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Nineteen

Dreadnought

The tunnel gaped and yawned, and devoured the great train slowly-incrementally-like one snake swallowing another. The Dreadnought was not moving very fast, but it was moving with great determination and immense willpower against the frantic thrusts of the brakes; the squealing of metal against wheels against tracks against stopping mechanisms retreated until it was a dull whine that echoed in the darkness. And this darkness slipped over the train with the sharp, demarcating smoothness of a curtain lowering. As if the tunnel were a tomb or some ancient crypt, the veil of false midnight smothered the nervously chattering or whimpering voices within the passenger cars.

This tunnel, and this darkness, ate the length of the train from the engine to the second passenger car, which was now the last car.

And when the whole strand was as black as the bottom of a well, every breath was held and every heart was perched on the verge of stopping.

They waited.

All of them waited, eyes upturned and glancing about, casting from the front to the back of every car, seeking some glimmer of light or information. All of them sat in hushed and worried poses.

Everyone waited, wondering how the end was going to come.

All backs and arms and fists were clenched, ready for the explosion that would bring the tunnel down atop them, or the dynamite blast beyond the tunnel that would mark the end of their tracks.

But it never came.

And finally, in the dark, Mercy heard the voice of Cole Byron say, “Maybe they overshot us. Maybe they got too far, past the end of the tunnel. They were going awful fast; it would’ve been hard for them to stop.”

This weak hint of optimism prompted someone else-she couldn’t tell who-to say, “Maybe we hurt ’em worse than we thought. Maybe they derailed, or their engine blew.”

The train gave a small jump, and continued to roll forward under its own habit, not from any power from the boilers or the hydrogen. The engine struggled against the track, and everyone on board cringed, wondering when they’d see the light on the other side-not knowing how long the tunnel would last, or how long they could linger like this in darkness, in silence, in hideous anticipation.

As the train continued to squeeze through the compression of darkness, no one on board spoke again, even to bring up more maybes, or to offer hope, or to whisper prayers. No one asked any more questions. No one moved, except to adjust a tired knee-or lift a skirt out of the glass litterings on the floor and feel about for a more comfortable position.

Someone coughed, and someone sniffled.

One of the injured men moaned in a half-conscious grunt of pain. Mercy hoped that whoever it was, he didn’t come around while the blackness of the tunnel crushed them all into blindness. How awful it’d be, she thought, to awaken from injury to pain and darkness, wondering if you hadn’t lived at all, but died and gone someplace underground.

Minutes passed, and then blocks of minutes. It must have added up to a mile, maybe even more. Everyone counted the distance, or tried to, but it was difficult without any light, and without the swiftly moving cliffs rushing by to gauge their progress.

Then something winked up ahead, casting a tiny sliver of light off something and into the car’s interior, but it lasted only for an instant so brief that anyone who blinked would have missed it.

Someone’s shadow moved, and another flickering light bounced off the tunnel walls. This time it left enough of a glow for Mercy to see that it was one of the porters; but their dark skins and dark uniforms and the darkness of the car’s interior made it impossible for her to guess which one until he spoke. It was then that she realized Jasper Nichols had joined his cousin in the car-when, she didn’t know for certain.

He leaned his head out the window and said, “We’re almost out. We’re going to be coming out real soon.”

But no one knew whether to cheer or to cry at that news, so everybody flinched instead, tightening inside their clothing-tightening their grips on one another, if they were so inclined. Everyone hunkered, and ducked, and made instinctive gestures to cover their heads and faces against the unknown perils that the light would reveal.

More slowly than it had consumed the train, the tunnel expelled the nearly stopped Dreadnought and its charges back into glaring sun that reflected off ice and snow to create a world of shocking brilliance.

This brilliance infected the cars as the train inched forward; but there was momentum enough to bring them all to the other side of the mountain tunnel, and there was momentum enough that the whole length of the train shuddered when it hit a fresh carpet of accumulated snow, there on the other side.

The train chugged, and sluggishly leaned forward against the fluffy white obstacle, which would have meant little to it had they been going faster. The snow accomplished what the men with the lever brakes could not.

It stopped the Dreadnought.

Anguished silence preserved the moment while people stared anxiously about. Then Jasper Nichols, who was closest to the window, leaned out from it once more and said, “Good Lord help me, but I’ll be damned.”

Captain MacGruder was the second to pull himself up and dust the glass fragments from his pants. “What is it, man?” he asked, even as he went to the window to see for himself. His motion startled the rest of the car into action. One at a time, he was joined by everyone present, or at least those who were able to haul themselves up on the seats and lean their faces into the white outdoors.

It wasn’t snowing here, on this side of Provo.

The sun beat down from directly above, uncut or dimmed by any shadows, anywhere. The air was cold enough to preserve meat, and the snow was thick enough on the ground to swallow ankles-with a crystalline crust on every surface, giving all of it a mirrorlike sheen that made the afternoon blaze all the brighter.

