Chapter Thirty-Eight

It was time. Six volunteer survivors stood outside at the back of the accommodation block in a small, sheltered alcove where several tall, overflowing and foul-smelling waste bins were stored. There were no bodies around that they could see. Various building extensions, walls, fences and other obstructions seemed to have prevented the creatures from stumbling round to the area. 'Ready?' Phil Croft asked. The others looked far from sure. The doctor did up the zip on the fleece he was wearing. It was a cold afternoon. Although fairly bright, there was a threat of rain in the air and ominously heavy clouds were approaching from the east. 'Suppose so,' Paul Castle mumbled. 'Never going to be a good time for this though, is there?' 'If you can't handle it why don't you just go back inside?' Jack Baxter snapped nervously. 'Quit fucking moaning.' 'Give it a break you old...' Castle began. 'Okay,' Cooper said, cutting across the increasingly nervous conversation and having to raise his voice to make himself heard over the gusting wind, 'this is where we shut up.

Anyone speaks and draws attention to us once we're out there and we're history. I tell you, those bodies aren't quick or strong enough on their own, but if you do something stupid and end up with a hundred of them coming at you, you're going to have real problems.' Baxter thrust his cold hands into his jacket pockets and leant back against the red-brick wall behind him. He was terrified. Perhaps that was why he'd reacted so angrily to Castle's nervous complaint seconds earlier. He'd been close to throwing up before they'd left the safety of the building. He didn't tell the others, of course. They'd all been so sure of their plans when they'd spoken this morning and last night.

Doing this had seemed such a good idea before they'd actually stepped out into the open and stood there unprotected. A single body tripped across a footpath a short distance ahead of them. The six survivors stared in silence and watched anxiously as it moved awkwardly away. Steve Armitage (a long-distance lorry driver who had hardly spoken until today but who had volunteered to do this because he could drive a truck and because he could no longer stand being trapped indoors) licked his dry lips and nervously lit a cigarette. 'Put that bloody thing out,' Croft hissed quietly. 'You fucking idiot! We're trying to blend in here. How many of those damn things have you seen smoking?' Armitage dropped the cigarette down onto the ground and stubbed it out with his foot.

'Sorry,' he whispered apologetically. 'Not thinking. Bit nervous.' Cooper's military training was beginning to show. Although he may well have been as scared and apprehensive as the other five men, it was not at all noticeable. He remained calm and collected, as if this was something he did every day. 'Don't worry, Steve,' he said softly, doing his best to reassure the struggling lorry driver. 'We can do this, you know. We just have to keep our nerve and stick together. Take your time, don't do anything stupid and we'll be okay.' Bernard Heath was, surprisingly, the sixth survivor who had ventured out into the open.

Although it had seemed that his cowardice and nerves had been steadily increasing during the days and weeks of their confinement, he remained a sensible and rational man at heart. He had gradually come to accept that his earlier protestations and demands that they should stay inside were driven more by fear than any rational thought processes. Much as he still preferred the idea of staying locked away in the accommodation block, he understood that was no longer an option. Perhaps trying to make amends for the conflict and arguments he had helped prolong recently, he had volunteered to be one of the first to leave the protection of the building. Cooper glanced round at the faces of the others before nodding his head in the general direction of the city centre and starting to walk. Weighed down heavily with their individual nerves and trepidation, the six men began to move towards the dead heart of the town in slow, shuffling single file. The door from which they had emerged from their shelter had been hidden around the back of the building.

As the majority of bodies had reached the university from the direction of the town, the survivors came across relatively few of them at first. Those corpses they did see were distracted - banging and scratching incessantly at the sides of the building, trying to get inside despite the fact that it was clearly pointless. Cooper kept his head low, doing his best to imitate the weary, slothful movements of the dead. Untrained and having been shut away inside for some considerable time, the other men were unable to match his military self-control and found it difficult to camouflage their strained emotions.

