The moment Finn Barnaby saw the soldier across the airport, he knew there was no avoiding a conversation.
Finn shouldered his backpack as he walked down the seemingly endless corridor from his international flight. The trip from London left him tired, grainy and not really in the mood for company. He ran his hand across the short black stubble that passed for his hair these days. Feeling the texture, he unzipped his windbreaker before stepping aside for a faster moving family obviously in a rush to get their luggage.
He hadn’t left the Orlando International Airport and it was already muggy and hot.
Glancing up, Finn saw the man in the uniform of an American military officer still waiting outside of security. Still looking at him, waiting for him. He sighed and took his time getting there.
A slow pace bought Finn the opportunity to size up the other man. Sadly, there wasn’t much to tell thanks to the uniform dress code. Oh, the man was decorated at least. A Major in rank judging by the arms. The uniform was in good repair, the face clean-shaven, the head of thick black hair neatly cut short against the tan white head.
Body posture didn’t tell him much more. The good Major had been here a while, standing the whole time. He didn’t seem either relaxed or tense. If anything, the descriptive word might be ‘bored’.
“What’s this about then?” Finn muttered to himself.
He didn’t have long to wonder. The boy from London walked through security, shrugged and stopped in front of the soldier plainly waiting for him. Finn then stuck out his hand in a clear offer to shake.
“Allegedly,” Finn said with a grin. The Major’s expression didn’t change. “So we’re not friends, right, I can see that clearly now. Finn Barnaby, at your service, sir. What can I do for you?”
“I’m Major Isaiah Diaz,” said the soldier, despite the clear label of his name on the front of the uniform. “And we can talk about that on the way.”
“Am I in any trouble?” Finn asked, falling into step behind the Major. “I’m a bit foggy on the particulars but isn’t holding foreign nationals from England illegal without charge?”
“You’re not under arrest, Mr. Barnaby. Quite the opposite.”
Intrigued, Finn followed the strange American. After all, this could be the ideal introduction. And isn’t that what this whole trip to America was for?
It would be night time soon.
Jia Sun let the front door of the family mansion close as she stepped out into the evening air. She immediately leaned back against it, pressing it shut with the slight weight of her body. Not that anyone would follow her out here. No, she just needed the support to simply keep standing.
Cool winds caressed her skin as she looked into an empty sky. The myriad lights spread across the manor lawn made it hard to see the stars, even as it made it easy to spot intruders, fanatics and the swindled from reaching the family estate. Still, she knew God was up there in the sky. Beyond sight or understanding, she still knew.
Two men in uniforms stepped out from beside the matching marble columns supporting the entryway to the Sun manor. Jia waved them off as she slid down the front door until she was seated on the landing, able to rest her head on her knees. They yielded, melting into the shadows cast by the darkening sky. She closed her golden eyes and rested her head, wishing she could rest her heart. At least no one would notice the sobs that gently shook her thin frame.
Somewhere on the second story, a baby’s cry suddenly wailed through an open window.
The sound made her cry harder. By the time she looked up into the overshadowed sky, tears streaked her cheeks. Her lips trembled, then spoke words that burned inside her.
“Lord God, I don’t know what to do. I’m…I’m too young for this! How can I be a mother when I’m not even twenty years old? What was I thinking, telling my parents I could handle it? They were right.” She sniffled, rubbed her nose and said, “Dad was right.”
She whispered, “What do I do? Do I stay and let Dad spin me into some morality story for his church? Do I go and let Jake be raised by my parents who’ll just make him the poster child I never was?”
While staring up at the sky, Jia heard an approaching car’s engine idle down. A comfortable, new-looking brown car pulled up in front of her house. She ignored them, hoping they would just go away. Unfortunately, two men stepped out. The passenger was a tall, handsome black man with a nearly shaved head who watched her with a look of frank curiosity as he leaned back against the passenger side door. Nothing unusual about his blue jeans or his white t-shirt.
The driver, on the other hand, wore a military uniform. All she saw at first was the gleaming brass of his buttons against dark fabric. Then the soldier’s deeply tanned face drew near enough for her to realize he’d stepped around the car and walked straight towards her house.
Jia stood at once, one arm folded across her body to hold her other arm for comfort. Security moved to intercept him but she waved them off again.
“Can I help you, sir? Are you here for my father?”
“Jia Sun?” he asked. She nodded silently. “I’m Major Diaz. And I have something urgent to discuss with you.”
Alley Amherst decided she wouldn’t miss these barracks at all.
At this point, she considered herself something of a connoisseur of military barracks. In her short couple of years serving, she’d been in eleven so far. These were old, built of brick decades ago with a dark oak interior that made the whole place a bit depressing. The amenities were nothing to write home about either, not that she especially cared about those. No one enlisted for comfort and it mattered to Alley even less than most.
She packed up her meager belongings into a single carry-on suitcase, most of it extras of her uniforms. Alley took a last look around her room. The roommate she’d barely met didn’t have much more so the place looked more like a monastery cell than a place two girls lived. No, nothing of hers left behind. She had her parent’s single set of picture frames packed, Mishka’s locket around her neck and Iris’ promise ring on her right pinky finger. Good to go.
Alley shouldered her pack and walked briskly down the barrack hallways. Nodding once to security on her way out, she saw a brown Subaru Legacy waiting for her. Smirking slightly, Alley approached it directly before gliding to a stop a dozen feet back.
The most beautiful girl she’d ever seen in her life sat in the driver’s side. Asian, probably Chinese or Japanese, silky straight black hair worn long down her back. Flawless complexion. Unsmiling, the girl could have been a painting anyone would be proud to hang from their wall. Alley’s blue eyes narrowed then. No uniform. What was a civilian doing on base, picking her up?
