"A lot of these liberals are trying to make it sound much worse than it actually is. We have to quarantine the people who are potentially ill, and that means we have to quarantine everyone outside the military for now. And if some people are going to try to risk the public's health and well-being by escaping quarantine, we're going to have to stop that. These are compassionate quarantines, set up with the American People's best interests firmly in mind."

-Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking from a Secure Location; September 10th, 2008; time unspecified.

Nick knows things have gotten really bad when he wakes up in the dark and the hospital TV is still showing the same list of vaccination centers, no sound or anything, just frozen and wobbling as if the last guy to leave hit the pause button on his way out of the station.

He gets up and drifts over to the window. The lights of the Valley are glowing as usual; but there are no cars on the road, just occasional fire engines, cop cars and military trucks flying down Ventura. He tries his cell phone; almost out of batteries; it works, anyhow. He calls his mom, his dad, Chaz and Chevy but gets sent straight to voicemail on all of them.

As he looks down on the empty streets, wondering what to do next, he sees a tank rolling slowly up the boulevard. As it makes the turn onto Cahuenga, yellow sparks seem to fly off its nearer flank. The tank stops, pivots its turret, and with a doughnut-shaped explosion that rattles the hospital windows, fires toward a mini-mall on the near side of the street.

The corner mall becomes an instant, flaming heap of ashes. From out of the shadows of the smoking building, Nick sees three dark ski-masked figures in camouflage dash across the six lanes, drilling the tank with small arms fire as they go. They disappear into an alley on the far side of the boulevard. Two commandos in black jump out of the tank and start chasing after them on foot.

Looks like I might be here awhile, Nick thinks. His stomach moans with disapproval; he hasn't eaten anything all day. He looks down at his belly with a certain grudging pride. The red bumps are gone. Probably just forgot to wash the stripper juice off last night was all. He scratches his tummy contentedly, pulls his shirt back down and ambles toward the door.

The lights of the 9th floor are still on; the elevator still works. Nick moseys into the lobby like a bear looking for a midnight snack. The reception chick with the nice rack has apparently taken off. Even the guards are gone from the door. He turns right, down the spotless white hallway toward the cafeteria, his shoes making a squeaking sound on the lineoleum. But his dreams of meatloaf and raspberry jello are crushed: the doors are bolted shut.

He thinks about going back to the room, but for what? Sooner or later someone might come for him -- could be someone bad. Only -- where can he go out there? He's torn, casting quizzical, sidelong glances at the elevator and the front doors alike when his stomach phones in the deciding vote with a long low groan like a large sedated dog having its ribcage sat upon. He squeaks back down the concourse, out the double doors which open for him with a Star Trek whoosh, and disappears into the night.

Well anyhow, he wishes he could disappear into the night. For the three-thousandth time in his life, Nick silently curses the fact that he wasn't born black. Usually this relates more to Capoeira situations, or playing bass, but at the moment it's purely logistical. He's got a stained white t-shirt and a big white boy head with a grand-canyon-sized cleft in his chin; he's about as invisible as Elvis at the Apollo.

The demolished mini-mall stands half a block down from the hospital, at the corner of the boulevard. The structure is in a sort of wide L shape, its short arm pointing directly at the street, its longer arm angling away at an obtuse angle. From here Nick can see a large smoking hole with the word NAILS still dangling over it in busted pink neon. The shell from the tank has apparently blown open the cinderblock division between the nail parlor and a neighboring liquor store which, its exterior still tenaciously secured by iron gates against looters post-apocalyptic and otherwise, now stands gaping like a giant piĎata, sparkling with doritos, fritos, snowballs, ho-hos, ding-dongs, pork rinds, twelve-year-old scotches and a cornucopia of other sumptuous munchies.

Nick goes into bandito mode, prowls through banana trees and around neatly clipped hedges. He sprints across the open lawns of several darkened houses until he reaches the corner of the mini-mall's parking lot, the tarmac from which he will launch his spaceship of grubbage. Here he stops for several minutes to peek around the stucco corner across the ruined storefronts until he's absolutely certain that the tank has gone away. Then, overcoming his nerves, he makes a final dash straight along the wall in front of a Pakistani restaurant, a Christian Science bookstore and a GNC nutrition center, into the smouldering crater that was the nail salon. He dodges twisted pedicure stools and shattered cabinetry, clambers over the rubble of cinderblocks and coasts into the smoky, blackened aisles of the liquor store. He begins browsing through the sundries. A freezer full of choco-tacos grabs his attention. He's trying to decide whether having dessert right now will ruin his apetite, when the low rumble of an approaching tank rises quickly from the deadly quiet night. Rows of miniature fruit pies rustle softly all around him. Nick ducks and peeks through the store's front window between posters advertising Mexican calling cards. He sees the tank roll up and stop in the street. Commandos jump out of it. They half-crouch, half-run in a silent formation toward the store, waving hand signals at one another. Why are they running toward the liquor store? Nick wheels desperately in search of an escape route, spots the emergency exit at the back. In the corner of his vision he sees a camouflaged shadow in a black ski mask jump up out of the beer aisle and sprint for that door. Nick takes off after the terrorist -- he doesn't want to be the last to leave. He carelessly manages to grab a large bag of pretzels on the way out, hits the door two seconds after the masked fugitive; the guy has already run halfway down the alley, towards the hospital. Nick decides his odds are better if he runs the other way even though it's going to be tough; the alley's hemmed in on both sides by continuous stucco walls and shuttered garage doors.

The only thing going through Nick's mind right now is getting into those hills on the other side of Ventura. He hears the commandos slam through the liquor store's rear exit just as he hits the corner. He runs daringly across the open boulevard and into a continuing alley on the other side. The commandos have split up; only one is chasing Nick. But Nick's got a good head start. It's from all the Capoeira; he may not look it, but he's actually quite fleet-footed. In high school, even as his infant beer belly sought living space, Nick managed to remain captain of the cross-country team until senior year.

