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BLOOD SURVIVORS BOOK 3: VENGEANCE
Copyright: Nerys WheatleyPublished: 2016
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in retrieval systems, copied in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise transmitted, without written permission from the author. You must not circulate this book in any format.
Cover by Deranged Doctor Design
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His heartbeat pounded in his ears, the thud, thud, thud against his ribcage feeling like he was having a heart attack.
Clutching at the rough bark of the tree next to him to stay upright, he tried to take some calming breaths, but they became harsh gasps for air. His stomach roiled, threatening to bring his lunch back up.
Closing his eyes, he focused on a single memory, the only thing that could calm him when he got like this. In his mind he saw a face framed by soft blonde curls, round, blue eyes staring up at him, pink lips turned up into a smile. A single word spoken in a gentle, sweet voice.
Gradually, the panic attack subsided. Around him the sounds of normality returned; a bird chirping, the wind rustling amongst the leaves overhead.
The moans of thousands of eaters chilling out.
Releasing his death grip on the tree and wiping his sweaty palms down the front of his thighs, Sean Hudson opened his eyes.
He looked across the grass at the Omnav headquarters compound. To his relief, the hundreds of eaters both inside and outside the fence were still gathered together, swaying and moaning. The attack felt like it had lasted for hours, but it had probably been less than a minute. The diversion hadn’t happened yet.
For a moment he was afraid he’d been wrong to volunteer. None of the others in his unit knew he was suffering from the debilitating bouts of terror, although the Lieutenant suspected something was wrong. A few days ago she’d privately brought up the possibility of post traumatic stress. He’d been quick to laugh it off. He was fine, he said. It was just a natural reaction to the constant danger they were in. Everyone was feeling it.
But he wasn’t fine and he knew it. Hiding the fear he felt all the time these days was becoming increasingly difficult and he was having a hard time controlling his anger, behaving like an arse to people who didn’t deserve it. He wasn’t proud of himself.
During Sean’s four years in the army he’d seen PTSD in those serving with him more than once, but he’d never truly understood it until now. Not that it mattered if he had it or not. What was he supposed to do? Check out of the situation and book an appointment with the nearest psychiatrist? And how could he have post traumatic stress when he was still in the middle of the trauma?
Whatever it was, he had no choice other than to try to keep it together and hang on, for himself, for those around him, and for his little three-year-old daughter who he prayed with all his heart was safe with his ex-wife in Skipton.
So he had volunteered for this ridiculously dangerous mission, even though he was terrified out of his mind. Because if he could do this, he figured he’d be able to do anything. And maybe, just maybe, every time he closed his eyes he’d stop seeing Jake, terrified eyes staring at him from his eater-blood spattered face, right before Sean pulled the trigger. Before he ended his best friend’s life.
A concussive boom shuddered through the ground beneath his feet.
Despite knowing it was coming, Sean flinched. He clutched the tree next to him again and swallowed against his suddenly dry mouth. This was it.
Every one of the thousands of eaters surrounding the Omnav building raised their faces towards the explosion. The ever present low moans stopped.
“Come on,” Sean whispered, “do that pheromone thing. Go and find out what’s happening.”
As if listening to him, the first few eaters broke ranks and headed towards where Sean’s unit had detonated one of their precious grenades. More followed. Soon they were all moving in the same direction like the horde they were, some shuffling, some jogging, some coming close to a run. But they were all leaving, which meant he would be too.
After a minute or so, with the last of the stragglers now far enough away, Sean did a final scan of the compound and the building for movement. Seeing none, he broke cover.
He sprinted across the lengthening grass separating the tree line from the closest section of the fence surrounding the compound, keeping as silent as possible. He’d left almost all of his equipment in the armoured patrol vehicle, including his rifle, and was dressed only in a t-shirt, trousers, and combat body armour, armed only with his pistol and knife. He felt almost naked without his pack and weapons, but it was liberating to be moving without the extra weight. If he was lucky, he’d be in and out without any need for a single bullet.
Reaching the ten foot high fence in seconds, he leaped without slowing, catching hold of the top and hauling himself over to drop into a crouch on the ground inside the compound. He looked around, stilling his breathing so he could listen for any sigh he’d been seen.
Keeping low, he ran for a nearby truck. He’d scaled the fence in an area where several military vehicles were parked which provided some cover. He darted between hiding places, making his way towards his target, the two jet black helicopters resting on the asphalt a few hundred feet away. A third helicopter sat on the helipad on the roof of the building. Harvey Boot, CEO of Omnav and all around megalomaniac, had returned in it the day before. There was nothing Sean could do about that one. If they’d all been down here on the ground the plan would have been different and Sean would be carrying explosives to take out all three. But as he couldn’t, this was the next best thing. Maybe he’d get a chance another time.
Reaching the last piece of cover before the wide open space around the helicopters, he stopped and scanned the building again. Still nothing. He knew Boot was in there, along with those of his freakishly tall guards who had survived the influx of eaters four days ago. Although how many that left inside he had no idea. Hopefully they, like the eaters, were focused in the direction of the explosion at the front of the building.
He patted the pockets on his thighs to reassure himself the tiny gadgets were secure then left the cover of the truck and sprinted towards the nearest helicopter. As he’d hoped, the doors were unlocked and he placed the device easily, then he ran to the second chopper and leaned inside to repeat the process.
Sean started at the voice and peered around the helicopter door. A tall man in a black suit was standing outside one of the doors in the rear of the main building, a rifle in his hands. Apparently he was a shoot first kind of guy.
Sean leaped back as the shooting started, using the door for cover. When the bullets stopped for an instant he pulled the door half closed against him and opened fire with his pistol. Without time to aim properly all his shots went wide, but it was enough to send the security guard darting back into the doorway for cover.
Sean launched himself towards the fence.
