It started slowly, almost imperceptibly. A slow, fine mist descending from a cloudy sky, barely even noticeable until it reached the ground and settled. It was snowing.
Each tiny flake was invisible insight, except for when a section of the snowfall caught and reflected the light of distant fires in brilliant colours. It looked like a shoal of fish,dancing and darting their erratic journey earthwards.
And for a moment — for the barest and most bittersweet of moments — the burly man in the church clocktower, watching it all through a high-powered scope, could believe that all was right with the world.
Until he spied the lights on the horizon.
One at first, a flickering shimmer that might have been a cluster of snowflakes. But then it was joined by another,and another, swelling to an unmistakable host. Even among the reflective dance of semi-frozen rain they stood out, unmistakable as the dawn. Individually they flickered and stumbled, but their combined might illuminated the blasted landscape and picked out each crater and imperfection.
The man in the clocktower shuffled within his winter clothing, eventually extricating a gloved hand, which squeezed the button on a hand radio.
‘They’re here,’ he said into it, curtly and emotionlessly.
After a moment’s pause came the reply, ‘Roger that. Stand by, and maintain visual observation.‘
The man didn’t reply, but withdrew back inside his warm cocoon, and adjusted the rifle beneath the blankets. Through the scope he watched the horde approach as he tried to count the falling snowflakes.
The four of them in the church froze, all eying the radio on the altar. Stephens was closest, and he picked it up, but hesitated before responding. His grey sergeant-major’s eyes looked to each of them in turn before he pushed the broadcast button.
‘Roger that. Stand by and maintain visual contact.’
Markus didn’t answer. The dour Frenchman was thrifty with the few words of English that has knew, and wasn’t given to waste them.
‘We’re going with the plan then?’ Lucy asked. They had already discussed this to completion several times. She drummed her fingertips against the pew she sat on in a stacatto and disjointed rhythm.
‘Yep,’ Tim replied, launching himself into action. ‘If you’ve got any prayers left to make, do it now. Ladies and gentlemen, the service is over, it is time to leave the church!’
Stephens — the Colonel — sprung into action immediately, with a career of military discipline behind him. He started loading up their camping equipment, and spreading it evenly between the four packs.
‘Harry, go and see to the generator would you?’ Tim asked. ‘Syphon off the bulk of the petrol, but leave enough to keep everything running for an hour or so yet.’
With a stifled groan, the gangly IT Technician levered himself off the floor. In better times he had worked for the same marketing firm as Tim — albeit in a different department. Lucy had worked behind the bar of a pub on the same street. Markus and Stephens were just lucky survival nuts.
‘I still say we should take the genny with us,’ Harry complained.
‘And carry it with what?’ Lucy asked, before Tim could find the words. ‘The sled is busted, and I really don’t fancy hauling that monstrosity across two hundred miles of wasteland.’
‘Besides,’ Tim added quickly, gently, ‘these savages aren’t going to stop chasing us until we’re dead. The plan is the only way.’
With a resigned nod, Harry headed off to the back room where they’d linked up their small generator to what remained of the church’s electrical system.
‘Huh,’ Lucy exclaimed softly. The other three turned to face her with curious — and worried — expressions. ‘Merry Christmas guys!’
She held up her watch. 00:03. 25 Dec.
‘We always used to spend Christmas Day with my dad and his girlfriend. After he retired, he left my mum for his secretary, and bought a cottage in Cornwall. We’d spend Christmas there and then go to mum’s for new years.’
Lucy rambled on whilst she packed. Tim didn’t mind. She was a nervous girl and talking seemed to keep her mind off the situation.
‘Christ, what I wouldn’t give for a roast turkey with all the trimmings now.’
Tim’s stomach gave a painful — but thankfully inaudible — rumble. They hadn’t had enough food for weeks, and the scant rations which remained were being stretched so thin that it was becoming painful to even think of food.
‘A turkey, a turkey, my generator for a roast turkey, and all the trimmings!’ he muttered sardonically, but it evoked a cackle of laughter from Lucy. In the dank, shadowy surroundings of the church the seemed darkly out of place. Tim couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed or heard laughter.
He realised he was smiling, just as another strange sound broached the air.
‘What the fuck is–‘
‘Music!’ Lucy cut him off with a gleeful cry. She was right, it was definitely music, the tinkling and ethereal opening notes of a piece which tugged at the atrophied threads of his memory. Momentarily he recalled a film, the moment in Apocalypse Now when the helicopters come over the Vietnamese village.
