Monsters and Machines

NOMMED FOR MOVELLA OF THE YEAR 2017

Nabdale is the most boring town in England. It’s muddy, it’s rainy, it’s full of cabbages, and all its residents can talk about is the lights in the sky.

On Sunday night, the lights come down, and barely anyone notices. The few who take notice have three days before they’re silenced. First comes the headache. Then, the nightmares begin. And after that, there’s no waking up.

As a very crazy, very real conspiracy theory takes Nabdale by storm, the residents are forced to push the boundaries of what they believe, and what they’ll do to survive. They’ll have to watch their loved ones suffer; they’ll have to abandon their normal lives, and everything they thought they knew about humanity. They’ll have to die. They’ll have to kill. Sickness and hysteria spread like wildfire, and the plot only gets stupider. It’s the end of the world, and they’re either too early, or too late, to stop it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.

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18. In Case of Emergency

“What’s the point of having a car,” his health-obsessed twenty-one-year old self had said, “when you can just walk everywhere?”

Jamie cursed himself for having cared about his future once. Fuck the future- the two of them needed to get out of town, and they needed to get out now. Leah didn’t want to bring her car either. “I might survive this,” she’d awkwardly pointed out, “and I don’t want to go down in history as a murderous psychopath.” Jamie may not have given half a flying fuck about his future, but obviously, Leah still did. 

That was why they were sitting here, having changed their clothes into something better-suited to monster-hunting and filled their backpacks with a British suburban amateur’s version of a weapons arsenal, waiting for the bus.

“I don’t know why you’re suddenly so concerned about being seen with me,” Jamie pointed out. “I’m not even covered in blood anymore.”

Leah looked back at him from the other side of the bench. “No, but you’re still dressed like the goddamned Terminator.”

Jamie looked down at his black leather jacket, black jeans, black t-shirt, and black combat boots. “Well, yeah. Black doesn’t show the blood, does it?” Plus, he looked cool as hell. He didn’t care what Leah said. Who was she to judge his clothes anyway? “You’ll be getting away with fuck-all in that big-ass coat. Is it-”

“George’s? Yeah.” Leah hugged her arms, fisting the cuffs of her giant camouflage jacket. She was wearing old, blue, worn jeans and her t-shirt was white, of all colours. “Not all of us are goddamned emos.”

“I’m not an emo.”

“What did you pack?”

“Oh.” Jamie looked down at his backpack, then unzipped it and started to dig through the contents.

“Don’t bring it out! People might see!

“Wasn’t gonna.” His knives were all wrapped in a bundle of shirts to keep the blades from cutting him. Or the bag. “I got, like, six knives, and, uh…” He scrabbled wordlessly past the full bottle of vodka he’d packed, letting his hand hit the bare bottom of the bag. “Yeah, six knives.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah.” Jamie growled. “That’s it.”

Leah rolled her eyes.

“Well, what the hell did you bring, then?” Jamie asked her.

“Uh… let’s see, now.” Leah pulled her backpack onto her lap. “I got a bottle of water, some food, my phone…”

“You have your phone?”

Leah looked up. “Yeah. What’s wrong with that?”

“The police can track us on that shit.”

“They let us go!”

“Wolf let us go. The rest of the force are still out for our heads. You have to get rid of that before we get on the bus.”

Sighing, Leah looked down at her phone. Jamie felt sorry for her. He wondered how many people she was throwing away with it. All he’d had to lose was his mum, his brother, and half a million cat memes. Leah probably had a bigger family. Kids? Did she and George have kids? He wasn’t sure, but for the first time, he understood the gravity of what he’d dragged her into. Leah switched her phone off, then tossed it over her shoulder; it hit the park fence behind them and shattered.

“Oh-okay.” Jamie ventured after a pause. “What, uh… What else did you pack?”

Leah sighed. “You mean aside from food or water?”

“Yeah.”

“I got a couple of knives. George- George’s brother joined the army a year or so ago. He left behind a couple of these really good hunting knives. So, yeah, you could say I’m actually better than you, Jamie.”

