Chapter Twenty-Eight

Exhausted by the effort of moving silently through the diseased crowds, Cooper dragged himself on through the bleak remains of the city. Despite all of his training and preparation for dealing with nightmare scenarios, he was finding it increasingly difficult to keep moving forward. Every single step he took required more concentrated effort than it ever should have. Every time he turned his head he saw something else which shocked, repulsed, disgusted or terrified him. The cold, grey streets were littered with the abhorrent remains of broken, decaying bodies - the residue of thousands of innocent and unsuspecting plague victims.

If he half-closed his eyes and tried to ignore the sickly, shuffling bodies that milled hopelessly around him then it felt like he was walking through a bizarre still photograph. It was almost as if the world had been frozen in an instant of time, and that every part of it was now dying the slowest and most painful death imaginable. He could no longer see any goodness around him, nothing positive. Death, decay and destruction dominated everywhere. In half an hour he had reached the ring road which ran around the perimeter of the city centre. His geography and knowledge of the local area was fair but far from comprehensive.

He looked hopefully at every road sign he passed, trying to find the name of a suburb or nearby village that he recognised or at least remembered something about. It made sense for him to head for somewhere right on the outskirts of the city, somewhere where the buildings were spread out over a decent area rather than being packed tightly together as they were in many of the closer inner-city districts. He'd had plenty of time to think about what he was going to do, but the constant distractions around him had prevented him from coming up with anything resembling a sensible or coherent plan of action. All that he really wanted was to find somewhere relatively safe and comfortable where he could stop and rest for a few days and take stock of everything. More than anything he needed to spend some time trying to work out what it was that had actually happened. He didn't expect to be able to find many answers (if he found any at all) but for the sake of his sanity he needed the opportunity to stop, take a deep breath and at least attempt to understand. On Cooper's left as he trudged slowly down the middle of the ring road was the city centre proper and, just ahead and to his right, the first few buildings of the hospital and university complex. The road slowly dropped down and arched lazily to the left, and as he followed it around he became aware of something bizarre and initially inexplicable that made his blood run cold. Up ahead, little more than a quarter of a mile away, was an immense crowd of bodies. Instinct urged him to turn around and head in the opposite direction but at the same time he knew that he didn't dare make such an obvious move.

A sudden stop or an unexpected change in direction might attract the attention of the numerous random bodies moving close around him. From what he had already seen this morning he knew that something as simple and innocent as such a movement might cause him to be noticed, and the resulting disturbance would inevitably attract more and more of the rotting corpses to him like moths around a single light burning in an otherwise pitch-black room. Like it or not, he seemed to have no option but to keep moving forward, to keep walking towards the huge crowd. He neared the bodies with the initial intent of shuffling around the furthest edge of the massive gathering and carrying on out of the city. As he approached, however, he began to ask himself why such a gathering had built up there in the first place? The answer, it occurred to him, was simple.

The creatures seemed to be devoid of virtually all decision making capabilities and they only appeared to react to the most basic of stimuli. Something was drawing them to this place. The wide road was strewn with the remains of wrecked cars and other vehicles, making it difficult for Cooper to be able to accurately estimate the number of bodies ahead of him. They appeared to be dragging themselves towards a large, modern building on the other side of the road, each one of them advancing forward painfully slowly until the sheer weight and number of tightly packed creatures ahead prevented them from getting any closer.

Cooper made a slight alteration to his course so that he drifted towards the far side of the road where there were slightly fewer figures. He noticed that more and more of them were appearing almost constantly, dragging themselves out from the shadows of the city centre. The vast crowd was largely silent, save for the constant slow shuffling of rotting feet being dragged along the ground. Over this low background noise, however, he thought he could hear something else. Too wary of drawing attention to himself by lifting his head to dare look up, he stared at the ground in front of him and concentrated so that he could distinguish and identify this new sound. It took only a few seconds for it to become apparent that it was the cracking and popping of burning wood, accompanied by occasional snatches of human conversation. When he heard someone shout - even though the noise lasted for only a couple of seconds and was unintelligible - he knew beyond doubt that there were other survivors nearby. Unable to contain his curiosity and desire to see other living, breathing people like himself, he cautiously lifted his head and looked into the distance. A pall of dirty grey smoke was drifting lazily away from the top of the large building opposite.

He squinted and saw that there were people on the roof. Although he only dared look for a few seconds, he thought he could see between five and eight of them and, despite having seen each of them for only a moment, he knew that they were survivors. He'd seen the remains of many offices and shops that had been scarred by fire, but the fact that this blaze was on the roof of the building left him in little doubt that it had been started deliberately. Against his better judgement, Cooper allowed himself to drift deeper into the crowd. He didn't dare shout to the survivors to make them aware of his presence, knowing instead that his only option was to slowly and cautiously make his way closer to the building. Just a few short footsteps further forward and he found himself deep within the bulk of the rotting crowd.

