The Salt Lake Space Force Base was a mausoleum for everything related to America’s fall from grace. Outside the windows, white clouds blended with the evaporite on the ground, forming an almost seamless continuity with the pale walls inside the building. Monica wished the clouds would give way to blue or even gray. The bleached environment made her feel like she was trapped even beyond the base’s walls. The country didn’t need a Space Force anymore. It never did. The government had decided to shut down all Space Force operations, leaving the Salt Lake Base for last. After all, it was the home of the U.S.S.S. Concordia and the famous pilots known as the Okinawa Six.
With a deep breath, Captain Monica Beasley peeled her eyes from the windows, cursing the day she set foot into the recruitment office. Ten years of her life wasted defending a country that only needed to be protected from itself. Even so, she was determined to be the model of order right until the end. She pressed her uniform, shined her boots, and pinned back her short, black hair in a tidy ponytail. As she walked through the white aisles of the base, the familiar aroma of cheap cigars announced the nearby presence of Commander Gardner. He was staring into the hangar window with a brooding expression in his eyes. His dark skin and athletic body seemed impervious to the passage of time, but the white hair showing under his cap betrayed his age. The past two years had taken a toll on him, and Monica wondered how long he could continue to be the fearless leader they knew and loved.
“Look at her, Beasley,” he said, removing the cigar from his mouth. “It took ten years to build and now they’re going to dismantle her. A good waste of taxpayer money, if you ask me.”
Monica directed her blue eyes toward the U.S.S.S. Concordia. Its massive size always managed to surprise her. The Concordia was America’s first and only spaceship meant for warfare. It used to be the star of Space Force propaganda, but now it was only a piece of shameful junk.
“It was never meant to be, sir,” she said. “We never figured out how to make the damned thing fly in the first place, let alone put it in space. It was all a lie.”
“Don’t let Dr. Fawkes hear you say that,” said Gardner with a smile. “He’ll lecture you on physics and science before blaming the government and the lack of resources. It’s a good thing we won’t be here by the time he starts taking down that thing.”
“This must be painful for him. He spent all these years designing the ship, building it, and trying so hard only for it to be dismantled. Bye, bye, spaceship.”
“Bye, bye, Okinawa Six.”
Gardner turned toward the Control Center. Like the Concordia, the Okinawa Six was also a shameful piece of junk waiting to be dismantled. It was unfair but inevitable.
So much for doing the right thing, thought Monica with a sigh.
“Missing us already, sir?” she asked with a wry smile as he walked away.
“I don’t have time for that crap!”
Monica chuckled and continued her stride toward the mess hall. Muted sunlight filtered through the large glass windows, illuminating the empty metal tables. Her boots echoed through the room as she made her way to the food dispenser. Five other people were scattered around one of the tables. Their quiet conversation and the sound of her own footsteps made her feel like she was in a cathedral instead of a military base. Monica pressed the breakfast button in the dispenser with a sigh. After a minute of whirring and clicking noises, a smoking plastic tray landed on the serving area. She took the first seat available on the table and removed the plastic film off the tray. It was the usual scrambled eggs, bacon and crackers.
“Well,” she said, “I made a new year’s resolution to go vegan, but the Space Force won’t let me.”
“Or it turned you vegan without you knowing,” said Miles. “Who says these are real eggs and bacon? Mmm, chemicals!” He stuffed his dark face with fake glee and swallowed his breakfast in seconds.
“Like you would ever be a vegan,” said Cooper, tossing back her blonde braid with a roll of her green eyes.
“I’ve never seen you eat a vegetable in your life,” slurred Briggs after a long chug on his flask.
“No breakfast for you?” asked Monica with a sneer.
Briggs shook the flask at her for an answer. His unshaven beard, greasy black hair and disheveled uniform were telltale signs of another beer-filled night.
Monica directed her attention to Dr. Ethan Fawkes and his five-year-old daughter. With red curls, big green eyes and a galaxy of freckles on her face, Anabelle Fawkes was peering at her father with curiosity. As usual, he had his head hunched over his laptop, pushing his messy brown hair away from his glasses as he read.
