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THE LAST DEFENSE OF MOSCOW
A figure stumbled through the trees and a shot fired out. The bullet had caught him in the shoulder but he stayed on his feet, stumbling through the snow. Another shot and another, until the figure fell to the ground and did not move again. There was a cheer from the ranks; row upon row of conscript and professional soldier alike. And then there was nothing but silence as they waited in case the body started to move again.
"Gromyko!" The young man heard his name being called out and he saw a uniformed officer calling for him. He hoisted his scythe so it was above the heads of the men he had to pass to get to the end of the line and made his way slowly towards the soldier.
"Sir," Gromyko said when he reached the man.
"They tell me that you grew up near here," the man said. This was General Levitch, the man given command of the battle that was about to take place. They all knew that there would soon be a mass of the zombies stumbling from the woods now that the first one was dead. It was only a matter of time
"Yes sir," he confirmed. He had grown up on a farm that skirted the forest, and now he worked it with his father, scraping out a living but little more than that. He had thought many times of leaving, of going to Moscow to find a new trade, but he knew that he could not abandon his father.
"The enemy will soon be upon us Gromyko and I have a job for you."
Gromyko waited, not knowing if he needed to acknowledge the statement or ask what was needed of him. He didn't want to be here, none of them did, but every man woman and child in the area who could walk had been brought here. The fit stood in the front ranks while the old, the young and the weak were back behind the lines, safe from the conflict but unlikely to offer food for the zombies should they reach their homes. A stray creature would find no one on the farms and in the cottages to feast on today.
"Go with Captain Varos. He will tell you what is required. It is your job to ensure that he completes his mission. Do you understand?"
He didn't, but he acknowledged the order. Nothing made sense any more, least of all him being given something to do other than stand in a line with the men he had known all his life, knowing they might not all be alive at the end of that day. In fact there was every chance that none of them would survive if the threat that was about to emerge from the forest proved to be as unstoppable as many suspected. The zombies had swept through the continent like a plague, their ranks growing with every town and city they passed through and now a horde of the fiends was about to threaten the very heart of Mother Russia and they had to be stopped. The Russian winter had stopped Napoleon and Hitler, but would it be sufficient to stop the ragged corpses that could not feel the cold from reaching Moscow?
Gromyko led the way up the hill away from the massed ranks that stood ready to stop the zombies in their tracks, following Varos' instructions to take him as close to the edge of the woods as they could while taking the high ground. If Varos had walked alone he would almost certainly have fallen foul of one of the ditches that were now covered in snow, each step a potential broken ankle. But even in the snow Gromyko knew where they ran and where the run-offs gouged scars in the ground beneath the blanket of white.
Glancing back down the hill the scale of the assembled troops was even more impressive than down there on the ground. At the front were the farmhands and factory workers called upon to swell the ranks, behind them the uniformed solders with rifles at the ready. Though it was only from this standpoint that Gromyko could see the truth of the situation. The soldiers could not shoot at the zombies, even if such a tactic was likely to prove fruitful, while the peasants with scythes and pitchforks stood in front of them. They were not there to kill zombies but to deter deserters. On long winter nights by oil lamp, Gromyko had read about the tactic being used in ancient times; the Romans had placed forces gathered from defeated tribes into the front ranks of their army to draw the fire of the enemy. Cannon fodder before cannons had been invented.
To one side, away from the immediate danger were huddled the old and the infirm, the women and children and behind them the great hulking machines that their defense may ultimately rely on; the robots. The great brass and steel machines, which wheezed and squealed with each motion, were impervious to the attacks of the zombies and unstoppable. They had not been called upon for years but now they had been called back into action, prepared to see action at last. At the moment their engines were silent, their hydraulics relaxed and they stood like puppets whose strings have been momentarily relaxed.
Varos urged him on, drawing Gromyko from his thoughts and he pushed on, the soft snow making the going more uncertain. On the crest of the hill stood the farmhouse he had lived in all of his life, the house empty now and the animals left unattended in one of the barns. His father had wanted to leave the doors open in case they should not return to feed them. He could not dare to imagine them starving to death or the pigs turning on themselves when the food ran out. Gromyko convinced him to keep them safe, for without the animals there would be no future for them; nothing to fight for, nothing to protect.
As they skirted what they knew would soon be the battlefield the tree line grew closer. The creatures were supposed to move in a fairly straight path. They would continue in the valley towards the lines of defenses, the rows of sharpened metal farm implements ready to be used against the zombies.
