Better off Undead

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Chapter 15: New Order

“This is… so gay.”

Eli looked with surprise at Jay, who was standing there, mouth hanging open in disbelief, head shaking from side to side. He noticed he was being watched and his expression grew a little defensive. “Well, it is. A bunch of guys sleeping together? That’s pretty much the definition of gay.”

“We’re not sleeping together, Jay,” Marshall said, pushing past them with his bags. “Just in the same room.”

The “room” was larger than Eli’s entire apartment, but still managed to feel somewhat cramped from the beds that lined the walls on either side for a little over half of the room. The beds were a uniform full size and white, looking to Eli almost as if someone had installed one, and then copy/pasted it repeatedly to fill out the rest of the room.

Space opened up once the lines of beds ended. This next area was clearly intended as some sort of work out area, complete with a few pieces of exercise equipment, including jump ropes, yoga mats, and even a couple of medicine balls. Just before the far wall the room split off in either direction for the facilities: showers on one side, sinks and toilets on the other. Paul had said that there was a working generator, so that they could get the water pumping for the occasional shower, and most of the group seemed eager for the opportunity, hurriedly tossing their bags onto beds and pulling out various personal grooming items that had most likely been clung to for purely sentimental reasons. In the next building over Paul was showing the girls around an identical area and no doubt they would be equally excited for these facilities. The same generator that ran the showers also powered the small electric lights that dotted the walls above their heads, providing at least enough light for them to see and maneuver without risk.

“That’s close enough,” Jay grumbled in response to Marshall as he tossed his gear down on the nearest bed.

At the foot of each bed was a small chest. Eli opened one and, figuring it was big enough to fit what little stuff he had with him, dropped his bags inside. He was forced to pull out his bats and lay them beneath the bed, but everything else made it into the chest just fine. He collapsed onto the milky white sheets, feeling exhaustion wrapping over him like a blanket despite the unrelenting hardness of the mattress.

“Not exactly designed for comfort,” he commented.

“This place is bizarre, don’t you think?” Jay said, plopping down onto the bed beside his own stuff.

“How so?”

“What’s with this weird little dormitory? And conveniently there are two so we don’t have to go co-ed? And there are already generators in place to run the lights and water? What’s that for, in case of the apocalypse?”

“Maybe this is one of those places conspiracy theorists are always talking about: a safe bunker where politicians are supposed to go to wait out the end of the world.”

“I thought those were supposed to be buried under miles and miles of rock.”

“How the Hell would I know?”

“And I can’t envision a politician being able to accept a mattress like this,” Jay added, lying back on his cot. “And another thing: what’s this ‘pathology lab’ nonsense? There’s something I don’t trust about Paul’s explanation.” His voice trailed off, but Eli did not respond. “What do you think?” he prompted, but Eli was silent. “Eli?” Jay sat up just as a snore ripped through the air, grinding like a poorly oiled chainsaw. “Great,” he muttered, and fell back down onto the bed.

When Eli woke he wasn’t sure at first that any time had passed at all. The room looked subtly different, but he was not familiar enough with it already to place what miniscule details had changed. The remaining bunks were empty, save for one across the aisle where Jay sat, his back against the wall, staring silently at the ceiling. Eli looked left and right but was unable to determine any signs of the time. He felt well rested, but it was impossible to tell just how long he had been asleep. The temptation to just roll over and go back to sleep was great. Then at last it occurred to him what was missing: noise. The sound of the others taking showers had disappeared, yet they also were clearly not in their beds. He sat up and stared at Jay, hoping for an answer, but the confusion on his face was almost indistinguishable from the sleepiness.

“Oh, you’re finally awake,” Jay said simply.

“Finally?” Eli croaked.

“The others have been up for hours. Paul showed us where we could get breakfast. You want some?”

Eli’s brain was not working fast enough yet to give a competent answer, but the angry growling of his stomach gave all the response that was needed. He rolled out of the bed, his body more flopping about than articulating, as though he had no control of his limbs. He noticed as he stood up straight that his feet were burning and realized that he’d fallen asleep with his shoes on again. “Great,” he grumbled. He stood still for a moment, or what he thought was still, but to Jay looked more like the swaying of a top heavy tree in the middle of a thunderstorm.

“You okay?” he asked, wondering if he needed to step over and help the other man to keep him from falling.

“You’re okay!” Eli snapped angrily, not completely aware of what he was even saying. He yawned a great, deep yawn and scratched his belly, which let out a second growl as if in protest. “What was that you were saying about food?” he asked, as consciousness slowly began seeping into his still half asleep brain.

