Collateral Damage

by Al Steiner

Copyright© 2004 by Al Steiner

Sex Story: A few years in the future, life as we know it has undergone a vast change. A vicious war is being fought and its victims are everywhere. Eighteen year old Eric finds he has to take on many rolls as he prepares for the months ahead.

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

Author's Note:

For several years now I've been playing around with various stories that take place in a certain universe - as such things are in the writer's mind - over a timeline that stretches for several hundred years into the future. Most of these stories are things I've written under my so-called "normal" identity and include two novels and numerous short stories. Recently, however, I included an Al Steiner story in this universe/timeline, mixing some of my serious science fiction type work with the erotic elements of the Steiner identity. The result was the novel "A Perfect World", which is currently being run at I was pleased with the mix of the two elements and decided to experiment with it a little more. "Collateral Damage" is the result and I'm posting it here instead of at Ruthiesclub mainly to get a little feedback, so please, please, let me know what you think about it.

But first, a little explanation of the universe and timeline itself.

In this world I've created, everything is just as it is in our own world until January 1, 2009. On that date, a devastating conventional World War begins when Chinese and Indian armies make a surprise attack into Siberia. Within months of this initial attack, overwhelming numbers of "Asian Powers" forces conquer Russia and the Middle East, dig in solidly in Eastern Europe, and then invade North America via the Bering Straight into Alaska. From Alaska, they drive southward, through Canada and into the continental United States before finally being stopped at the Columbia River in Washington. From there, they swing east, crossing Snoqualmie Pass, taking Spokane, and then turning south, where they are halted again, after a particularly vicious fight termed "The Battle of Viola", in a broad line in Southern Idaho. From there, the war enters a long period of stalemate, with millions dying on both sides, but neither able to force the other back. The stalemate is finally broken when the Western Hemisphere forces (as the allied armies are called) develop practical anti-tank and anti-aircraft lasers, allowing them blast a hole in the lines and slowly push the Asian Powers back to Asia.

In "A Perfect World", this portion of the timeline is touched upon in the later sections, although the majority of that novel takes place 188 years after the war, when Mars has been colonized and has rebelled from its mother planet, forming it's own government. The idea of what life would be like during these war years, however, is what prompted me to expand upon that theme in one of my conventional novels and in the story you are now - hopefully - about to read. "Collateral Damage" is a fairly basic erotic fiction plot taking place in an unusual setting - a normal American suburb in the first years of this devastating war.

Again, please let me know what you think of it - whether it's good or bad, sexy or boring.

Al Steiner

April 11, 2011
Roseville, California

The Roseville High School cafeteria was particularly crowded with students during the lunch period on this day. Every table was full and a few kids were even forced to sit in the corner, in plastic chairs that were usually reserved only for official assemblies. The crowding - while unusual - was not because of the special announcement Principal Bauer was going to make. Everyone already knew what the announcement was going to be, had been through such announcements many times before, and had little or no interest in the words he would speak other than a morbid one. No, the real reason everyone happened to be inside today was an unseasonable rainstorm that had been pounding the Sacramento region all that day. The students who normally ate outside had been forced in.

Principal Bauer knew this but didn't really care. His enthusiasm for such announcements had faded long before as well. They were all too common these days, especially in the last two weeks, since the Asian Powers' spring offensive against the Western Hemisphere Alliance had begun. Still, it was a part of his job and he walked with dignity to the podium at the front of the room where he asked for, and eventually received, the relative attention of the early lunch students, most of whom were juniors and seniors.

"It is my sad duty to announce," he said into the microphone, "that another member of the Roseville High School alumni has given his life for his country on the active front. May I draw your attention to the Wall of Remembrance?" He nodded in the direction of the south wall, which was covered with framed, 8x10 photographs taken from yearbook files. Each one was of a Roseville High graduate who had been killed in action. With this latest addition, there were now 93 of them up there - 78 males and 15 females. And these were only the official KIAs. They did not include the 124 alumni who were listed as missing in action. Nor did they include the 84 who had been killed in training accidents or in non-combat situations. Nor did they include the 345 who had been wounded in action severely enough to be discharged and put on a lifetime disability pension.

