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Jessica Lindt died three days short of her thirty-second birthday. That was almost a month ago. Since then she’d spent every second of every day wandering aimlessly, often drifting in herds with other corpses, occasionally gravitating toward the few remaining signs of life in this otherwise dead void of a world. Jessica had no idea who or what she was any longer: she simply existed. She responded to the infrequent movement and noise around her, but didn’t know why or how. And yet, somehow, she occasionally remembered. In her dull, decaying brain, she sometimes saw things. They were just fleeting recollections, clung on to for the briefest of moments at a time, gone before she’d even realized they were there. Split-second memories of who she used to be.
Her body, of course, had changed beyond all recognition, bulging in places where gravity had dragged her putrefying innards down, becoming brittle and dry elsewhere. Still dressed in what was left of the Lycra running gear she’d died wearing, her feet were badly swollen and her lumpy, bruised ankles were now almost elephantine in appearance. Her distended gut sagged, inflated by the gases produced by decay and a substantial insect infestation. Her mottled skin had split several inches below her drooping right breast, allowing all manner of semi-coagulated yellow and brown gunk to escape.
Jessica’s unblinking eyes were dry and unfocused, but they saw enough. The movement of the lone survivor standing in the house up ahead of her was sufficient to attract her limited attention. Suddenly moving with more speed and something almost beginning to resemble a purpose, she lumbered toward the small, terrace cottage, then smacked into the window with force and collapsed backward, ending up on her backside in the gutter. She’d been down less than a couple of seconds before others attacked her, attracted by the noise and assuming she was somehow different to them. They tore what remained of Jessica Lindt apart, and soon all that was left of her was an imprint on the glass, a few lumps of greasy flesh and a wide puddle of gore which the others clumsily staggered through.
* * *
The survivor stood on the other side of the window and waited for the brief burst of chaos outside to die down again. His name was Alan Jackson, and his faith in human nature was all but exhausted—not that there were any more than a handful of other humans left alive. He’d been standing in the shadow-filled living room of this otherwise empty house for what felt like hours, staring out at the sprawling crowd of several thousand corpses which stretched out in front of him forever, wondering how the hell he was going to get through them and out the other side. He could see his intended destination in the far distance, his view of the ancient castle distorted by the tens of thousands of swarming flies which buzzed through the air above innumerable rotting heads like a heat haze. He hoped to God—not that he’d believed in God for as long as he could remember, certainly not since the beginning of September—that this was going to be worth the risk.
In the three and a half weeks since the population of the country—most likely the entire planet—had been slashed to less than one percent of its original level, Jackson had thought he’d seen it all. From the moment the rest of the world had simply dropped dead all around him, right up to now, his life had been a ceaseless tumult of death and decay. It was everywhere. It surrounded him constantly, whatever he did and whichever way he turned. It was inescapable. And he was fucking sick of it.
Another one of the bodies staggered past the window, a twitching, dried-up stump where its right arm used to be. Christ, how he hated these damn things. He’d watched them change virtually day by day; gradually regaining a degree of self-control and transforming from lethargic hulks of impossibly animated flesh and bone to the vicious creatures they had become. He didn’t dare think about the future, because he knew that if the pattern continued—and he’d no reason to think it wouldn’t—they’d be even more dangerous tomorrow. He tried to remain focused on the fact that if they continued to deteriorate as they had been, in another few months they’d have probably rotted down to nothing. Jackson was no fool. He knew things would undoubtedly get much worse before they got any better.
Standing alone in this little house, a fragile oasis of normality buried deep in the midst of the madness, it occurred to Jackson that even though he’d outlasted just about everyone else, his life was still little more than a fleeting moment in the overall scheme of things. Mankind had crashed and burned in a day, and he probably wouldn’t last that much longer, and yet it would take decades, maybe even hundreds of years before all trace of the human race would be gone forever. His skin and bones would be dust blown on the wind long before the streets he’d walked along to get here today were fully reclaimed by nature.
It made him feel so fucking insignificant.
All the effort he’d put into his life before the apocalypse had counted for nothing. And the worst part? It wouldn’t have mattered a damn if he’d tried ten times as hard or if he’d not bothered at all. Everything that had happened was completely out of his control. A man makes his own chances, Jackson’s old dad used to say when things weren’t going well.
