Considering that nothing which had happened that day had so far come anywhere near to even approaching making sense, this latest development seemed quite at home in what had quickly become the natural order of things. We were, putting it simply, trapped. Behind us lay the smoking, smouldering remains of Rambo’s grenade attack and the road was blocked off by an avalanche of glass, stone and bits of concrete. In front of us, barring our way back to wherever Rambo had left his transport, were the wraiths – nine unreal ghostly figures drifting unhurriedly towards us.
Rambo started to scan our surroundings, eyes darting back and forth, up and down, searching from some alternative escape route. His eyes fell upon my crippled car, still crumpled where I had left it, just a few feet away from the barricade of rubble. ‘That’s your motor?’ he said.
I nodded dumbly, reluctant to tear my eyes away from the apparitions in the road ahead. They weren’t moving with any sense of urgency; it was as if they knew they had us boxed-in and that they didn’t have to work up much of an ethereal sweat.
‘Is it fucked?’ demanded Rambo, edging backwards in the direction of my car, his rifle raised and pointed menacingly – if, ultimately, rather pointlessly – at the wraiths.
‘The car?’ I responded absently. ‘I ran into the benches and bins. I think I buggered the radiator…’
‘It’ll have to do. Come on.’ Rambo turned and bolted towards the car. I thought I’d better do likewise even though I wasn’t keen on turning my back on the wraiths. By the time I reached the car Rambo was already in the passenger seat, using the butt of his rifle to take out the shattered windscreen. I slid into the driver’s seat and, force of habit, fumbled with the seat belt.
Rambo stared at me wide-eyed. ‘You have got to be joking, man,’ he said. ‘Get this crate moving, for Christ’s sake.’ He swivelled in his seat, hefting his rifle into a firing position.
I gazed at the dashboard. The keys were still swinging in the ignition column. For a moment the dashboard looked like the flight deck of some alien interplanetary cruiser and I had no idea what to do to get this crate moving. ‘Start the bloody thing, man,’ growled Rambo, squinting into the rifle-sight as he trained it on the line of wraiths as they moved closer.
‘All right, all right,’ I said. I started the bloody thing. To my surprise, the bloody thing started. It wasn’t exactly a showroom-perfect ignition; there was some coughing and spluttering from under the dented bonnet and something somewhere was rattling. Steam began to hiss out from the radiator grille. But we had power which was just as well because as I pushed the gearstick into reverse I glanced into the rear mirror and saw that the first of the wraiths was just a few paces away.
The car heaved, jolted backwards, disentangling itself from the mangled bench as I let out the clutch as quickly as I could. Rambo and I were both thrown back into our seats as, with a protesting screech, the car shot back into the road with a squeal of tyres which wouldn’t have disgraced an episode of ‘Starsky and Hutch.’ I spun the steering wheel, turning the car so it was facing the wraiths. I slammed into first gear, quickly down into second and the car juddered forward. For one awful second I thought the engine was going to die but I pumped the clutch and the car found its second wind and accelerated. Several of the wraiths had fanned out as if to block our path and I instinctively swerved to avoid them. I heard Rambo swearing again as he reached out, grabbed the wheel and wrenched it back in the opposite direction. The car lurched like a dodgem and headed straight towards the nearest trio of wraiths.
‘What are you doing?’ I shouted. Suddenly the wraiths were right in front of us and then the car just seemed to run right through them. I heard the oddest sound – a gasp, a sigh, like air being expelled from a balloon. The wraiths seemed to dissipate like an early morning fog, white vapour surrounding us for just a second and I’m sure I felt some of it, cold and clammy, like the touch of death itself, against my exposed skin. Then it was gone and we were through, the car swerving across the road as Rambo released the wheel and I realised that someone really ought to be steering.
But then more wraiths came into my line of vision. One or two of them seemed to move away, others were caught glancing ‘blows’ and I saw them drift apart like mist. I didn’t really want to look back to see what happened to them afterwards, to see if they somehow reconstituted themselves or if they just faded away. At that moment I still had no idea what they were or where they were from and I just wanted to get away from this as quickly as I could.
The car was careering wildly across the road by now. Rambo shouted out a warning but I was too distracted by my fear and I hit a big refuse bin and sent it spinning through the air like a skittle. ‘Turn the bloody wheel, turn the wheel!’ shouted Rambo. I turned the wheel furiously but the car seemed to be spinning in a circle, the engine screaming its displeasure, the smell of burning rubber rising up through the gaping windscreen. Rambo had turned back again and he had raised his rifle. He started letting off round after round, taking out the rear windscreen, and he was yelling and whooping like some over-excited schoolboy playing a computer game.
