Gehenna Rises

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“Why did they shoot the trees?”

AM: Emily was a smart girl, and, even while the infection was claiming her, she was trying to tell us as best she could what, as she comprehended it, had happened. We just couldn’t make the connection.

JB: And the Haven’s assessment?

AM: [Grunts] Our seven member Representative Council25 saw no connections to make. Hysteria, they called it. Simple delirium, brought on by injury, shock and infection. The ravings of an uneducated, unreliable witness. As soon as we called in that we’d safely secured the Brethrener Fortress and reported what we’d discovered there, they saw only what they wanted to see, open and shut.

JB: A raiding party attack?

AM: [nods] By third parties unknown. Had to be, no question – not in Henry’s mind, anyways. And now it was a case of making the best omelette we could from the broken eggs the Fortress had become. And to Henry it would make a stellar omelette. By the time he came over with a relief team and back up the next morning, we had a rough guesstimate of the resources the Fortress had to offer. Henry was almost drooling when the list was reeled off. It was a hell of a prize. Then and there he declared the Fortress forfeit to Beeston Haven, and ordered the walls repaired and the Fortress re-manned with volunteers, headed up by Wallace26, his third in command.

JB: You weren’t happy about that, were you?

AM: Of course not! It was no surprise to anyone that Henry would put one of his own lackeys in charge there, least of all me. After all, he’d been skilfully creating key roles for, or filling existing positions with, his own battle re-enactment crew. By March three of the seven Council members were pro-Henry; a disproportionate number to represent the group he’d brought with him27. So he treated Wally’s assignment as a shoo-in. No discussion with the Haveners at large or Sergeant Rule, not even with the Council. I learnt later from Jen that, even among his own crew, that decision raised eyebrows. The assumed natural choice was Brendan. Wally was a solid militiaman sure, but not the brightest and best of the Haven, and certainly not what any of us would have defined as leadership material. So of course he made the ideal choice politically; he’d happily play puppet and dance to Henry’s string-pulling four miles away at Beeston.

JB: And that raised additional problems for you… didn’t it?

AM: The question of what had happened at the Fortress wasn’t yet answered, certainly not to my satisfaction. Not by a long shot. Sergeant Rule had already confided to me that he too felt something wasn’t right about the attack. And before the dust has settled and little Emily’s body is even cold, Wally becomes an obstacle in the way of assessing and communicating these concerns. We should really have locked the place down while Sergeant Rule, Jen and I’d had a chance to fully analyse and understand what we were seeing. Not that we were close to being forensic scientists or anything, but even twenty-four hours would have helped. Half a day to document, at least. Yet suddenly Henry has Wally and his crew charge through the Fortress compound, contaminating the scene and clearing away the evidence. No argument, no appeal. As soon as I heard what was happening I ran round trying to grab pictures and video before it was all gone.

JB: What indicators of the new threat did you find that made you so concerned? Was there evidence pointing to what had really happened?

AM: You’re wanting me to say there were obvious signs we should have known how to interpret, and yes, there were signs. But only those which, looking back, with the benefit of experience and hindsight, made sense. Like Emily’s ramblings. Understand, we didn’t comprehend what we were actually seeing. We didn’t know there was something that needed comprehending. Perhaps, if there hadn’t been a heavy rain earlier in the day, there’d have been some goop on the walls around where the house’s windows had been “blown out”. Perhaps if what tracks there were in the mud wouldn’t have been so obscured and we’d have been better able to interpret them… Perhaps if the compound courtyard hadn’t been cobbled or concreted, we’d have seen… footprints, for want of a better term. Perhaps if the team’s focus hadn’t quickly become primarily plunder and assuming control over a post-mortem analysis of what had happened… Perhaps if we’d simply had the imagination to think outside the box. God knows we’d been having to do so anyway. I mean… the very idea of the ambulatory dead is a bloody train ride away from outside the box as it was. Why did we stop there?

Coulda, woulda, shoulda…

JB: But you did see some signs.

AM: You could say I sensed something awry in what I saw. That’s all it was, at least initially. Sergeant Rule saw it on a couple of points too. That’s why he wasn’t happy with the rushed re-occupation of the Fortress.

