Heavily pregnant and stranded miles from anywhere, Sonya Farley eventually reaches the group of survivors at the university in AUTUMN: THE CITY. The tragic events which unfold whilst she’s there leaves all those left alive in no doubt as to the horrific nature of the virus which has decimated the population, and the implications for human survival.
Her pregnant belly wedged tight behind the steering wheel of her car, Sonya Farley stared at the never-ending queue of barely-moving traffic which stretched out in front of her and yawned. This was the third time in two weeks that she’d driven this nightmare journey for Christian. Generally she didn’t mind; he worked damn hard and he was doing all he could to get everything ready for the imminent birth of their baby. It wasn’t his fault he’d been needed at the firm’s Scottish office, and she didn’t blame him for any of this. He’d finally finished the last design at the weekend and she’d agreed to deliver them to the central branch to save him the inconvenience. Each design had taken many, many hours to complete and she fully understood why he wasn’t prepared to leave it to some two-bit courier firm to deliver them. But regardless of the reasons why and the logical explanations for her being stuck out on the road for hours on end, she was struggling. At this stage of their pregnancies, Sonya thought, all of her friends were at home with their feet up, being pampered and getting ready for the birth. And where was she? Going nowhere fast in the middle lane of one of the busiest motorways in the country during the peak of the morning rush hour. And where did she want to be? Just about anywhere else.
Focus on tomorrow night, she told herself. Tomorrow night Chris will be home and we can finally spend some time together. No more work. No more Scotland. It would probably be their last chance to relax together before the baby came. They’d planned to go out for a meal then catch a movie, making the most of their freedom, well aware of the massive upheaval they were about to experience. The last few weeks had been hard. Sonya just wanted a few calm days before the birth. A nice warm bath and an early night tonight is just what I need, she thought. She’d really missed Chris. She hated it when he wasn’t there, especially now. She couldn’t wait to see him again.
Something was happening up ahead.
Struggling to move her cumbersome bulk and still keep control of the car, Sonya peered into the near distance where she could see the relatively uniform movement of the traffic becoming suddenly more random. Brake lights flashed bright red up ahead and her heart sank. An accident. Shit, that was all she needed. She was miles away from the nearest exit and if the traffic backed-up she’d be stuck. Her heart sank. She couldn’t face sitting her for hours on end, with her swollen belly and swollen ankles. She’d been joking with Chris on the phone last night that if he kept making her do this drive, she’d end up giving birth in the back of the car on the hard shoulder. That didn’t seem so funny now …
More brake lights, burning bright against the grey gloom of early morning. Noises too now. Even over the sound of her own car’s engine she could hear strained mechanical whines and squeals as drivers struggled to avoid sudden collisions. Shit, she thought, this is serious. Almost immediately the screaming brakes and straining engines were replaced with grinding thuds, violent smashes and heavy groans as vehicle after vehicle after vehicle slammed and crashed into the one in front, literally hundreds of them forming a vast, motionless, tangled carpet of twisted metal in just a few bewildering seconds.
Sonya had no time to react.
Forced to slam on her own brakes as the vehicles immediately ahead of her ploughed into those ahead of them, she braced herself for the inevitable impact. She didn’t know what she was going to hit, what was going to hit her or even from which direction the first impact would come. All around her every vehicle seemed to be going out of control as if their drivers had simply disappeared. Just ahead, in the rapidly disappearing void between her car and the mayhem filling the road, countless cars, vans and lorries were swerving and crisscrossing the carriageway. The first collision came from the right as a solid, four-wheel drive vehicle smashed into the rear wing of her car, its buffalo bars caving in the metalwork and shattering glass, the force of the violent impact sending her car spinning round through almost one hundred and eighty degrees so that she now found herself facing the rest of the traffic. Shock immediately gave way to terror.
An expensive-looking executive’s car was heading straight for her. Unable to do anything, Sonya watched the driver of the car thrashing about wildly. He was clawing at his neck with one hand, scratching and scraping at it desperately as he struggled unsuccessfully to hold onto the steering wheel with the other. His face was red and his eyes wide with pain. He looked like he was being asphyxiated.
