Better off Undead

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Chapter 35: The Gathering of Six

“Thank you all for being here.”

Marshall coughed and cleared his throat, suddenly feeling rather stupid for saying that. Of course they were there. Where else would they be? There were not exactly that many places they could have been otherwise. After leaving the basement he had asked everyone to gather together in the dining hall for an important announcement. Now he stood on a table in front of the whole group, twenty-eight pairs of eyes trained on him.

All in all, he felt he had done well. Most gathered here could tell stories of all they had lost since the outbreak: of the death of family and friends, of entire groups they had been with that all got cut down, of the nightmare of constant disease and death that had been merely a few weeks of being in the zombie apocalypse. But he had managed to save all these people, to keep them together, and to unite them together in the common goal of survival.

And now he was asking them to leave.

“I have a story to tell,” he continued, “and it is bizarre, it is unbelievable, and it is maybe even somewhat terrifying. But you all need to hear this. It is important. I only ask that you refrain from interrupting or asking questions until I have told the entire story.”

Marshall took a deep, steadying breath, and then launched into the story.

He started with the vampire that kidnapped them, explaining how it talked, and what its plans were. He continued to the night where they saw the zombie progression, including Eli’s theory about the vampire’s ability to control the zombies. He did not use the word “vampire,” however, until he got to describing what they learned in the basement. Once he did, he tied everything together and ended by explaining Eli’s plan to leave.

“Now, I’m not saying anyone should go,” he was quick to add. “In fact, I agree with Amber that the whole idea is preposterous and stupid. But then again, as much as I hate to admit it, Eli hasn’t really been wrong about anything. Maybe he’s just grasping at straws, but can we really take the chance of not believing him when the alternative could mean an end to this nightmare? So if anyone wants to go with Eli, you have my blessing.

“Alternatively, whether Eli is right or wrong, whether he succeeds or fails, I think it would be foolish to abandon what we’re doing here. So I’d like to ask most of you to stay here. I’m sure, given everything, most of you would anyway. But I just want to emphasize, especially for those of you considering leaving, just how important it is to stay here and keep working.”

He paused and motioned toward Paul. “Paul is also working on a cure. This one doesn’t come from fiction and mythology, but from actual, honest to God science. He said it might not cure the already dead, but it might prevent anyone else from turning. And that has to count for something. That has to be worth protecting. By staying here, you give us a chance to help him complete that cure. You give him the chance to continue his research and maybe in doing so save what is left of the world and give people a chance to fight back they wouldn’t otherwise have.

“I can’t help but feel that Eli’s plan is nothing more than a suicide mission, but I am not in charge of any of you. You are all free to make up your own minds and go your own path. We will do everything we can to ensure that anyone who remains is as safe as can be. I can make no such promises for those who choose to go with Eli.”

Marshall fell silent and waited for anyone to respond. He was met with only silence. “That is all,” he added.

As if everyone had been waiting for that queue, the room suddenly came alive with voices. Everyone began talking at once and attempting to shout over each other. Marshall raised his arms and waved them downwards, trying to motion for quiet. “Please!” He called over the din. “Please! One at a time!”

The noise continued unabated. With a sigh, Eli climbed onto the table next to Marshall.

“QUIET!”

That got a response. Everyone did as they were told and the room dropped back into silence. Marshall cast an annoyed glance at Eli and mumbled, “Thanks.” Turning back to the crowd he said, “All right. Who first?”

Twenty hands shot straight up into the air.

“Yes, uh, Matthew?”

Matthew lowered his hand and ran it over his thick, red beard. “Who the hell is gonna be the leader on this expedition?”

“Good question.” Marshall thought about it for a second. “I suppose whoever decides to go can make that determination for themselves.” The hands all shot back up, “Yes, Nancy?”

“Are you telling us that Paul has really been keeping zombies here? Right under our noses?”

Marshall nodded a bit nervously. “Yes, that’s correct.”

“Is he going to keep having zombies?”

