The Immune – Chapter 05

Two fighters stood over the Northern gate, facing outward.  Jenna watched the two of them for a moment, then continued on her walk around the perimeter of the village.  She circled around the oldest of the power-houses, the large wood structures that housed the captured Turned that helped the village work.  Just outside of the large blacksmith shop, she spotted Corban coming the other way toward her.  He was already in full armor, but without his axe.  He came directly toward her, walking briskly, holding his helmet under his arm.

“Jenna,” he called once he was within normal speaking range.  “Maria asked me to find you.”  He motioned for her to follow him.  She fell into step beside him, heading toward the Von Allen house.

If you could call it that.  The residence of the village’s founding family was almost a stronghold in itself, with three meter high wooden walls surrounding a courtyard and the only three-level building Jenna had ever seen.  She was one of the few people in town that actually knew what went on inside there… and she would be the first to say she knew very little of it.

Maria was near the outer gate, smiling wide.  Her dark hair was cut short enough that she could neglect it, but it still managed to look unkempt that afternoon.  Her large, green, Von Allen eyes were nearly dancing, and her lips curved in a wide smile.

“It’s done,” Maria said without preamble.  She looked at the fighter.  “Corban, thank you for bringing her.”  Then she turned, and moved toward the house.

Corban shrugged, knowing he had been dismissed, and headed toward the gate.  Jenna followed her second-cousin through the gate, then up the steps of the house.  Out of habit, she stopped at the front door.

Maria paused inside, turning back to face her again.  “Today, it’s okay for you to come in.”

Jenna didn’t know why the Von Allens didn’t let anyone outside the immediate family into the house- but she didn’t feel the need to find out, either.  They were responsible for a lot of wonderful things the village had.  Having grown up in Silverlake, where the fuel in the flame weapons was only alcohol and cement block walls had only recently been re-discovered, she knew the value of these things.  Every time she went back to Silverlake on trading expeditions, she was again grateful for her luck- even if it had left her a broken-hearted widow.  That, she often told herself, could happen anywhere.  The whole village heard the occasional explosions from inside their house, and watched strange lights glowing in the windows at night, but few people talked about it.  This would be Jenna’s third visit inside in the 9 years she’d lived there.

The small entrance hall had three openings into adjacent rooms.  Maria turned left, into a large room with high windows and three cluttered tables.  She stopped before the largest of the tables, and waited for Jenna to reach her before speaking.

“I wanted you to see it first, since Jordan did so much of the work on it for us,” she said, quietly and reverently.  She motioned toward a device on the table.  It was a rough metal cylinder, laying on one side, about the size of an adolescent pig.  It had a large crank on one side, like one of the water-pumps they’d had to replace the summer before.  The housing was patchy, as if they’d built it with small pieces of scrap steel collected from the blacksmith shop.

“This is what Jordan was working on?” Jenna asked.

“His part was to collect the materials,” Maria replied.  “We needed a large amount of copper wire, and the only place to get it was in the big city.”  That was what the Von Allens called the abandoned ruins to the south, the huge, decaying ancient city that had been over-run by the Turned generations earlier.  Jenna’s husband had been traveling there weekly, and when he’d returned the last time – six months ago – he’d been bitten.  To their credit, the Von Allens had never stopped treating her like family – in fact, they’d done the opposite, drawing her in closer.

“What does it do?”

“It makes electricity,” Maria said, her eyes gleaming.

Jenna looked at the machine, silently.  After a moment, she looked at her second-cousin, an embarrassed smile on her face.  “I’m sorry. I’m sure he told me at some point, but-”

“It’s ok.  There’s little use for it now, but before the Turned appeared, electricity was how almost everything worked.”  Maria looked back at the machine.  “For now, we crank the handle, but soon we’ll have it connected to one of the power stations.”

Jenna nodded.  “Then we’ll have electricity.  What will we do with it?”

Maria’s smile faded for a moment, then returned.  “I thought Jordan told you what we were working toward.”

“He didn’t tell me much of anything, really.  Not about this.”

