Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Perfect Ticket

McClane-Bauer 08
Who else is going to save us?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Zero Plus Three: Oregon

On the contrary, I think that events taking place outside the foxhole provide an excellent argument for being an atheist.

- a snappy rejoinder to the old saying

Death, Porter had discovered, had an ungodly stench about it. A combination of decay and excrement whose whole was far fouler than the sum of its parts.

He was traveling through the amorphous blob of territory that currently described the frontline, a no-man’s land where neither side had had an opportunity to attend to the dead yet. Even when the bodies were removed, the smell lingered in the area for a while.

The vast majority of the bodies Porter saw were Chinese soldiers, but that didn’t change the fact that they were advancing. He had hoped to reach his hometown before the Chinese, but by this point it seemed that they had won the race. Eugene was nearly fifty miles inland, but the Chinese were advancing much faster in Oregon than down in California, which was much more densely populated, particularly along the coast. Oregon was still more wilderness than civilization.

Wilderness that was easier to hide in.

He was approaching Eugene from the north, but had been avoiding Interstate 5 as much as possible because of all the refugees clogging it. He wasn’t sure where exactly people thought they were fleeing – the Chinese had already cut across the 5 to the north. Now he waded across the McKenzie River to enter the city rather than fight through the cars snarled on the bridges into town.

As he worked his way through the northern part of the city, Porter saw he had been half right about the Chinese beating him home; from the gunfire and heavy explosions to the west it seemed like the Chinese were definitely in Eugene, but they still seemed to be confined to the far side of the Willamette River. This proved little consolation to Porter, who happened to live on that side of the river.

Earlier that day he had debated whether or not to scavenge an assault rifle off a dead Chinese soldier he had stumbled upon. In the end he decided it would be too risky; if he ran into a Chinese patrol he would have a difficult time explaining his souvenir. But he did have a Chinese pistol buried deep in the contents of his backpack and the weight felt reassuring now.

After a little less than an hour of picking his way across the city Porter realized the fighting actually signaled an attempt by the Chinese to cross the river. Artillery shells were raining down hard on this side of the Willamette, pounding positions near the riverbank. On his trip across the city he had caught a few glimpses of people shuttered inside their homes, but practically no one was out on the street. Thus he was rather surprised when he spotted two teenage boys in the distance running down a residential street towards the fighting. He was even more surprised when he recognized them; their uncle Frances ran an army surplus store Porter sometimes shopped at for winter gear.

“Brian! Stephen!” he screamed at them. They ran on, unheeding; this close to the river the artillery was a deafening blanket of thunder. Porter could see that the boys were tottering awkwardly under the weight of green metal ammo containers they carried in both arms. He cursed under his breath and chased after them.

He had lost sight of them, but kept running in the direction they had been heading. The residential neighborhood quickly gave way to industrial business parks. As he trotted to a stop a few minutes later to catch his breath and get his bearings he realized that the artillery had stopped landing nearby; the only explosions he could hear now were dull and distant. Before he had much time to ponder the significance of this, he heard the tearing sound of a machinegun firing nearby.

With a sinking feeling, Porter dashed in the direction of the sound. A fusillade of automatic gunfire answered the machinegun, but they sounded puny next to the steady hammering of the larger gun. Porter huffed up an embankment and discovered the scene of the gunfight.

The machinegun fire was coming from the roof of a warehouse. Porter could barely see the sandbags peeking over the edge of the roof, but the weapon spat a tongue of flame that betrayed its position. Porter followed the bullets’ trajectory with his eye and saw a group of Chinese soldiers groping for cover in rows of self-storage units. The machinegun’s bullets made sharp pinging noises as they punched through the thin metal of the storage units’ doors. Half a dozen Chinese bodies lay sprawled in the grass lawn below the warehouse where the machinegun had caught them out in the open.

As Porter hunkered down trying to decide what to do, a flash of movement from the opposite end of the warehouse caught his attention; Brian and Stephen were sneaking out the back of the warehouse and running away from the fighting; the ammo containers were gone. That meant the maniac on the roof was probably Frances. It figured.

The machinegun was keeping the Chinese pretty well pinned down, and for short breaks in the cacophony of gunfire Porter could hear some of them screaming in pain. Some of the soldiers were trying to crouch or crawl their way towards the other corner of the warehouse, out of the deadly arc of fire. Porter could see a few of them waving animatedly towards their rear, and a moment later a large armored vehicle drove into view.

It had six oversized tires and its undercarriage was caked with mud, which probably meant it had recently crossed the Willamette. The machinegun on top of the warehouse shifted focus and hammered at the vehicle. The all-terrain tires were sturdy, but the machinegun managed to shred them after a few concentrated bursts and the machine ground to a halt as its nose burrowed into the dirt. The bullets ricocheted harmlessly off its hull, however, and a turret on top of the vehicle swiveled towards the warehouse. The machinegun fell silent abruptly and a second later a missile tore out of the vehicle’s turret and streaked towards the warehouse.

Porter threw himself down the embankment and rolled. The explosion that followed felt like someone had sat on his chest – hard. He peeked over the embankment and saw the corner of the warehouse that had housed the machinegun nest collapse, spilling sandbags and roofing material into its interior. Porter ran away from the Chinese, along the embankment.

His whole body was shaking and for a few moments Porter was afraid he was going to lose it and break down. But as he raced past the other end of the warehouse he saw Frances fling himself onto a utility ladder leading down from the roof. Porter sucked in a breath that relieved his tightened chest and Frances slid down the ladder like it was a fire pole.

Frances jogged away from the warehouse, a pistol clenched in both hands. Porter waved frantically at him, wary of calling out. Frances stopped, startled, and half raised his sidearm. But he squinted at Porter, then peered cautiously down the side of the warehouse and dashed down the embankment towards him.

