Chapter Forty-Nine

As grimy-grey daylight gradually crept across another cold, wet and foreboding morning, so Cooper's orientation and recollection slowly returned. Landmarks and familiar place names helped crystallize his thoughts and reassure him that he was leading the survivors in the right direction. They passed through a lifeless village which he clearly remembered. Empty and dead for more than a month, many of the cottages and homes which lined the main street had been burned to the ground, others were charred and scarred by smoke, dirt and decay. Sudden movement surrounded the convoy as the noise of their engines caused nearby bodies to emerge from the shadows and surge towards the road. Their reactions still relatively slow, the bulk of the bodies did not appear until the vehicles had passed by. A lone corpse, however, stumbled into the road a short distance ahead of the van.

Cooper accelerated and obliterated the creature with a brief moment of effort and no consideration or remorse whatsoever. Through the village and back out onto an empty and exposed country road which twisted and turned precariously as it worked its way between fields and hills. The narrow road began to climb a steep gradient. Now sure of his surroundings, Cooper turned the steering wheel to the right and sent the van careering down an even narrower track which sloped downwards and which was virtually invisible from the road. With his heart in his mouth Steve Armitage followed, slowly coaxing the cumbersome prison truck down the track whilst, at the same time, taking care not to lose sight of the soldier ahead. Armitage was used to driving trucks. The doctor driving the third vehicle was not.

His pulse raced and his hands were moist with nervous sweat. 'Fucking hell,' he snapped as his truck began its unsteady descent. The height of the bonnet in front of him mean that he drove the first few feet virtually blind. More through luck than judgement he managed to keep the vehicle on course. The track straightened out quickly, running below but parallel with the road. Donna sat in the back of the van and wondered just how many hidden routes like this existed. They would never have found this place if they hadn't had the soldier with them. If he had chosen to stay behind in the city then they'd have been forced to do the same.

Whether the others liked it or not, each one of them owed Cooper a debt of gratitude. A hairpin right quickly followed by another steep descent and then the track suddenly cut across a wide field buried deep within a steep and otherwise inaccessible valley. The shadows of huge protective hills reared up on either side. Donna felt safer already. 'You never know where these places are until you've reached them,' Cooper yawned as they trundled down the hidden road. 'So if we're going to have trouble finding it,' Donna said, leaning forward and peering over the soldier's shoulder, 'then this base should be pretty safe.'

'You'd hope so.' The track began to climb and then dipped down again, crossing a wide stream at a shallow ford. The three vehicles powered through the water, sending low waves rippling away on either side. Cooper could see the tops of the first few trees ahead. He knew that they were close now. The sides of the track became steep banks and he increased his speed. Phil Croft wiped his face and forced himself to concentrate on the uneven road which stretched out in front of him. He was becoming used to the size and handling of the prison truck now, but driving a machine of such power was something which didn't come naturally to him.

The larger truck in front was being driven with obvious skill and precision by Armitage. Under Croft's guidance the smaller vehicle skidded and slipped across the uneven road surface alarmingly.

He could hear murmurs of concern and discontent from the survivors in the back but he ignored them. They'd already had to live through much greater hardships to get this far. At the front of the convoy Cooper yanked the steering wheel around to the right to follow a sudden and unexpectedly sharp bend in the track. The steep banks on either side had fallen away again leaving a clear view of the narrow roadway as it disappeared into a dark and dense forest of brittle branched trees. With real concern for the others he looked into his mirrors and watched as Armitage slowed down to a virtual stop and teased the heavy truck around the bend. More dips, furrows and twists in the track as it began to wind its way through the grey and shadowy forest. There were bodies nearby. Armitage noticed them first from his high vantage point.

They were staggering through the undergrowth, tripping over rocks and half-buried tree roots and then scrambling back up again and lurching towards the unexpected convoy. The truck driver didn't say anything to the others travelling with him. His vehicle was huge. He knew that these few diseased cadavers posed no threat. Cooper knew that they had almost reached the base. The last traces of doubt and uncertainty in his mind disappeared as he drove through a narrow gate and over a cattle grid which shook the van and its passengers. As the trees and vegetation around them thinned away to nothing he allowed himself to put his foot down on the accelerator and steam ahead with relieved intent. The track cut through a relatively featureless field and then quickly climbed towards a slight rise. The base lay on the other side.

'Must be getting close now,' Armitage muttered as he followed Cooper out of the forest. Once through the gate he increased his speed to match that of the van just ahead of them. Reacting to the sudden increase in the speed of the other two vehicles, Phil Croft looked up and panicked. Afraid of losing sight of them (although he knew there was no way that he would) he too slammed his foot down on the accelerator pedal.

The truck began to lurch and sway uncomfortably. 'Bloody hell,' Paul Castle moaned from the passenger seat, 'slow down will you.' Croft wasn't listening. He yanked the steering wheel hard to the left, trying desperately to follow the track and get through the gate.

The police van disappeared over the ridge. As Armitage followed he glanced back in his mirror and watched helplessly as the front wheel of the smaller truck behind him hit a moss-covered boulder and was forced up into the air. The sheer weight of the unbalanced truck tipped it over onto its side and the speed at which it had been travelling caused it to skid along the muddy ground, stopping only when it smashed into the gatepost. The battered machine came to a sudden halt half in and half out of the forest. Dazed, Croft lay still, slumped forward heavily in his seat, hanging in mid-air and held in position by his safety belt. Beneath him lay the dead body of Paul Castle who had been thrown out of his seat by the force of the impact. His head had smashed against the windscreen.

Oozing blood mixed with shards of broken glass around his lifeless face. Croft managed to lift his head and open his eyes momentarily. He was aware of movement. As the first few bodies appeared and began to beat against the shattered windscreen he lost consciousness.

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