Rowan Wise, resident commentator on UK and US Defence Policy, gives contemporary events a fictional twist in his first ‘Inkpot’ installment.
This village, like every other village, town and city across the globe was dead. Viewed from the hill, overlooking what had once been a tourist hotspot on the North Antrim coast, nothing moved below. Undergrowth, held back in the old days by the careful ministrations of householders, had advanced to reclaim bricks and mortar until only a few central streets remained discernible from the jumble of branches and leaves. A stream wound its way through this bizarre amalgamation of the domestic and the wild until it met the sea in an expanse of sandy shore which was dotted with all kinds of debris. Year after year North Atlantic currents had delivered a constant supply of humanity’s relics which were carried ashore to be washed up heaven knows where. Two towering headlands straddled the lonely village, the odd steadily dilapidating farmhouse spaced out on the sides of each.
“Gone were those complicated grandiose fabrications of humanity’s existence, societies, economies and nations. Only the instinct to survive remained intact among those left destined to spend their days on this dying globe.”
Crowning it all the vast dome of a moody sky which, with dark clouds and gusting winds, seemed to scowl bitterly at the scene. A disturbed sea completed the impression of disorder with a torrent of white horses storming shoreward. Here humanity had been functionally anaesthetised, any individuals still around lived a life of extreme austerity. Gone were those complicated grandiose fabrications of humanity’s existence, societies, economies and nations. Only the instinct to survive remained intact among those left destined to spend their days on this dying globe.
One of those survivors looked down upon what had once been the village of Cushendall with a world-weary expression. From the hill to the west of the village the vista was splendid in a bleak sort of way. The still countryside seemed to absorb reports echoing inland from an increasingly angry sea. The onlooker was a lean individual whose face reflected the sort of world outside, hazel eyes bloodshot with countless hard days and nights spent alone in the shadow of death. Creases and lines spoke to the constant toil of existence, years spent scavenging for food and water, making shelters in every local environment and in all weathers, having to clear every new building that he ever entered, it was all there painted on the canvas of his face. Something else was there too, or rather not there, for his eyes had no sparkle of life, of hope, of desire. There was no lightness in his countenance, little room for anything other than the tasks essential to his continued existence. Yet for all that this was a kind face, only that kindness had been buried by the passage of cruel times. There was another creature too. A small dog of the Jack Russel Terrier kind, sitting obediently beside it’s master. The saying that dogs can resemble their owners might often seem trite but in this case it was quite true. The little dog was an old timer, evidenced by a mane of wiry greying fur. She was an indefinite shade of white, with a brown patch straddling her middle. There was much intelligence in those small dark eyes, an understanding of her place in the world, undoubtedly aided by having spent all her adult years in this dystopia. She knew little better than this, he did. Sometimes the disparity was obvious, at that very moment for instance as he gazed out forlornly over the scene below remembering what it had been and she returned a puzzled glance as if to say “what’s eating you”. Presently his meditations were ended when a particularly violent gust of wind thundered by the big panes of glass that had once afforded the inhabitants of the house a glorious view of the country below.
“Right” he stood up and groaned into a stretch. He cast his eyes back over the atrium like room. It had been a kitchen dining room with a counter near the door and a table, or rather the remains of a table, close to the windows. Moving to the counter he picked up his rucksack and began to methodically check the contents. The dog made no attempt to move, comfortably positioned as she was on a decaying cushion. She did follow him with her eyes though as it was her custom never to let him out of sight. This was partly why both of them were still alive; they looked out for each other. The man’s attire was some way between that of a mountaineer and a soldier, military boots were joined by mountain gear, flak jacket and gas mask. The latter was a heavy duty affair, the sort used by the military when dealing with potential chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear contamination. In a hip holster he had a Glock 17 pistol and leaning up against the counter was an SA 80 assault rifle.
