Gehenna Rises

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“Oh, it’s the Archbishop of Beeston… Shoot him!”

AM: We weren’t hearing the rumble of the petrol tanker’s engines from the fuel dump, which meant the window to stop the monster while it was still outside the castle had effectively closed. But we still needed Rule to help us formulate another attack plan against the monster, or at least give us the best evacuation strategy.

JB: The Beeston Haven didn’t have an evacuation strategy?

AM: Of course we did – we had a number of them. But one for a twenty metre tall amalgam of undead corpses? Strangely, accommodating that scenario hadn’t entered our heads.

So I made for the fuel dump. For safety’s sake it had been established behind a standalone, metal-walled stockade to the east of the medieval walls, the stockade and its precious hoard itself hidden within a circle of trees and bracken Henry had left growing. Yet again I found myself gasping for breath from the exertion as I thrashed through the brush and approached the open gates of the stockade when two things happened. First, my radio emitted a burst of static followed by a yell; “It’s breached the outer walls!” That had me looking back the way I’d come. Instinct of course, little good that it did me though; I was so far round the hill by then, the monster’s incursion was hidden from sight – not that I couldn’t still hear the thing’s advance… and the screams of the stragglers still out in the open whom it had caught. That’s when the second thing had me whipping my head right back toward where I’d been heading. The crack of rifle shot, and the zing of a bullet whistling past my head.

JB: That wouldn’t have been Sergeant Rule.

AM: The same thought crossed my mind too, even as I was throwing myself to the ground. Nor was it Jen either – but she was inside the stockade.

JB: Oh?

AM: Just after the start of the emergency, while Rule had sprinted for the watchtower to try and fire grenades at the giant, Jen had used the growing panic at the sight of the monster to seize her chance at getting her hands on what she’d spent the afternoon pleading with the Council for. Minutes later, Rule had arrived at the fuel dump only to find that Jen had been hunting for the keys for the petrol tanker herself.

Unfortunately he also found Henry and his guards, Jolly and Mose. I learnt later that, when he caught sight of Jen sprinting down the path away from the safety of the summit Ward, our beloved leader must’ve put two and two together. He followed her down, just like her, dodging through the stream of Haveners going the other way, determined that she wasn’t going to disobey his direct orders.

JB: I still can’t believe Henry’d said no.

AM: Oh, he’d been pretty emphatic about it at the meeting before Horace raised the alarm. It was madness. Even in the face of a clear, present and at-that-very-moment-closing-in-on-his-fiefdom’s danger, Henry was still determined to keep hold of all he’d been hoarding. Up to that point we- [AM hesitates a moment] …the Beeston Haven… had no idea just to what life-threatening extent Henry’d been willing to go to keep hold of his precious fuel supplies. The Haveners up at the summit and the Bridge Gate were about to find out.

JB: Can we get to that in just a moment? So Henry had pursued Dr. Edwards to the fuel dump?

AM: That’s right. He ran through the open stockade gates with Jolly and Mose to find Jen kicking open the door to the shed that held all the keys; among them the petrol tanker’s. Of course, Henry collared her there and then; pistol-whipped her and followed-through with a punch to the gut for good measure. He was busy bawling her out “for her betrayal”, holding his gun to her head and only too keen to pull the trigger by the time Rule showed up. Not that Henry hadn’t anticipated that; having a radio of his own, he’d have heard Rule’s intention to drive the petrol tanker out to the Homunculus and – not wanting to have his summary judgement interrupted – posted Jolly at the stockade gates to watch out for him.

What no one expected was to see my tired and shadowy form doggedly leaping through the undergrowth. Which was the moment Jolly – assuming it was Rule he was seeing approach – almost blew my head off.

I rolled flat on my back behind a tree, immediately feeling the side of my head for damage. Sure enough, my fingers came away painted scarlet, having felt the shredded remnant of my left ear lobe. [AM flicks the remnant of his lobe.] Shock dulled any immediate pain, but I’d feel it soon (and I did too. God, it hurt!) The sight of my own blood made me gag a moment, before a boiling rage quelled it flat. I yelled curses toward the gates, identifying myself, that I was not a zeb, and what the hell was that effing idiot playing at?

