By three-thirty Carl was fast approaching the outskirts of the city of Northwich. He had driven at an increasingly cautious speed – as his journey had progressed, so his fatigue had mounted. As his tiredness had climbed towards dangerous levels he had been forced to concentrate even harder, and that extra concentration quickly drained his already severely depleted reserves of energy and determination.
As the dark shadows of the once familiar city engulfed him, his heart began to pound in his chest with more and more force and confusing, conflicting emotions constantly raged through his tired brain. Although part of him felt comforted and reassured that the journey was almost at an end, at the same time he was filled with cold dread and trepidation at the thought of what might be waiting for him in the desolate streets of Northwich.
Everything looked depressingly featureless and similar in the low light of early morning. It took a while before Carl was completely sure that the greenery of the countryside had finally given way to the harsh plastic and concrete of the decaying city. The lack of any illumination surprised and disorientated him. For some stupid reason he had half-expected to find some kind of light in the town. As it was the visibility in the city proved to be exactly the same as it had been out in the country. It was only the shapes of the grey shadows which surrounded him that had changed.
He slowed the bike to the lowest speed he dared travel at and looked desperately from side to side, hoping he would see something he recognised that would point him in the right direction. He knew the city like the back of his hand but tonight he couldn’t see anything resembling a familiar landmark. Despite having reduced his speed he still drove past the road signs far too quickly to be able to read any of them. Most were covered with a layer of grime and what appeared to be lichen or moss.
Memory told him that the motorway he had been following bisected the city from east to west and he knew that at some point he would come upon another junction that would lead to the motorway which led to the north and south. He passed a slip road and then cursed under his breath when he realised that had been the exit which would have taken him close to the Whitchurch Community Centre and then out towards the suburb of Hadley where he and his family had lived. Taking care to avoid the wreckage strewn across the carriageway he turned the bike around and doubled-back on himself.
Once off the motorway the roads narrowed and the number of obstacles in Carl’s path seemed to increase. Tall city centre offices, apartments and shops lined the sides of the road he followed making him feel claustrophobic and trapped and further exaggerating the nausea and panic with which he already suffered. He turned right towards Hadley and the community centre before being forced to brake suddenly. The road ahead of him was blocked across its full width by a petrol tanker which had jack-knifed and which now lay on its side like the hopeless corpse of a beached whale. The light was so poor that he didn’t see the wreck until he was almost on top of it. He slammed on the brakes and pulled and steered the bike as best he could, leaning over to one side with all his weight to desperately try and force the machine to turn in the tightest possible arc. Just at the moment he thought he had succeeded in avoiding a collision the bike kicked out from underneath him, sending him tumbling across the uneven tarmac. He collided with the remains of a burnt out car and lay still for the briefest of moments, stunned and unable to move. Through blurred eyes he watched helplessly as the bike skidded across the ground towards the tanker, sending a shower of sparks shooting up into the cold air as it scraped along the surface of the road. Dazed and unsteady, he forced himself to get up and run over to the bike. Groaning with pain and effort he lifted it up and restarted the stalled engine. With precious seconds to spare he managed to ride away before the closest few bodies of a shuffling crowd were upon him. He had been off the bike and on the ground for less than thirty seconds but already dozens of the creatures were swarming nearby. He escaped by carving a ruthless and bloody path right through the centre of the desperate gathering.
Now that he had an idea of where he actually was the roads gradually became more familiar. Although the relentless darkness and his cloying fear were both cruel and unforgiving, he felt sure that he was infuriatingly close to the community centre that the survivors had used as a base. There was movement in the shadows all around him and he sensed that thousands of bodies were nearby. But then, finally, the light from the bike illuminated the turn into the road he had been looking for. Just that last turning, followed immediately by a sharp right into the car park, and he was there. Momentarily ecstatic, he steered around familiar cars (Stuart Jeffries’ car which had been used as a beacon that first night and the high-class car that he himself had arrived in) and screeched to a halt outside the community centre. He banged his fist on the door.
‘Open up!’ he yelled desperately, fighting to make himself heard over the roar of the bike. ‘Open the bloody door!’
He anxiously glanced back over his shoulder and saw that the dark silhouettes of countless stumbling figures were pouring into the car park after him. Despite their forced, laborious movement they were approaching with a frightening speed and determination.
‘Open the fucking door!’ he screamed.
