Chapter Twenty-Six

Cooper woke up. He couldn't remember falling asleep. He remembered sitting by the window last night, staring out into the darkness and listening to the rain but, other than that, nothing. He noticed the discarded face-mask on the floor and recollections of what had happened to him came flooding back. He felt okay. He was still breathing and he still had a pulse. As far as he could tell he was still fit and healthy and alive. Surely the disease would have affected him by now if it was going to affect him at all?

The morning outside was dry and, despite the sky being dull and overcast, relatively bright. The heavy smell of death and decay hung over the city like a dense cloud of polluting fog, tainting everything with its abhorrent scent. Now that he had discarded his breathing apparatus the stench was inescapable. Regardless, Cooper quickly decided that it was just about preferable to the processed and recycled air that he'd been forced to breathe for most of the last two and a half weeks. He reminded himself that he was in the middle of a large city and that the air would surely be cleaner and more palatable elsewhere.

There would undoubtedly be better places than this. For a short time he allowed his mind to wander. Instinctively he thought about making the return trip to the base. He'd already made basic mental plans and preparations before the realisation dawned on him that he didn't actually have to go back there if he didn't want to. It was only the sense of duty and misguided loyalty instilled through years of military service that had made him think that he should return.

No doubt the other soldiers who had left the base with him yesterday would have given him up for dead by now - the officers would be more surprised if he did find his way back there now than if he remained missing in action. He suddenly found himself in a relatively fortunate position.

He was free from the restrictions of military life and the confines of the bunker and, it seemed, immune from the germ that had destroyed pretty much everything else. What remained of the rest of the world was potentially his for the taking. For a while Cooper alternated between feeling free and feeling compelled to return to his duties. He looked down into the alley below the window and watched a single bedraggled figure trip and stumble along.

Should he do something to try and help here? Could he really disappear selfishly into the distance and leave everyone and everything else to rot? It was the scale of the disaster that ultimately convinced him there was nothing he could do. What did he think he could possibly hope to do for the thousands of diseased people? It had been indicated that this was a global crisis. Even if he returned to the base, what could a handful of soldiers possibly do to help millions upon millions of dead or dying citizens? From where he was sitting it was painfully obvious that society and civilisation was as dead as any of the decaying bodies still lying face down in the gutter.

Feeling suddenly stronger and more confident Cooper decided to move. He didn't know what he was going to do or where he was going to go, he just knew that there had to be somewhere better than this cramped and cluttered storeroom. Still sweating profusely in his heavy suit (it had kept him warm through the night just ended) he peeled it off and dropped it to the ground, stripping it of any useful equipment. He felt cold and the sudden uncomfortable drop in temperature brought him crashing back to reality and reminded him of the enormity of the catastrophe that had befallen the country. For a while he considered trying to find his friends and family. Much as it hurt him to do so, he knew that it was better to believe they were already lost. If he did try and find them, chances were they'd be dead or dying and there would be nothing he'd be able to do for them. But then again, he thought, he seemed to have survived the disease, so why shouldn't they have done so also? What if his immunity was linked to his genetic make up? Strange to think that his survival this morning may well have only been possible because of some combination of DNA handed down to him unknowingly by his parents.

He cautiously moved the metal racking blocking his way and, with his automatic rifle held out in front of him, gently pushed the door open and peered out into the corridor. He glanced left and right and, once he was sure the way was clear, stepped out into the shadows. His footsteps echoed loudly on the linoleum floor and he soon heard muffled sounds nearby. Somewhere in the building something was reacting to his movements. As he crept cautiously towards the staircase he had used yesterday, Cooper found himself thinking about the other troops who had been sent into town with him. If they had made it back to the bunker then he knew exactly where they'd be now - locked tight in the decontamination chamber. And how would they be feeling? Empty. Lifeless. They had seen the extent to which the world had been destroyed and they were probably more aware than anyone else of the apparent hopelessness of the situation. He guessed that they would be locked in the chamber for at least another day before being let back into the main complex.

He was sure that the hours and days which then followed would be spent being debriefed by the senior officers. And what was there to look forward to after that? Nothing. Just more of the same - more dangerous excursions beyond the safety of the underground bunker followed by more excruciatingly slow decontamination followed by more questions. And then it would begin again. Cooper slowly made his way down the stairs, one at a time, taking care with each individual footstep to avoid making even a single unnecessary noise. As he moved towards ground level he questioned what it was the senior officers in the bunker thought they were going to achieve? As far as he could see the human race was over. Destroyed in less than half a day by a virus of unimaginable ferocity. The soldier's stealth and silence allowed him to creep through the building without being seen or heard. He pushed open a heavy glass door and stepped outside. The morning was cold and the dull grey cloud so prevalent earlier was now beginning to break up letting occasional patches of blue appear. It was an exhilarating feeling seeing daylight again. It had been good yesterday to get out of the bunker but this was a thousand times better. For the first time in weeks he was free.

