On Her Majesty’s Behalf, the 2nd book in the Great Undead War series by Joseph Nassise (after By the Blood of Heroes), just came out last week, and today I’ve got Chapters 1 & 2 to share with you courtesy of the lovely folks at Harper Voyager!
Major Michael “Madman” Burke stood with his back to the sea and stared out into the semi-darkness, watching for movement. Twenty feet behind him the waves lapped gently against the gunwale of the fishing boat that had carried him across the Channel, the same boat that, God-willing, would bring him back again when the mission was over.
What in heaven’s name had possessed him to volunteer for this?
It had been nearly a week since the Germans had launched a surprise attack against the cities of London and New York. Tens of thousands of canisters of a new strain of corpse gas, one that affected the living rather than the dead, had been dropped onto the streets of the metropolises, turning those who came in contact into one of the ravaging undead now known as Shredders.
News reports from the States indicated that New York had been cut off from the mainland, the bridges and tunnels blown to rubble. Armed units now patrolled the shoreline adjacent to the island of Manhattan and two reinforced companies stood guard at the egress to the ruined tunnels that connected them, determined to keep those who had been infected by the gas from getting out into the rest of the country. There was talk of firebombing the city into oblivion in the hope of eliminating the threat in one fell swoop, though how much of that was rumor and how much was reality Burke didn’t know.
London was a different issue entirely. The nature of the surrounding terrain made it nearly impossible to isolate the city and its infected inhabitants. To make matters worse, the municipal units that might have been called in to maintain order within the quarantine zone were unavailable. Practically every able-bodied male was on the other side of the Channel fighting to keep the German menace at bay. To add to the chaos, communication had been lost with those few military units, such as the King’s Guard, that were stationed inside the city.
Allied command outright refused to write off the city’s population without making some kind of effort to save anyone who might have survived the bombardment. Burke had seen the effect of the gas and didn’t have much hope that there was anyone still alive within range of the bombing. There were some, however, much higher placed in the chain of command than he, who held to the theory there had to have been some people who where inside during the attack, people who had seen what was happening to those exposed to the gas and had then taken appropriate measures to protect themselves. Burke, however, didn’t believe it – if the gas hadn’t gotten them, the Shredders would. What he believed didn’t matter, especially in the wake of the destruction of one of the world’s foremost cities. People simply refused to believe that there was nothing to be done and perhaps that was for the best. In the wake of the attack, a makeshift rescue operation had sprung up almost overnight. Aircraft had dropped millions of hastily printed leaflets onto the city streets, directing those who survived to make their way east along the Thames estuary where they could be picked up and transported out of the danger zone.
Every available boat was then pressed into service, from fishing trawlers to four-man dinghies. Night after night they crossed the Channel like some kind of ragtag fleet, determined to save whoever they could from the ravages of the undead. Burke had been helping with the evacuation effort for the last several days, searching for survivors along the coastline, until he’d been tapped for tonight’s little jaunt.
He shrugged his shoulders, trying to get the heavy pack resting on them to settle more comfortably. The pack was part of a new weapon straight out of Professor Graves’ lab, a weapon Burke had agreed to field test. It had sounded reasonable when the process had been explained to him back at headquarters, but now, with the sea at his back and the possibility of an unknown numbers of Shredders in the darkness ahead of him, he was starting to second-guess the whole venture.
He glanced down at the shockgun, as Graves was calling it, and wondered briefly if it was going to work.
From a distance it looked like an ordinary rifle; it wasn’t until you got close to it that you began to notice just how much it had been modified. The barrel was much wider, closer to the circumference of a shotgun than a rifle, and at least three inches longer than one might expect. A pair of capacitors sat on either side of a vacuum tube, which in turn rested atop the barrel in just about the spot where the breach would normally have been. The shoulder stock had been replaced by a large metallic canister wrapped in rubber. A power cord ran from the bottom of the canister to a small hand crank at his belt and from there around his waist and into the bottom of the rucksack on his back. It might not be the strangest thing he’d seen come out of Professor Graves’ underground lair but it was certainly up there with the best of them.
