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The Human Condition (part ii) — Going Down

A hand­ful of peo­ple have been forced to sit out the end of the world togeth­er in a top floor hotel penthouse.

Ten days have passed.

Thou­sands of bod­ies are head­ing their way.

And there’s no way out.

Ten days. Ten fuck­ing days. That’s how long we’ve been here now. That’s how long we’ve been sit­ting here doing noth­ing but shout, argue and fight with each oth­er. This can’t go on much longer.

#

John Proc­tor slumped against the wall, his head in his hands and watched the oth­ers through the gaps between his fin­gers. Christ, how he’d grown to despise these peo­ple over the last week and a half.

In every aspect of his life before this dis­as­ter, John had been taught (and had taught oth­ers) to always look for the good in peo­ple. But trapped up here on the top floor of this hotel, wait­ing to either starve to death or be flushed out by an army of dead bod­ies, he couldn’t help but con­cen­trate on the irri­tat­ing per­son­al­i­ty traits which made the five oth­er sur­vivors trapped here the worst cell-mates imaginable.

Bar­ry Bushell. Now there was an inter­est­ing char­ac­ter. John still wasn’t sure what the dress-wear­ing man was about. Bar­ry had been under­stand­ably annoyed when the oth­er sur­vivors had arrived and com­pro­mised the safe­ty of his pre­cious hotel hide­out. Even now he con­tin­ued to main­tain a dis­tance from the oth­ers, spend­ing much of him time alone in the mas­ter bed­room. John had ini­tial­ly admired his con­fi­dence in wear­ing women’s cloth­ing in pub­lic, but he still couldn’t under­stand why he did it. There must have been some under­ly­ing sex­u­al con­fu­sion, he thought. What­ev­er the rea­son, he’d been equal­ly sur­prised when, a cou­ple of days ago, Bar­ry had revert­ed to wear­ing ‘nor­mal’ clothes. He’d asked him why he’d made the change, and Bar­ry had explained it was just to shut the oth­ers up. He’d said he’d had enough of the con­stant jibes from Nick and Eliz­a­beth, and the end­less point­less ques­tions and side­ways glances from that bloody woman Doreen. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone, he’d asked? What dif­fer­ence did it make to any of them what he was wear­ing? That said, John found it far eas­i­er to relate to Bar­ry when he was wear­ing jeans and a T‑shirt rather than full drag. It real­ly shouldn’t have made any dif­fer­ence, but it did. Bar­ry now sat on his own in the door­way of his bed­room, qui­et­ly read­ing a book he’d already fin­ished once this week.

Eliz­a­beth and Nick had a strange rela­tion­ship. One minute they were fight­ing, the next laugh­ing. They were of a sim­i­lar age and back­ground, and maybe that was the con­nec­tion? John sensed that the deci­sion to fight or laugh was usu­al­ly down to Eliz­a­beth. She used her fem­i­nin­i­ty to twist Nick around her lit­tle fin­ger, dan­gling him on a string. Then again, maybe he was doing her a dis­ser­vice? Per­haps he was jealous?

Now Doreen Phillips he couldn’t stand. There were no ifs, buts or maybes when it came to Doreen, he sim­ply couldn’t abide the woman. He hat­ed her grat­ing voice and her witch’s cack­le of a laugh. He hat­ed her smell and the cloud of cig­a­rette smoke which fol­lowed her around the room. He hat­ed her wiz­ened, wrin­kled skin and her yel­low teeth. Most of all he hat­ed the fact she moaned con­stant­ly about every­thing to any­one who’d lis­ten. She had more aches, pains and prob­lems each day than the rest of them com­bined. No mat­ter how low or des­per­ate you might be feel­ing, Doreen always had it worse. John tried to avoid all con­tact with her, which wasn’t easy being trapped togeth­er in such a con­fined space.

It was inter­est­ing how lit­tle every­one seemed to have to do with Paul Jones. Nick in par­tic­u­lar hard­ly spoke to him. Per­haps there was an ele­ment of com­pe­ti­tion, both of them con­sid­er­ing them­selves the all-impor­tant alpha male? What­ev­er the rea­son they kept their dis­tance from each oth­er, although Paul tend­ed to keep his dis­tance from every­one. He both infu­ri­at­ed and fas­ci­nat­ed John. Such an iso­lat­ed and soli­tary per­son and yet, when he could be per­suad­ed, he brought so much to the group. He was obvi­ous­ly intel­li­gent, but his dis­tance from the rest of them came across as an unpleas­ant arro­gance. Maybe he just wasn’t very good at relat­ing to oth­er peo­ple? Or did he think he was bet­ter than the rest of them?

Fun­ny, John thought, that we should eas­i­ly over­look the good and find so many faults with each oth­er. There they were, all liv­ing through the same night­mare, and yet they couldn’t put aside their dif­fer­ences and work togeth­er for love nor mon­ey. They focused on triv­ial dif­fer­ences rather than try­ing to work togeth­er for the com­mon good. It spoke vol­umes about the human condition.

Doreen and Nick were at the din­ing table play­ing cards, their pok­er faces emo­tion­less. Close by, Eliz­a­beth dozed on a couch. Like Bar­ry, Paul also had also marked out a small area as his own: sit­ting on a chair, look­ing out of the wide floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows at the front of the hotel. From there he could see the rear-end of the bus stick­ing out of the gap­ing hole where the main entrance to the build­ing had been. Ten days on and the dead were still fight­ing through the rub­ble to get inside.

Bore­dom and curios­i­ty caused John to get up and wan­der over to Paul. Paul didn’t react, hop­ing he’d go away again. He didn’t.

‘Any change?’

‘Yeah, they’ve all gone. What do you think?’

‘Still more of them coming?’

‘Obvi­ous­ly.’

‘You’d think they’d have giv­en up by now, wouldn’t you?’

‘Fuck all else left to dis­tract them, isn’t there? Just the noise up here.’

John knew he was annoy­ing Paul, but he couldn’t help inces­sant­ly ask­ing ques­tions. It was a cop­ing mech­a­nism, he’d long-since decid­ed. ‘You think they’ll ever stop?’

‘What, stop mov­ing or stop try­ing to get in here?’

‘Both. Either.’

‘Yes.’

‘Yes what?’

‘Yes they’ll even­tu­al­ly stop mov­ing and yes, they’ll even­tu­al­ly stop try­ing to get in here.’

‘When?’

‘Quar­ter past six tomor­row night. Christ, how the hell should I know?’

‘Sor­ry.’

‘They’ll stop mov­ing when they’ve rot­ted so much they just can’t do it any more, and they’ll stop try­ing to get in here when there’s so many of them crammed into this fuck­ing build­ing that there’s no more room. And please don’t ask me which is going to hap­pen first because I don’t have a fuck­ing clue.’

John took that as his cue to go. A sud­den tirade like that from Paul usu­al­ly meant you should go before he told you to. Deject­ed, he ambled slow­ly back into the mid­dle of the huge pent­house apart­ment. It had been an impres­sive sight when they’d first arrived there, pala­tial and immense. Now the Pres­i­den­tial Suite looked as dilap­i­dat­ed and run­down as the rest of the world; a millionaire’s home tak­en over by squatters.

