John Carlton is a twenty-four year old army mechanic who, for the last one hundred and nineteen days, has lived in a military bunker buried deep underground. Trapped down there with him now are another one hundred and sixteen soldiers, less than half the number of troops that originally manned the base. A pale shadow of the highly trained and once powerful fighting force they used to be a part of, these men and women are desperate and terrified. Backed into a corner, their command structure has crumbled. All order and control has broken down. Supplies are running dangerously low. Time is running out.
For these people, the bunker has become a tomb. They have no means of escape or salvation, and each one of them is painfully aware just how precarious their situation now is. The alternatives are all equally hopeless: it won’t be long before their lack of equipment and supplies renders the bunker uninhabitable, and yet they are unable to leave. The infected air outside will kill them seconds. Furthermore, the dead remains of the population on the surface have, over time, already gravitated towards the base, burying it under literally thousands of tonnes of rotting human flesh.
Inside the bunker, the situation continues to deteriorate day by day, almost by the hour. Law and order is non-existent and every man and woman has to fend for themselves. Rank and position are long-forgotten. Everyone is equal now: all at the bottom of the pile. Self-preservation is all that matters, and comrades are rapidly becoming enemies. The next breath of air that the person alongside you takes, or the mouthful of water they swallow means, ultimately, that there is now less for you.
Whatever decisions these men and women take, they know the end result will be the same. But worst of all, each of them now understands that death no longer carries with it any certainty. The end of their natural lives may just be the beginning of something far, far worse.
John Carlton is hiding in one of the most inaccessible parts of the bunker. His home for the last two weeks has been a narrow service tunnel. All he has with him are a pistol, a few rounds of ammunition, some meagre supplies and his standard issue protective suit.
Sound is easily carried along the twisting maze of tunnels at the heart of the bunker. Though its precise source is unclear, Carlton knows that trouble is uncomfortably near. He suspects the sounds he’s now hearing are almost certainly the beginning of the end. Somewhere in the underground base, intense fighting has broken out.
That’s it, I guess. The supplies must have finally run out. It had to happen sooner or later. This base was only ever stocked for around seventy days, and we’re way over that deadline. The fact we lost so many men and women in the battle meant that we’ve lasted a little longer, but I reckon our number’s up.
The day of the battle was when I knew there was no hope for any of us. I’d suspected as much since we arrived down here, but until then I’d done my best to stay positive. It was the lack of information that unnerved me to begin with: no hard facts, no definite instructions. I mean, I’d heard stories about the casualties on the surface and what might have killed them, but while we were safe down here with the doors locked, none of it felt real. I half expected to finally go up top and find that nothing had changed, that we’d been part of some fucked-up psychological experiment, something like that. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
The battle had already been raging for several hours when we were ordered to get suited up to fight. There was no tactical briefing, because there were no fucking tactics. We’d heard that the enemy numbered hundreds of thousands, and we were told to go out there and get rid of as many of them as we could. If it’s not military, we were told, destroy it.
We’d made it as far as the airlock when the retreat began. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I pray to God I never do again. I only managed to get a faint glimpse outside before the doors were closed for good, but it was like hell on Earth out there. Our boys were trying to get back to base but it wasn’t a controlled fall-back. Blokes were just running for their lives. And behind them . . . Christ, following them into the bunker were thousands of those fucking things. Huge swarms of these bloody monsters that looked like corpses. They were falling apart, barely able to keep going, but you could see that they knew what they were doing. I watched them ripping our people to shreds, trampling them underfoot and tearing at their suits. There was nothing we could do against their numbers. It was like an infinite army, and its soldiers couldn’t be stopped because they were already dead.
The commander gave the order to lock-down the base and all we could do was watch as the chambers were sealed. It was fucking heart-breaking to see men and women that I’d stood alongside and fought with just left stuck out there to die. They’d have kept on fighting for as long as possible, I know they would, but the bodies will have got all of them in the end. I heard there were so many of them that they couldn’t get the main bunker doors closed. There was too much dead meat in the way to get them shut.
I went back up to the decontamination chambers about a week later with a handful of others to do some maintenance checks. We tried to look outside but it was dark and we couldn’t see anything much. We thought the electrics were fucked, but they were still working. It was just that the hangar was full of rotting flesh. The dead things were packed so tight against the doors that the damn things couldn’t even move. There were so many of them they blocked out the light.