As long as it worked, he didn’t care how ugly it was. Just to be safe, he had his usual Colt 1911 automatic in a holster slung gunfighter-style on his right thigh. Neither of them were a satisfactory replacement for the Tommy gun he’d been carrying around for the last few weeks, but carrying both the shockgun and the Tommy gun had been too awkward and he’d been forced to leave the latter behind.
He glanced over to where his two companions were just now climbing the short ladder from the deck of the fishing trawler onto the pier where he waited, noting, not for the first time, just how different the two men were.
Private Nicholas “Nick” Montagna was a twenty-two year old Italian-American kid from Philadelphia, with thick-burly frame and dark hair. Nick’s father had been a watchmaker and his talent had clearly rubbed off on the next generation. Nick was a virtuoso with anything mechanical, be it an internal combustion motor or a tiny set of brass clockworks. He was loud, boisterous, and far too overeager, but Burke knew they’d drum the latter out of him pretty quickly and so he wasn’t overly concerned.
Private Levi Cohen, on the other hand, was a quiet, shy kid a few years younger than Montagna. He hailed from a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and had been some kind of scholar before enlisting. So far Burke had discovered that the man spoke English, Hebrew, French and Italian. He wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if that was just the tip of the iceberg. Even though the kid was quiet, Burke got a sense of courage and unyielding determination from him. Burke had a hunch he’d be as steady as a rock in the thick of things and that was just the kind of man he wanted on his squad.
He waited for the two men to join him, saw the nervous look on both their faces, and decided a little pep talk might be in order.
“All right, look. We’re here to do a job; the sooner we get it done, the sooner we go home. Stick close, keep your eyes open, and remember – as little noise as possible.”
It wasn’t much as pep talks go, but Burke had learned that dwelling too much on the details just made the new men more nervous than they already were. Short and sweet was best.
The mission planners had chosen Southend-on-Sea, a seaside community at the mouth of the Thames, as their designated test area. The residents had been evacuated in the early days of the rescue operation, leaving a ghost town behind which provided plenty of room for Burke and his team to operate in. Southend-on-Sea was roughly forty miles east of London, making it close enough for some of the more ambitious Shredders to have wandered onto its streets but not so close that the entire town would be overrun with the undead.
Or so they hoped.
Uncertainty over just what they would encounter once they came ashore was the primary reason they had docked halfway along the Pier.
That and the mudflats.
Southend-on-Sea might technically be on the sea, but at low tide it was isolated by over a mile of water too shallow to even row a skiff through. As seaside vacations became more popular at the end of the last century, the town fathers had recognized that their beloved mudflats would keep them isolated and send seaborne traffic further south to Margate and other deeper-water ports. Unwilling to see the probability of a prosperous future for the town falter, they’d pushed to have the Pier built in order to allow boats, both large and small, to have a convenient place to dock. The Pier was an immediate success and it was extended several times over the years until it reached its current length of nearly a mile and a half.
The pier was roughly twenty feet wide, with two rows of electric lamps bisecting its length equidistant from each side. The mens’ boots struck up a steady rhythm against the wooden floorboards as they made their way along its length, the sound sending an eerie chill up Burke’s spine. It was so quiet that their footsteps felt like an intrusion and he was worried that the sound would bring the Shredders out of the woodwork like flies to a corpse, but he and his men managed to traverse the distance without incident.
The smell of the sea was sharp in Burke’s nostrils as he started down the length of the pier, the ocean brine a welcome respite from the stench of the unburied dead and the corpse fires that hung about the battlefield like a noose around the neck. The sun had been up for a couple of hours, but the sky was filled with smoke from the fires that burned out of control in parts of London. It filtered out much of the light, and Burke felt like he could taste the ash on his tongue as easily as he could taste the sea.
A two-story brick pavilion with a sloping roof squatted like a spider at the end of the pier, guarding the entrance into the town, and Burke and his men approached it cautiously. So far they hadn’t seen anyone, living or dead, but a building the size of the one in front of them could hide any number of horrors and Burke was determined not to walk into them blindly.