Hands rose to foreheads, shading squinting eyes against the unexpected light.

The captain said, “Is that them up there?”

And the lieutenant joined him, also shadowing his eyes against the glare. “It’s the Shenandoah. They passed us by a ways, it looks like.”

“Half a mile or more. More, I think,” he said.

Mercy could see it then. The back end of the Rebel vessel and the curve of its length on a track, motionless, and distant enough that it looked small.

“They didn’t blow the tracks,” she said. “They could’ve blown the tracks, but they didn’t.”

Jasper Nichols said, “Maybe they tried. Maybe they couldn’t.”

“I didn’t hear any explosions,” said Theodora Clay, who was suddenly right beside Mercy, her head and shoulders out the window, straining to see, same as everyone else. “Look at them. They’ve just . . . stopped.”

The captain murmured, “I wish I had a glass. I can’t see a damn thing, between the sun and the snow. It’s all so bright, I can’t . . . it’s giving me a headache already.”

Mercy said, “Maybe Ranger Korman-” But she cut herself off and said, “Wait a minute. Where’d he go?” because it’d be just as simple to go get him herself.

The Texian was easy to find, because he’d been on his way to rejoin the first car when Mercy opened the rearmost door and stepped onto the platform. It struck her as odd to find the train stationary, but she was pleased to walk so easily; and when she saw Korman’s face on the other side of the second car’s window, she smiled at him with relief.

“Ranger Korman!” she said when he opened the door to join her on the coupler.

He did not greet her back, but said, “What’s going on up there? Can’t you see the train?”

“Yes and no,” she told him. “You seem to be carrying all sorts of interesting toys; you got anything like a spyglass hidden in that waistcoat of yours?”

“Yup,” he told her.

“Well then, bring it out if you’ve got one,” she said. “There’s something funny about the Shenandoah. Just sitting there on the track. They aren’t stuck in the snow, are they?”

“I can’t imagine,” he replied, and he reached for the ladder that rose beside the rearmost door of the first passenger car. As he climbed, he added, “This isn’t enough snow to bog down anything with the power to move that fast. Though now that we’re stopped, it’ll be a pain in the ass to get started again.”

“I’m coming with you,” she said, understanding that he meant to get a better look from the roof.

“Suit yourself,” he told her without looking back, and without offering to help her.

Within seconds, she was standing beside him on top of the first passenger car roof. Lieutenant Hobbes called out from below them, “Hey, up there. Is that you, Mrs. Lynch?”

She called back down, “Me and Ranger Korman. We’re just taking a better look. Hold your horses, we’ll tell you what we see.”

The ranger pulled out a long brass tube, and while fiddling with the adjusting screws, he pointed it at the Shenandoah.

After perhaps twenty seconds of examining the scene in this manner, he switched the device to the other eye. Mercy couldn’t imagine that this would make any difference, but she didn’t say anything; she only stood there and shivered, holding her cloak up around her shoulders tightly, and breathing in air so brittle and cold that it made her chest hurt.

Then he made a noise that sounded like, “Hmm.”

It was the sound a doctor made when he found that things were undoubtedly worse than suspected, but knew that it wouldn’t do anyone any good to worry the patient. Mercy knew that sound, and she didn’t like it one little bit.

“What do you mean by that?” she asked.

He did not move the glass. Only upon shifting to get up into his personal space did she realize he was holding it half an inch away from his eye, surely to keep the metal from freezing to the soft spots around it. He only said again, “Hmm.”

She liked it even less the second time. “What is it? What do you see?”

“Well,” he said. He stuck a p on the end so it came out as, Whelp.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake, give me that thing,” she said.

He let her take it.

Through the gloves she wore, she could feel the chill of the exposed brass. She took the ranger’s lead and held it very slightly away from her face. It took her a bit to find the spot she was seeking. Then the rear of the Rebel train slipped into the magnifying circle, and she followed it with the lens all the way up to the engine. And she froze, as still and breathless as the jagged mountains on either side of her.

“You see them, too?” Korman asked.

“I see . . . someone. Something.”

“Do those look like uniforms to you?”

“On the Confederates? No, wait, I see what you mean. Yes, they look like . . . like light-colored uniforms. On some of them, not on all of them. And they’re . . . they’re attacking the Shenandoah!”

“That’s what it looks like,” he said. “And I hate to say it,” he breathed roughly, as if he truly did hate to say it, “but I think we’ve found our missing Mexicans.”

She pressed the lens as close as she dared against her own eye, searing her skin with the burning ice that collected on the spyglass’s metal rim. Yes, she could see them, pounding their hands against the engine, and against the railcars, and trying to crawl up onto the train. A handful of men were treed atop the back of the engine and the fuel cart, kicking at the invaders and using the butts of long guns to bash them back to the snow.

