Jack was on the 29th floor of the fridge-shaped office tower at 20 Fenchurch Street, working on a feature on the Brexit negotiations when the explosions happened. The first five were mere echoes of something horrible from far away. The sixth one shook the foundations of the building. The seventh made Jack hide under his desk. The eight had blown the fancy ground-to-ceiling windows out over his head. Thank god for safety glass.
Blackfriars, Millennium, Southwark. He watched the bridges burn and crumble into the Thames, breathing the noxious smoke that the steady northbound breeze brought his way. The power was out, his phone wasn’t working. He sat next to the broken window, incredulous, shaking all over until it dawned on him that the top of a skyscraper wasn’t the safest place to be when things around it were blowing up. At that time, he didn’t know that those explosives were detonated by the British Armed Forces. He had no idea that they flooded the underground tunnels and set up barricades up north, sealing the City of London closed. Strictly nobody was allowed in or out until a cure was found.
The government believed that a deadly virus had spread from a plague pit uncovered during deep excavations at a building site in Fleet Street. Unlike anything that people had ever seen, the mutated pathogen embedded itself deep inside the tissue, causing black open sores all over the infected person’s body. In one in three, the virus would spread into the brain and cause irreversible damage to the prefrontal cortex reducing the bearer to a bloodthirsty monster, attacking anything and everything in its way.
With no known cure or remedy, the only honourable course of action after discovering the first sore was a bullet through one’s own head. Not many cared about honour back then, and that’s how the Dead Borough came to be.
The last rays of sunshine filled the desolate streets with amber. The light found its way past the burned cars and soot-covered facades. It reflected off the broken windows and roof AC units that rust hadn’t consumed yet. The sun dipped behind a tall concrete gate at Mile End Road, casting a long shadow across the wide boulevard. Two figures dressed in black emerged from behind a wrecked double-decker and made their way into what used to be a dirt cheap chicken shop on the ground floor of a three-floor townhouse on the corner. The shop window was already gone. No need to bother opening the squeaky door.
Jack followed Victoria through the greasy kitchen with friers still full of rotting oil. A dead rat floated in one of them, its mouth ajar with two sets of crooked incisors showing. A lesson learned the hard way. They crept up a narrow staircase at the back. Jack would wait for Vic to assess the situation on each floor before moving on until they reached the top and found the door they were looking for.
Their eyes met as they were standing with their back against the wall on either side of it. Jack’s breath grew heavier. They both wore black scarves to conceal their identity, but they knew what that subtle nod meant.
Without warning, Vic spun around and kicked the door open. The latch broke, sending splinters of wood flying across the room. Then both of them burst inside. Should anybody be home, Vic and Jack had the element of surprise on their side.
‘All clear,’ Vic said. She placed her Glock into the holster under her arm and pulled one of the heavy curtains open. A puff of dust lifted in the air. Jack squinted at the golden light that poured in from the outside. He turned his headlamp off and walked over to the sash window.
’This is perfect,’ he said. The window gave him a view of the gate and anything that might come through it. He put his backpack on the floor and started taking his gear out.
‘Hurry up and don’t touch anything,’ Vic said when she emerged from the kitchen, her gun back in her hand.
‘What do you mean?’
‘We’re in a drug den.’
That didn’t really surprise Jack. The place was squalid. The sofa in the middle of the room had ripped cushions, the carpet was stained with god knows what, the smell putrid. Every horizontal surface in the room had empty beer bottles and gnarled cigarette butts piled on it. The doorframe around the kitchen was blackened as if it had gone up in flames. There were no discarded needles or crack pipes. They were so scarce that the junkies protected them more than their own fingers.
After the bridges came down and the barricades rose up north, people were desperate for anything that could alleviate the misery, make them forget if only for a few hours that it was just a matter of time before they became infected too. The rapid increase in demand along with massively diminished supply turned drugs into a currency. Having access to any sort of snortable, smokable or injectable substance made people ready to do anything just to get some—most often shank you in the eye and take it.
‘Calm down. It looks like nobody’s been home for weeks,’ Jack said. Instead of cleaning up, junkies often just move two doors down.
