Coming on November 14th/15th
Free for 5 days in first week of publication!
....Patient Zero, a collection of nine short stories connected to the post apocalyptic Project Renova series. Each one features a minor character from the two novels, Tipping Point and Lindisfarne; some veer off in a different direction from the main plot, others are backstories. Here is one of them... because every character has their own tale to tell ... 😉
That day in the pub with Nick and Greg was the last of the old world. 28th July, 2024, sat in Aaron's memory like the final day of a perfect holiday, a snapshot from childhood, a golden era when nothing was wrong in his life. Of course, there was plenty wrong, really; he was bored rigid with being a financial whizz kid, and adjusting to life after Luisa was taking time—she wanted wedding bells and he wasn't ready to commit. Sometimes he felt gloriously free, but other times bored and lonely, guilty about hurting her, and gagging for a shag. He had a brick wall of credit card debt, too, but such irritations were laughable now.
He missed social media, a lot.
On Twitter and Private Life there was a popular hashtag: #FirstWorldProblems.
On Twitter and Private Life there was a popular hashtag: #FirstWorldProblems.
The Bluetooth in my car has stopped working so now I have to listen to the radio like a peasant. #FirstWorldProblems
Best last minute holiday deal EVER and d-bag boss says she can't spare me! #FirstWorldProblems
If the internet still existed, Aaron would start a new hashtag.
Sell-by date on this tin of sardines is four months ago.
Should I live dangerously? #NewWorldProblems.
Back in the pub on 28th July 2024, they weren't taking bat fever seriously. So there was an outbreak in some one-horse town in East Anglia, but quarantine conditions were in place, and all news reports were positive. Holidaymakers were posting vids on YouTube saying 'Yay!' about getting an extra week off work. Mind you, as Nick said, if you were sad enough to go on holiday to Shipden in the first place, it probably didn't take much to make you get the yays out.
That was the last day when their world was normal. On Monday evening, Nick's girlfriend, Evie, phoned to say that Nick was seriously ill, that she'd looked up his symptoms on the NHS website, and he appeared to have bat fever.
By the next evening, Evie was in a similar state. She'd dragged herself to the unit for her vaccination that morning, and was turned away.
The weird thing was that Nick'd had his vaccination early that Sunday morning, but he still died. So he must have contracted it before he got the shot, but how? Where from? Wasn't the only case supposed to be in Shipden?
A week later, nobody cared.
Everyone was dying.
Greg breathed his last breath the day after Nick, followed by almost all of Aaron's colleagues. Everyone in his apartment block. Except him.
He couldn't work it out.
Londoners were dropping like lemmings off a cliff.
Each morning, he expected to face his final countdown. But it didn't happen, and it kept on not happening. On waking, he would do a quick check to make sure he didn't feel ill, then luxuriate in the fact that there was no work to go to and his landlord was probably too dead to notice that he wasn't paying the rent anymore. He would make coffee and log onto Private Life and Twitter to see the latest, check in with his buddies to make sure their hearts were still beating—sometimes he got no answer—then flop in front of the TV and stick on YouTube to catch the latest batch of videos showing the downfall of civilised Britain. UK news maintained that everything was peachy, so he'd seek out news sites from around the world to get the truth, only to find a strange silence. Weird.
Later, the BBC showed colour coded maps to indicate where in the UK the disease was at its most virulent. Big mistake. Everyone in the red areas jumped into their cars and headed for the pale pink. Result: traffic at standstills, mile long queues at petrol stations, punch-ups at the pumps. Further spread of disease as people in the traffic jams became ill.
South London was one big glob of deepest crimson.
His mother rang from Cornwall to say that Truro was in the pink zone, urging him to drive down, but he declined. He hated driving at the best of times, and if he was going to die he'd rather do so in his own flat, not in his childhood bed with his mum faffing around, and her idiot husband vying for her attention.
He knew he should contact Luisa. It bugged him every day, but he just couldn't face it. He remembered Nick saying he thought she'd had the vaccine, so Aaron told himself she must be okay. He told himself this several times a day, then drove her from his mind with whichever bottle was at hand.
