Chapter 13: Shelter from the Storm
There was only darkness and silence. Then a loud noise, the sound of something hard pounding into something not quite as hard, echoed through the emptiness. The sound came again, and a sliver of light cut its way through the dark, blinding and brilliant.
The sliver widened and the light grew brighter, cutting its way into the room with fiendish delight, until it stretched its way into every corner, every nook, and every cranny. It was a weak light, really, the light of a setting sun that had already disappeared behind trees. So to the group that stood there on the outside looking in, the large room appeared foreboding, menacing, dark, and dreary. Yet compared to how it had been only moments before, it was now bright and alive.
“Yup, it’s a warehouse,” one of the group – Marshall – said.
“Told you,” Devin replied.
Flashlights clicked into existence and the room filled with beams of bright white light crisscrossing the walls, floors, and ceilings as the group made its way inside. “This will be a great place to set up a base camp,” Marshall went on. “At least until we find something better.”
“You know, some of those things might be in the building, or at least on the base,” Eli said. “It’ll be dangerous to stay anywhere until we check that it’s clear.”
“You hardly need to remind anyone,” Marshall growled.
With everyone inside they closed the gate, and threaded a pipe through adjacent holes in the frame to lock it in place. The room fell back into darkness, the sunlight now gone, and only the various flashlights provided any illumination. Everyone stood still for a moment, blinking in the lower light. A few people began fishing through their bags, grabbing out candles and lanterns and began lighting them to place in various spots around the room.
Marshall and a small group of others stepped over to Eli. “We were going to break up into groups and search the building. Mostly only people with guns, though you seem insane enough to risk your neck with just those baseball bats, so we thought you might be willing to join Jay and help out.”
“Sure,” Eli responded. “You can never face too many close calls in one day.” Despite what the others seemed to think of him, he actually did not enjoy risking his life. In fact, he was rather mortified at the thought of jumping in feet first again, especially if there were any more zombies like the ones outside. He said none of this, though.
“Good,” Marshall said, apparently oblivious to Eli’s sarcasm. “So Devin and I will take the top floor. Rico, you and your cousins take the second floor. Daniel and Matthew, you two can take the bottom floor. Jay and Eli, you’re on the bottom floor, too. You guys take the south side. It looked like there was a hallway between this building and the next. I want you to check it out, see if it’s open. Don’t go too far though. We’ll help you search the next building when we finish our floors. Got it? Let’s keep this simple. We’re just searching for any signs of life, death, or undeath, and any open doors or windows that might need to be shut. Everyone be safe and keep in radio contact.”
“We have radios?” Eli asked. In answer, Jay held his up and smiled proudly. “Cool.”
“What about us,” Amber said, walking over with Tisha. “I have a gun. Tisha and I can form a group.”
“I suppose…” Marshall began, though he seemed hesitant to agree.
“Actually, it probably would be good if a few people with weapons stayed here to guard the camp,” Eli cut in. “You know, just in case something slips by us.”
Amber stared daggers at him. Eli smiled warmly back at her.
“That’s a good point, Eli,” Marshall noted. “Yes, do that. We don’t know what’s in here. We definitely want someone capable guarding the camp.”
“Capable, right,” Amber muttered under her breath. She shot Eli another evil stare, but he only continued smiling back at her until she walked away.
“Okay, let’s do this,” Marshall said.
As one the group made their way across the room to a doorway presumably leading further into the building. Marshall pressed his ear up to the door and listened. Seemingly satisfied he leaned back and reached for the knob. He held up his free hand and began counting down from three with his fingers.
“Just open the door already,” Eli snapped.
Everyone in the group cringed at the unexpected sound. Marshall turned and glared at Eli. “What?” the young man asked, innocently. “What do you think is waiting on the other side of the door, a crack commando squad? It’ll be zombies if anything. Counting down in silence isn’t gonna keep them from hearing us. They’re dead. They don’t hear anything.”