“Why aren’t they shooting?” she asked.

“Might be out of ammunition by now.”

She shifted the glass enough to scan the area better and then gasped, sucking in more of the icy air and choking on it with a little cough.

“What?”

“Jesus,” she said, handing him the lens. “Jesus, Korman. Look out past the engine. There’s more coming.” She turned and stumbled for the nearest ladder, reversing herself back down it. “They’re coming, and there’s . . . Jesus,” she said again, and now she was down on the platform, shoving the door open. Behind her, she could hear the ranger following in her footsteps, lowering himself with a couple of quick steps that had him right on her heels.

She flung open the car door. Panting, she confronted the captain. “They’re coming!”

“Who’s coming?” he asked, clearly frightened by her fear and trying to contain it, but requiring more information.

The ranger pushed his way past the door and answered. “The Mexicans. The missing ones, all seven or eight hundred of them, or however many there are-but it looks like more than that to me. Where’s that inspector you folks had up in here? Can’t keep their names straight.”

“Portilla’s dead,” Mercy told him without looking over her shoulder at the corpse. “And those men out there-something horrible’s wrong with them, just like all of us have been talking about. Just like the papers said, and just like the inspectors told us. Speaking of who . . . Cole?”

“Ma’am?”

“Please, you or Jasper. Go get Inspector Galeano.”

“Yes ma’am,” he said, and was out the back door in exactly the kind of rush she wanted to see.

A volley of shots fired from the Shenandoah; they rang back to the Dreadnought like distant firecrackers, shocking everyone on board into defensive positions and gasps.

But Mercy said, “No! No, they’re not shooting at us now. They’re shooting at those other people-only they aren’t people anymore, not really. Someone must’ve found some more bullets. Oh, God help them!”

“God help them?” Theodora Clay gasped. “Have you even been present on this train for the last hour?”

“Present and working like hell to stay alive on it, same as you! But those are men on that train-real ordinary men, alive and sane, same as you and me! And those other things, the things that are overrunning them . . . they aren’t human. I swear,” she said, almost gagging with despair. “They’ve been poisoned-poisoned into monsters!”

The rear door burst open, and Cole Byron came through it with Inspector Galeano, who was wild eyed and full to bursting with questions. The first one out of his mouth was, “Portilla?”

Mercy replied, “I’m real sorry, Inspector. I did what I could to save him, but I-”

“Please, where is he?”

“He’s there. And I’m sorry; I’m real sorry-”

Something big fired from the Shenandoah, something more like the antiaircraft artillery they’d used to pepper the Dreadnought before.

Mrs. Butterfield cried, “They’re shooting at us again!”

But this time the captain said, “No.” He was holding the ranger’s glass, leaning out the window. “No, Mercy’s right. Those men aren’t shooting at us. Holy Christ, what . . . what are those . . . they aren’t . . . they can’t be . . . people?”

“It’s the missing Mexicans,” the ranger said again. “Give him the glass,” he told the captain, indicating the inspector. “Let him look. He’ll tell you.”

The captain came fully back into the car and handed the looking glass to Inspector Galeano. “They’re attacking!” he said with wonder.

Theodora Clay threw her hands in the air. “Why would Mexicans attack a southern train? And furthermore, what do we care? Let’s fire up our own boilers and get moving, the Rebels be damned!”

The conductor came bustling through the forward door in a stomping rattle of cold feet and clutched shoulders. “What’s going on up there? Can you see it? I’ve got a scope up front.” Then he saw the inspector hanging out the window, staring through the looking glass. “Who are all those people?”

“The missing Mexicans,” the ranger said yet again.

Inspector Galeano drew himself back inside, his breath blowing white in the car’s interior, wafting about in the breeze. “They’ve been poisoned, and they . . . they look . . . it’s as if they are walking corpses!”

“There are hundreds of them,” said the captain. His hands were trembling, but Mercy did not call any attention to it. “Hundreds, maybe a thousand or more. Swarming like bees.”

The ranger took his glass back from the inspector, and, as if it was the rule that whoever held it had to look through it, he positioned himself on the seat and put himself back out into the open air again, gazing with that long, gleaming eye at the pandemonium on the tracks ahead.

He said, “And they’re coming.”

Theodora Clay said, “What?”

As the exclamation made the rounds, the ranger came back inside, swiftly, nicking his arm on a triangle of unloosed glass from the window frame. He snapped the looking glass shut and jammed it into his pocket. “They’re coming!” he said again. “A huge goddamned wave of them! You-” He seized the conductor by the vest. “You get this thing moving! You make it move right now!”

“Let me see the glass!” Mercy demanded.

But he said, “If we don’t get out of here, and fast, you’re not going to need it.” And he shoved past her to the rear door, saying over his shoulder, “Get those civilians back in that car-get everyone in there who’s hurt, or who can’t shoot. Everyone else, up front! We need people who can shoot!”

