As the gray skies lightened slightly above swollen black clouds at sunrise, I found Kate making coffee and filling thermoses with steaming liquid gold. She had a travel mug ready for me when I wandered over.
“Get any sleep?” I asked, accepting the offered cup with a smile.
Her eyes swept over the slumbering forms sprawled about the cafeteria’s floor. I followed her gaze, regarding the nine shapeless lumps and feeling a familiar weight settle over my shoulders. Kate heard my soft sigh and reached out to place a hand on my arm.
“I know you don’t want the responsibility and I wish I could do more. But you’re our best hope of survival and we all know it. You know it too, don’t you?”
“Yeah. Don’t like it at all Kate. I’m not a leader. I don’t have the patience to deal with people.” She shivered a bit when my pure-white eyes settled on her. “It’s getting harder and harder for me to relate to others. I just don’t feel human anymore.”
Her hand pulled away and for a time we stood there in silence, drinking coffee and listening to the others snoring softly. After awhile I sighed again and nodded towards the makeshift cooking area they’d set up the night before. “I want everyone to have a big breakfast. Got a lot of work to do today. Can you wake them up and get that started? Tell everyone I want to meet and work some things out while they eat.”
She nodded and offered me a smile before I headed outside. The air was brisk as I made a patrol around the buildings. It felt heavy. Thick. The way it does before a big storm. The scent of food cooking soon mingled with smoky ash and the subtle touch of sulfur that lay just beneath. My stomach growled loudly as I made my way back inside.
The others had found a pair of ping-pong tables in one of the rooms upstairs and set them together to form a large place to eat. Mary brought me a plate of food and hugged me before going to sit with Lu. They were obviously a couple judging from body language and the open affection displayed. Part of me twinged in jealously. Part of me was happy she’d found someone.
Henry handed me a notebook with names and skills when he rolled up to sit beside me. I looked down the list and broke people into groups, drafting up a basic work detail. Once everyone had gotten settled, I cleared my throat and went through the list of what I wanted done that day. My job was to get one of the generators working and figure out the building’s plumbing system.
“Lu, you were going for a degree in mechanical engineering, right?”
He nodded from across the table.
“And let’s see. Patty? You know a little about car engines?”
A freckled redheaded girl nodded. “My dad owned a gas station with a garage.”
“Ok. You two are with me. We need to teach each other useful skills. Right now I’m the only one that knows shit about generators and electricity. If I kick off then you’re all sunk. So you’re my new apprentices.”
“What about guns?” Another girl asked. She looked embarrassed after speaking and turned away when my gaze settled on her. “I mean. Shouldn’t we all learn to use one?”
“You will. Henry’s going to offer the first lesson tonight.” He chuckled beside me.
After I punched his arm, we all had a little laugh and finished eating. Patty and Lu joined me at the generator with tools and several lamps on long extension cords. Hope came to play gopher for us as we crawled over the big diesel engine, looking for obvious issues and getting to know it better. Alex came by shortly after we’d done our initial inspection.
“Jaeger? Umm. Yesterday I noticed a few of those carts with big spotlights on it that they use on highway construction. They run on gas I think. Alright if a couple of us go get them? The dark is really getting us sorta down, you know?”
“Take Mary with you. She knows how to shoot a gun. Use the Humvee and keep your eyes open.” I replied, elbow deep in machinery. He was long gone when I stood up and cracked my neck an hour later. “Going out for a smoke. You two take a look at the boilers. I’ll grab some fuel and we’ll see about firing these puppies up.”
The systems seemed to be in good shape. Well maintained and drained before being mothballed. I felt pretty confident we’d be able to get them running that day. Then Henry’s voice crackled over my walkie-talkie from his perch on the roof overhead.
“Got five vehicles inbound. Following Alex in the Hummer.”
So much for that.
We scrambled to get everyone upstairs and armed, ripping plywood from windows along the top floor while I waited out front with a SMG at the ready. A fresh cigarette was burning when Alex ripped into the courtyard and jumped out. Mary and Marley paused long enough to speak before all three ran inside.
“They started following us on our way back. Just pulled out from a side road.”
The first vehicle was a big red four-by-four. I could make out the driver’s silhouette inside and saw brake lights come on after it passed the gate. Behind it was an older Ford commercial panel van, jacked up on wide mud tires and apparently converted to four wheel drive. Its license plate read ‘GUNNUT’ and the heavy duty brush guards were painted flat black to match its body. The last three vehicles were big U-Haul trucks. All five rolled to a stop and idled just inside the chain link fence line.
The front truck’s door opened and its lone driver stepped out. A hand waved in greeting as the man it belonged to started walking in my direction. I cracked my neck and waited, smoking as he neared. Details became clearer when Henry hit the guy with a floodlight from the roof. It was one of the Mannys.
