Gehenna Rises

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PART TWO: ASHES & EYES

“I saw the Devil, and he saw me.”

AM: We had about an hour before sunset when we set out. By then the afternoon’s light had already taken on the rich lustre that it can, the fast lowering sun pressing home the message that time was short, weaving an enticing, dazzling dance behind any trees standing sentinel along the roads down which we wound.

We took two vehicles; one a Toyota Prius that Victor had “ruggedized” with thick wire mesh bolted over the windows, and bent tubular scaffolding to create bull bar bumpers front and back. Those bumpers had turned out to be so useful, the number of inadvertent rammings that took place over time when some random ghoul would blunder out into a road. Before that day our vehicles would have been write-offs otherwise. Anyway, the Pruis took the lead. It carried Rule, myself and Fletch. Our second vehicle was a police issue Ford transit van, customised for riot duty, which Haveners had found abandoned not far from Tarporley and appropriated on a previous foraging expedition. Pre-zeb-proofed, it was ideal for what we had in mind for it. The other three rode in that.

The journey took maybe twenty minutes. While the need to maximise our available daylight time at the Fortress made us want to push our speed, we took our time, keeping our eyes out on the road ahead and either side to be sure there were no obstructions or raider traps ahead. While a second drone sortie had already checked our route while we’d prepped, confirming the way to the Fortress didn’t present any new hazards or roadblocks aside from the inevitable wandering zeb, we couldn’t afford not to be too careful. As an extra precaution, Rule had the van hang back; basic counter-insurgency tactic so’s to avoid both vehicles being caught in any possible ambush.

Sitting next to Fletch, our driver, the Sergeant literally rode shotgun; for the first few minutes taking passing headshots at zebs lumbering about at the roadside ahead. Accurately sniping of a target while moving is a valuable skill for a soldier, requiring much practice, and Rule’s reason for doing so before we’d even arrived at the Fortress was precisely that. As he saw it, it allowed him to “keep his hand in”, and if that meant it also kept down the number of zebs wandering up to our perimeter fences, it was a bonus. He stopped though after putting down about four, even before Fletch switched the Prius to electric for the last couple of miles to the Fortress. Aside from not wanting to announce our approach, I guess Rule must have satisfied himself he hadn’t lost his touch.

Y’know, there was something melancholy about those zebs we passed on the way. I was used to seeing them of course, lying on the slab. But out there, amongst nature, in the brightness, surrounded by the first buddings of spring; they seemed in a way so pathetic. The clothes for many, especially those of the early victims from O-Day and soon after, those that weren’t weathered to little more than filthy rags by then, hung as if their owners when alive bought them a size too big. I knew why by then. We’d learnt that, while La Plaga slowed decay, it couldn’t stop progressive damage to the muscle tissue from constant use. La Plaga also promoted “cellular cannibalism” to keep the host corpse powered. As a result, after a while it gave all the zebs’ bodies a noticeably withered, scarecrow-like quality. Weak and deceptively harmless-looking. Their faces too were pinched now, slack-jawed when dormant. I’d also seen that before, but in the eyes of relatives grieving for congregants I’d buried before O-Day. Gazing out at those roadside wanderers, it was easy to imagine them, instead of being undead, as having only walked away from a funeral graveside, devastated by their loss, roaming in a blank-eyed fugue. But instead of yearning the return of a lost loved one…

We passed a trio of zebs at one point. Emerging from the shadows of a small copse they were; each of them adult males, each as ever spotted with tell-tale blood-caked bite wounds long since desiccated, each reaching out for us with a lone arm as the car rolled by, as if deliberately pointing us out. The sight prompted me to remember a medieval folk tale, popular before the Black Death arrived in Britain…

Three princes, young, healthy, full of life, are out walking through the countryside, not a care in the world. Abruptly they encounter three walking corpses, cadaverous mirror-images of them, and from whose withered lips comes an ominous warning, “As we are now, so soon you shall be”…

JB: Delightful.

AM: Unsurprisingly, that didn’t raise my spirits any.