“I think you’re snoring might be giving you a sleeping problem,” Jay chided.

“I’ll see a doctor first chance I get,” Eli growled, sneering.

Jay scoffed, but said only, “Come on, follow me,” and led the way out of the bunk room. They crossed a grassy field and came up to a small, one story square building.

“This base is huge,” Eli commented, taking a look around in the bright morning light and realizing that the metal gates surrounding the base seemed to all rest along the horizon. It looked almost as though the whole world had become just this one military base, and really, Eli thought bitterly to himself, in some ways it had.

They entered the building and saw that it was mostly one big room clearly designed as a cafeteria. Everyone else in the group was already seated at the tables and eating various foods that they had probably assumed they would never see again, and talking excitedly amongst themselves.

On a counter on the far side of the room, an assortment of fruits, pastries, and other items had been laid out. Eli and Jay made their way over here and each quickly filled a plate with items. Sitting down at the nearest table they wasted no time in shoveling the food into their hungry, eager faces.

After a few minutes, Marshall stood up, calling for attention and waving his hands in the air above his head. Once everyone was silent and watching him he began. “First of all, I’d like to think Paul, our gracious host, for showing us the generators and the food stocks. In return, we should give him the one and only thing he asks of us, and that is to stay out of the basement. I expect you all to abide by this rule, not just because you’re asked to, but because it’s a pathology lab and by going down there you risk infecting all of us with some virus.

“Now, I know this place seems too good to be true, but we’re going to have to work to keep it that way. Just because we seem safe doesn’t mean we are. I want at least three people up on the third floor of the office building at all times, keeping watch on the outside. Also, there are several guard towers around the base. I won’t ask that we always have someone up in them, but it wouldn’t hurt to get people up there from time to time.

“Also, I think it would be in our best interest to start a garden. A small one right outside this building will be fine, at least at first. We have most of the materials we need for it here. Paul also informs me that there’s a small town about an hour’s drive south of here. Whatever supplies we don’t have we can gather from there, but I don’t want any groups heading there with less than six people. The runs will need to be quick and no nonsense. Just there and back, with hopefully as little interaction with the undead as possible.”

He paused and looked around the room, attempting to gauge everyone’s reactions. “I won’t lie to you: this is going to be hard work. We’re going to be scratching our very survival out of the dirt, so I expect everybody to chip in and do their part. If one person isn’t pulling their weight, it hurts all of us. So come talk to me or Elaine as soon as possible and we’ll determine what skills everybody has and where we all will be the most use.”

His speech finished Marshall gave a nod and sat back down. Eli turned to Jay. “Who’s Elaine?”

Jay nodded over to the round table Marshall was at. “That’s Elaine,” he said, motioning to a woman Eli estimated to be late thirties or early forties. She sat at Marshall’s left, while Amber sat at Marshall’s right. “And that’s Donald, next to her,” he added, pointing to the old man to her left. “That’s her father.”

“I see,” Eli said absently. He looked around the room and quietly noted that each of the tables were similarly full, with people massed in groups decidedly similar to how they had divided into vehicles. Completing Marshall’s table were Paul and Tisha, who sat between Donald and Amber. At another table sat Rico, Jesus, Lucas, and Lisa. At still another sat Gabriel, the preacher, and the group Eli had seen around him the first night: Kelly, Matthew, and Stephan. Along with them sat Kelsey – Matthew’s wife – and Devin. At a nearby table sat Nancy and her children Tyler and Amanda, whom Eli had barely seen since that first morning. With them sat Daniel and Daina. Across the room sat Kira and Mi-Cha with two people Eli did not recognize. Their group was distinctly the least talkative in the room.

“Who’s that sitting with Kira and Mi-Cha?” he asked.

“The lady’s name is something like… Aliyah? I think.” Aliyah was tall and slender, with skin so dark it was almost ebony. She wore a loose green tank top with yellow shorts, a serious machete on her belt and an equally serious expression on her face. Her body was tense, almost coiled, as if at any moment she might drop her food, leap over a table, and start chopping up zombies. “The dude is Nelson. I don’t really know anything about them.”

Nelson seemed almost like Aliyah’s polar opposite. His skin was so white it looked as if he’d been living in a closet. His clothes were tight and simple, a white button down shirt and black slacks. He did not seem to be carrying a weapon. He wore glasses which seemed to need constant adjusting, and his expression was tender and caring. He tried occasionally to strike up conversation with one of his companions, but got little more than the briefest of nods in response.

As people began finishing their meals they rose and made their way, as requested, over to Marshall’s table and had brief discussions on their usefulness. Eli frowned as he watched this, a black feeling growing in the pit of his stomach. “Who made Marshall and this Elaine person into King and Queen of the camp?”