The sound of bullets ricocheting off the asphalt followed his mad dash. Ahead of him, he could see eaters making their way back to the fence. Someone inside must have used the fake pheromones to return them to their protective circle around the building. It wouldn’t be long before he’d be trapped.
With the choice of either returning fire or maintaining his speed, Sean chose the latter, pumping his arms and using every ounce of strength he had to accelerate for the fence. A sharp pain stung his ankle and he stumbled, just managing to stop himself from falling. But he’d lost precious seconds of time. Ignoring the pain in his ankle, he ran on.
Reaching the fence, he hurled himself at the top, this time adrenaline carrying him so high he almost vaulted over. On the other side, an eater was shuffling into his path. He kicked it in the face as he sailed over, landing in the grass beyond the emaciated woman. It made a clumsy grasp at his arm as bullets tore into it from the man with the rifle. Sean leaped away from possible flying blood and resumed his flight for the trees. More eaters loomed around him, many of them falling as he zigzagged through the coalescing horde and bullets meant for him ripped into them instead.
Finally, his lungs ready to explode, he burst through the tree line and crashed through the undergrowth. A few seconds later he was out of sight in the low dusk light and the firing stopped. He thought he heard someone swear loudly.
He came to a halt and looked back in the direction he’d come, leaning one hand against the broad trunk of an oak as he gasped for breath.
Fortunately, most of the eaters who might have followed him had been mown down by the guard and his rifle, unwittingly aiding Sean’s escape. One man in a white lab coat was trying pathetically to drag itself along the grass in his direction, its legs having been shredded. It would bleed out soon. Sean looked away from it.
Back in the compound a group of three guards, including the one who had shot at him, were gathered around one of the helicopters. After a brief search inside, one of them pulled out a small grey box and showed it to one of the others, an older, grizzled man who appeared to be in charge. He said something and the guard dropped the box and stamped on it, grinding it beneath his boot. A similar process followed with the second helicopter.
By this time eaters were starting to return to the inside of the compound too. After a final look at the trees in Sean’s general direction, the three guards returned to the safety of the building and sealed themselves inside.
Sean leaned back against the oak for a moment and smiled. The two tracking devices they’d found had been destroyed, but the two backups he’d also secreted were still hidden in the helicopters. The plan had worked. If Boot made a move, they would know about it.
He lifted his foot to inspect the wound on his ankle. It looked like a ricochet had grazed his skin; painful, but not life threatening. The bleeding was already slowing.
Pushing himself away from the tree, he limped away from the Omnav compound towards where he’d arranged to meet up with his unit a mile away.
Relief and victory made him feel a little lighter. Maybe he’d actually get some sleep tonight.
The heavy, grey clouds sat so low it looked like if he climbed a tall building he’d be able to reach up and touch them.
His mother would have said, “It’ll be pissing it down by lunchtime.” She always did have a way of getting to the heart of the matter.
Sam pushed his hands into his pockets and looked up and down the road, wondering which way to go. Harvey Boot was coming, that’s what Jerry had said when he’d gone around waking everyone up half an hour before. Sam wasn’t sure exactly what that would mean, but he knew it wasn’t going to be good.
Claire had already left with one group to do something for the city’s defences. They needed Survivors and she’d volunteered. Now Sam felt a little left out. Did anyone need him?
Across the street, the door to Alex’s block opened and for one excited moment Sam thought it might be him. He hadn’t seen Alex since they’d got back from Omnav five days ago and he missed his hero. Instead of Alex, however, Penny Creedon stepped out. Sam had only met her a couple of times, but she scared him a little. She carried a huge rifle everywhere. She’d even given it a name.
“At eight in the morning?” Penny was saying.
A slightly overweight man with glasses and greying dark hair followed her from the building. Sam smiled at the sight of his friend.
“Time tends to distort when you live underground with no outside light,” Doctor David Cranbourne said.
“And drink enough coffee to keep an elephant up all night,” the huge, bearded man following him out added.
Dave looked up at Ben Walker. “You don’t even drink... oh, you mean me.” He grinned. “Fair point. My body clock is shot, but we have a lot of work to do. Now Hannah’s gone...” A sad look passed across his face and he looked down at the pavement.
“So what are you doing here so early?” The last man out was Alex’s neighbour, Leon. He was speaking to Penny.
Sam liked Leon a lot. Of all the Survivors he’d met over the last few days, Leon was his third favourite, after Claire and Alex of course.
Penny peered into the sky as if there was something more interesting there than clouds. “Scott and I had a night patrol.”
“Really? I didn’t know you were on nights.”
She lowered her gaze to study a tree across the street. “Yeah, well, there was a change to the schedule.”
“I didn’t hear about that. Will all the patrols be affected?”
“Uh, no. It was a last minute thing.” She cleared her throat.
Leon burst into laughter. “You must be the worst liar I’ve ever met.”
She glared up at him. “Who says I’m lying?”
“Ms Creedon, you and Scott can shag each other senseless for all I care. No-one here minds what you do.”
She planted her hands on her hips. “Who says we... oh, alright. Just don’t tell my dad.”
“So does this mean you like us now?”
“Don’t push it. Scott’s okay. The rest of you I’d still just as soon put a bullet between your white eyes as look at you.”
Leon smiled. “Of course. Don’t know what I was thinking.” He looked at Sam across the street for the first time. “Sam! Good, you’re ready. You’re with us.”
A bubble of joy expanded in Sam’s chest. Someone needed him. It was still a new feeling, being included in things. Maybe his mother had been right when he was growing up. Maybe things did get better when you were an adult.
He ran over to join the small group.
“We need a couple more people,” Leon said. “No offence, Doc, but this is going to be hard work, and...”
Dave grinned and patted his round stomach. “Don’t let the gut fool you. There are muscles under here.”
“What are you all doing?” Penny said.
“Your father’s idea,” Leon replied. “We’re having a meeting later about what we’re going to do to protect the city from Boot, but Bates has been doing his own preparations in his paranoid, everyone’s-out-to-get-us kind of way. No offence.”
