Gehenna Rises

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PART ELEVEN: AFTERMATH & OUTCOMES

“Don’t you fucking dare!”

AM: The rifle kicked back, the launcher giving out a deceptively small pop.

Too fast and tiny for us to track the missile, we watched dumbly, only realising our aim had been true when a second later we caught a small impact flash against the skin high in the centre of the tanker cylinder… directly beneath the belly of the crawling giant.

A heartbeat later, Beeston castle burned.

I remember the rear of the tanker trailer disappearing, simply vanishing, replaced by a fast-expanding balloon of fire. Then Jen and I were screaming, she from terror and exertion, yanking me to the ground against the felled tree trunks for cover, me from the fresh punishment that inflicted on my broken leg.

A wash of heat crashed over us; oppressive it was, like a too-thick woollen blanket pressing down (only worse), while the blast wave sucked the air away from us, out from our lungs.

Witnesses from a safe enough distance away up at the Ward or down the hill saw great pillows of flame billow out from within the Fire Fence, blooming, falling over one another in their explosive rush away from the centre of the blast, the massive conflagration engulfing Haveners, the Fence, the monster entirely, even the zombies wandering down the hill. All overwhelmed within a split second by fire.

JB: The Madeley footage38 leaves nothing to the imagination.

AM: No, it doesn’t. Of course, cowering behind the woodpile – itself incinerating on the side facing the blast – Jen and I saw nothing, clenching our eyes shut as we were. We heard nothing but the ringing in ours ears from the titanic thunder-clap the explosion had made, smelt nothing but acrid poison, and felt nothing but the raging of our injuries, and our arms about each other. That last my mind clung to; that in this, what may be our last moments, we at least had them together, waiting, hoping, for the fiery tempest to pass.

It was probably just a few seconds at most, three or four maybe, but finally we opened our eyes, aware of an intermittent thumping reaching up to us through the ground. Blinking, our eyes watering from the smoke, the stench of scorched flesh, we looked round, unable to stop gagging as we gasped for un-poisoned air. I know for myself I expected to see the monster leaning over the partly carbonised woodpile, its amalgam of flesh charred black, still smouldering, the fat bubbling and dripping away, and balefully glaring down on us before reaching out to devour us whole.

It wasn’t there. In its place above us, flames flickered at the top of the woodpile while beyond, thick plumes of roiling black smoke reached up, through which we saw glimpses of ice blue sky. We glimpsed objects too; tiny spinning shapes, trailing smoke, whirling high through the air, launched from Beeston, and now descending… fast. They were fragments of tanker trailer, Havener belongings and bodies too, either whole or jig-sawed into pieces, slamming to earth with brutal finality, landing in, around and about the summit Ward and the castle grounds. That’s what was generating the thumping sensations we’d felt. Through the tinnitus-like ringing of our ears, we also heard the banshee screaming of the monster, its pitch higher now, more… desperate-seeming.

Apparently safe, but still unsure we weren’t about to be hit by one such missile, we risked stepping out from behind the still burning wood pile, noticing that jagged slabs of spitting fat and muscle were melting onto it.

Getting clear of the smoke, we saw… to say a “war zone” is a cliché, but I think no other short description best sums it up. The ground all about up to the Bridge Gate was blackened, many patches and mounds – of debris and bodies – burning fiercely. Of these mounds, a very few still moved. These were the zebs, gradually barbecuing in their final moments, consumed by the burning fuel, which had engulfed them. To the top of the hill, the area immediately around the Fire Fence was a scene of devastation; its boundary blasted wide open in many sections, its metal beams flung away like dice tossed by petulant children. And there, amidst the fierce inferno at its centre, amidst the burning corpses of Haveners, the shredded shell of the tanker trailer, thrashing vainly against the blaze inexorably turning its constituent parts to ash, was the Homunculus. At least, what there was left of it. As far as we could tell, the trailer had entirely blown its middle away, from the “shoulders” down to its legs. The latter dangled over the precipice, each impaled in place upon the gate and Fence remains. Those components not minced and launched skyward had formed burning cakes of mashed flesh at the unfallen parts of the Fence. As for the top of the monster, it lay at the original entrance through the Fence, rocking it head, turning, flopping and flailing over itself. It was entirely on fire, rolling itself in burning fuel, the bodies of its remaining mass that still could, wailing hoarsely against the consuming fire.

