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.


Bernard said...

You know what's damn funny? My name is Bernard Kao, my grandfather did fight the commies and then later fled to Taiwan. But no, I don't live in San Francisco, I'm in New York. I know you?

Brent Don said...

Wow, that's random ... no, I wanted to use the first name and I just chose the last name because it was a common Taiwanese name :)

That is funny - thanks for posting.