Monday, May 31, 2010

"One Riot, One Ranger"

Major Johnny Evans wasn't in a great mood, even before he got the call to report to Colonel Ross's office. That morning, in the 138th Rangers' house on Firebase Zulu, he'd found his first gray hair. He knew it was long overdue -- he was edging in on 42 years old -- but knowing that he'd avoided the gray for far longer than he should've didn't make it any easier to accept the single, silver strand mocking him from the mirror.

He was considering whether or not to pluck it from his temple when Ross' aide, a young Army Kilo, on knocked 138's door. Johnny heard his second-in-command, Carl Rogan, talking quietly with the Kilo -- he could see their reflections in the mirror in front of him. They spoke too softly for Johnny to hear them, but the conversation didn't last long. A few seconds later, he saw Rogan's reflection nodding, and the Kilo turning and leaving.

"What's up?" Johnny asked, pulling on his olive-drab t-shirt as Rogan walked into the open bathroom.

"Colonel Ross wants to see you. My guess -- they got another job for us," Rogan said, checking the still-healing cut on his temple in the long mirror over the three sinks.


"ASAP, boss."

"Lovely," Johnny said, sighing and pulling his ACU jacket from the hangar next to him. "Tell Monica to have the truck ready in case they send us out."

"Roger that."

It was a short walk to Command and Control, two blocks away in an abandoned mining complex. The guard outside the elevator, a Marine from the 2nd MSOB, nodded and smirked at Johnny as he passed by.

"How ya doin', sir?" the Marine asked.

"Another lovely, cold-ass day in Russia," Johnny smiled as he stepped into the elevator.

"I hear that, sir."

The elevator took Johnny several levels down, where the doors opened on another Marine guard. This one wasn't as friendly as the one on the surface -- he merely saluted and led Johnny down the long hall to Command and Control. The Marine knocked on Colonel Ross' door, and the response was instant.

"Come," Ross' voice boomed from inside the office.

The Marine opened the door for Johnny, then closed him in the office as soon as he was through. Sawyer Ross sat behind his desk typing on a netbook and wearing small reading glasses. He didn't look up for a moment -- not until he finished what he was doing. Johnny stood at attention and kept his eyes locked on the Colonel.

Ross was younger than Johnny by at least five years. His longish blond hair -- Special Forces got to skirt the grooming standard -- showed no hint of gray. He was wearing his ACU pants and a black T-shirt. There was a steaming cup of coffee on his desk, and as he closed his netbook and looked up at Johnny, he took a sip.

"At ease, Major."

"Sir," Johnny said, shifting his stance.

"Two things have me calling you in here today, Major. The first -- the work you did with the lab in Pyongyang. That was some outstanding stuff. Your crew healing up all right?"

"Yes, sir. Almost 100 percent, sir."

"Well, what you did with the 4-7 hasn't gone unnoticed. Wish there was a little more ceremony for this, but," Ross said, sighing and pulling a small box from his top desk drawer. He tossed it to Johnny, who opened it -- inside were two silver oak leaf pins.

"Congratulations, Lieutenant Colonel Evans," Ross said.

"Thank you, sir."

"And now, the bad news. As you know, we've become something of a collection point here at Zulu -- not only for our own Special Forces operatives, but for the Special Forces of our Russian allies, as well."

"Yes, sir."

"And I think you've met Colonel Ivanov, my Russian Federation counterpart."

"I have, sir."

"Well, he's informed me that most of his teams are accounted for -- all except for one. A detachment from the 24th Spetsnaz Brigade, reported missing in action three weeks ago well inside enemy territory. He was ready to write 'em off, until we intercepted this."

Ross opened the netbook again and hit a few keys -- a garbled transmission, someone transmitting quickly and quietly in Russian. The static was bad, but Evans could make it out.

"Your file says you speak Russian, Evans. You understand any of that?"

"Yes, sir. It's a distress call, sir. They say their transpo is Tango Uniform, and that they're out of ammo. They identify themselves as Spetsnaz 24, sir."

"That's what my translators tell me, too. Now, you might have noticed that the situation here with our Russian friends is. . . well, tense would be a polite way to put it. Brass thinks some of 'em might flip to the other side at any time, seein' as we're doing such a good job of losing this war, and all."


"So it'd go a long way to boosting their morale, not to say strengthening their trust in us, if our boys were to go in and get their boys out."

"Agreed, sir."

"Here's the problem, Evans. This mission is what you might call tricky. Ah, hell, it's a fucking suicide run, is what it is. They're so deep in Chink territory that they might as well go ahead and learn the fucking language, already. But we've still gotta make the effort. Normally, I'd send in some Mechos or some Kilos, but. . ."

"But you want the job done right. Understood, sir."

"Nothing against Lieutenant Morrow and his crew. They're good, but you've got, what, 18 years in the Rangers? You're much, much better."

"I can have my team ready to roll in half an hour, sir."

"I appreciate that, Evans. But your team isn't going."

Ross stood, coffee in hand, and walked around to the front of the desk. He leaned against it and looked directly into Johnny's eyes.

"This isn't an order, Evans. This is a request. We can't risk an entire team that deep inside enemy territory -- last time we did that, well. . . it was your team. You lost more than half of your men. A team's easy to track, to pick up -- one man, moving quickly, is a lot harder."

Johnny said nothing. He just stared right back into Ross' eyes as Ross stared into his.

"You've got more on-the-ground experience than any man on this base, myself included. Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. Anyone has a chance in hell of pulling this off, Colonel, it's you."

"I understand, sir."

Ross stared at him for what felt like a long time, then nodded slowly.

"Your ride leaves from the airstrip in an hour, Colonel."

* * *

"HALO in two minutes, sir!" the crew chief yelled over the rotor noise of the AC-130's massive turbines.

Johnny gave the crew chief a thumbs-up -- he couldn't talk through the oxygen mask he'd just strapped over his helmet. He checked his gear one last time -- M4A1 strapped high on his chest above the emergency chute. Pack with extra ammo and weapons under the main chute. Survival knife on right leg. Glock 50 on left leg. UltraVis goggles on and functioning under his helmet visor. He was good to go.

Next to him was a metal box about his size, filled with extra weapons, ammo, and body armor for the Spetsnaz team. It would go out the back of the AC-130 with him, and he'd trigger its chute by remote. He knew it probably wouldn't land right next to him, but it had a tiny transmitter set to Channel 1-9 Victor that was linked directly into his UltraVis. If everything went to plan, he should be able to find it quickly.

Johnny hadn't done a HALO -- High Altitude-Low Opening -- jump in years. As he stood near the back ramp, he tried to remember the last time he'd gone. He had been a newly-minted Lieutenant, finally an officer after six years of enlisted service. He'd been training Airborne crews at Fort Bragg, jumping from 25,000 feet above the North Carolina forests. He didn't remember much about the jump -- he'd taken too many deep breaths of pure oxygen, and had been a little giddy when he'd pulled his chute. He remembered it was a warm day, though, in the middle of a boiling North Carolina summer. This jump was going to be higher, and much, much colder. The freezing air cut through his pressure suit and the black ACUs below as the AC-130's ramp slowly opened.

"Go! Go! Go!" the crew chief yelled behind him, and Johnny took two running steps, clearing the ramp and falling through the icy night. The visor on his helmet quickly iced over, but that didn't bother him -- he could still see with the UltraVis, and the ice would clear off his visor soon enough. As the altimeter clicked away in his left lens, Johnny ran through the plan in his mind -- land, get his position, locate the gear, and get within a mile of the last known position of the Spetsnaz team before trying to raise them. Then, assess the situation and try to exfiltrate. He knew the survivability matrix was near zero, but he also knew why he had to try.

The altimeter turned red -- 2,800 feet. Johnny pulled the ripcord, at the same time activating the equipment locker's chute. As soon as Johnny hit the ground, he rolled to his left shoulder, pulling his helmet off as he landed in a crouch. His UltraVis showed the equipment box's position -- half a mile behind him. It also showed he was two miles to the west of the Spetsnaz group's last known position, taken from the distress call three hours ago. Not bad for a drop from seven and a half miles up.

Johnny packed and stashed his chute, helmet, and pressure suit, then hefted his pack and set off for the equipment box, which was thankfully on the way to Spetsnaz team's last known. He made it to the box in less than seven minutes, then pulled its chute and stashed it behind some trees. Johnny crouched by a tree and took a sip of water before continuing on, keeping to the treeline and staying low as he moved. His UltraVis let him know when he was within a mile of the location where the Spetsnaz distress call had come from, and he switched on his radio and tuned it to the Russian Special Purpose frequency. He paused for a moment and listened.

"Move and I will cut your throat," he heard in quiet Russian from behind him. He felt a knife slip under the collar of his body armor.

"No one's moving, Chief," Johnny said in English. He felt someone grab his arms from behind, and the knife slid away from his throat. A man came to stand in front of him -- thin, shaved head, sunken eyes. He was wearing dark green fatigues with no markings on them and a black watch cap.

"2-4 Spetsnaz, I assume," Johnny said.

"And you are?"

"1-3-8 Ranger. Your extraction."

"You are the advance scout for a rescue party?" the thin man asked, nodding to someone behind Johnny. He felt his arms freed, and he stretched them out at his side.

"Not a scout, Chief. I'm it."

"One man? The Americans sent one man?"

"One riot, one Ranger, Chief. How many of you are left?"

"Of an original 24, there are six of us," the thin man said. "I am Vasily Dyuzhev. Captain. I am in command."

"Lieutenant Colonel John Evans. Six, huh? I've got weapons and gear for all of you. Are all of your men mobile?"

"They will walk," Dyuzhev said.

"Good. Follow me," Johnny told him. As he started to walk, he caught sight of the other five men -- all were dressed in the same uniform as their Captain, and all were thin and unshaven. Dyuzhev crept along next to him as they moved.

"How long have you been out here?"

"Two weeks. Perhaps more -- I have been up for days," Dyuzhev said.

"Chinese patrols?"

"And North Korean. And rebels. They're everywhere. The woods were the safest place to hide. We learned that at great cost."

"Where are your weapons? Your vehicles?"

"Vehicles destroyed and wrecked. Weapons were ditched once we ran out of ammunition. We're down to knives and three bullets for one pistol."

"Our situation doesn't seem that tenable. You seen a base near here? Staging area?"

"Yes. North Korean encampment three kilometers from here. Heavily guarded. Tanks, ground troops. We lost many men near there."


"One. An Mi-8. We have not seen it fly -- it may not be operational. But both of my aviators are dead."

"I can fly it. Guards around the chopper?"

"Light. Which, again, means it may not be operational."

"What are our chances of stealing another vehicle?"

