Discussion in 'Survival Reading Room' started by ChrisNuttall, Sep 6, 2011.

  1. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    This is the start of my short story for David's challenge: comments and practical advice (for Elspeth) would be very welcome.

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    The plague came out of nowhere.

    The first cases were reported in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">Iran</st1:country-region></st1:place>, 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 <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">India</st1:country-region></st1:place>. 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 <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">America</st1:country-region></st1:place> 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 <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">Iran</st1:country-region></st1:place> 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 <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:City></st1:place>, 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 <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:City></st1:place> 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 <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">Britain</st1:country-region></st1:place>? 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"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></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"><st1:place w:st="on">Britain</st1:place></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"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></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"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></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"><st1:place w:st="on">Britain</st1:place></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"><st1:place w:st="on">United States</st1:place></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"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></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 <st1:place w:st="on">Ben Nevis</st1:place> – 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"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></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"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></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.
    Pezz, mysterymet, Sapper John and 2 others like this.
  2. jasonl6

    jasonl6 Monkey+++

    Now this is a Story i can really get into. I like the other stuff but this is right up my alley. Looking forward for more.

  3. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    The roads were not as congested as she had expected, but each car in her path created new difficulties. Some cars had been driven by drivers who had succumbed to the plague while trying to escape, while others had clearly run afoul of the police and military patrols that had tried, in the final few hours, to enforce martial law and strict quarantine. She gave the dead bodies a wide berth, noting grimly how some of them had already been savaged by wild animals. The birds high overhead fled the SUV’s engine noise as she drove down into Colinton.
    <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />
    It had been two years since she'd visited the army barracks, back when the British Army had been trying to tempt medical students into joining the army as medics. The old buildings had reminded her of her old school and some of the soldiers had reminded her of the boys she’d disliked as she’d grown into womanhood. Now, the whole area was sealed off by the army, with blockades positioned at both ends of the road. They’d turned the nearby schools into emergency medical centres, she recalled; for a moment, she allowed herself to hope that some of the soldiers had remained alive. The army gave its fighting men vaccinations that were rarely distributed to the British public.

    Her hopes faded as she parked the SUV and walked through the barricades. A dozen soldiers lay on the other side, all dead. Rover sniffed at their bodies and then looked up at her, enquiringly. Elspeth didn’t want to look, but there was no choice; they’d all fallen to the plague. A couple had gunshot wounds through their heads, suggesting that they’d committed suicide before the plague destroyed whatever remained of their minds. Or perhaps they’d been attacked by their comrades, who’d been maddened by the plague. Order and discipline everywhere had been collapsing as men and women died like flies.

    The guardhouse was empty, as was the tank positioned behind the blockhouse. She checked the hatches and even pounded on the metal, to no avail. If someone was still alive in the army base, they were hiding from her or they’d already decamped to safer pastures. A soldier would probably have known where to look for a note providing directions, but Elspeth couldn’t even begin to guess. She hunted through the barracks, hoping against hope that something could be found, yet there was nothing. The only orders she found had been written just prior to the plague. Like everyone else, the British military had been caught by surprise and paid the price.

    Shaking her head, she returned to the armoury and carefully removed a dozen pistols and two rifles. It had been years since she’d used a pistol – she silently blessed her father’s insistence that she at least consider the military, for most British citizens would have had to figure it out through guesswork – but the weapons were in good condition and there was plenty of ammunition. They felt heavy in her hand and jerked when she fired at one of the swooping birds, only to miss. The birds scattered, fleeing the weapons they knew to fear – for now. They’d be back.

    The barracks would be a treasure trove of supplies she needed to survive, she knew, but she couldn’t find everything in one trip. It struck her that she'd probably be able to survive for quite some time just by scavenging in the remains of human civilisation, yet it couldn’t last. If nothing else, there was no way she could have children without a man. The tears threatened to well up in her eyes, again, but she blinked them away angrily. She wasn't going to kill herself in despair, not now and not ever. She’d survive as long as she could.

    Picking up the weapons and a handful of maps, she returned to the SUV and piled them into the back. If the road was blocked – a quick check revealed that she would need lifting equipment to move the blockage – she would have to drive around and head up north towards the Forth Road Bridge…except that might well have been closed and blocked as well. It would have made sense. The government had been growing desperate in the last few days and blocking a bridge was easy. Cursing, she reversed course and started to drive westwards. Once she was out of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:City> on the road that should have led to <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Glasgow</st1:City></st1:place>, she could turn north and head up towards the central highlands. It wouldn't be so easy for the dead hand of authority to stop her there.

    The drive out of <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:City></st1:place> was nightmarish. Thousands of people had tried to escape the plague by fleeing into the countryside, only to run into police and military roadblocks. A number of bodies had clearly been killed by gunshots, rather than the plague; they’d gambled that the British policemen wouldn't fire on their own people. Elspeth had been briefed on the quarantine plans and knew that the policemen would have had no choice. Not, in the end, that it had saved anyone. The plague had infected the country long before the victims had started to develop symptoms. She had to trust the SUV to mount the pavement and cross gardens – knocking down small walls and shrubs in its path – and sometimes reverse course and find another route through the city. The smell of dead bodies was growing stronger, mocking her desperate attempts to cover her mouth and nose with a damp cloth. Cursing her oversight, she made a mental note to look for a gas mask at the next military base she encountered.

    Unsurprisingly, the Ring Road was thoroughly barricaded by dead policemen and soldiers. Elspeth paused to consider her options; the police had clearly expected refugees to use the Ring Road, if only because they would have to cross it to escape. Logically, they would have blockaded every slip road and bridge leading out into the countryside, even when they’d started to drop themselves. There was little hope of finding another way out without crossing the entire city – and the smoke from the fires was growing stronger. It was tempting to believe that <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:placeName w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:placeName> <st1:placeType w:st="on">Castle</st1:placeType></st1:place> would survive the growing firestorm, but much of the New Town would be devastated by the time the fires finally burned themselves out. Shaking her head, she jumped out of the SUV and walked over to the barricade. Luckily, it was fairly easy to scramble over, even though she tore her jeans on a piece of barbed wire. Of course, she told herself dryly, it would have been easy if she’d wanted to abandon the SUV and walk into the countryside. She considered finding another vehicle on the far side before deciding to try to clear the barricade. The SUV had too many of her hopes invested in it to simply abandon…

    She could hear the sound of dogs barking in the distance as she climbed into the police van and examined it carefully. Muttering a quiet apology to the driver, she pushed his dead body out of the van and left him lying on the bridge. A handful of handcuffed people were in the back of the van, also dead. Elspeth gagged as the stench reached her, realising that the interior of the van might be lethal if she stayed there too long. The engine coughed to life as she turned the key; she jumped as the radio spat out a stream of static and a handful of what – might – have been words. Elspeth listened in desperate hope, but there was nothing else. She couldn’t even convince herself that she hadn’t imagined the brief message.

    The van had been built like a tank. Carefully, she drove it against the barricade and gunned the engine. There was a dreadful screeching sound that made Rover howl in sympathy before the barricade was slowly nudged aside. She pushed it far enough for the SUV to get onto the bridge, and then turned and checked the far side of the bridge. The police hadn’t bothered to set up a proper barricade there, perhaps reasoning that no one would want to get into <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></st1:City> once the plague started tearing through the city. It was easy to nudge the two vans out of her way. For a moment, she considered just driving on into the countryside, before changing her mind. If she searched the vans, she might find something useful.

