©2020 William A. Lasher
Major Saxby’s hand drawn map showed us how to reach Fort Greyling where we would receive specialized training in preparation for our new assignment. We departed Rosethorne Station and rode west for three days and two nights. It was late fall, and the days were growing short. On the second morning, I noticed the water in my canteen had begun to freeze overnight.
Molly and I had become soldiers quickly, without the usual time spent in basic training. We knew little about the strict regimentation of life on a military base. The marching, standing at attention, and saluting of officers were habits we had not been taught by easygoing Major Saxby, and there were few other soldiers left on his post anyway. The giant bat attacks cleared the place out – once brave soldiers running into the night in their union suits, never to be seen again.
There were others like us at Fort Greyling, men and women who had been swiftly conscripted into the Mutant Eradication Forces without formal military training. We were called “scrips,” and we had our own barracks separate from the regular army enlistees who we outnumbered at the camp.
We were relieved to learn there was no separation of the sexes. Corporal Fujimaru took us into one of the long and narrow barracks houses and assigned us a bunk bed – Molly on top, and I would sleep in the bottom bunk. There were footlockers at both ends where we could stash our meager possessions, everything that we owned was in our horses’ saddlebags.
Fujimaru showed us the stables. Large stalls next to a grassy pasture with a hedgerow of cottonwoods next to a stream. A valuable commodity in the Western Territory, strong horses were treated well, and there was plenty of fresh hay and barrels of oats. Carrots too, brought in with shipments of fresh vegetables from the irrigated farms in the temperate deserts to the south. Our steeds ate well at Fort Greyling, and so did we.
At Saxby’s outpost, the cook was MIA, he deserted his enlistment after three giant bat attacks in a fortnight. Thus, at Rosethorne Station it was basic military rations – canned mackerel, a dried green pea soup mix, and a usually stale hardtack. Tea time with the Major was the culinary highlight, but the longer we stayed, the less generous he became with his supply of tinned cookies. All the way from London he said, and the shipping costs were obscene.
We were somewhat astonished on our first visit to the spacious mess hall at Fort Greyling. Like the barracks, the dining area was spotless and smelled of frequent cleaning. We entered a line where we picked up trays, plates, and silverware. We had our choice of entrees, on that night it was fresh salmon or pork chops. We could add boiled red potatoes or pinto beans, and then choose from corn on the cob, zucchini, or green leaf lettuce. Molly thought she had not eaten so well since we had left Leacock Corners in 1851.
Back at the barracks, most of the others kept their distance the first night. We were the newcomers, eyed apprehensively, and it was obvious my bricky girlfriend had been noticed by more than one of our fellow scrips. After receiving our military haircuts, Molly’s pretty red hair was now as short as mine.
“My sister did a nice job on your hair,” said a short and stocky scrip sitting on the bunk bed next to ours. He had a toothy grin and appeared to be Native American. Looked to be about thirty.
“Myra is your sister?” said Molly.
“Yes. Two years older. I’m Johnny. Johnny Moonblade.” He extended his hand across the narrow space between the bunk beds.
“I’m Margaret Abbotsford,” Molly taking Moonblade’s hand lightly.
“Donovan Highgarden,” I said after pausing a moment to remember my alias.
“You speak with a British accent,” said Molly. “Myra does too – are you from Great Britain?”
“No, we’re from Delahunt. A small village on the far side of the Lebeu River. We’re full blooded Shoshone, but we went to school with the children of British officers. That’s why we speak with English accents.”
“Myra is a civilian?”
“Yeah, she visits the base to cut hair.”
“How long have you been in the Mutant Eradication Forces?”
“I worked at the gas plant up until last week. I showed up for work one day, and was told I was being conscripted into the military forces to fight the growing human zombie threat. I was drafted, they didn’t give me a choice in it at all.”
“We’ve been in the MEF for about a month,” I said. “We were conscripted by Major Saxby to operate flamethrowers out on the edge of the frontier. But they’re changing over to robotic operators now, and he offered us promotions to join the expeditionary force.”
“Promotions? Are you sergeants?”
“Just corporals for now.”
“I’m still a private, you out rank me.” Moonblade smiled, and saluted both of us.
At sunrise the next morning, we were awakened by a bugler playing Reveille outside our barracks. Molly laid flat on her back to pull on her britches, and then climbed down and sat next to me as we both laced up our boots. She gave me a playful punch on the shoulder as we joined the others headed outdoors. It was the first night we had not slept together in quite some time.
