Thursday, May 09, 2013

My Time in Zombie Writer’s Camp X: The CONFEDERATION Project


We’re in another setting and another set of headspaces altogether here. The titular Preacher Miller represents Soul’s Harvest, a rival church to Deacon Dare’s New Bethany. Miller’s congregation is more remote, and poorer besides. Hunger and privation and pride drive people to do crazy things. And as Preacher Miller and his flock will discover, sometimes on the way to do crazy things you run into even crazier things. As it is in the zombie apocalypse, so will it be forever...in the Twilight Zone.

Run the boilerplate. On with the show:


In 2008 James Robert Smith and I collaborated on a project we hoped would turn out to be the Winesburg, Ohio of zombie epics, a mosaic tale describing the communities coming together (and squaring off against one another) in the wake of the zombie apocalypse. For various reasons the collaboration fell apart. Bob took his part of the narrative — which included his idea of a border collie manipulating the other abandoned dogs and zombies—and crafted The Living End. I scuffled around for a couple of more years until I came up with The Saga of the Dead Silencer.

For the benefit of those readers who were following the first part of my saga, Bleeding Kansas, and miss having something nasty-mean to read, here’s the tenth installment I wrote for the project. Of course, if you like this, feel free to pick up Bob’s completed work. Support your local architects of the apocalypse....



 PREACHER MILLER

“You hear anything from Brother Josh across the street?”

“Sorry, Preacher. Same as before.”

“You think the batteries gave out on their radios?”

“We took ‘em right out of the packaging. Just like you said to.”

“Hmm.”

“They were as fresh as fresh can be.”

“I hear you.”

“When Jim gets back with his squad we could send him out.”

“All right. I suppose we’ll have to wait a little longer, then.”

“Chuck says it’s still quiet up in front. They might well be all right.”

“Let’s hope so.”

“We did see some more people goin’ out that back door.”

“Yes?”

“Some more women. A few men. Just about all of ‘em had kids with ‘em.”

“Well. Trouble in paradise. Nice to know a full belly isn’t all that’ll keep a body someplace.”

“Yeah, ‘cept for that last bunch. The dogs caught ‘em right as the door closed behind ‘em.”

“Oh.”

“If it weren’t for the light comin’ out from inside we wouldn’t have seen as much as there was to see. It was awful enough in shadow seein’ those Things grabbin’ at the little ones.”

“The Bible tells of horrors like this. Consider the children Herod had put to the sword as he sought the Baby Jesus.”

“At least it was quick for them.”

“We don’t know that, Brock.”

Preacher Miller’s stifled sigh made this last statement sound harsher than he’d intended. It did, however, have the desired effect of silencing Brock.

But did it silence the doubts in Brock’s heart? Doubt poisoned faith, and this had been a long season of doubt. The end of the world had announced itself on a summer’s night nearly two years ago but if no one could pinpoint the date it was because no one had reckoned it as the end.

And when ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars, be ye not troubled: for such things must needs be; but the end shall not be yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be earthquakes in divers places, and there shall be famines and troubles: these are the beginnings of sorrows. 

Preacher Miller had read Mark, Chapter 13 from his pulpit when the terror began. For emphasis he read nearly the same words as they appeared in Matthew, Chapter 24. The Bible, contrary to what the unbelievers so often said, did not contradict himself.

But had Christ already touched down on the Mount of Olives as prophesized in the Revelation? The stench of corrupt flesh, the screams of living prey among the unnaturally darkened streets might prove a distraction even to such a Glorious Appearing.
  
But when ye shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not, (let him that readeth understand,) then let them that be in Judaea flee to the mountains: And let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter therein, to take any thing out of his house: And let him that is in the field not turn back again for to take up his garment. But woe to them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! And pray ye that your flight be not in the winter. For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be. And except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect’s sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days.

Most had not time to pull on their slippers as the dead came crashing through their doors and picture windows. As for the people who had run back into their houses, the ending was always the same: “And all of a sudden he runs back in to get — She turned around and went back in because she —” If these people had only read their Bibles, they might have known. That such a plainly worded warning from Jesus Himself, echoing the prophet Daniel, had not been heeded by the Bible-believing was even more tragic still.

