Catalyst is the story of a small survivor compound in the Dead Zone and their quest to make big changes, written by K6ka.
Part 1. Somber dawn
A single ray of sunlight sliced through the darkness of the room, like a knife on fabric. The window it came through glowed amber as it received and scattered the life-bringing light. The ray cut through the darkness, across the length of my room, and stopped right at my closed eyelids.
The little patch of black that lived behind my eyelids was replaced with a dirty blood red as the ray fought the lids, making their way through the thin layer of skin until they reached the eyes underneath. The eyelids fought back to no avail, and soon they surrendered and opened. Now all I could see was bright, blinding light, like Jesus appearing before Saul, and it took only a few seconds before I rolled over to my side to escape the light.
But not the wall.
Wham! came my head as it met solid concrete. As I recoiled, the ray of sunlight caught my eye again, blinding me once more. Finally, I sat up, butting my head into the bunk above mine.
I haven't even gotten out of bed yet and my morning has taken a turn towards hell.
Slowly, I got out of my bed. My slippers were missing, which the dog probably took and ate, and my shoes so badly damaged that I was better off going barefoot. The floor was as cold as ice, my feet frozen almost as soon as they touched them. Head still throbbing, I made my way to the door.
The hinges creaked loudly, loud enough to wake the dead. The stairs felt steep and dank, which I could've sworn wasn't the case last night. The flaming holes the ray of sunlight burned into my eyes were still glowing, obstructing my vision. It took me a minute of stumbling around my own home before I could find the door to go outside.
Morning. The air was crisp and cool, benefiting my lungs after a night of sleeping in a dusty room with four other people. This time, the sun was behind my back, warming me from the cold encounters with concrete only a few minutes before. I was still barefoot, and the gravel dug into my toes, leaving impressions in them. I made my way to the outhouse — for we had no working toilets — and climbed inside. The beautiful morning air was instantly replaced with the putrid smell of rotting feces. My hands shook as I struggled to unzip my pants. The zipper, which I had sewn onto myself, was prone to jamming, and this morning was no exception. With a fit of rage — and a fistful of muscle — I pulled at the zipper until it popped. I hovered over the hole, for I was much too shy to touch the urine-caked seat, and attempted to deal with my morning constipation.
Ever since the zombie apocalypse struck and the city declared a Dead Zone, life has never been the same. Services to the city were cut, as were amenities and luxuries. Electricity was cut, water was cut, natural gas was cut. No computers. No TV. No Internet. Not even a hot shower. Those days were gone.
There was no toilet paper, for it would've been too wasteful to just throw it away. Everyone used their own washable sponge for wiping up. After a rigged vote, I got to have the ridiculous pink one. Even after all the first-world luxuries were confiscated by the heavens, people still have an absurd sense of humor.
I pulled my pants back up, which were wrinkled after my battle with them moments earlier. The door to the outhouse creaked as I pushed it open, gasping to expel the stale air from my lungs. The loss of a proper toilet was not only unhygienic, it was unethical. No one should ever have to live like this.
Well, at least I can take a shower.
I pulled the thick curtain closed behind me. First my shirt, then my pants, were hung on the sides of the stall. Shivering from the cold, morning air, I reached for the knob and twisted it.
Well, looks like somebody forgot to turn a tap off and drained the water tank overnight!
Wrapping a towel around my waist, I exited the shower and headed towards the rain collectors. Checking to make sure nobody was watching, I grabbed a bucket, filled it with liquid, and poured it over myself. The cold water hit me like an iceberg on the hull of a ship. I stuck my tongue out and sucked the water that trickled down my face into my mouth. I wasn't supposed to do this, as collected rainwater was for drinking, not washing. But it just felt so good, I couldn't resist.
I quickly dried myself off, got dressed, and headed back towards the building. "Rise and shine!" I called out. "Enough dawdling in La-La Land! Time to wake up! It's day insert-some-random-number-here in the Dead Zone! Wake up!"
The compound was slow to respond. The muffled sound of bedsheets rumpling as their occupants left their warm clutches could be heard. Soon, a door opened. "I'm up," a sleepy voice replied.
I headed over to the kitchen. Or rather, the lack of it. We had started building a kitchen not too long ago, and so far only a small, uneven countertop had been constructed. A hammer and some nails rested precariously on it, and a spirit level served as a reminder that it had not yet been completed. Maybe it never will, since that spirit level had been there for at least a week already.
The door to the food storage cabinet squeaked noisily. The hinges had not yet been oiled, for we had used it all up trying to build the pathetic countertop. The cabinet's only resident was a can of bread, three days past the "Best Before" date. I pulled the can out and, with a knife, cracked it open.
Soon, the five of us were all seated around the dining table, nothing more than a few wooden planks perched on top of a few cable spools. It reminded me of my study table while I was in college.
"Canned bread? More like canned poop!"