All that was sixty-five days ago now. Since then I’ve counted every frigging hour and watched every minute tick past. Hard to believe I’ve lasted this long. Truth be told, it feels like I’ve been here ten times longer.
I just heard gunfire again. Part of me wants to go and find out what’s happening, but I’m not going anywhere. Maybe when it quietens down again I’ll try. I’m going to have to move sooner or later. I’ve run out of food.
More fighting. More gunshots and more yelling. Bloody hell, I wonder how many others are left alive now? I can still hear their screams in the distance. I keep thinking I recognise their voices but it’s just my mind playing tricks again. Can’t take anymore of this. I’m going to try and get closer. See if I can find out what’s happening.
Carlton slowly crawled out of the low tunnel where he’d been hiding for what felt like forever, his joints stiff and aching. He tried to move quietly but after being inactive for so long, his movements were clumsy and awkward. His protective suit further reduced his manoeuvrability. He kept it on because it gave him an extra layer of warmth and also because he was too scared to take it off. What if the base was contaminated? He had to take a chance and do without the breathing apparatus, though. It was too bulky and it slowed him down. He held a loaded pistol tightly in his hand.
The service tunnel opened out into a second tunnel which was slightly wider. That tunnel, in turn, eventually connected with an arterial corridor which led to the centre of the base. Carlton decided to see how far he could get.
The lighting around him was virtually non-existent – a dull yellow glow from intermittent emergency lamps, that was all – but it was enough. The darkness was helpful. Any brighter and it would have been difficult to remain hidden.
Carlton paused for a moment to get his bearings. The bunker was a large, sprawling construction which seemed to meander aimlessly underground in every direction. Long, empty tunnels connected storerooms, mess halls and dormitories which were a surprising distance apart. If he was where he thought he was, the next door on his left would be the entrance to the kitchens. He crept further along the corridor, pressed tight against the grubby wall, then stopped when he reached the door. It was half-open. He peered inside. No one there.
It was slightly brighter inside the kitchens, and the relative brightness made his eyes sting after days of darkness. It was immediately obvious (and not at all surprising) that the whole area had long since been cleared out. The cupboards and storage areas – those he could see from where he was standing – had been stripped.
Carlton was about to leave the kitchen when something in the layer of rubbish under his feet caught his eye. He kicked a pile of plastic food trays out of the way and saw a hand, sticking up through the garbage as if asking for help. Working quickly, he uncovered the body of Lynn Price, the officer who’d been in charge of the kitchens. The poor bitch had a bread knife buried in her right kidney. A large pool of blood had spilled out over the kitchen floor. In places it was still tacky but most of it was dry. She’d been dead for some time.
Nerves threatened to get the better of Carlton. Did he continue to push further into the base, or should he turn around now and scuttle back to the relative safety of his dark tunnel hideout? Hiding was by far the easier option, but he knew it wouldn’t have done him any good in the long run. If he didn’t find food and water soon, he wouldn’t last. He was already beginning to dehydrate. Christ, what he would have given for
a glass of ice-cold water right now. The fact he was standing in the middle of a kitchen only made him feel worse. He pressed on.
The kitchen was connected to the main mess hall. Carlton climbed over a stainless steel worktop then through the wide serving hatch before taking a few tentative steps into the deserted hall. It was in just as bad a state as the kitchen. It looked like there’d been a riot here. Furniture had been upturned and he could see the bodies of at least four more ex-colleagues. He was about to check the vending machines in the corner (obviously empty, but still enticingly illuminated) when the sound of another hail of bullets stopped him in his tracks. That was close. Too close. A moment of cautious silence followed, then the sound of heavy footsteps thundering past the mess hall entrance. From his position he saw four figures rush past the door and carry on down the corridor. He waited for a moment, then looked to see where they’d gone.
‘Carlton,’ a voice hissed at him from out of nowhere. His heart skipped a beat. He spotted a frightened face hiding in another doorway opposite. Who was it? It was difficult to see but he didn’t want to get any closer. Wait, was that Daniel Wright?
‘Dan? Dan, is that you?’
The figure on the other side of the corridor checked in both directions then crossed over into the mess hall. Wright pushed Carlton further back into the shadows.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ he asked, his voice just a whisper. ‘Haven’t seen you in weeks.’
