The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Twenty Seven: Liberty
Michael Rayanson was nervous.
His weapons and armor had been left in the truck that had brought him and his friends to Boulder, Colorado, a city purported to have been reclaimed from the walking dead by the forces of a man named Jason Stradd. After hearing a repeating radio message promising food and shelter to those who could survive the journey, they had immediately left to see if there was any truth to Stradd's words.
True it appeared to be, and now this ragtag group rode in a plush elevator, rising one floor after another to the penthouse of the Royal Crown Hotel, Stradd's home and command center.
But it wasn't a lack of weapons or armor that made Michael nervous. It was the memories of Martha's Vineyard, another supposed safe haven, and the feeling that history was about to hit the repeat button.
Frank Tiball, Stradd's second-in-command, rode with them. He stole fleeting glances at the group, as if afraid to meet their eyes. He had seen his share and then some of refugees from The Graveyard, but this bunch was different. The others, they had fear in their eyes, and a desperate hope that they had finally found sanctuary. Not this group. They were taking nothing for granted, and would only breathe a sigh of relief once they were thoroughly convinced that all was indeed well.
He coughed, trying to break the silence of the elevator if nothing else. "So, is it as bad out there as everyone says?"
Ron Bern answered. "Bad don't begin to describe it, son. Bad was months ago. Ain't a word for what it's like now."
"Haven't seen as many refugees as we used to," Frank said. "You think we may be the last of the United States?"
"Certainly hope not, but it's looking that way," Ron said. "Everywhere we go, all we see is death. I can't remember the last time we saw a living soul."
"Martha's Vineyard," said Michael.
Frank turned. "That little tourist trap? There are survivors there?"
Michael shook his head. "Were. There were survivors there."
"What happened to them?" Frank asked.
Michael smiled, a cold smile, more fitting for an undertaker. "They weren't very good at the game."
Frank said nothing, and the elevator ride continued in silence.
Outside, a group of soldiers led undead into the city. The ghouls were chained hand and foot, their mouths bound with barbed wire. One soldier carried a piece of bloody meat, leftovers from a cow slaughtered earlier that day. The creatures followed him, the looks in their eyes those of starving dogs. The civilians remained where they were, hidden, terrified by the sight before them, though it was one they had viewed more times than they cared to remember.
Every so often the soldiers would go out and bring a fresh– so to speak–group of zombies back to the city. Rumors spread like wildfire. Some thought the creatures were experimented on, others believed they were being trained as a pack of attack dogs, providing an unbeatable security force. Other rumors were shared, but spoken in low whispers, of darker games being played. With the population growing smaller every day, the pool of potential mates was shrinking fast, and in desperate times, their leaders were looking to new, albeit horrifying, ways of bolstering their ranks.
Had the citizens of Boulder paid more attention to the troops and less on their rumor-mongering, they would have noticed one soldier in particular, a man none of them recognized, focusing all his attention on one zombie in particular. And had the people bothered to notice this singular ghoul, they just might have noted its unusual gait, almost as if it were playing the part of the mindless zombie.
The military governor turned from the window through which he saw his sprawling metropolis at the sound of the buzzer.
"Enter," he called, not turning to see who it was. Stradd prided himself on a detailed surveillance system, and had long known who his visitors were.
The door opened, and Jason at last turned to greet his visitors. "Hello, my friends," he said, his rich, booming voice rendering the notable acoustics of the penthouse unnecessary.
Michael took a moment to size up the leader of Boulder. A lanky man in his 40's with long hair and a full beard, Stradd may have looked like the towel boy from Sturgis, but he carried himself with poise and precision. A military man, no doubt about it.
He held out his hand to Stradd, who gripped it firmly, pumping his arm with vigor. "You always this happy to meet newcomers?" he asked.
Stradd smiled. "I always make it a point to greet our new residents," he said. "Never know how many of us are left, after all."
Jason greeted each member of the team in turn, shaking hands with the men and hugging the women. When he reached Aiko, however, he stopped and stared. "Not too many children around here," he said. "You may be one of the youngest citizens of the United States."
Aiko merely stared back at Stradd. "When I see my parents in Hell, I'll be sure to tell share the good news."
Stradd said nothing, and it was Steve Rankin who broke the uneasy silence. "She lost her folks to the zombies."
Stradd nodded. "Lot of that going around," he said, never taking his eyes off the girl.
"So, nice place here," Jake Marlow said, taking Stradd's attention off Aiko. "Do we rate a room like this?"
"Sorry, this is reserved for the council members," Stradd said. "We pretty much run the place, so I figure we've earned some spacious quarters. But don't worry, there's more rooms here than people, so you've got your pick."
"Just how many people live here?" Sara Kern asked.
Frank stepped forward. "Around one thousand, so far, but more refugees arrive every day."
"Probably from that message you've got going," Michael said, looking around the room, his eyes on the surveillance monitors.
Stradd looked to his lieutenant, eyes wide with glee. "See, I told you it was worth the risk. Now look how many new friends we have. Another few weeks, we'll have enough to rebuild the whole state, and from there, the nation."
"Lofty goals," Michael said.
"We've been given our chance to correct the mistakes of old," Stradd said, the same mirthful look in his eyes. "If we work together, we can make a proper nation, where the rights of all are respected, and the people work together for the common good."