The thought of having almost killed a Man of the Cloth gave Jolly pause. For all the talk of the decline of religious faith in this world, the long-ingrained role of the Anglican priest here in Blighty nonetheless still counted for something. After a brief, barely audible, ‘Oh shit!’ he ordered me to show myself. For a moment I ungenerously thought the Neanderthal probably just wanted to see the whites of my eyes before trying again. I rolled my eyes, like this…

…which connected to those of Sergeant Rule.

The Marine lay flat on this chest about six metres to my left, blending himself to the leafy shadows as much as possible. The business end of his rifle aimed at the stockade, but his head was turned to me.

Now Rule wasn’t stupid, not by any stretch, which I reckon is exactly why Docklands had allocated him as Beeston’s “advisor”. Rule was as much a plant to study and report on the Haven’s strength, capabilities and the disposition of its leadership, as to help the Haven get organised. Naturally he’d noted the way the wind had been blowing in Henry’s regime, certainly Henry’s actions and rationalising the last few days, none of which would have marked him in Rule’ eyes as a man with the best interests of the Haven in mind.

That explained why, instead of him blundering into the stockade, hands up and all reasonable-like, I’d found him in the undergrowth ready to snipe Henry and his guards with extreme prejudice.

He gave his eyes an urgent flick toward the stockade, and – his hand low – worked the fingers and thumb like a jaw; sign language for, “Get out there, distract the bugger and keep him talking”.

Knowing I had back-up in place now, I felt better climbing to my feet and stepping out into the clearing, holding my hands out and up in a universally recognised, placating gesture for “Don’t f**king shoot me!” The thought occurred to angle my head so my recently acquired GSW37 received full exposure in all its gory glory.

I also made sure I gave the Sergeant a clear line of sight.

Jolly had given himself cover behind the open gate, his head and rifle barely visible behind its sheet metal, the gate’s angle making it impossible for Rule to get a clear shot. Sure enough, the sight of me – and my wound – had the effect Rule desired. I imagine Jolly probably didn’t even think about it; he lowered the rifle and stepped out from cover, his face blanching at the sight of me.

‘God, Padre, I’m sorry,’ he said. Poor man. He had no idea how sorry he was about to be.

Advancing, blustering indignant demands to know what was happening as best as I could muster, I could now see within the stockade beyond the gates. Jen sat, slumped on her knees in the mud, blood streaming from her mouth, Henry and Mose towering over her. Henry still held his gun to her head, but his aim wavered now, distracted, his own and Mose’s heads turned toward me. Mose’s rifle raised and lowered again toward me, undecided.

Clocking that it certainly was me approaching, Henry rolled his eyes and groaned.

‘Oh, it’s the Archbishop of Beeston.’ He shouted to the gate guard, ‘Shoot him!’

Jolly’s response was plaintive. ‘But… it’s the Padre!’ he declared.

‘Why do you think he’s here too?’ yelled Henry, impatient. ‘He’s with her!’ Henry flicked his head back at Jen.

I kept up my distraction, wondering how much time Rule needed to line up his shots. I yelled that we had to save the Haven, that it was now or never, adding something along the lines of… I dunno, couldn’t they hear the monster was inside now? Sure, they heard it, I certainly could. No amount of violence or tuning out could block the sound from our ears of all the carnage unfolding over on the other side of the hill; screams of Haveners – people we all new – falling under the sweeping hands of the Homunculus. Trying to focus as I could on my current predicament, every scream I heard tore a long strip from my soul. Jolly’s eyes glanced up the hill, wincing. He wasn’t without a heart.

Henry however was another matter.

When Jen urged him that the Fire Fence up at the Ward’s Bridge Gate wasn’t going to hold the monster back for long, Henry only laughed and quipped, ‘That’s so true.’ Selfish bastard! I should’ve…

[AM recovers himself.]

I’m sorry, but… pastoral role as I may have in the church and all that… I’m still a man, and… such egotism and inhumanity… well, it sets my teeth grinding.

Anyway, he added, the defenders in the Ward had their cache of homemade grenades they could use to take the monster down. God! Hadn’t he seen? Hadn’t he heard what had happened out in the lane? To my blustering about the innocents that’d be killed as a result, Henry only replied that for a PhD I was fucking stupid and the people didn’t matter.