Porter had to grab him to slow his downhill descent. Frances’ face was covered with dirt but his teeth shone brightly as he grinned madly at Porter.

“Hey, buddy, what are you doing here?”

“Are you insane?” Porter hissed. The question was absurd, as Porter belatedly realized – he had known the Army veteran wasn’t right in the head for some time now, even without all of this. Frances blinked in confusion at him.

“Sorry, what? I’m a little deaf at the moment.”

“What the hell are you doing, French?” Porter grabbed his arm and the two of them started jogging away. “Where did you get a machinegun?”

“What do you think ‘army surplus’ means, Porter?” Frances laughed. “I have a couple toys stowed away. You really should never man an MG emplacement by yourself, but I couldn’t very well have the boys crewing with me.”

“But having them fetch ammo is all right?” Porter asked dryly.

“You saw Brian and Stevey?” Frances jerked his head around to look at him. “They get out okay?”

“Yeah, they got out of there before that vehicle showed up,” Porter said grudgingly, feeling like he was somehow letting Frances off the hook.

“That’s good. They’re good boys. This here’s a short cut to my brother’s place.” The two men slowed to a stop. Frances looked through a grove of trees. “You got someplace safe to go?”

Porter chewed his lip. “I originally wanted to get home somehow.”

“You’re more than welcome to stay with us.”

“No, it’s not that. I just need to collect some of my things from my house. I’m not going to stay in Eugene as long as the Chinese are here.”

“The west side’s all Chinese,” Frances said grimly. “But … it seems like their main attack is coming from the south. There aren’t too many good places to cross heavy equipment up where the McKenzie and the Willamette fork. You could probably sneak across there.”

“All right,” Porter sighed. “Look, French, you take care of yourself. I can’t ask you to …”

“Let’s go,” Frances said, turning on his heel and heading north. Porter stared at the back of his head in surprise for a beat, then dashed to catch up with him.

“What are you doing? What about your brother’s place?”

“Aww, he’s gonna yell his head off at me for giving the boys some exercise,” Frances waved his hand dismissively. “Let him sleep on it and cool off some. Besides, I ought to check up on the store.”

“More toys?” Porter asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Maybe,” Frances said coyly. “Maybe I just want to make sure my business isn’t getting looted. Or, if it is, that at least the right sort of people are looting it.”

They hiked their way over a ruined golf course, the fairways churned into mud by tracked vehicles. Then they squelched their way through the marshy water and the myriad tiny rivulets that sprouted from the diverging Willamette and it’s mature offshoot the McKenzie. By the time they cautiously sloshed ashore on the west bank the sun had set and the sound of fighting to the south had subsided to infrequent spats of gunfire.

They worked their way carefully through the neighborhood of Santa Clara, street after street of suburban homes. They saw a few Chinese trucks drive by a few blocks away, but for the most part this part of town seemed deserted. As they were cutting through a high school campus, Frances suddenly slammed his hand into Porter’s chest, stopping him up abruptly. Frances stood tensed for a moment, his limb held rigid against Porter. Porter peered into the gloom – he thought his sense were pretty well honed from hunting, but he had no idea what had staid his companion.

“Americans!” Frances suddenly said, loudly.

“Come,” a nearby voice called back, startling Porter. A nearby classroom door cracked open and Frances slipped towards it. After only a second’s hesitation, Porter followed.

An American soldier in dark green held the door open for them and quickly but silently slid it shut as soon as Porter was inside. Two more soldiers watched them from the shadows of the classroom, their rifles slung at half-ready over their shoulders. The soldier and Frances hunkered down to put their heads below the window line, and Porter followed suit.

“Howdy, Sergeant,” Frances grinned. “Welcome to Oregon. Master Sergeant Frances Sail, US Army, retired. This here is my neighbor, Porter Flanders.”

“Gentlemen,” the soldier greeted them solemnly. “Sergeant Edward Duke, 82nd Airborne. In the corner are Privates Chapel and Ralley.”

The other two soldiers nodded at the civilians.

“What brings you to our neighborhood, Sergeant?”

“The Third Brigade Combat Team was dropped into the Willamette Valley to try to slow the Chinese advance,” Sergeant Duke frowned. “We wound up defending Eugene, but our unit was cut off during the retreat to the other side of the river two days ago. We’ve been reconnoitering and harassing the enemy since then.”

“What’s the presence around here?”

The paratrooper dug a map out of his satchel and lit it up with a tiny, red LED flashlight. He pointed to handwritten notes with a nub of a pencil as Frances leaned over his shoulder.

“Their patrols are pretty light up here, mainly enforcing curfews among the civilians who are still around. The main staging area for the attack across the river is the university campus at the bend in the Willamette. That’s where most of their equipment and men are concentrated.”

“We saw a Chinese crossing up in the northern part of the city, but it was pretty light,” Frances said. On the map he pointed out where they had encountered the Chinese troops and then outlined their own journey to the west side of the river. Sergeant Duke made notations while he talked. Then Frances located his shop and Porter’s home on the map and asked if the sergeant knew anything about the area.

“Haven’t seen the area in person, but it’s far enough from the river that it should be out of the PLA’s operational area. Shouldn’t be too many patrols, and I doubt they’ll shoot civilians even if they catch them after curfew.” He cocked his head to the side and scrutinized the two of them. “You sure you really want to be back here, though? You’re in occupied territory now.”

“Occupied or not, it’s still our home,” Porter shrugged. “They don’t have any business keeping us out, and I’m willing to bet they can’t keep us in.”

Porter hesitated a moment before continuing.

“If you and your men want, we can shelter you. Get you some civilian clothing to blend in, maybe try to sneak you across the river to the American positions.”

Frances studied the ceiling awkwardly, as if Porter had committed some social faux pas that had embarrassed him. Sergeant Duke just smiled at him.

“Don’t worry about us, sir. We’re paratroopers. We’re trained to be surrounded.”