    The howling of dogs grew closer as she finished searching the vans, finding little of any immediate use. If she’d had her classmates at university with her, they could have done very well for themselves, but she was alone. She made mental notes of what was in the vans if she ever had time to come back and recover it, before starting to walk back to the SUV. And then the dogs burst into view.

    Elspeth froze. She had never been scared of dogs – she wouldn't have recovered Rover if she had been nervous around large animals – but this was an entire pack of maddened dogs, all training forgotten in the desperate search for survival without their human masters. Their fur dripped with red blood; their eyes were wild and frantic, slowly focusing on the last human left alive. The pack seemed to move as one entity, baying for her blood. She couldn’t even tell how many dogs there were in the pack; it just seemed to be an endless mass of teeth and bloodstained fur. The barking grew so loud that Rover cowered back against her, baring his teeth at the wild creatures.

    Desperately, Elspeth jumped into the nearest van and pulled Rover in beside her. She was just in time to save herself by slamming the door closed, just before the pack closed in and started tearing away at the van with their teeth and claws. They couldn’t hope to bite through the metal, she told herself, but if they kept throwing their weight at the windscreen they were likely to break through and devour her flesh. For a moment, fear held her mind in its grip…and then she remembered the pistols she’d salvaged from the barracks. She chambered a round and levelled the gun at the windscreen, and then cursed her own stupidity. Firing through the windscreen would shatter it and the remaining dogs would eat her alive. She caught sight of a pair of maddened eyes and wished, briefly, that she could join Rover. The massive dog was cowering under the dashboard.

    They wouldn't go away, Elspeth realised. And they might not be the most dangerous animals roaming the countryside, now that the humans were done. Edinburgh Zoo had had lions and tigers and bears – and all of them might be able to escape into the wild. They’d rapidly develop a taste for human flesh by eating the dead, and then they’d start breeding…but what could she do? She could hardly hunt them all down herself – and she’d never know if she’d hunted them all down and killed them?

    Slipping into the driver’s seat, she turned the key and the engine came on. The dogs crawling over the van jumped, a handful falling off the vehicle and barking their anger to the skies. Elspeth had a sudden thought and, after a couple of experiments, succeeded in activating the siren. The racket was deafening inside the van, but it was worse on the outside. The dogs fled with their tails between their legs, only to regroup several meters away, watching her carefully. Elspeth manoeuvred the van forward until it was parked beside the SUV and then, pistol in hand, slipped out of the van and into her vehicle. The dogs started forward, no longer deterred by the siren, and she fired two quick shots. One missed, but the second blew a dog’s brains out over his comrades. The pack turned on the dying dog and started to tear him apart, gnawing at his bloody remains. Sickened, Elspeth drove away as fast as she could, praying that the dogs wouldn't try to follow. Rover was still shaking and she stroked his fur, wondering what was going through his doggish mind. It occurred to her that she should kill him before he could turn on her, but she couldn’t bear the thought. The massive dog was her only companion.

    The M9 motorway that ran between Edinburgh and Glasgow was surprisingly clear. Elspeth guessed that the police had managed to deter most of the population from travelling on the motorways – or that the refugees had made their escape and never returned before the plague caught up with them. It was an oddly desolate landscape, with caravans abandoned at the side of the road – or inhabited by the dead. Wild dogs roamed the area, hunting for humans to eat, while thousands of birds swarmed through the air. She could have sworn that she saw a fox peering down at her before it vanished, the sight reminding her of how many wild creatures still lived in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Scotland</st1:place></st1:country-region>. Without the human race, their numbers would rapidly increase.

    Rover slowly regained his confidence as they passed near Grangemouth and up towards <st1:place w:st="on">Stirling</st1:place>, skirting the small city and the police roadblocks that had barred all passage onto the M9. Outside the city, the roads were still clear of abandoned cars, but some of them had been closed by the police, requiring her to negotiate a series of small barricades and deserted roadblocks. She drove through a small village that had been devastated by a firestorm, with a handful of buildings still burning away as she passed. On impulse, she halted the vehicle and stepped out into the open, pistol in hand. The village shops had been stripped of everything even remotely worth having before the plague had caught up with owners and looters alike. She’d never wanted to live in a small village, but her grandmother had chosen to live in one before old age took her life, preferring tranquillity to life in a busy city. The overwhelming grief almost caught up with her before she remembered how close they were to Blair Drummond and the Safari Park. How long would it be before the park’s collection of wild animals escaped into the surrounding countryside?

    She struggled to make sense of the map as darkness began to fall. The last time she’d driven up to the <st1:place w:st="on">Highlands</st1:place>, she’d used a Tom-Tom GPS device – and the SUV had nothing of the sort. It occurred to her that the GPS system might still be operational if she could find a working GPS receiver and she altered her path towards Dunblane. The police hadn’t had such an overwhelming presence in the smaller city, allowing more people to flee into the countryside before the plague caught up with them. Even so, navigating her way into the outskirts was tricky and the light was already beginning to fade when she halted the SUV outside a large electronics store. It was as dark and silent as the grave. Elspeth considered breaking into the store anyway, even though night was falling rapidly, but a moment’s rational thought convinced her that that could be very dangerous. Instead, she broke into the nearest house after knocking hard, hoping desperately that someone had survived. There was no power inside the house, naturally, but she had found a torch and used it to search the house for dogs or other dangerous animals. She found nothing apart from a pair of hamsters in separate cages, clearly the property of the house’s children. There was no sign of any bodies within the house. The owners must have decamped into the countryside before the government had clamped down on population movement.

    Elspeth called Rover back into the house and carefully shut and locked the door, once she’d moved her pistols and ammunition into her bag. The house had one advantage over the tent she’d taken from Mr Archer; it was defensible. If there were packs of wild dogs wandering through the small city, she would be able to hide from their attentions – or defend herself, at the worst. The dogs might already have sniffed out her presence.

    Cooking proved to be tricky on a gas stove – it had been years since she’d tried to cook while camping – but she managed to heat up a tin of baked beans and pork sausages. A quick check of the cupboards revealed nothing, apart from some breakfast cereal and a bottle of milk that smelt disgusting when she opened it. She’d never eaten beans without toast before, but there was little choice. After everything she’d been through since discovering that she was alone, the beans tasted like manna from heaven. There were four beds in the house and, after some consideration, she moved into the master bedroom and locked the door. Rover scratched unhappily at the door for several minutes, before settling down to sleep. Elspeth was tired, yet sleep didn’t come easy – and when it came, she was tormented by bad dreams.

    She’d planned to get up early, but she ended up oversleeping and woke up later than she’d wanted. Rover was pacing the room in clear desperation, leaving Elspeth puzzled until she realised that he needed to go to the toilet. She opened the door for him and he fled out into the garden. Elspeth left him there to do his business and started to organise her breakfast. Tea without milk was unpleasant, but there was little choice. Besides, teabags would last a long time and boiled water was always safe to drink. She felt dirty and grimy as she dressed herself, yet there was no way to wash. The water was cut off here too.

