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Underground

John Carl­ton is a twen­ty-four year old army mechan­ic who, for the last one hun­dred and nine­teen days, has lived in a mil­i­tary bunker buried deep under­ground. Trapped down there with him now are anoth­er one hun­dred and six­teen sol­diers, less than half the num­ber of troops that orig­i­nal­ly manned the base. A pale shad­ow of the high­ly trained and once pow­er­ful fight­ing force they used to be a part of, these men and women are des­per­ate and ter­ri­fied. Backed into a cor­ner, their com­mand struc­ture has crum­bled. All order and con­trol has bro­ken down. Sup­plies are run­ning dan­ger­ous­ly low. Time is run­ning out.

For these peo­ple, the bunker has become a tomb. They have no means of escape or sal­va­tion, and each one of them is painful­ly aware just how pre­car­i­ous their sit­u­a­tion now is. The alter­na­tives are all equal­ly hope­less: it won’t be long before their lack of equip­ment and sup­plies ren­ders the bunker unin­hab­it­able, and yet they are unable to leave. The infect­ed air out­side will kill them sec­onds. Fur­ther­more, the dead remains of the pop­u­la­tion on the sur­face have, over time, already grav­i­tat­ed towards the base, bury­ing it under lit­er­al­ly thou­sands of tonnes of rot­ting human flesh.

Inside the bunker, the sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues to dete­ri­o­rate day by day, almost by the hour. Law and order is non-exis­tent and every man and woman has to fend for them­selves. Rank and posi­tion are long-for­got­ten. Every­one is equal now: all at the bot­tom of the pile. Self-preser­va­tion is all that mat­ters, and com­rades are rapid­ly becom­ing ene­mies. The next breath of air that the per­son along­side you takes, or the mouth­ful of water they swal­low means, ulti­mate­ly, that there is now less for you.

What­ev­er deci­sions these men and women take, they know the end result will be the same. But worst of all, each of them now under­stands that death no longer car­ries with it any cer­tain­ty. The end of their nat­ur­al lives may just be the begin­ning of some­thing far, far worse.

John Carl­ton is hid­ing in one of the most inac­ces­si­ble parts of the bunker. His home for the last two weeks has been a nar­row ser­vice tun­nel. All he has with him are a pis­tol, a few rounds of ammu­ni­tion, some mea­gre sup­plies and his stan­dard issue pro­tec­tive suit.

Sound is eas­i­ly car­ried along the twist­ing maze of tun­nels at the heart of the bunker. Though its pre­cise source is unclear, Carl­ton knows that trou­ble is uncom­fort­ably near. He sus­pects the sounds he’s now hear­ing are almost cer­tain­ly the begin­ning of the end. Some­where in the under­ground base, intense fight­ing has bro­ken out.

#

That’s it, I guess. The sup­plies must have final­ly run out. It had to hap­pen soon­er or lat­er. This base was only ever stocked for around sev­en­ty days, and we’re way over that dead­line. The fact we lost so many men and women in the bat­tle meant that we’ve last­ed a lit­tle longer, but I reck­on our number’s up.

The day of the bat­tle was when I knew there was no hope for any of us. I’d sus­pect­ed as much since we arrived down here, but until then I’d done my best to stay pos­i­tive. It was the lack of infor­ma­tion that unnerved me to begin with: no hard facts, no def­i­nite instruc­tions. I mean, I’d heard sto­ries about the casu­al­ties on the sur­face and what might have killed them, but while we were safe down here with the doors locked, none of it felt real. I half expect­ed to final­ly go up top and find that noth­ing had changed, that we’d been part of some fucked-up psy­cho­log­i­cal exper­i­ment, some­thing like that. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

The bat­tle had already been rag­ing for sev­er­al hours when we were ordered to get suit­ed up to fight. There was no tac­ti­cal brief­ing, because there were no fuck­ing tac­tics. We’d heard that the ene­my num­bered hun­dreds of thou­sands, and we were told to go out there and get rid of as many of them as we could. If it’s not mil­i­tary, we were told, destroy it. 

We’d made it as far as the air­lock when the retreat began. I’ve nev­er seen any­thing like it, and I pray to God I nev­er do again. I only man­aged to get a faint glimpse out­side before the doors were closed for good, but it was like hell on Earth out there. Our boys were try­ing to get back to base but it wasn’t a con­trolled fall-back. Blokes were just run­ning for their lives. And behind them … Christ, fol­low­ing them into the bunker were thou­sands of those fuck­ing things. Huge swarms of these bloody mon­sters that looked like corpses. They were falling apart, bare­ly able to keep going, but you could see that they knew what they were doing. I watched them rip­ping our peo­ple to shreds, tram­pling them under­foot and tear­ing at their suits. There was noth­ing we could do against their num­bers. It was like an infi­nite army, and its sol­diers couldn’t be stopped because they were already dead.

