Journal Entry made on the 20th Anniversary of Freedom Day
I tried hard not to think about Freedom Day, but that backfired when I walked into the hamlet. The villagers had decorated the pub with bunting and raucous singing came from inside. Perhaps a wedding that nobody bothered to tell me about?
When I opened the door, the folk chorused, “Happy Freedom Day”. I was dumbstruck when I found out they celebrated the Freedom Day. How did they even know about that?
The bartender passed me a brew, and I sat down with the rest of them to listen to Tom tell the story. It turns out they’d heard it many times before, but the retelling was part of their annual celebration. So, between gulps of ale, Tom’s gravelly voice related the tale of the stranger who appeared out of nowhere to lead the rebellion.
None of them knew I was that stranger. It felt weird to hear Tom call me a hero. According to the current version of the story, I have superhuman powers and performed miraculous acts. It’s easy to see how folk tales such as Robin Hood become popular. People need heroes, so will invent them.
The truth is, I did so little. I was merely a catalyst. The right person in the right place at the right time. Plus, I was motivated, although my initial incentive was morally dubious. Perhaps the rebellion wouldn’t have happened without me, but that’s true of many others, especially Kim, who sacrificed much more than me. It’s rare to have a day when I don’t think of Kim and what might have been between us. Perhaps if we’d met before the Yellow Death? No—who am I kidding? That was a very different me and not somebody who would have attracted someone like Kim.
I’ve often considered why I changed so much in the three years following the Yellow Death. Looking back, it really felt like a metamorphosis. All the previous years of therapy barely scratched the surface of my nerdiness, yet the short time after the plague altered me fundamentally. In the maelstrom of death, brutality, and desperate sadness, I learnt to be a half-decent human being. At least I hope so.
When Tom finally finished his rambling tale, one kid asked where the stranger lived now. Tom smiled. “Nobody knows for sure. Some say he wandered off into the wilderness heartbroken. But, he waits for the time when freedom is threatened once again, when he will return to lead us to victory.”
Don’t hold your breath, Tom.
1: Cal & The Pheasant
TIMELINE: March 15th 2025: 6 months following the Yellow Death
“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”
Josef Stalin (1879–1953)
The melody and lyrics of Mad World entered Cal’s consciousness. His mouth was dry and tasted of old leather. Warm sunlight fell on his face. Why was he in the open air and not in his tent? He blinked a few times before clamping his eyes shut against the brightness. The phone alarm continued to play the song, slowly increasing in volume.
Keeping his eyes shut, he fumbled about until the alarm was cancelled, leaving only birdsong to disturb the silence. The cool, fresh, morning air caressed his bare arm and contrasted with sticky heat inside the sleeping bag.
Cal fumbled with the zipper of his padded cocoon. His regular sleeping companion—a Glock automatic pistol—jabbed into his thigh.
“Ow! Sodding hell.”
Now he was properly awake. He recalled last evening—cloudless and still. The stars had been diamonds set against jet black velvet. Uncharacteristically, he had abandoned his tent and slept in the open. Perhaps risky with no weather forecast, but the decision had been a wise move—only a few streaks of high cirrus cloud disturbed the canvas of blue sky. It promised to be a fine Spring day.
Slowly, he stretched and twisted, easing the stiffness out of his back, before rolling over and clambering out.
“Welcome to another day in post-apocalyptic paradise. Your schedule today is… well, same as yesterday and the day before that.” He had been alone so long that talking to himself was becoming a habit.
Cal picked up the phone and checked for a signal. Of course, there was no signal. There had been none for 186 days. There would never be a signal. He still looked, since it was part of his routine, and the routine was important.
He stood and stretched. Out of habit, he turned a complete circle to check the surroundings and confirm all was exactly the same as last night. The site had been a picnic area before the Yellow Death. One of many scattered throughout the Devon countryside to cater for the influx of summer tourists. A dirt track lead from the public highway to a small area of hard standing, providing parking for several cars and two picnic benches. It was surrounded by mature elm, oak and ash trees. The seclusion was ideal, so Cal had not needed to camouflage his SUV. To one side was a timber structure that had been a public toilet. However, the stench inside was so disgusting, Cal had kept away from it.