John wan­dered into the kitchen area to look for scraps of food he knew he wouldn’t find. They were rapid­ly run­ning out of every­thing, but he kept look­ing regard­less. Maybe he’d find some­thing in the rub­bish that one of the oth­ers had missed …

As he wad­ed through the dis­card­ed box­es, bags, wrap­pers and oth­er lit­ter that cov­ered the floor, he thought about what Paul had just said. He was absolute­ly right, the bod­ies would keep try­ing to force their way into the build­ing until there was no more room. That was a ter­ri­fy­ing prospect which had gen­er­at­ed a lot of very ani­mat­ed dis­cus­sion but lit­tle action over the last ten days. If things kept pro­gress­ing as they had (and there was no rea­son to sug­gest they wouldn’t) then a time would inevitably come when the build­ing in which they were shel­ter­ing would be filled to capac­i­ty with dead flesh, leav­ing them strand­ed and starv­ing. But what could they do? They’d talked and talked about it with­out reach­ing any con­clu­sions or work­able solu­tions. There had always been enough food in the kitchen and enough space between them and the dead to enable them to put off mak­ing dif­fi­cult deci­sions until tomor­row, and then the day after that, and the day after that. John sensed that very soon, one way or anoth­er, they’d have no choice but to act.

He had, for his part, tried to do some­thing con­struc­tive. Grant­ed it wasn’t much, but (as he fre­quent­ly remind­ed them), it was more than any­one else had done. A keen pho­tog­ra­ph­er, five days ago he’d found a cam­era and bat­ter­ies lying around the suite which Bar­ry had brought back with him from an ear­ly trip into town. In a moment of inspi­ra­tion, he’d crept out onto the land­ing, attached the cam­era to the end of a fire-hose, and low­ered it down the mid­dle of the stair­case. Through tri­al and error he’d man­aged to work out what length of hose was nec­es­sary to low­er the cam­era between floors and, at the same time, he set the timer to take a sin­gle pic­ture once the required lev­el had been reached. With a sur­pris­ing degree of accu­ra­cy he had soon devel­oped a means of tak­ing pho­tographs of each lev­el down as far as the hose would reach. He had, there­fore, found a way of mea­sur­ing the progress of the dead when they final­ly appeared. Their incal­cu­la­bly vast num­bers meant that those bod­ies at the front of the crowd were con­tin­u­al­ly being pushed for­wards, inevitably begin­ning to climb the stairs. With corpses con­tin­u­ing to pour through the bus-shaped hole in the hotel’s out­side wall, once the ground floor recep­tion had been com­plete­ly filled there was nowhere else for them to go but up. Mov­ing almost as one huge drip­ping mass, the enor­mous crowd was slow­ly being fun­nelled deep­er and deep­er into the build­ing, climb­ing high­er and higher.

Each time John hauled the cam­era back up to the top floor, the group crowd­ed around to check the progress of the slow­ly advanc­ing cadav­ers. There had been no sign of them ini­tial­ly, but John con­tin­ued to take his pho­tographs every morn­ing regard­less. And then, yes­ter­day, the dead had been pho­tographed on the twen­ty-sec­ond floor. It was a sim­ple enough cal­cu­la­tion to make – they’d cov­ered twen­ty-two floors in about nine days, so they were climb­ing at the rate of just over two floors a day. The sec­ond sim­ple cal­cu­la­tion made was alto­geth­er more dis­turb­ing. It was Thurs­day today. If their rate of climb con­tin­ued at the same speed (and there seemed no imme­di­ate rea­son why it shouldn’t) then the bod­ies would reach the twen­ty-eighth floor some­time on Sat­ur­day, Sun­day morn­ing at the very latest.

Bizarrely, John enjoyed his role of chief cam­era­man and body-watch­er. It gave him a pur­pose. Per­haps even more impor­tant­ly, it became some­thing he could hide behind and use as an excuse for not doing any­thing else.

#

Three forty-five. The after­noon sun was drop­ping down towards the hori­zon, fill­ing the Pres­i­den­tial Suite with orange light and long, drag­ging shad­ows. Rather than spread­ing them­selves around the edges of the apart­ment, on this rare occa­sion the six sur­vivors sat togeth­er around the din­ing table. They need­ed to talk. No food, very lit­tle time.

‘So exact­ly how much stuff have we got left?’ Doreen asked.

 ‘Enough for a day,’ Bar­ry replied, ‘maybe two at the very most. After that there’s nothing.’

‘We must have something?’

‘No,’ he said again, shak­ing his head. ‘Noth­ing.’

‘It can’t have all gone, can it?’

Nick had reached break­ing point. How were they sup­posed to get through to this bloody woman? ‘Lis­ten, Doreen, the cup­boards are emp­ty. We’re down to our last crumbs. There isn’t an extra lit­tle stash of food tucked away for emer­gen­cies. After this we’ll have absolute­ly noth­ing. Zip. Fuck all.’

Doreen slumped back in her chair. ‘So what are we going to do?’ More sighs came from around the table.

‘That’s what we’re try­ing to work out, you stu­pid cow,’ Nick said, sit­ting on his hands so he didn’t throt­tle her. ‘Bloody hell, are you on the same plan­et as the rest of us?’

‘Wish I wasn’t.’

‘So we’ve got two prob­lems,’ John sum­marised, try­ing his best to con­trol the con­ver­sa­tion. ‘We need to try and get out and get sup­plies but—’

‘—but this build­ing is full of bod­ies,’ said Bar­ry, before adding, ‘thanks to the hole you lot made in the front door.’   ‘So what do we do?’ Doreen asked again.

‘Is there any way of get­ting out of here and back up again?’ Eliz­a­beth wondered.

‘Don’t think so,’ Bar­ry answered quick­ly. ‘Get­ting down’s no prob­lem, we can use the fire escape.’ He nod­ded over at an incon­spic­u­ous look­ing door in the far cor­ner of the room. ‘The prob­lem is what to do once you’re down there. Open the fire escape door on the ground floor, and you’ll find your­self right in the mid­dle of a few thou­sand bod­ies. And if you man­age to get out­side, you’re not going to get back in again after­wards. It’d be impos­si­ble emp­ty-hand­ed. No chance if you’re car­ry­ing supplies.’

‘But there must be a way?’

‘Get a sheet, hold it like a para­chute, climb up to the roof and jump off,’ Nick suggested.

‘You think that’ll work?’ Doreen said, her bewil­der­ing­ly stu­pid response meet­ing with groans of dis­be­lief from the others.

‘Try it and let us know, Doreen,’ he said.

‘But how would I get back up again?’

‘Flap your arms,’ Nick said. ‘You know what I think? I think we should just get out of here. This place is fucked. We should go down­stairs and torch the place on our way out. Set light to the build­ing and watch the whole fuck­ing place go up in flames.’

‘What good’s that going to do?’ Bar­ry said.

‘Well it would dis­tract them for a start. Christ, the heat and light this place burn­ing would gen­er­ate would be more than enough of a dis­trac­tion to let us get away. They’re not going to be inter­est­ed in a hand­ful of peo­ple sneak­ing out the back door with all that going on, are they?’

Nick’s sug­ges­tion was met with an awk­ward, mut­ed silence. They each thought long and hard about it, but none of them were sure. It wasn’t the wan­ton destruc­tion that put them off, rather it was the thought of being out on the run again, search­ing for places to hide …

‘What about the cra­dle?’ John said. ‘We’ve talked about it before, haven’t we? Bar­ry said there’s a window-cleaner’s cra­dle half way up the side of the build­ing. We could use that to get us down, couldn’t we? We might even be able to use it to get back up as well …’

‘What about pow­er,’ Paul said. ‘How do you think you winch it? You think the win­dow-clean­ers used to pull them­selves up thir­ty floors by hand? No pow­er, no cradle.’

Anoth­er idea quashed.

