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By Mack Maloney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Mack Maloney
All rights reserved.
Los Angeles, Free Republic of California
"This truly is an awesome sight, ladies and gentlemen." Nick "Red" Banner, newsman for KOAS-TV in Los Angeles, was shouting into his microphone and trying not to throw up at the same time. "There are thousands of spectators on hand here today. They are stretching in lines along the tracks that go back as far as I can see. And, of course, all of them want to be here to witness this historic occasion."
Banner was delivering his report from a helicopter circling over downtown LA. And that was a story in itself.
When his station manager had first assigned the newsman to cover the "historic occasion" from the air, Banner had told him that he was apprehensive.
Actually, scared to death was more like it.
Banner hated flying, and so he preferred to leave the aerial heroics to someone else. His station manager had other ideas however. He reminded Banner that the people of Los Angeles and the rest of California depended on his news reports every day. The compliment was technically correct: KOAS-TV was the only television station operating on the West Coast these days, and because he was the senior anchorman, the audience had little choice but to watch Big Red.
Still Banner had refused. He didn't trust aircraft or pilots, and nothing in his contract said he had to go up. It was only when the station manager threatened to send a rookie reporter—a woman no less!—to cover this, the biggest story since the end of the war, that Banner changed his mind.
So now he was strapped tightly into the helicopter, trying to convince himself that he was being very courageous about the fact that he was hovering a couple of thousand feet off the ground with a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon in his stomach that was barely an hour old.
Truth was, he had never felt so sick in his life. To combat his nausea and nervousness, Red was talking even louder and faster than usual.
"A stream of humanity has been pouring into downtown LA since early this morning," he boomed, over-emphasizing the so-called punch words in his commentary. "Everyone wants to be part of this momentous event. Everyone wants to be able to tell their grandchildren they were here on this magical day when the great train came roaring out of the east ..."
It was not unusual for Banner to overwhelm his viewers with hyperbole, even when covering the most mundane events. But today, his inflated speaking style was almost appropriate.
After all, he really was covering an event of historical significance.
Three days before, a similar great event had taken place in Football City—the metropolis known as St. Louis before World War III and its bloody aftermath had torn apart the American continent. Football City sat right on the eastern edge of the heartland of America, the vast area that had been devastated by a Soviet nuclear sneak attack at the end of that war. Even today, five years later, the region from the Dakotas down to Texas and on through New Mexico and Arizona remained a ghostland of inconceivable destruction and desolation.
The region was appropriately called the Badlands.
Since the war, traveling across the Badlands by land was considered suicidal. In addition to some lingering effects of the radiation and the hallucinogenic gases the Soviets had sent over, the habitable portions of the region were now populated mostly by roving bands of cutthroat terrorists, common bandits, air pirates and other assorted varieties of human slime.
The Bads had also been the site of several huge battles fought after the war between the American democratic forces and those allied with the Red Star, the fanatical Soviet clique that had launched World War III in the first place. It was their aim to see the American continent stay divided in the war's aftermath, but after a handful of bloody years, the Americans had managed to throw them out. One side effect was that the Bads was now a kind of junkyard for military equipment, much of which still worked.
No surprise then that for anyone who wanted to travel from one coast of the American continent to the other, the preferred means of transport was in something high and fast—something that would fly over the nightmare landscape at about twenty-five thousand feet, going five hundred mph plus. Thus, for a long time, airplanes had become the sole means of long-distance travel between the civilized coasts.
But times were changing in America. Most of the Soviet-backed forces were gone, defeated by the democratic armies. The massive air convoys that traversed the continent had increased threefold. The water route through the Panama Canal had been secured, and the enormous task of rebuilding the eastern side of the continent—the scene of most of the battles against the Soviet-backed armies—had begun.
All that remained was to open a secure land route between the coasts.
Most of the highways had been long ago destroyed. But oddly enough, a vast majority of the railroad system was still intact, including the old Amtrak southern route. However, these tracks ran through New Mexico and Arizona—the most treacherous territories in the southwest Badlands—and no one had yet attempted to travel on them.
The train had left Football City to a rousing send-off three days before.
An intrepid band of adventurers—they had dubbed themselves, The Modern Pioneers—had strung together a bunch of railroad cars and a locomotive on little more than a dare and had set out across the untamed country. Twenty-four of them in all, their well-publicized mission "was to relight the spirit of adventure and exploration on the continent."