Penny waved a dismissive hand. “He’s my dad. You think this is news to me?”
“He’s got this idea for a way to make it more difficult for Boot’s helicopters to get around. He’s had his people raiding the DIY stores and builder’s merchants.” Leon smirked. “I imagine he would have had you helping if you hadn’t been AWOL with Scott so much.”
“Well, if you need some help...” she said, ignoring his comment and turning to wander across the road.
“Are you offering?” Dave called to her.
Leon, eyes wide, shook his head frantically at Dave. Sam had to stop himself from laughing.
“Are you insane?” Leon hissed to Dave.
“What?” Dave said. “Surely the more people we have, the quicker this will be?”
“Technically, yes, but she makes me a bit... uncomfortable. What with her wanting to wipe every Survivor from the face of the earth and everything.”
“Maybe she’s changing,” Dave said. “She seems to like Scott.”
“Wouldn’t another Survivor be a good thing?” Sam said, wanting to help. “What about Janie?”
Leon smiled at him. “Brilliant idea.” He lowered his voice. “And maybe it will put Creedon off coming.” He started towards Janie’s building. “Just going to fetch Janie,” he said to Penny as he passed her.
Penny scowled. “Do you have to?”
He ignored her and carried on into the building. Penny sat on the bonnet of one of the cars parked at the side of the street, propping her rifle up on one thigh. Dave continued doing whatever he was doing on his tablet while Ben leaned against the brick wall of the building nearby, his arms folded across his huge chest.
Sam was so used to seeing Ben in the black suit/white shirt uniform of Boot’s security guards that the jeans, t-shirt and v-neck jumper he was wearing made him look like a different person. Like the rest of Harvey Boot’s guards, Ben was huge, somewhere around six and a half feet, and he looked like a professional body builder. Somehow, however, he’d managed to find clothes to fit him. There must have been a specialist shop somewhere in the city that he and Brian had raided.
Sam wandered over to Penny and leaned back against the car next to her. “Why do you hate Survivors so much?” he said after half a minute of looking at nothing in particular while he drummed up courage to speak to her.
Penny shifted her weight on the car, lowering the rifle to lie across her lap. “Why do you like them so much?”
Sam smiled; this was one of his favourite subjects. “They’re just so cool. First of all, they survived the infection, which must be really horrible, to get sick and lose your mind, not know if you’re going to live or never become yourself again. You’d have to be tough to get through that. Then they have all these amazing things they can do, like super strength and speed and being able to smell things we can’t. They’re like real life superheroes. I don’t get why people don’t like them.”
He glanced sideways at her. She was staring at the gun on her lap.
“Survivors are dangerous,” she said. “Any one of them could kill you without even breaking a sweat. It’s like having wild animals running loose.”
“Normal people kill too,” he said. He pointed at her rifle. “You could kill me with that right now, if you wanted to. Although I’d rather you didn’t.”
“Yeah, but without Sylvester I couldn’t kill you.” She frowned. “Okay, I probably could, but that’s not the point.”
“So what is the point?” Sam said, trying not to dwell on the unsettling thought of her killing him with her bare hands.
“The point is that Survivors aren’t natural. Who knows what the disease does to their brains, even after they’re cured?”
“But you like Scott.”
She huffed out a breath. “You ask a lot of questions, kid.”
Sam smiled. “I’ve been told that.”
The door to Janie’s building opened and she walked out, Leon following behind her. Penny slid from the bonnet and walked towards them.
She narrowed her eyes at Janie. “Bailey.”
Janie stared back. “Creedon.”
It was like watching two rival lionesses size each other up. From what Sam had seen over the last few days, Penny and Janie didn’t seem to get along, which mystified him.
“Why don’t they like each other?” he whispered to Leon as he walked past. “They seem a lot alike to me.”
Leon glanced back at the bristling women. “They are,” he said, “but if you ever want to father children, don’t ever mention that to them.”
Ben nudged Dave to get his attention from the tablet and they all headed for the barrier constructed of cars at the western end of the street. Past that, the six of them piled into a red Royal Mail delivery van commandeered from one of the city’s two sorting offices. The equipment they would need was already inside. It was all very organised. Leon even had a map to guide them to the spots Bates had picked for his defences, and Janie drove while he gave her directions. After having to double back twice, she asked him if he was a tourist and grabbed the map away from him. They arrived at their destination five minutes later.
Sam paid careful attention to the roads they took on the journey, trying to memorise the route. He’d explored some of the city, but there had been a lot to do since he arrived and he hadn’t seen as much as he wanted to. The people he’d met had all been so welcoming, he felt like he should at least learn his way around.
He didn’t see anything dangerous. There were no free roaming eaters in Sarcester, that anyone knew of. Spotters with radios were stationed on the roofs of buildings on all the roads into the city, reporting any eaters that wandered in which would then be dealt with by combined groups of Survivors and Bates’ people. Sam had taken a couple of shifts, but there were plenty of volunteers for the job. The relatively few people left in the city wanted to stay safe. Sam had spent the whole five hours of each shift huddled in a blanket on a lawn chair, slightly bored.
What would happen when Mr Boot arrived, he didn’t know. Would he bring eater hordes with him like people were saying? The thought scared Sam. Even though he wanted to go back to his house in Peterborough when this was all over, even if it was just to fetch some of his stuff, he’d come to think of Sarcester as his second home. Maybe he’d choose to stay with his new friends. He didn’t want to see the city or those in it hurt in any way.
They stopped in an area close to the centre of the city where a cluster of new, eight storey blocks of flats by the river were busy raising the house prices in the adjacent areas. Or had been, before the outbreak. Everyone got out of the van and Leon and Ben began unloading supplies. Sam went to help them.
“So what are we doing here?” Janie said, planting her hands on her hips as she looked around.
