I was at home when I encountered my first victim of the sickness. My mum had come back from work early saying that she didn’t feel very well and was going to go to bed for a little while. A couple of hours later she shuffled out of her bedroom and came into the living room, where I was watching the news.
“Have you seen this?” I asked without looking at her, turning the volume up, “There’s some kind of disease going round; it looks really bad.”
When my mum made no effort to respond I turned to look at her. Her skin had taken on a pale, jaundiced hue, and her eyes were vacant between puffed up eyelids. She was drooling slightly from the corner of her mouth and her hair was falling over her face.
“OK mum, very funny,” I laughed. There was a short pause.
I glanced back towards the TV where they were showing pictures of those who were already sick, and advising people to distance themselves from any victims. My mum wasn’t faking it.
I hauled myself shakily from the sofa to my wheelchair and left the room as fast as I could, slamming the door behind me. While I scrambled for my coat and shoes I could hear her rattling the door handle. I grabbed my bag and quickly checked that my wallet, phone, and keys were inside before bolting out of the door to our flat and locking it behind me.
I looked down the corridor towards the lifts, and saw the old lady from the flat next to ours shambling away from me. She had dementia and no one ever visited her bar the nurses, so I decided to guide her back to her flat where she could remain safe until the sickness could be quarantined.
“Mrs Owen?” I called. There was no answer. I approached her and tapped her gently on the hand.
“Best stay indoors right now, Mrs Owen, there’s trouble outside,” I said calmly.
She turned around slowly. She was drooling from both corners of the mouth and her eyes appeared to be oozing some strange, pus-filled tears. I dropped her hand immediately and made towards the lifts as fast as I could, hammering the button repeatedly as I waited for its arrival, all the while watching Mrs Owen head towards me. The lift arrived just in time; the doors closed as Mrs Owen made to step into the lift, crushing the toes on her right foot with a sickening sound. Somehow I managed to stop myself from being sick, and I pulled my phone out of my bag.
“Steph?” I said, relieved when my friend answered my call, “My mum’s sick, I need somewhere to go.”
“My entire family bar me is down with whatever the hell this is, I was just about to head over to your place,” she replied.
“We’re gonna need somewhere to hide out for a while. Somewhere secure,” I was pressing the phone to my ear with my shoulder in order to give me two hands to push my wheelchair.
“What about the gym?” I asked after thinking, gazing down the empty street. I had never seen it so quiet; if tumbleweed had at that moment drifted past I wouldn’t have been surprised.
“Food, water, showers, and decent security. Sounds like a good place to start,” Steph replied.
“And accessible,” I added.
“See you there,” she replied, and then hung up.
I turned left towards the main road where there was a deficit of traffic. I didn’t have to wait for the traffic lights to be able to cross safely, and I couldn’t help wondering where everybody was. It was hard to believe that everyone had been affected.
As I approached the gym it started to rain lightly, and I regretted not bringing a blanket to keep me dry. I could see Steph already making her way across the gym car-park and I called out to her. That was my first mistake. As soon as the first syllable had left my mouth a group of sick adults came rushing out of the nearby houses, attracted by my shout. They were moving faster than either my mum or Mrs Owen had been able to.
I pushed myself as rapidly as I could, and when I got to the car-park I glanced back over my shoulder. That was my second mistake. I should have kept moving; I felt a sharp jolt as one of the sick ones sank his teeth into my wheel. There was a sharp popping sound and then a gentle hiss as the tire began to slowly deflate. I looked up to see Steph hurtling towards me, and I reached out. She grabbed my hands and pulled me forwards out of the throng of sick adults, and then pushed me as fast as possible all the way into the gym. We slammed the doors shut behind us, sliding the security bolts into place.
“Any more of you?”
We jumped, and turned around. Leaning against the reception desk was a young woman in skinny jeans and a leather jacket, her short hair scraped back into a ponytail.
“No,” Steph answered first.
“OK, let’s go and meet the others and discuss what to do. You were sensible enough to come to the gym so I’m sure you’ll be able to pull your weight,” she stared straight at me as she spoke.
“This bothering you?” I pointed downwards.
“Right now it’s survival of the fittest, and you don’t look the fittest to me,” she replied casually.
“She’s an expert archer,” Steph blurted out angrily, “She’ll be a valuable part of whatever team you’re building.”
The woman raised an eyebrow slightly before turning away, and led us into the café overlooking the swimming pool.
“I’m Ruby,” the woman said, “and this is Vicky and Zelia.” She indicated to two more women of about her age sat by one of the vending machines. Both of them looked up, and their respective gazes settled on my wheelchair.
“I’m Jo,” I said, “and this is my friend, Steph.” We all gathered around the one table.
“Right,” Ruby said, “we’re gonna need to be organised if we wanna get outta this. You’re friend said something about being good at archery.”
