Chapter Sixteen

Somehow I'm out, and now I'm standing on a small square area of roof. There are already too many of us up here. A couple of people have either jumped or have fallen down to the ground below. It's not very high and I'm sure I'll survive the drop if I have to. I'm near the edge of the building now and I can see that there's a crowd of dark, shuffling bodies below me. I want to try and get over to the other side but I can't. The constant stream of people fighting to get out of the community centre is pushing me back towards the edge and I know I'm going to fall. I can't do anything to stop myself...

Kate landed in the middle of the crowd of cadavers, their shell-like, empty bodies cushioning her and breaking her fall. Winded and stunned for the briefest of moments, she scrambled to her feet and began to run, disappearing into the municipal park behind the community centre. The autumn evening was cold, dark and wet and a patchy fog covered the scene. Terrified and disorientated she forced herself to keep moving away from the community centre, heading deeper and deeper into the darkness and smashing the numerous bodies she collided with to the ground.

She couldn't keep running indefinitely. Kate was overweight, undernourished, tired and unfit. For a while she slowed down to walking pace before finally giving in to her exhaustion and stopping.

A children's playground appeared through the mist. Kate sat on one of the swings and held her head in her hands as she listened to the helpless screams and yells which rang out from the building she had left behind.

Alone.

Terrified.

Too tired to move.

Kate James spent her final day in Northwich. Still sitting in the playground in the park, cowering under a slide, as daylight broke she became painfully aware that she was hopelessly exposed and vulnerable outside. She also quickly learnt that her every movement attracted the attention of the obnoxious bodies. Every step she took and every sound she made inevitably drew ragged crowds of them closer and closer to her.

At nine o'clock in the evening, sitting in complete darkness in the attic of a nondescript semi-detached house halfway down a similarly indistinct street, she decided to give up. The pain and the effort had proved too much for her. She took the headache tablets she still carried and every packet of pills and bottle of medicine she could find in the cold and silent house, and swallowed enough to make sure she wouldn't wake up again. DAY SEVENTEEN

AMY STEADMAN Part v

Amy Steadman's corpse has continued its remarkable transformation. It is now more than two weeks since death and its physical deterioration has continued unabated. As the shell of the body has continued to fester and decay, however, a modicum of understanding and control has slowly returned. Defying all previous understanding of the changes undergone by the human body after death and during decomposition, as the physical condition of the body has worsened, so its mental strength has returned. Although still only a shadow of what it once was, the corpse now demonstrates remarkable self-awareness. Involuntary movements and reactions have very gradually become voluntary.

Time has taken its toll on each one of the millions of cadavers still walking the streets. Their flesh is disintegrating and countless internal and external chemical reactions are affecting the composition and strength of the remaining skin, muscle and other bodily components. Steadman's corpse is no different. Its flesh has darkened and dried out in places as bodily fluids have steadily drained away. As a result of these changes the body has also become breeding grounds for huge numbers of insects. Amy Steadman's corpse is a melting pot of insect activity. It is riddled with maggots.

The bodies have only one need, and that is a basic and instinctive desire to continue to exist. Self-preservation is each corpse's only concern. Because of their worsening physical state, however, the bodies have only a limited ability to defend and protect themselves. As a result their reactions now are frequently exaggerated and overly aggressive. The bodies will fight to protect themselves at all costs even, perversely, at their own expense. It is not uncommon to see a body attack and tear another corpse apart in self-defence, and sustain substantial damage to itself in the process. This is the norm with those bodies that are particularly badly decayed. Where the process has been slowed - as with Amy Steadman's cadaver which initially spent several days indoors protected from the elements - their actions are slightly more reserved and controlled.

It is now early on Thursday morning and a light, misty rain has been falling since dawn. Amy Steadman's body is shuffling along the side of a large, warehoused-sized furniture store. There are a large number of other corpses nearby, although the reason for their swollen numbers is not immediately apparent. It may be that there has previously been an incident here which initially attracted the attention of many bodies, and that this is the residue of the crowd which is gradually disappearing. The fact that many of these bodies seem to be moving in the same overall direction, however, indicates that this may be the beginning of the incident, not the end.