Marshall looked to Paul, but he already knew the answer. “Yes, I’m afraid so. In order to continue his research, he will need to keep some zombies here to experiment on.”

The room once again exploded in conversation, but Marshall was already waving his hands to call for silence. “Yes. Yes, I know. I know.” He said over the hubbub until everyone was quiet enough for him to speak. “I wasn’t happy about it either. When we discovered what was going on, just about two hours ago, I immediately confronted Paul. I’m not excited about the prospect of living with a group of zombies on the premises, but if it’s what is needed for him to continue his research, I say that we need to learn to live with it. Honestly, it is better this way than it was before. At least now we are aware of their presence and we can better guard against them in case of any kind of containment breach.”

“We have the best containment facilities on the planet,” Paul announced to the room. “There is essentially zero chance of them getting out.”

“That didn’t stop them the first time,” someone shouted. That set the room on fire once more.

“That… that was different,” Paul responded meekly, but nobody was listening. His shoulders lowered and he stepped back. He looked physically wounded.

Marshall raised his hands in the air yet again and called for silence. “Look, I understand it makes you all uncomfortable. I’m not saying it won’t. It makes me uncomfortable. But for right now, they are locked away. Those of you who choose to stay, we can discuss what to do about that issue later. Just remember that if you do choose to stay, you might be living with zombies penned up nearby. Right now, we need to focus on who might be willing to go with Eli.”

There was some grumbling from the crowd, but nobody spoke up about it again.

“What guarantee do we have that any of this will even work?” Daniel said, breaking through the mutterings.

“None,” Eli answered for Marshall. “Just like they have been saying, this might be nothing more than a stupid, foolish suicide mission. I can’t promise you that we’ll even find this vampire that started the curse. I can’t promise you that we’ll make it five minutes outside those walls, let alone five days, weeks, years, or however long it will take to find this creature. Paul can’t promise you that his evil petting zoo won’t escape. He can’t promise you that he ever will actually find a cure. Everything is unknown, and all directions lead to danger. That’s the basic reality of living in a zombie apocalypse. Literature certainly tells us that, and all of you certainly have to have lived through enough of one to know that for yourselves by now.

“But this isn’t about promises. It isn’t about guarantees. It’s not about survival and it’s not even about doing the right thing. It’s about doing what you feel is the best course of action for you.

“Maybe I’m insane. I don’t know. God knows nothing has felt not insane since the day I stepped outside into a zombie-infested universe. I might not be sane. I’m certainly no hero or athlete. I’m not some genius with science who will develop lifesaving concoctions and I certainly ain’t no crack shot gunslinger with a devil-may-care attitude and about a mile of charisma. But if there’s one thing I am, it’s a nerd. And so if there’s one thing I know it is vampire and zombie and monster lore. So if the lore is as true with every other creature of the night out there as it has been so far with zombies, I’ll be able to guide us through thick and thin and maybe, just maybe we’ll be lucky enough to save the entire goddamn world. Who knows? Like I said, I can’t promise you that.

“The only promise that I can make to you is this: I am going to go out there, and I am going to try my damnedest to see this through. Maybe that’s enough. Maybe it isn’t. I don’t know. But you can choose to stay here and live out the rest of your godforsaken lives in the middle of God-knows-where, Texas, or you can come with me and possibly, possibly, stand a chance of dying for a cause. Up to you.”

Eli finally fell quiet, and it was immediately clear that his words had a pretty profound effect on the room, because once again nobody was saying a word. After a moment, Jay stepped to the front of the group.

“You don’t have to go with me just because you feel obligated,” Eli stated before Jay could say a word.

“Go with you?” Jay asked, incredulous. “I was just gonna say that it’s been nice knowing you. And also, you’re gonna die out there.”

Eli blinked. “Gee, thanks,” he replied sarcastically.

“I’ll go.”

Amber stepped up onto the table next to Eli, and everyone turned to look at her with surprise, not least of all Eli.

“Seriously?” His voice radiated disbelief to a level that was almost tangible.

