IF YOU HAVEN’T READ BOOKS 1 AND 2
THERE ARE SPOILERS IN THIS FIRST CHAPTER
Saturday 6th August 2071 AD
Cairngorms National Park
Due to the lack of a breeze, the smoke from the farmhouse chimney drifted. “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, and where there’s fire from a chimney, there’s fuel.” The unmistakable taste of woodsmoke registered with Bill. He used the substantial hedgerows along the side of the main road to conceal his approach.
He arrived at the overgrown road which led to the farmhouse. A weatherbeaten wooden signpost proclaimed ‘Eagle’s Nest Farm – Bed and Breakfast’. Beneath the fixed sign with its faded paintwork swung a narrow board suggesting ‘No Vacancies’.
Bill walked slowly along the road, avoiding the large clumps of undergrowth which had found weaknesses in the private road and taken up residence. Like most tarmac surfaces the years had not been kind to the narrow track. When Bill was still one hundred metres away it became evident that the farmhouse wasn’t a standard, modern oblong shape. He could clearly see that the side of the building nearest to him was at least as long as the frontage of the house.
Was it square-shaped? No, because the roof sections suggested a rearward extension added to the original building.
“Of course, it’s a farmhouse conversion to create the bed and breakfast accommodation.” As he assessed the number of outbuildings he wondered if the place had continued to be used as a farm of some description while also operating as a B & B hotel.
More to the point, was this the new home of Patsy Mayne, murderess and mother to a wild child?
If she had moved here from the cave back near Loch Awe she had certainly stepped up in her choice of accommodation. Again, if this was where Patsy had ended up, it meant that she had come a long way in the small rowing boat that Bill had seen her in with her daughter two weeks earlier.
Bill reached the end of a long barn and paused again. He was wary of booby-traps and the possibility of ambush so he held his laser rifle in the ready position, the butt into his shoulder and the business end pointing where his gaze fell. It occurred to pull back the large sliding door of the barn but there was the possibility of it making noise so he left it and continued walking towards the house.
“Stop there, and don’t turn around—I’ve got a gun on you.” It was a woman’s voice.
Bill halted and slowly held his arms out to the sides, the weapon in his right hand. He was eager to show compliance.
“Place the rifle on the ground really slowly.” She paused. “You move too quick—I’ll shoot.”
Bill was sure it wasn’t Patsy, so he squatted slowly and spoke without turning. “You’re in charge.” He placed the laser rifle on the ground and stood slowly without turning, his arms still outstretched. “I’ll take a step away from the rifle so you’ll see I mean no harm.” As he stepped away he saw a slim young blond man walking forward from the farmhouse, staring wide-eyed.
The woman behind Bill said, “Josh, go and get Helen out here.”
Bill was reminded of his introduction to Sandy and Flint in the glass corridor. The two soldiers had been astounded to see survivors. Bill had known it would be risky to tackle the first meeting in this way but in such circumstances, it was better not to be viewed as aggressive or suspicious.
Josh turned and ran towards the house, “Helen! Helen!” He arrived and paused when he pushed the front door open. He spoke animatedly through the open doorway and stepped back. A curvaceous woman with shoulder-length auburn hair stepped outside and turned. Her lips parted and she stared towards the visitor before she turned and addressed somebody inside the house.
Bill smiled as the dark-haired woman and the blond man approached. “I’d advise moving slightly to one side as you approach—if your friend behind me misses, she might hit one of you.”
“Don’t worry,” the woman with the gun whispered. “I don’t bloody miss.”
Helen looked about late-thirties. She assessed Bill as she approached. “Who … where … how—”
“My name is Bill Kane and I’m one of a group of survivors who live about one hundred miles from here.”
“Have you come here alone?”
“No, I’m a member of a small scouting party … and there are four of us; two men and two women.”
“Where are the others?”
“The two women are only armed with spears but the man has a laser rifle like mine, and unless I’m mistaken, it will presently be aimed with accuracy at the cautious young lady behind me.”
Helen looked along the driveway on which Bill had approached, and then she half-turned to gaze towards the fields. “I don’t see anyone.”
“If your friend behind me lowers her weapon I’ll get them to show themselves.” He smiled, partly because they’d found more survivors and partly because they were so cautious.
