James Fitzpatrick tried his best to sober up on the way to the briefing room, but the sheer amount of Jeremiah Weed in his system hung on like an AIM-120C inside of a 10 mile engagement. There was no way he was going to shake it. Not without some fancy moves anyway. Unfortunately his body had no moves to make.
Unless vomiting counted, a maneuver which he performed with gusto.
Leaning against the administration building’s wall with one hand, he wiped his mouth with the other and desperately wished for a glass of water. Lowering himself to his knees, he scooped up a handful of snow and shoved it into his mouth. A part of his brain screamed that this wasn’t a great idea, but the other part of his brain was very thirsty and punched the first part in the face.
“C’mon Cubby, let’s get on it,” Ringo said, his words slurring slightly. He was drunk too, James noted, but not drunk enough to be impaired.
“One second,” James said, spitting out the ice cold slush after swallowing what little melted on his tongue. It didn’t taste like anything, something he figured was either a sign of its purity or of his state of drunkenness. He put his mental money on the latter.
The siren continued to blare. James wished it would shut the fuck up. His head was splitting. Not only that but every zombie in the country would find its way to the fence now. He’d seen that shit movie, the one where zombies climbed over themselves to form a pile. What if they did that?
Glancing over at the fence line confirmed his suspicions. A bunch of them were clawing at the links while several of the base guards put them down. Just another set of noises in the night.
Ringo put his shoulder beneath his and lifted. Together they got to their feet and stumbled towards the door. James’s head protested the whole way. So did his stomach.
He ignored the flaming wreckage on the runway and he didn’t ask Ringo if Bubbles got out. Not knowing was sometimes better. Mourning would have to wait until he could drink again.
The briefing room was filling up fast. Many of the gathered pilots and crew were holding steaming cups of coffee and trying to wake up. Ringo deposited him in a chair and got him a cup as well. James held it without drinking.
Holden walked in a few moments later, followed by Bridget Rawn, another one of his father’s “intelligence officers.” Rawn came from the Air Force too, satellite command, or so his father claimed. He wasn’t sure he believed it. She was too pretty, too young and didn’t ask enough questions.
“All right, listen up,” Holden said, snapping his fingers and powering on the projector. The room darkened as Rawn dialed the lights down and a map of the area appeared on the large white wall at the front of the room. Several areas were marked.
“It seems our old friends are back. Analysis taken from Captain Lee’s flight computer suggests that they were attacked by members of a terrorist group known as the Carnival. You all know about them, so I won’t waste too much time on history. They’re assholes and terrorists. What’s relevant is that the Colonel now believes they were behind the H1Z1 release in the eastern United States.”
That’s new, James thought and suppressed a belch. His stomach felt like live snakes were having sex in it. He tasted warm, spicy liquor in the back of his throat.
The projector winked to black and then on again, showing a Maverick-mounted camera image of an armored Humvee. It was flanked by three pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the back. James remembered shooting those types up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Tonight they attacked our perimeter air patrol, taking down one of our A-10s in Sector Alfa-Kilo-Niner. The other was able to come home. Captain Lee is currently in critical condition. The whereabouts of Captain Erold is still unknown. We believe he ejected but there is currently no proof of life.”
A murmur rippled through the collected personnel. James felt a rise of both anger and despair over his drunken haze. Losing Jazz wasn’t something he wanted to deal with right then, but there it was, staring him in the face. They’d lost a pilot. Someone, an American, had shot another American out of the sky.
So our country is really gone then, James thought. The realization felt heavy in his chest. America failed to hold itself together during the pandemic and collapsed. Anarchy now reigned. He’d always hoped, deep down, that it was stronger than that. That everything would go back to normal in a few months. There was still the possibility of a few hold outs, he supposed, but where and how many were there?
Maybe Leah is there.
He wanted to believe that, had to believe that. Only in his drunken, inhibition vacated mind could he really admit it. He loved her. He wanted her. He needed her.
Ringo nudged him and James realized he’d been staring down at his lap, his eyes half-closed. He sat up straight and opened his eyes all the way, trying to look alert, but he was pretty sure he looked in shock instead. Holden and Rawn were staring at him.
“Lieutenant, glad you could join us,” Holden said, an almost self-satisfied smirk on his face. Then he raised a kneeboard with some writing on it and looked around the room. “These are the names who have been assigned to the search effort. I’ll read them off.”
As Holden began to read, Ringo filled him in. They were planning an operation to search for Erold. It was a joint mission, utilizing their ground troops and pilots. They would find Erolds and the sons of bitches who shot him down.
