St Peter’s College, Oxford
Interview with: Professor Colin James
Steepling his fingers and looking over his half-moon glasses at me from the other side of his leather-topped desk, Professor James projects a wonderful stereotype of the typical Oxford Don. Author of “Infected: A Discussion on the Limitations and Effects of the Zombie Virus”, Professor James has kindly agreed to spend some time with me. As we sit in the oak panelled room in Oxford University, where he now lectures to a small group of government-sponsored students, he talks me through his experiences of the war.
“Before the war, I was a medical doctor assigned to the UK government’s COBRA crisis response committee. As a specialist in virology, I was drafted in to assist in developing various scenarios the crisis team might have to deal with. These ranged from a resurgence of things like Scarlet Fever or Measles through to the potential for mutations of such viruses as Bird Flu or AIDS. I also sat in on many of the other scenarios they discussed, as there was usually a medical element somewhere along the line.
“I can see the questions you want to ask, and the answer to the obvious one is, yes, we did consider Zombie attack. You may well look surprised, but government agencies all around the world had crisis groups of one sort or another setup and usually had a similar scenario somewhere in their archives. Many dismissed it, but some like the UK took it relatively seriously. Our scenario was perhaps more likely in some ways: it was based on an invading force that had given their soldiers drugs to make them aggressive, but easily controlled by their leaders; or, that a virus had been developed that lead to the same condition. But then, what is a more likely scenario given what we have just lived through?
“We were in a meeting at No. 10 Downing St. when the call came in. Depending on the nature of the epidemic or scenario, there were various plans set and ready to be implemented. The Government obviously had different plans in the event of a terrorist attack, nuclear war, or alien invasion. And, yes, they considered that too.
“In the case of an epidemic, the first couple of hours were spent raising the status of the country’s military to a high level, notifying various important persons within both military and civilian circles, and readying them for flight to a secure location. Also, we started gathering as much information as we possibly could, as quickly as we could. It didn’t take long to realise what was going on. Our close links with the American, Australian, and European intelligence agencies quickly confirmed that the world was in a dire situation. The armed forces were mobilised, the prime minister gave the unprecedented order to assume military control of the country, and the entire cabinet was evacuated to a secure location on the Isle of Wight.
“We know a lot more about the virus now, but all we knew then was that it was spreading. The incubation period of the virus is three or four days. Before the PM gave the lockdown order people were still able to leave their countries and travel anywhere they wanted in the world. Then word started to spread and the World Health Organisation (WHO) got involved to try and monitor things, but for up to a week after the UK closed all borders some countries were still allowing travel. Most notable among these is Iceland, which is as we know a White Zone and still completely off limits. The UK took the hard line and closed its borders almost immediately, the Prime Minister saying that it would be easier to apologise to our neighbours after the event, rather than regret the decision if it did turn out to be a full epidemic.
“We were still too slow.
“Within hours, people were panicking and heading for the hills, but there was nowhere to go. All the airports and ports were shut, with aircraft told that they would be shot down if they took to the skies and naval craft patrolling the coasts. The problem was we couldn’t control people on the roads. As the infected started to go mad in the final phases of the virus or fully reanimate, the virus spread like wildfire.
“Perhaps I need to explain a little more about what we’ve learned before I go any further in my tale.
“Much of what I know is still restricted, but I did talk to the new Minister for Security before I met you so that I was secure in what I could tell you. Some of what I tell you now is, until now, unknown, but I have been given permission so I will pass on the information as well as I am able.
“We had a facility on the Isle of Wight as I mentioned. All of the people noted as “strategically required” for this scenario were present as were their families where possible. The deputy prime minister and the Royal Family had been sent to Balmoral, which itself became a bastion of strength, but that’s another story.
“The island was quickly secured, the perimeters locked down and the locals informed of the situation. There were approximately sixty-thousand people on the island, including services personnel and the relocated government. The army processed them all, put approximately two hundred into the island’s prison as a form of quarantine, and then we carried on the next stages of the plans that we had never expected to use.
