Chapter Thirty-Seven

Croft, Donna, Baxter and the others had slept little. Their lives had become so bleak and helpless that all the sudden talk about actually making a stand and trying to do something positive seemed to finally have forced many of the survivors into taking action. During the long, slow hours of the early morning so far the various rough ideas and half-considered suggestions which had been discussed in the darkness last night had gradually been shaped and formed into something that was beginning to resemble a coherent plan. Those who had volunteered to be directly involved knew that they were about to risk everything but, if they didn't take those risks, they knew that what remained of their lives would hardly be worth living.

At least this way they were giving themselves a chance. If they didn't do anything they'd be spending their last long days and weeks just sitting in worsening squalor and waiting for the end to arrive. Cooper had summed it up when he'd told them earlier that their options were either to sit and wait for the bodies to get inside the building, to slowly starve to death or to risk everything by trying to get away from the city. And with the number of bodies outside still increasing, the probability that their shelter would be breached became more real with each passing hour. Donna was ready to do it. Taking care to keep out of sight she stood in a dark doorway and looked out across the marble-floored reception area towards the glass entrance doors at the front of the building.

No-one ever came out here anymore, and it was obvious why. A thousand dead faces stared back in her direction. She knew that she was too far away and was sufficiently hidden by enough shadow not to be seen and so stayed where she was and looked deep into the mass of poor, pathetic creatures outside. It was a hellish scene. The combined weight of thousands upon thousands of bodies continued to push forward and crush those nearest the front. If many more of the damn things arrive, she decided, it was inevitable that a door or window somewhere would give way. The thought of what might happen was almost too frightening to consider - the building would be filled with an unstoppable torrent of desperate, stumbling cadavers in seconds. Donna already knew that they were doing the right thing by trying to get out.

Looking deep into the rotting crowd just served to make her even more certain. The reception area was dark with the natural light which would normally have flooded in through the glass doors having been blocked out by the sheer weight of bodies. It was difficult to make out individual faces and features from where she was standing - the crowd seemed to have become a single endless sea of grey-green, decaying flesh. If she stared at a particular area for long enough she could occasionally make out something recognisable such as an open mouth, clouded eyes or something similar. But it was the movement that really disturbed her.

The entire discoloured mass seemed to constantly be moving. Despite being pressed hard against the glass, the crushed bodies still twitched and flinched continually, trying pointlessly to move further forward and get into the university complex. With morbid fascination driving her she looked deeper and deeper into the crowd until the sound of other survivors nearby distracted her. She forced herself to turn away and try to think about something else. The plan they had collectively come up with to get them out of the building was relatively straightforward and flexible; six survivors would leave the university by a back exit where there were fewer bodies. Using the subways which Cooper had used to get in (hoping, of course, that purposely slow movements and hidden emotions would still fool the cadavers) they would make their way over to the court building.

They were then going to force their way inside, find the loading bay, get whatever transport they could and then get back to the university in as short a timescale as possible. And what if it didn't work? They all knew that there were a thousand and one things that might go wrong. What if they couldn't get through the subway? What if they got into the court building and found that there were no prison vans there? What if the vans wouldn't start? Truth was that none of them had thought about such eventualities. There was nothing they could do about any of them until they had actually happened and they were faced with dealing with the fallout. Going outside was the biggest risk. The rest of the city was theoretically theirs for the taking once they were actually out there. And if they didn't find what they wanted in the courthouse, they'd just move on and find it somewhere else. This had been a vast and sprawling city. Donna was confident they'd be able to find what they needed eventually.

She slowly walked back to the assembly hall. Although she wasn't going out into the city herself she felt sick with nerves. She tried to remain positive and focus on her part of the plan. Once the others had returned with, hopefully, sufficient transport, they had arranged to park the vehicles deep inside the university complex away from the bulk of the bodies. In the meantime Donna was to try and take charge of the other survivors who intended leaving the city with them. She had been tasked to organise them to get their supplies packed and prepared for the journey. The transportation would be left parked on an artificial turf football pitch which was surrounded by a high wire-mesh fence. It would be Donna's responsibility to get the survivors and their belongings organised so that they could get out of the building and over the to vehicles as quickly and safely as possible. Although nowhere near as difficult as going out into the open, Donna didn't relish the task ahead. It was going to be difficult trying to get any of these people to move. She walked dejectedly through the hall, looking at the empty, silent, stoney-faced survivors sitting around the edges of the room. A short time earlier Cooper and Croft had announced their plans to the rest of the disparate group. There had been little reaction. She didn't know how many of them intended leaving the university and how many instead would remain within the building, paralysed by their fear and uncertainty.

They couldn't force anyone to go. They were taking the children - it didn't seem right to leave them there - but the others were free to make their own choices. It seemed to Donna that the emotionally-drained people cowering nervously in this building were increasingly beginning to resemble the weak and directionless bodies outside. Eaten up with bitter pain and directionless anger, devoid of all energy and trapped in a seemingly pointless and endless existence, some of the living appeared little better than the dead.

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