PART ONE: AUGURS & INTIMATIONS
“So research was the reason why Josh was bringing back a head?”
Alec Mitchell: I’ve always considered spring as something of a deceptive season. I suppose autumn can be argued as being something of the same; reflecting summer’s glories now past. With either, first thing of a morning you fling your curtains aside, your windows wide, to be greeted by a keen sunrise and sharper air. The fairies have had a busy night, weaving the grass with beads of starlight, fast waning now against Sol’s bullying ascent. The morning pushes all the buttons your senses have to feel things will turn out good. Then of course the day goes to shit.
Either season gives you such… edgy days. Days of… contradictions, mixed messages, where promises of welcome warmth or cool turn out to have been exercises in misdirection. Nature’s own secret intelligence service, playing you the fool for its own covert op. Still, I can forgive autumn its fickle playing with us more than spring. Autumn we know is a messenger of decline; we know it’s our hemisphere’s turn to dip down into the shadows and the valley of winter’s bones. It’s expected. It’s encoded in our DNA; autumn is meant to rain on our parade. Spring though… Spring is meant to be a move a way from the cold and decay, a climb back out into the light. It shouldn’t betray us with reminders of the year’s death we left behind. Yet there we are, still surprised and indignant when it does, as if it were all something entirely new. Nature, eh? But hell, who said that Nature is our friend?
I think you’ll agree there’s a pretty strong consensus just whose side Nature is really on. I know I do.
The reason I mention this is it seems appropriate enough that it was on just such a day we had our first inkling of the coming catastrophe.
Of course, who was a player at that moment?
Jay Boam: Josh.
AM: Your friend and mine, Josh Broadbent. Brings me to the reason for this early teatime chat. Looking back, the man had a knack of having some involvement in events. Not to say he looked for trouble or anything. Just seemed to be well placed at the time something happened. He certainly made sure his arrival at the Haven was an event. You hear about that?
JB: Something. I’d like your take on it though.
AM: It was… oh, only the first week after the camp at the castle had been established, before winter properly set in. So this would’ve been… what? O-Day plus eight or nine? Josh wandered up to the perimeter gates around dawn, bold as brass – but still with the good sense to keep his hands up where the guards could see them. This was before things descended into the total free-for-all that enclaves like ours trapped above the Line came to face. By spring when that… thing showed itself, we were extremely wary of fellow survivors. We had good reason to be.
Anyway Josh calls out, asking if the jolly “lock-in” as he claimed we were all having inside was just a private party, or was anyone welcome to join? After a brief confab, we ordered him to step up and get inside. As soon as he wandered through the gates, Josh declared, this huge smirk on his face, ‘I hereby annex this territory and population to the Kingdom of Broadbent.’ Of course, that got him a rifle or two shoved in his face, with the curt response of, You and whose army, arsehole? Henry already had at least one of his gang manning the gates at the time. What does Josh do? He only tsked and replied, ‘Damn. There go my plans for world conquest.’
Had Josh cracked that joke even a week later, he’d have been shot dead where he stood.
Oh – and you know, many people aren’t aware of it, but Beeston has another claim to fame, aside from the first officially recorded encounter with a BAH. It was we who also coined the name for our enemy; at least the enemy as we knew it at the time. If I’m precise, it was our own Josh Broadbent who came up with it: “Zebedee”.
JB: Is that right?
AM: Josh had just returned from his turn on one of the thrice-daily dispatch patrols we sent out to keep down the number of zombies constantly finding and stalking our outer perimeter. He was flourishing a British Army issue SA80 assault rifle he’d found, still being carried by one of the ghouls he’d topped. Some poor Regular infantryman apparently; missing his bowels and his left arm, but with his right holding on for grim undeath the weapon which had failed to protect him. Victor3 told me later when Josh came back through the perimeter main gate that he had this exchange with Jeannie Marks4, who was one of the guards manning the gate at the time. I recall their conversation – at least how Victor told it – pretty much verbatim.
‘Who’s gun is that?’ Jeannie asks.
‘It’s an assault rifle, baby,’ says Josh, and he ejects the rifle’s a magazine.
‘Whose assault rifle is that?’
‘It’s Zeb’s,’ he says. Jeannie pouts.
Josh only shakes his head, like it doesn’t matter anymore. Done counting the unused rounds left in the magazine, he slams it back home and makes sure the safety’s on. Then he quips – real cool like:
‘Zeb’s dead, baby. Zeb’s dead.’
JB: Pulp Fiction, isn’t it…?
