Chapter 1

Caution: This Science Fiction Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, .

Desc: Science Fiction Sex Story: Chapter 1 - The story of World War III and the life of Laura Whiting's great great great great great grandfather, Mark Whiting, during the bloodiest of human conflicts. The first of the Greenies/A Perfect World universe, started some years ago and never posted, now recently picked up and re-written. Some dates have been shifted forward in the timeline by a few years.

While it was in progress, it would be called World War III. After it was all said and done, it would be called Armageddon. Whatever it was referred to as, it would go down in history as the bloodiest, costliest, most destructive event in human history. Though not a single nuclear or fusion weapon and not a single chemical warhead would be used during the ten long years of the war, more than six hundred million people would be killed as a result of the fighting.

It would also be the most unexpected war in human history. No conflict had ever been thrust upon the world with such shocking surprise, with such shocking speed. On December 31, 2012, the world was relatively at peace. Armed forces throughout the globe—those that were not to participate in the opening attacks anyway—were at the lowest level of alert possible. Twenty-four hours later, on New Year's Day, 2013, Chinese and Indian forces, in a surprise attack of staggering complexity, burst with lightening speed into the resource rich Siberian region of Russia and into the strategically located western Russian steppes. That the Asian Powers (as they would quickly become known) of China, Japan, India, Korea, and Vietnam had been planning the attack for nearly two decades would be apparent only after the massive invasion took place. The rest of the world was completely clueless about their intentions beforehand.

The primary reason the Asian Powers were able to penetrate so deeply into opposing territory in such a short period of time could perhaps be summed up in one word: underestimation. The Americans, the British, the French, the Germans, and especially the Russians, underestimated both the strength of the Asian countries and their ambition. They had allowed their own armed forces to be cut to the bone, to a staffing and equipment level that had not been seen since before the First World War. They had allowed the Asian Powers, whose numbers equaled more than a third of all human beings on earth, to amass an army, a navy, and an air force of staggering size right under their noses.

Most of the military hardware and weapons the Asian powers would use were old, outdated models of American and Russian equipment. The Russians had sold them the very tanks they used to smash across their border. The Americans had sold them the very planes they used to wipe out their carrier groups at the beginning of the war. They had sold them this equipment and had pocketed the currency, using it to beef up their own economies, all the while telling themselves that the outdated equipment would be ineffective over the high-tech, computerized and satellite guided weaponry they themselves possessed. They told themselves they were doing the old divide and conquer trick, getting China and Japan and India to engage in a military build up against each other and against their neighbors. This mistake would turn out to be the most deadly one ever made in the history of warfare.

For a period of more than ten years the three primary countries of the Asian Powers had seemed to be at each other's throats. Nobody, not the CIA, not the British Intelligence, not the Mossad, not the Russian intelligence, ever suspected the whole thing was just an act. The three powers would constantly chip at each other in UN sessions. There would be the occasional border skirmish or naval clash. There would be the occasional scuffle between opposing air forces. That the Asian Powers could keep such a massive secret for so long had been inconceivable. The Western powers and the Russians had simply watched in concealed amusement as the Asian countries went through their paces and kept buying up weapons, tanks, and planes.

Of course none of the western countries were foolish enough to sell the Asian Powers the sheer numbers of weapons they eventually amassed. Though they liked the hard currency they were receiving from the sales they were not about to arm up Asia with enough military might to actually become a threat. In intelligence files formulated just days before the outbreak of war, the total strength estimate of the Asian Powers' tank forces and air forces were listed at less than one fourth of what it actually turned out to be. Again, this was due to a vast underestimation of the enemy. While the Asian Powers had been pretending to chip at each other during those years, their factories, particularly those in Japan, had been turning out three tanks, three airplanes, three artillery pieces, and three bombs for each one they had been sold. They built these weapons from steel that they had purchased from the United States and Russia, and they stored them in secret hangers and staging areas.

On the eve of January 1, 2013, the Russians had no idea that they had more than four million soldiers sitting on their border ready to smash through and seize their country. They had no idea that thousands of attack planes were idling at Chinese air bases ready to take off and penetrate their airspace. Such a deception, had it been suggested prior to the war, would have been thought impossible to achieve. After all, satellites peered down upon the world constantly, monitoring every move that is made by any country's armed forces. But satellite passes are predictable and heavy combat equipment, as the Asian Powers showed, can be moved from place to place between passes a little at a time; it can be effectively camouflaged during the pass, letting the peering eyes see exactly what they expected to see. It took the better part of three years for this build up to happen, but the Asian Powers were nothing if not patient. Again, with hindsight it was easy to see the deceptions for what they were. It was easy for the NSA and CIA analysts to look back at those old satellite pictures and wonder how they had not known, how they had not seen what was about to occur. They had not seen because they had not been expecting to see and probably wouldn't have believed it even if they had.

The goal of the Asian Powers in this endeavor was a very grand and wide-reaching one. They were gambling everything that they had on their success, literally everything. After all, every one of the countries of the Asian Powers had extensive business holdings in the United States, in England, in South America, holdings that were frozen and confiscated by the first week of the war. Each of the Asian Powers countries also had thousands, in some cases millions, of their citizens living abroad, citizens that were arrested and confined to POW camps. That they were willing to sacrifice these things, some of their most valuable foreign possessions, some of their most influential and wealthy citizens, spoke volumes about the grand scale of their intentions. They were not just intending to take Russia and the resources of Siberia. Their goal was no more and no less than complete world domination. They planned to initiate a new world order of their own, to enforce the principals of world communism under a single government by force of arms.

Their plan, which was intended to require less than a year of fighting, was to seize the world's oil supplies as quickly as possible, thus making it impossible for any country to oppose them. They were counting on the sheer overwhelming numbers of their forces coupled with the lightening speed of their attacks to insure victory. Their planning was sound, well thought out, and very detailed. Their armed forces were well trained and well motivated. Despite all of this, things did not quite work out the way they had planned. Things rarely do in war.

It would be an underestimation of their own that would make the war so costly and so long and so bloody. They had assumed that the powers that they were fighting would not be able to guess their intentions and would not be able to react quickly enough to stop them. The Asian Powers had studied their history well and knew that the failings of other would-be world domination schemes had been in attacking too soon at a prepared enemy. They were attacking after years of planning at an unprepared enemy whose industries were gripped in a peacetime recession. They had thought that it would be enough. It very nearly had been. Historians after the war would realize that the difference between a quick Asian Powers victory and the bloody, decade long stalemate that killed hundreds of millions on three different fronts would turn out to be a single decision, a single lucky guess made on the part of the United States early in the war.

Roseville, California

May 23, 2015

Saving Center Food and Drug was a large corporate owned store that anchored the suburban strip mall at Wood Oak Drive and Citrus Boulevard. Its parking lot, which had been designed in the late 1990's to hold more than three hundred cars, was now empty of any vehicle that contained an internal combustion engine. Between the faded white lines where minivans and SUVs and other yuppie vehicles had once waited for their owners to return from the Saving Center laden with groceries, were only a few bicycles, most of which had trailers attached to the back, and a few personal wheeled carts, called "walkers" by those that employed them. The days when people could just hop in a car to take care of their weekly shopping were gone, as vanished as the automobiles themselves.

The inside of the Saving Center was also vastly different than it had been in days gone by. Built in a time when the corporation was king and when huge inventories of every conceivable stock that the average family would desire were the ruling decree, the shelves on each one of its twenty aisles had brimmed with canned foods and fresh produce and dairy products and countless other food and consumer items. Now, many of the aisles were empty, the items once thought staples of modern life no longer available or affordable. Fresh produce was one casualty of the times. The refrigerated and lovingly maintained aisles where lettuces and carrots and onions and potatoes had been stacked by the hundreds now stood empty, their refrigeration units long since shut down. The only fresh vegetables available these days were those grown in the backyard victory gardens that nearly every American household maintained. Any food that had once come in cans had also disappeared from the modern grocery store. The metal that had been used to make the cans was now needed to make tanks, airplanes, missiles, and bombs. If a food could not be put into a glass jar with a reinforced cardboard lid, it could not be packaged and shipped. Likewise, any food or consumer item that had been packaged in plastic containers was no longer available since plastic was a byproduct of petroleum, perhaps the most precious resource in the western hemisphere these days.

The most startling difference inside of the impossibly huge grocery store was not the lack of stock however, but the lack of people shopping. The aisles had once been packed during the daylight hours of any given day of the week, crowded with housewives and businessmen and welfare recipients and people from all other walks of life picking out their daily or weekly shopping in the tradition of American capitalism. But that had been before the war, before the loss of the majority of the United States' oil supply to the Chinese, before what remained of that oil supply was desperately needed to fuel armored vehicles and aircraft at the front. No longer was it a simple matter of hopping in the family car and motoring to the Saving Center (or anywhere else for that matter, including work) when you needed or wanted to go. The standard ration card allowed only one gallon of gasoline per household per month. And at current prices that gallon would cost $130. For this reason it was not surprising that all but the very wealthy did not bother collecting the rations due them at all. Well over ninety-eight percent of the personal automobiles in the United States had been sold for pennies on the dollar as scrap metal. These days, you walked to the store or you biked to it and you only bought what you could carry home via these means of transportation.

However, not everyone was capable of walking to the store when they needed some vital item or items. The two groups of people most affected by this were the elderly and the single mothers, of which there were very many of in any given American city these days. The solution to this seemingly insurmountable problem was a resurgence of an occupation that had vanished many decades before: the bicycle delivery person. Nearly every grocery store and drug store chain now employed at least six of these people during their hours of operation. They were paid minimum wage, which had been fixed at fourteen dollars an hour at the beginning of the war, but were allowed to keep any tips they received. The vast majority of the bicycle delivery drivers, as had been the case in days gone by, were high school kids trying to keep busy and earn a few bucks. Most of these modern day delivery people did not stuff their salary and their tips into college funds. Most of them knew the moment they graduated from high school the draft would be waiting for them. As a result they tended to be much more fatalistic than their grandfathers had been in the same position. Instead of looking forward to dormitory life, future careers, future wives or husbands or children, they looked forward to basic training, military assignments, and, for the males among them, the significant possibility of being killed on the battlefield. After all, it didn't look like the war was going to be ending any time soon, at least not with a friendly victory anyway.

Mark Whiting was one such delivery boy. He had turned eighteen years of age a month before and was now one month away from high school graduation and the beginning of his draft eligibility period. His grade point average as of the last semester had been 3.4, which was fairly respectable but not quite the 3.8 required to qualify for college admission and the college deferment that went along with it. He, like nine out of ten others in his graduating class, was left with the savory choice of either waiting for the draft to catch up with him (which it was bound to do within four months according to Internet statistics) or to join up voluntarily with the service of his choice. A believer in championing his own fate, Mark was leaning quite heavily towards the latter option.

Like all of the delivery personnel for this particular chain, Mark was dressed in a red Saving Center T-shirt. He was a little shorter than was average—five foot, six inches with shoes on—and, as such, even the small sized shirt hung somewhat long on him making the corporate logo center at the bottom of his ribcage instead of over his heart. The shirt was tucked into a pair of camouflage-patterned shorts that hung nearly to his knees. Though short, Mark's legs were well muscled and toned, a result of biking more than thirty miles each workday with a load of groceries in the trailer behind him. His hair was an uninteresting shade of brown, as were his eyes, and his face was still occasionally marred with the last traces of adolescent acne.

It was Friday and school had just ended less than an hour before. Mark, along with his best friend Darren and two other delivery people, had just checked in for the afternoon shift and had been given their first orders of the day. They pushed carts up and down the aisles, grabbing jars of pasta and meat and just about anything else, checking each item off on their personal computers, or PCs, as they went. Mark had two orders to fill for his first trip, one a small order of less than ten jars, the other a moderate one of nearly thirty. An experienced loader now, he figured he would be able to fit both orders into his bike's trailer and pound them out at one time. That at least would save him a trip back to the store.

Once he had everything on the two lists he took them up to the front of the store, where a special check stand had been set up just for delivery personnel. Belinda Swensen, one of the prettier girls at Wood Oak High School, was staffing this particular station. Belinda, a cheerleader and a former homecoming queen, was somewhat stuck up, particularly around such average people as Mark Whiting. She hardly gave him a look as she ran her laser scanner over the items in his cart and added up the totals.

"Looks like $45.50 on the first order," she told him, her voice high and nasal, "and $163.33 on the second."

"Static," he replied, taking a moment to admire her silky legs in the cammie shorts she wore.

She caught him looking at her and let an expression of mild disgust filter across her face. "Your PC?" she asked.

He handed a small pocket computer across to her. It was not actually his PC, but Saving Center's. His own, a camouflage patterned one of course, was clipped to his waistband. She took it from him, seeming to make a point to avoid touching his hand as she did so. A small data probe attached to a piece of fiber optic cord protruded from her scanner. She plugged it into the back and a moment later the order itemizations and price summaries were downloaded to it. Once the transfer was complete she unplugged and set the PC down on the counter. She immediately turned her attention to Jennifer Smiles, the delivery girl in line behind him.

Mark pushed his cart toward the delivery access doors of the building, not glancing back at her as he went, unaffected by her attitude towards him. There had been a time not long ago when he would have been quite intimidated by her, but those days were now gone. He had learned much about women during his tenure as a Saving Center employee, much more than he was ever meant to know at his tender age. As a result, the only emotion that he could muster towards Belinda and others like her was a quiet contempt at their immaturity, an immaturity they had no idea they even displayed.

The delivery doors led him out into a sixty-foot square enclosure that was fenced in by chain link and topped with barbed wire. The employees parked their bikes out here and readied them for delivery. The security was due to the high theft rate of bicycles, which had topped the list of most common crimes against property nationwide. Mark's bike was a relatively inexpensive one that had been purchased from Wal-Mart shortly after the war had begun. It was a 21-speed that was painted in the winter camouflage scheme popular with adolescents. Attached to the seat post was a Saving Center two-wheeled delivery trailer capable of hauling fifteen bags of groceries in relative safety. Parked next to it was the more expensive bike that belonged to his best friend, Darren Caswell. Darren himself was loading his own massive load of groceries into an identical trailer.

"What's up, sarge?" Darren asked him, utilizing the term that had recently replaced "dude" as a generic salutation or descriptor. Military terms as slang had pervaded the speech of the young in recent years. Darren was three months older than Mark but much larger. A former varsity football linebacker, he was blessed with a handsome face, free of acne, and a thick growth of black hair. His body, which outweighed his smaller friend's by nearly sixty pounds, was well proportioned and well muscled. He had also mastered the facial expressions of boredom and contempt that were the staples of teenage society. The two of them had been friends for many years, since Darren's family had moved into the neighborhood back when they had been in sixth grade. Mark's father did not particularly care for Darren, considering him, rightly so, to be a bad influence upon his son. But he had never told him not to hang out with him, probably because he knew how useless such a command would be.

"Same old orders," Mark replied, utilizing yet another piece of military slang. "How 'bout you? How's it advancing?"

"That fuckin' prick Johnson has me pushed to the line with orders today," he said, shaking his head a little. "But on the bright side, I got three requests today." Requests were orders in which the person calling it in had asked for a particular delivery person by name. Usually the requests came from young war widows who had been without male companionship for quite some time. Darren, with his rugged good looks, got a lot of them.

"Oh yeah?" Mark said, grinning a little. "I only got one today. My second order. I'll hit her on this first trip though."

"Yeah? What's she look like?"

"Not too bad," he said analytically. "A little wide in the hips—she has two kids running around—but definitely doable."

"Close to landing her?"

"Maybe," Mark told him. "This'll be my third trip there and I think she's getting ready to make her move. She's a little shy."

"I hate the shy ones," Darren said, lifting one of his bags and putting it in his trailer.

"Makes it more challenging," Mark said. "They're so cute when they're shy. Besides, she tipped me thirty bullets on a hundred dollar order last time."

"Static," Darren said, impressed. "You gotta love that."

"That ain't propaganda," Mark agreed with a grin.

Darren loaded another bag, his last one, onto his cart. "Got any smokes?" he asked.

Mark did. He reached into his backpack and pulled out the red and white box he had purchased the day before at a liquor store in central Roseville for six dollars. He shot one out and handed it across to Darren. He then put one in his own mouth. They each pulled out matches—butane lighters were not available for purchase by the general public these days—and lit up, relishing the carcinogenic smoke as they inhaled.

"Fuckin' aye, that tastes good," Darren proclaimed, exhaling his hit through his nose.

"Goddamn right," Mark agreed, copying the technique.

