Gehenna Rises

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“Y’know what I said before about us being fucked? I don’t think that even begins to cover it.”

JB: Missing…? Never a good thing to say in a room full of undead.

AM: Yeah. By that stage, Horace was fast becoming a voice of doom to us.

‘What?’ I asked. ‘What are you missing?’ I was hoping he just meant some tool, a hammer, a pair of gloves, something innocuous. Anything other than what his tone implied. No such luck.

‘It’s number Three,’ he whined urgently. ‘Test Subject Three…’ Horace wagged a finger off over the fan of tables to another, pushed against the barn wall. Of course I hadn’t given any thought to that table because it was empty, well… largely, if you discounted the unconnected hips and legs of a man lying still upon it. Horace’s urgent pointing meant however that was the problem. When he’d last seen it, that table top had been only too occupied by something more than just the legs.

JB: Oh shit.

AM: The attack came from our left, out of the gloom… and it was a damned gloomy room. Limited, low power lanterns, all the windows boarded up, only offering slivers of sunlight through from outside, bodies hanging from hooks, all moving, all making noise… everything combining to camouflage a predator’s approach, offering concealment from where it could watch, and choose the right moment to strike.

JB: You’re saying a zombie was stalking you three in there?

AM: I make it sound like that, don’t I? The times I’ve replayed that moment, I know it was just likely coincidence the thing attacked when it did. We hadn’t been in Horace’s lab that long after all. Had the zeb been at the back of the barn, the time it took to make its way through to us would have matched our entering to the moment it attacked, meaning there could’ve been no pre-meditation in the thing’s mind. It would have just seen us and come for us. Still, to attack the moment Horace drew our attention to the fact the thing was loose, and to come from the side, out of the dark… A little coincidental.

JB: Yeah. He said it had been a test subject?

AM: [Nods] The butchers’ hooks still protruding from its back when it flailed around weren’t the only giveaways to that. Like the first two, it was powered by an amalgam of joined head sections, but that wasn’t how it appeared to me as the thing lumbered out of the dark at us. My first impression was the attacking zeb had a single, mutated and abnormally stretched face leering down at us, venomous hunger in its eyes… all four of them

JB: Four eyes?

AM: Two pairs, one set above the other. Of course it was the heads’ configuration which had created the impression. One zeb head, severed below the nose, Horace had nestled snuggly upon the forehead of the other, its upper cranium sectioned away above the brows and down, back to just above where the skull met the spine. The way the upper skull section rested – gaffer-taped – upon the lower, its eyes would have been perpetually looking skyward, were prey – us – not within reach. Horace had kept the two faces clear of tape, only added more to the distorting impression.

But we had… what? Barely a second to register that. The conjoined brains, this time via an intact neck, powered an upper torso that was little more than spine and ribcage tented by tightened shreds of air-dried skin. The torso’s arms were still attached… and very mobile. These now reached out as the zeb lunged toward us.

JB: But… how could it? The zeb had no legs. They were still on the table.

AM: Its original pair were, yes. I remember thinking, even as the thing roared with hunger, almost upon us, It found replacements. And it had. I’ve thought a lot since about what must have happened while Horace had been away. This revived creature must have wrestled its arms loose from their bindings, or maybe Horace, becoming complacent, hadn’t bound it as securely as he’d thought. Once free, it lifted itself bodily off the rail from which it had been hung, at the same time ripping apart its goopy connection to the legs strapped on the table. But now it was free, all it needed was to find another set of legs which better suited its purpose. Trouble was, Horace had provided plenty of bodies for it to choose from.

Now whether it was some lower level of consciousness within the conjoined undead brain making a decision, or some instinctive judgement formed from within the workings of the goop itself – and I believe now it was the latter, though I can’t prove it – that zeb sought and found what it needed from amongst the bodies Horace had left. And I think too it may have used a cleaver as well to get it.

Because the body that Test Subject Three was now using to piggy-back upon and walk towards us, would at least have had some of a head attached.

JB: Woa, woa, woa… a cleaver?

AM: Of course. It’s been well documented the undead have a limited capacity for tool use. At least it was limited up to that point.

JB: And – I’m sorry… Piggy-backing? It was piggy-backing?!

AM: I suppose. Best way I can describe it. In a sane world where the dead don’t walk, that’s what I’d be seeing; a child sitting on a parent’s shoulders. But the world is not sane, and what we saw rushing us was nothing so benign. The ravening torso sat upon the shoulders of a decapitated man, its lower spine inserted into the neck of the body it rode. Both torsos were locked in place by the man-body’s arms, which were raised high within the upper zeb’s ribcage, as though it was trying to shrug into a jumper, instead its hands firmly gripping the ribs and remaining musculature.

The result was a multi-eyed, horse-faced giant at least seven feet tall bearing down upon us.

