F O R T H E G H O S T S
Written by Greg Kiss.
Darkness reigned. The survivors slowly emerged from their houses and inspected the stricken landscape. Visibility was limited and night and day merged making an incoherent mess of dawn and dusk. Pale grey light was the result of the Sun’s failed attempts at piercing the clouds of dust and ash.
Freezing temperatures were the main enemy and thousands of the now homeless people perished in the streets early in the aftermath. Their past had no bearing on their survival; this wasteland was the truest of level playing fields. Kiefs stayed in his bunker for as long as possible fearing the cold, radiation and potential survivors alike. He began sorting through the provisions, packing as efficiently as possible for his journey. Food, fuel and layers: they would be his priority.
Kiefs left the bunker and began picking his way up through the rubble to get to the surface. It seemed an endless task. The disintegrated red bricks and concrete had merged to form a gypsum dust peppered with blackened steel and rusting iron. He emerged, filthy into the street. Had he emerged in another city? Another time? Another dimension? He turned around peering through the dust for a landmark, a ruin, anything. He saw nothing. He did not even know which way was North until he stumbled upon the corpse of the Thames, its charcoal tar sludge pumping downstream towards the sea.
He looked at it for five minutes and then followed it West towards Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament, or at least towards their former location. He stepped over two rotting corpses, one was dressed in a doctor’s coat. He couldn’t hide his disgust for his surroundings.
He stuck to his original plan. If he could not find anything of note in London then he would start out North to England’s second city; Birmingham. As he left the city he came upon the ruins of smaller towns and villages as well as the first survivors he had encountered. The settlements were indeed ruined but not utterly obliterated like the capital. Their residents may as well have already been dead. For the most part they did not even meet his gaze as he strode about their ruined lives and if he did speak to them they didn’t even seem to listen to his questions. Most settlements did not even have the motivation to bury their dead.
Dead trees and ghostly motorway gantries emerged from the snowdrifts along what was the M1. As he approached settlements the drifts were peppered with the dead and household objects blown into this wilderness. Onwards he trudged, growing more tired, more hungry and more resigned to this new normality.
He stopped at his old barracks near Milton Keynes and foraged for radio equipment in the ruins of the old army base. It was no good. He continued searching for usable technology over the coming weeks as well as potential technicians or engineers who might be able to help reinstate their previous civilisation. In truth, he couldn’t say if it was weeks. Days, weeks, months? Surely not years? Everywhere he looked he found nothing.
He met a stranger at the junction of the M6 and M1 who let out a croak that would have been thick west midlands accent if he had the power to give it any projection.
“To Birmingham?” he asked. Kiefs nodded, keeping his distance from the man.
The stranger pulled up his coat tighter around his neck and shook his head. “Don’t. It’s gone.”
Kiefs stood in the road and watched the stranger disappear South into the dust. Travellers crossing paths in this new world, each without destination.
Once he had disappeared from sight he instead set out East towards Peterborough, where he had lived as a boy. He found more life across the towns of the midlands, if you could call it that.
Disease spread and before long it was rife. Sewerage piled up in the snow dusted streets and long wheezing breaths came echoing from the ramshackle remains of houses. “Is this it?” he muttered to himself as he finally entered the remains of Peterborough. The energy he had expended in making the trip and cost him dearly and he had almost exhausted his supplies.
The stones of the cathedral blocked the road in front of him. He could see the light cast by a fire in the distance, a sight he had not seen for days. It had surely been a month since he had seen a child.
He approached the fires and found an old priest, dressed in rags but still wearing his dog collar, trying to round up support to dispose of the corpses that littered the streets. The majority of the survivors looked at him with disinterest and then turned away. Kiefs approached him.
“Do you need help Father?” he asked, his voice hoarse and weak from its prolonged silence. The Priest’s eyes began to fill with tears in sheer gratitude.
“My son! This way.” The Priest led him towards the flames and Kiefs recognised the rank smell of burning flesh. There was a pile of bodies stacked up next to the fire, Kiefs supposed there must be at least fifty. Over the next few hours the pair of them, both with cloths tied over their mouths and noses began throwing the diseased corpses on the fire. It was not that Kiefs particularly cared about the Priest’s aims to dispose of them; he had after all already decided that he would carry on walking down through Cambridge and back towards London. It was just that someone wanted to do something; do what they thought was right. After the pile of bodies was ablaze he bade the Priest farewell and continued his purposeless voyage.
In a nightmare soon after the collapse of mankind his subconscious had planted the idea of cannibalism. It terrified him. Yet as the weeks wore on he realised that no one would take such a measure to survive. The truth was that survival wasn’t worth it. Surely it wasn’t merely the human race that was dying, it was the whole of the Earth.
The exertion and contact with the bodies in Peterborough had weakened him and he had developed a dreadful rasping cough. Eventually he conceded to it, stopped his journey and lay in a field staring up into the murk. He slipped into a fragile sleep and was awoken by a particularly painful cough which produced a small amount of clotted blood that began to trace down his chin. It was lighter and he could even see a small hole developing in the fog, opening a window onto the night sky behind. He thought he saw something move far above him. Maybe a bird or a bat. Maybe some wildlife had survived all of this. The though comforted him.
As quickly as the window had opened, it closed again, restoring the oppressive dark without depth or dimension. He fell back into his uneasy slumber. “We just wanted to learn!” he screamed suddenly, emerging from his nightmare. The shriek made a hollow, dead sound in the bleak emptiness, disappearing into the void.
He sat up and looked about, his face etched with the carvings of paranoia. He was not alone. Without further warning he bent double with pain as he felt the invasion into his mind for the first time since leaving headquarters that night.
“I didn’t want to teach you anything Richard,” replied the rush of static within his skull.
Kiefs rolled over, and it felt like his head was splitting with pain and his lungs were shrinking. With a great effort he twisted onto his back and saw it for one last time. The fog cleared and revealed the starry night sky fading into that same blue, grey smudge of colour looking back at him.