‘There’ll always be more stragglers limping through the Haven’s gates, willing to work. It’s our resources that make a difference. It’s them we have to conserve to rebuild this world!’ His words, direct quote. He added, ‘Unless, Father, you and the good Doctor can offer an alternative method for killing that thing?’

Would we have been having that face-off with Henry at the fuel dump if Jen and I’d thought of an alternative to burning the Homunculus? Henry knew that too. He declared something along the lines of Jen and me no longer being required. I swear that’s what he said, as if he was some corporate fat cat laying us off. Had we been in a City office back before O Day, I’d have expected him to produce our P45s at that moment with security magically appearing at our shoulders to escort us from the building. Instead, he only waved to Jolly to get on with his orders.

Jolly however repeated what I was, this time with something of a plaintive air. That man must have had the stomach to do some dirty deeds during his tenure with Henry, he wouldn’t have earned the position he’d reached if he hadn’t. But it was clear from his face this wasn’t the kind of duty he’d signed up for.

Our beloved leader simply sighed, shrugged, and turned his own gun toward me. That took Jen out of immediate danger at least, if only for Henry instead to switch her for me in his equation.

Turns out that had been exactly what Rule had been waiting for.

Three sound suppressed rounds squeezed off from the trees were all it took; shots two and three taking down Henry’s close protection; Mose, followed by the Jolly. That was after Rule sensibly popped his first round into our beloved leader’s left kneecap before Henry could fire one into my cranium. God forgive me, I never imagined I’d get so much satisfaction watching someone’s limb explode. That was more than enough to incapacitate Henry and distract him from committing further violence… or anything else for that matter. Scant seconds, and the standoff was over.

With Henry writhing on the ground, clutching his leg and screaming blue murder, I ran forward, yelling to Jen for confirmation she was okay, while I made for Jolly’s body to appropriate his rifle and spare clips. Jen was well enough; she was already up and reaching for Henry’s gun, lying suddenly forgotten by him nearby… and gave him a pistol-whipping of her own in return. Satisfaction squared… and no small measure of relief too. Seeing Henry’s gun to Jen’s head had made my stomach lurch, breaking through into my consciousness for the first time my love for her that’d been quietly growing during all this time of apocalyptic darkness. Crazy isn’t it? What it takes sometimes to break through blindness. She never grew tired of ribbing me about that.

Anyway, I grabbed Jolly’s rifle. Despite all the death I’d so recently seen, I couldn’t bring myself to look him in the eye, perhaps because it had been such a human form of killing. Does that make sense? Instead, perhaps not so strangely, I sought solace from the wound in his chest. No suffering, I noticed; straight through the heart, instantaneous. Rule had already passed me by the time I was done, on his way over to Jen after giving his kill a swift, professional assessment. He asked her for the keys, picking up the pace toward the tanker without stopping, snatching them out the air when Jen threw them over. I went over and stood with Jen, gazing down on our bleeding, cursing leader, his eyes blazing balefully up at us. Jen was now aiming Henry’s own gun at his forehead.

‘Doesn’t feel so nice, does it, you medieval shit?’ she asked him, her words spitting venom. I laid a hand on her shoulder (which I must say, felt good), and cautioned her we needed Henry alive as a hostage for his followers still up at the summit Ward. Just in case. What I didn’t say aloud was my silent appendment to that suggestion, if there still is a Ward when this is over. ‘Oh, I’m not going to kill him,’ Jen replied, adding she wanted him to live, to survive as long as possible so that Henry could know, deep in his gut – that’s how she put it, looking him in the eye, ‘Deep in your gut,’ she said – that every death that was happening that moment and until this was over – every single one – was on Henry’s hands.

That prompted her to reconsider Henry’s dark quip about the Fire Fence up at the Bridge Gate. After all, what reason would Henry have to be so confident it would fail to stop the Homunculus? She asked him – no, demanded – what he’d meant. Henry only guttered an ugly chuckle.

‘You’ll see soon enough,’ was all he said.

That was enough to bring my blood to the boil. The petrol tanker engine rumbled to life. I glanced over to Rule, sitting behind the wheel in the cabin, working to get the vehicle into gear.

JB: He still hadn’t given up on your plan to burn the monster, then.

AM: He was a soldier, and that was his objective. Besides, what else could we do? It was our best bet.

Hell, it was our only shot left.

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