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PROJECT

16


M A R T Y N J . P A S S




Martyn J. Pass is the author of several bestselling books including ‘The Brink’, ‘The Wolf and the Bear’ and ‘The Unfinished Tale of Sophie Anderson’. He lives in the United Kingdom.


Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and directly

through his email - martynjpass@outlook.com.

ALSO BY MARTYN J. PASS


AT THE DAWN OF THE RUINED SUN

WAITING FOR RED (With Dani Pass)

SOUL AT WAR

HAGGART’S DAWN


THE UNFINISHED TALE OF SOPHIE ANDERSON



THE TRIDENT SERIES

TRIDENT: DEAD SIEGE



TALES FROM THE BRINK SERIES


PROJECT – 16

THE BRINK

BEYOND HOPE

THE WOLF AND THE BEAR



PROJECT

16


M A R T Y N J . P A S S

Copyright © 2017 By Martyn J. Pass


The right of Martyn J. Pass to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this material is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author.


First published in 2016.


All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.



Cover design by Martyn J. Pass




ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


Thanks must always go to my amazing team of volunteers who spend a lot of their own time and efforts making these books come together. Tim Mason, Dani Pass, Sam Wood and Brenda Pass find things in those early drafts I didn’t even know I’d been blind enough to write, from firing that mystical third shot twice to giving bread several hours in the oven to cook. We had a good laugh over these errors and hopefully we’ve found them all. If not, then I hope you enjoy them as much as we do. Being an Indie Author has its own price I’m afraid.


Thanks also to those readers out there who fell in love with this book when it first came out in 2016 and have been with me ever since. You guys are what this whole enterprise is about so keep reading and keep writing those great reviews.


A final mention goes to all those people who ‘got’ Claudia Riley in this book. So many people didn’t and I think that they’re blind to an important part of human nature that’s all around us. I’d urge them to do like my readers and see through the foul language to the fragile person hiding behind it.



PROJECT

16





1



3 days to live. That's all I’d given them when I tried to look out of the fogged up windscreen at the mass of angry black clouds rolling in from the south. 4 kids, barely over 17 with the worst gear for this type of country and terrain.

It was late December and the first whispers of winter were in the pines and the brush and the pike already had a light dusting of snow on its peak.

72 hours. Then after that it’d be hunger and thirst. I guessed they'd head for the old US army base and try to hold up there. That's if they were a little bit smarter than I'd given them credit for. If they weren't then they'd head for the city. Then it’d be a quick end. I didn't fancy their chances against the dogs and I sure as hell wasn't going to go in there after them unless it got desperate.

I hammered the Land Rover up to the top of Hangman's Hill and parked on a narrow grass verge that overlooked the valley. It was tough going and the weeds were quickly taking back the thin vein of tarmac that marked the last piece of man-made influence in the otherwise wild woodlands. There were plenty of blow downs too - pine trees knocked over in last week's storm and three of them had splintered and split in the middle of the road.

I climbed down from the 'Rover and looked about. It was cool outside and my breath formed foggy white clouds in front of my face as I searched the landscape for any signs of the kids. For miles in all directions the predominate colours were green and grey and they were there in abundance. I was looking for something else though; a flash of yellow or orange, a patch of synthetic fibre or a streak of bright fabric that broke up the monotony. My eyes had long since forgotten what 'Outdoor' equipment looked like in the wild and any deviation from the uniform earthy colours should’ve attracted my attention straight away.

On this occasion there was nothing; nothing to break up the natural face of the English landscape under its usual dull grey canopy. I went back to the ‘Rover just as a light drizzle began to fall and found my map. I located the hill I was on, then turned the map in my hands and orientated it to where I was stood. To the north-west was the last estimated position of the kids, maybe four clicks or so. It was hilly stuff that way but flatter to the west. I traced a line of least resistance between the tightly packed contour lines and guessed that their journey would take them through the valley below. The issue was timing. Would they show up soon, or had they already passed through?

I got back into the Land Rover and reversed until it couldn't be seen from the valley. Then I went and got my pack from the boot, taking a litre bottle of water from between the toolbox and the spare wheel and drank about half of it in one go. As I was putting on the pack I drank the rest, adjusting the straps and buckles until my hips took the bulk of the weight. Then I locked up the vehicle, put on my woollen hat and gloves and set off down the side of the hill and into the valley. 3 days…



I thought about their flight over as I tramped through the knee-high ferns that splashed against my gaiters. It would have been pretty tough flying all that way in one of those little birds they still used. The weather along the coast had been bad enough over the last few weeks and I'd have hated to have been up there in that little tin can, risking my life just to get to an empty island like mine. But from speaking to the others I'd had to send back, the lure of easy money from English relics buried in the cities was too difficult to resist. There'd been a number of success stories - those who'd managed to find gold or silver in the ruins, the rare ones who had found a priceless piece of art missed by the recovery teams and which had sold for a King's ransom back in the States. Still they came and still they died despite being told that the majority of the ones who did find something often never returned. What lay in the ruins wasn't just sitting there waiting to be found. Often enough the 'success stories' were far more horrible than what made it to the TV. Of the two 'celebrities' I'd known myself, both had taken their prizes from the cold, stiff fingers of another seeker who'd done all the hard work for them, only to succumb to hypothermia. One had even found a priceless painting rolled up and stained with the blood and brain matter of a young girl who'd had her skull caved in by a collapsing column. I'd enjoyed burning the painting in front of his eyes when I'd captured him. I heard that part of the story hadn't made the TV.

