However Much You Jump
Rumors had been flying since I joined the Urban Guard, but I knew the raider threat was real when they graduated me five weeks early.
"You don't even get a normal graduation patrol, I'm afraid." Jack said. "This isn't going to be the normal cakewalk."
We were in one of the anonymous conference rooms buried inside headquarters, all of them designed for use with the lost luxury of air conditioning. In the summer months they were stifling. I had been working with Jack Rutherford for the last four months and this was the most serious I had ever seen him.
"What's the profile?"
Truth be told, I was eager to finish my training. I wasn't the last member of my class left, but it was close. Some of the other Guardsmen I trained with gave me the impression that Jack had been under pressure to pass early for some time.
"Recent patrols have led us to believe that the raiders are massing somewhere north of the city, preparing for an attack. If you were HQ, what would you want us to do?"
"Find their exact position," I said. Jack didn't say anything, which was his usual clue that he wanted more of an answer.
I said, "They'd obviously be interested in any clues as to the nature of the attack. When it will be, what routes they will take and what their target will be."
"I'm sure they would be, but would they really expect a two person patrol to find all of that?"
"No, probably not. So if they want something more than the location of the camp, it has to be something a small, mobile force is more efficient at finding than an espionage team... supply lines!"
"Billy, we'll make a Guardsman out of you yet. HQ, while it no doubt would love to know those other things you mentioned, has given us the task of looking for the enemy supply lines. So where do you think we should look?"
Traditionally, the rookie plans the graduation patrol, but I had a suspicion that HQ had worked up detailed plans. If so, Jack never gave any indication of it. I was given two days to plan the route and requisition supplies. Most of that time was spent going over reports from recent patrols and studying the topology of the area.
The next time I saw Jack was after a rainy group ride. Being a senior member of the Guard he had the advantage of a well patched gore-tex jacket. His bike was a beautiful carbon fiber composite frame with full suspension. Scrawny, like most Guardsmen, he was all right angles compared to its sleek curves.
"I hope you have plans for tomorrow," he said.
"The way I see it, sir, there are only three real options for their supply routes. Along the old north-south freeway, over the mountains along another old freeway, or by boat along the shore. Given their strength east of the mountains, I'm tempted to favor the mountain pass."
"So we look there?" Jack's face gave no indication of what he thought of my plan.
"I was thinking that, until I found a report from a refugee band last year. Several of the bridges along that route have collapsed. And we've never seen the raiders rely much on sea power, so I'm betting it's the freeway."
"So be it. How do we get there?
"There is a ridge that parallels the freeway between it and the ocean. According to the maps it is dense suburban sprawl. My plan is to head north along it. It won't be easy riding, but the decaying infrastructure will favor our mobility should we encounter the enemy. From that vantage point we can watch for signs of the camp, as well as supply lines on the freeway and on the ocean. Should we fail to find it on the way up, we will come back via the foothills of the mountains, looking for it there."
"Minimal. Light camping gear, binoculars, maps, dehydrated food, sidearm. No rifles, and we can find water along the way."
"Very well. We leave tomorrow at dawn." He was very calm for a man entrusting his life to the plans of a rookie.
We rode hard and fast on the way out. The suburbs we were traveling through had long since been picked over, by looters during the first wave of riots and later by Urban Council reclamation crews. Time was slowly turning the endless sprawl back into woodland, but for now they were a maze of broken streets, fallen power lines, rusted cars and empty houses.
By the third day I had settled into the routine of a patrol: rise at dawn, ride all day, camp at dusk, fall asleep immediately. The endless endurance rides we had been put through in training had prepared my body, but making the mental shift was harder. Before it had only seemed as if I did nothing but bike--now it was really true.
"Looks like we only have another hour of daylight," Jack said. "Let's head back to the eastern side of the ridge and pitch camp."
"Think they'll be moving by night?"
"Quite possible. I'm pretty sure I know of a good place to spend the night."
Jack led the way and we arrived at a nondescript house just as it was getting too dark to bike.