"Newly unveiled on our wall today," Bauer continued, "is the image of John William Ringwell, Class of 2010. He was a member of the United States Army assigned to the 12th Armored Calvary Regiment and stationed on the active front in southwest Idaho. He was killed in combat two days ago during a tank battle with Chinese forces. Let us all bow our heads for a moment of silence in his honor."

Everyone dutifully bowed their heads and kept their mouths shut as asked. When the moment was up, Bauer invited them to pay their respects to the photograph as they left the cafeteria that day. He then made his leave, hustling back to his office to continue working on the budget reports for the next fiscal year.

At a table near the rear of the cafeteria, Eric Rowley sat with a group of his friends. Eric, a senior, had turned eighteen just three weeks before. He was technically old enough to be drafted now but like any high school student he was still covered under the Primary Education Deferment, which forbid the United States Selective Service from compelling him to go to war while he was still in school. The moment he graduated or dropped out of school, however, that deferment expired. "Anyone hear how Ringwell bought it?" he asked his friends as he shoveled processed lunchmeat into his mouth.

"The dumb fuck was in a tank," said Tyler Bentley, another senior. "They burned his ass to a crisp. That's how the tankers always go."

"That's a fuckin' retreat," said Matt Smith, who was munching on a microwave burrito.

Tyler simply shrugged contemptuously. "That's what he gets for going low-pro," he said, which meant that Ringwell - who they all remembered as a shy, somewhat nerdy senior while they had been juniors - had chosen to go "low profile", which meant he had not volunteered for the service upon graduation, instead waiting for the draft board to call him. Low-pro was considered a pussy thing to do among the 16 to 19 year old crowd. And it was also nothing more than a delaying tactic. Internet statistics showed that a graduating senior going low-pro would get nailed by the draft within six months anyway. The statistics also showed that a disproportionate number were assigned as crewmen on tanks, which everyone knew was the most dangerous place to be in an extremely dangerous war. Ringwell was a perfect example of the statistics in action. He had been drafted three months after graduating and had been assigned to tanks in southern Idaho - the most active portion of the front line, where more than two million soldiers from the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, and Brazil were faced off against more than two million soldiers from China, Japan, Vietnam, and Korea. And now Ringwell was dead, burned to death by a Chinese-designed, Japanese manufactured anti-tank missile, just one of nearly a million Allied soldiers killed since the war had started a little over two years ago.

"I'm tellin' you," Matt said. "Put me on the fuckin' line with a rifle. I'll kill all the chinks they want and take my chances against the artillery. Fuck that tank shit. Can you imagine? Being stuck inside one of them death traps and burning to death? The dumb fuck probably never even saw it coming."

"That ain't propaganda," Eric said solemnly, sipping out of his milk carton.

Matt gave him a sour look. "What the hell do you care about it, Rowley?" he asked. "You're Mr. Valedictorian, aren't you? You and your goddamned 3.9 GPA. You ain't gonna be going to the line when you graduate. You get to kick it in some college for four fuckin' years and if the war ain't over by then they'll just stick you in the rear somewhere."

Eric blushed a little at this jibe. It was true that he was set to graduate with a GPA higher than 3.8, which, under Selective Service Rules, would qualify him for one of the rare college deferments from the draft as long as he actually attended an institute of higher learning. Among his friends he was the only one with a high enough GPA, something that caused a considerable amount of resentment at times. "Hey, sarge," he said. "Just because I get the college deferment doesn't mean I have to take it. I can still volunteer, you know."

"Yeah right, like you would do that," Matt said.

"I'm just keeping my options open," Eric said. "You think I want to be some pussy college student while all my friends are on the line? Fuck that shit."

