Chapter Thirty-Four

The long day dragged unbearably. After many hours of arguments, counter-arguments and frustration, the atmosphere in the assembly hall was deteriorating rapidly. By early evening tempers were wearing dangerously thin. 'Have you looked out of the bloody window recently?' Baxter spat angrily. 'Do you know what's out there?' 'More to the point,' Donna interrupted angrily, 'have you seen what's still in here? Have you seen the level of our supplies? I tell you, we won't last long if we don't do something soon...' 'She's right,' Cooper added from across the room. 'Staying here isn't going to be an option for much longer.' 'And what the fuck do you know?' Nathan Holmes yelled, his voice hoarse and strained with emotion. This argument had been raging for the best part of an hour with, it seemed, much of the venom directed towards him personally.

'I'm sure you know a hell of a lot more than you're letting on,' he snapped. 'I bet you know exactly what caused all of this fucking mess to happen.' 'I wish I did,' the soldier sighed. 'Then at least I might know what to do.' Frightened faces peered out from every corner of the hall, illuminated by numerous candles, torches and lamps. The light in the room was dull and uneven leaving even more people hidden in darkness. For once almost all the survivors sheltering in the building were gathered together - even the most reclusive of them having been drawn out of hiding by the events surrounding the soldier's recent arrival.

For many others the hall had become the only room they used. Being alone in the individual rooms they had previously occupied had become too unsettling for most. Better to snatch a few moments of sleep in the company of others than to spend endless hours alone, wide awake and on edge. 'Look,' Donna continued, 'Phil reckons that in six months time the bodies will have rotted away to just about nothing. Isn't that right, Phil?' She peered round in the darkness, trying to find the doctor. He was sitting on the floor just a few meters from where she was standing. He'd been trying to avoid getting dragged into the conversation. Instead he'd been busying himself by trying to keep a seven year old boy interested in a jigsaw puzzle and hoping that he'd be able to stop him crying. 'Something like that,' he grunted, 'give or take a few weeks either way.'

'So we'll wait here for six months,' Holmes announced. Donna shook her head. Once full of macho pretense, the odious man was now letting his true colours show. His plans to get out of the building and take what he wanted from the dead city had been forgotten. He was as scared as the rest of the survivors, but he didn't have the intelligence to deal with his feelings. His fear displayed itself as antagonism and anger. 'Which part of this don't you understand, Nathan,' she sighed. 'We haven't got enough supplies here to last for six more days, never mind six months. We've got to go out into the city now, whether you like it or not.' Holmes didn't respond. He'd never admit as much, but he was intimidated by Donna. He didn't have the ability to able to reply to her words with anything that resembled a sensible and coherent argument as to why they should lock themselves down and stay put until the countless bodies outside had finally fallen again. 'She's right,' Baxter said, stepping forward out of the shadows into which he'd subconsciously retreated as the argument had become more heated. 'We don't have an option really. If you stop and...' 'What the fuck do you know?' Holmes spat, suddenly feeling more confident. He knew that he could handle Jack Baxter.

Refusing to rise to the other man's anger, Jack ran his fingers through his hair and stared at him through the darkness. 'I know as much as you do, Nathan,' he said, pointing his finger accusingly and shaking his head. 'But if you forget about how you're feeling and take a look at the whole picture, it seems we don't have any choice.'

Several hours later and the anger and raised voices that had filled the hall had been long forgotten by many of the survivors. Nathan Holmes had disappeared into the depths of the building and with him much of the conflict and hostility seemed to have gone too. Apart from a few mumbled conversations and the low and dull but ever-present noise of the bodies outside the assembly room was largely silent. Jack Baxter sat with his back against the wall doing his best to fade into the already drab and inconspicuous background. The benefit of darkness, he thought to himself, was that he could hide without having to move. He could observe things happening nearby whilst still managing to feel like he was a safe distance away. Baxter was sitting in a corner of the room near to Cooper, Croft and Donna. Clare lay next to him on a makeshift bed made from folded blankets. She was sleeping relatively soundly. He frequently watched her when she was asleep, feeling as if he had a responsibility to protect her because he was the one who had been with her the longest.

She was a pretty girl with soft, delicate features which, for once, looked untroubled and relaxed. It wasn't often that... 'What do you think, Jack?' he heard Phil Croft ask. At the mention of his name he looked up.

'What?' he mumbled. 'You're not with us, are you?' smiled Donna. 'Nothing against any of you,' he smiled, looking deeper into the darkness and trying to focus on the others, 'but I wish I was anywhere but here.' Cooper kept the conversation on track. 'We were talking about getting out of here,' he began. 'What, still?' he moaned. 'Christ, haven't you got anything better to talk about?' 'No,' Donna replied abruptly.