JB: What was it that struck you?

AM: First up, it was the windows of the farmhouse. The holes in the building where they’d been.

JB: What about them?

AM: The ground floor windows had been smashed in, as you’d expect from any zeb encounter where they try to get inside a building. But when it came to the holes where the others were, Sergeant Rule was concerned there wasn’t the usual scorching and fragmentive destruction characteristic of ordnance detonation, say… C4, a grenade or a RPG. That put the kibosh on the early theory that raiders – if there had been any – had used them to get at the Brethreners within. He also acknowledged that, from the evidence, the windows looked like they’d been punched through into the building, then ripped back out. But if what occurred to me about them had occurred to him as well, he didn’t articulate it.

JB: Which was…?

AM: All of the punched out windows – every one – were on either the first or the attic floors, four metres above the ground and higher. Well out of reach of any ordinary zeb. So if explosives weren’t the cause, what had done it?

This was where Emily’s testimony gained some veracity, to my mind anyway. One of those smashed in upstairs rooms had belonged to her. The décor was austere, in keeping with Brethrener belief and practice, but still, unmistakeably that of a child. I found a doll’s leg in that room by the overturned bed, near where the window would have been. It was painted with a thin layer of zeb gore, the plastic of the calf and foot squished ragged. It was a perfect match for the missing limb from the doll Emily had with her in the attic. Perfect. So she’d been in that room and seen the Brethreners’ attackers.

JB: Henry Jackson’s conclusion was that raiders had used a JCB with a digging scoop to take down the compound walls and farmhouse windows.

AM: That was pure speculation on his part. I didn’t like that explanation, no matter which way he painted it. Many of us didn’t.

JB: Why?

AM: Emily. Sure, our only witness, nine years old and excluded from the world as she was, would have known a JCB when she saw one. Yet she never mentioned it, or any vehicles. Also, keep in mind the Brethrener Fortress was no more than four miles from us, on the flat of the Cheshire plain. By that stage, months into the conflict, and so far behind the line, there was infrequent air traffic – well, besides the odd Angel Wing drone you’d catch high up – and almost nothing in the way of ground traffic any more – trains or vehicles. So there was no background noise of nearby roads, planes or ’copters. To be fair, between the hours the attack occurred, the night had been stormy, with lightning and rain lashing down – at its heaviest down over the Fortress. So while the noise from a mechanised construction vehicle moving around wreaking havoc could have been drowned out, we sure as hell would have heard explosions if ordnance had been used. Even the heavy gunfire of a prolonged assault. Add to that there were no vehicle tracks within or around the compound, nor at the breach points, not until ours showed up. No matter how heavy the rain would have been the past twenty-four hours, something would have remained from any raider vehicle movements. Instead, he trail of destruction we saw through the allotments to the inner compound only indicated a mass movement of zebs.

JB: So what were the other signs you… sensed?

AM: Well, there was the farmhouse door. While there were gore marks on both it and ground floor windows, the door was thick and heavy, with strong hinges. And steps led up to the door, the resulting height differential thereby lessening any collective pressure the eight zombies could have brought to bear to bring it down – even the whole group we’d found in the burnt out barn.

Next, I had the zebs that fell out of the first floor windows to contend with.

JB: Oh? Why?

AM: How had they reached the first floor?

JB: Um… the stairs?

AM: That’s just it. There were no stairs.

JB: No…

AM: At least not the stairs originally installed at the time the farmhouse was constructed. Remember this wasn’t a modern building. It was Victorian era, and a characteristic with structures of that period is the high ceilings of their rooms, which equally meant high-reaching stairwells communicating to each floor. But the stairwell joining the ground to the first floors had been knocked out. Basic Zombie Home Fortification 101. If they hadn’t applied common sense, Jeff and his fellow Brethreners certainly must have followed official government guidance as soon as it was broadcast. In the original stairwell’s place was now a crude but effective retractable ladder, raised and lowered from the first floor using a cantilever arrangement, with a locking mechanism that kept it very firmly secured when it was up. Going in, we found the ladder was not only raised, but locked. And it was a lock which – contrary to Henry’s claims – most certainly did not click back in place, like some kind of latch. It was comprised of two thick, industrial deadbolts, each of which had to be manually rammed home.

