Amy Steadman (part vi)

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…

Her face, once fresh, clear and attractive, is now skeletal and heavily decayed. Her skin is discoloured and waxy. Her once bright eyes are dull, dark and dry. Because of its increasing physical deterioration, Amy’s body moves slowly and forcefully. Movements which had previously appeared random and uncoordinated, however, now have an ominous purpose and determination.

Amy Steadman by Craig Paton

It is now more than three weeks since infection, and Amy Steadman’s body has been moving away from the site of its death for most of that time. Amy bears little resemblance now to the woman she used to be. Her face, once fresh and clear, is now skeletal and heavily decayed. Her skin is discoloured and waxy. Her once bright eyes are dull, dark and dry. Because of her increasing physical deterioration, Amy moves slowly and forcefully. Movements which had previously appeared random and uncoordinated, however, now have an ominous purpose and determination.

This putrefying cadaver has no need to respire, eat, drink or rest and yet Amy continues to struggle across the dead and increasingly grim landscape. As her condition has continued to  worsen, she has become increasingly aware of the extent of her decay. She now understands that she is vulnerable. Every unexpected movement or sound she detects is automatically assumed to be a threat and she reacts accordingly.

Now and then, the thing which used to be Amy experiences the faintest flicker of recollection, flashes of memory. She has no concept now of who she used to be, but it is now vaguely aware of what she once was. Earlier today she fell in the rubble of a shop-window display blown out into the street by a gas explosion. She inadvertently grabbed a handful of rubbish which included a cup. Momentarily she held the cup by its handle and tried to drink before dropping it again and walking on. Yesterday, when she found herself unable to get through a door, she attempted to reach for the handle.

There are considerably more bodies around here than in most other places. Throughout this silent, empty world the slightest distraction continues to attract the unwanted attention of disproportionate numbers of these grotesque creatures and here, on the outskirts of the city of Rowley, something is drawing untold numbers of them ever closer.

Amy’s corpse has left the street she’d been staggering along. Whilst making her way across a barren field, she has reached an unexpected blockage. Eleven bodies are pushing forward, trying to force their way through a wooden gate. The gate has a sprung hinge which constantly pushes back against them. Even when moving together they struggle to make progress. Occasionally one or two of them manage to stumble through the gap, but an ever-growing crowd remains stuck. Aware of the movement of the dark shapes around her, as she approaches the gate, Amy’s corpse lifts her hands and begins to grab at the nearest bodies. With twisted, bony fingers she slashes at the other cadavers. Her corpse is stronger and more determined than most. She moves with more purpose than the others. The other bodies are unable to react with anything more than lethargic, shuffling movements. They do not have the speed or strength to defend themselves.

Amy knows that she must continue to move forward, although she does not understand why. She negotiates the gate (her relative speed and strength forcing it open) and continues towards the disturbance up ahead, unsure whether it’s something that might help her, or a threat she must destroy. Whatever the reason, whatever it is, the putrefying collection of withered flesh and brittle bone which Amy Steadman has become is driven relentlessly towards it.

Amy stumbles through more fields, moving further away from the remains of the city she once called home. Like all of the bodies, every single aspect of her life has now been erased. Virtually every trace of race, gender, social class, wealth and intellect has been wiped from all the dead. Amy’s corpse, like the many hundreds of similarly faceless cadavers around her, is now almost completely featureless and indistinct. Her clothes are ripped, ragged and stained. Her face is emotionless. Only the level of their individual decay distinguishes the bodies from each. Some – the most severely rotted – stumble around aimlessly, helpless and virtually blind. Those which are deteriorating more slowly, however, are those which present the greatest danger.

Amy has become aware of a dark mass on the horizon. It is a crowd of many thousands of corpses. Oblivious to the implications, she continues to stagger towards the immense gathering. Before long she reaches the edge of the diseased throng. When the massive numbers of cadavers ahead stop her from moving any further forward, she again reacts violently, ripping and tearing at the dead flesh on all sides until her path through is clear.

Deeper into the crowd, the bodies are even more tightly packed. Still more of them continually arrive at the scene, crawling slothfully towards this place from every direction, blocking the way back and preventing the corpses already there from doing anything other than trying to move farther forward still. A chain-link fence stops them from making any more progress.

It takes several days for Amy’s body to fight through far enough to finally reach the fence. She is pushed hard against the wire by the advancing crowds behind, and from there she simply watches. On the other side of the fence is a swathe of clear land. Most of the time it is quiet, but occasionally there are deafening noises and sudden huge movements which whip the diseased hordes into a riotous frenzy. The bodies are surrounding what is possibly the last operational airfield in the country.

Amy’s corpse is just one of a crowd now more than a hundred thousand strong. And thousands more are still approaching.



Autumn: The London Trilogy omnibus edition