They couldn't help but stare at the nightmarish scene which quickly unfolded around them. It was the noise they noticed first. Unexpected and unsettling, the constant low sounds served to emphasise the sudden closeness and reality of the danger. Inside the university they had become used to the quiet. Outside, however, things were very different. There remained an eerie, vacuous silence where the noise of traffic and the day-to-day had once been but, at the same time, a low and constant humming and moaning filled the air - the sound of bodies dragging their feet along the ground and the buzzing of millions of insects feeding off their decaying flesh. The noxious smell of the rotting corpses was stifling. Jack Baxter felt the bile rising in his stomach. He didn't know if he was going to be able to handle this. Cooper shuffled away in the general direction of the subway which he had originally used to reach the university. He didn't relish the idea of disappearing down into that dark and foreboding hole again. The crowd, however, had swollen to such an extent that it was difficult to be sure whereabouts the entrance was. For a moment he toyed with the idea of simply taking a chance and staying above ground and just running to reach the courthouse.

He knew that he couldn't do that without talking to the others first, and he knew that he couldn't communicate with them in any way without alerting the corpses to their presence. The icy fear he felt when he risked a quick sideways glance into the vast gathering of bodies a little way ahead kept him focussed. 'Jesus Christ,' he heard someone say from a short distance behind him. The voice wasn't particularly loud, but in this dangerous and unpredictable environment even a whisper was too much of a risk to take. Cooper lifted his hand and cautiously turned his head to try and remind the others of the danger.

What he saw made him freeze with horror. 'Shit,' he hissed under his breath. The bodies were reacting. Too far away to have heard the voices, the corpses were beginning to make definite conscious movements towards the exposed survivors. Those on the nearest edge of the massive crowd had lifted their rotting heads and were looking at the line of men slowly snaking towards the subway. A few of the bodies had begun to stagger away from the main group and were now lurching towards them. As those corpses moved so the attention of others was caught and, in seconds, a deadly chain reaction had begun. Like the first battalions of a relentless advancing army the cadavers began to approach. 'What the fuck is going on?' a terrified Phil Croft demanded, forgetting himself. The sound of his voice caused hundreds more vile creatures to look up and begin to peel away from the crowd and move towards them.

'You said they'd ignore us if we...' Cooper knew there was no time to stand and argue. By all accounts the behaviour of the bodies had been changing constantly since the day they'd been infected - in the short time he'd been away from his base he'd seen them become more aggressive. A few days earlier slow movements and feigned lethargy had been sufficient to fool the dead. Today the creatures appeared to be reacting with unmistakable intent. Although still awkward and clumsy, today they were moving with ominous speed and purpose. 'Move!' Cooper ordered. 'Just get to the fucking courthouse now!' Without waiting for further instruction the survivors turned and sprinted towards the city centre. Cooper led the way but, not knowing the city particularly well, he ran without direction. 'This way!' Paul Castle shouted, running away to the soldier's left. The others followed as swarms of bodies gathered around them. Castle glanced back over his shoulder.

His speed and panic was such that it was impossible to make out details, instead he was just aware of an increasing dark mass of cadavers following them. Terrified, he turned back around and ran into a single random corpse, sending it flying to the ground.154 Castle, the soldier and the doctor were relatively young and in good health. Baxter and Heath, although somewhat older, were also able to keep up. Steve Armitage, however, was struggling. With tears of panic and fear running freely down his face, the overweight truck driver lashed out at the countless figures which lurched and lunged towards him. For the moment the force of his large bulk was enough to keep them at bay. It was difficult to keep sight of the rest of the group ahead, such was the number of ragged bodies that crisscrossed his path and grabbed at him with clumsy, decaying hands. They weren't going to make it. From what he'd been told he guessed the courthouse was still a fair distance away. Cooper knew he could do it, but it was doubtful whether the older men would keep up.

'Over there,' he yelled, suddenly changing direction and moving to his right. He needed to find shelter. It didn't matter what or where, they just needed to get out of sight for a time until the crowd's interest in them had dissipated. He pushed open a heavy door in the middle of a small, glass-fronted bookshop and held it open for the other survivors. 'Go through to the back,' he yelled as Heath and Baxter crashed breathlessly past him. Armitage was almost there. Cooper reached out and grabbed his arm and pulled him through. 'Get out of sight.' Croft dragged a bookcase and low reading table across the door once Cooper had managed to push it shut. Already there were rotting faces pressed against the glass, smashing their fists against the window, trying to get at the survivors inside. Cooper gently pushed Croft deeper into the building.

