That night, as we set up our camp on the outskirts of Nashville, we made extra care that our guard was up. After that attack, earlier that day, we didn’t want to have anyone sneak up on us while we slept.
Corinne, thankfully, stepped up and made herself Sara’s unofficial guardian without my having to ask her. It seemed that the Swedish blonde had taken a bit of a shine to the young girl, and they seemed to get along on that strange, almost magical wavelength that women seem to possess with each other. I even caught them giggling to each other, once, although they refused to disclose what they found to be so funny.
Other than their giggles, however, there wasn’t much mirth as we sat around the rigged camp stove, eating and gazing off into the middle distance. Killing always takes its toll, even for the most hardened of warriors. Despite all my training, I was human, and it still seemed like anathema to take the life of another.
“So.” Jaspers broke the silence. “We going to talk about it?”
I hated to revisit the events of the last twelve hours, but he was right. “Yeah, let’s debrief. Corinne?”
I shot a glance over at the blonde, but Sara, beside her, sat up and crossed her arms grumpily. This time, she’d apparently figured out what I’d been attempting to communicate over her head.
“I’m staying,” she said firmly, sticking out her lower lip at the rest of us. “I’m not a little kid who you have to send to her room. I want to stay.”
Crap. “Are you sure?” I asked, looking at her. “You saw what happened today. We had to kill people. That’s a scary thing, even for big, brave soldiers like us. Are you sure that you want to hear more about it?”
I saw her throat bob as she swallowed, but she gamely held her ground. “I was there, too,” she got out, even as her stuck-out lower lip quivered a little. “I don’t want to have to leave. I want to stay.”
I turned my glance over to Corinne, hoping for help, but the woman just shrugged her petite shoulders. “If it’s what she wants, we shouldn’t oppose her,” she said, apparently not willing to fight her new female ally.
Well, I still wasn’t fully sold, but I also didn’t want to waste time debating or arguing with Sara. “Fine,” I gave in. “So, our friend told us that they believed it was the apocalypse. Although they had a priest who told them that fact. They think that this is the end times.”
I decided not to share that they had, from the sound of his confession, murdered the priest afterwards. It made me feel ever so slightly better about shooting some of the attackers, but nothing fully made that pain go away.
“So they attacked us for supplies?” Henry asked.
“Yeah, and ’cause they’ve got nothing else to bloody lose,” Jaspers put out there.
The rest of us looked at him in confusion, waiting for him to explain the remark, but Sergei nodded. After arriving on the edge of Nashville, Corinne got him to lay down so that she could cut away the ruins of his shirt and stitch up the knife wound in his shoulder. It went in fairly cleanly, she told the rest of us, and hadn’t severed anything serious. He should be back to full strength in a couple of weeks. Now, he wore a loose white shirt over bandages that held gauze against the injury.
“If is the end of world,” Sergei explained, “and you are still here, not in heaven, you are bad person. So if you die now or later, is still the same hell, yes? And in Bible, this world will be another Hell in time. So you here, or there – same difference?” He shrugged. “Perhaps they feel that there’s no reason to stick around.”
The idea didn’t make sense to me on a personal level, but it didn’t stop me seeing how others could believe it. “There was one thing that our friend did mention,” I said next. “He said that, at the moment of the apocalypse, he felt God reach into his brain.”
“Crazy,” Jaspers said, and a couple of the others nodded – but Sara, strangely, sat up a little straighter.
“It wasn’t God,” she said, speaking with simple truthfulness.
We all looked over at her. “What’s that, honey?” Corinne asked.
Sara looked back at the rest of us. “It wasn’t God in that crazy man’s head,” she repeated. “It was my dad. I felt him, too, and he said that things were going to be okay.”
She sat back and picked up the bag of chips that we’d found for her, as the rest of us gaped and tried to figure out what to ask next, how to respond to that crazy statement, uttered with such calm confidence.
“Sara,” I managed. “What do you mean, you felt your dad? He wasn’t there, was he?”
She frowned, perhaps searching for the right words. “He spoke inside my head,” she finally replied. “He said that he was sorry my aunt went away, but he made sure that I was safe. He told me to remember when we had the power go out and we had to use the generator, and to wait for someone to come.”
This was a lead, I knew it, even if I didn’t understand what the hell was going on. From the looks on my team’s faces, they were similarly confused. “Your aunt?” I repeated.
She nodded. “Yeah, I was in DC with my aunt, to see the cool buildings and stuff. My dad said that I needed to go out of town while he launched the big experiment. Said that it could help keep me safe.”
I exchanged a glance with Jaspers. “What big experiment?” the Brit asked.
“Dunno.” Sara shrugged, ate another handful of chips. “At his work, at home. He’s been working on it for a long time, and he said that it’s really important, could change lots of stuff. He uses big words to describe it.”
Holy shit. Could this be really happening, a clue right under our noses? “Where is it that he works, exactly?” I asked.
“He calls it the SSC, in our hometown.” Sara said the acronym as if it ought to make as much sense to us as it did to her.
I opened my mouth to ask where her hometown was, but Feng spoke before I could ask the question. “Waxahachie,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper.
We all looked over at her for a second. She sat by the window, her sniper rifle assembled and resting on her lap as her eyes peered out at the darkness outside. She didn’t even flick her eyes over towards us.
“Yeah, that’s it,” Sara said, pulling us back to the present moment. “That’s where he works. At the SSC in Waxahachie.”
We all sat there for a minute and thought about this. I knew what we’d be doing next, suspected that the others did as well. I waited for a minute longer, however, thinking through the different avenues and possibilities.
On one hand, it seemed pretty clear that our path would take us towards this little Texas town, to figure out just how Sara’s father was involved in all of this. And it sounded like he truly was, like this wasn’t just some sort of fiction on Sara’s part. Why would she make it up?
But on the other hand, it all seemed too easy. It felt like a setup, to be honest, and smelled like a trap. The one person we’d found alive when we landed in this Dark America, and she happened to be able to point us towards the potential cause? It seemed too neat, like someone was secretly pulling strings.
I hated that feeling.
But there didn’t seem to be any way around it, not at the moment. “Looks like we’re taking you home, Sara,” I finally said. “Next stop, Waxahachie.”
To be continued…