But no, this is different. Gentler, more atmospheric, more…festive?
‘Have…yourself…a very merry Christmas…’
‘Harry, you mad bastard,’ he growled under his breath. But he was smiling. They all were. Lucy was grinning like…well, like a kid on Christmas morning. Even the surly Colonel was not immune to the tugging at the corners of mouths.
‘Well, I thought it fitted the mood,’ Harry said, coming back into the church with a shiver and a mischievous grin.
But the elevated mood didn’t last. From above came the sound of gunfire; heavy, echoing shots from Markus’ rifle. A hail of automatic fire answered, rattling against the stonework of the tower. As Markus issued a loud rebuttal, they all spurred into action.
The Colonel sprayed bullets through the rotten wooden door, showering Tim and Lucy with splinters as they hurriedly finished their packing.
‘Did you get that petrol sorted?’ Tim shouted over the sporadic busting of gun reports.
Harry nodded. ‘Six jerry cans, and enough juice left in the tank to make this madness look convincing.’
‘Good. Whether or not we can get another genny together, petrol’s always good for trade.’
He could see another objection — or a repeat of the same objection — but he never heard it. Two, or maybe three, explosions outside blew the door in, knocking them all to the ground and making their ears pop viciously.
The Colonel was first up, firing more bullets through the smoky orifice. Tim followed, shouting across to the self-appointed quartermaster. ‘Colonel! Gun! Fucking now!’
He plucked the automatic rifle out of the air as he turned to the other two. ‘Time to leave! Is the mistletoe ready for our guests?’
Harry waved a small cylinder topped with a red button, as a few more shots boomed overhead and a cluster of hostile bullets flew through the door.
Tim only noticed he was hit when he was lying on the floor, his friends shouting over him. He noticed idly that it didn’t hurt, and that the song was still playing.
‘Oh fuck Tim!’ Lucy was saying, repeating ‘Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck’ under her breath like a mantra. Her hands were red, and when he looked down he couldn’t make any sense of what he was seeing. But there was a lot of blood.
As he realised that he was dying, that to all intents and purposes he was already dead, the most surprising thing was how calm he felt. It had become so damn normal, death.
‘Time to go kiddies!’ he managed to gasp. ‘Make for the coast. Stick together. And hang onto that petrol! Harry, give me the detonator.’
‘What?’ Harry suddenly looked very young, and very frightened. It was upsetting for Tim to think that he had no idea just how old any of his companions were.
‘Harry, mate,’ he whispered. ‘I’m not walking away from this one. Give me the detonator. I can at least take some of these bastards with me.’
As Harry sheepishly handed it over, Lucy started to sob and wail. Tim saw Markus climbing down from the clocktower, rifle strapped across his back, swinging down off the ladder. he took one look at Tim’s stomach and gave him a sad nod as he carried Lucy away.
‘Go on lad,’ the Colonel said to Harry, kneeling next to Tim’s shattered and dying form. ‘Go on with them. I’ll follow.’
When Harry was gone, Tim tried to speak. He wanted to tell Stephens, to make the old soldier promise to get the other three to the coast, and across to Ireland. But there was too much blood in his throat, and it merely gurgled up with a sound like a blocked plughole.
‘Save your strength lad,’ the Colonel whispered. He pushed something into Tim’s blood-slicked hand, something it took him a moment to identify as a pistol.
‘Set the dead man switch, and leave the party. You’re a brave man Tim, and you don’t deserve to go out like this. I’ll get them to safety, don’t you worry.’
Tim was almost loathe to break the tenderness of the moment and connection with a man he hadn’t thought capable of it.
Tim lapsed in and out of consciousness over period which could only have been minutes. Each time he awoke clutching the deadman switch with a trembling hand. He wasn’t sure if the smoke was in his fevered mind, or if more grenades had been set off.
The music still played in the background, some long-dead singer crooning about making the Yuletide gay. He chuckled, a spasmodic cascade of blood.
When the first of the savages walked into the church, he looked at Tim with an unmistakable expression of surprise; even through the tattoos and piercings on his face Tim could see it clearly. The dark shapes of the rest of the horde loomed behind the outrider.
The last of his strength ebbing out of him, Tim lifted the gun that the Colonel had given him.
‘Merry fucking Christmas!’
The shot blew clean through the young man’s forehead, and he fell to the ground with that look of surprise still on his face. The retribution was as swift as Tim had known it would be, but between the bullets tearing him apart and the song wishing him a very merry Christmastime he felt the deadman switch slip from his grasp.