The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Thirty Seven: Expansion
Colorado University, with its massive outdoor amphitheatre, was part of the section of Boulder which Jason Stradd had ordered reclaimed. In fact, it was the proverbial Ground Zero from which the expansion of his little corner of the Earth had originated. At the time, no one was quite sure why Jason had made it one of his goals to create an education system—though four walls, food and an area capable of being defended against the ravenous undead seemed to stack up higher on the importance charts than the three Rs.
Tonight, they would have their answer. Would they like it?
Doubtful. After all, the guy is batshit.
Michael Rayanson, Ron Bern and the others followed the crowds as they filled the seats. Addie was by their side, an unofficial member of the group in that they seemed to be the only ones convinced that disaster loomed around the corner. If anyone noticed the absence of the small, crazy Asian member, they said nothing of it, though the sadness emanating from Steve Rankin was palpable, to say the least. Then again, the little wussbag always seemed to be on the edge of a hysterical breakdown.
The air was abuzz with excitement. Everyone knew this evening held special significance, though no one could say what, exactly. The first few rows had been cleared out, and a small pen of wood and barbed wire had been erected. Whatever was going down, it was big.
Stradd stood at a podium on the stage, his second in command, Frank Tibalt, standing beside him at stiff attention. An honor guard of soldiers, all members of Stradd's conspiracy class, were arrayed behind him in full dress uniform, though said uniforms seemed to come from all branches of the armed forces. Thus, their differences were the only thing uniform about them. Isn't irony fun?
Jason held his hands up for silence, and the crowd quickly settled down. They were eager to hear their leader's announcement.
"My friends and neighbors, comrades in arms, brothers and sisters," he said, his voice booming across the audience without the aid of a microphone or speaker system. Say what you wanted about Jason Stradd, he was a skilled orator. "These past few months have been trying ones for us. We have endured great hardship, fought as we have never fought before, and laid to rest far too many friends and loved ones."
At this he paused, allowing an outlet for the grief that many felt. He patiently waited as the crying and sobbing subsided, then continued. "But this suffering, this sacrifice, has borne fruit. We have a settlement of our own, we have fresh food, we have lights, a place to sleep. We have our own market, the beginnings of a new economy, we have a school where the next generation can be educated. My friends, humanity has begun to reclaim America!"
At this the audience erupted into thunderous applause. This was what they had been waiting for—vindication that all their toil and struggle had finally led somewhere. That after weeks and months on the run, they finally had a piece of the old world back in their hands, human hands, living hands.
Sara Kern snorted at this. "Idiots," she said. "They clear a dozen blocks and they think the U.S. is as good as saved. Didn't we hear the same bullshit at Martha's Vineyard."
Ron nodded as he lit up a cigarette. A man in front turned and frowned at the smell, but Ron had a keen ability to not give a shit about objections to his vices. "And we all remember how that turned out."
The man in front turned around. "This time it's different. I've heard about the Vineyard too, and that place went to Hell because their leaders grew soft and complacent. They let down their guard and the undead took advantage. That won't happen here. Stradd won't let it."
Ron just smiled and blew smoke in the man's face. "And even things do go to shit, he's safe way up in that nice, warm penthouse, while the rest of you are right in the zombies' path. If this place is so damned secure, how come he's not mingling with the common folks?"
The man searched for an answer. "Well, he's our leader. All great leaders deserve protection. They're impossible to replace."
"A great leader is someone who leads his troops by example, not by a megaphone. That's the dictionary definition of a coward."
The man turned red and clenched his fists, which only made Ron smile again. "Son, whatever you're fixin' to do, let me give you a word of advice—don't. I've fought by hand through seven hundred miles of death, and an uppity prick like you is barely worth my attention. That being said, I'll happily put you in the trauma ward for six months if you so much as consider taking a swing at me."
The man deflated at those words, but the glare in his eyes told Ron this was far from over. For the time being, he contented himself with turning his attention back to Stradd.
