“Now, Captain Richards,” Starling called over her shoulder as she led me out of the interrogation room and up towards the main deck, “let me tell you about what we’ve been facing, while you’ve been vacationing in this ‘Dark America’ you’re describing.”
I had to fight to hold my tongue at that ‘vacation’ crack, but I kept my mouth shut. Major Starling hadn’t known the rest of my team, and although she likely realized what I’d lost, she perhaps thought that humor would help me move past it. She was wrong, but I wasn’t going to waste time fighting her. Not when she might prove to be my only ally.
We reached the main deck, and Starling turned to head towards the ship’s castle. The bridge, I guessed, was our destination. “I hate to burst your bubble, but your disappearance didn’t raise headlines,” she said. “I’ve heard of Nathaniel Hobbson, but I haven’t heard of you – or your team – before now.”
I nodded. It was understandable. The military probably expected to lose some soldiers due to desertions after something as big as the Event happened, and it wouldn’t make them popular to advertise those losses. They’d sweep my disappearance under the rug, label it as an accident, or perhaps even scrub the records so that they never showed I’d been on board a ship off the coast of the United States in the first place.
“But if what you’re telling me is true, you vanished a couple months ago,” Starling continued.
At that, I froze, thinking back. Had it really been so long? Had I been roaming across the desolate landscape of the destroyed United States for multiple months? It certainly hadn’t felt that long – a few weeks, at the most – but I didn’t know how long we’d spend as a part of Unity, that great monstrosity.
Starling was still talking. I hastily pulled my attention back to the present. “At first, the United Nations suspected some sort of biological attack, some devastating bacterium or virus that got loose and spread across the country in a matter of hours – or less. This prompted a quarantine response, and we proceeded very cautiously, sending out automated probes to collect atmospheric samples and look for the cause.”
“But you didn’t find anything,” I guessed.
She shook her head. “No. Not a thing. And when we sent first response teams – officially sanctioned ones,” she added, turning just enough to pierce me with one glaring eye, “they reported the same as you described.”
“And no signs of what happened to them.”
Another nod. Starling had reached a door, which she pulled open – and then held for me, raising one eyebrow to warn me that I shouldn’t get used to this level of executive treatment. Ignoring her sardonic look, I stepped inside.
“But now,” Starling said as she entered behind me, “we have another issue. After more than three weeks of sending advance parties ashore and finding no signs of hostiles, we’re preparing to make a major incursion. But just as we’re counting down to go, guess what shows up?”
Once again, the question wasn’t a hard one. “Unity,” I said. “The monstrosity.”
Starling snorted. I glanced around the room as I saw movement. We stood in front of two rows of computer monitors, with technicians and officers sitting at desks and watching the outputs. One man glanced up at me as I passed by him, following after the Major, but quickly lowered his eyes back down to the outputs displayed on his terminal.
“Perhaps a more apt name,” Starling commented, her lips briefly quirking up in a wry smile. “We’ve been calling it the Anomaly, given that all we have are radar images and reports of seismic activity.”
I thought back to that immense mushroom, extending far below the surface, most of its bulk hidden underground. “Yes, it’s digging. We need to put a stop to it!” Suddenly, realizing that I once again stood on a warship, I turned and looked around at the banks of monitors, the other seamen at their posts. “Tell me that we’ve got a strategy?”
That got a barking laugh from Starling. “A strategy?” she repeated, her eyebrows raised. “Hell, Richards, do you not know the military at all? We’ve barely got control of our own asses. We’re flying blind here.”
“Well, we need to start firing, even if that’s blind as well!” I waved a hand at the assembled men. “You don’t know what that thing’s doing!”
“And why don’t you tell us, then?”
“I did,” I growled, “back in the interrogation room. It’s digging, burrowing through the Earth. Whatever it did to take away everyone on this continent, sucking their minds up into itself – it intends to do that to the rest of the world!”
A part of me expected this call to mobilize the others into action. Of course, this wasn’t an action movie; they wouldn’t simply stand up and cheer, immediately realizing that I was right. But I had hoped for something more than blank looks, and a renewed frown from Starling.
“And so what do you propose, Captain?” she asked. “An invasion? Bombardment from the shores? Are you expecting us to start firing ICBMs down at foreign soil?”
“It’s not foreign!” I shot back, struggling to tamp down the anger rising inside my chest. “It’s my homeland! And right now, every one of my people is trapped by that… that thing!”
Starling just looked at me, her face expressionless as the mind behind those eyes whirred like a mechanical watch. “And what’s your end game, Richards?” she finally asked, softly. “Will killing this thing get all of these people back?”
I knew that it wouldn’t. “It might save the lives of billions more,” I answered her, not letting myself break from her gaze, holding her eye.
For a long minute, she just looked at me, her mind measuring. I waited, wondering what she’d finally say. I had small hope of succeeding, but I knew that I wouldn’t ever be able to close my eyes and sleep again, not unless I was certain that I’d done everything I could to try.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Starling sighed, dropped her eyes. “We’re stationed here to provide support if necessary, but we’re not part of the invasion force,” she said. “And yes, everyone calls it by that name, even if it’s not official and the generals would smack you for it. I’ll put you in touch with them, though, tell them that you’re the closest thing that they’ll get to a local guide. You’ll be in demand.”
“And then what?” I asked. Inside my chest, I felt the faintest little flicker of hope. This wasn’t much, but it was more than she could have given me.
She started to twitch one shoulder, as if about to shrug, but apparently thought better of it. “I don’t know. From there, you’re on your own.”
It would have to do. If I could get back to the mainland, back to America, this time with more men at my back, we could possibly accomplish…
…nothing, still. I remembered the size of Unity, the monstrosity, how we’d thrown everything we had against it and didn’t even leave a wound. I had a sneaking suspicion that, even if we did try using ballistic missiles, we wouldn’t be able to do enough.
But could I say that now, to Starling, to these men?
I kept my mouth shut, as she placed some calls.
To be continued…