Steadman's corpse continues to drag itself wearily around the building and the surrounding streets until a single noise in the near distance attracts its attention. It is the sound of a survivor preparing to leave its shelter to make an unavoidable trip out into the open for food and other supplies. The corpse, along with all the others in the immediate vicinity, immediately turns and begins to move towards the source of the sound.

The lone survivor is based in an office building in the centre of a large and sprawling car lot. Over the last few days the survivor, a young male, has attempted to fortify and strengthen his hideout with limited success. As the behaviour of the bodies which plague the countryside has changed, so has the survivor been forced to change his priorities. Failing dismally to appreciate the severity and potential long-term problems caused by the infection, the survivor is now struggling to stay alive. Initially believing naively that he could continue to exist at something close to a 'pre-infection' standard of living, he focussed his attention on comfort rather than practical necessities. As a result he has been vastly under-prepared for the length and harshness of his isolation. Unable to easily venture outside for supplies (as a result of the increased number of bodies nearby and also because of the fortifications made to his location) he has been trapped without access to water, sanitation, medicine or food of any real nutritional value. The survivor is in very poor health. He is dehydrated and malnourished. After an aborted attempt to fetch supplies three days ago, his mental state is also questionable. At this point in time the difference between each individual corpse and the survivor is remarkably slight. Because of their numbers and lack of emotion, however, the bodies are now at a clear advantage.

In the middle of the car lot the survivor has now emerged from the office building where he has hidden for the last two weeks. He moves slowly in an attempt to avoid detection. Unfortunately, because of his poor condition, his movements are uncharacteristically clumsy and lethargic. He plans to take a car and drive until he finds a supermarket or other such place where he might be able to locate the supplies he needs. He is confident that once he is in the car he will be relatively safe. His activity, however, has not gone unnoticed. His pained, awkward movements and deep, rasping breathing have already attracted the attention of several of the nearest cadavers. An inevitable chain reaction of movement has now begun throughout the crowd as more bodies gravitate towards him.

Amy Steadman's body is approaching the scene. It has crossed the main road between the furniture store and the car lot and is heading towards the office building. It does not yet recognise this building as the source of the disturbance, rather it instead focuses on the increased levels of movement all around it. From many directions the dead are closing in.

Some bodies - those that have decayed more than Steadman's - are distracted from the survivor by the moment of other corpses around them. Steadman's corpse, however, has learnt to distinguish between the dead and other distractions. Although it will not hesitate to attack any cadaver that threatens it, Steadman's corpse no longer sets out to destroy other bodies. It concentrates on moving towards the source of the disruption, although it is not fully aware why. It is likely that it sees this disturbance - whatever is causing it - as a threat to its continued existence which must be destroyed.

The survivor is weak and, after a long period of frightened inactivity, he finds the sudden effort of moving at speed unexpectedly difficult. Just leaving the building has left him feeling light-headed and breathless. Already nervous and unsure, he has stopped in the shadows at the side of the building and is now trying to summon up the strength to make the hundred or so metre dash to the car he has left ready for such an escape. In amongst several hundred other cars it is indistinct and unnoticeable and he is hoping that this will allow him to escape successfully. He intends to return to this place once he has collected sufficient supplies. Steadman's corpse - along with almost a hundred others - is now less than ten meters away from the front of the office building.

The survivor is now aware of the sudden movement all around him but is unsure what to do. The poor weather has reduced his visibility and he is unaware of the level of danger he is in. His choices are becoming more limited as each second ticks by. He can now either retreat back into his hideout (as he did earlier in the week) or continue with his attempt to get out and fetch supplies. He knows that either option is equally dangerous - if he turns back he will starve and his sickness will worsen, if he leaves then he risks exposing himself to the immediate danger of attack from the hordes of bodies which are dragging themselves ever nearer. He knows, however, that he will have to leave eventually and that going back inside will only delay the inevitable. He decides to make a run for the car.

Indecision has ultimately proved to be this survivor's undoing. His brief but unnecessary delay has given sufficient numbers of bodies enough time to drag themselves into the narrow space between his present position and the car. Confused and bewildered, he begins to make a desperate and painful run towards the car. He attempts to swerve around the first few bodies which reach out for him and is successful. Another couple of meters forward, however, and there are too many for him to avoid. He tries to double-back on himself but once the first creature has caught hold of him he is trapped. He attempts to release the corpse's grip on him and has almost managed to do this when a further group of bodies close in on him and drag him down.