“Err, yeah, I guess so,” I said as they all looked at me, “I spend a lot of time on the archery range, it’s one of the few sports disability doesn’t affect that much.”
“Cool. And what about you?” Ruby turned to Steph, “Any special talents?”
“I’m an apprentice electrical engineer,” Steph said.
“Wow, full of surprises,” Ruby replied, “There’s an old radio in the basement; do you reckon that you get that working for us? And modify the vending machines to get food out without spending any money?”
“Sure, it’s certainly worth a shot,” Steph said.
“OK. Well, Vicky and me do kickboxing, so we’re good for on-the-ground defence, and Zelia is our resident genius,” one of the women, small, with a dark pixie cut framing her face, blushed, “so she can do rations and medical stuff, and modify equipment.”
“So here’s the plan,” Ruby continued, “Zelia and Steph will put barricades in place on all the doors bar the back entrance and sort out the radio and stuff. Vicky and me will fashion some melee weapons out of gym equipment and patrol the car-park, keeping it clear of the zombie-things. Jo, you’re gonna select a bow and get all the arrows you can, and get to the roof where you can see what’s going on. We’ll reconvene here in an hour. Understood?”
We all nodded and set off for our various tasks. I took the lift, which was fortunately still working, down to the archery range. I selected my favourite bow; a lightweight, long range piece, with enough tension to fire arrows at tremendous speed. I went around all the store cupboards collecting every arrow I could, amounting to about 100 in total. My only problem was that the arrows weren’t designed to be used as weapons, and probably wouldn’t do that much damage if I tried to shoot someone. I looked around the room for ideas, a fruitless search that sent me into the rest of the basement where I bumped into Zelia.
“You OK?” she whispered shyly.
“Yeah,” I replied, “it’s just that these arrows aren’t going to do much good as weapons.”
Zelia looked around the corridor and reached out to touch one of the roughly whitewashed walls.
“You could probably sharpen some against this wall, but it might take a while,” she said thoughtfully. There was a short pause.
“Hang on,” she added, “there’s some bandages and alcoholic hygiene solution in the medical kits. If you soak the bandages in the alcohol and then wrap them around the arrow-heads, you could make fire arrows. Ruby has a lighter.”
“Good idea,” I nodded, “where can I find a medical kit?”
“There’s one in the café we were in,” Zelia replied.
I headed back towards the lift and pressed the button. As I did all the lights in the corridor dimmed, flickered, and went out.
“Powers’ down,” I heard Steph say from somewhere to my right. A couple of seconds later, a phone torch cast a white light down the corridor. I pressed the lift button again but nothing happened.
“There’s a hand crank for the lift upstairs behind a panel in the café, for emergencies. But we’re gonna need to lever open the doors,” Zelia impressed me with her quick thinking.
“Yo, I made a crowbar of sorts out of one of the cross-trainers. Best use for ‘em,” Ruby’s voice came from somewhere behind Steph. She sauntered towards me as if she hadn’t a care in the world, swinging a metal bar casually by her side. I moved to one side and let her crank open the doors, albeit slowly with a lot of heaving and sweating.
“I’ll go do all the other floors,” Ruby swaggered off the way she had come.
“I’ll go sort out the crank,” Zelia said reassuringly, “don’t worry, we’ll get you sorted out in no time.”
I thanked them and 10 minutes later I was sat in the café wrapping bandages around arrow-heads, and dipping them in alcohol solution.
The radio crackled and fuzzed as Steph delicately fiddled with the settings. Out of the unintelligible white noise came the occasional fragment of what sounded like a man’s voice, but we couldn’t make out any words. Suddenly, a clear string of words seemingly erupted from the speakers.
“…can hear this…military operation…rescue all citizens trapped by the plague who are not sick…signal us using this bandwidth…tell us…location…will aid…” the crackling noise overwhelmed the last of the words.
“I think it’s a repeating message,” Steph said, still tinkering among the mass of wires in the radio, “if I can just…there.” She sat back proudly as the message came pouring out of the speakers loud and clear.
“To anyone who can hear this, a military operation to rescue all citizens trapped by the plague who are not sick is in place. Signal using this bandwidth,” a small string of numbers followed, “and tell us your location. We will aid you as soon as we can… To anyone who-“
“Can you send them that signal?” I turned to Steph.
“Yes,” she returned, “but I may need a little time.”
“Take whatever you need,” Vicky spoke for the first time.
“In the meantime, here is my daily ration plan,” Zelia pushed forward a piece of paper covered in pencil scribblings, “the food here could last us for two weeks, after which point we would need to go out and look for more. The most important thing for now is to stop anyone sick from getting in.”
“Well, sounds like we have a job to do,” Ruby looked across at Vicky and myself. We both nodded, and I set off for the lifts.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” I said, stopping just before I entered the lift, “I need your lighter, Ruby. These are fire arrows.”
