Chapter One: Zombies are very "in" this season.
Technology has always been an important part of moving forward with our lives--and in some cases, (like the case of Starbuck McLaw), it keeps us moving forward far longer than we may like. Seventy years ago, in the middle of the 20th century, the information age was just peeking around the corner. Technology was developing, new discoveries were being made, and suddenly we were on the moon. Everyone stopped what they were doing when we went to the moon--gathered around their tiny television sets and watched as we took one very small (or very large, depending on your perspective) step, changing the landscape of our only natural satellite forever. Today the moon is in our pockets if we want it--the whole solar system and our high score on space tetris are all in there, too.
Rarely are we impressed by something so meager as a factory that manufactured the batteries that the spacemen used in their flashlights in case of power loss. However, that’s exactly what East Hollystock, New Jersey hangs its hat on. East Hollystock is a funny place, because first of all, it is in West New Jersey. It's called East Hollystock because it is further East than West Hollystock, which is almost Pennsylvania. Some GPSes will tell you that you are, in fact, in Pennsylvania, but anyone who has been to both places knows there is a distinct difference, and that even if you’re only barely in New Jersey, you are still definitely not in Pennsylvania, but you will wish you were.
In the 1950s, like most of North-West New Jersey, East Hollystock had a factory that built batteries that went on to travel into space. According to the townspeople of the time, that meant they may as well be housing NASA and sending rockets even further than the moon. Because they were so futuristic and forward-thinking, their water tower needed to reflect this truth. The town became "The Crossroads of Tomorrow" as opposed to "The Crossroads of America" which it had considered itself before the factory. A painter who had made it big and was returning to town just for the occasion painted the new logo. The clean, crisp shape of the atom, a rocket ship and an outline of Saturn took the place of the old, loopy letters that had started to fade and chip away. Years later, the rocket ship got defaced, of course, and the atom shortly thereafter. Eventually, someone painted boobs above the whole affair.
But before that, East Hollystock was at a crossroads between tomorrow and what I guess was another tomorrow, because the motto was just "crossroads of tomorrow" instead of "the crossroad between tomorrow and…" anything else. The defaced pictures were painted over again, and by the time this story begins, they were in pristine condition, which makes them the only thing in East Hollystock that could make such a claim. The factory was in disrepair and overgrown. Its unsightly state of made it the perfect hiding place for shadowy figures to set up entirely unorthodox laboratories. The factory made a nice place for all sorts of shadowy activities, as it had been abandoned when the crossroads of tomorrow stopped leading anywhere interesting.
This is how it came to be that on a fine, spring day, when there was little sun peeking from between the numerous clouds in the sky, and the factory was full of the most unsightly of creatures, the people in East Hollystock did not know anything was going wrong.
Starbuck was running through the woods, however, with his newly constructed leg muscles and lungs which were getting stronger and stronger as the weeks went on. He was weaving between trees, rather lucky that he couldn't remember what it was like to be a Pharaoh. If he could remember, he would know someone was slacking on their job of making life as easy as possible for him, and then he’d probably have to call for their death. If he knew he once had armies at his command, and ruled over a country that had never even heard of squirrels, and that he never lifted a finger without someone running to assure he didn’t over-exert himself, why then all this forest running on an otherwise perfectly good Wednesday would likely make him mad.
Starbuck was running because Steven had started with his experiments again, and this time he took over the whole factory on the western border of the town, just between East and West Hollystock but still nowhere near Pennsylvania. Starbuck had been watching Steven for a couple days and now he was cursing himself for not acting sooner. He always forgot just how effective Steven could be when he really wanted something—often forgot that without this diligence Starbuck himself would still be in a sarcophagus, nailed shut, in the basement of some institution of higher education, laying completely unaware of the undergrads shagging in the corner. But no, Steven had kept pestering those librarians, getting every piece of paperwork they required of him signed in triplicate.
Steven was so dedicated that even HE was completely unaware of the sloppy kissing in the corner when he burst into the basement of the library, threw the light switch on and stared in awe at the glittering, albeit dusty, sarcophagus which was being used as nothing more than a bookend. The undergrads held very still and wished very hard that this shrouded figure in the lab coat was not, in fact, the head librarian, like it had been the week before.
In one fell swoop, all three of their wishes were granted as Steven was so absorbed in the mummy he would finally get to take "home" with him that he didn't notice the couple. He did realize he had stumbled upon something very, very special, when he read the hieroglyphics which wrapped all the way around the sarcophagus, and laughed to himself at the luck he had been waiting for all his life.
“A book end.” He scoffed, and pushed all the volumes stacked atop it to the ground. They clattered so loudly that the co-eds in the corner managed to scatter out behind him and run for the stairs without making any noticeable noise. "Oh, Stevie-boy. This. This is what makes all the pointing and the laughing and the mocking worth it all those years." Oh, yes. He's a self-talker.
