Chapter 6 - Entry 3
April 29th cont.
Hope was supposed to be waiting for me at a small house a few miles outside of town. I was almost there when a monstrous truck that would’ve been at home running over cars in a stadium packed full of adoring rednecks pulled out in front of me. A second vehicle, this one a police SUV, pulled into the road behind me, boxing me in. They’d picked a decent spot; the road was one lane on each side and flanked by deep drainage ditches. Growling, I slammed on the brakes and put the van into park.
The first shot hit my back as I dove out of the van and into a ditch. Tufts of dirt exploded nearby and the night filled with thunderous gunfire. It took a few minutes for the wound to heal so I spent the time returning fire without even looking over the ditch’s edge. When at last I felt battle ready, the ambushers had fallen mostly silent with shots fired only sporadically.
“Go back to your fucking island!” Came a man’s voice.
“I didn’t come from any god damn island!” I shouted back before sending three rounds down the voice’s bearing. They were just as surprised as me when one struck home and the man shrieked in pain.
We exchanged gunfire for a few minutes longer after that. I crawled along the ditch’s bottom, popping up from different spots to squeeze off shots at men now and then. Two more went down, their cries joining the first man’s during silence in between volleys.
“Would you fucking stop! I’m not from any island!”
I heard a man shout “Hold your fire,” to his companions. The night grew quiet once more until he spoke up again.
“Don’t shoot. I want to talk with you. One man approaching unarmed.”
I sighed and peeked my head up, watching as a large silhouette backlit by the truck’s myriad of spotlights walked towards me with both arms raised. There was a fresh clip in the HK and a new cigarette burning between my lips by the time he reached me. I leveled the barrel towards his chest and exhaled smoke, reclining with my back against the ditch bank.
“Ok. What the fuck is this all about?”
He was tall and built like a tank with both beefy arms covered in colorful tattoos. There were flecks of silver in his short hair and long goatee. I pegged him as ex-military. Maybe a biker. The scent of grease and motor oil nearly overpowered the smell of stale sweat that wafted my way. Retired mechanic.
“You’re not with that group from the island.” It was spoken as a statement rather than a question. Still, I answered.
“Misunderstanding then.” The man’s head cocked to the side as he squatted down, hands still raised, and peered at me. “Mind if I smoke?”
He chuckled, lowering his arms and lighting up a cigarette for himself. “Gonna say anything other than nope?”
“Gonna ask any questions that aren’t stupid?”
“Fair enough. You’re Jaeger, right?”
I didn’t reply. Instead I simply stared holes into his face and smoked my cigarette. The barrel of my gun never wavered.
“Ok. So a one sided conversation it is then.” He began with a crooked smile before taking a moment to smoke and collect himself. “I’m Silas. Part of a small group of survivors based a few miles from here. We heard radio chatter between the town over there and a submarine off the coast somewhere talking about you. I’m going to have one of my boys join us. Then you’ll see why I wanted to meet you and keep the islanders off the mainland. That ok?”
“Sure. But you get the first bullet if there’s a reason to shoot one.”
He nodded and called out to a guy named Frank. The newcomer was painfully thin with long, narrow features cast in shadows from the raised hood of his jacket. It took a little effort for me not to express surprise when I saw his eyes. Milky white. A zombie’s eyes. My eyes.
“Well ain’t that a hoot,” I drawled and flicked my cigarette away. “We all done shooting at each other now?”
More shouting followed as Silas rose and told his remaining men to stand down. I stood on the street a few minutes later with Frank, Silas, a pale tattooed woman named Molly, and an Asian woman named Olora. Three men were dead, their bodies left in a ditch.
“Did I hear you say there were zombie rats in that town?” That from Molly.
I nodded and told them what I’d seen. All eyes turned towards East Moodus’s burning remains to the south, expressions grim.
“You need to get those people out of the asylum. The rats will swarm out of town to escape the flames and spread across the area. They will infect other rats and the infection agent may very well mutate again to affect other animals.” Olora’s voice was utterly flat and devoid of emotion as she spoke, her back turned to us while black eyes watched the distant flames.
