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.