Thunder and Ashes: Chapter 5


Coast of Oregon

March 09, 2007

0956 hrs_

A MONSTER LURKED OFFSHORE. It wasn’t a monster of flesh and blood. Instead, it was a monster of steel and wiring, a hulking shape in the early morning fog. It approached the rocky shoreline slowly, carefully. As it approached, it began a slow, ponderous turn to port, giving the men onboard a clear view of the coastline. As the ship came out of the fog, the words upon its bow, at first wispy and enshrouded, stood out bold and clear:



On the bridge, Captain Prescott Franklin stood with folded arms, staring out the windows at the shore, a distant look in his eyes. All around him, the crew went about their normal business of making certain the ship was in a safe position, then proceeded to drop anchor.

“Ship’s secure, Captain,” reported Franklin’s second in command, a slightly built man with a receding hairline named Harris.

Franklin nodded to himself and sighed heavily. This was a day he had hoped would never come.

“It’s time, then,” he said out loud, hanging his head. “Give me the comm.”

Commander Harris picked up a radio handset, dialed out so the captain could speak to the entire ship, and handed the transmitter to Franklin. Franklin accepted it and slowly brought it up to his lips. He hesitated a moment, shoulders sagging, then clicked the handset.

“Crew of the U.S.S Ramage, this is the captain speaking,” he began. He let a moment pass before clicking the handset again and continuing. “I know we’ve been through a lot together these past few months. We’ve seen and done things we all prayed we would never have to do. We’ve seen things come about that we all prayed never would. And now I’m going to give the one order I prayed I would never have to. There’s nowhere left for us to go, sailors. We’re low on rations, low on fuel, and there’s not a friendly port that can accomodate us left in the world. Therefore, I’ve brought us back home.”

Franklin let go of the handset and sighed again. Harris stood closely behind him, hands clasped behind his back.

“Give the order, sir,” he quietly said.

Franklin nodded slightly, held the handset back up to his lips, and clicked the transmit button.

“All hands, prepare to abandon ship. I say again, abandon ship. This is the captain.”

Franklin let the handset drop to the surface of the console next to him, turning away from the bridge to stare out the windows once more. Around him, the crew responded to the order, taking off headsets and leaving the bridge. Harris remained behind, supervising the exodus. Franklin barely moved at all as his men prepared to leave their floating home behind. Duffels had been packed days before. The crew had known the order was coming.

Things moved swiftly. Within minutes, the remaining sailors of the Ramage as well as one civilian stood on the deck of the ship, waiting to be offloaded and ferried to shore.

On deck, the sailors were both excited and nervous about what lay ahead of them. The decision to leave the ship behind had not been an easy one, and it hadn’t been made overnight. Since leaving Sherman and his group of survivors behind on this very same rocky stretch of land, the crew had been through a lot. They hadn’t merely been sailing the oceans, safe from the infection.

The U.S.S. Ramage had been waging war.

After Sherman and his crew had disembarked months earlier, the naval destroyer turned southward, toward San Francisco harbor. Their orders had been to assist the Army in securing the city. By the time they had arrived, the city had been overrun. There was no Army commander to report to. He had been infected. The Ramage and the other four Naval ships in the bay loitered around for several days, occasionally picking up an uninfected survivor that had made it out of the city, but otherwise doing a lot of nothing.

Then an outbreak had occurred on one of the other destroyers in the bay, and the sailors hadn’t been able to contain it. The vessel was overrun within a day. When all radio contact had been cut off for five hours, the sailors presumed her lost. Seeing one of their ships effectively destroyed by the virus, the remaining four captains held a meeting.

They concluded, after nearly twelve hours of argument, that they were the sole remaining effective force in the area. That gave them operational command of the efforts to control the Morningstar strain in San Francisco. Therefore, they decided, they would carry out their orders to the best of their ability, and may God have mercy on their souls.

Within moments of the meeting’s adjournment, the four remaining destroyers turned their weapons on the city of San Francisco.

Missiles rained down on the metropolis. Skyscrapers came crashing down. The suburbs burned like a wildfire, consuming everything. The ships laid waste to San Francisco as might an angry Olympian god, and left behind only smoldering craters when they sailed out of the bay the next morning. The sailors could stand on the deck of their ship and watch the smoke rising up into the sky for hours afterward, long after the city itself had vanished over the horizon.

The four destroyers had parted ways soon afterward, each bound for a separate target. Two captains decided to go and see what was left of Los Angeles. Another plotted a course for Seattle. Franklin went to Portland.

Franklin and the captain of the destroyer bound for Seattle lost radio contact with the two L.A.-bound ships three days later, and they were presumed lost.

The Ramage had approached Portland slowly, scanning radio frequencies for any contacts. There were none to be found. The ship pulled in as close as it could and visually surveyed the city from on deck. Gangs of infected roamed the streets, and small fires were burning throughout the city. Franklin tried for two more days to raise someone in the city by radio, and then gave the order to drop what remained of the ship’s ordnance onto Portland.

