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The Human Condition (part i) — Going Up

Sur­vival is a strange thing. If the world lies dead at your feet and you seem to be immune to what­ev­er it is that’s dev­as­tat­ed every­thing else, then sure­ly that would be cause for cel­e­bra­tion. But there are so many unknowns — so many things to con­sid­er which are out of your control.

In your per­fect iso­la­tion you might learn things about your­self you nev­er knew. You might take chances and exper­i­ment in ways you would­n’t have dared when you were just one of so many mil­lions. But now you’re alone.

Armaged­don could be a won­der­ful thing for help­ing you take stock and review the life you used to lead. Maybe you should always have been on your own? Per­haps oth­er peo­ple were just an unnec­es­sary com­pli­ca­tion you’re bet­ter off with­out? Bar­ry Bushell is begin­ning to think that might be the case.

Your own sur­vival is down to you alone. You have no con­trol over who else makes it. They might prove to be a god­send, help­ing you through the dark­est of days.

They might not.

Bar­ry Bushell sat at the dress­ing table in his wide, pala­tial exec­u­tive hotel suite and fixed his make-up. He won­dered whether this was just a fad, just a phase he was going through, or if he’d spend the rest of his life dress­ing as a woman. He wasn’t gay and he wasn’t trans­sex­u­al. This wasn’t some­thing he’d always want­ed to do. He wasn’t a drag queen or lady-boy in train­ing. Bar­ry Bushell was just a typ­i­cal, red-blood­ed, het­ero­sex­u­al man who hap­pened to have recent­ly dis­cov­ered that he felt com­fort­able wear­ing women’s clothes. And when the rest of the world lay dead and decay­ing in the streets a cou­ple of hun­dred feet below him, why the hell shouldn’t he wear what­ev­er he damn well wanted?

The last sev­en days had been the strangest of Barry’s life so far. Every aspect of his world had been irrev­o­ca­bly changed. If he was hon­est, his prob­lems had start­ed long before last Tues­day. A few months ago he’d been hap­py and set­tled and had a long-term plan. He’d moved in to his girl­friend Tina’s flat with her and, for a while, life had been good. Bet­ter than good, in fact. But their rela­tion­ship had abrupt­ly end­ed on what had, until then, been the worst day of his life. Out of the blue Bar­ry lost his job when the com­pa­ny he worked for went into admin­is­tra­tion and its CEO went to jail. Pen­ni­less and dis­traught, Bar­ry had returned home unex­pect­ed­ly ear­ly to find his broth­er Den­nis in bed with Tina. She’d pro­ceed­ed to tell him that Den­nis was bet­ter in bed than he was and that their rela­tion­ship was over. By three o’clock that after­noon he’d lost his lover, his broth­er, his job and his home. That night­mare day had, of course, seemed like the best Christ­mas ever in com­par­i­son with last Tues­day when Bar­ry had help­less­ly watched the entire pop­u­la­tion of the city (and, he lat­er pre­sumed, the world) drop dead. After the cru­el and unex­pect­ed blows that life had dealt him recent­ly, there was a part of him that found some solace in the sud­den iso­la­tion and qui­et. His anger with the rest of the world some­how made the pain eas­i­er to deal with. He blamed the inex­plic­a­ble chaos for his sud­den ‘gen­der-realign­ment’ (as he had labelled his dras­tic change in appear­ance). And now here he was, alone. As far as he could tell, the last man on Earth. Almost cer­tain­ly the last man on Earth wear­ing a dress, anyway.

Five days ago, many of the bod­ies in the streets had risen. At first Bar­ry had gone back down to ground lev­el to try and find out what was hap­pen­ing, only to quick­ly return to his com­fort­able hide-out as soon as he realised that things had wors­ened, not improved. The peo­ple down there were dead. Although they were mov­ing, there wasn’t the slight­est spark of life left with­in them. Their sud­den rean­i­ma­tion was as impos­si­ble to explain as their equal­ly sud­den demise days ear­li­er had been. Bar­ry climbed all the way back up to the top floor of the twen­ty-eight storey, five star, city-cen­tre hotel and bar­ri­cad­ed him­self in the Pres­i­den­tial Suite. It was the best place he could find to hide. With­in the hotel’s three hun­dred or so bed­rooms, its many kitchens, func­tion rooms, din­ing rooms, bars, restau­rants and sports facil­i­ties, he’d been able to find pret­ty much every­thing he need­ed to sur­vive, and a vast wardrobe of women’s cloth­ing, make-up and acces­sories to boot. He’d even found a pair of size eleven stilet­to shoes.

