A TEMPORARY PATCH JOB, PART 1 OF 3 by Kevin Fortune
March 8, 2012 Longer stories Tags: Ireland, Kevin Fortune
I’m Richie, and this is my little brother Greg. I’m the eldest and he’s the youngest. We’re all that’s left of the five Byrne brothers – but you know the way it is; you know the story. The other three are dead I imagine; dead and wandering in Canberra, in London and in Vancouver, along with their families. But I try not to think about it; it’s too unsettling.
We’re in a bit of a mess at the moment, Greg and I. I’m sitting in the pilot’s seat of our parked Cessna 206 and I’m waiting for the first glimmer of light to wash into the eastern sky. When it does I’ll attempt to drag this aircraft skywards for one final flight. Hopefully to a place where Greg can get some help. He’ll be okay if he’s seen to; he’ll pull through, but I fully expect to be dead by this afternoon. Thankfully he’s out cold, I think, and unaware that I’m fatally damaged, but I can’t turn around to see. Quite frankly I don’t believe I’ll ever leave this seat alive, no matter what.
Unlike our deceased brothers, the bad economy had never forced us to emigrate. We both held steady jobs in the Gardai; me as a detective and him as a snotnose recruit straight out of Templemore. Although we were separated during the first frantic days of the chaos we sought each other out and miraculously met up again. We each gravitated to the exact same place in search of the other; like we’d read each others minds.
Several years into this nightmare we were still alive and slouching aimlessly round the overgrown wilds of Leinster; drifting from place to place; scavenging, dodging the Dead. Dodging the living too, sometimes. But at least we were together. I think if I didn’t have Greg I’d just sit down and give it all up.
In our present condition it would probably be difficult for any myopic passing corpse to figure out where my bisected body begins and Greg’s dismembered one ends. There’s blood and guts all over the Cessna’s interior. As a visual aid, just so you can tell which one of us is which, Greg is the one that’s duct taped solidly to the bare aluminium floor behind me; head swollen like a watermelon and bleeding from finger and toe stumps, and I’m the disembowelled one sitting in the pilot’s seat leaking poisonous intestinal goo all over my own lap.
As it’s not yet light I’m forced to pass the interminable wait for sun-up in the only way that I can; by replaying in my head the circumstances that led up to last nights catastrophic events.
We haven’t had the aircraft for all that long, really. In our travels, before we reclaimed it, Greg and I often met up with other stragglers like ourselves. The stories they told us of their struggles were almost the same as our own, only different. Like FPS games, Greg once remarked. Hooking up with other survivors, even temporarily, was always useful as we all tended to share information; like where to find the best scavenging spots or which areas of the country had the lowest concentrations of the Dead; that kind of thing.
Also, encountering others was the only way we had of catching up on news and rumour. A lot of it was stuff we’d heard before; mostly repetitions of old, oft repeated radio transmissions, the majority of which was just plain stupid; stories of miracle cures and running Dead and the like. Even smart Dead. You’d think we had enough on our plates without frightening ourselves with rubbish like that.
Anyway, it was nearly always the same old talk until, about a year back, a new story began to quietly emerge. Survivors began to mention a mysterious new substance called, quite simply, the Stuff. Maybe it was the stuff of dreams, I don’t know, but it was spoken of in awed tones.
Apparently it could cure colds and acne. It chased away depression and shrunk haemorrhoids (this I found personally interesting). It was a must for cuts and breaks, dandruff, gout and syphilis. And cancer, of course; that goes without saying.
Most astonishingly of all though was the rumour of a bitten child in Tipperary living through the fever after an emergency infusion of the Stuff. Honestly, it sounded like the most astounding thing ever. One solitary traveller told us, in confidence, glancing around as if someone might overhear, that it could split the atom and break the speed of light. Greg asked facetiously if it could make him more attractive to women but this was just met with a blank stare from the woman who was telling us all this.
I didn’t believe a word of it, of course. Our dangerous, nomadic life was mentally and emotionally draining so I fully understood the value of rumour and myth, call it what you like; the spread of hope, perhaps. But I suspected that other pockets of humanity in other countries around the world told similar versions of this same tale. It was post human Pie in the Sky, but whenever the Stuff was mentioned a new light flared up in tired and beaten eyes.
Then one evening, just before sundown, Greg and I fell in with a friendly band who claimed to have found a batch of the Stuff lying on a roadside near Daingean. It was a purple, string like substance, they told us – like shoelaces – and it was spilling on to the ground from a dented aluminium briefcase.
“Did it have The Stuff written on the side of it?” I teased them with a smile. “I mean, how could you know for sure what it was?”
“Well, we had our suspicions, you know? But the guys who drove up in a Land Rover and took it from us at gunpoint – they seemed pretty certain.”
That sort of put the smile on the other side of my face. “And it was just lying there in the road?”