Thrown to the side as her car was rocked by another collision from the left, she shielded her face from flying glass then looked through what was left of her passenger window. A tanker had smashed into a van which had, in turn, smashed into her. The driver of the van had been hurled through his windscreen and was sprawled face down over the crumpled bonnet of his vehicle, his bloodied head landing just a short distance from her. She looked away in disgust, inadvertently looking straight into the tanker driver’s face, which bore an expression of absolute agony. Dark red blood dribbled down his chin.
The executive’s car ploughed into Sonya’s at speed, sending her flying back in her seat and then lurching forward equally violently. Consumed by a sudden wave of nauseating pain as her distended belly and her baby were momentarily crushed again, she lost consciousness.
In the brief time Sonya was unconscious, the world around her changed almost beyond all recognition. She cautiously half-opened her eyes. Slumped forward with her face pressed hard against the steering wheel, she pushed herself back and struggled for a moment with the weight of her unborn child. Her own safety was of no concern. She remained still and closed her eyes again, running her hands over her bruised and tender belly, concentrating hard until she was sure she felt the reassuring movements of the baby inside. Her split-second feelings of relief were immediately forgotten when she lifted her head again and looked around.
Apart from the occasional hissing jet of steam and the smoke and flames coming from several vehicles which were burning, the world was completely silent and still. Nothing moved. Where she had expected to hear the cries and moans of the injured, or the approaching sirens of the emergency services rushing to the scene along the hard shoulder, there was nothing.
Sonya tried to open the door to get out but another crashed car to her right had wedged it shut and she was unable to open it any more than a couple of centimetres. Every exit was similarly blocked, the sunroof her only safe escape route. Shivering with shock and feeling ice-cold, she lifted a hand and opened the sunroof. Every noise she made sounded disproportionately loud in the oppressively silent vacuum that the morning had become. The tinted window above her slid open then stopped with a heavy thud. Slowly lifting herself up, she guided her head and shoulders out through the restrictive rectangular opening. She cautiously stood up, one foot on either of the front seats, then wriggled her toes, water retention having swollen her feet and ankles. She lifted her arms up out of the car and then eased and squeezed her pregnant stomach through the rubber-lined gap. Her arms weak with nerves, she put the palms of her hands flat on the roof of the car and slowly pushed herself up and out. A few seconds more grunting and straining and she was sitting on the roof of her wrecked vehicle. For a while she just sat there in silence and surveyed the devastation. The carnage appeared endless, the motorway completely dead in both directions. Sonya shuffled around so that she was looking back towards the city she had driven through less than an hour earlier. For as far as she could see the traffic on the motorway was motionless. She deliberately tried not to look too closely at any of the wrecked vehicles although it was hard not to stare. Their drivers were dead. Some remained sat in their seats like blood-streaked shop window dummies. Some were burning. Many other corpses were on the road, lying in the gaps between the wrecks of their cars, tankers, lorries, bikes and vans.
A cold autumnal wind blew along the length of the road, prompting Sonya to get down from her exposed position. Overcome by the incomprehensible scale and speed of what had happened, and unable to think about anything but the safety of her unborn child, she carefully pulled her feet out of the car and slid down the windscreen and onto the crumpled bonnet. Using the wrecks of other vehicles as stepping stones, she crossed to the hard shoulder. It was a little clearer at the very edge of the road, and she began to walk back towards the city. Dark thoughts filled her mind: How far has this spread? Is Christian okay? I need to call him. Need to let him know I’m all right and the baby’s safe. Don’t want him worrying if he hears about this on TV.
The city, more than four miles away, was dying too. She could clearly see it beginning, even from this distance. Random explosions ripped through buildings. Fires began to spread and quickly take hold. She could see smoke pouring into the early morning air in thick, steady palls; a dirty, grey smog.
With her swollen feet already sore, and the birth of her baby ominously close, Sonya dragged herself back towards the city in search of someone — anyone — who could help her.