crispin carried on, in uncharacteristically terse prose, concentrating on the task in hand – his words – much as Gathercole centred himself upon his technical wizardry as a way to displace the creeping horror of facing the ab-natural.

“THOMAS HODGSON! I AM MURDERED! AT YOUR HAND! YOU MUST PAY! YOU DASHED MY SKULL AND PACKED ME IN THE FLOOR THOMAS!” The spectres voice was deafening, shrill, unaffected by the leaden state of the air.

The shadows gathered into a ball of absolute blackness and smashed into the invisible boundary of the radio-pentacle. The violet aura became a crackling blue halo with each strike, and Gathercole feverishly worked his dials, tuning the frequencies against the resistance, finding the frequency of this ab-natural force, finding the settings – as much by art as science – that would most strongly interfere.

For all its hate and anger, this time the force was more methodical, probing in every direction in all three dimensions, but finding no weakness in Hodgson’s protections. Now though, even the chalk and garlic oil were heating up, making their eyes sore with the allium sting and drip tears down their faces. Gathercole dabbed, one-handed, with his blue silk handkerchief as he continued his work.

“It’s stopped,” hissed Crispin, squeezing Gathercole’s shoulder again.

Gathercole looked up, the creeps were stealing over his shoulders and up to his neck. There was the most peculiar feeling of being watched, though the black cloud of ab-natural darkness had no eyes or features.

There was a pulse, like the quake of an artillery shell. It wasn’t heard, but felt, in the thoracic cavity. It robbed them of breath like a punch to the gut, and in that same instant, every bulb shattered, and the aerials of the radio-pentacle glowed red and began to sag.

But they held.

“I think we’ll be alright,” Gathercole allowed himself a smile to Crispin, and at that moment the aphotic force turned on him.

Gathercole was lifted, almost out of his shoes, by force. In an instant frost rimed his suit, spiderwebbing its way across the pale fabric from every crease. He slammed against the wall, against the blood that was drooling from the cornices.

Crispin leapt to his defence, but the spectral form was as insubstantial as smoke, save where it wanted to be. The cold was bitter, though, turning the first joints of his fingers blue. He tried, numbly, to drag Gathercole down from the wall, but there was simply not the strength.

Gathercole clawed at his throat, collar-button flying, gasping, choking, wheezing out with all the volume he could muster, “Turn it off!”

Crispin froze, but then it dawned on him. He snapped the switch off, and the hum of electrical power instantly stopped.

Gathercole fell from the wall, a puppet with his strings cut, gulping for air like a landed trout.

The force moved like lightning, passing through the empty air that had been crackling with occulted electric energy just moments before. A pillow exploded, filling the air with smouldering feathers, the sheets tore. A screaming Hodgson was hoisted into the air and smashed into the ceiling in a shower of plaster.

Gathercole tried to speak, but over the emasculated shrieking of Hodgson, he couldn’t make himself heard. He crawled, past Crispin’s legs as his friend covered his ears with his hands and shrank away from the violent scene.

Suspended on nothing, Hodgson’s helpless body was slammed from wall to wall, leaving dents and impressions in the plaster and paint, splintering boards. His shrieking became more of a frothing wheeze, blood foaming at his mouth as his ribs gave way. With a terrific thud, he was driven down into the bed, so hard that the frame buckled and the mattress was bent and pushed down into it, clear to the floor.

Gathercole hauled himself up the table he had set his machines upon and slammed the switch.

Power surged back into the aerials of the radio-pentagram and Hodgson was dropped. The stygian force rammed against the barrier from the inside. It was unable to pass, though the antennae began to glow and sag once again. Every strike it made it weakened, dissolving, shrinking, losing its mass until finally, feebly, it seemed to fold back in upon itself and disappear.

It was like the moment a storm finally breaks. There was a palpable sense of relief and released tension. Tentatively Gathercole flicked the switch again, turning off the device.

Nothing happened.

Crispin helped him up the rest of the way and cupped his face, kissing his head again and again. For once, Gathercole relaxed into his attentions and threw his arms around him.

“You did it, William! You only bloody well did it. You’re a rum cove William, but by God, I love you for it.”

Hodgson groaned and gasped from the wreckage of the bed.

“What do we do about him?” Crispin’s tender hold of Gathercole’s face hardened in anger before he drew his hands away.

“He’s not going anywhere. We call the police from the first call box we see, tell them he engaged us to cover his behaviour and that we found out the truth. I doubt they’ll question too closely that we beat a wife-killer, but father can intercede if need be.”

“And the poor woman can be put to rest,” Crispin glanced back towards the kitchen.

“Along with her soul. This has given me a lot to think about. Let’s go home, Crispin. I am quite exhausted.”

The End

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As I was a walk-en’ one morn-en’ for pleas-ure,
I saw a huge bear just a lopin’ along.
His fur was all matted and his claws was a scratchin’
And as he approached he was growlin’ this song.

Whoo-pee, ti-yi-o, git along little meth heads,
It is your misfortune and none of my own,
Whoopee, ti-yi-o, git along little meth heads,
I’ll gobble your bowels and make your stash my own.