Porter and Frances unpacked all the food they had on them and left it with the soldiers, who thanked them gratefully. They shook hands around the room and wished one another luck and then the two civilians slipped out into the night.

Light as they were, they had an awkward time avoiding the Chinese patrols. They trailed a safe distance behind a Chinese APC that seemed to be following a route eerily similar to their own, until finally they reached Frances’ army surplus store. After confirming the area was clear of observers, Frances unlocked the heavy padlock in the back and they slipped inside.

“All right,” Frances said, looking around the gloom of the shop. The store seemed unmolested. “What do you need? It’s on the house.”

“You sure?” Porter asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Sure I’m sure. Don’t think I’m going to be allowed to open for a while. Besides, it’s not like you can carry off my entire stock on your back.”

They walked up and down the aisles with flashlights rather than turning the store’s lights on. Porter already had a fairly complete set of wilderness gear at home from hunting – in fact, that was the main thing he had come to retrieve – but Frances had plenty of supplies, and a couple of gadgets Porter had never had the money or the inclination to buy before.

“Night-vision goggles, GPS tablet, satellite phone,” Frances said, stuffing the items into the new internal frame backpack Porter had picked out. Porter was raiding the dehydrated food section. “Here, grab some of those MREs.”

“I’ve had ‘em before,” Porter grimaced distastefully. “I prefer the commercial stuff.”

“Trust me, just take a couple,” Frances said. “You don’t have to eat ‘em except as a last resort. But they last forever and they don’t need a fire to prepare.”

Porter conceded and stuffed a couple of the military food rations into his pack. Frances did have a limited number of firearms hidden away on the premises, but Porter settled for some ammunition for his .30-caliber hunting rifle at home. Once they had finished with their shopping spree – Frances fairly staggered under the weight of his backpack – they slipped back out the door and into the night. Frances showed Porter how to operate the night-vision goggles, and with the lightweight electronics painting the night like day they quickly and confidently traveled the quarter mile to Porter’s house without any trouble with the Chinese.

By the time they slipped into Porter’s house it was well after midnight, they were still soggy from crossing the river hours before, and Porter was beat from hiking for the better part of three days. Porter shrugged off his new pack and sank into a chair with a sigh.

“You can hit the shower first, French,” Porter said, just leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes for a luxurious minute. His contacts stung from the sweat and grime that came with leaving them in his eyes for days at a time. “I’m going to try to make a couple phone calls.”

“Thanks, buddy,” Frances said, patting him on the back. As he trudged up the stairs towards the one bathroom, Porter dug out the phone from the kitchen. He looked up the number for his friend – and eye doctor – Aric on his cell phone but dialed on the land line; the wireless phone had been essentially useless for the past three days.

The phone rang and rang, and for a while Porter was afraid he was calling too late, but eventually Aric picked up the other end.

“Hello?” the voice came warily from the phone.

“Aric, it’s Porter. Sorry to call so late …”

“No, no, don’t even worry about it. Crises make for unusual schedules.”

“How are you guys? Martha and the kids are okay?”

“Yes, thanks. The kids are scared, but that’s … well hell, I’m scared too. What’s going on with you?”

Porter took a breath.

“I need to get corrective surgery, tomorrow. I can pay cash.”

“What are talking about? The office isn’t open. I don’t even know if the Chinese will let us go into work. It would be better just to wait until things settle down.”

“I don’t plan on sticking around until things settle down,” Porter said pointedly. The other end of the line was silent for a while.

“All right, come in tomorrow, I’ll figure out some way of making it work.” Almost as an afterthought, right before he hung up Aric snapped, “And don’t insult me by trying to pay me.”

This relieved Porter somewhat; he wasn’t exactly sure how he had planned on getting his money out of the bank if no one decided to show up to open it. He had a couple of valuables, but he hoped to take those with him when he left.

Porter had been hiking and hunting the hills and woods of Oregon since childhood. He would rather take his chances living in the familiar wilderness of the Pacific Northwest than under a Chinese boot.

He leaned back in his chair and rubbed at the grime on his face. He was going to enjoy a shower and a night in his own bed tonight. He didn’t know how long it would be until he enjoyed them again.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Zero Day: San Francisco

Everyone was trying to get out of San Francisco. People instinctively try to return home in a crisis, seeking familiarity and what they perceive as safety. Bernard Kao lived in Piedmont, which meant he had to take the Bay Bridge.

The bridge was now packed bumper to bumper with people fleeing the Chinese troops landing in the city, even after observant (or desperate) motorists had realized no one was taking the bridge into the city and had appropriated the inbound lanes on the upper level of the bridge for themselves. Bernard had been crawling along for more than an hour and had barely gotten past Yerba Buena Island when traffic came to a complete stop, seemingly for good this time.

People started climbing out of their cars and milling around on the bridge. A cascade of horns from the other span signaled a hopeless effort to reverse the flow of traffic on the inbound lanes to the proper direction once again. A missile roared by overhead – it seems like the damn things had been in the air constantly since the invasion started.

A man had jumped up on the top of his van and was looking along the curve of the eastern span to the distant Oakland shore.

“There are soldiers setting up a roadblock at the end of the bridge,” he reported to the crowd in general. “They’re not letting anyone through.”

“They can’t do that!” someone yelled in a voice tainted with frustration and near panic that appealed dangerously to Bernard’s own mood. “The Army isn’t allowed to do that!”

“It’s not our army,” the man on top of the van snapped back. The chatter of the crowd quieted soberly.

Bernard stepped out of his car and almost got hit by a motorcyclist weaving through cars the wrong way. Bernard resented the motorcycles that cut through the Bay Area’s perpetual gridlock as a matter of course – and especially so today.

