Gravewalkers: Foe Grinder by Richard T. Schrader by Richard T. Schrader - Read Online

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Gravewalkers - Richard T. Schrader

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Chapter 1: Bluegrass Nellie

A long peaceful night watch had meditatively slowed Queen Jessica’s breathing to where she felt that luxurious self-confidence that was borderline hypoxia’s seductive embrace.

Hours of surveying the broad upriver direction through her rifle’s telescopic sight had fully adjusted her vision to the illumination of starlight. In a world without pollution or reflected city lights, the night sky displayed its fully unmitigated grandeur.

The sounds of summertime frogs and other assorted river ecosystem wildlife only added to the atmosphere of tranquility.

Jessica’s finger pressure flirted with the tenuously shallow depth that was her weapon’s sensitive trigger. During a momentary plateau between heartbeats, her hand just naturally became the gentle squeeze that discharged her rifle. Some strong men considered that much recoil to be a respectable hit. By lying prone braced on springy toes, Jessica calmly endured it.

The travel time of her bullet in flight gave her a moment to admire just how romantically the starlight twinkled upon the river’s faceted rippling chaos.

Her hollow-point rifle bullet struck a river pirate on-center to his upper forehead. That was a few centimeters higher than she had intended, but still very nice when accounting for her difficult conditions.

The man’s skull broke up around the bullet as it penetrated. Combined fragments of lead and bone formed a fratricide scythe that flipped back the pirate’s whole lodge-pole scalp. The top of his head sprung upward into the headwind like the hairy lid on a big can of condensed brains soup.

The swift forward movement of the pirate powerboat generated a strong incoming breeze. That wind held the man upright while he flapped and twitched. Dead man’s fingers refused to release his weapon as he toppled over backward.

He had been commanding the pirate boat’s heavy mounted machinegun. When he collapsed out of sight, the huge gun swung aside and then pointed skyward in a totally nonthreatening direction.

It didn’t take but another moment for the rest of the pirate crew to realize that their man had gone down from a sniper shot.

Their river patrol boat plowed up a wake of water as it made an abrupt turn to port. When their driver heard the others say sniper, he realized that he was the next target of choice. If the sniper disabled the driver, the rifleman could pick the rest of them off at leisure.

Jessica had cycled the bolt action of her rifle by then, without her eye ever having left the scope. She had a focused telescopic view through the pirate boat’s starboard pilothouse window. The driver’s whole head and much of his near shoulder showed fully exposed.

As though sharing a psychic moment, the pilot realized his mistake and then turned to stare out through his window. It seemed like he knew that Jessica had zeroed in on him with her crosshairs. He sensed his danger if judged by the expression on his face when the glass exploded.

Jessica’s rifle shot turned his whole starboard window into a face spray of sharp Chiclet shards. Instead of getting the whole bullet into the side of his head, the driver received three lesser fragments that wounded him from neck to shoulder. Adding insult to injury, the little glass blades had lined his face with minorly bleeding lacerations that included one that blinded an eye.

If the driver had firmer nerve, he could have yet survived his wounds. Far from using judgment, he let his panic overwhelm him into doom hysteria. Not only did he have his mortal fear about bleeding to death from having just gotten shot, cut, and blinded, his greater terror was that paranoid certainty that all his exposed wounds surely all but guaranteed that he would get the ghoul infection.

Actual blood loss combined with the coward’s stupefying futility. It resulted in a sudden drop in blood pressure that put the driver into feinted shock.

The speeding powerboat remained ignorant of the driver’s many woes. The engine’s throttle was a fixed position lever that required the force of a hand to move it higher or lower. Since it was still in the high power position, the boat raced ahead in a constant semi-turn that came to an abrupt end by crashing into a grassy causeway.

Two narrow spurs of land approached one another from opposite sides of that enormous river. Even though each finger of roadway seemed daringly long in its attempt to cross, combined, both tracks still only secured half the requisite distance. Back in the days before the Outbreak, a ferry had shuttled passenger cars between the two opposing docks. The remains of both piers remained readily discernable at the tips of the roadways.

