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Webb kicked his way through the litter behind the counter of the petrol station kiosk. They’d been here several times before and had cleared the place out, but maybe today he’d find one last packet of cigarettes that he’d missed last time, or a previously overlooked bottle of drink. It was always worth a look. Christ, what he’d give for a can of lager right now.
Wait … he could hear an engine. More than that, he could hear three engines—the bike and both the vans. Bloody hell, they were going without him! The fucking idiots were leaving him behind! No time to think. He scrambled back over the counter, stepped through the mess of twisted metal and broken glass where the entrance door used to be, then ran out into the middle of the forecourt.
“Wait!” he screamed, his voice quickly deteriorating from a strong yell to a strained smoker’s rasp. Bent over double coughing, he glanced up and caught a glimpse of the roof of one of the vans as it raced back toward the flats. It was just a momentary flash of sunlight on metal, gone in a second but visible long enough to leave him in no doubt that he was now completely alone. Alone, that was, apart from a fractious mob of more than two hundred dead bodies closing in on him. The whine of the engines faded away into echoes. Still coughing, Webb covered his mouth, desperate to stifle the noise but knowing it was already too late.
What are my options? Can’t go back into the store, the back door’s blocked. They’ll follow me in and I’ll be trapped.
He glanced across the forecourt at the green and yellow liveried tanker they’d been siphoning fuel from. Could he climb on top of it and sit and wait until something else distracted them? It might well have worked, but it would have taken time. Although clear and blue immediately above him, the skies all around had been filling with threatening gray rain clouds all afternoon. It would be dark soon. He didn’t relish the prospect of being stranded on top of the tanker all night, soaked through and surrounded by rotting flesh.
Only one option left. Run.
Webb surveyed the opposition and gripped his weapon tight. A baseball bat with four six-inch nails hammered through its end, it was a rudimentary but undeniably effective, modern-day variation on the medieval mace. Basic or not, over the weeks he’d used it to get rid of literally hundreds of these vile, germ-infested bastards and he was thankful for it.
With vast swathes of disintegrating corpses advancing from all sides it didn’t seem to matter which direction he chose. Hoping to buy himself a few precious seconds’ breathing space he yanked the loose helmet off the withered head of a dead motorcyclist which lay at his feet. Like an Olympic hammer thrower he spun around through almost a full circle before letting go of the helmet. It flew toward the store, smashing through what was left of an already broken window and filling the air with ugly noise. The nearest of the shambling cadavers began to shuffle toward the building, their movements in turn causing more and more of the dumb fuckers to follow like sheep. Webb held his position as the crowd surged predictably, then ran the other way.
He could still just about hear the bike in the distance. Its powerful engine was louder than the two vans combined and he knew he’d probably be able to hear it until it reached the flats. It was only just over a mile. If the streets were clear he’d probably be able to run there in around ten minutes. Problem was, the streets were never clear anymore. Between here and home were thousands upon thousands of corpses, crammed together shoulder to shoulder, and one of the nearest had just lifted its bony arms and begun lurching forward in his direction. With a grunt of effort Webb lifted the baseball bat and swung it in a loose arc above his head. He thumped it down into the side of the creature’s chest, sweeping it off its already unsteady feet. Another swing, this time in the opposite direction, and two more swaying corpses were hacked down. Three gone, he thought to himself as he started running again, just a few thousand more to go.
Christ, he hated the smell of these bloody things. It was always there, hanging in the air like an ever-present fug, but it was a thousand times worse at close quarters. With his shoulder dropped he charged into the middle of the crowd straight ahead. Most of the bodies were too slow to react and they toppled like dominos, each one causing more of them to fall. Webb kept moving, leaping over their slow, grabbing hands and holding his weapon out in front of him like a battering ram, using its rounded end to smash them out of the way. A sudden unexpected gap in the crowd opened up, allowing him to slow momentarily and get his bearings. He was running away from the petrol station, but he was heading back toward the center of town. He needed to be moving in the opposite direction. Forced to make an instant decision, he changed direction and headed back toward the main road, the way the others would have gone.
The repulsive remains of a forty-eight-day dead traffic warden angrily threw itself at him. Still dressed in the ragged scraps of its black uniform it moved with a sudden burst of unexpected speed and ferocity. Webb had seen more and more of them attacking like this recently and he didn’t like it. The faster ones scared the hell out of him, although he’d never admit it to any of the other survivors. He couldn’t understand how something which had been dead for weeks could be getting stronger. For a split second he looked up into what was left of the traffic warden’s hideously decomposed face before swinging the baseball bat around again and burying the points of two six-inch nails deep in the side of its skull.