We slowed to a crawl turning up the road the Fortress (little more than a dirt track, it was), coming to a halt immediately the main gate came in sight through the trees. Rule opened the sunroof and waited for Johnny to bring his drone high over the gate before sniping the zebs to thin the numbers at the wall. We had need for the distraction. While the Prius’ silence was a boon for sorties like that – only if they’d been looking in the direction of the car would the zebs have known there was prey approaching – it was Rule’s M4 we need to cover with noise. Even with the sound suppressor fitted, its discharge was still painfully loud in the silence. So, as the zebs gazed, curiosity piqued by the noisy, hovering apparition overhead, Rule took them down before they saw us and could raise the alarm. Once the numbers were manageable, he called the others in over the radio, we waited until they arrived in the police minibus, then Fletch led our charge up to the gate. We all piled out and took the remainder down, hand to hand. I was used to it by now, of course – we all were – that clammy stench of death and decay. But, as we climbed out and having that reek raid my nose, and knowing this time it meant I was well outside the protection of Beeston’s fences… that made my legs quake. For a moment I didn’t think I could stand. But I followed Rule and the others, and set to.

Safe zone duly established, Carol and Aled used their rifles to maintain a perimeter while Rule peered over the other side of the wall with one of those collapsible mini-periscopes to get the lay of the land. Via comms, Johnny reassured us with his drone’s eyes we were good to go, so we raised a ladder we’d brought to scale the wall next to the main gate. Again, Rule took point, scoping again for hostiles, live or dead, before throwing a thick rubber mat over the barbed wire topping the wall, then straddling that so’s to snipe a few zebs he’d spotted which had made it this far, wandering closest to the gate on the inside. After that, it was a case of Bernadette dropping over the wall, unlocking and opening the gate while Rule covered her, and then we ducked through with the vehicles and closed and locked the gate again behind us.

Sergeant Rule immediately advised we secure and seal the outer breach first. I say “advised”, but the man was a professional soldier, and while he may have couched the plan of action as suggestions or advice for local political reasons, out in the field, where his training and experience outclassed all ours by an order of magnitude, we considered him CO, and followed his lead without question. So we drove the vehicles round the inside of the perimeter wall, and used the police van to plug the breach.

It was a tricky job and tense, as three of us first had to clear the breach site of fallen masonry for the van so it could slip right alongside the wall, while all the time fending off approaching zebs already alerted that fresh meat was inside. That meant Rule sniping again at the mouth of the breach (a gap about four metres wide) tackling the centre advance of ghouls, with one of us positioned outside the wall either side of the breach, dealing with any others approaching and following the perimeter. That left the van driver on second sniper duty, protecting our rear ends from zebs already inside the perimeter until the way was clear and he got the nod to park the van – after the three defenders slipped back through the breach, of course. Only when we were confident the plug and the wall would hold and no more zebs could get in that way, did we work our way into the farm proper, dealing with the mob of ghouls trying to get at the livestock beyond the fences. They had to be dealt with; what with the beating at the wire, coupled with the panicked bleating and mooing of the animals, the Fortress was ringing a dinner bell to any undead close enough to hear it.

As soon as Rule knew we had that task in hand and could carry on without him, he made his way toward the breach at the inner perimeter and the compound. He had to; time was pushing us hard by that stage. Sunset was upon us. We had maybe twenty minutes before it was dark, and we needed to secure as much of the Fortress compound as possible before having to resort to torches or night vision goggles. Rule stayed visible, hanging back our side of the compound wall so we could see he was okay while he sniped through the breach there until we could join him. By that stage he’d picked off all the zebs in the courtyard that were visible. Then it was a repeat of opening the compound gate, getting the Prius inside and closing it again. But instead of the Prius, this time we used the rammed car already in the compound to plug the hole, tossing in some scorched sheets of corrugated metal roofing for good measure, once we knew the courtyard was secured.

JB: Sorry, but – and it’s occurred to me before reading other accounts of your expedition – it all sounds too slickly accomplished an incursion for a half-baked plan hastily knocked up in half an hour.

AM: And you’d be right. Remember, Henry’d had his eye on the place for months. Even though I and other Council members had shouted down a raid on the Fortress, he’d hadn’t given up wanting to take it. Our expedition was merely the execution of a detailed attack already previously prepared… which now ironically saved us a lot of time. I asked Rule about it later. He admitted he’d given the plan “an army spit and polish” for Henry only a few weeks before, justifying it by saying it was for the greater good of the Haven, and therefore the country. I know, yes, he had to consider the larger picture for his masters back at Westminster, but still, it felt so callous.