Jen and I stood, captivated by the sight, watching the Homunculus’ end until the final moment the monster’s outer layers dried, bubbled and charred beyond use, it fell still and the last cries faded to crackling. We became aware of other cries then; yelps, whoops and shouts of jubilation and relief coming from the defenders up at the Ward. Our radio crackled confirmation the undead goliath had finally been felled and wouldn’t come back.

JB: It was over.

AM: Oh, not quite. Jen and I knew the thing wasn’t dead yet, not entirely. The zeb bodies deep inside at the monster’s core would have to be cooked through and through. Adaptive as the goop had been, it hadn’t yet found a way to resurrect ash, and we’d have to leave the monster burning through the night to be absolutely sure every undead from which it had been spawned was well and truly roasted beyond viability of resurrection.

But… as long as we ensured that happened, then, yes the immediate danger was past.

We were still in deep shit though.

JB: How so?

AM: The Haven had multiple fires now burning out of control. Any and all that weren’t our impromptu funeral pyre up at the Fence had to be extinguished. The corpses had to be collected and disposed of ASAP, any zebs we found still moving, neutered, and we needed a headcount of survivors and casualties. As well as that, we’d have to ensure the rest of the Haven outside the castle grounds was secured. After all, we had no way to be sure Revived zebs shed from the Homunculus since it left the Pit weren’t still wandering round, ready to ambush us.

And all that was aside from what would fast become our biggest problem, a problem that would become more critical every passing minute and threaten the survival of the Safe Haven more than anything else I already mentioned. Beeston had just announced its presence in the Cheshire countryside with a very loud and very visible monster undead barbecue. We had to mount patrols at our perimeter immediately to ensure no breaches occurred from the curious – undead or raiders. Remember, we were surrounded by small population centres only a few miles away, all still very active with undead. Any hordes still in them would be drawn. We’d have to fend them off with a vastly reduced militia.

The bridge gate was blocked, likely badly damaged, so until the Ward defenders had a zip wire up and running to get down on, they’d be using their emergency rope ladders and working their way round back into the compound. Slow going. So it was all hands on deck for everyone who’d still been outside then; from Haveners who’d escaped the Homunculus’ advance up to the Bridge, to those stragglers who’d scattered or I’d left back at the entrance portico with Johnny. A Mayday went from Sally in the Ward to Wally over at the Fortress. Yes-Man to Henry as he’d been, he said he’d heard the explosion and saw the smoke from where they were, and was already prepping half his compliment to return to Beeston to assist. Once we heard he was on his way, that boosted our morale a little. But the Haven had received a heavy body blow. Already knocked for six since O-Day, for some Haveners this was too hard to come back from. Looking round, Jen I saw Haveners emerge from hiding, to just stand rooted to the spot, eyes wide, mouths gaping, as if everything left of their beleaguered spirits were giving up and just spilling out, invisible, right there onto the ground. In a way I can’t blame them. I was injured, physically spent, numbed by the horror I’d experienced. Half of me felt like rolling over and dying inside as much as they.

Bernadette Cowan wasn’t one of them though. The first I knew she’d survived was hearing the crack of her rifle, and turning to see her dispatching a smouldering lump of still moving flesh up the hill. Turns out she was among those making the last stand at the Fire Fence, only to leap through the metal barrier as the Homunculus swooped. For the rest of the attack she dangled by her fingers from a short outcropping over the abyss, screaming silently at the pain from it, and was almost clubbed away from her perch when one of the monster’s legs was thrown over the edge in the blast. After that, she climbed up again and got straight down to work. Seeing her example spurred many to bury their grief and horror, follow her orders and just knuckle under. Ice cold blood, Bernie had. A born survivor. I’m glad I never had to face the kind of hell she went through in Manchester, but if I did, I’d have followed her in a heartbeat.

Victor fortunately was another one kept unfrozen by the devastation about him. Of course, we- the Haven didn’t know it at the time, but guilt chased him out from hiding and had him going through until the following morning and he dropped from exhaustion.

