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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.


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 shown their faces. 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. Most 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 torn 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 towards 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 chinks - 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.

At last he made it to an overlook position about three blocks from the riverbank and about half a mile east of the bridge approach itself. The sound of falling artillery was constant now, the ground vibrating with the concussions of the exploding shells and the louder secondary explosions of exploding vehicles. Three abandoned American M1-A4 battle tanks were in positions around the overlook, all three of them burning feverishly, sending greasy black smoke into the air, the obvious victims of Spiral anti-tank missiles fired from a flight of Mi-35s. Two bodies, both burned beyond recognition, were lying on the ground next to the closest of the tanks. Another appeared to have been caught trying to extricate himself and was half in and half out of the hatch, his blackened skull forever frozen into a horrified scream of agony. Conner ignored these sights, which were as common as ants in an ant farm to him by now, looking instead out to the west, to where the bridge was.

"Still there," he whispered to himself. And indeed it was. The twin span of the interstate bridge stretched across the gray water of the Columbia and into downtown Portland. Its roadway was choked with tanks, half-tracks, deuce and a half trucks, and countless pedestrians all trying to flee the advancing Chinese. Smoke rose from multiple places where vehicles or armor were burning out of control. But the bridge itself was still there, still capable of taking him to the relative safety of the south side of the river.

And yet, even as part of him reveled in the continued existence of the bridge, another part of him saw that escape across it was not going to happen. On the northern approaches, where a hideous traffic jam of vehicles, soldiers, and civilians had gathered, all waiting their turn to move across the span, chaos had broken out. Chinese infantry troops and armor had appeared, their numbers increasing by the second. Firefights raged back and forth as the soldiers took what was basically a last stand. Tank rounds and anti-tank missiles flew back and forth, exploding vehicles and slamming into buildings. Civilians, trying to flee, were caught in the middle of the two groups and were being blown up and shot down. It was clear that this last stand wouldn't last more than ten minutes or so, that the Chinese would overwhelm the remaining resistance quite easily.

Conner watched helplessly, his hope fading, as the volume of fire picked up to a vicious ferocity and then began to slack off as the American units surrendered to the Chinese one by one. That was the final signal for the commanders across the river. The bridges were within minutes of being captured. Somewhere on the other side, probably from the safety of a reinforced concrete bunker in South Portland, an order was given by someone with stars on the lapel of his undoubtedly clean uniform. Seconds after that order was given, buttons were pushed and electricity was sent coursing through a series of wires to a series of high explosive charges that had been installed on the bridge days before by combat engineers.

It was over in less than five seconds. Conner saw flashes detonating all along the bottom of the roadway section and the spans crumbled, falling into the river below with a tremendous crash, water spraying hundreds of feet into the air. Hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles and thousands of men, women, and children went down as well. Most of the people were killed outright, either by the initial explosions or by being smashed in the debris, but many - particularly those in the armored vehicles - survived long enough to drown. In all, less than twenty people would emerge on one of the riverbanks.

Conner watched all of this in horror, not at the tremendous loss of life but at the loss of his only escape route. Further downstream, through the haze of smoke, he could see that the I-5 span had been dropped as well. He was now trapped on the wrong side of the river and there was no way to get across.

-------

The first light of the next day found Conner alone, sequestered beneath the partially collapsed roof of what had once been a Macy's department store. The store itself, along with the rest of the fashionable shopping mall it was attached to, had long since been destroyed by artillery and bombings and looted of anything even remotely useful. Before him was a multitude of concrete debris mixed with dismembered mannequins, overturned display shelves, and broken cash registers. The smell of spilled perfume and cologne was heavy in the air. From above the sound of heavy artillery shells streaking overhead continued unabated as the Chinese pounded the American positions on the south side of the river, softening them up for the inevitable forced river crossing that was in the works. While working his way to this position of relative safety, Conner had seen hundreds of Chinese amphibious tanks and APCs moving towards staging positions near the riverbank.

Whether or not the Chinese would be successful in their river crossing was no longer much of a concern to Conner. He was trapped on the wrong side of the line, with no way to get back where he belonged. All organized American resistance on this side of the river had collapsed with the bridges. The Chinese had captured or killed all of the large groups and were now roaming the city in trucks and APCs, gathering up stragglers and securing their occupation. Conner was amazed he had made it through the night without being mopped up himself. He had moved from building to building all night, trying to work his way east, towards the residential section of the city. He had dodged patrol after patrol, mostly by blind luck since his night vision gear had been left in the building where his platoon had been massacred. Four times he had been fired upon and twice he had actually returned fire, expecting to be killed at any moment, but always managing to fall back and lose his pursuers. The fact that he was alone was probably what helped him more than anything. The Chinese occupation troops weren't going to waste much energy chasing after one scared kid with an M-16. Finally he had ended up here, less than two miles from where he'd watched the bridge go down. He didn't dare go any further now that it was getting light. Not that he had any idea where he should go anyway. He wondered if there was even any point to fleeing. Wouldn't it just be easier to drop his weapon here and go find the nearest Chinese patrol so he could surrender? He had no food and less than a cup of water in his canteen. He had lost his helmet sometime during the night. He was armed with two frag grenades and a grand total of 43 rounds for his rifle. His radio had long since died of battery failure. He hadn't slept in nearly forty-eight hours now. The prospect of being captured was actually starting to look like the sanest thing he could do. At least he'd get some chow and some sleep once they put him in a barbed-wire cage somewhere.

He decided his mind was not working coherently enough to make such an important decision right now. He couldn't do anything about the hunger, but he figured he was in a safe enough place to catch some badly needed sleep. Maybe after an hour or so of slumber he would be able to think clearly, to put his unenviable situation into perspective. He yawned and then leaned back against the support pillar he was sitting next to. He closed his eyes and listened to the ominous roaring of the artillery shells passing over his head and the distant thumping of their explosions south of the river. It was about as effective of a white noise as he was likely to get in Vancouver and within moments he began to drift towards sleep.