Now let’s take the zeb I mentioned which had stumbled out the upper farmhouse window. I said it had lost its arms up to each shoulder, right? But I don’t mean they’d been chewed away when the victim had still been alive, or hacked off at some point post-mortem. The arms had been ripped out at the shoulder. Each one. Analysis of my photos by Jennifer confirmed later that dismemberment must have occurred long after death. I couldn’t think of how that could happen without the rest of the body being heavily damaged, but what do I know? Anyway that’s beside the point. What I’m trying to say is, those limbs weren’t present. Now both zebs were long-time dead, not just-turned Brethreners. Neither of those corpses had been hacked at on the first floor by Brethrener defenders. No zeb limbs were found up there, nor any random body parts matching theirs in the courtyard outside, or anywhere else on the farm. That raises another point I’ll come to in a second.

So then, how did two zebs, one already armless and one already legless, with no remaining intellectual capacity for teamwork or cooperation in either of them, manage to work together to grab a flight of retractable stairs otherwise beyond an average human’s reach, and lower said stairs to climb them? Not only that, why would they even think to raise and lock the stairs once they were up there?

Even with everything about the situation flying in the face of it, Henry stuck to his explanation that the Brethreners never had the chance to raise the stairs in the attack, and that the corpses must have shambled and crawled upstairs – just two of them – only for the stairs to somehow rise and lock in place behind them, and the ghouls’ limbs magically vanish. Even his suggestion another survivor must have locked the stairs in place post-attack didn’t make sense; apart from Emily, we didn’t find any Brethrener upstairs, alive, dead or undead. They must have all gone out to try and repulse the attack. And with those two zebs roaming free on the first floor, it was clear Emily wouldn’t have locked the stairs. At least I felt she hadn’t. She’d have bolted straight for the attic first chance she got.

Which brings me to the body parts puzzle.

JB: Go on.

AM: Pieces were scattered about, from the outer wall breach in. Random segments of ghoul, in different combinations of mutilation and dismemberment. At first I thought it was a consequence of the defenders hacking at them as they retreated toward the compound, or as they tried to flee the Fortress through them after the “raider” attack. But the pieces didn’t fit to any of the dead we’d dispatched. One piece was just a torso with arms, and that was it. No head at all to animate it, no trace of one. So how did it get there? A complete mystery.

This one dawned on me later. Each breach of the Fortress’ defences was at the walls, not at the logical weak spot; the gates. Downing them with explosives or simply ramming them with a heavy vehicle would have been much easier and faster than the time and energy taken toppling a wall. Especially the breach in the inner compound wall; it was right next to the gate. Why not just hit the gate? It made no sense.

Then there was the location of the outer breach in the wall. No road outside the Brethrener property led to that spot. None. The nearest sign of civilisation to it was a hollow the Brethreners had been using as their rubbish dump-cum-plague pit, found on the other side of the ring of concealing trees, and accessible from the Fortress only via footpath. At the same time, that breach was visible to the farmhouse’s outside upper windows. Attackers would have been exposed to repulsing gunfire from the Brethreners as they made their way toward the compound. The farmhouse did have a blind spot on its Eastern flank, and yet the attackers hadn’t taken advantage of it. It was Sergeant Rule who pointed that latter aspect out to me when I confided in him.

His soldier’s eye spotted something else about the Brethreners’ failed defence too. There was a rifle we found, lying, discarded, not far from the inner wall breach, with spent shell casings nearby. It still had half a clip unused. More shell casings were at the inside base of the inner compound wall. To Rule, that indicated the Brethreners had been firing from both within and just outside of the compound at someone during, or immediately after, the outer wall breach. But here was the thing; there was no evidence of a single bullet hole in the outer wall. Not in the bricks immediately around the breach site, nor for twenty metres beyond, either side. There was no evidence of return fire from Henry’s raiders either; not on the farmhouse and compound walls, or inside the compound itself.