"How did the gunshot manage to stop it?" Gromyko asked, pointing at the fallen body just beyond the edge of the tree line. "And how come there's only one of them? Where are the rest?"
"They will be here soon enough," the young officer said.
"But a single shot?" he could not believe how easy it had been stopped.
"He was not a zombie; not one of them."
"Not one of them?"
"If he had been one of them the gun shot would not have stopped him. It was Dimitri. He was sent into the forest to see how far away they were."
"And someone shot him?" Gromyko could not believe what he was hearing. They had killed one of their own and no one seemed to care, but was it by mistake or just in case?
Varos said nothing, just lowered his head and followed carefully in Gromyko's footsteps. "We have to position ourselves at either end of the trench." He pointed to the dark scar that ran for almost a quarter of a mile; a ditch that had been dug with the sweat of soldiers and peasants alike and filled with brushwood and valuable straw that had been soaked in petrol. "When the zombies come out of the woods we set fire to it. Not before."
"And then we run. If we can rejoin the ranks then so be it, but the General has made it clear that ensuring that the fire burns is more important than our safe return."
"That's very nice of him."
"He is confidant that his plan will destroy enough of the creatures that we will not be needed in the ranks. If they get through then the poor sods standing at the front will be caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They will have to kill or be killed. If they are bitten the soldiers behind them will be only too quick to make sure that they don't get the chance to infect anyone else." He drew a finger across his throat and that was all Gromyko needed.
The first of the zombies stumbled from the trees and despite being hit by rifle fire it did little more than lose its footing for moment and slow its momentum before moving again. This was the real thing; it was going to take a lot more than that to stop it. Gromyko was already in position at the far end of the trench and on Varos' signal set fire to the oil-soaked brushwood barrier that sat in the trench. He could not believe that the zombies had so little residual intelligence that they would walk straight into it, but that was not his concern. He had a job to do and no matter how he looked at it he could be one of the lucky ones who would have the chance to walk away.
A great gout of flame rose up, sucking the oxygen from the air, singeing Gromyko's hair and scorching his face, but he managed to hold on to the piece of wood he had used to ignite the barricade. He grabbed a handful of snow and used it to cool his skin before following the line of brushwood, touching the flame to it at intervals to ensure that the whole length was quickly ablaze. Snow and ice fizzed as it melted and evaporated in an instant in the heat that burst out, turning the ground where Gromyko was standing to slush beneath is feet when previously it had been hard as iron. Once he passed the halfway point he had reached the stretch that Varos had set fire to and they both threw their wooden torches into the inferno before running back the way they had come.
Even as they watched, back on the bank and pausing to catch their breaths, what must have started as a trickle of ones and twos of the zombies coming from the woodland had become a torrent, a great surge of stumbling corpses, a tide that had nothing to direct it and it moved inexorably towards the fire.
"Perhaps it will work," said Gromyko.
"Perhaps. It may thin out the numbers but I do not think it will be sufficient on its own."
The first of the zombies reached the burning barricade but did not even break its stride as it stumbled in the fire, its ragged clothes bursting into flame and its flesh burning as it fell onto the bonfire. It was followed by another and another, each one pushed by the mass of bodies behind. There was a great cheer from the ranks as the defense seemed to be doing its job and from their standpoint at least, it must have looked as if they would not be called into battle today. Gromyko could see that their celebrations would be short lived. The flames destroyed some of the bodies that stumbled into them but the mass of bodies that was still pouring from the trees would eventually break through the defense. The flames though, would mask the size of the horde from those who waited, until it was too late.
"We have to warn them."
"Warn them about what? The fire is doing its job for the moment at least. Any that manage to break through will be ablaze and easily dispatched once the robots are sent into the fray."
Gromyko wished he shared the other man's confidence. All he knew was that many of his friends would believe they were safe now and that the enemy would soon be defeated. The walking corpses continued relentlessly moving onwards, their bodies adding to the pyre as the brushwood began to sink into the trench sending sparks flying into the sky. Rotting flesh burned and filled the air with a stench more acrid than that of the burning oil, human fat rendered turning rags and bones into walking human candles, oblivious to what was happening to their bodies, until muscle and sinew burnt to nothing and they collapsed to the ground unable to move but still dangerous.