AM: That’s right. The legendary, and oh-so quotable, Q & A between Maria de Medeiros’ Fabienne and Bruce Willis’ Butch. Of course, our Jeannie was no film buff, was she? So she had no idea she’d just blundered, mouth-first, and entirely unwittingly, into it. Only as he walked past Jeannie and looked Victor in the eye, did the mask drop, and Josh gave Victor this mischievous wink. Victor got the gag immediately, even if Jeannie didn’t. Instead she just demanded again who “Zeb” was? And Josh sighed and clarified.
‘Zebedee,’ he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. And that was that.
Of course, much to Jeannie’s annoyance he and Victor told the story of that exchange again and again, so the tag spread around the camp quickly. That night, Sally5 used it in our daily sit-rep broadcast to Docklands6, keeping them apprised of our status up here in Cheshire. The usual; number of kills that day (sex, race, gender, ID if possible) how our supplies were holding up, any new additions to our camp, their names, skills etc. I was there when she said so:
‘Say again?’ came the reply from Docklands. Sally clarified. There was a pause, then we got back the reply, ‘Understood,’ mixed with chuckling. After that we heard it bandied about in official comms all the time. They must have thought us lot up in Beeston were Magic Roundabout nuts or something. But the name tag fit. Heck, we’d had “Jerry” as slang for the Nazis in World War Two, the Americans had “Charlie” for the Vietcong during Vietnam. Why not do the same for our latest enemy? I heard later that use of the term “zombie” was initially frowned upon by the higher-ups in government dispatches. Denial, I heard it was, or fear it was trivialising something so new and horrifying. You remember anyone using “Morts” as a designation in the early days?
JB: Not really. I was kind of out of the loop.
AM: No surprise. Not nearly as catchy as “Zebedee” – or so clear to understand over a radio. So “Zebedee”stuck, at least for us here in the UK. After he learnt the term had been appropriated by officialdom, Josh strutted about like a peacock for days. You’d think he’d won the lottery. It made up for Henry confiscating the assault rifle from him for the Haven’s armoury.
But you see what I mean about Josh being around when things happened? And it was one of his kills that gave us the first hint of what was coming.
JB: So this is March 8th now?
AM: That’s right. Josh had been called out for another dispatch job between patrols. One of our look-outs had spotted a ghoul pawing at the Wilkinson farm’s southern perimeter fence ringing their fields and freaking out the cows. He went out with Carol – that’s Carol Gant7 – and topped the bogeyman with his broadsword.
JB: Have you seen the latest script re-write? No broadsword now. They’ve included Josh’s SA80 find. I use that now to do the deed.
AM: See, this is exactly the kind of disrespect for historicity I’m talking about. The world and his wife know if you want to stay invisible and unheard when you’re out and about, the primary way to dispatch a zeb’ is quickly and quietly. And they go and-
JB: Hey, I’m just saying-
AM: God! I- I know it’s not you. But, I mean… Beeston had the advantage of possessing a range of replica medieval swords, even some armour. Y’know the English Heritage ticket office up at the Castle sold them prior to the Outbreak8. Quality tempered steel, none of your dodgy tin knock-offs. So of course Josh’d be out using a sword – not blasting away, advertising our presence to the entire Cheshire countryside.
JB: You’re preaching to the choir.
AM: Sorry. Sorry. [sighs] Hey – tell me if you knew this. When Henry9 arrived O-Day plus two, he marched through the ticket office doors with his medieval battle re-enactment cronies like he already owned the place, declared the site commandeered for the newly created “Beeston Safe Haven”, and promptly confiscated the shop’s “armoury” – as he called it – for the castle’s company.
AM: Not, for what it was, that they necessarily needed it. Not immediately. His crowd were already armed to the teeth with swords, knifes, cleavers, bows and crossbows, even a couple of rifles and shotguns. Once they got themselves on the property, the entrance gates were closed, they had roadblocks set up on each artery outside the village, and were out patrolling the perimeter, while anyone going spare not raising their camp in the castle’s upper Ward was set to, sharpening the shop’s replica swords. And it was one of those sharpened replicas Josh had used to decapitate the ghoul our spotters had seen.
Anyway, Jennifer said Josh ambled back with the head in a canvas bag, its base dark with that syrupy blue-black goop all zombies bleed, one side of the bag pinching regularly. That was the thing trying to gnaw its way out to get at him.
Jennifer went pale when he undid the flaps and let the thing roll out onto the exam table at the lab. She recognised it immediately.
JB: Sorry – just to clarify – this is our Jennifer you mean?
AM: Animal Doctor Jen, yes10. Lucky for us, her surgery was based in Beeston village and she was there when the balloon went up. And by that stage – a few months on – she was also improvising as the Safe Haven’s doctor, and doing a fine job at it too. Just the week before she’d helped deliver a baby girl and a calf, both on the same day.