Before unconsciousness could completely claim him he was jarred back to alertness by the sound of something thumping to the ground in front of him. Her jerked his head up, his hands instinctively picking up the M-16 from his lap and socking it to his shoulder. He looked towards the sound and saw a fat white seagull lying on the ground about twelve feet in front of him. The bird was dying fast, its beak opening and closing spastically, it's wings twitching as if in seizure. There was a large bloodstain on its breast.

"What the fuck?" Conner whispered to himself, his eyes going from the bird to the open roof from which it had fallen. Seagulls were fairly common around here, particularly since there was so much carrion for them to feast upon these days. This one had seemingly been perched near the roof opening when... when... something had happened to it. But what? There had been no gunshot, at least not close by. Had a stray bullet from somewhere else struck it? That didn't ring true in Conner's mind. What would the odds of something like that be?

He heard a shuffling footstep from behind a pillar deeper in the store. He turned his rifle in that direction, his finger tightening on the trigger, his eyes peering down the sight. One squeeze would send a three round burst into whoever was approaching him. The range would be less than twenty yards, practically point blank for a man who had become skillful enough with his weapon over the last six months to effortlessly shoot down moving Chinese soldiers from nearly three hundred yards.

But it wasn't a Chinese soldier who appeared from behind the pillar. It wasn't a soldier at all. It was a girl, a teenager by the looks of her. She was dirty and disheveled, almost as dirty and disheveled as Conner himself. She was dressed in a pair of designer blue jeans that were now tattered and torn, with holes in the knees. On her upper body was a forest green winter jacket that was smeared with enough mud, dirt, plaster dust, and other unidentifiable stains that it had achieved a fairly decent state of urban camouflage. Her light blonde hair was dirty and uncombed, falling loosely around her shoulders. In her right hand she held something that Conner immediately recognized from his own days of youthful innocence - before the war and the death and the destruction that was now commonplace. It was a metal slingshot.

"Don't move," Conner ordered, his voice just loud enough for her to hear.

She nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of it. Her eyes locked onto him and she let out a startled scream. She tensed as if about to run.

"I'm not gonna hurt you," Conner told her.

"Then... then... why are you pointing your gun at me?" she squeaked, her voice terrified.

He realized he was indeed still pointing his rifle at her, his finger still on the trigger, still exerting several pounds of pressure in fact. He eased up on it but kept the sight centered on her chest. "Are you alone?" he asked.

She didn't seem to know how to answer that question. Her eyes shifted from Conner's gun to the passage that she'd entered from and then back. She swallowed nervously. "Uh... yes, I mean... uh no... I mean... I mean..."

"You're alone," he said, convinced more by her demeanor than anything else. He lowered his rifle, setting it back in his lap but keeping his hands resting on it. "Don't worry. I'm not gonna rape and murder you or anything like that. I'm too fucking tired to rape and murder anyone right now. I just wanted to make sure there weren't any chinks with you."

She shook her head slowly, her eyes remaining riveted on his face. "No chinks," she said. "I'm just here... well... you know, getting some... some food."

"Food?" he asked, his eyes dropping to the seagull - which had now stopped its death throes and was lying still.

She nodded sadly. "Food," she confirmed. "They seem to have closed down all the McDonalds'."

A smile touched his lips. The first one in... well... in forever. "Yes, I guess business hasn't been too good for them lately, has it?"

Something that almost looked like a smile touched her lips as well. "No," she agreed. "It really hasn't."

He looked down at the bird again. "Pretty good shot with that slingshot," he told her.

She took a step closer to him, seeming to relax a little. "I've had more practice with it than I really should have to admit," she said. "Thank god my older brother left it in the house before he... well... before he left."

"He's in the war?"

She shook her head. "Not any more," she said. "He got killed in the Battle of the Border. Napalm."

Conner nodded sympathetically. "I was there," he said. And he had been. The Battle of the Border had been the near-fanatical last stand the American forces had taken just south of Vancouver, British Columbia, two long months before, as they had tried in vain to prevent the Chinese from becoming the first foreign armed force to enter the continental United States since the War of 1812. Tens of thousands of American men and women had died there, as well as maybe a hundred thousand Chinese. And it had all been for nothing. The Chinese had pushed through them in less than 100 hours, shattering the crust defense and capturing five times as many men as they'd killed. Conner had barely escaped, making it through a choke point less than ten minutes before the Chinese had closed it off.

"Glad to see you made it," she said, a scowl on her face. "Can I get my bird, or what?"

"Go ahead," he replied, nodding towards the carcass.

She walked over to it and kneeled down, her eyes keeping a careful, though furtive watch on him. She picked the bird up by the neck and stood again. Her blue eyes examined it for a second and her face turned sour. "I don't suppose," she asked, "that you have anything else to eat?"

He shook his head. "We ran out of MREs two days ago, when the chinks started hitting us hard. The last thing I had was a can of ravioli sometime yesterday."

"A can of ravioli?" she said, nearly drooling.

"I bought it from a sergeant before everything went to shit," he said. "Cost me ten bucks but it was the best goddamn thing I've eaten in months."

"I'd kill for a can of ravioli," she said in envy. "I haven't had any real food in almost a week now, since the chinks started pushing in hard. That's when I had to... you know... start living off the land."

He looked at the bird carcass. "What do those things taste like?"

She rolled her eyes. "Like greasy, stringy, tough chicken that's been overcooked and then left to sit on the counter for a week or so. And that's if I cook it right."

He laughed - a tired, pitiful laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. "You should go into food sales, you know that?" he asked. "You have a way of selling things."

She laughed as well. "What's your name?" she asked him.

"Conner," he said. "Conner Boreman. I'm either a corporal or a sergeant or a lieutenant. I kinda lost track somewhere."

"I'm Meghan," she said. "Meghan Richards. Do you want to join me for breakfast, Conner Boreman?" She hefted the bird invitingly. "It ain't much, but it's all I got."

He looked at the bird carcass in distaste once more but the rumbling in his stomach pushed it to the side. "Thank you," he said, standing and slinging his rifle over his shoulder. "I'd be honored."

