Ryan stared blankly at the white plaster wall some fifteen feet before him. He sat with his broad shoulders resting against the adjacent wall, taking the occasional bite of a protein bar and sip from a bottle of water, the very things that had almost cost him his life an hour ago.
Several weeks had passed since the day he first heard about New Black Plague. He’d laughed about it in conversations with friends and it was all taken with a pinch of salt. He wasn’t the only culprit. Millions of people across Britain had shunned the warnings too. Professor Thorgen Schaffer was a national sensation overnight for all the wrong reasons and vilified in the media.
Then, one day, everything changed. Schaffer went from public laughingstock to the man everybody demanded answers from. New Black Plague spread quickly and fiercely. All over the news were reports of people falling ill and dying shortly after only to rise from death and begin feeding on any living being in the vicinity. It spread quicker than anybody knew how to deal with and Britain came to a complete standstill just a few days after the first reported incident.
Schaffer’s interview on morning TV was screened everywhere as people sought to learn more about the killer virus; the simple fact was that nobody knew whether they were infected or not until it struck them down. There was no word of a cure either. The streets, houses, and businesses of Britain were quickly becoming festooned by gruesome undead, the flesh melting away from their bodies down to the bone and muscle beneath—a truly ghastly spectacle.
The undead were slow and cumbersome, emitting nothing more than moans that became more exasperated the closer they were to a living person. Although not terribly difficult to deal with on their own, they were virtually unstoppable in hordes and naturally grouped together, playing an instinctive and primordial numbers game.
Ryan could hear knocking sounds from below and knew it was the lurchers. He wasn’t worried by the noises. This particular floor of the office block was clear. He also knew they couldn’t get onto the floor either. For now, he was safe.
He looked over at a window to his right. It was bright outside. The sun had been shining with annoying persistence over the weeks. It was almost as though the weather was mocking him. Britain was known for sporadic good weather at the very best of times; this particular spell had endured for as long as the epidemic had. Looking at the blue sky through the window, he began to reminisce.
Several weeks ago
The screening facility was getting ever closer and Ryan could feel the nerves jangling. What if he had New Black Plague? His friends, Niall and Marcus, stood with him. Neither had spoken for a good number of minutes now, each consumed with their own thoughts and fears.
Ryan had thought to contact his mum to find out if she was alright and had quickly decided against; they hadn’t spoken in over a year and he wasn’t prepared to lay his pride on the line. He hadn’t bothered with his dad or three sisters either. Originally from Watford, he’d moved north to get away from them all and a sudden zombie epidemic wasn’t going to change the way he felt. Besides, network coverage for mobile phones had gone down days ago. Everything was grinding to a halt. The internet was barely still alive and TV channels were all playing the exact same thing: a drawn-out video of Schaffer explaining things. Even the few radio stations still active were playing a sound recording of the same video.
“Oi, you,” a man dressed in disruptive pattern material garb said brusquely.
Ryan was only half paying attention and it took him several seconds to look up. “You mean me?”
“No, I mean the one sat on your fuckin’ shoulders! Yes, you!”
Affronted, Ryan screwed up his face. He hated the military. The chip on their shoulder grated on him massively. He moved forwards towards the screening compound and was sure to discreetly nudge the soldier as he went by, part of him hoping for a reaction that didn’t come.
He stepped through a doorway and it was as though he was entering another world. Non-civilians were dressed from head to toe in biohazard gear aside from the doctors performing the screenings and the odd nurse. One of the biohazard-suit-wearing people showed him to a room where a smiling doctor greeted him.
“Welcome! I’m Dr Munroe. Please take a seat a moment while I prepare you for your scan and to take a sample of your blood.”
“I’d rather stand thanks. Why do you need my blood if you’re screening me?”
“It’s better to be safe than sorry as I’m sure you’ll understand. The screen is generally a very accurate process but can occasionally be thrown by an anomaly.”
“HIV, for example.”
“Ah, right,” Ryan answered, looking around the room.
“Bear with me. I won’t be a tick.”
Ryan wondered momentarily whether the doctor was insinuating that he looked the type who might be HIV positive. He thought about pushing to see if he could corner the doctor into saying something even remotely racist, something he liked to do frequently. He thought better of it; now wasn’t the time to start fights.
Dr Munroe finished messing around with whatever was on his desk and stood to face Ryan. “You do have ID with you I presume?”
Ryan handed Munroe his passport from out of his pocket.
“Very good. Okay, please remove your clothes down to your underwear.”
