Refuge

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CHAPTER 6 – Edge of Catastrophe

GOLDEN GATE NRA

WEDNESDAY

Jason and Emmie stood numbed but, so far, unharmed at the edge of catastrophe.

Winds off the ocean whipped the rising clouds of smoke, stripping them out to the east, creating a heavy, dark shadow over the land. The high point of land upon which they huddled in terror and watched in awe was north and west of the seething cauldrons that had been cities. The openness of the area had attracted not one of the attackers away from the abundance across the water.

Below them, the inbound tanker, low in the water with its full load of crude, had gotten just past the Golden Gate Bridge when the attacks began. Its unwieldy bulk swung hard to port into the beginning of an impossibly tight hundred and eighty degree-turn in a futile attempt to head back to sea when several invaders fell upon it. Before any further maneuvering could be done, the deadly lasers reduced the ship’s bridge and decks to twisted, smoking wreckage. Still under power and set in a tight turning coarse, its huge propellers churning water into green foam drove it into the tip of a stone jetty reaching two hundred feet out into the bay from the shore on the bay side of the Golden Gate Bridge’s north tower. Like the point of a lance ripping into a knight’s armor, it tore a gash in the ship’s starboard side deep enough to rupture the hold’s forward tanks, and then, its speed hardly diminished and spewing dark crude, it continued to drive around and forward until the ship smashed into the bridge tower and the massive steel and concrete base on which it stood. The bridge shook under the impact, but it remained standing. The invaders continued to strafe until the oil ignited in a spreading sheet upon the water. But, not satisfied with that, the attackers sent their plasma-hot laser beams to pierce the still full remaining tanks like white-hot pokers plunged into drums of oil. The ship exploded in a tremendous, billowing cloud of angry orange and black, an expanding, roiling fireball hundreds of feet high, that engulfed the end of the bridge and the mass of screaming humanity crowding its six lanes but unable to make it off in time.

Flight after flight of Tomcats, Hornets, Eagles, and Fighting Falcons laid sonic booms over the land, although the concussions were all but lost in the rolling thunder of countless explosions. The few planes that fought past the invaders’ own first line of defense did manage to stay alive—briefly. They dove and banked and climbed and looped to evade the smaller planes of the aliens, but the aliens were faster, and they cut inside the jets’ tightest turns. A few of the earthmen got off a few of their missiles. A few of those few found their fast-moving targets. But the planes of the Navy, Marines and Air Force were badly out-numbered, out-weaponed, and out-flown. The toll they took on the invaders was hardly noticeable.

Jason searched for more planes beyond the expanding shell of smoke enclosing the cities of the bay, but he saw only the emptiness of sky.

Then, from the sea, three more appeared, F-22 Raptors.

They came in low, bursting from the fog bank and into the world of death like barbed lightning bolts hurled from the sea by an angered god. Just above the waves, they swept toward the land on peals of thunder that shattered the air and threatened to lay flat all that stood in their presence.

“Cover your ears! Tight!” Jason yelled as he slapped his hands tight against his ears. Emmie followed suit.

Unlike the startling, window cracking booms created five or six miles away and muffled in their descent through the atmosphere, these were generated in the denser air at sea level and at less than half of a mile at their closest approach. When the crushing booms struck them a moment after the planes passed the hilltop, the moving wall of air did no more than knock them off their feet and give them both nosebleeds; the delicate membranes of their eardrums remained intact.

These last planes separated as they flashed among the ravagers. One peeled off to the right and plunged into the smoke and chaos above the city. The second one pulled up and flashed over the grill-like frame of the Golden Gate Bridge, cleared the south tower by scant feet, swept above the Marina district and soared straight up like a launched rocket. The third plane stayed just above the water as it jetted under the bridge, veered left between Alcatraz and Angel Island and across the bay towards Berkeley and Richmond. Even after Jason lost sight of this third plane, he could follow its nearly straight-line course marked by a streaking spray of mist thrown into the air by the force of its supersonic wake.

