Better off Undead

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Chapter 31: The Truth is Down There

Marshall was having an interesting morning. Dreams filled with armies of zombies got him up extra early in the morning, despite having been up late. That was when he ran into Jay, who was acting unusual even for Jay, next to Paul’s bed. Marshall considered asking the young man a few more questions – questions such as “how do you know about Paul’s birthday?” and “why aren’t you wearing a shirt?” – but decided in the end that he probably did not want to know. Besides, he probably had more than enough to worry about as things currently stood.

When he arrived in the cafeteria he found Amber and Elaine talking and laughing. The moment seemed almost surreal, especially to see Amber in such good mood after everything they had learned. Even more than that, he could not think of a single other time where the two ladies had gotten along at all. Mostly they were at odds with each other, a couple of times it almost seemed like they were about to come to blows. Marshall had been through enough to realize they were both attracted to him, and that this was the source of their consternation, but he did his best to stay out of it completely. It was not as though he found them unattractive. Quite the contrary, they were both extremely attractive to him for very different reasons. For Marshall, though, none of that mattered. There was simply too much pain in his recent past and too much fear for his impending future to even consider such matters.

So he simply took their sudden companionship as a good sign and continued on past them to the smorgasbord of breakfast foods that had been laid out. He glanced through the various offerings with a particular dissatisfaction. For some reason, he could not get Jay’s comment about Paul’s birthday out of his head. Since the outbreak, Marshall had not thought about anyone’s birthday, not even his own. Maybe it was time to start making them important again. Considering everything he had learned, there potentially could be very few chances remaining to celebrate anything.

With that in mind, he rounded the counter and headed for the food storage. There was not much back there, but he really had not been sure what he had expected to find, anyway. It was not like there would conveniently be a pre-made cake just sitting there, waiting for the perfect occasion to be eaten while magically refusing to spoil. There might have been ingredients for a cake, but asking someone to make one did not seem appropriate somehow. The best he could find was a prepackaged, double chocolate muffin.

Returning to the front, he discovered Paul was already up and helping himself to a plate of food. He stepped up to the quiet man. “Hey Paul,” he greeted warmly.

Paul eyed him suspiciously. “Uh, hey. You’re… Marshall? Right?”

Marshall nodded his head and smiled. He then held up the muffin. “Here,” he said, “this is for you.”

For a moment Paul did not move, except to lean a little away from the muffin as he looked it over. He appeared to be expecting it to leap out of Marshall’s hand and bite him. When it instead remained motionless, he slowly reached for it and took it. “Thanks?” he responded.

“I know it’s not much,” Marshall admitted, “but I just wanted you to have something. Because, you know, of today.”

“Today?”

“Yeah. ’Cuz it’s a special day. Right?”

Paul seemed to be growing more and more afraid as each second ticked by. He shifted uneasily from foot to foot, constantly glancing around as if plotting the most efficient escape route. “Yeah,” he said in as calming a voice as he could manage. “It’s… real special.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone.” Marshall waved a dismissive hand in the air like he was simply brushing all of Paul’s concerns away.

“Yeah, please don’t,” Paul agreed hurriedly. He had no clue what Marshall was talking about, but he was not about to let the giant of a man know that.

“You got it, buddy,” Marshall said cheerily, patting his new-found friend on the shoulder. “Well, if there’s anything else you need, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Okay,” Paul said, and started to turn away. A moment later he stopped, and turned back. “Actually, there is one thing.”

“Yes?” Marshall prompted.

“You went around asking everybody what skills they had so you knew how they could contribute, right?” Marshall nodded. “Did any of them mention any… computer skills?”

Marshall’s eyebrows rose in surprise. He was about to say he could not imagine why anyone would mention that given their current situation, when suddenly he recalled that, in fact, someone had. “Actually, yes,” he admitted, the surprise in his voice abundantly clear. “Eli said something about it.”

“Eli, right.” Paul said, nodding his head absently. “He’s the one in the tower, right?”

“That’s him,” Marshall practically spat. “Jay usually is here about now to gather some food and bring it up to him, but… he’s… I don’t know. He’s a little weird today. Maybe he forgot.

“I see,” said Paul. “Well, I’m sure I can do it. He quickly gathered a little more food onto his plate and then turned and made a beeline for the door.

For the second time that morning, Marshall was left standing alone, with numerous questions plaguing his mind – questions like “Why would computer skills matter?” and “It’s not really your birthday, is it?” – but again these questions went unasked. Which, for some reason, was fine. For some reason, the bizarre seemed to be replacing the normal with such frequency that if something happened that Marshall might have once considered to be something normal it would probably seem the hardest to believe of all. But when you were living in a world where ninety-nine percent of the Earth’s population had been killed off by zombies, perhaps bizarre was all you could really expect.

