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Part 3

Chapter Four
Tuesday, 5pm. Above the West Midlands.

‘Mmf…?’

Arthur sat up, suddenly. ‘Mum! Herc’s waking up!’

‘All right. I’m on it.’ Carolyn slid into the seat next to Hercules, water and aspirin to hand. ‘Hercules? Are you back with us, now?’

‘Wh…’ Herc half opened his eyes, groggily. ‘What hap…?’

‘We beat the baddies,’ Carolyn told him. ‘Well - that particular wave of them, at least. And, I’m afraid that, not satisfied with merely poisoning you, my son decided to concuss you with a large, blunt object to boot. I’m sure Freud would have a field day with that. But you’re safe – you’re on the plane, we’re getting away from this whole nightmare.’

‘What?’ Herc opened his eyes a little more, taking in his surroundings. His breath hitched and he clutched at the armrests in panic. ‘You did what?!?’

‘Saved your life,’ trilled Carolyn. ‘Rescued your sorry, sheep-phobic behind. You’re welcome.’

‘Oh, no,’ groaned Herc. ‘What have you done? What have you done?’

-x-

‘Post take-off checks complete.’

Douglas regarded the Captain. He still had the same thousand-yard stare, as if his body still hadn’t worked out whether to pass out or burst into tears yet.

‘Martin. About this afternoon…’

‘I’d rather not talk about it.’

‘All right. Just… I’m glad you came back.’

‘What do you mean…?’

Oh, God. Had the thought of using the Cherokee to escape not even occurred to him?

‘Well,’ explained Douglas, ‘you could have just flown away.’

‘No, I couldn’t.’

‘You had room to take off, you had fuel – what was stopping you?’

Martin didn’t reply, but turned his head and gave Douglas an odd look.

He’d said, only a couple of hours before, that he had nobody to save. It seemed that, yet again, fate had proved Martin Crieff wrong.

Martin’s eyes were clouding over again, so Douglas quickly changed the subject. ‘Why don’t you take that nap you were fantasising about? I can do the flight to Cumbria.’

Martin smiled, wanly. ‘Thanks, but this isn’t a road trip to Rhyl, and you’re not my dad.’

‘At least it’s safe, up here. All those problems are thousands of feet beneath us, with those ant-people on the ground.’

‘Douglas.’ Carolyn burst in, ashen faced. ‘A word?’

‘What is it?’

‘Something’s… come up. I’d like you to come through and see something.’

‘Sorry, Captain,’ Douglas told Martin. ‘Looks like that nap will have to go on hold after all.’

He got up and followed Carolyn through into the cabin where Hercules was sitting – conscious, but beyond sickly looking, and fussing with his shirt collar.

‘Ah. Hercules. Joined the land of the living, I see.’

Hercules stared up at him, his eyes bloodshot. ‘I wouldn’t speak so soon.’

‘Oh, Hercules. You’ve had a bit of poisoning a-la Arthur and a bonk to the head. How bad can it be?’

‘Very bad,’ said Carolyn.

‘I’m sorry,’ added Arthur, miserably cuddling the dog in one of the back seats. ‘I really am sorry. I didn’t know… I thought the blood was from one of them…’

‘You weren’t to know,’ Carolyn told her son.

‘Weren’t to know what?’ Douglas asked. ‘What blood? What’s going on?’

Hercules gingerly peeled his blood soaked shirt away from his right shoulder.

‘Ah.’ Herc winced. ‘Yes, there it is.’

As the shirt was pulled away, it revealed an angry, open wound.

‘Oh, no.’

‘I was bitten in the fight. Just before Arthur knocked me out.’

‘Do…’ Douglas rubbed his face, trying to force his brain to run through as many projections and plans for the possible outcomes of this new piece of information as was possible, but finding that – temporarily, he hoped, his mind was full of nothing but white noise. ‘Do you feel… different?’

‘I feel,’ retorted Herc, ‘understandably awful. Although, to be fair, I was feeling utterly rotten before the bite and the blow to the head.’

‘I’m sorry!’ Arthur repeated.

Hercules sighed. ‘It’s all right, Arthur. Not your fault.’