‘Seems to me that if we can get out of here in one piece, then maybe that’s what we should do,’ Eliz­a­beth said dejectedly.

Bar­ry shook his head. ‘I don’t want to leave here. I can’t see any point running.’

‘Of course there’s a point,’ Doreen said.

‘Is there?’

‘Yes,’ she answered, sound­ing far from con­vinced. ‘There must be …’

‘Well let me know when you find it.’

‘So what are we actu­al­ly say­ing?’ Nick asked. He point­ed at Bar­ry. ‘Does she just want to sit here and starve? Good plan, well done!’

Bar­ry was unfazed. ‘But why run?’

‘Because I don’t want to die.’

‘Good answer. Why don’t you want to die?’

‘Stu­pid ques­tion. No one wants to die, do they?’

‘But is it the end of your life you’re wor­ried about, or is it death itself that scares you?’ Bar­ry said.

‘What? You’re just talk­ing bol­locks now.’

‘No, I’m not. Are you wor­ried that you’re not going to achieve every­thing you’ve always want­ed to achieve, or is it the prospect of being torn apart by hun­dreds of bod­ies that both­ers you most?’

‘What point are you mak­ing, Bar­ry?’ John wondered.

‘Sor­ry, I guess I’m just think­ing out loud real­ly. I’m not try­ing to wind any­one up. I think what I’m say­ing is that I gen­uine­ly can’t see an easy way out of this. If we run we’ll find some­where else to hide for a while, then some­thing will hap­pen and before you know it we’ll be mov­ing on again, then again, and again, and again …’

‘Not nec­es­sar­i­ly,’ Eliz­a­beth said.

‘No, but that’s prob­a­bly what will hap­pen, and we have to accept that. We’re not in con­trol here. Christ, I thought I’d hit the jack­pot find­ing this place until some­one drove a bloody bus into the building.’

‘But running’s got to be bet­ter than just rolling over and wait­ing to die, hasn’t it?’

‘I’m not so sure,’ Bar­ry said. ‘That’s what I used to believe, but I just don’t know any more. Every morn­ing when I wake up, it’s get­ting clear­er and clear­er that my life is just about over. We’re mas­sive­ly out­num­bered and soci­ety is fin­ished. Christ, we’re sit­ting here talk­ing about risk­ing our necks just to get food. What kind of a life are any of us going to have if get­ting the basics like food and shel­ter are so difficult?’

His words were greet­ed by almost total silence. ‘Still don’t under­stand you,’ Doreen said. ‘What were you say­ing about death and dying?’

Bar­ry rubbed his tired eyes and explained fur­ther. ‘I don’t want to keep strug­gling and fight­ing for­ev­er,’ he said sad­ly, ‘and I don’t think any of you do either. If I’m com­plete­ly hon­est, I just want to relax and let things hap­pen nat­u­ral­ly. We’re in the minor­i­ty now, and I don’t think we were sup­posed to sur­vive. So while I don’t rel­ish the idea of let­ting those things out there tear me limb from limb, I guess I’m not both­ered if I die.’

‘But that’s—’ John start­ed to say.

‘Not nor­mal? I accept that. It’s not what any of you were expect­ing me to say, I know. We’ve been pre-pro­grammed all of our lives to keep fight­ing and keep strug­gling. All I’m say­ing is I’ve realised there’s no point any more. Just sit back and relax. Let nature take its course.’

More silence.

‘No,’ Nick said. ‘There’s no fuck­ing way I’m just going to sit here and wait to die. Absolute­ly no way …’

‘I’m with you,’ Paul said, sim­i­lar­ly unim­pressed. John looked up in sur­prise. He couldn’t remem­ber when the two men had last agreed on any­thing. Strange how their dis­like of each oth­er could be put to one side when their backs were against the wall.

‘So what do we do?’ asked Elizabeth.

That was the mil­lion dol­lar ques­tion which no one could answer. The omi­nous silence con­tin­ued for sev­er­al min­utes until Paul spoke again. ‘Exact­ly how full of bod­ies is this place?’

‘They’re almost up to the twen­ty-fourth floor,’ John said. ‘I told you that a few min­utes ago. You don’t lis­ten to a word I say.’

‘No, you told us how far up the stair­case they’d man­aged to get, you didn’t tell us how full of bod­ies the build­ing is.’

John strug­gled to see the dif­fer­ence and he wasn’t alone in his con­fu­sion. ‘What do you mean?’ Eliz­a­beth asked.

Paul shook his head. Christ, these peo­ple were infu­ri­at­ing. More to the point he was annoyed with him­self. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? ‘A cou­ple of min­utes ago we were talk­ing about get­ting out of here, weren’t we?’

‘Yes.’

‘So how was Bar­ry talk­ing about get­ting out?’

‘Do you always answer ques­tions with ques­tions?’ she snapped.

‘Do you?’ he replied, before re-phras­ing and ask­ing his pre­vi­ous ques­tion again. ‘There’s anoth­er way out of here, isn’t there?’

‘The fire escape,’ Bar­ry answered.

‘Which is still clear, correct?’

‘As far as we know. Why, what are you thinking?’

‘Is the fire escape any­where near the main staircase?’

‘Of course not,’ John inter­ject­ed. ‘What would be the point of that? The fire escape needs to be on the oth­er side of the build­ing so that—’

‘My point exact­ly. The fire escape gives us a way of mov­ing around the build­ing that’s well away from the main stair­case where we think all the bod­ies are.’

‘And there’s a good chance the bod­ies are still only on the stair­case,’ Nick added, final­ly under­stand­ing where Paul was com­ing from. ‘Which means that if we’re care­ful we could still go out onto the land­ings and into the rooms.’

‘What’s the lay­out of a typ­i­cal floor?’ Paul asked.

‘Just one U‑shaped cor­ri­dor,’ Bar­ry answered. ‘Stair­case in the mid­dle, fire escape at either end I think.’

‘And when you first set your­self up here, did you clear the place out?’

‘I checked all the rooms for bod­ies and I took what I need­ed but—’

‘Did you take everything?’

‘No, I didn’t need to.’

‘So there’s your answer,’ Paul said, rock­ing back on his chair, almost look­ing down his nose at the oth­ers. ‘We go back down as far as we need to and grab what we can. Should keep us from starv­ing to death for a few days longer. Delay the inevitable.’

‘But that’s all you’re going to do,’ Bar­ry remind­ed him. ‘You’ll just be delay­ing what you know is going to hap­pen anyway.’

‘He’s right, isn’t he?’ Doreen said. ‘It’s not going to change the fact that those bloody things will be up here with us in the next cou­ple of days, is it? It’s not going to help us get away.’

‘No,’ Paul agreed, ‘it won’t. But it will give us a lit­tle time and space.’

‘To do what?’

‘To decide how we’re get­ting out of here and where we’re going to go.’

#

Eight thir­ty-five. Pitch black. Paul, Nick and Eliz­a­beth crept down the fire escape stair­case towards the low­er floors of the hotel. Hunger, claus­tro­pho­bia and fear had com­bined to dead­ly effect to kick-start their hasti­ly con­sid­ered, semi-impro­vised plan. The risks seemed to increase with every step of the descent. Paul had sug­gest­ed they go all the way down then work their way back up, but they’d only made it as far as the sev­en­teenth floor when he stopped.

‘What’s the mat­ter?’ Eliz­a­beth asked, imme­di­ate­ly concerned.

‘I want to have a look.’

‘What for?’

‘What do you think?’

‘But you said …’

‘I know what I said. We know those things are on the stairs, but we don’t know for sure where else they are, do we?’