He ate alone, which was just another unusual part of this already unusual day. He could have sat with Amber and Elaine, but he did not want his presence to reignite their feud. He could have sat with anyone else, but somehow it did not feel right to sit with any of the small number of people who were up early enough to already be in the cafeteria. So Marshall sat and ate by himself, and as he did he focused on the tasks of the days ahead and not on the revelations of the past few days. There was enough to do as it was without him worrying about things far beyond his control.

When he had finished eating, he decided it was time to speak with Amber and Elaine, who by this point had already left the cafeteria. It did not fully occur to Marshall that the three of them had essentially formed a triumvirate that oversaw all aspects of their fledgling society here on the base. They shared progress reports between each other and never made big decisions without involving the other two. So it was that even now he was going to find the girls so that they could organize the day’s work for everyone. He found them already engaged in this very activity, talking with Devin and Aliyah about what work needed to be done in the farm yard.

He had only been talking to them for a few minutes when Jay came barreling towards them like a bat out of Hell. He was running so fast that he was unable to stop in time and crashed into Marshall. The large man barely yielded any ground to the assault, though he did note with some dismay that the young man was still not wearing a shirt. Pushing Jay away, he asked, “What’s wrong with you?”

“Come… you… thing…” was all Jay could manage, his breathing heavy and out of control. He drank lungfulls of air and swayed a little as he stood there, trying to catch his breath.

“What?” Marshall demanded.

“You have to… come. With me. You have to come with me. Down. Downstairs. To the basement. You have to come with me to the basement!”

Marshall’s brain rapid-fired through several different emotions, particularly focusing on anger, confusion, and curiosity. “You went in the basement?” He snapped in disbelief.

“It’s bullshit!” Jay shot back, finally recovered enough to speak properly. “It’s all bullshit. Everything Paul said. He’s a lying, backstabbing, no-good son of a…”

Jay stopped himself and glanced around, seeming to realize for the first time that there were other people there.

“Look, just come with me,” he finished, almost meekly.

“Fine,” Marshall agreed, just wanting to get this over with. “Lead the way.”

Jay had not intended for anyone other than Marshall to come, but the whole group, enveloped by their own curiosity, decided to follow along. As they travelled, they passed Matthew, Donald, and Gabriel, who took note of the procession and decided that they, too, belonged in this group and fell into step behind them.

They entered the office buildings and followed Jay down a maze of corridors until they came across a door none of them had noticed before. It was propped open only thanks to Jay’s shirt, which Marshall figured to be a much more reasonable explanation for where the item of clothing had gone than any he had expected.

They followed him down the stairs, and Jay pointed to the window of the first lab. “Take a look,” he said.

The entire group pressed their faces up against the glass, but they didn’t see what he was getting at right away. “I don’t see…” began Marshall, but then he did.

“Holy God,” said Amber.

Marshall stepped away from the glass, his face hard set and red with anger. “Paul…” he said, his voice the low, dangerous growl of a dog defending its food from unwelcome intruders.

Without another word, he stormed back up the stairs and began smashing his way through room after room, the others hot on his heels, until he finally found the scientist.

“You went in the basement,” Paul accused.

“You’re damn right we went in the basement,” Marshall roared.

“You did?” said Eli, wide-eyed with surprise. “But… what about the brain exploding and the eye leaking and the face melting?”

“Nobody said anything about face melting!” Paul snapped, and then turned back to Marshall. “I told you to stay out of the basement! It was my only rule, and you broke it!”

“Yeah, we broke it,” Marshall agreed, “and a damn good thing we did, too! We saw your little ‘pets,’ you sick freak. When were you going to tell us?”

“Why the hell should I tell you anything? This is my house, you’re supposed to follow my rules! I want you all out, immediately.”

For a moment, Marshall said nothing, but he leaned in very close to Paul as his eyes narrowed to slits. When he spoke, his voice was low and quiet, almost more of a guttural growl than actual words. “I’d like to see you make us.”

Eli took a look around and decided he was the only rationale one in this moment, and this seemed like a very bad sign to him. He stepped between Paul and Marshall and attempted to force them apart with his hands. “Okay you guys, let’s just calm down now, all right?”

“Calm down?” Marshall shoved his finger once more at Paul. “He’s keeping zombies in the basement!”

“And I agree that’s bad,” Eli shot back, and then paused as the weight of the news sunk in, and then reconsidered his statement. “I agree that that’s pretty bad, but maybe he has a good reason.” He took a breath and then tried a third time, “I agree that that is really, very bad, but maybe Paul has a very good reason to balance it out. A very, very good reason.” He turned to look at the scientist. “I really hope you have a very good reason.”

“You didn’t hurt them, did you?” Paul asked, ignoring Eli.

“The zombies?” Marshall scoffed. “That’s what you’re worried about? Not the people whose lives you put in danger by keeping those things here?”

“They may be just zombies to you, but to me, they are… were… my co-workers, my friends. People I saw every day. People whose families I’ve had dinner with. People whose life stories I know almost as well as my own. Good, hard-working people who have had an outbreak of misfortune.”

“Yes,” Marshall hissed, “That’s who they were. But now, they’re mindless, flesh eating, blasphemous demons from Hell and they’re endangering everyone here!”