Bar­ry stood up, smoothed the creas­es out of his dark blue dress, and looked him­self up and down in the full-length mir­ror to his right. God I look good, he thought, pret­ty damn con­vinc­ing save for the slight trace of a five o’clock shad­ow. His first exper­i­ments with make-up last week had been over-the-top, leav­ing him look­ing like a drag queen, but now he was def­i­nite­ly get­ting the hang of it. He wore a long straight blonde wig which he’d tak­en from a shop-win­dow dum­my, but he hoped in time his own hair would grow to a suf­fi­cient length for him to be able to style it. He’d start­ed paint­ing his fin­ger­nails and he was final­ly get­ting the hang of walk­ing in heels. That had been the hard­est part of all but it had been worth the effort. The knee-high leather boots he’d found in a bed­room on the sev­enth floor went per­fect­ly with this outfit.

Am I just con­fused, Bar­ry won­dered in a fre­quent moment of self-doubt, or have I gone com­plete­ly fuck­ing insane? What­ev­er the answer, he was rel­a­tive­ly hap­py, all things con­sid­ered. He could do what­ev­er he want­ed now. He was in charge. If he want­ed to wear a dress then he’d wear a dress. If he want­ed to walk around naked, then he could do that too.

It was start­ing to get late. This was the part of day he real­ly didn’t like, when he found it hard­est being alone and when he start­ed to think about every­thing that had hap­pened and all he’d lost. His sud­den change of out­fit had been delib­er­ate­ly timed to give him a much need­ed con­fi­dence boost to help him get through the dark and lone­ly hours until morn­ing. As much as he was com­fort­able in his own com­pa­ny, there were times when he wished this eter­nal iso­la­tion would end. He lit lamps in all the win­dows of the suite, pray­ing that some­one out there would see them, but at the same time also hop­ing no one would. He had to let the world know where he was, but in doing so he left him­self feel­ing exposed. But he had to do it, he con­tin­u­al­ly told him­self. He would be safer with oth­er people.

Bar­ry walked around the perime­ter of the vast suite (which cov­ered almost the entire top floor of the build­ing) light­ing can­dles, lamps and torch­es in every avail­able win­dow. He kept him­self busy. So busy, in fact, that he was unaware of a sud­den flur­ry of move­ment and con­fu­sion out­side. For the first time in a week, oth­er sur­vivors had entered this part of the city.

#

‘You’re a fuck­ing idiot, Nick,’ Eliz­a­beth Fer­ry screamed. ‘I said keep out of the city, not dri­ve right through the bloody city-cen­tre. Fan­cy a lit­tle late night shop­ping did you?’

‘Shut up,’ Nick Wilcox yelled back. ‘If it hadn’t been for the fuck­ing noise you two make with your con­stant bloody argu­ing, I wouldn’t have tak­en the wrong turn in the first place.’

‘Don’t bring me into this,’ Doreen Phillips said, lis­ten­ing in as usu­al. ‘It’s got noth­ing to do with me.’

‘Oh, it’s nev­er got any­thing to do with you, has it?’ Ted Hamil­ton said from the seat direct­ly behind her. ‘Of course it’s your fault, Doreen. You’re a bloody trou­ble maker.’

Doreen turned around and glared at Ted who was, as usu­al, fill­ing his face with food. ‘And you’re a greedy fat bas­tard who should—’

‘For cry­ing out loud,’ Eliz­a­beth said, inter­rupt­ing her. ‘Just give it a rest.’

Doreen stopped talk­ing, fold­ed her arms and slumped into her seat like a scold­ed child.

‘Just keep going, Nick,’ John Proctor’s said from three seats back. His voice remained com­par­a­tive­ly calm. ‘We’re here now and shout­ing at each oth­er isn’t going to help. Just keep driving.’

Nick took one hand off the steer­ing wheel for a sec­ond, just long enough to wipe his face and rub his eyes. He’d been dri­ving for hours and he was strug­gling but he wasn’t about to let the oth­ers know. They annoyed him beyond belief. He’d only found five oth­er sur­vivors since all of this began. Why did it have to be this five? This small, volatile, and dys­func­tion­al group had been togeth­er for just three days, dis­cov­er­ing each oth­er by chance as they’d each indi­vid­u­al­ly wan­dered through the ruins of the world. Eliz­a­beth and John Proc­tor had met first, Eliz­a­beth hav­ing walked into the church where he used to preach, just as he was tear­ing off his dog-col­lar and walk­ing out. A cler­ic of some thir­ty years stand­ing, his already waver­ing faith had been shat­tered by the unstop­pable infec­tion which had raged across the sur­face of the plan­et and killed mil­lions. If this God of ours is so all-pow­er­ful, lov­ing and for­giv­ing, he’d asked Eliz­a­beth, then how could the fuck­er have let this hap­pen? John’s sud­den loss of faith had been as pow­er­ful and life-chang­ing as his ini­tial dis­cov­ery of the church in his ear­ly days at col­lege. Eliz­a­beth had, in all seri­ous­ness, sug­gest­ed that the plague might be some kind of divine ret­ri­bu­tion — a great flood for our times. Did she think he was a 21st cen­tu­ry Noah? He told her in no uncer­tain terms that she was out of her fuck­ing mind if she believed any of that crap.