“Oh yeah?” Jamie said. “I have more knives than you.”

“I’ve got a gun.”

Jamie widened his eyes, trying not to splutter. “You- you’ve got a gun?”

Leah nodded, wordlessly, and pulled the bulky black handgun from her backpack.

“Wolf gave it to me,” she said, turning it over to examine it.

“What? Why didn’t he give me one?”

“He said he wouldn’t trust you with a pair of tweezers.”

“Oh. That bitch.” Jamie tried not to sulk, reminding himself what he’d known all along: that Leah probably wasn’t going to last very long. Either she’d get infected, like him, or she’d flake out halfway through. It wasn’t because she was a woman. It was because she had too many morals. But still.

“The bus is here,” Jamie muttered, standing up. Leah was zipping up her backpack as she got up to stand with him.

“No shit.”

Jamie looked at Leah. “I know everyone hates me, but you don’t have to be so mean.”

“Don’t I? Oh.”

When they first stepped onto the bus, pouring their handfuls of change onto the driver’s counter, Jamie saw they were the only passengers. For two people who needed to go unnoticed, that was ideal. Instead of leaving the stop, though, the bus stayed motionless for a few more minutes.

“Why aren’t we moving?” Leah hissed. She’d taken a seat across the aisle from Jamie and was staring furiously out of the grimy window like she wanted to forget his existence.

“’Nother passenger,” Jamie said as an elderly woman with a floral headscarf and white hair got onto the bus and announced her greeting to the driver. She was holding a plastic supermarket bag of shopping, and was walking at the speed of a goddamned snail crawling up an eighty-nine-degree incline. Jamie, who was highly-strung enough as it was, without the added itching agony of the residual blood eating away at his fingers, tried not to growl with irritation as the old dear hobbled down the aisle. Of course, even though she could have sat in any seat she damn well pleased on the entire fucking vehicle, she decided to summarise the way Jamie’s luck was going by sitting down right next to him.

Great.

Jamie struggled not to sigh as the woman turned to him. Across the aisle, Leah was looking down her nose at the two of them with mild amusement in her eyes. Jamie flipped her off and slumped back in his seat.

“Hello,” the woman said. “I’m Mabel. Where are you off to?”

I just killed twelve people and now this.

“Hi,” he said. He paused.

Yeah, where AM I off to?

“We don’t really know, but we’re working on it.”

“We?” Mabel looked over her shoulder and spotted Leah, who gave a smile and a wave. “Oh! Hello, dear. Well, I’m off home. I just went on my daily grocery shop.”

Jamie’s eyes started to roll upwards as Mabel started talking about her shopping. In his desperation, he half- considered making an excuse to move, acting like a crazy person, or actually telling her he was a killer. At least that would make her leave him alone.

Suddenly, Jamie sat up straighter, remembering what it was he was supposed to be doing. Detective work. Or something like that. “Sorry, what did you just say?”

She looked up at him, surprised. “I just said the eggs they sell in Nabdale are much fresher than the ones you get in Malworth.”

“No, no.” Jamie shook his head. “Before that.”

Mabel pressed her lips together and looked up at the ceiling, thinking. Jamie sighed again, restlessly clenching and unclenching his fists.

Jamie, killing twelve people is one thing. You cannot punch an elderly woman for being forgetful.

“Did you say you go shopping every day?”

“Yes, every day. I like to feel the sun on my face and watch the young folk-”

“Okay. Do you always take this bus?”

“Yes, of course. I don’t like to drive my car any more, not since my dear husband-”

“Sorry, sorry.” Jamie cut her off again. He writhed his slowly dissolving hands, trying to hide them behind his back, and fixed Leah with what he hoped was a dark look of anger as she hid her giggle behind her fingers. “Have you seen anything, um… weird on this road in the last few days?”

Mabel frowned again. Then, her eyes brightened. “Yes, actually. About three days ago.”

“Really?” Jamie’s heart started beating faster. “What?”

When she says she’s seen Robert, act natural.

Jamie tried to look casual as he leaned further forwards in his seat.

