Chapter 29: Lies and Secrets
The next day, to Eli’s surprise, it was Paul who brought him breakfast. He stuck around while Eli ate, occasionally pacing this way or that and making generally nervous conversation. At one point, he noticed the binoculars and lifted them to his face. He looked out to the forest across the road, to the same area where thousands of zombies had been stumbling through only hours before.
After a moment he put the binoculars down and turned to Eli. “So,” he said, and then paused, as though weighing the value of each and every word, “what did you do before?”
Eli paused in mid-bite of his jam filled kolache. “Before?” he muttered through the pastry.
“Yeah, you know. Before the zombie outbreak. Marshall said that you mentioned something about computer skills?”
Eli nodded absently as he munched on the last of his kolache. Images of slow days in the computer closet at the university flickered through his head. “Yeah, I guess. It was I.T. You know, computer support stuff. Turning computers on and off. Downloading updates. Plugging in mice that had come unplugged. That sort of stuff.”
“Were you good? Or were you one of those I.T. guys that sat around and did nothing and pretended that was work?”
For a moment Eli assumed a defensive posture. He felt rather as if he had been attacked. He had his mouth open and one finger poised in the air, a lecture preparing for a dive off the tip of his tongue, but then the moment passed and he realized there was no point. So he leaned back in the chair and offered a non-committal shrug. “A little bit of both, I guess.”
Paul did not seem to notice Eli’s brief fit of rage. He continued, unperturbed, “So if I were to come to you with a computer problem, something kinda basic, do you think you could fix it?”
Eli fell silent and poked around at the leftover crumbs on his plate. He looked up after a minute to see Paul watching him expectantly. “Well who’s to say?” Eli added, not sure what the man was waiting for, or even why he was asking. “I mean, what’s it matter now, anyway? It’s not like there’s a working computer anywhere within a hundred miles, so who cares, right?” Eli waited, but Paul did not respond.
“Right?” Eli repeated, a little more emphatically. He learned forward and stared harder at the other man..
A thin smile began to spread across Paul’s lips.
Minutes later, they were standing in a room in the main building Eli had never seen before. A wave of excitement was washing over him, smothering him, threatening to drown him. He clenched and unclenched his hands over and over without even realizing it. He felt like a fat kid in a candy store. He felt like a poor kid invited to the Christmas morning of the richest family he knew.
Before him was a wall lined with computers.
“So, these all work?” he asked. The excitement tightened his chest so much he was barely able to get the words out.
Paul was busy messing around behind one of the computers. “No, just this one,” he answered, nonchalant, completely oblivious to Eli’s demeanor.
“Oh,” responded Eli, his heart and shoulders immediately sinking.
With a flicker and hum the screen to the computer Paul had been working on sprang to life. “Excellent,” he muttered to himself as he sat down in the nearest chair. Then, to Eli, he said, “I didn’t want to use up too much power at once by letting a bunch of computers I didn’t need run all at once.”
“Yes, that would be awful.” Eli’s voice was flat and emotionless, as though he were no longer able to work up the energy to be expressive.
Paul’s fingers blazed across the keyboard in clearly familiar patterns. The computer beeped some noises as it loaded up the operating system. “Here, come take a look at this,” Paul continued, waving Eli over. Despite his resentment, the young man complied. Paul grabbed the mouse and moved the pointer over to a folder. He clicked and the folder opened on the computer. Paul tapped the screen with his finger. “See?” he said, as though his issue was abundantly clear. “My file is gone.”
Eli had to physically stop himself from dropping his head into hands. He swallowed hard, choking down his resentment, and asked, “Gone? What do you mean gone?”
Paul tapped the screen again. “There’s a thing that used to be here. It said my name, you know? And I could click it and it would take me to my files. But it’s not there anymore. It’s gone.”
“A thing that said your name?” Eli repeated, barely able to hide the derision in his tone. “You’re some kind of rocket science genius and all you can come up with is, ‘A thing that said my name?’”
Paul threw up his hands in annoyance. “Look, I just use the damn things, I don’t make them. My degrees are in biochemistry, not computer wizardry. They’re like uncooperative robots. I don’t understand them and it’s like they try to be confusing.”
