Chapter Twenty-One

He stopped running and hid in the shadows of a newsagents until the effect of his sudden appearance and disappearance had faded away and the bodies had lost interest. He lay on the floor behind the counter and read the last ever editions of half a dozen newspapers until the sun had disappeared and the light had faded away. All of the headlines that had once seemed so important and relevant now seemed puerile and insignificant.

Walking slowly through the shadows now without fear or concern, Jones made his way along the dark city streets to a construction site. With a rucksack full of booze on his back, he climbed to the very top of the tallest crane he could find which stood in the middle of the foundations of an office building that would never be completed. Protected by the height and enjoying a view which was even more impressive than the view from the hotel's Presidential Suite, he drank and slept.

In the morning, when the sun finally came up, he looked back across town at the hotel he'd left behind and watched the occasional stupid body fall from the roof. He laughed out loud without fear of retribution.

Paul Jones had decided to take his own life, but not yet. He'd do it when there were no other options left. Once Proctor had lost sight of Elizabeth he'd stopped running. He'd slowed his pace to match that of the dead and, for a time, had been able to walk among them undetected. I can do this, he thought, I can outwit them. I can move around them and between them and I can do this. Bushell was wrong. They were all wrong. I don't have to run and I don't have to give up. It's not over...

For almost a day he managed to survive, but his foolish confidence proved to be his undoing. It took only a single sneeze. One sneeze in the middle of a vast crowd of bodies and his position was revealed. And Proctor, being a cowardly man, tried to run. Instead of standing his ground and continuing to mimic the actions of the bodies all around him, the stupid man tried to run. Deep in the middle of several hundred rancid, rotting cadavers, however, he didn't stand a chance. They ripped him to pieces before he had chance to scream for help.

Wouldn't have mattered. No-one would have come.

Barry Bushell lasted for several more days. The hotel suite was overrun with bodies but, as far as he could tell, they didn't know that he was still in the bedroom. He remained quiet and still. Without food, water and exercise, however, he quickly became weak.

Bushell died a relatively happy man. He'd rather not have died, of course, but he'd managed somehow to retain the control he'd so desperately wanted - the control that death had stripped from the millions of bodies condemned to drag themselves along the streets outside until they were no longer able to move.

Dressed in a silk negligee and lying in a comfortable (if slightly soiled) bed, he died peacefully in his sleep at the end of a good book.

DAY TWENTY-THREE

AMY STEADMAN Part vi It is now more than three weeks since infection. Amy Steadman's body has been moving away from the site of its death constantly for more than two weeks. It is now little more than a rotten and featureless shadow of what it once was. The face, once fresh, clear and attractive, is now skeletal and heavily decayed. Its skin is discoloured and waxy. Its once bright eyes are dull, dark and dry. Because of its physical limitations the creature moves slowly and forcefully. Movements which had previously been random and uncoordinated, however, now ominously have an underlying purpose and determination.

This putrefying cadaver has no need to respire, eat, drink or rest and yet it continues to struggle across the dead an increasingly grim landscape. It is driven by a single goal - the need to continue to exist. The condition of its physical shell is deteriorating and it has become painfully aware of the extent of its decay. It now understands that it is vulnerable and exposed. Every unexpected movement or sound which it detects is automatically assumed to be a threat and the corpse reacts accordingly.

Now and then the body experiences the faintest flicker of recollection and memory. It has no concept of who it used to be, but it is vaguely aware of what it once was. Earlier today it tripped and fell in the rubble of a shop-window display. Inadvertently it grabbed a handful of rubbish which included a cup. Momentarily it held the cup by its handle as if it was about to drink. It then dropped it and continued moving. Yesterday, more through luck than judgement, it attempted to reach for a handle and open a door.

There are considerably more bodies around here than most other places. Throughout this silent, empty world the slightest distraction continues to attract the unwanted attention of thousands upon thousands of these sickly creatures and here, on the outskirts of the ruins of the city of Rowley , there is a distraction which is calling untold numbers of them ever closer.

