war stories – chronicles of an uncertain war
It was an evening like any other in the bunker. Rick and Angie were out on patrol, Fred and Murph were sleeping, and I was in the ready room with Dan and a bottle of Jack.
Since Prague, the world was different, but it was even worse after the Hack. Someone had reverse-engineered the software used to pilot military drones and sold the crack to the Facs, and they had used it to great effect to strike down the military might of the old US of A. Now Europe was a wasteland that couldn’t hope for any help coming from overseas. The Yanks were too busy burying their own radioactive ashes.
Dan Deschamp was the de facto leader, he’d always been. He had the insight. He also had the cash. Oh, I’m not bitter, believe me. When someone can afford an underground bunker in the midst of a nuclear conflict and offers you a seat inside, it’s a pretty sweet deal no matter how you look at it. He had the cash, and the contacts, and the mind to exploit both.
But everything has to end some day, I guess.
The ready room was spartan. Three chairs, a large table, and an old newspaper clipping about Deschamp from before the war pinned on the wall with a dart, with a photo of him over which he’d scribbled “Ceci n’est pas un U”. He had an odd sense of humour, to say the least. We were looking at an old paper map of Paris, trying to figure out where the Facs could have placed their POWs and coordinate a rescue op, when the lights flickered. We looked at each other and then we felt the vibration. The ground started shaking and as the lights went out, I could only hear Dan yell a curse. I grabbed my camera and the holster I had left on the chair and ran outside as fast as I could. I didn’t look back, and I knew Dan wouldn’t have either. Survival was the priority; checks would be for later. I ran as fast as I could through the emergency tunnel we’d excavated and jumped out into the frozen blackness of the night.
Outside it was a pandemonium. The exit chute ended in a ditch that we had reinforced and covered to conceal and protect our egress, and at the same time give us a good overview of the bunker’s surroundings. North, towards the retreat’s entrance, I could see a line of tanks advancing, firing at the manor with all their might, supported by two helos flying low. They were black and sharp like two dark hornets poised to attack at the slightest provocation. That took care of our main route. To the south-east, around the service road, I could see a truck stationed under the cover of the trees. It was well concealed but a faint infrared signature betrayed its presence to my palmtop’s sensors. I quickly checked the com links in a futile attempt to locate Rick or Angie, but only static answered. I looked back towards the emergency exit, but nothing was coming out. I bagged my stuff, checked the safety off my pistol, and started walking towards the protective cover of the forest.
The frozen ground was both a blessing and a curse. It was so hard I left no trace that could lead back to me, yet at the same time any wrong move could spell my doom and send me down the cliff. The emergency route had been designed to be statistically the most improbable route anyone could take, and as such it was slow and painful and hard. When I made it to the rendezvous point, four hours had passed and the hill was far behind me, and the roar of the assault had faded into the distance.
I wasn’t surprised to see I was the first one there. What did surprise me, however, was seeing Angie arrive not even twenty minutes after I did. She held her rifle clutched tight against her chest, alert, but visibly exhausted. Upon identifying ourselves I could notice the release of the tension in her body, giving in to the fatigue and settling down for a well-deserved rest. I asked about Rick, but she only shook her head. She asked about Dan, and I could only shrug. I couldn’t be sure. He had surprised us before, after all.
Protocol in our little group meant we stayed there for twelve hours, hidden under our camoptic tents. If nothing happened, we were to retreat to one of our safe houses along what was left of the Loire.
The time had almost passed entirely when we heard a crash in the woods a few meters from our position. As we rushed out with weapons drawn, we heard a string of curses accompanied by a beating sound.
“Fuckin sunovabitch de putain de merde d’arbre à la con, merde!”
Deschamp was beating a frozen stump that had caused him to trip with the stick he’d used to walk to the meeting point. He wasn’t in good shape. He had no weapons or equipment, his combat suit was in tatters and his left arm was bloody and locked into a makeshift field cast. He saw us, froze still, then smiled.
“Hey gars. Glad you could make it.”
Then he fainted.
* * *
We were at the safe house when he woke up. Morphine and a good bed do wonders for a weary warrior, and he looked fresh and rested. By now we had confirmation that we were the only three who’d made it out of the bunker alive. How had they found us? What faction did they belong to? We had no clue, and probably would never find out. Our little organization had no friends on either side, busy that we were exposing atrocities from both. It wasn’t pretty, but we weren’t in it for the cookies. Romantic ideals of truth and transparency aside, a good scandal was good press for everyone willing to pay, and both side were very enthusiastic when it came to that. I had been a drone chaser for a long time, and it was very good money indeed. As the war dragged on and ideologies got fuzzier, propaganda never said no to a good old fashioned scoop. And the worst part of it all was that as outlandish as the stories we sent turned out to be, we never made any of it up.
After the Hack, it had become more complicated. The Facs had been more eager to go after us, preferring to deal with journos who showed a preference in exposing the Coalition’s misdeeds rather than their own. The impartial outlook of our cold, hard reports wasn’t their cup of tea. Too many times I’d captured massacres with the lens of my trusty Clem. The card inside held thousands of pics, of which merely a fraction we’d deemed suitable for publication. Clementine was my camera from way before the war. I had bought it for my first big gig, a long-form piece on the Brazilian space ports and the Chinese money that had built them. From rockets to drones, drones to bombs, the memory card read like a somber diary of the end of the world. The last shot to date was from three days earlier, a captured Fac, tied to a chair in one of our bunker’s cells. The photo showed him alive. He’d been defiant til the end, the old bastard.
I had pressed the shutter, then I had pressed the trigger.
Shaking the dark thoughts off, I tried to focus on the real world. I took a sip of water and lit up a cigarette, then went up the tower to stand watch so that Angie could get some rest. As I peered through the rifle’s scope, scanning our surroundings, I reflected on our situation. Deschamp was still planning the Paris attack downstairs, trying to connect to the net, but we were all weary, and our support network was growing thin. As it turned out, that would be the last of my worries.
Without warning, our safe house exploded.
It was a formidable stroke of luck that the bell tower still had this gigantic iron bell hanging there. As the tower crumbled to the ground, I barely had enough time to slide under it and grab the clapper for dear life. The bell stayed upright all the way down, and its thick walls protected me from the bricks and timber raining down. Enclosed in the dark, I had no idea what had happened but I could hear the faint buzz of an assault helo flying low, methodically gunning down the house.
Then voices, and gunfire.
My watch was destroyed in the fall and I don’t know how long I stayed under the bell. I don’t know how long it took me to claw my way out, either, but it cost me all my nails and my right index. I emerged from the debris as if reborn from the depths of hell, and indeed flames and ashes were all I could see a first.
The ruins of the house were still glowing red from the fire, and nothing larger than a chair had survived. I found Angie’s bloody ring in what had been the kitchen; That’s the only trace of her I could see. I found my trusty old Clementine in the garden, under a heap of debris that had once been a wooden chest in the living room. The card was intact, but Clem would never take photos again.
I found Deschamp’s remains in the courtyard. By the look of it, he’d ended on the wrong side of an incendiary grenade, and no amount of luck could save you from that. The right hand clutching a destroyed assault rifle left no doubt about how he’d gone down. The left arm in the makeshift cast left no doubt as to his identity.
There would be no assault on Paris for us.
Something just clicked. I gathered whatever I could from the ruins, placed Clem in my bag, and walked south, hiding during the day and making progress during the night. After three days, I hijacked a car and made a dash to the Pyrenees. A week later, I was in Porto purchasing a small sailboat, and starting preps for a crossing to the United States. With Deschamp dead, my war was over.
Time to head home.