This appeased Matt, Tyler, and the rest of the seniors at the table. Among the adolescents of the day - all of whom were constantly bombarded with patriotic songs, television shows, and armed forces recruiting commercials - signing up for the service was the "static" thing to do, what everyone strived for. Not even the 93 pictures on their cafeteria wall could dissuade them.

"You the commander, Rowley," Tyler told him, holding up his hand for a high five. "Fuck that college shit. Let's go kill us some chinks."

Eric slapped hands with him and then did the same with Matt. They all left the cafeteria a few minutes later, walking by the Wall of Remembrance on the way. None of them so much as glanced at it.

The rain was still coming down as he rode his bicycle home after school that day. His body was covered with a vinyl rain slicker that was decorated with the winter camouflage scheme so popular among teens these days. He kept his head down as the drops pattered into him, as his wheels sluiced through puddles in the middle of Cirby Boulevard. Every once in a while he would look around in wonder at the six-lane road he was on, trying to remember what it had been like before the war, when automobile traffic had choked every intersection, when the smell of exhaust had permeated the air.

There were no automobiles on the road now. With the gasoline ration set at one gallon per household per month, and with that one gallon costing 125 dollars, only the very rich could afford to operate their motor vehicles. Most of the cars these days were rotting away in garages, or had been sold for scrap iron at a hundredth of what they had originally cost. The Asian Powers - who had captured the Middle East, Siberia, and Alaska in the first few months of the war, and who still held them - had put a serious kink in the American commute. All of the domestic oil production from California, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and all of the remaining foreign oil production from Mexico, Nigeria, and Venezuela, was being used to make fuel for fighting the war. The American economy had nearly collapsed in those first few months and was still quite far from recovery. If not for the suspiciously timely development of practical cold fusion to generate electrical power, there might very well have been mass starvation.

Cirby Boulevard ended at the intersection of Foothills Boulevard. Eric turned right here and was now riding alongside the Roseville Train Yard - the largest freight switching facility west of the Mississippi River. Miles of track stretched along the western edge of the Sacramento suburb, with hundreds of freight cars and flat cars parked or slowly moving about from one place to another. The war had made the yard a very busy place. The boxcars were full of artillery shells, tank rounds, machine gun bullets, rifles, and, of course, reloads for the AT-9 launchers - the laser-guided, shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon most responsible for the bloody stalemate that had developed on both the American front in the Pacific Northwest and the European front where the Brits, Germans, French, Spanish, and South Africans were pitted against two and a half million Indian soldiers. The flatcars all contained armored vehicles - M2A1 main battle tanks, armored personnel carriers, half-tracks, self-propelled 155-millimeter artillery guns, and mobile surface-to-air missile launchers. On the flatcars heading north or east, the armor was brand new, the protective covers still in place. On the flatcars returning from the front, the vehicles were smashed, burned, in some cases completely unrecognizable, on their way back to the southern California area for recycling.

The train yard itself was a frequent target of Chinese bombers operating out of bases in Southern Washington. At least twice a week Chinese pilots flying American designed F-15s or A-6s or Russian designed MiG-27s or SU-34s would come in low, using the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east to hide from radar before swooping at rooftop level along the Sacramento Valley floor. Their weapon of choice were unguided 500 pound free-fall bombs which, when scattered among the parked trains, could disrupt the vital railhead for days, sometimes even weeks if they managed to hit some of the fuel tankers or the munitions cars. To counter this threat, the train yard was absolutely lousy with anti-aircraft weapons. Riding over the overpass that crossed a section of the tracking, Eric could see three fixed SAM sites, more than a dozen mobile SAM launchers, almost thirty heavy caliber flak guns, and about a hundred 23-millimeter AA guns within the boundaries of the yard. Despite all of this firepower, the Chinese got their bombs through a depressing amount of the time, as was evidenced by the shattered remains of train cars that were stacked off to the southern portion of the yard.