The plane that had gone straight up was the only one still visible. Its speed didn’t seem to diminish with the vertical climb toward, hopefully, the soft underbelly of its target. It launched missile after missile and continued to climb behind them until it was only a dot, rising...rising... Multiple explosions in the air between the plane and the target marked more unsuccessful missiles. An instant later the plane exploded.

Jason looked for the third plane, the one that had traced a mighty rooster tail across the bay. But he couldn’t find it against the smoke rising above the land like an angry thunderhead, nor did it appear again back on the west side of the bay.

As Emmie watched spellbound, Jason turned about to scan the sky and the horizon for other planes. He turned back to look upon Armageddon, at the fires eating away at the remnants of his civilization.

His gaze followed the towering clouds of rising smoke and ash. Many of the strange, flying craft flashed about close to the ground where they continued to lay waste to the earth farther and farther from the two largest cities of San Francisco and Oakland that were their first targets. He had no idea what was happening in San Jose and the smaller cities behind the thickening fog of smoke obstructing the view of the south end of the bay. Across the bay, smoke plumes rose farther to the north and from beyond the hills behind the cities rimming that side of the water. The hills just to his north blocked his view of anything that may be happening on his side of the northern part of the bay.

Three flyers skimmed across the water as they headed out to strike another inbound tanker that had turned and was headed back for the fog bank. The aliens flew in a tight “V” until they were through the strait, then the one trailing on the right side broke off and made a rapid, sweeping climb.

Beginning at the lighthouse, the alien fired flashing bursts at the ascending land, a lot at abandoned and harmless bunkers dotting the area, but also several occupied buildings at the visitor’s center and other targets out of Jason’s view. Within seconds, it was upon them.

Emmie screamed and dropped to the ground with her arms wrapped around her head. Jason crouched over her, shielding her with his body, unmindful of the futility of his act considering the alien’s weapon.

The ground rocked, and the air shuddered from strobe-quick laser strikes throwing up dust and smoke to billow in the gusting wind. All around the area half a dozen gaping holes two feet across and as deep boiled out sooty smoke from molten rock and dirt bubbling at their bottoms. He helped Emmie to her feet, both coughing and blinking and rubbing their eyes, then reached back down for his hat lying in the dust. Another gust scooted it a couple of feet away where it toppled into one of the pits, flashed into incandescence, a curl of smoke, and was gone.

Just like that, they were no longer observers of Earth’s murder, concerned no longer for the thousands of faceless, impersonal numbers dying in the cities and on the bridges and highways. Now, they had to stay alive.

Emmie pointed as the alien came to a hover on the ocean side and below the crest where they crouched. On a level with the underground bunker beneath them, it was like it had just discovered the gaping maw from which had once protruded the barrel of a mighty cannon, a terrible weapon to protect a great city, but now long-gone. Like a hummingbird pondering the appeal of a strange flower before of it and if it was worth further investigation, the alien made short, closing darts forward. When it was only a hundred feet or so from the yawning hole, its lasers blinked. From Jason’s position, he couldn’t see into the bunker, but they were close enough to choke on the swirl of smoke and dust billowing from it.

Jason could only imagine the fates of anyone trying to hide in the darkness down there. Before he realized it, the alien rose back up above the crest and traced its deadly weapon again across what must have appeared to be active structures. The ground heaved the air filled with swirling dust and smoke and hurtling bricks and bits of shattered masonry from the holed bunker mere feet away.

The second attack was over as quickly as the first. Jason jumped to his feet, searching frantically for a hole in which he and Emmie could hide. They were lucky to be missed twice as they crouched beside the low, open platform of an anti-aircraft gun turret. But the dubious shelter it provided would be worthless in a better aimed attack. The nearest cover, the dark doorway to another one of the bunkers, was a good thirty feet away, and, as they had seen, even it would be useless against a direct hit. But if they could get to it and out of sight before the alien targeted them...