Marshall sighed but didn’t argue. As if consenting defeat, he simply opened the door and stepped back, letting flashlights shine their way past him into the corridor beyond. It was empty as far as they could see.
“All right,” Marshall said, waving them on. “We’ll go in our groups. Stay sharp.”
Rico, Lucas, and Chewy led the way, followed by Matthew and Daniel, then Jay and Eli. Marshall and Devin went last, closing the door behind themselves.
The corridor was short and narrow. About halfway down on the left were some stairs leading up, which Rico and his group promptly took. Almost directly across from it was the door to a room. Daniel tried the handle and found it unlocked. He motioned with his head to Matthew, and the two stepped into the room. Eli and Jay continued down the hall. Behind them, Marshall and Devin also took the stairs. Eli looked back in time to see Devin salute them. “Good luck,” the army man called to them before disappearing up the stairs.
At the end of the hall it split off to the right, while the left opened up into a large room. Eli shone his flashlight around the room, but saw no indications that it led anywhere. “Guess we can leave that to Matt and Daniel,” he commented to Jay, who nodded his agreement.
They continued on down the hallway, past several more closed doors. “This is certainly a scene from a horror film,” Eli said.
“Clearly,” Jay agreed. “Either the audience at home is watching the killer waiting around the bend for us, or he’s right behind us, picking us off one by one so the people in front never notice.”
Their eyes met then and they froze. Turning, they flicked their flashlights back in the direction they had just come from. There was nothing there.
“Guess that means he’s waiting around a bend,” Eli said.
They continued on in silence, rounding another bend, this one to the left. At the end here the corridor split off in either direction. Jay and Eli stood for a moment, looking both directions on and off. “Which way, do you think?” Eli asked his companion.
Jay looked past Eli to the left, then turned and looked right. “This way, I think.” They started off in this new direction. “This way goes south I think,” Jay said. “That’s where Marshall said the hallway to the other building was.”
Eli reached out his arm and blocked Jay’s path, stopping them both. He motioned with his head to a spot partway down the hall. Jay followed his companion’s gaze and his face fell. There, only a few feet away, one of the doors lining the hall was ajar. The two young men exchanged glances, their expressions saying the same thing. Neither of them particularly wanted to check the room, but they knew they needed to before advancing. Eli let out a long, slow breath, emptying his lungs completely before taking another breath. He pressed up against the wall and slid along it, and then stopped, deciding that was too noisy, and slid along just an inch or two away from it instead.
When he reached the doorframe he stopped and glanced at Jay, who by this point had pulled out a pistol Eli hadn’t realized the young man had been carrying. He nodded to Jay, who nodded back at him, then reached around the door frame and pushed open the door.
Jay slapped his flashlight on to the top of his pistol and raised it up, pointing into the room. Eli immediately stepped over beside him and held up his own flashlight, shining it into the room at a different angle and sweeping it across the blackness.
The room seemed to be some kind of laboratory, filled with empty tables and stools, beakers and bottles. Various forms of lab equipment lay strewn about the room, and some of the tables and chairs seemed to have been knocked over. Eli and Jay exchanged curious glances, and then Jay led the way slowly into the room, Eli following close behind with his aluminum bat at the ready.
They stepped around the rubble and debris, checking each aisle and over each upturned table, but the room seemed to be empty, at least of anything living or undead. Here and there were what seemed to be splatters of dried blood. It covered the floor, the walls, and even, at one spot, the ceiling.
“Some kind of fight?” Jay asked. “You think the zombies made their way in here and attacked some unsuspecting white coats?”
“And then politely closed the door most of the way behind them when they left?” Eli replied, incredulously. He stood near the center of the room, just beside one of the upturned tables, shining his light around the room as if looking for some clue. “Something makes me not think so.” He lowered his flashlight and turned to meet Jay’s eye. “How would they have managed to get inside a military base to begin with?”