Ted Hamil­ton, a plumber, part-time foot­ball coach and full-time com­pul­sive com­fort eater, had been on the roof of an office block work­ing on a cor­rod­ed pipe when the infec­tion struck. He’d had an incred­i­ble view of the destruc­tion from up there, but that was where he’d stayed, too afraid to come down. He’d sat on the roof for hours until he saw Doreen Phillips walk­ing down the high street, shop­ping bags in hand, step­ping gin­ger­ly over and around the mass of tan­gled bod­ies which cov­ered the ground. Togeth­er they’d wan­dered aim­less­ly in search of help which nev­er came. Their con­stant shout­ing and noise had, how­ev­er, even­tu­al­ly attract­ed the atten­tion of Paul Jones, a sullen and qui­et man who pre­ferred to keep him­self to him­self but who had recog­nised the impor­tance of stick­ing togeth­er, no mat­ter who these peo­ple were or how stu­pid they appeared.

Paul had sug­gest­ed estab­lish­ing a base from which they could explore the dead land around them and, per­haps, find more sur­vivors. As obvi­ous and sen­si­ble as his plan had been, it also proved to be unnec­es­sary because as they strug­gled to estab­lish them­selves in a guest house on the edge of a small town, more sur­vivors had found them. Three days ago the eerie silence of the first post-infec­tion Fri­day morn­ing had been shat­tered by the unex­pect­ed arrival of a fifty-three-seater coach dri­ven by Nick Wilcox. Nick — who had pre­vi­ous­ly dri­ven coach­es for a liv­ing, usu­al­ly tak­ing bus loads of pen­sion­ers around var­i­ous parts of the south coast — had ploughed through the town with a ner­vous dis­re­gard for any­thing and every­thing, destroy­ing any corpses that got in his way. Paul and Ted ran out into the road and flagged him down and it was only Elizabeth’s quick reac­tions (for­tu­nate­ly Nick had picked her and John up a day ear­li­er) which stopped him from glee­ful­ly run­ning them both down.

The mot­ley col­lec­tion of sur­vivors made the coach their tem­po­rary trav­el­ling home. It was rel­a­tive­ly strong and com­fort­able with room inside for them, their belong­ings, and enough sup­plies to last for a cou­ple of weeks. And the coach had a huge advan­tage over every­where else they’d pre­vi­ous­ly tried to shel­ter because it moved. When things got ugly or there were too many bod­ies around for com­fort, they just start­ed the engine and drove some­where else.

‘Just keep going, Nick,’ John said again, his calm and decep­tive­ly relaxed tone help­ing dif­fuse the ten­sion. ‘Get us onto a major road, then fol­low it back out of the city.’

‘Prob­lem is I can’t see the bloody road, nev­er mind fol­low it.’ Even with the head­lights on full-beam, Nick could see very lit­tle. The streets were teem­ing with move­ment, the dead con­tin­u­al­ly swarm­ing around the vehicle.

‘Does any­one know where we are?’ Eliz­a­beth asked hope­ful­ly. ‘Any­one been here before?’

No one answered.

‘We could just stop,’ Ted even­tu­al­ly sug­gest­ed, his mouth still full of food. ‘We’ve done it before. Sit still and shut up and they’ll leave us alone after a while.’

‘Come on, Ted,’ Eliz­a­beth said, ‘there’s got to be a bet­ter way. They’ll take hours to go, you know that as well as I do, and there are hun­dreds of them around here. We’ve nev­er seen them in these kinds of numbers.’

‘I’m not sleep­ing on the floor again,’ Doreen protest­ed, her voice high-pitched and grat­ing. ‘It’s bad for my back. It’s all right for you lot, you don’t have to—’

‘Doreen,’ Ted inter­rupt­ed, ‘with all due respect, love, would you shut your fuck­ing mouth. You couldn’t keep qui­et if you tried so there’s no point talk­ing about it.’