Three sets of double doors provided entrance to the pavilion. All of the doors were closed, though the glass in two of them had been broken out. Burke headed for the nearest one after signaling for his two companions to wait where they were. He crept forward in a crouch, not wanting to be seen by anyone through the broken window. When he reached the door he flattened himself against the jamb beside it and then slowly rose up until he could get a glimpse of the interior.
Vendor carts were knocked over, storefronts left open, the gleam of broken glass; plenty of signs that the building had been deserted in a hurry, but he didn’t catch the telltale flash of movement.
“Follow me,” he said, “and stay close.”
He reached out with his mechanical hand and eased the door open, praying all the while that it wouldn’t squeak, and then slipped inside. A moment later Montagna and Cohen followed suit.
They found themselves standing inside a large, open space. Two rows of thick, round support columns that were designed to hold the weight of the ceiling ran down the middle of the space. Between each column were three rows of iron benches; seating for those waiting to disembark on a particular vessel. The walls around the interior space were lined with vendor stalls and small shops; a pastry shop, a butcher shop, a pub, a barber shop – various shops that sold curios and souvenirs and the like.
Burke and the others had entered through the right-most door, putting them on one side of the open space. They began making their way along the length of the building toward the exit doors at the far end. Even from here they could see through the windows in the doors to the road beyond that led up a short hill to the town.
That was their destination.
They had crossed about half the length of the room when they heard a clatter come from inside one of the shops.
Burke immediately stopped, holding up a clenched fist in a signal for those behind him to stop as he settled into a crouch. The soft rustle he heard from behind him told him the others had understood.
He swept his gaze along the stalls on the side of the building where he’d heard the noise, searching for the source of the sound. Most of the shops and stalls were in shadow and the dim light filtering in through the windows wasn’t making things easy. Thankfully, whatever was making the noise wasn’t trying to be quiet about it; the clatter came again and Burke was able to pinpoint it as coming from the inside of a barber shop about twenty yards away.
Burke looked back at his companions who were crouched a few feet behind him, pointed at his eyes and then at the barber shop, indicating that he was going to take a look. Both men nodded that they understood.
One of the large columns providing support to the ceiling was a few yards in front of him. It would give him both an unobstructed view of the entrance as well as a bit of cover should he need it, so Burke chose that as his destination and headed for it as quietly as he could. He slipped in behind the column and peered cautiously around the edge just in time to see a Shredder lurch unsteadily out the door of the shop and into the main room.
It had been just a boy when the gas fell; Burke guessed twelve, maybe fourteen years old. Tall and thin, with a mop of dark, unruly hair that probably hadn’t wanted to cooperate much even when the boy had been alive. Burke couldn’t see the creature’s green-grey skin in the building’s dim light, but the way it stumbled about, seemingly disoriented, was proof enough that it was no longer one of the living.
Looks like we won’t have to go into town after all, Burke thought.
He reached down and began to rapidly wind the hand crank on his belt at his hip. He winced at the high-pitched whine the crank made as he spun it in its seat, but that couldn’t be helped; without the charge, the weapon was about as useful as a peashooter.
Across the room, the Shredder began looking about, searching for the source of the sound, no doubt eager to rip and tear the flesh from his bones in the characteristic way that had earned those infected by the gas their nickname.
The whine became a steady tone, indicating the gun was ready to be fired. Burke made a mental note to tell Graves that he had to find some way of reducing all the noise.
Nothing like having your weapon give away your position!
Graves had warned him that the gun delivered quite a kick so when Burke was finished charging it, he held it the same way he would a room sweeper, with the stock tight against his waist and the barrel braced in his artificial hand. Satisfied, he stepped out from behind cover.
The Shredder spun in his direction the moment he revealed himself, but did not yet begin its inevitable charge.
Burke didn’t intend to wait; he lined up the shot as best he could, braced himself, and pulled the trigger.
The gun roared, the sound echoing in the enclosed space, as a metal spike about the size of a tent peg shot from the barrel of the gun, sparking with the electrical charge he’d just given to it. It flew through the air with a whistling sound, headed directly for the Shredder, and Burke was already starting to grin in victory when the Shredder twitched to one side and the projectile shot harmlessly past and ricocheted off the wall of the barber shop behind it with the crackle of a sudden electrical discharge.
For a moment, the soldier and the Shredder stared at each other with almost identical expressions of surprise.
