Timeline: Almost immediately after Grave New World.
In some ways, surviving the end of the world is like being a freshman in college.
You’re ripped away from everything you know—all your routines and friends—and dropped into a barren world where death might lurk around every corner, where food and medicine are rationed, and where the authority figures can alter your future with the sweep of a hand.
(The biggest difference is that authority figures in the post-apocalyptic world tend to carry machine guns. That’s why they’re authority figures. Oh, and the hazing you get from the upperclassmen is replaced by dead people trying to eat you. But aside from that…)
Like college, you also wind up bunking with people you wouldn’t dream of befriending in real life.
“Vibeke, this is Augusta,” Captain Hammond said. He’d brought me over to a two-person tent straight after locking me up in observation for two days to make sure I wasn’t going to turn into a zombie or sprout fangs or anything similarly repulsive. Apparently they’d had some close calls since refugees started arriving.
Augusta got up from her cot and extended one mocha-colored hand. “Hiya,” she said.
I was more interested in her dreadlocks than her hand. “Hi,” I said, staring at her hair. “How do you keep them so…tidy?”
“It’s a mystery to all of us,” Hammond said. He placed one hand on my shoulder and the other on Augusta’s. “Vibeke and her friends came here from Astra.”
Augusta’s eyebrows went way, way up, which I assumed meant I’d accomplished something. “Astra? Are you the people who stayed behind?”
Uh-oh. Someone had heard of us.
“We didn’t so much stay behind as we got ditched,” I said, pointedly not looking at the captain. He’d been a lieutenant when he left us behind maybe two weeks ago. His squad had been chewed up and spat out while trying to provide aid to those in South Harkin, where one of the biggest meteors had hit. I don’t think he had expected to make it back to Elderwood at all, much less with the three of us tagging along.
Apparently, though, he’d talked about us, because Augusta was looking at me with outright reverence. “That is so incredible! When we heard you guys showed up we wondered what shape you were in.”
I looked down at myself. Aside from being exceptionally pasty and dry-skinned, I thought I was in decent condition.
Hammond went on, “Augusta works in the library. Vibeke worked for a magazine. Writer, reader.”
Hammond was big on sharing pre-apocalyptic information. So far, I’d met Paul the TV Repairman, Mitch the Tech Guy, and Laura, who had run a local business.
Augusta pretended to be interested. “Really? What magazine?”
“Rock Weekly,” I said. Her brow furrowed slightly, doubtless trying to recall seeing it on a newsstand or online. I almost wished I’d grabbed a copy when we ran out of Astra. “It’s okay,” I said. “I don’t know how we managed to stay in business; our circulation was atrocious.”
Hammond cleared his throat. “I thought you two would get along well. Augusta, if you’ll show Vibeke the camp, since you’ve got the afternoon off? Just make sure she gets up to the medical center.”
We could have days off after the apocalypse? Wow.
Hammond smiled at us, then strode out of the tent. If any man could have pulled off a cape…it was him.
I set my backpack and rifle down next to the empty cot. Augusta eyed the rifle, her lip curling slightly. “I hate guns,” she said. “I mean, I get that they’re necessary, but…I still hate them.”
I decided my best response to that statement was a diplomatic smile. “I wasn’t wild about them, either.”
“Have you shot anything?”
Have I shot anything? Let’s see, the walking dead, and oh, those crazy gangsters who tried to kill me. That was fun, too. But I had a feeling Augusta wouldn’t appreciate my kill tally, or whatever I ended up calling it. “Only when I had to,” I said, as blithely as I could. “So. Tour?”
Augusta seemed to understand the change in subject. “Right this way.”
My tour of camp went well enough, or at least I thought it did.
I often made the trip to Elderwood Community College to cover the local bands that played at their Elderwood Hall, so I knew the territory a little bit. I was supposed to meet with Dr. Samuels in the medical center, which, if I had studied the map correctly, was housed in the former Student Health Center.
I wasn’t exactly sure what they expected me to do there, but I guessed it would be good to have something to occupy myself.
Augusta showed me the various buildings, all of which had been converted into living facilities. “We had to get tents as people kept coming,” she said.
Get tents was something of an understatement. Elderwood Refugee Camp had built up sprawling tent cities that expanded in all directions, holding everything from single women (my sector) to families to supplies.
“What happens if the weather turns really bad?” I asked. “Not that the air isn’t bad already, but if there are storms…”
“Most of the tents are waterproof. Army-issue or some crap like that. I think they can withstand hurricanes.”
I thought that might be hyperbole, but I was willing to go along with it for the time being.
We kept walking.
“This is where the guys live,” Augusta said. We stopped in front of an area of tents that looked almost exactly like the rest, and she lifted a hand to point at something. “Are those your friends?”
I looked where she was pointing. A blond twenty-something and a dark-haired, stubble-cheeked former gun magazine editor were standing around outside a tent, a small golden retriever laying at their feet. I couldn’t help a scowl. “Yeah, that’s them. I don’t know why they got to keep the dog.”
“Because I’m allergic.”
Oh. That made sense.
Tony spotted me and waved, and I glanced at Augusta. “Mind if we say hi?”
“Sure, just don’t let the pup jump on me.”
I ambled over to the lads. “Liking the new digs?” I asked, crouching down in front of the dog. Evie licked my hands, her tail wagging against the dirt. She’d eaten the best out of all of us during her time on the road, and someone—probably Dax—had given her a bath after we arrived.
