Chapter Four

Almost a hundred feet above the city centre Donna watched the world around her begin to decay. Although she constantly felt anxious, nauseous and ready to break into a nervous panic at any moment, she somehow managed to maintain a surprising degree of control and, generally, was able to continue to think and act relatively rationally and sensibly. She wondered whether it was because she was in the place where she used to work? She had become used to switching off and detaching herself from her emotions in this grey and oppressive environment. In the same way she'd spent the last few weeks and months here processing work, she now found herself having to process the remains of her life.

Had she been at home with its comfort, familiarity and memories she felt sure her emotions would have overtaken her by now. Hunger and other more rudimentary needs had eventually forced her from the training room at the far end of the tenth floor of the office block. Locked in a cabinet that she had smashed her way into in the building manager's office on the ground floor, she had found a collection of safety lamps and torches. She presumed they would have been used in the event of an emergency or an evening evacuation of the building perhaps. She added the lamps from downstairs to the collection of lighting equipment she'd already gathered and, slowly and methodically, she spaced them around the windows on the tenth floor, eventually managing to work her way around three-quarters of the perimeter of the building. There was a new found purpose to her actions.

Just after six o'clock, when the evening light began to fade away noticeably, she lit every last lamp and switched on every torch. Her plan was simple. She was desperate to find other survivors but she was also too scared and uncertain to go outside and look for them. She guessed that anyone else left alive in the city would probably feel the same. She decided that the most sensible thing she could do would be to let the rest of the world know where she was hiding. In the otherwise utter blackness of the cold and lifeless night, the lights in the windows of the office block lit up her location like a beacon.

It worked. Paul Castle, a music shop sales assistant in his early twenties, was painfully hungry but had been too afraid to leave the store where he had worked and where he'd watched customers and colleagues die in agony last Tuesday morning.

He'd searched the entire store and, until now, had been able to find enough scraps to eat and drink from the vending machines dotted around the building. He'd known all along that going outside was inevitable, but he'd done all that he could to prevent it from happening for as long as possible. Now he knew he had no choice but to leave. Paul waited until the world was dark before venturing out. He figured that the darkness should offer him some protection from the wandering bodies that he had watched staggering aimlessly up and down the desolate streets outside. He knew that in their present state they didn't seem to actually pose a threat to him, but the additional camouflage that the blackness of the night provided brought him some welcome comfort and reassurance. As long as he managed to avoid dwelling on the fact that these awkward and unpredictable figures had laid dead at his feet for the best part of two days before rising again, he was just about able to keep his fragile emotions in check. In the shadows and low light of early evening it was somehow easier to ignore the desperate condition of the rest of the world. From across the street a staggering dead body looked almost the same as someone who was still alive and who still possessed control, coordination and independence of thought.

He had seen more than enough drunkards, addicts and down-and-outs in the city centre at night to be able to convince himself that what he was seeing now was just more of the same. Despite his fear and uncertainty, his comparative speed and agility made it possible for him to move among the bodies as if they were normal people trapped in a bizarre slow motion replay of their lives. There was little in the way of supermarkets and food stores in the city centre. This was a place where people had worked and shopped for gifts and luxuries, where they had studied and partied and where they had been entertained in cinemas, theatres and clubs. Paul quickly ran down a long concrete ramp close to where he had worked and then turned right and sprinted across the road in the direction of a newsagents and a high-class department store where he knew he would find a well stocked food-hall. Rather than reassure him, now that he was outside he found the darkness unexpectedly unnerving. It unsettled him to see so many huge shop fronts and expensive window displays standing dark and unlit. Even the street lights were off. He found himself running through blackness and into more blackness. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath and climbed up onto the top of a huge and, in his opinion, tasteless lump of concrete and steel street art. Light rain fell around him as he stood there with hands on hips, looking down over miles and miles of pitch-black city suburbs. Breathless he peered as far as he could into the distance, desperate to see something that would give him a little hope. Dejected he jumped down and walked away. There was nothing. Numb and uncaring, Paul continued towards the department store where he forced his way in through a pile of fallen elderly shoppers.

