“I’m not feeling quite so confident about this route you’ve picked, Brian,” Henry muttered, as we gathered around the map that I’d spread out on the back gate of our pickup.
I looked over at the stringy Frenchman. “Why’s that?”
He reached out and, with one finger that had its nails nibbled down almost to the quick, tapped on a city that lay ahead. “That’s why,” he said shortly. “Must we really pass through here?”
On my other side, Sergei grunted. “Indeed,” he said. “If this was attack on USA, that would be epicenter. Might be dangerous still.”
“Dangerous?” I repeated. “Guys, whatever hit this place took out every single person, and animal, on two continents. If there’s a safe zone, we’re already well into it. And going through Washington, DC,” I tapped the map, “is the fastest way for us to get across the country. Besides, we might discover something else out there.”
Henry drew in a breath through his clenched teeth, making a sort of hissing noise. “Brian, there’s no one else around here,” he said.
“So drop the act!” he snapped, his patience slipping for a moment before he could hoist it back into place. “This isn’t an official operation. We’re all here because we support you, because we’re with you, but don’t try and pull the wool over our eyes. We are not babes.”
“Frenchie,” Jaspers growled, but I held up a hand to forestall him leaping to my defense.
“No, he’s right,” I admitted, after slowly letting out a deep breath. “I’m here because I’m hoping that my fiancee will still be alive, not because I got orders to show up and gather intel.” My frown grew into a grimace. “Hell, there’s a chance that I might be court-martialed for even coming here.”
“I’m pretty sure that they’ll have bigger concerns,” Corinne said, but no one disagreed with me.
“But maybe,” I continued after a second, “if we can go back with some intel, we can turn this… headstrong choice… into an act of valor.” I leaned back from the map, looked around at the other five faces. “And I gotta tell you all, whatever is going on here, it scares the hell out of me.”
The faces looking back at me kept up the mask of bravado for an instant – but they didn’t need to impress me, and those masks quickly slipped.
“Me, too,” Corinne agreed, reaching up to twist a couple strands of her blonde hair into a little knot around her fingers. “I keep waiting to see something move, and nothing does. I feel like my eyes are playing tricks on me, catching movement out of the corner of my eye when there’s nothing there.”
Feng nodded. “Ghosts,” she muttered.
Henry cast a glance over at the short little sniper. “You’ve seen ghosts?”
“Feel them,” she clarified, a little shudder running through her arms.
Jaspers let out a loud harrumph to make it clear that he didn’t buy such superstitious crap, but I still caught his eyes flicking back and forth. “Ah, hell, I agree with Texas,” he finally said. “What sort of weapon kills every animal on a entire bloody continent, leaves everything else standing? This kind of thing belongs in stupid bloody scifi paperbacks.”
We agreed on a compromise; we’d detour around the borders of the nation’s capital. The former capital, I amended that thought in my head, a little pang of loss running down my back. I hated to admit it, but I knew that it was true.
The United States was gone. We were driving through its corpse.
As we neared the capital, we finally caught our first sight of something moving. It wasn’t on the ground or amid the buildings, however. It roared over us, dipping down from the blue sky, lenses swiveling to stare unblinkingly at our convoy.
“Well, they know that we’re here now.” Henry’s voice crackled over the short-wave radios we’d rigged up in our pickups. “What did that one look like, an RQ-4?”
It had blown by too quickly for me to guess at the specific model, but I saw the dot turning in the sky, coming by for another sweep. “They’re still searching for a source of the attack, or survivors,” I guessed.
“Too bad we can’t communicate with them.” This came from Sergei. “Sat networks still down, mostly.”
“Mostly?” I echoed.
“Da. I check regularly – occasionally get low signal, but never secure enough to sustain a call.”
That was better than before, at least, when we’d gotten no signal at all. Whatever wiped all animal life off this side of the planet also took out most of the satellites in the skies above, but I guessed that the Europeans, Russians, and Chinese were all racing to get their satellites spread out to cover the empty zones.
“Keep trying,” I said. “The faster we can establish some sort of contact with whoever’s still in charge on the other side of the planet, the sooner we might be able to get whatever info they’ve uncovered.”
“I will,” Sergei said.
The UAV above us made another couple passes, probably training all its equipment on our little caravan of three trucks. Eventually, however, it swung away from us. We drove on, out of its range.
Driving around the outskirts of Washington, DC, we didn’t see anything other than what had passed us already – empty buildings, empty cars, nothing moving. We didn’t stop, and silence deafened us from the radios.
We’d made it to Roanoke by the time the sun started dropping low in the sky. We didn’t know whether it was due to the Event, as it had come to be informally referred to over our short-wave radios (or “the fuckin’ event,” as Jaspers called it), or part of the aftermath – but the power grids all seemed to be down. None of the streetlights turned on as the sun dropped to kiss the horizon.
But we didn’t need more than the fading light of the sun to see the greeting that waited for us, looming high over the entrance to the city.
“Well, this adds a whole new bloody level of creepiness to it all, doesn’t it?” Jaspers muttered aloud, as we all slowed and stared up at the sign ahead and above.
I didn’t have a response. No one spoke on the short-wave, but we all slowed, looking up at the billboard.
Until just a couple of days ago, it had advertised a tax preparing service, a green square against a background of white. Now, however, angry red paint slashed over the bland advertisement, forming jagged letters.
JUDGMENT DAY. ONLY SINNERS REMAIN.
The paint looked fresh, only just dried. I saw little drips running down from the letters, down to the bottom of the sign to fall onto the ground below. I didn’t need to get out of the truck to know that the paint would still feel sticky to the touch.
We drove into the city, looking for a spot to camp for the night – but that sign’s words stayed at the front of our thoughts.
To be continued…