As soon as he spotted us through the smoke he ran up, checked we were okay, then he was off again, calling that he had to go get the fences charged. I told him where Johnny was and suggested he get him to help.

JB: The fences?

AM: Our perimeter fence could be electrified to help mitigate against any press of undead more than our border patrols could handle.

Victor and Johnny found a notice on the generator, down at the power plant. It said, “To be activated in emergencies only, by order of B Head Administrator”. Johnny and Vic agreed that now was pretty much a frikkin’ emergency, tore the notice off the jenny and pushed “start”. For the rest of that night the survivors took comfort any zebs drawn by our fireworks that afternoon were cooking on the fences all round the perimeter.

JB: And what about Beeston Head Administrator?

AM: As soon as we were sure the Homunculus was coal, Jen and I went to check Henry was okay. Further down the hill as he was, we feared- well… guessed he’d likely still been exposed to the blast. So, down we hobbled through the smoke.

We found him, still pretty much at the spot Jen had left him, only now he was very much awake and thrashing, screaming and cursing, against the zeb which had rudely woken him. The thing, flames still licking at its back and not much more than a partly charred torso, must have landed close by, and – un-neutralised by the impact – spotted Henry and crawled its way over to our still unconscious and very appetizing leader. The first Henry knew he was in trouble was when the thing took a bite out of the calf of his knee-capped leg. With the creature locked on to him with vice-like hands and chewing away, unable to kick the thing loose without causing himself fresh bursts of pain, Henry was impotent, in agony and apoplectic with rage. We took in the sight a moment until Henry spotted us. I was about to shoot it with Rule’s rifle when Henry shouted a livid-sounding:

“Don’t you fucking dare! Gimme that sword!” He indicated my improvised crutch. I tossed it him, and, with great effort, he raised himself to a sitting position and swung the blade, stabbing and hacking at the zeb’s head repeatedly, a man possessed, until the creature’s skull was in pieces. He spat at the twitching body, then glared up at us, teeth clenched against the pain. “Hope you’re happy now, you bastards!”

I won’t lie. Part of me did feel a glow of satisfaction.

Jen offered to put him down. Henry glared at his gun she’d claimed for her own… and he sneered.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you, bitch?” He shook his head, and then declared he’d long ago vowed to himself that if a zeb got him, he’d do himself. He tried to position the sword over his heart, but he couldn’t get a proper purchase to thrust, his hands were slick with blood and sweat, the blade greased with gore.

While he struggled, I asked him if he wanted the last rites, or some short prayer. I’d never gotten the impression Henry had been a man of any form of faith, but I felt it right to at least ask him. “Fuck you and your faggot god!” he choked out.

JB: That confirmed your impression, then.

AM: After a few more seconds watching him struggle with the slippery blade, Jen, grew impatient, sighed and raised the gun. Henry only shouted he wouldn’t be denied his honourable end.

“Yeah, you will,” she replied, and shot him through his right eye.

Tell you the truth, at the time, had I been uninjured and there’d been a fire nearby, I’d probably never have given him the sword, just dragged him over and tossed him, still kicking and screaming, onto it.

It all became a little… blurry after that. As if a part of my mind had decided enough was enough. I remember suddenly feeling cold, having to sit down on the scorched grass again. Shock, of course; the effects of my injury, the day’s experiences finally getting the better of my system. The rest of that night is just impressions, vignettes really.

Bumping up against another injured Havener in the back of a Prius, rushing us to the Vet’s surgery…

Having a crude splint fitted to my leg, watching it all with the curious detachment of a documentary viewer. Perhaps Jen had arranged me a shot from some of our precious drug supply…

Sitting with Josh, laid up on Jen’s operating table, his hand grasping mine tight, howling through the chunk of rubber tube he’s biting flat. I’m returning his crushing hold, calling encouragements and platitudes over the sound of urgent sawing. Someone stands close behind his head, their gun unholstered and ready.

JB: The script says he dies on the table-

AM: Another concession to movie myth-making. It was later. He survived the op.

