Chapter Forty-Three

Donna ran the length of the university complex with Clare following close behind. They quickly worked their way through a labyrinth of dark, featureless corridors, hoping that they would be able to remember the way back to the others. After several minutes of running Donna decided that they had gone far enough. 'This'll do,' she said breathlessly, slowing down to walking pace and resting her hands on her hips. 'Where are we going to do it?' asked Clare. Donna looked around. There was an exit door to her right. Through small, square, safety glass panels she could see a narrow concrete pathway which led to a detached storage building.

'Perfect,' she whispered as she carefully forced open the door and stepped out into the night. The pathway between the main university complex and the storage building was little over twenty meters long and, to Donna's relief, was also completely enclosed by other buildings and by sturdy security fences.

For once she was happy to risk being out in the open. Apart from a single twisted and gnarled corpse lying motionless to the side of the path she couldn't see any bodies. The evening was rapidly drawing in and the light was disappearing quickly. Once she was satisfied that there were no signs of movement nearby she ran over to the second building and forced her way inside. Her eyes quickly became accustomed to the shadow and gloom as she looked around the cold and silent building. 'Sheets,' Clare hissed, pointing towards a metal rack on the far side of the room they found themselves standing in. She walked over and began to make a pile against the wall furthest from the door. Donna added a stack of papers and wooden furniture to the mound.

'That's enough,' she said quietly as she looked curiously into a second room. Obviously some kind of maintenance stores, the shelves on the long and narrow walls of the room were loaded with bottles, tubs and cartons of bleach, disinfectant and countless other chemicals used by cleaners and janitors. Clare instinctively backed up towards the main door as Donna reappeared and crouched down and struck a match which she used to set light to a pile of once important invoices and bills. The paper instantly began to smoulder and burn. She lit another match and did the same again a little further into the pile. The orange glow ate quickly into the tinder-dry paper and cloth and in less than a minute the room was filled with bright flickering light and whispy-grey smoke. The fire grew in size rapidly. Donna stepped back and stood still for a few seconds until she was sure that the blaze was properly established.

She watched with satisfaction as the fire quickly ate through the linen and wood and then began to lick at nearby curtains and against the wall. The building would be completely ablaze in next to no time. 'Think this is going to work?' Clare asked. 'Should do,' Donna replied as she led the younger girl out of the building and down the path back towards the main university complex.

As they walked she could hear the crackle and spit of the fire behind her and could see the reflection of tall, dancing flames in nearby windows. 'All we want is a distraction,' she continued. 'Just enough to get the attention of the bulk of the crowd and get them moving in this direction. As soon as they're away from the trucks we can think about trying to get out of here.

'They stood and watched for a minute longer before turning and running back to the others.

Less than a quarter of an hour later the entire university complex was rocked by a sudden and unexpected explosion. Survivors dashed to the nearest window to see what had happened. 'Bloody hell,' Nathan Holmes spat, 'what did you two set fire to?'

Clare shrugged her shoulders, almost embarrassed. Donna peered out into the darkness as a second, smaller explosion ripped through the night, rattling the frame of the window she was looking through. The blaze they'd started in the storage building had been unchecked and it had only been a matter of time before the flames had reached something flammable. She had hoped it would happen. The bigger the distraction, the more chance they had of getting over to the trucks and getting away. 'Why don't you just shut up, Nathan?' she snapped. 'How can you criticise us? What were you doing while we were out? Fuck all as usual. What have you ever done to help round here?' 'Why should I help? What's the point?' Donna sighed and turned to face him. She stared into his wide, angry eyes. 'The point is,' she began, her voice trembling with rage, 'that we might still have a chance to get out of here with something. We might be able to get out of here before this whole place comes crashing down and...' 'But why? Why are you bothering?'

'We've talked about this a hundred times before...' 'But why are you bothering?' Holmes demanded again, his voice hoarse and cracked with emotion. 'Because I'm not prepared to sit here and wait for...' she couldn't bring herself to finish the sentence. 'Wait for what?' 'Wait for the end. Wait for something to happen that's going to...' 'What you're doing,' Holmes said, taking a few steps closer to Donna, 'is running around and risking your lives like a bunch of fucking idiots. Whatever you do, none of it's going to make any difference. Get yourself out of this mess and you'll just end up in another fucking hole. It'll go on and on and on until...'

