Better off Undead

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Chapter 30: Stay out of the Basement

On the third day of Eli’s “captivity,” in the hours before the march of zombies that Eli, Marshall, and Amber watched from the guard tower, Jay really was busy. It was just as he told Eli, though it wasn’t with any traditional work or “special assignment” that Marshall had him on like Eli thought. He actually spent most of the day standing around, not really doing much of anything. This was because what he spent the day doing, the thing that made him “busy,” was shadowing Paul. Wherever the man went, Jay was hot on his heels. He was determined to discover what the mysterious man was up to in his spare time. This proved to be not a lot, as he would quickly discover.

Paul spent most of the day in one of the laboratories, pouring over pages and pages of what Jay discovered to be calculations far beyond his limited understanding and technical notes that might as well have been written in another language. Jay only took a break to eat when Paul did, and this was really little more than grabbing some food and bringing it up to Eli. He made sure to keep these visits as short as possible so that he would be ready to follow the scientist on the next leg of his journey.

This worked fine for lunch, but at dinner Paul had disappeared from the cafeteria before Jay got back from his delivery. Jay searched all over for him, but it was as if the scientist had simply vanished. As the evening hours drew on past midnight, he grew ready to give up. With hunched shoulders of defeat he began to make his way out of the main building and back toward the exit door that would lead back to the camp.

A loud noise like the click of a bolt lock resounded in the air.

For a second, Jay did not even notice it, and then his tired brain caught up and he realized what it meant. He hurried toward the direction of the sound, and came around a corner in time to see Paul closing a door Jay had never noticed before.

The young man ducked back around the corner and into the shadows. He waited as Paul’s footsteps faded away into the distance. Eventually he heard the banging of another door opening and then closing, and only then did Jay step back around the corner and head for the mysterious door.

The door had a thick metal handle and no lock. It had no window or door jam, but instead smoothly slid into the wall with only the slightest of seams to give away that it was even there at all. Even with the metal handle, it was almost invisible.

Jay pulled on the handle, but the door did not budge. On the wall next to the door was a panel that looked like a key card reader. On the reader was a small, red light. It was dim, almost imperceptible, but it was definitely glowing. Jay rubbed his finger across its surface. The light being on meant there was power running to the door. Which meant whatever was beyond the door Paul had considered important enough to make sure he would continue to have access to it. He also considered it important enough to block access to everyone else, since he could’ve left the power off and the door open or at least unlocked. This, he knew instinctively, was the secret Paul was hiding. This was the mystery Jay had sensed since they first arrived.

If only he could get through the door…

Jay decided to keep following Paul, to see what else he could learn. Hoping the older man was headed out for a few hours rest, Jay exited the building and crossed the grounds to the dormitory. As he had hoped, the scientist was fast asleep. Unfortunately, he apparently slept in his clothing, which meant digging around in his pockets for the access card was going to be risky.

Jay sat down nearby and waited as patiently as he could for nearly half an hour. He needed to make sure that his target was good and asleep before attempting anything. When he finally felt safe, he rose and began his search. In one of the pockets of Paul’s coat he felt something solid and pulled it out. It was a key card.

Turning it over in his hands he was disappointed to find that the card was completely unremarkable. No logos, no numbers, no pictures, nothing to indicate exactly what its purpose was. It could have been for anything. He was just going to have to hope it was what he needed.

As quickly as he could he made his way back to the office buildings and back toward the door. At one point he took a wrong turn and was worried that he had lost his way, but before long he managed to orient himself. He found the door and stood before it, looking it over up and down, as if sizing up an opponent. With a deep breath he slid his confiscated card across the reader. There was a small, electronic beep and the light on the reader turned green. A dull, metallic thud – exactly as he had heard from a distance earlier – gave indication to the door unlocking. Jay bit his lip and pulled the door open.

The door led to a set of stairs. Stairs leading downward into darkness.

The basement.

A chill ran down Jay’s spine. This had to be the door to the basement. There was nowhere else the stairs could possibly lead. This was the basement Paul had warned them against. The place he had told them never to go under any circumstance, and yet this was the place he was disappearing to day after day? If it was so dangerous down there, why was he risking going over and over again?

Jay started down the stairs, but then stopped. If Paul woke up and noticed his key card missing, he would probably come rushing this way first. But if the card wasn’t missing, Jay could potentially have most of the day to explore the basement. He backed up and swung the door until it was open by just the slightest of cracks. He let go and waited, to see if the door would close on its own. It remained in position. Still not entirely trusting it, Jay tore off his shirt and stuffed it into the crack as an extra obstacle to prevent it from closing. Finally satisfied, he broke into a run back toward the dorms.

Outside, the night was just beginning to melt away as warmer, lighter blues broke their way into the horizon. Jay knew the others would be waking soon. Once inside the dorm he knelt low, attempting to walk softly but still quickly as he moved over to the bed where he could find Paul. He returned the key card to the appropriate pocket, impressed by his own smoothness. Quite happy with himself, he stood up and turned away.

Marshall stood in the aisle between the beds, watching him with an expression on his face that was stuck somewhere in between sleep, confusion, and concern.

“What… are you doing?” the big man asked in a voice so soft it seemed almost impossible for it to be coming out of that frame.

“I uh, I,” Jay stuttered, fumbling for an explanation. “I just, you know, borrowed something from him. From Paul. A few days ago. I was just returning it. It’s nothing.”