‘So,’ said Carolyn, ‘what do we do?’

‘There’s nothing you can do, now. You need to get me off the plane, and as soon as possible. I’ve seen this thing take hold – I don’t have long.’

Douglas nodded. ‘We’re 20 minutes from Barrow in Furness.’

‘Douglas,’ argued Hercules, ‘no. You need to land the plane now.’

‘We’re starting to lose light,’ Douglas continued. ‘I’m working under the assumption that the electricity’s off everywhere, so I’ll need daylight to land and take off again. We have got to press on to Cumbria…’

‘Fuck Cumbria!’ Hercules bellowed. ‘Cumbria doesn’t matter any more!’

‘Hercules Shipwright, you do not have children,’ snapped Carolyn, ‘so I shall forgive having to explain to you this one time – Cumbria will always matter. We are going while there’s daylight.’

Hercules blinked at Carolyn. ‘I might not have a child, Carolyn, but you do. And he’s on this plane and in danger as long as I’m on board.’

Carolyn gave him a sad little smile. ‘Yes, but Herc. I also have a gun.’ She took the weapon in question from her bag and rested it on her knee. ‘Push on to Cumbria, Douglas. I believe we’ve just come up with a Plan B.’

Tuesday, 5.10pm. Above Shropshire:

‘Ha!’ Arthur looked out triumphantly from the galley. ‘Knew we had a thermometer here, somewhere. I took it out of the first aid kit because I wanted to find out if tea is hotter than coffee.’ He brought it over to Herc, a little tentatively. ‘I’ve given it a little wipe-over for you. Not that I suppose that matters, now. I mean. Here you go, Herc.’

‘Thank you, Arthur.’ Herc accepted the thermometer.

‘Anything else we need to look out for, apart from a rising fever?’ Carolyn asked.

‘That and my descending into a violent, mindless fury, yes,’ Herc told them. ‘Arthur, would you mind getting me a bit more water?’

‘Righty ho, Herc.’ Arthur disappeared back into the galley.

Herc reached out and held Carolyn’s wrist. ‘Carolyn.’ His voice dropped to a whisper.

‘I know what you’re going to say,’ replied Carolyn, quietly.

‘No, you don’t.’

‘Yes, I do. I always do. You don’t want to become one of them. One of those animals.’

‘Can’t pretend I’m keen,’ replied Herc, with a faint smile. ‘It’d bugger up the vegetarianism, for starters.’

‘You don’t want us to just leave you in a field somewhere to your own devices. You want me to take you somewhere tranquil and sheep-free, and shoot you in the head. Put you out of your misery like some sort of zombie Old Yeller. Don’t you?’

‘Well. That isn’t quite what I was going to say.’

‘Oh?’

‘No. I was going to tell you I loved you first, and then go on to all the “please shoot me in the head so that I don’t become a zombie” stuff. Soften the blow.’

‘Or, add a layer of emotional blackmail to your request.’

‘Either way, is it going to work?’

‘I’ll do it,’ Carolyn told him. ‘I’m a clean shot, there’ll be no suffering. Not for you, anyway. Because I love you, too. There, now. How do you like being emotionally blackmailed?’

Herc sat back. ‘It’s not the worst thing that’s happened to me, today,’ he mumbled.

Carolyn pulled the thermometer from his mouth and looked at it. ’37.5 degrees. It’s warm, but it’s not exactly a fever, yet.’

‘It’ll jump,’ Herc warned her. ‘It’ll do it quickly.’

‘Don’t worry,’ she told him. ‘I’ll be there when it does.’

Tuesday, 5.20pm. Above Cheshire:

Carolyn took the thermometer out of Herc’s mouth and read it again. ’37.9. How quickly was it you said this thing’s supposed to take hold, again?’

Herc didn’t reply – didn’t even make eye contact with her. He just gazed ahead, his face slack.

‘Herc? Herc.’

A low, wordless groan escaped Herc’s sagging lips. Carolyn jumped up from her seat, cocking her gun. ‘Herc!’

