Monsters and Machines

NOMMED FOR MOVELLA OF THE YEAR 2017

Nabdale is the most boring town in England. It’s muddy, it’s rainy, it’s full of cabbages, and all its residents can talk about is the lights in the sky.

On Sunday night, the lights come down, and barely anyone notices. The few who take notice have three days before they’re silenced. First comes the headache. Then, the nightmares begin. And after that, there’s no waking up.

As a very crazy, very real conspiracy theory takes Nabdale by storm, the residents are forced to push the boundaries of what they believe, and what they’ll do to survive. They’ll have to watch their loved ones suffer; they’ll have to abandon their normal lives, and everything they thought they knew about humanity. They’ll have to die. They’ll have to kill. Sickness and hysteria spread like wildfire, and the plot only gets stupider. It’s the end of the world, and they’re either too early, or too late, to stop it. But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.

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14. The Brink of Carnage

The police sergeant who’d found her was way too tall to be fair. She’d given up on lying, and she’d been genuinely curious to see whether or not they’d let her go again. She didn’t want to go to jail. But then again, she didn’t want to go anywhere else either.

Leah hated herself. Two hours ago, before dawn had broken, she’d been ready to save the world. Now the sun was up, as anaemic as its light was through the white sky, she didn’t even know if she cared enough to save herself.

She didn’t want to run anymore. She wasn’t ready to kill anyone else. Not because she thought they still had humanity; they fucking didn’t. It was because she just didn’t even know where to start. This crisis was immense. It was going to kill millions. She was alone.

And she wasn’t fucking good enough.

She’d always wanted to be a badass. God, how she’d wished she could’ve stood up from Isaac’s impaled body, stared dramatically at the camera, armed herself, and walked away into the sunset on a kamikaze mission to save humanity. But she was a paramedic, and she was bereaved, and she wasn’t a fighter or a scientist or an athlete or any kind of expert. She wasn’t the right character to carry on this crazy fucking story. So she’d decided to come clean, hand herself in, tell the truth, sit back and watch what happened next.

“With what?”

“With a biro.”

“A biro?”

“Yes. You heard me. T- two biros. One for each.”

“Oh, yeah.” The police sergeant raised one eyebrow. “Oh, I- I see. Oh… Okay.”

“Why did you never put me in handcuffs?” Leah thought to ask.

He blinked. “What?”

“Why wasn’t I in handcuffs when you brought me in here?Leah demanded, clenching and unclenching her fists at her sides. “I’ve just confessed to three murders. You had me implemented in one other. So why aren’t you treating me like a criminal?”

The police sergeant cocked his head at her. He was built like a tank, with dirty blond hair and a mess of stubble on his cheeks to match. “How should we be treating you, Leah? How’s a criminal meant to get treated?”

“I…” She raised her hands, then clasped them back on the table. “I… I don’t know.”

“We don’t beat people anymore. The government’s real sensitive about all that,,. you know. And we’re not much for name-calling either.”

“I know.”

“And you are here under arrest. Technically, you are a criminal. But-”

Leah frowned. “Technically?”

“Technically.”

“Technically meaning because… because you don’t believe me? Or…” Leah paused tentatively. “Because you believe all the stuff about this… infection?”

“Yeah.” He said. “Not a big deal. It’s still not a big deal, Leah,” he hissed. “The public don’t need to know these people’s blood’s coming out black, or their eyes are screwed over, do they?”

“Uh, yeah. They do.” Leah blinked tiredly. “Because it’s killing people.”

“It-”

“It’s killing people, Sergeant,” Leah insisted. “It is. This is spreading from person to person, and it’s causing a chain reaction because people don’t know enough about what’s happening. Or, at least, it will. If you continue lying.”

“If you want the truth, all anyone needs to do’s check the internet.”

Leah blinked. “For that blog?”

“Yeah. The flipping blog.” The Sergeant sighed. “Those fools are handing out the truth like free candy. You should know.”

“Yeah. He knew about me.” Leah licked her lips. “G- George knew who it was.”

“Do you?”

She shook her head. “No.”

“Okay. We-”

“Are you going to let me go?” Leah sniffed at the thought.

“What?”

“Are you going to let me go? I’ve stabbed three people. That should be enough damned evidence no matter what colour’s coming out their chests. Shouldn’t it?”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Why the hell not?”

“Because I believe what they’re saying about what’s going on. Is that so hard to believe?” The Sergeant wiped his nose and looked over his shoulder again. Leah wondered if he could still smell the stink of that ruined blood, all this time after and all these miles away. She sure as shit could.

