Interview with : DrElena van der Nacht
Once I’ve finished congratulating Dr van der Nacht on her most excellent talk, we find a quiet corner in a nearby bar, and she agrees to talk more about her own personal experiences of the War. Over a glass of dark lager, she talks animatedly about her survival:
“I was living in Amsterdam at the time of the outbreak with my partner of four years, and a small dog called Alphonse. We had rented a canal boat in the centre of the city. It really was a very beautiful place and we loved it there. I suppose we were just a pair of old hippies in many ways, but it was a peaceful and carefree existence.
“For us and many others, the main result of the mass Infection of so many people and the panic that followed was that there was no-one left to man the pumps on the levees which protected so much of Holland. Hundreds of miles of banks kept the sea out, but as soon as the world descended into chaos, so did Holland.
“Amsterdam itself was thirteen feet below sea level. I was on my own as the water levels in the canal started to rise. To this day, I have no idea what happened to Malcolm, he just didn’t come back, although I assume he’d taken the dog for a walk as Alphonse didn’t come back either.
“I’d loosened the mooring ropes on the boat and sat in the centre of the canal, waiting. A young couple I knew had joined me on the boat just before I did this, and we sat watching the Zeds take over the streets. We watched helplessly as people ran screaming from one group of Zeds into the waiting arms of another group. We watched as men, women, and children died. And we were utterly powerless to prevent any of it, and sat there, shamed by our own inaction and ability to help. We saved ourselves. Had anyone swum out to join us we would have helped them on board but no-one seemed to turn to the watery streets of the river and canal network.
“After the first few days, the water rose very swiftly and there was a very dicey period when the levels rose enough that we were almost in reach of the Zeds, who were moaning their way around the chaotic streets. A couple of times we had to use the oars from our small rowing boat to fend them off. Soon though, we floated above them and watched through the murky water as they wandered slowly around under the encroaching tide, occasionally falling into the deeps of the now swamped river channel.
“As the area turned into an inland sea, more boats joined up with us over the next few days, one of which was a police patrol boat that had a couple of divers on board. They were the ones who came up with the idea of using their experience and diving kit to get more food and equipment. Their little boat had nothing useful on board apart from the diving gear. We had a full galley; it seemed like a useful arrangement for all of us.
“They soon found a supermarket, but were very careful not to make too large a hole, as they didn’t want the Zeds in there. That night, we ate well.
“During the following weeks, more survivors joined up and we tied together in a massive clump of boats, anchored to the side of an old church. As the water continued to rise, we became more and more exposed to the elements, and realised our boats wouldn’t survive for any great length of time, particularly with the onset of winter. By this time, we had about forty people huddled in our group. One, a civil engineer, suggested we try and take a tower block. This would mean securing the area below water level, and breaking into and clearing the building. With little choice remaining to us, we began to make plans.
“A local man came up with the location. He had been a member of the local planning department and remembered a sturdily built block of flats with a multi-story car park built into the lower levels. This meant most of the building would be above the current water level, and as such would allow water to flow through it rather than having detrimental flows building up against it. Access to the upper floors was limited, it was deeply piled to take the weight of the building above, and had no other structures nearby that could threaten it if they collapsed.
“Having come to a decision, we made plans.
“One of the boats had tuned into the radio broadcasts being made sporadically around the world and from the orbiting space station and had picked up valuable information on the Zeds. Forewarned, our divers raided a diving and hunting equipment store and came out with some shark protective chain mail suits and enough weaponry to equip a small country. Those of us who had dived before joined in that initial party.
“It was terrifying.
“The water levels had stabilised, the water clearing slightly. You could see the Zombies, the water making little difference to them as they shambled around. The only real change was you couldn’t hear them moaning.
“As we approached what was to become our new home, we dived down into the shadows under the building, pausing at the edge of the hidden void to let our eyes adjust to the gloom. There were six of us, all covered in shark mail, all armed with spear guns and handguns. These were the last resort. The spearguns would only work if they took a Zed through the head, and the handguns would only work at close range due to the drag of the water slowing down the bullets.
“It was slow, cautious work.
“We reached one of the main stairways and entered the building. The first habitable level was one level up, the level immediately above the car park being given over to storerooms, laundry rooms, lift machinery, air conditioning facilities, and other maintenance rooms. At this level, we were splashing through only a few inches of water. Almost immediately we heard moans, as our antics alerted the Zeds trapped in the building. Our handguns made short work of them and we continued, closing off the smaller stairwells and leaving two men guarding the main entry route.
“The flats were only ten stories high above the car park, but it meant we had to clear about forty good-sized apartments. Thankfully, the panic surrounding the outbreak of the Infection and the subsequent breaching of the dykes meant we only encountered only a few more of the Infected inside the main building. Most of these had remained virtually inanimate in their flats, only our movements causing them to come moaning after us.
