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Amy Steadman (part v)

From career-mind­ed, twen­ty-four year old grad­u­ate with a promis­ing future ahead of her to a “mud-splat­tered, half-naked, ema­ci­at­ed col­lec­tion of brit­tle bone and rot­ting flesh” in lit­tle more than three weeks…

Amy Stead­man has been dead for sev­en­teen days. While her phys­i­cal body con­tin­ues to dete­ri­o­rate, her aware­ness and self con­trol is return­ing. For one sur­vivor, this has ter­ri­fy­ing consequences.

Amy Steadman’s remark­able phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion has con­tin­ued unabat­ed. It is now more than two weeks since her death. As her body has fes­tered, how­ev­er, the low lev­el of mut­ed brain activ­i­ty has con­tin­ued to increase. Defy­ing all pre­vi­ous under­stand­ing of the changes under­gone with­in the human body after death, as Amy’s flesh and bone has dete­ri­o­rat­ed she has, para­dox­i­cal­ly, regained a remark­able lev­el of self-aware­ness. The increas­ing phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of her decom­pos­ing body result in much of this men­tal improve­ment remain­ing undetectable.

Time has tak­en its toll on the mil­lions of cadav­ers now walk­ing the streets. They are steadi­ly dis­in­te­grat­ing; count­less inter­nal and exter­nal chem­i­cal reac­tions affect­ing the com­po­si­tion and strength of their flesh. Amy’s corpse is no dif­fer­ent. Her skin has dark­ened and dried out in places as flu­ids have drained away. Her body has become a breed­ing ground for huge num­bers of insects. Amy’s corpse is infest­ed. She is rid­dled with maggots.

Oper­at­ing on a basic lev­el, the bod­ies are dri­ven by an instinc­tive desire to con­tin­ue to exist. Self-preser­va­tion is each corpse’s only con­cern. Because of their wors­en­ing phys­i­cal state, how­ev­er, their abil­i­ty to defend and pro­tect them­selves is severe­ly lim­it­ed. As a result their reac­tions now appear clum­sy and over­ly aggres­sive. The bod­ies will fight to pro­tect them­selves at all costs even if, per­verse­ly, this results in them sus­tain­ing phys­i­cal dam­age. It’s not uncom­mon to see a body attack anoth­er corpse in self-defence, and sus­tain sub­stan­tial dam­age in the process. This is the norm with those bod­ies that are par­tic­u­lar­ly bad­ly decayed. Where the process has been slowed — as with Amy Stead­man who died indoors, shield­ed from the ele­ments for sev­er­al days — the actions of the dead are slight­ly more reserved and controlled.

It is now ear­ly on Thurs­day morn­ing and a light, misty rain has been falling since dawn. Amy’s body is shuf­fling along the side of a ware­housed-sized fur­ni­ture store. There are a large num­ber of oth­er corpses near­by, although the rea­son for their swollen num­bers is not imme­di­ate­ly appar­ent. It may be that there has pre­vi­ous­ly been an inci­dent here which ini­tial­ly attract­ed their atten­tion, and that this is sim­ply the residue of that crowd grad­u­al­ly dis­ap­pear­ing. The fact that many of these bod­ies seem to be mov­ing in the same over­all direc­tion, how­ev­er, indi­cates that this could be the begin­ning of such an inci­dent, not the end.

Amy’s corpse con­tin­ues to drag itself around the build­ing and the sur­round­ing streets until a sin­gle noise in the near dis­tance attracts its atten­tion. It is the sound of a sur­vivor prepar­ing to leave his shel­ter to search for essen­tial sup­plies. Amy, along with all the oth­er corpses in the imme­di­ate vicin­i­ty, imme­di­ate­ly begins to grav­i­tate towards the source of the sound.

The young male sur­vivor is based in an office build­ing in the cen­tre of a sprawl­ing car lot. Over the last few days he has attempt­ed to for­ti­fy and strength­en his hide­out with lim­it­ed suc­cess, but as the behav­iour of the bod­ies has changed, so he has been forced to change his pri­or­i­ties. Fail­ing dis­mal­ly to pre­pare for the poten­tial long-term prob­lems caused by the infec­tion, he is strug­gling to stay sane and stay alive. The sur­vivor failed to antic­i­pate the herd­ing behav­iour of the dead, nor did he con­sid­er the poten­tial dura­tion of his incar­cer­a­tion. Ini­tial­ly naïve­ly believ­ing that he could con­tin­ue to enjoy some­thing resem­bling a pre-infec­tion stan­dard of liv­ing, he is now dan­ger­ous­ly ill-equipped, hav­ing focussed his ear­ly efforts on com­fort rather than prac­ti­cal necessities.