Bernard walked in the direction of the blocked end of the bridge as if in a daze. His grandfather had lived in Taiwan until he eventual decided even that was too close to the PRC for comfort, and thus his family had come to the United States. Bernard still remembered his grandfather’s stories of communist intimidation and oppression, like ghosts out of his childhood. For him it was like the boogey man had suddenly come to San Francisco.

Bernard walked up to the van. “Hey, buddy, can I get a look?”

The man with the binoculars looked down at Bernard blankly for a few seconds. Then he stooped down and offered his hand. “Sure, climb up.”

Bernard grabbed his hand and crawled up onto the roof. The man handed him the binoculars and Bernard scanned the end of the bridge. Traffic was slowly but doggedly backing away from a roadblock set up by several Chinese armored personnel carriers. From this distance he could vaguely make out individual foot soldiers milling about. Next to the bridge, smoke roiled up from the army base and naval supply yard in Oakland.

“Look at this, landing craft coming in,” the binoculars’ owner tapped him on the shoulder.

Bernard turned around and looked out towards the Pacific, over the little strip of land that connected Yerba Buena and Treasure island. A single-file line of troop transports was chugging into the bay, passing between Alcatraz and the shore of North Beach. Bernard passed the binoculars back to the owner, who scanned the line.

“Jesus, they go on forever. The line stretches all the way back to the Golden Gate.”

For a while they stood rooted in place, watching the ships. The line had split in two and half of the ships had veered south towards the eastern shore of San Francisco. The other half seemed to be looping around Treasure Island and headed towards the army base on the Oakland shore.

A screech of metal nearby yanked them out of their reverie.

An old model car was battering the guardrail that kept traffic from going over the side of the bridge. The driver was making cautious charges with his vehicle while two of his friends directed him from on foot. Other drivers had drawn a wide berth around the ramming operation in apprehension. When the bumper had weakened the guardrail enough that the car was in danger of plunging over the edge, the pedestrians waved the driver out of the car frantically. He jumped out and his two associates ran to the back of the car and braced themselves against the bumper.

“What the hell are they doing?” Bernard’s host asked quizzically. Bernard stared at the erstwhile driver, who was peering over part of the guardrail that was still intact. The nape of his neck tingled with an unnatural chill.

“The landing craft … they’re going to pass right underneath us.”

The man stiffened next to Bernard. They both watched, frozen, as the first landing craft passed under the bridge a hundred yards from their position. But the next ship was heading directly underneath the weakened guardrail.

The driver tensed and yelled at the two men to be ready. As the nose of the landing ship passed under the westbound span of the bridge, he yelled at them and ran to the back of the car to help push. The three men strained at the back of the car, pushing it forward at a crawl. At first the guardrail resisted and it looked like they might not get it over, but then the front wheels went over the edge and the car started to accelerate as it tipped, the undercarriage scraping and sparking over the concrete. The three men flung themselves to the guardrails to either side to keep their momentum from sending them over the edge as well. They clung to the rails and peered over the side anxiously, and time seemed to stand still.

Then there was an enormous boom that seemed to swell up from underneath the bridge. The three men cheered and threw their arms in the air, pounding each other on the back exultantly. The spectators on the bridge looked on in amazement.

“Stop it!” a woman shrieked from her driver-side window. “Are you crazy? They’ll send somebody to kill us!”

“Lady, they’re invading us,” one of the men yelled back. “What exactly did you think they had in mind?”

Bernard hopped down off the van and ran to the edge on his side of the bridge. After a moment’s hesitation, the owner of the van jumped down and followed him.

They hung over the edge like a couple of kids at a ballgame. Soon the troop transport heaved into view, listing dangerously to one side. Smoke poured in an oily cloud out of the crater the falling car had punched in the ship. Even from this height they could hear yelling and screaming from the occupants of the ship far below.

Apparently this highly unorthodox car bombing had not gone unobserved by the other landing craft. As the next vessel approached the bridge a cannon mounted towards the rear of the craft opened up and shells began screaming towards the bridge.

Shells slammed both spans of the bridge with deafening bangs that shook the road under Bernard’s feet. People screamed and several cars slammed into each other as people hit their accelerators in blind, obstinate panic.

The gunner was at a disadvantage down at sea level, as he had a clear view of the underside of the bridge but not the vehicles on top of it. He walked the cannon’s arc of fire up over the sides of the bridge anyway. Many shells whistled harmlessly - though frighteningly loud - over the bridge, but several hit cables or the supporting structure of the bridge and detonated overhead. Bernard threw himself flat and crawled underneath the engine block of a parked car.

The shells shattered glass and pockmarked metal on the cars packed on the bridge. What seemed like a hundred traffic accidents happened simultaneously as cars hopelessly attempting to flee – in both directions – collided with one another. Bernard wondered if he might be crushed underneath his hiding place, but no one rammed the car he was cowering under.

Eventually the cannon fire ceased. Bernard crawled cautiously out from underneath the car into a scene of destruction. Concrete shards, shattered glass and metal parts blasted from automobiles littered the roadway. Bernard clambered to his feet and discovered with a shock that the woman in the car he had sheltered under was dead – shell fragments had ripped through the roof and struck her in the head. He staggered away, the blood draining from his face.

People had finally given up on being able to drive off the bridge and were now running back towards the city on foot. Bernard dodged his way through the fleeing pedestrians trying vainly to find his way back to his car; the explosions had deafened and disoriented him and all the cars had shifted greatly during the chaos. Eventually he spotted the van he had stood on earlier and suddenly wondered what had happened to the man with the binoculars. They had been standing right next to one another when the ship had opened fire; now he had no idea where he was.

From the reacquired landmark of the van he was able to locate his car, but it had not fared well. Another vehicle had battered it aside and it now rested pinned against the wall of the bridge, along with other abandoned vehicles that had been shoved to the side of the road. Bernard had to kick the door to get it open then hastily began gathering what valuables he thought to salvage.

