Multitudes of scenarios ran through Andrew's head. He imagined their demise in this building as well as at any point in the no-longer-safe zone. He imagined what he felt to be inevitable, the outside world overrun by these creatures in a way that any fortified place couldn't even come close to being able to keep it out or contain this. His anxiety led to a small tremor in his hands as he held the gun at his side. As much as he tried to deny and postpone the thought in his mind, he couldn't ignore the actuality of what was happening. In some way, shape, or form, he had expected things to end like this, and he wasn't all that surprised. But it didn't stop his fear.
Andrew made doubly sure to keep to every word and motion Noah made. Despite his slight resignation to whatever impending doom awaited them all, instinct called on him to delay the inevitable for as long as possible, in the hopes that there was really a way out of all of this. Despite whatever misgivings he had about Noah, trust was essential in this case. None of them wanted to lose their lives, and none of them wanted it to be at the blame of themselves or Noah.
He hoped beyond hope that Noah wasn't going to betray them all.
It took longer than Andrew could comprehend before they reached the holding house, which was little under a 10 minute leisurely walk from the hospital. His heart had been beating in triple time with the agonizingly slow steps they had to make on their way towards the wall, made almost irreversably so after the near-encounter with an infected. Sweat beaded steadily on his forehead, a bother that Andrew ignored in favor of focusing on the current situation. His shaking had stopped to a conscious tenseness that threatened to light his muscles ablaze. His knuckles had turned white from his grip on the gun, and he could see from the other soldiers that such was the case all around. And still, he didn't see Noah falter even once.
It was in this state of momentary admiration that Andrew heard his prompt to speak at the door. He walked forward, next to Noah, and put his face close to the door. [b "It's Andrew,"] he said with a low voice, looking back to make sure nothing in the distance could hear him. [b "I have survivors. Let us in."]
The tension in Andrew's body slowly began to relax once inside. He never had much fondness for the holding house, but this would be the first and last time he ever would. He looked around at the familiar faces about and breathed a sigh of relief. No one had left since Noah changed the situation. It was good, but he could imagine the animosity some felt in this room towards Noah. Andrew needed to change that.
When he heard a soldier remark on their survival, Andrew turned to him. [b "He helped us,"] he spoke, gesturing towards Noah. [b "Wouldn't have gotten here without his know-how."] He punctuated his words with a sigh, knowing full well that Noah could have left them all to die...but didn't.
The sound of the holding cell doors opening jolted Andrew back into a state of panic as his eyes darted to the source. There, he saw Jess for the first time, and she didn't look well. She looked as though she hadn't slept in days, and had barely eaten at all. Inside the cell, he could see three trays lined against the wall, the food on them barely touched. She knew her fate, could feel it, and was aware of the danger she was.
The impulse to scream was difficult to suppress even as Andrew's entire body shook in one singular spasm. He raised his gun up towards the source of the sound, only to find a nervous-looking soldier still pointing the gun to where Jess stood.
Was standing, now. She now lay on the floor, a small hole carved cleanly in her forehead, her head slowly sinking in from the collapse of the back of her skull. The rapidly forming pool of blood and the unregistering eyes told volumes of what had just happened, even as Andrew's mind struggled to comprehend what exactly had happened.
[b "Damn it..."] Andrew muttered as he lowered his gun. [b "What the fuck is--"] Andrew's words were cut off by heavy pounding on the door as well as the new wave of panic washing over his body. Instinctively, he moved close to Noah, eyes glued to the door. Though a heavy, metal door, he didn't know how long it could remain standing. There were too many missing factors. He couldn't think, and therefore couldn't act.
Noah was the first to move on it, grabbing the petrified Jason and pulling him towards the wall exit chamber. There were a few protests as the realization that everyone had to leave the compound to survive became clear. But as the pounding became more belligerant and the anxiety levels in the room began to build tremendously, the protests subsided to a reluctance to follow. Andrew moved to the other side of Jason, helping pick up the slack that was left in Jason's hopeless state.
The other members of their party filed behind them, the last keeping their guns focused on the door in case there was a breakthrough. Andrew reached for the door once they were across the small "waiting room", only to find it locked with several locks in place. [b "Shaun, we need the keys,"] Andrew hissed, wondering where the man was. It was then when he heard the hard slam of metal on concrete and several screams. Briefly letting go of Jason, Andrew turned around, fearing the worst. His vision was greeted by the rear soldiers unloading every bullet in their gun clips at the infected, who only seemed to be moderately deterred by the gunfire. A few were distracted by Jess's fresh body and began trying to tear it apart with their hands and teeth to eat her. The rest, about 6 of the group of about 10, were ready to advance, only momentarily delayed by the hail of bullets.
[b "Shaun, quick! They keys!"] Andrew's yelling didn't seem to break the man's horrified fixation on the sight in front of them all, and Andrew had to move quickly to him and take the keys from him. [b "Damn, which key is it?"] he said as he held the ring of keys containing just under 20 keys. He undid the manual locks first, then searched for the keys for the remaining few. He only needed to find three.
He found the first one when a soldier audibly lost his lunch over the sight of Jess's body being torn apart.
He found the second one when the sound of gunfire started to deminish as one soldier found that he had emptied his clip, and panicked in reloading as the other soldiers feared their guns would run out in seconds.
And he found the last when Jason turned around only to see three infected huddled around his mother's lifeless body, sinking their teeth into her skin.
But he lost the key when Jason lost it, pushing Andrew aside as he held onto the key ring, snapping the key into the lock.
The first thing Noah did was grab a nearby assault rifle out of a guard's hands. If he was going to be the newfound leader of this group, he needed to be armed for it. As he looked it over, making sure the safety was indeed off, he heard the others worried voices as they wondered if their efforts would achieve anything at all.
Noah turned around, his greasy hair dangling in his face and addressed them all. "Save your bullets. We'll try to sneak past them as far as we can. If we're spotted or heard, aim for the legs. They're useless if they can't run. If one gets too close, stab the base of the skull. It's difficult to get to, so try not to let that happen. If you don't have a knife... pray." Noah turned towards the double doors, knowing half- if not most- of the people in this room were already dead. "We need to stick together. Stay in a pack. It confuses them. If you're alone, you're an easy target." As he spoke, the others started to crowd around. Noah could see the fear in their faces. "We're going back to the holding cell. We'll go through the side door, there."
It's true that that door seemed like the most plausible option, not to mention that that was where Jason and Jess were located. They were probably still safe inside the walls there. Or he hoped... There was no way he was going to leave them behind if he could help it.
He stood at the ready, waiting for everyone to follow lead, then gestured for two soldiers to open the doors just enough for them to file through. Noah was the first out and the cold air hit his face so hard it almost knocked the wind out of him. By now the gunfire had slowed. Now there was only a few pops here and there. Noah assumed most of the people that had been outside when the infected found their way inside were all dead.
