JACKSON

You can learn a lot about them by watching.

I'm not a biologist or a doctor. I don't know what's happened to them or why it hasn't happened to me. I don't know if I'm immune or whether it will get me eventually. I might only have a day left, I might live for another twenty years. I know hardly anything, except how to survive.

I never had any training for this kind of thing. I did a couple of years in the Boy Scouts but that was the limit of my experience. I could have done with a stretch in the forces, but it wasn't for me. I couldn't stand the shouting and the discipline. I've never been able to handle being told what to do. I work better on my own and I always have done. I get on with other people (not that there are many other people left) but if I'm given the choice I prefer my own company. Especially now. I wouldn't be able to trust anyone else to be quiet enough or still enough when the bodies are about. The world is dead and everything I do is exaggerated by the stillness.

If I move they see me. If I make a sound they hear me. Hear me breathe and they want to kill me.

So what have I learned about them? Well, forgetting about what they used to be before it happened, they're pretty simple and easy to read. There's not a lot of conscious thought going on inside those empty skulls. Actually I've got no idea what's happening inside their festering brains and their rotting bodies, but I have noticed more and more of them following certain behaviours. And those behaviours seem to be changing. What they're doing today isn't necessarily what they're going to be doing tomorrow.

It's almost a week now since it happened. They lay still for a while, and I checked enough of them to know that they were dead. Well their bodies certainly were, but I think that something inside must have survived. And whatever part of them has resisted the disease, it seems to have been growing steadily stronger ever since. It began when they picked themselves up and started to move again, and then they were able to hear and see. Over the last day I've noticed that they've become even more animated and controlled. They're beginning to show some rudimentary emotions too. They're showing anger, although it could actually be frustration and pain. No doubt that's going to make things more complicated for me in the long run.

Enough of this. Thinking like this is a waste of time. Hypothesizing pointlessly about what might and might not be happening to them isn't going to help me. All I can do is respond to the changes day by day and hope that I can stay one step ahead of the game. My comparative strength and my intelligence should be enough to see me through. I just have to keep control and hold my nerve. Start to get jumpy or twitchy and I'll start to make mistakes. Make mistakes and I've had it.

These things don't communicate with each other, in fact they're fiercely independent and I've seen them tearing each other apart. That said, they do also have a strange tendency to move together in large groups. It's almost like they're herding. If something happens which attracts the attention of one or two of them, more and more seem to follow until there's a huge crowd around whatever it was that caused the disturbance. I can use that behaviour to my advantage, but there are disadvantages too. The advantages? When they're together it's easy to pick them off. I haven't yet, but I can imagine being able to take hundreds of them out at a time if I have to. The disadvantages? Pretty obvious really. If I'm the one making the noise and causing the disturbance, I'm screwed.

There are other benefits to be gained from attacking them when they're grouped together. Apart from the obvious plus of getting rid of masses of the damn things with one hit, it also takes the heat off me for a while. Even starting a small fire is enough to flush them out from a wide surrounding area. The stupid things can't help themselves. They stumble towards the heat or light or noise or whatever without giving me a second look. I can virtually walk past them and they don't notice. Their senses are obviously pretty dull and basic. Give them something obvious to focus on and they don't seem to see anything else. It's like they can only concentrate on one thing at a time.

The darkness is my friend. These things are still pretty awkward and clumsy and they'd struggle to catch me, even if I gave them a chance. Take away their sight, though, and the advantage I have over them increases massively. I now travel almost exclusively at night. I only risk walking out in daylight when I'm out in the middle of nowhere and I know there are only a few of them about.

So what am I planning to do? I'm going to keep travelling in one direction for a while, probably north but I might head towards the coast in another direction. It's not going to be easy, but I can't think of anything else to do. Why the coast? Seems as good a place as any. Nowhere's going to be completely safe anymore. The coast strikes me as being rough and inhospitable, and with the ocean on one side I'll have less land to have to keep watching. It will be okay. I expect that as the bodies deteriorate they'll find it harder and harder to cause me any problems.

