'Now look,' he shouted, 'I'm sorry but we've got some problems here today. Our computer systems are down and staff shortages mean that we've not been able to get into the safe. I apologise for any inconvenience, but I'm going to have to ask you all to leave. If you'd like to come back tomorrow morning I'm sure we'll be able to...'

Another forward surge in the crowd interrupted him. The sound of his voice seemed to be attracting interest from all around. The bank was filling up instead of emptying. For some strange reason more and more people were trying to get inside. The situation was beginning to get uncomfortable.

'Look,' Walters tried again, 'I realise this is out of the ordinary and I understand that you've been inconvenienced, but I do need your cooperation. There really is nothing more I can do for you today. Please come back tomorrow when I'll be more than happy to...'

Damn. They still weren't listening. Still more people were trying to cram into the building. Walters couldn't stand it when people didn't listen to him.

'Please,' he yelled, now shouting at the top of his voice again to make sure that even the people still struggling in the doorway to get inside could hear him, 'let's have some common-sense here...'

Without realising it had happened Walters had gradually been forced further and further back along the counter. He now found himself at the opposite end of the banking hall to the doors he'd originally intended closing. Between him and the other end of the long, narrow room were at least a hundred furious customers. He looked down into the faces of the nearest few. Christ, they looked angry. If he wasn't careful the situation might turn nasty. He banged on the wall behind him, hoping that one of the others in the manager's room would hear him and come out to help.

'Could I have a hand out here please,' he shouted, watching anxiously as another wave of bodies attempted to cram themselves into the already tightly-packed building. 'Tony... Brian... could one of you come and...'

His words were cut short as the heaving movement of the bodies at the far end of the building rippled along the room and reached him. With nowhere else to go the closest of them reached up for him. Two or three of them managed to catch hold of the bottom of his bank uniform trousers. He recoiled and tried to pull away but lost his footing. He slipped down from the counter and fell into the bodies below him like a bizarre middle-aged crowd surfer at a concert. Panicking, and fearing for his life, he covered his head with his hands and curled himself up into a ball. He had to move. Crawling on his hands and knees he began to slowly move forward, weaving through the forest of decomposing feet which continued to stagger deeper into the bank. For a fraction of a second he thought about trying to help the others get out but he knew he couldn't go back. Without him realising it had happened the coward in him had suddenly been allowed to take control again. The momentary flame of strength and defiance that had burned today had suddenly been extinguished just as quickly as it had been lit. Terrified he closed his eyes and kept pushing forward, ignoring the countless bodies which stood and blocked his way, working his way around them. He accidentally knocked a handful of them down and they fell like skittles. He kept on moving, forcing himself on inch by slow and painful inch until he was level with the front door of the bank. Should he try and stand up to close and lock it? He knew it was impossible - he'd never be able to do it. Knowing that he was weak and hating himself for his lack of courage and strength, Walters instead kept on crawling forward until he was out of the building, down the ramp and onto the street. The crowd slightly thinner, he picked himself up and began to run, glancing back at the overrun bank for a second before sprinting towards home. Ten o'clock. A half-eaten can of cold baked beans and three-quarters of a bottle of whiskey later.

The house was silent, save for the occasional thump from Matthew upstairs. Walters sat alone in darkness at the kitchen table with his head in his hands. He couldn't stop thinking about the events of the day now drawing to an end. It was one thing that he'd left the bank wide open and abandoned his colleagues, but it was another aspect of the dark day just passed which concerned him more. For a moment back there today he'd actually felt like somebody and it had felt good. It had felt damn good. But he'd been brought back down to earth with a harsh and sudden bump. The bitter truth was that he was still a nobody. A forty-seven year old stationery clerk and cashier with no prospects, a family that weren't interested in him and an increasingly bleak future. Maybe he should just accept where he was and who he was and do his best to live with it? Stick with what you know, that had always been one of his father's sayings. Don't take risks and don't take chances. We're not all made for great things. Stick with what you know.

Walters got up from his seat and shuffled out into the hallway. He paused to look out at the dark crowd of bodies at the end of his drive before wearily climbing the stairs to bed, a final tumbler of whiskey in his hand. He undressed, put his dirty shirt in the washing basket with all the others, and then put on his pyjamas. He could still hear Matthew banging around in his bedroom. Bloody teenagers, he thought. He should be sleeping or resting or at the very least studying. If only his son knew what he had to put up with every day. His attitude would soon change if he was the one who had to face the daily indignities and humiliations of office politics. Christ, he hoped Matthew didn't make the same mistakes he had. If only he'd worked harder at school and not just taken the first job he'd been offered after leaving...

