Chapter Forty

Having forced their way through the juror's lounge, several connecting corridors and staircases and a vast and grandiose court room, the six survivors nervously worked their way back from the dock and eventually found themselves at the entrance to the prisoner cells buried deep within the bowels of the court complex. The other five men stood and watched anxiously as Phil Croft struggled to remove a bunch of keys from the belt of a long-deceased prison guard lying stiff and twisted on the floor. Croft yanked the keys free, stood up and began to try and unlock the strengthened metal door which was preventing them from moving any further forward. 'Come on,' Paul Castle moaned. He could hear more movement in other parts of the building around them. 'I'm going as fast as I can,' hissed Croft as he systematically worked his way through the keys. His hands were shaking through a combination of nerves, exhaustion and pure adrenaline. With a welcome click and a heavy thud the seventh key opened the door. 'Well done,' said Cooper as he pushed past. He marched quickly down a narrow corridor which opened out into a grey office area with a chest height reception desk straight ahead. This, he decided, had to be where the prisoners were booked in and out of the court.

Secondary corridors ran off to the left and the right. To his right were the cells. To his left the exit. Through a toughened glass window in the exit door he could see a wide, open area reminiscent of the transport hanger back at the underground base he'd come from. It had to be the loading bay. 'This way,' he grunted. With an unexpected flash of sudden, uncoordinated movement a lone meandering body dragged itself out of the shadows and lurched towards him. With a single sharp and instinctive reaction he clenched his right hand into a fist and threw a powerful punch at the obnoxious figure, catching it square in the face. For a moment it stood and swayed in front of him, the battered and mangled remains of its rotting features having been made unrecognisable by the brute force of the soldier's punch. As dark, sticky blood began to seep down from the black hole where its nose had been, the creature dropped to the ground. Cooper beckoned the men towards the exit. The door which led down from the corridor to the garage and loading bay was ajar, propped open by the trapped torso of another motionless corpse that had fallen unceremoniously weeks earlier. He stepped over the body and ran down a short flight of concrete steps. The others followed close behind.

'Close the door,' Jack Baxter shouted to Bernard Heath as he brought up the rear. Heath immediately did as he was told, pushing the obstructive body back into the corridor and out of the way before slamming the door shut and tripping down the steps. Panting nervously, he leant against the nearest wall to catch his breath again. Several long seconds had passed before he could bear to lift his head and look around the loading bay. Had the risks they'd taken been worth it? 'You okay, Bernard?' asked Croft. The doctor's question made him look up. He nodded, stood upright and took a few tired steps into the main garage area. He had hoped to see it full of prison vans and other similar vehicles but he was disappointed. There were two lorries that he could see - one long enough to have three doors and several small square windows down the side, the other around two thirds the length of the first - and a single police van. Steve Armitage was already climbing into the cab of the largest lorry, settling into the seat and checking over the controls.

'Can you drive it?' Cooper asked. Armitage looked down at him and scowled. 'If we can get it started then I can bloody well drive it,' he replied, somewhat offended. Bernard Heath began to check over the smaller truck while Croft concentrated his attention on the van. He found its last driver dead at the wheel, haunched forward with his frozen face fixed in a grotesque expression of devastating pain and absolute fear. The chin of the corpse and much of the dashboard of the van were covered in drops of coagulated blood. For a moment the doctor stood and stared at the pitiful sight. What utter terror and agony must each of these people have experienced, he wondered? As he began to yank the stiff and awkward cadaver out of the vehicle he was disturbed by the sudden sound of corpses outside beginning to smash against the outside of the huge metal loading bay doors, the survivor's voices having alerted them to their presence there. As much as the body he was shifting must have suffered, he thought, at least this man's torment was over. For the desperate creatures still moving (and, for that matter, for himself and his fellow survivors too) the fear, confusion, disorientation and pain seemed set to continue indefinitely.

Cooper left the loading bay and ran back to the reception area through which they'd passed just a few minutes earlier. He was looking for the keys to the vehicles they had found. Grasped in the skeletal fingers of another dust covered body slumped on the floor in a small office behind the tall reception counter he found the key to a slim metal cabinet mounted on the wall. Inside the cabinet were door keys, drawer keys, desk keys and many other keys of countless shapes and sizes. He grabbed everything which looked as though it might belong to a car, truck or van and ran back to the loading bay. Having dragged the body away from the van Croft turned his attention to trying to get the engine started. Fortunately he had found the keys he needed on the ground in the footwell between the body's feet. He sat in the driver's seat and fumbled with the ignition. After a month of inactivity he didn't hold out much hope of them getting any of the vehicles going. 'Can you hear them?' Castle asked as he watched Croft work. Croft glanced up and looked through the windscreen towards the loading bay doors. It sounded as if they were being battered by a continual stream of bodies outside. He looked down towards the bottom of the steel shutters. He could see the metal rattling and shaking in its frame. 'Of course I can bloody well hear them,' he grunted as he returned his concentration to getting the van moving. 'More to the point, they can hear us.' He turned the key in the ignition.