“Bates thinks we can use these blocks as safe places to retreat if hordes get into the city,” Leon said, dropping the first of what turned out to be thirteen coils of thick steel cable onto the ground. “And he wants to string these between the surrounding buildings in case Boot’s helicopters attack. He seems to think we can lure them into the cables and bring them down. He’s got other groups all over the city doing the same. Sounds a bit unlikely to me, but...” He shrugged one shoulder and handed another coil to Sam, who almost fell over under the weight.
“Don’t put Dave on a ladder,” Ben said. “If he gets hurt on my watch, Larry will never let me hear the end of it.”
“Larry knows he’d be lost without me,” Dave said, winking. “I’m the brains of the operation.”
“What are you doing here then?” Penny asked. “Shouldn’t you be back at the lab making a cure or fixing the outbreak or something?”
“I volunteered.” He looked up at the clouds. “I haven’t seen the sun in two days.”
“Nor have we,” Sam said.
Dave chuckled. “Yeah, but you haven’t seen it from outside. I love my work, but being in that lab twenty-four seven is starting to send me loopy. I’ve got Ben here to guard me, which is keeping Larry happy.” He rolled his eyes. “You’d think I was a celebrity or something.”
“You’re one of potentially only three people in the whole country who can save us,” Ben said, dropping a black plastic bag with a metallic clatter onto the ground. “Right now you’re worth your weight in gold.”
Dave patted his stomach. “I knew these extra pounds would come in handy one day.”
They split into three pairs and headed out in different directions to the places Bates had chosen. Evidently, Penny’s father had put a lot of thought into the city’s defence. She said she’d never seen him so happily in his element.
Despite being there to guard Dave, Ben partnered with Sam and Dave went with Leon. That left Janie and Penny together. When the two women were far enough away to not hear him, Leon muttered, “I give it a fifty-fifty chance one of them doesn’t come back alive.”
Sam and Ben climbed to the third floor of one of the blocks and began the process of fixing one end of a length of cable to the wall next to a balcony via some sort of clamp. It probably had a technical name, but Sam had no idea what it was.
“Sam?” Ben said as they worked.
“You’re friends with Alex, right?”
Sam couldn’t help smiling. “I think so. I hope so. I mean, yeah.”
“Okay, well, um...” Ben pressed his lips together and stared at the wall for a couple of seconds. “He’s okay, isn’t he? I mean, he’s a good guy. Not, um, violent or anything?”
Sam stopped screwing in the bolt on the mechanism that would hold the steel cable taut. “No! He’s a hero. He saved me. He’s saved a lot of people. Why?”
Ben let out a long breath. “No reason. There was this incident back at Omnav when he... but that’s a relief to hear. Pauline told me it was a trick and he wasn’t serious, but she has a wicked sense of humour and sometimes I’m not sure if she’s joking or not. But thanks. That’s good to know.”
He turned his back and started rummaging amongst the tools they were using with a fervour that indicated the subject was closed.
Sam went back to tightening the bolt without any idea what they’d just been talking about.
. . .
Two hours and, between the six of them, thirteen steel cable potential helicopter traps later, they headed back towards East Town.
Sam watched out the window as they drove. He wanted to get Claire something. He wasn’t sure what, but he had a feeling he’d know it when he saw it. He was uncomfortable with taking anything from the stores they passed, even though he knew the owners were more than likely either dead or infected. He was determined to find something to bring Claire, however.
He’d heard her crying in her bedroom again last night. She missed her mum. He knew exactly how she felt. Sometimes, when he was dreaming, he heard his parents’ screams as they died. It felt like a flaming arrow was piercing the middle of his chest every time he thought about them. So he wanted to find Claire something that would make her smile, let her know she wasn’t alone and how much he cared about her. Even though they were just friends, he could do that.
He tried not to think about how desperately he wanted to be more than just Claire’s friend.
When they’d almost reached home, he saw what he was looking for.
“Could you stop up there?” he said to Janie, pointing.
She pulled over and he jumped out.
“I’ll be back in a minute, don’t leave without me.”
He jogged over to a bed of roses in the centre of a roundabout that had somehow escaped an eater trampling. Choosing the red, he studied the blooms for a few seconds before settling on one that was half open and didn’t have any holes in the petals or leaves. He separated the stem from the bush, shook off a couple of tiny black beetles, and returned to the van.
“It’s for Claire,” he said when he was back inside. “She misses her mum so much, I just wanted to bring her something that would make her smile.” He looked to Janie and Penny for their female expertise on what women wanted. “Do you think she’ll like it?”
There were a few moments of silence.
Janie blinked a few times and cleared her throat. “I think she’ll love it. It’s a very thoughtful thing to do, Sam.”
Penny nodded. “She’ll definitely like it. You may be the best boyfriend ever.”
“Oh, I’m not... we’re not...”
Penny smiled and winked. “Not yet.”
Sam felt the blood rush to his face and he looked down to hide his embarrassed smile.
“Uh, I’ll be right back.” Leon opened the passenger side door and climbed out.
“You know,” Dave said, “Pauline could use a reason to smile. She misses Hannah and, well...” He got out and followed Leon to the roses.
Janie and Penny looked at Ben.
“And who exactly do I have to take a rose to?” he said.
Penny patted his arm. “I’m sure you’ll find someone.” Her eyes widened and she focused on his sleeve, running her hand up and down his bicep through the material. “And I’m thinking it won’t take you too long. Wow, you must work out a lot.”
Ben smiled and sat up straighter. He looked like he was flexing. “I’ve fine tuned my routine to maximise the efficiency of my workout time with the right amount of reps and the correct weights. That’s often where people go wrong. You have to know what you’re doing.”
Sam wondered how long it took to get muscles that big and if it wasn’t completely out of the question that he might be able to do it. Maybe Ben could show him what to do. Or Brian, he was almost as big, and almost as tall.