-------

She led him through the bowels of the Macy's store, through a maze of debris and rubble, until they arrived at a set of elevator doors. She used her hands to push them open. Inside was the dead and dark elevator car.

"Up here," she said. "Follow me." She stood on a packing crate and pushed on the access panel at the top of the car, shoving it to the side. She then climbed through the hole in the ceiling, her legs disappearing from sight. "There's a ladder up here," her voice told him. "You can't see much, but just grab it and keep climbing until you get to the top. And be sure to push the panel back in place before you climb. This is the only way up to where we're going since the stairs are collapsed."

He looked up doubtfully for a moment but finally climbed atop the plate and pulled himself onto the roof of the elevator car. The smell was dank and oily. He stood and pushed the access panel with his foot until it clanked back in place. The darkness became absolute. He groped blindly around. His hands contacted several cobwebs before finally finding the rungs of a steel ladder. He pulled himself upward until he was able to get one of his feet on the rungs.

"You still there, Meghan?" he called.

"Keep climbing," her voice said from somewhere above him. "You'll know when you get to the top."

He climbed, his arms and legs pushing him upward until they began to get sore. He knew the store was three stories high, which translated into about ninety feet. He tried not to think of the drop below him as he ascended. Finally a shaft of dim light appeared and he found himself next to the partially opened doors of the third floor elevator stop. Meghan's face was looking out at him.

"Now step across over to here," she said, holding out her hand.

He took a few deep breaths as he pondered the drop he would suffer if he missed his step. Finally he screwed up his courage and stepped across, taking her hand and pulling himself through. It was easier than it looked. He was now in a dim hallway with office doors on both sides.

"I've been staying up here for about a week," Meghan told him. "In the security office. No one has found me here."

"I can see why," he said, following her down the hallway. "How did you find out about the ladder and all that?"

"I was chased in here," she said. "A squad of soldiers out on patrol saw me and my friend Ashley when we were getting water from the old fountain outside."

"Our soldiers?" he asked, although he knew it would have to be. A week ago the Chinese were still on the outskirts of the city.

"Yes," she said softly. "A squad of them. They were drunk and they surrounded us, started telling us to... well... do things for them. We ran from them. They caught Ash outside but I ran into the store and found the elevator and shut the doors behind me. I heard them looking for me and... and that's how I found the trap door in the top. Then I found the ladder and climbed up to the top."

"What happened to your friend?" he asked.

She sniffed a little. "I heard them raping her down on the bottom floor, just about where you were lying. She screamed for the longest time, begging for help, but there wasn't anything I could do. When they were done with her... they..."

"Shot her?" he asked, unsurprised. He had witnessed such atrocities many times himself though he had never participated in them. Many of the draftees fighting this war were criminals who had been given a choice between remaining in jail under wartime conditions or fighting. The fact that the girls they were raping were American citizens and the houses they were looting were American houses didn't seem to bother them in the least.

"I found her body the next morning," Meghan said. "She was lying naked down there, all bruised up, her head blown off. I buried her over by the fountain."

"I'm sorry," he said, although he wasn't sure just what it was he was apologizing for.

"You didn't do it," she said with a shrug.

"No, I didn't," he agreed. "I'm surprised you invited me up here though. I am wearing the same uniform, ain't I?"

"You're different," she said.

"How do you know that?"

She barked out a little laugh. "Maybe I don't," she admitted. "Maybe I'm just so tired of being alone and scared all the time that I just don't care anymore."

He nodded thoughtfully. He could certainly sympathize with that point of view.

The security office was not a large room. It was maybe fifteen feet by twenty. It was windowless, but a two-foot hole had been blasted in the far wall - probably by an air-launched rocket - allowing basic ventilation and a view to the outside if one stood on the bench just below it. The bench ran the length of that wall and had steel rings installed in it where shoplifters could be handcuffed. On the other wall was a bank of security monitors - all dark of course - and a complex control panel for controlling them. A few writing tables were next to the door. Sitting on one of them was a camp stove which Meghan had apparently lit before she'd come down after the seagull. Sitting atop the flame was a large, stainless steel pot full of boiling water.

"Is the water from the fountain?" he asked.

"Uh huh," she said. "This one is for cooking. If you need canteen water I'll boil you up some more later."

"Thanks," he said, sitting in one of the chairs and setting his rifle down.

He watched curiously as she carried the dead seagull over to the boiling water and, holding it by the neck, submerged it in the water. She held it there for a few seconds and then took it out, shaking it a few times to get the excess liquid off of it. She then sat down in the other chair and pulled a small garbage can over so it was between her legs. She began to pluck the seagull, her ragged fingers pulling the feathers out in clumps. "The hot water makes the feathers come out easier," she explained when she noticed his interest. "And then, once it's cleaned, I can boil it up in the pot."

"Where did you learn to do that?" he asked. There weren't many modern teenagers who would know the cleaning procedure for a seagull. "Did you grow up on a farm or something?"

She rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "As if," she replied. "Before the war I was the daughter of a lawyer living in a house overlooking the river. I was in the most popular clique in a private high school. I had my own Jetta and I was dating a pre-med student in his second year at WSU. And now look at me. I'm plucking a fuckin' seagull so I can fend off starvation for another day. The only reason I know how to do this is I went on a mission for my church once down to Nicaragua and saw how the poor people fixed their chickens. I never thought I would have to do it myself."

"What happened to your parents?" he asked.

"Dead," she said simply. "About two weeks ago, when everything started to go to shit here and the chinks started blowing everything up along the river with artillery, our house got hit. The shell came down right in my parents' bedroom."

"Do you have any other family?"

"My grandparents are in Bend. I was going to go live with them but I was never able to get across the river. First, all of our tanks and trucks were coming across the bridges to hold off the chinks. And then they all started to go back in the other direction. And then, when they started evacuating the citizens across I was too scared to go. The chinks were shelling people as they tried to leave." She shrugged. "I guess I thought it was safer to stay."

