Gehenna Rises

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“If I don’t succeed, you’re going to have to perform the biggest single act of triage of your life…”

AM: Seeing Rule behind the wheel, a dark look on his face, I abruptly knew this was going to end messily, probably for us all. I’d known it anyway I suppose. I mean, when it comes to zombie encounters, how can it not end messily? Still, it felt to me this was the only real option – maybe not to save Beeston Haven now, by that stage I suppose I felt it was already lost – but the only option to finish the monster.

I grabbed Henry by the lapels of his jacket, yanked him to his feet, and growled, ’We’ll see? Not just us, Henry. Let’s all go see together.’ I think Henry flinched as much at the thought of what that promised as at the flecks of spit flying from my mouth.

We manhandled him up into the tanker’s cabin, dumping him between Jen and myself, and Rule got us moving, knocking the dump gates off their hinges on the way out. Not out of bravado or any kind of macho bullshit. They weren’t fully open and we’d just lost precious minutes due to Henry. We had to get up to the Ward, ASAP. Not that I wanted to, those screams we were hearing…

JB: What did you expect to see?

AM: Mayhem. Death. Dismemberment. The same again as I’d witnessed down in the lane, only worse. And, following the bloody trail on the road up to the Ward, sure enough, my expectations were fulfilled in every gruesome detail.

In the time we were delayed over at the fuel dump, the monster had followed the screaming stragglers up the path and was now gorging itself on living flesh. While Haveners with better instincts dodged sideways and ran – those the Homunculus ignored – it was those with their eyes and minds fixed only on the safety of the summit that it outran; scooping them up and either caging them as it had Horace, or biting and bleeding them out like Carol, slapping them, gored, still struggling and wailing, to its flanks, its back, its arms and shoulders like so many macabre medals of honour. The monster turned and caught, harried and hounded the fleeing survivors, all the time following the trail of human morsels up the hill, up toward the greater feast awaiting it, roiling and churning up at the Bridge Gate. By the time we in the truck laid eyes upon it again, it had almost entirely re-skinned itself with a fresh layer of eviscerated and drained Haveners.

JB: Surely they seen it coming up the hill?

AM: Oh, they saw and heard it coming all right, make no mistake. That only added to the unfolding tragedy, compounded by the set-up at the bridge. You see, all previous evacuation drills into the summit Ward had assumed either a zeb horde or raider incursions through the Safe Haven’s outer perimeters. All drills had pushed for a swift, ordered march up to the Bridge Gate and across into the Ward. But all drill scenarios assumed known enemies with previously understood capabilities and with plenty of time to raise the alarm and respond. Even then, under optimum conditions, we’d already identified the problem with such retreats was that a bottleneck existed at the bridge.

JB: I suppose the idea of present day Medieval-style stampedes into the Ward likely didn’t occur to the architect whom English Heritage had commissioned.

AM: True. Nice looking as it was, strong as it was, the resulting bridge had been designed only with ambling tourists in mind; people with nothing but time on their hands – certainly nothing threatening them from down the hill. That’s why it allowed only pedestrians, walking two abreast at best, along its entire length.

Slowing the people’s passage further was a large iron gate that had been affixed to its lower entrance soon after the Haven had been established. A heavy thing it was; made to take a beating, with the hinged gate configured to open outwards so that, in the event zebs got as far as the bridge and the lock wasn’t engaged, any zebs pressing against it would keep it shut tight. Of course the gate was a sensible additional precaution and protection… at the best of times. Now, at the worst of times, with its outward hinging and the hording of living, panicking Haveners pushing and shoving against each other, trying to slip through, the already tight opening was being slammed shut, and Haveners were finding themselves squeezed against the bars, pressed from behind by the mob, unable to open it again. Each time it happened it would take a minute and any amount of yelling and shoving before the crowd would back off enough for the gate to be re-opened… and the chaotic press would begin all over again.

What made this worst of times positively catastrophic was the Fire Fence not being lit.

JB: And that’s what Henry meant?