The corpse has left the street it staggered along earlier and has now reached an unexpected blockage whilst making its way across a wide and barren field. Eleven bodies are pushing forward, trying to force their way through a wooden gate. The gate has a sprung hinge which constantly pushes back against the dead. Even when moving together they are weak and they struggle to make progress. Occasionally one or two of them manage to stumble through. Aware of the movement of the dark shapes around it, as it approaches the gate Steadman's corpse lifts its hands and begins to grab at the nearest bodies. With twisted, bony fingers it slashes at the other cadavers. Steadman's corpse is stronger and more determined than most others. It moves with more force and purpose than they are capable of. The other bodies are unable to react with anything other than laboured and lethargic, shuffling movements. They do not have the speed or strength to be able to defend themselves.

Steadman's corpse knows that it must continue to move forward, although it does not understand why. It negotiates the gate (its relative speed and strength forcing it open) and continues towards the distraction up ahead. Whatever it is, it may be able to help ease the corpse's pain and suffering. On the other hand, it may prove to be a threat which the body must destroy. Whatever the reason and whatever it is, this putrefying collection of withered flesh and brittle bone is driven relentlessly towards it.

The body stumbles through more fields, moving further away from the cold and skeletal remains of the city which it once called home. Every single aspect of Steadman's previous life has now been forgotten and erased, as it has from all of the bodies. Virtually every trace of race, gender, social class, wealth and intellect has been wiped from the dead. Steadman's corpse, like the many hundreds of similarly faceless cadavers around it, is now almost completely featureless and indistinct. What remains of its clothes are ripped, ragged and stained. Its face is emotionless, blank and cold. The only discriminating factor which separates the bodies from each other now is the level of their individual decay. Some - those that are the most severely rotted - continue to stumble around aimlessly. Those which are deteriorating more slowly, however, are those which present the most danger to anything unfortunate enough to happen to come across them.

Steadman's withered body has become aware of a dark mass on the horizon. It is a crowd of many thousands of bodies. Oblivious to any possible implications it continues to stagger towards the immense gathering. Before long it reaches the edges of the diseased throng. When the massive numbers of cadavers ahead stop it from moving any further forward, it again reacts violently, ripping and tearing at the decayed flesh which surrounds it on all sides until its path is clearer.

Deeper into the crowd the bodies are even more tightly packed together. Still more of them continually arrive at the scene, crawling slothfully towards the distraction from every direction, blocking the way back and preventing the corpses already there from doing anything other than trying to move further forward still. Unaware that their actions are ultimately pointless, the dead relentlessly attempt to shuffle closer to the disturbance which brought them here. A chain-link fence eventually stops them from making any more progress.

It takes several days for Steadman's body to make its way past enough corpses to enable it to finally stand at the fence. It is pushed hard against the wire by the rotting throng behind, and from there it watches. On the other side of the fence is a wide and uninterrupted swathe of clear and uncluttered, green land. Most of the time it is quiet, but occasionally there are deafening noises and sudden flashes of huge, controlled movements which whip the diseased hordes into a riotous frenzy.

Steadman's corpse is just one of a crowd which is now hundreds of thousands strong.

Thousands more are approaching.

KILGORE

Kilgore sat alone at a metal table in the furthest, darkest corner of the bunker mess hall. The wide, low-ceilinged room was largely empty. Only the occasional noise from the kitchen and the constant, piercing electrical buzz and hum of the strip lights hanging above his head broke the silence.

Spence ambled casually into the hall and fetched himself a tray of food. With only a handful of other people eating there (none of whom he knew well) he walked over towards Kilgore.

'Mind if I sit here?' he asked.

Kilgore jumped in his seat, surprised by the unexpected interruption. His thoughts had been elsewhere. He looked up at Spence with dark, tired eyes and shook his head. 'Go for it,' he mumbled before looking down into his food again. He played with his fork, stirring the lukewarm and piss-weak stew on his tray, pushing lumps of meat-substitute around from side to side and making tracks in the gravy but not actually eating anything. Spence sat down on the bench directly opposite him.

He'd come across Kilgore on a couple of occasions before they'd been ordered underground. He'd always had a reputation for being a moaner - the kind of person who would instinctively complain and whinge pointlessly and continually about everything and anything he was ordered to do. The kind of person who made the simplest of routine tasks seem like some huge and practically impossible undertaking. An incessant talker and a compulsive liar, he wound the officers up and he wound his fellow soldiers up. He wound everyone up.

He was crying.