Shit. He’d hit the body with such force that he couldn’t get his weapon out. The sharp metal spikes were wedged tight into bone. He yanked hard, but only succeeded in pulling the thrashing body over onto the ground. It lay squirming at his feet as more and more of them closed in on him. He could feel their fingers on his back now, clawing and scratching as he tried to free the nails from the skull. Still stuck. Stay calm, he thought to himself, struggling to keep himself from panicking. They’re dead. I’m alive. I can do this …
Webb stamped his boot down across the throat of the writhing corpse. The dead traffic warden, now flat on its back with its arms and legs flailing wildly, glared up at him with a single dark eye, the other having been gouged out of its socket by the force of the baseball bat impact. Webb began to twist the handle of his bat in his hands, still keeping the pressure on the corpse under his foot. Moving with frantic, frightened speed as the other corpses pressed against him, Webb twisted the bat backward and forward, from side to side and around and around in a desperate attempt to sever the head. Long-dead flesh, muscle and cartilage began to tear and brittle bone snapped. The body finally lay still and he stomped angrily on its neck until the final few troublesome connecting sinews gave way. Relieved, he took a deep breath of dirty, germ-filled air, then lifted the bat (with dead head still intact) and swung it out in front of him as he ran on.
Pushing his way through an impenetrable forest of cadavers, Webb forced himself to keep moving. He’d overheard a conversation between Hollis and Lorna on their way out to the petrol station less than an hour earlier. Much as Hollis annoyed him, he knew he’d been right and the other man’s words now rattled around his head. “If you’re surrounded,” he’d said, “do anything but stop. Stand still and you’ll have a hundred of them onto you in seconds. Keep moving and they can’t get you. You’ve got speed, strength and control on your side; you can be gone before they’ve even realized you’re there.” Panicking again, Webb tried to work out how he was supposed to keep moving when suddenly all he could see in front of him was a brick wall. He changed direction and dived to his left, circling around the back of the petrol station now. Just keep moving, he told himself again, willing his already tired legs to continue working. Another swipe of the baseball bat (and impaled head) knocked a trio of bodies off their feet and down onto the concrete. Those immediately behind fell over the fallen corpses in their hopelessly uncoordinated attempt to get to Webb. Stupid fuckers, he thought as he pushed another two of them away with a determined hand-off before dropping his shoulder, increasing his speed and scrambling up a slippery grass bank toward the road. He cursed as he pulled himself upright and started to sprint again, muscles burning with effort. The wide carriageway ahead was packed solid with corpses. Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks, he tried to assure himself as he barged into the nearest few. The dead had such a lack of color about them that it was sometimes difficult to make out any detail. Weeks of decomposition had eliminated almost all their distinguishing features. Different skin tones and colorings had been bleached away by decay so that the endless crowds now seemed to have mutated into a single dead race. Their ragged clothing was stained with so much dirt, dust, mold and seepage that they all now appeared to be wearing a kind of gray-green uniform. The upshot of all this, Webb decided as he threw a pretty decent punch at another one which had shown a little control and lashed out at him with gnarled, twisted hands, was that he couldn’t tell whether there were a hundred of them up ahead or a thousand.
Just keep moving.
Webb found himself in a narrow sliver of space, just room enough to be able to swing the baseball bat around again. He struck out in an aimless arc, not knowing what, if anything, he’d hit. He made contact with the neck and left shoulder of an awkwardly advancing dead pensioner, hitting it with sufficient force to throw its skeletal frame up into the air like a rag doll. The traffic warden’s head, still impaled, was loosened by the impact. Webb’s second swing, even lazier in aim but stronger than the first, was enough to dislodge the decapitated head completely. He looked up and watched in amazement as he scored a bizarre home run, the head spinning up through the gray sky high above the massive crowd. Distracted, he followed its flight until it crashed back down to earth. A sudden surge of bodies forced him into action again.
Keep moving …
The ground beneath his feet was unexpectedly slippery and uneven now. He looked down and saw that he was virtually ankle deep in a foul-smelling, sticky slurry of human remains. His nerves and adrenaline prevented his stomach from reacting to the gross stench of the bloody mire. He knew that this appalling mudslide of rotting flesh and dismembered body parts was, perversely, a good sign. This was the gruesome wake of the bike and two vans which had abandoned him. The group had made their base in a block of flats just over the next ridge, and this grisly trail would lead him home. If he could just keep his footing and keep moving forward he knew he’d probably be okay.
Another unexpected rush of movement from the restless crowd on his right sent Webb tripping over. He landed on his backside, deep in the obnoxious mess, and gave silent thanks for the heavy motorbike leathers he wore whenever he was outside. The thick, waterproof material gave him some protection from the germs and disease which were no doubt thriving in the disgusting quagmire. All around him a seemingly endless number of cadavers slipped and scrambled to get closer, ignorantly trampling the remains of their brethren. Webb struggled to get back to his feet, the soles of his boots sliding in the greasy muck. He managed to roll over onto all fours—doing everything he could to avoid looking down and seeing exactly what his knees and gloved hands had just sunk into—before leaning on the baseball bat for support and forcing himself back up. Panting heavily, he threw himself into the next wave of bodies and ran toward the top of the hill.
