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Hector skidded to a halt at the end of the line, barely avoiding another jagged shell hole. Bethany pulled in close beside him, almost silently. No one noticed. Most people stared into their phones for more news about the war. A few older people carried dog-eared paperbacks. One woman even brought a green-and-yellow lounge chair and her knitting.
He tried to peek around the corner without losing the spot and guessed it was about two hours just to get to the front door of the food store. Hector checked the inside of his jacket for about the fiftieth time to make sure he still had the ration books. Mom was counting on him to be the man of the house with dad working double shifts.
Downtown was relatively quiet. There were few civilian cars and trucks any more. The military moved in convoys, but the rest of the time there was little traffic.
Hector glanced over at his sister and gave her a slight hug of reassurance. Bethany looked small in worn jeans and one of her brother’s hand-me-down, plaid shirts. Her long, auburn hair was tucked up into a Texas Rangers cap. Bethany was quiet. The war hadn’t changed her that much. She stood cautiously, with the .22 strapped to her shoulder next to her backpack.
Going armed was the way of things in America just behind the lines. The Chinese might break through, but they’d find the civilian population none-too welcoming. No one had any Red Dawn fantasies about stopping the Chinese dragon. They were still determined to try.
Hector glanced around outside the line before settling in. Dad had taught him about “situational awareness” and said it was especially important in war time. Midland looked the same as he first remembered it. It was a decent-sized city far away from the parts of Texas tourists usually visited.
On the surface, everything looked almost normal. Lots of windows were boarded up with plywood, looking more like Galveston would in hurricane season. There were still plenty of people milling about. Only, many of the locals were either drafted or working in hastily built manufacturing sites nearby, designed to provide some of what the soldiers at the front needed.
The people on the street were mostly too young or too old for war, or soldiers on leave. Some of the walking wounded were on convalescence after being patched up in Midland Memorial.
The streets were largely cleared of parked cars and those that were there looked bombed out. Every nearby street showed the marks of recent attacks, hastily filled by work crews. The buildings were pock marked by shrapnel. The famed Petroleum Building had been damaged, but Yucca Theatre was still going strong – refurbished back to its theater days and showing patriotic films for the troops.
A few buildings had caught fire, mostly near the heavily fortified train station. That was the big target of attacks. Anything the Chinese could do to choke off essential supplies from American troops they did. Midland had started as a major train station and it was again. The Chinese wanted the city’s rail history past tense once more.
Hector noticed something else about downtown. The smell. The city used to smell clean. Not any longer. It had a dingy, dirty scent to it. Soap was a commodity now. People carried the taint of war and too much work with them, too. Even the recent heavy rains couldn’t wash away the sweat and grime that came with wartime America.
He flipped through Facebook for news of the fighting, but it was all propaganda. Hector guessed some of the officers he saw walking nearby might have more information, not that they’d ever tell civvies.
Even to teenaged eyes used to government lies about the fighting, the news looked good. The battle in Oregon was going to be a big win for the U.S. The Chinese had failed in their breakout strategy. And it cost them thousands of casualties that were hard to replace this far away from home.
The fighting in Texas was different. The Second Army was getting reinforced big time and the U.S. was finding it difficult to rearm after years of defense cuts.
Hector laughed to himself: “So much for the peace dividend.”
* * *
Mutual Assured Destructed, or MAD as it was often called, had almost destroyed the world in nuclear fire.
Instead, nuclear power kept world war from happening. The Soviet Union came and went and America became the sole global power. Brushfire wars or big nations beating up on smaller ones became the order of the day. It wasn’t peace. But the global body count had been on a steady decline since World War II.
Filip Olander had never worried about politics much. He was one of the foremost experts in nuclear medicine, graduating top in his class at the University of Vienna. He interned at Sahlgrenska University Hospital and was already on his way to a prestigious career when everything changed.
He was in Tokyo for a conference on radiation treatments for cancer and decided to travel to Hiroshima to see the results of man’s inhumanity. What he saw there changed him. The images of radiation victims and dead children and the Peace Museum had a profound impact on Filip. He couldn’t sleep the rest of the time he was in Japan and tossed and turned on the flight home.
