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. Krish Basudev 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 Krish 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.
Krish 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 shown their faces. Krish and the men under his command knew that couldn’t last.
“My platoon,” Krish 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. Krish 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 Krish 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. Krish 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 Krish 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,” Krish 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,” Krish 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. Krish 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. Krish 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.”
Krish 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.