Chapter Twenty-Three

'Don't be stupid,' Jackson yelled as the desperate teenager approached. Skin lifted the bar high, ready to strike. With twice his speed Jackson let rip with a single jab to Skin's face, catching him on square on the nose and sending him reeling back. He dropped the bar and it clattered loudly to the ground.

Jackson looked around anxiously. By breaking into the building he'd opened it up to the bodies outside. They were now streaming inside in huge numbers.

'Time to get out,' he suggested to Skin who still sat in a crumpled heap on the floor, blood pouring down his face. 'Unless you like this sort of thing, of course,' he added. 'Could have yourself a real party now, you sick bastard.'

Skin couldn't move. He couldn't speak. All of the anger and frustration and hate that had been released since the world had died had now suddenly returned, and now it was worse than ever before. He was crushed. He watched in desperate silence as Jackson turned and shoulder-charged his way through the dead and back out into the night. There were still a couple of bodies burning nearby. That, coupled with the movement around the gym, was enough of a distraction to enable him to slip away into the darkness. What about the kid, he thought? Forget him. Stay alone and stay alive.

Skin slowly stood up and stared at the body of his father. It seemed to stare back at him. He stood motionless in the middle of the gym and, for a time, was unnoticed by the hundreds of bodies that had dragged themselves into the building.

The room was filling up quickly.

Skin was scared. All of his strength and bravado had gone. He needed help. He looked around for Dawn but she'd gone, swallowed up by the faceless crowd. There must be someone who can help, he thought. With tears of sadness and humiliation running down his face he walked deeper into the gym. He reached the barrier he'd built and looked over the mass of chairs and equipment. In the darkness he could see what remained of his friends and teachers. Over his shoulder the mass of cadavers moved ever closer.

Skin climbed over the barrier and collided with the body of Miss Charles. He had to look twice before he was sure it was her. He began to talk to her. Wiping blood and tears from his face he began to apologise for what he'd done and how he'd behaved. Miss Charles wasn't listening. Along with the remaining seventeen bodies of his teachers and his friends, she lunged towards him and tore him apart.

Jackson watched from a nearby hillside as the school burned. It was a dry night. The fire must have spread quickly through the bodies outside and then to the buildings. Whatever the reason, the whole bloody place was up in flames now.

Good.

He lay still on the grass for a while, watching as the bodies all around him stumbled towards the bright light in the distance. When enough of them have disappeared, he thought, I'll go and get myself something to eat. DAY THIRTY-EIGHT

ANNIE NELSON

After I left the community centre I came back home. There didn't seem to be much point in doing anything else. I had nowhere else to go. That was weeks ago now. Just over four weeks I think but I'm not exactly sure. It's getting harder and harder to keep track of the days.

I never felt safe in that community centre. People used to talk about surviving, but no-one actually did anything about it. There were always people crying or arguing or fighting but no-one actually did anything constructive. When I first got there I thought we might all bond together and make a go of things like we used to if there was a crisis, but we didn't. Most people were too scared and upset to even try. You see, everyone had lost someone else. Everyone had their own problems that needed sorting out before they tried to help anyone else. For most people there didn't even seem to be any point in trying to pick up the pieces.

My friend Jessie (the lady I used to talk to at the centre) said that she couldn't ever see things getting any better. I kept telling her that they had to and that they would do eventually. No matter what hardships you have to get over, you always manage to do it in the end, don't you? It might be a long, hard struggle, but you'll always get there if you think positive and refuse to give up, won't you? I should know. My whole life's been a struggle, not that I'm complaining, mind. Poor old Jessie. I lost her when those things got into the building. She tried to get away with the others. Don't suppose I'll ever find out what happened to her.

There were a few people in that community centre who were like ticking bombs, just waiting to explode. It was only a matter of time before something happened there. I've never been as frightened as I was when the fights started and when the doors were opened. It was all I could do to keep out of the way. I curled myself up into a ball and lay still under a table as the room filled up with those horrible, dirty, stinking things from outside. I know that they used to be people and that I should be respectful but honestly, they were disgusting. They made me feel sick to the stomach. We all have to go someday, but I hope and pray that I don't go like that... I just want to go to sleep one night and then not wake up again. I looked out for Jessie when the building started filling up but she must have already gone. Most people were trying to get out through the back and she must have been dragged out with them. I hope she's all right.

I just kept my head down and waited for things to calm down again. I kept as still as I could and watched those creatures as they dragged themselves round and round the room. My old bones were killing me but I knew I couldn't move. I couldn't let them see me. It must have been the best part of a day later when I finally saw a gap in the crowds. I stood up, as quiet as I could, and crept out of the building. I did my best to stay out of sight but I never expected it to work. I'll never know how I managed to get past them.

