Entering the Castle (excerpt from Autumn: Aftermath)
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 towards 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 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 – just fleeting recollections, for the briefest of moments, and gone before she’d even realised 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 been wearing when she died, her feet were badly swollen and her lumpy, bruised ankles were now almost elephantine in appearance. Her gut was distended, inflated by the gases produced by decay and a substantial insect infestation. Her mottled skin had split several inches below her drooping right breast, leaking all manner of semi-coagulated yellow and brown gunk.
Jessica’s unblinking eyes were dry and unfocused, but they saw enough, and 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 towards the small terraced cottage, smacked into the window with force and collapsed backwards, ending up on her backside in the gutter. She’d been down only a second or two before others attacked her, attracted by the noise and wrongly assuming she was somehow different to them. They tore apart what remained of Jessica Lindt, and soon all that was left of her was a dirty imprint on the glass, a few lumps of greasy flesh and a 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 was much 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 stretching out in front of him for ever, 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, though his view of the ancient castle was distorted by the tens of thousands of swarming flies which buzzed through the air above the 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 per cent 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 to right now his life had been a ceaseless tumult of death and decay. They were everywhere, surrounding him constantly, whatever he did and whichever way he turned. Death was inescapable, and he was fucking sick of it.
Another 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 into the vicious creatures they were now. 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. Instead he tried to remain focused on the fact that if they continued to deteriorate, 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 himself probably wouldn’t last that much longer, yet it would be decades, maybe even hundreds of years, before all trace of the human race would be gone for ever. 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 in to 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, his dad used to say when things weren’t going well. Yeah, right: thanks a lot, Dad. No amount of handed-down bullshit is going to help me get past those bodies out there today, is it?
Jackson was dawdling, and that wasn’t like him. His reluctance to move served only to increase his unease. It was because the way ahead was no longer clear. Until recently he’d had a definite plan: to keep walking north until he reached the part of the country where there had been fewer people originally, and where the effects of the disaster might not have been so severe. When the true scale of the chaos had been revealed and it had become apparent that things were far worse than he’d at first thought, 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 in ruins.
Three days ago, Jackson had had another change of heart, after a chance encounter with another survivor. The kid had been the first person he’d found alive in several days. He was your 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. Adrenalin, 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 half-hearted attempt to try and deal with him, Jackson had decided 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, he left the kid to fester. To him, the unpredictable kid presented an unnecessary risk; 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 rucksack 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 realise the futility of just endlessly walking. 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. He 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 ended up saying 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 begun to realise that he didn’t actually need anyone; more to the point, having other people around actually appeared to 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, it looked like one corpse had attempted to fight its way deeper into the vast crowd, and all around it, others were reacting 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 began to fight, so more and more of them followed, 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 the 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, prepared to feed hundreds of hungry inmates, and the vast majority of the prison’s current 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 dead prisoners threw themselves against the bars on either side of him, straining their arms to try and reach him. It had felt 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, marking the end of another day. 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. He might have mattered once, but not any more.
Half drunk and completely depressed, Jackson had slept intermittently, but when the sun started to rise on yet another day, he looked up and saw the castle.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time – the castle, Cheetham Castle, according to all the brown signs, looked like an ideal place to spend the next few days while he worked out what the hell he was going to do with what was left of his life – but it was surrounded by vast numbers of the dead, many more than he’d expected to find. He could see the grey stone castle gatehouse through the living room window, towering proudly above the heads of the writhing crowd, still visible through the smog-like swarms of insects. He’d checked out the full scale of the writhing crowd from an upstairs window earlier, and the size of the gathering both terrified and intrigued him. He’d long since discovered that whenever the dead amassed in these numbers, there was always a reason. He hadn’t wasted much time trying to work out what that reason was – it was impossible to do anything but guess from this distance.
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 gravelled 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 assumed, by the steep slope of the large hill upon which the castle had been built. It was simply too high for their weak legs to climb.