The com­man­der gave the order to lock-down the base and all we could do was watch as the cham­bers were sealed. It was fuck­ing heart-break­ing to see men and women that I’d stood along­side and fought with just left stuck out there to die. They’d have kept on fight­ing for as long as pos­si­ble, I know they would, but the bod­ies will have got all of them in the end. I heard there were so many of them that they couldn’t get the main bunker doors closed. There was too much dead meat in the way to get them shut.

I went back up to the decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion cham­bers about a week lat­er with a hand­ful of oth­ers to do some main­te­nance checks. We tried to look out­side but it was dark and we couldn’t see any­thing much. We thought the electrics were fucked, but they were still work­ing. It was just that the hangar was full of rot­ting flesh. The dead things were packed so tight against the doors that the damn things couldn’t even move. There were so many of them they blocked out the light.

All that was six­ty-five days ago now. Since then I’ve count­ed every frig­ging hour and watched every minute tick past. Hard to believe I’ve last­ed this long. Truth be told, it feels like I’ve been here ten times longer.

#

10:17 am.

I just heard gun­fire again. Part of me wants to go and find out what’s hap­pen­ing, but I’m not going any­where. Maybe when it qui­etens down again I’ll try. I’m going to have to move soon­er or lat­er. I’ve run out of food.

#

1:35 pm.

More fight­ing. More gun­shots and more yelling. Bloody hell, I won­der how many oth­ers are left alive now? I can still hear their screams in the dis­tance. I keep think­ing I recog­nise their voic­es but it’s just my mind play­ing tricks again. Can’t take any­more of this. I’m going to try and get clos­er. See if I can find out what’s happening.

#

Carl­ton slow­ly crawled out of the low tun­nel where he’d been hid­ing for what felt like for­ev­er, his joints stiff and aching. He tried to move qui­et­ly but after being inac­tive for so long, his move­ments were clum­sy and awk­ward. His pro­tec­tive suit fur­ther reduced his manoeu­vra­bil­i­ty. He kept it on because it gave him an extra lay­er of warmth and also because he was too scared to take it off. What if the base was con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed? He had to take a chance and do with­out the breath­ing appa­ra­tus, though. It was too bulky and it slowed him down. He held a loaded pis­tol tight­ly in his hand.

The ser­vice tun­nel opened out into a sec­ond tun­nel which was slight­ly wider. That tun­nel, in turn, even­tu­al­ly con­nect­ed with an arte­r­i­al cor­ri­dor which led to the cen­tre of the base. Carl­ton decid­ed to see how far he could get.

The light­ing around him was vir­tu­al­ly non-exis­tent — a dull yel­low glow from inter­mit­tent emer­gency lamps, that was all — but it was enough. The dark­ness was help­ful. Any brighter and it would have been dif­fi­cult to remain hidden.

Carl­ton paused for a moment to get his bear­ings. The bunker was a large, sprawl­ing con­struc­tion which seemed to mean­der aim­less­ly under­ground in every direc­tion. Long, emp­ty tun­nels con­nect­ed store­rooms, mess halls and dor­mi­to­ries which were a sur­pris­ing dis­tance apart. If he was where he thought he was, the next door on his left would be the entrance to the kitchens. He crept fur­ther along the cor­ri­dor, pressed tight against the grub­by wall, then stopped when he reached the door. It was half-open. He peered inside. No one there.

It was slight­ly brighter inside the kitchens, and the rel­a­tive bright­ness made his eyes sting after days of dark­ness. It was imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous (and not at all sur­pris­ing) that the whole area had long since been cleared out. The cup­boards and stor­age areas — those he could see from where he was stand­ing – had been stripped.

Carl­ton was about to leave the kitchen when some­thing in the lay­er of rub­bish under his feet caught his eye. He kicked a pile of plas­tic food trays out of the way and saw a hand, stick­ing up through the garbage as if ask­ing for help. Work­ing quick­ly, he uncov­ered the body of Lynn Price, the offi­cer who’d been in charge of the kitchens. The poor bitch had a bread knife buried in her right kid­ney. A large pool of blood had spilled out over the kitchen floor. In places it was still tacky but most of it was dry. She’d been dead for some time.

Nerves threat­ened to get the bet­ter of Carl­ton. Did he con­tin­ue to push fur­ther into the base, or should he turn around now and scut­tle back to the rel­a­tive safe­ty of his dark tun­nel hide­out? Hid­ing was by far the eas­i­er option, but he knew it wouldn’t have done him any good in the long run. If he didn’t find food and water soon, he wouldn’t last. He was already begin­ning to dehy­drate. Christ, what he would have giv­en for

a glass of ice-cold water right now. The fact he was stand­ing in the mid­dle of a kitchen only made him feel worse. He pressed on.

