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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19. In Black and White

“Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay, okay, okay.” Leah breathed in, then shook her head. “Okay.”

“You okay?” Jamie asked her, trying not to roll his eyes.

No, I’m not fucking okay!”

“Then why do you keep repeating it?”

“Because I’m nervous, you wank pheasant! That okay?”

Jamie stared off down the road. The village they’d come upon was just a single row of houses and shops; buildings were scattered randomly across the hillside, like the town had exploded. The sky was sulking, and the day’s knife-sharp wind and steel-grey clouds had all disintegrated into a steady shower of snow. Jamie could feel the flakes nibbling at his face. A small group of people were huddled in a black smear at the base of a streetlamp’s glow, laughing and not seeming to give a shit about the delicately foul weather.

Jamie looked from the group of people to Leah. “Don’t worry.” He said. “All we’ve got to do is talk to them.”

Leah looked at him. “You’re a bloody liar.”

“Okay.” Jamie sighed, gripping the handle of his backpack. “All we’ve got to do is talk to them, and maybe stab a few.” He looked at her. “That better?”

“Lie to me next time.”

“You got it.”

Jamie started to walk down the road towards the group. In the midst of the cluster of black shadows, he could see one or two orange sparks; cigarettes being lit. There were about five or six people in the group. The ones whose faces he could see were all boys, and all only around fourteen or fifteen, and all leering at Jamie like they wanted to eat him.

“Hi.” Jamie said. He could feel Leah’s eyes on his back and prayed silently that these teenagers wouldn’t make an arse of him while she was watching.

He was ignored.

“Uh, excuse me?”

One or two of the boys turned to face him.

“Yeah?”

“Who the fuck are you?”

“Nice language.” Jamie spat. “Boy your age. Anyway, I just, uh… I’m looking for my-”

“Why don’t you fuck off, ginger?” The only girl in the group, who was short with fluffy black hair, thin lips and drawn-on eyebrows, raised her voice. Everyone laughed. “’Less you-”

“I’m looking,” Jamie said. “For my friend. You know where he is? I, um- heard he came this way.”

“Your friend look as fucking stupid as you, mate?”

Another round of giggles.

Jamie sighed again, trying to resist the urge to look down at himself. The boy who’d spoken could talk- he was wearing black jeans and a black leather jacket, just like Jamie. Then again, this kid was also burly and skinheaded and formidable-looking, with a face full of pimples and both hands stuffed in his pockets like he was hiding something. Something that was probably not going to be a nice surprise if it ended up coming out.

Now that Jamie was pretty sure the lot of them had knives, he felt perfectly free to be a smartarse.

“Yeah,” Jamie spat. “He does, actually. A little bit stupider, if anything. He’s wearing a hospital gown, ripped up to the bollocks, and he’s covered in black blood and he’s got really big eyes. White, glowing eyes. That ring any fucking bells?”

Leah sighed at his crudeness. Jamie curled his lip.

The boy with the pimples blinked. Then, perhaps annoyed at such a straightforward answer, he took a step towards Jamie. Suddenly, Jamie felt a lot shorter- three or four inches, to be precise. 

“What the fuck do you think you’re playing at?” The boy said, clenching and unclenching his hand inside his jacket pocket. “You trying to get stabbed, mate?”

“Well, not necessarily.” Jamie dropped his backpack off his shoulder. “But if that’s what it takes to find my poor little mentally damaged friend from the hospital, I’ll take my chances.” He licked his lips, trying to sound tough. “Mate.”

Then, a voice piped up from the back of the group.

“I’ve seen ‘im.”

Jamie blinked and turned. The group had parted to reveal the one who’d spoken: the girl. Her lips were twisted sideways in contempt as she looked Jamie up and down.

“You- you have?” Jamie said, suddenly feeling a spark of hope. “Can you-”

“Cheryl, shut the fuck up.” The pimpled boy said. “You-”

“Nah, Dom, I did.” The girl stepped forwards and looked at Jamie. “Out the way.”

The big guy meekly stepped out of the way.

“Look, mate.” Cheryl snatched Dom’s cigarette as she walked up to Jamie, sticking it between her lips. “I dunno what the fuck this is- whether this is one o’ them in’ernet jokes or fuckin’ pranks, but I’ll tell ya somethin’- I saw your friend. And ‘e really ain’t right.”