JB: Fuck me…

AM: I’m amazed now the sight of this newest edition to our waking nightmare didn’t freeze us to the spot. I think now that, had we not witnessed Jeff Salmon climbing off the morgue table just a little earlier, it might well have, costing us even more life-saving seconds than it did. Fortunately, on top of experiencing so much walking death those last few months, we’d just had that additional, what I called “experiential inoculation”, inuring us to the freeze-inducing terror it might once have provoked in us. Instead, our fight / flight response kicked in.

There wasn’t much space for us to manoeuvre, struck between the door through which we’d come and the tables arrayed immediately in front of us, but manoeuvre we did. Jennifer dove under the two tables holding Horace’s masterpiece, dropping out of sight, placing table-bound and thrashing zebs between her and the lumbering, towering monster. Horace hopped backward, bounced against me and retreated to the barn’s side wall, then ducked round behind the hanging, thrashing bodies to give himself some distance. I only vaguely registered him doing that as I too dodged toward the tables.

I didn’t do anything as sensible as either of them.

Just what possessed me into thinking how leaping onto the tables occupied with thrashing undead could be anything resembling a good idea is now completely beyond me. Sure, the gaps between the tables at the base of the fan arrangement weren’t wide, so I could still have going round and slipped through, couldn’t I? But no, that would be too sensible. Instead something in my unconscious decides I slip into Errol Flynn mode, doesn’t it? And I do; taking a swift, short-running leap at Horace’s masterpiece. And where do I land on the tables? Only in exactly the wrong place.

You know how foldaway tables work, right? Normally the legs splay outward from the centre, locking in place just after they pass the vertical…? I don’t know whether it’s the cost of materials, but the cheaper the model of table, the closer to the centre the legs seem to originate, and consequently the farther from each end of the table the legs are. Such a design shouldn’t cause any significant weight distribution issues if all you’re doing is loading the thing with clothes for the odd church bring & buy sale, or setting on it cakes and nibbles for the village’s annual summer fete or the rare jubilee celebration. It does however create a major life-threatening problem if you add the weight of a grown man landing upon it – with force – at one end of said table, right at its edge, such a life-threatening problem being compounded further if said table is already partly weighted at that end with the squirming arms and torso of an undead woman, and the landing man is fleeing the reaching arms of a pursuing zeb giant.

Naturally, the table turned into an impromptu seesaw-cum-catapult, flinging the torso into my legs, even as the table-top sank abruptly beneath my feet as it shot toward the vertical. I toppled, down and to my right, letting out a startled, ‘Woa!’ just before the inverted table top smacked the side of my head… hard. I saw a brilliant white flash, the commotion around me immediately muffling as I tumbled, hitting the floor beyond.

I was stunned only a moment I think, and again I was thankful after for the protection provided by the PPE headgear I wore, buffering my head from the worst of the table’s impact. It quickly dawned too that I’d hit one of tables in the fan arrangement as I went down, toppling it over too on its side, and taking the undead occupant with me. Struggling against the pounding pain I felt rolling its way up and down the whole of my right side, I turned to get myself clear, only to reel directly, eye-to-eye, into the face of that table’s occupant. Immediately it tried gnawing its way through the Perspex of my visor, and its eyes glared into mine, filled with eager hunger, goop and saliva staining the clear plastic before me, blurring its fervently snapping jaws. I screamed in surprise and fear, recoiling from the creature even as it, and the table to which it was strapped, was yanked up and away from me, revealing the conjoined bodies of the horse-faced zeb giant.

The giant’s four eyes narrowed as they zeroed on me. Cleared of rivals for my flesh, I lay now, helpless before the thing as it loomed over me. It reached down for me-

JB: Good God!

AM: ‘This is it,’ I thought, ‘This is how it ends,’ at the same time becoming vaguely aware of a voice sounding like my own screaming for help. Luckily help came.

Into the right of my vision, a dirty cream shape blurred down, halting as it hit the giant zeb’s left arm even as its hand grabbed the cloth of my protective overalls. The shape resolved itself into a cricket bat, its heft and momentum generating a satisfying, if sickeningly wet, crack the moment the wood connected, splintering the bone within the zeb’s arm, instantly skewing it in on itself, rendering it limp and useless.

The bat rose and came down again; this time striking only a glancing blow upon the monster’s left shoulder. The impact was precisely the place the conjoined skulls would have been, had not the creature turned, unfazed by the freshly shattered collarbone, instinctively rounding on its attacker and reaching out for them, oblivious to the ruin its flailing broken arm now was, the forearm dangling, the jagged bone within piercing the skin, shredding it, exposing muscle and sinew.

The zeb’s attacker ducked back into view, and I realised my bat-wielding saviour was Horace. I never got the chance to ask him where he found that bat; whether he had it kept close for emergencies like this or it had just been laying about handy. Whatever… he swung it to and fro, drawing the creature away, giving me a chance to clamber clear. The thing however was making him retreat toward the chicken wire wall he’d created, and if he didn’t duck left or right, the zeb would fall on him, pinning him. I drew my sword and, my steps clumsy, struggled forward to help him, my whole right side almost paralysed from my fall. Already I felt pessimistic I’d be any real help to him until I had more time to recover… time Horace just didn’t have.

