12:05 p.m., April 12th, 2070
Residential District, Sacramento
The battle of the first day was a minor battle, as such things are counted. That is, it killed many men, many more than had died in any one confrontation for decades, and left many hundreds stricken with wounds that time might heal for a little while, or never heal until the breath left their flesh. The first cohort of Sacramentan soldiers stationed at the wall lost half its number in dead and wounded, and the ashen-faced civilians, huddled behind drawn blinds and under beds back in the city, thought it was the end of the world, no doubt. And yet, measured against what was inevitably to come later, it was only a minor battle.
Abbie Bonaventura saw none of it. She was holed up at home, curtains covering the windows, doors locked, when the firing had begun, mid-morning, and when the first attacks against the walls themselves were launched just around noon. Abbie did not see the slight gray fringe that was war moving against the city wall; not as it came in pictures, with a ruler-edge, but a crinkled and smudgy line, like a child’s drawing in soft crayon, moving on with its little red handkerchiefs of flags sagging up and down, here and there. It was still quite far — still like a toy attack. The defenders of Sacramento were trying to break it up with shot thrown down from the wall — smoking sand pelting an ant-legged line — but it still kept coming on. One fringe, and another fringe, and another, and — the gunners on the walls had lost sight of them for a moment in a dip in the ground. This is it, Trisha Adams had thought then, perched on her post, shooting down one stuffed doll of a man after another as they careened into her scope.
But Abbie Bonaventura saw none of that. She sat at home, in the dark, with Steve Bradford’s head in her lap. Steve could have slept on the rocky ground — if instead of Abbie’s warm lap he had laid his head on a block of ice, he could have slept and been glad to sleep. He had been through Hell’s Gate, destroyed the Armorer Dynasty by sabotaging their nuclear warhead, and returned home across the desert to fight in the battle to liberate Sacramento from the Armorer Envoy. He was completely exhausted and he would have been useless in defending the wall. Still he’d been willing to go immediately — but Abbie had reasoned with him, convincing him to rest tonight, fight tomorrow.
Abbie, however, could not sleep. She listened to Steve’s even breathing, and she listened to the bursting of distant shells. The gunfire, far off, like the crackling of burning sticks. She felt wrung out, like there was no strength left in her body or mind to draw on. It had all been spent surviving the Armorers. This siege, following on the heels of that horror, was too much. We won’t get it for a while, she thought. They’re trying the wall, but they’ll be held back…But it’s their whole army, alright. I feel strange today. I don’t think I’m going to be killed, but I feel strange. What must it be like, to see your name on a bullet? It must be bizarre.
Phaeton, charioteer in your drunken car — a few chopped lines of old poetry crossed her mind. What do you have for a man that bears my name? Charioteer, you must have been driving yesterday, no doubt, but I did not see you. I see you now. What have you got today for a man with my name?
Abbie held a Ph.D. in ecological sanitation, and for hours she had been struggling to think of a solution to Sacramento’s fuel problem.
Steve’s BPH Sergeant Lillian Morgenstern had told him about the destruction of the fuel depots, and Steve had told Abbie. Since then, she had been struggling to think of a solution, some stopgap measure to generate enough usable fuel to temporarily power the Republic’s Black Hawk helicopters and fleet of mini-gun mounted Humvees and drive back the barbarous hordes of Yumans. But she couldn’t imagine any way to do it as quickly as needed. The city, for the most part, ran on solar power. There was no shortage of photovoltaic energy, but it would be the work of weeks to convert the war machines to electric power — and city only had hours or days at the most. The Yumans had the city trapped under siege — there was no way out, and the inflowing river had been compromised by the raiders’ presence upstream. The water was no longer safe to drink or even use; the risk of contamination was too great. The city would have to survive on reserves in the aquifers until the siege was over. In addition, the Black Hawk helicopters and other military vehicles ran on biodiesel produced from algae, but the plants where that biodiesel had been produced were destroyed by the Armorers. Growing new crops of algae in swimming pools or wherever they could manage it — and so produce the fuel to power the military machines — would take at least a week.
Abbie’s lips went back. She felt something swell in her chest like a huge bubble.
“By God,” she whispered to herself, “you’re not going to get this hill. You’re not going to get this hill. By God, but you’re not!”
