This is the start of my short story for David's challenge: comments and practical advice (for Elspeth) would be very welcome. Alone<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comfficeffice" /> The plague came out of nowhere. The first cases were reported in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comffice:smarttags" /><st1lace w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">Iran</st1:country-region></st1lace>, sparking claims of biological warfare – although no one could say who had unleashed the plague. Before anyone had realised how serious the crisis had already become, there were cases reported from Africa, the Balkans and even <st1lace w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">India</st1:country-region></st1lace>. Western governments, alive at last to the situation, declared a total quarantine of the affected regions. It was too little, too late. Five days after the first cases were reported, Europe, <st1:country-region w:st="on">China</st1:country-region> and <st1lace w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">America</st1:country-region></st1lace> were reporting thousands of victims of the plague. It had somehow passed through frantically-created quarantines, defying the best efforts of the doctors and researchers as they searched for a cure, or a vaccine. One week after <st1lace w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">Iran</st1:country-region></st1lace> reported the first cases, the entire world was infected – and dying. ***Elspeth did the one thing she’d never expected to do again and opened her eyes. She was lying in her bed, every last part of her body aching. Slowly, somehow, she pulled herself up into a sitting position and looked down at her chest. The red blotches and pustules that had married her teenage form were gone, replaced by dry skin that flaked off even as she watched. Below, her skin was raw, but healthy. She was alive. Memory returned suddenly and she gasped in shock. Had it only been two days ago that she’d been called into service with the National Health Service, which had been so desperate for doctors that they’d even summoned the students who hadn’t finished their studies? The plague had been sweeping through <st1lace w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:City></st1lace>, leaving hundreds of thousands dead or dying in its wake. She remembered helping hundreds of dying men and women, desperately trying to help them even when the supplies ran out; she remembered the riots that had convulsed the heart of the city, just before the plague had put an end to the riots permanently. And she remembered discovering the marks on her own body that warned her that she had been about to die. She’d stumbled home, already feeling the headache and muscle pains that she’d been warned about by the early cases. Her boyfriend had met her at the door, bright red marks covering his face, and they’d collapsed into bed together. They’d been too weak to do anything, but hold each other… Elspeth didn’t want to look, but there was no choice. Brad was lying beside her, his body cold and damp. She’d seen dead bodies before – they had all seen them, in the last few hours before <st1lace w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:City></st1lace> had been lost to the plague – but this was her boyfriend! God knew that they’d argued from time to time, over matters that had been so trivial in the face of the plague, and yet they’d loved each other…and now he was dead. Somehow, his death affected her more than the thousands she’d seen die in front of her, screaming their pain when the stock of painkillers ran out. There had been people who had claimed that the plague was a biological weapon and Elspeth was inclined to agree, if only because its victims had died in tremendous pain. Nothing natural, not even Ebola, had that degree of suffering built into its very function. Carefully, she pulled herself out of bed. The flat looked surprisingly normal to her eyes – how long had she been asleep? She picked up her watch and noted the date; it had been nearly three days since she’d been infected and collapsed. Three days without anything, but the plague…she swallowed hard and was suddenly aware of a very dry throat. Nothing had passed her lips since she’d returned home to die. And Brad needed to be buried. Pushing the thought aside, she staggered out of bed and almost collapsed again as hunger caught up with her. Brad had been fond of Turkish Delight and always kept a bar of it in his drawer, she remembered, even though she’d teased him about putting on weight. Somehow, her fingers refusing to work properly, she managed to open the drawer and liberate the bar of chocolate, swallowing it with indecent haste. The taste of chocolate made her feel slightly more energetic and she crawled to the kitchen, where she found a bottle of water and drank it, despite the slightly brackish taste. She lay there for nearly twenty minutes before she stumbled to her feet and tried to wash her face in the sink. Unsurprisingly, the water was off. So, she discovered a moment later, was the power. Cold horror left her rooted to the spot. As far as she knew, no one had survived the plague. It could be held at bay with painkillers and heavy medical treatment, but the NHS had run out of resources to provide such treatment within hours. The government had never provided the level of funding necessary to build up a stockpile of drugs…and by then, doctors and nurses were falling to the plague. If someone had survived, it would have been widely publicised, if only to try to calm the riots that had swept through every major city when the plague had become common knowledge. The entire world had panicked. How could anyone blame them? Elspeth pushed that thought aside too and walked over to the phone. There was a dial tone, much to her astonishment, but no one answered when she rang 999. The police, fire brigade and ambulance services seemed to be dead. She ran through every number on the phone, calling everyone she knew, yet there were no answers. A strange sense of isolation began to overwhelm her. Was she the only person left alive in <st1lace w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">Britain</st1:country-region></st1lace>? Or was she alone in the entire world? The thought almost crushed her. Two weeks ago, she had