MarmaladeQueen - The Scottish Incident He had to go in and find out for himself. It had been eating Danny up all these years of his growing up, listening to rumours and theories and Government propaganda. He tried reasoning with himself but couldn’t get it out of his system. Now, as a father himself, watching his children run and play and laugh, he felt the loss all the more. His wife, Karen, pleaded with him to drop it. But it gnawed away at him endlessly, the not knowing. “It’s OK for you,” he’d say to Karen. “None of your family was affected.” “I know Danny. But you have your own family now. There are the kids to think about. I wish to God you’d let it drop.” But he just couldn’t. It was a hell of a journey to contemplate. The whole area was a supposedly a no-go zone for 20 miles around Edinburgh. If he got caught anywhere inside it, he’d be shot on sight. It was patrolled, people said, by soldiers dressed head-to-toe in gas-tight suits. They lived in special camps and did three months on, three months off. After each stint of duty, they’d be quarantined for five days to make sure they weren’t testing positive. But that might all just be hearsay. And even if it was patrolled, it was a huge area. It would take a very large number of soldiers to be in any way effective. Danny reckoned if he kept well away from roads and villages, if he approached it by way of open country, he stood a chance of making it through. The Government repeatedly put out propaganda to say that everyone was safe provided that they kept out of the no-go zone. They referred to what had happened simply as “The Scottish Incident.”. Despite the Government reassurances, every so often there’d be a cluster of rumours about people dying of anthrax, or smallpox, or some new and nameless deadly virus, and the Government would always step in and swiftly deny it. But people weren’t convinced and the rumours kept coming. It didn’t help confidence that they’d stopped burials and open-coffin funerals. By law, you had to be cremated within 24 hours of dying, and you couldn’t even collect the ashes. It was just a precaution, the Government said. Everyone was safe. Some people said all the bodies had just been left there in Edinburgh where they died. Others said they’d been tipped into mass graves by the army, with quicklime to dissolve the bones. Yet others said that there had been survivors, and that the army had gone in and killed them all, rather than let them out. Some people said it was anthrax and it would stay active for hundreds of years. Others said it had been smallpox and that it would be safe to go back there now. There were innumerable conspiracy theories about why the Government was keeping people out. No-one Danny knew had ever met any soldiers who’d been there. The whole thing might be a story made up to scare people. But then why would the Government want to keep people out? “Whatever the truth is, the Government is keeping it from us,” Danny said to Karen. “I don’t know what, and I don’t know why, but there’s some sort of cover-up. And I want to know what they’re covering up”. The only thing Danny did know for sure that that on 14th August 2033 Edinburgh had stopped living. That is, no-one who lived there, or who’d been visiting there at the time, or who’d been there just for the day on business, had ever been heard from again. And from that date, the whole city had been sealed off. It was as if it had never been there. Maps and guidebooks had mysteriously disappeared. The sale of both new and second-hand maps had been stopped immediately, by law, but over the years even the black market in second-hand copies had dried up. Danny, alone of his immediate family, had survived. He had been away on holiday with his grandparents. His mother, his father and his baby sister Fionna had all been at home in Edinburgh. And his aunt and uncle and cousins. Gone. No funeral. No memorial service. No news about what had happened to them. Just gone. Danny was just five years old. Danny’s day job, when he grew up, had been as an accountant in a Government office. He wasn’t anywhere near to any seats of real power, and never was privy to any secrets, but he felt, in choosing his career, that if he were working for the Government then he was that little bit better able to understand its machinations. In his spare time, covertly, he collected any information he could get about Edinburgh and the Scottish Incident. Maps. Guide books. Photographs. First hand accounts of life there before The Incident from the few people were willing to talk. But most were too scared. People who’d known Edinburgh well before the Scottish Incident were prone to disappear, or to have fatal car crashes, or to slip and fall off tall buildings if they talked too much. Danny listened to all the rumours and tried to work out which ones might have a grain of truth about