The castle walls themselves looked strong, at least from this distance. It was difficult to gauge their height from the house, but they looked to be reassuringly un-scalable. For a while, though, Jackson had actually given serious consideration to trying to improvise a grappling hook and rope so he could drag himself up and over, up and over like some Errol Flynn character. As it was, his best option would clearly be the gatehouse, on the far right of the castle from where he was currently standing. Judging by the number of signs he’d seen on his way here, this place must have been a popular tourist attraction, so the castle’s most recent 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 much-needed breathing space before he needed to move on again. He had an obvious advantage over the dead when it came to the steep climb, 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 sounded disproportionately loud; every footstep thundered, and every breath echoed endlessly. He stayed 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 were standing with their backs to him, so it made sense (as much as any of this made sense) to try and work his way closer to the gatehouse, looking for a place where the crowds were thinner, for 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. Then one sprang out at him from a hitherto unseen gap between two buildings. Whether it was an intentional attack or an unfortunate coincidence 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 the short length of heavy metal tubing he carried with him. He dropped what was left of the bloody corpse in the gutter, then looked up as another one began moving towards him, alerted by the noise of his violent attack. This one had a badly damaged right leg, and its unsteady gait made it look 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 even before he looked around again that he was in trouble. Many of the dead 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 them were now reacting to his presence, peeling away from the edge of the immense crowd like a chain-reaction. Jackson knew he had to move fast. Fortunately for him, several of the pitiful monsters had already lost their footing in the confusion and were being 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 thought, I hope so.
Jackson swung his heavy rucksack off his shoulders, using it to smack the nearest corpses out of the way as he did so. He started to run, kicking out at a foul, bald-headed creature with a hole eaten through its face where its nose used to be lashed out at him. He jumped sideways, onto the bonnet of a Vauxhall Astra – his sudden change of direction causing temporary mass confusion – then climbed onto the roof. He took a moment to stash his metal pipe in his rucksack, then opened one of the side pockets and dug deep inside, now and then stamping on the fingers of those trying to grab at him with hands decayed into spiteful claws. Then he pulled out a packet of fireworks wrapped in a clear plastic bag, unwrapped one rocket and started fumbling in his trouser pocket for his lighter. Distracted by trying to light the blue touch-paper, he didn’t notice that one of the bodies had managed somehow to grab hold of the bottom of his trousers. The crowd around the car surged as more of the dead arrived, and the body holding onto Jackson’s leg was pushed back, tugging at him. He tried to pull away, but 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 roof. He screamed out in pain – swearing as the noise immediately caused 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 (a completely futile gesture, but he didn’t have hands free to do anything else), then scrambled back up onto the roof.
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 centre 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, judging by the remains of the overalls he was wearing, who reeled back on his heels and looked down at the jet of flames sticking out of his 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 towards 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 towards the grey clouds was enough to distract an enormous number of corpses, and as they lifted their dead heads skywards he jumped down from the car and ran for all he was worth. He crossed the road and the car park, then tripped over what was left of a barbed wire fence lying on the ground, already trampled down flat 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 punk kid he’d have done his level best to avoid before this. It looked down at itself, bewildered, as jets of blue and green flame started spitting out through various holes in its chest. The stupid thing still had a wrong-way-round baseball cap on, glued to its head by a month’s worth of decay. He 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 towards 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.
He was deep into the dead hordes now, so close-packed they had no idea he was near until he actually made contact. Some were still trying to fight their way towards the fireworks, but most were looking the other way, facing the castle, and those he simply pushed 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 wading through a fallen mass of tangled bodies rather than running between and around those still standing. A few steps more and he was knee -deep in churned remains. It took him a moment to realise 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. Horribly, some of them were still 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 inches. He was struggling to keep moving against the decay sucking him down, when the reason for its depth became clear: the deep furrow here had acted like a valve. The dead had been able to get in easily enough, but none of them could get out again.
Eventually Jackson found himself on level ground again. The corpses on this side of the ditch were fewer in number, so despite being soaked through with gore and desperately needing to stop and catch his breath, he kept on running, side-stepping one cadaver which came at him, then handing-off the next as if he were a rugby player weaving through the opposition to score a try under the posts.
And then he realised he was finally beginning to climb, and he looked ahead and saw the imposing wall of old stone looming, stretching up into the rapidly darkening sky. His thighs burned with the effort, but he kept on pushing until he had 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, stopping occasionally to look back over his shoulder at the crowds gathered at the bottom of the incline and on the other side of the trench. They looked like they were waiting impatiently to pounce the moment he slipped and fell back into their grasp.