He’d been one of those fleeing up the hill and kicked away by the Homunculus. Next he knows a chunk of tanker trailer lands on his lower legs, crushing them flat. When he came in, Jen saw him, and one look was all it took; everything below the knee had to go. She’d not been optimistic even before her assist did the job. Before O-Day, Josh would have stood a good chance, but he’d already bled a lot by the time she got round to him.

“Get me a wheelchair and I’ll be ramming people’s shins in no time,” he said. I think that’s what he said. He was barely whispering by then. Not that sentimental horseshit in the script about never being able to play for Liverpool. You make that line work, Jay, and you’ll deserve an award.

JB: How many did you- Beeston… lose in the end?

AM: In all? One hundred and ninety-nine… from a population of three hundred and two. Nigh-on two thirds of the Haven. One-seven-six from the Emergence and resulting attack and debacle up at the Bridge Gate, and a further twenty-three from the explosion fall-out – literally – and clean-up ops. Despite warnings, in the night one militiaman put his hand against the electrified fence. The current locked it tight to the links and it only took one of the zebs on the other side to give the fingers a quick gnaw. His partner hesitated hacking his hand off, by which time the infection was in his system.

Two thirds of the Haven… most in the space of what… thirty, thirty-five minutes?

Still… it’s a kind of perverse good luck I’ve thought since; the factors that afternoon which worked in our favour.

JB: [incredulous] Good luck? You’ve just told me how many people died! How can you possibly…?

AM: You think I’m making light of the body count? No, no way. Listen and think. It all could have ended so, so much worse. We could have been wiped out, and Docklands left wondering why another IZ community went dark all of a sudden. By which time…

Consider this; he may well have triggered the Emerging, but Horace’s mistake, starting the fire prematurely, may have, I think – conversely – ended up saving more Haven lives.

JB: You think?

AM: It’s well documented now that Emergences as a rule occur only at night, which tallies with the fact zebs are more active during the hours of darkness.

JB: But you’d raised the alarm, the Haven knew the Pit was a threat now-

AM: Yes, but not the scale of the threat. None of us did! Remember, we still thought we were dealing with Revivers. Single or at most conjoined zebs. And Henry wasn’t going to act immediately.

Can you imagine then what would have happened had that monster emerged and run rampage at midnight, as the one over at the Fortress had before the Brethren torched it in the barn? We’d have lost precious time and even more lives, charging around blindly in the dark, trying to assess the scale of the threat we were up against while that beast strode through Beeston and breached the Haven’s inner defences. There’s no doubt in my mind that thing would have been able to scale the walls of the summit Ward. There’d have been even more chaos and loss of life than there was.

Instead, consider [he holds up his fingers, one by one]:

We saw the thing rise up out of that mound of death in plain day and knew immediately where the threat lay and how bad it was.

We still had the daylight to capture footage of it; the first ever documented Emerging of an AH.

The fact Henry allowed the use of digital cameras in place of binoculars when none were available – and we had scant few of them.

That we had the portable solar chargers to power the guards’ cameras up at the castle walls so they had power to capture footage of the event.

Finally, the fact we had in place a policy of documenting contact events, whether with Living or Zeb, and our guards and militia were trained to keep that in mind.

Yeah. Without all the above, even if there’d been survivors of the slaughter and infrastructure still functional to broadcast a warning, I can’t say how hard it would have been to convince Docklands we weren’t pulling their chain, how much trouble we were all in – other groups and enclaves like ours in the Infected Zone, the populace out in the Free Kingdom. Humanity as a whole.

Then there was being able to send Docklands all the grisly evidence by Angel Wings… if that hadn’t been implemented over the winter, God only knows how many others communities would have been lost. Good for Angela Ofoegbu too, our DECO39 at Docklands, for kicking it up the chain as fast as she did. I guess the coded alarm Sergeant Rule raised to Docklands also helped.

JB: That’s his famous “Peter’s On Ecstasy” message he asked Sally to send before he ran for the tanker truck?

AM: Yeah. I know people have said he was just sleeping with her to ensure he could get his messages out to Docklands under Henry’s nose. But that’s unfair on Sally. No way was she that naïve, and I think they’d started something genuine. Anyhow, I’m still unclear what the exact meaning was of Rule’s “P.O.E”. I suppose in military jargon it was code for, “Get your arses over here! Priority One! Important shit going down!” Beeston was becoming an asset to the government; it was a transit stop-off for army units airlifted through on missions. It needed protecting.