Jen handled the undead dissection aspect while I studied the pathology – well, tried.
JB: Beeston’s Brainiacs, eh?
AM: Oh, I’d hardly call us that. And a few in the Haven used far unkinder alliterative descriptions for our work, once they found out what Jen and I were up to. “Butchers”, we were called, “Plague Doctors”, even “Cannibals” – at least till we put the kibosh on the rumour we were figuring out a way to use the undead as a food source for the Haven. Either way, it was another reason for them to avoid church services.
Truth to tell, as few Haveners were giving God much of a look-in at the time (and I can hardly blame them), I was already feeling like a fifth wheel when we set up. Something that O Day triggered in me and which festered… a creeping sense of futility in my current role. Looking back, I see it would have been easy to slide into hopelessness, even alcoholism, had there been a ready supply of that around. Aside from my pitiful physical skills as a militiaman, I knew I had to contribute something to the community, and, having been a biochemist in a past life, I could see a role, macabre as it would be, that made some kind of sense in our situation. So, I’d approached Henry and told him I could delve into the “Undead Problem”.
JB: He wasn’t convinced, was he?
AM: Not a first, no. In fact, first thing he did was laugh in my face.
‘What f-ing kind of useful science you think we can do here?’ he said. I didn’t disagree with him on that point, not in my own mind. To Henry however, I took the tack that we at the Haven could provide Docklands with ongoing, even real-time, field intel about undead behaviour and movements, disease progression in those recently infected, longer term study of tertiary subjects, as well be a real-world verifier for Docklands’ own lab-based hypotheses or tests. Beeston could be an essential tool in the Battle against the undead.
JB: Like Resistance fighters.
AM: That’s exactly how I saw it when I thought about it, and pitched it that way to Henry.
‘And what does a resistance cell behind enemy lines get?’ I finished with. ‘Equipment, resources, intelligence. Extra manpower.’
Henry took some persuading, but in the end he saw that it was in Beeston’s own interests to be seen to be contributing to the war effort, even if we gave Docklands nothing new. So he agreed and I took point on the project. Once Jen knew of my plan, she chipped in with dissections when her duties allowed.
I knew Henry’s expectations weren’t high about just what we could discover. As if either of us had anything like the expertise, experience or resources to make head or tail of what was going on in the infected. And Henry was right; we were hardly the HTD11 or the CDC12, and hardly in a position to verify any but the most basic of medical and scientific pronouncements about the undead that Westminster released. But it turned out the undead intel we could provide did after some weeks hike Beeston up the rankings of safe havens prioritised for assistance – which we eventually received. Of course, once assistance came, I was consigned to Henry’s blacklist when he learned the strings to which such assistance was attached.
JB: I remember reading about that in A Beeston Diary13.
So research was the reason why Josh was bringing back a head?
AM: Mm-hmm. Among other things, we were still struggling to understand how the infection reactivated a corpse’s brain and kept it going. Excuse the pun, but it was ghoulish that we were grateful to have such a regular supply of cadavers so we could be sure there was consistency in our findings.
JB: Which were…?
AM: Primarily confirmation of the government’s basic advice, as I said. You know… removing the head from the body or destroying the brain neutralises the threat. [JB: At this point, Rev. Mitchell gives a knowing, mirthless chuckle. JB joins in.] Or so we thought.
But we were trying to isolate the pathogen’s activity within the brain and understand how it operated there and through the rest of the cadaver’s system. And we were making a degree of progress, slow as it was. We were gaining a sense of how La Plaga14 attacks and appropriates the body for its own use, and the degree to which it slowed cadaver decay (which was a lot – not good news for us, or Docklands). But… it was only deductions made by physical observation. While we had medical reference manuals Henry’s scavenger teams had plundered the nearest libraries for, or, later, could access the HTD’s d-base via Angel Wings – when it worked anyway15, the equipment and facilities we needed to make deeper study on a neurological and bio-chemical scale were out of reach. Sure, Henry could have mounted a raid on a medical centre for us, but the nearest hospital was the War Memorial three miles north at Tarporley. Close, yes, but we considered both it and the village itself out of bounds. Hospitals had quickly become hot zones of La Plaga in the first days after O-Day, and we knew it was crawling with zebs. There was no way we could risk an expedition, knowing there was a possibility of leading Tarporley’s population of three thousand-odd ghouls back to the Haven’s front door, not while the perimeter around the village was little better than chain-link fencing – certainly not as the castle walls were still being rebuilt. Such expeditions were simply too high a risk.