“Do any of you have the sickness?”
“No, we’ve been underground since the bombardment.” He paused. “I’d like to lower my arms so if one of you wants to search me you’ll see that I have a hunting knife but no other guns.”
“We’ll take this slowly if you don’t mind.” Helen half-turned. “Josh, go and get Sam—quickly.”
Josh ran off to the house again but didn’t shout this time. He opened the door and addressed someone inside. Within seconds, a tall and muscular young man with curly ginger hair stepped outside and turned towards the other three people.
“Who is he, Helen?” Sam walked purposefully toward the group. He was dressed in a T-shirt, jeans and training shoes, just like the others.
Helen said, “He says his name is Bill Kane and he’s got three friends with him and they don’t have the sickness.”
“Where are the other three?” Sam didn’t look like he would accept any funny business.
Bill said, “They’re nearby, and I’ve already offered to have them show themselves. I’d prefer it if your friend behind me was to lower her weapon first. A simple show of good faith would be good.”
Sam glanced at the laser rifle a few feet away on the floor. “Where did you get that from?”
“It’s a long story, Sam, as I’m sure yours is too. It would be more comfortable to discuss over a hot brew.” Bill looked at the three people in front of him. The woman was in her thirties at most, and probably too young to be the mother of the two young men who looked very different and were in their early twenties.
Sam nodded towards the building. “Turn around and place your hands high against the barn.”
Bill complied slowly, moving his feet apart to assume a position with which he was well-acquainted but usually as the person conducting the search. “If you touch the knife, Sam, be careful, it’s very sharp.”
Sam stepped forward and made quick work of running his hands over Bill’s arms, jacket and trousers. He used his forefinger and thumb to lift the hunting knife from the scabbard and then dropped it beside the rifle.
Bill said, “We now have what used to be called a Mexican stand-off.”
Bill remained in position, leaning against the barn. “I’m now unarmed and though you have a weapon aimed at me, there is a rifle trained on one of you. We ought to reach a compromise and show some trust before someone gets hurt.”
“Okay,” Helen said, “step away from the barn, and you can relax your arms.”
Bill stepped away from the barn and turned; relaxed. “Helen, if I may call you Helen—do you know where the fusebox is in the house?”
Helen nodded but squinted. “You may call me Helen … but why do you want to know about the fusebox?”
“Do you have electricity?”
“Of course, not—we haven’t had electricity since—no, why?”
“I’d like to gain your trust.”
“I know where the fusebox is,” Josh said, “but there’s no electricity available. What magic are you going to produce?”
“With respect, mate,” Bill said, “locate your fusebox, trip the main switch and then the smaller ones, and try any indoor light which has a bulb.”
“Please, Josh,” Bill said and smiled. “Oh, before you do it—make sure the cooker is switched off.”
Josh turned to Helen who nodded and then turned to look at Bill but didn’t speak.
Josh ran back to the big farmhouse.
Helen looked Bill in the eye but didn’t address him. “Lower your rifle, Amber.”
“Are you sure—”
Sam, the big curly-haired man nodded to the woman behind Bill.
The four people stood silently, waiting and Bill finally half-turned and got to see the woman who had the gun.
Amber was the same height as Bill, pretty, slim and had curly brown hair. Held low across her body wasn’t a rifle, but a double-barrelled shotgun which looked surprisingly comfortable in her care. Amber was in her early twenties and wore the local regulation T-shirt and jeans.
“Helen,” Josh gasped as he walked towards the group. “The electricity is on.”
She half-turned and squinted. “In the kitchen?”
“In the whole bloody house.” Josh’s expression and tone demonstrated his disbelief.
Helen briefly closed her eyes and when she opened them she nodded to Sam. “He’s okay.”
“Okay, Mr Kane,” Sam said, “call your people out, but if anybody looks threatening, you’ll be the first one to die.” He nodded to Amber.
Bill turned and shouted towards the large field less than fifty metres from the farmhouse. “Come on out guys, and Jay-Dee, please hold your weapon by the end of the barrel in one hand.”
Slightly behind Amber, there was a noise as the young Asian nurse stood up and stepped out from his hiding place, immediately raising his rifle in one hand the way Bill had explained to him earlier. Jay-Dee used his other hand to wipe the loose leaves from his face and neck. He also used his free hand to adjust the straps of his bergen slightly.
