Assault on Sunrise (Excerpt)

Check out Assault on Sunrise by Michael Shea, available August 13th from Tor Books!

Curtis, Japh, and Jool are film extras, who—with the help of a couple of very gutsy women—survived being anonymous players in a “live-action” film in which getting killed on-screen meant getting killed for real. Surviving the shoot made them rich enough to escape the post-apocalyptic Hell that L.A. has become. But their survival was not what Panoply Studios’ CEO Val Margolian had in mind, especially since it cost his company millions.

Now he’s taking his revenge. After several plainclothes police are found dead in the former extras’ new home, the bucolic, peaceful town of Sunrise, California, the entire town is subjected to Margolian’s invidious plan to punish the entire town…and make a fortune doing it. Margolian has created toxic, murderous wasp-like mechanical creatures to set upon the people of Sunrise, while his film crew captures the carnage in what promises to be the bloodiest “live-action” film yet. With their haven from L.A. besieged by the deadly assault, the former extras—and their fellow townspeople—are faced with a grim task: to defeat the creatures and take back their town and their freedom.

 

TARGET PRACTICE

Before the sun came up, Curtis and Jool woke up and got it on. As their baby had grown in her, he had taken to moving more gingerly when he was in her too, worried that it might hurt Jool to be holding them both. But then she began to ride him strongly, snatching him up into her recklessness and making him reckless too.

Reckless was good, because it was like a promise. It meant they had their whole lives of love ahead of them and could spend it how they wanted. He felt that she was not riding toward him, but taking the three of them away from here to somewhere safe from what was coming down.

Afterward, embraced, their heartbeats slowing, it seemed they had indeed traveled and passed a long and happy time somewhere else. But here came the real world gathering around them once more, the dangerous world they’d lived in since the day before yesterday.

He put his hand on her belly. “Jool. Would you please just go? Get the baby, get Momma and Auntie far away and safe? You know me—no way I won’t survive and bring you all back here!”

“Honey,” she said, “you wouldn’t go, if it was just you. I wouldn’t go, if it was just me. And you and me are who this baby’s gotta live with. Down in the Zoo I dreamt all my life of a place like this. Nothing’s gonna chase me out of it.”

“What about Auntie and Momma? They’re spry but they’re not young.”

She smiled. “We can ask ’em to go—do you see ’em doin it?”

They lay stroking each other, the sky’s silver light like warm drapery on them. Their love began growing again as they fondled and snuggled, involved in that sweet studious wrestling, trying to get closer, and closer still, shedding tears as they came.

After, they dozed till the sun was rising, and had just dressed and started coffee when Momma and Auntie’s threewheeler growled down the slope, coming down from The Garden Spot, their “flower ranch” two hills over, with Auntie Drew at the wheel.

On their runs down to L.A. to bring their household possessions up here to Sunrise, Momma Grace had proved to be God’s own combat-driver when running the Five through the bandit nests, but lately she’d been putting Curtis’s Auntie at the wheel to train her. Auntie’s fingers, crooked from years of keyboarding in the ’Rise, were straighter already with her months of gardening, and she loved driving, but that hadn’t made her very good at it yet. Fearless and enthusiastic, yes—and this could make her dangerous if you were in, or near, her path.

When the coffee was ready they brought it out to the ladies, who were just coming up the steps. They all talked planting and fertilizers, gulping the brew.

When Jool and Curtis had at last made their pitch, Auntie squawked, “Run us down to Redding? Curtis, you must be trippin! We’re stayin right here, an we mean to cap some studio ass, child.” Her diction had gone downhill up here in Sunrise, even as her fingers and her spine had grown straighter. Her hair was a weedy white ’fro now, like a dandelion puffball. Momma Grace for her part must’ve lost sixty pounds—no sylph yet, but a sturdy, tight country Momma.

“Well then,” Jool said, “lemme get you some things we’ve got for you.”

She brought out the weighty duffel she and Curtis had readied, and took from it first two old shirts. Foam blocks cut from an old cushion were glued inside their right shoulders. “Put these on an button ’em up, Dears. Get the foam snug on the front of your shoulders.… Good. Now let’s go on up to that draw there. We’ve got us some practicing to do.”

Auntie asked, “Practicing what?” But her smile at the satchel said she already knew. As they marched ahead up through the grass it made Curtis sad to watch them. You could see them just loving where they were so much, the grassy hillside, the sun, and the sky.

A fold in the hillside was their destination. There was a bit of level ground in this nook and some shrubs and small trees half filled it. One big old log, a long-fallen pine, lay at a tilt in the brush, bright green moss wrapping half its bark.