Noah made sure to walk slowly, but surely, keeping by the buildings and ducking behind stalled cars that had been forgotten. The others followed his lead. Together they all made their way back the way he had come with Andrew. While that walk had been somewhat short, it now seemed like forever. About halfway there, they heard a terrifying screech, garbled and from deep down in the chest. Noah stopped and leaned against a nearby truck, knowing that the noise was coming from a nearby infected. He heard several other approach to scope out the area before they moved on.
Finally, they had made it to the doors. Noah tapped lightly on the door.
"Don't open it," he heard someone saying from inside, though it was muffled.
"It's probably Lux," came another voice. "We can't just leave him out there."
Noah looked around them to make sure there weren't any infected, then looked at Andrew. He gestured to the door. "Tell them who you are," he demanded in a whisper, knowing if they heard Noah's own voice, he wouldn't be able to persuade them.
Once he had done just that, the door opened just a bit. They all filed through. "How the fuck did you make it back?" a soldier asked nobody in particular. Noah ignored him and approached Jason, putting his hands on his shoulders. "I'm glad you're safe," he told him before turning to Shaun, who was standing over to the side, his mouth hanging open. "Open the door. We're not leaving without Jess."
"I... I can't do that. She's infected. And we don't even know how long she's [i been] infected. She could change at any-"
"Open the fucking door or I swear to God I will pry the keys out of your dead hands."
Shaun fumbled with his keyring, heading to the large metal door that lead to where they had all three been contained when they first arrived. It swung open heavily to reveal a frightened looking Jess.
"Mom!" Jason exclaimed, about to rush forward to embrace her. But he stopped short when she held up her hand.
"Wait! Don't come near me. Leave me in here. Lock me in. I don't want to hurt you."
"Mom, what are you talking about? We're getting out of here." The desperation was clear in Jason's voice.
"Go with Noah. He'll keep you safe." She held up her hand and coughed and it left her skin coated in blood. "I love-"
The bullet entered her brain so fast she must not have known what hit her. Jason screamed and his knees gave out and Noah grabbed the boy to try to keep him standing. A fire started within him as he swung his head around to face the man who fired.
"The instructions are clear. Kill all infected," the soldier said dumbly.
Noah was about to say something, tears threatening his eyesight, but the words never came. Only the consistent pounding against the heavy doors. The infected must have heard the gunfire, the yells...
Noah looked at the small door that they were going to use to escape, grabbed Jason as best he could, and started his way toward it. "Stay together or die," he warned everyone. When he stepped outside, he was numb, though it wasn't the cold that brought it on. It was Jess. It was Jason's sudden lack of will to carry on. It was the fact that he was [i saving] these people that had practically killed everyone he'd known before.
Andrew tried hard to swallow the lump in his throat at Noah's accusations. He hadn't expected what he heard to sting so deeply, nor did he imagine feeling any sort of regret. He did what he could to subdue someone who was a threat to the safety of the safe zone, what he had been expected to do. It was a far-fetched idea to think that Andrew posed any real threat to anyone, except for what he knew.
But all he knew now was panic.
He heard the scream. He heard the cacophony of voices pounding in the earpiece. Everyone was talking at once, and everyone was scared. But it couldn't be real until someone said it. It was only a joke—
[i "They're inside...there's infected inside! How did they get in?!"]
The panic reached Andrew's chest as he felt his face grow suddenly cold. Out of all the things they were prepared for, the safe zone didn't really have any protocols for a break in of infected. Everything they knew and hoped for relied on the idea that the infected couldn't get in with the fortifications they made. And now, it seemed that wasn't the case.
It took a while into the silence before Andrew spoke. It was clear that they would have to listen to Noah and trust him with their lives. Andrew wasn't exactly keen on it, seeing that only seconds ago Noah had acknowledged his betrayal. There was no telling what could happen—if Noah was a vengeful man, Andrew wouldn't have the chance to really find out until it was too late. He'd just have to be on guard.
[b "Okay. What do we do first?"]
A burst of gunfire from outside punctuated his sentence, making the soldiers jump and Andrew tense up. The earpiece was now full of panicked screaming and the occasional sound of gunfire. The picture was being painted very clearly for them all, and it looked like they'd have to wade through it all. It wasn't a hopeful prospect.
Another scream outside prompted Andrew to reach on the inside of his jacket and pull out a high-caliber handgun. He never thought he would have to use it, but the nerves sending nervous impulses through his body made him on edge. He might have the chance to use it soon.
[b "Are these even going to work?"] Andrew asked as an afterthought, raising his gun. A lot of the soldiers looked at their guns and then back at Noah, not sure if they wanted to hear the answer. Andrew remembered the excessive force it took to stop a group of infected the last time he encountered them and doubted it could be as simple as blowing their heads off. But then again, what did Andrew know?
Noah followed Andrew back outside for a short walk and listened to everything he was saying. He didn't understand most of what had to do with the infection or the machinery due to all the jargon, but he managed to pick up enough clues to follow along. This man seemed genuinely interested in his work, not even the awkwardness between the two could mask that.
When the stranger started to talk about the hopes for the future, Noah's weariness started to ebb away. He didn't know if he could quite believe a cure could ever be possible, but his new companion's determination on the matter gave him pause. He wanted to believe it was possible to turn all this around. He wanted to believe there was a way to end this suffering for all parties involved.
When they got to their destination, Andrew told him to wait a moment as he stepped into the next room. Noah only had a second to think about how suspicious that might be before he heard the boots and suddenly all thought of peace left his mind. He felt the barrel of an assault rifle against his back and he raised his hands in surrender. He didn't show fear, only regret that he hadn't seen this coming earlier. He wasn't about to turn around to face his captors, but he assumed there were about fifteen of them. There was no turning this around. Noah would have to do what he was told.
When Andrew returned from the other room, Noah greeted him with a knowing a look. A look that clearly told the man he had betrayed him. The man behind Noah kicked at the back of his legs, forcing him down hard onto his knees. They brought his hands behind his back and bound his wrists with zip ties.
"Nice act," Noah spat at the man who had led him here. "I almost believed you cared. I'd rather face the rest of my life out there with those monsters than inside these walls." He was raising his voice now and the man behind him gave him a warning to shut his mouth. "Give me what's left of my people and I'll leave. I don't give a shit if Jess is infected. That kid needs his mother and by God I'm not going to let you take that away from him. Not after all he's been throu-"
A blood-curdling scream from outside cut him off. Everyone's headpieces seemed to be full of voices. Scared voices. Noah could tell because the fear was contagious and the soldiers' faces all drained of blood. Noah didn't need to hear the voices on the other end to know that this safe zone wasn't so safe anymore.
"They're inside...," came a voice behind him. Disbelief in every syllable. "There's infected inside! How did they get in!?"
Several other voices chimed in, their chattering growing louder.
"Shut up! Everyone just shut the fuck up," Noah hissed. To his surprise, they all did. "The tables have turned and if you don't let me go you'll all die." Nobody made a move. "I know that most of you haven't been outside these walls in a [i very] long time. These things have evolved. They're quicker now. They hear ten times better than we do. This place is gone, but I can still save some of you."
