Chapter Fifty Two: Dig Deep
Bravery has to be one of the most complicated emotions out there.
Most people think that it's the absence of fear, a willingness to face any challenge, any threat, any foe, and never once blink. But that's horseshit. Because of course people are afraid. Everyone is afraid of something, and anyone who claims to have no fears is a full-blown liar.
Bravery isn't a lack of fear. It's feeling a deep, gut-wrenching fear that freezes your blood and sets all your dials to panic, but you still find a way to take that step forward. Because you know that running away means pain and death, if not for you (because you'd be running), then for someone you care for. And there's no better motivator for doing the courageous thing than the thought of someone you love being hurt.
Steve Rankin knew this, he felt the fear through every fiber of his being, but in the end, he acted.
At the moment, though, he was feeling the fear full-force. Surrounded by the undead on all sides, dozens deep, too many to fight even if he had a tank, all kept under the control of three scientists who had definitely boarded the crazy train to Looneyville. And what did they want from Steve, Sara Kern, and the group with them?
They wanted to interview them. Seriously, digital recorder running, notepads in hand, "can I quote you on this" interview. Sara had been a reporter before The Great Exhumation-odds are the irony was eating her alive.
The lead in this interview was Dr. Frank Larson, a biologist who had made the walking dead his study, and became convinced that these creatures represented the next evolutionary leap for the human race. The eye he lost to a zombie somehow didn't dissuade him from this notion.
After leaving his lab in Maine, he had met up with Drs. Edward Sanchin and Michelle Yarin, neurologists who had the same idea, and had made it their life's work to find a way to control the undead through an electronic control collar. The device was incredibly complex, allowing them to not only keep the ghouls at bay, but to also force them to do what they wanted.
Their commands had to be simple. The undead weren't capable of anything even remotely complex, and so for the moment they could only point the creatures in a direction, order them to attack, or to carry small loads. Loads, for example, like the bomb they used to decimate the walls around part of Boulder and let in a force that was tearing the populace to shreds.
For those surrounding then uninfected humans, the command was to stand still, though Sara could see the truth in their eyes, the ravenous hunger that consumed them. She knew that though the collars controlled them, that control was superfluous, and should it falter for even a moment, these creatures would tear their masters apart in moments. They knew no loyalty, no love, no devotion. These were the emotions of the living.
Evolutionary leap, my ass.
So tell me,said Larson, writing as he spoke. What's your policy on saving those who get separated from the group? Surely that just puts others in danger?"
Sara paused before answering, casting a cold glare at Michelle. Earlier, she had responded to the young scientist's rambling about the glorious undead punching her square in the face, and wanted to remind the deranged genius that she was ever so eager to do it again.
Looking back at Larson, she shrugged. "It depends," she replied.
Larson gestured for her to elaborate, and to do it fast. He held the control device nearby, and had made it clear that he would use it if they didn't cooperate.
"It depends on a lot of things. The situation, how many zombies there are, if they've been bitten. But 9 times out of 10, we try to make the rescue. There aren't too many of us left, and we never leave someone behind if there's a chance we can save them."
Larson made more notes, nodding as he did so. "Noble sentiment, to be sure. But that right there is the problem. You're sentimental, weighing the odds of saving someone, assessing the situation and making every effort to save the person, even if you lose others in the process."
"Some people are worth the risk," said Steve.
Larson just laughed at that, long and loud. When he finally calmed down, he said, "Like you? Or the middle-aged reporter here? Tell me, what skills do you bring to the table that make you worth saving? How much has your group's survival depended on you, and how often has the heavy lifting been done by someone else?"
"It's like Sara said, we don't leave someone behind,said Steve. We don't measure variables or decide based on someone's value. We all make a contribution, and yeah, some do more of the work than others, but when you're part of something bigger, with every part playing a role, you don't hesitate. You save that person, otherwise, that something bigger isn't complete anymore."
"That's a lovely speech. Really, I heard angels signing and everything, but you're just proving my point for me. You talk about roles, but what is your role? What do you do that no one else can? What is your purpose?"
"Survival,said Steve, without missing a beat. "We're all in this together, so we watch over each other. That's something your little pets here don't have."
Larson seemed to consider this, then pulled a large revolver and fired one shot, decimating an undead. The creature's knees buckled, and it toppled to the ground. A few undead looked at it, but otherwise, their reaction was one of indifference.
"You see that?" he said, gesturing with the smoking gun. "I just took out a part of their 'something bigger.' A piece that had its own role to play. You know what that changes? Nothing, nada, diddly jack fucking horseshit. This army would keep right on going, and the loss of one wouldn't change a damn thing. Now, Exhibit B."
Before Steve and Sara could react, he whipped the gun around and fired at a young man in their group. The shot went in through his right eye and came out the back of his head, exploding it like a pumpkin and showering everyone behind him with blood, bits of bone, and brain matter. Three people dropped to the body, crying and holding the corpse, most likely the man's family. Larson looked back to his interviewees with an expression that said "And there you go."