Staying at home alone was the key to staying alive, he deduced, but during Week Two he ran out of food. Headed out to Tesco Express to stock up, with a scarf over his face. It was like a war zone down there. Most of the shop windows were smashed, and half the streets were empty, others a battle between army and civilians. Joyriding kids whooped as they screeched past burnt out cars. Aaron didn't understand that. Why did people burn cars, just because the world was going to hell?
A burst of panic sent him dashing round to the car park at the back of his block. No worries; his car was still there, with its full tank.
Tesco Express was empty, but he found a tatty corner shop down a side street with plenty of tins and packets, filled a holdall and a backpack with all he could carry, and headed home. He locked himself in and pulled down the blinds, drank more than was good for him, binge-watched all his favourite series and messaged with the friends that weren't dying (yet). He slept a lot and read for hours at a time.
Next time he went to check on his car, it was gone. Which was inconvenient, but he was surprised to find that he didn't care. Never been a car fiend, not like Nick and Greg. Perhaps he could nick another one from somewhere. A car showroom. Wasn't sure what he'd do about fuel. Maybe get a bicycle, instead. Or a motorbike. Yee-hah.
Before the TV, phones and internet stopped working, he had a call from his mother to say that she was ill, along with her idiot husband.
He spoke to her before she died, and offered, reluctantly, to find a way of getting down to Cornwall.
"Don't come," she said. "It's bad here now. They're breaking into shops, turning those units over, raiding hospitals. We're okay; we've got each other."
By the time he ran out of food again, the electricity had fizzled its final spark.
Tablet ran out of juice when I was half way through a ten book
zombie apocalypse series. Bummer. #NewWorldProblems.
Now, his biggest worry was boredom. What were you supposed to do, when there was no power, and most of your friends had snuffed it?
Stop thinking about Luisa.
After establishing that nobody was answering the doors of the other six flats in his block, he broke into the janitor's office to nick the keys. Found bodies in two of them. Gross as hell. With scarves wrapped tightly around his nose and mouth and two pairs of rubber gloves, he dragged the bodies out into the car park and set fire to them.
And still he didn't get ill.
Now he had five more kitchens with food cupboards and alcohol. He cleaned out the fridges and freezers, which was a pretty disgusting task, but it was something to do.
Logic—and the first few chapters of the unfinished zombie apocalypse series—told him the water would go next, so he filled all the baths, every available vessel, with water.
Much of the time, he felt kind of okay. He meandered between flats, helping himself to food, examining his dead neighbours' possessions, getting drunk and listening to music on an old Sony Discman. Found one of those solar powered chargers for his tablet and stuck it on a window sill; he could finish that series after all.
He slept in beds that were more luxurious than his, and he bloomed with health.
He hardly dared to hope, but he couldn't help wondering if nature had been kind enough to make him immune.
On his birthday, in the middle of September, he helped himself to a bottle of champagne from flat number six, relaxed on the L-shaped sofa, and raised a glass to his mother, to Greg, and the rest of his friends who'd died. Then he stuck two fingers up to Nick, who, to be honest, had always been a smug prick. Always had to know about the latest whatever, and get it before anyone else. Shagged the prettiest girls. The bigheaded, handsome bastard.
"And you're now a dead bigheaded, handsome bastard," he said, out loud. "Who's the daddy now, eh, Nicky?" he said. A moment later, out of nowhere, he plummeted. He stood up, took his glass over to the window, looked out on the devastation in the streets below, and wondered what the hell he was supposed to do next.
Fast forward six months.
Holed up with my ex, 'cause she's the only person I know
who's still alive. Sucks. #NewWorldProblems.
For a while, Aaron didn't fancy his chances outside (too many lunatics around), but as the weather grew colder the streets cleared, leaving only a silence so complete it rang in his ears. Even in London. When he was down to his last bath tub of water, though, he knew it was time to go. He shivered his way through a cold one, shaved, put on sensible clothes—the former resident of number two had been a keen hiker, and had some excellent walking boots—and filled a backpack with provisions and basic survival gear.