them. Then one day he turned up to work and his voice was no longer recognised by the security system. He assumed it was a malfunction and reported it, only to find that he no longer existed. It wasn’t just that he no longer had a job. Danny McCracken no longer existed. There was no record of him ever having been born, or lived, or married, or died. When Karen, prompted by Danny, applied for copies of the children’s birth certificates, they came back with only Karen’s name on them as parent. They were in her maiden name, as if Danny had never been there, never married her, never fathered these children. Things got tough for him and Karen after that. “We’ll manage,” said Karen, her voice gritty. She worked longer and longer hours to make up for the loss of Danny’s salary, and he took over more and more of the household chores. Even so, they struggled to make ends meet. At first, Danny used to take the children to school and back, but after a few incidents where he’d only just jumped out of the way in time to avoid being run over, they decided it would be better if Danny stayed indoors. He became, in effect, one of the disappeared. He was lucky, he realised, that Karen loved him enough to stick by him. Since he no longer existed, she could just turf him out without redress. He remembered, in the days when he still went out, shadowy figures in rags, scrabbling around dustbins in the dark. The dispossessed. No-one talked about the dispossessed, but they all knew they existed. There were rumours that from time to time the Government would round them up and gas them. “At least no-one will notice you’ve gone, if you insist on going there,” Karen pointed out. They had to try to see what positives there were, or they’d go crazy. There came a point when he’d planned as much as he could plan. “It’s time to go, Karen” he said. She tried reasoning with him. She pleaded with him not to go. She said he’d never make it there and back. She’d never see him alive again. The children would never see their father again. “I have to do this,” he’d said, holding her in his arms and stoking her hair. “Especially now that I don’t exist. I can’t keep living this twilight life. I have to know.” “I won’t tell the children until you’ve gone,” she said, tears streaking down her face. “Leave it as long as possible, and don’t tell them where I’ve gone,” he cautioned her. “The less they know, the safer for them and you.” He planned to travel light and sleep rough. He didn’t need his maps - he’d spent so many hours pouring over them that he’d committed them to memory long since – but he took a revolver that he’d managed to buy a few years earlier. He had very little ammunition for it, but he reckoned he’d probably only get one or two chances to use it, if that. Even getting to the start of the no-go zone was tricky. Large tracts of Scotland had become depopulated since The Incident. Glasgow was still a thriving city, but the east coast has suffered badly. He took the train as far up as they now went - Berwick, on the border. After that he made his way north on foot, across deserted farmland and avoiding, so far as possible, any villages. There might still be a few people living in them and his presence would provoke comment. Finding deserted barns to sleep in was easy enough, and being summer it was warm. He drank from streams but food was more of a problem. He soon used up the food he’d taken with him and after that he grazed off ripe brambles and elderberries and ears of corn that had self-seeded itself in the abandoned fields. One day he happened across an old orchard and feasted on the ripe pears and apples. There were plenty of rabbits everywhere and he wished he had the skill to trap and cook them. He got as far as the outskirts of Edinburgh before he realised that someone was following him. He must have crossed the 20 mile boundary without realising it. There was no fence, and no signs. Vegetation had taken over everywhere. Dandelions grew through the cracked and pitted tarmac of the roads. Houses were hidden behind swathes of ivy and front garden shrubs had grown almost into trees. Many of the roofs had holes where tiles had blown off, and in a couple of cases there seemed to be trees actually growing inside the abandoned buildings. What every dwelling had in common was that the front doors were missing, as if they had been wrenched off their hinges. In some cases, Danny could see where they had been tossed into the front garden or the road. Everywhere there were vehicles, abandoned and rusty, their tyres long since perished. Some had their windscreens smashed in. But so far he’d seen no sign of any people, dead or alive. Other than the person following him. Whoever was tracking him was doing so very skilfully. Danny got his revolver out and held it, very visibly, in his hand. Some of the time he managed to convince