“So, Texas,” Jaspers spoke up, interrupting the rumble of the big Ford’s engine. “You gonna keep on sitting there like a clam, or open up about it?”
I glanced over at him, although I couldn’t take my eyes off the road for long. After just a few miles down the highway, having to constantly slow and navigate our way through the lines of stopped or crashed vehicles, we’d elected to pick up a third truck; one for each pair of us. We’d worked in pairs before, on training exercises, and easily fell into those same pairings: Jaspers and myself, the two unspoken leaders of the team rode together, as did Henry and Corinne, and Sergei and Feng. Oddly enough the Russian and the near-mute Chinese sniper seemed to get along very well, as if their silent thoughts communicated on the same wavelength.
Most of the time, I didn’t mind Jaspers. He could be foul-mouthed and unnecessarily blunt at times, but that bluntness also sometimes cut through all the bullshit and let him get right to the point.
I’d asked him about it once, whether his surly attitude and big mouth got him in trouble. He laughed uproariously at the question.
“Yeah, ‘course it bloody has,” he answered immediately. “Come on, Texas, you think that I’d be stuck on detail with you foreign mooks if I knew how to keep my mouth shut? I don’t believe I’ve ever had a commander who approved of me speaking my mind. Keep quiet and soldier bloody on, that’s the English way.”
“So instead of busting you down, they decided that your big mouth makes you a perfect diplomat?” I summarized.
He barked a short laugh at that. “Pretty much. They just keep on handing me rope, hoping that it’ll end up coiled around my own damn neck.”
Now, as we drove carefully along the highway, navigating around wrecks and trying to maintain an average speed over twenty miles per hour, Jaspers turned towards me, across the center divider. “Well? Going to tell me what the bloody hell is going on?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I answered shortly, hoping that he’d drop it.
Fat chance. The burly Brit just snorted into his thick black beard and mustache. “Sure you do. This whole mission is crazy, and you know it. For all that they say about reckless Americans-“
“Who says that?”
“-you’re usually pretty good at thinking a plan through before diving in headfirst,” he went on, ignoring my question. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m not undermining you and getting you in trouble, like I do to the usual mooks stuck in charge of this bloody piecemeal shit of a unit.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I think.”
“But things are different right now,” Jaspers continued. “You’re acting crazy, not like what I’d expect from you. You’re charging into all of this headfirst, like the Devil himself is chasing behind you. And I know you well enough to say that you wouldn’t act like this unless you had some reason.”
He crossed his arms. “So I’d bloody well like to hear it.”
I tapped my fingers on the steering wheel, considering. Corinne apparently managed to boost several vehicles that came with premium packages, including supple leather interiors and leather stitching on the steering wheels. It felt odd to my hands, more accustomed to piloting no-frills armored military vehicles through bumpy and pitted desert roads. Here, driving a luxury pickup on smooth tarmac, it seemed… wrong.
This whole thing was wrong. I felt that sense of foreboding in the back of my head. It had been there ever since we first left the ship, like I had a pair of invisible eyes locked on the back of my head.
In the past, that sort of feeling, that sixth sense, saved me from a sniper’s bullet. Now, however, it didn’t go away no matter what I did or where I moved. We were still caught in the trap, fixed in the crosshairs.
Did I want to tell Jaspers about what drove me? It wasn’t an issue of trust – I’d been with the man for months, but in the special forces, doing the kind of wetwork missions that we handled, months felt like decades. I trusted him with my life in a combat situation, knew that I could rely on his steel mettle in a life or death encounter.
But this… this was something different. Even though I’d fought side by side with the man, spent more than twenty-four hours straight awake and beside him as we held a crippled, half-destroyed fortress against hundreds of assailants, we hadn’t talked much about our personal lives.
But if he wanted answers, I’d need to break that new barrier.
“You married, Jaspers?” I knew that he wasn’t, of course. I didn’t frequent some of the clubs where the enlisted men spent their free time, and he’d seen the pictures of my fiancée in my inner jacket pocket, close to my heart. He never missed an opportunity, in response, to brag about the action he got while on leave, to tell me that I was throwing my life away by handing it off to one other person.
He shook his head, now, riding shotgun in the truck. “You know that I’m not.”
“Ever been close?” Firing an exploratory shot across that previously uncrossed barrier.
I expected him to laugh at the suggestion, tell me that he knew better than to get snared by some woman’s wiles. But instead, Jaspers kept silent – and when I risked taking my eyes off the road for a second to glance over at him, I saw his lips had tightened beneath the bushy black mask of hair.
“It was a lifetime ago,” he said softly, his eyes out on the road ahead of us. “Watch this truck.”
I was already easing the brakes. The road gave me conflicting signals about how all of my countrymen had vanished. On one hand, if they’d vanished instantly, there would have been crashes and wrecks as the fast-moving cars suddenly found themselves without drivers. That had happened, in places, but it seemed a lot less destructive than I would have imagined. Many of the cars instead seemed to have come to perfect stops on their own, or pulled off to the road’s shoulder.
“It’s like they had a warning that this was coming,” Henry had commented, as we’d looked out at the road before setting off this morning. “No panic, but most of them pulled off. Like they were stopping to take a phone call.”
Unscientific, but it seemed to describe the situation. Up ahead of us, however, it seemed that a semi trucker hadn’t obeyed the same command to stop as his fellow Americans. The truck had jack-knifed, rolled onto its side, and apparently caught fire. The burned-out shell of its trailer stretched almost all the way across the three lanes of traffic. I had to ease our pickup over onto the shoulder to get around it.
Once past the truck, I opened my mouth to ask Jaspers what had happened – but he’d anticipated the question, and met my inquisitive look with a hot-eyed glare of his own.
“Just say it,” he snapped. “Trust me, I can understand more than your low opinion suggests.”
The words came out softly, but he caught them in the muffled interior of the truck’s cabin. I saw him open his mouth to say something, but – in a rare show of control – he decided against speaking. Several minutes passed before he cleared his throat.
“When?” he asked.
“On break last month. She only found out a couple weeks before…” I gestured out through the windshield. “Before this.”
Another long silence. He sat there, his mouth working back and forth, not speaking. He was, I realized, playing through his thoughts inside his head – a habit I still couldn’t quite believe that he possessed.
“I only do it when it’s really necessary,” he said, as if he could read my thoughts. “So that’s why we’re here, Texas?”
I nodded. “Yeah. Might be fighting a losing battle, though.”
I waited for Jaspers to give me his usual bluntness, to tell me that I probably ought to start coming around to the truth, that… I couldn’t even say it inside my head. But he sighed, looking down at his lap as he rubbed his big hands on his fatigues.
“Still more ground to cover,” he said instead, leaving it at that. He leaned his head back, closing his eyes to get some shut-eye, as I kept driving on.
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