Chapter Twenty-Two

The quiet of the countryside was suddenly shattered as the bunker doors opened and the armoured transport emerged at speed into the dull light of a cold and wet Sunday afternoon. The heavy and powerful machine roared up the access ramp, climbed a steep incline and then followed the track away from the concealed base. It took the troops more than an hour to travel the thirty or so miles to the city. They followed a direct route along major roads littered with the wrecks of crashed cars and the decaying remains of countless bodies. Occasionally figures appeared in the near distance and at the sides of the road but they were lethargic and painfully slow, seeming to drag themselves along with considerable effort. The soldiers didn't stop to offer assistance or investigate. The driver of the transport had his orders, and those orders were to go directly to the heart of the city. It didn't seem to matter anyway. What could they do for these first survivors? What could fifteen soldiers possibly do to help millions of plague victims? Cooper turned to look at Mark Thompson sitting next to him.

He looked frightened. Even though the tinted visors on their cumbersome full-face breathing masks Cooper could see that the other man was scared. He could see it in his eyes - the way that although his head remained perfectly still and fixed forward, his eyes were darting frantically around the inside of the transport, never daring to settle on any one thing for fear of catching sight of whatever it was that was terrifying him. And that was still the problem, Cooper decided, it was not knowing. They'd been trained to deal with the aftermath of nuclear war, conventional war, terrorism and many other types of conflict or attack, but it was obvious that this was very different. The details of cause and effect were sparse, but it was already clear that no-one could have been trained to deal with anything like this. It was uncomfortably hot in the protective suit. Cooper knew that his life depended on the protection, of course, but the oppressive atmosphere beneath the layers of treated material and rubber did nothing to calm his nerves. The initial burst of adrenaline he had felt on leaving the bunker had died down now that they had been away from their protective prison for some time. He now felt claustrophobic and wanted to return to the base.

His mouth was dry and he needed to drink but he was afraid to risk compromising his suit. Eating, drinking, going to the toilet and many other simple and ordinary tasks would be difficult and risky until they were back. To remove any part of the suit for even a few seconds might be enough to let in the vicious virus that, if the information his officers had was correct, could quickly end his life. Judging by the number of bodies scattered on the ground around them as the drove through the suburbs and into the city, this was a disease that had killed many, many thousands more than it had spared. Heavy rain clattered down constantly on the metal roof above the soldier's heads, echoing around the transport. There was next to no conversation. Other than the rain and the sound of the machine's groaning engine there was an oppressive and all-consuming silence which was only disturbed by sudden brief explosions of static conversation from the radio and equally brief and factual reports to the officers back at the base.

The soldiers were sat in two rows along either side of the transport, facing into the middle. Thompson suddenly got up out of his seat and leant across the inside of the machine to look out of a small square window between the heads of the two troops sitting directly opposite. 'Bloody hell,' he said, loud enough for the others to hear. There was sudden movement throughout the vehicle as rest of the soldiers immediately turned to see what it was that their colleague had spotted deep in the murky-greyness of the late September afternoon. All around them they could see movement. Slow and laboured but still very definite movement. They had reached what Cooper called the 'inner-suburbs' of the city - a ring of small shopping areas and high streets which had once been villages in their own right but which had since been swallowed up and consumed by the ever-expanding city centre. These areas were the first real pockets of civilisation that the soldiers had driven through since leaving the base. There were many more bodies on the ground here, and there were many more figures moving nearby too. 'Why ain't they moved any of the bodies yet?' asked one of the soldiers, thinking out loud, his voice muffled by his face-mask. 'And what the hell are those others doing outside? said another, watching through a back window as a quickly growing crowd of moving figures dragged themselves pointlessly along the road after the transport.

