The Immune – Chapter 04

The sky was clear, dotted with stars. The crescent moon gave off enough light to see clearly.  The city was quiet, but not silent, as most of the people finished their daily routines and prepared to bed down for the night.  Many were still awake – soldiers guarding the fences, and a large group keeping those soldiers supplied with water and food.o

The lower section of the city was where most of the activity was now, ever since the wealthy section had been abandoned.  The gates between the sections were shut tight, and the Turned battered against them endlessly.  The streets were shadowy, crowded with buildings that should have been given more space, just like the residents that were crowded inside them.  Lights came from some of the windows, and occasionally a door would open and spill light into the street.

Two men walked down one of the narrow  dirt-and-gravel streets, speaking quietly as they moved and looking at their surroundings as they went.  One was dressed in the uniform and partial-armor of the soldier/defender of Carter’s Hill, and he radiated authority despite his small size.  His head was shaved of hair, but his eyebrows seemed to have thickened in an attempt to make up the difference.  He spoke with deference to his companion, and was rewarded for use of the other’s title with playful disapproval.

The other man was of average height, whose dark hair was just beginning to show grey at the temples, and whose arms and hands had grown strong from years of using blacksmith’s tools.  He spoke with determination, with resolve, but between his observations about the buildings, the streets, the fences, and the people, his face betrayed bewilderment.  He pointed to the front door of one of the houses they passed.

“This is what I’m talking about, Captain,” he said.  “Houses like this one are scattered all over- empty, abandoned, and falling apart.  And yet over here,” he said, pointing across the street, “there are four families living there.”  The two could hear many voices inside, adults and children, arguing, laughing, playing.  “Why don’t they repair these places-” he pointed back to the first house- “or tear them down, and build a new one?”

Captain Drew Carpenter had spent the past four days trying to find this out.  He had an answer, but he knew it would only infuriate his companion.  He also knew he wasn’t in any danger at being the bearer of bad news- which was a relatively new thing in Carter’s Hill.  “No one will start a building project without permission, Joshua.  They know soldiers will arrest anyone building within the city if they don’t have a permit – and some of those arrested aren’t seen again.”  He shrugged.  “Well, that’s what used to happen, and no one knows for sure if that’s changed.”

Joshua Carterson took a deep breath.  “So it’s a matter of getting permission?  Who would they ask?”

“That’s just it- no one was really sure.”  Drew couldn’t help but crack a smirk.  “It was one of the ways your family used to control people.  Good housing was a reward, and they held it back from everyone who didn’t earn it.”

“All right. The idea of getting permission to build might actually be useful- we’d have people building right over the top of each other if we don’t co-ordinate it.  So, mental note number 36 – set up an officer whose sole task is to co-ordinate building permissions.  And then we’ll get the word out that if you want to build, he’s the one you get permission from, and it doesn’t cost anything.”

“Any ideas on who this officer should be?”

Joshua smirked.  “No one comes to mind.  My gut reaction is to find the person who is complaining about the building situation the most, and the loudest.  The best person for the job is someone who is passionate about it, who wants to change it for the better.  There’s been shouting about everything else in this city, so there has to be someone angry about it.”  He sighed.  “Maybe improving their homes will get people to stop squabbling over all this other petty crap.”

Capt. Carpenter’s eyebrows rose.  “That’s true.  The soldiers reported 6 more muggings yesterday alone.”

Joshua’s head snapped around.  “Six?!  What the hell do people think they’re going to steal from each other?”

The captain’s head lowered.  “I have to tell you that one of them was commited by a pair of our soldiers, Joshua.”  The two men locked eyes.  “Most of them were over food-coins, one was for a chicken.”

“A goddamn chicken?” Joshua nearly shouted.  “Why didn’t they go to the kitchens? If they’re that hungry, Xeren would give them a chicken for an hour of scrubbing pans!”

“I know, I know… Look, the food-coins are a good idea, but it’s a new thing, and you know how everyone here is paranoid about food.”  The captain sighed again.  “Witholding food was the main form of punishment… before… and giving better food was one of the big rewards for doing what the Cartersons wanted.”  He cracked another smile.  “I must say, it’s hard remember sometimes that you’re one of them.”

“Good,” Joshua said, looking off into the distance.  “I’ve considered changing my name, to distance myself from them.”  He paused for a moment.  “But I’m not trying to run the city, so it doesn’t really matter what I call myself, does it?”

“Not really.  You know, a lot of people around here are looking to you to assume control, and are wondering why you haven’t just gone ahead and done it.”

It was Joshua’s turn to smile.  “If I had, would you be willing to work with me the way you have?”