No point dwelling on all that now, he thought as he climbed into bed behind June. She had her back to him. She was still in the same position as he'd left her this morning. She hadn't done the washing or the shopping. In fact, it looked like she'd been in bed all day again. Bloody hell, she didn't know how easy she had it. If she'd had to put up with what he'd faced today...

He wrapped his arm around his wife's cold, lifeless and rapidly putrefying body and pulled her close. He wished she'd talk to him. He didn't want to go to sleep yet. He wanted someone to listen to his problems and reassure him that he was doing his best and that it was the rest of them who'd got it wrong. The silence was deafening.

Walters felt humiliated and let down by everyone, even those closest to him. He'd tried so hard today but, ultimately, all he'd done was make matters worse for himself. Christ, how was he going to face them all at work tomorrow?

THE HUMAN CONDITION Part i - GOING UP Barry Bushell sat at the dressing table in his wide, palatial executive hotel suite and fixed his make-up. He wondered whether this was just a fad - just a phase he was going through - or whether he was destined to spend the rest of his life dressing as a woman. He wasn't gay and he wasn't transsexual. This wasn't something he'd always wanted to do. He wasn't a drag queen or lady-boy in training. Barry Bushell was just a typical, red-bloodied, heterosexual man who happened to have recently discovered that he felt comfortable wearing women's clothes. And when the rest of the world lay decaying a couple of hundred feet below him, why the hell shouldn't he wear whatever he damn well wanted?

The last seven days had been the strangest, darkest and longest seven days of Bushell's life so far. Everything had been changed forever. If he was honest, his problems had started long before last Tuesday. A few months ago he'd been happy and settled. He'd moved in to his girlfriend Tina's flat with her and, for a time, life had been good. Their relationship had abruptly ended on what had, until then, been the worst day of his life. Out of the blue Bushell lost his job when a huge black hole was discovered in the accounts of the company he'd worked for and they were forced into administration. Gutted and penniless, he'd returned to the flat unexpectedly to find his brother Dennis in bed with Tina. She'd proceeded to tell him that Dennis was better in bed than he was and that their relationship was over. By three o'clock that afternoon he'd lost his partner, his brother, his job and his home. That nightmare day had, of course, seemed like the best Christmas ever in comparison with last Tuesday. Last Tuesday morning Bushell had helplessly watched as the entire population of the city (and, he later presumed, the country and perhaps even the world) had fallen and died. After the cruel and unexpected hand that life had dealt him recently, there was a part of him that found some slight comfort and solace in the sudden isolation and quiet. His pent up anger and frustration with the world made the pain, fear, confusion and disorientation slightly easier to deal with. Subconsciously he blamed the inexplicable trauma which had unfolded around him for his sudden 'gender-realignment' (as he had labelled his drastic change in appearance). And now here he was, alone and, as far as he could tell, the last man on Earth. Almost certainly the last man on Earth in a dress, anyway.

Five days ago many of the bodies lying dead in the streets had risen. At first he'd gone back down to ground level to try and find out what was happening, only to quickly return to his isolated and comfortable hide-out as soon as he realised that the situation had worsened, not improved. The people wandering the streets down there were dead. Although they moved, there wasn't the slightest spark of life left within them. Their sudden reanimation was as improbable and impossible to explain as their equally sudden demise had been just days earlier. Bushell climbed all the way back to the top of the twenty-eight storey, five star city-centre hotel and barricaded himself in the Presidential Suite on the twenty-eighth floor. It was the safest and most sensible place that he could think of to hide. Within the hotel's three hundred or so bedrooms, many kitchens, function rooms, dining rooms, bars, restaurants and sports facilities he'd been able to find pretty much everything he'd need to survive, and a vast wardrobe of women's clothing, make-up and accessories to boot.

He stood up, smoothed the creases out of his dark blue dress, and looked himself up and down in the full-length mirror to his right. God I look good, he thought, pretty damn convincing. His first experiments with make-up last week had been over-the-top and amateurish but now he was definitely getting the hang of it. He wore a long, straight blonde wig which he'd taken from a shop-window dummy but he hoped that in time his own hair would grow to a sufficient length for him to be able to style it. He'd stopped biting and started painting his fingernails and he was finally getting the hang of walking in heels. That had been the hardest part of all but it had been worth all the effort. The knee-high leather boots he'd found in a bedroom on the seventh floor looked perfect with this outfit. Am I confused, Bushell thought to himself in a moment of self-doubt, or have I just gone completely fucking insane? Whatever the answer to his question, he was relatively happy and, all things considered, he felt good. He could do whatever he wanted now. He was in charge. If he wanted to wear a dress then he'd wear a dress. If he wanted to walk around naked, then that was what he'd do.