The soldiers were disinclined to take orders from the ranger, but the captain gave the view from the window another steady gaze and reiterated them. “Out!” he shouted. “Everyone without a gun, get out! Get back into the forward car; you’ll be safer there,” he continued, beginning to herd them backwards the way they’d come.

The conductor was already gone, having obeyed the order to flee sooner-perhaps because he had his own glass, and was able to judge for himself that nothing good was coming his way. Mercy could not hear him or see him, but before long, she could hear the Dreadnought rising again, awakening from its temporary pause and firing up, blowing its whistle in a long, piercing, hawklike scream.

As the few remaining civilians were ushered away, Theodora Clay said, “No. No, I won’t go, not this time. Take my aunt and stuff her in that car if you must, but I’m staying. Someone give me a gun.”

“Ma’am,” said Lieutenant Hobbes. “Ma’am, you have to leave.”

“I don’t, and I won’t. Someone-arm me, immediately.”

“That isn’t going to happen,” the captain told her.

But she held her ground and continued to fuss and fight as the rest were sent away. The ranger returned to check the first car’s progress. He asked, “How are we doing? Where’s that conductor? He’d damned well better be up front, lighting the damn engine or whatever it is he does. We haven’t got another minute!”

At which point, Miss Clay spotted an opening. She flung herself at the ranger, who appeared half horrified, half repulsed, and wholly suspicious of the gesture. She pressed her well-dressed bosom up against his chest and whined, “Oh, Ranger, you wouldn’t believe it-they’re trying to send me away, up into that first car!”

He replied, “Get off me, woman. We have bigger problems to attend to!”

But she didn’t get off him; she clung to him like a barnacle and wheedled, “They say everyone without a gun has to go back up front-stuffed there, useless-and I won’t have it.”

On the verge of seizing her wrists and flinging her away, he wanted to know, “Why’s that?”

She dropped away from him, as cold and prim as if she’d never touched him, except this time she was holding one of his Colts. “Because now I have a gun.”

“Woman!”

“Oh, you’ve got plenty of others,” she said dismissively. “I felt at least three. Shoot with those, and let a lady defend herself.” She turned away from him, concluding the conversation. She flipped the gun’s wheel open, inspected the contents, and spun it shut again. She let it swing from her fingers and held it out in her hand, testing its weight, before throwing it into her palm with an easy tip.

Even the ranger paused, though she wasn’t aiming anything at him. “Where’d you learn to swing one of those?”

She glanced at him sideways, then returned her attention to her inspection of the firearm. “My father’s a gunsmith. He does quite a lot of work for the government. A lady can learn plenty if she’s paying attention. Now, can I talk you out of a handful of bullets, or will I have to content myself with these?”

The ranger shrugged, dipped into a pouch on one of his gunbelts, and pulled out a fistful of the requested ammunition. He clapped it into her open palm and said, “Maybe you’re not perfectly useless after all.”

“And maybe you’re not a perfect barbarian. I’m always willing to be surprised by such things.”

“Y’all two stop flirtin’ over there,” Mercy groused. “We’ve got trouble.”

“Worse than that,” said the lieutenant. “We’re about to have company.”

Captain MacGruder said, as quickly as he could force the words out of his mouth, “There’s no way to barricade ourselves inside, not really. The best shots will have a better chance up on the rooftop. We’ll split our ranks, abandon the second passenger car, and concentrate on defending the smallest space possible.”

Theodora Clay was already out the door and climbing the ladder, and Ranger Korman was behind her.

The captain pointed out half a dozen others, saying, “But keep in mind, you’re on your own when the train gets moving again!”

As if to underscore the point, the Dreadnought’s boilers let off a keening sound, followed by the rattling of metal that was cooling and is being warmed once again. And behind that sound came the clatter and noise of something else-something inhuman, but not at all mechanical. It approached in a horrid wave, a cry unlike anything a living man or woman might make, coming from a thousand men and women, sickeningly nearer every moment.

Mercy said, “The injured! Get all the injured out of that second car!” Suddenly she couldn’t remember who was back there anyway, if anyone at all who was still alive. No one seemed to answer her, so she ran for the rear door. But Jasper Nichols and Cole Byron stopped her.

Byron said, “We’ll get them, ma’am.”

She saw that Jasper had a gun and wondered where he’d gotten it. Byron might have had one, too, but he had already turned away from her and headed out through the door. Soldiers came charging in around them and past them, and suddenly the first passenger car was immensely crowded.

The captain was standing on one of the seats, directing the crowd like a symphony, sending some men forward and some men up. Lieutenant Hobbes and two of his nearest fellows were sent to the conductor to help protect the front of the train and work the Dreadnought’s defense systems.

When the captain paused to take a breath, Mercy stood beneath him and said, “What about me, Captain? Where can you use me?”

