“Food’s a bit flat, I must admit.” Henry frowned into his tin can, picking at it with a fork as if probing the innards of a dead combatant. “What do you call this disgusting mixture? Spaghetti and hoes?”
“Spaghetti-Os,” I corrected. “And it’s classic American comfort food.”
His grimace grew. “Explains a lot about you lot, doesn’t it.”
We sat in a parking lot, between the two trucks that Corinne found and ‘commandeered’, with a gas-burning stove lit in the middle and providing some heat and flickering light. Heading out of Brielle, we managed to find a camping supply store, and I ordered a halt for long enough to fill the bed of one truck with supplies – tents, sleeping rolls, a couple of stoves and plenty of backup fuel, everything I could think to grab. As we hauled out our loot, I almost dropped some money on the counter, fighting down a half-hysterical giggle as I did so.
We didn’t need to pay, not in Dark America. No one was here to take the money.
After making our landing, we’d scouted the town for a good hour, searching for any sign of what had happened. Our search turned up empty. Wherever we looked, we found no signs of a struggle, no signs that anyone had known what fate might be coming for them. There were no fires, no overturned cars, nothing.
“It’s like everyone bloody put down what they were doing and walked into the goddamn ocean,” Jaspers muttered, perfectly encapsulating my own thoughts.
We met back up near the center of town, just off a highway labeled as Route 35. Feng crept out from between a pair of buildings, gliding along like a wraith, and reported that she’d seen no signs of activity or life. Corinne and Henry returned with a pair of heavy duty trucks, F150s with the extended cabs, and we began loading them up with a combination of brought and scavenged supplies.
“It’s too quiet,” Corinne muttered, standing off to one side. “The whole way out to the dealerships, I kept on wanting to yawn, pop my ears. I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t hearing anything.”
“No birds,” I pointed out. “Whatever happened, it took the animals, too. Not just the people.”
She shivered, and we didn’t speak again until we hit the road.
“So,” Jaspers now spoke up, tossing aside his empty can of food. Out of everyone on my team, I’d known Jaspers the longest, and I’d come to respect his iron stomach. “I hate to be the one to poke a hole in this party, but what in the bloody nine hells has happened here?”
The rest of us exchanged glances. No one spoke up immediately.
“Logic,” I stated.
Sergei frowned. “Men were killed by logic?”
“No, we need to use logic. Take note of everything we know, use it to make guesses.” I paused for a beat. “So what do we know?”
“We know that all the Yanks seem to have vanished,” Henry pointed out sourly. “And, in their typical thoughtlessness, they’ve thrown the rest of the world into chaos behind them.”
“But more than that,” I pressed. “There haven’t been any signs of a struggle. No fighting back, no bodies, no nothing.”
“Yeah.” Corinne shivered. “Like they just evaporated. Disappeared into thin air, like ghosts.”
We stopped for a moment at that image.
“Clothing.” The word floated down softly from above. I looked up at Feng, perched on top of one of the truck cabs, her rifle in her arms. Her gaze never stopped sweeping around the perimeter, not dipping down to meet mine. I could almost believe that she hadn’t spoken at all, that I’d heard the faint word inside my own head.
Its meaning clicked, however. “Feng’s right,” I said. “If they evaporated, or something like that happened-”
“Physically impossible,” Sergei muttered disgustedly under his breath.
“-they’d leave clothing behind,” I went on. “Or jewelry, little piles of implants and teeth fillings and other inorganic material. We haven’t seen any of that.”
“But it did happen suddenly,” Henry countered. “Whatever took them all.”
Jaspers, always ready to challenge the Frenchie, crossed his heavy muscled arms. “How do you figure?”
“The cars,” Henry replied, smirking a little as he dropped the answer he’d clearly had prepared. “Some of them were still sitting in the road, a couple even still idling. If this hadn’t happened all at once, there would be crashes, people pulling off to the side of the road.”
“And it happened during day time,” Sergei added. “Stores are open, no locks on doors. If it was at night, they would lock all doors, we could not get in.”
“Okay. Putting it together,” I summarized. “Everyone vanished at the exact same second, sometime during the day, with no warning.”
The others nodded, Corinne shivering again. “Not making me feel much better, boys,” she said in tones dripping with sarcasm.
Corinne was the one to say it, but she echoed what the rest of us felt, sometimes when we weren’t willing to speak it ourselves. I’d learned to listen to the emotion underlying her words, treat her as a kind of human barometer to judge the rest of the team’s status.
But I didn’t need to listen closely tonight to know that everyone felt just as on edge as I did.
Finally, Jaspers broke the heavy silence with a grunt. “Yeah, scary, some sort of magic voodoo that we don’t bloody understand,” he sighed. “Tougher to defuse than an IED on the side of a road in goat-fuckistan, but just as unpredictable. And it doesn’t seem like we can do shit about it.”
I sat forward. “You’re right,” I agreed. “We keep our eyes open, watch for any signs of what might have gone down here, but there’s no one here for us to fight. We need to keep moving on our plan.”
That made the others nod, sit a little straighter. We were soldiers, after all. We respected three things: a ranked superior, overwhelming firepower, and sticking to the mission plan.
We didn’t have any superior officer with us, and we certainly didn’t have the firepower to fight… whatever had happened here. All we had was our plan.
It would have to be enough.
Jaspers held up a finger. “We’ve looked around for data, and funny, there doesn’t seem to be any of it lying around. Strange, eh?”
“Knock it off,” I told him, even though he managed to elicit a hint of a smile from me. “Step two of the plan is to search for survivors.”
“None here.” The words again drifted down from Feng, keeping watch on top of the truck. “Empty.”
Henry looked up at her. “I did rig claymores around the perimeter,” he said, in a tone of mild disapproval. “You can come down and eat, if you want.”
A crunch came from above. “Have food.”
I shrugged, as Henry rolled his eyes at the rest of us. “Come on, Henry, you know her. She’s not going to come down – and, to be honest, I’d rather have her on watch tonight.”
After a second, his face cleared and he nodded. “If I’m being honest in return, me too.”
We turned in, each of us retreating to his or her sleeping bag to lie awake and wonder what fate had befallen half the world.