Sam then wondered if Claire liked big muscles.
A minute later Dave came back with an orange rose, Leon returned with one red and two pink, and they started off again.
Sam looked at the flower in his hand. He hoped Claire was home by now. He couldn’t wait to see her smile when he gave her the rose.
Alex finished the last bite of his second onion chutney and spam sandwich and considered what to eat next.
Bacon would have been better, but it was probable there wasn’t one single rasher of the good stuff left anywhere in Sarcester. Besides which, being the first thing he’d eaten in five days, even spam tasted amazing.
Not eating since they got back from Omnav hadn’t been intentional. He had simply lost the drive to do anything ‘normal’, anything that would feel like he was living life as it had been before. So he’d spent five days lying in bed, not eating, not communicating, not showering. The first thing he’d done after hearing Harvey Boot was on his way was get himself clean. Micah had insisted on it.
Micah had tried to get him to eat a few times the first couple of days, even bringing a bowl of chilli con carne from Pat, but even his neighbour’s unequalled cooking skills hadn’t been able to tempt him. After that, Micah had given up.
Whether it was the despair, or a kind of self punishment, or some other psychological problem, Alex supposed it didn’t really matter. The chance to get to Boot had snapped him out of it.
And now he’d started eating, he didn’t want to stop.
Micah went to the fridge and brought out two desserts. He placed a still sealed individual chocolate cheesecake only two days past its use by date in front of Alex and sat down to open a low fat strawberry yoghurt.
“Don’t you have a cheesecake?” Alex said as he peeled off the foil lid and inhaled the heady aroma of chocolate mousse.
“That’s the last one,” Micah said. “I saved it for you.”
Alex looked down at the small pudding, his mouth watering. “Oh. Well, we could split it.” He didn’t want to split it, but he felt obliged to make the offer.
“No, it’s yours. You eat it. I know you want to.”
Alex dug his teaspoon in. He didn’t need to be told twice. “Thank you. You’re a good friend.” He sucked the chocolatey cheesy mouthful from the spoon, closing his eyes to savour the taste as it melted on his tongue. “That is so good. But I feel bad that you don’t have one.”
Micah smiled. “Don’t. Janie brought us four. I ate the other three.”
Unwilling to risk losing any of the cheesecake, Alex clamped his mouth shut and laughed through his nose. “And I thought you were being so generous,” he said when he was finally able to swallow. It felt good to laugh.
“Dude, chocolate cheesecake. You’re lucky you got that one.”
Alex took a second bite. “What time’s the meeting?”
“Midday at Janie’s. Leon said they were using the morning to do something Bates came up with. I didn’t ask what. I should probably have offered to help, but...” He shrugged.
“Have you been home at all?”
Micah shook his head, looking down into his yoghurt pot. “I didn’t feel like going back out.”
“I’m sorry. I haven’t been much use.”
In many ways, Micah had lost more than him, and yet Alex was the one who’d gone to pieces. He was ashamed of himself. Not for the first time, he wished he had Micah’s strength of character.
Micah leaned back and stared out the window. “To be honest, I didn’t really want to talk about it either. It was just...” He shrugged and swallowed another spoonful of yoghurt. “I didn’t want to be on my own.”
Lying in bed, Alex had thought he wanted to be left alone. Now he knew he didn’t. Just knowing Micah was there had helped. “I know what you mean.”
“Plus,” Micah said, “me and the sofa, we’ve bonded.”
Alex carefully peeled away a sliver of his dwindling cheesecake, trying to make it last as long as possible. “I worry about you sometimes.”
“You ready to go out into the big, wide world again?”
Micah scraped out the last of his yoghurt and tossed the empty pot into the sink without getting up. “It’s not like we have a choice.”
“Then it doesn’t really matter how ready we are. After we’ve dealt with Boot, then we’ll get a proper rest.”
“In a country full of flesh eating monsters?”
“Rest is a relative term.”
They were silent as Alex chased the last few crumbs of cheesecake base with his spoon.
“Are you really going to do it?” Micah said. “Kill Boot I mean?”
Alex leaned back in his chair. “I’ve been killing monsters for three weeks. What’s one more?”
“It’s just, I remember you saying, back when we first came across Gaz and friends, that you didn’t think you could kill an uninfected person.”
Alex studied his sadly empty cheesecake container. “A lot has happened since then. Now, I’m not sure you could hold me back.”
Micah glanced at the fridge freezer where he’d used two of Alex’s novelty magnets to fix the photo of his family he’d been carrying around with him to the door. “I’m not sure I would even try.”
. . .
The meeting to discuss the defence of the city was held in Janie’s flat as she had the largest living room of the East Town group. Even so, it was a tight fit and many of those assembled were standing or sitting on cushions on the floor.
By the time Alex and Micah walked in at 12:10pm people were drinking coffee and tea, eating biscuits, and chatting in small groups. There was the briefest of pauses in the murmurs of conversation as they entered the room, glances darting their way, before the low susurration resumed. Many of those assembled greeted them. Rodney Cutter nodded at Alex. Alex hadn’t seen him since the second day of the outbreak and he was glad to see his partner was all right. Neither Beth nor Carrie were with him. Micah was clearly disappointed.
Sam waved to Alex from across the room, beckoning him over to where he was seated on the sofa next to Claire. “I saved you a seat,” Sam said, patting the cushion next to him.
“Thanks, Sam,” Alex said, glad of the comfortable seat.
Micah stood staring down at him, eyebrows raised. Alex sighed and shifted closer to Sam and Micah wedged himself into the gap. The four of them on the three-seater sofa was a squeeze and Alex had to press close to Sam. When they’d first met he would have felt awkward, but now he understood Sam better he didn’t mind. Besides which, by the way he gazed at her Sam seemed to appreciate being close to Claire a lot more than being close to Alex.
“I missed you,” Sam said. “Are you feeling better?”