Molly took a cigarette from Silas’s pack and lit it with a skull encrusted Zippo. “Well we came here looking for you. Might as well bring your friends back to the Fort with us.”
I turned to regard the tattooed girl. She was in her early to mid twenties with blonde hair cut short in a punkish style. Black eyeliner, nail polish and lipstick made her pale skin seem even whiter in the headlight’s harsh glow. “What Fort?”
Silas replied after asking Olora to help Frank, who had yet to speak, and Molly move gear out of the monster truck and into the SUV. Apparently one of my shots had hit the radiator.
“It’s not an actual Fort. There’s a small hydroelectric dam about six miles northwest of here at Lake Pocotopaug that’s still working. We got it supplying electric for a few buildings nearby and were about to start putting walls up when Olora heard the HAM radio traffic.” He stared at me for a few heartbeats and added softly. “If you want to come.” A shrug before he looked away, watching the other three haul stuff from one vehicle to the other. “Plenty of room for everyone from the asylum too. We could use the help.”
“You’re in charge? How many people do you have?” I asked, eyeing my watch and thinking of Hope sitting in a dark house by herself.
“Yes. There are eleven others at the Fort. We were doing pretty well actually. I hadn’t lost a single man until we ran into you.” He chuckled and shook his head. “Give me a shot. I’ll do my best to keep you and Frank out of the government’s crosshairs.”
“It’s not entirely up to me. The others have to decide,” I replied with a shrug. “Follow me. I gotta pick up a friend and then I’ll lead you back to the asylum.” The words surprised me as I spoke them. Not ten minutes before these people had been shooting at me.
They followed me to the house where Hope was waiting and I quickly filled her in on all the news after we’d loaded her gear in the van. I spoke with Jake Brown using the CB on our way back. He had the gate open for us by the time we reached the asylum grounds.
Silas and his people got right to work, helping the others load up U-Haul trucks with all the essentials while I snarfed down food. There was a happy little reunion between Hope and her parents. Mary and Marley both offered me hugs. Everyone’s spirits seemed pretty high, despite the fact they were scrambling to escape a plague of undead rats. It made me angry for some reason I couldn’t fully explain or understand.
I pulled Silas aside after eating and together we stood watching the others work. “I gotta get out of here. Left a few hours ago thinking I was going to be taking on the Army. Now I’m, I don’t know. Restless.”
He nodded and waved Olora over. “Ride shotgun with Jaeger and show her the Fort. I’ll radio ahead to let the others know you’re on your way. Get a full head count and work with that pagan chick to figure out family units before you go so we can get them settled in quickly.”
Alone again after Olora slipped away to do as he’d requested, I found Silas giving me the once over with an intense gaze. “What?”
“That guy from town said you could heal incredibly fast. I know one of my shots pegged you in the back when you dove out of the van, yet here you are whole again. Is it from your condition?”
I chuckled and shrugged. “Yeah. You can’t kill me. Just remember that Silas. Nothing can stop me.”
It was his turn to chuckle but he made no other reply. Together we stood there in silence until Olora finally returned, clutching a piece of paper in one hand and an AR-15 in the other. Hope was right behind her, still carrying her own rifle over one shoulder. Apparently she’d invited herself along.
We were on the road fifteen minutes later with Olora up front riding shotgun and Hope seated on an ammo box between us. The drive was mostly uneventful with only a few walking speedbumps to disrupt an otherwise smooth ride. The Asian woman beside me changed the CB channel and radioed our position as we neared. I slowed the van down to have a better look around.
The Fort was a huge L shaped brick building five stories tall on one leg and four stories on the other. It overlooked the lake from its northwestern most edge where a small dam had been built. The river that formed from its runoff disappeared to the north of the Fort, heading west between dense treelined banks.
Other buildings, including the old brick powerhouse, sat on the huge concrete square inside the Fort’s courtyard area. Lights were on inside all of them and numerous floodlights roved the area from top floor windows.
“This was once a textile factory. It was converted into condominiums a few years ago. I purchased one last year for no small sum.” Olora pointed then towards the powerhouse as we pulled slowly into the L-shaped building’s elbow. “The condominium association owns the hydro plant. We sold power back to the town and received a small dividend after maintenance and repair fees were accessed. My last check was for eighty-seven cents more than the electric bill.”