“We left a small group of three doing a re-check of the building, including the roof, lift-shafts, and miscellaneous storerooms and made our way back to the main stairwell.
“I and one of the original divers volunteered to go back to the boats and get some welding equipment. The intention was to completely seal all of the stairwells under the building, leaving only the external fire escapes, which were ladders and could be cut off at water level, as the means of entry and egress to the building.
“We readied our equipment and descended into the water to make the trip back to the boat.
“I came face to face with a Zed.
“Her eyes were a monochrome grey in the odd half-light under the building, her blond straggly hair waving around her head like a halo in the gently moving water. Instantly, she grabbed me and started biting at the shark suit as I screamed into the water that surrounded me. A bullet, showing a bubbling silvery trail passed over my shoulder and through her eye, and she abruptly let go to drift gently away, bumping slowly down the steps to the base of the garage, as strong arms hauled me back into the basement of the building, gasping, choking and crying.
“Others went to get the equipment from the boats as I shuddered, sobbed, and hyperventilated in a corner.
“We filled the stairwells with anything we could find, and metal shutters were welded into place as a final barrier. Staircases leading to the area under the building were blocked off and wrecked, and the external staircases were cut off below water level. We then had a roof over our heads and unmoving floors to walk on for the first time in months.
“We hung the building with bright coloured flags to make sure that people saw us, but only a few stragglers joined our group over the years, so we changed very little in size.
“The first few months were spent raiding every shop we could find of anything even remotely useful, and modifying the building. The flat roof area was sheltered, and with the inclusion of greenhouses and planted beds from salvaged compost bags we started growing food. Tinned goods became a staple food and many of us became adept at guessing the contents purely from the noise they made when shaken. Very few had labels because of the water.
“We also became adept at fighting the Zeds underwater, acting as bait in our secure shark suits, shooting at close range to take them out. This only worked on small numbers of course.
“The only time we almost came unstuck was when a swarm passed through. We narrowly avoided getting stuck in an old warehouse, the swarm smashing in slow motion through the doors as we managed to break out through a skylight, floating above the grasping hands that tried to drag us into the Infected deeps. We watched in silence from the windows of the tower block as they passed underneath us, shadowy forms moaning silently into the water, their broken fingers rasping for days at the base of the building. Thank God we spent so long securing the base of the building and decommissioning the old stairwells, otherwise we’d have been dead. Most of the swarm kept on going, but a few hundred Zeds remained to cause us problems for a few weeks.
“Eventually, we started raiding neighbouring flats for goods and had to fight in the open air as well. In order to conserve ammunition, we tended to use a more blunt approach. I’ll leave that to your imagination.
“We found maps and used the local business pages to locate stores, shops, and suppliers. The divers used buoys to mark out a new floating map of the city by which we could navigate the submerged city below.
“After a while, we even managed to rig up an electricity supply. Solar panels salvaged from an adjacent block provided us with the means to have some comforts restored to us. A hot shower is one of life’s little pleasures I’ve found. It was also essential in recharging our compressed air tanks, which had previously been run on a small diesel-powered generator.
“I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase before, but we were lucky.
“Our small community survived, we pillaged everything we could lay our hands on, adapted to life in the new world, and resorted to a hunter-gatherer status to supplement our meagre garden supplies. We fished, grew crops, hunted, fought, and survived. We became a tribe of disparate talents brought together by adversity.
“Eventually, we made contact with other small groups and started trading goods, knowledge, and skills. We fought off pirates, and survived storms, crop damage, and disease.
“Many other small communities didn’t. The most common cause was simply starvation or disease. I know other groups were wiped out by the re-emergence of diseases like cholera or typhoid. Some got taken out by Zeds, one got taken out by a small group of humans who had completely reverted to a sort of bestial ancestry, and who had resorted to cannibalism. Several of the small communities got together for that one and hunted them down. I know these days some of the regressive humans have been rehabilitated but we didn’t have that option. It was them or us.
“Radio played an important part in our re-discovery and eventual emergence back into the world. The few thousand who survived in Holland got into contact, formed a new government, re-established laws and society, and the rest, as they say, is history. We still live with the threat of swarms, although there are increasing efforts worldwide to monitor and track them, and we have swapped our dykes for perimeter warning systems and the use of specially trained dogs to warn of approaches. Thankfully the world is a far safer, albeit less populous, place than it used to be, but we must still be on our guard until the menace is proven to be eradicated.
“Unfortunately Holland is a lot smaller now. The breached dykes will never be repaired, but that is perhaps not important. What is important is that we as a race survived. We now have the chance to create a world society based on a shared future, built on the ashes of the past.
“We cannot let that go by the wayside.”