known her future; she would marry Brad, graduate as a Doctor and raise a family. Now…Brad was dead; her parents were dead; everyone she had loved and hated in the entire world was dead. Why had she been spared…? She found herself curled up, weeping at the sheer unfairness of the universe, sparing her death only to live and die on her own. The world was empty of life…or was it? Cold logic told her that if she had survived – and there was nothing particularly special about her – others must have survived as well. She walked into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror, examining her own nakedness with dispassionate eyes. Her entire body was flaking, as dead skin sloughed off to fall on the floor, but otherwise she was intact. Brad had filled the bath with water on government advice, before the BBC had stopped transmitting; she took a bowlful and used it to wash her skin. Back in the bedroom, unable to look at Brad’s body, she dressed in her outdoor clothes and walked outside. Out of habit, she locked the door behind her. The smell struck her at once. It was a strange mixture of death and fire, making her stomach heave in disgust. Swallowing hard, she staggered down towards the corner shop, hoping against hope that the friendly Pakistani who ran the shop was still alive, along with his family. The door was locked and chained, but she didn’t have to step inside to realise that the angel of death had not overlooked her friend, the shopkeeper’s daughter. She could see her father’s blotched face lying where he had fallen, inside the shop he’d created in the hopes of giving his children a better life. For the first time, she looked up and down the street. The silence was eerie, so eerie that she wondered why she hadn’t noticed it before she’d reached the shop. Morningside was quiet, compared to <st1:City w:st="on"><st1lace w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1lace></st1:City>’s New Town, yet there should have been the sound of cars and people calling, of children playing in the school. Now, the only sound was the cry of birds as they soured overhead, swooping down to pick at the ground. Elspeth had a suspicion about what the birds were gorging themselves on, but she didn’t go to look. She didn’t want to know. She’d never even considered breaking and entering before, but she was growing desperate. It took several blows with a metal pipe she'd found in a nearby skip to break the glass door and allow her entry into the shop. She searched it quickly, finding the shopkeeper’s wife and their four children in their beds. They’d been Muslims, if she recalled correctly; they’d been lucky to escape the riots that had consumed other Muslim communities in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1lace w:st="on">Britain</st1lace></st1:country-region>, after the plague had struck. She said a silent prayer over the dead and then investigated what food remained in the basement. The shop had been cleaned out of food in the ground floor – the entire community had been panic-buying once the first reports had come in – but the basement held some bread and cheese she took for herself. At least the emergency battery power hadn’t failed, at least not yet. She silently apologised to the dead shopkeeper as she ate his food and drank some of the bottled water, fighting down an absurd impulse to leave money behind for the dead. There was no point in leaving any money – hell, for all she knew, money was worthless now. She took her friend’s rucksack, stuffed it with everything she thought might come in handy, and walked back outside into the sunlight. The wind had changed, blowing the smell of smoke right towards her. When she looked into the sky, she saw smoke plumes blowing upwards from the centre of the city. Fire, she thought, grimly. The population was dead; a single spark could set off a blaze she’d never be able to extinguish on her own. <st1:City w:st="on"><st1lace w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1lace></st1:City> had been notorious for rain, but as luck would have it, it clearly hadn’t rained since she'd collapsed. Shaking her head helplessly, she walked back to her flat, thinking hard. If everyone was dead, where could she go? <st1:City w:st="on"><st1lace w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1lace></st1:City> would become very unhealthy very quickly as the dead humans began to decay, releasing new viruses into the atmosphere. Her medical training had covered how diseases spread from dead bodies; they’d been burning the plague victims in the final hours, but she knew that it would be too late. A few days – perhaps even a few hours – and she’d catch something she couldn’t hope to survive. She jumped in the air at a sudden sound, behind her. The metal pipe she'd found was in her hand before logic and reason caught up with her, reminding her that everyone was dead. No; every human was dead. The terrifyingly loud sound was a dog barking desperately, from the nearest house. It had once belonged to the school’s janitor, a fearsome man with a truly terrifying face, but now he would be dead – and Rover would be trapped inside the house. The janitor’s collection of dogs had been legendary among Elspeth’s generation while she’d been at school and he hadn’t changed since she’d gone off to earn her medical degree. Briefly, she considered abandoning the dog. It could have gone feral. The media had been screaming about dangerous dogs for years – and those dogs had had owners, even if they hadn’t trained their pets properly. If everyone was dead, the thousands of dogs in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1lace w:st="on">Britain</st1lace></st1:country-region> could become savage very quickly, hunting rabbits, squirrels and foxes for food. And, if they acquired a taste for human flesh, they might try to hunt her as well. She wanted to leave…and yet, she couldn’t. A friendly dog might be the best company she could hope to find. The dog was throwing itself against the door when she stepped up to it, barking frantically. Elspeth braced herself and shoved the door as hard as she could; unsurprisingly, it was locked. She lifted her pipe and started to slam it into the door before she cursed her own stupidity. It would be much easier to smash the windows and let the dog out that way. There was a moment of silence as soon as the window