and constant physical and medicinal treatment, and Kieran and the others hadn’t been in a position to provide for any of their own requirements, let alone Jerry’s. The did what they could—tried to feed him, tried to communicate, tried to keep him clean and safe and warm—but it was hopeless. It was a relief to all of them when he died in his sleep.

The decision of whether or not to stay at the castle had been a simple one for Jackson. To his surprise, he found himself thriving on the sudden responsibility of trying to coordinate the small group of people and make their castle hideout as strong, secure, and comfortable as possible.

Getting out and gathering supplies had been a priority. When Jackson had first found them, they’d been desperately ill-equipped for survival. All they’d had was a little food, the flatbed truck in which Kieran had arrived, Raymond Brinksford’s car, and Melanie’s (presumably) dead boyfriend’s souped-up and clapped-out Ford Fiesta. Kieran’s rifle (which he’d found in a house nearby) and half a box of ammo were the extent of their defenses.

Leaving the safety of the castle was a necessity, and they did all they could to reduce the risks. Kieran, Jackson, and Mel headed out for the nearest village, bulldozing their way out through the castle gate and over the bridge in Kieran’s truck, and returning several hours later with a full load and two more vehicles. Although being down among the dead was always fraught with danger, the strength of their castle hideout was such that they could afford to make as much noise coming and going as they damn well pleased, safe in the knowledge that only a fraction of the dead could reach them.

“We get out,” Jackson said, “we get what we need, then we get back. It’s as simple as that.”

And for a time it was.

In spite of the differences in their relative ages and backgrounds, Kieran and Jackson worked well together and their joint expeditions into the dead world became more audacious, bound by their shared desire to survive. They took diggers from never-to-be-completed roadworks and building sites nearby, and used them to keep the gate and the wooden bridge relatively clear. From a holiday camp by the side of a river which they spied from the gatehouse, they towed up six large caravans. Warmer and considerably more comfortable than any part of the castle including the prefabs, the caravans were used to provide additional accommodation. And that accommodation was soon needed, because as well as attracting the attention of almost every corpse for miles around, the activity in and around the castle also attracted the attention of several other pockets of survivors who’d been hiding nearby. Although not in any great numbers, people began to creep through the shadows to get to Cheetham Castle. Some broke through the lines of the dead like Jackson had on his arrival here; others waited and threw themselves at Jackson’s feet (or, more accurately, in front of his vehicle) when he and Kieran were out gathering supplies.

The number of bodies beyond the castle walls seemed not to matter so much as long as the number within the walls continued to grow too. Five people became ten, then more still. Jackson spent hours watching from the gatehouse battlements, scanning the dead world for signs of life and hoping even more people would arrive. But after a while, no more came, and the population of Cheetham Castle settled at seventeen.


eight='0em' width='0em' align='justify'>It had been almost a month since Jackson first arrived at the castle, and weeks since anyone else had made it through the hordes of bodies still gathered outside. Jackson and a handful of others sat on deckchairs around a large bonfire burning in the middle of the courtyard. Behind them, other people busied themselves in their caravans, doing all they could to keep themselves occupied, still struggling to find any semblance of normality within the bizarre surroundings of the castle walls.

“Well, I’m with you, Steve,” said Bob Wilkins, swigging from a bottle of lager. The drink made the cold night feel even colder still, but he was past caring.

“Me too,” Sue Preston, sitting next to him, said. A short woman, the amount of extra clothing she had on tonight made her appear round, almost double her normal size.

Steve Morecombe—a tax inspector until his job had been added to the apparently endless list of now completely redundant vocations last September—looked at each of the others in turn. He zipped up his anorak as high as it would go, then turned back to face Jackson. “You’re the boss. It’s your call.”

“This is bullshit,” Kieran protested. Jackson silenced him with a glance, then knocked back another slug of whiskey-tinged coffee and winced at the bitter aftertaste.

“Not bullshit, Kieran,” he said. “Common sense.”

“It’s got nothing to do with common sense,” Kieran argued. “It’s because this lot are too damn scared to —”

Jackson glared at him again, and he immediately became quiet.

“First things first,” Jackson said, returning his attention to everyone else, sniffing back the cold and wiping his nose on the back of one of his fingerless gloves. “I’m not the boss. I don’t want any of you turning around and pointing fingers at me if this all goes belly-up. We’re all in this together, okay?” A few quiet mumbles. No dissention, not even from Kieran. “I think Steve and Bob are right.”

“It makes sense,” Bob said. “The way I see it, we’ve done all the hard work we need to for now. We’ve stockpiled enough to get us through the winter, and no one new has turned up here for weeks. We need to start focusing more on those that are already here, and forget about everything that’s going on on the other side of the wall until it’s safe. If we think we can batten down the hatches and survive the winter with what we’ve already got here, then I think that’s what we should do.”

“Agreed,” said Steve, rubbing his hands in front of the fire.

“I think you’re wrong,” Kieran said. “You’re making a mistake. Things are going to start getting easier out there, not harder.”

“Maybe in another couple of months,” Bob argued, “but not yet. I think there’s worse to come before things get any better, and if we don’t have to take any risks, then we shouldn’t be taking any.”

Jackson looked at Bob, then over at Kieran on the other side of the fire, trying to gauge his reaction. The arguments continued, and he stared into the flames, concentrating on the glowing embers and hoping to shut out the noise by focusing on the crackle and pop of burning wood.

“The risks are minimal, the potential gains are huge,” Kieran said.

“A risk’s a risk,” Bob replied, “no two ways about it.”

“We should put it to a vote.”

“You know you’d lose. Face it, Kieran, you’re the only one who wants to keep going out there.”

“Bull. Mel said she’d go if—”

“Way I see it is this,” Jackson said, cutting across all of them, tired of the bickering. “What Bob and Steve are saying makes sense, and Kieran, I think you’re wrong. But the thing is, if we do this, then everyone has to buy in and we all have to follow the same rules. Food and drink will need to be carefully controlled so we don’t run short. Folks have to be free to leave here if they’re not happy, but they need to know that if they willingly walk away, we’ll not be chasing after them. Agreed?”

He looked around at the people sitting with him.

“Fair enough,” said Sue, sinking deeper into her seat, her face disappearing into her padded jacket.

“Kieran? You know you can’t go out on your own.”

At first Kieran didn’t react. Jackson stared at him until he grudgingly mumbled, “Okay.”

“I’m in,” Steve said. “I’d rather bloody starve myself for a couple of months than go out there again unnecessarily.”

“Probably do you good, you fat bastard!” Bob joked, relieved that the conversation had gone his way.

“So let’s do it,” Jackson announced, “and we’ll see how things go. I say we should keep the gate locked until those fuckers out there have rotted down to nothing. You reckon that’s going to be six months maximum, Sue?”

“Give or take,” she replied. “But don’t forget, I was a sister on a children’s ward, not a mortuary nurse. It was my job to try and keep people alive, not watch them after they’d died.”

“The only exception,” Jackson continued, ignoring her negativity, “the only exception, mind, is if we get wind of there being other people like us nearby. I don’t much fancy sticking my arse

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