“Nobody,” Jay answered, rolling his eyes, “but somebody had to lead. You want the job?”

“Hell, no.”

“Well probably they didn’t either, but they’re the ones who stepped up and took responsibility. Without someone to organize, what would get done?”

“I don’t know,” Eli responded with a shrug. “Whatever needed to?”

“Maybe whatever an individual needed. For a time. But come on. Who’s gonna work on a garden, or go on guard duty, or anything like that, if they weren’t being made to do it?”

“Nobody makes a housewife build a backyard garden, but she does it.”

Jay gave Eli a confused look. “Is that some kind of sexist thing?”

“I’m saying if someone wants to garden, they’ll do it, without anybody telling them to do it.”

“Yeah, sure, I suppose,” Jay agreed, nodding his head slowly as he thought about it. “But they’ll be doing that for themselves. Who’s gonna make them grow enough food for other people as well? And even if they did, who’s gonna make them share?”

“Christ, what kind of people do you think we are?” He looked around the room, glancing from face to face. Each person’s face unquestionably betrayed exhaustion and weariness, but they also smiled warmly as conversations carried on, and the occasional peal of laughter ripped through the room. The air was alive with the buzz of humanity. “Are you really saying you don’t think anyone in here is capable of caring for other people, of working to help other people, without being forced to do so? Is that all we are, just survival instincts on legs?”

“When things are going well, like they are now, sure, we’re all happy to help out and do our part, but when times get rough, when food and water are scarce and we’re struggling just to find a safe place to sleep at night, rule number one in each and every single person’s book becomes the survival of the self.”

Jay shrugged his shoulders and shook his head sadly. “I don’t like it any more than you do. But I’ve already seen it. You’re fresh to this whole zombie outbreak thing, but I’ve been in it since day one. I was at college, on campus, and it was overrun. I didn’t think about my friends, or my family, and I certainly didn’t think about some strangers I barely knew. All I could think about was getting out of there. When it comes to it, when the chips are down, that’s who we are. And so I know it’s easy to say we don’t need leadership when things are going well, but once everything goes wrong, it’s their order that keeps us from acting like the animals we are.”

Jay fell silent and turned back to his food, but now he was only plucking at it absently. Eli watched him for a long moment, realizing only now that there was much more going on inside his young companion’s head then normally he let anyone believe. “Something happened, didn’t it?” He said, nodding his head with the realization. Jay shot him a quizzical look. “That day, the day of the outbreak, or whatever, some serious shit went down around you. What was it? Did you lose someone?”

Jay was already shaking his head before Eli finished. “It’s not like that. Not really. I mean, it’s nothing specific. It doesn’t have to be. It’s the weight of the whole world, Eli. It comes down on you all at once when you see something like that. When you see people eating other people alive. When you hear the screams of people who are missing whole chunks of their body and they’re just lying in the streets, begging to die. When by the time you realize you should be worried about your family you also realize that they’re already dead.”

The words tore at something inside Eli. Somewhere, distant, inside his mind, he was aware that his family and friends were probably dead, but he had done his best to not think about it. He planned to keep not thinking about it.

“Well,” he said, standing up quickly, “better see what ‘The Man’ wants me to do.” He stepped over to Marshall’s table and nodded to the group.

“Ah, Eli,” said Marshall, who was holding a notepad and pen. He jotted something down before continuing the thought. “Thanks for stopping by. What do you feel you can contribute to our efforts here?”

Eli considered the question for a moment with a pondering expression, then shrugged his shoulders. “Beats me.”

Marshall frowned and exchanged glances with first Elaine and then Amber. “Okay, well, did you have a job before the outbreak?”

“Yeah, I had a seasonal job for the university.”

“Oh, good. What did you do? Cook? Clean?”

“Fix computers, mostly,” Eli responded.

There was silence around the table. Marshall tapped his pen against his notepad a couple times and nodded his head absently. “Well, I don’t think we’ll have much need for that particular skill. Is there anything else you’re good at?”

“I have some pretty killer high scores in some video games.”

Marshall set down the pad and pen and gripped the table, apparently close now to losing his temper. He took a deep breath and asked, “Are you trying to be difficult?”

“No,” Eli responded simply.

“Then give me some idea of where you think you could be useful.” Marshall spoke so quickly it almost came out as one long word instead of a full sentence.

“Well what is it you’re going to be doing, muscles?” Eli snapped. “Be workout coordinator? Are you gonna use those muscles for construction? Build us some houses to live in? Or have you just appointed yourself head of the bureau of repopulation?”

