'Why did she lie about it?' Rebecca wondered.
Maud, who sat next to Rebecca at the noon meal, followed her glance.
'I'm glad she hadn't brought them here yet. That poor Letitia was in such pain, I might have tried to lift her spirits by saying her friends seemed nice and they would fit in and all.'
Maud failed to see what Neill, who was an intelligent man despite his lack of education, saw in his fiancée.
'Penny must have had a reason to make everyone believe they were dead, right?' Melody, seated opposite them, remarked. 'And we had an emergency drill this morning, remember?'
'Isn't that standard procedure?'
'Yes but I heard that the security team had a meeting yesterday, after Penny returned,' Maud said. 'And after she left to bring Letitia home some flatteners were placed on the roads and in the fields as well.'
Rebecca shrugged. Maud was about to ask her whether her fiancé hadn't told her about the scavenging trip that had resulted in Martha and Camilla's arrival but Rebecca expressed her curiosity as to what the two women had done for a living. Not waiting for a reply she added: 'I wonder what they will be assigned to do.'
Maud and Melody shared a glance and Rebecca thoughtlessly picked a potato from Maud's plate.
Dale moaned with relief as he watered against a tree and for a moment he closed his eyes. When he opened them again he faced a knife. He parted his lips to say he meant to hurt no one or that he was all alone and had no possessions or that he travelled in a group of strong fighters, whatever would serve best, when the man threatening him put away his weapon.
'Sorry. I heard a sound and I thought you were a creep.'
'That's all right,' Dale managed. His finished what he was doing and zipped up.
'I'm Philip Neuvel,' the man said.
From behind them came shouting. Dale and Philip shared a glance and hurried toward the source of the noise.
'No Eric!' Dale said when he saw that the young man was ready to throw a knife at a tall, broad-shouldered man in his forties who wore a homemade protective vest and held a hand bow.
'We mean no harm,' the tall man said.
Dale stepped forward and offered his hand for a shake, remembering a moment too late that he'd just peed.
'From the Stein farm? Are you on your way to Penny's fair?'
Dale suggested Leo to come and meet his people. Leo had a private word with Philip and Dale whispered to Eric that a simple pee turned out to be rather adventurous these days. Eric sniggered a bit, but he didn't put his knife in its shaft just yet. Dale smiled at that. Eric's cautious behaviour would have been wise if these were other people, but in his bi-monthly updates Howard had mentioned the Stein farm and Dale trusted the engineer's judgment.
To make sure everyone got to meet the newcomers Martha and Camilla stayed in the meeting room for the second meal shift. Randall remained for a moment to make introductions. Livia, after having made her pupils welcome the two women, got them to sit at a far off table. She was curious to learn more about the additions to their community, but she'd safe her questions for her brother-in-law.
Off-duty guards Missy, Daniel, Lana, John and Sarah C secured themselves seats at Martha and Camilla's table.
'Word spread that you don't want to live in your RV?' Daniel casually asked between bites.
Sensing that Daniel had hit a nerve, Missy chatted: 'For the travellers who took you in moving from A to B must be like breathing, but I sure prefer to be settled. So I can imagine that you asked Penny if you could live here.'
'I wonder,' Daniel asked. 'Did you know that Penny told us you'd died and the RV got lost?'
Camilla removed some fluff from her shirt. Martha nodded at Daniel and pretended not to understand his encouraging smile.
'For how long have you lived with these travellers?' Missy pleasantly inquired.
'Over a year.'
'Then the news of your deaths must –' Daniel started when the door opened and Penny and her team walked in.
'Just in time for zombie clearing!' Missy addressed Penny at the same time as Martha asked Penny whether Letitia had arrived home safely.
'She did Martha. I've got some bad news though: George and Patricia didn't make it.'
'Poor Lizzy!' Martha said. 'The others did?'
'Yes they did.'
After delivering this information Penny prevented people from discussing it by telling Missy that Sharon would take her place in the clearing team. 'Will you instruct Sarah N and Gareth? Leave the scorching for another time.'
'Daniel, could you join me in the kitchen after we finished our meal?'
'Another security meeting? Of course.'
Penny joined her men at a different table.
