Description: For Budd Ashby, the last day before the end of the world went rather well. He scored a stay in London’s most expensive hotel, and spent the night with Juliette, a beautiful French pop star. By the following dawn, however, things are very different. Almost everyone is dead. The power is out and the airwaves are empty. Isolated inside the hotel, the few survivors discover that the rest of London is much the same. And things only get worse. A dense fog descends from the sky, plunging the city streets into darkness. Then, the innumerable-dead return to life, the walking corpses hungry for living flesh. To Budd and Juliette, staying alive seems an impossible task. Only one man knows that mere survival will not be enough. The zombies are simply the beginning, and the real terror is still to come. But, despite the desperate circumstances, he believes there is a single chance to save the world. And whether Budd likes it or not, he is the key. He is mankind’s last hope.
I guess you wanna know a little ’bout me.
Which, as it happens, is a good thing, ’cause I, sure as hell-is-hot, don’t wanna sit
here talking ’bout you.
My name’s William Ashby, but you can just call me Budd. I was a chopper-jockey with the U.S. Marine Corps, but now I’m retired. Well, not actually retired, more like discharged. But that’s another story—of cheap booze, an uppity Colonel and a broken jaw. And, yes, that is the right order, sir.
Nowadays, I’m just a civilian pilot, earning a crust with all the other schmucks.
But I’m not one of those namby-pamby flyboys in their big passenger jets. I fly proper
planes, you know, the ones that don’t have a giant computer to do all the thinking.
The ones where bits fall off and you’re expected to keep going.
Okay, so it ain’t rocket science. But it’s a good, honest job. And I don’t do too
badly with the ladies in the flyer bars, either. Well, I’ll admit—but just between us—
that most of my recent conquests have lived on the far side of Wrinkly-Bottom, if you
know what I mean. But I kinda like the more mature woman. Especially with the
wonders of modern medicine. You know, the cut’n’tuck’n’stretch kind.
Not that I’m one to talk; over the years even these chiselled good looks have worn
a bit rough around the edges.
In a good way, though. Makes me look more rugged.
But let’s get back to business. For the last few months I’ve been working for this
research company, TimeTech Solutions. All I did was fly shipments and personnel
between London and a crummy base on a rock the pesky Russians called Ostrov
something-or-other—hell, I can’t pronounce the word. The name translates to Hope
Island, which, for those of you not holding an atlas and a magnifying glass, is located
in the freezing waters of the Arctic Circle.
Hope Island. The name couldn’t be more ironic. The only hoping I ever did when
I was there concerned getting off it again.
I didn’t have a clue what TimeTech did, but they kept me busy, ferrying around
the sky like a wet-behind-the-ears delivery boy. I even picked up cartons of newspapers
for the science nerds to read. My boss was intimidated by his boss’s shadow, the coffee
from the machines was always cold, most of the other pilots excelled at slacking off and
I spent half my time in the wind and snow, shuffling around with my fingers crossed
that the engines wouldn’t freeze.
Sure, if I try hard enough, I could think of some good points.
Nah, it’d take me all day. I should’ve jacked it in and got a new job, but I was
far too lazy. People have always told me that my laid-back attitude is a curse—
parents, teachers, ex-wives, lovers, bosses—you know the score. But, hey, at least I’ve
never had an ulcer.
So, I reckon I know what you’re asking yourself.
How did this all start?
Am I right?
You’re trying to work out how a guy like me ended up stuck in a place like this,
having first survived the end of the world.
Well, let me tell you, brother, I’ve been thinking ’bout that myself!
And you’re in luck, ’cause I really do know where it all started. I’m probably the only one left alive on this God-forsaken planet who does.
What’s more, I was there.
Right in the stinking-mouthed, bad-complexioned thick of it.
Ain’t that something? The first exam I’ll ever get top marks on is ‘Armageddon–101!’ My old lecturers would be so proud.
If they weren’t already dead.
Anyway, from what I heard, it started the same way as most problems do. With
A faint light appeared through the darkness. It shone briefly before vanishing, obscured behind the low clouds and swirling, snow-filled air. Then came snatches of engine noise over the howling winds. The mechanical din grew steadily until, at last, the small twin-engine aircraft broke out of the gloom with its nose pitched-up, ready to land.
The Beechcraft King Air 350LR aimed for the narrow strip of compacted gravel, which was topped loosely with fresh snow and would have been impossible to distinguish from the rest of the white, snow-covered wilderness were it not for the red and green lights that adorned its edges. The tyres of the purpose-built King Air were layered with tiny spikes for extra grip, and when the wheels touched down puffs of white powder shot up from the runway. The aircraft slew from one side to the other as it reduced in speed, the rudder on the T-shaped tail edging from side to side as the pilot battled to keep the plane straight.
Despite these difficulties, and the treacherous side-winds, the pilot managed to stabilise the aircraft and taxi it towards the doors of a green, snow-peaked hangar. Beyond the metal-panelled structure were other buildings of various sizes. Red lanterns on waist-high poles marked the shortest routes between them.