Spence shuffled awkwardly in his seat and began eating, wishing that he'd chosen another table. The other man's show of emotion made him feel uncomfortable and uneasy. He hated it when he heard people crying down here. It reminded him of his own sadness and the constant emptiness he felt. The three hundred or so people he'd been buried underground with were, generally, hardened, professional and well-trained soldiers. Men and women who had been conditioned to suppress their emotions and feelings and just get on with doing whatever it was that they'd been ordered to do. But that was becoming more and more difficult with each passing day, almost each hour. The fact that some of them were showing emotion at all indicated just how serious, unpredictable and uncertain their situation had become. And the longer they spent below the surface, the more disturbed and confused they became. No-one seemed to know what they were doing or why. No-one knew what had happened or what was going to happen next. What were they hoping to achieve? By now they'd all heard about the devastated condition of the infected world above them from the few advance parties that had ventured out, and that only served to make their time underground even more difficult. What did the future hold for the millions of people left on the surface, scarred by plague? More importantly, Spence thought, what did the future hold for him and for the rest of them underground?

The tap, tap, tap of metal on plastic disturbed his train of thought. He looked at Kilgore again. His hand was shaking. He could hardly hold his fork still.

'You okay, mate?' he asked quietly.

Kilgore looked up again and shook his head. More tears. He wiped them away on the back of his sleeve.

'No,' he replied under his breath.

'Want to talk about it?'

'What's there to talk about?' the soldier began. 'What good's it going to do? What good's any of this going to do? We're stuck down here, you know. I tell you, mate, there's no fucking way we're going to get out of here.'

'Why d'you say that?'

Kilgore dropped his fork into the middle of his plate and took a swig from a mug of cold coffee. He leant back in his chair and ran his fingers through his wiry hair. For the briefest of moments he made eye contact with Spence before emotions took hold again and he was forced to look away. Eventually he cleared his throat and composed himself sufficiently to be able to talk.

'You been up there yet?' he asked, looking up at the low ceiling above their heads.

'No,' Spence answered.

'It was my first time outside today,' Kilgore explained. 'I was fucking shitting myself. I've never seen anything like... I tell you, you can't even begin to imagine what's going on up there...' He stopped, took another deep breath and tried again. 'Fucking hell, I can't...'

'Take your time, man,' Spence said quietly.

Kilgore closed his eyes and steadied himself.

'Sarge says we're going above ground. He tells us we're going on a walkabout looking for survivors in Ansall. You know Ansall? Little town just outside Hemmington? Anyway, we're ready and out in minutes, before we've had chance to think about it. I put the mask on and I'm standing there in the suit and that's when it first hits me. I'm standing there thinking about what I've heard it's like out there. I start thinking Christ, get a fucking hole in this suit while we're out there and I'm dead. I'm thinking, catch the suit on a nail or a door handle or whatever and I've fucking had it. We're all feeling it. No-one says a bloody word. Then Sarge gives the nod. We get into the transport and he gives them the order to open the doors.

'Those bloody doors slide open and Christ, for a minute it looks fucking beautiful out there. You don't realise how much you miss daylight until you see it again. I tell you, the world never looked so good as it did this afternoon when they first opened the doors. It's about one o'clock and it's beautiful. The sky's blue, the sun's burning down and there's not a fucking cloud in the sky. We roll up to the top of the ramp and for a few seconds everything's all right. For a couple of seconds it feels good and you start to think everything's going to be okay. It feels good just to be getting out of this fucking place for a while. Even though we've all got our masks on it feels good to see real, natural light for a change and to be able to see trees and grass and hills instead of fucking concrete walls and metal doors.

