Refuge

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CHAPTER 7 – The Law Is No More

GOLDEN GATE NRA

WEDNESDAY

A gust of wind whipped away the last of the swirling dust, making Jason feel even more exposed as he crouched over Emmie. Although, he had no doubt that the alien hovering over them could see precisely where they were, whether it was with visible light, infrared, radar, or by some mechanism he couldn’t even guess at.

His mind screamed that they were going to die, incinerated with a weapon that turned dirt and rock into bubbling, searing liquid. This time the alien was only a couple hundred feet away when it fired.

The world blinked brilliant violet and instantly went to grays and browns in an eruption of dirt, rocks and dust all about them. By the time Jason and Emmie raised their heads to look at it, the alien flashed over and past them and climbed away from the crest of the hill.

“Wha...what…how...?” Jason muttered as he returned Emmie’s stare of amazement.

Jason’s gaze ran over his daughter who was as she had been before the deadly laser struck, dirty and disheveled, but not one fly-away hair was singed. From her, he peered at the rough, three-foot-wide circle of undisturbed dirt at their feet within a ring of molten ground beginning to solidify.

“Did it miss us again?”

“It must have. I mean... I think... But how…?”

The ascending alien pulled around in a wide arc and swept back down the steep slope toward the western shoreline. Apparently dismissing the humans huddled on the hill’s crest as smoking cinders, it joined the others wreaking havoc on the ship caught short of the off-shore fog bank.

The other invaders over the cities of the bay continued their systematic destruction. They made sweeping runs along waterfronts while they lashed out at anything that wasn’t already ablaze. They flitted in through the canyons of crumbling and burning high-rises to blast new holes in the ruins. They crisscrossed the areas of lower buildings, cutting the sections of not yet burned structures into smaller and smaller pieces.

Jason clasped Emmie hand and helped her jump over the ring of melted ground. “Come on.”

They ran back down the path to the wide shoulder where he had left the car. Ten other cars were there when they arrived, forever ago. Only his remained. He hadn’t noticed when the others drove away even though he and Emmie watched much of the battle from the cliff directly above. Had they made it to safety, or, in their panicky haste on the twisty, narrow road back to the freeway, did they plunge down to the waiting rocks and surf?

He slid behind the wheel of his car and jammed the key into the ignition even before he got his feet in. Emmie was already in and reaching for her seatbelt. With the engine still revving, he slammed into reverse and punched the gas. The car shot backward away from the precipice against which it nosed and leaned as Jason crimped the wheel hard until his front end pointed westward on the road that circled the crest and disappeared down the other side away from the freeway. Behind them and below, the mass of humanity trapped on the bridge screamed and died in the inferno of the burning ship beneath the bridge, and in the lasers of the killers above them.

“How do we get down?” Emmie cried. “I...I... Oh, Daddy, I’m so scared!”

“I know, hon, me too. But, just hang in there. We’ll be okay. I’m not sure just where this road goes, but it’s got to go somewhere.”

“But, shouldn’t we get out of the car? I mean...what if one of them sees us?”

“I don’t think they’ll notice us if we stay away from crowds. Maybe they won’t come chasing after just one car.”


MILL VALLEY

Vince’s mind churned with options, and he quickly settled on a goal if not a plan. Their only chance would be to get away from the heavily populated bayside cities and the congested traffic corridors connecting them, and the only way to do that without a boat would be to cross the spine of forested hills between the bay and the sparsity of the seacoast on the west side of the peninsula. But few roads traversed those hills. Fortunately, he was familiar with the area.

Caught in the panicky flow of traffic racing eastward in all four lanes of Miller Avenue, Vince resisted taking Camino Alto, the route most of the other cars opted for in their dash for Blithedale Avenue and the freeway. Stuck behind a gasoline tanker semi since forcing their way onto Miller, he had tried a couple of times to bully his way into the next lane to get around it, but no one was about to yield even a foot. He wouldn’t mind a couple of dents and scrapes, but everyone was driving as aggressively as he, and if he pushed too hard, he and his passengers would likely wind up afoot—or dead. When the tanker careened into the southerly curve Miller Avenue made at the west edge of the harbor, Vince had an opportunity to view the chaos farther east across the half mile of open saltwater marsh and calm water that stretched away out to San Francisco Bay proper.