Paul moved to the door and gen­tly pushed it open a frac­tion. He shone his torch out onto the landing.

‘Any­thing?’

‘Can’t see any move­ment,’ he replied, his voice lit­tle more than a whis­per. ‘I’m going to have a look around.’

With­out wait­ing for either of the oth­ers, Paul slipped out onto the land­ing. He switched off his torch, con­cerned that the light might attract unwant­ed atten­tion, and then slow­ly moved down the hall­way to the first cor­ner. The lay­out, as far as he could see in the gloom, was pret­ty much as Bar­ry had described: a long cor­ri­dor with a right-angled right turn towards the cen­tral part of the build­ing where, he pre­sumed, he’d find the stair­case and tens of thou­sands of rot­ting bod­ies. He moved clos­er and peered around the cor­ner, hold­ing his breath for fear of mak­ing any sound which might tip the bal­ance and alert the dead to his pres­ence. He couldn’t see any­thing. It was too dark.

Paul felt his way far­ther along the wall and paused at the door to one of the hotel’s many bed­rooms. Did he go inside? It would be worth hav­ing a quick look around the room before he going back to the oth­er two wait­ing on the fire escape stair­case. He want­ed to see the lay­out of a typ­i­cal room so he could get a feel for what they were deal­ing with. How quick­ly would they be able to thor­ough­ly check a room for food? What were they like­ly to find? Would there be a mini-bar or sim­i­lar? Christ, he need­ed a drink, and his stom­ach start­ed to growl at the thought of eat­ing again.

Paul tried the han­dle. Damn thing was locked and it need­ed a swipe card. No sur­prise real­ly. Bar­ry had a few mas­ter cards which he’d tak­en from the bod­ies of clean­ers and oth­er staff. Eliz­a­beth had one with her. He shoved the door again, hop­ing it would open. It didn’t mat­ter. He’d go back to Eliz­a­beth and …

Wait.

What was that?

He sensed move­ment up ahead. He felt some­thing brush against his arm and he froze. He lift­ed his torch and switched it on. Ahead of him the whole cor­ri­dor was filled with bod­ies, all of them obliv­i­ous to his pres­ence until he’d start­ed mess­ing with the door.

‘Fuck­ing hell,’ he mum­bled as he tripped back away from the dead. Illu­mi­nat­ed now and then by the unsteady light from his shak­ing torch, he saw that the cor­ri­dor was filled with con­stant­ly shift­ing corpses which had obvi­ous­ly spilled out from the stair­case. Almost as one they began to move towards him. He ran back to the fire escape and ham­mered on the door. Eliz­a­beth opened it slow­ly and he barged through, shov­ing her out of the way.

‘Move!’ he yelled, slam­ming the door shut behind him.

‘Bod­ies?’ she asked, already begin­ning to climb back up.

‘Fuck­ing hun­dreds of them,’ he answered breath­less­ly. ‘It’s worse than we thought.’

He looked around for Nick but he’d already gone. He was way ahead of them both, on his way back to the top floor. Cow­ard­ly bas­tard. He made a men­tal note nev­er to put him­self in a posi­tion where he need­ed to rely on Nick for anything.

They pound­ed up the stairs, no longer con­cerned about the vol­ume of noise they made, just des­per­ate to get back to the Pres­i­den­tial Suite.    ‘Wait a minute,’ he shout­ed, stop­ping Eliz­a­beth in her tracks. Breath­less, he shone his torch at the near­est fire door. Floor twen­ty-six. It was worth tak­ing a chance to see if this floor was the same as the one ten floors below.

‘What are you doing?’ Eliz­a­beth asked, almost too afraid to know.

‘Accord­ing to John they haven’t reached this floor yet. We thought they were just fill­ing the stairs, but there’s so bloody many of them they’re fill­ing the entire build­ing. We should check this lev­el for food before we go back. We won’t have chance again.’

They slipped out through the fire door, leav­ing it propped open with a fire extin­guish­er, then moved slow­ly along the cor­ri­dor to the first cor­ner. Paul put his head around and shone the torch down its length.

‘Clear,’ he said, the relief in his voice obvi­ous. ‘Stick to this end of the cor­ri­dor and stay away from the stairs.’

The lay­out of floor twen­ty-six was dif­fer­ent to floor sev­en­teen. Here there were sev­er­al large suites instead of many small­er rooms. They went into the nearest.

‘So what are we look­ing for?’ Eliz­a­beth asked.

‘Any­thing. Just make sure you split what you find into two piles. Keep one for us, then we’ll share the rest with the others.’

‘But that’s—’

‘—that’s com­plete­ly fair. How many of those fuck­ers are here help­ing? If they want more they can come and get it themselves.’

He began to ran­sack the room.

#

A lit­tle under an hour lat­er Eliz­a­beth and Paul returned to the Pres­i­den­tial Suite, car­ry­ing with them almost the entire con­tents of the mini­bars of the Exec­u­tive Suites on the floor imme­di­ate­ly below. They’d found lit­tle in the way of any sub­stan­tial food, but that didn’t mat­ter. The oth­ers grate­ful­ly took what they were giv­en and ate and drank quick­ly as Paul broke the bad news about what they’d seen on the low­er levels.

‘Feels like a last sup­per, doesn’t it?’ Bar­ry said qui­et­ly. To no one in par­tic­u­lar. He couldn’t see who was where. No one had lit any lamps this evening.

‘So what do we do next?’ John asked, sit­ting on his own a lit­tle way behind Bar­ry. ‘We nev­er decid­ed. Do we just sit here and wait for them, or do we run?’

‘Nick will run,’ Paul said, remem­ber­ing how he’d left them on the fire escape. ‘You’re good at run­ning, aren’t you Nick?’

‘Shut your fuck­ing mouth,’ Nick said angri­ly, glad of the dark because he didn’t know how to react.

‘So what do we do?’ John asked again, des­per­ate for some­one to answer and give him some­thing to cling onto.

‘Let’s just think about it log­i­cal­ly, shall we,’ Bar­ry sug­gest­ed. ‘They’re still com­ing in through the front door, and they’re climb­ing the stairs because of the grow­ing pres­sure of oth­er corpses behind them. So what’s going to hap­pen when they reach the top? They’re not going to turn back around and start head­ing for the ground floor again, are they?’

‘They’re going to keep com­ing,’ Paul said omi­nous­ly. ‘They’ll spread onto the land­ings like we saw downstairs.’

‘And even when there’s no more room on the land­ing up here,’ Bar­ry con­tin­ued, ‘they’ll still keep com­ing. Before we know it they’ll be up against our door and then, when the pres­sure gets too great, it’ll give and this place will be flooded.’

‘Love­ly,’ Doreen mumbled.

‘So you don’t think we’ve got any chance?’ asked Elizabeth.

‘It’s like I said ear­li­er,’ Bar­ry replied, ‘what’s com­ing is com­ing. I think we’re all going to die, and the only choice left is how it hap­pens. Now I don’t per­son­al­ly intend on being torn apart, but I also don’t like the idea of run­ning either.’

‘So what are you going to do?’

‘Not sure yet. I haven’t decided.’

‘You don’t have long.’

‘I know.’

‘I’m run­ning,’ Nick said.

‘You would,’ Paul said quick­ly. ‘But fair play, I’ll prob­a­bly run too.’

‘What about you, Doreen?’ Eliz­a­beth asked.

‘Too tired to run, too scared not to. We’ll just have to wait and see what tomor­row brings, won’t we?’

