March 23rd 2015, London, United Kingdom
Farron was telling me something about black holes and how Stephen Hawking theorised that they could be portals to the multiverse. Then the heat crept into my throat, the sweat bloomed on my temples and now here I am. I don’t yet know where “here” is.
I’m in a small room. It used to be an office annex, I think. The carpet is black with a thick layer of dust settled peacefully into it. Cobwebs decorate all possible corners and joints, in lazy curves of milky white and grey. There could be spiders here too, but I can’t see them. I’m glad I can’t see them. There are yellow and brown folders lost in cardboard boxes, with Sharpie scribbles on their sides: Accounts 2001, End of Year 2003, HMRC 2002 and so on.
There are rolls of used up flip chart paper scattered across several metallic shelves, and I can recognise English shorthand in shades of red and blue marker lost between pie charts and figures. It’s been a long time since someone has vacuumed in here.
There’s a little window in a white frame – well, it used to be white. It’s more a shade of grey now, and dirt glazes the outside of the thick glass. I can’t reach it. I look around and see a solid cardboard box that I could use. I pull it towards the window, as I feel my face tickle with a mix of sweat and dust.
Sliding like this is always uncomfortable, but I’ve come to tolerate it. During the first 10-15 episodes I would heave and relinquish all rights to any food that I had previously consumed.
I climb on top of the box and stand on the tips of my boots. My fingers grasp the window frame, as if to pull myself further up by an inch or so, just enough so I can see what’s out there. I can feel my eyes grow big with surprise.
I recognise this place. The big ferry wheel, broken down in three pieces, smoke still coming out of it. The County Hall and Aquarium sit behind it, crumbled and black and brown.
A substantial amount of rubble has spilled into the river, and it looks as if the building simply opened up and vomited its interior walls into the Thames. The sky’s a dull grey with splashes of black and orange, and the sun pokes out a few rays here and there. I can’t see any people out. As far as my eyes can see through this little window, this is a London in ruins, eerily familiar.
I have seen the London Eye explode in a previous world. I think it was the one version where Western countries waged war against the Middle East over some terrorist attacks, and the US didn’t pull their troops out when they should have – different president, different objectives and lot of greed and capitalist imperialism.
They called it World War 3. All of their allies suffered massive damages. I’m just thankful that back home it’s all still there, in one place and foaming with tourists.
The little box room suddenly feels even smaller, the walls closing in fast. I need to get out of there. I head for the door and turn the door knob. It’s locked. Leave it to Dora to land in a locked room.
Fortunately, I’ve experienced this before, so I instinctively search the inside pockets of my leather jacket for a little bundle of locksmith tools. I find my friendly red paper clip and drop a kiss on it before I bend it to suit my needs for this particular lock. I always kiss it – for good luck.
Whoever you are that’s reading this, don’t judge until you end up sliding between universes – luck is such a rare commodity in my case.
I work my magic on the lock, and slowly open the door. The silence is heavy, as I walk into a 90 square metre office. No one’s been here in months. The dust is thick and beige on the desk surfaces.
Computer screens and random parts are thrown around, with stationery sprinkled on top of it – pens, post it notes, paper, notebooks, pins and paper clips and everything else in between. They were all in a great rush to leave. Judging by how the desks and chairs are angled now, I reckon they pushed and shoved their way out. There probably were a few brawls in between – there’s blood smeared on the front side of a desk cabinet, and on the wall by the water cooler.
Ah, water. I need that. I sprint towards it and sigh at the sight of plastic cups still hung upside down in the designated holder. I go through four cups instantly – wet and refreshing gulps that restore the colour in my cheeks. I notice a bin at my feet, with its contents spilled out on the grey carpet.
A plastic bottle captures my attention. I’ll need it for later, so I fill it up with what is still surprisingly decent room temperature water. I stuff it in my little backpack and I head for the emergency stairs. As I approach the back door, a view from the office’s floor to ceiling windows captures my attention, and I stop for a brief moment.
Most of London looks ruined from the 10th floor of this building. Pillars of black smoke still rise slowly from different neighbourhoods. This is the result of days filled with bombing and sheer carnage.