The soldier who had originally tied him up looked to everyone else. He knew there was no other choice. Noah felt the zip tie being cut and he got back to his feet. He would try to save them, yes. He hadn't lost that much of his humanity. But if worse came to worse, he wouldn't hesitate to leave them all behind for their betrayal.
A small bit of nervousness hit Andrew at the understanding that only Noah would be coming with him. He had hoped—no, [i expected] both of them to come so that he could keep an eye on them both. To separate them was a risk to what they had going on, but at the same time, he could see that it was also a risk to Noah. As far as Andrew's power went, he could only suggest courses of action. Unless it was directly involved with something infection related, Andrew was powerless to control the men in this room. Jason would be by himself, and it didn't look as though he was exactly confident enough to handle what he could be facing.
Being a danger to the safe zone meant some terrible things. But all things considered, Andrew didn't think he'd be able to reason with Noah at all.
[b "Let's go."]
The original plan had been to remove the two from the holding area and then detain them where it was safer, but it seemed that wouldn't be the plan. And it wasn't safe to signal a change either, not with Noah so close by. Things would have to change.
They walked in silence towards the old hospital, a good ten minute walk away. Andrew took this opportunity to survey Noah, considering this was the first time they had met. There was an unease between the two of them, an obvious distrust considering that the people Andrew was associated had a friend of Noah's. And until they got to the hospital, there wasn't anything Andrew could really say that would suffice to ease that unease. It was clear that Noah didn't know as much as the people in the safe zone did, but he couldn't imagine there was much of a difference between the knowledge they had. It had been a long time, an no one was really all that much of an expert with what was going on. Andrew couldn't possibly think of anyone who could be.
[b "This is the hospital in which we have the infection equipment, among other things,"] Andrew announced as they entered through the permanently open automatic doors of the hospital lobby. He felt less of a situation handler than he did a tour guide in this moment. Even as they walked up the two flights of stairs, he continued to explain where they were going, how the safe zone was working to get the hospital in working condition to help treat any non-infection injuries that anyone could sustain. He even segwayed into his hopes for the safe zone, how he hoped that they could maybe find a cure for this infection in the next few years.
A hope that wasn't exactly a lie.
As Andrew was about to enter the office, he paused, holding his hand out to stop Noah. [b "Wait here,"] he said in a low voice, remembering something. He walked up to the door and used his key card to enter, stepping in carefully. He looked around, noticing that the coast was clear. What happened to that backup detail he asked for?
A rush of footsteps answered his question, and the sound of safeties being released on guns gave his heart reason to pause. He ran outside and saw that a good number of safe zone soldiers were surrounding Noah, guns all pointed at all of his vitals.
There was a long pause and just before Noah was about to go off again Shaun turned around, pulling the earbud away from his head and held it out. "He wants to talk to you," was all he told Noah.
Noah hesitantly took the headset, putting it against his ear and listened. And listened. And he was filling with dread with every word, but he was also glad that this Andrew Lux on the other end of the line was trying to explain things to him. No one else had bothered to do that. Either they thought him too stupid or an annoyance, it didn't matter. He deserved to know.
As did Jason. Noah looked at him while the voice was explaining. He would tell him, but not just yet. Noah handed the headset back to Shaun with a nod of his head. "At least someone knows how to talk around here," he muttered. He explained that someone was on their way to explain things to them in more detail.
"I want you to stay here," he told Jason. Jason opened his mouth to protest, but Noah cut him off. "We don't know what's really going on here. They'll want us where they can see us. They're scared we're going to do something stupid." He could tell, just from all their looks and glances. "If you stay, they'll feel more at ease."
"But will we?" Jason asked, his voice barely a whisper.
"No, but that's something we have to sacrifice right now."
They turned just in time to see a small shouldered man make his way in through the doors. He wasn't what Noah was expecting at all. Noah ran a hand through his greasy hair to keep the light locks from falling in his face. He wanted to keep an eye on this guy. And everyone else he ran into.
He stepped up and introduced himself as the man he'd been speaking to on the headset, then asked him to follow. Noah hesitated, looked at Jason, then finally nodded. He gestured for the other man to lead the way and hunched his shoulders. He turned back to Jason, adding "stay", as if he might disobey.
He hoped he wouldn't. Jason had done some pretty stupid things in the past, but he was pretty good about doing what Noah said. Not that Noah was so sure of his judgement anymore... Not after the massacre right outside the gates.
It didn't take very long for chatter to stir up on Andrew's earpiece. Normally, he was used to it and drowned it out, but there was something different about the usual tone of voices on the line. They seemed tense, agitated, and confused. And it was when he heard his own name mentioned on the line that his ears perked up. It was also then that they realized that someone was deferring to his own judgment. Him?
[i "I repeat: we've got a situation here. They want to see her—the infected one. It is against any and all protocol to do so, but they seem ready to retaliate unless we let them."]
[i "If reason has been put into play and they are not heeding it, bring in trained weapons and subdue them. Then put them in lockup until they can learn to behave. They shouldn't even be where they are at the moment, and they are endangering the standards of safety with their demands."]
Andrew thought for a second. He doubted the two new ones would listen to people that were so detached from the situation enough to extend any amount of sympathy, and he couldn't blame them. He didn't know the extent of any relationship between all of those involved, but he knew it didn't help when those there were too jaded to want to have any courtesy to give. Maybe he could help.
[b "Can one of you there give them an earpiece? Just for a minute? I need to explain how important it is that they don't try to see her."] Andrew waited for a confirming response on the other end and the shuffle of the earpiece exchanging hands. [b "Noah, is it? I'm Andrew Lux, the one currently in charge of overseeing the hands-on testing for any trace of infection. Please listen carefully. I'm going to explain how precarious this situation is.]
[b "This safe zone lacks the proper facilities to contain anything above a low-level group of infected individuals. This person—Jess, has contracted a high second tier infection and it will be maybe a day or two if we're lucky before the infection becomes contagious through violent contact. As people who have suffered recent open injuries that have yet to heal, you are increasingly vulnerable to infection around her. And if things come to blows there, you are putting everyone around there in danger. Do you understand?"]
Andrew sighed. He understood their frustration well enough to know what to do, so he started gathering his personal effects and headed out the door. [b "Look, I'm on my way to your location and take you to the scanner that has detected the infection in Jess and explain further to you what can be done to resolve this situation. I will be by shortly."]
Andrew pulled out the earpiece communication router and cut the communication to the line Noah was on, leaving only a handful of others on the line. [b "If we go, I suggest moving her underground as quick as you can. I really don't know if this will work to placate them. If possible, send the weapons team to the scanning offices just in case."] As Andrew approached the building where Jess was still being held, he took a sharp inhale of cold air. [b "Just in case they get angry."] As the door was opened for him by the now one guard standing outside, he kept his hands in his pockets, resting on the one thing that would give him a decent amount of comfort for the time being.
His own gun.