Cigarette smoking in America, which had been nearly wiped out only three years before, had made a big comeback, especially among teenagers. The argument that smoking might kill you in forty years or so just did not seem to carry the same weight it once had. Most teenagers knew that if they managed to stay alive long enough to contract emphysema or lung cancer then they would already be way ahead of the game. Darren had been the one to introduce Mark to cigarettes. It was one of those bad influences that Jeff Whiting constantly worried about. Though Darren had been the teacher of smoking technique it was now Mark who supplied the bulk of the Marlboros they inhaled day after day. Darren, if asked why he did not buy his own, would always say that he was trying to quit and he just wanted one or two. He would continue saying that as he bummed half the pack in the course of a day. Mark knew he was being taken advantage of, that Darren was using their friendship as an excuse for free smokes, but he never complained. After all, Darren had pretty much kept him from being killed by bullies throughout their four years at Wood Oak High.

"Guess what," Darren said. "I got a line on some good buds. You want to go in with me?"

"I might," Mark replied, interested. Darren was of course talking about that most favorite of adolescent indulgences: marijuana, yet another one of those bad influences. "What's the specs?"

"My friend Paul just got in a fresh load from Humbolt," he said.

"Greenbud?" Mark asked hopefully. Humbolt County greenbud was still the best variety of cannabis available in California, though its supply was somewhat limited due to the lack of available means to transport it more than two hundred miles south. Most of the available herb in the Sacramento region, of which Roseville was a part, was homegrown that was produced in closet hothouses and backyard victory gardens.

"Fuckin' aye," Darren assured him. "The cost is a hundred an eighth. You got the account status to go in halves with me?"

Mark nodded. "For greenbud, I can spare it." He chuckled a little, in the fatalistic manner that many of his generation had adopted. "It ain't like I have to save up for a car or anything."

"You the commander," Darren said happily. "I'll head over there right after work and pick the shit up. I'll meet you at the tower at about eight or so."

"Why so long?" Mark wanted to know. They got off work at 6:30. And though he had never met the mysterious Paul whom Darren bought his illegal wares from, he knew he lived only a short ride from where they now sat. It certainly was not a long, torturous trip.

"He's kinda weird," Darren answered mysteriously. "You know how it is? He wants me to hang out with him for a while and bullshit. He's kinda nervous these days. He's going low profile you know."

"Yeah," Mark said, snorting a little, as was expected when one heard about someone going "low pro", which meant he was eligible for service but had not volunteered, that he was just waiting to be drafted. In popular culture going low pro was considered a pussy thing to do.

"Hey, to each his own," Darren said, obviously showing a little contempt of his own however. "His time is running out though. He's been eligible for six and half months now and his number hasn't come up yet. They'll pop him pretty soon and that'll be that."

"What's his rating?"

"1A," Darren said, smiling a little. "And he doesn't have any special skills or family deferments. He's gonna be on the line. No doubt about it."

"He squeams about that?" Mark asked, imparting a twinge of disgust into his voice.

"A little," Darren said seriously. "I mean, he's got as much balls as the rest of us but he gets scared sometimes." He shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe when my time starts to get near, I'll be scared too."

"If you get scared," Mark reminded him, "you don't have to go. Because of your brother, you can take a non-hazardous posting." Darren's brother, a former fuel transfer technician aboard a fast frigate, had been killed in the opening days of the war. As the only remaining son, this made Darren eligible for rear area assignment under the selective service rules.

"I'm not a fuckin' pussy," Darren said, showing genuine anger at the suggestion. "Only a fuckin' pussy would try to get a non-hazardous. Besides, it's because of my brother that I'm going right to where the shit is. I wanna get some payback for what they did to him. I'm gonna even the score for the Caswells."

"You gonna take out twelve thousand of them?" Mark asked, knowing that Darren wanted him to ask that. Twelve thousand was how many of Brett Caswell's comrades the Chinese had killed and Darren enjoyed making reference to that number when he talked of payback.

"At least," he replied toughly. "If I can take out twenty thousand I'll do that too. If they gave me a fuckin' nuke I'd personally carry it over to their side and cram it up Li Chang's faggot ass."

"Shit," Mark said, "you don't wanna do that. Chang would get off on it. He'd probably ask for one of the new anti-matter bombs they're working on to go up there with it."

Darren found this crudely funny. "Now that," he said, laughing, "would be an ass-fuck that that chink motherfucker would never forget."

They made a few more jokes, some even cruder, at the expense of the infamous General Li Chang, commander of the Chinese armies in North America. It was a politically correct thing to do. Finally they butted their smokes and climbed aboard their bikes, maneuvering them carefully through the keypad secured security gate and out into the parking lot. They paused outside long enough for Mark to transfer fifty dollars from his checking account into Darren's.

"Link up with you later," Darren hailed as he rode off to the south.

"You got it," Mark replied, heading in the opposite direction.

When the initial attack came on January 1, 2013, the Russians, who were still trying to initiate a market economy and were suffering from runaway inflation, had been ill prepared for it. Before they even realized they were at war, the bulk of their air force was destroyed, the bulk of their border security was dead or captured, and Asian spearheads were more than two hundred kilometers inside their border in four distinct thrusts. The infamous Russian winter, which had defeated Napoleon and Hitler in previous conflicts, impeded the enemy not the slightest in this one. Moscow fell within two weeks. Russia was out of the war completely inside of a month, all of its mineral and petroleum rich land, all of its military equipment, and all of its nuclear warheads in Asian Power hands.

The Indian army had attacked to the west in Russia with more than two million men. The Chinese had attacked to the east into Siberia with another two million. The European Union had of course immediately mobilized their armies, navies, and air forces and had moved to counter the onrushing Indians. It was quite clear that the Middle East was their objective. The Americans, thinking themselves in no danger of invasion in their own country but greatly concerned about the threat to their oil supply, began to mobilize their army and navy and air force in preparation to assist in Europe.

The United States Navy had had three active aircraft carrier groups in the Pacific Ocean when the fighting started. One was just off the coast of Japan, one was on shore leave in Pearl Harbor, and one was in dry dock in San Diego. As the Asian Powers had predicted, the Americans immediately moved the group cruising near Japan towards the Yellow Sea in order to "show force". The Americans loved to show force during a crisis, loved to project power with their mighty carrier groups. Unfortunately they were foolishly overconfident in just how much force one of their carrier groups actually represented. So long had they used them to intimidate other nations that it never occurred to any of their high command that a nation would fail to be impressed by the movement of such a group to their shore. They had also been under the impression at the time that the Chinese would not dare deliberately draw the great United States into the conflict, would never risk war with America. How naïve of a view that would seem in retrospect. How neatly the trap set by the Asian Powers would spring shut upon the United States Navy.

Before the aircraft carrier group was even on station, American-designed F-111 bombers operating out of Shanghai attacked it. More than four hundred of the twin engine, supersonic medium-range bombers (a hundred more than the CIA had even believed the Chinese possessed) each carrying two Russian made Kingfish anti-ship missiles, swarmed upon the group in the early morning hours of January 3. The attack group was supported by more than two hundred MiG-29 and F-18 fighters carrying air-to-air missiles. The fighters plowed through the pitifully outnumbered combat air patrol that the carrier had placed aloft and the F-111s, though taking nearly thirty percent losses by the protective ring of frigates and high-tech Aegis cruisers, launched their missiles from near point-blank range. More than six hundred of the four thousand pound missiles streaked towards the fifteen ships of the carrier group at better than twelve hundred miles per hour. Ships began to explode and sink a few minutes later while the surviving attack aircraft withdrew. When the smoke cleared, the mighty, thought to be invulnerable United States aircraft carrier was on the bottom of the sea along with eight of its escorts. Of the remaining six ships still afloat, only one, a fleet oiler, was undamaged. A follow-up attack six hours later took care of these battered survivors. Less than two hundred of the twelve thousand sailors assigned to that carrier group were eventually fished from the water by the Japanese Navy.

The second American carrier group, which had immediately began speeding towards China from Hawaii once the war broke out, reached the coast of Japan a week later. At this point things were still quite confusing as far as which players were involved in the conflict and the United States was still under the impression that Japan was its ally. This illusion was shattered when the second carrier group was sank in three successive attacks by Chinese Backfire bombers and escorts operating out of Yokohama on the main Japanese island of Honshu. In less than two weeks a good portion of the Unites States Pacific Fleet had been destroyed and many of its highly trained crews were dead.

The Indian Army, meanwhile, had pushed westward through Russia where they dug in along a 1300-mile long front that stretched from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea. The European Union Forces—soon to be known as the Eastern Hemisphere Forces as the Australian, South African, and Egyptian armies joined in the struggle—would strike again and again at this line over the next seven years. Though they would occasionally manage, at horridly high cost, to push it temporarily back a few kilometers, they would not break through it.

Having secured their first objective: Russia, the Asian Powers then turned their attention to their next. For the Indians, it was the Middle East and all of its rich oil supplies. In a two-pronged attack their forces invaded the country of Iran from both sides of the Caspian Sea, driving south and west towards Iraq. Within two months the entire Arabian peninsula was under occupation and the Suez Canal was in their hands. Though the oil rich countries of Egypt, Sudan, and Libya would remain free of Indian forces, their oil supplies were kept from reaching the Eastern or the Western Hemisphere forces by Indian air superiority over the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. Any tanker attempting to leave a port was immediately attacked and sank by American-made, Indian-piloted P-3s staging out of Haifa, Israel.

While the Indians were digging in against the Europeans and securing the richest oil region on earth, the Chinese were concentrating their energies upon another very oil-rich region of the planet: Alaska.

Once again, underestimation of Chinese intentions and capabilities were the biggest contributor to what followed. To the Americans it was inconceivable that the Chinese could possibly invade American soil. Though they were massing troops on the Kamchatka peninsula in plain sight of the peering satellites, the Americans simply did not believe their enemy had the capabilities to launch a seaborne invasion. It was only when a huge armada of Chinese and Japanese naval ships escorting freighters, tankers, and more than sixty car-carrying ships belonging to Nissan, Toyota, and Mitsubishi was detected heading across the Bering Sea that the American forces began to realize what was about to happen. By then, it was far too late to counter it in any meaningful way. The American Air Force attempted to attack the armada with B-1 bombers armed with anti-ship missiles. A flight of more than sixty of the bombers took off from Seattle and streaked northward towards the formation. More than a hundred fighters from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska met up with the force to provide air cover. The attack turned into one of the biggest disasters in USAF history. The attacking Americans were met by wave after wave of MiG-29s, F-14s, and F-15s while they were still more than three hundred miles out from their targets. The American aircraft that survived this onslaught were then hit by the Chinese and Japanese protective ships that were cruising sixty miles south of the main formation. When it was over, only two of the B1s remained aloft to limp their way to Alaska. Not a single B1 had managed to fire its missiles. Though a great many of the Chinese planes had been shot down during the battle, the fleet itself sailed on without damage.

Two days later the Chinese forces landed, almost without opposition, at Valdez, Alaska. For the first time since the War of 1812, large numbers of American citizens found themselves under occupation by a foreign power. Within a week the entire Alaskan peninsula was in enemy hands along with the United States' primary domestic oil supply. In addition, the Chinese now had an unbreakable supply line between Kamchatka and the North American mainland. It was a supply line that was unapproachable by aircraft or by surface craft and that was nearly suicidal to approach by submarine. The Chinese put this supply line to immediate use and began to amass troops, equipment, and aircraft on the Alaskan-Canadian border.

Mark turned out of the parking lot and onto Wood Oaks Boulevard with only a careless glance to his right. In truth he was looking mostly for other bicycles bearing down upon him and not for cars. Though once a very heavily traveled boulevard through the western section of Roseville, Wood Oaks was now an almost deserted strip of asphalt that you could stand in the middle of for hours without ever having to make way for anything but a bike. All along its length, at every intersection, stood darkened traffic signals, the multicolored vertical lights now the nesting spots of sparrows and robins. To the younger members of society, those who did not remember crippling traffic jams and rush hours, the four lane roads and the six and eight lane freeways seemed an absurd case of overkill. They could not conceive that just a few years before those roads had been choked with cars and trucks stacked bumper to bumper for miles on end. The highways and freeways of America were now used more for bicycles and hydrogen powered commuter trams than they were for anything else.

The AM/PM mini-mart in the corner of the stripmall was also a victim of the times. Once a thriving gasoline station where men and women and even teenagers had pumped their tanks full for the impossibly low price of only three dollars a gallon, it was now a boarded up, decrepit building. Graffiti marred every wall and weeds were growing through the cracks in the asphalt parking lot. The gas pumps themselves were smashed and broken, a few of them missing entirely, most likely carted away by some person who wanted to possess a relic of another age. Mark remembered when the store had been open. He used to ride his bike there to buy sodas or baseball cards or comic books. His mother and father used to fuel their Japanese-made sport utility vehicle there. The store had always done a brisk business, with every gas pump constantly in use and a perpetual line before the two clerks that were on duty. In a way, looking at the ruins made him sadly nostalgic. Would things ever return to the way they had been? Could they?

He did not know, could not guess. And what was the point of speculating about it anyway? The world was what the world was. The now was what they had.

He rode on, his legs pumping the pedals up and down, a thin sheen of sweat beading up on his forehead from the late May heat of California's central valley. He passed the front entrance of Wood Oak High School, where the marquee in front of the administration building read: SUPPORT OUR TROOPS, BUY STUDENT WAR BONDS!! From there he turned off the main road and into a residential neighborhood full of twenty-year-old tract houses. An American flag hung from nearly every roof and yellow ribbons adorned nearly every tree. Children played with toys on front lawns and older kids played basketball or soldier games in the streets. Nearly all of them, boys and girls alike, were dressed in the camouflage-patterned clothes that were all of the rage. Conspicuously absent from the landscape were vehicles parked in driveways or men between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five.

His first delivery of the day was to Margaret Blancher, an eighty-year-old diabetic on social security. She lived by herself in a small three-bedroom house tucked away in a cul-de-sac. Mark, as well as most of the other delivery people, had been to her house many times before. She was a pleasantly feisty old lady who liked to chatter on about her garden and her grandson who had qualified for the college draft deferment but who had elected to go ahead and volunteer for the army anyway. He was currently serving as an infantryman at the front. Mrs. Blancher was fiercely proud of him and spent the majority of her days watching news coverage of the war.

"Good afternoon, young man," she told Mark as she answered the door for him. "My goodness, don't you look hot?"

"Yes ma'am," he said dutifully, picking up her two bags of groceries and hauling them into her tidy house. He followed her to the kitchen where he put them on the counter by the sink.

"Have you heard about those nasty chinks and their offensive?" she asked him as he pulled the Saving Center PC from his belt.

"Yes ma'am, I did," he told her. And he had. The offensive had been the talk of the school during the first half of the day. For a while there the news had not been encouraging and it had been feared that a break-through was imminent. If they managed to break through, how long would it be before they fell upon California, upon Roseville? Wouldn't the Sacramento area, with its major road junctions and its huge railhead be a primary objective for General Li Chan's troops? But by the second half of the day, the news that the lines were holding had filtered through and the talk had turned back to normal high school matters like girls and sex and drugs and alcohol.

"We held those dirty buggers back," she said with satisfaction, her hand actually clenching into a fist of victory. "I certainly hope we can start pushing them back where they came from now."

"Me too," Mark said absently, reading the screen on the PC. "That'll be $45.50 for this one, Mrs. Blancher."

She clucked a little at that. "My goodness how the price of groceries has gone up these last few years. Why I remember when I could get four bags of groceries for less than twenty dollars. And that was with fresh vegetables too, not those horrible jarred ones. Do you remember fresh vegetables?"

"I sure do," he said. "Corn on the cob was my favorite. My mom used to boil up a bunch whenever she made beef for dinner."

"Oh, that sounds just heavenly," she said nostalgically, picking up a large purse from beneath her telephone. "Those rotten chinks. Darn them for taking away our corn on the cob."

"I agree," Mark said with a smile.

She dug around in her purse for a moment and finally came out with a roll of bills. Mark internally sighed as he saw this. Many of the elderly still insisted upon using cash for their transactions, which created a royal pain in the ass for everyone involved. Why the hell couldn't they get with the times and use a PC or a debit card like everyone else?

"Here you go," she said, handing him a fifty-dollar bill. "The leftover is for you."

"Why thank you, ma'am," he said graciously, even though it was almost more trouble than it was worth to actually go down to the bank and deposit the $4.50 into his account.