Anyway…

Of course we weren’t done yet, but I felt it. The Haven made a point of trying to keep up a modicum of fitness for its company, making us do regular calisthenics. But even so, our daily calorific intake was nothing like what it had been pre-O-Day. So if you add to the brick-tossing I’d been doing too, the effort expended taking down even my meagre share of ghouls (I must have dispatched, what… maybe six or seven of the hundred-odd tally?), well… it had left me breathless. My arms were quivering with fatigue. But now came the really hard part for us.

JB: Checking the compound for survivors.

AM: Yes. None of us relished the thought of what we’d find, but every nook and cranny had to be checked to ensure every Brethrener had been accounted for… one way or the other – and cleared of any zeb still shambling around that hadn’t heard our arrival. That was possible; we’d been pretty quiet to that point, what with using the Prius, silenced or bladed weapons, and as we had been communicating entirely using hand signals and whispers.

The farm’s out buildings were pretty straightforward; open structures giving little cover to hide and plenty of room to manoeuvre round targets. We cleared them quickly. The farmhouse however was another matter. It was a sprawling, century-plus old structure of many rooms and corridors. Judging from the exterior damage, there was a strong likelihood ghouls had successfully gained entry and still lurked within. Entering blind presented a very real danger, especially as it was twilight by now, the building was dark, and we were having to resort to using our torches to see. And believe me, six beams with a limited reach give you no comfort in the way of blanket visibility. So the first thing we did was call out to whoever, or whatever, might still be inside. Sergeant Rule had me do it so the Brethreners knew we were friendlies come to the rescue rather than to pillage. I yelled and identified myself. I confess, my nerves made my first call sound less like the confidence-instilling reassurance of a rescuer and more like the strangled squawk of a petrified seagull. After a cough, my second try sounded better, and that got the desired response. We heard a few characteristic mournful groans come from the darkened rooms and corridors within, followed by slow scrambling and smashing of stray debris. Instinctively the six of us stepped back to give ourselves space, and peered into the lightless portals, waiting for the inevitable.

Six ghouls stumbled out to us, either through smashed windows or the splintered front door. No sniping was required; the window zebs we just let fall out and either eye-stabbed them or crushed their skulls while they were re-orienting themselves on the ground. The zeb which emerged through the door was also easy. A body controlled by a skinned skull kept atop a spine with little more than gristle and strands of muscle, eyeless and jawless, the thing lumbered out, blindly reaching ahead for whatever prey it might stumble into, more from instinct than knowledge. Rule goaded it toward him with taunts while Aled ducked behind and took off the top of its skull at the bridge of the nose with his broadsword.

As for the last two…

We heard the groan of Number Five from above, swung our beams up, and there it was in the torchlight. The ghoul stood, peering down at us from one of the open wounds in the face of the house where a first floor window had been. The thing had no arms – both were missing at the shoulder – and while it may not have been able to reach and grab us, by the look on its face, we knew it was thinking it. No sooner had the zeb clocked us, it stepped out over the edge and tumbled, its skull hitting the courtyard cobbles with a wet crunch. That did the job for us. Not so for Housemate Number Six.

It was the last but by no means least to emerge – from a different first floor hole. No more than a trunk with a lone arm remaining, the creature hissed at us even as it pushed itself out into space. Its bone-splintering landing didn’t end Six’s enthusiasm for our flesh. It lay there, its back on the cobbles, waggling its face round, taking us in, snapping its jaw and flailing its clawed hand out to us before Bernadette stepped up and skewered it through the eye.

After that, Rule had four of us go in, while the two remaining stayed outside to stand guard, maintaining radio contact. We took down two more zebs that had trapped themselves in closed rooms, and once we managed to gain access to the upper floors, the house was secured within half an hour.

JB: And the Brethreners?

AM: We found another one on the ground floor, in what must have been their refectory. A man, badly mauled. A discarded shotgun lay by his body. He must have escaped the initial attack on him, shut himself inside and decided to decorate the room with his brain before they beat down the door and got to him.