The engine began to turn over but then died pathetically. His last words rang round his head as he tried the key again. The noise they were going to make getting these vehicles back to the university would be deafening. The grim reality of the situation was quickly dawning on him. It was clear that even without the engines the noise they had already made had been enough to attract many bodies to the other side of the loading bay doors, and he knew that those bodies would, in turn, draw more and more to the scene. They were quickly being surrounded. The options left now seemed simple and bleak. Get out in the van and the lorries or don't get out at all. Heath had more success with the smaller truck. Having managed to find the right key from the collection Cooper had brought back with him from the office, he tried the engine a couple of times before, on the third attempt, it dramatically spluttered and burst into life, filling the loading bay with rough, mechanical noise and belching out dirty grey floor-hugging clouds of fumes.

Never before had the taste of carbon monoxide and lead been so welcome, the university lecturer thought to himself as he accelerated the engine. Momentarily elated the other men quickly realised that now that one vehicle had started, it would most probably be possible to get the others started too. Heath watched cautiously as the needle on the fuel gauge slowly climbed across the dial, finally stopping just short of the three-quarters full mark. Even over the throaty road of the engine they could clearly hear more and more of the bodies thudding against the door outside. 'Bernard,' Armitage yelled, 'pull up in front of me and we'll get this one started.'

The lorry driver had also managed to locate the keys to his vehicle from the pile Cooper had found. He watched from his cab as Heath slowly pulled forward in the smaller truck and swung round in front of the larger vehicle. Armitage climbed down and ran over to an area in the far right corner of the loading bay which seemed to have been used as a makeshift garage and repair shop of sorts. Managing to locate a set of heavy duty jump leads he quickly moved back to the trucks, opened the bonnets and started work. Paul Castle nudged Croft who was still trying unsuccessfully to get the van's engine to fire.

'Join the queue,' he said. 'Wait till they've got the other truck going and then get them to do the same with the van.' Croft nodded. He gestured for Castle to move to the side and then released the handbrake, allowing the van to slowly roll a few feet forward. He turned the steering wheel and guided the vehicle closer to the trucks.

Ten minutes later and all three vehicles were started and were running. The six men stood together in the middle of the loading bay and hurriedly arranged their exit plans. Much as the university had seemed the most cold, uncomfortable and impersonal of prisons recently, every one of the men desperately wanted to be back there now. 'Do we wait?' Heath asked. 'Should we shut the engines off and hope some of the bodies disappear?'

'No point,' Croft answered. 'We might as well just go for it. The amount of bloody noise we've made will have brought hundreds of them here. It'll take days for them to disappear.' 'He's right,' Cooper agreed. 'We're not going to gain anything from putting this off.' 'Are we going to fit everyone in here?' Baxter wondered, thinking out loud. He stared at the three vehicles and tried to visualise how they were going to cram the survivors and their belongings in. 'We're going to have to,' mumbled Croft. 'There's no way we can risk trying to come out here again. Anyway, if...' His words were interrupted by yet more smashing and clattering on the other side of the metal loading bay door. The noise acted as a grim reminder that before they could think about getting out of the city, they'd first need to get out of the court building and find their way back to the university. The doctor walked across the loading bay and stopped just short of the doors. Doing his best to ignore the constant, violent battering coming from outside, he crouched down to examine the locking mechanism. The doors, it seemed, were manufactured in a kind of concertina style. Once they'd managed to unlock them, therefore, they would slide open. Equally keen to get out and get moving and feeling useless and redundant because he couldn't drive, Jack Baxter also began to study the locks. 'Christ knows how we're going to get these open,' he muttered. 'These would have been powered doors. We'll be hard pushed to get them open without any electricity.'

'We can do it,' said Cooper from close behind. 'We'll take the locks out, free any restraints and then force them open.' 'Force them open with what?' Baxter asked. 'The bloody trucks, what else?' the soldier snapped. He lay down on the ground and stared at the bottom of the door. Light was trickling in from outside and was being blocked intermittently by the constant movements of the many random bodies milling around the other side of the barrier. With an outstretched hand Cooper tried to feel the door mechanism and understand how it worked.

He could feel a metal runner buried in the concrete and it followed that some kind of pin would follow the track and keep the door in line. There would no doubt also be something similar at the top. He stood up and returned his attention to the lock which Croft was still examining studiously. 'Think you can get it open?' he asked. 'If I hit it hard enough I can open anything!' the doctor smirked. Steve Armitage appeared at their side with various spanners, wrenches and other tools. 'Found these over there,' he said, gesturing over towards the area of the loading bay where he had earlier found the jump leads. Cooper took one of the heavier wrenches from him and began to smash the lock. Croft stepped back. The noise the soldier was making was deafening, and the implications were obvious. 'Get into the trucks,' Baxter shouted to the others. As the only non-driver he felt duty bound to carry on working to get the doors open. 'When we get this done there'll be thousands of bloody bodies in here.' Croft and Armitage returned to their vehicles. Paul Castle settled himself in the driver's seat of the smaller prison van which Heath had started. Just ahead of them Cooper continued to batter the lock, feeling it weaken with every deafening blow.