This isn’t London anymore, it’s barely a burnt shell of the great city it once was. Buildings are torn down or blown up, rubble and dirt and dried bloods and bones scattered along the streets. Myriads of abandoned cars quietly recreate the traffic of a Monday afternoon – but no one’s going anywhere. I can’t look at it anymore, but I know I’ll have to go out there now. I need to find Farron.
Last time I had to find my way across the channel all the way from Paris, so this time around I’m thankful to find myself on the same patch of dry land as he is.
I almost fly down the stairs and then cautiously sneak through the main reception area on the ground floor. A figure sitting in a black armchair by the waiting area startles me. He’s not moving. I get closer and immediately regret the decision, while taking deep breaths in order to stop myself from getting sick.
A knife handle sticks out of his chest, the blue shirt soaked in dark brown – the blood’s been dry for days now. His face is bloated and blueish, he’s been dead for a while now. The smell just hits me hard but I force myself to stay there and better understand what happened to him. Nice suit, recent haircut – this guy wasn’t even in his 30’s yet.
No shoes, no watch, the cufflinks gone as well. I’m guessing someone took advantage of the chaos of bombs and war to rob him fast and without mercy. He could’ve gone places, the poor soul.
I head out and take a deep breath as I step onto the sidewalk.
I try not to get distracted by the silence and smell of burning wood and flesh and putrefaction. It will take a while to get used to it. Where are the people?
I head west along the river side. Shadows creep at the corner of my eyes, but when I turn to look, all I see is derelict booths with signs offering waffles for just £2,50 and slushies for £3,00; broken crates and vandalised cars. They’re probably hiding. I assume they’re just scared and harmless, but I keep my senses sharp nonetheless.
Farron’s office is in Mayfair – the man likes it posh, what can I say. I have a long walk ahead of me, probably an hour and forty minutes if I keep a constant pace. With no interruptions. So I walk, constantly aware of wide eyes watching me from different angles.
Thirty minutes in, my thirst craves acknowledgement. I pull the bottle out of my back pack and have a few sips. I need to ration my resources. I don’t know what the running water situation is in this world. A crackle behind me makes me jump out of my skin. My hand instinctively goes for my lower back, by the belt, where I keep the knife.
I turn around, but I see no one, just an endless array of abandoned cars. I usually tend to stay out in the open in situations like this, but now I’m starting to think I may draw the wrong kind of attention upon myself.
I speed up and move into the shaded areas, behind busses and eventually down a side alley. I know this path, I have walked it before – in different circumstances, but my mind likes to remember potentially useful tracks. I hear footsteps behind me, somewhere in the distance.
I no longer look over my shoulder, I know they’ll vanish before I get a chance to see them. They’re not advancing, they’re simply watching me – following me. I quietly accept them as secret companions, but my knife is now resting against my wrist, up my jacket sleeve, just in case their intentions aren’t good.
I pass by what used to be the US Embassy. Its shell sits on the right side of my vision field – the foundation is still there, but darkness and charcoal and twisted and fractured steel beams grow out of it. Wood splinters out from beneath the piles of charred rubble. Bones lie scattered here and there. I’ve seen this building in all possible states: destroyed, torn down, burned down, bombed away, intact, remodelled, rebuilt and flooded. This is nothing new. It no longer stirs me the way it should.
Whispers catch up with me. I turn right around the corner. I’m close to Farron – this street looks very familiar. Steps get louder behind me, as someone approaches me. I walk and don’t look back. I wait for that person to get closer, knife ready to slip out. The soles are thick, making heavy noises on the cracked sidewalk. Three metres. Two metres. One. I turn with one swift move, grab an arm and position a blade under my pursuer’s Adam’s apple. He gasps.
‘Don’t… Don’t hurt me!’
His blue eyes are echoes of horror and fear. He’s terrified, but I can’t let go. His fight or flight instinct might get me killed – and I don’t intend to die in an universe that isn’t mine.
‘What do you want from me?’ I ask, my voice barely a whisper.
His hands are in the air, shaking frantically. His body language is open, begging for mercy. This guy wouldn’t hurt a fly. But I can’t relax until I know why he’s following me.
‘I… I don’t mean any harm! There are just a few of us left on this side of London… We don’t know what’s happening…’
‘We? There’s more of you following me?’
‘No, no. It’s just me. I swear!’
‘Why are you following me?’