Vic rolled her eyes.
‘I’ll need at least half an hour to set up.’
‘You’ve got 15 minutes.’
Jack trusted Victoria’s judgement, but that didn’t mean he didn’t find her military attitude annoying at times. Alas, she was the one with the gun. Frankly, even without a gun… Let’s just say he was happy that they were both on the same side.
She was a full foot shorter than Jack with a fringed bob of bloody red hair. Not the sort of red that oozes out of a paper cut. The deep crimson that squirts out of a severed jugular which made Jack refer to her affectionately as Vicious Vic. She wore a survival knife in a battered sheath attached horizontally to her belt. The massive blade had undoubtedly met with many a jugular.
In her past life, Vic was a professional soldier commanding one of the units they sent in to cover the others building the barricades. The radio simply went quiet when it was time for pickup. Nobody had told them that they weren’t coming back.
Jack spread out the telescopic legs of his tripod. He zipped his bag open and took out a brand-new, professional-grade DSLR and a giant telephoto lens. He had picked up both from an abandoned camera showroom at Strand. All this equipment would have set him back £8,000, but it was worthless when people had barely anything to eat. He mounted the camera onto the tripod and positioned it in front of the sash window. He switched the lens to manual mode and focused it on the ground just in front of the gate. With aperture at f/11.0, that should keep most of the scene safely in focus.
The first few test shots he took came out grainy, not because of the settings, but because of the thick film of dirt that covered the outside of the glass. After thinking about it for a while, Jack stuck his knife under the lower window pane. The wooden frame squealed as he lifted it up just enough to be able to wedge the lens hood under it.
‘Hey!’ Vic hissed from behind, making him jump.
‘Jesus Christ!’ Jack took a deep breath. ‘What?’
‘I said don’t touch anything.’
‘I’m not touching anything. The window was too bloody filthy.’
‘How long?’ Vic asked impatiently.
‘I’m almost done.’
He readjusted the tripod and fixed the exposition parameters on the camera. The sun had set already, but expecting that it would get a little darker later on, Jack adjusted the settings accordingly. He put the camera into time-lapse mode. It would snap a photo every second throughout the night and save it onto one of the two 512GB storage cards inside. All he needed was one photo taken at the right time that would give him an irrefutable proof that people were entering and leaving. Publish that, and the Internet would take care of the rest.
The camera snapped away, and Vic sneaked back out to the corridor while Jack went over everything one more time. Out of all their hunts for electricity in the past, he had never seen her as nervous as today. Her anxiety was contagious.
Composition, focus, exposition, quiet shutter mode, display off, front status diode—shit. It was on. A short flash of bright green with every photo taken wasn’t exactly inconspicuous. Jack was sure he turned that one off last night. He must have forgotten to save the settings.
It took a five-minute crawl through the camera’s endless menus before he found the right option to turn off. Then he formatted the storage cards and restarted the time lapse.
A muffled echo of Vic’s voice sounded from the stairwell. Jack couldn’t quite understand, but he replied anyway. ‘I’m coming.’
He switched his headlamp on and cut a thick bin liner bag along its long side. He wanted to wrap the camera body so that if it resolved to blink again, it wouldn’t attract any unwanted attention.
The distant howl of sentries—the massive patrol drones that scoured the borough during the night marked the beginning of tonight’s curfew. And then came the shots. Two blasts sounded out of the corridor in rapid succession.
Jack threw himself to the ground, instinctively wrapping his arms around his head. Seconds passed. His ears were ringing.
‘Vic?’ Jack shouted, but he could barely hear himself. His heart was racing. He grabbed his knife from the filthy carpet. In one swift motion, he leapt back to his feet and went for the door. He called after her again. She didn’t answer.
Jack’s knees trembled as he crept into the darkness outside of the flat, illuminated by a narrow strip of white light coming out of his headlamp.
‘Vic? Are you all right?’
The air stirred behind him. Jack turned around frantically. The headlamp illuminated a pair of wide-open eyes, unkempt beard and toothless grin. Something came down on his head, and everything turned black.
Part three »
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