Chapter Twenty One
The next few days had been easier and though grief seemed to lurk like a black cat on Friday the 13th, waking up each morning wasn’t such a challenge.
Zeke had been distant for the first half of the day after she had told him about Ryan, but he soon came to and became a constant presence. He had been quiet but he had warmed up to the group that came with her despite his obvious dislike for the City.
“We’ll leave for the town tomorrow,” Chris told them at dinner, “you’re all coming?” He asked, to which they all nodded. “Good. We’ll leave at sunrise.”
“What’s the aim of going into the town tomorrow?” Zeke asked.
“We’ll take a group of twenty-six and some of the dogs. Half of the group will take the dogs and work towards clearing out the rest of the town from infected. The other half will be split into one group of six and one group of seven. The group of six will act as scouts and try to see what’s going on in the hospital, and the group of seven will search around that area to see if they can find any more information.
“And this Doctor you were talking about, what do we do if worst comes to worst and he actually is experimenting on humans?”
“Then we take him down.” Cheyenne said grimly. “I’ll be a part of the group of scouts tomorrow, and I’ve chosen five other people who I know are well experienced with weapons and can trust to hold their own. You two,” She said, nodding towards Kel and Ariana. “You’ll both be with me. You city folk have to have experience in sneaking about.” The pair shared a look at that.
“What about the rest of us?” Isabelle asked.
“You, Gwen and Isiah will be with those who are clearing out the town, and Riley and Zeke will be searching for information.”
“How long do you plan on being out there?” Victor asked, having joined them for dinner that night. It had been one of the very few appearances she had seen of Victor since arriving, and she could tell that the man had changed immensely. He seemed cold and was definitely no longer the friendly man who had tried to comfort her by the fireside. It felt like so long ago.
“Hopefully only a few hours, back here before dinner.” James said. “But if worst comes to worst, we’ll send some people back for reinforcements.”
“What do you know about this Doctor?”
The group shared a look. “Next to nothing.” Chris admitted. “If we can get the diary entries from the hospital tomorrow, they might have some information on him. One of the guys calls him Doctor Batshit, which I’m pretty sure explains itself.”
“Do you feel safe sending people into the hospital when you’re aware of his presence there?”
“Not really.” Cheyenne answered for the group. “But that’s why the most experienced of the group will be going in, and we’ll avoid their floor at all costs.”
“We already lost two people the other day.” Victor said quietly. “We can’t afford to lose anymore.”
“It’s necessary though.” James argued. “If we don’t, we’ll never find a cure. Gwen is infected and we weren’t quick enough in acting to get her away. It’s a matter of time before we all get infected. In fact, it’s a miracle that none of us are infected yet.”
“That’s because Gwen’s infection is moving much slower.” Riley said. “Someone who had an infection that was moving at an average rate would’ve turned weeks ago. She’s not as infectious as someone who had a weaker immune system.”
“That’s great and all.” Leigh said, “But it doesn’t change the fact that she’s infected, and as James said, it’s a matter of time until we’re all infected, and I doubt that the disease is going to move as slowly for us as it does her.”
“It’s about a one in a hundred chance.” Riley said, “It’s not exactly rare.”
“But that doesn’t mean that it’s safe to assume that we’ve all been blessed with a strong immune system.” Zeke said. “I mean, Ryan was infected after Gwen, and he-” He struggled with the word for a moment, “died quickly.”
“He had a weaker immune system, I’m guessing.” Riley said.
“Who’s to say that we all don’t have weaker immune systems?” Victor asked.
“Then we’ll know in a few days.” Riley told him. “But for now, we ignore that risk and we work on finding a cure. Surely you’ve accepted that you’re going to die anyway if we don’t find it, and Gwen has already offered herself as a test subject for the cure.”
“Which is very valiant of her, but you just told us that she has a stronger immune system. The cure might work on her, but might not work on others that have weaker immune systems.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.” Chris interrupted. “Right now, we worry about even having the means to find a cure.”
“What if we die before we get that far?” Gwen asked quietly.
“Then it means that we at least tried.”
“But trying isn’t enough.”
“It’ll have to be.” Zeke said. “We keep on trying until we can’t anymore.”