The local country had been a fertile farming valley until a modern dam project bottled up the river. That backed up flood had taken its current form, which was more akin to a monumental lake. Rising waters had forced the original rural inhabitants to abandon everything that would end up below the new considerably elevated lake level. Army engineers had systematically demolished all the doomed lowland architecture so that none of the buildings would later become underwater hazards for the future boats that would traffic that new lake they had formed.

It could have been sheer grandeur that inspired those demolition engineers to spare one structure in particular. The old riverboat warehouse was more than a century old. What remained was the epically sturdy cubical skeleton of iron hard reinforced concrete. The surfaces had many chips, small arms battle scars, and spray painted graffiti. Even while soaking waist deep in a river, the old warehouse seemed immune to any further natural decomposition.

Only one and a half of the uppermost floors remained above the water level so that they formed an artificial island out deep in the permanent manmade flood. The place had once warehoused and transferred cargo that it shifted between locomotives and riverboats. With one whole upper floor high, dry, and totally secure from land-based attacks, the half-submerged structure formed a massively strong and supremely isolated survivor base that was ideally out of reach from man or ghoul alike.

Jessica’s perch involved her lying on an old blanket that she had spread out atop the highest roof of the island fortress. Through her riflescope, she had an excellent view that watched the patrol boat beach itself at speed. It ramped inland so deep that there was no possible chance of the vessel ever returning to water without the assistance of major hoisting machinery.

One of the pirate boat’s raiders came out from hiding and then daringly got behind the heavy machinegun that had formerly belonged to the man Jessica killed on her first shot.

She calmly held her fire as she waited to see if the man was really foolish enough to begin shooting that cannon at her. The old warehouse island was a long way from the beached boat, yet it was well within range of that powerful high caliber machinegun. The ability of an operator to actually hit anything from such long distances was another matter.

The panicked pirate at the machinegun mount promptly fired off a confused spray of tracer rounds that made brilliant fireworks over the river. Some of the tracers kept burning as they skipped off the water’s surface as though hurled flat stones. Incoming heavy weapons fire was a rather lovely sight with its streaking luminous lines.

The martial display abruptly ended with Jessica’s third rifle shot that struck the gunner center-mass of his face. The impact blew his head apart into a mushy hairy bag of mess.

Jessica fully expected what turned out to be the inevitable consequence of them firing off so loud a weapon as that heavy machinegun. The epically audible cannon reports attracted the attention of every ghoul in the county. It would only be a matter of time for them to find the narrow finger of roadway that led out to the landlocked pirate boat.

The boat’s driver had smashed his face into the dashboard upon impact with land. He could have avoided the extra injury by wearing his safety belt. Battered, confused, and demoralized as he was, the driver was in no condition to switch off the high pitched shrieking of the powerful inboard engine that kept running at full throttle.

Those ghouls in the most immediate area were able to track the screeching engine sound directly to its source. Even more threatening were their screams of feeding hysteria that informed other infected where they could find exposed humans ripe for eating. The contagiously telegraphing shrieks told every ghoul that a confirmed sighting of humans had their frenzied hunt for victims officially underway.

Hardik spoke over his team’s radio channel, Their patrol boat ran aground. Thermal shows a large force of runners that is on direct route for laying siege to the pirate crew.

The young officer was high overhead where he piloted the night-invisible Black Hole airship. It afforded him an ideal overview of everything in the lake valley area. There were cameras to spare as he monitored every direction including a strong telescopic surveillance directed much further upriver.

He reported, Hotel Nellie has just reversed her engines. I see deck activity on the aft drive section. I believe they are preparing to launch two more of their smaller speedboats.

Jim had digital laser-ranging binoculars held to his face as he studied the Nellie. For the moment, Hatchet had them silently concealed in their small flat-bottomed boat. They lurked in a dark overgrown cove along the shore conveniently near to their intended target. Friendly survivors from the island fortress had loaned Jim their quite serviceable jon-boat.

The survivor community living inside the concrete island’s inhabitable interior had made shortwave radio contact with Kevin’s control room. They had requested to join King Louie and that they were in need of emergency assistance. More pressing than their desire to liberate themselves from a dead end situation, was an immediate threat of attack by homicidal river marauders.