    Her hasty breakfast was interrupted by heavy barking from outside. Elspeth grabbed her pistol and ran out, wondering if they were being attacked by wild dogs again. Instead, Rover was chasing a pair of rabbits through the bushes, desperately trying to catch and eat them. Elspeth called to the dog and he came over to her reluctantly, pausing only to shoot a disdainful glance at the rabbits. Without humans keeping their numbers in check, Elspeth realised, they’d be breeding like mad. Her Girl Guide predecessors would have been taught how to catch rabbits, but it hadn’t been included when she’d joined the group. It had been rather politically incorrect.

    Once she’d fed Rover some doggy food she’d liberated from Mr Archer’s house, they set off together, back to the electronics store. Surprised at how quickly she’d abandoned any moral reluctance to steal, it was easy to break in through the glass and pick up a GPS device. It was less easy to work out how to power it until she found a cable that would allow her to charge it from the SUV. Once it was up and running, she found that it could be used, although it didn’t seem to know about the police roadblocks. Shaking her head in wry amusement, she started to drive back towards the petrol station. The SUV needed fuel to run and she was starting to run low.

    The first petrol station the GPS had in its memory had been burned to the ground, although she could find no reason for the fire – or any way of accessing the underground tanks. The second appeared to be completely empty; the third had fuel, but no power. It took nearly an hour to decipher the instructions for manually pumping fuel out of the underground tank, leaving her feeling tired and drained. The stench of fuel, luckily, overwhelmed the stench of dead humans. This city, just like <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></st1:City>, was rapidly becoming uninhabitable. Once she’d filled up several spare bottles of fuel, she drove back onto the M9 and skirted the city before heading up the A9.

    She was nearing Milton when she heard the cry for help.
  4. weegrannymush

    weegrannymush Monkey+

    Now this is a "fun" read for me....I was born and brought up in Edinburgh but emigrated to Canada in 1952. Really neat to see a survival story set in my homeland. I am enjoying it immensely so far, I will look forward to more of it!
  5. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    For a moment, the cry barely registered. Although she didn’t want to admit it, she had been growing used to being alone, hearing only the sounds of wild animals and the SUV. The cry was unquestionably human and she tried to tell herself that she was imagining it, before she heard another cry for help. It was human; Elspeth turned the SUV off the road and drove cross-country, heedless of the possible danger. One hand gripped the pistol as the other clung onto the steering wheel for dear life. The cry came again and again and she tooted the horn in response, driving right towards a tree surrounded by wild dogs. They were barking frantically as they leapt up at the tree – and the person desperately clinging to a high branch.
    <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />
    Elspeth didn’t stop to think. She drove the SUV right at the dogs, gunning the engine and slamming into the beasts that were too slow to dodge the vehicle. Rover barked angrily as she knocked down several dogs, while the others turned to attack the SUV. They swarmed over the vehicle like angry bees, yet they couldn’t break in and attack her. After a long moment of nightmarish rage, the dogs turned and fled. They left their dead behind them. Rover jumped out of the vehicle as soon as Elspeth opened the door and barked towards the retreating dogs, his barks scaring them away.

    “Help me,” a voice said, desperately. “Please…”

    Elspeth looked up. A young boy, no more than seven years old, was clinging to the branch desperately. God alone knew how he’d scrambled up the tree, but with the dogs in hot pursuit he’d probably had a great deal of incentive. He was black, but his skin was warped and pitted by the plague. Elspeth touched her own cheek in sympathy; even now, the remains of the plague were flaking from her and drifting down to the ground. It was funny how her personal vanity had taken a beating without anyone else around. As a schoolchild, she would have refused to go to school with such a face.

    “It’s going to be OK,” Elspeth promised. The boy looked down at her worshipfully. She couldn't understand how he had survived for so long, even without the plague claiming his life. Elspeth had had to struggle to remain alive on her own. “I’ll get you down from there…”

    She glanced around in hopes of finding a ladder, but saw nothing. Unsure of how long the child could remain on the branch, she hopped back into the SUV and carefully manoeuvred it until it was directly below the branch. Scrambling up to the top of the vehicle, she held out her hands for the boy to slide into, catching him before he could fall. He weighed much less than she had expected and she could feel his ribs through his jumper as she caught him. A moment later, they were both on the ground, watching warily for the return of the dogs.

    “Thank you,” the boy said. Now she had him on the ground, he looked alternatively shy and assertive, just like most growing boys confronted by an unfamiliar adult. Elspeth felt her heart go out to him – had he survived without anyone else, picking through the remains of human civilisation for food? Coming to think of it, how had he survived? He’d clearly been infected by the plague, just like her. It wasn’t as if they had anything in common, beyond a shared humanity. “Where have you been?”

    Elspeth was puzzled by the question, before deciding that the boy was partly in shock. “I’ve come up from <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></st1:City>,” she said. By his accent, the boy had actually been raised down south. “Where have you been?”

    “Granny said you’d be coming,” the boy said, firmly. He hesitated, on the verge of tears, before catching her hand. “She said you’d bring help for us.”

    Elspeth stared at him. “Us?”

    “I’m <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City>,” the boy said. “Don’t you know my name?”

    As they drove towards the isolated house, the story started to make a certain kind of sense. <st1:City w:st="on">Tyler</st1:City> had been staying with a friend’s grandma in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Scotland</st1:place></st1:country-region> while his parents went on holiday to France, joining his friend Paul and his sisters. Some time ago – his time sense was poor, suggesting that he was definitely in shock – they’d all started to fall ill. The grandma had taken it badly and eventually retired to her room and locked the door, promising that help was on the way; the next thing <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> remembered was waking up with a scarred face, along with the other children. They’d found themselves struggling to survive and none of them had been able to wake the grandmother. Elspeth mentally concluded that the grandmother was dead.

    <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> was so relieved to see another face that he chatted on endlessly as they parked beside the farmhouse. Elspeth listened carefully, half-amused at how <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> described their search for food and half-alarmed at the discovery that she would now be caring for four children as well as herself and Rover. The other three children – Paul, Janet and Mary – came out of the house and stared at the SUV, before running over and grabbing hold of Elspeth, trusting that she would know what to do. Elspeth felt tears coming to her eyes as she stared down at their childish figures, wondering how she could tell them that their parents would not be coming back. Or perhaps they were right to hold out hope. They’d survived the plague, after all.

    The big cooker in the old farmhouse was powered by a can of natural gas, rather than being connected to any outside source of power. Elspeth had never used anything like it, but with some help from Janet she was able to figure out the basic principles and start cooking some of the foodstuffs she’d liberated from <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Edinburgh</st1:place></st1:City>. The kids had eaten their way through anything within reach, but they hadn’t been able to reach the highest shelves or open the freezer. Elspeth checked the meat inside the freezer and decided that it was probably safe to eat, at least for the moment. She had no idea how long the generator would continue to function and a quick check revealed that neither she nor any of the kids knew how to operate it.

    Children adapt quickly to new realities, Elspeth remembered. Tyler and his friends had found themselves on their own, yet they hadn’t come apart. But then, death wasn't something real to children of their young age. Like most Western-born kids, death was rarely a part of their lives; they still believed that their parents were still out there, somewhere. <st1:City w:st="on">Tyler</st1:City> was even talking about reaching <st1:country-region w:st="on">France</st1:country-region> on his cycle, seemingly unaware of the distance between <st1:country-region w:st="on">Scotland</st1:country-region> and <st1:country-region w:st="on">France</st1:country-region>, let alone the <st1:place w:st="on">English Channel</st1:place> between the two countries. Elspeth kept her own counsel, torn between acting as a mother and as a big sister.