That’s one of the last images I recall of that day; the floods from the Chinook glaring at me from the night sky, the drumming of its rotors as it came down in the field opposite the castle entrance porticos, the two columns of heavily armed troops jogging past us to help secure the Haven again.

JB: You were medevac’d out then, weren’t you?

AM: No, that wasn’t the reason. My injury wouldn’t have warranted the waste of fuel. I was flown back south for de-brief – Jen and I both. Had I been fully conscious, I would’ve protested, but I was in no condition to do anything by that stage. Jen kicked up a storm though. She wanted to stay and help with the casualties and the clean up. It literally took the surviving members of the Council and the platoon commander to bully her onto that Chinook. I think she saw sense finally that Beeston was in good hands, certainly better than hers, the condition they were in at the time. As it was, the platoon’s medic and Jen’s own assist did a fine job with the remaining injured. Jen also couldn’t deny the argument that, as we were the main players in the encounter, Docklands would need all the intel it could get from both of us about the Homunculus and what the goop was doing.

So we were flown out barely an hour after reinforcements arrived. As soon as we landed at Northolt40, I was given drugs to make me as coherent as possible, and then intelligence analysts had Jen and I in debrief for as long as we were physically able. Then they grabbed their phones and raised the hue and cry.

Less than twelve hours after – effectively the night following the attack on Beeston – Docklands issued Top Priority Advisories to all survival stations in the IZ and defence lines to burn any plague pits or contingents of neutered dead, reports started coming in of other Emergences.

For some safe havens, both here in the UK and around the world, the warning came too late. Enclaves went dark and drones sent on recces to find out why would return footage of ruined compounds, fleeing survivors, corpses both prone and walking, and, roaming through the centre of the carnage, a lone, misshapen giant, gorging itself.

The rest – the majority, fortunately – escaped the immediate danger; this time playing out Horace’s disastrous attempt to destroy the danger with a much more favourable outcome. Images came through of Homunculi, roused by the flames consuming their birthing pit, rising to attempt escape, only for better-fuelled conflagrations to overwhelm them before they broke loose.

We just managed to beat the wave of Emergences. But only just.

I can’t express the relief I’ve felt in retrospect, knowing we’d being taken seriously. I’ve broken out in a sweat more than once pondering the alternative.

JB: That was it for you and Beeston, wasn’t it?

AM: That’s right. I didn’t see the village again until after VUK Day. Neither of us did, and even then it was a couple of years after that.

JB: Because of your assignment to The Giant Killers?41

AM: Largely, yes. SCAhRE became all-consuming for a while – no pun intended. But Jen and I needed time afterward. For just us. Away from anything associated with… it all. We felt we’d earned it.

Still… I think being invited to join Sub-Comm helped us. It helped me, certainly. Getting to do real science again (though playing catch-up after years outside the field was difficult), brainstorming ideas to combat the threat, figuring out how to utilise new discoveries to our advantage… it was kind of addictive. When you say it out loud, six months-odd doesn’t sound like a long time, but out in the IZ, the feeling of isolation, of being surrounded, every day at Beeston… I had no idea how much it made me feel helpless, victimised by the undead. I don’t count myself a strong person, not like Jen was. Had I remained out there in the Haven, I don’t think I’d have lived to see it liberated. I think it all would’ve become too much. CRS42 would have taken me I think in the end; above and beyond any PTSD43 I suffered as a result of that day. So having a role in SCAhRE made me feel I was able to fight back at last – even if it was by proxy. The Homunculus risk was still very real, after all, and would remain so for a long time. Working with the Giant Killers helped me feel empowered again, and I felt we were doing good work to empower other survivors still out there in the Infected Zone every day. In a way I reckon Jen, me and the three other survivor scientists brought in from the IZ had the advantage over the other twenty-strong team of Sub-Comm’s “Egg-heads”. They’d stayed safe below the Line, they hadn’t lived every day with just what the stakes were out there. They dubbed us, “The Gored Ones” in the end. It was a joke of course, but like most gallows humour, it had truth behind it – they knew we’d been out on the hunt, we’d been initiated. One of them – I won’t say who – confessed as much over one too many fingers of whisky after work one night. “Every time you’re in the room with us, we feel it,” they said. I asked what they meant. “Shame,” they answered, patting the white of their lab coat. “That we haven’t had to crawl through all the blood, like you.”