“Then leave! No one’s forcing you to be here. I was just fine here by myself. No one asked you to show up, no one asked you to stay. I was fine with you being here, as long as you followed my one rule. One rule! And you couldn’t even do that! So take your stuff and go.”

“We’re building a home here! We have crops growing! We have people settling. Maybe you don’t know what it’s like out there, but I do! It’s a living nightmare. People are dying all the time. There’s nowhere safe enough to just live. You just run and keep on running and hoping that the hell hounds never catch up. Here I can finally give these people a life and I’m not going to take that away from them now!”

“Then let things go back to how they were before. Pretend you never saw anything, and go back to staying out of the basement and out of my way, and we’ll be fine.”

Marshall was shaking his head almost the whole time Paul spoke. “Not good enough. Those things present a danger to all of us if they should ever get out–”

“They won’t ever get out,” Paul interrupted, but Marshall went on over him.

“–If they ever get out. You can’t guarantee that they won’t. Nothing is completely certain. I say we kill them all and then throw them and you out of the complex, just to be sure.”

Paul growled and looked ready to strike, like an animal backed into a corner. “You wouldn’t dare. That would be the stupidest thing you’ve ever done in your short and pointless life.”

“I’d rather be alive and stupid,” Marshall began, but Paul began shouting over him, and Marshall responded by trying to shout over Paul, and then almost everyone in the room started shouting.

At this point, Eli decided it was time to interject himself again. Reaching out he grabbed one of the chairs, lifted it, and slammed it down as hard as he could onto the top of a nearby table. The sound of it cut all conversations short, and turned all eyes on Eli.

“You guys are acting like children!” he screamed. “The world goes to Hell for two weeks and all of the sudden human beings can’t be civil anymore?” He jammed a small finger into Marshall’s burly chest. “You should be ashamed of yourself. Talking about killing and tossing Paul here out in the cold. What kind of example is that for a leader to set? If you want to live like savages then go live in the wild like savages!”

“But-“ Marshall protested, but Eli cut him off.

“I’m not through!” He turned to Paul and pointed another accusatory finger. “And you! Marshall’s right. You care more about those zombies than your fellow human beings. That’s just not right. Maybe you feel you owe something to the undead in the basement, but surely you can owe something to the few surviving members of your own species that have managed to find you, as well. You say those people were hardworking, well have you seen what these guys have done here in only a couple weeks? If that isn’t hard work deserving of respect then I don’t know what is.”

Eli paused for air and became suddenly very self-aware as he noticed everyone was staring at him in complete shock. “Now,” he continued, “if you’re quite through with your little temper-tantrums, maybe you can see that there’s a third way here. Perhaps, Paul, if you told us why you feel that it’s necessary to keep zombies in dangerous proximity, we would be more understanding and willing to co-operate. Heck, maybe we could even help you in what you’re doing. What do you say?”

Paul did not seem to know what to say. He shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot as his gaze fell across each person in the room individually. It was clear that he was used to keeping his work a secret, but it was also clear that Eli’s argument made sense to him.

After what seemed like an eternity of indecision, he finally let out a sigh and nodded his agreement. “It would probably be easiest just to show you,” he said simply.

Minutes later, despite all of Paul’s earlier arguments and complaining, and despite Eli’s concerns regarding face melting, they were all gathered together in a room in the basement. Paul was busy fiddling around with a cart mounted TV and its accompanying VCR, technology which seemed ancient to everyone else in the room. Even Donald, in his mid-sixties, could recognize that the equipment was clearly outdated. In fact, he remembered buying a similar TV set at some point in the eighties when he had been a much younger man and things like money and TVs had meant a great deal.

“Do we have an old timey piano to go along with this silent movie, pops?” Jay complained, impatient.

Paul came around from the back of the cart, apparently satisfied with all the connections, and began shifting through a box of VHS tapes he had brought in from another room. “Just, bear with me, okay? I know it seems outdated but you’ll understand more once I play the tape. This is… just how they had to record things, at the time.”

“And what, you rocket scientists never thought to digitally archive this stuff?” asked Eli.

“We did, actually,” growled Paul, getting clearly very annoyed. “But until I get those servers you were talking about back up and running, I have no idea how to access any of those archives. Now, do you want to complain or do you want to get answers?”

He paused. When no one responded, he added, “That’s what I thought. I know it seems strange, but just hold on for a moment.” Finally selecting a tape, he held it up. “Trust me, this will explain everything.”

Without another word he popped it into the VCR and stepped back.

Nothing happened.

Eli leaned close to Paul and whispered just loud enough for everyone to hear, “You might wanna try and turn on the TV.”

“Oh!” Paul exclaimed, and stepped forward to do just that.

The screen clicked on with a hum and that old, static crackle of vacuum tubes and cathode rays.

For a long moment there was nothing, but as the ancient technology came to life and its inner workings began to warm up, an image began to appear, as well as a voice rising up out of the darkness.

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