Yeah, right. Thanks a lot, Dad. No amount of handed-down wisdom and bullshit is going to help me get past those bodies out there today.
Jackson was dawdling, and it wasn’t like him. His reluctance to move only served to increase his unease. It was because the way ahead was no longer clear. Up until recently he’d had a definite plan: to keep walking north until he reached those parts of the country where there had been fewer people originally, and where the effects of the disaster might not have been so severe. When it became apparent that things were far worse than he’d thought and the true scale of the chaos had been revealed, he’d been forced to reassess his priorities. His original aim had been too ambitious, and he decided instead just to head for the nearest stretch of coastline. Having the ocean on one side would make his position easier to defend, he thought, and also, when he looked out to sea it would be easier to believe that the rest of the world wasn’t such a ruin.
Three days ago, Jackson had had another change of heart.
It began after a chance encounter with another survivor. The kid had been the first person he’d found alive in several days. He was an archetypal angry teen, all long hair, leather and denim, piercings and a patchwork of bad tattoos he’d inevitably end up regretting if he lived long enough. Adrenaline, fear and untold levels of pent-up sexual frustration surged through the kid’s veins, and a cocktail of drink and drugs had clearly added to his volatility. Jackson had found him in the gymnasium of what he presumed was the school the kid had previously attended, rounding up corpses in an improvised corral. The sick fucker clearly had some deep-rooted issues, and had been trying to settle a vendetta or ten with some old and very dead friends. He’d been flagellating the bodies he’d captured, mutilating them beyond recognition as if he had a serious point to make. Sick bastard.
After a halfhearted attempt to try and deal with him, Jackson had left the kid to fester, deciding there was nothing to be gained from trying to reason with the clearly unreasonable, and knowing that neither of them would gain anything from being with the other. To him, the unpredictable kid presented an unnecessary risk, and to the kid, Jackson was just another authority figure to despise and kick back against. As he’d walked away from the school, Jackson had wondered if useless, broken people like the kid were all that was left. That night, the enormity of what had happened to the rest of the world weighed heavier on his shoulders than ever before, heavier even than the backpack full of survival equipment he’d been lugging around since the first day.
The encounter with the kid had made him stop and think, and after that he’d begun to realize the futility of walking endlessly. With the dead becoming increasingly animated, just being out in the open felt like it was becoming more dangerous by the hour, and Jackson knew it was time now to stop and think again. It wasn’t as if he had anyone else to worry about but himself. There had been someone who’d mattered once, but she was long gone and best forgotten. He didn’t want anyone else now, didn’t need them in the same way they needed him. He’d come across several groups of survivors before the kid in the gym, and they’d all, without exception, asked him to stay with them. We should stick together, they’d inevitably say to him, we could do with having someone like you around. And that was the problem: they needed him, never the other way around. He’d realized he didn’t actually need anyone. More to the point, having other people around seemed to actually make things more dangerous. All it needed was for one person to panic and make a mistake, and untold numbers of dead bodies would be swarming around them in seconds.
Another surge of movement outside the unimposing little house made Jackson focus again. Up ahead on the other side of the road, one corpse had attempted to fight its way deeper into the vast crowd. All around it, others reacted to the unexpected movement. They tore into each other, vicious fingers stripping decaying flesh from bone, creating a sudden firestorm of sickening violence. And as the first few reacted and began to fight, so did more and more of them until huge numbers of the damn things were scrapping vehemently over nothing. As the bizarre swell of activity gradually petered out, Jackson wondered whether he’d actually been running away from the rest of the world, or at the very least trying to hide from it.
Yesterday morning he’d stopped at a prison. His first instinct had been to avoid it, but common sense said he should stop and investigate. You have to think about things differently these days, he told himself as he cut his way in through a no-longer-electrified chain-link fence. After all, places like this were designed to keep people away from each other, and that’s what I want.
The prison proved to be a damn good place to shelter for a while. The kitchens were well stocked to cope with feeding hundreds of hungry inmates, and the vast majority of the dead prison population remained conveniently incarcerated in their cells. Jackson spent a couple of hours walking along numerous empty landings which all looked the same, swigging from a bottle of wine as lifeless prisoners threw themselves against the bars on either side of him, straining their arms to try and reach him. It had been like visiting a zoo and intentionally goading the animals.