The kitchen was con­nect­ed to the main mess hall. Carl­ton climbed over a stain­less steel work­top then through the wide serv­ing hatch before tak­ing a few ten­ta­tive steps into the desert­ed hall. It was in just as bad a state as the kitchen. It looked like there’d been a riot here. Fur­ni­ture had been upturned and he could see the bod­ies of at least four more ex-col­leagues. He was about to check the vend­ing machines in the cor­ner (obvi­ous­ly emp­ty, but still entic­ing­ly illu­mi­nat­ed) when the sound of anoth­er hail of bul­lets stopped him in his tracks. That was close. Too close. A moment of cau­tious silence fol­lowed, then the sound of heavy foot­steps thun­der­ing past the mess hall entrance. From his posi­tion he saw four fig­ures rush past the door and car­ry on down the cor­ri­dor. He wait­ed for a moment, then looked to see where they’d gone.

‘Carl­ton,’ a voice hissed at him from out of nowhere. His heart skipped a beat. He spot­ted a fright­ened face hid­ing in anoth­er door­way oppo­site. Who was it? It was dif­fi­cult to see but he didn’t want to get any clos­er. Wait, was that Daniel Wright?

‘Dan? Dan, is that you?’

The fig­ure on the oth­er side of the cor­ri­dor checked in both direc­tions then crossed over into the mess hall. Wright pushed Carl­ton fur­ther back into the shadows.

‘Where the hell have you been?’ he asked, his voice just a whis­per. ‘Haven’t seen you in weeks.’

‘Been hid­ing,’ Carl­ton replied, giv­ing lit­tle away.

‘Sen­si­ble move. Best thing to do around here.’

‘What about you?’

‘I was with a few oth­ers. Got into a scrap and I took the chance to duck out and get away.’

‘What’s hap­pen­ing?’

‘We’re all wait­ing to die, didn’t you know? Fuck­ing place is falling apart. Peo­ple are falling apart. Half the peo­ple left down here are already dead, and most of them killed themselves.’

Carl­ton was silent. None Wright said came as a sur­prise. ‘So what are you doing now?’

‘No bloody idea,’ Wright admit­ted. ‘Way I see it, there’s not a lot any of us can do.’

The con­ver­sa­tion was inter­rupt­ed by the sounds of anoth­er fight break­ing out deep­er in the base. Wright peered out into the cor­ri­dor again, then quick­ly pulled his head back inside.

‘Any­thing?’

‘Noth­ing. It’s just a mat­ter of time, though. Won’t be long before this whole fuck­ing place goes up in smoke.’

More noise. Get­ting clos­er now. Wright start­ed to shuf­fle uncom­fort­ably. ‘Where you been hid­ing then, mate?’ he asked. Carl­ton didn’t imme­di­ate­ly answer. He couldn’t tell him. ‘Come on, man,’ Wright begged as the noise echo­ing along the cor­ri­dor con­tin­ued to increase in vol­ume. ‘Let me come with you. I won’t do any­thing to get you found, I swear. I just want some­where safe where I can—’

Sol­diers appeared at the end of the cor­ri­dor. More gun­shots. A fig­ure col­lapsed in a hail of bul­lets. More troops tram­pled the fall­en body as they ran for shelter.

Carl­ton want­ed to run back to the ser­vice tun­nel, but he knew Wright would fol­low and he couldn’t afford to let him. He had to lose him fast.

‘Come on, mate,’ Wright begged. ‘Please …’

In a sud­den flash of move­ment, Wright drew a knife and held it to Carlton’s neck. All Carl­ton could think about was the suit. Cut me, but don’t cut the bloody suit.

‘I can’t …’ Carl­ton whimpered.

‘Show me where you’re hid­ing or I’ll fuck­ing kill you,’ Wright said, his face against the oth­er man’s ear.

‘I can’t,’ he said again, and before Wright realised what he was doing, Carl­ton shoved his pis­tol up into his gut and fired. Wright col­lapsed and Carl­ton stepped over him, wip­ing drib­bles of blood from his pre­cious suit and check­ing for tears.

He was about to go out into the cor­ri­dor when anoth­er group of sol­diers ran past the mess hall door­way, this time head­ing in the oppo­site direc­tion to the first, mov­ing deep­er into the base again. More fol­lowed, then even more. One of the sol­diers strag­gling at the back of the pack tried to grab hold of Carl­ton and drag him along with him but Carl­ton squirmed free. ‘Get out of here,’ the sol­dier in the cor­ri­dor screamed at him. ‘Get out of here now. They’re open­ing the bloody doors!’

Not car­ing who saw him now, Carl­ton ran back through the mess hall, climb­ing back through the serv­ing hatch and sprint­ing across the kitchen. He raced back to his hide­out as quick­ly as his tired, under-exer­cised legs would car­ry him. He threw him­self into the ser­vice tun­nel, then scrab­bled around in the dark­ness for his breath­ing appa­ra­tus. Hands trem­bling with nerves, he put on his kit then wedged him­self into a gap between two large ducts. He melt­ed back into the dark­ness and waited.