Franklin and his sailors stood on the deck that night and watched Portland burn. It was one of the quietest nights of Franklin’s life. None of the sailors spoke to one another. Only the gentle sound of waves lapping against the hull of the ship broke the silence. All of the men simply stood and stared.

The next morning, Franklin tried to raise the captain of the destroyer bound for Seattle and got nothing. The ship had simply vanished. Franklin left the Ramage sitting just offshore of Portland for an entire day, repeating calls over the radio in vain. Not a soul responded. Franklin and his crew felt as if they were the only people remaining on the planet.

A pervasive sense of loneliness and emptiness washed over the sailors. Morale was at an all-time low. Fights were breaking out, and even the chief petty officers were having a hard time keeping the seamen in line.

Finally Franklin decided that what the men needed was a purpose. He turned the ship westward, and headed back out across the great Pacific Ocean. His destination was a speck of an island that they had visited once before, when Sherman had still been onboard. They’d received repairs and supplies in return for trade items from a man on the island named Hal Dorne. Franklin had remembered how much the men had enjoyed the tropical atmosphere and was banking on being allowed a return visit.

He was doomed to disappointment.

Hal Dorne himself was quite welcoming when the Ramage showed up once more off the shore of the little island he’d come to call home. The native islanders, on the other hand, were not. They had one radio that they used to get news and updates from around the world, and when they had stopped receiving transmissions altogether, they had decided that the best way to protect themselves was to continue doing what they had always done: mind their own business and keep any outsiders away.

Hal had argued on behalf of Franklin and his crew, trying to convince the locals to allow them sanctuary. When the argument turned into a shouting match, Hal suddenly found himself evicted. He’d stood on the deck of the Ramage making rude gestures at the locals until the ship had moved far enough away from the tropical paradise that the people on the shoreline were out of sight.

At first, Hal was the most irate, unbearable guest Franklin could have ever wished for. He cursed the crew of the ship up and down for “ruining his retirement” and kept going on and on about how he could be “laying in a hammock drinking rum” instead of being “trapped on this goddamn rustbucket.”

As time went on, however, Hal calmed down and accepted his fate as a new member of the crew. During an outbreak onboard months earlier, the ship’s mechanic had been killed, and Hal had done his time in the Army as a tank mechanic, so it seemed only fair for him to don the title of chief engineer. Franklin didn’t doubt the man’s ability. The ship had been damaged during that same outbreak, and Hal had been the one to come onboard and fix the problem. In a matter of hours, no less. The captain of the Ramage had every confidence in his new crewmember.

Then morale began to sink again. There were murmurs floating around the ship. Some of the sailors thought that they would be onboard until they died. Others thought they would drift aimlessly from port to port until the ship rusted out from underneath them. Still others claimed that they wanted off, to take their chances at surviving on solid ground and maybe having a future.

As the days and weeks passed, those few who claimed they wanted to leave grew in number until most of the crew stood behind the idea. Even Franklin considered it reasonable. As far as he knew, he was all that remained of the U.S. Navy. They wouldn’t be able to last forever onboard a destroyer. The men, he had to admit, were right. They had to leave the ship behind and find someplace more permanent, a place where they might have a future.

And so Franklin had turned the ship eastward again, and headed straight for the coast of Oregon. He still had the exact coordinates where he had dropped off Sherman and his men, and intended for his crew to disembark at the same location. Franklin didn’t know what had become of Sherman, but he did know several things.

Firstly, he knew Sherman was heading east, toward Omaha, Nebraska. For what purpose, Franklin could only guess. He knew, however, that Sherman was hoping to meet up with a doctor, one who might know a thing or two about the Morningstar strain.

Secondly, he knew that if Sherman and his men had managed to survive heading eastward from that cold, foggy point on the Oregonian coast, his men stood just as good a chance.

And finally, if Sherman hadn’t made it east but had instead holed up somewhere along the way, maybe the crew would run into them and join forces. That, however, was a pipe dream: the continental United States was massive, and there were hundreds of routes Sherman could have taken to get to Omaha.

And so Franklin stood on the bridge of his vessel, looking down at the assembled sailors (and Hal), wishing that it hadn’t come to this. Wishing that the pandemic had never occurred. Wishing he didn’t have to do what he was going to do next.

He spun neatly on his heel to face Harris, who was still standing at ease, waiting for orders.

“Commander, are the men ready to disembark?” Franklin asked.

“Aye, Captain. All present and accounted for,” Harris said, nodding.

“Good,” Franklin said, settling down with a sigh into a console operator’s chair. “Go down and join them. You’re in command of them, now, Harris.”

“Sir?” Harris asked, furrowing his brow at Franklin.

