Editor's note. Before we get started with this chapter, I want to mention one thing. The characters in this chapter are all Russian, and despite a little research I did prior to writing this chapter, I am not that familiar with these Russian names. If any of these are wrong, please let me know. I'm all about the accuracy. All right, on with the show.
The Graveyard Tales
Chapter Four: Bargaining Chips
Pyotr Titov sighed as he looked at the sonar screen aboard the Russian submarine SS Colossus. Before the Great Exhumation, as the world now referred to the undead plague, he had been a helmsmen aboard a destroyer, a career he knew would take him places, perhaps even a ship of his own one day. His father, a naval commander of no small repute, had been so proud the day his son graduated from the academy, he had promised on the spot to buy him a house the day he got married. No small gift, given that his father was legendary for being a tightwad.
Now, though, those dreams were gone, and Pyotr sat in the dank and dismal sub, watching for any American ships foolish enough to try and escape the Graveyard, the new name for what had once been the United States of America.
Once it became clear zombies were now the only residents of the U.S., their former allies had formed a blockade around the nation. The plague had to be contained at all costs, even if it meant torpedoing a boatload of innocent civilians.
In the early days of the Great Exhumation, boats from America had filled the seas, everyone desperate to escape the undead. They pleaded with the other nations, offered food, valuables, and other services not fit for mention. They pleaded, even when their ships were aflame and sinking, their family dead at their feet. In the beginning, it broke the hearts of those charged with executing these refugees, and drastic steps had to be taken when a rash of suicides and mutinies broke out among the naval officers.
But sinking the ships was not enough. Somehow, every American carried the zombie virus dormant inside them, which lent credence to the belief it had been inserted into their water supply. Regardless of how, the results were always the same. If not shot in the head, every dead American came back as one of them. Soon the sea floors were filled with zombies, millions of them, all victims of the 'kindness' of their friends from across the seas, all walking in the same direction.
The homes of those same friends. A veritable Horn A' Plenty.
Once more, decisions had to be made. Mines were laid on the bottom of the ocean, and ships never left port without a full compliment of depth charges. Deep sea divers were fitted with armor plating, to protect themselves as they wandered among the undead, killing as many as they could before their air ran out.
Thus it was understandable that the faint explosions in the distance were of little concern to Pyotr. But when his sonar pinged, indicating a vessel on the surface, he snapped upright. "Captain!" he called.
The captain, a bored-looking officer by the name of Stepan Federov ambled over to the station. Most sailors had long ago gotten over the guilt of killing unarmed families that had driven so many of their predecessor to eat a bullet. To those like Stepan and Pyotr, this was merely a job, and they looked on those ships they sank with no more interest than if they were poisoning a nest of hornets.
The captain's sigh echoed his subordinate's. He looked up, as if he could see the vessel, no doubt loaded with women, children and the elderly. They were probably wearing filthy clothes that were little more than rags, and likely carried travel-worn suitcases or bags filled with whatever they could find. Stepan had gone through the bags of the dead from time to time, and rather than food or clothes, found that most of the refugees carried money and jewels, no doubt trying to buy their freedom.
He shook his head sadly, for a moment allowing himself to feel pity for those about to die. "Damned stupid Americans," he said, the moment gone. "Why can't they just kill themselves and be done with it?"
"Perhaps they don't wish to become the same soulless monsters that drove them into the sea," replied Aleksandr, his second-in- command.
Stepan shook his head again, this time in annoyance. "Then they can shoot themselves in the head. Save us all a lot of trouble."
"Captain..." said Pyotr, unease in his voice.
"Yes, yes," said Stepan, waving off his subordinate's concern. "Helm, bring us up. Torpedo room, prepare to fire."
A word of acknowledgment came over the intercom as the captain looked through the periscope. He made it a point of checking the ships each time before firing. More than once a sub, in their zeal to defend their borders, had fired on a patrol boat, mistaking it for an American ship.
But there was no mistake. The ship itself was an old tug, more fit for a museum than the open seas. It belched filthy black smoke into the gray morning air. The plating was rusted and worn. If not for the threat posed by the passengers, it would be an interesting bet to see if the tug could actually make it to land.
"Too bad," said the captain. "My money's on it sinking."
"Captain?" asked Aleksandr.
But Stepan could not hear, so absorbed was he with the ancient vessel's passengers. There were around thirty of them. Their clothes were dirty and wet, and it was likely they had not bathed in several days. Most wore expressions of dismay and sadness, but a few, mostly the children, wore hopeful smiles, convinced their parents would keep them safe. It's nice to have a dream.
The captain was about to give the order to fire when he saw one of the passengers wave a white flag. Usually a sign of surrender, in these situations the flag was also used to signal when a ship wanted to talk. Stepan told the helmsman to surface. This was never easy, but he was honor-bound to do it.
The person waving the flag, a woman around 40 years old, beckoned the captain closer. Stepan ordered the sub to move alongside the tug, wishing he were anywhere else but here. Sinking a ship of innocents was hard enough from the isolation of the sub. Having to tell a group of women and children they had to turn back or die-in this case was the same thing-was like twisting a dull knife in his heart.