We’d submitted requests to Docklands to forward any data they had which might help our analysis, but it was slow in coming, and when it did, it was a bare trickle of information. Westminster had higher priorities trying to limit the pandemic and keep it contained above the Kennet & Avon Line16. Though, some days when I look back, I wonder whether they hadn’t already discovered more about La Plaga, and were holding back. I did do some discreet digging later when I had access. Didn’t turn up anything. If they were holding back, maybe it was to keep survivor morale up; it was teetering on a knife edge around the country as it was – both in the safe zones and for survivor enclaves like ours deep inside the Infection Zone. I know my morale wasn’t good by that day in March. Four months of time is little more than a blink when it comes to pathogen research. Yet, despite his initial scepticism, Henry was still genuinely disappointed we were making no progress. And he was becoming increasingly unhappy about Jen’s and my perceived “waste of time and resources”; that was his summary after I delivered my latest update at the Council earlier that day.
JB: So Jennifer recognised the snapping head that rolled onto her exam table?
AM: Yeah, we both did. I’d been examining some zeb cell cultures in the makeshift lab we’d created. You’ve seen it, haven’t you? That old workshop outside the vill-
JB: Down Peckforton Road?
AM: Yeah, that’s the one. Anyway, Jen called me over and pointed as soon as I came through the door. I remember groaning as I recognised it as Jeff Salmon, one of the Brethreners over at the Fortress.
JB: He’d been the caretaker of the place, hadn’t he?
AM: [Nods and sighs.] The number of times we’d warned them about staying apart. I understood their reasons, even if I didn’t agree with them.
JB: Which were…?
AM: Not what you’d think, necessarily. You need to understand the Exclusive Brethren, to use their full name, or “Taylorites”, as the main branch of them were called. They were a Christian offshoot, a sect (and I’m saying “were” as I have no idea if any of them are left now). Less generous people would call them a cult, but that’s beside the point. A very enclosed and separatist outfit, they avoided even other Christians. The Brethren operated on a very strict moral code based on the Bible, and considered the world as a wicked place, and the only way to avoid contamination was their “exclusiveneness”. As they saw it, it was the best way to stay away from evil. That was their primary motivation, not an unwillingness to share supplies, or avoiding possible looters, raiders and the undead. Simple separatism from the rest of us. As the local Anglican minister at Beeston with some spiritual commonality, I was at least able to establish something of a rapport with Jeff when we first made contact. As he saw it, if Beeston had a padre, the Haven’s intentions couldn’t be entirely hostile – or evil. We’d given him a CB radio and I was the Haven’s primary contact whenever he came on. I’d been able to convince him that we have a check-in every second day so we knew they were okay and could exchange information, you know, about zeb movements, numbers neutralised, latest bulletins, other developments. Seeing as the world was going to hell in a hand basket, he saw the sense in such back-scratching, despite their standoffish outlook.
Jen knew him from about three weeks before, when one of their women, Judith, had developed appendicitis, and I’d escorted Jen over with a small guard to give medical aid. As Judith was pregnant too, her husband, Kenneth, didn’t care if our coming put him and his wife at risk of condemnation within the community. Exclusive as they were, and believe me, their rules against contact with the outside world are strict, the Brethreners aren’t against modern medicine. And once they knew a competent medic was close by, saying no to our offer of assistance had been nigh on impossible.
JB: Did she pull through? Judith?
AM: Oh yeah. It was a successful op., she recovered fine. The rest of the Brethreners were guardedly grateful, but I sensed at the time our coming had stirred up controversy in the group. I suppose the Zombie Apocalypse was already challenging their thinking some, as it was. I offered the couple sanctuary with us if the mood at the Fortress came to a head. Henry objected angrily at that; it’d be two extra mouths to feed and all, in his mind. He came round though, when he saw the bridge-building potential of it.
JB: You said Jeff and the Brethreners were over at “the Fortress”. It sounds like they would’ve been fine.
AM: Oh, that was just the nickname we gave it. Beeston Castle was the real fortress in the area; it had been since its construction in the twelfth century. A commanding prospect overlooking the flat countryside around it, I could understand why the Normans had chosen to build it there. On a clear day you can see eight counties around, as far as the Pennines to the north and east, and to the Welsh mountains to the west. The Shropshire Union Canal provided us something of a limited moat a kilometre to the north. And even if the castle’s original outer bailey – or “ward” – walls weren’t entirely intact (and we were doing all we could to plug those holes and increase their height, even up to the day everything went south), the inner, upper ward, three hundred and fifty feet up at the crag’s summit, made a fine redoubt against any undead horde that might break through either it, or the modern boundary wall English Heritage had raised round the castle at the foot of the hill. Only one footbridge gave access to the summit Ward over a dry ditch some tens of metres wide and I don’t know how many deep. Even the living would think twice trying to make the climb for it. To be fair to Henry, for all his faults and the accusations he’s faced since of living it up in his survivalist’s dream, his choice for a safe haven was an excellent one.