himself that there was no-one really there, but then there would be a slight sound, a footfall that just faintly echoed his own, and stopped just a split second after he stopped. He was scared. He’d been scared since the moment he’d left home, but not scared like this. He felt his heart pounding and he was breathing in short gasps. His heart was crashing in his ears – thump, thump – against the stillness all around him. His hand gripping the revolver was sweaty. His mouth was parched but he daren’t stop to take a sip from his water bottle. There was still no clue as to what had happened to Edinburgh, but the front doors ripped off their hinges suggested it had been violent. And he knew already it had been sudden. As he crept forward through the abandoned streets, passing through what would once have been densely populated suburbs, he started to get the uncanny feeling that not only was he being followed, but he was being watched. From within the carcasses of the houses and shops to either side of him, he would catch just a faint noise, a slight rustling perhaps, and turn sharply, gun raised, to try to catch its source. The day was completely still. There was not the slightest breeze to ruffle the overgrown vegetation. There was no shelter. Nowhere to hide, since he didn’t know who or what he was hiding from. The derelict buildings looked as dangerous as the open road, so he just kept walking, getting nearer and nearer to the part of Edinburgh where his family had lived. He now felt really crowded by the sense of people or things watching him. The sun was starting to dip down against the skyline and Danny thought of his children back at home playing in the garden, of Karen in the kitchen. It made his stomach gnaw with hunger to think about it the smell of Karen’s cooking. He imagined her calling the children in for their dinner, and their eager faces, running in. Then there was a click, and a brief sharp pain in his head. ------------------------ George waved at Alan as he came into the bar. “Shift finished?” he asked. Alan nodded. “Decontamination took longer than usual though. They said there was a problem with the filtration system, but I never know what to believe.” The bar tender pulled Alan a pint and set it down in front of him. Alan was one of the drinkers. Some people managed to occupy themselves fairly well between in between working and sleeping. There were plenty of books and films supplied, a fully equipped gym for those that liked to work out, and any number of electronic games. But others, like Alan, mostly drank. “Did you get anyone today?” George asked. “Just one. Guy on his own,” Alan replied. “Silly buggers. It doesn’t matter what the Government says to deter them, they still keep on coming.” Alan nodded his agreement and they sat there in silence for a while, enjoying the deep cool of their lagers. The bar was pretty much deserted, but they both knew it would liven up later. “Do you ever think of trying to get back?” asked Alan after a while. “Not these days. I used to be really angry when I first came here. When I first found how the way they’d conned us. Three years in the Special Army and then we’d be set up for life. What a joke,” replied George, with a sort of mock laugh. “But what’s going to happen when we get old?” Alan went on. “They surely can’t be meaning to keep us here until we die. Some of the guys are almost retirement age. Adam Wilson for example. He’s been here pretty much since the start.” “I don’t think it does any of us any good to be thinking of questions like that,” said George. “We are stuck here and I guess this is where we are going to die. There are worse lives. At least we know we’re something worthwhile. Keeping people safe and all that.” “I guess so. But don’t you think it’s strange how they’ve never actually told us what we’re protecting people from?” Alan asked. George could see Alan’s agitation. The way he was kicking one foot against the bar. The way he was drinking in short gulps. The white of his knuckles as he held his glass. The guys that joined up reacted in all sorts of different ways when they found out what they’d let themselves in for, but most settled down eventually. Alan had been up here for long enough, George thought, to have come to terms with his fate. “You know George – it just eats me up,” Alan went on. “Not knowing how my family are doing, not knowing what they were told about what happened to me. Knowing that they are alive out there and I’ll never see them again. My kids must be grown up by now. I know it’s crazy, but sometimes I wonder if I could make it back there alive.” “Run away?” George looked alarmed. “You’re one lunatic of a guy to even talk like that.” He looked around, worried that someone might have overheard. He’d have to keep his distance from Alan in future, George decided. One couldn’t be too careful. Not up here.