[b "Noah? Are you in here? I'm coming in."] Andrew walked in slowly, his hands in his pockets and his face slightly reddened by the cool air outside. His hair had flecks of snow in it from the light morning snowfall despite the soft sunlight, and he kept his head lowered out of habit. [b "I'm Andrew. Can you follow me?"]
An hour came and went, but no one emerged from the house. While trying to pass the time, Noah and Jason gave into the temptation of sleep without even realizing it. Their day had been a long one and the shock of being put into a different environment had taken its toll on them. They were exhausted.
When Noah woke next, it was morning. He got up from the couch where he had slept and made his way to Jason who was curled up in the chair opposite of him. He shook his shoulder gently.
"Jason," he said softly.
Jason stirred and opened his eyes. They didn't have to talk about how they'd fallen asleep. It was over and in the past now. They had to focus on Jess. So, together they gathered up their things, bundled back up into their coats, and headed out the door. The sun was just barely up and the winds turned their noses red in seconds. Noah pointed towards the help center that Shaun and Derek had mentioned the day before. He could see the bright yellow sign with red font on the sidewalk with a bold arrow.
Noah didn't like this. He didn't have a good feeling about any of it. A place like this would have been great had he found it right after the world had gone to shit. But it had been years and now he was wary of everything. You couldn't trust anybody anymore. And the happy, "Help Center" sign only made him feel like it was more of an omen than anything.
The door swung open easily and they filed it. He could tell it used to be a drug store. He had gone to one a lot like it before the apocalypse. There was a small line by the checkout counter, but Noah didn't feel like stepping in place and waiting his turn. It was all just a bit too cozy for his liking in here. Too reminiscent of the old world. Did this people even realize that things were different now?
"Hi, can I help you with something, today?" Noah turned to see a woman, her outfit complete with a pencil skirt and everything. "You're the new arrivals, aren't you?"
"We're here about the woman still being held," Noah told her flatly.
Suddenly her face changed. She put a hand to her ear. "The uh- new arrivals are wondering where their other companion is?" he asked the mic, clearly uneasy with having to be the one to deal with this. She listened to the voice on the other side before looking back up, a fake smile planted on her face. "We're going to get someone to come speak with you about that," he told them. "It's classified, so I'm not allowed to know the details about any of that. There's a bench over there by the windows," she said, pointing to it. "We'll be back with you shortly."
So they sat. And they waited. And waited. And finally Noah was so sick of waiting that he decided that he was going to have to take matters into his own hands. He got up and left. Jason followed. Together they headed back to where they were first held and tested. Two guards tried to prevent them from entering, but apparently they weren't used to using force. Noah brushed right past them with so much force they they simply refused to fight back. "Wait, you can't go in there!"
But Noah was already inside. He found Shaun, who looked frightened when he realized Noah was headed straight for him. He was a bulky guy and he rarely had a pleasant expression. "He-hendricks!" he muttered.
"I want to see Jess," Noah told him, determined. Jason had learned to leave these things to Noah, he he stood back, hoping for the best.
"Sorry, that- that's not possible."
"She's... well... they need to do more tests to make sure-"
"I'm tired of this shit. You present this place like a damn haven, yet you get our people killed and put the others in solitary confinement. We want to see her. Now. Or I'll ask you to release all of us together."
"I-" Shaun didn't know what to do with that. People actually [i wanting] to be outside the walls? He couldn't imagine. "I'll see what I can do, but-"
Noah's face made him realize that there weren't going to be any 'buts'.
He turned away to talk into his communicator. "We've got a situation in here. They want to see the woman in confinement. I fear a fight might break out if we don't give him what he wants. If she's to be..." he looked over his shoulder, making sure the two of them couldn't hear him before he continued. "If she'd going to be... terminated... what should we do?"
Andrew reset the three samples into the infection scanner and programmed a long-term auto scan. It would only take twenty more hours for the remainder of the scan to determine if the infection within the positive sample was metastasized to the blood cells, giving an indication that the infection was likely to take hold and soon. The others he left to make sure there wasn't any dormancy. Even if there was, scans were held regularly every two weeks for all residents in the safe zone in waves, so there was ample precaution to protect from inside infection. They couldn't risk such a think like that. Not here.
Andrew had a chance to breathe. That was pretty much his only assignment for the day, considering that he already used up most of his energy planning out the upgrades that would be necessary in the hospital. It would be a near-endless task for him, considering he was one of few with the expertise necessary, and more people than necessary answered to him on those matters. It made him uncomfortable to think of himself as any sort of superior considering he hadn't even been there any amount of months, but his skills gave him power for once.
The outside wind bit harshly at his skin as Andrew remembered how bad the weather was. Spending the entirety of the day in a hospital with generators pouring out enough energy to turn the place into a low heat furnace was enough to make someone forget about the bitter cold outside. Grabbing a jacket and re-lacing his boots to fit tighter, Andrew headed back to the residential sector at a slow gait.
As he walked through the small buildup of snow that threatened to slip him, he thought over the infection reading of the day. It was the first in a good week or two, just when everyone was starting to get a little hopeful that maybe the infection had a lifespan of some sort. They hoped for it to be over, when Andrew knew far better than to hope for something like that. As long as it had more bodies to inhabit, it wouldn't be over for a long time.
Something in the distance caught Andrew's eye as he passed in front of the School on his way to the residential sector—something glinting weakly from the street lamp light, half covered by clear melting snow. He went over to pick it up, and he could make it out as a small data disc from the School itself. However, the sharpie writing on he top surface had smudged greatly from the saturation of the snow and was illegible, with the underside of the disc bearing a multitude of small scratches. He looked around for someone—anyone who could have dropped the disc, but it there wasn't very much of anyone nearby who was even walking the path. Giving up his brief look-around, he pocketed the disc and kept moving.
It wasn't much longer before Andrew reached the clustered apartments that housed not nearly enough people as it should, especially considering how long it took for everyone to make sure that the safe zone had safe living quarters—or so he heard. He wasn't all that certain how sturdy the buildings were given the quality of the resources they seemed to have been salvaging lately, but he couldn't exactly call their "expertise" into question. After all, computers and engineering was his thing, not architecture and construction. Still, once inside, he felt tremendously better.
Since Andrew hadn't been in the safe zone long, he hadn't had the time to really work on making the place feel like something he could call home. What he had for furniture was bare, and he pretty much only had a bed and a few shelves that weren't torn from the walls to be salvaged, as well as a dilapidated old armoire that looked as though it would tip over at the slightest shake. Inside was a meager set of clothing that Andrew simply rotated through day by day. Washings were weekly, only to maintain a level of sound hygiene. But there was one thing he was glad for as he headed through the empty living room past the bedroom.
Running watter in the bathroom. And not just running water. Heated water.
It was something that was only reestablished recently in the safe zone. When he had got there, a salvage team had found the last parts to finish repairing several water heaters across the safe zone. Since they didn't want any infighting to start around the safe zone, no water heaters had been fully restored to working order quite yet. And for the few days that Andrew had been there, he lived with the wonder of naturally heated water in the midst of the blistering heat. There was good timing in those repairs, as the cold began to roll in in waves not long after.