“God fucking damn it!” Liam smashed his fists down on the table, sending empty packets of cold and flu medicine flying in all directions. “Why can’t I make this work?”

“What are we doing wrong?” James was muffled through his breath mask, frowning. He was little use for anything but passing ingredients, but he had some street smarts.

Liam yanked off his own mask and shoved the window up in its frame, rotten wood breaking away and sending startled pill bugs rolling everywhere. “If I knew that I wouldn’t be doing it. Goddamn, I wish I’d paid attention at school.”

James shrugged, which wasn’t much help either, but he seemed to want to do something, so he began gathering up the empty packets and flattening the cardboard. “At least we can recycle these.”

Liam grunted, frowning furiously at the stained print-outs, flipping them over back and forth, as though they would give up even more secrets on the hundredth reading.

“Liam…” James said, low and quiet, but Liam was trying to concentrate.

“Liam!” He tried again, hissing.

“What? I’m trying to think!”

“There’s some weird old dude out by your car.”

Liam scowled and squinted out the window, the shack was dark at the best of times, but the sun was out, and looking outdoors made his head hurt.

Sure enough, there was someone out there, a ‘weird old dude’ with long grey hair and a straggly white beard. He was dressed in a ripped sleeveless flannel and greasy blue jeans with biker boots. He limped as he moved and, as he turned, Liam did a double take. The old man’s face was covered in burn scars, and he carried one arm high and crooked, the flesh on it red, puckered and tight from scarring. One milky eye peered out from the middle of the scars, the other a bright and brilliant blue.

What really gave Liam pause, however, was the huge, fuck-off bowie knife, sheathed at the guy’s back, and the battered revolver in his hip holster.

“James. Get the fuckin’ gun.”

James grabbed the shotgun from the skeletal couch and followed Liam out, both of them wishing they looked more intimidating than they did in their plastic coveralls and freezer-bag booties.

“What the hell you doin’ here? This is private property!” Liam shouted. Behind him, James racked the shotgun. Truth be told, the intimidating noise was the real reason they’d settled on a shotgun.

The old fellow wasn’t phased.

“Sure it private property. Jus’ ain’t your private property.” He grinned. “No need for all that, jus’ a friendly neighbour stopping by. Nice place, really got your ‘Evil Dead’ vibe going on. Though your Oldsmobile’s too new.” He hooked a thumb back towards the car.

“Well, you said hi. Now get out of here.” Liam took another step, James following behind him, moving slightly to the side and half lifting the gun.

“Boy, don’t point that at anyone unless you’re willing to use it. Like I said, I’m just here all friendly like. I’m a cook too. Name of Carter.”

“I don’t know what you…”

“Horsepuckey. Come on, we’re brothers in meth. Show a little professional courtesy. You havin’ trouble?”

Liam deflated slightly and pushed the barrel of James’ shotgun down with his hand.

“Yeah, how’d you know?” Liam squared his shoulders defensively.

“Smells wrong. Want me to come take a look?” Carter shrugged, lifting his hands up and away from his body.

Liam exchanged a look with James, both of them fretful and suspicious.

“What the fuck, it’s not like we’re doing too well by ourselves, right?” James’ eyebrows lifted, and he glanced back towards the old man.

“Aren’t we rivals?” Liam asked.

“Shit, since the cartels pulled out all people have is stove-top cooks like ourselves. There’s business to go around.” Carter started up towards them, dragging his injured leg and they followed on in after them.

Carter expounded, at length, about the ins and outs of cooking good meth, holding court while Liam listened and took notes. After a good half hour of talking, he fell back onto the skeletal couch with a thump, sending rusty dust falling to the ground.

“Well, that’s me fuckin’ parched. You got a pop or one of them piblets?” He pointed to the mound of empty cans in the corner. “Don’t beat yourself up about the fuck-ups. A ton of people watch a couple of episodes of Breaking Bad, read a Wikipedia article and think that’s all they need.”

James reached into the cooler and dragged out a can, tossing it over. Carter snatched it out of the air with his good hand and yanked the ring-pull, taking a long, deep pull from the can. “Ah, that’s so much fuckin’ better. Now, you boys have been real polite, but you’re wondering about the scars, right?”

“No, no, we weren’t,” Liam shook his head.

“What are you talking about? Of course, we were.” James wasn’t subtle, or that smart. At least he had looks and charm going for him.

“Ah shit, nothing to worry about. I know I look like a badly cooked burger patty and it’s only natural to wonder how it happened.”

“Cooking accident?” Liam said.

“Not exactly. You boys ever heard of Meth-Bear?”

“Oh, come on man. You going to tell us that’s what a bear-mauling looks like?”