For the first time in weeks Cooper was almost beginning to feel like a human being again. He turned towards the heart of the city, moving down the alleyway in the same direction in which he had run yesterday. Another listless, bedraggled figure traipsed towards him awkwardly, its face and features made indistinct by bright autumn sunlight which had suddenly spilled across the scene. Cooper thought carefully for a moment, not sure how he should deal with it. Should he attack it before it attacked him? The pathetic creature looked so weak and weary that he was instinctively sure it didn't pose a serious threat to him.

Keeping his guard up he stood still and watched with morbid fascination as it moved closer and closer towards him. He remained routed to the spot, moving only his eyes. The figure stumbled past, seemingly oblivious to his presence. The unexpected sunlight disappeared when the pitiful body was alongside him. Despite the shadow he was still able to clearly see the full extent of the decay and deterioration of the creature's skin. Once his way was clear Cooper moved forward again, taking care to stay pressed against the wall to his right, hiding in the relative darkness he found there. At the end of the alleyway was a junction.

He followed a long, gently curved stretch of road round and found himself at the entrance to a large public square. In spite of all that he had already seen, the sight which greeted him took his breath away. Cooper had last been to this city on a warm summer's day a couple of years ago. The tiered square had been a popular public meeting place and a well-known city landmark. He remembered sitting with friends outside a bar, drinking, laughing and generally wasting the day. His mind wandered momentarily as he surveyed the scene and thought about the time he'd spent here. He could almost hear the sound of the running water which had previously cascaded from a huge, modern fountain at the top of the square and run down decorative steps to a large shallow pool just a few meters away from where he stood. Today the steps were dry and the waterfall and fountain eerily silent.

Last time he'd been here the water had been clear and bright. Today what remained was green-grey and stagnant. There was a bloated body floating in the deepest part of the pool. There were figures nearby. He started to move again. It appeared that as long as he matched their slothful speed he didn't seem to attract any unwanted attention. These people were catatonic - moving but not thinking or reacting to anything but the most obvious stimulation. Occasionally pigeons would land in the square with a sudden burst of unexpected noise and movement. The arrival of the scavenging birds would cause the bodies to turn awkwardly and lurch and stagger towards them pointlessly. Cooper felt strangely invincible. His immunity to the disease or virus or whatever seemed to set him apart from the remains of human beings he could see around him. The fact that he could still control his speed and movements gave him an irrefutable advantage, almost like an unexpected shield of protection or a cloak of invisibility.

It really was as if the people couldn't see him unless he made it obvious that he was there. The lone soldier's choices were endless but also strangely limited. In theory he had the rest of the world at his disposal, and yet at the same time nowhere was safe. Too much remained unknown and uncertain. Whilst he was as sure as he could be of his apparent immunity and relative strength today, who could say what might happen tomorrow? Allowing himself to become dangerously distracted, he tripped up one of the large concrete steps and dropped his rifle. It landed on the paving stones with a loud clatter that shattered the silence. 'Shit,' he cursed as he stooped to pick up the weapon. Before he had even lifted his head again he was aware of them. Approaching from all directions were sickly, diseased figures, pouring out from the shadows.

For a few seconds it was all he could do to look around helplessly, desperately searching for a way out of the exposed public area. There seemed to be fewer bodies to his right and so he ran, pushing his way past the nearest few. He glanced back over his shoulder and saw that more and more of the bloody things were stumbling after him. Their speed was not a problem but their sudden sheer volume and apparent determination was. He struggled to contain his mounting panic. Instinct forced him to run, but he knew that it was his noise and movement that had given his presence away. There were buildings on either side of him but swarms of bodies prevented him from getting to them easily. Desperate, he wrenched open the door of a telephone box and forced his way inside. Pushing away rotting hands that reached after him, he slammed the door shut and sank down to the ground. With his back pressed against one side of the box and his feet pushed hard against the other, he looked up and watched with disgust as body after body smashed into the small glass cubicle.

In seconds he was in almost total darkness - the light outside blocked out by the mass of diseased flesh that was pressed against the phone box. Cooper dropped his head and closed his eyes. Wait for a while, he thought, and they'll disappear.

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