“There was little we could do in some areas other than use the nation’s broadcasting mediums to try and get people not to panic, stay at home, and not travel. Most people did what they were told, but once the infection started taking hold, panic set in. All this did was spread the virus faster; London, Glasgow, Cardiff, and all the other major cities were overrun in a matter of days. The governments of the world were in contact initially and all had agreed that no matter how bad the situation got, no nuclear weapons would be used. I was proud of the human race as a whole for that decision, but some of the things we had to do were horrific, even if they were necessary. We blew bridges, trying to confine the worst areas of the outbreak, but the zombies didn’t care if they had to walk through water and all that did was make sure their prey couldn’t escape. We had a strict entry policy onto the Isle. Only essential staff like doctors, nurses, engineers, carpenters, and pilots – to name but a few from the list – were allowed in. All the rest were turned away. Callous? Possibly, but we were at war with something that was utterly implacable and we had to implement the harshest of regimes to deal with an epidemic that had the potential to wipe out Homo Sapiens as a species.
“All of our quarantined people were thankfully clean, with the exception of one young army corporal. He had just come back from a holiday where he’d been bitten in a bar fight. He’d assumed at the time that it was just a drunken brawl but had reported himself to medical when everything kicked off.
“I got to know him fairly well in the time before he died. I spoke to all the temporary inmates briefly, but as soon as I saw the bite wound I thought he might be the one who was going to have a problem. His name was David and was just the sort of soldier that this country has produced for centuries; capable, dependable, and utterly courageous. Once I explained to him what might be happening, he instantly volunteered to donate himself to medical science, or more particularly to me. He quite clearly stated for the record that if he started showing signs of Infection he wanted to be hospitalised and restrained for the safety of others, and that his reanimated corpse could be experimented on so that the war effort could gain from his loss.
“I got permission from the Prime Minister himself, who also came to visit the remarkable young man who contributed so much without knowing the results.
“Two days later, David started showing signs of distress. We had him connected up to virtually every medical device we could lay our hands on. Thankfully the Isle of Wight had a large enough population that it was largely able to function without any input from mainland England, so the hospital was able to source all sorts of equipment, including a brain scanner.
“Initially, he started becoming less coherent, argumentative, and aggressive. As time went on, he changed, becoming very withdrawn. His bodily functions remained stable at first; his brain patterns, however, varied rapidly, until some sections seemed to shut down completely. At this point, he became very aggressive and started trying to injure and bite people around him. We had restrained him by then in a horrible contraption that prevented all movement. It looked like the cage in Silence of the Lambs when they transport Hannibal Lechter, even down to the steel muzzle. The snapping and biting phase continued for a whole day. All the time he was under twenty-four-hour watch with the whole process being taped for analysis.
“At 1130 on a clear and bright Monday morning, I sat in front of him and watched him, making notes on the pad in front of me. He was in a tropical diseases quarantine room by this time but had been propped a couple of feet in front of the Plexiglas so that we could see him. Speakers relayed the sound. Abruptly, all sound stopped and I remember looking up in surprise at the sudden cessation of noise. David looked me straight in the eyes, smiled gently, and then his heart stopped and he died. I like to think he knew he was doing something that would help us in that moment.
“All the monitors flat-lined, his breathing stopped and his eyes closed. I’ve watched that moment hundreds of times since on playbacks and it still gives me nightmares. It gives everyone nightmares. I remember standing at my desk, leaning forwards to look at David through the glass. The brain monitor was still indicating some residual, almost flickering readings, and I looked over at it to see what they were showing. When I looked back he was staring at me. There was nobody there, just an animated shell. His head swiveled towards me as I moved, blank eyes staring unblinkingly at me. Not knowing what to do, I said his name softly, knowing the microphone in front of me would pick up my voice.