Steven reached over Starbuck's coffin and hugged it. Or tried to hug it. Practicing your evil genius may have its advantages, but muscular bulk is not one of them. The couple had stopped at the door at the strange muttering. They were a couple curious kids, and Steve was quite the weirdo. Steve tried picking the coffin up. He tried turning it around. He tried lifting one end and dragging it. The couple in the corner discreetly put their clothes on, confused as to how this kid thought he was going to pick up this big hunk of junk. The boy named George wondered why this kid was trying to move Marvin the Mummy (that's what everyone who knew about him called him, anyhow) and how exactly he planned to accomplish it. The girl, named Rachel, wondered why George wouldn't ever invite her over to his own dorm room.
Finally, George cleared his throat. "Hi." He blurted as Steven stopped trying to pick the sarcophagus up and looked to see where the voice had come from.
"Excuse me. Hello.”
"Hi, need a hand? There are hand carts over there." George pointed into the corner. He was right. Of course, he had no idea what kind of sinister events he was helping put into motion.
"Uh. Yes? Thanks. That would be... I just need to get it outside to the van." Rachel thought to herself how nice it was that George was helping this guy out when really a lesser man would have snuck out with her back to the dorms or maybe just another quiet part of the library to finish what they had started.
“So, uh, you’re taking Marvin outta here, huh?”
“Marvin. The mummy. That’s what we call him around here. Where’s he headed?” George helped Steve stand the Mummy upright, and then helped him load it onto one of the larger hand carts.
“Uhm, he’s going to have…tests done on him. We’re going to find out who he is. And stuff.” Steven frantically tried to remember what the paperwork that the college made him fill out had said. They pulled him out to the ancient elevator, and stood awkwardly waiting for the thing to arrive.
“Cool, so like placing him in history and finding out who he was and what his life was like?” Rachel asked. Steven noticed her eyes were sparkling.
“Uh. Yes. Something like that.” He was starting to wonder if these two would become a problem or if they’d magically disappear. Steven hadn't practiced his evil genius skills yet. In fact, in some ways, like East Hollystock New Jersey, he was standing at a crossroads of tomorrow. The rest of this story depended on which road Steven decided to start following. Lucky for you and for me, the interestingness of this story depended on that decision, and he chose (for our purposes) well.
For Starbuck's purposes, however, Steven chose poorly. Although ultimately it's all relative and really if he had chosen differently there is no way of knowing how any of this would have turned out.
Starbuck was standing could finally stop running because it was time to start fighting. He ran soundlessly towards Steven in an attempt to take him down and break the control he was using to animate the cadavers. Steven had created a zombie army that he was sending toward the center of town in East Hollystock, but he hadn't had the resources to animate them all the way he had animated Starbuck, so he had to improvise. Instead of replacing all their brains with brains, he had replaced them with microchips that he could control and use the remote controlled cars. He could control them using a relatively simple remote—relative to some of his other inventions—and move a whole "herd" of them at once.
Once the zombies were among the people, Starbuck was not sure what Steven planned to do with them. He couldn’t imagine that reanimated cadavers without much muscle mass, moving simultaneously, would raise some suspicion and the small but dedicated police force would soon be on the case. But knowing what he was created for made him nervous, and even though he stuck around more as a back-up plan, he felt at least sort of responsible for the cadavers.
The cadavers, however, weren't moving. They were standing, but not moving. Steven was standing a bit away from the horde, smacking the remote against the heel of his left hand. Something was going wrong. Instead of casting relief over Starbuck, this made him somehow more nervous. Starbuck took off past the horde, hiding behind a thinning forest of trees with newly formed leaves on the branches. He could still hear the smacking of the control, right up until he reached the edge of the forest when suddenly he heard sinister laughter instead, and reluctantly he looked behind himself. Steven had been bluffing. He knew Starbuck was on his tail and, while Starbuck ran toward the edge of the forest, the whole herd had been right on his tail. They were gaining on him.
Perhaps their animation was more complicated than Starbuck knew. Either way, it was time to run again because battles with 30-1 odds typically didn't end well for the one. He pulled his hat down on his head, hoping against hope that no one would notice him while he subtly alerted the police. But he didn't need his hat. In fact, he didn't need to be discreet at all. Because, instead of sounds of terror, as Starbuck ran through the town, he heard sounds of awe and shock, dialogue spoken in whispers, but only because the dialogue went something like this:
"Oh cool, look at what a big group of them—“
"I didn't know they were starting to film today!"
"I didn't even know they were filming at all!"
Starbuck stopped running for a moment to survey the crowd. Yes, instead of running, the citizens of the town were stopping and staring. They were watching the horde advance in complete amazement.
"Wow that makeup department sure is working hard!"
"Hey, you should go get a make-over from them! They could only make you look better." Smack.
