As January closes in, here is the third instalment of our own Rowan Wise’s Inkpot contribution – ‘2047: Merchant Hotel.’ This is certainly one for these mid Winter evenings.
Ferrier looked down the corridor with the aid of his rifles white light. It was filled with several inches of water replete with sewer sludge. The building search had been productive, yielding many valuable supplies. Now he had to get out. The main exit was way back at the other end of the silent shopping mall. He had not relished the prospect of navigating his way through the maze of disrupted alleys a second time. The service exit was right ahead and all he would have to do was brave this putrefying soup for some fifty yards. However it was not quite soo easy. The sound of feet moving about in the water echoed from the other end of the corridor. Ferrier could make out a small side room that looked to have been where a set of lavatories had been located back in the day. A grime covered sign with an indicating arrow read ‘toilets’. Moving as stealthily as he could manage in the shallow gloop Ferrier reached the door and passed it. He could scarcely believe his luck at avoiding detection when the glorious daylight reached down to greet him at the exit. It had been a single, barely audible, sound which made him turn around. A man stood before him, or rather what had been a man at one time. Enough blood had seeped through his clothes to stain them red. The right arm was visible and this the powdery grey colour of mould. The left arm was not in evidence, only a bloody stump remained where a hard white gash indicated the protruding shoulder socket. His head was a study. Even the very worst infected Ferrier had seen, dead or alive, did not come close to this level of decay. How the man had continued to survive was a miracle but judging from his emaciated figure it was abundantly clear that these were almost certainly his last moments.
The soft tissue around the eyes, nose, mouth and ears had necrotised. Various streams of blood trickled from exposed veins, dripping down the man’s chest and forming a pool at his feet. Ferrier did not want to think about what state the man’s torso, legs or feet would be in but fortunately he was spared this fresh horror as the man still had most of his clothes on. Suffused with blood and other bodily detritus the fabric of the man’s outfit stretched over his frame like some horrendous sack. A gurgling sound emanating from an aperture in the man’s ruined throat showed that at some level he was still conscious. The figure was well past walking and instead had taken to shuffling about on his knees. Even the bone here had turned coal black, from the little Ferrier could see beneath tattered fabric which had once been trousers. It was clear that this phantasmagoria had contracted the virus, maybe the result of a careless error when looting a long abandoned shop or residential building. The odds were that he had not contracted it here as the incubation time would not have allowed it. A few days after exposure the subject would have felt unwell, vomiting and diarrhoea would have ensued. A few weeks later and the slow unstoppable rot began. Ferrier was frightened by this spectre of what could happen to him. He stood stock still agog at the hideous spectacle before him. Then, as the doomed creature inched forward pathetically, Ferrier drew his sidearm. He could not save this man but he could end his suffering. Taking good steady aim at the chest Ferrier fired off three shots in quick succession. Each round tore the decaying tissue apart with tremendous force. At this close range, and with no solid body to absorb the impact, the flesh was ripped to pieces. There fell a vast, all encompassing silence as the last spent casing pinged to the ground.
Ferrier woke with a violent start, breathing heavily. He half slid, half stood out of the chair on the deck of ‘Faithful’. That dream again, except it was no fiction Ferrier might have breathed a sigh of relief at finding himself awake. However because it had really happened that memory was sure to return to haunt his sleep again. When they had first been thrown together in desperate circumstances years earlier Cindy would have always been by his side anxiously looking up into her master’s eyes when he woke up from his nightmares. Now she had gotten used to their regularity and it no longer worried her. In fact she much preferred to let Ferrier wake himself up and that way there was no room for any misunderstandings. Making his way through the cabin Ferrier knelt down beside Cindy and ran a gentle hand over her. They knew each other well enough that words were not strictly necessary anymore, Cindy was always able to read Ferrier like a book. She licked his hand tenderly and got up yawning into a stretch. Moving to the kettle he put on the battery radio and a glorious strain of classical music issued forth. The intricate figures of Handel’s Concerto a due Cori number one were exquisitely rendered by a talented old world orchestra. It was a strange setting for such grand melodies.