I'll be all right on my own. Maybe I'll get lonely, maybe I won't. Whatever happens, I'm just glad that I survived. In a strange way I'm almost looking forward to whatever the future brings. It'll be a future without the countless bullshit trappings of my previous daily life. A future without the drudgery of trying to hold down a job and pay bills. A future without politics, crap TV, religion and who knows what else. Who knows what's going to happen. And I know I'm being na - ve, because for every problem the infection has solved, it's created another few thousand. You have to be positive though, don't you?

I often wonder how many people like me are left? Am I the only one, or are there hundreds of us creeping quietly through the shadows, avoiding the bodies and, by default, avoiding each other too. Doesn't matter.

It'll be okay in the end.

More to the point, I'll be okay.

OFFICE POLITICS

There are thirty-seven houses on Marshwood Road. Only one of them has a freshly cut back lawn. Only one has had its dustbins emptied and the rubbish placed neatly in black plastic sacks at the end of the drive. Only one has had the curtains in its windows drawn each night and opened each morning since the infection destroyed more than ninety-nine percent of the population.

Different people deal with stress, loss and other emotional pressures in a wide range of different ways. Some implode, some explode. Some shrivel up and hide in the quietest, darkest corner they can find, others make themselves visible and make as much noise as possible. Some accept what was happened, others deny everything.

Simon Walters is handling what has happened to him particularly badly. The arrival of the infection and its subsequent repercussions and after-shocks has been little more than a trivial irritation which has further complicated his already utterly miserable existence. One of life's perennial victims, in his eyes no-one's misery can compare to his own. Walters cannot cope with what has happened all around him. As a last ditch defence mechanism he has shut out all other suffering to concentrate on his own.

The sudden clattering of Walters' battery-powered alarm clock shattered the early morning stillness of the house. He groaned, rolled over and switched it off. It sounded louder than ever this morning. How he hated that damn noise. No, he didn't just hate it, he absolutely bloody detested it. Especially today. When that unholy clanging began he knew it was time to get up and start another bloody day. The noise was marginally more bearable on Thursdays and Fridays as the weekend neared, but today was Monday, the beginning of yet another week, and the alarm sounded worse than ever.

'Morning, love,' he yawned as he rolled over onto his back and looked up at the ceiling. June, his wife lying next to him, didn't move. Lazy cow, he thought to himself. Okay, so she only had to drop the kids off at school and work and they didn't need to be there until just before nine, but she could at least make an effort once in a while and get up with him. She'd been the same all weekend. She hadn't got out of bed once. Perhaps when he came home from work tonight he'd sit her down and force her to talk. They needed to have a proper discussion about what was bothering her. God knows he needed to say something. Her personal hygiene standards were slipping. Her hair was greasy and lifeless and she was beginning to smell. He wondered whether she'd even been bothering to wash? He'd tried to say something to her about it yesterday afternoon but it was a delicate subject and he'd found it difficult to find the right words. He'd tried his hardest to be careful and tactful but he'd obviously said something that had upset her because she'd not said a word back to him. She'd just stared into space and ignored him. She hadn't even had the decency to look at him. Late last night he'd brought her up a glass of wine and a slice of cake as a peace offering. She hadn't even touched them.

Walters rubbed his eyes and glanced over at the alarm clock again. Five past seven. He couldn't put it off any longer. There was no avoiding it, it was time to get up. Much as he wanted to curl up and pretend the day wasn't happening, he couldn't. He had responsibilities. He kicked the covers off his side of the bed, rolled over to the right and then yawned, stretched and stumbled to the bathroom.

This country is well on its way down the road to ruin, he decided as he stared at himself in the mirror. No water again. The taps had been dry for almost a week now. There really was no excuse. God, he thought to himself, I look awful. He looked tired, and that was because he was bloody tired. Tired of his family and their behaviour towards him, tired of his job and tired of himself. Forty-seven years of age and he'd found himself stuck in a deep, directionless rut. He couldn't see a way out. The only way he could see himself getting back in his family's good books would be to pander to them and buy them more, and the only way he could afford to buy them more stuff would be to get promoted at work or find himself a better job. Bloody hell, how he hated his job. He'd worked for the bank for more than twenty-five years and in that time he'd seen huge changes. It was no longer the same job he'd walked into after leaving school at age sixteen. Back then it had been a career to be proud of and working for a bank had given him some kind of status and standing in the community. People had once looked up to him and his colleagues but now he was little more than a glorified salesman, stood at the counter all day trying to sell loans, accounts and insurance policies to people who either already had enough loans, accounts and policies or who had only come into the bank to pay their gas bill. Maybe it was his own fault he thought sadly as he began to shave with his old electric razor. He'd seen plenty of people who'd joined the bank after him overtake him and be promoted through the ranks at speed. In fact, he'd trained three of the last five managers he'd worked for to be cashiers when they'd first joined the company.