The four of them were busy examining and studying the bread, as if it were an archaeological find, sniffing it like a dog. Occasionally they would take tiny nibbles of the bread and grimace at the taste.
"Picky eaters get nothin'. The only ones that survive are those that eat what they're given."
My four companions were essential for our continued survival — it is always better to work in a team rather than alone. But, as my years of living in a college dorm have told me, it's not always easy living with other people. I have found all four of these while scavenging, looking for sustenance when I happened to stumble upon them.
Jesse was the first person I found. He was hiding in a grocery store, half-starved, ironically, and hid like a coward when I showed up. It took an hour of convincing before he reluctantly agreed to join me. The next six hours was spent moving all the food from the store to my — ahem, "our", hideout. He was the most cowardly person I've ever seen since middle school, and would run away and hide under the coffee table whenever a zombie horde comes in like a cat when the vacuum cleaner is switched on. I had to holler at him till my voice died out before he would even think about coming out with a toy gun to shoot (and squeal with fright) plastic bullets at the horde. He's been getting a bit better recently, and can at least help us defend during an attack. When he's not frightened, however, he does turn out to be a brilliant mathematician and an excellent organizer. After each mission that he doesn't chicken out on, he counts up all our supplies with amazing accuracy and shelves them with astonishing speed. He has calculus, trigonometry, algebra, and half a million digits of Pi embedded into every nerve in his body. It would seem likely that he once worked at a casino counting chips, but he hasn't said anything about that.
Alex was next. She was digging a grave for her recently deceased parents when we found her. At first, she refused, saying that she had "Nothing left to live for now that [her] parents are dead." She had planned on burying herself alive, with a gun next to her side so that death met her sooner, next to her parents whom she had been caring for since the apocalypse began. She had been trying to protect what remained of their old home when her folks got bitten.
I sighed. What a wonderful morning it has been.
Part 2. Morning hunt
The morning quietness was broken by the sound of foot meeting metal. A panel, free from its screws, crash-landed onto the floor of a dusty basement. The crisp, morning air rushed in to replace the old, stale air that had lingered in solitary confinement for who-knows-how-long.
The boot that had defeated the panel stepped in, feeling around for a secure surface it could rest on. It came across an old computer monitor, which gave way as the weight of the body bore down. The boot resumed probing the vicinity, to no avail.
"Alright, I'm gonna jump down. Might break the table, but who cares?"
A second boot appeared, joining the first. The two boots hung breathlessly in the air momentarily before they dropped. Like a diver breaking water, the boots cut through the table, sending splinters flying in all directions. The boots kicked at the debris desperately until they were freed from the rubble.
"I'll go around the front and open the door, meet me there!"
I dusted off my trusty work boots and my jeans before pulling out my tools. Out came a flashlight, pocket-sized and easy to carry. I turned it on. The little light bulb produced a strong, powerful beam that made the room bright enough for me to read a book. In my other hand, I pulled out my gun — a glock that I lifted from a deceased police officer — and cautiously made my way to the door.
The corridor was long and narrow. The light from the flashlight bore through the darkness like a tunnel boring machine through a mountain of cheddar. Every step I took kicked up a cloud of dust from the floor, creating a ghostly mist around my legs. Several of the doors to the surrounding rooms were open, either blown open by force or simply left open in the chaos. In every room, furniture was strewn around, as if a tornado had whirled through and tossed everything it could pick up in all directions. Skeletons of the victims who didn't make it out alive were clearly seen, some of them partially buried under the mess, their flesh long rotted away, although a number of flies were still buzzing in and out of a few corners. Broken glass was a frequent occurrence, and I was glad I had my boots with me to protect my feet.
The stairs creaked as I ascended them, the screams and groans reminding me of the "graveyard of lost souls that were buried under the stairs," or as I've heard from local residents describing this building. The steps were small and narrow, and if it wasn't for my strong grip on the railing, I would've tumbled back to square one. With some effort, I managed to get to the top.
"Bruce.... hey Bruce, you there yet?"
I made my way through the office towards the front door, where I could hear my teammates calling for me. The place was a mess, littered with overturned chairs and smashed computer screens. A number of poorly constructed cubicles were starting to fall over, and under every fallen wall was a skeleton, its flesh picked clean by the insects that flocked to the site at the prospect of food. I shuddered. This was not a good place to be in.
"Yeah, I'm here!" I called out. "I'll have the door open in a sec."
The doors... where were they? I panned the flashlight around the room, trying to find the exit. There were a number of doors located on the west wall, but they only led to the adjacent rooms. I scanned the wall carefully, feeling around it with my hands and nudging office furniture out of the way. No use. Only a few boarded-up windows that were too thick for me to break through.
I squeezed my mouth into the tiny gap between the board and the window and shouted, "I'm over here! Guys... I can't find the door!"
Soon, the four of them were by the window.
"But there's a door right over there!" Franco said, pointing to the direction where they found the "door".
"Yeah, well, I can't find it in here," I replied.