“We’ve been trying to build one of these for generations, Jenna.  I’m sorry, it’s been the focus of so much of our work, we forget that almost no one outside the family knows about it.”  Maria sighed, and put a hand on Jenna’s shoulder.  “We can’t tell very many people about it- no one we don’t absolutely trust, and that means no one outside the family.”

“Oh, you mean that. Yes, he told me the basics.  I could only follow along so far.”  Jenna had been married to the man for 6 years before he’d divulged that secret.  Even then, he’d awaited permission to let Jenna in on the family secret.

“And this has to stay just as secret- at least for now,” Maria said.  “This is one of those things Jordan warned you about. If word spreads that we have this, other people will come to try to take it, even if they don’t know what it is or what to do with it.  Or even just to make sure nobody has it.”

Maria gripped the crank with both hands, turning it around three times.  Jenna could hear a flywheel spinning inside, and between the gaps in the housing she could see tiny bolts of lightning jumping between the inner workings.  After a few moments, the wheels slowed and stopped, and so did the lightning.

“Beautiful… it looks like you trapped a thunderstorm,” Jenna said.  She looked up at Maria.  “So this will allow you to-”

Maria cut her off.  “Yes, this will speed up a large part of it.  It’s not perfect yet, which is why we have to keep it a secret.  Until we have enough to give to anyone who asks for it, there will always be people who will try to take it away.  And if we’re killed in the taking, and the methods are lost-”

This time, it was a voice from outside that interrupted.  One of the guards at the North gate was shouting Corban’s name.  The two women looked at each other, then moved out of the room together, heading toward the sound of the shouting.

Corban was just below the gate, looking up at the fighters above.  He’d just said something Jenna couldn’t hear, then spun toward the ladder.  He climbed up two rungs at a time, then joined the two fighters in staring out over the fields.

He only paused for a moment.  Then he turned back toward the village, his command-voice booming over the rooftops.

“Fighters!” he shouted.  “Fighters! We’re under attack!”  He took a deep breath, as if to shout again, but his gaze wandered and he caught sight of Jenna and Maria standing near the gate, looking up at him.

“Maria!” he called.  “The Believers are coming!”

Her expression darkened.  “How many?”

Corban turned to look out over the fields, then moved toward the ladder.  He climbed down as quickly as he’d climbed up.  He drew near to Maria, speaking almost too quietly for Jenna to overhear.

“Enough,” was his single-word reply.

She nodded, slowly, then locked eyes with him.  “You know what to do.”

“I’ll give you as much time as I can.”  Around them, a small group of fighters had clustered, awaiting instructions.  Corban turned to them, and began giving orders.  Maria took Jenna by the shoulder, leading her away.

“Do you think they’re here for- for what you showed me?” Jenna asked, throwing glances behind her as the over-large oak doors swung shut.

“I doubt it.  They’re interested only in killing, not in knowledge.”  Maria glanced around the courtyard, scanning the growing crowd.  People were flooding out of their homes and workshops to support the fighters, and many fighters who had just finished arming were joining those already at the wall.  After a moment, Maria’s gaze returned to Jenna.  The large emerald eyes seemed to lock Jenna’s attention.

“I need you to fight tonight, and not just the Believers.  Their goal will be to wreck the gates, and let the Turned in to finish us off.  But they’ll try to break or burn anything they see as a place to hide, including our house.  I want you to defend it as best you can.  It is imperative that some of the family survive this night, and we need your help to make it happen.”

Jenna nodded, then looked around the crowd.  “But you’ve said before that no one will be hiding in there, because that’s where invaders would look.”

Maria nodded.  “And we need to complete that illusion, even if it means you and I fall while defending the house.”

“You’re not hiding?”

She shook her head.  “Everyone in the family knows about the machine, and any one of us could re-build it.  For now, we just need to make sure the line survives.”

Jenna nodded again, her own expression hardening as the weight of what Maria was asking of her began to sink in.  “I’ll do whatever I can.”

Maria’s eyes cracked into a smile.  “If it makes you feel better, we’ll let you use Smaug.”

Jenna’s eyes widened.  “Are you serious?”