AM: Oh yes. Victor Kaczmynski, our mechanic you’ll remember, had helped with the design. The Fence was constructed specifically to mitigate the bottleneck problem and buy escapees time to get through the gate and across the bridge. A ring of… oh, what do you call those things? They’re put on beaches in times of war to stop tanks and landing boats getting ashore? Look like fat metal wigwam posts?

JB: I don’t…

AM: Anyway… those, packed close together, right up to the edge of the gap the bridge spanned to the Ward, forming two widely spaced brackets either side of the Gate that refugees could stand within as they waited to pass through. Laid horizontally beneath the… wigwam things were radiators, all connected up to pipes that trailed back along the bridge and into the Ward, hooked up to two large propane gas canisters. The ground of the gap between these metal brackets through which escapees filed up to the Gate was also floored with radiators. All anyone needed to do once the last refugees were through the gap in the brackets was turn the taps on the canisters, wait for the gas to hiss out of the holes drilled at regular intervals in the radiators, toss a lit match, and presto! A barrier of living flame head-high, torching any zeb stupid enough to blunder into it. Then, once everyone was through and the Gate locked tight, simply turn the taps again, and the fire is out. Less wasteful and more efficient than mini-moats of petrol (which would otherwise leave a gift of fire were we up against advancing raiders), the Fence was a beautiful piece of work.

My fears had prepped me for everything else we saw, driving up, and when it came to the Fence I’d hoped against hope I’d see at least something of its protective glow, even if the Homunculus had breached it or just stepped over it. But the Fence wasn’t even lit.

It wasn’t a failure in the tech; burst piping feeding the radiators, not panicking defenders up at the Ward forgetting to turn the gas on, or even thinking of the safety measure. Frantic calls coming over the radios confirmed as much they were only too aware of the defence. They’d already tried lighting it. The problem was that the propane tanks were empty.

JB: So not just low then, as some have claimed…

AM: That’s what Henry’s apologists will plead; slow leaks in the tanks, taps inadvertently left on after checks or an evacuation drill. Lies. When it was all over we checked them. The canisters were sound and empty… or near as dammit. And why so? Only because Henry and his cronies had replaced the fully charged ones with empties one night just a few weeks before.

[AM is silent a few moments.]

The Haven learned later that Victor knew of it and had his assistance and silence bought with the promise of a bunk up in the Ward. Apparently Henry had felt confident enough after the relative calm of the previous month that the Fence best served its defence benefits psychologically rather than in practicality. So, one night watch when he knew all his followers were manning the walls, he had Victor and others switch the tanks with similar-looking empties. All just to keep his precious cache of fossil fuel going a little longer…

JB: He didn’t think to switch them back after the attack on the Fortress?

AM: Oh, he did, but had no chance to do the deed. He confessed that when he saw what was happening at the Bridge. Maybe it’s the truth, maybe he’d decided to take a chance and hope Beeston wouldn’t be hit next, but wouldn’t admit it to us. I don’t know. I’ll let others argue that out.

But the upshot is that the Fire Fence was, to all intents and purposes, down. It may as well not have existed at all.

Consequently then, crowded literally up against it at the Bridge Gate, seeing the Homunculus ascending the hill, with no fire defence to hold it back and with the monster almost upon them, the Haveners – already frightened, angry and descending into violence – slipped the final step into a seething frenzy. In the panic, people tripped, fell and were crushed underfoot. Little Gena Bell, a toddler barely a year old, was tossed by her father over the spikes fixed above the gate, in the vain hope someone on the bridge beyond would catch her. Instead the fabric of her sleeping bag caught on a spike and she was swung round by the momentum, away from the bridge and – still wailing – out into the abyss. Agnes Thorpe, a Beeston resident her whole life, and at seventy-nine the oldest member of the Safe Haven, all her grandmotherly devotion to the Haven’s children abruptly forgotten, kept being shoved rudely aside, away from the Bridge Gate, up toward the lip of the gap. She tumbled over the edge and was lost. Others followed them down into the gap, and not just Haveners at the gate. Some, not content they were through and now on the bridge, felt the rush across was too slow and, indiscriminate in their choosing, bodily lifted others in front out of their way. Often as not those lifted aside were roughly sat onto the bridge railing and, before they knew it, their tenuous balance was gone, and so were they, over the side. In all of human history I imagine countless events have epitomised it, but those minutes up at the Beeston Ward Bridge must rank with them as the very definition of “pandemonium”.

