Better off Undead

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Chapter 14: New Blood

Marshall pushed open the door to another room, spraying in his flashlight and letting its beam arc slowly across the darkness. Like the other half dozen or so rooms he’d checked, this one was empty, at least of anything living – some scattered chairs and miscellaneous furniture, some desks and lab equipment, an open cabinet, and a lot of empty space.

It was what he had expected to find.

Since entering the building there had been absolutely no sign of life, as was the case with everywhere they had been for almost the entire month now. The eerie silence of a lifeless world was almost deafening, tossing over him like an enormous wave threatening to pull him under and drown him in its rage. Sometimes he found himself almost wishing he’d run across some undead just so it could be like meeting new people.

He turned to Devin who had just finished inspecting a different room. “Clear,” he called, and the other man nodded his agreement. The top floor of the building consisted mainly of one big open area that seemed to be some kind of lounge or meeting area. The room was surrounded by about a dozen smaller rooms branching off in different directions, with little else of note to be found. “Well, I guess that about does it, then. Guess we should–”

He cut off suddenly as his radio crackled to life. “This is Jay. Eli spotted something in the next building. Or someone. I don’t know. He’s gone after it. I’m following him.”

Marshall grabbed the radio. “Jay, don’t! I told you guys to wait for the rest of us!”

“Yeah, tell that to Eli. I don’t want him going in there alone. Sorry.”

“Jay, just get him and pull him back, got it?” He waited a few seconds for a response, but none came. “Jay, do you hear me? Jay?”

Marshall and Devin exchanged glances, their faces reading the same expression. Without another word they turned and bolted in the direction of the stairs. Marshall took them two at a time. Up ahead they could hear the clatter of footsteps, indicating to him that Rico and his cousins had drawn the same conclusion. He hit the ground floor and saw Rico, Jesus, and Lucas only a few feet in front of him. He hurried along behind them as quickly as his legs would carry him.

Rico and the others stopped at a fork in the road, their heads jerking left and right as they tried to decide which direction to take. Marshall caught up to them and stopped for a moment, shining his flashlight down both hallways. He pointed to the right, indicating to Rico that they should go that way, then turned and headed left, waving at Devin for him to follow.

They flew down the hallway and then skidded to a halt. The hallway opened up a little into a small, squarish room with three doors on each of the remaining walls. Marshall glanced at each door in turn, and then picked the one he thought faced the most southward and ran up to it. He tried the knob and found it unlocked, so he threw open the door and stepped inside. He gave it a quick once over, not surprised to find it apparently every bit as empty as the other rooms he had checked. On the far wall was another door with a window set into it. He hurried over to this door and glanced through the window. Beyond was the lobby area Jay and Eli had discovered earlier, and the hallway into the next building.

“Come on!” he called to Devin and hurried through the door. Once on the other side he could hear footsteps echoing in the darkness. He glanced to his right and could see three lights spraying out from the hallway, and could make out the blurry outlines of Rico and Lucas. He nodded at the group and pointed before himself, then hurried off through the hallway into the next building.

They hurried down the corridor, deeper into the heart of this building. Now that they were this far, their specific goal became much less clear, and they began stopping at each intersection, pausing as they listened for any sign of life.

The roar of a gun echoed off the walls around them.

Marshall looked to Devin, then Rico, Lucas, and Chuy. Devin’s jaw hardened as he strained to pinpoint the source of the gun. “This way!” he hissed and hurried off down the hall. He came to a corner and threw himself against the wall, checking the safety on his HK45 before daring to peek around the corner. He could just barely make out a figure moving in the dark. He leaned back up against the wall as Rico and the rest crowded around him. He made some gestures with his hands to indicate that there was one person in the hall, but was met with only blank stares. He mentally kicked himself for forgetting that these were civilians. Leaning in closer he whispered, “There’s someone moving in the dark. I’m gonna round the corner and cover him. You guys wait here. If he starts firing at me give me some covering fire, but don’t leave the shelter of this corner, got it?” Almost as one the group nodded. Devin took a deep breath and placed his pistol up against his wrist holding the flashlight so that the barrel lined up with the lens. Then in one fluid motion he clicked on the light, raised his arms before him and stepped around the corner.

He was just in time to see a door click shut down the hallway. He lowered his arms again and let out a sigh of annoyance.

“I said, what are you doing here?”

