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Above and Below (the prologue to Autumn: Purification)

Forty-sev­en days ago, more than nine­ty-nine per cent of the pop­u­la­tion had died with­in an impos­si­bly short peri­od of time. Right across the world, with­out any warn­ing or expla­na­tion, the pat­tern was repeat­ed as bil­lions of lives were inex­plic­a­bly end­ed: snuffed out and switched off with nei­ther dig­ni­ty nor mal­ice, unimag­in­able num­bers of inno­cent peo­ple dis­card­ed and aban­doned and left to rot where they’d fall­en. Just a hand­ful of ter­ri­fied sur­vivors remained, none of them able to under­stand or even to begin to come to terms with what had hap­pened to their friends, fam­i­ly, lovers, children…

With­in forty-eight hours, almost a third of the dead rose again. The germ (or dis­ease, or what­ev­er it was that was respon­si­ble) had spared a key area of these crea­tures’ brains. Some­how unaf­fect­ed, a spark of pri­mor­dial instinct had sur­vived the infec­tion, leav­ing the bod­ies phys­i­cal­ly dead, but still com­pelled to move; life­less, but inces­sant­ly ani­mat­ed. And as the flesh which cov­ered these stum­bling aber­ra­tions had rot­ted and decayed, so the unaf­fect­ed region of the brain had grown in strength, and had con­tin­ued to dri­ve them for­ward. First their most basic sens­es had slow­ly returned, then a degree of con­trol. The corpses didn’t know what, who, or where they were. They didn’t know why they exist­ed, nor what they want­ed. They had no need to eat or drink, to rest or sleep, or even to blink or breathe… they just were. This com­bi­na­tion of increas­ing self-aware­ness and decreas­ing self-con­trol grad­u­al­ly man­i­fest­ed itself as anger and hos­til­i­ty. Sen­tenced to spend every minute of every day shuf­fling point­less­ly through the emp­ty world, even the slight­est unex­pect­ed sound or move­ment was enough to attract their lim­it­ed but dead­ly attention.

With the coun­try (and the rest of the world) now oth­er­wise almost com­plete­ly silent, the mobile dead moved ran­dom­ly from their sup­pos­ed­ly final rest­ing places, stag­ger­ing in all direc­tions on rot­ting, unsteady feet, away from the towns, cities and oth­er cen­tres of pop­u­la­tion where they’d died, spread­ing aim­less­ly across the land like a drop of ink slow­ly flow­ing out­wards over blot­ting paper.

Except here.

Here, in appar­ent­ly non­de­script fields miles from any­where of any per­ceived impor­tance, for no imme­di­ate­ly vis­i­ble rea­son, thou­sands upon thou­sands of inquis­i­tive, ran­cid bod­ies had arrived, cram­ming them­selves into the space of just a few square miles: an end­less mass of emp­ty, skele­tal husks which had once had indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ties and lives and rea­sons to exist, but were now noth­ing more than emo­tion­less col­lec­tions of tat­tered rags, grey-green greasy flesh, with­ered mus­cle and brit­tle bone.

At the out­er­most edge of one of the vast fields, the dishev­elled car­case of what had once been an afflu­ent invest­ment banker lift­ed its head and looked up, bare­ly able to focus its cloud­ed eyes. Sur­round­ed on all sides by scores of sim­i­lar­ly bedrag­gled cadav­ers, the remains of the once-pow­er­ful, dig­ni­fied and well-respect­ed man shuf­fled awk­ward­ly for­ward, slip­ping and slid­ing through churned mud, and clawed clum­si­ly at those bod­ies which stood in its way.

Sur­vivors.

This place was dif­fer­ent to every­where else. It didn’t know what, but it knew there was some­thing near here, and it had an instinc­tive, insa­tiable desire to get even clos­er to what­ev­er it was. It didn’t know why – it bare­ly even knew what it was doing – but it couldn’t stop.

Buried deep under­ground, far below the rot­ting crowds, almost three hun­dred sur­vivors exist­ed in the unnat­ur­al semi-dark­ness of a sub­ter­ranean mil­i­tary base. It was impos­si­ble for them to exist there with­out reveal­ing their loca­tion: The world was a silent, life­less, emp­ty place now, and the sounds made by the peo­ple under­ground, no mat­ter how slight, echoed relent­less­ly. The heat they pro­duced burned like a fire, and in the oth­er­wise cold and vacant land, the corpses were attract­ed to them like moths towards the last light on Earth. What had begun as a few ran­dom corpses stum­bling upon the under­ground mil­i­tary base by chance had now grown into a crowd of vast, almost incal­cu­la­ble pro­por­tions. The move­ment of the loath­some crea­tures inevitably attract­ed more and more of them from the sur­round­ing area: a slow-motion chain reac­tion. Now, sev­er­al days since any of the sol­diers had been above ground, almost one hun­dred thou­sand bod­ies had gath­ered around the bunker, every last one of them fight­ing to get near­er to its impass­able entrance.