The bank needs people like me, Walters decided as he tugged and pulled at the weekend's stubble with his razor. If it wasn't for people like me at the bottom, he thought, the high-flyers and the people at the top wouldn't be able to do their jobs and make their massive profits. Some of his colleagues laughed at him because he'd been in charge of the stationery cupboard for longer than most of them had been in the bank, but they'd be laughing on the other side of their faces if he didn't put in a stationery order, wouldn't they? How could they sell their loans and their accounts and their insurance policies without the right brochures and forms? And how could they fill them out without any pens? He did more for his branch and the company overall than any of them gave him credit for.

The batteries in his razor ran out mid-shave. The left side of his face was mostly clean shaven, the right still covered with long, dark stubble. Bloody typical.

They needed to go shopping. The kitchen cupboards were practically empty. He should have gone to the supermarket at the weekend. More to the point, June should have gone. Why was everything left to him all of a sudden? As he sat munching his dry cereal (no milk), Walters scribbled out a shopping list. He'd leave it on the table for June. Hopefully she'd get up later and go out and get everything they needed.

Walters looked around the kitchen dejectedly and shook his head. He wished he could understand what was going on. He'd never known anything like it. The water, gas and electricity supplies had been off since early last week. To lose one of them would have been bad enough, but all three? At the same time? He wondered what he bothered paying his bills for. And it wasn't as if he'd been able to get June to phone to complain either. The telephone had been out of action for just as long. He'd tried to phone up himself from work last Friday but they'd had the same problem there. He sighed sadly to himself. Imagine the grief I'd get if I didn't do my job properly, he thought. There'd be hell to pay if the customers couldn't get access to their money.

As ready for work as he was ever going to be, Walters stood up and packed his lunch away into his briefcase. It wasn't really very much of a lunch, just a few dry crackers, some biscuits, a packet of crisps he'd found at the back of the cupboard and an apple, the skin of which felt slightly rubbery and wrinkled. He jammed his food in amongst the hundreds of old circulars, leaflets, handwritten notes and photocopied procedures that he carried to and from work every day. None of it was necessary (most of it was probably out of date) but it made him feel safer and more important carrying a case full of papers to the office. It was a security blanket of sorts, something to hide behind. He convinced himself it was necessary. He needed to be well-informed and up-to-date in case someone tried to get one over on him.

'Are any of you out of bed yet?' he yelled from the bottom of the stairs. Christ, what was happening to his family? Was he the only one who was bothered now? Agitated and nervous (he always felt that way before work) Walters put his briefcase down at the foot of the stairs and stormed back up to try and inject a little life and motivation into his lethargic family. He could hear something happening in Matthew's bedroom. At least he was up.

'Are you ready for school, Matt?' he asked as he pushed his way into his fourteen year-old son's room. What was left of Matthew was on the other side of the door, trying to claw its way out in reaction to hearing its father's voice. Walters shoved the door back and sent the wasted body of his son tripping backwards. 'Sorry about that, son,' he mumbled. The corpse regained its footing and lurched forward again, crashing into him. 'Steady on,' Walters laughed, 'take it easy!' Matthew's corpse grabbed at him with rough, uncoordinated hands. 'I haven't got time to mess about now,' he sighed wearily, assuming that the body was play-fighting with him, 'I've got to go to work now. I'll see you when I get back, okay?'

Laughing, Walters picked up the light, emaciated body and carried it across the room and dumped it on its bed. The corpse immediately stumbled back onto its feet and began to awkwardly stagger back towards the door.

'Make sure you change your sweatshirt before you go to school,' Walters ordered, pointing a disapproving finger at the dribbles of blood and other bodily emissions which had seeped down the front of his dead son's dark blue jumper. He left the room and pulled the door shut behind him, ignoring the heavy clump and clatter as what remained of his son smashed into the other side of the wooden barrier.

