The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Fifty: Storytime
"Welcome, welcome, my honored guests!" said Dr. Frank Larson. "I'm so glad that the two of us could meet."
Steve Rankin and Sara Kern looked at each other, then to the hundreds of undead that surrounded them. They, along with a group of around a dozen survivors, had been making their way to a garage which held dozens of vehicles fueled and ready to go, when an army of zombies had cut them off. They had been prepared to meet their maker, when a most unexpected thing happened.
That unexpected thing had come in the form of a cell phone handed to Steve by the undead, at which point Larson had made the call that had saved their lives. For the moment, anyway. The truth was that whatever was going on here, Steve and Sara both knew their time was likely up. Still, lemons and lemonade and all that.
Larson extended a hand, which after a moment Steve took, shaking quickly and nervously before snatching his own hand back, lest the good doctor decided to keep it. He shook hands with Sara and all the uninfected humans with them, so delighted that one would think they were all close friends meeting again after years apart.
"Well, your invitation was pretty hard to resist," said Steve, casting quick looks around him.
Frank smiled warmly. "Well, I couldn't take the chance of you getting hurt. This is a rare opportunity to learn something, and as a man of science, it would be a crime to pass it up. But before we go into that, my colleagues, Drs. Edward Sanchin and Michelle Yarin, husband and wife, by the way."
The two scientists greeted the survivors with the same enthusiasm, clipboard in their hands and recorders in the pockets of their lab coats. Whether they were just batshit crazy or emotional voids wasn't entirely clear, though the risk remained painfully similar either way. Larson directed them to a clearing where a number of chairs and tables had been placed. The chairs looked brand new, and Steve wondered silently how the doctors had come across them, and if anyone had been unfortunate enough to be in their vicinity.
"Please, make yourselves comfortable," he said, taking a moment to work a tablet computer. As he did, the undead motioned to the humans to make their way to the furniture.
Larson and the others sat down beside them. Each of the scientists took out their recorders and set them on the tables. Stephen and Sara both looked back forth nervously. The whole scene had a surreal quality—zombies surrounded them, but none made so much as a move in their direction. Sara noticed that each one was wearing some kind of collar, with a small device attached. There were hundreds of them, but whatever these things were, they somehow gave those three the power to control the dead. She looked over to Larson and the computer he was using, and he looked right back. Okay, so he was no fool.
"Whatever you were thinking, forget it," he said, moving the computer away. "Anything happens to this thing, and those undead will be back to normal, which means you can measure the rest of your lives in seconds."
"OK, fine, I get it," said Sara. "So what the hell do you want?"
Larson laughed, taking amusement in Sara's indignation. "You, my dear, are part of an experiment, one which is profoundly changing this world," he said. "We're on the cusp of a major evolutionary change. You really should feel honored to witness this."
Sara looked around, at the undead, at the desolated landscape, at the smoke rising from Boulder. "And what exactly, are we witnessing?"
"Like I said, change. Out with the old, in with the new."
Yarin stepped forward. "A new species. One that doesn't feel fear, fatigue, or pain. One that is ruthlessly efficient, one that never stops and never gives up."
Sara felt a chill go down her spine. "You mean that these things are replacing the human race."
"Isn't it obvious?" said Yarin. "The human race is a waste of space. They're greedy, self-centered, bigoted, and incapable of working together for any common goals. The undead are of a single mind, a single purpose. To spread their presence across this planet, wiping out anything and everything that dares to get in their way."
"But you're all human."
Larson shrugged. "Not because we want to be. But enough about us, it's you we want to know about. How have you managed to survive for so long?"
Steve made a swinging gesture with his arm. "Rock meets head has worked pretty well for us."
Larson raised an eyebrow, then nodded to Yarin, who took down some notes. "Any other weapons? Knives, guns?"
"Sometimes, but we tend to be flexible," said Sara. "Whatever puts those things in the ground and keeps them there. But there's plenty of guns lying around."
"I see," Larson said. "So where are you going? Here?"
He nodded in the direction of Boulder, which at the moment had a pall of smoke rising above it. Even from this distance, gunshots, explosions, and distant screams could be heard. Sara and Steve both tore their gazes away, as if hoping that removing it from their sight could exercise it from their ears and minds.
"So, how many people do you think are left there? How did they react to our little friends? Do you think a large army does better, or a number of smaller groups?" asked Yarin.
Sara looked at the other woman, disbelief on her face. "Why do you want to know? What does it matter?"
Yarin's response was equal disbelief, as if the questions were obvious. "It's all part of the experiment. We need to know the details so we can properly gauge the results."