I waved and walked to meet him, matching the grin he offered with one of my own. This Manny didn’t speak a lick of English and I’d never bothered to learn Spanish. Fortunately the language gap wasn’t an issue. Manny handed me a note, patted my shoulder, and walked back to his truck. I read by the red glow of my cigarette’s cherry.
These are some people from West Moodus that came into town looking for help. Lockwood turned them away so I sent them to you. I know most of them. Good people. Jim Pritchered used to be the maintenance guy for the asylum. He’ll make your life easier in exchange for the extra mouths to feed. So will Jake Brown. He owned one of the gun shops in the area.
The other vehicles were pulling up by the time I’d finished reading the note and passed the word to stand down using my walkie-talkie. Twenty-six new faces met my little group a few minutes later.
Jake Brown, the van’s driver, was a burly bald guy with a goatee and big, hairy arms covered in tattoos. I pegged him as retired military, likely pushing fifty. His grip was strong when we shook hands and he didn’t seem phased by my unnatural eyes as I looked him over.
The forty-something woman beside him smelled like pot and other unidentifiable herbs. She was barefoot, wearing a black dress and long sweater over her slender form. Long black hair shot through with streaks of gray hung messily about her face and a silver pentagram glinted in the stark white lights from the assembled vehicles.
“Jaeger. Nice to meet you. I’m Jacob Brown. Just call me Jake. Dave said you were alright so that makes you good in my book. Where do you want us to set up?”
I smiled at his direct manner and decided Jake was my kind of person. “For the next few days we’re all stayin inside the main building. About to fire up the genny and boilers. Haven’t done a thing to the other buildings.”
“Ain’t got em runnin yet? What the hell’s the matter with ya?” Came a voice from behind the pair before me. It belonged to a little old black man with a snowy ring of white hair surrounding his bald head. Wrinkles lined his weathered face but the teeth trapped between grinning lips were nearly blinding as they reflected headlights. “I did what I could to put em to bed once they locked the doors. Should be damn near ready to dust off and start.” He presented his own hand, twisted into a claw from age and arthritis, along with his name. “Jim. Get one of them youngen’s to grab my tools and I’ll go say hello to my babies.”
“Let’s not overwhelm our host, gentlemen.” That from the herb chick, who placed a hand on each man’s shoulder. “We’ll move our things into an empty room in the main building and help with whatever you’re doing now. I’ll see about getting lunch ready for everyone and we’ll plan on being more social during dinner.”
Jake blushed. Jim blustered. I smoked and chuckled. “Work with Henry on anything mechanical or defense related. Get with his wife, Kate, for anything else. I’d like to make use of those U-Hauls once you’re unloaded. We need to make some scavenging runs. Not a single fucking lightbulb left in this place and nothing much to cook on.”
The two men left herb chick and I alone after that. An introduction was made. “I’m Cleo. On behalf of our group, thank you for taking us in Miss Jaeger.”
“Just Jaeger. Don’t call me Miss. I work for a living.”
She smiled and together we watched people move trucks and begin the unloading process. There were a handful of children and two infants among the survivors as well as some elderly folks that needed help moving about. All together I counted sixteen able-bodied adults, including three of the rescued college students who’d left Lockwood’s hotel when he shut the door in their collective face.
Cleo excused herself and helped get things organized, leaving me alone for a few minutes. I could feel my gut tightening and my heartbeat racing. A wave of panic washed over me, leaving gooseflesh and a bit of vertigo in its wake. It was all too much. Too many people. Too many lives depending on me. “Henry, I’m going to check the perimeter. Be back in an hour.” I didn’t wait for his reply over the walkie-talkie. Just left, walking briskly into the welcoming darkness.
There was silence for awhile as I sat alone on top of warm rocks and surrounded by steam. The moist heat soaked into my bones, forcing away the chill and helping me to relax. It was almost like a sauna. I let the steam and darkness envelop me, wallowing in the lack of human contact while lying on my back, peering up at the black skies overhead.
The air still felt heavy and pregnant with the threat of rain. Water rushed by in the stream below, gurgling softly to its own rhythm, mingling with the sound of wind blowing between naked branches. Entranced and completely zoned, I didn’t hear the helicopter until it flew right over me.
It was a military bird, though I had no clue what kind. The olive drab form growled by and crossed the lake low, causing the waters beneath its rotating blades to splash violently in the strong propwash. I pushed up and ran towards the shore when it passed out of sight, emerging onto bare rocks at the lake’s edge just as it began to hover over Lockwood’s hotel. The helicopter moved away a few minutes later and began circling the town. Eventually it found a spot to land.
I made my way back to the asylum and found a crowd had gathered in the courtyard outside. The helicopter was the primary topic of conversation. Mary separated herself from the others and moved to intercept my approach, pulling a tall skinny kid with glasses along by the arm behind her.
“Jaeger! You’ve got to hear this!” She yelled, voice wavering slightly as it took on a higher pitch. That was Mary’s scared tone.
