The ocean of bodies ebbed, swayed, leaning as if caught by a wind. There was the familiar moan, keening in time with the currents and Josephine could feel their longing; it was difficult not to give in to the urge and let her own throat vibrate softly, join their song.
The aroma of fresh coffee kept her from stepping off the back of the Landrover towards them.
“Full moon,” Stephen said, holding up a cup. “No moving them tonight.”
“Thanks. Three sugars?”
“Sweet. Like you.” They both huffed good-naturedly and turned to watch the herd down in the valley. It was a clear night, the moon’s pearl-glow washing the dead’s faces, bodies, making wounds seem alive and fresh again. “Sure they won’t come up here, bother us?”
“They’re caught on the tide,” she said. “Besides, we have sentries.”
“Thirty days till the next full moon. More than enough to reach the coast.”
Stephen would have liked them all to refer to what they were doing as Project Moth, Mission Bug-Zapper, but Josephine could only think of it for what it was: a cattle drive. The four Landrovers, the helicopter support when needed, all sporting huge banks of fluorescent lights which the dead plodded towards, hands outstretched as if they could feel the illumination washing their hands, maybe even offering cool, cleansing relief.
It was difficult not to attribute other sensations when they saw the way it drew the dead. They were still not sure if the things were fooled into believing it was the moon they were seeing drawn before them – the same way moths mistook a reading lamp – or whether it was just fascination with that quality of light. Some celestial special effect had brought the dead back, encouraged them to attack the living and spread their curse; it made sense that other parts of the riddle lay up there too. Up there, where dark possibilities lay layer upon infinite layer.
“Stop being so poetical,” she told herself.
“Nothing. Everything set for tomorrow’s march?”
“The zombie two-step? I never realised it ached your ankle holding the gas pedal so slow. Getting them out the valley is going to be like dragging the mountain to Mohammed.”
He was right factually, but his choice of religious image didn’t fit. If anything, the throng gathered down there reminded her of an Old Testament pilgrimage. Moses wouldn’t have looked out of place, hit by shafts of light as he raised his tablets and addressed the awe-struck multitude.
Trees lined the valley in tall sprays of green. Maybe cypress, but trees weren’t her speciality. Whatever, they quivered nicely in the breeze, turning their leaves to ripple silver. There was another low, mournful chorus. Sheep, she thought this time, not worried, just murmuring contemplatively together.
She finished the coffee, handed the cup to Stephen and jumped down. She caught his glance, how it assessed her and flicked away. The dead weren’t the only sexless things these days.
“I’m going to try to get to sleep.”
“Why’s it always ‘try’ these days?” he said, though Stephen’s snores could generally be heard throughout the camp.
“Yes. Well. Do me a favour and remind our sentries that just because the main bulk is down there, it doesn’t mean there aren’t the usual strays to be found in these parts. I wouldn’t appreciate the irony of bringing the herd all this way only to be surprised by an undead yokel.”
“Will do!” He grinned, saluting her with his index finger.
Josephine went to one of the reinforced mobile homes that formed part of their caravan of vehicles. The helicopters only responded when radioed in – it was too risky mooring them out in the open. There was a ground force of other personnel camped elsewhere to drive more dead into the herd, flush out others, and watch their perimeter in case some of the herd lost interest in the dazzle of the limelight and wandered off to cut careers of their own.
“For god’s sake, Tina, don’t just open the door. You know how many times we’ve talked about this.”
“The undead don’t rat-a-tat,” Tina said. “They’ve got no rhythm. Haven’t you seen them walk?” She paused. “Hey. Wait a minute. Moonwalk. Haha. Never thought of that. We’ve got the undead moonwalking. Oh, oh, oh, and remember that Jackson video? Thril-ler, Thril-ler night…” She sang the last bit and Josephine let her shoulder barge her aside. “Hey!”
“Look at the state of this place! Don’t you ever pick up after you?”
“You sound like mum.” Tina pouted. “Sorry, WPC Jones. Won’t happen again, Women Police Constable Jones!” Josephine flopped out on the bed though, pleased to drop the charade of being someone who was leading something. “You tired?”
“Dead tired and tired of the dead. Yeah. Any coffee left?”
“I don’t know how you can drink so much and stay awake,” Tina said.
“Years of being on the beat. Copper’s oldest trick. Strong coffee and something in your pocket to jangle.”
