Chapter Twenty-Four

Cooper was becoming increasingly claustrophobic in his protective suit. Made from a number of layers of rubberized material, as well as preventing any contamination from getting inside, it also stopped everything from getting out. Although it was cold in the building he was dripping with sweat. He decided he would make a move in a short while but, for now, he wanted to rest and gather his thoughts and prepare himself for the journey back to the base. He didn't relish the thought of having to fight his way back out of the city. And what if he couldn't get access to the base when he finally made it back there? What if they wouldn't let him inside because the decontamination process had already started for the others?

What if they hadn't even made it back? He imagined having to wait outside on his own for days - unable to eat or drink or even to breathe freely. Christ, what exactly had happened to the world? He had been understandably preoccupied with the situation that he suddenly found himself in, so much so that the fate of the rest of the world seemed to have somehow temporarily passed him by. The effects of the virus had been devastating beyond compare, that much was clear, but what had the deadly disease actually done? Why had some people survived when others had died, and had those people actually survived at all? Their skin bore the same telltale signs of decomposition and decay as the corpses on the ground and they were unnaturally lethargic and slow. He stopped and checked himself.

What was he actually saying here? Cooper shook his head and laughed and leant back against the nearest wall. Did he really think that those people he'd come across in the city were dead? Maybe the air had been filled not with disease but with some particularly effective hallucinogenic drug that had somehow breached the protection of his suit? Perhaps nothing that he thought he'd seen had actually happened? That was a marginally more plausible explanation of the bizarre events of the day so far. The world outside was relentlessly dark. He wondered whether he would be better making his move at night? Perhaps he would be safer under the cover of darkness? Whatever the people he'd come across were - contaminated survivors, reanimated corpses or hallucinations - he was clearly stronger and quicker than they were. He also had the advantage of having been trained to survive in the most extreme conditions.

He was confident - or at least as confident as he could be in the circumstances - that he would be able to get out of the city. His stomach growled angrily with pangs of hunger. He'd done his best to ignore the mounting pain for the last couple of hours but it was getting worse. The gentle rumblings had now become severe cramps which twisted his gut and, to add to the discomfort, his bladder was full to capacity despite the fact that his throat was uncomfortably dry. He needed a distraction, and short of leaving the store room he couldn't immediately think of one. In a desperate attempt to occupy his mind for a while, Cooper began to look around the metal racking which surrounded him. Even a pen and paper would be sufficient - he could write his will or scribble pictures or do anything to distract himself until the time was right to leave. Using the light from a small but powerful torch he'd carried strapped to his belt he peered dejectedly into the gloom. Up high on the opposite side of the room he could see cardboard boxes.

Most of the racking was loaded up with basic office supplies and stationery, but from where he stood he couldn't see what these boxes might contain. A mixture of inquisitiveness and sheer boredom and frustration drove him to climb up and check the boxes out. Disappointingly they held nothing more than printer cartridges and supplies. Cooper lowered his foot to step down but lost his balance as the racking (which was not attached to the wall as he'd presumed) tipped forward slightly.

He dropped down heavily and landed awkwardly on his back on top of a photocopier with a crash which, in the silence of the night, sounded disproportionately loud. Wincing with pain and surprise he then rolled off the top of the machine and tumbled onto the floor in an uncoordinated heap, smashing his head against more racking on the way down. Numb with surprise and breathing heavily, he lay where he had fallen for a moment and listened to other sounds which had suddenly begun to echo around the building, the clattering and crashing noises he'd made having disturbed the office's other occupants. With considerable effort he slowly dragged himself back onto his feet and brushed himself down.

He could feel air on his face. Thrown into a desperate panic, Cooper scrambled around in the darkness for his torch. Switching it on, he shone it across the room and, in the light it gave off, saw that the visor of his face-mask was damaged. With his heart pounding in his chest his eyes followed the route of a snaking crack across the visor from bottom-left to top-right where he saw that the protective glass, perspex or whatever it was that the mask was made of had chipped. An immediate, suffocating nausea washed over the soldier as he realised the implications of what had happened. His suit had been compromised. He had seen what the disease had done to Thompson earlier and he knew full well how quickly and violently his colleague had been infected and had died.

After a split-second pause as the cold reality of his situation sunk in, he panicked. He covered the chip in the visor with his hand, hoping to prevent the disease from getting inside. With each second that passed so his fear increased. He struggled to find some tape with which he could repair the damage, knowing full well that, in all probability, his lungs had already been filled with the deadly germs. All that he could do now was wait for the inevitable to happen. Cooper screwed his eyes shut and waited. He held his breath for as long as he could, hoping to prolong his life by a few precious seconds and knowing that the next time he breathed in might be the last. A few seconds longer still and he ripped off the face-mask. He was already contaminated - he decided he might as well breathe his final breath freely and not through the sterilising filters in the breathing apparatus.

He leant against the window, breathing in the cold autumn air, and waited. After five minutes had passed he began to wonder why he wasn't dead. Or was he? Was this how the people who were still able to move had been affected? He didn't feel any different. It didn't hurt. He wasn't suffocating or choking as he'd seen Thompson suffering earlier. It was several hours later when Cooper finally allowed himself to accept the fact that he so far seemed to have been left untouched by whatever it was that had ripped apart the rest of the world.

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