‘Been hiding,’ Carlton replied, giving little away.
‘Sensible move. Best thing to do around here.’
‘What about you?’
‘I was with a few others. Got into a scrap and I took the chance to duck out and get away.’
‘We’re all waiting to die, didn’t you know? Fucking place is falling apart. People are falling apart. Half the people left down here are already dead, and most of them killed themselves.’
Carlton was silent. None Wright said came as a surprise. ‘So what are you doing now?’
‘No bloody idea,’ Wright admitted. ‘Way I see it, there’s not a lot any of us can do.’
The conversation was interrupted by the sounds of another fight breaking out deeper in the base. Wright peered out into the corridor again, then quickly pulled his head back inside.
‘Nothing. It’s just a matter of time, though. Won’t be long before this whole fucking place goes up in smoke.’
More noise. Getting closer now. Wright started to shuffle uncomfortably. ‘Where you been hiding then, mate?’ he asked. Carlton didn’t immediately answer. He couldn’t tell him. ‘Come on, man,’ Wright begged as the noise echoing along the corridor continued to increase in volume. ‘Let me come with you. I won’t do anything to get you found, I swear. I just want somewhere safe where I can—’
Soldiers appeared at the end of the corridor. More gunshots. A figure collapsed in a hail of bullets. More troops trampled the fallen body as they ran for shelter.
Carlton wanted to run back to the service tunnel, but he knew Wright would follow and he couldn’t afford to let him. He had to lose him fast.
‘Come on, mate,’ Wright begged. ‘Please . . .’
In a sudden flash of movement, Wright drew a knife and held it to Carlton’s neck. All Carlton could think about was the suit. Cut me, but don’t cut the bloody suit.
‘I can’t . . .’ Carlton whimpered.
‘Show me where you’re hiding or I’ll fucking kill you,’ Wright said, his face against the other man’s ear.
‘I can’t,’ he said again, and before Wright realised what he was doing, Carlton shoved his pistol up into his gut and fired. Wright collapsed and Carlton stepped over him, wiping dribbles of blood from his precious suit and checking for tears.
He was about to go out into the corridor when another group of soldiers ran past the mess hall doorway, this time heading in the opposite direction to the first, moving deeper into the base again. More followed, then even more. One of the soldiers straggling at the back of the pack tried to grab hold of Carlton and drag him along with him but Carlton squirmed free. ‘Get out of here,’ the soldier in the corridor screamed at him. ‘Get out of here now. They’re opening the bloody doors!’
Not caring who saw him now, Carlton ran back through the mess hall, climbing back through the serving hatch and sprinting across the kitchen. He raced back to his hideout as quickly as his tired, under-exercised legs would carry him. He threw himself into the service tunnel, then scrabbled around in the darkness for his breathing apparatus. Hands trembling with nerves, he put on his kit then wedged himself into a gap between two large ducts. He melted back into the darkness and waited.
A group of soldiers had fought their way into the decontamination chambers at the entrance to the bunker. Their priorities skewed after weeks of frightened isolation, two of them worked to get the sealed doors open while another three held off other troops who fought to prevent the integrity of the base being compromised. Perhaps the risk of infection had finally passed? The men now struggling to open the doors and get outside genuinely believed this was their last chance.
Whenever the soldiers covering those working on the door saw even the slightest glimpse of movement in the corridor leading to the decontamination chambers, they let fly a hail of bullets. Those trying to stop them didn’t stand a chance, such was the position of the doorway being defended. Explosives and grenades were useless too. To use munitions of any strength at this close range would almost certainly cause irreparable damage to the chambers and compromise the base. A few desperate fighters continued to try and prevent the breach at all costs; mostly those who’d been unfortunate enough to have already seen the hell outside, those who’d already fought hand to hand with vast numbers of the unstoppable dead. They’d rather die now than face them again.
It seemed inevitable that the doors would eventually be opened again. It was just a matter of time.
Carlton lay on his back in the tunnel, shaking with fear. The world sounded different from behind the mask; muffled, distant and indistinct. It made him feel even more disconnected, even more scared.
He could hear people dying, their screams echoing through this maze of subterranean corridors and passageways. The noises seemed to surround Carlton, coming at him from every angle.
Then it all stopped.
The chaos was replaced by a sudden silence so unexpected and terrifying that it made Carlton lose control of his bladder. He lay on his back in a pool of his own piss and lifted a trembling hand up to his mask, ready to tear it off. I should just do it, just get it over with . . .