Random decaying figures collided with him constantly and it was all that he could do to keep his nerve and not lose control. The smell of putrefaction was appalling. He'd been around death many times before during his years of service, but never anything like this. The cloying, relentless smell of decay hung like a thick, disease-ridden blanket smothering everything. Keeping control of his stomach was beginning to take almost as much effort and concentration as keeping control of his speed and his movements. The density of the crowd added to the confusion. All that Cooper could now see were shuffling bodies on every side.

Although the creatures were withered and relatively slight, there were so many of them and they were packed so tightly together that it was impossible to see clearly in any direction. Generally the heads of the figures hung heavily on their weary shoulders but Cooper knew that it was too dangerous for him to again look up and over the top of the crowd. He had to keep moving with the flow of the obnoxious masses and hope that luck would eventually push him in the right direction. Although he tried for a while to convince himself otherwise, there was no escaping the fact that, after a few minutes, he was not making any real progress towards the building.

There was very little that he could immediately do about it. He felt himself being pushed and buffeted away from the front of the building and out to his right, back along the ring road in the general direction from which he had just arrived. Again there was nothing he could do except keep moving and hope that chance would eventually allow him to drift back the other way. He stumbled and tripped over an inert body on the ground. In a fraction of a second he was able to regain control, keep his balance and not panic. Even as his boot smashed down onto decayed flesh and exposed bone he forced himself to remain steady and emotionless. A subway.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw it. Just over to his right he became aware of the entrance to a subway which, he guessed, provided a pedestrian connection between the buildings on the side of the road he was heading towards and the rest of the city. Before the events of a few weeks ago the ring road would have been far too busy for people to try and cross by foot - it was proving awkward enough to negotiate now with the wreckage of hundreds of cars and other vehicles and countless bodies strewn randomly across the cold tarmac. Sensing that he was still going nowhere, Cooper decided to take a chance and head underground.

Although there would surely be more bodies trapped down there, it would be darker and, he presumed, safer. Cautiously he began to veer off towards the sloping concrete entrance. His nervousness increased as he stared down the ramp into the approaching darkness. As he descended the light steadily faded and the smell intensified. Unnerved, a sickly sweat broke out across the soldier's brow - it reminded him of the moment he entered the bunker on that first morning three weeks ago. Inside the subway was almost pitch black, much darker than he had expected. He was aware of some degree of movement around him but it seemed that most of the bodies had by now dragged themselves up above ground, their limited attention captured, no doubt, by the light and sound and the movement of the rest of the crowds out there. No more than twenty meters down and he came upon a T-junction where a second tunnel crossed the path of the one he'd been following. The lack of light was disorientating.

His eyes were slowly becoming accustomed to the low gloom but as he followed the second tunnel (moving, he hoped, towards the building with the fire on the roof) the light continued to fade. The smell outside had been bad enough but down here it was appalling - the sharp, musty stench of festering, rotting flesh which had been trapped underground, unable to easily escape out into the relatively fresh air on the surface. He could see slight shadows and movements all around him and, at times, it seemed as if the dark walls of the subway tunnel themselves were moving. He shuffled forward a step at a time, dragging his feet along the ground and clearing a path through the endless decaying human debris with his heavy boots. He was fairly sure that the tunnel he now followed was leading him along the length of the road and closer towards the front of the building he was aiming for. He needed to turn right again to reach the survivors. A sudden unexpected collision sent Cooper tumbling heavily to the ground. He had walked into one of the stumbling bodies and, although there had been virtually no force in the impact, the surprise had sent him reeling. He fell awkwardly, landing on the chest of an indistinguishable corpse which collapsed under his weight.

'Fucking hell,' he yelled instinctively as he struggled to pick himself up and get his balance. His clumsy boots slipped and slid in pools of sticky gore causing him to lose his balance again. Seconds later and he was steady on his feet. Breathing heavily he stood completely still in the middle of the subway, hoping to remain invisible and undetected in the darkness. He didn't need to be able to see to know that no matter how still and quiet he was now, it didn't matter. The damage had already been done. His fall and sudden outburst seemed to have attracted the unwanted attention of every one of the sickly bodies that remained underground. He could hear them turning awkwardly in the darkness and beginning to lurch towards him. In a second the first grabbing hands were upon him. Outstretched, clumsy and easy to deflect, he brushed them off with his left hand and grabbed the rifle which had been slung over his shoulder with the right. He didn't know what effect the rifle would have on the creatures, it was just another instinctive reaction.

He glanced back and caught sight of more shadowy movement in the nearby darkness. They were coming from all directions. He was surrounded. Cooper dropped his shoulder and ran forward. He moved as quickly as he dared in his half-blind and panic-stricken state as he smashed body after body to the side. He tried to feel his way ahead with the end of the rifle, frightened that in the blackness he might be about to run headfirst into a wall or some other obstruction. He knew that he had no alternative. He had to keep moving or risk being trapped underground in almost total darkness, buried under the weight of the ever increasing numbers of rotting bodies swarming around him. The end of his rifle effortlessly pierced the withered torso of another corpse like a bayonet and then hit a wall, sending a sudden jarring thud running through his body. Cooper had reached another junction. He had seconds to chose between turning right into another pitch-black tunnel or going left along another equally dark passageway.