When the King Air neared the hangar, the large green doors started to open, sliding apart. The aircraft rolled inside before halting on the concrete ground. Around the aircraft came a surge of activity as green-overall wearing mechanics approached, some with toolboxes and one in the cab of a fuel truck.
Swift action from the tool-monkeys was never a good sign. Not for me, anyway…
The pilot eyed the commotion as he gathered his things. He walked down the aisle of the empty passenger section and pulled the lever to open the hatch at the rear of the aircraft. He was immediately grateful for the blue ski-jacket that he wore. The hangar doors were already closed, but the temperature inside the massive void had plunged below zero while they’d been open.
Standing below the hatch was a man with a large smile. “Good flight, Budd?” he called up. Anthony Pope was an African-American, born in San Francisco, and had a heartfelt laugh and a happy demeanour. He was wearing a grey jumper and padded trousers. He’d spoken over the top of a clipboard, but his eyes remained on his paperwork as he scribbled away with a pen.
“Same as usual, Tony,” the pilot answered. William, or Budd, Ashby was six-one tall, with a strong but not overly muscular build. He swept back his hair and scratched at his stubble-covered chin. There was a hint of grey mixed in its dark hue.
“That bad, hey?” Tony replied. He tucked his pen behind his ear and tore off the top piece of paper. He held it up for Budd to take. “Listen, I know you’re not gonna like this, but both Josh and Benny are down with stomach cramps, I’ve got a meetin’ with the pen-pushers and one of the science boffins just requisitioned a flight with immediate effect. I’m afraid you’re gonna have to do it.”
“Oh, come on. They can’t both be on the sick. They’re yankin’ your chain. Gimme a break, yeah? And there’s no way I should be flying in this weather, especially not solo. There’s a storm coming.”
“You know the contract, Budd. The ground crew are refuelling you now and then you’re scheduled for take off. That’s your flight plan,” Tony said. “Why don’t you get some coffee while you’re waiting? Again, I’m sorry about this, but you can rest when you get there; I cleared it with the boss that you don’t have to turn straight back around.”
“Oh, thanks a lot,” Budd said, his words trailing into a sarcastic chuckle.
Tony was a good guy, but far too much of a stickler. If the science geeks wanted an emergency flight, I’d have let ’em fly it themselves. Then they’d know what an emergency really was…
“Well, I’ve gotta get goin’,” Tony said. “I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah? Remember, we’ve got some downtime in New York next weekend. I got our places booked on the Learjet, flyin’ from Heathrow. When was the last time you partied with a couple of nice American women?”
“You’re buying,” Budd said as Tony walked away. He closed the hatch to keep the aircraft’s warmth inside and then returned to the cockpit. “Both got stomach cramps, my ass,” he said as he took his seat.
“All right, chief, what the hell is all the urgency for? I should’ve been soaping up in a lukewarm shower right ’bout now,” Budd said once the King Air had escaped the bad weather over Hope Island and was flying above the somewhat calmer waters of the sea. He adjusted the position of his headset and microphone.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t understand,” the scientist answered in a curt, well-educated English accent. He was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat and leafing through documents in a foolscap folder.
I could only think of one word to describe this particular brainiac. Work-obsessed
geek. Okay, that’s three words…
The scientist sighed and rolled his eyes up into their lids. “If I do, will you then let me work in peace?”
“No need to be a jerk, I’m just making conversation. You can always go and sit back where you’re meant to be. I’m sure we’ve got sick bags somewhere,” Budd said, thumbing towards the empty passenger compartment.
“No, no, I’m sorry. I did not mean to be rude. It’s simply that I’m under a lot of pressure. But I will explain to you what I can. Leaving aside the science, someone wants to cut our budget, and that could prove very, very dangerous.”
“Oh, you’re getting screwed for money. I know that feeling, pal. I’m a divorcee.”
“I’m sorry to hear it,” the scientist replied sympathetically.
“Don’t worry; these things happen. And I can’t really complain: two of the proceedings were my fault. At least, that’s what my lawyer told me.”
The scientist looked puzzled, but although his lips started to form a word, a question, he resisted the urge to delve further. Instead, he lowered his head and turned his attention back to his folder.
“The name’s William Ashby,” the pilot continued. He thrust his right hand under the scientist’s nose. “But you can call me Budd. My friends do.”
The scientist fumbled with his papers, preventing them from slipping away. He then shook the offered hand. “Charles Deacon.”
“Glad to meet you, Charlie. If you don’t mind me saying, you look pretty young to be a top boffin.”
The scientist forced a smile. “I guess that, at twenty-four, I am. My lecturer at Oxford used to work with Professor Samson, who’s the leader of my project, and he forwarded him one of my dissertations. A week later, I received a job offer. That was three years ago.”
“Wow, it must’ve been some dissertation. What was it on?”
“The theoretical possibility of time-travel.”