Nick man­aged half a smile as he steered the bus around a sharp bend in the road and pow­ered into anoth­er pack of corpses. He knew as well as the rest of them that many hours of total silence would be nec­es­sary if they want­ed to try and fool the dead into leav­ing them alone. With Doreen on board five min­utes of silence was impos­si­ble, nev­er mind any­thing longer.

‘Bloody hell,’ Ted said sud­den­ly, swal­low­ing his last mouth­ful of food and wip­ing his greasy mouth on his sleeve. ‘Look at that.’

‘What?’ Paul asked, quick­ly mov­ing along the length of the bus towards the oth­ers, sur­pris­ing them with his sud­den involve­ment. Ted pressed his face up against the win­dow and point­ed up.

‘Up there.’

‘What is it?’ Eliz­a­beth anx­ious­ly demanded.

‘Lights,’ he answered, not quite believ­ing him­self. ‘Up there, look.’

Vis­i­ble fleet­ing­ly amongst the shad­ows of numer­ous tall, dark build­ings, the light — although rel­a­tive­ly dull — burned bright in the total black­ness of every­thing else.

#

High above the dis­ease-rid­den streets, Barry’s qui­et and soli­tary life was fill­ing with con­tra­dic­tions. He want­ed to be sur­round­ed by light, but the bright­ness left him feel­ing vul­ner­a­ble and exposed. Like­wise, the dark­ness some­times made him feel safe, but it was also unset­tling; he was scared of the shad­ows that filled the hotel at night. He want­ed some noise to end the eerie silence but, at the same time, he want­ed the qui­et to remain so he could hear every­thing that was hap­pen­ing else­where. He want­ed to sit out of sight in the com­fort of his suite, but he also felt com­pelled to con­stant­ly check the win­dows. He knew he was alone in the build­ing and that it was secure (he’d checked every room and had got rid of every dead body over the last week), but his ner­vous para­noia left him feel­ing con­vinced there were bod­ies climb­ing the stair­cas­es and walk­ing the halls, mov­ing ever clos­er. He felt sure that rot­ting hands would reach out of the shad­ows for him when­ev­er he opened a door. What­ev­er he was doing he felt uncom­fort­able and unsafe, and it was far worse at night. Each suc­ces­sive evening he found the dark­ness hard­er to cope with, and that led to the cru­ellest para­dox of all: Barry’s fear kept him awake night after night. Only when the morn­ing (and the light) final­ly came was he able to relax enough to sleep. Invari­ably he would drift and doze through the morn­ing and ear­ly after­noon and miss almost all of each pre­cious day.

He wan­dered list­less­ly along the long west wall of the suite, the heels of his boots click-clack­ing on the mar­ble floor. Where was this all going to end, he won­dered? Was he des­tined to stay here at the top of the hotel indef­i­nite­ly? It wasn’t a bad option, in fact he strug­gled to think of any­where else that would be safer or more com­fort­able. The height of the build­ing meant it was unlike­ly the corpses down below would ever see or hear him. The only prob­lem would come when his sup­plies ran out. Okay, so he appeared to have the entire city at his dis­pos­al, but even if he man­aged to find every­thing he need­ed, there remained the prob­lem of drag­ging it up lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of steps to his new home. Maybe he could set up some kind of winch or pul­ley sys­tem? Per­haps he could use the window-cleaner’s cra­dle he’d seen hang­ing halfway down the side of the building?

His mind full of ques­tions and half-con­sid­ered answers, Bar­ry reached the cor­ner of the room and stopped walk­ing. He turned around and was about to retrace his steps when he hap­pened to glance down into the dark streets hun­dreds of feet below. In dis­be­lief he watched the bizarre sight of what looked like a coach plough­ing through the rot­ting crowds, send­ing whole and dis­mem­bered bod­ies fly­ing in all direc­tions, hurtling at speed towards the hotel. He wait­ed for a frac­tion of a sec­ond — just long enough to con­vince him­self that what he was see­ing was real — before throw­ing off his boots and sprint­ing out to the stair­case barefoot.

#

‘Next left,’ Paul ordered. He’d moved up to the front of the bus and was now stand­ing next to Nick, doing his best to guide their dri­ver through the may­hem and towards the light. ‘No, wait, not this one. Take the next one.’

Nick yanked the steer­ing wheel back around, mak­ing the whole coach lean over to one side. Their break­neck jour­ney was had become so tur­bu­lent that even Doreen Phillips was unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly qui­et and subdued.

‘Can you see where it’s com­ing from?’ Nick asked, glanc­ing up for a sec­ond and glimps­ing the light again.

