Saturday, January 9, 2010

The City in Winter Part 1

by Kevin Jepson

The snow is actually white.

Like the snow I remember as a kid, bright white with a hint of blue.
Thick and fluffy, yet crisp, crunching and squeaking beneath my boots.
The air is clear, like glass, calm, not a breath of movement. There is a snap to it, an edge, a bite.
High above me the sun shines with that bright yellow that only a midwinter sun can display.
Amazingly, the sky is actually a clear icy blue too.

The first snows that fell, after all hell broke loose, were dirty and grey, falling from sooty, smoke-like clouds. The snow was almost the same colour as the skin of the undead.  A dead grey, a mottled, blasted grey. The drifting remains of a million flaming buildings, funeral pyres, destroyed refineries and the blasted cities of Iran and Pakistan. They had been convulsed in mutual nuclear annihilation even while the dead rose up and walked from the still-flaming ruins.

But now, a month after Christmas, a thick, clean, snow blanket lies undisturbed across the streets and buildings of Calgary.

We are pretty well off in the Centre downtown, even with some 35,000 people in the theatres and concert halls.  However, one has to take advantage of the hard freezes when they happen. When that first grey snow fell and the temperature plummeted, we were able to scavenge through the streets of downtown and stock up.  Zack, as the Americans call the re-animated plague victims, starts to slow down when the temperature gets much below 0 Celsius, and he freezes solid at about -10C. That, plus nearly every major building in downtown Calgary being connected by covered walkways 5 meters or more above street level, means that we have a pretty good place to ride out the war with the undead.

It’s been well below the ghoul-freezing point for more than a month now so they decided to send some of us further out of downtown to do a little scouting.  I'm working my way towards the Southern side of the city, looking for any grocery stores or warehouses that might still have food or supplies of one sort or another.

I tromp along what was 5th street, heading for the bridge over the Elbow River.  It is silent, except for the crunch and swoosh of my boots in the snow.

The street is covered, maybe half a meter thick. There isn't a trace of anything having passed. No vehicle tracks, no boot tracks, no ski trails, no rabbit tracks even, nothing.  Beautiful and eerie at the same time. 

For a city that once had a population of more than a million, such a scene is uncanny. 

A million people!

Growing up in small town Alberta, I could never really get my head around that many people in one place. The city always seemed to press in on me. Coming in to town, from a day skiing with my aunt and uncle’s family in the mountains to the West, there was a spot on the highway where we came over a ridge and we saw, and felt, the city. It was like a constant pressure on my face.

Not anymore. 

Most of that million people are probably still here, but they're dead, and waiting to kill when the temperature starts to climb. 

Luckily the weather patterns have also changed and there has only been one Chinook so far back in late November. We lost two supply teams when the sudden rise in temperature thawed out a couple of thousand ghouls on the Western side of town.

When I was a kid we always watched for Chinooks as a welcome relief from the cold. Now those warm winds and high arching clouds are looked on with fear, as a harbinger of a new assault by the walking dead.

I reach the Safeway at the corner near the bridge. It's mostly empty now as it was one of the first stores outside of downtown we got to.  It's only a mile or two from the Centre, a leisurely half hour walk in the old days, maybe 15 minutes by bike at rush hour.  I remember when we got the scratchy radio call that the first scouting team had made it without being attacked.  It was during the early fall before that first freeze and going out of the +15s, as the building walkways are known, was likely to be a one way trip to join the walking horrors.  I still don't know where the ghouls had gone to that day.  Zach came back with a vengeance two days later though, and we lost Eau Claire and the 400 people holed up there. They couldn't get to the nearest +15 connected building, which was only a parking lot away.

I turn and head along the road that follows the Elbow River, unsurprisingly known as Elbow Drive.  There are real expensive, really big, houses along this road.  Very dangerous ones now, because many of them were abandoned during the Albertan version of the “Great Panic” when thousands of people poured out of town in their trucks and SUVs, heading to the mountains. 

What a disaster that was.  The mountains cannot support many people.  Even the Blackfoot Indians didn't live there if they could avoid it.

Once empty, these big old houses were promptly looted by those unfortunates left behind. Meaning their doors and windows were smashed in. Perfect places for the re-animated dead to wait in silence for someone to walk in. 

I have no interest in going in to any of them, so I stick to the open riverbank side of the road.  Still no signs of anything alive, not even any sparrows or squirrels. As beautiful as it is, it's a little oppressive. 

God damn it all anyways!

Damn that rotten virus that has added a hidden menace to such a beautiful day. 

How could we have got caught out so badly?

How was it possible that modern man could lose nearly everything to a bit of RNA and some proteins too small to be seen even with a good microscope?  It's not like the ghouls were organized or anything.  They don't even move particularly fast and they sure as hell don't plan what they’re going to do. They just walk and bite, devouring anything they can grab.