“What are you reading, Fawkes?” asked Monica.
“The news,” he answered. “I’ll look for a video of it.”
Dr. Fawkes pressed a button on his computer and a female voice filled the air:
“General Kellegher, it’s been two years since the end of what people are now calling the Japanese Holocaust. We’re wondering: when will you re-reinstate the government?”
“I know people want to return to their normal lives, but that’s impossible at the moment,” answered General Kellegher. “We must face the terrible crimes this nation committed against Japan. Right now, we’re focusing on helping them get back on their feet as we also restructure our government. Martial law will stay a little longer. Don’t forget, our elected politicians ordered the massacre of millions of Japanese people. They made us do it by using misinformation and manipulating the media. It’s time for a new approach.”
“A dictatorship? Led by you?” asked the reporter with an edge of sarcasm to her voice.
“I want whatever is best for our nation. I’ll only be in charge until martial law is lifted.”
“What about the Space Force? All the bases are closing down. Thousands of Space Force cadets are returning home to the surprise of everyone.”
“The Space Force was mainly propaganda. They created it to distract us. While the nation focused on an imaginary war about to break out in space, the real war in Japan was being ignored. It also demands a lot of resources we need elsewhere.”
“Is it true that five members of the Okinawa Six were assigned to the Space Force?”
“Yes. In fact, they’re the last five members of the Space Force. I must admit we assigned them there for lack of a better choice on what to do with them. Yes, they ended the atrocities being committed in Japan. Unfortunately, we must not forget they achieved that by going against their fellow American soldiers and killing them. We can’t reward that kind of behavior, but we can’t punish them either. In a week, they’ll retire from the armed forces, and I hope that will be the end of it.”
“What about the sixth one, Haru Watanabe? He’s been missing for days, and people are already blaming the United States.”
“Turn that shit off!” barked the commander from the doorway. “We have work to do! Inventory to list! Servers to destroy! Move your asses!”
“Haru’s missing?” asked Monica.
She could still remember Haru’s scared face as he pointed a rifle at her, begging for his life and that of his family. Five minutes later, she was standing right beside him, pointing her weapon at her fellow soldiers. Monica’s heart ached when she remembered the view of Commander Gardner at the end of her rifle.
“Yes,” answered Gardner with a sigh.
“Why are we only hearing about this now?”
“Orders, Captain. This has nothing to do with any of you.”
“Well, it would be very convenient if we all disappeared too,” said Briggs. “This stinks of government bullshit, again.”
“I don’t care if stinks of your mother’s ass or if it smells like roses! We have a base to close, and I plan to do this last task as best we can! You afraid of the boogieman getting you in your sleep? Come on! To your stations!”
A collective groan rose as they obeyed. Dr. Fawkes and his daughter remained at the table along with Monica. She wasn’t finished with her food yet. Gardner narrowed her eyes at her. Monica was already preparing a smart retort in response to whatever he was about to say when Fawkes suddenly slammed his hand on the table.
“Damn it!” he said under his breath as he smashed the keyboard with the swift movements of his fingertips.
“Something wrong there, Fawkes?” asked Gardner, raising an eyebrow.
“He lost Bill’s signal,” answered Anabelle.
“Bill. He’s a colleague of mine,” answered Fawkes. “Sometimes he takes two or three days to reply to my messages, but it’s been two weeks already. His signal is gone too.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“He’s an anonymous scientist. I found his signal a few years ago and decoded it. That’s when he started replying, and we’ve been chatting ever since. The Concordia would’ve never been possible if it wasn’t for his help.”
“You ever met this guy?” asked Monica while chewing on her bacon. She could already see what Gardner would say imprinted in the furrowed lines of his forehead.
“No. I barely know anything about him,” answered Fawkes. “He helps me, that’s all.”
“You’re telling me you’ve been sharing information with a guy who communicates via some kind of chat on an encrypted signal?” asked the commander. “Doesn’t he seem like a spy to you?”
“I never expected you to understand, Commander. He’s harmless. But I’m worried about him.”
“Bill gives Daddy his ideas, and he never asks for anything in return,” chirped Anabelle.