'I had Smith sitting next to me. You know Smith? The big guy with the crooked nose? Anyway, we start moving away from the base and he suddenly sits up and starts staring out of the window. He's cursing and pointing and we all crowd round to look at whatever it is he's seen. And that's when we saw them. People. I was thinking we should stop and try and help them but then I remembered what I'd heard from the others who'd already been above ground. Sarge stops the transport for a second and we watch as they keep coming towards us, all slow and awkward like their legs are numb. I could only see a couple of them at first, but they kept coming. They're coming out of the trees and from around the side of the entrance door and I counted at least thirty of them before we started moving again. I could see even more in the fields around us. From a distance they looked normal, just slow moving, but when they got closer you could see that they were sick. Fucking hell, their skin... it was like it was rotten. It was all discoloured and grey and green and on some of them it looked like it was hanging off their bones. Others looked like bloody skeletons, all shrivelled up and dry. Jesus, you've never seen anything like it. Sarge screams at the driver to ignore them and keep moving and she puts her foot down. She hits a couple of the fucking things - there was nothing she could do, they just walked out in front of us. I watched one of them go down. We hit it so hard it virtually snapped in half. Its legs were all fucked up. But then it tries to get up again. Fucking thing's lying there with both its legs smashed and broken and it's trying to get up again.

'We just sit there in silence for a fucking age. No-one says anything. No-one knows what to fucking say, you know? Anyway, we follow the track away from here and we see more and more of them. Christ knows how they know where to go, but it's like they're all moving towards the base but then they turn round when they see us and start following. I mean, we've got to be doing about thirty or forty miles an hour and these things are following us like they think they're going to catch us up! We get onto the main road and start heading for Ansall and I start thinking about what we're going to find there. Fucking hell, if there are this many people out here in the middle of nowhere, what the hell are we going to find in the town?'

Kilgore paused to finish his drink. Spence said nothing. He stared into the other soldier's face. He didn't want to hear about what Kilgore had seen because he knew that he'd have to face it eventually when his turn came to go above ground. At the same time he had to listen. He knew that he had to know.

'The roads were an absolute fucking mess,' Kilgore continued. 'It was like someone flicked a switch and everything just stopped. I tell you, everywhere you looked all you could see were bodies and crashed cars. Christ, I saw some fucking horrible sights out there. Anyway, because we're on the road now the driver puts her foot down and speeds up. Our truck's heavy enough to just plough through most of the wreckage. I started getting freaked out by it all, and I could see that it was getting to the others too. It was the sheer bloody scale of it. Everything's been wiped out up there, you know. I felt myself starting to panic. It was so bloody hot in the suit, and the truck was like a fucking sun-trap. And all I could think about was the taste of fresh air and all I want to do was take off the mask and feel the sun and the wind on my face and... and it occurs to me that none of us are ever going to feel that again. Then I start getting really fucking frightened thinking about whatever the shit is in the air that's done all this. I'm thinking about getting a rip in the suit again and not knowing about it until it's too late. I can see Fraser's face opposite me. His eyes are darting all round the place like a bloody mad man.

'We get to Ansall and I don't mind telling you I was scared shitless. I've never been so fucking frightened. I mean, you're like me, you've seen plenty of service, but I tell you, you've never seen nothing like this. Remember last winter when we were stuck in that school in the middle of that fucking gunfight that went on for days? This was worse. At least then we could see the bastards and we could shoot back.

'It was still bright but between the buildings the streets were dark and cold. Coming into the shadow from the sun made it difficult to see what was happening. We stopped on the edge of this little market and Sarge told us to get out and start having a look around. We were supposed to be looking for survivors but all I could see were people in the same state as those we'd seen back at the base. The first one I saw up close was this little old lady. She's half-dressed and I'm just stood there thinking that this is someone's mum and that my mum could be like this somewhere, and the rest of my family and probably yours too. And when you start thinking about home you get this urge to just get in a car and try and get back there to try and find out what's happened to your folks and your girl and... and you know there's no point.

'Fraser calls out for help and I look round to find him. He's got his weapon out in front of him and he's moving towards this building. It looks like an office or something and I can see that there are people trapped inside. They're stood there leaning against the glass, banging it and it looks like it's a real effort for them to move because they're sick or something. The door's been blocked by a motorbike that's crashed and gone skidding along the ground. I help Fraser shift it out of the way. We move it and he throws the door open and straightaway the people start wandering out into the open. I only have to see them for a second to know that they're just like all the other poor bastards we've seen. One of them walks into me and I look into its face. There's nothing there. Not a single bloody spark or flicker of emotion. Not a single fucking sign of life. It's not even breathing. These bloody things are dead but they're still fucking moving!