But he couldn’t.
Sobbing with fear, he lay still and waited.
The silence had continued for almost two days. In his cramped confinement, Carlton listened intently to the stillness. He was weak with hunger and slept fitfully.
After endless hours of nothing, he finally heard something. Had he imagined it? He held his breath and listened carefully, the rapid thump of his own frightened heartbeat pounding in his ears and threatening to drown out every other sound. What was happening? He’d begun to presume that the all-consuming silence of the last forty or so hours had been a good thing. Surely if the base had been invaded by swarms of decaying bodies he would have seen or heard something by now?
There it was again – the bang and clatter of metal on metal. He had to do something now, he couldn’t wait here any longer. Moving slowly, he slid back down the service corridor to the junction with the second, slightly wider passageway. Once there he crouched down on aching knees and listened again, keeping well out of sight. More noise. This time even further away, still unclear and indistinct, random, almost.
Carlton moved forward, then stopped when he reached the next corridor. He could see the kitchen door. The lights were lower than before, only the dull yellow electric back-up lighting still working. He retraced the steps he’d taken a few days earlier, tiptoeing through the wreckage, doing all he could not to make any unnecessary noise. He stepped over the officer’s corpse he’d discovered last time he was here, then slid through the serving hatch and out into the mess hall.
More distant sounds. He primed his pistol, cringing at the uncomfortably loud noise it made, then walked to the end of the hall. He stopped when a figure appeared from a doorway over to his far left. Christ, who was that? The figure wore a soldier’s uniform, but it moved painfully slowly, obviously badly injured.
Carlton held his breath, trying not to move for fear of giving away his position. Something was very wrong here. The soldier’s head hung heavily over to one side and he seemed to be dragging his feet rather than taking proper, controlled steps. He was now no more than a couple of feet away. He staggered into the dull glow of an emergency light directly overhead, and Carlton recoiled at his nightmarish face. What the hell had happened to him? It was as if the life had been drained out of him: his skin was white, almost blanched, and thick, dried blood had dribbled from his mouth, down his chin and onto his uniform. His eyes were unfocussed, staring ahead but not actually appearing to look at anything. To all intents and purposes this poor bastard looked dead. Carlton disappeared back into the shadows of the mess hall, and the soldier shuffled past him oblivious.
It had to be the infection. That was the only logical explanation. The integrity of the bunker had been compromised and the germ or whatever it was that had done all the damage outside had been let in. His mind began to work overtime. If everyone else is infected, he thought, then I have to get out of here. Christ, he’d seen for himself what the dead hordes were capable of when they’d forced the military back and entered the hangar almost seventy days ago. And now he found himself trapped on the wrong side of the bunker doors with, potentially, anything up to a hundred of these bloody things. He had to get out of here. He had to get out right now. He didn’t know where he was going to go or how he was going to do it, but he had to try and make a run for it. He was going to die soon, that much was inevitable, but he wasn’t about to let himself be torn apart at the dead hands of former friends and colleagues. As weak and tired and frightened as he was, he wasn’t prepared to end his days like that. One last push . . .
Carlton stepped out into the corridor, the dead soldier still tripping away to his right.
To Carlton’s left the passageway was clear. He limped further down the corridor, passing the door from which the body had emerged and eventually reaching a T-junction. Left or right? All the corridors in this damn place looked as grey and disappointingly featureless as the next. Carlton was disorientated and he couldn’t clearly remember the way to the control room, but he knew if he could reach the control room he was sure he’d then be able to find the communications room. Once he’d made it there he’d be able to work his way back through the maze of tunnels to the decontamination chambers, and that had to be the area he aimed for. If he could reach one of the chambers then, providing there wasn’t still a flood of rotting bodies trying to force their way inside, he’d have a chance, albeit a very slight one, of getting out of the base alive. What happened after that, though, was anyone’s guess.
He turned left. Damn, wrong way. Just the door to a ransacked equipment store and a dead end. He retraced his steps, moving with a little more freedom now. All he had to do was . . . shit, another figure up ahead, and he had no option but to pass it. He watched the shabby figure as it tripped towards him and he readied himself to defend against attack. He held up his pistol and aimed it into the other man’s face. ‘Stop,’ he ordered. ‘Stop there or I’ll blow your fucking head off.’