#

A group of sol­diers had fought their way into the decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion cham­bers at the entrance to the bunker. Their pri­or­i­ties skewed after weeks of fright­ened iso­la­tion, two of them worked to get the sealed doors open while anoth­er three held off oth­er troops who fought to pre­vent the integri­ty of the base being com­pro­mised. Per­haps the risk of infec­tion had final­ly passed? The men now strug­gling to open the doors and get out­side gen­uine­ly believed this was their last chance.

When­ev­er the sol­diers cov­er­ing those work­ing on the door saw even the slight­est glimpse of move­ment in the cor­ri­dor lead­ing to the decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion cham­bers, they let fly a hail of bul­lets. Those try­ing to stop them didn’t stand a chance, such was the posi­tion of the door­way being defend­ed. Explo­sives and grenades were use­less too. To use muni­tions of any strength at this close range would almost cer­tain­ly cause irrepara­ble dam­age to the cham­bers and com­pro­mise the base. A few des­per­ate fight­ers con­tin­ued to try and pre­vent the breach at all costs; most­ly those who’d been unfor­tu­nate enough to have already seen the hell out­side, those who’d already fought hand to hand with vast num­bers of the unstop­pable dead. They’d rather die now than face them again.

It seemed inevitable that the doors would even­tu­al­ly be opened again. It was just a mat­ter of time.

#

Carl­ton lay on his back in the tun­nel, shak­ing with fear. The world sound­ed dif­fer­ent from behind the mask; muf­fled, dis­tant and indis­tinct. It made him feel even more dis­con­nect­ed, even more scared.

He could hear peo­ple dying, their screams echo­ing through this maze of sub­ter­ranean cor­ri­dors and pas­sage­ways. The nois­es seemed to sur­round Carl­ton, com­ing at him from every angle.

Then it all stopped.

The chaos was replaced by a sud­den silence so unex­pect­ed and ter­ri­fy­ing that it made Carl­ton lose con­trol of his blad­der. He lay on his back in a pool of his own piss and lift­ed a trem­bling hand up to his mask, ready to tear it off. I should just do it, just get it over with …

But he couldn’t.

Sob­bing with fear, he lay still and waited.

#

The silence had con­tin­ued for almost two days. In his cramped con­fine­ment, Carl­ton lis­tened intent­ly to the still­ness. He was weak with hunger and slept fitfully.

After end­less hours of noth­ing, he final­ly heard some­thing. Had he imag­ined it? He held his breath and lis­tened care­ful­ly, the rapid thump of his own fright­ened heart­beat pound­ing in his ears and threat­en­ing to drown out every oth­er sound. What was hap­pen­ing? He’d begun to pre­sume that the all-con­sum­ing silence of the last forty or so hours had been a good thing. Sure­ly if the base had been invad­ed by swarms of decay­ing bod­ies he would have seen or heard some­thing by now?

There it was again – the bang and clat­ter of met­al on met­al. He had to do some­thing now, he couldn’t wait here any longer. Mov­ing slow­ly, he slid back down the ser­vice cor­ri­dor to the junc­tion with the sec­ond, slight­ly wider pas­sage­way. Once there he crouched down on aching knees and lis­tened again, keep­ing well out of sight. More noise. This time even fur­ther away, still unclear and indis­tinct, ran­dom, almost.

Carl­ton moved for­ward, then stopped when he reached the next cor­ri­dor. He could see the kitchen door. The lights were low­er than before, only the dull yel­low elec­tric back-up light­ing still work­ing. He retraced the steps he’d tak­en a few days ear­li­er, tip­toe­ing through the wreck­age, doing all he could not to make any unnec­es­sary noise. He stepped over the officer’s corpse he’d dis­cov­ered last time he was here, then slid through the serv­ing hatch and out into the mess hall.

More dis­tant sounds. He primed his pis­tol, cring­ing at the uncom­fort­ably loud noise it made, then walked to the end of the hall. He stopped when a fig­ure appeared from a door­way over to his far left. Christ, who was that? The fig­ure wore a soldier’s uni­form, but it moved painful­ly slow­ly, obvi­ous­ly bad­ly injured. 

Carl­ton held his breath, try­ing not to move for fear of giv­ing away his posi­tion. Some­thing was very wrong here. The soldier’s head hung heav­i­ly over to one side and he seemed to be drag­ging his feet rather than tak­ing prop­er, con­trolled steps. He was now no more than a cou­ple of feet away. He stag­gered into the dull glow of an emer­gency light direct­ly over­head, and Carl­ton recoiled at his night­mar­ish face. What the hell had hap­pened to him? It was as if the life had been drained out of him: his skin was white, almost blanched, and thick, dried blood had drib­bled from his mouth, down his chin and onto his uni­form. His eyes were unfo­cussed, star­ing ahead but not actu­al­ly appear­ing to look at any­thing. To all intents and pur­pos­es this poor bas­tard looked dead. Carl­ton dis­ap­peared back into the shad­ows of the mess hall, and the sol­dier shuf­fled past him oblivious.