Shifting Steve’s head gingerly onto a pillow, she rose from the couch and walked quietly across the room. She wasn’t a soldier. She would only be in the way, standing on that wall. But she had her own set of skills, and she could serve the people of her city in another way…
Capitol Building, Sacramento
1:05 p.m., April 12th, 2070
In the paved square below the high, majestic shape of the Capitol Building, Abbie had managed to gather as many members of the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra as she could, as fast as she could. She had called every member whose number she knew and enjoined them to pass her message on to others, quickly explaining her idea and imploring them to meet her in the shadow of the Capitol as soon as they could. And most of them had obliged — looking shaken, hair tousled, dressed haphazardly, but toting cellos and violins, French horns and clarinets. There was even an electric keyboard set in the square, a satisfactory stand-in for the concert grand piano the symphony pianist was used to playing. The orchestra organized itself throughout the square, setting out folding chairs and tuning instruments, to the percussive background sound of shells and mortars exploding far off at the border wall.
Lulls came frequently as waves of Yuman assault were repelled and turned back. Even in moments when the terrible silence ascended, the helplessly waiting people in the city were on edge, expecting and dreading to hear the cackle of gunfire resume.
Several technicians moved around the square, placing microphones with a hastily thrown-together network of long extension cords, plugging them into terminals connected to the Public Address system often used to make administrative announcements throughout the various districts of the city.
Close to one o’clock in the afternoon, the preparations were complete and the Philharmonic Orchestra, of which Abbie was First Chair Violin, was prepared. A few terrified citizens, wincing every time a shell burst audibly in the distance, had collected in the square to see what was happening. The conductor of the orchestra had not come; no one had been able to get in touch with him, and there was no time to keep trying. Instead, Abbie stood in front of the half-circle of intricately arranged musicians, holding her violin bow up like a conductor’s baton, ready to signal her companions.
She hesitated, glancing back at their straggly audience, and considered saying a few words. But she decided against it. What they were doing would speak for itself. She turned back to the orchestra and waved her bow, promptly turning around and slipping back into her seat to join them as they launched into the first furiously confident four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Those simple four notes — da-da-da-dum — enough on their own to send shivers down the spines of those gathered in the square, and those farther away who heard the music begin over the PA system — began the overwhelming first movement. It burst and flared with scarlet eruptions, heavenly processions and all the power and drama of humanity. Saturated with intensity and suspense, that first movement was a novel, an epic poem; the pauses left the audience hanging, trying to guess where the unpredictable Beethoven would lead them. The peaceful intervals of swaying melody deepened the expectancy and tension, like the eye of a storm was passing over that square. Played con brio, with valiant, agitato attack. Over and over, the four note theme was twisted, turned and thrown with gusto. Melodies from brass, echoed by strings, wove throughout the movement like eddies and currents in a rushing stream.
A few more people came from surrounding buildings. Meek, quiet people who had huddled for hours and hours in darkened rooms, squinting in the brilliant early afternoon sun, as bewildered by the music as they were terrified by the sound of the shells. Trickling into the square, a larger audience collected.
The second movement rolled on, with lovely dynamic shapes and phrases dropping off into dreamy pianissimo. The melody ebbed and flowed, now semplice, now con fuoco; it crescendoed almost stealthily to a rousing climax. There was a small crowd there by now, listening. Men and women, standing singly and together, children on parents’ shoulders or climbing lampposts for a better view.
Far off at the wall, Trish Adams and other Republican Marines heard a faint glimmer of music on the PA system during a lull in the firing.
Southeast Wall, Sacramento
1:53 p.m., April 12th, 2070
“What the hell?” Morgan asked, cocking his head, looking over the cityscape behind them.
“It’s music,” Trish said dully, pulling back the bolt-action of her rifle. A spent cartridge twirled away, and a fresh round clicked into the chamber.
She was exhausted; she was almost too tired to question why she was hearing a symphony play in the midst of a firefight. She just listened, her mind a blank, waiting for a new target to come into her sights. But the melody wound around her. It snaked into her, weaving through her mind below her exhaustion and building her up from the ground. Solos playfully echoed each other; the dynamics chased each other about the musical space like players in a game. The four note theme — da-da-da-dum — rolled on, becoming a rhythmic pattern, carrying the symphony into the fourth and final movement.
The Yumans launched another charge. The order went down the line, and the ranks began to move, slowly at first, then gaining speed as they ran drunkenly onto that death-torn mile of broken ground that separated the frontline of the invaders from the city walls. The defending soldiers and Marines stared towards the onrushing gray mass of fighters — eyes hard, hands moving in well-accustomed gestures to ready their weapons. As one, the rifle platoon on the wall raised guns and fired. The soldiers manning the mortars launched a whistling fusillade; the ordnance thudded down into the tangled ground ahead of the rushing Yumans, and the concussive blasts cracked the air and threw up molten clouds of dust, churning in a thick, sulfurous haze. The charging Yumans vanished in that bank of clouds; with an echoing revival of the brass, the melody in the distance erupted, became joyous and revitalized; like the sun bursting from behind the clouds, the trumpet sounding on Judgment Day, the renewal and final victory of mankind over death.
