Welcome to our Steampunk Revelry! Tighten those corsets and pin those cravats. Today, we celebrate Joseph Nassise’s steampunk adventure, ON HER MAJESTY’S BEHALF!
Hey all – Joe Nassise here, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Great Undead War series. Someone recently summed up my series by saying it was “World War 1 with steampunk and zombies” and I have to tell you, that hits the nail right on that head!
(If you don’t like any of those things, stop reading now! : )
The year is 1921 and in this alternate version of the Great War the German military invents corpse gas instead of mustard gas and changes the face of history as we know it. As a consequence of contact with the gas, the bodies of the dead come back to life on the battlefield as a breed of zombies known as Shamblers. They aren’t very smart, but they can be controlled through special collars designed for just that purpose and soon the ranks of the Central Powers are swelled with shock troops that follow orders to the letter, have no fear of death, and move forward at a relentless pace. The Allies are pushed back almost all the way to Paris and things are starting to look pretty dire for the human race.
The central character of the series is Captain Michael “Madman” Burke, an officer in the US Army who has been on the frontlines ever since the war began several years before. An injury early in the war required that his arm be amputated at the elbow and he has since been fitted with a mechanical arm designed by none other than Tesla himself.
On Her Majesty’s Behalf is the second book in the series, following By the Blood of Heroes. Captain Burke and his team of Marauders have been ordered to infiltrate the recently bombed city of London in an effort to rescue the royal family from the ruins of Buckingham Palace. Of course the fact that London is now infested with a new breed of zombies known as Shredders make this a bit harder than anyone expected…
Read the excerpt of ON HER MAJESTY’S BEHALF and play the TwoChops crossword puzzle game for one of the entries in the Rafflecopter running January 6th through January 13th for your chance to win one of four ebook bundles containing the first two books in the Great Undead War series, BY THE BLOOD OF HEROES and ON HER MAJESTY’S BEHALF.
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.
End of Excerpt
Joseph Nassise is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of more than a twenty-five novels, including the Templar Chronicles series, the Jeremiah Hunt trilogy, and the Great Undead War series. He has also written several books in the Rogue Angel action/adventure series from Gold Eagle. He is a former president of the Horror Writers Association, the world’s largest organization of professional horror writers, and a multiple Bram Stoker Award and International Horror Guild Award nominee.
Visit him on the web at:
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