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Kilgore

Kil­go­re’s not immune, nor is he infect­ed. He’s a sol­dier, but he’s nei­ther brave nor strong. He’s a weak-willed cow­ard; a shys­ter in uni­form; the last per­son you’d rely on in the heat of bat­tle. But some­how — through a com­bi­na­tion of good luck and bad for­tune — he’s made it through to the very end of everything.

Kil­go­re sat alone at a met­al table in the fur­thest, dark­est cor­ner of the bunker mess hall, hop­ing not to be noticed. The wide, low-ceilinged room was large­ly emp­ty. Only the occa­sion­al noise from the kitchen and the con­stant, pierc­ing elec­tri­cal hum of the strip lights dis­turbed the silence.

Spence ambled into the hall and fetched him­self a tray of food. With only a cou­ple of oth­er peo­ple eat­ing, none of whom he knew well, he walked over towards Kil­go­re. ‘Mind if I sit here?’

Kil­go­re jumped with sur­prise. He looked up at Spence with tired eyes and shook his head. ‘Go for it,’ he said, then he quick­ly looked down again. He played with his fork, stir­ring the luke­warm, piss-weak stew, push­ing lumps of meat-sub­sti­tute around and mak­ing tracks in the watery gravy, but not actu­al­ly eat­ing any­thing. Spence sat on the bench direct­ly opposite.

He’d encoun­tered Kil­go­re on a num­ber of occa­sions before they’d been ordered under­ground. He’d always had a rep­u­ta­tion for being a moan­er: the kind of per­son who instinc­tive­ly com­plained and whinged point­less­ly about every­thing he was ordered to do. The kind of per­son who made the sim­plest of rou­tine tasks sound like some impos­si­ble under­tak­ing. An inces­sant talk­er and com­pul­sive liar, he wound the offi­cers up and he wound his fel­low sol­diers up. Kil­go­re wound every­one up.

He was crying.

Spence shuf­fled in his seat and start­ed to eat, wish­ing that he’d cho­sen anoth­er table. Kilgore’s show of emo­tion made him uneasy. He hat­ed it when he heard peo­ple cry­ing down here. It remind­ed him of the empti­ness he felt. The three hun­dred or so peo­ple he’d been buried under­ground with were, on the whole, pro­fes­sion­al and well-trained, bat­tle-hard­ened sol­diers; men and women who’d been con­di­tioned to sup­press their emo­tions and just get on with doing what­ev­er it was they’d been told to do. But that was get­ting increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult with every pass­ing day, almost every hour. The fact some of them were show­ing emo­tion at all indi­cat­ed just how uncer­tain their sit­u­a­tion had become. And the longer they spent down here, the worse it got. No one seemed to know what they were doing or why. No one knew what had hap­pened or what was going to hap­pen next. By now they’d all heard rumours about the dire state of the infect­ed world above­ground from the few advance par­ties which had ven­tured out­side, and that only served to make their time under­ground even more dif­fi­cult. What did the future hold for the mil­lions of peo­ple left on the sur­face, scarred by plague? More impor­tant­ly, Spence thought, what did the future hold for him and for the rest of them underground?

The tap, tap, tap of met­al on plas­tic dis­turbed his train of thought. He looked at Kil­go­re again. His hand was shak­ing. He could hard­ly hold his fork still.

‘You okay, mate?’

Kil­go­re shook his head. More tears. He wiped them away on the back of his sleeve. ‘No,’ he said quietly.

‘Want to talk about it?’

‘What’s there to talk about? What good’s it gonna do? We’re stuck down here, you know, mate. There’s no fuck­ing way we’re get­ting out of here.’

‘Why d’you say that?’

Kil­go­re dropped his fork and took a swig from his cold mug of cof­fee. He leant back in his chair and ran his fin­gers through his wiry hair. For the briefest of moments he made eye con­tact with Spence, but he looked away quick. Even­tu­al­ly he cleared his throat and tried to talk.

‘You been up there yet?’ he asked, look­ing up.

‘Not yet.’

‘It was my first time out today,’ Kil­go­re explained. ‘I was shit­ting myself. I’ve nev­er seen any­thing like it. I tell you, man, you can’t even begin to imag­ine what’s going on up there until you see it …’ He stopped, took anoth­er deep breath and tried again. ‘Fuck­ing hell, I can’t even …’

‘Take your time,’ Spence said qui­et­ly, fig­ur­ing he need­ed to know. Kil­go­re tried to com­pose himself.

‘Sarge says we’re going above ground. He tells us we’re going on a walk­a­bout look­ing for sur­vivors in Ansall. You know Ansall? Lit­tle town just out­side Hem­ming­ton? Any­way, we’re ready and out­side in min­utes, before we’ve even had chance to think about it. I put the mask on and I’m stand­ing there in the suit and that’s when it hits me. I’m stand­ing there think­ing about what I’ve heard it’s like and I start think­ing Christ, get a fuck­ing hole in this suit while we’re out­side and I’m a dead man. I’m think­ing, catch the suit on a nail or a door han­dle or what­ev­er and I’ve fuck­ing had it. We’re all feel­ing it. No one says a bloody word. Then Sarge gives the nod. We get into the trans­port and he gives the order to open the doors.

