Chapter 2

Michael Collins

So there I was, standing at the front of a class of thirty-three sixteen year olds, tongue-tied and terrified. The boss had volunteered me for one of those 'Industry into Schools' days. One of those days where instead of sitting listening to their teacher drone on for hours, children were made to listen to sacrificial lambs like me telling them how wonderful the job they really despised was. I hated it. I hated speaking in public. I hated compromising myself and not being honest. I hated knowing that if I didn't do this and I didn't do it well, my end of month bonus would be reduced. My boss believed that his middle-managers were the figureheads of his company. In reality we were just there for him to hide behind.

My talk didn't last long.

I'd made some notes which I held in front of me like a shield. I felt quite calm inside, but the way that the end of my papers shook seemed to give the class the impression that I was paralysed with nerves. The sadistic sixteen year olds quickly seized on my apparent weakness. When I coughed and tripped on a word I was history.

'The work we do at Caradine Computers is extremely varied and interesting,' I began, lying through my teeth. 'We're responsible for...'

'Sir,' a lad said from the middle of the room. He was waving his hand in the air.

'What?'

'Why don't you just give up now,' he sighed. 'We're not interested.'

That stopped me dead. I'd never have dared speak out like that at school. I looked to the teacher at the back of the class for support but as soon as we'd made eye contact she turned to look out of the window.

'As I was saying,' I continued, 'we look after a wide range of clients, from small one-man firms to multinational corporations. We advise them on the software to use, the systems to buy and...'

Another interruption, this time more physical. A fight was breaking out in the corner of the room. One boy had another in a headlock.

'James Clyde,' the teacher yelled across the classroom, 'cut it out. Anyone would think you didn't want to listen to Mr Collins.'

As if the behaviour of the students wasn't bad enough, now even the teacher was being sarcastic. I didn't know whether she'd meant her words to sound that way, but that was definitely how the rest of the class had taken them. Suddenly there was stifled laughter coming from all sides, hidden by hands over mouths and pierced by the occasional splutter from those who couldn't keep their hilarity in check. Within seconds the whole room was out of control.

I was about to give up and walk out when it happened. A girl in the far right corner of the room was coughing. Far more than any ordinary splutter, this was a foul, rasping and hacking scream of a cough which sounded as if it was tearing the very insides of her throat apart with each painful convulsion. I took a few steps towards the girl and then stopped. Other than her painful choking the rest of the room had become silent. I watched as her head dropped down and thick sticky strings of blood and spit dripped and trailed into her cupped hands and over her desk. For a second she looked up at me with huge terrified eyes. She couldn't breath. She was suffocating.

I looked towards the teacher again. This time she stared straight back at me, fear and confusion written clearly across her face.

On the other side of the room a boy began to cough. He too was suddenly gripped with unexpected terror and excruciating pain. He too could no longer breathe.

A girl just behind and to the right of me began to cry and then to cough. The teacher tried to stand up and walk towards me but then stopped as she also began to cough and splutter. Within no more than a minute of the first girl's agony beginning, every single person in the room was tearing at their throats and fighting to breathe. Every single person, that was, except me.

I didn't know what to do or where to go to get help. Numb with shock, I staggered back towards the classroom door. I stumbled and tripped over a school bag and grabbed hold of the nearest desk to steady myself. A girl's hand slammed down on mine. I stared into her face. She was deathly white save for a crimson trickle of blood which spilled down her chin and onto the books on her desk. Her head kept lurching back on her shoulders as she tried desperately to breathe in precious molecules of oxygen. Each uncontrolled spasm of her body forced much more air out of her lungs than was allowed in.

I wrenched my hand away and threw the door open. The noise inside the room was appalling. A deafening, echoing cacophony of desperate cries which pierced right through me, but even out in the hallway there was no escape. The pitiful noises which came from my classroom were only a small fraction of the screaming confusion which rang through the entire school. From places as remote as assembly halls, gymnasiums, workshops, kitchens and offices, the cold morning air was filled with the terrified screams of hundreds of desperate children and adults, all of them suffocating and choking to death.

By the time I'd reached the end of the corridor it was over. The school was silent.

I instinctively walked down the stairs towards the main entrance doors. Sprawled on the ground at the foot of the staircase was the body of a boy. He must have been only eleven or twelve. I crouched down next to him and cautiously reached out to touch him. I pulled my hand away as soon as it made contact with his dead flesh. It felt cold, clammy and unnatural, almost like wet leather. Forcing myself to try and take control of my fear and disgust, I pushed his shoulder and rolled him over onto his back. Like the others I had seen his face was ghostly white and was smeared with blood and spittle. I leant down as close as I dare and put my ear next to his mouth. I held my breath and waited to hear even the slightest sounds of breathing. I wished that the suddenly silent world would become quieter still so that I could hear something. It was hopeless. There was nothing.

I walked out into the cool September sunlight and crossed the empty playground. Just one glance at the devastated scene outside the school gates was enough for me to realise that whatever it was that had happened inside the building had happened outside too. Random bodies littered the streets for as far as I could see.

In seven hours since it happened I've seen no-one else.

My house is cold and secure but it doesn't feel safe. I can't stay there. I have to keep looking. I can't be the only one left.

The phones aren't working.

There's no electricity.

There's nothing but static on the radio.

I've never been so fucking frightened.

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