“Well, yeah! Duh! That’s where it landed when it fell from the sky.”
“The sky?” said Greg and I together. We shared an interested glance. We hadn’t heard this one before. “Someone’s flying it from place to place? Who does that, I wonder?”
This snippet kind of got our juices flowing. We knew our aircraft, you see, my brother and I, and we happened to be in the vicinity of an airfield we had flown out of many times in the past, so we decided to pay it a visit for old time’s sake.
We soon found ourselves standing at the edge of the familiar old grass runway, up to our knees in weeds, gazing wistfully at a derelict old aircraft in much the same way that one might gaze nostalgically at an old lost toy unexpectedly found. A tattered old windsock squeaked behind us as it rotated slowly on top of a nearby pole.
The aircraft, a Cessna 206, rested forlornly on flat tyres within the overgrown blast radius of a twisted Avgas barrel. Weeds and grass grew halfway up the fuselage. White flowering creepers wound round the struts and garlanded the wing tops. Strips of torn and ripped aluminium, further evidence of the blast, dangled raggedly from wings and fuselage.
“Just look at the state of Old Betsy,” sighed Greg. Oscar Bravo was, in essence, still intact and Greg – forever the amateur mechanic – removed the engine cowling and fiddled about inside. Swallows darted in alarm from their nesting places inside the cabin.
“You know, we could easily patch this yoke up,” he said with cautious enthusiasm. I recognised the upbeat tone in his voice and welcomed it. I hadn’t heard it for years.
“I suppose,” I agreed. “Sure, what else would we be doing with our time?”
A nearby barn yielded up a treasury of tools and tyres, fuel, engine oil and a few old memories. Also in the gloom we could see racks of orange jumpsuits, red helmets and sport parachutes gathering dust and cobwebs. In one dark corner a full body harness hung motionless from the roof. Framed photographs of brightly coloured skydiving formations hung from the corrugated metal walls and faded snaps of young, happy individuals were pinned in a pastiche to a dusty notice board.
We smiled gently at the laughing faces we recognised. We were up there too, Greg and I. In one snap I was getting beer poured over my head. In the blurred background of another Greg could be clearly seen kissing someone else’s girlfriend. Mine, as it happened. He smiled sheepishly when I brought this fact to his attention with my middle finger.
Greg’s enthusiasms were infectious and the Cessna soon became a labour of love. In fact, for the first time since the End we were both as happy as pigs in shite. The aircraft’s cargo door had been twisted by the blast and it hung from the airframe by a single bent hinge. It was useless so we got rid of it. Flying would be a draughty affair without it. The cabin interior had been blackened by fire and all that was left of the seats were wire frames and naked springs. The instrument panel had escaped the worst but it still needed a good cleaning. The radio was beyond repair.
We removed the seats and stripped the cabin back to bare metal. We patched the torn aluminium skin of the wings, tail and tailplane with the help of sheet metal cut from the buckled door, a stapler and duct tape. As this was just a temporary patch job we kept the stapler and several rolls of duct tape on board in case of emergencies. I roughly re-covered the pilot’s seat by cutting up an old tarpaulin and, with the aid of a musty cushion, a needle and some thread I soon had it reinstalled in the freshly cleaned out cabin. At least the pilot would have something comfy to sit on even if the passenger had nothing.
“What will we do if we get this yoke off the ground?” I asked Greg one evening.
“Let’s go look for the Stuff. Find out where it comes from; what it is. We could head for Daingean and see if we can find those guys with the Land Rover.”
“Those armed guys?”
“We might need bigger knives.” I said unhappily.
“Yeah, I know.”
I hadn’t any better ideas so, inspired by Greg, the baby of the family; the Stuff became our Holy Grail. We’d use our faithful steed; the 206, to fly us on our knightly quest. As the aircraft only had one surviving seat – and one door missing – we decided that the passenger, whether Greg or myself – we would take turns flying – should always wear a parachute system, just in case. The pilot would wear a rig too in case the airframe held any nasty surprises.
We made up all sorts of plans for emergency situations; both in the air and on the ground, because well, you’d just never know…
One morning we recharged the battery, fuelled up the Cessna, crossed our fingers, hand spun the prop (I did that – I was afraid Greg might lose his fingers), turned over the engine until… Success! But by jaysus; the noise! It was terrifying! We had almost forgotten about noise. Years spent creeping round in silence, avoiding the Dead, made us forget. Our triumphant shouts and whoops were drowned by the ear splitting roar of the engine. The supersonic speed produced by the propeller tips created a din that could be heard clean across the province.
“We should have patched up a Piper Cub!” Greg yelled, laughing as he sat at the controls. “It wouldn’t sound anything like this!”
We didn’t bother with practical sensibilities like flight testing. What was the point? Besides, the thought of the hundreds, maybe thousands of drooling cadavers now heading our way was just the excuse we needed to eagerly jump in, power up and fly away.