The sun was just cresting the horizon, and there was already a lengthy line at the latrine. I thank my lucky stars I made it through without crapping my drawers.
It was chilly enough to see your breath with a cool breeze blowing down out of the mountains to the north. On hard packed dirt parade grounds, Sergeant Jaramillo led our company of newly arrived soldiers through a calisthenics workout. Fifty jumping jacks, running in place, and then fifty squat thrusts that brought audible groans and complaints from more than one of our fellow scrips, including an overweight Private Bilkins – he experienced difficulty completing all fifty.
Following the exercise session, Jaramillo led us in a jog over to the mess hall where we ate a hearty breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs, and biscuits. There was no limit on how much we could eat, except for Bilkins, who was denied seconds by order of Sergeant Jaramillo.
After breakfast we were introduced to the commanding officer, Colonel Hennesey, in a large meeting hall at the center of the base. We took seats in what looked to be wooden church pews. The hall served as a chapel on Sundays, but worship was voluntary. There weren’t enough seats for everyone, so some of the scrips were forced to remain standing around the perimeter of the sizable room, and then everyone was back on their feet as Jaramillo called out, “Officer on deck!”
Colonel Hennesey entered from a side door on the elevated stage and strode briskly to the lectern, “Good Morning ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats, and welcome to Fort Greyling,” nodding and smiling as he visually scanned the room. He loosened cloth ties on a ledger book, produced written notes, and put on a pair of narrow reading glasses, “all of you were conscripted into the Mutant Eradication Forces in a rather hasty fashion, and therefore many of you lack formal military training. Few of you have been through a basic boot camp. Well, this shouldn’t be a problem unless you choose to make it one. If you have any questions about the proper way to conduct yourselves, feel free to ask Sergeant Jaramillo for the answers – he’s your first step up the chain of command.”
Hennesey paused to gesture towards Jaramillo with an open hand and then continued on, “Here at Fort Greyling, you will be trained to join an elite expeditionary force. Your mission, to fight the growing human zombie menace in the Forsaken Zone, the extent of which is at this time unknown. To be successful, you will attain top physical shape and acquire special skills that you will be taught here at Fort Greyling. You are about to enter a rigorous six week training regime that will test the limits of your physical and mental endurance. Not all of you will make it. If you fail to make the grade, you will be given the choice of alternate service or the opportunity to retire with a cash bonus.”
Bilkins was one of the first to go, along with three others in just the first few days. Scrips who could not keep up were given two warnings. On their third failure, he or she was shown the gravel path leading to Colonel Hennesey’s office. Some were transferred to alternate commands, others like Bilkins chose to retire and took their payout in silver coin.
Our morning workouts grew more and more difficult day by day. Fifty push-ups became one hundred push-ups and then two hundred. Jaramillo had the endurance of an automaton. He led us on ten mile afternoon runs, never breaking a sweat or slowing his pace.
We carried canteens as we traveled on foot across the semi-arid grassland, and only drank from smaller springs that were known to be safe. Jaramillo told us to never drink from the larger streams, as they were infested with Giardia lamblia, a parasite that caused severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, and weight loss. The symptoms lasted for weeks, and there was no cure.
Molly and I tried to stay close throughout the daytime, though there was little opportunity for any type of intimate contact. We learned early on that Jaramillo frowned on displays of affection between scrips, and sexual liaisons were prohibited in the code of conduct. Saxby was easygoing, but at Fort Greyling the drill sergeants played it by the rule book. There was a secluded spot in the cottonwoods behind the stables where we could sit and talk in private now and then, but Molly stopped me cold when I tried to show my amour in a more physical way.
In the fourth week there was an accident that resulted in the death of a scrip named Travis Kuzmin. We were practicing rope climbing skills on a granite face in the mountains north of the camp. Somehow a metal piton had failed to hold, and when it pulled out, Kuzmin fell over a hundred feet and was dead on impact. It was suspicious because there had been conflict earlier in the day between Kuzmin and another private, Zanetti. A loud argument was about to turn into a fistfight before Jaramillo broke it up. Later in the day, Zanetti was ahead of Kuzmin in the climbing party, and he had placed the piton that failed to hold.
