Autumn The City
Author:David Moody

Chapter Nine
Music woke Jack from his light sleep. He thought he was imagining it at first but no, there it was again. Faint and tinny, for the first time in almost a week he could definitely hear music. Once he was fully awake it took him a couple of seconds to get his bearings. He looked around and let his eyes slowly become accustomed to the low morning light. The department store looked very different in daylight - completely different in fact to how he'd pictured it last night when it had been filled with nothing but shadows and darkness. He then remembered that he hadn't been alone last night and he sat up quickly and looked around for Clare. 'Over here,' she shouted from the other side of the store. She'd been watching him stirring for the last couple of minutes but hadn't wanted to wake him. Stiff, aching and tired, Jack swung his legs out over the side of the bed, got up and then slowly shuffled over to the dining room furniture display where she was sitting. He sat down opposite her at a large mahogany table. In the middle of the table was a small stereo unit. Clare was playing a CD.

He didn't recognise the music. Although he didn't say anything to her he wished she'd turn it down. It wasn't particularly loud, he decided it just seemed that way because everything else was so deathly silent. 'How are you this morning?' he asked. She nodded and smiled sadly. 'I'm okay,' she replied. 'Look, I didn't mean to wake you up. I hope you don't mind the noise. I couldn't stand the quiet any longer. I found the stereo in the electrical department just past the beds.' Jack looked back over his shoulder and noticed a huge bank of dead television screens a short distance behind the row of beds where they'd just spent the night. Still drugged by sleep he stood up again and walked back to where he'd left their belongings last night. After searching through his rucksack he found a little of the food which he'd brought with him. He took it back to Clare and sat down again. 'Hungry?' he asked. She shook her head. 'Not really.' 'You should try and eat something. We both should.' He opened up a plastic lunch box and took out some chocolate and fruit which he laid out on the table between them. Clare took a chocolate bar and unwrapped it.

It was surprisingly good. The rich taste and smell of the food was reassuringly familiar and strangely comforting. She'd hardly eaten since Tuesday. After days of feeling nothing much more than sickening hurt and constant disorientation, the food provided a welcome distraction. For a moment it seemed that although they appeared to have lost everything, there was a slight chance that it might be possible for them to rediscover something resembling normality amongst the rubble of what remained of the lives they used to lead. 'I love this song,' Clare said as the next track on the CD began. She chewed thoughtfully on her chocolate and turned up the volume. She closed her eyes and for a precious few seconds tried to imagine she was somewhere else. To Jack the music sounded no different and no less processed and manufactured than the last bland track he'd heard. He remembered the days when music was played by real musicians and when talent mattered more than appearance and... and he could hear something else. He slammed his fist down on top of the stereo and stopped it playing. 'Hey...' Clare protested. 'Shh...' he hissed. He pushed his chair back and walked towards the escalators which snaked up through the centre of the department store.

He could hear movement on the first floor below. Cautiously he peered over the top of the staircase and saw that a crowd of bodies had appeared. Unlike the clumsy bodies he'd seen earlier, these seemed to have a modicum of control. The light was poor but he could see, incredibly, that two or three of them had begun trying to climb up the motionless escalator towards him. They tripped over shop displays and random fallen corpses as they tried awkwardly to move forward. Clare suddenly appeared at his side, startling him. 'What's going on?' she asked anxiously. 'Look,' he answered, nodding down in the direction of the figures beneath them. He concentrated his attention on the diseased body which had made most progress towards the second floor.

It was now almost halfway up the escalator but had been forced to stop, its way ahead blocked by an upturned baby's pushchair. Although it had been considerably darker last night it had been fairly easy for Jack and Clare to negotiate their way around such obstacles. The stilted movements of the desperate creatures below were nowhere near as controlled and precise as those of the survivors. As they crouched in silence in the shadows and watched, the crowd below them began to dissipate. Those bodies on the outside of the gathering were beginning to trip and stumble away. 'Was it the music?' Clare wondered.

The corpses on the escalator seemed to be losing interest now. They were staggering back down to the first floor again. 'Must have been.' 'But why?' 'What d'you mean?' 'Well yesterday and the day before I spent ages shouting for help and they didn't react then. I didn't think they could hear us.' Jack thought about what she'd said. She was right. He remembered the first moving body that he'd come across - the woman in the street outside his house. He'd run towards her breathlessly but she hadn't reacted. The rest of the world had been quiet and there had been no other distractions that he'd been aware of. Surely the woman would have heard him approaching if she'd been able to? Clare moved around Jack and took a couple of steps down the escalator. 'Where you going?' he hissed, concerned. At the raised volume of his voice the nearest body stopped moving and slowly turned back around again to face the survivors. Both Clare and Jack froze and hoped that they would merge into the shadows and not be seen. The body continued down the escalator.

Reaching over to one side, Clare wrestled a handbag free from the grip of an old woman whose lifeless corpse was sprawled across the escalator. She threw the bag down to the first floor, past the few remaining bodies and into a greetings card display.

The display rattled and crashed to the floor and, almost instantly, the bodies returned. The survivors watched with increasing fear and uncertainty as the dead gathering regrouped around the sudden distraction. Clare turned and ran back towards Jack, her footsteps echoing loudly on the metal steps beneath her. 'Bloody hell,' mumbled Jack as he watched the bodies react to the sound of Clare moving.

The listless figures were converging at the bottom of the escalator again. She pushed past him and ran back over to the table where they'd been eating just a few minutes earlier. Jack marched over to the beds, grabbed his bag and began frantically packing everything away. A familiarly sickening feeling of helplessness, panic and disorientation had suddenly returned. 'What are you doing?' Clare asked, instinctively starting to gather up her own things. 'Getting out,' he replied in a hushed and frightened whisper. 'Getting away from those things.' 'But where are we going to go?' 'Don't know.' Clare stopped and sat down at the table again. She held her head in her hands. 'They won't get up here, will they?'

'I don't know,' Jack answered. 'Give them enough time and they might. Who knows what they'll do?' 'But we can block the escalators off, can't we? We can use some of this furniture. They're never going to be strong enough to get through, are they?' Her simple logic stopped him in his tracks. He stopped packing and stared at her, struggling to answer.

His throat was dry and he could feel beads of cold, nervous sweat running down his back. 'You might be right, but...' 'But what?' 'But we don't know for sure.' 'We don't know anything really, do we?' Clare rubbed her eyes and started to mess with the food Jack had left on the table. 'I'm scared,' she admitted. 'I don't want to go anywhere.' Jack put down his rucksack and collapsed on the end of his bed. She was right. What would they gain from running? The top floors of the department store seemed as safe a place to hide as any.

A short time later Jack had calmed down enough to be able to creep quietly across the floor to the top of the escalator and look down again. He couldn't see any bodies. In the silence of the morning they had all drifted away.