Eric continued down the other side of the overpass and followed Foothills for another mile before turning left onto a two-lane street that led into the residential neighborhood where he lived. The houses here were all modest tract homes that had been built in the late 1990s or early 2000s. All of the lawns were now overgrown and shaggy since there was no gasoline available to mow them with. Since it was a bit chilly today, many of the fireplaces had smoke coming from them because the cost of natural gas had more than quintupled since the beginning of the war. Many of the houses were just plain deserted, the occupants who could afford it having fled to safer living quarters. What made the neighborhood unsafe was not the crime rate - that was at its lowest level in history in the US since most of America's youth was now fighting the war - but the proximity to the rail yards. The Chinese did not go out of their way to drop their bombs in the middle of the residential zone, but it happened by mistake quite often. More common, however, was that a bomber would be shot out of the sky by one of the yard's anti-air weapons and would crash down into the neighborhood, wiping out a few houses or a strip mall. In the last year, since the Asian Powers forces had pushed into Washington and Idaho and gotten themselves into bombing range of Central California, more than fifty homes had been destroyed, more than a hundred had been damaged, and nearly two hundred people had been killed in the five square miles of residential neighborhood adjacent to the yards. There was talk of condemning the rest of the homes and forcing the residents out for their own safety - talk that was met with sometimes violent protest by the residents in question because they would be ineligible for any kind of compensation if the resolution were to pass. Eric tried not to think about what would happen if they were forced to leave. He and his mother were barely hanging onto their home as it was. They would literally have no place to go if they were forced out. Nor could they even hope a bomber would come down on their house one night and damage or destroy it so they could collect the insurance money. Such destruction was a direct result of an act of war and therefore not covered under the homeowner's policy.

The house where Eric lived with his mother was a two-story, purchased nineteen years before, during much happier times, when Roger and Elizabeth Rowley were young parents of a two-year old girl and Eric was a two month fetus in his mother's belly. That had been during the beginning of the dot-com boom, when everyone was getting rich and mortgage companies were practically giving home loans away. These days, the house was a bit ramshackle, its paint peeling in many places, tiles missing from the roof, the chimney sagging tiredly. It was also almost completely worthless since it was in a neighborhood that would likely be condemned soon. His mother literally wouldn't be able to give it away, yet the mortgage company still insisted on receiving their $1148.43 on the first of every month. That was not a terribly high mortgage payment in this day and age, but it was somewhat steep for a widowed mother on top of her daughter's college tuition and books and all the other bills. Eric's sister, Megan, who was a junior at the University of Santa Barbara, helped out when she could, but most of the money she earned from her job as a waitress went for her own living expenses. Eric too, helped out when he could. He had a part-time job as a clerk at a nearby hardware store. Half of his weekly salary he turned over to his mother to help make ends meet.

He parked his bike in the garage and entered through the back door. The house was chilly, since the furnace had been permanently shut down to save money and their firewood had long since run out. The aroma of cooking was in the air. It smelled like stew, one of the staples of their diet. Sure enough, when he came into the kitchen, his mother was standing before a pot on the stove, slowly stirring her concoction of jarred beef cuts and vegetables grown in her backyard victory garden.

"Hi, Mom," he said as he came up behind her and took a sniff. "How's it advancing?"

"About the same as always," she said tiredly, dumping a few pinches of salt into the pot. "How was your day?"

"It wasn't too much of a retreat," he told her. "Could've done without the rain though."

She nodded, having barely heard him. Her attention often wandered these days, as if she wasn't quite sure where she was from minute to minute. The loss of her husband - Eric and Megan's father - six months before seemed to have taken much of the life out of her. Roger Rowley had been one of the civilian casualties of the war. A mid-level accountant, he had been standing on a loading platform one day with a hundred or so other people, awaiting the light rail train that would return him to the suburbs after a hard day of bean counting. Suddenly he had collapsed to the ground in a heap, the back of his head a mush of blood and brains. The police investigation and the autopsy would reveal he had been struck by a 23mm anti-aircraft round that had been fired more than twenty miles away, nearly five minutes earlier in response to a flight of Chinese planes streaking towards a fuel storage facility in the suburb of Rancho Cordova. The shell had missed the plane and come down in a ballistic arc, burying itself in his skull. He had never known what hit him. And, like the homeowners insurance, the life insurance company did not pay for claims caused by an act of war.