#

Next morn­ing. First light. John picked up his cam­era and walked across the land­ing to car­ry out his self-imposed dai­ly duty and mea­sure the progress of the dead. He walked out to the stair­case and leant over the ban­is­ter, then imme­di­ate­ly pulling him­self back again. There was no longer any need for cam­eras. They still had sev­er­al flights of stairs to climb, but he could now see the first few bod­ies. He ran back to tell the others.

‘How far?’ Eliz­a­beth asked as he burst back into the room.

‘Not far.’

‘How long?’

‘Not long.’

‘More spe­cif­ic?’

‘Cou­ple of hours.’

Doreen began to sob.

‘Shut up you sil­ly cow,’ Nick snapped at her with his typ­i­cal lack of com­pas­sion. ‘All you’re going to do is get them up here quick­er with your stu­pid whining.’

‘So we just sit and wait?’ John asked.

‘That’s what I’m doing,’ a voice said from behind him, ‘but I’m not ready to die just yet.’ Bar­ry emerged from his bed­room wear­ing a skirt and blouse, a blond wig, full make-up and his favourite high-heeled boots. He stormed into the main part of the suite with redis­cov­ered con­fi­dence, com­plete­ly at odds with the oth­ers who sat around deject­ed­ly, each con­tem­plat­ing the dark deci­sions they would soon have to make. ‘I did a lot of think­ing last night,’ he explained.

‘We can see that,’ Nick said.

‘And …?’ Paul pressed.

‘I want­ed to know if I was wrong. I didn’t know if I’d been look­ing at every­thing the wrong way.’

‘And?’ Paul pressed again.

‘And, unfor­tu­nate­ly, I think I’m right,’ he admit­ted. ‘In fact the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to realise our sit­u­a­tion real­ly is hope­less. I can’t see any obvi­ous way out, and I’m not just talk­ing about the hotel here, I’m talk­ing about what’s left of our lives in gen­er­al. What­ev­er we do, wher­ev­er we go, we’re fucked.’

‘Nice. Thanks for that.’

‘Seri­ous­ly, just stop and think about it. I’m not being defeatist here, I’m just being hon­est. What­ev­er we decide to do, it’s going to be a strug­gle. We’re going to have to fight for absolute­ly every­thing, and that’s bloody stu­pid when you think there’s prob­a­bly only a few peo­ple left. The world’s our oys­ter, but I don’t think we can have any of it. What does that say to you?’

Blank, con­fused looks. Silence.

‘It’s like you said,’ Eliz­a­beth even­tu­al­ly mum­bled. ‘We’re fucked.’

‘Exact­ly. There’s noth­ing any of us can do about it. We’re mas­sive­ly out­num­bered and nowhere is safe. The only thing we have any con­trol over now is what we do with the time we have left.’

‘But we don’t know how long that is,’ John protested.

‘We nev­er have done,’ Bar­ry argued. ‘Seems to me we can either spend our last few days and weeks hid­ing in the shad­ows out there, starv­ing to death, run­ning from place to place and freak­ing out every time some­one farts …’

‘Or?’

‘Or we can stop try­ing so hard to sur­vive and just let things hap­pen nat­u­ral­ly. Go out with a lit­tle dignity.’

‘You’re talk­ing crap,’ Nick said.

‘Am I? Do you real­ly think you’re sup­posed to sur­vive all of this? There are some things that are big­ger than us.’

‘Please don’t start talk­ing about God and divine ret­ri­bu­tion and all that shite,’ John sighed. ‘I’ve giv­en all of that up.’

Bar­ry smiled and brushed away a stray wisp of long, blond hair. ‘That’s not what I’m talk­ing about at all. What I’m say­ing is that what­ev­er hap­pened here was the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry equiv­a­lent of the aster­oid that wiped out the dinosaurs.’

‘Now you’ve real­ly lost me,’ Paul said.

‘This is our ice-age. This is our apoc­a­lypse. This is the end. We should just accept it and let nature take its course.’ Barry’s com­ments were met with silence. ‘Our prob­lem is we’ve all fall­en foul of the pro­gramme. We think we’re so bloody supe­ri­or and we think the plan­et can’t go on with­out us. It’s part and par­cel of the human con­di­tion. Truth is the world’s going to thrive with­out us here to keep screw­ing it up.’

‘The human con­di­tion?’ Nick said. ‘What the hell are you on about?’

‘I can’t think of a bet­ter way to put it. I was look­ing out of the win­dow last night, watch­ing birds fly­ing from build­ing to building …’

‘Fuck­ing hell,’ Paul said, ‘he’s real­ly lost it. I’ve long had my doubts about him but I think he’s final­ly lost it.’

‘I was watch­ing the birds,’ Bar­ry con­tin­ued, ignor­ing him, ‘and I start­ed think­ing about the dif­fer­ence between us and the ani­mals. Seems to me there’s one huge dif­fer­ence that doesn’t often get talked about.’ He paused to give the oth­ers oppor­tu­ni­ty to make a cheap joke or to hit him with anoth­er insult but, unusu­al­ly, they didn’t. ‘The dif­fer­ence is we know we’re even­tu­al­ly going to die and they don’t. Ani­mals strut about the place think­ing they’re going to go on for­ev­er, we spend our lives wor­ry­ing about how they’re going to end. That’s what I mean when I talk about the human con­di­tion. We’re too busy think­ing about death to enjoy life.’

There fol­lowed an unusu­al­ly long moment of qui­et con­tem­pla­tion and reflec­tion which was only dis­turbed when John remem­bered the bod­ies on the stairs. ‘That’s all well and good,’ he said anx­ious­ly, ‘but what are you going to do now? Are you going to wait for the bod­ies to get in here, or are you going to kill your­self and get it over with?’

‘Nei­ther.’

‘What then?’

‘I’m going to sit in here and relax, and what will be will be. I’m going to try and slow the bod­ies down, then let nature take its course.’

‘Are you high? How are you going to slow them down?’

‘Well we’ve already estab­lished that they’ll keep mov­ing for­ward until they can’t go any fur­ther, so instead of let­ting them stop here on this floor where we are, let’s help them keep going.’

‘What are you suggesting?’

‘Chan­nel them up onto the roof.’

‘And?’

‘And that’s it. What they do up there is their busi­ness. If they stay true to form they’ll fol­low each oth­er up, one after anoth­er, until there’s no room left. Then they’ll either come back down, which I doubt, or they’ll end up push­ing each oth­er over the edge.’

‘Bril­liant,’ Paul said, grin­ning with gen­uine enthu­si­asm. ‘That’s absolute­ly fuck­ing brilliant!’

He couldn’t believe what he was hear­ing. A man in a dress was sug­gest­ing they spend their last few days on Earth sit­ting in a lux­u­ry hotel suite watch­ing three week old corpses falling off the roof.

‘It’s got to be worth a go, hasn’t it?’ Bar­ry said.

‘Okay,’ Paul agreed, sur­pris­ing even him­self. ‘Let’s do it.’

#

The roof of the build­ing was accessed via a final nar­row flight of steps. With the bod­ies con­tin­u­ing to make unsteady progress towards them, Paul and Bar­ry crept up towards the door that would lead them outside.

‘It’s locked,’ Bar­ry grunted.

‘Don’t you have the key? You’ve got keys to every­where else.’

‘Sor­ry.’

‘Smash it open then.’

‘What about the noise?’ he instinc­tive­ly asked. Paul looked down the stair­case behind them, back into the heart of the build­ing. Even from here he could see the con­stant move­ment of the dead.

‘Bit late to wor­ry about that.’