“I know.” Jamie looked at her. “Look. I need to find him, because he, uh- he’s dangerous, okay? He’s putting people in danger, and-”

“Like fuck ‘e is!” Cheryl said with a laugh. “The guy I saw’s just some bloke covered in muck who prob’ly escaped some loony bin someplace. ‘E walked up to me and ‘e didn’t do nothin’!”

“What?” Jamie said. “He came up to you and didn’t do anything?”

“Nah, mate. I don’t think ‘e saw me. Either that, or ‘e was slightly intimidated by the fact we was in the middle of somethin’. You get me?”

“I doubt he was bothered.” Jamie tried not to roll his eyes.

“Why’s that, then?”

“Because my friend…” Jamie sighed. “He’s not exactly… aware right now.”

“We ‘ad knives and everythin’. He saw us, I reckon, and booked it. You really oughta think of doin’ the same, if you wanna live long, mate. We’ve got knives, the lot of us.”

Jamie tried not to say something smart. He swallowed.

“Is there any chance he didn’t see you?”

“Well, I guess so, yeah.” Cheryl sighed and took a drag of her cigarette before dropping it and stamping it out on the ground. “I’ll tell ya somethin’, though, mate- that fucker ruined my favourite fuckin’ pair o’ shoes.”

“So the ginger owes you what, for them?” Some other boy shouted. “Twenty pence?”

“Fuck off, Leo.”

“Wait.” Jamie looked down, then back up at Cheryl, who was glaring at him through her atrociously outlined eyes and half-dozen brow piercings. “How’d he ruin them? Did he, uh…”

“I stepped in one o’ them fuckin’ puddles, din’t I?” Cheryl said. Jamie froze, looking down at her feet, but she was wearing boots. “The fucker stopped for a bit in the street an’ looked at us, and the ran off, but while ‘e was standing there, yeah, ‘e dripped all this black shit onto the floor. And I stepped in it on the way out an’ it burned all my fuckin’ sole to pieces.”

“And you… did it touch you?”

“You what, mate?”

“The blood.” Jamie growled in frustration. “The black stuff on the floor. Did it touch you?”

“My foot, y’mean? Yeah, actually. Gotta fuckin’ burn the size of a fuckin’ penny. What’s it to you?”

“And… wait.” Jamie tried not to take a step backwards as the gang took on an even more hostile look- like they might actually fancy stabbing him. “How long ago was… this? How long ago did you see him?”

“Wednesday night, mate.”

Jamie looked at Leah. “Leah, you hot on the days of the week?”

She glowered. “What the hell are you on about?”

Jamie sighed and turned back to Cheryl. “Three days. You have a headache?”

She narrowed her eyes. The makeup on the girl’s face was about a yard thick, but Jamie could see a tiny grey vein crawling down onto her neck.

“I always have a headache.”

“Right.” Jamie turned away from her to rummage through his backpack. “I’m so sorry about this.”

“What the hell d’you think you’re doing?” Another boy yelled.

“Again, I’m sorry.” He didn’t look up.

“Were you alone?” Jamie turned at the sound of Leah’s voice, seeing her walking up to stand next to him.

Cheryl looked at Leah with one eyebrow raised. “What do you mean?”

Leah’s voice was soft. “Were you alone, Cheryl? When you saw him?”

Cheryl blinked, and Jamie realised she’d suddenly come to the verge of tears. “You- you… This is none of your business.”

“It is.” Leah reached out a hand, but Cheryl slapped at it and took a step back. “We need to-”

“I don’t wanna fuckin’ talk about it!” The girl sobbed. “Why- why can’t you fuckin’-”

“Cheryl, the fuck’s the matter with you?” One of the boys asked. A couple of others laughed. Cheryl turned to them, then turned back.

“You need to piss off.” She growled. “The both of you.”

“Cheryl.” Leah said again. Jamie looked at her, shocked at how calm her voice was. “Cheryl, we need you to tell us if you were alone.”

Cheryl swallowed. “What- like, in the- alleyway?”

“Yeah.”

“Nah.”

