Refuge

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CHAPTER 5 – That’s No Air Show

MILL VALLEY

WEDNESDAY

When the brothers followed her inside and joined Crissy and Rhoda huddling around Carl at a desk in the corner, Vic patted Rhoda’s ass, and she reacted by wiggling it. He left his hand resting on her hip. Crissy and Rhoda wore shorts and halters enough like Mandy’s to be uniforms, but anything similarly scanty was their normal attire on hot summer days. Crissy at twenty-two and Rhoda at nineteen could have passed for sisters, both curvy and voluptuous, but Crissy was blond and blue whereas Rhoda was black and green. Rhoda smiled back at Vic but held a finger to her pursed lips to forestall any words as she turned back toward the radio.

With the others hushed around him, Carl sat hunched before an array of knobs, dials, and switches. He was an inch taller and five or ten pounds heavier than Vince. His brown hair was thinning prematurely, so he looked older than the two years he had on his friend. His beaked nose and his slow-blinking eyes gave him the mien of raptor. He fiddled and adjusted several of them until a shouting voice blared from a speaker.

“—for survivors. They destroy not only our fighters, but everything that moves. I don’t know how they’ve missed hitting this studio as long as they have. We’re on emergency power from our own generators, but I don’t know if we’re broadcasting. So I’ll stay here as long—” A harsh rash of static replaced the voice as the signal terminated.

Carl said, “That was Phoenix.”

He slowly turned the dial the radio until another voice spoke. “—as far as the San Fernando Valley. If you are in a safe place, do not go out. Do not expose yourself. As for trying to go any distance to join family or friends, don’t try; it’s useless. Every road is so jammed with traffic nothing is moving. Every route is choked with burning and wrecked cars, and more are hit every second. The highways are certain death. Stay away from them! Our forces have put up one hell of a fight, but it doesn’t look good. Those bast...those bastards are just too—bbrrzzsshk—”

“So much for L. A.” With the delicate touch of a safecracker, Carl dialed again.

Vic whistled. “Wow! What’s going on?”

“Not sure, but it’s not good. …Here’s the east coast.”

“—gone. New York...gone. D.C...gone. Chicago...gone. Can you hear me, out there? Well, if there is anyone out there, I drink to you....” There followed the sound of liquid being chugged and glass shattering.

“Not gonna to get much out of him.” Carl kept dialing.

Another voice, “—lbourne. Sidney is lost, and most of—brzzz—much hope. There has been little response from most—brzzz—says our forces are putting up a—brzzz—of Asia, and from what I can gather, th—brzzz—”

“Australia.” Vince said it without emotion or comment. But he stood up from his crouch and, with a frown creasing his forehead, gazed toward the ceiling while his focus locked on something far above it.

Carl moved the dial again.

“—vn’t heard from our associates on the continent for over ’alf an hour, now, so we must assume they are either dead or the transmitting lines and towers are knocked out. I pray it’s the latter.”

They all leaned forward, as though it would help them to understand the crisp, British accent describing events in Europe. “The last word we had of Paris was that about half the city was in flames and spreading. The Eiffel Tower was among the first targets. Henny Orwell there described that once magnificent structure as a sagging heap of twisted iron. The fighters and the defense missiles positioned around the city have had little effect in fighting off the attackers. The planes and missiles were shot down as soon as they were put into the air. The same story, with little exception, has been coming in from about every corner of the continent. Brussels, Bonn and Berlin stopped communicating with us within the first five minutes after the invasion began. Madrid and Rome seem to have been hit lighter than many others, initially, and are now dying hard. Here in Great Britain, it’s pretty much the same story. Liverpool... Birmingham... Glasgow... All through the midlands...here in London... Everywhere you look in the world, cities are dying. God only knows where these invaders are from, but I think I can safely say they are not of this world. Perhaps they have climbed up from the very depths of Hell, itself. As for how things are across the Atlantic, I’m afraid we lost contact with America at the outset. If anyone over there is listening to me, all I can say is take heart and don’t give up—we haven’t. Most of Europe has perhaps fallen, but we have not...yet. ...I’ve just been handed a—”

No one said anything for a moment. When they realized the radio had gone silent, they all started at once.

Suddenly, the room shook, and windows rattled to several, closely spaced distant booms.

Open-mouthed, Vic stood upright and glanced about. “Those sounded like sonic booms.”