"You working again tonight?" Eric asked her, noting she was dressed in the ragged blue jeans and sweater that were the favored attire for the job she had taken after his father's death. She worked in what had once been a soup factory in South Sacramento but what was now one of the primary manufacturing points for the MREs the front-line soldiers consumed for their daily rations. It was a menial, low-paying job for a woman who held a bachelor's degree in Business but it was all she had been able to get.

"That's right," she said. "I'm working a double."

"A double? Jeez, Mom, you're gonna burn yourself out doing that."

"When they offer overtime, I don't turn it down," she told him. "We need the money. You know that as well as I do."

"I suppose," he said doubtfully. "Did you get any sleep?"

"I got enough," she assured him. "If I get tired I'll catch a few minutes on my lunch periods. How about you? Have they offered you any overtime down at the hardware store?"

He shook his head. "No, I'm barely able to keep the twenty-four hours a week they give me. Not too many people buying hardware these days."

"No," she said with a sigh. "I don't suppose there are. You haven't heard back from the Saving Center?"

The Saving Center was a huge food market that employed dozens of bicycle delivery boys to bring groceries to the elderly and the war widows with children in the absence of vehicles. It was a highly sought after job because it paid well, included tips, and, rumor had it, the young war widows were sometimes more than a little friendly with the young boys who brought them their groceries. "I'm on their waiting list," he told her, "but they probably won't be hiring again until summer, when the seniors they have working for them head off for basic training."

"Well, that's only a few more months," she said. "Maybe you can get three months work in before you head off to college."

"Yeah," he said vaguely. "Maybe I will." He didn't tell her that he was seriously considering being one of those seniors who would be heading off to basic training. After all, college would still be there after he did his four-year commitment, wouldn't it? And he would still have that 3.9 GPA on his record. He could do his part to help push the Chinese out of North America and then use the money he earned to start working on his dream of one day becoming a doctor. But his mother didn't need to know about this just yet - not while she still had two and half months to try talking him out of it.

"Anyway," she said, "I need to get myself down to the light rail station if I want to make it to the factory on time. You know how long it takes to get across town these days. Let the stew simmer for about two more hours and then you can eat it. And be sure to put what's left in the refrigerator. I put a lot of sweat into those goddamned vegetables."

"Okay, Mom," he said.

She picked up a plastic Tupperware bowl. "And fill this up and take it over to Victoria," she told him. "I told her I'd send some over for her."

"Sure," he said, unable to keep the sour tone from his voice. Victoria was their 26-year-old next-door neighbor. She was unemployed, spending all of her time taking care of her debilitated husband, who had been injured in the Battle of Viola. Since her only source of income was the paltry disability pension the government gave her, Eric's mother frequently helped her out with food donations. Eric had a hard time being sympathetic towards Victoria's plight since he and his mother barely had enough food to last between paydays themselves, but his mother - who loved to feel sorry for people - insisted on sharing what they had.

"Don't you give me that tone," she warned. "You know Vickie only gets her check once a month. If we didn't help her out from time to time she wouldn't be able to make it from one paycheck to the next."

"Yeah, yeah," he said, unimpressed, as always, with her plight.

"And don't you go giving her mostly broth either. Lots of meat and lots of vegetables. I'll check."

"Yes Mom," he sighed. "I'll give her the cream of the stew, I promise."

