Donna Yorke

A nor­mal morn­ing at work descends into chaos for Don­na Yorke. From nine floors up she watch­es the world below her die.

An excerpt from the open­ing chap­ters of AUTUMN: THE CITY.

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. On Tues­day morn­ing she 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, inex­plic­a­ble, suf­fo­cat­ing death. None of what had hap­pened made any sense. She was cold and alone, and too ter­ri­fied to even start try­ing to look for answers.

From her ninth-floor van­tage point she 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 ploughed through the traf­fic, crossed the dual car­riage­way and crashed into the pumps, imme­di­ate­ly ignit­ing the fuel stores. Had it been an out-of-con­trol lor­ry or tanker perhaps?

But that had been just the begin­ning, and the hor­ror and dev­as­ta­tion which fol­lowed had been relent­less, and on a tru­ly unimag­in­able scale. All across the heav­i­ly indus­tri­alised east side of the city she had seen peo­ple falling to the ground, 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, rolling relent­less­ly across the city below her towards her build­ing. Her legs felt strange, heavy, as 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, her body shak­ing, and fight­ing for breath. Joan looked up at her with huge, des­per­ate eyes, as her face turned ashen, drained to an oxy­gen-starved blue-grey. Her lips remained crim­son-red, stained by blood from the 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 own 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, unable to speak, but mouthing a silent scream of ter­ror before falling, dead before she’d even hit the floor. Final­ly, Trudy Phillips, the last mem­ber of this week’s ear­ly shift, arrived, pan­icked, and began to stum­ble towards Don­na as the sear­ing pain in her throat start­ed. She had moved only a few yards for­ward before she lost con­scious­ness and col­lapsed, catch­ing a cable with her foot and drag­ging a com­put­er mon­i­tor off a desk. It crashed to the ground just inch­es from her face, but she was obliv­i­ous. Once the sound had fad­ed and Trudy had died, the world had become 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 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 heavy gut wedged against the glass. Jack­ie Pren­tice, anoth­er one of her work friends, was sprawled on the floor just a few yards away from where Don­na stood, buried under the weight of two men, both dead. A thick, con­geal­ing drib­ble of blood spilled from Jackie’s open mouth, gath­er­ing 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. Whichev­er way she looked, there were hun­dreds of bod­ies. Numb, unable to think clear­ly, she walked away from the build­ing and fur­ther into town. As she approached the main shop­ping area, the num­ber of bod­ies increased, until the pave­ments were com­plete­ly obscured in places, car­pet­ed with a still-warm mass of tan­gled corpses.

Don­na had assumed that she would find oth­ers like her: peo­ple who had sur­vived the invis­i­ble killer. 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’ dri­ve by car. She could have gone back to her flat, but there didn’t seem to be much point. Don­na had cho­sen to live, study and work in a city more than a hun­dred and fifty miles away from vir­tu­al­ly every­one she knew; she had been three months into a one-year work expe­ri­ence place­ment from busi­ness school. What she would have giv­en to have been back with her par­ents now, in their non­de­script lit­tle three-bed­room semi-detached 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 home town? 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 – and she knew there would be 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 mains sup­ply – so regard­less of what hap­pened to the rest of the build­ing, pow­er to the locks would remain con­stant, and that meant that she would be 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 recon­noitring the build­ing and col­lect­ing basic neces­si­ties from sev­er­al of the clos­est city cen­tre shops. As well as some warmer clothes, she picked up 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’d avoid­ed the lifts – what if the pow­er failed and she got stuck?) and had made her­self a warm and com­fort­able nest in the fur­thest cor­ner of her office. As the light fad­ed at the end of the first day she tried every pos­si­ble means to make con­tact with the out­side world. Her mobile phone didn’t work, and she couldn’t get any­thing more than a dialling tone on any of the office phones (and she tried more than twen­ty dif­fer­ent hand­sets), nor could she find any­thing oth­er than sta­t­ic and silence on the radio and tele­vi­sion. The streets lights 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.