Fear and self-preservation make a cruel partnership. I know.

Of course all that terror, the frenzied tumult up at the crossing only goaded the undead giant on; once it saw the full extent of the crowd just waiting to be devoured, the Homunculus forgot the trickle of stragglers it pursued. With an eager shriek it picked up its pace, charging as fast as it was able toward the mob, those unlucky Haveners in its path too slow to dodge out of the way it kicked – unawares – into the air, others it crushed to pulp against the bedrock of the road, the burst bodies spraying gouts of blood from beneath its paws.

Apparently Victor was one of the first to see sense in the final moments – unsurprising really, considering what he already knew about the Fence. Fighting amongst the others to get through the gate and seeing the giant almost upon him and the mob, he instead turned tail, dodged under one of the wigwams of the Fence and sprinted away… and almost straight over the cliff at the western face of the hill. (It may have been better for him in the long run that he had.) Haveners – too few of them – followed his and others’ example, fleeing the Bridge Gate from all sides. Some however stood their ground and made a last stand as the Homunculus reached the threshold of the Fence, raising any rifles, crossbows and handguns they had and letting loose their final, futile volleys. The most that did, being at such close range, was make the thing hesitate against the onslaught. I guess it stung a little more this time. Still, as a delaying tactic, it did allow the last known escapees to get clear, among them Sally Davis’ children.

Then the giant recovered, and with a hoarse bellow, bent low with open arms and ploughed into the remaining mob, scooping them together, gathering them in to itself like some grotesque harvester, at the same moment its twisted, plague-ridden cilia all over its body begin their work, grabbing, scratching, infecting.

That’s the sight that greeted us as we rode up the hill in the tanker. Even over the labouring of its engine, we heard the screams of those the monster was reaping.

If the Homunculus was in a feeding frenzy, Sergeant Rule appeared to become the exact opposite the closer we got. All the time on the way up, apart from working the gear stick, squeezing every mph more that he could out of the engine, he seemed to become more static, his face hardening, his voice quietening while he relayed the plan he’d formulated. It sounded pretty suicidal, but, as I’ve said, I’d resigned myself to that likely outcome on this trip anyway. Henry appeared to agree with that assessment too; he abruptly began yelling he wasn’t going to die in flames. Got very shouty about it too, at least until I elbowed him in the stomach, winding him, following through by grabbing his hair and slamming his forehead against the dashboard. Hard. Think I broke the bridge of his nose with that – I recall an audible crack. Seemed to shut him up anyway. I gave Sergeant Rule an apologetic look; I guess the memory of Henry’s gun to Jen’s head was only then beginning to really hit home to me.

Rule nodded thanks and continued his plan from where he’d been interrupted, saying if he failed to light the tanker we had to do the job for him… once’d we jumped.

JB: From a moving fuel tanker?

AM: Rule was building to ramming speed, he wasn’t going to sacrifice any of it stopping to let us off.

Jen – her adopted calling still at the forefront of her mind – imagined she was going up there to give aid. Rule bluntly put her right on that score.

‘No, Doc,’ he said. ‘If I don’t succeed, you’re going to have to perform the biggest single act of triage of your life… with extreme prejudice.’ He clarified that, aside from the monster, everyone within the barrier of the Fire Fence had to be presumed infected now and therefore lost. The tanker must be lit up, the monster must be torched – no delay, no second-guessing. He made us both promise we’d do it. Then, ordering me to take his beloved rifle, and, his eyes still on his target, he felt for his last grenade, describing how we loaded and fired it as he handed the deadly cylinder over to me. I protested he was the soldier – he should be doing it. His argument was simple enough:

‘Can you drive this tanker, Padre?’

‘How hard can it be?’ I countered. ‘Just hit the accelerator, aim into the gap at the thing.’ But Rule would have none of it.

JB: You think he was trying to spare you both, having to do the deed?