After slipping on his boots and shouldering his combat shotgun, he walked over to the tree-line to relieve himself, stepping carefully over the tripwire that surrounded the campsite.
The steaming jet splashed against the side of an ancient oak tree, making bizarre patterns as it raced to the ground.
Why do men feel more comfortable peeing up against something? Must be instinct. At least that’s one thing I’ve got in common.
The unmistakable ‘kok-kok-kok’ of a nearby pheasant brought his reverie to an end. Cal crouched and slid the combat shotgun off his shoulder, then scanned the undergrowth. The bird sounded once again. He smiled as he spotted it strutting through the long grass.
Cal lifted the shotgun and took aim.
Not very sporting, but this is about getting food.
At twenty metres distance and standing twice the height of surrounding vegetation, the bird would be an easy kill. It looked in Cal’s direction, and he felt a pang of guilt. It was a magnificent specimen, with scarlet wattles contrasting against its iridescent bottle-green head. No blending into the background for this creature—it was hell-bent on attracting a female.
The thought of tasting fresh meat was appealing, yet Cal was aware of the supplies in his SUV, not to mention the mountains of food in his secret caches throughout Devon.
He lowered his shotgun. “Okay, Mr Pheasant, this is your lucky day. Just don’t cross my path when I’m starving.”
The bird strutted on, blissfully ignorant of its brush with death.
I’ve really got to learn to toughen up.
An hour later and Cal was nearing completion of his daily run. His body was like a machine, moving smoothly and in perfect rhythm. On warm sunny days, this was his favourite time, and today he wished he could continue further—but this was a Wednesday and he always ran five miles on Wednesdays. That was the routine. When the music track in his earphones changed to Bonnie Tyler’s I Need A Hero, Cal broke into a final sprint down the dirt track leading to his campsite.
He stopped and wiped the sweat from his brow before checking his wristwatch. Yes! Under forty-eight minutes. Pretty damn good, considering he carried a rifle.
From habit, he scanned the surroundings and, finding nothing hostile, allowed himself to relax slightly. Lifting his foot over the tripwire, he walked into his campsite and loosened up a little more. The daily run was risky, so it was a comfort to return to his base.
Cal’s stomach felt hollow and thoughts of breakfast came to him. First, he must complete the daily routine. He lit a fire before retrieving the food rucksack from the back of the SUV. It contained everything needed for today’s meals grouped into separate bags. He opened the breakfast bag and put five spoonfuls of porridge oats to soak. Now it was time for his exercises and a wash in the stream.
Cal liked the morning routine. It was a good start. Without the routine, nothing felt right.
Besides, this had been his routine since before the Yellow Death. Why should the end of civilisation change it?
TIMELINE: September 11th 2024. At the time of the Yellow Death.
The following is the final log entry of Dr Fiona Chirivino, Lead Researcher, Cambridge Clinical Research Centre, Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge, England.
I expect this to be my last journal entry. My laptop battery is down to 10% and when that goes, I’m back to the Stone Age. I’m not even sure why I’m writing this, since it's likely no one will ever read it.
Perhaps, as a research scientist, recording everything in detail is a tough habit to break. Perhaps I need to share my thoughts and there’s nobody left alive to talk with. Perhaps I’m more of an optimist than I would give myself credit for, and I cling to the hope that someone in the future may benefit from my ramblings. Before succumbing to the disease, I’ll print out my recent log entries.
There has been no time for research these past few days. Anybody with a medical qualification and, many without, were recalled to the wards when the front line medical staff started dropping. However, before the internet crashed, I contacted my colleagues around the world and so have an inkling of what hit us.
There’s so much we still don’t know and never will. But here’s what we’re reasonably certain of:
The enemy is a mutation of the Yersinia Pestis bacterium. Ironic that billions will die without even knowing the name of their killer. This microscopic organism is widely accepted as causing the ‘Black Death’ plague, which halved Europe’s population in the 1300s and returned many times later until it mysteriously disappeared from Europe in the 19th century. This particular variation of the bacterium has significant and deadly differences to its predecessor.