Although disorientated, his sense of direction suggested he should move right and, as he had no other information to base his decision on, that was what he did, pushing the cadaver off the end of his rifle and forcing his way through still more bodies towards where he believed he'd find the building and the survivors. Another body crashed into him, then another and another. With his shoulder dropped and his head down he charged forward, determined to keep moving at all costs through the sea of rotting flesh, terrified that he might be overcome by the unknown number of figures milling around him. At the back of his mind the nagging fear that his exit out of the subway might be blocked forced him to try and move faster and faster while his military training and commonsense pleaded with him to slow down. For a fraction of a second he looked up and saw a chink of light ahead through a gap between more lurching creatures. And he began to run with even more determination and speed. He was getting closer to the light. Visible for fleeting moments between shadows and clumsy, staggering shapes, at that moment it was all that Cooper had to cling onto. He squeezed the trigger of his rifle and fired off a short round of shots, just enough to blast most of the bodies out of the way momentarily. With his path marginally clearer he sprinted forward with increased speed, watching the light around him increase steadily until he finally burst out into the open again.

Relieved he stopped and shielded his eyes from the sudden brightness of the day as he looked anxiously from side to side. Already there were hordes of decaying shells advancing towards him, their interest having been aroused before he appeared by the noise of the shots echoing along the subway passages. His mouth was dry, his heart was pounding and his legs were heavy but he knew that he had to move and keep moving. The survivors were just ahead of him now.

He knew that his survival depended on him reaching the building and attracting their attention. More bodies spilled out of the subway after him and grabbing hands reached at him from behind, spurring him into action.

With his rifle still gripped tight he raised the barrel of the weapon up into the air and fired off another volley of shots. After spending hours trying desperately to remain faceless and anonymous he was now ready to do all he could to make his presence known. 'Over here,' he screamed, looking up at the side of the tall redbrick building just ahead of him. 'Can anyone hear me?' Down at ground level it was impossible for the lone soldier to be able to know if his cries had been enough to illicite any response. On the roof of the building, however, the second round of gunshots had triggered a flurry of excited and slightly anxious movement. Survivors moved nervously towards the edge of the roof and peered down, hoping to catch sight of the person that had fired the rifle amongst the countless thousands of vacuous bodies.

Cooper pushed himself towards the building, constantly looking for an entrance or open window or some other way to get inside. He could see plenty of doors but there were bodies pressed hard against them. There were plenty of windows too, but he knew that smashing them open would do more harm than good. He'd be letting himself into the building but, at the same time, he'd also be paving the way for a flood of decomposing figures to follow him through. 'Round the back,' a hoarse and directionless voice yelled at him. Cooper didn't waste time trying to locate the source of the sound, instead he sprinted away from the front of the building as instructed, smashing more of the lumbering cadavers away as he did. Inside the accommodation block the frenzied activity continued as the survivors who had been up on the roof clattered down the nearest staircase to get to the ground floor.

Some - Jack Baxter and Bernard Heath included - instinctively ran towards the assembly hall, intending to alert the rest of the survivors there and, perhaps, to find a way of distracting the bodies outside. A handful of others led by Donna Yorke and Phil Croft continued around to the back of the building where they pushed open an inconspicuous looking door and ran out into the daylight.

Slipping and tripping up a steep and wet grassy bank, Cooper heard the door open. He anxiously looked around and caught sight of the survivors who themselves were already surrounded by bodies. He could see six of them, three of whom were armed with large sticks and other makeshift weapons which they were using to batter the shuffling figures out of the way. He stumbled and fell before picking himself up again and continuing to push forward. 'There he is,' shouted Nick Braithwaite, a man who had hardly spoken since arriving at the university.

He swung a snooker que around his head like a sword, sending another three cadavers crumbling to the ground. Croft and another survivor moved forward slightly, hoping to clear a path for the soldier. Cooper smashed the butt of his rifle into the jaw of another corpse before pushing past the survivors and disappearing inside. 'He's in,' Donna yelled from just inside the doorway. 'Shut the bloody door!' The survivors outside began to retreat, still swinging their weapons furiously, the bodies still grabbing and reaching out for them. Braithwaite was the last man in, bringing in with him two of the desperate figures which clung onto him with diseased, claw-like hands. He dragged them further along a grey corridor before hitting out at them to try and release their relentless grip. As Donna slammed the door shut and bolted it Keith Peterson grabbed the nearest corpse and lifted it up.

'Shit,' he said under his breath as he held it tightly by its spindly wrists and stared into its cold and expressionless face. The empty gaze which the creature returned chilled him to the bone. The decaying flesh around its wrists gave way under the force of his grip which nervously increased with each passing second. 'Just get rid of them,' Croft shouted nervously.

Cooper yanked the body away from Peterson and pushed it against the wall. He lifted his rifle and put a single bullet through its head, right between the eyes. As the corpse slid down the wall (leaving a trail of black-red blood and shards of splintered bone behind it) the soldier turned and did the same to the second body. The remains of a dead vicar dropped to the ground in front of him. The sound of the final gunshot echoed along the corridor and was gradually replaced by the ominous sound of body after body after body hurling itself against the door, trying desperately to reach the survivors safe inside.

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