Devin spun around back in the direction he had come from; back in the direction of the voice, weapon aimed and ready. No one was there, or at least no one aside from the group he had come with. For a long moment everybody froze, and then as if some signal had been sent they all realized where the voice had come from. Marshall had left his radio on, and it was broadcasting. He unclipped the radio from his belt and raised it up for everyone to hear.

“Take it easy, take it easy,” came the sound of Eli’s voice. “It’s okay, we don’t mean you any harm.”

“Good Jay,” Marshall said, realizing, correctly, that Jay was holding down the transmit button on his radio so everyone else could hear what was going on.

“Boy, you break into a military base and you’re telling me to take it easy? Why did you come here? What do you know? Who sent you?”

“Hey, guy, seriously, I think you’ve been alone in the dark for too long. You’re getting paranoid.”

“Stay back!” There was brief pause as Eli most likely followed orders. “Tell me why you and your friends are here.”

“Friends?” Eli repeated. “I think you’re mistaken-”

“Shut up.” The voice demanded. Suddenly the door down the hall opened and the gun roared to life again, a bullet ricocheting down the halls and whizzing past Devin, who dove for cover around the corner. “You guys stay back! I’ve got these two covered. I’ll shoot them if you make me!”

“Give it up, gringo!” Rico shouted back. “There’s more than a half dozen of us and only one of you. You don’t stand a chance.”

Inside the room, the stranger’s eyebrows narrowed in confusion. “I’m… I’m not a gringo,” he protested quietly. “I’m not a gringo,” he shouted out the door. He looked over at Eli, and protested one more time.

“I can see that,” Eli said, taking a step forward.

The man raised his gun again, pointing it directly at Eli. “Stay back,” he warned.

Eli raised his hands in surrender, but did not take back the step. “Look, man, it’s no big deal, okay? We’re just a small group of people, looking for a place to stay for the night. Someplace that won’t be overrun with zombies before we wake up again in the morning. You can understand that, right? This place is safe, right?”

The man lowered the gun a little, his eyes looking Eli up and down for a sign that indicated whether he was lying or not. He considered the question, his face contorting as he did so, as if he was having trouble processing. “You don’t belong here,” he concluded at last.

“Yeah, I know. I know we don’t belong here,” Eli agreed, taking another step forward cautiously. “But, man, have you seen the world out there? Things aren’t the same as they were. There’s no borders anymore, no VIP only markers. Right now, here, today, it’s just about surviving. It’s just about weathering the storm. That storm out there is damnation itself. It is Hell let loose on this Earth to destroy us all. If you’re gonna kick us out, then you might as well shoot me now, cuz you’re as good as condemning us to death.”

The words clearly got through to the stranger, and his hands holding the gun began to waver, dropping a little lower, but not all the way. He still was not willing to trust them, but he was becoming open to the idea that they weren’t here to kill him.

“Nobody sent you here?”

Eli shook his head, sliding forward a little as he did so. “Us? No.”

The man raised the gun back up, pointing it directly at Eli. His face grew hard, his expression serious. “Then how did you know about this place?”

Eli’s mind raced as he considered the question. Would it be safer to lie, or to answer the question honestly? Clearly, this man must have seen them enter the building or at least seen part of the group. He could have been watching them for some time. And if he was relatively sane, despite current appearances to the contrary, he even might end up joining their group. Perhaps it would be best, Eli figured, to not give him reason for distrust. “One of our group is an army man. He’s been here before or something like that. I’m not too sure, I only met these people… yesterday.”

Had it really been that little time? Eli could hardly believe it. He was used to long, slow days of video games and TV, where little to nothing ever happened. Yet now, in a little under forty-eight hours, almost everything about his life had completely been turned on its head. It seemed to him like there maybe should have been a little more adjustment time in the between somewhere.

The stranger’s eyes narrowed at this response. “I want to talk to this man,” he said. Eli hesitated, unsure of how to respond to that. The dark man’s eyes narrowed and he adjusted his grip on his gun, thrusting it at Eli for emphasis. “Now.”

Eli nodded. “Okay, yeah. Sure. We’ll get him in here.” He turned to Jay and motioned with his head at the radio.

Jay frowned but raised the radio to his lips. “Um… Devin? You down here?”

Out in the hall, the group all looked to Devin, who met their eyes with a grim expression. He nodded his head and held out his hand for the radio. Marshall tossed it to him. “Yeah.” he said into it.

“This guy wants to see you. Think you can come down here?”

“All right, I’m on my way.”