‘Not sure,’ Paul admit­ted. ‘It’s bloody high up, though.’

Nick braced him­self as he forced the bus over a low mound of rub­ble and man­gled met­al at the side of the road. The pas­sen­gers behind him — not expect­ing the sud­den jolt — bounced up in their seats as the huge vehi­cle clat­tered up and then back down onto the road.

‘Take it easy,’ Ted protested.

‘Next left,’ Paul said for the sec­ond time, his voice more def­i­nite than before.

‘You sure?’

‘Pos­i­tive. I can see it. We’re almost direct­ly under the light now.’

Nick slammed on the brakes and swung the bus around the cor­ner into anoth­er street which was as dif­fi­cult to nav­i­gate as the last. Huge crowds of lum­ber­ing bod­ies dragged them­selves towards the approach­ing vehi­cle from all direc­tions. Nick kept his foot down, know­ing the quick­er they moved, the more chance they had of cut­ting through the ran­cid crowds. Scores of corpses were wiped out by the flat-faced frontage of the coach, thump­ing into it with a relent­less bang, bang, bang like hail on a flat tin roof.

‘How far now?’ Nick asked.

Paul crouched down low and looked up to his right. ‘Almost there.’

John got up and scur­ried down to the front of the coach, hold­ing onto the seat-backs and strug­gling to keep his bal­ance. ‘It’s a hotel,’ he said. ‘Look, there’s a name on the side of the building.’

‘So where do I go?’ Nick asked, unable to see any­thing in the relent­less gloom.

‘There must be a car park or some­thing?’ John sug­gest­ed. ‘Maybe around the back or underground?’

‘Get as close to the main entrance as you can,’ Paul said. ‘We need to min­imise the dis­tance we have to cov­er on foot.’

‘And how am I sup­posed to do that? I can’t see a fuck­ing thing.’

‘Here!’ Paul shout­ed. ‘Sharp right! Now!’

With no time to prop­er­ly con­sid­er his actions, Nick turned the wheel as instruct­ed. The dark sil­hou­ette of the hotel loomed large in front of him. ‘Where?’ he screamed, des­per­ate for help and guidance.

‘Just keep mov­ing,’ Paul yelled back. ‘Keep going for­ward until—’

He didn’t get to fin­ish his sen­tence. The low light and con­stant criss-cross­ing move­ment of hun­dreds of bod­ies made the dis­tance between the front of the coach and the front of the hotel impos­si­ble to accu­rate­ly gauge. His foot still down hard on the accel­er­a­tor, Nick sent the coach over a kerb, then crashed through the glass doors at the front of the build­ing. Their veloc­i­ty was such that the coach kept mov­ing for­ward until the twist­ed met­al and rub­ble dragged under its wheels even­tu­al­ly act­ed as a brake. Three-quar­ters inside the build­ing, with its back end jut­ting out into the street, the bus came to a sud­den, undig­ni­fied halt in the hotel’s impos­ing, mar­ble-floored recep­tion. The front wheels were wedged over the lip of an ornate and long-since dried up dec­o­ra­tive fountain.

No one moved.

‘My back …’ Doreen moaned from some­where on the floor under a pile of car­ri­er bags full of clothes and oth­er belongings.

‘Is every­one all right?’ John asked. No one answered. ‘Is any­one all right?’ he asked again, slight­ly revis­ing his orig­i­nal question.

Paul shook his head clear and got back to his feet. He glanced over at Nick who was try­ing to stem the flow of blood from a gash just above his right eye. ‘Nice dri­ving,’ he sneered.

‘Fuck off.’ Nick spat back at him.

‘Shit,’ Eliz­a­beth said from some­where in the dark­ness behind them both. ‘We’ve got to get out of here.’ There was sud­den fear in her voice which they all picked up on. With­out paus­ing for expla­na­tion the sur­vivors grabbed as many of their bags of belong­ings as they could car­ry, and ran for the door at the front of the coach which Paul had already opened. He glanced down the side of the long vehi­cle and imme­di­ate­ly saw what Eliz­a­beth had seen. A large part of the hotel entrance had col­lapsed. Although still par­tial­ly blocked by the bus, there was now a gap­ing hole where the main doors had been, and hun­dreds of bod­ies were already swarm­ing into the building.

‘Over here,’ a voice yelled at them from the dark­ness. Bar­ry Bushell stood at the bot­tom of the main hotel stair­case at the oth­er end of the vast, dust-filled lob­by, wav­ing a torch and ges­tur­ing for them to fol­low him. The light inside the build­ing was min­i­mal and they strug­gled to make him out at first. Nick was the first to locate him. He ran across the rub­ble-strewn room, close­ly fol­lowed by Doreen, Eliz­a­beth and Paul.