“We didn’t get as far as that bit,” Tina said. “I guess they covered night duty in the second term.”
“That and keeping an ops room tidy.”
“Ooh,” said Tina, drawing up a mock handbag. “‘Ops Room’ is it now? Get Miss Marple.” Josephine didn’t correct the comparison, didn’t even see the coffee when it was offered. Tonight she didn’t have to try: sleep struck and dragged her under like a shark hunting in a moonlit bay. She went without a struggle, without a ripple.
“Get a tow rope on it and get it out of there!” The walkie-talkie whined back at her, injured by her volume. Tina hunched over the steering wheel, chewing her nails. An ex-gym instructor called Greg was out of their Landrover, tensing his muscles and wanting to be doing something.
Getting out the valley had turned out to be a synch. What they hadn’t counted on were slick chalk roads that had about as much traction as a toboggan run. The lights and generators were heavy, and not all of her people were accustomed to driving four-by-fours. At least, not on the terrain they were actually designed for rather than doing the school run.
Right now, Stephen’s was way back, wheels spinning… whilst behind him, like a creeping slick, the dead patiently slow-shoe-shuffled towards it. She preferred crossing fields wherever possible – they could accommodate the herd and it gave them adequate space to work as a team.
Opting for the road had bottlenecked operations, the Landrovers moving in a chain, Stephen’s back there acting as a cork. They’d never yank it out in time.
“Where’s that damned copter?”
“Twenty minutes,” Greg told her.
“What the…” They were never supposed to be more than ten away. Well, that was the assumption she’d always worked on. “Where’s that ordinance survey map? Damn. I knew things were going too well. Tina – get this crate moving. Greg, get ready to man the gates.”
There was a gate to the field beside them, but she relayed instructions for the rest of the train to keep to task. If they couldn’t pull the dead away, then they’d not only lose the rear vehicle but also need to go in and drag it free to keep the charabanc moving.
“We’ll need to zigzag through a few fields, but we’ll still get back there before the helicopter does.”
“We’re going to lead them into a side field?” Tina asked.
“Take them round. Yes.”
“Won’t that risk breaking up the herd?”
“We can’t afford to lose enough vehicle.”
“Just asking,” Tina said as they hit a series of ruts and bounced about too forcefully to speak. They skidded to a halt before the next gate, Greg jumped out and dragged it open, leaping onto the running board as they drove past.
“Stephen. Update?” There was more crackle before his voice burst back in.
“They’re still coming. There’re so many of them that they’re getting in each other’s way. The engine’s overheating. No way we’re moving.”
“You’ve switched off the fluorescents, I presume?” The pause told her too much. She could hear him give the instruction even as his hand tried to muffle his embarrassment. “Jesus wept.”
They stopped again, the gate this time tied with knotted, fraying twine that Greg had to saw through to remove. They were heading towards the road now, the top of the lights panel and the cab of Stephen’s Landrover just visible over the wall. Beside it was a bobbing line of zombie scalps. As they drove up, the crowds became more visible, crushed up together like concert-goers waiting for the doors to open and filling the road for a mile behind like Blitzkrieg refugees.
“Tina. Listen. We don’t keep them moving and they’re going to disperse. That means the local population is going to suddenly get visited by several thousand hungry flesh-eaters. The Landrover is the bung, we need to provide a release valve.”
“How? There’s no gate in the wall down that side. Or in the field behind it.”
“We’re going to open up a space for them to come through.”
“You… what? How are we going to do that?”
“These are dry stone walls. The stones are just resting on each other.”
“You want me to ram it?”
“No. I. Do. Not,” Josephine said carefully. “I want you to swing us around, reverse up, and gently push it over. Then we’ll switch on the lights, draw them to us. Slowly.”
“Slowly?” Tina asked. “Just what the monkey was doing when he was caught.”
The living did a lot of screaming. Even when you weren’t holding back something that gnashed at you like a rabid pug wearing a human face, you screamed when the dead were about. They obliged you to speak their language when you visited them. Like the French.
“Don’t leave the side of that vehicle unprotected!” Josephine screamed at Greg. The wall had toppled, the lights had made a booming whump when they went on, the dead horde had responded like day-schoolers seeing Santa and an overturned sleigh. “Keep them away from the doors.”
It was Tina she was protecting. Her sister was inside, screaming at the Landrover, the dead, her and Greg. It helped Tina focus. It wasn’t doing a bad job for them either, as they slowly back-stepped either side of her.