The captain chuckled.  “Probably not.”

“Precisely.  Besides, most of the people here are so afraid that I am trying to take over, they just oppose whatever I try to do, whether it’s a good idea or not.  They don’t even listen to what I’m saying before they say ‘no’.  The city doesn’t need me, they just need someone to help organize all this… all this crap that needs doing.  My mother always said people need to be led, to be told what to do… I don’t believe it, but I will say they need to co-ordinate.  And no one is communicating enough to co-ordinate anything.”  He paused again, looking around.  “Sometimes it seems like I’m the only one doing the talking.  Everyone else is just trying to out-shout each other.”

Down the street ahead of them, the front door of a house opened up, and a woman stepped out onto the porch.  She held a large metal cook-pot, and as she approached the stairs down to the ground, she gave the pot a heave and spilled its contents out onto the side of the street.  Bones from the evening meal, along with bread crusts and other leftovers, scattered as the pile hit the ground.

Joshua fought hard to bottle in the anger.  After the door had closed, he looked at the captain.

The soldier’s mouth was a thin line.  “It’s taking a while.”

“Yeah, it’s taking a while- for people to realize that keeping the city clean will benefit them, instead of just keeping them from being beaten.” He shook his head.  “You know how the ancients learned to keep cities clean?  They have records of a disease, a plague, that killed one-third of everyone on their continent.  Thousands of people died.  Imagine that- think of everyone you know, then one of every three of them is dead.”  He let the last line hang in the air.  “And you know what spread it so fast? Rats.  Rats feeding on garbage.”

“There’s not many rats in the world now,” the Captain pointed out.  “The Turned have gotten most of them.”

“True- but those that survive live here, in our city.” Joshua pointed to the pile of garbage they’d seen dumped- a trio of rodents had already approached it, digging through it for anything they could digest.  “I am deadly serious when I say it- Sanitation has got to be a priority.  It has got to be.  People are going to start getting sick from this.  When my mother ran the city, people got beaten up for that.  Now, the soldiers have to get shamed into showing up for their posts.  They barely take muggings seriously. And the residents think nothing bad will happen- so why bother to keep the city clean?  We’ve got to make it easy for them to keep the city clean, and we’ve got to make them realize that they benefit from it.”

The captain merely nodded, keeping pace.  The two walked in silence for a moment.  Joshua let his mind wander for a moment, then turned his head to look back at his companion.

“There’s something else, isn’t there?” he said, evenly.  “You don’t often hesitate to bring me bad news.  But something has you worried.”

After a few more steps, the captain nodded.  He took a deep breath, then let it out.  “Katrick came to see me early this morning. One of his friends – I forget his name – got attacked just before sunrise.”

This stopped Joshua in his tracks.  “Attacked?”

“Hit in the back of the head, knocked out cold.  Katrick found him.  He and a few other Immune took care of him, they say he’ll be ok.”

A long sigh.  “Does Xeren know about it?”

“I’m sure she does.  Every Immune in the city has probably heard of it, so I can’t imagine it wouldn’t have gotten back to her.”

Joshua shook his head.  “She’s probably furious.”

“A lot of people are.”  The captain paused again.  “We don’t know who did it – the victim never got a look at his attacker – but a lot of my troops are wondering why they can’t arrest Burgell.”

Joshua shook his head.  “We have suspicion, not proof.  We can’t lock him up for that.  What are the Immune saying?”

“They’re not talking to me about it, which worries me more.  There’s been verbal abuse here and there, but this is the first outright attack.  And that’s one of the reasons the soldiers all think we should arrest-”

Joshua cut him off.  “Charles Burgell is a free man until we have proof he’s committed a crime.  If we pick him up on a suspicion, we’re playing right into his hands.”  Another long silence.  “I just hope the Immune don’t decide to leave- we still can’t handle a breach without a lot of their help.”

As if on cue, a shout pierced the air from their left.  “Breach! Breach!”

The two men didn’t hesitate. Jogging to the next intersection, they turned toward the shout, and the growing noise as soldiers responded to the alarm.  They were at the fence a minute later, and Joshua’s eyes swept across the scene.  The breach wasn’t large – 3 meters wide at most – but they’d made it through the outer fence, and the inner fence was buckling.  It failed a few moments after Joshua and the captain arrived, snapping in several places under the dead hands.  The Turned outside were pushing hard to get inside, and the flame-weapon teams weren’t able to keep them back.  The fire would make one of them shrink backward, or two or three, or even ten of them – but with a swarm of thousands of the walking dead, it just didn’t work. Those in back pushed forward, trying to get close to the living flesh inside the fence, and those in front would be pushed right into the flame weapons.

