“I can’t believe you brought her here.” There was a tremor to his voice, a hard edge that revealed his rage.
“Neither can I.” I said quietly, placing my hand carefully over his. “But I… I believe her.”
“I’ll kill her, Charlie. I wasn’t just talking.”
I didn’t answer. We both knew it wasn’t just talk.
“What’s with the… Are they soldiers?” I asked finally.
“Yeah.” Jay’s voice had evened out, softened. He pulled my hand to his lips and just stared at me for a long time. “Well, kind of. From what we can tell, they had some time to prepare here. There are a lot more of us. The soldiers are a mix of cops, army, that kind of thing.”
“They know we’re here?”
“Yeah. We were so exhausted when we got here we let our guard down, fell asleep. They were checking the houses and found us.” He picked the pistol up and clicked the safety on. “They asked if we were armed and we lied. I think they would have taken it otherwise, for themselves.”
“What do they check for?” Once again the world had spun on me, changed the rules. I wanted answers, to understand. To belong somewhere.
Jay shrugged. “We’re not sure. We’ve seen them take some injured guys, to the hospital I guess. You have to be pretty badly beaten up though, and if you’ve even come close to being bitten, forget it. We’re not too sure what they do to you then, but… Well…”
I could fill in the blanks.
“Ken and I went to the hospital, just for a look. You can’t really get anywhere near it unless they want you to. They seem pretty worried about stuff like that. They only run the generator sometimes. Too bad if you were on life support,” It started as a joke, but fell flat as the words fell around us.
People. Power. Authority.
I felt dazed, struck by the stark difference in our reality since I’d seen Jay last. I sank back in my chair, freeing my hand from his, hugging myself.
“So what now?” I asked, searching his eyes.
“Rachel changes the plan.”
“She can help.”
“Sure. Maybe.” Another glimpse of his rage. “I need some time to think about it.”
It was a topic we would revisit, I knew. Right now I could feel sleep calling me, beckoning my eyelids to droop, a searching yawn escaping my lips.
“What else happened out there?” He had sunk back in his own chair now, exhausted worry lines creasing his face, a mirror of my own.
“I don’t even know where to begin.” I ran a shaky hand through my matted, filthy hair. I remembered the medical lab, the notes I’d taken. It all seemed like a lifetime ago, but I dug them out from my pack, spreading them out on the table. “I took these from the labs in town.”
“Why did you – ?”
“I just… I guess I had to.” I raised a hand, interrupting him. “There was so many of them… They were sleeping all around it. Like it was their home.”
Jay shuddered. “They sleep?”
“Apparently…” I remembered Lisa. The way she called for me. Recognised me. “I saw one of the girls we went to school with. Lisa.”
“I kind of remember her,” Jay said, slowly. “Why didn’t she come with you?”
I laughed. It was a horrible, choked sound, completely unlike any noise I’d ever uttered before. I shook my head, myself. Trying to collect my wits, find my sanity. “She was one of them. I locked her in a room and left her there.”
I could see the look of horror creeping into his expression.
“She knew me,” The words fell out of my mouth, falling in a heap between us. “She called my name. But she… I couldn’t kill her. I just couldn’t.”
“Hey,” Jay said softly, reaching out for my hands again, “it’s okay. You’re here, you made it.”
“I don’t think we have any idea what we’re dealing with. I didn’t read all these notes, but… They sleep. They talk. They remember.”
“Who remembers?” Laura asked suddenly. She was standing in the doorway, looking half a dozen years older than when I’d last seen her. She moved to pull up a chair beside Jay, squeezing my shoulder reassuringly on her way past.
I hesitated, doubting myself, doubting what I’d seen. Had exhaustion played a trick on me? I could still hear Lisa’s voice, a mocking call in my ear, a vivid memory.
As I paused, Ken entered the room, followed cautiously by Rachel.
“The zombies.” I said finally, my voice low and uncertain. “I saw one, one we used to know. She knew my name.”
“How?” Laura and Rachel had spoken at the same time, their voices subdued, shocked.
“We knew they could talk,” Ken interrupted, his voice even, rational. I found it comforting. “I’m not sure this is so different.”
“They can talk?” Rachel cried, forgetting her wariness of Jay for a moment.
“Some of them,” Jay said, his tone bordering on a snap.
She sat down, hard, in the chair beside me. “None of them… I mean, none ever got to the compound. I didn’t know… They couldn’t do that before.”
“We think they might be learning.” Ken said.
“Whatever this thing is,” I continued, picking through the paperwork, “someone created it. I took these from the lab… They’re observations, notes. Comparisons between specimen.”
“Jesus Christ. People made this?” Jay picked up part of the paperwork, weary eyes travelling over each line of medical lingo.
“They were trying to make it stronger. And it worked – they couldn’t hold the last ones in. They weren’t ready.” I found the paper I was looking for and read aloud. “ ‘TS037 infection successful with strain developed from TS036.’ ”
“Thirty-seven?” Laura asked, leaning towards the paperwork. “Thirty-seven … what?”
“People.” I said, dropping the notes. “These were all people. I don’t know what happened to the others, before thirty-six and seven.”
“Jesus.” Jay muttered. “They – what the hell is that?”
But I heard it now too. Jay and I had both stood, and now hurried to the front of the house to look out the windows.
They flew overheard in the morning light. Aircraft I didn’t recognise, but that buzzed through the air, dark and angry.
“Military…” Ken stood beside us, frowning up at the sky. “They’re headed towards home.”
We stood watching until they disappeared from view, screaming rapidly towards what had been home.
It felt like only seconds passed, but it must have been longer. We had just been about to discuss what we’d seen, after a moment of silent thoughts.
The answers to our unspoken questions ricocheted around us, the earth around us rumbling violently. In the distance, blast after blast peppered the horizon.
Outside the house, the street exploded with activity. The yells of the soldiers, their pounding feet as they ran, gathering on the street. They had been kept in the dark about this, just like us.
“Holy shit,” Jay gasped. “They’re bombing the city.”