But the dead soldier continued its lethargic advance, and all Carlton could do was shoot. He closed his eyes and squeezed the trigger and winced as the deafening sound of the gunshot echoed throughout the underground complex, taking forever to fade away. When he dared look again he saw that the soldier’s corpse had crumbled to the ground in front of him, the top of its head missing. Crimson red dripped from the grey corridor walls. Carlton was so preoccupied with the bloody mess that he failed to notice another two figures approaching until they’d almost reached the corpse on the floor. Without stopping to consider his actions, he fired off two more shots at close range.
At the end of this corridor was the control room. More through luck than judgement, he’d found it.
Carlton weaved around empty desks and redundant computer equipment. Another body staggered towards him but, rather than waste precious time fighting, this time he simply stepped out of its way and the vacuous thing blundered past. It didn’t even appear to have seen him.
Out of the control room now. Another left turn, straight down the corridor to the very end and then right. Jesus Christ, yet another one of them. He shot this one in the face – the passageway was too narrow to risk taking any chances. He stepped over the body and pushed through the door into the communications room. And then he stopped. But it wasn’t bodies stopping him this time, it was self-doubt. Another couple of hundred metres or so of corridor and he’d be outside the decontamination chambers. Did he really want to do this? Could he do it? More to the point, did he have any choice? Carlton’s ever-decreasing alternatives were continuing to dwindle. He realised his choice now was appallingly grim: stay underground with around a hundred undead soldiers for company, or try and get up to the surface and face the possibility of having to deal with many, many more bodies up top. The thought of getting out of the bunker was the deciding factor. Okay, so it might not be any better (it would probably be much worse) aboveground, but at least he’d be out in the open, if only for a few minutes. Imagine not seeing the sky again, he thought to himself. Imagine dying in this place and never seeing the sun. His choice was made.
Carlton paused for a second longer to catch his breath, then left the communications room through another exit and ran headlong into a crowd of seven more bodies, all of them struggling to get down a corridor which was only wide enough for two. Instinctively he began to kick and punch at them, either battering them to the ground or dragging them out of the way. They offered next to no resistance as he angrily beat a clear path through, trampling over their fallen corpses.
The corridor ahead was clear now, and he could see through to the doors into the decontamination chambers. Just a few metres further now . . . but there were yet more bodies to get past first. In the doorway leading into the main chamber lay a pile of fallen corpses, blood-soaked and riddled with fresh bullet holes. Bloody hell, the creature at the very bottom of the gory heap was still moving! In the chamber itself more corpses staggered around aimlessly. Doing his best to ignore their disarmingly insistent, clumsy movements, Carlton tried to look past them and focus on the open decontamination chamber doors, preparing himself for the expected onslaught of endless thousands of savage corpses, all baying angrily for his flesh.
But where he had expected to see such frantic activity, he instead saw nothing. No movement at all. Complete stillness. Unexpected calm.
In disbelief, convinced his tired eyes must be deceiving him, Carlton pushed away the last of the dumb bodies still moving around the chamber, and stood at the final door which separated the interior of the bunker from the diseased world outside. He could see that the huge hangar doors were still open and much of the vast cavern was filled with harsh but beautiful sunlight. He looked out at an utterly unbelievable scene, then took a single, very hesitant, step out into the hangar.
The cavernous place was virtually unrecognisable, the air filled with the angry noise of millions of swarming flies and other insects. He carefully put his foot down on the ground, his boot sinking into a putrefied sea of human remains several inches deep. Bloody hell, the whole of the room was covered with a layer of stinking, rotten flesh. As he looked deeper into the sickening quagmire he was able to make out features – bones, the remains of clothing, abandoned weapons and armour. And some of it was moving! All around the apparently endless grey-green-red mire he could see occasional twitches of movement.
Overcome by the horror of what surrounded him, and almost forgetting the fact that he was now outside the inner sanctum of the bunker, Carlton moved slowly forward through the once-human sludge. He forced himself to look up rather than down as he dragged his tired feet along. It was easier to drag and scrape the soles of his boots rather than take proper steps and risk losing his footing and sliding deeper into the gore.
Before long he had reached the bottom of the ramp which would lead him back up into the rest of the world. He didn’t hesitate to start climbing. No matter what he found up there, it couldn’t be any worse than the sickening pit of death he was already standing in, could it?