He looked her up and down, his eyes stopping on the gunbelt she wore and the pieces she’d picked up on the battlefield. He pointed at her waist and asked, “Do you know how to use those?”

“Well enough.”

He hesitated and stepped down off the chair, to face her directly. They made a little island in the swirling bustle of frantic men seeking positions. He told her then, “Get up to the engine and help them there. That’s the most important thing right now, really. We’ve got to protect that engine. If we can’t get the engine moving again, none of us are leaving this pass alive.”

She drew up to her full height, took a deep breath, and said, “You’re right. I know you’re right. I’m going. And I’m going to do my best.”

Mercy Lynch had seen enough salutes in her time to feign a pretty good one, and she did so then, snapping her heels together.

A peculiar look crossed the captain’s face. Mercy couldn’t place it. She didn’t know what it meant, and there wasn’t time to ask him.

“Inspector Galeano!” the captain called.

“Here,” he answered.

“Accompany Mrs. Lynch, please. We need people up front, protecting the engine. And I’ve seen you shoot.”

“Absolutely,” the Mexican replied, and he hurried to her side, checking his ammunition.

The Dreadnought’s whistle blew.

The nurse turned and ran, the inspector beside her. They ran out through the forward door and shoved their way through the gold car, using their elbows to clear a path. When they finally pushed into the gleaming brightness of the snowy afternoon, they were both startled-very startled-to find that there was no snowplow attachment between them and the next car.

Mercy couldn’t imagine where on earth something so enormous could’ve possibly gone, but then she saw it being winched around on a cart. The wheeled platform it had been attached to had been levered off the track, and was being worked toward the front of the engine with a pulley system that defied description.

The sight made her pause, marveling at the smoothness of it. Three porters and two rail hands, whom she’d seen once or twice in the caboose over coffee-that’s all it took to maneuver the thing. It hardly seemed possible, yet there they were . . . and there it went.

The conductor shouted something to someone, and Lieutenant Hobbes’s voice rose up over the snow. Mercy caught only the last words, and they weren’t meant for her, but the inspector said, “Se~nora Lynch!” and spurred her forward, over the gap with a leap. There they met another soldier and another porter, who was carrying a tool that was nearly as long as he was tall.

“Ma’am,” he said to her in passing. “Inspector.”

The porter dropped the tool like a hook over to the other platform and, with the help of the soldier, began cranking the two cars together, closing the spot left by the snowplow attachment’s absence.

They pushed farther forward, into the fuel car with its stink of iron and condensed steam, and copper tubes and charcoal and smoke. Between the two sections of this car, there was a walkway, and on either side were the great reservoirs of coal and the immense processing equipment that produced and delivered the hydrogen. It loomed up above them, tall enough to close out the gleaming white sky and white cliffs. But through it they ran, and up into the next car, which wasn’t really a car so much as a wagon piled with crated ammunition that was affixed to the Dreadnought itself.

“Go on, you first,” Mercy told Inspector Galeano, who nodded at her and made the leap to the engine.

“I’m right behind you!” she said. And there, at the edge of the engine, Mercy Lynch eyed the ledge between herself and the machine. She crossed it with two short steps-grabbing the handrails on either side of four stubby stairs that led into the engine’s pilot chamber-as she watched the retreating feet of the Mexican inspector climbing above her and disappearing over the side.

Behind her, something screamed.

It didn’t sound like a woman, or a man either. The scream was parched and broken, and it was god-awful close.

Mercy turned around and saw-right behind her, nearly on her heels, in the spot between the ammunition cart and the back edge of the Dreadnought-a man who was not a man any longer.

She saw his face and it reminded her of other faces. The wheezers in the Robertson Hospital. The dying men in Memphis, lying strapped to cots and begging for the very thing that was killing them. The bodies in the sealed-up caskets that had been in the rearmost compartment of the train only hours before.

This face was the same.

It was grayish, with yellow pus and sores around the edges of every membrane. Its eyes were sunken and dry, withering in its skull like raisins. It sat atop a body with flesh that was beginning to slough off, wearing clothes that were only mostly intact, missing buttons, patches, pockets, and other pieces that could be snagged and removed.

But this face.

This face was snarling, and approaching her.

The corpse-man reached for the handrails, just as Mercy had done. While it grabbed, its mouth tried to grab, too-it gnawed at the air in the space between them and snapped at her shoes.

And although she’d spent her adulthood saving lives . . . and although she’d never, not even accidentally, killed a man . . . she seized one of her guns and she fired at the wrinkled space between the corpse-man’s eyes.

He was so close that when his skull exploded, bits of his brain and face splattered across everything, including Mercy’s cloak and dress. Pieces of him slid down slowly off the hem of her skirt, dripping and plopping down between the tracks.

The rolling noise of grunts and screams and groans was all around her now, closing in and pinning her down like a tangible pressure. But she shook it off, and she turned and she climbed-up into the engine, where the inspector was holding his hand down to her, calling, “Here! Climb up!”

