North of the RiverbyAl_Steiner©
This is another story that takes place in the timeline of a major world war. It does not pick up where Collateral Damage left off, but is rather another slice of life from the time period I've envisioned and actually takes place earlier than Collateral Damage, during the most desperate portion of the war, when the enemy is driving into the United States, seemingly invulnerable. For those of you who wrote telling me you found Collateral Damage too "dark" of a story to be enjoyed, I would suggest you not read North of the River. It is even darker. For everyone else, please let me know, as always, what you thought of it. As with all of these stories I'm posting, they are all self-contained stories capable of being enjoyed by themselves, and all potential first chapters in an ongoing series. I make no promises as of yet to continue them.
January 12, 2012
It had once been an office building, a modern, uninteresting four-story structure that had housed half a dozen doctors' offices, three or four lawyers, a dentist, an orthodontist, and a private investigation service. Now it was an empty shell, most of the windows broken out, part of the southern wall partially collapsed, the second and third floors gutted by fire, the rest looted by vandals. Conner Boreman supposed it was no longer structurally sound, that it was within the realm of possibility it would collapse under its own weight at any time. This thought was not worrisome to him, however, as he lay next to a shattered window on the top floor, looking out to the northeast. He had cheated death so many times in the last six months that the thought of dying in a building collapse was almost amusing.
Nor was the view to the northeast appalling to him, although to any red-blooded American raised in the feverish patriotism of the post 9-11 era, it certainly should have been. Nearly every building he could see was damaged at best, a pile of rubble at worst -- blasted by Chinese artillery rounds, pounded by Chinese bombs, destroyed by Chinese tanks. Smoke came up from hundreds of places, the fires producing it unchecked by a civilian fire department, undampened by the rain that had been falling from the sky all morning. What had once been a fashionable suburban area now looked like Stalingrad or Berlin during World War II. But Conner had seen too many American cities in this condition since joining the army six months before. He had fought in Bellingham, in Seattle, in Tacoma, in Olympia, he and his comrades relentlessly and brutally pushed southward by the advancing Chinese. The sight was too familiar to be depressing.
Vancouver was lost, of that there was no doubt. General Li Chang's forces had already taken all of the ground in Washington State between the Cascade Range and the Pacific Ocean, smashing forward with two complete armies concentrated in this sixty-mile wide corridor. They had ten tanks for every one American tank. They had fifteen planes for every one American plane. And they had twenty soldiers for every one American soldier. A day when the Chinese advanced less than ten kilometers, when less than ten thousand American soldiers were killed, when less than a hundred tanks were destroyed by the Chinese swarming tactic, was considered a good day in this war. The fighting retreat of the American forces was nothing so organized as a trading space for time strategy such as the Soviets had utilized in World War II. Until now it had been little better than a complete and total rout.
The only thing left in American hands in western Washington were the two bridgeheads across the Columbia River in the southern section of Vancouver. This was where Interstate 5 and Interstate 205 crossed over from Portland on the south side of the mighty river. Every other bridge between Astoria and the Cascade Locks had been blown by American engineer battalions, dropped into the frigid waters to keep the Chinese from advancing into Oregon.
These last two bridges were the most critical and would be the last to go. Portland was a vital road junction, where I-5 and I-84 met. If the city fell, the Chinese would have no natural defensive barriers until well into California. They would also have an easy route east, through the Columbia River Gorge to eastern Oregon and eastern Washington. They had to be stopped at the Columbia River or there was a good chance the entire west coast of the United States would be under Chinese occupation by spring.
As it stood now, the Vancouver Pocket was in the process of collapsing. Chinese forces were pushing in from all directions, attacking the perimeter forces with tanks, attack helicopters, aircraft, and hordes of dismounted infantry troops. The air was filled with the sound of desperate battle as the American rear guard forces tried to hold them off long enough for the main combat units to withdraw across the two bridges and get safely south of the river before they were blown. Machine gun fire and small arms fire echoed back and forth through the rubble. Tank guns and the explosions of anti-tank missiles joined in with depressing regularity. All of this was to the background of exploding artillery shells coming from the bridge approaches themselves. The Chinese had been raining 155mm shells down on the fleeing Americans for hours, shredding vehicles filled with wounded soldiers and civilian refugees, snarling the roads, and creating a traffic jam unlike anything ever seen before.