Aaron was going out into the world, to see if anyone he knew, anywhere, was still alive. If they weren't, he would find some other people.
There were two cars left in the car park; one was trashed, the other out of fuel.
Okay, so he'd walk. He didn't mind; quite fancied it, actually. Walking the streets of London was something you never did, normally.
He tried flat after house after flat, and found no one. Didn't want to kick any doors down in case he found bodies, like in his own block; they'd be in a pretty gruesome state by now. Two friends who'd had the vaccine had left doors on the latch, and notes, saying where they'd gone.
'Mum and Dad. Meet us at Auntie Linda's. Be safe x.'
'Erin. Heading for refugee camp in Richmond Park. They got food & water. C u there?'
He left Luisa's place, in Cricklewood, until last.
He wanted to know but he didn't, at the same time. If there was no answer at her house he would have to break in, because he still cared for her. Didn't love her anymore, just cared for her. But the feeling ran deep enough for him to baulk at the thought of seeing her decomposing body.
Luisa was alive, and hunkered down with Ginny, one of the friends with whom she shared her house; the other had died. She'd given house room to two girls he didn't know, too. One vaccinated, the other not.
"You found me," she said, when he walked through the door, and the look on her face made him feel like her saviour. "I knew if you were alive you'd get here, eventually." She turned to Ginny, her eyes shining. "Didn't I say he'd come and find me?"
The once cute house was dark, cold, and smelled a bit rancid. Luisa was thinner, her hair was dirty, and Aaron's eyes watered when she fell into his arms.
"I'm so glad you're safe," he whispered, and he was, but when she took his hand and introduced him, proudly, to the strangers, he felt a tiny twinge of unease. The memories crowded back into his brain. How badly she'd taken the break-up. She'd sobbed, begged, told him she felt like 'ending it all'. For a while she phoned him on a daily basis, until, about a month before bat fever, he'd managed to make her understand that the relationship really was over.
That, despite all they'd been to each other, he didn't see himself spending the rest of his life with her.
"You said you'd die for me!" she'd cried, during that last conversation. "Do you remember? You said, I never want to be without you. I'd do anything for you, I'd die for you. Why would you say that if you didn't mean it?"
Being reminded of such over-emotional sentiments embarrassed him. Yes, he'd felt that way, meant every word, during their first few, passionate months, but times changed, and he hated that she couldn't see this.
Now, Luisa boiled water on her aga, made him a welcome cup of coffee, fussed around him. He had to admit it was rather nice. He'd had no company of any sort for three months, let alone of the female variety, and he hadn't had sex since a few weeks before the outbreak, either.
That night, he shared her bed.
In the morning, in her chilly bedroom, she wound her cold, thin arms around his body and gazed into his eyes.
"I knew you'd come back," she said, and gave a little giggle, the one he used to find so attractive. "So it's taken the end of the world to bring us back together; I can deal with that!"
And somehow he couldn't find the will to hurt her all over again. Not now, when both of them had lost everyone.
Soon afterwards, the non-vaccinated girl died, and her friend drifted away.
Luisa thought Aaron's immunity was a sign that they were 'meant to be'.
Aaron thought smiling and saying nothing was the best course of action.
Tempers frayed between Luisa and Ginny. Ginny said she was scavenging most of the food, but only eating a third of it. Luisa was reluctant to go out onto the streets, where gangs roamed and you never knew who or what might be waiting for you round a corner, and she didn't like Aaron to go out, either, in case anything happened to him.
In private, she told him she thought Ginny was jealous about his presence in the house.
"Three's a crowd, isn't it?"
Aaron disagreed, in fact he wished there were more of them, there being greater safety in numbers, but they woke up one morning in January to find Ginny gone, along with Luisa's car and most of the supplies.
The sight of her empty bedroom filled him with gloom. He'd never meant to be with Luisa again, as a couple; he was not sure what his intention had been, but it wasn't this.
The days moved slowly. Aaron wanted to up sticks, find one of those refugee camps he'd heard about, but she wanted to stay put.