*****

Jenna awaited by the front gate of the house’s walls, glancing around nervously.  Other residents raced past her, some to the village walls, some towards other fighters to carry messages, some to prepare hiding places, and some without any particular direction.  The gates were bolted shut, but the fighters all seemed to know their attackers would be coming over the wall at any moment.  Jenna tried hard to control her breathing, to suppress her fear, but with nothing to do other than wait, her fears were beginning to get the better of her.

At last Maria appeared, circling the huge house instead of coming out the front door.  She was helping to guide a large, rolling machine over the uneven ground, as two large men pushed it from behind.  The men were Jordan’s older brothers, Julius and Dane, both as large and muscular as Jordan had been.  The machine they pushed was covered by a burlap tarp.  Jenna’s lips curled into a smile.

They parked the machine in the middle of the gate opening.  Dane pulled off the tarp, throwing it aside.  Underneath was a strange tripod, about a meter tall, with a large wheel at each corner.  It was supporting… well, Jenna didn’t know a good word for it.  Dane often called it a cannon, but mostly they just used its name- Smaug.  A swiveling joint connected a cobbled-together metal box with two hand-grips on one end, and two long, steel pipes protruding from the other.  Two large hoses ran from the box’s sides to metal cylinders that sat under the tripod’s legs.  Jenna couldn’t remember who had built it.  Maria and Jordan had told her they’d named it after a dragon.  Once Jordan had explained what a dragon was, the name seemed fitting.

“You’ve got 30 shots, but remember, it takes ten seconds before it can fire again, so pick your shots carefully,” Julius said, clapping her on the shoulder.  “Once that’s gone, you’ve only got flame.”  She nodded her understanding.  He looked toward the noise at the gate.  Jenna followed his gaze, and could see a number of grappling hooks gripping the top of the cement block wall.  Fighters were trying to dislodge them or cut the ropes, but there were a lot of hooks.

“They’ll be coming over the wall soon, and the fighters will try to stop them.  Don’t shoot up there unless there’s no fighters around to keep them from coming down here.”  Julius pointed toward the wall.  One of the fighters staggered backward, then fell off the rampart and landed flat on his back on the ground.  An arrow had hit him square in the heart.

Julius swore, then charged toward the wall, crossing the 20 meter distance in record time and ascending the ladder.  Dane was right behind him.  Just as they reached the top, a black-clad attacker swung themselves over the wall to land on the wooden walkway in front of them.  They were armed with a long pole-weapon, and though Julius had drawn a sword, the attacker’s reach was greater than his.  Only a few moments later, Julius fell from the wall, cartwheeling in the air before landing out of Jenna’s sight.

She gripped Smaug’s handles tightly, and nearly pressed down on the trigger, but Dane had engaged his brother’s killer.  Jenna looked around for Maria, but her cousin was near the town square, standing very close to Janelle and Hannah, her two daughters.  Their expressions were grim.  The three embraced, all at once, for a long moment, then they parted.  The two girls dashed out of sight, toward the other gate, and Maria moved toward Jenna.  The matron of the Von Allen house was looking toward the wall, her eyes brimming with tears.  Jenna looked back to the wall in time to see Dane mortally wounded, and falling to join his brother.

By now, many of the attackers had made it over the wall, and some had reached the ground inside.  There were a lot of defenders left, but several attackers were left un-checked near the gate, and had begun to work at hacking apart the hinges.  They weren’t wasting time on sliding the wooden dead-bolts aside – they wanted the door destroyed, not just opened.

We’ll see about that, Jenna growled in her own mind.  There were three, far enough apart that they wouldn’t strike each other with the small hand-axes they used- but they were close enough for her to hit with a single shot.  She lined up the steel pipe with the back of the one in the middle.  He was a broad-shouldered man, and made a perfect target for her.

Again, she found herself wishing she could understand how Smaug worked.  They’d tried to explain it to her, but like many things they explained, she’d been unable keep up.  Jordan had promised to teach her all the things she’d need to know to finally understand, but his lessons had been cut short.  For now, Jenna took some strength from the machine as she pulled the right-side trigger, and felt the entire machine shudder in her grasp.