Conner and his platoon were part of the rear guard. The former office building they occupied stood on Northeast 28th Street, a half-mile east of I-205 and mile north of the river. From this position they were supposed to hold off whatever armored forces tried to push their way through a six block corridor for as long as possible. So far, no Chinese had made a serious attempt here. Conner and the men under his command knew that couldn't last.
"My platoon," Conner mumbled to himself as he shifted his M-16 nervously and wished for a cigarette. 3rd Platoon of Alpha Company of the 32nd Armored Calvary Regiment was a platoon in name only. It consisted of fourteen men out of the original forty. They had eleven M-16 rifles, a single M-60 machine gun, and two AT-9 anti-tank missile launchers. They were out of food rations, out of fresh water, and were down to less than six hundred rounds of ammunition and six AT-9 rounds for the missile launchers. They had no medic and no medical supplies save the first aid kits they all carried. They had two working radios, both of which were beeping steadily with the low battery warning — not that there was anything coherent coming across the fucking things anyway. For the past two hours, as they had been attacked and forced from one desperate position to another, the chain of command had seemingly broken down -- at least on the communications level. He hadn't had contact with Captain Rearsy, the company commander, in more than an hour. Conner himself was only nineteen years old and was technically still a corporal, although the former platoon commander, Lieutenant Jenkins, had promised a battlefield promotion to sergeant. That was before Jenkins and eighteen other men had been mowed down by a combination of machine gun fire and 20mm cannon fire during their last withdrawal. Yes, he had finally achieved command, all right. He only hoped he would live long enough to be proud of it.
He looked around at the gutted floor for a moment, making perhaps his hundredth check of the positioning of his men. Corporal Billings -- who had been a member of 3rd Platoon for two months now and was now the second most seasoned man after Conner himself -- was in the northeast corner with the M-60, where he could cover the most likely avenue of approach and switch between two different windows. Privates Jenkins, Callahan, and Stinson were on the north windows, their rifles ready. Three newbies whose names he hadn't even bothered to learn were on the east windows. On the roof above were the rest of the men, the two AT-9s and the remaining missile loads with them. Conner thought his positioning was as adequate as it was capable of getting. They had had already driven off a platoon-sized force of Chinese fifteen minutes before -- a force that Conner knew had been only a probe, which had served its main purpose of locating their position. The real attack would come next. He was surprised it was taking so long.
"Jesus fucking Christ," said one of the newbies, his eyes wide with terror. "How much longer do we have to stay in this fucking city? We need to get across the bridge before they fucking blow it!"
"We stay out here until they give us the fall-back command on the radio," Conner told him. "They're trying to get our tanks and wounded out first. That's why we're out here. To buy them time to do that."
"How do we know they haven't already blown it?" the newbie demanded. "You haven't heard from command in an hour! Maybe they already gave the command and we missed it! Maybe the fucking chinks already took the bridgehead! Maybe..."
"Maybe I'll blow your fucking head off and toss you out the window as chink bait," Conner said, his voice calm but menacing. "Now shut your ass and keep your eyes open. If you wanna live long enough to cross that bridge, we need to hold this pocket."
The newbie looked at his commander's face for a moment, decided he just might be serious about blowing his head off, and did as he was told.
The sound of jet engines swelled up from the north of them, becoming louder until the entire building was shaking. Conner and the rest of the platoon tensed up, their eyes searching through the sky, hoping they weren't the target. None of them bothered speculating whether or not the aircraft would be friendly. If it was flying, it was more than likely not American. The Chinese had air superiority for two hundred miles on either side of the line.