“Well, I was looking out of the window, thinking about my lovely grandchildren and how soon, they’ll all be taller than me.” She chuckled.

Jamie rubbed a hand across his face. “Uh-huh.”

“And I noticed that the trees were starting to lose their leaves- you know, they were all going grey and falling off. Nabdale looks so pretty in autumn, doesn’t it?”

Leah’s laugh had dropped; now, she was looking at him with nothing short of disdain. Jamie covered his eyes with his hand and tried not to growl. “Yep. Sure does.”

“And then, I saw something really strange.”

He removed his face from his hands and looked back at her. “What was it?”

“Well, about a mile south of here, there’s a kind of dip in the side of the road. You know, a ditch.”

“Yep.”

“And in the autumn, it fills up with water and mud, and that’s when all the birds come down.”

“Uh-huh.”

For fuck’s sake.

“But what was really strange was that this year, there were no other birds in the lake.”

“Really?” Jamie tried not to let the frustration show in his voice.

“And then I saw why that was. They’d all been scared away.”

“By what?”

She leaned in, and her eyes narrowed.

“A really, really big bird of prey.”

This time, he couldn’t restrain his annoyance. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I’m not!” she exclaimed. “It was huge! Must have had at least a two-metre wingspan! I think it was a kestrel or a hawk… we don’t really get eagles in this country, although-”

“Dammit!” Jamie burst out. “Mabel, have you seen Robert Walker or not?”

Leah jerked her head up, her eyes wide and her hand frozen in the middle of picking her nails.

Mabel blinked. “Who?”

“I mean, a man in a hospital gown. Would have come through here about three days ago.”

“Oh, him!” Mabel said. “Yes, I was getting to that, because I saw him right after the bus went past that kestrel. Holy moly, you youngsters are so impatient! If I had a teenage son like you, I’d be sure to teach him to respect his elders!

Leah smirked again.

For fuck’s sake, woman, I’m twenty-nine.

Jamie let out a long breath. “Sorry. Look, was he going this way?”

“I don’t believe I wish to continue this conversation,” Mabel replied, turning up her nose.

Jamie sighed, and Leah interrupted. “Look, Mabel. Hi, I’m Leah. I’m sorry about him; he’s a bit overenthusiastic sometimes. Got a bit of a…” Leah tapped her temple and smiled. “You know.”

“Oh.” Mabel looked at Jamie, then turned back to Leah. “I see.”

Jamie gave Leah an Are-you-serious? look behind Mabel’s back. Leah ignored him and kept talking to Mabel. God damn, was he bad with people. Leah should’ve been better- she was a medic.

“We need to find this man- Robert, Mabel- because he, uh… he’s not well. We’re his carers, from the hospital?”

Mabel turned back to face forwards. “Sorry. Don’t know anything.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.

“But you just said-”

“Jesus!” Mabel said, irritation pricking her words. “I don’t have to t- tell you anything. Either of you. You frightened me- I- I’ve never seen you on this bus before in my life, and- well-”

Suddenly, Jamie’s hand flashed out and grabbed a box from the top of her shopping bag.

“What are you doing?”

“I swear to Christ, uh… Mabel.” Jamie said, standing up and pausing as he noticed how pale blue her eyes were. The single grey vein running diagonally across her chin could have just been a shadow. “If you ever want your fucking, uh…” He read the label on the box he was holding. “Coleslaw cabbage back, you’ll tell me where the hell Robert Walker went.”

What the fuck is coleslaw cabbage? I didn’t even realise they MADE separate cabbage for coleslaw.

Leah was looking at Jamie like he really had gone mad, but that mild amusement was back- it was like she thought she was watching a show.

“I’ve got three more tins of that cabbage,” Mabel scoffed, getting up to move seats.

Look at me,” Jamie panted.

When Mabel turned, her eyes looked even more washed-out than before.

“I’m desperate,” Jamie said. “Do I not look desperate?”

Mabel said nothing, but she’d started to scrunch up her eyes as if she was in pain.

“Okay, okay.” He ignored the shudder in his spine. “Which way was the man in the hospital gown going? Was he going this way?”