The upper pipe made the strangest FFFWWHOOMP sound, and spat a projectile at the attackers.  The projectile was a glass cylinder, almost the size of a wine bottle, but of much thinner glass, and it traveled across the open space almost faster than Jennas eyes could track it..  It shattered on the back of the center attacker, throwing him forward into the gate and spraying broken glass and liquid on him and his companions.  A heartbeat after it made contact with the open air, the chemicals burst into blue flames.  A meter-wide area around them was saturated with fire, and within three seconds the trio was completely engulfed by the flames.  They dropped to the ground, crying out in pain, one of them trying vainly to roll and put out the flame, but it was fruitless.  After a few seconds, they stopped moving.

Unfortunately, this event had earned her the attention of the other attackers.  Several were approaching her, drawing short swords.  They’d be on her before she could fire another shot like the first.  But that was what the left-side trigger was for.

The nearest attacker was a young woman, short and fast, moving directly toward Jenna and the machine that had just killed three other attackers.  Jenna knew what the woman’s plan was – even if the machine did fire again, another attacker would get close enough while Jenna dealt with the first.  But that was not Jenna’s plan.  Her eyes narrowed as she pressed the left-side trigger.  The lower pipe fired this time, spitting compressed flame in a very precise arc and soaking the woman’s upper body in the same blue fire.  Jenna held down the trigger, swiveling the machine to the left to catch a second attacker who thought he could get to her fast enough.  The fire was hot enough to cripple the Turned.  Against a living human, it would singe every surface- and if they were breathing, it would sear the lungs as well.  He fell, unable to breathe or see.

The third attacker nearly got to her.  He’d climbed the inner wall to her left, and was about to leap down on her when she felt the machine click as the main weapon became ready to fire.  She swung the pipes around again, angling them upward and pushing the right-side trigger for the second time.  The glass cylinder caught the attacker in midair, and he seemed to explode as he fell backward, falling out of sight around the corner of the inner wall.

That was her final shot.  A fourth attacker had gotten close enough this time, swinging her pole-weapon and hitting Jenna’s temple with the large iron ring in the base.  The world went white, then black, and for a long moment, she couldn’t see – she could only hear.  She could feel the ground under the palms of her outstretched hands, and against her chest and face, but when she tried to push herself up, she felt like something had tied her down.  She heard voices crying in pain, and others shouting orders.  Footsteps passed her on both sides, then returned again.

She saw light again, first grey and then white, then her vision cleared.  She lay just behind Smaug, looking at the front gate.  The moment she realized what she was seeing, the attackers finished cutting through the wood hinge-supports.  The huge oak door dropped down to the ground, hung motionless for a moment, then slowly tilted outward until it slammed into the ground.  Jenna felt the impact through the ground, and it seemed to shake her back to full consciousness.

A moment later, she heard and felt another impact, more distant.  The other gate, she thought.  The Believers have destroyed both gates. Not that it would matter much, once the swarm of walking dead reached the village. If there was a breach anywhere, the Turned would fill the whole village.  Jenna pushed herself up, sitting on her haunches and looking around her.  She had thought she’d been knocked down only a few minutes, but the sky had darkened, turning the orange-red color she’d learned to see as a warning.  The trees that surrounded the village would be casting long shadows now, and the Turned would be using those shadows to approach the village.

She noticed heat behind her, and twisted to see the flames overtake the outside of the huge house.  The fire had been going inside for a while now, and smoke billowed out the windows to form a pillar of black smog almost a kilometer high.  She could hear things bursting inside, small explosions as the treaures of the Von Allen family yielded to the blaze.

The smell hit her a moment later.  She twisted again, looking toward the gate.  Sure enough, the Turned were already shambling through the opening.  She got up on one knee, but a wave of dizzyness crashed over her, and she nearly fell flat again.  She put a hand out toward Smaug, steadying herself as best she could.  She caught hold of one of the supports, not realizing until she touched it that it had been turned on its side.  It was heavy enough to support her, even knocked over, and she got up onto her feet.  She only had a few moments before the Turned reacher her, but the world continued to tilt, trying to put her back on the ground.