"You see? Such a waste. While they crowd and cry and weep, the undead close in and finish them off, or the task they were in the middle of doing, such as building a wall to keep the creatures out, or establishing a new gun emplacement, goes unfinished, all for the death of...what was his name, anyway?"
Sara started to answer, righteous indignation boiling inside of her, when she realized with a start that she didn't know the man's name. It seems when you're running for your life from cannibalistic ghouls, basic manners tend to take a backseat. Larson waved the question aside.
"The point is, all your human emotion, your empathy for one another, your dedication to do whatever it takes to save another? I've got a synonym for that weakness. And it's one which these glorious specimens do not possess,he said, waiving to encompass the undead around them. So ahead, tell me I'm wrong. Tell me that your unwavering devotion to one another, your 'no one gets left behind attitude' has never cost you dearly."
Both Sara and Steve were silent, and Larson, Yarin and Sanchin all smiled, knowing this would eventually come out. They all made notes. "What was their name?" asked Yarin.
Sara could only whisper the words, a faint scratching of sound. It was so slight it barely stirred the air.
Larson sighed. "Louder, if you please. My recorder didn't quite catch your mewling."
She glared at the mad scientist, wanting nothing more than to take that damned device and use it to pry out his other eye. "Matthew Erickson."
"I see. And what happened to the dearly departed Mr. Erickson?"
Sara struggled with the memory, and it was Rankin who took the lead. "We were in Martha's Vineyard. It was safe, for awhile, but the dead found us, overran us. Matt got bitten, and he stayed behind to draw them away from us so some of the others could escape. He...he killed himself before he could turn."
"And as a result of his desire to not lose another, he died. Of course, being bitten, he was a dead man anyway, but had he been more dedicated to you, and less to some stragglers, who knows? You may have eventually found a cure. Or not. Either way, my point is made."
Kern looked at Steve, then back to the group, huddled over a dead man whose name she didn't even know. Why was she doing this, putting herself in harm's way just to save a bunch of strangers? For all she knew, her husband Jake was still alive, or hurt and needing help.
What was her selflessness costing her? Her children were dead by her own hand, after both had been bitten. Everyone she knew and loved was gone, and the one person who meant anything to her could be dying right now.
For Rankin, however, that emotional battle was absent. Yes, he knew all the people who mattered to him were dead, and if he had been more selfish, had stocked up on all the weapons from the precinct where he had worked, they may be alive today, maybe having retaken a city like Stradd had done.
But his parents had raised him to respect one's duty and to make it his mission. And so he had stayed on Martha's Vineyard, determined to make them proud and protect others. It was a mission he had never stopped carrying out, even here and now. He would die for those with him.
Just then, Yarin walked up to Larson and whispered in his ear. The other scientist's eyes widened, and a grin crept across his face. It wasn't an expression that promised good times for those with him. He abruptly stood up and made a mock bow to Sara and Steven. "Please excuse me for one moment, my dear guests, but I must attend to something."
"What, you want to kill another innocent person?" asked Steven.
Larson seemed to brighten at this idea. 鉄ounds like fun, but first I need to meet with our new visitor."
The look of shock on their faces was priceless.
Marcus Arron was a man who never felt fear. At least, that was the facade he had worked for years to cultivate.
It was a lesson learned from his father, often at the end of a fist when dear ol' dad took to the Wild Turkey. He learned that fear was weakness, and the weak died crying and afraid, whimpering for their mothers.
And so, Marcus had trained himself never to show fear, even though the truth was his years of parental abuse had left him jumpy and constantly looking over his shoulder. He did his best to counter that constant terror, though-he joined a gym and hit the weights like they were going to be outlawed someday, trained in the martial arts, and joined the Marines. It helped, at least a little. The fear was still there, but now he had the strength and skills to battle against the things that went bump in the night.
When the Great Exhumation happened, Marcus actually rejoiced. Here was a chance to battle his fear, to show the world that he wasn't afraid. He threw himself into insanely dangerous situations, batting hordes of the walking dead without a second's hesitation, taking on biker gangs and escaped inmates, all in a furious bid to show the world that he was the bravest bastard who ever lived.
Right now, that show was in full swing. The ringmaster was addressing the crowd, the clowns were tumbling, the lions were facing their tamers, and the acrobats were soaring above the high-wire. The Circus of Marcus' Fear was in town, and now, surrounded by the dead on all sides, devoid of any weapons, he was putting on the performance of a lifetime.
Larson stood before him, not a trace of fear on his face, and for him, there was no show in town, no mask to wear, no facade to maintain. Though Marcus could snap him in two with his eyelids, the scientist knew had the upper hand-several thousand of them, in fact.
"Seems like we're the popular ones today," said Frank. "To what do we owe the honor?"
的'm Sergeant Marcus Arron, representing Jason Stradd, leader of Boulder, Colorado,said the larger man. 的'm here to negotiate a cessation of hostilities."
