Eighteen hours ago…
Steel splinters, that’s what it felt like. Steel splinters grinding into his shins. Tom thought he’d been walking for hours, but when he glanced at his Omega Seamaster only ninety blasted minutes had passed. At twenty-five years old, he was in no way unfit, but traipsing through the Scottish Highlands to fetch help for the drug-addled thug who had recently bitten off his ear, was a test of endurance that no amount of hours on the squash courts could have prepared him for. The dust and grime in his uncombed blonde hair was enough to send him insane, and the moisture in the air fogged the lenses of his glasses.
The village can’t be much further. Thirty minutes at most, surely? Thirty minutes before I start trying to convince people there’s a biological hazard loose on the Highlands. Or possibly a military weapon. Or an alien substance. Maybe we’re all trapped in Hell.
Be serious, Tom.
He still couldn’t make sense of the mess he had left behind. Sean had clearly been exposed to something dangerous, but how dangerous remained unclear. Tom gained comfort by reminding himself he wasn’t a doctor, and that things might not be as bad as they had seemed. Regardless, his part in things was over. The horror lay behind him, not ahead. The sun was shining.
The exertion of the hike caused him to sweat. Beads of it trickled down his back, gathering beneath the waistband of his chinos. He unzipped the front of his blue Henri Lloyd jacket to let in the crisp air, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, he would have to take break from hiking and give his legs a rest.
Instead of keeping to the meandering road, Tom had decided to walk a straight line over the rocky outcroppings and sloping meadows. His shins regretted that decision now, so when the road arced back around in front of him, he was relieved. Stepping back onto the hard, flat surface eased the ache in his legs and made him feel a little less lost.
Stranded. I feel stranded.
After he finally reached the village and found help for Ryan and the others, there would still be the issue of his car. A seven-hour drive away from home, and his brand new Stelvio was a lifeless hunk of ruby-red metal. Never had he felt so cut off from the world and all of its safeties, and it exposed how vulnerable he was when removed from his comfortable surroundings: his job at his father’s firm, his relationship with Amanda – Oh, dear, loyal, uncomplicated Amanda – and his never-missed Sunday dinners at home. Those things were soft blankets around his shoulders. He was naked without them and the wind was biting.
I really should have made an excuse not to come this weekend. I knew it would end up being a nightmare. Stag dos… what a ridiculous concept. I didn’t expect things to turn out this badly, though.
A small outbuilding appeared ahead, little more than a pile of old stone roughly shaped into walls. Ragged holes existed where the windows once would have been, and weeds sprouted two-feet-high both within and without the structure. As Tom approached it, something bolted out of the shadows and his heart leapt into his chest. He calmed down when he saw it was just a rat; a dirty, fat little beastie, but nothing to worry about after what he’d just been through. The wary rodent scarpered across the road and bolted into the ditch, leaving Tom to wonder just how many creatures existed all around him, sleeping inside burrows or hiding away in deep thickets. The notion made him feel oddly at ease. In Manchester, it was people who were everywhere, not animals. It was surprising to find their absence so comforting.
Maybe I’m not the people person I thought.
Tom relished his surroundings more and more as he put distance between himself and the madness back at the cottage. Out here, beneath the endless ombre sky, there were no worries of divorce cases piling up on his desk or his father breathing down his neck about billable hours; no stress of expensive Arndale shopping trips because Amanda needed a new Radley handbag every five minutes. Out here, the conditions were harsh but simple. It almost made the splinters in his shins bearable.
He hiked another twenty minutes until his Seamaster read: 9:45. He was about to take a rest at the side of the road when the village finally crept into view.
For the last two hours, Tom had been dozing inside his own head, almost zen-like, in order to deal with the boredom and discomfort of the hike. Now it was coming to an end, he needed to wake up and ready himself to deal with strangers – strangers who would no doubt treat him with ridicule and suspicion when he told them what had happened. Perhaps he could flash his missing earlobe to help convince them that the deranged yarn he was spinning them was true.
