My ears pierced with a sharp ring as the world around me spun out of control before immediately jerking to complete stillness. There was no sound still. Well, no sound besides the persistent ringing that seemed to only echo restlessly through my skull. The rest of me felt weak, my thoughts just as clouded as my idea of what the hell was happening.
I didn't have any memory of where I was or how I got here. But, my only foggy thought was on how to get out. In my mind, I knew there was only one way to get out of whatever situation I was in, but there was no voice coming in my ear to tell me what to do or where to go or where I even was.
Sam... Janine... Anybody?
Everything in that moment seemed to slow, the haziness in my brain subsiding as I started to take in my surroundings as a breath of the crisp fall air chilled through my tired lungs. Adrenaline started to course through my veins at the silence around me. But the silence was brief and cut short by a familiar voice that I couldn't seem to give a name in my delirious state.
"Ah, you're awake. Good."
The polite part of my brain that would've told me to respond had been switched off in that moment as a warped, deep voice spoke to me, seemingly unmoved by my silence. My thoughts were stuck on why no one would explain to me what was happening; but only then did I put two and two together.
"My headset," I babbled, my voice seeming to be almost inaudible as I helplessly and despondently looked around me for my one, lifesaving piece of equipment; my prized possession that technically wasn't even mine.
"Oh, you're looking for your headset, are you?"
Then he got my attention; out of everything he had said to me thus far, that was the one thing that made my head lurch up to meet the face of the voice speaking to me... My face paled in sudden recognition at seeing the Professor... And then all at once, all the memories came flooding back; like seeing his face triggered my memory. I put my mind into a mode of firm stoicism as I remembered how and why I got here.
I remember the church... Paula and Maxine... That one guard with the eyepatch... Poor guy.
I remember splitting up... And... Well, that was it. After Sam had told us to split up, all I remember was running a few steps before poof. Black. Nothing. I had no memory after that...
"That's that then. I guess you won't have to worry about getting into contact with your Abel Township anytime soon."
Did he really just snap my headset? That little-
"It's just you and me- and of course, Paula and Maxine in the woods. But that's a problem I hope you can help me with. It's not like I'm giving you a choice anyway," he taunts me, tossing the remains of my headset in the dirt indelicately, causing a small sneer to plaster itself on my dust-covered face.
"What could I possibly do to help you?" I hiss quietly, keeping in mind that I would rather die than let Paula or Maxine get caught by this man. God knows what he'd do to them....
"Well, you are a runner, aren't you?" He questions me with a small, smug smile on his face, causing more hate to burn in me. I was falling right into his trap. I was doing exactly what he wanted me to do. So, I remembered my usual calm, silent nature I would use if I was ever questioned and decided to put it to use. I could almost hear Sara telling me to stay quiet, "Five, do what you do best- stay quiet. Don't say anything."
That's what I did.
I could practically hear the frown in his next words; he was obviously upset with my sudden silence. "Then run." He commanded before he got back into his immaculate silver jeep that didn't even have one scratch.
I hesitated before getting to my feet, knowing that I was beaten and I should just do as I was told. I hobbled up to my feet weakly, gathering as much strength as my fatigued legs could muster before taking off at a jog, the purr of the Jeep's engine beside me giving me a small dose of adrenaline and giving my tired body a jolt of energy.
My steady breathing and constant beat of my footsteps ushered me along through the thick trees that had begun to change into their oranges and yellows. It suddenly made me think of life before the apocalypse... My family and friends... My job... Everything- every memory that made my heart feel a bit warmer. But the sad thing was, I wanted to do this before the apocalypse. I wanted to run, believe it or not. It always made me feel some kind of way; it always made me feel more alive; like I was tapping into a piece of myself that only running could help me discover.
But who knows how long my running life would last? It didn't seem like I had much time left... I mean, I was about to be a test subject for an experiment hundreds had died attempting... So why would I be the one to escape? After everything that happened with Archie and Chris... I didn't really deserve to be alive. So many people risked their lives for me and I was somehow still alive. I didn't really deserve it. I wasn't in love like Archie was and I didn't have any family to find like Chris. I had nothing to really live for...
Well, maybe I did...
My thoughts from there wandered to the night I was left in the dark and I honestly couldn't decide which was worse this, or that night... Now I was alone... I didn't have Sam's voice pushing me forward and protecting me from what I couldn't see. But no. Not now. Now I was alone with a man who had the ability to mind control zoms and possibly make me into one of them-
Five, don't talk like that. You're going to get out of here alive.