As he shoveled his belongings into a gym bag his hearing started to come back and he realized someone was yelling in pain nearby. He straightened up and saw one man laying in the street a few car lengths away, with another man crouching over him. The man on the ground was bleeding badly from his leg and the other man was trying to bandage it up with a torn shirt. Bernard was rather surprised to recognize the pair as part of the team that had dropped the car on the Chinese ship.

The stampede of refugees was starting to thin out as most people made their way off the bridge. Bernard looked at the shore of San Francisco, which seemed so very far away now that he was on foot, then looked back at the wounded man writhing on the street.

Bernard’s father had been very big on morality when Bernard was growing up, always lecturing him. “It’s easy to do the right thing in everyday situations,” he was fond of saying. “When thing start going wrong and times become difficult, that’s when you learn a man’s real character. Will you still do the right thing when it is hard?”

Bernard sighed. They were all in it. They might as well be in it together. He retrieved the first aid kit from the trunk of his car and jogged over to the wounded man.

“Here, let me help,” Bernard said. The wounded man’s friend looked up at Bernard in surprise, then at the medical kit.

“Thanks … thanks, man,” the man said, scooting over and making room for Bernard.

Bernard had always thought of shrapnel as big jagged shards of metal slicing through the air, but the entrance wound on the front of the man’s calf was surprisingly small, no bigger than a pellet gun would make. The back of the man’s calf, however, testified to how fast that tiny piece of metal had been going; the exit wound was an ugly mess of shredded skin and muscle that had blown out the back. It looked like it had missed the bone, at least.

Together they awkwardly stuffed what muscle tissue they could back into the man’s leg, then rinsed the bloody wound with distilled water and pressed a sterile pad into the wound to quell the bleeding. Bernard wrapped a bandage around the pad and leg as tight as he dared.

When they were done, the wounded man was panting and dangerously pale, but at least the bleeding seemed to have stopped. He was able to sit partway upright on his own.

“That …” he gasped “… hurt like a mother.”

“We need to get you to a hospital,” his friend told him levelly. “Is there anything on the island?”

“No,” Bernard said ruefully. “The only hospitals are back in the city.”

All three of them turned to look back at San Francisco. Smoke rose from various parts of the hilly skyline and the sporadic sound of gunfire was audible across the bay.

“You can’t walk,” Bernard reasoned. “We’ll carry you.”

After scrounging through the cars the man’s friend found two rakes in an abandoned truck. They took the heads off and strung shirts through the handles, creating an improvised stretcher. They carefully hoisted the wounded man up and started weaving through the abandoned cars on the bridge, slowly picking their way over the two miles between them and San Francisco.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Zero Day: Los Angeles

Angel was arguably the first member of the resistance, owing to his distinction as the first civilian to kill a soldier of the occupation.

He ran him over.

The invasion was only a half hour old. Angel was driving to his sister’s, at the edge of the Valley, to make sure her boys were okay. A lot of Angelenos were staying inside out of fright, or confusion, or because they were simply glued to a television set. What motorists were out on the street – Angel included – were driving like maniacs, even by LA standards.

The PLA was staying out of LA proper for the time being – the recon patrols that had been sent in to probe the city had found out the hard way that the LAPD was fighting back. The LAPD was modeled after the US Marine Corps, intended to move into hostile territory and secure it, so its officers were practically combat trained already. The PLA outnumbered and outgunned them, but that wasn’t really anything new to the LAPD.

Instead Chinese forces were encircling the city, no easy feat considering the metropolitan monster that was LA. The ports of Long Beach and San Pedro were hit hard and fast to secure harbors for offloading heavy equipment, but the interior of LA was being surrounded and contained by two huge pincer attacks landing in Huntington Beach and Santa Monica until the Chinese leadership could figure out what to do with the rest of the city.

While the eastern pincer was encountering heavy resistance from El Toro, the western pincer had had a relatively leisurely stroll north through Malibu. Until they ran into Angel.

A PLA soldier stepped into the middle of Mulholland and held up his hand to stop traffic. The two lanes next to Angel screeched to a halt in a smoky haze of vaporizing rubber. Angel hesitated for a second, the engine of his Yukon idling with his foot off the pedal as it coasted under its momentum. Then he gunned the accelerator and cut in front of the paralyzed station wagon next to him.

Angel never forgot the expression on the PLA soldier’s face. He was very, very surprised. Indignant; maybe that’s the word. Nor was he able to forget the horrible crunching noise or the mess the soldier left on the windshield before the Yukon flung him halfway across the street.

Consequently the Yukon could be considered the first casualty of the resistance, as the rest of the soldier’s unit unloaded on Angel as he sped away. Thankfully they didn’t have any RPGs or heavy weapons, but they shredded three of his tires and shattered every piece of glass except the passenger side-view mirror with small arms fire. Still the Yukon managed to limp on for another three miles before the rims wore down to a nub and he had to abandon it somewhere in West Hills. Angel loved that car.

He stepped out onto the street and stood there unsteadily, his hands shaking as the adrenaline slowly bled off. Out of force of habit he clicked the car alarm on his key chain and the Yukon gave a pathetic, dying electronic squeak, causing him to whip his head around and really see the sad wreck it had been turned into. He patted the hood absentmindedly, the tortured metal clicking as it cooled.

“Bien. You were a good car.”

Would they be looking for him? He killed a man. Angel hoped that one Latino looked pretty much the same as any other to the Chinese.

With a sudden determination he started jogging north. He still had to try and find Maricel’s family. How far was Valencia on foot? It was hard to imagine Los Angeles as even being navigable on a pedestrian scale, but who knows, with traffic it might actually be faster on foot.

Not that there was any traffic at the moment. Angel could hear the throaty roar of engines nearby, but they definitely didn’t sound civilian.