The Brethrener encampment was nothing like that though. It was just a self-contained farmstead about four miles out into the south west of the Cheshire plain, with a central compound of buildings you’d expect, creating a protective inner ring; a large house, stables, barns, greenhouse, a garage, and a few acres of fields. I say “just self-contained”, but all of it was enclosed behind a high, thick brick wall, two metres tall at its lowest and about four at its highest. So that, coupled with an equally high outer brick wall, a thin loop of woodland hiding it from the curious, and with a lone traffic entrance from a B road through a tall wooden gate just as stout as ours, and, well… there was nothing in the way of ease of entry for your average clumsy zeb’. The Brethreners had embraced what had been called the “Slow Food Movement” prior to O-Day; farming on a small scale and diversifying their produce to survive. Sure, such a practice didn’t pay well before the dead rose, but the Brethreners were never aiming to sell their output, and it was a boon under these precarious circumstances. It meant the Brethreners had access to poultry, cattle, pigs, sheep. They could produce meat, sausages, eggs… We also discovered they had a diesel generator, large stores of fuel and bottled gas, access to water from an aquifer, industrial grade batteries, and from the distance through binocs from our initial recces of them, we could see the reflection from solar panel arrays fitted to the roofs.
They pretty much had everything covered. It was a preppers paradise, if not a heavenly one.
JB: A temptation for raiders.
AM: It was a temptation for Henry too, no doubt about it. Whatever his reasons, whether he really was thinking of establishing his own little post-Apocalyptic Duchy of Beeston or simply ensuring we had all we needed to get the best chance of surviving, he was keen to grab as much in the way of resources as he could. And it was a close run thing he didn’t persuade enough of the Haven’s Council to launch a raid the day we learnt about the Brethreners’ set up. He saw it as a prospective outpost for our community, an expansion of our territory, and a set up wasted on them. Winter was coming at the time, and we all knew, what with the War’s global environmental impact, that it would be a punishing one. Despite my opening up the church and the commandeering of every household in the village as billets for survivors, we had plenty of Haveners still in tents and struggling against the cold who’d have loved the chance to warm themselves under a well-protected roof. Had winter been any worse, there’d have been plenty of Haveners willing to back an assault. I know Henry’s re-enactment crowd would’ve.
To be fair to the Brethreners though, they’d already anticipated the possibility of attack. They used wind chimes at key locations on the perimeter walls to attract zebs, and wire fences to corral them into zones almost all the way round the compound. Even from the protection of a car your average poorly equipped raider would have a job dealing with them. Ironic really; Jeff claimed once that the ghouls were the very expression of Satan’s diabolical plan for humanity having been fulfilled, and then he goes and uses them as a deterrent against living interlopers. ‘Using Satan’s horde against him,’ he said of it. I didn’t hear a smile in his voice when he said it either.
JB: Yet that day in March Jennifer found he’d become one of Satan’s own.
AM: It was a very unwelcome development. Jeff had been due to make his next transmission just that night, and I’d had no glimmering from him in the last broadcast that anything was up. And suddenly we find his corpse clawing at a perimeter fence trying to eat our cattle.
I’d never stopped worrying about them. There was Jeff, his wife, Ruth, and their daughter, Emily, Kenneth and Judith of course, and another two families he never identified. He tried to give us an idea there were a lot of them there at first, but I’d guessed there were at most maybe a dozen souls over at the Fortress, judging from our visits and snippets of information he let slip during our conversations. Perhaps a baker’s dozen. He admitted the Fortress was set up to be some kind of bolt-hole for the Brethren, the kind like a lot of apocalyptic sects create for themselves, and when the balloon went up on O-Day, the call went out among their people assigned that property to gather there. In the resulting chaos on the roads, only those families managed to show up at the Fortress gate. Their numbers were enough to maintain their farm, keep watch and ensure the zebs didn’t get in of course, but not much else. If any organised raids had occurred they’d have been trounced in a heartbeat. The fact we weren’t doing so bad over at Beeston probably saved them from Henry’s ambitions.
JB: But someone had got to them.