Leah looked at him. “I don’t know. Maybe. A little.”

“Don’t you believe the theories?”

“Believe the theories.”

“What?” Leah sighed and shuddered. “Depends. Do I believe the zombie bit? Yeah. But not the alien shit. The lights in the sky; I think they’re bullshit. But all the stuff about the infection- I mean, I…” She trailed off. “I think there’s an explanation. A scientific explanation. Somewhere. I- I don’t know.”

“Interesting.” The sergeant leaned back in his chair. “Coz if you ask me, Leah, I think it’s judgement day.” He laughed. He had an odd laugh; it didn’t fit right in his mouth. “But I’m not supposed to share that kind of stuff with the prisoners, so keep that to yourself.”

Leah nodded, looking down at the ground. She didn’t know what to believe. For the first time in her life, she was confused, and scared, and she wanted her parents.

“Listen, Leah.” The sergeant sighed. “Do you know anything- anything at all- that might, uh… be useful?”

“What do you mean?” Leah was surprised to hear her voice thinning out with tears. “I… I already told you everything. George was killed by Robert, I stabbed him-”

“No. I mean about how to stop it.”

Leah blinked. She looked up at him, but his face was flatly serious.

“From spreading? There’s no way.” Leah sighed, wringing her hands. “To kill the zombies? Stab them in the heart. It’s worked every damn time so far, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah. But do you think you’re going to be any more use to us?”

“If not, are you going to let me go?”

“I don’t- I don’t know.”

“If you let me go, will I have to go back home?”

She shuddered at the thought. She’d spent time alone in that house before, but she needed to stay away from it now that everything that made it home was gone. She’d feel like a trespasser in someone else’s life if she went back. She didn’t want those memories; she wanted to get amnesia and forget he’d ever existed. Nope. Nope. Shut him out. Shut him out like she’d never known him.

“I don’t know. You- you don’t have to, Leah. We just… We need…”

“Stop being cryptic with me. You’re scared to chuck me in jail because you don’t reckon I did anything wrong. Is that right?”

The Sergeant didn’t reply.

“But you’re scared to let me go,” Leah continued, “Because then you’d have to admit there’s something going on. You’re- you’re- you’re scared you’re wrong, and there’s nothing going on at all.” She licked her lips. “Don’t worry. I’m scared too. I’m scared I was wrong about all those people, and that I really did murder them. I could’ve been wrong.

The sergeant sighed. He still didn’t answer back.

“I think you’d better keep hold of me.” Leah sighed.

“Do you want to go to jail?”

“I want to get the fuck away from this carnage. I’m sick of doing your lot’s dirty work because you’re too busy burying your heads in the damn sand. If I’m out of the way, you’ve got to make a decision. Admit something ridiculous is going on, and risk sullying your nice shiny Sergeant’s badge…” She licked her lips. “Or stuff your hands in your pockets, dig in your heels, and watch this town destroy itself.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“Okay.” The sergeant dumped himself back in his chair, dumping a stack of papers in front of her. His words were strung out and exhausted. “Name? Same as last time?”

“Well, yeah.” Leah said. “Leah Angel.”

“Middle name?”

“Does it fu… goddamned matter?”

“Not really.”

Leah sighed. “Shame. I rather like my middle name.”

“Go on then.” The sergeant was being careless with her- it was like she amused him. Or maybe the crisis in the town was stretching his sense to breaking point, making him act ridiculously. She’d seen it happen plenty of times before.

“Marlena.”

“Very nice.” The sergeant paused to write something down. “Okay. And I guess I need some grounds.”

Leah paused. He looked up at her, and she raised one eyebrow. He was waiting for her.

There was a long silence.

“What- you- you need me to tell you why I’ve been arrested?”

The sergeant shrugged. “To be fair, it’s more like asking your permission to condemn you.”

“Triple murder, dumbass.”

“My name’s not dumbass.”

“No? Maybe it should be.” Leah sighed and slumped down in her seat, picking at the gouge on her fingertip again. It started bleeding again, but this time, she didn’t cry. “What is your name?”

He blinked. “Sergeant Wolf.”

“Ooh, adventurous.”

“Bradley Wolf.”

“You realise you’ve got the name of every high school bully ever.”

“Uh-huh. Maybe I was one.”

“Okay, whatever.” Leah buried her head in her hands. God, she hated these words falling out of her mouth. They were making her bitch and strop and moan- she was so confused with herself. Was she really this lost without George?

“Okay, Leah Marlena Angel. Triple murder.”

“Oh, and accessory to a fourth. Does that even matter?”