Andrew peeled off his clothes and stepped into the shower, letting the warm water wash the sweat from his skin. It was a much needed luxury at the time being, and Andrew couldn't deny life would be hard without it. He found himself briefly wondering if they people he tested for infection today would have access to the water, or if they had to go without.
Those thoughts opened the floodgate for concerns. Andrew was lucky enough to have not been conducting many infection tests since his arrival, and all of his have been negative for infection. Though he knew the protocol and what was expected of him, he couldn't stifle his concern for whoever came in with infection signs. There was the obvious delusional characteristics that were attibuted to the infected subject, but after that, he wasn't sure what would happen.
All he knew was that if it came to it, the people of the safe zone would have to protect themselves. They would have to execute the infected.
[size40 [center ~] ]
Morning hit harder than Andrew wanted, and a wave of drowziness so difficult to overcome gave the morning such a melancholic feel. The world lacked color, lacked joy, and was overall draining. As if on autopilot, Andrew went to his assigned station. Since he did conduct the last infection test, he had to do check ups on the overnight scan. And when he saw the blinking lights on the machine and the blue exclamation points, he heaved a sigh, although he wasn't sure if it was out of the relief he wanted to feel or the exhaustion that was already characterizing the day.
On his earpiece, he made the call. [b "Suspected infected subject confirmed. Awaiting schedule for execution or call for further examination."]
Those who brought them their food was the last they saw of anybody for quite some. The three survivors seemed to have calmed down a bit. They would properly mourn the dead when they got a chance, but now it was time to breathe. The room blocked out all noise, and Jess was growing antsy. She started to hum the way she did. There was no particular tune, just low notes filling the air to ward away the uncanny silence.
It was warming up in the small room, so Noah removed his coat and decided to stretch out across the chairs on his side of the room. He used his jacket as a pillow, letting Jess's song fill his conscious so nothing else could snake its way in. There was no use wondering and panicking about what may come. They simply had to wait it out. Noah decided it was a good opportunity to get some more shut eye. He would take it whenever he could nowadays.
His nap was interrupted, however, when the large door swung open, creaking ominously. Noah sat up quickly, suddenly regretting using the chairs as a bed. His back felt terrible now, but that was the least of his worries. The two men from before were back. They were listening to the voice in their earpieces, which Noah had failed to notice earlier.
"Alright, you," the one with the clipboard said and pointed to Noah, then to Jason, "and you. Come with us."
"What about my mom?" Jason asked, standing suddenly. His chest puffed out as if he might fight them off if they refused to let her come with. Noah stood as well, grabbing his coat before putting a hand on the boy's shoulder to make him back off.
"You two look clean, but we need to look at her more closely before deciding anything," they told him.
"Then I'm staying with her!"
"Sorry. Can't allow it. You'll be moving into your new home. If all goes well, you mom will be meeting you there in a few hours."
"If all goes well?" Noah asked. They didn't provide an answer. They simply ushered them out of the room. Jess managed to give her son a brave kiss before they parted.
They followed the men out of the room and though the large, open building that sat right on the fence. Noah pulled on his coat once more, feeling the chill through the walls once more. He hated this cold. It never used to get this bad before the war. Now, suddenly, the earth didn't know what to do with itself. This winter seemed colder and longer than any other he'd witnessed in his life.
As if to prove his point, they could hardly open up the large door that led into the quarantine zone. The wind howled, sending new snow into the crack they managed to open. The two alone were obviously not going to manage. The one wouldn't even set down his clipboard to get more leverage. So, Noah grabbed the door to help. It was easy, then. It slid open and out they trekked into the oncoming blizzard.
"I'm Shaun," said the man with the clipboard. "And this is my partner, Derek. Our jobs are to make you comfortable in your new home. We make sure you have everything you need. We're also charged with... well... making sure you understand the rules of this place."
"Jess... Why does she need more analyzing?" Noah asked, ignoring all his previous speech.
Shaun just shrugged. "We don't ask questions. Lux tells us what to do when it comes to all the machinery. We're kind of hopeless without him. Her test might have come up positive. Or just iffy. It's rare, but it happens. I'm sure he'll figure it out."
"And if she does come up positive?" Noah asked. There was no reply.
Noah knew he wasn't going to get answers from them. They probably didn't even [i know] the answers. He looked around the streets, seeing signs from the past as they walked. Some military trucks were still active and Noah could see them through the alleyways as they drove by. There were other people, too. Kids came pouring out of a house, all bundled up and bouncing home.
"That there is the makeshift school, since we're using the actual one for other means," Shaun said, gesturing to the children. "We don't have that many kids here yet anyway."
The sight was strange. It was the most normal thing Noah could remember seeing in these past years. The kids even looked happy... These people... They had no idea what was out there. The thought terrified Noah. But also gave him a sense of hope.
"Here we are," Shaun said as they approached an old house. The siding was coming off, but other than that, it looked like the war hadn't touched it. Shaun opened the door and they all huddled inside. A fire was already going in the fireplace. Pillows and blankets were set up on the couch, not as necessity, but as decoration. It all felt so odd.
Noah took a long look around. The kitchen looked like his from before... There was a bathroom, a bedroom, and Shaun told him that there were two more rooms upstairs.
"We were getting this place ready for you while your blood was being analyzed," Derek told them, proudly. Noah just nodded.
"When can we speak to- whoever you said was in charge?"
"Who? Lux? Oh he's not in charge. Andrew Lux is just the analyzer. We don't have one person in charge here. We have a sort of... council, if you will," Shaun replied.
"When will we find out about my mom?" Jason asked. He hadn't moved a foot since they entered the house.
"In time. Well... We'll let you get comfortable here. If you need anything, the help center is on the corner of the street. Big sign out front. Can't miss it."
And with that the two of them turned and left, leaving Jason and Noah alone with nothing but the sound of the crackling fire.
"We'll wait an hour," Noah said, reading Jason's mind. "Then we'll demand answers about Jess." The kid seemed to be alright with that plan. Jason finally took a seat on the couch.
"This place would be nice if they didn't seem like- I don't know," he mumbled.
Noah nodded. "Like they're hiding something?"
Jason only nodded...
It wasn't long after everything was set up in the quarantine ward that the blood samples were delivered. Written in the usual scrawl of the nurse-going-on-doctor that took the samples, Andrew had a bit of a difficult time trying to determine the names on the vials. He could make out the name Nick, but not the last name in the half-cursive scribble. There was also what looked like a Jake, Jakel or Jacob, and wasn't really sure what it could be until he saw the age. [i Probably Jake or Jacob,] he commented to himself as he wrote it down on the test logs. And the last one was a bit more legible, spelling out "Jess" in a flourish.
