He awakes in the ashen dusk, as always since he learned how much easier it is to travel at night. He feels the wind on his face. Tight skin, sore from too long in the open. Before even his eyes have opened he feels his back. Bent out of any normal shape, shattered from holding tight against the cold. Or fear. He feels the crooked, spastic pain run the course of his spine, under his shoulder blades and into his neck. He has recurring dreams of being pulled apart by his legs and arms. Perfectly stretched for one moment.
No sunset today. Lead skies of already departed light run down the fell, and slide the horizon down past the sea. The wind, channelled up the gullies, carries the scent of wet rock and metal. With eyes now adjusted to the non-light he can see it. Still there. The dome of white tiles. It looks as if rising from the sea, or sinking into it. A fingertip coming up from the past, in the uncertainty between land, sea, and sky. Only a night of walking now. Better to move at night, easier to avoid trouble. The dead made no distinctions for time. But the survivors still tended to live by day. At night they made fires, tried to entertain themselves and make noise and violence amongst themselves. Or go ambushing those others who’d bedded down in the darkness. Better to move at night, he knew that now.
He lifts his head off his pack, propped in a small hollow in the rock, vertebrae clicking and popping. Reaches for his canteen. One sip. Two. Three. Wipes his patchy beard with the sleeve of his jacket. Taste of wax and soil and rot. He breathes in deep the grey air and feels the fire spread out from his heart. He heaves himself out of the hollow which sheltered him, feels his weight on his knees and sits on a rock with a better view down to the coast, and the dome of white tiles.
A tiny scream to the south penetrates the opaque silence of the evening wind. He turns his head and sees the fires of a camp. Muffled sounds of shouting men and women. Either this group has returned from hunting, or were prey. It mattered little to him. He turned back to the coast, and his eyes drew his route on the landscape. How many evenings had he awoken and done this? How many evenings since...
Sudden sour ache of panic. Were these the same fire he’d seen to the south yesterday evening? They’d moved north and west if they were, as if they were aiming at the same stretch of coast. Had they heard the same stories as him? No. Impossible. Only he knew. Only he held the secret. Only he knew about the dome of white tiles and what it held. He had to get there before they did. He had to get there first. Just one more nights walking. Better to move at night.
He waits till the last light has drained away past the horizon and fizzled out into the sea, and the monochrome has turned into the total implacable black of an overcast night, before shouldering his pack. Straps sliding into curves worn smooth. Swell of blood in his feet from sleeping with his boots on. He half hobbles down from his hollow. Down following the imaginary plot he’d drawn on the landscape, luminous to his mind’s eye in the thick night. Down toward the dome of white tiles. After a few minutes walking the sting starts to dull.
Walking becomes unconscious again and he approaches a brook lined with sharp pebbles. Kneeling down he throws a few handfuls of water over his face before running his palm from his brow to chin. Taste of salt. Iron. He begins to fill his canteen in the shimmering water, the gurgle of air coming out, when he sees it.
Draped in ragged mottled cloth. Hands reaching out, locked in impossible rigor. Teeth showing through strings of gouged cheek. Clotted morsels hanging from it’s mouth, bottomless, black with coagulant. It’s eyes reflecting some sourceless light through misted puddles. Like the indifferent light of the stars. It stands just on the other bank, an arm’s length away. It’s approach masked by the babble of the water. He freezes on his knees, muscles set and ready to act. He lets it make it’s starved lurch toward him, and just as it’s fetid claws brush his sleeve he rolls away to his left. It’s weight following its hunger, it tumbles screaming bile into the brook. Canteen still in hand he is up, running, no looking back.
He runs longer than he knows he needs to. Till he reaches a crumbling stone wall. He climbs over. Ankles shaking on loose rubble. Cold air burning in his chest with each planting breath. Taste of wet grass, mineral water, it’s putrid breath and concentrated blood. Ears ringing with adrenaline ebbing down with each rush of the wind. He crouches against the ancient wall. Now he looks back, over his shoulder. Nothing. Empty blackness. Silent night. He takes a long drink from his canteen, uncertain whether he can taste it. He rests it on a rock, checks his clothing for new damage. Clean.
He looks to the south again, towards where he heard the screams and saw the fires. No fires now. Had they finished their hunt? Or had the dead choked them?
After what felt like too long he gets up and looks back to the brook. He sees nothing. Hears nothing. It’s screams no doubt silenced by the water rushing over it’s head. Drowning, not drowning. Casting back down the fell he tries to find his imaginary line, his guide, but it has faded into the night. Looking around for landmarks in the emptiness he sees the edge of a copse of birch trees, pallid against the black. He thinks back to his eyrie, his view down to the dome of white tiles. Had he seen this stand of white limbs? Maybe. Maybe down in an adjacent gully, further south than he’d hoped. Closer to the now departed the fires.
He knows it’s pointless to dwell. He would still get there. Eventually all the gullies, fells, valleys and streams meet the sea. If he could find that, he could find the dome of white tiles. He’d just have to be more cautious. He stows his canteen in his pack and starts down the hill, following the crumbling stone wall.
