Shambler, by Jay Wilburn
The flak exploded off to starboard. The plane pulsed up into the air making Robert’s stomach lurch for a few seconds before the feeling of weightlessness lapsed. He closed his eyes and groaned.
“Doctor … are you okay?”
He opened his eyes and looked through the belly of the vessel in both directions. There were sixteen men besides himself in the plane. Most of them were weapons operators of different varieties. The radar operator and the pilots were the only ones actually focused on flying. He wished one of the gunners would take out whatever was firing on them from the ground. Their weapons remained silent, however, as they scanned the empty sky searching for fighters outside their own compliment.
“I’m the one that doesn’t belong here.”
The man next to Robert shouted over the deafening engine noise. “I’m sorry, Doc?”
Robert waved him off. He took the time to quadruple check the fastenings on the canister in the payload section. He ran his fingers along the chute releases again. The math should have been correct, but his brain wasn’t processing any of it in the exploding sky.
He looked back at the bombardier staring at him intently. “What’s your name, airman?”
“I’m Major Temple, Dr. Oppenheimer. You can call me Stan.”
“You can call me Robert, Stan.”
“Of course, Dr. Oppenheimer.”
“Were you involved in the other two drops, Major?”
“No, sir, we studied the specs and I’ve been given special clearance to the details … what with our payload here.”
Robert looked at the others manning their posts outside of earshot in the roar of the plane. “You know about Fat Man and Little Boy, then?”
“Of course, Doctor.”
“Do you think they reached target in one piece … Stan?”
The airmen looked down at the closed hatch like he could see the island through the metal. “The radio reports … translated in the materials would seem to say so.”
“Truman thinks its propaganda to possibly throw us off of the fact that the attacks were contained.”
“I don’t know, sir … I guess that’s why you are here, right?”
Oppenheimer rubbed both hands over his face and pulled the wool collar closer around his neck. “I’m not sure my expertise adds anything to opening the hatch.”
“Sometimes it is just the good luck we need … The Shambler can use all the magic touch it can get.”
Robert Oppenheimer looked around the vibrating interior like the plane was a breathing entity.
He whispered. “Maybe not living … but breathing.”
There was another explosion outside. Robert shook his head and braced himself. The plane didn’t lurch.
“That didn’t sound lucky, Major.”
“Every one that misses is all the luck we need, Doctor.”
Robert felt a ping under his hand that he had not realized was resting on the canister. He pulled it away with a jerk and saw the letters scrawled in white paint over the metal curve of its back: Lovely Lady.
“Maybe third time is the charm, Major.”
Robert lowered his ear to the metal canister like he was trying to hear a baby kicking. This baby already had her teeth.
“Can you hear … it?”
Robert sat back up and shook his head. “If I could, that would be a very bad thing.”
“There is really no air in there?”
“They don’t need it, Major.”
“They do breathe, right doctor?”
“It is a reflex … like phantom limb pain. The creatures don’t know they are dead. They don’t know much.”
“What do they know, Doctor?”
Robert stared at the payload for a few moments. “Hunger.”
He felt the plane change altitude.
“Are we there, Major?”
“Not quite. We are threading a needle to get to Kyoto without taking too much fire.”
There was another explosion and something peppered the outside skin of the plane. Robert licked his lips and took deep breaths. He looked down at the canister. He imagined the Lovely Lady heaving for air inside the vacuum and clawing to get out to hunt living flesh.
The plane dropped again.
“What is happening, Major?”
“Captain Brock is moving the Shambler down to the new drop altitude gradually. We’ll know when it is time before we reach the city.”
Dr. Oppenheimer nodded.
Stan cleared his throat. “Is it true they have Hitler’s head in a jar … still phantom breathing?”
Robert cut his eyes at the airman. “We don’t know where he is. We think the Russians got his body … his dead body … not breathing dead body …”
“Is that a cover story, Doc? I heard the Germans were working on … reanimation before us. Dr. Crowley wrote a letter to Roosevelt about it. Hitler was all into the occult and they were experimenting in the camps.”
Robert shook his head. “They were, but we beat them to it and beat them with traditional weapons before the Babylon Project produced the Fat Man.”
“If you say so, Doc.”
“Major … if the Germans had walking corpses before us, Europe would be crawling with them. We beat them. Japan should have surrendered sooner, if they knew what was good for them.”
The co-pilot came back through the plane and knelt between Robert and Stan. Oppenheimer couldn’t remember the pilot’s name.
“Doctor, Captain Brock needs to see you in the cockpit straight away.”
Oppenheimer wavered as he stood.
The copilot called, “Hold until further order, Major.”
Robert followed the pilot back to the cockpit. Another man was staring down into a scope behind the pilot’s seat. Oppenheimer could see the details of the buildings through the forward glass.
“God, we are low.”
The pilot glanced back. “Doctor Oppenheimer, I’m Captain Charles Brock. We don’t have time to be formal. Private Baker has something for you to see through the scope.”
“Are we over Kyoto, Captain? We should be dropping the payload and heading back to the fleet.”
“Look through the scope first, Doctor.”
The private moved aside. Robert put his eye to device like a microscope. The motion below made him dizzy at first as buildings whipped by revealing and concealing streets.
“Captain … I don’t understand what I’m … my, God.”
“Do we still drop?”
Oppenheimer stared in shock.
“We still drop … and now.”
He stared through the scope a moment longer.
“Baker, relay the order and we’ll─”
“I’ll do it, Captain.”
Oppenheimer walked back through the plane and stood back from the hatch. “Drop, Major Temple.”
“Do we need to follow the checks, Doc?”
“Stan … just drop her.”
The bombardier opened the hatch and let the canister fall loose from its fasteners. After just a few feet, the chutes burst free from the sides and the canister drifted toward the center of the industrial complexes of the city.
Stan reached for the lever to close the hatch, but then paused. Robert realized he saw it.
Flames licked up from some of the warehouses. The black smoke billowed up in the distance on both sides of the plane like a dark canyon. The people in the streets were dragging themselves along. Others were gathered in piles that indicated they had found what they were seeking. Once they were finished, they would seek more.
Wind ripped up into the plane from the open hatch.
The bombardier pulled the lever and closed out the wind. He turned to look up at Oppenheimer.
“They traveled from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. They beat us here on their own.”
Stan looked back down at the hatch. “Why did we drop the … what difference does one more make?”
“We didn’t want to bring it back. Where would we put it? When Japan surrenders, the Shambler and her crew will be in the history books for preserving democracy.”
Stan walked away from his position at the hatch. “The clean up effort will be hell.”
Oppenheimer smiled. “It’s an island. We can take our time.”
Stan shrugged. “They don’t need to breathe. Can they walk through the ocean?”
Oppenheimer stared down at the hatch. He began calculating ocean pressure, disease models, average walking speed, and the distance to the mainland.
Jay Wilburn is a public school teacher in beautiful Conway, South Carolina where he lives with his wife and two sons. He has published many horror and speculative fiction stories. His first novel, Loose Ends: A Zombie Novel, is available now. His novella “Circuit Rider” is featured in Realms of the Undead. He is a columnist for Dark Eclipse and for Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. Follow his many dark thoughts at JayWilburn.com and @AmongTheZombies on Twitter.