Seeing the pleading expressions on their faces, the captain tried to be as blunt as possible. "I'm sorry, but American ships are banned from these waters. You have to turn back immediately. We will provide an escort to make sure another sub doesn't sink you, but you are not welcome here. I'm sorry."
"We can't go back," said the woman who had waved the white flag. "You don't know what it's like. We haven't slept in days, we barely eat. I had to shoot my husband in the head when he was bitten. My sons..." she broke off, weeping.
"If we let you land on our shores, you'll just bring the plague here," said Stepan. "Even if you haven't been bitten, you all carry it inside you. Remember what happened to Ireland?"
Stepan remembered what happened to Ireland. Eager to help their American brethren, the Irish government had opened its borders and its arms to the refugees, convinced they could succeed where the United States had failed.
It took three hours for the nation to be consumed.
Stepan had watched on television as nuclear warheads from his country and several others incinerated the island's population, which included his brother, one of many aid workers eager to help the poor, downtrodden Americans. Oh yes, he remember what happened to Ireland all too well, and not a day went by that he tearfully begged God for forgiveness for failing to save his brother's life.
Undaunted, the woman held out a small basket. Inside was jewelry, cash and other valuables. Federov even saw a solid gold cross, no doubt a priceless family heirloom. This was not the first time he had been offered such riches for safe passage, although he was surprised the captain of the tug hadn't already fleeced these poor sheep. To some, the Great Exhumation was simply another chance to become rich.
Stepan Federov held up his hand, shaking his head. "I'm sorry, but my orders are clear. If you don't turn around and leave right now, I will be forced to fire."
The woman dropped the basket of riches and reached down for something. Stepan was expecting another bribe, but what happened next shocked even him.
Instead of gold or money, the woman held a child, a small girl of three, swaddled in blankets like an orphan found on someone's doorstep. Desperation in her eyes, she said, "Then please take my baby. She deserves a life away from all of this. Please."
The moment of pity the captain felt for the refugees came back a hundredfold. He had two small children of his own, and had spent many a sleepless night wondering what he would be willing to do to save them should the plague ever make it to his country's shores.
The young girl smiled happily, laughing as her mother held her close. How nice it must be, thought Stepan, to be so ignorant of the horror which claimed this world. It truly was bliss.
Accepting a bribe was punishable by court marshal. Bringing a child from the Graveyard to his country? Stepan's hand went to his neck, feeling the imaginary noose he would model if he was caught committing such a crime.
The woman held out the baby, and though every instinct screamed like a chorus of air raid sirens to stop, the captain of the SS Colossus could not help himself as he reached for the child.
As he got closer, the captain saw a strange bulge near the child's feet. He could hear a light metallic clink, and it was then he realized. Chains. The child's hands and feet were bound. He could see a thin sheen of sweat on the girl's forehead, and her skin was pale, blue veins visible. She was infected. Not like the others, with the virus dormant inside them. She had been bitten.
Seeing the fear on the captain's face, the woman knew her ruse had failed. Without hesitation she dropped the child into the sea, the chains swiftly pulling the young girl under. She reached into the bundle of rags she wore, and pulled out a small pistol. Others aboard the ship also drew weapons, and in a moment Stepan Federov, Captain of the SS Colossus, was dead, his body perforated by gunfire.
Wasting no time, the refugees swarmed over the sub diving into the conning tower. The crew, unaware of what had happened, were quickly killed by the armed Americans.
On the bridge, Pyotr and the others had sealed the hatch, and were preparing to descend. With a loud bang, the door was blown off by plastique explosives. Pyotr drew his gun and managed to fire a pair of wide shots before his chest exploded from the impact of a shotgun shell. As he fell to the steel deck, he stared in wonder at a pair of twelve-year-old boys, fanatic hatred in their eyes.
The refugees' shouts of triumph quickly turned to cries of death. The sub had begun to descend, and in their haste to get inside, no one had bothered to shut the hatch. Salt water rushed inside, and within a few minutes, the mighty vessel's descent quickened, until she came to a thunderous crash on the ocean floor.
For a moment, there was only silence, punctuated now and again by the muffled shouts as those aboard the sub drowned. Then, a new sound filled the water. Garbled though it was, it was unmistakable.
The sea floor, once so still and serene, suddenly came alive-so to speak- with thousands of zombies, refugees consigned to the depths by ships like the Colossus. As one, a tide of death swarmed into the sub, the freezing temperature and lack of air doing nothing to deter the barnacle-encrusted ghouls from the treats inside.
The water took on a red tinge as the undead tore the victims and attackers apart with equal savagery. Within minutes there was little more than bones and scraps of cloth, a macabre memorial to the crew of the Colossus and her would-be hijackers.
One of the zombies, a three-year-old girl swaddled in blankets, seemed to smile as she slowly chewed on her mother's face.