As for those with little ones — oh, the heartbreaking tales he had heard! The babies pulled from their cribs, the mothers who had turned and run straight into the teeth of the monsters when their little ones had fallen behind. The husbands who had sacrificed their flesh that their wives and children might escape....

But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. And then shall he send his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from the uttermost part of the earth to the uttermost part of heaven.

That the sun and moon still shone at their appointed hours — that the stars still moved according to their custom in the firmament — seemed hardest of all to believe in the face of all that had happened. Still, there would be no missing the coming of the Lord! The days of tribulation could not last much longer. Christ Himself had promised!
  
Meanwhile, nearly two years past the end of the world Preacher Miller found himself in charge of over four hundred children and women and men, in decreasing order of number. Just enough women to look after the children and too few men to go hunting and scavenging to feed them all.

It had often been observed that Dr. Mark’s squads, for all their guns and body armor could easily have gone down the broken highway into the city and brought back untold bounties from the super-stores there. They would be plenty for everyone for years to come, even for those heathens rumored to have settled farther on up in the hills.

Now it turned out that Deacon Sparks and his people had been going into the city. They’d not only brought back entire tractor-trailer loads of food, they’d rolled in fuel trucks. It had taken them weeks to move the abandoned cars from the right-of-way and rig bridges over washed out sections of road. But they had done it, all the while fighting endless, ravenous mobs of hungry Unclean to make it happen.

Preacher Miller had gone down with two brothers to parley for a small piece of that bounty. Oh, such in-your-face courtesy you never did see, all slaps on the back and hail-O-brother-in-Christ, come in, come in! Next thing they knew they were sitting at what the New Bethanites called lunch but in ordinary times would have been a feast. No ham or turkey, of course, but they were working on that. The steaks would have to do and they were sorry it was all they had.

Yes, they’d had the nerve to apologize for that. All that and the mashed potatoes (still pretty good if from a box) with the real butter and string-bean casserole and the mashed sweet potatoes from the can, again with real butter and raisins. And everyone in that auditorium room ate the same thing save for the steaks, though if Preacher Miller had heard anyone complain about the spiced ham from the can he would have duly slapped him upside the head.

Preacher Miller and Brock and Joshua had waited until the meal was finished before talking to “Dr. Mark” as he liked to be called. Dr. Mark’s reply? Well, why don’t you move your people down here with us? We’ll integrate our flocks! I know we have some fundamental differences in doctrine. But it’s quite clear upon whom our Lord and Savior has smiled....

“We’ll see,” Preacher Miller had said.

“Don’t take too long thinking about it, Brother,” Dr. Mark had said. “You know our Lord has charged us to feed His sheep. I’m just extending my hand.”

“I know,” said Preacher Miller. “Lemme pray on it.”

To be fair, Dr. Mark could easily have said we’ve got all the people we can handle right now. Which, to Preacher Miller’s mind, would have been for the best. All he needed was a leg up. Some milk for the babies, a few cans of beans for everyone else. They could do without meat until they grew enough corn to barter for a bull and a cow — or found ones of their own, as Dr. Mark’s ever-industrious Deacon Sparks and company had somehow managed to do.

But it was clear charming ol’ Dr. Mark was shooting for all the marbles. Come on down. Integrate the flock! Of course, there was no mistaking who would be in charge. And why not? It was his house.

And that was just it, thought Preacher Miller. New Bethany Community Church wasn’t God’s house. It was Dr. Marcus Zachary Winthrop’s House of Vanity. Sure, Preacher Miller might expect some nice rooms and an office and maybe even a few shots at the Sunday lesson when Dr. Mark felt like taking a break. But how to reconcile that madness about Original Sin Dr. Mark preached, that cruel, Catholic-borrowed craziness that damned even unbaptized babies to hell? That business about the Elect Dr. Mark had appropriated from those smug Presbyterians?