‘Those bloody doors slide open and Christ, for a minute it looks fuck­ing beau­ti­ful out there. You don’t realise how much you miss day­light until you see it again. I tell you, the world nev­er looked so good as it did this after­noon. It’s about one o’clock and it’s beau­ti­ful. The sky’s blue, the sun’s burn­ing down and there’s not a fuck­ing cloud in the sky. We roll up to the top of the ramp and for a few sec­onds everything’s all right. For a cou­ple of sec­onds it feels good and you start to think everything’s going to be okay. It feels good just to be get­ting out of this fuck­ing place for a while. Even though we’ve all got our masks on it feels good to see trees and grass and hills instead of fuck­ing con­crete walls and met­al doors.

‘I had Smith sit­ting next to me. You know Smith? The big guy with the crooked nose? Any­way, we start mov­ing away from the base and he sud­den­ly sits up and starts star­ing out of the win­dow. He’s curs­ing and point­ing and we all crowd around to look at what­ev­er it is he’s seen. And that’s when we saw them. Peo­ple. I was think­ing we should stop and try and help them but then I remem­bered what I’d heard from the oth­ers who’d already been out there. Sarge stops the trans­port for a sec­ond and we watch as they keep com­ing towards us, all slow and awk­ward like their legs are stiff. I could only see a cou­ple of them at first, but they kept com­ing and then there was more and more of them. They’re com­ing out of the trees and from around the side of the entrance door and I count­ed at least thir­ty before we start­ed mov­ing again. I could see even more in the fields around us. From a dis­tance they looked nor­mal, just slow mov­ing, but when they got clos­er you could see that they were sick. Fuck­ing hell, they looked like they were rot­ting. Their skin was all dis­coloured — grey and green — and it looked like it was hang­ing off their bones like it was a few sizes too big. Some looked like bloody skele­tons, all shriv­elled up and dry. Jesus, you’ve nev­er seen any­thing like it. Sarge screams at the dri­ver to ignore them and keep mov­ing and she puts her foot down. She dri­ves into a cou­ple of them — there was noth­ing she could do, they just walked out in front of us. I watched one of them go down. We hit it so hard it vir­tu­al­ly snapped in half. Its legs were all fucked up. But then I look behind and watch as it tries to get up again. Fuck­ing thing’s lying there with both its legs smashed to fuck and it’s try­ing to get up again …

‘So we just sit there in silence for a fuck­ing age. No one says any­thing. No one knows what to fuck­ing say, you know? Any­way, we fol­low the track away from here and we see more and more of them every­where. Christ alone knows how they know where to go, but it’s like they’re all mov­ing towards the base. They stop and turn around when they see us, then start fol­low­ing. I mean, we’ve got to be doing about thir­ty or forty miles an hour and these things are fol­low­ing us like they think they’re gonna catch up. We get onto the main road and start head­ing for Ansall and I’m think­ing about what we’re going to find there. I’m think­ing fuck, if there are this many peo­ple out here in the mid­dle of nowhere, what the hell are we going to find in town?’

Kil­go­re paused to fin­ish his drink. Spence said noth­ing. He just stared into the oth­er soldier’s face. He didn’t want to hear any­thing else, but at the same time he had to know.

‘The roads were an absolute fuck­ing night­mare,’ Kil­go­re con­tin­ued. ‘It was like some­one had flicked a switch and every­thing just stopped. I tell you man, every­where you looked all you could see were bod­ies and crashed cars. Christ, I saw some fuck­ing hor­ri­ble sights out there. Any­way, because we’re on the road now the dri­ver puts her foot down and speeds up. Our truck’s heavy enough to just smash through most of the wreck­age. I start­ed get­ting freaked out by it all, and I could see it was get­ting to the oth­ers too. It’s the sheer bloody scale of it. Everything’s been wiped out up there, you know, there’s noth­ing that ’ain’t been touched. I thought I was gonna have a fuck­ing freak-out. It was so bloody hot in the suit, and the truck was like a fuck­ing sun-trap, and all I could think about was the taste of fresh air and all I want­ed to do was take off the mask and feel the sun and the wind on my face and … and then it occurs to me that none of us are ever going to feel any of that ever again. And then I start get­ting real­ly fuck­ing fright­ened think­ing about whatever’s in the air that’s done all this. I’m think­ing again about get­ting my suit ripped and not know­ing until it’s too late. I can see Fraser’s face oppo­site me. His eyes are dart­ing all round the place like a bloody mad man.

‘So we get to Ansall, and I don’t mind telling you I was scared shit­less. I’ve nev­er been so fuck­ing fright­ened. I mean, you’re like me, mate, you’ve seen plen­ty of ser­vice, but I tell you, you ’ain’t seen noth­ing like what’s up there. Remem­ber last win­ter when we were stuck in that school in the mid­dle of that fuck­ing gun­fight that went on for days? Well this was worse. At least back then we knew who the ene­my was and we could shoot back at them.

