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The humming sound of the incoming bomber was so deep it felt like it was vibrating all the way to Fox’s bones.
Up in the mothership, several hatch doors had opened at the same time. As Fox watched, several smaller bombers flew out and arranged themselves in a neat diamond pattern.
Within a few moments, they were strafing the city.
And one was going to fly right over them. Shit.
Fox looked around, but the neighborhood was rubble and ruin. No good place for a shelter. Nowhere, except for down in the basement.
He’d seen what bunker busters could do. He was probably about to crawl into his own coffin, but it was better than being caught out in the open.
Tobias had frozen, watching the oncoming bombers with an open mouth. Fox shoved him forward. “Down in the hole. Get down there!”
With that, he bent and lifted a fallen 2 x 4 and shoved it to the side. It helped widen the gap to the basement a couple more inches. Tobias might be able to squeeze in.
Fox yelled down, “Lizzie, we’re coming in! Make room!”
“What?” Lizzie yelled, her voice edging on a shriek. “No, get me out of here!”
Ignoring her, Fox shoved again at his friend. “You first, Tobias. I’ll be right down after you.”
But Tobias, brave and stubborn, shook his head. ”No, it’s too tight of a fit. You go first. I’m smaller, I’ll get down there quicker.”
Fox glanced again at the sky. The plane was coming fast.
He wasn’t the only one who saw: Screams of terror rose from half-standing buildings blocks away. People who were stuck inside, and unable to do anything but watch the oncoming wave of bombers. They had moments. No time to argue, and Tobias was just stubborn enough to fight him.
Cursing, Fox grabbed the edge of the 2 X 4 again, this time for support, and shimmied into the dark remains of the basement feet-first.
It was a tight fit. So tight, he feared he was going to get stuck halfway in, halfway out like an old Winnie the Pooh story. It wasn’t a laughing matter, but Fox choked back a half grunt, half laugh anyway as he wiggled and pushed himself down. Somehow, he slipped through, managing to scrape his ribs all to hell in the process. It didn’t matter. His feet dangled in midair, and he looked down, but couldn’t see ground. He just hoped he wasn’t going to fall on Tobias’s little sister. He let go.
He fell only a foot or two before they hit the floor. Luckily, it wasn’t on Lizzie.
As soon as he touched the ground he called back up, “I’m down!” Hurry, Tob!”
Tobias slid down with much less of a problem than Fox had.
That was a good thing, because the eerie humming from the bombers was getting stronger. The planes had to be almost on them. Landed with an ‘ooph’ just as the bomb struck.
There was a crack of white light. So bright that even though Fox closed his eyes and shielded his head, he was able to see it through his eyelids.
The whole world—the walls, the floor under him, the air in his lungs, felt like it were shaking apart.
And through all that, he felt Tobias—bony and lean—pressed against him. Fox used that as an anchor for his own sanity. It felt like the entire world was splitting apart around them. Everything except for Tobias.
Then, as suddenly as it started, it all stopped.
There was another boom, further off as the planes flew on.
These are different from the munitions we used in the war, Fox realized. Weaker. But why?
When he’d been in the field, there would be a palpable side-effect to loud explosions: Sometimes his ears would ring even when he had hearing protection.
Yet he clearly heard Lizzie whisper, “Are we still alive?”
“Looks like it,” Fox replied. “This sure ain’t heaven.”
He unwound his arms from around Tobias—he’d practically been hugging him, and he missed the feeling of his body the moment he stepped away.
Tobias straightened and gave him a sideways sort of smile. Almost… almost as if he had been thinking the same thing.
“Are you alright, Lizzie?” Tobias asked, turning to his sister.
“I think so.” There was a slight movement in the shadows as his sister stepped forward. She had her arms clasped around her middle as if she were cold. She shared Tobias’ dirty blonde hair, blue eyes, and lean frame. At that moment, she looked a lot younger than fifteen.
“And… And Mom and Dad?” Tobias asked. “Were they in the house, when—”
“No,” Lizzie said right away.
Tobias sagged in relief.
Fox did, too, letting out a long breath. One tiny bit of good news. He’d always been close to Tobias’ parents, having had dinner with them practically every other night when he was growing up.
“It’s Tuesday,” Lizzie said. “You know Dad always teaches on Tuesdays, and Mom said she was heading down to Santa Cruz for lunch with her friends.” Her lip quivered. “I was… looking for something. In the basement, I mean.”
Vaping in secret, Fox translated, having been a rebellious teenager himself.
“Thank God,” Tobias muttered, a hand raising to cover his eyes.
“What’s happening?” Lizzie blurted. “I thought we were having an earthquake. It’s like the entire world’s exploded. Do you know what’s going on?”
Fox and Tobias exchanged a look. No one wanted to say aliens out loud.
“There’s… an attack,” Tobias started.
“What? What kind of attack? Are the Russians–”
Fox decided the kindest thing would be just to tell her. “I don’t think so. Lizzie, there’s a big honkin’ ship out there, hovering above us.”
“Well, it landed on Telegraph Hill,” Tobias said.
“A ship?” she looked confused.
“It looks just like a space ship,” Fox said. “And those planes are dropping… I’ve never seen munition like that.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but I think it’s an invasion.”
She kept looking back and forth between them, a strange look on her face like she was on the verge of calling them liars. But the at the grim nod on her brother’s face, she slowly put her hand up to her lips.
“Are you guys serious?” The gaze she turned on Fox was pleading. “Really? Are you saying… aliens? Really?”