The weight of bodies, still thrashing in the flames, pressed heavily on the quickly charring barrier until the fire seemed to consist only of fallen corpses. Still they poured from the forest, a never ending tide until at last the weight of bodies began to dampen down the fire and clambering over the smoldering corpses the zombies emerged from the smoke. First in ones and twos but then a torrent of them stumbled through until it was as if the barrier no longer existed. Even Varos was surprised by the effect that the sheer weight of numbers had. Gromyko wanted to point out that he was right to have doubted the defenses now that the fate of Moscow could lie in the hands of peasants and farm boys.
At first there was the sound of fear and panic as the hope that they would not be needed to fight was dashed. There was still some distance between them and the hoarde but that was closing slowly. Another trap had been laid; a second trench covered in brushwood that the zombies would fall into but it was unlikely to account for the zombies in great number. It would soon fill with bodies to make a human bridge for those that came behind. Nothing could stop them unless the living's greatest weapon could deal with them and with the sound of escaping steam and the groan of metal on metal the engines of the great machines were fired into life. Pneumatics powered the joints of articulated limbs and the robots rose from resting positions, ready for action. Gromyko had never seen one of them before today other than in the museum. It was hard to think that something built so long ago could be relied upon to provide the defense that was needed; a weapon that could fight the zombies without risking human life.
The earth shook as the first of the machines took a tentative step and began to walk. Another cheer came from farmers and soldiers alike. Many wondered why they had been held to the sides of the ranks like cavalry on the wings of set piece battles, but that was the very reason they were there. With the enemy's potency relying completely on close-quarter battles it would be foolish to ignore the tactics that had been employed in ancient times when Roman armies had conquered entire nations even though they had inferior numbers. This was where you placed your faster, mobile units that could make lightning strikes and break the lines of the enemy forces
"Now we will see the strength of Mother Russia. We know that the foolish westerners have fallen to the hordes in places but it will not happen here. We will be victorious and when this is all over we will be the most powerful nation in the world. Let the zombies lay waste to the Americans with their inadequate machinery," said Varos.
Gromyko was sick and tired of hearing this rhetoric. What was wrong with the way of life in the west? This was a new world; a new age and the whole world had a common enemy. It made sense that everyone should be fighting together, not looking for ways to come out ahead at the end of the conflict. If an end ever came.
By the time the first of the zombies stumbled from the second trap the robots were in position, their great iron feet stamping on the walking corpses, arms sweeping through them two and three at a time slicing through corpses and breaking bodies as if they were playthings. More cheers, more shouts of joy from the ranks. Could the robots really deal with all of them though, or would they be overwhelmed by numbers? Gromyko glanced back towards the forest, hoping against hope that the last of the zombies had emerged and that the true size of the enemy could be at last assessed. Although the flow had slowed significantly there was no sign that it was about to come to an end. The flames of the first trench had almost lost their potency but still served to slow some of them down. It was essential that the robots complete their work quickly and efficiently if this battle was to be won. The farmers and soldiers were ready to play their part, but in truth they only wanted to be involved when the battle was already won.
"We should get back," said Varos.
"I thought you said that we didn't need to?"
"Our act of bravery and heroism," he mocked, "has excused us from the need to fight but that does not mean that I do not want to be part of the victory. I don't want to receive my medal for this if I spent most of the time standing ankle deep in snow and watching the fun without even being able to take part if I was needed."
"What about me?"
"That's up to you, but if you have friends and family down there you might want to join them."
What started as a brisk walk turned into something resembling a run as the incline of the bank made them move faster and faster despite uncertain footing. They were barely able to stop themselves when the first crash came, followed by a universal intake of breath. One of the robots had fallen and in moments the zombies were scrambling over it as if it was just one more obstacle to pass. Then another crashed to the ground and the snow fell from the branches of trees near where Gromyko stood and in a heartbeat later the bot exploded, sending shards of metal and body parts into the air and showering down into the snow.
"You still think that these things can be beaten?" Gromyko yelled but his companion was lost for words. He was rooted to the spot, barely able to believe what he was seeing, as if his whole world was falling apart in front of his eyes.
"We have to do something," he said at last.
"Do something? What on earth do you think we can do? Do you think that we can defeat these things with scythes and swords?"
"Maybe ... maybe the rest of the robots will be enough. Maybe there are more on their way."
"If there are more coming, why aren't they here already?"
Another robot hissed and ground to a halt frozen in a moment of time while everything else moved around it then in slow motion it started to topple over.
"You know what it is, don't you?" said Gromyko.
Excerpted from ZVR Diplomacy by JEFF CONNER, Mike Dubisch. Copyright © 2013 Idea and Design Works, LLC. Excerpted by permission of IDW Publishing.
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