Chapter Fifty

Exhausted and almost asleep, Michael was slumped forward against the steering wheel of the motorhome. A sudden noise made him jolt upright in his seat, instantly awake. 'Jesus Christ,' he cursed as the police van thundered past and tore into the field packed with bodies. 'Where the fucking hell did that come from?' Emma ran to his side and watched with surprise and disbelief as the van ripped a bloody path through the mass of wandering corpses.

Before she could speak the prison truck appeared. 'Follow them,' she gasped, her mouth dry with sudden shock and nerves. With his heart pounding and his hands shaking Michael started the engine and attempted to move the motorhome forwards.

All around them bodies were reacting with ominous strength and fury to the sudden melee. Some staggered after the van and the truck, others turned and lurched quickly towards the lumbering bulk of the motorhome.

The police van skidded to a halt about a hundred meters ahead, the once white (but now muddy brown and blood-soaked) truck a few meters further on. They watched as a man hung out of the side of the truck and began to gesture furiously to the people in the van. He was waving back in the direction of the incline that they had just powered over. Seconds later the reversing lights on the back of the van were suddenly illuminated and the vehicle sped back towards the motorhome, its engine whining and its wheels churning mud, gore and rotting flesh up into the cold morning air. The driver slammed on the brakes when the two vehicles were parallel. There was a gap of less than a metre between them. He wound down his window and shouted over to Emma. 'Any room inside?' Cooper yelled. Still stunned, Emma could only nod her head in reply. 'How many of you are in there?' 'Just two of us,' she stammered. 'We think there's a base here...' 'One of our trucks has gone down in the forest,' the soldier shouted back.

'I need to go back for them. Can you have my passengers?' Emma didn't know how to respond. Could these people be trusted? Instantly sensing her obvious unease Michael leant across and took over the conversation. Whether they could trust them or not, it didn't matter. These people were survivors. It had to be worth taking a chance. 'There's a side door,' he shouted. 'Get them out of the back of the van and I'll open up.' Without waiting for the other man to respond Michael left his seat and ran down the inside of the motorhome to the door. He threw it open and immediately began kicking, pushing and hitting out of the way the countless sickly cadavers that reached out for him. A meter and a half away the back of the van flew open and four survivors jumped down into the field, slipping and sliding in the muddy confusion.

Michael reached out and grabbed hold of Donna, hauling her quickly to safety. Between them they dragged the other three inside before slamming the door shut. Jack Baxter pulled the van door closed before climbing back into the front and sitting down next to Cooper. He glanced over his shoulder and checked that the others were safe. 'They're in,' he gasped, panting heavily with effort. 'Let's move.' Donna and the other three survivors from the city collapsed into the back of the motorhome as the police van pulled away outside. Bodies all around the long vehicle smashed their decaying fists against the thin metal walls, fighting to get at the people inside. 'There's a base or something round here,' Emma mumbled, her composure slowly beginning to return. 'We were trying to get in.' Donna nodded. 'Cooper came from here,' she said, nodding in the direction of van that was moving back towards the ridge. 'He's going to get us inside.' 'How many of you are there?' Michael asked as he sat back down in the driver's seat.

'About thirty,' she replied, following him. Thirty people, Michael thought. The hopelessness that had weighed him down for almost a month suddenly began to lift. Ignorant to the hundreds of diseased cadavers still fighting to get at them, he allowed himself the faintest smile of satisfaction. Cooper was struggling. The already rough ground had been churned up by the numerous military vehicles that had driven to and from the base recently. The constantly swarming bodies made it virtually impossible for him to keep the van moving in a straight line along the uneven track and the tired engine struggled to climb back up towards the ridge. They stopped moving. The van's wheels span furiously, sending more and more mud flying into the air but failing to grip the ground. The soldier took his foot off the pedals and let the heavy vehicle roll a short distance back down the hill.

'We're never going to get back up there,' Baxter said. 'We'll go round,' Cooper replied, glancing from left to right and trying to work out which side of the hill to attack. He chose to go right and powered forward again. The ground was more level and, to his relief, he was finally able to build up a little speed. He pushed harder and harder, knocking more and more rag-doll bodies flying, until his velocity was such that he could risk attempting the climb again. Baxter held onto the sides of his seat as Cooper swerved back round to the left and forced the van through the remains of the crowd and up over the top of the ridge.

