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Deborah took what food she could and put it in the rucksack she found hanging in Gus’s wardrobe. She took what weapons she could find and carried these on her.
He had a torch too, a heavy flashlight that would also double as a bludgeoning weapon if needs be.
He wouldn’t be needing it again so she felt no shame in taking this too.
The cabin was right on the outskirts of civilisation, no doubt ideal for his drug-raping inclinations.
There was an abandoned industrial sector here, derelict factories and warehouses that looked as though they’d been last used around the time of the dinosaurs, judging by the state of them.
They may as well have been for the differences between then and now.
Between before and after.
She wanted to steer clear of it up there, as it looked as though it would house the real dregs of society – if anyone at all.
A distant fire cast an eerie glow over the crumbling buildings.
She wanted no part of it.
She steered in the opposite direction, headed along the edge of a small river.
She was loathe to use her torch, fearing it would bring attention to her, but she risked blundering down a steep embankment if she couldn’t see where she was going.
It was amazing how dark the world was outside Serenity’s floodlit compound.
The dark ages had come around again it seemed.
She heard voices carried on the wind off to her right.
Again she wanted nothing to do with them.
She carefully descended the embankment, wincing at the noise she was making as the loose gravel slid away beneath her feet and skittered down the embankment.
She landed in a heap at the bottom, holding her breath to hear where the voices were coming from.
Keeping low, she followed the beck along.
The voices seemed to move all around her, it was very hard to distinguish where they were coming from.
She kept on, moving slowly to avoid detection.
The bushes on the other side of the beck moved occasionally, but she wasn’t sure whether it was people or wildlife. Either way it wasn’t good.
The beck petered out in a mess of plastic bottles, whited-out crisp packets and shards of rubble.
The rotting body alongside it all didn’t even seem out of place to her now.
The path moved up slightly, a wall alongside it. Chunks of it were missing as though they’d been punched loose.
She crouched behind it, listening to make sure there was no one creeping up on her.
She had a quick look around, muscles tensed ready to nail any potential attackers, but there was no one.
The wind seared her skin but she was seemingly alone.
She took a breath of relief.
She glanced ahead of her. It was a long dark road, probably a motorway, judging by the size of it.
It seemed straight as a die.
She couldn’t see how far away it stretched, but it seemed to be a long way.
She moved up onto the road and carried on walking.
Cars were parked haphazardly around the road, crashed into each other in immense pileups that made it impossible to see where one vehicle ended and the next began.
It was strange seeing cars again. Another part of life that had very quickly become extinct.
She saw a body slumped against the steering wheel, blood sprayed up the windscreen.
She winced at the amount of blood.
It looked as though the head had burst open upon impact with the dashboard. The car was one with the vehicle in front.
Bodies lay on the road, half in and out of cars. Some still slumped behind their steering wheels.
They were long decomposed.
Most of them were skeletons.
Cars lay haphazardly across the road at all angles.
Further on, an upturned lorry seemed to have taken out most of the traffic on both northbound lanes.
This seemed to be the origin of the pileup.
It was disturbing seeing it so desolate. So full of death.
The road looked like a game of dodgems gone catastrophically wrong.
And it got worse the further she went on.
She must have been entering the outskirts of one of the bomb blasts, as the ground was chewed up and the buildings were flattened to rubble in most places. A rare piece of wall stood.
‘You are now leaving God’s country,’ a blood red spray-painted sign read.
The realisation that it meant someone was alive somewhere in all of this made her more alert of her surroundings.
The wind hit her hard, making her pull her clothes tight around herself.
There were still skeletons among the wreckage. Their clothes moved with the wind.
A small cloud of rubbish blew up too. A grim reminder of what life had once been like.
A crisp packet. A Coke bottle. A Happy Meal box. A Costa coffee cup. All things that had ceased to be in the blink of an eye.
Erased from the face of the country – if not the earth – in the blink of a bloodshot eye.
She inhaled deeply.
Living in Serenity had kind of shielded her from the differences between life before and after.
It had all come crashing back now, over the stupidest of things.
We all took it for granted, she thought. And now it’s all gone.
It was a depressing thought and she tried to shift it out of her head but she couldn’t.
Seeing this brief glimpse of the devastated city was enough to make anyone sink into a fit of depression.
She swallowed hard, backhanded a tear from her eye and tried to forget about it.
An entire city’s worth of rubble was hers to navigate, but she felt certain there must be something worth finding on the other side.
She hoped that the radiation had died down by now.
But she had no doubt that what was ahead of her was better than what waited behind.
So on she walked, picking a slow, unsteady path across the rubble.
She had no idea how long she walked for, but she was still plodding grimly on when the sun began to rise.
It felt as though her mind had deserted her body, leaving her like a glacier; cold, hard, and slowly eating up the land.
The devastation seemed to slowly get better, but it was in a strange way.
From the piles of rubble strewn around the place, suddenly there was nothing, seemingly just dust.
The buildings were vaporised, it seemed.
As she got closer, the ground became a huge crater, like an asteroid had hit.