Once they were all documented in the log, he prepped the samples, taking a dropper to take no more than three drops from each vial into their respective slots on the infection scanner and then closing the port. The screen asked for which programmed anomaly to scan for, and once he selected the anomaly and the scanner did a systems check, it gave him a time of completion.
[b "Scan will be completed in four. Will update on—"] The scanner cut him off, beeping about an early anomaly detection. [b "Strange..."] he muttered to himself. It was rare that it ever did something like this, but he couldn't really be surprised. If they were high risk of infection, simply being near one could present early anomalies, but with the detailed scanning that the machine could give, it would determine whether it was a bonded infection anomaly or simply one in the blood due to temporary airborne exposure. Still, he had to be more safe than sorry.
[b "Pre-scan indicates potential possibility of anomaly present. I suggest separating the three individuals until scan is complete."] He received a confirmation on the other end of the com line as he set the machine on auto-scan while he checked up on the other things. Hopefully, it was just a misread. The scan would make sure of that.
[center [size40 ~] ]
Andrew reentered the quarantine ward after his brief break. He had spent his time working on upgrading a lot of the outdated equipment that the safe zone had in the hospital. They were all careful enough that most medical attention required was minor, but he knew they wouldn't be so lucky for long. Tensions were still high despite them all being so long into an end-of-the-world feeling. People were anxious and beyond the end of their nerves, and when that happened, mistakes tended to be made. It wouldn't be long.
The frustrating thing was the lack of resources available to the safe zone. Everything they had had to be salvaged from the outside or stolen from passers-by. He wasn't all that fond of knowing of the casualties that tended to come with such "retrieval" parties, but whatever helped their survival, he had to be more or less okay with on some level. After all, if they couldn't find resources, they couldn't survive. But with the latest delivery, they'd soon have enough to repair a lot of the MRI and CT-scanners in the radiology ward of the slowly rehabilitating hospital. That is, if they could guarantee the structural integrity of the hospital itself first.
The scanner showed a few more minutes of time left on the display. Setting down the bottle of water, he logged into the screen and looked up the stats scanned so far. As it seemed, the scans were coming up more or less clean aside from the earlier anomaly. He checked it to make sure it was what he expected, and it was. The screen displayed an exclusion of the early anomaly as a bonded blood infection, which was good. It meant that it wasn't infected.
[b "Scans almost complete. Looks like all are..."] The scanner interrupted with a rapid beeping, seconds before the completion. [b "Wait. One is coming up positive. Let me check. Hold off on release."] He waited for the lock to disengage before he opened the sample port. Two sample tags came up, each with a stamp marked "clear". One was the name he could barely read, but could remember it well enough to see that it was the Jake/Jacob one. But the other was smudged from the heat applied to the sample, so much that it all blended together.
[b "Can we get someone with better handwriting to write these?"] he said, half to himself and half to whomever was on the other line of the com line. A mumbled "sorry" came through on his ear as he went to the screen to bring up the tag of the infected sample. As the mechanism delivered the sample, he spoke. [b "The one named Jake or Jacob is clean. He's good to go. There other sample that's good is..."] He read the writing on the other sample, relieved it was legible. Still, he hated to have to say it.
[b "Nick. He's clean, as well. We're going to need to quarantine Jess for further analysis."]
It seemed like an eternity that they were stuck in that room. With nothing but the sound of his own heartbeat in his ears, he waited. That was all they could do. Wait and see what was to become of them.
It was only in this moment that it occurred to Noah that this might have been a trap. Perhaps these people weren't friendly at all. But something about that prospect didn't feel right to him. They sure went to a lot of trouble for just a few guns and the clothes on strangers backs. Depending on when this place was taken from the government, they should have enough provisions for years. And if that was so, why did they need to lead people here to seal what they had?
To pass the time, Noah looked around the plain room to see what he could conclude about the place. There wasn't much, except for the lights, which he had noticed upon entering. It was hard not to notice the blaring artificial lights when you'd been stuck with only the sun and campfires for years. The only thing his weak detective skills could conclude was that this place still had power.
Finally, after Noah was sure they had been forgotten, the large door creaked open on its heavy hinges. Two men entered, both wearing strangely normal attire.
"Hello," one of them said awkwardly. "We're going to ask that you hand over your weapons before we start."
"Start what?" Noah asked, his patience had grown thin in the time he was stuck in that room. "We haven't been told a damn thing about this place. We didn't even know it existed until we happened upon it."
This seemed to surprise the two men. "Well, uh, we're a- It's a community. We have families here, now. Healthy families. Everyone is safe here. This place was built to withstand... well... everything."
"Everything?" Noah asked, raising his eyebrows. "That's a broad description."
"Look, they can tell you more once you're inside. Right now, we just need you to remove all your weapons, and then we'll get some blood samples to test if you're infected."
"We're not infected." Noah said.
"I'm sure, but we've just got to check."
Noah stood, which startled the men, but he was only reaching for the gun in his belt. He handed it over. Then another. And then his knives. They searched him for any more- a precaution, they said- before moving onto the mother and her kid. Once everyone was weapon free, they were asked to sit and remove their coats.
"You know what you're doing?" Noah asked, as he rolled up a dirty sleeve so they could take a blood sample.
"I was a nurse, before... Well, you know." The man told him. Noah couldn't imagine this man being a nurse, but an apocalypse had a way of distorting images, it seemed. Noah never thought he'd be here, that's for sure.
He felt the needle break skin, saw the small vial being filled, and before he knew it it was over. He rolled his sleeve down while the nurse moved to the other two.
"What's your name, sir?" the other man asked. He hadn't noticed the clipboard in his hands until now.
"Noah," he answered. "Noah Hendricks."
"Uh..." Noah shook his head. How old [i was] he? He hadn't really thought about it in at least three or four years, and it's not like he had a calendar to remind himself. "Thirty-five? Thirty-six? Why does that matter?" he asked.
"We just like to have a basic knowledge of who we're letting in here," the man replied. "And who are these?" he gestured toward the woman and her son, who was getting his blood drawn. "You wife and son?"
Noah almost laughed, despite the situation. "No, no. That's Jess. And her son Jason. There would be more here if that idiot kid didn't draw the infected in so close."
"As I said, Mister Hendricks, we assure he is being dealt with."
"That's not good enough. My people [i died]," he said, raising his voice. "And don't fucking 'mister' me. Have you taken a look around?"
"Noah," he heard a small voice say. He turned to look at Jess and she shook her head, as if to say that the fight wasn't worth it. He supposed that were true. The three of them were here now. The three of them had survived. There was no way to change the past, but at least they were still there.
Once they had finished their job, they headed to the door. The man with the clipboard turned around, just before closing them back inside. "Lunch is being prepared. Someone will send some food your way in a few minutes. In the meantime, we'll test your blood and get back to you."
Then they were gone. Did they really think that he had any appetite at all? That eating would somehow make up for the death of half his group? That anger subsided, though, when sandwiches arrived. One bite, and Noah realized just how hungry he was. He promised himself that eating this did not mean he was forgetting what had happened. But he couldn't deny that it was the best sandwich he'd ever tasted in his life.