“No man, but let me tell you what happened.” Carter leaned forward and took another swig from his can. “It goes like this…”

“Back in eighty-eight or eighty-nine, I forget which, me and my buddy Wyatt hit on the idea of cooking meth. Reaganomics hadn’t worked out for everyone, and we had plans, man. We were caught up in the whole ‘money’ thing of the eighties, and the nineties counterculture hadn’t kicked in yet. I was going to cook, I had a chemistry degree that wasn’t worth spit and Wyatt was a charming motherfucker. Kinda like the set-up, you fellas have here.”

“Told you I was useful,” James grinned to Liam.

“Anyway, we hit on this fantastic idea of coming out here. There’s a few caves, that’d help us keep cool, and people wouldn’t find them if we were off the trails. Seemed smart. We even made sure we found a cave with two entrances, so if the police happened by we could get away.”

“Clever,” Liam observed.

“Your set-up is fine, this place is run-down, but a building is a bit obvious if people cotton on to you bein’ in the area. So, we had our Batcave, made it about as cosy as you could hope to make it, with all the burners, broken glassware and toxic waste. We made good shit, and we got a bit of a name for ourselves, even got a brand, a rubber-stamped piece of paper with a buffalo motif in every bag.”

“Buffalo meth? That’s you? That’s some great shit!” James started away from the wall, against which he had been leaning. “You’re, like famous.”

“Ha, thanks. Yeah, still making it, still perfecting it. The best shit, and often the only shit, you can get. All was going real fuckin’ swimmingly until one day when we rolled up to work.”

Carter heaved a deep sigh and crunched the empty can in his fist, tossing it into the corner. He fumbled some rolling papers and tobacco in his good hand, as he continued.

“So, we come back one day, and the cave has been turned over. Everything’s smashed to fuck. Barrels are overturned, our stock is gone, or ruined. Glass is all smashed. All we can think of is some rival gang or a bunch of kids wandering the trails happening on our cookhouse. Still, we were spooked, and we decided to move, in a rush, to another cave.”

“Was it the cartels?” Liam asked, getting drawn into the story despite himself.

“They didn’t really muscle in until the nineties, so it wasn’t them. Something just as bad though, in its way. We had a big order coming in, Wyatt was working his magic with the Sons of Silence, and they wanted to make a big push. Needed the money for something, we didn’t care, we needed the money to make up for all the lost gear and chemicals anyway.”

“Sons of Silence, the biker gang?” James asked.

“Yeah, one-percenters, real bad dudes. If you want to shift a lot of meth, you’ve gotta get in with the bikers, but they’re assholes to a man. You gotta ask yourself if it’s worth the trouble. Now, I’m not the kinda person who gets high on their own supply, all these teeth are my own,” He grinned, broadly.

“That time though, we were up against it, so I admit, I got a little high to push through a marathon cooking session, and even after we were done, I was wired as hell. Couldn’t sit still, needed something to do, so I left Wyatt lookin’ after the stash, and I took myself out, back to our old cave. Still bothered me, you see, that we’d been fucked. Pops used to take me huntin’, and I figured – high as I was – maybe I could track whoever did us over.”

Liam handed Carter another Pabst, which he popped open with a hiss, wetting his whistle.

“I found tracks, but they were weird. More like an animal, but I followed them nonetheless. I don’t know how long I was walkin’ for, but I was mad and higher than balls on a giraffe. I’m starin’ at the ground so hard I don’t even realise I’ve arrived until I stick my boot right in some poor fucker’s guts.”

“Jesus,” they said together.

“Pure, fuckin’, carnage.” Carter gestured with his twisted hand, drawing an invisible horizon in the air. It’s a campsite, a pop-up cookhouse, another one of our sainted brotherhood, avoiding the pigs by movin’ around. Only some dark, dark shit has happened to ’em. I yank my boot out of this poor dudes entrails and look around. There’s two, maybe three guys. Hard to tell they’re in so many pieces. There’s baggies everywhere, blood, campfire’s been smashed and tossed, tents are ripped to pieces, broken glass all over, but of the meth, there is not a sign. Only dust.”

“Fuck, what did you do?” Liam felt a little sick from the apparent relish with which Carter told the tale.

“I was freaked out. I’ve seen some horrible things in my long life, but those ripped up bodies stay with me, and the stink. A backed-up sewer from their spilt guts, and grilling bacon from where some giblets had landed on the embers. It’s enough to make you vegan.”

“Are you?” James asked, always curious about people.

“Shit no,” Carter laughed. “Let’s not get crazy. I didn’t need an excuse to quit that scene, but it was all fairly fresh, and I was worried about Wyatt. So I high-tailed it back to the cave.”

“And that’s when you saw this Meth-Bear?” Liam was edging back towards incredulity.

“I shit you not. I get back to the cave, and I hear roaring and screaming and Wyatt’s Colt going off. Bam! Bam! Bam! Hurtin’ my ears as it came out of the cave mouth. Fuck knows what I thought I could do, or if I knew what was really going on, but I charged on in there like a rodeo clown after a buckle bunny.”

“And then you saw Meth-Bear?” James was spellbound.

“Then I saw Meth-Bear.” Carter took another long swig from his can and shook his head.

