I looked around. The truck had stopped moving. Through the darkness, I could just about see my residence for the past 7 days- four dull wooden walls, and a small gas lamp, long empty. I felt my way over to my pack. I was travelling light, only a few loaves of bread and several bottles of water, along with a little money and a wind-up torch.
I felt further through the darkened haze which was my home- I reached for the smooth wooden hilt of my hunting rifle. A simple bolt action rifle I had ‘acquired’ from the IRA’s confiscated weapons supply. I had fitted it with a simple scope, which I had found on the black market. I touched upon its highly polished hilt, and for a moment, I relaxed. My muscles unwound, and my arms subconsciously drew my weapon to me.
A familiar clunking sound arose from behind me. I picked up my pack, and slung it over my shoulder. I also attached my Geiger counter to my belt; I would need that where I was going. I had been planning this ‘excursion’ for a while now, somewhere in the area of 5 years since I originally conceived it. The gun and ammo was the worst to get hold of, it’s never easy to find a good working gun in Britain. The Geiger counter was simply a matter of tipping the hat to the right people. The journey was long, and took a lot of planning- how to get a bolt action rifle out of the country and into another, without being noticed. I had found a way.
The door behind me opened, and for the first time in a week, the sun hit my steadily paling skin. A cold and wintery breeze swept through my cabin, making me realise for the first time how much it stank in there. The faint scent of pine delighted my senses, and when my eyes readjusted to the light, I saw the deserted landscape stretch away in front of me. I could see a forest in the distance, swallowing the battered and cracked concrete road which had carried me here.
I got out, and moved round the truck to thank my drivers. My legs were stiff, but after a few seconds they found the ground again. I walked, first with wobbly steps, then with sure strides over to the cabin.
I looked back along the road, into the expanses of grassland on either side of me.
I walked back to the cab and took a peek inside. The keys had been left in the slot, and the engine was still clicking down. The truck had definitely been driven recently; I hadn’t woken up a couple of hours after they left. The door had opened- doors didn’t open by themselves, especially not on these old vehicles.
I took the keys from the slot. After pocketing them, I withdrew my map and satellite photos, both taken from Google Earth. If all had gone to plan, I was on the outside of the forest, on the other side of which was the legendary irradiated city. It existed, sure, but no-one really believed it was truly real. Satellites proved it was there, history proved it was built, the news reports proved that it was irradiated by the collapse of a local atomic reactor. But for some reason, people refused to believe in it. Something about it confused and frightened mankind, it couldn’t exist, it was too improbable. An entire city, completely deserted, due to governmental fault? It couldn’t happen.
At least, that’s what the people were told to believe, by their ever-beloved government. The fact is it was political incompetence that had caused the whole mess in the first place. The inspectors of the local nuclear power plant screwed up, and it was the locals who suffered for it. But the political would never let the public know that. All they needed to know was that there was a terrible ‘accident’ due to local environmental hazards. If the public lost faith in them, their control would cease to exist. They could still assume control over the country, but they would not have the control over its citizens.
So the government covered it up. It was an ‘accident’. It wouldn’t happen in Britain, not even to the three new power stations being built at the time. It became so that to speak of the city was taboo, to look for it was frowned upon, to find it was pure sin.
I believed in the city. I didn’t ignore the evidence- the photos, the initial news reports, the laptop on the train, etc- I instead saw it for what it was. Just another concrete jungle, swallowed by the hazards of modern day living. A city devoid of a soul, bereft of life. Real, but not extraordinary.
And then the calling started.
Every day at noon, my phone rang, and a dark, husky voice whispered from the other side. This happened for two months, and not once, could I hear what it was saying- it was too muffled. I started to look deeper into the city history, and found nothing out of the ordinary- a simple history, a mining town established long ago, which had grown into a small city, of no real significance- just another out of the way place to stick a reactor.
Bu then, I started looking at the satellite photos.
And it became clear.
There was nothing ordinary about it.
I switched on my Geiger counter. A faint clicking began to resonate from it. Good. We had the right area.
I slung my gun over my shoulder, and headed towards the forest. The counter slowly began clicking more rapidly. I knew what I needed to know, so I switched it back off. Useful though it was, it was also extraordinarily irritating. It also attracted unwanted attention from the locals.
I reached the end of the road.
The pines were perhaps more than 300ft high, or potentially more. The radiation infused soil had had a strange effect on the local plant life, in the satellite photos I could only see that it had supersized it, although I could not imagine that being the only mutation.
I continued through the forest. The trees, devoid of any animal life that I knew of, had a strange and haunting beauty which both delighted me and appealed to my introverted personality, but also set alarm bells ringing along every one of my five senses. I drew the rifle from my back, and loaded the first round. I could not remember for the life of me how many bullets I had, but I assumed I had at least ten, if I was lucky. I didn’t think I would need them, but the reassurance of carrying a weapon surpasses everything that can be given by so called ‘positive thinking’. If a bear launched itself from a nearby bush, thinking it away wouldn’t stop it, but a couple of well placed shots would.
