Gehenna Rises

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PART SIX: EPIPHANY & ESCALATION

“Where their worm does not die…”

JB: Tell me you raised the alarm now.

AM: Damn right we did. Jen would head off to tell the Council. But not before she remembered something else. It had slipped her mind – understandably so, what with Jeff’s revival and Horace’s confession about his horror show.

JB: This was “Jeff’s second warning” you mentioned earlier…?

AM: [Rubs his eyes] Yes… yes that’s right. When she’d received the body from Horace, Jen had looked through his clothes for some kind of indicator. It had been a vain hope doing it, she’d said, seeing as all bodies are given a cursory check for anything useful the Haven could salvage, and she was afraid any such kind of indicator could have been lost, but she felt she should take a look anyway. And she found a note, folded flat inside Jeff’s inner coat pocket. No wonder Josh had missed it – thankfully – when he’d frisked him. This was what Jen handed me now.

It was a sheet torn out from what must have been, I assume, Jeff’s pocket Bible. Bloodied, smudged finger and thumbprints topped and tailed the page where Jeff must have held it steady while he struggled to write on it. He’d used a black biro. Two words had been scrawled on the paper, in shaky capitals, the lines forming each letter written over twice, three times so the words stood out bold from the neat black on white scripture beneath. And oh… that they did. Positively jumped off the page at me.

JB: “GEHENNA RISES”…

AM: “Gehenna Rises”.

The moment I saw those words I swore like a trooper. I try not to curse much, didn’t then either, despite everything. As I see it, if you’re going to use expletives, to make it count and give it more of a punch, then use them only when it’s really warranted. And oh God, that time it was so fucking warranted. I let go with such words, it made Jen and Horace blink. I think Horace even took a step back in shock.

That message had been written for my eyes, I knew it. As the Haven’s liaison to the Fortress, Jeff understood that I was the man known here as the one he trusted most, so he gambled that message would ultimately reach me. God only knows what he must have gone through his last hours, having just witnessed the destruction of his home – his sect’s New Jerusalem even – the death of his family, and then, what with his back and legs burning from the pain of his wounds and the spreading infection, trying to dodge the dead as he made his escape stumbling through the blackness of the hostile countryside, keeping his wits about him as long as he was able… And then realising he wouldn’t make it to our perimeter before he passed on, that his chance to warn us would be lost. He must have wracked his fevered brain, trying to figure out a message that could convey the threat as clearly and succinctly as possible, counting on my knowledge of scripture to know exactly what his words really meant.

JB: And you did.

AM; Oh yes, did I!

I ran for the workshop door, outlining as quickly as I could what the message meant and telling Jen to go raise the alarm with the Council about this latest adaptation by the goop. In the meantime I needed to check something ASAP.

Oh – I also told her she needed to get petrol. Lots of petrol.

My run up to the comms tent in the castle’s upper Ward took an age. I was in my early forties at the time, and though I jogged regularly and joked I ran like an old man, the gag came back at me hard. Chest heaving for air as I crossed the bridge to the summit Ward and dodging through the tent flaps, I gasped out my request to Sally if she could make contact with Wally over at the Fortress. She couldn’t, she replied. Standard protocol was to restrict comms traffic to specific times unless it was an emergency. I urged her it was a priority. She could only apologise, shrug and pled her position in the group, and that she was under orders.

JB: Henry Jackson’s orders?

AM: [Nods] His desire to maintain as low a profile as possible for the Haven. While the restriction of comms traffic was at Sergeant Rule’ initiation after his arrival, so’s to standardise communications and maintain security within the Haven – as well as without to external third parties such as Docklands and the Fortress – which all made sense, don’t get me wrong, Henry wanted us to leave as little an electronic footprint over the airwaves as possible. That had been prior to the “raider” attack on the Fortress. Now, apart from officially sanctioned communiqués, we were suddenly facing a signals lockdown. I think Henry ordered it as he feared there may be a spy within the camp who may try to make contact with his imaginary raiders, and help them plan their next attack – this time on Beeston itself.

Of course this meant that Sally, smart, efficient, and capable a Haven administrator and comms officer as she was, and being also mother of two kids, Billy and Grace, there was nothing she could do. Her vital role meant she was able to keep them close at the Bailey – literally within the inner circle. Henry could exercise his displeasure at any infraction by replacing her, and moving them toward the outer walls, farther from safety. She’d learned earlier that day Henry was “transferring” me off site to the Fortress, so it was no great leap for her to imagine herself and her kids sitting in the same car with me later that afternoon. She’d have been mad to violate orders and let me make a call. A genius way for Henry to maintain, if not loyalty, then compliance with his orders.