The ground stung when Andrew hit it rolling, the world a blur as he desperately scrambled for some sort of way to halt himself on the rough ground. Loose gravel scratched at his skin as he slowly came to a halt against the decrepit husk of a convenience store. Heavy waves of heat washed over him from the last-ditch attempt at survival, carrying with it the smell of burnt rubber and burning flesh.
Andrew scrambled for purchase against the wall, lifting himself up to survey the scene and see if he was safe yet. The nearby gas station was less of a blaze than it was seconds ago, the gas-accelerated fire quickly losing whatever fuel it could manage to ignite. And with it was a handful of the diseased bodies that attacked it were little more than crispy corpses.
Andrew let go of his held breath, heaving a sigh of relief at his sense of safety. The breath was cut short by a heaving cough at the heady scent of gasoline and burnt flesh. Despite the pain and difficulty, he felt able to breathe a bit easier with the familiar silence of being alone. With a bit of a limp in his step, Andrew walked over to the other side of wall to a set of controls by the checkout counter. Under the counter, he found the emergency gas shut-off valve and turned the lever. Outside, the fire died down considerably with the source of fuel cut off, reduced to little more than a campfire and Andrew could see clearly the damage done.
As the smoke wafted gradually into the sky, a scorched skeleton of a jeep sat on its side, tires a melted mess and the insides half melted and half torn. The bodies surrounded it, roughly five, all laid flat on the ground. The gas station was a scar of twisted metal warped by the force of the gas buildup. Needless to say, it worked.
Andrew rigged it after his hijacked jeep got jumped by the...things. He had come here to see if he could siphon some fuel to keep the jeep going and stumbled across someone laying there, almost dead, a stack of posters flying off in the growing breeze. Before he could go to help, he heard them coming, ambling down the streets he thought deserted moments before. He ran into the convenience store to hide and saw the release valve under the counter, as well as a few matches on the ground from someone's sloppy looting. The rest was his only way of making sure he wasn't taken by those things.
With the danger averted, Andrew grabbed a bat he found near the valve and walked outside. Though he knew they guy was dead by now, he wanted to see what brought him all the way over here. Despite a lot of the posters having been reduced to ashes, Andrew found a few fluttering in the wind and managed to grab one. On it was an advertisement for a government safe zone. Andrew would have discarded it had it not been for the black scrawling at the bottom that read [b "RECLAMED BY THE PEOPLE"]. Ignoring the misspelling, it looked like a good place to go to. After all, where else would Andrew go?
[center [size40 ~] ]
Andrew paced. It had been hours of him knocking, calling out, checking what he could of the perimeter for other signs of life. He couldn't hear anything behind the tall iron walls, and the wind was picking up, gaining a chill to it. [i Another freak weather storm,] Andrew mused to himself. It wasn't the best time. He had lost what he had for cold weather back at the gas station when he was traveling in warmer climates. If it got too cold or even stormed, he would be done for.
Climbing the wall wasn't an option. The smooth, iron surface had jagged folds and crevices that wouldn't give a hand much purchase so much as it would cut it cleanly from where it connected. And there was nothing salvageable laying about outside the walls. They were kept clean and unassuming, which only led Andrew to assume someone was here—at least recently.
He couldn't find a door either, other than the main gate he approached in the late evening. The gate was solid, didn't budge when pushed or even make a hollow banging sound when he tried to knock on it. It was impassable.
The wind picked up stronger, knocking off the baseball cap that Andrew wore loosely over his head, making his hair whip around briefly. As he turned to fetch it, he heard the sound of guns cocking, and before he had the opportunity to see where it was coming from, the butt of a rifle struck the back of his head, knocking him out.
[center [size40 ~] ]
Waking up as like a dream. The walls were white. The floors were white. Sunlight came in bright through the cracked windows. There wasn't much in the room besides the mattress that Andrew slept on, and the makeshift jail-cell walls that cut the room in half. On the other side? An infection detector, with two guys bickering over it.
Andrew could barely make out what they were saying, other than the fact that they were fighting over how the machine works. One had the tone of voice that he was assuredly and infallibly right about how it works, while the other didn't seem so confident of the other's voice.
It took him a great few moments of listening to the argument for him to gather a sense of comprehension of what was going on. Neither of them knew how the machine worked, but Andrew did.
[i "And what do you know about this shit?"] the sure-of-himself one said once Andrew spoke up about them being wrong. Andrew cringed at the language. It might have not been the best way to approach the subject, but if they were thinking of scanning him the way they were suggesting, Andrew would be dead very soon.
[b "It's a sample scanner. You don't put a lot of the blood into the port, only some drops [i after] you mix in the indicator. Although, it might not work unless you get a solid power source connected and the ventilation cleaned."] Andrew pointed weakly to an unhinged power port with the cord only loosely plugged in. The ventilation itself was dusty and grimy with dried blood and what looked like some sort of mold. [b "With what you have, testing would take days. With something solid and stable and clean, it can use just enough power to finish in maybe a day or so."]
Andrew was afraid they wouldn't heed his advice, but both of them raised a hand to their ears before holding back their counter-arguments. [i Earpieces. They have a communication system here,] Andrew thought. He was in the safe zone, that much he was certain of. Finally.
[center [size40 ~] ]
[b "The machines are ready for the day,"] Andrew said, mostly to himself. There were others around, following his protocols for the testing equipment, but none of them were within earshot of his voice. Though he wasn't there when they secured the location as a safe zone reclaimed from the government, he was one of few that had a technical mind that could learn to operate the testing equipment. After all, he was promptly assigned there after passing inspection.
The safe zone itself was a what was left of a town. There was a residential sector in which people were assigned housing based on what they could do; a government office in which some sort of council-like group decided what was best for everyone's survival; a storage facility that was used to preserve what resources they had; a school which had been converted into something no one was really allowed into; and something like a hospital in which Andrew stood, prepping the infection detector for the day ahead. The worn and crumbling buildings were all clustered close together, huddled close as if they gathered in fear of the outside world. The walkways were narrow and riddled with cracks and holes. The safe zone didn't really look safe.
But it didn't look any different than when Andrew arrived weeks ago, and such was the case when people were more focused on getting the place in working condition than making it pretty. The way things worked there is that everyone who was let in was assigned temporary occupations. Some rotated, some stayed where they were unless there were others that could fill the slot. As it stood, Andrew was stuck on his assignment at the hospital, operating the machinery and seeing if anything was salvageable. He was one of few with a technical mind for it.
[i "Three coming in today. High risk of infection. En route to quarantine ward. Check in at location, Lux."] The communication cut off in his ear before he could respond and he gave a last look around at the trainees. They had things down from here, and so he made his way down. On the way, he pulled out the second half of the earpiece, a device that looked like the bottom half of a flip cell phone. A number dialed led to a different voice. [b "On my way. Have blood samples prepped and labeled. And let's get some names on these ones. Last time we had none. Thank goodness infection scans came back negative for all of them."]
