The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Three: Old Friends
The night was silent as the former journalists left their dead office. Not just silent-no cars driving down the road-silent, but completely silent.
Not a sound could be heard as they walked down the asphalt road they had driven down countless times each day as they went to work, a road which now seemed strange and alien. No dogs barked, no birds chirped, although given that the undead ate animals as readily as people this came as no real surprise. The wind itself was silent, as if afraid to shatter the quiet.
And most notably, there were no moans.
The seven humans, possibly the last uninfected humans left in the state, if not the world, felt no reassurance at this lack of noise. A lack of moans didn't mean a lack of zombies, it just meant they couldn't hear them.
As they walked down the road, the survivors looked around at the buildings which lined it. Before the infection began, the lights were so bright they turned night into day. You could see as well as if the sun were out.
"Be pretty useful right about now," muttered Jake as he nervously looked back and forth, expecting an attack at any moment.
"What was that, hon?" asked his wife, Sara.
"Nothing, just talking to myself," responded Jake.
Though their voices were barely above a whisper, the man before them, clad head to toe in bite-proof body armor, stopped in his tracks and looked directly at Jake and Sara, the red, tinted eyepieces of his mask giving him an otherworldly appearance. He put a finger to his lips, indicating silence, then pointed to the woods around them.
In the shadows cast by the starlight, figures could be seen moving among the trees. They were far away, and took no notice of the eight humans now walking along the road. Their silhouettes, which made them appear no different from ordinary humans, could be seen, moving slowly among the trees, not truly aware of where they were. No moans could be heard, but Jake and the others could imagine what they sounded like: low, plaintive, a constant call for release from the inexplicable hunger which claimed their souls. When around warm flesh and pulsating hearts, those moans would quickly change to predatory snarls, but alone, they seemed almost pathetic.
Eyes darting back and forth, the party made their way to a sight they had not expected. Not that anyone doubted the stranger had some sort of transportation, but this, well, this was a little left of center.
It was a school bus, painted black. Not that colors mattered to the dead, but there were those still alive who would not hesitate at stealing to survive, and such a prize must be hidden. Atop the vehicle were two more figures, also clad in body armor. A pair of searchlights clicked on, immediately sighting the group. The sharp click of safeties being disengaged told the group that guns were trained on them as well.
Their companion took a flashlight from his belt and flashed it on and off three times, two short flashes, one long. The signal received, the lights were quickly dimmed, the group allowed to approach the vehicle.
As the survivors of the Tribune neared, the man stopped, and quickly spun around, a pistol in his hand. The others atop the bus also trained their weapons on the seven bedraggled humans.
"What?" asked Jake, afraid, almost angry that their deliverance might be nothing more than a cruel joke.
"One of you is infected," said the man with the pistol, his tone showing no hint of doubt.
The others turned to look at Greg. Following the attack, Kaitlin had bandaged his hand in one of their spare shirts, but the blood had quickly soaked through. Their friend was shaking, and sweat pored down his face, though whether it was from the infection or the thought he might soon be given a lead injection was unclear.
Jake looked back at the gunmen. "Wait, hold on a second, you don't have to do that."
The safety clicking off seemed to disagree. "And what's your suggestion, hotshot? Just put a little antiseptic on the stumps and hope he gets better?"
"Yes, I mean no, I mean, just wait a second, okay? He's our friend. We'll take care of him."
The figure seemed to consider this. "Fine then," he said, and with that, fired a single round between Greg's eyes.
The others watched in horror as Greg Swanson fell to the ground, brains and blood covering the asphalt behind him. His eyes bore a look of surprise, as if he actually expected to survive.
Though no expression was visible, the indifference in the voice of the man who had saved Greg only to kill him was all too clear. "You can take care of burying him."
Jake looked up from his slain friend to the black-clad man before him, and in a moment he charged, table leg raised high, poised for a killing blow.
And in that same moment, Jake found himself face-down on the ground, a large boot jammed into his back, the still-hot muzzle of the handgun used to kill Greg burning the flesh of his neck.