"Ha, I thought so," he said. "This is one of the old observation posts, back from the early days."
"I didn't know we used to have any," I said as we carried the bikes upstairs.
"We hadn't settled into the patrol model yet. Most of our time was spent spotting and escorting refugee parties. Raiders weren't as bold and we had a lot more untrained, volunteer labor. Keeping observation posts made sense. They've been officially abandoned for years--not flexible enough for General Miller."
The room we walked into was dominated by windows overlooking the valley. Because of the shape of the roof, none of them were visible from the street below. From here someone could watch several miles of the freeway as it wound towards the city.
Jack pointed back to the hallway and said, "There is a fireplace in one of the rooms back there. It's dark enough that the smoke won't be visible if you keep the fire hot and clean burning."
I was awake, stuck with an inconvenient bout of insomnia. For the first time in three days I was warm, had a soft bed and was reasonably safe, yet I couldn't sleep. I was mentally reviewing the planned route for tomorrow when I realized I had been hearing faint noises for several minutes. It was a distant voice, carrying well through the still night air.
I sat up slowly and looked out the window. Down the hill muted lights were crawling south along the old freeway. Jack was already sitting up when I turned to wake him.
He smiled. "So you heard it too. Supply line?"
Flustered by his misplaced confidence, I said, "I... I don't think so. We're not very far north yet. Any number of patrols would have found their main camp by now if it was south of us. Maybe a raiding party."
"A good point, though we've missed things before. Only one way to find out, and that's for us to go down there and take a look. Let's pack up."
The ride down the hill was slow and dangerous. Jack set off at an angle, trying to hit the freeway just ahead of them. We couldn't have used lights even if we weren't riding stealth, batteries being far too valuable. The emergency radio Jack carried was the only electrical item we had. As tired as I was, the endless process of coasting downhill and dodging around obstacles in the monochromatic grey became quickly hypnotic. When Jack motioned to stop I almost didn't notice. If he hadn't been in front I probably would have continued to ride right onto the overpass in full view of the raiders.
He pointed down a side street and walked his bike in that direction, paralleling the freeway. After half a block we carefully leaned our bikes against a rusted mailbox. Following his lead I lay on the ground and started inching my way under the bushes bordering the street. They ended at a chain-link fence and a retaining wall.
The sound of running engines was well masked by the drop-off and it barely registered until I approached the edge. Still hidden under the bushes, I could hear it clearly, as well as the occasional low murmur of voices. Jack motioned for me to stay as he continued up to the fence. While waiting for him, I realized that, in spite of the danger, spying was a very boring task. I was pinching myself to stay awake when he returned.
"We're fairly safe here," he whispered. "Go ahead and take a look, but be quick."
All weariness dropped away from me as I started to crawl out of the bushes. My every move made a defeaning sound. The near-full moon was blindingly bright and I was sure I was visible for hundreds of meters on all sides. It seemed impossible that a raider scout hadn't seen me, yet the night remained quiet. There were no shouts from below and no shots rang out.
I had expected an orderly line of vehicles passing below, but I was surprised when I summoned the courage to look. Most of the people below were on foot and a fair number were on bikes. There was only the occasional motorized vehicle. The troops were ragged and poorly outfitted. Most of them looked starved and all of them looked as exhausted as I felt. They weren't monsters dedicated to the destruction of my home. It was a sobering thought for a refugee kid.
Crawling backwards wasn't any easier than coming out had been, though I was a bit more confident that the buildings across the freeway weren't filled with raider snipers. Once in the bushes I gave Jack a thumbs-up and we both inched our way back to the bikes. We were several blocks away before Jack stopped to talk.
"So, analysis?" he asked.
"Not a supply line. Those were troops moving in, and there isn't a place for a real camp between here and town."
He looked at me, silent.