“Hello.” He strolled forward, looking relaxed except for the rifle he held out to the side.
From the edge of the crops even closer to the group, Victoria and Cherry stood and stepped out of the greenery. In both cases, in the right hand was a long wooden spear and in the left, they carried one of Bill’s two small backpacks. Both of the women were wearing their bergens, and a smile.
“Hi there,” Victoria said.
“Hello, guys,” Cherry said.
The farmhouse group stared at the newcomers as they advanced.
Bill smiled as he looked at their expressions of disbelief. “I’d like to introduce from left to right, Jay-Dee, Victoria and Cherry … who, by the way, is responsible for you having electricity.”
Helen said, “And none of you has the sickness?”
Victoria shook her head, “No, but we could all do with a cup of tea.”
Helen burst into tears.
Victoria handed her spear to Cherry, dropped Bill’s backpack and went forward to embrace the woman who appeared to be in shock. “I can see we’re going to have a lot to talk about.”
Jay-Dee slowly lowered his rifle and slung it upside down from his shoulder. “Who have we got here?”
“Sam,” the red-haired man said and they shook hands. “This is Josh and Amber. The woman your friend is comforting is Helen.” He turned to Bill and offered his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Bill.”
“Likewise, mate,” Bill said and returned the firm handshake. He turned and grinned as Amber moved her shotgun over to take his hand.
“We’re a bit cautious—” Amber smiled.
“You did well,” Bill said, “and thanks for keeping your cool.”
When the handshakes were performed all around the group stood together.
Helen wiped her eyes and regained her composure. “We’d better invite you inside now, and you can have that cup of tea—and meet the others.”
“Others?” Cherry said.
Five minutes later the Auchcarn team met Emma, Imogen and Quincy—all in their early twenties and all, like their friends, dressed in T-shirt and jeans.
Victoria said, “Do I hear children somewhere nearby?”
“Yes,” Imogen said. “Quincy and I have four-year-old twins and Sam and Emma have a three-year-old.”
The main building complex was made up of the original modern farmhouse and then extensions back on both ends created the bed and breakfast rooms—three on each side. The entirety formed a U-shape, or as Bill referred to it, ‘an open-ended square’. Within the buildings was a sizeable square garden with four long picnic tables complete with wooden benches. A variety of playground apparatus was set up, including swings, a slide, a see-saw and a sandpit.
Off to one corner was a chicken coop and the ten birds wandered freely around the garden
While the adults sat around two of the tables, the three small children were happy to play together, not so much ignoring the new faces but avoiding them with wary glances.
All of the farmhouse companions were eager to know of survival apart from themselves. As had been agreed earlier, Bill rapidly summarised the news that as far as they knew, apart from their own base at Auchcarn there was nothing but desolation in every direction except north.
Tears flowed for several minutes as Helen and the younger people accepted what they’d long believed—all hope of their loved ones’ survival had been forlorn.
For a few minutes, apart from sobbing, and whispers of reassurance there was no conversation. It was Victoria who grasped the chance to get things going.
“Could you tell us how you all ended up here, Helen?”
“I’ll give you the basics and then my friends here will be able to fill in the blanks, later.” Helen explained that she had been a teacher at a sixth-form college on a trip with a few students. “I had the college mini-bus and brought some students with me to spend a week here in Aviemore. We came for them to gain practical experience in livestock and arable farming.” She paused. “There were eight students—“
Amber reached out and placed a reassuring hand on Helen’s arm. “We’ll explain about the others later, eh?”
Helen nodded. “Anyway, I suppose that explains why my companions are all the same age.” She forced a smile. “When we arrived here six years ago I was a thirty-two-year-old teacher who was trusted to take a bunch of sixteen-year-olds out for a week.” She looked around the table. “For at least the past four years they’ve been taking care of things, including me.”
Sam laughed. “Don’t listen to her, guys, if it wasn’t for Helen’s quick-thinking and leadership in the early days, none of us would be around now.”
Victoria said, “Where was the college you were all from?”
“Glasgow,” Emma said. She pushed her long fair hair back from her face and wiped her eyes. “We’ve tried to accept that there isn’t much left of the world as we knew it, but it’s still hard.”