“You have your daughter involved in this too?”
“You know her,” answered Fawkes, resuming his furious typing. “If I don’t involve her, she involves herself.”
“Whatever. Remember, you have a spaceship to dismantle.”
Gardner’s response was more lenient than Monica anticipated, but she understood. In a week, they would join the civilian ranks. If Fawkes was dealing with a spy, it wasn’t their problem anymore.
Let the government deal with this one by themselves, she thought.
Monica was about to stand when the bright fluorescent lamps illuminating the room turned off, and the constant whisper of the air vents disappeared. The already quiet atmosphere of the base turned dead silent. Everyone stared at each other in the dim sunlight that filtered through the windows.
“What now?” snarled the commander. “This better not be Miles messing up the wiring again.”
Monica and Gardner stormed into the half-lit aisles toward the Command Center. A chorus of alarms was coming from the battery backups and the emergency lights. Miles had beaten them to it and was already trying to access the main controls.
“It’s no use,” he said. “Is this even supposed to happen in a military base? Don’t we have a generator or something?”
“Cooper, come in,” said the commander into the radio.
“Check on the generator. It should’ve kicked in automatically.”
“It’s disconnected, sir,” answered Cooper after a few minutes.
“What do you mean ‘disconnected’?”
“It’s not connected to the building anymore. The cables are all ripped off. It will take a while to put it all back together.”
“I’m just telling you what I’m seeing, sir. Looks like rats got to them or something. How big do you think the rats are around here?”
“Briggs, where the hell are you?”
“Around,” answered Briggs on the radio.
Monica watched Gardner clench his jaw and ignore Briggs’ insolence. Briggs was drunk already, and no one could blame him. They had all seen and done terrible things back in Japan. Briggs handled it by drinking, Miles by joking around, Cooper by burying herself with work and Gardner. . . well, she wasn’t sure if Gardner was handling it at all. Like her, he was probably ignoring the issue.
“Meet Cooper at the generator and help her,” Gardner ordered Briggs. “Dr. Fawkes is at the mess hall. Go get him before you go there. Try to fix that thing!”
“Okay,” answered Briggs.
“Beasley, Miles, try to access a computer, and get into the surveillance videos. Let’s see what happened to the generator.”
“That system is down,” said Monica after trying one of the computers. “I’ve never seen anything like this. All the emergency channels for communication are also down.”
Monica couldn’t understand what kind of blackout this was. Not only was the power out, but all the other backup systems were down. However, aside from the generator, nothing seemed to be physically damaged. There were no signs of forced entry, and if someone had entered the base without authorization, the sensors of the alarm system would’ve warned them before the power was gone. The generator cables did look like something gnawed on them. Maybe Cooper was right from the start when she suggested rats did it. The empty buildings surrounding the hangar were the perfect breeding grounds for them.
The base remained powerless for hours. After patrolling the base to confirm there were no immediate signs of danger, they relaxed. After all, if someone wanted to hurt them, they would’ve done so already instead of leaving them waiting in the dark. Eventually, someone in Washington would notice their base was offline and check on it. There was nothing else to do except wait, but they kept their weapons close, just in case.
The food dispenser in the mess hall wasn’t working, so the commander sent Dr. Fawkes to the nearest diner to fetch some food. Ethan left Anabelle to Monica’s care and started the long journey down I-80 toward the city under a light drizzle. Lonely Moe’s Diner was right outside the town, but from the base, it was almost a two-hour drive. It was tiny and unremarkable, but it served good food. The thin droplets had turned into pouring rain when he arrived. He dashed to the entrance, cursing under his breath as the cold water drenched his lab coat.
A waft of grilled burgers and coffee welcomed him when he entered the establishment. Ethan took off his wet glasses to see better. Judging by the sparse assortment of customers, it was a slow day. He felt grateful for this. The food would be ready sooner. Dean Martin’s voice was crooning out of the old-fashioned jukebox as Ethan approached the counter trying to shake off some rain from his coat. He ordered the food and a coffee to warm himself while he waited.
Someone sat on the stool beside him. Ethan wrapped his hands around the warm mug with a frown. There were a lot of empty stools around. Why did this guy have to invade his space?