The dead invest­ment banker’s way for­ward was blocked by more bod­ies. It lift­ed its ema­ci­at­ed arms again and then, with unex­pect­ed force, lashed out at the fig­ure imme­di­ate­ly in front. Soft, putre­fy­ing flesh was ripped from bone as the decay­ing banker tore the unsus­pect­ing crea­ture ahead of it apart. The sud­den out­burst of vio­lence spread rapid­ly through the near­est cadav­ers on all sides, rip­pling out fur­ther into the enor­mous crowd in every direc­tion before peter­ing out again as quick­ly as it had begun. All across this mas­sive, decom­pos­ing gath­er­ing the same thing was hap­pen­ing, time and again, each of the bod­ies inter­est­ed only in get­ting clos­er to what­ev­er it was that was dif­fer­ent about this god­for­sak­en place.

Apart from the wind blow­ing through the sway­ing branch­es of trees and the fight­ing and con­tin­u­al shuf­fling move­ment of the dead, the world around the buried base appeared frozen. Even birds had learnt not to fly too close, because of the reac­tion their fleet­ing appear­ances invari­ably caused. In spite of the fact that the corpses were indi­vid­u­al­ly weak and clum­sy, what remained of the rest of the world instinc­tive­ly feared them, and did all they could to keep their dis­tance. And how­ev­er indi­vid­u­al­ly weak, in such huge num­bers as this the dead were unstoppable.

Deep under­ground in the mil­i­tary base, the liv­ing fared lit­tle bet­ter. Despite being rel­a­tive­ly strong and still able to act ratio­nal­ly, they were afraid to move. It was obvi­ous to all the lost and ter­ri­fied souls buried in the con­crete maze below the fields and hills that the sheer num­ber of bod­ies on the sur­face would even­tu­al­ly be too much for them. Their options were des­per­ate­ly lim­it­ed, and fright­en­ing­ly bleak. They could either sit and wait (although no one knew what they were wait­ing for, or how long it would take) or they could go above ground and fight. But what would that achieve? What use was open space and fresh air to the mil­i­tary? The dis­ease still hung heavy in the con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed air, and every one of the sol­diers, NCOs and their offi­cers alike, knew that a sin­gle breath would, in all prob­a­bil­i­ty, be enough to kill them. Those sur­vivors immune to the dis­ease who also shel­tered under­ground knew that they would fare no bet­ter from such a con­fronta­tion. Any attempt to clear the bod­ies from above the base might help in the short term, but the noise and move­ment such an act would inevitably cause would doubt­less result in count­less thou­sands more cadav­ers being drawn near­er to the shel­ter – and there were poten­tial­ly mil­lions more out there.

Below the sur­face, the sur­vivors and the mil­i­tary were forced to remain apart. Designed to cope with the after-effects of chem­i­cal, nuclear or bio­log­i­cal attack, the base was remark­ably well-equipped and tech­no­log­i­cal­ly advanced. The air being pumped through the com­plex was pure, and free from infec­tion. The sur­vivors who had tak­en shel­ter there, how­ev­er, were not. Decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion had been half-heart­ed­ly attempt­ed at first, but the woe­ful­ly under-pre­pared mil­i­tary sci­en­tists had known from the start that it would be a futile exer­cise. The germ could be washed away from equip­ment and from the sol­diers’ pro­tec­tive suits, but the sur­vivors had been breath­ing con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed air for more than a month, and they were rid­dled with the infec­tion. Whilst the dead­ly con­ta­gion had no obvi­ous effect on them, even the slight­est expo­sure might be suf­fi­cient to con­t­a­m­i­nate the base and kill every­one in it.

The mil­i­tary occu­pied almost all of the com­plex (every­thing beyond the entrance to the decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion cham­bers), leav­ing the thir­ty-sev­en sur­vivors with the main hangar and a few adja­cent stor­age, util­i­ty and main­te­nance rooms. Space, heat and light were severe­ly lim­it­ed. After fight­ing through the hell above ground to get here, how­ev­er, the lim­i­ta­tions of the mil­i­tary facil­i­ty were read­i­ly accept­ed and huge­ly appre­ci­at­ed. The alter­na­tives which await­ed them back out on the sur­face were unthinkable.

THE AUTUMN SERIES