Jim had quickly assembled a Forager team and then flown out from Camelot to answer the call. Sky Captain Gloria Robinson piloted the Black Hole on their swift response mission. Jim’s primary means of performing the actual rescuing would be by ridding the world of one more murderous band of outlaw villains.

The Nellie riverboat that Jim studied through his binoculars was a truly massive floating hotel in the motif of a Southern plantation mansion. It had formerly been a river-vacation tour craft, only habitat sized at more than seven hundred feet long and over fifty feet wide.

The mighty ship had twin upper decks, a hundred staterooms, and lavish common areas that had included fine dining and recreation facilities along all the rooftop patios.

At the forward end of the uppermost deck was a helipad complete with their own civilian helicopter.

Back at the rear end was a three thousand horsepower towboat that served as the supersized outboard motor that propelled the traveling Samuel Clemens blackjack and mint julep hotel.

I have to give them credit, Hatchet whispered to Jim. That is a real nice ride they got there. That would look good parked off the front lawn down at Foragers’ Castle. It would be a shame if you decided that we had to blow it up.

We haven’t gotten to that yet, Jim said intending it as a request for patience while he computed options and their potential practical rewards.

Jim agreed with his bodyguard’s advice, I do win the most if I take it back home undamaged. First, I have to get control over it. We are going to find that easy compared to moving it back to the Riverfront. There are canal locks between here and home. Even if we don’t take it back, it is worth our time to tie it off at their island base. On the off chance we ever come back out this way again, it could be valuable to us as a place to sleep or to land our helicopter for refueling.

Motion lured Jim’s binoculars back to the Nellie’s recreation deck where four figures rushed toward the hotel’s helicopter with the obvious intention of taking it up into the sky.

It was an event that Jim had expected as he said, Now let’s see if our inside agent can keep up their end of this operation.

Just as Hardik had predicted, two speedboats loaded with gunmen raced away from the rear of the Nellie on their way downriver to either rescue their stranded companions in the gunboat or engage the concrete island where Jessica was along with the small community of friendly survivors.

Hatchet was mindful of Jessica’s safety as he radioed, You’ve got two boatloads of trouble on its way down river to the island.

We’ll be ready for them, the queen sent back in radio clarity voice through her whisper mic. You both be careful too.

As soon as the speedboats were at a safe distance from the hotel, Jim gave Hatchet a hand signal to get them moving.

Hatchet twisted the throttle on the rudder arm of their jon-boat’s battery powered trolling motor. The electric propeller silently drove them on a course for the Nellie.

While Hatchet piloted, Jim had the freedom to watch the action ahead of him through his electronic binoculars.

The pirate helicopter was a common workhorse Jet Ranger that had paint markings for a radio station as though it had once done traffic reports or something similar for promotional purposes.

The pilot was already in his seat and powering up the whining rotors. Two other men attached a belt fed squad machinegun into the side door mount.

The fourth raider, the smallest one with the ghost mask, was their friendly inside saboteur that would help them to eliminate all the river brigands.

Because Hatchet couldn’t see much of anything, Jim narrated for him, I see the inside agent about to take action at their helicopter.

As the pirate furthest inside the helicopter turned away to get one of his misplaced tools, the traitor reached around the second pirate from behind to cover the man’s mouth with one hand. Jim’s conspirator slit the man’s throat with an arm hair shaving butcher’s knife.

The noise of the helicopter’s engine left the pilot and the backseat pirate both totally unaware of what had just happened.

As the other laboring pirate came back around, the agent seized him by his long hair and then plunged the bloody knife upward under the man’s chin to cut his throat too. It came as all such an unexpected shock to him that he hardly even resisted. To the end, he just couldn’t seem to believe it was happening.

When the pilot turned to look back from his seat, he immediately saw that there was a bloodbath murder scene going on directly behind him. Since it was obvious that the fourth pirate was a traitor intent on killing them all, the pilot hurriedly pulled at the sidearm he wore in a chest holster.