The effort of the screaming engine was suddenly reduced as they reached the crest and began to travel along the flat again. 'Bloody hell,' Baxter said as they approached the prison truck lying stranded on its side.

'What a damn mess.' Cooper stopped the van a short distance back and surveyed the scene. The number of bodies nearby meant that they couldn't risk getting out and attempting a rescue on foot. Although the majority of them remained in the field near the entrance to the base, many more had obviously been congregating nearby. The front of the truck was surrounded by a dense throng of some thirty lurching, grabbing cadavers. 'How the hell are we going to do this?' Baxter asked. Cooper didn't bother to answer. Instead he drove forward again, turned the van round in a tight arc and began to reverse towards the truck's upturned cab. Distracted by the noise of the approaching vehicle, the bodies turned and began to move towards them. 'Open the doors,' he yelled as he leant out of the window to his side and steered the van back. Baxter quickly scrambled out of his seat and crawled to the far end of the van. He threw the doors open and then jumped back as the van smashed into the cab of the truck.

A random body, trapped by broken legs pinned between the two vehicles, thrashed its arms furiously. Before Baxter could react Cooper was with him. The soldier punched the corpse in the face repeatedly until it dropped down and lay still. The cab of the truck was sideways on, leaving the survivors just enough clearance to be able to clamber up and over its battered bulk. 'We'll get them out from the back and bring them over the top,' Cooper explained, wiping his bloodied hands on the back of his trousers. 'We'll get Paul and Phil out first.' Carefully choosing his spot for fear of causing further injury to the two men, Cooper lifted a single heavy boot and kicked the centre of the cracked windscreen. Already weakened, the window gave way after just a few blows. Baxter leant forward and looked down at Paul Castle's bloody body.

'Poor sod,' he sighed, 'he's gone.' Cooper nodded as he worked to unfasten Croft's seatbelt. Once freed, the unconscious bulk of the doctor dropped into his arms. He pulled the injured medic free from the wreckage and laid him down carefully. Baxter frowned and tried to ignore the bodies battering on the sides of the van. The bloody irony of it, he thought. The only survivor who had the medical knowledge to make good injuries like these was the one who lay there wounded. 'Get ready to help them in,' Cooper said as he climbed out of the van. He hauled himself up onto the upward facing driver's door and ran the length of the side of the truck. There was a door halfway between the front and back. He yanked at the handle but it wouldn't move. He could hear the people trapped inside thumping on the wall, trying desperately to get out.

'Get me the keys,' he yelled back to Baxter who was watching helplessly. The older man did as he was instructed, reaching in through what was left of the shattered windscreen and twisting his arm around the steering column until his outstretched fingers made contact with the keys. From his awkward angle he tried to tease the keys free and succeeded, only for them to drop to the ground and land in the puddle of coagulating blood around Paul Castle's icywhite face. With equal amounts of revulsion, nausea and sadness he closed his eyes and leant down and grabbed at the keys, wiping them clean on his jacket as he lifted them up. 'Here,' he shouted, throwing them up onto the side of the truck.

Cooper picked them up and immediately dropped to his knees by the door. There were many keys on the bunch and it took several attempts before he found the right one. Eventually the lock clicked, the door opened outwards and the arms, head and body of the first bruised and bloodied survivor quickly emerged. 'Get ready Jack,' the soldier yelled, 'they're on their way to you.' He leant down and began to help a middle-aged woman out of the truck. Helped by more survivors pushing her out from inside, she was soon free. 'Get yourself down into the van,' Cooper said gently as he reached down for the next person. 'Jack's waiting there for you.' On her hands and knees, the woman shuffled towards the front of the truck. As she moved she looked down at the increasing crowds of bodies gathering on either side. Sensing her unease, Baxter coaxed her forward. 'Come on,' he said, 'nearly there.' Back on top of the vehicle Cooper had pulled two children and another woman free.

