Authors: Tracy Hickman,Dan Willis
Tags: #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #alternate history, #Alternative History, #Steampunk
Washington has fallen! Legions of 'grays'—dead soldiers reanimated on the battlefield and pressed back into service of the Southern Cause—have pushed the lines as far north as the Ohio River. Lincoln has moved the government of the United States to New York City. He needs to stop the juggernaught of the Southern undead 'abominations' or the North will ultimately fall. But Allan Pinkerton, his head of security, has a plan...
The Northern newspapers are heralding Braxton Wright as the Hero of Parkersburg, but the engineer who designed the Northern walking monitors—Tall Guns—knows the truth. He acted more out of panic than heroism and is certain he got his best friend, physician Lawrence Hancock, killed in the cold waters of the Ohio as a result. What he would like is to be forgotten.
But at Pinkerton's urging, Lincoln sends Braxton on a mission aboard General Sherman's airship deep into Southern territory. He will find Hattie Lawton, the woman who is the North's most capable spy, and together, they must stop the Southern undead from rising again!
Baen Ebooks Edition – 2015
This version copyright © 2015 by Tracy Hickman and Dan Willis.
An earlier version of this novel was published in 2013 by Tracy Hickman and Dan Willis
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the express written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law. This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Cover design by Janet McDonald
Art Director Kevin J. Anderson
Cover artwork images by Jeff Brimley
Other cover images from Dollar Photo Club
Edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt
Book Design by RuneWright, LLC
Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta, Publishers
WordFire Press, an imprint of
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Lieutenant Braxton Wright released his grip on the brass levers controlling the
gun turret as the craft turned, following a bend in the Ohio River. The condensation of his own sweat chilled the iron plating that surrounded him. He sat on the gunner’s seat, bolted to the floor, nervously wiping his hands on his stained cotton trousers. His blue sack coat was stuffed between the rungs of one of the vertical support trusses behind him. A kepi forage cap sat back on his head as he squinted through the gun port, seeking any sign of the enemy on the dark shoreline. Cool air poured in through the observation slits, contrasting with the wet heat welling up through the grating at his feet.
A gibbous moon shone high in the sky, painting the landscape in shades of silver and leaving pools of inky darkness under every tree.
He wiped his hands again down his cotton trousers, trying to calm himself with the repetitive nature of the gesture. If there were Rebs out there, they’d see him long before he saw them. He felt certain all of West Virginia on the other side of the river could hear the
steam engine as it chugged and hissed from the deck below his feet. The engine had not sounded terribly loud in the factory tests, but in the dark stillness of the Ohio Valley it thundered.
Braxton took a deep breath, wiping his hands a third time, and reminded himself that only a lucky shot would penetrate their armored shell. Fixing this firmly in his mind, he gripped the sweat-slicked levers again and kept his vigil. Outside, a thick growth of trees reached out from the riverbank into their path.
“Come to starboard,” he called down through the grated opening in the floor.
“Speak plain,” came the answering call from Sergeant Fulton.
“I mean right,” Braxton called again. “Come right just a bit.”
lurched, then began to drift right. Braxton rolled his eyes. Fulton was a good man, but he wasn’t the tall gun’s regular pilot. The regular crew missed their train at Albany.
All this trouble over a little slip of paper.
A telegram from Colonel Hendricks had reached them as they stopped for water in Steubenville. He’d been worried that the Rebs were preparing for a major offensive. Crew or no crew, Hendricks ordered the train not to stop in Marietta but continue down to Belle Prairie with the
at once. Braxton and what crew he had were to get the
into the fight before Hendricks’ lines—weak and still forming up west of Belle Prairie—were overrun.
Rumors had already spread through the train station. The prevailing story was that General Longstreet had, under the cover of darkness, ferried a force of five thousand Grays to Blennerhasset Island west of Sharpsburg. Colonel Hendricks had been forced to sortie at once out of Marietta in order to head off the flanking maneuver by Longstreet. The
had to arrive in Marietta before troops landed on the Union side of the Ohio River.
I’m not supposed to be here,
he thought angrily to himself before calling down again through the grating. “How’s your pressure?”
“Well, I’m a little nervous in this steel coffin of yours,” came a different, cheerier voice from below, “and it’s hot enough to boil lobster down here, but otherwise I’m fine.”
“Not you, Laurie!” Braxton called back. “What’s your reading, Fulton?”
Below him, Fulton checked the wall of gauges next to the pilot’s seat.
“Normal,” he yelled back. “You might want to give the cannon and traverse controls a whirl there, Lieutenant.”