Very few in the thousands of people crowded along the tracks leading to LA's recently rebuilt Amtrak station thought that one train making this journey meant it was again safe to travel across the country. No, this first trip would be more of a symbolic victory—another important step in the process of restoring the stability of the reemerging American nation.
Unlike most of the country, the West Coast had escaped much of the brutal fighting and destruction of the past few years, but the people of LA had still felt the effects of the horrors back East nevertheless. Many young men had left LA and joined America's freedom forces, now known as the United American Army, as they battled to restore liberty to the American continent. Many did not return. Even today, hundreds of well-armed soldiers circulated in the crowd, a constant reminder that America could never again lower its vigilance against the ever-present dangers from within and without.
Still, as the Pioneer Train's scheduled arrival time drew closer, the festive mood of the huge throng swelled into a patriotic fervor. A band standing on the station platform broke into a stirring rendition of "America, the Beautiful." Nearly every hand in the midst waved an American flag.
It was close to ten A.M. when somewhere at the far end of the crowd, several miles from the train station, a single voice suddenly called out, "There it is! I see it!"
Like a wave, the message rolled along the human pipeline to the station: "It's here ... the train is here. They made it!"
Suddenly all eyes were turned to the east. From his precarious perch in the sky, Red Banner should have been the first person to spot the train, it being a silver streak cutting through the foothills, rolling toward downtown LA. But Banner was so wrapped up in his efforts to verbalize the festive scene directly below him, that he neglected to watch for the historic train.
Finally his cameraman grabbed him by the shoulder. "Red! There it is!"
Banner swung around to look, just as the pilot swerved the chopper sharply to the left to give him a better view.
Banner felt his stomach roll up into his mouth.
"What the hell are you trying to do, kill me?" he bleated into his microphone, to the delight of several thousand viewers.
The newsman quickly regained his poise and resumed describing the scene below him.
"The crowd is really becoming excited now ... we can see the Pioneer's train. It's racing toward the station. It should be pulling in within a minute or two ... we're going to land very shortly so we can be on hand to greet the brave members of this history-making train crew. Until then, this is Red Banner for KOAS-TV."
This time Banner remembered to turn off his mike before growling at his pilot.
"Get this damn thing down," he yelled. "Fast!"
In his haste to return to solid ground, Banner failed to spot something that many of the people lining the tracks had already noticed as the train shot past them on its way to the station.
They had expected to be able to catch at least a glimpse of the crew members waving triumphantly from the train windows. Yet no faces appeared at those windows.
As the train approached the Amtrak terminal, an even greater concern began to grow in the crowd. Although it now was only a few hundred yards from the platform, the train was still rocketing along the tracks at an incredible speed.
With growing horror, the crowd realized that this train, careening along at nearly one hundred thirty miles an hour, wasn't going to stop.
All along the tracks, people tried to flee. Only moments before, the air had been filled with the sounds of celebration; now it was filled with screams of terror and panic. Hundreds were trampled as the crowd quickly turned into a desperate, howling mob, scrambling for survival.
Under the feet of the unlucky ones, the ground began shaking. But this was no earthquake tremor. Like a giant metal monster relentlessly tracking its victim, the train charged into the mouth of the station.
The loading platforms inside the terminal were filled with dignitaries ready to welcome the heroic crew members. Although they had heard the shouts of panic from outside, there was no time for them to escape. The speeding train roared into the building, past the loading platform and, with a horrible, deafening crash, continued on into the back wall of the station.
As the wall collapsed, the roof of the building caved inward, raining tons of steel and concrete onto the crowd. The impact did little to slow the train, however. It rampaged on for several hundred yards, smashing out of the far end of the station and onto the crowded street before finally coming to rest in the middle of an abandoned department store. The resulting impact and explosion sent this three-story building toppling to the ground.
Behind the engine, the train's twenty cars were tossed in all directions. The crash sent some of the cars catapulting high into the air. Others shot off the tracks and into the path of the fleeing mob, crushing bodies underneath. In seconds, death and debris were everywhere.
The veteran pilot of Red Banner's helicopter had realized just in time that the train was going to crash. He managed to dodge the whirlwind of flying debris, rocketing the chopper back up to a safe altitude at the last possible second. Now the aircraft was slowly circling the devastation, the video cameraman hanging halfway out the window, capturing the horror below.
Yet Banner's viewers were deprived of hearing his golden tones describe this scene of carnage and panic. He was too busy vomiting.