Zanetti and Jaramillo were called into Colonel Hennesey’s office and questioned about the circumstances. Zanetti denied having rigged the piton to fail and blamed it on a softer band of sedimentary rock layered into the granite. He was given the benefit of the doubt by Hennesey, but on a later climbing exercise, Jaramillo looked for the softer band of rock and never found it. The climbing face was solid granite, that’s why it had been chosen in the first place.
By the sixth week, we were down to less than thirty scrips. We had started with over fifty. Johnny Moonblade was still with us – the Native American had uncanny survival skills, he could stay on course in a fog without a compass, and was quickly promoted to corporal. We had a comedian named Alton Delone – his humor was self deprecating, and often so funny that even Jaramillo would laugh.
A handful of women had made the final cut, Shelby Woodberry and Josette Kenderson were among them. There was no distinction between the sexes at Fort Greyling. Beyond a sign that requested modesty in the showers, everyone was treated the same.
Airborne flamethrowers would be impractical for extended expeditions into the Forsaken Zone because they used too much hydrogen gas. A more efficient weapon for the circumstances was invented by Professor Alfred Longstone at Oxford’s School of Victorian Warfare. It was an automatic machine gun powered by a stationary cranking mechanism similar to a bicycle. Cutting edge technology developed specifically for the Mutant Eradication Forces.
Two new airships were in the final stages of construction as we proceeded with our training regime at Fort Greyling. Smaller and faster than the immense mother ship, the Constantina, they were christened the Raven and the Hawk. Both of the dirigibles were outfitted with a pair of Longstone machine gun emplacements at either end of their gondolas.
The airships were built on the Isle of Dogs, an industrial area along the eastern periphery of London on the River Thames. Delivering the Raven and the Hawk to the Western Territory involved a circuitous detour first southward to the coast of West Africa and then a long voyage across the Atlantic to the West Indies and Mexico. The route avoided the Forsaken Zone completely, and took advantage of the prevailing trade winds in crossing the ocean.
We were speechless with eyes cast skyward when the mammoth Constantina and her brand new satellite ships arrived at Fort Greyling. To the west of the camp, there was a sharp ridge called the Crested Hogback, and the pilots guided their cumbersome dirigibles to sequential mooring stations. Thick ropes were used to anchor the ships to gigantic iron eye bolts set into the Hogback’s spine. A cable car carried Captain Galloway and his seasoned atmospheric sailors to the lower elevation of the camp. When the door flew open, the airmen were greeted with raucous cheering from our assembled company of scrips. Jaramillo was the first to salute and then shake hands with Captain Galloway, commander of the Constantina.
Molly and I were assigned positions as gunners on the Raven under Captain Blacklock. Josette Kenderson and Ike Putney were chosen as gunners by Captain Flemmington, commanding officer of the Hawk.
To operate my machine gun, I entered a small compartment at the rear of the gondola. The gun and cranking mechanism were fixed at an angle, so that the barrel of the weapon pointed downward. I sat on a seat with my feet on the pedals of the cranking mechanism and the front of my torso against a padded stop. My arms and feet were free to operate the actual gun, and it swiveled from side to side on a turret so I could follow a moving target. The weapon was spring loaded, and the faster I pedaled, the more rounds the gun fired. Alton Delone acted as my assistant, feeding the weapon belts of ammunition.
Our first foray into the Forsaken Zone was experimental, and we traveled about two hundred miles, out across the plains. The Hawk and the Raven led the way. We flew close to the ground looking for “gnawers,” the slang term for the walking dead we hunted. A full three hundred yards long and slower, the immense Constantina followed at a higher altitude.
As we traveled east, all signs of vegetation disappeared, and the bare earth took on a ghastly hue. The gondola’s air intakes were fitted with charcoal filters to protect us from airborne toxins. The rivers and streams flowing out of the mountains went from sparkling clear to grim and poisonous looking as they flowed out across the flat as a pancake plains. The line of demarcation between the Western Territory and the Forsaken Zone was abrupt and stunning.
Delone appeared at the door of my tiny compartment, “Captain Blacklock observed a large swarm of gnawers on the horizon. We’ll be coming up on them shortly. The Captain says you may fire at will.”
“Yes, I can see them now,” I said looking through my viewport, “my god, there’s hundreds of them.”
