Clash of the Citadels, Part III (Finale)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part three of a three-part sci-fi series chronicling the adventures of several leaders in a post-petroleum, climate-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area in the early 22nd century. It was inspired by John Michael Greer’s cli-fi, post-industrial anthology, After Oil. Read Part I or Part II.

ImageMarch 15, 2115, 0530 Hours, St. Francis Citadel, San Francisco, California Autonomous Region

Bryce couldn’t sleep. Battle strategy was all he could think about. He was set to help lead the armada attack in a little more than an hour. He turned to his sleeping lover, tracing his index finger along his neck, down his spine, and slowly to his buttocks. Would he see him again? Bryce planted a gentle kiss on his neck, and rose to greet the dawn. He dressed and quietly exited his quarters, heading down the corridor to Main Defense. “Morning Chief,” he heard repeatedly from the stream of officers and soldiers he passed. He entered the central planning chamber where Premier Alito, along with more than thirty commanders and captains, had gathered for their final briefing.

All ears were tuned in to an East Bay radio program. The broadcaster said:

“… Some fear an attack could take place as early as this morning. In a statement released yesterday, Council President Nesalla Imani vowed to use all means necessary to protect East Bay residents. She praised Hayward Councilor Brandon Lee for rebuilding ties with Piedmont Citadel. Lee is widely credited for brokering regional water-sharing agreements between many of the Bay Area’s competing citadels, cities, and townships.

In an interview with Oakland Prime Radio, Lee extended his thanks to Piedmont Citadel Premier John Stewart: ‘The premier has not only committed ships to help protect our shores, he has vowed to release a quarter of his citadel’s water flow to East Bay communities in greatest need. We are deeply grateful for his partnership during this crisis. Now is the time for us all to unite in common cause to defend our coastland.’ The premier could not be reached for comment …”

Alara cast a menacing stare at Bryce. She was clearly incensed by this latest development. “Isn’t that sweet? Premier Stewart thinks he can buy his way into the hearts and minds of East Bay lowlanders,” she said. “What a fool. He and his fleet of latecomers are in for a big surprise.”

The SF Defense team poured over the details of their plan, double-checking their weapons inventories and cross-bay attack formations. Their hidden fleet of some 50 ships had already sailed from Baker Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf, where SF soldiers were boarding by the hundreds

“Is each frontline attack vessel fully equipped with bayonets and canon balls?” asked Bryce.

“Every one,” answered his fleet commander. “Once we’ve breached the weakest section of their wall, we should overwhelm them in less than an hour.”

“Just be sure you take out Piedmont’s so-called defense ships first,” said Alara. “We’ll stand watch at the overlook with the solar reflector ray, in case you need an assist.”

“To victory!” Bryce announced, signaling his command team to depart. They marched single file to the northern exit chutes, and caravanned to the waterfront to take command of their vessels.

A thick fog blanketed the wharf, providing a welcome cloak to their armada. Hints of sunlight began piercing the night as the fleet’s 3,000-strong contingent waited for their cue to launch. Bryce wondered what Piedmont Citadel’s new “partnership” might mean for them in the minutes and hours to follow. It was only a matter of time before their “unity” would prove too little, too late.

A deep, reverberating horn sounded from the shore. The pier lighthouse suddenly came to life, its radiant beam slicing repeatedly through the fog layer. It was time. They disembarked, sailing southeasterly in perfect V-formation, with their heavy attack vessels leading the charge. Sailing five ships behind the main attack cruiser, Bryce peered through his eye scope toward the eastern defense wall along Oakland Inner Harbor. Strangely, there was no sign of any ships.

Not in front of them anyway. SF’s lead attack cruiser was showered with flaming canon balls, a dozen of which slammed into the hull, ripping two gaping holes into its port side. Walls of fire consumed the main sails, while dozens of burning soldiers quickly jumped overboard. Bryce hadn’t anticipated such a maneuver: a group of six East Bay attack ships had been waiting for them under the bridge by Yerba Buena Island, and were in perfect position to bombard their offensive line. They continued their deadly volley, managing to sink several more SF attack vessels. Before long, however, return fire from SF’s front line laid waste to their small contingent.

By now, the sun began to rise above the East Bay hills, thinning what remained of the early morning fog. The SF attack fleet reinforced their frontlines, and Bryce lit a signal flare to continue their approach. Once again, he peered through his eye scope, scanning their northern and southern flanks for any more surprises. He refocused on Oakland Inner Harbor. Something was different this time. A hint of motion. And then he saw them: a fast-moving line of defense-class cruisers, sailing one-by-one toward their position. Piedmont Citadel’s fleet. He began counting. Surely, there couldn’t be more than 20, he thought. As the number breached 40, however, he knew the game had changed. They had clearly requisitioned more vessels from the inner delta. This would be a bloodbath.

Still, if they maintained formation, they just might be able to breach the wall. And if Alara can see Piedmont’s expanded fleet from her position, she’ll know to offer her assistance, he thought. They sailed on at full speed, veering northeasterly toward Uptown Harbor, which SF intelligence agents found had the weakest barrier walls. They also just happened to block off an underground “tube-like” corridor leading straight to Regional Hall. This would be their pathway to triumph.