'Sarah N is Sarah Nielsen,' Sarah Close informed Martha and Camilla. 'You must have met her and Mrs N? A.k.a. Caroline?'
The women nodded.
'She's Sarah N's grandmother. The blond boy over there is Alex, Sarah's brother.'
'The younger boys' name was Close,' Martha recalled from greeting the children. 'Are they your sons? Are you married to Marion?' she asked Daniel.
Sarah laughed as her brother turned red.
'Have I said something wrong? You're white and she's coloured and the boys –'
'She is Mrs Close,' Sarah said, 'but our dad is a polygamist. Denise over there, the woman in the green apron, she's father's first wife and Daniel's mother. My mum died. Marion is wife number three and just a year older than Daniel, so don't feel bad about your guess.'
'I'm about to marry Melody Stewart. Slender black woman?'
'I recall her. She told us she's in the fire-brigade,' Camilla said.
'Among others. Were you a fire-fighter Camilla?'
'I was a postman and yes, a volunteer fire-fighter.'
'What did you do before the shit hit the van Martha?' Lana asked.
'I was a real-estate agent.'
'So was my aunt! Sometimes she would take me to one of the houses she had for sale,' Lana shared. 'She was always interested in hearing what I had to say about rooms and decoration and such. Made me feel all grown up.'
Martha returned Lana's smile. Camilla started to cry without making a sound.
'So we'll have to face these men who don't trade but take,' Wyatt said after Penny and Howard had concluded their report.
'And it's not just them: they are in contact with others like them,' Daniel added as if Penny hadn't provided this information the previous day.
'Martha and Camilla seem harmless, so I can see why Penny opted to allow them in without consulting the admittance committee,' Daniel continued. When the only response he got was a glance Howard shared with Sheldon, he addressed Penny. 'What I don't understand is why you made everyone belief those women were dead.'
'You will remember what I said yesterday: Bill warned me that Pete and Hank hunt down those who leave.'
'That's why my sister set up a scheme to make Letitia think they were dead. And with us believing that too, Letitia wouldn't doubt that and she'd pass that information to her people. Penny didn't inform me until Letitia was on her way home.'
'I see that Randall, but why say that the RV –'
'A destroyed RV isn't worth fighting for,' Howard said, barely containing a sigh.
'Yet you fear that's what they'll do.'
'They came up with a scheme of their own: sell us an RV at a very low price,' Howard said. 'We thought of declining the offer on account of not being able to afford it but since we were sure that they'd attack us, because we obviously have goods and a medical staff, we decided it is best to "welcome" them on our terms. We're working on that.'
'But if they want bullets like you said, isn't it possible that they don't have a lot? Bullets won't endanger our wall,' Daniel said.
'Seriously? They want our bullets so we can't use them against them,' Sheldon pointed out.
Daniel looked around him and found no support for his idea. 'Of course. Just offering another perspective,' he said.
'Wanna have more workers making defence tools Pen?' Randall asked.
'Sharpened poles have multiple uses,' Penny said. 'And arrows always come in handy. For the time being I want the tower occupied 24/7.'
'How many guards?' Tom and Daniel asked simultaneously.
'One or two for now. Tom can make a selection and inform Sheldon.'
'Right, anything else?' Wyatt said. 'No? Back to work then.'
Penny waved for Caleb to join her. He returned her wave and gestured that he'd be right with her. As he instructed some of his workers Penny checked the stability of the fence. There were more zombies near by than on average, for no matter how silently people worked at the construction site, they were bound to make noise. It wasn't anything the guards and the Howies couldn't handle though. In a nearby Howie that hadn't yet been emptied by the clearing team an old zombie was caught.
'Hi Penny!' Caleb was one of the construction workers that had built the original wall. Nearly two weeks before the zombie outbreak became official the wall had been finished and the workmen had returned home, all the way to the south of Missouri. Caleb had recalled the nutty Nebraskan farmer who'd wanted a wall and who'd bought the construction company's nearly written off mobile homes. He, his girlfriend Lana and their friend Neill had arrived some six weeks after Penny. Penny was sure that Caleb would have vainly fought them to gain access, but she'd allowed him inside anyway. She'd done that partly because a construction worker would come in handy, partly because she didn't want him to get a support crew to try and take over the place, and partly because Lana and Neill had looked so tired of running.
