Billions were infected. Nations fell. The evacuation failed.
Bill Wright has found safety at Brazely Abbey, but that isn’t enough. Uncertain how deep the conspiracy runs, nor how wide-spread the betrayal, he leaves his sanctuary to discover the truth.
He knows where he is heading, the facility that created the virus. To get there he has to cross an undead infested wasteland. On the way he discovers other survivors, and finds that it is not just the undead that need to be feared.
This is the second volume of his journal.
Day 105, Longshanks Manor.
15:07, 25th June.
After everything I've been through since the outbreak in February, I didn't think I'd have to worry about anyone firing a gun at me. Now, and in the space of only two hours, I have been shot at fifty times. I've been counting. The first bullet was a surprise. I didn't think Longshanks Manor was still occupied. Then came the second shot. That was when I realised what was happening.
I ran into the maze. I knew there was a wildlife park and remembered the Manor was one of the most imposing stately homes in southern England, but I didn't know they'd put in a maze since I was last here.
Last year, when the maze must have rung with the sounds of happily lost children and frantic parents, the hedges reached over seven feet high. Now, after half a year's sun and rain they've grown ragged, with fresh growth sprouting up so high that these new branches are bent over under their own weight. Ducking behind the large hedges was an instinctive response. Finding my way to the relative shelter of the gazebo at the centre of the maze was pure luck, but whether it was the good or bad kind, I’m not sure.
It's been one hundred and five days since the power went out in London and I started this journal. It's been a lifetime.
Fifty-one times. They're using a silencer so there's no sound of the shot, just a splintering crack as the bullet impacts against wood. Or perhaps it's a suppressor, I don't think I ever knew the difference.
As long as I keep my head down, I think I’m safe here, behind this gazebo. There's wooden panelling, about three feet high, running around the base to hide the concrete supports. Above that is a large open sided structure, about as big as a bandstand, made up of ornate, hand-carved sections of seasoned pine. Every time a bullet strikes it, I can't help wishing they'd gone for something far uglier but made of steel, instead.
They can't see me and I’m giving them nothing to aim at, but whoever they are, that doesn't seem to matter. Sometimes the bullets come a few seconds apart, sometimes it's almost long enough for me to think they’ve forgotten I’m here. Almost long enough to make me want to stick my head up and check. Almost...
It's about 3pm. I found the watch, a wind-up one, in the house I spent last night in. It was hidden in a bedside cabinet, beneath a pile of old photographs and other similar keepsakes. Everything else of any worth, all the food and bottles, they were gone. Not consumed there, but taken away.
I had to guess at the time, and decided that dawn was as good a time for 5am as any other. So now it's about three in the afternoon, and I've been here for two hours.
I left Brazely Abbey three days ago. I didn't have to leave, everything there was fine and I had everything I needed to survive. Food, water, walls and solitude, what more can a survivor want? But surviving isn't the same as living, and it's not enough for me. Each day, first thing, I would go out and kill the few zombies who had wandered close during the night. Then I would tend to the vegetable patches and fruit bushes just outside the walls, repairing any damage caused by undead trampling feet. Sometimes I would cycle off to loot one of the many houses nearby. The rest of the time I would climb up the scaffolding to the little platform where the stained glass windows once stood.
Looking out over the abandoned countryside my thoughts soon turned to the files sent to me by Sholto, and the one labelled “Lenham Hill Trials”. It was on the laptop I'd brought with me from London, but without power I couldn't view it. Instead I would look at the spot on the map, about thirty miles north of the Abbey, on the other side of the Thames, marked down as an old aerodrome, where I know the facility is. The more I stared at the map, the more restless I became until, three days ago, I woke up and just started cycling north.
In the end I didn't reach Lenham Hill. As much as the ground allowed, I travelled across country, cutting through fields and along footpaths where I was less likely to encounter the undead. Even so, by lunchtime, I was growing anxious at how few zombies I had seen. I spotted an old barn at the top of a shallow hill. I climbed up the slight rise and, hidden by the building, from a distance of about a thousand yards, I saw the M4 motorway.
On my way to Brazely from London, I crossed half a dozen reinforced roads. Those had fences barely seven feet high, often made of nothing sturdier than wire and wood. Every few hundred yards, there would be a gap where the fence had been broken. The M4 was different.
This was no flimsy barrier like on those other roads, nor even like the more desperately haphazard agglomeration of concrete and steel I'd seen along the bank of the Thames. This was a truly professional effort of interlocking concrete, with regularly spaced steel pillars supporting a double row of chain link, topped with razor wire.
