Dreadnought Page 16

“I don’t suppose you’ve seen the captain, or the copilot, have you?” asked Ernie.

“No, I haven’t. Like I said, I went flying. That’s all.”

“You’re a lucky son of a gun,” Mercy told him.

“I don’t feel real lucky. And what’s that noise?”

“It’s the line. It’s caught up to us. Come on, now. Other side of the road. Get down low, and make a dash for it—as much as you’re able. You landed on the Yankee side, so don’t go thanking your lucky stars quite yet.”

But soon they were ducking and shuffling, flinging themselves across the road and back to gray territory, and not a moment too soon. The barricade-​makers were shouting orders back and forth at one another, extending the line, setting up the markers along the road. They ordered Mercy and the men to “Clear the area! Now!”

Larsen yelled back, “We’re civilians!”

“You’re going to be dead civilians if you don’t get away from this road!” Then the speaker stopped himself, getting a good look at Mercy. “Wait a minute. You a nurse?”

“That’s right.”

“You any good?”

“I’ve saved more men than I’ve killed, if that’s what you want to know.” She helped hoist Larsen down over the drop-​off at the road’s edge, leaving herself closer to the dangerous front line. She stared down the asker, daring him to propose one more stupid question before she kicked him into Kansas.

“We got a colonel with a busted-​up arm and chest. Our doctor took a bullet up the nose and now we’ve got nobody. The colonel’s a good leader, ma’am. Hell, he’s just a good man, and we’re losing him. Can you help?”

She took a deep breath and sighed it out. “I’ll give it a try. Ernie, you and Larsen—”

“We’ll make for the rails. I’ll help him walk. Good luck to you, ma’am.”

“And to the pair of you, too. You—” She indicated the Reb who’d asked her help. “—take me to this colonel of yours. Let me get a look at him.”

“My name’s Jensen,” he told her on the way between the trees. I hope you can help him. It’s worse for us if we lose him. You, uh . . . you one of ours?”

“One of yours? Sweetheart, I’ve spent the war working at the Robertson Hospital.”

“The Robertson?” Hope pinked his cheeks. Mercy could see the flush rise up, even under the trees, in the dark, with only a sliver of moonlight to tell about it. “That’s a damn fine joint, if you’ll pardon my language.”

“Damn fine indeed, and I don’t give a fistful of horseshit about your language.”

She looked back once to see if Larsen and Ernie were making good progress away from the fighting, but the woods wouldn’t let her see much, and soon the cannon smoke and barricades swallowed the rest of her view.

Jensen towed her through the lines, guiding her around wheeled artillery carts and the amazing crawling transporters. She gave them as wide a berth as she could, since he told her, “Don’t touch them! They’re hot as hell. They’ll take your skin off if you graze them.”

Past both good and poorly regimented lines of soldiers coming, going, and lining up alongside the road they dashed, always back—to the back of the line—following the same path as the wounded, who were either lumbering toward help or being hauled that way on tight cotton stretchers.

Back on the other side of the road, on the other side of the line, she heard a mechanical wail that blasted like a steam whistle for twenty full seconds. It shook the leaves at the top of the trees and gusted through the camp like a storm. Soldiers and officers froze, and shuddered; and then the wail was answered by a returning call from someplace farther away. The second scream was less preternatural, though it made Mercy’s throat cinch up tight.

“It’s only a train, out there,” she breathed.

Jensen heard her. He said, “No. Not only a train. That metal monster they got—it’s talking to the Dreadnought.”

“The metal monster? The . . . the walker? Is that what they called it?” she asked as they resumed their dodging through the chaos of the back line. “One of your fellows told me they have one, but I don’t know what that is.”

“Yeah, that’s it. It’s a machine shaped like a real big man, with a pair of men inside it. They armor the things up and make them as flexible as they can, and once you’re inside it, not even a direct artillery hit—at real close range—will bring you down. The Yanks have got only a couple of them, praise Jesus. They’re expensive to make and power.”

“You sound like a man who’s met one, once or twice.”

“Ma’am, I’m a man who’s helped build one.” He turned to her and flashed a beaming smile that, for just this once, wasn’t even half desperate. And as if it’d heard him, from somewhere behind the Confederate lines a different, equally loud and terrible mechanical scream split the night across the road with a promise and a threat like nothing else on earth.