MUIR BEACH

Nate had walked out to stand with Erin and John, but after the object had stopped its descent, it just hung there like an overlarge, oddly shaped Japanese lantern. Erin and John both tried to get something on the thing with their smart phones, but neither instrument could get a signal. Odd, since they had both gotten strong signals just half an hour earlier. It didn’t take long for John to become impatient with the lack of further action.

“Okay, show’s over. Let’s get back to work.”

Erin paused for a bit before shrugging her shoulders and joining him back at the water’s edge. In the next several minutes, Nate did his best to spend his time equally watching the magical action on the beach and the mysterious inaction in the sky.

He had almost let the enchanting display on the wet sand garner his entire attention when suddenly a thunderclap shattered the scene, immediately followed by two more—hard, heavy blows. They had a mere moment’s pause before four more pounded them in rapid succession.

Three gulls squabbled down the beach over a half-eaten bagel discarded by an early morning stroller. At the first impact, they each forfeited claim to the morsel and started to rise, but successive blows beat them back to the sand. Finally, squawking fiercely, they gained their wings and flapped out over the breakers.

Seven more heavy hammer-blows struck in rapid succession before Nate realized they were sonic booms. He looked back up at half a dozen contrails racing across the sky.


GOLDEN GATE NRA

Jason shrugged and dismissed the huge object over San Francisco. It couldn’t be too much of a mystery or threat, or the Air Force would be all over it. And there was no sign of—

Successive sonic booms cut short any further thoughts. He and Emmie both clamped their hands over their ears and looked about.

He then spotted smoke trails—fast moving and converging on the strange object from several directions.

Missiles?

But they weren’t surface-to-air types; their trails were horizontal.

Seven... he counted. Seven missiles! No, another one—and there’s another. Nine!

Then four more began from other directions. A moment later he spotted the sources of the missiles and, probably, the sonic booms. Gray specks against the blue sky, moving almost as fast as the missiles they had launched, arced away from the craft. One of them followed a sweeping course that brought it directly overhead, and Jason made out its shape.

“Those are F-16′s!”

But, why, Beth? That thing hasn’t done anything—not yet, anyway. But they must know something about it, or they wouldn’t be attacking.

The first missiles streaked to within a couple of thousand feet of the target and disintegrated in clouds of expanding fire and smoke. Jason blinked and concentrated on the last four as they approached the thing. Again, a couple of thousand feet from impact each blossomed into shredded clouds.

“Dad, shouldn’t those explosions be closer to it. I don’t think they’re doing anything.”

“Yeah, they should be. But something’s stopping them.”

“But, why are they shooting at it? Did it do something? What is it?”

Jason tried to think—to make sense of what he was seeing. “I don’t think so. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure it’s not Russian or Chinese. ...I don’t know. ...I just don’t know.”

The high-flying interceptors wheeled about and drove in towards the target again. But it was merely a repetition of the first try; the missiles never got close enough to do any damage.

The sky above San Francisco and the surrounding area became streaked with missile trails and curving contrails from attacking fighters as F-15′s joined the Falcons, but not one missile reached its target before flashing into incandescence.

Jason caught movement out of the corner of his eye. From the west came formations of planes, Navy F-14’s and F-18’s.

As they swept by overhead at no more than ten thousand feet, Jason yelled, “Cover your ears!”

Almost too late, they clapped their hands over their ears as their bodies reeled again from the staccato impacts of multiple sonic booms.

“I’m scared!” Emmie cried.

All Jason could do was hug his daughter and try to quell her rising panic.

Then, from near the tips of each “wing,” the huge vessel began spewing specks that flitted about the sky like angry hornets stirred from their nest. Most headed for the cities below where they became recognizable as miniature versions of the big one, perhaps with twenty-foot wingspans, smaller than the jets but much faster and more maneuverable. A few remained at altitude where they engaged the earthly interceptors, and the earthmen had no chance. At speeds and maneuverability unmatched by the primitive jets, the invaders sped and turned in and about, and blasted the planes as they flashed past.

The arriving Tomcats and Hornets began launching their missiles even as Jason first saw them, and they continued on a course behind their own missiles toward the huge target.

Again, the supersonic planes and the even faster missiles proved to be no match of the aliens. The thing’s defenders intercepted the fighters after dispatching the passing missiles, and similarly sent the earthmen hurtling to the ground as flaming wrecks and showers of debris.

