The dead, the living

They said, at first, that it was a regular tanker, carrying oil or mineral ores or something mundane like that. Registered in Bergen but Russian-owned. It had got into trouble in the southwestern part of the North Sea, about forty kilometres off the Suffolk coast. Even then, people had wondered aloud how such a huge ship could have capsized in low winds and low seas, many kilometres from the nearest coast or any known shallows.

Soon people were saying that it wasn’t a tanker at all – far too small, for one thing – but a research vessel heading south from a scientific station in Novaya Zemlya, with a course plotted to take it through the English Channel, down Europe’s western seaboard, through the Mediterranean and the Black Sea to Rostov. There was speculation that Russian scientists were about to announce a breakthrough discovery – people spoke of archaeology, palaeontology, cryptozoology – but nothing was known for certain.

Then there came rumours of what could be seen on Google Earth: a great grey slick that seemed to emit a soft, iridescent light of its own, spreading out from the stricken ship and heading out mostly in a southwesterly direction, towards the mouth of the Thames estuary, in exactly the opposite direction from the usual current. Other, much smaller streams could be seen heading due south and southeast, towards the major ports of northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. But within a couple of days the slick and the crippled ship were gone from Google Earth, replaced by a perfectly normal satellite photograph of the southern North Sea and its coastline, and people spoke bitterly of conspiracies and cover-ups.

Three days after the first news of the disaster at sea, people living on the Essex and Kent coasts began to notice something strange. The great, frigid expanse of the North Sea, always one shade of grey or another, had taken on an unearthly hue. Although still grey, it glittered repellently and at night gave off a dull, leprous glow. Further, it seemed to have had an unprecedented effect on sea life: fish didn’t sicken and die but appeared to become possessed of an unfathomable intelligence and purpose, and could be seen from the air or from the tops of cliffs swimming in great coordinated solid blocks, each many tens of thousands of individuals strong, forming what looked like the cryptic characters of some utterly unknown alphabet. Gulls took to the skies and wheeled in perfect circles while those watching below could only guess at what these portents meant.

The nameless pollutant made its way slowly and inexorably up the Thames estuary and into the river proper, heading against the flow of the river just as it had against the tide and current out to sea. Attempts to halt its progress were utterly fruitless; the Thames Barrier was of no use since the stuff simply flowed up and over the segments of the barrier and continued upstream; attempts by frantic teams of government scientists were equally unavailing, regardless of whichever powerful detergent, enzyme or catalyst they used. So far no effects on humans had been observed, so the government was initially unwilling to evacuate London, certain that whatever this substance could do to the city, it couldn’t possibly cause more disruption than the instantaneous relocation of eight million people.

There was a pause of about two days in which it seemed the incredible phenomenon had run its course. The mysterious grey substance had advanced as far as Richmond and then, as if responding to some signal, had stopped. Surely it was only a matter of time before the stuff naturally broke down or simply dissipated? But then came the reports of what was happening to the citizens of Calais, Dunkirk, Ostend and Rotterdam – cities that had received far smaller doses of the substance than London had – and by then it was too late.

People began to experience the strangest of symptoms, completely unlike those of any known infection or mode of poisoning. Starting among those living and working closest to the river and spreading out to the furthest suburbs in a matter of days, the afflicted began to suffer delusions of weightlessness, of being materially unreal; some claimed to be able to pass their limbs through solid objects, while others said they could feel the wind blow through their bodies as if they were no more substantial than a wisp of smoke.

The contamination, contagion or whatever one called the effect, clearly travelled up London’s ancient rivers, most of them long ago built over or tunnelled in, as the people living closest to these hidden watercourses were affected sooner than others. By the time the initial symptoms had begun to appear among those living in the great city’s outermost suburbs and satellite towns, those near the Thames and its tributaries had entered a new stage of affliction: involuntary visions which plagued them day and night, awake or sleeping. These visions were of desert scenes under starry skies, with unheard-of constellations along with three moons of varying sizes and colours suspended in the firmament, and rows of colossal stone monoliths, of fantastic geometrical shapes never dreamt of by Earthly mathematicians, marching to the horizon for who knew what possible purpose.

Then the final stage began. There were rumblings deep beneath the ground, and solid buildings and century-old trees shook like little saplings in a strong breeze. Next, the ground opened: at first in the church yards and cemeteries, but soon wherever the dead were buried, which of course is everywhere – or very nearly so – in such a great and ancient city. The mummies of Pharaohs and their wives, priests and ministers walked free from their sarcophagi in the British Museum and the Petrie Collection, and the dessicated bodies of sacrificial virgins who died a thousand years ago on a mountain shelf in Peru likewise awoke and began to explore their new surroundings. But far greater in number were the Londoners of many eras who were once again walking the streets; skeletal, and yet with faded images of the faces, bodies and attire they’d worn in life clinging around them.

The living and the dead passed each other as they wandered the thoroughfares, the squares and parks and paths and motorways, exchanging nods as if each playing what they knew to be their own ordained part in a great plan. Soon the living – if they could still be called that – found the world above ground insufferably cold and inhospitable, while the many holes left in the earth by London’s reanimated former residents seemed invitingly warm, snug – uterine – and into these dark spaces they passed with happiness and relief. The vast legions of ghosts, for their part, took up residence in the buildings so recently deserted.

And thus the living usurped the dead and the dead, the living.

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