'If these people are sick then what the hell are they doing out here in the open? It's pissing down for Christ's sake.' 'Who says they're sick,' asked Thompson. 'These are supposed to be the survivors, aren't they?' 'Have you seen them?' the other soldier replied nervously, his mouth suddenly dry. 'Jesus, look at the state of them. They've got fucking scraps of clothes on and they don't look like they've eaten for weeks. Bloody hell, this lot look as bad as the dead ones on the ground.' Cooper shuffled around to look out of the window nearest to him. The temperature outside was low and the thick glass was smeared with condensation. He wiped it clear with the back of one gloved hand and peered out into the afternoon gloom. 'Christ...' he muttered under his breath. The world outside the window looked as if it had been totally drained of all colour. Perhaps naively he had expected to find a disorganised and unkempt but otherwise relatively normal city scene - after all, he thought, there hadn't been any fighting on the streets, had there? This didn't sound like it had been a war or battle which would cause damage to buildings and property. Where he had expected to see a thousand familiar colours, however, he instead saw little more than a thousand different dull shades of grey and black. And the same was true of the people he could see too. Devoid of all energy, they were dragging themselves along with painful effort and a lack of any speed and almost all coordination.

It was as if they'd given up all hope. They had reached the city centre. The driver slammed on the brakes and for a second the only sound which could be heard inside the transport was the driving rain pounding against the metal roof just above the soldier's heads. The troops sat back into their seats and waited apprehensively for the order to move to be given. 'Okay,' the officer in charge yelled from his position at the front of the powerful machine, 'I want you outside now. Get a perimeter formed around the transport. Move!' The nearest soldier pushed open the heavy door at the back of the vehicle and led the others outside. In a well rehearsed manoeuvre the troops fanned out and formed a loose circle around the machine. The driver remained behind the wheel - ready to get them away quickly - while the officer in charge stood shoulder to shoulder with the men and women under his command. Cooper stood motionless and stared into the city. Torrential rain drenched the grim scene like a mist. He watched the water run down a gutter towards him. A short distance from his feet lay several rapidly decomposing bodies. The world looked completely alien and unfamiliar. He had been to this city before. He had driven along this road. Today it was unrecognisable. The people were approaching.

Difficult to see at first because of the gloom and the low light of the day and their drained and ragged appearance, they dragged themselves towards the soldiers. Silent, awkward and desperate, they neared the troops. 'So what are we supposed to do?' hissed Lance Jackson, a twenty-two year old soldier who looked no older than seventeen. He shuffled awkwardly from foot to foot, holding his automatic rifle tight against his chest. The commanding officer forgave his lack of discipline. He was scared too, although he didn't allow himself to show it. 'Keep your nerve, son,' he said from close behind, resting a reassuring hand on Jackson's shoulder. 'Just remember that these people are going to want help and answers from us, and we're in no position to provide either. Stay calm and alert and we'll...' His words faded into silence as he watched the first bodies stagger ever closer. They were near enough for the soldiers to be able to see their pained faces, ravaged by disease and decay. Each one of the troops seemed to focus on whichever one of the pitiful, bedraggled creatures was nearest. The commander watched a dead thirty-eight year old office worker lurch towards him. What remained of the woman lifted its weary head to look in his direction. It seemed to fix him with a cold, emotionless stare from dark, sunken eyes. 'Fucking hell,' the commander cursed, letting his guard and his nerve slip for the first time in seventeen years of active service with the forces. The bodies continued to shuffle forward. The soldiers were becoming increasingly anxious. Amanda Brice, standing four men round to Cooper's right, lifted her rifle and took aim. Others did the same.

Cooper cleared his throat and readied his own weapon. 'Stop moving,' the commander shouted towards the helpless people. 'Stay where you are. We're here to...' No response. The figures continued to move. 'I repeat,' the commander bellowed again, 'stay where you are and no harm will come to you...' Still no response. The nearest body was now little more than a couple of meters away from Brice. Terrified by the cold and unnatural expression on its drawn and pallid face, she aimed her rifle into the air just inches above the diseased man's head and pulled the trigger. Ignorant to any danger, it staggered forward again. 'Jesus Christ,' she cursed under her breath. 'What the hell is the matter with them?' The figures continued to advance, closing in on the circle of soldiers. Filled with fear and confused and disorientated by her increasing panic, Brice aimed at the body in front of her and fired, sending a single bullet thudding into the dead flesh just above the creature's right knee. It crumbled and fell to the ground but then immediately began to drag itself back up again, seemingly oblivious to its injury. Brice stared into the dead face approaching her.