‘Even assuming…’ – this is what Rule said to me now, as we walked back from checking the wall that morning – ’Even assuming, just for the sake of argument, that all the Brethreners were crack shots. Shooting out into the dark, with all of them feeling the unfamiliar fear and stress of combat, it would be impossible for the defenders to hit their targets every time. Even with soldiers, wearing NVGs, there is no way some shots would still not to go wide. But these weren’t soldiers; they weren’t properly trained or equipped. They were likely panicking as their attackers came through that breach. Likely any raiders would be similarly untrained and twitchy. They’d all have missed their targets more often as not. So where are the bullet impacts? Unless their aim was so shit, they all shot high…’

JB: That’s when you both looked back?

AM: Yes. Rule was joking as he said that; his soldier’s amusement at the incompetence of civvie amateurs, I suppose. The smile disappeared from his face when he looked beyond the wall.

JB: Oh – your, “Why did they shoot the trees?” line.

AM: It was a fair enough question for me to ask. Now we were looking in the right place, it was plain to us the trees immediately beyond the outer breach had been blasted. Trunks were intermittently scarred by impacts, some branches ripped clean away. It was as if a nature-hater had a real venting session.

We were going to take a closer look, but then Henry arrived for the tour of his new principality, he announced Wally would be installed as his deputy, then the other thing, and… Well, it slipped my mind.

Again, coulda, shoulda, woulda.

But to cap it all was the last puzzle, the “icing on the cake question”, you might say.

JB: Please…

AM: The Brethreners’ stockpiles were intact. Once we could refine our estimates and compare them with the Fortress’ own inventory, we found there was barely any disparity. The Brethreners were thorough and kept accurate records – you’d need to be if you were planning on sitting out the Apocalypse. Yet nothing had been taken. So if raiders had hit the Fortress, completely surprised the occupants and successfully over-ran them, apart from the spent shell casings scattered about and a few missing gallons of petrol, likely used to burn the horde in the barn, why had there been no pillaging? The raiders would have had time to loot the place clean before we’d arrived. Better still, why hadn’t they simply plugged the holes and settled in as we were now doing?

Those were the sixty-four thousand pound questions.

Every unanswered red flag that indicated this wasn’t a living-on-living raid or straightforward undead swarm, Henry dismissed as unimportant, or tried to shoot down with some convenient explanation. The facts fitted the truth as he saw it, and considering the prize they’d just gained, Beeston’s people would gladly run with any truth he’d choose to give them. “The last thing we need,” Henry added – his tone was withering, “are any of your so-called ‘expert’ opinions”.

Oh, he he let me file my report to Docklands anyway – red flags and all. It wouldn’t make a difference in the Haven. As for Sergeant Rule, he felt compromised; politically, he had to stay on side with the Haven leadership so’s to maintain good relations between Westminster and Beeston. But he agreed to add an addendum of his own – diplomatically worded – observations, and recommending the MoD review shots from any spy satellites or Protector drones that may have passed overhead that night.

Henry knew about Rule’s advisory note too, but didn’t care. As he saw it, Docklands could waste their time on our concerns, as long as Beeston still received the odd supply drop from them. That’s probably why he said nothing about it. Plus, he had a new outpost to rebuild and man. He was doing what was necessary, as he saw it, so Westminster and any surviving Brethrener leadership could join the queue behind English Heritage, and bill him later.

As for me, Henry had found a way to rid himself of his troublesome priest. Even before I was done gathering what evidence there still was round the grounds, he told me I could, essentially, fuck off and help with the Fortress rebuild. “Reassignment” he called it, hitting me then with his “double-whammy”. While I’d been out dodging zombie bites at the Fortress the night before, Henry had called an extraordinary meeting of the Council to discuss the ramifications of the Fortress emergency. It had not only been agreed to pull the plug on Jen’s and my Undead Problem Project due to our lack of progress, they’d decided better use could be made of my intellectual skills elsewhere… such as being “Executive Assistant” to the Fortress’s new Head Administrator.