Mrs. Blancher of course wanted him to stay for a glass of iced tea and a little conversation but he pleaded bicycle security and a tight schedule. With a few more comments about those rotten chinks and how she hoped her grandson was safe fighting them, he made his escape, mounting his bike once more and heading off deeper into the suburban neighborhood.

Diane Grommet was his next delivery. She was a thirty-year old widow who survived on the meager offerings of a military death pension. Her husband had been a fairly successful independent truck driver before the war. Once the supply of diesel fuel that was needed to work his trade had dried up he had entered a government lottery that had been held to pick those lucky few who would be allowed to continue delivering needed stocks around the country. He had lost that particular lottery—for some suspiciously bizarre reason it had been the employees of corporate trucking companies who were mostly picked—and had been forced to sell his truck for less than a tenth of what he had paid for it. Left with no other option he had joined the army and been assigned to the transportation division driving a supply truck. Eight weeks later he was killed in British Columbia when Chinese planes attacked the convoy he was a part of.

She was sitting on her porch swing when he wheeled up, sipping from a glass of ice water and fanning herself with a magazine. Dressed in a pair of blue jean shorts and a half shirt, her blonde hair tied into a ponytail, she looked at him nervously as he came to a stop before her. Mark was careful to keep an innocent expression upon his face. Diane, as she insisted he call her, was nearly ready to try to "seduce" him and he didn't want to screw it up. Though Darren preferred the direct approach, actually flirting with his conquests to speed up the process, Mark had always been on the hesitant side and let his target be the one to make the first move. He had gotten pretty good at guessing when that move was going to be made. Diane had already exhibited two of the three signs he looked for. She had asked him about his girlfriends on the previous visit and she was tipping much more than was customary for the service he provided. The third sign, which he was expecting very soon, was explaining how lonely she had been since her husband's death. That usually came right before the invitation to come over for dinner.

"Hi, Mark," she said softly, her eyes flitting back and forth as he dismounted. "I'm glad to see you this early. I was wondering if you'd bring me my groceries in time for me to start tonight's dinner."

"You were second on my list today," he told her gallantly. "They had you a little further up but I shifted it around a little to make sure you were early in the route." This was, of course, a lie. One did not mess with the boss's precious delivery schedule. But she had no way of knowing this and the impression that she was receiving special treatment was certainly helpful to his cause.

"You're such a dear," she said, offering him her smile. "I hope you don't mind my asking for you by name, but you're so polite, not like some of those other people."

"I don't mind at all," he said, glancing at her two boys, who were playing with a collection of wooden military models on the grass, completely oblivious to his presence. They were four and six years old and dressed in identical cammie overalls. The game they were playing with their tanks and APCs was something they called "kill the chinks".

"Well," she said, standing up and setting her glass down on a small table, "shall we get them inside?"

"I guess we should," he said, reaching down and grabbing two of the bags.

She grabbed the other two and led the way into the neat, two-story house. Her kitchen was sparkling clean, almost medically sterile, and the scent was of some citrus-based cleaning product. A bowl of tomatoes and onions from her victory garden sat on the table. He set the bags down on the counter and she put hers down next to them. Their hands briefly touched as they performed this motion. Diane did not seem too eager to pull hers away.

"Can I get you something to drink?" she asked him as she pulled a few jars from the first bag and carried them to the refrigerator.

Normally his policy was to turn down such offers, which nearly every customer made (and the vast majority of the customers, even the single mothers, were not trying to seduce him). He had his own bottle of ice water strapped to his bicycle and time was somewhat of a factor in the bicycle delivery business. However, with likely prospects such as Diane, he always accepted, whether he was thirsty or not. It was over such drinks that the important conversations, the ones that got him laid, took place. "Ice water would be nice," he said casually.

"One ice water, coming up," she said, abandoning the groceries for the moment and reaching into a cupboard above the sink. She withdrew a glass and carried it over to the refrigerator, which had an ice and water dispenser in the door. She dispensed some of both and handed the glass to Mark.

"Thank you," he said softly, putting a tone of shyness into his voice. "It's very hot out today."

"Yes, it is, isn't it?" she said, putting a hand to his forehead and wiping at the perspiration that had gathered there. "You're all sweaty. I don't know how you young men can hold up, hauling groceries around for us old women in this heat."

He enjoyed the touch of her soft hand against his forehead, and knew she was enjoying the contact as well. Yes, she was well on her way to making her move. He wondered how she would be in bed when she finally "enticed" him to it. He was starting to learn that the women's performance during coitus was directly linked to his own performance. When he was good, the woman tended to be good as well. He had now gained enough experience with the previous six war widows he had slept with to consider himself a decent lay. Those women had taught him much.

"You're not an old lady," he told her. "You can't be more than twenty-five, right?"

She laughed a little, giving his hair a playful tug. It was obvious she had enjoyed his compliment immensely. "You're a sweetheart," she said. "But you're not fooling me. I'm pretty sure I told you a few deliveries ago that I was thirty, didn't I?"

"I don't remember," he lied, manufacturing an embarrassed smile.

"Oh, you," she said, finally pulling her hand away. "Anyway, I thank you for saying that to me, even if it is a fib." She sighed a little. "It's so nice to have adult conversation once in while."

"Yeah?" he asked, sipping from his water.

"Oh yes," she said, grabbing a few more groceries from a bag and carrying them over to the cupboard. "I love my boys to death but sometimes I just feel like I'm going crazy in here, talking about nothing but television shows and Internet games and military toys." She shook her head a little. "I guess I just miss my husband a lot."

Bingo! Mark thought, suppressing a smile. There was sign number three, the final sign. "It must be rough," he said, quiet sympathy in his voice.

"I know it's been more than a year," she said, "and I should be over it by now. For the most part I am. But it's hard not having a man around the house sometimes. I guess you wouldn't understand."

"Well," he said, maintaining the sympathetic tone, "maybe not the man part. But I know what its like to lose someone to the war. My mom was a teacher at Thomas Jefferson School and ... well ... you know what happened there."

Her face immediately turned to syrupy sympathy. She did indeed know what happened there. Everyone in the Sacramento region knew what had happened there. "Oh, you poor dear," she said. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

He shrugged a little, keeping his eyes cast downward, as if he were barely restraining tears. "Like you said, I'm mostly over it. You know when I miss her the most though?"

"When's that?" she asked.

"Dinnertime," he said. "My mom was the best cook. She used to make the best food, every night, even when she had lots of papers to correct from school. Even after the war started and we couldn't get vegetables or fresh meat anymore, she could still whip up some really static stuff. My dad tries to cook sometimes, but it's not even close. Mostly we just eat pizza and stuff we can put together out of jars."

He could see that his speech, which he had given to three other women to that point, was having the effect he intended. Diane's pretty face was puckered into an expression of pity and motherliness. "Well you know," she said softly, "I'm probably not up to your mother's standards, but I'm not too bad of a cook myself."

"I'm sure you're not," he said, as if he had no idea what she was hinting at.

"So maybe..." she said, blushing a little, " uh ... well, maybe you'd like to come over and let me make dinner for you some night."

Score! Mark's mind screamed triumphantly. It was now all over but the copulation. And he would get a free meal out of it as well. "Oh, I couldn't do that," he said, giving the token I-don't-want-to-impose-upon-you refusal. "Not with what groceries cost these days."

She slapped playfully at his shoulder. "Now don't you go worrying what groceries cost these days," she told him. "It would be a pleasure to cook for a man for once. It's been so long since I've been able to do that. I simply insist that you come over and let me feed you."

"Well..." he said, as if on unsure ground, "if you're really sure that..."

"I'm really sure," she insisted. "How does tomorrow night sound?"

"It sounds good," he told her, letting the shy smile come back to his face. "What time?"

"How about seven o'clock? I'll make you my famous burgundy beef stroganoff. My husband used to love it." And then, almost as an afterthought. "The boys love it too."

"That sounds very good, Diane," he replied. "I'll be here then."

"I'll be looking forward to it," she said, entirely truthfully, and for more reason than one.

Once the Chinese began massing on the Alaskan-Canadian border, it finally came home to the Americans that they were really at war and that they were really in significant danger. This was not a foreign border skirmish, this was not a dispute over a few oil fields in the Middle East, this was not a small, ineffective country that needed to be bombed into submission for daring to threaten American business interests. This was the real thing, the worst nightmare of a nation come true. The Chinese were intending to invade the continental United States! And what was more, it looked like they just might be able to do it.

The American and Canadian armies immediately began shifting their equipment northward in anticipation of the coming invasion of Canada. The amount of tanks, aircraft, and other military equipment available at the time was recognized as being inadequate for the task of stopping the huge army that was building. The American factories were moving frantically to try to switch over to wartime production in order to produce the weapons needed to fight. Automobile factories in Detroit, Los Angeles, and other cities stopped producing cars and began gearing up to produce tanks and armored personnel carriers and artillery weapons and rocket launchers. The aircraft factories in Seattle and Los Angeles stopped making civilian airliners and began gearing up to make F-47s and F-22s and B1s and A-21s. The armed forces themselves quickly lobbied successfully for the reinstatement of the draft and began trying to sort through and train the hundreds of thousands of draftees and volunteers that were inducted. But all of this required time and it was recognized that the Chinese were not going to allow them much of that most precious commodity.

That was when the Western Hemisphere Military Alliance was formed. The United States pleaded for help from the very countries it had always looked down upon and derided as second class throughout its history: The Latin American nations. And the Latin Americans responded to the request with enthusiasm, giving all needed assistance. This was not due to any sense of friendliness towards the arrogant, bullying nation to their north, but rather a sense of self-protection. They knew if the United States fell to the Chinese, it would not be long before those tanks began to roll southward. The Mexicans, who would be the next to fall, were the first to send aid. They sent nearly every piece of armor and every soldier they had across the border into the United States. The bulk of the Central American and South American countries, some of which were bitter enemies of the US and each other, quickly followed suit. The biggest contributors were Brazil and Venezuela, each of whom possessed fairly modern armor and aircraft and, more importantly, large petroleum reserves with which to power the armor and aircraft.

The question now became where to make a stand against the invading Chinese. The WestHem forces were woefully outnumbered by the Chinese in all aspects of warfare: men, munitions, armor, artillery, and aircraft. The WestHems were also vastly inferior as far as command and control structure went. The forces assembling to repel the invasion were piecemeal groups of regular army, National Guard forces, and units from Latin American countries, most of whose soldiers did not even speak English. There was no time to try to figure out the best method of mixing these groups together. Instead, they were simply formed into two large armies with a shaky and often changing chain of command.

The majority of the generals and government military experts felt that the Chinese plan was to smash into Canada, moving east along the Arctic Circle and then to turn south and begin moving towards the heartland of the United States. They would have wide open plains in which to operate in and they could fall upon the cities of Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee in the Great Lakes region before splitting the country in two by smashing through the Great Plains. This seemed a logical course of warfare. The impact of such an invasion would be devastating upon the populace, destroying morale, disrupting transportation, and denying the US of many of its essential cities. The Great Plains invasion was the way for the Chinese to occupy the greatest amount of American soil in the shortest amount of time. It would also be the hardest for the American forces to counter. These generals and experts wanted to move the majority of the hastily assembling WestHem forces into defensive positions around the Great Lakes and send the rest into Canada to start assisting the Canadian Army.

But a much smaller group of military experts disagreed with this reasoning. While the Great Plains invasion would indeed be easy to accomplish and would indeed send American morale into turmoil, what, they asked, would be the real point of it? The Great Plains would be easy to capture but difficult and expensive to hold. The Chinese supply line would stretch for thousands of miles and would be vulnerable along nearly its entire length to counter-attack and severance. Occupation of the entire United States would take years, maybe a decade if it were attempted in this manner. Did that really go along with what the Asian Powers had done so far?

They thought not. They pointed out that every major attack that the Asian Powers had initiated had been for a specific goal. And what, in almost every instance, had that specific goal been? Oil. They had invaded Russian Siberia in which a great wealth of only recently exploited petroleum resources was located. They had invaded the Middle East, in which the world's greatest supply of petroleum was located. They had invaded Alaska, the primary oil supply for the United States. In Europe, where no significant petroleum was available, they had not invaded. They had simply dug in to prevent the Europeans from re-taking the conquered territory. There was a method, a frightfully clever method to their madness, these military experts argued. The Asian Powers were not intending to invade the entire United States or the entire world. They were only going to invade the areas in which oil was located. If they could deprive the WestHem and the EastHem forces of oil, they would not have to forcibly invade. All of the tanks, ships, and airplanes of their enemies would be nothing more than useless toys. The world would be theirs by default.

And they were so close to achieving that goal already! Already they had deprived both EastHem and WestHem of three-quarters of their former petroleum. This had resulted in unheard of rationing and had caused a virtual shutdown of all personal travel. The economies of the WestHem and EastHem countries were reeling as they tried to deal with getting people to work each day and to keep their populace fed without the use of gasoline or diesel fuel. Currently, California, Texas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota were supplying the majority of the domestic oil to fight the war. Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela were supplying the majority of the foreign oil. This supply, with severe rationing, was perhaps enough to carry on. Perhaps. But if they lost any more oil fields...

Using a detailed relief map of the North American continent, these military experts advanced the opinion that the best way for the Chinese to end the war quickly was not to attack the Great Plains but to drive directly south from Alaska. By driving south, keeping to the coast, they would have a powerful spearhead that could push aside nearly everything in its path. Their flanks and their supply line would be protected by the Pacific Ocean on the west and by the towering mountain ranges that stretched from the Arctic Circle to central Mexico on the east. They could push down the Al-Can highway corridor of Canada and enter the United States north of Seattle. They could then drive down the Interstate 5 corridor, taking the major cities of Seattle and Portland on their way to California's Great Central Valley. From there, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley itself would be easily occupied. The oil fields of southern California would only be a two-day march from there. Once those were secured, a hook to the east would quickly take them through the open deserts of the southwest to Texas and Oklahoma. Or they could continue their drive to the south into Mexico, taking the oil fields there. Either way, the war would effectively be over at that point. Unable to run their war machines, there would be nothing left to do but surrender.

This group of military experts would be very much in the minority among their colleagues at the onset. But they managed to convince the people who made the real decisions that their theory was correct. The greatest gamble of all time was initiated. Instead of ordering the rag-tag WestHem armies to head for the Midwest and the Great Lakes region, they were ordered instead to head northwest, towards Western Canada.

Had the Chinese done as the majority predicted and headed east from Alaska and then south towards the American heartland, they would have met almost no opposition. But they didn't. Just as predicted they broke out of Alaska directly south, pushing aside the vastly outnumbered Canadian army with ease and driving towards the west coast of the continental United States at a rate of more than sixty kilometers a day.

As a member of the United States government that was involved in what was termed: "critical wartime employment," Jeff Whiting, Mark's father, rated a Class A gasoline ration card which allowed him to purchase up to twenty gallons per month. This was a privilege usually granted to only the wealthy and those in power. Jeff fit into neither of these categories. In days gone by, before the war, he had been a simple customs agent assigned to Sacramento International Airport and tasked with checking the baggage of travelers entering the United States from Canada. He used to joke that he was the only thing standing between civility and the utter chaos that would erupt if the smuggling of Canadian goods were allowed to go unchecked.

Jeff Whiting did not joke much these days. The death of his wife a year before had taken the sense of humor right out of him. Nor did he inspect Canadian baggage at the airport anymore. There were no more Canadian travelers to the United States; there was no more personal air travel at all anymore. The days when you could simply hop aboard an airliner and travel to a distant city in a matter of hours had ended. If you were on an airliner these days, you were either in the war or on the way to it. Jeff, like many of the customs officers nationwide, had been absorbed into the FBI and given a new task by his government; a task he found decidedly distasteful but that his president and his congress found necessary during these troubled times.

What Jeff Whiting and most of the other former United States customs agents were doing these days was monitoring. What they were monitoring were US citizens of Asian descent. They did not monitor Chinese or Japanese nationals. People fitting that description had already been rounded up and imprisoned by the FBI. It was American citizens, some of whom were of the fourth and fifth generation in the United States, who were being watched for signs of collaboration with the enemy. It had been made legal by the US Congress, the US Senate, the US President, and the US Supreme Court in the Emergency War Powers Act of 2013 for government agents to ply through the computer and Internet records of "American Citizens of Asian descent" in search of "suspicious activities or transactions". Not even the ACLU had opposed the measure, which had been proposed, written, and passed nearly unanimously in the first three months of the war. The gist of the public opinion towards it seemed to be: "If they don't have anything to hide, then they shouldn't mind us looking them over."