Jay shivered, the thought sending unwelcome ideas through the back of his mind and down along his spine. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this place.”
They stood for a moment, silent, and then Eli motioned back toward the door. “Come on, let’s keep looking for that hallway.”
“Right,” Jay agreed, following behind him. Suddenly, the radio on his belt let out a small beep, and Daniel’s voice came through fuzzy and distorted.
“We found a cafeteria,” they could hear him saying.
“Good,” Marshall replied a second later. “See if it has anything we could use.”
“Nope, it’s empty,” came back Daniel’s voice. “More than that, it’s a mess. Cabinets left open, tables and chairs scattered about the place. It’s like this place was abandoned in a hurry.”
Jay lifted the radio to his face. “Yeah, Eli and me just found a lab that’s much the same way. There’s definitely something odd about this place.”
“Nobody’s seen the word ‘Croatoa’ written anywhere, have they?” Eli asked.
There was a long silence. “No.” Daniel responded after a time. “Why?”
“No reason,” Eli answered enigmatically, and then continued onward out the door to the lab.
There was silence over the radio for a long moment. “All right, everyone keep searching,” Matthew said, perhaps unnecessarily, and left it at that.
Back in the hallway the two continued their journey. After a few feet the hallway turned to the left and opened up into a big room that looked somewhat like a foyer. They stepped in and immediately saw that they had reached their destination. The room opened up in a rectangular shape, with a square shaped carpeted area lined by a couch and a couple armchairs. Windows ran along the upper half of the wall facing outside the building until they came to a portion of the wall that was entirely window, including two windowed doors. Through the doors they could see the exterior hallway, which itself had glass walls for the whole span between buildings. Eli stepped up to the doors and shone his flashlight through the glass, noting that the far side had a similar set up and seemed to lead into an identical room.
“Maybe we should go check some of the rooms we passed along the way,” Jay suggested, shining his light around the room. “Or we could at least check out this room,” he added, pointing with his flashlight at a wooden door facing opposite of the transfer hallway.
“Yeah,” Eli responded absently, not turning to look. He tried the nearest of the glass doors and was surprised to find it unlocked.
“Marshall said to wait for everyone else,” Jay admonished.
“I know,” snapped Eli, “I was just checking.” He flicked his light back and forth into the next building, almost as if waving goodbye. Then suddenly he froze, his whole body tensing and coiling, as if preparing to spring. After a moment nothing happened, and he began to slowly move his light, letting the beam trace across the next building’s far wall like a spotlight.
A dark streak flashed across the beam.
“There’s someone over there!”
Without waiting for a response, Eli sprang into action, ripping open the door in front of him and bolting down the hallway. He reached the next set of doors and threw one open, stepping into the next building. He flicked his light around, making sure what he was looking for wasn’t hiding in this room. Save for the furniture, the room was clearly empty, and the streak had moved in the direction of the hall leading deeper into this next building, so Eli quickly followed that direction. Behind him he could hear the pounding of Jay’s footsteps and the muffled sound of his voice. He was probably calling for help on his radio. Eli did not wait for him, and instead took off down the corridor.
The hall turned right and headed off down a long path toward the other end of the building, splitting off here and there into other passageways going either direction of the main one. These hallways were much wider than the cramped and narrow corridors of the last building, and in the darkness this new area seemed cavernous and foreboding. Eli stopped here for a moment, listening for any sound that might give away whoever or whatever he was chasing. A vague pounding of footsteps echoed off the walls, seeming to emanate from one of the side corridors up ahead. He dashed over to that corner and peaked around the edge. This next hall stretched on for about a couple dozen feet then turned left, up toward the next branched hallway. Two doors jutted into the walls along either side of the hallway, but beyond that the hallway was empty.
Jay caught up to Eli and followed his gaze around the corner. “The far door?” he asked after a moment, and Eli nodded his agreement. The door furthest from them was cracked open just slightly, almost even imperceptibly, but it was definitely open. All the other doors were closed.
