8 Chapter 18 Death
Man has killed man since the beginning of time. The future was slated to be no different. For the moment, they were safe but Cameron was not about to trust that to luck. They were already working on escape but it was complicated by the quartet of guards that surrounded them, heavy walls they could not punch through, the drawbridge and moat that was filled with groaning horde of zombies that was reminiscent of their Portland days.
From their protected vantage point, there were at least twenty men atop the wall hurling improvised explosives and Molotov cocktails down in to thronging masses of the loud and hungry beyond the wall. They had spent what little time they had preparing their own personal defenses, that included level three second chance bullet proof vests, and a pair of handguns. Cameron had his in a double jackass shoulder rig, while Robert had opted to place one in a thigh holster and the other in a shoulder rig. The ladies had opted for a mix of thigh, and shoulder holsters, but Natalie had also taken a small holdout Walther PPK in the small of her back.
A sudden burst of gunfire had all five, already tense and on edge leaping in to the air and scrambling to the mounted guns. But there was nothing for them to shoot at, even as the defenders rained bullets in to the dead that were gathering in number, "Guess we now have one more problem to deal with," muttered Robert to Natalie sitting alongside him. She shrugged, deep in thought as she studied the drawbridge mechanism, and the housing structure that supported the chains that raised and lowered the drawbridge, and found exactly what she was looking for off to the left side of the gate itself was the system of pulleys and gears that kept the drawbridge raised, and pointed it out, "LAW?" suggested Robert.
"At least one for each chain, and you'll probably get only one clean shot," she agreed, "A miss that blows the bridge itself means that we are stuck in here, indefinitely."
The knock at their armored door left them with little choice beyond donning their jackets to hide their weapons and then opening the door to reveal the same chaplain and his armed escort, "Ah, Cameron, Brother Cardinal Jesse Frith, has requested that you and your companions dine with us, as our guests of honor." In spite of the friendly nature of the invitation, the half dozen escorts had revealed the invitation to be a thin veneer of civility over an overt threat.
They had little choice, dismounting before allowing their escorts to direct them towards what was once the school's cafeteria, rechristened as a grand banquet hall. The walls had been painted with murals that were supposed to be awe inspiring in their grandeur, showing the Redeemers wielding an arsenal against the undead, one that showed the spoils of victory from some previous raid, where they took what they wanted, killing and burning to leave nothing but death and destruction in their wake.. The long tables were still there, but had been pushed back to create space for a head table, already seated in the center upon a large overstuffed armchair covered with a deep red quilt. He looked up at his so called guests and beckoned imperially, "Welcome! Welcome! I am Brother Cardinal Jesse Frith, Overlord of the Cottonwood, so decreed by the Arch-Cardinal Cameron St. Jamais, God's one true disciple on Earth," the voice boomed and echoed as the "Brother Cardinal" extended his arms in a grand sweeping gesture designed to demonstrate his power and authority as his so called guests were seated, "So tell me, my friends, my new brothers, where do you hail from?"
Lying was an option, but Cameron's experience with lies was that once one was told, you had to keep lying to keep the original lie intact and he stuck to as much of the truth as possible, "Traders from the east who salvage what we can to trade for those items that we require," replied Cameron, giving mostly the truth
"But you are much more than mere traders! That is clear from your vehicle," he replied, "And you must be tired from the exertions of combat against the dead." He gestured to several of the guards that stood at attention along one wall, "Make rooms ready for our guests to spend the night." several of the guards left to presumably make the appropriate arrangements, "But until later, you must be hungry!" he clapped his hands and a group of young women entered from the school kitchen and Natalie simmered as she fought to repress her rage as the teenagers serving them cringed, tiptoeing around them as they set down plates piled with food.
Most of the girls wore little more than rags, and most of them, it was clear had been on the worse end of more than a beating. Black eyes and bruises decorated the faces and arms of more than one, one girl struggled with the weight of the jug she was forced to bear as she made her way round the table. Their haunted eyes told a tale darker than any imaginable. No matter how good the food looked, the atmosphere had killed their appetites, picking at it for at least an hour before their host stood, a glass of wine in hand, " "Tonight, we celebrate the sixteenth birthday, and coming of age of Cynthia." One of the serving girls visibly cringed as he walked towards her, and ran a finger down her cheek, a lecherous smile upon his face, that widened as she reflexively looked away, "Tonight, as Cardinal, first amongst my brothers, I declare the Brother Kirkland has won the bidding, and the right to bless her first and many years of service to the needs and gratification of our brothers, of our order." Speech concluded, he turned to his numerous henchmen, "Show our weary travelers to their room."