When I reached the valley floor I began looking around for any signs that I was too late. The benefit of doing my job in England was that there was little or no human spoor unless it’d been made fresh by me or the treasure hunters. Any that I'd find in this spot wouldn't be mine; I hadn't been this way for over three years and the last group had landed near London. I knelt down and began looking at the long grass, watching as the wind caused it to sway and looking for any breaks in the pattern. After a few careful steps I saw flats in the field - depressions and patches of trampled weeds. I moved slowly over to them, looking back the way they’d have come, and then looked in the direction they were heading. I'd been right about them coming this way, but wrong about the timing. These tracks were a day old and already the grass was starting to spring back up.

I went a little way into the scrub on either side just to eliminate the possibility of missing something and then turned to follow. At least, I thought, I wouldn't overtake them any time soon.


I strode through the grass, following the tracks which were quite uniform in that they were clearly walking in a line and not in one wide row. I followed along the valley floor for an hour or so until the tracks turned sharply north. Here I stopped. Further on I saw a triangle of markings - they'd diverted to a tarn across the way, then come back to the path. The tarn wasn't visible from where I was standing and I knew from my map that it was at least four clicks away - an hour at their pace. It told me quite a bit about them: they had a map, they had a route and they had a plan. I just hoped it involved the army base and not the city.

I couldn’t just ignore this deviation and follow the main track; I might miss an important clue or an injured person and so I traced them north and reached the tarn in half an hour. The grass gave way to stone and I lost their spoor almost at once. I walked carefully across the mass of slippery broken rocks and reached the water’s edge, kneeling down and sniffing without getting too close. It was still there, that strong, pungent smell of chemicals and I found myself shaking my head; this tarn had been contaminated for as long as I could remember and although I wasn't sure how, I could guess that deep beneath the surface there lurked something nasty dropped from a downed helicopter or something. Had they filled their bottles from it? Had they realised the danger? I wasn't even sure a water filter would have worked on that deadly liquid. Surely the smell would have been enough warning?

I returned to the edge of the grass where it met the stone and walked back and forth until I found their second set of tracks, the ones that led away from the tarn. I needn't have put much effort into the search - there was a blue plastic chocolate bar wrapper on the floor and I picked it up, smelling that awful American substance they called 'candy' which had never managed to come close to what we'd used to make. I had to confess that the wrapper still smelt better than the handful of dried berries and nuts I was eating for a snack and which required a great deal of water to wash them down with.

I took up the trail again and carried on, scanning the ground for further clues and often stopping just to listen and breathe the air. I could smell the rain coming and I knew it wouldn't be long off. The clouds were massing overhead now and I tried to put myself into their shoes, tried to imagine where they were and what they were feeling. Shelter? There was none for miles, none that I knew of. Did they have tents? The wrapper was a bit of a clue in itself; it was a plain candy bar, nothing but empty calories, not the food of choice for a seasoned hiker or survival expert. I should know - I'd taught it to US soldiers for long enough. It should’ve been an energy bar at least, nuts, fruit, sugar, carbs and protein. Not just an instant buzz on flat land. It might have been useful to scale a mountain but not for prolonged walking like they were doing. My hopes of finding them in one piece were suddenly diminished.


I walked on for another few hours. In my head I went over what’d once been my basic curriculum for the troops sent my way since I started teaching wilderness survival. Where had the stuff on food types been? Early on, I expected, though a lot of the structure changed to suit my students and what conflict they were involved in. For the Regiment it was a totally different class. I worked through a few old lectures in my mind, imagined them being played out again, what I would say differently after nearly 30 years of practising what I preached. It was okay to tell soldiers what to do when they were on a week-long mission with access to the best kit, but what about this? What about when the kit fails and you have to adapt? What about when you have to grow your own food and hunt your own game? What does a long-term survival plan look like when the cities are contaminated wastes and you spend most of your time with a Geiger counter in one hand and a water sampling kit in the other? That was my world and it had been since the Panic. Since I was born, in fact, as far back as I could remember.

I stopped for a break as the land began to climb and sat down on a rock that jutted out from the junction of a trickling stream. I'd packed a week’s worth of dried meals I'd made myself, breakfast and tea, but for dinner I'd have to settle for strips of dried beef and some water. I thought about that candy bar and found it in my pocket. I took it out and sniffed it again and put it back. It'd been a long time since I'd smelled something so sweet. The lads in London hadn't been carrying much kit when I'd found them and all I'd managed to loot out of their packs were some ready-meals and half a bag of jelly babies. I'd eaten one a night for two weeks before they were all gone. I missed those babies.

