The Dead Borough #1

Jack was just about to make it when the city collapsed. He had spent years in the newsroom, churning out generic reportage to build his credibility. The occasional feature turned into a weekly column. His audience grew and so did his leverage to negotiate a better salary. Gone were the days of beans on toast and shoes with holes in the bottom. He had just moved into his own studio flat in Dalston and became a living proof that journalism still was a viable career.

And then it all went to shit.

The armed forces blew the bridges, flooded the tunnels and barricaded every single street up north. They locked down the inner city in a single night. That’s how scared the government was of a virus that turned people into bloodthirsty monsters. And the Dead Borough was born.

A shroud of dark clouds swirled in the sky, their edges illuminated by faint pollution of light that came from the outer boroughs of London. The dawn was only a few hours away.

The authorities shut down the power grid and imposed a strict curfew after dark. To reduce crime, they said. They deployed massive patrol drones whose whir echoed in the darkness all night. Jack knew it was a sham — a way to discourage people trying to get out. Crime was all that happened in the Dead Borough, and the drones did fuck all to stop it.

Being out in the streets at night was madness — a sure way to get caught by the patrol or worse cut, robbed and left to bleed to death by one of the gangs. Jack tried not to think about that, ducking behind a crashed Mercedes SUV, getting ready to cross Whitechapel High Street. The road had four lanes littered with empty cans and broken bottles — all sorts of rubbish to make him lose his footing or give him away.

He scanned his surroundings one final time before hurrying over to the other side. The key was to plan the route in advance and then watch your every step. He leaned against the wall and waited. All clear.

The government wouldn’t go through so much trouble to keep people off the streets at night without having a bloody good reason why. What were they hiding?

About a mile farther east from here, the broad street ended with a barricade. Last night, a drunk man told Jack that there was a gate in it big enough for a lorry. Drunk men said many things. The whole point of the lock-in was not to let anyone in or out. But if he wasn’t lying, then who was using it?

The morning mist was settling down in the streets. Jack could tell from the moisture that filled his nostrils as he crept along the broken facades. Suddenly, a long wailing cry tore through the darkness making him jump. The sirens. They went off every time someone tried to climb over — a soul desperate enough that making a run at the barricade to certain death was the only way to cope.

The wailing stopped. Jack went on. He didn’t immediately recognise it, but the whirring was much louder than before. The terrifying sound of the rotors slicing through the mist grew nearer and louder still.

Fuck! Jack rounded the corner into the entrance of the Whitechapel Station, but he ran straight into a collapsible metal gate. The breeze from the drone’s rotors brushed against Jack’s arms as he tried sliding it open. It was locked with a chain.

In the corner was an old, piss-stained duvet. Jack grabbed it and pulled up. A woman rolled out from under it. The bloody stench. She was dead. Jack wrapped the rotten blanked around himself and dropped to the floor next to her, calming his breath and chattering teeth.

Each patrol drone had eight rotors, a light, camera and taser gun strong enough to not only to stun a person but to set them on fire. Jack had seen that happen. He was dead.

There it was. Its cone of light came into his view first, defined perfectly in the mist, seeking from side to side. It crept steadily forward in the middle of the road. And then it stopped. Up this close, the shrieking of its propellers was unbearable. Jack’s heart was pounding, his mind desperately looking for a plan. Anything.

The lamp posts were low here. If he got up and ran, he could build enough of an advantage to reach a safe place where its electrifying tentacles wouldn’t reach. But once detected, he would be trapped. The camera would scan his face and report the incident. With his mug in the database, he would be on the run, having to hide even during daylight.

It was a game of the mind. Breath in, breath out. Focus. Stay perfectly still.

I can’t just sit here and wait to be electrocuted, his mind screamed.

Then the cone of light returned underneath the drone. The machine tipped forward slightly and whirred away. Jack waited until he could barely hear it before he dared to stretch his legs again. Only then he allowed himself to let out a staggering sigh of relief. The dead woman was still staring at him from the darkness, her mouth ajar.

His encounter the drone made him cautious, too cautious to reach Mile End before dawn. He watched the clouds slowly light up above the tall concrete gate from behind an upturned double-decker bus. The barbed wire coiled along the top and the sides. It was big enough for a lorry.

Nothing else happened as the morning progressed. The whirring of the drones ceased, replaced by the cheerful arguing of starlings coming from a nearby park, and Jack turned towards home.

He would be back.

Part two »

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