He gave his iPhone another glance, checking for the umpteenth time whether or not it would switch on. But of course, it didn’t. The eight-hundred-pound lump of plastic and glass remained completely dead – just like his car.
That’s another thing that makes no sense. Why did all of the electrics fail?
They didn’t. The lights stayed on back at the cottage. It was only my car and the phones.
I can’t even begin to think about it. Let’s just focus on one thing at a time.
Tom’s weary legs took him to the edge of the village, the rocky landscape rising behind him and revealing just how far he had hiked. The first building he encountered was a bowls club erected on an elevated steppe. A chain-link fence ringed its well-mowed lawns, and a single-story building lay at the back with a large plate-glass window overlooking the playing fields. A quaint tearoom lay inside; Tom could see the chairs and tables. Lower down the hill was a tiny church, with stone walls painted white in contrast to the village’s predominantly grey palette. The building was modest and uncomplicated.
Ryan said he had parked his Audi at the village pub, so that was where Tom intended to go. A pub was a good place to find people at all hours of the day, and someone would surely step forward to help a stranger in need.
There might even be coffee involved. Oh please let there be coffee. I could murder an expresso con panna. Then again, this doesn’t seem like the kind of place to have a Starbucks. Although, I would settle for Costa at this point.
Tom had just made it past the bowls club, starting down the hill, when he saw someone standing in the middle of the road outside the churchyard. They seemed to be stooping, but as Tom got closer he saw that they were, in fact, attempting to rouse someone else lying facedown on the road. The Good Samaritan was a young girl with mousy blonde hair dyed pink at the ends. Her large breasts and hips were at odds with her narrow waist and diminutive height, which gave her an odd overall shape. A spiky belt held up a pair of black jeans, and instead of a jacket she wore a plain grey hoodie.
Tom hurried to speak with her. “Is everything okay?”
The girl flinched, looking at Tom like he’d just appeared out of the ether. In a way, he had. She spoke in a thick Scottish accent, which was to be expected, but it meant he only understood half of what she said. “He cannae get up, the drunken bawbag.”
Tom studied the man lying face down on the ground. He wasn’t moving at all, and was covered in fluids that stained his dark green jumper in a dozen places. The smell coming off of him was… unpleasant. “Drunk? At ten in the morning?”
The girl shrugged. “That’s late aroon’ these parts. Will yer help me get the bawheid on his feet?”
“Of course. Do you know who he is?”
“Aye, of course I doo. It’s Barry McGuire, the village baker. But who are yoo? Yer nay from around here, pal.”
“No, you’re right. My friends and I hired the cottage up the hill. We came up from Manchester.”
The girl didn’t reply. She knelt beside Barry Mcguire and yanked at the man’s arm. “On yer feet, Barry-lad. Yer cannae sleep here.”
Tom admired the girl’s compassion. If it had been him, he would have left the fool to sleep it off where he lay.
Let all men carry their own failures, his dad would always say to him. Their arms will never grow strong if you help them.
Wanting to be helpful, Tom grabbed Barry’s other arm, and he and the girl managed to get him on his feet. The man was as light as a feather, sickly and thin.
An alcoholic, most likely. I think I read somewhere that Scotland have cornered the market in that area.
“I’m Tom, by the way.”
“Do you know where Barry lives, Chloe?”
“Everybody knows where everybody live in this village. You cannae move without–”
Barry Mcguire trembled. For a moment, Tom assumed the drunken sot was about to vomit, but instead he turned to face Chloe.
Green fuzz sprouted from his left ear.
Tom’s stomach plummeted to the floor. No! It can’t be.
“Whoa, Barry-lad, dinnae get your knickers in a twist. I’m just tryna–” Barry snapped his jaws at Chloe like a deranged animal. She let go of his arm and managed to hop back just in time to avoid both his teeth and a swinging fist seeking to pummel her.
Tom let go of Barry’s other arm and shoved the man away as if he were on fire. He turned to Chloe and shouted like a madman. “Stay back. Don’t touch him.”
