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North by the Red Death

by Peter Bailey


Daniel is a site foreman on a project building heavy-duty fences. When he accidentally takes the wrong clipboard from a parts warehouse, he finds himself in possession of information that shadowy forces will kill him to retrieve.

The picture was one of a government desperately trying to keep the lid on an increasing wave of infection.

The government was using armed troops to contain and conceal attacks, and when that didn’t work, it created newspaper headlines to explain away deaths and disappearances as car accidents or house fires.

It was a thin, desperate story, but it only had to last another five days, and then they would fall back, retreat behind the secure fences we had built for them, and those outside could just die and stop being a burden on their leaders. Without even the minimal efforts they were making here to hold back the red tide, life expectancy outside the fence would be short.

Now he could see the big picture, the twelve-foot fences they had been erecting didn’t seem over-engineered; in fact he was sure that they had been very carefully designed to hold back the mobs that would erupt when they realized how they had been fooled into making sure that the “essential government workers” and the rich would be safe.

But of course, the fences were just the final barrier to stop those really determined enough to penetrate the military’s interlocking fields of fire, and their high cyclic-rate, belt-fed machine guns. Perhaps the army would call it an act of mercy, saving those poor unfortunates outside from the plague. Because they knew that the only important thing was protecting their masters, because they in turn would shelter and protect their helpful servants.

All this time he had thought he had been starring in a remake of North by Northwest, but now he had blundered into the projection booth he could see that the film was The Masque of the Red Death, and his role was just one of the peasants outside the walls, left to the ravages of the plague while, inside, the middle managers and the elite partied as they held their noses against the stink of the dying outside.

But their masters had been clever: they had updated the film, offering the lure of big bonuses to get the fence finished in time, knowing that in five days the only important thing would be which side of the fence you would be on: the living inside, or the soon to be dead outside.

Daniel risked peeping through the window in the connecting door. The call center was back in full swing, the busy fingers writing their lies to explain away the increasing number of deaths. But it occurred to Daniel that what was not on the board in front of them was more important than what was there.

There was nothing about trying to cure the plague.

There were no reports of “experimental vaccine X” or “prototype gene therapy alpha.” Either their attempts to fix the disease were too low-key to bother them or perhaps someone had decided that this was their chance to reboot society and start again with just the right sort of people, after the wasters and the dross had been swept away.

The strange heartbeat of the building restarted, at first slow and halting but growing with strength every minute, and he knew that it was time to get out of there. He had the feeling that he still had only part of the story, but what he had was enough to shock the public into life. Perhaps, there was just enough time to save more than just the cream of society.

As he moved back to the door that led into the corridor an old joke came to mind. “Why are they the cream of society? Because they are rich, thick and full of clots.”

He was still laughing at the old joke as he carefully checked the corridor outside. If he could make his way back to the loading bay, he could get out under the same truck that had brought him in. Out of sight of the CCTV cameras those endless hated hours of physical education he had endured at school would finally prove useful, and he could tuck and roll away from the moving vehicle. And make his way back to the battered Ford hidden away from the road.

As he opened the door, he planned his next moves. Tell the papers and TV companies, use the Internet and start a blog telling everyone what he knew and show them what he had seen. He was still planning the press conferences when he turned the corner and walked directly into three soldiers.

A sudden look of recognition in their eyes. “Sorry,” try to push past them. Hands on his shoulders, shook them off. Walking quickly, running now. Shouts behind him. Hand grabbed his arm. His elbow jerked back into something soft. Cough of expelled breath on his ear. His hand on the door into the loading bay. Something moved fast towards his head.

The wooden stock of the rife made a dull sound as it hit his head; he never even saw the ground as it rushed up towards him.

* * *

Waking up with a pounding headache was bad; waking up with a pounding headache being dragged face down between two pissed-off soldiers was even worse.

He must have said something or moved slightly because the carpet stopped moving under him, and he was dragged upright. A face appeared in front of him.