Sure enough, when the two aircraft came into view, streaking over the rooftops less than a thousand feet up, they were F-18s with Chinese flags painted on the twin tails. Napalm canisters hung menacingly from the wing pods. The planes shot over the top of them, climbing to attack altitude, their goal undoubtedly to drop their load of jellied gasoline on the entrenched soldiers on the south side of the river. The American commanders had assembled quite a force over there and the Chinese were doing their damnedest to soften it up. Conner didn't waste any time feeling pity for the poor bastards. He had enough troubles of his own.
"I got movement over here, Sarge," reported Billings, his voice steady. "A couple of chinks just came out from behind that old Starbucks there at your two o'clock."
Conner looked over there just as the two figures -- both dressed in urban camouflage BDUs and packing AK-74s -- disappeared behind a pile of rubble in the abandoned strip mall. No sooner were they gone than two others slipped out from the other side of the building, their weapons held at ready, their movements the careful, quick motion of men who had lived through many battles. They dashed from one pile of rubble to the next, taking cover, keeping themselves exposed for no more than three or four seconds. As soon as they settled in, two more groups of four soldiers emerged on either side. These Chinese moved more awkwardly, with the nervous gait of newbies. They would never live to become veterans.
"Open up," Conner ordered, his voice loud enough for everyone to hear. "Drive them back behind the building."
Billings was the first to fire. The M-60 roared to life, spitting out rounds and spraying them over the group on the left, mowing three of them down before they even knew they were under fire. The rest of the platoon -- those with rifles anyway -- joined in a second later, blowing down the remaining soldier in the group on the left and two of the group on the right. Conner himself sighted in on one of the Chinese still standing and squeezed off a three round burst, taking the man directly in the chest.
Before he had a chance to savor this first round victory, two pairs of armored personnel carriers came out from either side of the smashed strip mall. They were BTR-80s, the workhorse of the Chinese armored forces. Conner felt his blood go cold at the sight of them. He keyed up his radio, which was set to transmit on the tactical channel. "Logan, Mears," he said to the men on the roof. "Take out those fucking BTRs or we're seagull food!"
"We're on it," Mears' voice replied, scratchy with static.
A second later, there was a muted explosion from above them. An AT-9 round streaked out, propelled forward by its rocket motor, guided by a targeting laser. The range was so short it barely had time to arm itself. It struck directly below the turret of one of the BTRs. There was a double flash and the turret went flying in the air. The BTR began to billow smoke and flame.
At the same time, the other three BTRs opened up on them, plastering the building with the heavy machine guns in their turrets. 14.5mm bullets ripped through the walls like they were paper. Two of the newbies -- including the one who had been near hysterics -- were mowed down, their bodies torn open and flung backwards. Everyone else hit the ground out of instinct, although this only made them marginally safer. The bullets continued to slam into their position.
Conner, laying on his back, his rifle clutched desperately to his chest, keyed up his mic again. "Logan, Mears," he said. "We really need you to do something about those BTRs."
"Firing now," came a terrified voice. From above came the pop and whoosh of another missile taking flight. "Good hit," the voice said, calmer now. "Working on the third... oh fuck!"
"Oh fuck what?" Conner demanded. "What are you oh fucking about?"
"Choppers!" the voice said.
No sooner was the word out of his mouth than Conner heard the menacing growl of Chinese attack helicopters approaching. He could tell just by the sound that they were Mi-35s, the Russian-designed helicopter gunship that had proven itself time and time again during the war, everywhere from the Middle East to the European line to the rout that was now taking place in the Pacific Northwest. "Get off that fucking roof!" he screamed into the microphone. "Displace!"
It was too late. Explosions began to rattle the entire building as the helicopters plastered the roof with high explosive rockets. Everyone up there was dead in less than four seconds.
"Let's get the fuck out of here!" Conner said, rolling across the floor. "Everyone displace! Regroup outside. Let's go!"
