Monday, 11 June 2012

180 degrees Malthus

   It will be dark soon and they will come out to hunt us.

   I slide out of my daytime hideaway under five layers of crushed cars and scrabble up to the usual vantage point in a concertinaed Ford saloon on top of the stack. This gives me almost 360 degrees of vision to scan of the wasteland of the Epidemic. Hunger strikes me only seconds after I awake and I spend five painful minutes resetting the web of fishing-lines hung with the DVDs and strips of cooking foil that are my early warning system.  Waves of nausea and cold sweats assault my body like a fever. To survive for any length of time in this world I long ago adopted the only rules that count: stay hidden; stay covered; stay awake and alert all night long. Oh, and search for the dwindling supply of food that won’t kill you, and do it by using stealth and camouflage. This last consists of a green boiler suit and a hood, boots, respirator mask and gauntlets; all taken from a hazmat technician who no longer needed them. I’ve stitched fishermen’s netting all over it in patches and bunches and festooned the mesh with strips of rag and plastic bags and fake foliage from a florist’s shop so that at any distance I resemble just another patch of rubbish-strewn, weed-covered Epidemic devastation. In short, I look like nothing at all. I wonder if Cal and Jaz will be about tonight (dusk is falling quickly now) so we can forage as a team again for greater ground coverage and hopefully a modicum of protection against stray Hunters.
  I pick at the wing mirror of the Volkswagen one layer down with my multitool: a device so complex, versatile and varied that it makes a Swiss Army knife seem like a flint axe by comparison, hoping to set up another line of sight in my perch so I can monitor the path going westward through the scrap yard to the high wall whilst I concentrate on staring east towards the blocked gates that would one day be unchained and thrown aside. It’s my favourite gadget as it had been even before the Epidemic: before the actual Swiss Army became a blood-sucking horde - as have the Boy Scouts, the Neighbourhood Watch, Greenpeace and the Women’s Institute. The Jehovah’s Witnesses no longer knock politely at your door.
   Before the Epidemic, vampire attacks were rare and were undertaken in remote, undeveloped parts of the world whose natives and law enforcement officials were laughed to scorn by the sophisticated journalists and TV audiences of the modern world: vampires were merely the fantasies of superstitious tribesmen or invented as alibis for corrupt, drug-dealing policemen. When the infection spread and the reality of the Undead became inescapable the authorities rushed to investigate the historical evidence of those old cases and it soon emerged that the world’s thousand or so old-style vamps had mostly dwelt in the West or in Russia and travelled to the Third World for what the New York Times dubbed ‘blood tourism’. A kid turns up, drained and cold in a Manila rubbish dump, and it’s all So what? Plenty more where she came fromMexico City suffers a string of abductions and exsanguinations but when the parish priest shouts ¡Vampiro! it’s Adios, muchacho, and lay off the coke for a while, eh, Father? Nobody knew or cared enough to find out anything much about that older generation, especially as their kills usually happened in hot countries where forensic science and the procedures of post-mortem examination were sketchy at best – and where drained and broken-necked bodies were buried as hastily as all the others. It was only when Stockholm’s early morning streets became littered with corpses over the Christmas holidays two years ago that the world’s governments started to take notice - but by then it was far too late. Humanity never did discover why the old-timers allowed their numbers to rise so quickly or how their growth overwhelmed any customary methods of population control. Perhaps they believed their time had come and humanity was ready to accept them as rather glamourous overlords. By the time the Hindu Kush and Haiti were overrun such questions had become academic.
   I pick dirt from my nails and double check the kit in my rucksack: lighter and lighter fuel; machete; yards of climbing rope and three spools of fishing line. Change of pants and a spare bra. Comb and hairbrush. Rouge and brushes. Roll-on deodorant – I was always a fragrant girl even during adolescence but it’s literally a life saver to be odourless in the Fourth World. A pack of silver plastic survival bags and a Thermos complete my portable wealth – ‘wealth’ now meaning simply whatever’s needed to keep death at bay. Perhaps that’s what it always meant. All those luxuries like television and medicine and law had been camouflage to hide the eternal truth that the world is just one great big food chain and the only true value is whatever is required to keep you at the top.
   In the Third World the old methods seemed to work pretty well at first; the Indian and Chinese governments had sent their huge armies to remote and overrun provinces; the tribal lands and wildernesses where people had always been one step from starvation. The wooden stake and the decapitating stroke of a sword or machete had been enough to dispatch the infected; especially when accompanied by cleansing fire and so the city folk could relax again and turn off their TVs when footage of the charnel pits became too graphic. But it was in the oldest industrialised countries that the contagion transmuted into the Epidemic. Western governments tried whatever they could to keep their territories safe but even a series of twenty megaton extensions to the Panama Canal and flooding the Channel Tunnel were weeks too late. Homeland Security clods must have been patting down returning tourists and missing the signs for at least forty days and forty nights before they closed the airports, and here in Britain it turned out that possessing the right European Union paperwork at Dover really was a passport to previously undreamed of opportunity. Towards the end the TV had begun to blame long exposure to its own broadcasting frequencies or microwaves or mobile phone towers or processed food for whatever had mutated the original vector of old-time vampirism: be it God’s curse (or the Devil’s); a virus; bad attitude; bad breath; sinful thought, whatever. So it became a global pandemic that transformed the pampered citizens of the First and Second Worlds into blood-hungry monsters who can survive in full sunlight unlike their terrified parents (though they still prefer to hunt by night) and who are also strong enough to feed on human survivors and their own horrified progenitors alike.
   The wing mirror comes off the Volks at last and I jam the glass into the Ford’s empty rear-view frame; unlike the Old Ones this new breed of vampire casts reflections. My stomach churns again and I begin to think more urgently about looking for my friends... Jaz said she’d noticed traces of humanity over by the gasworks the night before last; a small remnant of homo sapiens holding out against both races of vampire until their food runs out and both they and the unmutated vampires go extinct. The new ones’ll disappear soon thereafter too, if cannibalism turns out to be a busted flush. I scan the rear view from the driver’s seat. I can see straight through to the back window and then towards the western wall of the yard. Nothing at all obscures my view in the mirror, but then nothing has been able to since the English broke our advance at Waterloo.
      It will be dark soon and they will come out to hunt us.

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