By the time he reached Stockholm, he had decided to go back to school and to find a way to prevent nuclear war from ever happening again. The museum had quoted President Obama’s Hiroshima speech and the words resonated with him, envisioning: “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening.”
Filip had been a prized student who grew into a rising star, so his switch was well-funded by the Swedish government eager to placate one of its brightest young minds. He raced through MIT with first a masters and then a Ph.D. Companies clamored to hire him only he had other ideas. Filip had already lined up financing from a prominent European foundation for his quest to end nuclear weapons.
The foundation gave him a top-notch research facility, almost unlimited equipment, and a nice budget for staff. It was the kind of thing European foundations loved to fund—the end to war. Even 80 years after WWII, Europe still feared WWIII.
No one thought he could succeed. Except Filip.
His plan wasn’t to take nuclear weapons away from nations or to set up some strategic defense to knock out missiles. Filip wanted to create an energy field that made nuclear explosions impossible. He had gotten the idea from the Stephen King TV show Under the Dome he had watched as a child and envisioned a dome around the entire earth—one that would prevent such destruction.
Filip worked his staff hard; 14, 16, 18 hours a day. Almost as hard as he worked himself. One day he scrawled some ideas on his iCompanion amidst a complete physical breakdown. He awoke in the hospital, being treated for exhaustion. Suddenly, he recalled having written something important. His assistant Marta only reluctantly agreed to get it for him.
When Filip saw what he had written and diagrammed, the doctors could barely hold him down. Somehow the lack of sleep let his mind wander... to a solution.
Filip’s idea went from scrawl to schematic in no time to create a nuclear dampening field. The idea itself wasn’t new. Only he had envisioned a way to do it. The prototype seemed to work in a lab, limiting a nuclear reaction. He built a larger, better machine. Only, it didn’t do much better.
He tried repeatedly to make bigger better, and failed. It was only when he combined the efforts of the two machines that their abilities expanded. The effect was much like parallel processing in computers. Each time Filip built a new prototype, it expanded the range when coupled with other machines.
Filip reported his findings to his superiors and they nearly fell over themselves in ecstasy. The world was going to be saved thanks to little Sweden. They flooded the facility with expert help and security to keep the project safe and secret.
The next test was on a tiny Pacific atoll and violated nuclear proliferation guidelines. The Swedes had actually purchased a suitcase nuke on the black market and whisked it out of Chechnya just before a Russian Spetsnaz team could take it. The hope was that no one would ever know they had tried to set off the bomb. It was an international crime, but they were determined to try. A detailed cover story had been prepared, just in case.
It wasn’t needed.
Filip unveiled his findings in front of a packed house at the UN in New York. He personally delivered a copy of the machine and full specs to each nation. The second they hit the on switches, the East Coast became a nuclear weapon free zone. The dampening field limited the action of the fissile material used in bombs and though it degraded the performance of nuclear power plants, they still functioned.
In an afternoon, Filip had ended earth’s nuclear age. While news programs hailed the “end of our global nightmare,” militaries around the world saw an opportunity.
The march to war had begun again.
* * *
Hector had put away his phone and was just watching the crowd. The square had a large tent in it with a hand-painted sign saying simply: “Recruiting Station.” Men in army desert camo were commonplace, in sharp contrast to the urban setting.
He saw the soldiers running before he heard the siren. Hector instinctively grabbed his sister’s hand and pushed her close to the building. People sometimes panicked and stepped on anything or anyone to get to a shelter.
The siren went off with a scream. One speaker was just above the food store. It was almost too loud to think. Brittany squeezed tight against him. He kept his right hand on the handle of the pistol at his side, in case any adult decided their bikes were fair game.
The crowd scattered in an orderly fashion. Hector didn’t want to chance fighting the line to get into the nearest shelter. He motioned and the two hopped on their bikes, racing to a nearby parking garage. They peddled as fast as they could, racing down the side street and into the heavy, concrete structure. Hector aimed for the third floor. He knew the drones flew low and hoped they’d avoid the attacks if they went up.
The siren was still blowing, but he barely noticed it now. For a second, Hector considered setting up his phone to record the attack. But he knew he’d never get another one if it were damaged. No one bought new tech toys in America any more. If those factories made anything, it was for the war effort.