He could easily make out the mass of traffic fleeing north on U.S. 101 on the low bridge spanning the entrance to tiny Richardson Bay and Mill Valley Harbor. Sounds of distant collisions punctuated constantly blaring horns. More than one strange looking airplane cruised back and forth above the endless line, and a growing number of burning vehicles sent plumes of black smoke into the sky. It wouldn’t be long before the growing number of pile-ups would force movement on the freeway to a full stop. Even if they could make it past the jammed on-ramps, it would be suicide to get into that flow. It was a good decision to forego the Blithedale route.

But traffic on the surface streets was murder—literally. More and more drivers gave in to their panic and pushed their speed beyond what they were able to control into perceived spaces too small to accommodate them, making no effort to avoid dashing pedestrians, and ending their own dash for safety in smoking piles of twisted metal when no one would yield even an inch.

Vince followed the tanker and the others that had stayed on Miller Avenue around the curve and raced south with them along the west edge of the Bothin Marsh Preserve, a boggy expanse between the roadway and the open water of the bay and all its other inlets. The easiest route to the coast would be Shoreline Highway, a continuation of California Highway One that joined U.S. 101 in San Francisco to cross the Golden Gate Bridge and then split off again from 101 at the southern end of Mill Valley. From there it cut across the hills to run north up the coast. It intersected with the road they were on less than half a mile ahead.

Miller Avenue ended where it merged with Almonte Boulevard coming from the west. At that point, the road curved again to the west after necking down from divided four lanes to two lanes, undivided and with no shoulders, and Miller Avenue became Almonte Boulevard. The inside, west side of the curve was a steep embankment beginning at the edge of the pavement, and the outside, east side of the curve was a steep, grassy slope down to mudflats at the south end of the marsh and were submerged with the high tide. They barreled along with just over a thousand feet to go to Shoreline Highway.

Suddenly the tanker they followed slammed on his brakes in a futile attempt to avoid a man running across the road. The truck, unwieldy with its semi-trailer filled with tons of volatile fluid, jack-knifed, toppled onto its right side and slid. Where metal met pavement, sparks boiled out to an accompaniment of ear-splitting shrieks that drowned out the sounds of all but the nearest explosions.

Even discounting hazard posed by the stampede of vehicles practically on Vince’s rear bumper, he was too close behind the truck to stop, so, with tires smoking from sudden acceleration and abrupt steering, he yanked the wheel hard left. He slammed the car beside him which caromed over the edge and into the water, and Vince veered on around to the left side of the leviathan and its comet-like tail of sparks. But the truck was beginning to spin in its slide, rotating around to gradually take up the entire roadway and forcing Vince farther and farther left. To get his rear wheels back onto solid pavement, he cranked his wheel to the right and punched the gas even though the truck’s cab was right there. But his rear tires had already veered too far off the road and lost traction on the grassy slope. With spinning wheels on the sloping ground throwing whole divots of long grass into the air, the car continued to slide along the edge of the road, now barely ahead of the behemoth, and their speeds diminished together. Vince’s engine roared, but the spinning wheels merely swung it farther around and down. By the time it came to a rest, the rear bumper was under water and the rear wheels half submerged. The truck came to a stop only ten feet behind the car. It remained sideways across the roadway and blocked passage on either side with the cab hanging over the grassy slope and the back end of the semi-trailer jammed against the low retaining wall and high embankment at the other shoulder.

By the time they all climbed out of the car, flames from burning diesel leaking from the tanker tractor’s own tank, ruptured and ignited in the long slide, had engulfed the cab and were spreading down into the grass, deterring anyone blocked behind it from even attempting to get past even on foot. A cacophony of horns, shouts and rear-enders arose from the mass of traffic suddenly brought to a halt.

