Dreadnought Page 15

On the other side of the road, somewhere thirty or forty yards back, things were going from bad to worse. What had started as intermittent but terrifying artillery had grown louder and more consistent, and there was a bass-​line undercurrent to it that promised something even worse. Something impossibly heavy was moving with slow, horrible footsteps, pacing along the lines on the other side. She spotted it here and there, for a moment—then no more.

She forced herself to concentrate on the matters at hand.

One problem at a time. She could fix only one problem at a time.


“Dennis, you listen to me. Get on that horse with Mickey, and hold him steady. Ride west until you hit the rails, and get him to some safety. You can ride a horse, can’t you?”


“No but.” She jammed a finger up to his nose, then turned to Clinton. “Clinton, you’re an able-​bodied man and you can walk or run the rest of the way, same as me. Ernie, can you still walk all right?”

“Yes ma’am. It’s just the hand, what’s all tore up.”

“Good. You, me, Clinton, and . . . where’s Mr. Copilot—?”

“His name is Richard Scott, but I don’t see where he’s gone,” Robert interjected.

“Fine. Forget about him, if he’s gonna run off like that. Has anyone seen the captain?”

“I think he fell out when the cart broke,” Ernie said.

“Right. Then. We’re missing Larsen, the captain, and the copilot. The Hendersons are on Bessie.” She waved at Mrs. Henderson, who was tangling her hands in the horse’s mane and holding her husband in front of her. She could barely reach around him, but she nodded grimly. “The Hendersons are riding Bessie, and Dennis will be riding the other horse, with Mickey. Is that everyone?” She began her litany again, pointing at each one in turn. “That leaves me, Ernie, Robert, Mr. Rand, and Clinton to find our own way to the rails, but we can do that, can’t we, gentlemen?”

“Larsen!” Dennis called once more.

This time she smacked him, hard across the face. He held his breath.

She said, “If you open your mouth once more, I’ll slap it clear into next Tuesday. Now hush yourself. I’m going to go find Larsen.”

“You are?”

“I am. You, on the other hand, are heading west, so help me God—if only to get you away from us, because you’re going to get us shot. Clinton, kindly help this fellow get on that horse and then the rest of us can get moving, too.”

Clinton nodded at her like a man who was accustomed to taking orders, then hesitated briefly, because he was not accustomed to taking orders from a woman. Then he realized that he didn’t have any better ideas, so he took Dennis by the arm, led him to the horse, and helped him aboard. The student did not look particularly confident in the absence of a saddle, but he’d make do.

“Don’t you let him fall!” Mercy commanded.

Clinton slapped both horses on the rear, and the beasts took off almost cheerfully, so delighted were they to be leaving the scene. The remaining members of the ragtag party had no time to discuss further strategy. No sooner had the horses disappeared between the trees, headed generally west, than the southern side of the fighting line met them at the road.

The soldiers rushed up with battle cries, leading carts with cannon, and crawling machines that carried antiaircraft guns modified to point lower, as necessary. The crawling machines moved like insects, squirting oil and hissing steam from their joints as they loped forward; and the cannon were no sooner stopped than braced, and pumped, and fired.

On the other side of the road, the northern line was likewise digging in. Soldiers were hollering, and in the light of a dozen simultaneous flashes of gunpowder and shot, Mercy saw a striped flag waving over the trees. She saw it in pieces, cut to rags by shadows and bullets, but flying, and coming closer. All around Mercy, soldiers cast up barricades of wood or wire, and where cannon felled trees, the trees were gathered up—by the men themselves, or with help from the crawling craft, which were equipped with retracting arms that could lift much more than a man.

Some of the soldiers stopped at the strange band of misfits beside the road, but not for long. A wild-​eyed infantryman pointed at the ruins of the cart and hollered, “Barricade!”

In thirty seconds, it was hauled out of the road and then was further dissected for dispersing along the line.

Clinton was back in his element, among his fellow soldiers. He took Gordon Rand by the arm, since Gordon seemed the least injured and most stable male civilian present, and said, “Get everyone to the back of the line, and then take them west! I’ve got to get back to my company!”

Everyone was shouting over the ferocious clang of the war, now brought into the woods—which compressed everything, even the sound, even the smell of the sizzling gunpowder. It was like holding a battle inside someone’s living room.

Gordon Rand replied, “I can do that! Which way is west again?”

“That way!” Clinton demonstrated with his now-​characteristic lack of precision. “Just get to the back of the line, and ask somebody there! Go! And run like hell! Their walker is getting closer; if ours don’t catch up, we’re all of us fish in a barrel!”

