Book 5: Reunion
Surviving is easy. It’s the next part, living, that’s hard.
Zombies. It is seven months since the outbreak. The world is in ruins. Britain is a radioactive wasteland peopled by the undead. The few survivors cling to the hope that they might wake up tomorrow. For most, that is all they have left. But Nilda has something more; the chance that her son is alive. At least he was, months before.
She and Chester set out from Penrith, searching for her son. During the journey, Nilda learns more about this self-confessed criminal, Radio Free England, the conspiracy behind the outbreak, and how Chester was involved in it all. As they near Hull, she realises it is too late to change her travelling companion. She will need his help to escape the zombie infested city, and find her son.
Fleeing from the last remnant of the old government, Tuck and Jay head south in search for survivors. When they rescue a wounded man, their quest becomes one for medical supplies. That leads them to a rooftop city, and to the realisation that surviving out in the wasteland is easy compared to forging a new life from the wreckage of the old civilisation.
8th September - The Pennine Mountains
20 miles southeast of Penrith
Zombies. Five of them, strung out along the road. They’d been hidden from view until Nilda, a few paces in front of Chester, rounded the bend. She slowed, readying to dismount. Chester didn’t. He unslung his long-bladed straight-sword and put on a burst of speed, angling towards the first of the living dead. Nilda was certain she heard him mutter ‘windmills’ as he rode past. Taken with his large sword, larger build, and small-framed bike, it was nearly comical. Nearly.
Within seconds he’d covered the scant few feet between them and the undead. He held the sword out, point angling slightly downwards, then stood up on the pedals as he speared the blade through the creature’s open mouth. It cut through sinew and shattered teeth. Chester twisted the sword, wrenching it forward and to the left, ripping through skin and bone. The blade was free, and Chester hit the zombie’s ruined face with his elbow. As the creature fell, Chester cycled on, the bike wobbling as he regained his balance. He brought the sword back and up once more. This time, he let go of the handlebars to grip the weapon two-handed. When he swung the blade in a great curving arc, the sharpened edge cleaving through skin and skull, momentum caused the bike to swerve and topple. The zombie fell, the bike skittered across the road, and Chester tumbled off, scrambling back to his feet as Nilda brought her own bike to a halt two-dozen paces behind.
She dismounted, unsheathed the gladius, and dashed forward, slamming the point down into the ruined remains of the first zombie’s skull before darting to the second, partially scalped creature. She hacked the sword down on the back of its head just as it was rising to its knees.
Chester, still gripping the sword in an odd two-handed grip, was hacking at arms and legs. He wasn’t even aiming at their heads – he was just cleaving and slashing with furious abandon.
“Just kill them!” she yelled. “Finish it!”
And though it took a moment for her words to cut through his berserker rage, he did.
Nilda stopped ten paces from him, watching his shoulders heave up and down. It seemed like he’d been acting differently over the last few days, or perhaps it was the person she’d met back in Anglesey who had been the act. Ever since they had spent that day at the mansion in the Lake District he’d seemed different. At times he had an almost jocular obliviousness to the horrors of their world, and at other times, times like these, he seemed possessed by some dark inner regret.
Whatever it was, or whether it was anything at all, it was dangerous, and she was beginning to question whether it made him too dangerous to have as a companion on her journey. She watched as his shoulders slowly straightened, and he seemed, if not quite relaxed, than once more in control of his demons.
“It was something I read,” he muttered, and realising that wasn’t an adequate explanation, continued. “It’s a cavalry sword, you see. That’s what the plaque in the museum said it was. Barely a hundred years old, and even then out of date. But it’s meant to be used from horseback. I just wanted to see if I could…”
As his words trailed into silence, she was ready to berate his cavalier recklessness, but saw a mix of shame and guilt on his face and decided to leave it alone, at least for now.
“There’s too many of them on this road,” Nilda said, stating the obvious to fill the uncomfortable silence. She walked over to the first of the corpses, prodding at the remains of its clothing, searching for the obvious bulge of a wallet or some other form of I.D. There was none.
“Check the map,” she said. “Are there any footpaths or railway lines we could take around here?”
“The map. Yeah,” he muttered, as she moved on to the next body. She saw a chain around its neck. She knelt, and pulled on the chain. It was attached to a set of military identification discs. She added the name to the list she was keeping. It was only a week since they’d left Anglesey, and barely longer since her rescue from the barren Isle of Scaragh, but the piece of paper was already filling up.
“There’s nothing nearby that’ll take us in the right direction,” Chester said. “It might be easier if we just cut across country and head towards the Yorkshire Moors.”
“If you’re sure there is going to be a boat in Hull,” she said. “Otherwise—”
“I am. It’s there.”
She nodded slowly though not in agreement. Whilst she believed he thought a boat had been there, that didn’t mean it still was. If she’d never met him, if she’d never gone to Anglesey, she would have headed due south, straight to London. But if she’d done that, she would have been tramping through a radioactive wilderness. Still, she didn’t like hanging all of her hopes on a boat that may now be sunk, stolen, or surrounded by the undead.
“I think…” she began, and stopped. “Did you hear that?” she asked. From Chester’s expression he hadn’t. She turned slowly on the spot.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Gunfire,” she murmured.
“A single shot,” she said, still looking around, trying to distinguish between the echo and the sound’s origin. And there it was again.
“I heard that one,” Chester said. He pointed down the road, in the direction they had been heading. “That’s a rifle without a suppressor. Of course, you don’t expect to find silencers in England. They were more strictly controlled than the firearms were.”