Just like her mother, he thought as he peeled back the bedclothes in the next room to reveal the head and shoulders of Emily, his daughter. She'd just turned seventeen when she'd died and had started work in a hairdressing salon three weeks earlier. He gently shook her shoulder and the lifeless body fell over onto its back. Its unmoving, vacant eyes stared through him unblinking.

'Don't you be late for work,' he whispered. 'You don't want to give them the wrong impression, do you?'

No response. Walters leant down and kissed his daughter's cold, discoloured cheek. There was a spider in her hair. He picked it out and flicked it across the room.

'See you tonight, love. Have a good day.'

Walters paused and took a deep breath before going back into the bedroom he shared with June.

'I'm off to work now,' he said quietly. 'I'll see you tonight. Maybe we could talk later? I'd like to know what it is I'm supposed to have done...?'

For a moment he stood and stared sadly at the body in the bed. She didn't move. Eighteen years of marriage (some of them pretty good years too) and she couldn't even bring herself to acknowledge him. What had he done wrong?

Walters pushed his way through the growing crowd of rotting bodies gathered around his front gate and began the short walk to work. He didn't know why these people were there or what it was they wanted. They'd been there for days now. Didn't they have homes to go to? More to the point, didn't they have jobs to go to? Was he solely responsible for keeping the country running? It was certainly beginning to feel that way this morning. There wasn't a single car out on the roads. He couldn't see any of the usual faces he saw heading off to work or taking the children to school or walking the dog. All he could see were more of these dirty, ragged people. Some of them had tried to grab at him and pull his clothes as he passed them and he couldn't understand why. What did they want from him? What had he done to them? He ran to the end of the road, hoping that they would disappear by the time he got home tonight.

His first port of call (as it was every morning) was the newsagents on the corner of Marshwood Road and Calder Street. The shop was quiet. Walters picked up his usual paper (last Tuesday's again - bloody annoying - he'd bought the same paper seven times now) and dug deep in his pocket for some change. There was no-one about to serve him (again). In temper he slammed the coins down on the counter (next to the coins he'd left there yesterday morning) and left the shop, yet again cursing the desperate state of the country under his breath as he stormed back outside.

More bodies. He pushed them out of the way and marched towards the high street, a man on a mission.

Walters hated his job. As he did every morning, he felt his guts tighten and churn and his bowels loosen as he neared the bank. A tall, traditional and imposing late-nineteenth century building, its architectural beauty had been destroyed by the array of perspex signs which hung above and around its solid wooden doors, the gaudy advertising hoardings plastered across the inside of its large, arched windows, and the ATM which had been crow-barred into what had once been a street-level window. Ignoring the unwanted attention of yet another rancid, dribbling corpse which hurled itself at him, he paused to check the screen of the ATM. Bloody thing was down again. No doubt he'd get the blame. Nothing short of 99.85% uptime was good enough for the bank. Another target missed, and he hadn't even made it through the front door yet.

The staff door at the side of the building was already open. That was completely against the company's security policy. Which idiot had left it open? Didn't they know there was a strict security procedure to be followed each morning before anyone could go inside? Angrily he stormed into the building and slammed and bolted the door shut behind him. He'd let himself out last thing on Friday evening and he'd assumed that one of the others would have locked the doors after him. Christ, could the bank have been left open all weekend?

By quarter past nine only three other members of staff had arrived for work. The branch manager (Brian Statham, ten years Walters' junior) had already been in his office when Walters had arrived, pacing about furiously, slamming into the door and occasionally banging against the glass. Two of the other clerks - Janice Phelps and Tom Compton - were dead at their desks. Janice was slumped over her computer terminal whilst Compton had fallen off his chair and lay spread-eagled on the carpet. Walters was appalled by the lack of work being done around him. He knocked on Statham's door to try and get something done about it but his manager seemed unconcerned and was only marginally more responsive than the others. He took it upon himself to try and improve the situation. There was no way they could run the branch on a skeleton staff like this, was there? He dug out the telephone numbers of some of the missing staff from their personnel files and tried to call them to find out where they were and what was happening. He cursed when he couldn't get the telephones to work. The damn lines were still down.

