Chapter Forty-Five

It was early morning, just before three. Time to leave. The survivors sheltering in the university complex had been left with few choices. They were surrounded by an ever-increasing crowd filled with sickness and disease and now, it seemed, pain, suffering and anger also. In leaving the building to fetch the vehicles and by lighting the fire to temporarily draw the bodies away from the trucks and the main accommodation block, the desperate group had succeeded in making every last one of the vile, rotting creatures throughout the entire city aware of exactly where it was they were hiding. Donna and Clare's well-meaning distraction had become an unwanted beacon and most people quickly accepted that it would only be a matter of time before the expanding crowds outside became too large and fierce a tide for the few despairing souls inside to be able to keep at bay.

The earlier question 'should we go?' had, for many people, now been replaced by 'when do we go?' The noise and confusion associated with the return of the six men meant that every last one of the survivors gathered in the university building knew that they had made it back. More to the point, each individual also knew that, like it or not, the time had come for them personally to make serious decisions affecting the course of what remained of their futures. To take their chances and leave or to stay and wait? Risk everything out in the open, or risk just as much by sitting in the shadows and hiding and waiting until something happened? Even after such a length of time spent in the same building together, the group remained as disparate and desperate as ever. Opinion was divided and never shared or discussed.

Fully understanding the unique dilemma that each of the survivors faced, Donna, Cooper, Croft and the others did nothing to try and persuade people to come with them. They announced they were leaving, but there didn't seem to be any point in trying once again to explain the benefits of getting away from the university and the city. Similarly, there didn't seem to be any point in starting more senseless arguments about who was wrong and who was right. None of it mattered anymore. Working quickly and with real purpose, those survivors who had elected to leave cleared their rooms and storage areas and collected their useful belongings in a long, dark corridor. At the far end of the corridor stood the door the six men had earlier used to get in and out of the complex. Standing by the door and waiting anxiously, Jack Baxter counted about thirty men, women and children and tried to visualise how they were going to fit into the two prison trucks and the smaller police van.. They would be tight on space, and many of the bags and boxes that each survivor carried would doubtless be left behind.

The vast majority of the crowd of bodies continued to swarm around the raging fire at the other end of the complex. It seemed sensible to get out now and make the most of the existing distraction before it burnt itself out. The nervous survivors, many of whom hadn't dared take even a single step outside in almost a month, prepared themselves to run through the darkness towards the vehicles waiting on the football pitch. For a while before they made their move Baxter found himself watching the other people more than he had done since he'd first arrived at the university. Even now he remained distant and detached from almost all of them. He didn't even know the names of more than half of them. Some faces he'd seen every day, others he'd only seen perhaps once or twice, three he didn't recognise at all. There was a complete and wholly understandable and expected lack of togetherness and direction throughout the ragtag gathering. Many of these people, it seemed, didn't even care if they survived. In some ways their lives were already over and they were as cold, lethargic and devoid of emotion as the cadavers outside. Those survivors who recognised the true hopelessness of the situation - those even more resigned to failure and despair than those waiting in the corridor to take a chance on freedom - were the people who had chosen to remain elsewhere in the building and not leave.

It was time to move. 'Okay, Jack?' Cooper asked quietly, disturbing Baxter. He didn't know how he had found himself at the front of the queue. He glanced back along the line and a row of frightened faces stared back at him in expectation. He knew what was out beyond the door and, because they had no other source of information, he felt that they were looking towards him, Cooper, Croft and Heath for guidance and reassurance. Baxter felt unable to provide help on any level. The expressions on the faces around him were desperately sad and forlorn. The people looked as nervous and unsure as pressganged soldiers in a plane during wartime, about to make their first parachute jump into enemy territory. 'Now's as good a time as any,' mumbled Baxter, eventually remembering to reply. 'Might as well go for it.' Cooper nodded and moved across the corridor so that he could be seen by the rest of the survivors. Donna watched him anxiously. 'Okay,' he began, looking up and down the faces in the semi-darkness, 'this is it. If you don't think you can go through with it, disappear now.'

He paused for a few seconds, giving people a chance to make their final decisions. 'As soon as we open this door you need to start running. Move faster than you've ever run before. Push your way through the bodies and don't try and fight. Just hit them hard and you'll get through.' Standing a little way further down the line, Phil Croft spoke up. 'Don't stop if you start to get tired because you won't make it. Whatever happens, keep moving. You can stop when you reach the trucks.' Baxter rested his hand on the door handle and waited for the signal. 'What if they don't see us?' a nervous voice asked from somewhere in the middle of the gathering. 'Who?' 'The blokes in the van, what if they don't see us coming and let us in?' An anxious ripple of mumbled conversation worked its way through the group of survivors. 'Then the first one of us who gets to the van bangs on the window until they realise what's happening and shift the bloody thing, okay?' Cooper replied. 'But what if they...?' 'Don't worry about it,' the soldier interrupted, 'they'll see us.' 'But what if...?' Cooper sensed that the questions attempting to be fired in his direction were nervous and instinctive. They were little more than delaying tactics.

He ignored them and nodded at Baxter. 'Do it,' he said, his voice a little louder, 'open the door, Jack.' Knowing that if he hesitated he'd begin trying to talk himself out of opening the door, Baxter slammed the handle down and threw it open. Along with those survivors standing directly behind him, for a moment he simply stood still and stared out into the night. Cold wind and a light rain blew into his face. He could clearly see the football pitch and the van blocking the entrance, but in the darkness it seemed an immeasurable distance away. And worse still, between him and the vehicles he could see bodies.