He walks through the night. Punctuated by crumbling stone walls, cracked tarmac roads, and patient nervous crossings. He keeps his eyes to the south. No screams, no fires since those on the top of the fell. What had become of the people?
He keeps walking. He starts to feel the land beneath his blind feet levelling out towards the narrow coastal plain. Walking in the dark was like anything else, after enough time and necessity he’d figured it out. How to avoid the worst falls and trips. How to pick a line. How to take a bearing from the shadows. Against the vacuum of the night, anything that moves or groans or salivates shines out, electric. He knows he’s quicker than them. And he had none of their distractions or their indifference as to what they chased.
He reaches a broad field at the foot of the fell. Smell of nighttime, of the plants and the rocks breathing out. Somewhere behind the clouds the moon has risen up, and a feeble grey light stalks the land. He stops to drink, and to survey his position. Barely visible relief of the high hills behind him in the east. Gouged out along the ancient lines into the fells and gullies leading down. The thin strip of relative flat, still leaning, always heading towards the invisible sea. Faint smell of salt blown up the land. He looks to the south again, over a small river winding in the darkness, to the indistinguishable land beyond. He feels the familiar dropping in his stomach.
He sees them. Somehow darker than the night. Shadows upon the featureless distance. Moving by some invisible action, as if floating along on some primeval current. Maybe ten. No, more like 15. He watches them long enough to plot their heading. North and west, to the coast. Towards the dome of white tiles. What moved them towards it? What could they possibly want with it? They could no more understand it’s actions than he did. He just knew they were. It doesn’t matter. He thinks he has about half an hour on them.
He soon reaches the banks of the river, it moving steadily toward the dome. They would eventually converge with him on the opposite side but that’s a problem to deal with then. He’s half jogging now, he has to get there first. Cold sweat on his neck. Humid claustrophobic feeling from his jacket. No time to stop. He has to keep pressing on into the darkness, the curve of the dome getting ever stronger and bending all space and time further into itself. They’re gaining time on him. Now as he looks across the river he sees limbs swinging and a dark mass of hair shadowing their faces.
The river turns sharply south as the land to his west drops down further to the coast. He has a clear view down to the base of the dome for the first time. To the crossroads, the chain fence and square building upon square building. Something on the crossroad catches his eye. A slither of orange light. A tiny blaze of colour on the powerless grey. He realises what it is. His heart lifts for a hateful second as he realises too that this may be what the gang of survivors to the south are tracking, and not the dome. It is the light of a brazier, burning in the darkness. The small opening through which whoever was stoking their fire. He didn’t know what had driven these people to make such a mistake. Had they been so sheltered up here on this bleak outpost?
He sees a handful of tents gathered around the glue of the brazier. Shadows pass to and fro and the glow blinks like a beacon. The gang of moving shadows were now on the opposite side of the river, a few hundred yards ahead where it curved back to the west. He sees them fully now. Men and women. There was a clear leader, barking at the rest as they paused and looked down to the same encampment.
They weren’t looking for him, so they couldn’t see him. Crouching low on the opposite bank. He watches them lurch silently on into the night, eyes somehow finding lost moonlight and glowing milky white. He knew what they wanted, and he hoped that’s where they had been aiming all along. He knew what he would have to watch, again. The echoless wet thudding, the chomp of breaking bones, the desperate gasps.
He would do nothing. He had to get to the dome of white tiles. He must use their distraction to sneak past them and through the chain fence.
He and they kept following the river, unstoppable now. He and they reach a bridge from either side. The bridge held the road leading to the tents. He waits. The tents within shouting distance. He watches them, slow and skillful. They approach the tents and swivel into position around them. Not long ago he might of helped, or at least felt the sear of guilt and cowardice for not doing so. Not now. He just tastes the familiar iron in his throat and watches as long as he needs to. To know.
He watches the leader motion to the others to get ready, then slash open the side of a tent. They rush in and slit the throat of one inhabitant, he tastes the spritz of blood wash over him on the southern wind. Another, probably a woman, maybe a child, who realises just too late, is already being undressed through muffled grunts. A final victim was taking the beating. All the gang was in it now the other tents splitting open in the same manner. The hot vitriol and delirium taking hold. He could move past them now. They would see nothing. They weren’t looking for him.
As the ritual laughter starts he came up to the road on the bridge. He edged along the road lying face down in the overgrown siding. He could just make out the gates of the compound up along the road. More were coming to join the frenzy now, but they were enjoying themselves too much for him to worry. Jeering taunts. False invitations to mercy. He could just taste yesterday’s rain on the grass brushing his cheek through the general rot and carrion in the air. All this noise was sure to draw out anything in the compound. They would clear his way to the dome of white tiles for him. He willed them to enjoy it more.
He crawls further forward. The worst of the noises start to dim. The gate gets ever closer. He hears the clumsy violent stumbling of the dead against the chain fence. Urged by the sounds of the life they hunger for. The angry gasps. Rotten limbs forced through the gaps, straining out for anything. Tentacles of some deep sea terror. Green clammy skin rolled back from their faces where they try to force through and the metal peels them. He can’t count how many in the dark. But the clanging, ringing, chiming of the fence mean he knows there’s enough.