"Well... you're still alive," he said. "Maybe you made the right decision."

She shrugged again. "How much longer will I be alive?" she asked. "Am I supposed to wait out the rest of the war right here?"

"When the chinks get across the river the fighting will move further south," he said. "There will just be an occupying force here. No more bombing and shelling - at least not like it is now."

"Will they get across the river?" she asked. "The last news reports I heard said we were going to stop them here."

Now it was his turn to shrug. It was a bitter gesture. "I don't think anything is going to stop them," he opined. "There's so fucking many of them. I've watched them take every position we've held, every city we've tried to save. They swarm over us like army ants. We kill thousands of them on foot, we blow up hundreds of their tanks with the AT-9s and with our own tanks, and they still keep coming. We hardly have a chance to dig in and take a stand against them before they're overrunning us. And when their tanks and foot soldiers aren't advancing, their helicopters and their arty and their airplanes pound the shit out of us. They drop napalm on us. They drop cluster bombs on us. They strafe us with their choppers." He shook his head. "The Columbia is a big river, but I don't think it's going to stop them."

She shook her head sadly. "This fucking war," she said. "Why the hell didn't we nuke them when we had the chance?"

"Because we never thought they would get this far," he said. "We could've annihilated China, India, and Japan back in the beginning without them being able to annihilate us back, but we didn't do it. No one wanted to make the decision to do it. And now we can't. They have all those Russian nukes under their control now. The first time someone fires off a nuke, it's holocaust city."

"And is this better?" she asked. "Destroying every city they go through. Killing hundreds of thousands with tanks and machine guns and airplanes instead of nukes?"

"I don't know," he said. "I don't even care anymore. I'm just a foot soldier, some stupid ass kid who thought it would be static to sign up for the army and go kill some chinks for my country. I'm not much older than you. I was in high school this time last year, starting to think about where I wanted to go to college."

She smiled nostalgically at his words. "I remember what that was like," she said whimsically. "I was gonna get a cheerleading scholarship, can you believe that?"

He looked at her. Despite the dirt on her face and the filth on her clothes, despite the tangled mess that was her hair, he could tell she was a very pretty girl, far prettier than any he had ever touched. She was the epitome of the high school elite. "Yeah," he said with a smile. "I can believe it."

"What about you?" she asked. "What were your plans?"

"Computer systems engineering," he said.

She raised her eyebrows at the mention of this. "You mean you were a... a..."

"A nerd," he said. "About as nerdy as they come. I was captain of the chess team, founder of the computer club. I used to carry a PDA with me to class. Beer used to make me throw up. The only time I ever smoked pot I had an allergic reaction to it. The only girls who would have anything to do with me were the ones who wanted me to do their math homework for them."

"Wow," she said, trying to equate the image of the former Conner and the present one. "You seem so... so... un-nerdy now."

"Six months on the line will do that to you," he said. "I feel like I'm forty years old now. Like I've seen everything, done everything a man can do." He shook his head. "It's not really a good feeling, you know?"

"Yeah," she said, plucking another clump of feathers free. "I know."

When she got the last of the feathers free from the bird she reached inside one of the desk drawers and pulled out a large butcher knife. She chopped off the bird's head and neck. "This is the gross part," she said with a wince. She then forced her small hand through the hole in the top and began to pull out the guts of the bird, dropping them in the garbage can. Conner watched her impassively, unable to be disgusted by bird entrails. He had seen too many human entrails lately. At last, she pronounced the bird clean and dropped it into the pot of boiling water. She adjusted the propane flow a bit and then covered the pot with a lid.

"How long will it take?" Conner asked her.

"About two hours," she said. "Think you can wait that long?"

"I think I'll make it," he replied, stifling a yawn. "Do you mind if I... uh... kind of nod off for a while? It's been a few days since I got any sleep."

"Go right ahead," she said. "Do you want me to wake you up when the bird is done?"

"Yeah," he said. "I'm looking forward to a home cooked meal."

She laughed and started to say something else, but before it could come out of her mouth Conner was half asleep in his chair.

"Here," she said, reaching under the bench and pulling out a sleeping bag and some blankets. "Go ahead and lay down here."

"I couldn't," he said, eyeing the sleeping bag like it was a feather bed. "I'm filthy."

"You're no dirtier than I am. Go ahead. I insist."

"Well," he said, standing, "if you insist."

The rumpled sleeping bag and pillow was the most comfortable surface he'd laid on in the past month. This time unconsciousness did not just creep up on him, it assaulted him. Within three minutes he was snoring loudly, his rifle curled up next to him.

-------

Her hand on his shoulder brought him awake. He sat up suddenly, going instantly from deep sleep to full alertness, his hands snatching up his rifle, his eyes tracking for trouble. He felt his heart hammering alarmingly in his chest as it went from 56 beats a minute to 130. Meghan was the only person in the room, her blue eyes wide and startled.

"Jeez," she said, a little defensively. "I didn't mean to scare you or nothing. I just thought you'd better eat."

He took a few breaths, allowing himself to calm down. The ability to wake in an instant was something he'd developed in his first week of combat, something he feared would stick with him forever, even if he did somehow manage to survive the war. "Sorry," he told her. "Sometimes you have to... you know... jump up and start shooting when you're on the line."

"It's okay," she said. "You just scared me a little."

Outside, the sound of artillery shells, jet aircraft, helicopter gunships, and muted explosions went on and on. But there was something about the quality of the light coming in from the window that didn't seem quite right. It was too dim. And then there was the fact that he felt almost rested, a sensation he hadn't been familiar with in quite some time. "How long was I asleep?" he asked.

She gave him a sheepish smile. "Almost ten hours," she told him.

"Ten hours?" he asked incredulously. He hadn't had ten hours of sleep at a stretch since before leaving his parent's home in Omaha.

"I know I shoulda woke you up when the bird was done, but you were, like, way asleep. You were snoring and everything. You seemed like you needed to sleep more than you needed to eat so I... you know... just ate the bird myself and then went out and got you another one a couple hours ago."

