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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?’

‘Both. You?’

‘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.

‘No.’

‘Good. Don’t.’

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.

‘You think?’

‘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.

Thumbs up.

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.

THE AUTUMN SERIES