'Sarge gets on the loudhailer. He's shouting the usual crap about how we'll help them if they cooperate and he's trying to get them out of the buildings and into the market square. I turn round to look back at the others and, fucking hell, there must have been a couple of hundred of the bloody things getting close to us already. They're crowding round us and they start reaching out and trying to grab hold of us when they get close enough. I'm thinking about my bloody suit again and I keep pushing them away but they keep coming back for more. Sarge fires a few warning shots into the air but it doesn't make any difference. Next to me Fraser starts hitting one of them and the fucking thing doesn't even notice. Every time he hits it he's doing more and more damage but the damn thing just keeps coming. Its fucking face is falling to pieces but it keeps fucking coming.

'Every way I turn now I can see more of them. We're looking at Sarge for some instruction and he's just looking back at us, as scared as we are. I lose sight of him when a couple of them rush me. I lose my footing and before I know it I'm on the ground with them on top of me. There's no weight to them. All I keep thinking is watch the fucking suit, make sure you don't get cut. I'm punching and kicking out but the bloody things just won't give up. I manage to get back up and I can see that we're surrounded. And there are more and more frigging bodies coming out of the shadows all of the time. I notice that Wheeler's heading back to the transport and I can see that the driver's back in her seat. I'm thinking that I've got to get out of here and I start pushing my way through the crowd.

'Fraser's the last one back inside. He tries to shut the door and gets caught by one of them that manages to grab hold of his leg as he climbs up. I'm watching and I can't look away and I'm thinking that this can't be happening. It's a kid, probably not even fifteen, and it's body is so light and empty that it's hanging off him and Fraser's just dragging it along. It's got hold of his boot somehow and he's using the butt of the rifle to smash its hand away. He pushes it off and tries to shove it back out of the door. Wheeler leans out and pulls the door shut but the bloody thing isn't out. Its head and shoulders are fucking wedged in and Wheeler's banging and pulling at the door, trying to get it shut. The kid's got one arm inside the transport and it's still trying to grab hold of Fraser. He just stands there, lifts up his rifle, and blows a fucking hole in the middle of its face. Wheeler opens the door while we're driving and kicks what's left of the kid out onto the street.'

Kilgore rubbed his eyes and looked up into the light above him momentarily before dropping his face and letting his head hang down again.

'And that, mate,' he mumbled, trying unsuccessfully to light a cigarette with nervous, shaking hands, 'is just about all that you and me and everyone else in this bloody place has got to look forward to. We either spend the rest of our time buried in this fucking hole, or we end up stuck out in that bloody mess up there, wrapped in a fucking plastic suit until whatever it is that's done all this finally catches up with us.'

SKIN

My name is Skin, and I have been waiting for this for so fucking long...

His name is actually Scott Weaver, and despite all the bravado and bullshit, he's scared as hell although he'd never admit it. Skin is what he used to call himself in front of his friends. It's the name he used to use on Internet forums and chatrooms, and which he sprayed onto the side of buildings and bus shelters. Skin is sixteen and, like many other distant, alienated and disenchanted adolescents, has a grudge against the rest of the world because he's convinced that the rest of the world has it in for him. His frustrations have been building and his problems festering for months now, and each day he has felt himself getting closer and closer to breaking point. Three weeks and two days ago, however, some of the pressure was suddenly and inexplicably released. Three weeks and two days ago the rest of the world died.

In the long hours alone Skin often thought back to how it began. It was a Tuesday morning, and his parents had been giving him hell because he'd only just come back in from being out all Monday night. He didn't know what their problem was. He'd been out with a few friends and they'd lost track of time, so what? They'd had a few drinks, so what? They'd done some drugs (nothing heavy, but his parents didn't need to know that), so what? His dad had gone on and on about how this was the time of his life where he needed to put more effort in, not less. He and Dad had started shouting and swearing at each other and that had made his mother cry, and that had made Dad even angrier. Christ, they couldn't ever see his point of view. More to the point, they didn't want to. They judged him more by the way he dressed and the music he listened to and the people he hung around with than anything else. His dad hadn't spoken to him for almost a month when he'd first had his ears and nose pierced. Fucking hell, if only they'd known about the tattoos and the other piercings he'd had done in the summer just gone...

He'd been sat there in the kitchen, trying to find a way out of the conversation without letting them win, when it happened. One minute they were both in full flow - Dad yelling at him for being a bloody waste of space, Mum crying into her tea and yelling at Dad to stop yelling - the next they were dead. Both of them. Face down, dead on the floor.