"From what I have seen, the bulk of the tanks and vehicles are much more heavily guarded."

"Chopper's our best bet, then. Let's get your boys armed up and get us the fuck out of here," Johnny said as they stopped near the equipment locker. He opened it and started handing out M4's, pistols, and body armor.

"I agree that the chopper might be the easiest to get to, sir. But if it is not operational, we will be caught in a kill zone," Dyuzhev said as he strapped into his body armor.

"We're in a kill zone now, Captain," Johnny said, shrugging.

"Your point is well taken," Dyuzhev said.

"There's some food in there," Johnny said, nodding to the equipment locker, "You and your men look like you could use it. Eat and rest up -- we'll move on the NoKo encampment in an hour."

* * *

"Kapitán," one of Dyuzhev's men hissed. Johnny hadn't learned the young sergeant's name, but he had been the first to eat, and thus the first to take watch.

Dyuzhev had a short conversation with the man, then waved Johnny over.

"What's up, Captain?" Johnny asked.

"Sergei has seen something. A vehicle. Civilian, looks like. Heading this way."

Johnny slipped on his UltraVis goggles. Its night-vision mode lit up the night in bright green. He saw the vehicle -- a large UAZ Hunter with its headlights off, at least half a mile away.

"How the fuck did he see that?" Johnny mumbled.

"Sergei can see very well in the dark," Dyuzhev answered. "What can you see with your, eh, glasses?"

"One driver. Looks like Chinese Army. He's running with his headlights off. Sensitive cargo is my guess. I'm a good shot, but do you guys have a sniper?"

"That's me, Colonel," Dyuzhev nodded. "Driver?"

"When he gets close. Then we take his truck and get as far out of the hot zone as we can with it."

Dyuzhev raised his M4 and squinted through the night-vision sight. He took a few breaths, then squeezed the trigger. One round slammed through the windshield of the Hunter -- Johnny saw it split the driver's forehead through his goggles. The Hunter slowly rolled to a stop.

"Go!" Johnny hissed, but the Spetsnaz detachment was way ahead of him. They were already pulling the driver out of the SUV and piling in. Two of them opened the vehicle's rear hatch and started pulling out two long, shallow cases.

"No! Keep them there. Jump in on top of them," Johnny said in Russian. The men stopped and stared at him.

"Do it," Dyuzhev told them.

The two men hopped into the back of the truck and closed the hatch behind them. Johnny and Dyuzhev headed for the front seats of the truck.

"Well, it is a Russian truck, after all. Only appropriate we should take it back," Dyuzhev said, shrugging. "Would you like to drive, Colonel?"

Johnny hopped into the driver's seat. It was a tight fit, with seven fully armed and armored men, but everyone was crammed in well enough. As Dyuzhev closed the passenger door, Johnny threw the truck into reverse and headed northwest, in the direction of the closest American installation.

* * *

Three days later, Johnny and Dyuzhev stepped off a Black Hawk chopper on the airfield at Firebase Zulu. Johnny's arm was in a sling, and Dyuzhev was limping and supporting his weight on a cane. They'd come under fire several times before making it out of enemy territory, enough that they'd burned through the two thousand rounds Johnny had brought with them -- but they'd made it back alive. All of them.

"Colonel Evans," Sawyer Ross greeted, shaking Johnny's hand as the Black Hawk's rotors spun down. "You pulled it off, you son of a bitch. Well done."

"Thank you, sir. I'd salute, but," Johnny said, nodding to his immobilized arm.

"Understood. How bad are you hurt?"

"I'll heal. Colonel, this is Captain Vasily Dyuzhev, commander of 2-4 Spetsnaz," Johnny said.

"Captain. Welcome. Colonel Ivanov is waiting to debrief you. If you'll follow Convict Raines, there," Ross said, nodding to his aide, who was waiting beside an idling Cougar. Dyuzhev punched Johnny lightly on the shoulder and headed off with the convict.

"Walk with me, Colonel," Ross said, and Johnny fell into step next to him. "You did us a real good turn there, Evans. The Russians are in our debt, now. Colonel Ivanov wants to assign Captain Dyuzhev and his squad to fill out the holes in the 1-3-8. You good with that?"

"Sure. I'd fight with him any day. Just one question, sir."

"Shoot, Colonel. Time off? Better accommodations? Name it, and it's yours."

"None of that, sir. My only question is -- when do we go back out, sir?"


Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I decided to join the Army just out of high school for the same reason most people did -- to pay for college. It was just after we got out of Afghanistan, so I figured it was the safest time to join -- I mean, the guys who joined after Vietnam had a good 18 years before we saw another war, right?

"Good for you, Ethan," my dad said when I told him what I was planning. "I almost went into the Army after high school, too, but you know your grandpa -- wanted me to work the family business."

"And you don't want me to take over the tailor shop?" I said, grinning as we drank our morning coffee.

"God, no. Now that your grandpa's dead -- God rest his soul -- I'm selling that thing first chance I get. Just wish your mom and I could've sent you to college on our dime."

"No worries, pop. Army'll do me good. Besides, you know me -- I like the outdoors. The recruiter says he can do something with that."

I wasn't even out of Basic when Los Angeles was hit. By the time I'd gotten my assignment -- 10th Mountain Division, 3rd Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry -- North Korean forces with Chinese support had attacked Inchon Air Base in South Korea. As soon as I joined my unit (we were called The Spartans), we were at war.

I made it through more combat engagements than I could count -- my file says 262, but that seems kinda low. I did ten years, made it to Sergeant First Class, then got out as soon as the cease-fire was declared. I'd gotten enough credits through the extension program during the war that I only did two years of college when I got back and got my bachelor's in computer science.

The job market wasn't great when I came back, and the only post-high-school experience I had was light infantry. I applied to about twenty places -- tech support, core-level programming -- but nothing hit. Until one day, early in the summer of 2030, I got a call from Applied Warfare, Inc.

A company I hadn't even applied to.

"Good morning," the voice on the other end of my phone said. It was a female voice, pleasant and cheerful. "Is this Sergeant First Class Ethan Brennan?"

"Former SFC, yeah."

"Oh, hello, Mr. Brennan. My name is Stacy Frink. I'm with a company called Applied Warfare. Are you familiar with us?"

I was, actually. They were a defense contractor, but not one of the evil "we train our own private army" ones. They were into tech -- they'd made some of the UAVs and UGVs my unit had used for intel gathering in the war.

"Yeah. Yeah, I have."

"Your name was given to us by. . . well, I'm not at liberty to say. Would you be able to drop into our office in Tampa for an interview? I think we have a position for you."

"I can do that. When do you want me to come by?"

"Tomorrow at two?"

"Tomorrow at two."

"Outstanding. I'm sending the information to your phone. We'll see you tomorrow."

The connection terminated, and I checked my phone's screen. Their address in Tampa -- only 10 minutes from my apartment -- was already routing to my GPS. I had one suit, and I took it out of the closet and headed for the dry cleaner.

* * *

"Mr. Brennan," the woman greeted as I stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor of an unmarked building in downtown Tampa. She was a little heavy, but she carried it well. "I'm Stacy Frink. We spoke on the phone."

"Ethan Brennan," I said, smiling and shaking her outstretched hand.

"It's good to meet you, Mr. Brennan. Please, come with me," she said, badging through a secure door at the end of the lobby and holding it open for me. I followed her, and we walked down a long, blank hallway to an elevator. She badged into the elevator, then pressed the button for the third sub-basement.

"Find us all right?" she asked as the elevator descended rapidly.

"Sure. I live near here, anyway."

The doors opened on another hallway, but this one wasn't blank -- there were blast doors along both sides. Stacy led me all the way down the hall and badged us into yet another door -- this one also required her palmprint to open.

"So tell me, Mr. Brennan -- how is it that a SFC in the Spartans ends up with a Top Secret clearance? Not normal for light infantry NCOs," she said as the door's hydraulics slowly pushed open.

"Near the end of the war, when we crossed from Mongolia into China -- my unit saw things it probably shouldn't have."

Stacy nodded as the door opened and we went into the room. It was set up like a normal conference room, except that there were only two chairs around the long table.

"Please, have a seat," she said, indicating the chair to the left of the table. I sat, and she sat in the other chair. She touched the table, and the area between us lit up with an image of what looked like a UGV.

"This is the Tarantula," she told me.

"Unmanned ground vehicle?" I asked.

"Correct. Less than a foot long, stealth-capable, all-terrain, all-weather. It's a drone for Signals Intelligence. Or at least, it's supposed to be."

"It doesn't work?"

"Not yet. Not the way we need it to, anyway. Something's wrong with the programming. We need someone with combat experience and programming skills to figure out what's going wrong, then pilot it through the test runs."

"I see. And that's me, you think?"

"From your file, you definitely have the experience. Your IQ is off the charts, and the paper you wrote for your bachelor's --"

"How'd you get a hold of that?"

"We have friends at Arizona State. We think you're the man not only to help us get the Tarantula up and running, but to do it fast. It needs to be combat effective in three weeks. With its pilot. Interested?"

"Where is it deploying?"

"I'm afraid your security clearance isn't sufficient for me to tell you that. Not yet, anyway."

"My security clearance is the highest there is. You know that," I said.

"No. It's just the highest level you're aware of," she said, smirking.

I sat and thought for a moment.

"What's the pay like?"

"One-year contract guaranteed at three times your Army salary. After that, I'm sure we'll have more work for you."

"You said combat effective. Can I take that to mean that the Tarantula -- and by extension, its pilot -- would be deploying into a hot zone?"

"You could infer that, yes."

"And deployment would be in three weeks?"

"Three weeks, two days. Take the night to think it over. I'll give you some of our project files to look over, as well."

I nodded. She handed me a small data card, and five minutes later, I was back in my car and on the way home.

* * *

Several hours later, I was deep into the product documentation and munching on the remnants of a tofu scramble in my living room. The Tarantula's proprietary operating system was fucked, all right, but I was already starting to see where I might be able to fix it. I picked up my empty bowl to take it to the sink and heard a knock at my door.

The man standing outside my apartment was a couple of years older than me, I knew, but he always looked younger. He was dressed in civilian clothes, which was not how I was used to seeing him, and his hair was longer -- but I recognized him anyway.

"Daniel," I said, sticking out my hand and smiling. "What the hell are you doing here, man?"

"Came to see you, buddy," Daniel smiled, shaking my hand.

"Come in, man. Come in. How's Bryce?"

"Bryce is good. He's running a little errand in Los Angeles right now, but he says to tell you hi."

Daniel came in and closed the door behind him. If it was anyone else, I would have moved to cover up the documentation spread all over the coffee table, but I knew Daniel's security clearance was just as high as mine.