From that distance it was hard to tell the height, but abandoned in the middle of the road was a lorry, and the razor wire stood at least twelve feet higher than the vehicle's roof.
The walls hemming this roadway in, as impressive as they were, were not what first caught my eye. Inside this ribbon of steel and concrete, a grasping arms-reach apart, waited thousands upon thousands of undead evacuees, trapped by the walls they thought would protect them.
Approaching the motorway my spirits had been buoyed by the sparse number of undead I had come across. There were a few stuck in hedgerows or trapped by debris and obstacles on the road but otherwise, for a depth of about two miles this side of the M4, the countryside was nearly empty.
Looking at the motorway I saw why. In front of the fence, with nothing but a few weed filled fields between me and Them, were hundreds upon thousands of zombies. They weren't as densely packed as those caged inside the fence, but to me, standing there by that old barn, They were far more dangerous.
The nearest creature was less than five hundred yards away. If I were to shout or scream, or just cough loudly, then, within minutes, They would descend upon me. Hurriedly I turned around. I scanned the tree-line behind me, peered at the copse to my left then at the overgrown paddock to the right. All was still. There were no zombies, no animals, nothing. There was barely even any movement from the trees in the dry summer air. The reason for the nearly empty countryside was clear enough. The low atonal moan, the whispering of rotten cloth, the occasional scrape of flesh against concrete and chain link, magnified by the tens of thousands trapped in the motorway, taken together those sounds had summoned all the undead from the countryside around. Never have I felt both so exposed and so alone as when I stood there, surveying this final testament to my evacuation plan.
It was such a depressing sight that, at first, I didn't notice the bodies. Within the walled-in motorway and right next to the fence, there is at least one corpse every few hundred yards. Initially I thought that these were zombies killed by the evacuees during the panic. As I looked, though, I came to realise that, no, these are the bodies of the immune. Bitten, infected, they didn't turn, they tried to escape, but they couldn't. They were trapped, and they were torn apart.
I edged around the barn to the cottage next door, climbed up onto its roof and crawled along to the chimney stack. Hidden there, the extra height gave me a clearer view of that lorry. On its roof I could make out two bodies, more skeleton than flesh. Around them half a dozen crows fought over the meagre scraps of sinew and tendon that remained on those sun-bleached bones.
In all these months I have never seen a bird, any bird, try and eat the remains of one of the undead. When I went to the muster point I saw, scattered amongst the bodies of the murdered evacuees, dozens of dead carrion birds. That same poison that the refugees had been told was a vaccine had killed those birds whose misguided opportunism had seen the thousands of corpses as a feast.
Those people on top of the lorry, they had not been infected, nor had they taken the vaccine. Immune or not, they must have climbed up, taken refuge there and then died, waiting for a rescue that was never going to come. Surrounded by death, they waited to die. Whether it was by dehydration or suicide, it must have been a dismal end.
I tried dividing the road up into sections, tried every trick I could remember, but there were literally too many zombies to count. Inside the motorway there are fifty thousand per mile, perhaps a hundred thousand, and it really doesn't matter which. Outside there are fewer, but there are still thousands of the undead. I don't know how long They will just stay there, or what might trigger Them to start roaming through the countryside. All I know is that it is just a matter of time and distance between me and Them. And if I want to get to Lenham Hill I've got to go over Them, and then through whatever awaits on the other side of the motorway.
One of the crows pecking at the bodies on the roof of the lorry flapped its wings, flew up and then down towards the road. I watched as a dozen undead arms stretched up towards it in a macabre parody of a Mexican wave. I watched as other zombies raised their arms and the movement was copied for three hundred yards in both directions. I watched as the crow circled once, a few inches above their grasping hands, then returned to its perch on the lorry's roof.
I could have crossed the motorway then. Or I could have tried. There was an access bridge for farm traffic less than half a mile away. There were some zombies on it, but not so many I couldn't make out each individual one. I examined the road leading to the bridge carefully, judging distances, assessing which of the undead would be able to make it to the road and be able to attack me before I made it to the bridge. I stopped counting when I reached a hundred. “Zombies to the left of him, zombies to the right...”
Would I have made it? I don't know. I wanted answers and I wanted to get to Lenham Hill, but right then I didn't want to get there badly enough. Call it cowardice, call it prudence, call it whatever you want, that instinct that has kept me alive so far told me not to take the risk. But I couldn't just go back. Instead I climbed down from the roof and cycled west, following the motorway, to find out how far the fences still stood.
