“What do you mean, it’s empty?”
I winced at the tone that Jaspers used as he rounded on the poor technician, rising up on his tiptoes to intimidate with every one of his sixty-four inches of height. A guy that short shouldn’t be able to loom so well, but Jaspers managed it, bearing down on the bespectacled nerd.
“I mean, it’s empty,” the nerd repeated, one hand creeping up to adjust the glasses. I noticed that they now had a few specks of mist on them – Jaspers’ spittle, most likely. “We sent in drones, did a sweep of everything, and we didn’t see a single person.”
“But how?” I interjected, stepping forward. I tried to keep my tone calmer, defuse some of the tension hanging in the air. “New York had what, a million people in it?”
“More,” the tech agreed. He shrugged his shoulders, looking as confused as I felt. “But they’re all gone. And the drones didn’t pick up anything.”
Jaspers wasn’t having it. “So why the bloody hell are we going in there?”
The tech flicked his eyes over to me. “Shouldn’t there be some sort of officer in charge, briefing you on this?”
I winced. “It’s kind of tricky.”
“Why?” Jaspers snarled back, clearly annoyed that we weren’t looping him in on the conversation. “Because Texas Rick over there is on loan to us, and his commanders are currently MIA, off in the big black camp-out that all of the goddamn You Ess of Ayy decided to take! So he’s floating here in organizational limbo, and since he’s currently the leader of our squad, the rest of us are stuck here cooling our bloody heels along with him!”
Jaspers’ summary of the situation, although colorful, wasn’t actually inaccurate. My name was Richards, Brian Richards, but I was over here on a “loan” (inter-agency exchange program for sharing of strategies and training initiatives), in month four out of six.
And even though I was stationed in England, I was supposed to report to my superiors back home in Bragg – but no one there was returning my calls.
I didn’t take it personally, at least. It seemed like my whole home country was having problems.
“Sorry about him,” I said to the tech, trying to regain control of the situation after Jaspers’ outburst. “But really, we need every bit of info that you can provide. There really weren’t any people? Signs of them fleeing? Cars broken down, out of place, any sort of damage? Bodies?”
The tech shook his head. “Nothing that I could see, while the drones were up, at least.”
Jaspers growled and turned away, probably headed off to go inform the rest of the team. I, however, paused for a minute on the tech’s last words.
“What do you mean, while the drones were up?”
“They went down after an hour,” he said, swallowing. Probably at the thought of covering the high price of a state-of-the-art surveillance drone from his meager salary, I guessed. “We haven’t been able to connect to them again. That’s why the government’s got the quarantine up.”
Well, that was different. The quarantine, I added inside my head, that we were currently involved with, sitting with our thumbs up our butts on a destroyer in a flotilla parked a dozen miles from shore. We had all our cameras pointed over at my homeland, and we weren’t getting anything back.
Except, it seemed, that now they’d brought down our ally’s drones.
I left the tech alone, stalked back over to where Jaspers sat with Sergei, another member of our team. The short, bushy bearded Brit looked up and scowled at me. I didn’t take it personally; a scowl seemed to be Jaspers’ only method of showing emotion.
“So?” he asked pointedly.
“So, nothing. No one knows what’s going on. And we’re in the dark; our drones are gone, no word on what brought them down.”
“Words from the command?” Sergei asked, his accent clipping his words.
I shook my head. “Stand and report, await further instructions. Not that there will be any, not any time soon. You know as well as I do that England’s the only one who can launch an investigation without risking a declaration of war, and they’re going to hem and haw until they’re all blue in the face without making a decision.” I glanced over at Jaspers. “No offense.”
He just held up his hands, as Sergei frowned. “Brian,” he said, standing up and looking more closely at me. “What is matter? You have some problem, weighing on you. What is wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said, looking away.
He stepped closer. “Come, now. Jaspers is blowhard, but you can tell the rest of us.”
Ah, what the hell. “My wife,” I said, wincing at how the word came out. “She was in Fort Hood, planning on flying out to see me in a few days.”
“And you are worried,” Sergei concluded.
I shot him a hot glare. “Yeah, no shit. God, why the hell can’t I just hop on a boat and haul my ass over there, figure out what we’re facing?”
For a minute, Sergei and Jaspers stood silently beside me. And then, suddenly, the Russian started.
“Why not?” he asked.
He turned to look at me. “You have no commanding officer now, da?”
“Well, no,” I admitted. “But I can’t just duck off and go into a potentially dangerous zone-”
“Why not?” he insisted. “What if you were searching for orders? Commanding officer is on the mainland, so is where you go.”
“What, and steal a boat?”
Sergei grinned, flashing strangely perfect teeth. “Corinne can.”
That brought me up short. My unit, if the loose collection of soldiers could be called as such, held a grab bag of soldiers from other countries, all on “loan” to the Brits. Along with Jaspers, representing England, and Sergei from Russia, we also had a nimble, mustachioed French explosives expert, a Chinese sniper who’d only spoken perhaps a hundred words in the three months she’d been with us… and Corinne.
I considered telling the slender, blonde, supermodel-looking Swede that we needed to steal a boat. Commandeer, I corrected my thought. Would she go along with it?
Probably. Hell, they all would. Somehow, although I still wasn’t quite sure how, I’d earned their trust and respect. And I knew that they were just as curious as I felt.
“We’ll get court-martialed,” I said, although my heart wasn’t in the denial.
Sergei shrugged. “Mixed signals, crossed wires, whatever else you people say when chain of command falls apart,” he replied easily. “It will work. What do you say?”
I glanced over at the Brit. “Jaspers?”
He pursed his lips, making his beard twitch. “Ach, why bloody not? I’m curious, now, dammit.”
One last breath. One last second to consider all the rules I might be breaking.
Oh, what the hell. I thought of Alexis, possibly lost and scared, wishing that I was there to save her. She’d chosen the hard life of a soldier’s wife, and I couldn’t even be there to keep her safe.
“Go get Corinne,” I told Sergei, and he grinned.
“Oh, finally,” he said aloud as he dashed off. “This will be fun.”