“So,” I said in the most causal voice I could manage, my hands on my hips as I surveyed the heavily modified trucks in front of me. “This is what you felt that you needed from the base?”
If I didn’t know the man better, I’d consider this Jaspers to be a happy, carefree, bubbly example of a soldier. “We did have to leave a few things behind, unfortunately,” he allowed, “but we got a bloody good loadout here, that’s for sure.”
“Had to leave something behind,” I echoed. “What’s that, a couple nuclear ICBMs?”
“I mean, if we could find a way to mount them-”
I waved a finger in front of his nose. “No. Don’t finish that thought.”
Jaspers shrugged, but that stupid, sappy smile still didn’t leave his face. He ran his eyes over the boxes stacked in the back of the truck and marked with high explosive warnings, up to the M240 machine gun they’d somehow mounted onto the roof, to the pair of Stinger missiles he’d added to the sides. Given that they were being fired from the truck, rather than from a shoulder as was intended, and that their guidance systems were probably scrambled, Jaspers wasn’t sure they’d actually hit a target accurately.
But hell, that’s why he had two on each side – and a half dozen more stashed in the back.
“Maxim fifty-five,” he muttered to himself. “It’s only too many weapons if they’re pointed in the wrong direction.”
I headed inside, trying to see if any other members of my team had managed to resist the urge to go on a shopping spree at Fort Hood. My first encounter did little to ease my worry.
“Look!” Sergei cried as I came around the corner. His hand swung up, and only by dodging hastily backward did I keep myself from getting an extremely close shave.
“Are you fu-” I cut the word off, biting it back with an effort. “A sword,” I said instead, figuring that I couldn’t go too wrong by just stating facts. “You found a sword.”
“Two swords,” he corrected me, tapping the other hilt on his back. “Will be very effective!”
I glanced past him, at the wreckage of what had once been a very nice set of couches and easy chairs. A tattered curtain dangled by half a dozen threads.
“I need to get used to additional length,” he admitted, the grin flickering for a moment before returning to full strength. “But still, will be very effective once I am used to them!”
I had a half dozen nasty responses, but I bit them back. Let him have his fun, I told myself as I gritted my teeth. Don’t yell at them. They agreed to an unsanctioned mission that is so far outside any normal parameters that we’re barely treading water, here. They’ve earned the right to let off a little steam.
Sara had run ahead to Henry and Corinne, both in the kitchen, and was now tugging on Henry’s clothes and pestering him to make her some food. He smiled down at her, ruffled her hair, and stepped away from what he’d been working on at the counter.
I looked at the devices. “Henry?” I asked, again fighting the urge to shout.
“Careful with those, please,” he warned me, even as he started flipping through kitchen cupboards. “What are you hungry for, my dear?”
“You can’t have cookies,” I pointed out, very reasonably. “Dinner, first.”
Sara stuck out her lower lip in a pout. “I don’t want dinner. Why can’t cookies be my dinner?”
I looked over her head at Henry. “Try to find something that’s got vegetables, or at least some sort of nutrients in it. Now, what are you building?”
“Detonators.” He switched to the freezer. “Okay, I can do something with this. Sara, how do you feel about shepherd’s pie?”
“Pie?” she echoed. “I like pie.”
“Detonators?” I asked, talking over her. “How many?”
He shrugged. “Enough for the explosives, at least.”
I clearly wasn’t going to get a full answer out of him. Corinne just gave me a tight little smile as she moved to help Henry cook, which told me that she’d also secreted away several nasty weapons of her own.
I sighed. My squad was going to clink when they walked, and probably need help getting up if they fell over.
I climbed up to the roof of the building, where I knew that I’d find Feng. Sure enough, the little sniper perched on the corner of the roof, gazing out across the city. I made sure to scuff my feet, even though she almost certainly already heard me approaching.
“What’s this?” I asked as I got nearer. “No massive, overkill-level sniper rifle?”
She shrugged. That was pretty much as good of an answer from Feng as I’d get, I knew. I stopped next to her, looking out as the sun dropped towards the horizon.
“Tomorrow morning,” I said to her. “We’re chasing after a monster that we don’t understand, that might be able to destroy us with a thought, in a realm that we don’t even really have the most basic tools to navigate.”
She paused for a second, and then nodded. I glanced over at her.
“Are you scared?”
She started to shake her head – but then, looking up at me, she gave me a single nod.
“I appreciate your honesty,” I said, sighing. “I’m scared, too. I think everyone is, and they’re trying to overcome it by clutching every single big gun that they can hold.”
Feng snorted. “Stingers,” she said, pulling her lip back a little.
I laughed along with her. “I know. What did Jaspers do, bolt them onto the truck? How’s he going to possibly aim them?”
“There is no problem…” Feng began softly.
“…that can’t be solved by high explosives. Yes, I’ve heard Henry extoll the virtues of his specialty before.” I finished it for her. “I can guess what they’re thinking. It doesn’t make it right.”
Feng didn’t have anything to say to that. For a few minutes, we just watched the sunset together. But just as I stared to think about retreating back downstairs, she opened her lips again.
“Any sign of her?” she asked, very quietly.
I froze. I didn’t think that Feng paid much attention, but clearly she’d been watching me more sharply than I gave her credit for doing. I stood there for several seconds, my thoughts paralyzed, before finally realizing that I had to say something.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. For a moment, I considered mentioning Alexis’s note, but I didn’t see if it was worth bringing up to the squad right now. Not now, I decided. They had enough on their minds. Let me not burden them further by raising the spectre of what might have happened to all these people, where they went, whether they knew what might be happening to them. “No sign of her. She’s gone, like all the others.”
Feng nodded. She moved closer to me, and reached out and, very gently, laid a hand on my arm. She didn’t need to say anything else.
I tensed for an instant, but then slipped my arm around her, gave her a little squeeze. “Thanks, Feng,” I said, my voice sounding surprisingly choked as I tried to keep my eyes dry.
“I loved, once.” It was so soft that I barely heard it, might have missed it if I didn’t feel her chest moving. “Lost him. I know.”
A sob ripped its way out of me, even though I suppressed its fellows. Feng and I stood there together, sharing in our grief, as the sun dropped down below the horizon, lengthening the shadows on the land.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow, we’d chase down this monster.
Maybe we didn’t have too many weapons, after all.
To be continued…