She scrambled and seized his hand, and let him help her up over the side, where Lieutenant Hobbes and the conductor were frantically throwing levers, pressing buttons, and shouting directions to the men who were trying to affix the snowplow to the front of the train.

But the swarm was upon them, as if that first corpse Mercy had shot down was only the scout, and the rest were right on its heels. She climbed up on a bin and saw the men out front trying to move the snowplow into place draw their guns and begin shooting, trying to clear a big enough patch that they could work those last latches, bolts, and pulleys and get the train moving.

Behind her, the boiler was coughing and straining its way to full power once more. The stretch of the superhot metal made ghastly whimpers, as if it, too, understood the necessity of leaving, and leaving now.

Lieutenant Hobbes leaped to the foremost edge of the western wall, leaning forward and aiming outward. He fired, providing cover for the men below.

Mercy positioned herself on the east side, and Galeano climbed up to stand with his feet planted apart atop the conductor’s shed. He flexed his wrists, checked his bullets, picked his targets below, and with an anguished shout, opened fire on his undead countrymen.

The nurse followed suit.

She fired off one shot, then two. Aiming down, hitting them in the heads and necks. Exploding their skulls away from their bodies, leaving their arms and legs to splay and sprawl and collapse to the ground. She refused to look past the circle where five men were ratcheting the snowplow into place. Right there, in that circle, the undead were sweeping down on the workers in ones and twos. But beyond that circle, appallingly close, they were coming in fives and tens. In dozens. In hundreds.

But she had only two hands, and only so much ammunition. The satchel she wore was slung across her back, freeing up her arms and elbows so she could aim and shoot, sometimes hitting and sometimes missing. One head. Two heads. A puff of snow like dust, right in the place where a corpse had only just been running. She missed another one, and couldn’t recall how many shots she’d fired.

Below her, the five men were dividing their time between self-defense and the task at hand, and the task at hand was losing ground. Above her, Inspector Galeano was still shouting, still shooting; and beside her, Lieutenant Hobbes was reloading.

Mercy’s right gun ran out of bullets. She whipped her satchel front and center, dug around hastily, and filled both wheels of both guns with quivering fingers gone numb from cold and recoil and fear.

Lieutenant Hobbes said, “Mrs. Lynch!”

And she said back, “I’m reloading!”

“Hurry!” And he fired again, and again.

She clapped the wheel of her left handgun into place, fully stocked once more. Mercy dared a glance up ahead at the Shenandoah. Her heart constricted as she saw the Confederate men holding their position with prybars and long-barreled guns that were long empty. They used them like bats, swinging and swatting the attackers away as long as their arms could stand it.

“Mrs. Lynch!” It was the conductor this time. She’d never caught his name, and didn’t know where he’d picked up hers, except from standing around and listening to people shout it.

She responded by aiming and firing again, as the wave kept coming and the men below kept working.

A dead woman was running in fast, her full skirts in bright colors and patterns layered up together. Her arms were bare, despite the frigid temperatures, and her hair was as wild as a squirrel’s nest. This dead woman’s face was contorted, her lips drawn back and her jaw thrust forward; she was reaching with her teeth.

Mercy aimed carefully. She waited until the woman’s eyes looked wet and near, and her scream could be discerned as an individual cry above the echoing cacophony of the bizarre battle.

And she fired. She pulled the trigger once, and watched the top of the dead woman’s head shatter. Her legs kept moving, only for a few steps more; then she stumbled to her knees, and then forward into the snow. But at least the corpse hadn’t reached the porter, who was beginning to climb up the side of the snowplow; and it hadn’t reached the rail-yard man, who was hot on the porter’s trail.

The rest of them, though. They were still coming.

Inspector Galeano screamed, “Ay, Dios m'io! Keep it clear!” He fired the last three bullets in his barrel and seized at his own ammunition bags, hunting for more. “They are coming! They are still coming!”

The conductor hollered something down at the men on the snowplow, but Mercy didn’t catch it. She was focused on following directions, on keeping the spot in front of the train clear of the climbing, clamoring bodies with their clamping teeth and corpses’ eyes.

Right under her arms, the first porter rose up so that she was shooting past him, over his head. She was surely giving his ears a terrible thrashing, but he didn’t complain. He said at the top of his lungs, “Clear! Fire and start!”

This startled Mercy into looking over at the lieutenant. She saw two of the other rail men coming up over the edge beside him; and then she understood that the men on the ground in front of the train were finished, and the snowplow was readied, and they could leave, if only they could barrel through the barriers before them. She holstered her guns and they sizzled hot against the leather, smoldering warm patches against her hip.

“Here,” she said to the porter, who struggled to lift himself over the edge. She took him by the shoulder, under the arm. “Here, come on. Get up here.”

He fell down past her, into the Dreadnought’s interior, and she reached for the rail man.