"Okay," I said. "Large troop movement down the freeway, probably two days away at the rate they're going. So they need a temporary camp of some sort to sleep in tomorrow. Doesn't have to be much, just enough to hide them. From the looks of them it's a forced march. They'll want a surprise attack, but the troops can't be too tired by that time. So put the temporary camp two thirds of the way to town. They can probably make that by sunrise, since they're on the freeway. They could rest all of tomorrow, with a fairly easy march tomorrow night. Get the troops into position and let them rest until daybreak."
"Good. It's all speculation, of course, but that's good enough for HQ. We'll need to get out of this valley a bit before the radio will work."
The nearest repeater we were likely to hit was hidden by one of the folds of the ridge. Jack thought it best to put distance between us and the raiders, so we went straight up the side before following the contours south. The heavy exercise and the adrenaline combined to keep me wide awake. I was feeling pretty good, imagining the stories I could tell about my first patrol.
Lost in these thoughts, I was surprised when Jack pulled up next to me.
"Don't react to this," he said. "We're being followed. At the next intersection, take off down the hill at full speed."
I glanced over at him before the instructions sank in. He had a hard look in his eyes and was casually loosening the restraints on his holster. I forced myself to look straight ahead and continue biking. We were in the middle of a long, winding block with the next intersection several hundred meters ahead. Riding that distance was far worse than crawling down the embankment, wondering if I would hear or feel the shot first.
Our tail must have been waiting for something, because we made it to the end of the block with no more holes than we started with. When I saw Jack jerk into motion I leaned into a sharp left and shot off down the hill. Somewhere in my mind I realized that Jack had not been turning with me. Shots were fired behind me and there was indistinct yelling. I never even slowed down.
I can explain what I did in many ways: I was following orders, it was more important that news of the invasion get back to HQ, there was no way I could have helped in time. Actually, I panicked. It wasn't really cowardice--had I been in the fight I don't think I would have run, I would have just stood there frozen making a damn good target. As it turned out, I was already booking it when I froze, so I continued to book. It was the right thing to do, for all the wrong reasons.
After several blocks I took a few turns randomly and hid myself in the shadow of a building. My breathing and heart beat were too loud to really listen for pursuit, but after twenty minutes I was fairly confident I was safe. I was also very alone. There was no way to know if Jack had survived and no safe way to go looking for him. I felt strangely calm about his possible death.
I had to assume he was dead and that the radio was lost. As the only Guardsman who knew of the invasion it was my responsibility to do something about it. There was no way to stop them myself, so I would have to get word back to HQ. And without a radio that meant compressing a three day ride into a little over a day.
I was shaking, I realized. My stomach was racked with pains. I had been shot at, my mentor was dead and I was responsible for saving my home from raiders. Sitting there thinking about it wasn't helping, so I started biking. I had to stop after a few blocks to throw up, which is when I realized I had been heading north, not south. An idea came to me which slowly blossomed into a plan. It was time to be flexible.
Two hours of sleep can be remarkably refreshing, when it needs to be. I wouldn't recommend it on a regular basis, but the human body is capable of some extreme acts of endurance.
It was a fairly leisurely morning. Breakfast was nutritious and highly concentrated, washed down with cold water. The camping gear was carefully packed and hidden in a tree. It wouldn't be needed again, no matter what happened, and I couldn't afford the dead weight. I went through the full set of warm-up stretches and exercises twice. I even cleaned my unfired pistol, savoring the ritual. When all was done I was awake, alert and ready to ride.
From my campsite I could see straight down onto the freeway for many miles south. It had been a gamble, but there had been no chance of stealthily following the raider column at night. Instead I looked for, and was lucky enough to find, a vantage point to watch them from.
In full daylight the ride down the hill was much easier and the arterial I was on led straight to an on-ramp. After three days of dodging debris it was a wonderful feeling to be able to cruise on an open road.
The exhilaration soon faded as I settled into a steady rhythm, absorbed by the merciless concrete. Freeways are such massive artifacts, created on a scale that dwarfs humans. If you have ever biked through the remaining section downtown, you know how unsettling it can be. It wasn't hard to imagine that it was the forgotten road of a race of giants, waiting for the vengeful return of its masters.
