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Chapter Three

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Frankie hit the floor again, thrown off balance as the bus veered out of control. Somewhere over her head the driver swore as he struggled to regain control. The screech of brakes pierced her ears and she curled herself into a ball, certain the bus would flip over any second.

But it didn't.

After the span of out-of-control shrieking brakes, the bus came to a stop. Frankie grabbed the edge of the seat and hauled herself to her feet. Half the pupils on the bus had joined her and Melly on the floor, a jumble of arms and legs and groans. Somehow Vanessa was still seated, though two of her clones had taken a nosedive.

"What just happened?" Mrs Sanford cried. The fear was back in her voice, making it high and reedy.

"I . . . I think the tyres blew," the driver said.

"All of them? That's impossible."

The bus door opened with a hiss. The driver hesitated before climbing out of his seat and approaching the door. No sick people charged the bus but Frankie didn't blame him for being cautious.

She looked back out of the window. The streets around them were deserted but the bloody-mouthed people had been chasing them; sooner or later they were going to catch up.

Frankie headed for the open door. Allison grabbed her hand. "Are you crazy?" she hissed. "We can't go out there."

"We can't stay here," Frankie replied. If a tyre had burst she couldn't see the driver changing it by himself. And if he couldn't change it the bus wasn't going anywhere. If those people caught up with them, Frankie would rather be out where she had a chance of running than stuck on a bus with nowhere to go.

Mrs Sanford squared her shoulders. Her hands still trembled but she kept them at her sides so it wasn't as obvious. "Alright, everyone off the bus. Make sure you stick together."

Her voice didn't quite have the ring of authority it did in school but it held enough charge that no one questioned her. Kids piled off the bus, clinging close together and staring fearfully up and down the road. Frankie wasn't the only one scared of those people catching up.

In the distance she heard the sound of coughing.

She followed the driver round to the back of the bus and froze. A spiked metal strip lay across the road, just behind the bus. Frankie had seen enough police reality shows to recognise it, and it made her stomach clench.

"What is that?" said Beth, coming up behind her.

"It's a stinger. The police use them to blow out people's tyres if they want them to stop," Frankie said.

Beth's eyes widened as understanding set in. "Wait . . . you mean someone put this here? On purpose?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Vanessa scoffed, stalking over to them.

Frankie gestured at the stinger. "You have another explanation?" She didn't want to believe it but . . . the stinger hadn't been dropped. It was deliberately placed across the road so that anyone heading in that direction would be forced to stop.

Vanessa opened her mouth then shut it again.

"But it can't have been the police. They wouldn't do that to a school bus," Beth whimpered, her eyes brimming with frightened tears.

Frankie hardly heard her. Something was going on here and it was bigger than a few people getting sick. Comforting Beth would have to wait.

"How far is it to the carriageway?" she said to the bus driver.

He blinked, tearing his eyes away from the stinger. "I'm not sure -"

"Can we walk there?"

He nodded. There was a strange look in his eyes, like the fear had wormed its way into his brain and now he was having trouble functioning properly. He wasn't the only one. Several pupils leaned against the bus, staring blankly into the distance while others stabbed frightened fingers at their mobiles. Whether they were trying to call home or call for help, Frankie didn't know and it didn't matter. She could still hear coughing and wheezing, and it sounded closer this time. Even if someone did manage to call the police, help wouldn't get here before the sickness did.

Whatever authority Mrs Sanford had drummed up to get everyone off the bus, it seemed to have waned again. She stood apart from the kids, helplessly wringing her hands as she looked at the ragged, ruined tyres.

Someone had to take charge. They couldn't just stay here.

Frankie clapped her hands to get everyone's attention. "We need to move, people, now."

One of Vanessa's clique - the maybe Jess or maybe Becky - looked up from her glitter-encrusted phone. "Don't be stupid. We have to wait for someone to fix the bus."

Frankie levelled her with a look. "You get through to the police yet?"

Jess/Becky's silence said she hadn't.

"Frances is right. We need to move. Those people are still out there and it won't take them long to find us," said Mrs Sanford.

Her voice lacked its usual tone of command but, whether it was the fact that she was an adult or a teacher, it did the trick. As she strode down the road, kids trickled after her in small groups. Several of them clung together like small children.

The road veered off to the right and crested a small hill. On the other side of the hill, a slip road led out of Holmsley - the road the bus has been heading for when the tyres blew. It was only a short distance to walk but Frankie found her feet dragging. She was the one who'd said they needed to move but that was only because they couldn't stay there and wait for the bloody-mouthed people to find them. She still didn't want to walk out of town and just abandon everyone's families. But she was too scared to stop and be the only one left behind.

The little group reached the slip road and Frankie stopped dead. They couldn't have driven through this way even if they still had the bus.

A huge tank blocked the slip road and men in army fatigues stood around it, guns cradled in their arms. Frankie had never seen a real gun before. She'd seen soldiers before, strolling around the supermarket in their uniforms but she'd never seen them like this, never seen them . . . active.

"STAY WHERE YOU ARE." The booming voice came from a soldier standing in front of the tank, a megaphone held to his lips.  

Mrs Sanford kept walking. Freedom lay ahead of her and apparently she wasn't letting a little thing like the army stand in her way.

"STAY WHERE YOU ARE." The voice came again, this time with the added threat of cocked guns.  

Mrs Sanford froze. "What . . . is the meaning of this?" she blustered. "We have to get out."

"NO ONE LEAVES."

"But . . ." Mrs Sanford's mouth hung open as she stared at the soldiers.

There was a sick feeling in the pit of Frankie's stomach. What was the army doing here? And why were they stopping a bunch of school-kids from leaving?

Mrs Sanford drew herself up her to full height. "I have children with me." There was a pleading note in her voice, a last attempt to thaw the resolve of the men who stood in front of them.

It didn't work.

"TURN AROUND AND GO BACK THE WAY YOU CAME."

Frankie pushed past Mrs Sanford. "We can't," she cried. "Something's going on, there's sick people . . . you have to - "

"TURN AROUND AND GO BACK THE WAY YOU CAME."

This couldn't be happening. The army was supposed to help people in trouble. Frankie closed her eyes and took a deep breath, willing the madness to be gone when she opened them again. But the soldiers were still there. Another stinger lay about twenty feet or so in front of the tank - the soldiers weren't taking any chances.

"Please," Frankie tried again. "You can't just turn us away."

She stared at the soldiers, seeking any sign of compassion but there was nothing. The men staring back at her may as well have been carved from stone.

The bus driver strode forward. "You can't do this," he yelled.

"STEP BACK OR WE WILL OPEN FIRE."

Frankie's heart skipped a beat. They couldn't mean that. They wouldn't really shoot at a bunch of civilians. Would they?

The driver faltered. The same thoughts had to be running through his head. "But you have to help us," he screamed. "You bastards, you can't just leave us." He ran forward.

The soldiers opened fire.

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