Every Christian and his weird pagan second cousin twice-removed knew about “Cafeteria Christians” and their way of taking of what they liked from the Bible and leaving the rest, but Dr. Mark had taken the absolute worst of every pseudo-Christian heresy ever concocted by man or devil, mixed it with a few he’d made up himself, and served up a doctrinal gumbo which guaranteed damnation to every unwitting soul who so much as sniffed at its foul contents. Ol’ Man Winthrop (“Doctor” Mark, hell!) (literally!) could not know how hateful it had been to feel that slap on the back and be called a “brother” in Christ by someone such as he. In that instant Preacher Miller sympathized with the unbelievers. He understood how so many could be turned away from Christ when such salesmen from Satan’s own used car lot were accepted by so many as the Lord’s agent on earth.

So Preacher Miller and Brock and Josh had trudged back to Soul’s Harvest the next day, bellies heavy with breakfast and hearts heavier with shame for having accepted as much in such a house of iniquity. Upon their return there was a service, and Preacher Miller reported to the assembled of his journey. They groaned at his description of his welcome. They groaned louder at his description of the feast.

Yes, Preacher Miller said, it was there at Dr. Mark Winthrop’s table that the greater test had been revealed to him. For there was no question in his mind whether they would accept the yoke of Babylonian captivity in exchange for morsels from the table — but what of the assembled here? Could they see it? Could they see that their very faith and courage in God the Father, and of Jesus His only begotten Son was at stake?

For it would be by faith and courage alone that they might wrest these bounties from the well-armed, well-organized, and very well-fed heretics who proclaimed Christ from one corner of their mouths while worshipping the demigod Winthrop body and soul.

Was their faith strong enough?

Such a call to arms had been just what some members of the flock had been waiting for. When the sullen man from the very back row of the Sunday services had stepped forward with his rifles and night scopes Preacher Miller had cried out, “Where’ve you been all this time!” to which the man had replied, “Waitin’ on you.” That had been Jim.

And wouldn’t you know, he had a brother named John. Preacher Miller was immediately put to mind Christ’s disciples James and John, and how He had dubbed them Boanerges, “the Sons of Thunder.” If that hadn’t been sign enough those two brothers, along with their hunting partners Ron and Clay had come across a herd of no less than seven deer the night Preacher Miller and his escort had been gone — and they had taken every one of them. “It was almost as if somethin’ was runnin’ ‘em up towards us,” said Jim.

A waxing moon rising late provided the most logical time for an assault, giving them a week to plan. As they couldn’t risk getting caught scouting New Bethany’s defenses they would have to base everything on what they had observed while approaching for parley.

Every man strong and able enough to hike the distance to New Bethany reported for duty that night. The church was left under the guard of a few of the fiercer sisters as the men — all thirty-three of them, a meaningful if not large number — set out for New Bethany just before sunset.

They had stayed off the road, which made for slow going. The plan had been to come upon New Bethany from the ridge along the rear of the church, beyond the corral where Dr. Mark’s men were sure to expect an attack. They would creep around between the corral and the main church building, leaving just enough men to pin down the guards there while they assaulted the rear of the church. Josh would take a few men and draw attention to the front while the main force took out the doors in back.

They were crossing one of the many overgrown lots in the once under-construction housing development when the dead came upon them from either side. Their shadows against the starlight proved more than startling: no one had encountered more than one or two of these Things in this area for months. If not for the packs spotted stumbling along the ruins of the Interstate it would have been assumed their threat was long since over, that the last of them had given in to wear and fallen to pieces.

But as if to emphasize the miracles Preacher Miller and his party might expect tonight, the dogs that drove the dead — drove them as if they were nothing more than a herd of sheep — ensured that the dead had nothing to do with Preacher Miller’s war party. By their excited moans it was clear that the devil’s risen were interested. But the dogs nudged their flanks and ran about their legs. The dead would grab for the dogs, miss, and stumble in the exact direction the dogs wanted them to go.

And they were headed straight for New Bethany Community Church. Brock counted as many as forty of them converging in the field ahead.

“Durned if those things ain’t bellerin’ just like cattle,” said John.

“Wild dogs an’ deaders,” said Clay. “This ain’t gonna be pretty.”

“Neither’s what we’re about to do,” said Jim.

“If they get into the real cattle Dr. Mark’s got in that corral this is gonna be mostly for nothin’.”