"Can I get you a drink?" I asked, heading for the fridge.

"I'd about murder for a beer right now," Daniel told me.

I grabbed two bottles of Newcastle out of the fridge and opened them, handing one to Daniel. He took a long swig, then set it his bottle on my coffee table next to the Tarantula documents.

"So, you gonna take the job?" he asked.

"How'd you know about that?"

"Who do you think told Advanced Warfare about you? They had a bunch of other guys in mind for the position -- officers, Air Force Combat Controllers, guys with doctorates in the field. We sold 'em on you."


"Yep. Me and the boss. We didn't forget what happened in Ulaan Baatar, Ethan. You're the man we want at our backs."

"4-7 Echo is the team? The one I'd be deploying with?"


Daniel took another long swig from his beer, draining it. He stood up and stretched.

"Look, buddy. You want my advice -- take the job. We'll be there to watch your back."

Daniel headed for the door.

"Hey, Daniel -- can you tell me where we're going?" I called after him.

Daniel had his hand on the door handle, but he turned and smiled at me before he opened it.

"Can't, buddy. You're not cleared yet. But I can tell you -- you've been there before. In fact, it was the last place you went in uniform before you went back to Fort Drum."

Daniel opened the door and, with a parting wave, walked out into the hall. As the door closed behind him, I sat back down on the couch and took a sip of my beer.

I remembered the flight back to Fort Drum -- there were a hundred of us crammed into the back of a C-17. We switched out to a much more comfortable 767 at Narita International Airport in Tokyo, but I knew Daniel hadn't meant we'd be going back to Japan. No, he meant the place where the C-17 took off -- from a secured airfield in Guangzho, China.

As I finished my beer, I picked up my phone and dialed.

"Stacy? Ethan Brennan. I'll take the job," I said.


Friday, May 21, 2010

"Storm System"

If you'd asked Josh Chang a year ago how he wanted to spend his 32nd birthday, he wouldn't have been able to manufacture an image in his head. However, if you asked him now, on his actual 32nd birthday, he would have been able to tell you how he didn't want to spend it.

He was sure his ankle was broken. When the truck he was driving had been hit, it had rolled over three times before slamming into a tree. The dashboard had come down hard on his right foot, pinning it to the floor -- when he wrenched it to free it, he heard it snap.

Still, he'd managed to make it out of the truck and into the woods, just like he'd been trained to do. Even through the pounding rain, he could hear them after him -- a Chinese special operations detachment. He knew who they were because he'd spent the last month getting close to them, pretending to be a mechanic in their camp. They called themselves the Yaoguai -- the Demons.

Jason Chang was good -- very good. He'd been an Army Delta Operator in Afghanistan before joining the Central Intelligence Agency. He'd taught SERE courses and was the three-time Army Combatives champion, 2012-2014. All of that training and skill, and Jason knew he wouldn't be able to escape from the Demons alone.

Josh was unarmed and far from any US Forces -- he was in the woods a good 50 miles south of Bol'show Nimnyr (formerly Firebase Copperhead), which had fallen to the Chinese more than a year ago. Help wasn't coming -- the closest American forces were at Firebase Zulu, more than 50 miles away -- assuming Zulu was still there.

His 32nd birthday was about to be his last, but he figured he'd take as many of the Demons with him as he could.

The Demons would fan out, he knew, and search the woods for him. He just hoped they fanned out far enough. Josh hunched down behind a broken tree trunk and listened.

The first Demon walked past him on his left. Josh waited until the man was two steps in front of him before he moved, wrapping his left arm around the man's throat and winching it tight with his right arm. The Demon opened his mouth to scream, but nothing came out -- Josh twisted, quick and hard, and snapped the man's neck.

The Demon had only a QSZ-92 pistol and a long, wicked knife, both of which Josh took. He'd killed their radio man, apparently -- though he knew it was probably hopeless, he placed the earbud in his ear and tuned the man's backpack radio to channel 1-9 Victor. He slipped on the throat mic and toggled the radio.

"Any American forces, come in. This is Ghost Six."

In his ear, a burst of static.

"Repeat, any American forces, come in. This is Ghost Six."

Static again, but then --

"Ghost Six, this is Raymond 1-0, we read. Ident."

"Ident 4-1-7 Tango Bravo Delta."

"Ident confirmed, Ghost Six. What can we do you for?" the voice on the other end was casual, drawling -- North Florida, Josh guessed.

"Pursued by multiple hostiles. Injured, with critical Intel. Request assistance."

"We're a weather bird, Ghost. Air support is negative. Hold one."

Josh dragged the dead Demon under the fallen tree trunk and crouched beside him, eyes and ears open and scanning for the rest of the detachment.

"Ghost Six, we've got a volunteer offering assistance. We'll be over your position in 0-2 minutes. Hold on, Ghost."

"Copy that."

Josh didn't hear the weather plane -- a C-130, he guessed -- but a few moments later, he saw the parachute. So did the Demons, he noticed, as they fired on it. Their tracers lit up the night, and he saw several rounds hit the chute. It folded and dropped.

"Shit," Josh grumbled.

"Yeah. Glad that wasn't me," came a voice from behind him.

Josh whirled, pistol up, to see a man in woodland fatigues and a helmet. He was a white guy, shorter than Josh at five and a half feet, and extremely muscular. The white guy grinned.

"You can keep the pistol if you want, bud. But I brought you something a little more fun," the man said, unslinging an M-4 from his back and handing it to Josh.

Josh took the M4 and noticed the man's uniform -- he was an officer, a Major. Air Force. The insignia on his sleeve showed a dagger, lightning, and a parachute and read "Combat Weather Team, USAF, Airborne."

"The parachute I saw?" Josh asked.

"Duffel bag full of junk. Static-lined it from the bird -- I didn't pull my chute until I had to."

"Good plan. Major --"

"Cooper. Call me Coop. Here, put this on," Cooper said, pulling a woodland camo coat from his pack and tossing it to Josh, who shrugged into it and put the hood up. Cooper put on a pair of UltraVis goggles and looked around.

"How're we looking?" Josh asked.

"Not seeing anyone in the immediate area. My guess is some of 'em went after the dummy parachute. Don't expect the situation to hold, though. You said you were injured -- are you combat effective? Can you walk?""

"Hurts like a bitch, but yeah."

"The bird radioed back to Zulu. They're sending someone, but we have to meet 'em halfway. The guys after you, they come in a vehicle?"

"Light Assault and a CDM."

"How far back?"

"Half a mile or so."

"That's where we're going, then," Cooper said, unslinging another M4 from his back, then handing his UltraVis goggles to Josh. As Josh put them on and activated the night vision, he saw Cooper put on another pair.

"Right. You lead the way, I'll keep an eye on our backs," Cooper said.

"Roger that," Josh said, moving back the way he came as quickly as he could. He couldn't hear Cooper behind him, but every time he looked back, the short, muscular man was there, moving in a low crouch with his M4 at the ready.

"So where'd you come from?" Cooper asked in a low whisper.

"Copperhead," Josh whispered back.

"That means the guys after you --"

"The Demons. Yeah."

"Well, hoo-fucking-ray," Cooper grumbled. "How many?"

"Fifteen. Killed one, so fourteen."

"They'll have found the parachute by now, so fourteen pissed-off Demons. Fun," Cooper said, chuckling.

"What were you doing out this way, anyway?" Josh asked as he stepped over a fallen branch.

"My job. Monitoring this storm system," Cooper said.

"Wait. You're a weatherman?"

"No, a weatherman is that goofy motherfucker with the plastic hair on the Channel 4 News Team. I'm a meteorologist."

"Fine. A meteorologist. And you volunteered to jump into a hot combat area?"

"Yep. Also my job. Otherwise, Airborne school, SERE, AST, SOWT, and all those other acronyms would've been kinda silly," Cooper said.

Josh shook his head and opened his mouth to say something, but he didn't get the chance.

"Get down!" Cooper hissed, and Josh hit the ground. Cooper was already firing by the time the first bullets flew past Josh's head and slammed into the tree next to him -- Josh turned and brought up his M4.

He could see the Demons, rendered in bright green by the UltraVis goggles, heading towards them at a run. There were nine of them, but Josh could see Cooper had already dropped five. Josh fired his M4, dropping two more before the Demons scattered and took cover.

"Move, move," Cooper whispered.

Josh felt Cooper's hand on his shoulder, pushing him forward. Josh ran as fast as he could on his junked ankle, Cooper right behind him all the way as bullets slammed into the trees around them. A round grazed Josh's shoulder, but he kept moving.

"Road up ahead. I see the LAV. Think they left the keys in it?" Cooper said, coughing.

"You all right?" Josh said as they climbed into the Mengshi light assault vehicle.

"Yeah. Caught one to the back, but the armor stopped it. Cracked rib, probably. You drive, I'll shoot."

Josh started up the Mengshi and slammed on the accellerator as Cooper threw a few high-explosive grenades at the CDM, rolling them under the vehicle as the two of them tore off. The explosion went off a few seconds later.

"You think that'll immobilize the CDM?" Josh asked.

"Probably not," Cooper said, "but we might get lucky. Besides, this thing's faster than them by a long shot."

Cooper emptied a clip behind them as the Mengshi sped off down the road, and Josh heard shouting as more Demons took rounds. In a few seconds, they were up to 65 miles an hour, and Cooper stopped firing.

"Keep going this way. It'll link us up with the M-56 highway -- that'll run us straight north to Zulu," Cooper said as he sat in the passenger seat and strapped in.

"Let's just hope we don't pick up any more patrols before then," Josh said, shaking his head.

"You speak Chinese, right?"

"Kinda my job."

"Keep on the radio traffic. We might pick 'em up before we get to 'em."

"Good plan," Josh said, nodding.

* * *

"Thirty miles to Zulu," Josh said, checking the GPS on the Mengshi's dashboard.

"Shit. We should've heard from someone by now," Cooper said, pulling his radio from his vest and toggling it.

"1-0 CWS," he said into the radio.

"This is 1-3-8 Ranger, 1-0. We copy," the response came back instantly.

"You got a fix on us, 1-3-8?" Cooper asked.

"Roger. We're encountering some light resistance on the M-56 twenty miles north of you. Russian rebels. Shouldn't take too long to punch through. UAVs show your path is clear until then, though. Keep on comin'," the radio crackled.

"Well, you heard the man," Cooper shrugged, putting the radio back on his vest. "Straight on."

"We're low on fuel, here. I don't think we'll make it 20 miles," Josh told him.

"Well, let's hope they clean up the Russians before then," Cooper said.

"Hey, what time is it?" Josh asked.

Cooper checked the watch on his wrist.

"2345 local."

"Hmm. Still my birthday."