Marshall stepped forward. “Amber, don’t be ridiculous–” he started, but she cut him off.

“No, you said we could decide for ourselves. And I’ve decided. I don’t belong here anymore than Eli. So I might not like him, I might think he’s crazy, but someone with some ability needs to go on this mission.” She turned her head a little and cast Eli a sideways glance, then turned away. “Besides, you kinda remind me of my little brother,” she mumbled so quietly it was clear she was hoping no one would really hear. “What with all the stupid geeky stuff.”

“I’ll go, too,” said a deep, booming voice Eli didn’t recognize, but when the man who spoke stepped forward Eli recognized him instantly.

“I’m… not sure we’ll have much need for a preacher, father.”

Gabriel tilted his head and gave Eli a doubtful look. “Hey, you wouldn’t even be here if I hadn’t been part of the group that showed up to town to rescue you. Besides,” he added, motioning at the area around the table, “it’s not like you really have the room to turn down any help at this point.”

Eli wanted to keep arguing, but both of Gabriel’s points pretty much nullified anything he had to say. So with a somewhat hesitant nod, he consented. “Fine,” he said simply. “You can come.”

“Aw, hell. I’ll come to,” said Mac, walking up to stand beside the table. “I wasn’t ever much good at staying ’round any one place for too long, anyways. Might as well get out there and do the one thing I’ve ever been good at: killing some zombies.”

“All right,” Eli said, “that’s four of us. Not a bad group. Anybody else?”

“I’ll go,” Aliyah said, stepping forward. “Hell, you need a driver on the team.”

Eli nodded his head at her in thanks, but didn’t really have anything to say. He had barely seen her around, let alone really knew anything about her. He only vaguely realized that she had been one of the SUV drivers on their trip to the base here, and had been the driver for the rescue team that had saved them from the vampire in town.

Nobody spoke again for a while, so Eli was about to call it a night when Jay suddenly spoke up. “Aw, hell,” he said, jumping up onto the table next to Eli. “I guess if you’re gonna twist my arm about it.” He nodded to Eli and then looked around the room to realize everyone was staring at him. “Do we have to jump up on the table?”

“No,” replied Eli.

“I’m just… I’m just gonna stay here anyway,” Jay said, looking embarrassed.

“That’s fine,” Eli said, then to the group he added, “Anyone else?” When nobody spoke up, he gave a curt nod of his head. “Fine. I think we have our group then. Everyone spend the day getting ready. We’ll pack up what we need, but leave as much as we can behind for the larger group. I’d like to leave first thing in the morning.”

“You sure about first thing?” Jay whispered to him. “You don’t exactly seem to be a ready at dawn kind of person.”

Eli considered this. “First thing for me is probably about… ten A.M. or so,” he added.

“We should probably head out a bit earlier than that,” Mac said, a disbelieving tone in his voice.

“Fine!” Eli snapped. “Let’s shoot for nine, then. Everyone satisfied with that?”

There was some mumbling but nobody complained any further.

“This is just loco,” came a voice from the back of the room. Everyone turned to see Rico leaning against the far wall, arms crossed across his chest. “What? Does no one else think so? Are we really just supposed to be okay with these gringos running off and getting themselves killed?”

“Gringos?” Eli echoed in surprise.

Jay raised his hand. “Um, I’m not white. For one thing, I speak two languages.”

“All things considered, this being the zombie apocalypse and all, this is actually a pretty racially diverse group,” added Eli.

Rico rolled his eyes and shifted positions. “Yeah. Whatever. That’s not the point. I’m just saying: we’re here supposed to be digging our lives out of the goddamn dirt in this place. All I see is six idiots running off after some stupid goal that will get them nowhere. Sounds to me like they’re just trying to get out of their responsibilities.”

“Like you’ve never slacked off at anything in your life, Rico?” Lisa’s eyes were hard as she stared at him, but Rico just waved her off.

“Yeah, whatever, cerdo.”

“I told you, stop calling me pig.”