“So you were living here when everything fell apart?” Hope asked as I put the van into park and killed the engine.
“Yes. As was Frank and his daughter, Molly. We came across Silas and a few others as they were scouting at the dam. Since he is obviously handy to have around and there was an abundance of vacant apartments, those of us who still lived invited them to remain.”
A trio of men with shotguns stepped out of the Fort to welcome us with genuine smiles and hearty hellos. The place was pretty posh inside with lots of exposed brick and thick carpets. Potted plants, though dying, were everywhere and the recessed lighting all seemed to be L.E.D.s. Olora noticed me regarding them and offered an explanation.
“The state and federal government began handing out grants for businesses who qualified as ‘Green’. Since the condo association was incorporated and we generated our own electricity using non-polluting methods, we received a few large tax breaks in order to weatherize and become, pardon the phrase, even ‘Greener’. If one were to disregard the electrical usage of each individual condominium, the sum used by the building itself is half that of the average American single family home.”
“Water?” I asked, wandering down the halls with Hope and Olora in tow.
“The building used city water but we’ve since shifted the supply back to three wells located between the outer walls and the lake itself. That was our first project after securing windows and doorways on the first floor. There are a series of water tanks positioned at the top of each emergency stairwell and pressurized with small pumps that now provide the building with water. Individual condominiums utilize instant-on electric water heaters.”
“What did you do before everything happened Olora?” Hope asked as we walked from the L’s longer branch to the taller wing that ran parallel with the street outside.
The Asian woman turned to regard Hope, the ghost of a smile flickering across her face as she answered in that same emotionless voice. “I was a systems engineer for Sprint.”
“Sounds like you guys have the perfect setup here.” I commented.
Olora shook her head and nodded towards the hallway as it turned right. “Though the dam provides more power generation than we need and our issues with water have been overcome, the building is without heat. The boiler systems had been removed a few days before Yellowstone erupted as part of a rather large upgrade planned to occur in late April. The original systems were outdated, inefficient, and designed to run on oil. We chose industrial electric models, which are still sitting on their pallets down in the basement.”
We walked down the hallway as she spoke and passed through a set of double doors at its end. Beyond lay a large open space that was apparently being converted into a cafeteria and entertainment room. “This is where our efforts have been focused as of late. Heat is, at this point, a luxury. The need for a central location to gather and eat was given a higher priority.”
They’d evidently raided a high school for furniture and equipment. Everything was stainless steel and uniform. A huge flat screen TV was mounted on one wall and a trio of pool tables still wrapped in plastic sat against another. Two men were laying down tile in one corner of the room. A pair of women and three teenagers were hauling boxes of frozen food into the kitchen area beyond the shiny new serving bar.
“Where did you get frozen food?” I asked, eyeing one box marked ‘steak’.
“One of the survivors was a truck driver for Wal-Mart. He radioed two of his fellow drivers and together the three pulled into the Fort with three refrigerated trailers full of undelivered food. We are just now beginning to move food from the trailers into the new freezer and refrigerator systems Silas installed a few days ago.”
I took a seat at one of the tables and lit a cigarette, half expecting Olora to object. Instead she took a seat opposite my own and sat staring at my face in silence.
“So aside from no heat, what’s wrong with the place?” I finally asked.
“The building is too large for our meager numbers to maintain and properly defend. Quiet simply, there is more work than we have the manpower to support.”
“So that’s why Silas was keen on having the asylum bunch move in.” I replied, nodding with a grin.
“No. Silas is dedicated to seeing as many people through these dark times as possible. I would have been content to allow an additional dozen able bodied men and woman to our roster. I objected to allowing Frank to stay and I expressed a strong opinion against having you join us. Nothing personal, Miss Jaeger. I simply do not believe either of you are human any longer and nothing good will come from your presence here.”
Hope started an angry reply as I chuckled darkly. Further conversation was put on hold though when a speaker mounted into the ceiling announced the rest of our group would be arriving shortly.