“I think I am thanks. How about you?”
He felt Sam’s shrug against his shoulder. “I’ve been doing a lot of stuff, like shifts as a spotter, and I’ve been out with the food distribution teams twice. And this morning I went with Ben, Dave, Leon, Penny and Janie to fix cables to buildings.”
“Fix cables to buildings?” Micah said, leaning forward so he could look at Sam across Alex.
“Mr Bates thinks we can use them to stop Mr Boot’s helicopters. There are two outside here.” He pointed to towards the front of the building. “Didn’t you see them?”
Micah shook his head and looked at Alex.
“I didn’t see anything,” Alex replied. “Maybe we should look up more.”
“Well, they aren’t hard to miss if you don’t know they’re there,” Sam said. “That’s the point, so they just fly into them.” He chewed his lower lip. “I don’t really want anyone to get hurt though.”
“We might not be able to avoid it,” Alex said.
Sam sighed. “I know.”
A steaming mug descended into Alex’s field of vision and he took it, glancing up at the tall, blond man who’d brought him and Micah coffee.
“Thanks, Logan,” he said to Janie’s twenty-three year old son.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sam’s smile disappear.
Logan held out a plate. “Biscuit?”
Both Micah and Alex took a bourbon cream. Sam shook his head.
“Claire?” Logan said.
From her place on the other side of Sam, Claire looked up from where she’d been talking to Kenny and flashed Logan a smile, taking a digestive from the plate. “Thanks.”
Alex felt Sam tense next to him.
Logan winked at her. “Anytime.”
Sam shifted, dropping his gaze to his lap.
Alex had assumed from how close they’d been during their time at Omnav that Sam and Claire would have been even closer by now. Apparently, that wasn’t the case. Alex felt for Sam. The young man was obviously crazy about her.
It made Alex think of Hannah and he carefully pushed her face from his mind. He needed to keep it together.
The general murmur of conversation in the room came to a sudden halt as a shrill whistle pierced the air.
“I think Janie might be trying to get our attention,” Micah muttered, nodding towards her where she stood in front of the TV.
“Welcome to my childhood,” Logan said before going to find a vacant cushion on the floor.
“Okay people,” Janie said, “we all know why we’re here. The psychotic jerk with the power to control eater hordes is on his way. Basically, we’re up that creek and our paddle has been eaten by a crocodile, so we need ideas. Bates?”
Bates stepped forward. One of his lackeys - Paul, Peter, Pancake, something like that, Alex couldn’t remember exactly - followed and Blu-tacked a huge map to the wall. It looked very much like the map of the city Alex had seen in Bates’ office weeks ago, although it had lost all the red dots Bates had used to mark out the homes of Survivors.
“We can’t say for sure what Harvey Boot has planned,” Bates said, “but we can be sure it will involve hordes of eaters. We could be looking at something of a siege situation here before long, so we need to be prepared. MacCallum and Clarke are going to be trying to stop Boot before he gets here, but in the event that fails we need to be prepared to take out large amounts of eaters. So we’re here to brainstorm. Let’s hear your ideas.”
Alex leaned close to Micah. “We’re doing what?”
“I’ll tell you later.”
A plethora of suggestions followed, every one of which was written down, no matter how outlandish. Some of them actually sounded like they had a chance of working. As eaters couldn’t swim water featured heavily, and it was clear the river would be a large part of their defence.
“Maybe we could dowse them in paraffin and set them on fire,” Logan said after a while.
“NO!” Alex and Micah yelled at the same time.
Bates frowned. “That doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me. With the way they stick close together, the fire would spread quickly.”
“We’ve seen what happens when you set an eater on fire,” Micah said. “Believe me, all it does is make them even harder to kill.”
“Imagine an eater in this room right now,” Micah said. Everyone gazed into space as they conjured up the scenario. “Now imagine that eater on fire.”
Eyes widened. Heads nodded. A few people said, “Ohhh,” as understanding dawned.
It was universally agreed not to set any eaters on fire.
Alex was quiet through the whole meeting. The reality of what was coming was weighing increasingly heavily on him, bringing with it an unhealthy dose of guilt. Boot wasn’t coming for his friends and neighbours. He wasn’t even coming for Micah. He was coming for Alex, and everyone here would get caught in the crossfire.
Just like Hannah had.
After an hour, he couldn’t take it anymore. Not saying anything, he stood, made his way across the packed room, and left. Heart pounding, he almost ran down the corridor to the street to breathe in the fresh air.
When the door to Janie’s building opened behind him, he didn’t have to turn around to know who it was.
“You know this isn’t your fault.”
Alex stared up into the overcast sky, his mood greyer than the low clouds. “Do I?”
“Well if you don’t, you should.” Micah walked up beside him, his hands pushed into the back pockets of his jeans, and followed his gaze. “I wonder how eaters feel about rain. Do they prefer to not get wet like the rest of us?”
“He’s coming for me,” Alex said. “How can I not feel guilty? I’m bringing this down on everyone here.”
“Boot’s insane, you know that. He was just waiting for someone to take out his pent up lunacy on. You were simply convenient. It could as easily have been me, one of the docs, a passing rabbit, anyone. It just happened to be you. You were actually a pretty random choice for his vitriol. Face it, you’re just not that special.”
“Are you trying to make me feel better?”
Micah shrugged one shoulder. “Is it working?”
“Well, I gave it my best shot. It also happens to be true.”
Alex sighed. “If I left, if Boot knew I wasn’t here...”
“He may attack Sarcester anyway, just to use it for target practice, and then how would you feel? Besides, for all you know he’s not even coming here for you. Brian, Ben and Rick worked for him for years, he could be coming after them. Or maybe he’s coming to get Dave, Pauline and Larry back to work on the virus. Or he could be after me for blowing up his lab. Or it could be option E: he’s a maniac who doesn’t need a reason. We have no idea what’s going through his twisted brain.” He crossed his arms and leaned against a parked car. “Those people in there, your friends, they’d do anything for you. And they’re tough and savvy so let them. Together, I think we have a good chance of stopping Boot, no matter what he throws at us. And he has to be stopped. He can’t be allowed to sell this new virus to the rest of the world. It has to end here, and we have to end it.”