As he eyed the wreckage while gathering his group onto the roadway, Vince noticed the shimmer of fluid flowing down over the shiny, unpainted metal of the main tank from a significant crease in the metal near the rear end of the tanker. He didn’t have to speculate about what the fluid might be. As he watched, the fluid puddling on the pavement begin to flow toward the outer edge of the curve and the diesel-fueled fire there.

“Run!” he shouted, grabbing Vic by the arm and propelling him on down the road. “Come on,” he continued to shout at the others. “It’s gonna blow!” With shouts and shoves, he herded them at a run toward Shoreline where bumper-to-bumper and curb-to-curb traffic flowed westbound.

With still a hundred feet or so to the intersection, they all turned, stumbling, when the tanker went up with a heavy boom, a roiling fireball, and a rumble of thunder.

Turning back to Vince with a frightened grin and a thumb over his shoulder pointing toward the flow of traffic on Shoreline, Vic asked, “Think we can hitch a ride?”

“We’ll see.” Vince eyed the traffic for a moment, turned to his brother and said, “Wait here, and don’t let anyone stray.”

Shoreline Highway, a four-lane road split only by a yellow centerline, came from the southeast and made a ninety-degree left turn back to the southwest. Southbound Almonte intersected it at the apex. Vince strode ahead to the intersection and stopped to watch from the east curb just before the highway curved to the left. With his best smile touched by a mild frown of worried concern creasing his forehead carefully painted onto his face, he stuck out his thumb and waited.

When it was obvious after a few minutes that a thumb wouldn’t do it, he stepped down off the curb and faced the oncoming horde, four lanes of westbound refugees desperate to get away from the freeway behind them and the congestion of the town around them. But even frantically waving his arms resulted in nothing but occasional glances and a couple of horn blasts when he ventured too far out into the roadway. After he had to jump out of the path of an unswerving car rushing for the turn, he walked back over into the property at his back and grabbed a large, plastic container on two wheels and marked recyclables only and pushed it to the east curbside where he had stood with his thumb extended. He turned back to a nearby planter bed outlined with a row of roughly brick-sized, white-painted stones. He hefted two before settling on a slightly smaller third one, which he carried back to the recycle container, and he waited.

Traffic rumbled westward past him. Nothing moved eastbound since all lanes were clogged with faded station wagons, gleaming sedans, whining sports cars, and anything else that could transport people fleeing the chaos behind them. They all slowed for the curve, but none stopped for the lone man on foot. A small, white pickup with rakes and shovels standing upright behind the cab, and top-heavy with bags of grass clippings and tree-trimmings filling the bed, swerved to the right in preparation to taking the upcoming curve without having to slow too much swept by within a couple of feet of Vince. The driver gunned its engine going into the curve and sprayed roadside gravel back at Vince. He ducked, but not in time to evade a small stone that left a trickle of blood down his left cheek.

A few cars after the gardener’s pickup came an older, black and white Ford Bronco that slowed more than most before rounding the curve. Judging its speed as it approached the curve, Vince gave the container a hard shove out into the Bronco’s path. The driver braked and wrenched the wheel hard to the right, and the container rolled past in front of it, but only into the path of a van in the lane beside it. The plastic lid flew open on impact in an explosion of plastic bottles, cardboard boxes and aluminum cans. The van made the curve and continued westward. The Bronco spun out and came to rest sideways across Almonte. Traffic on Shoreline continued past without pause.

The driver of the Bronco, a middle-aged man wearing a cowboy hat with a large spray of feathers across the front of the crown, threw his door open and thrust his head out at Vince, who had walked up to the door. “What the hell d’ya think you’re doing, ya stupid damned punk?” he yelled. “You damn near made me crash! Why the hell don’t—?”

Vince’s hand clenched the man’s shirt collar and yanked him out to sprawl on the ground with his hat on its crown beside him. Before he could do more than rise to his knees, Vince swung the white stone up and over his head and smashed it against the top of the man’s skull. The sound of bone shattering was clearly audible even over the noise of traffic rushing past just a few feet away.

