Chapter Thirty-One

'We should get out of here now,' Donna said, her mouth half-full of food. 'We're not going to gain anything from staying here. We should get out and head back to the base with Cooper.' 'What's there for us?' Bernard Heath asked anxiously. 'More than there is here,' she replied before returning her full attention to the scraps of food on her plate. 'Who says I'm going back to the bloody base?' Cooper muttered to himself, just loud enough for the others to hear. Nine survivors sat together in semi-darkness and ate a scraped together meal in one of the university lecture rooms. The atmosphere throughout the building had changed noticeably since the soldier had arrived there earlier in the day. To many of the desperately frightened people gathered in the accommodation block his appearance had brought a faint glimmer of unexpected hope into their dark lives.

To an equal number of others, however, his presence in the building had increased their unease and anxiety. Claustrophobic, monotonous and uncomfortable their world may well have become, but with the rest of the country lying in ruins around them, this was all they had left. The soldier's sudden unannounced and unexpected interference in their fragile existence was disproportionately unsettling. To make matters worse (if they possibly could get any worse) the noise and commotion that had accompanied Cooper's arrival had whipped the crowds of disease-ridden bodies outside into an unprecedented frenzy. Even now, many hours later, the creatures still fought to get closer to the building, banging hopelessly against exposed windows and doors with their rotting fists. 'Isn't it about time we started trying to make some decisions here?' Jack Baxter said suddenly, pushing away his plate of cold food and taking a swig from a can of drink. 'I mean,' he continued, 'we can't just sit here and wait indefinitely, can we?' 'We can if we want to,' Heath disagreed.

'It makes sense to sit tight and wait for...' 'Wait for what?' Donna wondered. Sitting in the chair next to Donna, Clare looked from face to face in the low light. First Heath, then Baxter, then Cooper, then Donna and then back to Heath again. She waited for him to say something. In the gloom he looked haggard, old and weary as if he was carrying the weight of everyone's problems on his shoulders. She sensed that he was struggling to keep himself calm and controlled. She could see fear in his eyes. 'What I mean is...' he stammered. It was obvious that he didn't know what he meant. 'What are you planning to wait for?' Donna asked again.

'What exactly are you expecting to happen?' Obviously uncomfortable and wishing he'd stayed quiet, Heath played with his food and picked up a paper towel which he screwed into a tight ball before throwing it into a nearby waste bin. He sank back in his chair and looked up for inspiration but nothing came. 'Don't know...' he finally admitted. 'Something's got to give eventually, hasn't it?' Baxter said. 'Like what?' asked Cooper. 'Well, things can't stay like this forever, can they? Nothing ever stays the same for too long. I mean, you turned up here today, didn't you? There will be more like you and...'

'There are more like me,' Cooper explained, 'but don't assume they're going to come back here. As far as they're concerned this is a dead place.' 'They might.' 'Yes, they might, but on balance they probably won't. As far as I was aware we were sent out on a reconnaissance mission and that was all. If the others made it back to the base and reported what they'd found then...' 'Then what?' 'Then they'll know that there's no real reason for anyone to come back here, won't they?' 'So what do you think they'll do?' Donna wondered. 'It doesn't matter where they go, they're going to find the same thing.' Cooper shrugged his shoulders and continued eating.

'I really don't know. Like I said earlier, there were supposed to be other bases. I suppose they'll try and group together. But then again, maybe they'll just stay underground.' 'Christ, imagine spending the rest of your life in a bunker...' Phil Croft mumbled, finally making an effort and becoming part of the conversation. 'Better than not having the rest of your life,' Clare said quietly. 'You think so?' Cooper asked.

'You didn't see what it was like down there. Anyway, we don't know for sure if those are the only options. Whatever happened here might not have happened everywhere. I think it did, but it's always possible that there are some safe areas people could get to.' 'I doubt it,' said Croft. 'But do you see what I'm saying?' Baxter continued, seizing on a lull in the conversation and picking up from where he'd last spoken. 'You're talking about all these different scenarios but the bottom line is that something's inevitably going to change, isn't it? It's damn unlikely that nothing's going to happen. The law of averages says that things will never stay the same.' 'What the bloody hell are you talking about?' Steve Richards sighed from his seat in the darkness. Baxter stared across the room in the general direction of the younger man.

It was too dark for him to see exactly where he was sitting. 'Have you looked outside recently?' he asked, his voice suddenly cold and deadly serious. 'I try to avoid looking out of the window,' Richards smirked. 'Too fucking grim for my liking.' 'Do yourself a favour and go and take a look out front will you? There are bloody thousands of those things out there now and none of them are going anywhere. For whatever reason they're attracted to us and there are more and more of them arriving every hour.' 'What's your point?' Richards asked. 'Seems to me there's going to come a time when the sheer volume of them outside is going to start causing us real problems.' 'Why? Do you think they'll get in?' wondered Heath, his voice low and nervous. 'They might,' Baxter replied, 'but I don't think it's very likely.

I'm thinking more about us trying to get out. We're going to have to leave here for supplies eventually, aren't we? There's only so much we can store here.' 'He's got a point,' Donna agreed. 'The more I think about it, the better the argument is for packing up and getting out of here right now,' Baxter continued. 'There's also a lot to be said for sitting still and waiting,' Phil Croft added. 'But you are right, Jack, things are going to change no matter what we do. The bodies will change for a start.' 'How?' 'They're decomposing, aren't they? No matter how determined or persistent those bloody things are, there's going to come a time when they physically won't be able to do what they're doing any longer.' 'And how long's that going to be?' Donna pressed. 'How long do you think it will take them to rot completely?' He shrugged his shoulders.

'Six months,' he suggested although he was far from certain. 'Six months!' Heath protested. Croft shrugged again. 'Could be. Might be longer. Might happen in half the time. There are a lot of unknown factors we're dealing with here.' 'Such as?' 'The disease for a start, we don't know what effect it might have on the speed of decomposition. And then there's the fact that they're above ground.

I guess they'd rot quicker if they were buried, but it might be that exposure to the elements and the physical effort of moving around wears the bodies down at a faster rate. I don't know for sure.' Donna suddenly stood up. The other survivors watched her. 'This is bloody brilliant,' she said with genuine excitement in her voice for the first time in weeks. 'Do you hear what you're saying?' She looked around at the blank faces staring back at her.

'Six months and we could be over the worst of this. Six bloody months and we might well be able to do whatever we damn well like again!' 'So we just need to find somewhere safe to hide out until then,' said Baxter. 'Stay here,' Heath immediately suggested. 'We can stay here until it's safe to move.' 'You haven't been listening, have you?' 'We need somewhere better than this, somewhere stronger and more isolated,' Donna announced. 'You need the base,' decided Cooper, his voice filled with resignation.

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