It had to be the infec­tion. That was the only log­i­cal expla­na­tion. The integri­ty of the bunker had been com­pro­mised and the germ or what­ev­er it was that had done all the dam­age out­side had been let in. His mind began to work over­time. If every­one else is infect­ed, he thought, then I have to get out of here. Christ, he’d seen for him­self what the dead hordes were capa­ble of when they’d forced the mil­i­tary back and entered the hangar almost sev­en­ty days ago. And now he found him­self trapped on the wrong side of the bunker doors with, poten­tial­ly, any­thing up to a hun­dred of these bloody things. He had to get out of here. He had to get out right now. He didn’t know where he was going to go or how he was going to do it, but he had to try and make a run for it. He was going to die soon, that much was inevitable, but he wasn’t about to let him­self be torn apart at the dead hands of for­mer friends and col­leagues. As weak and tired and fright­ened as he was, he wasn’t pre­pared to end his days like that. One last push …

Carl­ton stepped out into the cor­ri­dor, the dead sol­dier still trip­ping away to his right.

To Carlton’s left the pas­sage­way was clear. He limped fur­ther down the cor­ri­dor, pass­ing the door from which the body had emerged and even­tu­al­ly reach­ing a T‑junction. Left or right? All the cor­ri­dors in this damn place looked as grey and dis­ap­point­ing­ly fea­ture­less as the next. Carl­ton was dis­ori­en­tat­ed and he couldn’t clear­ly remem­ber the way to the con­trol room, but he knew if he could reach the con­trol room he was sure he’d then be able to find the com­mu­ni­ca­tions room. Once he’d made it there he’d be able to work his way back through the maze of tun­nels to the decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion cham­bers, and that had to be the area he aimed for. If he could reach one of the cham­bers then, pro­vid­ing there wasn’t still a flood of rot­ting bod­ies try­ing to force their way inside, he’d have a chance, albeit a very slight one, of get­ting out of the base alive. What hap­pened after that, though, was anyone’s guess.

He turned left. Damn, wrong way. Just the door to a ran­sacked equip­ment store and a dead end. He retraced his steps, mov­ing with a lit­tle more free­dom now. All he had to do was … shit, anoth­er fig­ure up ahead, and he had no option but to pass it. He watched the shab­by fig­ure as it tripped towards him and he read­ied him­self to defend against attack. He held up his pis­tol and aimed it into the oth­er man’s face. ‘Stop,’ he ordered. ‘Stop there or I’ll blow your fuck­ing head off.’

But the dead sol­dier con­tin­ued its lethar­gic advance, and all Carl­ton could do was shoot. He closed his eyes and squeezed the trig­ger and winced as the deaf­en­ing sound of the gun­shot echoed through­out the under­ground com­plex, tak­ing for­ev­er to fade away. When he dared look again he saw that the soldier’s corpse had crum­bled to the ground in front of him, the top of its head miss­ing. Crim­son red dripped from the grey cor­ri­dor walls. Carl­ton was so pre­oc­cu­pied with the bloody mess that he failed to notice anoth­er two fig­ures approach­ing until they’d almost reached the corpse on the floor. With­out stop­ping to con­sid­er his actions, he fired off two more shots at close range.

At the end of this cor­ri­dor was the con­trol room. More through luck than judge­ment, he’d found it.

Carl­ton weaved around emp­ty desks and redun­dant com­put­er equip­ment. Anoth­er body stag­gered towards him but, rather than waste pre­cious time fight­ing, this time he sim­ply stepped out of its way and the vac­u­ous thing blun­dered past. It didn’t even appear to have seen him.

Out of the con­trol room now. Anoth­er left turn, straight down the cor­ri­dor to the very end and then right. Jesus Christ, yet anoth­er one of them. He shot this one in the face — the pas­sage­way was too nar­row to risk tak­ing any chances. He stepped over the body and pushed through the door into the com­mu­ni­ca­tions room. And then he stopped. But it wasn’t bod­ies stop­ping him this time, it was self-doubt. Anoth­er cou­ple of hun­dred metres or so of cor­ri­dor and he’d be out­side the decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion cham­bers. Did he real­ly want to do this? Could he do it? More to the point, did he have any choice? Carlton’s ever-decreas­ing alter­na­tives were con­tin­u­ing to dwin­dle. He realised his choice now was appalling­ly grim: stay under­ground with around a hun­dred undead sol­diers for com­pa­ny, or try and get up to the sur­face and face the pos­si­bil­i­ty of hav­ing to deal with many, many more bod­ies up top. The thought of get­ting out of the bunker was the decid­ing fac­tor. Okay, so it might not be any bet­ter (it would prob­a­bly be much worse) above­ground, but at least he’d be out in the open, if only for a few min­utes. Imag­ine not see­ing the sky again, he thought to him­self. Imag­ine dying in this place and nev­er see­ing the sun. His choice was made.