“You heard me,” Franklin snapped, flicking his eyes up to meet Harris’ gaze. “Get down there and oversee the debarkation. Make sure everyone’s armed and outfitted properly, just like we went over, and then get them onshore and headed east. But I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving my ship.”

Harris stood silently for a moment, opened his mouth as if to say something, then shut it again. He nodded curtly.

“Aye, sir,” he said, then turned and strode off of the bridge to join the men below. He shut the bulkhead gently behind himself.

Franklin sighed and folded his hands in front of him. It would be very quiet on the ship after the men had gone.

He’d use the time to catch up on his reading.


Commander Harris strode out onto the deck of the destroyer with a purpose, shouting orders and berating any seaman who wasn’t in perfect readiness.

“Secure that weapon! Double-knot those boots, son, what do you want to do, have them come off in the mud? Oh, Jesus, give me strength, sailor! You wear the damn webgear like this!”

Harris moved up and down the line, adjusting the equipment on the men and checking their packs. A few of the sailors were sent back off into the bowels of the destroyer to retrieve pieces of gear that they had left behind (“Decided not to pack that extra set of batteries, did you? That’s fine, sailor, that’s just fine—you’ll have to stumble around in the dark, that’s all.”)

Hal stood apart from the sailors, leaning up against a rail with a heavy pack strapped across his shoulders and midsection and a pistol on his waist. His arms were crossed and he watched Harris’ efforts with a carefully concealed look of amusement. Being a civilian, he was exempt from Harris’ inspection and was enjoying watching the dressing-down the commander was giving the sailors.

Finally Harris deemed the men ready to debark. Cargo netting had been lowered over the side of the ship to allow the men to climb down into the small boats that would ferry them, ten at a time, to shore. In total, there were just under fifty sailors leaving the Ramage.

Though the men hadn’t talked it over, both Hal and Harris harbored the thought that after a few weeks ashore, that number would likely be much lower.

One of their problems was a lack of weaponry. Months back, when they’d originally picked up Sherman and his troops off of the Arabian coast, they had already run dangerously low on 5.56 ammunition, the standard round for the M-16 assault rifle. As a result, the ship’s armory had a fair store of the rifles, but nothing to load them with. They did, however, have a healthy supply of nine-millimeter rounds and a full complement of standard-issue Beretta sidearms. Every sailor was going ashore armed, even if only with a pistol. Three of the sailors carried MP-5 submachine guns, which also fired nine-millimeter ammunition: they were the heaviest weapons the group was bringing along.

Another problem was food. The Ramage had been running low for weeks. Even so, the men had been allowed to raid the larders. All of the canned and fresh food had been eaten, but boxes of M.R.E’s still lined the shelves in the ship’s mess. The sailors stuffed as many as they could comfortably carry into their pockets and backpacks.

The third problem was where to go.

Hal, Harris, and Franklin had discussed that item at length. Franklin believed that Sherman would take the most direct route to his destination—Omaha—and traced a rough route on a map. Harris disagreed, and drew a separate route that was much longer but stayed far away from any major city. Franklin’s route took Sherman near Denver. Hal elected to not speculate. He said he didn’t know enough about the situation to make a prediction that lives might depend on.

In either case, both Franklin and Harris had agreed that Sherman would take a route that would head due East for at least fifty to a hundred miles to get away from the more heavily populated coastlines. The two Naval officers went over the roads near their drop-off point and traced the initial path the sailors would follow. Once they were far enough into the country, it would be up to them to decide which route was best for them to take.

Hal pointed out that the officers’ path led straight through an Oregon town called Hyattsburg, but the officers shook it off. They said that if the town looked like a risk, the sailors could always go around and pick up the road on the other side. Hal had shrugged and accepted it.

One thing that would work in their favor was communication. One of the sailors carried on his back a heavy field radio with a range of miles. If there were any operating relays in his broadcasting area, his signal would be bounced even further. Franklin had ordered the man to try and raise anyone on the radio at least twice a day, scanning the channels for transmissions. For the first few days, the sailors would all be in range of the Ramage and would be able to get updates from their home base as they traversed the terrain.

Hal watched as the first group of sailors climbed down the cargo netting and into the boat that would ferry them to shore. He scanned the faces of the men waiting to debark, and noted anxiety, excitement, and caution displayed on the faces of the sailors. They were more than ready to leave the ship after months onboard, but were worried about what they would face once they did.

Hal couldn’t agree with them more.

Hal wished for a moment that he were back on his island, back in his hand-built hut, sitting in his hammock and drinking something—anything—alcoholic. Reality was getting too weird for him. He was supposed to be retired, for fuck’s sake. He dismissed the train of thought as unproductive and shifted the pack on his shoulders as the second group of sailors began to climb down the cargo netting.

In the poet’s words, they had miles to go before they slept.


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