    Once the children were happily eating her makeshift stew, she left them in the kitchen – with Rover to guard them – and walked upstairs to the grandmother’s room. It was locked, as <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> had said, but the lock wasn’t a very strong one and she was able to open the door with the help of a few tools from the farmhouse’s toolbox. The smell struck her as soon as the door opened and she gagged, fighting to avoid breathing in the stench of blood and **** and piss – and decayed human flesh. She covered her nose with one hand and pushed the door open with the other, looking for the grandmother. The old lady lay on her bed, her face covered with pustules that looked hellishly evil against her pale skin. She was unquestionably dead. Donning a set of gloves that had probably been used for gardening, Elspeth managed to manhandle the body into a large sack and push it downstairs. The old lady would have to be buried somewhere outside her house. Once the body was outside, she went back into the room, opened the windows and carefully stripped everything that had been stained by blood and other bodily wastes. They'd all have to be burned to prevent further infection.

    “Cool,” <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> said, as soon as he saw her pistol. “Is that a real gun? Can I play with it?”

    “No,” Elspeth snapped. The thought of a young boy playing with a loaded firearm was thoroughly alarming. If there were only five humans left alive in the world, how could they risk losing even one life? “If you touch the gun without my permission, I’ll roast your behind with my hairbrush, understand?”

    It was hardly a politically-correct threat, but it seemed to do the job. Tyler and Paul followed her outside and helped to dig a large pit in the middle of the grandmother’s flower beds. Elspeth had no idea how deep it should be to prevent further infection, but she didn’t have anything that could be used to burn the body properly. The children were oddly silent as she pushed the body into the pit and started to cover it with dirt. She barely remembered the words of any prayers for the dead, but she slowly recited what she could as she finished burying the old lady, adding a silent prayer that the body would decompose and help to feed the flowers the grandma had clearly loved. Afterwards, all of the children cried and Elspeth comforted them as best as she could. The loss of their grandmother had suddenly become real to them.

    She spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the farm, relying on Rover to warn her if the packs of dogs threatened to return. It was tempting to try to set up home on the farm, but the blunt truth was that she knew almost nothing about farming. The handful of sheep and cattle on the farm needed care – and she had no idea how to even start caring for them. At least the children knew how to milk the cattle, thankfully. It had given them something healthy to drink while they’d waited for help that might never have come.

    Tyler and Janet accepted it calmly when she told them that they’d have to leave the farm and head north, although she had no idea if they truly understood. Paul and Mary burst into tears at the thought, convinced that they would be abandoning their grandmother – and that their parents wouldn't know where to find them when they returned to the farm. Elspeth’s heart went out to them, desperately trying to find words that would convince them that their parents were very likely dead. And then there was the other problem. If she was wrong about the islands still possessing a human population, their quest would end in disaster.

    She spent the evening reading through some of the practical guides the old woman had saved for her grandchildren, including instructions on how to cook and preserve meat for later consumption. The guidebooks had been written in the days before everyone had access to cheap power and told her all sorts of tricks that hadn’t been included in the Girl Guides, where respect for the environment and the animal kingdom trumped survivalist tricks. She ended up cooking as much of the meat as possible and leaving it to cool, hoping that it would survive their trip up north. The sheep would have to be slaughtered, according to the books, but she couldn’t bring herself to do that. She’d have to learn sooner or later, she knew, yet she could barely face the possibility.

    The kids had been sleeping together in a nest of blankets in the living room. Elspeth had to smile when she saw the arrangements, but didn’t bother to insist that they changed them. Besides, she needed to dig out camping supplies for the children and anything else in the old farm that might be useful. If she’d had another adult with a driving licence…but she was alone. <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> insisted on taking his cycle and Elspeth reluctantly agreed. Once they ran out of fuel, the cycle would be the most advanced form of transport on Earth.

    Her second night in the post-plague world was surprisingly restful. Oddly, seeing the children had boosted her morale, even though she knew that they would be a burden until they learned how to help her. Two boys, two girls and two natural pairings between them – they could help to restart the human race. And yet, they were just children; would they even survive long enough to start having kids? Elspeth had no illusions about the difficulty of providing proper care for pregnant women in the post-plague world. As a trainee doctor, she’d spent two months volunteering in a refugee camp in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Sudan</st1:place></st1:country-region>. It had convinced her that life in primitive societies – and squalid refugee camps – was nasty, brutish and short. The conditions in post-plague <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Scotland</st1:place></st1:country-region> would be little better. With that thought, she drifted off to sleep.

    The sunlight streaming in through the windows woke her and she staggered off downstairs. Surprisingly, the farm’s taps were actually working, allowing her to draw off a kettle of water and boil it on the strove, before pouring it into the washtub and taking a primitive bath. <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> explained when she asked him that the farmhouse drew its water from an underground stream rather than the water mains; the grandmother had apparently never liked or respected the water companies. The kids were less keen on the idea of washing, particularly the boys, but Elspeth insisted and they reluctantly complied. Even though they’d survived the plague, proper hygiene would make the difference between survival and catching something nasty that couldn’t be treated in the post-plague world.

    They ate the remaining tinned food for breakfast and followed it up with bacon and eggs. The hens had been laying eggs during the night, according to <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City>, leading Elspeth to seriously consider taking them on the trip north. She found herself questioning her decision to continue heading north, to the point where she found herself studying the farm again, wondering if it was worth staying. Maybe she could use the guidebooks to learn how to maintain the farm and provide for the kids…perhaps by ransacking other farms for livestock and seeds. The thought was tempting, but she ultimately dismissed it. A single disaster would put an end to them.

    Once they were ready to depart – the hens having been stuffed into travel cages and fed with grain – Elspeth helped the children and Rover into the SUV and then made one last circuit of the farm. In the distance, she could see birds hovering high overhead, more than ever before. She knew what they were feasting on…shuddering, she returned to the vehicle and started to drive. The GPS system seemed oddly reluctant to work at first, but eventually allowed her to plot out a route towards the north. According to its system, they should be at Mallaig within seven hours. Elspeth doubted that it would be that easy. And she was right.

    Not entirely to her surprise, the A9 had been blocked in several places. Most of the time, the blockage was caused by crashed cars after their drivers had collapsed from the plague. Elspeth had to either climb out of her vehicle and move them out of the way or drive around them, something that wasn't always easy even with the SUV. Some of the cars were still inhabited by dead bodies, warning her not to go near them for fear of infection. She briefly considered setting light to some of the cars in the hopes of burning them out of the way, but decided against the risk. It might have started a blaze she couldn’t escape. The police roadblocks were easier to remove once she figured out how they fitted together. Some genius had designed them to be almost impossible to remove from one side, but on the other they could be nudged away by a vehicle or even a single human. She slipped off the A9 as it started to twist around the Cairngorms, choosing to take the <st1:Street w:st="on"><st1:address w:st="on">Old Military Road</st1:address></st1:Street> that should – according to her GPS – reduce the time taking to steer around the mountains. The whole scene was oddly tranquil, even when travelling through deserted villages, and she almost relaxed. They were passing through a camping ground when she saw the man run out right in front of her.

