1The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Forty Eight: Meeting
Throughout the reclaimed portion of Boulder, chaos reigned, pure and bloody. Ron Bern and the others ran house to house, telling people to arm themselves with whatever was handy and get the hell out. Some didn't believe him, but the sight of a reanimated corpse had a way of convincing even the most cynical among us.
Still, if common sense were true to its name, then maybe the whole affair would have ended with fewer being added to the ranks of the dead. Arnold Crimmer, a former insurance salesman from North Dakota, was packing a suitcase of clothes, toiletries and family photo albums when seven ghouls broke down his door to get at the meat inside. He managed to brain two before the rest dragged him down, chunks of tender flesh being ripped from his torso and arms, hot blood painting the floor.
Nearby, the Jansen family refused to leave, secure in the knowledge that Jason Stradd would protect them. Perhaps that confidence helped them through the next five minutes, when more than two dozen undead entered their apartment and reduced the family to meat sauce.
Ray Hone had lost his home of fifty years when the walking dead invaded his small town of Windsor, Connecticut, and he would be damned if he lost this one. He had managed to sneak in a pair of pistols from his days in the army, weapons he lovingly tended to each and every day. His courage never failed him, and each shot from the reliable weapons dropped another undead.
He saved the last bullet for himself, and moments before the creatures overran him, he denied them his soul, sending it to whatever world awaited it.
Ron and Jake Marlowe took all this in as they watched from an apartment building balcony. With them were about two dozen people, all that remained of a building which once housed more than one hundred. Their plan had seemed simple on paper: take advantage of the insanity caused by the undead's breach of the walls (how they managed to do that was a thought Ron tried to force out of his head) and get everyone they could into the vehicles stored in the warehouse and out of the city. Ron was gambling on the hope that Stradd's forces would be too busy containing the dead to stop them, and while this was probably the first weak link in the plan, at the moment it was all they had to go on.
The apartment in which they stood had been occupied by a young couple from Boise, Idaho. Jake had the chance to meet them at dinner, and wanted to check and make sure they were all right. However, when they kicked the door in, they found the girl tearing at her late boyfriend's bicep, a look of agony on the man's face as he pleaded with her to stop. Jake had granted both of them a final mercy, and a torn curtain now lay over their corpses. He looked out over the city, and saw a scene of utter hopelessness.
In the apartment across the street, he watched a young woman try to fight off one zombie with a baseball bat. She succeeded in caving in its skull, only to be set upon by five more. Luckily her throat was torn right out, and death followed soon after, which was also followed by her reanimation. He saw an older man cornered by a dozen of the ghouls. Jake saw the man speaking to them, though he couldn't make out the words. The middle finger he brandished to them, however, was articulate enough, and served as a final epitaph before he jumped off the balcony, dying instantly on the pavement below.
Oddly enough, the creatures seemed to be acting with a purpose, aside from the usual stuffing of their faces. In the past, he had seen people torn to shreds, making it impossible for them to come back as one of the walking dead. This time, however, everyone who was bitten only sustained enough damage to die, then was reanimated. He had never seen anything like it.
In the street, he watched a jeep pull to a stop, and four armed men jump out. Stradd's militia, no doubt. They laid waste to the creatures, and anyone who had obviously been bitten. But the undead were too many, and after two of their fellow civilian soldiers were killed, the others saw the value of a strategic withdrawal and ran back to the jeep, not even trying to save their friends.
Jake hung his head in defeat. "How the hell are we going to get these people out of here?" he asked. "Those fucking things are everywhere."
Ron took in the whole scene before him, then stopped and pointed to the middle of the street. At first, Jake didn't understand, but when he followed the other man's line of sight, he saw what he was looking at-a manhole cover.
Jake looked to his companion. "So, a pitch-black tunnel half-filled with water, piss and shit is your ace in the hole?"
"If you've got a better idea, I'm all ears," Ron replied. "And while you're thinking of one, I'll get everyone ready to go. We make for the sewers, which should get us pretty close to the garage."