"Oh. Happy Birthday. Uh, you can keep the M4 as a present," Cooper smirked.

Ten minutes later, the Mengshi sputtered to a stop. Cooper and Josh scanned the area with their UltraVis goggles -- it was clear and quiet.

"Looks like we walk from here," Josh sighed.

"Hold on," Cooper said, checking his watch. "Five minutes."

"Why five minutes?"

"Can't make a guy walk on a busted ankle on his birthday," Cooper said, grinning.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Traitor, Part 2"

"Traitor, Part 2"

The boots weren't really my size. I'm a 45, these were a 44.5. Not a huge difference, until you're on your feet for three days -- then, you'll sure notice.

I'd made it out of Beijing by bus. I'd dressed in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt that day, so I don't know if I blended in, but I didn't look too much different than anyone else on that particular bus. The bus stopped at a truck stop outside the city, and I managed to hook a ride with a truck driver from Beijing to Chengde. He didn't seem interested in talking, which was good -- but he smoked about eight cigarettes an hour, which made me feel lightheaded. Would've helped if he maybe cracked a window.

When Reiner called, it was getting dark -- it was pretty late at night when we trundled into Chengde at another truck stop. I offered the driver some cash, but he waved dismissively and grumbled. He was much happier with the four packs of cigarettes I bought for him inside the truck stop.

Beijing to Troitskoye is only about 1,300 miles by road -- not a short jaunt, but not three days, either. The truck stop was nearly abandoned when we got there, and it didn't look like I had much chance of catching another ride east, so I grabbed a bed for the night and rested until morning.

In the morning, still no cars going by. No trucks, no nothing. I was starting to get worried -- did I walk into town to try and secure transport, or keep waiting at the truck stop? In the end, I decided to walk into town. As I walked, a kid buzzed by me on a decade-old Lifan LF400 motorcycle -- he quickly pulled over in front of me and pulled off his helmet.

"Hey! Can you give me a lift?" I yelled to him.

"You got 3500 yuan? I'll sell you this bike for 3500 yuan."

I didn't have that much cash on me -- not even close, really. And I doubted the bike was worth that.

"I don't have that much," I told him, shrugging.

The kid got off the bike as I walked to him. He looked me up and down.

"That's a nice watch, man," he said.

My watch was a fake Rolex I'd bought for $25 on the street in Los Angeles in 2010. It still kept excellent time, and hadn't tarnished or anything, but the watch face said "Rulex." I shrugged and took it off.

"Yours if you want to trade for the bike," I told him.

"Deal, man. Deal."

The kid took the watch and put it on, then tossed me his helmet and walked off down the road. I couldn't help that it struck me as a bit odd, but I wasn't going to question it. I got on the still-idling bike, threw it in gear, and took off.

I hadn't ridden a motorcycle since I'd lived in the US, and then, it had been a Honda Shadow. That had been a hell of a bike -- the Lifan was a piece of shit. I managed to coax it up to 50 miles an hour, but it felt like it was going to shake apart under me. Still, I rode for the next eight hours straight before I had to refuel, just outside of Changchun. I took a break and had some coffee -- while I was in the bathroom, the phone in my jacket rang (I'd taken it out of the boot).

"Hello? Reiner?"

"Yeah. Chink -- dammit, sorry. Chinese police have your name and picture on bulletin. They went to your apartment when you didn't show up for your appointment this morning."

"Do you know where they're looking?" I asked.

"Within 200 miles of Beijing, at the moment. But it'll be out to the whole country soon. Do you have your identification with you?"


"Burn it. Try to stay off the main highways if you can. If you can lay your hands on someone else's papers, do it. Keep your face out of public view if you can."

"I'll do what I can. Look, how solid is this 72-hour timeline? I'm moving a lot slower than I thought I would."

"It's rock-solid. If you don't raise the extraction team on time, they'll be gone. You can't expect them to hang out in a zone that hot."

"Right. I'll make it."

"Yeah, you'd better. My screens are saying. . . well, they won't be nice to you if they catch you."

I was going to say something else, but the line went dead. I wasn't sure if Rainer had just hung up, or if the connection had been intercepted. Either way, it was time to move, so I got back on the fully-fueled bike and tore off.

* * *

I was in Mingshanzhen, just short of the old border to Russia, when I came off the bike the next morning. I was only doing about 25 miles an hour, but I still managed to scrape myself up pretty badly. Both forearms were streaming blood, and my left leg hurt like hell when I stood on it.

The bike was a write-off. I tried starting it, but nothing happened. Standing there on the side of the road, looking at the military bridge across the Heilong Jiang into the former Russian Federation, the worst happened -- a police car pulled up behind me and the wrecked bike.

"Looks like you had an accident, there," the officer said, getting out of his car. "You all right?"

"Fine," I said, smiling.

"You don't look fine. You look like you're bleeding."

"It's a scratch. I'll be fine."

The officer looked at me for a long moment.

"Identification," he spat.

As Reiner had told me, I'd burned it the day before. I hadn't found any more just lying around.

"I lost it when I crashed. It has to be around here somewhere," I told him. I moved to act like I was looking for it, but I had no idea what my plan was.

"Stand still," the officer hissed. "And put your hands out at your sides."

Shit. This wasn't going well at all. I considered just running -- there were a lot of storage containers between me and the bridge, so the officer couldn't chase me with his car. He was old and heavy -- if my leg hadn't been messed up, I might have been able to lose him. I'd still have to figure a way across the bridge, which was under heavy guard, but at one problem at a time.

"You look like you're going to run," the officer said. "Don't. I might not be able to run you down, but I'm an excellent shot."

I sighed and put my hands out at my side. It was quiet for a few seconds -- I could hear drops of blood from my arms hitting the pavement.

The officer put his gun back in his holster and looked around.

"How's your right hook, Doctor Li?" he asked.

"Um. . . what?"

"Your right hook. Your punch. Is it good?"

"I'm a scientist. I've never punched anyone."

"Easiest thing in the world. Ball up your fist and swing it at my head. There's a spare uniform in the trunk of my car. It's a little big, but it should get you over the bridge. Just make sure you leave a good bruise on my face."

"Why? Why help me?"

"The Americans have something I need. Money. Now, just do it. And do it fast -- there are other patrols out in the area."

* * *

I did make it across the bridge in the officer's car. His spare uniform was dirty, and smelled terrible -- I had no idea what he'd spilled on it, but whatever it was had gone rancid. I was only 300 miles from Troitskoye, but I wasn't going to make it there in a regional police car from Heilongjiang -- that would definitely raise more than a few eyebrows.

I parked the car at the military encampment just inside the former Russian Federation and looked around. I was lucky enough to wander into the laundry -- I stole some Army uniform pants and a jacket and changed into them. The pants were a little short, but I tucked them into the boots and no one gave me a second look.

As I was considering my options, a short, red-faced man in an officer's uniform came over and yelled at me.

"Corporal! Your unit is supposed to be headed to Troitskoye! Why aren't you with them?"

"I, uh. . ."

"That truck. Now! It'll get you to your unit. You'll be late, but you'll have to deal with the consequences."

I nodded and hopped into the back of the truck he indicated. It was a cargo truck, and I was the only human in the back with boxes of food and ammo. The truck pulled off slowly, and I curled up and tried to sleep.

* * *

I checked my watch -- it was 20 minutes until I was supposed to extract, but the truck was still moving. I had no idea where we were, but I pulled the radio from my right boot and turned it on.

"This is Arnold," I said in English, then remembered -- Chinese. I repeated myself in Mandarin.

"Well, hi there, Arnold," the reply came back a few seconds later. It was full of static. "This is 47 Echo."

Whoever was on the other end spoke Chinese like a native.

"I'm close, I know. But I don't know exactly where I am," I said.

"I'm getting your position now. You're. . . well, you're heading away from town. You've overshot the mark."

"Shit. What do I do?"

The response took several seconds, but it was much clearer this time -- almost no delay at all.

"Where are you? Your signal is moving."

"Back of a Chinese Army truck. I'm dressed in an enlisted uniform, travelling with cargo."

"Yeah. I see your truck. Hang on to something."

I grabbed some straps attached to the truck's frame. A few seconds later, the entire truck jerked as if it had hit something. I heard an explosion, and the truck slammed over onto its side. A box of ammo hit me in the chest and knocked the wind out of me. As my head rolled to the side, I saw a car pull up to the back of the truck. It was all light gray, and all of the windows were blacked out. The passenger door swung up and open, and I saw a man sitting in the driver's seat.

"Shake a leg!" he yelled in English. "We're measuring our lives in seconds, here!"

I pulled myself out from under the boxes and limped to the car, then threw myself inside. The door scissored down, and the driver hit the gas. There was almost no noise as we sped off.

"Dr. Li, I hope," the driver told me, waving with his left hand. I noticed that his last two fingers were robotic. He was young, maybe 30, and looked Chinese, but he was dressed in black American military fatigues.

"Yes, that's me. You are?"

"Just the guy who got stuck picking you up. Hang on -- we've got some patrol vehicles chasing us."

"Can we outrun them in this thing?" I asked.

The young man turned to me and smiled.

"Man, this thing can outrun anything the Chinese Army has."

I could tell he was right as he pushed the accelerator to the floor and the speedometer sped up past 200 miles an hour.

"So, how's your day going?" the young man winked as we headed for the new Russian border.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Traitor, Part 1"

My handler first approached me at UCLA in the fall of 2011.

"Nice day," the young man in the black cargo pants and black button-up shirt said, sitting next to me on the bench where I was waiting for the bus.

"I suppose," I said, smiling and looking down. I'd been told my English was perfect, but I still wasn't comfortable speaking it. It didn't sound -- to me, anyway -- like the English I heard on TV.

"You're Li Jun Fan, right? I read your paper on nanotechnology and congenital heart defects," the young man said.

I looked at him a little more closely -- maybe 25, so too old to be a traditional undergrad, but too young to be faculty. Grad student, maybe? Medium-length, disheveled black hair and three or four days of beard stubble. He looked like he played bass in a rock band, not like the type of guy who read biomedical engineering papers for kicks.

"Huh. You did?" I said.

"Sure," he said, grinning. "Interesting stuff. I'd love to buy you a coffee and discuss it."

I wasn't sure, as I hadn't hung out around enough American men to pick up on it, but I got the distinct impression the young man was hitting on me. Just as I was trying to figure out how to tell him that no, I wasn't gay, he saw the wheels turning in my brain and held up a hand as if to say "whoa, there."

"Not what you're thinking," he said with a smirk. "I really am interested in the research you're doing."

Something still struck me as strange about the young man, but I couldn't see the harm in a cup of coffee -- I was hitting my midafternoon slump, anyway.