Chloe glared at Barry, her small fists clenched. It was unclear if she’d even heard Tom’s words, for it was clear she was ready to fight. “Have yer lost yer bloody heid, Barry? What’s wrong w’yer?”
Tom knew what was wrong with Barry.
He’s infected. He has the fungus all over him.
Green fuzz covered Barry’s face. His left eye peeked through a thick copse of the stuff. His hands were twisted and bloody, foul fluids dripping onto the road. Chloe was clearly confused by what she was seeing because she hesitated to act, just standing there with her fists clenched. Tom had to grab her and drag her away. She protested, but didn’t fight him.
Barry Mcguire stumbled after them, elastic arms whipping back and forth.
“He’s goosed,” said Chloe. “Wee shite is pissed as a fart.”
“He’s infected,” said Tom, wondering if this was Sean’s fate back at the cottage.
She looked at him. “Infected with what?”
Barry made no sound as he stalked them. His gait was lumbering, as if both of his ankles were broken. Tom kept a hand on Chloe’s arm as he tried to think. Whatever Sean had been exposed to was in the village.
The fungus is here. It’s not safe.
How did it spread from the cottage to the village?
Or did it spread from the village to the cottage?
I need to get out of here.
Heavy footsteps sounded nearby, and an older man in a green wax jacket and wellington boots raced down the road towards them. At first, Tom feared it was another infected person, but when the man began shouting, it became clear he was intending to help.
“What’s all this nonsense?” The older man skidded to a halt a few metres away. “Barry? Is that yoo, lad?”
“Get away from him,” Tom warned. “Don’t go near him.”
The stranger frowned, adding wrinkles to his already weathered forehead. The wiry grey hairs on his cheeks twitched as he spoke. “What yer saying to me?”
“I’m saying you should not go anywhere near that man.”
Barry turned to face the stranger, started to move towards him.
The stranger was still frowning.
Tom gave a third warning. “Don’t let him touch you. This man is very sick.”
“Are yoo one of the English boys what rented ma cottage?”
“Mr McGregor? Yes, yes, I just came from the cottage. Something bad has happened up there. Some kind of fungus. It was on the hill. We–”
Barry whipped an arm at McGregor, missing the man’s face by less than an inch. Rather than frighten the older man, it just seemed to annoy him. “Barry, have yer gone soft in the heid, lad? Calm down before you do yerself an injury. And what’s that green muck on yer face? Looks like yer went face-to-face wi’ a snooker table and lost.”
“Get away from him,” Tom warned yet again. “Don’t let him anywhere near you.”
Barry pounced, grabbing McGregor in a bear hug, both arms wrapping around him like climbing ropes.
Tom grimaced. I warned you, you old fool. I warned you to stay back.
“Behave yerself, yer feckin’ eejit.” McGregor threw out a wellington boot and swept Barry’s legs out from under him. The infected man struck the road with such a thud – elbows and head smacking the tarmac – that McGregor immediately bent down to check on him. “Crivvens, Barry, what’s got into yer? Are yer okay?”
Tom let go of Chloe’s arm and stepped towards McGregor, desperate to make the stubborn man listen before it was too late. “Step away from him. I think it’s contagious. My friend has it.”
McGregor pulled his hand back, stood up straight, and stared at Tom distrustfully. “What yer talking aboot?”
“I already said! There’s some kind of outbreak – a fungus. My friends and I found this big chunk of metal buried in the ground up at the cottage. It was like some kind of corkscrew. My friend touched it and now he’s sick like Barry is. Whatever it is, it’s dangerous.”
McGregor opened his mouth to speak, but Barry leapt up off the ground and grappled with him again. This time, the landlord got Barry in a headlock, but seemed unsure what to do after that. “Barry, yer fat walloper, ge’off me!”
Chloe went to help, but Tom grabbed her. “Don’t.”
McGregor threw his leg out and tripped Barry again. This time Barry clung on. His left hand came apart and revealed some kind of boney protuberance. As he hit the road, he swiped at McGregor’s face and caused the man to growl in pain. When McGregor steppe back, there was a bleeding scratch on his cheek. “Bloody imbecile,” he said as he fingered the wound.