They made up for it though, we all did. Whatever motivated us, we formulated ways to fight back. And Beeston gave us many lessons learned. Easy-installation, snap-together “fire carpets” tens of metres wide and placed outside the community perimeters – where they could be installed. Phosphorus grenades and incendiary ammo to cook the giants. We made Napalm a weapon of choice again. Pilots told us the glee they felt dropping those bad boys on Homunculi they caught, striding across the landscape. It became very necessary when we realised a Homunculus could self-generate within tightly packed zeb swarms, like those our Ravers44 had lured into stadiums throughout the IZ. Even now I don’t think the remaining Liverpudlian contingent have forgiven the RAF for torching Anfield45.

We also went the opposite way too, creating heavy-duty, high-yield cryo-grenades, packed with pressurised liquid nitrogen, and their big brothers, dropped from fighters, just like their napalm counterparts. Pilots loved using them too; having just scored a direct hit with a cryo, watching the goliath falter, drenched in liquid nitrogen barely a few degrees above absolute zero. They’d circle like vultures, waiting for the monster to stop, frozen mid-stride, then the pilots would swing round and, at their leisure, with just a short burst from their cannon, watch the giants literally shatter.

JB: The Giant Killers were responsible for cryo-cannons too. That one was yours wasn’t it?

AM: Well, the idea. I recalled the things DJs used at raves and suggested we scale up. I did feel nervous about the cannon’s viability when the prototype’s effective range was demo’d at only twenty metres optimum. That made it a nigh-on close-quarter, whites-of-the-eyes weapon, for use as the last possible resort. But its advantage as a swifter takedown over fire couldn’t be disputed. When I saw the footage of cannons successfully used in action on the walls at the Kennet & Avon and Hadrian Lines a week after deployment, I cried like a baby.

JB: The photo of that homunculus caught mid-freeze at the walls outside Conwy has become one of the defining images of the UK campaign.

AM: Yes. Trouble was, the cannon is a hi-tech weapon, heavily reliant on so many elements of a functioning military-industrial complex to maintain. Our resources were stretched to produce them, so only larger safe havens or industrial assets able to contribute to the war effort were, as a priority, recipients for deployment. For the smaller, struggling communities, those with no direct, regular access to the outside world to be supplied, the numbers spoke for themselves. It simply wasn’t worth the trouble and resources to deploy.

That’s where Ian’s46 “Cheese Wire” outer perimeter has proven really effective. Quick to set up, requiring hardly any maintenance, as Homunculus counter-measures go, it’s elegant in its simplicity. It never fails to surprise me, the primal satisfaction I feel, when I watch footage of one of those monsters as they march, heedless of the danger, straight into those four-storey high webs of deceptive-looking gossamer wire, and seeing them do their work. I’ve cheered when a Beeeaitch chops itself up into massive chunks of meat, through just a combination of its own momentum, stupidity, and cleverly placed lines of super-strong carbon-fibre nano-weave.

JB: But when you finally came back – to Beeston I mean – how did it feel?

AM: [Hesitates, thinking] Bittersweet. The place had changed so much. I saw that Haveners went about on bicycles or horses, fuelled and electric vehicles being at a premium now. Allotments – barely begun in my time – were all over the place by then; every scrap of land not farmed showed years worth of fruit, veg and herb cultivation; a sure sign of successful self-sufficiency. In the distance the posts of the Cheese Wire fence rose defiant, dwarfing our original perimeter fence. Pitiful that seemed, in comparison. The re-fortification of the castle, makeshift as it was, had long been completed too. English Heritage couldn’t complain of vandalism, all things considered. The castle had, after all, upheld its original purpose against an enemy seeking to destroy the local populace – a role, along with its brethren, firmly establishing their place in this latest chapter of our nation’s history.

Then there was such a militarised air to Beeston as well. Not surprising really, as after that day in March the army effectively ran the show.