The guards lead them to a large room, one that had possibly once been a series of offices that was now a large suite room, after a fashion with two large double beds and over the top gaudy decorations in gold and silver surrounded by deep reds and emerald green. Behind them, the guard locked the door. Cameron didn't wait, and neither did anyone else as they conducted a quick search of the room, only to find the one door locked and all of the windows barred. "We have got to find a way out of this nightmare," growled Natalie
"No guards outside the door. If we can get out, we'll have the drop on everybody," surmised Robert, "Any ideas how to get their attention?"
"You still play football?" asked Cameron, "Door's not thick or well mounted either." Robert grinned and they charged the door. Cameron was right and their first charge was enough to break the door, but not their momentum as the dynamic duo came to rest in a heap against the far wall.
Within minutes they were on the move, down the corridor, cutting across several narrow stretches of hallway, pausing as a voice reached them, loud and clearly a projection, not an actual speaker. Cameron stole a glance round the next corner and pulled his head back sharply. The three guards were more interested in the home video being screened that guarding anything.
It took Nastia only a few seconds to grab their attention away from the movie down the corridor towards her with their shotguns leading the way. They turned to find a dark and empty corridor save for a girlish laugh as she disappeared in to an unused classroom, "Men, suggest they get some and they'll come," she thought as she took her place behind the door, seconds before they barged in to the room ready for a shootout.
They were not ready for a melee as the door slammed behind them, and the crew of the Fortress charged. Cameron brought the butt of a Beretta down hard against the man's' temple and he folded like a potato sack. Natalie's hand had snaked around the neck of the second guard, and pulled up and while her other hand slammed in the back of the neck, snapping vertebrae like dry twigs. Robert grabbed the barrel of the shotgun and thrust it up towards the ceiling as his right had snapped out with a knife edge chop to the throat, Jaira complementing the man's agony with a swift boot to the midsection. Curled on the floor in agony, he never saw the second kick that snapped his head back and his lights out. The whole thing had lasted less than thirty seconds. Robert took a moment to massage his hand, "Unless we can lure them out three or four at a time, I don't think we can take them all."
Cameron looked down the length of the corridor, "Find a supply closet," he ordered. It took them only a moment to find the closet and within, several brooms, a mop and finally a length of rope that they collected as understanding dawned. They stayed low, until they had reached the closed doors. Taking a chance, Cameron stuck his head in to the room, and stiffened, as he found himself staring at the backs of at least forty, perhaps fifty heads, all watching video being played on the projection screen that showed a bald man who spoke with the oratory fire and passion of a Hitler as he praised those who followed him as the "blessed" and the ones who would "redeem themselves and the fallen sons of God who walked the earth, consumed by the curse of the devil." The on screen figure stretched his arms out wide, revealing his hands, in black gloves that he removed, to reveal bloody wounds upon the center of his palms. At least now, Cameron knew the face of the leader of this army of raiders, the so called, "Arch-Cardinal" of the Blessed Redeemers.
He continued to speak, or perhaps demonstrate the ramblings of a deluded mad man, convinced of his own superiority and power who had managed to convince others of his demented world view being the truth. Retreating, they closed the doors before sliding the broom and mops through the large loop door handles, "Let's hope none of them need a bathroom break anytime soon," whispered Natalie.
Several stretches of hallway and down a flight of stairs later, they found themselves back at the cafeteria, and cutting through the kitchen and they exited through a small back door that placed them in the shadow of a neighboring building. The narrow alley way was a claustrophobia inducing experience as they advanced through it, hugging the shadows as they came upon the edge of the building. The prize waited in the open, with a guard standing at each corner of the fortress and four or five times as many still firing down in to the gathered dead.
Cameron's thoughts turned to the women, teenagers and children trapped in this hellhole, and he gave an involuntary shudder as the thought about what would happen to them. The best case scenario several orders of magnitude beyond what he could stomach. Jaira took a knee next to him, "I don't need to see your face to know what you're thinking. Can we rescue them?"
Cameron hesitated, his face hidden in shadow and then nodded, "Fortress is going to be crowded but I think we can survive the trip, and they won't complain about getting out of here." He looked up at the building behind them. The school was composed of two buildings and this was the only building they had yet to explore, "When the time comes, and you'll know when the time comes, you three are going to take out the guards and prep the fortress and a couple of LAWs. Then circle around, and block off the front entrance to this building," patting the wall of the structure they had yet to enter, "It's the only structure we've not explored, so they have to be in here. Signal with the horn when you're in position."
"What are you two going to do?" asked Robert.