shattered, and then a streak of golden-brown fur shot out of the window and into the front garden. Rover was larger than Elspeth remembered, clearly desperate for food and drink. Carefully, forcing her face not to show any fear, Elspeth reached into her pack and produced some of the cold sausage she’d liberated from the shop. Rover eyed her warily for a long moment, and then slowly took the sausage from her hand, swallowing it quickly and then looking for more. Smiling, Elspeth produced a second sausage from her pack. An hour later, Rover gambolled along beside her as she walked back to the flat. The stench of burning was growing stronger, suggesting that the fire was slowly burning its way towards Morningside. Elspeth allowed Rover to lead the way into her flat and explore while she packed her bags. If the cities were becoming unhealthy, there was no choice, but to get out of the cities. If she’d had a car…once again, she cursed her own stupidity. Now, with the entire population seemingly dead, she could take any car she wanted from the streets. All she had to do was figure out how to turn on the engine and drive away. I should have spent more time in the Girl Guides, she thought, as she broke into another house, two doors down from the flat. Mr Archer had owned a hugely-expensive SUV he’d had imported from the <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1lace w:st="on">United States</st1lace></st1:country-region>. Now, his body was lying in his bed, next to that of his girlfriend and there was no sign of his children. Elspeth said a quick prayer over his body and searched his house for anything useful, finding a single-person tent and a set of camping equipment that was more than suitable for her purposes. If Mr Archer had survived…he could have taught her everything she needed to know, even at the cost of sharing his bed. But the camping enthusiast was dead and she had to figure it out on her own. The SUV was, thankfully, easy to start once she found the keys. She loaded it with everything she could find that might be useful, even a small CB radio that Mr Archer had used in his spare time. A quick experiment revealed that there was nothing, but static on the airwaves. Rover jumped into the SUV beside her when she called, his tongue lolling out as she started the engine. It was odd how quickly Elspeth had come to depend on his company, but perhaps it wasn't too surprising at all. All of the humans she’d seen since she recovered were dead; Rover was all she had for company. On impulse, she put her hands around the massive dog and hugged him, hard. The dog gave her a vaguely disdainful look and shook a paw at her. Chuckling, she started the SUV and headed up the road towards Craiglockhart Hill. It was tempting to spend the night on the hill, but it was surrounded by <st1:City w:st="on"><st1lace w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1lace></st1:City> and eventually she would have had to cross the city to escape into the countryside. The hill had never been particularly challenging to anyone – it was hardly <st1lace w:st="on">Ben Nevis</st1lace> – but it would give her a view of the entire city. Rover jumped out as soon as she halted the SUV, before she climbed out herself. His owner had taken the dog for walks up the hill every day, she guessed. It was clear that Rover knew the hill very well. He ran after a pair of rabbits, barking frantically, while Elspeth herself walked up the path towards the summit. The trees closed in around her, but they couldn’t hide the stench of death rising up from the nearby university campus. In the distance, she could hear what sounded like an alarm, an alarm that no one would ever heed. The sunlight burst down upon her as she walked out of the greenery and up the final steps to the summit. Great plumes of smoke were rising up from all points of the compass, warning her that the city was slowly being consumed by the fires. It was a clear day and she could see the river to the north – and, beyond it, more fires reaching up into the sky. She turned to survey <st1:City w:st="on"><st1lace w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1lace></st1:City> and winced, watching the fires slowly spreading out of control. If she’d seen a single trace of human life, perhaps it would have been tolerable, but she could see nothing. The railways were still; no cars moved on the roads; no aircraft flew through the blue sky. She reached for the binoculars she’d recovered from Mr Archer’s house and scanned the horizon. The centre of town appeared to be covered by dead bodies. She guessed that the rioters had eventually collapsed while trying to fight the police. Or maybe they’d been fleeing when the plague had wiped them out. If she hadn’t gone home, she would have been trapped in the centre of town – and died with everyone else. Rover burst out of the undergrowth, a small rabbit in his jaws. He deposited his catch at her feet, as if he expected her to reward him for his efforts. The sight of the small creature made Elspeth burst into tears, overcome with emotion. She collapsed onto the seat and closed her eyes, as tightly as she could, and yet she couldn’t blot out the world. Everything humans had created was gone, leaving her alone. Great hulking sobs racked her body as she caught the dog and held him tightly. What if there was no one else? Her world had shrunk down to <st1:City w:st="on"><st1lace w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1lace></st1:City> and the surrounding countryside. It wasn't as if she could go anywhere else. Or maybe she could, she told herself. Up north, there were communities that might have avoided infection by the plague. The world created by globalisation had allowed the plague to spread, but not everywhere was tightly linked to the global community. Perhaps, just perhaps, some had survived. And she could find them… Rover barked once as Elspeth pulled herself to her feet and then started off down the hill, back to the SUV. A cold determination filled her mind. She could find supplies and then set out to the highlands. And if she died up there, a few weeks or moths after everyone else, at least she would have tried to find others. She started up the SUV and waited impatiently for Rover to finish masticating his rabbit. If she was right, there was no time to lose. And she knew just where to begin.