But already, the soldiers and their support teams were responding, just as they were trained.  Those in full armor put themselves in front, knowing they had the best protection.  The teeth and fingernails of the Turned couldn’t penetrate steel plates, and while they would eventually get through the straps, it would take time.  These fighters swung their axes into the advancing dead, severing arms and heads to render them relatively harmless.  The flame weapon teams kept up pressure, keeping the breach from becoming a surge.  Another team of men and women were stuffing rags into bottles filled with the alcohol-fuel for the flame weapons, lighting the rags and hurling them over the fences and into the swarm behind.  Bursts of fire leaped up as the bombs exploded, easing the pressure on the front line.  It slowed down the advance, but it wasn’t enough – they would run out of bottles and flames long before the swarm ran out of dead bodies.

“Make way!” a voice shouted from behind them.  Joshua turned, seeing a dozen men and women approaching as a group.  They weren’t dressed for battle, or for defense, but a few of them carried axes.  Three of the others carried a rolled-up section of the wire fence, one of the emergency-repair sections that Katrick had thought up.  Joshua noticed Katrick in the group, but didn’t recognize anyone else among them.  He did notice that each one of them had dark, scarlet eyes.

“Flame teams, put on some more pressure!” Captain Carpenter shouted.  “A patch team is here, so let’s push back and give them room to work!”

The soldiers responded immediately.  Hearing the Captain’s voice refocused and encouraged them.  Joshua took a step back to give the men and women space to do what they were trained to do.  The flame-weapon teams changed their path of fire away from the Turned at the leading edge, focusing on those behind.  The armored fighters became more aggressive, shoulder-bashing their opponents backward into the swarm, and the fire being poured into them.  When the group of Immune got to the breach, they divided into three groups – five of them went right into the swarm, pushing and kicking the leaders backward, hacking at them with axes as they went.  Five unrolled and spread the wire fence section, plowing through the Turned and pushing many of them backward.  Several corpses skirted the edge before the group reached the fence, but they were cut down by the armored defenders quickly, and the breach was contained.  Then every soldier in armor pressed themselves against this fence, holding it in place as the last two of the Immune wired the fence-patch into place with heavy wire.  They stuck their hands through the fence fearlessly, wrapping each tie-wire repeatedly until they were sure it would hold.  One of them swore loudly as one of the Turned outside scratched her arm, but she quickly got back to work.  She couldn’t get any more Infected than she already was, so the scratch didn’t bother her in the slightest.  For Joshua, or almost anyone else in the city, that scratch would have been a death sentence.  Once the inner fence breach was repaired, the Immune backed off, and those who had been shut out by the repair scaled up the wire fence on either side and dropped back to the ground inside.

Joshua approached them, smiling and thanking them.  He would have to wait until morning to shake their hands, but they all understood.  He stopped by the woman who had been scratched, extending his appreciation and thanks in particular.  And again, the question entered his mind; what are the chances that I would survive the Infection, as these people did? As Xeren did? Would that scratch really have killed me?

It certainly would make his love life less complicated.

He was snapped back to reality by shouting, this time from off to his right.  “… know they want us to feel like we need ’em.  This is the fourth breach in as many months! I’m telling you, it’s the Immune! They’re letting the Turned in, so they can come and rescue us!”

Joshua didn’t have to be told who it was – the voice had become all-too familiar to him.  Captain Carpenter stepped up beside him, shaking his head.  “And like clockwork, here comes Burgell.”

Joshua motioned with his head for the captain to follow him, then approached the source of the shouting.  Charles Burgell was standing between two of the houses on the edge of the city, just on the edge of the 20-meter space between the houses and the inner fence.  He was still young, but looked ten years older than he really was, mostly due to losing much of his hair.  Being soft around the middle didn’t help much, either.  He was dressed in the same, simple clothes most of the people of Carter’s Hill wore.  His green eyes were wide and animated, and his voice carried through at least a few blocks in every direction.  Anyone who was awake, and responding to the breach, would hear him easily.

“And Carterson here is letting them do it!” he shouted, pointing at Joshua.  “It was his idea for them to come here, and they want to take over!”

“Burgell, they just saved us from a breach,” Joshua said.  “Show some appreciation for the people who saved your ass.”

“They probably staged it!” Burgell retorted, pointing at Katrick and his companions.  The Immune were staying well back, watching with dark expressions.

“You’ve got no evidence of that, Burgell,” Joshua said, his voice rising but remaining calm.  “It’d be just as easy for me to accuse you of staging the breach, just so you’d have a way to turn people against our Immune friends.”