I could almost hear Sam's voice in my head reminding me that he wanted me at Abel. Over the past 2 years we had grown really close. We had that "simpatico" he had mentioned a year ago... I couldn't help but let a breathless smile tug at the corner of my mouth at the thought of him. But my smile faltered at imagining him pacing the floors of the Comms Shack, checking the scanners and long range cams to see if I would ever make it home. And I didn't want to let my mind dig deeper into those thoughts, but I did. I could practically see him lose hope every time something popped up on the scanners and every time the gates opened and I didn't dash through to see him.
And that was all the motivation I needed to get out of here. I needed to at least try! I couldn't just disappear and die mysteriously. Well, I guess it wouldn't take them long to assume that Van Ark killed me, but that's not my point.
I was not going to die because of him. Not like this. I was not going to die with him satisfied.
"You must know, that I really am impressed, Runner Five," his voice cut off my train of thought, leaving my mind to freeze in search for a response. But maybe it was better that I just stay quiet. I didn't have to respond after all. I mean, if he were to say anything, he should've said something I didn't know already.
He continues after realizing I had nothing to say, only this time, he wasn't bitter because of my stoicism. "I really have admired the physique of runners, if I can be honest with you." He tells me. "I'm sure you could run for hours without getting tired."
He was right. I mean sure, I had done this before the apocalypse started, but never for hours on end...
"Perhaps the apocalypse has done something good for you then. After all, I'm sure it's done at least some good for everyone. Everyone that's still alive of course." He paused for only a second before continuing with a thrilled smirk. "The shamblers didn't seem to fare so well."
I felt my jaw tighten at how arrogant he sounded. How proud he was that this was happening.
'Don't let it get to you, Five. He wants you to react. That's it.' I thought to myself before retorting instinctively. I could almost feel his glare at my victory and I fought back a smile of my own by knowing it was too early to celebrate.
"But as for you and all the survivors at Abel, that doesn't compare to what my research has gifted me." He stated, seeming to have coolly regained his small amount of composure.
I almost asked about what he was trying to say, but he cut off my attempt at actually speaking. "When you at me at me with that knife, I should have died. But it healed almost instantly- completely healed in under 30 seconds." He continues, not allowing me to even think of a response. "Now you can see what my research has done for the remainder of the world. I can create a new race to help us rebuild what we've lost. Of course, I'll need Doctor Cohen back to help me make the process go smoothly, but if she really has left me, it won't be too much of a problem I suppose," he says thoughtfully before continuing. "But I think you'll be able to help me in more ways than one, Five."
Oh God no....
"I think you would be a decent test subject for me, Runner Five."
'Two things- one: I'm only decent? And secondly: hell no.'
"Your physical ability is obviously above average and you seem to be quite reasonable underneath all your... stoicism."
He was right. Back at Abel, I was actually sort of talkative. Sure, I wasn't chatterbox Archie, but I wasn't always silent. Of course, it took some convincing me to step out at first. Being in a new place after everything that had happened that day... I guess I had a reason for silence then. But now, things were different. I had friends at Abel; people I needed that I cared for- ones that I would protect with my life... Life wasn't so great at Mullin's- everyone was so focused on survival and no one cared about one another. Sure, we wanted to protect each other- but it was nothing more than that.
"But of course, your life depends on Paula and Maxine's return." He said, seeming a bit... Disappointed? "Although, I really hope you survive this, Five. It would be a shame to lose someone like you. So much potential lies in you." He shook his head mildly, almost saying that Abel hadn't given me enough opportunity because of the talent I had as a runner... But believe me, I'm not the best runner out there.
But his kindness still confused me nonetheless. This was THE Professor Van Ark. The "I'm gonna perform a test on you and you could become immortal or turn into a shambling zomb" Professor Van Ark. What could he have possibly seen in me that was so different?
But, I stayed silent even still. I couldn't trust this man. There was no way I could.
Instead of responding, I looked off into the distance, we were reaching the edge of the forest now. There was a bare field ahead and a figure far off into the distance. Probably just a zomb...
Speaking of zombs, there was a small swarm of the gray fiends straight ahead of us and Van Ark didn't hesitate to point that out and make a game out of it.
"Ah, look at that, Five." He said, his voice a touch brighter than usual. "A small pack of the shambling dead!"