Because the murderous agent was already half inside the side door with a knife in hand, and holding a dead man by his bloody hair, there was no chance of outdrawing the pilot and then winning a pointblank gunfight inside the helicopter. The agile agent tumbled backward in a semi-controlled emergency bailout leap.

Jim’s insider had boots on the deck and pistol in hand when the pilot began spraying hasty bullets from his automatic handgun. Owing to the inherent value of panic, all of the pilot’s shots missed their intended target save one that made a solid punch into the agent’s concealed bulletproof vest.

The pilot saw the traitor go down apparently fatally wounded. He had no way of knowing to what degree his bullet had taken effect and he had zero enthusiasm for taking any further personal risks finding out. The pilot powered up the helicopter’s engine with every intention of flying away alone.

Hardik watched everything in telescopic nightvision clarity from aboard the Black Hole. He knew what happened down on the Nellie much better than Jim did. It was on his own inspiration that Hardik took action. He momentarily shined the airship’s main foglamp into the helicopter about to leave the recreation deck of the Nellie. It being the dark of night, the conical flash of illumination struck a brutal lightning bolt of bedazzlement. The helicopter pilot instantly found himself blinded and disoriented, certainly in no condition for taking off.

The ghost faced agent sprang up from under the helicopter, leaned in through the open side door, and then popped a pistol round into the side of the pilot’s skull. The flight helmet the man wore kept the bullet from getting out the other side of his head. It also prevented his bloody brains from splattering all over the interior of the cockpit.

The agent hurried around, dragged the dead pilot out from his seat, and then reached in to shut down the helicopter’s engine.

No other river raiders were out on the recreation deck of the Nellie where they could have gotten a direct view of the Black Hole’s light burst. The illumination had penetrated many of the windows of that floating hotel to leave the inhabitants with some vague understanding that an unidentified floodlight had painted them up like daytime.

The stranded pirates made sporadic gunfire as they suppressed the first few ghouls that already charged down the causeway toward their wrecked boat.

Those shots were enough to confuse the sounds of gun battle that came from the Nelly. The pirates in the two mobile speedboats had their eyes downstream at the time of the Black Hole’s light burst. The light had gone out again before any of them had time to turn back to see the illumination’s source.

Even without that direct observation, the pirates understood that something large and powerful hid itself somewhere out there. They readily sensed that a stalking predator hunted the river. It was as a killer whale that swam among helpless seals.

The drivers of the pirate boats held their original course. If the light was behind them, hastening down river only got them a safer distance away from it. Either the boats would rescue the men on the stranded gunboat or they intended to attack the island community, perhaps even both at the same time.

Sound rumbled down the valley as with rustled trees at the leading edge of an oncoming weather front. That storm on the horizon grew into a low collective murmur of onrushing ghouls. Their panting and snarling became the rebel yelling feeder shrieks of meat drones that had locked onto final course to kill a chosen visible target.

About forty athletic infected sprinted down the southern bank causeway. The grassy roadway strip was narrow enough that it compressed the pack into a furious scramble.

The pirates who were still aboard the stranded gunboat popped-off more of their audible gunshots in various small calibers. Each snap carried for a long distance along the river, and made it impossible that they would fail to attract even more hungry ghouls.

That barrage of bullets made the charging runner pack start to stagger. Most of those ghouls took some major bloody body wounds. Less than half of their wounded also collapsed. Of all those ghouls that did fall, most of them soon recovered to renew their attack.

The relatively few successful headshots were all the evidence any observer needed to predict that the marooned pirates had no hope of survival. They had failed to put up an effective defense at the least threat level. The size of the attack would grow increasingly larger for a minimum of the next half hour.

It was obvious enough to the stranded men that their situation was desperate. They needed the heavy machinegun to aid in the defense only they feared being the next victim of that survivor island sniper. They were right to be worried so it was battle wisdom not to needlessly fill her scope.

The Black Hole’s telecommunications and surveillance electronics ran on unique one-off custom operating system software that Kevin wrote to upgrade the heavily computerized airship. A plethora of ship’s antennas locked on to enemy radio traffic and then began to analyze it.

