Billions died in less than twenty-four hours.

William Price was one of the first.

Price had been out of bed for less than ten minutes when it began. He had been standing in the kitchen when he'd felt the first pains. By the time he'd reached his wife in the living room he was almost dead.

The virus caused the lining of his throat to dry and then to swell at a remarkable rate. Less than forty seconds after initial infection the swelling had blocked his windpipe. As he fought for air the swellings began to split and bleed. He began to choke on the blood running down the inside of his trachea.

Price's wife tried to help him, but all she could do was catch him when he fell to the ground. For a fraction of a second she was aware of his body beginning to spasm but by that point she had also been infected. By that point the volume of oxygen reaching her lungs had reduced to less than ten per cent of her normal oxygen requirement.

Less than four minutes after Price's initial infection he was dead. Thirty seconds later and his wife was dead too. A further minute and the entire street was silent.

Chapter 1

Carl Henshawe

I was almost home by the time I knew that it had happened.

It was still early - about half-eight I think - and I'd been out of the house since just after four. Looking back I was glad I hadn't been home. It was bad enough seeing Sarah and Gemma lying there after it had happened to them. Christ, I wouldn't have coped seeing it get them both. I just couldn't have stood seeing them both suffer like that. I couldn't have done anything for either of them. It hurts too much to even think about it. Better that they were gone and it was over by the time I got home.

I'd been out on a maintenance call at Carter and Jameson's factory five miles north of Billhampton. I usually ended up going there once or twice a month, and usually in the middle of the night. The bastard that was in charge of the place was too tight to pay for new machinery and too bloody smart to get his own men repairing the system when he knew that he could call us out. Didn't matter what went wrong or when, he always got us out. He knew the maintenance contract better than I did.

I was six miles short of Northwich when I first realised that something was wrong. I'd stopped at the services to get a cup of coffee and something to eat and I was just coming off the motorway when the radio started playing up. Nothing unusual about that - the electric's in the van had a mind of their own - but this was different. One minute there was the usual music and talking, the next nothing but silence. Not even static. Just silence. I tried to tune in to a couple of other stations but I couldn't get anything.

Like an idiot I kept driving and trying to sort out the radio at the same time. I only had one eye on the road, and the sun kept flashing through the tops of the trees. The sky was clear and blue and the morning sun was huge and blinding. I wanted to get back home so I kept my foot down. I didn't see the bend in the road until I was half way round and I didn't see the other car until it was almost too late.

I slammed my foot on the brake when I saw it. It was a small mustard-yellow coloured car and its driver was obviously as distracted as I was. He was coming straight at me, and I had to yank the steering wheel hard to the right to avoid hitting him. I must have missed him by only a couple of feet.

There was something about the way the car was moving that didn't seem right. I slowed down and watched it in my rear view mirror. Instead of following the bend that I had just come round, it just kept going forward in a straight line, still going at the same speed. It left the road and smashed up the kerb. The passenger-side door scraped against the trunk of a heavy oak tree and then the car stopped dead when the centre of the bonnet