He approaches the fence. Feel of foggy eyes fixed on him. Fetid smell. The fence is strong. The gate is chained and padlocked. Ignoring their thirst he inspects the lock. New, or at least, not yet weathered. Nothing was new anymore. He looks back along the road to the ruined encampment. The brazier coals have been tipped out and the fires have been built. Only the faintest cries. He sees three figures walking up the road towards him. They couldn’t see him yet, his silhouette indistinguishable from those on the other side. He finds a thick patch of Angelicas and crouches, and watches, and waits.
Two men and a woman approach. One of the men wears a long coat that looks as if it was once white. They pass by him, mumbling. No trace of surprise or anticipation in their voices. Perhaps this was their goal afterall. It didn’t matter. They get to the gate and inspect it with the same movements he did. The woman swings a dusty pack round and pulls out a pair of ancient bolt cutters. The two men take up positions behind her. Machetes poised in their hands. Wide stance. He notices the first dangerous inklings of dawn creeping over the fell tops. It has to be now.
She snaps the chains and in the same movement grabs one side of the gate and swings round behind it as she throws it open. The wave of dead is released. The men stand ready to fall them. As the first leering corpse gets within arms reach of the men he rushes, crouched low, at a run from his hide. He tackles one man into the other and they all topple. Urgent angry feel of their bodies writhing beneath him. Shouts of anger from below. Screams of terror from the side. He pulls himself up, kicking one of the men in the face to release the man’s hand from his wrist. As the wave crashes upon them he scurries out, just in time. Past the distracted dead and the wailing woman into the compound. He hears the men’s pointless screams. Whimpers. Silence. The greedy feasting.
He runs behind a thick metal pipe and collapses into the weeds. Bitter taste of broken stems. In the grey light of dawn he watches the woman fall to her knees weeping and muttering a man’s name, as she too is devoured. He sees the remainder of their group running up and surrounding the dead. They methodically ended them. Swift accurate punctures to the skull. They knew there was no use in rushing. The dead men on the road, already twitching and snarling were similarly despatched. He was sure they wouldn’t of seen him in the melee. Yet they were casting around the now open compound. They knew to look for something.
He waits till their concerns for their haul draws off a few of the party back down the road. The remainder start picking through the corpses. He tries to get his bearings, he cannot see the dome from his hiding point amidst the warren of concrete and pipes. The wind, strong with the smell of the sea, howls in the channels. Streaks of white light now fully visible in the thin parts of the shield of cloud. He knows the dome is in the the northern sector of the compound. He guesses that he ran towards the south. Looking back at the gate and the road he convinces himself.
When their backs are all turned he rises up from the weeds and sprints low across a broken concrete path behind another building. He uses the gentle shadows to pick his way through the maze up to the north. He can see the azimuth of the dome now, peeking out above the buildings, each without entrance or window or sign of life. Or death. He turns what he thinks should be the final corner and freezes. He can see the dome now, right in front of him. Not a dome he sees now, but a ball, curved impossibly against the straight lines of the chimney next to it. An almost imperceptible humming. The giant door at its base gaping open, exuding darkness. And in front, a mass of the dead, waiting. As if they were dropped here, frozen in anticipation of some stimuli, some unknown target. As if they’d always been here, eroding like everything else.
A hand around his ankle. Uncontrolled bones digging in. The feel of its muscles squeezing, squeezing. He looks down and sees a one armed rotten woman trying to pull his ankle into a dead jaw. Tongue dry and bloated. Urgent moans. The others have noticed, awakened from their stasis. They trudge towards him. Trapped. With his free foot he tries to stamp through the dead woman’s wrist. Balance failing. He feels the bones breaking. But the callous skin holding fast. Closer. Heart thundering. Closer. The dome. He falls to the floor. One of them collapses on top of him, pinning his torso. His hands round it’s head holdings it’s maw just away from his throat. Fingers splitting open it’s skin, it’s skull slipping down with each break. Arms burning.
He feels it’s head jolt then go limp. He feels the hand around his ankle release and the blood rush back with fire. He throws the corpse off his chest and sees a man stood over him with a machete. The peaceful look in the man’s eyes turning to jealous red. His saviour. His condemner. He rises slowly to a crouch then dummies the man by springing to the left, then quickly back to the right and off into a run. The man stumbles and shouts something. He is running to the giant door. His shoulders bouncing off the heaving dead. He trips but momentum keeps him moving. Hands and teeth groping for him. He reaches the door and just before falling he reaches out, and in the dark presses the button he knows will close it.
The impact of the closing door, inches thick steel, on the dome rings out like a bell. He scrabbles backwards on his hands at the alien sounds of it. The dull white light of the hall, the vibration of fluorescence not heard for so long, maybe ever. Somewhere bolts are sealing the door fast, and the horror outside recedes. His heart beating so fast he almost passes out. He hears nothing from outside now.