Immediately he began straining and moaning, desperately trying to get free from his bonds, wrenching his body this way and that, hands flexing manically and teeth gnashing as he tried to get to me. I’ve never been so afraid in my life. I knew he was tied and bound, knew he was unable to get to me and yet the sheer malevolence that radiated from his unseeing eyes seemed to render me utterly incapable of movement. The only reason I know how long I stood there is that it is documented on videotape. I was utterly transfixed by terror, a rabbit in the headlights of this moaning killing machine. David wasn’t there anymore; he was now a thing, an automaton, driven only by hunger and the need to transmit the virus to as many hosts as possible.
“After what seemed like an eternity, a colleague found me there, shaking and crying, and took me away from him. Although David was an “it” now, we still referred to him by his given name out of respect. That may sound odd, but it made sense to us at the time: perhaps it made him slightly more human to us.
“We used David as a subject, a guinea pig, a thing to be studied. We noticed that if we weren’t there and the lights were off he would go into a sort of hibernation. We tried to get blood samples but the virus had changed David’s physiology entirely. He didn’t breathe, his blood had jellified. Food in the form of raw meat was consumed with a voracious appetite, but it didn’t seem to be essential. He was all but immune to everything we threw at him; viruses, toxins, poisons, radiation, but nothing touched him, he was like a giant cockroach. Extremes of heat or cold did affect him. Extreme cold made him dormant, but as soon as the temperature rose he became active again. Extreme heat damaged him as it would any soft tissue, but it really did have to be extreme.
“Ultimately, we found out that the only thing that affected a Zombie was having its brain destroyed. Anyone bitten became infected. We heard of no one who was immune, absolutely no one.
“The results of our findings were very quickly disseminated to the other world powers we were still in contact with. There weren’t very many of them left by then, but I understand the Americans sent the message to the Space station, where they put the message on a continual loop for a few days to try and let everyone know. I think perhaps by then that most people knew by bitter experience rather than any sort of scientific approach how best to halt a zombie.
“Information was coming in all the time from around the island and various newcomers to the Isle. The Zombies seemed to be somewhat limited in their movements and could climb things like stairs or obstacles below shoulder height. Trees, cliffs, and ropes or something requiring a learned technique seemed to stymie them, but digging seemed to be within their capabilities. As I mentioned earlier, their whole physiology had changed. They never blinked, so over time, their eyes would become milky and dry out. They didn’t seem to need their eyes though and were able to rely on smell or sound to pinpoint their prey. Other more animalistic senses that humans have lost through evolution may also come into play but this is still being researched.
“Following studies on David, my role changed to include more normal doctoral duties. We spent the rest of the war on the Isle of Wight and I was thankfully allowed to do more mundane medical duties for much of my time. After David, delivering a baby became one of the most precious experiences of my life. The war continued on in front of our eyes though.
“Sitting as we did off the south coast of England, we watched as civilisation died. Southampton, Portsmouth, Brighton, and all the coastal towns were razed and devoid of life. The RAF ran regular sorties out into the country north of the Isle but never came back with good news. Eventually, they came back with news of the first of the swarms. It had moved down across the country, gathering momentum and direction. Oddly, not all of the Infected were drawn into it, as attested by the occasional Zed that wandered onto the Isle. Water, whether fresh or saline made no difference to them at all.
“The swarm grew and we braced ourselves. Pictures from the aircraft just didn’t manage to convey the size of it. There were approximately a million of them in that one swarm alone. It swung down from the north of England and we saw the edge of it as it teetered on the cliffs, before swinging to the east to decimate London, finally disappearing into the surf and heading towards the coast of Normandy in France. Two days later we had requests for emergency assistance from the remnants of the French army as it hit them. We did what we could and I understand we sent over some bomber support to try and obliterate the swarm as it left the sea, so yet again the D-Day landing beaches were bathed in fire as the swarm hit French soil.
“Eventually, David was shot by a military firing squad, snarling and snapping the air as the bullets tore into his brain. He was given a full military funeral and once the war had finished, the Queen presented a surviving brother with a Victoria Cross on his behalf.
“The people of the Isle of Wight have erected a statue on one of the Needles; the sharp rocks that spear the sky on the western end of the Isle. Perhaps one day when the seas finally claim David’s statue, we will manage to forget the awful horror that one virus has caused.”