And he was happy about this, why?
"Let's get their attention so maybe they'll chase us- just for the sport of it." He said and a smug undertone sparked in his voice; he knew he was starting to press my buttons now. "I know how you enjoy running from them anyways."
You son of a-
My instincts suddenly jerked myself back into reality as I leaped over a moaning crawler that desperately snatched at my ankles, but failing with each attempt. More zombs charged towards me and Van Ark's Jeep and because I wasn't safely tucked away in the protected car, I was left to duck and kick away the swarm that flooded around me. Something inside me almost wanted one to scratch me or even bite me. I didn't want to help Van Ark- you couldn't tease me with eternal life or even hold a barrel of a gun to my head to make me do it.
I refuse to help my enemy, to betray my friends- my family.
But if there was a chance- a slim, tiny chance that I could somehow, despite all odds, get out of this, then I would. I wasn't going to die here. I would make it home. One way or another I would somehow make it back to Abel- back to Sam, back to Simon, Sara, and Janine. I would make it because I knew that they were waiting for me. And I wasn't about to let them down. I wasn't about to take the easy way out. So, with my newfound motivation, I gracefully weaved my way through the whole swarm, escaping without a scratch (except the ones the thistle bushes gave me).
"You know, I really thought your friends valued you more than this..." He shook his head lightly, his aura showing how disappointed he was in Abel and I couldn't help but agree. Were they even doing anything back at Abel so I could get home safely?
'Of course they are. Don't think like that, Five.' I mentally scolded myself for thinking and the pleased smirk plastered on the Professor's face showed that he knew my thoughts and they pleased him.
He wanted me to lose hope in them- I knew that very well. But little did I know that he also wanted me to lose all of my hope in them so that being with someone who cared about me, valued my life- seemed like the better way to go.
And as much as I don't want to admit it, it worked! I had started to lose faith in Abel for the first time. Was Sam, my precious radio operator who almost died that night I was alone in the woods, the one that waited for me and said that he wouldn't give up on me- the one who said he would never give up on me that night... Was he giving up on me now?
Was my home leaving me to fend for myself? Were they simply handing me over to our most merciless and cruel enemy only to see what his serums would really do? Was this the plan all along? Or were they just.... Giving up on me?
"I'm disappointed, Five. I really am." He lamented, but the hidden smirk was undeniable. "I never thought that your radio operator would give up on you so easily... He's quite protective over you, you know. But of course, you must know that already."
Instead of just taking that statement, I pushed it away. "He's like that with everyone. Not just me." I stated bluntly, speaking as f I wasn't out of breath at all.
"Well, I certainly thought he'd have more fight for you. He all but gave you up back at the church; he even said that the doctor came first. Hm...You do have quite the spotless reputation; Abel can't afford to lose you. But I suppose you didn't make the cut- not even in your own operator's eyes."
That's what stung the most. And why was that? Because it was believable. Everything he had just said made sense. Every reason made sense...
My heart picked up its pace and my jaw tightened as my fist subconsciously clenched so hand my knuckles were white. My strides became longer and more powerful, causing the jeep to effortlessly speed up along with me and I could feel the smug aura radiating off of Van Ark as my lungs sucked in breaths of the cold autumn air.
'Don't let him get to you, Five. Don't you dare break now.'
"And I'm surprised Maxine isn't fighting for you either." He said with a sigh. "She's stubborn- or at least that's what I was lead to believe. But now, it seems as if they've given you up- forgotten about the potential in you. Of course, I haven't forgotten. I see greatness in you, Five. And I hope that my treatments will help you see that too."
The next few moments were silent after that and I was left to my thoughts... He was persuasive and I couldn't help but want to buy what he was selling me. It just made sense. It made more and more sense each time I replayed the moments from the church in my mind. And honestly, this was the worst kind of torture I could have ever been through.
"But as for Dr. Cohen..." He sighed before continuing normally. "She is of course, very important to my work, but she wouldn't see it. She wouldn't see that the work we were doing would save the remains of the human race. Of course, there would be sacrifices but, aren't there sacrifices made with each war? It's already taken so many of you runners to come this far. But your sacrifices are what will help us win the war- don't you understand that, Five?"
"I do." I answered simply and rather bluntly.
"Good. I knew you would. You seem like a smart woman." He said with an understanding in his voice that I hadn't seen yet from him. "But Dr, Cohen decided her own fate. She refused to see what I saw- her lack of imagination got in the way of the vision I tried to explain to her. So, the only solution was to infect her with the zombie virus. That was the only way to keep her working."