It was starting to get late. This was the time of day he really didn't like. This was when he found it hardest being alone and when he started to think about everything that had happened and everything he'd lost. His sudden change of outfit had been deliberately timed to give him a much needed confidence boost to help him get through the long, dark and lonely hours until morning. As much as he was comfortable in his own company, there were times when he needed the isolation to end and when he desperately needed to see and speak to other people. He lit lamps in all the windows of the suite at this time every night, praying that someone out there would see them but at the same time also hoping that no-one would. He had to let the world know where he was, but in doing so he left himself feeling vulnerable and exposed. But he couldn't not do it, he continually reminded himself. He would be safer with other people around him. Problem was that so far there hadn't been any other people...

Bushell walked around the perimeter of the vast suite (which covered almost the entire top floor of the building) lighting candles, lamps and torches in every available window.

Distracted by the increasing complications of his own already complex situation, he remained blissfully unaware of sudden movement and confusion outside. For the first time in a week a vehicle had entered the city.

'You're a stupid fucking idiot, Wilcox,' Elizabeth Ferry screamed hysterically. 'I said keep out of the city, not drive right through the bloody city-centre. Fancy a little late night shopping do we?'

'Shut up,' Wilcox hissed. 'If it hadn't been for the fucking noise you two make with your constant bloody talking I wouldn't have taken the wrong turn in the first place!'

'Don't bring me into this,' Doreen Phillips snapped. 'It's got nothing to do with me.'

'It's never got anything to do with you, has it, Doreen?' piped up Ted Hamilton from the seat directly behind her. 'Of course it's your fault. It's got everything to do with you. You're a bloody trouble maker, you are.'

Doreen turned round and glared at Ted who, as usual, was filling his face with chocolate.

'And you're a fat bastard who should...'

'For Christ's sake,' Elizabeth sighed, interrupting her, 'give it a rest, will you?'

Doreen immediately stopped talking, folded her arms and slumped into her seat like a scolded child.

'Just keep going,' John Proctor's comparatively calm voice suggested from three seats back. 'We're here now and shouting at each other isn't going to help. Just keep driving.'

Nick Wilcox took one hand off the steering wheel for a couple of seconds, just long enough to rub his tired eyes. He'd been driving for what felt like hours and he was struggling but he wasn't about to let the others know. They annoyed him beyond belief. He'd so far only found five other living, breathing human beings since all of this began. So why did it have to be this five?

This ragged, dysfunctional group of survivors had been together for just three days. They'd found each other by chance as they'd each individually wandered through the remains of the devastated world. Elizabeth and John Proctor had been the first to meet, Elizabeth having walked into the church where Proctor used to preach just as he was tearing off his dog-collar and walking out. A cleric of some thirty years standing, his already wavering faith had been shattered by the cruel and unstoppable infection which had raged across the surface of the planet. If this God is so powerful, loving and forgiving, he'd asked Elizabeth , then how could the fucker let this happen? Proctor's sudden loss of faith had been as powerful and life-changing as his initial discovery of the church had been in his early days at college. In all seriousness Elizabeth had suggested that the plague might be some kind of divine retribution - a Noah's ark for our times. Proctor told her in no uncertain terms that he thought she was out of her fucking mind.

Ted Hamilton, a plumber, part-time football coach and full-time compulsive comfort eater, had been on the roof of an office block working on the water pipes when the infection had struck. He'd had an incredible view of the destruction from up there but he'd been too afraid to come down. He'd sat on the roof for hours until he saw Doreen Phillips walking down the high street, shopping bags in hand, stepping gingerly over and around the mass of tangled bodies which covered the pavements. Together they'd wandered around aimlessly and pointlessly in search of help which never came. Their constant shouting and noise had eventually attracted the attention of Paul Jones, a sullen and quiet man who kept himself to himself but who recognised the importance of sticking with these people, no matter who they were or how stupid they appeared.