He saw the jets before he heard them. They were flying in from the west, from Point Mugu. Burning embers fell away from them and Angel gave a whoop, thinking they were firing on targets on the ground, but then they start twisting in evasive maneuvers and he realized they were dropping flares.

The Chinese missiles came streaking in from off the coast. Angel could hear little cracks as they broke the sound barrier. The jets began to dive for the ground, but the missiles were moving much faster and closed the gap quickly. The jets tore away from each other in opposite directions, leaving twin contrails streaking off their wingtips as they maneuvered, but the missiles were like zags of lightning, correcting and closing in. One of the planes disintegrated in a fireball that showered over the hills. The second missile - miraculously - missed, passing by the jet so close it looked to Angel like they intersected … but the missile described an improbably short semicircle in the air and was right back on the plane’s tail in an instant.

The pilot leveled off with a kind of grim fatalism that made Angel’s heart catch in his throat, and missiles started lighting off from the jet and streaking towards Chinese targets off the coast. He fired off three before the returning missile ran him down. The explosion clipped off the plane’s wing and knocked it tumbling from the sky. Angel couldn’t see, but he offered a quick prayer hoping that the pilot had managed to eject.

Two blocks to the north, Angel had a problem of his own. An armored personnel carrier rumbled to a stop in the intersection and Chinese soldiers started pouring out of the compartment in the back. They started yelling, but he couldn’t tell if they were yelling at him or each other or just yelling on general principle. He turned down a side street rather than find out.

And almost ran head first into a patrol of three Chinese soldiers. The first soldier pointed his rifle at him in surprise and Angel froze. The other two babbled in Chinese. Angel and the soldier stared at each other; the soldier gestured towards the sidewalk with his gun grimly.

Angel’s mind raced. Were they going to arrest him or shoot him? Could he duck back around the corner before they could react? Maybe he could jump the one he was face to face with, but the others could easily shoot him before he wrestled the gun from him.

“Inside, please,” one of the other soldiers said in passable English laced with – of all things – an Australian accent.

Angel blinked at him.

“Remain inside, please. For your protection.”

The soldier gestured with his rifle again and Angel realized he was motioning at the lobby of the office building next to them. He nodded and slowly made his way past them into the building. The soldier lowered his rifle and one of them even held the door open for him.

Inside a motley collection of business workers and pedestrians herded in off the street looked up at him from where they sat scattered around the lobby. Angel waved at the crowd awkwardly. The Chinese poked their heads in and looked around briefly, then gathered outside on the sidewalk and conferred amongst themselves.

Some of the people gathered in the lobby were crying, but most just stared into space with shocked, sunken faces. A little girl was looking around at the frightened faces, confused that, for once, no adults seemed to know what to do. Her gaze fell on Angel, and she stared at him questioningly. He forced himself to smile at her; he was afraid it would come off weakly, but she beamed back at him with the cheerful resilience of youth.

“Hey … man,” a 20-something white guy in a white button-up shirt – currently unbuttoned – addressed him. “Where are you coming from? What do you see out there?”

Everyone turned to look at Angel. Their dull eyes and slack expressions unnerved him. He had to swallow before he found his voice.

“Not far – I was in Woodland Hills when it … when I heard. I was trying to head north and they stopped me and tossed me in here.” Angel didn’t feel the need to boast about running over a Chinese soldier in front of a bunch of strangers. “I seen a lot of Chinese troops. They’ve got armored cars moving up from the beach, lots of soldiers on foot.” He realized rather belatedly he had left his cell phone in the Yukon. “Does anybody have a phone I could borrow, just for a minute?”

“Won’t do you any good,” a woman said, not unkindly. “No calls can get through. Everyone in LA must have called the cops or their family.”

“That’s not it,” someone said morosely. “They’re blowing up cell towers.”

“This is ridiculous!” A man with gray speckled hair in a business suit jumped up next to Angel. The people who had been crying looked at him in fright. The ones who seemed to be in shock just got a glazed look in their eyes. “How can entire fleet of Chinese ships have snuck up on us? Where was our so-called government? Where the hell is the ‘defense’ we pay so many billions of dollars for? I pay my taxes, and I deserve …”

Angel slapped him like a woman to shut him up. Not that Angel had ever slapped a woman before. Except his sister, when they were younger – once. That had been a mistake. She had made certain that it only happened once.

“Shut up,” Angel hissed. “I pay my taxes too, but you don’t see me sitting around waiting for someone else to come along and save me.”

The room stared at Angel in surprise. He was a bit surprised himself. The business suit sat down quickly, his mouth agape, but at least there wasn’t any more yabber coming out of it. Angel looked around at the roomful of eyes staring at him and was relieved to at least see a spark of life come back in them. This was probably the largest audience he’d ever had. He took a deep breath and spoke calmly.

“Look, the reservoir and the hills aren’t too far from here. We can make it there on foot if we’re careful. If you’re scared you should be safe here for now, but I’m sure a lot of you are worried about your families, same as me. Anybody work in this building?”

“Yeah,” the guy who first spoke to him raised his hand.

“You mind showing me around? There’s bound to be a street they don’t have covered, a door we can sneak out.”

The guy smirked at Angel. “I’ll show you around the building if you show me the way to the hills.”

Angel nodded. “All right. Let’s do it.”

Sunday, July 08, 2007

So it Begins

This is the sound of democracy failing
This is the sound of tyranny prevailing

This is the sound of unmarked graves

Dug for themselves by six billion slaves

This is the sound that you make when you’re dead

Of the noose sliding taut; of a bullet in the head

This is the sound of a lost little girl

This is the sound of the end of the world

Wars always start with a news report. Except for the people who are actually there.

John Mangus was sitting in a restaurant in La Jolla when his eye was drawn to the television mounted on the wall. Large, red news tickers and jerky amateur video trigger a kind of primordial response in contemporary Americans that forces them to watch.