Minutes later I had no luck trying to get transport to the Fortress either; the next car leaving from the depot (situated near the castle’s main gates) wouldn’t leave for another three hours – the next officially cleared departure time. Oddly enough, it was the same car I was due to ride in to begin my exile, but no-one was willing to take me early, and no-one wanted to hand over the keys. Ironic that a vehicle I’d otherwise had to have been dragged kicking a screaming into a scant hour before, I could no longer hitch a ride on.

So there I am, all the while as I charge to and fro, my brain processing and re-processing the implications of Jeff’s warning, the words he used ringing through my head, loud as any audible warning bell.

JB: Which was? I know of course, I’m just curious how you put it together.

AM: You see, “Gehenna” is a Greek term – “Gehinnom” in Rabbinical Hebrew – used to describe a place outside the walls of the old City of Jerusalem; “the Valley of the Son of Hinnom”. In the old Hebrew Bible the place is cursed, and with good reason. According to the second book of Chronicles, Gehenna was where apostate Israelites and followers of pagan gods, such as Moloch, would sacrifice their children by fire. The book of Isaiah doesn’t name Gehenna itself, but “the burning place” in which Isaiah foretells the Assyrian army is to be destroyed, and where those who rebel against God are consigned, must by Isaiah’s inference, be one and the same, especially as Jesus, in the book of Mark, quotes from Isaiah; “where their worm does not die” in direct reference to Gehenna.

JB: “Where their worm does not die…”

AM: Gehenna… The cursed place, where the fires would always burn; mass grave for felled enemy armies and murdered children, and, by tradition, where Jerusalem residents disposed of their rubbish…

JB: The Fortress plague pit.

AM: It made perfect sense. And not only theirs, but – by implication – Beeston’s own plague pit too… a plague pit which, because of our industrious program of neutering zebs, was at least a couple of orders of magnitude larger than the Fortress’ own. That was why I had to get out to the Fortress immediately to obtain visual, own-eyes confirmation of Jeff’s warning. That’s why I’d urged Jen to grab as much petrol as possible. If the warning was true, and Jeff’s repaired corpse and Horace’s Revived monstrosities were strong indicators that it was…

JB: Okay, okay. So you couldn’t get comms access or a car…

AM: I was beginning to feel frantic. The pressure, the urgency of the warning – and I felt it had to be urgent, that we were sitting on a ticking time bomb rapidly counting down – began crowding out sensible thinking. Knowing Jen was meeting with them, I could have just run to the Council Tent and appealed my case. Instead, rather than count to ten to calm myself, I ran to the vicarage, grabbed my militia gear, marched for the Southern Perimeter Gate and told them I was heading out to the Fortress, hoofing it if I’d have to. The guards nixed that idea immediately. Henry’s paranoia-tinged orders again. [Shakes his head] I swear the situation was like something out of a mash-up between Catch 22 and Bagpuss. Y’know… that old children’s programme? “And when Bagpuss goes to sleep, all his friends go to sleep too…” It certainly felt like it. They turned me back with the same more-than-their-jobs’-worth air I was quickly learning to expect in the Haven. I thank God they did now, as it was while I was making my way back to the vicarage, my heels distinctly cooling despite the wild pistoning of my heart, that I then spotted Johnny Callaghan coming out of his digs. Instantly I remembered his drones. At last things began going my way; he’d just been ordered to cut back on his UAV sorties. The reason he’d been given was that, in light of the recent raider attack on the Fortress, we needed to keep as low a profile as possible in the countryside. Henry had said they couldn’t afford to let Betsy or Ruby inadvertently lead hostiles back to Beeston.

JB: As if the sight of a ruddy great castle on a hill wouldn’t give raiders ideas.

AM: Exactly. Johnny had pointed that out to Henry in his own… inimitable way. Henry replied the drones were a waste of valuable battery energy that could be used elsewhere, such as to help power the Haven’s local wifi network34. Johnny laughed bitterly at that.

’Where’s the waste? he said. ‘I recharge the buggers with portable solar panels!’

JB: Henry’s reply?

AM: ‘It’s nothing a decent pair of eyes with binoculars up at the summit couldn’t do,’ he’d told Johnny. And he says this only a couple of days after a drone helped us identify that the Fortress had suffered a zeb incursion.