The key to the whole plan was trading stealth and maneuverability for speed and distance. The freeway was the worst possible place to meet the enemy yet the best for reaching the city in time. Without a good idea where the raiders had made camp it would have been a much dicier proposition, most likely wasting too much time on surface streets or staying on the freeway too long and being spotted. I was fairly confident they had used exit 134A and stayed on the west side of the freeway. According to the maps there was an abandoned mall there, which would be as good a place as any to hide an army.
Exit 134B offered food, lodging and gas stations. I tried to convince myself that the lack of an 'armed ambush' icon was a good omen.
The off-ramp dumped me onto an arterial which I would be able to take for most of the detour. This section of town had been a dense commercial area, the six lane street just short of a freeway itself. It was lined with darkened restaurants and strip malls. The property values waned farther from the freeway, turning to grocery stores and car dealerships. A motel forlornly offered color TV and swimming. With my water supply dwindling I pulled in to check the pool.
Two rows of motel rooms led away from the street, with a separate lobby building and the swimming pool at the far end. There was a layer of leaves floating in it at least two centimeters thick, for which I was grateful. An exposed pool like that had probably drowned more than a single rodent over the years, and while the water purifier would make it quite safe to drink, I had no desire to know about it.
Halfway through refilling the second bottle I heard voices coming from the street. I'm glad to say that I hesitated only a few moments before pushing the purifier and bottle under the leaves and pushing my bike behind the lobby building. I leaned against the wall there, trying to hear anything over my beating heart.
"I'm telling you, you're seeing things," said a winded voice.
"There was movement over here. Maybe it was a dog or something, but there was movement," said a second, equally winded voice.
"Shit. Bad enough we're stuck out here looking for city patrols, no reason to make it worse by running around in this heat."
The second raider grunted. From the sound of it they were walking down the parking lot between the two rows.
"Okay," said the first. "We'll keep looking. Hey!"
The clap-clap-clap of running echoed dimly around me. I drew my pistol as silently as possible, but the sound suddenly stopped somewhere near the pool.
Raider number one said, "Look at this, someone was here recently."
I cursed myself for clearing such a large, neat hole in the leaves. Maybe my retreat hadn't been so perfect after all.
"Come on, I'm sure animals drink from there all the time."
There was only a thin strip of weeds between the lobby and a chainlink fence. The only way out was back past the pool or around to the parking lot. It was, as Jack had said, executive decision time. The raiders were getting far too close for comfort and the process was eating up valuable daylight. If there was going to be a confrontation, it might as well be on my terms.
Leaving my bike leaning against the wall, I crept around the lobby to the parking lot. I crouched behind a dead car and listened. From my position I would be able to pick them off as they cleared the other end of the lobby. The hood made an excellent arm rest.
"Hey, look at this," the second voice said. "Don't tell me an animal would need this!"
If they had found the water bottle they were going to be a lot more careful coming out, I realized. I could imagine Jack berating me for losing the initiative. In a moment close to panic, I did the first thing that came to my mind. I reached down, grabbed a pebble, and threw it towards the main road. Not very imaginative, I know, but the two raiders came running out a second later.
One had a hunting rifle while the other was fumbling with a pistol. A strange calm came over me as I drew a bead on the rifleman's chest. They were no older than me, and obviously far less prepared. And yet, I thought as I smoothly pulled the trigger, they could mean the difference between life and death for my family.
Without pausing I took aim at the second raider. He was still trying to draw his pistol when I fired.
I stood, not believing how easy it had been. The enemy I had feared my entire life was made up of kids with hunting rifles. It wasn't an army, it was a mob. I was shaking again as I left. I didn't feel like a hero, I just felt sad.
The encounter left me nervous and jumpy. I no longer found comfort in my flexibility on the cluttered suburban roads. I wanted to ride hard and fast, putting as much distance between myself and the dead raiders as possible. It was a form of panic, I think, and a dangerous one. The raiders would be watching the clearer arterials and I was likely to ride right into one of their patrols. I forced myself to use the slower side streets instead, feeling increasingly desperate as the sun sank lower in the sky.