Behind me, Delone crouched down and looked over my shoulder, “why do they group up like that? I mean, if they’re dead, they can’t think anymore, right?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t know that much about zombies beyond what we’ve been told.”
“Could there be someone telling them what to do? A zombie leader?”
“If there is a leader, it’s probably not a zombie.”
“Not a zombie? Then what would the zombie leader be?”
“I don’t know, Alton,” shrugging my shoulders, “it’s hard to say, and I’m not so sure the officers know much more than we do.”
Molly was in the forward emplacement, and she was the first to open fire. We were fifty yards or so above the surface traveling at a fast clip. Molly’s .60 caliber rounds tore into the mass of slow moving zombies and began ripping them to pieces. Half rotted arms, legs, and heads flew in all directions as she pedaled faster and increased the number of rounds pouring out of her Longstone.
Soon the seething horde of gnawers was directly beneath the airship and I opened fire as well. It was a sordid business. At first I felt a reluctance to shoot, but it wasn’t really killing, because the zombies were already dead. They were cannibals, and the ones who survived the initial barrage were already picking up detached body parts and eating them. Gnawing on the arms, legs, and decapitated heads of their fallen comrades, gnawers, it was how they got their name. I thought I heard Delone vomiting in the adjacent compartment as I pedaled faster and continued to mow them down.
The Hawk had engaged another mass of walking dead on the far side of a slight incline. Hundreds of human zombies migrating out of the ruined wasteland of the Forsaken Zone. As Putney and Kenderson let loose with their own Longstones, the Constantina came up behind us. We were still close to the Western Territory on this first expedition, our trial run, so hydrogen supplies were not an issue. Captain Galloway ordered his gunners to open fire with all four of the giant ship’s flame throwers, and before long most of the gnawers had been eliminated, blackened corpses and detached body parts strewn willy-nilly across the scorched earth.
Were they down for good now, or would the zombies rise from the dead once again? Our orders were to be ruthless in their destruction. Tear them to pieces with the Longstones, and cook them good with the flame throwers. The hideous zombies were to be stopped cold at all costs. It was us against them, and no prisoners could be taken, it was out of the question. A gruesome enterprise, but necessary for our own survival.
Little was known about the Forsaken Zone beyond the high plains. Venturing in on the ground was impossible because of the toxins left over from the Great Hydrogen War. The water and soil were poisoned, and the air close to the ground was unsafe as well. The only practical method of travel was by air where we could keep a safe distance from the lethal environment on the surface.
We continued through the winter. Scores of the gnawers were slaughtered on our abbreviated missions across the high plains. When the weather became too severe for flying, we attended classes and exercised indoors at Fort Greyling. There were coal burning furnaces and wood stoves that kept our accommodations toasty through the sub zero cold of January and February.
By Spring, we were well prepared to travel further east. To seek out the source of the walking dead that seemed hell-bent on overwhelming us. Our first long distance expedition would soon be under way.
The chief problem with attempting long distance forays was fuel reserves. Carrying enough hydrogen gas to make it back to the Western Territory safely. To stretch our fuel on longer journeys, each airship was retrofitted with tall masts that carried sails. It was a risky feat of engineering anchoring the masts to the light framework of the massive dirigibles, but it vastly increased the range of the airships.
The sails were manned by a tribe of Morpurgos from North Borneo, a British colony in Southeast Asia. The dark skinned Morpurgos were a small people, on average, about four feet tall. They’d been using sails to propel their outrigger canoes through the tidal waters of the South China Sea for centuries.
Nimble crews of Morpurgos performed the dangerous task of furling and unfurling the sails when the airships were underway. To reach the gondolas, they would climb rope ladders fixed to the outer skin of the dirigibles. Thousands of yards above the surface of the earth, the Morpurgos had no fear of heights.
We set out on a journey to the eastern seaboard, once the center of civilization in North America, now a post apocalyptic nightmare of destroyed cities and ruined farmland. We traveled high above the surface, powered by the strong prevailing westerlies in our billowing sails. With altitude in the thousands of yards, we stayed well above clouds that produced a caustic rain, corrosive enough to damage the skin of our ships.
Special air tight oxygen suits allowed us to travel at the very high altitudes, and also protected us from the danger of unpredictable airborne toxins. The helmets were constructed of tempered glass, with an opaque rectangular cap on top. We carried small refillable oxygen tanks on our backs. The suits were bulky and restricted movement.
