James waited for over an hour in the briefing room. The men waiting with him were both armed. He knew their names but he really didn’t know the men themselves. One was named Tom and the other Bradley, at least he thought they were. Neither tried to make small talk.
What he’d seen down in the labs he couldn’t reconcile. Why were they keeping people in those closets? Why were they held like animals? Why did they move Chris out of the main cells like that? Who were those people in the testing rooms?
Was it all true? Were they infecting people on purpose? Chris said they were trying to turn it into a weapon but why? The world was already dying, why kill it more? And what had he said about his daughter? They’d infected his daughter?
He remembered the girl strapped to the bed, down in the labs. Was that her? He cursed himself for not looking more closely.
The door opened and James stood up. It was an automatic response, a remnant of his days in the Air Force. He hated it. He’d intended to stay sitting and glower at his father, but was glad he didn’t. It seemed childish and petulant and he owed his father the benefit of the doubt. At least, for now.
His father nodded to him and moved to the front of the room, where he might stand if he was briefing them on a mission. For a time no one said anything. James was seated half way up the column, half the room away from his father. It was Gideon who spoke first.
“You can leave me with him,” his father said to Tom and Bradley. The two guards looked at one another, then opened the door and headed out. As the door closed, Gideon gave James a scowl.
“Are you going to stand up there all day like an idiot or come down here so we can talk?”
James hesitated, feeling defiant once again. A moment later he relented and walked down to the front of the room. He wasn’t going to stay silent anyway. He needed answers and talking halfway across the room was just another childish thing to do.
“So,” he said, coming to stand before his father. Gideon was an intimidating man, tall and broad shouldered and square-faced. James knew he had more of his mother in his own appearance. Softer features, a smaller frame… A softer heart too, dad? Are you really doing what they say?
The words stuck in his throat. He wanted to ask him straight, to demand answers to all his questions but in the end he saw his father standing before him. Other pilots talked about their demanding fathers, about making them proud. Despite his drunken rages, his father had never pressured him to go into the service. Never said a word against him when he thought about becoming a writer instead. He’d always been proud of him, or at least he’d said the words. He wanted to believe that all those words had been true. That this was the father he knew. The father who had come to his hockey games between deployments, the father who surprised him at Christmas by coming home for 24 hours. The father who didn’t infect people with zombie viruses.
Instead, the words that came were “Did Holden kill her?”
Gideon blinked. “Kill who son?”
“Elena, dad. Did Holden kill her?”
His father knew. It was the way his surprise caused him to slip his mask of calm. His father’s hands smoothed the front of his shirt. A short clearing of the throat. He was about to lie. James knew those signs.
“James that’s simply…”
His father’s eyes closed, his hands left his shirt.
“Yes, son. I’m afraid that he did.”
He waited for the emotion, the overwhelming anger to take him, but it didn’t come. He felt despair instead. Somewhere deep inside, he’d just hoped she was alive somewhere. That maybe, one day, he’d find her again. In his daydreams, she was fixing a jeep or something and he’d roll up with a cheesy line. She’d move to punch him for it until she saw him, recognized him and embraced him. In those dreams, she still loved him and then he’d finally tell her he loved her too. For real. He’d say the words.
But now it was too late. It was far too late.
“She was infected, son. When you were discharged, I sent Holden to get her. To bring her here. The outbreak was starting, even then. She was turned already. I’m so sorry, James.”
There was no widening of the eyes, no smoothing of his shirt, no clearing of the throat. His words were softer, that old tone that reminded James of childhood was there. He wasn’t lying. It was true. She was dead. Elena was dead. Elena.
“But she… I never… I…”
“I know, son. She was special to you.”
Wait a minute…
“Dad, how did you know to go get her? We didn’t tell anyone?”
A soft clearing of the throat.
“I learned about the… particulars of your discharge from an old friend.”
“My commander told you?”
“Before I was discharged or after?”
His father smoothed his shirt.
Now the fury came back. “You’re lying. He told you about it before hand didn’t you? You knew!”
“When did you know, dad? Just before or… or…”
His father put a hand on his shoulder, looked down, then away, and then back again. It was his father’s face again, not the General. Not the mask. James felt an awful weight grow in his gut.
“Son, I want to tell you something but it will be very hard to hear. I knew… soon after it began. It doesn’t matter how, son, but I knew. When the outbreak began to grow, I leaked that information. I needed you home.”
James felt like someone had smacked him in the face.
“You… told them?”
“I said that you needed to be here when—“
James shrugged off his father’s hand and backed away. The rage mixed with confusion, with regret, with something like numbness. He didn’t understand, couldn’t grasp the enormity of his father’s admission.