The breeze barely disturbed the freakish branches of the pines, or the leaves of the ferns which had taken every spot of earth in between them. There was no doubt I was alone, for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like there was an individual watching my every move. Silence is a beautiful thing, and when coupled by (debatably) natural brilliance, it becomes intoxicating.
The air was fresh, and smelt strongly of tree sap, laid upon an undertone of what I could only assume was what radioactive material smelt like, if it even had a smell. If I had turned my Geiger counter on, it would have been clicking away like a dog trapped in a wooden box, but even though I knew this, I didn’t care. I was, for the first time in my life, completely and utterly at peace with myself. I was free.
My footsteps seemed to echo around me, every twig I stepped on cutting through the air with a knife like sharpness.
Despite my seeming peacefulness, my hands refused to let go of the rifle, and my finger kept itself firmly wrapped around the trigger. With peace comes anxiety, with total peace comes unrivalled fear. I tried to ignore my subconscious, screaming at me to go back, cursing me for not doing so. The subconscious felt what my senses never could. Through the silence, the serenity, the beauty, there was something somewhat darker, more sinister. I would not describe it as evil per se, but it was definitely not quite... right.
I had grown up in the urban jungle which was London. My family was fairly well off; I was given what I asked for around 80% of the time, unless it was something ridiculously expensive and pointless. My father was very tech-y, he loved anything which ran off a CPU. I spent a lot of my younger years with him, attempting to understand how these modern computers worked. Because of this, I had a superb knowledge of all things electrical; I could fix any computer, tinker with any microwave, and rearrange any television set. Whether it worked or not afterwards was largely down to chance.
At the age of 18, I left home for a small flat in Coventry. I won’t say it wasn’t difficult moving so far away from my home, but I never really had a huge problem with it, and my parents were both rather complacent about it. I took my computer, my television, my mobile, my clothing etc and set myself up. I think the first thing I did when I had moved in was head down to the local pub for a couple of pints.
A couple of pints quickly became a dozen. My first night in Coventry ended with me lying flat on my back in an alley on the outside of my block. I awoke with a dog about to relieve itself on my near lifeless body.
After scaring the dog away, I sat up and looked around. There was nothing special about it; it was just one more gap between the buildings of Coventry. I stood up, and I stared out towards the outskirts of Coventry. A memorial service Spitfire crossed my vision from right to left, blurring my already addled senses. That was perhaps one of the worst nights of my life.
After heading up to my flat for a strong coffee and a quick shower, I headed out into the living wave that was Coventry city. I walked around for a while, my headache slowly fading, and my legs beginning to take back to the ground beneath me. I was astounded by the amount of noise a city could make this early in the morning. My ears throbbed, and I had to dive into a café to get out of it. This may seem strange, I had grown up in London of all places, but I was still ultra sensitive to the standardised cacophony that came with any city. Sure, the noise was the same, it could have been the same people stepping on my feet, and it shouldn’t have made a difference. But the fact is, it did. I would often go on romps through London’s streets, particularly at night when they were much more negotiable. I loved the vibes that the city gave off, the noise was different there, it was the sounds of a thousand blackbirds singing rather than the hive of angry bees I found in my new living quarters.
After recollecting my consciousness, I once more dived into what was the sea of pain through my eyes. My head throbbed, my feet ached, my ears were dying, my eyes were refusing to give me a clear picture. I turned myself around, and ran. I ran, and ran, and I didn’t stop until I hit my front door. The faceless people looked at me strangely, angrily, annoyed. They buzzed in my ears, and I just kept on running.
After letting myself in, I headed straight for the bathroom. I must have taken at least five aspirin and ten blue-thingies before I passed out.
When I awoke for the second time that day, I found myself surrounded by empty pill cases. Disgusted, I vomited into the sink. I hated myself more than I had ever done so before, I hated reacting so violently to what was just city life. I raised my head.
I looked into the mirror, and absent mindedly noticed I had left the television on. I rinsed my mouth out and walked over to turn it off. It was just before I reached the button that something struck me. I had never turned it on, I had been passed out on the bathroom floor, and I was certain it hadn’t been on when I came in- hadn’t it?
I stepped back. BBC News came on, with its almost sickeningly cheerful series of blips which made up its theme. A pair of reporters who were desperately pretending to be everyone else’s best mate began to read out the latest in news stories- five more dead in Iraq, six more in Afghanistan. The newly elected US president was making more hollow promises about withdrawing from the Middle East, with a rather smug looking British Prime Minister standing next to him, nodding, and making further wooden vows. And then, as a special report, news from the forgotten city, heavily irradiated from the nuclear meltdown 5 years ago, similar in scale to that in Chernobyl 1986. The government were releasing an official statement, saying that they were certain there were no citizens left inside, and that something like this should never have happened. They blamed it on God, an act of God, they blamed it on an earthquake. They said that this level of disaster would never happen at the nuclear stations they were constructing on the borders of Coventry and London.