The Morpurgos were reluctant to wear their oxygen suits at first, but quickly changed their minds when they realized how high we would fly, and how cold it would be in the thin air above the clouds. Eventually, our South Pacific colleagues found comfort in their oxygen suits with heavy wool union suits beneath.
The Constantina was a highly advanced airship. The main cabin in the gondola was pressurized with a supplementary oxygen supply. The crew of the Constantina also wore oxygen suits, but rarely wore their helmets in the main cabin.
Traveling above the clouds at a high altitude, Molly and I left our stations at the Longstone machine gun emplacements and took up observation posts on the bridge of the Raven. There was no supplemental oxygen in the smaller ship, so we kept our helmets on, and changed oxygen tanks often. Private Doogle was in charge of refilling the tanks, and he made sure we always had extras close at hand.
On the Raven, Johnny Moonblade was pilot. Captain Blacklock spent most of his time studying charts and plotting our course while Moonblade actually controlled the ship. He stood behind a large ship’s steering wheel that controlled the main rudder. The lumbering dirigible was slow to respond. It took considerable time to make a hard turn when flying under the power of the propellers.
When flying under power of the sails, the Morpurgos had control over the speed of the airship. Communicating with the Morpurgos was a challenge for Blacklock because we were separated from them in flight. It was impossible to see what they were doing above the dirigible, and a vacuum tube had been developed to exchange written messages. Blacklock kept the messages simple – Morpurgo leader Sergeant Quyen Phan was still learning English, and one simple mistake in translation might land us all in hot water.
As we continued east, the plains gave way to the great river valleys of the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Ohio. The rivers were shallow now, barely flowing with a putrescent mix of toxic chemicals in sickly hues of yellow, purple, and green. The once verdant central hardwood forests were dead too, a few tangles of rotten fallen trees were all that remained. Occasionally we would see the ruins of buildings, a masonry chimney still standing, or even the framework of a house, but for the most part, the Hydrogen War had destroyed everything, particularly the bigger cities and towns.
It was quiet traveling under the power of the prevailing westerlies. The rotary motors that powered the propellers were shut down, though it was still difficult to hear through the oxygen suit’s helmet. We spoke rather loudly, and would face who we were speaking to so we could be heard through the thick glass.
We crossed the Appalachians, and it was hard to tell if we were flying over Pennsylvania or western Virginia.
“Bertram!” said Molly momentarily forgetting our current aliases, “Is that Seymour Mountain passing beneath us?”
I looked from side to side and then, “Donovan. It’s Donovan, remember Margaret?”
She gave me a sheepish grin and then, “but do you think that could be Seymour Mountain?”
“It’s hard to say with all the trees gone, but you know, I think it’s possible. And I think it’s also possible that ghastly looking stream could be the Blackwater River.”
Molly became quiet and her expression turned sad as we both gazed wistfully at the wasteland spread out beneath us.
Both of our families had more than likely perished in the monstrous war, and if they had indeed all died, were they now part of the legions of walking dead? Were my parents and sister human zombies? Had Molly’s father, Dr. Keagan, and our school teacher, Mr. Hopkins, become gnawers? It was far too much to comprehend.
The next morning, I recognized the telltale outline of the Blue Ridge, and as we crossed into the Cumberland Valley and entered the Piedmont region, we began to see more and more of the gnawers. The once fertile soil poisoned and devoid of life, the prosperous farms with their dairy cows and hogs gone, but everywhere we looked, legions of human zombies. And most were in groups headed west. I was overcome with a sense of terror as I surveyed the scene through my quadoptical device. Thousands and thousands of walking dead, many more than we could ever hope to destroy with our Longstones.
Philadelphia was completely leveled. In some of the smaller towns, there were ruins of buildings still standing, chimneys and heavy beams that had made it through the accelerated hydrogen gas detonations. But in the City of Brotherly Love, every last architectural remnant was gone. Nothing left of Center City beyond a crater in the raw earth. Nothing was alive, and nothing moved, except for the swarms of zombies, the gnawers were everywhere.
At first the day was clear and cloudless, but as we came in low over the city, a fast moving squall line took us completely by surprise. The violent thunderstorms appeared out of nowhere. The Constantina remained high above the clouds, with enough altitude to avoid the weather, but in the smaller ships we were already doomed.