Pirate voice one transmitted, We will go after the boat.

A man from the second speedboat replied, We will give you some cover.

After Hardik listened to that first exchange, he activated the jamming signals. His immensely powerful broadcast used the channels the pirate radios needed. The jamming noise utterly overwhelmed their feeble handheld transmitters. Hardik could still hear their transmissions even though they had no means to hear one another. Their speakers only played the Black Hole’s white noise static.

Hardik reported the situation over a clear and encrypted channel for his own people, Active jamming is up and stable. One of their boats will attempt to rescue their stranded comrades. The other boat will be making a pass against the island. Radio conversations from inside the Nellie hotel report that they are now on alert over an unidentified flying object and mutinous gunshots onboard. There are three dead tangos on the roof deck. I confirm that one of the men down is their helicopter pilot. Guard number four is the only visible activity at the moment.

Gloria radioed, Give me regular updates on their boat positions. I want to wait until their rescue boat is fully committed, and then we’re going to take out the other one.

Roger that, Hardik confirmed the orders. I estimate your delay to be ninety seconds.

Guard number four staggered along the rooftop recreation deck heading toward the rear drive section of the Nellie.

The agent appeared to be favoring injuries as two new pirate raiders came up to the roof by an interior stairwell. Down below were the forward common areas of the hotel. Neither of the new pirates knew that guard number four was a deadly traitor and only feigning injury.

One of the raiders asked, What was that bright light? He rightly assumed that guard number four had been on the roof when strange things had started happening. Everyone heard gunshots. What has been going on up here?

He turned on us, the agent gasped in a painful whisper while a gloved hand thumbed back toward the helicopter.

Both pirates risked a momentary glance in that direction. That was when guard number four tried to stab one of them in the throat while at the same time taking a pistol shot at the other.

The stabbing victim pirate skillfully blocked the knife thrust in the same moment that the agent’s pistol went off to hit the second pirate in his bulletproof vest.

The harmless bullet hastened the pirate into raising his assault rifle for firing back in retaliation.

Pretending to fight for control of the knife allowed the agent to trip up that pirate so that he stumbled in front of the muzzle of his friend’s assault rifle.

A long burst of bullets ripped up his clothing from hip to lower back. A couple of the bullets didn’t penetrate his body armor vest, but more rounds got inside to shred his guts in what amounted to multiple lethal injuries.

The armed pirate spent his final moment expressing shocked disbelief because he had just inadvertently executed his friend who was not even totally dead yet.

Guard number four didn’t wait around to see if the man would come back from his self-incrimination. Several quick shots from the pistol put the man down. The last one went solid into his head, which proved instantly fatal.

As the mortally wounded friendly-fire pirate collapsed, he gasped out, Why?

I’m with King Louie now, the agent replied in a strong whisper so that the man would finally recognize her voice. Did you think I was going to help you and those other fools betray my father?

She stabbed the knife into the pirate’s neck and then left the blade for him to gargle on. After she reloaded her pistol, the agent picked up the other pirate’s assault rifle and then took the ammunition for that weapon as well.

Hatchet brought the jon-boat alongside the rearmost drive section of the river cruiser hotel. He stood in the boat while Jim carefully lifted up their ladder with its padded candy-cane boarding hooks. Once the ladder hung solidly in place, Hatchet handed Jim his submachinegun. As King Louie cautiously climbed the swaying ladder, Hatchet watched upward to stand guard against one of the pirates discovering them prematurely.

There were sounds of gunfire both near and far.

The tormented cries of antagonized ghouls assured that the whole countryside swarmed with their sneaking and chasing. Everyone in the valley had good cause for being on edge at the moment.

A white handkerchief waved overhead in the universal peace gesture. An older man stuck his head over the side to peer down at them through what was only a moderate darkness.

The weathered and whiskered man asked, Who do you boys work for?

Hatchet joked sourly, We’re Somali pirates. His submachinegun gestured with a thrust toward the ladder that implied that the man could help hold it steady so Jim could get up safer and easier. When the man did nothing, Hatchet said, We work for King Louie. We’re the good guys, pops. Savvy?