"You mean... you left here and then came back... and I never woke up?" He wouldn't have thought that even possible, so attuned to the sound of nearby movement was he.

"You didn't even move," she said. "You stayed in the same position the whole time."

"Damn," he said wonderingly. "I really must've been tired."

"Your bird is done now though," she said brightly. She picked up a plastic plate with a skinned and boiled seagull sitting atop it. "And I boiled up some fresh water for you too."

He smiled, putting the rifle over his shoulder. "Thanks, Meghan," he told her. "But... uh... before I eat, I kinda have to... you know... use the latrine."

"The latrine?" she said, confused for a moment. Suddenly, she brightened. "Oh, you mean the bathroom." She then blushed. "I've uh... like... just been using... uh... the manager's office across the hall. There's not an actual toilet or anything in there, so you have to... you know?"

"Go on the floor?"

She nodded. "It's kind of... uh... messy in there."

"Believe me, it can't be worse than some of the places we've had to use on the line. Which way?"

She pointed and he got up, leaving the security office and walking across the hall. He opened the door and the smell of latrine hit him immediately. He found an unused corner and took care of his business. When he returned, Meghan was still blushing, obviously embarrassed at what he'd seen in there. He thought about offering some reassuring words to her but thought better of it. Deep down inside he was still an awkward teenager from the computer club and she was a member of the high school elite. He had killed hundreds of chinks, survived everything they could throw at him, and had become about as hardened a combat veteran as a man could become, but he still had very little experience with girls. He sat down in one of the chairs and put his rifle on his lap.

"Here you go," she said, handing him the plate. "I'm sorry there aren't any... like... knives or forks or anything."

He shrugged. "I guess you won't get as much of a tip then, will you?"

That earned him another smile. He returned it and then dug into the bird.

The meat was every bit as greasy, foul tasting, stringy, and tough as she'd promised. But it was food, something his body was crying out for, and he ate it gladly, peeling long strips from it and sticking them into his mouth by the handful. He chomped and chewed aggressively for the better part of twenty minutes, destroying the breast, both legs, and the wings. He would have gone after the meat on the underside as well but Meghan warned him it was unpalatable.

"Thank you, Meghan," he told her as she wrapped the remains in a plastic bag for later disposal. "That was the best goddamn seagull I've ever had."

She giggled. "I aim to please," she told him.

The light was nearly gone from the sky now, imparting a dim duskiness to the former security office. Conner left the desk seat and settled down on the floor, his back against the wall. He yawned, surprised to find he was still tired. Maybe seagull meat had that same natural sedative that turkey meat had. Anything was possible, wasn't it? Meghan settled against the wall across from him, her tennis shoe clad feet nearly touching his.

"How long will that go on?" she asked, nodding towards the window, where the sound of explosions and artillery shells continued.

"For a while," he told her. "Two or three days maybe. The chinks are gonna pound the shit out every defensive position they can identify south of the river. They'll hit them with arty, strafe them with helicopters, and drop napalm on them with planes. They'll want to kill as many of us as they can before they try crossing the river."

"It must be horrible," she said, shaking her head.

"It's not a picnic," he agreed. "I'm sitting here wondering if I'm actually safer on this side of the river."

"So what happens now?" she asked him. "What are you going to do?"

"I've kind of been avoiding thinking about that," he said.

"Sorry."

"It's okay," he assured her. "I guess maybe I have to. I can't stay here forever. You can't either. Even if the chinks don't find you in here, you're not gonna be able to go on living off seagulls for very long. You'll get scurvy. And eventually, someone's gonna come along and blow this building up on general principals."

She looked a little frightened at this thought, which obviously hadn't occurred to her.

"Anyway, I'm sure I've been listed as MIA by now, that they've sent my parents the email explaining I'm just another soldier presumed killed or captured in the pullback from Vancouver. The army has already written me off." He shrugged. "They won't miss me much. The army that is, not my parents. They're probably worried sick about me, wondering if I'm dead or on my way to some chink POW camp."

"My grandparents are probably wondering the same thing," she said. "Is there any way to get out of here? To get back to our own side?"

"Not to the south," he said. "All the bridges across the Columbia have been blown. If the chinks push across they'll put up pontoon bridges once they secure a bridgehead on the other side, but I don't think they'll be letting us walk across them. It's a little too cold and a little too far across to swim, and even if we tried, either the chinks on the north side or our guys on the south side would just pot us out of the water anyway."

"So we're stuck here?" she asked. "Behind the lines?"

"That depends," he said, an idea starting to occur to him.

"On what?"

"On how well you know how to climb mountains."

"Mountains?" she asked. "What do you mean?"

"The chinks are driving down a narrow corridor," he explained. "They're contained between the Cascades and the ocean. As they move further and further south, they leave a few reinforced battalions behind to seal up each pass through those mountains to keep us from hitting their supply lines and getting forces in their rear. We're guarding the other side of each of those passes to keep them contained in their corridor. If we can get to the other side of the Cascades, we'll be back in friendly territory. But the only way we'll be able to do that is to stay well away from the passes. That means going over the mountains in the most impassible place possible, where it's completely inconceivable that any vehicles could get through. There won't be many troops guarding a place like that. Probably not any, just random helicopter sweeps."

"How long would it take to do something like that?" she asked.

"This is your home," he said. "You tell me."

She ran the geography of the state down in her head. "It would take a long time," she finally concluded. "A few weeks I think, if we're just walking."

"That's about what I figured," he said. "And I'll add on a few more weeks because we won't just be strolling along. We'll have to hide and slink and move mostly at night. Hell, I'm not even sure we'll be able to get out of Vancouver without getting captured. And even before we try it, we're gonna have to secure enough food and warm clothing to carry us through. We're not talking a cakewalk here."

"No, it doesn't sound like it."