That was what Jeff Whiting spent his days doing: going through lists of Asian citizens in the Northern California region and checking, by means of his home computer terminal, into the most private aspects of their lives. He poured through their checking and savings account records, through their grocery and personal purchases, through their Internet usage accounts and email. Mark knew that his father, as a life-long advocate of personal privacy laws, felt soiled doing such things, felt as if he were being asked to sacrifice his soul in order to support his family. If not for the fact that they desperately needed the money in order to survive, in order to stay one step ahead of bankruptcy, he would have quit in disgust long ago.

As a reward for performing this distasteful but supposedly necessary task, the government had given Jeff and his colleagues the coveted Class A ration card. It was an almost meaningless gesture. Jeff did not have a need to commute to work. He did most of his tasks from the computer terminal in his den. When he did need to go out and contact one of his "charges" as they were called, he had access to a government vehicle. Besides, at $130 a gallon, Jeff, on his middle-class salary, could hardly afford to buy more than a standard ration card would have allowed him anyway.

When Mark came into the house at 6:30 that evening, his father had just finished up his work for the day and was relaxing on the couch with a bottle of beer. The elder Whiting had been out to make contact with a charge today and was still dressed in his going-out clothes: a pair of slacks and a sports-coat that was long and bulky enough to hide the holstered 9mm pistol he wore. His hair, which was prematurely graying, was neatly styled but his face was drawn and pale, the way it had been for the last year. It was a face that made him look more than ten years older than the forty-five he actually was. Mark figured he must have just returned from wherever he had gone since the sport coat and the gun were still attached to his body. But he knew better than to ask any questions about it. His father did not enjoy talking about his work.

"How's it advancin', Dad?" he asked, unshouldering his school backpack and hanging it on a hook near the door.

"I'm fine," he answered mechanically, taking a sip out of his beer. Since the death of his wife, Jeff had been drinking a lot of beer. He was not a raving drunk by any means, but he did swill down four or five bottles a night after work. Mark, though he missed his mom just as much as his father did, worried about the depression the man seemed to be engulfed in. He had found himself hoping lately that his father would begin dating again. But he had not been out to so much as a party since that awful day when the news came to them. "I picked up a pizza on the way home," he told his son. "I hope you don't mind having it again but I really didn't feel like cooking tonight."

"That's static, Dad," Mark answered politely, although in truth he was actually quite tired of pizza. They had it at least three times a week, always from the same establishment, always picked up by his father at the end of the workday whether he had gone out or not. "I'll go grab some. You having any?"

"Not just yet," he said. "But I could use another beer if you're going that way."

"Sure, Dad," he said, suppressing a worried look. Two beers before he even changed out of his clothes? What was up with that?

Putting these thoughts aside, he walked into the kitchen. Though the house had been built back in the early nineties, the kitchen had since been remodeled and equipped with more modern appliances. Currently it was sparkling clean except for the grease-stained pizza box sitting on the tile kitchen island. He pulled a plate out and helped himself to two large pieces of the cheese and soy meat concoction. He then opened the refrigerator and pulled out a soda and a beer, both in bottles of course. When he returned and handed the icy bottle of Coors to his father, Jeff thanked him absently and then picked up the remote control. He flipped it to the local channel just as the opening theme of the nightly news came on.

"You heard about the new offensive?" Mark asked him, grabbing a seat on the couch and setting down his plate.

"Who hasn't heard about it?" Jeff replied, opening his fresh beer. "It's all anyone has been talking about all day." He grimaced a little. "I hear it's been pretty costly."

"But we're holding them," Mark put in enthusiastically. "Our guys held those chink fuckers back."

"Yeah," Jeff said, giving his son a strange, worrisome look. "We're holding them all right. And don't say 'chink'. You know I don't like that word."

"Sorry, Dad," he said, thinking that his father was perhaps the only citizen of the Western Hemisphere who took offense to that term, the only citizen who wasn't a chink anyway. Of course Mark said nothing about this. He simply picked up his pizza and took a bite, chewing slowly as the commercials ended and the news came on.

Though it was a local newscast, the spring offensive by the Chinese was the top story.

"Good evening," the stern-looking, solemn-voiced newscaster greeted from behind his podium. "On the domestic front today, the Chinese forces in the occupied area launched a broad offensive at the Western Hemisphere forces entrenched against them. The attack began in the pre-dawn hours with heavy air and artillery attacks all along the Idaho and Oregon fronts. At dawn, Chinese tanks and infantry carriers began to move against our troops in numbers not seen since the Battle of Viola. Casualties were regretfully high and our troops were forced to withdraw several kilometers in a few locations but, as of 6:00 PM, mountain time, the WestHem lines were holding strong and it appears that the worst of the initial enemy thrust has been halted. At this time there is still heavy fighting occurring at several points along the front, particularly artillery and tank battles, but our best information is that there is no immediate danger of a break-through. For more on this we have Annie Durant, our Channel 7 war correspondent, near the scene of the heaviest fighting today. We'll now go live to her. Annie?"

The scene switched from the news desk to a view of an attractive blonde newscaster standing outside in the fading daylight. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and her clothing was the green and brown summer camouflage uniform the soldiers wore. There was, of course, no earthly reason for her to have to camouflage herself. She was reporting from miles behind the lines and far from any danger that being camouflaged would protect her from, but television news, just as it had been before the war, was mostly about putting on a good show. She was standing on a small rise overlooking a green valley that was out of focus in the camera. Walking to and fro behind her, also slightly out of focus, were armed American soldiers, most in packs and carrying M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders.

"Good evening," Annie said as scripting on the screen identified her by name and proclaimed that the footage was LIVE. In the background the clatter of tracked vehicles rolling across the ground and the rhythmic thumping of nearby artillery weapons could be plainly heard. "This is Annie Durant and I'm reporting from one of the staging areas of the 103rd Armored Cavalry Division just outside of Caldwell, Idaho on the western edge of the active American front. The 103rd is responsible for a large section of this front and today they were hit very hard as Chinese forces attempted to break through the lines to the open desert beyond. This was but one section of the front that was attacked at dawn today in what seems a renewed major offensive by the Chinese Army. I spoke earlier to Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Hennesy, the public information officer for the 103rd, and he told me that after a massive air and artillery attack before sunrise this morning, Chinese tanks in large numbers began to roll on their positions. They were supported by attack helicopters and infantry troops with shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons. The Chinese were engaged by our own tanks and by entrenched infantry troops with AT-9 anti-tank weapons. As you are aware from previous major battles, these laser guided, shoulder-launched missiles in conjunction with our own tanks, were largely responsible for stopping the Chinese in place and preventing the breakthroughs both in Portland at the Columbia River and here on the currently active front. It seems these AT-9 crews have saved the day again. Let me show you what the battle area looks like at this moment."

Her cameraman panned off of her and into the valley beyond, zooming closely. Though the floor of the valley was some miles away, and though it was bathed in shadow due to the rapidly encroaching twilight, a number of bright orange sparks of light could be seen littering the interior. A haze of black smoke was rising from these points and spreading into the sky above.

"That low ground down there," Annie Durant's voice explained, "was the main battle area during the day. Our forces hold this side of the valley and the Chinese forces hold the other. Behind us, the apparent objective of the Chinese, is a strategic road junction in the small town of Mansing that has been in WestHem hands since the lines stabilized. Now all of those rolling hills you see on our side are filled with entrenched AT-9 crews and protective infantry. When the Chinese armor began to pour into that valley in an attempt to close on the WestHem positions, those crews opened up on them and destroyed many of their tanks before they could engage our own tanks. Though the crews themselves took a fierce pounding from Chinese artillery and air attacks, including, I'm told, the use of napalm, they held firm, not abandoning their positions until the loss of them became inevitable. By the time the main tank battle took place early this afternoon, the Chinese armored forces had already suffered heavy casualties and were unable to press their advantage when WestHem units were forced to pull back. Those sparks of light you see down there are Chinese tanks and APC's that are still burning from the last engagement. For every burning piece of Chinese armor that you see, there are at least five that have already burned themselves out. Colonel Hennesy estimated that the 103rd alone destroyed more than five hundred tanks and more than three hundred infantry carriers today. The 103rd was forced to withdraw two kilometers to the rear in order to avoid being overrun, but it was an orderly, fighting withdrawal to pre-planned positions and the Chinese were not able to insert any forces into their rear."

"How about friendly casualties?" the newscaster back in the studio asked her. "Reports are that they were heavy."

The cameraman cut back to Annie, whose face was looking properly sad for the occasion. "Unfortunately," she said, "casualties are an inevitable part of repelling an attack of this nature and they were somewhat high. According to Colonel Hennesy, the latest figures, theater-wide for friendly casualties, including air crews, is approximately five thousand killed and four thousand wounded."

"Jesus," Jeff Whiting proclaimed, staring at the screen and shaking his head.

"Dad?" Mark asked, looking at the troubled face of his father. "Are you okay?"

"Five thousand people killed," Jeff said softly. "Just on our side. And how many Chinese? Five times that many?"

"Dad," Mark said carefully, as if he were speaking to a madman, "they invaded our country. They're trying to take over the rest of it. What else can we do? We have to fight them and make them leave, don't we?"

"Yeah," he said, looking at his son with an expression of fear in his eyes. "I guess we do. I guess we do."

The newscast covered the spring offensive for the better part of ten minutes. Video clips and live shots were shown of a field hospital where wounded American, Mexican, Venezuelan, and Brazilian soldiers were stacked up outside in staggering numbers. They lay on litters and blankets on the ground, their breath rising into the chilly air. Weary looking nurses and doctors could be seen filtering through them while in the background the constant clatter of helicopter blades could be heard delivering more. They showed a few close-ups of soldiers who had relatively minor wounds. One had a bloody bandage wrapped around his forehead and arm; another was lying with a trauma dressing on his upper thigh. They did not show close-ups of the burn victims, those who had been inside the tanks when they had been struck by high-explosive rounds from Chinese tanks or by high-explosive warheads from anti-tank missiles. The media had done that a few times in the past and the public reaction had been outrage. The public did not want to see what was happening to its young men on the battlefield. Nor did they show a close-up of anyone who was dead or who even looked like they were going to die. In the past they had done such things and shocked mothers or wives, watching the television back home, had received the first news that their loved ones had been killed in this manner. It was a live and learn environment in the television war coverage business, just like in any other.

After the thread of the spring offensive was run out, the newscaster switched to more local issues. "An air-raid by a flight of Chinese F-15 Strike Eagles attempted to bomb Sacramento Executive Airport early this morning at about 3:30 AM. Executive Airport, as you know, is the base for the 314th Air Defense Wing of the California Air Guard. It is unknown just how many aircraft were in the strike but three were shot down by airport defenses and one was shot down during its egress by an F-16 of the Air Guard that had been on combat air patrol. Damage to the base was minimal as most of the anti-runway bombs that were employed landed harmlessly in the fields beside the runways. Of the planes that were shot down by the air defenses, two of them did unfortunately land in civilian areas surrounding the airport, destroying two houses in separate neighborhoods and damaging five others. Fifteen people were killed and eighteen were wounded from the crashing planes. There were six people injured at the airport from the bombing itself. Our military analysts advise that this attack on the runways of the air defense base is undoubtedly the precursor to a larger air attack that will possibly take place tonight or early this morning. So keep your ears open and be sure to head for your designated shelter when you hear the air raid sirens."

That was it for the story. There was no video, no further commentary. The newscaster simply switched to the next subject: the rounding up of draft dodgers in Sacramento County by a FBI task force.

"Isn't that amazing?" Jeff Whiting asked his son bitterly as he clicked off the television in disgust. "Two planes crash into the city, tearing up a neighborhood and killing fifteen people, and all it rates is ten seconds on the evening news."

"Are you sure you're gonna be all right, Dad?" Mark asked again. His father seemed particularly morose on this day. Was it the story about the planes crashing? Maybe. He could understand why such a thing would upset his father. After all, that was how his wife, Mark's mother, had died a little more than a year ago. That plane crash had certainly rated more than ten seconds on the news. No matter how callused the public had become to planes being shot out of the sky and crashing into their city, when a crippled Chinese A-6 Intruder loaded with two thousand pound bombs smashed into an elementary school, it was still big news.

The A-6 had been part of a flight of two that had been tasked with hitting the railroad bridge that crossed the American River near downtown Sacramento. Destroying this bridge would have impeded the flow of military supplies to the front. The Chinese pilots had taken a somewhat unconventional approach to their target by attacking during the daylight hours and by making their final run at the bridge from the east, which forced them to fly over the bulk of the metropolitan area. As they had gone screaming over the suburbs of Orangevale and Rancho Cordova at less than two hundred feet above the rooftops, a battery of infra-red guided 23mm anti-aircraft guns atop of the Sheraton Hotel had locked on just long enough to unleash thirty or so rounds at them. Two of these rounds had punched through the thin side of the cockpit of the lead plane, killing the pilot and sending the low-flying aircraft quickly to the ground where it slammed into Thomas Jefferson Elementary School at five hundred miles per hour. The school staff had been in the process of evacuating the students to the air-raid shelter in response to the siren that had just gone off. When the plane struck, its two bombs, which had just been armed in preparation for the attack, had exploded, leveling the school and killing more than two hundred children and twenty-eight teachers, including the beloved Mrs. Whiting who taught third grade.

"I'm all right, Mark," Jeff responded, offering a weak smile. "I just have a hard time adjusting sometimes to how much things have changed in the world the last few years." He took a sip of his beer, swallowing slowly, with an audible gulp. "Nostalgia I guess."


He nodded. "Nostalgia. To you, it probably seems like we've always been at war, doesn't it? I mean, you were only sixteen when this all started and I'm sure you remember what it was like to be at peace, but you're coming of age in this mess now. You're growing up surrounded by so much death and destruction that I'm afraid you'll think that's the way things are supposed to be."

"I'm surviving, Dad," Mark said, not quite grasping what his father was driving at. "Really, I'll be okay."

"Will you?" he asked. "You're still dead set on joining that buddy program with your friend Darren, aren't you?"

Mark sighed, not wanting to have this old argument again. "Dad," he said, "it's my duty to serve our country. I'm not gonna go low-pro and I don't want you to get your friends in the selective service to get me a non-hazardous posting. If they want to send me to the line, then I'll go to the line."

"It's not a question of if they want to send you to the line," Jeff told him. "You know as well as I do that your brother virtually guarantees you'll get hazardous posting."

Mark did know this. His older brother Matthew had just graduated from college with a degree in computer programming when the war had broken out. Though the army had almost immediately drafted him, his newly acquired skills had secured him an assignment in Texas where he worked on software for M2A battle tanks. Texas, which was far from the line, was considered a non-hazardous posting. Since Mark's only male sibling had been placed in non-hazardous, that made Mark a prime candidate for hazardous posting under current selective service rules. "Dad," he said seriously, with all the emotion that late adolescence could impart upon a person. "I want to go to the line. I want to help push those chinks back. Don't you understand that? I'm not a pussy."

"And what if you die at the line?" Jeff asked him. "I've already lost my wife to this war. I don't want to lose one of my sons as well."

"Hopefully I'll be smart enough to stay alive," he replied with a shrug. "Besides, maybe the war will be over by the time I get trained up and ready for action. The news says our own summer offensive is probably going to take back Spokane. If we get Spokane it's only a short hop to Seattle. If we take Seattle back, we'll push 'em out in no time."

"Do you really believe that, Mark?" his father asked pointedly. "I know you're only a kid, but surely you're smarter than that, aren't you?"

Slowly he nodded. "I guess I am," he said. And it was true. The Chinese forces were not going to be going anywhere anytime soon, nor were the Indian forces that were dug in in the Middle East and Europe.

"Just do me a favor," Jeff said, "and think about what you're doing before you leap. I've stopped asking my friends to pull strings for you at your request. I didn't like doing it, but you're eighteen now and you're an adult and I guess I have to honor your wishes, whether I like them or not."

"And I appreciate that," Mark said.

"But you need to realize that just because you're an adult legally, it doesn't mean you have the wisdom to make such an important decision well. Don't go rushing to the front just because your friends and the media and all of those horrible propaganda television shows you watch tell you that it's the right thing to do. The front is a horrible place to be, someplace where you can die. I know they make it sound like dying for your country is a great thing to do, but try to remember that you'll still be dead and that, as far as we know, you only have one life. I know your college deferment didn't work out."