A large hill ran up the side, the edges of it scorched and hardened to form a dark, crystalline substance. It was like a miniature mountain.
She climbed up it carefully, then stopped halfway up as she heard voices.
She peered over the top.
There were a dozen people in the bottom of the crater, maybe fifty feet below her.
The crater was much bigger than it had seemed at first.
The people were dirty-faced, reminding her of the Grims from the Freelands.
They didn’t wear the black robes of the Grims though. They wore before clothes, only ripped and stained to the point of being virtually unrecognisable.
They laid in the hardened dirt at the bottom of the crater, talking excitedly.
They didn’t sound like the type of people she wanted to bump into.
There was pretty much no cover around here, due to the vaporisation of the buildings, so she hoped they didn’t hear her.
She looked around, and with no buildings in the way she could see people off in the distance too, sifting through the rubble.
What they hoped to find was unclear, but they were certainly determined in their search.
Truly no stone was left unturned.
She left them to it and carried on around the edge of the crater.
She kept the sun as her marker to avoid getting disoriented – the crater was so big she could have gotten lost moving round it and the surroundings all looked the same – and carried on.
Past the giant crater there was only dust again. She ripped the sleeve off one of her t-shirts and used it as a makeshift dust mask.
Then the rubble suddenly appeared again. A little at first, then more, then it was everywhere.
Again bodies still lay, forgotten, among the shattered remains of the buildings.
She seemed to walk another eternity before the buildings began to grow a little.
From being an entire carpet of bricks and mortar and glass, with nothing higher than ankle height, suddenly there were pieces of building that were waist high.
It continued as she walked, the remains got larger, more intact.
It was like watching the city being built before her eyes.
Through the city, finally there were semi buildings remaining.
‘Fuck me,’ she said, turning round and taking in the full scale of the devastation.
She shook her head, tears in her eyes once more.
There were no words forthcoming. She stood for a numb moment, taking it all in.
Then she moved on.
After the city’s devastation, the small slice of countryside seemed pretty unscathed.
The grass was greyed out with ashes and dirt, but apart from that it could have been mistaken for a scene from before.
There was a wooden fence running alongside the grassland.
On the other side were a few trees, but they were wilted, greyed out.
Still, they made it hard to see what was behind them.
As she moved up the small country road, she saw a line of cars.
This was unusual as they were parked across the road rather than being crashed into one another.
It looked as though they had been deliberately placed.
The reason wasn’t clear until she drew a little closer and saw a message written in blood red paint on the road in front of the line of cars; ‘God does not live on the other side of this blockade.’
The words puzzled her and chilled her at the same time.
An upside down cross had been sprayed on the cars too.
‘God is dead,’ was sprayed on the roof of one of the cars.
It sounded about as far from Serenity as possible, and, as ominous as the messages were, she thought it sounded perfect.
She drew closer to the car barricade and ducked down, peering through the windows.
This was pretty much impossible due to the thick layers of spray-paint that covered it all.
She stood up a little, peering over the bonnet.
She saw nothing, just more trees and long grasses, again that eerie greyed out colour.
The sun went behind a cloud as she climbed over the bonnet of one of the cars, as though fearing what she was about to do.
Crouching low, she glanced around.
She saw no one, but could feel eyes upon her.
She had no idea where she was, but it was clear she was moving out into the country.
No way Simon Cross and his religious puppet idiots would think to come out here looking for me, she thought.
‘Turn back while there’s still hope,’ another spray-painted sign said.
A body hung from a tree nearby, suspended from its ankles.
‘Godless,’ was carved in two-inch letters in its abdomen.
Its throat was slit from ear to ear, lolling back on its neck.
The body creaked on its rope in the breeze.
There was another on the next tree.
They were all men, Deborah noticed, except for one.
This one was fairly fresh, skin still reasonably well-preserved, rather than the decaying remnants of the others.
The ominous slogans carved into the hanging bodies made her skin crawl:
‘Hope is gone.’
‘God is dead.’
Again she had a feeling that someone was watching her.
She scanned her surroundings, seeing only the forest of hanging corpses.
It felt like she was trapped in a nightmare.
She heard footsteps somewhere behind her.
She moved away, looking back.
Her hand hit something cold and clammy.
She winced when she realised it was the wound in one of the bodies.
She shuddered and wiped her hand on her shirt.
The footsteps came again.
She looked back and saw no one, just the hanging bodies, swaying in the breeze.
Fucking trees, she thought with a scowl. First those freak children and now this.
She saw movement to her right and she looked over.
It was just one of the swinging corpses.
She stopped and did a three-sixty, trying to see through the trees and corpses that hung from them.
Still she saw nothing.
She kept on, eager to get out of the eerie wood.
Corpses banged into her in her rush, and she shuddered at their clammy cold feel.
She finally reached the treeline and peered through to see a huge black-painted church.
She had time to look at it, to marvel at its scale and the cold feeling of fear that it set squirming in her belly like some vast icy snake, before she saw more movement from her right.
This time it wasn’t a moving corpse.
She saw a flash of black then a fist thudded into the side of her jaw and put her lights out.
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