‘Come on, Ted,’ John plead­ed. ‘Leave your stuff, we have to move.’

Ted was busy col­lect­ing his belong­ings. Loaded up with bags and box­es he tripped, falling into the dried-up fountain.

‘Keep going,’ he wheezed, already out of breath. ‘I’ll catch up.’

John could see he was strug­gling. ‘Just leave that stuff. We’ll man­age with­out it.’

I need it,’ Ted said, groan­ing with effort.

‘But they’re com­ing! Drop the bags and get your back­side over here!’

Ted was obliv­i­ous to the num­ber of approach­ing bod­ies which were now dan­ger­ous­ly close. They seemed to move as one, like a thick liq­uid slow­ly seep­ing out over the ground floor of the hotel, a slow-motion flood. Most of the coach had already been sur­round­ed. John looked around to see that the rest of his group had all but dis­ap­peared. Just Eliz­a­beth remained, stand­ing at the bot­tom of the stair­case, wait­ing for him.

‘Move, Ted! Don’t be a fuck­ing idiot!’ John screamed. Ted, now on his feet again, tried to speed up but, if any­thing, he was slow­ing down. He was des­per­ate­ly unfit and over­loaded with food. He glanced back and, see­ing how close the near­est bod­ies were, he tried unsuc­cess­ful­ly to increase his speed. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t make his short, pudgy legs move any faster. It was hope­less. ‘Move!’ John yelled at him again, ner­vous­ly back­ing away towards Elizabeth.

Most peo­ple would have dug deep and done every­thing pos­si­ble to cov­er the remain­ing dif­fer­ence between them­selves and safe­ty, but Ted did the oppo­site. He’d had enough. He was already exhaust­ed and the stair­case ahead of him seemed to stretch up into the dark­ness for­ev­er. He knew he’d nev­er make it. An eter­nal pes­simist, he’d already decid­ed his num­ber was up. He made one last pathet­ic attempt to move a lit­tle quick­er but it was nowhere near enough and the dis­tance still seemed impos­si­ble. Ted stopped and John watched help­less­ly as the mass of bod­ies engulfed him.

Eliz­a­beth was already on her way up the stairs. John turned and ran after her. He couldn’t see where he was going, but as long as he kept going up, he thought he’d be okay. He could soon hear voic­es up ahead.

‘So what the fuck­ing hell have you come as?’ Nick asked the stocky, six foot tall trans­ves­tite who’d saved them. They’d briefly stopped to regroup on a land­ing a few flights up. Bar­ry used his torch to check who was with him. It was the first time any of them had seen him clear­ly, and he could see the puz­zled expres­sions on their faces. Sud­den­ly self-con­scious, he didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t need­ed to explain his bizarre dress-code to any­one else yet, and in the chaos of the last few min­utes, he’d for­got­ten what he was wear­ing. For a moment he felt fool­ish before remem­ber­ing how good these clothes made him feel. What he was wear­ing was of absolute­ly no con­se­quence to any­one else. He’d saved their lives. Fuck ’em.

‘I’m Bar­ry,’ he answered. ‘Bar­ry Bushell.’

‘So why are you wear­ing a dress?’

‘Because I want to.’

‘Well I think you look love­ly, dear,’ Doreen said as she passed him on the land­ing. In need of a cig­a­rette, she pat­ted him on the shoul­der and point­ed upwards. ‘This way, is it?’

‘Just keep going,’ he replied. ‘Top floor.’

Doreen nod­ded and kept climb­ing, her nerves fear help­ing her over­come her tired­ness. Nick wait­ed on the land­ing for John to catch up. ‘Where’s Ted?’ he asked. John shook his head.

‘Didn’t make it,’ he said, pant­i­ng with effort. ‘Sil­ly bug­ger got caught.’

‘Shit,’ Nick mum­bled, gen­uine­ly sad­dened for a moment. Then he shook his head and car­ried on up the stairs.

#

The climb up to the top floor seemed to take for­ev­er. Even though their appre­ci­a­tion of mate­r­i­al pos­ses­sions and the val­ue of prop­er­ty had been mas­sive­ly reduced by the events of the last sev­en days, the opu­lence and scale of the vast pent­house apart­ment Bar­ry had claimed as his own still impressed all of them.

‘Nice place she’s got here,’ Nick said as he looked around the low-lit rooms. Some of the group were sit­ting around a rec­tan­gu­lar din­ing table, oth­ers were sprawled on a near­by sofa.