A man appeared in the doorway of that bunker, coughing and rubbing his eyes while the dust still whirled about him as it boiled from the dark entrance. Jason recalled seeing his distinctive black and red checked wool jacket, like a lumberjack’s, earlier wandering about the hilltop, just another tourist.

The man stood frozen in terror for a moment as he watched the alien poised directly in front of him as though studying him. His head pivoted about, back and forth like it was on a spring, as he searched desperately for a safer place to be, a place removed from the killing field the summit had become. Half a second before the laser struck the doorway he leaned against, he was gone. Jason knew he had not slipped back into the bunker; he would have easily seen him moving. Nor had the invader’s laser struck him; it hadn’t even fired yet. Without a flicker, the man had simply blinked out.

Then it was Jason who spun his head about, searching in his puzzlement for the stranger, even with death falling upon him and Emmie from out of the sky. A moment later he noticed the man—he was sure it was him; he wore that same lumberjack jacket—half way down the slope to the sea and slipping out of sight among a tangle of brush.

After allowing his attention to dwell for a second or two into the mystery of the event that was even more astonishing than the destruction of the world about him, he jerked it back to Emmie and his own peril. They scrambled across the open space heavily littered with loose rubble between the bubbling pits from the first two attacks. The narrow entrance to the bunker loomed before them through dust filled air, but it was too far. A gust of wind swirled a handful of fine dust in a rising plume that caught them full in their faces. Blinded and stumbling over boulders and pockets of loose gravel, they both went down in a tumble, missing one of the smoking pits so close Jason’s fingers gripped the rim long enough to feel the heat still in the rocky ground. By the time they helped each other to their knees, he looked up to see the alien slowly rotating in place to face them.

He hugged his daughter and waited for fiery death.


MUIR BEACH

Other, higher summits to their east and south still blocked the view of the cities around the bay and whatever was happening there, but the view that Nate, Erin and John had of the action in the sky made the climb worth the effort. Long before they stopped at the first of a series of shouldered summits, the thing in the sky again captured their attention. It reminded him of an oversized Chinese dragon kite, and Nate’s senses rebelled at the scale as he watched the tiny, jet fighters circling about it like tiny white flies around a hanging fuchsia plant.

When they first saw one of the Air Force interceptors go down in flames, an F-16 that smashed into the ground less than a quarter mile from where they stood, close enough for them to feel the heat of the fireball upon impact, they realized it was not an air show, and that the missiles exploding short of their targets were not simulations.

“Oh, my God!” Erin’s hands went to cover her mouth as she blanched in shock. “John, what’s happening?”

In answer, John just stood and stared at the flaming wreckage.

They braced themselves against frequent sonic booms and watched the unfathomable drama. Even at the distance, they could see the trails of missiles from the planes and the puffs of smoke when the missiles detonated short of their target. Just discernible, too, were other aircraft that looked like so many small dots, smaller than the military jets, but much faster and engaged in dogfights against the fighters.

John’s telephoto lens gave him a distinct advantage in following the action, but he kept the other two apprised of the flow of the battle with short comments and arm pointing. “There—he’s on an attack run...there goes his—shit! They got him! ...Look! To the east! Two going in together. ...One’s gone, but—there goes the other one! ...There’s a chase. Two little ones are right on the tail of—not any more. They got ’im.”

Engrossed, they watched the action in the sky. But their attention and concern soon shifted to the large amount of smoke rising from beyond the hills to the south. Those hilltops, much less than the greater summit to the east, were just high enough to shield San Francisco from their view, and it was apparent that the air battle around the object was merely peripheral to action nearer the ground.

“Damn!” John swore. “I need to see past those hills! How long would it take to get to where I can see the city?”

Nate squinted up at the swirl of air combat taking place over what was probably the entire Bay Area. “If you’re sure you want to, it depends on how good a hiker you are and how much you need to see once you’re up there. There’s a lot of up and down out there. Some may make it in an hour; others would take four or five, or more.”

