"How much further do you think it is?" I hissed, trying to resist the urge to break into a faster stroke and get the hell out of here.
"We should be about half way across by now."
God. Please let us be faster swimmers than they were walkers. I tried to remember how deep the river was. I was pretty sure that it went as deep as fifteen meters in part but I had a sinking feeling that the area around the airport was considerably shallower, as only dinghies travelled along it.
About thirty feet behind us, the water erupted into a flurry of splashes. Fear gripped me like a vice as I realised that a croc must have taken one of the zombies. Oh God, oh God.
"Keep it together, Lori." Mike's soothing voice floated back over the light breeze. "If the corpses are keeping the crocs preoccupied, all the better for us. Just keep going."
Slowly, I took a stroke and then another. I couldn't think, my mind was frozen with fear. I just kept moving, focusing on keeping my strokes smooth and quiet.
An interminable time later, my hands touched the mudbank on the other side of the river. I felt Mike's hand reach out and grab me. With a sob of relief, I allowed him to pull me out of the water and into his arms.
He held me tightly as I shivered uncontrollably. I felt him stroke my hair tentatively. His touch felt so comforting and calming that I felt my heart slow down straight away. Feeling almost myself again, I stepped back, out of the circle of his arms.
"Please tell me we won't have to do that again. Because frankly, I would rather cut my way through a horde of walking corpses."
Mike laughed softly in response, and the awkwardness of the moment disappeared.
"Let's head down the river. I believe there is a shanty village not far from here. We should be able to pick up a dinghy there." His eyes gleamed in the darkness as he looked at me.
Once again, we trudged through the mangroves, keeping to the mudbank. At least on this side of the river, there was little chance of running into zombies. The area here was protected and therefore free from urban development. There were some beach houses which backed onto the river but they were much further down the river so I didn't expect to run into any zombies in the near future. Thank God.
I wondered about the shanties. Of course, I'd heard rumors about the makeshift homes in the mangroves which provided shelter to the dispossessed. That was pretty much the extent of my knowledge. I couldn't imagine anyone choosing to make a home in a mosquito-plagued, muddy, humid environment like this. Hell, if I never set foot in this place again, it would be too soon.
The moon decided to make an appearance. I felt like shouting 'hallelujah' as its light illuminated the banks along which we were proceeding. Suddenly we could see where we were placing our feet, instead of having to feel our way through roots and mud. For another fifteen minutes, we fought our way through the mangrove edge. A gleam ahead caught my eye. I was looking at a piece of corrugated iron which formed a rough roof over a sleeping figure. Behind it, I spotted a blue tarp strung up between trees and some figures snuggled together beneath it. Scanning the area, I counted another four rough shelters.
Mike caught my eye and gestured to the bank ahead of us. I saw a metal dinghy loosely tied up. Stealthily, we skulked past the sleeping figures and knelt beside the boat. Mike untied it and gestured for me to get it. As quietly as I could, I stepped into the small boat and sat down carefully. Mike pushed the boat quietly away from the bank as he stepped in. We let the boat just drift down the river for several minutes, ears pricked for any noise from the camp. Finally, Mike picked up the oars and started rowing smoothly. I felt a little bad for taking the camp's little fishing boat but, frankly, they had bigger problems to deal with than catching fish. We all did.
From within the safety of a boat, the river looked beautiful in the glow of the moonlight. Occasionally, a fish jumped out of the water and splashed back in. A bird cried hauntingly from a nearby branch. Then as we rounded a bend, the airport came into view. Brightly lit, the grounds were full of moving figures. Not living people, I realised with a sinking feeling as I noted the staccato jerkiness of their movements. Nothing appeared to be moving on the fields except dead people. The vehicles were stationary, the helicopters were gone and I could not hear the sound of any gunfire. Mike pulled out his binoculars and scanned the airport for several minutes before silently putting the binoculars away again.
"Anything?" I asked, afraid of his answer. He shook his head mutely. We sat in silence for several minutes as we passed the remains of the airport camp. I wondered sadly how many had made it out.
Mike pulled the oars through the water with practised ease. "We should reach Redlynch in thirty minutes or so. Let's hope we don't have a welcoming party waiting for us."
"God, I hope not. Right now I would be hard pressed to give anyone a good talking to, let alone fight."
He grinned. "So you don't want a go at rowing, then?"
I smiled weakly at him. Just the thought of rowing or even having to walk filled me with dread. Watching Mike, I marvelled at his composure and strength. Pull back his skin, I thought drily, and there was probably a hyperalloy combat chassis underneath.
"You're doing a great job, Mike, pal, mate." I wheedled. He mimed retching in response.
We sat quietly for a long time, lost in our own thoughts. I was desperate to hear my family's voices, see their faces, know for sure that they were all okay. The memory of the look on Michele's face, the way she had begged me to stay home...remorse filled me at my selfish need to be in control - even at my family's expense.
As we rounded a bend, a houseboat moored by the bank of the river appeared. We were close to the beaches here so it wasn't a big surprise. I could see some lights in the distance, indicating the presence of homes on the beaches - and people. And where there were people, there were zombies, I thought nervously. The lights in the houseboat were on but I couldn't see any movement. Mike angled the dinghy to give us a safe margin past the houseboat. As we drifted slowly by, I scanned the houseboat for signs of life. The decks were bare and the large open windows revealed a table set for dinner but no people. My unease increased.
I glanced at Mike. He was carefully examining the river and surrounding mangrove. At this time of night, the tide was going out so it wouldn't have been hard for any zombies to reach the houseboat, moored as it was at the shallow end of the river. Putting the oars back in the water, Mike started to pull strongly through the water towards the middle of the river. I felt the sudden urgency in him.
The dinghy suddenly dipped on one side. I gasped and clutched the sides of the little boat. It dipped again like a fishing rod with a large fish on the end.
"Grab your knife, Lori." Mike spoke coolly, eyes alert. I pulled the parang out, feeling adrenaline pumping through my veins.
A grey hand appeared over the edge of the dinghy, making the boat tip to the side. Stepping forward, I swung the parang down and severed the hand at the wrist. More hands reached up. I could see the pale gleam of eyes just beneath the surface of the water. Faint with horror, I chopped off the fingers creeping over the side.
A sudden vicious lurch. "If the boat tips over, dive for the middle of the river, Lori. It should be too deep for the corpses." Mike spoke grimly. I nodded, trembling. Mike heaved with the oars but it was like trying to move through jelly. The boat swung sluggishly to the side. Mike stood up slowly and moved to the middle of the boat, oar in hand. A wet, pale dead corpse suddenly dragged itself over the side of the dinghy. Mike shoved the oar viciously into the creature's face and pushed him off. All around the boat, I could see the gleam of pale eyes.
"We're going to have to go for it, Lori." Mike said quietly. "Dive right over their heads and then swim like hell for the middle of the river."
"Oh, dear God." I groaned, my whole body shaking with fear. "This night really sucks."