Rambo twisted back in his seat. ‘Waste of bullets but it’s good to see the bastards blowing apart,’ he said gleefully.
‘Yes, but what’s the point? They just… come back,’ I shouted above the clamour of the engine. Now they were ranged out in front of us – the same wraiths or different ones, who could tell? Another line of them had appeared in front of us. I spotted a gap in their defence wall and, without a world to the wild-eyed Rambo, shot through it, taking the car out of the confines of the main street and onto a side road leading towards the civic centre.
We seemed to be in the clear. I slowed the car down. In reality, the car slowed itself down. She was struggling and I could tell there wasn’t much poke left under the bonnet. There were more clattering, rattling noises and the smell of petrol was starting to make my eyes water. ‘I think we’re done,’ I said, my foot jabbing at the loose clutch pedal. The car trundled to a standstill, hissing and steaming. Rambo glanced behind us.
‘Can’t see any more of ‘em,’ he said. ‘We need to find my transport.’
‘Where is it?’ I said. He jerked a thumb back in the general direction we’d just come from. ‘Access road off High Street,’ he said. He stroked the barrel in his rifle in a fashion which some might have called affectionate. ‘I liberated this baby and a few others bits and pieces from a gun store. The jeep’s full of this shit.’
‘So how do we get to it?’ I said, noticing that the slightest edge of girly hysteria was creeping into my voice which had risen by about an octave. ‘Because I am not going back that way, thanks very much.’
Rambo shrugged as if he didn’t really give a shit what I was going to do. ‘Suit yourself, sunshine,’ he said. ‘My cargo’s bloody precious to me and I’m not leaving it where it is.’ He started to heave himself out of the car. Alarmed, I reached out and grabbed his arm. He glanced down at my hand and I quickly drew it away. ‘Look, there’s no need for you to wander off on your own,’ I said, as calmly as I could manage. ‘And you don’t need to go back there, either. Not yet.’
‘What do you suggest, hero?’ he said. He was out of the car now and I had no choice but to get out too and conduct my conversation with him across the roof.
‘Wait until things cool down a bit,’ I said, floundering a bit. ‘We were lucky to get away with our lives back there. If we go to ground for a while maybe those things will just… you know, lose interest and wander off. We can sneak back and pick up your jeep later.’
Rambo’s eyes flared and he gripped his rifle more tightly than he needed to. ‘I’m not big with the sneaking around shit,’ he growled. But then he seemed to mellow a bit, as if he was considering the idea. ‘But maybe you got a point. Maybe we should take five and cool it.’ He looked around and his face broke into a disturbingly broad, toothy grin. ‘Fancy a pie and a pint?’ He saw my puzzled expression and nodded at something he’d spotted just behind me. I turned and, despite my utter bewilderment at the impossible situation I’d found myself in, couldn’t help smiling as I saw the little brown stone building set back just off the road alongside us, nestled at the very edge of the concrete sprawl of the business heart of the city. It was ‘The Half-Moon’, very probably a trendy drinking hole for the city’s lesser movers and shakers, the place where they all trotted off for their power-lunches and post-work martinis. A board advertising the pub’s name – a colourful depiction of a grinning, winking crescent moon – swung in the slight breeze. But, of course, the doors were shut and the place was dark.
I realised how hungry and thirsty I was, my throat caked with dust and grime. ‘I could murder a lager,’ I said, thinking of pub lunches washed down in the past.
Rambo couldn’t resist a sneer. ‘Lager? Poof.’ Then he swung his rifle over his shoulder. ‘My round, I think.’ He strode towards the doors of the pub and I set off after him. He wasn’t exactly my companion-of-choice in a situation like this but the only other option was being back on my own and at that moment that was a prospect I just couldn’t face again.
Once we gained access to the pub by the simple expedient of Rambo smashing a side window and reaching in and throwing open the bolts on the door, I found myself in one of those rather pretentious, unconvincing modern bars full of plush seats, cosy alcoves and uncomfortable circular pedestal tables. Big TV screens were set into the walls and there was a bank of fruit machines and a small dining area set off to one side. The bar was an oval affair against the far wall, two doors leading into the kitchen and, presumably, storage rooms. Nothing special, nothing exceptional – but that day of all days it was the place to be, a free house in the most literal sense, the finest pub I’d ever parked my carcass in.
