2: Zombie Leza Returns
Thomas and Fredrick entered the meeting hall, only to discover the building was packed. It seemed everyone was there. Not just the men in their off-hours, but nursing mothers, small children, as well as those normally tending crops or doing research. Hell, he saw several of the guards supposedly keeping watch. Since Leza removed her ... people, the area surrounding the compound was clear. It went from thousands of the undead, packed shoulder to shoulder, to standing empty for the first time in years. As long as she didn’t change her mind, there was little to guard and little reason not to attend the vital meeting. The guards reported seeing an occasional zombie, but only in the distance, skirting the property as if searching for everyone else. If what Leza claimed was true, they might represent other zombies seeking her out, rather than hunting for food.
Almost as soon as they entered, the discussions halted. Everyone gathered in small groups, gossiping about what the others knew and what Leza’s arrival might imply. With Thomas there, they now focused on him. Fredrick only served a backup function, providing information regarding Leza’s claims.
“I’m glad you could all make it. I’m sure you know, this is a momentous event, which affects us all.”
“Get on with it. Some of us have work to get back to!”
Thomas cleared his throat, trying to get a feel for the room.
“We encountered someone who not only lives amongst zombies, but actually commun—”
“Yeah, yeah. We know the details. It’s all anyone can talk about. What we need to know is what we’re planning.”
“What are you offering to entice her to stay?”
Thomas took a moment to plan his approach. The room was actively confrontational, impatient, frustrated and wanting immediate solutions. They were prepared to pass judgment on anything he might propose. He needed to watch his step. “We’re still trying to determine what her motives are, what she wants. So far, all she’s requested are—”
“Rotten fruits and raw vegetables. We’re aware of the details, we’re hoping to hear specifics.”
“What’s she going to do with vegetables?” Red inquired. “I ain’t never seen no zombie eating nothing green. If she wants anything, they’ll want meat, bloody and preferably still breathing.”
“She’s given no indication that—”
“That’s why we need to figure out what she needs. If we wait for her to make demands, she’ll play us like schoolchildren.”
“She’s given no indication that’s her intent. Even if it was, frankly, I’d be glad to supply it. Hell, if she can provide even a few hours of undisturbed time outside, we could easily triple our output. Now, we’re feeding our livestock with rotting hay and they’re getting no exercise at all.”
“That’s how it starts,” Jefferson said, stepping forward. Like Leza, those gathered parted for him. Instead of demanding answers, they let him confront and challenge Thomas. He’d worked the crowd while Thomas checked facts, ensuring what Leza promised was legit.
“Once you start giving her live animals, she’ll keep asking for more. She’s got thousands of mouths to feed and they don’t need our refuse. We need the livestock for trade with the other groups. Without it, we won’t have access to weapons, electricity, gasoline or heat. What’s more, once she’s consumed everything we possess, she’ll leave, taking her undead to demand the same from our previous partners.”
Thomas leaned back, crossing his arms and meeting Jefferson’s challenging glare. “So what’s your proposal? Clearly you’ve already established a position, so why don’t we quit this pretense of wanting options. Is this a power play, an attempt to wrest control of the Collective? If so, what are you bringing to the table?”
Jefferson squared his shoulders, marching to the front, standing just before and slightly lower than Thomas. He turned, addressing the audience rather than Thomas. “I hold she’s playing one group off another, isolating them, getting them to trust her. She’ll then milk each with ever-increasing demands before descending on those left too weak to fight her hordes off. Our only chance is to stand firm and not cede control. She’s looking for our weaknesses so she can play on them. If we defy her, refusing to open our doors, she’ll grow bored and head for easier pickin’s.”
“That’s terrific logic,” Thomas said, stepping in before anyone could support Jefferson’s proposal. “Except she could overrun us now; there’s little reason to wait and little chance we could withstand either an outright attack or a blockade. Hell, if we can’t leave the compound, we’ll be losing people by the end of the week.”
“We can’t capitulate!” Jefferson argued, turning on his old and trusted friend.
“It won’t cost us anything, and we have everything to gain by playing along. While she gets to know us, we’ll get to know her. The odds are better we’ll find a mutual solution benefiting us both than we can successfully defend ourselves against her.”
“We don’t need to defend ourselves.” Jefferson insisted. “She’s a scam artist. She’s got a zombie army, but as any general can tell you, any army is only as strong as its supply lines. If you can’t feed your army, it collapses. If we refuse to play ball, she’s only got two options: attack and lose a significant amount of her army, gaining only enough to feed them for a short while, or leave to pick on an easier target.”
“And which target do you suggest? If your ploy succeeds—which seems unlikely—the other groups will either grow tremendously—without our assistance—or she’ll annihilate them leaving us without the necessary tools to survive. Either way, we’ll be worse off than if we work with her. Even if her terms work against us, at least we’ll know what we’re dealing with and learn her weaknesses. Hell, if she’s as bad as you claim; a single gunshot and her zombie army is leaderless. Without her, they’ll wander off after a few days like the zombie hordes always do.
“However, if we work together, we may become self-sufficient, strong enough to attract new members and build an efficient, independent community. At the least, we’ll learn more about how the dead function, allowing us to better control and anticipate their actions. I see little downside to giving her a few spare foodstuffs until we determine what she wants.”
Red leapt up, shaking his fist and advancing on the stage. “I’m telling you, nobody does nothin’ for nothin’. It takes a hell of a lot of grub to feed a damn army, and a starving army of zombies will be one mean, bloodthirsty bunch of savages.”
