Authors: Jack Lewis
The crackle of the radio cut through
the breeze. I sat back and let the words sink in.
“There is a cure for the infection.”
The transmission was sliced with
interference as though the man, whoever he was, spoke through a dish cloth. The
air was silent for a few seconds, and then the same message replayed. It left
me with two questions that I didn’t think would be answered.
Who was he? And
what was the cure?
It had been sixteen years since the
outbreak began, and I couldn’t believe that there was a solution for the
infection, that somewhere out there was a way to stop the dead from
“Can you get it any clearer?” I said.
Justin scratched his chin. The radio
transmitter sat on top of a wooden workbench, on which the varnish had long since
faded. It was a taped-together mixture of equipment that we’d scavenged from
the areas surrounding Vasey on our supply runs. Next to the transmitter and
speakers was a pile of textbooks that Justin had used to teach himself how to
He twisted a knob and then slid a
lever. The interference fizzed. He shook his head. “Think that’s as good as it
“That can’t be all he’s saying. We’re
“We could get a bigger antenna.”
That meant a supply run, but the next
one was a month away. Since becoming leader of Vasey, I’d done away with the
random supply runs and replaced them with a set schedule. The scouts who made
the trips didn’t just run into buildings and fill their bags with whatever they
could, like an apocalyptic version of supermarket sweep. I gave them a list of
the things we actually needed. That didn’t include cigarettes or alcohol, and a
lot of people grumbled about that.
That was the pressure that came with
being leader. I hadn’t wanted the job, but when Justin and I got back to Vasey
it was a mess. They consumed more resources than they found, and a lot of them
wasted their days either sleeping or sucking down whatever still-drinkable
alcohol they could find.
I put forward the idea of
electing a leader and having some direction, taking action to make Vasey a safe
haven for the future. When nobody stepped up, I had to stand by my words and
become leader myself. I still hadn’t gotten used to it.
“Can you try talking back?” I said.
Justin picked up the mike. He
squeezed it and pressed it against his mouth. “Can you hear me? This is a
survivor settlement in the North West called – “
“Don’t say our name,” I said.
I didn’t want whoever it was to know
we were in Vasey. Until we got a better idea of who was sending the message, it
was best that we played it safe. The idea of a cure – whether that meant a
vaccine against infection, or even a way to reverse infection – excited me, but
anyone who’d lasted this long in the apocalypse knew to keep their secrets to
Nobody spoke back.
Justin sucked in his cheeks. A trace
of a beard lined his face, but it would be a while before he could boast one as
thick as mine. That didn’t stop him trying though. His hair, once buzzed to the
scalp, was thick and curly. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he was trying to
copy my look. Dishevelled survivor fashion.
“I repeat, we have received your
message. Who are you? What’s your twenty?” said Justin.
“What’s your twenty?” I said.
“It’s radio code. Means ‘where are
I smiled. Since we’d gotten back to
Vasey, after all the shit that had gone down at the farm, Justin had really
come along. He’d always been clever, but now he had a direction in his life. We
were making Vasey somewhere to build a future, but progress was slow and there
were always people who resisted.
The image of Moe popped into my mind,
and I swiped away the glimmer of irritation. I had to try and get along with
Moe, to put old feelings to one side for the good of Vasey. He had too many
Justin dropped the receiver on the
table. “We better switch it off. He only transmits once a day, so no point in
I nodded. “Try again in an hour or
so. You never know.”
He tapped his fingers on the workbench.
“I was kind of hoping I could leave early today.”
He curled the tips of his feet
inwards. “No reason.”
I trusted Justin, and God knows that
had taken me a while to do, but he’d been acting shifty. There was something he
wasn’t telling me. I didn’t mind secrets; I’d kept some of my own for a long
time. But if we were going to make Vasey work, I needed people to be open with
“If there’s no reason, then you got
no reason to go.”
He stood up. He’d put a little weight
on since we got back to Vasey, but he was still the wiry teenager I’d met a
“You know I wouldn’t normally ask,
but there’s something I need to do.”
I walked over to the window. The high
street below was empty. A year ago people would have been wasting their day
away talking about the weather, oblivious to the dangers of the infected
outside the walls as though the world had never gone to hell. I’d changed their
attitude somewhat. Made them aware that there were things on our doorstep that
would tear us apart like tissue paper. Most of the people here thought the
infected were the worst of it. They’d never seen a stalker.
A twenty-foot stone wall surrounded
the town, a relic from Britain’s Norman ancestry. A team of three men and a
woman were spot-checking it for weaknesses and cracks. On the far side of town
there was a fifty-foot square garden of plant pots and troughs, each of them
filled with mud and the sprouts of various vegetables.