AM: Looking at the head on the exam table, it looked more likely some thing. I recall hoping we were only dealing with Jeff being turned; that he’d gone over the Fortress wall on some errand and been waylaid by a stray zeb. The first thing I did of course was head up to the Ward to try to raise the Fortress on the radio. All we got back was dead air. By that stage we had about two hours worth of daylight left, in theory too late to go on a round trip expedition to check if the other Brethreners were okay. But once Henry heard from us whose head was on our table at the surgery, he was happy – hell, positively itching – to send up a drone to investigate.
JB: It still impresses me the Haven had the foresight to get them.
AM: I don’t know about foresight. They were pretty ubiquitous by then. All sizes and shapes. It wasn’t much of a creative leap to see the use they could be to us for reconnaissance. We had those… what are they? Phantom Quadricopters, that’s it. You’ve seen that one up at the Museum. I don’t recall if they’d been lifted from some toyshop or Maplins, or one of Henry’s gang had brought them with him when they commandeered the Castle. The Phantoms weren’t bad at all for what we asked of them. Johnny Callaghan had pimped them to take on larger batteries for a longer flying time and higher weight carrying capability. So we had a drone – Betsy it was, or maybe Ruby? Johnny preferred Ruby, one of them anyway17 – flying over the Brethrener Fortress little more than half an hour after Jen and I raised the alarm.
JB: I’ve seen the footage of that flypast the Haven forwarded to Docklands. Can you describe for me the scene when you saw the live feed come in?
AM: It was… devastation. The outer wall had been breached at one point in the southwest quadrant… the structure completely toppled, the breach going right down to the ground. You could see the bricks scattered, fanning away from the collapse, as if the wall had exploded inward. Zebs were wandering about both outside and within the breach, some making their way across the Brethrener plot, making a beeline for the livestock they’d spotted. There were cows, sheep, goats, all at the opposite end of the small fields allocated them, shrinking as far as possible from the basic chain link fences separating them from the creatures already massing, beating at the barriers. The animals could easily outpace the ghouls when the fences separating them finally collapsed, but the frightened calls we could see them making would attract more ghouls though the breach and toward the fences. It would only be a matter of time before the fences fell and the poor things would be mobbed and devoured.
Up the track of allotments toward the central building complex, we spotted a group of ghouls, and it was clear the scrum was scrabbling at fleshy remnants of a body, or sucking the marrow from splintered bones. Lower flybys of them made discernible shreds of clothing, boots, and one caved in and bloodied human skull. So, including Jeff Salmon, that was another of the Brethrener party down. Then we spotted the second breach.
It was right by an improvised gate they’d created for the compound’s inner ring buildings, connecting another brick wall with the side of one of the barns. Again this wall had been blown inward – at least as we thought it at the time. Within the farm’s courtyard was carnage. One of the Brethrener’s cars had been rammed into the garage, their tractor had been overturned. Farm equipment was strewn about. A few windows of the main house had been shattered, a couple were no more than gaping holes ripped from the fabric of the building, the frames lying in broken splinters out in the muddied cobbles of the yard. All that was left of the barn opposite the main house was a smouldering, gutted skeleton, its metal frame blackened and bent low from the heat of the inferno that had consumed it. We guessed that must have been where all the remaining winter hay for the livestock had been stored. Within the ruin we could make out a smoking pile of human bones.
You know, I thought… up to that point, what with the level of violence, death and tragedy this war had brought upon us… I thought I’d become inured to it all. I know I’d been lucky in many ways before that day, not, say, having to run blind from one dangerous and terrifying situation to the next like Bernadette18, fleeing from the centre of Manchester, watching her party of friends and family perish either to accident, other panicking refugees or the ghouls. But we’ve all seen some gruesome things up close, and for me up to that day, it had been on the slab back in the lab, trying to understand what we were dealing with.
But standing there in the Council’s tent in the Castle’s upper Ward, huddled with Jen, Henry, Brendan19, and the rest of the Council round Johnny’s monitor, watching the live feed, this was the first time it was up close, genuinely personal for me. Of course I couldn’t say the Brethreners were family, not like many in the Haven were becoming by then, but… a place and a people I knew having been gutted like that – literally gutted… It was… horrifying. Heart-breaking.
JB: Did you think there might be survivors?
AM: Honestly, watching what was on the screen, there and then I personally didn’t hold out much hope. A few zebs were wandering around the inner compound in that sluggish, aimless way which suggests there’s nothing human alive nearby to agitate them. Someone suggested survivors could have managed to hole up a room, a cellar, or the house’s attic maybe.