There was also a human-shaped mound of pulp and bloodied clothing back in the courtyard, which the zebs had been picking away at. Presumably that one had been crushed – at the time we thought by the treads of a tank, judging by the state of it. And, when we’d moved the car rammed into the garage to plug the hole in the compound wall, we’d discovered a partial body of a Brethrener – a woman’s. She had been pinned between the vehicle and the garage wall. We made a pretty good guess that the poor soul may well have still been alive, unable to free herself, when the zombies came through the breach. There was nothing left of her upper body at all, and the bonnet was caked with dry blood. I could only pray she’d had some weapon to finish herself off with before they got to her.

JB: So including Jeff Salmon then, that made a tally of…?

AM: Five confirmed dead. Of an estimated fourteen Brethreners living there.

JB: And the others?

AM: No trace. Fled, we guessed at the time. Or eaten. Considering the smouldering funeral pyre in the burnt out barn, it was easy to presume at least one or more of the others had hidden in there until the raiders had departed, by which time the dead were already through the breaches. At that point, when the barn doors gave way, seeing their situation was hopeless, they decided to burn their killers and themselves. Either that, or they lured a horde in there, closed the doors behind them, torched the barn then escaped before more zebs came. It was the best explanation we had at the time. But that was accounting for the missing / dead / undead we’d found.

JB: There was Emily Salmon of course. The sole survivor.

AM: For a while she was, anyway. We found her in the attic of the house. It was Bernadette who heard her moving about up there. She called up, and a small voice asked if that was her mummy. The attic access hatch was locked, so Bernadette effectively had to lie and pretend she was Ruth Salmon to persuade Emily to open the hatch. Emily didn’t seem to care once she saw who’d actually called up to her. As she must have seen it in her final hours, Bernadette was her mother returned to rescue her, and Bernadette was unwilling to put her right. I certainly didn’t fault her for that.

For a moment, when we saw Emily’s pale face peering down from the top of the ladder, her hair matted and her pyjamas dark and sticky from dried blood, and her eyes empty from shock, we hoped the others would be there with her. But there was only frightened little Emily, all alone in the Brethreners’ last redoubt, a lone storm lantern providing her with light, the attic chock full to the rafters with emergency water and supplies, its floor lined with empty cots never to be filled. Though it had served its purpose, for Emily at least.

JB: But in vain, right?

AM: A zeb must have somehow gotten to her before she’d reached the attic; there was an ugly strip of skin torn from her left forearm which she’d tried to treat with a field dressing. She was smart and resourceful for a nine-year old – I’d noticed that on our previous visit – and it’s a credit to Jeff and the others he’d instilled in her what to do in the last resort. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to save her. By the time we found her, the infection was well established and she was already far gone. I can still see her even now; sitting on a cot at the centre of our huddle, hugging her knees, perspiring and shivering with fever, absently kissing the head of her doll – it was missing a leg and she’d bandaged it. What she’d seen had clearly disturbed her. She looked… haunted.

JB: Who wouldn’t?

AM: But she could still speak... though nothing in the way of clarification about what had happened. I think it was only Bernadette playing out her surrogate mother role which enabled Emily to say anything at all. Bernie… God, I don’t envy her having to neutralise the kid after she passed.

JB: What did Emily say?

AM: A lot of it she kept repeating. She was suffering shock remember, she’d been injured, had lost a lot of blood, and was burning up from the infection, so it was hardly surprising it seemed to make no sense at the time.

‘Daddy was wrong,’ she said. ‘The walls weren’t enough. We were stupid to think they’d keep him out.’ And then it turned creepy. ‘The Devil himself came,’ she said. ‘With all his children. He was so fierce.’ Over and over she said this, like a mantra, a liturgy of her encounter, and looking back now we can understand what, in her delirium, she was actually describing. It was only toward the end she added to it. That was what really sent chills down my spine. ‘I saw him,’ she said. ‘I saw the Devil, and he saw me. He looked into my window. With all his eyes. Then he knocked and came in…’

That’s what stuck in my mind at the time. The Devil seeing her, not with two eyes. ’With all his eyes…’ It blinded me to the real clue in what she was saying.

JB: Oh, yes, that’s right. What did you all make of it?

AM: At the time, delirium-induced gibberish mostly. But still damned creepy for all that. Trust me when I say if you hear what she described in the dark of a ruined, formerly fortified encampment – an encampment you then have to spend the night in, by the way – it gives you the willies. Seeing all I had outside just before, it certainly gave me the screaming ab-dabs.

JB: But it wasn’t gibberish, was it?

AM: No. No, it wasn’t.

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