"Getting the women and kids out of this insanitarium," he said as he turned and made his way back kitchen. The long work benches and counters were clean and shining like new, knives pots, and pans all stored away reminding him of his mother's kitchen as he opened the numerous gas vales. Cautiously, he placed his handgun on the counter as he drew the packet of cigarettes and a book of matches from opposing pockets.
Jaira had him covered as he fabricated the quick but effective homemade timer from the two items, "Five minutes and we're going to have a bonfire!" he said.
The twosome slipped through the shadows like wraiths, silent and unseen in to the building's glass fronted doors. Like all modern school buildings it was a squat two story concrete structure with windows now covered by heavy blackout curtains. There was a flight of stairs leading up, and even from where they were, it was clear in branched off to the left and right at wings. Jaira clearly wanted a flashlight to guide their steps, "Which way?" she asked
"Sweep and clear the ground floor first, then we'll clear the second floor. I'll take point, you cover me," he said, "move fast. We don't have a lot of time." The pair kicked in the first door on the ground floor, Cameron sweeping right while Jaira covered the left only to find an empty room, where spare tables and chairs had been piled up high and forgotten about, the floor and stacked furniture thick with inches of dust. A single scream ripped through the night and they turned in to it. A second scream rang out and they wasted no time, charging up the stairs to find a beam of light spilling in to the corridor from a single room, the sounds of an ongoing struggle, and the rip of fabric.
Rushing in, Jaira stopped short, horrified as she saw a leather clad man smash his paw sized hand in to the stomach of a a young girl, her blonde hair in disarray as she dropped to the floor and curled in to a ball, moaning in pain. He stood over her with a grin of malicious intent upon his face. Cameron on the other hand, paused for the fraction of a second and then stepped in, his arm pulled back, "Hey! That's not practicing safe sex!" Whoever he was, had only a moment to stare at Cameron's fist as it slammed in to his throat, as flame lit up the night as glass sang through the air shaking the very foundations of the building and the walls.
The vicious shot snapped Jaira out of her daze, turning her attention to the battered teenager as Cameron made further arguments in favor of "practicing safe sex," leaving him a bloody unconscious mess.
Jaira handed one of her weapons to Cynthia, "This is the business end and it goes in the direction of what you don't like. Pull the trigger and hopefully whatever you aimed at will die." Cynthia took the offered gun in one hand, the other still cradling her aching stomach. She would need a doctor and soon. She nodded her thanks and gestured towards the end of the corridor. Nothing more had to be said. "You wait here and watch the stairs. If anyone comes up those stairs, you don't wait, you just point and shoot!" ordered Jaira as they turned their attention to the end of the corridor.
They were barely out the door when a trio of shots echoed up the corridor towards them. Cameron grunted as one slug caught him low in the chest and another tore through his right arm, spinning him off balance, sending the gun sprawling out of reach. Instinctively he reached for his arm and felt the dampness on his sleeve, the wet copper smell overpowering that of cordite and spent gunpowder in the confines of the corridor. Jaira spun round the doorway and fired a single shot in to the darkness. Muzzle flashes lit up the darkness at the end of the corridor Drawing his second Beretta Cameron fired off half a clip, deliberately aimed high as he scrambled forward, ignoring his pained arm.
Jaira swept forward, covering Cameron until they were just outside the room, only to hear the sounds of a furious struggle, a gasp and heavy thud. They burst in and everyone paused including the six women conducting a ferocious dog pile on their guard. Under other circumstances it would have been high comedy. He was bent at the waist, one woman with her arms wrapped around his neck, another forcing the man's gun hand high towards a hole in the ceiling, with a woman wrapped around each leg as a sixth was clearly about to panther lunge him. At the sight of the weapons pointed towards them, the women already holding him tightened their grip, as he struggled to bring his gun arm down, dealing a vicious sucker punch to the redhead holding his right arm. Jaira beat Cameron to the punch as she took three long strides and planted the hot barrel upon the center of the man's forehead, causing his to gasp in pain as the barrel burned a circular mark in to his forehead, "Drop it," she hissed.
Outside, the trio had waited and they had jumped like coiled springs as the world shook like it was in a snow globe. Robert stood and had taken two steps in to the courtyard, lit by the light of what was no doubt Cameron's handy work when Natalie grabbed the back of his jacket, and pulled him back, "Wait!"
"For what?" he said as the flames began to spread out off the cafeteria towards the second floor of the building, searching for more fuel even as it spread through the rest of the ground floor of the building
"Wait," she repeated, tightening her grip as he tried to break free yet again, "Just wait." the guards posted around the fortress left, heading towards the conflagration as the crew slipped between them and crawled aboard their armored home, "Glad I hung on to the key," thought Robert as he collapsed in to the driver's seat while Natalie snatched several LAWs from the open packing crate.