He broke out onto a section of flat roof where he sat cross-legged and watched the sun sink as another day ended. Unperturbed by the cold, he lay back and looked up into a dark sky filled with more stars than he could ever remember seeing before, their individual brightness intensified by the lack of any ambient light down at ground level. And yet again, his personal insignificance became painfully apparent. He felt like a piece of gum that had been spat out on a pavement, like the last chunk of meat and dribble of jelly in a discarded tin of dog food. He might have mattered once, but not anymore.
Half drunk and completely depressed, Jackson had slept intermittently. It was when the sun had finally started to rise on yet another day, that he looked up and saw the castle.
* * *
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but Cheetham Castle (as it had been signposted for miles around) was surrounded by vast numbers of the dead, many more than he’d expected to find. He could see the gray stone tower of the castle gatehouse through the living room window, towering proudly above the heads of the writhing crowd, still visible in spite of the smog-like swarms of insects. He’d checked out the full scale of the crowd from an upstairs window earlier, and the size of the humongous gathering both terrified and intrigued him. Whenever the dead amassed anywhere in these kinds of numbers, he’d long since discovered, there was always a reason. He hadn’t wasted much time trying to work out what that reason was, primarily because it was impossible to do anything but guess from this distance, and also because the castle looked like an ideal place to spend the next few days while he worked out what the hell it was he was going to do with what was left of his life.
From upstairs he’d seen that the castle was between half a mile and a mile away from this row of houses. Between here and there was a road, a gravel car park—and several acres of grassland which contained several thousand corpses. Interestingly, they had all stopped short of the building’s walls, prevented from getting any closer, he presumed, by the steady slope of the large hill upon which the castle had been built. It was simply too steep for their weak legs to climb.
The castle walls themselves appeared relatively strong from a distance. It was difficult to gauge their height from the house, but they looked to be reassuringly unscalable. For a while, though, Jackson had given serious consideration to trying to improvise a grappling hook and rope so he could drag himself up and over like some bizarre Robin Hood pastiche. As it was, his best option would clearly be the gatehouse, over to the far right of the castle from where he was currently standing. Judging from the numerous signposts he’d seen on his way here, this place had probably been a reasonably popular tourist attraction up until a month ago. The castle owners would surely have done everything in their power to make it easy for the public to get inside and part with their hard-earned cash. At the very least, getting to the castle would afford him a little much-needed breathing space before moving on again. The steep climb gave him an obvious advantage over the dead, and the view from the top of the rise would no doubt be spectacular.
Jackson packed up his few belongings, finished eating the last of a packet of cereal bars he’d found in the kitchen, and readied himself to fight.
* * *
He stepped out into the open and pressed himself back against the wall of the cottage. The cool air outside stank, and he was acutely aware that every move he made seemed disproportionately loud. Every footstep thundered, and his every breath seemed to echo endlessly. He remained frozen to the spot as he assessed his limited options, moving only his eyes as he scanned the wall of dead flesh up ahead of him, virtually all of the corpses now standing with their backs to him. It made sense (as much as any of this made sense) to try and work his way around closer to the gatehouse and look for a place where the crowds were thinner. Whether he’d find such a place or not was academic; whatever he did and wherever he did it, his success today boiled down to being able to charge his way through the decay and come out the other side.
He began to shuffle slowly along the lane, mimicking the slothful movements of the dead and trying to blend in with those which, even now, were still dragging themselves closer to the castle and joining the back of the pack. One of them sprung out at him from a hitherto unseen gap between two buildings. Whether it was an intentional attack or an unfortunate coincidence, it didn’t matter. It took him by surprise and he swung it around and slammed it against the wall he’d been following, then clubbed its brains out with a short length of heavy metal tubing he’d taken to carrying with him as a bludgeon. He dropped what was left of the bloody corpse in the gutter, then looked up as another one began moving toward him, alerted by the noise of his violent attack. This creature had a badly damaged right leg, and its unsteady gait made its approach appear more aggressive than it actually was. Jackson angrily shoved it away—reacting before he’d fully thought things through—and it clattered back against a wheelie bin which thudded into several others. The noise echoed through the air.