“Thunderstorms have become more severe since the Hydrogen War,” said Blacklock, “this doesn’t look good at all.”
“What do we do?” said Moonblade, “Try to ride it out?”
“No, get us out of here – head for the upper atmosphere. Out running the storm is our only chance.”
Moonblade attempted to gain altitude as quickly as possible, but the airship was slow to respond.
A message arrived in the vacuum tube. Doogle carried the brass pod over to Blacklock who unlatched and opened it. He unfolded the paper he found inside and read it aloud: “Mother of all thunderstorms comes fast. Much lightning.”
Blacklock messaged Sergeant Phon in response: “Furl the sails and take cover, things are about to turn dicey.” Doogle placed the message in the pod and returned it topside.
The iron grey cold front was bearing down on us fast, and we had a clear view of our sister ship when the lightning bolt made contact. The Hawk exploded in a fireball as the lightning ignited the hydrogen gas within the rigid balloon. The blast was so severe, we could feel the convulsive shock waves roll over us and shake our own craft. I saw a pair of our own Morpurgos free falling towards the earth in their oxygen suits as the storm overwhelmed us.
We encountered a vigorous down burst of high velocity wind, and the shear was so strong, it ripped our craft into two pieces, separating the dirigible from the gondola, which was lucky in a way, because it saved us from being blown to pieces when the hydrogen gas in our own rigid balloon exploded.
We plummeted towards the earth, and made a hard landing that crushed the port side of the gondola. I was momentarily knocked cold by the impact, and then awakened by loud cries from Captain Blacklock who was impaled on a detached support strut. The splintered wood had cut through his oxygen suit, and he was left there dangling like a giant shish kebab with the fractured beam sticking through his abdomen. After taking stock of the hopelessness of his predicament, Blacklock pulled out his sidearm, and shot himself in the head.
Moonblade, Delone, and Molly and I were the only survivors, and we were pelted by a cold rain as we crawled from the wreckage.
“What do we now?” said Molly as she rose to her feet.
“Wait for the Constantina,” said Moonblade as he brushed pieces of debris off of his oxygen suit.
“How will they know we survived the crash?”
“Let’s hope they look for survivors when the storm clears,” I said, gritting my teeth from severe pain in my injured left leg.
As the fast moving storm cleared out, we realized our troubles had just begun. The crash had attracted the attention of a swarm of zombies, and they were moving towards us. A seething mass of walking dead. We had our sidearms, but limited ammunition. Our only chance was the Longstones. We had piles of .60 caliber ammo for the machine guns if we could just dig them out of the wreckage.
All four of us began digging for the Longstone in the rear compartment, frantically casting off pieces of debris. The oxygen suits slowed us down, but breathing the air on the surface would be suicidal. I hoped the oxygen in our tanks would hold out. There were more tanks buried in the wreckage, but we were running out of time – the gnawers were getting closer.
We located the rear Longstone and Delone and I set it up as Molly and Moonblade began picking off approaching zombies with their sidearms. I thanked my lucky stars the machine gun was still functional. Molly and Moonblade took cover and I opened fire. The apparatus was slightly damaged, but Delone managed to crank the pedals with his hands and I went to full auto.
The .60 caliber slugs tore the gnawers to pieces at close range. Detached arms, legs, and heads flew into the air and littered the ground as I continued to fire, but the mayhem did nothing to discourage the onslaught of walking dead. To the contrary, it seemed to attract the attention of more of the wretched zombies. Hundreds of them were moving towards us now as Molly and Moonblade worked at unearthing the forward Longstone from the wreckage of the Raven’s gondola.
“We’re going to need more oxygen soon,” I called out to Delone as I surveyed the gauge on my suit. Our tanks were getting low, but I needed Delone on the cranking mechanism to keep my weapon firing at maximum output. The zombies were moving in on us from more than one direction now. There was no time to look for more oxygen tanks, and Molly and Moonblade were having difficulty pulling the forward Longstone from the wreckage. We were running out of time.
“Look!” cried Moonblade, pointing up at the sky behind us, “it’s the Constantina!”
Sure enough, the mother ship had found us, and the immense dirigible was coming in low. A side hatch opened on the gondola, and two scrips threw out a lengthy rope ladder. The bottom of the ladder was too high off the ground to reach at first, but the airship’s pilot adjusted the altitude, and soon Molly was scurrying up the ladder to safety. Moonblade followed.