It was good to get back home.

I let myself back in and suddenly everything felt better. I collected up all the food and drink I could find and then dragged the mattress out of the spare bedroom down to the cellar and that's where I've stayed since then. It's cold and dark and miserable down here but at least I'm home and at least I'm safe. I've got a torch and candles and matches for light and I've managed to find plenty to do to keep me occupied. I'll stay down here as long as I have to. I've got books to read and I can knit and sew if I want to. Shame there isn't any music. I miss the radio. I miss the voices. The radio used to keep me company. I know that I have to stay quiet. If I make too much noise those things will find out where I am. Sometime I can hear them moving around. Sometimes I can even hear them in the house.

Such a shame about all those people in the community centre. Such a waste. You don't have to make a noise and fight and scream all the time to survive. Look at me. I'm doing perfectly well down here on my own, thank you very much. I've lived through wars and terrorist attacks and flu epidemics and water shortages and much, much worse. I've been mugged twice and I got over that, didn't I? The problem with those people is that they didn't have enough experience of life. I'm eighty-four, and I've seen just about all there is to see.

The trouble with most people is that they want their problems sorted out today, not tomorrow. They've had it too easy with their computers and their mobile phones and the like. They expect someone to flick a switch and make all their problems disappear but that's not going to happen, is it? People just have to accept that this isn't going to get better overnight. It's going to take time. It's going to take patience. Be quiet and keep yourself to yourself and everything will be all right in the end.

It's very cold today. Must be the middle of October by now. Not sure what the exact date is. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I'm sure I used to have a little oil heater somewhere. Maybe I'll nip upstairs and try and find it later, if there aren't any of them about. It might be in the bedroom. I think that's where I last saw it. I need to do something though because it's going to get much colder yet. And the cold and damp won't do my cough any good. I hate it when I cough. When I cough it lets them know where I am. I don't want them to know where I am.

I keep thinking that someone's going to come. Someone will come for me eventually, won't they? They'll have a long list of who lives where and they'll tick them all off and realise that I'm missing. Someone from the government or the army will come and help us sort this bloody mess out.

I hope it's soon.

I'm doing less and less each day but I'm getting more and more tired. Everything's an effort. I've got to go out and get some food soon but I can't face it. I keep putting it off. I haven't got much left.

Keep your chin up. That's what I keep saying to myself. You've done all right so far, Annie.

I'll be all right.

I'll survive. DAY ONE HUNDRED AND

NINETEEN

UNDERGROUND

John Carlton is a twenty-four year old army mechanic who, for the last one hundred and nineteen days, has lived underground in a military bunker buried deep in the countryside. Trapped down there with him are another one hundred and sixteen soldiers, less than half the number of troops that originally manned the base. A pale shadow of the highly trained and once powerful fighting force they used to be, these men and woman are desperate and terrified. Backed into a corner, all order and control has now broken down. Supplies are running dangerously low. Time is running out.

For these men and women the bunker has become their tomb. They have no means of escape or salvation, and each one of them is painfully aware just how finely poised and delicate their precarious situation is. Their alternatives are all equally hopeless. It will not be long before their lack of equipment and supplies renders the base uninhabitable and yet they are unable to leave the bunker. The air outside is still filled with a vicious infection which will strike them down in seconds before causing their dead bodies to drag themselves back up again and walk the Earth relentlessly. Furthermore, the dead remains of the population on the surface have, over time, already gravitated towards the base, burying it under thousands of tonnes of rotting human flesh.

Inside the bunker the situation is deteriorating day by day. Law and order is now non-existent and every man and woman has to fend for themselves. Respect, rank and position are long-forgotten things of the past. Everyone is equal at the bottom of the pile, and everyone is a potential enemy. Self-preservation is all. The next breath of air that the person next to you takes or the precious mouthful of food or water they swallow means, ultimately, that there is now less for you.

Death is inevitable and is fast approaching. Whichever way these men and women turn they will die. And worst of all, each of them now knows that death no longer carries with it any certainty. The end of their natural lives may just be the beginning of something far, far worse.

John Carlton is painfully aware of what is happening around him. He has hidden in frightened isolation in one of the most inaccessible parts of the bunker for a considerable length of time. His home for the last two weeks has been a dark and narrow service tunnel. All he has with him are a pistol, a few rounds of ammunition, some meagre supplies and his standard issue protective suit. Sound is carried along the twisting maze of tunnels and throughout the bunker. Although he cannot easily tell which direction it is coming from, he knows that trouble is uncomfortably close. He also knows that the sounds he hears are the beginning of the end. Somewhere in the underground base fighting has broken out.