“Well, we’re supposed to act like it does.” Sergeant Wolf sighed. “But it’s ten years on top of three life sentences, so not really. Unless, of course, your charges get downgraded.”

“To what?”

“Well, manslaughter.”

“Manslaughter?” Leah sighed. “That’s when you didn’t mean to kill them, right? I’m pretty sure I stabbed them on purpose. You could’ve done George for that; his fight with poor old Harriet looked like a badly calibrated video game. I don’t think he’d ever held a weapon before in his damned life.”

“And you?”

“What?”

Wolf rubbed his face. “Are you any different?”

Leah shrugged. “I know how to hold a weapon, if that’s what you mean. My trainer was stabbed trying to disarm some crazy knife-wielding guy on a call once. We all did a bit of combat training after that. So, yeah. Now I know how to fight. A bit. Enough to murder three zombies, anyway.”

“But, uh… It might be considered manslaughter since you…”

Leah narrowed her eyes. She understood now. “Oh. I see. Because I didn’t technically cause-”

Death, yeah.” Sergeant Wolf finished.

“But you don’t know that. I could be lying to you.”

He shrugged. “I believe you.”

“Belief won’t save me from the electric chair, sergeant. Neither will a claim I was attacked by zombies.

“They don’t use the electric chair in Britain.”

“I know.” Leah blinked. “I knew that.”

Wolf nodded.

“So what am I looking at?”

“You, uh…” He’d started writing something in one of the other spaces on the form. At least, Leah thought he was writing till she leaned further forwards and saw he was just scribbling a random doodle of circles and lines. “You what?”

Leah smirked slowly, raising her head to look up at him.

“You’re not taking this seriously at all, are you?”

He fumbled his hand over the scribble to hide it, straightening up. “Um, sorry, what?”

“You’re not taking this seriously at all.” Leah laughed drily. “This whole interview has been us saying lines. Like we’re not even trying to act like we believe. We don’t believe I’m really going to jail. You’re scared of my being here. Aren’t you? Because my being here means you acknowledged what I did. You don’t think I’m going to court, do you?”

Sergeant Wolf said nothing. He just stared at her. Somehow, the expression on his face still seemed calm; one eyebrow was slightly raised, but that was it.

“Do you?”

He shook his head- again, slowly, like he was going through the motions. “No. No, I don’t, Leah.”

“Me neither. This town’ll tear itself apart before you’ve had the time to charge me.”

“Yeah. That’s what I thought.”

“And you…” Leah licked her lips. “What are you going to do? You and all the other police officers?”

“We-”

“You’re sworn to protect and serve, right? Well, I mean, that’s America. And that’s American cop shows at that. But the same basic oath. So… is that what you’re going to do? Sergeant?” Leah yawned again. God, she was tired. She just wanted to sleep. Sleep and cry. “Save the town from getting infected?”

Sergeant Wolf fidgeted. Leah had no idea what he was going to say, but she was waiting for him to say it, so that she could finish. She’d realised something whilst they’d been talking.

“I’m going to try, Leah, if that’s what you’re getting at,” Sergeant Wolf murmured at his clasped hands. “It’s not going to work, but I’ve got a gun, and I’ve got half a death wish, so yeah. Yeah, I’m going to try.”

“Is someone listening to us right now?” Leah said.

“What?”

“Is this interview being recorded?”

“No. It was, but I switched the recorder off.”

“Why?”

He said nothing.

“Sergeant,” Leah said. “I need to ask you something.”

He still said nothing, and he still didn’t look up at her, but he waved his hand. Go on, that gesture said. I’ve given up giving a shit.

“I found out…” Leah licked her lips. “Last night I found something out. When those creatures get hold of you, as you saw, they… they rip you. Tear you to shreds. It wasn’t just George- Harriet kept trying to do it to my husband and me. If we hadn’t killed her, you’d have been mopping us up off that kitchen floor instead.”

“So what is it you want to ask me?”

Leah smiled drily. “Something about Robert Walker.”

Wolf paled. He tried to hide it, but it didn’t work. “What do you need to know?”

“Yeah. Robert Walker escaped from the hospital and ran forwards out of the damn car park. Right towards the town. Of course.” Leah sighed. “They’re probably programmed to go to where the people are. Or programmed- whatever. I don’t know what’s going on any more than you do. He ran right towards the town, and he’s programmed to rip people to shreds. What I want to know is either where he’s gone, or why nobody’s heads were getting dug out of dustbins the next day.”

“Leah…” The sergeant sighed. “How am I supposed to know that? I don’t know any more answers than you do.”