"You might not want to come with me," he said. "I have to get out of here. Or I have to try at least. I'm a soldier and if they find me they'll either kill me outright or send me to some fucking POW camp for the rest of the war. You're a civilian caught in an occupied area. I don't imagine it's a lot of fun living under chink occupation, but you might stand a better chance of living through the war if you stay put."

"No," she said immediately. "I'm going with you."

He smiled again, feeling warmth inside, but also a fear - fear at being responsible, fear at being a failure in front of such a beautiful girl. "Okay then," he told her. "At first light tomorrow we'll start thinking about a way to get our hands on some supplies. How does that sound?"

"That sounds static," she said, beaming. "In the meantime, though, we're about to lose the last of the light. I'm gonna get some sleep, if that's all right."

"By all means," he said. "I think I'll do the same. I know I just slept all day, but I still feel like crashing out."

She took off her heavy jacket, revealing a flannel shirt beneath that was only marginally cleaner. She kicked off her tennis shoes and then unzipped her sleeping bag, folding it all the way back. She lay down on her back and pulled the blankets over herself. She looked up at him as he unzipped his tattered boots and kicked them off. When he started to head towards the far corner of the room, she asked, "Where are you going?"

"Just over here," he said. "Hopefully I won't snore too loud."

"It gets, like, really cold in here at night," she said. "Why don't you share the blankets with me? You'll be a lot warmer."

He felt himself blushing. Was she actually offering to let him... let him sleep with her? In her bed? "Uh... well... uh, that's okay," he said. "My BDUs are pretty warm. I've been sleeping outside all winter."

"I would be a lot warmer too," she said softly, her eyes bright and inviting. "Please?"

He swallowed, all of his high school awkwardness flooding back to him, his brain screaming at him to just leave, that this was some sort of a cruel setup, a practical joke precipitated by one of the jocks, a joke that would end with his underwear around his neck or his head in a toilet. But another part, a part that had faced battle, that had seen many of those same jocks blown to pieces because they were too big and too clumsy and too dumb to survive, that part gave him the confidence he needed. "Well," he said, "if you really want me to."

"I really want you to," she said, pulling the blankets back and patting the space next to her.

He set his rifle down on the ground next to the bed and then unclipped his web gear, shucking it off. With it went his extra magazine (which only had 13 rounds in it), his two frag grenades, his canteen, his first aid kit, and his radio with the dead battery. He set it next to the rifle. He then unzipped his BDU jacket, shrugging it off and setting it on the desk where he'd eaten earlier. He winced a little as he caught a whiff of the odor his body was giving off and wondered for a moment if he should put the jacket back on to cover it.

"What's the matter?" Meghan asked him, seeing his hesitation.

"I... uh... haven't had a shower in a few weeks," he said slowly. "Maybe I should just sleep over there after all."

"You can't possibly smell any worse than I do," she said. "I haven't had a shower since our house blew up." She patted the bed again. "Come on, Conner. Come lay with me. I promise not to be offended."

"Okay," he said slowly. He walked over and let himself down, putting his body next to hers. He felt his leg touching the side of her jeans, his hip touching hers. He tried to scoot away but she wouldn't let him.

"It's okay, Conner," she said softly, putting her hand on his hip and forcibly pulling him against her. "It'll be warmer if we, like, kinda cuddle up, you know?"

"I... uh... I guess," he stammered. He remained on his back, relishing the sensation of her next to him. Even through all of the clothing, she felt soft against him. And even though he could smell the sour odor of girlish sweat clinging to her, it was not exactly unpleasant. He felt his penis hardening in his pants as it realized this was the closest he'd ever been to such an attractive girl.

She rolled up onto her side, facing away from him and then looked over her shoulder at him. "Well?" she asked.

"Uh... well what?"

"Are you going to cuddle me?"

He swallowed nervously. He had never cuddled a girl before and wasn't exactly sure how one went about it. He had never had a girlfriend before, had never even had a date. His entire history with the opposite sex consisted of two visits to a whorehouse outside Dallas, Texas during basic training. And, while he had gotten himself laid, the whores had treated the entire relationship like what it was, a business. Their goal had been to get him in and out - so to speak - as quickly as possible. They had most definitely not been into cuddling. "I... uh..." He swallowed again. "I mean..."

Meghan seemed to pick up what he couldn't say. "Just roll up against me," she told him. "Put your arm around me and pull the blankets over us. That way, we'll, like, share body heat."

Slowly, hesitantly, he did as she said, rolling up onto his right side, so his front was pushed against her back. He kept his hips back a little, fearful that she would feel his erection pushing against her if he made contact. He then took his left arm and draped it over her stomach. Her body felt extremely nice against him, soft and curvy and very feminine.

"Mmmm," Meghan sighed. "That's nice, Conner. Very nice. It feels good to have a man hold me. It makes me feel... you know... safe."

"I'm uh... glad I can... uh... help," he said, memorizing the feel of her soft stomach against his forearm.

They lay there silently, not moving as the last of the light disappeared and complete darkness conquered the room. Outside, the artillery barrage went on and on but Conner barely heard it, so enraptured was he to be actually in a bed with a pretty girl and holding her body next to his. His penis remained hard within his pants, begging to be ground up against Meghan. He resisted the urge, keeping it well away from her. What would she think if she felt it? Probably disgust. She would probably kick him out of her bed, possibly even out of her room.

Despite his efforts to keep it away from her, he soon found out what she would think. She squirmed a little in her bed, pushing her rear end backwards until it contacted him. The bulge of his crotch was now pushed firmly against her ass, exactly where she couldn't help but feel it. He tried to pull back away from her, horrified, embarrassed, but she moved with him, keeping the junction firmly together.

"It feels like you like me," she said softly, her tone indecipherable.

"I'm sorry," he blurted. "It's been a while... since... you know... and... and..."

"It's okay," she whispered. "I kind of like it."

"You... you... do?"

"Yes," she said with a naughty giggle. "It makes me feel... like... pretty, attractive. You know what I'm saying? I mean, I must look and smell like absolute shit, but I can still give an older guy a... you know... a stiffy."

"Uh... yeah," he said, licking his lips. "It's a... a stiffy all right."