“He was huge but thin, even skeletal. His fur hung off him in ropes and strands, and he was covered in sores and scabs. When he roared you could see he only had a handful of teeth, but his claws were enormous, caked with blood. He had a mad, starin’ look in his eyes and he stank like the north end of a skunk walking south. Wyatt was still trying to shoot the bastard thing, and he was hitting, but Meth-Bear just didn’t seem to care. If he hadn’t been shooting it, maybe it would have left him alone, but never get between a bear and his meth.”

“What did you do?” James asked, in hushed tones.

“I didn’t have a gun, not that it would have helped. I didn’t have a knife like I do now. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but a giant, stinking, balding grizzly certainly wasn’t it. I was scared shitless and couldn’t move. All I could do was watch as it tore Wyatt to pieces.”

“Fuck,” the boys said in unison.

“It swiped his gun hand and all but took it off, so it hung, ninety degrees to the ground. Never heard a man scream like that before or since. It tried to bite him, but it only had a few teeth, so when it got hold of his neck that wasn’t an end to it, just made the screams…wetter.”

The sun had shifted while they talked, and now it came through a crack in the shack’s wall, striking Carter in his white eye.

“I still couldn’t move, and poor old Wyatt was done for. Meth-Bear finished him with its claws in his guts. They fell out on the ground like spilt noodles, and it near-as-hell tore him in half. All I could think of was the bodies I’d already seen. Then it turned and looked at me.”

Carter’s voice had been getting lower and quieter, drawing the boys closer.

“I’d just seen what it’d done to Wyatt, and that was enough to finally make me move. I fumbled my lighter out as it charged me, and I torched the chemicals.”

“Badass man, badass,” James commented, wonderingly.

“I remember the explosion and the fire, but not a lot else. I woke up in the morning, and the bear was gone, Wyatt was very dead, and I was horribly burned all down one side of my body. It’s amazing that I was still alive. I managed to crawl back to the trail, and some hikers found me. Luckily enough my hospital stay meant the Sons of Silence believed my excuse and then the medical bills got me right back to cookin’ meth again. He’s out there though, Meth-Bear. Cooks around here have a bad habit of disappearing.”

“Are we in danger?” James glanced at the shotgun, wondering if it was remotely adequate to the task.

“This was the eighties man, that bear is long dead,” Liam noted.

“Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s not the only Meth-Bear out there. All I know is that cooks still keep disappearing. So if I were you, I’d learn the lessons I did. Cover your tracks. Cover the smell. Never leave your meth uncovered. If it is Meth-Bear though, it’s like he’s paying me back, taking out the competition.”

Carter drained the last of the can and tossed it over with the others. “Well, good luck boys. Maybe we’ll run into each other again. Just keep in mind what I said.”

They shook hands, and he left.

“What do you think?” James asked Liam, as the old man reached the treeline and disappeared into it.

“It’s bullshit, but it makes a good story. Maybe he’s just trying to scare us off his patch. Still, we can try cooking again tomorrow with his advice, it sounds right.”

“It is a cool story though,” James stared out into the woods, a little apprehensive.

Carter walked away, humming to himself, back towards the caves. Every few steps, ever since he left the shack, he dropped a tiny little rock of meth, one after another, the humming stopping as he broke into a wicked grin.

As I was a cook-en’ one morn-en’ for money,
I saw a huge bear just a squattin’ right there.
His teeth were all missin’ and his scat stank like death,
And as he a sat he was growlin’ this song.

Whoo-pee, ti-yi-o, git along little meth heads,
It is your misfortune and none of my own,
Whoopee, ti-yi-o, git along little meth heads,
I’ll gobble your bowels and make your stash my own.

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graveyardofdreamsGraveyard of Dreams by H. Beam Piper
Read by Felbrigg Napoleon Herriot

The people of Poictesme scrimped and saved to send Conn Maxwell off-world to carry out a secret mission. Conn was to infiltrate the military and find the secret location of the “Fleet-Army Force Brain” a supercomputer buried somewhere on Poictesme. Now Conn is returning home with a secret he dare not tell his people.

1 MP3 file, 45.4mb, runtime 49 mins 41 seconds

The first independent to go on sale on my site. If you have RPG or other tabletop game material, or fiction or audiobooks that fit the overall ‘ethos’ of Postmortem Studios I’ll consider selling your material on my new site too. Get in touch.

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abandonedcampsiteA post-apocalyptic tale, rejected (narrowly) from an anthology. So you get it! Something of a dry-run for a setting for a forthcoming survival game.

Days run a little differently now than they used to.

It used to be I would get up, kiss my wife good morning, wake up the kids and head into the shower. Breakfast was a cereal bar and a cup of coffee on the way out of the door to the car. I drove eight miles to town, parked my car, walked to my office and sat in front of a computer from nine in the morning until five in the evening fielding people’s problems with their computers. Then I’d go home for an evening of forcing my kids to eat their peas and watching boxed sets on Netflix in bed with the missus.

A dull, boring, ordinary life. Days ticking by on my phone calendar. Nothing special, the same kind of thing that millions upon millions of people did every day, day in, day out, without changing or straying from the norm.