He just had to get on with it, Walters decided. It was half-past nine, time to open the branch to the public, and it was all down to him again as usual. He disappeared back into the manager's office and took the front door key from his desk drawer. He then walked the length of the banking hall, unlocked the heavy wooden doors and pulled them open.

Nothing happened. A few random figures in the street stopped and turned around to see what the noise was but, other than that, nothing happened. Walters sadly remembered a time when the banking hall would have been filled with an endless queue of customers all day every Monday, and the queue would have been out the door first thing. How things had changed.

He dejectedly wandered back and took up his position behind his till.

Walters didn't mind hard work. He could cope with an in-tray piled high with papers and a huge queue of customers at the counter. None of that bothered him just as long as everyone was pulling his or her weight. He'd happily work until midnight if everyone else worked that late too. But today that wasn't happening. He was already annoyed by the fact that less than half of the staff of the branch had turned up for work today. What was really winding him up, however, was the fact that he was the only one who seemed to be doing anything.

It was almost midday. The bank had been slowly filling with customers for the last half-hour. After waiting until almost eleven o'clock before the first customer of the day had appeared, a ragged bunch of them had now dragged themselves up the concrete wheelchair access ramp and through the doors. Unsavoury looking types, they hadn't actually seemed to want anything, they'd just wandered up and down on the other side of the glass panel which separated the back-office from the public area. Walters had shouted at them and tried to get them to come to his till. They'd crowded round when they heard his voice, but he still didn't know what it was they actually wanted.

Behind the counter absolutely nothing was happening. Walters glanced back over his shoulder occasionally and shook his head in despair. Lazy bastards, he thought to himself, you bunch of lazy bastards. There he was, trying his best to deal with the customers, while they just sat there and did nothing. Janice was still face down on her computer keyboard and Compton hadn't yet got up from the floor. Statham - inexperienced, overpaid and bloody useless in Walters' opinion - was still pacing up and down in his office. None of them had lifted a bloody finger to help him all morning.

Usually he could take it. Usually he'd stand at his till and stew about them in silence or he'd find a reason to disappear off to the stationery room and hide there for as long as he could, forcing the others to serve a few customers. Today was different. Today the others weren't only doing very little, they were doing absolutely nothing. Walters wasn't prepared to sit back and let them take advantage any longer. He'd had enough. Maybe it was the lack of respect shown to him by his family that had pushed him over the edge? Perhaps it was the dire and deteriorating state of the country? Was it the fact that the customers in the banking hall (and there were more of them now) were all but ignoring him too? Could it have been the appalling conditions he suddenly had to work under? No heat or light, no computer or telephone, and not even any money in his bloody till. Whatever it was that had tipped the balance, he decided at last it was time to do something about it. For the first time in as long as he could remember he was finally ready to stand up for himself and speak his mind.

'Staff meeting,' he shouted suddenly. The bodies in the banking hall turned towards the noise and slammed up against the glass, trying desperately to get to him. A short distance away Brian Statham's body also threw itself against the door of its office. Unperturbed, Walters slid his 'till closed' sign into position and closed his till drawers. 'I want a staff meeting right now,' he demanded angrily. 'I've had enough of this.'

Ignoring the rotting clientele on the other side of the counter (whose numbers were rapidly increasing as a direct result of his sudden outburst) Walters strode up to the door of the manager's office and flung it wide open in temper. Statham's body lurched towards him.

'We need to talk, Brian,' he said as he shoved the decaying bank manager back into its room and blocked its way out with its desk. 'Things just can't go on like this. I'll get the others in.'

Suddenly feeling strangely empowered, Walters strode back out into the main office. He grabbed hold of Janice Phelps' shoulder and peeled her back from her computer before tipping her back on her swivel chair and wheeling her through to the manager's room. Tom Compton was heavier and a little more awkward. He dragged him along the floor before putting his arms under the dead man's shoulders and lifting him up and sitting him down on one of the customer chairs on the other side of the office. His body was bloody heavy. Walters had to use all his strength to get him in and get him sat down.

With Statham trapped behind his desk and the other two now in position, Walters took the floor.