Eli wasn’t sure if he should laugh or cry, but felt rather like doing both. “Okay. Let me ask this: when is the last time you saw the file?”
“Probably… before the blackout,” Paul answered, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Yeah, it must’ve been before the blackout. I’ve been working blind since then. Does that matter?”
“Yeah, it matters. If you’re file is in a network drive, which I think is what you meant by ‘a thing with my name on it,’ then you never actually saved it to this computer.”
“But this is the computer I always used,” Paul protested.
“Right,” Eli replied, nodding his head patiently, “I’m sure it is. But a network drive is, you know, on the network. You can access it from a computer – any computer on the network, in fact – but it’s not actually on the computer.”
“So where is it?”
“It could be anywhere,” Eli commented with a shrug. Paul’s face fell in disappointment. “It all depends on where your servers were located,” Eli quickly added. “If they were off-site, like some kind of cloud service or something, then there’s pretty much nothing we can do. However, a place like this, in a military compound? All secrets and shit? I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if you didn’t even have outside connections. The servers are probably on-site somewhere. If that’s the case, all we would need to do is restore power to them, and the appropriate portions of the network, and we’d be back in business. So to speak.”
The older man visibly perked up at this news. “Where would the servers be, if they were located on-site?”
Eli let out a breath through clenched teeth and stared off into space as he rolled over the possibilities in his mind. “I’m not sure. There’s usually some kind of server closet. They could be kept in the same place as the routers and switches, which would probably be a big I.T. room all in itself. Do you know where the main I.T. room is?”
There was a pause, and after a moment Eli looked down to see Paul wincing. “Yes,” he admitted. “In the basement.”
“Oh,” was all Eli could respond. The room around them seemed to deflate. “So much for that, then.”
“Well…” Paul started, his voice trailing off as he looked away.
Eli watched the man for a long moment, waiting for him to continue. “Well…?” he prompted. “What do you mean well? You said absolutely no going into the basement. You said going into the basement meant terrible infectious diseases.”
“Not entirely–” Paul began to explain, but Ell kept on, oblivious.
“You said we’d be bleeding from the eyes and ears. You said our brains would melt and our kidneys would explode and–”
“I didn’t say any of that!” Paul snapped, and Eli finally stopped. “I just said not to go down there. And I only said that to keep you guys from wandering around down there. The infected area is sealed off, but anyone of you could have accidently opened a door you shouldn’t have and released everything. Part of the basement is safe, but I’m the only one who knows which parts. I’m the only one who can get around down there.”
“So you think the server room is in a safe part of the basement?”
“Yes,” Paul said, standing up, “That’s where it must be.”
“All right. Lead the way,” Eli said, motioning to Paul, but he just shook his head.
“No. Just me.”
Eli frowned. “I promise I won’t open any doors. I’ll just follow directly behind you.” Paul was shaking his head before Eli even finished. “You need me to tell you what to turn on. Don’t wanna waste energy, remember?”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t want you down there. No one down there but me.”
Eli rolled his eyes and let out an impatient sigh. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll just wait here then.”
Once again, Paul was only shaking his head. “I think maybe you should go back to your tower. I think I can handle it from here.”
“Really?” Eli scoffed. “Two minutes ago, you didn’t even know what a network drive was. Now you think you can handle it from here?”
“Eli–” Paul started, but stopped short when the door to the room suddenly burst open.
They turned to see Marshall, Amber, Jay, Devin, Aliyah, Elaine, Matthew, Donald, and Gabriel all came pouring in through the open door. Marshall held the lead, and one of the police rifles in his hand. “There you are!” he blurted, voice filled with rage.
Eli raised his hands in mock surrender. “Jesus, guys, Paul just asked for my help with something. You didn’t need to go building a posse to haul my ass back to jail.”
By the time he finished, he realized the others were ignoring him completely. Marshall had stormed up to Paul and shoved a finger in the smaller man’s chest. “Time to confess! No more lies!”
With a suddenness that was frightening the room became so silent that the heavy breathing of the newcomers sounded like a roaring thunderclap over the plains.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Eli demanded.
“He knows exactly what I’m talking about,” Marshall accused, the words coming out like knives.
Paul’s chin and eyes were hard, his stare seeming to drill a hole straight through the bigger man.
“You went in the basement,” said the scientist.