His health is dete­ri­o­rat­ing. As a result both of the increased num­ber of bod­ies in the local­i­ty and the for­ti­fi­ca­tions he made to his shel­ter, he is unable to eas­i­ly ven­ture out for sup­plies. He has been trapped for days with­out access to clean water, san­i­ta­tion, med­i­cine, and food of any real nutri­tion­al val­ue. He is dehy­drat­ed and mal­nour­ished. After an abort­ed attempt to fetch sup­plies three days ago, his men­tal state has also dete­ri­o­rat­ed. At this point in time the dif­fer­ences this sur­vivor and the corpses which sur­round him are remark­ably slim. Because of their vast num­bers and their emo­tion­less state, the bod­ies now have a clear advantage.

In the mid­dle of the car lot the sur­vivor has emerged from the office build­ing where he has hid­den for the last two weeks. He moves slow­ly in a futile attempt to avoid detec­tion. Because of his poor phys­i­cal con­di­tion, his move­ments are unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly clum­sy. He plans to take a car and dri­ve to a super­mar­ket and he is con­fi­dent that once he is in the car he will be rel­a­tive­ly safe. His activ­i­ty, how­ev­er, has not gone unno­ticed. His pained, awk­ward move­ments and rasp­ing breath­ing have already attract­ed the atten­tion of sev­er­al of the near­est cadav­ers. An inevitable chain reac­tion of move­ment has now begun through­out the crowd as more bod­ies grav­i­tate towards him.

Amy Steadman’s body is close. She has crossed the main road between the fur­ni­ture store and the car lot and is head­ing towards the office build­ing, focussing on the increased lev­els of move­ment all around it. The dead are clos­ing in from every direction.

Some of the bod­ies are dis­tract­ed by the move­ment of oth­er corpses around them. Amy, how­ev­er, is able to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the dead and oth­er dis­trac­tions. She will not hes­i­tate to attack any­thing that threat­ens her, but she no longer wan­ton­ly attacks oth­er bod­ies. She con­cen­trates on mov­ing towards the source of the dis­rup­tion, although she does not ful­ly under­stand why. She like­ly assumes it rep­re­sents a threat.

The lone sur­vivor is weak and, after a long peri­od of fright­ened inac­tiv­i­ty, he finds the sud­den effort of mov­ing at speed unex­pect­ed­ly dif­fi­cult. Just leav­ing the build­ing has left him breath­less and light-head­ed. Over­come with nerves, he has stopped in the shad­ows at the side of the build­ing and is try­ing to sum­mon up the strength to make a run for the car he pre­vi­ous­ly left ready for an occa­sion such as this.

Amy’s corpse — along with more than fifty oth­ers — is less than ten metres away from the front of the office build­ing. The sur­vivor is now aware of the sud­den move­ment all around him, but he is being dan­ger­ous­ly inde­ci­sive. He knows he can either retreat (as he did a week ago) or con­tin­ue with this attempt to fetch sup­plies. He knows that either option is equal­ly dan­ger­ous: if he turns back he will starve and his sick­ness will wors­en, yet if he leaves he risks attack from the advanc­ing hordes of bod­ies. He also knows that he will have to leave even­tu­al­ly and that going back inside will only delay the inevitable. He decides to run for the car.

Inde­ci­sion has ulti­mate­ly proved to be this survivor’s undo­ing. The brief but unnec­es­sary delay has giv­en suf­fi­cient num­bers of bod­ies enough time to drag them­selves into the nar­row space between his present posi­tion and the car. He attempts to run towards the vehi­cle, man­ag­ing to avoid the first few corpses which attack. With­in anoth­er few metres, how­ev­er, there are too many of them. He tries to dou­ble-back, but once the first of the dead has caught hold of him he is trapped. He eas­i­ly releas­es the first corpse’s grip, but wastes pre­cious sec­onds fight­ing it. By the time he’s free and the first body is down, anoth­er eight are on him.

Amy Steadman’s corpse is at the front of the crowd which swal­lows up and kills this survivor.

#

Half an hour lat­er and the scene has changed again. With the sur­vivor now dead and the area silent, the bulk of the crowd of bod­ies has begun drift­ing away. Amy Steadman’s body limps alone through the ear­ly mist along a wide road strewn with death.

THE AUTUMN SERIES