He knew before he looked around again that he was in trouble. Many of them had noticed him now, and their reactions had, by turn, attracted even more. He might as well have fired a starting pistol into the air because, up ahead and behind and all around him, huge numbers of the dead were reacting to his presence. They began to peel away from the edge of the immense crowd like a layer of dead skin, and he knew he had to move fast. Fortunately, several of the pitiful monsters lost their footing in the confusion and were trampled by their desperate brethren. He glanced up at the castle in the distance, visible intermittently through the crisscrossing chaos. Could he still make it? It had been a while since he’d taken a chance like this. Christ, he hoped so.
Jackson swung his heavy rucksack off his shoulders, using it to smack the closest few corpses out of the way as he did so. He ran, kicking out as a foul, bald-headed creature with a hole eaten through its face where its nose used to be lifted its arm and lashed at him. He jumped up onto the bonnet of a Vauxhall Astra—his sudden change of direction causing temporary mass confusion—then climbed up onto its roof. He stashed his metal pipe, then opened one of the backpack’s side pockets and dug deep inside, finding what he needed almost immediately. As more of the dead tried to grab at him with hands drawn into spiteful claws by decay, he took out a packet of fireworks wrapped in a clear plastic bag. Ignoring the creatures as best he could, and occasionally stamping on fingers which got too close, he unwrapped a rocket and fumbled in his trouser pocket for his lighter. Distracted trying to light the blue touch paper, he didn’t notice when one of the bodies managed somehow to grab ahold of the bottom of his right trouser leg. The crowd around the car surged unexpectedly as more of the dead arrived, and the body holding onto Jackson was pushed back. When it appeared to tug at him, he tried to pull away and overcompensated. The heel of his boot slipped down onto the curved surface of the windscreen and he lost his balance, crashing down onto his backside and leaving a deep dent in the hood. He screamed out in pain—the noise attracting yet another sudden surge of dead flesh—and almost dropped the rocket he was trying to light. He spat in the face of another wretched carcase (because he didn’t have hands free to do anything else) then scrambled up onto the roof, straightening his legs and sliding his backside up the glass. The touch paper caught suddenly. Jackson ignored the intense heat and the shower of sparks spitting out over his hand, and aimed the rocket down into the center of a pocket of seething corpses a safe distance away. The firework whooshed away before coming to a sudden stop, embedded in the chest of a dead car mechanic who reeled back on its heels and looked down at the jet of flames sticking out of its belly—just before the rocket exploded.
The noise and flames had exactly the effect Jackson had hoped. Almost immediately the focus of attention shifted away from him and toward the mechanic, who was still staggering around despite the fact he was burning up. Jackson lit a second rocket and aimed it up into the air. The piercing scream it let out as it raced up toward the gray clouds was enough to distract an enormous number of corpses, and as they lifted their tired heads skyward he jumped down from the car and ran for all he was worth. He crossed the road and the gravel car park, then tripped over what was left of a barbed-wire fence which lay flat on the ground, already trampled down by the crowds. He lit a third rocket as he picked himself up, and shoved it into the gut of something which looked like the kind of kid he’d have done his level best to avoid. It looked down at itself, bewildered, jets of blue and green flame suddenly spitting out through various holes in its chest. Stupid thing still had a baseball cap on, glued to its head by a month’s worth of dry decay. And it was the wrong way around, peak at the back. Jackson bloody hated it when they wore their caps back-to-front like that.
As the corpse exploded behind him, he dropped his shoulder and charged deeper into the heaving throng. Many of them were now trying to move away from the castle, heading back in his direction to get closer to the flames. He felt like a derailed bullet train, smashing bodies away on either side, not entirely sure where the hell he was going or where he was going to stop. He just kept moving, knowing that every step took him closer to the castle in the distance.