Dom grabbed Cheryl’s wrist, but she wrenched it away and turned back to Jamie and Leah. “Nah. Dom- Dom was with me.”

What about in the street?” Jamie asked, trying to soften his voice to sound comforting, like Leah had, and failing miserably.

“Nah. We were alone.”

“There was nobody else out in the town when Robert came through- at all?”

“That’s what fuckin’ ALONE means, don’t it?”

“Cheryl, it’s okay.” Leah stepped forwards, shooting a glance back at Jamie that said I can’t do this. “It’s okay. That’s all we needed to know.”

Cheryl coughed between her sobs; then, finally, she seemed to break. “Can you- can you- can you help- m-me? Please. Please? I just- ever since- he- burned- me…” She sniffed. “I don’t feel…”

“We know.” Leah sounded close to tears as well.

“Can you help me?”

“Of… course we can.”

Leah was reaching around to her backpack.

Jamie looked up, at the rest of the gang. Dom looked at him with a tiny hint of worry, then jerked his gaze back down to Cheryl and Leah.

“Oy.” He said. “Oy, Cheryl! Girl, the fuck’s wrong with you?”

You touched it too, Dom!” Cheryl shouted at him. Leah’s hand was on her shoulder.

“No- no I fuckin’ didn’t.”

“Yes, you did!”

Jamie looked at Dom. So did Leah.

“Did he?”

“Yeah, he fuckin’ wiped my shoe off wi’ his sleeve.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Jamie took a step towards Dom. “Show us your hand.”

Dom glowered at him. “Fuck off.”

“Show us your goddamn hand!”

“Dom, do it!” Cheryl sobbed. Dom growled at her, wavered, and then frowned again.

“No.”

He reached into his pocket, but Jamie was quicker. He jerked his hand out of his backpack and pointed one of his blood-soaked kitchen knives right at the boy’s throat. Cheryl screamed, Leah gasped, and the rest of the gang made various noises of surprise. Jamie gritted his teeth, staring Dom down and watching him take a step backwards.

Show us,” Jamie said, “your fucking arm.”

“Boys.” Dom said. Within an instant, the other three members of the gang had pocket-knives in their hands, pointed at Jamie. Jamie thrust his blade forwards, grazing the skin of Dom’s throat.

Leah spoke up. “Jamie-”

“I’m SERIOUS, mate. We’re FUCKING desperate!” Jamie cut over her. “SHOW it to us, or we’ll have to kill the FUCKING lot of you to be sure!” His voice wavered. “You get me?”

That was a fucking stupid thing to say.

“You’re outnumbered, ginger.” Dom laughed, gritting his teeth like it hurt him.

“You ever used one of those little things before?” Jamie asked him. He looked down at his own blade, crusted with black, and so did Dom. “Well, I have. And I have no problem using it on you.”

“You’re outnumbered!” Dom shouted. Suddenly, Leah yelped as Dom’s hand flashed forwards, silver glinting in his grasp. Pain flicked Jamie in the stomach, but he only had time to see red in the corner of his eye before there was a click, and the gang froze. Jamie looked up to see Leah pointing her gun right at Dom’s head.

There were a few seconds of silence.

“Drop the knife,” Leah said softly.

His eyes wide, Dom lifted his knife and silently opened his hand. Jamie closed his eyes as he heard the knife plink onto the cobblestones. He looked down, clamping his hand over the left side of his stomach, seeing his own blood lining his fingers and spotting the snow.

Oh. So I guess I was wrong.

There wasn’t enough blood on the blade of the discarded knife. The pain was only flicking at his skin, not digging deep into his flesh. Jamie was pretty sure he was going to be fine. He tried his best not to groan with pain as he straightened up and dropped his hand.

Leah’s grip on the gun wavered. “The rest of you too, please.” She said, her voice shaking. “Drop your weapons. We don’t want to hurt an- any of you.”

Plink. Plink. Plink.

“Jamie.”

He grunted. It fucking stung in the cold. Fuck that kid. “What?”

“You okay?”

Jamie stared at Dom, the fucking smirk tugging at the fucking prick’s face. God, how Jamie wished he could smash that fucking face inwards, watch it leak red- he meant black- blood everywhere-

“Jamie!”

