Chapter Twenty-Three

The dead world was like a vacuum. Even the slightest noise travelled huge distances, carried for miles on otherwise undisturbed gusts of wind. The movement of the soldiers in their powerful transport created waves of interest along the entire length of their journey - from the rolling and exposed hills around the bunker itself right through to the cold heart of the city. In the university accommodation block every single survivor had been stirred and encouraged by the sounds outside. More than just another random crash or unexplained disturbance as they had heard many times before, the noises they heard through the rain today were different. They were purposeful, intentional, mechanical noises. They were sounds which were obviously being made by other survivors. And the gun shots and shouting that filled the air had confirmed beyond doubt that other people had managed to continue to exist through the mayhem.

The survivors sheltering in the university had become cocooned in their hideaway. Too afraid to leave the relative safety of their building, the bravest of them had climbed up onto the roof, battling against violent weather conditions. From their high and precarious vantage point they had been unable to see the other people. They had, however, watched with mounting excitement as vast crowds of rotting bodies had begun to drift away from the university site and head back deeper into the city. Although thousands remained, the number of bodies left wandering outside the accommodation block had reduced reassuringly. The survivors knew, however, that it wouldn't take much to attract the collective attention of the dead and bring them staggering back to them. And that was the quandary that split the group in two.

'I'm not going to do anything that's going to bring those bloody things back here,' snapped Bernard Heath. The sudden force and nervous energy and volume in his voice belied the fact that fear was the only reason he was opposed to the plan that had been put forward. 'For God's sake, Bernard,' Donna sighed, 'can't you see what we're saying here? We know that whatever we do will bring the bodies back, but chances are it'll bring those survivors to us as well. Do you really think we can afford to stay out here on our own for very much longer?' 'But we're not out here on our own, are we?' he argued. 'There are more than forty of us here.' 'That's as maybe,' she replied, 'but how many of them are in this room with us now? How many people do you actually see each day?' Heath looked around the assembly hall.

She was right, less than half of the total number of people in the building were in the room with them. It was rare to see more than ten of them together. Most continued to cower in silence in their individual rooms. 'We're stuck here,' Phil Croft volunteered from across the hall. 'Okay, that's not proved to be too much of a problem so far, but give it a few more weeks and this shelter we've got here could well turn into a prison.' 'No matter what we do those bodies will keep returning here,' Donna continued. 'The rest of the city is silent. We can't help but draw attention to ourselves, can we?' 'We can try,' Heath protested. 'We could...' 'We could what? Shut ourselves in a single room up high and hold our breath so they can't hear us breathing?' 'No, I just think...' 'You've seen how those things are beginning to behave, haven't you?' she asked, her voice weary. 'They're becoming more and more active every day. I know they're not particularly strong on their own but given with the numbers we're dealing with here...'

'And we're going to need to go out for supplies again soon,' said Croft. 'And as time goes on we'll need to go further and further afield to get those supplies. We're going to be spending longer out in the open.' 'We need to start getting ourselves organised,' Donna continued. 'Get some kind of routine and order to what we're doing. We need to find a way of letting those other survivors know we're here without...' Sat in the corner of the room, Nathan Holmes got up and walked towards the nearest exit. 'You're a bunch of fucking idiots,' he spat. The rest of the people in the hall turned and stared at him. 'Look at you. What are you trying to do here? Think you're going to build some brave new fucking world out of...' 'We're not trying to do anything except...' Donna began before Holmes interrupted. 'What you're trying to do is pointless. It's all pointless. You shouldn't even be wasting your time talking about it. As soon as I can I'm getting out of here and I'm going to...' 'We all know exactly what you're going to do,' Donna sighed. 'You're going to drink yourself stupid so that you can forget everything. We've heard you say it a thousand times. You don't give a damn about anyone but yourself.' 'Too right I don't,' he replied, 'why should I?' 'Can't you see how our chances will improve if we work together?' Croft asked. Holmes looked up to the ceiling in despair. 'But that's my point, what chance have we got? Everybody in this damn building has lost absolutely everything. Getting out of here and trying to forget everything is the best option for anyone who's got any degree of sense left...' 'You're confusing sense and selfishness,' Donna mumbled under her breath.