Carl­ton paused for a sec­ond longer to catch his breath, then left the com­mu­ni­ca­tions room through anoth­er exit and ran head­long into a crowd of sev­en more bod­ies, all of them strug­gling to get down a cor­ri­dor which was only wide enough for two. Instinc­tive­ly he began to kick and punch at them, either bat­ter­ing them to the ground or drag­ging them out of the way. They offered next to no resis­tance as he angri­ly beat a clear path through, tram­pling over their fall­en corpses.

The cor­ri­dor ahead was clear now, and he could see through to the doors into the decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion cham­bers. Just a few metres fur­ther now … but there were yet more bod­ies to get past first. In the door­way lead­ing into the main cham­ber lay a pile of fall­en corpses, blood-soaked and rid­dled with fresh bul­let holes. Bloody hell, the crea­ture at the very bot­tom of the gory heap was still mov­ing! In the cham­ber itself more corpses stag­gered around aim­less­ly. Doing his best to ignore their dis­arm­ing­ly insis­tent, clum­sy move­ments, Carl­ton tried to look past them and focus on the open decon­t­a­m­i­na­tion cham­ber doors, prepar­ing him­self for the expect­ed onslaught of end­less thou­sands of sav­age corpses, all bay­ing angri­ly for his flesh.

But where he had expect­ed to see such fran­tic activ­i­ty, he instead saw noth­ing. No move­ment at all. Com­plete still­ness. Unex­pect­ed calm.

In dis­be­lief, con­vinced his tired eyes must be deceiv­ing him, Carl­ton pushed away the last of the dumb bod­ies still mov­ing around the cham­ber, and stood at the final door which sep­a­rat­ed the inte­ri­or of the bunker from the dis­eased world out­side. He could see that the huge hangar doors were still open and much of the vast cav­ern was filled with harsh but beau­ti­ful sun­light. He looked out at an utter­ly unbe­liev­able scene, then took a sin­gle, very hes­i­tant, step out into the hangar.

The cav­ernous place was vir­tu­al­ly unrecog­nis­able, the air filled with the angry noise of mil­lions of swarm­ing flies and oth­er insects. He care­ful­ly put his foot down on the ground, his boot sink­ing into a putre­fied sea of human remains sev­er­al inch­es deep. Bloody hell, the whole of the room was cov­ered with a lay­er of stink­ing, rot­ten flesh. As he looked deep­er into the sick­en­ing quag­mire he was able to make out fea­tures — bones, the remains of cloth­ing, aban­doned weapons and armour. And some of it was mov­ing! All around the appar­ent­ly end­less grey-green-red mire he could see occa­sion­al twitch­es of movement.

Over­come by the hor­ror of what sur­round­ed him, and almost for­get­ting the fact that he was now out­side the inner sanc­tum of the bunker, Carl­ton moved slow­ly for­ward through the once-human sludge. He forced him­self to look up rather than down as he dragged his tired feet along. It was eas­i­er to drag and scrape the soles of his boots rather than take prop­er steps and risk los­ing his foot­ing and slid­ing deep­er into the gore.

Before long he had reached the bot­tom of the ramp which would lead him back up into the rest of the world. He didn’t hes­i­tate to start climb­ing. No mat­ter what he found up there, it couldn’t be any worse than the sick­en­ing pit of death he was already stand­ing in, could it?

It was dif­fi­cult to make any progress up the flesh-cov­ered incline. His boots strug­gled for grip in the slime and filth. Even­tu­al­ly he dropped down onto his hands and knees and began to crawl, still angling his head upwards so that he didn’t have to look at what he was crawl­ing through. He kept mov­ing steadi­ly, try­ing to think about absolute­ly any­thing that might dis­tract him from this slur­ry of rot­ting human remains. Whilst gen­er­al­ly slip­pery and creamy and almost liq­ue­fied in places, the grue­some mix­ture was full of brit­tle bones and pieces of aban­doned mil­i­tary equip­ment. Don’t rip the suit, he des­per­ate­ly told him­self, for Christ’s sake, don’t rip the suit.

He final­ly reached the top of the ramp. Before stand­ing up he closed his eyes and remem­bered the lush green coun­try­side which had sur­round­ed the base. It had been the last thing he’d seen before they’d dis­ap­peared under­ground four months ago. Since then he’d been haunt­ed by a lost vision of the blue sky, bright sun and end­less rolling hills. He’d thought he’d nev­er get to see it again.

Carl­ton care­ful­ly stood up and walked out­side. Then he slow­ly lift­ed his head and looked.