“You’re forgettin’ those trucks they brought in.”

“I ain’t forgettin’ nothin’. Even if we don’t want Dr. Mark’s cattle — an’ believe me, we do! — what you ain’t thinkin’ about is how we’ll still hafta fight those dogs. Deaders gonna be bad enough, but there’s somethin’ ‘bout those dogs that ain’t right.”

“Nothin’ to it. Find the lead dog and drop ‘im. The rest’ll scatter.”

“You see how many dogs there were?”

“Kinda hard to figure in the dark.”

“That’s just what I’m sayin’!”

“Gentlemen,” Preacher Miller had said, and he paused as their attention settled upon him. “I say we accept this for the blessing it is and move on. We may find other blessings waiting if we only act upon the ones we have now.”

“Yeah, like Dr. Mark’s boys shootin’ all those dogs for us!”

“And spending precious ammunition doing so,” said Preacher Miller. “That’s just one of many possibilities. There are others we likely won’t even see coming. But we must be strong, and we must move.”

Preacher Miller did not need to remind them that they were but thirty-three men going up against maybe one hundred or more very well-trained and very well-armed uniformed security guards and who knew how many more in reserve. The chaos those dogs and deaders could stir up could only be heaven sent.

The Lord had meant this to be.

They found themselves slowed in following the dogs and deaders. In turn the men’s presence had slowed the pack, as the dogs had to fight that much harder to keep the deaders on the forward path, and not turned towards the living men. So Preacher Miller held his party back long enough for the pack to get far enough ahead and they took a more roundabout route upwind of the dogs and their fetid charges.

They were an hour and a half off schedule by the time they arrived in the woods behind New Bethany. By that time New Bethany and its environs were in full uproar.

The heaviest fighting was around the corral and Preacher Miller decided to skirt that altogether. Deacon Spark’s squad there was firing wildly into the darkness. Preacher Miller’s men had to crawl on their bellies to get around and even then Brother Travis got hit. Holding a torn piece of shirt over his wound he drew up behind a tree to serve as post and lookout as the rest moved on.

Once past the corral Preacher Miller hung back with Brock and the radio while Jim and a crew of three went down to scout the back doors. Josh took five men around the front while the rest assumed positions in the woods about the rear of the church.

“Should we shoot at anyone while we’re waitin’?” said John.

“Only if you can’t help it. I don’t want ‘em knowin’ we’re here until there’s nothin’ they can do about it. Understand?”

“Yes sir.”

“All right now. I’m gonna wait on word from Josh and then we’ll put the squeeze on. Take what shots you can, but don’t waste ammo. Stand by your radios until I give the word.”

“Yes sir.”

Preacher Miller had no way of knowing how much time had passed but he guessed it was a good half hour or more since he sent Josh out to draw fire at the front of New Bethany. He heard the gunshot that took out one of the floodlights at the back of the church. Preacher Miller had half a mind to get on the radio and tell Jim to shoot out the rest.

After he reckoned fifteen more minutes had passed he ordered Brock to do just that. “And tell Jim he can either charge the back of the building or go see what happened with Josh.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Tell Jim he needs to see what’s goin’ on with Joshua. Keep in radio contact. Everybody else, let’s go on in the back door and do what we gotta do.”

“What’re we gonna do?”

“Either we get the call to come on in, or this is where we all meet to go runnin’ back home.”

“You still want Jim to shoot out the lights?”

“Unless he needs to see the way up front, yes, get him to do that first!”

Preacher Miller could imagine the verse that might be written about this battle in this particular testament: And so it was that the Preacher Miller stood for so long with no news of Brother Joshua and the sounds of battle in his ears that he lost his nerve. There was but one chance to save the war this night. He could only hope John, Jason, Terrell and the rest were as crazy to get going as Jim had been.

Preacher Miller thought of the people back at Souls Harvest and said a silent prayer. He thought to ask Brock to pray with him and decided against it. Brock was already giving the orders.


Won’t someone think of the poor mothers who can’t feed—or feed on—their children?


Copyright © 2008, 2013 by Lawrence Roy Aiken

The Living End © 2013 by James Robert Smith

###