Chapter 13 – The Road Less Trodden
It was spooky; the roads with which Claire was most familiar were empty; south of Bromley at this hour that was simply unheard of. Occasionally they would see a car hurtle across an intersection in front of them, but that was really all there was. Claire was a cautious and scrupulously legal driver; today she exemplified the definition of caution, her every move at a junction carefully planned and calculated. Every intersection she came to was a performance; she would pause, looking both ways like some Highway Code advert, even if the lights were in her favour.
James forced himself not to react. He had a driver’s licence but without a car, or the need for one, he was more frequently a passenger than driver and knew the penalty for criticising his love’s skills and motoring decisions. Instead he forced himself to stay calm and silent, crushing the screaming voice inside his head urging him to beg for more speed. If they never made it to his in-laws’ then at least their own speed wouldn’t be the cause.
They made their way out of the ‘burbs in silence, thinking about what was and what might be.
Having nothing else to do, James stared out the window, watching the houses slide by, road by achingly slow road. After a while he noticed people walking aimlessly on the pavement, assuming they were infected, a reasonable assumption as they took no notice of the odd house fire they would pass. Initially they would ignore the radiating heat of the blaze, their wet clothes and flesh smoking and steaming and catching light before, James suspected, the slugs within realised the danger and somehow steered the pliant carcass away from the heat. It was still raining lightly so people fires would only last a few moments before extinguishing producing wafts of greasy steam instead.
As James and Claire passed they would halt and stare as the mint ice-cream car passed by, before continuing in whatever purpose they had. One thing was becoming more and more evident, and that was that the numbers of people on the pavements were increasing, some even walking out onto the road in some form of clumsy ambush, easily avoided but nonetheless unnerving.
“We’re going too much in a straight line south,” he said eventually.
“What?” Claire seemed oblivious to what was going on around her.
“I reckon they are becoming aware of us,” James replied. “Look at that group, see how they’re moving out onto the road to cut us off. See what I mean?”
Claire gasped, slowed down and drove warily around them, mounting the pavement with care as she did so.
In spite of the situation James sniggered; he couldn’t help himself. This had to be the most genteel getaway in the world. It would probably not make it as a box office great escape.
“What?” she demanded, noticing his amusement. “Do you want to walk?” she threatened emptily.
“I could probably keep up,” James joked. Getting serious again he pointed to the left. “Take this turn.”
Claire did so and remained eastbound for a few streets. The numbers of ex-humans thinned dramatically. After a short while she turned right and continued southbound. The streets were empty and other than a few abandoned vehicles there was no sign of life; as Claire wove her way past a jack-knifed lorry James looked into living room windows hoping to see some form of life. There was not a damn thing moving.
“Now do you see the benefits of a small car?” she asked, grinning smugly as she drove down the pavement, dodging a pile up of half a dozen cars blocking the street.
“Yeah, yeah,” James conceded, wincing as the driver side wing mirror clipped a lamp post.
In spite of her driving technique he was at least feeling happier with the significantly reduced number of people outside.
Preferring to avoid the motorway (everyone knows it’s dangerous to use arterial roads during the Apocalypse), Claire aimed towards Badger’s Mount and Polhill, aiming to cross the motorway into Kent proper at the Otford turnoff. They hadn’t seen anyone for ages now, allowing the pair to relax a little and enjoy the feeling of safety that remoteness from conurbations encouraged.
Driving across the narrow bridge over the motorway, Claire came to an abrupt halt and got out of the car. James followed her over to the safety rails. He had seen it too.
As far as the eye could see the motorway was backed up with cars and lorries, many of which had been burnt out with no evidence of emergency services ever having been in attendance. Some were still smouldering even in the cooling drizzle that continued unabated, proving that the incident was pretty recent. It was as if the pause button on life had been pressed.
Thousands of people, by now all slug-refilled cadavers, stood among the vehicles, vacantly waiting for something. Sensing James and Claire’s presence all faces turned upwards as one.
“What is that sound?” Claire asked, cocking her head to one side as if that would make the difference.
“What sound?” James asked. “I can’t hear anything.”
“Listen,” Claire replied, a little impatiently. “It’s like water rushing.”
Concentrating harder, James began to hear it too. He held the rails in a deathlike grip as he realised just what it was.
“Slugs moving,” he muttered.
“Nah,” Claire said, disbelieving. Involuntarily she was beginning getting the same image in her mind. “The ones inside their bodies?”
They both looked around the scene, furiously trying to pinpoint the origin of the sibilant sound, but it was everywhere. The noise intensified and change pitch a little. The people started converging on the base of the bridge, again more evidence, as if James needed it, of some sort of communication between the human slug transports.
“Balls!” James blurted. “Let’s get out of here.”
They got back into the little car and continued their journey towards Paddock Wood.
Skirting around Sevenoaks and Tonbridge, the journey took way longer than Claire remembered but at least the human networked monster that seemed to be taking over England, and probably the world, couldn’t follow their progress.
Claire heaved a sigh of relief as she turned into the drive at her parent’s farm. Pulling up at the front door she smiled as her father opened it to greet them. He smiled broadly and immediately Claire knew something was wrong.