It was difficult to make any progress up the flesh-covered incline. His boots struggled for grip in the slime and filth. Eventually he dropped down onto his hands and knees and began to crawl, still angling his head upwards so that he didn’t have to look at what he was crawling through. He kept moving steadily, trying to think about absolutely anything that might distract him from this slurry of rotting human remains. Whilst generally slippery and creamy and almost liquefied in places, the gruesome mixture was full of brittle bones and pieces of abandoned military equipment. Don’t rip the suit, he desperately told himself, for Christ’s sake, don’t rip the suit.
He finally reached the top of the ramp. Before standing up he closed his eyes and remembered the lush green countryside which had surrounded the base. It had been the last thing he’d seen before they’d disappeared underground four months ago. Since then he’d been haunted by a lost vision of the blue sky, bright sun and endless rolling hills. He’d thought he’d never get to see it again.
Carlton carefully stood up and walked outside. Then he slowly lifted his head and looked.
The sky was just as deep and blue and perfect as he remembered, but everything else . . . Christ, what had happened to the world? For as far as he could see in every direction the ground had been scarred by battle. Mud replaced grass, there were huge craters and dips where munitions had exploded, trees had been scorched and burned down to blackened stumps. And as for the bodies . . . God, the bodies . . . Carlton was completely still, transfixed by the horror all around him. Everywhere he looked he saw more and more of the dead. The withered skeletons of his former colleagues, still wrapped in what remained of their now useless protective suits, lay alongside the others, their corpses frequently entangled, entwined forever with those they’d died fighting. And even here there was still some movement. Subtle and indistinct, but occasionally some of the bodies were still moving: too decayed to get up, but still twitching where they’d fallen. Bloody hell, hadn’t these things suffered enough?
Disconsolate, Carlton finally summoned up enough strength to walk away from the underground base.
It was a cold, dry and bright winter morning. The precise time, day, date and season didn’t matter anymore, because Carlton knew this day would be his last. Or if not today then it would be tomorrow or, at the very latest, the day after that. He couldn’t imagine lasting any longer. If he was honest, he didn’t want to.
Months back, when he’d first been sent underground, he’d completely failed to appreciate the scale of the battle which raged on the surface. As time progressed he’d heard plenty of rumours and reports, but no one had accurately conveyed the full enormity of what had happened. This endless devastation was hard to comprehend. It seemed to go on forever. He walked for hours and yet he was still surrounded by craters, abandoned military machinery and bodies. Endless hordes of twitching, putrefying bodies . . .
He guessed that he must have covered several miles by the time he reached the outermost edge of the battlefield. It had clouded over and the light had faded but he could see that, slowly but surely, the number of bodies and the scarring of the land had reduced. A short distance further and the world around him began to appear deceptively normal and familiar. He saw lush green grass, undamaged trees, and even birds flitting about above him. For a few seconds he allowed himself a faint glimmer of hope. Might there yet be an escape from this nightmare? But then, as the first few drops of icy winter rain trickled down his visor, he was reminded of the need for his protective suit. He remembered the germ in the air which had caused all of the devastation, and all illusions of salvation and normality were immediately shattered.
Carlton stumbled through several more fields before reaching a narrow road which twisted through the countryside. For a while he walked along it, instinctively keeping close to the hedge at the side of the road should anything be coming the other way. The longer he walked, however, the louder the silence around him became. He quickly accepted there would be no car, van, bike or any other vehicle along this road today. Today – for one day only – he was completely alone in the world.
Further down the track, Carlton finally came across a car. It was a small but pretty standard saloon. He stopped and stared at it for a moment. There was nothing special about it, and perhaps that was its strange attraction. It looked so completely ordinary and normal. In the bizarre world he was moving through, however, what he considered usual was now most certainly not. The car appeared completely at odds with its surroundings. Carlton looked further and saw that it had been parked on a patch of gravel next to a gap in the hedgerow. It was a drive. Curious, he took a few steps away from the road and saw that he was in front of a house. It took him a while to be able to properly distinguish the outline of the building. Once typical and ordinary, today the house looked subtly different. Its garden was unkempt and overgrown, and he imagined this was the first sign of the building being swallowed up by the countryside, reclaimed. Its windows were opaque with cobwebs and dust. Carlton stood and stared for a while longer before moving on.
