*   *   *

Driver sat in the same position behind the wheel all night, waiting impatiently for morning to come and for the light levels to increase sufficiently so he could tell what it was he’d been looking at. More important, so he could find out where it was.

As gray light began to reluctantly edge across the ruined land, Driver returned to the cafe. He’d seen a selection of tourist guides in wall mounts behind the dead girl yesterday, but had paid them little attention at the time. The girl immediately sprung into action again as he approached her. Fighting to overcome his disgust, this time he grabbed hold of her left shoulder and spun her around. Feeling her soft, decayed flesh shift under the pressure of his grip like wet clay, he pushed her into the wall, face-first, and held her there. He reached up with his free hand and took as many maps, brochures, and leaflets as he could, then ran straight back to the bus.

Driver unfolded the largest map he’d got and spread it out over the steering wheel, flitting his eyes between the map and the view outside, trying to match them both up. For a while he was stumped, unable to orientate himself easily despite his naval training, distracted by the constant movement of the obnoxious, tireless husk of another dead woman which had, by chance, stumbled out of the trees and was now biting at the glass in front of him, moving from side to side, getting in the way and covering the window with greasy, cream-colored stains.

The map was simple and cartoonish and had few details. It was only when it dawned on Driver that the best landmarks to use were the hills he was parked between, that everything finally began to click into place.

Got it.

He could see where the fire had been last night. There was a faint but steady wisp of smoke still rising up from it; a perilously thin trail of darker gray against the off-white clouds. Driver’s eyes drifted back down toward ground level where he saw that the smoke seemed, bizarrely, to be coming from a castle. He picked up a tourist guide of the local area and flicked through the pages to find anything that looked even remotely similar.

And then he found it. Cheetham Castle.


Driver accelerated toward the castle, obliterating anything foolish enough to get in his way. The closer he’d got, the lighter the smoke trail hanging in the air had become to the point where he was now beginning to doubt he’d seen anything at all. Had he been hallucinating? Was it just a cloud formation he’d willed into being something else? He also knew there was a very real possibility that if there was a fire, it might well have started accidentally, and that this place was actually as dead as everywhere else. But whatever it was and whatever had or hadn’t caused it, he was here now. For the first time he could remember, he was actually pleased to see a few more bodies around. Their numbers gave him some slight reassurance because the more of them he saw, the more likely he thought it that there might have been other survivors here recently. At best he might have stumbled upon a fully operational base camp. At worst, a damn good place to hide for a while. That was assuming, of course, that he could get in.

He followed the route of a road which roughly matched the curve of the castle wall, albeit at a considerable distance away. Between him and the fortress was a vast crowd of cadavers, perhaps even more than he’d seen approaching the hotel back in Bromwell, and close to the numbers he’d seen around the flats. The fact there were so many of them, so tightly packed in such a relatively confined space, was both a help and a hindrance. Those which had already noticed him were trapped and were finding it difficult to move, but their numbers were also preventing him from seeing much of the immediate area. Even from his elevated driving position it was difficult to see beyond the dead.

Driver forced himself to concentrate and watch the road again, steering hard around the back end of a burned-out car, and wiping out several stragglers in the process. He watched one he’d just plowed down in his mirror. He’d driven straight over it and had crushed its pelvis and spine (he knew that for a fact—he’d felt the crunch), and yet it was still coming after him. Dogged. Persistent. Only able to move its arms now, it seemed almost to be trying to swim along the tarmac.

The road climbed, and he was afforded a slightly better view of the land around the castle. With relief and surprise, he saw that the crowd of bodies didn’t stretch all the way to the castle walls, and that was clearly because of the steep slope upwards. He also saw, a little farther ahead still, a bizarre queue of bodies stretching away from the bulk of the crowd and up toward the gatehouse entrance. They appeared to be following some kind of track, almost as if they were lining up to try and get inside. And that, he decided, would be his best chance of getting in too.

Driver continued forward, passing level with the snaking column of corpses. He could see the wooden gate of the castle up ahead now, shut fast, and a swollen bottleneck of dead flesh directly outside it. The turn onto the track from this direction was too tight an angle, so he continued farther down the road, then turned around in a large gravel car park which was only partially filled with corpses. Some flung themselves at him, bouncing off the front of the bus like flies hitting the windscreen.

He accelerated back toward the castle, this time with a far better view of the approach road. He wrenched the steering wheel hard around and after misjudging his turn and driving through mud for a few seconds, fearing the bus might become mired, his wheels eventually gripped the tarmac and his speed increased as he began to climb. The bodies farther up the road were more spread out than they’d first appeared. It was no longer about them wanting to get to the castle which kept them moving, he realized, but a question of whether they were still physically able to keep climbing up. Some of them turned and started stumbling back down toward him, only most e obliterated on impact. Others now seemed to be trying to get farther up the road, almost as if they wanted to get out of the way, perhaps aware of the danger approaching them at speed.

A flash of movement higher up caught his eye. He looked down at the road when he lost control momentarily and clipped the curb, but then looked back and saw there was someone gesturing wildly at him from the top of the gatehouse. There were two of them now, a man and a woman, and they were pointing furiously at the wooden gate below.

Driver accelerated again, lining the bus up as best he could and hurtling toward the gate at optimum speed. On either side of the road now he saw that many of the dead were little more than piles of dismembered remains —heaps of broken bodies which looked to have been shunted out of the way in the same way a plow might clear a path through a fresh fall of winter snow. The bus juddered as he reached the wooden bridge before the gate, and he felt himself beginning to panic. What to do? Should he pull up and wait for the gate to open and risk being surrounded, or maintain this speed and just hope for the best? Up ahead, his question was answered as the two halves of the gate began to slowly part. Driver gripped the steering wheel tight, kept his foot down hard on the accelerator, and flew through the narrow gap before skidding to a halt in the middle of a vast courtyard filled with vehicles, caravans, equipment and … people! Healthy people. Living people!

He didn’t move for a while. He couldn’t. Exhausted, he switched off the engine and slumped forward over the steering wheel, his heart thumping so hard he thought it might be about to burst from his chest. Out of the corner of his eye he watched as a handful of corpses which had slipped through the gate with him were rounded up and destroyed. Some of the people he saw were hurriedly putting on hazmat suits; others wore leathers like Jas, Ian Harte, Greg Hollis and the rest of them used to wear. Some concentrated on getting the gate shut; others dealt with the disposal and removal of the dead. He was transfixed by this unexpected display of organization and cooperation.

A sudden knock on the door of the bus startled Driver. He sat up quickly and let a tall, clean, and remarkably well-presented man come on board.

“You okay?” the man asked.

“Think so,” Driver mumbled, not entirely sure.

“My name’s Jackson,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Anthony Kent,” he replied as they shook. “Tony. But most folks just call me Driver.”

“Most folks? There’s more of you?”

“There were. Probably still are.”

“We’ll get you some food, get you cleaned up, then you can tell me more,” he said, gesturing for Driver to follow him off the bus. Driver did as he was told. He looked around him in disbelief.

“What is this place?”

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