“Hell, it could be over by then!”

“I doubt that,” Erin said. “Just look at all that smoke going up. I’d say you have at least a few days.”

“No, the action, I mean. The battle, or whatever you want to call it, can’t last much longer; there’s not many planes left.”

“But, John, what’s going to happen then? What is happening? Is this the Russian invasion they’ve been predicting for the last fifty years? I thought we were friends now.”

“Hell, I don’t know! But, whatever it is, it’s worth working up a sweat.”

Nate said, “I don’t think the Russians have anything like that,” and pointed at the oddity far above them.

“Or those,” Erin said as she pointed at one of the flyers flitting past not far from where the fighter had hit the ground.

“Yeah, ain’t that something?” John agreed and aimed his long lens at it again. “It’s got some kind of pattern, but I can’t make it out—kind of a random discoloration, almost like oil on water. There might be some—dammit, I gotta get to where I can see what’s going on!”

“Well, it’s only a twenty minute or so drive over the hills to Mill Valley, or less if you push it.” Nate offered. “And that’s just one hill from the Golden Gate.”

“Yeah, come on.” Without a moment to think about it, John started back toward the beach.

Erin glanced back at the sky before following. But they had only gotten a few steps before Nate caught them and cautioned, “Take it easy going down. Once you start running, you’ll have a hard time stopping, and it’s a long tumble to the bottom.”

With Nate leading, they kept it slow and steady. Even then, John took a couple of headers when he let his attention drift back to the sky behind him. Only Nate’s constant diligence saved John from a probable broken leg, or even a broken neck, instead of the scrapes, scratches, and bruises he did sustain.

It seemed to take twice as long going down as it did going up, but they were all still alive when Erin and John followed Nate through the gate at the bottom. Then, with leg muscles shaky from the descent, John started to lead the others toward the north end of the beach to get around the lagoon.

“Come on, Erin. Let’s get to that car.”

“This way’s quicker,” Nate said, turning inland and taking the lead. “There’s a bridge.”

They trudged through dunes that would, on warm, sunny days, be filled with happy picnickers, sandy children and gritty sandwiches. John was finally getting his wind back, and his legs seemed to be better able to support him, although, he still firmly gripped Erin’s hand for balance in the shifting sand.

Redwood Creek circled around the south side of the parking lot, widened to form a narrow lagoon, then curved back to flow out into the Pacific near the north end of the beach. The creek was normally dry during the summer months, or near enough, but the lagoon, with its deeper basin, remained filled with dark, mossy water. A wooden footbridge spanned the lagoon from the dunes to a small park near the parking lot.

The trio, with Nate still leading had gotten halfway across the bridge when an alien flyer came around the hill they had just descended. Erin saw it first and froze. John bumped into her and turned to look over his shoulder when he saw her look of bewilderment. Nate turned at their gasps. All they could do was stand fully exposed on the bridge, watch, and wait.


PETALUMA

“...with skin the color of coffee, no cream. Don’t you just love the image that evokes?” Matti Raven asked.

Adam Rainger’s intense blue eyes sparkled as he smiled at the pretty, sixteen-year-old girl beside him in his car as she prattled on.

“...so, I figured I’d pattern her after me. You know, smart and popular and verrry pretty. I like that phrase, don’t you? I mean the one about skin the color of coffee. It’s so descriptive. And it fits me, too. Don’t you think? It’s...ya know, here I am, as I am. Ya know?”

Adam’s chuckle was light. “Yeah, I think I know.”

Matti flashed a Janet Jackson smile that lit up the inside of his car like a beacon. After laying her hand softly on his shoulder and patting gently, she said, “That’s good. So, what do you think? Is she believable? Will people like her? They’d better, ’cause I’m probably going to use her in a bunch of stories. If she catches on like I hope, I’m thinking of maybe a book—you know, a novel.”