With lim­it­ed space to manoeu­vre his coif­fured bulk, Bar­ry held onto a handrail, swung back, then crashed his shoul­der against the door. It rat­tled in its frame but didn’t open. Anoth­er cou­ple of attempts were equal­ly unsuccessful.

‘Let me,’ Paul said, push­ing Bar­ry to one side. ‘You’re not wear­ing the right shoes for break­ing and entering.’

He launched a bar­rage of well aimed kicks at the lock. The wood began to splin­ter and crack. Anoth­er few heavy boots and it flew open, allow­ing the two men to scram­ble out onto the roof. A phe­nom­e­nal wind threat­ened to blow them off their feet.

‘Jesus,’ Paul said, hav­ing to shout to make him­self heard, almost enjoy­ing the vol­ume of his voice. ‘Bit blustery.’

Bar­ry didn’t answer. He was busy try­ing to wedge the door open. For the bod­ies to be able to keep mov­ing for­ward, the way out onto the roof would need to remain unob­struct­ed. Paul picked up a strip of met­al lying on the asphalt and used it as a prop.

‘That’ll do,’ Bar­ry said. ‘Let’s get back inside.’

The two men clat­tered back down the stair­case towards the Pres­i­den­tial Suite. Paul stopped and stared at the bod­ies still com­ing towards them. Was it his imag­i­na­tion, or were they mov­ing slight­ly faster now? He tried to think log­i­cal­ly as the dis­tance between the liv­ing and the dead rapid­ly evap­o­rat­ed. Pre­vi­ous­ly the bod­ies had been dri­ven for­ward by the pres­sure of oth­ers push­ing them from behind, but now those corpses fur­thest up the stairs knew there were sur­vivors above them. Rather than wait to be pushed for­ward, those at the front of the queue were now mov­ing under their own steam. Bar­ry was next to him.

‘They’re get­ting faster,’ Paul said qui­et­ly. ‘I think we should—’ He stopped speak­ing instant­ly when one of the bod­ies looked up at him. Was he imag­in­ing it? No, now Bar­ry had seen it too. The foul crea­tures were actu­al­ly look­ing at them …

‘Move,’ Bar­ry said, and Paul didn’t argue.

‘Done it?’ John asked as they burst back through the main doors together.

‘Sort of,’ Bar­ry said.

‘What’s that sup­posed to mean?’

‘We might have a problem …’

‘What’s the mat­ter?’ Doreen asked, concerned.

Paul was still by the open doors, look­ing back down the cor­ri­dor. The first bod­ies appeared on the land­ing. Eliz­a­beth cov­ered her mouth in hor­ror and sti­fled a scream. John scram­bled away from the open door as Paul slammed it shut.

‘Fuck me,’ said Nick.

‘They saw us,’ Paul said, sound­ing almost embar­rassed. ‘They know we’re here now.’

‘Did you open the door to the roof?’ Doreen asked.

‘Yes, but …’ Bar­ry began to say.

‘You pair of bloody idiots,’ she screamed at them both.

‘Be qui­et, Doreen,’ John plead­ed from behind the sofa. ‘Please, Doreen, don’t let them hear you.’

‘Bit late for that,’ she said. She looked around and saw she was the only one still out in the open. ‘So is that it? All that noise and effort and that’s it? That’s all you’re going to do?’

Bar­ry tried to respond but he couldn’t coor­di­nate his brain and mouth enough and make it happen.

‘What else can we do?’ Paul shout­ed. ‘We’re com­plete­ly screwed.’

‘Pathet­ic,’ Doreen said. ‘Absolute­ly bloody pathet­ic. If you think I’m going to sit here and wait for those damn things to have their way with me, then you’re very much mis­tak­en. I’m a woman with stan­dards. I’ve still got my pride.’

More inter­est­ed in the relent­less approach of the dead than the prat­tling of a ner­vous old woman, no one paid her any atten­tion. Infu­ri­at­ed by their lack of response, Doreen took it upon her­self to take action.

‘You’re bloody use­less, the lot of you,’ she said. ‘Wish I’d nev­er got mixed up with your lit­tle gang. Enjoy your lit­tle par­ty or what­ev­er it is you’re planning …’

She was tired and she’d real­ly had enough. Wis­er and more shrewd than any of them gave her cred­it for, she’d lis­tened to every­thing that Bar­ry had said and she’d found her­self agree­ing with him. Death was inevitable, and she didn’t have the ener­gy nor the desire to go on run­ning. She opened the door again, stepped out­side, then slammed it shut. With a total lack of nerves she walked into the bod­ies and pushed her way through them. Although their num­bers were impos­ing, they were indi­vid­u­al­ly weak and even with her bad back and count­less oth­er ail­ments, get­ting through them was easy. They swung their rot­ting fists at her and tried to grab at her with gnarled, talon-like hands but she was as wiry and thin as they were and she slipped past, weav­ing between them with the sud­den grace and sub­tle­ty of a woman whose var­i­ous dis­or­ders and com­plaints were ten per cent phys­i­cal and nine­ty per cent atten­tion seek­ing bull­shit. She pushed deep­er into the throng until she reached the foot of the stairs up to the roof. She then gave a loud whis­tle and threw her­self up the last few steps and out onto the roof. Dis­tract­ed by Doreen’s sud­den speed, noise and move­ment, many of the bod­ies turned away from the door to the Pres­i­den­tial Suite and began to fol­low her.

Bloody hell it was cold out­side. Doreen wrapped her cardi­gan tight around her wil­lowy body and braced her­self against the wind. Now what did she do? She hadn’t quite thought this through. She knew what she was doing, but now that she was stand­ing unpro­tect­ed on the roof, the con­se­quences of her actions real­ly began to hit home. This was it. No more run­ning or hid­ing or sleep­ing on the floor. No more fear or con­fu­sion or dis­ori­en­ta­tion. No more argu­ments or fights. It was final­ly time for a long over­due rest. It felt good, actually.

Doreen walked to the edge of the roof and peered down.

Bloody hell, it’s high­er than I expected. 

That was prob­a­bly a good thing, she decid­ed. Although she was only a few feet high­er here than she’d been in the suite just below, the dif­fer­ence was stark. Per­haps it was because the pro­tec­tion of glass and con­crete had gone. Per­haps it was because now there was noth­ing left between her and the rest of the world.

She looked back as the first few bod­ies stag­gered out onto the roof.

This is it then, time to do it.

She’d been toy­ing with the idea of sui­cide for a few days –  a few weeks if she was com­plete­ly hon­est – but she’d always clung onto the slim hope that things would some­how get bet­ter. Like Bar­ry had said, she just kept try­ing to sur­vive. Sui­cide had always seemed to be the coward’s way out before today, but after lis­ten­ing to him ear­li­er she’d come to realise that this was far from a cow­ard­ly act. Her fate was sealed, what­ev­er she did, but by end­ing her life this way she’d hold onto some dig­ni­ty and con­trol. This choice was all she had left. And she might even help those mis­er­able bas­tards in the Pres­i­den­tial Suite too.

She climbed up onto the low con­crete wall which ran around the perime­ter of the build­ing. The wind seemed to blow even stronger as she gin­ger­ly stood upright. She held out her arms like a tightrope walk­er, strug­gling to keep her balance.

Bloody hell, I can’t do this. I can’t go through with it.