    “Stop,” he yelled. “You have to stop for me!”
    Pezz, STANGF150, Yoldering and 3 others like this.
  6. Yoldering

    Yoldering Monkey+++

    Wow, you have me hooked again. What a cliff-hanger of a chapter...
  7. squiddley

    squiddley Monkey+++

    Hooked here also,another great story Chris.
  8. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Thanks guys. This is planned as a short story, but I may expand it one day.

  9. Yoldering

    Yoldering Monkey+++

    Please tell me that the short story isn't over!!!
  10. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    It's not - two more sections to go.

    Yoldering likes this.
  11. Yoldering

    Yoldering Monkey+++

    Good!!! I really like this one. One comment though...I was confused about how long she had been sick and how long she was a volunteer. You started out saying 2 days since she had been called into service, then three days since she had been sick. You might want to revisit that.
  12. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    Elspeth slammed on the brakes and the SUV skidded to a halt. The man staggered forward and started to hug the vehicle, tears running down his cheeks. His eyes were desperate, his face unshaven and pockmarked with the plague’s unmistakable calling card. He wore the remains of a fancy suit and – she noted as she stepped out of the SUV – smelled as if he hadn’t washed for several days. <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:smarttags" /><st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Tyler</st1:City></st1:place> had been chatting happily away as they drove around the mountains, but even he fell silent when he saw the man. Rover growled, deep in his throat; on impulse, Elspeth hid the pistol. She had the feeling that showing their new friend her weapons would be a mistake.
    <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />
    “You have to help me,” the man pleaded, as he came around to her window. His breath stank of something Elspeth couldn’t identify, but didn’t smell pleasant. Up close, his eyes seemed to roam everywhere, as if he was having difficulty focusing on anything. “Please – you have to help me!”

    “I will help you,” Elspeth said, although she wasn't sure that it was the wisest course of action. The man seemed to be completely out of his mind. His eyes weren't even tracking her movements, even the swell of her breasts. He didn’t seem to quite believe in her existence. “What happened?”

    “They’re in the tent,” the man said, half-crying as he clung to the SUV. “Please! You have to help them.”

    A tent had been positioned some distance from the road, bright orange against the surrounding greenery. It looked half-erected, as if the person putting it together had been unable to complete the job, either through the plague or simple drunkenness. Elspeth carefully manoeuvred to hide the pistol as she stepped out of the car. If their new friend calmed down and returned to something reassembling sanity, he’d be very useful. Another adult would make the difference between life and death.

    “Don’t worry about anything,” she advised, using the tone she’d been taught as a medical student. A doctor had to know what she was doing at all times – or at least put forward a convincing pretence. Patients who felt that their doctors were incompetent tended to get rowdy. “I’m here – lead me to the tent.”

    The man stumbled away and Elspeth followed him, studying him carefully. He appeared to be half-drunk, staggering rather than walking upright. She’d banned herself and Brad from drinking when she’d started studying medicine; even with the NHS in a bad state it still frowned upon doctors with a taste for the demon drink. And yet…she honestly wasn't sure if their new friend was drunk or not. He might well be in shock.

    He waved at the tent and Elspeth opened it, carefully. The stench of death hit her at once, making her gag – just like the dead grandmother. Carefully, she opened the tent wide enough to allow the sun to shine inside, revealing a young woman and a child, barely more than five years old. They were both dead, their skin pockmarked with the signs of the plague. The wedding ring the young woman wore on her finger told the entire story. She’d been the man’s wife and the mother of his child – and they’d both died of the plague while their husband and father watched hopelessly. No wonder his mind had snapped. She knew enough about the male mind to know that his inability to help them would have destroyed him.

    With some help from Tyler – the man sat by the side of the road, sobbing as if he could no longer tell himself that his family were merely very sick – she set up the camping stove and brewed a kettle of water. The coffee had been salvaged from the old farm and it tasted stronger than she had expected, but the man drank as if he was desperately thirsty. It didn’t look as if he’d been taking care of himself. Once he was calmer, Elspeth started to ask him questions, hoping to learn why he too had been spared. It swiftly became clear that – once again – there was no apparent reason for his resistance to the plague. It was a very undiscriminating disease.

    “My name is Peter McCourt,” the man said, finally. He refused to look at the tent, as if it didn’t quite exist for him. Elspeth told herself that he would recover soon, but until then…she’d have to bury the bodies, or leave them to rot in the open air. She was actually surprised that wild dogs hadn’t already reached the camping grounds and attacked their new friend, but perhaps they were still busy ravaging through nearby towns and villages. “I came up here as a visitor and…”

    Elspeth nodded. Judging from what few supplies were left in the tent, Peter and his family had actually come up to the Cairngorms before the plague had burst into lethal existence, only to be trapped at the camping ground when the police and military had started to block the roads. It might have seemed a blessing in disguise at first – they were quite some distance from civilisation – but the plague had caught up with them anyway. Some of the speculators on the internet – before the government had shut it down to try to contain the panic – had suggested that the plague had an unnaturally long incubation time and had already infected the entire world before humans began to drop like flies. <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:country-region w:st="on">Iran</st1:country-region></st1:place> might have merely been very unlucky, the first to have people dying of the plague. Or maybe it had struck first in <st1:place w:st="on">Africa</st1:place> and no one had noticed in time.

    Peter – with some gentle encouragement – told his story. He was a young lawyer, something that made Elspeth roll her eyes. She would have given anything for someone from the SAS, or even a Scout Leader, someone with real experience in surviving off the land. A lawyer…there was no room for lawyers in the brave new world of the post-plague era. Peter seemed not to realise that the world had been damaged beyond repair. At one point, he offered to represent Elspeth in a lawsuit for free; at another, he talked of going back to <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:City w:st="on">Glasgow</st1:City></st1:place> and returning to his wife. He might not have slipped into insanity, but his mind was very definitely damaged.

    Elspeth watched him as he drank his third mug of coffee. Part of her suggested that they should simply abandon him; the rest of her knew that they would need him. And besides, if they were the only humans left alive…didn’t they have a duty to the human race to repopulate? Peter was old enough to give her children, unlike either Tyler or Paul. The kids seemed to have mixed feelings about their new friend. He seemed to like them half the time, before slipping back into madness and telling them about his young boy who would grow up big and strong. Elspeth winced as he motioned back to the tent, knowing that his child would never grow up. How could they simply abandon him?

    Convincing Peter to drive his own car – and follow them around the mountains – wasn't easy, but she finally succeeded. Two cars were definitely better than one, Elspeth felt – and besides, it would give them some distance. She didn’t say anything to the kids as they drove onwards, unwilling to burden them with worrying about their possible father figure. Young men without fathers tended to grow up badly and both Tyler and Paul would never see their real fathers again. They needed Peter desperately, if he could be the father they needed.

    Despite her worries, the first few hours passed uneventfully. Peter was able to help her manoeuvre the cars and roadblocks out of the way, allowing them to pick up speed as they started to head over towards the west. The GPS system kept flickering in and out of service, but it was still able to point them towards the bridge that linked the Scottish mainland to Skye. The journey would be slower than it had been in the days before the plague, yet Skye was a logical destination for anyone else who had escaped the plague. Or so she hoped. The wild dogs that appeared out of nowhere and chased the cars for a few miles before dropping behind suggested exactly what kind of fate was waiting for any surviving human on the mainland. Rover barked an angry challenge at the dogs, daring them to attack his humans. Elspeth considered trying to tame other dogs, but she knew that it would be tricky. A starving dog who had grown used to the taste of human flesh would be very dangerous.