The effect was marked on Ferrier, a wry smile lighted his face and a spring entered his step. Even Cindy seemed brighter. “We may as well relax now for we’ve a long day ahead”, he said to the dog. It was a beautiful autumn morning, clear, sunny and cold. Outside long tendrils of freezing fog hung low over the water, gently swirling like so many couples waltzing across the polished floor of a ballroom. The cabin temperature also reflected the outdoors and Ferrier was keen to get ashore to start the days chores. After a cup of tea he packed his rucksack and loaded up the lighter for the short trip to the shore. Cindy dutifully waited by the bow as Ferrier cast off from ‘Faithful’ and cut in the outboard motor. He was loath to do this but there was a fair breeze blowing and rowing would take too long. The clubhouse and Land Rover were as he had left them the preceding afternoon. Before setting out Ferrier went through what weapons he was to take along. For some reason he felt uneasy about the day ahead, which was not particularly unusual, so he did want to bring plenty of firepower just in case. Aside from his SA 80 rifle and Glock 17 sidearm he packed an MP5 sub-machine gun and several fragmentation as well as some stun grenades. Reassured by his preparations Ferrier left with some of his former confidence restored.
He needed oil for the clubhouse heating system, having a full tank but no reserves. There were several places were he knew that supplies had been stashed and one by one he was now looting them. The target today was in Belfast at a place once known as the Merchant Hotel, not far from the old Cathedral. To get there would take a good hour or more as many roads were blocked with the abandoned traffic of people moved out decades ago. The Land Rover had a CD player and the two survivors whittled away the time in listening to the symphonies of Robert Schumann. On several occasions Ferrier had to stop and reroute to a passable road. They arrived at the hotel just before midday, the sun at its highest point in the autumn sky. Pulling up at the foot of well worn sandstone steps, which lead up to a grand neo-classical façade, Ferrier stopped the engine and got out.
Resting his arms on the Land Rover’s warm bonnet he regarded the fine old building. Cindy scrambled out and sat down at her master’s feet looking up inquisitively at him. He returned her gaze thoughtfully, “Nope this time you stay here”, he said inclining his head to the passenger seat. Cindy’s face fell and languidly she jumped back up into the car, having first watered some grass sprouting from a nearby open manhole. “Look I won’t be long, hopefully not more than half an hour to three quarters”, he patted the dog’s head and gave her a biscuit from a tin in the glove compartment. Moving back to the boot he strapped on his flack jacket and fastened his helmet and mask, ensuing the rubber seal was airtight. He clipped the fragmentation and stun grenades to his flack jacket, secured his sidearm and looked at the SA 80 and MP5. Deciding on the MP5 he locked in a magazine, removed the safety and slotted two spare magazines in his trouser pocket. Mounting the steps he afforded himself a brief look back at Cindy who watched his progress from the Land Rover. Nodding he turned to face the great wooden doors. Slinging the MP5 he proceeded to force the jammed hinges open enough to permit his passage inside. The foyer was dimly lit by a great oval glass skylight in the high ceiling clouded over with dirt. A receptionist’s desk greeted Ferrier, it was covered in dust and there was no receptionist in evidence. He switched on the MP5s under barrel sighting light and red laser aim assist. A thin ruby beam shot out from the muzzle landing on the opposite wall. Resting his finger on the trigger Ferrier stacked up outside a door leading to a downwards spiralling staircase. He knew from his army days that below the building there was an emergency store of heating oil. He did not relish the prospect of recovering the oil but it had to be done. Truth be told Ferrier had been putting this expedition off for months in the hope of securing a more readily available supply.
With a deep breath Ferrier threw his full weight against the door which buckled and fell back. Encompassing the small dark ante chamber with the MP5 and finding it empty he proceeded to the head of the stairs. Letting the MP5s light hover around the receding stair he could see that it curved away in a clockwise direction. This was going to be risky for he could not be certain of the ground below. Realising that loitering would not help matters he moved cautiously down the stairs. As he reached the basement floor water rose to his ankles, beyond lay only darkness. Using the white light on the MP5 Ferrier negotiated several alleys replete with tall shelves the contents of which had been looted long ago. After some time searching he finally located the fuel store. The main section had also been thoroughly looted but a small annex enclosed by a wire fence looked promising.