"Sure. Coffee would be good," I said.

"Great. I'll drive. I'm Fernando, by the way."

If I hadn't already been a bit suspicious (and I was, by the way), that would have torn it for me. I didn't know the intricacies of English names, and I wasn't an expert in genetics, but I knew that Fernando was a Hispanic first name -- and this guy was about as Hispanic as I was.

Of course, as I'd later learn, when you're working as a covert operative for the Central Intelligence Agency, it's not really wise to use your own name.

* * *

Fernando and I met six more times before I finished my doctorate at UCLA, always at the same place -- the Coffee Bean on Gayley Avenue near the University. He didn't try to pitch me or turn me until the fourth meeting, but by that point, I was ready to be turned.

"So, you're a Chinese national. What do you think they'll have you doing when you go home?"

"Research. Nanotechnology to cure previously uncurable health problems," I said. "I'm a biomedical engineer. That's what I do."

"Sure. So long as that serves the State, I suppose. But you're dealing with overpopulation as it is. Do you really think they want you to extend lifespans?"

I sighed -- not because I thought the question was stupid, but rather the opposite, because I'd had the same thought many a time.

"Look, you and I both know that an. . . engagement between our two nations is in the cards. It's not if, it's just when. Both of us have been building up our militaries for quite a while now. The math works out -- one of us'll have to take down the other eventually."

"I hope you're incorrect about that, but I think you're probably right."

"So the question is, which ideology do we want to live under? Our capitalism, which I'll admit is a mess right now --"

"Or our communism, which is even more of a mess. One of them can be repaired, I suppose. Saved."

"And the other?" Fernando asked.

"Is communism," I said, smirking though I didn't find it particularly funny.

"So if I was to ask you to keep the lines of communication open with me -- just me -- how would you feel about that?"

"Like pen pals?" I said, still smirking.

"You know where I work. You know what I mean."

"Yeah. Yeah, I do."

"You won't have to do anything against your people. Just keep your eyes open, and I'll check in with you once in a while."

I thought it over for a few minutes. Fernando was perceptive enough not to bother me while I was thinking -- we just both sipped our coffee and watched the people go by.

"Fine. I'm with you, Fernando."

* * *

Seven years and change later, I was returning to my apartment after a long day of work. I'd been put in charge of a project that I hated the thought of -- a nano-bug that would kill American soldiers on the battlefield. In a few months, my unit would be shipped off to a secret lab in Pyongyang to begin critical design on the bug, a project under the aegis of "Bad Omen."

I'd expected to hear from Fernando in some way after China and America went to war, but I hadn't. Not until that day.

"This place hardly befits a man of your educational standing," a deep voice said as I entered my tiny, dark apartment in Beijing.

I flipped the lights on to find Fernando at the small dining table in my kitchen, smoking a cigarette into a large, clay ashtray.

"Our borders have been closed for months, Fernando. How'd you get into the country?" I said quietly, closing the door.

"I was in before the borders closed, my friend. I just didn't leave when the rest of the Americans did."

"How've you managed to stay hidden all this time? To not get caught?"

"I'm talented," he said, snuffing out his cigarette. "You don't mind if I smoke, do you?"

"Not at all. They're your lungs."

"Can't smoke in America anymore. Against the law. I might never leave China," he said, grinning. "So, let's catch up. I brought some beer. Local stuff, but it doesn't suck."

I shrugged and sat down with him, and he opened two bottles of Yanjing Beer for us.

"So, what do they have you working on these days?"

"What you thought," I said, drinking from my beer and taking one of his cigarettes. "Developing nano-weapons."

"Anything specific?"

"Not yet. We're in preliminary design phase. Brainstorming, basically."

"But you'll keep me updated next time I drop by, yeah?"

"As long as our agreement hasn't changed."

"Full citizenship. Still the same," he said.

"Then yeah. When I know something, how do I contact you?"

"Leave the light on in your bathroom when you go to work. When you get back, I'll be here."

I nodded. Then Fernando and I got nicely drunk.

* * *

When I was transferred to Pyongyang, I let Fernando know. I didn't know what I was going to be doing there yet, but he needed to know where I was.

I was there for two months before I heard from him again -- and it was in a way I didn't expect. While working in the lab -- we were in trials on the first version of the nano-weapon -- my cell phone chirped once. A text message.

Get out of the lab. You have an hour before that whole place is rubble. --F.

I didn't question it -- I grabbed my assistant, told the rest of my team I needed to go into the city for some supplies, and got in a truck. Two hours later, we were heading back to the lab when we were stopped by the North Korean military three miles out.

"You can't go any further," an officer told me in clumsy Chinese.

"I'm Director Li, head of the nanotechnology division at Kim Jong Il Pyongyang Research Facility," I told him angrily.

"There is no more research facility," the officer told me.

We waited until the Koreans could raise someone back in Beijing -- myself and a few other survivors were told to come on home, so we did. I went back to my apartment block -- my place had been empty for months. As I walked down the once-familiar streets to my building, I saw a commotion outside on the street.

There was a man smashed against the pavement, as if he'd jumped from the top of my building. Though there wasn't much left of him, I recognized Fernando's body as I passed by to go into the building.

Two weeks later, a package arrived at my apartment. I opened the box and found a new pair of black combat boots -- boots I hadn't ordered or been issued. As I was puzzling over the package, the left boot rang, like a phone.

It took a minute and some fumbling, but I manipulated the boot just enough that a piece popped out of the back of the heel. Inside was a slim cellular phone, still ringing. I answered it.

"Ni hao?"

"I don't speak Chinese, kid. Listen, we don't have a lot of time," the voice on the other end of the line said. It was American -- Texan, unless I missed my guess.

"Who are you?"

"You can call me Reiner. Your buddy Fernando worked for me. Now, shut up and listen. You've been made -- Chink high command was a little suspicious that you and your assistant left just in time to keep from getting nuked."

"Nuked?" I had no idea the lab had been attacked with a nuclear weapon.

"Remember that 'shut up' part? I wasn't saying that for nothing. You need to get out, and get out now. When's the next time someone expects you somewhere?"

"Tomorrow morning. They're holding a meeting to determine where I'll be reassigned."

"By tomorrow morning, you need to be as far away from Beijing as you can be. You're on this phone, so you got the boots. The right one has a radio in the heel, same place as the phone was on the left one. It's set to an encrypted channel the Chinks haven't broken yet, but it's low-power. We're sending someone out to get you, but you have to get within 35 miles of 'em for them to lock onto you."

"Would you stop saying 'Chinks,' please?"

"Oh, right. Sorry about that. You need to get to Troitskoye. Do you know where that is?"

"Annexed portion of the Russian Republic. I know it. That's still well inside Chinese lines."

"I'm aware. We're meeting you halfway. You've got three days to get there. Can you do that?"

"I can sure as hell try."

"Good. In 72 hours, in Troitskoye, turn on the radio and identify yourself as Arnold. The reply will come from 47 Echo. Are we clear?"

"Arnold. 47 Echo. Got it."

"Your English is fine, but your contact will speak Chinese. Transmit in Chinese. Got that?"

"I got it."

"Good. Move, now. Take nothing with you -- your apartment should look like you just stepped out for smokes. Oh, yeah, and wear the boots. They're your size."

The connection terminated, and I put on the boots and walked out the door.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"Home is Where the Army Sends You"

I hadn't heard from my wife in two months, but they told me that might happen.

When Monica first deployed (shortly after we moved to Fort Benning six months ago), the Army had all of us spouses of deploying personnel sit down for. . . I guess you could call it an orientation. We were told what to expect, how long our significant others would be deployed, who we could call if we had questions or concerns. That sort of thing.

There were only a couple of guys at the meeting -- one of them was Eric Bower. His wife Sarah was in Monica's unit -- the 138th Ranger Regiment.

"Hey, Ben," he said as the meeting broke up. "How're you adjusting to Georgia?"

"Not bad. Found a job yesterday."

"Hey, man, that's great. What're you doing?"

"Working for the police in Columbus. They needed someone to work on their vehicles -- not many guys around here know how to work on the old-school V8s. I lucked out."

The police in Columbus were still using ten-year-old Impalas and Chargers, mainly because they were faster than a lot of the new hybrids and electrics. I'd been crawling around cars of every stripe since I could walk, so I knew gasoline engines inside and out.

"This Monica's first deployment?" Eric asked.


Monica had just been assigned to the Rangers -- one of the few women ever to do so. Sarah was the only other one I knew of, but I'd heard there was one more serving in the 75th.

"Well, you need anything, man, you just give me a call. We'll go out and grab a beer sometime, yeah?"

"Yeah, sure thing," I said, smiling. I really had no intention of grabbing a beer with anyone -- I'd quit drinking two years before. Still, though, the guy was just trying to be friendly.

I heard from Monica every week or so for the first couple months of her deployment. She was in Russia, but she couldn't tell me exactly where. They told us to expect that, too. I figured from the news that she was at Camp Justice, but that was only a guess. Seemed like a lot of Army and Marines were based out of Justice, so I figured it was a good call.

I got to know a couple of the other Ranger spouses (or "Ranger Bitches," as Eric once called us) during that time. Cherie Rogan was married to one of the guys in Monica's chalk. She dropped by during the first week of deployment to introduce herself and make sure I was holding up OK. She apparently had been knocking on the door a lot, but I was in the garage working on one of our babies, a 1977 Camaro.

"Mr. Andrews?" I heard a voice from the open garage door.

I pulled myself out from under the Camaro and looked up -- a woman in her mid-40s, about 20 years older than me, stood there with her purse in one hand and a Pyrex dish covered with foil in the other.

"Um, hi," I said, standing up and wiping my oily hands on a shop rag.

"Mr. Andrews. Hi. I'm Cherie Rogan? My husband is Carl Rogan, one of the team leaders in your wife's chalk?"

"Oh, right. Hi, Mrs. Rogan. Sorry, I wasn't expecting anyone to drop by."

"Cherie, please. And don't apologize -- I would have called first, but I didn't see your number on the phone tree."

"Yeah, we just moved here. I must've forgotten that bit of paperwork -- wouldn't be the first thing I forgot to set up," I told her, smiling.

"So, what's this you're working on? Hybrid-conversion?"

"No, ma'am. This one's mostly stock. A couple of rebuilt parts from the mid 80s, but she still burns regular old-school unleaded," I said.

"You race these things?"

"Nah. Rebuild 'em, mostly. Monica used to race in her teens, back in Iowa -- that's how we met."

"Yeah, Roge -- my husband -- said she's a hell of a driver. He's got a lot of respect for her -- they all do."

I nodded. Unsure of what to say.