The rail man gazed up at her in terror. He kicked hard, knocking away a corpse’s teeth as they nipped and chomped at his boots. He was struggling, his striped shirt ripped and the jacket he wore over it hanging from one arm.

Mercy braced her feet around a pipe that was down by her knees, reached over the edge, and seized his forearms even as he grasped at her wrists. He was heavy, but she was strong. She’d lifted a pony once or twice, and plenty of men at the Robertson Hospital, when it’d come to that. She could lift him, too.

She heaved him backwards, and up, and with an awkward sideways slide over the rim, he toppled down into the interior, gasping for breath like a freshly caught fish in the bottom of a boat.

The conductor was moving, a man with a mission and maybe-God willing-a plan. “Help me!” he said to the lieutenant, who was still firing potshots as the uniformed dead began to climb, using their fallen brethren as ladders and stepstools on their way ever higher, trying desperately to make it up to the living folks inside the iron giant.

Lieutenant Hobbes holstered everything, leaped off the bin, and joined the conductor beside a pair of metal levers that were as long as a tall man’s thigh.

“On the count of three-pull that one!” the conductor said as he pointed.

“Count of three,” the lieutenant repeated.

“One, two, three-” And the levers both came down, not easily, but with the strain of both men’s backs cranking and pulling with all their weight.

A snapping latch cracked almost as loud as the guns, and the balance of the engine shifted; Mercy felt it as a slight leaning forward, where before the engine had seemed to point up just a touch.

“It’s on!” said the rail man. His observation was picked up and echoed around the narrow space. “It’s on! It’s on!”

The conductor’s mouth was a line as hard as a riveted seam. He said, “Let’s go.” He drew down on the whistle, and the edge of his gray mustache twitched with determination, or rage, or desperation, or something else Mercy couldn’t quite read.

As he pulled the whistle, he used his other arm to flip another switch, and pull a knob. He ordered the rail men and the porters to take up shovels, check the hydrogen lines, and make sure the stuff was being made and sent up from the fuel car.

There was no room to maneuver, or even to get out of the way-not with the lieutenant and his two soldiers, the five rail men and porters, the conductor, and Inspector Galeano still firing from his bird’s-eye perch.

Mercy gripped the edge of the nearest bin, and the Dreadnought lunged. It didn’t move forward; not quite, not yet, but it gave a shove and a lean, like a man bracing himself to break down a door, and its next lean and shove drew the whole train forward with a rattle as the cars clacked together, flexing on the track, knocking against one another from the sudden pull.

“The plow!” hollered the conductor. “Start it up!”

The nearest porter reached for a lever built into the floor; it had a squeezable handle, and when this handle was drawn back down and the lever was jammed into the necessary position, a new hum joined the fray.

The hum started slow, and low; it began distant, and thundering, and rough. A cloud clearing its throat, or a mountain shrugging off a small avalanche. A windmill caught in a gale, shuddering and flapping. The conductor called for it, saying, “More hydrogen! Divert it from the secondary boiler! Just power the plow first-we won’t move without it!” With more fuel, the hum came louder, and steadier. It went from the crooked fan blade, unbalanced and wobbling, to a smooth and vocal growl that rose up so loud that it almost (not quite, but almost) dampened the sound of Theodora Clay and the men in the passenger car firing; the Mexican inspector, still upright, still shooting, and now openly crying; and the undead hordes oncoming.

Mercy covered her ears. She could see the lieutenant gesturing, the porters shoveling coal, the rail men adjusting gauges, and the whole lot of them-their mouths open, and then their hands signing as if they were all deaf, like her-communicating over the astounding volume.

She couldn’t stand there and hear it, hands over ears or no.

The situation was as under control as it was going to get, and when the Dreadnought gave another heave, combined with the devouring hum as the snowplow sucked up the snow, cut it, and threw it away from the tracks . . . she could’ve sobbed with relief. She choked on the sob, forced it down, and looked away. As the engine got moving again, she clung to whatever solid and uncrowded bits of the bin she could hold, and worked her way back to the steps leading off the engine, then back through the fuel car and down its stairs to the gap.

Shaking and eyes watering from the smoke and the snowplow’s ravenous roar, she wobbled to the steps and saw two of the corpse-men. They moved as one and came toward her, but not fast enough to dodge her bullets. It took her three shots to take them down, but she pulled the trigger once on her right gun, and twice on her left and did just that. She didn’t even remember unholstering them. She couldn’t imagine how it had happened, how she’d been holding on to the rail, and then holding on to the guns, and shooting them into the faces of the men in the light-colored uniforms.

The Dreadnought picked up speed until it was running at a jerky, pitiful crawl.

Snow began to spray, commensurate with the pace: up a few feet, and out a few feet, feeding dunes on either side of the tracks as the rotary blades dug in and churned.