The man knew that the fading light presented a real problem. Travelling back home in the dusk was risky enough and having left it this late there was the very real possibility that they would be forced to spend the night. In the back of his mind he was never safe unless in the boat; one could never be entirely sure that a building was really clear. It wasn’t the first time he had had to make the difficult decision to risk spending the night away from home base but every extra gamble did increase the odds of an unlucky encounter. Sighing heavily he spread out a map across the counter and more to himself than to the dog he said “yeah this is as good as it gets”. A small whine from the dog interrupted his chain of thought and he went over to where his companion had astutely made a sort of bed out of various pillows. “It’s okay, just one night and tomorrow we can get the hell out of here”. The dog inclined her head as if in an effort of understanding and then returned to resting. In the distance the sound of the sea could be heard gently tugging at the shore. It was autumn, which the man knew even though it was difficult to distinguish the passage of seasons anymore. ‘At least the temperature is reasonably mild’ he thought to himself. Pulling a thermos flask from his rucksack he poured out a cup of coffee. After some searching he discovered the tin of rations he had brought along and started to an impromptu supper. The pitter patter of rain soon had him trying to cover a large gash in one window pane which looked into the room from the sea. Locating a curtain in a dubious state of repair he swiftly pinioned it to either side of the aperture with the aid of a chair and stool. Not perfect but it would have to do he thought stepping back to inspect his handiwork. By the time he had finished his food and given the dog her fill the wind had picked up and was fairly lapping around the impromptu repair. With a grunt of irritation he decided that another room would probably be better. Having cleared the house earlier he was confident that there were rooms secure against the weather.
Whilst clearing the second floor he remembered that he had noticed there was a room that would do for one night anyway. Picking up his rucksack, mask and assault rifle he lead the way down what had once been a spacious hallway but in the state of steady decay to which all buildings were now subject it had assumed a dank forbidding air. A powerful white light attachment fitted underneath the muzzle of the SA 80 shone a brilliant beam ahead which landed on the walls in a superb halo. Staying cautiously a few feet behind came the dog dragging the best of the cushions in its mouth and occasionally stopping to glance nervously around the man’s feet. This curious procession made its way cautiously down the hall, the man stopping at each door to sweep the light across every nook and cranny. After some time the stairs were reached and the pair made their way to the second floor. On the landing the same process was repeated with just the same methodical care. Finally, with every room double checked, the man relaxed a little and set down his gear in one of the rooms which on closer inspection revealed itself to have at one time been a nursery or play room. Drawings of rainbows and animals were still just visible peaking out from peeling plaster which was not long for this world. The man smiled sardonically at this, reflecting on what it had been like to live in a world where people still saw fit to raise children. The dog, oblivious to this subtle observation, shambled wearily over to the further corner and alighted beside a Welsh dresser that was still just about recognisable as such. Noticing this the man began to search in the cupboard. It was pretty picked over, much like the rest of the house, the only remaining items being a few crayons and broken plastic cups. ‘Who’s been here’ the man wondered distantly. ‘Which group found this place?’ He reckoned it had to be some time ago for there were no signs of recent habitation. Perhaps they had caused the damage to the downstairs window. Not a bad place to stay actually he thought, secure enough. Then he remembered how gutted the place was and reevaluated his judgement. It was true that a secure building which was also clear was rare enough but without even so much as useable cupboards it was impractical to consider spending time there. Taking the SA 80 he removed the gas parts and carefully cleaned them with a rag before replacing them. He repeated this process with the Glock 17 before returning it to his hip holster.