He had caught himself just in time from gawking at her. Damn! How’d I miss that? When did she grow up to be such a knock-out? Another couple of years, and she’ll be ready to take on Hollywood. Hell, with that smile, she could do it now. Hard to see her as anything but the little girl that used to crawl onto my lap and steal bites of Mamma’s homemade cookies on my plate, but I guess I’d better start. I’m sure Les could use the help. I’ll bet he’s having fits keeping all the wolves from his little girl. To cover his pause, Adam arched his eyebrows halfway up his forehead. “A novel? Really? Wow, a book. Do you know that many words?”

Of course, he had every confidence that she could write a book. He had read all her short stories, articles and essays, and he well knew her talent and her discipline. He was always amazed by her boundless enthusiasm, which seemed to keep her in a state of constant sparkle. She reminded him of a sparkplug in a purring engine—the inspiration of his nickname for her: Champion. He had no doubts that if she wanted to write a book, she could. Probably a damned good one, too.

He stopped the car in the lot of the small grocery store on the corner of Main. Since she hadn’t made any comeback after his dig, he glanced over at her. She was looking at him cross-eyed and with her tongue sticking out one side of her mouth.

Yep, still Les and Mamma’s little girl. Fighting to maintain a straight face, he reached out and brushed his fingertip lightly across the corner of her mouth that was not occupied with holding her tongue protruding at an angle, and said, “Hmm, looks like you might have missed a crumb of toast or something.”

Dropping her funny-face and flashing that same, I-love-you smile, she popped open her door and got out. “Thanks for the ride, Uncle Adam.”

“You sure you don’t want me to wait a couple minutes and give you a lift back home?”

“No, that’s okay. I like to walk, and it’s only a few blocks. Thanks, anyway.”

“Okay, Champion, see you later. And I do like her. She sounds great. Sorta reminds me of someone I know.”

As Adam pulled out of the lot and headed north on Main Street, he caught a last glimpse of his buddy’s daughter in the mirror: a dazzling smile, a waved hand, and a bundle of energy bounding through the door of the store.

He reached to stop the CD still playing so he could tune the radio to a talk show he liked. But the sounds of the classic jazz so closely matched his summer-lazy mood he left it to play. He didn’t think he would miss all that much on whatever issues the host might be commenting on. The guy was an opinionated ass, anyway. Adam often wondered why he bothered to listen. Of course, it was probably all just an act for the guy’s on-the-air persona, and he did get some interesting callers. But, since Adam had already heard a good chunk of the day’s news a couple of hours earlier, there was not likely to be anything new and earthshaking on the periodic newsbreaks.

He let his car drift over to the slow lane, just dawdling along to classic jazz while he shuffled through memories of another die-hard fan of jazz, his mother, who had died seven years earlier. Then his meandering thoughts drifted to his dad, who was down in the city with a fishing buddy to watch the Giants win another one. His thoughts, flitting about like a butterfly on a breezy day, landed back on how he and Lester Raven, Matti’s dad, had become best friends despite a ten-year age difference when, in the middle of Navy SEAL training, they had discovered they were both from Petaluma. Mainly, he simply wanted to enjoy his drive through town on a beautiful summer morning in his almost completely restored 1968 Dodge Charger he had worked to restore on every home leave for the last four years.

He had almost two weeks left before this leave was over, and he had no intention of returning to his base with work still to be done on his car. When he puts it back up on blocks in his dad’s garage until the next time he could come home again, he wanted it to be as it was when it had rolled off the assembly line. Although, he had replaced the radio and cassette player with a radio and CD player—he had to have his music. And he had installed a seat belt harness, not something mandated in 1968. The new vacuum manifold for the retractable headlight cover should be in tomorrow’s mail, and he was pretty sure he could get the set of wheel-covers at his price from the guy in Sacramento if he played it right.

As he drove through the heart of downtown, his mind registered with mild curiosity the fact that several groups of people were talking animatedly on the sidewalks in front of stores and at the street corners. Some of them seemed to be excited, or agitated, or even scared about something. He didn’t see anyone he knew well enough to stop and ask what was up, but by the time he crossed Washington Street he did note the number of groups seemed to be increasing.