Jones had suggested building themselves a base from where they could explore the dead land around them and, hopefully, find more survivors. As obvious and sensible as his plan had been, it also proved to be unnecessary. As they struggled to establish themselves in a deserted guest house on the edge of a small town, more survivors had found them. Three days ago the eerie silence of the first post-infection Friday morning had been disturbed by the unexpected arrival of a fifty-three-seater single-deck passenger bus driven by Nick Wilcox. Wilcox - who had previously driven such buses for a living - had ploughed through the town with a nervous disregard for anything and everything. Jones and Hamilton flagged him down and it was only the quick reactions of Elizabeth Ferry (who, with John Proctor, was already travelling with Wilcox) that stopped him from gleefully running them down in the same way he'd destroyed several hundred rotting bodies already that morning.

The motley collection of survivors made the bus their travelling home. It was relatively strong, comfortable and spacious and there was more than enough room inside for them, their belongings, and as many boxes of provisions and supplies as they could lay their hands on. And the bus had a huge advantage over everywhere else they'd previously tried to shelter because it moved. When things got too dangerous or there were suddenly too many bodies around they just started the engine and drove somewhere else.

'Just keep driving, Nick,' Proctor said, his calm and deceptively relaxed tone helping to settle the group and diffuse the mounting hysteria within the bus. 'Just keep going until we reach a major road then follow it back out of the city.'

'I can't see the bloody road,' Wilcox cursed anxiously through gritted teeth, 'never mind follow it.' Even with his headlights on full-beam he could see very little. The streets were teeming with movement as the dead continually staggered into the path of the huge, bulky vehicle. His vision already severely limited, he was forced to frequently flick on his wipers to clear blood, gore and other splattered remains from the wide windscreen in front of him.

'Does anyone know where we are?' Elizabeth asked hopefully. 'Anyone been here before?'

Her question was met with silence from the others. 'We could just stop,' Ted Hamilton suggested, his mouth still full of food. 'We've done it before, haven't we? Sit still and shut up and they'll leave us alone after a while.'

'Come on, Ted,' Elizabeth sighed, 'there's got to be a better way. They'll take hours to go, you know that as well as I do, and there are hundreds of them around here. I don't want to spend another night lying on the floor.'

'I'm not sleeping on the floor again,' Doreen immediately protested in her grating, high-pitched voice. 'It's bad for my back. When we did...'

'Doreen,' Hamilton interrupted, 'with all due respect, love, would you please shut your fucking mouth. You couldn't keep quiet if you tried.'

Wilcox managed half a smile as he steered the bus around a sharp bend in the road and powered into another group of shuffling corpses. He knew as well as the rest of them that several hours of absolute stillness and silence would be necessary if they wanted to try and fool the bodies into leaving them alone. With Doreen on board it was impossible to have even five minutes of silence, never mind anything longer.

'Bloody hell,' Hamilton said suddenly, swallowing his last mouthful of food and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. 'Look at that.'

'Look at what?' Paul Jones asked, quickly moving forward along the length of the bus towards the others and surprising them with his sudden involvement. Hamilton pressed his face up against the window and pointed up.

'There,' he mumbled.

'What is it?' demanded Elizabeth anxiously. Apart from Wilcox (who was craning his neck to see what was going on from behind the wheel) the rest of the survivors stared out into the unending darkness on the left hand side of the bus, not knowing what they were looking for but desperate to see whatever it was that Hamilton thought he'd seen.

'A light,' he said quietly, not quite believing himself, 'up there.'

Visible fleetingly between the tall, dark buildings which lined the streets along which they drove, the light - although relatively dull - appeared to burn brightly through the otherwise total blackness.

'Head towards it,' Doreen demanded.

'Where is it?' Wilcox yelled.

'Over to the left,' Proctor replied. 'You watch the road and we'll keep an eye on the light.'

High above the disease-ridden streets Bushell's quiet and solitary life seemed now to be filled with a series of infuriating contradictions. He wanted to be surrounded by light, but the brightness made him feel vulnerable and exposed. Likewise darkness made him feel safe but it was also unsettling and cold and he was scared of the shadows that filled the hotel at night. He wanted to hear some noise to end the eerie silence but, at the same time, he wanted the quiet to remain so that he could hear everything that was happening in the dead world around him. He wanted to sit out of sight in the relative comfort of his suite but he also felt compelled to check each window and stare outside almost constantly. He knew that he was alone in the building and that it was secure (he'd checked every one of the rooms and had kicked out every moving body himself over the last week) but an uneasy combination of nerves and paranoia convinced him almost constantly that there were bodies on the staircases and walking the halls. He felt sure that rotting hands would reach out of the shadows for him whenever he opened a door. Whatever he was doing he felt uncomfortable and unsafe. It was far easier to handle the situation in daylight. Each night he found the darkness harder to cope with, and that led to the cruellest paradox of all. Bushell's fear would keep him awake through almost the entire night. Only when the morning (and the light) came was he finally able to relax enough to sleep. Invariably he would drift and doze through the morning and early afternoon and miss almost all of the precious daylight.