That’s when Jen – as-ever-on-the-ball Jen – literally charged in; full steam into the fray from out my left, yelling like a banshee, hacking with her own blade, severing the zeb’s already damaged arm above the break, ducking under the amputation and ploughing into the lumbering body, grappling with it.

The giant reeled and staggered backward, clutching its attacker with its remaining arm, its upper torso trying to bend down so the jaws of its head could get at her. I could see the fingers of the arms raised up within the ribcage flexing too, instinctively mimicking their free sibling. Still Jen pushed, zombie and veterinarian now striking the remaining, un-toppled table holding the upper portion of Horace’s opus.

‘The head!’ Jen yelled over the cacophony of groans. ‘Hit the frickin’ head!’

‘Which one?’ Even now I still don’t recall which of us asked that stupid question.

‘Any one!’ she bawled.

I was close enough to give the thing a shot with my sword. I swung the blade up in an awkward arc, toward the conjoined zombie’s amalgamated head pieces. It just caught, sweeping the upper nose clean off, the triangle of soft tissue spinning up and away. But that’s all it could do; the impetus of the blade, already poorly energised by my semi-paralysed arm, was halted by the upper skull’s brows into which it buried itself, its remaining force lifting the front of the skull clear with a wrench, emitting, to my ears anyway, a sound the sickly combination of relenting mud and parting Velcro.

I tugged the sword to me, trying to free it. It was stuck fast, but it also tugged the upper skull toward me, loosening the gaffer tape binding the two craniums together. Abruptly the blade came free, but my weak hand lost its grip, and the weapon clattered to the floor. I yelled for Horace to help, and that he did, taking a running swing at the monster, bellowing with the effort. I ducked clear, managing to look back in time to see his cricket bat blur again, to smack square into the zeb’s lower skull, crushing its nose, shattering the upper jaw, pulping the eyes to little more than burst grape skins. The force of the impact flung the conjoined heads back, and the body with them. What it also did was lift the already loosened upper skull free so it fell back, as if connected to the lower skull by a rear hinge, revealing an intricate web of connective goop so complex it was almost a honeycomb. But a honeycomb that thinned as it stretched, quickly forced taught by the upper skull balanced vertically now upon its twin… now tipping backward.

Under strain as it was, the goopy neural net kept the two part brains communicating, and they ordered the undead body to push back against the blow, against Jen. The higher centre of gravity created by the addition of the second, upper body made the creature’s efforts to regain balance that much harder, allowing me time to reach for my blade, as well for as Horace to take another swing. His second blow demolished the lower jaw this time, both mandibles colliding together so powerfully any teeth remaining either crumbled to fragments or ejected out the ripped wide lips of its maw.

Both skull sections unsurprisingly slapped together hard at that, but, as the conjoined zeb was still leaning back, the upper skull immediately hinged free again. Still the connective goop held.

The monster was reeling, black goop and brown blood streaming from its destroyed face, effectively blind; its remaining eyes staring up at the ceiling from the upper skull. The creature bellowed out of its ruined mouth, whether from rage or frustration at the delay of its meal I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t from pain. Its left claw of a hand now gripped Jen tight at her shoulder as she struggled to wriggle free, at the same time inadvertently lending the creature leverage to stand vertical again. By now however I’d regained my sword. I threw the handle into my good left hand, raised the blade, and brought it down. My aim was true, but I was winded, tired, using the wrong hand. The blade seemed only to bounce off the tight webbing between the brains. I did hear the keen snick of severing strands I’d heard back in the morgue. The monster seemed to sense it was in mortal danger then. It used Jen to pull itself up, just as I managed a second strike at its brain-goop. I managed to catch the side of the web this time, severing a few more strands. Again the creature howled, easy now to read into it a note of triumph as it succeeded in bringing itself back to the vertical, and began drawing Jen toward it. But the upper skull had hinged back too far by now, the connective goop stretched by gravity beyond its elasticity, weakened by my blows. If the zeb had begun to lean down to bite Jen just a few seconds earlier, it would have avoided the same Connection Break Cascade we’d witnessed in Jeff Salmon’s corpse less than an hour before. Instead came the repeated snick! snick! of strand after strand snapping, the upper skull piece sinking back lower and lower as its life-giving connections unravelled. The conjoined bodies halted, shuddered and slackened, the left arm relinquishing its grip on Jen. The thing toppled on its side as the last of the goop strands snapped, the upper skull spinning away across the floor as the creature slapped, again lifeless, onto the linoleum.

After mutual confirmations we were unbitten and, all things considered, otherwise okay, Jen sank to her knees gasping, recovering from the exertion, staring at the bodies.

‘Y’know what I said before about us being fucked…?’ she managed between pants, ‘…I don’t think that even begins to cover it.’

Frankly, we had to agree.

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