Then the Shredder screamed, a hideous shrieking sound, and launched itself forward in a frenzied rush.
“Hold your fire!” Burke yelled to his companions, even as he snatched another spike off the row on his belt and jammed it into the muzzle of his weapon. Without taking his gaze off the oncoming Shredder, his fingers found the crank on his belt and he began turning it as fast as he could to charge the projectile.
It was going to be close. The Shredder was surging across the distance that separated them, tossing aside anything in his way that wasn’t bolted down. When it reached the first of four rows of iron benches, it vaulted clear over them, leaving only three to go.
Come on, come on, Burke thought to himself. Faster!
The slowly rising whine from the crank seemed to mock him as the Shredder vaulted another row of benches.
“Major?” asked a nervous voice behind him.
“Hold, I said!” Burke replied. He didn’t know if it was Cohen or Montagna who had spoken, nor did he really care.
All he wanted was to keep the Shredder alive long enough to get off another shot. If they opened fire before he told them to, they could screw up the entire mission…
The Shredder shrieked again as it vaulted the third row of benches, leaving only one bench between itself and Burke. Its attention was fixed on Burke and Burke alone; it was as if the Shredder didn’t even notice Montagna and Cohen crouched only a few feet behind.
Burke braced the gun, ready for another shot.
Come on you ugly, sonofabitch…
The Shredder leaped up over the fourth and final row of benches…
Wanting to limit its ability to dodge, Burke fired while it was still in the air.
The spike roared out of the barrel of the gun and slammed straight into the Shredder’s chest. The instant the tip of the spike penetrated the Shredder’s flesh, the charge inside the projectile vented itself, sending a wave of electricity crashing through the creature’s body. Sparks flew out of its ears, nose and mouth as the charge sought the easiest escape route and the Shredder crashed to the floor and slid to a halt practically at Burke’s feet.
“Holy shit…” Montagna said from behind him.
Burke was inclined to agree; holy shit was right.
He grabbed another spike, shoved it into the barrel of the gun, and cranked the handle, waiting for the chime. Only when it came did he take a step forward for a closer look at the Shredder, keeping the muzzle of the weapon trained on his opponent all the while.
The creature’s eyes tracked his every move, indicating that it was still conscious. Its body, however, seemed to be locked in a rigid pose, bent backward at the waist so that the back of its head was pointing at the heels of its feet. Sparks were still emanating off the metal of the thing’s belt buckle and the now blackened cross it wore about its neck.
Burke kicked the exposed sole of the creature’s foot. Its eyes tracked his movement but no other part of the creature’s body moved. It was paralyzed, it seemed.
But for how long?
Burke didn’t know. He’d asked Graves that very same question before leaving for the mission and the lanky professor had shrugged his shoulders and said something about the entire body being driven by various types of electrical impulses and how the shockgun’s charge would affect those impulses at different rates in different individuals.
When Burke had pressed him, his friend had shrugged his shoulders and said, “Damned if I know.”
It hadn’t been the most reassuring of replies.
Burke would just have to make sure he was prepared if the Shredder regained mobility before they were ready. Burke called out to the others. “Get those ropes over here. I want this thing trussed up tight before it wakes up.”
Burke kept the shockgun trained on the Shredder as Montagna and Cohen approached, but aside from rolling its eyes in their general direction it didn’t make a move as they stepped up beside it.
They had no idea how strong a Shredder actually was and Burke wasn’t taking any chances on that topic either. Under his supervision, the men bound the Shredder around its ankles, calves, knees, thighs, and then secured its arms flat alongside its chest with multiple turns of the rope. At first the men were hesitant, afraid it was suddenly going to regain its ability to attack, but after a few minutes of inactivity on the Shredder’s part their confidence increased and they were able to get the job done with a minimum of delay. A leather hood was slipped over its head and cinched tight at the neck, to keep it from biting anyone when it finally began to regain its ability to move. Air holes had been punched in the hood just in case the thing still breathed in some bizarre fashion. No one really knew one way or the other; which was the reason Burke had agreed to undertake this crazy mission in the first place. They need more first-hand knowledge of this new threat and they needed it quickly if they were going to be able to do anything to help the former residents of London and New York. Never mind the rest of the British and American populations.