    The first Bed and Breakfast they encountered, as the light started to fade again, was surrounded by cars and dead bodies. Elspeth took one look at the flies buzzing around the corpses and decided that the entire area was too dangerous to risk using as a campsite. Besides, even though they had tents, it would be a great deal safer to set up inside a house or hotel for the night. Wild dogs could break into a tent – and by now every dogs for hundreds of miles probably knew that a handful of humans were still alive. She had to fight to remind herself that dogs weren't the enemy and that they probably wouldn't hunt them out of malice – but in the end, it hardly mattered. Whatever the dogs had once been, they were feral animals now, animals that needed to be put down.

    She kept driving on, but as the darkness continued to fall she realised that they’d made a mistake. The next B&B turned out to be a burned-out shell, with its own surrounding cluster of dead bodies. Elspeth looked around, in the hope that whoever had burned the building was still alive, but saw no one. There wasn't even a sign pointing towards Skye. A check of the GPS revealed that the next B&B was ten miles away – and, in the growing darkness, she was worried about driving. After surviving the plague, dying because she’d rammed the SUV into an unseen car would be the height of irony. Shaking her head, she reluctantly decided to set up camp in the nearby clearing. They’d just have to hope that there were no packs of wild dogs – or worse – nearby.

    Peter proved oddly helpful when they started to set up camp. His fingers were still shaking and Tyler and Paul had to do all the work of assembling the tents, but he did manage to find water for her to boil in the little stove. The milk had already started to go off, even though she’d surrounded it with bottles of cold water, but everything else seemed to have survived. They didn’t bother taking the hens out of their cages; they merely fed them some grain and stole their eggs. Between Peter and Elspeth trying to cook, they managed to produce a workable dinner.

    “We’re the last, aren’t we? Peter said. He didn’t sound particularly sane, even though he was calm and composed. His fingers were still twitching, leaving Elspeth wishing that she knew more about psychology than she did. A proper shrink would probably have been able to help Peter cope with his grief, but all the shrinks were dead and gone, along with his family. Peter seemed to be coping with his survivor’s guilt by lapsing into madness. “There’s no one else left.”

    “If we have survived, others have survived,” Elspeth said. She’d been racking her brains for hours, trying to figure out if there was something that they all had in common that had saved their lives. There was nothing; she, Mary and Janet were all female, but Peter, Paul and Tyler were all male. <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> was black; everyone else was white. Peter was a few years older than Elspeth; the others were younger. Nothing seemed to suggest a reason that they had been spared. It might just have been simple good luck, or a genetic abnormality…but even that made little sense. Human researchers had barely come to grips with the plague when they’d started dropping like flies. “We’ll find them all one day.”

    “I read a comic book once,” Peter said. He sounded thoughtful, his face illuminated by the fire they’d built and lit to scare away wild animals. Camping beside it was almost like camping out before she’d grown into an adult, allowing her to pretend – just for a moment – that everything was like it had been before the plague. The kids were enjoying themselves, showing just how adaptable they could be. “There was this guy, the sole survivor of a plague that killed every man in the world. The only humans left were women.”

    He chuckled, harshly. “You’d think he would have had fun ****ing every girl in the world, but no – the fool was too stupid to use what he had. He was a right ****ing weakling, too shy and retiring to do anything…him and his stupid monkey.” He laughed again. “And now I’m the last man left alive.”

    “There will be others,” Elspeth said. She didn’t like the way this conversation was going. Peter sounded as if he was coming to some very unpleasant conclusions. “You cannot be unique.”

    “But I might as well be,” Peter said. He was eying her now, his gaze drifting over her breasts. She cursed her decision to leave the pistol in her bag, where she couldn’t reach it without alerting him. “If there’s a single male alive in <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">London</st1:place></st1:City>, we’re never going to meet him. There might be men in <st1:country-region w:st="on">Germany</st1:country-region> and <st1:country-region w:st="on">Russia</st1:country-region> and <st1:country-region w:st="on">China</st1:country-region> and <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">America</st1:place></st1:country-region> and we would never even know that they lived at all. Our world has shrunk to the distance we can travel in our cars and how long will they last?”

    Elspeth had to admit that he had a point. Modern society rarely designed its artefacts for a long life. By now, what the fires and rains hadn’t ruined in the big cities would be decaying, destroying supplies they desperately needed. If they returned in a year, after the threat of disease had faded, they might find very little left that they could put to use. The books in libraries would have rotted away; cars would have rusted; medical supplies would have decayed to uselessness. There were hundreds of old buildings in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Britain</st1:place></st1:country-region> that might survive without maintenance, but the once-great cities would be nothing more than empty shells.

    “But we can rebuild,” Peter said. He reached forward, one hand catching and squeezing her shoulder. “We can repopulate the country and…”

    “Not now,” Elspeth said. She pushed Peter’s hand away, praying that he would take the hint. He might have been right – they could repopulate the country, even though they were facing a dangerous genetic bottleneck – but she wasn't in the mood for sex with anyone. The thought reminded her of Brad, her former boyfriend…the man she hadn’t even thought to bury. “We can’t…”

    Peter lunged forward, pushing at her. “You don’t ****ing deny me,” he snapped. His lips pressed against hers, despite her reluctance. “I’m the last ****ing man!”

    “You can’t,” Elspeth said, desperately. Madness or desperation had leant him a strength she hadn’t expected. Pushing him back was impossible; her position made it hard to fight. If he forced her down, he might be able to tear off her clothes and force himself on her. “It’s not right…”

    He laughed at her feeble protest. “I can do anything,” he proclaimed. Elspeth felt her blood run cold. He was right. There were no longer any policemen to enforce the laws, or judges and juries to ensure that the guilty were punished – not even the threat of military force to keep the population in line. He could do anything he wanted; the only thing that might stop him was beating him in a fight. “I’m the last ****ing man…”

    <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> started forward, only to be kicked in the chest. He might have had only the vaguest idea of what was going on, but even he had known it was wrong. And it had all come to nothing…

    “****ing black bastard,” Peter swore at him. “You’ll get your turn later…”

    Elspeth gathered herself, a new resolve forming in her heart. “You can have me,” she said, finally. “You can have me, but not in front of them.”

    He was very close to her, the bulge in his pants alarmingly evident. “And why should I not **** you right here, right now?”

    “If you **** me away from them,” Elspeth said, trying to appear meek and submissive, “I will make it good for you. I swear!”

    She dropped her eyes in apparent surrender, praying that he’d take her offer. He studied her for a long moment and then forced her to turn around, crawling away from the campsite on her hands and knees. She heard him chuckle again as he pushed at her, his hands on her neck. Making her crawl was exciting him still further, to the point where his hands started to roam under her chest and over her breasts. Cold rage burned through her, but she forced it to stay off her face. She needed to wait for the right moment…

    Once they were half-hidden from the campfire, he forced her to turn around and kneel in front of him. Elspeth swallowed her own disgust and started to run her hands up his trousers, feeling the bulge of his penis. He gasped in delight as she slowly started to unzip him, allowing his cock to spring out into the open. Elspeth braced herself, ran her hands down it as if she were about to take him into her mouth, and then rammed her hand into his testicles as hard as she could.