“Awake are we, sir?”

Daniel’s eyes were dull and confused, but he could see that the third soldier looked pleased to see him.

“Been looking for you everywhere” — he made a wide, expansive gesture — “and here you are, all tucked up in the last place we would have thought of looking for you.”

The smiling face moved a little closer, the smile hard and brittle now. He moved to shake Daniel’s hand, except his hand kept on moving — becoming a fist as it moved. The punch to his stomach was short but brutal, driven on by years of training, and Daniel, unable to double over, was instantly sick all down his front.

The soldier looked simultaneously disgusted and embarrassed as if what had happened was nothing to do with him.

“Look at you, just look at you. Not fit to be in decent company.” He held his nose in an exaggerated display of being offended. “You are disgusting. You horrible little man.”

Daniel tried to say something, but he wasn’t sure what it might have been, because the smiling face moved closer to his, and he braced himself for another punch.

This time it was a real smile. “Didn’t like that did you, sir? But Frank was a good man. He deserved better than you.” The eyes that watched Daniel were a washed-out grey and didn’t blink at all “You didn’t even know the name of the man you killed. He was just trying to do his job, and you squashed him like a bug.”

He snarled in Daniel’s face: “We were Special Forces together, do you even know what that means, you turd? We have done things for this country you couldn’t even believe. You are not even worthy of saying his name. Whatever happens now is all your own fault.”

Now there wasn’t even a pretence at a smile. “There is a protocol for dealing with this sort of thing; you are not the first and probably not the last, but this close to fallback we can sometimes make our own rules, can’t we, lads?” There was a muffled sound of agreement from each side and his progress down the corridor resumed.

“I must say, sir that this is an excellent opportunity for you. After all you were so keen to find out what was going on here, so it’s only fair we show you everything.” The last word sounded like a threat and Daniel began to struggle as the smell of week-old rotting meat became stronger.

The sign on the door said, “Pen 1” and there was a jangle of keys. Daniel didn’t know what was in there, but more than anything he wanted not to find out. Kicking and thrashing made no difference at all and as the door opened a happy voice said, “Enjoy the experience, sir.” And he was through the door, hearing it lock behind him.

* * *

Inside, the pen was just a single large brightly lit room and instantly Daniel could see how wrong he had been. About the infection, about what they were doing about it. About everything.

The room was about half-full of people milling aimlessly around. One of them noticed Daniel almost instantly and his head lolled as he turned around. His head lolled because something had gnawed all the flesh and muscle from his neck. Now the only thing connecting head and body was a column of stained spine.

Behind him, there was a middle-aged woman, she looked like a nice suburban housewife, except, she was naked to her waist, but she didn’t look embarrassed about this. Partly, because there was only a dead empty look in her eyes and partly because all the flesh had been stripped from her torso. He could see the dull grey of her ribs — and that there was nothing moving under them.

There were more behind them, a man limping towards him on bloody stumps, a child with no face.

There were dead but they were still moving. They were dead, but they were still moving.

The refrain became a mantra circling over and over, before he realized that was exactly what they were doing to him. His back hard to the wall, he slid away before they could surround him. There was a double door to his left, through there must be the loading bay — a nice short way to herd these things here from the trucks.

There was a dry rustling noise close to his face, and he screamed a little as he moved away from the smartly dressed businessman with the hard, sardonic grin of rigor mortis.

The double door was locked; there were no handles on this side. His fingers scrabbled at the door, nails breaking and tearing as he forced them into the gap between the doors.

Half-seen motion, but this time at the other end of the shed. A door opened and a long pole with a loop of wire caught a teenager with a Metallica T-shirt and no arms, dragging him through the door. There was a momentary glance of a familiar swollen flashlight shape before the door closed and there was the thud of the heartbeat of this place as they processed another unit.

Fifty yards, perhaps less and through that door, he’d beg for his life — they had to listen to him. He’d explain that it had all been a mistake, he didn’t know anything. They would have to help him.