Braxton nodded. He pulled back on the lever that elevated the muzzle and, with a rush of steam, the gun barrel rose. He pushed the lever forward and the gun lowered to its original position. Swiveling his chair forward, Braxton stepped onto two metal pedals protruding from the floor. He pushed down on the left one. The turret rotated, rapidly turning left. Braxton used the right pedal to move the gun back. “It’s good, Fulton. Get us into position around the bend … and pray this
is just here to look pretty.”
The gun controls worked, but that did little to lighten his mood. Braxton wasn’t a soldier, he was an engineer. Much of the new tall gun design had been his idea. He was supposed to be back at the Yard, overseeing new construction of more iron-clad tall guns just like this one.
That was before Laurie’s letter, offering to meet Braxton in Steubenville when he brought the
down from the foundry. At the time, Braxton thought it a perfect place for a reunion.
“This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I said we should meet,” Braxton said in the direction of the deck below.
“Funny you would say so,” Laurie called back up. “This was
what I had in mind … two old Sharpsburg boys cruising down the Ohio in a war machine of unimaginable destructive power. What could be better?”
Braxton rolled his eyes.
“It was supposed to be an excuse to see you, Laurie,” he groused. “Not an invitation to dodge Rebel shells. I was just supposed to deliver the weapon, not put us into harm’s way.”
“Well, you’re in good hands, Brax!” Laurie said. “I’m the Regimental Surgeon for the Army of the Ohio now. If they put a hole in you, I’ll patch you up.”
“See,” Braxton shouted back, “neither one of us are supposed to be here.”
“You’re my brother,” Laurie smiled at him through the grate. “In heart if not in blood … it’s just as well we be here together in this infernal contraption. I’m just glad you took the opportunity to deliver this monster in person like I asked. It lets me confirm that I’m still better looking than you.”
“Well, that may change,” Braxton muttered to himself. “The night’s still young.”
Braxton had been excited to see his childhood friend, right up to when they had off-loaded the tall gun at Steubenville.
He’d been regretting it ever since.
By all rights Braxton should have piloted the
himself, but neither Fulton, nor Laurie could operate the main gun.
“We oughta be getting close,” Fulton yelled up from the pilot house below. “I don’t see nothin’.”
“Maybe I should send up a Starlight Shell,” Braxton called back.
“That beats a bugle call for letting ’em know we’ve arrived,” Fulton snarled.
“We’ve got to see where we’re going … it’s not as though we’re sneaking in here,” Braxton answered. “Be ready to maneuver.”
Braxton took his foot off the pedals and swung the gunner’s chair around to the rear of the turret. A stove-like pipe descended from the top of the turret with a hinged door in it. Braxton took a long, slender canister from a bag hanging on the sidewall and slipped it into the opening. He shut the breech, locking it in place, and reached underneath, taking hold of a pistol grip attached to the bottom. Gripping the hammer with his thumb, he cocked it back.
“Firing,” he yelled, then pulled the trigger.
The hammer struck, and a muffled report issued from the pipe. Silently Braxton counted, turning back to his gun. When he reached ten, a sudden burst of red light washed over the landscape.
The white ghosts of small boats stood out against the black surface of the water and Braxton could see artillery being set up along the shoreline.
Adrenaline flooding his veins, Braxton’s hand jerked on the firing trigger and the
’s gun roared. He hadn’t meant to fire. He hadn’t even been
exploding shells meant a close shot would do. One of the shore batteries vanished in a cloud of fire and smoke as his errant shell hit its powder stash.
Flustered by his accidental shot, Braxton struggled to open the gun’s breech. He jerked the release lever back and a smoking shell casing slid free, rattling around on the turret’s floor. Somewhere outside, a cannon roared and he heard a ball pass close by, splashing harmlessly in the river.
The ricochets of bullets pinged off their armored hull as Braxton slid a new shell into the main gun. He slammed the breech closed and turned the turret toward the shore artillery. As he struggled to line up his shot, a bullet passed through the gun port, struck the side wall of the turret and embedded itself in the planking of the floor. Braxton cried out in surprise, reflexively jerking his hands off the gun controls. He leaned down to the small grated opening that connected him to the pilot house below.
“They’ve got us!” he yelled. “Take us up!”
O O O
“Where are they?” Colonel Jonathan Hendricks demanded, squinting through his spyglass across the dark, open field that separated his men from the Confederate lines. Hendricks had deployed his forces along a narrow line just west of Belle Prairie extending from the Ohio River on his left flank, on the south, and to the low Appalachian range on his northern right. Across the field, he knew in his gut, the Rebel force gathered, setting up for their attack. Even with the moon up, the shadows of the trees by the shoreline and the mist off the river obscured any movement, but he knew they were out there. “Do you see anything?”