"I tried, Dad," he said tiredly, hoping they weren't going to go into that subject again. Always a good student, with a keen interest in math and engineering skills, Mark's last two semester grades had been just low enough to guarantee he wouldn't make the coveted 3.8 GPA at graduation. Mark knew his father suspected he had deliberately thrown those grades so that he wouldn't qualify for the deferment and therefore have college as an option.

"I'm sure you did," Jeff said, his tone conveying the fact that he had his doubts. "But my point is that college is not the only option open to you. You can join the navy instead of the army. The navy is a little safer and there's a good chance they may put your engineering skills to task and give you a shore assignment in San Diego or Hawaii."

This again was an old argument and one that didn't have much power to sway Mark from the path he was heading down. Didn't deliberately attempting to avoid combat duty during a time when his country had been invaded by communist aggressors smack of cowardice? Wasn't it pussy to try to get a rear area assignment? Darren Caswell surely thought it did. Darren thought the whole idea of college deferment and naval shore assignments was the most pussy thing he had ever heard of.

"I just don't understand your old man," Darren would tell him when the subject came up. "I mean, those fuckin' chinks killed your mom, sarge! His wife! You'd think he'd be proud to have you go fight those slant-eyed motherfuckers! You'd think he'd be out there fightin' them himself."

"You would think," would be all Mark would reply during such times.

Darren's older brother, Jason, had joined the navy in 2011, two years before the fighting began. He had been an enlisted sailor aboard a fast frigate of the Pacific Fleet on January 1, 2013. His ship, an anti-submarine vessel, had been one of the escorts off of Japan on that fateful day. Like all of the other ships of the task force, it had sailed towards the Yellow Sea to show those Chinese that the Americans were not going to stand for an attack on Russia. His frigate had been struck by two Kingfish missiles during the first raid by the Chinese F-111s and had exploded and sank in less than five minutes, killing every person aboard. Jason Caswell had been given the dubious honor of being among the first American casualties of World War III.

The death of his brother had made Darren particularly receptive to the anti-Asian attitude and mentality that had swept through the nation like wildfire since the war started. Only five years before, out of control political correctness had been the driving force in the national attitude. Political correctness had become such a national obsession that it had actually managed to override the first amendment to the US constitution. Less than six months before the Asian Powers attack, congress had passed a federal law making it illegal to say any sort of racially or sexually offensive term in public. The law had included a list of more than one hundred terms such as: nigger, spic, cunt, faggot, dyke, and many others that were specifically outlawed. It also included a rider for any future terms along those lines that public sentiment decided were offensive. The penalty for violating this federal law was up to a year in federal prison for each offense. Now, however, the word "chink", which had been on the list of forbidden terms, could be heard every time a television was turned on. It was used in sit-coms, dramatic productions, even commercials; particularly those for armed forces enlistment and war bonds. This anti-Asian national view, fueled by the media and taking advantage of the human race's naturally occurring prejudices, was particularly fierce among the 13-18 population. In those who had lost family members to the fighting, it was almost an obsession. Darren simply could not wait until the day he graduated so he could enlist and go to the front and begin living his dream of killing as many Chinese as humanly possible. His fantasy job in the military was to be a squad machine gunner. "Imagine," he would say dreamily, his voice taking on the tones that other males utilized when discussing how they'd like to fuck the head cheerleader, "being able to mow down a row of chinks like a fuckin' lawnmower. Being able to walk up to their trenches and kill every one of them."

This fantasy was something that Mark had found strongly contagious and he had enthusiastically embraced it. After all, the Chinese had killed his mother and it was hard, especially for an eighteen-year-old, not to harbor a certain animosity towards them. And the media blitz, which his father referred to as "mind control" was also difficult to ignore and not respond to. Respected television anchormen and anchorwomen told him every day that the "chinks" were evil, twisted, inhuman would-be conquerors, bent on forcing all non-chinks into virtual slavery. They were said to be raping and killing everything with two legs in the areas that they had occupied so far. It was said that they had summarily executed every able-bodied man in Seattle after they took that city and that they were forcing all of the women to work in the aircraft factories by day and in the whorehouses for the rear-area Chinese troops at night. It was said that they were doing similar things in Alaska in the oil fields. Sometimes it seemed his father was the only counter-influence to this barrage and, as much as Mark respected and loved his dad, it became increasingly hard to take his views seriously.

"The Chinese soldiers don't want to fight this war any more than we do," his father would try to explain to him. "They're over on their side of the trenches dealing with the same misery, the same doubts, the same fears that we are. They watch their friends get killed and they dread every new offensive, just like we do. It's our leaders that have brought us to this, not the eighteen and nineteen year old soldiers that are carrying the guns."

This argument would seem to make sense while it was being articulated to him, but the power of its message would fade and die the next time he flipped on a television and watched an episode of Idaho Platoon, the dramatic, teen-targeted series that featured Lieutenant Smith and Sergeant Collins and the brave fighting men under their command. And when his father would try to explain to him that Idaho Platoon and other shows like it were nothing but American propaganda designed to glorify front-line duty and entice young men to sign up for it, Mark would find himself thinking that his dad was getting paranoid.

After all, what did he know? He was an old man.

"Sure, Dad," Mark said, as if he were seriously considering the option of naval service. "I'll think about that."

"You do that," Jeff said, knowing by the light in his son's eyes that he would do no such thing.

The first major North American battle of World War III took place in British Columbia when the southward moving Chinese army met the piecemeal, ragtag, WestHem forces near the town of Terrace. Though there had been fighting on North American soil prior to Terrace, any military action that had taken place up to this point could not, in all fairness, be termed a battle. A rout would be a more accurate description. The Battle of Terrace was accorded with a name not for its glory, for it too was little better than a complete rout, but because it was the first time that a force in strength was able to engage the Chinese in anything more than a symbolic manner. Terrace, and its important bridgehead on the Skeena River, fell to the Chinese after less than eleven hours of desperate fighting, but this was ten hours more than any previous engagement had ever consumed. The WestHem forces, which had taken significant casualties in the battle, fell back bloodied and beaten to their next defensive position and began to ready themselves for another try the next day.

That was the beginning of the pattern that would develop over the next year. Throughout the spring and summer of 2013 the Chinese advanced steadily southward through Canada. They moved through the river valleys and lowlands, winding their spearhead this way and that, splitting into two or three spearheads when necessary, but steadily occupying the cities and towns between the ocean to the west and the Canadian Rockies to the east. At each mountain pass they left in their rear they would station a few battalions of reinforced infantry to guard against a flank attack from the other side. Mountain passes were easy to guard since they typically had only one road leading through them and were surrounded by impassable terrain. As the Chinese armies moved forward day by day, week by week, the WestHem forces tried to slow them down long enough for their own industries and armed forces to gear up for a counter-attack. This fighting withdrawal was nothing so organized as a trading space for time campaign such as the Soviets utilized in World War II. If the WestHem armor and infantry could keep the enemy from advancing more than twenty kilometers a day, if they could hold onto a bridgehead long enough to evacuate their own forces across it, if they lost less than a thousand tanks or less than ten thousand soldiers, then it was a considered a good day.

The Chinese enjoyed almost total air superiority both over the battlefield and for hundreds of kilometers beyond it. American-designed, Chinese-crewed AWACS aircraft would circle in overlapping coverage patterns a hundred miles behind the lines. Swarms of MiGs, F-15s, and F-14s were constantly aloft, just waiting for an attempt by WestHem to penetrate their airspace. Any WestHem pilot flying into Chinese territory was engaging in a sortie that was just one step above a suicide mission. Any airfield that WestHem air forces tried to set up was ruthlessly bombed until nothing but chunks of asphalt runway and the remains of burned out planes were left. Chinese attack aircraft would ceaselessly bomb the infantry troops at night, hitting them with cluster munitions and napalm. They would hit supply columns and convoys as they tried to move north to reinforce their beleaguered comrades. They would bomb bridges, both highway and railroad using crude, free-fall iron bombs that nevertheless hit with amazing accuracy. They would attack underground fuel storage depots with anti-runway bombs, burning up the precious petroleum needed to wage the war.

On the battlefield itself, the WestHem soldiers were having a very tough go. Chinese attack helicopters would sweep the battlefield in huge numbers, both before a battle and during it, blasting any armor or troops that were exposed to view. Chinese artillery would pound the WestHem infantry positions day and night using proximity-fused rounds that exploded ten meters above the ground, showering deadly fragments below. But it was the WestHem tank crews that were having the toughest go during these early battles.

Though the majority of the WestHem tanks were the M1-A4s, which were far superior to those the Chinese were using in terms of speed, maneuverability, gun accuracy, and armor, they were also hopelessly outnumbered. The WestHem tactic was the American tactic. The Americans had always been able to rely upon the greater range of their main guns to destroy enemy tanks before they even got close enough to fire back. It was a tactic that had worked well in Iraq in 1991 and 2003 when the enemy to friendly ratio had been closer to even and when the air superiority had been on the other foot. But in Canada the Chinese easily countered this advantage with sheer numbers. Each WestHem tank platoon stationed in the battle area, those that had survived the air attacks anyway, would find itself facing an entire battalion of fast moving Chinese tanks that would suddenly burst from cover and rush at them. The WestHem guns would roar in response, sending high-explosive rounds into their attackers and they would score hits, exploding the front ranks as they advanced. But it could never be enough. The loaders simply could not put fresh rounds in fast enough and the gunners could not acquire targets and shoot fast enough to stop them. If they did not disengage and pull back quickly, their positions would be overwhelmed and they would then be destroyed at close range by point-blank shots from the Chinese tanks.

Things appeared quite hopeless during these early days of the North American invasion. It seemed impossible to slow the Chinese enough to prevent them from reaching the central valley of California before American industry could produce enough armor and the WestHem armed forces could train enough soldiers to put up more than token resistance. Had the powers-that-be within the military command structure continued to blindly await more tanks, airplanes, and attack helicopters to use as counter-weapons, the war might very well have ended as the Asian Powers had planned. As it turned out however, the WestHems came up with an alternative. It was a device that could quickly, effectively destroy an onrushing tank from great range but that could easily be carried by a small team of soldiers in the field. It was a device that could be produced in large numbers, could be shipped by aircraft or train to the battle area, and that even the most moronic foot soldier could be trained to use with deadly accuracy. It was the device most responsible for the meat-grinder that eventually developed in the Pacific Northwest: the AT-9 anti-tank missile.

The AT-9 consisted of a shoulder-fired launcher with both an optical and an infrared sight that could direct a targeting laser onto an enemy tank or APC from more than five miles away, day or night, through clear, hazy, or smoky conditions. The launcher was only four feet in length, nine inches in diameter, and weighed less than twenty pounds, significantly less than a squad automatic weapon. The warheads were rocket-powered, laser-guided, shaped high-explosive charges with a range of nearly four miles and the ability to steer back and forth in flight as their target, and the targeting laser resting on it by the gunner, moved. Each warhead weighed only twenty pounds. This meant that the typical platoon of infantry designated as an anti-tank platoon could carry more than a hundred warheads and ten launchers to a piece of high ground overlooking the avenue of attack and wreck havoc on the Chinese armor when it broke from cover. When the AT-9s began to appear on the battlefield in large numbers, the rate of advance of the Chinese slowed dramatically, sometimes to less than three kilometers per day. Their commanders were forced to throw more of their tanks into each attack, taking frightful losses, in exchange for each one of those kilometers.

But the Chinese, with their unbreakable supply line and their staggering numerical advantage in all manner of war materials, continued southward regardless of the high losses. Though slowed, they could not be stopped, not completely, and day by day they drew closer and closer to the US border. It was during this portion of the war that bombs began to fall on American cities for the first time in history as the Chinese sent waves of strategic bombers after the factories that were producing war material and after the transportation network that delivered them. Aircraft factories in Seattle were hit. Automobile factories in Detroit, which were now producing armor, were hit. Bridges, rail yards, fuel storage facilities, and anything else even remotely of military value that was located anywhere in range of the Chinese planes was a potential target. Civil defense became not just a quaint concept that was taught in school and listed in the front of the telephone book, but an actual life or death concern. The production of anti-air defense weapons, something that the American armed forces were woefully short on, became a major priority.

On September 2, 2013, the Chinese battled their way through heavy defenses and swarms of AT-9 missiles and took the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Two days later, despite nearly fanatical resistance by the WestHem forces, they crossed the northern border at Bellingham, Washington, and invaded the continental United States. Once in the state of Washington, the terrain in which to operate was both wider and flatter, with much more maneuverable real estate between the Cascades and the ocean. This made for a much larger scale to the battles and the advancement of the Chinese was slowed even further becoming more costly both in terms of tanks and soldiers. Subsequently, the WestHem troops, those still alive since the beginning, were now battle-hardened veterans with firm chains of command. They had learned from their year of retreat and were much more effective in impeding each new attack and limiting its effectiveness. They had learned just when and how to best blunt the onrushing tanks and they had learned just when they needed to pull back to safer positions. For the first time the WestHem command began to feel that they just might be able to stop the Chinese and keep the majority of the United States in their own hands.

But, though they were taking heavy losses, the Chinese pushed onward, moving further and further south. Hundreds of their armored vehicles were blown to pieces each day. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of their soldiers were killed in each new attack. But they maintained air superiority over the battlefield and, perhaps more importantly, they maintained the momentum. Their supply of manpower and equipment seemed unlimited. Fresh troops, fuel, vehicles, and supplies continued to come across the Bering Sea and down the coast to reinforce them. Seattle fell and then Tacoma and then Olympia, some of the citizens of these cities fleeing ahead of the fighting, many others choosing to stay under Chinese occupation.

As the Chinese began to approach the Oregon border, WestHem began to entrench troops along the south bank of the Columbia River, which formed that border. They stopped reinforcing their holding forces at the front as heavily as they had been and instead installed tank divisions and infantry divisions on ever piece of ground overlooking the wide river along a two hundred mile length of it. They stockpiled heavy artillery weapons and rocket launchers behind this. They wired every bridge that crossed the river with explosives. And they waited, knowing that the mighty Columbia would present a formidable obstacle.

The Battle of Portland officially began on January 12, 2014 with the retreat of the holding forces from the area north of Vancouver, Washington, a suburb of Portland. For forty-eight hours they streamed across every available bridge, a constant line of tanks, APC's, half-tracks, and trucks overfilled with bloodied WestHem soldiers. The Chinese forces, counting on capturing the Columbia bridgeheads intact, did not bomb the bridges to prevent this retreat but they did ceaselessly harass the columns themselves from the air, strafing them with planes and helicopters. When artillery shells began to fall on the south side of the river, indicating that the push for Portland and the lands south of the river was imminent, the WestHem forces detonated the bridges, sending them crashing into the water. This regretfully trapped thousands of their own men and machines on the wrong side but did insure that the enemy would not have an easy crossing.

For the next two days the Chinese artillery pounded the entrenched WestHem forces day and night, hour after hour. They unleashed thousands of tons of bombs and hundreds of thousands of gallons of napalm onto the hillsides. And then, on January 17, they attempted a river crossing in four places around the Portland area, using massed amphibious tanks and APC's supported by conventional tanks dug in on the Washington side of the river. Ignoring the support armor the WestHems concentrated their fire on the amphibious units, sending a wall of steel and explosives at them. The slow-moving armored vehicles that had been so effective in securing previous bridgeheads were slaughtered, most before they even reached the middle of their journey. Tanks and APC's, lumbering along in the choppy, icy waters exploded and sank to the bottom in such numbers that navigation of the river would be impossible on that stretch for long after the fighting stopped. If any Chinese armor did make it to the other side, tanks dug in on the opposite bank quickly and efficiently dispatched them. After three furious hours the Chinese were forced to abandon their attempt. For the first time in the war, an Asian Powers' advance had been successfully halted in place.

For the next three weeks the Chinese tried again and again to breach the Columbia. Each time they hurled more armor into the river and each time that armor was annihilated by a fury of AT-9 missiles and anti-tank rounds. After losing more than eight thousand vehicles and more than a hundred thousand men, the Chinese were forced to abandon their drive to the south. Portland, though blasted, bombed, devoid of power, water, and most of its citizens, would remain in WestHem hands.

The Chinese high command would be forced to quickly develop a new order of battle for seizing the American oil fields. Determined not to lose the initiative, they left a large force dug in along the Columbia to prevent a reverse crossing by the WestHem forces and they then shifted the bulk of their army back northward to Seattle to prepare to open a new front.