He looked toward the south and thought he could just make out a drone swarm heading this way. Hector had never been this close to an attack. He was terrified.
* * *
China had been first to capitalize on the post-nuclear era. Too long had it tolerated status as a second-rate power. The time had come for China to be the dominant Asian nation—both economically and militarily.
Setting it all in motion hadn’t been tough. China had been provoking America for years and getting away with it. A large military exercise served as cover for the attack on Taiwan. American defensive posture had feared Chinese anti-ship missile attacks. Military planners responded by deploying expensive, new anti-missile defenses. But the anti-ship missiles never really evolved into a significant threat. U.S. hacking and ongoing design problems kept the missiles from ever making it out of the lab.
Instead, the Chinese threw much of their R&D efforts into drones—not just aerial ones, but underwater ones. Small, cheap, short-range drones were produced by the thousands. When China struck, it hit American shipping with a completely unexpected threat. Chinese doctrine was to use drones in swarms to overwhelm opponents, and it worked.
China conquered Taiwan through a massive sea invasion coupled with fifth column actions to undermine its defenses. The battle was over quickly. That wasn’t all. China struck South Korea with the help of the latest in line of North Korean dictators, Kim Sul-song. She was a favorite of her father and hand-picked by the Chinese to take over for her less-stable kin who had mysteriously disappeared following a bout of food poisoning.
Now she was paying them back. North Korean divisions rained artillery on Seoul and hundreds of thousands of troops, backed by Chinese air support, pushed south. The only major Chinese miscalculation there was Japan’s decision to fight. Japan had rearmed enough to keep South Korea in the war. Other than military already in the combat zone, the United States wasn’t a factor in that fight. It had its hands full elsewhere.
China struck America across the globe. Underwater drone swarms were unleashed by freighters near U.S. carrier groups. The drones themselves had limited range and strength but they overwhelmed an opponent like ants killing a grasshopper.
U.S. ships were struck from the Persian Gulf to Pearl Harbor. America lost three of its eight carriers and two more were damaged. Only the USS Bush and the two Gerald Ford class carriers survived.
New U.S. defensive doctrine was severe. Naval groups were ordered to warn off, board, or sink any non-allied vessel that came within 50 miles of an American carrier.
Non-allied covered a lot of territory. The nations that stood with America were few. NATO finally broke. The Eastern European nations were too busy arming against a possible Russian attack. Only Britain stayed steadfast in Europe. Australia and the Philippines joined the fight, as did Canada.
America was left with two carrier groups and a heavily reinforced Hawaii to guard the West Coast and one carrier group in the Atlantic. The naval yards were working 24 hours a day, but building ships, even small ships, took time.
China didn’t wait. It made a major landing in Oregon instead of the expected attack on either Hawaii or Alaska. America poured in troops, vehicles, and aircraft into the Northwest to keep the Chinese from having a beachhead.
That was just a feint. The major invasion landed in Mexico with the full support of the Mexican government. President Flores pledged his nation’s backing in return for promises of returned land.
Chinese troops and materiel took over Puerto de Mazatlan and expanded into the Mexican countryside, pushing north toward the border. Flores was heady with power, believing even the drug cartels would bend to his will.
Only the Mexican people didn’t agree. Two army brigades switched sides immediately and the rest of the Mexican army divided into a bloody civil war. Flores now needed his Chinese benefactors just to stay in power. The Chinese had underestimated how close America and Mexico truly were. Sure, the two nations might disagree on borders and immigration, but most Mexicans had friends or family living north of the border. Familia was a core value. The Chinese found that out the hard way.
Without nukes, the war became a hybrid of previous conflicts. Both sides were blind. Killer satellites had taken out the eyes of every nation on earth. GPS was no more and communications were often jammed. In some ways, it was worse than WWII.
The second Chinese invasion was stalled by troops from Ft. Hood and hastily deployed reinforcements including the 82nd Airborne, the two Mexican brigades, and a Canadian division. China was still pushing America hard, trying to break through and capture Texas oil and natural gas. So far, U.S. and allied troops held.
The no man’s land in Texas and Mexico was filled with guerrilla bands that made it impossible for Chinese troops or supporters of President Flores to travel unless they did so in bulk.