“It’s necessary for the screening process. I assure you I shan’t touch you.”
“You’re damned right about that, bro!”
Dr Munroe smiled sans humour, turning to face back to his desk.
Ryan removed his tight black t-shirt first followed by his sneakers, socks, and sweatpants. He caught his reflection in the window of the door and admired his pectoral muscles momentarily before Dr Munroe spoke again.
“Thank you, Mr. Lloyd. Please step into the screening machine. The process will take less than a minute and then you can get dressed. After that, I’ll take a sample of your blood.”
“How long before you get the results?”
“The screen results are almost immediate. The bloods get taken to the lab and the results come through in no more than a couple of hours. It would be less except there are a lot of samples to test.”
“I thought blood test results took weeks,” Ryan said quizzically.
“Not when it really matters.”
At Munroe’s signal, Ryan stepped inside the machine. He stood with his arms by his side as a beam of blue light swept three times across his body from the top of his head to his toes. Once finished, he stepped out of the scanning machine and dressed himself. He sat on a chair across from Munroe, who quickly took a sample of blood.
Ryan was then told to follow signs for the ‘Intermediary Room’, where he took a seat in amongst a group of around fifty other people. A name was called out every couple of minutes and that person led into yet another room. Those called weren’t seen again from that point.
Ryan sat and contemplated what his immediate future might hold. He assumed that, if he was found to be infected, he’d likely be sent back out into the world to die an eventual death either by succumbing to New Black Plague or being eaten alive by the monsters; the latter was an eventuality that scared him. Alternatively, if he was clean, he’d be sent to one of many hastily prepared safe zones.
Despite his anxiety, he waited patiently, looking and speaking to nobody. It occurred to him that neither of his friends had come through into the room, strange given that they’d both been stood with him outside. He wondered if there were separate areas to this. It made sense as there were thousands of people waiting to be seen.
An attractive nurse finally called his name and urged him to follow her to another area. He was only too happy to oblige, walking behind her closely and looking at her shapely backside with the rhythm of her gait.
They soon came to a room that was similar to the one he’d been in earlier only without the screening machine.
A stern-looking moustachioed military officer stood waiting and perused Ryan with angry eyes. “Ryan Wynton Lloyd?”
“Yeah,” Ryan replied in a bored tone.
“You have tested negative for New Black Plague.”
Ryan tried not to show any relief, acting as though he’d known all along; however, a wave of it coursed through him with such force that it threatened to bowl him over. He finally looked at the officer. “Nice one!”
“You are cleared to join those heading for Safe Zone F2.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that you will be heading for Safe Zone F2! It is a safe zone where you will be under no threat from the lurchers. What more assurance do you need than that?”
It was the first time he’d heard the undead referred to as lurchers. He didn’t care for the officer’s attitude and stared the man down as he spoke. “First of all, I couldn’t give a fuck about your uniform; don’t talk to me like I’m stupid! Second of all, I have a right to know where I’m going. You aren’t my superior, so don’t act like it.”
“First of all, Mr. Lloyd, I will talk to you how I so choose. Second of all, you have no right to anything, least of all sanctuary in one of our safe zones. Unless you want to wind up out there making your own way I suggest you shut your mouth. Do I make myself clear?”
There was a silence for a few brief moments as Ryan once again struggled to bring his eyes to bear on the officer. He eventually shrank and nodded.
“Good! There is a coach waiting in the garage area; I am sure even you won’t struggle to work out that yours is F2. Ensure that you board only that coach. If you are found trying to board any other then you will be refused sanctuary altogether and sent out to fend for yourself. You will be fed, clothed, and looked after in the safe zone. There is electricity, light, hot water; everything you need to live a comfortable life until a solution to this problem is found. The ‘where’s’ and the ‘why’s’ are not important at this stage. You simply have to trust us. It is the only way you will survive.”
Ryan answered with a silent nod again.
The officer smiled for the first time. “The way to the garage is self-explanatory. Follow the signs. Think yourself fortunate that you are one of the lucky ones.”
The attractive nurse held the door open for Ryan to walk through and they shot each other suggestive glances before he walked one way and she walked the other. Even in an apocalypse situation, the women seemed to be up for it!
The journey lasted a couple of hours and was desperately uncomfortable. Ryan had done as he was told and headed straight for his coach. There had been countless other coaches lined up that were full of blank faces awaiting the next step of their ordeal. He pondered that he somehow should have felt relieved or grateful for what was happening; all he felt was trepidation and wariness. He’d wondered about Niall and Marcus and whether or not they’d got the all-clear too. He hadn’t seen them since being called in for screening and hoped they were okay.