Naturally, when I explained how Jeff’s corpse had made his surprise second comeback, and his note warning about the Fortress pit, Johnny was only too happy to stick it to Henry and give “his girls” a farewell mission. Within fifteen minutes he’d surreptitiously acquired one of his quads from his workshop, taken us up into the attic of his digs, and raised the attic stairs. Like the one in the Fortress farmhouse, any attics in the village’s buildings had been kitted out as emergency redoubts, but that expectation had been in the event of a zombie perimeter breach, not to hold off our own people. The most it could do was slow down anyone who might want to interrupt us.

Anyway, we had the drone spun up, out the loft window and on its way. If someone saw its departure, we knew we wouldn’t have long before our militia came a-knocking. While Johnny gave it as much altitude as he could so’s to lessen the chance of any of our own patrols roving outside our perimeter hearing or spotting it, Phantoms are pretty big and have a distinctive shape, so if spotted, there’d be no missing it. We didn’t hold out much hope of it going undetected anyway. As it was, even though Johnny did his best to initially stay close to the ground to keep any sight of the retreating drone from the lookouts posted up at the castle, its whine was impossible to hide, and – while we weren’t to know it at that point – the familiar (and now forbidden) buzzing had them looking in the right direction, and they did eventually spot it as it topped the perimeter fence beyond our southern fields and Johnny took it over the trees.

The whine of the Phantom quickly faded from outside the attic, and my gaze was torn between checking my watch and the monitor displaying the drone’s POV as it flew toward its target. Time was of the essence now; we had to assume the worst and that Haven militiamen would be on their way, so we had to favour speed over stealth. Capturing footage that would vindicate Jeff’s warning and my fears was the highest priority.

The Cheshire landscape was a blurred scrolling beneath the Phantom, though, swift as its journey was, our wait for it to gobble the remaining distance to the Brethren Fortress was excruciating. I decided to burn some anxious seconds, ducking my head out under the attic hatch to listen to the rest of the house below for the sound of angry Haven militia boots storming the front door. From outside I could discern shouts and calling, belying the ordinariness of birdsong in full, oblivious flow coming from the trees, the gardens. Johnny’s urgent call that the Phantom had reached the Fortress outer perimeter had me scrambling to his shoulder and peering into the monitor.

Beside the telemetry and date and time stamp superimposed over the footage broadcast back to us, I spotted the encouraging letters, “REC”. Whatever happened next, we had it captured. I ordered Johnny to make for the place where the breach first occurred at the outer Fortress wall. The Phantom gave the compound a wide berth, just in case Wally had been given orders to shoot the thing down. Even so, we spotted a couple of puzzled Haveners, pausing from their chores feeding the animals in the field to stare up at us, puzzled, likely pondering what interest one of their own drones had in them. Heck, maybe they wondered if Henry was just snooping on them.

Then we reached the spot where the breach had occurred. Already it had been repaired, propped up sheets of wood keeping the wall in place while the cement gluing the jigsaw of bricks back together dried. Beyond it, zebs stumbled and roamed, ignorant of the work so recently completed on the barrier next to them, instead dumbly gazing up at the Phantom as it passed overhead, the drone following the footpath which led to the Fortress’s own rubbish dump, and – I knew now – the source of the Brethren’s doom.

From outside I could hear the calls of our militia draw nearer to our attic hideout. It wouldn’t be long now before we were finally discovered. That knowledge seemed to make things easier for me; that our discovery had switched from possibility to inevitability allowed me to simply focus on the monitor and study what the drone would reveal to us. The drone was approaching the end of the trail through the wood. All we needed were just a few seconds more, after which, as I saw it, as long as whoever found us didn’t get slap-happy, our discovery would likely get Johnny and I both marched straight to the Council’s doors. And that would only strengthen the case I was hoping Jen at that very moment was making.

JB: And your discovery, what did you find? Did it confirm Jeff Salmon’s warning?

AM: Oh yes, it confirmed everything that I feared… and nothing about what was actually coming.

JB: But the Pit. You saw-

AM: I saw only what I expected to see, as with the trail. I was watching as the drone flew through it, and saw only the damage to the trail I’d already anticipated would be there from the passing of a zeb horde. As before, I interpreted what as I saw as I chose. What my consciousness refused to acknowledge, still strove to equate the sight with the words “normal” – what I only saw when I watched it again –was the breadth of disturbance was narrower, and the damage higher, than any normal human could reach. It was as if some inner Freudian policeman were ushering my eyes along, urging me with soothing “Nothing to see heres”…

JB: So what did you “see” at the Pit then?