His hand beat time to the music on the steering wheel as the car cruised along the long, straight stretch of Main toward the north end of town, but his mood had undergone a subtle change. He still listened to the soothing notes of an alto sax, but his mind raced over various possibilities. And the more he thought about it, the more certain he was that the expressions on the faces of the people he had seen had clearly indicated that something was deeply disturbing them. Then it hit him that whatever it was had probably been heard over the radio or on television since so many people had become aware of it at about the same time in so many different locations.

He reached for the select button on his radio/CD player, but a flash of movement followed by more flashes of light and movement in his rear-view mirror caught his attention.

At first glance, he saw nothing. Then smoke billowing into the sky on the other side of downtown convinced him he had not imagined it.

More flashes and more smoke, and his gut tightened against the realization that he was not in a training module. He was in his hometown, and something was terribly wrong.

He whipped over and stopped at the curb, then, fighting against the shoulder strap he hadn’t loosened, he spun around for a better view. What he first took for large birds darted about just above the rooflines of the downtown area he had just come through.

Too large.

Or airplanes

Too erratic in their movements. They looked like a bunch of balls bouncing around in an old pinball machine, except they had what looked like wings.

He popped open his seat belt and shoved the door part way open, catching it at the last instant and jerking it back closed just as a van screamed past close enough to take off his side mirror in a spray of glass and shattered plastic. He looked behind again, then swung door open again and stepped out onto the pavement with nothing coming for half a block. He gazed up in stunned amazement. The few plumes of smoke he had first seen became uncountable as he watched, each billowing up from a ground level flash. He was no stranger to aerial bombardment and strafing attacks, although most of his exposure to them had been in training environments.

The attackers fanned out. Some moved west above the homes within the encircling arc of hills surrounding the town. Some went east across the river and freeway to the stretches of homes, parks and schools out in the flats. Others came on northward over the commercial area along the road leading out of town and the homes beyond both sides.

He quickly dismissed the possibility that they were dropping bombs. Those little planes couldn’t possibly carry so many bombs, plus, many of the explosions were far off to the sides of their paths.

He got a better look at the flyers at they drew closer, and when one flashed by overhead the level of his shock made a quantum leap. He had never seen anything like the small flying wings darting about in quick, sporadic movements that seemed to defy laws of physics. Beneath them, destruction mounted.

He had been heading back to his dad’s place just outside of town, but since no one was home now he had no pressing need to continue. His dad was far away and should be okay. And, if not, he was too far away for Adam to do anything to help him, anyway. He didn’t want to think about what circumstances would put his father in danger all the way down in San Francisco that would be related to the mind-numbing situation developing in Petaluma. Even with his years of military training and experience in some of the most demanding operations around the globe, he had a hard-enough time dealing with what his eyes and ears were telling him was happening right in front of him. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen…not here in his hometown.

As he reached for the door handle to re-enter the car, his attention went to the road behind. The southbound lanes were a confusion of cars careening about and attempting to turn about from the growing chaos south of them. A flatbed truck in the northbound fast lane was apparently not fast enough for bakery step-van behind it that whipped into the outside lane and accelerated.

Rather than opening the door into the path of the on-rushing tons of metal, Adam spun and vaulted onto the hood of his car. He was still reaching for handholds where the hood met the windshield when the van screamed past close enough to take off his side mirror in a shower of glass, metal, and shattered plastic.

When the way was clear enough after the passage of three more cars in the van’s wake, he scrambled back into his car, not taking time to fasten his seat belt before he slammed it into gear and punched the gas. The meaty 383 CID engine bellowed as he cranked the wheel hard left. The rear end skipped and skittered around in a blue smoke and gravel-spewing arc that pointed him back to the south. As the nose of the car lined up with the southbound lanes, he popped his foot off the gas for a second, and then slammed it back down after the car’s directional motion stabilized with the front wheels straight again. The engine roared again, and blue smoke burned off the tires for a good fifty feet before they found solid traction.