One of the benefits of being the last Englishman was the silence. I sat there with my legs crossed at the ankles and just enjoyed listening to the 'nothing' that comes from a country devoid of human life. Of course, there were still sounds - birds singing, the splash and crash of the stream, the gentle whistling of the easterly wind and the occasional sound of a small animal moving through the brush. But you couldn't call it noise, really. Noise was aeroplanes and mobile phones and incessant talking with empty words - noise for the sake of making noise, of fighting the silence and filling it with white-noise, just pointless static. As far back as I could remember I'd never felt the need to put on a TV, even if I had a signal, just to give me company. Nor did I walk around talking to myself to fight the growing loneliness as if the silence could somehow smother me like water to a drowning man. No, I often did narrate my own actions but that was a habit of old age. 35 years did that to you as if you had an audience who needed to know what you were thinking.

I got up before my legs got too stiff and resumed my hunt. The tracks continued on until I hit a bend in the valley that eventually began to flatten as they reached a stretch of walled farmland that had once bred sheep and cattle. The trampled grass became shorter where wild animals grazed, but the footprints were still visible here. They carried on to a breach in the dry stone wall before splitting in a dramatic fashion.

I stopped and looked closely at the trail. The more violent tracks, the ones that’d crushed the grass the most, had broken off towards the north-east, the direction of the city. A single track - just a few depressions that could barely be seen, had gone north-west to another break in the wall of the next field along. A lone walker had broken away from the group. Why? I didn't know at that point but the rest of the team, three of them I estimated, had gone on towards the city.

I checked my map and marked this split in red ink before looking to see where this solitary seeker could be heading. It wasn't the US army base. From this point they’d have had to turn south, cut across six or seven fields and come back on themselves to join the east road. Those going to the city could only have gone to the city - there was nothing else on that path worth noticing. But as for the lone walker, I didn't have a clue where he or she was going.

I put the map away just as the first heavy drops of rain began to fall and reached into my pack for my poncho. Then I made up my mind, leaving the others for now and began to follow the lonely set of footprints that led north-west.


The stride of this walker was about a third shorter than my own. The grass wasn't as trampled either which led me to believe that the person was a bit smaller than I - a fact confirmed after half an hour when I came across a patch of mud and saw a clear footprint in the soft earth. I bent down to take a look. It was about a size UK 6, maybe 7 - a lot smaller than my UK 11 and it had the tread pattern of a pair of trainers. I couldn't make out a brand or anything but they certainly weren't hiking boots or even trail runners. Also, the depression wasn't anywhere near as deep as my own. This person was light, more than likely small in height - unlike my own 6 feet 2 inches, and he or she walked in careful, deliberate little strides. He or she had tried to avoid stepping in the mud directly but had stumbled and planted one foot in the slop. In my head I saw a muddy left trainer and an angry expression.

I carried on as the path began to rise, hand-railing the stone wall to the top of a long, flat hill where the steps broke away a little more westerly towards a stile in the next field. I went to my map again, still unable to find a clue to where this person was going. I still had the tracks so I pressed on, aware that it’d be going dark soon and I'd have to look for somewhere to pitch up for the night. Ahead the pines grew thick where a plantation had sprung its wire fence and begun branching out in all directions. Had this person camped there?

The rain was falling heavily now and it splattered against the hood of my poncho with increasing violence and I found myself leaning forward to protect myself from it. I had two walking poles on my pack and I unclipped one and adjusted its length as the stony path began to get wet and even more slippery. Occasionally there were more footprints and at some point the walker had given up avoiding the puddles and mud slides and just waded through them. Wet trainers. Wet socks. Blisters. Pain. Morale lost.

A lot of my students started with the opinion that walking was easy. A large number of them boasted they could walk for miles. I can tell you now that by the time I'd finished with them their opinions had changed. People walk around all day long, but give them twenty or thirty miles of plodding along, of endless paths in hot or wet or cold weather and they soon want to give up. Walking long-distance was a mind game, not a physical one. More often than not boredom is the enemy and it wants to take every pain, every blister, every bit of chafe or sore joint you have and turn them on you like a wailing siren. Eight hours. Twelve hours. Your mind breaks before your body ever does. I wondered where in that torment this walker I was following had got to.


As the twilight crept across the damp moorland I lost the trail. It came to an abrupt end somewhere near the last dry stone wall three hours from where the tracks had split earlier. It made no sense to me. The paths in all directions were muddy and couldn't have been crossed without leaving some kind of mark. But there were none despite my best efforts to find them. I climbed over the wall and saw nothing where I might have expected to see two large prints from a small person dropping down on the other side. I back tracked a little, wondering if I'd missed a turn or something. Then I saw it - a patch that had drawn the fat blue bottles from where ever they live when they're not feeding on the piles of stinking cow shit. I waded through the tall grass off to one side of the path and in the quickly fading light I saw that it was a splatter of vomit. It was definitely puke because it had the tell-tale chunks, the variety of colours and something far more worrying - it was swirled with blood like a bad ice cream.