He looks around at the hurried clinical decoration of supply crates, power cables criss crossing the smooth concrete floor. False memory of a place minutely described but never known. He gets himself up, onto his feet. Faint head. Strange feel of metal trellis walkways pressing circles into his hand. Smell of cold wet concrete from the outer door, left open so long. But it looked as if little else had changed by the hands of the elements raging outside. Looking around he sees where the walkway leads up and round to the inner door. Sealed shut. He thinks of Egypt, and a holiday forgotten, not-forgotten, just a memory in waiting. He walks up to the inner seal now, eyes adjusted to the false light, peers through the glass porthole, inches thick.
He sees a corridor stretch out with the rooms he knew would be there on either side. Beyond another seal, another corridor, and again, he knows, till another that opens to the core. Hands search for the keypad, eyes fixated on the corridor. The feel of plastic, nobly and impossible. He says the code he knows over and over before tapping it in, as if memory weren’t enough and he needed the echo to tell him back.
Nothing. Anger seeps into him. Where had he forgotten it? Thwarted not by the tempest of the world, but by porous memory blasted clear by selfish pain. He punches the thick metal of the door and hears it ring out, doleful. His fist throbs with regret. He taps it in again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. He pushes his face into the glass and looks around, then he sees the supplies built up against the door from the other side. Old canisters, drums, crates. Trolleys on their sides. Gas tanks. Corpses. Piled up in a rushed mound and spilling backwards down the corridor.
Rattling the door he sees that the bolts are not through, not holding it. Through the glass he sees what looks like the companion to the pad he’d failed to use, lying broken on the ground. Someone had opened this door in a hurry. Opened then closed it just as quick. Something expelled and shut out. He looks harder at the barrier, it appears diminished. Some of the items rolled to the side. A fetid corpse propped up against the wall like an epic drunk. He sets his feet and presses his side to the door before he pushes, hard. Sting of feet turning white in their boots, straining for blood. It gave an inch, maybe two. He relaxes, the door clinking back to closed. He looks around the vestibule behind the outer door for a length of pipe. Finally he pulls up a section of walkway. It feels strong enough. The slats already pressing deep grooves in his fingers as he carries it back to the door and wedges the thin end in the gap he can create with his body weight. He lets the weight of the door hold it while he gets ready, wraps a blanket from his rucksack around the end nearest him and puts his hands on it.
He pushes, first with his hands, then as the angle grows, he turns and uses his back. Like being pressed against a net, he feels the pattern imprinted onto his skin. Taking steady steps back it starts to give. Grinding sound of angry metal. Clatter of equipment falling over, snaps of something. A scream. He seizes himself, the weight braced against broken feet. Nothing. Could it have been outside? That door was too thick, the dome thicker still. He waits till his thighs quiver, still nothing. He pushes a final push, the blanket slicing into squares, the door open just enough for him to fit through. He falls through as the dead weight rebounds the door almost closed again.
He lies, breathing heavy, till the acid drains from his legs and the bruises in his back begin to numb. He casts his eye down the corridor, the flickering strips of indifferent light. Had he imagined the scream? Doors run down either length of it. Doors as thick as that he’d just conquered, each adorned with a spinning wheel, a lock, on the outside. Almost all sit fast around their respective keeps. A few gape open, seeping dark into the whiteness. He stands and dusts himself down, something wet on his arm from a puddle of cracked, discoloured effluents. A gas canister sits where the head of a corpse should be.
He knows that he needs to get past this corridor, and the next, but he can’t help looking through the tiny windows in the doors. Empty beds in various states of disarray. Smell of bleached floors. Desks, shelves, utilitarian bedside tables and cabinets. All frozen somehow. Then one of them clicks, strikes some distant chord of familiarity, something in its patterns. He pulls on the door. He spins the outer locking wheel till he sees the door jump then pulls again. It sighs open with a memory of scents he can’t help but wallow in. He tiptoes in, afraid of knocking more memories into the air, dandelions. He runs a finger across the spines off the books on the shelf, words he’d never known. Now would never know. Then he sees it, written in careful script on the label of a thick notebook. He pulls it down, tactile, plush. He thumbs a few pages open. Smell of paper like cut wood, bone dry. He buries the precious words in his rucksack.
He hears no fear in the scream the second time. Nor the desperation of the dead. Derangement. He drops to a crouch and listens to it reverberating off the dome, as if the whole place were lunatic. He edges out the room, back to the corridor. A rattling from a sealed room at the far end and a shadow passing through a light. Dimming the projection through the glass window just for a moment. Heart racing, furiously pumping his thin blood through his face, his ears hot. He has to go past that door.
He reaches about, blind, for some weapon from the debris of the barricade. A length of pipe, a chain, anything. He grabs a small canister, icy cold and heavy. Hollow chime as he lifts it free, angry at the noise. He shuffles down the metal walkway, towards the shadowed door. Somehow he moves louder than if he’d been stamping. As he gets closer he hears a shuffling, a muttering. A senseless combination of vowels and consonants permeating the metal structure. He stops, level with the door. He goes over to it, magnetic, irresistible. Stands. And watches through the frame, the screen, of glass.