The sky was just as deep and blue and per­fect as he remem­bered, but every­thing else … Christ, what had hap­pened to the world? For as far as he could see in every direc­tion the ground had been scarred by bat­tle. Mud replaced grass, there were huge craters and dips where muni­tions had explod­ed, trees had been scorched and burned down to black­ened stumps. And as for the bod­ies … God, the bod­ies … Carl­ton was com­plete­ly still, trans­fixed by the hor­ror all around him. Every­where he looked he saw more and more of the dead. The with­ered skele­tons of his for­mer col­leagues, still wrapped in what remained of their now use­less pro­tec­tive suits, lay along­side the oth­ers, their corpses fre­quent­ly entan­gled, entwined for­ev­er with those they’d died fight­ing. And even here there was still some move­ment. Sub­tle and indis­tinct, but occa­sion­al­ly some of the bod­ies were still mov­ing: too decayed to get up, but still twitch­ing where they’d fall­en. Bloody hell, hadn’t these things suf­fered enough?

Dis­con­so­late, Carl­ton final­ly sum­moned up enough strength to walk away from the under­ground base.

#

It was a cold, dry and bright win­ter morn­ing. The pre­cise time, day, date and sea­son didn’t mat­ter any­more, because Carl­ton knew this day would be his last. Or if not today then it would be tomor­row or, at the very lat­est, the day after that. He couldn’t imag­ine last­ing any longer. If he was hon­est, he didn’t want to.

Months back, when he’d first been sent under­ground, he’d com­plete­ly failed to appre­ci­ate the scale of the bat­tle which raged on the sur­face. As time pro­gressed he’d heard plen­ty of rumours and reports, but no one had accu­rate­ly con­veyed the full enor­mi­ty of what had hap­pened. This end­less dev­as­ta­tion was hard to com­pre­hend. It seemed to go on for­ev­er. He walked for hours and yet he was still sur­round­ed by craters, aban­doned mil­i­tary machin­ery and bod­ies. End­less hordes of twitch­ing, putre­fy­ing bodies …

He guessed that he must have cov­ered sev­er­al miles by the time he reached the out­er­most edge of the bat­tle­field. It had cloud­ed over and the light had fad­ed but he could see that, slow­ly but sure­ly, the num­ber of bod­ies and the scar­ring of the land had reduced. A short dis­tance fur­ther and the world around him began to appear decep­tive­ly nor­mal and famil­iar. He saw lush green grass, undam­aged trees, and even birds flit­ting about above him. For a few sec­onds he allowed him­self a faint glim­mer of hope. Might there yet be an escape from this night­mare? But then, as the first few drops of icy win­ter rain trick­led down his visor, he was remind­ed of the need for his pro­tec­tive suit. He remem­bered the germ in the air which had caused all of the dev­as­ta­tion, and all illu­sions of sal­va­tion and nor­mal­i­ty were imme­di­ate­ly shattered.

Carl­ton stum­bled through sev­er­al more fields before reach­ing a nar­row road which twist­ed through the coun­try­side. For a while he walked along it, instinc­tive­ly keep­ing close to the hedge at the side of the road should any­thing be com­ing the oth­er way. The longer he walked, how­ev­er, the loud­er the silence around him became. He quick­ly accept­ed there would be no car, van, bike or any oth­er vehi­cle along this road today. Today — for one day only — he was com­plete­ly alone in the world.

Fur­ther down the track, Carl­ton final­ly came across a car. It was a small but pret­ty stan­dard saloon. He stopped and stared at it for a moment. There was noth­ing spe­cial about it, and per­haps that was its strange attrac­tion. It looked so com­plete­ly ordi­nary and nor­mal. In the bizarre world he was mov­ing through, how­ev­er, what he con­sid­ered usu­al was now most cer­tain­ly not. The car appeared com­plete­ly at odds with its sur­round­ings. Carl­ton looked fur­ther and saw that it had been parked on a patch of grav­el next to a gap in the hedgerow. It was a dri­ve. Curi­ous, he took a few steps away from the road and saw that he was in front of a house. It took him a while to be able to prop­er­ly dis­tin­guish the out­line of the build­ing. Once typ­i­cal and ordi­nary, today the house looked sub­tly dif­fer­ent. Its gar­den was unkempt and over­grown, and he imag­ined this was the first sign of the build­ing being swal­lowed up by the coun­try­side, reclaimed. Its win­dows were opaque with cob­webs and dust. Carl­ton stood and stared for a while longer before mov­ing on.

Anoth­er house, then anoth­er and then anoth­er. Soon he found him­self stand­ing in the mid­dle of an emp­ty vil­lage. It was per­fect­ly still — like a freeze-frame — and uncom­fort­ably eerie. Sev­er­al build­ings on one side of the vil­lage had been destroyed by fire and were now lit­tle more than charred black out­lines of their for­mer selves. The rest of the silent shops and hous­es looked dirty and neglect­ed like the first house he’d seen. He stood in the mid­dle of the road and thought about call­ing out, but what good would it do? What if he found some­one? For a moment his heart leapt, because there had to be sur­vivors, didn’t there? But then real­i­ty hit home. What could they do for him? More to the point, what would they expect him to do for them?