“Time-travel? You mean like that car did, in that movie?”
Deacon’s brow furrowed for a moment. “Something like that, yes.”
“So, Charlie, if you don’t mind me asking, what is it exactly you eggheads get up to that requires you to be hidden underground on a frozen rock? It’s not exactly Babe City. You know what I’m saying, right, buddy?”
“What security clearance do you have?”
“Erm,” Budd said, hooking his left eyebrow upwards. “I don’t think I have any.”
“I hold a Level Six pass. Mister Ashby, I’m truly sorry, but if you don’t already know, I cannot explain.”
“No sweat, I figured as much. Anyway, with some luck, which means as long as this weather doesn’t change, we should have you back in Blighty in seven, maybe eight, hours. Till then, just sit back and enjoy the view.”
By the time the King Air touched down on the small grass airstrip, Budd was exhausted. He opened the hatch at the back of the aircraft, hooked a rope ladder to the frame and then descended to the ground.
The scientist followed him down, looking around the quiet airfield. There was a long strip of grass that acted as the runway, and set back from its edge was a small control tower and two grey hangars. Parked nearby were two Cessna 182s, a Bell helicopter and another King Air 350LR. The main doors for the two hangars were closed.
Behind the control tower was a tarmac road that led up a slight slope towards a large, stone-built mansion. The airfield was on private property, owned and run by TimeTech Solutions. Nobody else had the use of the facilities, which Budd found gave the small airport a slumbering atmosphere. There was no one to greet them.
“You okay from here, Charlie?” Budd asked. He had left his ski-jacket on the aircraft: winter in Britain was damp and miserable, but he rarely found it cold. He placed a blue rucksack on the grass and then opened it up and took out a brown Stetson. He pulled the hat onto his head.
“Yes, I think so. Should I walk up to the mansion?”
“Got it in one. There’s not a lot inside the hangars, unless you’ve got a thing for mechanics.”
“Well, thank you again. Goodbye, Mister Ashby.”
Budd watched the scientist depart. “Good luck with your money worries,” he called out after him. “Just tell ’em the cheque’s in the mail.”
The scientist turned to wave, but said nothing in return.
Alone in the shadow of the King Air, Budd lifted his Stetson to run his hand through his dark hair, sweeping it backwards. He let out a long yawn. He was tired and, although it was only early afternoon, he intended to use one of the overnight rooms in the mansion to sleep through the remaining daylight hours. All he had to do first was file his report with the control tower. Come the evening, there was pub in a nearby village that he wanted to visit. He simply needed some rest first.
Budd woke to a knock on his door. He sat up on his bed, pushed aside the sheets and then swung his feet out onto the carpeted floor. The room’s curtains were closed and so he leant over to the bedside table and fumbled for the switch on the base of the lamp.
The knock at the door sounded again, this time a little louder. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” Budd called, his voice rasping because his throat was dry. “But if there ain’t a fire, don’t expect to see no happy, smiling face.”
He placed his finger on the switch and the room filled with light. Blinking, he got up from the bed, wearing only a pair of black boxer shorts, and then took the few steps to the door. Twisting the lock, he pulled it open. “Okay, pal, where’s the fire? Oh, it’s you.”
Charles Deacon was standing in the corridor. There was an apologetic look across the youthful scientist’s face. “I’m very sorry to wake you, Mister Ashby. But I need to ask you a favour.”
Budd stepped back and motioned for the scientist to enter the room. He returned to sit on the ruffled sheets of his bed as Deacon closed the door. “Go on, then. Ask away.”
Deacon glanced around the bedroom. There were scattered clothes on the floor, washing utensils in the sink and a half-eaten sandwich on the bedside table. They had touched down less than two hours before. “I’m here to request that you drive me to London. Apparently, there’s a conference here at the mansion this evening, and the management is
refusing to spare me a driver. They’ve lent me a car, but, well, driving is not a skill I possess. I do not have time to wait for someone from London to fetch me as it’s vital I get there as soon as possible.”
“I’d love to, Charlie, really, I would, but if I don’t get some sleep there’s no way I’ll be fit to fly back to Freeze-Your-Ass-Off-Island tomorrow morning, and that’s what my flight plan says. You’ve met my boss, right?”
“Really, that is of little consequence. I can have it taken care of. Mister Ashby, I need you to do this for me. I’ve already taken the liberty of reserving you an extra suite, and I imagine I’ll need your assistance for several days. But you won’t have much to do, so there’ll be plenty of time to relax. We’ll be staying at the New Millennium Hotel.”
Budd reached for his rucksack. He wanted a fresh pair of trousers. “Gimme two minutes.”
The New Millennium Hotel, as far as the rich and famous were concerned, was just about the snazziest, swankiest place to be seen in London. And pretty much anywhere else in Europe, too.
So, on my crappy wage, I had ’bout as much chance of staying there as I did of running for President. Of England.
All things considered, I was more than happy to give Deacon a helping hand.
Just outta the kindness of my heart…