In the end, it was his ailing prostate that saved the Professor.
That dream again. He was walking along the riverbed; the tide had gone out, and for about an hour just after sunrise, you could walk all the way across the sandy silt from one bank to the other. But he wasn’t walking across the river Teign, he was walking in the middle of the channel, downstream and out to sea. He passed people from his life, stranded on the riverbed in small boats, waiting for the tide to come back in. They all warned him: it was coming soon; he had to get out, or get in one of their boats. His mother’s plea was probably the most forceful, but she had the same glazed look in her eyes as all the others, as she’d had the last time he’d seen her, and he just smiled at her, as he’d smiled at all the others, that winning smile that had softened so many hearts over the years, and kept on walking towards the oncoming tide.
Even before it happened, he knew what was coming next. He was walking barefoot, the sand still wet between his toes, which weren’t as wrinkly as they should have been. A few tiny crabs scuttled away to his right, clacking their claws at each other. He looked backed too late to stop his foot coming down on the pearlescent seashell, a jolt of pain arcing up his leg. He took off his scarf and wrapped it round his foot: he didn’t want to get sand in the wound. When he next looked up, he could see the tide approaching, an impossibly high wall of black water charging at him like a ferocious tsunami. Normally at this point he would turn around and start running away from the water-wall, but that time he became aware of a nagging sensation. It took him a few moments to work out what it was, when the water was nearly upon him; just as he was about to be consumed by the torrent, he forced his eyes open: he needed the toilet.
“Bugger your bloody bladder, old man,” the Professor whispered, uncurling himself from the warm folds of his sleeping bag and putting on his boots and his jacket. No sooner had his eyes adjusted to the gloom, than he was pooled in torchlight; he shielded his face from the light, and could make out the shape of a man holding the flashlight a few metres away. It must’ve been Adam, the Professor thought, whose turn it was to be on watch. He gave his friend a thumbs up and a smile, and the torch bobbed up and down, like a nod, before it swivelled away and the old man was in darkness once more.
As was his custom, he packed up all his possessions and took them with him when he went to the toilet. The others thought he was crazy for doing so, and sometimes his bursting bladder agreed, but you could never be too careful in these times – what if something happened while he was away from the main camp? He was about to find out.
The group had decided long ago that they wouldn’t stay put in one place for more than a week. Even if they found somewhere that seemed like utopia, they would leave within 7 days: nowhere was absolutely safe now, and the longer they stayed somewhere, the greater the risk of being discovered, it was felt, and the more complacent they were likely to get. They had spent the last 3 nights camping outside, which they had not done for a while, especially not this late in the year, but they’d struggled to find anywhere else, and, until then, the greenery of Richmond Park had served them well enough.
The bark of the tree began to steam as the Professor relieved himself against it. Just as he was finishing, he heard a noise from the camp. It sounded very much like a scream. The second noise was unmistakably a scream, but he couldn’t tell whether a man, woman or child had made it, so little did it sound like a human being. Having zipped up, he rushed back to the camp (the thought to run away did occur to him briefly, but he didn’t give it any serious consideration); there was more screaming and shouting, and there were lights, and there was movement. He crouched down by one of the tents, slightly out of breath, and peered towards the centre of the camp, where sometimes they’d make a fire, if it was deemed safe enough. There were men – and women – in uniforms everywhere, at least 20 of them. They were chasing after those who were trying to run away, and pinning down others where they had been sleeping. Nearby, two of the soldiers were holding down Lizzie, who at 13 was the youngest member of the group. She was screaming at the top of her lungs, and writhing around beneath them with what seemed like impossible energy and strength, almost breaking free from their grip once or twice. Eventually she lay still, and the soldiers let her up.
At that moment something knocked the Professor onto his back. He looked up to see Adam’s terrified face staring down at him.
“Shit, Professor, sorry!” he said in a loud whisper. “We’ve got to run: there’s too many of them; I set off the fuse; it’s going to bl—” A gunshot, and a surprised look on Adam’s face as he fell sideways with a hole in his head.
The Professor looked back, he could see Lizzie pointing in their direction and one of the soldiers aiming a pistol. He tried to get to his feet, but something grabbed his leg.
Two more gunshots.
The Professor opened his eyes. He was breathing hard, and he could feel the sweat beaded on his forehead. Something was wrong: there hadn’t been gunshots then; the only round that had been let off in the whole attack on the camp had been the one to kill Adam. He was sure of it. In which case, the gunshots must have been here, now. Moreover, they’d been loud: they must have been close. He was already sitting up, his sleeping bag slumped against the wall in a medium sized utility closet that he’d decided to call home for the night. There was an extractor vent in the closet wall which backed out onto an alley (he’d done his reconnaissance before actually going to sleep). He’d stuffed some socks between the blades of the vent’s fan, to afford a little more insulation, but they obviously hadn’t done much in the way of blocking out noise: he could hear voices coming from the alley. There was something strange about them, which at first he put down to sock-muffling, but even after he’d carefully stood up and removed the items of clothing, the voices didn’t sound right; he could make out that there were two of them, one male and one female, but there was just something about them that — it was a recording! His eyes lit up for a moment at the discovery, and he even smiled to himself: no matter how old he got, or how banal the realisations, he still got a genuine buzz from those little eureka moments.
It didn’t take long for the Professor to decide to investigate. He gathered up his things, rolled up his sleeping bag, and headed outside, through the abandoned betting shop that he was squatting in. Either the owner had been killed, or had been infected and dedicated his time to other things; or, the Professor mused, his brain unable to stand still, even then, maybe the Infected just didn’t gamble? Maybe they thought it was a wasteful use of resources. Once upon a time, he’d enjoyed a flutter on the races, but that seemed like a different life now. There was a sign behind what had been the betting counter: Chances of not being infected tomorrow: 1000/1. Bet now! He hadn’t noticed it on his way in; he stared at it for a few moments, wondering who’d put it up, and when, before tearing himself away.
As stealthily as he was able, the old man snuck out the front of the shop – it was a quiet street and so he didn’t feel he was taking on too much risk by doing so – and peered round the corner of the building down the alley, just in time to see something fly across it and smash into the opposite wall. The Professor ducked his head back round the corner of the betting shop, and pressed himself flat against the wall. He listened, but it was deathly still, and after a little while his curiosity got the better of him again, and he peeked round into the alley once more.
This time he could make out the two bodies, slumped awkwardly on one side of the alley. There was a third shape lying opposite them, where the object had been hurled from. For a split second, he thought he could hear sobbing, but he couldn’t be sure. Many people would not have gone into the alley, for who knew what was waiting there: maybe it was some sort of trap, or maybe it was just the perfect place to get shot accidentally. The Professor wasn’t like most people, however: first, he wanted to know what had happened in that small space; second, and more importantly, he sensed that the third figure needed help – maybe he or she was even dying.
The Professor stepped out into the mouth of the alleyway, holding his hands up in the air to show he wasn’t carrying anything. He took a few, not deliberately quiet, steps forward; the closer he got to the recumbent figure, the more sure he became that it was a man, and that he had a rifle next to him.
“Excuse me!” he called out, his voice both cheery and concerned at the same time. “I’d be extremely grateful if you could find it in yourself not to shoot an old man.” The Professor advanced towards the figure slowly, but relentlessly, his hands still up by his head.
“But if you’re determined to stay out here and die of exposure, I’m afraid I’m going to have to join you.”