Deeper into the dead hordes now, and here they had no idea he was close until he made contact. Some were still trying to fight their way toward the fireworks, but most were looking the other way, facing the castle. He simply pushed them aside and clambered over them when they fell. And then, unexpectedly, the ground dropped away in front of him. Within a few steps he found himself suddenly having to wade through a mass of tangled, fallen bodies rather than running between and around those still standing. A few steps more and he was knee deep in churned remains. He looked back and saw that he’d stumbled into a wide ditch—the overgrown remnants of an ancient moat, perhaps. It was filled with bodies, trodden down and compacted into a repugnant gloop beneath his boots. Despite being trapped, some of them tried to keep moving, and Jackson ducked as a dripping, virtually fleshless hand swung past his face, sharp, bony fingertips just missing the end of his nose by millimetres. He was struggling to keep moving, the decay sucking him down, and then the reason for its depth became clear. The deep furrow here had acted like a valve: the dead had been able to get in easy enough, but none of them could get out again.
Jackson kept moving and eventually found himself on level ground again. The corpses on this side of the ditch were fewer in number. Despite being soaked through with gore and desperately needing to stop and catch his breath, he kept on running, sidestepping one cadaver which came at him, then handing off the next as if he was a rugby player weaving around the opposition to score a try under the posts. And then he realized he was finally beginning to climb, and he looked ahead and saw the castle looming, the imposing wall of old stone stretching up toward the rapidly darkening sky. His thighs burned with the effort but he kept on pushing until he passed the last of the bodies, then slowed as the ground became steeper and exhaustion got the better of him. He moved at walking pace now, struggling to keep climbing. He looked back over his shoulder at the crowds gathered at the bottom of the incline and on the other side of the trench, waiting impatiently to pounce should he slip and fall.
Once he’d reached the castle walls, Jackson followed a roughly meter-wide pathway around the edge of the decrepit fortress toward the front entrance, but it was obvious there was no chance of him getting inside that way. As well as the fact that the huge wooden gate was shut, there were more bodies here, all crammed onto a narrow wooden bridge. He pressed himself back against the stonework and looked down toward the house he’d been sheltering in, trying to assess the situation. A gently curving track wound its way up here from the car park below, and its relatively smooth surface and steady incline had enabled a stream of bodies to make the climb. Over time the main gate had become blocked by an impassable, clogged mass of rotting flesh. Jackson shuffled back the other way, only moderately concerned. Despite the inconvenience of still not having found a way into the castle, he realized it was also a good thing. If I’m having trouble getting in, he thought, then the dead have no chance.
He’d worked his way back around half the perimeter of the immense ruin, looking for another entrance or a place where the wall was lower, when he stopped to look down at an engraved brass tourist map set into stone. Obviously a popular viewpoint, as well as affording him a clear view for miles around, it also gave him a clear appreciation of the true size of the vast crowd waiting for him at the foot of the hill. Thousands of blank faces looked in his direction, an almost incalculable number of them stretching away to the right and left, wrapping around the base of the hill and sealing the castle off.
The brass map had accumulated a light layer of filth which Jackson wiped away with his sleeve. He tried to make out some of the local features it had been designed to highlight: the port of Chadwick some thirty miles east (he was closer to the coast than he’d realized), the smaller town of Halecroft to the south. A reservoir, the ruins of an abbey, a wealth of other beauty spots and landmarks—none were of any obvious use to him. He was on the verge of giving up for the day, wondering if he should just finish walking around the castle then find enough level ground up here to pitch his tent for the night before moving on in the morning, when something caught his eye. Another entrance. A secret entrance? This was the stuff of bullshit and legend, but it appeared to be real: a smaller, far less obvious way into the castle through a passage carved into the hillside. There was a brief explanation of sorts on the map—something about smugglers getting in and tyrants getting out in times past—but none of it mattered. He orientated himself, worked out roughly where the hidden entrance was, then headed straight for it.
* * *
A padlocked gate, a cage of green-painted iron railings set into the hillside, and an unexpected gaggle of more than a hundred corpses were all that stood between Jackson and the entrance to the tunnel. He stood several meters above the dead and composed himself, watching as several of them tried unsuccessfully to scramble up the wet grass to reach him. Hands shaking with nerves, he lit his last firework and aimed it at the back of the ragged gathering. It shot away from him, and before it had even hit the bodies, he was sprinting directly at them. The rocket exploded and they turned and moved toward the light and noise en masse, giving him a few seconds of space to fight his way through to the gate, metal cutters held ready. With the dead already turning back and beginning to grab at him, he struggled to get through. The padlock clasp was too thick and too strong, but he managed to cut through a link in the chain it secured. Knowing that the firework had burned out and he had again become the sole focus of attention, he wrapped one end of the chain around his hand several times, then began swinging it around wildly like a whip. Its effects were remarkable, slicing through rotting flesh whenever it made contact. With the arc of the chain providing him with an unexpectedly large bubble of empty space, Jackson threw the gate open and disappeared down into the tunnel. The dead followed, but they were no match for his speed. He started back to shut the gate, but there were already too many of them pouring through after him.