There was no expression of pain or any display of emotion whatsoever. She fired again. And again. And again. The bodies were close now, just feet away, and a decision needed to be taken. 'Get back inside,' the commander shouted, already on his way into the transport. 'Let's get out of here.' The troops turned and ran. Thompson was caught by the arm as the nearest few creatures reached out for him. He began to beat at the pitiful figures hanging onto him, battering them away with his fists and the end of his rifle. As quickly as he could break their hold, however, more gripped onto his suit. The only other soldier left outside, Cooper tried to pull his colleague free. Out of the corner of his eye he was aware that the others had disappeared into the back of the transport, crowds of grey figures following close behind.

'Come on,' he yelled, 'move!' Terrified and disorientated by the mass of rotting faces in front of him, Thompson panicked and tried to force his way further forward through the ever-increasing crowd. Cooper tried again to drag him back. Still swinging his fists furiously, the first soldier battered his way through the decaying hordes, his comparative strength meeting with little resistance. He had quickly pushed his way through the main mass of cadavers to an area where they were considerably fewer in number.

Still surrounded, Cooper glanced back over his shoulder and saw that the transport had been swallowed up by more of the abhorrent figures. Obviously aware that his path back to their armoured vehicle had been cut-off, Thompson swung out at another few random corpses before pushing his way through the crowd and running deeper into the dark shadows of the centre of the city.

'Shit,' Cooper snapped. The transport was beginning to push through the growing crowds and move away, the roar of its powerful engine filling the cold afternoon air. More and more of the shell-like bodies began to drag themselves after the machine as it began to move. The situation was dangerously unpredictable and Cooper knew that the others wouldn't wait or try to collect Thompson and himself. Their only priority now would be to return to the base and report back. It didn't matter how many of them made it back there, as long as someone returned the mission objectives would have been achieved. Cooper looked back and watched as Thompson rounded a corner and disappeared from view. Bloody idiot, he thought as he wrestled himself free from still more of the bodies that grabbed and clutched at him incessantly. With the transport quickly moving away in the opposite direction he knew he had little choice but to follow his colleague into the centre of town.

As he ran after the other man, smashing weak and clumsy figures away on either side, he began to silently make plans to get himself and Thompson back to the bunker. He knew the way back out of the city and the route to the base. It would just be a question of finding a car or some other form of transport and... He could see Thompson again now. What the hell was he doing? The soldier was running up the middle of a sloping street lined with shops and cafes.

There were several nondescript figures advancing awkwardly towards him. Seemingly ignorant to their presence, Thompson stopped moving and turned back to face Cooper. 'For God's sake,' Cooper yelled, his voice muffled by his breathing apparatus but still loud enough for the other man to hear, 'what are you doing?' Thompson ripped off his mask. 'I'm not going back,' he shouted, his tired face flushed red and full of emotion. 'Look at this bloody place! It's a fucking nightmare. These people are...' He stopped speaking abruptly and bent forward and began to cough violently. Doubled over with shock and sudden agony, the lining of his throat began to burn and swell, quickly cutting off his air supply. By the time Cooper had reached him he was already choking on the blood running down his windpipe and draining into his lungs. He dropped to the cold, wet ground and shook and convulsed next to Cooper's feet, spitting crimson blood onto the wet tarmac.