‘Shh …’ Eliz­a­beth scowled. ‘Leave him alone. He’s obvi­ous­ly got problems.’

‘We’ve all got prob­lems, but we don’t all feel the need to cross-dress, do we?’

‘Love­ly place, though,’ Doreen agreed. ‘Just think of all the famous peo­ple who must have stayed here. Roy­al­ty? Film stars?’

‘Why?’ Paul said. Doreen looked puz­zled. How could he not be excit­ed by the prospect of sleep­ing in a hotel room that might have been used by mil­lion­aires and mega-stars?

‘Just imag­ine who might have sat around this table …’ she continued.

‘Why waste your time think­ing about emp­ty peo­ple like that? The peo­ple who could afford to stay here had too much mon­ey and not enough sense. You shouldn’t look up to them. The only dif­fer­ence between you and them was the size of their wal­lets com­pared to yours. Any­way, they’re all dead now. You’re not.’

‘It was more than that,’ Eliz­a­beth con­tin­ued, sid­ing with Doreen. ‘It’s about glam­our and watch­ing them do the things that you always dreamed about doing and …’

‘So did you two used to read all the celebri­ty gos­sip and buy all the glossy magazines?’

‘Absolute­ly,’ Eliz­a­beth said quickly.

‘And I bet you used to watch soap operas and real­i­ty TV shows?’

‘Nev­er missed my soaps,’ Doreen told him with some­thing resem­bling a bizarre sense of pride in her voice.

‘Pathet­ic,’ Paul said. ‘Bloody pathet­ic. It’s got noth­ing to do with glam­our or any­thing like that. You both used to swal­low all that crap because your own lives were point­less and empty.’

‘Thanks a lot,’ Eliz­a­beth said angri­ly. ‘Let us know when it’s our turn to tear you to pieces.’

‘Where are all your celebri­ties now?’

‘Dead, prob­a­bly,’ Nick inter­ject­ed. ‘Face down in the fuck­ing gutter.’

‘You know what I think?’ Paul con­tin­ued, even though he knew nei­ther of them cared. ‘I think that if by some strange twist of fate one of your pre­cious celebri­ties had sur­vived and was sat here now instead of one of us, you’d still be treat­ing them like some kind of fuck­ing god.’

‘As long as it was you they were here instead of, I wouldn’t care,’ Eliz­a­beth said. ‘Some­times you’re so far up your own back­side that—’

‘I’ve got more food than this,’ Bar­ry said, drop­ping a tray onto the table, delib­er­ate­ly inter­rupt­ing the con­ver­sa­tion. ‘I’m just try­ing to make it last. I’m try­ing to avoid going outside.’

‘I’d be try­ing to avoid going out­side if I looked like that,’ Nick said, smirking.

‘Leave it, Nick,’ John sighed. ‘Christ, what’s the mat­ter with you lot? We’ve just lost our trans­port and poor old Ted, and all you can do is argue and mock each other.’

‘Hon­est­ly,’ Nick con­tin­ued, not lis­ten­ing to a word John had said, ‘we wait all this time to find some­one else alive, and they turn out to be a fuck­ing faggot!’

Bar­ry grabbed Nick by the throat, dragged him off his chair and slammed him down onto the floor. He tight­ened his grip, paint­ed nails dig­ging into his skin.

‘Let’s just get this over and done with, shall we?’ He paused for an answer which Nick was in no posi­tion to give. ‘Lis­ten, mate, I might be wear­ing a dress, but I’m not a fuck­ing fag­got, and it wouldn’t mat­ter if I was. I’m not sur­prised you’ve got a prob­lem with what I’m wear­ing. Fact is, I like it. I don’t know why, but dress­ing like this is help­ing me come to terms with the fact that all my friends and fam­i­ly and prob­a­bly every­one else I’ve ever known is dead. I’m not a per­vert, I’m just a nor­mal bloke who’s decid­ed to try wear­ing dress­es for a while, okay?’

Bar­ry let Nick go. Sub­dued, he slow­ly got up. ‘Okay, okay … Keep your hair on.’

Bar­ry let the obvi­ous ref­er­ence to his shoul­der-length wig go. ‘It doesn’t mat­ter what any of us is wear­ing, does it? It’s not going to make any dif­fer­ence. Same as the colour of our eyes won’t make any dif­fer­ence either, or whether we’re right or left hand­ed. Fact is we’re all in this mess togeth­er and we’ll need to work with each oth­er to get our­selves sorted.’

‘Well said,’ John agreed.