The death of his parents (and, apparently, the rest of the world) was the moment it finally all began to make sense. Up until that day Skin's summer had been fucking miserable and the tedium showed no sign of relenting. He'd flunked his exams and left school and had then been forced into enrolling for re-takes at college. And his girlfriend had left him. They'd been together on and off for eight months when Dawn ended it. She said that he'd bullied her into having sex. She'd said that he kept making demands that she wasn't prepared to fulfil. It was her fault, the fucking tease. She was the one who dressed like a fucking whore all the time for Christ's sake. Jesus, she was the one who'd been sat there in a fucking corset, tight black leather mini-skirt, fishnet stockings and knee-high PVC boots when she'd told him that she didn't want to be with him any more. He'd lost his virginity to her pretty early on in their brief relationship and his imagination had run away with him since then. He'd already learnt that he was the only virgin in the relationship (he'd suspected as much) and that made him feel like he had something to prove, or that he had some catching up to do. Skin had always imagined first sex would have been this incredible event - the undisputed highlight of both their young lives so far - but the reality had been bitterly disappointing. Instead of endless hours of uninterrupted dirty passion he had to settle for a fifteen minute fumble in Dawn's bedroom while her mum went to the chip shop. And half of those fifteen minutes were spent trying to get the bloody condom on.

In the three weeks between Skin splitting up with Dawn and the sudden arrival of the end of the world, he began to hate her with a vengeance. He still saw her regularly because, after she'd finished with him, she started sleeping her way around his friends, doing more with each of them (if the rumours were to be believed) than she'd ever done with him.

After they'd all died he'd been nervous and frightened for a while of course (who wouldn't have been?) but his fear and anxiety was primarily caused by the fact that he didn't know whether he was in danger, not because of what had happened to the rest of them. As the hours ticked by and his personal safety and apparent immunity to whatever had happened seemed more certain, his confidence and attitude gradually returned. He got himself as far away from his parent's safe and predictable upper-middle-class home as he could and began to enjoy his new and unexpected role as king of the world. He could do what he wanted, whenever he wanted. After a couple of days the bodies had risen, but even that hadn't dampened the sudden euphoria he'd felt at having survived when absolutely everyone else had died. He was invincible. Without doing anything, he had won.

Brought up on a dark diet of pulp horror films, comics and books, Skin revelled in the filth, disease and decay. As the bodies around him became more active, he actually became more confident and self-assured. As the potential danger increased, so his excitement and adrenaline levels rose. He looted shops, taking food, booze, cigarettes, magazines, music and whatever else he damn well wanted. And, in a long-considered and calculated gesture of defiance, he built a base for himself right in the middle of the school he'd just left. He spent days tearing the place apart. He ripped the heart out of the place that had caused him and countless hundreds of other kids untold amounts of grief over the years. He'd pissed on the headteacher's corpse. He'd even squatted down and taken a shit in the middle of the classroom where he'd been humiliated and yelled at by his Nazi-like Maths teacher Mr Miller last term. And where was Miller now, he thought smugly to himself? Dead, just like the rest of them. Skin had sat in the classroom for a while, his feet up on Miller's chair, drinking scotch. He laughed out loud at the irony of it all. And they'd said he'd never amount to anything...

The bodies became increasingly insistent. The damn things just wouldn't leave him alone. He tried to convince himself that he was the subject of some bizarre kind of hero-worship but he knew that wasn't the case. Just the slightest sound or unexpected movement from him would cause a crowd of the bloody things to herd after him incessantly. And he noticed that they'd started to become violent too, occasionally tearing each other apart. He guessed that it wouldn't take much for them to start on him if he gave them half a chance. Skin made a conscious decision to keep out of sight and lie low for a while but, before disappearing from view, he went out looting again. He rode into town on his bike, following the route of the bus he used to take. Once there he cycled through the side-streets until he reached one particular shop. He and his friends had spent hours looking in the window before now but they'd never managed to make it inside. The shop sold hunting and fishing equipment. He didn't know what he wanted or needed, but he took as much from the shelves as he could carry - knives, pistols, rifles and anything else which looked vaguely useful and suitably harmful. He packed it onto the bike and rode back to school.

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