We were both silent after that. I needed time to process everything- try and make sense of it. But my mind just kept going back to Abel. I wanted to be there- no, I needed to be there. I needed to be home, to feel safe again. But did they really want me back?
After the final, small stretch of woods, we were in the clear as I looked around the golden field ahead and the figure from before was now running at us... It took me a second to realize it wasn't a zomb- wait, was that Paula?
"Dr. Cohen!" Van Ark exclaimed with a hint of joy in his voice as I stopped in time with the jeep beside me. "I hoped I would see you again. I thought you had actually decided to leave." During the last part of that, his voice faltered almost inaudibly. I guess he was starting to feel a little defeated because one of the doctors actually came back. But I couldn't help but assume that Sam and Maxine weren't doing anything...
So many thoughts swirled through my head at seeing her back here. Why had she actually come back? Was she a traitor? Was she really on Van Ark's side?
Something inside my mind was telling me to not make so many assumptions so quickly. But my brain was in survival mode. My mind was working in overdrive to think of every possible reason for her reappearance. I just couldn't make sense of it.
"Professor!" She called out as she approached the van breathlessly, her white lab coat still as clean as it was when she was at the church. "I saw what you were doing with Runner Five and I thought I might help!" She called again as she finally approached the Jeep only seconds later.
"Oh Paula, you've come to the rescue again." He said, seeming pleased now. "I never thought I'd see you again after you had run off."
"Oh, no." Paula replied as she climbed into the Jeep effortlessly, already having her breath back. "Like I said before, I saw Runner Five here and I just had to come back." She looked at me while saying that and something in her eyes- something hidden was pleading for me to understand. But I didn't now what she wanted me to forgive...
"Well then, we're almost to the labs." Van Ark said as he sped up to a good speed for me to keep up with. "And you're more than welcome to join us."
The ride to the labs was short from there. There wasn't any more conversation between Van Ark and I, but Paula and himself chatted the rest of the way there. I can't say I wasn't grateful, but I did want to learn more about him so if I did make it back, then I would know a thing or two about his plans.
Before I knew it, we were at the labs. I jogged beside the jeep into a monochromatic silver garage that had a few armored cars and multiple doors that lead into rooms I couldn't see.
The rattle of keys echoes as Van Ark tossed Paula a ring of keys.
"Lock her up with the others." Was his only command before disappearing into one of the rooms.
"Follow me, Five." Paula invited as she looked back at me innocently. I gave her an uneasy look in return, causing her expression to fall sadly before she turned and started leading me to one of the rooms.
We walked down about 7 different hallways before making it to the labs. She stopped me right in front of the door before whispering frantically. "Look I'm sure you're wondering why I didn't go to Abel when I had the chance-"
"Yeah, I'm a little curious." I interrupted; my voice a little irritated and demanding an explanation.
She sighed. "I'm going to help you escape. I just have to go along with his plans for a little while but, I promise I won't forget about you, Five. You saved Maxie, and I just want to make sure you get out of here so I know it won't happen again."
Well that was actually kinda nice...
I nodded quickly, giving my 'stamp of approval' on her plan.
She used the proper key for the sturdy, glass door to the labs before leading me inside and taking me into yet another room that branched off the labs.
This room was different than what I had imagined. He literally wanted Paula to lock me up, in a cage. Seriously!
There were 3 identical cages but, only on person occupied the cage closest to the door. It was surprisingly light in the room; about 5 large windows gave view to the outside world. Paula swiftly unlocked the cage beside the one woman was in before closing the iron-barred door behind me.
"I'll be back soon." She said hurriedly before quickly running out of the room and loudly closing the door behind her.
I sighed through my nose, exhaling deeply as I sunk to the rusty and icy iron floor. I was going to be here for a while....
"So you're the runner everyone's been chattin' about?" She questioned, her stout accent echoing lightly through the empty room.
"People have been talking about me?"
"''Course you wouldn't know that..." She mumbled as she looked at me through the black iron bars. She had light brown shaved hair and sharp green eyes that matched her defined features. "The name's Louise. Louise Bailey."
"I'm Five." I stated, feeing a little defensive, not to mention not super talkative either.
"Hm...." She scanned me up and down before looking me in the eye. "So, how'd you manage to get here? I've never seen you at the prison before."
