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       San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats, p.1
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           Mira Grant
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San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats


  San Diego 2014:

  The Last Stand of the California Browncoats

  Mira Grant

  www.orbitbooks.net

  www.orbitshortfiction.com

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  Meet the Author

  Bonus Material

  About Orbit Short Fiction

  In accordance with the US Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at permissions@hbgusa.com. Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

  If you are reading this, it is dedicated to you.

  This world, and this war, has always been yours.

  Prologue: Chasing the Story

  The Rising is not a single narrative; there is no one true story that unifies that entire bloody summer, no one event which exemplifies the human experience. It is a piece of history like any other, a tapestry of lives which, viewed in total, may someday give us that rarest of commodities: We may, by looking at them all, someday discover the truth.

  —Mahir Gowda

  When I was a kid, people used to talk about living in the future. Well, I live in the future. I want to go back to living in the past.

  —Lorelei Tutt

  Captain, United States Coast Guard

  LORELEI TUTT’S APARTMENT,

  LONDON, ENGLAND, JUNE 1, 2044

  Lorelei Tutt is a harshly attractive woman in her forties, tall and lean, with scars from her combat gear on her hands and elbows. Her naturally brown hair is streaked with natural gray and sterilization blonde, and she wears it in a short-cropped, almost military style that does nothing to soften the lines of her face. She walks with a subtle limp, the result of learning to walk on a prosthetic right leg at the age of twenty-five. Her left eye is shaped normally but filmed with cataract white from an old war injury. She moves with studied precision, and it is clear from her expression that she is not happy to see me.

  The front room of her London flat is at odds with her appearance: The time she spent in the United States Coast Guard has left her seeming businesslike and cool, but her decor is that of a teenage member of the science fiction and fantasy subculture that thrived before the Rising. Books and assorted forms of recorded media pack her shelves, and the walls are covered in posters advertising long-canceled television shows, long-forgotten movies.

  She indicates that I should sit. She does not do the same. Her accent is American: She may have left the country of her birth after she left the Coast Guard, but some things are not so easily forgotten.

  LORELEI: You know, I don’t know why you people keep coming looking for me, sniffing around the graves like this. San Diego was thirty years ago. There’s no reason to keep dredging up what happened.

  MAHIR: Actually, ma’am, that’s precisely why people are becoming interested again. Thirty years…that’s long enough for terror to fade and nostalgia to start taking over. Did you hear that there’s been talk of doing another convention? The city of San Diego has expressed a willingness to host it. They think it might help restore the tourist trade.

  Lorelei freezes. I have never seen this happen so literally before: One moment I am speaking to a living, if cold, woman, and the next, I am sharing a room with a statue made of flesh. When she speaks again, what little human warmth her voice contained is gone.

  LORELEI: This interview is over. Get out.

  MAHIR: You never intended to speak with me today, did you? [silence from Lorelei] That’s your right, of course, but I have to ask you…why? Why did you let me come here if you weren’t intending to actually have a conversation about what happened?

  LORELEI: You people have wasted so much of my time over the last thirty years—all you damn bloggers acting like you’re heroes because you stayed in your rooms and told each other about the zombie apocalypse. You people had been doing that since long before the zombies came. You weren’t heroes.

  MAHIR: But your parents were. [again, silence from Lorelei] Isn’t that why you’re angry? Because your parents were true heroes of the Rising, and almost no one knows their names? It was very hard to track you down, Miss Tutt. You have no idea.

  LORELEI: I thought I told you to leave.

  MAHIR: Miss Tutt…I’ve lost people, too. Maybe not as many as you have, maybe not the way that you did, but I’ve lost them, and I can’t have them back. And I know that the only thing that would have made it even harder for me—the only thing that could have made the worst thing that ever happened to me even worse—would have been knowing that someone else was telling their stories, and telling them wrong. This story is going to be told. I can’t stop it. Neither can you. But what I can do, what I have the power to do, is to ask you if you’ll let me tell it the way you want it told. If you’ll let me tell the truth.

  There is a long silence. I begin to think that I’ve lost her—and then Lorelei gestures for me to stand, beckoning me deeper into the flat.

  LORELEI: I need to put the kettle on. If I’m going to tell you what happened, I’m going to want a cup of tea in front of me.

  I nod, rise, and follow the last known survivor of the 2014 San Diego International Comic Convention out of the front room. She leads me to the kitchen, where she fills the electric kettle and sets the water to boil. She moves with nervous efficiency. She does not look at me. The time for looking at me is done.

  LORELEI: I was just a kid when the Rising started. I didn’t think of myself that way—I was eighteen, I was a grown woman, I was not a child—but I was still just a kid. I had no idea how ugly the world could be, or how bad things could get. We’d heard the news. I mean, who hadn’t? But we didn’t think it was really happening, and even if it was, it wasn’t happening where we lived.