"Anyway, I just wanted to pop by and see how you're settling in. Brought you a casserole. It's vegetarian -- didn't know if you had any dietary restrictions."

Cherie handed me the Pyrex, and I thanked her.

"Um, I was just about to make some coffee. Want to join me?" I said.


Cherie and I talked for a couple of hours that day. It was the first time we talked, but it wasn't the last. She introduced me to the rest of the spouses of the guys in Monica's chalk -- introduced me to the community I didn't know existed.

Military spouses stick together, I guess. When Monica first enlisted, she'd joined the 82nd Airborne, but had never deployed overseas with them. We'd moved to North Carolina after she'd gone through Basic Training, but I had family there -- my brother and his wife -- so we mostly hung out with them while she was posted to Bragg. When she finished Ranger School and we got reassigned to Benning, it was the first time the two of us had ever had to move to a town where we didn't know anyone.

Over the next couple of months, I hung out with the other military spouses a lot, especially Eric and Cherie. I helped Eric rebuild a 1996 BMW 5-series his father had willed to him, and he helped me build a deck onto the back of my house (he worked construction at the time). Cherie would often have me over for dinner with her twin 10-year-old sons -- I watched them for a week while she had to go out of town to visit her sick mother. We all just kind of watched each other's backs.

When Area November was overrun, the rumor was that the 138th was there. We all stayed by the phones for days until Cherie started the round-robin -- all clear. She'd heard from Rogan. A day or so later, I heard from Monica. They were about to leave on a mission, and she wouldn't be able to contact me in a while. Like I said, they told me to expect that, but it still sucked.

"Are they sending you somewhere dangerous?" I asked her when she called that last time.

"Everywhere's dangerous around here, honey," she told me.

"OK. Somewhere more dangerous than usual?"

"You know I can't say anything. We'll be all right, Ben. This is what we're trained for."

"Just -- be careful, OK? I got the Roadrunner fixed. It runs great now, and you need to come back here and drive it."

Monica laughed.

"OK, Ben. I was going to be all reckless, but the lure of a 1972 Plymouth Roadrunner in mint condition has convinced me to play it safe out there."

"You know what I mean."

"Of course I do. Love you."

"I love you, too."

And after that phone call, I didn't hear from her for two months.

We did hear from the Army, though. Nine days after that last call, they brought us all back to the base and sat us down, all of us Ranger spouses. They told us that a detachment from the 138th -- twelve Rangers, including Cherie's husband, Eric's wife, and Monica -- had been officially reported Missing in Action.

"Missing in action doesn't mean dead," Cherie told me that night. I was over at her house for dinner with a lot of the other spouses. "They reported Roge missing in action back in Afghanistan. Didn't hear anything for three weeks, then, all of a sudden, he was on the phone wanting to talk to me and the boys."

"What'd happened to him?" I asked.

"Don't know. Classified, like so much Ranger stuff is. When you're married to the Rangers, this sort of thing happens, Ben. Stay positive. She'll be all right. You ever meet their commander? Major Evans?"

I shook my head -- and I didn't remember meeting a Mrs. Evans among any of the other spouses. I said so.

"You wouldn't. Major Evans isn't married. He's one hell of a commander, though. Ranger with the 75th back in Afghanistan and Iraq. Cop for a while, then back in and assigned to the 138th. He'll pull them through."

I hoped she was right. No, hoped isn't the right word -- I prayed she was, and I'm not a religious guy by any stretch. Never even been to church -- but when the Army told us that Monica's unit was missing, I suddenly saw religion's appeal.

Going to work was torture, but I still made it every day. I still crawled around in engines that hadn't been made for over a decade, applying liberal amounts of spit and bailing wire to keep them running like they were new. I deposited my paychecks and worked on fixing up the house with Eric. I fielded phone calls from Monica's parents, telling them I still hadn't heard anything. I sold the Camaro and bought a 1969 Dodge Charger in bad shape from a guy in Atlanta. I almost had it running again before I heard anything about Monica's unit.

And no. As much as I wanted to, I didn't start drinking again.

The call came just before Thanksgiving -- almost two months after the Army had declared her detachment missing. The Army called me; I'd learned from Cherie that a call was a good thing. It meant Monica was alive.

Monica and four other Rangers, including Rogan, had made it. They'd been rescued by a Marine convict unit. At least, that was the rumor. Monica finally got a chance to call me a week later, and it was the best phone call of my life.

Eric didn't get a call. He got a visit from a Chaplain and another officer.

The spouses stayed together and kept watching each other's backs, even those whose significant others hadn't made it. Eric moved in with me for a while -- I think it helped him to have someone to talk to.

I've heard it said that in war, it's not about the mission, or duty, or honor -- it's about protecting the guy next to you. Even though our spouses were the ones who joined the Rangers and went to war, it worked the same way for us back home -- it was all about watching out for the person next to you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


The bar was empty, but that figured. It was only ten in the morning. Still, it tracked with what Christopher had seen since landing at Ladd Army Airfield thirty minutes earlier -- he was beginning to wonder if this whole city, maybe this whole state wasn't empty.

Pretty, though, he thought as he walked into the Foxtail Tavern, which was all done up in heavy, polished wood. When he'd last been to Alaska six months before, it was freezing. It was actually kind of pleasant out now, and he hated to head inside, but he had a meeting.

A meeting he was early for, apparently, as the only other person in the bar was the middle-aged woman behind the counter.

"You're the first one in today, hon," she smiled at him as he walked in.

"Looks like it. Too early for a beer?"

"This is Alaska, honey. There are plenty of folks who're already on their fifth or sixth. What can I get you?"

"Got a local that's any good?"

"Moose Creek Cider's not bad."

"One of those, then."

She nodded and poured him a draft from the tap directly behind her, and Christopher sat down at the bar.

"You're not a local," she said as she put the beer down in front of him. It wasn't a question.

"Nope. Just up to see a pal."

"Didn't think so. I know near everybody around here. Where ya from?"

"Daytona, originally."


"Mm-hmm," Christopher said as he took a sip from his beer. It was quite good.

"So who ya here to see?"

"Guy named Todd. Jeremy Todd. You know him?"

"Sure I know him. He's here most nights. Hell, he was here last night. How'dya know Jeremy?"

"We met during the war. Right near the end, there."

The woman looked at him for a second, then slapped her palm on the bar, her face splitting into a wide grin.

"Well, holy shit. I thought I recognized you. You're Captain Lee, aren't you?"

"It's Major now. But yeah, that's me. You are?"

"Evelyn. Evelyn Meyers. I gotta say, Major, it's. . . it's one hell of an honor to meet you. Can I shake your hand?"

Christopher offered his right hand across the bar, and she shook it vigorously.

"We sure do owe you a lot, Major Lee."

"It's Christopher. And nah, you don't owe me anything. We were doing our jobs."

"Like hell we don't. Anything you want's on the house, Major. I mean. . . Christopher."

"Evvie, you leave that man alone," a deep voice came from the bar's front door. Christopher turned around to see a massive shape of a man blocking all of the sunlight from outside. As he approached the bar, Jeremy Todd pounded Christopher on the back, nearly making him spit his mouthful of Moose Creek on the still-beaming Evelyn Meyers.

"Hey, Jeremy," Christopher said, coughing as he choked down the beer.

"Christopher! How the hell are you, buddy?"

"Good, man, good. You look. . . huge."

Jeremy laughed, throwing his head back, the muscles in his neck knotting as he moved. Christopher had seen some muscle-bound guys in his time, but Jeremy seemed like he was made out of brick and steel.

"Come on, let's get a table. Looks like we got plenty to choose from. What you drinkin' there?"

"Moose Creek."

"Not bad stuff, that. Evvie, get us a pitcher of Creek, will ya? We got some catching up to do."

Christopher followed Jeremy to a table at the back of the bar, and sat down across from the huge man. When Evelyn brought the pitcher, Jeremy refilled Christopher's glass before pouring his own.

"So, you out of the Marines yet?" Jeremy asked, taking a sip that drained a third of his beer.

"Nope. Still a lot of activity that needs watching. What about you? You're still with the CPF, I hear."

"Yeah. We're training the new kids who've just joined up with Fairbanks PD. Mostly war veterans, so they don't need much training. Nice, easy work. Spend most of my time in the office."

"Or the gym. Seriously, man."

"My whole family's big. We come from German stock. Hearty people, you know. And living up here -- it ain't for the fragile, brother. Bears alone will eat you alive if you're not tough -- and there's more 'a them up here than there is people."

"So I'd guess situational awareness would be a good quality to have out in these parts," Christopher said.

"Yep, it would," Jeremy said, draining off another third of his beer. "And it tells me that, much as you'd like to, you didn't come out all this way just to catch up with your old buddy Jeremy."

"Correct. And good observation, incidentally. I need a favor from you, pal."

"Shoot, Christopher. Not like I don't owe you one. Or several. Or my goddamn life, for that matter."

"Fuck that. You held your own."

Christopher took a long drink from his Moose Creek and pulled a pack of Russian cigarettes from the front pocket of his shirt.

"You mind?"

"I'm the law in these parts, least until we get the new recruits trained. It ain't illegal if I say it ain't. Knock yourself out. And gimme one, if you don't mind."

Chris shook a cigarette from the pack into his mouth, then tossed the pack across the table to Jeremy. He lit his own, then slid the lighter to the huge man.

"Got a guy I need found. My last intel on him says he headed out this way two months ago, then promptly dropped off the grid."

"That's been happening a lot these days. This guy -- you think he'll stay close to the cities?"

"Might. Might make you work for it, go out in the wilds somewhere."

"That wouldn't be too smart. The bears, like I said. Plus plenty of. . . let's call 'em 'disaffected' types wandering around out there."

"He can handle himself. Trust that."

"Ooh," Jeremy said, leaning back in his chair and grinning. "This is starting to sound like fun. Your guy dangerous?"

"He can be. He was a Mecho."

"Friendly? Or someone you wouldn't mind getting a little bruised?"

"Friendly. One of my guys. After the war, he kinda. . . well, let's not sugarcoat it. Dude lost his goddamn mind."

"The shit you guys saw? Can't say I blame him. Hell, I'm surprised you're still relatively sane."

"'Relatively' is the operative word," Christopher said, sighing.

"All right. How quick do you need him found?"

"Sooner the better. I'm in town for the week, and I'll go with you, of course. My chances are just a hell of a lot better with someone who knows the land."

"Got a couple of guys that work with me who're pretty good trackers. I figure we split up -- you and a tracker, me and a tracker. Cover a lot more ground that way, give us a shot in hell at finding your guy by the deadline."

"Sounds like a plan."

"Gonna need as much info as I can on him."

"I've got a full dossier for you."

"Anyone I know?"