The man is young, early twenties. His ears hang heavy with piercings, and a stud stuck in his left eyebrow stands out to me in silent defiance. His eyes are blood shot, dark rings around them making him look older than he actually is. His palms are dirty, his nails chewed down. He’s been through a lot but there’s a spark about him, a will to live that I find admirable. Our survival instinct is such a fascinating glimpse into humanity.
‘I… You were walking around like you had a purpose, like you were going somewhere… Like you know what to do next. I… I was hoping that you might know more about what happened.’
I feel my head cocking to one side.
‘How can you tell? What makes me different from the others?’
‘You… You walk out on the open road. You don’t scream or gasp when you see a dead body – and boy, London’s got millions of them now… You’ve seen this kind of stuff before, I can tell.’
I take a deep breath. He might have information. He might be useful.
‘What’s your name, kid?’
‘Jack. My name is Jack O’Leary. I’m 22 years old and I was months away from graduating at UCL. My dad’s Irish and my mum’s Polish.’
‘Too much information, Jack. What happened here?’
He’s baffled. Maybe my knife is slowing his response time. I put the knife away but I can feel my shoulders stubbornly tense. My guard is up, I can’t really control that. He doesn’t move, he just stares and looks at me like I’m crazy. The poor soul doesn’t have a clue.
‘What do you mean what happened here? Where have you been? What hole have you been hiding in?!’
‘A very distant one, Jack. I don’t have time for this. What happened here?’
Jack takes a deep breath. I can hear movement in the background – scared people scuttling around, hiding behind cars, staying out of the light. I keep them in my mind but keep my focus on the boy in front of him.
‘The world ended. Bombs dropped. One day they were invading Iran, calling it a holy war, and next thing I know I’m running for my life because bombs everywhere!’
‘When did this start?’
‘I… I don’t know, maybe eight or ten days ago. I’ve lost track… Satellites are down, towers are down, no phones, no communication, nothing. We’ve been cut off. I don’t know what’s happening elsewhere but London’s been obliterated…’
He’s about to cry. I need him focused. I give him some of my water. He gulps down half a bottle, but I’m not too worried. I’m just yards away from a grocery store.
‘Keep it together, Jack. I need to know more.’
He nods and wipes the tears off his face with the back of his sleeves. He takes a deep breath and looks around.
‘Some people are lurking about. I think we might want to move again soon.’
‘WE are not moving anywhere, Jack. Tell me, how long did the attack last?’
‘Eight hours, maybe. They weren’t out to leave survivors. They dropped missiles, wave after wave after wave. No soldiers, nothing. I watched the RAF go down in flames, they didn’t stand a chance.’
‘Has there been any activity in the sky since?’
‘Every six hours, yes. Groups of military planes fly across from the east to the west in the day time, and from the north to the south at night. Then the next day they do the same but from west to east and south to north. They’re like automated machines, like clockwork! They kill anything that moves…’
That’s about all I can get out of him. I need to find Farron now, if he’s still alive. I leave the water bottle with Jack and I head for the store. I’m hungry and thirsty. I go inside and feel thankful that the bombs didn’t destroy this little neighbourhood oasis of food and drinks. The dust is settled here, with recent footprints on the floor.
‘Where are you going?’ Jack comes after me as I make my way through the isles. I pack some cans, some dry toast and a bottle of water from the fridge. I also grab three cans of Starbucks Double Espresso shots. I need coffee and I have no time or the means to brew one myself.
‘I’m moving on, and so should you.’
‘But… But where do I go?!’
‘I don’t know, kid. Go home.’
‘I don’t have a fucking home anymore!’ His voice is soaked with anger. I look at him and can’t help but feel sorry for him.
‘I can’t help you there, kid. I’m sorry. Just pack some food and water and go somewhere in the countryside or the woods. And if you’re lucky, you might just survive.’
‘Where are YOU going?’
I take a swig out of the espresso can. I head out again. The caffeine effect is almost instant – or maybe I’m confusing it with the effect of a cold and bitter drink running down my throat. Jack follows me around like a lost puppy. I’m getting irritated. I don’t have time to look after him too.
‘I’m going to find a friend, if he’s still alive anyway.’ I stop walking and turn to face him. ‘Listen, you’re nowhere near safe if you hang around me, trust me. Just walk away and you’ll have a shot at survival. Walk away.’