The others were waiting in a small, square office. 'What the hell are we going to do now?' Heath asked anxiously. He looked at Armitage. The red-faced man was slumped over a desk in the middle of the room, fighting to get his breath back. 'We keep going,' Croft said. 'What option have we got? We can either turn back and fight our way through a fucking huge crowd of bodies, or we can do what we came out here to do, get some transport organised, and then fight our way back through a fucking huge crowd of bodies.' His humour wasn't appreciated. Regardless, the rest of the men knew that they didn't have a choice. 'Where exactly are we?' Cooper asked. 'Where are we in relation to the court?' Castle, standing with his hands on his hips and breathing heavily, cleared his throat and looked round. 'Not too far to go,' he replied, moving slightly so that he could look through another door and out towards the back of the building. 'I reckon it'll be easier if we go through the back.' 'Fine,' Cooper said. 'We ready?' Armitage looked up in disbelief. 'Give us a minute,' he complained. 'You can rest when we've found ourselves a fleet of trucks, okay?' The lorry driver covered his head in despair and then pushed himself back up. 'All right?' Baxter asked.

Armitage nodded. 'Lead the way, Paul,' Cooper ordered. Trembling with nerves Castle did as he was told, cautiously creeping through the building until he reached the back door which opened out into a communal loading area shared with a number of neighbouring shops. A narrow service road ran along the back of the buildings. As far as he could see there were no bodies nearby. 'Which way?' Cooper whispered. Castle nodded to his right. 'Okay,' the soldier continued, 'stick together and not a bloody sound from anyone, understand?' No-one responded. 'Let's go.' Castle began to walk away from the shop, pressing himself against the nearest wall and doing his best to blend into the shadows. In the middle of the group Armitage silently cursed his condition. He wished that he was younger and fitter. Although no doubt amplified in his mind, he feared that the sound of his heavy breathing might be enough to bring the bodies to them again. The service road carried on for a hundred meters or so before taking a sharp right and rejoining the main road. Castle paused just before the turning. 'How far?' Cooper asked, his voice deathly quiet. 'Carry on along this road and we'll reach another junction,' he replied, nodding further down the service road.

'Go left and the court's at the top of the main shopping street. A few hundred yards probably.' 'What's it look like?' He shrugged his shoulders. 'Big building, bronzed glass in the windows, steps up to the front door.' 'Who else knows what it looks like?' The other men, who had now grouped around Castle and the soldier, nodded. Baxter wasn't sure. 'Is it by...' he began. 'Follow the rest of us,' Cooper snapped.

'Wait here for a second. I'll go and see what's around.' Silently creeping further down the service road, he stopped when he reached the point where it merged with the main road. Cautiously he stuck his head around the corner and looked up and down the once busy street. There were plenty of bodies around, but considerably fewer than they had seen before they'd taken shelter in the bookshop. He guessed that the disturbance they'd caused back at the university would have resulted in many of the corpses gravitating around that area. He made his way back to the others. 'There are a fair few of them about,' he said quietly. 'The only way to get through them is to ignore them. Try and forget they're there. Run through them. They can't match speed and the power we've got.' 'A few thousand of the bastards could...' Armitage moaned.

'There aren't a few thousand out there,' Cooper replied, 'but there will be if you panic so shut up, take a deep fucking breath and follow me.' Without waiting for a response he headed back towards the main road. The rest of the survivors followed behind, their nervousness increasing with every step. Bernard Heath took deep breaths of stagnant air in an attempt to fill his lungs with oxygen before they started running again. Cooper paused and turned back to make sure they were together. 'Ready?' he asked. No response. He turned and ran. Instinctively the others followed at a frantic pace. Immediately those straggling bodies left in the street turned and moved towards the sudden disturbance.