    Peter bellowed in pain, doubling over and almost falling on top of her. Elspeth scrambled to her feet as he reached for her, his hand almost snatching her foot before she was out of reach. Picking up a fallen tree branch, she brought it down on his head, sending him crashing back to the ground. Her anger almost overpowered her and she slammed it down again on his back again and again, before it broke in her hand. He’d been knocked completely out of it.

    Shaking, Elspeth leaned back against the nearest tree. Her entire body was shaking. She’d thought about rape – every woman did – and yet…somehow she had believed that it would never happen to her. It was the thought of being violated, of losing control over her body – and of being soiled, of being unable to love or relax in the presence of men. And perhaps Peter had never believed that he would become a rapist. He’d loved his wife and child, yet seeing them die in front of him had driven him over the edge.

    She had no idea of how long she stayed there, long enough for the first raindrops to come trickling down from high above. Slowly, she gathered herself and checked Peter’s body. He’d been luckier than he deserved; somehow, he was still alive, although he might have been brain-damaged by the beating she’d given him. She had no idea how long it would be before he awoke, if he ever did. There was a good chance that he would simply slip into the merciful arms of death without ever waking up.

    The coldly logical part of her mind suggested that she should **** him now, while he was unaware of what was going on, and hope that it made her pregnant. It would give her a child she could raise up without having to rely on anyone else. The rest of her mind told that part of her to shut the hell up. It was a stupid ****ing idea and the last thing she wanted to do was carry the child of her would-be rapist, even if she raped him herself. Angrily, she took one last look at him and walked back to the campsite, straightening her clothes as she walked. The boys looked up at her in stark relief when she walked into the light, holding pieces of wood they’d picked up from the ground. They’d planned to fight Peter for her.

    “Get in the car,” she ordered. They’d have to abandon the tents…unless she went back and killed Peter. The thought was tempting, but it would mean adding yet another death to the billions who had died in the plague. “It’s time to go.”

    “Slash his tires,” <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> advised. Elspeth gaped at him, and then nodded in agreement. He was quite right. If Peter came after them, slashed tires would make it much harder for him to give chase. “And then we can go.”

    She was tired and stressed…and she wanted nothing more than to lie down and go to sleep, but somehow she managed to drive them several miles down the road without incident. If Peter had recovered – if she hadn’t battered him to death or if he hadn’t caught hypothermia from exposure – he wouldn't be able to follow them, at least not at first. The slashed tires should make it harder for him to follow, or so she hoped. She didn’t know how to change a tire, but Peter might well know. Did he even have enough spare tires to replace the four <st1:City w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tyler</st1:place></st1:City> had slashed?

    Once they were some distance from their campsite, she found a side road and drove up it far enough so that they would be hidden from the main road. She couldn’t recall if she’d mentioned that they planned to head to Skye to Peter, but it hardly mattered. They didn’t bother setting up the tents again, or anything else. She just put the pistol within easy reach, closed her eyes and went to sleep.
    Pezz, ssonb, jasonl6 and 4 others like this.
  13. Yoldering

    Yoldering Monkey+++

    A lot of stuff happened in that one...
    Sapper John likes this.
  14. mysterymet

    mysterymet Monkey+++

    Make it a Long story!
  15. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    It did, didn't it?

    Not now, but I may return to this world or expand it for a novel - if I have the time. I'd have to give it a lot more thought, perhaps expand on the reason certain people were spared.

  16. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    She awoke the following morning with her entire body aching. It took her several minutes to remember what had happened – and then she jumped out of the SUV, carrying her pistol at the ready. Birds were singing in the trees and there were signs that wild animals had had a look at their vehicle in the night, but there was no sign of Peter. She briefly considered heading back to their campsite just to check that he was dead, yet there was little point. Tyler, who was becoming an expert at setting up the stove, managed to produce a strong cup of coffee that tasted sufficiently foul. Mary offered her some of the dried food they’d brought and Elspeth nibbled it gratefully. She was much less pleased to discover that Janet had been taking water from a brackish stream and lectured her sharply on the dangers of using water for anything without boiling it first. There was no reason to believe that the stream was polluted, but the dangers were very real.
    <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:eek:ffice:eek:ffice" />
    When she turned it on, she discovered that the GPS system had completely failed. She experimented briefly with different settings, but it no longer seemed capable of picking up signals from any orbiting satellites and constantly informed her that NO SIGNAL DETECTED. There was no way she could fix it; hell, she wasn't even certain where to begin. The chances were that the problem was somewhere in America, so far out of her reach that it might as well have been on the far side of the moon. She pulled out the maps she’d liberated from the barracks and studied them thoughtfully. The road to Kyle of Lochalsh was fairly easy to find on the maps, even though they were studded with military symbols that meant nothing to her.

    “My dad was always saying that women couldn't read maps,” Tyler said, with a child’s innocence. “My mum always shouted at him when he said it.”

    Elspeth bit down the response that came to mind. “Get in the car,” she said. Rover wandered back into the clearing, carrying a squirrel he’d caught somehow. Elspeth felt sick, before realising that if Rover could fend for himself, it would save some of their supplies for the humans. “It’s time to go.”

    She kept a wary eye out for any sign of Peter as they started to drive back onto the main road and headed northwest. There was nothing, leaving her to wonder if she’d killed him, or if he’d merely stumbled back to the campfire and collapsed there. A flicker of guilt passed through her mind, only to be banished by the memory of his hands working their way over her body and of the look in his eye when he’d declared himself the last man on Earth. There was no need to feel guilty; if he was right, and strength and cunning would determine the natural order of things in the post-plague world, she’d won. And if he had been wrong, he’d been more than sufficiently punished for his attempt at rape.

    The Highlands had always struck her as desolate and, not for the first time, she entertained doubts about her chosen course. A handful of white sheep studded the hillsides, suggesting that they might be able to find a nearby farm and set up there – if they’d been able to farm the land. A man born a hundred years ago would know how to feed himself; Elspeth and most of her contemporaries lacked even the basic survival skills. She was poor in the midst of riches beyond the imagination of her ancestors.

    Tyler and Paul chatted away happily, leaving the girls to brood. Elspeth kept driving, realising that there were fewer cars on the road now – and no roadblocks. It appeared that the police and military had been concentrating on the more densely populated parts of Scotland – but then, there had always been limits to what they could do. The government had announced a general call-up of everyone with military experience when the plague reached Britain – too little, too late. From what she’d heard before the internet crashed, both the police and the army had suffered soaring rates of desertion before the plague swept over them. Police and soldiers had families too.

    Several hours passed, without incident. The SUV started to run low on fuel and she stopped long enough to transfer the remaining bottles of fuel to the tank, realising that if they ran out of fuel again without locating another petrol station they’d have to abandon the SUV. She’d packed two big rucksacks, along with a smaller set for the children, but she’d never be able to carry everything in the SUV on her back. Most of the survival supplies would have to be abandoned.

    The sun was high in the sky when they finally started to drive down towards the Kyle of Lochalsh. She felt oddly relieved as they saw the sea ahead of them, and the dark shape of the Skye Bridge only a few miles away. It had rained during the night, saving parts of the village from the fires that had burned through other human settlements. Even so, it felt eerie to drive through the town looking for shops – or any sign of people. There were few bodies on the streets and many showed signs of having been partly-consumed by wild dogs. The shopping centre, when they found it, had been completely stripped bare. There was nothing left for them, or anyone else.