Rambo wasted no time in opening one of the fridges and dispensing a handful of bottles of beer, still chilled despite the fact that the fridge itself had stopped working a few hours earlier. It was as quiet in the grave inside the pub and for the first time that day the silence didn’t really bother me. Rambo and I sank the first two beers in contemplative silence, a selection and crisps and nuts strewn across the table to provide sustenance. We just sat there, at a table facing the main door – just in case.
As we started on our third beer the silence suddenly felt uncomfortable. I’d know this bloke for…what, half-an-hour?…and we’d already been through some pretty weird stuff together. Sitting there like strangers seemed a bit odd and I decided it was time we took advantage of this unexpected downtime and filled in a few blanks. After all, I didn’t even know his name and I was hardly going to call him Rambo to his face. Before I could think of a way to start up a reasonable dialogue between us, Rambo swigged back his beer, wiped his mouth with his hand then let out a spectacular belch. ‘Wonder if there’s anything decent on the jukebox?’ he said as he nodded towards the machine bolted to a supporting pillar in the middle of the pub. He took the top off his fourth bottle of beer. With his teeth.
‘I doubt it,’ I said, scooping up a handful of salt peanuts. ‘Decent music finished about 1988, didn’t it?’
‘You’re forgetting Metallica,’ he said, matter-of-fact.
‘Oh how I’ve tried,’ I said. I smiled as I said it but he looked at me as if I’d just suggested a quick grope to pass the time. I shuffled in my seat and made a mental note to never ask him about his favourite films. ‘So what’s the story then?’ I said. ‘You. Who are you? Where are you from?’
Rambo was guzzling again. When he finished he eyed me contemptuously. ‘I don’t do autobiographies,’ he growled.
Frankly his relentless macho posturing was starting to get a bit tedious. ‘I don’t think yours would sell too well at the moment,’ I said, as dismissively as I could manage. ‘You can play the mean’n’moody type as long as you like, mate, that’s fine by me. But whatever the Hell is going on around here is pretty fucked-up. You’re practically the only person I’ve seen all day and I just thought it might help us both if we compare experiences, stories, whatever you want to call them. But if you’d rather stay strong and silent…’
Rambo put his bottle down on the table with enough force to set the assembled savouries dancing. ‘I’m not one for much talking,’ he said. ‘I’d rather get things done.’ He eyed me curiously and then I’m sure I spotted the hint of a smile on his pock-marked face again. ’But I suppose all this has been a bit of a shock for you, yeah?’
‘And this is the sort of thing you take in your stride, I suppose?’ I said. ‘All in a day’s work?’
His eyes were suddenly sparkling, his face strangely animated. ‘I was born for this, mate. This is my time.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean? How can you – or anyone – be born for this madness? What about all the people who’ve vanished?’ Lis’s smiling face flashed into my mind. ‘Don’t they mean anything to you?’
Rambo grunted. ‘They meant fuck all to me when they were here so why should I give a damn now?’
It was a cold, dispassionate reply but it didn’t really surprise me. But it wasn’t a response I could leave unchallenged and it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to get him to open up a bit, as much as he might have preferred to remain a closed book. Maybe we could start to understand each other as human beings, rather than just survivors. Maybe we could even appreciate one another as people. But we’d never become friends. I leaned forward. ‘You sound like a bitter man,’ I said. ‘I can’t believe you’re really glad that all those people are… gone or whatever the hell has happened to them. Not really. So what’s the score? How come you’re here, now, with me, after all this?’
‘I don’t do bedtime stories either,’ he grunted. Yet I could tell he really wanted to talk; there seemed to be things he needed to say.
‘Then I’ll get the ball rolling,’ I said. He rolled his eyes and feigned a yawn. ‘You don’t have to listen but I’d like to talk.’
So I told him about me. Just a bit about me and my life and Lis and my job and… well, when he started to looked genuinely bored I brought things up to date and recounted my experiences since I’d woken up that morning. When I finished I sat back and took a long gulp of beer. Rambo was looking at me as if he thought I was a complete waste of space – and maybe he was right. After a moment or two he sat back, muscley arms folded across his chest, and looked as if he was struggling to find the words. I suspected he wasn’t a natural orator.