I thought nothing of it at the time, but some hours later when checking my e-mails I spotted the story again, tucked away as a small hyperlink on my homepage. Having clicked on it, the browser displayed its catch-all solution to all problems. ‘Web Page Not Found’.
I backed up a page and tried again. Same result. I began to search for news of the city, on various search engines, but every time the results would fail to show or the hyperlinks would lead nowhere. Puzzled, I went back to checking my e-mail. In the time I had been searching I had received a new message. I refreshed the inbox and opened it. Inside was nothing. It was completely blank, bar one small link at the bottom to what looked like a promotional site for some kind of cover-all insurance deal.
And then the phone rang.
I heard a crackling in the bushes to my left. I levelled my sight, and flicked the safety off. At least, I think I did- I didn’t entirely know how the mechanisms on these bolt action rifles worked. The bush rustled again, and I hit the floor, keeping my gun pointing towards the bush as I fell.
I saw a hand, and arm, and a leg. I fired in fear, without a second thought. Terror gripped my heart, squeezing and refusing to let go I fired again, and again, and again. Ten shots rang across the valley in quick succession, before I heard the hollow click created by and empty chamber. Wasting no time, I re-slung the rifle across my back, and withdrew my sheath knife. Cautiously, I approached the spot where the limbs had appeared. Pushing aside the greenery, I looked in on my kill.
My eyes were revolted by what I saw.
It was a man, no doubt about that, around 5ft 3” in height, and of a slender, starved build. It was the details that revolted me. He was wearing browned rags from head to toe, broken only by a string belt around the middle. His skin was decomposing, his eyes were completely grey, his lips a hideous blue. He was completely hairless. His teeth- oh, his teeth! - were a horrible green-tinged grey, and were filed down into points sharper than a freshly sharpened chisel, and were flat with jagged edges towards the bottom. It- I refuse to acknowledge it as a ‘he’- it appeared to be smiling. Blood was seeping through his clothing, revealing the contours of his hungerous frame.
I shut his eyelids not as a sign of respect, but because I could no longer bear to have them staring at me. I slit its throat, to make absolutely sure it would not rise again and stalk me through the rest of these woods. The forest floor, once a pretty and natural vision of what once was, became crimson within moments.
I hurried away from there, further into the forest. I checked my map and photos, so I could get a rough idea of where I should be headed. The photo showed an enormous boulder on its side up ahead, which I could see to my left. From there, it would be a straight course north onto the outskirts of the city, and then due west from city centre into the plant itself.
I was not here as a tourist. I was seeking the ultimate goal, which lay at the centre of the power plant. I was searching for the truth. The ultimate truth.
I was going to change the world as we knew it.
After listening to the harsh and rasping voice on the other side of the phone, I headed back to my computer. It’s a prank call, I thought, some kid got my number, nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, it did disturb me somewhat to see the e-mail still showing on my desktop. I was about to delete it, when I saw I had accidentally highlighted a part of it. Two words- ‘ultimate truth’- caught my eye. I swished my mouse over the rest of it. It read as follows:
I know what you have been searching for. The internet is not a secure place; it wasn’t hard for me to find your IP address, postcode, life details, etc. This also means that it won’t be hard for them either.
Engrossed, I read on.
You were searching for information on the forgotten city, the place struck by the terrible nuclear accident no more than five years ago. You were no doubt puzzled by why none of the websites with any information on it seemed to work. I was also confused why the city was seemingly wiped from history, until I noticed a consistency between the page error screens- they were all coming from the same location. Every single one of them was marked by the same IP address. Looking this up, I saw where the blocks were coming from-
10 Downing St, London. Yes, that’s right- the home of the British Prime Minister and other lackeys. The government are hiding this information from us, and I can’t help but ask- why? We were notified about Chernobyl, were we not? How was this city any different? But then it hit me.
The Chernobyl incident was a mistake, made by governmental safety inspectors. The reactor core was unsafe, due to political fault. And what happened shortly after news of Chernobyl got out? The Soviet Union collapsed. Russia was sent into a period of re-alignment, which they have never truly recovered from, mainly due to lack of funds. And I thought to myself- where have you heard that before? Britain, as you are no doubt aware, is dying. Our financial system has taken too far a step into the red, and it is unlikely that it will recover.