“We should stand about here,” Curtis told them. “And we’ll do our practicing on that trunk there.”

“Slip these on round your necks,” Jool said, handing them earmuffs. “You’ll cover your ears when you’re actually firing.”

Curtis took out the two sawed-off pump-actions. “Take hold of em like this… right. Now, snug the stocks against the padding on your shoulders. Here… like this…”

Maybe they sensed how it scared their “youngsters” to see them holding those little steel brutes. Momma’s reversion to Zoo-talk was a match for Auntie Drew’s—and she a tutor of English for so many years! “Why you puppies so long-faced?” she laughed. “You think we don’ know howda stomp some? Kick-ass our middle names!”

Curtis and Jool had them dry-fire a while, perfecting their stances, left feet advanced, whole backs and hips braced against the trigger pull. Aiming, bracing, triggering, working the slide… “How your hands, girl?” Momma asked Auntie Drew. “They looking so strong now an’ straight!”

“Thanks to you, Gracie,” she answered. “Thanks to our rakes an our shovels. Hands of steel! They could snap a damn keyboard in half!”

“OK,” Curtis told them, concealing a sinking feeling at this graver phase of their work here. “Now you load them like this… firm push with the thumb and tuck it up in there… right… OK. Five in the magazine, good. Now jack one into the chamber—pull that slide firmly, that’s it—always pull that slide crisply all the way. Now, one more in the magazine. Good. Very careful from here on out, cause remember you got one in the chamber. Bring it up sure it’s pointed away from anyone you don’t wanna hit, because now the damn thing will fire.”

Jool slipped their earmuffs on them, and then Curtis spoke louder. “Now. Lean forward and brace for the recoil and just hit that trunk, anywhere along its upper half.”

Auntie would still have pitched straight over backward if Curtis hadn’t stood braced right behind her. Momma Grace shouted, “Holy shit!” in happy awe at the thunder she’d unleashed.

Two dozen rounds they fired. Toward the end their aim got better and they dug a big splintery chasm in the trunk. Watching, Jool and Curtis were glad for their months in the mountains. How sturdy they’d gotten! There was a dazed, pleased look on their faces, and a pair of grins when each caught the other’s eye: two ladies of some power now.

But Jool and Curtis traded a different look. Both of them were going to be in what was coming, and gone for good any chance of keeping them out of it. He saw Jool wipe her eyes quickly before she said brightly, “All right! Not too shabby. Now your sidearms—”

Auntie yelped, “What’s that!?”

Curtis looked where she pointed, and then checked the hillside to see if a breeze was stirring the grass, because that thick, bright moss on the trunk was rippling.

He literally rubbed his eyes. The moss was stirring in the windless air, shuddering like the fur of some animal in the early sunlight. Shuddering and contracting, because its green pelt thickened and narrowed till it looked like a python… and just like a python, it reared up from the trunk in a thick, swaying stalk.

The stalk budded, massive buds that melted into focused shapes, three aliens: a cruel-beaked thing all studded with rubies that saw them; a crocodilian gnawing the air with its fanged shovel-jaws; a carnivorous ape with a triad of ironic blue eyes.

These absurdities melted back into a featureless python as fast as they’d formed. The python poured off the trunk and into the undergrowth, moving like muscle, graceful along its green length, tucking into the foliage and vanishing.

The little group stood stunned. It was cinematic, a perfect little scene they’d been snared into watching: a little bow from an alien visitor to their world.

They commed Japh and Cap and Chops, and damn quick had a lot of help searching the hills, dozens of them fanning out, rummaging through grass and shrub.

They knew they’d been mocked, two of them survivors of Alien Hunger whom Val Margolian might be specially ticked at. That little demo had addressed questions he knew they were desperate to answer: What would they be facing? How could they fight it?

The answer was like some snotty magician pulling bouquets from his pockets and waving them in their faces. What will you be facing? It could be anything! Look what I can do!

Long after its futility lay heavy upon them, they kept up the search, stubbornly rummaging through grass and bush, grimly refusing to let an invader lie hidden here. For these were their hills. Their freedom, their peace was here.

And all the while they searched, something was touching and tickling their bent-over backs, a radiation sly and subtle raining down: Surveillance.

To an extent they couldn’t measure, they were all had. Those who were coming for them already had them covered. Their every move? Their every syllable?

The sensation settled on all of them. Spread over three hillsides, they felt it as one. And felt too what they were deciding about it: that they could not know the answers to those questions, and so they could not let those answers matter. There was only the fight as it came upon them, and only them to wage the fight.

 


Assault on Sunrise © Michael Shea 2013

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