I knelt down and rooted in the small pouch on my hip belt for a torch. I gave the winder a few turns and pressed the button, shining the beam down into the mess. I realised I'd stopped breathing through my nose in anticipation of the smell.

On closer inspection I could see that there was more blood beneath the surface and it clung in thick globules to the grass as if scattered with some force. I poked it a bit with a twig and found nothing more. It was congealed, except where the rain had moistened it, and at least 12 hours old. I got up and began looking around until I found exactly what I expected to find. It was just visible when my torch played over its metal lid and I went over to the bottle, picking it up with my index finger and thumb. I sniffed the open mouth and smelled the same stench I'd smelled at the tarn. The bottle had been laid on its side and leaning down towards the mouth so most of the contents had emptied into the soil. Still, I reckoned the walker had drunk enough before realising it was contaminated and the damage had been done.

I was faced with a difficult decision. The light was all but gone and I knew that the person I was following would either be seriously ill or dead by now. Should I wait until the morning, or risk searching in the darkness for either a body or a casualty?

I looked around as my mind tossed the idea back and forth. Blood in the vomit. Stomach wall dissolved. What were the odds of surviving it for these last 12 hours or more? I'd taught teams of Special Forces to act quickly, to drink plenty of clean water if they'd drunk something toxic, to dilute it and definitely not to induce vomiting, then radio for an evac. There was none of that here. Somewhere out there, in the black, someone was dying and as I checked the map I realised there was sod-all I could do about it.

The night was prowling across the woodland all around me and I needed somewhere to lie up until morning. I checked my compass and walked slowly through the tall, wet grass in a roughly eastward direction until I hit the first of three stone walls. I crossed each one, checking my orientation before turning north for half a click - say eight minutes of slow, careful steps, then into the pine plantation for a minute or so until I had enough room to hang my hammock. I had the torch in my mouth now and I was so familiar with the contents of my pack that I was set up in no time. I lit a candle and by its light I climbed under my quilt and settled in for the night. I had little appetite for food and once I'd gotten into the warmth I was soon fast asleep.


If I'd dreamed at all then I woke the following morning with no memory of it. The first thing I was aware of was the slow, methodical dripping from a single leaf onto my tarp. I had a vague memory of rain during the night but the sun was peering at me through the canopy as I looked out from under my shelter. I didn't want to move. I was warm and I was groggy from a good night’s sleep and it took me a few moments to recall how I'd come to be there. Only the weathered skin of my face was exposed to a gentle morning breeze and I was happy with that. The rest of me was snug, gently swaying and eager to stay put.

A long time ago, probably a few months before he died, my Dad took me out into the woods near the camp and we hung our hammocks in a patch similar to this one. The pines in a plantation were usually quite uniform, for obvious reasons, and yet, he pointed out, each one seemed to always grow in a strange, unique way that made no two look the same. Maybe it was the diffusion of light through the canopy or the refusal of each tree to grow exactly where it’d been planted. Still, he'd said, you could tell each one apart if you had the eyes to see it. He'd loved the outdoors until his dying day, even after it’d all changed and we'd become the last of the English. I think, perhaps, he was almost glad. He got to see nature claim it all back and I think it made him happy to see it.


Eventually I pulled an arm out into the cold and reached for my stove. It was an alcohol burner and it was filled with the product of my still which didn't burn as well as other mass-produced American fuels but it did the trick. I got some water boiling and lay there, waiting, breathing, doing the every-day stuff that just being alive required. Then I turned my attention to finding what I was sure would be a corpse and not a casualty. I'd resigned myself to that fact as I'd poured my coffee grounds into my aluminium mug and rooted in my pack for the cold bacon sandwich I'd made the night before. I chewed it thoughtfully as the water came to a second rolling boil, then held it between my teeth as I carefully let the coffee cool off the stove. Coffee in the woods was a delicate matter and I'd perfected the technique long ago. There’d once been a team of US Rangers who'd been a bit of a handful early into their three week course. They'd found a new respect for me once they'd seen me make them a cup of 'Cowboy Coffee' as they called it.

I drank the strong, hot brew whilst I began to pack up, washing down mouthfuls of hard bacon and bread as I went. The birds began their chorus and fluttered in the tree tops above me, often sending small showers of rain drops down onto my head that’d ricocheted off the points of the sharp pine needles. In a few minutes my stove was cool enough to be packed away and I slung the black sludge from the bottom of my cup before stowing that away also. Then with the bottom of my boot I dragged the trampled grass upright as best I could, replaced any of the debris as I'd found it and set off back the way I'd come. No traces.