'Coming to help?'
Caleb's question wasn't a strange one for Penny randomly performed all sorts of tasks, from taking care of the horses to helping out in the garage. The only thing Penny never did, though she wondered whether anyone other than her Pasadena friends had noticed, was serving food.
'Not today. We're going to have the tower occupied for a bit longer. It might take workers away from here, but the Torsvik people who'll come tomorrow will be assigned to your team.'
'Great. Trouble ahead?'
'We run into some robbers,' Penny said.
'People are talking already. The two new women looked a bit anxious and there's the security meetings…'
'Better safe than sorry.
'We've got our wall,' Caleb said. He stretched his arms.
'A bit. Say Penny, I was wondering.'
They both looked at a zombie that was approaching from the direction of the village.
'Looks drunk,' Caleb joked.
'You were wondering.'
'Yeah. Maybe we could put sheets over the fences. So the workers won't see the zombies anymore?'
'I'll think about it.'
Behind them there was some noise: an overloaded wheel-cart had fallen over. Caleb sighed and went to boss people around again.
Penny was about to return to the main house, when the clearing party neared. Curious to see how Sarah N and Gareth would handle the zombie in the Howie as well as the approaching zombie, Penny stayed and watched. Missy looked like a warrior princess from a comic and yet seeing her made Penny fear for what Pete and Hank would do to the women and men she felt responsible for.
When walking to the downstairs storage room Penny heard Raj and Sheldon talk about strategy.
'Hi Penny!' Raj greeted her. 'We already thought of more ways to trick the tricksters. Is that a zombie's back-pack?'
'Please drop it there,' Sheldon said. He checked things off a list after placing items in a box.
'ID's in the front pocket Sheldon.'
'Didn't you skip the clearing today?' Raj asked.
'I happened to be on the Nielsen site when the team passed by. Sharon threw the bag over the fence.'
'How was Sarah doing?' Raj asked through Sheldon's: 'This box is done.'
'She didn't even say "yuk" when a zombie's leg fell off.'
'That's my girl! I'll take that box to the car. Will I see you there Penny?'
'Yep. I'll take the other box once Sheldon is done with it.'
Raj left. Sheldon picked up the back-pack and went through it.
'Was the legless zombie the owner of this backpack? For from the contents of it I'd say that he, one Hugo Stuart by the way, was turned four years ago already. Only people who started travelling at the start of this would have taken shoe polish with them.'
'Perhaps it was Mr Stuart's Green Lantern Ring.'
Penny glanced at Sheldon's long, unadorned fingers and her eyes grew soft.
'I don't see how someone could find strength in shoe polish, but then my mother brought some "holy water" along. Oh look: it's completely dried out. I might put it in the museum.'
'I told the trainees that I prefer old zombies, gross as they look like, for the younger they are, the more likely that there's danger nearing us. I didn't mention that old zombies wandering across the country mean there isn't anyone to take them down.'
Sheldon retrieved a can containing sausages from the backpack and checked the date. 'Only two months over date and the can looks fine. Want to add it to the box for the criminals?'
Penny nodded and Sheldon set the can apart. 'Having only old zombies could also mean that no new zombies are created.'
While he'd talked Sheldon had taken a long sleeved shirt from the bag. He gestured toward the can. Penny nodded.
'Do you think that's likely?'
'All viruses stop spreading at a certain point,' Sheldon said, folding the shirt. 'Take for example the Black plague and the Spanish flu.'
'Melody told me something about a DNA sample she studied,' Penny said, her tone of voice indicating that she hadn't paid much attention.
Sheldon nodded. 'It led to nothing. I hope Leo Stein hasn't forgotten to bring Carl Berkoff's sample. He has Down's syndrome and certain diseases don't appear in his peer group.' Releasing a sigh Sheldon added: 'I wish Melody had finished her study instead of becoming an artist. And Rachel is a capable lab worker but she lacks a scientific mind. She's good at following instructions though, and she's got a knack for growing fungus. I wish she had time to do more than that. Our zombie research has been laughable so far. '
'Zombies aren't our main concern right now but you'll get there Moon Pie.'