The older man checked to make sure their ladder had securely attached. Hurry on then. It’s clear up here, he waved for them to start climbing up faster.

The man disappeared from view only to return after a moment in some urgency, You need to keep quiet. One of them is coming this way.

Jim whispered a warning, The fourth helicopter guard is with us.

It was a break in the requested silence, but Jim couldn’t stand by and do nothing while his two secret allies walked into ambushing each other by mistake.

The older man departed with a small nod that seemed to acknowledge Jim’s plea for caution.

A moment later, four loud pistol shots went off from the same weapon.

Jim and Hatchet waited in uneasy suspense, prepared to shoot any pirates that looked down from the railing overhead.

The older man returned to tell them, That wasn’t your friend that I heard. It’s clear now. You can come on up.

Jim climbed up the ladder. When it was apparent that the old sailor didn’t plan to murder him, he accepted their host’s offering of a gloved hand to assist him over the railing.

A rolled back sleeve revealed a tattoo on the sailor’s forearm. Jormungand the World Serpent encircled the limb to end up devouring his own tail. Upon the loops in his coils was the script for the United States Navy and a graduate class from the nuclear propulsion engineering school.

Looking over to his right, Jim saw that a short distance away there was the bloody mess of a dead river pirate. The friendly sailor had gunned the man down by means of his pistol.

Hatchet climbed up to join them.

Jim told Hatchet, This is Russell from the radio.

Hatchet offered to shake hands with their new friend, I’m Hatchet, and this is Jim. How many men does the mutineer captain still have aboard?

The ghost-faced fourth guard arrived at the edge of the rooftop recreation deck that overlooked the powerboat. She gave a recognizing wave to the sailor before she started down the switchback exterior stairs that were right there.

Of the two enemy pirate speedboats that raced down the river, the larger and slower vessel stopped at the ferry pier to attempt rescuing the crew from the stranded gunboat. The smaller faster boat continued down river to assault the survivor island.

I have a shot on the incoming boat, Jessica radioed for her team to hear. It is not a good one. They are moving pretty fast and keeping their heads down.

Gloria and Henry Robinson did their waiting in the dark recesses of a half-submerged warehouse chamber. It was inside the dripping dank of the island’s concrete interior.

Keep that original heavy gun suppressed, Gloria radioed meaning the beached gunboat.

She was right that the weapon could do a lot of damage to the island or the Black Hole if the raiders got control of it again.

Henry and I will take care of this other boat. After a pause, Gloria asked, How is Jim doing?

Hardik radioed, They are in control of the hotel’s aft drive section now. I don’t see any exterior hostile activity.

Three of the men aboard the smaller speedboat sprayed their assault rifles at the depot fortress. Two of the men either missed entirely or only struck inconsequential areas. Their third man shot up the roofline accurately enough that his bullets shattered flowerpots, damaged deck furniture, and just generally made the rooftop a hazardous place to be even for Jessica lying prone under cover.

The queen complained, Someone on their side seems to know what they’re doing.

Zinging bullets were clearly audible throughout her transmission.

That’s it, Gloria announced that her aggressive indignation had outgrown her patience. She assured her husband, We’re going to get these jerkoffs, and then punctuated her words with a single press of the ignition button.

All three outboards on their state police patrol boat started up together. They delivered a thousand horsepower to the propellers. Gloria had enough boat to play pirates with guns.

Their secret boathouse was an interior island room on the half-submerged second story. Some old demolition work had cleverly carved out a downstream facing boat-launching hole that went through the concrete wall. Aside from that rough opening, their shelter had strong concrete walls on every side including the ceiling. Overhead were the thick cement floors of the survivor inhabited dry level.

Gloria had a heavy hand on the throttle as she launched their boat out of the bunker and then immediately set an intercept course for the pirate speedboat that was just passing their island to the right.

Henry reached into an open clamshell container to lift out his squad light machinegun. It was his personally tuned, belt ammunition consuming modern military weapon. Its nightvision green light optical scope made every relevant detail clear as daytime.