Marshall nodded his head so slowly it was almost hard to notice it moving at all. “Right…” he said, somehow managing to stretch the word out through the whole nod. “You couldn’t wait for him to wake up?”

“Nah, I wanted it to be a surprise. It’s his birthday today. You know?”

Marshall blinked. “It is?”

“Yeah,” Jay said, moving close and patting Marshall on the shoulder. “But keep it on the down low. He doesn’t like people to know.”

“Yeah, right, okay,” Marshall agreed.

Jay hurried out of the room before Marshall could ask any more questions. When Jay stepped outside, he remembered he was shirtless, but thankfully that had not lead to further uncomfortable questions for which he also had no answers.

He wasted no time getting back across the field to the office buildings. He did not want to risk running into anybody else. Once more he made his way back to the door, the specific path much easier to follow now. He flung open the door and started down the stairs. A couple steps down he paused, and considered whether or not he should close the door behind him. There was not another panel on this side, and in fact there was no clear sign at all what allowed the door to open from this end. He decided that it was best not to risk it, and instead closed the door down to the same level of cracked as he had before, with his shirt still providing extra security to prevent it closing.

Finally he made his way down the stairs. He had not thought to bring a flashlight, so his way was lit only by some emergency lights that burned in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs. The basement, to Jay’s great disappointment, seemed to just be another level of the building. Once at the bottom of the stairs he found only another small maze of hallways leading off into various rooms.

“But what’s in those rooms?” Jay wondered aloud. His voice sounded odd to him in the still emptiness surrounding him.

With his heart thundering in his chest, he stepped over to the first door on his left and tried it. It was locked, and another of those key card readers was next to the door. If he had held on to Paul’s card, he might have been able to get into this room. However, the light on this card reader did not seem to be glowing. Perhaps Paul had no use for this room, so he did not have any power running to the system. Then again, Jay considered, perhaps he just wanted to make extra sure nobody opened the room.

The walls outside the room were mostly windows. The lights inside the room were off, and it was pitch black inside. Jay pressed his face up against the glass, but all he could make out was a row of tables lined up in front of the windows. Nothing seemed particularly extraordinary about the room.

Frustrated, Jay moved on to the next room. This room, too, was locked, as were most of the rooms he came across. A few were not, though he was hard pressed to find anything that seemed even remotely incriminating about these rooms. In one room, he did find some more notes he figured were Paul’s but again it was simply equations and technical jargon he failed to understand.

As his search went on, Jay began to worry less and less about what Paul might be hiding and more and more about the man’s sanity.

The last room he decided to check was the generator room. He had been able to hear the generator running almost the whole time he had been downstairs, even through closed doors. He looked over the controls as he walked about the room. He knew very little about machines, but from what he could tell this was a separate generator from the one running the dorms. This one seemed to only power the one building. Jay noticed with surprise that some of the switches seemed to be set to the “on” setting, enough to bring power to more rooms and objects than Jay had seen being used. He wondered what all was being powered.

Some of the switches were marked, and he found one labeled “Basement: Main Power.” The light for it was not lit. He placed his hand on the switch, and then thought better of it. He turned to leave, but something stopped him. He turned back to the switch and studied it, as though it were a piece of art in a museum decrying some aspect of culture. Finally he decided that if he refused to flip the switch then he had come down to the basement for nothing. So before he could convince himself otherwise, he reached over and pushed the lever into place.

Nothing happened.

Or at least, nothing seemed to happen. The light lit up green, but Jay could make out no other changes. And nothing continued to happen as Jay stood there, waiting for something, anything to seem different. With a sigh of frustration, he turned around and stepped out into the hall.

At first he did not even notice the change. It was not until he was halfway back to the stairs that he realized the hall lights were all lit. It only occurred to him as he approached the stairs that everything seemed to be more visible.

With a new wave of excitement he began running around back to the locked rooms, peering inside trough any windows, hoping to see if there was some indication of a devastating secret. Something, anything, that would make Paul’s warning seem rational. Most of the rooms were still dark. Of the ones he could see inside, all the rooms were empty. A couple looked badly trashed, with some dried blood splatters on the walls and chairs and tables upturned. One had a light fixture hanging loose from the ceiling on a single cable, its light occasionally flickering like lightning. But nothing good, nothing he had not really already seen upstairs.

His feeling of disappointment washed over him again. It didn’t make much sense to him that Paul would go through all this effort to keep these secrets, and then there be nothing to him. Maybe he had been telling the truth. Maybe behind these locked doors, there was only dangerous diseases that Jay had risked letting loose on the world. Maybe Eli had been right, and there was nothing to be concerned about after all.

The lack of sleep was getting to him. Tired, disappointed, and downright confused, Jay began heading back for the stairs. He was only a few feet away when something seemed to move just out of the corner of his eye.

He tensed, thinking Paul must have come back downstairs, but as he turned in the direction of the movement, he realized it could not have been Paul. The movement had come from within the first locked room. The lights were still off inside the room, but enough light was shining through the windows from the hallway now to illuminate some of the inside. The room actually led to another, further interior room, and it was from that second room that the movement had come from.

Then, suddenly, he saw it, and his mouth dropped nearly to the floor.

He swore. “Ju…das… priest.” His heart nearly stopped.

Seconds later he was bolting for the stairs.

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