“Gwen.” Riley shook her awake, looking slightly frustrated. “Come on. We need to get moving.”
“Shit. What time is it?”
“Almost sunrise. We’re leaving soon.”
Gwen groaned but dragged herself out of bed. She quickly changed, and wrapped her hands around the hilt of the knife that she had been assigned the other day at the hospital, staring down at it. It was the typical knife from a kitchen, the black plastic was rough and the blade was stained, both obviously from the heat of a dishwasher. It was such a mundane everyday object, yet she felt trepidation every time she looked at it.
She still hadn’t used it yet but she knew that she probably would have to soon. She hated knowing that she would have to kill even if it was against the infected. To her, they were still people and she wasn’t sure if she could end their lives, not after seeing Ryan fight against the disease to try to save her.
“Do you think that the infected are aware of their actions?” She asked Riley, watching as he rummaged through his backpack.
“I’m not sure.” He said, shrugging. “I mean, in the City we were always told that the mind gives out before the disease can fully take over but I never believed that.”
“What do you believe?”
“I think that in some cases the infected are aware of what they’re doing, but they just can’t stop themselves. That or they enjoy it.” He shrugged again.
“Ryan was aware.” Gwen told him, silently choking on his name. “He-” She paused, unsure of how to describe it. “He was fighting with the infected part of his mind.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know how to explain it really, but it was like the infected part of his mind was more... dominant, but Ryan would fight through and try to save me.”
Riley hummed and took a moment to answer. “It might have been the cure trying to work, but it wasn’t strong enough. I’ve never heard of that happening before, so I can’t really say. Don’t let it trouble you too much. They’re all monsters once the disease takes over.”
“Okay” Gwen said but she couldn’t quite shrug the feeling away.
The trek to the city seemed easier this time and wasn’t quite as exhausting, although that may have been from the company of the dogs and the chipper moods of everyone. It seemed that way, though they all had quite a morning ahead of them.
“Alright.” Chris said, stopping the group on the outskirts of the town. “We’re splitting into three groups, and you all know where to go. Separate into your groups now, please.”
Zeke nudged her shoulder before stepping away from her, and she swallowed back her nervousness as she watched Ariana and Kel stand near Cheyenne. She hated the thought that they would be going into the hospital. What if they got caught by the Doctor? Many of them had taken to calling him Doctor Batshit, which at first she had found amusing but now it worried her. Someone who was insane would likely have very few morals and probably wouldn’t have all that many problems going against them anyway.
She felt slightly reassured when she found out that all of the people going into the hospital would all carry weapons; a gun and knife each, as well as something that they could easily defend themselves with. Kel had a baseball bat sticking out of his backpack, and Ariana had a crowbar in her hands. Still… she worried.
She also worried about Zeke and Riley. They were in the least risky group, but she couldn’t not worry about them. What if they came into contact with someone else who wasn’t the Doctor but just as crazy?
Strangely enough, she felt little worry for her own group even though they would be fighting against the infected. The infected weren’t healthy people with fully functioning minds, they were sick and even though Gwen thought they might be aware, it didn’t mean that their brains functioned as well as someone who was uninfected. It also helped that they were the largest group and she knew that she could trust everyone in her group, despite never meeting over half of them. The dogs were another thing that didn’t make her worry about her group.
She had been reassured numerous times that they were fiercely loyal and would stop at nothing to protect the group and though she had her doubts about the Jack Russell up against the infected, she had seen the dogs interact with each other and knew for a fact that the giant German shepherd would stop at nothing to protect its tiny companion.
“Don’t worry.” Isiah said, offering her a real smile when she looked at him. “Kel and Ariana have held their own against worse, and Riley is stronger than he looks.” She recalled that from one of their talks a while back. “And I have absolutely no doubts in Zeke’s skills, and we’re pretty awesome ourselves. Besides, look the size of some of the dogs with us. We’ll be fine, no doubt about it.”
“I’m not even trained with a weapon.” She admitted to him. “I’m just hoping that I don’t have to use one.”
“I hate to break it to you, but that’s a fool’s hope in this world.”
“Here, let me show you while we’ve got a moment. Get your knife out.” He stood in front of her, holding his knife out. She mirrored his stance.