"You and my house are the only stability I have left," she said, often. "I hate the thought of someone breaking in, ransacking the place. It's my home!"
She seemed happy, muddling through their humdrum days, laying fires, boiling water and cooking, reading, listening to talking books and snuggling up to him. She washed clothes, cleaned and tidied, even painted the spare bedroom.
Aaron was less content. Every few days he went out scavenging, and each time he was tempted to keep on walking. Find a car somewhere, and just drive.
Then she became ill. They didn't know what it was; she had pains in her stomach and felt nauseous and thirsty all the time.
She'd cling to him, and reminisce, obsessively, about the good times they'd shared.
"Don't," he'd say to her. "You're talking as if everything's over. It's not. You're just weak and ill, that's all."
She retreated into the past. When her pain receded, she would get out photos of the two of them in happier times, show him mementoes of random evenings of which he had little recollection. A ticket from a gig, a napkin from a restaurant.
And, over and over, she would remind him of the things he used to say.
"You told me you'd love me forever. Do you remember, that night in Barcelona, on the hotel balcony?"
He didn't, but he stroked her hair and told her he did.
"You never want to be without me, and you'd die for me," she said, often, with a dreamy smile on her face. One day, when the stomach pains were particularly bad, she clung onto him, and asked him to say it again.
"Tell me now," she said. "Tell me that again. Let me hear you say it, now."
Aaron felt foolish, and didn't want to say it because he didn't mean it, didn't feel that way about her, was only with her because he felt sorry for her and there was nothing else.
"Say it to me," she said. "Make me happy."
So he did. "I never want to be without you," he lied. "I'd die for you."
They had so little in the house, and he told her he must go out and find food, and, most importantly, fresh drinking water. Even when she couldn't eat, he knew she must drink.
"I don't want you to go out," she said. "Stay with me."
He stroked her head, kissed her forehead. "I have to. I'm hungry, Lu. And we've got to have water, haven't we? If I let you dehydrate, you could get seriously ill."
"We have lucozade! That's better, because it's got glucose in it."
"You know fizzy drinks give you guts ache." The sight of her lying there, so frail, made him want to repeat the lies, just to make her happy.
"No. I don't want to risk it, not with your stomach. Don't worry. Suck some mints; they help, don't they? I won't be long. I'll go to a chemist, too, see if I can find something."
When he closed the front door, the weight lifted from his shoulders. Oh, to be alone, without her cloying attention; he remembered why he left her in the first place. He zipped along the silent streets, kicking up the rubbish that lay across the pavements, the dirty, empty bottles. The odd dead rodent. He wondered what was the matter with her. Gallstones, maybe. His mother had them. Painful, but easily dealt with in the old world.
Not so much, now.
Whaddya do 'bout gallstones? Can you die from them if they're not treated? #NewWorldProblems.
He hoped it was nothing worse. He should find a medical encyclopaedia. If he could make her better, she might be persuaded to leave. Beng in that house, just the two of them, never seeing anyone else, made him feel as though he didn't exist. He wanted air, movement, the sky, roads, space. He longed for other people. Just someone different to talk to.
I never want to be without you. I'd die for you.
But he didn't want to die. He wanted to live.
In a pharmacy he found a large, white bottle of chalky medicine that looked as though it might be good for stomachs. He passed a corner shop. Plenty of useless cordial, bottles of fizzy drinks, but no water. He took four Dr Peppers for himself. A Sainsbury's Local: no water. A pub: no water. A garage: no water.
He walked. Shop after shop, no water anywhere. Other stuff, though. One tin of chilli and three of potatoes, soup, yogurt covered flapjacks, toilet paper, biscuits, batteries, a carton of orange juice. Sod it. He'd just decided to go back, boil the rainwater and hope for the best, when he spied an small Indian supermarket that must have been on its knees even before the fall.
Worth a try.
The door hung off its hinges and the windows were smashed, which was good, because it let a little light into the store, but he flicked on his torch as he walked slowly up and down the three dingy, narrow aisles. Picked up the last packet of noodles as he aimed light onto the almost empty shelves—which was when he saw them. Three of them. Litre bottles of beautiful, perfect, crystal clear, still mineral water.
