By the time we crossed the river we could hear steady gunfire starting up again, presumably at the crowd coming up from the south. The sci-fi buzzing of the drone’s guns could also be heard as they dealt death and destruction from above. I wondered if the ‘Battle of Lambeth’ would be remembered like 9/11 or 7/7; of course at that time none of us had a single clue as to the ubiquity of what was going on. To be quite honest I thought it was ‘just’ another terrorist attack, some biological or chemical incident – probably like most other survivors out there at the time. We had absolutely no idea the world as we knew it was coming to an end. I’ve had many an occasion since that day to wonder if those that died at the outset were the lucky ones. Meanwhile, to concentrate on our survival I tried desperately to close my mind to what was going on across the river.
In spite of the tonnage of lead flying that morning the moaning continued to intensify, frequently punctuated by distant screams, and as we stood there transfixed the sound of gunfire finally abated down to the odd sporadic shot or two. Moments later a drone crashed into the Thames, its death-dealing finished. I wondered what had happened; had it simply run out of fuel or was there a problem with the remote pilot? Where was he and why he had stopped the extermination?
After the craziness of it all I felt like I was losing my mind; I just couldn’t take in what was going on. I was still trying to work out what was going on with these people. I could easily rule out protest, no-one would deliberately infect themselves to end up like that; there were no police to speak of, it was the army I’d seen and not a single policeman since Victoria Station. Why and when had the army been called out? I was slowly joining dots but I was damned if I could recognise the shape it was revealing.
“We can go along Millbank and then cross back to Waterloo at Westminster Bridge or maybe go further to Cannon Street,” Pius suggested, somewhat pleadingly. It took me a moment to realise he was talking. His face showed that he, too, was frightened and dumbfounded by the turn of events, his cheeks glistening with tears which he wiped away furiously, but it was clear that the imperative to get to his family was still acute and overrode his natural desire to escape it all by mentally shutting down. Unfortunately, by this time his optimism at being able to catch a train was no longer infectious – none of us really believed that option to be viable any longer. Becky looked frightened to death, her lovely pale face shades whiter; she had started shaking involuntarily clearly in shock at what we had been part of. I think we were all shocked and overwhelmed to see the army on the street; I knew full well that the fact they were on the streets meant the police and civilian authority had lost control and that wouldn’t do at all on such a pleasant morning. Who knew there would be beautiful weather to die for at the start of the Apocalypse?
“Okay, whatever,” I agreed absent-mindedly, nothing better having crossed my mind.
In a shaken daze we crossed the road but no sooner had we stepped onto the opposite pavement than we heard the laboured sound of jet engines very close by. Looking up we saw a British Airways jumbo that, from the direction of its flight, appeared to have taken off from Heathrow in the last few minutes – its landing gear was still down and its engine power settings sounded as if it was trying to climb. It was weaving from side to side, and when it was supposed to be gaining altitude it wasn’t. For a brief moment it seemed to steady itself and continue on its way. I heaved a sigh of relief. All of a sudden it peeled away from its flightpath by doing a roll out dive to port. I swore as I realised it was heading straight for the Houses of Parliament, only half a mile away. At the last moment it veered more towards us and we instinctively hunkered down behind the low stone wall, not that such a barrier would have protected us from a direct hit.
With an all-enveloping roar, the likes of which I had never heard before, it seemed to splash down among the buildings on the north bank. I say splash because it spread itself across a massive area spilling its full load of fuel across several blocks in the direction of Westminster Abbey. The scene was more reminiscent of a napalm run in Vietnam than good old London. That was all I saw of it as by then I was hugging the pavement like I was in love.
In spite of the overwhelming noise created by the death of the 747 I saw more than heard Becky squeal in fright, the look of terror on her face stabbing me to the core; I hated seeing her so completely frightened, it tore at my heart in spite of everything going on around us. Perhaps I really was in love. Pius seemed to be saying something but all sounds were drowned out by the blast that engulfed us. Maybe he was praying and I didn’t blame him one bit; if I’d had someone who might have listened I would be chattering thirteen to the dozen. It was as if hell had opened its doors and was dragging us in. Its violence rolled across us bringing an intense heat that seared my flesh and burnt the hair on my legs, arms and head. Wearing shorts and a t-shirt into the apocalypse is not something I can recommend.
After a minute or so – I really can’t be sure – we raised our heads over the wall to see what had happened. A great pall of smoke and flames rose into the sky, hundreds of feet high and at least half a mile across; the whole area to the east seemed to be on fire, the heat oven intense. Even the trees along the embankment were burning brightly, driving away any thought of heading in that direction. Strangely the Hoses of Parliament seemed to have escaped unscathed, defiant to the last.
The streets were littered with rubble, aircraft debris and torn bodies; peering closer to our wall I could see what looked like the remains of a turbofan engine embedded deep into the pavement mere feet from our position. The opposite side of the wall from us was blackened and pock-marked by shrapnel. It looked like ducking had been a good idea after all.
The air stank of burning avgas making it difficult to breathe.
“I’m guessing we can’t head east just yet, Pius,” I said. “Something seems determined to stop us.”
Pius just stared at the scene, a fierce look of frustration at being thwarted yet again creasing his face. I put a hand on his shoulder.
“Come on, mate, let’s head up Horseferry and see if we can circumvent all this,” I suggested. I had no desire to head west and east was out of the question for now. It didn’t matter in what direction we wanted to travel, heading north was our only survivable option at the time. I looked at my beautiful woman.
“Are you okay, Becky?” I asked, noticing her hair had frizzed somewhat in the intense heat. “Having a bad hair day?” I smirked and got ready to duck again but she barely reacted. I wondered briefly what I looked like.
Becky seemed catatonic and was unresponsive to my words or touch. I took her hand and led her away and up the road. Pius followed along behind, his steps lackadaisical. In all the horror I realised my stomach problems had subsided. Weird but true.
Copyright © 2016 David Kingsley Roberts
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.