The passengers on the coach were told nothing on the way and Ryan could hardly contain the growing frustration. There seemed no reason for their reticence. Were they intentionally trying to create tension?
It wasn’t hard to spot the safe zone compound when they approached. A part of a town or city was surrounded by interlaced beige-coloured, twenty-foot-high barriers topped with barbed wire. Although it was impossible to judge the circumference of the barriers from their vantage point, it looked like a large area.
They pulled up at the heavily fortified gate and the driver showed his ID to the armed guard standing sentry. There were at least fifteen men stationed all around it, each carrying some form of ranged weapon. Most had MG’s of some description. A few were in possession of sniper rifles with hi-tech scopes. No chances were being taken here.
The coach rolled through the gate and came into what was obviously a town centre. Ryan couldn’t recognise where they were nor could he see any signs to give him an indication either, which seemed strange to him. They soon came to a stop outside a generic looking building.
The door opened and on stepped yet another military man who took a few seconds to cast his eyes over everybody. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Safe Zone F2. Some of you may recognise your surroundings and some of you won’t. Until the problem our country faces is finally solved, names of towns and cities are really of no consequence. That said, if you must know where you are then I can tell you this is Sheffield in South Yorkshire. The city underwent a fierce clean-up operation around a week ago and people have been arriving for sanctuary ever since. This building is what you’ll call home for the foreseeable future. It used to be a bingo hall. There are beds enough for everybody. We’ve seen to that, so no squabbling over space. Please exit the coach calmly in single file and your name will be checked at the door. The rules of your stay here will be explained in due course.”
Ryan watched as everybody diligently stood, picking up any bags or belongings. He remained seated and allowed everybody else to get off the coach first. Once they’d left, he stood and made his way slowly to the door, exiting with a look in either direction.
The military officer stood at the door and perused him. “Take your time why don’t you?”
“I was doing,” Ryan goaded.
The officer checked his list. “Ryan Wynton Lloyd I assume?”
“Head on through and find yourself a bunk. I’ll be through shortly to outline the rules.”
The officer gave him a disapproving look but said no more, stepping aside and allowing Ryan passage.
Ryan entered and passed through a reception area before heading out into a sizeable hall. There was chatter all around the room and he rolled his eyes with annoyance; was this really what his life had come to?
He wandered through the uncomfortable looking camp beds, most with either somebody sat on them or with belongings around them, and eventually came to an empty one positioned right at the back wall near the caller’s stage. He lay down fully clothed on the bed and was satisfied that it felt more comfortable than he’d imagined it would.
The officer appeared ten minutes later to lay down the law. He told everyone the rules of the house: things like no smoking indoors, no looting, and other general things. Three hot meals a day would be provided as long as supplies remained at a healthy level. While walking around the city was allowed, he impressed upon them not to go near the barriers and ensure they returned to the hall within half an hour of the curfew alarm. Anybody found wandering the streets after curfew would be punished; he failed to say how they’d be punished.
“It’s my obligation to give you all some statistics. Of the 64 million people residing in the UK, around 40 million have been screened at this stage and 4 million tested positive for New Black Plague. That has left us with the quandary of finding a safe haven for a potential 60 million UK residents. These safe zones have been set up in great number across England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland in as many major cities and towns as possible. All non-nationals are to be sent away. While that may sound a little harsh, we have a duty to keep Britain and her people safe. European nations have set up their own lines of preservation and North America is in the process of doing so also.
“The only way we can survive this situation is by preserving life; that means avoiding any and all contact with the lurchers. We still don’t know how this virus is contracted and, as yet, there’s no known cure. Until there is, this is how we survive. You’ll be fed, clothed, and looked after. All you have to do is follow the rules and life will go on. Hopefully, everything will be sorted out soon. If not, then we’ll look at more long-term solutions.
“That’s really all I have to say. I’m unable to take questions at present. There’ll be opportunities over the next few days to speak with people in the know. Thank you for your time.”
With that, the officer walked away towards the exit. The voices of many struck up as they ignored his admission that he wouldn’t be taking questions.
Ryan remained silent. There was nothing to ask that would change anything. He lay back down on his camp bed and looked blankly at the ceiling. Though the situation wasn’t ideal, at least he was alive and able to fight another day.
TO BE CONTINUED