The sharp click of the hammer resounded in Jake's ears. "Know this," said the man, his voice a low whisper, the words intended for Jake's ears only. "I will do all I can to ensure the survival of every uninfected human on the planet. But don't think for a second that means I will suffer fools like you who would sacrifice us all to save someone already on their way to Hell."
Without waiting for a snappy, action-movie style response, the armored killer strode to the bus signaling the riflemen to get inside. "If you're coming, now's the time. The natives are getting restless," he said, cocking his head to the woods.
The others followed his gesture, and it was then they heard the moans, saw the dark silhouettes shambling towards them. Sara helped Jake to is feet, a question passing unspoken between them. Jake nodded, and the others got on the bus, hesitation in every step.
"Lose the clubs," said one of the men with the shotguns, a thin, older person with a voice that spoke of great experience.
"What if we get cornered?" asked James.
"Interview them," responded the figure. "I'm sure the dead can give a riveting commentary on the socio-political effects of a nine-figure body count."
Jake was the first to toss his weapon, his face a portrait of loss, as if he was discarding a limb instead of a hunk of mahogany. Once all were inside, a fourth armor-clad figure started the engine, and the bus began to move, the sound echoing off abandoned warehouses and looted stores. Zombies filled the road ahead, but to the moving vehicle, they were little more than a speed bump.
The newly-rescued humans winced and grimaced at the sound of crunching bones, the gruesome squelch of rotted flesh being ground into the pavement like spoiled tomatoes. Moans were cut short as skulls were reduced to blood paste.
For a time no one spoke, the sound of dozens of zombies being turned into stains on the asphalt a comforting change from the perpetual moans that had become their background music after so many days, weeks and months. Words could not describe how horrified they were at the implication.
It was Greg's killer that broke the silence. "All right, I love pulpifying corpses as much as the next sinner, but it's time we got you checked out."
"Checked out?" asked Sara.
"You all look healthy, but we need to make sure," said the man, waving someone over.
The others turned to see an fifth figure in body armor stride toward them, this one noticeably female. One of the rifleman pulled a curtain which separated the back of the bus. "Off come the clothes. We need to check you out head to toe. Make sure you're not hiding any small scratches or bites."
"You really expect us to just drop trou here?" asked James.
The photographer felt the gun at the back of his head before he finished his sentence. "Our way or the highway, kid. And trust me, you don't want the highway," said the rifleman, gesturing to the hundreds of undead hungrily chasing the bus.
Best motivation money can buy. One by one, the six survivors were brought behind the curtain and inspected like livestock. Though nothing could be seen beyond the armor and masks, they had the feeling their rescuers took a perverse pleasure in their discomfort. Only when the female gave a thumbs-up did they seem to relax. "All right. Now that everything's, how shall we say, out in the open, we've got food and water," she said, pointing toward a stockpile of coolers and cases. "Plus some clean clothes in case you want that springtime fresh feeling."
None of the six journalists said a word as they ate and drank. None opted for the clothes, unwilling as they were to disrobe again. It was Jake that chose to make conversation, trying his luck with his friend's killer, and the group's apparent leader.
"You should have let us take care of Greg. It would have been better."
For a moment the man said nothing, and it was only when Jake rose to leave that he spoke. "I've seen what happens when I leave those choices in the hands of weaklings. Population reduction."
"He was our friend," said Jake. "Our responsibility."
"One you never would have taken," responded the armored one. "And trust me, you never want to."
Jake stared hard at the man, tears welling in his eyes as Chris Macabee's face flashed into his mind. "I already have."
The masked face turned to meet his. "It was Chris, wasn't it?"
Jake's eyes widened. "What?"
One by one, the five armored figures removed their helmets and masks, revealing faces as human as theirs, but with one crucial differences. These were veterans, people who had seen the face of Death and spit in His eye. The female appeared to be in her mid-twenties, while one of the men had to be at least sixty. Jake turned back to their leader and saw a face as familiar as his own, a face he thought he would never see again.
"Holy shit," breathed Jake. "We thought you were dead."
Matt could only smile, as true feat of strength given their surroundings. "Sorry to disappoint."