AM: Once the drone crossed the terminator of the woods, the hollow into which the Brethren had been casting their rubbish and neutered dead all those months lay revealed.

Perhaps it had been a local quarry at one time, its quaint, cottage industry practices and output cast aside by the progressive large-scale machine age; the whole plot abandoned then reclaimed as a dump for garbage… and any other obsolescent objects modernism had also seen fit to discard. There the hollow lay at the northern edge of a small, uncultivated field, more like heathland really, and less than half an acre in size. Waste – and later bodies the Brethren had dispatched – had been conveyed to the dump along the muddy tongue of a now largely overgrown dirt track, which led to a B road a few hundred metres distant. The whole area was roughly enclosed with a shoddy, Pre-Outbreak local borough council-issue fence. With all the rubbish, any other time pre-O-Day it would’ve looked like one of those scraps of land you find Travellers had temporarily annexed for their caravans and vehicles before they moved on, leaving only their detritus behind as evidence of their passing. Not now.

That afternoon Johnny’s drone revealed what looked like ground zero of a bomb blast.

The Pit looked like it had exploded up and out, the site resembling a crater more than a carved out hole. Ejecta littered the ground all about the hollow; shredded bin bags, cartons, clothes, fragments of electronica, you name it. There were body parts too, all shapes and sizes, and not all dead. Dotted around outside the Pit, Johnny and I could see a few that still retained something of their heads and Siamese-twinned together by strings of connective goop, attempt feeble crawls through the undergrowth, which, trampled flat from the crater, led a destructive path through the downed council fence, and off along the trail and into the gloom of the wood. But, apart from a generous sprinkling of torsos and other partial human remains that it would have been impossible for the goop to raise, the hollow itself was empty. Exactly as I’d expected to find it.

JB: So then what…

AM: Just… let me tell it.

‘How many?’ I recall Johnny asking me. He was gazing, his question awed to a whisper by the sight of the voided Pit. ‘How many zebs do you think it held?’ It was an unnecessary clarification, and of course I had no idea, did I? But, judging from the depth of the empty hollow, the numbers I mentally ran only fanned the fire of horror I felt, conjuring up the events of that night.

There would have been hundreds of them. Hundreds of Revivers, rising yet again, climbing out from the pit and zeroing in on the Fortress. I pictured them easily; a river of undead, trudging four, five abreast along that track, more through the trees, rolling back to the Fortress’ outer wall, reaching the brick barrier and… then what? Seeing lights from the farmhouse in the compound, or hearing something? The low thrum of a generator maybe? The beaten chiming of metal on metal coming from the workshop? Voices? Hymn-singing? Whatever the stimulus that had drawn them, I pictured it all.

Too stupid to spread out, the horde packs at the wall; pressing against it at the point they arrived, pressing upon each other, pushing, pushing hard, the cumulative weight of bodies finally proving too much for the old barrier. It topples. Stumbling through, hidden by the dark, their attack betrayed only by their keen, ever-hungry moans, the horde then descends upon the inner compound wall. Again they pack, press, repeat…

Then comes the screaming, the devouring, the dying…

That’s what I saw in my mind’s eye, and, despite the evidence to the contrary I’d already seen myself while on-site, my own little reconstruction made perfect sense.

And I was still wrong. Jen and I both… we were still wrong about what had happened. What was really coming.

Johnny had the drone circle the scene a number of times, and again I checked for reassurance the word “REC” glowed at the bottom of the screen. So, I thought, there it was; everything Jen and I needed to plead our case that – just like the Brethren Fortress a few days before it – the Beeston Haven was in imminent, mortal peril.

That’s when the militia came-a-knocking.

JB: With extreme prejudice, by all accounts.

AM: When I say, “knocking”, what I mean is, “banging repeatedly on the hatch and yelling fit to burst to come the hell down out of the attic or face the consequences”. I recognised the voice, it was Brendan, our trusty Militia captain, using that muscle of his to ram as best he could the sealed hatch keeping him and his other militiamen out. The deadbolts rattled and strained against the blows. The nails holding one of them in place even started coming out of the floorboards.