A man with lank hair, matted with bloody streaks, and a stained beard sits up against the headboard. He looks only moments from death but his eyes are not those frosted pools of the dead risen. They just barely cling to clarity as they dart and bounce around the room. An incessant mouth of gapped and swollen gums, grinding and gurning out the stream of nonsense. The man wears a yellowed white t shirt, filthy with flesh and excrement. Sodden underwear. Then he sees the source of the madness. The man’s legs. Beside the bed on floor he can make out the jagged profile of a saw in a deep cake of blood. A pile of bones tossed in a corner. A staved skull. Discarded dressings, locked solid as moulds. A rotting haunch.
He hears a laugh crawling out the mouth of the lost man. Out and burrowing into his head, getting louder. He realises the man’s eyes had locked onto his. Mouth gaping open with the power of the its laughter. Bloody spittle collecting on the man’s beard, paper skin convulsing over twisted bones. The man starts to rise up like on some imperceptible string attached about his armpits. The laugh now deafening, violent echoes inside his skull. The man throws himself off the bed and on to the floor. The man darts across the space between the bed and the door. A diseased slug leaving it’s hideous trail. He feels the man pulling on the door feebly against him. He spins the lock anyway. It rings out but the groping mind on the ground hears nothing, still laughing.
He stands watching the man through the glass. He watches the man’s desperate hands scrabble at the steel till his fingernails break off and and a thick blood oozes out. Sound of files scraping metal. He watches as the crazed thrashes throw off the dressings on the man’s stumps. The splintered skewers. The rough mass of putrid congealed flesh and old leather belts. He watches till the man is still and the scratching has stopped. Till the artificial hum of the lights is all. Fear long subsided turns to disgust. He walks away with the laughter still echoing.
He enters the adjacent corridor. Longer than the first. The doors packed closer together, steel dominoes. Same spinning locks but larger windows, somehow tinted lending a reddish edge to the light brimming out. All but six at the far end are sealed shut. They are all uniformly empty and tidy, devoid of any possessions. Same single bed and flimsy desk. No shelves. He barely stops to look in them, angry at himself, and they so many. His feet hit the walkway hard. Pinging sound. The fluorescent hum above matches his volume. Louder step, louder hum. Louder step, louder hum. He stops and the hum keeps building up, vibrating his body. A shard of white pain behind his left eye. A violence in his stomach. He falls to the floor, the useless canister he still holds clanging down, metal floor cutting his knees, and heaves nothing. Over and over. Till his bones burn.
It passes. He sits back on his knees as the vibrations subside. Face damp with tears. Shaky breathing. Eventually he stands up from his knees, repeating the old motions. The door at the far end still beckons him. Senseless to dwell. He keeps walking down the corridor, past the innumerate cells. He reaches the six that hang open. He looks inside to see a few tawdry possessions still resting in their places. A photograph of a young couple. An old abacus. Pencils worn to nubs.
Past the abandoned rooms he sees a smaller corridor leading to a set of doors framing a gurney. Thick leather straps. Gas canisters stockpiled. Doors leading off to observation rooms. Flashes of stories or memories or imaginings, hard now to tell the difference in this impossible inevitable world. Overlay in his mind’s eye of people squirming against the straps, the creak of leather. He wonders how sound proofed the cells are. He reaches the end of the corridor of cells, and a giant set of doors without locks which swing open both ways into the cavernous laboratory.
The room a perfect circle. The ceiling reaches up to the pinnacle of the dome. Light cast up from sconces. A thin blanket of ash covers the floor. Confetti. Burnt snow. The currents of the ventilation system driving it into drifts and dunes around the furniture pushed up against the walls. Cool air flowing, almost like a breeze. Little grey eddies of the fine powder whipped up by the swinging doors dance around him for a moment, blown into figures held aloft on a twirl, before disappearing out some unseen vent and out the chimney. Shapes and moments never made to last. In the empty centre of the chamber, a deep fire scar stains the floor, as if something had fallen from sky and slammed down with force enough to vaporise anything resembling a person into the gentle powder that now formed the tiny escarpments around the sole of his boots, muffling his steps, and blasting all the desks and equipment and medicine round the edges of the room. He breathes deep the fractured air, thick and soft. Lingering smell of the desperate burn.
He knows the cold storage rooms are off the north east quadrant of the room. He thinks he still has his bearings left over from the outside. Awed, gentle steps across the silence, fear of disturbing too much. The ash begins to coat him, his arms look to him like plaster casts, the clean folds in his jacket the cracks in the mould. Hidden in the ash are fragments of charred bone, bits of wood broken up and splintering. It crunches beneath his feet. The stillness of this hall distorting its dimensions, he is surprised when he reaches the other side. He leaves a trail of footprints in the slag. Casting about he sees three doors, each thick, solid, lined with strips of sealing rubber and opened by giant lever handles. He heads to the third door, it’s label obscured with the fine grey powder and pulls it open. It fights against him clinging stoicly to its frame.