‘It was still bright, but between the build­ings the streets were dark and it was bloody cold. Com­ing into the shad­ow from the sun made it dif­fi­cult to see what was hap­pen­ing. We stopped on the edge of this lit­tle mar­ket and Sarge tells us to get out and start hav­ing a look around. We were sup­posed to be look­ing for sur­vivors but all I could see were peo­ple in the same state as those we’d seen back around here. The first one I saw up close was this lit­tle old lady. She’s half-dressed and her tits were hang­ing out and they’re all cut up but not bleed­ing. And I’m just stood there think­ing that this is prob­a­bly someone’s mom and that my mom could be like this some­where, and the rest of my fam­i­ly and prob­a­bly yours too. And when you start think­ing about home you get this urge to just get in a car and try and get back there to find out what’s hap­pened to your folks and your girl and … and then you think, there’s no fuck­ing point.

‘Fras­er calls out for help and I look around for him. He’s hold­ing his weapon out in front of him and he’s mov­ing towards this build­ing. It looks like an office or some­thing and I can see there are peo­ple trapped inside. They’re stood there bang­ing on the glass, and it looks like it’s a real effort for them to move because they’re sick. The door’s been blocked by a crashed motor­bike, so me and Fras­er shift it out the way. He throws the door of the build­ing open and straight­away the peo­ple start pour­ing out. I only have to look at them for a sec­ond and I know they’re just like all the oth­er poor bas­tards we’ve already seen. One of them walks straight into me and I look right into its face. There’s noth­ing there. I swear, not a sin­gle bloody flick­er of emo­tion. Not a fuck­ing sign of life. It’s not even breath­ing. And I realise, these bloody things are dead but they’re still fuck­ing moving.

‘Sarge gets on the loud­hail­er. He’s shout­ing the usu­al crap at them about how we’ll help if they coop­er­ate and he’s try­ing to get them out of the build­ings and into the mar­ket square. I turn around to look back at the oth­ers and fuck­ing hell, there must have been a cou­ple of hun­dred of the bloody things get­ting close to us already. They’re crowd­ing round and they start reach­ing out and try­ing to grab hold of us when they get close enough. I’m think­ing about my bloody suit again and I keep push­ing them away but they keep com­ing back for more. Sarge fires a few warn­ing shots into the air but it doesn’t make any dif­fer­ence. Next to me Fras­er starts hit­ting one of them and the fuck­ing thing doesn’t even notice. Every time he hits it he’s doing more and more dam­age but the damn thing just keeps com­ing. Its fuck­ing face is falling to pieces but it just keeps on coming.

‘Every way I turn now I can see more and more of them. We’re look­ing at Sarge for some frig­ging inspi­ra­tion and he’s just look­ing back at us, as scared as we are. I lose sight of him when a cou­ple of them rush me. I lose my foot­ing and before I know it I’m on the ground with them on top of me. There’s no weight to them. All I keep think­ing is be care­ful of the fuck­ing suit, make sure you don’t get cut. I’m punch­ing and kick­ing out but the bloody things just don’t give up. I man­age to get back up and I can see that we’re sur­round­ed. And there are more and more of them com­ing out of the shad­ows all the bloody time. I see Wheel­er head­ing back to the trans­port and I can see the driver’s already back in her seat get­ting ready to leave, and I’m think­ing fuck orders, I’ve got­ta get out of here, and I start push­ing my way through the crowd.

‘Fraser’s the last one back in. He tries to shut the door behind him but gets caught by one of them that man­ages to grab his leg as he climbs up. I’m watch­ing and I can’t look away and I’m think­ing this can’t be hap­pen­ing. It’s a kid, prob­a­bly not even fif­teen, and its body is so light and emp­ty that it’s hang­ing off him and Fraser’s just drag­ging it along. It’s got hold of his boot some­how and he’s using the butt of the rifle to smash its hand away. He push­es it off and tries to get it back out the door. Wheel­er leans out and pulls the door shut but the bloody thing hasn’t gone. Its head and shoul­ders are wedged in and Wheeler’s bang­ing and pulling at the door, try­ing to get rid of it. The kid’s got one arm inside the trans­port and it’s still try­ing to get at Fras­er and he’s just stand­ing there. He lifts up his rifle and blows a fuck­ing hole in the mid­dle of its face, then kicks what’s left of the body out onto the street.’

Kil­go­re rubbed his eyes and looked up into the light, then let his head fall. ‘And that, mate,’ he said, strug­gling to light a cig­a­rette with ner­vous, shak­ing hands, ‘is just about all that you, me and every­one else who’s stuck in this fuck­ing hole has got to look for­ward to. We either spend the rest of our time buried here, or we end up stuck out in that bloody mess up top, shrink-wrapped in our fuck­ing plas­tic suits until what­ev­er it is that’s done all this final­ly catch­es up with us.’

THE AUTUMN SERIES