'Bloody hell, what else is there to talk about?' He shrugged his shoulders. 'Decided where we're going yet then?' Silence. It was one thing talking about what they should do, but when it came to actually making decisions it was difficult to get any of the survivors to speak out with any conviction. 'We're not completely sure whether...' muttered Croft before Cooper interrupted. 'Isn't it obvious?' he sighed. 'There's only one place we can go, isn't there?' Donna added. 'Your base?' ventured Baxter. 'Much as I don't like the thought of going back there, we don't seem to have much choice at the moment.'

'So will your people let us inside?' he asked. 'They might. I don't know.' 'I don't think they will.' Everyone looked at Jack. 'Why not?' Donna asked. 'I know we seem to be immune to whatever's done all this,' he explained, his voice tired and low, 'but I bet we're still carrying it. If it's a disease then we're going to be full of it, aren't we? It'll be in our lungs and in our blood. There's no way they're going to let us inside if we're going to bring it in with us.' 'We've just got to hope the decontamination process is good enough to clean us up properly then, haven't we?' Cooper said. 'Do you think it will be?' 'Don't know,' he admitted after a moment of careful consideration. 'There's another problem of course,' yawned Croft. The doctor was incredibly tired but he knew it wasn't worth trying to sleep. 'What's that?' Cooper asked. 'How the hell are we going to get there?'

'How many people are here?' 'Between forty and fifty,' he replied. 'And how many will leave with us?' 'No idea. Probably not that many. Say half.' 'Theoretically we can take our pick of just about anything we can find in the city,' said Donna. 'If we can get to it,' interrupted Baxter. 'So what do you suggest?' Cooper asked. 'We need to be sensible about this.

We're not going to be able to just drive out of here in a convoy of cars, are we?' 'What did you arrive in? We heard it but we didn't see it.' 'Armoured patrol carrier. I could probably drive one of those if we had one, but I don't expect we'll find anything like that round here...' Baxter managed half a smile. 'You might be surprised,' Donna said quietly. The other faces turned to look at her. 'What have you got in mind?' 'There's a courthouse near here,' she replied. 'And?' 'And round the back there's a loading bay.' 'A loading bay?' Croft mumbled. He wasn't at all sure where her logic was leading. 'We could see it from the office where I worked. We used to watch them unloading when there was a big trial on,' she explained. 'The prison vans used to pull up around the back and reverse inside to deliver and collect the prisoners.' 'So?' 'Think about it. Prison vans are designed to carry people. More than that, they're strong and they're safe. They're as close to a bloody armoured patrol carrier as we're going to get.' 'Are there any vans there now?'

'How am I supposed to know? There's a good chance there will be though. Just about every morning you'd see at least one of them pulling up. Logic says that if the courts were going to be in session when all of this started, there would have been prisoners there.' 'I know the court,' Baxter whispered secretively. 'But how are we supposed to get there? It's halfway across town.' 'Don't know,' Donna admitted. 'I can't see how we're going to get past the crowds out there. And even if we do manage to get through, how are we supposed to get back here again? Christ, imagine what the noise of a load of prison vans will do to them?' Cooper took a swig from a cup of cold black coffee that he'd made almost an hour earlier. He winced at its bitter aftertaste. 'Seems to me that whatever we do is going to drive them crazy,' he said, 'but there isn't any alternative. We've already decided that we're going to have to go out at some point.' 'Any suggestions?' asked Donna expectantly. 'I came up through a subway.' 'That's going to help us get out there,' she sighed. 'Getting back without them seeing or hearing us is going to be impossible if we manage to get our hands on some kind of transport.' 'We could go out at night,' Croft offered.

'Not a good idea,' Cooper responded. 'I know what you're saying, but you've got to add up the risks and balance them all out, haven't you? Whatever we do we're bound to attract attention to ourselves because of the noise we make if nothing else. If we go out in the dark then we're just going to make it harder for ourselves. They'll still react to us so we might as well go out in the daylight and give ourselves the best possible chance.'

'If we're really going to do this,' Donna continued, 'then we need to think very carefully before we put a single foot outside. From what I've seen of those things out there they seem to be getting more and more aggressive each day. We have to get everything we need in one trip.' 'We can do it,' Cooper insisted. 'A few of us need to get out there, get what we need and get back. Once the excitement's died down again we can get everyone who wants to leave together and we can move.'

Jack Baxter lay down on the cold, hard floor next to Clare and listened as the conversation continued. He agreed with everything that was being suggested, but the fact that it was right didn't make it any easier to deal with. Within the walls of the university it had to an extent become possible to isolate themselves from events outside. The sudden realisation that they were about to leave the safety of the building and head back out into the unknown was terrifying. Unavoidable, necessary and terrifying.

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