Not far now. He just had to get over the rise, down the other side, then keep following this road until he reached the narrow track which snaked around the dilapidated garages behind the flats. Christ, what he’d give to be back there now. Thankfully the frantic physical exertion seemed to be taking the edge off his fear. He didn’t have time to be scared. He had to concentrate on moving forward and smashing his way past body after body after body. A thing which used to be a school teacher, another which once was a chef, a car mechanic, librarian, gym instructor … it didn’t matter what these hideous things used to be any more. He didn’t give any of them more than a split second’s thought before destroying them with as much force and venom as he could muster. He was getting tired swinging the bat around, now. The muscles around his shoulders and neck were aching but he knew he couldn’t stop yet. The climb to the top of the hill was taking forever and his speed seemed to be reducing. Gravity and the slippery slope of the road were slowing him down while at the same time helping the corpses to hurl themselves at him with unprecedented force. Almost there, he thought as he finally neared the top of the climb. Maybe the other side will be clear and I’ll be able to stop?
Webb didn’t stop running when he reached the summit, choosing instead to try and make the most of the velocity he’d finally achieved and power down the steep descent on the other side. Still holding the baseball bat out in front of him, he ploughed into an even deeper sea of constantly shifting undead flesh, silently repeating the mantra to himself over and over:
Just keep moving. Just keep moving …
The crowd which now engulfed him, although huge, was almost completely silent. These creatures didn’t speak or moan or groan, and the only sounds came from their heavy feet dragging along the ground and the constant buzzing of the thousands of insects which continually gorged themselves on a seemingly never-ending supply of decaying flesh. His labored breathing and the sound of his squelching footsteps were as loud as anything.
But wait—what was that? Just for a moment he was sure he could hear something else. He swung the bat into the chest of a peculiarly lopsided corpse, then stopped for a fraction of a second when he heard the sound in the distance again. It was an engine. Thank God, the others had realized they’d left him behind and come back for him. With renewed energy he threw himself forward yet again, knocking a half dozen scrambling bodies down like skittles.
The noise was definitely getting closer. Two engines this time—the bike and just one of the vans perhaps—and they were fast approaching. He sensed a change in the behavior and direction of the fetid crowd around him. Suddenly he was no longer the sole focus of attention. Easily as many bodies turned and staggered away from him now as continued to move toward him. Desperate to let the others know exactly where he was—if he didn’t there was a good chance they’d drive straight into the middle of the crowd looking for him—he stopped using the baseball bat as a weapon and instead shoved it into the air above his head as a marker.
“Over here!” he screamed at the top of his voice as he anxiously barged through the dead, fighting past them as if he was the sole passenger trying to get off a train that everyone else wanted to get on to. He heard the van and bike stop.
“We can see you,” Hollis’s distinctive voice yelled back. “Now get your fucking head down and get over here!”
Webb knew what was coming next. They’d had to do this kind of thing numerous times before. He dropped to the ground and started crawling furiously away on his hands and knees, weaving around countless lumbering pairs of rotting feet. Speed was suddenly more important than ever. He had to get as close as he could to the others before—
A sudden searing blast of light and heat tore through the crowd just a few meters behind him. He allowed himself the briefest of glances back but kept moving forward, ignoring the pain in his knees and wrists. All around him the bodies began to converge on the area into which Hollis had just hurled a crude, but very effective, petrol bomb. They were attracted to the sudden burst of light and heat. Stupid things walked closer to the epicenter of the blast, many of them oblivious to the fact that they themselves were also now beginning to burn.
The crowd finally thinned sufficiently for Webb to risk getting up and running again. He could see the van and the bike waiting behind the gutted remains of a burned-out coach, parked at such an angle that the dead were prevented from getting too close. He pushed through the final few awkward figures, then slipped between the side of the coach and the front of the van. Hollis lobbed another two bombs directly over his head and watched them detonate deep in the heart of the maggot-ridden mob.
“Let’s get out of here.” Jas, on the bike, sighed wearily as he climbed back onto the saddle of his machine. Webb moved toward him. “Piss off,” he spat. “You’re not getting on here like that. Look at the state of you. You’re covered in all kinds of shit.”
Webb looked down at his blood- and pus-soaked leathers. Gore dripped onto the ground around him. With his face screwed up in a grimace he bent down and picked a piece of scalp—complete with a clump of lank brown hair—out of a crease in his trousers at the top of his boot. He tossed it away in disgust.
“You’re not coming in here either,” Hollis snapped, looking him up and down. “Hold onto the back of the van.”
Too tired to argue, Webb picked up his trusty baseball bat from where he’d dropped it at the roadside, then climbed wearily up onto the footplate at the back of the van. Jas pulled up alongside him and shouted over the roar of the bike.
“And when we get back you make sure you wash yourself down before you take one step inside. I don’t want to be stepping through your shit all night, okay?”
Webb didn’t respond. He wasn’t interested in anything Jas or any of the others had to say. He tightened his grip on the van roof bars as they began to move away, then looked back over his shoulder, watching the smoke rise up from the burning crowds. One of the dead, its clothes and hair aflame, broke free and staggered after the van like the last firework on bonfire night, eventually dropping to the ground when its remaining muscles had burned away to nothing.
Is that the best you can do? Webb thought. Is that all you’ve got left?
Copyright © 2011 by David Moody