The engine gave a roar as Robert dropped them in to first gear and rolled across the parking lot towards the building in question, mangling motorcycles, ATVs and the few overzealous men who heroically stood their ground, bullets bouncing off the thick hide of the Fortress as they parked, sealing off the glass fronted doors of the building. Scrambling over, Robert mashed down the air horn, drowning out the roar of gunfire as machine guns and grenade launcher unleashed and orchestra of destruction. Robert slid in to the front passenger seat and flicked the laser sight mounted beneath the barrel, a storm of shell casings spraying from the breach of the weapon. Several of their former hosts returned fire and Robert winced as several rounds bounced off the windshield, "Cameron, Jaira, could you please hurry up?"
Inside, the one remaining guard had been knocked unconscious and with Jaira in the lead, they made good time towards the door. The echoes of gunfire reached them through the walls and the orchestra of warfare was ten times louder as they loaded their eight rescued hostages aboard the Fortress. Their hostages were in poor in shape and most had exhausted themselves in their tackling of their unconscious guard and were exhausted from having tackled their now unconscious guard and in the press of bodies, Cameron nearly missed Natalie as she swept past with a pair of LAWs rattling against each other slung across her back, "Hey!" he shouted, "Give me the launchers! I'll crack the gate!"
"You think that you can hit the target?" asked Natalie, as she pushed through Cameron's nod, "You need to account for drop over distance and wind direction to say the least. And if you miss either shot, you might destroy the drawbridge!" Cameron couldn't counter those arguments as he made his way to the cab to take control of the gun from Robert while he slid in to the driver's seat.
She took off through the building, taking the stairs two at a time as she made her way to the first room on the right and its third window, " Straight shots, about sixty meters, no wind to compensate for, zero degrees elevation," She mumbled. The caps slid off the ends of the tube as she extended it to its full length and flicked up the rear sight, "Fire in the hole!" she called and slapped the trigger firmly. The recoil was nonexistent as superheated exhaust gas vented through the open doorway of the room, setting it and the walls ablaze. The missile had barely left the tube before the second was in her hands. A voice crackled in her ear to let her know that the shot had mangled the left drawbridge housing.
Whoever it was came out of nowhere and she had only a moment's warning as the blade found a purchase between the plates of her body armor. She turned away from the slicing blade but not quick enough as it plunged through her flank. She gasped as the icy pain ripped through her. Her attacker grinned evilly at her and lunged again but this time she was ready, blocking the thrust as she trapped the offending wrist and pulled him in close, letting her knee smash in to the man's solar plexus.
He doubled over and she stepped back, opening up enough room between the two of them as she swung her foot towards the outstretched head. But her opponent was good, catching her outstretched foot and pulling her off balance and to the floor and clambered atop her, punching down with his left hand like a pile driver.
The first punch drove her head back in to the stone floor but she blocked the second and flipped him on to his back and clambered back to her feet, swaying slightly but directly in to the path of the blade opening up a deep gasp across her forearm. Staggering back, she collapsed against one of the stacked desks. He piled atop her, but she managed to coil her legs between them and push him in to the wall as she struggled back to her feet.
Finally she cross drew her sidearm and unleashed a stream of bullets that turned her opponent in to a giant pin cushion.
Her sidearm spent, it slid from her fingers as she struggled to bring the second LAW to bear on and cursed. Using the LAW to support her weight she slid from window to window until finding the line of sight required. Beyond the walls, the first detonation had stirred the sedentary gathered dead and now congregated around the drawbridge itself, their clawed hands reaching up to the bridge, sagging under twice the weight it was accustomed to
Already dizzy, she shook her head clearing away the static and stars before her eyes and then finally taking aim and with a muttered prayer squeezed the trigger. In her weakened state, she had quite possibly forgotten that LAW rockets produce extensive exhaust gas that requires a thirty degree arc of twenty meters to vent clearly. Her shot was from the second window down and without a doorway behind her, there was nowhere for those gases to escape through as they struck the far wall and turned back. She had felt the heat wave and realized her mistake only seconds before it struck with physical force. Ribs cracked as she struck the window frame. Her clothes had burned away and the scent of burnt and ash reached her, skin and flesh ablaze as pain radiated to her brain from every part of her body.