She looked down towards the street many hun­dreds of feet below. Save for the occa­sion­al body stag­ger­ing by, the pave­ment on this side of the hotel was rel­a­tive­ly clear. Her mind began to fill with stu­pid ques­tions: was this going to be painful? Would it def­i­nite­ly kill her or would she some­how sur­vive and end up lying help­less on the ground with her arms and legs bro­ken as the dead swarmed over and around her? She thought about the old adage she’d heard count­less times before — it’s not the jump off the top of the build­ing that kills you, it’s hit­ting the ground that does it — and she man­aged half a smile. Would she feel any­thing? What would the fall be like? Would she know when she’d hit the ground or would it all be over before then …?

Doreen looked around and watched more bod­ies pil­ing out onto the roof. They hadn’t noticed her yet. They wan­dered around aim­less­ly like the emp­ty, soul­less ves­sels they were. She turned her back on them again and looked for­ward across the town, know­ing there was no going back now. Even if she changed her mind, she couldn’t get back inside.

Do I do it now or wait for them to get clos­er to me? Do I wait until the last pos­si­ble sec­ond? Is it worth cling­ing onto a few more sec­onds of life? What good will it do? Do I want to stand here, freez­ing cold and ter­ri­fied, try­ing to keep my bal­ance and not think about those bloody things behind me, or do I just let it hap­pen? Think about final­ly being able to stop and rest. Think about not hav­ing to run and hide …

Doreen closed her eyes, tipped for­ward and let grav­i­ty take over.

#

‘Well?’ Eliz­a­beth asked, sob­bing. Bar­ry peered out onto the land­ing through the spy-hole in the door.

‘Not good. There are too many of them. They know we’re in here now.’

Eliz­a­beth began to cry uncon­trol­lably. John tried to put his arms around her, but she pushed him away.

‘So what do we do now?’ Nick asked, sound­ing noth­ing like the con­fi­dent, cock­sure man who’d first arrived at the hotel.

‘Can’t see that anything’s changed,’ Bar­ry answered, his face still pressed against the hole in the door. ‘We’re still in here, they’re still out there. If you were think­ing about run­ning, now’s your last chance.’

‘I’m going,’ Paul said, already edg­ing clos­er to the fire escape door. ‘I’m not sit­ting here wait­ing for them to get in. Fuck that. I’m get­ting out of here …’

‘And me,’ Nick said.

Bar­ry looked across at John and Eliz­a­beth. They both began to edge clos­er to the two men wait­ing by the fire escape. ‘Come on, Bar­ry,’ she said, almost plead­ing with him. ‘Don’t stay here. It’s suicide.’

‘You don’t have to keep fight­ing, you know. That’s the dif­fer­ence between us in here and those things out there. You can stop and switch off if you want to. They’ll just keep going until there’s noth­ing left of them.’

‘Come on, Bar­ry,’ John said.

‘Nah,’ he replied, smooth­ing a wrin­kle in his skirt. ‘I think I’ve had enough.’

The four remain­ing sur­vivors dis­ap­peared through the fire escape door and began their dark descent down towards the ground floor.

The hotel suite was sud­den­ly qui­et, save for the thump­ing com­ing from the mass of decom­pos­ing bod­ies on the oth­er side of the main door. More impor­tant­ly, Barry’s space was his again. His and his alone. Just how he’d want­ed it.

He knew he didn’t have long. He tear­ful­ly walked around the vast suite, col­lect­ing togeth­er his things. He sal­vaged every­thing he could from the lit­tle that was left and packed it all against the wall of the mas­ter bed­room. Anoth­er noise from out­side dis­tract­ed him, and he peered through the spy-hole and saw that the cor­ri­dor was now a sol­id mass of flesh. It wouldn’t be long before they broke through. He wiped a tear away from the cor­ner of his eye, tak­ing care not to smudge his make-up, then took one long, final look around the suite which had been his home for the last few weeks of his life. He took a moment to walk around and look out of each of the win­dows in turn, star­ing at the remains of the city where he’d lived and remem­ber­ing … The mem­o­ries were hard­er to deal with than the thought of what was to come. It sur­prised him how much it still hurt to think about all he’d lost. The lit­tle he had left to lose didn’t seem to mat­ter so much now.

With the door rat­tling and shak­ing in its frame as more and more of the damn things threw them­selves against it, Bar­ry slipped qui­et­ly into the mas­ter bed­room. Once inside he shoved the bed across the entrance to the room and wedged it into posi­tion with oth­er fur­ni­ture and belong­ings. If he’d had a ham­mer and nails, he thought, he would have nailed it shut. I didn’t real­ly mat­ter. That door wouldn’t be open­ing again.

Bar­ry Bushell, with tears stream­ing down his cheeks, select­ed anoth­er out­fit from his wardrobe and changed. Final­ly feel­ing pre­sentable, he lay down on the bed and picked up a book. With his hands shak­ing so bad­ly that he could hard­ly read, he lay there and waited.

#

‘Keep mov­ing,’ Eliz­a­beth yelled, slam­ming her hands into the mid­dle of Nick’s back, send­ing him trip­ping down the last few stairs to the ground floor. He grabbed hold of the handrail to stop him­self from falling.

‘What now?’ John asked, still a lit­tle fur­ther back. They’d final­ly reached the bot­tom. It was anoth­er of his point­less ques­tions, point­less this time because they only had one choice. Nick teased the door open then quick­ly closed it again.

‘Well?’ Eliz­a­beth asked hopefully.

‘Not as bad as I thought,’ he replied. ‘There are hun­dreds of the fuck­ers, but I was expect­ing more. We’ll prob­a­bly make it through if we’re fast and we keep moving.’

Paul shoved Nick out of the way and peered around the side of the door. He pulled his head back in and com­posed himself.

‘This is it then. Time to say good­bye. I’d like to say I’d had fun, but I’d be lying.’

‘Good­bye?’ Eliz­a­beth said, surprised.

‘We’ll stand more of a chance if we split up.’

‘You reck­on?’

Paul shrugged his shoul­ders. ‘Who knows. Any­way, see you. Good luck.’ He took a deep breath, opened the door again, then slipped out into what was left of the hotel reception.

It was sur­pris­ing­ly bright after the enclosed gloom of the fire escape and the air, although still heavy with the stench of death and decay, was some­how fresh­er. Sev­er­al of the near­est bod­ies noticed his sud­den appear­ance and imme­di­ate­ly turned towards him. Paul, ter­ri­fied, pumped full of adren­a­lin, ran, paus­ing only to stare in utter dis­be­lief at the main stair­case of the hotel which was a sol­id col­umn of still climb­ing flesh.

He skipped and weaved through the life­less corpses which even now fought to get into the rub­ble-strewn hotel ruin, then he burst out onto the street. The dead were few­er in num­ber out here, but he knew they’d be upon him soon. Not know­ing where he was going or why, he just ran.

#

‘Bas­tard,’ Nick sobbed as bod­ies began to slam against the oth­er side of the fire escape door. ‘That bloody bas­tard, he’s let them know exact­ly where we are.’

‘Don’t think it mat­ters now,’ John said as he descend­ed the final few steps. The three remain­ing sur­vivors stood togeth­er at the foot of the stair­case. Eliz­a­beth thought about Bar­ry, twen­ty-eight floors above them, and the sense of his actions became painful­ly clear. It was no longer about sur­viv­ing, it was about choos­ing where and how to die. Still tear­ful, and with­out say­ing any­thing to either of the oth­ers, she opened the door and barged past the ran­cid corpses claw­ing against the oth­er side. In a blind pan­ic, John ran out after her.

But Nick froze. He couldn’t do it.

