Continued from Chapter 49, here.
Major Karla Starling might not have heard of my name, but it soon became apparent that someone, higher up on the military food chain, knew of me. As soon as Starling spoke my name into the receiver of the phone, I saw her posture shift. Her back straightened and her head rose, and she risked a quick, appraising glance back over her shoulder at me before turning away to speak.
Five minutes later, she lowered the receiver back to the desk in front of her and turned to face me. Her eyes ran over me, but she didn’t speak for a few seconds.
“Well?” I asked.
“They want you on the shore.” Her tone gave nothing away, but her eyes looked suspicious. Who was I, showing up with such a wildly outlandish story, one which her superiors seemed to accept at face value? “They’re sending a chopper to pick you up, get you there right away.”
For a moment, I hesitated, searching for something else to say. How could I explain to Major Starling that I didn’t want any of this, would happily drop back to anonymity if it meant things going back to the way that they were before.
But I couldn’t find the words. The moment passed, and Starling turned away.
She did, however, choose to personally escort me to the heli landing pad, towards the rear of the ship. For most of the trip she was silent, and I sensed her thoughts turning inward. As we reached the pad, however, looked up and shaded our eyes to watch the approach of the dispatched helicopter, she finally spoke. She raised her voice to be heard over the growing roar of the chopper’s engine.
“Do we have any chance?” she asked.
I hesitated for a second, trying to figure out what she meant. Did we stand a chance of going back to the way that things were before the Event? Or did we have any chance at all of succeeding against the Unity, keeping our individuality and not ending up absorbed, trapped in some other dimension like the victims who’d once been the residents of North America?
“Maybe,” I replied, as the chopper settled down on the pad. “We can’t go back to how things were. But maybe we can keep them from getting worse.”
Starling’s mouth tightened. It wasn’t an ideal answer, but it was an honest one. I couldn’t give her anything more.
Aboard the chopper, I found myself sitting in the rear compartment across from a man who screamed out ‘government agent’ in everything he did, wore, and said. He wore a black suit, a pair of reflective sunglasses that he had to hold on his face with one hand to keep the chop in the air from blowing them away, and his face was set in a frown – although I didn’t know if that was permanent, or just due to his clear discomfort. He thrust a pair of headphones at me, gesturing to put them on.
“Captain Brian Richards!” he shouted into his mic, as soon as I’d settled the headphones over my ears.
I winced at his volume. “Yeah, that’s me. No need to shout so loud.”
“I’m Agent Donovan!” he went on, not lowering his voice. I told my fingers to unclench, to stop urging me to toss him out of the still-open door on the helicopter. “I understand that you’ve had quite a good look at our enemy!”
I wasn’t sure what he was expecting me to answer, so I elected to keep my mouth shut. Apparently, he wasn’t really waiting for me to say anything; he plunged on, shouting into my ears as I reached out to haul the door closed. Major Starling’s ship shrank away below us.
“We’re still playing catch-up on intel, unfortunately,” Donovan continued. “But it sounds like this creature is unlike our normal opponents; it’s intelligent, malevolent, and appears to be focused on expanding out to capture additional territory, namely with inhabitants!”
The ridiculousness of this last comment made me break my silence. “Capturing territory?” I repeated in disbelief. “Do you have any idea at all what you’re up against? Because it sounds like you’re talking out of your ass!”
Donovan’s frown grew deeper. “Excuse me, Captain Richards, but I don’t believe that the situation calls for this kind of-”
“Shut up.” With the cramped quarters inside the helicopter’s cabin, it was easy for me to reach out and poke him in the chest with a finger. “This thing that you’re facing, the Unity, is smarter than you are. Possibly smarter than all of us put together. And it doesn’t give a damn about capturing territory. It wants people, minds, to absorb them and make us all part of itself.”
For a second, I saw Sara in my mind, sitting on that hill overlooking that town, waiting for me. Would she still be there? As an extension of the Unity, would she ever need to eat, to sleep, to do anything to stay alive? Would she be there forever, gazing out at the town below her and the ocean beyond, even as the tendrils of the thing that controlled her spread deep through the Earth to take us all?
I dragged my mind back to the present moment before the memories could pull me down. “This isn’t a battle that we can win through traditional tactics, and we don’t have the time to screw around until we stumble onto success,” I finished. “Donovan, we either need to throw everything that we’ve got against this monster – or figure out how to change the rules of the game.”
The agent just sat there for several minutes, his expression all but impossible to read behind those damn reflective sunglasses. I started to wonder if he’d understood a single word that I said. Finally, however, just as I heard the hum of the helicopter’s engine change as we began to descend down from the clouds, he leaned forward and opened his mouth.
“I don’t know you, Richards,” he said softly, and even through those sunglasses, I could feel his eyes on me. “And I don’t like this situation. Not at all. It’s shit, and I’d happily dump this on someone else if I could. But from the sound of things, I can’t, and so I’m betting on you.”
He sat back. “I hate going all in on this. And I think you deserve a court-martial, not what I’m about to give you.”
“You’re giving me something?”
The motion of Donovan’s eyebrows told me, without seeing the actual eyeballs, that the agent was rolling his eyes at me. He reached into the inner pocket of his suit jacket, grunting as he forced his way past the bulky restraining straps of the helicopter’s harness. He pulled out a sheet of paper, folded into thirds, and passed it over to me.
I unfolded it, frowned as I read the sparse few lines of text printed on it. “What’s this?”
“That,” Donovan answered, pulling back his lips in a grimace, “is a blank check. Permission to do whatever the hell you want, commandeer whatever you want, just get this shit cleaned up. And try not to get us all killed.”
The helicopter had touched down, although I’d been too busy staring at the paper to notice where we’d landed. “Whose signature is this?”
“Secretary-General of the United Nations. Now, out.”
I slid open the door of the helicopter, climbed down – and then looked behind me, frowning, when Donovan didn’t move. “Aren’t you coming?”
“You kidding?” The man laughed bitterly, without humor. “Starling uploaded the interrogation tapes. I’m getting as far away from here as I can.”
He slid the chopper’s door shut, and I watched it lift away. Impulsively, I made a rude gesture up at it before turning to figure out where the hell I’d been deposited.
To be continued…