He wished he could have lied. Could have made it easier for her. “Really.”
He half expected her to break down crying, but Lizzie was made of tougher stuff. She drew herself up, squaring her shoulders, even though her eyes were suspiciously watery.
“So then… what do we do?”
“I still think they’re herding people down to the Wharf,” Tobias said. “So whatever we do, we don’t go out there. We don’t do what they want.”
That sounded like a solid start to Fox. “We need information.”
“My phone’s not working,” Lizzie blurted. “I’ve tried to call 911, and Mom and Dad, but all the networks are busy.”
Good thinking. Fox felt like a grade-A fool. He had a cell phone and had left it back in the apartment. From the constipated look on Tobias’s face, he had done the same.
“Do you have the internet?” Fox asked.
“Yeah. Of course,” she said in the special ‘duh’ tone that only teenagers were experts in accomplishing. “But, I told you, there’s no signal.”
“Huh. Maybe they’re using signal jammers?” Tobias said. “Cell phone towers have a range of three to nine miles, generally. Sometimes up to twenty if you really push it. There should be a lot still standing in the city.”
“Yeah, there’s no way they took out all the cell towers already.” Fox agreed. “It looks like they’ve just been targeting tall buildings and houses.”
And not very well. This house had suffered one direct strike and what he supposed was a second, very close hit. “Whatever they have now, they’re using something low yield,” Fox said.
Tobias turned to him. “Why do you say that?”
“Because I’ve seen what our boys have, and this basement wouldn’t even be standing.”
Tobias frowned and stared across the room, his eyes slightly unfocused. Two of his fingers ticked against his thigh in thought. Fox had seen him do that a lot when he was trying to puzzle an error out of a stubborn line of code. He always thought it was endearing.
“But they’re loud,” Tobias said. “And flashy.”
“And they do some damage.”
“That would make sense if they’re trying to scare the daylight out of people. You know how ranchers will sometimes fire blanks to get a herd of cows to move?”
He didn’t disagree. “What for?”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?”
“Food?” Fox suggested. “Like, to slaughter?”
“Shut up,” Lizzie snapped, cutting in. Tobias flinched as if he’d forgotten for a moment she was even there. “Oh my God, you guys are gross.”
Fox and Tobias exchanged a meaningful glance, but fell silent. There was no point in upsetting her.
“How could this have happened?” Lizzie asked, after a few moments. It was clear she didn’t care the silence. In the dark gloom of the basement, the distant crack-shatter of bombs, the air suddenly became thick with tension. “Why the hell would aliens or anybody attack San Francisco?”
“We aren’t sure of anything right now, other than they’re hostile,” Fox said.
“San Francisco is a major economic hub,” Tobias said. “And… think about it. We’re sitting close to the San Joaquin Valley, which is like the salad bowl of California.”
“So?” Lizzie asked.
Fox stifled a smile as Tobias rubbed the side of his face. Again, his other hand ticked in the air as if in thought. “So, that means natural resources close by. Okay, so there’s not a lot of fresh water around–most of that is diverted from watersheds in the mountains, but if they have desalinization plants on the mothership, that’s not a problem. The Bay Area is also huge for shipping, which means there’s a lot of supplies already in the harbor at some state of transit.”
“I don’t think aliens came for the Toyota parts from Japan,” Fox said, mostly just to needle him.
The glance Tobias shot him in the half gloom was halfway between amused and patronizing. “But there’s other stuff. There are a few oil refineries, and… I’m not a military guy, but it seems like this area is pretty easy to defend, right? They took out the Golden Gate Bridge—”
Lizzie made a surprised sound at that. Fox had forgotten she hadn’t seen what they had.
“And it’s not like anyone can drop a nuke on us ala Avengers.”
“Why not?” Lizzie asked.
“Jet stream,” Tobias said with confidence. “It goes from East to West, and the fallout would be carried through the United States within a couple weeks..”
Fox stared at him for a moment. “I don’t care what they say about you, Tob, you’re pretty smart.” Which felt like the understatement of the day. Fox had tried to make a career out of being in the military, but at his core, he’d always been a meat-head. Tobias had and would always be the brains of their partnership.
We’re not partners, said a stubborn voice somewhere inside of him. We can’t be partners like that. It’s not fair to either of us.
Maybe I’m gonna die, maybe we’re all gonna die in the next few hours, came another thought, clear as crystal. The cold fact of it didn’t scare him. Fox had faced death a number of times in his life. And maybe he’d never really come to grips with it, but the knowledge he was going to die had never scared him.
No, the only thing that really frightened him was seeing Tobias hurt or killed.
Standing, Fox decided there needed to be a change of subject. Morale was important.
He’d learned that the hard way, too.
“Okay,” he said. “What’s in this basement. Got anything useful?”
Lizzie scoffed. “You’re in luck if you want Christmas ornaments.” She gestured to low shelving on the other side of the room. The cheap plastic stuff that lasted a few seasons after you bought it from Walmart. Made from faux chipboard and that bowed in the middle with too much weight. Of course, it hadn’t been properly secured to the wall, and had fallen flat when the first shiver of the first bomb had hit. Now, the shards of sparkly Christmas ornaments littered the floor. Fox made a mental note not to step over there.
“Mom and Dad still used the pantry upstairs for emergency storage?” Tobias asked darkly.
Upstairs, which was now obliterated.
Lizzie nodded and sat down on a clean patch of cement, curling her knees up to her chest.
Next chapter coming soon!