She looked at him for a moment, as if wondering whether to make further comment and then decided not to. She picked up her purse, clipped her personal computer - or PC, which served as a combination cellular phone and pocket computer - to her waist, and headed for the door. She walked out into the rain towards the electric bus stop half a mile away.

Two and a half hours later, after eating three bowls of the fragrant stew and four pieces of the homemade bread, Eric packed up the Tupperware bowl with as much broth and as little meat and vegetables as he thought he could get away with and went next door to Victoria's house. It was one of the smaller models in the subdivision, a single story, three bedroom - the kind referred to in happier times as a starter house.

The front door swung open to his knock and Victoria herself stood there. Though the stress of the past few years had aged her a bit, and though Eric harbored a considerable amount of resentment towards her, he could not deny that she was still an attractive woman. Her hair was a rich brunette and her body was well formed, with feminine curves in all the right places. Her breasts, while not particularly large, were not small either. Her face was pretty in an innocent sort of way, with rounded cheekbones and a dainty nose, the sort of features women had once paid top dollar to have a plastic surgeon mold for them. Eric, despite his annoyance, couldn't help but admire her form now, as she stood there in a pair of gray sweat shorts and a plain white T-shirt that didn't quite cover her belly.

"Hi, Eric," she said, a smile coming to her face as she saw him standing there. "What brings you over here today?"

He pushed the Tupperware container towards her. "My mom made some stew today and she wanted me to bring some over to you."

"Oh, that was awfully sweet of her," she said, taking the container. "And it's still hot, too. You two always help me out so much. Are you sure you can spare it? Believe me, I know how tough things are these days."

He bit his tongue against the reply he wanted to give. "We can spare it," he grunted.

"Well thank you so much," she said. "And thank your mother too."

"I'll do that," he said, catching one last glance of her legs and then turning to go.

"Oh, Eric," she said in her patented can-you-do-me-a-quick-favor voice.

He turned slowly back to her. "Yeah?" he asked, not bothering to completely mask his annoyance.

"I'm sorry," she said. "You do so much for me and I know I'm a bother sometimes, but the ceiling fan in the living room is making this ticking noise. You're good with your hands. Could you maybe take a look at it for me?"

He sighed, considering just telling her to turn the damn ceiling fan off it was bothering her but knowing his mother would be pissed if he did and word got back to her (as it almost certainly would - the two of them gabbed to each other almost every day). "Sure," he said, resigned. "I'll come in and take a look at it."

He followed her into the house and through the formal living room to the family room, staring at her ass the entire trip. She really did have an attractive derriére. And no one was even touching it these days. Men were scarce in the landscape and the one she had was certainly in no shape to do anything for her. Or for anyone for that matter.

John Massley - Victoria's husband - had been a civil engineer before the war, an employee of Sacramento County whose specialty was traffic-flow projects. His background and schooling had earned him a commission in the army once the war started. He had been a lieutenant in charge of a combat engineering platoon during the Battle of Viola, the decisive battle named for the small town in Southern Idaho where the Western Hemisphere forces had finally -after being ground backward for more than a year - halted the advance of the Chinese armies and stabilized the North American front into the bloody stalemate it now was. During the most vicious fighting of this two-month battle, Lieutenant Massley had been frantically directing his platoon to wire a bridge for destruction when a one inch piece of jagged shrapnel from a Chinese 155mm artillery shell had lanced through the side of his head, destroying his optic and olfactory nerves as well as tearing out most of his frontal lobe. Incredibly, he had survived his injury, despite having been triaged as "expectant", or "dead in sixty seconds" by the medics who rushed to his side. But he hadn't died in sixty seconds, instead, he continued breathing and moaning for the better part of thirty minutes before they decided to re-designate his status and put him on the dust-off chopper to the MASH unit. Once there, the combat surgeons gave him the lowest possible priority, not wanting to waste time treating a dying man. He had lain on a stretcher for hours while they'd treated every other casualty that had come in and still his respiration and heartbeat had chugged on. Finally, with nothing else to do with him, they closed all of the bleeders in his head and stitched him up, expecting him to expire within hours. He didn't. He hung in there for six more days before - again with nothing else to do - they'd shipped him off to the VA hospital at Travis Air Force Base. The neurosurgeons there patched him up a little bit more but they told Victoria he wouldn't live a week, that the crude lobotomy would surely not be compatible with survival. They too had been wrong. It had been more than a year now and he was still hanging in there, although there were many who would say he really had died that day in Idaho and his body simply didn't know it yet.