Christopher nodded and finished off his beer, filling another from the pitcher.

"It's Anthony Rice."

"Tony? No, man. He was fine last I saw him," Jeremy said, shaking his head and refilling his own beer.

"He kept it together through the war. But when we got back. . ." Christopher trailed off.

"Understood. What do you want him for, anyway?"

Christopher sipped his beer and said nothing.

"Oh, shit," the big man said, leaning in close and dropping his voice to a whisper. "You getting the band back together? Is something going down?"

Christopher again said nothing, sipping from his beer.

"Must be big if they're putting 47 Echo back in play."

Christopher remained silent, but he winked quickly.

"Well, then. Better get started," Jeremy said, downing his pint in three quick gulps and standing up.


"Gotham Graveyard, Part 2: Survivalism"

Realizing that, whatever it is that was attacking his city, it was airborne, Dante hit the switch to raise the retracted hard top, even as he pulled into traffic.

Within moments, the black top locked into place, grabbing the windshield frame, and Dante rolled up the car’s side windows and checked to be sure all the blow-through vents were shut.

It was less than a mile and a quarter down 12th Street to the turn onto 8th Ave, which Dante took nearly on two wheels, sometimes bashing other cars out of the way in his haste.

All he could think of was getting off the island and escaping the certain death he'd seen behind him.

Dante soon lost count of the number of cabs, Beamers, Benzes, Toyotas, and even a NYPD cruiser that he'd either sideswiped or brushed out of the way on his mad dash north, thinking only to get to the Lincoln tunnel off the island.

He noticed Madison Square Garden out of the corner of his right eye as he passed it, but it was almost all he could do to keep most of his attention on the traffic in front of him while also noticing the yellow-brown cloud of death closing in both in front of and behind him as the prevailing winds blew it northwest over the most populous island on earth.

Apparently, the aircraft that had dropped the gas canisters, for that is what Dante assumes happened, did so in a line straight up the eastern side of Manhattan, all along its length.

Crossing through the red light on 34th street, Michaels almost breathed a sigh of relief as he realized he was now in Hell’s Kitchen, and almost to his destination.

At one point in the late 1950s, someone had the bright idea to try and rename the Hell’s Kitchen area as Clinton, and it even said that on what few maps showed the area at the time, but no one used the name with the exception of real estate types. It had been, and would always be, Hell’s Kitchen to anyone familiar with the area. And, thanks to Daredevil and Marvel comics, to quite a few people who had never been to Manhattan, as well.

Just before turning onto 39th Street, Dante saw one of the omnipresent tourist helicopters plunge out of the sky, obviously out of control, and crash into the New York Times building.

The explosion was surprisingly small, compared to what seems to be the Hollywood conception, and Dante winced at the impact before turning his attention to taking the corner ahead at nearly fifty.

He'd gone less than a block before he noticed that access to the Lincoln Tunnel was packed, so Michaels, struck by a sudden inspiration, slammed the Ford into reverse, the big three hundred horse V-8 smoking the rear tires as he stomped the gas, aiming, in reverse, into the oncoming traffic before cranking the steering wheel to the left and shifting from reverse to second gear.

By the time the big Skyliner stopped skidding and the tires once again gained grip to propel the vehicle forward, Dante had it aimed north on 9th Avenue, and his speed increased as he kept the pedal matted.

Of course, 9th Ave. was a one way street, and Michaels was heading the wrong way, a fact that the Manhattanites loudly reminded him of with their horns as he juked and weaved the Fairlane 500 towards and around them at nearly suicidal speeds.

He managed to make it the two blocks to 41st street without killing himself or anyone else, and took the turn onto 41st at 60 miles an hour, the rear end of the massive Ford fishtailing as he did.

Instead of slowing down, Dante mashed the accelerator, letting the 312 cubic-inch engine force the rear end into obedience. He knew this move tended to work better on front-wheel drive cars, but, on the narrow streets of Manhattan, he wouldn’t have far to slide before the Skyliner’s massive rear end would hit a parked car and straighten out anyway.

His luck held, and he was able to power through the fishtail before hitting anything -- but he was soon sliding intentionally again, having thrown the Ford into a right turn to merge onto 10th Avenue heading north.

Surprised at the relatively light traffic for this time of morning, Dante let the big Fairlane have her head as he aimed the car uptown.

Dante stayed on 10th Ave all the way until 46th street, which he slid the big car onto, seeing his destination, a famous city landmark, straight ahead.

Michaels roared the Fairlane down West 46th Street and sliced across the startled and panic-stricken traffic on 12th Ave and the Hudson River Greenway, skidding the Fairlane to a stop beside the massive USS Intrepid. Shutting the engine off, Dante scanned the area outside the car, seeing the malicious cloud closing in -- but not quite to him yet.

Moving as fast as he could, he grabbed his Desert Eagle and iPod and stuffed them into the backpack Victoria loaded with supplies back at the apartment, then opened the car’s door and sprinted for the white access stairwell leading up to the Intrepid’s gangway, sprinting at full speed past the startled tourists and attendants yelling for his attention, trying to get him to pay for his admission.

Michaels didn’t bother to acknowledge them as he bulled his way onto the carrier, then headed deeper into the decommissioned vessel.

He knew the yellow-brown cloud had been less than a hundred yards from the pier when he'd dashed onto the ship, and he knew there was possibly only one place left in the city -- here, on the Intrepid -- that he could survive.

There were no crowds in this part of the ship, as most people tended not to be too interested in anything outside the main flight deck and the exhibits set up in the hangar bays -- but Dante’s great-grandfather had told him stories of World War II, and how he had served on an Essex-class carrier.

When he was younger, Dante had looked up all the info he could on the old ships, and had toured the Intrepid more than a few times in his younger days, as well, just after the big ship had returned to the city back in 2008.

Now outside the public areas, Dante closed and locked every hatch he came to leading to the galley. As he locked the Galley hatch by cranking the large wheel, Dante could smell a hint of camphor, a strange smell for a decommissioned museum ship.

Tightening down the door, Michaels headed to the back of the galley and entered the freezer, locking himself in. He heard the hiss of the gasket around the door sealing him in.

Now he knew he just had to wait.

He did’t know a lot about gas attacks, but was sure the city was experiencing one, and was positive he'd read somewhere that all known chemical airborne agents dissipate within three days.

Sitting down on the metal floor, he looked around the massive room, larger than his first apartment, and was almost positive he will have enough air for that long.

He pulled the blue backpack off his shoulder and rummaged through it to see what Vic had packed for them.

Bottled water, candy bars, some canned fruit (but, of course, no can opener), a couple paperback novels, and a flashlight with extra batteries were on the top of the pile, next to his hand cannon and iPod.

Digging deeper into the backpack, his hands touched silk, and, almost against his will, he pulled the red blouse out of the bag.

Holding it to him, Dante finally let go and started to cry.

* * *

He'd waited four days, just to be sure.

He had run out of candy on day two, books on day three, and water that morning. Plus, boredom and curiosity had overcome his fear enough that he felt he needed to get outside. Besides, the freezer area was starting to stink from the corner farthest away, which he had used as a makeshift toilet.

Laboriously, as he was weak from both malnourishment and exhaustion, Dante retraced his path through the Intrepid, unlocking the doors he had locked back on the 6th.

He had just unlocked and opened the last of the doors he had closed when a sickly sweet smell became apparent to him.

He knew he should know what the smell was, but he couldn’t place it, even though it became stronger the closer to the public areas of the ship he traveled.

He found the first body just past the machinist’s shop. It was bloated and starting to decompose -- it was also the source of the smell Michaels had noticed.

In the hangar bay, there were dozens more.

The smell was awful, but nothing compared to the stench that assaulted him once he stepped onto the deck of the USS Intrepid.

The winds were blowing the charnel-house stench of the city directly towards him. Dante fell to his knees and retched.

Once he collected himself, he staggered on wobbly legs back over to the entryway he'd used to board the ship, only a few days ago, but in a different lifetime.

Stepping over the bodies slumped on the stairs, Dante made it back to the Ford -- bashed, dented, and scarred from his mad dash across the city. He supposed it really was his car, now.

He pushed the body of a teen girl off the hood where she had fallen in her death spasm and got into the Fairlane’s driver’s seat.

He checked the wires he had exposed, twisted them back together, and was somewhat amazed when the car started right up.

Leaving the Intrepid’s pier much more slowly than he had arrived, Dante carefully steered the Ford up 12th Avenue, trying to avoid as many of the crashed cars and sprawled bodies as he could. He didn’t even try to head south, knowing that the Lincoln Tunnel was probably little more than a mausoleum now.

He was also trying not to breathe through his nose, as the mixture of decay, excrement, vomit, blood, and heat made for a noxious cocktail.

Everywhere he looked, Dante Michaels could see the dead and soiled bodies of what had, just four days ago, been millions of New Yorkers and tourists.

Along the Hudson, he could also see ferries that had run out of fuel or run into the piers, and, as 12th Ave turned into New York 9A and the Henry Hudson Parkway, he saw the first of what he knows must be hundreds of light sightseeing aircraft and helicopters crashed into the city, this one nothing more than the burnt hulk of what once might have been a Twin Beech.

Many of the buildings had been scarred from impacts with either aircraft or birds, and there wasn’t one without some kind of broken or smudged window.

It took him three hours of dodging bodies and nudging cars aside with the big Ford’s front end to get the seven miles to the George Washington Bridge.

At the foot of the bridge, he scared the living hell out of a New Jersey Public Works crew at the foot of the bridge, who were loading bodies into a lineup of dumptrucks, presumable to be taken away for burial, and had not seen another living being, certainly not one leaving the city.

* * *

Shaking himself slightly, Ronin pushes the memories away as he turns the completely-rebuilt Fairlane onto the Brooklyn Bridge and prepares to leave the city behind again.

The bridge is the only way into or out of the city these days, and is hardly ever busy. In fact, Ronin Michaels only passes one tour bus, belonging to Necropolis Tours, one of the few companies still offering tours of the city to the morbid, as he rolls across the bridge over Hudson River.

From security camera footage and the accounts of the crew of a news helicopter that had been flying out of the city at the time of the attack, a story of what had happened had been pieced together.

The Chinks had modified an Air China Airbus A330-200 from its normal passenger role to that of a toxic bomber, then fitted it with a cloned Lufthansa transponder. The twin-engined jet had dropped thirty Soman canisters over the eastern edge of the city. Each of the hundred-gallon canisters had been rigged for an air burst, and had detonated at three hundred feet above the city.

The ten mile-an-hour winds from the southeast had done the rest, spreading the Soman across the island, the steel canyons causing eddies and whorls in many areas, like all of the parks across the city, where the concentrations had been slightly higher, not that it mattered.