With the aid of a pair of steel bolt cutters he made short work of the lock. To Ferrier’s enormous relief there were indeed a half dozen heating oil containers squatting resolutely amid the rising tide of water at the further end of the annex. He would have to lift them one at a time: six trips. It was difficult, awkward work but Ferrier managed to secure all six in the Land Rover. At least an hour had passed since their arrival but he still wanted to run over the main atrium and see if there was anything else worth taking. The place was totally abandoned as far as he could judge. So focused was he on the task at hand Ferrier did not notice that the few birds which attended the scene upon his arrival had made themselves scarce. Cindy’s fears were quashed by the return of her master and now she relaxed, allowing herself to curl up in the warmth of the passenger seat. Moving into the foyer again Ferrier allowed his guard to lapse just a little while he strolled around the main atrium imagining what it must have been like to order high tea here and luxuriate in the grand surroundings. Something of the original beauty of the place survived as sections of wall here and there suggested ornamentation and painting. In the centre of the room, mounted on a raised pedestal so as to command the scene, was a piano. It was buried beneath sheets and as Ferrier pulled them away clouds of dust rose up. Sitting down at the piano stool he tried a few keys which sounded hollow and flat. He chuckled at his own naivety in thinking they would be anything else. Nevertheless he ran over the old Western tune ‘Colorado Trail’, more in his head than relying on the worn out piano. He adored the tune and recalling it occasioned real emotion, a tear running down his cheek inside the rubberised confines of his mask.
Something moved overhead, the shadow passing across Ferrier sitting at the piano, it was over in a flash. Possibly it may have been a bird, nonetheless it was definitely time to go. Shouldering the MP5 and his rucksack he moved forward in the direction of the door. Halfway there however he stopped dead in his tracks and dropped to the floor. Something was moving across the foyer at speed and in the air. In a few frenzied seconds the horrible realisation of what had happened occurred to Ferrier. Whatever that was it had been in the room with him when he was at the piano and had been responsible for that shadow. He wondered what was the point in attempting to evade it if it was already well aware of his presence and may even have been observing him. To make the MP5 fire effective he had to be closer and so Ferrier began to crawl forward. Stopping underneath some tables he could see the machine looking for him. It was a drone not dissimilar in appearance to the kind Ferrier had known in the army but with much more advanced operating systems. This was evident from several things, first of all just how quiet it was. Also it was scanning the room with some sort of apparatus which Ferrier was sure could easily see through his table and sheet ruse. That gave him a few seconds to decide what to do. Priming a grenade he cooked it for a few additional seconds and then hurled it across the room in the direction of the machine.
The explosion rattled clouds of dust from the balcony so as to completely blind his view of the drone. At first it seemed to have worked as nothing issued forth from the maelstrom of debris but then to Ferrier’s horror the machine appeared. How the thing survived a dead on hit from a fragmentation grenade he did not know but it most certainly had. Ferrier made for the door pausing as he did to empty a magazine of 9mm rounds from the MP5 into the drone. They bounced off like rainwater. Someone, somewhere had made pretty important advances in materials science since Ferrier’s military days. As arming drones had been standard practice since the beginning of the century he had no doubt that this vehicle carried some sort of armament. He was certainly taken by surprise but he hadn’t been a soldier for nothing and now he proved his metal. Showering the glass skylight with automatic fire released a downfall of shards that blanketed the grand room. The drone was caught in this hail and momentarily hit the deck. Ferrier tossed the remaining fragmentation grenade and the two stun grenades into the ruins where the machine had fallen.
]This time he did not wait to observe the result but made directly for the foyer. Bursting through the doors he was shocked to find a laser tracking him. Directly ahead and standing beside the Land Rover two people were watching him, they were armed. He was well aware that there was no chance of returning fire and so he set down the MP5 very deliberately. Raising his hands Ferrier thought that of all the ways he had imagined he would lose his life this was not one of them. To his surprise no shot rang out. Instead a voice said, “Lance Corporal Ferrier?”.