  We did the con every year. It was one of the things we all looked forward to as a family. Me, and Mom, and Dad, rolling into San Diego like we were going home…

  Preview Night

  The trouble with saying “I would have done it differently” is that we’re always speaking from a position of knowing exactly what is about to go horribly wrong. The truth is, we’d be lucky to do half so well if the Rising began again today.

  —Mahir Gowda

  Get it in, get it up, get it done.

  —Shawn Tutt,

  Lt. Commander, United States Coast Guard (d. 2014)

  The San Diego International Comic Convention was an annual event which drew hundreds of thousands of comic book, science fiction, fantasy, and horror enthusiasts from around the world. For a week every year, San Diego’s Gaslight District would be transformed into a strange new country, one with its own traditions, rules, and hazards. It was a golden age for what those enthusiasts called “fandom,” and as with all golden ages, it was not properly recognized until it was over.

  It’s easy to look back on July of 2014 from our modern perspective, with our full knowledge of what was already happening to the world, and condemn the people who chose to attend that year’s comic book convention, or “Comic-Con.” We tell ourselves that they should have known better. But why should they have known better? It was a different time. It was a more innocent era. And the fans of the world were descending, as they always did, on San Diego, California.

  The following narrative has been assembled from eyewitness accounts, security footage, social media updates, and various other sources that I am not currently at liberty to disclose. Some of the events described may n
ot have happened in this exact fashion, but for once, I have put aside the goal of absolute truth in favor of a greater goal: understanding. To truly understand what it was like for those brave souls who died in the first major San Diego outbreak, we must first understand what it meant to be them…

  —From San Diego 2014 by Mahir Gowda, June 11, 2044.

  Wednesday, July 23, 2014: 10:24A.M.

  The sky over San Diego was a beautifully pristine shade of blue, the sort of thing that triggered a thousand tourist snapshots and seemed impossible to anyone who hadn’t seen it with their own eyes. The streets were already beginning to fill with the early arrivals, the people who had come to town for whatever reason before the official start of the convention. Some were there to wait for the doors to open on Preview Night, hoping to snag early bargains or rare collectibles. Others were there to settle into their hotel rooms and prepare for the chaos to come. And still others—such as the California Browncoats, a nonprofit fan organization modeled around the protagonists of a canceled science fiction Western called Firefly—were there to set up their official booths.

  “I know you don’t have much respect for authority, Dwight, but around here we respect the laws of physics,” said Rebecca, a petite brunette with a clipboard in one hand. She looked from her paperwork to the former Marine, who was trying, somewhat vainly, to hang the awning from their booth’s precarious piping-and-plywood frame. “That means that if you’re not careful, you’re going to plummet and crack your skull open on this lovely concrete floor. Can we try to not have any major injuries before the show opens this year? It would be a fantastic improvement over last year.”

  “I’m not the one who injured myself last year,” Dwight shot back as he continued tinkering with the bolts that were supposed to hold the awning in place. “That honor goes to Leita, who doesn’t understand that you’re not supposed to pick up knives by the pointy end.”

  “Hey!” Leita’s head popped up over the edge of the display case. She pouted prettily at Dwight, the studs beneath her lower lip poking upward at an angle. “It’s not my fault.”

  “It never is,” Dwight said, and kept working.

  Rebecca sighed. “Just please try not to fall and die before we’re finished setting up? I am begging you. This is my begging-you voice.”

  “Do you need me to whip these heathens into shape?” demanded a voice from behind her, loud enough to command attention without shouting, the kind of voice that made cadets jump and crowds clear out of the way.

  “Oh, thank God.” Rebecca turned, shoulders sagging in relief. “I thought you were never going to get here.”

  “Traffic was worse than we expected. This year is going to be crazy.” Shawn Tutt—United States Coast Guard and designated booth organizer—walked over and gathered Rebecca into a firm hug. He was tall enough to tower over her, something that didn’t seem to bother either of them.

  Shawn’s wife, Lynn, and teenage daughter, Lorelei, followed him to the booth, slowed by the large plastic tub that they carried between them. It was packed to capacity with T-shirts and rolled posters.

  Lorelei cleared her throat. “Is there someplace we can set this down? My arms are getting tired.” She was almost as tall as her father, and her naturally brown hair was streaked with bright green.

  “Let me.” Vanessa—a quietly pretty woman in a black T-shirt—put down her iPad and hurried to relieve Lynn and Lorelei of their burden. Before they had a chance to thank her she was gone, carrying the tub off to put it with the rest of the merchandise.

  “The van’s stuffed,” said Lynn. She was shorter than Lorelei and taller than Rebecca, with short brown hair. “If we can get some people to help us unload it, we’ll be able to help set things up in here.”

  “Of course.” Rebecca pulled away from Shawn. “Dwight…”

  “I know, I know. Strong back, weak mind.” Dwight climbed down from the stepladder, putting the hammer he’d been using down on the nearest stack of boxes. “I’m on it.”