But this was still modern war and lines didn’t stay static forever.
* * *
The drones were getting close enough to see in the distance. Hector stopped watching and worried more about keeping his sister safe. He saw her start to crawl under a car too near the front of the building. He grabbed her by the hand and led her to the center of the garage near a large support column. There was an old pickup parked there. It sat high enough for them both to fit comfortably beneath.
In less than a minute, the missiles began to fall.
The Chinese had decided that Midland was too much of a thorn in their side. Now the missiles rained down terror across downtown, striking anything of value—gas stations, military emplacements, and more.
It had taken America a little time to figure out a defense against the swarms. Newton’s Third Law of Motion says every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The U.S. had gone old-school and developed shoot-and-scoot missile batteries that filled the skies with small, powerful anti-aircraft missiles. It couldn’t make them fast enough. There were too many missiles for the operators to easily control, so operators were able to set the missiles to fire and head for a shelter to avoid raining shrapnel.
And rain it did.
Hector tried counting the explosions to keep from screaming. When Bethany began to wail, he couldn’t hold back. Hot metal came blasting into the garage, carrying with it the smell of fire and explosives. In between blasts, they could hear the sounds of metal striking cars and concrete like it was a big, old West Texas hail storm.
Only this hail was deadly.
He tried to cover Bethany’s body with his, hoping to protect her. He watched in terror as red-hot metal balls bounced across the parking deck. They looked like giant BBs. It was impossible to tell whether they came from the Chinese missiles or American. It didn’t matter. They would kill either way. Several struck the pickup and he prayed they didn’t hit the gas tank.
It felt like the fight went on for hours.
When the air raid siren blew an all-clear, Hector checked the phone and found the fight had lasted less than five minutes. The garage was in a shambles. The concrete walls had only partially protected the cars. Most, including the pickup, had been hit. Several would never run again.
He hugged Bethany, relieved she was unhurt.
Unhurt. That word meant something different than it used to. It meant that she hadn’t had her young life ripped apart by explosions and deadly shrapnel. It didn’t account for the terror she might struggle with for years.
Hector wiped her tears and handed her the bike. If the store were undamaged, they might jump the line and get home safely out of downtown that much faster.... before it began to storm again.
Read the rest in Dan Gainor's "Our Heroes Through Tomorrow," coming September 2016!
Charlie glanced at a small vortex of swirling black clouds above the convention center. Moments ago, a sunny day with no clouds or chance of rain dominated the blue sky of northern Ohio.
Oh crap, she’s here. God, I hate that bitch.
A tiny voice broke his concentration. “Can I have a mocha-latte, three-quarters whip with an extra shot and two pumps of caramel?”
Charlie shook his head, leaned over his homemade coffee cart, and searched for the origin of the voice. On the other side a light green and yellow attired pixie stood firm, grinning and holding a five-spot. “Aren’t you a little young to drink…”
The little girl’s face changed from beaming to red, and then purple as she held her breath. When she let it out, she screamed, “Mom! The creepy little man won’t give me coffee.”
The line of convention attendees standing patiently to enter the center turned as one to view the vocal child. As a group—the attendees draped in a rainbow of colors representing an array of fantasy characters—their annoyance mirrored the child’s shrill squeal. The vast majority of individuals in line had fake, polyester-padded muscles; undoubtedly, they were scrawny pubescent boys or sad adults reliving puberty. The few women in the crowd wore loud colors with enhanced busts and plunging necklines.
A Medusa-like-character strolled over to Charlie’s cart. The snakes dwelling in her hair were Styrofoam and her make-up troweled on with a putty knife. “Is there a problem, Mister Coffee, man?” Medusa stared at Charlie. Maybe she hoped he would turn to stone.
“N-no problem, sister of Euryale and Stheno.” No sense in taking a chance and accidently insulting the real Medusa in a human disguise. He looked at the pixie. “Would you repeat your request, fey-born child?”
The child stared at Charlie—mute and glaring. She crossed her arms under her fake, Tinkerbelle breasts, making them bulge.
When did Tinkerbelle get…? Charlie whistled a high note like a teapot singing. “Alrighty then…”
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