“You have to stand with your feet wide to brace yourself, because otherwise you run the risk of being put off balance.” She nodded. “Okay, to stab, you can’t expect the knife to do all the work. You have to put effort into it, because you’ll be cutting through skin and muscle. Put some of your weight behind a stab, but if you have to stab someone in the skull, for instance, you have to use all of your strength to put it through the bone.”
“I’m not that strong.” She told him, and he shook his head.
“Trust me; you’ll get this down easily. When you need to act in self-defence, you’ll be amazed at how strong you actually are and the infected usually have quite weak bones because they’ve deteriorated. Now, to slash…”
Feeling newly confident after Isiah’s brief lesson, she was ready to leave. Though she couldn’t say that she was ready to use her weapon, she could at least say that she knew how to use it somewhat.
“It’ll come to you.” Isiah had told her and she hoped that he was right.
“Alright.” Chris called. “We’re ready to go?” He asked, nodding after the group had shouted their affirmations. “Right, James will take the people who are gathering information through now. Good luck.”
The group quickly went into the town, disappearing from sight in a matter of seconds. The other groups were forced to wait outside for quite some time.
“What’re we waiting for?” Gwen asked Leigh, who was once again in her group.
“Waiting for the alarm to be raised. If there’s a swarm of infected or people in there, we don’t want to all be separated and stuck in the town.”
“Right, Cheyenne, take your group in now. Good luck.” Again, there was a brief waiting period before Chris nodded to the last group.
“Okay, let’s go.”
And then they entered the town.
Despite her lack of want to use the knife, Gwen had found herself using it several times in less than an hour of being in the town. The parts away from the entrance had several hoards of infected and though they had been eager to sink their teeth into healthy flesh, they were weak and fell easily to the bite of the blade and the snapping jaws of the dogs. Gwen had been continually surprised by how efficiently the dogs worked. The Jack Russell had proven that it didn’t need the assistance of the larger dogs, quick and vicious. It easily evaded any of the infected attacks.
God-damn Gwen was glad that she hadn’t been faced down with an infected dog.
“Everyone alright?” Leigh called after each swarm of infected, and Gwen constantly found herself reassured by the positive answers.
“Two more hoards are around the corner.” Chris called as he jogged back to the group, the golden retriever and black lab keeping pace with him. He often went out with two of the dogs and scouted the nearby areas, coming back and informing them of where was safe and where they should avoid. “About fifteen to each. The second hoard isn’t far behind and they’ll probably get up on us while we’re taking out the first hoard.”
“Will we be able to manage that?” Isabelle asked. “There are thirteen of us and thirty of the infected. We’re fairly outnumbered.”
“We’ve gotten this far, haven’t we?”
There wasn’t any more time for discussion, because Chris was already ushering the group forwards, to meet with the infected and try to get an advantage. The dogs had taken the lead of the group, quickly meeting the infected before the group could even get close to them. Their muzzles were stained with the blood of the infected, and they were quite a terrifying sight to see when they were ripping into them.
Fighting the infected was tiring work, and Gwen’s arms were starting to ache from the amount of strain she had put on them but she still forced herself to fight. She easily utilised Isiah’s lessons, slashing her knife along the throat of one of the infected and forcing it into the temple of another.
“Incoming!” Someone called, and in moments the second hoard was upon them. There was a cry of pain, but Gwen didn’t have the time to check who it came from, too busy trying to push one of the infected away. She had one arm braced against its throat, but it was struggling too harshly for Gwen to be sure that she would hit her target with the knife.
After a few more moments of struggling, Gwen quickly grew exasperated with the infected and in a daring move, she pulled her arm back. It had been enough to knock it off balance and she took the opportunity as it fell forward and dug her knife into its skull.
She wasn’t quite strong enough to force it through the bone, and she was forced to yank her knife back and take a few steps in retreat. It seemed like the infected hardly even noticed the pain, just righted itself and advanced on her.
She readied herself to swing with the knife, but she didn’t have to. Leigh swept past her and grabbed the infected in a headlock, forcing it to its knees and slamming her knife through the skull with little difficulty. It fell limp in her arms, and she let it drop to the ground.