“And Zelazny,” Holden said, finishing the list. James looked up sharply, realizing his name wasn’t called. He nearly stood up, but his legs felt like they were made of wet sand. His head began to ache as well.
“What about me?” he said, knowing it was a mistake even as he said it.
“We don’t put drunken frat boys in expensive military fighter jets,” Holden said and handed the kneeboard with the list to Rawn. The tall, statuesque brunette woman eyed James, but her expression was neutral. She was as calm as an empty swimming pool. She barely registered to James.
But Holden? Holden pissed him off. Who did this desk clerk think he was calling him a drunken frat boy? Rage replaced his confusion and he felt his cheeks redden, his whole body go warm with anger. This asshole thought he was so much better than he was. Why? Because he wasn’t kicked out of the Air Force?
“Cubby,” Ringo said, his voice low and warning. James ignored him. As the others began to stand and shuffle off to secondary briefings, James marched down to Holden, his feet tripping him up on the last stair. He had to catch himself on one of the ground troopers.
“Lieutenant I highly suggest you go—“
James punched him in the face. He felt Holden’s nose break beneath his fist at the same moment he felt his knuckles slide out of place. He didn’t feel any pain, the alcohol was still in him, overriding all the military discipline he’d swallowed over the years. This man was his superior but Holden was an asshole and treated him like a second-rate cadet. He’d been through the goddamn Air Force Academy, he was not going to take this from some pencil pusher.
“Idiot!” Ringo said and grabbed his arm just as James moved for a follow up attack. Holden staggered backward, holding his hands to his face, blood seeping between his fingers. Rawn was already at his side, producing a crisp linen handkerchief. James hoped the blood ruined it.
“Let me go,” James said, trying to wrench his arm free but Ringo held it tight.
“You are a menace to this operation,” Holden said, though the words came out swollen and slurred. He motioned to several of the troopers who had stayed.
“Take him down to the goddamn brig and lock him in there until I say otherwise!”
The troopers looked at one another for a moment. James’s last name gave him some power but, as the troopers moved to restrain him, obviously not enough power. He struggled and cursed, but his mind was muddied and swimming. The bad liquor in his stomach knocked against the back of his throat and he puked onto the shoulder of one of the troopers.
“Sorry,” he managed to mumble. He wished he’d hit Holden instead.
“Brig, now!” Holden screamed and James was propelled through the room, out the door and down some stairs. Scenery passed quickly in flashes of light and darkness. The trooper he’d puked on left, replaced by someone else as they unlocked a steel door and marched him through.
For a moment, they all stood there. The brig was full of old holding cells from a time when this place might have been a prison or a police station or… well James didn’t really know or care. He saw the iron bars, smelled the old metal and vaguely vinegar smell of disinfected before they shoved him into one and slammed the door shut.
He turned, tried to grab the bars but missed and hit his forehead instead. Groaning, he slid to the floor and pressed his hands against his temples. The headache had grown into a splitting migraine and the lights were all miniature suns.
“Hey,” said a man’s voice nearby. James looked up, wanting to tell the voice to shut the hell up. He paused, frowning. The man in the cell next to his was big, his face full of disheveled beard and worry lines.
“Hey,” James managed. It seemed to take all his effort just to stay awake. He felt like passing out right there on the cement floor. It was cold and somehow inviting.
“Something like that,” James said, sighing. The rush was wearing off, his anger with it. Holden deserved it but as he recalled what just happened, he inwardly cringed. His dad was literally going to kill him.
The other man nodded and glanced past him, towards the door, or maybe the guard there. He got off his cot and crouched near the bars that separated them.
“You’re James Fitzpatrick, aren’t you? Gideon’s kid.”
“And you’re psychic, great,” James said and felt a sudden need to puke again. He swallowed it down.
“No, just some guy.”
“You with the Carnival or something?”
“The Carnival,” James said, waving a hand in the other man’s direction. “Assholes with guns? Big ManPads, pew pew! Rat-tat-tat! At fucking A-10s. Because—“ James held his stomach and belched, tasting bile and liquor. Exhaling, he closed his eyes, sighing.
“Because?” the man said.
“Everything is fucked.”
“Not everything,” the man said and James peeked an eye open. The bearded man sat with his back to the bars between them, just a foot from where James himself sat.
“And who are you that you’re so goddamn optimistic?”
“Chris,” he said, turning to offer a hand through the bars. “Chris Fox.”