Fox woke with a scream locked behind his teeth.
Looking around wildly, he saw without registering the four bland walls of his bedroom. Through the predawn light outside his window, he saw the pattern of brickwork of the next building over.
When his shitty apartment building had been built, there had been a view all the way down to the harbor. Now, Fox looked straight into his neighbor’s living room.
That familiar sight finally snapped him out of the last of his nightmare. He wasn’t out on the field. He was back home, in San Francisco, where he’d lived for the better part of three months.
In his overpriced, crappy-ass apartment which was one step from a tenement house. Of course, this being San Francisco, he paid a premium for it.
Muscle by muscle, Fox made himself unclench. There were some deep breathing exercises the shrink at the VA had half-heartedly tried to teach him, but they never did anything.
Pushing the thin sheets aside, he forced himself to his feet. No way he was getting back to sleep. It was time to start the day.
His throat was dry as a bone. Padding across his bedroom in his boxers and a white tank top, he paused at the mirror. His face was sweaty, but his momma’s Latino heritage gave him a tan enough complexion that he didn’t look as pale and wan as he felt on the inside.
Three months out of the service and his dark hair was starting to curl at the edges.
He ran his hand back to order it a little, then braced himself before he stepped outside.
Tobias, his roommate, was in the living room. Just like Fox had figured.
Tobias wasn’t some crazy early riser—he hadn’t bothered to go to sleep yet. He liked to keep programming hours, and that meant he often didn’t get to bed until he’d hunted down whatever bug he was after.
Fox paused long enough to admire him from the back. Tobias sat at their breakfast counter, perched on the edge of a stool which stood balanced on two legs. He wasn’t a tall man, but there was a leanness about him that Fox liked.
True to form, Tobias wore the same set of clothes he had last night, complete with the hipster beanie over his wheat-blond hair.
It was shameful for him to admit, but the only time he felt safe was when Tobias was in the same room with him.
Fox swore he didn’t make a sound, but Tobias turned.
“Hey,” he said, then blinked behind his glasses. “You look like shit. You okay?”
Crap. The jig was up. “’Course I am.” He crossed to the small kitchenette to fill a glass of water. He drank, and felt Tobias’ eyes on him like a weight. Turning back, Fox raised an eyebrow.
“Look,” Tobias said, closing the lid of the laptop and pushing it aside. Whoa, this must be serious. “I know you haven’t been sleeping—”
“Says the man who’s been up all night.”
“I just didn’t come back from a war-zone,” Tobias said bluntly.
Fox tried not to scowl. “I told you I’m on the list to see a shrink at the VA. What else do you want, Tobias?”
“I’m just concerned. If you… you know, ever want to talk about what happened—”
He didn’t even want to think about what happened. “Thanks.” He tried to sound like he meant it, but from the way Tobias scowled, it came out less than sincere.
Abruptly, Fox was annoyed. Bad enough that he’d returned screwed up in the head, that Tobias had always represented everything that Fox couldn’t let himself have, but now he was mother-henning him like he was more than just his best friend.
Tobias let the stool drop back onto all fours. “Look—”
He clearly wasn’t going to drop this. Fox wasn’t in the mood for a fight, but that didn’t mean he would back away from one, either. He stood with his muscled arms crossed over his chest and waited for Tobias to just come out and say it.
I’m crazy. We both know it. And you can’t handle it anymore.
“Look—” Tobias said, again.
That’s when the first boom shook the building.
Fox’s first thought, ingrained by years of living on the West Coast was: Earthquake.
His second thought, ingrained by years in the service was: Attack.
Tobias had frozen, one arm outstretched to balance against the counter behind him. The first boom was followed by a second one, even closer.
They’re dropping shells, Fox thought.
That was all his poor PSTD addled mind needed. He didn’t think: only reacted. Grabbing Tobias, he hauled him to the bathroom. There was an old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub inside. Shoving Tobias in, he climbed after, ignoring Tobias’ yells of protest. It was an insanely tight fit, and they were hideously exposed from above, but it was the best Fox could do.
It was the only thing he could do.
The booms came closer, one rapidly following the other. In his mind’s eye, he saw a Rockwell B-1 Lancer strategic bomber dropping bunker busters. One after the other in bright secession.