Another house, then another and then another. Soon he found himself standing in the middle of an empty village. It was perfectly still – like a freeze-frame – and uncomfortably eerie. Several buildings on one side of the village had been destroyed by fire and were now little more than charred black outlines of their former selves. The rest of the silent shops and houses looked dirty and neglected like the first house he’d seen. He stood in the middle of the road and thought about calling out, but what good would it do? What if he found someone? For a moment his heart leapt, because there had to be survivors, didn’t there? But then reality hit home. What could they do for him? More to the point, what would they expect him to do for them?
Carlton continued to walk until he could go no further. He followed the road as it trailed back out of the village and dragged himself along it as it wound up and around the side of a hill. The earlier rain had passed and the world was now drenched in bright, warm winter sunlight again. The sun was well on its way down towards the horizon, a huge incandescent orange disc now. The lone soldier watched its descent with fascination and a fond sadness, knowing that he probably wouldn’t be here to see it rise again tomorrow.
At the top of the hill, the exhausted man clambered over a wooden stile, then sat down at the top edge of a steep field. There were a few sheep at the bottom of the field, and from where he sat he could see cows and horses in the distance. His eyes were tired and his vision was beginning to blur but he scanned the horizon constantly. It occurred to him that from up here he couldn’t see a single trace of man. It would be there if he looked hard enough, but he didn’t want to. Buildings, roads and everything else seemed to have been absorbed back into the land. Carlton felt an overwhelming sense of alienation and isolation, like he no longer belonged here, but at the same time he was glad he’d been given this final opportunity to see the world once more.
It was getting dark. One last thing to do.
Carlton unclipped his pistol from its holster on his belt and checked it was loaded. He’d planned this. He’d spent all afternoon thinking about it. He wanted to remain in control to the very end, to deny the infection one last victim and at the same time ensure his death was as final as it should always have been.
Nervous, shaking with cold, he pulled off his face mask and slipped the end of the pistol into his mouth. He pressed it against the roof of his mouth, gagging as he shoved the oily metal to the back of his throat, then paused.
Should it have happened by now?
He sucked in cool, clean air through his nose, too afraid to take the gun out of his mouth just in case the infection caught him before he was able to fire. He’d heard his former colleagues in the bunker talking about a germ which struck and killed in seconds, so why hadn’t it got him? He’d heard about people spitting blood as they were asphyxiated, so why couldn’t he feel anything? Was it over already, or was the air here clear? He couldn’t believe that – the last soldiers in the base had been infected just a couple of days earlier.
But the seconds continued to tick by . . .
The only alternative, he finally decided after several minutes had passed, is that I must be immune. He almost laughed, choking on his pistol. All that time! All those unbearably long and painful days, weeks and months spent down there underground and I could have walked out at any time!
Another minute had passed. Still no reaction.
Carlton took the pistol out of his mouth, shook his head and laughed out loud. A perfect end to the day, he thought as he grinned and lay back on the grass. The air was sweet. It tasted good.
Just a few more minutes, he thought.
Carlton looked up into the sky, the first few stars starting to appear, and he thought about his family and friends and all he had lost. He thought about the nightmare of being buried underground and how he’d had to battle through the reanimated bodies of his dead colleagues to get outside. He thought about Daniel Wright, the soldier he’d killed in cold blood just a few days earlier, and the others he’d subsequently fought. He thought about the fact that right now, he might well be the only man left alive.
Carlton thought about the aching in his bones. He thought about his appalling physical condition, the dehydration and malnourishment. He thought about how much effort it would take now to find food and clean water, and how much of a struggle it would be to try and make himself well. The village he’d walked through earlier would be the most sensible place to start. He thought about all those empty, dead buildings and the distance he’d have to cover to get back there. He thought about the cold and the oncoming winter and how hard it would be to survive. He thought about the effort everything would take now and whether any of it would be worth it. He thought about being alone, about doing all of this by himself. No one to talk to when things got tough. No one to share the highs and many lows with. No one to hold him at the end of each day and tell him he’d done good, and that they loved him and they were proud of him.
Carlton enjoyed the next hour. He lay on the grass and dozed and daydreamed until the light had all but disappeared and the clear sky above him was full of stars. Millions of stars, he thought, just one man.
Calm, composed and completely sure, he slipped the pistol back into his mouth and fired.