Now, things are a little different.

I get up when the sun rises, and I let everyone else sleep. I peel back the tarp and climb down the ladder – slippery with morning dew – to the forest floor. There’s no breakfast, we eat once a day, in the evening. I walk the trails through the woods and check the snares as well as the fish hooks we leave dangling in the rivulet – though the water drops every day. If I find any fallen wood, I bring it back to the hide to dry out for the evening’s fire, but that’s getting scarce too. We’ll have to start cutting them down soon, and that will make our presence easier to detect. Then I walk back to the hide, and I sit in the cover under the hide and tinker with the radio, just for something to do. It’s unfixable since the pulse, like everything else, but it keeps me busy.

I don’t know how anyone else lives now, but if they’re surviving it must be something like this.

Somehow we survived the pulse, the chaos that came after it. The plague and the looters, the rioters and murderers. All of us, my whole family.

There’s me, my wife (Ellie) my father (Gramps), and my kids, Tony and Amy.

Tony’s doing alright; he was a scout before everything went to hell and while he doesn’t enjoy camping anymore, he can cope with it.

Amy’s broken, though, and there’s nothing we can do about it. She hasn’t talked since we escaped town and she has her little den she’s dug in the woods away from the rest of us. She only comes close to us when we make food, so at least we know she’s eating. We keep hoping she’ll snap out of it, but she hasn’t yet.

My wife was a fiercely independent woman before all this happened, the one who did everything made more money than me doing bank work in the city, organised and ran our lives. Now she’s lost, traumatised, just doing what she has to and crying over everything we’ve lost.

Gramps is old, sick, but he struggles on and helps me as best he can. He’s a tough old dog, my father but we all notice the cough. Sick as he is I’ll dread it when he’s finally gone. He’s used to a simpler world than we were. He’s practical; he knows how to fix things, how to skin rabbits and gut pheasants, skills which have become literal lifesavers. I’ve learned more from him in this past year than in the forty preceding it. I used to be the one to teach him things like using the internet or setting the video to record. It’s strange how things turn out.

We lost track of time in all the chaos but so far as we can tell it’s late summer now, maybe the end of August. We’re hoping we can find and preserve a lot of autumn fruit and nuts, somehow, once they start to appear. We can’t get meat to smoke or dry properly, we’ve tried we have no salt or vinegar or even alcohol to pickle or preserve with, and we daren’t go back to town to look for supplies that probably aren’t there.

It’s a worry.

This morning was the first in quite some time that there had been a chill in the air and mist clinging to trees. It was getting towards the autumn, and that weighed heavy on my mind.

We had a rabbit in a snare, so that was a good haul for the morning or at least better than nothing. The hazelnuts weren’t ripe yet, by any stretch, so that was a bust, and the blackberries weren’t ripe yet. I still had some gloves and a good knife, so I cut a big bushel of stinging nettles – they come out a bit like spinach when you boil them. We’re all utterly bored of them, though, we lived off nettles and rice too many days before we got the snares right. Just as well that they did, because we ran out of rice. I read once you can’t live off of rabbit, but that’s been almost all we’ve been eating this month other than the nettles. Another thing to worry about.

When I get back on this day, everyone’s up and awake. My grubby little family of dirty survivors. No sign of Amy though, at least not yet, no food for her to eat I suppose. My wife’s hanging up the blankets to try and dry and air them in the sun – it hardly works even in the summer, you just can’t get dry living outside. Gramps is fiddling on that bow of his again – bailing twine and hazel sticks don’t make for the best or most accurate hunting weapon, but he perseveres. Tony’s tending the fire; that has become his singular obsession. He keeps it going through the day from the embers of the previous night. He’s gotten pretty good at it, though we don’t dare have a massive fire. Someone might see.

The day passes, somehow. Boredom is something we all constantly experience now, boredom punctuated by terror at the noises coming from the woods. We’ve not seen another person in months, just deer and the occasional fox sniffing around. We still remember what it was like getting out of town. People were – and probably still are – terrible. Desperation does that to people. It has done it to me; there is blood on my hands as much as anyone.

When the sun starts to set, we build the fire up, boil the river water in our fire-blackened pot and put in the rabbit and the nettles. It’s not much, but its something, or will be when it’s cooked.

Tomorrow, maybe, we’ll have some better luck.

Only we don’t get to tomorrow uninterrupted. There’s a loud cracking sound from the edge of our little clearing, our home, and then a voice raised, calling out to us. A new voice, one we haven’t heard before, cracked and husky with a lack of practice at speaking.

“Can you spare a little of that?”

***

He looked a state, but then we all did. He’d made an effort to trim his beard, which I hadn’t, but he was still as grubby and tired looking as the rest of us. Layered with muck and sweat, the sort of thing you only ever used to see on homeless people. He had a huge backpack, one of those army ones called ‘Bergens’ I think, and a gun, something I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was a battered looking double-barrel, and he had a half-empty bandolier of shells hung around his neck. It was pointing down, but he was almost as cautious as we were, frozen in place around our dinner with only gramps and his stupid bow and arrow to defend ourselves.