Vince turned back to face the driverless truck, hefting the now red stone in his hand. Another middle-aged man, sitting in the passenger seat, had watched the matter-of-fact murder with gaping mouth and eyes wide. When Vince locked eyes with him, he rolled out the door on the other side and ran back up the road toward the freeway.

Vince turned to his brother and the others who had come forward in time to witness the slaying from up close. Vince said, “How about that, Vic. One did stop, after all. And look, he’s letting us have his truck.”

“But...uh... Don’t you think...?”

“What…cops? Are you kidding? Look around, man! Look at all those asses driving on past and not giving a damn for anyone or anything that doesn’t affect them personally. We don’t have to worry about cops ever again—EVER! Don’t you see, Vic? The world is changing. It’s already changed. Remember the radio? This isn’t just here in the bay area. It’s all over the world. The survivors—if anyone is going to survive—are going to be those that realize it.”

“Yeah, but—”

“No buts, man. Hey, I gave ’em a chance to give us a ride, and, just like always, they didn’t want anything to do with us. So, as far as I’m concerned, the law is no more. From now on, I am the law—the only law. You can do anything you want to whoever you want, anytime you want, and nobody is going to stop you. No more cops are going to tell you that you have the right to remain silent and all the rest of their crap. No more judges are going to dictate how you have to live. No more self-righteous, self-serving sonofabitch is ever again going to tell us how bad we are because his wife couldn’t stand living with him—not more than once, anyway. From now on, if someone pisses you off, kill ’em. If you see something you want, take it. If someone tries to stop you, kill ’em. Hell, if you want to kill someone just for kicks, kill ’em—and enjoy it. We’re practically in heaven, now, man. Come on, now, get in.”

Vince slapped his brother on the back and turned to the others. “Come on, you people. We’re out o’ here.”


MUIR BEACH

The thing came in over the beach at an altitude of about two hundred feet and moving fast. It swept in past the steep hill south of the beach and, just before passing over the footbridge, it banked back to the other hill, the one with all the houses nestled among all the trees, and its deadly laser began blinking and slicing across the hill with its burning brand. It continued until it was out past the rising land and veered back the other way. Within seconds was out of sight moving northwards up the coast. The quick side trip had taken only moments, but it was enough to leave the trees and the houses that made up Muir Beach a spreading inferno.

The small footbridge and the three people upon it were apparently not worth a shot, and they remained unharmed. They stood in shock, dumfounded, amazed by the suddenness and the ferocity of the attack.

Nate was the first to come out of it. Catching his breath, his whisper was coarse, “Good God-almighty!”

John spoke as though answering the question that hammered all three, “One of those things I could see flying around and fighting with the planes. I couldn’t see `em clearly, even with my telephoto, but that has to be what it was.”

Nate suddenly sagged half way to his knees as though he had taken a blow to his gut. “Oh, dear God—Patty!” he breathed. “Patty’s up there!”

With Nate leading, they ran down off the north end of the bridge, through the few bushes and trees between it and the parking lot where John’s car blazed, across the gravel covered lot, and across to the base of the burning hill. Nate led them up the narrow, steep road with a “Private Road” sign at its entrance hanging by one corner. A huge juniper tree nearby was a colossal torch. Other smaller trees and bushes in the vicinity soon ignited from falling and blowing embers. They ran on up the hill, dodging as burning branches dropped onto the road.

Many of the houses they passed were burning or beginning to burn, but they ran on with the thought that others, higher up where the fires already blazed fiercely in buffeting winds, were in more desperate need. But as they passed more and more burning homes, it became clear that pressing need was everywhere, at every turn, within reach of either hand.

People screamed—ran about—shouted—cried—died. More than a few burned. Some were extinguished by neighbors still clear-headed enough to realize it needed doing.

The beautiful trees had been so tall and straight, or so twisted and gnarled that each had a character unique to itself, or so full that the birds they harbored could never be accurately counted, the virgin brush between home sites so thick, often the only ways through were deer trails.