AM: Partly. I think he also wanted to be sure that ramming the monster was done right. He was a professional soldier after all. [smiles] He had standards to maintain.

As if to make it clear he had things under control, he tapped a hand grenade clipped to his tactical vest, and ordered we jump and jump now. We needed to be far enough away when the tanker blew so’s not to get caught in the blast. From the tone of his voice, the look in his eyes, his mind was made up now. He may as well be immovable as stone. Jen took Jolly’s rifle, cracked open the passenger door, and was about to make the jump when Rule added as an afterthought, nodding at Henry.

‘Take that dog turd with you. Padre’s right, you might need him.’ Jen nodded, grabbed Henry by his jacket (he was still holding his face and blubbing. Hate to say it, but that smack down had felt so good) and he was yanked – yelping – out the cabin after her.

Climbing over to the passenger door I looked back at Rule. I suppose I was going to offer him some kind of thanks for his sacrifice. He never gave me a chance.

“Will you just fuck off already?!” he barked.

I leapt.

The truck was on its… what you might call “final approach” toward the Fire Fence and the Bridge Gate within. Despite the incline of the hill, a winter’s thirst for fuel by the Haven had already half emptied the container of petroleum the truck was pulling, lightening its load – a load relieved further by Jen and Henry’s leap from the cabin, followed by mine – thereby giving the tanker a fair lick of speed. It was a lick of speed I felt only too much, hitting the ground hard… and badly.

My right ankle immediately twisted with an audible wrench of ligaments, complimented by the snapping of the femur. I gasped, my vision whiting out, then screamed freely as I rolled uphill, the incline and gravity mercifully halting my tumble sooner, leaving me facing the massacre up at the Bridge Gate.

The Homunculus was still feeding, absorbing the mob of Haveners it had collected, oblivious now to the stings of rifle fire from defenders at the walls of the Ward… and the tanker tearing up the tracks toward the gap in the Fire Fence.

I think now I know Rule’s rationale. See, at the time I wondered why he didn’t sound the horn, try and get the monster’s attention. But what purpose would that have served? There were still seconds left before he rammed the thing. Letting the monster know he was coming, letting it see the leviathan advancing to topple it, would only give the monster’s networked brains time to digest and understand what was happening, and possibly step out of the way. So Rule was using the screams of the dying, the sounds of gunfire from the Ward to camouflage the sound of the truck as long as possible. Which also explained why someone had to stay aboard and steer rather than just jam the accelerator in place and jump… in case the monster did attempt to move out of the way.

So Rule powered his giant killer up that hill, and I watched, paralysed in pain and awe, hoping and praying he’d hit his mark.

It was just as the tanker’s front wheels bounced the threshold of the Fire Fence gap when… well either it was the new angry mechanical sound finally registered, or one of the monster’s countless eyes dotted about the body and not obscured by fresh meat clocked the closing juggernaut. Whatever it may have been that alerted the Homunculus, it froze mid-harvest, and its misshapen head turned in that evil way it had toward the tanker. But too late.

The truck plunged into the mass of flesh, crumpling the body of the cabin, concertina-ing the metal bodywork before its own momentum and the weight of its target slewed the rear of the cabin, and the front of the container, right. But Rule succeeded; knocking the giant’s left leg clean from under it, fracturing its amalgamated flesh, sending fragments, trunks and limbs spinning every which way.

The creature let out a roar (I’d say in surprise more than pain) while millions of years of evolved primal instinct in its collective undead mind prompted it to raise its arms and wave them in great, pendulous strokes in a vain attempt to keep its enormous body balanced, the arms shedding screaming Haveners as it did so; their bodies tumbling helpless to the ground. But the damage had been done, and adaptive as the goop’s reanimative capabilities had become those past months, it still needed to work on its hosts’ power of coordination.