There appeared to be hundreds of them shuffling, staggering and limping across the scene in silhouette. Unmistakable with their stilted, pained movements and lethargic but ominous determination and persistence, the nearest few had already turned and were advancing quickly towards the building. 'Go, Jack!' Cooper shouted. 'Fucking move!' The older man immediately began to run. Full of thoughts and concerns for the others whilst they had all been safe indoors, he now sprinted across the grass and tarmac pathways in selfish isolation, for the moment only interested in his own survival. He knocked one body out of the way, then another and then another. Within seconds his heart was beating in his chest with a force he could hardly contain and his lungs were on fire. A few seconds later still and some of the younger, fitter survivors had passed him.

The van didn't seem to be getting any closer. The rest of the survivors pushed their way out of the university building. Loaded up with bags of belongings they forced themselves through the swarming, rotting crowds. Men and women, young and old, all moved forward together in absolute terror, praying that they would get through, terrified that they would be swallowed up by the diseased masses. Towards the back of the group some of the stronger men and women carried the smallest children. The delighted squeals coming from a two year old boy were muffled by the groans of effort and moans of pure fear coming from Erica Carter, the middle-aged woman who had taken it upon herself to carry him on her back. Paul Castle and Steve Armitage sat in the front of the van oblivious.

The hours since they had volunteered to stay behind and look after the vehicles had dragged unbearably. Still surrounded by swarming corpses attracted by the earlier noise, and with no idea when the survivors would make their move, the two men had sat together in silence, too afraid to move or even talk to each other. The van remained parked across the entrance to the football pitch. Sitting in the front passenger seat, Castle struggled to keep his tired eyes open. He glanced through the window to his left and the sudden sight of movement made him sit up with a start. 'Fucking hell,' he cursed. 'What is it?' Armitage asked, immediately concerned. 'Oh, Jesus,' he whined, 'they're coming for us.' 'What?' 'Loads of fucking bodies,' he continued to wail. 'Christ, they're coming towards the van.' Armitage leant across the width of the van to looked through the steamed-up window. 'You fucking idiot,' he snapped, sitting back in his seat and starting the engine. 'That's our lot.' Castle wiped his tired eyes and peered deeper into the darkness.

A sudden movement and the ominous thump of a body slamming heavily into the side of the van next to him made him recoil with fright and surprise. The screaming face at his window, although he didn't recognise it, belonged to a survivor. The noise of the engine again whipped the rotting figures which remained near to the football pitch into a feverish frenzy. They began to clatter against the fence, some grabbing hold of the wire-mesh with bony fingers and pulling and shaking it furiously. The night air was filled with noise as Armitage flicked on the van's headlamps and reversed back, allowing the first survivors and an equal number of random bodies to flood onto the football pitch. 'How am I supposed to know when they're all in?' the driver mumbled nervously. Castle didn't answer at first. 'There's Cooper,' he eventually replied. He watched as the soldier stopped at the gate and ushered in the remaining stragglers. Feeling suddenly useless he jumped down from the van and ran round to help Cooper fend off the hordes of inquizitive corpses trying to push their way inside. 'Can't see anyone else,' Cooper shouted as he pushed away another lunging body and grabbed hold of another survivor. Castle didn't need to be told twice. He ran onto the football pitch as the other man gestured for Armitage to move forward and block off the entrance again. The pitch, quiet until a few moments earlier, had suddenly become a frenzied melee of activity and fear.

Diseased corpses mingled with survivors who, in the low light and cold of the night, struggled to tell one from the other. Sensing the confusion, Armitage climbed out of the van and ran over to the nearest of the prison trucks, pushing several bodies out of the way as he did so. Hauling himself up into the cab of the smaller vehicle he fumbled in the darkness for the keys. Eventually managing to find them he turned them a notch and switched on the headlamps, immediately flooding part of the football pitch with bright light. Suddenly able to distinguish fellow humans from the empty shadows of corpses, the survivors began to clear the pitch. Fragile and weak bodies were beaten and smashed beyond recognition by frightened men and women. Others - the old and the very young - cowered in fear around the prison trucks. With their weight considerably reduced as much of their flesh was withered and decayed, Cooper and several others were able to pick up the wiry-framed cadavers and literally hurl them over the fence and back out into the darkness.

Donna watched with a mixture of fascination and disgust as one corpse landed at the feet of a group of five more which immediately set about it, tearing it apart. A piercing scream rang out from Dawn Parker, a twenty-four year old survivor who suddenly found herself surrounded by bodies in a corner of the playing field. More grabbing hands attempted to reach for her through the wire barrier as she fell to the ground and covered her face. The first corpses dropped down and began to thump and smash at her with clumsy fists. Donna and Baxter ran to her aid and pulled and yanked the bodies away. Standing a short distance behind, Keith Peterson and another man disposed of the cadavers over the top of the fence. Another few minutes and it was done. The pitch was clear. 'Get them into the trucks,' Croft shouted as he started to bundle terrified survivors into the back of the prison vehicles. Desperate people forced and pushed their way into the transports which they hoped and prayed would soon take them to safety. Seventeen climbed into the back of the largest vehicle and another twelve into the second. Armitage and Croft took the controls of one of the trucks each whilst Cooper, Donna, Baxter and three others headed for the van. Cooper clambered into the driving seat.

'You sure you can remember the way?' Donna asked as she sat down behind him. He nodded and slammed and locked the door. He wound down the window at his side. 'Ready?' the soldier screamed into the night. Two sets of brilliant white headlights flashed back at him in acknowledgment. He put the van into gear, turned around in a tight circle and then clattered out of the football pitch and back towards the road. Donna looked over her shoulder and watched as the two trucks began to slowly trundle after them. Fighting hard to keep his concentration and to keep moving in the right direction, Cooper slammed his foot down on the accelerator as body after body hurled itself in front of the van.

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