Mabel nodded as a sharp cough pricked the back of her throat. Jamie looked over her shoulder and caught Leah’s eye; Leah looked terrified. Jamie wasn’t.

“Okay, right. And did you, um… see him after you’d got off the bus?”

She nodded again.

“Did he, um… touch you? I mean…” He trailed off as he noticed how weird the question sounded. “Did any of his, uh… blood touch you?”

“Yes,” Mabel said. “Along with a few of the other people getting on and off. And the driver, too.”

What?” Jamie started to panic. The- the driver? This driver? Is it, um… the same guy who’s driving us now?”

Mabel craned her head round to get a better look at the bus driver. So did Leah. “Yes, of course it was! I only ever take the six-seventeen out of Nabdale. It’s always Pete driving. Good afternoon, Pete!”

“Afternoon, Mabel!” the driver called back before dissolving into a fit of damp coughing.

Oh, shit.

“But I didn’t- he didn’t hurt me. I just thought the poor young man must be wrong in the head, like my dear husband was. He didn’t, um… he wasn’t a threat to me.”

Jamie paused and muttered under his breath as the first of the black veins started striping the wrinkles in Mabel’s skin.

“Yes, he was.”

Suddenly, the bus gave a massive lurch off the road and Mabel yelped, dropping her shopping. Leah screamed and clutched the back of the seat in front of her. Jamie staggered and looked forwards to see that the driver had passed out, slumped forwards with the thinnest line of black pooling from his mouth onto the steering-wheel and a bigger puddle in his lap.

“Shit!” Jamie cried, pulling himself out of the seat he’d fallen onto, rushing down the aisle and managing to push the unconscious driver out of the way. He dumped himself into the chair, struggling to wrap his head around the absurd amount of gears and buttons, before picking a pedal he sincerely hoped was the brake and slamming his foot down with all his might.

The bus jerked to a halt, one wheel up on the kerb and the other halfway down the ditch. Jamie sucked in breath as a strong gust of wind rocked it from side to side, but they didn’t slip any further down.

“You okay, Leah?” Jamie looked over his shoulder. Leah was fine, but she was frozen, her gaze pointed down and across the aisle.

“What about you, Mabel? You okay?”

Of course she wasn’t okay.

When he turned, Mabel was unconscious too, lying across both of their seats with her head resting on Jamie’s backpack and her eyes cracked open into white slivers. Jamie legged it back towards her and pulled his bag away just as the first tendril of dark saliva dripped onto the ratty fabric of the seat. Swearing again, Jamie unzipped his bag and rummaged around for the bundle wrapped in his t-shirt. His heart started throbbing in his mouth as his hand closed around the handle of a knife.

“She vomited all over your bag,” Leah said, wrinkling her nose.

“I know.” The smell was dizzying, but Jamie was a little more used to it now.

As soon as he’d yanked the bundle free from his bag, he heard someone gasping for breath behind him. Jamie spun around to see the bus driver, who’d woken up on the floor and was pulling himself into a sitting position as the first shreds of white appeared in his eyes. He was still breathing. He was still alive. How?

Jamie ignored his senses yet again as he yanked both knives free from their wrapping, leaving his backpack lying next to the limp body on the seat. He launched himself back down the aisle, dropped to his knees, and sunk both blades clean into the driver’s heart.

Leah yelped in horror. “Jamie!”

He turned back, trying to ignore the sensation of his heart pounding behind his eyes. “What?”

“You- you…”

“Sorry,” he muttered, twisting his hand to pull the blade out of the flesh and drawing out droplets of bright scarlet. Jamie’s heart turned to ice for a fraction of a second. No sooner had the red specks splashed onto the ground, however, than the new ones just leaving the wound started darkening into black.

Jamie sighed in relief.

Mabel gasped and then screamed as she woke up for the last time, standing up in the aisle and almost falling again when her feet met the lopsided floor.

“You’re…” she staggered back. “You’re… you’re that monster they’re talking about on the news!”

Then, her bright white eyes rolled upwards, her mouth slackened and she crumpled to the ground like a rag doll.