“Excuse me?”

Everyone at the table was staring in shock and anger at Eli now, especially Amber, who’s eyes were probably only a few degrees short of being lasers burning holes through him, but he pressed on, not letting that stop him. “Well, I can’t help but notice you seem to have your pick of the ladies.”

Marshall’s hand slammed down on the table with enough force to make it bounce a little and send an audible shock wave through the room that silenced all conversation. “You are out of line, mister,” he warned.

“Out of line? What line? What line is there? Who gave you the right to draw lines? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the only line right now is between alive and dead, and even that’s a bit blurry right now.”

“You came here, to us. If you don’t want work then fine. You don’t have to be a part of this community.”

Eli’s expression turned to shock, but the rage did not diminish any. “What, you’re gonna kick me out? You wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for me. I’m the one who got you out of the apartment, got you to the hotel, and got you in here. All you did was get three people killed.”

Marshall looked as if he had been slapped. He was standing now, though he had no memory of getting out of his seat. His arms hung at his side, where his hands balled into fists clenched so tight the color went out of them. “Fine!” He shouted, the word reverberating around the otherwise silent room. “You want to lead, be my guest!” He picked up the notepad and hurled it at Eli. “You think I’m doing this for myself? I’m doing this for everyone. I’m just trying to help. I just want to make sure everyone has what they need to survive. I’m sorry I’m not perfect. I’m sorry I’m not the best man for the job, but I can guarantee you’re not either. The best man for the job was probably eaten alive by whatever those things are out there. We’re just the survivors, doing whatever we can to stay survivors. If you don’t want to do that, then don’t. I don’t care. Just remember that if you don’t want me asking for your help, then don’t ask for mine.”

With that he stormed out of the room, not pausing to look at anyone or anything. Eli held the pad against his chest, where he had caught it – acting purely on instinct – for a long moment while nobody said anything. Without a word he set the pad down on the table, and then turned around and followed Marshall out of the building.

Once outside he wandered somewhat aimlessly for a minute or two, but found that whatever direction he started off in, there were already people there. With a sigh he turned back toward the office buildings. They were certainly big enough for him to loose himself in for as long as he needed.

Inside the dining hall, the general air was stifling and uncomfortable. Both Amber and Elaine considered hurrying after Marshall to calm him down, but neither did. Instead, they made their way about the room, checking in with each person to finish the work of discerning what everyone would be willing to do to help. It took the better part of an hour to get through everyone in the room.

By the time they found Marshall, who was outside, sitting against the back wall of the dining building absently pulling up the grass, he had mostly calmed down.

“Sorry for losing my temper back there,” he apologized when he noticed the girls approaching.

“It’s not your fault,” said Elaine, dropping down beside him and wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “That kid’s a nuisance. You’re gonna have to learn to just ignore him.”

“Yeah,” he muttered in response. He pulled up a blade of grass and twirled it between his fingers.

“We talked to everyone about how they can contribute,” Amber added, in as optimistic of a voice as she could manage, waving the notepad before her as if for emphasis.

“What’s the point?” Marshall asked tossing away the blade of grass. He stood up and dusted off his pants. “You two have seen it out there. You know what it’s like. Every day there’s less of us and more of them. Pretty soon the whole world is gonna be just them. Why should we even bother trying to stave it off? What good is survival really?”

Elaine bolted straight up and stomped her right foot hard into the ground. “What’s the point? What’s the point?” she was only a few decibels short of screaming, and the other two turned to her, wide eyed in surprise. “The point is that we’re still alive, and we’re going to stay that way. I am… not turning into… into... one of those… those… things!” She was visibly shaking, though whether it was from rage or fear of the undead was hard to discern. “Everyone I knew – every single one – has turned into one of those things. They have been taken from me. Well, except dad. You know what I mean!

“And I will not let that happen to me. I’m alive, and I’m staying alive. My family and friends… they would have wanted me to stay alive. Your families and your friends would have wanted you to stay alive. I don’t care if we repopulate the world or just slowly die off to the last man, but I will put a bullet in my own head before I let those things win. So help or don’t help, I don’t care. Just don’t you ever say there’s no point.”

With that she fell silent, and suddenly seemed to become aware of what she had just done. It was as if someone else had temporarily taken control of her body, and now that she had it back she was extremely ashamed of the things it had done in her place. “I mean, that is…” she stammered, but seemed unable to complete the thought.

Marshall reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder. “It’s okay. You’re right.” He gave her a reassuring hug. Amber looked away and did her best to not feel like a third wheel.

“Well then,” Marshall said, “let’s take a look at that list.”

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