‘But I could help you!’
‘You can barely help yourself. Seriously, Jack, walk away.’
He doesn’t listen. I roll my eyes and keep moving. I don’t feel responsible for him. I ignore him for now. But the moment he slows me down, I will make him leave. I head down Davies Street onto Berkeley Square. Farron’s office is just further up on the left side of the small urban park.
As I approach my destination, I start considering the possibility that Farron may have been killed in the bombings. This entire neighbourhood has been levelled. Just chunks of stone, marble and concrete, with wires and shattered furniture poking out of the ashes of everything else around me.
The garden is no longer green – merely a blank space covered in dirt and broken glass. The pavement is burst open where the missiles hit, massive holes everywhere, black and smokey.
Farron’s desk should be at number 12, but it’s kind of hard to tell where number 12 is now. I let a sigh escape my chest and analyse the entire scene. I look for traces of him. I look for signs of life. But this is just silent and it smells of death. Even the birds are gone.
The last time I was here, about three worlds ago, this was a lush green square, with blossoming apple trees and cheerful chirping coming from the magnolia crowns in the middle. The sun was shining bright and rich ladies were parading down the street with lattes and pomeranian dogs in their square Furla bags.
The sun is about to set, I can hear Jack fidgeting behind me. He’s getting restless amongst ruins.
‘Calm down, Jack. I need to see if he made it.’
‘Please hurry. They come out when the sun is down.’
I stop and turn. I’m about to hear something very unpleasant, I know it.
‘Who comes out when the sun is down?’
‘I… I don’t know. I never see their faces.’
I can feel my pulse racing. This kid’s making me angry.
‘What are they? Survivors?’
‘Yeah, I guess. Yeah. But they’re savage. They loot, they kill, they don’t care.’
‘Then stand here and keep an eye out. I need to see if my friend is in there.’
I walk away as the urge to slap him grows stronger. I need to find Farron and not focus on how Jack could’ve told me about the savages earlier. This feels like one of those third rate end of days movies, I swear.
I climb up the broken marble staircase that used to lead to Farron’s office. I tread carefully as I look around what used to be the ground floor. That’s all that is left of the building anyway. I find the charred remains of Farron’s secretary, her pink shoes clung to her toes. The fire died down before it reached her ankles.
Wisps of paper and burnt fabric catch my eye – I recognise what used to be his private study, with burgundy curtains and mountains of notes. But there’s no sign of him. I sigh with relief – he might still be alive.
Farron’s like a cockroach. He’ll outlive humanity if he has to.
Jack waves at me. He whispers from across the street, pointing at the main road. I realise it’s getting dark now.
‘They’re coming! We need to hide!’
I quickly reach him and pull us both away from the open area. I can hear engines blaring – angry Jeeps rolling down the streets and taking sharp turns with screeching tires. They’re getting closer. I look around for a place to hide, somewhere unappealing for looters like these. I see it on the other side of the square, where the road ends – a small iron staircase leading to a basement level below the remains of a house.
‘We need to go now!’ I say and run towards the magic spot. I can hear Jack scramble on his feet as he tries to keep up.
The beam from a pair of headlights hits us from behind. The diesel engines are loud. I can hear them – six or seven males, shouting and cheering and whistling. I run faster and almost fall down the stairs. To my surprise, the little French style door is open. I run inside, and Jack follows. I close the door behind us, and take a deep breath.
The headlights jumble around, flashing against the basement. I hear car doors as they’re slammed, and heavy footsteps and the clink of metals. My back is against the cold and cracked wall. Jack is right next to me. He’s shivering and breathing so loud, it’s annoying. I shush him, hoping he stays put and doesn’t give away our position.
‘What do we do now?’ He whispers, as we listen to their thuds and bangs and crashes. They’ve found some valuables somewhere just above us. They sound pleased.
‘You shut the hell up, and pray that they leave quickly!’ I whisper back. I could smack him, I really could.
He nods and takes deep breaths, as he tries to calm himself down.
I instinctively do the same. One breath. Two. By the third, I feel clarity and know what my next steps will be. But another feeling creeps up, the one that always ends up being right when things go tits up.
The glass explodes inwards right next to my face. The shards cut my cheek.
I see the crowbar responsible for this. I hear the savage cheers, like cowboys herding cows.
They found us.