He can almost reach out and touch the point where the alley spills out onto the next residential street -- he's got a good lead. He checks over his shoulder and sees his pursuer has stopped running in the middle of the boulevard. Nick figures he's pretty much home free now as long as the commando doesn't shoot that high-powered assault rifle at him.

A bullet goes whining off the wall just in front of Nick and to his right; another one grazes his right shoulder painfully, leaving a bloody rent in his t-shirt. A third he feels whizzing past his neck and then he clears the corner, turns southwest. He races down a dog-run between houses, through a back yard, watch out, bound pool. He's through their hedge, there's a wooden fence here, up and over, and then a cyclone fence -- how many fucking fences -- but he bounds over that, too, and now he's on a steep hillside covered with tall pine trees, fairly free of the typical LA underbrush. He jogs straight uphill, hitting a point where another upward slope intersects his at a right angle; it's a square hill. This seems very familiar to him. He reaches the plateau and finds himself looking at a large body of inky-black water surrounded by small wooden fishing shacks. There's a pine-plank dock with a little rowboat tied up to it. An enormous gray mechanical shark is half-submerged in the water nearby.

Not a bad spot to wind up in, Nick thinks. The Universal Studios backlot is full of great places to hide out. Nick knows of one that's absolutely foolproof. He rounds the lake behind the miniature fake fronts of the shacks and connects with the service road at a dangerously well-illuminated junction under one of the few actually working street lights on the lot. He stays on the forest edge as much as he can here, ready to dive back into the woods at a moment's notice; but he'll make much better time on the road. He's headed downhill and back up. He knows he's got some distance to travel. A fake winding road splits off and leads sharply uphill into the artificial 'burbs; Nick knows it's a dead end. Now he plunges down a long flight of concrete stairs and he's in the heart of the Big City set. One block looks just like the Lower East Side of New York. The next block is Chicago at Christmastime. All the storefront doors are unlocked, of course -- there's nothing inside of them. The urban environment is excellent to hide in because you could open any one of these doors, slip in and find yourself in an empty, darkened room, usually one with only three walls, and stairways, ladders, systems of pulleys and planks above you all the way to the top of the building's fa┴ade. Some of the fa┴ades actually have partial roofs that you can get up on; for example the Back to the Future clock tower, where the boys used to chill and smoke bowls. But Nick never considered these rooftops to be particularly safe either in their construction or in their utility as long-term hiding places.

He chooses a circuitous route through the vacant streets, avoiding the open area of the Town Square. He walks between a couple of immense, shuttered sound stages (one of these was left open once, by accident; they walked inside to find themselves standing on a ruined Brooklyn Bridge, a life-sized replica of King Kong glaring angrily at them from over the side). Now the city streets becomes an unsealed dirt roads and Nick's among the adobe saloons and pueblos of Old Mexico. These are very unsafe for hiding: small, empty buildings with only one entrance each and a single dark room inside. I get caught in one of these I'm fucked. Nonetheless he melts into one for a moment to examine the damage to his shoulder. It stings like hell but looking at it he can see it's not much more than a scratch. There's not even that much blood: the wound mostly cauterized itself.

He ducks back out of the little casita and reconnects with the main service road at the end of the little village, munching some pretzels now as he climbs the next hill, very much less than happy with his dinner. The road goes over a tressle that when electrified is supposed to shake and collapse itself down into a forced-perspective river and waterfall running below. From here he can finally see where he's trying to go.

A cluster of stone Flintstones houses squat about a hundred yards ahead of him, built for the live-action movies years and years ago. These things are really made out of giant slabs of rock, probably a major bitch to take apart, so the studio heads have just left 'em here on the increasingly remote chance that Universal ever got around to doing another sequel. Nick is slightly embarrassed by the mere sight of them and wonders why no one in charge of the studio is, too.

Between himself and the Flintstones set, the roadbed narrows into a hilside ledge only about fifty feet wide. The space on either side of the road here is used for parking the assortment of wacky and unusual vehicles that have been featured in Universal movies and television over the years. All these things are locked up and have had the innards torn out of them; some of them are no more than wooden shells. The Back to the Future DeLorean gathers dust here alongside the A-Team van. There are a number of allegedly flying cars from the Fifth Element, no tires of course, resting on their keels. In the middle, on the left-hand side, sits Sergeant Bilko's Tank.

It's covered with dull green primer paint and the treads are pretty convincing, but Nick knows it's not a real tank; it's made out of plywood. And like all the other cars here, you'd expect it to be just a sealed-up shell. But the trick with this is that the top hatch can be opened to reveal a dark, spacious interior, and it can also be held shut in an emergency by a handle on the inside.

Nick clambers up the ladder beneath the tank's turret, feeling the surprisingly flimsy material creaking to support his weight. He lifts the hatch and jumps back at the sound of a weird exhalation, like several people whispering "SHIT!" at the same time. A mushroom cloud of pungent pot smoke billows out.

"Hello?" he says softly, peeking down over the lip of the hole. He can see part of a leather jacket in the narrow shaft of starlight. Then a hand reaches out, grabs his torn t-shirt and yanks him headfirst into a soft pile of bodies and clothing, slamming the hatch shut behind him.

For a second it's pitch-black; his pupils strain to enlarge themselves completely but still he perceives not even the tiniest hint of light. Promptly, someone flicks a Zippo. A pair of hazel eyes are blinking alarmedly in the dim firelight very, very close to his own.

"Nick?" Doonan blinks.

"Are those pretzels?" asks Will.


Next Chapter --->