His story came out in stops and starts, punctuated by increasingly-imaginative profanities. But I managed to piece it all together and we got there in the end. Of course he had a real name – but when he told me what it was I was inclined to stick with ‘Rambo’. His birth name, he seemed embarrassed to admit, was Blake Villiers (pronounced Villas) and, despite the fact that he sounded as if he’d sprung out of some cheesy daytime US soap opera, he was about as twenty-first Century British as you could get. Blake was a car mechanic by trade, living alone in a small bedsit in the student quarter. Although he had a casual girlfriend whose overnight fate he seemed entirely indifferent about, he didn’t seem to have an enormous circle of close friends. His family were from Hampshire but he was otherwise noticeably evasive about his background and his upbringing but I got the distinct impression that his family was quite well off and that he didn’t really approve of their wealth. Maybe he’d fallen out with them at an early age, maybe they’d disowned him. I’ve never found out and I suppose it doesn’t really matter all that much.
It was only when Rambo… sorry, Blake… started talking about his military career that he became really animated and it was clear that he felt that his life hadn’t really started until he joined the Army. It was obviously a source of great frustration to him that he’d had to accept a medical discharge after only three months’ basic training on account of an asthma condition he hadn’t thought to disclose when he joined up. So he moved away from home at nineteen and had been making his way in the world ever since. Unfortunately, he hadn’t really got very far and, perhaps even more unfortunately, he didn’t seem all that bothered about it. By the time he was twenty-one the asthma was more or less under control and he’d applied to join his local Territorial Army unit, the 19th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. The TA became his life to the exclusion of virtually everything – and everyone – else. He never missed weekly drill nights and he was always available for weekend training.
Nine years rolled by and Blake became a highly-proficient infantryman. He took a self-confessed fanatical interest in weapons skills and personal fitness and his loyalty was rewarded by promotion to the rank of Corporal. In addition he’d been allowed to enrol in more special courses such as unarmed combat, sniper skills and explosives. He was, he told me, a force to be reckoned with in any crisis situation.
‘Corporal Villiers, Number 2476 3451, 4 Platoon, Company, 19th Battalion (V), Parachute Regiment,’ he said almost wistfully, leaning back in his chair and staring into the middle distance, gazing back through time into his own glorious past.
Having dispensed with all he felt prepared to reveal about his background – ‘That’s done and dusted now, so who gives a rat’s ass, eh?’ – he went on to tell me his own experiences of the night before, the night it all started (or the night it all ended, depending on your own perspective). This was the first time I actually heard about the phenomenon people have come to call the shudder. Now I was blissfully unaware of it because, as you may recall, I was a bit the worse for wear at the time, wrapped up in my cocoon of alcohol. Blake had been up half the night watching war DVDs (I kid you not) and studying what sounded like an unhealthy collection of military memorabilia. Blake reckoned it happened around three-thirty in the morning. He remembers laying on his bed when he felt a strange sensation. He couldn’t describe it properly but then no-one I’ve met ever has. It was, he said, a kind of ripple, a quiver a bit like the physical effect of an earthquake, a sort of displacement. He remembers his vision blurring, a wave of nausea and, interestingly, the strangest feeling of sliding, like being on a fairground big dipper suddenly plunging out of control. The light flickered, the TV picture rolled… and then the moment was gone.
The lights went out completely and the TV died a few minutes later but Blake didn’t read too much into it. He decided to get some sleep and was roused by his alarm clock at around six-thirty whereupon he embarked upon the rigorous fitness regime he set himself every day before he set foot outside the flat. It was probably very similar to my own routine but with less tea, toast and sitting down coughing. Venturing outside after his found of sits-ups, press-ups and assorted other-ups he discovered that the world he’d closed the door on the night before had been replaced by a very different one in the morning.
His own first encounter with the wraiths came a little later in the morning as he wandered around deserted streets crammed with slightly-seedy Victorian two-storeys and tatty maisonettes. Two ‘fucking lunatics in white sheets’ (his words, not mine) rushed at him from a basement flat. His first instinct was to laugh at them until he realised they weren’t drunks or tramps or refugees from some unimaginative fancy dress party. They lunged at him and he felt them on him, pouring themselves over his body and he gave me a somewhat hair-raising description of a biting cold sensation which chilled him to the bone and an uncomfortable out-of-body experience as if he was being forcibly ejected from his own person. He managed to rouse himself and shake the wraiths off him – out of him? – by running into an alleyway and scaling the fence of some factory or other.