The government saw this, and so decided to find another way to make money and top the balance up. So, the plans for two new nuclear power stations were drawn, and quickly passed through the houses of Commons and Lords, and are in production as I type. But five years ago, when the plans were still the brainchild of a room of financial-minded morons, something happened. The city disappeared- no-one quite sure why, no-one quite sure how. But, nevertheless, it arouse suspicion among the public- how could this happen, why did this happen, whose fault is it? The government quickly stepped in, releasing reports about an earthquake in the area, a terrible accident, survivors evacuated, and other such drivel- but I digress. The important thing is that there was no earthquake in the area on the day. Seismic graphs from nearby stations show no abnormal activity, stations which were quickly shut down by men in black suits. There were no reports from the area of people leaving, or being carried off by ambulances, or military vans. This left only one conclusion. The political had screwed up again, this time on an epic scale. The problem was manmade, man caused, the safety inspectors had failed again, this time under a royal government rather than a communist one.
You will be wondering why I share this information with you, good sir. It is because you are like me. How can I know this? You don’t need to know. All I know is that you also share my attunement to the world around, you scream under the conditions of a different city. You also share my curiosity, while you may not know it yet, you are also outraged as to why in hell an entire city can be wiped from history without anybody saying a word. Most people would be scared to think like this, but not you- you are instead perplexed, and that is why I need you.
I can no longer go on excursions, my strength wanes day by day, and I can swear that government officials are tracking my every move. If you want to find the ultimate truth, you must do so yourself. I can give you co-ordinates, and other information through the website below- excuse the name, it’s just to help me stay under the radar. I will constantly update this with new info, which will eventually make you ready to head into the forbidden zone itself.
Do not try to reach me in any way. I have already brought the authorities upon myself; to bring them upon you would be to close the book on the city forever. All the info you need is on this site.
I will not give you the clichéd choice of whether to ignore this or not- I know you won’t, we think alike. I will just leave you with a warning- The fox, no matter how sly, will always be caught by the hound.
I arrived at the boulder. Scuhart had mentioned that the boulder would offer an ideal shelter, and that I should set up camp there for the night. Looking into the sky, I saw it had turned a dark blue in the time I had been walking. Night fell quickly in this place, and I would have been wise to remember it.
I set myself down for the night on the side of the boulder. The springy undergrowth made for an ideal mattress, and I partially dug myself in for warmth. I ate a modest meal of two slices of bread and a glug of water, before setting myself down for the night. I was more exhausted than I ever could have realised, and fell into the abyss of sleep as soon as my head hit the ground.
A tree. Lots of trees. A lake. Lots of lakes. A green haze. An explosion. A mushroom cloud. Running. Running from explosion. Green. Teeth. Sharpened teeth. Government. New power stations. Running. Fire. Concrete. Collapsing. Death. So much death. But not enough. Rising. Corpses. Not dead. Alive. Running. Running from the living. Can’t run. Too tired. Collapse. Government. Body identified. Funeral. Buried. Alive. Buried Alive. Screams. Horrible screams. I’m dying. Let me out...
I spent the next year visiting the websites and accomplishing the tasks upon it. Mainly collection tasks, they pretty much all involved stealing from one source or another, usually the military bases and scientific research labs. They were difficult, extremely difficult, but the plans I found on the site always gave me a step-by-step foolproof instruction as to how get in and out without being noticed. Scuhart must have been some kind of super-thief in his time, the plans were so brilliant.
It became routine. Every day, I would check the site for the day’s assignment, and head out on the next train/bus/taxi to wherever I needed to be. I would break in, get the stuff, and break out. Simple. Everything I needed, disguises, ID cards, lock-picks etc would always be found at the specified drop points outside the hit. The system worked. It worked well.
And I even made a bit of money on the side. With my new-found skills of espionage, improved by my more attuned senses to the world around, I began making personal hits. I stole from the rich peoples housing, the mansions and stately homes, but I never stole more than I needed. I had no intention of returning it, I had no intention of hitting the same place twice. It got me though the day, though.
Perhaps the most important raid I did was on a top secret scientific research facility, located in the sewers beneath Liverpool. It was an easy job, and involved very little effort. I had a lab coat and ID card set out for me, along with a cover story- I was the new guy, sent to work on project XY78P. I waltzed in, and headed for the bathrooms. There, I changed my disguise to that of a willing lab-rat, a human volunteer for the serum being produced by project XY78P. I hid my clothes and ID in a backpack, which had a compartment hidden by a mirror for such a purpose.
I headed from there to the testing rooms. I was run under a few spot checks, a quick health check-up, I flashed my lab-rat ID, and was then put up on the chair and strapped down. The serum had been mentioned briefly by Scuhart, it was supposed to alter my DNA so it negated the effects of high levels of radiation, by making my blood carry cells which searched-and-destroyed harmful cancerous cells, and rebuilt other sections damaged by the absorbed radioactive materials. I was just wondering where Scuhart got such detailed information from, until I saw one of the scientists wink slowly at me from behind the screen, before mouthing Scuhart to me. I nodded back. He must have had people on the inside of all these places. There was no doubt; this man was in all the right books.