He wandered listlessly along the long west wall of the suite, the stiletto heels of his boots clicking on the marble floor. Where was this going to end, he wondered? Would he stay here at the top of the hotel indefinitely? It wasn't a bad option, in fact he struggled to think of anywhere else that would be safer or more comfortable. The height of the building meant that it was unlikely the corpses down below would ever see or hear him. The only problem would come when his supplies started to dwindle as they inevitably would. Okay, so he appeared to have the entire city at his disposal, but even if he managed to find everything he needed, there then remained the problem of dragging it up literally hundreds of steps to his new home. Maybe he could set up some kind of winch or pulley system? Perhaps he could use the window-cleaner's cradle that he'd seen hanging halfway down the side of the building?

His mind full of questions and half-considered answers, Bushell reached the corner of the room and stopped walking. He turned round and was about to begin retracing his steps back along the wall when he happened to glance down into the dark streets hundreds of feet below. In silent disbelief he watched the bizarre sight of a fairly ordinary looking bus ploughing through the rotting crowds, sending whole and dismembered bodies flying in all directions and hurtling at speed towards the hotel. He waited for a fraction of a second - just long enough to convince himself that what he was seeing was real - before sprinting out of the suite and down the hallway to the staircase.

'Next left,' Paul Jones instructed. He'd moved to the front of the bus and was now standing next to the driver's cab, doing his best to guide Wilcox through the mayhem and towards the light. 'No, sorry, not this one. Take the next one.'

Wilcox grunted and pulled the steering wheel back round to his right. Uneasy, Jones glanced down and across at the various dials in front of the driver. The bus was travelling at a furious speed along the debris-strewn streets and its passengers were being buffeted from side to side. The breakneck journey was so unsteady and turbulent that even Doreen Phillips had become uncharacteristically quiet and subdued.

'Can you see where it's coming from?' Wilcox asked, glancing up for a second to try and catch sight of the light again.

'Not sure,' Jones admitted. 'It's bloody high up though.'

Wilcox braced himself as he forced the bus up and over a mound of rubble and mangled metal at the side of the road. The passengers behind him - not expecting the sudden jolt - were thrown up in their seats as the huge machine clattered up and then back down onto the road.

'Take it easy,' protested Hamilton.

'Next left,' Jones said for the second time, his voice now a little more definite than before.

'You sure?' 'Positive,' he snapped, annoyed that he was being doubted. 'I can see it. We're almost directly under the light now.'

Wilcox slammed on his brakes and swung the bus around to the left. The second street was as difficult to navigate as the first. Huge crowds of lumbering, rotting bodies turned and dragged themselves towards the approaching vehicle. Wilcox increased his already precarious speed, knowing that the quicker they were moving, the more chance they had of continuing to make progress through the rancid crowds. Countless corpses were obliterated by the flat-faced front of the heavy vehicle. They smashed into the bonnet with a relentless bang, bang, bang which sounded like rain clattering down onto a flat tin roof.

'How far now?' he asked breathlessly.

Jones crouched down low and looked up to his right.

'Almost there.'

Proctor got up from his seat and scurried towards the two men at the front of the bus, holding onto the passenger rails and supports and struggling to keep his balance as the vehicle tipped from side to side.

'It's a hotel,' he said, panting with excitement and nerves. 'There's a sign on the side of the building.'

Wilcox nodded.

'So where do I go?' he asked, peering hopelessly into the relentless gloom.

'There must be a car park or something?' Proctor suggested. 'Maybe it's around the back...?'

'Fancy walking out in the open carrying all our stuff, do you?' Jones immediately snapped. 'Forget that, it's too dangerous. We need to get as close to the main entrance as we can. We need to minimise the distance we have to cover on foot.'

'How am I supposed to do that?' grumbled Wilcox. 'I can't see a fucking thing.'

'Here it is,' Jones interrupted. 'Sharp right now!'


***P/S: Copyright -->Novel12__Com