I tracked my way back to the site of the vomit - a task I found much easier in the daytime, and then searched the ground once more for spoor. I found my own boot tracks mingled with the walker's and began searching in an ever widening circle until I found another patch of blood-puke. It was to the south this time on the other side of a wall which is why I'd missed it. The walker had all but back tracked to this point and now the same tracks went due south in a stumbling fashion; the distance and pace looking frantic and disorganised. Left and right they veered, sometimes turning back on themselves completely, other times stopping in one spot and pacing in circles to form a bare patch of muddy black earth. I followed them further and noted that the distance between steps grew shorter and shorter until the tracks become less of a defined footprint and rather a smudged line a foot long as each shoe was dragged through the mud. It was the shuffle of someone too ill to stand let alone walk much further.


At the base of a huge oak I found her.


It was a young girl, 17 or so with hazel brown hair that feathered her pale cheeks in the soft breeze of the morning. She sat with her back to the great gnarled trunk; her legs splayed in front of her and her hands flopped loosely on the ground at either side. Her cheap waterproof coat was open at the zip and a greasy streak of bloody vomit ran down her chest and pooled in her lap. Her eyes were open and glazed, staring west in the direction of home.

I approached slowly and undid the buckles of my pack, letting it fall softly to the ground. I approached at a half-crouch, stopped at her feet and looked at her plain features, her pale skin, her distorted expression. She'd died in pain, died alone and died very far from her own people. I wasn't a stranger to a dead person but all the same this one seemed particularly saddening and I sat on my haunches for a moment and digested the last few hours of her life.

The toxic water had destroyed her insides and by the time she'd have realised it would have already been too late. In pain she'd fumbled her way along, turning round at some point as if to try and return to the others, maybe to get some help, maybe out of regret or something. Then, when she'd realised it was over, she'd found this tree, turned towards the setting sun and thought of home.

I looked to my left, trying to imagine what she saw. All there was for me was an empty field and a few sheep on the hillside. She must have seen cities and skyscrapers and yellow cabs. Eggs easy-over and big cars. The American dream.

I leaned over and closed those eyes that saw nothing now. I checked her pulse, more out of habit than anything, and began to search her pockets for a letter or a photo, something she would have wanted sent back home. I found a small travel wallet on her belt which held her ID in a plastic case. Rebecca Silverman. Chicago, Illinois.

I stood up and looked around. I'd been right about the trainers but from the chafed patches on her coat I could see that she'd worn a pack of some kind but it wasn't nearby. No doubt she'd dropped it at some point and I searched the area for over fifteen minutes before realising it wasn't there.

She'd have been in a panic. She would have opened her pack, torn it apart in the hope of finding something to stop the pain, to heal the sickness inside her and there it would be. A little scattered here and there. Frantic hope somehow hidden inside the canvas.

I stood looking at her frail form as I puzzled over what had happened until it hit me. She'd drunk the water because she'd been thirsty.


There was no other choice because she had none.


They'd taken her pack off her.


They'd taken her things and sent her off on her own to die.


I returned to my own pack and found two large orange sacks that I always kept in the bottom compartment with my poncho; bright colours were easier to find out in the wilds than US-issued black body bags. I also took my duct tape on its little half-roll and returned to Rebecca, gently rolling her away from the trunk of the oak and onto the floor. I did my best to ignore the smell of her indecent death and removed the mud splattered trainers from her feet by cutting the laces with my knife. Then I lifted her legs into the mouth of the first sack, pulling it up to her waist before taking the other sack and pulling it over her head. I was grateful that her coat had buttoned cuffs and I fastened them together so her wrists were held in place on top of her stomach. Then I brought the mouths of the two sacks together and sealed them with the duct tape, doing three turns at the seam, her ankles and around her neck.

I gathered my gear and got to my feet before testing the weight of Rebecca's body in my arms. She was light enough to carry but the real weight felt like it was on my heart. She'd died there, alone, and I struggled to get the thought out of my head. In those situations there were always the feelings of remorse, of thinking I could’ve done more, maybe found her in time the previous night. But what could I have done? I was no Doctor and it was clear that she would’ve already been dead even if I'd have found her in the blinding darkness. The blame lay elsewhere, a few thousand miles away, but it didn't stop the nagging doubts in my head.

It was too far back to the Land Rover to carry her all the way and so I looked for a suitable spot to set her down where I could find her again. I walked back along the trail, back to one of the flatter intersections and laid her against the wall. Then I marked the place on my map and set off at a quick pace in the direction of the tarn and the 'Rover.


I'd never really been uncomfortable around the dead. At 12 my Dad had me kill and skin a rabbit I'd caught in a snare. It'd been a big fat thing, all fed up for the winter and I could still remember the hot, wet guts as I'd followed his directions with my pocket knife and cut open its furry stomach. Then there was the cleaning of the carcass, the cuts of meat, the scraping and drying of its hide. A few years later my Dad had been sent south to find a couple of looters who'd gone missing near Manchester. He thought I was ready and asked me to come along and help. I'd never been out with him on a search before and I was eager to show him how helpful I could be. When we came across the first body he seemed proud of how I wasn't shaken by it, how I was eager to help move the slabs of concrete with the Land Rover's winch to free the crushed body of the poor man.