Craning her neck, Alley looked past the eye candy and spotted a man in the proper uniform behind the wheel. He nodded to her once before inclining his head backwards. Alley didn’t need to be told twice. She popped open the passenger side back door and climbed in.
“Major, I fancy your taste of team mates!” The boy sitting across in the back seat was tall, black and sporting a Received Pronunciation Accent. What was a boy from England doing here?
Alley concentrated. Then she sighed and stuck out her hand. “Finn Barnaby,” she said, shaking his hand. “Sun Jia. Major Isaiah Diaz. I’m in. Might as well get on the road, we’ve got a schedule to keep.”
“How did-” Jia said from the front, her voice soft and confused.
“That’s bloody marvelous,” Finn said beside Alley. “Telepath, right? Am I right?” he called forward as the Major Isaiah Diaz started the car forward.
“Telepath? Please,” Alley said, rolling her eyes. “Corporal Alexandria Amherst. Call me Alley. That’s not a request. I’m also not interested and never will be. Now, let’s get down to it.” She leaned forward in her seat, speaking to the Major. “Sir, nothing I can say will convince you otherwise so let me just say I think this is a terrible idea.”
“Noted, Corporal,” Major Diaz said.
“If you don’t want to be here,” Jia said, just as quiet as Alley expected, “I’m sure the Major would make an exception for you.”
“Oh, I said I’m in. I just don’t like the Major’s choice of our fourth team mate, though.”
The Major sighed. “Just sit back and buckle up, we’ve-“
“Got a schedule, yes sir.”
Of course, Alley had already buckled before he opened his mouth. She quit concentrating and pulled out her smartphone. Googling for everything on Nate Insley would make the next minutes of Finn’s utterly inane babble at least a bit bearable.
The doorbell rang.
Nate Insley naturally was in the middle of a raid on one of the new MMORPG’s from Korea. He glanced over the surveillance monitor, wondering if it was broken. Sure enough, someone was on the porch. It took Nate a minute to really process the scene. Then he quickly jotted off his need to leave to his guildmates and closed out of the game.
Finally, he could turn his full attention to the first visitor he’d had in two years.
Nate looked through the surveillance camera, studying his guest. The man was of medium height, not more than six feet tall. Not entirely white if Nate had to guess. A bit of Hispanic maybe? That tan was just a little too even. The uniform made it largely irrelevant, of course. Military men all looked and thought alike from Nate’s experience. They didn’t usually ring doorbells, though.
Curious, Nate thumbed the intercom to the ground floor of his house. “Hey Sergeant, it looks like we have a bonafide visitor. Do you want to tell me why he’s using the doorbell at nine o clock at night?”
The voice was indistinct, as usual. Nate had never seen any of the soldiers who regularly kept watch over him. His cameras only gave him an exterior view of the house, of the vast green field around it followed by concrete roads girded with caution signs. Over the years, Nate had seen deer, squirrels, all manner of animals and birds. Almost never people, though. And never people who rang the doorbell.
When the military man on the porch stepped inside, Nate panned the camera past him to look at the car he’d left parked. It was pretty much full. A really cute Asian girl in front watched the grass fields with a somber, somewhat wistful look. Behind her was a blonde girl, only pretty compared to the Asian girl’s beauty and even less appealing when he realized she was in uniform. That’s when he realized the passenger wasn’t in uniform. A civilian? Here? Why?
Nate pressed his hand against his stomach, feeling slightly queasy. After so many years of captivity, this was a lot to process. So he pushed his cat Perpugilliam out of his lap and hopped out of his chair. As the cat meowed her annoyance, Nate crossed his bedroom and stepped into the shower for a quick rinse. A few minutes of scrubbing got him clean from raiding in his MMORPG all day. Toweling off, he stopped long enough to shave before heading for his closet.
A pair of jeans, his favorite Doctor Who shirt and white socks completed his around-the-house wear. Although Nate wasn’t due to hit the treadmill until the morning, he opted to put on a pair of tennis shoes anyway. After looking at his reflection, he opted to tuck in his shirt and add a belt.
It was a good choice, as it turned out. As Nate finished scrutinizing his looks, someone knocked on the bedroom door. It took him a minute to realize it wasn’t the TV that his cat Perpugilliam had on. No one had knocked on his door in years.
“Uh, come in? It’s not locked.”
The door opened to admit the soldier from his doorstep. Nate smiled slightly at being an inch or two taller. It was the only comfort he had, given how sharply dressed the officer was compared to his own casual wardrobe.
“What can I do for you…Major?” Nate added as he noticed the rank on the man’s uniform.
“You’re dressed,” the Major said with an approving tone. “Good. I’m Isaiah Diaz. I’d like you to take a ride with me.”
“Um, what? You’re joking, right?” Nate realized the officer wasn’t joking and swallowed hard. “Outside, really?” Then he stared at the other man hard. “Wait, you’re not planning on shooting me and dumping my body in the woods somewhere, are you?”
The Major only smiled and shook his head.
“I’m not sure I believe you,” Nate muttered. “But you’re here, in person. I have no idea why you’d take that kind of risk but whatever. Do you know how long I’ve been under house arrest?”
“And now you want to just take me for a ride? What’s this about?” Nate glared to make his point, that he wouldn’t be kept in the dark.
“Your team mates don’t know much more than you do and I’d rather have the entire conversation once. Grab a coat and let’s go. If you say no, I’ll have you back in time for bed.”
The Major left before Nate could demand a better explanation. He thought about going back to his chair, being willful, but the lure of the open door was too much. For the first time in years, Nate stepped outside of his bedroom and padded after the soldier.
He had to know why the Major was willing to take the insane risk of actually talking to Nate Insley in the first place.