The monster tottered, pitched, its fall almost balletic as it fell backward, still roaring as it went down. There was no aim in its collapse of course, but the strike couldn’t have been luckier; the thing landed on its back, and the long cylinder of the tanker broke its fall. The impact blew every tyre on the rig, snapped the axle, and destroyed the suspension. Most importantly, it buckled the tank. I saw as the cylinder bowed in the middle under the blow from tonnes of flesh, then wrinkles in its skin turned to jagged cracks. The petrol, forced under sudden catastrophic pressure, hissed free, then slackened to steady dribbles at the cracks’ lowest points once the pressure equalised.

Downed as it was however, the massive creature wasn’t out, not by a long shot. It lay on its back, the impact having caused as much havoc to its own frame as the tanker’s. The torso had been flattened by a good third, the misshapen side of its skull partially pancaked from its striking the ground of the hill. Both its arms had been impaled upon the great spikes of the wigwam-style boundary either side of the Fire Fence. But the undead goliath was still moving, its body shuddering, the hands of the skewered arms flexing, the upturned knee of its uninjured leg forming a triangle that rocked a languid to and fro, the end of its mangled leg drawing a wide circle in the air, the great head rising, attempting to look itself over and gauge the damage. I knew that very soon the monster would commence a slow writhing to free itself.

I also heard – muffled under the horde of bodies burying it – the deep, unremitting bellow of the truck’s horn. There was only one way I could interpret that.

Dismissing the image of Sergeant Rule, hurt and squeezed within the compacted cabin of the truck, likely concussed and helpless against the reaching arms of Homunculus cilia and turned Haveners, I fought back the acid-burning agony radiating from my snapped femur, and cast about for his carbine. I caught sight of it further down the hill, discarded – its importance forgotten the moment my injury occurred – and now laying among the other debris and possessions left scattered about by the Homunculus’ victims during its bloody advance. I rolled awkwardly onto my arse, grabbed a sword (still clean – its owner never had a chance to even draw it and strike a blow against their attacker) and, using it for leverage, pushed myself vertical and hobbled downhill.

Jen was jogging uphill, calling to me. Turns out the exit from the tanker had taken its toll on her and Henry too. Jen was cradling her right arm from a massive sprain to her wrist. I noticed it as she met me collecting Rule’s rifle; the skin around the wrist was already purpling, the flesh beneath ballooning. Amongst the strewn debris further downhill, the figure of Henry lay, still prone at the spot he’d rolled to a stop. Hitting the ground from his yank out from the tanker cabin, his blasted knee had struck a rock. The resulting pain must have been so excruciating, it stunned him unconscious.

Jen and I looked back up the hill at the giant, now struggling to rise. A gratifying metallic tang of petrol wafted downhill to us. Unfortunately, the monster had shed many of its harvested victims in its fall, and a good few were already reanimating. Some had fallen beyond the boundary of the Fire Fence, and were on their feet. Like the petrol, they too were stalking downhill… and toward us – the only live humans visible.

I cursed. If that wasn’t bad enough, it struck me with absolute certainty Rule had been right; if we fired our only grenade into that pile up of flesh and metal and succeeded lighting it up, we’d be caught in the resulting fireball. We needed cover.

I warned Jen and she shouldered me the ten or so metres it took to get us to a pile of felled tree trunks that had been lain, Toblerone-triangle fashion, onto each other, but not yet chopped, while I asked the Ward over my radio if they could toss some of those home made bombs Henry had so gleefully spoken about to try and start the fire before it was too late. The acknowledgment came through and we managed to slump our backs against the woodpile just when the first grenade sailed out from the Ward’s battlements. It spun as it flew, creating an arc of coiling smoke as it reached apogee then dipped… to drop out of sight. Seconds later a bang rang out from the gap into which the bomb had fallen short. The Ward announced they’d try again, and again a tiny “I” span up, coiled its smoky way over and down into the gap. Again an ineffectual bang rang from the deep.

All the time the Homunculus was recovering, ripping its arms free of the Fire Fence, literally gathering itself together again, seizing shed bodies and pressing them back onto itself. Now it rose to a sitting position. Free of its smothering prison, the truck horn blared louder than ever, its desperate drone an insistent call to action.

As if I didn’t know already.

JB: It was all down to you two.