JB: Beeston still maintained a civilian population until liberation though.

AM: Oh yes, and after. I found it disturbing somehow; the feeling that I expected to see no one I’d known still there at all. At the same time, it was disturbing for me when I did see old faces from pre-Emergence days still there; Haveners like Sally and Johnny. Victor had long since gone – first chance he got apparently. Volunteered for Civvie Support47 and shipped out on the next Chinook supplying havens elsewhere within the IZ. He never bothered to stay in touch, and, knowing what they did now about his role in the Fire Fence tragedy, no one at Beeston felt any inclination either. I tried to look him up once, after. By the time the Battle was done, he’d been all over the IZ. His last posting was over at the docks at Immingham, doing zeb spotter work and manning the cannon on the port’s walls. That was in the final weeks by that stage, when we were advancing on all fronts and the IZ had contracted to just a sliver of red across the country. By all accounts, Victor slipped out on a supply train headed for London. Once he knew he was outside the walls and no one would come after him, guards spotted him climbing on top of one of the containers, gazing back at them, without a care in world. He wasn’t on the train when it arrived down south at quarantine. He’s still listed as MIA, presumed dead. Suicide. Me? I sort of agree. I think he did decide he couldn’t face life – just not as Victor, not with that mistake hanging forever over his head. He’d always be judged by that. See, Victor had a strong sense of self-preservation, so I think he’s still out there, another of the thousands of Fakers48 wandering around. If he is, I hope he’s found some measure of peace.

Anyway… coming back, it was a strong sense of disjointedness, misplacement… I felt outside of my years, outside of myself. But we all have that feeling nowadays, I suppose. Jen said she felt pretty much the same.

The vicarage was still there of course, largely unchanged from the role co-opted for it as a billet for soldiers. The troops had been pretty careful with the place, fair play to them.

JB: You’d returned as the parish priest?

AM: Well, just like every other organisation in the country, the C of E was in a beleaguered state, massively depleted of numbers. It being so short of clergy, I felt stepping back into my old role was the right thing to do. I felt… led.

JB: Out of curiosity, how did living through the Battle for Survival challenge your faith? It must have taken a beating, surely. I’m just wondering how it changed your outlook – if at all.

AM: Oh… I’ve had some very dark nights of the soul, wondering how any deity professing love for their creation would allow such destruction and death to occur on the scale we’ve seen. This was the worst we as a species have faced in recorded history. It was an Extinction Level Event, after all. It’s only brought the question of why God allows suffering into even sharper relief.

I’ve never considered the dead rising up as a judgement from Heaven, y’know, in response to society’s allowing gay marriage or abortion, drugs, or our driving on the left or other such nonsense as some Fundamentalists have claimed. That’s just lunacy. The pathogen that powers the goop has been found to be man-made, not natural, not divinely conjured and cast down upon us from on high. Humanity made it, so humanity bore the consequences of it. But I don’t believe God just let us stew in our own horror either. For all the death and tragic, stupid loss, all the squandered lives, I’ve also heard… stories, incidents, which have led me to believe that we weren’t forsaken. He intervened where He could… within the parameters of His own rules, you could say. I’m not asking you to accept that, but it’s my position.

But one direct consequence of the Beeston Phenomena is that I don’t believe in eternal damnation. I did once. Had doubts about its theological validity even before O-Day… but definitely not now. Does that sound strange, coming from an Anglican priest? Still, it’s true. Curious isn’t it, what gets burnt away in life’s crucible. I’ve got Jeff Salmon to thank for that. I’ve had years to digest the events leading up to the attack on the Haven, Jeff’s final warning to me, and, strangely, it’s brought me to the conclusion that I don’t think an actual eternal Hell exists. Such an outlook, such a concept, doesn’t sit at all with the idea of a loving God. I mean… wanting to forever punish sentient beings He claims to love? That would make Him a sociopath. “Hell” as we understand it today is not even Biblical. It’s not Sheol in the Old Testament, or the outer darkness Jesus spoke of in the Gospels. It’s a pagan idea, which crept into Christian thinking around the eighth century, so that today when we think, “Hell”, we think Dante’s Inferno. And it’s all… bullshit, frankly.