One of the lab-coats approached me with the needle in his right hand. He inserted it into the main artery running down my neck, before quickly wrapping it in bandage to stop bleeding. I felt the serum coarse through my veins, sending me into a series of extraordinarily painful convulsive movements, which lasted for about five minutes. My vision faded, to blue, then green, then blue again...
A disembodied voice was saying that this was a normal reaction; it was just the body re-adjusting to the foreign antibodies.
The convulsions stopped as suddenly as they had started, with a hell of a lot less pain. My vision, oddly sharper now, came back into focus. I saw a group of medical types scrutinizing me, hurriedly taking notes on their clipboards. Every now and again, someone would state the obvious, like ‘He’s awake’ and ‘that must have hurt’.
They called for a test to see whether it worked. They left the room, to be replaced by the winking scientist now wrapped in a radiation-proof suit, holding a lead box with a small slice of uranium. He places this directly onto my skin, left it for about a minute, before putting it back and withdrawing a Geiger counter. It clicked, it ruddy well should have otherwise it was pretty damn pointless, at an alarming rate. He set it down, and withdrew a series of doctor’s tools. He checked for cell damage, or so he told me.
He found nothing. A look of glee upon his face he hurried out, to inform his colleagues of their incredible breakthrough. He had left the Geiger counter on my lap, and I quickly pocketed it- it could be useful where I was going.
After another quick check-up, a shower to wash away harmful particles, and a payment of some £500 they showed me to the door, and thanked me, before I went on my way. Mission completed, I switched into my normal clothing, and headed back into Coventry to catch a few hours sleep before my next hit.
I listened intently. There it was again- a bizarre sound, a half mix between a child’s screams, and a bear’s mighty roar. The scream was coming from the direction of the city- no scratch that, the screams were coming from the direction of the city. A cacophony filled the night air, drilling into my skull, almost bursting my eardrums.
I dug my head into the leaves further, to drown out the noise. It was like thousand nails were scraping down a hundred blackboards, and my head couldn’t take it. I must have been like that for hours, because when I lifted my head, the sky was blood red with the morning sun. The air was once again still, the screams were a horrible and distant nightmare.
I gathered my equipment and, after a short swig on my water bottle, I headed towards the city. A light breeze brushed my face, and silence once again enveloped me. The screaming had stopped. I was alone once more. My God, how good it felt. My mind wandered back to the city of London, where I grew up. I used to run through the alleys, wander across rooftops before being yelled down by the busybody neighbours, I once swam in the Thames- although I never made that mistake again. I had lived without a care in the world.
But I was always alone.
I preferred it that way, I guess. I had never really had any interest in other peoples’ lives; they might as well not have been there. Sure, I was jeered by the ignorant, scorned by the intelligent, sneered at by the beautiful, but I never felt the need for a friend. A companion, in my eyes, would only slow me down. I didn’t need their problems; they probably wouldn’t want to hear mine. I was alone, carefree, but most of all, happy. Not, goofy grin on my face wherever I went happy, but more spiritually complete.
I was happy at home, too. My parents never argued, I was set very generous curfews, and whatever I could have wanted was available to me. I was never limited in what I was allowed to do- yes, they instilled morals about murder, drugs, theft, etc. but never in an over-bearing super parent way.
I loved my home, but in every man’s life is a time when he must flee the nest in search of new pastures, and my time did come. I packed my things, and my dad gave me the deed to a flat in Coventry. With mutual respect between us, I left my life behind, and ventured into the world outside London.
I was no longer alone, I observed, the screams denied that fact, as did the decomposing husk half a mile back. I did wonder why these... things were here, what they had descended from, why they had chosen to live in an irradiated hole of death. My experience with horror films suggested that these were the humans left behind, who had adapted at abnormal rates to the isolation due to the radiation, but I wasn’t quite sure. Yes, they looked human. Yes, if you fine tuned the screams a bit, they sounded human. Yes, the aggression shown towards an outsider like me was certainly very human indeed. But I still had my doubts. Mainly, what were humans doing here? They should have been evacuated, or if not evacuated, killed by the high levels of radiation from the plant. It didn’t make sense. Nothing can survive that level of radiation, unless like me they remembered to break into a government-funded cancer research facility a mile underground to get their anti-cancer booster.
The pine needles crinkled underneath my feet, making a bizarre echo about the silence, only just audible to my ear. The breeze flowed through the forest, sending twigs and small abandoned bird’s nests toppling into the brush below, where they were engulfed with a muffled crack.