I travelled across country lanes, down bridleways and through fields, staying out of sight of the motorway but always within that two-mile empty corridor this side of it. It was slow going. Sometimes I came across a solitary zombie. Sometimes I stopped and dealt with it, other times I took a detour, so I ended up travelling a circuitous zigzagging route that got me one mile west for every three miles travelled.
Then I spotted a car. It was a saloon with a swept back roof designed to make a family run-about look like a sporty coupé. It had crashed into the soft earth of the verge, coming to a rest angled at ninety degrees to the road. The metal bodywork, exposed when the paintwork was scratched during the crash, was beginning to rust. A blanket of leaves and dirt covered the roof. Brambles snaked out from the hedgerow, trailing up the mud-covered windscreen. In short, there was nothing to distinguish it from the dozen or so similar vehicles I'd seen that day. Until the banging started.
She must have died whilst at the wheel. Then, the zombie she turned into was trapped inside the car. I think it was a she, though it's so hard to tell with those that have been dead more than a couple of months. Judging by the growth of vegetation on and around the vehicle, this one had been there since around the time of the evacuation itself.
The sad story of the end of her life was clear enough. She had begged, borrowed and stolen enough petrol to get out of somewhere to the assumed safety of somewhere else. Sometime after the evacuation, when she thought the roads would be clear, she'd driven off. Then she had to stop, perhaps to help someone, perhaps just to stretch her legs. She got out of the car, was attacked, and infected.
She'd driven off at full speed, probably to find the vaccine with the hope it would be a cure, but then she died. The car crashed. She turned. Unable to open the door, the zombie was trapped. It became dormant, hibernating, waiting for someone, some prey, to come by. Then I did.
All of that flashed through my mind, but what really interested me was the petrol. With the weeks of rationing before the evacuation food is scarce, but fuel, well, that's rarer than life these days. With the petrol from the cars I'd found at the Grange Farm Estates, and the little I'd found in vehicles around Brazely, I had barely enough to get about twenty miles. Not enough to get from Brazely Abbey to Lenham Hill, let alone to get back afterwards.
Bang. Bang-bang. Bang. Its head and hands drummed out an arrhythmic staccato against the driver-side window. It wasn't loud, but in this silent world, it didn't have to be. Soon others would come, unless it was stopped. I dismounted and unslung my pike.
I've been modifying the weapon on an almost daily basis since I settled at the Abbey. It now has a two-foot long blade, previously belonging to a set of long-handled tree shears, bolted on at a right angle to the handle. At the tip is a foot long spike, and the base of the hollow pole is now filled with lead as a counterweight. It resembles a scythe more than anything else, but out of grim superstition I think of it as my pike.
I took a few practice swings. I'd hoped that with one blow I could break the glass and, with the next, impale the creature's brain. The position of the car was wrong. The spike kept getting tangled in the creepers trailing out from the hedge. I lent the pike up against the bicycle, took out my hatchet and swung.
As soon as the glass broke the zombie's arm shot out. Its claw like hand grasped towards me. It couldn't reach. The seat belt, which had stopped it from getting in the right position to break the glass, now prevented it from reaching me. I took another step forward, waited until it lunged again, and brought the hatchet down on the top of its skull. Bone cracked, and that reddish brown ooze They have instead of blood sprayed out, over the car, my sunglasses and the scarf covering my face.
I wiped the hatchet clean, then began a quick search of the vehicle. I'd been right in my guess at this woman's story, up to a point. There had been a veritable treasure chest of biscuits, cereals, pastas and what I think had been a circle of cheese. Time had done its work, though, and inside the steel sarcophagus was nothing but decay. I grabbed at the bag on the passenger seat and hauled it a dozen yards away up wind. There were photographs, keepsakes and once treasured possessions, all useless to me.
It was a disappointment, but not a great one. There was nothing I really needed, and there is little spare room in my bags to carry much. I just enjoy looting. It's one of the few pleasures in these dark times. I checked the fuel tank. It had been punctured during the crash and was empty, the fuel long evaporated.
I got back on the bike and continued heading west, keeping close to, but always out of sight of, the motorway. Every five or so miles I would dismount, creep closer and find a concealed spot from where I could survey the road, its fence and the numbers of the undead within. Nowhere was the fence broken. Nowhere were the numbers less dense.
After a depressing day and a half, I'd covered close to ninety miles to get the thirty or so miles west as far as Swindon. There, within sight of that city, I stopped. I could see no point going any further.