Bryce started to make out the oncoming ships’ masts as their distance rapidly closed. In seconds, they would be within range of Piedmont’s catapult arcs, exposing their fleet to enemy fire. At this point, however, they had no choice. An instant later, Piedmont’s lead vessel was hit with a blistering circle of bright light. Its path cut a deep swath of searing heat through the ship’s central mast, loosening the ropes. They snapped free of the rigging, lacerating several crewmen on deck. The solar ray worked! The blazing circle adjusted itself, burning through the bottom crossbeam and bursting the mast and sails into flame. The ship slowed, veering sharply off course. The vessel directly behind crashed into its stern, starting a pileup of crashed ships. One by one, the solar ray seared through them, turning Piedmont’s frontline ships into little more than smoldering ruins.

Bryce regained his confidence, and his smile. Now they must move quickly to breach the wall.

*   *   *   *   *

March 15, 2115, 0800 Hours, Oakland Central Plaza, Oakland, California Autonomous Region

Desirae mingled among her newfound allies, doing her best to assure them that their bravery would make a difference. As Brandon had predicted, she had made significant strides yesterday, trekking around town from one community hub to the next, listening to people’s hopes and fears, and slowly bringing them into the fold. Once word of Premier Stewart’s water-sharing offer spread amongst the lowlands, people’s sense of optimism grew, as did the number of those willing to join their cause. By last count, over 2,700 citizen recruits had signed up with the defense corps, nearly a thousand of whom now stood guard in front of Regional Hall at Oakland Central Plaza.

Brandon dashed over to her, his CB radio blaring. “They’re breaching the Uptown wall!” he said. “Commander Dolman’s fleet has been decimated. Only about twenty of our defense ships are still in the game.” He took Desirae’s arm, and lowered his voice. “You worked miracles yesterday. I know it’s not easy to hear right now, but because of you, we may still stand a chance.” He kissed her cheek, and rushed off to consult with several field commanders.

The sound of gunfire roared in the distance. Why had SF forces chosen Uptown Harbor to make their way through? It made no sense. Desirae looked around at her comrades, wondering how many of them would survive this day. A feeling of pride overwhelmed her now, as she took in the faces of all the selfless, committed souls standing by her side. In the corner of her eye she saw something strange: a small plume of billowing smoke, rising from the far end of the plaza. The area appeared to be an abandoned stairwell. Where it led, she had no idea. She wandered over for a closer look.

As she came within yards of the stairwell, she noticed a crack in the sealed entryway from where the smoke was coming. “Desirae!” she heard Brandon yell from behind her. “Come back!”

But it was too late. A firestorm of flame, metal, and stone blasted towards her. A flying metal panel sliced into her lower torso, and the impact tossed her 50 feet from the blast zone. She laid under a tree bordering the plaza, wheezing from pain and losing blood rapidly. “Noooo!” she heard Brandon yell. Her vision was fuzzy, but she could make out his likeness moving towards her. Then came the shots, firing mercilessly toward the citizen soldiers assembled in the plaza.

“Focus your fire on the stairwell!” pleaded one of the field commanders. “They’re coming up from the old train tunnels!” Bullets whizzed past her through the air. She saw the SF forces emerge, seemingly in slow motion, as dozens stormed into the plaza, guns blazing. East Bay forces held their ground, showering the invaders with their own punishing fire. But SF soldiers were now half-way across the plaza, flanking the defense bunkers as they made their way toward Regional Hall.

It was too late now to stop more loss of life. But perhaps she could do something to stem the conflict. Desirae fought the pain as she grabbed the grenade from her belt. She held it to her mouth, pulled out the safety pin with her teeth, and threw it as hard as she could toward the stairwell. Metal clanked on stone, becoming fainter as the grenade bounced down the stairs. Moments later, she saw dozens of SF forces blown into the air, along with streams of rock, dirt, and metal. A deep rumbling sound followed as huge swaths of the entryway collapsed, blocking the flow of SF forces.

Desirae managed a slight grin, and slowly turned her head toward the plaza. Fighting continued, but SF forces were now on the run, vastly outnumbered by the East Bay defense line. Brandon ran towards her in shock, yelling something she could not understand. “Thank God you’re alive,” she finally heard him say as he approached. He leaned over her and checked her pulse. “You’re going to be fine, Desirae,” he said calmly, smiling as he took her hand. Several medics arrived to remove the metal section and dress her wounds. She had never known so much pain.

“How many did we lose?” she asked. He looked her in the eyes, trying to hold back the tears. One tear escaped anyway, cleaning a narrow line down his soot-stained cheek.

“Too many,” he said, caressing her shoulder. “But we prevailed. Alito will think twice about ever attacking these shores again. Who knows? She may even face new resistance on her side of the bay.”

“Councilor, are you there?” crackled Commander Dolman’s voice from Brandon’s radio. “If you can hear me, they’re retreating. I repeat, SF’s ships are retreating from Uptown Harbor!”

Brandon turned off his radio, and leaned forward to kiss Desirae’s cheek. She grabbed his neck and moved his lips to hers. They took each other in, soothed by the warmth and wetness of their kiss, if only for a moment.

As they looked around the plaza, they saw hundreds of people laying down their guns and embracing one another. Joy. Relief. Hope. Sadness. All these emotions and more flowed through the East Bay citizen defense corps. For now, the foreboding fear of a pending attack was over. For now.

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