“They are not our friends, dammit!  They’re trying to take over!  Admit it, we’ve had more breaches since spring arrived than we had for two years before!  Can you explain that?”

“Yes, I can,” Joshua said, darkly.  “Since everyone in the city seems more concerned with their own petty problems, no one is maintaining the fences!”  He looked around at the growing crowd.  “I don’t want to be in charge of this city – I believe we need to elect a council – but until we do, we have all got to pick up some of the work of maintaining the city!  We can’t just keep letting the place fall apart!”

“And who is going to assign work, huh?  You?” Burgell’s glare centered on Joshua.

“How many times do I have to say it?” Joshua could feel himself losing his cool.  “Work isn’t something that should be assigned by anyone.  It should be something people get rewarded for.”

“Well, what’s our reward for fixing the fence?”

“Your reward will be that you don’t get eaten at night, imbecile,” Captain Carpenter shot back.  Joshua turned and threw a disapproving glare, followed by an indulgent smile.  Then he turned back to Burgell.

“I’m not the only one who thinks the Immune should get out of here,” the younger man said.  “You can’t ignore us forever.”

“You’re a minority, Burgell.  Most of the people of Carter’s Hill appreciate the Immune, and all the help they’ve been giving us.  I’ve noticed some of your own kids in the kitchens, eating food that Xeren helps to provide for people.”  Before Burgell could retort, Joshua continued.  “But if you’re so sure that we don’t need their help to defend the fences, prove it and stand a post for the rest of the night.”

Burgell’s mouth dropped open.  “I’m not a soldier!” he protested, looking back toward his friends for support.

“I know, but you make it sound so easy.  All you really have to do is hold a flame weapon, right?” Joshua looked toward the East – the sky was still very dark.  “It’ll only be another 4 hours or so until the sun comes up.  Not so bad.”  He turned to Captain Carpenter.  “Whoever has been on flame-weapon duty the longest, have them drop their pack off, and Burgell will stand their post for the rest of the night.”

The captain nodded, then looked over at the soldiers, who all wore amused grins.  “Driscoll, drop your weapon and your pack.  Burgell is taking your shift for the night.”  One of the soldiers nodded, dousing the pilot light on her weapon, and shrugging the pack off her shoulders.  As she passed Joshua and Captain Carpenter, the captain whispered something in her ear.  She nodded, smiling a little wider, then set the pack on the ground.

“It’ll need a refill, but I’ll help you with that,” she said.

Burgell’s eyes narrowed, his gaze staying on Joshua.  “You don’t have authority over me, Carterson.”

Joshua took a step toward him, eyeing him silently for a long moment.  Then he said, “You’re absolutely right.  I don’t want authority over you, Burgell.  I have no way of enforcing this.”  Then he turned, sweeping his eyes over the gathering crowd, and the soldiers who were moving closer.  “But they do.  And I’ll leave it up to them as to how they go about enforcing it.  After all, if you get your way, and the Immune do leave, well, it’s the soldiers’ lives that’ll be on the line.  So I think it’s fair that they decide how to convince you that you’re wrong.”  Joshua smiled.  “Having you stand a post tonight was just a suggestion.  The first thing that popped into my mind.  Perhaps the soldiers can think of something better.”  He turned away, walking briskly back toward the cluster of the Immune.  Captain Carpenter fell into step beside him.

“That was beautiful, I must say.”

Joshua smiled.  “Thank you.  What did you say to that soldier as she passed?”

“I told her to make sure the fuel tank is filled- make sure it’s heavy – but to leave the fuel line closed, to make sure he doesn’t burn himself or anyone else.”

That earned the captain a chuckle.  “You ought to fill it with water, in my opinion.”

“That thought crossed my mind, too, but if there’s another breach, it’d be too great a risk.”

Joshua approached Katrick directly this time.  “Thanks again for your help tonight.”

Katrick nodded, silently.

“I heard about your friend.  He’ll be all right?”

“Yeah.  I just hoped it wouldn’t get to this point.”

Joshua locked his gaze on Katrick’s eyes, ignoring the chill in his stomach.  The sight of infected eyes bothered him, and he could never truly shake it.  “It’s only a handful of people, Katrick.  They’re just good at being loud and getting attention.  The ancients used to say, ‘The empty can rattles the most.’  We appreciate you… we need you.”

At that point, he felt an arm encircle his waist, and a head on his shoulder.  He knew it was Xeren without looking- he knew the feel of her touch, the contour of her body as she pressed against him.  He slowly swung his arm up and over her head, to rest his hand on her opposite shoulder.

Katrick smiled at Xeren, then back at Joshua.  “We know it.  Xeren here would tell us otherwise.”