Once he’d reached the castle walls, Jackson followed a three-foot-wide pathway around the edge of the decrepit fortress towards the front entrance, but it was immediately 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 towards 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 until 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 realised 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. This had obviously been a popular view-point, and 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. An almost incalculable number of blank faces looked in his direction, bodies stretching away to the right and left, wrapping around the base of the hill and sealing the castle off in a sea of rotting death.
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 realised), the smaller town of Halecroft to the south. There was a reservoir, a ruined abbey, and a wealth of other beauty spots and landmarks, none of which were of any obvious use to him. He was on the verge of giving up for the day, and he wondered if he should just finish walking around the castle then find a piece of level ground up here to pitch his tent for the night, when something caught his eye: another entrance – a secret entrance? This was the stuff of bullshit or legend, – but no, 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 on the map – for smugglers getting in and tyrants getting out in times past. He orientated himself, worked out roughly where the hidden entrance was, and 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 yards 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 towards the light and noise en masse, giving him a few seconds of space to fight his way through to the gate, his bolt-cutters held ready. The padlock clasp was too thick and too strong, but he managed to cut through a link in the chain it secured. The firework had burned out and he had again become the sole focus of attention. With the dead already turning back and beginning to grab at him, he wrapped one end of the chain around his hand several times and began swinging it around wildly like a whip. The effect was remarkable, slicing through rotting flesh like a hot wire through butter whenever it made contact. With the arc of the chain providing him with a large-enough space, Jackson pushed the gate open, threw himself through, and then turned and started back to shut the gate – but there were already too many corpses hot on his heels, pouring through after him, reaching for him with their clawing hands. He ran for the tunnel, depending on his speed to get him out of immediate trouble.
The pitch-black close confines of the damp tunnel walls made him feel uncomfortably claustrophobic, but he had no option other than to keep moving. He ran with arms outstretched, climbing upwards and bracing himself, knowing that at any second he might reach a dead end. Christ, he realised, 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 re-routed 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 slowness, 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 lighter fluid, but what the hell. He flicked it on and the unsteady yellow light immediately illuminated the roughly hewn sides of the tunnel around him. Moving with increased speed now that he could see, he burst into a large, low-ceilinged chamber. There were displays mounted on the uneven walls – all about smugglers, and 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 it made much difference – and desperately searched for another way out. There was another short sloping passageway, 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 what was left of the lighter fluid and ran across 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 the close 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, leading into yet another tunnel.
Feeling his way forward with his left hand, trying to flick the lighter into life again with the right, the dead sounded closer than ever now. The lighter flame caught, and shone on 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 realised, 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 pushing it open, and found himself falling into another space. The door shut behind him – and he screamed in fright at the sight of a body, hanging from the wall, its arms shackled, before realising it was a plastic dummy, dressed in rags, strung up there for effect. He stumbled back, tripping over his own feet, hitting the deck hard and dropping his lighter, which went out and skittered across the floor. The sudden pitch-black was suffocating, all-consuming. He crawled slowly forward, his hands feeling the ground, desperate to touch the warm metal of the lighter. He found boxes, and packaging, and what felt like the plastic feet of another executed dummy, and kept crawling until his head hit a wall and he yelped with pain and rocked back on his heels. In the distance he thought he could hear the dead advancing with renewed speed now, almost as if they were feeding off his pain.
His 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 himself full circle in the darkness? If he went through this door, would he be running head-first into the oncoming dead? He stood up and tried the handle, but it wouldn’t open. He pulled at the handle again, then shoulder-charged the door and as it gave way he flew into the next room, landing on his hands and knees in the middle of a small shop. There were shutters pulled over most of the windows, but enough light was filtering in for him to see. Exit through the gift shop, he thought as he picked himself up of the ground. He shut the door behind him and looked around for something to block it. He spent a few minutes pulling display stands in front of it, and once he was satisfied it was secure, he jogged down to the other end of the cluttered room, ignoring the key-rings, plastic swords and armour, mugs, stuffed toys and other equally useless tourist tat, shoved the far door open and burst out into daylight.
He found himself standing on the edge of a large courtyard, inside the castle walls, looking down the business end of a shotgun.
‘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?’