They were silent while Alex thought through everything Micah had said. He hated to admit it, but he was right. They didn’t know what Boot’s motivations were. If only it was as simple as running and leading Boot away, he would do it in a heartbeat.
“Remind me again why we have to be the ones to stop him?” Alex said.
Micah shrugged. “I’m still trying to work that one out myself.”
At the sound of the door opening behind them Alex looked round to see Leon and Sam walk out.
“You all right?” Leon said.
Alex glanced at Micah. “Yeah, I’m all right.”
Sam walked over to him. “You don’t have to worry about us, we’ll be okay. You can just do your superhero Survivor stuff and catch Boot and we’ll stop the eaters. We have lots of good ideas. Everything’s going to be okay.”
Alex wished he shared Sam’s optimism, but he smiled anyway. “I’m sure you’re right.”
Darren Frobisher attempted to relieve the stiffness in his long legs by flexing his muscles without moving.
When the dull ache remained, he shifted in his seat a little, hoping the tiny movement wouldn’t upset the balance of the helicopter. To his relief, they didn’t plummet to a fiery death. After waiting half a minute to be certain, he got up the courage to move some more, inching around until he was stretched out sideways. Next to him, Harris threw him an irritated look as his own legroom shrank. Darren shrugged and mouthed an insincere apology, but didn’t pull his legs back. At a mere six foot three, Harris was one of the smallest of Harvey Boot’s security force. Darren’s extra half a foot needed the space more than he did.
He glanced out the window next to him at the predominantly green scenery flying by beneath them and immediately snapped his gaze back up, his heart pounding. Mile upon mile of fields, towns and villages were passing, but he didn’t need to see them from this high up. And eater hordes of course. Always the eater hordes.
Attempting to ignore the very long drop beneath them, Darren looked over at the second helicopter off to their left. He could just see Chester inside, sitting next to Tim Pinner in the pilot’s seat. Behind them Jessup’s large frame mostly obscured their boss, Harvey Boot, and beyond him the two women. Boot probably got a perverted thrill at seeing his creations roaming the countryside, either devouring or infecting everyone they found.
The third helicopter was somewhere behind them, but he didn’t dare twist around enough to see it. Turning to the front, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Here they were, flying a couple of hundred miles in these ridiculously small and fragile machines, and for what?
When Darren started working for Boot six years ago, it had been primarily for the money. Yes, he’d had to move halfway across the country from his home in Bristol, but it felt good to have a change, especially after he’d caught his girlfriend of three years cheating on him with a friend he’d known since school. A fresh start was exactly what he needed, and he admired Harvey Boot. The man had clawed his way to the top, taking over one of the most powerful corporations in the country. If Darren was going to get anywhere, he couldn’t do much better than learning from Harvey Boot.
Now, though, he wasn’t so sure. Not that he would ever say anything to anyone. There was always the danger something like that could make its way back to his boss and he’d seen firsthand what happened to those who dared to speak out. He’d even been complicit in it, even though he was strictly following orders. But those people had been stupid, putting themselves in a fight they had no chance of winning. Darren felt no shame for what he’d done. They’d brought what happened to them down on themselves. The world, their part of it at least, had changed. Self-preservation was what would keep him alive and, if he was smart about it, he could even come out on top.
He just wished coming out on top didn’t have to involve so much flying.
Boot’s helicopter began its descent towards the city of Cambridge and Darren’s stomach lurched as they followed. Despite his reluctance to look down, he couldn’t help admiring the historic universities clustered around the river Cam, their ancient architecture now unappreciated by the thousands upon thousands of eaters roaming the streets in huge hordes. He suppressed a shiver and looked away.
After all this was over, he intended to go somewhere completely devoid of Meir’s disease. Maybe he’d buy an island with the substantial bonus Boot had promised them once he sold the weaponised version of the virus. An island he could reach by boat. Okay, maybe he wouldn’t be getting quite enough money for an entire island, but that didn’t matter. Just so long as he never had to see another eater again.
After passing over the historic city they followed Boot’s helicopter down to the car park of a two storey hotel where they’d be spending the night. Darren closed his eyes until he felt the chopper touch the ground. Takeoffs and landings were the worst bits. Although the parts in between weren’t a lot of fun either. He opened his eyes to find Harris watching him. Darren stared back, silently daring him to say something. Harris looked away, a tiny smirk on his face.
When all three helicopters were settled, their rotors lazily easing to a standstill, Chester got out with one of the pheromone guns and fired a cartridge into the air. The couple of dozen eaters heading towards them changed direction, gathering in a group some way away beneath the detonation point.
With the immediate area clear, Darren opened his door and climbed down from the flying monstrosity. He resisted the urge to drop to his knees and kiss the ground.
“Bish, Jessup, Baxter, you’re with me,” Chester called. “Bish, bring a bug gun.”
Darren reached back into the helicopter for the pheromone gun, pocketed a few blue and green cartridges, and jogged after Chester to the front entrance of the hotel. He looked up at the blue and white sign over the doors of the blocky sixties building. Wright Hotel and Restaurant. B&B.All rooms en-suite. Satellite TV. It didn’t exactly look five star, but Darren had stayed in worse.
“Glove up,” Chester said, waggling a black-clad hand, “we don’t want any noise. Only shoot if you absolutely have to. That means life or death.” He looked at Jessup.
Jessup glared at him. “Is that supposed to be funny?”
Chester smiled. “Loosen up, Jess. This is the fun bit.”