So… I made up my mind years ago, and I’m what’s known as a Conditionalist now; I believe that our souls are immortal only if we choose to accept God, and that, at the end of our days, if we still don’t want Him, He’ll honour that decision. He’ll let our souls cease to exist – if that’s our wish. No Hellfire, no eternal gnashing of teeth. We just go… perhaps not so gently into that good night, as Dylan Thomas protests. But go we can, to a final absolute rest, if that’s our choice. That to me sits much better with the idea of a loving, merciful God allowing us the freedom of choice.

“But Jesus spoke of Hell and damnation,” I’ve heard in protest. Sure, we think that. But you see that’s a misunderstanding. When Jesus spoke of unrepentant sinners being cast into the outer fire, he was speaking about Gehenna, the actual place outside Jerusalem, which has only been interpreted since – wrongly – to mean Hell.

So… if there was no Hell then, there is no Hell today… except, I believe now, that which you make for yourself. And, I think… in our hubris, our fear and greed, in our willingness to let Henry hold sway over us, that’s what we did at Beeston those months after O-Day. We made our own Gehenna.

“Where there is wailing, and gnashing of teeth…”

JB: You use your free time up at the castle as a tour guide. I was wondering… why is that? Haven’t you done enough?

AM: You know, when I’ve taken people on tours, I’ve overheard some ask, “Why is he still here?” It’s a fair question. I mean, I did my bit back in the day. Haven’t I better things to do? What with all the footage captured of the First Emergence and during the subsequent attack on the castle, why do I need to be here? There are spots dotted all over the castle grounds, within and outside the Ward, where you can call up Augmented Reality Event Playbacks of the attack some Haveners had the presence of mind to film as it occurred… each and every different point of view. Then you have the witness testimonies, mine included. Yes… English Heritage and the Imperial War Museum’s Zeb War department did a great job recreating the set up of the Haven at the time. The horror of that should be enough without me wandering around pointing out the highlights, right?

JB: You’re unable to move on? Is that it?

AM: That’s been another accusation, and, in all truth, that’s partly correct. Jen loved this part of the country. She’s buried here, you probably know that. Pretty much demanded to be, once she knew her leukaemia was terminal. Sure, the Beeston Havener Society would look after her grave along with all the others. But the BHS are enthusiasts, while, in the end, I was her spouse. To me, staying is part of the deal.

JB: So if staying close to your wife is only part of the reason, what’s the other?

AM: We – society, I mean – were too fond of what we had. Even with zebs snapping at our heels we obstinately clung to what we still knew. Sure, we rolled with the punches the Outbreak threw at us, but we refused to roll far enough, to abandon what didn’t serve us best when it became a burden. Adaptation is hard, and we didn’t adapt fast enough – worse; we refused to do so. That’s what people are saying when they criticise me. “Alec can’t let go. Look at him, he’s locked in the past; still chasing that Homunculus up the hill to the castle Ward”. And I won’t deny it. I’m doing just that.

JB: Why?

AM: I’ve always thought, for all the high tech ways visitors here can re-live Beeston Haven and experience how it almost fell to the Homunculus, seeing one of the players in that drama tell them what really happened in the flesh… that takes it to another level.

If I’m still here, every day chasing that monster up the hill again – and doing so till the day my legs or my heart give out – it’s because I want people to know why I had to do that in the first place.

’Y’know, the philosopher and essayist George Santayana said it best; “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

‘If I’m still chasing the monster up the hill of Beeston Castle, it’s in the hope that people see and learn from why I, Sergeant Rule and Jennifer Edwards had to. I want that lesson seared into these visitors’ minds as brightly and fiercely as that tanker burned. Maybe then we can in a way recoup some of those lives needlessly lost that day in March.

’I go up that hill every day, in the hope we as a race are never so short-sighted again we let another monster gestate just beyond our doorstep and storm our homes.

‘I go up that hill, hoping and praying with every step that no-one else will ever have to.’

JB: [gasps] Oh my god. The Fire Fence!

AM: The Fire…? I don’t-

JB: Jesus Christ! You knew, didn’t you? You knew the Fire Fence wasn’t going to work!

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