The dead things were closing in on him again. He’d been wrong before. Their expression was not dead and empty — it was dead and hungry, so hungry that he could feel their need from here.

His back felt open and vulnerable as he propelled himself across the floor. Past the hands that reached for him, he dodged left past the group of three that were burnt and fused together. Avoided the pregnant woman he couldn’t even bear to look at. Past the child in the red-stained dress.

When the child turned and bit into his leg it was with rattlesnake speed, and he fell to the floor in an untidy confusion of limbs.

The pain in his leg was a bright, hot thing that filled the world. Kicking with his one good leg, his workman’s boot caught her full in the face, and her slight body flew away from him. There was something red and dripping in her mouth, her jaws chewing and grinding as she slid away.

He left a trail of blood as he crawled. Behind him, he could hear them getting closer, and he forced his leg to hold him as he stood and limped to the door. Two steps left. One step left. He screamed when a pretty blonde girl buried her teeth in his arm, but he didn’t scream for long, before another of them ripped out his throat.

The last thing he saw before he died was the arterial spurt of his blood on the concrete floor, the last thing he felt before he died was the sickening scrape of teeth on bone.

* * *

Hunger, immense driving hunger. Nothing else now except the emptiness inside and the gnawing need to eat. There had been something wet and somehow familiar on his front, but he had licked the delicious blood from his fingers long ago.

There was very little of Daniel left now, he could remember some of the people he had known and his bone-dry mouth watered a little as he wondered how they would taste. But everything else was lost under the all-consuming need to feed.

There were others like him in this too brightly lit room, but none of them had what he needed: FOOD FOOD FOOD.

He touched the wall, his fingers grey and slow, feeling the life in the others just the other side of this barrier. His hands clawed and scratched at the wall, leaving deep marks. It didn’t hurt when he did this; nothing hurt. Only the need meant anything, and he tried to lick his dry, parched lips as he smelt the powerful delicious scent of the fresh meat on the other side of the wall.

There was motion at the end of this room and the hint of the life he needed, but there was also a regular thud and something said that he should stay away from there.

He wandered aimlessly with the others like him. His leg didn’t seem to work very well, but it didn’t mean anything. Only the need was everything, and then there was something different in front of him, a mark that ran up and down. Some memory said “door,” and he stopped moving and watched the mark, his face inches from the door. The light through the skylight changed from bright to dark and then back again before the mark changed.

The door opened towards him, and he saw a few inches of a gloriously alive hand. His hunger gave him speed, and he sank his teeth into the wrist, simultaneously biting and pulling its owner forward. There was a brief view of a face that seemed somehow familiar, and a small voice said he was a disgusting little man.

But the tough fibrous taste of his flesh in his mouth was indescribably perfect. There were some screams, but they meant nothing, and they soon stopped when the others joined in feeding.

He felt the life flooding through him as if he had been plunged into cool, fresh water. The room seemed brighter, and he knew he was so much stronger. There was more life outside, and he dropped the ruined thing in uniform at his feet. The others like him were welcome to his cast-offs.

The corridor was thick with the smell of life, and another meat turned and pointed something at him. A sharp noise punched him in the chest, but it didn’t slow him down. The taste of this one was even more wonderful than before, and he chewed until his teeth scraped on bone.

The others blundered their way out of the bright room, and the regular heartbeat of this place slowed and stopped. There were screams and more sharp noises all around him, and the carpet under his feet became damp and then sodden with blood as the first to die staggered to their feet and joined in the feeding.

The daylight outside was too bright, and the open space around the loading bay was filled with those trying to escape. A large truck had crashed into the gate, and he ripped out the throat of the driver still sitting stunned behind the wheel.

There was the flicker of memory of something blue hidden nearby, but that was not important now, and he staggered on towards town with the comet trail of those like him in his wake.

He could see the face of Sarah waiting for him at home. He knew she would have something for him to eat.

Copyright © 2013 by Peter Bailey

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