Carl­ton con­tin­ued to walk until he could go no fur­ther. He fol­lowed the road as it trailed back out of the vil­lage and dragged him­self along it as it wound up and around the side of a hill. The ear­li­er rain had passed and the world was now drenched in bright, warm win­ter sun­light again. The sun was well on its way down towards the hori­zon, a huge incan­des­cent orange disc now. The lone sol­dier watched its descent with fas­ci­na­tion and a fond sad­ness, know­ing that he prob­a­bly wouldn’t be here to see it rise again tomorrow.

At the top of the hill, the exhaust­ed man clam­bered over a wood­en stile, then sat down at the top edge of a steep field. There were a few sheep at the bot­tom of the field, and from where he sat he could see cows and hors­es in the dis­tance. His eyes were tired and his vision was begin­ning to blur but he scanned the hori­zon con­stant­ly. It occurred to him that from up here he couldn’t see a sin­gle trace of man. It would be there if he looked hard enough, but he didn’t want to. Build­ings, roads and every­thing else seemed to have been absorbed back into the land. Carl­ton felt an over­whelm­ing sense of alien­ation and iso­la­tion, like he no longer belonged here, but at the same time he was glad he’d been giv­en this final oppor­tu­ni­ty to see the world once more.

It was get­ting dark. One last thing to do.

Carl­ton unclipped his pis­tol from its hol­ster on his belt and checked it was loaded. He’d planned this. He’d spent all after­noon think­ing about it. He want­ed to remain in con­trol to the very end, to deny the infec­tion one last vic­tim and at the same time ensure his death was as final as it should always have been.

Ner­vous, shak­ing with cold, he pulled off his face mask and slipped the end of the pis­tol into his mouth. He pressed it against the roof of his mouth, gag­ging as he shoved the oily met­al to the back of his throat, then paused.

Should it have hap­pened by now?

He sucked in cool, clean air through his nose, too afraid to take the gun out of his mouth just in case the infec­tion caught him before he was able to fire. He’d heard his for­mer col­leagues in the bunker talk­ing about a germ which struck and killed in sec­onds, so why hadn’t it got him? He’d heard about peo­ple spit­ting blood as they were asphyx­i­at­ed, so why couldn’t he feel any­thing? Was it over already, or was the air here clear? He couldn’t believe that — the last sol­diers in the base had been infect­ed just a cou­ple of days earlier.

But the sec­onds con­tin­ued to tick by …

The only alter­na­tive, he final­ly decid­ed after sev­er­al min­utes had passed, is that I must be immune. He almost laughed, chok­ing on his pis­tol. All that time! All those unbear­ably long and painful days, weeks and months spent down there under­ground and I could have walked out at any time!

Anoth­er minute had passed. Still no reaction.

Carl­ton took the pis­tol out of his mouth, shook his head and laughed out loud. A per­fect end to the day, he thought as he grinned and lay back on the grass. The air was sweet. It tast­ed good.

Just a few more min­utes, he thought.

Carl­ton looked up into the sky, the first few stars start­ing to appear, and he thought about his fam­i­ly and friends and all he had lost. He thought about the night­mare of being buried under­ground and how he’d had to bat­tle through the rean­i­mat­ed bod­ies of his dead col­leagues to get out­side. He thought about Daniel Wright, the sol­dier he’d killed in cold blood just a few days ear­li­er, and the oth­ers he’d sub­se­quent­ly fought. He thought about the fact that right now, he might well be the only man left alive.

Carl­ton thought about the aching in his bones. He thought about his appalling phys­i­cal con­di­tion, the dehy­dra­tion and mal­nour­ish­ment. He thought about how much effort it would take now to find food and clean water, and how much of a strug­gle it would be to try and make him­self well. The vil­lage he’d walked through ear­li­er would be the most sen­si­ble place to start. He thought about all those emp­ty, dead build­ings and the dis­tance he’d have to cov­er to get back there. He thought about the cold and the oncom­ing win­ter and how hard it would be to sur­vive. He thought about the effort every­thing would take now and whether any of it would be worth it. He thought about being alone, about doing all of this by him­self. No one to talk to when things got tough. No one to share the highs and many lows with. No one to hold him at the end of each day and tell him he’d done good, and that they loved him and they were proud of him.

Carl­ton enjoyed the next hour. He lay on the grass and dozed and day­dreamed until the light had all but dis­ap­peared and the clear sky above him was full of stars. Mil­lions of stars, he thought, just one man.

Calm, com­posed and com­plete­ly sure, he slipped the pis­tol back into his mouth and fired.

THE AUTUMN SERIES