She giggled again. "Do you want to... touch me?" she asked him.

"Tuh... touch you?"

"Uh huh," she said. "You know? Like... under my shirt? Under my pants?"

"Uhh..." he started, unsure how to respond. Nothing even remotely like this had ever happened to him. Was she really inviting him to... to... touch her?

"You can," she said, squirming a little against him, putting more pressure on his erection. "I kind of want you too. It reminds me of... like... the past, you know? Before the war. Of being in a car with my boyfriend. Will you touch me, Conner? Just for a little while?"

"I... uh... guess I could do that," he said through a dry mouth. "If you really want me to."

"I really want you to," she said.

He felt her hand atop of his, the one he had on her stomach. She grasped it, pushing it downwards, under the bottom of her flannel shirt. She then pulled it up, setting it on the soft skin of her bare stomach.

"Go ahead," she whispered. "Touch me. Feel me. Anywhere you want. Anywhere."

Trembling, excited beyond belief and nervous as hell, he began to rub his fingers around on her stomach. He passed over her bellybutton, over her flanks, felt the bottom of her ribcage. Her skin was silky smooth, so soft and pliable. She cooed a little as she felt his touch, her hips grinding just a bit against his hard-on. He moved his hand further upward, onto the bra cup of her right breast. He squeezed softly, getting the feel of it, in awe that he was actually gripping her tit. It was about the size of a grapefruit, soft, yet firm, as if it had been made to be squeezed.

"You can put your hand under the bra," Meghan told him gently.

Conner knew an order when he heard one. He brought his hand downward again and then squirmed his fingers under the bra cup. Soon he had her bare tit in his hand. The nipple was hard, pushing insistently against his fingers. He felt it, pinching it lightly. Meghan took in a sharp intake of breath as he did so, obviously enjoying his ministrations.

He decided to take a little initiative. He ground himself a little more firmly against her body, sending pleasurable tingles throughout his groin. Meghan seemed to like this so he did it a little harder. As he moved his hand to her other breast, he moved his head forward. With his free hand he pushed her hair out of the way and began to kiss the back of her neck. He had read in the many Internet porn sites he'd perused over the years that girls liked it when you did that.

The Internet porn sites were apparently right. The effect on Meghan was nothing short of dramatic. She arched herself more firmly against him and her breathing speeded up to a near pant. "That's nice," she said, desire clearly in her voice. "Very nice, Conner."

"Yes," he panted back, still unable to believe this wasn't a wet dream he was going to awaken from at any moment.

Suddenly she was squirming into a new position. She twisted herself until she was on her back. "Suck them," she told him. "Suck my nipples, Conner. I want to feel your mouth on me."

He made a growl in reply, his mouth incapable of forming speech at the moment. He extricated his hand from her shirt and then began to tug on it, rucking it up to her neck. She reached down herself and pulled up her bra, releasing her breasts from their confinement. He lowered his face down, operating by feel only since there was no light. He felt the jiggly flesh against his cheek, the nipple pushing into his chin. He adjusted himself and slurped the hard protrusion into his mouth.

"Oh yessss," Meghan sighed, her hand going to the back of his head.

As he suckled first one nipple and then the other, he put his hand back on her stomach and began to move it downward, towards her crotch. She had told him he could feel her anywhere and he figured that standing order still applied. He grasped the button of her jeans and, when she didn't protest, pulled on it until it opened.

"Mmmm, yessss," Meghan moaned in his ear. "Do it, Conner. Touch me. Feel me up."

He found the zipper and pushed it down, opening the pants enough to allow his hand admittance. He pushed his fingers in the opening and felt the silkiness of her panties. He allowed this sensation to register for a few moments and then moved onward, forcing his fingertips under the waistband of them, onto the skin of her lower stomach. He found the going a little rougher than he'd anticipated here but, with persistence, he was soon touching the crinkly hair of her pubis. He pushed lower until he encountered wetness and her slippery lips. Though he was inexperienced, he could tell she was incredibly turned on by what he was doing to her. This gave him confidence unlike anything else that had happened. He had actually turned a woman on! He had! The boy who had once thought that even the Dallas whores would refuse to sleep with him.

He pushed even lower, until his middle finger was firmly entrenched between the lips of her vagina. He rubbed up and down for a bit, smearing her juices around, drenching his finger, and then curled the finger inward, forcing it inside of her. She was tight, he realized excitedly. Incredibly tight. Her muscles gripped at his digit, trying to pull it in further. Her entire pelvis rose off the ground, assisting in this effort. She was now panting like an engine, her breath rushing in and out, occasional moans punctuating his efforts when he touched her in a particular way. His engineering-oriented mind quickly learned to duplicate these sensations and expand upon them, bringing further pleasure to her.

She suddenly gripped his forearm in hers, almost hard enough to cause pain. "I want you to fuck me," she told him.

"Huh?" he stammered, his awkwardness coming back in an instant. Did she just say what he'd thought she'd just said?

"Yes!" she said, pulling his hand out of her pants. "I want you inside of me. Oh God, fuck me, Conner! I'm, like, so fucking horny right now!"

He heard her squirming around on the bed beneath him. Though he couldn't see her, it didn't take a genius to figure out what she was doing. She was taking her pants off. She was not kidding around, not teasing, not participating in some elaborate practical joke. She really did want him to fuck her. He heard the pants slide down her legs, heard her kick them off. The smell of her crotch hit his nose at the same time. It was a thick, musky, sweaty smell, obviously made much stronger than it was meant to by the lack of recent bathing. It should've been overpowering, even gross, but it wasn't. It was the most erotic thing he had ever smelled in his entire life.

"Come on, Conner," she pleaded, her bare leg raising up and rubbing against his flank. "Do me, baby! Get your pants off!"