    Looking across the water towards the village of Kyleakin, on the Isle of Skye, she almost dropped dead from shock. A single plume of smoke rose into the sky, from a point near the village. Desperately, she fumbled for her binoculars and saw a large fire, carefully assembled by human hands. It reminded her of a bonfire she’d seen once, a roaring furnace taller than her father – someone had to be alive over there! Maybe more than one...the bonfire might well have needed a whole team to build in three-four days. She turned back to the SUV, feeling new hope growing within her heart, and shouted at the children to buckle in. They drove out of the town and up towards the Skye Bridge, praying that the bridge wouldn't be blocked. If it was - and there was no way to undo the blockade - she had no idea how they were going to get across to the island. There were boats in the marina, but she had no idea how to use them. A rowboat should be easy to use, yet she had no idea if there were any currents running through the water that would blow her far off course.

    Someone had been busy on the bridge, she realised with a sinking heart. They’d formed a handful of cars into a makeshift barrier, slashing their tires and probably draining them of fuel to make them impossible to shift. Broken glass had been scattered around at random, rendering even a walk dangerous, although she was sure that they could pick their way through the barricade. She was still contemplating the best course of action when she heard a shout.

    “You,” it bellowed. “Stop right there!”

    Elspeth looked up, sharply. A young man had just come around the barricade, holding a shotgun as if he knew how to use it. She froze; after encountering Peter, she didn't want to encounter any other young men in the post-plague world. On the other hand, this young man was clearly younger than her – and more controlled than Peter had ever been. He didn't look to have gone mad.

    He would have been handsome if he hadn't carried the plague’s scars on his face. Much of his dark hair had fallen out, one of the rarer plague symptoms; his nose looked as if it had been broken by someone in a fight. He glanced at her and then looked oddly shy, just like a boy who was maturing and developing an interest in women for the first time. She had to appear dauntingly old to him...

    “Hey,” Tyler protested. “Don’t point that gun at us!”

    Elspeth kept her hands in plain sight as she smiled, hopefully. “I came seeking a place to live,” she said. The shotgun drifted away from her chest, much to her relief. “The entire mainland appears to be dead.”

    “Aye, you’re no the first,” the young man said. He had a stronger accent than Elspeth was used to, but she could understand him. “I’m Calvin. Come on in and meet the neighbours.”

    Abandoning the SUV – and pocketing her pistol – Elspeth allowed him to lead them over the bridge and down to the village on Skye. Fires had consumed part of the village, but otherwise it looked more orderly than anywhere else in the post-plague world. A boat was just setting out from harbour, carrying two older men with fishing nets; several other people were standing at the far side, watching Calvin as he led them down onto Skye. She was relieved to see an older woman who looked as formidable as a Head Nurse, with two other girls; one older and one younger than herself. At least society hadn’t collapsed completely here, even if it was made up of refugees. She saw a Chinese man holding hands with an Indian girl who was clearly at least five years younger than him, both so out of place that she guessed that they were both refugees from the mainland.

    An older man stepped forward to greet them, giving Elspeth a careful scrutiny that was somehow utterly impersonal. “You’ll have come a long way, I’m guessing,” he said. “Tell me about your trip.”

    “Ah, don’t be cruel, Hamish,” the older woman said. “Can’t you see the poor girl is tired off her feet. “Let her have a wee nip first and then she can tell us her story.”

    The next two hours passed slowly. The kids were allowed to go play with the other children on the island, but Hamish and Morag – the older woman – insisted that Elspeth tell them everything from her recovery from the plague to her arrival at Skye. Reluctantly, she told them about Peter and how he’d tried to rape her, before explaining how she’d had the idea about heading north. Only forty people had been known to survive the plague in the highlands, all of whom – apart from Peter – had made it to Skye. There could be any number of survivors trapped on the mainland, without any way of escaping to Skye...

    “We’ve tried broadcasting our location, but no one seems to be listening,” Hamish concluded. He’d been on the island since long before the plague; a former Sergeant-Major from the Highland Division who’d returned home after his service. Most of the others had made it to the island after a long harrowing journey. God alone knew how many had died in the aftermath of the plague; burned in their houses, eaten by wild dogs, poisoned by rotting food...there were just too many ways to die. “Welcome to our humble abode. I’m afraid you will have to work...”

    “She’s a doctor, you daft old man,” Morag said, bluntly. “We need her here.”

    Elspeth flushed, feeling weak now that she was safe. All she wanted to do was sleep in one of the abandoned houses and forget the world around her. But she couldn’t.

    “I don’t know how useful I will be,” she admitted. “Much of my training was based around drugs that no longer exist...”

    “You’ll have to learn,” Hamish said. “There are no radio broadcasts from outside, even on the government frequencies. As far as we know, we’re the only ones left alive.”

    Over the next year, Skye became a real community, forged in the shared trauma of surviving the plague. Others joined the island’s population, bringing it up to ninety before two of the girls became pregnant and new children began to be born. Elspeth found herself kept very busy on the island, working with a half-trained nurse to set broken bones and ensure that everyone ate properly. Farming was difficult in the early years, but they could fish and hunt to supplement the basic rations they’d found on the mainland. They had some hard times, yet by the end of the year Hamish was confident that they would survive.

    Elspeth was less sure. Ninety people, even though they included twelve people from non-white backgrounds, weren’t a large genetic base for society. Some few centuries down the line, they might be in real trouble. There was no way to know – and besides, Skye couldn't be unique. They might wind up discovering other settlements, scattered around the globe. The human race had taken a beating, but it would survive.

    Two years after their arrival, she allowed herself to be courted by one of the young men and married him six months later. Married life was different in such a small community, but she grew used to it. Her first child, a year later, gave her renewed hope. The community would survive, even though the children rarely believed the stories from their elders. They lived in the ruins of a civilisation that had straddled the world, a civilisation that had been destroyed by the plague. Even when they established settlements on the mainland, scavenging what they could from the ruined cities, they still didn't understand. Their world was Skye and the surrounding islands.

    The old world was gone. It might never return.

    The End
    While I was plotting this story, I chanced to hear a rendition of a song from the 1960s or thereabouts. The refrain ran:

    It was such a lovely dream,
    It’s the best I’d ever seen,
    Once there was a wonderland,
    My eyes would not believe.

    To someone born in an earlier century, our world would seem like a wonderland. Certainly, there would be details that would shock and horrify them, but on the whole we have so many advantages that they would beg to join us. It behoves us to remember that in the past – as in many disadvantaged parts of the world today – life was no bed of roses, but nasty, brutish and short. And perhaps we should remember how much we have forgotten over the years about the true nature of the world – and survival. Our world seems strong, but it is fragile...ey,
    Pezz, kom78, ssonb and 5 others like this.
  17. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Not so alone after all.
  18. ChrisNuttall

    ChrisNuttall Monkey+++

    LOL - no, not really - but then, the story would have been pointless if she'd eventually starved to death.

    Sapper John likes this.
  19. Yoldering

    Yoldering Monkey+++

    I loved it! A really nice ending...Thanks for sharing...
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