“Coffee,” ordered the newcomer.
Ethan leaned away from the tall stranger. Something about him didn’t seem right, but he couldn’t put his finger on what it was that made him so apprehensive. Maybe it was his strange outfit. He wore a black hoodie that covered his face, and a pair of black leather gloves. It wasn’t cold. Common sense would be to remove all that when entering an establishment.
“It’s quite rainy outside,” said the stranger.
Ethan limited himself to a nod. Small talk wasn’t his forte, and he wanted nothing to do with this guy.
“That’s one catchy song. Interesting way to describe love, don’t you think? A kick in the head? Today’s music can’t even compare to the old classics.”
“I guess,” answered Ethan with a frown. He turned his body away from the stranger, hoping he’d get the message to leave him alone.
Instead, the hooded man leaned toward him. “You guess? What are you guessing exactly?” he insisted.
“The song is practically a hundred years old. I don’t know, man. I’m just drinking my coffee.”
“Well, I like this song.”
“Shut up, then. So you can listen to it.”
“That was rude, Ethan.”
Startled, Ethan turned to the stranger. He tried to peer in the hoodie to make out a face, but it was a wasted effort.
“How do you know my name?”
“We know each other,” said the stranger. “I’m Bill.”
Bill extended a gloved hand for a handshake. Ethan stared at him open-mouthed. Of all the things he could ever imagine happening in a diner, meeting Bill wasn’t one of them. He didn’t know if he should feel excited about meeting him or alarmed that Bill seemed to know who he was even if they’d never met face to face.
“But how did you. . . that’s not possible! How do you know who I am?”
“Well, ain’t that a kick in the head, Ethan Fawkes?” Bill chuckled. “I’ve always known who you are.”
Ethan stared at him in stunned silence. The song ended, and only silverware clicking mixed with the rain spatters on the windows could be heard as they stared at each other. Bill walked to the jukebox, and after a few seconds, the song started again. He walked back to his stool, ignoring Ethan’s questioning look.
“Look, I know this is all very overwhelming and unusual,” said Bill. “Meeting you was never in my plans—let alone like this—but you can at least shake my hand.”
“How much do you know about me?”
“Everything. I know about you and about everyone living on that base.”
Ethan shivered and his mouth became dry. He had trusted Bill during all these years, but he always made sure not to share any compromising information. How much did Bill actually know? How did he get that information?
“Now, don’t get all jumpy on me,” said Bill. “I promise I mean you no harm. I’m actually here to help you.”
“Help with what?”
“Saving the world,” Bill whispered. “There’s a war coming, and humanity will lose unless I help you. But first, let’s take the food back. I’ll explain everything to everyone.”
“I don’t care if you’re here to help us or not. I can’t take you to the base!”
“Keep your voice down!”
Ethan looked around with apprehension. No one was paying attention to them. He took a deep breath to calm his nerves.
“How am I supposed to believe you?” he whispered. “I’m not stupid!”
“I know. I’ll explain everything back on the base. We’re all in danger. We’re losing time even as we speak.”
“What are you? An international spy, a whistleblower, some kind of. . . I don’t know—”
“I was a scientist, just like you. Now, I’m probably a criminal or something. It’s not clear because they haven’t caught up with me yet. What I’m really sure of is that they could call me a traitor.”
“Who are they?”
“Yes, but who are they?”
“For now, let’s just say they’re not from around here. I don’t want you to panic in a roadside diner, okay? I need you to take me back to the base!”
Ethan looked around to double-check no one was listening. What were the chances that someone like Bill would come alone to a meeting like this? If he were in danger from his own people, the logical thing would be to bring protection of some kind. What if someone had followed Bill here? What if he and everyone in the base were in danger precisely because he was talking to Bill?
“Why would your people think you’re a traitor?” asked Ethan.
“Because I’m helping you right now!” whispered Bill. “Or maybe it started before that. Maybe it started when you decoded the damned signal. I kept it a secret from them, including our conversations. They’re dangerous people, Ethan! They’ll be the end of everything if you don’t let me help you.”