Amy Steadman's corpse is at the front of the crowd which swallows up and kills this survivor. With countless others it lashes out at the survivor's flesh and tears the helpless man apart. The survivor's bloody, steaming remains are dropped on the floor and discarded.

Half an hour later and the scene has begun to change again. With the survivor gone the crowds of bodies have started to drift away again in random directions. Amy Steadman's body limps alone through the mist along a wide and silent road strewn with corpses.

THE HUMAN CONDITION Part ii - GOING DOWN

Ten days.

That's how long we've been sat here now. That's how long we've been sat here doing nothing except shouting, arguing and fighting with each other. This can't go on much longer.

John Proctor slumped dejectedly against the wall and held his head in his hands. He watched the others through the gaps between his fingers. Christ, how he'd grown to despise these people over the last week and a half.

Proctor had always been taught (and had always taught others) to look for the good in other people. Trapped here on the top floor of the hotel, waiting to either starve to death or be flushed out by huge crowds of bodies, he couldn't help but concentrate on the faults and irritating personality traits which made the five other survivors trapped with him the worst cell-mates he could have imagined.

Barry Bushell. Now there was an interesting character. It had taken Proctor some time to work him out, and he still wasn't sure whether or not he understood him. Bushell had been understandably annoyed when the other survivors had arrived and had made such a mess of his precious hotel. Even now he'd maintained a slight distance between himself and the others. He spent a lot of time alone in the master bedroom. No-one else ever went in there. Proctor had initially admired his confidence in wearing women's clothing but he struggled to understand why he did it. There must be some underlying sexual issue or confusion, he'd thought. Whatever the reason, he'd been surprised when, a couple of days ago, Bushell had reverted to wearing more 'normal' clothing. He'd plucked up courage to ask him why he'd changed his appearance again after being so defiant for so long. Bushell had explained that he'd done it to shut the others up. He'd said he'd had enough of the constant digs and jibes from Wilcox and Elizabeth , and tireless and pointless questions and sideways glances from that bloody annoying woman Doreen. Why didn't they just leave him alone? What difference did it make to any of them what he was wearing? That said, he personally found it easier to relate to Bushell when he was wearing jeans and a T-shirt rather than full drag. It really shouldn't have made any difference but it did. Bushell now sat on his own in the doorway of his bedroom quietly reading a book that he'd already read at least twice before in the last week.

Elizabeth and Wilcox had a strange relationship. They seemed to detest each other and enjoy each other's company in equal measure. One minute they were fighting, the next laughing. They were of a similar age and background, maybe that was the connection? Proctor sensed that the decision to fight or laugh was predominantly made by Elizabeth . She was fairly attractive (very attractive when compared to Doreen who was almost forty years her senior) and, although he hadn't seen or heard it for himself, he suspected she used her femininity to twist Wilcox around her little finger. Perhaps he was doing her a disservice? Perhaps he was jealous?

Now Doreen he couldn't stand. No ifs, buts or maybes, he simply couldn't abide her. He hated her grating voice and her witch's cackle of a laugh. He hated her smell and the cloud of cigarette smoke which followed her around the room. He hated her wizened, wrinkled skin and her yellow teeth. Most of all he hated the fact that she moaned constantly about everything, anything and everyone. She had more aches, pains and problems each day than the rest of them put together. No matter how low or desperate someone may have been feeling, Doreen had it worse. It had reached the stage where Proctor now tried to avoid all contact with her, which wasn't easy when they were trapped together in such a confined space.

It was interesting just how little the rest of them had to do with Paul Jones. Wilcox in particular hardly ever spoke to him. Perhaps there was an element of competition there? Perhaps they both considered themselves to be the all-important alpha male of the group? Whatever the reason they kept their distance from each other, although in all fairness Paul Jones tended to stay apart from everyone else. He both infuriated and fascinated Proctor. Such an isolated and solitary person who, when he could be persuaded, added so much to the group. He was obviously intelligent, perhaps too bright for his own good? His distance from the others came across as an unpleasant arrogance and superiority. Perhaps he just wasn't very good at relating to other people? On the other hand perhaps he really did consider himself to be better than the rest? Funny, Proctor thought, that these six people should find so many faults with each other. There they were, all living under the same cloud of uncertainty and fear, and yet they couldn't work together. He was as bad as the rest of them and he'd freely admit it. Shame though, that in the face of such uncertainty, they still preferred to splinter and fragment because of trivial differences rather than trying to work together for the common good.