Greg hadn’t just been a gym instructor. Or, at least, he hadn’t just left the gym with a sweatband and athlete’s foot. The sword he wielded had plenty of the oriental about it, and was as long as a lance. It whistled when he swung it and was so sharp you could hear the air sing as it parted. He had the stance, and he grunted each time it made impact.
Which was increasing in frequency.
Josephine had a machete dangling from her belt but was using a police-issue pistol. You needed a clear headshot each and every time if you weren’t going to decapitate them Greg-style. That meant standing still, legs apart, two-handed for a steady aim. Each time it required more willpower not to squeeze immediately, swing and shoot at another before checking the first had dropped.
They were coming through the wall in greater numbers, toppling more bricks and stumbling over each other as they hurried towards them. The dyke had been breached. It was widening for a flood. The meditative zombie-hum was winding up into a snarling pack of hyenas. The wind, thankfully, was taking the stench off to their left.
“Come on, you bastards!” Tina screamed. Josephine peered round to see if they’d brought through enough of the herd to encourage the rest to follow. Not yet. “Come on!” Tina hit a ditch. Too busy watching the rear-view rather than what was before her. The wheels spun as she stamped, and then, rather than stay static, the Landrover lurched away, leaving Greg and Josephine ten, twenty metres from their escape vehicle.
He turned as more giant mutant toddlers waddled his way, their excitement keeping their legs wheeling. He dodged a teenager, stamped down on its shin and it toppled. He turned towards the next, making a celluloid stand when he should have just bolted. He was used to fighting opponents who got up, dusted themselves off, perhaps bowed respectfully before they grappled again.
The teenager on the ground though simply rolled, twisted, and wrapped its arms around his leg.
Greg was quick to respond, but had to use the blunt end of the shaft rather than the blade. He knocked the head away. Once. Twice. Part of the skull cracked and caved in, grey-green gunk spraying out like it was some rotten, giant nut. But enough brain remained to send the usual ravenous signal to the jaws. Its neck muscles tightened and its teeth snapped at Greg’s calf.
Realisation as well as pain were in Greg’s shout.
Josephine took a step towards him, raised her gun, heard the gargle at her own shoulder and turned and broke her cardinal rule. The shot caught the old woman in the neck, breaking something so the chin dropped onto its chest, jaws clacking, ragged hair flopping about, arms flailing blindly for her now.
She backed off, Greg already engulfed by those coming behind the teenager.
The force of the wave was building, rushing those at the front whether they wished to go faster or not. She swallowed his name, ran for the Landrover.
“Tina. He’s gone. So are we. Move over.” She didn’t care Tina needed comforting. They had a tsunami coming and their surfboard wasn’t going to ride it far. She changed gears, began to roll, slapping her leg to force it to hold up on the gas, take it gently, keep them coming.
Tina was weeping. At least she’d stopped screaming.
They’d had to abandon Stephen’s Landrover. At least they hadn’t had to do the same to its crew. Only Greg had been lost and when the helicopter arrived it radioed for ground support from the tracking teams and together they plotted a route that would keep to the fields, a group now running ahead to break openings in the hedgerows, fix holes they didn’t want the dead spilling through.
They led them through villages, across playing fields, once through an eerily deserted estate. Except Josephine saw curtains twitch as they went through – whether because the residents couldn’t bear to leave their homes or because this was akin to the circus coming to town she didn’t know.
They should read their fairytales, she thought. The Pied Piper led the rats away… but he also took the children.
Crossing a one-bridge river, she briefly hoped the dead would be swept away by the current. But the dead didn’t do drowning. They were like a good watch. You had to shatter them, not just get them wet. Hence the reward she had planned for them at the end of their long march. Instead, she watched as they slid, fell in, and afterwards the slippery mass of writhing, hissing bodies as they clambered out the other side.
Tina and her still spoke, but the jokes were forced and she knew the experience with Greg had denied them the release dark humour had formerly provided. They all suffered lunar madness now. She recalled nightshifts on a full moon when officers had always gone out on patrol with a reminder to each other to watch out for the loons. Nothing compared to what they’d gathered together now. The pagans would have wept to see such a rebirth in devotion to Diana, the Huntress Moon.
Four days later, they crested the final rise and looked down to where the world sloped, then rose again and then… just ended.