The tower, where Mark was to meet Darren, was a large water tank that stood in an abandoned industrial complex just inside of the Roseville City limits. It was a round, one million-gallon storage and pressurization tank that sat more than two hundred feet in the air atop four steel legs. A large pipeline ran from the direct center of the bottom of the tank to the ground. The tank, the pipeline, and the legs were painted white although the last coat had been applied so long before that it was now a faded, brownish off-white color. Atop the peak of the tank's body were several cellular towers and radio communication towers. In the direct center of the top was a steel pole atop which a red, flashing light was mounted. This light, in days gone by, had been intended to warn helicopters and other low-flying craft away from the tower. The light was now darkened and had been since the beginning of the war. There were no more helicopters flying about and there was no sense in wasting precious electricity that did nothing but serve as a navigation beacon for attacking Chinese planes.

At the base of the tower were several small wooden buildings that contained pumping equipment and a leveled area of dry dirt that had been constantly treated with herbicide to impede vegetation growth. Despite the herbicide, large foxtails and bramble bushes dotted the area. Two or three times a day, at sporadic intervals, the electric whine of the machinery within the structures could be heard coming to life, pumping water from the underground pipes up into the body of the elevated tank.

Mark parked his bicycle behind one of the pumping structures, out of sight of the main road. He shouldered his backpack and then walked to one of the legs of the tower, a metal cylinder four feet in diameter that stretched into the sky and that was strong enough to support 250,000 gallons of water, or one fourth of the total weight. Attached to the outside of this cylinder was a ladder that extended from the ground to the maintenance catwalk on the tank two hundred and twenty feet up. The first fifteen feet of the ladder were covered by a locked piece of hinged steel that extended upward and prevented access to the rungs. Or at least that is what its designers thought that it did.

He sat down with his back against the support pole and his cammie-covered buttocks on the dirt ground. From around him came the sound of the chilly spring wind and little else. There were not many habitations near the tower and, though what had once been a main road was only thirty yards away, no traffic passed there. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a cigarette. He scooted around the support pole until the wind, which had kicked up considerably now that the sun was approaching the western horizon, was muted by its bulk and then he lit it with a wooden kitchen match.

At ten minutes after eight, just as Mark was starting to think that his friend was going to flake on him, he heard the familiar squeaking of Darren's brakes. A moment later he pedaled into the secluded enclave and brought his bike to a halt next to Mark's. His face was a little flushed from the wind.

"What up?" Darren said coolly, jerking his head a little in greeting. "I got the shit."

"Yeah?" Mark said, standing.

"Fuckin' aye." He reached into his backpack and pulled out two plastic sandwich baggies that were rolled up like a burrito. He handed them across to Mark.

Mark took them and unrolled both. This was part of the ritual of going in with Darren on some marijuana. Darren, in order to "prove" that he wasn't trying to screw his friend out of any of his share, would allow him to pick which bag he would take for his own. The contents in each bag would be pretty much equal. They always were. But Mark had no doubt that Darren had already removed a sizable portion of each bag back at his house and placed it in a third bag which was undoubtedly resting in a little accessed part of his room somewhere. Darren was not even smooth about it. When a week or so went by and they had smoked the contents of both of the official bags and had no money to buy more, Darren would suddenly turn up with the third bag, explaining its existence by saying that Paul had kicked loose a little out of pity. As if a drug dealer made a habit of doing such things.

As always, Mark kept his suspicions to himself. What would be the point of lodging a complaint? He took one of the bags and handed the other back to Darren. He then opened his and took a sniff of the green, sticky buds inside. The odor was pungent and very similar to that produced by an angry skunk. It was enough to make the eyes water. "God damn," he proclaimed happily. "This is some good bud."

"Fuckin' aye," Darren said with a cocky tone, as if nothing else could be expected. "Shall we retire to the smoking area?"

"I think we should," Mark agreed, pocketing his baggie.

He reached into his backpack and pulled out a rolled up safety ladder that was designed to help facilitate an emergency escape from a second floor bedroom in the event of a fire. Though the two friends did not actually need the ladder in order to ascend the tower, it certainly made things easier and faster. The first few times they had gone up they had simply shimmied up the sides of the security partition until they reached the rungs. It always took a few tries and a few spills to the ground but it was not a terribly difficult task for an adolescent boy to accomplish when he put his mind to it. It was only after Mark had fallen and nearly broken his arm during one ascension that they had begun to seek out a safer means of going up that first fifteen feet. Mark had been the one to come up with the idea of the safety ladder. Mark was the one that came up with most of the ideas when it came to how to accomplish some task. His mind just seemed to work that way. He had also been the one to shoplift the ladder from the local Home Depot, stuffing it into his pants after carefully removing the anti-theft tag from the packaging.

He unrolled the rope and plastic device, stretching its entire twelve-foot length out. At the top of it were two sturdy plastic hooks that were supposed to be hooked into the frame of the hypothetical second story window. The hooks had been modified by the addition of twenty-ounce deep sea fishing sinkers ingeniously attached with a drill and two bolts. The sinkers gave enough weight to the top of the ladder for it to be thrown into the air.

"Whoever hooks it, the other supplies the first missile?" Darren asked, tightening his backpack straps on his shoulder.

"Sounds good," Mark agreed, already knowing who was going to be the one to hook it and who was going to have to roll the first "missile" up on top. Though he was sharp as a tack when it came to thinking up things like the escape ladder or the counter-weights used to attach it, he was not terribly coordinated when it came to physical activities and competition. But he gave it his best effort nonetheless. He stepped back a few paces and eyed his target: the second rung above the security partition. Holding the ladder by the sinkers, he tossed it upward, throwing it the same way a basketball player shoots a free throw. It struck to the right and low, the sinkers making a hollow bonging noise against the steel before falling to the ground at their feet.

Darren smiled. "Not bad," he said. "You're getting better." He bent over and picked up the ladder by the sinkers. "But watch this." He took two steps back, gave a careless glance upward, and then took his shot almost absently. The sinkers sailed smoothly upward and dropped neatly around the second rung, allowing the rest of the ladder to trail down. "Thank you, thank you," Darren said, raising his clenched hands over his head and pumping them a few times, as if he had just made the game-winning point.

"Lucky shot," Mark muttered companionably, unable to keep himself from admiring it. Sometimes he felt he would gladly trade his intellect just for the ability to be good at things like sports and skateboarding instead of a clumsy fumbler. "Bet you couldn't do it again."

"I do it every fuckin' time," Darren reminded him.

"They're all lucky shots."

"Shee-it," he said, laughing and clapping him on the back. "Shall we head up? It's time to get high."

"Fuckin' aye," Mark agreed, reaching for the flimsy escape ladder.

It went without saying that neither young man's parent or parents knew that their children were spending a great many of their evenings climbing unsecured more than two hundred feet in the air to a flimsy, shaky catwalk that encircled a water tower. They would have been understandably horrified at the very thought. And though Darren was traditionally the instigator for most of the non-parentally approved activities that they engaged in, it had been Mark that had been the author of this most dangerous pursuit.

Mark's father, had he been told about this, would have been terrified at the thought, would have demanded it cease immediately, and may even have reinstated corporal punishment, but he would not have been surprised by his son's behavior. Since he was a child Mark had been fascinated with structures of all shapes, sizes, and purposes; the larger, the higher, the better. He had been building skyscrapers and drawbridges with his erector set by the age of four. He had been drawing and graphing crude blueprints for buildings, bridges, and dams on his computer since the age of six. He had twice won prizes in school engineering fairs for his complex and meticulous projects. One such prize had been for a working model of the very water tower that he was climbing. The project had been complete with a miniature pump and a miniature faucet to symbolize the city water supply. He had shown how the tower increased water pressure in the system and how it could be utilized as an emergency back up to the pump in the event of a power failure. The point about the tower that he had most stressed in his demonstration was the height and how important that height was to the tower's purpose. Mark liked tall structures, masterpieces of steel that stretched into the sky, towering above everything else. He liked the principals of architecture and engineering that led to such structures. He liked the processes of construction that built them. In his room he had actual textbooks of engineering and architecture that he had acquired and memorized over the years. He would rather peruse a blueprint of a new building, would rather read a synopsis of a construction technique than watch an episode of Idaho Platoon or read a war novel. For a teenage boy in that day and age, that was saying quite a lot.

The water tower had always held a particular fascination for him. It stood less than two miles from his suburban house and was, except for a few cellular towers, the tallest structure in Roseville. By the age of twelve he had tracked down on the Internet its exact specifications, purpose, and date of construction. From the time he had longed for anything he had longed to explore its surfaces, to ascend its body.

It was only since the war had started that he had been able to realize his dream of climbing it. Before the war, he would not have been able to get more than thirty feet up the ladder before some motorist passing by on Base Line Road would have called the police on a cellular telephone. But since the Chinese had effected a drastic reduction in gas consumption, there was no more traffic on Base Line and there was no one within seeing distance to report him. The first time he had gone up the tower it had been almost a sexual experience. When he stood on the shaky catwalk for the first time, able to see for miles in all directions, able to touch the thick steel of the elevated tank, able to examine the rivets and bolts and pressure points, he had been exalted. The water tower soon became his favorite place of seclusion; a place he had shared only with Darren, who had been quite horrified himself when Mark suggested for the first time that they go up.

Ironically it was a reversal of peer pressure that had led Darren up that first time. Though Mark loved heights—he would have gladly climbed a shaky ladder to an altitude six times higher than the Roseville water tower—Darren liked his feet to be firmly upon the ground. He squeamed, as the modern slang went, at the thought of being high enough that a fall would be lethal. But when Mark had enticed him out there that first time and had wormed his way up the secured ladder and began to climb, Darren had been unable to take the thought that his weaker, younger, more timid friend could do something that he himself would not. He had forced himself onto the ladder and, sweating with fear the entire way, had followed him up step by fearful step until he too had stood upon the grated steel walkway.

"There," he had said, with an unsteady voice, his pupils dilated with the adrenaline pumping through his body, his eyes refusing to take in the dizzying scenery around them. "I did it. Now let's get the fuck back down."

"C'mon, sarge," Mark had replied, leaning casually upon the waist-high railing. "Let's hang for a few. Have a smoke. Check out the scenery."

And so they had. By the time they had been up there fifteen minutes or so, Darren had calmed down and had actually began to enjoy himself a little. The next few times they had gone up he had been similarly reluctant but had always given in to the pressure. Gradually, perhaps in defense of the power his friend seemed to hold over him, he had adapted to the point that it was he who usually suggested they go for a climb.

Mark went up first this time. Using the flimsy escape ladder, he pulled himself up to the first actual rung. He then climbed up a few more feet and waited until Darren mounted the ladder below him. Keeping about six rungs between them, the two friends began to climb, their calf and thigh muscles bearing their weight as they pushed into the sky. There were one hundred and eighteen rungs on the ladder from the top of the security partition to the opening on the catwalk. Mark had counted them many times. The rungs were located exactly two feet apart and they flashed by his eyes one by one as the ground dropped away beneath them. They did not talk as they ascended, partially because the physical exertion of climbing required too much breath and partially because the wind, which was ripping by them at twenty miles an hour or so, would have made it nearly impossible to hear anyway.

The legs of the tower, including the one upon which the ladder was attached, were not perfectly perpendicular to the ground. They leaned inward at three-degree angles, with the feet of them at a wide stance. Mark knew that this made for better weight distribution, making it possible to use less steel to support the same amount of weight. It also meant that it was impossible to get to the catwalk, which encircled the tank's perimeter at its widest point, from the support leg by using a single ladder flush against the leg.

The leg mounted ladder ended at rung 96. A thirty-five foot section of heavier, unsupported ladder took over from that point. Its bottom edge was bolted to the support leg and its top edge was bolted both to the catwalk and to the side of the tank just below it. This section's angle was straight up and down, as compared to the three degree tilt of the support leg section and it had no comforting bulk of steel behind it to help cut the wind and lend a slight psychological easement of mind. When Mark reached this section he continued on without pausing, seeing space open between him and the support leg, feeling the icy wind increase by a factor of two at least. The entire section could be felt swaying back and forth in that wind, making harsh, metallic creaking noises at the attachment points.

"God damn!" Mark yelled downward at Darren, "this fuckin' wind is tryin' to blow me right off of here!"

"Don't be a pussy!" Darren yelled back up, not mentioning the fact that the open-air section of the climb still terrified him nearly to tears; especially when it was windy. "Just get your ass up there!"

"I ain't stopping!" Mark yelled back down, and indeed he was not. He actually found the wind pushing at him to be enjoyable. In truth, he had only said that to Darren because a cruel part of his mind knew that Darren hated the climb and had a desire to prod at that fear when the opportunity presented itself. It was not often that Darren was the one terrified of something and Mark was the fearless one. "Just be careful when you get to the open part!" he yelled. "It's a bitch today!"

Darren mumbled something in reply but it was lost as a particularly fierce gust blasted into Mark, making him clutch strongly against the rungs for a moment until it passed. He then continued up the ladder, now seeing the bulk of the tank curving towards him from the other side of it. At the precise center of the tank, its widest spot, his head pushed through the small opening that led to the three-foot wide catwalk. He pulled himself onto the rusty, grated surface by grabbing the safety railing, careful to keep his knees from bashing on the rough nubs. Panting a little, his eyes watering from the wind, he stood up and walked a few feet around the perimeter, clearing the opening so that Darren could come up.

Holding onto the rail and looking outward, he took in the sights off to the east, the direction this portion of the tank faced. No matter how many times he saw it, the view was still impressive, almost majestic. He could see Base Line Road, a black ribbon with a yellow line down the middle, stretching off into the housing developments, which were visible only as thousands of tiny tiled roofs arranged in geometric groupings. A little to the north he could see Dry Creek winding its way through greenbelts and under road bridges. Interstate 80, which had once carried hundreds of thousands of cars to and from Sacramento, could be seen cutting through the center of the suburb before continuing along on its path to the towering Sierra Nevada mountains to the east. A few cars could be seen here and there, some moving on the freeway, some on the surface streets near central Roseville. Those were either police cars, government vehicles of some sort, or wealthy elite types. In the residential areas he could make out the tiny figures of children playing on some of the front lawns or riding their bikes and skateboards here and there. He could see a few adults engaging in jogging for exercise. Though he could not make out exactly what sex they were, he intellectually knew that they would be mostly women since men that were young enough to jog were generally missing from the Roseville landscape these days.

He heard a grunt, followed by a curse of displeasure and he looked over to see that Darren had emerged from the opening. His face was somewhat flushed and he was panting perhaps a little more than the exertion alone could account for. He stood carefully, slowly, as if moving too suddenly would cause the bolts and welds that held the catwalk together to suddenly give out. As always he carefully kept his body as close to the tank side as possible. "Let's get out of this fucking wind," he said.

"Right," Mark agreed, adjusting his backpack a little and then moving forward, toward the southeast side of the tank, his feet clattering on the see-through grating, making it shake.

That shaking used to terrify Darren when they first started coming up here. Mark remembered, a little ashamedly, how he had taken advantage of that fear once when his friend had blurted it out. It had been the third or fourth trip up and he had not meant to scare him as badly as he had. They had been doing as they were doing now, walking around the perimeter to find the most wind-free spot.

"Sarge," Darren had barked, licking his lips nervously, "do you have to stomp so hard on this thing while you walk? They built this catwalk like thirty years ago. What if your stomping rips one of the sections loose?"

"That would be one on me, wouldn't it?" Mark had responded lightly.

"I'm serious," Darren had returned, putting on a tough, I'm-in-command-here expression. "Retreat with the stomping."

"C'mon, sarge," Mark had told him, concealing a smile. "You don't have to worry. You see these bolts that hold this thing in place?" He had pointed to the half-inch square heads at his feet that were located every fourteen inches along the tank side of the catwalk. "They may be old but there's a damn battalion of them holding each section up. What do you think the odds are that all of them in a particular section would break?"

"Yeah," Darren had said, nodding, a little comforted by this lecture. Though he was unquestionably the dominant member of the friendship, he knew instinctively that Mark's knowledge of how things were built was beyond reproach. "I guess so. It just squeams me a little to feel this thing move when we're two hundred feet up, you know?"

"Two hundred and twenty feet up," Mark had corrected. "And this old catwalk can really take a pounding. Check it out." With that he began to jump up and down, slamming his feet into the grating hard enough to make the entire section bang against the tank and send sharp, echoing clangs out into the air. It had sounded like somebody using a sledgehammer to drive a metal stake into the ground.

"Quit that shit!" Darren had yelled, grasping at the railing in a panic, terrified as he felt the surface beneath him pitching up and down like a ship in high seas.