“We got one, too?” she wheezed, for her breath was running out on her and she wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep up this pace.

“Yes ma’am. That-​there is what we like to call the Hellbender.”

She saw its head first, looming over the trees like a low gray moon. It swiveled, looking this way and that, the tip of some astounding Goliath made of steel and powered by something that smelled like kerosene and blood, or vinegar. It strode slowly into a small clearing, parting the trees as if they were reeds in a pond, and stood up perfectly straight, before emitting a gurgling howl that answered the mechanized walker on the other side of the road—and sent out a challenge to the terrifying train engine, too.

Mercy froze, spellbound, at the thing’s feet.

It was approximately six or seven times her height—maybe thirty-​five or forty feet tall, and as wide around as the cart that had carried her away from the Zephyr. Only very roughly shaped like a man, its head was something like an upturned bucket big enough to hold a horse, with glowing red eyes that cast a beam stronger than a lighthouse lamp. This beam swept the top of the trees. It was searching, hunting.

“Let’s go.” Jensen put himself between her and the mechanized walker, flashing it a giant thumbs-​up before leading her toward a set of flapping canvas tents.

But she couldn’t look away.

She couldn’t help but stare at the human-​style joints that creaked and bent and sprung, oozing oil or some other industrial lubricant in black trails from each elbow and knee. She had to watch as the gray-​skinned thing saw what it was looking for, pointed itself at the road, and marched, spilling puffs of black clouds from its seams. The mechanized walker didn’t march quickly, yet it covered quite a lot of space with each step; and each step rang against the ground like a muffled bell with a clapper as large as a house. It crashed against the ground with its beveled oval feet and began a pace that could best be described as a slow run.

A cheer went up behind the Confederate line as the walker went blazing through it. Everyone got out of the way. Hats were thrown up and salutes were fired off.

Back in the woods, somewhere on the southern line, an explosion sent up a fireball so much bigger than the tree line that, even though it must’ve been a mile away, Mercy could see it, and imagine she felt the heat of it.

Jensen said, “You got here on that dirigible, the one that went down?”

“That’s right,” she told him. “And it just went up in flames, didn’t it?”

“Yup. Hydrogen’ll do that.”

“What about that thing? The Hellbender?”

“What about it?” he asked.

“What does it run on? Not hydrogen?”

He shook his head and then ducked under a tent flap, indicating that she should do likewise. “Hell no. Texas done developed it, so it runs on processed petroleum. Can’t you smell it?”

“I can smell something.”

“Diesel. That’s what they call it, and that’s why our Hellbender’s gonna take down their . . . whatever they call theirs. Theirs just run on steam. They move all right, but they run so hot, they can’t keep pace with ours, not for very long. Not without cooking the men who ride inside ’em.” He paused his exposition to salute a uniformed fellow in the tent’s corner. Then he said, “Chase,” to acknowledge a second man who was sitting on a camp stool beside a cot. “Ma’am, this is George Chase—he’s been looking after the colonel. And there, that’s Colonel Thaddeus Durant. You can see he’s not doing so good.”

“I can see that,” she said, and went immediately to the colonel’s side. She dragged a second camp stool to the cot’s edge and tugged a lantern out of George Chase’s hand.

He gave clear consideration to mounting a protest, but Jensen shushed him by saying, “She’s a nurse from the Robertson joint, George. Dropped right out of the sky, she did. Give her some breathing room.”

George scooted his stool back and said, “I don’t know what to do. I fix machines; I don’t know how to fix things like this!”

She swung the lantern over the pulp of the colonel’s face, neck, shoulder, and ribs, and guessed that he’d taken a close proximal blast of grapeshot, or something messier. Peeling back the blanket they’d thrown across him, she followed the damage like it was a trail marked out on a map. The blanket stuck to him where the makeshift bandages had bled clean through. Everything was beginning to dry to a sticky, wet paste of cotton, wool, and shredded flesh.

“Gentlemen, I’m not entirely sure what to tell you—”

“Tell us you can save him!” George Chase begged.

She wouldn’t tell them that. Instead she said, “I need all the clean rags you can get your hands on, and your doctor’s medical bag if you can scare it up for me. Then I’m going to need a big pot of clean water, and if you find some that’s good and hot, so much the better.”

Source: www_Novel22_Net

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