This wasn’t going to stay confined to the bombed-out metropolises; Burke knew that much already.
“All right, boys, let’s get this thing back home to Professor Graves and let him worry about it from here on out,” Burke said.
The two men argued about who was going to take what until Burke ordered Montagna to pick up the creature’s feet and Cohen to take it by the shoulders. Thankfully, the Shredder had been a teenager before the change and therefore wasn’t too heavy to carry.
They retraced their steps across the pavilion floor and exited through the same door through which they had entered. Burke was struck by the sudden fear that they had been abandoned, that the grizzled old fishing captain had thought better of tying up to a dock in what was effectively Shredder country and had sailed for open waters, and breathed a sigh of relief when he stepped out into the meager sunlight and saw the trawler bobbing in the waves alongside the pier right where they had left it.
The trio moved as quickly as they could given the burden they carried, with Burke periodically turning about to look behind them and make certain that they weren’t being snuck up on by a Shredder they might have overlooked.
At one point, about halfway back to the boat, Burke thought he heard something. He stopped and turned back toward the pavilion, his ears straining to catch the sound a second time.
All he heard was the lapping of the water around the posts of the pier down beneath his feet and the footfalls of his men.
Must have been the wind.
Deciding it had to be either the wind or his imagination, he spun about and hustled to catch up with the others.
He had just reached them when the sound came again. This time it was recognizable as a human voice.
Could someone have remained behind after the evacuation?
As far as Burke knew, Shredders couldn’t speak. The change they underwent did something to their vocal chords, robbing them of the ability to articulate words or make anything beyond the most primitive of sounds. Still, that was no guarantee that what he’d heard had been a survivor; the sound had been too garbled and faint to be positive of anything.
Cohen and Montagna must have heard it also; for they lowered the Shredder to the deck in front of them and turned to look back the way they had come, their rifles in hand.
“What the hell was that?” Montagna wanted to know.
Burke was about to tell the other man that he didn’t know, but the sound of the pavilion doors crashing open behind him drowned out his reply.
Burke spun around, the shockgun in his hand at the ready. The sight that met his eyes was certainly not what he was expecting to see.
A man stumbled out of the now-open doors to the pavilion. His clothing was ripped and torn, covered with ash and mud, but it was still clear that he was dressed in the uniform of a British infantryman or Tommy as they were known to the Americans. He came forward a few more steps and then tripped and fell to his knees, only to scramble to his feet as quickly as he’d gone down. The man was clearly exhausted but still found the energy to reach out a hand in their direction and shout, “Wait!” in a quavering voice.
As if in reply, a fearsome cacophony of shrieks sounded from within the depths of the pavilion.
Burke was already shrugging out of the shockgun’s charging pack as he turned and addressed his companions. “Get the Shredder in the boat and use the chains to secure it, just as we planned,” he said sharply, forcing their attention away from the noise at the other end of the pier and on to him. “Tell the captain to fire her up and get her headed out for deeper water.”
Cohen stared at him, his eyes wide. “What about you?”
“We’ll meet you at the end of the pier,” Burke said, even as he shrugged the rest of the way out of the backpack and snatched the man’s rifle out of his hands. “Get that Shredder on the boat. Now!”
Burke turned and ran toward the newcomer.
About On Her Majesty’s Behalf:
At the close of 1917, the Germans introduced a new type of gas, T-Leiche–“corpse gas”–a revolutionary weapon that changed the war. Instead of killing the living, T-Leiche resurrected the bodies of the dead.
For those who survived the killing fields of France, the danger has only just begun. Veteran Michael “Madman” Burke and his company have just been assigned a daring new mission by the president himself: rescue the members of the British royal family. But Manfred von Richthofen, the undead Red Baron and newly self-appointed leader of Germany, is also determined to find the family.
In the devastated, zombie-infested city of London, Burke and his men will face off in an unholy battle with their most formidable opponent yet: a team of infected super soldiers – shredders – who have greater speed and strength than their shambler predecessors. If they don’t succeed, all of Britain will fall into undead enemy hands.