'Look,' Croft said, the patience in his voice wearing thin, 'all we're talking about doing here is setting up some kind of beacon so that if and when those others come back they'll know where we are and they'll come to us. We're not trying to make great plans for the future because we don't know if any of us have got a fucking future!' 'But your beacon will attract the bodies,' protested Heath. 'For Christ's sake, man,' Croft seethed. 'Can't you see that's a risk we're going to have to take?' Jack Baxter had been watching the increasingly tense conversation develop. 'What if we put a beacon on the roof?' he asked. 'What's that going to achieve?' Heath wondered. 'Think about it, if we put some kind of beacon up on high then it's not going to be immediately obvious to the bodies but a survivor...' '...a survivor would know that anything up on the roof would probably have been put there intentionally,' added Donna, completing his sentence for him. 'If we're talking about lighting a fire, then a survivor would know that any blaze would most probably start somewhere inside the building and work its way up, it wouldn't start on top, would it?' 'I understand that,' moaned Heath, sitting down on an uncomfortable plastic chair, 'but if and when those other people get here, they're going to bring the bodies with them, aren't they? It's not going to matter how careful you are with your bloody beacon, is it?'

Donna looked at the frightened lecturer for a few long seconds before turning her back on him in frustration. She understood what he was saying, she just couldn't understand why it was such a issue for him. To her the solution to their problem and the potential side-effects were obvious and unavoidable. Increasing the number of bodies outside the building seemed to be a small price to pay if it meant they could make contact with other survivors - people with transport and weapons who, it seemed, were surviving out in the open. Just over thirty miles from the city, and two and a half miles away from the concealed entrance to the underground bunker, two survivors sat together in nervous silence. Hiding in a relatively well-appointed motorhome they had taken from outside another dead town just three days ago, the couple had driven out to the most exposed and isolated area of land they had been able to find. Since being forced to leave the farmhouse where they had previously sheltered, Michael Collins and Emma Mitchell had lived from hand to mouth like scavenging animals.

Five days ago the building where they had hidden in relatively safety for the best part of two weeks had been overrun by hundreds of wandering corpses, attracted to their remote and otherwise inconspicuous location by the activity and sounds the survivors had made simply by existing. They had taken many precautions to separate themselves from the rotting remains of the population, but all their efforts had ultimately been in vain. Michael and Emma had learnt to their bitter cost that there was no way of escaping the unwanted attentions of millions upon millions of desperate, diseased and increasingly vicious corpses. The couple had heard the engine in the distance when the soldiers had emerged from their hidden base earlier in the day. At first it had seemed impossible to believe - since leaving the farmhouse neither of them had seen any indication that other people remained alive - not a single sound or movement that might have pointed to the existence of other survivors.

But the noise of the engine had been definite and unmistakable, and it had filled them both with sudden unexpected hope where before they had felt nothing but pain, emptiness and desolation. By the time they were out of the motorhome and were able to look for the source of the sound the soldiers had been long gone. They did, however, stumble upon a straight gravel track at the bottom of a hill near to where they were parked. In the absence of any other roads or pathways for miles around, the track seemed logically to be a good starting point in their search for other survivors. Michael had supposed that anyone else attempting to survive in this brutal, inhospitable world might have found themselves a base similar to the farmhouse where he and Emma had hidden. It followed that if these people were heading out for supplies, there was a fairly good chance they would be back again before long.

He was right. The darkness of early evening had all but swallowed up the last light of the gloomy afternoon when they heard the sound again. Distant and faint at first, it had quickly increased in volume. Ignorant to the dangers of being outside and exposed, Michael threw open the motorhome door and jumped down the steps. He sprinted across the long, rain-soaked grass and crouched down on a small rocky outcrop from where he was able to get a clear view of a long stretch of the track below. And then he saw it - a huge, powerful military transporter which roared defiantly along the track. Michael couldn't see the driver of the vehicle, or how many people were inside, but it didn't matter. More important than just finding other survivors, he now knew that these people were strong and well organised. And if they really were the military, what did that mean? How many hundreds of them could there be nearby? The transport disappeared into the darkness. He stood up and ran cautiously along the exposed brow of the hill, following the machine until it was completely out of view. Where did the track lead? He stared into the darkness and contemplated what he had seen for a few silent seconds before remembering the danger of being alone outside and running back to the motorhome. 'Well?' Emma asked as he let himself back inside. 'Well what? I saw a bloody big army machine. Don't know exactly what it was but...'

'The army?' 'Looked like it,' Michael said breathlessly as he locked the door behind him and drew the thick curtains which they used to stop any light from spilling out into the darkness and revealing their location to the rest of the world. 'Couldn't be sure, but it was definitely some kind of armoured machine.' 'Where did it go?' He shrugged his shoulders. Emma had an infuriating habit of asking questions which she knew he couldn't answer. 'It was following the track we found earlier,' he sighed, 'so I guess it was going wherever the track leads.' 'And where's that?' 'How the hell am I supposed to know? I suggest we should try and find out tomorrow.'

'Don't you want to look tonight?' 'No,' he replied, shaking his head. 'The light's almost gone. It's too dangerous. We'll wait until morning.'

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