The trees thinned out into a field, which stretched before me for about half a mile. Continuing, I observed the old and cracked roads, some with rusted carcasses still waiting for their owners to come back and bring them to life once again. Vauxhalls, Fords, Peugeots, Hondas, all decrepit and slowly returning to the world from whence they were extracted as just minerals so many years ago.
Upon reaching one of said roads, I peered into a fairly well preserved Ford Mustang. It might as well have been built yesterday, the leather still shimmered with a velvet excellence only achievable with fine polishing and care, the wheel was intact and not at all rotten or scratched, the gear lever still in park. On the outside, it was a different story. The windows were smashed, the wheels long gone, the paintwork peeled and the chassis rusted almost through. The car had the will to stay alive, I surmised, but its body just couldn’t cope with the endless wait. I bowed my head in a sort of silent reverence, before realising what I was doing and quickly pulling back up.
I walked along the road, listening to the whistling of the wind through the corpses, and watching as the clouds folded themselves around the clear blue sky, dark clouds, threatening rain. The sun had reached midpoint, so I could only assume it was at least 12:00, meaning I had been wandering for at least 3 hours straight. I stopped for a few slices of bread, before heading back along my lonely road.
Because it was my lonely road. The previous owners had gone; no-one else wanted it. The right of ownership fell to me, as the only one still with an interest in it. It was my road. I didn’t need an agreement or a deed to show that. Simply by being here and showing more attention to it than anyone else, it was mine. I didn’t need a shopkeeper to sell me it, a government to take it over, a democracy to screw it over, it was mine.
A concrete spire rose from the horizon. Well, it would have been two originally, but one could only assume the other had fallen into disrepair, leaving its brother to watch over its domain. A little closer, and the rest of the plant appeared, the power cables first, then the main building, then the gaping hole in the side from the explosion. Around it, a concrete jungle, hideously grey and radiating for several miles in all directions, like a fungus or a mould, consuming the wild and somewhat beautiful landscape that surrounded it, and converting it into a nameless and lifeless block.
Getting closer still, I could see a barricade covering the entrance, built from pieces of plywood and scrap metal. The area around the city had been turned into a sort of ditch, filled with broken glass, jagged metal, and corpses. Lots of corpses. Not ‘thing’, or vehicle, but human corpses, rotten to the bone and clothing. There was one in a red dress, another in a pair of pinstripe trousers and blazer, a hooded top and jeans. There was even a smaller one, close to the edge, with a small pink and frilled dress shredded to oblivion by the metal where it had landed. Underneath the bodies arm was a small teddy bear, with one eye missing, and a small red tartan bow on its head.
I reached in to grasp it. With the help of a pointed stick, I speared the bear, and raised it to my arms. I peered into its eye, cracked and broken, I tested its arms, weakened and ripped. Teddy was a sorry sight. I placed him carefully into my pack, and with a small tear in my eye, continued to the barricade which was seemingly reachable only by a series of wooden boards. Carefully, I stepped across, wavering only in the middle to catch my breath again.
The barricade was impenetrable. I tested its strength with a couple of kicks to possible weak points. Not even a wobble. Whoever had built this had known what they were doing. I looked up at the barbed wire topped fences which stretched endlessly to the right and left of me. I decided it was my best way in, and with my knife, I began to cut myself a hole in the chain link. It was slow work, and my arms began to ache, but eventually I had created a hole large enough for me to crawl through.
I wasn’t expecting the ditch.
I fell headfirst into a pile of shit, mud, clothes, and what smelled like human waste. I pulled myself up, and by digging my feet into the sides of the chasm, I quickly scrambled up. I looked back. I vomited.
It wasn’t faeces. It wasn’t mud. It was clothes. And... something else.
Decomposing, half eaten human bodies. The clothes were slightly charred, suggesting they’d been lightly cooked first. The bastards preferred their meat rare apparently. Although- I couldn’t assume that straightaway. It might have been a furnace, yes, a furnace to stop the spread of disease, heat kills germs, the bite-marks were... animals, yes, animals, wild animals, they came back after the disaster, the place is a nature park, of course, that was it.
I turned around, away from the pile.
That, was most assuredly, not it.
I vomited for a second time. I fell to my knees, and watched the pale green flood away into a drain. I looked for a moment at my distorted reflection.
I had grown... old before my time. Wrinkles were spreading across my face. My once bright blue eyes had faded into grey. My hair, once a source of great pride to me, my once well kempt brown locks, shining, soft. Now it was matted. Ragged. Split end to end, and heavy across my neck. I gingerly lifted my hand to it, stroked it, mourned its passing.
Piece by piece, I picked myself back up and re-arranged my clothing and pack to a more comfortable position. I withdrew the Geiger counter, and switched it on. Slowly, I rotated, until I found the largest concentration of radiation, roughly to the north of me. I started to walk.