“Half-moon. Cloud cover. No competition,” Stephen said. The slow march here meant they had driven day and night, taking turns behind the wheel whilst others tried to sleep. The valley had been a lucky break, allowing them to corral the dead and the full moon’s tidal pull hold them in place. They hadn’t found anything similar. Now the three remaining Landrovers were parked side by side, the two helicopters completing the arc to draw the dead in towards them from all directions.
They had just one person per vehicle for the final act: herself, Stephen, Mandy in the third – a postmistress who stressed the second part of her job title. No way she was letting Tina drive. She hoped her little sis was far away, but doubted it. They would all be watching from the tallest building. Well, tallest on their side of the drop.
Below the cliffs, where the sea turned and churned against the beach, was the lighthouse: red and white striped, just as she remembered it. The Beachy Head Lighthouse, Eastbourne: the resort her parents had threatened to retire to and which they’d driven down to every other year to visit her great aunt Lucy.
The cliff was a breath-taking sight all year round. Bone white chalk, a one-hundred-and-sixty metres drop at its highest point, running miles in either direction. Beautiful but deadly. Not because you had to be careful, but because it nodded a simple assurance that if you wished it, if you wanted this to be the end, then it would always oblige. It was one of the country’s most infamous suicide spots.
And in a few hours, they were going to start the world’s largest mass suicide since Jonestown. They would lead the dead to the edge, each hook cables to their harnesses, and let the copters winch them away. The lighthouse would flare, the helicopters would keep backtracking – and several thousand dead would tumble and break.
Shattered, not stirred.
At the moment, the helicopters were still circling the enormous throng, irritating the dead like picnickers harassed by wasps. They needed to keep them corralled, concentrate their number. It was taking longer than she wanted: they were breaking formation more quickly than they could bring them back in and she wished she’d insisted on more copters. Every so often, they flashed the Landrovers’ banks of lights, bringing the herd a step or two closer before the copters were needed again.
She checked her watch. Running late. They were used to leading them by day and night, but the longer they had the darkness, the clearer their own lights and the lighthouse would be.
It was time. Those they couldn’t lead over, they would clear up the old fashioned way. She made the call and they crept the Landrovers forward. It was unnerving seeing the edge approach and she remembered stories of people coming up here with just the intention to look, but feeling irresistible forces draw them over.
She was hoping the same weird magic would work on the dead.
As close to the edge as they dared go, they cut the engines and waited until the last moment before switching off the generators. As she was hoisted up, Josephine saw a sight she had only witnessed in newsreels. Mass gatherings at the Ganges, the vast swaying crowds in Mecca around the Kaaba, demonstrations that mobilised a country as it bid for freedom or protested at its liberties being curtailed.
The sea sizzled on the rocks below her and the copters’ banks of fluorescents lit up the faces of those standing on the edge. The lighthouse beam came on, swung round, and then froze facing the cliff. There was only one direction they were encouraging. Not to make them dizzy, just one small step for mankind.
The dead halted.
“Come on.” The stillness of those at their front passed to those behind, dampening their agitation, their noise, as it washed back in an eerie wave. “Why aren’t they moving?”
Dozens did fall, losing their footing as they teetered on the edge, or the transferred momentum from those behind passing forward and nudging them over. Odd individuals went on toppling, but nothing like the mass death scenes they’d planned for.
“Get in closer,” she ordered the pilot. The dead stared into the lights, unblinking, their pupils not retracting. Not in shock, not in awe. She didn’t know what to make of it. They were resisting the tidal pull. Waiting. Hushed in peculiar reverence.
The first golden needle shot from a point between the hills to the east, widening, splitting open the corner of night to let in morning’s glory. The dead turned. A grinding twist of the head at first, before a slow, loose-slippers shuffle round to face the sun.
The sigh that started grew to a moan, grew to a pleasurable hum of appreciation. And their next steps were not towards the edge. Instead they walked where the living were told to stay away if they wished to avoid the final step to death: towards the light. They had switched their allegiance. Mistress Moon was yesterday’s goddess.
She watched as they headed for the town, a five-thousand-strong army of the dead she was responsible for amassing. She picked up her walkie-talkie.
It was time for screaming again. The unholy had seen the light. And found it to be good.
Jez Patterson lives in Madrid, writes in the dark, and posts at jezpatterson.wordpress.