I stared down the barrel of my gun, my mouth falling open.
In combat, everyone started a virgin. The term didn’t refer to their prowess in bed, although we never failed to give them crap about that, either. No, they all started as virgins, because they’d never shot another human in combat.
Killing another human being… I hated the stereotypical response, but it changes people. It changed me. I grew harder after I lost that virginity, felt like all my empathy burned away under the blowtorch of combat.
I’d done it, again and again. Sometimes, the kills were anonymous. Fire a rifle, see a hooded figure drop in the distance to land in the dirt. Might as well be playing a video game.
Other times, they’d been far too real, the kind of memories that were burned into my head as if by a twisted mental equivalent of a branding iron. A man screaming, half his face blown away by a mistimed IED, begging me to finish the job. A woman, her face a mask of grim finality, reaching for the gun on the table even as she knew that she’d never grab it before I pulled the trigger. I could see those faces when I closed my eyes, looking at me out of the darkness behind my eyelids.
But I knew of one line I’d never crossed.
I’d never killed a child.
The girl looked up at me, blue eyes strangely unblinking. A second look revealed the shape of the face beneath the dirt. Older than I’d first guessed; twelve or thirteen years. But those blue eyes still screamed of innocence, even as I threatened to extinguish their light.
I forced my lips to form the shapes of words. “Who else is here?”
“No one.” No flicker in those eyes. They looked back up at me, as if she held the gun, as if the direction of its barrel were reversed. “Just me.”
I finally broke the locked gaze between us, feeling strangely as if I’d lost a contest. Corinne was already moving, even as I turned slightly towards her. Gun out, she searched the rest of the apartment with clean and clinical Norwegian precision.
“No one else,” she reported, emerging from what looked to be the bedroom.
“Like I said,” the girl went on. “Just me.” She took a step closer to me, heedless of the gun, peering up at me on her tiptoes with mild curiosity. “Are you hallucinations?”
“No.” I walked over to the generator. A consumer model, not military grade – the kind of thing that weekend warriors hauled out to tailgating to keep their beers cold. “Who set this up?”
“I did.” She seemed… odd. Out of it, almost, although I didn’t see the confusion or slurred speech that I associated with the drugged-out young men and women destined to become suicide bombers. “My dad showed me how.”
“And where is he?”
No answer. I pulled my eyes away from the generator, back to her – and froze as I saw her looking down at the floor, thin shoulders heaving. A choked sound slipped out of her throat as her knees buckled.
“Ah, shit.” I sagged back as Corinne, triggered by a motherly instinct that I clearly didn’t possess, holstered her sidearm and moved forward to join the girl on her knees. I heard her murmur something, heard the girl respond, in voices too low for me to distinguish individual words.
I didn’t want to be here for this. Displays of emotion, especially when tears are involved… it’s bad enough, having to deliver news to mothers and fathers of their dead sons and daughters. I didn’t want to face a crying kid.
Instead, I hauled the window open, let out a two-tone whistle into the darkness. Jaspers, Sergei, and Henry would know the code, read my all clear and head in to join Corinne and myself.
They didn’t take long. I heard boots on the stairs outside a minute later, and they entered the room. Henry came first, and froze as he caught sight of the girl. Jaspers and Sergei thudded into his slight shoulders, but their complaints caught in their throats as they saw her.
Thank christ for military structure. When situation normal is all kinds of fucked up, at least you can turn to the guy in charge. Let him handle it.
That, of course, just put the full weight of the decision on me.
A survivor. That’s what this girl had to be. We needed to capitalize on that, I thought, even as I tried to contain the wild, irrational surge of hope that suddenly welled up within me. If this girl was alive, others could be alive as well, out there in the darkness of America as they tried to make sense of what could have happened…
I needed the story. That had to come first. Can’t make bricks without clay, can’t make a plan without data.
Putting the pistol away, I walked over to where Corinne still crouched, her arms around the girl. I dropped down awkwardly to my knees, putting myself at her height. “Hey,” I said, not knowing how to begin.
She kept her face buried in Corinne’s shoulders, not looking up at me. I reached out slowly, tentatively, to touch her shoulder – but Corinne looked up at me, giving me an infinitesimal shake of her head to discourage the gesture.
Right. “What’s your name?” I asked.
No response. More sobs, muffled by Corinne’s jacket.
Corinne rolled her eyes at me, apparently trying to communicate… something. I couldn’t read this expression on her face. Better at combat situations, I sighed, wishing for a moment that Alexis was here. I loved her for her empathy, her ability to talk to people. Odd pairing, that; I killed people, and she understood them. I’d never admit it aloud, but I loved her all the more strongly for that empathy, suspected that it truly made her a better person than I could ever hope to be.
With nothing else, I just started talking. “My name’s Brian, Brian Richards. I’m sorry if it’s hard to understand me, since I’ve got this sort of drawl in my voice.” I stretched out and emphasized the accent. “You know where that’s from?”
“Texas.” She didn’t raise her head, and the word came out soft and muffled. Still, I had her talking, so that was an improvement.
“That’s right – I’m a red-blooded Texan, through and through. I’ve been in England,” mostly, “for the last few months, working with these guys to train them on how to fight like Americans.”
“Mostly just kicking them in the bloody nadgers,” Jaspers muttered softly. Sergei punched him.
“But I came back when I heard what happened here,” I went on, ignoring him. “I’m going back home to Texas, to look for my wife. But it would help me if I knew what happened here.”
The question burned on my lips, but I held i in for a second longer, waiting. I thought back to interrogation training. Make the target come to you. I waited, and finally, the girl lifted her head from Corinne’s shoulder and turned to look at me. Big blue eyes, staring into my own.
“Can you tell me your name?” I asked.
A shuddering breath, but she didn’t look away. “Sara.”
“Hi Sara. I’m Brian.” She nodded, her eyes measuring me. “Now, can you tell me what happened?”
Another long pause, the tension so sharp that it could split the very air. But finally, an answer. “Yes.”
To be continued…