He was sitting in his wheelchair before the television set as Eric entered the room, his sightless face facing the evening newscast. As he always had to when looking at John Massley, Eric had to suppress the urge to wince. He fought hard to keep his eyes cast away but it was impossible not to stare at what had become of the man who had once helped a younger Eric fix his bicycle when it was broken, who had once owned sophisticated model airplanes he would cruise at the park around the corner. There was a jagged, zigzagging, Frankenstein-like scar on the side of his head and his forehead had a curious, sunken appearance. His eyes were clouded over, pointing in different directions, staring sightlessly forward without comprehension, without blinking. His mouth hung open, a sheen of drool perpetually running down his chin and along his neck to soak into a bib tied there. Installed in his neck was a tracheostomy tube that was always clogged with whitish yellow mucous and that made a disgusting slurping sound with each breath he took. His arms and legs hung limply in place, rarely moving, the once powerful muscles now slack and emaciated with atrophy. A urine bag that was connected by a rubber hose to a permanent incision in his abdomen hung from a hook on the bottom of the chair. Protruding from the top of his pajama bottoms was a blue diaper that Victoria had to change at least twice a day. Though he still had his hearing, he gave no indication that he had heard Eric enter the room. He reacted to no stimulation whatsoever, at any time. He was, in fact, a living, breathing piece of meat and little else. He was fed a liquid diet through a feeding tube installed in the top of his abdomen.

As she led Eric over to the ceiling fan Vickie moved him out of the way as if he were no more than a piece of furniture, with no more emotion than if she had been moving the coffee table. She didn't talk to him, caress him, or even touch him. "This is the one," she told him. "Do you hear it?"

He put John Massley out of his mind (the best he could anyway) and tuned his ear into the rotating fan blades. Sure enough, there was a steady ticking noise and the entire assembly was wobbling in rhythm with the rotation. "I hear it," he said. "Go ahead and turn it off."

She flipped off the switch and the fan slowly revolved to a halt. He reached up, standing on his toes, until he could touch one of the blades. He wiggled it back and forth, finding it was loose in its mounting - a victim, no doubt, of not receiving any maintenance since the man of the house had gone off to war.

"Can you fix it?" she asked hopefully.

"I think so," he said. "Do you have a step-stool and a screwdriver?"

"Yes," she said. "I'll go get them."

She left the room, Eric staring at her buttocks and sexy legs until they disappeared around the corner. Once she was gone he turned his attention to the television set to avoid having his attention recaptured by the gurgling, living-dead respiration of Vickie's husband.

"There was heavy enemy air activity over the Sacramento region last night and in the early morning hours of today," an attractive, late-twenties woman told him and the rest of the viewing audience. Behind her, on the graphic screen, was a generic image of an F-15 Strike Eagle laden with bombs and Chinese markings on the tail. "Chinese bombers struck at Executive Air Base in South Sacramento at around 8:30 PM and again at 11:45, dropping anti-runway munitions throughout the former civilian airport. More bombers struck at McClellan Field in North Highlands at around 2:30 AM, again, utilizing anti-runway munitions in an apparent attempt to put the field out of commission. Both runways at Executive were heavily damaged and one of the runways at McClellan was slightly damaged in the raids. These two bases, as you know, are where planes of the 325th California Air Guard are based. Since these planes are the primary air-to-air defense against Chinese incursion into Sacramento area airspace, military analysts warn that a larger air raid is probably on the way, either tonight or tomorrow morning. Such an air raid would be directed against a high value strategic target, such as Sacramento International Airport, where the EA-12 AWACS aircraft are based, or the fuel storage tanks in Rancho Cordova, or, most likely, the Roseville Rail Yards, where supply and fuel trains bound for the active front in Idaho or the inactive front in the Portland, Oregon region are assembled."