  “Take some of the others with you. Anyone who looks like they’re not doing something absolutely vital is fair game.”

  “I’ll start unpacking shirts,” said Lorelei.

  “No, you won’t, but that was a nice try,” said Shawn. “You’ll empty the van with the rest of us.”

  Lorelei sighed, managing to express in a simple exhale just how frustrated she was with the entire situation. “I’ve been cooped up in that van for hours, Dad. Why do I have to help you unload it?”

  “Because everybody pitches in during setup,” said Shawn. “Come on. The faster we get started, the faster we’ll be finished.” He turned and walked back the way he’d come. Half the booth followed him, most of them looking relieved to have something else to do.

  “Finally,” said Rebecca, and reached for the hammer. “Now we can get things done around here.” She climbed up on the stepladder, humming the theme from Doctor Who under her breath, and got to work.

  * * *

  11:00 A.M.

  The parking garage attached to the San Diego Convention Center was reserved for “official vehicles” during the convention itself—people who were affiliated with one of the vendors or fan groups in the main exhibit hall, core convention staffers, and attending celebrities of sufficient importance that they couldn’t be expected to walk more than a few hundred yards out in the open, where enthusiastic fans might catch them. It was still early enough on Wednesday afternoon that almost a third of the spaces were empty. That wouldn’t last. Long before the convention really got underway, the garage would be full to the point of becoming a fire hazard, and the parking attendants would be on the prowl, looking for vehicles that didn’t belong. Anyone found without the appropriate tags and permits would be towed, no questions asked or warnings given.

  The Tutts had traveled down the California coast from the Bay Area in a large white-panel van. The space that hadn’t been carved out for passengers was packed to the gills with the bins, boxes, and plastic tubs that contained the supplies for the booth. They weren’t the only people bringing items for the convention—that would have required three vans, and left no room for either driver or passengers—but they were definitely the most important, apart from Rebecca, who had driven down with a trailer that contained the actual booth structure. Without their stores of merchandise, decorations, and most important, snacks, the convention would have been a grim place for the Browncoats.

  Shawn handed Robert—Leita’s skinny, long-limbed older brother—a flat of Coke. He stacked a flat of Diet Coke on top of it a few seconds later. “Think you can take two more, or is that your limit?”

  Robert whistled. “First, I can take four more, but I won’t, because I don’t feel like showing you up. Second, are we preparing for a convention or a siege?”

  “You weren’t here last year, were you?” asked Dwight. He clapped Robert on the shoulder, sending the slimmer man staggering forward a step and nearly causing him to drop the soda. Robert shot him a wounded look. “The only difference between a Comic-Con and a siege is whether or not they’re actually trying to kill you. And sometimes these ones try to kill you anyway, just to keep things interesting.”

  “Don’t scare him away before his shift, Dwight,” said Shawn.

  Lorelei scowled as she dug a plastic bin out of the back of the van and hefted it in front of her, her knuckles going white from the strain. “What if we all tried doing our jobs and getting this over with before they open the doors?” she asked sourly. “I know it’s not the fun, free-wheeling party that we’re having right now, but it might make for an interesting change.”

  “Lorelei—” Lynn began.

  She was too late: Her teenage daughter had already turned on her heel and was stalking away, back toward the entrance to the show floor. She sighed.

  “I know she loves Comic-Con, but her attitude is going to be the death of me,” she said.

  “She’s been in the car since this morning,” said Shawn. “Let’s get the van unloade
d, and then I’ll talk to her.”

  “She always listens to you,” said Lynn. She didn’t sound happy about that.

  Shawn kissed the top of her head and went back to unloading the van.

  The other Browncoats looked uneasily at anything but the Tutts while all this was going on. They might regard themselves as one big family—a crew of people joined by common interests and uncommon hobbies—but there was something about seeing a mother getting angry with her child that reminded them all of their own childhoods. Some experiences are nearly universal, and no more pleasant when viewed from the outside.

  The easy camaraderie was gone as they finished unpacking the van, loading boxes and crates onto a pallet loader that Dwight requisitioned from the custodial staff. Then they went trudging back into the increasingly crowded hall. Fun was fun, but it was time to get to work.

  * * *

  2:00 P.M.

  The damn Browncoats were nearly done setting up their booth, which was a relief to anyone who had to set up near them. It wasn’t that they were bad neighbors—they weren’t, and they always had plenty of supplies, which could be a godsend when things got really crazy. But they were also loud, and enthusiastic, and had a tendency to break into song with little to no provocation. Sometimes Marty suspected that oxygen was all the provocation they needed. It wouldn’t be so bad once the convention got underway. Once the halls were crammed with fans, the Browncoats could host a live concert in their booth and it wouldn’t make a dent in the overall noise levels. Hell, at previous conventions, the Browncoats had hosted live concerts, and Marty had been aware of them only after the fact.

 
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