“Huh? Oh. Oh, yeah. I’m fine. Doesn’t even hurt. It’s just like a little mosquito bite.”

Jamie, grateful he wasn’t going to die but suddenly feeling electric with anger, looked at Leah to see her lowering the gun. She didn’t want to hold it, and he could tell. He knew she’d never have used it.

“Dom,” Jamie said. “Your-”

FINE! My arm, my ARM! I GET it!”

Dom lifted his hand, yanked his sleeve down to reveal a massive stripe of ruined black flesh, and then withered Jamie with a look.

“There. Happy?” He said, the other gang members screaming and Leah whimpering as black veins crawled onto his face. “You- you happy now?”

A scuffle behind him caused Jamie to spin on his heel, just in time to see Cheryl- her chin sheeted black- falling to her knees and crumpling to the ground like a sack of potatoes as Leah held her hand. The whole gang gasped, but nobody moved but Leah, who silently got to her feet, breathing in as if it’d suck the tears back inside her eyelids. Jamie looked at Dom, still holding his knife in his hand, readier than ever to wipe the leer from that fucker’s face.

He smirked.

“Ecstatic.”

Dom grunted in agony, pressing his hand to his temple and doubling over. Jamie looked up at the rest of the gang.

“Go.” He said.

They all looked at each other. One of them- a skinny wisp of a boy who looked younger than the rest- had started whimpering.

GO!” Jamie yelled, the hand holding the knife jerking upwards. Shooting their glances back and forth, the gang stepped back, then dispersed, running in different directions. Leah was crying. Jamie just blinked.

“And DON’T TELL ANYONE WE WERE HERE!” He thought to yell after them. The smallest boy slipped on the ice, rolling over with his head in his arms, and Leah sniffed again.

Jamie looked back at Dom. Dom was still glowering at him, his pimply skin striped with black and his eyes rottenly bloodshot. White spittle was running down his chin, staining itself grey after a while and beading his chin before dropping to speckle the red on the snow.

“You’re a… f-f-fucker, ginger,” Dom choked rustily. “You-you-y’know that?”

He looked up at Jamie, for once. Standing over the boy who’d tried to kill him, who’d threatened him, assumed he was better than him, with his knife millimetres from the boy’s mouth, Jamie felt a stab of something unexpected. Guilt? Fear? Adrenaline? No. This was… a little drunk, a little foolish, a little selfish. Jamie felt something bubbling through his veins that made him clench his fist harder, let his smirk harden on his face, tilted his head just that little bit higher so he could look down his nose. He felt powerful.

“Yeah.” He murmured. “I know that.”

“Jamie.” Leah whispered to him as he raised his knife to tweak it past Dom’s nose. Why wouldn’t this fucker just die already?

“Jamie.”

Jamie ignored her. He wasn’t about to answer to her; not now he’d finally got the kid to show him a little respect. No. Leah’s voice was soaked with tears. Something about the way Dom was refusing to die, the way he was looking up with those piggish, helpless, defiant eyes, the way he was fighting what was already inevitable, was pissing Jamie off. And he wanted respect, damnit; fear. So he forced his knife back towards Dom’s throat, and he let the steel brush past the flabby flesh, and he said,

“Get down.”

“What?”

“Down. On your knees. On the ground, Dom.”

“Wh-wh-why?”

“I need…” Jamie stopped. Yeah. Why?

“Because I need to make sure you won’t run away.” He lied.

Dom, choking back the black dribbles even as they fell past his chin, sank to his knees in the snow.

“And face away from me.”

Leah looked at him. Jamie looked back.

F-f-fuck you,” Dom sobbed, turning around.

Jamie hesitated, then clenched his fist and got ready to stab the fucker; before he’d even died. Before. He wanted to kill the smirk. Then, he stopped dead in his tracks at the sound of a soft plastic click next to his ear, and the feeling of a gun’s barrel pressed to his temple.

He didn’t move.

There were another few seconds of silence.

Leah’s voice was harder than stone as she growled, “Wait.”

Jamie said nothing.

“Don’t open your mouth, Jamie.” Leah said. “You know what the fuck for.”

Jamie just smiled tiredly, lowered his knife to his side from where it’d been milliseconds from spearing Dom between the shoulder-blades, and nodded.