“But I’m not really asking you why not.” Leah said, leaning forwards. He was on the verge. She could see it in his eyes. “I’m asking you how the hell you police managed to cover it up.”

There was a long silence. There’d been silence before, but this one felt a lot more charged. More dangerous. Sergeant Wolf blinked, trying to feign confusion, then trying his hand at shock, then giving up and letting the façade drop like a stone. He sighed and looked down at his hands again.

“Nabdale,” Sergeant Wolf said quietly, “is a very small town.”

Leah felt her blood freezing, and nodded, silently.

“And when Robert Walker woke up and disappeared,” he continued, “it was night-time. Maybe five-thirty, or six-thirty in the evening. Later, probably.”

“Uh-huh.” Leah bit her lip, covering the reaction by resting her chin in one hand. Her heart was going mental again.

“Which means…” Sergeant Wolf sighed again, more heavily. “There were very few people in the streets for him to…”

“To what?”

“Rip apart, damn it!” He exclaimed. “You said it, woman. Stop making me repeat it all.”

“Very few. You said very few.”

“Yeah, and I’m getting to that!” Oh, god. She’d pissed him off. This was a huge guy with a gun and a vendetta and a license to shut people up in any way necessary, and she’d decided to corner him and make him angry. “Because there- there was someone. Out in the streets. That we, uh…”

“Who was it?”

Sergeant Wolf sighed. “Fine. I’ll tell you. My job’s done for in a few days anyway, when the town massacres itself and I’m fired for negligence. Look, there was a guy out in the road- he was homeless. A beggar. I don’t know how or why he thought it was a good idea to approach this bat-shit hospital patient with the white glowing eyes- but he did. This homeless guy did. And he, uh…”

He trailed off.

“What?” Leah pressed. “What did he do?”

“He got his head ripped off.”

“Holy fuck.”

“Yeah. And both his arms.”

Leah gulped. “Both arms?”

“Yeah.” Wolf mumbled down at his hands. “And a leg.”

“What-”

“And his-”

“I get it! Jesus!” Leah wiped her eyes. “And nobody else knew about this?”

“No.” Sergeant Wolf fidgeted uncomfortably. “We’d have told someone if, uh… there’d been any witnesses. Or any family members. But there were none of either. So we thought it’d be easier if we just…”

“Sopped up the mess and pretended nothing happened?”

Wolf nodded. “Yeah. That.”

Do you know where Robert is now?”

“No.”

“Have you been looking for him?”

Wolf wasn’t a liar. That was why she trusted him.

“No.”

“Do you think you should?”

“I dunno. Maybe. It wasn’t my call.”

“So all the police know?”

“Yeah.” Wolf sighed. “And now you do too. I think my job’s screwed after this, zombie apocalypse or none. You’re welcome.”

Leah sighed. “Yeah. I know.”

She sat in silence for a couple of seconds, drumming her fingers on the table.

“Wait a second.”

Sergeant Wolf looked up. “What?”

“No, nothing. It’s just, uh… your- your people. The ones you use to clean up dead bodies.”

“What about them?”

“They wear gloves, right?”

Wolf looked at her, the expression in his grey eyes slowly turning to horror.

“Shit.”

* * * * * * * * * *

“So what, uh… what do you want to do now?” Sergeant Wolf said, rubbing his eyes and dropping the last piece of paperwork. “Shall I show you to your cell, crazy woman?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I guess…” She’d been thinking about this for a while, and now, she was sure it was what she wanted. “Can I exercise my right to a phone call?”

“What?” Wolf blinked, then noticed her expression. “Okay, you know what? Sure. Go ahead. I’ll bring you my phone if you like; the telephone’s broken. We haven’t had a prisoner in here since last month.”

“What happened last month?” Leah said, blinking and feeling a tear pricking the back of her eyelid.

“Oh.” Wolf laughed. “Some kid robbed the off-license.”

“For what?”

“I still remember. Three bottles of WKD blue. We found him drinking it in the park in the middle of a rainstorm.”

Leah sighed, kicking her heels out and leaning back in her chair. “Those were the days. When all that was going on was shit and rain and stupid kids.”

“Yeah.” Wolf bit his lip. “I, uh… I’ve put myself on night shift duty tonight, by the way. In case that makes you feel any safer.”

Leah smiled drily. “I don’t really want to feel safe.”

“Okay.” He smirked as he stood up. “Then you’re going to hate the loaded gun I’ve put in my back pocket.”

Leah smiled down at the table.

“Any undead bastards come for us, we’ll smoke them. Okay?”