Two blocks away, Michael Rayanson, Addie Mayar and Kaitlin Comeau hid in an alley, more than thirty people behind them. They were armed with sticks, rocks, whatever they could find. Though some had been in Boulder for months, they quickly fell into step with the situation, recalling all the lessons of fighting the dead. After all, these people were survivors, and they would be damned if those rotted things would get them now, not after all they had gone through.
One woman in the back sobbed quietly. She had lost her entire family after the ghouls had invaded the city, and had to be held down by six people to keep her from leaping into a pack of them, so intent was she on not being left alone. Others did their best to comfort her, and most of all, keep her quiet.
Unfortunately, their best wasn't enough. A zombie turned the corner and spotted them, its lips bared back in a predatory snarl. Before it could make a sound which would draw more, Michael stepped forward and calmly swung the fire ax he carried, decimating the rotting skull and dropping it to the ground. He started to turn back and paused, then motioned for Addie to come forward.
"What in the hell is that," he said, pointing to a collar around the zombie's neck.
Addie stared, unsure of what to make of it. The device looked new, completely out of place amidst the filthy, rotted clothing. A small red light blinked, indicating the device still functioned. Matt turned the collar towards him and saw the lens of a camera. In frustration, he swung the ax again, shattering the collar.
On a hill well outside the city, three solitary figures watched through an iPad screen. The device, once owned by a nameless member of the human race now reborn as the living dead, transmitted images from the zombies whose control devices included small cameras, allowing the figures to see the handiwork of their wards up close and personal. Though human and uninfected, they had no fear of the dead. In fact, the only thing that concerned them in the least was their research, which at the moment, faced an unexpected development.
"Well, the cat's out of the fucking bag now," said Dr. Edward Sanchin, one of the three testing a demented hypothesis of who was truly fit to survive–one guess which side he was betting on. "They know that something's different about those zombies."
"Once again, Ed, your mastery of the obvious amazes me," said Dr. Frank Larson, the undisputed leader of the group, mainly because his crazy train was running full tilt. "They know something is different, but their sludgy little brains will never figure it out. This changes nothing."
Dr. Michelle Yarin, Sanchin's wife, watched the confused woman as she poked and prodded the camera, eventually cracking the lens and cutting the transmission. "Too bad we can't order them to take that particular group out," she said. "We could eliminate the variable completely."
Larson switched to different camera views, the many perspectives giving him a mosaic of the bloodbath in Boulder. He took a few notes as he watched and nodded to himself. "True, we can't focus on one human or another. Frankly, I'm seeing evidence that they make little use of their eyes. I believe it's the smell of an uninfected human that they focus on."
Sanchin started at this news. "Are you sure?"
Larson looked to him with an expression of annoyance. In his mind, the difference in their intellectual prowess was day and night, and he was tired of being questioned and second-guessed. "Of course I'm sure. Their eyes are dried out and brittle, in some cases missing altogether. And yet we've seen them home in on the uninfected each and every time like a bloodhound. I'm sure it's the smell."
"It's just like a shark," said Yarin. "Their vision is practically useless–it's the smell and sensations that the prey makes that brings them in."
"There's been indications that sounds draws them as well," said Sanchin. "But both senses seem enhanced. It's nearly impossible to hide from them. No wonder there are so few survivors."
Larson made some more notes, creating what he felt was an accurate map of the city and locations of the living and the dead. Both had been scattered, but now the humans were drawing together, relying on numbers to help them stay alive. He would make sure that didn't happen.
Just then he stopped, looked back to the recording of the woman who had found the camera, and smiled.
"Let's try a new experiment," said Larson with a grin. "I want to see just how loyal they really are."