“I’ve got salt, pepper, some spice. Just nothing to put it with, can we make a trade?” He took a cautious, half-step forward, holding the gun one handed, raising the other, palm towards us.

Just the thought of salt had me salivating, let alone anything else. My stomach yawned at the mere mention. Less food, but with flavour? That would be a good trade at this point and someone who’d been out there might know something. News and flavour. I stepped forward and waved gramps to lower his bow – for all the good it could do in the first place.

“If you put the gun down and show us what you have, maybe we can find a place for you tonight and a bit of food. It’s just rabbit and nettles, though. Nothing fancy.” I moved, slowly, between him and my family. If things went wrong, perhaps I could still protect them.

He set the gun down on a stump with the shells and unslung his pack, keeping one hand up as he rummaged in the side pocket. He showed us salt, pepper and – Lord have mercy – garlic granules.

“Alright, come on closer but leave the gun there,” I gestured to him to approach, and he set his pack behind and came forward.

He stank worse than we did, or we’d just gotten used to our smell perhaps. We could wash – occasionally – in the rivulet, but he smelled like he hadn’t washed at all in the year since the pulse. He was greasy with it. Shiny-headed in the firelight and the fading sun, and I could hear his stomach growling as loud as mine was. He handed over the condiments, and I gave them to Ellie. She added them to the stew pot with shaking, quivering hands.

“It won’t be ready for a while. Why don’t you sit with us and sing for your supper?”

He winced a little at the suggestion, but he did sit, on one of the mossy logs we’d dragged here to use as seats and after a deep sigh he told us his tale, constantly glancing towards the pot and the promise of food to come, as though reassuring himself it was real.

“What do you want to know?” He asked, his voice low, almost lost in the crackling of the fire.

“Your name,” I sat, opposite him and everyone else crowded closer. “Everything you know. What’s been going on out there, how did you survive?”

He tongued his lips and took a sip of water from his canteen, and then he began to talk, a practised tale he must have told many times before. Too many people.

“My name’s Alan. I was a delivery driver. My watch didn’t work; my phone didn’t work, the van didn’t work. Nothing worked. I waited for other cars but after an hour all there was, was a young couple whose own car had broken down. That seemed like a bit too much of a coincidence to me, but I stayed with the van. Like an idiot.

He shook his head and plucked a few leaves off his boots before he went on. “Wasn’t until a policeman on a bike – of all things – came by that I clicked something bigger was going on. His suggestion was to find a pub or something to stay at, but I didn’t. I stuck with the van. I thought it might all get fixed I suppose. Two days later and nothing but a few people trudging down the road. Got to the point where I started breaking into the packages to look for food and drink, but eventually, I had to lock up the van and get going again.”

“We were in town when it happened. It was worse in a lot of ways, though people were looking out for each other at the beginning.”

“Then the sickness hit,” he sighed again, deeper. “As I’m sure you know.”

“We didn’t see much of it; we decided to leave town after a couple of days.”

“You were lucky then. I walked through a couple of villages before I got to a town and by the time I got there, the sickness was in full force. Pale people, white as sheets, barely able to move for how weak they were. Easy prey for the people who were still fit and were looking to loot and pillage. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to catch it. I stayed long enough to get some supplies and then got the same idea you did, to get out.”

I nodded along with him as we shared a moment of understanding. It had been horrible, and it had felt like there was no choice but to get away. We’d seen the writing on the wall the same way he had. Still, leaving people to die was haunting.

“I tried a couple of camping sites, but the sickness or bandits, or worse, always came along. Things broke down or just stopped working – whatever machines were left that is. The amount of people around got fewer and more sparse and spread out the more time went on. I just kept on moving. You’re the first people I’ve even seen a sign of in a few weeks.”

“Worse?” that worried me, I thought we’d seen the worst this new world had to offer.

“Ah, forget it. Don’t worry. Just being dramatic I suppose. I’ve just stayed on the road; there is still food and supplies out there if you’re not too fussy. Dog food will keep you going in a pinch. There’s hunting if you’re a decent shot, but I’m not,” he laughed, a little bitterly. “You seem to be doing alright, though. I’ve been watching you since this morning. You and your family have it pretty good.”

“It doesn’t feel like it most days,” I turned and looked to Ellie as she hovered over the pot. She nodded.

We had plastic bowls from an old picnic set, enough for everyone, though they were no longer the cleanest. The stew was thin and sloppy, but with the salt, pepper, and garlic it was the grandest feast we’d had in some time, considering a single rabbit don’t go so far between so many people.

After a mouthful of boiled rabbit and soggy nettle, Alan stopped abruptly, eyes wide and white in his grubby face. He swallowed, hard, and jabbed one dirty finger at the bowl we’ve filled for Amy. “Why are there six bowls?” He sounded panicked, scared, terrified. We didn’t understand why, but the fear was infectious.