It was obvious from previous run-ins we’d had on the Council that Henry wanted shot of me, and the timing couldn’t have been better for him to make his move. Smart way for him to nudge me away from the centre of things under the guise of human resources re-deployment. And I’d been voted out of Beeston without a chance to justify my position. I knew our Project had been unpopular with some, but this move… I’d been so blind to his machinations up at the summit. Losing my purpose, then seeing Ben lose his arm as a direct result of my mistake…

JB: The incident during the clear up? Henry couldn’t prove it.

AM: But I had trouble denying it too. I was already struggling; trying to get my head round what he’d just told me, wasn’t I? And of course he saw what happened, didn’t he? Taking a tour of his new principality, while I’m gathering evidence, telling Ben and his buddies to delay tossing the bodies on the fire until I got my pictures. That’s when one of the zebs we’d neutered the night before got up while we’re all distracted, talking, and attacks Ben.

We pulled the thing off him, but it was already too late; the zeb had taken a chunk out of his arm. I was horrified because – sod’s law – the zeb was only one of those I’d neutered. I recognised it instantly; a bloodstained Mr Universe adult’s onesie worn by what had in life been an obese man is something you don’t easily forget. I stared, numb, at the thing as it struggled to get up again, thinking, It’s not right. There’s the hole in its eye where I put my zeb-sticker. It went down last night.

Ben’s screaming brought me back to the reality of the situation. The scientist in me immediately realised I needed to examine that zeb, find out what had happened.

JB: Which was when Sergeant Rule blew its brains out.

AM: Yeah. Can’t blame him for that. His handgun was drawn and firing even as I yelled at him to stop. While I tried to explain why I’d wanted it intact, Henry came over to assess the scene, Jolly and Mose trotting loyally after, flashing their guns in their best secret service close protection impersonation. Of course, Henry overheard the zeb had been one of mine.

‘See, this is what I mean, padre,’ he said. ‘You can’t even stick a zeb properly.’ Him declaring it like that… may as well have happened that way. As he saw it, staying at the Fortress was for the best. I had to be kept out of harm’s way, he said – especially as Ben’s wife would be gunning for me now. I could only watch, sickened with guilt, as he ordered Jolly hold Ben tight while Mose lopped his arm off below the elbow. The two then led him, sobbing, away.

JB: But events since demonstrate Mr Universe wasn’t your fault.

AM: Sure. But then… Mr Universe, on top of Henry… It was a body blow for me.

JB: It distracted you when you needed to be most focused.

AM: Yes, that’s exactly right. As if to confirm the final nail had been well and truly hammered into my Beeston career coffin was when I returned to Beeston later that morning, only to find the church has been opened and the few remaining pews are being torn out28. Brendan’s there, isn’t he? Watching his men at work from the altar, sitting on it, cross-legged, and chewing a bar, all nonchalant-like. He wasn’t there to supervise, so much as waiting to see the look on my face. It must have been a picture. So he hops down and approaches, and – with this malicious grin on his face – announces God’s House is being re-purposed. Survivors who’d been using it as living quarters were being moved to join the rest at the village hall, and the church was to become a warehouse for all the supplies being brought over from the Fortress. The strong doors and thick walls were perfect to keep it all secure from light-fingered Beestoners. Personally, the church would have served better staying as a residence and emergency redoubt and the hall been the warehouse.

Had the church not been locked up the following day…

Anyway, Brendan asked for all sets of keys as well as those to the vicarage too. I had twenty-four hours to sort out my affairs before I left for the Fortress.

So there it was; in less than a day, everything had been taken from me. It threw me completely. I had little time, or headspace, to assess the data, and compile the report for Docklands. I try not to think of what I might have spotted had… But no.

When I finally wandered over to the lab and Jen the next day, I was pondering bitterly that our refuge, this so-called “safe haven” was fast turning into a misnomer. Even with the dead banging on our doors, some of us were still jockeying for position and playing political games. I knew – knew it in my gut – worse would be done in Beeston’s name, eventually.

JB: There was nothing you could have done. [Pause] Was there?

AM: [is silent for some seconds, then] Henry was determined to press ahead. Brush it all – everything about the attack – under the carpet, even after what happened next.

JB: The first recorded R.A.R.E.?

AM: Yeah… and with the coming of spring, soon not to be so rare either.

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