Most of the party took off running behind Rand, but Ernie hesitated. “Nurse?” he said to Mercy, who was looking back down the road, the way they had come.

“We’re still missing the captain, and the copilot, and Larsen.” She looked at Ernie. “I told Dennis I’d try and find him, and I mean to. Go on,” she urged. “I’ll be better off by myself. I can duck and cover, and I’ve got my red cross on.”

She mustered a smile that was not at all happy.

Ernie didn’t return it. He said, “No way, ma’am. I’m staying with you. I’m not leaving a lady alone on a battlefield.”

“You’re not a soldier.”

“Neither are you.”

It was clear that he wouldn’t be moved. Mercy sized that up in a snap; she knew the type—too chivalrous for his own good, and now he felt like he owed her, since she’d done what she could to take care of his hand. Now he was bound to take care of her, too, or else leave the debt to stand. Yes, she knew that kind. Her husband had been that kind, though she didn’t take the time to think about it right then.

“Suit yourself,” she told him. She lifted up her cloak, pulling the hood up over her head and adjusting her satchel so that the red mark stood out prominently. It wasn’t a shield, and it wasn’t magic, but it might keep her from being targeted. Or it might not.

“Behind the barrier—we can’t jump it, not now,” she said. It was amazing, how the thing had gone up while they stood there, piecemeal by rickety piecemeal, made up of logs and metal shards, and strips of things meant to tear human flesh beyond repair. Even if she could’ve fit through it, that would’ve left her in the middle of the worst of the cross fire, and that wouldn’t do. Especially not with Ernie tagging along.

So they wound their way through the soldiers, getting sworn at, shouted at, and shoved toward the safety they didn’t want every step of the way until they’d gone far enough east, away from the relative safety of the rails, that the barricade hadn’t yet found purchase and the road was not quite the highway of bullets that it had become farther up the way.

Mercy dashed into the road, crying out for Larsen—wondering if she’d passed him already in the turmoil, and wondering if he’d even survived falling out of the swiftly moving cart. “Captain? Mr. . . . Mr. Copilot? What was his name again? Scott something? Mr. Scott? Can anyone hear me?”

Probably more than a few people could hear her, but it sounded like the fighting was heating up back where the cart had crashed and been disassembled, and no one was paying any attention to the cloaked nurse and the bandaged dirigible crewman.

“Anyone?” she tried again, and Ernie took up the cry, to as much effect.

Together they tried to skirt the line of trees and keep their heads low as they walked up and down the strip where they concluded the cart had most likely come apart. And finally, off to the side and down a rolling culvert, into a cut in the earth where spring rain had carved a deep V into a hill, they got a response.

“Nurse?” The response was feeble but certain. It called like the men called from the cots, back at the hospital. Nuss?

They scarcely heard it over the battle, and it was all Mercy could do to concentrate on the sound—the one little syllable—over the clash a hundred yards away. The footsteps were still stomping, too, and stomping closer with every few steps; she shuddered to imagine what kind of machine this might be, that walked back and forth along the front and sounded much larger than any gun . . . maybe even larger than the Zephyr itself. Whatever it was, she didn’t want to see it. She only wanted to run, but there came that voice again, not quite crying, but pleading: “Nurse?”

“Over here!” Ernie said. “He’s down here!” And he was already sliding down there, toward the rut in the earth where Larsen had landed.

“I thought it was you,” Larsen said when Mercy reached him. “I thought it must be. Where’s Dennis, is he all right?”

“He’s fine. He’s on his way to the rail lines, where the train’ll pick him up and run him to Fort Chattanooga. We had to make him go, but he went. I told him I’d come looking for you.”

“That’s good.” He closed his eyes a moment, as if concentrating on some distant pain or noise. “I think I’m going to be just fine, too.”

“I think you might be,” she told him, helping him sit up. “Did you just crash here, or roll here? Is anything broken?”

“My foot hurts,” he said. “But it always hurts. My head does, too, but I reckon I’ll live.”

She said, “You’d better. Come on, let me get you up.”

“I remember there was a big snapping sound, and everything came apart. And I was flying. I remember flying, but I don’t recall anything else,” he elaborated while the Mercy and Ernie pulled him upright and to his feet. His cane was long gone, but he waved away their attempts to assist him further. “I can do it. I’ll limp like a three-​legged dog, but I can do it.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

Prev Next