Author’s query: Is this story ever going to end? Goodness, I hope so, if only because I want to write other things!
Continued from Chapter 50, here.
I should have been paying more attention to the ground below the helicopter, before it descended to drop me off. Maybe if I’d seen more of the surrounding area, I could have a better idea of what I faced, just how many resources might be here for my disposal.
The combined militaries of the rest of the world, the parts untouched by the Event, had clearly been busy during the months that I’d been exploring Dark America. I stood at the entrance to what looked like a small village of military tents, their camouflage patterns standing out against the waving grasses of an open field.
All around me, the tents bustled with activity. Men rushed back and forth, carrying everything from papers to heavy boxes. For most people, the level of directed activity might have seemed overwhelming.
I, however, had visited many camps like this before. I strode forward, heading for the largest tent. The folded paper, inside my inner jacket, lent strength to my step and helped me hold my head high.
Another sight, one that I didn’t want to notice, lent speed to my feet. In the distance, just barely on the edge of sight above the horizon, I could make out the shape of huge structures, rising high above the ground and curving around like massively oversized brambles and wires.
They weren’t wires. I’d seen those structures before – when Sara lifted her hand and brought the monstrous tendrils of Unity spearing up from the surface of the earth.
Entering the largest tent, I found that I’d guessed correctly; I’d located the command tent. A large table stood in the middle of the area, maps spread out and with various implements resting on the corners to hold the rolls of paper down. Several men pored over the maps, men who were stout and grizzled with age, while younger and leaner officers dashed to and fro around them, fetching requests and providing the most up-to-date reports.
I stepped forward, shouldering my way into a space between two of the older men near the center of the tent. I peered down at the maps, noting that they had markers for ships stationed out along the coast, but next to no symbols placed on the land itself. Not surprising, if this was the advance party. They’d only just arrived, and didn’t know that they were probably, already, too late.
A moment later, I realized that the normal buzz of the tent had fallen quiet, as one by one, the men turned to look at me. For a second, none of them spoke, perhaps waiting to see which wanted to be the first to break the silence.
Finally, a short man who looked about as wide as he was tall, with white hair combed back over his head and two general’s stars on his collar, cleared his throat. “And who might you be, son?” he asked, his tone even, but with underpinnings of steel. The eyes boring into me might be old, but age hadn’t dulled the sharp mind behind them.
Before answering, I withdrew the folded paper from inside my jacket pocket, extending it out to him. “Captain Brian Richards. I’m the one who knows more about what we’re facing than anyone else.”
The general’s frown deepened as he read the letter I’d handed him – but he didn’t throw me out, which I took as a good sign. After a minute, he passed the letter over to another one of the stately men standing beside him at the central table.
I didn’t bother waiting for the letter to make its rounds. “Tell me what sort of firepower we have at our disposal,” I said, taking another step forward so that I could rest the tips of my fingers on the table.
“General Harken, this is absurd!” cried out one of the other officers, one who hadn’t yet seen the letter that I’d offered. “This man can’t just barge in here, some nobody captain, and-”
The general, Harken, simply held up one hand. His expression didn’t shift a single iota – but it was enough to still all murmured conversation in the tent.
“Not enough,” the old man said.
“What exactly is ‘not enough’?”
He waved his hand vaguely, gesturing to outside the tent. “What we have here, plus the vague possibility of calling on ships for bombardment – but even that is uncertain. Despite this paper, we have been ordered to be cautious.”
Harken didn’t need to clarify the meaning behind these words. “Cautious”, in this case, meant that any large-scale action would need to be cleared with the higher-ups back at the UN before it could be executed. This level of bureaucracy might sound safe to the paper-pushers back at wherever they’d set up their current headquarters – but it might as well be the touch of death for a military operation.
So much for the overwhelming force option.
“Right.” I looked around for a chair to drop into, didn’t find one. So instead, not sensing that I’d find much more help in this tent, I turned on my heel and walked outside.
The sun was slowly dropping in the afternoon sky as I stepped out into the air. Fresh, salty breezes blew in from the ocean near us, filling my nostrils. I looked out at the scene, so serene compared to the useless rushing of the military men behind me, and tried to just think.
I didn’t have much in the way of advantages. Firepower? Out. Not much of a negotiating position, especially considering how I’d last left things with what seemed to be the central brains of Unity, Nathaniel Hobbson. Sara liked me, still, but did she have any control over what Unity chose?
Here, more than ever, I wished that I had my team back with me. They might disagree vocally over most different opinions, but they still did a great job of presenting the different sides of any problem. Jaspers would loudly argue for whatever he believed to be right, while Sergei would delight in needling the burly, angry Brit by playing Devil’s advocate and suggesting all sorts of loopholes. Henry was the brains, suggesting wild ideas, while Corinne acted as the heart, always wanting to make the noble, honorable choice. Feng rarely spoke, but when she did, her contributions were gold. Between the group of them, they always managed to find the right choice, even if it took several raised, shouting voices.
For a moment, I closed my eyes, squeezing the lids shut to block out every bit of light. I still hadn’t really admitted to myself that they were gone. After all, I’d managed to escape from whatever other dimension Unity sent us to; why couldn’t they do the same? Surely, I could find some way to get them out-
Get them out.
I stopped, my eyes shooting open to stare at the ocean in front of me. Was that it? I had no idea how I could pull it off, but it was a possible path forward – and that was more than I’d had before.
But if this was the case, I imagined that Unity was growing stronger by the second. I didn’t have any time to waste.
I spun around, casting my eyes wildly over the chaos of the camp. I finally spotted what I needed, parked on the periphery, watched by a hapless private whose day was about to become much more difficult.
It was barely a plan – but it was something. I had a hair’s chance, and was taking it.
To be continued…