It took me four hours, all spent to bypass five miles of freeway. Pausing to take a drink I did some math in my head. There were at least six hours of heavy biking left. The endurance exercises were paying off--if anything I was a bit giddy. But there was only four hours of daylight left.
I have since ridden faster and longer, but never at that speed for that long. All thoughts of pacing myself were dropped as my universe constricted to a single thought: pump.
The afternoon wore by in a blur of concrete and steel. Pump. My water ran out early on, but I didn't stop for more. Pump. I developed a headache and most of my groin and thighs went semi-permanently numb. Pump. My wrists and neck felt like grinding rocks. Pump.
Night was starting to fall when my trance was broken. I had made good time and was only about an hour away from the nearest chance of finding a fellow Guardsman. New stimuli was a shock after so much likeness and left my brain processing one step behind reality. I realized that I was hearing an approaching engine just as I saw a motorcycle coming around a curve ahead of me. It was already passing me by the time I had seen that it was on the other side of the freeway, separated from me by a concrete barrier. As it sped away behind me I was still living the brief moment of eye contact the rider and I shared. It was a raider, and he was going to return.
All feelings of power and speed vanished as I realized that I was facing a motorized opponent on open road. None of the advantages of bikes applied here. Somewhere I found an extra burst of energy to sprint towards the nearest offramp. The roar of the motorcycle was growing behind me as I hit the top and turned wildly into the cityscape.
Buildings were denser and older this close to town and streets were narrower and more cluttered. I dodged a burnt-out car and hopped the curb, trying to strike a delicate balance. Specific strategies for dealing with motorized vehicles weren't part of Guard curriculum, but Jack had often related anecdotes and bits of patrol wisdom to me. Motorcycles were tricky, because their maneuverability rivaled that of a bicycle, but with the speed and power of a car.
"That maneuverability comes at a price," he had said. "They're less stable than a car, and will be less likely to ram you because of it. Instead they'll be angling for a side-swipe, which will slow them. They also require the use of both hands to be operated, so they aren't likely to shoot at you while driving."
The trick, therefore, was to keep the raider at a safe distance yet keep him occupied. It only took a minute to realize that this was a very precarious balance. The debris wasn't slowing him down as much as I had hoped and I was tiring quickly. He was on the sidewalk behind me now, accelerating. I dodged between two of the cars lining the street, the gap too narrow for him to follow. Racing away from him back towards the freeway I could hear him slowing. Fearing he was stopping to shoot I swerved into an alley and pedaled furiously. I shot out of the far side in a wide banking turn and found myself staring at the raider a block away.
There was no dramatic pause. He accelerated hard, straight at me. I braked just as hard, jumping up to straddle the frame before a complete stop. The road between us was clear of any obstacles, and despite Jack's theory this raider seemed quite intent on running me down. In one smooth motion I drew my pistol, assumed an isoceles stance and fired. And fired, and fired. I was still shooting when the tumbling raider and motorcycle crashed into me.
I can't remember the crash very clearly. The motorcycle landed on me, pinning me to the ground. At some point I had to crawl out from under it because the engine was burning into my side. Part of my bike frame had been crushed against my left leg.
It hurt. The sky wasn't much darker when I thought to look, so if I passed out it wasn't for long.
I managed to prop myself up on my elbows to look around for a few seconds. The raider was a few meters away, lying in a pool of blood. He wasn't moving. The motorcycle was on my other side, with my bike partially underneath. Until I looked down at my leg I harbored some hope of continuing on, but the angle it was at left no doubt. I laid back and cried for everything I knew.
The pain prevented me from wallowing in self-pity for long. With a sigh I started dragging myself towards the wreckage, praying the emergency kit in my bags would be okay. This didn't help the pain, but a constructive pain was easier to bear.