Gasp of air as the seal breaks. Ash rushing in to claim the pristine for itself. Rows of empty test tubes from floor to ceiling, front to back. He sees the vials, through frosted glass or solid ice, encased in the humming pacifism of the freezer. Then in the reflection of the glass he sees her face, glinting like the blade of a knife, white, hot, incising his eyes. It was her. Her who’d told him, about the vials, about the dome of white tiles. Her who’d made him promise before she was gone, who’d looked into him and set his course.
Back when the late world had still to come to terms with with the dimensions of its tomb, and the people still flailed and believed in Sampson, they’d sent her to work here. To stop what couldn’t be stopped, to fix what couldn’t be fixed. Her and twenty others in white coats, and one hundred more in plain clothes. The dome protecting them from the storm raging across the land. The dome providing them with precious electricity, water, food, isolation. They’d spent unrecorded time with the great concrete doors sealed. No concept of the time passing outside, the desolation.
It was her who took them through the plain clothed people, one by one. Who’d taken them off to the room with the gurney and administered the experiments. Her who lead the charge, who controlled the compounds, who’d made the breakthrough, who’d made the vials, and released the 95th person in plain clothes. 96, 97, 98, 99, 100.
It was her who the people in plain clothes had then thrown against the wall with the others as they began the executions. Her who’d opened the cells of the ones who had turned and were kept for study. And who, in the chaos of the frenzy, had ran mindless, shutting doors behind her, as the dead began flaying the survivors, plain clothed and white clothed alike. She’d seen the sinew stretch as arms extended with mutinous pistols were pulled off, and heard the curdled hunger echo inside the dome. She’d ran, day and night, till he found her, just conscious, in Whitehaven.
It was her, the first person he’d spoken to in…was it years? Her that he’d carried, convulsing with thirst and virgin terror, into an abandoned house on the crumbling, rotten marina. He’d carried her up, up to the 5th floor, ancient forgotten brickwork, suffuse with iodine and putrefaction of stagnant water. He’d made a bed for her from old crates, bowed in the dank. In some neighbouring warehouses, he found her some blankets. They must once have belonged to a camp, arranged around a fire scar under heavy wooden beams, but the dust on the floor betrayed the reality that no one had been moving in that building in years. He could smell the familiar sour odour emanating from what looked like a cold store. Lengths of old mooring rope coiled on the floor.
She didn’t speak for days. He scavenged what little life he could around her. He’d had a wife that he could scarcely remember even before the world had changed, but she was different. Despite the congealed air and gunmetal skies of each repetitively empty day, she was somehow light. Days in this world transform into months without much effort. The same northern sun wheeling overhead. The screams carried on the wind. The panic at the illusory sight of anything human. Fire. Shadow. Flesh.
By the time the first silent snows began, she was scavenging with him. Collecting a semblance of survival together around the marina. Stacks of old tins with their curious names, designs, colours. One evening he came up the crumbling stairs to see her trying to light a fire. He’d ran over and kicked the stack of kindling across the room.
They will come.
Now she was eking the conversation out of him. He struggling to explain life outside in the years she’d skipped with words long forgotten. So many of his months had been washed away with flecks of carrion, or lost running.
There were evenings when the golden hue of another world burned through the sheeted sky. And the light lanced across the marina from the west, through the windows of their broken mansion. He saw her. The undulation of her landscape as she slept. Filigree hair.
Bit by bit she found the means to tell him where she’d come from and what she’d done in the dome. How, when the dead first came back, they’d evacuated her to some unknown dwelling of caves and artificial light. How they’d given her the task of leading the fight back, first choosing the dome, then specifying how it needed to be built. How many had perished in preparing it, tossed into the fire. She told him how, eventually, they’d travelled north by helicopter with the last of the military, and how the doors had sealed shut behind them. Only operable from the inside. They took the last of the country’s food and set to work.
One night she began to tell him how she’d selected plain clothed people and partnered them with chemicals. How she’d watched them through the observation glass. To begin with they merely died and returned, as normal. Then, after innumerate time, syringes, clipboards, tests, dissections, destructions, agar pots, centrifuges, strip lights, refrigerators, rations, slides, they only died. Never to return. She tried to describe the joy at seeing a simply dead woman. Dead with no misting of the eyes or boiling thirst. Just dead.
He knew why she was telling him. It was a confession. He saw the shimmer gather in her eyes as she spoke. It was years of living under a dome and not knowing the ravages. She told him how they’d developed the cure.
One night out scavenging under the spinning hollowness of stars and the sharp smell of winter they saw fires beyond the rubble of the town. At first she was excited, but watching the depth drop in his eyes, and how he’d stopped blinking she began to understand. He’d tried to explain the world she’d been reborn into. But he himself hardly understood it. He just knew what the fires meant. He knew she’d only understand if she saw it herself. He knew they didn’t have much time before the fires went out again, impossible to know where next they’d be lit. He grabbed her arm, thin through her coat sleeve, and took her.
They ran between shadows on the edge of town like some forgotten invading squadron. Then, keeping low, they’d ran across the fields, past the idiot dead she’d now gotten used to. They ran through the overgrown fields of twisted, knotted grass. Wet coils around their shins, rich smell of woodsmoke. They ran towards the flowering light of the fires just reaching over the brow of the hillock at the edge of the field. Before collapsing against the bank, compact, the fires now only a whisper away.