The supplies must have finally been exhausted. That's got to be it. That's got to be the reason for the sudden increase in the volume and number of shouts, screams and gunshots I'm hearing. It had to happen sooner or later. This base was only ever stocked for a stay of around seventy days and we're now more than forty days over that deadline. The fact that we lost so many men and women in the battle meant that we were able to make what supplies we did have last a little longer than expected. It sounds like time's quickly running out now.

The day of the battle was the moment I knew we had no hope here. I'd always suspected as much, but until then I'd done my best to remain positive and optimistic. It was the lack of information that unnerved me, the lack of any hard facts and clear instructions. I mean, I'd heard the stories about the people on the surface and the huge number of casualties and what might have caused all the deaths, but while we were safe down here and the doors remained shut none of it felt real. I half expected to finally go above ground and find that nothing had changed, that we'd been subject to some fucked-up military psychological experiment or something like that. It wouldn't be the first time. It's happened before, no reason why it couldn't happen again.

The day of the battle was the moment I realised all the nightmare rumours I'd heard were true, and that was when I began to prepare myself for death. No point in doing anything else, really. Unless something happens to make the surface safe and habitable again, we're all destined to die down here. The trick now is to drag things out as long as possible. Suicide isn't an option yet. I'll only do that if there is absolutely no chance of survival. If I can stay here until the fighting stops then I might be able to survive for a little longer. Who knows? I don't know anything anymore.

The fight had already been raging for several hours when my lot were ordered to suit up and get ready to go above ground. There was no tactical briefing, because there were no tactics. There was no battle-plan because no-one knew what it was we were going to face. We'd heard rumours of an enemy that numbered into the hundreds of thousands, but there were no hard facts or definite details to make plans around. We were told to go out there and just get rid of as many of them as we could. If it wasn't military, we were told, destroy it. We got ourselves suited up and ready to fight and we'd made it as far as the decontamination chambers when the retreat began.

I've never seen anything like it, and I pray to God that I never do again. I only managed to get the faintest of glimpses outside before the doors were closed, but it was like hell on earth out there. Our boys were trying to get back inside but it wasn't a controlled fall-back. Blokes were just running for their lives. And behind them... Christ, following them in was a wave of thousands of the fucking things. Huge staggering swarms of these bloody things that looked like corpses. They were decayed and slow and awkward but you could see that they knew what they were doing. I watched them ripping our men and women to shreds. Hundreds of them trampling our lot under their rotten feet and tearing at their suits and their skin. There was nothing they could do against the numbers they were facing. The commander gave the order to lock-down the base and all we could do was watch as the chambers were sealed. Fucking heartbreaking it was to see men and woman that I'd stood alongside and fought next to just left stuck out there. They'd have kept on fighting for as long as they could - I know they would - but the bodies must have got them in the end. Rumour has it there was so many of them that they couldn't close the main bunker doors. There was too much dead meat and abandoned equipment in the way for them to get the bloody doors closed.

I went back up to the decontamination chambers about a week later with a handful of others to do a check on some of the systems. We tried to look outside but it was dark and we couldn't see much. The hanger was still full of rotting flesh. The bodies were packed so tight against the doors that the bloody things couldn't even move.

All that happened sixty-five days ago now. Since then I've counted every hour and watched every long minute tick past. Hard to believe how much time has gone. Truth be told, it feels like I've been here ten times longer than that.

10:17 am.

Gunfire.

I just heard gunfire again. Part of me wants to try and find out what's happening but I don't dare move. Maybe when it quietens down again I'll try. I'll have to move sooner or later. I've run out of food. I don't want to but I'm going to have to move soon.

1:35 pm.

More fighting. More gunshots and more screams and shouts. Bloody hell, I wonder how many are left alive now? I can still hear screams in the distance. I keep imagining that I recognise the voices but it's probably just my mind playing tricks again. Maybe I should try and get closer now...

Carlton crawled slowly back down the low tunnel where he'd been hiding. His joints were stiff and aching. He tried to move quietly but, after many long days of inaction, his movements were frustratingly clumsy and uncoordinated. Matters weren't helped by the protective suit which he wore. He'd kept it on because it gave him an extra layer of warmth and, if he was honest, because he was too scared to take it off. What if whatever it was that had done the damage outside managed somehow to get into the base? He had to take a chance and leave the breathing apparatus off. It was too bulky and it slowed him down. He held his loaded pistol tightly in his hand. He wasn't going anywhere without protection.