Leah dropped her gun just as Dom dropped to the ground, neatly face-planting the snow.

Jamie turned to her. She was staring at him, half-horrified, half-terrified.

“Okay.” He murmured to her. “You got me.”

Leah bit her lip, curling her mouth sideways in disgust. Her eyes were narrowed into slits.

“I know I fucking did.”

He shoved her out of the way as Cheryl swung upwards like she’d been tugged by a string. Her eyes were dripping snow-white, infinitely dead, light onto her cheeks, and her black hair was peppered with snow.

Jamie speared her in a second, viciously twisting his knife as he yanked it out of her chest to let her fall. When he turned, Leah was just watching them both in silence.

“I’m starting to wonder if you’ll ever be any help.” Jamie said softly.

“You what?” Leah said. Dom got to his feet behind her and Leah turned, dropped the gun to the ground, yanked a knife out of her pocket and skewered him like he was nothing. He was. He was nothing. And he fell to the ground like he was nothing. And Jamie looked at him like he was nothing. And Jamie tried not to make a joke.

Leah turned back to Jamie, biting her lip. She was trying to look tough, but she was failing. Her face still said, there you go. You happy now, you son of a bitch?

Leah spun back, spotting it a fraction of a second before Jamie did: the dark figure at the end of the street. Not standing. Huddled, in a little pile like a heap of discarded clothes, against the kerb. It was the boy who’d fallen over on the ice as he’d tried to run, but neither of them had seen him get up. He wasn’t moving.

Without glancing down at Jamie or either of the two monsters, Leah broke into a run. Jamie pushed himself to his feet and followed her, walking more carefully, looking nervously down at the silver glitter on the ground as he jogged. He crossed the street, wiping a messy smear of snow across his face, and stood next to Leah, over the motionless huddle. The boy had been wearing a big coat, and his face was turned away from them, but the snow under his hood was soaked in an inky puddle. He was lying parallel to the pool of streetlight, his upper half outside the light, and Jamie realised as he stared that the puddle could’ve been red. It probably was.

Leah had both her hands over her mouth, and was shaking her head slowly.

“He- he… H-how could he have been infected too?” Jamie said. Leah looked at him.

“What?”

“Cheryl said she and Dom were alone.”

Leah frowned, withering her eyes in a way that even made him want to shuffle his feet and hang his head in complete and utter shame.

“He didn’t-”

“Who’s going to kill him?” Jamie started skirting the issue. That scarlet puddle would look black until morning, and by then, they’d be out of town. He knew for sure the boy wasn’t infected- he’d died from hitting his head on that jutting pavement, and that was their fault, but Leah didn’t have to know that. Skirt. Skirt. Skirt, Jamie. If you can pretend you’re innocent long enough, maybe it’ll come true.

“Jamie-”

“I’ll do it. I mean- Leah-” He rubbed his face. “If I, uh…” He knelt down next to the dead boy. “I know you didn’t want me to- y’know, uh…until they wake up-”

“Shut-”

“But it’s only practical, I mean, to-”

Jamie, he’s not infected!” Leah sobbed. She sank to her knees too, and Jamie could feel his heart pounding as she lifted the boy’s wrist to check for a pulse. He knew there wasn’t one. “He- he- he died from- he was… he was-”

“He was infected!”

“No, he wasn’t! And I see what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to fucking hide that you know that too, you fucker.” Leah spat. “I should never have come with you. But I’m glad I did. Because if I wasn’t here, you’d have no fucking mercy for anyone; no fucking mercy for anyone but yourself. I’m going to-”

Jamie licked his lips, looking up at the sky as Leah gently planted one hand on the boy’s shoulder and rolled him onto his back. He jerked his head downwards again as Leah froze in her tracks, noticing her sigh as it crystallised in the air.

The boy’s chin was smeared with vomit. His cheeks were veined. White oozed from his eyes as they opened behind the shadows his hood was draping.

Jamie looked at Leah, picking up his knife from the ground and hovering the point over the boy’s chest. He was relieved. Relieved, because he wasn’t a killer anymore.

“Told you.” He lied. Then, he brought his knife neatly down and splattered the snow black.

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