Hot ache held fast in the chest. Slowly subsiding. As the blood stopped pounding their ears they started to hear the noises bleeding over the hillock. Acts in the darkness may produce no light, but the sound cannot be hidden. A jostling of steel links. Sobbing. Dull thud of an edge hitting bone. Laughter. The moaning patter of the flayed dead drawn stumbling into the flame. A hissing in the heat. Feel of her hand, cold and cracked, pressing into his. Light was just congealing into the sky from the east. He motioned her to peer up over the brow. And she did. And she saw. And she knew.
When they got back to the house on the marina, stinking of smoke and death, the day was fully broken. They sat amidst their midden of cans, and packets, and wrappers, silently. He saw the resolution form in her eyes. Narrow pupils, set shoulders. She knelt beside him and told him what they had to do.
This world cannot go on.
He was ready. She drew the layout of the dome in the dust, before kicking it away and making him redraw it. Smell of dust in the still air. She made him recite the names of rooms, equipment and vials. They would leave the next day. He would lead them, via the fells, the coastal roads too dangerous and exposed.
That night they sat together. Mouldy canvas rucksacks packed with the last of their supplies, the blankets he’d swaddled her in, canteens of water filled from a stash of dusty plastic bottles they’d found on an old fishing boat. They looked silently at each other for hours, before she unfolded into him. Sweet taste in their mouths.
Lying in the predawn luminescence, he smelt her hair, the iodine of the marina. Then woodsmoke. White fear flaring through him. He jumped to the rotten sash window and saw the fires on the marina path. He saw them going from house to house, and the dead come stumbling out, towards the flames. She’d sensed his fear and was already awake and making ready to run. They started down the stairs cursing each creak and thump. Cursing how many flights they’d put between themselves and the street, and the fields and emptiness. Their bastion now prison.
They’d reached the second floor when they heard the shouting below, coming up the stairs. Trapped. They ran across the landing towards the rear of the house and the window a full floor above the roof of a crooked lean-to. He strained at the ancient swollen sash adrenaline blazing. Cold metal handles gouging at his palms. Nothing. There was nothing to lose. Her hand at his back. Her desperate breath in his ear. He pulled his hand into his sleeve and punched out the glass. The flock of shards sent tinkling into the icy blue dawn sky. Chimes echoing off the dead town.
He grabbed her, she resisted, planted with terror. He thrust her through the gap and into cold air. A thump. He looked through after her. She was on her feet already, looking back up at him.
A hand covered her face. A flash of metal through her stomach.
He was lost. Drinking her misting confused eyes as she slumped into the dark figure now gently holding her, easing her onto the slates. An eternity born and passed.
Then, the sound of footsteps emerged through the infinity behind him. He let himself fall through the window. He landed next to her. Hands hot in puddles of her blood. Taste of her on his face. Cold slate. The figure had already jumped to the ground and was pulling her off the roof by the legs. He scrabbled for her hand. Squeeze. Fade. He felt her let go. Thump of her body on the ground.
The figures hands were coming back up, pulling it back up, back for him. He grabbed a loose slate and bought the edge down on its wrists, part severing them. Filthy blood shot into his face, sour rotten taste. The wild animal wail. He rolled down off the roof on top of it. Knees on it’s chest he bought the slate down on it skull. Again. Thick crack of wet bone. Again. The wailing stopped. Again. He felt the ground. Again. Again. Again. Again. The slate shattering, crumbling in his grip, cutting into his hands.
He didn’t realised he’d stopped till he felt the pressure of the silence. He looked at it’s ragged torso. Crowned with an empty bowl, decorated with a perverse, vile grin. More of the figures had gathered around him. They stood on the edge of their feet, uncertain. Moist clouds of hot sour breath hanging from their heads. He looked at her, already twitching in the dawn light. He said her name out loud to the mob. The force of it catching them off balance. A shockwave of sounds unheard, and absorbed into the brickwork, this piece of ground. He ran.
Shrill sound of glass rolling across concrete. He is back in the main space of the laboratory, slumped against a console, cold on his back, unnatural straight lines. How long has he sat here? Lost in the memory he’d blotted out, too afraid to uncover. Till the immediacy of her presence in this vaulted hall. His hands tight around her notebook. He had let the vials spill out of their caddy and they lay strewn across the floor. He says their name, that she’d taught him, aloud, to hear it echo in the empty dome. He gathers them up, smooth against his cracked hands, and heaves himself up, leaning on the console.
She’d told him what to do with them, to make sure everyone was safe. Curious blue liquid of so much power and potential. He opens their lids, one by one, and pours them into a large beaker on the console. Then he searches through the stores next to the one he’d already cracked. Through a cabinet of glass bottles. He finds the one she told him to look for. He gingerly lifts it out past the other bottles. He sets it next to the beaker and opens the cork. Harsh smell burning the nostrils.