“What’s going on?” Tobias yelled. “Oh shit! Oh shit!”
A blast hit so close, Fox’s teeth rattled.
The floor dipped, sickenly. The ceiling above buckled and cracked—thank God they were on the top floor because Fox was afraid the roof was going to fall down. A pipe must have burst because suddenly cold water sprayed down on them. The window shattered, whether from the noise or debris hitting it, he wasn’t quite sure.
The shaking and crumbling went on and on. Bits of plaster rained down on them.
Fox covered Tobias’ head the best he could and prayed for it to end.
Then the worst of it was over. There were more booms, further off and fading. They hadn’t been hit straight on.
“What the hell?” Tobias panted and squirmed look around. There was white plaster in his hair, though it was getting washed away by the burst pipe. He struggled, and Fox reluctantly let him sit up.
“I think… that was an air raid,” Fox said.
“Here? No. No, that had to have been and Earthquake…” Lurching up, he climbed out of the bathtub.
“Shit, watch your step,” Fox warned. Tobias wasn’t wearing his shoes and there had to be broken glass all over the floor.
Tobias, of course, ignored him and straightened enough to look out the broken window. He paled.
For a second, Fox thought that there was dense fog outside—not unusual for San Francisco. But no, the mist that rose wasn’t mist at all. It was a haze of dust from a completely flattened building next door. The brick building he’d been looking at when he woke was now a pile of rubble.
“Was that just a gas explosion?” Tobias demanded. “What the actual hell.”
“Those were bombs,” Fox said through dry lips.
Tobias shook his head quickly and went to the living room, heading to the front door. But before he could yank it open, Fox slammed it shut.
Fox grabbed him and pulled him back. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“What do you think?” Tobias demanded. “Let me go. Those people need help. Look outside!”
“No! Those were bombs, Tobias.” He wanted to shake him. “Bombs! You get me?”
Tobias shook his head, his wet, blond hair falling into his eyes. God help him, he looked beautiful.
And the thought of Tobias wandering out into a war zone, as impossible as it seemed, was enough to make Fox’s guts freeze solid.
Why the hell would someone be carpet bombing San Francisco? Was this another Pearl Harbor? An attack by a country, or rogue terrorists like 9/11?
So many questions and no time for answers.
“This can’t be a bombing,” Tobias insisted. Almost begged. “Who the hell would bomb the United States? California?”
Distantly, Fox realized that Tobias was still in denial and shock mode. Fox had blown right past those, straight into acceptance.
They were in danger, and as strange and unlikely as that danger was, it was real.
Then, Fox realized he was hearing a distant drone of noise. It didn’t sound like any jet or airplane he’d ever heard before: A constant hum set the hair on the back of his neck on end.
“Fox? Do you know what’s going on?”
He didn’t bother to reply or make a justification that Tobias could argue against. Instead, he gestured for Tobias to follow him further into the apartment.
The entire kitchenette consisted of a microwave and an old-style electric two burner stove. The microwave had slid out of its shelf and snapped its electric cord before smashing to the floor. Fox stepped over it and looked out the tiny kitchen window, towards the source of the hum.
The dust haze from the collapsed building had settled a little, giving him a view down the street. Like most residences in San Francisco, they were on a sharply inclined hill.
The pale blue sky of dawn was red thanks to fires breaking out, and dust in the atmosphere. Even then, Fox could make out a giant black machine hanging in the air.
It was huge. The size of a football arena, or larger. All black with red and blue lights flashing on the sides like landing lights on an airplane.
“It looks like a God damn UFO,” Fox heard himself say.
With that, something both familiar and unwanted slid into place. The scared part of him was pushed aside to make room for the man who got things done. This was the enemy, and the enemy, Fox knew how to beat.
“What?” Tobias stepped up beside Fox, close enough that he could feel his body heat. He went still as he caught sight of the machine. Fox heard him swallow. “This can’t be real.”
He was still in denial. Gently, Fox took Tobias by the shoulders and turned him so they were face-to-face. He looked directly into his scared, blue eyes.
Inside Fox thought, I’ll protect you.
Outside, he kept a stone face and said, “Get your shoes on. We have to get out here.”
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