“Okay.” Leah sighed. “But… Hang on a second. You’ve been working all day.”

“I know.” Sergeant Wolf sighed and stared back at the table. At that moment, Leah saw George in him. She could tell he was obsessed with his work, frightened to abandon it. “But nobody else can hold shit down, so I’m staying.”

“Okay.

* * * * * * * * * *

She’d asked for a cell without a window. She couldn’t help thinking that, if Nabdale ended up on fire like in all the apocalypse movies, she’d rather not see. The sky behind the skylight in the centre of the cell block was black; nearly twenty-four hours had passed since her life had turned to total shit. She wasn’t crying. Why wasn’t she crying? She’d spent so long running, and driving, and fighting and talking and arguing and thinking and trying and giving up, that she’d assumed she was too busy to grieve. But now, she was alone, and it was dark, and quiet, and there was nothing to run from and nothing to hope for. And still, she felt nothing. She should be crying. She was a terrible person. If she couldn’t get hysterical naturally, then she’d force herself to feel grief. She’d force herself to cry. She screwed her eyes shut and opened her mouth wide, making herself sob, and shoving more and more thoughts of George into her head till she could barely think of anything at all through the mess. And still, not a single tear leaked out.

What was wrong with her?

George is dead. George is dead. Remember that man you loved? Who you spent every day with, every night, loved so much you never gave up on him even when his work swallowed him whole and made him forget you? Remember how much you loved him, trusted him, needed him? How you spent all that time, all those days, all those nights, telling each other how much you needed each other, to the point where you couldn’t live without him? Well, guess what, Leah? You’re a fucking liar. Because now, he’s dead, and you’re living just fine. And not crying. And not feeling sad. WHAT is WRONG with you? Maybe he wasn’t the monster. Maybe YOU are, YOU are. You watched him die. You wouldn’t even look at him. And you accepted he was gone SO fucking easily you actually survived him. And then you STABBED him. Through his heart. That wasn’t your husband, Leah, but you shouldn’t have known that. Your blood’s still red. Your eyes are still blue. But only when you shed a tear for your poor dead husband are you allowed to know you’re still human.

Leah stared down at the phone in her hand.

Maybe she should just send one final fuck you to the soon-to-be-crumbling world by making a prank call. She could do anything: order a pizza, book a holiday, hire a hitman, buy a private island, win the lottery, surf the internet until her fingers were numb and her mind was number. None of it would matter, because she’d be dead before any of it paid off and the phone would amount to nothing more than a few minutes of wasted time. She could call her parents, who lived all the way up in Scotland. Maybe, just maybe, they might still give a crap about their youngest daughter. Calling her mum and dad was the only sensible thing to do, and Leah had always thought of herself as sensible.

She sat in the dark, with her throbbing head and her throbbing heart, waiting for her fingers to do the sensible thing.

Instead, they dialled a different number. One she’d forgotten she still knew off by heart, from the years and years since its owner had written it on her arm on the front porch of the hospital. Leah held the phone to her cheek and waited

The first trill sounded with no answer. That was expected.

The second trill sounded with no answer. That was expected too.

The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth trills sounded, filled with silence, punctuated only by the occasional noise from Sergeant Wolf, who was still sitting outside. Those sounds were reassuring. Now more than ever, she didn’t want to be alone. That was the true reason she’d stayed to be arrested.

Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. No answer. Leah wasn’t surprised at all. She would have been surprised, actually, and a little horrified, if the phone had been picked up. She waited for the voicemail.

“Hi, this is George, um… George Angel. I’m sorry I couldn’t pick up your call, but I’ll get right on it.”

His voice made her laugh and cry and scream, all at once. The sound reminded her of a cat whose tail had just been trodden on, but grief, now that her body might finally be bothering to give it to her, was a weird sensation. It was liberating to let her emotions burst out at last, throwing themselves back from every corner of the cell and ringing determinedly in her ears as she tried to let herself sob.

George’s fabricated voice was interrupted by another, fainter one.

“Yeah, that was fine. Now just say goodbye and then press zero.”

“Yeah, I know, Leah. Anyway, uh… thanks for calling. Leave a message!”

Then came the beep. It drilled her eardrum in half, but she didn’t care. Without listening to the words, Leah let her message tumble out with the torrents of tears, saying everything she wanted to say and everything she never thought she’d hear herself say and everything she’d rather die than admit, right into the waiting voicemail inbox of a man who’d never speak again.

Then, she hung up, but not for long. Her fingers, which had once been so sensible and obedient, were shaking harder with sobs as she dialled the number again.

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