Devin tossed the radio back to Marshall and stood up. Down the hall, the door opened and the stranger leaned out, pointing his gun and light down the hallway at the group. Devin came into sight, hands raised nonthreateningly above his head. “Stop,” the man demanded. Devin did as he was told. “Place your gun on the floor. And don’t bother telling me you don’t have a gun. You’re not moving until I see something drop.” Devin sighed and reached behind himself for the gun tucked into his pants. “Slowly,” the man demanded. Devin nodded, and pulled his arm slowly back around into sight, his HK hanging loosely from between his fingers. Kneeling down, he placed it gingerly on the floor.

“Now kick it over here.”

Devin stood back up. He hooked his right foot around the weapon and sent it skidding across the floor in the direction of the far door. It was a good shot, getting close enough to the other man for him to grab it. His arm lashed out like a snake for the kill, grabbing up the pistol and pulling it back in quick as a flash. He tucked the gun into his belt.

“All right,” he said at last, standing up straight. He propped the door open and motioned the army man onwards. “You can come in now.”

Devin continued down the hallway to the room. He stepped inside and the stranger motioned him to a spot near the doorway. “Shut it,” he commanded, motioning to the door, and Devin complied. “Now, state your name.”

“Private First Class Devin Elkridge,” he answered, standing straight and clasping his hands at the small of his back.

“And were you stationed here, Private?”

“No, sir.”

“Then how did you know about this place?”

Devin’s face hardened. “My unit came here once, briefly, to deliver supplies. We were ordered to guard the delivery truck.”

“Yes,” the stranger said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “supplies were usually delivered under guard. Very well, then tell me this, private: why have you come here rather than staying at your assigned base?”

“I’m stationed in San Antonio, but I’m from Denton. I was on leave in the area when the outbreak occurred. I have been unable to contact anyone else in the armed forces. It is my belief that they are just as dead as everybody else. My goal became to get to a fortified base and make camp, in order to survive as long as possible. This was the nearest base I could think of, so I came here.”

“So no one ordered you to come here? You’re not on a mission?”

“No, sir.”

“And you’re the only army personnel in your group?”

“That’s affirmative.”

A look of uncertainty crossed over the stranger’s face, and his arms began to waver. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said quietly, as if not directing the comment at anyone in particular. His lower lip quivered and he bit it to keep it still. His eyes lowered to the floor, then up to the ceiling, and then back down again. “It’s not… I don’t think…” he tried saying, but nothing seemed to come out right. “I can’t let you stay here.”

Eli crossed the last bit of distance between himself and the man. With one hand he grabbed the man’s gun and jerked it away from Devin. With his other hand he punched the man as hard as he could right in the jaw. The stranger let go of the gun, letting out a cry of shock as he stumbled backwards a couple steps before unceremoniously dropping onto his backside. He sat there in stunned silence while Eli knelt down and removed Devin’s gun from where the man was keeping it.

“Sorry about that,” he apologized. “I don’t know what’s going on here or what your issue is, but we mean you no harm. We have no ulterior motives. All we need is a place to stay, somewhere safe, somewhere with no zombies. Do you understand?” The man nodded. “Good. Now, are you going to help us, or is there going to be a problem?”

The man’s face grew very serious, and his eyes met Eli’s. He sat in silence for a long moment, choosing his next words with great care. “Would it make a difference to you if I told you this wasn’t a safe place to stay?”

“Why is this not a safe place to stay?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

The man’s gaze did not waver. His eyes, cold and dark, proved unyielding and uncompromising. “We’ve been up and down these dark corridors for a good hour now, and we haven’t found sign one of any life, death, or even undeath aside from you. Is there something there we aren’t seeing?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

Eli sighed and stood up straight. “Well then, I can’t believe you. I have something like thirty tired, hungry people I have to look out for, and they just need some food to eat and a place to sleep. The food we have, the place you have. Maybe you’re right, maybe we don’t want to stay here, but we can discuss that in a civilized manner tomorrow, after a good night’s rest. What do you say? Can we be safe if we stay here for only one night?”

The man’s eyes narrowed, but after a moment he nodded his head. “Fine,” he said, relenting. “If you stay for just the one night, you shouldn’t be in any danger.”

“I’m glad we could reach an agreement on that,” Eli said. He handed Devin back his gun as the stranger pulled himself to his feet.

“I’m Paul, by the way,” the man said.

“I’m Eli. Devin you met. This is Jay.”

“Hey-o,” said Jay, who had finally come out from his hiding spot. He waved at Paul, who nodded back to him.

“Sorry to scare you,” Paul said, rubbing his jaw where Eli had punched him. “I haven’t seen anybody since the outbreak. I guess I got a bit paranoid being here all by myself.”