“No,” Jamie muttered, wiping black blood off his knife and onto his shirt. On the black fabric, the stain looked just like water. “You are.”

Damn, that sounded really cinematic.

“You’re a fucking idiot.” Leah said.

Despite everything he’d done, Jamie decided to wait until Mabel got back up again.

He waited.

And waited.

God, mercy’s ridiculously time-consuming.

When the monster wearing Mabel’s face finally stood up, Jamie was ready. He should have felt horrendous about stabbing an old woman but, both fortunately and unfortunately, his emotions had crumbled into dust even sooner than hers. She widened her fluorescent eyes, stretched out a grey, creased hand and started to hobble down the aisle towards him, but she didn’t stand a chance. Batting away one hand, Jamie closed his eyes before driving his knife into her chest.

“Wait,” he muttered to himself as Mabel’s empty shell slid back to the ground. “I never found out where Robert went.”

For fuck’s sake, Jamie.

“For fuck’s sake, Jamie.” Leah murmured.

He turned. She was still in her seat. He wiped the black blood from the knife onto his jeans, trying to keep his composure as he dumped it back into his backpack.

“Didn’t fancy helping out, then?” Jamie growled at her.

“You- you had it handled. I- I’d just get in the way.”

“Right,” Jamie said, turning back and walking down the aisle to the front of the bus. “That’s fair.”

The dashboard underneath the dead bus driver had more buttons and switches and levers than the fucking Millennium Falcon. Jamie had absolutely no idea which one opened the door. Then, his eyes fell on the little red hammer above the front window.

“IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, USE HAMMER TO BREAK GLASS.’

Jamie’s kill count of twelve had just risen to fourteen, and if he didn’t move quickly, the town would be overrun by catatonic zombie-robot mutant monsters. It may not have been exactly what the people who’d safety-proofed the bus had in mind, but he reckoned it still counted as an emergency.

“Fuck it,” he muttered, standing up on a seat to snatch the hammer. Pursing his lips, he swung it into the window with all his might.

Thud. Crack. The brass-tipped red plastic bounced off the window as if it was rubber.

“Wow, that was useful,” he mused, bracing one arm against the back of the seat, lifting his leg and kicking the window until it shattered.

Taking one last look at the two monsters he’d just dispatched, Jamie tried not to feel like too much of a badass as he cleaned off his knives and swung himself out of the broken window. Luckily, he jarred both his ankles on impact and fell into the ditch, muddying up his blood-soaked t-shirt. That was enough to knock him down a few pegs. He jumped to his feet, dusting himself off and managing to struggle back up the steep incline, his wet jeans dragging him down.

He turned back to the bus at the dry hiss of the door opening. The door opened and Leah stepped neatly onto the road, her clothes still pristine.

“I don’t blame you,” she said humourlessly, looking down at the ground and kicking a loose pebble. “You’re a biologist, not a physicist. You weren’t to know gravity was still a thing.”

Jamie sighed.

“So, where now?”

The glass canopy of the bus stop was just visible on the horizon in front of them. Mabel had said that the bus stop was where she’d seen Robert, so Jamie hurried up there with his backpack in the thin hope of finding some kind of clue. Obviously, there wasn’t one. The country lane was just as mundane and quiet as any, unless you counted the empty shell of the wrecked bus and the two empty shells of the wrecked human beings inside it. Jamie, for one, did not.

Then, he spotted an even smaller, even quieter, country lane leading off to the right between two lines of trees. The road had been darkened by the shadows cast by the last light of day, and it looked to be well-hidden.

If I was a mindless lunatic monster, where would I go?

Jamie squinted against the setting sun, noticing the thinly etched silhouette of a church at the end of the road.

I’d go towards the people.

Casting another furtive glance across the abandoned road and even more abandoned bus, Jamie tightened his grip on the backpack containing his weapons and hurried off down the muddy lane. Leah was following him, sure, but he couldn’t help feeling more alone than he’d ever felt before. Maybe bringing her had been a mistake. Then again, maybe he’d spoken too soon. 

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