"The prison?" I asked, cocking an eyebrow in confusion.
"Never mind that." She mumbled, glancing away before continuing. "Just tell me how you got here."
"It's a long story." I said simply.
"I'm guessing you're not in the mood for a chat then?"
"Well I've been in here for a few days- maybe weeks and you're the only person I've actually talked to." She said simply and I couldn't help but feel bad... What had Van Ark done to her?
I took a deep breath before offering quietly. "Maybe I can help you escape."
Her eyes widened before sharpening into a distrusting glance. "Not possible."
"That's why I said maybe."
She smirked, seeming to like my response. "You know Paula then?"
"Then how do you plan on getting out of here?" She asked, looking me in the eye threateningly.
"I'm not entirely sure. But it's the only thing you've got, right?" I asked, knowing that I was possibly her only chance of getting her out of this place.
"Then I'm gonna need you to trust me."
A few hours passed of complete silence- until the door opened slowly, only to reveal a very anxious Paula. She raced over to my cage with the keys jingling in her grasp.
"As soon as you get out of the labs, go right, then left, then right two more times. That'll lead you to a back exit." She whispered frantically as she unlocked the cell door before letting me out.
"Got it." I said before looking into the cage Louise was in only to see her standing and gripping onto the bars hopefully.
I hesitated only slight before looking to Paula again. "Unlock her cell." I said and it came out as more of a question than a statement.
She spun around, clearly confused at the request, by she did anyways. Her nervous hands unlocked the cell and Louise practically bounded out.
"Thank you." She said humbly to both Paula and I and I nodded in reply.
Paula's sense of urgency suddenly sparked again. "Go! You two haven't got much time." She whispered as she pushed us into the labs. "You need to hurry. Five, go back to Abel. I have Maxie's headset so you can contact Sam." She informed me before shoving the headset into my chest.
"Go!" She urged one last time before Louise and I sprinted out of the building, being sure to follow Paula's directions.
Right, left, right, and right again.
And sure enough, we were free.
I gasped in a breath of the chilling air before taking off at a sprint towards the cover of the woods.
Unfortunately, we weren't free for long. The sun was starting to set and that meant hoardes- and that meant bad stuff could happen to us.
I shoved the headset into my head eagerly before turning on the transmitter connected to it.
"Sam?!" I whispered anxiously as we ran off into the woods ahead. No answer.
I tried playing with the frequencies and I could hear his voice for a second- swirled in static and choppy because of the bad connection.
"I don't know- some- trying to- get signal."
"Sam?!" I was shaking with each step I took as memories of the night I was running in the dark came rushing back into my head uncontrollably. "Please tell me you can hear me!"
I cursed and turned the transmitter off. It was pointless. I couldn't hear him. No point in wasting the battery.
"Who's Sam?" Louise asked as we trotted our way through the darkening woods.
"My Radio Operator back at Abel."
"Oh..." I could tell she had questions, but didn't want to ask. She was already kind of breathless already, even though it had only been about a half mile.
Only a few moments later, off in the distance, there was a screeching sound. I couldn't really describe it to you. It was kind of like the sound that the gates made at Abel after the rocket launcher attack...
We needed to stay as silent as we could. Who knows what that sound could have been? We hadn't done any talking while we were running- mainly because there was nothing really to say. Well, we didn't want anyone to hear us either. We needed to be careful especially now.
"Did you hear that?..." Louise asked, lowing her voice carefully.
I nodded, taping a finger to my lips to signal her to stay quiet and she nodded, her eyes shifting around in anxious frenzy.
I could feel my heart pounding in my chest- feel the blood rushing through my ears. My shoulders tensed as we looked around through the trees...
"OVER THERE! I SEE THEM!"
The sound of sprinting footsteps behind us was all I needed to go. And Louise didn't hesitate to sprint behind me.
The crunching of dead, brown leaves underneath our feet didn't help us at all. If anything it made it much worse for us. Whoever was behind us could hear us and was catching up. And they were catching up fast.
"NO! Five, help!"
My head snapped around at Louise screaming for my help.
"Let her go!" I screamed at the masked people holding her and dragging her away despite the fight she was putting up. I was about to charge, but I too was grabbed at. I struggled as hard as I could- using every fiber of my being to fight back. But the sensation of an injection in m neck soon killed me away as the world spun around me and blurred with confusion. And I only heard one word before the world fell into complete darkness...