The service tunnel led round into a second tunnel which was slightly wider and taller than the first. That tunnel, in turn, eventually connected with a corridor which led back deep into the heart of the base. He'd see how far he could get.

The lighting around him was virtually non-existent - a dull yellow glow from intermittent emergency lamps, that was all - but it was enough. The darkness was helpful. He'd didn't want to be seen.

Carlton paused for a moment to try and get his bearings. The bunker was a large, sprawling construction which seemed to meander aimlessly underground in every direction. Long, empty tunnels connected storerooms, mess halls and dormitories which were a surprising distance apart. If he was where he thought he was, the next door on his left would be the entrance to the kitchens. He crept further along the corridor, pressed tight against the wall, and then stopped when he reached the door. It was half-open. He peered cautiously inside and then gently shoved the door a little further open. No response. There didn't seem to be anyone in there. Carlton slowly eased himself into the room.

It was slightly brighter inside the kitchens than it had been out in the corridor, and the relative brightness hurt his eyes after days of hiding in the darkness of the service tunnel. It was immediately obvious (and not at all surprising) that the whole area had been ransacked and cleared out. The cupboards and storage areas - those that he could see from where he was standing - were stripped empty. The large refrigeration unit in the corner was also open and its shelves too were bare.

Carlton was about to leave the kitchen when he stopped. Something in the rubbish under his feet had caught his eye. He bent down and pushed a pile of plastic food trays out of the way. It was a lifeless hand, reaching up for help through the garbage. Working quickly but quietly he cleared pots, pans and other rubbish away from the immediate area around where he was standing. He gradually uncovered the body of Lynn Price. Price had been the officer in charge of the kitchens. The poor bitch had a bread knife buried deep in her right kidney. Huge amounts of blood had spilled out over the kitchen floor underneath the layers of rubbish. In places it was still tacky but most of it was dry. She'd obviously been dead for several days.

Nerves threatened to get the better of Carlton. Did he continue to push further into the base, or did he turn back now and scuttle away to the relatively safety of his dark tunnel hideout again? Hiding was by far the easier option, but he knew it wouldn't have done him any good in the long run. If he didn't find food and water soon he'd be in serious trouble. He was already beginning to dehydrate. Christ, what he would have given for just a single drink of clear, ice-cold fresh water. The fact that he was standing in the middle of a kitchen, surrounded by pots and pans and discarded cutlery and crockery only made him feel worse. He pressed on.

The kitchen was connected to the main mess hall. Carlton climbed through a wide serving hatch and took a few steps into the deserted hall. It was in just as bad a condition as the kitchen. It looked like there had been a riot. Furniture had been upturned and he could see the bodies of at least four more ex-colleagues buried in the mayhem. He was about to check the vending machines in the corner (which were obviously empty but which were still teasingly illuminated) when the sound of another hail of bullets stopped him in his tracks. That was close. That was too close. A moment of silence and then the sound of heavy footsteps thundering past the entrance to the mess hall. From his position he saw three or four unidentifiable figures rush past the door and carry on down the corridor. He waited for a moment before sticking his head out into the corridor and peering after them.

'Carlton...' a voice hissed from out of nowhere. Carlton's heart skipped a beat and his legs weakened with nerves as he looked for the owner of the voice. He spotted a frightened face hiding in a doorway opposite. Who was it? It was difficult to see but he was too afraid to get any closer. He stared again. Was it Daniel Wright?

'Wright? Wright, is that you...?'

The figure on the other side of the corridor slowly stood up straight and then looked left and right before crossing over into the mess hall. Wright pushed Carlton further back into the shadows.

'Where the hell have you been?' he asked, his voice hushed and secretive. 'Haven't seen you for weeks.'

'Been hiding,' Carlton replied.

'Sensible. Best bloody thing to do around here.' 'What about you?'

'I was with a few others. Got themselves into a scrap and I took the chance to duck out and get away.'

'What's happening?'

'We're waiting to die, didn't you know?' Wright replied, his voice drained of all emotion. 'Place is falling apart. Fucking people are falling apart. Half the people left down here are already dead, and most of them killed themselves.'

Carlton was silent for a moment as he took in Wright's words. None of it had come as a surprise.

'So what are you going to do now?'

The other solider shrugged his shoulders.

'No bloody idea,' he admitted. 'Not a lot I can do really, is there?'

Carlton didn't answer.

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