“Look,” he said, indicating the horrific mess the tonnes of rubble had made. “He must have died almost instantly. His heart was under all that. At least he didn't die slowly and in lots of pain.”

Together we filled a couple of those orange bags with the broken man and sealed them with duct tape before putting him carefully in the back of the Land Rover. I could still see my Dad's gentle movements, carrying those remains as though the man were only sleeping. There were two more to be found - the US Army didn't know about the girl. She'd fallen down a hole in the road and been impaled on some re-bar. The other had been attacked by dogs and most of him was missing.

After that I saw the dead as mere empty vessels worthy of a little dignity and respect. Dad had never taken a moral stance, never preached about fairness or wept out of sorrow for them like I'd seen others do. He never raged at the tragedy or cursed the gods. In death he saw the same thing - the natural ending of a life which was as normal to him as the setting sun or the falling rain.

“You measure your time in days out here, son,” he'd once said to me. It took me a while to work out what he'd meant by that.


I returned to Rebecca's body just as the night was coming, crossing the fields where ever the 'Rover could fit through a gap in the walls. I wasn't concerned about the others hearing me - they'd be too far ahead now and the hills would deaden the sound of the engine. I lifted her into the back and covered her with a tarp before driving further on, aiming to reach a stretch of plantation where I could hang the hammock for the night. I considered sleeping in the 'Rover but I wanted to be fresh for the following day and the idea of trying to nod off in an uncomfortable driving seat didn't really appeal to me. Instead I pulled into a natural break in the hedge, grabbed my pack and locked the 'Rover behind me, heading into the inky black of the silent forest.

It was quiet in the only way the wilderness could be. The crack of the odd twig, the chirp of an insect or the wailing squawk of some far off bird sometimes broke the monotonous nothing, but it was something natural, something right as if the whole world had come to some kind of agreement over what silence should sound like, feel like, and even taste like.

I worked in the darkness of the moonless night, feeling by instinct and routine for my straps, my carabineers and my cordage. I adjusted the slings, felt for the sag and moved onto my tarp. Meanwhile the thoughts of the following day faded into a tightly packed set of logical steps, devised more from a kind of muscle memory where the body went through the motions while the mind wandered the hills and dales of my native land. Before I knew it I was bathed in the dull glow from the stove and the silence was broken by the bubbling, rolling boil of water and the hiss of burning fuel.

I sat with my feet on the floor and my back supported by the side of my hammock, nursing a cup of hot nettle tea made from leaves I'd picked up earlier. I allowed the pungent aroma to settle in my nose, to submerge the mundane and immerse my mind in the natural. What else did I have to engage with? 5 simple senses and at that point all of them were tuned to the natural state of existence.


My Dad could barely stand to be indoors. If he was then it was always near a window - and we had many of them in our house and he'd always be looking through it, his mind off somewhere else, backward into some forgotten trail or forwards into the next stretch of unexplored dell, another field of emerald blades to be crossed.

I laid there for a time trying to remember his face. It was difficult now. The memory seemed to be of a shape, a tall, broad shouldered figure in a pea coat, his pack on his back, his faded blue woolly hat pulled down tightly on his skull and blonde spikes of hair escaping out from under it. But no face. A beard perhaps, but no features to remember. Not since his death. It's like I could only remember his essence, his actions and will, his true self, not the shell that surrounded it.

I dozed for a time, drifting off into a dreamless sleep. I woke at some point and crept out into the cold to pee before retreating back into the warmth of my top quilt. I could see no stars above me, no break in the dark purple sky and only the invisible threat of a storm.


When morning came I felt groggy but well rested. I boiled a cup of coffee and chewed on some dried strips of beef, watching the sky become angry and bruised as the sun fought with the coming storm. Evidently it lost because no sooner had I packed up my hammock than the heavens opened and my short walk back to the 'Rover turned into a battle with the elements. My poncho flapped noisily as I walked but at least I was dry as I clambered into the cab and started the engine, engaging the wipers and turning on the headlights. The rain beat upon the steel roof and made my ears ring. The wind shield was awash with the downpour and the wipers did their best. I decided to wait. There would be no rush. Wherever they were they would be held up too. Any shelter would have drawn them in and out of this chaos.

An hour passed. In that time I'd boiled another cup of coffee and sat drinking it, watching the glass steam up on the inside. There was plenty of fuel and so I left the engine idling, the blower on and the fans keeping the air moving. I ate a piece of hard flat bread and dunked a corner of it in my cup to try and soften it. I read some more of a book I'd brought with me, some fiction piece I'd found on Dad's shelf, then waited some more. I could always do waiting, especially waiting for the rain. It reminded you that you weren't in control which was always good to remember.