“Look, alls I’m saying is: I may have run away from things, but never when it’s important. That’s what being a man is: doin’ what’s important. We have hard work ahead of us, but this group here is just livin’ in fantasy land and that’s supposed to be okay.”

“It’s not fantasy,” Eli replied, feeling like he’d made this point a hundred times now. “A month ago I would have agreed with you, but today everything has changed. Now that there’s zombies and vampires running around, the rules have kinda gone out the window. How do you know where to draw the line between reality and fantasy anymore?”

“You say zombies and vampires. I don’t say any of that shit. All I see is some people sick with a disease. If you wanna call that zombies than whatever man. But vampires? I ain’t seen that shit. How am I supposed to believe that? Ain’t nothin’ but your word against mine, hombre.”

Eli frowned. No one spoke as they waited for him to respond to this latest challenge. He turned his head and looked around at those gathered in the room. Some faces were curious, most were just tired, and several seemed annoyed or uncaring. It was then he realized something he had let himself forget since he was first dragged from his world into all of this craziness: he simply did not care.

“You know what? Maybe you’re right. I don’t give a damn. I really don’t. I’m no good to you people here. Even trying I haven’t really been able to contribute to what is going on inside this compound, and I probably never will. I don’t get along with anyone, nobody here likes me, and I don’t like any of you. So really, I guess the lesson to be learned in all of this is that I’m better off alone. I’m better off without you, you’re better off without me. So that’s fine. Like I said, I will be going out there no matter what. If nobody comes with me, then fine. I can’t honestly say if you people who have already agreed would be a help or a hindrance anyway. I already made it for a while on my own, I’m more than willing to try it again. I’m going out tomorrow at nine A.M. whether anyone joins me or not. If someone changes their mind between now and then, I won’t hold it against them. It wasn’t even my idea to ask for help. It was Marshall’s. And I don’t like giving speeches, but you people have made me give like ten goddamn speeches today justifying my opinion.

“But you know what? I don’t want to. I don’t care. I don’t care if you don’t believe me. I don’t care if you don’t agree with me. I don’t care if you care. You can yell, and argue, and debate, and… I don’t know, whatever, until you’re blue in the face. I don’t care. You can do it all without me and no matter what you decide, I’m leaving. So I’ll either see you tomorrow or I won’t. Either way, this is goodbye.”

With that off his chest, Eli turned and stormed out of the room.

Everyone turned to Rico to see how he would respond. He just re-crossed his arms and scoffed. “Yeah, whatever,” he muttered.

For a long moment nobody said anything. Somebody coughed into the silence.

Suddenly, Paul spoke up. “To be fair to Eli, even if he’s wrong there is a way this trip could possibly be helpful.” As all eyes turned on him he began to look a little embarrassed, and nervously cleared his throat. “That is to say, there is something he could do on this trip that might help. Help me, I mean.”

“Well, spit it out man!” Marshall demanded.

“Well it’s just… you see… basically what he’s trying to do is track down the index case.”

“Index case?”

Paul nodded. “Yeah. What you might call the patient zero. The origin of the disease. The place where it all started. If we had Patient Zero, it might help me narrow down how to fight the disease. Unfortunately Patient Zero could have lived thousands of years ago for all we know. We have no idea how long these ‘vampire’ creatures were down in that cave. So it might be impossible to get the originator of the disease, but the closer we can get the better. If we could get a vampire here, or if we even could get…” he paused and swallowed, “Sgt. Moore, our experimentation victim, the one we turned into that monster – if we could get him back, that could tell me so much more about the disease I’m dealing with.”

Amber hopped down from the table and placed a calming hand on Paul’s shoulder. She met his eyes and nodded at him. “Well then, sounds like we do have a reason to help Eli after all.”

Mac stepped up next to her. “Yeah. Let’s go kill us some zombies.”

“And vampires,” Jay added, pumping his fist in the air triumphantly.

“And God knows what else,” muttered Aliyah, but nobody heard her.

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