Clown World: Book One, Chapter Five…unedited…

I woke to rough hands shaking me. Emily lay next to me, one leg stuck out from under the cover and her mouth wide open.
“What?”
“Are you Jake?”
“Yeah. What time is it?”
“It’s 1230. You’ve got a briefing in half an hour at the command tent.”
“Okay. Thanks, I appreciate the wake-up.”
“No problem. Don’t be late.”
“Emily, wake up. We’ve got guard duty in thirty minutes.”
She didn’t move, so I gripped her shoulder and shook her. “What,” she muttered, stirring in the bed and swatting at my hand. I shook her again.
“Get up, we’ve got to move.”
“I’m up,” she grumbled as she sat up. We slipped our boots on and secured our weapons. Then, we walked out into the early morning air and headed for the command tent. Upon arrival, a heavyset woman paced back and forth in front of the tent, a cigar jutted out of her mouth, and a tendril of smoke followed her movements.
“Who are you?”
“Um, I’m Jake. This is my partner, Emily. Who are you?”
“You came in with Rae, right?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“Do you know anything about pulling tower guard, Jake?”
“Yes, I’ve pulled guard duty a time or two.”
“Good. You and Emily are no longer roving patrol. Instead, you’re going to relieve Tower 3.”
Emily stepped up and said, “Rae said…”
“I don’t care what Rae said, missy. You go where you’re needed, or grab your crap and start walking, darling.”
“Which one is Tower 3?”
“Get in that vehicle over there, and I’ll take you to it. There was an incident earlier, no need to jeopardize more lives.”
“What kind of incident?”
“I’m Francis,” the woman snapped. “Get in and let’s go.”
She led us to a Toyota Highlander and fired it up. We sped into the long shadows of early morning, unsure of what awaited us at Tower 3. Rae’s team stood at the base of the stairs. Francis raced up, jammed on the brakes, and slammed the shifter into park, while simultaneously opening the door and exiting the vehicle, her cigar still in her mouth.
“I brought some new guards,” Francis said around the cigar. “Maybe they’ll last longer than the other two.”
Rae gave us a nod and a firm smile but said nothing to either of us. A ratty towel was thrown over something. Francis walked up to it and pulled it back to reveal the remains of the two guards.
“This is what’s left of the two guards, you two are replacing,” Francis said. “They couldn’t be bothered to stay awake, even after they received a briefing. So, the Lurkers came and ripped ‘em apart. Let me make this easy for you two knuckleheads to understand. DO NOT go to sleep on your shift. Lives depend on you doing your job. Do not make me look like an idiot because I trusted you would do the right thing.”
Francis wobbled back to the Highlander and sped off into the night. Rae stepped forward and extended her hand to Emily and me.
“You’ll have to forgive my mother,” Rae said. “She’s changed much since the world ended. I had you two slotted for roving guard until this happened. Let’s get you up into the tower.”
Emily had paled and appeared to be on the verge of emptying the contents of her stomach on the fresh corpses. I took her gently by the elbow and led her to the stairs.
“Sit down here, Emily. Breathe through your nose, okay? You’re gonna be okay.”
Rae and I walked up the stairs to the machine gun. I looked down the hill, nothing stirred. “Now is as good a-time as any for questions,” I thought to myself.
“What happened here, Rae?”
“These guards you replaced were survivors. They’d been here for about a week. It’s like momma said, Jake. The guards fell asleep, and the Lurkers took ‘em out.”
“Okay. How did they get inside the wire?”
Rae cocked her head at me and gave me a knowing grin. I turned from her and looked out over the hill; I knew what was coming next.
“Are you former military, Jake?”
“I’m retired. Why?”
“Betrayed by your lingo, my man. You know what the Lurkers are, right?”
“Nope.”
“I assume you know how to handle that machine gun.”
“Yes, I remember how to use one.”
“Show me,” Rae said.
I flipped open the lid, swept the ammo out and pulled the charging handle back and locked it into place. Then, I lifted the feeding tray and dropped it back down, put the ammo back in and closed the lid.
“Yeah, I guess you’re good to go.”
“We’ll see.”
“We need someone out here that knows what they’re doing, Jake. So many people have no idea what’s going on. They get out here and think it’s all fun and games until they end up like those two at the base of the stairs.”
“About the Lurkers…”
“They are survivors of the virus, or so we’ve been told. Do you know how the virus works?”
I shook my head no, and Rae continued.
“Your symptoms start off like sinus problems, a runny nose, a cough, what have you. Then, it progresses into a full-blown respiratory issue. As the virus travels through your body, it turns your blood septic. In the last stages, your heart rate increases rapidly and explodes within your chest cavity.”
“That sounds fatal, Rae. How does anyone survive that?”
“We don’t know. There’s a team of scientists in Kingsbury trying to figure that out now. As of now, they say those who become Lurkers have a natural immunity in place that keeps the virus from killing them. Some sort of natural immunity, the scientists theorized. According to the eggheads though, the virus is mutating into something else.”
I looked over the wall, and nothing stirred.
“How did they get up here, Rae.”
“We don’t know. My team is outside the wire looking for answers to that very question.”
The flood lamps flickered and clicked off. Then the night air became saturated with the moans of the damned and the shuffling of running feet.

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