Darren shrugged off his black suit jacket and laid it over the low wall beside the doors, then pulled a pair of the elbow length black Meir’s resistant gloves from his trouser pocket and tugged them on, rolling up his shirt sleeves so he could pull them all the way up. He wasn’t taking any chances. Beside him, Baxter did the same.
“Okay,” Chester said, “everyone ready?”
“Let’s just get it over with,” Darren said.
Why on earth was Chester so perky today? Other than because Boot’s PA, Valerie, had been back in the helicopter with him. And they were about to take over a building full of bedrooms.
Oh. That was why.
The hotel had automatic sliding doors, but they weren’t working without power. Baxter jogged back to one of the helicopters and returned with a crowbar. A few seconds later, they were into the porch area.
Darren cupped his hands around his eyes against the glass inner doors, checking inside for eaters. “Looks clear.”
Baxter crowbarred his way through and they crept into the silent lobby. To their left, a reception desk stood against one wall. Corridors extended to both sides and straight ahead.
“Bish, you and Baxter take upstairs,” Chester said. “Jess and I will take down here. If you find a big horde, use the pheromones. Otherwise, knives only.”
A broad staircase hugged the wall to their right and Darren led the way, listening for moans. At the top a wide corridor branched left and right. Darren turned left, motioning for Baxter to take right.
Doors lined both sides of the hallway to where it turned at a corner some way ahead. The first was locked. Darren knocked. After a few seconds, something thudded against the other side of the door. Hearing a faint moan, he sighed, knowing he’d have to come back with the key and kill it. He moved on, hoping there wouldn’t be any more.
The next four doors were unlocked and a quick search of the rooms beyond confirmed them to be empty. He reached the corner and turned right, directly into the path of an eater. The woman focused its vacant eyes on him, opening its mouth in a rasping moan as it grasped his right wrist.
He dropped the pheromone gun, grunting in pain, and tried to pull away, but the eater was too strong. He jerked his arm away from its snapping mouth, fumbling with his free hand for the knife sheathed at his side. The eater reached for him with its other hand. Clenching his right fist and locking his elbow, he swung the eater against the wall with all his strength, managing to twist the arm gripping his wrist behind it. He kicked at the back of its knee and the eater fell, pulling Darren down on top of it.
“Damn, woman, let go,” he groaned, grimacing. It felt like all the bones in his wrist were being crushed.
With his body pinning the eater face down on the floor, he finally managed to unclip the knife sheath and, with some awkward squirming, pulled the ten inch blade free. The grip on his wrist finally relaxed when he pushed it into the eater’s ear
Darren breathed out.
“Would you two like some time alone?” Baxter stood a few feet away, a smirk on his face.
“How long have you been there?” Darren said as he climbed off the eater’s back. He wiped blood and brain matter from the knife blade onto the woman’s floral blouse and slid it back into its sheath.
Baxter shrugged. “Not long. You seemed to have it under control.”
Darren didn’t reply, doubting Baxter would have helped even if the eater had been about to shred him into mincemeat. He shook out his wrist then probed it gently, relieved to find it seemed to be in one piece.
“Have you finished your end yet?” he said when Baxter didn’t move.
“No. Just waiting to see if you need any more rescuing.”
Darren wanted to punch the smirk off his face. Instead, he turned away and headed for the next door, annoyed, and walked in without checking first.
A wooden chair hit his shoulder.
He staggered back against the doorframe as a man and woman darted past him into the hallway. There was the sound of a fist hitting a face.
Regaining his balance, Darren ran back outside. He found Baxter clutching his jaw with one hand while aiming his pistol around the corner with the other.
Lunging at him, Darren smacked the gun down. Along the hallway, the young couple reached the stairs and disappeared out of sight.
“What the hell are you doing?!” Baxter snapped.
“They were just a couple of kids hiding out here. They didn’t deserve to get shot for it.”
Baxter glared at him and holstered his pistol. “If you ever do that to me again, I’ll....” He stopped, drawing in a breath and looking away.
“You’ll what, Baxter? Tell me, what are you going to do?”
Baxter shook his head, scowling, and stalked back towards his side of the building. Darren got the distinct impression he’d have a bullet in his head right now if it wasn’t for the fact that Boot would be very unhappy if he lost one of his guards. He would have smiled at the irony if he wasn’t so angry. How did he end up in this? That island was looking more and more tempting, and not just to get away from the eaters.
There was no one else on the first floor, eater or otherwise, and Darren fetched the key to the room with the eater trapped inside and dispatched it with a knife into the eye socket with the door open just enough to give him access. Jessup took both bodies outside. Darren didn’t know where he put them. It didn’t really matter since they were only going to be here for one night.
The couple he’d disturbed had escaped out the front and run before anyone could stop them. Feeling a rare twinge of guilt for having driven them from their hiding place, Darren hoped they made it.
With the building secure and their group of twenty-five moved in, they shifted the eaters outside closer to guard the front doors. It was still only early afternoon so with Chester, Boot and Valerie going over their plan for the following day and the rest of Boot’s bodyguards occupied with various duties, Darren found a book, settled into his room, and took advantage of the opportunity to relax in relative comfort and safety.
Before things got really unpleasant tomorrow.
“They’re still there.”
Alex lowered to his stomach and used his elbows to shuffle up beside Micah at the top of the bank. Flattening himself into the tall, scrubby grass, he stared down at the horde.
“At least they aren’t eating anymore,” he said.
He looked to his right, spotting Jean’s dark red estate near the front of the extensive pile-up of cars, vans, military vehicles, a very large lorry lying on its side, and one tank. The door was still open. It had been almost two weeks since they’d rescued her and almost been caught by the same horde they were watching now. Alex wondered how she was.
When they’d first been here, the horde was feeding. Alex and Micah had hoped the eaters would have wandered off in the intervening time. They hadn’t. Now they were simply milling around, the asphalt beneath them stained a deep brownish red and covered with shreds of clothing and stark, white bones.