But again, it was already too late. Having eliminated the missile crew on the roof, the helicopters now went after the infantry squad they knew was positioned on the third floor. They opened up with their 23mm nose guns, raking their fire back and forth. The holes these bullets made in the walls made the BTR rounds seem like mother's kisses in comparison. They rolled in with an evil sounding whine, chunks of lead nearly an inch in diameter, six inches in length, and moving at three times the speed of sound. Billings and Stinson were the first to be hit. Their bodies literally exploded, spraying blood, bone fragments, internal organs, and limbs throughout the room. The last newbie -- staring at this in horrified hypnotism -- took one right in the throat. It ripped his head right off of his body.
The last semblance of control broke down at this point. Everyone still capable of it rushed towards the stairwell at the rear of the room. Most were shredded before they made it three steps. Conner made it by crawling along the floor, his weapon dragging after him. He threw himself down the stairs, tumbling downward, bumping and sliding. When he landed at the bottom of the second floor landing in a heap, Private Jenkins -- the only other man to have made it that far -- came tumbling down atop him, his body spraying blood. Conner looked at him and saw his right leg had been shot off just above the knee. Blood was spurting from it and spraying all over the dusty landing. Jenkins himself was already fading, his skin white, his eyes glazed over. Conner took the time to strip the two unfired M-16 magazines from Jenkins' belt and then stood and ran down to the bottom of the last stairwell. A quick turn and a jog down a short hallway and he was at the ragged rear entrance they'd used to access the building.
The helicopters had stopped firing and were now moving off to the north. From the other side of the building Conner could hear the popping of the APC guns and the chattering of AK-74s. That was covering fire, meant to support the advance of infantry troops toward the building. There were none in sight at the moment but he knew they would be there any second. He needed to get the fuck out of there.
He ran, his combat boots crunching over broken glass and bits of concrete. Across the main street he went, leaping over a pile of rubble that blocked the way, heading for a smashed mound of corrugated steel that had once been a gas station. Just when he thought he was home free he heard the sound of bullets whizzing over the top of him and plunking into the pavement around him. The chinks had spotted him and were trying to take him down. Though he didn't think it possible, he ran even faster, zigzagging back and forth, until he dove over the outside of the rubble pile, unmindful of what might lie on the other side.
Blind luck allowed a good landing. He didn't hit anything sharp or anything that exploded. The air was driven from his lungs and he rolled over twice, a piece of rebar sticking him painfully in his side, but he was uninjured as he came to a halt. The bullets continued to whiz over his head and kick up puffs of dust all around him, but he had complete defilade from the enemy -- at least for the moment. He took a few seconds to let his lungs refill with air and then began to scramble westward, hoping that the enemy would lose interest in him now that he was out of sight.
It was a hope that turned out to be a correct one. He made it across the next street and down one block without being fired upon, without seeing any Chinese soldiers. He had no sense that they were pursuing him. He rested up against the remains of bicycle shop for a few minutes, trying to catch his breath and think through what to do next. From all around him, the volume of gunfire and explosions seemed to have picked up. He could hear tanks and other armored vehicles rumbling around, could hear the growl of more attack helicopters. He knew what all of this meant. As a soldier in an army that had been in a constant state of retreat since its very first battle, the sound of a defensive pocket collapsing was very familiar to him. The Chinese were pushing in fast and the remaining American forces were now in complete disarray. He needed to get to the bridge and across it before it was either blown or fell to the enemy.
He tried his radio, hoping to get someone, somewhere to provide him with the best escape corridor, but all he heard was a garble of confused messages as dozens of platoon commanders walked all over each other. Most of the words were unintelligible but all were undercut with the unmistakable tone of panic and desperation. Conner could sympathize. He was feeling pretty much the same.
He stood up and began to work his way to the southwest, towards the I-205 bridge approaches. He moved more carefully now, block by block, dashing from one bit of cover to the next. He had no way of knowing whether the Chinese had broken through into this area yet but suspected that they might have. He saw no one as he fled -- no one living anyway -- but the booms and bangs and rumbles of the battle continued to grow louder all around him. More Chinese helicopters filled the air, traveling in pairs, frequently firing their rockets or their nose guns at some building, occasionally launching an anti-tank missile. None of them came close enough to Conner that he needed to take cover. They probably wouldn't be interested in a single man anyway.