It would take almost a week for workers and volunteers to sort through the tons of wreckage surrounding what was left of the train and the station.
For days, the smell of seared wreckage and burned diesel fuel permeated downtown LA. The death toll finally was established at 502, many of the bodies burned or crushed beyond recognition.
The extent of the destruction made it virtually impossible for investigators to determine the cause of the crash. The locomotive was totally destroyed, so tracing any mechanical or electronic failure was out of the question.
But after dozens of hours of probing through the demolition, however, the city's Civil Guard investigators were able to come up with one indisputable, haunting fact: When the death train roared into the LA station, no one had been on board.CHAPTER 2
"So what in hell happened to those guys?"
The speaker was General David Jones, the Commander in Chief of the United American Army. He and his top advisors were meeting in the conference room of his Washington headquarters in the mostly deserted Pentagon Building.
"And what does it mean?"
These were the two questions on just about everyone's mind this morning.
Although the United Americans were now in control of the major cities on both coasts, they had long considered the Badlands a double threat: first, as a too-perfect spawning ground for new terrorist groups that might eventually arise and challenge the security of the newly united American nation, and second, as a refuge where once-defeated enemies of America could gather to regroup and plot their revenge.
It was obvious that the American continent would never be completely secure and free again until the Badlands were tamed. So the high command of the United Americans—Jones and his most-trusted colleagues—had watched with more than a passing interest as the adventurous Modern Pioneers attempted to make the first train journey through that section of the country since the war.
Then came the disaster in LA.
Jones repeated his question. "The guys on the train. What could have happened to them? Any ideas?"
He turned to the man seated to his right. Major Hawk Hunter was tall, handsome and widely regarded as the best fighter pilot who ever lived. Better known to his admirers and his enemies as the Wingman, Hunter was probably more responsible than any other person for keeping alive the struggle against oppression and tyranny in the dark days following World War III. From the cockpit of his highly advanced F-16XL fighter jet, it was Hunter who had led the forces of freedom to victory after victory over a series of brutal, power-mad enemies.
Now he turned to his Commander in Chief and friend, General Jones.
"I hope I'm wrong, but I think there's only one reasonable explanation," Hunter said. "That train was attacked, and everyone on board was either killed or taken hostage. I'll also bet a bottle of booze that the accident in LA was no accident. I say it was planned. Someone wanted to send a message to us."
"If that's all true," Jones replied, "then it had to be a fairly well-planned operation."
"I agree," Hunter said. "I mean, we all know that there are probably hundreds of half-assed bandit gangs roaming around the southwest Bads, right? And we also know that they spend a lot of the time fighting each other. But to pull off something like this would take some coordinated thinking, and that's something the bandits are definitely not known for."
"That's for sure," agreed Mike Fitzgerald, the burly Irishman sitting next to Hunter. A fighter pilot who had become a millionaire entrepreneur and arms merchant after the Big War, Fitzgerald was one of Jones' most important advisors as well as one of Hunter's closest friends.
"And despite what the LA press might have led everyone to believe," Fitzgerald continued, "we all know those Modern Pioneers weren't a bunch of beach bums. They kept it quiet, but all of them were soldiers—trained by the Football City Special Forces Rangers themselves—and they were well armed, too. Hell, they were carrying a howitzer, plus a few rocket launchers and even some SAMs. I know because my boys sold the stuff to them."
Next to speak was the Oriental fighter ace, Ben Wa, a colleague of Hunter's since before the war and a man who had provided strong aerial support on many of Hunter's most dangerous missions.
"So, we're saying that somewhere in the southwest Badlands there's an organized, well-armed group," he said. "One that was able to stop a well-defended train, overpower the small army on board, and then send it down through the mountains to crash into the middle of Los Angeles."
Just about everyone present nodded at the grim assessment.
Jones looked around the room at the dozen men who had gathered there. All of them had been fighting the foes of freedom for what seemed like forever. And still it wasn't over.
"I agree that it appears this was more than a random act of violence by a gang of roving hoodlums," the general said with a low voice. "But just how big or how organized they are is still pretty unclear."
"Maybe a few of the bandit gangs got together," Wa offered. "Formed a small alliance...."
"That's a dangerous possibility," Jones replied. "If those other gangs see one alliance working, they might start to jump on the bandwagon, and it could get out of hand. Then we'd have a real problem."
Excerpted from Wingman by Mack Maloney. Copyright © 1990 Mack Maloney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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