I reach the next bridge across the river where it winds through the valley.  This bridge is packed with dead cars and trucks wedged in and piled up. Literally piled up. This was a barricade thrown up when the ghouls broke through the Glenmore Line in the spring.  The closest thing to a battle Calgary ever had I suppose.  The problem was ghouls don't need to breathe so they simply walked in one side of the river and out the other. Stupid, stupid, stupid.  Didn't any of these wannabe military types read the reports or watch what was happening "Down South" on YouTube?

I'm the first person from the Centre to cross the river and go South. Nobody has been farther South than this since that horrible day and I’m only going because I lived in this part of the city.   Before the Dead started walking I had a basement suite in my aunt’s house in Lakeview, on the southern side of the Glenmore freeway.

Poor Calgary, never had a chance. For all its oil wealth, its rich executive power brokers, its independent spirit, it had one major flaw. Nearly everyone expected that somebody would figure out the problem. 

Somebody else, of course. 

When things really went to hell, we didn't even have guns to use.  We could have piled hundreds of thousands of people into the office towers downtown. We could have fortified that area and stockpiled enough food for half the population of the city.  500 thousand people could easily have lived there, safe, 5 meters above the ground.  But nooooo! Instead, they tried to hold a line almost 10 Km long, open on both ends with no natural barriers except the Elbow River on the West and the Bow River on the East. I guess they figured the sunken freeway made a good moat or something.  The Glenmore Line as it became known, was nearly 3 kilometers further South of the barricade on the bridge, maybe an hour as the Ghoul shambles.

I carefully pick my way across the frozen river.  It's not a good idea to go near piles of vehicles, you never know what might be lurking in their shadowy depths. Cold or no cold, I'm not taking any more chances than I need to.

The snow is thicker on the road here, making the climb up out of the valley a bit tougher. This time of year the north-facing valley side is in shadow most of the day. The air is still and sharp, the snow blue-ish in the shadows of the leafless trees. There are lots of vehicles along this stretch of Elbow Drive.  A long line of them, bumper to bumper, filling the road down the hill to the bridge with the barricade. Word that the Line had fallen caused a mass panic of the people that had stayed, thinking the line would hold. The cars and trucks are just rounded shapes in the snow, pointing like an arrow at the barricade below. The ghouls pouring through the gaps in the Glenmore Line had simply followed the cars like a scent trail right into the heart of the city.

It's a good thing there is a lot of snow here, I don't want to think about what's underneath it.

I was downtown in one of the office towers when the Line fell. I was actually looking this way from the 30th floor, trying to call my aunt.  Trying to find out if she and her family were OK.  I never did find out.  Odd how some things stick in your memory.  The sound of the phone ringing on the other end of the line while I watched the smoke rising from the South, the roads packed with vehicles and crowds of people heading towards downtown.

A day later and Calgary had been torn to shreds. None of us in the buildings downtown knew where any of our friends or families were.  We were stunned by the speed with which everything had fallen apart.  I remember looking around the crowd of people in the Centre trying to find anybody I recognized. All those strangers, all their faces with the same bewildered look…

I can still hear the moaning of the undead coming through the walls like some demonic wind song.  The horror of realizing everybody I knew was probably dead or part of that moaning horde swirling through the streets outside, mingled with a guilty sense of relief at still being alive.

Even the pristine whiteness, the silence and the knowledge that there are no Ghouls warm enough to move out here, isn’t enough to push that horror completely out of my mind.

Coming out on the top of the hill, I can see straight South along Elbow Drive, to where the power lines cross it at 50th street.  That's where I'm aiming.  There is a strip mall there that had a small grocery store, a bank, a Starbucks, a couple of boutiques and a bookstore.  Across the street there is a big funeral home and a corner store/pharmacy.  The biggest mall in Calgary is maybe a couple of kilometers to the Southeast.  It had been the command center for the Glenmore Line. The police say there are people there, or were. We haven't heard anything from them in a while, since the phone system died.

I could go there to see, but that isn't my job. I'm supposed to find food and supplies and then get back to the Centre. They will send out a bigger party to haul whatever I find back down. No grocery store means the mall isn't a high priority. Besides, I wouldn't want to be in on checking out that mall anyway.  If there are survivors they might be in pretty rough shape. Worse, they might not be alive anymore, but just waiting to grab anyone who comes in.  Big buildings like that hold a lot of heat and it might still be warm enough inside for Zack to be able to move.

The grocery store in the strip mall may still have some food, canned goods or stuff in the freezers that hasn't rotted too bad.