‘Oh, no.’ Arthur was up from his seat too, clasping Snoopadoop protectively to himself. ‘Is it happening? It’s happening, isn’t it? What are we going to do?’

‘I don’t understand,’ Carolyn said. ‘His temperature’s not even all that high. He’s just… flopped.’

‘gnmvv mfss,’ mumbled Herc.

‘I think he’s trying to say something, Mum.’

‘Herc?’ Carolyn pointed the gun at Herc, willing her hand not to shake. Frankly, the idea of firing a gun on a small aeroplane was horrifying enough, not least at the man she loved, so she would be damned if nerves or grief were going to compromise her aim and potentially complicate matters even further. ‘Herc, are you still there?’

Herc still didn’t look at her, didn’t alter his death-mask countenance. However, it seemed that he was making an effort to speak louder and more clearly.

‘Gnt. Mv. Ma. Fayss.’

‘You can’t move your face?’

‘Nuh.’

‘Can… you move anything?’

‘Nuh.’

‘Is… that to be expected? After a bite, I mean.’

‘Nuh.’

Carolyn frowned to herself, thinking.

‘Arthur,’ she asked, ‘what did you make your Mushroom Delight out of?’

‘Mushrooms, mainly.’

‘And where did you get them from?’

‘Oh, the supermarket were selling them really cheap because the tins were all dented,’ Arthur told her, cheerfully. ‘Some of them were actually quite warm when I got them out, which was good because it saved me cooking them…’

‘Oh.’ Carolyn rolled her eyes. ‘Well done, Arthur. You’ve given him Botulism.’

‘Oh, dear. Sorry, Herc. Again.’ Arthur paused. ‘Still – I don’t suppose it matters now, I mean… in fact, it might end up being quite good, because on a little plane, a zombie that can’t move is much better than a zombie that can move.’

Carolyn sighed, witheringly. ‘My son. The only person who can look for the silver lining to a mushroom cloud.’

Tuesday, 5.35pm. Walney Island, Barrow In Furness:

The sun was beginning to set, but no lights came on in the Cumbrian town beneath them as Douglas brought the plane in to land. He was glad as he did so not only that they had managed to remain in daylight, but also that the second Former Mrs Richardson lived with their daughter on a long, straight, empty stretch of road on Walney Island, right on the outskirts of town. It was still hairy stuff using the street as a runway to touchdown, even with him at the yoke, but they managed it.

‘Think we might forego the post landing checks,’ Douglas said to the Captain, ‘don’t you?’

Martin nodded. ‘Let’s just do what we have to do.’ He got to his feet, wearily.

‘I thought you were here to keep the engine running while I get Zoë,’ said Douglas. ‘Surely, that would be easier to do if you were actually at the controls.’

‘This place could be crawling with them, for all we know,’ replied Martin. ‘It could be worse than Fitton.’

‘You don’t need to do this, you know, Martin. You’ve already saved my life twice.’

Martin gave a slight, sickly smile. ‘Let’s go for the hat trick then. Besides, we should both say goodbye to Herc.’

They stepped through into the cabin.

‘How’s he doing?’ Douglas asked.

Carolyn took the thermometer from Hercules’ mouth and checked it. ’37.7. It’s going down. I thought it was supposed to soar, and quickly.’

Douglas looked at the thermometer himself, as Martin went to retrieve the fire axe from the galley. ‘Well, what do you suppose…?

Arthur put his hand up, urgently. ‘You know how everybody’s saying this zombie thing is a virus? And how viruses are sort of alive…?’

He was cut off by a loud cry from outside. All four of the MJN crew tensed automatically at the sound, readying their weapons. Douglas was actually relieved to hear his name in the second cry, and slightly relaxed.

‘It’s my ex-wife.’

‘But she…’

‘She’s often like that.’

With no stairs available, Douglas just had to swing himself out of the plane, gardening tool in hand, to meet his Ex. ‘Afternoon, Josephine.’

Josephine Carter stood in the road between the plane and her front gate, her hair tied harshly back, her face devoid of make up and a claw hammer in her hand, looking as ferocious and beautiful as ever, and very much still her old self. ‘What the Hell do you think you’re playing at, Douglas?’

