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For most of the last forty-eight hours, Donna Yorke had hidden under a desk in a corner of the office where she’d worked since the summer. On Tuesday morning, without any warning, her familiar surroundings had become alien, nightmarish, and cold. On Tuesday morning she had watched the world around her die.
Along with the rest of her colleagues, Donna worked an early shift one week in four. This week it had been her turn to get in first and open the post, switch on the computers, and perform various other simple tasks so that the rest of her team could start processing as soon as they arrived at their desks at nine. She was glad it had happened so early in the day. As it was she’d only had to watch four of her friends die. If it had happened just half an hour later she’d have had to watch the other sixty-or-so people in the office suffer the same sudden and inexplicable suffocating death. None of what had happened made any sense. Cold and alone, she was too terrified to even start trying to look for answers.
From her ninth-floor vantage point she had watched the destruction wash across the world outside like an invisible tidal wave. Being so high above the city she hadn’t heard anything, and the first sign that anything was wrong had been a bright explosion in the near distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile away. She’d watched with morbid fascination and genuine concern as a plume of billowing fire and dense black smoke had spewed up into the air from the gutted remains of a burning petrol station. The cars on the road nearby were scattered and smashed. Something huge had clearly plowed through the traffic, crossed the dual carriageway, and crashed into the pumps, immediately igniting the fuel stores. Had it been an out of control truck or tanker perhaps?
But that had just been the beginning, and the horror and devastation which followed had been relentless and on an unimaginable scale. All across the heavily industrialized east side of the city she saw people falling to the ground. She could see them writhing and squirming, then dying. And more vehicles were stopping too—many crashing into each other and blocking the roads, others just slowing to a gradual halt as if they’d run out of fuel. Donna watched as the chaos moved nearer. Like a shock wave it traveled quickly across the city below her, rolling relentlessly toward her building. With fear making her legs feel heavy with nerves, she stumbled back and looked around for someone who could offer explanations and reassurance. One of her colleagues, Joan Alderney, had just arrived to start work but by the time Donna found her she was on her hands and knees, fighting for breath. Joan looked up at her with huge, desperate eyes and her body shook with furious convulsions as she fought to draw in one last precious breath. Her face quickly drained to an ashen, oxygen-starved blue-gray but her lips remained crimson red, stained by blood from numerous swellings and sores which had erupted in her throat.
As Joan lay dying on the ground next to her, Donna was distracted by the sound of Neil Peters, one of the junior managers, collapsing across his desk, showering his paperwork with spittle and blood as he retched and choked and fought for air. Jo Foster—one of her closest friends at work—was the next to be infected as she walked into the office. Donna watched helplessly as Jo clawed at her neck, then mouthed a hoarse and virtually silent scream of pain and fear before falling, dead before she’d even hit the floor. Finally Trudy Phillips, the last member of this week’s early shift, panicked and began to stumble and run toward Donna as the searing, burning pain in her throat increased. She had only moved a few meters forward before she lost consciousness and fell, catching a cable with her foot and dragging a computer monitor off a desk. It crashed to the ground, just inches from her face. Once the sound had faded and Trudy had died, the world became terrifyingly quiet.
Donna’s instinctive reaction was to get out of the office and look for help, but as soon as she was outside she regretted having moved. The lift provided a brief enclosed haven of normality as it carried her down to the ground floor lobby, but the sliding doors then opened to reveal a scene of death and destruction on an incomprehensible scale. There were bodies all around the lobby. The security guard who had flirted with her less than half an hour ago was dead at his desk, slumped forward with his face pressed up against a CCTV monitor. One of the senior office managers—a short, overweight man in his late forties called Woodward—was trapped in the revolving door at the very front of the building, his wide gut wedged against the glass. Jackie Prentice, another one of her work friends, was sprawled on the floor just a few meters away from where Donna stood, buried under the weight of two more men, both dead. A thick, congealing dribble of blood spilled from Jackie’s open mouth and had gathered in a sticky pool around her blanched face.
Without thinking, Donna pushed her way out through a side door and onto the street. Beyond the walls of the building the devastation appeared to have continued for as far as she could see in every direction. There were hundreds of bodies whichever way she looked. Numb and unable to think clearly, she walked away from the building and farther into town. As she approached the main shopping area of the city the number of bodies increased to such an extent that, in places, the pavements were completely obscured—carpeted with a still-warm mass of tangled corpses.
Donna had naturally assumed that she would find others like her who had survived the carnage. It seemed unlikely—impossible even—that she could be the only one who was left alive, but after almost an hour of picking her way through the dead and shouting for help, she had heard nothing and seen no one. She kept walking for a while longer, convinced that she might turn the next corner and find everything back to normal as if nothing had happened, but the ruination was apparently without end. Numbed by the incomprehensible magnitude of the inexplicable catastrophe, she eventually gave up, turned around, and made her way back to the tall office block.
The family home was a fifty-minute train journey away—more than two and a half hours by car. She could have gone back to her flat, but there didn’t seem to be much point. Three months into a one-year work experience placement from business school, Donna had chosen to live, study, and work in a city over a hundred and fifty miles away from virtually everyone she knew. What she would have given to have been back with her parents in their nondescript, little three-bedroom semidetached house on the other side of the country. But what would she have found there? Had the effects of whatever happened here reached as far as her hometown? Had her parents survived like she had, or would she have found them dead too? She couldn’t bear to think about what might or might not have happened to them.