“You ruined my career!”
“The world was ending, James. I had to save you.”
“How was that saving me!”
“Because all of those men are dead now!”
James blinked, swallowing. He shook his head. All dead? How? They were in Korea for Christ sake. The Infected weren’t all the way over there were they?
“James, do you understand what’s happening out there? The Infected are everywhere. Two months ago, all of Europe went dark. There were nuclear explosions in Russia. The world is gone, James. I saw what was coming and I needed my son here. Your mother… son you are all I have left. Do you understand?”
For a moment, he almost did. He almost let those words wrap around him like a warm blanket. His father’s hands were held out to him, like they’d been when he returned from Korea without rank or station. Acceptance.
Then he remembered the labs, the girl in the bed, the Infected in their cages. The blood and the screaming. Tests. They were doing tests.
“What have you done, dad? With the virus. I saw your labs, what is going on?”
His father’s hands lowered to his sides, expression slowly melting. The man looked exhausted, older, older than James had ever seen him. For the first time he saw the dark circles, the red-rimmed eyes.
“That,” he said. “That… that was something I hoped you wouldn’t need to see. Not yet.”
“Is that why you locked me in my fucking room for two days like some prisoner?”
“Partially, but also because you cannot seem to simply follow orders! You might not like Holden but he is your superior officer.”
“This isn’t the Air Force dad, this… this isn’t even the Guard! We’re… I don’t know what we are.”
“We’re the best damned hope for this country, son, that’s what we are.”
His father turned and walked towards one end of the room, where a map of the United States was pinned. Several large circles were drawn on it, the color washed out by the white LED light illuminating it.
“Since we lost contact with the state government six weeks ago, and the US government before that, this whole area’s been crawling with wannabe militias,” his father said, tapping the area in question with a finger. “We’ve stopped them all. Black Dawn has been doing the US’s dirty work for years in Afghanistan and we had the resources. I won’t see this country turn lawless.”
James narrowed his eyes. He knew about Black Dawn’s operations in Afghanistan. Coming to work here had been a last resort. They let him fly and that’s what he’d cared about, but he couldn’t quite forget what’d he seen of his father’s organization. He remembered seeing dead Black Dawn operatives just left to rot in the desert.
“Their dead don’t count,” his flight lead said after that sortie. “Those motherfuckers can die by the scores and the US just reports zero casualties.”
At first he’d felt bad for them. Despite the high pay, those men died without acknowledgement. They’d never receive a soldier’s send off. Sometimes their widows didn’t even get a body to bury.
But then he saw the other things. The burned villages, the dead civilians. He’d seen a convoy of Black Dawn soldiers taking pictures with a dead man, their knives stuck through his eye sockets. They’d been laughing. Having fun.
James set his jaw and clenched his fist.
“And the labs, dad? Are they doing anything about this lawlessness?”
“Yes,” his father said, turning from the map. “Yes they are. Everything here has a purpose, son.”
“Like infecting someone’s kid so he’d tell you where some scientist is?”
Gideon Fitzpatrick didn’t even blink. His expression hardened instead.
“Yes, even that.”
“What the fuck dad! When the hell are we in the business of killing kids!”
“Since the world died and the God Almighty spoke to me, son. He said that the world shall be purged and the righteous shall rise. I am just using his His Judgement against His enemies.”
“His Judgement? God spoke to you? Dad, do you know how crazy that sounds?”
“It’s not crazy son, it’s Providence. I’ve always said that people have abandoned Him and this is their righteous end. I saved you from that girl too, son. She would have led you astray, kept you there and you’d have both died.”
James couldn’t believe the words he was hearing. His father had always been religious but this was way over the top. He began to shake his head.
“Dad, dad do you hear yourself? How would God want you to infect a kid?”
“Because I needed that scientist, son.”
“Because this virus needn’t be a plague, but salvation. We’re so close to making it work. I sent a team of my best subjects with Holden to get her.”
His father reached out and took his arm.
“Son, with this virus, our men can see in the dark. They can operate in Infected zones without fear. They become like the angels of legend. Stronger, more efficient, almost immortal.”
James remembered his dream then. Of the horde that burst through the door and killed Elena. They all bore the patch of Black Dawn. Oh my god, he thought. Dad what have you done?
“Join us son, for we shall be His righteous fist and remake this nation as it should be.”
James saw that he wasn’t lying. He wasn’t posturing or consoling. He was telling the truth. Everything he said he believed. But the worst thing was the look in his eyes. Fervor. Conviction.