The Battle of Wapping (excerpt from the beginning of Autumn: Inferno)
They may have looked like an army as they marched along Tower Hill together, but most of them felt woefully underprepared. David Shires was near the back, cursing himself for volunteering but knowing he’d had no alternative. It just wasn’t in his nature to sit back and let others take the risks on his behalf. Also, he’d wanted to see for himself how bad things were out there. But now his nerves were clanging, and he wished he could trade places with someone who’d stayed behind. He was a reluctant combatant at the best of times, and today was far from the best of times. They came to a halt a short distance from the junction of East Smithfield and The Highway. David was sandwiched between Gary Welch on one side and Sanjay on the other, bracing himself against the crisp, icy-cold wind of the dry, mid-November morning. He didn’t think he’d ever felt more out of place in his life.
‘You’re shivering,’ Gary said. ‘Nerves or cold?’
‘Shitting bricks. I don’t know about you, Dave, but when I come up against those dead fuckers and I’m not expecting it, I can cope. It’s the anticipation that gets to me, all this waiting around. Puts the fear of god into me, it really does.’
‘I’m the same,’ Sanjay said. ‘It amplifies the nerves, makes everything feel a thousand times worse. Reacting is one thing, thinking about how you’re going to have to react is something else altogether.’
‘Still, we’ll let that lot take the brunt of it, eh? They’re the pros, apparently.’ Gary gestured towards the large pack of fighters ahead of them, closer to the frontline. Some of them appeared disturbingly keen, chomping at the bit to release weeks of pent-up tension by battering the dead. There was nothing professional about them; many of them just looked the part because they’d taken the initiative and helped themselves to armour and weapons from the relics on display in the Tower of London.
‘They’ve definitely got the kit for it,’ David said, looking down at his own gear. His makeshift protection had been fashioned from reclaimed scrap metal, fastened in position with wire and rope. Gary was wearing a breastplate cut from the bonnet of a green Toyota, held in place by gaffer tape wrapped around the arms of his jacket. Most people wore PPE; everyone was ordered to wear at least one item of fluorescent clothing to distinguish themselves from the decrepit masses they were about to wade into. Some people had hardhats taken from the corpses they’d found near construction sites, but most were going into battle wearing only goggles or safety glasses and facemasks to protect them from the inevitable noxious splashbacks. They were armed with crude but effective weapons. David had a metal railing from a fence, sharpened to a point; Sanjay carried a claw hammer in one hand and a dustbin lid shield in the other.
‘You wouldn’t think it, looking at me now,’ Gary said, ‘but I used to do a lot of running, back in the day. Three London Marathons, I did.’
David was impressed. ‘I watched it on TV, and that was tiring enough. So, what are you saying? You going to make a run for it?’
He laughed. ‘Not at all. I was just gonna say that I feel like I used to on the start line, waiting for the off. Frigging horrible, it was. No matter how much training you’d done, you never felt ready. You knew you had hours of pain ahead of you.’
‘And that’s what you think we’ve got coming?’
‘No, mate, not hours. We’ve got days of pain ahead. Weeks. Months, even. The races I used to do had a finish line, but I can’t see where this one ends.’
Sanjay butted in. ‘And in marathons you didn’t have thousands of people coming the other way, all trying to kill you.’
‘Correct. Anyway, all I’m saying is that once that barrier’s opened, this is gonna hurt.’
‘Great. You’re a real inspiration, Gary,’ David grumbled.
‘I aim to please.’
Marie Hannish, who worked in PR before the world had fallen apart, was standing on the other side of Gary, wearing tin-can armour and wielding a hockey stick. She just looked at him. ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a motivational speaker?’ she asked, deadpan.
In front of David, Holly Wilkins appeared to laugh nervously. She’d been billeted on the same floor of the hotel as he had, and they’d left the building together this morning. When she looked around, he saw that she was crying. ‘It’ll be alright, Hol,’ he told her, resting a hand on her shoulder.
‘Oh, sure,’ he said, and he pulled her close and squeezed. ‘We’ll look out for each other, okay?’
She just nodded, far from convinced.
Paul Duggan, one of Piotr’s chiefs, climbed onto the roof of one of the two trucks they’d parked back-to-back across the street, blocking the full width of The Highway. The nervous chatter in the ranks was silenced because everyone knew the time had finally come. The floodgates were about to open.
