Eventually, after much back-and-forth, we managed to work out some sort of agreement on the truth of my identity.
The woman who greeted me on board the offshore destroyer, Major Kara Starling, seemed razor sharp. From the moment that she greeted me, tired eyes still possessing the strength to bore straight through my defenses and into my head, I knew that she’d instantly skewer me on any lie that I tried.
So I told the truth.
In hindsight, that might have been the bigger mistake.
If the situation were any different, I knew that Major Starling wouldn’t even let me finish talking before she threw me into a cell in the brig of her ship, leaving me to be sorted out later. The things that I spoke of were very clearly impossible, the ravings of a madman.
But the world had gone mad, and that lent me just enough credibility for her to not throw me into a jail cell and instead keep listening.
“So you and your team disobeyed direct orders by breaking the quarantine,” she stated, barely two minutes into my explanation of who the hell I was, and how I’d ended up on her boat from the mainland.
It was probably good that she’d interrupted me, I considered belatedly. Although I’d intended to speak clearly, my story quickly came unraveled as I jumped from point to point, trying to figure out what was necessary to communicate first, to make her believe that I wasn’t crazy.
Hah. Fat chance of that working out in the end.
“Yes,” I answered her question. “I didn’t intend to drag the rest of my team into danger, however.”
“Not a valid excuse,” Starling pointed out, although a brief twist to her lips, before she clamped down on her expression, suggested that if the roles were reversed, she might have considered doing the same.
“I didn’t say that it was. I’m just telling what happened.” I worked to keep my voice calm, to not let my tone grow aggravated.
I wasn’t sure how well it worked, but Starling sat back on the other side of the table, gave a little gesture. “Keep going.”
Briefly, trying to both include all relevant details and not drag too long, I explained how my team came ashore, how we found all the cities deserted, with no bodies and next to no destruction left behind. “It was as if everyone just… up and decided to leave,” I explained, trying to recall my confusion at the sight. “We didn’t see any threats, and we ended up venturing further inland. It wasn’t until we got towards the capital that we found the first survivor.”
At that, Starling sat straight upright. Her mouth dropped briefly open, choreographing her bare shock. “A survivor?” she repeated, as if maybe I’d said the wrong word.
I nodded. “A girl, barely twelve, named Sara. And she survived for a reason.”
Starling slumped back in her seat, looking at me through half-hooded eyes. I suspected that many thoughts were flickering inside her head, and decided to wait silently for her to speak again. We both sat in silence for several minutes.
Finally, just as I was getting ready to clear my throat, Starling leaned forward. She planted both of her camo-wrapped elbows on the table as she peered at me. “Captain Richards,” she said, her eyes locked directly on mine. “I am privy to some of the advance reports coming from the first landing parties, to the south, and their impressions match with yours – cities that are emptied, but bear no signs of violence and with no bodies. But they have been unable to locate a single survivor.”
I weighed several different responses before answering. “And I know why,” I said finally, and waited.
Starling watched me, and I sensed her mind playing out the different avenues of the conversation, a chess player trying different gambits. “And what do you want, then?”
I sighed. “I’m not even sure, at this point. For you to suspend disbelief and not throw me in a jail cell, how’s that for a start?”
“No promises,” she said, but her lips quirked slightly upward as she did so.
It would have to be good enough. I described meeting Sara, how she led us to Texas, to the secret Blue Diamond installation and the super-collider experiment gone wrong. I told about encountering the scientists, and the monstrosity that got loose and went on a rampage. I told Starling about our chase after the monster, how our best weapons couldn’t touch it, and how it revealed itself to be something unlike anything we’d ever faced before, anything we’d even considered in nightmares.
My voice caught briefly in my throat when I talked about getting sucked into it, that alternate reality that may or may not have been real, or all inside my head. I finished by telling how Sara somehow expelled me, or got the monstrosity to do so, or simply came along with me when I managed to get out – I still wasn’t sure how it all came to an end.
“And she’s on the shore,” I finished, sitting back and feeling as tired as if I’d just run a marathon. Hell, when was the last time that I’d really gotten a good rest, one where I wasn’t on guard, or next to a girl connected to an inhuman creature beyond comprehension? “She couldn’t come out here, not tethered to that… that thing. So it’s just me.”
“And no one else to corroborate your story,” Starling said, but she didn’t put much effort behind those words. Her eyes were wide, her mind already struggling to wrap itself around the incredible story I’d told her. “And now, I’m pretty sure that the thing I ought to do is to break my earlier promise, and toss you down into a cell so you can cool off until I figure out what to do with you.”
She said all this, but she didn’t move. “But you won’t,” I guessed, trying to keep a note of hope out of my voice.
Slowly, she shook her head. “No. Because you happen to be the luckiest son of a bitch that I’ve met.”
My brow furrowed. “Why?”
“Hobbson,” she repeated. “Are you sure that was his name?”
That was the detail she’d picked out, from all of this craziness? I nodded, mystified. “Yes, Nathaniel Hobbson. You know him?”
“Yes, actually. As one of the commanders of these ships stationed off the coast, certain confidential files were shared with me. That included some classified chatter – and Hobbson’s name pops up in them. Our background on him is sparse, but he was a very promising particle physicist working on some military-leaning applications.”
“That was enough to get his name into your briefings?”
“Not quite – but we did manage to catch a snippet of encrypted email containing his name.”
“So?” I asked, still not seeing the point of this.
Starling’s eyes never left mine, faded blue but hard as steel. “We picked up the transmission in a burst of chatter that came shortly after the Event.”
I guessed what might have happened. “It came from Texas, didn’t it?” I predicted. “The burst of transmission, probably intended for somewhere in D.C. One of the scientists was trying to get out a warning, but didn’t realize just how bad things had already become.”
“Possibly.” Starling sat there for another minute, and then stood up, stretching her arms behind her back. “So, Captain Richards. What now?”
I told her the truth. “I don’t know.”
She looked at me for a long minute, and then gave a nod. There might have been some sadness in her eyes, but it was gone when her head lifted back up. “I see. Follow.”
She left the room, and I trailed after her.
To be continued…