That kicked him into gear. He rose up and began fumbling with his belt. His hands were trembling so badly it took him three tries before he was finally able to open it. She wanted to fuck him! And he hadn't even paid her! At last, he was able to get the buttons undone and the zipper pushed down. He rolled over onto his back and pushed the pants down and off, his filthy GI underwear going with them. His cock was as hard as it had ever been before, was wet and dripping pre-cum. He had a momentary fear as he realized he wouldn't last very long but Meghan stifled it by reaching out and wrapping her fingers around him.

"Oh yes," she said, jacking it up and down a few times. "It's a nice one. Nice and big and hard."

Nice and big? Had she really said that? In all of the porno stories he'd read over the years, the guys all had cocks of at least eight inches. His was only seven. Was she just trying to stroke his ego?

"Come on," she said again, pulling at him. "Get on top of me. Please?"

He rolled atop her, getting into position exactly as he'd done in the whorehouses. At least those experiences had done something for him. He slid between her spread legs and felt her hand tugging his cock forward. He felt the head touching her wetness, felt her smearing the tip up and down. He had another momentary fear about pregnancy - after all, they had no condoms - but that too disappeared once she seated him between her lips and began to pull on his with her hands on his ass.

"Fuck me," she said. "I want to feel it!"

He pushed forward, finding the going extremely difficult at first. She was very tight, almost too tight, certainly nothing like the whores he'd fucked before. He felt the head penetrate her and then stop, refusing to go further. He pulled out a little and then pushed in again, going deeper this time, about a half an inch past the head.

"Yesssss," Meghan moaned. "That feels so good. Put it all the way in. Allllllll the way!"

He pulled out and then pushed in further, sinking deeper this time. He did it again and then again, going deeper into her body with each thrust. Soon he was balls deep in her, his pubis mashed against hers. Both of them sighed at the penetration, Conner in particular as he felt her tightness gripping him like a sheath, putting pressure on his entire length. He began to rut in and out of her, moving smoothly and precisely for about twenty seconds, enjoying the caress of her passage, enjoying the feel of her smooth body moving beneath him, of her contented pants in his ear.

"Yes, yes, yes," she moaned as his butt rose up and down, as he slid in and out of her tightness. "Fuck me, fuck me, fuck meeeeeeee!"

His thrusts quickly became erratic as he heard her pleasurable moans, her obscene words. Though the whores had whispered such sentiments as well, they had not even made the attempt to pretend they were sincere, nor would he have believed them if they had. But with Meghan, she really was sincere. She really was enjoying what he was doing to her, the feel of his cock in her pussy, the feel of him fucking her. Fucking her!

The orgasm hit him so quickly and so powerfully he didn't even have time to try to prevent it, to try to think of war bonds or Allied strategies or computer code. One second he was in control, the next, pleasure was exploding through his body and he was spurting blast after blast of hot semen into her body, his hips rising and falling spastically, his mouth biting at her neck to keep from screaming.

"Ohhhhh, Godddddd," he groaned as he poured himself out into her.

"Ohhhhh, yesssss," she moaned as she felt it.

It was only after the last spurt had shot, only after the immediate pressure was released, that it occurred to him he'd just put in a pathetic performance. Meghan hadn't cum! Though he had never experienced a female cumming as a result of his ministrations, he was reasonably sure the event had not taken place. She was excited, sure, but orgasm? No. Though his natural inclination was to stop thrusting, to collapse atop her and whisper sweet nothings in her ear while his cock slowly shriveled up to normal size, he fought it. He continued thrusting, driving his wet cock into her overflowing passage.

"Ooooh," Meghan said, surprised. "You're not gonna... oooh, you're... oh!"

He began to move faster and harder, moving his cock in such a way that the sensation caressed it firmly enough to prevent it from shriveling. He found it was exactly the manner in which Meghan enjoyed him moving as well. Now it was her words that became incoherent, her body that began to thrust up and down in an out of control manner.

"Oh my God, Conner, you're gonna... oh... you're gonna... Ohhhhhhh!"

He redoubled his efforts, slamming in and out of her, grinding at the bottom of each stroke, rubbing himself on her exposed clitoris. She began to tremble beneath him now, her fingernails biting into his back through his T-shirt. When she finally came, it was an amazing thing to be a part of, an experience that would forever shield him from being fooled by a fake orgasm. She had a near seizure beneath him, her legs tightening around his ass. Her vaginal muscles clenched down on him, nearly hard enough to bridge the gap between pleasure and pain.

"Ahhhhhhh, Goddddddd!" she screamed out, loud enough so that any passing Chinese soldiers on the street below might have heard her.

She relaxed against him but he wasn't done. He kept thrusting, slamming in and out and grinding his body. By now his cock was once again very interested in staying in the game, was begging for another release. There was no way he was going to stop now. He put his mouth to hers, kissing her for the first time. Though he hadn't brushed his teeth in quite some time, though he had been eating seagull for dinner, and thought she had been doing the same, he didn't care, and neither did she. Their tongues came together, swirling against one another, probing each other's mouths. She came again a few minutes later, the spasms and groans indicating it was even more powerful than the first. He came shortly after, his orgasm weaker than the first, but certainly nothing to complain about.

At last, both of the sated, he collapsed atop her. They shared a few more deep tongue kisses, their remaining passion grounding like an electrical current, gradually easing off to more affectionate kisses of lovers, of friends.

"Wow," she said at last. "That was, like... you know... wow."

"Yeah," he said, already feeling the pull of sleep trying to take him.

"I've been, you know, like fucked before... but never like that," she said. "No one has ever made me cum before."

He shrugged, as if satisfying lovers was something he did a couple a times a day. "I guess you just haven't found the right man," he said.

"I guess not," she said with a giggle. She took a few more breaths, her hands continuing to caress his back. "I think I can sleep now," she told him. "I feel nice and relaxed. Safe."

"Me too," he said, truthfully.

"Will you still hold me tonight?" she asked, her voice very much that of a little girl.

"Yes," he told her. "I'll hold you. I'd love to."

They repositioned themselves, neither bothering to put their clothes back on. She snuggled up against him, his arms around her. Within minutes, both drifted off, neither thinking about what tomorrow was going to bring.
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