"Just wanted to show you," Mark had said, stopping his actions and feeling immediately sorry for what he had done. He really hadn't expected that the catwalk would shake that much or scare Darren that badly.

That incident had never been mentioned again, and Mark had never repeated the action. It was doubtful that it would scare Darren anymore anyway. Since then, they had made the discovery that there were other man-made forces that could cause much more pitching of the catwalk than a one hundred and twenty pound boy bouncing on it. They had even learned to seek out, to enjoy the forces that caused this violent pitching.

As they worked their way around to the south side of the tank the high-rises of downtown Sacramento some thirty miles away and the wide, murky Sacramento River twisting its way past them came into view. One advantage of the war and the severe gasoline shortage it had produced was that urban smog had almost vanished. The Sacramento region, which was located in a huge valley, had once been one of the smoggiest places in the nation. An ugly, brownish haze used to hang over the area year-round, even during windstorms such as this one, making visibility of more than twenty miles or so next to impossible. But now the air was clear and sweet smelling and from the railing of the tank they could see all the way to Mount Diablo in the San Francisco Bay area more than ninety miles away.

Closer in, about four miles distant, the huge Roseville rail yard could be seen. The largest rail-switching yard west of the Mississippi River, it stretched literally for miles along the southern reaches of the city. There were miles and miles of track and sidings in the yard and thousands of tanker cars, boxcars, and equipment carriers stacked up in a seemingly random pattern. Unlike when they were looking at Roseville itself, when they looked at the rail yard there could be no doubt that they lived in a country at war. On most of the flatcars were M2 tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, half-tracks, self-propelled artillery guns, self-propelled surface to air missile (SAM) launchers, Humvees, and Apache III attack helicopters. In most of the tanker cars would be diesel and jet fuel. In most of the boxcars would be artillery rounds, aircraft bombs, anti-tank missile reloads for the AT-9 launchers, and ammunition of all calibers.

Each train that entered or left the yard had a SAM launcher installed on a flat car somewhere near the middle and a 23mm gunner stationed at each end. Chinese pilots had been known to attack freight trains in transit when they blundered across them on their way to other targets. The yard itself had three fixed surface to air missile sites and nearly fifty fixed large and small caliber anti-aircraft guns. The guns and the SAM launchers were each entrenched three feet below the ground level and protected by a five-foot wall of sandbags. From above, Mark and Darren could see the stout barrels of the guns and the swiveling missile launchers of the SAMs protruding from their emplacements.

The train yard was a busy place. It was the primary switching yard for supplies heading either to the inactive western front along the Columbia River near Portland, or to the active front in eastern Oregon and southern Idaho. Workers could be seen moving here and there, coupling this section of cars to that locomotive, moving other cars from place to place. Trains moved in and out constantly, at all hours of the day and night. Trains heading north and east would have the new military equipment from the factories on their flatcars. Trains returning from the north and the east would be carrying the remains of the earlier generation of machines that had been destroyed in battle and were being shipped back to be recycled. One of their favorite activities after climbing the tower was to stare at these machines, both new and battle-smashed, through binoculars. Seeing the smashed and burned tanks or APCs did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm for going off to war. If anything, it seemed to strengthen their resolve.

The yard was naturally a frequent target of Chinese bombers trying to impede the flow of supplies to the front. Impact craters from bombs dotted the surface of the yard. Many of the administrative and storage buildings on the property had been destroyed in one air raid or another and those that had not were now surrounded with double rings of sandbags. Off to the east side of the yard, in what had once been a huge empty field, were piles of twisted steel that were the remains of train cars that had been blown apart during an attack and then hauled there until a recycling run could be made.

Because of these frequent air attacks much of the residential area immediately surrounding the yard had been cleared of inhabitants. The reason why could be plainly seen. Entire sections of those subdivisions were nothing but smashed rubble and blackened frames, the results of off-target Chinese bombs that had landed amid the houses and exploded. More than two hundred people had been killed in that area before the authorities had made the decision to condemn any dwelling located within three miles of the yard. This had led to a vicious battle between the residents of those houses, who were not eligible for any sort of compensation for their displacement, and the Roseville Police Department, who had been ordered to enforce the evacuation order. Three days of violent clashes between the two groups occurred. Sign-carrying middle-class homeowners, mostly women since the men were off at war, had been beaten, gassed, and shot by riot-gear clad cops, most of whom were also women or older men beyond service age. Before enforcement of the order was finally established, six protesters would be killed, scores more injured, and nearly a hundred would be arrested and tried under a wartime criminal code and sentenced to prison terms. The criminal justice system had little tolerance for organized civil disobedience these days.

"Look at that," Darren said, as they finally found a wind-free spot in which to settle. He pointed towards the yard and the mass of steel cars that sat in it. "You see them?" His voice was excited, as if he had just spotted a naked woman for the first time.

"See what?" Mark asked, having no idea what he was referring to. He reached into his backpack and pulled out a small pillow, which he put on the grating and then sat upon. They had learned quickly that you did not want to sit directly upon the grating for any length of time.

"Over by the west side of the tracking," he said, pointing again. "That train is carrying the new Bradley 3A's. You see 'em? I heard that they were going to start sending them up to the front pretty soon. That must be the first load!"

"Static," Mark said, peering out to take a look. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his baggie of marijuana and a pack of Zigzags. "What's the difference between those and the old Bradleys?" he asked, more to make conversation than out of any real desire to know.

"What's the difference?" Darren asked, shaking his head sadly at his friend's lack of knowledge about what was important. He reached into his pack and withdrew his own pillow and his beloved binoculars. "The 3A has thicker armor on the front and the new turbine engine. It can also carry four more troops than the 2C. I bet we won't see too many of the 3A's coming back on the flatcars." He sat down and let his legs hang over the edge of the railing. Once he was settled in, he put the binoculars to his eyes and began peering at the new infantry carriers, his fear of heights forgotten. "Damn," he said admiringly as he took in a close-up view of the shape. "I dig those 30mm cannons. I read they increased the rate of fire and the range on this model too."

Mark listened to the dissertation on the new infantry carrier with half an ear, nodding and giving a "really?" whenever it seemed appropriate. Most of his attention was spent trying to successfully crunch up and roll a missile without spilling any of the precious bud.

Darren dropped the binoculars, letting them hang from the cord around his neck. "I can't fuckin' wait, sarge," he said wistfully. "Just another couple of months and we'll be out there, killing those fuckin' chinks wholesale. You and me, buddy, we'll be a fuckin' chink elimination squad."

"Goddamn right," Mark said, grinning at the thought. In truth, if he was going to go to the line, he wanted it to be with Darren, his high school protector at his side.

"I wonder where they'll send us?" Darren said, slowly panning back and forth. "I hope it's to the real front and not fuckin Montana or Oregon. Can you imagine how boring it is being part of the holding force?"

"Brett Faxton went to Montana," Mark felt compelled to remind him. "Apparently he didn't find it all that boring. It was interesting enough to put him in the obits." Faxton, a former classmate of theirs, had dropped out of school to enlist on his eighteenth birthday back in February. He had been killed in the Rocky Mountain passes less than a week after being assigned there as an infantry soldier.

Darren dismissed this side issue of the Brett Faxton story as being beside the point. "Faxton was a moron," he said derisively. "I'm surprised he even made it through basic without getting his ass killed. I'm surprised he was even able to get on the right train to make it to basic. Imagine, getting killed in the fuckin mountain brigade. They're almost as pussy as the rear-echelon motherfuckers. All they have to do is keep the chinks out of the passes. They have a single fucking road to guard. How do you get killed doing that?"

"He found a way," Mark said, sealing the missile closed with saliva. As tradition dictated, he handed it across to Darren along with a box of kitchen matches.

"The stupid ones die easy," Darren said wisely, putting it in his mouth. "It ain't gonna be like that for us. If the chinks wanna take me or my bud out, they're gonna have to fuckin' work at it." He struck a light and applied the flame to the tip, inhaling deeply.

"What if they put us in tanks?" Mark asked him, articulating a fear that was in nearly every prospective armed services member. In this war it was the tank crews that were having the toughest go at it. They were the ones with the highest casualty rate and they were the ones who died the most horrible deaths. Even if they were merely injured, the injury would most likely be a severe burn.

Darren finished his hit and handed the missile over. He held in the smoke for a moment and then finally exhaled before answering. "They wouldn't do that to us," he assured him. "We're volunteers. They put the draftees in the tanks, those fuckin pussies that they have to go chase down to get them to serve."

"I heard that's just a myth," said Mark, who read obsessively and who had found an official armed services web site on his computer that proclaimed the draftees-to-the-tank-corps story to be nothing but an urban legend.

"Naww," Darren scoffed, with all the assuredness of someone who did not want to face an unpleasant truth. "That's really the way it works, sarge. The volunteers get the infantry and the holding positions. They get the armored cav and the airborne. The draftees go in the tanks. That's their fuckin punishment for not signing up on their own, I'm tellin' you."

"I guess that makes sense," Mark answered, still holding the smoldering joint between his fingers. He could have said a lot more, but he didn't, knowing that his friend would not be receptive to any observations or thoughts that might scare him. Instead he put the missile in his mouth and made it burn.

While the American public, which had watched the entire Battle of Portland on television, was still celebrating the "victory" that had been achieved, the WestHem intelligence noted the massive pullback of forces to Seattle. It did not take a genius to figure out what the Chinese were up to but, in this case, realizing something and doing something about it were two distinctly different things.

WestHem shifted a large portion of their forces to the east as quickly as they could but there was no way they could possibly move them fast enough. On March 1, 2014 two complete Chinese armies left Seattle, following along the Interstate 90 corridor, and began to climb Snoqualmie Pass into the Cascade Mountains. The summit of the pass was held by Chinese troops placed there just to prevent WestHem forces from hitting their flanks from the other side. The east side of the pass, which led to the arid plains of central Washington, was held only by two reinforced battalions of WestHem infantry and one of armor that had been placed there to keep Chinese infiltrators from moving into their rear. The Chinese had never been expected to make such a madly bold move such as moving entire armies over the pass. These three battalions, which had lived through the war so far with only isolated skirmishes between platoon sized units, suddenly found themselves trying to accomplish the equivalent of stopping an onrushing forest fire with a shovel and a garden hose.

To give credit where it is due, they did their best. They positioned themselves strategically at the only exit from the pass and, braving devastating close-air support by attack helicopters and MiGs, chipped at the Chinese armor as it tried to make its descent out of the mountains. They managed to snarl the roads and delay the enemy for the better part of eight hours despite being outnumbered more than a hundred to one, but in the end the air attacks, the artillery attacks, and the counter-fire from the Chinese tanks took their toll. With a casualty rate of more than 85%, the Snoqualmie Defenders (as they came to be called) were forced to retreat. Their survivors would be haled as war heroes and their exploits would become the basis of the first "true" war movie of World War III.

After their retreat however, the Chinese armies poured out of the mountains and onto the rolling plains like a swarm of angry hornets leaving a nest. They quickly swallowed up all of the land north and west of the Columbia river, therefore forcing the WestHem forces to station troops all along the south and east banks of it instead of simply in the Portland area. They then sent their main spearhead due east, taking the strategic highway junctions at Kennewick, Yakima, and Spokane. Though Washington State was not completely occupied, this maneuver did deny the WestHem forces the ability to move mechanized troops into the state or to withdraw the military equipment already present away from it.

From Spokane the Chinese continued east, entering the panhandle of northern Idaho and taking the road junctions at Coeur d'Alene and Sandpoint, effectively sealing themselves in a protected bubble up against the Rocky Mountains on the Montana border. After reinforcing the newly captured mountain passes to keep from being hit on the flanks from the other side or from the north, they took a week to regroup and allow their supply line to catch up to them. Once their troops were rested, fed, and re-armed, they began once more to push south, this time towards the open plains of southern Idaho, eastern Oregon, and northern Nevada. If they could make it to this wide open ground before the WestHem forces could put up a defense and contain them, they would be unstoppable, able to fall on the Texas oilfields in a matter of weeks. They almost made it. Almost, but not quite.

A WestHem probe met a Chinese probe near the small one-stoplight town of Viola in central Idaho. Though the ensuing battle would stretch across a broad front more than three hundred miles wide, the name "Battle of Viola" would be what future school children would learn to call it. In less than twenty-four hours this meeting of two reconnaissance units developed into the largest unit action of the entire war to that date. It was a battle that would rage without let-up for more than two months and that would leave the town of Viola, as well as many others in the path of the combatants, a smoldering ruin full of dead civilians and bloated farm animals. Viola itself was soon far behind the lines as the Chinese, with numerical and air superiority slowly ground the WestHem forces backward, kilometer by costly kilometer. Entire divisions of infantry and armored cavalry bashed at one another on those plains, each side getting nearly constant reinforcements to throw into the fight wherever a hole threatened to open up. Twenty to thirty thousand would be killed or horribly wounded on each side, each and every day. On the WestHem side, more than a thousand of their soldiers would be captured each time a position was overrun.

The Battle of Viola would come to a close near the beginning of June, 2014 after more than three million deaths. Though historians would claim that WestHem had "won" the battle, in truth they won nothing. The WestHem armies were simply given enough time and favorable enough ground to dig in along a sturdy line that the Chinese could not blast their way through. This was a front that stretched from Vale, in south central Oregon to Dubois, in southeastern Idaho. It was a twisting, turning, bulging line protected by entrenched AT-9 crews on every hill and by tens of thousands of tanks from the former automobile factories in Detroit and Los Angeles. The official ending of the Battle of Viola was listed as the point when the rearward movement of the WestHem forces finally came to a halt. In actuality the Chinese continued to batter at this line, throwing tanks, planes, and men against it in ever increasing numbers, for the next three months. At last, with their supplies dwindling and badly in need of restock and with their soldiers, those that were still alive, in the midst of a morale problem that bordered on rebellion, they were forced to give up the effort. Like the WestHem forces opposing them, they dug in and entrenched themselves.

This was the beginning of the next stage of the war, a stage that would go on for quite some time. Though the people of the time, on both sides of the conflict, refused to call it a stalemate, that is exactly what it was. Neither side could force the other to retreat. The tanks could not attack in force because anti-tank missiles and enemy tank guns would explode them like clay pigeons on a skeet range as soon as they crossed into the open. Infantry troops could not clear the entrenched anti-tank crews because machine gun fire and mortars would cut them down as soon as they stepped into the open.

But this did not stop attacks from happening. Each side was under the delusion that if it simply built up enough of an attacking force before striking that it would be able to punch through. This approach led to long periods of inactivity in which nothing other than air attacks or artillery battles would be fought alternated with shorter periods of desperate, intense all-out fighting in which many were killed but in which nothing was accomplished.

In the United States the strategic bombing campaign would continue with vigor, but the surviving factories would continue to churn out more and more tanks and planes and other weapons. The army would continue to induct or enlist forty thousand young men each month. These young men would be trained and equipped with these new machines and then sent to the front. When enough were built-up, an offensive would be launched and would inevitably be cut to shreds by the Chinese.

On the Chinese side of the equation, the same thing occurred. Japanese and Chinese factories would churn out the weapons of war. The bureaucracy of conscription in Beijing would enlist and train more troops, sending them by aircraft and train to the front. They would cycle through a pattern of build up followed by a major attack along a broad length of the front; an attack that would be repulsed after two or three weeks of battering themselves against the WestHem lines, destroying all of the new machines and men.

In the ten short months between the Battle of Viola and the day that the new spring offensive began, more than two million WestHem soldiers and civilians were killed. In the same period of time the Chinese lost more than two million of their soldiers. In Europe, on the static lines in Russia, more than a million EastHem and Indian soldiers were killed along with countless European and Asian citizens. In this time period, with nearly seven million dead, with millions of weapons of war blown to shreds, with untold trillions of dollars in damage done, the lines did not move more than two kilometers in either direction on any front.

At the beginning of the war, when American cities first found themselves under the threat and then the actuality of air attack, the Civil Defense Department had imposed nightly blackouts. This had only lasted a short time before it was pointed out that blacking out a city to prevent or impede bombing was an anachronistic and useless measure. Modern planes of war were equipped with infrared visualization equipment that allowed the pilots to see in the darkness and sight their targets with precision. It was now actually harder to find a target at night if the lights were left on since the residual illumination tended to blur the infrared image an attacking pilot would be using. Not that this had been a factor in allowing the power to continue flowing after dark. Angry and sometimes violent nationwide protests against the blackouts had finally been the death of them. The Americans had been able to put up with being bombed. They had been able to put up with aircraft and exploded missile fragments falling onto their houses and killing their children. But they had been not been able to put up with the inability to use their microwave ovens and televisions and computers after sunset.