Starbuck turned around. Some people were even standing in the street, holding their phones out. Starbuck looked around frantically, for anything that might present him with a good weapon.
"Where are the camera men? They must be hiding—OH WHAT IF WE'RE IN THE SHOT?!"
A flag was hanging from a flag pole over the "dry goods" store (That should have been a clue. Who has a dry goods store?) that had a sign in the window announcing they had been open for sixty eight years. Starbuck jumped on top of the rocking chair on the front porch, hopped on top of the stack of barrels, and yanked on the flag pole. People started noticing him, too.
"Ugh a Sheriff? How unoriginal."
"I know. That comic book had a sheriff."
"The one that got turned into a television show. What a rip-off."
“Seriously. What a rip-off.”
“Writers these days are getting so unoriginal, it's really just sad."
Starbuck couldn't stand to listen any longer, mostly because as he was listening, the cadavers started lunging at people. All in unison.
"A FLASH MOB!"
The crowd started cheering. Starbuck jumped from the awning of the store to the edge of the horde, swinging the pole at the cadavers.
"This sheriff guy just isn't giving up, is he, Cheryl?"
“No, I don't think he—oh holy crap he actually just smacked a guy in the head!"
Starbuck had, indeed, smacked an animated corpse who looked like a guy in the head. And once one of them went down, another turned to face him and the rest turned precisely the same amount of degrees toward him. Starbuck sighed.
"STEVEN." He shouted as he swung his flag pole again.
"Who knows?” someone queried from among the crowd.
“DO THRILLER!" someone else shouted.
As Starbuck was swinging the flag pole again, he caught sight of a girl, leaning against another of the stores, with her camera phone out like so many others. The difference between her and the others, however, was the look on her face. She didn't look interested, she looked... like she knew what she was filming. She looked like she knew this was no television show, or publicity stunt, or poorly choreographed dance number. She was filming intently as Starbuck swung away at cadaver after cadaver, some knocking themselves over as they bumped into him. Finally, she looked up from her phone and directly at Starbuck, who wanted to stare back and ask her what she was doing, but couldn't as he still had fifteen clumsy dead guys trying their darndest to wreak some havoc on a small town in New Jersey. A small town, but a small town that he had come to sort of care about. East Hollystock was a town where his entire history now laid, and history is not something easily given up, even if it lies in the hands of a slightly evil if not kind of clumsy genius.
The girl, however, had decided she had enough footage, or perhaps her phone battery had died, or maybe she had just moved. Whatever the reason, she had disappeared. So now Starbuck had a choice. Well, not immediately—immediately there was no choice to be made. All he had to worry about was continuing to smack zombies upside the head as annoyingly oblivious townspeople were booing him, thinking they had been gypped out of some kind of memorial performance in the Prince of Pop's name. Or something. Starbuck still didn't really understand these people. But once the zombie crunching was done, then he would have a choice to make, because then he could hope that he was imagining things and the girl was just like everyone else, or he could actively look for her and find out what she knew.
Two more swings with the flag pole and he had almost all of the zombies out and on the ground. In fact, he hadn't even had to hit all of the zombies. It appeared that there was one master zombie and once he took that guy out, the rest fell at his feet. Very few of the disgruntled citizens were left standing around watching this whole affair, and one of them started clapping. Then another started clapping. And then another, until finally the whole crowd consented that Starbuck was playing the unexpected hero in some kind of guerilla theatre or something, and the cadavers were the result of an animatronic experiment. They did live at the crossroads of tomorrow, after all.
The crowd decided that whatever they had just witnessed—television programming or flash mob or theatrical demonstration, was finally over and now it was time to disperse and go home. So off they went. Try as he might, Starbuck couldn't locate Steven. He figured he would return to the scene, at the very least to collect his microchips, but perhaps he had finally gotten some funding or broken into a bank and could afford to start from scratch again. It had not been the most successful experiment, even by Steven's standards. None of his experiments since Starbuck had been quite as successful[JS2] .
But there it was, a crowd of zombie-like cadavers who were now significantly less zombie-like and significantly more cadaver-like, scattered about in the town square by Starbuck's feet. Starbuck ran back into the woods to try and see if Steven had left a trail, or maybe was just hiding inside the old factory. For all he knew, there could be another army of zombies waiting inside, all with microchips in their heads just like the first batch. Maybe Steven was just waiting for the hulabaloo of the first horde to die down and then he could send out the next batch and everyone's guard would be down.
Steven’s plans were typically multi-stepped like that. Starbuck was only the third step in a fifty step plan he had come up with when he was twelve. But now that was neither here, nor there, and neither was Stephen. Starbuck scoured the factory. He did everything short of a long, complicated dance number that included gymnastics and classic cars. The sun was going down, and Starbuck decided to follow it and head home to his room in the basement of the Private School.