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.