The engine followed its snow-gobbling plow. As Mercy stood there on the bottom of the fuel car’s steps, relieved to see the tracks moving under her feet once more, she caught a glimpse of the pilot piece sliding past-abandoned beside the tracks when the men had unhitched it and cast it aside.

Mercy crossed the space between the fuel car and the passenger car, leaping to the passenger car’s platform, throwing open the door, and tossing herself inside.

Malverne Purdue was standing there, his skin whiter than his shirt with loss of blood and the stress of standing when he should’ve been lying down. His blood soaked everything near his wound and seeped down into his pants. He looked through Mercy, registering her only as something that stood between him and something he wanted.

He staggered forward, through the door and out onto the platform again. She stumbled after him and he shoved her back.

She considered her guns and reached for one of them. “Mr. Purdue, get back inside and-”

He swung his arm back and struck her. He was holding something in his hand, and she couldn’t see it clearly enough to know for certain, but it looked like it might’ve been one of the ceramic mugs from the caboose’s stash. It was heavy, anyway, and it knocked her back and almost over the slender rail.

She caught herself on it, folding over it and latching her feet under its bottommost edge. Gasping, she stood upright again and felt at her face. When she pulled her hand back from her mouth, there was blood on her glove. She didn’t think it’d been there before, but she might’ve been wrong.

No, she wasn’t wrong. In a moment she could taste it, and feel it smearing along her teeth.

Malverne Purdue was rambling loudly. “This!” he said. “This, all of this-it could’ve been harnessed, don’t you see? Don’t you understand!”

Mercy pulled herself off the rail and faced him, only to see that he’d turned and was looking over the other short rail at the corpses who were coming at them from every direction at once.

His back to her, he continued. “We could’ve used this. We could’ve ended the war. And you would’ve lost; of course you would’ve. You’re going to lose-you know that, don’t you?”

“Me?” she asked, as if it were a personal accusation.

“Yes, of course you. You and that ranger, and those Rebels.” He sneered at the Shenandoah, getting closer off to their left. He sniffed at the men on it, still holding their own. “I knew. I always knew. That’s not a Kentucky accent, you ridiculous woman. I can tell the difference. I’m from Ohio, myself.”

He gave her his full attention again, in a way that was wholly unpleasant and sinister. “And it was your fault, in a way. You were the one who drew them together, and who made them stand against me. They wouldn’t have done it, if you hadn’t goaded them!”

“Me?” Mercy wondered where the other soldiers were, where the captain was, where the ranger was-where anybody was. Still shooting, she presumed. She could hear them, above her and inside the passenger car. She said, “You can call it my fault, if you want to. And that’s fine. If it’s my fault that you didn’t get to do this”-she waved her hand in the direction of the undead-“then, fine, I’ll take credit!”

“We could’ve controlled it!”

Was it madness or a last-minute surge of strength before death that made him sound so powerful, so fiercely insane? She didn’t know, and she didn’t care to know, but she again reached her right hand for her gun as he came closer.

“This has to end someday. There has to be a winner and a loser. That’s the nature of war!”

“This isn’t nature,” she told him, clinging to her gun and holding it between them. “That, over there, those people,” she said. “That’s not nature.” She didn’t shout it. She didn’t have to. His face was as near to hers as a groom before a kiss.

Pressing her gun up against his stomach she said, “I’m warning you, Mr. Purdue-I’m warning you!”

He said, “Warning me? That you’re going to shoot me?” His breath frosted toward her face, but the cloud was drawn away by the motion of the train. Behind him, a panorama of horror unfolded-a horde, mostly men and a handful of women, running as if they’d only just learned how. All of them dead. All of them hungry. All of them coming, and chasing the train, and howling their morbid despair.

“I will shoot you,” she promised. “If I have to. And maybe even if I don’t.”

His laugh was a barking, nasty sound filled with phlegm and blood, and it was the last noise he ever made.

Surrounded by gunfire on all sides, Mercy couldn’t tell-not at first-where the killing shot had come from. For a moment she thought it’d been her own gun, and she gasped as Malverne Purdue toppled back from her, falling away in a shuffling slump. But there was no new blood at his belly; it was on his head, and pouring down from it. As his body spiraled in a pirouette of death, she saw that the top of his skull had been struck and the crown was all but gone.

His eyes were blank as he hit the rail, and his body buckled over it, falling off the train and into a pack of dead men and women who fell upon it like wild dogs on a deer.

Mercy looked up. She still held the one gun, still pointing toward the place where the scientist had stood. She squinted against the white cliffs and the sparkling of the sun off the ice, and realized she was looking up at Theodora Clay.

Miss Clay was hanging on to the edge of the roof with one hand, her shoulders shaking with every rumbling roll of the rail ties. Her other hand held the gun she’d taken from Ranger Korman.

She shouted down, “For such an educated man, he was never very . . . civilized!”


Eighteen | Dreadnought | Twenty



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