She heaved against the upeneded base, pulling it down to get Smaug back on its feet.  It landed back on its wheels, hard, but solidly.  Jenna moved around behind it, putting it between her and the approaching Turned.  They weren’t close enough to hit with the flame just yet, but if she could shoot a capsule at them, the fire would slow the swarm as it flowed through the destroyed gate.

Then she heard a distant shout.  Off to her left, atop the outer wall, she could see a pair of figures, crouching and overlooking the village.  One was looking right at her, and had called the attention of the others.  She was just on the other side of the blacksmith shop.

They stayed around to make sure we all died, Jenna thought.  The anger began rising in her again, and she found herself doing the math in her head.  She knew the distance to the blacksmith shop, and the wall on the other side.  She knew how high the wall was.  And a moment later, she knew she could just about hit the one who’d spotted her.

I could fire at the Turned all night long, and it won’t make any difference, she thought.  But I can keep the Believers from getting out of here alive. She angled the pipes on the front of her weapon upward, guessing at the angle and lining up her shot.  She pushed down on the right-side trigger, knowing she pressed too hard, and felt Smaug shudder in her hands again.

Ffffwwwwhooomp–  Her eyes followed the glass through the air, knowing it had to hit one of her targets or it would only pass over the wall, igniting on the ground on the far side.  Her target had moved sideward, just far enough that the glass would miss her-

But instead of disappearing over the wall, the glass smashed into the inside of the wall, just below the top edge.  The attacker tried to move out of the range of the flames, but too late- She was silhouetted against the red sky, falling inside the wall and vanishing behind the blacksmith shop.

The other attackers were shouting louder now.  Jenna looked toward the gate- several of the Turned had stopped to feed on the fallen bodies they found close by, but many more were behind them, some approaching her directly.  She guessed she had just enough time for Smaug to fire one more shot.  She looked back toward the burning house- it would take longer than one night for it to burn down completely, and the heat might keep the Turned away from her.  In the morning, she could make her way to Silverlake.  It surprised her to have some hope of living through the attack.

The Turned were still coming.  They were fanning out through the village, stopping to feed where they found a body.  Still more were flowing through the gate, but Jenna wouldn’t waste a shot to slow them down.  She looked back up to the top of the wall just in time, ducking behind the metal body of her weapon as an arrow streaked past her.  The Believers had brought archers.

They’d also spread out more, and moved down along the wall, getting as close to her as they could without coming within reach of the Turned.

Click.

She angled the barrel upward, taking aim at one of the archers and pushing the right-side trigger.  Smaug shuddered again, and the glass arched through the air, again impacting the wall.  This shot was even better than the last- hitting just above the wooden walkway.  Her attacker was bathed in flame, from his ankles upward.  He dropped his bow, the arrow flying off without aim toward the ground.  He tried to roll to put the flames out, but rolled right off the edge of the walkway and landed just beside the gate.  The Turned shied away from the heat and flame, but he was already dead.

The Turned were very close to her now.  She wouldn’t have time for another shot before they were on her.  She swung around, pointing Smaug toward the nearest of them and pressing the left-side trigger.  She swept her flame across four of them, watching as they fell to the ground, writhing in the heat, and unable to move away from the flame.  Jenna wondered if she’d be able to hold them off long enough to get another shot at the Believers, but then remembered their archers.

She felt a piercing pain in her thigh, and her leg gave out from under her.  A black-shafted arrow had gone clean through the meat of her upper leg.  She looked back toward the wall, eyes blazing, watching as the archer that had hit her nocked another arrow.  She looked back toward the burning house- if she could drag herself close enough-

She felt like she’d been kicked by a horse.  It laid her out flat on her back, and all she could see was the red-purple sky.  She turned her head sideward, and could see the new power-house, one of the only cement-block buildings in the village.  It was one of the only buildings that wouldn’t burn.