The two companions quick stepped over to the door, and then pressed their backs to the wall on either side. They exchanged glances briefly, and then Eli reached out and pushed the door open. They quickly raised their flashlights into the room, flicking the beams about in the attempt to uncover something, anything, at all. Beyond the fact that this was another laboratory of some sort, however, there was nothing at all inside. Jay raised his gun in front of him, ready to fire, and stepped into the room, Eli hot on his heels.
They moved cautiously, letting their flashlights dart about, covering as much ground as possible. Like the lab they’d been in a few minutes earlier, this one looked like it had been through some sort of fight, as well, but there was significantly less of what appeared to be blood spattering the walls and floor.
“Hey,” Jay called to Eli, stopping and shining his light up on the wall at one point. “Take a look at this.”
Eli stepped up next to him and took a look at the indicated part of the wall. “Ryerson Co.” he read aloud, studying the logo with a furrowed brow. “What the hell? Why does a private company have their name on the wall of a laboratory on a military base?”
Jay turned around and gave another glance about the room. “They must have been sponsoring whatever research was going on here.”
“Isn’t it normally the government that sponsors corporations?”
Jay shrugged. “What, you think I’m some kind of expert on the military-industrial complex? Maybe it’s some kind of equal exchange policy. Or like business exchange workers.”
“Business exchange workers?” Eli repeated, his expression confused and doubtful.
“Yeah. It’s like foreign exchange students, but businesses exchanging workers. That’s probably a thing, right?” He met Eli’s gaze, whose expression had not changed. “Look, I don’t know, okay? I just–” his voice trailed off as he gazed at the far wall. There was another door there, this one with a small rectangular window set into it so you could see the hallway beyond. “There!” Jay shouted, running toward this door. He reached it and pulled it open, stepping out into the hallway beyond. The sound of gunfire roared out, and Jay immediately spun around, losing his footing and collapsing onto the hard ground.
“Jay!” Eli shouted, rushing toward him. Jay quickly pulled himself up onto his hands and knees and scrambled back into the room. With one foot he kicked the door closed.
“Oh, God, are you hurt? Were you shot?” Eli dropped to his knees next to his companion and waved the beam from his flashlight across the younger man from head to toe repeatedly, looking for any traces of a bullet wound.
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Jay said, waving Eli away. “It just surprised the hell out of me.”
Eli cracked the door and shouted out it, “Hey! Why are you shooting at us? What did we do to you?” He sat there and listened for a moment, but not surprisingly no response came back to him. He closed the door again. “You okay?” he asked in a quieter voice, directing the question at Jay. “Can you walk?”
“Yeah,” the young man said, nodding confidently. “I’m fine. Just a little bruised maybe. Why? What you thinking?”
“I’m thinking we need to get back to the other building and lock up this hallway. We don’t want to risk some psychopath running loose and getting near everybody else with that gun. He may have missed you, but given enough time and enough bullets I’m sure he could do some serious damage.”
“Agreed,” Jay replied. He held out one arm and Eli grabbed it, pulling him up off the ground. “I’ll warn the others just in case.” He grabbed the radio off his belt and raised it up.
Suddenly the door they’d first come in burst open and they spun around to face it. A bright light snapped on, shining right into their eyes. Jay instinctively ducked down, hoping to put a table between himself and the newcomer. Eli simply raised one arm to try and block his eyes from the overwhelming brightness, attempting to catch a glimpse of whoever stood on the other side of it. All he could make out was a blotchy, inky blackness.
The barrel of a gun came into view around the side of the light source, pointed more or less in their general direction.
“That last one was a warning shot,” came the cold, lifeless voice. “This time I sure as hell won’t miss. Now, who the hell are you people and what the hell are you doing here?” Jay and Eli exchanged glances, and Eli let out a long, exasperated sigh.
“Well, shit,” he said.