Stretching his hand out in front of him, Carl grabbed hold of the handle and yanked it downwards. To his surprise the door opened.
Carl rocked the bike back and then accelerated and drove into the hall. Once inside he jumped off the machine and slammed the door shut behind him. As the heavy door fell into place he felt thud after thud after sickening thud as the loathsome creatures outside crashed into the building. Shaking with fear he secured the entrance and leant against the wall. He slid down to the ground exhausted, threw off his helmet and held his head in his hands.
The abandoned bike had fallen diagonally across the width of the entrance hall. The engine had died but the wheels still span furiously and the bright headlamp shone relentlessly, burning into the dense darkness.
There was no movement in the hall. Despite the panic and noise of his arrival, no-one had moved.
With his legs heavy and leaden through a combination of fear and fatigue, he clambered back to his feet, using the wall behind him for support. His mouth was dry and he found himself unable to call out. He stepped over the abandoned bike, stumbled past the dark and silent kitchens and toilets, and walked into the main hall.
Then he stopped moving.
And he stared.
Paralysed with disbelief, devastation and absolute terror, he fell to his knees.
The relentlessly bright headlamp on the front of the bike filled parts of the hall with harsh, artificial light and that cruel and brilliant light revealed a sight so terrible that, at first, Carl was unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Even after everything else that he had seen during the last couple of weeks this new aberration sickened him. He could feel his legs weakening and tasted bile rising in his throat.
The bare wooden floor of the community centre was carpeted with human remains.
Moving without thinking, he stood up and took a few stumbling steps forward. Blood and bone mixed beneath his feet as he picked his way through a macabre maze of cold, grey flesh and crimson red gore. He began to think at speed – searching for explanations which he could neither prove or disprove. Perhaps the corpses were the remains of creatures from outside? Maybe they had somehow found a way into the community centre and the survivors had been forced to leave? There was a body on the ground in front of him. Half-dressed, its exposed skin had been ripped and torn to shreds. Fighting to keep control of his stomach, he reached down and grabbed hold of one exposed shoulder, pulling the body over onto its back. Although it was no-one he recognised, he could see immediately that this had not been one of the sickly, emaciated bastards from outside. What flesh remained on the face was clear and relatively unmarked and, apart from the countless horrific mutilations, the cadaver seemed to have been otherwise healthy and normal. There was no doubt that this was the body of one of the survivors.
Carl began to sob. He stood in the centre of the room and gradually became aware of sounds coming from the darkness in front of him.
‘Is anyone there?’ he called out hopefully.
‘Hello…’ he tried again. ‘Is someone there?’
A figure appeared from the shadows, partially illuminated by the light from the motorbike. Suddenly elated, Carl took a few steps forward.
‘Thank Christ,’ he mumbled. ‘What happened? How the hell did they manage to get inside?’
The figure inched closer. Every clumsy step it took forward brought it further into the light from the bike. Two more steps and Carl could see that the body was slumped forward with its head hanging heavily on its shoulders. It slowly looked up and gazed at Carl with familiarly cold, emotionless eyes. A diseased and rotting corpse, without warning it lunged towards him.
‘Shit!’ he yelled as he moved to one side. The creature lost its already unsteady footing in a puddle of thick, dark blood and slipped down to the ground.
Carl steadied himself and stared at the wretched corpse as it struggled to drag itself back up.
‘Shit!’ he shouted again in desperation. ‘Bastard thing! You fucking bastard thing!’
He took a step closer and kicked the creature in the face, the full force of his boot catching it square on the jaw. It fell back down to the ground and immediately began to right itself again. Carl unleashed his full fury and frustration on the pathetic carcass, kicking and punching at it until it finally lay still and did not move. It was rapidly decomposing. By the time he’d finished with it very little remained.
Crying with pain, exhaustion and anguish, and unable to come to terms with what he had found, Carl walked back towards the bike. He knew that his options were limited – he could stay in the centre or take his chances outside. After travelling for hours he couldn’t face going back out there again.
Using the dull light from a torch to guide him, he dragged himself back through the community centre and made his way to the small rooms at the far end of the building. Using the last dregs of energy that he could summon from his tired and aching body, he climbed out of the skylight and out onto the flat roof.
Carl sat on the edge of the roof for hours, being buffeted constantly by a familiar strong, cold wind and watching the dead city decaying around him.
The sun was beginning to rise.
The thought of another day dawning filled him with dread.