“My daughter. Amy. She’s not well. She hides in the woods, but she comes back for meals. What’s wrong?”

“No, no, no!” He’s clutched his head like it was about to split, set down his bowl and stood, casting about and then walking towards his gun with quick strides.

“Wait no!” I spilled my bowl as I got up. “Don’t hurt us!”

He snatched up the gun and the shells and looked back at me. “I’m not going to, but six people is too many. I didn’t know about the girl. It always goes bad when there’s more than five. Always. Always.”

There’s a subtle change in the air as he says it. His fear is genuine, and it does feel like something has changed, shifted, a chill, a sense of being watched. I can’t explain it.

***

Alan kept staring into the woods, clutching that shotgun of his, white-knuckled and panicked but nothing was happening. My family huddled together in the dark except Amy who had scuttled back into the woods to hide. Slowly the tension began to evaporate from the terror he’d induced in us, and I stepped away from the others to try and talk some sense into him.

“Alan, please, you’ve scared everyone. Nothing’s happening.”

“It will,” he looked back at me with wild, feral eyes. “It’s coming.”

Something about the way he spoke made me still believe he meant what he was saying; I swallowed to wet my throat and ease my voice. “I’ll climb up into the hide and see if I can see anything.” He nodded to me and kept staring out into the trees.

I moved away from him, with a glance towards my family for mutual assurance, and then I stepped to the ladder. When I set my hands on it, it felt strange, dusty under my fingers and when I placed my weight on the bottom rung, it simply snapped, rusted through. That was absurd. It was steel; it had held firm as long as we had been here and showed no sign of breaking or damage. I just stared down at the fragments at my feet, uncomprehending. “Rust?”

“Rust?” Alan twisted around to look at me. “Get clear!” He shouted, stabbing a finger to point up at the hide.

My family moved the moment he barked; I didn’t. I was frozen, staring at the ladder, the patina of rust spreading across it like a time-lapse image of mould running across fruit. I looked aside to the great wooden beams that held the hide up above the forest floor and there too the metal bolts that ran through it and held it all together was turning red-brown and crumbling before my eyes. As I looked up in terrified wonder, the hide gave a loud groan, shuddered and slewed drunkenly sideways.

Our home, everything we had scraped, preserved and recovered was smashed to pieces in a deafening, splintering crash as it toppled into the woods and threw up clouds of dirt and leaves in all directions, blowing our meagre fire across the forest as embers that quickly vanished in the dark.

My ears were ringing. My lungs were burning as I coughed up leaf mold and ash. I stared into the crater around the broken stumps of the support columns as the clouds settled and thinned and saw something even stranger. The ground was writhing, twisting, heaving with worms, one atop the other in an enormous tangle right where the hide had stood. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The rust, the worms, none of it made any sense. At all.

“Alan! What the hell is this?” I screamed at him over my deafness, and I staggered to check on my family. They were horrified, staring at what remained of our meagre life, backed against a grand, old tree.

“This is what I meant by worse,” he yelled back. “Come together, help each other, and the world turns against you. I thought we were safe! I didn’t know about the girl!” The despair in his voice made my spine quiver.

I held Ellie tight though there was nothing I could offer to calm her, no platitude that would serve in this situation. Every last little thing we’d scraped together, this hardscrabble desperate life we’d forged, ruined in an instant.

Tony stepped apart from us, peeling away from the family huddle, clinging with one hand to my ragged shirt and staring into the night. Suddenly pointed out, with his free hand, past Alan, out into a gap in the trees to the blue-black night sky and the distant stars. “Dad! Look!”

I looked where he was pointing, and through the gap in the trees, the sky abruptly turned completely black. With sudden ferocity a torrent of croaking, shrieking feathers came pouring through the trees like a tidal wave. A pecking, screaming mass of crows that scratched, flapped and snapped at us as they flew around and over us and circled back through the trees and into the sky to fly back at us again.

I was bleeding from dozens of cuts and scratches, as was everyone else. Blood ran from a gash in my brow, down into my eye, half blinding me as the birds wheeled and whirled through the trees, screeching and cawing, massing for a second attack. It was incredible, it was impossible, it was terrifying, but there was no time to think about it. As they swept back I grabbed for my wife and son and hit the ground, scrambling under what remained of the tarp as Alan’s shotgun barked deafeningly, and flashes of light lit through the plastic.

Ears ringing I could barely hear the bodies of the crows tumbling around us, some still twitching and squawking in pain, crippled or killed by a shot, others tearing at the tarp with their claws and beaks to try and get at us. There were sickening crunches, something smacked into my leg and bruised it to the bone, but most of the crowing stopped. We screamed as the tarp was thrown back.

It was Alan, bloodied, blinded in one eye, a ragged hole where it should have been. The crows that remained perched angrily in the trees; the ground was littered with their corpses. Blood and spittle dripped down his chin as he opened the gun and thrust in the last shell. “It’ll be people next I think. Bandits. It won’t stop. It won’t ever stop so long as we’re together.”