"With you in charge?"
Stradd shrugged. "Why not? It was I who brought Frank and the others together when the dead began to walk, I who led the charge to take back Boulder. The electricity, food, patrols, all my ideas, my plans. I've managed to run things pretty well so far."
Michael raised a critical eyebrow. "And you think you can lead an entire nation?"
"Hey, if that brain-damaged ape from Texas could do it, I think I'm more than qualified," Stradd replied, his eyes taking on a hardened edge that told the group the issue was not up for further discussion. "But you didn't come all this way to talk politics, eh? How about a tour? I think you'll be very impressed by what I've been able to accomplish."
He motioned to the door, and the group followed. Michael lingered for a moment, his eyes still on the monitors.
He didn't like what he saw.
"Well," said Jason as he removed the barbed wire from around his undead brother's mouth. "That wasn't so bad."
"Speak for....yourself," Daniel replied, working his decayed jaw back into position, finally hearing a satisfied click as the bones popped back into place.
"Hey, it was the only way to get you in," Jason responded.
The two stood in a darkened storage room, near the "corral" where the other undead had been brought. Staying at the back of the crowd, the two had been able to slip away unnoticed. Now, they hid in the shadows, awaiting their next move.
"Still think...you should have....come alone," Daniel said.
"Not an option," Jason said, looking around to ensure their brotherly chat didn't attract an audience. "We need to stay together. I wasn't about to leave you alone out there."
Daniel waved a scarred hand in the direction of the city. "And here? What...kind of life....is there...for me?"
Jason paused, unsure how to respond. For months he and his brother had been on the road, living like scavengers. They raided convenience stores when Jason hungered, and desecrated fresh corpses when his brother could hold no longer the Hunger at bay. Jason still had nightmares about Toby, the old man who thought the youngster was his guardian angel.
At least Jason had been merciful enough to shoot the old man in his sleep before letting his brother feed.
When they heard Stradd's message, a promise of home and hearth, he thought it the answer to their prayers, and the two set out for Boulder.
Getting in, however, proved easier in theory.
For days they had hid in the brush, and when Jason saw the patrols leading zombies into the city, he hinted upon an idea. It was easy to pose as another soldier; so many were added to the ranks each day, he was looked on as another new recruit. One day on patrol he "captured" his brother, and now, in the darkened storage room, Jason wracked his brain for the next phase of his brilliant plan, such as it was.
"What do you suppose they do to the zombies they bring in?"
"There is...pain here....suffering."
"From the people?"
Daniel shook his head, the action sending a few maggots flying. "The dead."
"The zombies? I thought you guys didn't feel pain."
His undead sibling swayed back and forth, as if hearing or seeing something Jason couldn't. "Deeper pain....I hear them....they cry..."
Jason strained to hear, and it was then his ears picked up the sounds. The dead. Their moans, faint as a whisper, being carried through the air vents. His eyes widened as the sounds became clearer. After months on the road dodging rotted hands and teeth, he had gotten used to their moans, so much so he found it hard to sleep without them. But these were different. Before, they were expressions of deep sorrow, at something lost, never to be regained. Now the tone was completely different.
And for the first time in months, the cries of the dead filled him with fear once more.
Addie stepped out of the doctor's tent. Before being allowed into Boulder, refugees had to undergo a thorough examination to rule out any possibility of infection. It was a humiliating procedure; she had been forced to strip naked and remain perfectly still while a doctor– a woman, thankfully– poked and prodded every inch of her body. Blood and stool samples were taken, and her mouth cleansed with what tasted like industrial-strength bleach. Finally, she was given a document proclaiming her free of infection, and sent to the Registration Center.
Here, the process was nowhere near as invasive, but took just as long. She was questioned on every aspect of her life since James Patterson, a simple hiker from Brownfield, Maine, arose from the dead. Where she was from, where her family had lived, if they still lived. Addie had done some retconning while on the road from Canada, giving herself a new back story, one that left out certain details like crossing the border into Canada or sacrificing the lives of her companions to escape the soldiers. While she doubted anyone in The Graveyard would be concerned with such a crime, this was her chance at redemption, and she was taking no chances.
"All right, ma'am, I think we're done here," said the old man behind the desk. Scars on his face and a Bowie knife strapped to his side spoke of the hard road he had traveled to come to the city. "This form makes you a citizen of New Liberty. Keep it on you at all times. We've had more than a few people sneak in, so the soldiers have authorization to see your identification at any time."
Addie's brows furrowed at the unfamiliar name. "New Liberty?"
The pencil-pusher shrugged and smiled. "That's what Stradd wants us to call it. Personally I always preferred Boulder, but then, I ain't in charge."
"What's he like?"
"He's a good leader. Got us all together and gave us a cause to fight for. Before he came along, I was ready to eat my gun. You can only spend so long running and hiding before you start looking for a way out."
Addie smiled. "I just want to stop running. I feel like I never stopped after the Great Exhumation."
The old man nodded, his actions showing a nearly bald head. "Yep, everyone says that. No worries, ma'am. Here, you're safe."
Thanking him, Addie got up and walked into the city. New Liberty. She wondered if she could do any real good here, if she could somehow balance the weight of her sins.
"Only one way to find out," she said, and with a nervous step, began to explore her new home.