By mid-morning the downpour had gradually eased to a gentle drizzle. I set off, slowly at first until I reached a firmer track that was edged with great thickets of nettles and blackberry bushes that scratched against the sides of the Land Rover like hundreds of tiny claws. I pressed on at about 20 miles per hour, reaching the last of the woodland where the old world waged its silent war against the ruins of the new. It was clear who was winning as I stopped in a village whose name had long since been forgotten. I could go no further in the 'Rover. The roads were little more than deadly tracks that often collapsed in on themselves if I so much as drove near to them. Underneath was a rotting maze of sewers which had crumbled from within taking much of the tarmac with them. Where there were enormous craters in the road vast bushes and weeds sprouted up, all reaching hungrily towards the sky. I would have to go on foot again.

I climbed out of the 'Rover and felt the cool touch of the rain on my skin. I closed my eyes for a moment and looked directly up, letting the droplets tickle my eyelids. It did the trick. I was more awake now and ready to go after sitting there with the heater on too high.

I refilled my water bottles and checked the rest of my pack just in case I'd missed something. I put a few extra orange sacks in the side pocket with another roll of duct tape and got rid of my rubbish. Then, after I locked up the 'Rover, I set off in the direction of the city and began to look for their trail. I didn't expect it to be difficult. In the woods it was a little trickier - you couldn't always predict where someone might take a turn or decide upon a particular path over another. But in an urban environment it became more obvious. People tended to walk on the pavements despite there being no cars, out of habit perhaps. They also favoured open areas and places that were familiar, shopping streets, fast food chains, that sort of thing. They also couldn't help but touch things which was what I was counting on. The dirt had gathered here long ago and the slightest touch would be a huge spoor to track them with.

I made my way to the other side of the village and the rain finally stopped. It didn't exactly break out into glorious sunshine but it brightened a little as I followed the ruined roadway into the outskirts of the city. I'd have to climb a little - the land rose up to the city edge before dropping down into the centre and from this side I had a good idea which road they would've taken in. Two others were across bridges and both of them had collapsed about three years ago. It might have been caused by a storm but I couldn't remember. A lot of the country changed from year to year and it was one of the reasons I often made my own maps or annotated the ones given to me by the US army. I could write down one location or place of interest and then scratch it off the following year. These were poorly made structures to begin with and without care and maintenance it was little wonder they fell down - sometimes with spectacular results.

A while back I was driving along the outskirts of Preston when I heard the stadium collapse, maybe caused by the vibrations of the car, but it was enough to make me shake in fear. It began like a distant thunder, rolling towards me until I began to think it was an earthquake instead. I'd driven away as quickly as I could until I saw the gigantic dust cloud overhead and realised what had happened. After that I had another reason to stay away from the city - as if I needed one. If a falling building didn't kill me then the packs of wild dogs would. They were horrible creatures, probably a mix of wild and domestic pets but still quick to re-learn the law of the jungle. It was another reason why I kept a pistol, a Glock 7, with me and loaded with hollow-point rounds.

As the land rose steeply I began to see what I was looking for. The road, littered with rusting heaps of old cars, ran in a straight line up to the top of the rise and then banked down and to the south right into the heart of the old city. The cars had long since been picked clean of fabric or plastic and now all that was left were dirty brown scrap heaps sat on oxidised aluminium rims. They'd been abandoned in a neat line of traffic, all nose to bumper, more than likely when the first of the sirens began to sound all that time ago. I imagined it was a panicked affair, people jumping out of their little metal boxes to try and outrun the first of the missile strikes. Where would they be running to? I wondered. A shelter? The army? Dad had never gone into any details about how our country ended up like this but he sometimes talked about The Great Panic and the time the sky rained dust for months. He warned me that it hadn't been a nuclear attack.

“No son, if it had then we'd all be dead now. Not just you and me, but the world. Scorched into death like wood on a fire.”

I'd left it at that and never really cared to find out more. I'd grown up in it and I was happy. It was those who visited it who looked the most shocked by what they saw, those who could see their own cities across the sea and wondered with amazement whether it could happen there too.


I found a hand print on the bonnet of an old Ford and the drying puddle of urine beneath it, soaking into the crumbling tarmac. It was smaller than my own hand and it was the man's left, used to steady himself while he pissed up against the car. There was no band on the third finger.

I walked on and found more disturbances in the dirt. One of them had stepped in a patch of mud that had risen through a crack in the road and left a dry footprint a pace onwards. A third was to the far left hand side of the road meaning they'd spread out in a line. All three had been here. All three had gone over the hill and down into the city and I'd have to follow. I didn't want to, that was for certain, and I checked the magazine on my pistol, flicking the safety off. It was insanity to go there given that any number of the buildings were on the verge of collapsing and the roads themselves were prone to caving into the sewers below. On top of that great packs of dogs roamed the streets, living in the hollowed out shells of shops and pubs, eager to sniff out their next meal and track it down rather than wander into the woods in search of game. Why they stayed there instead of going out into the country was beyond me, but they were there all right.