The city never had a chance.

Of the ten million people known to be living in New York City at the time, 4052 are known to have survived the attack. Almost all of them had been on the west side of the city and able to get out via the bridges before they had become snarled and jammed.

Estimates are that there were anywhere up to twenty thousand tourist fatalities as well. Nearly six hundred people remained unaccounted for, but were believed to be in wrecks sunk in the Hudson river.

The US Government came in and sterilized the city over the course of two years, but no one would move back in. Five years after the Soman attacks, Manhattan was declared a National Historic Site and was listed as both a ghost town and graveyard.

However, the business that had lived in the city went on. All the major news outlets had moved across the Hudson and set up shop in New Jersey, keeping their old names in memoriam to the dead city. Wall Street and most of its associated businesses were now located in Baltimore, but still ironically called the New York Stock Exchange.

The first thing Dante Michaels had done once he left the city was ingest as much food as he could find. The second was to enlist. He may not have had any friends or family alive anymore, but he was damned if he was going to just let the Chinks get away with killing everyone he had ever known or cared about.

© 2010 Brian Kupfer (@Valder137)

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

"Gotham Graveyard, Part 1: Under a Sick Sky"

He rests his arm against the door sill, the convertible top down, wind ruffling his open-necked silk shirt as he drives the antique Fairlane down the nearly deserted streets.

On either side of him, the skyscrapers form metal and glass walls, the sun only shining down between buildings as it dips to set over New Jersey to his right.

Before the war, he would have never thought he would be able to drive through downtown Manhattan, especially not at anything slower than a crawl, but he wheels the Ford freely down one of the two designated motor vehicle lanes, rarely encountering another car, and never any of the thousands of yellow cabs the metropolis used to be famous for.

No, the opening stages of the war had certainly changed things here. Sure, the lights were still on in Times Square, but the souvenir shops had all long closed, and Broadway had been dead for years.

Within months of the start of the war, New York City had become the world’s most technologically advanced ghost town – the chemical attacks had seen to that.

Thinking back on those times, Former TSgt Dante Michaels shudders.

If it hadn’t been for the chemical attacks on Manhattan and their effect on his way of life, he would have never ended up being thrown across the world and into war with Delta 3-3.

Michaels, known in Delta as Ronin, takes his hand momentarily off the steering wheel and rubs it slowly over his shiny bald head, the rich milk chocolate color of his skin a marked contrast to the peach shirt and white pants he is wearing.

Of course, if he was trying not to stand out, he wouldn’t be driving a black and white two-toned land yacht with matching black and white leather interior.

No, Ronin wants anyone visiting the city to have no doubts that he is back in town. It is his way to honor his ghosts as he drives through his old neighborhood.

Part of him wanted to see if they would be angry enough to try something on the man who had left them behind.

He's not the same man who had left the city seven years ago, not by a long shot.

After all, he had been through hell, and kept right on driving.

Then came the war against the Chinks. It had been one of the best things ever to happen to him -- it had changed and shaped him, like a forge and smith can make burning metal into a keen and cutting weapon.

He'd always had the white-hot fury and phenomenal strength; what the hell of Delta life across Europe and Asia had done was focus and sharpen both, as well as giving him cunning and control.

He had entered the war a cudgel.

He came back a scalpel.

Ronin has hundreds of scars from the war. Some are even physical.

His eyes turn hard, and, while scanning the street for obstructions, also seem to get a faraway look as his thoughts drift back to the last time he had been in the Big Apple -- the very day he had first laid eyes on this car, in fact.

It is as if he has noticed the car for the first time, all over again. The car that had literally changed his life.

The Wu-Tang Clan’s “Babies” plays over the Jersey oldies station tuned in on the convertible’s radio, his body on autopilot, as the big man’s mind drifts back over the years.

As if it had happened yesterday, Dante Michaels remembers that fateful day when his old life had ended.

* * *

The morning of June 6 had dawned foggy over the greatest city on earth.

The low mists had made the concrete jungle of Manhattan seem somehow more primeval, more dangerous.

It was also spooky as hell, thought Dante, out for his usual 6am run.

The hair on the back of his neck stood up at the surreal sight, like something out of a B horror movie, of the sunrise-backlit fog hovering over East 14th Street bordering Stuyvesant Town, along which he was running.

It spooked him, and he'd grown up on these streets.

However, for some reason, June 6th felt a little different to the big man as he went about his morning workout.

The ear buds attached to the iPod strapped to his arm filled his head with Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ 2009 hit "Empire State of Mind," one of his favorite workout songs. His feet hit the pavement in time to the bass beat, and his breathing was synchronized to the singers’ words, and, as he was often known to be, he was singing along on his jog.

Like almost everything else in life, he thought, running is made easier if you can synchronize yourself to a constant rhythm -- and setting his workout to music helps the impression that the time is going by faster.

As he jogged across 1st Avenue, his feeling of unease increased.

It came about the same time he heard a thump in the air behind him, sounding about the same height of the iconic buildings of Stuyvesant town, if not a little higher, though it sounded farther downtown than the edge of the Town property.

An instant later, he then heard a sound that every resident of Manhattan had learned to dread since 2001.

The growling whine could only be an aircraft at full throttle, very low over his beloved city.

Upon hearing the twin Pratt and Whitney PW4000 engines roar low overhead, Michaels turned his jog into a sprint, his feet chewing up the last block towards his apartment off the corner of 14th and 2nd.

There was a whump sound in front of him, sounding about ten blocks away, followed by a couple more farther uptown, which he subconsciously heard as he sprinted for home.

As he neared their brownstone, he could see his fiancé, Victoria, standing on their red-painted fire-escape, looking northeast towards where the sound of the bomber had diminished, sounding like it had flown over Harlem.

Looking back over his shoulder, Dante could see that the mist had started to clear, the ten-mile-an-hour wind coming unusually out of the southeast and blowing the smell of the Hudson across his neighborhood.

The breeze was refreshing, but the lightening mist helped Dante notice that the air had taken on a yellowish-brown haze.

He thanked whatever providence and the overcast that made him decide not to wear his sunglasses today. With the polarized lenses on, he would never have noticed the slight tinting to the sky, it was so subtle.

Somehow, Dante also knew it wasn't a natural sight for his city, nor was it some weird atmospheric anomaly changing the light.

A feeling of animal panic flooded up his spine, though he couldn’t put his finger on a reason for it. It was a totally ingrained instinctive reaction to danger.

He didn’t think it was possible, but Dante actually managed to speed up once he saw Victoria.

He knew he had to get home.

Dante Michaels sprinted across 2nd Ave and angled to the black iron gate in front of his building. Hardly slowing down, he unlocked it and bulled through the main door of their building, taking the steps three at a time to their second-story apartment.

Rushing inside, Michaels yelled out to Victoria.

“Get some things together because we are getting the hell out of the city now.”

“But D, the bus doesn’t come by for ten more minutes, what’s the rush?” Victoria asked him, stepping back into the apartment from the window that lead to the fire escape.

“We’re not taking the bus. Grab just a few essentials, maybe a change of clothes, some food if we have to camp out, nothing else. I’ll get us some wheels. And hurry!” Dante added, grabbing his .357-Magnum-firing Desert Eagle and two spare clips out of his sock drawer, sliding the heavy handgun into his shorts’ waistband and stuffing the clips in his right pocket, his wallet and cell phone going into the left.

Hearing Victoria rummaging in the kitchen, Dante headed back out onto the street, noting as he did that the yellow-brown haze has gotten closer, moving with the prevailing winds towards them.

He looked down 2nd Avenue as he exited his building’s main door-- he could see nothing suitable just waiting to be taken, and he jogged around the corner onto 14th street.

Five cars down the street, Michaels saw an older-model Ford Fairlane convertible, with the top down, parked on this side of the street and facing west, opposite the other cars parked facing towards him.

The massive two door vehicle was white on top, had a gold accent stripe just below the door handle on the door, and was black below that on the sides. It also looked to be in great condition, and unattended.

He jogged over to it, looking around surreptitiously, but no one seemed to be paying any attention to him as he neared the antique land yacht.

Coming even with the right quarter panel, Dante saw that this was the rare 500 Skyliner retractable-hardtop version of the classic Fairlane. He grinned, and, after another quick look around, slipped around the car and opened the driver’s door.

It only took him fifteen seconds to hotwire the ancient car’s ignition, a trick he picked up on these streets long ago.

With the classic Ford now running, Dante glanced around again to see if anyone had taken offense to him claiming the car -- but again, no one seemed to notice or care, and he instead saw Victoria looking around for him.

He yelled out her name, but she seemed not to hear, as a mutual friend of theirs, Jarrod (or J-Rod, as he was known on the street) walked towards her from across 2nd Ave.

Leaving the car running, Dante stood and jumped over the passenger door, sprinting towards his fiancé and yelling her name again.

Down 14th street to the east, Dante could see people just falling over on the sidewalks, and he noticed cars swerving onto the sidewalks and into each other as the yellowish cloud washed over them, less than a block away now.

Reaching Victoria’s side, Dante grabbed her arm and started to tow her towards the still-running Fairlane, waving to Jarrod to hurry up and come with them.

While physically hauling Vic down the street with him, Dante took the backpack from her and tossed it into the back seat of the Ford as they approached it.

As they neared the rear of the car, Dante released Victoria’s arm and headed around the big car, getting into the driver’s seat once again.

Victoria, free of her fiance’s grip, waved J-Rod over, and, when he paused, she ran to him to help him into the car.

Dante, seeing them in the rearview mirror, reved the big V8 under the hood to get their attention.

It was in the rectangular mirror that he saw J-Rod fall, twitching, to the street less than forty yards away. In what had to be instants but seemed like minutes, his nose, eyes, and mouth all started running while he convulsed, then he lay still. All down the street, hundreds of people twitched, quivered, or lay still in puddles of their own making.

Michaels screamed at Victoria to run, and, as she turned to head for him and the Ford, she slipped, her eyes wide as saucers in horror at what she'd just seen.

When she started to stand back up, Dante knew it was already too late -- as she stumbled, drooling, reaching out for him.

He knew in an instant there was nothing he could do --Dante Michaels slammed his foot down on the Fairlane’s gas pedal, swerving into the chaotic traffic, seeing the brown-yellow haze closing over them was he spared a look back for his fallen compadre and fiance.

J-rod seemed small and extremely pale in death, which was strange because in life the man had been bigger and blacker than Michael Clarke Duncan. Victoria, writhing on the ground, didn’t look near the six months pregnant he knew she was.

With a last glance back, Dante shut off his heart and let his survival instincts take over, tears hazing his vision.



© 2010 Brian Kupfer (@Valder137)