Doreen and Wilcox were sat at the dining table playing cards, their faces long and emotionless. Close by Elizabeth dozed on a sofa. Like Bushell, Paul Jones also had a small area of turf which he'd marked out as his own. His usual position was sitting on a chair looking out of the wide floor-to-ceiling window which overlooked the front of the hotel. From there he could just about see the rear-end of the bus sticking out of the gaping hole in the wall where the building's main entrance had once been. Although much fewer in number, even now more bodies were still stumbling through the rubble to get into the building. Ten days on and the volume of dead flesh which had forced itself into the building was continuing to increase.

An uncomfortably familiar mixture of boredom and curiosity forced Proctor to get up from where he sat and wander over to Jones. Jones noticed him but didn't react, hoping that if he didn't acknowledge the other man he'd go away again. He didn't.

'Any change?' Proctor pointlessly asked.

Why the hell did you ask that question, Jones wondered? Was he really that desperate to start a conversation, or was he just too stupid to look out of the window for himself? In response Jones grunted and shrugged his shoulders.

'Still more of them coming?'

Jones grunted again.

'You'd think they'd have given up by now, wouldn't you?'

'Suppose,' Jones mumbled. Finally, a response! 'Fuck all else to distract them round here though, isn't there?'

Now it was Proctor's turn to grunt an unintelligible answer. Talking to Jones made him feel uncomfortable. He never knew what to say for the best. He could never gauge the level of the conversation and Jones always seemed to gain the upper hand, leaving him looking and feeling stupid. He turned around and was about to walk away when he stopped himself. Looking round the vast but strangely empty suite there didn't seem to be any point going anywhere else. Nothing was happening. Might as well stay here and look out of the window.

Proctor knew that it annoyed the other man, but he couldn't help himself incessantly asking unnecessary questions.

'Think they'll ever stop?'

'What, stop moving or stop trying to get in here?'

'Both.'

'Yes.'

'Yes what?' 'Both. Yes they'll eventually stop moving and yes, they'll eventually stop trying to get in here.'

'When?'

'Quarter past six tomorrow night. How the fuck should I know?'

'Sorry.'

'They'll stop moving when they've rotted down so much that they just can't do it anymore and they'll stop trying to get in here when there's so fucking many of them crammed into this fucking building that there's no more room for them. And please don't ask me which is going to happen first because I haven't got a fucking clue.'

Proctor took that as his cue to move. A sudden tirade like that from Jones meant that he'd had enough of speaking to you and it was time to disappear before he told you to go. Dejected, Proctor turned and ambled slowly back towards the middle of the huge penthouse apartment. It had been an impressive sight when they'd first arrived there. Now the Presidential Suite looked as ragged and rundown as the rest of the decomposing world. Tired, bored and uneasy, he walked towards the kitchen to look for scraps of food. He knew there wouldn't be much there. They were rapidly running out of supplies. Maybe he'd find something in the rubbish that one of the others had missed...

Proctor waded through the discarded boxes, bags, wrappers and other litter that covered the floor of the suite's small kitchen and thought about Jones' words. He was right, the bodies would keep trying to force their way into the building until there was no more space. That was a terrifying thought, and one which had generated a lot of animated discussion but very little action over the last ten days. If things kept progressing as they had been - and there was no reason to suggest that they wouldn't - then a time would inevitably come very soon when the building in which they now sheltered would be filled to capacity with dead flesh, leaving the group stranded without supplies in their once-luxurious top-floor airlock. But what could they do about it? They'd talked and argued about the problem on and off without reaching any conclusion or workable solution. There had so far been enough food in the kitchen and enough space between the living and the dead for the survivors to enable discussions to be put off until tomorrow, and then the day after that, and the day after that. On the whole the group seemed content not to do anything until they absolutely had to. Proctor sensed that soon, one way or another, they would have no choice but to take action.