As the fire door had swung shut again, one of the bod­ies had become trapped, leav­ing it wedged open. More of the sick­ly cadav­ers imme­di­ate­ly began to grav­i­tate towards the open­ing, clam­ber­ing over the first trapped corpse. Nick watched in hor­ror as the first of them lunged at him. What did he do? Still breath­less from the sud­den descent, he began to climb back up again.

He realised what he was doing was point­less, but he couldn’t stop. His legs burned with effort, but he couldn’t slow down either. He looked around saw that, for now, he’d left those fuck­ing things at the bot­tom of the stairs for dust.

It took him more than half an hour to get back to the twen­ty-eighth floor. He burst through the fire escape door, keen to find Bar­ry and apol­o­gise for every­thing he’d said and—

—and the Pres­i­den­tial Suite was full of bod­ies. The dead react­ed to his unex­pect­ed appear­ance en masse. They surged towards him like a tidal wave of green-grey gore and knocked him clean off his feet. As their sharp, bony fin­gers dug into his flesh he lay on the ground and looked across at the open fire escape door through which he’d just emerged. If he real­ly tried, he thought, he might be able to crawl through it and give him­self a lit­tle more time. Maybe get back down to anoth­er floor and wait there …

For a sec­ond or two longer he fought, then he stopped. What was the point? Bar­ry was right. Just give up, lie back, endure the pain, and wait for it all to be over.

#

Eliz­a­beth didn’t know that John had fol­lowed her out until she heard him shout­ing at her to slow down. She glanced back over her shoul­der and saw him run­ning after her but she wasn’t inter­est­ed. She didn’t want to be with any­one else now, cer­tain­ly not him. She kept mov­ing, increas­ing her speed. Not know­ing the city par­tic­u­lar­ly well, she didn’t have a clue where she was going. She’d want­ed to head out of the cen­tre but, instead, had inad­ver­tent­ly found her­self run­ning deep­er into the main shop­ping area. The bod­ies there were still rel­a­tive­ly dense in num­bers but she moved with enough speed and con­trol to be able to barge through them.

She need­ed to rest and took a left into a dark alley­way. Momen­tar­i­ly free of the dead, she stopped run­ning and rest­ed with her hands on her knees, suck­ing in as much pre­cious oxy­gen as she could. There was a door halfway down the pas­sage­way. She looked through a small, dusty win­dow, and when she couldn’t imme­di­ate­ly see any move­ment inside, she pulled the door open and slipped through, too tired to care.

Bloody hell, she thought as she climbed a wide, white mar­ble stair­case. Of all the doors in all the alley­ways, she’d found the staff entrance to Laceys depart­ment store. She’d nev­er been able to afford to shop there although she’d always want­ed to. It was one of those places that made you feel unwor­thy if you walked in with­out a purse full of gold and plat­inum cred­it cards. Today, of course, it was a grim shad­ow of its for­mer self just like every­where else, but what the hell, she thought, it was still Laceys.

Bar­ry Bushell’s words con­tin­ued to play heav­i­ly on her mind as she climbed fur­ther up the stairs and deep­er into the store. How right he’d been. She couldn’t think of any­where she’d be com­plete­ly safe any­more, and even if she could, she had no way of get­ting there now. She con­tin­ued to climb, stop­ping when she reached the jew­ellery depart­ment on the third floor. There were no bod­ies around that she could see. Always a suck­er for gold and pret­ty stones, she found her­self drawn to the cob­web-cov­ered dis­play cab­i­nets. They were still filled with beau­ti­ful pieces that would have been worth a for­tune a month ago. Today they were worth noth­ing. But hell, she could still dream, couldn’t she? Dream­ing was just about all she had left …

Eliz­a­beth enjoyed her long-over­due shop­ping trip around Laceys. She worked her way through the build­ing floor by floor, hid­ing from the occa­sion­al lurch­ing corpse and star­ing in won­der at all the things she’d want­ed but nev­er been able to afford. When she reached the ladies cloth­ing depart­ment she changed out of her dirty clothes and dressed in the most expen­sive out­fit she could find. She climbed to the very top floor and sat on a plush leather sofa where, draped in jew­ellery, she drank wine, ate choco­late and swal­lowed enough headache tablets to kill an elephant.

#

Paul Jones stopped run­ning and hid in a paper shop until the after-effects of his sud­den appear­ance and dis­ap­pear­ance had fad­ed away and the bod­ies had lost inter­est again. For­tu­nate­ly Eliz­a­beth and the oth­ers — what­ev­er they had decid­ed to do — seemed to be caus­ing enough of a com­mo­tion to take the pres­sure off him for a while. He lay on the floor of the shop behind the counter and read the last ever edi­tions of half a dozen news­pa­pers and lads’ mags until the sun dis­ap­peared and the light fad­ed away. All the head­lines on the news­pa­pers that had once seemed so impor­tant and rel­e­vant now seemed puerile and trite. All the glam­orous girls he lust­ed after in the mag­a­zines were dead.

Walk­ing slow­ly through the gloom of ear­ly evening with­out fear or con­cern, Paul even­tu­al­ly reached a con­struc­tion site. With a ruck­sack full of booze on his back, he climbed to the cab at the very top of a huge crane which tow­ered over the foun­da­tions of a nev­er-to-be-fin­ished office block. Pro­tect­ed by the height and enjoy­ing a view which was even more impres­sive than the one from the hotel, he drank and slept.

In the morn­ing, when the sun final­ly came up, he looked back across town at the hotel he’d left behind and watched the occa­sion­al stu­pid body fall from the roof. Many hours had passed, but even now the dumb fuck­ers were still drop­ping like stones. He laughed out loud with­out fear of retribution.

Paul Jones had decid­ed to take his own life, but not yet. He’d do it when there were no oth­er options left.

#

Once John had lost sight of Eliz­a­beth he’d stopped run­ning too. He slowed his pace to match that of the dead and, for a time, had been able to walk among them unde­tect­ed. I can do this, he thought, I can out­wit them. I can move around them and between them and I can do this. Bar­ry was wrong. They were all wrong. I don’t have to run and I don’t have to give up. It’s not over yet …

For almost a day he man­aged to sur­vive, but his fool­ish con­fi­dence proved to be his undo­ing. It took only a glance into the sun and a sin­gle sneeze to blow his cov­er. One sneeze in the mid­dle of a vast crowd of bod­ies and his posi­tion was revealed. And John, being a cow­ard­ly man, tried to run. Instead of stand­ing his ground and con­tin­u­ing to mim­ic the actions of the lethar­gic bod­ies all around him, maybe blam­ing the sneeze on the corpse next-door, the stu­pid man tried to get away. Deep in the mid­dle of a mass of sev­er­al hun­dred ran­cid, rot­ting, drip­ping cadav­ers, he didn’t stand a chance. They ripped him to pieces before he had chance to scream for help.

Wouldn’t have mat­tered. No one would have come.

#

Bar­ry Bushell last­ed for sev­er­al more days. The hotel suite was over­run with bod­ies but, as far as he could tell, they didn’t know he was in the bed­room. He remained qui­et and still. With­out food, water and exer­cise, how­ev­er, he soon became weak.

Bar­ry died a rel­a­tive­ly hap­py man. He’d rather not have died, of course, but he’d man­aged some­how to retain the con­trol he’d so des­per­ate­ly craved — the con­trol that death had stripped from the mil­lions of bod­ies con­demned to walk tire­less­ly along the streets out­side until they were no longer phys­i­cal­ly able.

Dressed in a silk neg­ligee and lying in a com­fort­able (if slight­ly soiled) bed, he died peace­ful­ly in his sleep halfway through a real­ly good book.

THE AUTUMN SERIES