The footage was pixelated and played in the low-frame-rate, stroboscopic fashion that indicates a cell phone or a really cheap digital camera. All John could make out from the image was smoke spilling into a city street and distant figures in green. The tail end of the ticker text was far more informative:

confirmed Chinese troops have invaded Taiwan.

John’s spine crawled with the kind of vague, muffled terror that comes from knowing something very bad is happening very far away.

He left cash for his lunch and walked outside. A few of the other patrons were staring at the TV as he walked past them, but most seemed uninterested.

He stood thinking in the early spring sun. Monica’s brother was deployed in Pakistan, as part of the massive US effort to prevent open warfare in Kashmir. Would Taiwan make the situation worse or better? If the Chinese were there to stay it almost certainly meant war with the United States, which would leave little resources for trying to break up other peoples’ quarrels. At the worst Monica’s brother would probably be moved from a potential war zone to an active war zone.

He sighed and started walking towards the beach before calling his wife. After a week of stormy weather he could at least enjoy the newly victorious sunshine.

That was how he came to see the ships coming in.

There was a line of them coming out of the murk that still lingered off the coast. John was up on a cliff, which gave him a bit better perspective than if he had been at sea level, so he could tell right away that they were large, box shaped with flat sloping bows. They looked vaguely like container ships except they had very short, fat bridges and the decks were clear of cargo. Their hulls were painted red like container ships and a noncommittal grey above the waterline. Their number stunned him. He couldn’t even count the ones that were visible out of the cloudbank; the line of ships stretched out of sight to the south.

He stood riveted in place. A Coast Guard cutter tore across the sparkling waves to approach the nearest ship. They must have known something was terribly wrong because the cutter orbited the vessel at high speed, keeping its distance.

They were still far enough away that John couldn’t hear exactly what the Coast Guard vessel said over its loudspeaker, but the muted echoes of a challenge wafted over the ocean and mingled with the sound of the surf. The Coast Guard loudspeaker squawked again and then the larger vessel opened fire.

The gun wasn’t visible to John; all he saw was a slow, steady series of flashes from the rear of the ship. Then a line of watery explosions stitched across the path of the Coast Guard vessel, partially obscuring it in a storm of spray. The sound of the weapons fire came rolling onto the beach a few seconds late, steady low booms from the weapon then harsher, louder reports of the shells exploding in the water.

The Coast Guard crew, to their credit, reacted almost instantaneously. The cutter heeled over violently and the gunner at the rear of the cutter opened up with the mounted machinegun simultaneously. Thin streaks of fire stabbed out of the Coast Guard cutter and John could see sparks kicking up off the sides of the larger vessel as the Coast Guard gunner struck his target. The larger vessel returned fire with its larger, slower beat of cannon fire. The Coast Guard cutter was fast enough that it was able to evade the larger vessel’s fire while its own gunner was still able to score hits, but it was obvious that this wasn’t accomplishing anything against the massive vessel and the cutter sped away to a safe distance.

John belatedly realized that he was on his stomach – he had thrown himself flat on the ground. Other people on the streets were screaming and running or frozen still and gawking. John wasn’t ready to run just yet – somehow he felt safer keeping an eye on danger for the time being rather than fleeing blindly.

Staccato sounds of gunfire rolled up the coast from the south in an almost continuous chatter. As the ships got closer John saw deck machineguns fire lazily over the heads of the people still on the beach. He didn’t see anyone get hit, but he heard glass shattering and car alarms going off. The gunners must have simply intended to scare people out of their way, because soon the beach was utterly deserted.

From his belly John could only see a small cross section of the beach. A ship passed between two buildings and appeared to beach itself further down the coast. Then another ship suddenly hove into view directly below his vantage point.

The bow of the ship cracked in half as it approached the boundary of surf and solid ground. As it beached itself John could see wheels below the waterline helping it roll up the sand. When the ship had ground to a halt the two halves of the bow fell down, making themselves into ramps in a cloud of sand.

Up close John could see that the ships were about two car lanes wide. He could tell this because two wheeled vehicles drove down the ramp side by side. They were squat with a sloped front and a machinegun turret at the back. There were gunners in the turrets, clinging to their weapons for dear life to keep them from flying off the vehicle as they bounced roughly down the ramp. The vehicles had six huge balloon tires that churned up sand in rooster tails and quickly propelled them up the beach.

A second group of two vehicles followed and then a wave of foot soldiers poured out – hundreds of soldiers, from one ship. They chugged up the beach in a solid mass, assault rifles pumping in their hands as they scrambled through the sand. Even from this distance it was obvious to John that the soldiers were Chinese.

Now was the time for running.

His phone was in his hand and stabbing speed dial for his wife even before he was fully on his feet. It never even occurred to him to call 911. He was sure someone else had already beaten him to it.

“Hi sweetie!” his wife’s voice.

“Monica, I need you to listen to me carefully, sweetie! This is an emergency!” It was hard to run for your life and pin a cell phone to your head at the same time. “There are Chinese troops landing on the coast. We’re being invaded! I need you to grab as much food and water as you can and drive east. Just drive east as far as you can!”

“Oh my God, John, are you okay? Where are you?”

“I’m fine, I’m heading to the office. Don’t wait for me, just get in the car and I’ll catch up with you.”

“John, this is crazy. Are you sure it’s the Chinese?”

One of the wheeled vehicles surged up onto the street a couple blocks away from John with a roar of its huge diesel engine. The front balloon tire rolled over the hood of a parked car, squashing the front of the car and lifting the rear tires up off the street. A heavily accented voice boomed from loudspeakers on the vehicle:

“This is the People’s Liberation Army! For your own safety, please remain indoors and await further instruction.”

“I’m pretty sure, sweetie,” John said, darting down a side street.

“I’m in the garage now. Call me as soon as you’re in the car. I’ll head to …”

The phone made a series of clicking noises. John looked down at the display. No service.