The Black Death was spread, at least in part, by fleas and lice living on humans and rodents. This limited the rate of infection. The Yellow Death variant has no such limitation. Two or three days after infecting a human, it becomes resident in the sinuses, trachea and lungs. Sometimes it causes the victim to cough, although usually there are no symptoms. Yet from that point on, whenever the casualty sneezes, coughs, or even speaks above a whisper, they spread the bacteria into the air, both in droplet and aerosol form, where it can be inhaled by someone else. A kiss from an infected person might be a kiss of death.
Of course, if a sick person touches their mouth, the bacteria will be on their hands and transferred to everything they touch, to be picked up by the next victim.
The early stages are often asymptomatic and, by the time a sufferer shows obvious signs of illness, they could have passed on the disease to many others, who themselves already infected still more. It’s a sad fact that when somebody finds out they are ill, they might already have killed everyone they love.
Modern living has contributed to the rapid escalation. When the Black Death ravaged Europe, the fastest transport was a horse and cart, and most people rarely left their town or village. In twenty-first century society, the mass transport systems and high population density provided a perfect medium for the transmission of this bacterium.
I remember how we were caught out by COVID-19 and greatly underestimated how easily it was transmitted. It took us months to realise infected people with no symptoms could be spreading the disease. “Never again,” we all said. How soon we dropped our guard. In truth, we never stood a chance against this new foe. The spread was too fast and deadly. By the time we had identified it, every country was already contaminated.
The New Variant Yersinia Pestis combines the worst aspects of bubonic, pneumonic and septicaemic plagues and this has led to speculation amongst my colleagues that this strain must surely have been created in a laboratory—perhaps a biological warfare experiment that was released by mistake? I am not of this view. Viruses and bacteria mutate readily and it was only a matter of time before a variant appeared which was both highly infectious and virulent. There may be hundreds of such viruses circulating within the animal kingdom, just waiting to jump to a new species. Besides, even the most insane government would not deliberately create a disease that killed almost everyone—would they? It is unlikely we will ever know for sure. Either way, our preparations should have been more thorough.
The Yellow Death has proved remarkably resistant to our normal antibiotics, such as streptomycin and tetracycline. In the early days, a massive intervention with multiple antibiotics administered early on reduced the mortality rate to under 90%—still alarmingly high. Usually, our best efforts only had the effect of deferring death for a few days—long enough for liver failure to turn the skin a yellow pallor—hence the name coined by the media. Unfortunately, our stocks of drugs ran out quickly and, when they were gone, we had nothing. Our medical facilities became so overwhelmed that many deaths were because of dehydration and the lack of basic care.
The attempts to stall the advance of the disease proved largely useless. The images of the RAF bombing the motorways were spectacular, but I suspect the exercise was the classic example of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.
It’s getting light outside, and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. Normally, the hospital would be buzzing, but the only sounds are birds singing outside the window. Their cheerful cries are somewhat incongruous given our situation, they appear to be taunting us. I doubt I shall see the end of this day. My head started pounding half-an-hour ago and my armpits are now distinctly swollen and tender. As a researcher, I’d love to know why it took so long to take hold of me. I think I’m the last person in the hospital to fall ill. Addenbrooke’s has become a gigantic morgue with the bodies of doctors and nurses lying side-by-side with their patients in the corridors.
I watched everyone I know die, and said my final goodbye to my fiancé, Jean, only this morning. Not everyone is dead yet. A few hardy souls cling onto life, but whether they will eventually pull through is uncertain. We ran out of IV drips two days ago, so I’ve been trying to get the few patients left surviving to sip water. However, it appears I shall soon be unable to perform even that small service to them.
I have no intention of suffering the same horrific death I witnessed in many others. I have put something aside to speed my journey when the time comes. My laptop is now telling me it has less than 5% power and I am starting to feel distinctly feverish. Perhaps time for just one more visit to my patients?