'Just shut up,' Donna interrupted. 'There are frightened people listening to you. You're not helping the situation.' 'You're creating the fucking situation! And I know there are frightened people in here because I'm one of them.' Holmes' final comment stunned and silenced Donna and stopped her in her tracks. For the first time she could remember Nathan Holmes - the difficult, obnoxious, offensive and weak little man who had caused more than his fair share of ill-feeling and resentment within the group of survivors - was apparently being candid and honest. For the first time she could remember he seemed to be allowing his public image to drop and his true feelings be seen. Perhaps the realisation that the status quo had been challenged and that, no matter what he decided to do next, his situation was inevitably about to change had brought about this sudden and unexpected change of heart. Whatever the reason, Donna felt sick to her stomach because he had made her think. For a moment he had made her question what they were doing. Was there really any point in doing any of this?

Outside in the back of the truck Baxter, Cooper and the others had heard the explosion too. Croft cautiously peered through one of the small, dark windows in the side of the prison van. 'Christ,' he muttered. 'What is it?' Armitage asked, immediately concerned. 'Fire,' he replied. 'Look, over on the far side of the university. Something's on fire.' 'Where?' demanded Cooper, leaning over to his right and craning his neck to look out through another window.

'What's going on?' said Heath, immediately fearing the worst. For a moment no-one spoke, each man privately contemplating what had happened and fearing the worst. Croft was the first to try and make sense of the situation. 'They've started it on purpose, haven't they?' he said quietly, turning back around to face the others. 'They must have. I think that fire is close to the medical school. It's certainly nowhere near the part of the building we've been using. They must have started it deliberately.' 'But why?' The doctor sighed. 'Isn't it obvious?' It clearly wasn't. 'Jesus, look at the bodies,' Baxter said excitedly as he moved to look out of a third window.

'They're moving.'

'Of course they are,' Croft continued. 'They're distracting them so that we can get back inside.' The chain reaction that Donna had been counting on was slowly spreading through the rotting crowds which still surrounded the perimeter of the football pitch. As the corpses nearest to the fire and explosion had been drawn closer to the distraction, their reactions had moved like a ripple through water and their clumsy movements had attracted the attention of others. Slowly and awkwardly the entire diseased mass seemed to be staggering towards the searing heat and bright light at the far end of the university complex. 'Time to go,' Cooper hissed.

'We should give it a while,' Heath mumbled nervously. 'There are still hundreds of them around. If we go outside now we'll be...' 'Time to go,' the soldier repeated. 'They're moving away from us. We'll have an advantage if we're moving through them from behind. By the time they realise we're there we'll already have passed them.'

'What are we going to do about the van?' Croft asked, remembering that he had parked it across the entrance to the pitch. 'Someone will have to stop,' Heath suggested. 'Two should stay, just in case,' added Cooper. 'I'll do it,' volunteered Armitage. 'I'll only slow you down. I'm out of shape. I've already done more running today than I have for years...' 'I'll stay here,' Paul Castle mumbled. Although unsure, the thought of staying outside with the van and the trucks seemed slightly preferable to going into the dark night unprotected. 'We'll move the van back,' Armitage said, 'and then block the exit again as soon as you're through, okay?' By the time the lorry driver had finished speaking Cooper was already out of the truck and on his way over towards the van. Croft handed Armitage the keys and followed the other man into the darkness.

'Back to the door we used this afternoon, okay?' Cooper reminded the others as they nervously grouped near to the remains of the mangled metal gate. Armitage climbed into the van and looked down at Croft, Cooper, Baxter and Heath. Baxter nodded for him to start the engine and he turned the key, sending a sudden splutter of noise and fumes into the cold night and causing more than a hundred bodies to turn and begin moving back towards the football pitch. Realising what was happening he slammed the van into reverse and skidded back a few meters to open up the exit. As soon as a large enough gap had been opened the four survivors ran forward into the darkness.

Armitage drove forward and blocked the entrance off again. Still somewhat sluggish and clumsy, but now with undeniable control and intent, the corpses stumbled towards the van. The light was low and the comparative speed of the four survivors was such that the creatures were not aware of them until they were close. A half-naked cadaver lashed out at Croft and knocked him off balance momentarily as he pushed his way back towards the university. Bernard Heath, running with his shoulder dropped, charged body after body out of the way as he let his momentum carry him back to the shelter. The ground was wet and uneven, a combination of autumn mist and some earlier rain having left a layer of surface water almost everywhere. Cooper slipped and fell and, by the time he was back up on his feet again, six bodies were within a meter of him. He punched and kicked his way through them and continued on towards the building. He was the last one to reach the sheltered area where the waste bins were stored and where the door they'd used earlier was. Croft was already there and had it open. He ushered the other men inside quickly. 'Get in,' he hissed. Cooper pushed past and listened with relief as the door slammed shut behind him.


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