Sergeant Rule20 said from what he could judge from the footage, whatever went down had occurred around twelve to eighteen hours earlier, which, by our reckoning; meant between 11pm and 5am that morning. There was no way to know though whether what we were seeing was the fallout from some raid by an organised band of survivors or some random, cumulative and catastrophic failure in their protection. By the look on his face though, I could guess which scenario Sergeant Rule favoured. He strongly urged going over to the Fortress pronto and taking a proper look-see, even though we didn’t have much daylight left. We knew he didn’t like making that suggestion. No sane person wants to go wandering about the countryside in the dark surrounded by any number of undead, especially to a location you know is already overrun with them. Henry was reluctant to give such an expedition the nod as well. I guess he was weighing up the odds; either claiming a bonanza of whatever resources might be left, against wasting time – and possibly lives – only to discover the place had already been cleaned out.
JB: But he still gave the nod.
AM: In the end. The clock was ticking and we had to know. If it was raiders, and if they’d captured survivors who’d talked, then if they hadn’t known about us already, it was likely the raiders would know about us now. And next time Beeston would be the target.
Rule quickly gathered a small recon team of six, with him in charge. He asked me to come along, seeing as any survivors would know me and I could reassure them we were on their side.
JB: How did you feel about that?
AM: Frankly? Terrified. Understand, I was a country priest – had been since I left my science career and city life behind. I’d been lucky. O-Day had been just a televisual event for me, a live-streamed horror unfolding on BBC News, Twitter and Facebook, consuming cities miles away from Beeston, all while the autumn sun still shone into this very study onto me as if nothing were happening. Not just down the road… not then beating down your door, as it had been for the likes of Bernadette or Josh. They had to find their sanctuary. The protection of Beeston Haven had effectively risen around me.
And okay, all members of the Haven had been given basic training by Sergeant Rule in the use of knives, zeb-stickers21 and close-quarter fighting tactics against zebs. Henry had even ordered his medieval re-enactor buddies to teach us as much as they could about swordplay. It all made sense of course; we feared a major horde may discover the Haven any day, and in that event every one of us would be needed to fight. So no one at Beeston was excluded from patrol and neuter duty, not even Jennifer, critical to the Haven as her skillset was. We simply couldn’t afford to get rusty. Only three days before Jeff’s head wound up in the vet surgery, I’d gone out on patrol and neutralised a ghoul outside the northern wall, right below the Ward and between the Canal, so I had experience of close encounters with the undead, clumsy as I was in the execution. Oh- no pun intended. But this… Aside from neuter duty, I’d only gone out on foraging expeditions in the early days of the Safe Haven, before Henry granted me the Undead Problem project – and even then only to nearby country petrol stations, out of town DIY supply stores like Jewsons to help strengthen our perimeter. Nothing as downright dangerous and petrifying as raids into the even slightly populated areas, which by spring our more seasoned teams were doing. The world had changed drastically in the months since I’d last ventured outside the gates.
Sergeant Rule was aware of my concern whether I’d be able to hold my own out there. I recall him eyeing me closely as we were issued our weapons from the armoury, his discreet sidling up to me as I loaded my Army-issue Beretta and holstered it… and with nothing like the familiarity either of us would have desired under the circumstances, I might add. I didn’t know if he stood by, ready to disarm me if I was about to accidentally discharge, or simply to offer me reassurance, but he quietly asked me if I’d be okay with the gun or wanted a quick refresher. When I replied I’d be okay, he advised me to just stay close to him, do as I was told, keep my eyes peeled, and I’d be fine. And he told me this, all while shouldering his trusty army issue, sound suppressed M4 carbine22 assault rifle he’d arrived at Beeston with. Truth to tell, it was the sight of that thing resting across his chest that reassured me. Rule certainly knew well how to use it.
Y’know, driving as we would be into what was a known zebs’ nest, all things considered, Rule appeared surprisingly relaxed about it. I’ve often wondered what he used to reassure himself. God knows he needed it.
JB: He was a soldier.
AM: Yeah, which made him resourceful, capable, deadly, and used to the stress of combat, but not a machine. If anything, his training likely made him more sensitive to the dangers he faced, so consequently he was… I hesitate applying the word “afraid” to Rule. He was a hard man to read, deliberately made himself so. I suppose he was… concerned. Justifiably so. It’s with the benefit of time and hindsight now I see why it was Rule who chose those who’d be on the recon team, not Henry or Brendan. Brendan-
JB: Militia Captain Brendan?
AM: Yeah. He was very unhappy about it; not choosing the team, I mean. As ranking officer of the Haven Militia, he felt he ought to make the decision as to who should recon the Fortress. He even wanted to go out with us. Not only for the reasons I just mentioned, but also I think just to show Rule he could match him when up against it.
JB: No clash of egos there then.
AM: [Chuckles] No, not at all!