As I trudge along the side of the street, giving the packed vehicles a wide berth, I see them.  It looks like a huge crowd of people surrounding the end of the strip mall.  Still and unmoving, snow piled up on their shoulders and heads, like they were a bunch of mannequins arranged around the building as a practical joke or something.  They are crowded shoulder to shoulder, maybe 5 or 10 deep, pressed right up against the sides of the building. 

I stop and survey the tableau from a safe distance.  I'm not worried that these ghouls will turn and come after me - it's too cold for that - but since they were there when the temperature dropped after that last Chinook, there must have been some people inside at the time. Ghouls are relentless and will keep trying to go after living humans for weeks and months.  Maybe the survivors are still inside so I wait, watching for any indication that there are living people there. 


No smoke from a fire, no tracks in the snow, no sign that anything is alive here at all.

I approach the crowd of undead.  Somewhere behind this wall of frozen bodies is the door, not that it will do me any good. If there were survivors they would have had to have barricaded the door and then reinforced it to keep this mass of walking dead from pushing their way inside. I've seen the results of similar mobs downtown, where thousands of ghouls simply crushed against the doors, walls and glass fronts of the buildings ‘till they caved in.  At street level it looks like a tsunami swept through downtown.

As I skirt the edge of the crowd, further along I see a few ghouls lying on their backs, arms raised as if they were trying to grab the clouds.  As I get closer it looks like they've been pushed out from inside the crowd!  When I get to them I see there is a path, leading right to a door. The bodies are tumbled over and pushed aside like corn stalks in a field, after a car has driven through it.

Living people did this.  They must have made a break for it, once they were sure the dead were totally frozen.

I pick my way over the snow-covered bodies and through the gap to what had been a glass door.  It's totally smashed but it had been reinforced with planks and filing cabinets from the inside. These are piled neatly against the wall ready to be put back up if needed. Somebody was thinking. 

Since the door had not been barricaded again there is probably nobody inside, but I give a loud "halloo" anyways, just in case.  It's not wise to just walk into closed spaces these days. It can be really hazardous to your health.  The lurking dead and the jumpy living can be equally dangerous.

My voice seems way too loud as it echoes a bit inside the building.  I wait for an answer.  I also wait for the telltale scraping and shuffling of a ghoul responding to the sound.

Silence.  Total and complete silence.

I walk into the building. It had been a bank.  Up a short flight of steps past the ATMs and through an – amazingly - intact glass door, I come into a space that had recently been the living quarters of a fair number of people. Organized, clean and surprisingly comfy-looking.  These people had settled in for the long haul.  They had even dug through the cinderblock walls separating the stores to allow movement inside the strip mall.  The market at the end was probably their first objective and therefore likely no longer a source of food, but I certainly don't begrudge anyone using it if it helped them survive.   

Pinned to the wall is a note, written in black marker.

It says:

"Greetings to whoever finds this.

It is Christmas and the dead are frozen solid.

There are 43 of us and we are leaving to head south looking for food and other survivors.

Feel free to use this space, we have tried to leave it as well setup as possible and it is ghoul proof once the door is barred again.  We would appreciate you leaving it the same way when you go. Thanks

We have eaten most of the food but we have tried to leave a little as an emergency supply.

Please don't eat it if you don't need it, but if you do need it feel free! 

Go Flames Go!"

Calgarians to the core.

I take a quick look around through the building, noting the layout and making a quick tally of the emergency food stocks.  Looking out the South side, I see an apartment building across the street. It's burned out, windows black holes with black streaks like giant eyelashes where the smoke and flames had burst out of them. No palisade of frozen ghouls, so it had been abandoned before the freeze.

It's now late in the day. The sun sets early this time of year and the twilight comes on quick.  It will be a very cold night, but thanks to the Flames fans who fortified this place, I can spend the night pretty comfortably.

I wonder where they went. 

Did they go to the mall, did they find other survivors?

A month is a long time to be outside in the winter and there is always the chance that a Chinook could roll in, which could make being outside deadly.

Still, they made it through till Christmas and from the looks of this place they were pretty well organized.  I hope they do find another place to hole up once the dead begin to thaw out in the spring.

As the winter night rapidly takes over from the icy twilight, I head back down to the door. Doesn’t feel safe to leave the door wide open, you never know what might wander by in the darkness, so I quickly push the smallest filing cabinet across and block it up.

That done, taking a piece of paper and a marker I add a note.

"Thanks to whoever held out here!
I hope you found someplace good.
There are 35,000 survivors in the Centre Downtown.
We have lots of room and the +15s make it ghoul proof too.
Feel free to join us!
Good Luck

P.S.  The Flames are OK and living with us.
They are anxiously awaiting a time when they can play hockey again!"

That should put a smile on their faces.

End Part I

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