The couple moved away, back into the city itself.  Capt. Carpenter stayed behind, checking in with the soldiers on duty.  Joshua could hear him giving orders, something regarding Burgell, but the voices began to blend together until he couldn’t pick any one conversation out.

“That was well handled,” she said, her head still resting on his shoulder.  “I didn’t want to come close until you were done- it would have just set him off again.”

He nodded.  “I appreciate that.  I wish it wasn’t necessary.”

“Me, too.”

*****

Ilyana pushed her way into the swarm on the edge of the village, approaching the cement block wall slowly.  The Turned that swarmed here smelled different- many had come out of the lake on the other side, so instead of smelling like a dry grave, they smelled like a watery grave.  The smell made Ilyana think of her first visit to this place – she’d come to destroy it, and the people inside, in an attack that proved fatal to every other person in the attacking force.  She had thought the scratch on her leg was her own death, as well.  She counted every day since then as a blessing.

She pressed past one corpse that had lost almost all of its skin, and reached the block wall beside the massive oak gate.  She cupped her hands around her mouth, shouting up at the guards who would be looking down at the swarm.  “Hey there! I’m climbing up the outside.”

There was a pause, then a helmeted head poked over the wall, looking down at her.  “Who is it?”

“Ilyana, come to visit my sister and her friends.”

The guard hesitated, glaring at her, then sighed and waved her upward.  Ilyana didn’t take offense- she knew the village was still wary of the Immune.  But she also knew that, as a friend of Dresten and the others, they wouldn’t openly object to her visit.  She moved along the cement block wall, pushing back against the press of dead bodies as she moved, then found the bent steel bars that formed a ladder.  She scaled upward quickly, reaching the top of the wall.  The guard backed away, to give her space to swing her legs over.  The moment her feet hit the wooden planks, she heard a familiar voice call up from the ground.

“Welcome back, sister!” Dresten called.  He met her at the ladder, but did not embrace her.  He was dressed as she was, in black clothes that had faded to dark grey.  His hood was down behind him, his hands clasped in front of him and half-hidden by the overlarge sleeves.  He looked her up and down, his face becoming a grimace.  “Your clothes.”

“I know… pressing through the swarm is impossible to do cleanly.  I’ll have to borrow a change of clothes from Saia.  Is she awake?”

“No – but Odyna is going to get her.  It’s good to see you.”

“Good to see you, too,” she replied.  They began to walk, circling the inside of the cement block wall.  “How have you been doing here?”

“Very well.”  Dresten’s eyes brightened.  “We’ve been teaching the people of this village – and a few others – our arts, and parts of our way of life.”

Ilyana cocked her head.  “Which parts?”

“The good parts,” Dresten said with a chuckle.  “The more we read into the history of the Order, I mean, the old, old history, the more encouraged we are that we’re doing the right thing.  And we’ve even taken on more members.”

Ilyana felt her eyebrows rise.  “People are joining you?”

“There are more than thirty of us now,” he said, proudly.  “It’ll take some time for them to master the physical training, the combat skills, but that isn’t really central to our training anymore.  We’re not a destructive force any longer.  In fact, Nadia, Angora, and Griegel have moved to Hammerhand, with a handful of new members, and have begun to train some of the defenders there.”

“That’s good news, Dresten,” she said.  “Perhaps one day, people will recognize the Order as something good.”

“It’s our new goal,” he agreed.  “We don’t need everyone in the world to be a member, but if enough of us exist to help others out, then perhaps…” he shrugged.  “Well, I suppose there’s not much we can change about the world, but we can make it better for some of the people in it.  And maybe make up for the lives we’ve ended.”

Ilyana nodded, silently.  Then she smiled, seeing two women approach, dressed identical to her and Dresten.  One had short, red-blond hair, the other had black hair in a long braid that matched Ilyana’s own.  Both  women smiled widely, but stopped and wrinkled their noses at Ilyana as they came within speaking distance.

“I know- it’s from the swarm outside.”

Saia nodded, and smiled.  “It’s good to see you again.”

“You too.  Dresten tells me your numbers grow.”

“Yes – it’s an interesting idea, to build a new Order with a different purpose.  A turning point in our history, I believe.”  Saia looked her sister over again.  “I can get you a change of clothes, if you like.”

“Thank you – I’ll have to wait until I go back through the swarm before changing.  They’ll know I was gone if they see me like this.”

No one spoke for a long moment- the other three merely waited for her to explain what she meant.

She took a deep breath.  “I bring news.  The kind that you may choose to act upon – if I’m right, another chance to affect our history.”

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