'You all know me pretty well,' he began, suddenly trembling with nerves, hoping that the others couldn't tell. 'I'm a reasonable man and I'll do whatever's expected of me.' He paused and looked around at the lifeless faces which surrounded him. Ignorant bastards weren't even looking at him. He continued regardless. 'We've all got a job to do here. Now in the past you might have thought that you were better than me and that your jobs were more important than mine, but I want to put things straight. We're all small cogs in a much bigger machine.' He paused again, pleased with the clich -  he'd just managed to slip into his address. It made him sound more confident than he actually was, although his nerves were now beginning to fade slightly. 'Without me none of you would be able to do your jobs properly.' He took another deep breath before making another crucial point. 'Without me this branch wouldn't function.'

Walters paused for a moment to let the others fully absorb the enormity of what he was saying. Almost on cue Compton's body slid off the chair he'd left it on. Its head hit the wall with a dull thud. Walters, thrown off his stride momentarily, seethed with anger. He picked up the corpse and threw it back onto its seat.

'You see,' he yelled, finding it hard to keep calm and controlled, 'that's exactly the kind of thing I wanted to talk to you lot about. You all think it's funny, don't you? You think you can all have a good laugh at my expense. Well you can't, not any more. I've had enough. I've had enough of being the butt of all your stupid bloody jokes and of having to do all the donkey work around here. It's not fair, do you hear me?'

Statham's corpse became more and more animated as the volume of Walters' voice increased. Other than that, however, the other dead bodies failed to respond. Their lack of reaction incensed him.

'How dare you?' he screamed. 'How dare you treat me like this? Show me some bloody respect, will you? I've been working flat out this morning while you've all been sat on your backsides doing nothing. If I stopped working like you lot then this place would grind to a halt in seconds. Well things are going to change round here. I'm not going to carry you anymore, do you hear me? From now on you're on your own...'

Still no response.

Walters grabbed Janice Phelps by the scruff of her neck and screamed into her dead, decaying, discoloured face.

'Are you listening to me?'

Janice wasn't, but the other bodies in the building clearly were. The dead hordes in the banking hall began to beat their rotting fists against the walls, driven wild by the desperate man's voice. Walters ignored the noise as best he could.

'There's not a lot that any of us can do today, not until the power comes back on anyway,' he said, his voice now fractionally calmer. 'I'm going to shut the branch and I suggest we all go home. We'll come back tomorrow morning and try again, shall we?'

He looked around the room again for a response but didn't get one. The hammering on the wall behind him continued unabated.

Walters stood in the middle of the manager's office for a moment, surrounded by his dead colleagues, and he realised that he felt a little better. The others hadn't agreed with him, but they hadn't turned against him either. More importantly, he'd just taken a managerial decision and no-one had argued. Could it be that he was about to be shown some respect? Had the rest of them finally realised just how important he was to this office and to the company? Bloody hell, he thought, maybe he should try the same approach on his family when he got back home. Maybe he could make them listen to him too?

'I'm going to lock the door,' he said, his voice suddenly cocksure and uncharacteristically strong.

He still had the key in his pocket from when he'd opened up hours earlier. Brimming with unexpected confidence he stepped over the outstretched feet of Compton's body (which had slid down off the chair again) and left the manager's office. He walked through the back-office and made his way towards the heavy security door which separated the staff from the customers. Security conscious as ever, he peered through the fish-eye lens viewing hole before going through. Bloody hell, he thought, the banking hall was suddenly full of customers. Now this was how it always used to be on a Monday. With no computers working and no cash in his till he couldn't serve them of course. He'd just have to go out there and make an announcement. He'd tell the customers how things were going to be in the same way he'd just told the staff. He was getting pretty damn good at taking charge of situations.

A deep breath and he opened the door. A sudden, second-long pause followed before the huge mass of rotting flesh which had filled the building turned and lurched towards him. Ignorant to the sudden danger of his situation, Walters pushed deeper into the crowd, fighting to move forward as everything else pressed against him.

'If you could just bear with me for a second please, ladies and gentlemen,' he shouted as he struggled to stay upright. A sudden surge of decaying corpses from the general direction of the main entrance door knocked him off-balance and altered his direction. He found himself shuffling helplessly further back into the building and reached out to try and stop himself moving. The bodies pushed him back against the wooden counter. He climbed up onto the other side of his own till and stood tall above the crowd. Before trying to speak again he brushed himself down. He was covered in stains from the customers.

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