A series of explosions rumbled from coast and an artillery shell or something shrieked by overhead. John followed it inland and could see smoke rising on the horizon. Another of the wheeled vehicles roared by a couple streets away, its loudspeaker blaring.

“Do not interfere with our soldiers’ operations. Please remain indoors until instructed otherwise. This is for your own safety.”

Gunfire a couple blocks away added weight to the loudspeaker’s request. John came up on the building his company worked out of. It was quicker to go through the parking structure rather than head down the block to the lobby.

“Mr. Mangus!” the parking booth seemed to yell at him.

“Harvey!” John skidded to a stop. The building’s parking attendant was crouched down behind the desk in the small booth and peeking out the door at him.

“Do you know what’s happening, Mr. Mangus?”

“It’s the Chinese army, we’re being invaded! We’ve gotta get everyone out of here! Where’s your car?”

“I ride a bicycle to work. It seemed a healthy system up until about a minute ago.”

“Don’t worry about it, Harvey, you ride with me. Come on!”

They ran past the parked cars towards the elevator. Just as they were reaching it the stairwell burst open and Alan, one of John’s employees, staggered out.

“John! What the hell!”

“Soldiers! Chinese! War!” John said, out of breath. “Where’s everyone else?”

“They’re all out at lunch.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah, I just checked our whole floor. I was the only one.”

“We’ve got to get the whole building out, not just our office.”

At that moment a squad of Chinese soldiers came running down the center of the street. A Porsche coming the other way honked at them. The soldiers stopped as one man and raised their assault rifles. The Porsche veered off the road and crashed into a storefront across the street.

The three men ducked down behind a parked SUV. Alan lay on his belly and peeked through the tires.

“They’re fanning out along the block,” he whispered. “It looks like they’re going building to building. Shit – more arriving.”

“Up the stairs,” Harvey said, crouching over to the door and holding it open for them. “To the roof of the structure.”

John and Alan squeezed past him and Harvey slid the door closed as quietly as possible. They ran to the top of the stairwell and burst out into the afternoon sunshine.

Thin needles of clouds streaked over their heads in eerie parallel lines, then diverged and corkscrewed further inland into weird geometric shapes. There was a popping sound overhead, like a distant gunshot. John squinted into the sky and saw one of the cloud trails growing longer. A missile. Moving fast. It curved down towards a huge plume of black smoke that was growing on the horizon to the north.

“Oh man, that’s Miramar,” Alan breathed. “They’re bombing the hell out of the airfield.”

“Down!” Harvey hissed, and they all reflexively flattened themselves to the concrete. They looked inquiringly at Harvey, who pointed urgently across the street.

Two Chinese soldiers were standing on a rooftop a few buildings over. They were scanning the horizon with binoculars. The three Americans crawled on their bellies to the edge of the roof, parts of which were bordered by concrete walls and parts by metal fencing. They flattened themselves against the concrete and peeked through the fencing. The sidewalks below were lined with Chinese soldiers and a few screaming Americans the Chinese were herding into buildings. Traffic had pretty much ceased to exist, but cars were abandoned here and there in the middle of the street.

A chopping sound drew John’s attention back to the sky. He looked up to see a news helicopter moving fast up the coast, just barely skimming over buildings. John twisted around to look at the Chinese soldiers on the rooftop. The two with binoculars appeared to be arguing mildly, and a third soldier had appeared next to them. They seemed to come to a conclusion and one of the binocular soldiers pointed at the news helicopter. The newcomer shrugged and slung a missile launcher over his shoulder while the other two stepped clear.

“No. Oh no,” Alan breathed.

The missile hissed off the rooftop and wafted lazily for a block or two through the air, then its main engine kicked in and it screamed away. It seemed like every car alarm in the world was going off now. The three Americans watched in horrified fascination as the missile streaked straight as an arrow towards the news chopper. The pilot made a valiant attempt to evade, twisting the chopper practically on its side and diving even lower. But the missile moved with unnatural mechanical grace, rising and then diving like a hummingbird that leaves only a fleeting hint of its flight on the eye. The news chopper disappeared in a globe of fire and its burning husk plummeted unceremoniously from the sky.

John froze. That was the Channel 4 chopper. They had killed the Channel 4 news pilot. John liked him; he was funny. For some reason, that was the point at which he started getting angry.

“Come on,” he said stonily, snapping the other two out of their reverie. “Let’s see what’s going on in the streets.”

They crawled around the four sides of the roof, surveying the situation. The bulk of the Chinese infantry seemed to be moving further inland after clearing the streets. Small groups of three soldiers stood watch at some intersections, seemingly at every other block. The heavily armored six-wheeled personnel carriers seemed to be gone, but a continuous stream of army trucks carrying dozens of soldiers in their open backs rolled up from the coast along the major streets.

John realized the other two were watching him expectantly. He checked his cell phone. Still no service.

“All right,” he breathed. “I need to try to meet up with my wife. That means moving east. What are you two thinking?”

Alan opened his mouth, and then stopped to think. Harvey spoke up.

“I need to check on my family. My home is only a couple of miles east, but we can stick together that far.”

“I don’t have any family here, and nothing in my apartment I’m willing to risk my life going back for,” Alan mused. “I just want to get the hell out of here. I guess that means heading east for me too.”

“Okay,” John said. “We stick together and move on foot. If any soldiers stop us, don’t fight and don’t run. We let them shuffle us off into a building, then we just sneak out again when they’re not looking.”

The other two nodded thoughtfully.

“We’ll go to Harvey’s home first. We try to weave in between the guards posted on the main intersections and stick to the smaller streets. Ready?”

Harvey and Alan nodded. They moved down to the street level and waited until there was a break in the convoy of soldiers passing by. Then they trotted uphill and inland, into the residential areas, through what was now enemy territory.