We began our search for the Stuff almost immediately. We flew to Daingean to check out our only lead – armed guys in a Land Rover – but all we found were dead people. There was no sign of life for miles and the noise we made as we zoomed around flushed even the deadest of the Dead from their graves. The Daingean to Edenderry road was a complete wash out.
From the air we saw more Dead than we ever thought possible. They moved across the land in dark, glutinous masses. Their population was enormous. There were five million of them roaming round an island just 430 kilometres long by 270 wide. We flew over city clogging hordes; vast shuffling packs intent on pointless journeys. To a certain extent they were channelled by the highways and byways but they were a common sight in open fields too.
“They’re endless!” Greg yelled above the engines roar; disbelief and horror in his voice. “Endless! Just like the feckin buffalo!”
We were officially the noisiest thing in the land and we caught the attention of all upright creatures, both living and dead, for a radius of at least twenty kilometres. We were a giant sound magnet, so in order to land safely, and remain safe, we developed a method designed to fool the Dead as to our whereabouts. Here’s what we’d do. We’d pick our landing spot from quiet a distance away and circle noisily to altitude several kilometres from it. Then we’d cut the engine in a cloud, if there was a cloud, and glide silently – hopefully invisibly – back to the place we wanted to go.
As ex-Gardai we knew that real success in finding the Stuff lay in gathering intelligence. We had to ask questions. Luckily, survivors weren’t fooled by our landing technique and they sought us out whenever we were on the ground. They usually found us making duct tape repairs on the wing. We swapped news and shared food. They all heard of the Stuff but none had ever come across it.
As the weeks went by we got nowhere with our investigations. Nobody knew anything. We may as well have been looking for WMD’s.
“Some detective you turned out to be,” my brother said.
But then, just yesterday, before all this trouble started, we found ourselves flying on fumes over a small midlands airfield. I was on the cusp of suggesting that we forget all about the Stuff and do something else with our time when, to our astonishment, we saw another Cessna; a smaller 182 in the drab green livery of the Air Corps, sitting quietly in the airfield below us. It hadn’t been there last week.
Too excited for caution we dived straight down to the deck, landed, and taxied directly to the fuel shed. We hopped out and walked warily back to the mysterious 182. It was sitting quite close to a rotting old Portacabin that had once housed the local flying club. Its exhaust was cold so it could have been there for hours, or days. The interior was remarkably clean compared to our own ripped up, bare metal, doorless cabin. A navigation map lay discarded on the right hand seat.
“Comfy looking seats,” remarked Greg.
“Leave them be.”
We hurriedly checked out the Portacabin for signs of occupancy but it was bare except for a table and two plastic chairs. I ached to shout out for the pilot’s attention but I reckoned that if he, or she, was in the vicinity they’d have already heard our engine as we dived in to land.
“So where’s everyone at then, Detective Byrne?” asked a disappointed Greg.
“Dunno. But if we wait here long enough they’ll come back. Let’s get ourselves fuelled up first, though, just in case they don’t, or we have to leave in a hurry.”
Greg sat up on the high wing and stuck the fuel nozzle into the wing tank. I began to hand pump juice from the ground.
“The feckin Air Corps!” he said brightly as he absently smoothed a piece of duct tape across a damaged bit of wing. “These guys just have to have something to do with the Stuff,”
“Maybe,” I muttered, unconvinced. “We never really checked out Baldonnell, did we?” Baldonnell was the Air Corp base in west Dublin. We had flown close to it but the entire region was so overrun we just turned around and flew away again.
“It sort of makes sense though, doesn’t it?” he said, “that the Air Corp might have the people to make something scientific like the Stuff.”
“No,” I said, “if they had a dozen training aircraft in their fleet then that was it. There was no way a few personnel could have held out against oceans of urban Dead, let alone assemble the expertise required to produce something as wonderful as the Stuff.”
“Well, bollocks,” Greg exclaimed quietly, almost sadly, as if I had convinced him of the futility of our search. “Hey, Richie?”
“You’d better hurry up!”
“What’s the rush?” I asked, looking up. “Oh, bollocks,” I gasped. A huddle of withered corpses shuffled out from behind the Portacabin. They must have heard us land but they hadn’t seen us yet.
“Keep pumping.” Greg whispered. “We’ve hardly got enough juice for takeoff. Pump for as long as you can.”
I rotated the handle very slowly but they saw the movement and immediately came bumbling and tottering desperately towards us.
“Aw, shite!” yelled Greg, leaping to the ground with the fuel hose in his hand.
“Hold them off until I get the checks done.” he said urgently.
“Feck the checks! Start her up and let’s go!”
“I need to do the checks, Rich? Okay?” he insisted.
“Well just hurry up and do them then, willya!” This was nuts. Why was I indulging him?