“Are you saying there isn’t any danger?” Eli asked.

Paul shrugged. “Not anything like you might be thinking, probably. I was concerned about why anybody would come here. This place is so remote and unknown, even by military personnel. I guess I just figured it would be better to scare you off than to risk it. There is a pathogen lab downstairs, though. There’s no telling what’s been let loose down there.”

“This place has a basement?” Jay exclaimed, and he must have sounded a little too excited, because Paul shot him a deadly glance, his face hard and even sinister.

“Stay out of the basement,” he warned, his tone every bit as solemn and dark as his expression. He turned to cast his gaze over the others in the room. “I’m serious. For your own good and everybody else’s. You don’t want to unleash anything that might be down there.”

“Got it. Basement: bad,” Eli agreed, nudging Jay hard with his elbow and shooting him an annoyed look out of the corner of his eyes.

“We should get back to camp,” Devin interjected. “It’s getting late.” The others silently agreed, a chorus of head nodding showing they were thinking along the same lines. Devin pointed toward the doorway and then to Paul. “You first,” he said. Paul met the man’s gaze for a long moment, but did not protest. He turned and pulled open the door. Devin motioned to Jay. “Let the others know we’re coming.”

Jay nodded and quickly raised the radio to his lips. “This is Jay,” he said.

“Jay! What’s going on in there?” asked Marshall, his voice sounding almost frantic.

“We got it worked out. It’s cool now. We’re coming out. Don’t shoot anybody.”

There was a moment’s hesitation, as though they were deciding whether or not they should believe him. “Okay,” came the response at last.

Paul led the way down the corridor back to the group. He stopped before them, holding his hands out to either side to show that he was unarmed. “This is Paul,” Jay explained to the group. “He’s been here since the outbreak. He says we can stay here as long as we don’t go in the basement.”

“What’s wrong with the basement?” Rico asked.

“Pathogen lab,” Eli answered. “They got stuff that’ll make your skin fall off and eyes pop out and your brain drain out of your nose.”

“That’s not true,” Paul said, and then reconsidered. “Actually, that might be true.”

Rico looked between the two men, as if trying to decide whether they were being serious or just messing with him. “Sorry I asked,” he muttered simply.

“So, Paul, you’ve been here since the outbreak?” Marshall asked, rhetorically, not pausing long enough to wait for a response. “Is there anybody else on the base?”

Paul shook his head left and right. “Just whoever you people brought with you.”

“What about zombies? Are there any on the base itself?”

“The only danger here to you people is the basement. As long as you stay out of it, you won’t have anything to worry about.”

Marshall’s expression seemed to indicate that he did not fully buy that answer, but he merely nodded and said, “Okay.” He looked to the others to gauge their thoughts, and seemingly satisfied said, “Back to camp then?”

They turned and began walking, with Rico and his cousins taking up the lead, and Devin following a short distance behind everyone else in order to keep an eye on the newcomer. Marshall raised his radio to his lips. “Matthew? Daniel? You guys there?”

“Yeah, we’re here,” came back Matthew’s voice.

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, we’re good. Just a bunch of empty rooms. How about you guys? Did everything go all right with Eli and Jay?”

“Yeah, they’re fine. They found someone who’s been living on the base since the outbreak. He says the base is clear. You two can probably head back to the camp now. We’re headed that way, so we’ll see you there.”

“Sounds good,” Matthew replied.

They crossed down the hallways and back through the connector between the two buildings. From there they followed the maze of corridors around back to the warehouse area. They opened the door and stepped into the room, somewhat surprised to see how different it looked. Most of the floor had been cleared to make way for sleeping bags and even tents. Small electric lanterns dotted the floor, hung from hooks, and even set atop stacks of boxes.

Amber spotted them and hurried across to the room to their group. “What the Hell went on out there?” she demanded, casting an accusing and angry glance directly at Eli before turning to face Marshall.

“Nothing serious,” the muscular man assured her, patting her calmingly on the shoulder. “Eli found a survivor, who assures us we’re not in any danger here.”

“Great,” she muttered, “’cuz we’re not already short on food and available room.”

“This is where you are planning on staying?” Paul asked, looking about at the various people, tents, and supplies.

“I thought we’d established that,” Eli moaned.

“No, I don’t mean on this base. I mean, here, in this room.”

“You have a better option?” Amber snapped.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” Paul replied calmly. Everybody turned to stare at him, and despite himself, he smiled.

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