添oung man, I'm heading an army of the walking dead, your city is a smoking ruin, and if you had a leg to stand on, I'd be seeing guns of all size pointed at us. Why in the blue Hell would I cease the very thing I came here to do?"
Marcus smiled, a wolf's smile, all teeth and bloodlust. "This," he said, opening his jacket to reveal several pounds of plastique, and in his other hand, a detonator. "Either you and your-"
That sentence was the last thing to go through Arron's mind-well, that and the bullet fired from Larson's gun, whipped out at the speed of lightning. He dropped to the ground, a look of surprise mixed with rage on his face. His hand gripped on the detonator as the last whisps of life escaped his body. Larson fired several more shots, careful to avoid the explosives.
"OK, that was fun, now shall we get back to me proving that your species has outlived its usefulness?"
Bravery has to be one of the most complicated emotions out there.
Steve was scared out of his mind, trapped in a situation he knew there was no escape from. But he knew what this man and his comrades represented-the end of the last vestiges of the human race. So he swallowed his fear, brought up every scrap of bravery he had left, and ran for the body of Marcus Arron. He snatched the detonator out of the dead man's hand, turned to Larson, who for the first time looked something less than full of himself, and pushed the button.
Right before the flash consumed him, Larson, Yarin, Sanchin, Sara, the other humans, about two hundred zombies, and the control mechanism, Steve knew what it was like to be a hero. Whatever happened came next, at least these three lunatics wouldn't be there to see it.
Ron Bern and Jake Marlowe looked up at the sound of the explosion. They had followed the bloody tire tracks back to a trio of high-end Humvees being driven by three of Stradd's soldiers.
Those run-over zombies they had found? They had friends, and they had caught up with the troops a mile down the road, overwhelming and devouring them in a matter of minutes.
Bern and the others came upon a bloodbath, the undead feasting on the entrails of the soldiers with disheartening enthusiasm. So distracted, they fell quickly to a few crowbar swings and gunshots.
Jake viewed the pall of smoke on the horizon, and slowly, a look of despair set in. Somehow, he knew his wife was a part of that blast, either the cause or an unfortunate victim. Moving quickly, he gathered his weapons and jumped down from the vehicle.
The reporter turned back to Ron. No words were exchanged, and none were needed. Ron felt the same thing, the same widening pit of sadness, black and yawning without end. One of their family, bonded together in a war against death itself, had been lost.
"I have to," said Jake.
That was all there was to say. Ron nodded, "Need a hand?"
Jake just shook his head. He gestured to the others, paused in their work to watch the exchange. "Take care of them. I'll be back as soon as I can."
Ron ducked back into the Humvee and emerged with a duffel bag in his hand. Food, medicine, and plenty of dead-smacking toys. "Just in case," he said, jumping down from the vehicle to hand it to Jake.
The two stood for a moment, unsure how to part ways. Ron was the one to hold out his hand, and Jake shook it, then embraced the older man. Ron hesitated, then put his arm around his friend. When they parted, both had tears in their eyes. "See you soon, old man," said Jake.
Ron laughed nervously. He knew the odds of that happening were long, but if anyone could make it through The Graveyard, it was Jake Marlowe. 添ou too, punk. Leave a few of those fuckers for me to kill, huh?"
Jake smiled at that. He knew how much Ron hated the undead, and in a dark way, if he were to kill the last one, Ron would doubtlessly be pissed. "You got it," he said, and turned around and headed down the road at a run.
Ron watched him go, then sighed deeply. As much as he hated to let him go, he knew this was something Jake had to do on his own. Besides, he was right-someone had to take care of the others, and he turned to them, doing his best to replace the expression of sorrow with one of the gruff drill sergeant.
"All right, all of you! We're getting the hell out of here and headed to the coast. If the others are still alive, they're waiting for us, so we won't keep them. Move out!"
He turned back, and saw that Jake was gone. He'd be back, someday. He believed that. He had to.
Jason Stradd lowered the binoculars, a satisfied smile on his face. From here, he had seen the bomb detonate, scant feet from the people apparently in charge. The undead were milling about listlessly now, some headed to Boulder, and some headed elsewhere.
He didn't understand how, but he knew those creatures were being controlled, and that control now seemed to be gone. He would miss Marcus, a good man and a good soldier, but it was an honorable sacrifice, one that secured victory in this conflict.
One of the soldiers with him put down the walkie he was carrying. "So word from the backup garage, sir."
Stradd frowned at that news, but the turn of his face lasted for only a moment. "Not a problem, Private. I've got three more just like it. It's time we headed out."
A stern-looking man with the rank of captain gestured to the site of the explosion. "What about the enemy force, sir?"
"Destabilized. Whoever was controlling those things is gone, and without that, those undead are no serious threat."
"Do we begin taking back the city, sir?" asked the private.
Stradd shook his head. "No, Boulder is lost to us, but we're not finished yet. There's plenty of America left out there. It's time we founded a new capital."