“I’ll do it on the runway! Hold them off for a minute.”
I ducked into the plane with a curse and grabbed my trusty old cudgel. It was about a metre long, polished, and had a large protuberance at its end which was just great for cracking skulls. He hopped in through the cargo door and fired up the engine. It farted and backfired. Flames and smoke blurted briefly from the exhaust as it roared into deafening life. The long grass behind the tail flattened out in the wash. He pivoted the blaring Cessna in a standing left hand turn and taxied away. Strips of duct tape rattled across the wing top. The prop wash pushed me sideways as I strode up to meet the nearest corpse and I laughed stupidly as several of them were tipped over by the localised blast.
They were a sad looking bunch; every one of them was old and dried out. They exuded the subtle, powdery miasma of dry decay. Most were sloughing off their desiccated flesh to reveal white flashes of fibulas, tibias, cheek and finger bones – and teeth. I could have lifted up three with one hand. They hadn’t a nose, ear or lip between them. Only half had jawbones. Some were crawling. They were nothing more than pathetic, dried out, naked mummies. Nevertheless, they were still deadly – and hungry.
I swung my cudgel in an arc above the closest ones bony, reaching stumps. It collapsed with a broken skull but another stepped over it and lunged. I backed away as I swiped at it, snapping its scrawny neck.
A gangrenous child clamped itself viciously to my thigh. It bit down hard but only succeeded in locking its teeth on the loose leg strap of my parachute harness. I dragged it with me for a few steps before I crushed its miserable little skull. I followed through by nailing a shaky dead woman in the eye with my knife.
To prevent myself from getting surrounded I swung, stabbed, and tactically backed away. I made sure I could see them all. The last thing I needed was for any to get around behind me. A few corpses broke from the pack and headed after Greg. That wasn’t good. The absence of the cargo door meant that his back was exposed to boarders. Him and his stupid checklist! We should be in the air already. I’d have to deal with them immediately.
A trail of prone corpses grew in my murderous wake. This was where the Templemore self defence classes came into their own. A robustly built moaner reached for me but as I ducked away from it I tripped over backwards, dropping the cudgel into high weeds. And there it remained. I regained my balance and ran for the Cessna; shouldering corpses aside as we all headed in the same direction. Greg was so intent on his checks that he shrieked when I leaped in through the cargo door.
“No feckin checks!” I screamed. “Just go! Go!”
A forest of bony claws followed me into the cabin. I sliced at them with my blade and grey, sticklike hands and fingers fell away. They rattled and skittered across the vibrating aluminium floor. Greg opened up the throttle and the stronger prop wash blew the tightly packed, lightweight cadavers back along the fuselage where they burst in dusty plumes against the tailplane. The geriatric aircraft shuddered from the impacts.
Grass and dust blew in and swirled around my head. I hunkered down and grabbed the doorframe with both hands to prevent myself from getting pitched out. The trundling wheels bumped and wobbled as they sped through the overgrown tussocks. We were clear of the corpses and picking up speed but our takeoff run had only begun at the runways halfway mark. The tree line ahead loomed large – and then larger. I eyed it with mounting horror. To make things worse the high grass was sticking us to the ground like glue.
The wheels lifted weakly, spun, and touched down again, snapping and rattling through the grass. I desperately willed them to rise: “get up, get up…” and they did; the undersides snicking sharply through the high, seeded tips. We rose feebly above the blurring green carpet; it didn’t feel like we had the airspeed to keep us aloft, but…
Twigs and leaves exploded into my startled face as the undercarriage crashed through the splintering treetops. The distressed little aircraft wallowed and dipped, and for two horrifying seconds it was touch and go as to whether we lived or died. I stared helplessly as Greg tried to make good use of the barely responsive control column. I shut my eyes. This was it!
When I opened them again, just seconds later, we were in flight; grazing the surface of the flat treeless bog beyond the airfield boundary. I stared through the open doorway as our winged shadow, just metres below, chased us across the russet landscape until it gradually began to shrink away. We were gaining airspeed and altitude. We were up. We were flying.
“Jesus Christ, Gregory!” I screamed furiously at the back of his head. “No more bleedin checks under these circumstances!” But it wasn’t his fault. I shouldn’t have listened to him in the first place. His face was as white as a sheet but I’m sure mine was, too.
Streamers of tape flew horizontally from the aircraft in the slipstream. Some snapped off and disappeared; dangerously exposing the damage beneath to the full blast of the relative air.
“Hey, Richie?” Greg yelled nervously above the blaring engine. “Do you think the duct tape’ll hold it together?”
I didn’t care. I was shaking like a leaf. That was way, way too close just now; just way too close. I sat down weakly on the bare metal floor behind Greg’s seat. A child’s tooth dislodged itself from my leg strap webbing, bounced off my boot and blinked out of existence through the howling doorway.