They say from the wall that that advancing force looked like a sea as it emerged from the clouds of dust, a sea continually torn by rocks thrown from the sky, as mortars rained on them and they were torn by guns. And yet, it came, still closing and rolling on, as a moving sea closes over the flaws and rips in the tide. You could mark the path they took by the dead they left behind, spilled from that deadly charge as a cart spills meal on a road. And yet they came on unceasing, no longer the thousand that had started the charge — but their flag did not fall, did not fall, did not fall.
They halted once to fire as they came. Then the smoke closed down and you couldn’t see them. As it cleared again for a breath, they were coming still, but divided, gnawed at by the Sacramentans; one flank was half severed and halted, but the other still came on like a tide.
With a vibrant, ecstatic joy that drowned-out and transcended the thrumming gunfire, the final resounding chords of the symphony were hammered out with an immortal energy, carrying listeners out of their craven, shivering selves to see past the pall of dread that the siege had pulled over them; Trish and the others on the wall shouted aloud, inarticulate, wavering at the sight of the Yumans relentlessly charging forward, but bolstered by the inexplicable music carrying over their city like a reminder of the culture, the heritage of civilization that they fought to protect from being squelched utterly — holding back the wasteland from over-spilling its banks, sinking the last island of civilization in a dark age that would never lift until the human race had flickered out.
The leader of that Yuman charge led the last of his guns to the battle-line; they threw up rickety ladders to scale the wall, as riflemen scrambled to tighten together above them and pick them off with volleys of lead. The Yuman leader leapt the wall, grabbed the gun of the nearest Sacramentan and shoved it away. Three more Yumans followed him over.
“Give ’em the steel!” the Yuman screamed, waving his hat on his sword, ushering his fellow raiders over the wall. They shoved back the knot of riflemen who had failed to stop them; swords flashed in the sunlight, blood flew in sheets, splattering across concrete. Screams; gunshots; bodies falling, jostling together on the narrow top of the wall like cattle being driven abreast into a slaughterhouse.
For an instant, the Yuman flag was held aloft atop the wall of Sacramento; a hostile flower pushing up from the ground and blooming in alien soil. Then the gun-smoke wrapped it in a mantle, and when it blew away, the leader of the Yuman charge lay in his blood, the rest dead or thrown down from the wall, moaning and snapped at the bottom. The valley below was grey with the fallen and the wreck of the broken wave…
The charge had failed. It had breached the wall for a moment, but the few who lived to make it that far were instantly overwhelmed and pushed back. And yet, the Yumans had thousands more fighters than Sacramento had. If it came down to a war of attrition, they could sustain the steady losses, where the Republican Military could not. It was only a matter of time before they broke through. It was only a matter of time before the barbarians breached the wall, and found there were not enough defenders left within to hold them back.
It was only a matter of time before the Yumans spread into the city.
There was silence in the air. The music over the PA system in the distance had stopped. Trisha Adams breathed a deep sigh, and lowered her rifle, her heart still knocking hard in her chest. She heard a thick chunk beside her, turned her head and looked. Morgan was injuredly trying to rise to his knees, his face annoyed by a smile; then the blood poured over that smile and he crumpled up.
“Fuck! Morgan!” Trish reached out her hand to touch him and felt her hand rasped by a file. She jerked it back and looked into the killing field: there was a lone sharpshooter still alive down there, lying on his stomach among the corpses, firing at the soldiers on the wall. Trish sucked her hand, clapped the butt of her rifle to her shoulder, and shot the man. With a tiny cough she couldn’t hear, he slumped down in the pile of dead bodies, his brain sheared in half by the heavy brass sniper slug that passed through it.
“Bastards,” Trish said, in a minor, even voice, dropping to her knees beside Morgan.
The medics were working their way through the other casualties that littered the top of the wall. It was already too late for Morgan. It was too late to catch any last words from him.
There was no more music. Looking forlornly back at the looming frontline of the Yumans, a mile away, Trish chewed her lip.
We can’t hold them, she thought. We can’t stop another rush like that…
Capitol Building, Sacramento
2:30 p.m., April 12th, 2070
There was a large crowd in the square now, applauding thunderously as the symphony finished Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Abbie had done what she meant to do; the orchestra had given the people of Sacramento, or at least some of them, momentary relief. Some, still carried by the rousing music, the brassy, imperial rhythm leading their feet, marched away from the square towards the wall — new volunteers for the defense of the city. But Abbie didn’t know that. She didn’t see the handful of men and women leaving. Rising from her chair and heading towards the front of the orchestra, she prepared for her second song. A solo — Ernst’s Grand Caprice on Schubert’s Der Erlkönig — a piece so virtuosic that only the most skilled violinists could play it. Abbie stood in front of the gathered crowd, shouldered her instrument, and placed her bow on the strings.