Thomas stepped from behind his podium, motioning with his arms for everyone to calm down. “Before we start getting into fights, let’s reflect on what we’ve been able to gather so far.”
“We already talked it to death,” someone from the back shouted.
“No, you’ve fed your assumptions, jumping to unsustainable conclusions.” Thomas turned and motioned his companion up. “Fredrick, can you step up and give everyone a rundown of what you’ve been able to make of Leza and her cohorts?”
Instead of climbing the stairs to the dais, Fredrick stopped between the other people, setting his cracked glasses on his face and smiling at everyone.
“Despite her outlandish claims, she appears to know what she speaks of. She understands which areas of the brain correspond to each area she labeled for the variations in her zombies’ abilities. Frankly, it’s the most fact-based explanation for their behavior I’ve heard. It’s the kind of research I’d love to do, but we’re too terrified of cutting open a zombie with a bone saw to discover for ourselves.”
“Stick to the facts,” Thomas reminded him.
“I still can’t figure out what she wants the fruits and veggies for. From her description, she’s not intending to feed her zombies with them. They must serve another purpose, though I can’t fathom what. All in all, her zombie pals seem to be in decent shape, healthier than those we normally encounter.”
“They’re better fed!” Red shouted. “Ask Leza who she’s fed them with.”
“No, no. I agree with Thomas,” Fredrick continued. “She’s given no indication she’s after food or supplies. Instead, she seems to have stumbled across us completely by accident.”
“That’s what she wants us to think, four-eyes!” Jefferson crowed. “Before the invasion, did you ever make it out of a lab?”
“Jefferson, please,” Thomas cautioned. “Let’s be civil about this! There’s no reason to make this personal. Your paranoia has aided us in the past, but now may be the time to consider all our options.”
“I’ve got a question,” Cynthia said, stepping forward. She was one of the younger women in the compound, and one of their best farm workers. She wore her long straight black hair in a thick ponytail, with wisps of hair sticking out around the edges of her face. “If she doesn’t need our help in feeding so many undead zombies, we need to ask why. If they can feed on something besides human flesh, maybe we can grow or raise it for them. If things don’t work out, we can always hunt it down and poison it. Either way, knowing what allows the enemy to multiply while we gradually dwindle might be worth any treasures we might collect from this.”
“See,” Thomas yelled, raising Cynthia’s hand over her head. “This is what I was trying to generate. Decent questions and suggestions to allow us to formulate an informed strategy, rather than hotheaded angst and bluster.” He threw his arm around her shoulder, guiding her up to the stage. “Do you have any other ideas which might be relevant to the discussion?”
“Bah! You people can’t see the writing on the wall,” Jefferson yelled before storming out with Red. About twelve people followed them out, taking much of their audience. A detail Thomas found reassuring.
The Collective’s warning bell clanged, and every head in the compound snapped alert. It was a behavior they’d learned years ago. Only this time, instead of ringing until everyone rallied, it only rang twice and was then muffled by someone holding the bell with their hands. The implications were clear to anyone listening.
Thomas, who’d been anxiously waiting for this moment, ran for the stairs, scaling the ladder. Once up, the guards blocked anyone else from ascending. Despite using it for years, no one ever thought to determine how much weight it could support. Even during a presumed all-out combat, they’d never envisioned everyone standing on the narrow ledge at once.
“Is it her?”
“It is,” Red answered, handing him the binoculars. Thomas glanced out, but the wall of undead, marching in a steady pace, was impossible to miss. “She’s wearing another sunny dress. This time it’s light green with yellow and red flowers. You couldn’t miss it if you tried.”
The small door in the front gate opened and two women ran out carrying a canvas sack. They stopped to look—no doubt to guess how much time they possessed—but were so stunned by the sight they stood motionless until finally shaking their heads. They dumped their contents a short distance from the main gate into two distinct piles. One of raw vegetables: beets, carrots, squash and cucumbers, the other fruits just starting to turn: apples, pears and plums. When they finished, they hurried back inside, bolting the door behind them.
They deposited the items outside at first light the morning after her first appearance, but neither she nor any solitary zombie ever showed. By the end of the first day, people became frazzled. “Maybe she’s not coming?” “I’ll bet she’s made arrangements with someone else.” “Do you think the zombies finally killed her?” The next day, they reluctantly collected most, but not all the goods, taking out new supplies each morning. Still, no one appeared to collect them.
“It’s been two full days. Where do you think she’s been?” Red asked.
“She’s obviously been negotiating with the other groups,” Jefferson said, stepping off the ladder. As their defense strategist and captain of the guard, Thomas could hardly restrict his access to the fortifications, despite his views on Leza. “As I warned, she’s playing one group off the other.”
“No, you said she’d keep us separated, destroying one before moving to the next,” Thomas corrected him, passing him the binoculars.
“The details aren’t important. She’s working to keep us isolated. I’ll guarantee, even if we could reach them, the other groups will refuse to work together now. Everyone’s drooling over what she offers.”
“Her gang seems larger, if it’s even possible,” Red whispered.
“She’s obviously merged with the other group who were here before,” Thomas observed.
“Not only that, she’s got them as well trained as her regular bunch,” Jefferson added.
“Whatever you maintain, she’s a damn miracle worker.”
Seeing the produce was secure and their defenses in place, Leza raised an arm, pointing it out. A group of zombies broke into a trot, running ahead. There were about twelve, of both sexes, and ran surprisingly fast, but at a measured pace, as if maintaining their strength. It took them a short time, during which every pair of eyes in the compound tried to observe them through the various firing positions. The guards allowed individuals, one or two at a time, access to the defensive overview.