“Survivors. It’s got to be survivors, there’s no other explanation.” Henry looked around at the rest of us, as if he could be more convincing by maintaining eye contact. The Frenchman’s thin mustaches practically quivered with the force of his words.
“Yeah?” Jaspers countered, not bowing to this insistence. “Then where the bloody hell are they? And why are they leaving cryptic billboards instead of getting on the radio?”
“Radios don’t work, Jaspers,” Sergei pointed out mildly. “And maybe they don’t understand what has happened. Americans are weak, and all people disappearing is scary to think.” He glanced over at me. “No offense, yes?”
I didn’t think that Americans were particularly weak, but it wasn’t worth the argument. And I didn’t know what I thought about what we’d seen.
JUDGMENT DAY. ONLY SINNERS REMAIN. It certainly sounded like the crazed message of a broken mind. Was it the truth, though? Had someone survived, gifted with horrible knowledge that none of the rest of us could comprehend?
I doubted it, wanted to call it all nonsense. I believed in what I could see, touch – and shoot, if need be. But I didn’t have any other way to explain where the people of my nation, of nearly half the globe, could have gone.
“We need to be on our guard,” I said, instead of getting caught in the debate over the meaning of the graffiti. “If someone’s around to leave that message, they’re probably still out here. And they might not take kindly to our appearance. They might see us as devils, other sinners.”
That put the others on high alert. We’d seen what religious fanatics could do in Fallujah, and we didn’t want to face that in this unfamiliar environment, without any backup that we could call in. The nearest staffed medical facility was too far away for any of us to make it, if we got seriously injured.
As we drove further into Roanoke, however, the sun finally vanishing below the horizon and plunging the world into darkness, we didn’t need to search for where the survivors might be hiding.
They broadcast their position, loud and clear, with a glow radiating up into the sky.
“Lights,” called Corinne, unnecessarily.
Riding shotgun next to me, Jaspers unhurriedly checked his weapon, dropping the mag out, verifying the seating of the bullets. He slipped it back in, racked the slide, glanced down the barrel as if it had somehow grown crooked in the last couple of hours. “Plan, Texas?” he murmured to me.
“Reconnaissance.” I said it into the short-wave, pulling over to the side of the road. The other two trucks did the same, their lights turning off and plunging us into darkness for a few seconds before our eyes began to adjust.
Out in the chill of the night air, I caught Feng’s eye and pointed to a nearby three-story apartment, built over a small bodega. Feng nodded, wordlessly slipped towards the entrance. She carried her rifle case slung over one shoulder, and the short-wave radio in her other hand.
“Us?” Sergei murmured.
I nodded to him and Jaspers. “You two approach on foot. Corinne and I will drive up, distract them and see if they’re friendly. Don’t move unless it’s on my signal, or things go to hell.”
“And me?” Henry asked.
I winced. “What I wouldn’t give for some explosives, or air support.”
“Actually…” the Frenchman looked down modestly at his fingernails. “There are some supplies I’ve been picking up at the stores around here. I could make something happen.”
I grinned. “I knew you wouldn’t let me down. Hopefully, we won’t need that level of chaos…”
“…but it’s better to have it at your disposal.” He waved Corrine and me towards the trucks. “Get in there and figure out what the hell is going on.”
Corinne took the wheel; chauvinism might be rampant in the Army, but I knew her driving skills, and they put mine to shame. If we needed to make a quick getaway, I wanted her behind the wheel. I slipped into the front passenger seat, checking the pistol at my side. “Ready.”
“Here we go, then,” she said, putting the truck in gear.
As we drove closer to the source of the light, I took deep breaths, fighting the quickening of my heartbeat inside my chest. I glanced over at Corinne, saw her lips pressed so tightly together that they were nearly white. She guided the truck steadily, smoothly, as if we were driving home on a Sunday afternoon from church.
The radio crackled. “Single building.” Feng’s voice. Flat and calm, like she was describing her previous meal. “Lights on inside, but not power. Looks like a generator.”
“People?” I asked her.
A long pause. “I see nothing. Maybe inside.”
My glance panned over to Corinne. “Still worth checking out,” I said, and she nodded.
We drove slowly, giving Jaspers and Sergei time to advance on foot and flank us. We finally came around the corner, and I saw the building Feng described. Not hard to miss, I thought with a little pang of gallows humor. It was the only one with a light shining out of the window.
Aside from the light, however, nothing really distinguished the building from its neighbors on either side. We were in an older neighborhood, with brownstones lining both sides of the street. The building with the light inside had slightly crumbling steps, a double door – that stood slightly ajar, I spotted.
Corinne pulled the truck to a stop outside the building. “Looks like no one’s here to greet us,” she said, the light words not fully hiding the tension in her voice and body.
“Then we’ll have to go up and knock.” I climbed out, drawing the pistol and, holding it slightly behind my leg so that it wasn’t in plain sight, advanced on the door.
It creaked as I pushed it open. Corinne fell in behind me, covering my six. “Sergei and Jaspers are both outside, watching from the bushes,” she murmured, almost too quietly for me to hear. “Ready if there’s trouble.”
I knew that, if there was trouble, the two men would get inside just in time to see my body fall. Still, this was what I – what we all – were trained to handle. I stepped inside.
Stairs led up from the ground floor. The lights had shone out from the second floor, so I moved up the stairs, doing my best to make each step silent. A couple of the stairs creaked, but I didn’t hear any movement or sound from ahead of me, from the second floor.
The second floor. A hallway, with apartment doors on either side. One at the end stood ajar, and light leaked from underneath.
“Feels like a trap,” Corinne whispered, just barely loud enough for my ears to pick out the sounds from the gentle creaking of the building.
I agreed. But I also knew that we couldn’t turn away. We had to find out if someone else was alive – and if they were dangerous.
Step. Step. Gun was out in front of me, now, ready to snap up and take the first shot before a sentry could react. I reached the door, paused. I forced my own breathing and heart rate to slow, listened.
I heard someone inside. They weren’t moving, but I could catch their breathing, soft and shallow, in and out.
I knew that Corinne was ready. I knew the others had me covered from outside as best they could. Time for action.
The heel of my boot slammed into the door, throwing it open. I was inside even as the sound rang out, echoing around the hall, my gun up, my mouth open to shout-
-and I froze as a pair of small, wide, blue eyes stared back up at me, inches from the barrel of my pistol.
To be continued…