‘Oh, nothing. It was a beautiful day, the zombie apocalypse was descending, I had an aeroplane to hand, I thought I’d come and take you and Zoë somewhere rather less deadly.’

‘You idiot,’ Josephine snarled. ‘We were fine, we were absolutely fine…’

‘Oh, yes. Nothing says “fine” like a single mother running screaming from her house with a hammer at the sound of anybody approaching.’

‘It hasn’t spread to us,’ Josephine told him. ‘Not yet. Not on the island. Didn’t you see the barricade on the bridge? We had a meeting on Monday morning – decided to defend our borders with any means necessary…’

‘Good God. Walney Island: Military State.’

‘It’s worked,’ seethed Josephine. ‘According to the emergency broadcast, this virus is still going strong, but we’re holding out. We didn’t need you to come here. You’re just making things worse.’

‘Dad?’ Zoë was at the front gate, a backpack slung over her shoulder and a breadknife in her hand.

‘Hello Zoë, darling. Just having a little word with Mummy. Won’t be a mo.’

‘Go back inside, Zoë,’ her mother told her.

‘But Mum,’ argued Zoë, ‘Dad’s come to get us out of here…’

‘Go back inside!’

‘Josephine, come on,’ said Douglas. ‘If it can’t even spread to an island just off the mainland, what chance is there of it spreading to the Isle of Man, or the Shetlands, or Orkney, or some remote little spot in the Atlantic? We can be safe – all of us. No patrolling the perimeter, no hammers or knives. But we have to go now.’

‘They’re shooting anyone who comes near,’ Josephine told him. ‘Boats have started coming over from the rest of Barrow, and from the South – dinghies, mainly. They launched fireworks and flares at them. Set them alight. They’ll have spotted your plane coming in – they’ll be on their way, right now. Get out of here, Douglas. Seriously. While you can.’

Three of Josephine’s neighbours had gathered on the street as she gave her speech, Douglas noted. All were armed.

‘I intend to,’ Douglas told her. ‘But not without my daughter.’

‘Douglas, no!’

‘We’ve got space for you both, and plenty of supplies.’

‘No!’

‘They’ll slip up,’ Douglas said, quietly. ‘Somebody will get past. I’ve seen the infected. They’re fast and persistent. It’ll spread, here. And you and Zoë will be trapped. Come with us.’

‘Please, Mum,’ added Zoë from the gate. ‘This place has got really scary. I want to go with Dad.’

Josephine closed her eyes and exhaled. ‘All right.’

‘Yes!’

‘No time to go back and get anything – let’s just get on board.’

‘That’s all right.’ Zoe ran up to hug Douglas. ‘Packed my bag when I heard the plane fly in.’

‘Good girl.’ Douglas hauled himself back up onto the plane. ‘Arthur,’ he called, ‘would you mind pulling our two passengers on board? My back’s not what it was.’

‘Jolly good!’ Arthur scurried over.

Douglas leaned in to Carolyn as Arthur hoisted Zoë and Josephine up with his usual “Good evening, it’s my pleasure and privilege to be welcoming yourselves on board this MJN flight today” spiel.

‘Hercules can’t get off here,’ he said, quietly. ‘Too risky.’

‘He won’t be a threat to them,’ Carolyn whispered in reply. ‘He’s asked me to end it before we depart.’

‘There’s a crowd already.’ Douglas told her. ‘If they see we’ve carried someone infected, they’ll kill us all. We’ll find somewhere else.’

He stood up briskly and smiled at the new passengers, glad that Zoë made a bee line for Snoopadoop in the back seats, as far from Hercules as was possible.

‘Your ex-wife’s still armed,’ Martin muttered as he passed him into the flight deck.

‘I know.’

‘What happens when she finds out Herc’s infected?’

‘Let’s just hope she doesn’t.’

As they sat down at the controls, Douglas noted that the crowd of weapon toting neighbours warily watching the plane had doubled, and that some were making hesitant steps towards Gerti.

‘Time to go,’ announced Douglas.

‘But where to?’ Martin asked.

‘I have absolutely no idea.’

Part 5

November 2013

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