The pitch-black and close confines of the damp tunnel walls combined to make him feel uncomfortably claustrophobic, but he had no option other than to keep moving. He ran with arms outstretched, climbing upward and bracing himself, knowing that at any second he might reach a dead end. Christ, he realized, far too late to be able to do anything about it, this bloody tunnel might not even go anywhere. The passage was several hundred years old at least—it could have collapsed, been shut for safety reasons, been rerouted back outside to the bottom of the hill … And all the time he could hear the dead behind him, chasing him down with an almost arrogant lack of speed and absolutely no fear whatsoever.
The lighter. He dug his hand into his pocket and felt for the reassuring metal outline of his lighter. He was running low on fluid, but what the hell. He flicked it on and the unsteady yellow light illuminated the rough carved sides of the passageway immediately around him. Moving with increased speed now that he could see something, he burst into a large, low-ceilinged chamber with various displays mounted on the uneven walls. Something about smugglers, gruesome pictures of starving prisoners … it looked like this had been some kind of dungeon. That’d be about right, he thought as the lighter began to burn his fingers. He swapped hands—not that that made much difference—and desperately searched for another way out. Another short sloping passageway now, leading away at about ten o’clock from where he’d entered the dungeon, then another large open space beyond. He let the flame go out again, conserving lighter fluid as he ran across the width of this second space. He slowed down to walking pace again and felt for the wall with outstretched hands, increasingly aware of the sounds of the clumsy dead following close behind, their shuffling, scrambling noises amplified by their confines. His fingertips made contact with cold stone and he worked his way around to the left until he reached another doorway cut into the rock. He carried on along yet another tunnel, feeling his way forward with his left hand, trying to flick the lighter into life again with the right, the dead sounding closer than ever now. The lighter flame caught, and Jackson saw there was a wooden door directly ahead. It looked relatively modern, and reassuringly solid, and yet he felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to prick up and stand on end. If I can’t get through, he realized, the sounds of the dead continuing to increase in volume, then I’m fucked.
He hit the door at speed, slamming his hand down on the latch, and it opened immediately. He fell into another space as it swung shut behind him. Up ahead was a body hanging from the wall, its arms shackled, and he screamed out in fright before realizing it was a plastic dummy, dressed in rags and strung up for effect. He stumbled back with surprise and tripped over his own feet, hitting the deck hard and dropping his lighter, which he heard skittle across the floor. The sudden pitch black was suffocating, all consuming. He crawled slowly forward, running his hands along the ground from side to side, desperate to feel the warm metal of the lighter. He found boxes and packaging and what felt like the plastic feet of another executed dummy, but no lighter. He kept crawling until his head hit wall. He yelped with pain and rocked back. In the distance he thought he could hear the dead advancing with renewed speed now, almost as if they were feeding off his pain.
Head throbbing, Jackson felt along the wall until he found the edge of a door. Was it the same one he’d come through or a different one? Had he somehow turned a full circle in the darkness, and if he went through this door, would he be running headfirst toward the dead? He stood up and tried the handle but it wouldn’t open. He shook it, pulled at it, then shoulder-charged it. It gave way and he flew through, landing on his hands and knees in the middle of a small shop. There were shutters down over most of the windows, but he could see enough. Exit through the gift shop, he thought as he picked himself up, then shut the door and blocked it. He jogged down to the other end of the cluttered room, weaving around displays of key rings, mugs, stuffed toys and other equally useless things, then shoved another door open and burst out into daylight.
He was standing on the farthest edge of a large courtyard inside the castle walls, looking down the business end of a rifle barrel.
“Nice fireworks,” the man aiming at him said. “Now who the fuck are you?”
“I’m Alan Jackson,” he answered, breathless, “and I’ve had a hell of a day. Mind if I come in?”
Copyright © 2012 by David Moody