I frowned at Corinne. Somehow, I’d expected her to be more bothered by the idea of practically committing treason by stealing a boat and going against direct orders.
“But there aren’t any direct orders,” she pointed out, in far too logical of a tone for me. “If anything, you’re just taking initiative to discover what’s going on.”
“By stealing a boat,” I repeated slowly, in case she’d missed that part.
“And weapons and armor, too,” piped up Henry, leaning into the conversation. “Can’t just show up and face any opponents without some defense, what?”
I groaned. “You’re coming along, too?”
“Well, I should bloody say so!” Jaspers interjected before Henry could answer. “If not, I’d be making white flag Frenchie jokes for months, and he knows it!”
“You shut your dirty mouth, sir!” Henry fired back at Jaspers, his mustaches twitching in agitation. “Say not another bad word about Mother France! Of course I shall help our leader Brian in this moment of tribulation!”
“Mother France?” Jaspers repeated in disbelief. “More like Old Lady France, by this point! You know how stupid you sound?”
“Me?” Henry advanced to stab a finger into Jaspers’ bulky chest. “Listen, you pale, overgrown Northern monkey-”
“Enough, enough!” I cut in, stepping up to put one hand on each man’s chest. “This isn’t helping! Henry, you go with Sergei and see about getting some weapons and armor, then.”
“And explosives?” asked the Frenchman, his dark eyes lighting up beneath the slightly shaggy head of black hair.
I winced. “Only if you think they’re absolutely necessary-”
He was gone before I could finish the sentence. I sighed, turning back to Corinne, who’d watched this exchange with a slight smile on her little rosebud lips.
“And a boat?” she asked, before I could give her any instructions.
I nodded, going along with it. “We’ve got to cover a dozen miles before hitting the shore. Try to find something that won’t get us drenched by the time we arrive.”
She gave me another smile, flicking her blonde hair back over her shoulder as she departed. If I didn’t have a fiancee… well, I still probably wouldn’t consider asking out Corinne. I’d seen how she handled an anti-tank recoilless rifle – while driving a half-wrecked rustbucket through the streets of Kabul.
So, that just left-
I jumped at the soft voice from behind me. “Christ almighty, Feng!” snarled Jaspers, spinning around even as one hand shot to grab at his chest. “Trying to give me a bloody heart attack?”
The little, almost childlike Chinese woman standing in the doorway gave no sign of apology… or any other emotion, really. She had a face like a porcelain doll, beautiful and just as hard to read. She moved on velvet feet, and I still couldn’t quite read her, even after several months together.
I sighed, forcing myself to breathe again. “Feng, what have I told you about sneaking up on people?”
She just looked at me. Was there a faint note of exasperation in her big, limpid brown eyes? Yes, I knew that a sniper’s job was to sneak up on his or her opponents, but she didn’t need to employ those same skills on a ship, where she was surrounded by friendlies.
“Let me guess,” I said after a moment of silence. “You want to come along, as well. How much have you heard?”
She gave me a slight little shrug, indicating that she’d heard enough to make up her mind. She stepped past me, over to a nearby pile of supplies, and picked up a black case about the right size to contain a disassembled sniper rifle.
“Anything else?” I asked her, trying to act like this was all normal. It was, I’d found, the best way to deal with Feng. Don’t let her weirdness unsettle me.
She tapped her chin for a second, and then bent to pop open another container. From inside, she scooped up two boxes of bullets, slipping them into the pockets on her little jacket. Once these were stowed away, she nodded at me.
“Great. Whole squad’s coming.” I looked over at Jaspers. Arrogant and loud as he could be, he had a brilliant head for tactics. “What else do we need?”
He sighed. “Without me, Rick, you’d need instructions for touching your own dick. I’ll go see about some food and other supplies.”
I started out of the compartment, heading off to go see what luck Corinne had managed with getting her hands on a boat. I didn’t hear anything behind me; in fact, the corridor behind me sounded even more empty than normal.
I glanced back at Feng. “What do you think is going on?” I asked her. “With the USA, going dark.”
She frowned, tapping her chin with a finger on her free hand. “Trouble,” she finally said.
I sighed. “Yeah, that’s what I think, too.”
A deck above, Corinne found me as I climbed the stairs. “There you are, o commander,” she called out, giving me a mock salute. “Your pleasure craft is ready to see you to the shore!”
“You found one?” I asked, as Feng silently trotted out from behind me to take her place in the boat.
Corinne nodded. “That’s right. Even coerced a couple deckhands into helping us cast off.”
“How’d you manage that?”
She pursed those cute little lips, leaned in so close that I could catch a faint hint of her clean scent. “Threats of imminent death,” she whispered.
Sergei appeared from behind her, handing me a ballistic vest, a jacket, a duffel bag, and a rifle, in that order. I shrugged into the vest and jacket, slung the bag over my shoulder, and checked the rifle. Loaded, ready to go.
Just like me, I supposed.
“Well, if we’re going to break all the rules, we might as well get it over with,” I said, seeing that the others seemed to be waiting for me to speak. “Questions?”
“Mission briefing, sir?” This came from Henry, but the others all listened attentively. We fucked with each other plenty during downtime, but we’d learned to operate together as a unit when the shit hit the fan.
Hell, that was probably why we were all still alive. Somehow, I’d managed to keep everyone out of danger for the most part, and they all knew it. They had more faith in me than I sometimes had in myself, but I drew strength from them.
“Right.” I thought back through what I’d gathered as intel. There wasn’t much. “A little over two days ago, America – hell, the entire North and South Americas – all went dark. No contact, no people, no radio transmissions, no nothing. Brought down a good portion of the global communications net, as well. Since then, we’ve all had our thumbs up our asses as we ran around with our heads cut off, trying to figure out what the hell is going on.”
“Nice metaphor,” Corinne snickered, but she let me continue.
Whatever. Weird description, I admitted, but accurate. “Anyway,” I continued, “we’re heading in to figure out what’s going on.” I took a deep breath, but the team deserved honesty. “And if possible, the secondary objective is to head towards Texas, figure out what happened to my fiancee.”
No one objected to the clear breach of objectivity. “Shooting orders, sir?” Jaspers grunted.
I frowned, looking out in the direction of mainland. “We don’t know what we’re up against. Don’t fire unless fired upon. We can’t get intelligence from dead sources.”
They nodded. Nothing else to say, really. We climbed into the boat, and Corinne gave the signal for the nearby enlisted soldiers to cast us off.
The boat hit the water with a splash, followed by the low rumble of the engines kicking into gear. We pulled away from the bulk of the destroyer, heading off into the unknown.
Into Dark America.