AM: To Jen and I. It felt… horrible. I had thought to call for anyone with better – hell, any – experience with an assault rifle, but it was clear now we were out of time. Two things occurred to me then, lying with my back against the pile of felled trees. The first was I’d assumed I’d be the one pulling the trigger. My look first to the rifle then back up to Jen explained my thoughts to her better than any words. Even at that point, we could hear the screams from surviving Haveners still suffering up at the Bridge Gate. This had to be done. Yet… who would do the deed? Considering our dual vocations, at that moment I couldn’t think of worse candidates for what we’d been called to do.

JB: Nonetheless, it was an act of mercy.

AM: Sure it was. Rule was right. But still, to go ahead and actually do it, to take the lives of our fellow Haveners… honestly, I felt I didn’t have it in me. It was plain from the look in Jen’s eyes she too felt the same. But she knew how to make the choice easier. Her eyes shining with tears, she laid her good hand on my shoulder.

“We’ll both do it,” she said. I gave a wavering nod. It seemed the best solution; her working arm was nigh on useless after all, and I’d need her support to stand anyway.

She helped me up and took my radio while I cracked open the breach of the rifle’s under-barrel grenade launcher, slid it away from me, drew the squat cylinder of the grenade from my jacket pocket, slotted it inside and slid the breach closed again. I leant forward, setting the rifle, resting the barrel of the launcher on the summit of the woodpile. That’s when the second thought occurred; I had no idea how I should aim.

Rule had never mentioned it. What angle would be too high to make it sail over the monster’s head and over into the Ward? Or too low so it struck short into the ground of the hill? What should I centre on as a target? Chilled with sweat after all my exertions, I felt a fresh, cloying patina coat the layer of dirty sweat already drenching my forehead.

“The centre of the tanker?” I hazarded, my voice trembling with panic. Jen only shrugged, as if to say, as good as anything. I told her to let everyone know.

Jennifer keyed the radio and declared, “Fire in the hole!”

At this point, the defenders up on the Ward walls had again taken up shooting at the Homunculus, which as ever was proving useless. Having seen their grenades couldn’t cross the gap, I think some were trying to hit the tanker trailer or the fuel-drenched ground too, but that was no good. I think the monster obscured a lot of it from their sight, and besides, it’s not like the movies; small arms or rifle rounds aren’t enough to set off a tanker trailer of fuel. But a grenade… As soon as they heard Jen’s warning, the gunfire ceased, the heads disappearing behind the walls.

Jen shouldered me, helping me bear my weight and hold steady while I sighted as best I could and got a bead on the trailer. Once I felt ready, I placed a finger on the sliver of the launcher trigger, and Jen reached her bad arm out, partnering hers with mine as best she could, and set her own swelling finger upon mine. I hardly felt it; she could barely move the thing to curl it onto mine. My last thought was aimed at the Almighty.

JB: What did you pray?

AM: Pray? It wasn’t anything so humble. It was honest, yes, simple in its urgency, its desperation. It was… a demand I suppose; a demand that, this one time, God demonstrates His love for us. One word, I said. One word flung out into Eternity… with all the rage and horror and hope I could muster behind it. I fired it at God’s heart as much as I was about to fire that grenade.

“Please!” That’s what I thought. “Please…”

I swear I didn’t say it aloud. I don’t… believe I said it aloud. Still, it seemed – somehow – the monster heard us. Perhaps it had caught Jen’s warning and twigged, though I can’t see how. It had been staring down at the crushed box of the driver’s cabin, distracted, dully curious about the incessant wailing of the horn beneath it. With that, and the screaming Haveners, how could it have heard us? But it knew. I’ve said before I shouldn’t anthropomorphise, but I swear it knew. Something alerted it. Maybe it was the trickle of new zebs stumbling down the hill toward Jen and I that gave us away. Perhaps even over the stench of fuel, maybe it could still smell us. Even now there’s so much we don’t know about how their senses function. But it sensed us. It sensed our threat.

The monster lifted its twin hives of insectivorous eyes to ours, turned its vast body about, and – giving out its hoarse banshee wail – made its first movements back down the hill toward us.

“Now!” yelled Jen. “For Heaven’s sake, now!”

We fired.

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