Although he had never shopped there himself he quickly found the food hall and filled numerous plastic carrier bags with food which he loaded into a shopping trolley and pushed out through the silent checkouts. Pausing only to allow another one of the pitiful cadavers to drag itself past the front of the building, he stepped back outside into the night and wearily began to work his way back to the store where he'd been sheltering. For a while he thought about trying to get home. He'd considered it a few times before but it seemed too great a distance away for him to think about trying to cover alone while the situation remained so uncertain. Truth was he was a coward looking for excuses not to take risks but that didn't make any difference to his decision. What did it matter what anyone else might think of him, he thought, when there didn't seem to be anyone else left alive to care? Maybe he'd find a car and try and drive there in the morning, but then again maybe not. The trolley made a deafening rattling and clattering noise as he pushed it along the block-paved city street. Still disorientated by the darkness, he paused to get his bearings. He pushed the trolley to one side and leant against a nearby bus shelter to drink from a carton of fruit juice which he'd taken from the department store. He opened the carton and drank from it thirstily, the strong, citrus flavour suddenly revitalising him. He'd hardly drunk anything all day and he practically emptied the carton in a short time. It was when he tipped his head back to drain the last few precious drops of juice that he saw the light. Christ, he thought, he could see light. Throwing the empty carton to one side, he got up and took a few steps away from the bus shelter. At the far end of the road adjacent to the one he'd been following he could see the silhouette of a tall office block which had been obscured from his view by other buildings until now. And there was no mistaking the fact that he could definitely see light.

Halfway up the massive structure, in the midst of all the darkness he could definitely see light. And where there was light, he quickly decided, there had to be people. Suddenly filled with energy and a new found determination, he pushed the shopping trolley further into the shadows and turned and ran towards the office block. A body appeared from out of nowhere, its random path crossing his own by chance. Without thinking he shoved it to one side and it tripped and crumbled to the ground, silent and disaffected. Paul continued to move and to increase his speed. He had covered the length of the street and was outside the building in seconds. He glanced up, shielding his eyes from the spitting rain, making sure that he could still see the dull yellow glow coming from the windows high above. The main revolving door was blocked by fallen bodies but a side entrance remained clear and he pushed his way inside. The silent, mausoleum-like place smelled of must and the early stages of decay but Paul was, by now, becoming used to the scent of death which seemed to have permeated almost everywhere and soaked and stained everything. He didn't bother to try the lifts, choosing instead to head straight for the stairs. He climbed the first three flights at speed but then slowed dramatically as nerves and exhaustion quickly overcame his initial rush of adrenaline-fuelled excitement. With every step he took further up the building, so his unease and anxiety steadily grew.

But he couldn't stop. For the first time since all of this had begun there was a very real chance he was about to find someone else alive. Fourth floor - nothing. Fifth floor - nothing. Sixth floor - bodies. Paul stepped over a corpse which was sprawled on the ground at the bottom of another flight of stairs before reaching out for the plastic-coated handrail and dragging himself up again. His mind was starting to play tricks. Had he actually seen a light at all? Was he going to be able to find the right floor? He forced himself to keep on climbing and clung on to the faintest glimmer of hope as he moved. Seventh floor. Eighth floor. Ninth floor. Tenth. This was it. He could see the light even before he'd stepped off the staircase and onto the landing. A warm yellow glow which shone through the small windows in the doors which separated the office from the rest of the world. Panting heavily with the effort of the climb, Paul shook and yanked furiously at the door handle. It didn't move. Inside the office Donna froze. She was back in the training room again, curled up in a sleeping bag, sitting on a comfortable swivel chair. Every nerve and fibre in her body suddenly became tense and heavy with nervous fear. She didn't dare move. Paul shook the door again and banged at it with his fist.

He couldn't see or hear anyone but that didn't matter, the light alone was more than enough reason for him to keep trying to force his way inside. Not making any progress he took a couple of steps back and then shoulder-charged the door. It rattled and shook in its frame but still it didn't open. None of the bodies she'd come across possessed anywhere near enough strength to make that kind of noise, Donna thought. She wanted to believe that there was another survivor on the other side of the door but in her heart she didn't really think that would be the case. She hadn't seen or heard anyone else. She knew that she had no option but to leave the relative safety of the training room and go and have a look. The landing was about twenty feet long and five feet wide. Double doors at either end gave access to the open office space. Paul had turned left at the top of the stairs but the training room where Donna had been sheltering was to the right. Cautiously she picked up a torch and tiptoed to the door nearest to her. She shone the light through the small window and peered into the darkness, sure that she could see some movement at the far end of the landing. Suddenly aware of the light shining at him, Paul stopped what he was doing and slowly turned around. Donna instinctively pointed her torch down to the ground, frightened that she had been seen. Paul ran the length of the landing. `Let me in,' he yelled, banging his fists against the door furiously. `For Christ's sake, let me inside...' He leant against the door and pressed his face against the glass, frustrated, frightened and breathing heavily.

For a few moments Donna did nothing. Then, slowly, the reality of the situation dawned on her. The bodies that moved couldn't speak. They couldn't make decisions or move with any amount of control. The person on the other side of the door had to be a survivor. She flicked her pass at the sensor on the wall at the door unlocked and opened inwards. Paul fell into the office and collapsed in front of her. `Are you...?' she started to say. He looked up at her, tears rolling down his face, and then picked himself up and reached out for her. Locked together in an awkward, uncomfortable but ultimately welcome embrace, the two survivors stood in silence, both revelling in the sudden closeness of another living human being.


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