Tony shrugged. “It’ll do. Hammond gave us a bum heater, though. Gotta get a new one.”
I remembered Augusta standing slightly behind me, and gestured to her. “That’s my tentmate, Augusta. She’s giving me the tour. Augusta, this is Tony and Dax.”
Tony nodded. “Yo.”
Dax held out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Evie strained toward Augusta, her tongue lolling out of her mouth. I restrained her as gently as I could, not entirely sure what she would do around other people. She’d been well-behaved when we came into the camp, but I think that was because she was exhausted after our efforts to get there.
“I met some of the brass,” Tony said. “General Anderson is in from Franklin.”
“We always eat better when Anderson is around,” Augusta said. “I think Hammond wants us to look well-fed.”
Evie placed her paw on my boot.
“She wants you to pet her head,” Dax said.
I obediently rubbed behind her ears. “So does General Anderson just go back and forth?”
“As far as anyone can tell,” Augusta said. “He comes and goes. Where are you guys assigned?”
“Processing,” Dax said.
“Scavenging,” Tony said. He finally cracked a smile. “I get to go out and shoot more dead things.”
Augusta looked at him, one eyebrow arching up. “And you’re excited about that?”
He sensed the note of disapproval in her voice and turned on his most devilish grin. “Why not? I’m living the video game dream.”
Right. Those two clearly weren’t going to get along. Rubbing people the wrong way was a habit Tony had cultivated that year.
“You should just ignore him,” I said.
Tony switched the grin to me. “Good luck with that.”
“Medical center?” I asked, eager leave before things turned ugly. The living dead were bad enough; I wasn’t sure I could take the angry living on top of them. Especially not when I had to live with one.
Augusta nodded, and started walking off toward what I dimly recalled was the center of campus. I shook my head at Tony, but he just smiled at me. “Have fun, doll.”
The medical center looked pretty much the way I remembered it: one-story, gray, and with a ridiculous red trim that someone had added on, perhaps in an effort to make things festive. I thought the entire effect was just tacky.
Fitting that I should work there.
The front doors slid open, and I blinked, unused to the harsh fluorescent lighting. The building I’d stayed in had electricity, but they were using regular lamps—I hadn’t expected full power anywhere.
Augusta gave me a minute to get used to it. “Not bad, huh? Most of the buildings have their own generators. The library shares one with the gym, so we have to cycle down every couple hours. But you guys are important, so you get to keep the lights on.”
“Great,” I said. Even after the apocalypse, I couldn’t get away from the office.
She led me through the waiting room and into a corridor lined with doors—a pretty standard medical center. She stopped in front of a particular door and knocked, then stepped back. “I don’t actually know Dr. Samuels all that well,” she said. “You mind handling this yourself?”
I smiled. “Why not? Thanks for the tour.”
“See you back at the tent.”
The door opened, and Augusta beat a hasty retreat, leaving me to confront “Doc” Emmett Brown, or at least a reasonable facsimile of him. Wild gray hair stood out in spikes around his head, and he’d forgone shaving for at least three days. The stains on his lab coat were nothing short of mysterious.
“Are you Doctor Samuels?” I asked.
He pointed at the nametag on his white lab coat. Yes, indeed, this was Doctor Samuels. “I’m Vibeke,” I said. “Vibeke Orvik. Captain Hammond said I’d be working with you tomorrow…”
“Oh! Yes, Vibeke. Norwegian?”
I bobbed my head.
“Wonderful. And you’re a paramedic?”
Uh-oh, someone had fudged up my papers. “EMT, actually. Former EMT.” His smile faded as I went on. “In college.” The doctor’s expression grew more dour, but I felt compelled to deliver the truth. “I haven’t been in a rig in almost ten years.”
He looked me over, then shrugged. “Ah, well. I’ll take old experience to no experience. We need staff that can handle themselves in front of injuries. You’d be amazed at how many people faint at the site of a zombie bite.”
Well, zombie bites were pretty disgusting. I couldn’t entirely blame the fainters.
Doctor Samuels kept right on talking. “I’m looking to train some replacements so I can spend more time at the lab. People to push antibiotics, set bones, stitch folks up. I’ve got a lot of work to do up there, studying the virus and everything else coming out of the holes…” he glanced up, as if recalling I was still there. “Oh, a pleasure to meet you.”
He studied the zombie virus. Great.
Survive the endtimes, get a new job with a mad scientist. It’s always a mad scientist. Sane scientists probably didn’t survive zombies. “Of course,” I murmured.
“Eh?” He cocked his head to the side.
“I meant of course, it’s a pleasure to meet you, too.” I made myself smile, and tried to look excited about my new job. “Looking forward to starting work.”
“Great.” He picked up a kit, then shoved a pair of gloves at me. “You can help me stitch up Miss Harwell. She got bitten by rather a volatile undead gentleman.”
I took the gloves, but felt I really ought to alert him to something. “I don’t stitch people up…I mean I haven’t…are EMTs allowed to do that now?”
“I’ll teach you.” He guided me out the door and turned me to the left, ushering me down a corridor. “You’ll be embroidering like a pro in no time.”
“Great.” I had to jog to keep up with his long strides. “Just what I always wanted.”
© 2012 S.P. Blackmore