Of course, we yelled back we’d come quietly and step down, but once I’d drawn back the bolts, he flung the hatch up to storm the attic anyway, didn’t he? The hatch smacked me square in the face, breaking my nose. Brendan simply ignored my cries of pain and the blood streaming from my face, climbed up, grabbed me by the neck and shoved me head first through the hatch. I bounced down the ladder they’d found to get to us, only to hit another of the militia coming up – Carol Gant I think it was. That cushioned my fall some, but still we both hit the floor in a heap. I’m amazed I didn’t break anything. For a few seconds all is a blur as I’m yanked to my feet. I recall feebly reaching to stem the flow from my nose, which is going everywhere, and cloth is suddenly in my hand. I can hear Brendan up in the attic bawling at Johnny to come down right now, while he replies – calm and insistent-like – that he’s got to bring his drone back, which he’ll certainly lose if Brendan gets heavy-handed with him, and then Brendan would have to explain the loss to Good King Henry wouldn’t he? Johnny could be really sarcastic when he wanted. Brendan only barks back at him to land his precious flying machine in the safety of the Fortress grounds right now for them to bring back later, or he won’t be held responsible for the shit-storm that goes down immediately after the red haze he is prone to descends over his eyes.

Brendan was never much of a talker regarding personal matters, y’know… his history and all, but I’ve wondered if he was ever a sergeant major in a past life.

Then he’s slamming his boots down the steps of the ladder, and I find him looming, right in my face, declaring that Johnny and I are officially under arrest.

I demanded to know on what charges. Brendan duly proceeded – with no small amount of glee I have to say – to reel them off.

‘Unauthorised reconnaissance with drone excursion,’ he said. ‘Reckless endangerment of the Haven by exposure to hostiles through said reconnaissance. Violation of established silence-keeping protocol, unauthorised use of Haven resources…’ I swear the man was making it up as he went along, even as he was spouting it. Even if such Haven rules didn’t exist, he wanted them to.

He pushed me into the arms of Carol and another of the five militia he had with him, and was ordering them to take us to the holding pen when I started an urgent, stream-of-consciousness explanation of just what Johnny and I had been doing. Brendan interrupted me with a knuckle sandwich served hard and hot, his follow-through being a pointed index finger riding a verbal warning to keep my mouth shut and that we had plenty of time to explain ourselves in due course. I shouted – my words muffled by a rapidly fattening lip – that time was something we did not have, that the neutered zebs were reviving, and the Haven was in impending danger of attack. Brendan only smiled and made another fist for a second helping of Enforcer discipline.

Johnny of course saved me from the beating, calling down to the captain from the attic. He was holding the small monitor of his remote from the open hatch, its screen aimed down to our upturned faces. On it was the drone’s feed we’d just captured, re-playing the Phantom’s over-fly of the empty plague pit.

‘The Reverend’s right,’ he said. ‘Or do you really think those Brethreners just decided to take out all the dead zebs from the pit to burn in their barn… and in one night?’

I managed to get an angle on Brendan’s face and clocked his reaction. The grin of boiling anger was fading, and his eyes, luminous due to the reflected light of the monitor above, popped wide the moment the drone zoomed on a pair of the crawling Siamese’d undead. At the same time gasps of surprise and revulsion, and no small amount of swearing, came from Carol and the others. Of course, that sight was breaking news to them. As for Brendan, for all the jibes aimed at him that there was probably as much muscle taking up his head as the rest of his body, he wasn’t a moron by any stretch, and he took his job seriously. I saw the cogs swiftly turning behind those eyes before they blinked with an answer.

‘Yeah…’ he said. His voice carried genuine conviction that events were unravelling beyond his reach and required better minds than his to reel them back in. ‘Yeah, you may be right.’ He waved Johnny down from the attic, all previous hostility drained from its urgency. ‘Let’s get you two to Henry.’

He ordered our weapons be returned to us, and sent a call over comms for some extra hands – to make sure the Pit was safe and secured, he assured us – while we joined Jennifer in her chat with Henry and the others in the Council.

Going down those stairs I smiled. I actually smiled; at Johnny, up at God who, in His Heaven and His mercy had allowed Jeff Salmon to find his way to us with his warning, so his personal, his family’s and his fellow Brethreners’ tragedy could spare us one of our own. For the first time in days I felt the growing disquiet, the fear that first settled upon me seeing Jeff’s undead face, lifting. Phew, I thought. We did it. We’d worked it out, and common sense would prevail. Henry and the Council would have to listen now.

Rest easy, Jeff, I remember thinking. Rest easy, Emily. Your deaths weren’t in vain. And thank you. Thank you for remembering us. I sent the words into the Beyond, hoping wherever they were, they would hear them and know peace.

Y’know, I honestly believed at that moment we’d dodged the latest bite the snapping jaws of the Zombie Apocalypse had tried to take out of us.

Of course, as it turned out, we were already too late.

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