Gloria’s fast boat attack took the pirates by surprise. All their attention had remained focused on the survivor island with its possible retaliatory rifle fire.

The same moment they understood the direction of her roaring outboard engines, Henry gave them a firing squad of sheep slaughter bullets. Their lightweight pirate boat offered no protection against incoming gunfire.

The driver was first to go down when he took a shot through the head. Henry’s battlefield bullet so totally blew his face apart that no one could ever doubt the lethality of his condition. With no one driving the pirate boat, the throttle dropped way back. The boat turned unexpectedly and then nearly flipped. The other three pirates lost their balance as their boat flung them around close to overboard.

Gloria swept her boat up alongside the pirate vessel while Henry continued chewing into them with his belt of rifle ammunition. She brought them to a halt after he stopped shooting.

They both took a moment to gaze into the pirate boat. The bilge sloshed bloody water around all four of the pirates as they sprawled out apparently quite dead.

While Henry watched the pirates in case any of them only played possum, Gloria grabbed a couple of cargo bungees and then hopped over into the pirate boat.

First, she strapped the steering wheel into a go-straight position and then she pinned back the throttle into a modest one third ahead.

Henry caught Gloria’s hand to pull her back aboard their police boat. In parting, she used her foot to press the safety catch on the shifter lever and then slip it one place to engage the propellers.

The pirate boat would trundle off under its own power, finally to run aground where no one would be accidentally night crashing into it.

The pirate rescue mission boat tied off at the ferry pier that made up the inner tip of the long finger of roadway. They were bold enough to switch on their electric floodlights. Stumbling around in the darkness accidentally shooting one another wasn’t an appealing alternative to bright illumination.

Any chance of escape seemed heaven sent to the first pirate crew. The river brigands scrambled out from their wrecked boat to make a group effort to reach the ferry pier with the rescue vessel. Most of the desperate pirates fired automatic weapons into the approaching horde of ghouls. A couple of them heroically gave aid to wounded comrades that wouldn’t be able to run on their own.

Queen Jessica radioed to the Black Hole, Hardik, tell them we have control of the Nellie, the air, and the river. We will assist their survivors if they agree to surrender to King Louie. If they won’t submit, I will have to fire upon them.

Hardik stopped the Jamming of all pirate communications and then broadcasted his own voice over the ship’s external loudspeakers that would be clearly audible anywhere along the river.

Agree to surrender to the victorious army of King Louie and we will assist you in your rescue operation, his voice boomed over the pirates’ gunfire and the thousands of screaming ghouls.

Every pirate with a voice raised it in the unanimous cry for help.

Video screens that showed external cameras guided Hardik as he gracefully piloted down to make a bombing run along the length of elevated roadway.

He lowered the automated ballast jettison hose and then pumped out diesel fuel in a gushing shower. The roadway was so narrow that the breadth of it got damp in his washing for a length of forty meters. Losing that much weight in ballast caused the Black Hole to gain altitude for when Hardik finally pulled away again.

The petroleum deluge effectively drenched the sprinting ghouls. While diesel was irritating to their eyes and generally discomforting in other ways, the fuel didn’t stop their advance.

Malcolm the Forager gunner was in the cargo elevator room of the airship where he watched the ground through the open air hatch. When he heard the syphon draining its final wash, Malcolm scratched off an incendiary road flare and then dropped it out.

The blazing ember and the last splash of diesel fuel hit the ground together.

Flame they touched off whipped down the causeway as it ignited more fuel, the grass, and hundreds of ghouls who got drenched by the spray.

Hardik had the Black Hole veering away and the syphon hose retracting as the flames reached their maximum.

The reinforcements for the ghoul assault hesitated at the edge of the fire because they were unwilling to sacrifice themselves to its painful embrace.

One of the original crew of marooned pirates got behind his gunboat’s heavy machinegun. His deafening automatic barrage of bullets cleared the roadway of active ghouls that were inside the wall of diesel flames.

Queen Jessica had an excellent view from her survivor’s island rooftop position.

She radioed to Hardik, "Black Hole, when you come about, attempt to retrieve that gunner. The rest of