“You’ve got one,” she said, nodding at rough metal cylinder affixed to the rifle slung across his back.
“That was Bran’s idea. Made in Anglesey. Suppressors aren’t standard issue, and they’re certainly not the kind of thing you’d expect some farmer to rig up. But they are given to everyone who leaves the island—” He was interrupted by a third shot. “So whoever they are,” he finished, “they haven’t come from Anglesey.”
“How far away do you think it is?” she asked.
“A mile,” Chester guessed. “Possibly a bit further since the wind is in the right direction, but less than three.”
“Then let’s go and see,” Nilda said.
“And then what? You want to speak to them?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. We’ve seen no zombies with bullet wounds, so whoever they are, they didn’t come along this road. And since they don’t seem to care about noise, whether we talk to them or not, we need to know which direction they’re heading.”
Chester didn’t argue any further. They continued, more slowly this time, their eyes on the zombies in the fields to either side. There weren’t many, just occasional scarecrow figures, shambling along in the distance, heading towards the sound of gunfire. After a mile, they heard another shot.
“It came from over there,” Chester pointed to the southwest.
“If we cut across the field, we should be able to see from those trees.” Nilda gestured towards a copse of battered oaks, five hundred yards from an equally battered barn.
From the copse, they could see the road. It was another one-and-a-half lane country track paved as much with mud as it was asphalt. There was no sign of the shooter. They left the bicycles and continued on foot, following the line of the farmland as it rose up above the surrounding countryside.
Nilda saw the figures moments before she heard the fifth shot. She crouched down, worried they might have seen her silhouette against the skyline. She rose slightly. Looked. Relaxed. They hadn’t.
There were three of them, one at the front to the left, one at the back to the right, and one in the middle pulling a four-wheeled hand cart. They walked slowly, the one at the front and the one at the rear carrying their rifles across their bodies in a manner that would have betrayed them as military if their camouflage uniforms hadn’t.
Nilda found her palms suddenly coated in sweat. She couldn’t place what about the scene was so unsettling. Perhaps it was the way the group was walking rather than cycling. Or perhaps it was how, a minute later, when the one at the rear paused, aimed, and fired, he seemed completely unconcerned by the sound of gunfire.
“Do you recognise them?” she whispered.
“Can’t say I do. Can’t say I know anyone who’d wear clothing like that. Not now.”
“The uniforms are, for all that means.”
“But where did they come from?” Nilda asked, thinking of that dead soldier whose name she’d taken less than an hour before. “I mean, they’re still wearing camouflage, but they can’t be the same uniforms they were issued with after the outbreak.”
“Perhaps they got them from some army surplus store. More likely they got them from some depot in one of the enclaves.”
“I thought all the enclaves were destroyed.”
“Yes, but not all by nuclear bombs. Some just collapsed during the mutiny, but there would still be weapons and uniforms there. Or maybe they were part of some unit that managed to hold together, up until recently at least.”
“Can we trust them?” Nilda murmured. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”
“Because they’re military? Didn’t you say that woman your son’s with, what’s her name? Tuck? Didn’t you say she was a soldier?”
“Former soldier. I think she was in some kind of explosion. Lost her hearing, damaged her vocal chords, and it left her with terrible scars on her face and neck.”
“Once a soldier, always a soldier. That’s one of the oldest aphorisms in the book. Take Bran, he’s about as British Army as you can get, and he’s the very definition of ‘a good man’. There’s Mister Mills and his crew, and Leon, Francois and that French lot. All good people, every one of them. And then there’s me, a genuine criminal. What is it they say about judging someone by the company they keep?”
She ignored him. Her eyes fixed on the trio making their slow way along the road.
“And the one in the middle, do you think he’s a…?” Nilda began, but trailed off when, without a signal, the man pulling the cart stopped, stretched, picked up a rifle stashed in the back, and swapped positions with the one at the front. That man strolled back to the rear, whilst the third soldier stowed his rifle in the cart, then walked to the front and looped the harness across his shoulders.
“Never mind,” Nilda finished.
They stayed there long enough to watch the trio continue, long enough to see another creature approach, and long enough to see it shot.
“Whoever they are, whatever they have in that cart, I say we leave them be,” Nilda said.
“At least they’re not heading towards Hull,” Chester said.
“No,” Nilda said, “but they are heading towards Wales.”
“Maybe,” Chester moved off, back across the field towards the copse where they had left the bikes. “Maybe not. It’s a bit like saying anyone heading north is going to Scotland, or travelling south is heading to London.”
Nilda grunted. There were few things she was certain of, but their new world was too small for coincidences.
“You should call Anglesey. Let them know,” she said.
“Later,” he replied, and she thought he was being dismissive. Not her problem, she decided as they headed back to the bicycles. Those in Anglesey were his people, not hers. She looked south, then north. The undead were slouching along the asphalt towards them from both directions, but she judged them no immediate threat. As they wheeled the bikes across the field over the road and eastwards across more fields, she couldn’t help wonder what had been in the cart.
They reached another road. This one was not much wider than a farm track, but had been recently resurfaced and painted with an optimistic white line dividing it into two narrow lanes.
“That’ll take us southeast to Hull,” Chester said, pointing.
“And your factory,” she said.
“And the boat that’ll get you to London.”
Nilda shrugged. It would lead them away from the trio with their rifles. For now that seemed to be the safest direction.
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