The relief spread over his face in a bright smile, and it was an alien sensation. He put his torch in his mouth, heaved his backpack from his shoulders and unzipped it, resting it on the empty shelf below the water. As he did so, he was vaguely aware of a shuffling noise behind him, but he allowed it to pass into his subconscious. Probably a cat, a dog or a rat; he'd seen nobody. No worries. He reached for the first bottle, and was just placing it in his pack when a thump on his back sent the torch flying out of his mouth, rolling down the aisle into the darkness.
There were two of them. One grabbed him by the arms, the other, smaller, wrestled away his backpack.
Aaron could scarcely see them, but he could smell them. Unwashed bodies, cigarette smoke. Youngsters, he thought.
"Fuck you!" he yelled, and kicked out at the one holding the pack. He thrust his elbow into the lad behind him, heard him gasp as he staggered back, and wrenched the pack out of the other boy's hands, hurled it over his shoulder. One bottle, that was all he'd managed to stow away; he reached for one off the shelf, and pushed at the smaller boy. The bigger one grabbed at him, and Aaron flung his arm out, wildly, surging towards the daylight at the front of the shop, but somehow everything turned upside down, and the floor came up to meet his face.
Thump! As his forehead slammed onto the lino, he cried out; he couldn't move.
Hands gripped his ankles.
Aaron summoned all his strength, kicked, caught the ankle-holder in the face, heard him yell, kicked again, felt him lose his grip—but the other hands were grabbing at the strap of his pack, still hanging off his shoulder.
"I said, the water's ours," said that voice again, the big boy, and his hands tightened around his ankles once more.
"I need it," Aaron gasped, reaching out, blindly. "My friend—she's ill, she needs water, she can't drink anything else, just let me take one bottle—"
With a mighty effort he kicked out again, lurched up, swung round and punched the little 'un in the face, grabbed the straps from him, but as he did so he felt an acute pain in his side, so sharp, so intense that he shouted out, fell back, and somewhere in a blurry corner of the pain he was vaguely aware of the smaller boy regaining control of the backpack, reaching up for the last bottle.
"No!" He threw his arm out, knocking him to one side, but the pain was back, in a slightly different place this time, and suddenly he had no strength; he tried to reach out, to fight back, but his arms were like wads of wet cotton wool, and the pain came again, round the front this time, over and over. He clutched at his side, at his stomach, and he knew he was bleeding.
"You're alright, he's done," he heard the bigger one say, as Aaron's knees collapsed beneath him. "Get the other bottle, then."
"He got much else?" said the other.
"Yeah. Fair bit. Whoa—chilli! We're sorted for tonight, then. Don't know what this is, though."
Aaron was vaguely aware of the bottle of chalky medicine landing with a thump beside his head, so he knew he must be lying on the floor again, and the lads' feet were pattering away, their voices growing fainter and fainter until he could hear them no more, and it was just him, bleeding out all over the floor of a mucky little supermarket.
Down there on the floor was a smell, a familiar smell that reminded him of something in the past, but he couldn't think what it was.
He pulled himself up onto his hands and knees and crawled towards the light, because it was still the afternoon outside, and if he saw someone they might help him, but even if nobody came he badly didn't want the last thing he ever saw to be the inside of this shop. He smelled the outside, the air, felt the cold pavement underneath his bleeding stomach, and he was glad that he had made it out of the shop that smelled of dust and cumin seeds. Ah—that was what the smell was: cumin seeds. Like in the restaurant where he and Luisa used to eat on Friday nights, long ago.
I never want to be without you. I'd die for you.
He wondered, in a floaty, distant sort of way, what would happen to her, if she would think he had just gone away and left her, but part of him didn't care because if she hadn't made him say those words they might not have come true, he might have made her better, and they could have packed up and gone, found a camp, met other people, made some sort of life.
Lying on a pavement bleeding to death after a fight over three
litres of bottled water. #NewWorldProblems.