Yarin smiled eagerly and gestured to the zombies around them. "That's right. We believe that the undead are the next stage in human evolution, to a form far more efficient than what was before. But we need to test them, see what they can do."
Sara slowly rose, comprehension replacing the disbelief. She looked around at the undead, focusing on the metal collars which each one wore. "You're telling me that these things are here because of you, you're, what, controlling them?"
Larson clapped his hands slowly, a smug smile beaming. "And the last horse crosses the finish line. How do you think we're all still here? These wondrous creatures are under our control, and we've been sweeping across the countryside, testing every fortification and army we can find, to see the limits of their endurance and our control."
Yarin stepped forward, clearly excited by the discussion. A little too excited, actually. "The results have been astonishing. While they require a little control here and there, it's clear that they're the superior species, far and away."
A moment later, the young scientist was down, her glasses shattered and her right eye swollen shut. "All those people!" Sara screamed. "You murdered them all, just for some fucking experiment! This is all your fault!"
Yarin began to crawl away, stammering helplessly. "We….we didn't make these things, we just found a way to control them, to direct them. This was meant to happen, the undead are the next stage in human evolution!"
Sara screamed and was about to throw herself at the other woman, when suddenly the dead surrounded her, clearly ready to attack. She looked to Larson, whose hand hovered over the computer.
"As enjoyable as that was, I'm afraid we're on something of a schedule here," said Larson. "How about we all take a deep breath, sit down, and continue our little discussion."
The Armory was hidden in the lowest levels of a small parking garage, a section normally reserved for VIP parking and stretch limos. Stradd had it converted into a storage center for their guns and explosives almost the same day they came to Boulder. What can I say, a man's got to have his priorities.
It was perfect for his needs: well-shielded with tons of steel and concrete, limited access, so thieves couldn't wander in to filch what they wanted. And best of all, no one but Stradd and his former lieutenant, Frank Tibalt, knew where it was. Frank's current whereabouts were unknown, but Stradd wasn't concerned. The small man was no leader, and without Jason to tell him what to do, he wasn't about to cause any trouble.
Jason opened the heavy steel doors of the Armory. Within were shelves packed with guns, bombs, and even some rocket-propelled grenades. Alongside these were all sorts of knives, swords, brass knuckles, and large hammers, perfect for decimating zombies when the clips ran empty. He took a moment and breathed deep the smell of oil and gunpowder, familiar scents that took him back to the days of his childhood, when his father used to took him to the gun range to show him how a true soldier lives.
Over the years, he taught himself how to use more and more weapons, learning how to field strip everything from a revolver to an AK-47. These guns were his toys, his tools, and in the end, the only thing he could truly rely on. And now, with his city on the verge of destruction, he came here, to the one place where he knew the answer could be found.
Looking over the shelves of weapons, his hands moved of their own accord, grabbing one thing after another. Looking back at the soldiers with him, he pointed to one, a brute named Marcus who was well over six feet tall and spent his spare time lifting car parts to keep his strength up.
"How much can you carry?" said Stradd.
Marcus reply was a sly smile. "How much you got?"
Stradd looked back to the Armory shelves and gave them a fond pat. "Just enough to take down an army, I'll bet."
Matt Erickson and Addy Mayor slowly raised their hands, the others with them following suit. The man who had spoken earlier gestured to the center of the roof. "Everyone there, and if anyone so much as twitches the wrong way, I shoot the person to your left in the leg."
Slowly and surely, the survivors made their way to the center of the roof. The children did their best to stifle any cries, while the men tried to position themselves at the front. Matt took a step forward, and instantly, seven guns held by seven men were trained on him.
"Fucking stop right there!" the man shouted.
Matt kept his hands raised, but didn't move back. "OK, OK, let's keep it cool, all right? You're the boss, you're in charge. Just what do you want?"
The man, a giant with a close buzz cut and arms like car axles, kept the gun squarely on Matt, clearly seeing him as the threatening one. He stepped forward calmly, his eyes on Matt's never wavering. While some greeted this crisis with fear and panic, this one was as cool as ice. Not good. A coward would be easy to disarm, and from there, they could have negotiated a draw, left in peace. But this one saw the enemy before him, and he was not afraid in the least.
Matt wasn't sure if he could take him, even if he had his sword.
"You little bitches are coming with me. I don't know what the fuck is going on, but we're not letting anyone leave, not unless they want to model a body bag."
Erickson kept his hands raised, his voice steady. "No worries, man, we're all staying put. But look around, things are chaotic as hell out there. We're just trying to stay alive."