This last was directed at the Colonel’s adjutant, a young lieutenant with a mop of blond hair and a pockmarked face.
“I can’t see anything, sir,” he responded in a voice that made him sound much too young. “Are you sure they’ll come tonight?”
“They’ll come,” Hendricks said. The Rebs had been ferrying their Grays across the river all day, several thousand of them if his scouts were to be believed.
Grays … an abomination straight out of hell
, Hendricks thought. Bad enough the South should deal in live slave trade, but to then to enslave the dead was past the colonel’s comprehension. Grays had no fear, no hesitation at charging into the darkness. As soon as the Rebel commander had his artillery in place, he’d attack. Hendricks knew that by the time he could see them, it would be too late to move his artillery. The Grays would sweep his lines, largely unhindered by cannon fire. By the time he got his artillery in position, his forces would be in the press of battle.
Which, he grimaced into the darkness, was why he needed the
He took another look through his spyglass and swore. “Where are they?”
“Sir!” the lieutenant grabbed his shoulder as a blaze of light washed over the river bank to their left. “It’s a starlight shell. It’s them.”
“About time!” Hendricks took advantage of the temporary light bathing the landscape in front of him. His heart sank. Three artillery batteries were plainly visible across the field, one covering each flank and one in the center with ranks of Gray troops in the spaces between them, ready to march.
“Can you make out their colors, Lieutenant?” he said, straining to see across the mile that separated them. Each Gray unit had a rallying flag, indicating their unit.
“Antietam sir,” he responded. “And it looks like some Hampton Roads.”
“Get the war historian up here,” Hendricks ordered. “I want to know what we’re facing. And get Major Thompson, I want him to redeploy his guns immediately.”
The lieutenant saluted, but before he could turn the sounds of cannon fire echoed across the empty field. Hendricks turned back in time to see the Rebel battery on the flank fire to the extreme left. Almost immediately they were answered by a shot that struck a gun in the center of the battery, igniting its powder store and sending burning chunks of metal and wood in all directions.
“Sir, look,” the lieutenant called.
Colonel Hendricks didn’t need his spyglass to see what happened next. Like a mythical titan of Greek mythology, the
rose up above the line of trees at the riverbank, towering over the Rebel forces. It had a round, barrel-like body supported by three metal legs that held it thirty feet in the air. A turret sat atop the body, looking for all the world like a gigantic, iron infantryman’s kepi. Two forty-caliber Gatling guns emerged from slots in the front of the body and Hendricks could see one of them spitting fire as it tore into enemy flank.
He wanted to watch, but Hendricks couldn’t spare it any more time; he had a battle to wage.
“Why are you still here?” he demanded of the lieutenant, sending the man scrambling back toward the officer’s tents.
Hendricks turned his attention to the battle shaping up in front of him. The Rebs had been trying to get across the Ohio from West Virginia and Kentucky for most of the year’s campaign. Northern sappers had blown the bridges across the Ohio all the way to the Mississippi Confluence, but the bridges across the Muskingum River that Hendricks himself had just crossed earlier in the day were still intact. Marietta could fall, and that could break the center of the entire Union line.
The lieutenant returned, out of breath but smiling, with Carl Daniels, the war historian, in tow. Daniels was a stocky man in a rumpled suit, with thinning hair, a pallid complexion, and big watery eyes made bigger by his pince-nez spectacles.
“Well,” Daniels demanded. “What are we facing?”
“Antietam and Hampton Roads,” Hendricks said, ignoring the cannon fire erupting over the field.
There were distinct drawbacks to reanimating dead soldiers. Grays were formidable but their minds only retained the last few hours of their life. In battle, it made them predictable. If you knew where they had fought before, then you likely knew how they would fight again. There were advantages, too. Grays felt no fear or pain or remorse. That’s why he needed every edge he could find.
“Most of the Grays from Antietam were recovered from General Hill’s division,” Daniels said, not bothering to consult the thick, leather bound book he carried under his arm. “They were the ones who drove General Burnside out with a straight on charge in the face of superior numbers. They’ll keep coming no matter what.”
Hendricks growled at that. “What about Hampton Roads?”
“Those Grays were primarily from General Jackson’s division,” Daniels said. “When General Grant captured the shipyards there, they drove his forces back in a battle that lasted four hours. One piece of good news,” he added. “They were eventually forced to retreat. That means that sooner or later, the Hampton Roads Grays will have to withdraw.”