Distracted by movement, Cooper saw that more bodies were approaching from every direction, dragging themselves towards the stranded soldiers. As the sound of the transport's engine faded away into the distance, he glanced down again and saw that the man on the ground was dead. As the bodies neared he stepped over the corpse of his colleague and began to run deeper into the town, hoping that he could find somewhere to shelter before making his move and heading back to the base. The torrential rain was falling harder than ever, hissing down all around him and bouncing back up off the pavement. Cooper ran up a steady hill towards a small square shopping precinct littered with rotting human remains. There were many of the staggering survivors (if that was what they really were) around the scene, their reaction to him dulled and delayed by whatever it was that had happened to them. As Cooper brushed past it was all they could do to painfully turn themselves around and stumble after him hopelessly. As a soldier it was his duty to defend and protect these people, but it was clear that they were already beyond hope.

As a human being, therefore, his priorities became infinitely more selfish and personal. He needed to get away from the unrecognisable hell that this city had become. His own safety was his only remaining concern.

A sharp right took him down a dark and narrow passageway, lined on either side by tall office buildings. There the driving rain echoed louder than ever before in the confined space. There were people ahead. The passageway was tight and he knew it would be difficult to get through them. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed that still more of them were following him from the other direction. He was boxed-in and, although these poor creatures seemed individually weak and unimportant, there were far too many of them for him to simply dismiss them as not being a threat. By the same token, however, he didn't want to cause them any harm. They were suffering. They were obviously very weak and undernourished. They were innocent and hadn't done anything wrong. Halfway down the passageway was a large waste bin which Cooper scrambled onto.

From there he was able to haul himself up onto a metal fire escape ladder. He climbed to a first floor window which he smashed with a single kick from one of his heavily booted feet. Clambering through the splintered wooden frame and shattered glass he found himself standing in a large, openplan office. There were more silent people inside, all in a similar condition to those walking the rain-soaked streets. They immediately turned and began to move towards him, their dark, clouded eyes following his every move. As they approached him he found himself wondering why, after living through the hell which had obviously taken place just under three weeks ago, these people were still at work. Why hadn't they left to find their families and homes? 'Look,' he began, struggling to know what to say, 'please don't be afraid. I'm not going to...' It was pointless.

The people in the building were as withdrawn and catatonic as those dragging themselves along outside. Cooper stared with mounting horror into the nearest face. Once a young and attractive graduate trainee, this woman's blistered, peeling skin was now tinged with an unnatural blue-green hue. He glanced down at one of the inert bodies slumped across a desk next to him. Even though he was looking through a tinted visor, it occurred to him that those bodies which were still moving and those that were motionless seemed to all be in the same despicable condition. He'd seen it before when he'd been out in the field on active duty. This was the look of death. These people were rotting...

With panic and bile rising in his throat, Cooper ran diagonally across the room, jumping up onto desks to avoid making contact with the shadowy creatures around him. He jumped down to the floor and slid and crashed through a heavy fire door into a dark corridor. Pushing his way past another wandering body he reached the nearest staircase and began to climb up. He moved as quickly as he could until he had reached the top floor and could go no further. After trying three locked office doors he forced his way into a small, square store room. He slammed the door shut behind him and pulled a metal storage rack down to block it and prevent the people outside from getting in.

Twenty minutes later, when Cooper had caught his breath and managed to calm himself down slightly, he walked across the room to a single window and peered out over the remains of the world outside. He could see bodies drifting aimlessly along the otherwise silent and deserted city streets. He could hear them moving around in other parts of the building too.

His transport was long gone and Thompson was dead. He was completely alone. As time dragged slowly on, it wasn't so much the surroundings that frightened the soldier, it was the unknown and invisible killer which obviously still hung in the contaminated air like a predator poised for the kill. He had witnessed for himself the speed at which it had attacked and destroyed Thompson.

Cooper knew that his life depended on his protective suit. He would have to make his move and get back to the bunker sooner rather than later in order to avoid it being compromised. And as the long afternoon wore on towards evening Cooper's thoughts steadily became more morose. He began to wonder whether there was any point in going back to the base at all? What was there for him?

Was a comparatively long life spent underground in hiding any better than a few hours or days of freedom on the contaminated surface?

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