Since the blackouts were a thing of the past, like carpools, police helicopters, and cheap petroleum jelly, Mark and Darren were treated to the inspirational sight of the city lights of Sacramento and Roseville coming to life once the sun gave up its command of the sky. From the catwalk of the water tower the bright pinpoints of orange and white light stretched almost as far as they could see, all the way to the Sierras to the east and all the way to the horizon to the south. The city lights gave the landscape a friendly, civilized, almost peaceful glow. All of the ugly scars on the landscape, all of the radar masts and air defense weapons, all of the smashed and burned subdivisions became invisible, indistinct amid that glow. You could almost believe you were looking at a world at peace when you looked at the world at night.

Of course it helped if, like the two teenagers, you were stoned to the eyeballs on high-grade marijuana.

"So what's the deal with this request you had today?" Darren asked. "Anything come of it?"

"I got the dinner invite from her," he said, giving a lascivious grin. "She's gonna cook me her burgundy beef stroganoff at 7:00 tomorrow night. It was almost too easy."

"Did you use that my-mom-used-to-make-great-dinners speech that I taught you?"

"Hell yeah," Mark said. "Worked like a charm, just like always. Twenty-four hours from now I'll be sliding my AT-9 right into her breach."

"You the commander, sarge," Darren told him, holding up his hand for a high-five, which Mark gladly provided.

"How about you?" Mark asked him. "You had three requests today. What's the status?"

"They're all in different stages," he replied, helping himself to one of Mark's cigarettes. "One of them is in the early stage, where she's still not sure she wants it yet. The other is in the I-can't-believe-I'm-flirting-with-this-delivery-boy stage. I'll probably squeak a dinner out of her on the next trip. But the third one, now she was a repeat performance."

"Oh yeah? Did she give it up right there?"

"She wouldn't go for an all-out attack today because her fuckin kids were home," he said. "But she did take me into the laundry room and clean my AT-9 for me."

"A blowjob? Right there in the laundry room?"

"Fuckin aye," he confirmed, lighting his smoke. "Wasn't the worst one I've ever had either."

"Goddamn," Mark said, impressed. "Ain't this a great time to be alive?"

"You got that shit right," Darren agreed.

Their conversation about breaches and AT-9s and what a great time it was to be alive was interrupted a moment later by the war. The high-pitched, drawn-out whine of the air-raid sirens suddenly pierced the night. The sound swelled up from nearby, a single siren at first that was soon joined by other, more distant sirens, one by one. They rose and fell in ten second waves; the closer sirens fading between cycles as the further ones were still winding up. Hearing this, both of them peered out over the darkened city knowing they would not be able to see the planes but looking anyway.

"A little early tonight," Darren remarked. "This should be a good one though."

"A good one? You think so?" Mark replied, knowing that when it came to the war and the mechanics of fighting it, Darren knew at least as much as the military experts on the evening newscasts.

"It only makes sense," he explained. "They hit Executive yesterday with anti-runway bombs. That meant they were trying to suppress the air cover. They only try to suppress the air cover if they're planning to come in with a big raid the next night. We're talking twenty, thirty planes maybe."

"Static," Mark said, pitching his cigarette over the side of the rail. He continued to scan the night sky, looking for the telltale signs of the approaching enemy. "What do you think they're going trying to hit tonight? The train yards again?"

"Probably," Darren said, standing up to get a better look. "That's the only thing around here worth hitting with a large raid. The airports are too hard to damage and the port is already wrecked to shit. But they can really fuck up the supply line if they put the rail yard out of action for a week. And now that they have an offensive going they're gonna really want to pound the supply line. They'll hit the train yards and all of the railroad bridges between here and Boise."

They sat in silence for about three minutes, each with their eyes peeled. The planes could come from any direction. When attacking the Sacramento area they typically approached the region by moving south through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, flying at low altitude from their bases in southern Washington and using the cover of the mountains to hide them from radar detection. Once they came within forty or fifty miles however, they would leave the safety of the mountains and scream along the floor of the valley, always coming at their target from an unpredictable angle. Sometimes they stayed in the mountains until they were far past Sacramento and they approached from the south. Sometimes they left the mountains before they got to the city and approached from the north. Sometimes, and this was very rare, they left the mountains directly across from their target and approached from the east. This was what the flight that had killed Mark's mother had done.

The sirens continued to whine up and down, rising and falling. They saw nothing but city lights and the occasional pair of headlights moving along the freeways. They both knew that there was a strong possibility that the sirens were simply a false alarm. At least half of the time an alarm was triggered by the detection of enemy planes in the area that were actually heading somewhere else. That was one of the reasons that people so seldom went to the shelters. Neither one of the young men ever considered for a second that they should climb down from the tower. There was no reason why the Chinese would attack the tower deliberately and the odds of it being hit accidentally by an off target bomb or a crashing plane were the same as the odds on the ground. They had been up on the catwalk many times during air raids in the past and actually found the experience exhilarating, particularly when the train yards were the target.

"Over there," Darren said, pointing off to the south. "Check it out!"

Mark looked that way, at first seeing nothing but the endless expanse of city lights but, after a second, spotting a few streams of red anti-aircraft tracers in the far distance stabbing upward like probing fingers. The first few were joined by a few more, and then a few more until thirty or forty were waving back and forth. "They're coming from the south," he said. "Maybe they're hitting Executive again, or maybe they're going after the fuel storage tanks at Miller Park."

"That's possible," Darren said, continuing to stare intently. "Look! A SAM launch!"

Mark did not need to have that pointed out to him; he was able to see the streak of white light flashing into the sky for himself. The surface to air missile did not hit anything. They saw the white glare of its rocket engine turn sharply to the west in pursuit of an unseen aircraft and then there was a brief flash as the missile exploded. There was no secondary explosion.

"Missed," Darren said, shaking his head. "Those fuckin' chinks fly so low it's hard for the SAMs to lock onto 'em." He sounded like he thought that the Chinese, in the interests of fairness, should fly a little higher in order to give the anti-air defenses a decent shot at them.

Mark said nothing. He simply watched as the tracer streams grew closer and closer to them, effectively marking the position of the attacking planes as each gunner or automatic system tried to bring them down. Watching such a thing while stoned was a very surreal experience.

"They're moving this way," Darren said. "I bet they are hitting the rail yard!"

"Looks like it," Mark agreed, leaning outward a little to get a better view. "Not a very smart approach though, is it?"

"No," Darren said. "They have to fly all the way over the city and all of the AA guns. They should be hitting it from the north or the west. That's mostly open ground."

"Maybe they're afraid of becoming predictable."

"Maybe," he allowed. "Or maybe they're just a bunch of dumb chinks who don't know any better."

The bursts of tracer fire marched closer and closer, rapidly homing in on the southern Roseville area. When they were about ten miles away one of the streams contacted a plane, causing a bright spark to flash. A half a second later a tremendous fireball lit up the night to the south of them as the plane went down and exploded.

"Yes!" Darren yelled, pumping his fist in victory. "Took that motherfucker out!"

Mark was not as enthusiastic. Such occurrences hit a little too close to home for him. He knew that the crashing bomber had more than likely just wiped out a sizable portion of a residential area of Sacramento, or maybe a strip mall, or maybe an apartment complex.

As the planes closed in and began to climb to bombing altitude, the rail yard defenses started to react. From the south side of the yard there was a sudden flash of light as a SAM left one of the sandbagged launchers. Two others joined it over the next three seconds. They sped off towards the planes, keeping low above the rooftops, heading in the direction of the tracer streams, the glow of their engines bright enough to hurt Mark and Darren's eyes if they stared at them. No sooner had they left their launchers than four bright streaks appeared from where the planes were. These were smaller, faster moving streaks of light heading directly back towards the train yard.

"Anti-radar missiles," Darren said, pointing at them. "They're trying to hit the fire control radar before the SAMs hit the planes."

It was difficult to tell which set of missiles won that particular race. Two of the anti-radars seemed to go wild. They went twisting off in crazy circles before finally exploding in mid-air. The other two came speeding in like bolts of lightning, detonating just above the ground over the train yards. Two of the SAMs then instantly exploded in flight, offering no secondary explosions for their effort. The third SAM however, did produce a secondary fireball as it crippled an attacking plane. The fireball sank quickly to the ground and grew to tremendous size as the plane exploded on impact.

"Yes!" Darren screamed, actually jumping up and down on the catwalk he was so excited.

Sounds began to reach them now although with the relatively vast distance between themselves and the sources of the sounds, they did not coordinate with the action very well. At just over four miles away from the train yard, it took a sound wave more than twenty seconds to reach them on the water tower. Although they heard the launch of the SAMs as a series of dull roars, and though they heard the sharp cracks of the anti-radar missiles exploding, they did not hear them until long after the missiles themselves had disappeared from view.

As the planes came closer to the rail yard one more SAM was launched. It streaked out and exploded harmlessly three seconds later without ever correcting its course. The yard's batteries of large caliber anti-aircraft artillery guns then began to fire, each one pumping two shots a second into the sky until the night to the south of them was lit up by a wall of exploding flak shells that burst like blooming orange flowers. Two more planes fell to this barrage, one exploding in mid-air about three miles out and raining burning debris down, the other spinning directly into the ground, sending up another of the great fireballs.

"What are those planes gonna be armed with?" Mark asked as the hollow thumping of the AAA guns finally began to reach them.

"For the rail yard," Darren answered, "they'll each have eight or ten five hundred pound high explosive bombs that they'll try to spread out all over parked trains."

Just as the sound of the flak shells bursting reached their ears the flak guns themselves stopped firing. The smaller caliber guns, the 23 and 30 millimeter rapid fires; the last line of defense for the yard, opened up one by one until more than thirty were firing at once from all points around the yard. The tracer streams moved back and forth, up and down, sometimes crossing each other as they sought out the Chinese aircraft. Most moved with the jerky motions that bespoke of a human hand guiding them. A few moved with the smooth, rapid precision of radar or infrared guidance.

"This is fuckin awesome!" Darren yelled happily, his eyes transfixed by the sight.

"Hell yeah!" Mark agreed.

The attack itself took less than five seconds. They only had the briefest impression of the outline of the planes as they shot over the yard at more than five hundred miles per hour. One of them, hit by a tracer stream, spun in and crashed along the road just short of the security fence. The surviving planes flashed by in an instant, continuing over the city of Roseville to the north, a SAM and multiple tracer streams chasing after them. They never saw the bombs at all, at least not while they were in flight.

But when those bombs began to land and explode, they could look at nothing else. Each plane's load was marked by a line of explosions a half a second apart marching forward from the first as the bombs impacted one by one. Five such loads landed at once, about an eighth of a mile apart and stretching across the northern portion of the coupling area. Six more marched across the south portion. When the explosions hit train cars they burst apart, sending metal and other shrapnel through the air. Some of the cars, obviously containing items like AT-9 rounds or artillery shells, went up in spectacular secondary explosions ten and twenty times the size of the primary explosion. The concussions from these impacts, when they reached the tower twenty to thirty seconds later, would shake and jolt the entire structure, thrilling Mark and Darren to no end. To an adult it would have seemed a terrifying and foolishly dangerous manner of entertainment, but to teenagers, who thought themselves immortal, it was more thrilling than a rollercoaster ride.

The first of the concussions from the attack was still on its way to the tower when one of the lines of falling bombs stretched across a group of thirty or so tanker cars that contained either jet or diesel fuel. Usually large numbers of flammable liquid cars were not stored together but apparently the yard workers had not had a chance to separate this particular batch yet. The reason why such cars were kept separate became dramatically visible a moment later. The secondary explosion consisted of the entire line of tankers going up at once. The flash was so bright that night was momentarily turned to day, even four miles away. Every rail car within a hundred yards was obliterated instantly, sending tons of metal fragments outward at lethal speed for more than a mile in all directions. The fireball reached a thousand feet in the air and multiple third and forth generation explosions resulted as boxcars and one SAM site went up.

"Oh shit!" Darren yelled fearfully, sitting back down and grabbing the railing of the catwalk. "I think we'd better hang on for this one!"

"Right," Mark said, assuming the same position. He grabbed onto the rail for dear life and braced himself. They had never seen an explosion near as big and had no way to predict what the results of it would be. Would it be able to knock the tower down? Would it be able to jar the catwalk loose, sending them downward to their deaths?

A few seconds later the tower began to rock gently as the sound and the displaced air of the first concussions hammered into them. They could feel each explosion like a blow to the chest, could feel the catwalk rattling back and forth. In their ears the soundtrack of what they had just witnessed caught up to them. The dull thuds of the exploding bombs and the larger, secondary explosions of the boxcars assaulted their eardrums, almost, but not quite painfully. This was all expected, something that they had been through many times before, something that they usually did not even bother sitting down for.

"Any second now!" Darren screamed over the noise, his knuckles white upon the metal rail.

Mark did not answer. He simply closed his eyes and prepared to be hit by the blast wave.

It struck them like a speeding freight train, with such power that the entire catwalk was wrenched violently up and down with a hideous screech of tortured metal. The breath was forced out of their lungs in a whoosh as the blast of air pressure struck them. Despite the fact that they were hanging on to the rail, they were driven backward against the metal of the tank and bounced more than two feet in the air, crashing down painfully on their butts. They felt their eyeballs actually pushed back in their heads from the pressure, felt their teeth jar in their mouth. The noise, which hit them simultaneously with the concussion, was a sharp, biting crack that produced an immediate stabbing pain in their ears and temporarily deafened them. For a moment, with their heads reeling, their eardrums sending knives of pain through them, and their lungs unable to draw breath, both thought that they had been killed.

As the third and fourth generation concussions began to reach them, feeling a little like the playful taps of a child in comparison to what they had just experienced, they looked at each other with wide eyes.

"Jesus," Darren said, shaking his head to clear it a little. He found that the pillow he had been sitting upon was missing, probably tossed over the edge of the catwalk while he had been in mid-bounce. "That was some shit."

Mark's ears were ringing, making it sound as if Darren's voice was coming from a vast distance. "No kidding," he said, touching his nose. His finger came away bloody. "I thought the whole fuckin' tower was coming down."

"That threw me backward like I was a damn rag doll. It ripped that railing right out of my hands."

Mark nodded, noticing that his own pillow was missing as well. He looked out over the train yards where utter chaos was now taking place. The entire south side of the facility was ablaze as burning fuel from the tankers continued to ignite and explode boxcars and other tankers. Flames shot into the air with each new explosion hurtling more debris violently outward. Hundreds of smaller fires were burning around the periphery of the yard and two of the storage buildings were also ablaze. The tiny figures of people could be seen rushing here and there around the yard, trying to get out of areas that were being consumed by fire or that were in danger of being leveled by another explosion.

"How's your nose?" Darren asked, looking for the cigarette pack and finally finding it beneath Mark's backpack. He helped himself to one.

"Hurt's a little," Mark told him, grabbing a cigarette of his own. "That was one fuck of a concussion."

"Yeah," Darren agreed. "The chinks got lucky and hit a whole line of tankers. I bet that broke some windows in our neighborhood."

"Damn near broke my eardrums and my neck too." Mark said, searching for and finally finding his matches.

They took a moment to light their cigarettes, drawing deeply and blowing the smoke out over the railing, letting their heartbeats return to normal. Below them, at the train yard, explosions continued to occur every fifteen or twenty seconds. Most of them were the relatively small bombs or crates of AT-9 warheads, but every few minutes or so another tanker would blow up, ignited by the destruction of a nearby boxcar. In the distance they could see the emergency lights of fire engines, trucks, water tenders, and police cars heading for the scene of the attack. Not that they would be able to do anything until the explosions stopped. As they watched them approach and begin to fan out into pre-planned staging locations, the concussions continued to batter at them, rattling the catwalk and hammering into their chests, though not with the force that they had experienced a few minutes before. By the time they finished their cigarettes and pitched them over the edge, a perimeter was nearly formed around the yards and most of the people seemed to have moved away from the danger area.

"That'll disrupt the supply line a little, won't it?" Mark asked, sitting back down and letting his legs hang over the edge once more.

"Yep," Darren said sadly. "It'll probably take 'em a week or two to clean that one up. Fuckin' chinks."

"War is hell they say," Mark agreed. He looked over at his friend. "Why don't you roll us another missile? That'll help put this into perspective."

"Sounds like a mission," Darren said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his baggie.

They settled back against the tank once more to smoke some more marijuana and watch the show.

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