Fingers moving blindingly fast and effortlessly, she launched into motion. The shrill notes from the very start set the tense, horrific theme; based on the centuries-old ghastly and tragic poem Der Erlkönig, the piece wove together the voices of a narrator telling the frightful story, and the characters of a desperate father, frightened child, and the monster Erlkönig. To pull the four distinct voices from a monophonic instrument was a feat requiring such skill that it turned away all but truly superior violinists.
Abbie played with something between razor sharp focus and blank, automatic rote. She swayed to and fro with the music, eyes hooded, face a soft half-smile, like she were asleep and dreaming. Listeners, both among those gathered in the square and the seated members of the orchestra behind her, shuddered, hairs standing on end as the shrill, frantic melody, uniting the voice of a terrified child, the galloping of horses, and a frantic father struggling to drive his steed faster than the pursuing monster.
Fingers moving with the unthinking force of a thousand repetitions, Abbie’s mind was detached from the action of playing. She was released from herself; she was transported by the music and forgot she was afraid, forgot the siege, and forgot the death that loomed over them all. She was relaxed. Her mind, unconsciously, flitted back to the problem she had labored over for hours — but now she was not too tense to think. She ran through the possibilities for a fuel source. And then, as she sawed her bow across the violin with an intensity that broke threads as the melody built towards the climax, an idea began to percolate in her mind. A single idea that might save them all.
Abbie abruptly stopped playing. She dropped her bowing arm to hang by her hip and lowered her instrument from her shoulder.
The audience stared silently, baffled.
“The larvae!” she shouted.
Murmurs began to spread throughout the crowd.
“The larvae…” Abbie breathed, to herself. Pushing her violin into the hands of the musician seated closest to her, she turned and ran from the square.
She had a lot of work to do.
Southeast Wall, Sacramento
6:04 a.m., April 14th, 2070
The Yumans, back in their line, spent hours licking their wounds, groaning in hospital wagons, eating, sleeping, playing mumbly peg with worn knives, and organizing themselves for their next charge. The next charge would be larger. The next charge would break through. Trisha knew that, watching them mill about a mile away. They’re going to do it, this time, she thought. You can tell by the way they move. And there just aren’t enough of us left to stop them.
She and the other soldiers on the wall, along with a couple dozen civilian volunteers who had come to the wall and been given guns, watched helplessly as the rank and file of the Yuman horde began moving into position, bracing themselves to make the last, decisive rush against the wall. The Sacramentans loaded their magazines, chambered rounds and placed their eyes to their scopes — no one had any hope left that they would weather this final storm, but they would die with wounds to their fronts, not their backs. And they would drag, clawing and screaming, as many Yuman bastards down with them as they possibly could.
Trish heard someone sniffling on the wall. She understood that. She could have cried, herself, thinking about the people she loved, behind her in the city. She was between them and the barbarians outside, and there was nothing she could do. She could have cried, too, but she didn’t. She didn’t feel like giving that to the Yumans before she died. Tightening her face in a grimace, she waited for them to come.
A cry went up from the Yumans; row by row, in order, stepping like deer, gaining speed as they came, they began to move onto the mile of bloody, charred ground that separated them from the city.
“Hold your fire until they’re close enough to hit,” a corporal shouted. The ammunition was getting low.
Trish scoffed to herself. Do you think we’re a green company? Jesus, corporal, go home.
The more religious among the defenders of the wall began to pray.
Well, here it goes, Trish thought. And a dull sound broke over her, growling up from the city behind her. The pitch rose as it came, like a Doppler effect, like whatever was coming was moving fast. She held her focus for a few seconds, staring down the advancing army, but then her iron resolve broke and she twisted around, looking back into the city.
The dull roar had become a massive, thudding beat, like the rabid panting of some wolf god. Trish turned just in time to see a massive shape rush over her, eclipsing the sun as it passed. The volunteers in her own line threw down their guns and collapsed along the top of the wall, overcome by the sight of the enormous, looming specter.
Holy fuck. Trish’s mouth fell open. The Black Hawks.