Cooper led the way, pushing corpses away to the side as he forced his way forward. Castle was close behind. A myriad of unexpected emotions ran through his mind as he moved. As the inhabitants of the city had rotted and decayed, so the city itself also appeared to have deteriorated. The once familiar sights of streets that he'd walked along hundreds of time seemed to have changed almost beyond recognition. Unchecked moss and weeds grew between the cracks in the pavements and climbed the walls of cold and silent buildings. Motionless, skeletal corpses lay in the gutter being steadily devoured by the passage of time and by the numerous rodents and insects which fed off their disintegrating flesh. A random body lashed out and caught him off-guard.

He grabbed it by the neck and threw it into a crowd of three more advancing cadavers. 'Left!' he shouted at the soldier who, in his haste and desire to keep moving, had just passed the turning. Castle changed direction, followed closely by the rest of the men who were all somehow managing to keep a comparable pace. Bernard Heath and Steve Armitage in particular were moving with unexpected velocity and newfound determination. Pure adrenaline and fear was driving them to run like men half their ages. Disorientated by its overgrown appearance and the sudden effort of the sprint through the streets, it took Phil Croft a while to recognise the court building.

As he swerved to avoid another lurching body his eyes locked onto the steep steps which led up from ground level to the court's imposing bronzetinted glass entrance doors. Cooper, Castle and Heath were already there. They held the doors open for the others and then slammed them shut and barred them once they were all inside. Half of the men dropped to their knees and struggled to catch their breath. The remaining three realised immediately that there were suddenly movements in the shadows all around them. Within thirty seconds some fifteen ragged figures had appeared in the building's vast reception area. Countless more slammed into the door and began to try and beat their way inside. 'Get rid of them,' Cooper ordered. 'Go for the head and try and take them out. We'll get this area cleared and then we can slow it down a gear.' Looking round for inspiration he picked up a nearby metal tube (which had previously held up a sign instructing visitors to the court to wait to be searched by security) and moved towards the closest body.

What had once been a policewoman dragged itself towards him with willowy arms outstretched. He swung the heavy metal tube through the air and smashed it into the side of the corpse's head.

Deep crimson blood, almost black, began to ooze steadily from a gash above the body's shattered cheekbone. It moved forward again. Cooper lashed out again and again, his fifth strike finally making the pitiful creature crumble, leaving it limp and motionless on the dusty marble floor. Armitage stood in numb terror as an elderly cadaver stumbled towards him. With empty, emotionless eyes it stared at him and he found himself unable to look away or to react in any other way. Suddenly too close to be avoided, the lorry driver screwed up his face in disgust and lifted his arms to prevent the pathetic figure from advancing any further forward.

Although the body squirmed relentlessly in his grip, the survivor's strength was clearly too much for it to overcome. Becoming suddenly more confident now that he was aware of the physical gulf between the living and the dead, Armitage pushed the body away and into the nearest wall with angry force. The corpse stopped and then turned and began to move towards him again. This time Armitage grabbed hold of the rotting head, just below the chin, and, with weeks of pent up fear and frustration behind him, he slammed it against the wall, almost crushing it completely. They were cutting through the bodies with incredible ease.

The lethargic movements, slow reactions and comparative weakness of the cadavers was no match for the strength and coordination of even the most tired and unfit survivor. In less than five minutes the reception area had been cleared.

'Good job,' Croft said. He was breathing heavily. Paul Castle acknowledged their efforts. 'Bloody hell,' he gasped, clearly surprised, 'they were nothing, were they? Christ we could have torn a thousand of them apart...'

'But there are millions out there,' Bernard Heath reminded him. The university lecturer's voice was solemn and resigned. 'Don't think that's it,' Cooper said. '

There will be more of them around the building. Just keep moving and don't let your guard down.' With that he began to move towards a nearby corridor. 'Where you going?' asked Armitage, wiping his grease and gore-covered hands on the back of his trousers.

Cooper gestured towards a brass sign on the wall. 'Juror's suite,' he replied. His answer was met with blank looks from the others. 'Jurors sit in on trials,' he explained. 'Trials happen in court rooms. Prisoners stand in the dock in court rooms...' 'And...?' pressed Castle. 'And the prisoners have to get from the prison vans to the dock, don't they? We'll work our way back through the building.'

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