Finding that the dog was off to sleep already he thought it best to try and snatch a few hours of rest. He fetched over the hurricane lamp and turned down the flame until it resembled a little orange lip inside the glass then blew it out. Without its warming aura the atmosphere of the long abandoned abode took on a more sinister aspect. The man sat wide awake assuming sleep would not come nor did he think it prudent to drift off either given the situation. The best he could hope for was to make himself as comfortable as he could with the few remaining furnishings. Pulling a wooden stool up to the window he could see something of that remarkable view which he had admired earlier. Then the landscape had been quite visible from the hill but with nightfall only a half moon illuminated the scene. Wispy fast moving clouds occasionally interrupted the moon’s steady gaze and caused its pale light to flicker and dim momentarily. The man opened the window gently so as not to disturb his slumbering dog and used the sill as a rifle mount. In the unsteady moonlight the grass below appeared white as a sheet. At the end of what had been the garden, enclosed by a canopy of tree boughs, was a lane which had at one time evidently served the communication of pedestrians from these grand houses overlooking the village to the small conurbation below. This was where the man focused his attention for the trees screened the lane almost entirely from the house. Running over the hedges and trees several times carefully with the aid of the SA80’s attachable thermal scope he saw nothing lurking amongst the foliage. Of course there could well have been something in behind the tree trunks but after several minutes spent combing the tree line he decided it was not likely. Anything that wanted to assault the house would have to move across the open ground and then they would be easy targets from this vantage point. Sitting back a little the man exhaled a long breath softly and reached noiselessly in the rucksack for the flask. Locating it he drained the remaining coffee into his cup and finished it savouring the warmth. The night had grown cool and being away from home was enough to make him feel clammy. Returning to his vigil the lone watcher spotted movement amongst the tangle of branches below. In an instant he located the spot with the scope and indeed there was a white thermal return in the optic. ‘Too small to be a threat’ he said to himself noting that it was some wild animal. It struck him then how long it had been since he had seen such a creature. This absence of wildlife was always puzzling to him, after all there were barely any human beings left so there should have been sufficient space for nature to bounce back. That it had not done so led him to suspect what his mother had once predicted to have been true: the overpopulation crisis in the third decade of the twenty first century would lead to one of the most thorough extinction events in terrestrial history. True enough by the fourth decade the extinction of the natural world had reached a climax which was also when the dying broadened out to include people. This it did with a rapidity and completeness unknown in all the annals of human history from the first civilisations on the banks of the Euphrates, through the reigns of the Caesars and up to the beginning of what would be humanity’s last century: the twenty-first. Just thinking about those decades when humans finally realised the game was up made the man shudder. There had been one incident that lodged itself especially deeply in the man’s mind. It was this above all the other memories that had secured a place in his sub conscious whence it occasionally sallied forth to be reenacted anew.
It had happened one day in late autumn and the sky had worn a beautiful orange hue. To the west the disk of the sun could be observed making a steady retreat down the far side of the globe. In the opposite corner of the sky the moon showed full heralding the arrival of night. From the watchtower above the street the man had witnessed the gathering of a crowd. For hours and hours they had gathered below. Not from one walk of life or several but from every conceivable group in society. There were parents with toddlers anxious to get away before the gates closed. As if their offspring guaranteed them a divine right of passage many were forcing their way through the throng with energy that normally one would never have attributed them. There were young men and women trying to fight back a rising tide of panic by chatting nervously with their fellows. There were elderly people squashed miserably by the more able bodied and occasionally their shouts of pain rose from amid the general hubbub to grace the ears of the watching troops above. The entire mass seemed to be in tune with the setting sun. As darkness fell faster every minute so the crowd’s anxiety rose to take control of their minds. Shouts became more frequent and now the young people began to challenge the soldiers above.
In paroxysms of fear resulting from this new clamour the families engaged in a desperate effort to reach the gate struggled more ferociously still, fathers and mothers leading the charge with newfound vigour. Below the watchtower a double set of twenty foot high steel fences held back this tide of humanity. It barred the passage of the Bank Road which serviced what had been Belfast harbour’s passenger ferry terminal. This had been requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence along with many similar harbour installations across the country in the wake of outbreak day as a makeshift infection control and evacuation facility. Below the crowd heaved forward in a surge of protest at the announcement over the loudspeaker system that the maximum number of individuals had been processed and that the gates were going to be shut for the day. The rage of the crowd at this news was such as Lance Corporal Arthur Ferrier had not quite prepared himself for. “Steady lads” he remarked to the four troops guarding positions along the watchtower catwalk. Adding beneath his breath with a grimace “steady yourself” he fetched a set of binoculars from a side table and scanned the crowd. There wasn’t much to see save what they had been watching for several hours: the demeanour of the crowd had changed not its composition. In the west the sun was no longer visible and dusk had set in. A cloud of midges danced playfully across the windows and in the distance the silhouettes of evening birds cut across the sky. Were it not for the crowd it would have been serene Ferrier reflected thoughtfully before returning his attention to the disagreeable assembly below.