‘So tell me,’ Bar­ry con­tin­ued, his voice loud­er and more con­fi­dent, ‘who exact­ly have we got here and what the hell are we going to do about the fuck­ing big hole you’ve made in the front of my hotel?’

#

Intro­duc­tions and point­less dis­cus­sions about what had hap­pened to the rest of the world took the group through the final hours of day sev­en and well into day eight. Spir­its were tem­porar­i­ly high: Bar­ry had the com­pa­ny he’d craved and the oth­ers had found a safer, far more com­fort­able hide­out than the back of Nick’s coach.

John pulled up a chair and sat in front of the widest win­dow in the suite for hours, watch­ing the night melt away and be over­tak­en by the first light of day. As the sun began to climb, more and more of the shat­tered world was revealed. Down at street lev­el it had been dif­fi­cult to ful­ly appre­ci­ate the enor­mi­ty of what had hap­pened. From twen­ty-eight floors up, how­ev­er, the extent of the dev­as­ta­tion was clear.

‘You okay, John?’ Eliz­a­beth asked, dis­turb­ing him.

‘I’m fine,’ he replied, almost man­ag­ing a smile. ‘I was just look­ing out there. Look at it, Liz. The whole bloody world’s in ruins.’

Eliz­a­beth leant against the win­dow. He was right. For as far as she could see the world was dead, drained of all colour and life. Apart from the bod­ies in the streets, noth­ing moved. From this height they could see for miles into the dis­tance, and the scale of what had hap­pened around them was hum­bling. It was soul-destroying.

‘Much hap­pen­ing out there?’ Nick asked as he joined them. He’d been sat on his own but pre­ferred the com­pa­ny of others.

‘Not a lot,’ John answered.

‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that,’ Eliz­a­beth said, her face still pressed hard against the glass. She’d divert­ed her atten­tion away from the hori­zon to the more imme­di­ate area direct­ly below. ‘Have you seen what we’ve done?’

Con­cerned, Nick peered down. The largest crowd of bod­ies that any of them had yet seen had gath­ered around the entrance to the build­ing and were push­ing their way inside through the huge hole the sur­vivors had made with the bus last night. ‘Bloody hell,’ he said.

Con­cerned, John stood up and looked down. The sight of the mas­sive gath­er­ing made his legs weak­en. His mouth sud­den­ly dry, he swal­lowed hard and looked around for Barry.

‘What’s the prob­lem?’ Bar­ry asked, walk­ing over to the oth­ers. John point­ed and Bar­ry looked down. ‘Christ almighty.’

‘They can’t get up here, can they?’ Nick asked.

‘Of course not,’ Eliz­a­beth said quick­ly. Bar­ry was less confident.

‘I can’t see why not,’ he said. ‘If enough of them keep push­ing for­ward from behind, my guess is the fur­thest for­ward will start climb­ing eventually.’

‘But they won’t get up here. We strug­gled to get up, so they won’t be able to …’

‘This place has one main stair­case right in the mid­dle of the build­ing,’ he explained, still star­ing deep into the vast crowd below. ‘There are a cou­ple of fire escapes, but they’re blocked off as far as I know. To be hon­est, I didn’t look into secu­ri­ty too deeply when I got here. There didn’t seem to be any need when the place still had a front door.’

‘So what are you say­ing?’ Eliz­a­beth pressed.

‘I’m say­ing that if there’s enough of them and they keep com­ing, who knows what they’ll be able to do. Give them enough time and there’s every chance they’ll man­age to get up here.’

‘But we can get out if we need to?’

‘Well, I think we’ll be able to get down no prob­lem,’ Bar­ry said, ‘but what we do once we’re down there is anyone’s guess. Thanks to you lot the building’s sur­round­ed and I can’t see an obvi­ous way out.’

‘Let’s all keep calm and try and get things into per­spec­tive,’ John said qui­et­ly, doing his best to pre­vent pan­ic from spread­ing. ‘The chances of them get­ting to us are slim and we’re so high up here that they’ll prob­a­bly dis­ap­pear long before they even get close.’

‘You reck­on?’ Nick said. ‘There doesn’t seem to be much else going on in town this morn­ing, does there? Looks like we’re the main attraction.’

Bar­ry, Eliz­a­beth, Nick and John stood side by side at the win­dow and stared down. The streets below were filled with grey, stag­ger­ing bod­ies and in the absence of any oth­er dis­trac­tion, the whole damn rot­ting mass seemed to be con­verg­ing on the hotel. There were already thou­sands of them down there, and thou­sands more were dan­ger­ous­ly close.

THE AUTUMN SERIES