Once I was totally certain that Sara was asleep, her little frame gently rising and falling in time with her slow breaths as she curled up beneath the blankets on the air mattress, I turned to the others. “So,” I began. “We’ve got a decision to make.”
“We need to take her back,” Corinne said immediately. “No question about it. She doesn’t belong here.”
“It is her home,” Sergei pointed out mildly, his tone neutral.
Despite that neutral tone, Corinne still rounded on him, her pale blue eyes flashing. “Not any longer, it’s not – this place is dangerous! We don’t know what happened, how she managed to survive what killed almost everyone else-”
“We don’t know if they’re dead,” Henry spoke up, ever the optimist.
It wasn’t enough to stop Corinne’s speech. “-and if we leave her here, we’re risking her death being on our hands!”
“No one said anything about bloody leaving her here,” Jaspers stepped into the argument, sighing in exasperation. “Come on, Corinne, how heartless do you think we are? Leaving her?”
“So what are you suggesting instead?” she challenged, turning on him next.
He shrugged. “We bring her with us, that’s what.”
“What?” Corinne had to pause for a second to get her volume back under control, glancing slightly guiltily over at Sara as the girl twisted on the mattress. We all held our breath for a minute, waiting until her breathing once again slowed and deepened. Corinne continued, once she’d dropped back into deeper slumber. “You want to take a twelve-year-old girl and put her in the middle of a military convoy, heading into uncharted territory against an unknown danger?”
“Not exactly uncharted,” I pointed out. “This is the United States, not some terrorist stronghold in the desert.”
“Not the United States that we know.” Corinne crossed her arms tightly across her chest. “Something happened. The Event, whatever it was, changed everything. This place is wrong, now. Can’t you feel it, whenever we step outside?”
This question was met with a silence. it was true; we all felt on edge, had felt that way ever since our ship first landed at the shores. Something here just screamed out to some primal part of my subconscious that things were wrong, that we were in danger, and we had to get to someplace safer. None of us had said anything aloud about it, but we could see in each other’s eyes that we all shared that same feeling.
After another minute, Jaspers sighed again. “So you want to turn around and bloody retrace the steps of the last couple days, and then send someone off on the boat with her? We don’t even know if the bloody ship is still monitoring offshore.”
“It has to be. The drone that dipped low to look at us above Washington, D.C.? That had to have come from the ship.”
“It might have moved position,” I amended Jaspers’ earlier comment. Corinne transferred her glare briefly to me, but she couldn’t keep it up. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath.
“So what, then?” she challenged me. “What do you think we should do?”
They all looked at me. Jaspers, annoyed that we had to deal with this little girl in the first place. Corinne, her protective instincts fully engaged. Henry and Jaspers, so confident in combat, unsure how to conduct themselves around an innocent and naive child. And Feng, unreadable as always, her black eyes giving away no emotion at all.
“I think we need to bring her with us,” I said, and braced myself for the ensuing eruption.
It didn’t come. Instead, I got a series of frowns, each member of my team trying to guess my internal thought process. Before any of them could ask, I continued talking, explaining.
“So far, everyone has been missing,” I elaborated. “Think about it. Whatever made all of the people here vanish, it didn’t seem to be affected by distance, or exposure, or age, or any other factor normally associated with a weapon or an attack. It hit everyone – young and old, rich and poor, all at once.”
“So?” Corinne wasn’t challenging me – yet. She wanted to hear my reasoning.
“So,” I picked up her word, “there haven’t been any exceptions at all – until Sara. She has to be significant in some way, because she’s already special. She’s special because she isn’t affected by… by the Event, whatever it was.” I hated the vague terminology, but we didn’t have a better word. yet. “And that makes her special, without us knowing anything else about her.”
“Puzzle,” Feng spoke up clearly, and we all looked over at her in surprise.
“That’s right,” I nodded, after a moment of recovery. “She’s a puzzle. If we can solve that puzzle, we might be able to uncover some more clues about what happened here. What happened to the United States, to the entire Western Hemisphere.” I looked over at Corinne. “But I know that I’m not the only one who will think along those lines.”
It took her a moment, but then her face darkened. “The doctors on board the ship,” she murmured.
“Not just the doctors. They might want to protect and defend her – but there are more than a billion people calling out for answers back in Europe, Africa, and Asia,” I resumed. “What do you think they’ll weigh more heavily?”
Corinne sucked in her breath, her eyes widening. Henry also grimaced, and Sergei closed his eyes. Only Jaspers kept his expression, his frown deepening as he looked from one team member to the other. “What?” he demanded.
Sergei opened his eyes, rolled them in a slow circle, turned to Jaspers. “They kill her to find what is different,” he said plainly.
For a moment, it didn’t quite sink in for Jaspers. Then, as it hit, his face tightened and his big hands balled into fists. “Like bloody hell they fucking are,” he growled, his features twisted into a mask of anger. “Over my fucking dead body.”
Corinne reached out and laid a hand on Jaspers’ arm. For a moment, that mask of rage remained in place, but he finally let it slip away. She nodded, taking a slow breath.
“The girl stays with us,” she said.
Henry nodded. “She appreciates my cooking, unlike you sorry lot,” he added. “I’m not letting the closest thing that this team has found to a proper palate slip away.”
“Sergei?” I asked.
He glanced over at Sara’s sleeping figure. “She looks weak,” he stated. “In Russia, we train even girls to defend from attackers. She could use training before we let her go alone.”
I fought down a smile at the thought of Sergei training small, skinny Sara to fight like the Spetsnaz. “Feng?”
She blinked, perhaps surprised that I’d included her. “Puzzle should be solved,” she finally said in her soft, childlike voice.
“Then we are agreed.” I nodded to the others, watched as they each nodded back in return. “She stays with us, until we’ve figured out what happened here.”
“Agreed,” the others murmured.
For a minute, we just sat there, perhaps reflecting on the decision we’d just reached. The moment of introspection was broken by a yawn from Sergei, however. “I turn in now,” he commented. “You take watch.”
We had our rotation well established. We set up our perimeter, turned in, dropping our sleeping bags around Sara. Soon, other snores joined her deep breathing.
To be continued…