“Good Lord,” Jason breathed. “Those things aren’t from Russia, or China, or anyplace else on Earth.”

“Huh? You mean like flying saucers?”

“Yeah. No one on this world that has anything like that.”

As the strange aircraft approached ground level, they fanned out, making it impossible for Jason to count them or even to estimate their numbers beyond a rough more-than-a hundred, although, there could have been five hundred—or more. They moved with such speed, and they changed direction so often, without noticeably slowing, they were like a cloud of gnats. But each of these gnats meant death to the thousands of people watching from the ground, from cars and buses and trucks, from windows and doorways and street corners and parks and playgrounds.

Lines of intense violet light that appeared to be just within the visible spectrum began to lance out from them as soon as they separated. The thin beams flickered about touching targets in every direction, and then houses, cars and buildings burst into flames, often in violent eruptions as the heat from the lasers instantly superheated whatever they struck. Lines of cars on jammed streets became roaring infernos when the beams of energy burned through tanks filled with gasoline and diesel fuel. Towering high-rise buildings took on the semblance of fireworks displays as they spouted fountains of molten debris, fire and smoke.

Sutro Tower, standing stark above the plumes of rising smoke, drew Jason’s attention. The giant tripod atop a hill south of the city overlooked the growing chaos like a titan frozen in place. It was the tallest structure of the entire bay area, and, although merely a tower for radio and television transmissions, it may have been mistaken for a great weapon of some kind. Slashing beams struck near the base of its legs, and like a mortally wounded dancer, it performed a slow pirouette before collapsing in twisted ruin.

Jason’s sweeping focus landed on historical Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill as it received a passing shot from one of the attackers flitting from flame engulfed docks along the waterfront to sow destruction among the homes on Russian Hill, and that famed landmark crumbled in a cloud of swirling dust and debris.

Multiple lanes of cars, buses and trucks jammed the Oakland Bay Bridge, and their thousands of gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel ignited in continuous, billowing explosions, creating a massive, double-decked ribbon of fire.

The cluster of skyscrapers in the financial district crumbled under the assault. Each sweep of the alien planes’ lasers sliced deep before blowing out great chunks, and fire spewed from the gaping wounds like the lifeblood of immobile Goliaths. The sweeping residential areas on the west side, along Nineteenth Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, burned like a dry field of wheat from countless lightning strikes.

The holocaust of San Francisco roared from the docks on the east to the beaches on the west, from the Marina on the north to as far south on the peninsula as Jason could see through expanding clouds of smoke. Across the bay, the cities from north of Richmond through Berkeley and Oakland to Hayward and beyond to the south sprouted great plumes of fire and smoke. And over it all hung a monstrous, growing cloud of smoke that drifted eastward on the incoming sea breeze—the shroud of a dying metropolis.

Jason and Emmie trembled in each other’s arms.


MUIR BEACH

“I didn’t think they were supposed to do that,” Erin said as she got to her feet.

“They’re not,” John replied. “Someone is gonna catch holy hell, I guarantee. They must have cracked quite a few windows, at least.” He turned to Nate. “Is there an air show around the bay today? I don’t remember seeing anything about one, but maybe that’s what that thing up there is all about.”

“I don’t think so,” Nate responded. “Today’s nothing special, as far as I know. Just another Wednesday.”

“Well, those...”

Suddenly the sky around the object lit up with flashes that quickly evolved into blossoming clouds of smoke.

“Missile strike simulations!” John finished. “Oh, man!”

“I don’t think any of ’em hit the thing,” Nate said.

“Well, no—they’re simulations. You wouldn’t want to really bring that thing down over the Bay Area, would you? If they—” John’s comments stalled at the sight of more contrails streaking southward across the sky. Moments later, more booms battered them.

“There!” Erin pointed, breathless, to the south as a lone jet raced in silence out over the ocean from the direction of San Francisco in a tight turn that quickly took it out of sight again behind the south hill. It was much lower than those in mock-battle higher up, and it had no sooner passed overhead and out of view than its sonic boom struck the beach like a hammer blow.

“My lord!” Erin cried as she cupped her hands over her ears.

“Another one!” Nate shouted, pointing skyward.

Soundlessly, another jet streaked along a course that was the reverse of the one that had just looped out over the sea and back. Its sonic boom echoed the first.

“That’s one hell of an air show!” John gathered up his camera bag and looked around. He pointed up the side of the hill looming above them. “What’s up there?”

