“I dunno, man.” Sergei drew in breath between his exposed teeth, making a dry hiss. “Scary shit, this.”
Jaspers turned and growled at the Russian. “Keep your breath down. We don’t want anyone to hear us.”
“Anyone to hear us?” Sergei looked around at the rest of us, disbelieving, like a host mugging on a talk show camera. “No one is here! That is why this is scary shit!”
“We don’t know that there’s no one here,” Henry pointed out, not sounding comforted by this correction. “After all, Texas said that someone brought down the drones. Those things don’t crash on their own.” He caught Jaspers nodding. “Most of the time,” the Frenchman added, just to piss off his British comrade.
Before Jaspers could push out a hot-headed reply, I held up my hand. The others’ mouths snapped shut, and they looked at me. Like I said, we didn’t always get along with each other – but we knew our training, and when it was important to shut the hell up.
“Sergei’s right,” I murmured, pitching my own voice low. “We haven’t seen anyone yet, but it feels like they’re out there. Like there’s a pair of eyes on the back of my head right now.”
Next to me, Corinne shivered. “Yeah, I feel it too. I keep looking around, thinking that I’ll spot someone out of the corner of my eye.”
Silence fell over us for a minute, before Henry finally spoke. “Orders, sir,” he said, falling back on the reassuring structure of military command.
“Right.” I had spent the twenty minutes it took for us to reach the shore sitting in the bottom of the boat, my eyes slightly out of focus. This was my specialty, if I risked taunting Fate by bragging. Jaspers knew how to interrogate and take action under fire, Sergei always kept his sarcastic cool, Corinne could drive anything and Henry knew how to blow it up… but I could plan. Sometimes, it felt almost unconscious, my brain idly tracing the dozen different ways a scenario might play out. “The plan.”
We’d spotted a small marina, pulled the military boat in among the civilian sailboats bobbing in the calm water. It looked oddly out of place, like a shark lurking in the brightness of a coral reef. I wasn’t sure – GPS was on the fritz, thanks to the takedown of nearly half the data infrastructure of the internet – but I guessed that we’d come in slightly south of New York City, landed somewhere in New Jersey.
We disembarked, taking our first steps – perhaps the first steps, period – into Dark America.
Bit of a misnomer, that was, I admitted as I squinted against the bright sunlight. If I closed off sensation from my ears, blocked out the eerie silence, I could almost convince myself that I was back home. The boats bobbed in the marina, the waves splashed softly against the shore, and a faint breeze filled my nostrils with that salty freshness of the ocean. A couple trucks were parked outside of the marina, as if their drivers had come in to take a sailboat out for a morning spin around the bay.
But we didn’t see a single soul. And I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it felt like something else, something important, was missing.
“The plan,” I repeated. “We’ve got three objectives, as I see it. First, gather data and try to figure out what happened here. Second, search for survivors.” There was really something missing, something right in front of my nose. It irritated me, and I paused to take a breath before continuing, drawing a deep breath.
“And the third, sir?” Jaspers asked, managing to sound almost respectful in front of his technical superior.
I let out that breath, feeling it waver slightly. I was on edge, just like them; I needed to clamp that down, keep them from seeing it. I was the leader, and I needed to project strength. “Third objective is to get our asses out of here at some point, without whatever happened here getting to us.”
That last point elicited some nods. “And,” Henry added carefully after another second or two, “if our search for survivors takes us further inland, perhaps towards the lovely American South…”
He was throwing me a bone, suggesting that we might head towards Texas. Towards the last known location of Alexis. An unseen knife stabbed inward towards my heart, inflicting ruinous pain with each inch of penetration, but I fought it off before it brought me down. Need to stay strong.
“We’ll see what we can uncover here, first.” Did that come out a little too harshly? I wasn’t going to correct it. I looked around, out past the edge of the marina. City streets led away from us, a few cars parked along the sides. “Corinne, we’re going to need wheels.”
“On it,” she murmured, slipping past me.
“Wait! Henry, you’re with her. Keep an eye out for threats, anything suspicious.” Henry nodded and ducked after Corinne.
“And us?” Jaspers grunted, looking around as if he expected enemies to come boiling up from the sea, or maybe out of the bushes.
“We’re scouting the area for signs of what happened. Feng!” She blinked at me, about as much of a response as I ever got. “Find someplace high, with a good vantage point. See if you can spot an interesting direction for us to head.” She nodded and melted away into the background, her rifle case slung over her shoulder.
I looked to my right, then left, at Jaspers and Sergei. “Let’s see if we can figure out some signs of what happened here,” I finished.
A search of the area didn’t seem to turn up much. Weirdly, the place reminded me of Disneyland, of all places. We’d visited, once, when I was still small enough to cling to my mother’s leg in fear at the sight of a huge, costumed Mickey Mouse leering down at me. But we’d come on an off day, when most people weren’t at the park, and the huge attractions had all seemed strangely empty, pristine and ready for nonexistent crowds of tourists to descend upon them.
That was how this town – Brielle, New Jersey, as I’d suspected – felt to me. The stores were open, the doors unlocked and wares on display. We moved slowly past a hot dog cart, parked out on the corner of a busy intersection, and I paused for a moment to lift the metal lid on one of its containers. Shriveled rows of wieners greeted me. I still felt the almost oppressive weight of silence, that sense that something was missing that I hadn’t quite identified yet.
“Bloody disturbing,” Jaspers murmured at the sight of a row of cars, all parked patiently in an intersection, as if waiting for the dark traffic light above them to blink back into red and green life. “Like someone hit pause on the goddamn world.”
Sergei nodded, brandishing his rifle at nothing. “Yes. All frozen, on the brink of happening. Like a cat, about to pounce on a bird.”
And then it hit me.
“The birds,” I whispered, looking up at the trees – the empty trees. “Where are the birds?”
Gone. The town of Brielle had plenty of greenery and trees – but we hadn’t heard a single bird’s cry, since we stepped off the boat. There had been no seagulls hanging around the marina, no finches chirping on the sides of the roads. No stray dogs, no prowling cats or foxes picking at the abandoned food.
Aside from the six of us, no life at all.