Andrew keyed a code on the quarantine ward main entrance and the door unlocked. He hesitated for a moment. Hopefully, there wasn't an infected in this group.
A fire crackled in a waste basket as a rat cooked above it, skewered with a branch. Noah Hendricks took a swig of his canteen and swished it about his mouth. They all sat there in silence, looking at the fire. They had covered up the windows with whatever they could spare so the infected wouldn't see it and be drawn to them like moths to the flame.
Noah took a look at the group. They were a good group of people and they took him in when he was injured. Three men, two women, and a kid. Well, Noah called him a kid. When you got to Noah's age, anyone under 20 was a kid. In truth, the boy was 17, good with a rifle, but was rather quiet. He couldn't blame him for that. Everyone had to be quiet these days.
Noah was born and raised in Arkansas, and he was sure that by now he would have gotten the hell out of dodge, but somehow, in the eight years after the bombing, he remained there. Some people said California wasn't so bad. Some said the east coast. But they were just rumors of rumors and Noah was sure that none of them held any truth. So they only followed what they knew to be true: their group. They moved by day and camped by night. The crazed seemed to like the darkness, but they all found out eventually that they wouldn't shy away from the light to tear at your flesh.
Noah picked under his nails with his knife. Half of them were asleep by now. They'd been holed up in this school for a week now. Noah was getting antsy. They shouldn't stay in one place too long, he had told them. But it was comfortable and warm here. [i Tomorrow], he'd say. But tomorrow came and went and he said the same every day since. He meant it this time. If he had to force their asses through the door, so be it.
[center [pic https://40.media.tumblr.com/968263ce27214a88bf19d1ea8917b787/tumblr_np0scvT5vI1qewgtco1_500.jpg]]
The next morning, Noah was shaken awake by the kid. He had taken the second watch and Noah had told him to wake him as soon as the sun rose. He nodded at him, sitting up and running a hand down his face. His beard was a forest, but he was glad of it. It kept his face warm when they went outside. And they'd have to go outside today.
He woke them all and let them all eat the leftover rat before he broke the news. No one questioned Noah. Somewhere along the road he had gone from newcomer to leader of the group. They seemed to trust his judgement, even if they didn't agree.
Noah gathered his things, bundling up as best he could. But two coats wasn't even enough to block out the icy wind once he stepped outside. Their boots crunched in the snow as they began their trek. There wasn't much else to do other than walk. When they grew thirsty, they sucked on snow. When they got hungry, they ate it. It was better than wasting provisions. They'd save what was in their packs for the next time they found camp. Which was going to be surprisingly sooner rather than later.
It wasn't mid-afternoon before they stumbled across an old quarantine zone. They had started these up after the war, hoping to hope that it would do some good. He'd seen many in the past years. None of them were still up and running.
But he had second thoughts about that when they tried to push their way though the door, hoping there might still be food or clothes or [i something] inside. The large, double doors connected to the fifteen foot walls creaked, but they didn't open. It'd be a lot to pass up if no one had gotten in before. Noah tried to see if he could climb the fence, but he took one move and head the cock of a gun. Several guns. He turned around. There were six of them. Six on six. [i Fifty-fifty chance], he thought.
"We don't want to shoot you," one of them said. "We actually want to let you in. But there's precautions."
"Let us in?" Noah asked, his breath creating a warm cloud.
"You... you're not here because of the posters?"
"We've been directing survivors here from all over. This zone is still active. Not run by the government anymore, but-"
"I hope not," Noah said. His group just watched him.
There was a long silence, then, "How many are with you? It is just you, or?"
"Just us," Noah said.
"Any of you infected?"
"Then come with us," the man in charge said, and they finally lowered their weapons. "There's a side entrance we have to take you through."
"Why?" Noah asked, motioning for the rest to follow him. He wasn't sure if he trusted these people here, but at least they had their backs to them.
"We got the generators up and running. The equipment- well, it'll tell us if someone is infected."
They reached a smaller set of doors that led directly into a building and the leader knocked on them. There was no reply. He knocked again. "Dammit, if he fell asleep again." He knocked harder.
"How long have you been in this place?" Noah asked him, quietly.
"Basically since everything started. Well, not the war, but the aftermath. HEY! Open up!"
"Then you don't really know what's out here do you?" Noah said in an urgent whisper.
"Seen a thing or two," the man said. Noah realized only then that he was hardly more than a kid. He turned back to the door. "JAMES. WAKE UP."
Noah grabbed him by the collar, turned him around, and slammed him against the doors. Everyone drew their weapons on each other then, but no one shot. "You yell one more time and I'll make sure you never talk again, you get me?" Noah asked through gritting teeth. "These things are attracted by noise, so if there's any close by, they'll have heard you."
"I-! I didn't know!"
"Why are they sending you out here?"
"They- they didn't. I wanted to prove myself. They said I couldn't but-"
They were right," Noah said.
One of his group called his name then, and he turned around to find a group crazed coming from the woods. They were humanoid, but fast, with lengthened bodies, mutated for speed and agility. They foamed at the mouth. Noah had stopped wondering what they looked like before...
Guns started going off left and right, but it was too late for three of the strangers. Noah managed to save one of his people, but in that same second, one of the crazed at grabbed another and slammed him into the ground, breaking his neck.
The kid soldier started banging on the door once again. Noah could smell piss and bile. They heard the chains rattling on the other side of the door. Someone was coming. But it wasn't fast enough. Three more of his people were left bleeding and dying and none of the fake soldiers but for the coward were alive. The door opened just wide enough to let them slip through.
Once inside, all of them were pushing at the door. The fingers of the monsters worked their way into the door, but Noah pulled out his knife and had his way with them. Finally, the door shut and the man from inside went to locking it up again.
Noah didn't have time to breathe. Instead he looked around. Only two people from his group were left: the 17 year-old and his mother. Noah put his back to the door, the crazed still trying to get inside. Nobody moved. They just tried not to imagine the bodies of the people they once trusted lying outside.
The strangers seemed to be arguing. The young one was crying, the man who opened the gate was yelling at him. Noah didn't hear what he was saying, though. The shock still hadn't worn off. Had he made the wrong decision leading them out? Was he the reason most of them were dead?
Someone was helping him up and leading him into a small room, the other two not far behind. The room was white and plain. There was no furniture except for eight metal chairs lining the walls. They were told to sit. And they did.
They waited. And waiting. And after the silence stretched on too long, the kid spoke. "What's going to happen to us? What if they lied?"
"He wasn't lying," Noah said, trying to find his voice. "That kid was too stupid to lie." The teen held onto his mother like he was a child again. He could tell they were both in shock. Moreso than he was.
Noah put his head in his hands, willing the tears not to come. Not now. He'd save his breakdown for later. All he managed to muster was a muffled, "I'm so sorry." Whether it was to the two beside him or his dead group outside, or even to himself, he wasn't sure.
All they could do now was wait...
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