JB: Brendan was a fearsome-looking hulk.
AM: Oh god, yeah – and not just in photos. You wouldn’t want Brendan giving you the eye even if you were on his good side. We’d started calling him, “Henry’s Enforcer”, by then, on account as he’d established himself as Henry’s muscle soon after they set up the Haven. And he certainly had plenty of that for the job. I’d seen him swinging swords and axes plenty of times since he and Henry’s other battle re-enactment buddies showed up – for our training this was now – and he handled them so deftly… like they were little more than sticks. I heard he and Sgt Rule had sparred at one of our hand-to-hand fighting demos once. Purely a “friendly”, you understand. Brendan lost of course –getting a cracked tooth for his trouble too. No wonder he was keen to get outside the fence with Rule. I’m sure he’d have welcomed some “alone time” with him out in the field.
JB: You think Rule feared assassination while out on a mission?
AM: Well, he was unpopular within Henry’s regime. I knew it, and I’m sure Rule knew it too. He didn’t go out of his way to be so, but he was damned either way. See, some of Henry’s crowd were feeling giddy with the release from their old lives and the laws that had been imposed upon them from Westminster before O-Day. Lately there’d been talk too among Henry’s friends on the Haven Council of cutting ties completely with London, and I know Henry was of that mind too. He was playing a smart game though; he wanted his fledgling realm to be self-sufficient and fully capable of defending itself before he’d be willing to slash the umbilical cord. I think he was waiting too for the inevitable news of London’s fall and the end of the Realm.
Rule’s presence however only reminded everyone the “Ancien Régime” in Westminster hadn’t expired just yet, acting as much as a discouragement to potential breakaways as it was a morale booster for survivors. So at best then Rule was tolerated within Henry’s circle because of his MoD connections and ability to legitimise pressure on Docklands for supplies and weapons for the Haven. At worst, he was openly resented by many for being undesired government eyes on the ground where they felt should be none.
But actual assassination? No, I don’t think Henry and they contemplated anything so unsubtle, and I don’t think Rule ever worried about crosshairs tracking the back of his skull, not whilst within the confines of the Haven. But he had justifiable concern he faced “death by error and omission” out in the field.
JB: “Error and om…”
AM: Riding with any pro-Henry militia in the IZ, the Sergeant may not get the back-up required if he found himself in a tight spot. Someone too slow to get to him if he was surrounded by zebs, say, or perhaps he might catch a [uses his fingers to create inverted commas] “stray round”, causing a fatal friendly-fire incident. That sort of thing. Who can blame Rule choosing us then?
That’s why the four people who joined him and I were either true Beestoners or independents; survivors who’d since joined the Haven – and not anyone who’d arrived, or since aligned themselves with, Henry’s faction.
JB: So who else was on the recon team then? I know I – Josh – has been included for the film, but…
AM: Yeah, right; another change for the purposes of dramatic licence. Aside from me and Rule, there was Bernadette, Aled23 – it was him you replaced, Fletch24, and Carol Gant.
Henry didn’t seem to mind Rule picking the recon team, strangely – even placated Brendan some. But in light of what I’ve said, as he must have seen it, Henry had six members of any existing or potential opposition to his future plans for the Haven going out into the IZ, possibly to their deaths… if luck was on his side. I take his wishing us good hunting now as meaning only that; success only in that what we found would benefit the Haven… and no matter if we took any losses on our side.
We were seen to the car pool by Jennifer, Henry – flanked as ever by his bodyguards, Jolly and Mose – and Brendan, among other members of the Council. Sparked by the sudden, unexpected flight of the drone, rumours of the Fortress’ fall and our expedition had already circulated in the Haven, drawing a small crowd round the vehicles, whom Brendan had a few of his militia hold back. Jennifer walked with me to my car and repeated she’d have her autopsy report of Jeff’s undead corpse for me on my return, before handing over a field med kit (and a sneaky Snickers – she knew I liked those; it had become a rare treat). I remember wondering at the time why she thought we’d need the extra kit, why she was even there, seeing me off. We’d already said all we needed about Jeff’s body and the Fortress expedition up in the Council tent. Jen confessed later she didn’t know either, not consciously. The other reason, which to many in the Haven was plainly obvious, simply didn’t occur to her – to either of us. I suppose we’d just buried our feelings deep under the weight of our responsibilities.
Sgt Rule pounded on the bonnet of our car by way of proposing that time was passing and we needed to be on our way. I climbed aboard the lead car with him and, within minutes we were through the South Perimeter Gate and heading out into “bandit country”.
Whether any living bandits were still at the Fortress, we were shortly to find out.