And the roaring inferno consumed the hillside community like an insatiable beast. Houses and garages and sheds had been built among the trees on the steep hillside with little clearing of the land, and the trees and the brush grew dense. The residents prized their wooded, shadowy seclusion, even with neighbors close on all sides. But when the fires started, and in so many places at once, the flames raced over the hillside, blazing furiously on the continuous sea breeze. Many died in their homes. Others were dying still, expiring from the terrible burns and other injuries suffered when their homes exploded around them. Many escaped from blazing homes only to have burning trees and limbs fall on them. The once green, cool, lovely retreat became a burning hell.

Erin grabbed a man running down the middle of the road with his shirt blazing, threw him to the ground and rolled him back and forth until the fire was out. She used her sweatshirt to bandage the worst of his burns. She left him to run to a crying child sitting beneath a blazing pine. She snatched him from under the tree just as a large shower of bright sparks settled to the ground and lit the dry grass where he had been. She deposited her burden with a woman who appeared to be uninjured and ran on. After dragging a man with a badly broken leg from his burning house, she lashed his leg to a board with the only thing she had available, her sweat pants torn into strips.

John ran into a burning house to help another man extricate his neighbor before they were all engulfed.

And, so they went, dodging serious injury, dashing from one catastrophe to another, often running across each other, and all the time trying to ignore the mounting numbers of dead all about them. The stench of death, of burned and charred flesh, soon became the norm.

Nate caught himself just as he was about to turn up the short road to his house, just visible and apparently undamaged through the swirl of the smoke. Patty would probably still be at Evelyn’s. He couldn’t even force himself to consider if Evelyn’s house was one of those struck by the laser. His mind insisted that Evelyn and Jim would be just fine, and if he knew them, not about to let anything happen to Patty. He spun about and ran back the other way.

When he got to their front door, he paused and forced himself to take a deep breath. The house and the brush around it was unburned. Still, he held back. Until he went inside, in his mind she was still okay, scared and disturbed by so much death, but unhurt. But, what if after he went in, he was confronted by the horror of—? He couldn’t put words to it even in his thoughts.

With the deep breath he took not yet released, he turned the knob, let the door swing open, and stepped through.

“Oh, Nate,” Patty cried as she wrapped her arms around his neck and smothered him with kisses. “I was so worried about you.”

He pulled back after a moment, although reluctant to let go of her. When he saw the blood soaking through a bandage on the side of her head and covering one side of her face, he almost screamed.

“Oh, my God!” he managed to breath out after catching his breath. “Patty, what happened? Are you okay? Here, sit down over here. Let me—”

“Nate—no—stop—wait.”

But he half carried her to the sofa. Finally, she relented and allowed him to lower her, oh-so-gently, to the cushions. That was when Evelyn stepped over to clasp Nate’s arm to get his attention. When she had it, she said, “She’s okay. Really. It’s just a cut over her eyebrow and a headache. Possibly a mild concussion, but I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

When his legs suddenly went rubbery, Nate sat beside his wife and gripped her hands in his own while he gazed into her eyes, the greenest he had ever seen.

“What the hell was that thing that hit us, anyway?” Jim had just come in from the back of the house. “I only caught a glimpse, but it sure looked odd to me. Are we being invaded?”

Nate shook his head and said, “I’m not real sure. But I got a pretty good look at it and a bunch more from up the south hill. Looked like they’re hitting the city, but all I could see was a lot of dogfights in the sky with our fighters. I was on the lagoon bridge when this one came.”

“But, who…what…” Patty started.

“Whatever we might guess would probably be wrong,” Nate answered. “All we can do, now, is wait for help to come. And until it does, we need to do whatever we can for whoever needs it.”

“I’ll head over east and up that way,” Jim said. “Nate, why don’t you check out the cliff area around your house and uphill from there? The girls should be okay here.”

Nate turned and looked at Patty with her blood-soaked bandage over her eye. Before he could protest or offer another plan, she smiled up at him, ran a soft hand over his cheek and frowning mouth, and said, “I’ll be fine, darling. I’ve still got a headache, but I think the bleeding has stopped. You go on and see who needs help. There must be so many.”

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