“Go!” I called out to Delone, “you’re next!”
Delone was hesitant to abandon his station at the pedals at first, and I frowned at him and motioned with my head towards the ladder, “Go! We’re running out of time!”
Delone scampered up the ladder as Moonblade reached the hatch 30 yards above him. The auto function on my Longstone stopped cold as the pedal mechanism slowed to a stop. I manually squeezed off a few more rounds to give Delone time to get ahead of me, and just as my oxygen gauge hit the red zone, I dove for the ladder and began my ascent. I tried to ignore the severe pain in my injured leg, but it slowed my progress considerably as I pulled myself up the ladder towards the ship.
A gnawer had just reached the bottom of the ladder by the time I was halfway up. Above me, Private Zanetti leaned out of the doorway and hit the zombie with multiple rounds, swiftly cranking the action on his sniper rifle. Gritting my teeth and in severe pain, I finally reached the gondola, and Zanetti and Moonblade helped me climb aboard. I momentarily looked back towards the ground to see the wreckage of the Raven completely engulfed by the seething mass of gnawers as we gained altitude.
The Constantina was sailing high above the clouds when the storms moved in, and as a result suffered no damage. With the two smaller ships now destroyed, Captain Galloway made the decision to vacate the ruins of Philadelphia with no delay. Supplies of hydrogen gas were running low on the mother ship. Flying west under the power of the sails alone would require tacking into strong Spring headwinds so instead, Galloway decided we would ride the Westerlies across the Atlantic to Great Britain where we could refurbish our supply of fuel.
The Morpurgos unfurled the entire array of sails on all five masts, and gaining altitude, the Constantina headed out across the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The Morpurgo leader, Sergeant Bagus Kurniawan, rode in a crow’s nest at the very top of the tallest mast. The Constantina often flew at altitudes higher than the summit of Mount Everest, and the ship’s diminutive Morpurgos wore oxygen suits with extra insulation to protect them from the extreme high altitude cold.
Inside the pressurized gondola, we could remove our oxygen suits and communicate with one another easily. The Constantina’s gondola was outfitted with deluxe accommodations – polished wood paneling and decking, and the bunks were bigger and more comfortable than the Raven’s spartan sleeping berths had been.
I sat with Molly by a window where we caught glimpses of the ocean through a deck of puffy cumulus clouds beneath us. Moonblade and Delone were close by in a pair of facing seats. On his way to the bridge, Captain Galloway stopped to chat with us: “I want to commend all four of you for your bravery, there will be promotions for all of you.”
“Thank you, captain,” said Moonblade, “it’s hard to believe we’re the only ones who survived.”
“A rather unfortunate turn of events, Corporal Moonblade. Both ships a total loss, but all four of you will be wearing sergeant stripes by the time we make our return to Fort Greyling, if that’s any consolation.”
“I have a question for you, captain,” said Delone.
“Of course, private.”
“The gnawers are dead and therefore brainless, am I correct?”
“I suppose you could say that,” Galloway smoothed his handlebar mustache and raised his eyebrows.
“Then who – or what – is telling them what to do? Why are they grouping up and heading west? How do they know to go west if they’re so brainless and dumb?”
“That’s a good question and I’m not sure I have the answer. Perhaps their migration is instinctual. They’re heading towards fresh sources of food by instinct, but who knows.”
“Could it be some living person or some living force that’s telling them what to do?”
“Living person or living force? Elaborate on that, Delone.”
Moonblade abruptly cut in: “Maybe it’s the devil, captain – maybe the zombies come from hell and it’s the devil himself telling them what to do.”
“An explanation for us to consider, Moonblade. The devil himself could be directing them. The Forsaken Zone certainly does appear to be the devil’s handiwork.” He looked towards Molly and I, “and how’s the leg there Highgarden?”
“Outstanding news. We certainly don’t want to lose anymore of our veteran Longstone operators.”
We averaged 15 knots flying downwind under sail power, and ten days later we spied the green coast of Ireland coming up on the horizon. Untouched by the ravages of the Great Hydrogen War, the bonny shores of the Emerald Isle were a splendid sight indeed. Soon we would be disembarking the Constantina for a lengthy stay in London, capital of the British Empire, and in 1882, the biggest and most powerful city in the world.
To Be Continued …