“We have to call the police,” said Tom. “They need to know what’s happening here.”
Chloe nudged him and pointed down the road. “Look!”
Two women stumbled across a nearby common, clumsily navigating around a bench in the middle of the grassy area. Even from a distance, it was clear they were infected. Their faces were mottled, covered by dark patches. Their arms were too long, swinging alongside their knees.
“This can’t be happening,” said Tom. “Not to me.”
Chloe clutched herself, arms beneath her breasts. “They have it too, right? The fungus you keep talking about?”
Tom wasn’t usually in the habit of swearing, but he unleashed a tirade now. Once he was finished, he took a breath and tried to stay calm. “I need to get out of here. I need to get help for my friends, too, but mostly I just need to get out of here.”
Barry got back on his feet and lunged at McGregor a third time. McGregor was out of patience, so he tossed the infected man back down like a rag doll and viscously stomped on his ribs. The old landlord was an ox of a man, which was why Tom was genuinely startled when he turned and glared at him. “I’ll go get yer boys down from the cottage, but I’ll wring their scrawny necks if any of this is down to them.” He then turned his glare on Chloe. “Get help, lass – get help for Barry – and dinnae let this English fella out of yer sight.”
She nodded anxiously, blue eyes blinking. “I’ll call the police. The fire brigade. Um, everybody.”
McGregor glanced at the two women shambling across the common. They had now made it past the bench. He then gave Tom a quick nod before taking off at a run, hopefully to go and retrieve his car.
Tom found himself standing there alone in the middle of the road with a teenage girl and no idea what to do. Barry had got back up and was now stumbling towards them, undeterred by probable broken ribs. The two infected women were only fifteen feet away.
We’re being penned in.
Tom grabbed Chloe’s arm again. “Where can we go?”
She looked at him, mouth open. “I… I….”
“This is your village? Where is safe? Where is–”
A massive earthquake sent Tom and Chloe crashing against each other, almost in an embrace. Barry’s crooked ankles folded inwards and he collapsed in a heap, while the two infected women on the common toppled over on the grass. Chloe screamed into Tom’s chest, the sound muffled. Instinctively, he put his arms around her. What the hell had just happened? An earthquake?
Like the one last night at the cottage.
And then he saw it.
The massive chunk of metal had lodged itself in the pavement at the side of the road. Shattered concrete lay in chunks all around it. The surrounding air shimmered with heat. Before Tom could react, another impact rocked the ground as a second corkscrew collided with the earth only a hundred metres away. The massive impact swallowed up the atmosphere and snatched away all sound. Tom stumbled, heart pounding against his ribs. Chloe shouted something at him, but it was as if she were miming – a frantic ghost without vocal cords.
Please, someone help me, I’m deaf.
Then the air seemed to implode and all sound came rushing back.
Tom shook his head in confusion.
Chloe grabbed his hand and gawked at him. “We’re under attack. We’re being bombed.”
“What? No, that’s not it.”
“Get inside. Quickly!” Someone was shouting from nearby. Tom turned and saw a vicar standing in the doorway of the small church. The man was waving his hands urgently and hopping up and down. “Get inside, for Heaven’s sake.”
Chloe tugged on Tom’s arm and the two of them got moving, racing through the small iron gate that led to the bottom of a shingled path, and hurrying up a short incline as fast as they could. Hot air blasted Tom’s face as he passed through the entrance to the church. He came to a halt inside a small room.
The door slammed shut behind him, a reassuringly heavy thud.
Chloe pressed up against Tom as the vicar locked the door with an old fashioned metal key. He was a short, pot-bellied man with greying brown hair around a bald pate. He looked exactly like what you would expect a vicar to look, but he didn’t sound like one. “What in the nine feckin’ hells is going on out there?” he demanded.
Tom pictured the corkscrews crashing into the road outside, along with the one that had landed on the hill behind the cottage last night. Only one answer would come to his lips. “We’re being invaded.”