'Only Meemah called me Moon Pie.'
'And I took over. Could you tell me where Marion is?'
'Meeting room, mending clothes.'
'I'll drop by there while you finish up here.'
At the start of the ZO two things swiftly became common knowledge: destroying the brain of a zombie killed it and people who got bitten died and turned. There was no opportunity to study zombies, at least not for those who had to flee them.
'On our journey here we found a baby that had turned despite not having bite-marks. It confirmed our theory that we are all infected and therefore that when people who aren't bitten die, they will turn,' says Rajesh Koothrappali. 'We informed everyone we met about that. We also questioned those we met about their experiences regarding the speed with which people turned. When we encountered Sophia [the "Pasadena Five" met Sophia Pelletier when they were on their way to Helsing in 2010, CB] she told us that she and her people had visited the Center for Disease Control, but that the only surviving scientist, doctor Edwin Jenner, didn't have a cure. Neither of us were neurobiologists but we planned to do our very best to learn as much as we could to beat the virus.' (interview CB, 2013-4)
A year after their arrival the scientists finally had time to spare and they studied the zombies that were caught in traps. The object of the study was to learn what triggered the zombies to find meat. Was it sound, movement, scent?
'We wanted to learn what happened if you put a bag over their heads. How did they respond when their ears were covered? Did zombies who couldn't bite behave differently from other zombies? After we checked all that Penny gutted a zombie and she wore its bowels around her upper body. It made the zombies ignore her, even when she wore the bowels over a plastic bag, but only if she remained silent and acted like a zombie: no normal walking, no talking. We copied the experiment on a rainy day, and it turned out that all zombies recognized her as a meal despite her giving a good impression of a zombie. We talked about going inside the mall wearing a 'bowel bag' but that was theoretical really. Despite us using nose-clips the scent of those bowels or other body parts for that matter was just… gross. Apart from Penny only Tom managed not to throw up. We tied up zombies and Penny and Tom, wearing bowel bags, got as close to them as was deemed safe. They both said that walking in between the zombies was utterly scary. So if they were to use the bag, we knew it couldn't be for long and it could only be for protection. Raiding a supermarket just wouldn't work: you need to do so many unzombie-like things then. If you were to lift something and take it with you, they'd notice and attack you. Our tests taught us that. Sneeze, clear your throat: they'd attack. In summertime we repeated our tests and probably due to the higher temperatures, the zombies were even more active than they'd been in January.' (interview CB, 2013-4)
For several months no more zombie-research was being done at the farm, for there were many others things to do. One day however Howard, on a scavenging mission, coincidentally found out something about zombie skin:
'I happened to find barb-wire with some zombie skin on it. I peeled it off and was still holding it when a zombie came for me. I dropped the skin, pulled my bat and somehow the skin got wrapped around the bat. For a brief moment, just before I ruined the zombie's skull, I could have sworn that it ceased to attack me. Back home we experimented with the skin I'd brought. We learned that the best way to use it was to wear it for a mask, after making holes in it off course, and to combine it with smearing zombie tissue on our clothes. We – Penny and Tom again – still had to move and act like zombies though. They said that wearing a mask made it a little easier to walk among zombies. We concluded that for camouflage it would work, but if it came to the need for camouflage, a bowel bag was easier to 'make'. And skin is… too personal. I don't even blink when killing a zombie but I wasn't capable of removing a zombie's teeth for an experiment. We used superglue instead. Skin's just… Even Sheldon agreed we wouldn't use it. We don't use a barrier of living zombies either. We heard about it through others, and we did give it a thought but well, people turning into zombies is bad enough without them becoming part of a horror show.' (interview CB, 2013-5)
Zombie-research wasn't made a top-priority, much to Sheldon Cooper's disappointment. On one occasion the scavengers encountered a man who said that he'd been bitten in his hand. His life had been saved by his friends cutting off his arm at the elbow almost immediately afterwards.
'An axe was added to the scavenging team's kit as well as disinfectant. Fortunately we've never had to use it so far.' (interview CB, 2013-5)
(From The history of Drottningville, by Cynthia Böhr, first edition July 2030 CE)