Big searchlights had been switched on and made routine circuits over the mulling mass occasionally hovering over something suspicious but otherwise keeping on the move. Billboards on either side of the road carried projected images detailing how to securely fasten the hastily issued Bio-hazard containment masks which everyone in the crowd was wearing. The uniformity of this attire gave the gathering the unsettling appearance of a hive of insects crawling relentlessly forward. At that moment the foghorn of the Caledonia bellowed from the dock behind the gantry and columns of jet black smoke from her twin funnels prefigured her departure. As if this were a signal the crowd surged once again pressing right up against the fence. There was absolutely no chance of even their united strength toppling it but the effect was disconcerting nonetheless. “Hold your nerve lads”, Ferrier had to bellow now for the squad to have the slightest chance of hearing him. The loudspeaker bleated a message to the crowd instructing them to step back although it had little discernible effect on the sea of humanity below. The troops responsible for overseeing admissions to the harbour facility were not experienced soldiers but rather reservists drawn up for service amid the ongoing emergency. As such crowd control was often allocated to them which freed up the remaining regular force to conduct patrols. Ferrier having more experience than the rest sensed that something was wrong. This was not the first time such a large crowd had assembled, nor was it the first time despair at having to wait behind had gripped the assembly en masse, but it was the first time that a palpable sense of rage had resulted from the announcement of the closure of the facility for the day.
People’s patience had been exhausted. The break down of government, and the subsequent filling of that void by criminality, had worn down resolve to go on following the administrations emergency rules designed to combat the spread of the virus. On that particular evening this was to reach a bloody denouement. From somewhere in the crowd a shot rang out. For perhaps half a second there was absolute silence followed by an uproar the like of which Ferrier had not heard before. Bloodcurdling screams mingled with shouts of panic created a sort of sonic boom which rose to the gantry above drowning everything else out. More shots and Ferrier’s squad looked lost as to how they should proceed. “Hold your fire” bellowed the Lance Corporal at a loss himself how to handle the situation. The troops at the gate below were taking sporadic fire which they were not returning. Meanwhile complete chaos had gripped the crowd. The tarmac was becoming visible, in places splattered with patches of blood. Many people had scattered and as a result the numbers had thinned considerably. Among those left most sat huddled close to the ground. The violence petered out and a stillness swept the scene just as the pitch dark of night replaced the afterglow of dusk.
Ferrier woke with a start. Light was streaming in through the window. He had fallen asleep on the chair his back propped up against the window ledge. The dog was looking at him and whining softly. With a worried look the man greeted the dog noiselessly. Something was wrong. It was twenty to nine and they should have been away hours ago. That was not all, from below there came a soft but definite shuffling sound. In a single silent move Ferrier encompassed the small room grabbing rucksack and rifle. At the door he listened again. The noise was from downstairs, something was moving around, how long before it discovered the stairs Ferrier wondered to himself. The door was open enough to permit an exit and so with great care not to tread on a noisy floorboard he moved onto the landing followed at his heels by the dog. Fortunately the back door was right at the foot of the stairs, unfortunately it was wide open and swaying gently on its hinges. A thin film of mucous and blood trailed across the hallway in the direction of the large front room where they had rested the previous evening. The sounds were definitely issuing from there. Ferrier had noticed that the stairs were in very poor repair yesterday evening and made a lot of noise. To make things even worse rain from the night before had seeped through a set of holes in the roof and now ran in little rivulets down the stairs. Move fast and there was the possibility of slipping. He muttered a curse under his breath and began to move very slowly onto the first stair. It was quiet. The next several were also noiseless then he had to risk a few that were squeaky but the noises continued from the front room uninterrupted. They had almost made it to the final step when, with a loud crack, the penultimate stair fell through. The next few seconds were a blur as Ferrier tugged maniacally at his leg to free the trapped boot. The dog, aware of everything, had scampered out as soon as the stair had given way.
After what seemed like minutes but was only several seconds he freed the boot and bolted out the door. Tossing a hand grenade back down the hallway he dived for cover amid the thick grass in the long abandoned garden. The explosion ripped apart the house buckling the first and bringing parts of the second floor thudding down. Recovering his breath Ferrier turned in time to see a wall of dust and debris cloud his view of what had a few seconds earlier been the hallway. The dog joined him as they watched the house settle again, a wreck before and now a total scrap heap. He shook his head in disgust at his own stupidity. How many hours had he been out for the count oblivious as that thing roamed about downstairs? It had been a miracle that it had neglected to notice the stairs. Coughing dust from his lungs Ferrier made his way over to the parked Land Rover, letting the dog into the passenger seat. Depositing the rifle and rucksack in the backseat he climbed in and drove off as swiftly as could be safely managed.