"Wonderful," Eric grumbled. "Nothing but good news."

"Civil authorities tell us that old advice is good advice," she continued cheerfully. "When you hear the air raid siren, proceed as quickly as possible to your designated shelter. If you have no designated shelter in your neighborhood, remain indoors until at least five minutes after the all-clear is signaled."

"I'll do that," he grumbled, deciding that Vickie's husband was actually more cheerful to look at.

Vickie returned a few minutes later, a flat-blade screwdriver in one hand, a small stepladder in the other. She handed them across to him and he went quickly to work, arranging the ladder in the proper place and then climbing to the top step. The fan housing was now only slightly above eye level. He quickly tightened up the loose screws that held it in place and then did the same for the screws that held the blades themselves to the housing. He gave them whole thing a shake, noting with mute satisfaction that it no longer wiggled under the pressure.

He looked down at Vickie, who had been standing next to the ladder during the operation, and took in a sharp intake of breath. Her T-shirt had come away from her body and he found himself looking directly down it. Her breasts, encased in a lacy white bra, were plainly visible and the sight was more than a little appetizing.

"Is everything okay, Eric?" she asked softly, seemingly unaware of the view she was giving him.

"Uh... uh... well, yeah," he stammered, feeling himself blush. He cast his eyes away reluctantly. "Go ahead and... uh... turn it on."

She smiled. "Sure," she said, turning and walking to the wall switch. She turned the control knob and the blades whirred to life.

Eric turned away from her and looked up at the fan. It was spinning silently along, just like brand new. "I think I got it fixed," he told her, climbing back down to the ground.

"Yay," she said cheerfully, walking over to him again. "You're such a sweetie."

She put her arms around him and hugged him tightly, her breasts pushing into his chest. While he was still trying to adjust to this, she leaned forward and kissed him softly on the cheek, her soft lips lingering for several seconds. He felt the blood rush to his face again, and other burst rushing to his penis, which stirred in interest inside of his pants. Annoying or not, needy or not, her body felt nice against him and her lips felt even nicer.

She pulled her face back, her brown eyes gazing up at him, a sparkle in them he'd never seen before, her arms remaining around his back. "That's for being such a good friend," she said. "Thank you so much."

More blood rushed into his penis. In a moment it would develop into a bona fide hard on. "Uh... you're... uh... you know... you're welcome," he blurted, his own hands reaching up and just barely touching the back of her shoulders, which technically, he supposed, completed the hug.

She held the embrace a moment longer and then released him. Her face was now whimsical, almost melancholy. "John used to take care of stuff like that," she said. "He used to take care of lots of things, if you know what I mean."

He looked at her for a moment, wondering if she meant what he thought she meant. His experience with the opposite sex was somewhat limited, particularly with members of the opposite sex that were older than he was. No, he finally concluded, he was probably just imagining things. "I... uh... guess so," he finally said.

An awkward silence developed, the two of them staring at each other, Vickie with that melancholy look, Eric with a growing sense of nervousness. Finally he told her that he had better get going.

"Are you sure you don't want to stay for a little bit?" she asked him. "I could make us some ice tea. Or maybe you'd like a beer? I have some in the fridge."

"Uh... no, I've got some studying to do," he said. "I'd better get going."

She looked a little disappointed but she nodded. "Okay," she said. "Studying is important these days, isn't it? You don't keep those grades up and you'll end up on the line."

"Right," he said.

A set of awkward goodbyes were exchanged and a minute or two later he was back outside. The rain was still coming down. It didn't look like it was going to stop anytime soon.

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