He peered back inside and counted another seven people still waiting. He could also see a corpse. He didn't recognise the man who lay face down on the ground, crushed by the others in the sudden impact and crash. Baxter climbed out onto the truck to help the children down. As he guided more survivors into the van, Cooper screamed more instructions to him. 'Get behind the wheel.' 'I can't,' Baxter replied frantically. 'I can't drive.' 'Then find someone who can,' the soldier frantically barked. 'Do it now, for fucking hell's sake!' 'I'll do it,' the first woman to have been rescued mumbled. 'You'll have to tell me where to...'

'What's your name?' 'Jean,' she replied. 'I don't know if...' Baxter wasn't listening. 'I'll give you a shout when we're ready to move,' he said, pushing her forward. She clambered into the driver's seat and froze as she looked up and around. A dense crowd of grotesque faces stared back at her, their clouded eyes filled with pain and a savage intent bordering on hate. She looked down at the ground and tried to keep control of her fragile emotions. The bloody things were banging on the glass around her now. She held her head in her hands and prayed that they would soon be able to move. 'Last one,' Cooper yelled from on top of the truck. Moments later the final survivor appeared and climbed down into the van. Cooper was close behind. 'Pull forward and close the doors,' he ordered. 'Pull forward,' Baxter repeated.

The woman in the front of the van pushed down on the accelerator and eased the van slowly forward, pushing steadily into the rotting crowd which surrounded them. As soon as they were far enough from the remains of the truck to be able to close the doors, Baxter looked up at Cooper. 'Close the fucking doors,' the soldier said again. Helped by another survivor Baxter pulled the doors shut. The van rocked momentarily as the soldier jumped onto the roof from the cab of the truck. Losing his footing, Cooper threw himself flat and edged towards the front of the vehicle. He smashed his fist onto the windscreen and gestured forward. 'Move!' he ordered. 'Just fucking move!' The van lurched forward again.

Cooper pressed his face down against the cold metal and held on for all he was worth. Back in the middle of the field Michael sat nervously behind the wheel of the motorhome waiting for the van to reappear. 'This isn't good,' he muttered. 'I think we should go and...' He stopped talking when the van powered over the ridge and began a fast and uncoordinated descent back into the field, obliterating countless bedraggled bodies. Cooper clung onto the top of the van, his feet and one hand wrapped around the roof bars. With his one free hand he gestured towards Michael for him to drive around a small mound in the centre of the field.

Michael immediately did as instructed, as did Steve Armitage following close behind. The remaining prison truck belched clouds of noxious exhaust fumes into the morning air already polluted by the rancid stench of death and decay. Around the back of the mound, completely hidden from view from all other approaches, was a huge grey door, partially sunken into the ground. Bodies swarmed around the three vehicles with frantic energy and bile. 'Hit the horn!' Donna screamed as soon as she saw the door. 'Let them know we're here.' Michael slammed his fist down on the horn. Seconds later Armitage did the same. The woman driving the van did the same as it trundled round the corner. The air was filled with noise, and the noise drove what remained of the massive crowd wild. The motorhome stopped just meters away from the huge concealed entrance. 'What now?' Michael demanded. 'For Christ's sake, what are we supposed to do now?' 'Just keep sounding the horn,' Donna sighed.

'They'll hear us eventually.' 'And so will every corpse in the fucking country,' he hissed under his breath. Without warning the doors began to slide open. Painfully slowly, the heavy barriers began to part. As soon as a wide enough gap had appeared a stream of soldiers in protective clothing emerged, every inch of their bodies hidden. They aimed their weapons into the crowds and began to fire indiscriminately. Bodies began falling to the ground. The space left by each fallen corpse was immediately filled by several more. Without waiting for instruction, as soon as the gap in the doors was wide enough Michael accelerated and drove into the base. It was immense. He had never seen anything like it.

The prison truck forced its way inside, followed close behind by the police van. Cooper climbed down from the roof and looked around. His exhaustion, nerves and fear were immediately replaced by a claustrophobic and cold familiarity. The sound of gunshots continued to fill the air as the soldiers closed the doors and picked off the last few bodies, throwing their remains back out into the open before the doors slammed shut. Michael, Emma, Donna, Baxter, Cooper, Heath and the rest of the survivors gathered in the centre of a cavernous and well-lit hanger packed with a vast array of military hardware. The soldiers surrounded the exhausted group. The guns that had moments earlier been pointed at the bodies outside were now pointed at them.


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