The fact of the matter was, she eventually forced herself to accept, she was where she was and there was very little she could do about it. As impossible and unbelievable as her circumstances now were, she had no option but to try and pull herself together and find somewhere safe to sit and wait for something—anything—to happen. And the most sensible place to do that, she decided, was back in her office. Its height provided some isolation, she knew the layout, and it was clean, spacious, and relatively comfortable. She knew where she could find food and drink in the staff restaurant. Best of all, security in the office was tight. Access to the working areas was strictly controlled by electronically tagged passes, and from a conversation she’d had with an engineer who’d been running tests last week, she knew that the security system itself ran independent of the main supply. Regardless of what happened to the rest of the building, therefore, power to the locks remained constant, and that meant that she was able to securely shut out the rest of the world until she was ready to face it again. The advantage might only have been psychological, but it was enough. During those first few long hours alone, that extra layer of security meant everything to her.
Much of the rest of the first day had been spent collecting basic necessities, initially from just around the office, later from several of the closest city center shops. She found herself some warmer clothes, a mattress, a sleeping bag, and gas lamps from a camping store, enough food and drink to last her a while, and a radio and portable TV. By early evening she had carried everything up the many flights of stairs (she deliberately avoided the lifts—what if the power failed and she got stuck, she’d thought) and had made herself a relatively warm and comfortable nest in the farthest corner of her office. As the light faded at the end of the day she tried every means available to make contact with the outside world. Her mobile phone didn’t work. She couldn’t get anything more than a dial tone on any of the office phones (and she tried more than twenty different handsets) and she couldn’t find anything other than static and silence on the radio and television. The streetlights around the building came on as usual, but with no one else left alive, the rest of the city remained ominously dark. Eventually Donna gave up trying and buried her head under her pillow.
The first night took an eternity to pass and the second day even longer. She only emerged from her hiding place on a couple of occasions when she absolutely had to. Just after dawn she crept around the perimeter of the office and looked down onto the streets below, initially to check whether the situation had changed, but also to confirm that the bizarre events of the previous day actually had taken place. During the dragging hours just gone, Donna had begun to convince herself that the death of many thousands of innocent people couldn’t really have happened so swiftly, viciously, and without any apparent reason.
From where she was hiding underneath the desk, Donna caught sight of her dead friend Joan Alderney’s outstretched right foot. Seeing the woman’s corpse unnerved her to the point where she couldn’t tear her eyes away. The close proximity of the body was a constant, unwanted reminder of everything that had happened and eventually she plucked up enough courage to do something about it. Fighting to keep her emotions and nausea in check, one at a time she dragged the bodies of each of her four work colleagues—stiff, inflexible, and contorted with rigor mortis—down to the far end of the office where she lay them side by side in the post room and covered them with a large dust sheet taken from another floor where decorators had been working.
* * *
The third morning began in as bleak and hopeless a manner as the second day had ended. Feeling slightly more composed, Donna crawled out from underneath the desk again and sat down in front of the computer that she used to use, staring at the monochrome reflection of her face in the empty screen. She had been trying to distract herself by writing down song lyrics, addresses, the names of the players in the football team she supported, and anything else she could remember on a scrap of paper, when she heard something. There was a noise coming from the far end of the office floor; the first noise she’d heard in hours. It was a tripping, stumbling, crashing sound which immediately made her jump up with equal measures of unexpected hope and sudden concern. Was her painful isolation about to be ended? She crept cautiously toward the other end of the long, rectangular-shaped building, her heart pounding.
“Hello,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper but sounding uncomfortably loud, “is anybody there?”
There was no response. She took a few steps farther forward and then stopped when she heard the noise again. It was coming from the post room. Donna pushed open the heavy swinging door and stood and stared. Neil Peters—the manager she had watched fall and die in front of her just two days earlier—was moving. Swaying unsteadily on clumsy, barely coordinated feet, the dead man dragged himself across the room and thumped heavily into the wall, then turned around awkwardly and walked the other way. Instinctively Donna reached out and grabbed hold of him.
The body stopped moving when she held it. There was no resistance or reaction, it just stopped. She looked deep into Neil’s emotionless face. His skin was tinged with an unnatural green hue and his eyes were dark and misted, the pupils fully dilated. His mouth hung open, his lips puffed and cracked, and his tongue swollen like an oversized slug. His chin and neck appeared bruised, flecked with dried blood. Petrified, Donna released her grip and her dead manager immediately began to move again. He tripped over one of the bodies of the other three office workers on the floor, then slowly picked himself up. Donna stumbled back out through the doors, which swung shut after her, trapping the moving corpse inside. She glanced over to her right and pulled down on the top of a filing cabinet, bringing it crashing down in front of the door and blocking the way out.
For a while Donna stood there, numb with disbelief, and watched through a small glass window as Neil Peters’s shell-like remains staggered around the room, never stopping. By chance the body occasionally turned and moved in her direction. Neil’s dry, unfocused eyes seemed to look straight through her.
Breathing hard and trying not to panic, Donna left the office floor and stood on the stairs to put some distance between herself and what she’d just seen. The corpse of Sylvia Peters, the office secretary, lay in front of her, spread-eagled across the landing where she’d died earlier in the week. As she neared the body, a slow but very definite movement caught her eye. Donna watched as two of the fingers on the dead woman’s left hand trembled and occasionally spasmed, clawing at the floor involuntarily. Sobbing with fear, Donna ran back to her hiding place on the ninth floor, pausing only to glance out of a window she passed and look down onto the world below.
The same bizarre and illogical thing was happening again and again down at street level. Most bodies remained motionless where they’d fallen but many others were now moving. Defying all logic, bodies which had laid motionless for almost two days were now starting to move.
Collecting up her things, Donna hurriedly made her way to the tenth floor (where she knew there were no bodies) and locked herself into a small, square training room. On her way back up the stairs, she realized that Sylvia Peters’s body had gone.
Copyright © 2011 by David Moody