Paul kept his back to the others and looked out over the dead hordes. Directly below, a couple of them lifted their ravaged faces and glared up at him with rheumy eyes. Most remained slumped forward against those in front, an immobile plug of diseased flesh, just waiting. The brightness of the morning allowed him to see everything in detail. He thought a little autumn fog might have made the view a bit more palatable. As it was, the queue of death stretched so far into the distance that he couldn’t see the end. The most disconcerting thing was the movement. Whereas they frequently wandered the desolate streets, today they were all moving in this direction, filling in the gaps.
The sound of approaching engines.
The crowd of fighters on the street parted to allow the well-used backhoe loader through. It had proved equally adept at moving rot as rubble. It rumbled into position, flanked by a tractor and a pick-up truck, both of which had seen better days.
David kept hold of Holly, but he found himself on the opposite side of the road to Gary and Sanjay now. He watched them across the gap and wondered if they felt as absolutely fucking terrified as he did. It was the uncertainty, as well as the apprehension, he decided. What were they about to face? How aggressive would the dead be after all this time? This was going to be their first direct confrontation since… well, since forever. He realised this was the first time he’d gone out into the wilds with the sole aim of wiping out as many of those diseased fuckers as possible. Individually, he knew they were nothing, but collectively… well, that was a different matter altogether. He started doing a few pointless back-of-a-fag-packet calculations in his head as a distraction. If we can get rid of an average of fifty each, and if the backhoe loader can wipe out several hundred, then maybe we have half a chance. It was only ever going to be half a chance because he knew that even if they hacked down around a thousand of them today, the same number would be lining up to take them on tomorrow. He tried every tactic he could think of to remain positive. Don’t think about them in individual numbers. Think about it in terms of ground gained. Reclaim a few metres every day, that’s all it’s going to take. Step by step by small, incremental step.
The moment had arrived.
Alfonso Morterero was an HGV driver from Bilbao who’d found himself stuck in central London on the day the world ended. His English was limited (but rapidly improving), but Alf, as he’d inevitably become known, didn’t shy away from taking responsibility. Any opportunity to drive and he was there, volunteering before most people had even heard the call. He climbed up into the cab of one of the blocking trucks then hung out of the open door, looking up at Paul and waiting for the signal.
Alfonso had kept the truck well maintained; he’d always known it would need to be moved at some point. The engine started first time, and he glanced across and saw the corpses immediately reacting to the noise. A wave of excited movement rippled through the mindless swarm. Alfonso turned the wheel sharp and drove along Dock Street, opening up The Highway.
For a moment that seemed to last an eternity, nothing happened. The first few rows of dead creatures, for so long pressed up against the side of the truck and compacted in place by the ceaseless weight of thousands more behind, initially remained rigid. They were stuck in place, brittle bones interlocked, glued together with dried out decay. From his position, David noticed signs of movement along the fleshy dam. A few slight wobbles and vibrations, then parts of it began to rock back and forth, the pressure increasing. A couple of seconds longer and it gave way, sending a lumpy tide of once human slurry gushing across the street. The fighters who were furthest forward scrambled back. Still on top of the other truck, Paul Duggan yelled at them to hold their positions.
After the initial flood had subsided, the dead began to advance.
The first of them appeared barely human, deformed by the pressures being exerted on the front of the pack. Everything was wrong about the horrific, dripping monsters that lurched forward. One was a barrel shaped torso on spindly legs, both arms torn off, long gone. The next appeared to have its head on sideways; its neck was broken, but decapitation had been averted by the few stubborn sinews that had refused to tear. Another one had originally been two. With a pair of ribcages intertwined like latticework, the combined monstrosity walked crablike with two heads, four arms, four legs, and a single intent.
A guy standing behind David ripped off his facemask and vomited over his boots. The acidic smell was barely perceptible over the stench of everything else.
Paul signalled for the backhoe loader to move up. Kevin Greatrex was the only one who ever drove the machine. He’d got hold of the keys when they’d first found it and had refused to let them go. Now he carried them with him everywhere, even slept with them in his hand because the digger was his protection, his suit of armour. It enabled him to exact long overdue revenge on the dead without too much personal risk. He usually found the destruction therapeutic, but right now he’d have happily given up his seat to anyone who asked.
Here goes everything.
Kevin accelerated and dropped the digger scoop. It scraped along the road, filling the air with ugly noise, making him the focus of everything. He levelled off his speed slightly, aiming for the sweet spot between control and carnage, then ploughed into the hordes head-on.