It took me about an hour to navigate my way through the streets. The city was made up of seemingly endless twists and turns, between large and dilapidated concrete flats, broken up by the odd monument and green-space (although it was now considerably more green.) The pavement bulged everywhere with a complex system of tree roots which fed the gargantuan pines which lined and lied across the roads and walkways.
I stopped. Hearing a rustling behind me, I unslung the rifle and pulled back the bolt. It got louder, and I kneeled and raised the rifle to my shoulder, pointing it squarely into a series of shuddering bushes. Something bounded out, and once again, my lack of armament knowledge and my ever-growing anxiety showed through as I pumped five bullets towards its general direction.
Startled, the deer shot back off into the shrubs, leaving only a few hairs as reward for my efforts. I decided to unload the rifle before I continued, I reasoned there probably weren’t terribly many dangerous creatures inside a heavily irradiated city, and that the thing I had shot in the woods was probably the result of a deranged mentality caused by walking for too long in the sun... or cloud, or whatever.
But what business had a deer within the city, I wondered. If the radiation was so high, why was there complex, un-mutated life wandering freely through it? I whipped out the Geiger counter and flicked it on, to be met with the familiar insane clicking sound wherever I pointed it. Perhaps the deer was a fluke, and has wandered in recently from outside the city. But that too was impossible- there was a trench and wall surrounding it. The animal would have had to have been inside the city when the gates were locked. And what about the locals? Starved by hunger and seemingly cut off from the outside, they would have dived on a meal that didn’t scuttle across floorboards or... or otherwise.
I walked another few miles before I reached my destination.
I had seen it from far away, even on entering the city I had witnessed its dominating, concrete chimneys casting long, black lines across the dilapidated state. But from up close... enthralling.
It was built in three parts. I’m no nuclear technician, so I’ll put it like this: A big flat concrete rectangular building, a big long tall rectangular building, and a small concrete rectangular building. To describe it would be to eliminate what is already forming in the mind’s eye- a view which is probably correct. None could put into words, simply how bleak the station was. What wasn’t covered in vines was smothered in a thick, black, foul smelling sludge. The windows had been smashed; the plant life forced itself in through the windows, so it looked like the Earth was pulling it back down to hell.
I progressed round the walls until I reached an old steel gate, rusted through years ago. A sign to the left warned against approaching the plant, for fear of intense irradiation. At least, I think it did. I’m not an expert in the language. But the big, black radiation symbol on a lurid yellow backdrop said the same in any dialect- ‘abandon hope, all ye who enter here’.
Well, I abandoned hope a long time ago.
I walked on through. My footsteps echoed across the broken concrete, bouncing off the walls of the power station, returning, travelling. It must have been so long since this place heard anything at all, it felt almost like it was trying to cling on to it just for a little longer, and savouring the many textures and flavours a solitary sound on solitary grounds can offer.
My goal was just up ahead- I could TASTE it. All I needed was to see it. Just to see it. Whatever ‘it’ was that Scuhart had wanted me to see, all those months (weeks? Days maybe) ago. I was so CLOSE. My heart began to raise, my throat ran dry, my mind pulsated with fantastical theories of what lay within. Maybe gold, Treasures beyond a banker’s wildest dreams? Maybe knowledge, left by a loving deity? Whatever it was, it was right there. I could finally have conclusion. I could go home. I could make dinner for myself again. I could watch some politician lie, while another twisted his words into a semblance of truth before creating a second falsification. I could listen to news of death for no cause in sands far away. I could watch people again, from my window, the liars, cheats, scoundrels and filth standing shoulder to shoulder with good honest folk, crossing roads, eating together at the café across the street, hugging, kissing, and cancelling out each other’s madness. And I would be able to watch all this, sitting back, smiling, knowing that I knew true peace with myself, and perhaps trying to spread this peace to others? No, I thought. This would be mine and mine alone. None of those... cockroaches deserved this.
A large concrete field reached away in front, leading up to the old and rusted side door. I walked forward. The building walked backward. I walked forward again. It moved away just as far. I started to run. The building sprinted away. I ran faster, faster still, desperately trying to reach the door, my dream, my hopes, my journeys end, my ANSWER. I stopped to catch my breath. The power station didn’t. Travelling at a rate of knots, it pulled away further, further, the concrete expanse in front of me just got larger and larger. I looked behind me. My way in was also shooting away into the distance. They became within minutes my horizons. I was alone. Alone in a field of grey. The sky clouded over. The clouds lost definition, before falling to earth, rapidly enveloping me in a solid, grey fog. I was surrounded by grey. Feeling wretched, I fell to my knees, and let my face fall to my palms. I cried. So close! It was right there! I cried more, my tears rolling down in floods, losing them in the grey, into the fog. I felt for my pack, my hands, finding nothing, returned to my eyes.