“Sure,” she tossed it over to me.
“Cheers,” I said as I positioned myself in the lift, and Zelia started turning the crank.
The trip to the roof was slow and dark and when I finally opened the door to the rooftop terrace, the sun was beginning to set. I moved to the edge of the terrace overlooking the carpark and put on my brakes. Below I could see Ruby and Vicky doing a circuit of the grounds, warding off the few sick people that still lingered there. A small group had gathered in one corner and as the two women set to work, they failed to see another small group walking towards them from the opposite corner.
I plucked an arrow from the sports bag slung over the back of my wheelchair and pulled Ruby’s lighter from my pocket. Once I had set the arrow alight, I didn’t have much time to aim before firing it, for risk of setting my bow or even myself on fire. I pulled back the bow and exhaled, then released the arrow. Had it been a video game, I’d have probably unlocked an achievement for hitting three people with one arrow. This being an unfortunate reality I had to make-do with watching the other sick people reel back in fear, before turning and shuffling off in the other direction. Ruby and Vicky dealt with the rest.
It was getting too dark to see properly so I called down to Vicky and Ruby to let me down in the lift when they got back inside. As I waited in the lift I pulled my phone out of my pocket but the battery had run out, leaving me staring at the blank screen.
It was three days before we managed to signal the military and tell them our location. There were so many people trying to reach them that the bandwidth was flooded with messages and they couldn’t possibly receive them all at once.
Each morning started with a cereal bar and bottle of orange juice for breakfast, and then I would go up to the roof armed with my bow and arrows, and with lunch rations by my side. I stayed on the roof until sunset, firing arrows at any troublesome groups. I burned through arrows, no pun intended, at an alarming rate as the group of sick people grew larger and larger each day, getting closer and closer to the gym. Occasionally Vicky or Ruby would wander around the car-park, clearing away any waifs and strays, but for most of the day they rested as they guarded the gym overnight.
Steph maintained any barricades and melee weapons that happened to get damaged, retrieving what arrows she could as well, and Zelia assigned rations and treated any injuries. It was actually quite dull compared to all the books, movies, and TV series dedicated to Earth-destroying diseases, and all of us felt particularly trapped.
It was approximately midday on the fourth day when I heard the sound of whirring helicopter blades in the distance. A minute or so later a helicopter appeared on the horizon, and within 10 minutes it was hovering over the gym. The others having heard the commotion came hurrying up to the roof as a soldier was hoisted down to us.
“We’ll hoist you up one by one,” he shouted to us as he landed on the roof. Ruby practically leapt into the man’s arms.
It was then that I noticed my wheelchair was slowly being blown backwards by the helicopter, creeping towards the edge of the roof. Safe in the knowledge that my brakes and the low wall around the rooftop should keep me safe I started to laugh, the first time I had laughed since the outbreak. Steph started to laugh with me, as did Vicky and Zelia, and I think I saw a small smile flash across the face of the soldier too as he ascended towards the helicopter with Ruby. None of us noticed that one of my brakes wasn’t on until it was too late.
I was gaining speed as I was blown towards the edge and when I hit the wall, I was going just fast enough to tip the wheelchair backwards. Suddenly I found myself precariously balanced over a three-story drop onto the tarmac below, where a group of sick adults had gathered to watch the spectacle. I screamed as I felt the wheelchair tipping further and further.
Steph grabbed my hand and Zelia the other, pulling me back onto the roof, but as soon as they had set me down I was rolling towards the edge of the roof again.
“Undo your seatbelt,” the soldier, who had returned to the roof for the next of us, shouted.
“But without my wheelchair-“
“We can get you another at the base,” he yelled. I hesitated.
Zelia dived towards me and yanked loose the seatbelt that was across my lap, pulling me onto the roof at the same time. I looked up to see my wheelchair go flying off the roof, clattering to the ground below. Needless to say I was the next to be hoisted into the helicopter.
When we arrived at the military base a new wheelchair was waiting for me. We were examined by a medical team in a quarantined area before being allowed to mingle with the other survivors, of whom there were surprisingly many. We were based there for a month while a nation-wide military operation administered treatment to all those affected by the disease. Finally, after a weeks’ quarantine period to ensure that the disease would not make a reappearance, we were allowed to return home.
It would take a long time before the country was running normally again; many people remained missing, presumed dead, for months or even years. Even 60 years on some people were never found, my mother among them.
Steph went on to complete her apprenticeship and set up her own business, despite being a single mother of two. Ruby pursued a career in the police force, which had always surprised and amused me, and Vicky joined the army. Zelia returned to her job as a junior doctor and worked in various hospitals throughout her career.
As for myself, I moved in with Steph’s family for a few months until I could support myself, and then I continued to spend a great deal of time on the archery range. After all, being a gold medallist at three Paralympics in a row is no mean feat.