I struggled to stand, the bruised leg almost giving way under me. “We’ll run, there’s nothing to stay here for anyway. Come with us. We’ll make it together. Don’t be stupid.” I reached my hand towards him, bloodied and scratched, fingers stretched out to take his hand.

He just shook his head and looked at me with one working eye and one ruined one, blood running down his face. “No. It won’t work. No more than five people. Never more than five. There’re no antibiotics anyway. I’m done. Thanks for the rabbit. I should have seen the girl.” Tears mingled with the blood.

Before I could stop him, he twisted the gun and fired. The flash was so close it singed my eyebrows and blinded me for a moment as his mostly headless body fell back with a wet, boneless thump amongst the dead crows.

We stood, I don’t know how long, in shock. When we recovered our senses, and our muscles answered our appeals to move the surviving crows had left, and it was quiet again. The air had changed, back, to the way it was before, without that tension, without that sensation of being watched. A new peace settled over our shattered camp and then, after a time, as we had so many times before, we set about picking up the pieces of our shattered lives.

***

We’re back on the road now. All five of us. Amy came back out of hiding after Alan died though she still hasn’t spoken and never leaves her mother’s side. We have Alan’s supplies and his empty gun. We have a tiny bit of food, the last gasp of the snares and fishing lines, but autumn is coming now, and there’ll be nuts and berries and whatever has survived in people’s abandoned gardens for a while.

We’ll look for supplies in some of the forest villages and then try to find somewhere remote and sheltered where we can rest up for the winter. All five of us. Just the five of us. Wherever we go, I’m going to leave this information, no more than five. Maybe it’ll keep some other people alive, but it means we’re alone, and we have to stay alone if we’re going to live. It means there’s never going to be any more help. No civilisation. Nobody to ride to the rescue or to rebuild.

It’s just us now.

Just family.

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d3b54c63cc513eee4c66089211eb865aMrs. Mundy was too busy to die. When she felt a terrible pain in her chest and her vision swam and went black she just gritted her teeth and refused. She shook her head until the pain faded and the stars went away and then she felt a lot better.

“Oh, I can’t get sick right now. There’s too much to do!” She muttered to herself and scrubbed away at the dishes with even more ferocity than she already had been until the last of that dizzy feeling faded away. There were the dishes to finish – and there was melted cheese stuck to them – the floors to scrub, the steps to sweep and lord knew what else to do around the house. It never seemed to end.

It kept getting worse. Things kept piling up that needed doing and Mrs. Mundy was in her seventies now. Nothing happened quickly anymore. There was the hoovering and the dusting, the spare room needed repainting and it wasn’t as though there was anyone else to do it, God rest her dear old Harry. Then there were these blisters she’d gotten and then there were all these flies that had turned up in the house and the little black spots they left all over her nice white walls. She wasn’t having any of that.

By the time she’d dealt with them – flypaper hanging everywhere, spray to get rid of the persistent ones, not that she liked to use nasty chemicals and her daughter had always nagged her about the ozone – and sticking plasters for all her blisters, well, then there were more problems.

She had developed a cold. A runny nose, a bloated stomach, diarrhoea, a heavy feeling in her head. Along with that dizzy spell and the chest pain from the other day, as well as the blisters she clearly wasn’t well. Maybe she’d had a bad reaction to that new washing-up liquid she’d bought? Who had time for the doctor when that horrible smell lingered in the house and her ‘condition’ meant the bathroom needed constant cleaning? At least she wasn’t hungry. That was something, not needing to wash dishes so much.

Still, Mrs. Mundy couldn’t get a break.

She still wasn’t feeling well and somehow she kept getting the most horrible stains on her clothes, green and yellow and fatty, even though she wasn’t eating. No matter how often she ran them through the wash they wouldn’t get properly clean. Who had time to go to the shops for more dresses when there was work to do?

The cat kept leaving dead animals – or at least pieces of rotting meat – around the house and scrubbing those stains out took a lot of effort. All this work meant she was losing a lot of weight, which was a nice thought. She’d have to get some new dresses soon either way if this kept up, but in the meantime, an old belt would keep her dress on, stained or not.

Mrs. Mundy got exhausted. It was harder and harder to move each and every day until one day she simply couldn’t get out of bed, though it pained her just as much to stay there. Housework would be piling up, the cat would be going unfed and his litter box uncleaned but there was nothing for it. She couldn’t even raise her head from the pillow.

So she slept.

The next morning she felt a lot better, light as air, right as rain.

“The rest has done me good!” she said to herself as she set to work. It never ended and now there were these bones all over the bedroom to dust and polish along with everything else.

A woman’s work was never done.

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My first audiobook is available for download from Audible.com (and soon from other places). You can get it HERE.

It’s a short(ish) story (about half an hour long – so sort of like a radio play in length) about a grubby, disheveled and broadly disliked London detective who’s given a shit case that leads to an interesting place.

This appears to mean that my setup is now good enough for recording audiobooks and voiceovers. So if anyone needs that kind of work done, let me know!

Art for Stain by the lovely Rowena Aitken.

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