What Deity presumed this! What natural law had I defied? What had I done! What had I done to deserve this! My search for truth, ultimate truth, confounded conclusive proof had reduced me to tears and queries. It didn’t make sense, damn it! Damn Scuhart! This was his fault! He led me here! Without him, I would never have known about this blasted heath, this ninth circle. I would be home! At home! Maybe applying for a job! Maybe...maybe a... maybe...
“Is he going to be OK?”
Maggie rose from her seat.
“How is he? Is he going to be OK? What's happened to him?”
Her eyes were watering. Less than 30 minutes ago, she was sitting in her favourite chair, the one by the window where the light refracted into a rainbow just in front of her feet. She had been reading. Very rarely it was she found time to read. Content. Happy. Well, it wasn’t a terribly good book, in all honesty. It had a certain lack of plot which much suited the idle mind, but left the keen thinker mostly dissatisfied. There’s only so many times a character in a book can say ‘I love you’ before the phrase becomes stale and meaningless.
The call had come through from Dr Dreyn that her son had been found comatose in a small copse on the outskirts of Stoke Golding, with signs of heavy trauma to the head and neck. He had been found with a small pack, which Maggie had been given, containing a small bottle of water, a local ordnance survey map and a mobile phone devoid of battery. The story was, he’d been out on an amble across the countryside and gotten lost, before eventually being mugged and left for dead by a few local boys who had yet to have been nabbed.
The nurse led Maggie through to her son, who lay totally still bar a steady rise and fall of his chest. He was wired up to a life support machine, complete with a mask on his face and a rigged-up drip with essential nutrients and necessary drugs. A cocktail of Dr Dreyn’s devising, or so the good doctor stated proudly. The ‘Made in Nigeria’ label on the bag begged to differ.
The mother rushed over to her dying son and thrust her head into his stomach, hands clasped, sobbing softly. The sheets were quickly soaked with her tears for a boy only a month ago she had all but forgotten about, all off on his own in a strange new world. He had even neglected to give her a number by which to call him, only through medical records could the hospital inform the next of kin.
She sniffed. Hard. An acrid smell flooded her nose, sharp and biting, like a car exhaust on a cold morning minus the oily taint. Her husband used to come home smelling of it from his hunting trips up north. He blamed it on his rifle, although Maggie was convinced it was the lack of showering. He’d be down later after work.
She raised her head. Through her tear strewn eyes, she could just make out his face. Yellowed, aged beyond belief in the short time he’d been gone. She wondered if he’d gone against everything she’d ever told him and started up on drugs, if that was the reason he was lying here now- no, he was a good boy she convinced herself, he wouldn’t do a thing like that. The needle mark and tracks on his arm were the Doctor’s work, that’s right, just a painkiller.
His right shoulder had slipped out of his gown. Heavy bruising covered it, with scratches radiating around it and stretching across his neck and disappearing down his back, like he had fallen on some brambles or something. His hair was matted and greasy, and had grown long. Pine needles flecked his locks like the forest floor, so interwoven they were almost a part of it.
Blood. She stood up. On his face. Dried blood. Probably from the mugging. When did the Doc say it happened again? Late last night? This can’t have been from that, it was too old, too dried, too congealed almost. Maybe he was shaving? That wouldn’t have cause that much of a spillage, and besides, where were the cuts?
Where was the trauma, for that matter? She ran her hands around his head. No lumps, no bumps, no obvious signs of assault whatsoever.
Nevermind. These people clearly knew what they were doing. They knew what the hidden signs were. No worries there.
She turned her gaze to the BBC News broadcast on the television in the corner. Apparently, enquiries about the Forbidden City had been reopened after a disfigured body was found in a ditch along with four spent shell casings around it. Neither gender, age nor identity had been found for the body, but leading forensic experts were being called in to find out. The area surrounding the city had succumbed to further earthquakes the broadcasters said, making the area more unsafe and liable to collapse. Diehard ramblers were possible explanations for the casualty, coupled with local wildlife scavengers.
In other news, a man named Henry John Isaac had been arrested on grounds of conspiracy and treason against Her Majesty’s Homeland Security force after allegedly infiltrating high-security servers in the Military Intelligence buildings. The Prime Minister himself appeared to give a statement, “These are the worst type of people. They threaten our home, our livelihood and everyone we know. To either support or knowingly ignore them is to be an enemy of our country”. A zero tolerance policy towards hackers was being enacted.
Oh, and Mindy Raul Lopas had just split up from long time actor Charlie Tarquin. She was releasing a book about it in July.
Maggie turned the TV off.
And in the peripherals of her vision, she saw a small and raggedy teddy bear on the table beside her boy.
“You know,” she said, “My niece used to have a bear just like that. One eye missing, little bow, nametag on the-“
She cut off mid-sentence. The Doctor looked on. And the skies over Britain turned grey once again.