Pausing for breath in the factory’s secure compound Blake realised that his beloved TA centre wasn’t far away. Quickly surmising that the balloon had gone up overnight and that something pretty cataclysmic had happened, he decided to make for his second home where he expected to receive emergency instructions.
‘Chemical weapons,’ he said at that point in his narrative. He took a slug from his sixth or seventh beer. He was starting to slur. ‘Gotta be. Bloody Middle East, see. We always knew this was on the cards. Ragheads. We never knew what shit they had and now it’s hit the fan.’ He gave a mirthless laugh and reached for another bottle.
‘What sort of chemical weapons could do all this?’ I reasoned, gesturing around the bar which was starting to darken in the encroaching evening gloom outside. ‘Chemical weapons which make people disappear? Chemical weapons which create…’ I struggled to find a word to adequately describe the ghastly things we’d seen outside and decided to opt for the sort of terminology Blake might appreciate, ‘…those fuckers out there?’ I shook my head slowly. ‘I just don’t see it.’
Blake gave another indifferent shrug. ‘Fuck you then,’ he said. ‘You give me a better explanation, I’ll give you the time of day.’
‘Fair enough,’ I said. He had a point, sharp as it was. And at least he had a theory. I was still confused and, if I’m honest, shit-scared despite the reassuring sense of calm engendered by the warm alcohol coursing through my veins. I didn’t really have a clue what had happened or why but this shudder Blake had spoken of surprisingly vividly was setting off raucous alarm bells in the back of my mind. I didn’t know why and I certainly didn’t know what it all meant but surely this was the key to what had happened to my world? Blake’s eyelids were drooping and I gently urged him to carry on with his story before he slid off the chair he was already slouching in.
Blake admitted, in his own way, that when he arrived at the TA Centre and found the place empty and unmanned he was absolutely flabbergasted – or ‘fucking buggered’ as he rather more indelicately put it. The barracks were empty, the mess and squad rooms vacant, jeeps and land rovers parked up around the parade ground. But he didn’t catch sight of a living, breathing human being. He quickly broke into the armoury, loaded up a jeep with some rifles, grenades and flashbangs (later picking up some hand weapons and ammo in a gun shop in town I didn’t even know existed) and drove out of the TA Centre without bothering to raise the security pole. ‘I’ve always wanted to do that,’ he said with a self-satisfied grunt. He spent the morning cruising the outskirts, bumping into wraiths here and there and avoiding them as much as he could until he could work out a way of ‘taking them out’ – which, on the evidence I’d seen, seemed to consist of dropping the fronts of buildings on them and then hoping they’d go away. When pressed, Blake was quite adamant though; ‘They’re fucking ghosts, man. Ghosts.’ I wasn’t too minded to enquire where this conclusion fitted into his chemical weapons theory.
Our stories more or less dovetailed at this point as he explained how he was just making his way back to his jeep from another foraging expedition in the city centre when he’d heard the commotion which had brought me to Dave’s side. At the end of his oration we both fell into a sullen silence. He may well have been pissed and away with the fairies by now – certainly he’d become less lucid towards the end of his tale – whereas I was quietly contemplating what he’d told me and the fact that much of his story mirrored my own experiences. He’d been through the same disorientation process as me only with more guns and violence. But basically it boiled down to the fact that we’d both woken up to a world gone mad, a world turned upside-down and inside-out, a world now over-run by… well, something unnatural. Something… supernatural? I’d casually coined the term wraiths whereas Blake preferred to call them ghosts – which in a way maybe amounted to much the same thing. But unlike Blake I couldn’t really see these things as supernatural beings, spirits roaming the Earth from the Beyond. My sense of the rational wanted something more logical, something that just made sense. But then I reasoned that there was no rational because nothing made sense any more. So I just tried to piece it all together from what I already knew but what I didn’t know just left me more frustrated than ever.
It hit me like a sudden rush of cold water. Could it really be true? Was this really how it was all over the world? My mind flashed back to that morning; the dead television, the radio crackling with static, the silence.
Jesus Christ, I found myself thinking. It’s true. This is happening all over the world – right now. It must be! This is it, this is really, really it. It’s the end of the world.
The end of the world.
THE SHUDDER continues in the next issue of Starburst Magazine.