Another thirty seconds and it was released. 'That it?' Bernard Heath asked from close behind. Cooper shook the door and tried to slide it open a fraction. It wouldn't move. 'Must be other restraints,' he mumbled. He took a step back and then looked up and down at the area where the door met the frame. He could see that there were two more locks or bolts, one about a third of the way up the side of the door, the other a third down.

Heath gestured for Croft to bring the van over. The doctor edged the vehicle forward cautiously and stopped just short of the door. The lecturer hauled himself up onto the bonnet of the van and then stepped up onto its roof. 'Pass me something to get this open with,' he shouted down to the others. Cooper passed up a heavy steel lump hammer with which Heath immediately began to batter the metal. His pulse raced with adrenaline, effort and fear as he smashed the hammer down again and again. His arm ached but he didn't stop. He could sense the vast crowd waiting for them on the other side of the metal door but it didn't seem to matter.

He wanted to be away from this place. Directly below where Heath was working Cooper was leaning across the van and had started to try and free the one remaining restraint, prising it open with a metal crowbar. Although this was a secure door it was by no means impassable. It would never had needed to be impenetrable - there had been enough security both outside and around the courthouse to prevent or deter escape.

He guessed that had a prisoner tried to get away like this they would have been surrounded and captured long before they'd got this far. He thought for a fraction of a second about the level of noise they were making and the distance the sound would have travelled. Bodies for miles around would by now be staggering relentlessly towards the courthouse. He felt almost as if they were ringing a bizarre church bell, calling a decaying flock to worship. The door began to move. Cooper had forced the bottom latch open. With the first restraint now released he moved out of the way and looked up at Heath who continued to hammer relentlessly on the metal. Sweat poured from his brow and his right arm was tired and heavy, exhausted by the effort of pounding against the door with the hammer. 'Almost there?' Cooper asked.

'Almost there,' he panted in reply. The soldier readied himself to open the door. By default Phil Croft would be the first driver to leave the building and he tried to visualise his route back to the university. He never used to drive through town. It had always been so busy that public transport had been by far the quickest and easiest way to get to and from work. 'Got it,' Heath finally yelled. Relieved, he threw the hammer to one side and clambered down from the top of the van, gasping for breath. He dragged himself towards the larger of the two prison trucks and climbed into the passenger's seat next to Armitage. Cooper beckoned for Castle and Armitage to move their vehicles as close to the back of the police van as possible. Space in the garage was limited. The two drivers pointed the front of their trucks towards the exit and readied themselves to move.

'Okay?' Cooper asked Croft. The doctor nodded and leant across the van to open the other door ready for Cooper. The soldier opened the loading bay. Hundreds of bodies began to pour into the building, pushing themselves away from the dense crowds behind them and grabbing at the stagnant air ahead. They flooded around the vehicles. Cooper sprinted the short distance to the van and threw himself in through the open door. Sitting up he kicked and punched at the numerous corpses that reached out after him before slamming the door shut. 'Move!' he screamed. Croft jammed his foot down onto the accelerator and sent the van flying forward, tearing through the rotting masses and obliterating those creatures unfortunate enough to get in the way. Behind them the two trucks began to move, slower than the van but with even more strength and devastating force. The second and third vehicles followed in the bloody wake of the first. 'Can't see a frigging thing,' snapped Croft as body after body smashed into the windscreen.

'Doesn't matter,' Cooper replied as he shuffled into his seat. 'Just keep moving. Just get away from here.' The crowd was huge and, it seemed, apparently endless. Their relatively low driving position made it impossible for Cooper and Croft to fully appreciate the appalling sight which could be seen by the other four men from their higher vantage points in the cabs of the trucks. A never-ending sea of decaying bodies, all dragging themselves senselessly towards the court and after the vehicles driving hurriedly away. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of emotionless, empty shells lurching helplessly towards the source of the sound and movement that had suddenly filled their otherwise empty world. 'Which way?' Croft asked, shouting to make himself heard over the sound of cold metal hitting decaying flesh. 'I thought you said you knew this place,' Cooper replied, annoyed. 'I did,' the doctor snapped back. 'Problem is I knew it before all of this happened. I knew it before there were a million fucking corpses rotting in the streets.' A

ngry and frightened, Croft turned right along a wide road which he knew would take them deeper into the city centre. 'Where you going?' Cooper demanded, struggling to see through the bodies which surrounded them. The doctor shrugged his shoulders and grabbed hold of the steering wheel again as it was wrenched from his hands momentarily as he clipped the kerb. Despite having been away from the court for almost a minute now they seemed to be no closer to reaching the edge of the disease-ridden crowd. Unable to see anything much at street level he looked up at the buildings which surrounded them and managed to work out roughly where they were. 'Got it,' he said suddenly.

'I'm going to drive the wrong way down the ring road. That should get us back home.' A couple of hundred meters further and they reached a large traffic island and flyover littered with bodies and with the twisted wrecks of crashed cars, buses and other vehicles. He managed to weave a path through the remains.

With less control but considerably more power, the two trucks behind smashed their way through after them.


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