This was another one of my
initiatives. If we were going to be self-sufficient then we needed to stop
relying on scouting raids. Tinned foods were rare and edible ones even rarer,
and the more time you spent outside the walls the more chance there was you’d
I opened the window. Cold, stale air
blew in, the smell enough to wrinkle my nose. Most of us could only get the
water to wash once a week, and the plumbing systems had long since packed up.
You got used to the foul smell most of the time, but every so often it hit you
in the nostrils like a smelling salt.
Shouts drifted through the
window. They sounded like they came from the town square.
Justin perked his head up. “What’s
Whatever it was, it was loud. A voice
shouted out in anger, but I couldn’t tell what it was saying or who said it.
I stood up. “We better go check it
My busted leg slowed me down, and by
the time we got outside the commotion had spilled over into the town square. It
was a stone-paved area that used to be a shopping centre but the council, back
when there was such a thing, had torn it down. After that it had been
used for farmer’s markets and town fetes. Now it was just an open space with a
few wooden benches. Weeds strained through the stone paving and dirt mottled
A ring of people stood in the middle
of the square. Most of them were honest folks getting by in whatever way they
could, but none of them had the foresight to try and make something more of
their lives. Before I had come, they had wasted away their days drinking,
chatting, and smoking.
I’d changed that. I gave them work
and direction. Some of them liked it, but some resisted. There were people who
didn’t like to have a path set out for them, just preferred wandering in the
A man knelt on his knees in the
centre of the crowd. The left side of his face was red as though he had been
hit. His hair was a mess of curls. Moe stood behind him and held a hunting
knife against his Adam’s apple.
He smiled when he saw me. “Good, our
Moe was short and had plenty of meat
on his old bones. His physique skirted between muscly and flabby so that you
could never tell which way it swung. His grey hair fell to his shoulders like a
curtain, though the top of his scalp was nothing but shining skin. Lines of age
cut trenches in his face and gave him a mean look that I knew was warranted.
The man on his knees looked to be in
his forties, though his face was so caked in grime that it was hard to tell. I
didn’t recognise him. There was a couple of hundred people in Vasey, and over
the last year I’d made a point of getting to know all their faces, even if I
didn’t know all their names.
“What’s the story?” I said.
The men and women in the crowd wore
different expressions; some curious, but most of them angry.
Moe grabbed the man by the back of
his collar. “Caught him trying to steal a car.”
Moe grinned like he was enjoying
himself. “Think I’d have a knife to his throat if I wasn’t?”
I crouched in front of the man. He
stared at me, his eyes wide. Underneath the mud caked on his face like
war-paint were the marks of a man who’d spent more than his fair share in the
Wilds. He had that scared look about him, cautious and distrustful by instinct.
“It’s not what it looks like,” he
said in heavy Northern bass.
“Who actually caught him?” I asked.
Two men stepped forward out of the
crowd. One was tall with a bald head and a gut, the other thin and with the
cockiness of youth on his smile.
“I did,” said the bald one. “He was
sat in the driver’s seat of the Nissan looking for the keys.”
“Where you from, stranger?” I said.
His ragged coat was lined with dirt.
His face was gaunt and his eyes were hollow. It was a look you saw a lot these
days, perhaps not in Vasey where we had enough food, but it was common in the
Wilds. Until a year ago, I’d worn the exact same bone-thin look. The bones
stuck out less when you got enough to eat, but the hollowness never left you.
He moved his head a little, and
Moe tightened his grip on his collar.
“Been travelling around some,” said
My left leg ached from kneeling too
long, so I shifted my weight. “What’s your name?”
Moe pulled him back, almost knocking
him off balance. “And you got sick of travelling and thought you’d steal one of
Harlowe hung his head. “I’m sorry.
Wouldn’t have done it unless I had to.”
I stood up and rubbed my temple. The
crowd looked to me, waiting for me to do something. There was no court of law
in Vasey, no jury. I knew what had to happen here; the law was brutal and it
I pitied him; he was worn-out from
travelling in the Wilds, spending his life ducking between the infected and the
stalkers. Desperate people did desperate things to stay alive.
“You know the law,” Moe said to me.
The man looked up, alarmed. In the
ring of people, feet shifted. Some of them tightened their hands into fists. At
the back a couple of kids tried to crane over the shoulders of the adults in
front of them.
Moe coughed. “Come on Kyle – you know
what we do to thieves.”
“Give me a goddamn minute.”
There was one law in Vasey; if you
steal, you die. It was the presence of this law that stopped the whole damn
place descending into chaos. There were no police, no army. We didn’t imprison
people, because that meant employing people to work as guards, and it meant
allocating precious resources to keep an eye on those who weren’t contributing
back toward society.