Cherry said, “From where I’m sitting, I think you’ve all done extremely well, both in support of each other and how far you seem to have come.” She looked around the others’ faces. “Our group were all adults when our survival story started but some of us still go through dark periods—it’s a sign that you’ve still got your emotions.”
Quincy, a curly, dark-haired and muscular man, said, “How many are there in your group?”
“Twenty-five adults and ten children,” Cherry said and smiled. “All of the children have been born since we became a group.”
Bill said, “Helen, what made you decide to stay here instead of trying to get back on the road?” He avoided using a phrase which involved the word ‘home’.
“I was stuck with eight young students who were depending on me because our vehicle was taken when hundreds of the townspeople panicked. We were all out in a field and one of these guys … it was you, Josh wasn’t it … saw the convoy?”
“Yes,” Josh said. “We were in a field together about half an hour from here on foot. Something caught my eye and I turned to see a continuous line of fast-moving vehicles on the main road.”
Sam took up the story. “We ran back here as fast as we could but our mini-bus was gone and so were the two cars which were outside. I got back here close on Emma’s heels—she’s athletic. The front door was open and the six people who should have been here having gone, and, as I said, so too had the vehicles.”
Jay-Dee said, “I know it’s a farm but how did you get by in the early days, or even the early months or years?”
Emma nodded towards Helen. “Our teacher saved us.” She grinned. “I ran back here after checking the main road. I told the others that nobody would stop to tell me anything, and every vehicle was going fast. We switched on the television and caught a bulletin which told us the bad news.” For a moment she stared at the table. “We all thought we were going to die in this farmhouse and we sat and cried together in the living room.”
Sam put a muscular arm around his partner and kissed her on the cheek. He said, “Helen kept her head. She got us to hitch up the two-ton grain trailer onto the big tractor. We all climbed inside the trailer and Helen drove us the short distance into town. There wasn’t a soul around. Outside the biggest building in Aviemore, The Cairngorm Hotel and Spa, there was a sign saying, ‘God be with us all’ but the place was locked up.”
Helen said, “The Cairngorm Hotel and Spa was the town’s safe haven, and secured from inside.”
Cherry shook her head. “What did you do?”
Sam said, “Our teacher became Miss Resilient.” He smiled. “Helen drove our tractor back through to the edge of town and parked outside the supermarket and told us to get ready to shop.”
The Auchcarn team were all mystified and looked from Emma and Sam to Helen and back again.
Sam continued, “Helen lifted an iron bar that was on the tractor and smashed open the main doors of the supermarket. She told us to get inside and fill trolleys but we were all to go to different sections.” He laughed briefly. “I think it helped that we were teenagers and Helen’s attitude inspired us. I can’t remember how long we did it but we were ferrying out trolley-loads of everything and there were eight of us at that time.”
Cherry said, “You just brought the stuff out and threw it into the big trailer?”
“Yes,” Amber said. “A two-ton grain trailer takes a shitload of stuff. Helen told us not to touch chilled or frozen goods and to avoid bottled drinks except water. She was in the trailer stacking the gear as fast as we could get it out to her.”
Quincy said, “By the time we stopped it was easier for a couple of us to hang on to the tractor for the ride back, rather than try to get everybody into the trailer. We got back and Helen drove the tractor and trailer straight into the barn. All the buildings here are interconnected so we all came through to the house to catch up with the news.”
Victoria said, “What was on the news by that time?”
Helen said, “Grace Jeffries, the Prime Minister was pleading for everybody to go to their safe havens. The local safe haven was closed to us, and the tractor wouldn’t have taken us very far. I knew that Hamish who owned the farm had made preparations. I briefed everybody quickly on what we were going to do, we grabbed a load of food and drink and went down into the cellar.”
“Did you have any facilities down there?”
“Yes,” Helen said. “We had running water, a camping stove with a large gas container, and there was a small but functioning toilet.”
Imogen, the curvaceous blonde said, “For a while, we cried and then we tried reassuring each other and our whole situation felt hopeless. I remember after a while we even discussed how we could perform a mass suicide, but Helen wouldn’t hear of it.”
Helen laughed briefly. “I think that was my incentive to keep it together. And that, was how our journey together started.”