Miraculously, the bags on my bike were almost untouched, shielded as they were by my body. As I dug for the kit I went over what medical training I had. It boiled down to ABCBS: airway, breathing, circulation, bleeding, shock, in order of importance. The first four weren't a problem, but shock was already setting in. The decision to leave my bedroll and tarp behind started to look damn foolish. The only things I really needed from the kit were the lighter and an ace bandage, plus my notebook to use as tinder.
The nearest source of wood was the building on the far side of the motorcycle. It had a clumsily retro-fitted wheelchair ramp stretching out to the street. The railing was broken in places and would do for both a makeshift splint and firewood.
A breeze blowing past me triggered a prolonged shivering spell. Even to my very basic understanding of first-aid it was obvious that I needed to warm up immediately. I started crawling around the motorcycle when a thought struck me.
Somehow the empty water bottle had stayed in the bike mount. I held it under the tank of the motorcycle as I unscrewed the cap. Pure alcohol surged out around it, filling the air with a strong smell and stinging the scrapes on my hands. Most of it splashed out of the bottle and onto me, cooling me further as it quickly evaporated. When the flow stopped I had about three quarters of a bottle.
The crawl to the building was a slow, tortuous affair. The shivering was continuous by the time I got to the top of the ramp. If the water bottle hadn't had a closeable spout on it most of the alcohol would have splashed out. Popping it open, I sprayed the alcohol over the wooden walls and deck. Trying to hurry before too much of it evaporated I fumbled with the lighter. For a few desperate moments I was afraid I couldn't control my hands well enough to use it, but a flame appeared on the fifth flick. It burned my hand, and I dropped in instinctively. Trails of blue fire raced away from the lighter, dancing up the walls and across the deck.
The old wood was dry and the fire caught quickly. I had to keep backing down the ramp, at first from fear of flying sparks and later from the intense heat. The shivers died down as I warmed up, and eventually I judged myself out of immediate danger. As I rested a safe distance from the blaze I forced myself to write out what I had seen of the raider army and a brief account of what had happened since.
Finally, feeling oddly comforted, I feel asleep.
There were voices. Pain from my side, then more from my leg.
Later there were more voices, and movement. I tried to tell them something, but it was hard to think about words. Someone told me to relax and sleep, so I did.
It was dark for a very long time. In my dreams I was still biking, but was lost in the sprawl and couldn't find the freeway.
Sunlight shining in my eyes woke me. I tried to sit up, but the pain in my side exploded and I gave up with a gasp.
I was in the Guard infirmary. The afternoon sun was shining in through the window across from me. I was pretty sure it overlooked the street in front of HQ. It sounded like there was a large crowd out there, all of them yelling loudly.
"So the hero is awake."
I raised my head, taking extra caution this time. A matronly nurse was standing in the doorway.
"What-what is going on out there?" I asked.
She smiled. "Can't you hear what they're yelling? It's all over."
Once she pointed it out it became obvious. Behind the general roar of excited cheering was chanting, "WE WON! WE WON!"
"How do you think you got here? Coyote Patrol saw your fire and checked it out. Good thing you wrote it all down, 'cause you were pretty delirious when they found you. They called in your report and General Miller himself led the counter-attack."
"And they found the raiders?"
"Just like you said. The General laid an ambush along the freeway and waited for them to walk right into it. No one has any details yet, but it sounds like it was a real massacre."
"Did Jack Rutherford ever call in?"
She lost some of her exuberance. "No, nobody has heard from him."
Neither of us said anything as she changed the bandages on my side.
"The burn isn't as bad as it looks," she said when done. "Though the broken leg is going to slow you down. You won't be going out on patrol anytime soon but we'll have you patched up well enough for tomorrow, don't worry."
"When the General and the troops get back. He'll at least want to come in to talk to you, though the ceremony probably won't be for another week. Won't you be a dashing figure, wearing the medal of honor? A broken arm in a sling would be a bit more romantic, I suppose." She chuckled to herself. "You should rest up. You have a busy couple of weeks ahead of you."
Before I could think of what to say she closed the drapes and walked out. I lay there trying to get my mind around what had happened, but it was too much. The chanting from outside sang me into a deep, dreamless sleep.
We had won.