At one corner of the building, she could see a single figure, crouched down and out of sight to the Believers on the outer wall.  It looked like a girl, but through the smoke and haze from other fires, Jenna couldn’t be sure.  They were staying out of sight of the Believers, but she could see them- and they could see her.  A gust of wind passed over her, pushing the smoke aside for just a moment.  And for just that moment, Jenna could see clearer.  It wasn’t one girl, but two, huddled together, one of them clutching their arm, the other staring back down at Jenna, hands over her mouth, and even at that distance, her eyes were wide enough for Jenna to see the girl’s terror and sorrow.

Janelle and Hannah, she thought.  She felt a coarse hand on her ankle, and knew the Turned had reached her.  But if the girls made it through the night, it’d be okay.

*****

Janelle looked up at the brightening sky. She took a deep breath, stretched upward again to look over the rim of the low wall, then ducked her head back down.  “I think they’re leaving,” she whispered.  She put her hand on her sister’s shoulder, gently, then lifted the sleeve of her sister’s shirt.  “It’s not bad- we’ve got time.”

Hannah nodded, silently.  Her jaw was taut, teeth clenched against the pain.  She breathed slowly and deeply, through her nose, squeezing her eyes shut every few moments.  She was resisting the urge to touch the wound on her left forearm, opening and closing the fingers of her left hand.  Tears were streaming down her face, but she was keeping quiet and still- which was all the two girls could do if they wanted to stay alive.

The roof of the newest power-mill was 5 meters above the ground, giving them a good view of the entire village if they’d stood.  It had allowed them to watch the Turned move through their home the night before, catching and devouring almost every one of their neighbors.  Almost everyone had fallen when the Believers attacked- almost everyone had fought back against them.  Almost all of the safe places in the village had been broken, defeated by the Believers before they left.  The only one they’d seen that had protected anyone had been their own.  And Hannah had barely made it in time.

“It hurts so bad,” Hannah whispered.  “It’s starting to itch in my upper arm.”

Janelle nodded.  “It’s moving.” Another pat on the shoulder.  “Remember Grampa Craig?  He waited 12 hours for a dose, and he lived through it.”

Hannah’s expression darkened.  “They had to take his leg off below the knee.”

“Yeah, but he lived,” Janelle repeated.  She smirked.  “You could live without that hand.”

“I’m left-handed, blockhead.”  Hannah returned the smirk.

Janelle took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.  If she’s sarcastic, she’s still ok. She peeked over the wall, watching the black-clad invaders moving through the village square and towards the gate.  One of the women looked up in their direction, and Janelle dropped again.  For some reason, she thought that one knew the two girls were on that roof- she could feel it.

“What is it?” Hannah asked, seeing the older girl ducking so quickly.

“I don’t know… I just think one of them knows we’re here.  I don’t know why they wouldn’t come up after us.”

“I just wish I knew why they came,” Hannah whimpered.

Janelle sighed.  The two had seen their mother and father die the night before, and had watched the Turned fall upon the dead bodies of everyone in the village.  Now everyone they knew was a skeleton, and the killers were still within sight.

“Aunt Karen used to talk about the Believers,” Janelle said.  “Remember – there’s always someone out there who is willing to kill us for what we have.”

Hannah nodded, remembering the earliest lesson their family passed on from parent to child.  “Even if we don’t have anything.”  She started to sob, but caught herself and shook it off.

Janelle was proud of her little sister.  Hannah was only 17, but she was staying strong.  Janelle wasn’t much older at 23, but now all they had was each other.

“What will we do when they leave?” Hannah whispered, fearfully.

“We’ll have to leave, too.  They came from the West.  We’ll go North, and try to make it to Silverlake before dark.”  Janelle smirked again.  “Good thing you got bit on the arm, and not the leg.”

“Right. Lucky me.”

Janelle looked again, and saw the remaining Believers move out of the village and across the field.  “Ok, they’re out of the village.  Let’s climb down the other side, just in case.”

“Ok.” Hannah winced as another wave of pain lanced up her arm.  “How far is Silverlake?”

“Don’t know.  I just know it’s the closest village.”

“Is it still there?”

“Cameron Bass went there to trade just three weeks ago,” Janelle answered, helping her sister get to her feet.  “That’s the best we can hope for.”

“Let’s get to the pharmacy, please,” Hannah said.  “I need the shot.  The itching is driving me insane.”

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