“Thanks.” She called, but Leigh was already off to assist another person, and Gwen followed after her actions, turning to the right. One of the younger members of the group was struggling slightly against an infected, and he had dropped his knife. There was a dog trying to assist him, but it was obviously injured and couldn’t put much weight on its front legs.
She stepped behind the infected, trying to copy Leigh’s move by taking it in a headlock but it struggled far too much for her to be able to get a good grip on her knife and stab it.
“Get it!” She called to the boy, who scrambled for his knife before he forced it through the skull. Gwen let the infected drop to the floor.
“Thanks.” The boy said.
“Don’t mention it.” She turned, ready to help another person, but the last infected was already down on its knees, with Isabelle standing over it. Gwen watched as she drove the knife down with ease, her arms not even jolting as she forced the knife through the bone, and she wondered how many times Isabelle had done that.
“Everyone alright?” Leigh called out again.
“Jacob’s got a twisted ankle.” One of the girls said, as she and another female hoisted him up between them. “But he should be right if he doesn’t put any weight on it.”
“Max has been injured.” The boy called out, and the group glanced towards the dog, sharing looks of concern. It was obvious that the dogs meant a great deal to them.
“Everyone else?” Leigh asked and there were the calls again that filled Gwen with relief no matter how many times she had already heard it that day.
“What do we do with Jacob and Max?” The other girl holding the injured man asked. “We can’t just leave them here.”
“We’ve got an apartment block from here secured.” One of the men said, Nick - if Gwen remembered correctly. “It’s not far from here. I can take them there and meet you guys here in ten minutes.”
There was no argument with that, so Nick swung Jacob into his arms, bridal style. There was a cry of indignation from Jacob, which made the entire group smother their snickers, and with a call towards the dog who trotted - with great difficulty - towards Nick. The man glanced down at the dog before nodding to one of the girls, who picked up the dog. It looked awkward, the dog was much too large to be carried but she persevered, keeping in step with Nick.
Gwen sat down on the curb with a weary sigh, and she was soon joined by Isiah and Isabelle.
“You’re not doing too terribly with the knife.” Isiah told her. “You must have had the best teacher in the world.”
“Yeah, he’s pretty great, but he’s a little bit of a narcissist.”
Isabelle laughed at that, but Isiah gave her an affronted look and cuffed her upside the head. “Excuse me,” he said, “but I happen to be the best teacher.”
“Okay, okay.” Gwen surrendered while laughing. “You’re the best teacher that I’ve ever had.”
Isiah nodded once and looked very pleased with her statement, and they mindlessly chattered among themselves for a few minutes. Chris returned from scouting in that time, bringing good news.
“Looks like there’s only a few stragglers left around here and maybe a few in the buildings, but other than that this area looks pretty clear.”
There was a cheer from the group but Leigh gave them a rueful smile. “You do realise there are three other areas that we need to clear out right?” That earned a collective groan from the group and Chris laughed, an honest to god laugh that made Gwen smile. The adrenaline made her feel giddy and made her temporarily forget about everything that was plaguing her. It was a good feeling.
“This is good though. It means that we’re making progress. The other areas will be cleared out in a matter of time.”
“How do you think the others are doing?” Someone called out, and Chris could only shrug.
“Hopefully as good as us, if not better.”
“Do you think Cheyenne’s group are having any troubles?” Isabelle asked. “They were put in one of the most risky areas, considering we can’t trust the doctor.”
“Don’t speak like that.” Chris told her. “They’re more than capable of making it in and out unharmed. They’ve probably not even alerted the Doctor of their presence.”
The group dissolved back into chatter among themselves after that until Nick and the girl returned.
“He’ll be safe for now. I iced his ankle and hopefully he’ll be able to put some weight on it by tonight, and Max is fine, he just needs to rest his leg for a while.”
“Good.” Leigh said with an appraising tone. “Now, let’s go clear out those stragglers and then call it a day.”
After a few hours, Chris had declared the area free of infected, which had raised another cheer in the group. “Tomorrow we’ll come back and we’ll start on one of the other sectors.”
They returned to the back of the outskirts two hours before sunset was due, and they settled themselves down, waiting for the other groups that were to return soon.
But by the time the sun had set, they still hadn’t returned.