He empties the glass bottle’s contents in with those of the vials. The concoction sputters and coughs, bitter bubbles, smell of salt. After a few seconds it starts to transform into a wet crystalline slush, reflections of light dancing off the moving plates. A few seconds longer and it is solid. Opaque, grey, useless. She’d told him it would be useless now. He lifts the beaker, somehow lighter than expected, already covered with a light dusting of ash, and heaves it across the room. It shatters and the million sparkling fragments dissipate. Lost in the ash. Like diamonds in the seabed.
It was done now, and the loss hit him like a storm surge. Carrying him away into the murk of grief, with the land and the trees and the houses.
He stands teetering in the ash. Throat narrowing with slag, he starts to cough and hears it echo around the circular walls. Struggling for air he makes a crooked run for the doors that swing open and back into the corridor of cells. But his feet don’t stop. He keeps running, coughing the grey sludge down his beard. Past the room with the gurney, past the open cells and lost possessions, past the sterilised empty cells. Through the door to the corridor where the madness had consumed everything and up to the barrier of spent supplies. He throws debris away with mad panic, hearing it crash into the doors, the door of the room where he’d found her notebook. The door starts to give, and still coughing, he pulls, straining till his fingers turn white and it gives with an empty screech. Into the entrance hall now, tripping over the gap in the walkway where he’d scavenged his lever. He stands at the great outer door, resonating silently. The beyond. The forever. The unavoidable. He punches the release button with the bottom of his fist and readies himself for what may.
Warmth on his face, a yellow fragment of sunlight penetrates his closed eyelids. The clean air nourishes his craving lungs. He waits for the noise of them. But beyond the dome it is quiet. He steps out into an empty world, no trace of the desolation. As if the great white dome had blinked with him inside, and all the nightmarish forces had simply blown away. A dream. It is the start of dusk and the sun simmers above the horizon, surrounded by the tinted blues of the night emerging from the day.
He lets his feet walk him out. He walks in the shadow of the towering breathless chimney stacks, the sharp edges of buildings softening in the sea breeze. Abandoned cranes and gangways whistling above the still pools of perfectly azure and spotless water. Plush carpet of grasses and sedges. Coltsfoot leaves the size of windows. Thick knots of bramble and dandelion. The metal breeze blowing off sea whips around, trapped, in the gaps and gullies of the compound. But in the moments of quiet, and stillness he feels the dying heat, pulling him forward, to the sea. He leaves a grey trail of ash through the grass.
He reaches the hedge lined bank of a waste canal. He jumps over the sagging rusted links of a fence and follows the unstoppable freight of water, following the slant of the land to the west and running out to the ocean. He stands on the muddy sand of the beach, watching the sun clearer than he’d ever seen flare as it left the day behind. Still he is bathed in the dreamlight of the day without a sun. Light emanating from the sea and the land and the still warm to the touch sky. He eases himself onto the sands and feels it, damp, between his fingers. Scraps of salt dry driftwood scattered around him. He gathers them up and into a shape still remembered in his hands. He brings his rucksack around from his back, suddenly cold as it is exposed. He takes her notebook from within and thumbs open a random page. He feels the imprint of the pen in the pages, flourished channels sitting neatly on the lines. Stories of her hopes for the world after she’d completed her work. He sets it on his lap and takes a box of matches from his bag. Still two left rattling in it after all these years without fire. He lights the criss-crossed limbs of driftwood in front of him, starting in the middle with the thinnest pencil twigs. The salt burns emerald green as the blaze grows. The heat of it. The crackling sound. So many memories of fear, so many seen in the flames of joy from long ago. The smell of woodsmoke. He opens up her notebook again and rips out a random page, stuffing it into his pocket. The rest, he tosses onto the fire, and the sparks roar up into the encroaching darkness.
His father had been born on this stretch of coast, though he’d never been here before he’d come here in search. His father had described it with hatred. A wrecked, deserted place even then when people’s dreams still looked forward. He seldom saw his father as a child, less so as a man, but when he did it felt concentrated. Like distilled time. His father and he shared little with each other, saving that which they did with no other. They shared their faults, flaws, defects, failings, mistakes and regrets. He felt special from this, it was their secret, how imperfect the other was. He revelled in it. He knew that all was broken and failing. All those around him. He knew something others didn’t, and deciding whether or not they should learn some piece of it, whether or not they were worthy of such secrets. Because he knew how everyone else was, and how, without the admission they would still see their reflection with it’s blemishes and distortions, but blame some error in transmission.
When he got older he’d tried to tell a few, to enlighten them, but it had only made it worse, each crack he’d revealed just became another thing to buff at and to mistrust in those who didn’t. This new world was little changed. Imperfect people seeing problems only between the light and their image. There never was a cure. Not really. There was nothing to cure. This is simply how it is. You cannot fix something unless it is broken. The world can no more be broken than can a colour, a sound.
The cold sea lapped at the shore as the last of the dreamlight ebbed into the west, to somewhere else where the day was still strong. The longshore breeze blew up across his fire, carrying off the cinders of her notebook. First gathering them up, then dispersing them out, again and again, each time further south. Like a lost flock of starlings on some ancient migration. A distant home, never chosen.