That first night took an eter­ni­ty to pass, and the sec­ond day was even longer. She only emerged from her hid­ing place when she absolute­ly had to. Just after dawn she crept around the perime­ter of the office and looked down onto the streets below, at first 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, Don­na had begun to con­vince her­self that the death of many thou­sands of inno­cent peo­ple couldn’t real­ly have hap­pened so swift­ly, so vicious­ly, and for no 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 so much that she couldn’t tear her eyes away: the close prox­im­i­ty of the body was a con­stant, unwant­ed reminder of every­thing that had hap­pened. Even­tu­al­ly she plucked up enough courage to do some­thing about it. Fight­ing to keep her emo­tions and nau­sea in check, she dragged the bod­ies of each of her four work col­leagues down to the post-room, one at a time. The corpses were all stiff, con­tort­ed with rig­or mor­tis. She laid them side by side and cov­ered them with a large dust sheet she’d found on 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 her nest under­neath the desk 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 oth­er bits of infor­ma­tion, when she heard some­thing – the first noise in days – com­ing from the far end of the office floor. It was a trip­ping, stum­bling, crash­ing sound, and she jumped up imme­di­ate­ly, with equal mea­sures of unex­pect­ed hope and sud­den con­cern. Was her painful iso­la­tion about to be end­ed? She crept cau­tious­ly towards the oth­er end of the rec­tan­gu­lar-shaped office, her heart pounding.

‘Hel­lo,’ she said, her voice sound­ing uncom­fort­ably loud, though she’d spo­ken in lit­tle more than a whis­per, ‘is any­body there?’

There was no response, and she took a few steps fur­ther for­ward, then stopped when she heard the noise again. It was com­ing from the post-room. Don­na pushed open the heavy swing­ing door—

—and she 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 was drag­ging him­self across the room, thump­ing heav­i­ly into the wall, then turn­ing around awk­ward­ly and walk­ing the oth­er way. Instinc­tive­ly Don­na reached out and grabbed hold of him. ‘Neil?’

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 were 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 oth­er three bod­ies 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 looked around until she spot­ted a large fil­ing cab­i­net, and she pulled it until it over­bal­anced, crash­ing down in front of the door and block­ing the way out.

For a while Don­na stood there, numb with dis­be­lief, watch­ing through the door’s small glass win­dow as Neil Peters’ corpse stag­gered around the room, nev­er stop­ping. Occa­sion­al­ly the body turned and moved in her direc­tion, when the dry, unfo­cused eyes seemed to look straight through her.

Breath­ing hard, try­ing to quell her ris­ing pan­ic, Don­na left the office floor and walked out to the stairs to put some dis­tance between her­self and what she’d just seen. The corpse of the office sec­re­tary, Sylvia Peters, was lying in front of her, spread-eagled across the land­ing, exact­ly where she’d died ear­li­er in the week. As she neared the body, a slow but very def­i­nite move­ment caught her eye: two of the fin­gers on the dead woman’s left hand trem­bled and occa­sion­al­ly spasmed, claw­ing at the floor involuntarily.

Now sob­bing with fear, Don­na ran back towards her hid­ing place on the ninth floor, but she stopped at the win­dow to look down onto the world below. Even from so high up she could clear­ly see the same bizarre, illog­i­cal – impos­si­ble – thing was hap­pen­ing, again and again, down at street lev­el. Most of the bod­ies remained motion­less where they’d fall­en, but oth­ers were now mov­ing, defy­ing all log­ic. Bod­ies which had lain motion­less for almost two days were mov­ing, albeit with­out any real degree of control.

Don­na col­lect­ed togeth­er her things and hur­ried­ly made her way to the tenth floor – she’d found no bod­ies up there when she’d first checked the build­ing. On her sec­ond jour­ney, she realised that Sylvia Peters’ body had gone.