“Nothing. I mean, it’s just a hill, and more behind it. Mostly low scrub and some trees and with trails going all over. That’s about it.”

“Where do the trails go?”

Nate shrugged his shoulders. “No place quick. This is the north side of the NRA, uh, the National Recreational Area. If you had a couple of hours and lots of stamina, you could walk clear down to the Marin Headlands and the Golden Gate. ’Course, it’s a lotta up and down, too.”

“I want to get up there where I can see what’s going on.”

“Well, I suppose you’d see more from up there than down here on the beach.”

“Erin, grab that other bag over there. My long lenses are in it.”

“You’re going to drag me clear up there? John, that’s a lot higher than it looks.”

“Oh, don’t be a softie! It’ll put some shape to your legs. Come on, I’m missing shots standing here.”

“Shape to my—? John!” Ignoring Erin’s protests, he was already heading for the narrow opening in the wire fence that skirted the bottom of the hill.

Nate said to her, “He does talk, after all, doesn’t he?”

“When it comes to photography, you can’t shut him up.” She smiled at John’s retreating back, slung his bag over her shoulder, and grabbed her sweats. “Are you coming, Nate?”

“Well, I ’spect it might be worth the climb.” He followed her through the fence and up the trail. “But don’t try to rush up this hill. It’s steep, and it’s a long way to the top. You might want to put your sweats back on, too. Some of the brush up there is a mite prickly, and the breeze’ll be a bit stronger and cooler higher up.”

John hadn’t gotten far before he had to pause to catch his breath and allow Erin and Nate to catch up. From there on up, he was content to let Nate lead and to set a slow but constant pace, and they still had to stop several more times for brief rests before reaching the shoulder of the first crest.


MILL VALLEY

Carl shouted down Vic and the others, “It’s not the station. It’s us. We’ve lost our power.”

“I’ll go check.” Vic started for the door.

“No!” Vince called out. “No, forget it. We can’t just sit around here listening to the radio. We’ve got to—”

A loud boom cut Vince off. It was much louder that the others, closer. Two more in rapid succession, each one heavier than the one before, brought cries from Rhoda and Crissy. Rhoda was nearest to the window, and she spun toward it, flung open one side of the heavy drapes and stood before the sheer lace curtains and the huge sheet of glass behind them.

Vince shouted, “Rhoda! Get—!”

“What the hell...?” Also, in awe, Vic rushed over beside her and pulled aside the other side of the window covering.

Terror struck Vince speechless as it rendered his muscles unresponsive in the sudden time-freeze. All he could do was gape at his young and foolish brother who had stepped before the cannon’s muzzle.

With the onset of a series of room-shaking concussions—each succeeding one heavier than the others—Vince was finally able to throw himself toward Vic. His entire body and will screamed to reach out, to protect Vic, to shield him from the certain death riding the onrushing, overwhelming force approaching from just beyond the wall. But Vic was too far away to reach, to grab and pull out of harm’s way. With his outstretched hand reaching to grasp his errant brother, all Vince could do was utter an unintelligible moan. The final boom’s arrival shattered the window in a storm of flying death.

Carl, Mandy and Crissy, still crouching around the radio in the corner, were at an angle to the window. Even Vince was still off to the side. None of them got more than a couple of scratches from the glass shrapnel.

The concussion slammed Rhoda backwards across the room, encasing her in billowing folds of lace. Her short scream was intense.

Vince stared in astonishment at his brother still standing before the now empty window frame, apparently untouched, and the shredded drapes fluttered beside him as they dropped back to hanging straight down in the once again stilled air. He turned to look at the girl who had been beside him an instant before.

Relaxing the will he had projected across the room with such terror driven urgency, Vince held his hand before his own puzzled gaze and tried to comprehend what had just happened.

Vic stepped to Rhoda’s side and knelt. He held her bleeding head with its shredded face in his hands for a moment, and then gently laid it back on the floor amid the thousands of shards that had dealt her such a grizzly death. Her young body with its creamy, soft skin draped in tatters of fine lace oozed blood from a thousand gaping wounds. The crimson pool spreading on the floor beneath her clashed garishly with the softer pastels of the carpet.

Vic turned around and held out his dripping hands. “I... I think she’s dead.”

Two more booms shook the apartment. From nearby came the sound of more disintegrating windows.

“Come on!” Vince shouted over Crissy’s rising screams as he headed for the door.

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