Sacramento’s two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters thundered over the wall, crossing the mile of broken ground towards the Yuman army faster than those incoming barbarians had ever seen something move. The huge, abysmal gasp that went up from every quaking body in that horde was almost palpable, like the field became a vacuum for a flicker of time; all the air sucked into inflating red corals of lungs in a depth of aphotic animal panic that ran below thoughts or words. There was no time for them to scream, watching that incarnate nightmare sail through the blue sky like a weightless ironclad, bewitched by the Devil to hurtle at them on immortal wings. Some could have sworn they saw the patchy, membranous, claw-tipped bat wings of those twin Leviathans as they bore down. Some saw the red eyes flaring brighter than the sun, dribbling bloody, smoking tears down towards them that smelled of hot metal and severed limbs and burst torsos. Some men in the Yuman lines soiled and pissed themselves, dying too fast to be ashamed. The scream, coming too late for those first to die, rose up from the army like a single, apocalyptic death-rattle wrung from a single gigantic throat…
Trish watched the mini-guns on each flank of each Black Hawk clatter, blazing redly and showering the army below with thousands of rounds per second. The ripple of death moving through the army was visible — they were falling by the dozens, being trodden down in rows by the invisible legs of giants. The screaming reached the defenders on the wall like the crash of surf — distant, muffled by the thudding of the helicopters and the steady whirr of the mini-guns.
The Yuman army atomized. It burst into powder like a clod of earth thrown against brick; every man ran in his own direction, shoving, screaming, insane with fear; some fell and were trampled, some were mowed down by suppressing fire, others stood rooted where they were, staring up at what had to be hell-beasts conjured by some vicious deity whose name they didn’t know, who had ordained the death of every man in that legion.
As the horde scattered, the Black Hawks unleashed an apocalypse of air-to-surface missiles. Nothing they had ever imagined, not in stories, not in legends, not in fevers, could have prepared the Yumans for that bombardment of Hellfire missiles from the sky. The daylight turned red; showers of grit pelted them from all sides as the ground under their feet began to rupture and disgorge geysers of fire. The sound of it was not merely sound but a flurry of physical blows that busted them like hammers; waves of heat and force knocked them about like rag dolls, hurling hellish storms of corpses and limbs like grim debris carried on the surf from a thousand shipwrecks.
The army was gone.
Trish and the others, watching from the wall, could see that. There were no more brigadiers or commanders or generals. If the King was still alive somewhere in that pandemonium, he was no longer the King. There was nothing he could say, or offer, no threat he could make, to enjoin any of those men to defend him or rally them back to his cause. They had been reduced to frothing, keening animals.
The Sacramentans did not cheer, seeing the battle reversed, seeing their enemy caught and broken over a stone. They couldn’t. A time would come when they could feel elated and breathe sighs of relief at their deliverance. But, just then, the sight was too horrible. There was nothing left but the routing.
The helicopters skimmed back and forth above the heads of the churning, boiling mess of shrieking men, showering them with bullets. Dully, Trish was aware of a clanging as the city gates opened. She heard the drone of engines, and was aware of Humvees moving out over the bloodied, cratered ground towards the Yumans.
Just let them go, she thought, shaking her head. It’s is over. This just turned into a war against rabbits. She turned away from the sight of the battlefield.
There was not one Sacramentan there vindictive enough to revel in those awful sights, however hated those enemies down there were.
Suddenly, Trish realized she had never been more tired. Morgan’s face flitted through her mind, sardonically grinning in pain, blood dripping down over his white teeth.
She thought to herself, How did this happen? Where did the fuel come from…?
Her head hurt when she tried to think, so she abandoned the question.
Later, she would learn that a genius named Abbie Bonaventura had given them the tiny batch of fresh biodiesel they desperately needed to power their war machines. She had done it by hitting on an alternative source, compensating for the destruction of the algae-growing operations throughout the city. She used the larvae of the Black Soldier Flies that the Republic farmed in enormous numbers as a protein source. She had somehow thought to use their food as biodiesel to power their helicopters and their Humvees. It took hours to coordinate all the moving parts and people and still more hours to generate the fuel from the larvae. From early afternoon the day before yesterday until dawn of the third day of the siege, she’d labored. Finally, she’d been rewarded with success; the army was prepared to engage the Yumans with the machines. And they came just in the nick of time.
But Trisha didn’t know any of that, yet, as she picked her way down the stairs off the wall, her rifle hanging from her arm, eyes downcast. No one spoke to her as she passed. All eyes were locked on the grisly scene out in the field.
Her last shift on the wall had lasted twelve hours. She hadn’t slept in that long, and hadn’t eaten in six hours. Still hearing the throaty chanting of guns far outside the city walls, Trish walked through the streets in the direction of the Marine barracks.
She had seen enough for a lifetime.