Proctor had, for his part, tried to do something constructive. Granted it wasn't much, but (as he frequently reminded them), it was more than the rest of them had done. A once keen photographer, five days ago he'd found a digital camera and batteries lying around the Presidential Suite. Bushell had brought them back with him from an early trip into town but had never used them. In a moment of unexpected initiative he'd crept out onto the landing, attached the camera to the end of a fire-hose, and lowered it down the middle of the staircase. Through trial and error he'd managed to work out what length of hose was necessary to lower the camera to the floor below, then the floor after that and the floor after that. At the same time he set the camera's timer and flash to take a single picture once the required level had been reached. With surprising accuracy he had soon developed a means to take photographs of the main staircase at each level (albeit only as far down as the hose would stretch) and, therefore, he'd found a way of measuring the speed and progress of the dead when they finally appeared. Their incalculably vast numbers meant that the bodies at the front of the crowd were continually being pushed and shoved forwards and up the stairs. With corpses continuing to pour through the bus-shaped hole in the hotel wall, once the ground floor reception had been completely filled with flesh there was nowhere else for them to go but up. The enormous crowd was slowly channelling and funnelling itself further up the stairs and deeper into the hotel. Each time Proctor hauled the camera back up to the top floor the group crowded around the little screen on the back of its casing to monitor the progress of the slowly climbing cadavers. There had been no sign of them initially, but Proctor had continued to take his photographs every morning regardless. And then, yesterday morning, the furthest advanced of them had been photographed on the twenty-second floor. It was a simple enough calculation to make - the dead had covered twenty-two floors in about nine days. They were climbing at the rate of just over two floors a day. The second simple calculation the group made was altogether more disturbing. It was Thursday today. If their rate of climb continued at the same speed (and there was no immediate reason why it should change) the bodies would reach the twenty-eighth floor sometime on Saturday or by Sunday at the very latest.

Proctor found a strange sense of enjoyment in his role of chief cameraman and body-watcher. It made him feel useful. It made him feel indispensable and gave him a purpose. Perhaps even more importantly, it gave him a role which he could hide behind and use as an excuse for not doing anything else. He saw the camera as a potential way out of some of the pretty bloody unpleasant and downright dangerous jobs which would inevitably come their way over the course of the next few days.

Three forty-five. The afternoon sun had begun another rapid descent towards the horizon, filling the Presidential Suite with harsh orange light and long, dragging shadows. Rather than spreading themselves around the edges of the apartment, on this rare occasion the six survivors were sat together around the dining table. There was no meal to be eaten or food to be shared this afternoon. The reason for sitting together was to finally talk about the issues they'd avoided talking about for the last ten days. The agenda for their discussions was dishearteningly short and simple. Firstly, they had hardly any food supplies left. Secondly, according to the photograph Proctor had taken earlier, the bodies were now close to reaching floor twenty-four.

'So exactly how much food have we got?' Doreen asked.

'A days worth,' Bushell replied, 'maybe two at the very most. After that there's nothing.'

'We must have something...?'

'No,' he said again, shaking his head, 'we won't have anything.'

'But...?'

'But what?' snapped Wilcox. Christ, how did they get through to this bloody woman? 'Listen, we've got nothing, okay? We're down to our last few meals. We haven't got an extra little stash of food tucked away for emergencies. After this we'll have absolutely nothing. Fuck all. Zip.'

Doreen slumped back in her seat and stared into space.

'So what are we going to do?' she eventually asked. More sighs from around the table.

'That's what we're trying to decide, you stupid cow!' Wilcox groaned. 'Bloody hell, are you on the same planet as the rest of us?'

'Wish I wasn't,' she grunted.

'So we've got two problems,' Proctor summarised, trying his best to control the direction of the conversation. 'We need to try and get out and get supplies but...'

'But this building is full of bodies,' continued Bushell, 'thanks to the hole you lot made in the front door.' He glanced across at Wilcox as he spoke. Uncomfortable, Wilcox looked down and did his best to avoid eye contact with anyone.

'So what do we do?' Doreen asked again.

'Is there any way of getting out of here and back up again?' Elizabeth wondered.

'Not that I know of,' Bushell answered quickly. 'Getting down's no problem, we can use the fire escape.' He nodded towards an inconspicuous looking door in the far corner of the room. 'The problem is what to do once you're down there,' he continued. 'Open the fire escape door on the ground floor and you'll probably find yourself face to face with a few thousand bodies. And if you manage to get outside, Christ knows how you're going to get back in again afterwards. It'd be impossible if you were carrying supplies...'

'There must be a way?'

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