"My friends, what we have accomplished is truly, truly amazing, but it will pale in comparison to what we will achieve in the coming months. The United States of America was once a great nation, and it can be again. But I need your help to do it."
The audience leaned forward as one, eager to hear Stradd's next words. He had turned them from a group of ragtag refugees into a small community, one that felt safe, protected, and most importantly, alive. Whatever he said, whatever he asked of them, they would gladly do it.
Stradd raised his hands for silence. "My friends, the time has come for you to leave this city, to go out into this world, to spread forth, to retake this nation one inch at a time. It will be hard, and many of you will die for this noble cause, but those that survive, and the generations that follow, will remember your sacrifice and forever hold you in a place of honor."
Silence was all that followed. Ron and the others looked around to see a sea of stunned faces, people looking at each other to make sure what they heard wasn't a joke. Stradd looked out to the assembled masses with a look of quiet contentment, as if this was what he had expected all along.
For minutes, no one said a word. Then a most unexpected thing happened.
It started out small, a few people here and there, and then it grew, until roughly a third of the audience were cheering for Stradd, for his plan, a plan that would surely get them killed. But he had given them home and hearth, and most importantly, hope. For them, they'd follow Jason Stradd into the jaws of Hell itself, which was convenient since it seemed the likely destination.
But not everyone shared in the jubilation. As many people as there were cheering, there were far more that did nothing. They knew their leader's plan was sheer madness, and couldn't believe that so many would support him. The man who had argued with Ron was among this number, which made his earlier defense of Stradd all the more laughable.
The leader of Boulder raised his hands for silence, and in time the applause died down. "Thank you my friends, thank you, your support warms the heart of an old soldier. Return to your homes and rest, because tonight on these hallowed grounds, we will celebrate a new dawn, the dawn of the reclamation of the United States of America!"
Slowly the audience filed away. Those who had cheered Stradd's plan laughed and joked with one another, talking excitedly about what they would do once it was put into action. One group had already gotten to work, deciding who would go with who and what cities they would liberate first. Ron shook his head in disgust as he walked, and it was then that he noticed his verbal sparring partner close by.
"So," he said, edging closer to the man. "Ready to hit the road for the good ol' U.S. of Stradd?"
If the man looked deflated before, he was gutted now. He looked at Ron, saying nothing. Ron just nodded sagely. "And that, boy, is the difference between a great leader and a coward. Now you know."
He walked back to the others as they made their way home. Michael looked to the old man. "It's Martha's Vineyard all over again. These people are going to get slaughtered for someone else's delusion."
Sara looked back to them. "Maybe we should just get the hell out of here. We know where the garage is, where all the vehicles are. Our truck is fueled, repaired and ready to go. I say we let them do whatever they want, and if it gets them killed, so be it."
"We can't just leave them to die," said Jake Marlow to his wife. "Maybe we can talk to Stradd, convince him to junk this plan of his."
"Yeah, because we've all seen how reasonable he is," said Michael.
"You guys do whatever you want, but I'm not leaving," said Addie. "I made a promise to help these people, and right now, it looks like they need all the help they can get."
As they approached the apartment building where they lived, Ron spoke up. "We ain't going nowhere," he said. "And talking to Stradd is a waste of time. But this grand strategy of his has to go."
Michael looked to Ron. "What's your plan?"
Ron looked around to make sure they were alone. "I think it's time Mr. Jason Stradd was made to abdicate."
Michael's eyes widened at this. "Not gonna be easy, you saw how many people are backing his plan."
"He's right," said Jake. We might find ourselves facing down an army of those gun-nuts."
"Doesn't matter," Ron said. "This here's the human race's last chance to make a fresh start, and no way am I gonna let that idiot screw it up. Like Addie said, these people need help, and leaving them to the tender mercies of their leaders is pretty much the polar opposite of that goal."
"No way Stradd will see this as anything but treason," Sara said. "You realize what you're talking about."
"Realize it?" said Ron with a laugh. "Darlin', I've been planning this since we got here."