He could do nothing to help his dad, but Lester and his family were just a few blocks away on the other side, or possibly in the middle of, the rapidly expanding conflagration eating his town.

As he raced southward, a cascade of cars came northbound out of the congestion of downtown at suicidal speeds and with no apparent concern for what side of the road they were on or whether anyone or anything was already there. After a couple of near misses, he realized the odds of quick death on Main Street were becoming overwhelming.

With tires squealing, he swerved right onto the next side street just as one of the strange planes passed overhead. This one was close enough for Adam to be able to see the lightning quick flash of the violet beam of light that flickered at the service station on the corner. The explosions that followed in rapid succession were increasingly violent. First, one of the pumps went up, and then a second explosion encompassed the rest of the pumps on that island as Adam drove past. Next, a growing ball of liquid fire erupting from the ground rolled in on itself as it engulfed the other islands and the building on its climb skyward, boiling off thick clouds of black smoke. Its spread missed Adam by milliseconds.

Just past the DMV office behind the gas station, the street went up a steep, one block-long incline after which it leveled off to undulating hills. Adam turned left and headed back southwards. Here, too, among square blocks of tree shaded homes, the sight of attacking planes overhead and sounds of neighboring homes erupting in violent explosions sent panic-stricken people running.

Although the traffic was lighter, so, too, were the high-crested and narrow streets more unforgiving of excesses. Many intersections were at least partially blocked by smoking, sometimes burning collisions. Pedestrians running into the street might just as well have been invisible for all the care the drivers took in avoiding them, often tossing them many feet to flop in crumpled and bleeding heaps.

Winding through this mindless flow of fleeing humanity was like a fish trying to swim upriver against a white-water current loaded with hurdling fist-size boulders. But he only had a couple of blocks to get out of the hills and back down to Washington Street and the flat plain of the valley floor.

A pickup truck came flying over the last crest of the road before him, and he narrowly missed a deadly head-on by cranking his wheel hard to the right. But, the maneuver was too abrupt, and the car merely altered its attitude to the street without changing its direction of travel. The pickup’s driver tried to take his own evasive action, turning his wheel to the right, but it was too little, too late. The big truck had just begun to lean when its left front struck the Charger’s left rear and spun it back around the other way. The nearly three hundred and sixty-degree spin his car made absorbed a good part of his forward momentum, so when his left-front slammed into a car parked in a driveway it was less than catastrophic.

With no seatbelt and shoulder strap preventing Adam from wedging his ribcage between the steering wheel and the door, his head slammed into the left windshield post, and the battlefield din surrounding him suddenly went mute in an excruciating fireball of dizzying pain. Still somewhat conscious, he was dimly aware of a whole barrage of flashing lights and an entire symphony of booms, bells, gongs and chimes. In a pocket of logical thinking that he somehow managed to maintain through it all, he was fascinated that he was almost able to distinguish the havoc that was real and continuing around him from those effects that were induced by the trauma of a concussion.

In a staggering daze, he climbed out of the wreckage through the passenger door and turned about, searching for a direction in which to proceed, although he couldn’t quite recall where he had wanted to get to so badly—or exactly why. He continued to stumble about until firm hands gripped him on each upper arm and took much of the weight off his rubbery legs.

Voices penetrated the fog muffling his ears that also made it difficult to focus his eyes.

“Quick, Charlie, back that way past...” A man’s voice.

“...probably die anyway...” A different male voice.

Most of the sounds the voices made were just noises—surely not related to speech—and recognizable words came through only occasionally.

“...others...” The first man, again. Maybe.

“...more than...” A woman.

Before the fog completely closed in, Adam blinked away some of the blood running down past his eye and focused on the face of an older, distinguished looking man wearing a neatly knotted tie beneath the buttoned-up vest of a matching gray suit.

How odd, it struck him, to wear a three-piece suit to a war.

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