A headache started to form at my temples, sensing nothing good would come from whatever I was about to be told.
“Um. Hey. Jaeger. Wow. So ok. I’m Matt.”
I waved a hand dismissively. “Get to the point kid. What’s up?”
“Well its that guy. Green? You see I ran the college’s radio station and he came back to town a few days ago with a bunch of equipment. I helped him get it set up and stuff. It was a HAM radio.”
“Ok. Go on.” Already the headache was getting worse. I lit a cigarette and tried very hard to be patient.
“Well after the town flooded, Green got on the radio and made contact with a ship near Block Island. A Navy ship. The USS Philadelphia or something like that. They were relaying information from him to Martha’s Vineyard where there’s a military group and some government people set up.”
I nodded and exhaled smoke, waiting for him to continue.
“He told them about you and Maliqe. That you’d both been bitten and had survived.” Mary blurted, then looked down to the ground and furiously chewed her lower lip.
“And that you heal really fast,” Matt added softly.
I arched an eyebrow and stared hard at Mary. “And how did he know I heal fast?”
Mary’s tears answered my question.
“Do they know Maliqe is dead?” I asked, gaze shifting back and forth between the two.
“Yes. They’re going to recover the body and try to get you to come back with them.”
I snorted at Matt’s reply and started walking towards the gathered crowd. “Everyone shut the fuck up for a minute!” I shouted, watching as all eyes turned towards me.
“I don’t have time to explain everything. Mary and Matt here can handle that later. The helicopter you all saw is here to get me and a friend of mine because we changed from whatever caused all this mess. Stuck in between zombie and human. I’m not going voluntarily and, well you know the government. They don’t take no for an answer.”
There was an eruption of voices after that. Some angry. Others concerned. I whistled loudly and waited till they simmered down again before continuing. “You’re gonna tell them the truth when they come here looking for me. I found out and left. That’s all there is to it. None of you are gonna know where I’m going so don’t bother asking.”
They started up again. I yelled again. They shut up again.
“I am not gonna be a guinea pig and don’t lay that patriotic shit on me. It’s my life. I got a right to live it how I want. You got new people here with skills I had. You’ll be ok. For now, Henry and Kate are in charge until things get sorted out.” I leveled my gaze on Henry and winked.
“Now I gotta go get my friend before they do. Kate, load up a backpack with bottles of water mixed with those high calorie drinks and grab any of those high protean bars we’ve got left. I’m gonna need a shitload of calories. Jake, I need 9 mil rounds. You got anything bigger than thirty-ought-six?
“I’ve got some fifty cal for a Desert Eagle but nothing bigger for a rifle.”
“Can I have what you’ve got? You can keep all the M16s.”
He nodded and tossed me a set of keys. There was a rabbit’s foot attached. “What’s this?”
“For the van. She’s an old SWAT model. Armored. Converted to four wheel drive. Not as good as a Humvee but it blends in better. That armored bank truck ain’t a four by four, right?” I shook my head. “Then take the van. I’ll get you set up with mags and ammo. For the HK right?” Speechless, I nodded. “Let’s roll people. We need to prep this woman ASAP!”
I went inside to pack, grabbing a few changes of clothes and extra boots while Kate hooked me up with food and Jake got me squared away with things that kill. Henry rolled up with Hope and Kate at his side a few minutes later. Their expressions were grim.
“I’m coming with you,” Hope stated. I was shocked when neither of her parents argued.
“The fuck you are.”
“I’ll just follow you if you say no Jaeger. We owe you our lives and I’m not letting you do this by yourself.”
“She’s right and she’s got my blessing,” Henry added.
“Are you all insane? I’m going to go fight the god damn military. This isn’t some fucking game. The shit is about to hit the fan in a major way.”
None of them wavered.
I growled and took out my combat knife, held up my hand, and stabbed the blade through its palm. Kate gasped and Hope took a step back as I hissed through the pain before my body shut it down. Blood dripped to the floor and spurted when I pulled it free. I kept the wound in sight, held before them as it healed.
“They can’t kill me but they can kill Hope. You really want to go with me? I’ll tell you a place and time where we can meet after I deal with this but you sure as fuck are not coming into battle with me. Understand?”
The demonstration apparently got through to them, though Hope was adamant about meeting me afterwards. We set up a time and place before I sent her and Kate out of the room. Alone with Henry, I gnawed on a protean bar and mixed up a high calorie breakfast shake.
“Do not engage them Henry. Let them roll in here, ask questions, threaten everyone and camp out for awhile. But do not try to take on the military. Everyone here will die. Period. They’ll just spray lead and rockets from the sky if you resist. Make sure everyone understands that. Hide the good guns and keep out the crap. They’ll probably confiscate your weapons and try to get you all to come back with them.”
He nodded and I clapped his shoulder before stepping out. “Take care of these people.”
“Thanks for everything Jaeger.”
I nodded in the hallway and winked. “Enjoy the fireworks.”