Sara Kern and Steve Rankin tore through the roads in a commandeered pickup, carrying a group of ten people. The vehicle was huge, one of those heavy-duty designs seen driving across mountain ranges and towing airplanes. Turns out the commercials weren't too far-fetched. The truck ran right over the debris, up and including the dead. One of the perils of The Graveyard was that simply driving over the ghouls rarely worked–the gears could get quickly jammed with bones and flesh. Let's face it, the guys in Detroit hadn't foreseen this scenario when designing the next generation of sedans and SUVs. But with the truck Steve was now at the wheel of, it seems they got it right.
"I'm definitely keeping this thing!" he shouted over the revving engine.
Sara just rolled her eyes. Boys and their toys. She reached out and fired a shot at one of undead, blasting the top of its head clean off. The gun was a .45 caliber pistol, taken from a man who no longer had a use for such weapons. It kicked like a mule, but now that she was used to it, she found it perfect for dealing with zombies. Even a near-miss could take out the creatures.
"Me too!" she shouted back.
The vehicle barreled down the street, knocking the rotted bodies aside like bowling pins. Steve whooped with delight each time, and as encouraging as it was to see him enjoying himself, Sara couldn't help but wonder if the man had finally gone around the bend. Frankly, the oft-times cowardly police officer didn't seem cut out to survive in The Graveyard.
For now, though, such thoughts needed to take a back seat, as she turned and saw a hand waving from an apartment window. She gestured to Steve and he slammed on the brakes, taking out one more undead before coming to a stop. Sara and two other survivors jumped out and ran inside, and moments later, emerged with a young couple and several zombies behind them. Those inside the truck responded immediately, opening fire on the ghouls or grabbing bats and crowbars for the more personal touch. In this truck, everyone pulled their weight.
Sara jumped back inside. "Let's get moving!" she shouted, turning back to make sure the newcomers were okay.
Steve complied, mashing the gas pedal and launching the truck forward. But the momentum was immediately cut off as he brought the vehicle to a screeching halt, slamming Sara into the dashboard and throwing the passengers around the bed of the vehicle or out of it. Sara pulled herself back up and was about to deck Rankin when she looked out the windshield. Now she understood.
Standing before them was an army of the undead, twenty across and just as many deep, completely blocking the street. "Go back, go back," said Sara, but as soon as they turned around, they saw just as many ghouls behind them as well. They were trapped, outnumbered and with no way to call for help.
No one moved. Sara and Steve kept their guns trained on the zombies, while the people in the truck bed held their weapons at the ready. It was hopeless, and they all knew it. At best they could take out a dozen before being torn to shreds, and as crazy as it may sound, Steve really didn't expect to die like this–he always thought he'd kill himself first. He found this change of plans strangely comforting.
In some corner of their minds, the humans no doubt noticed that the zombies were wearing the same metal collars, all with a glowing red light. What this meant was lost on them, and at the moment, kind of irrelevant. Just then one of the zombies did something Steve swore he'd remember for the rest of his life, even if that life was going to end in three minutes and 17 seconds, as he expected.
The rotted creature, a woman in her past life, stepped forward with a white flag in one hand, and a cell phone in another. The device was old and battered, but apparently still worked, because the screen glowed and a voice could be heard calling out through it. Carefully, Steve took the phone and held it to his ear.
"Hello? Is someone there?" the voice said.
"Yes, who is this?"
"My name is Dr. Frank Larson, and who are you, sir?"
"Steve," he replied. "Steve Rankin."
"Steve, it's a real pleasure to speak to you. My associates and I have something we'd like to discuss with you, if you wouldn't mind."
The whole thing was too surreal. Here he was in a broken-down, burning city, surrounded by an army of zombies, and he was actually talking to another human on a phone. Just another day in The Graveyard.
"What the hell is going on here? Why have these things stopped? And what the fuck is with those collars?"
"All in good time, Steve, all in good time. For the moment, how about you and your eleven friends all come with me."
Steve's eyes widened at this. Whoever was talking to him could also see his group. "And if I say no?"
"The undead turn you all into cat chow. Makes no nevermind to me," said Larson. "So, how about that meetin?."