Cautiously I followed the tracks down a long street lined with crumbling houses, brick and concrete cracking with age, some even falling apart to expose dust filled insides like a thousand year old corpse. More cars. More rusting heaps still parked where they'd always been parked. Children's push bikes, the bones of a bygone age scattered around overgrown graveyard lawns. A skeleton of some large animal. It was all the detritus of a man-made sepulchre and I hated it. I wanted out the moment I started heading in. It was oppressive and stifling and stunk of death - namely my own death.

I pressed on, following the patterns in the dirt that became fewer and far between but were still easy to follow. They'd kept along this road in a uniform line, perhaps breaking away here and there to examine a house or a car, but more or less they kept on until they reached a junction marked by the mangled wrecks of two large transport trucks. They'd collided bang in the centre of the cross roads, one coming down the road, the other coming from the right. The door of one had been wrenched open and the brittle remains of the driver had been dragged out. The cab was empty and I climbed up to look inside, confirming my suspicion that the three of them had looked inside. The dust had been disturbed around the glove box and there were hand prints all over the dashboard. I guess that there was always a chance that others had missed something, especially in an unlikely place like a glove box.

The tracks went on down the road to the city centre. I followed, gathering pace a little as I went, eager to get it over with and get out. I descended another sloping street, turned right and followed the traffic of a dozen smashed cars until the tall high-rise office blocks could be seen between the towering oaks that had once lined a quaint street that was now overgrown. It was here that I really did consider turning back.

There were cars blocking the entire tarmac strip leaving only the pavement on the left hand side to walk on. I found their spoor and it was clear that they'd walked in single file, but on top of their muddy footprints were another set, another cluster of markings - that of a dozen padded feet.

I fought the feeling to just turn tail and run, to never look back. It froze me on the spot and I realised I was holding my breath - and the grip of the pistol. It was an agonising time of deciding between doing the sensible thing and doing the right thing, the choice that best fit with my own ethos. But was it my ethos, or the ethos passed down to me by my Dad? What would he have done and what should I do? All this fired through my mind in moments but to me they felt like years.

Finally I returned to my senses, took a deep breath and set off along the tracks, still following and still hoping that somehow I'd find them alive.


The paw prints of the dogs were a far easier spoor to follow and they must have followed the scent for a while before moving to act. I walked for another twenty minutes before I came across my first signs that the three of them had engaged the animals and faired reasonably well. Where a section of road leading to the very centre of the high street widened there'd been a violent struggle near two wrecked cars and a motorcycle. There were three dead dogs littered across the tarmac - two had been shot through the chest, the other had had its throat cut. There was plenty of dry blood splattered around the area and it didn't seem that old when I touched a little with my fingertip. There were also no obvious human casualties either, which was a good sign. The only blood was clearly that of the dogs. But how come I hadn't heard the shots? Silenced weapons? If so, what were they really after? How well trained were they?

As I neared the large indoor shopping precinct I got my answer. There, disembowelled and half eaten, were the remains of the first of the treasure hunters. He'd taken his own life with a silenced Glock which sat loosely in his lifeless hand - the exit wound at the back of his skull painting a blossom of pink on the stonework behind him. He was young, early 20's perhaps, and his face was pale and expressionless save for where blood and brain matter leaked out over his blue lips from the bullet hole in the roof of his mouth. Nearby there were two more dead dogs, each one hit in the head and chest. The boy'd been a good shot.

I wanted to check his body, to get some I.D, but it was too dangerous to stay still. I suspected the worse now and if any of the dogs had survived, which I was sure they had, then they'd be looking for me next. So instead I looked inside the shopping precinct as far as the shuttered doors before coming back and, finding nothing, I looked for spoor around the corpse.

To the left near an alley that ran behind the shops I saw a few drops of blood near a rusty bin. I might have missed them had the light been a little worse, but I just caught a glimmer of them as I was looking around. I peered down the mouth of the alley and saw some further on and followed. It was darker there and I held my pistol out in front of me, cocked and ready in case I had to react quickly. There was no need. Lying across the flagged street was my second corpse. He had the expression of a man deep in sleep and I might have tried to wake him up if it hadn't been for the lack of anything inside his open chest cavity. There was an enormous pile of half-chewed intestines and blood and fleshy bits and I leaned against the wall with a hand over my nose. The stench was vile and even breathing through my open mouth was a struggle.

His pack was on the floor near some bins and I grabbed it before walking away into fresher air. At the mouth of the alley I took a deep breath and listened. Nothing. I didn't like it. My scent would have been as strong to them as that corpse had been to me yet there were no dogs here, not even the sound of them in the distance and I still had one more corpse to find. I resumed my search, leaving the pack near the first body and finding another on the other side of some railings towards the bus station. It was a woman's pack, small with pink trim and a 'Hello Kitty' fob hanging from a zip.


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