But her shot was on target as the drawbridge fell open and let the dead spill in to the compound, "Fortress to Archangel: What's the hold up?" shouted Cameron over the grenade launcher as he unleashed a salvo in to the advancing dead. The shrapnel tore them up, but the dead have never felt pain and continued forward. Whatever holes the grenades blew in the lines of advancing dead were filled rapidly as the undead pressed forward with the characteristic single minded determination they were infamous for.
"Archangel," she coughed once, and bit down on her lip as fire lanced up from her ribs and wiped blood from several wounds that laced her face, "Archangel, hit." She gasped out the words, forcing them through a growing tightness in her chest that made each breath more difficult to take. Scrambling amongst the debris and found the spent, warped tube of a LAW that she used to hoist herself, back to her feet, pain now shooting down her ribs on both sides of her body, as she noticed for the first time the blood trickling down the side of her face. She staggered through the numerous small fires burning all around, making it as far as the corridor before black spots filled her vision, one third of the way already traveled.
She blinked, shook her head, and half regretted it as her vision cleared but her ribs sent another wave of agony cutting through her, "Need..." she choked, and fell to one knee the darkness closing in with renewed determination, "...need..." she slid to the floor face first, as she lost the battle against the pain.
"Archangel!" called Cameron, "Repeat your last!" Silence reigned in Cameron's ear as he clambered down from the turret, narrowly avoiding one of the girls, curled and cowering on the floor. He stepped over her, reaching for the one of the rifles on the rack, and shouted to Jaira over their guns, even as he leapt through the open side door towards the building.
Nastia appeared from the second trailer, grabbing Jaira's arm, and she nodded in understanding, letting the Russian redhead go – she had the necessary medical experience, training, EMT paramedic bag and the collapsible backboard. Jaira ran back, manning Nastia's gun to send another wave of bullets out in to a pocket of the local residents who continued to fire at the Fortress, instead of focusing their attention on the undead closing upon them.
The pair found Natalie at the top of the stairs, lying face down with blood pooling around her head mocking a halo. Nastia dropped to her knees; hand in the shoulder bag as she attached a C-collar around Natalie's neck, then checking for a pulse. Cameron snapped open the stretcher and placed it against Natalie's back, "Set," he said and together they rolled her over until she lying on the stretcher as Nastia listened to her chest and identified the problem, confirmed by quickly running her hands down the broken ribs, "Broken ribs, decreased breath sounds on the left side, hypoxia, cyanosis and tachycarida.... shit.... tension pneumothorax," muttered Nastia, she grabbed a pack of alcohol swabs and sterilized an area of Natalie's chest, "Largest syringe you can find, remove the plunger from the end of it!" she snapped.
Cameron repressed the urge to ask what she was doing as Natalie set up and infiltrated an IV line. Cameron thrust the syringe in to the redhead's shaking hands, "Sternal notch, 45 degrees," muttered Nastia, as gunfire sang a song of slaughter, the fortress's grenade launcher the bass drum to the orchestra of death. Her hand shook for a moment and then settled as the needle slid through the flesh between her ribs. Au audible hiss erupted as air exited Natalie's thoracic cavity and her lung expanded. Taking a moment, Nastia repeated the procedure on the other side of her chest, and was rewarded by a less intense hiss. Nastia exhaled a breath she didn't realize that she had been holding. Strapping her comrade to the stretcher, she finally looked up at Cameron, "Stable for transport!"
Between them, they maneuvered the stretcher and then in to the Fortress, somehow managing to thread through the crowded interior to lay her down in her bunk. Satisfied that they had done what they could, Nastia shouted to Robert who put his foot down on the accelerator. Now the five machine guns spat bullets towards the undead ahead of them and their former hosts behind them. The Fortress began to move its slow heavy ponderous weight gaining both momentum and speed knocking the first ranks of the undead out of the way, until the press of bodies itself slowed them. Robert flicked two switches on a central console in rapid succession, activating the close quarter defenses.
During the construction of the Fortress, they had considered the possibility that the undead could surround and swamp the massive vehicle. Their planning paid off as the external floodlights snapped on, throwing out a blinding wave of light that was stupefying in its intensity. The second switch raised the flapped covers on the sixteen boxes mounted all round the Fortress. Inside the Fortress, Robert flipped a third switch and the each of the mounted boxes unleashed a salvo of six twelve gauge shotgun shells fired en masse.
Robert continued to plough slowly through the still gathering undead as one hundred and forty four shotgun shells send buckshot through the press of dead bodies like a scythe through a cornfield. They ploughed across the bridge, smashing the undead in to the already overflowing trench beneath them as they found open ground leaving the male population of Cottonwood to deal with the undead now streaming in to the compound more than a little determined to consume and devour the inhabitants, their fates sealed.