The man's response was to pistol whip Matt in the side of the head. Matt saw stars and his vision spun. Addie moved to help him, but the soldier grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the ground. Matt slowly raised his head, willing his vision to clear, though he could see enough to tell that the handgun was pointed right at him.
"Don't act all innocent with me," he said, his teeth grinding around every word. "You were told to stay indoors, and every single one of you rats has made a run for it. We've seen at least five vehicles drive out of here, now how the hell did you know where those were?"
Addie began to laugh, a light chuckle that seemed to stun the soldier. "That would be because we've been telling everyone we see where your garage is," she said. "This place is nothing but a prison, and you lunatics call yourselves our protectors. You're nothing but thugs and punks."
The stunned expression morphed into one of rage. Eyes narrowed, jaw clenched, the soldier slowly approached Addie until the barrel of his rifle was up against her throat. Addie stood resolute, her eyes never leaving his, not a trace of fear on her face.
"We made this city, we gave you cowards a place to live, we kept the dead outside," he said slowly, each word layered with a deep growl. "And when the shit hits the fan, what do you do? You run. Let's see how far you get with a bullet in your kneecap."
Slowly he lowered the gun, and it was then that Addie began to waver. She may not have been afraid to die, but living as a cripple in a world where speed was of the essence? That was horse of a different color, and not one she cared to ride.
Suddenly a hand was on the soldier's arm. It belonged to an older man, shorter, and with a little more paunch than one in The Graveyard usually had. The man directed the gun away from Addie. "Easy there, Gabriel," he said. "We shoot one of them, and the rest won't hesitate to attack. Not a good idea."
As strong as Gabriel was, this man, who was half his size and likely twice his age, was more powerful still. "Yes sir, lieutenant, but what do we do with them? Stradd's orders were that any runners get shot or fed to the zombies."
The older man nodded slowly, as if contemplating this very problem. "No worries, son," and with that, he pulled out his pistol, and in one motion, shot Gabriel in the head.
He turned his weapon on the others, and Addie, with lighting reflexes, picked up Gabriel's weapon. They opened fire on the five remaining soldiers. Matt wasted no time and charged at one, kicking him in the face and throwing him off the building. He screamed all the way to the ground, after which point he made somewhat less noise. Another was tackled by the unarmed survivors, who stomped him into unconsciousness.
As the smoke cleared and the sound of the gunshots faded, no one moved, as if waiting for the reality to sink in. All the dead soldiers had taken head shots, so there was no chance of them coming back, and the unconscious member of their party had been tied up. The older man turned to the others and found himself facing Gabriel's weapon. He might have been safer if Gabriel himself had been holding it. He placed his weapon in the ground and raised his hands.
"Why?" said Addie, Michael right beside her, hefting a shotgun taken from the soldiers.
"Because Stradd is a maniac, and I didn't sign on to shoot innocent civilians," he said. "You want to get out: so do I, and I can help."
Addie shook her head. "Thanks, but we've got our own way out."
"Not anymore you don't," the man replied. "Remember what Gabriel said about seeing the vehicles leave? They've torched the garage, burned or blew up ever vehicle that was left. Killed a lot of people too."
Addie felt an ice block drop into her stomach. That place was their salvation, their ticket out of this nightmare. And now, there was nothing. She lowered their gun, and Matt was on the spot, raising his immediately. "You're lying," he said.
"I just wasted three of my men, and if Stradd finds out, he'll torture me for a month before he kills me" he said. "Why the hell would I do that and then lie about escaping this place?"
Matt chewed his lower lip, pondering the situation. "OK, fine, but what did you mean about helping us escape?"
"Stradd has his own garage, with ten Humvees, all fueled, maintained, and loaded with supplies and weapons. The man's batshit, but that doesn't mean he's stupid. It'll be guarded, even with all this, but I can help you."
"And your price?"
"Let me take one vehicle, and free to go where I want. This place is done, anyone can see that. The open road may not be safe, but I'll take my chances."
Matt looked at Addie, who slowly nodded. "If he's lying, what we do to you will make Stradd look like your best friend," she said, and there was no hint of doubt or fear in her voice.
The man nodded, and lowered his hands, sensing that an accord was reached. When he reached for his weapon, no one stopped him. "The place is about a mile north, on Senswick Road. It's pretty well camouflaged, but I know what to look for."
Matt lowered his gun as well and stuck out his hand. "Matt Erickson," he said. "Addie Mayor."
The man took the hand, shaking it firmly. "Frank Tibalt, former lieutenant to Jason Stradd, at your service."