“Bill, if you need asylum from. . . whatever country you came from, you chose the wrong place. Our government is in a bad place right now!”
“Are you listening to me? I’m not here for asylum. I’m here to help you fight back when the day comes. I could get into that base if I wanted to. I already did. I just need to come in with you so they won’t get a bad impression of me.”
“What do you mean you got in already?”
“Let’s say I left my vehicle parked there.”
“This morning. I caused the whole blackout thing. Sorry.”
“What the hell, Bill? You’re messing with government equipment!”
“I’ll fix it later. Without power, the food dispenser would be out service. Someone would eventually head out in search of food, and the Okinawa Six are not supposed to leave the base. I just needed to lure you out, and here you are. If you bring me in, it will increase the chances of them trusting me.”
“Your food’s ready,” said the waitress, placing the greasy brown bag on the counter. “Who’s paying?”
“Put my coffee on his bill,” said Bill.
“Really?” Ethan scoffed.
“I’m a refugee, what can I say?”
Ethan handed her his credit card without taking Bill out of his sight. Once the food was paid, Bill grabbed the bag and walked toward the door. Ethan ran to catch up with him.
“I’ll pay you back one day,” said Bill.
“I’m not taking you to base!”
“Yes, you are. If you don’t, I’ll just get in by myself. When they ask who I am, I’ll say you let me in. It will end badly for both of us. So let’s do it the easy way.”
“You wouldn’t do that. I know you.”
“When we get to the base, you’ll realize how much you don’t know about me. I don’t want to get like this with you, my dear friend, but this is a life-and-death situation.”
Ethan wiped his wet hair away from his glasses as he stared at Bill’s hooded figure. He had hidden the bag of food under his hoodie to prevent it from getting wet but, other than that, he seemed unbothered by the heavy drops. During all these years, Ethan had trusted Bill enough to talk to him about the Concordia. He could even say a long-distance friendship had sparked between them. Ethan felt he owed him the benefit of the doubt. It would be ungrateful to deny him help when his life was at stake. He decided to take the risk.
“Fine! Get in the car!” he said, unlocking the doors.
Bill opened the passenger door and got inside. Ethan noticed that he was still wearing his hood even after they left civilization behind. He could almost hear Gardner’s voice yelling at him for bringing a stranger to the base, especially since he’d mentioned that Bill was probably trouble. Some hours before, Ethan had been worrying about Bill, and now he was sitting in the passenger seat sniffing into the brown bags as if it was normal to do so with other people’s food.
“What’s in here?” asked Bill. “It smells awful.”
“Burgers. They smell like burgers, Bill. It’s not a mystery.”
“Figures?” asked Ethan in disbelief.
“You have to admit they smell. . . Forget it. For you, cooked meat smells delicious.”
“Obviously. What does it smell like to you?”
“Look, you better start explaining everything. That way, when we get there, I can explain to them what’s going on before they shoot at us.”
“I’ll explain everything when we’re all together. If I start now, you’ll freak out and run us off the road.”
“You have a very lousy opinion of my nerves.”
“It would be the normal thing to do.”
Ethan was getting tired of all the strange answers. Anabelle crossed his mind for the first time in a while, and he cursed himself. He wasn’t only bringing a dangerous stranger to a military base but also toward his innocent daughter. Ethan always had problems balancing parenting duties with his scientific ones. They often got all mixed up in his mind. He was a terrible father, and he knew it, but there was nothing he could do but convince himself he was trying his best. Except now. This wasn’t trying his best. This was a dangerous situation. Like everything else in his life, he decided to tackle it later instead of dwelling on it. Again, bad parenting.
The power was restored as suddenly as it had gone. Monica’s eyes were already used to the darkness in the dining room, so she was blinded for a few seconds. They had been waiting for Dr. Fawkes in the mess hall since they had nothing else to do. Miles had dozed off along with Briggs, and Cooper was keeping Anabelle entertained playing shadows with the flashlight. Monica and Gardner had chosen to pass the hours by playing poker. As always, she was losing.
“About damn time!” she said, rubbing her eyes.
“How much longer until Fawkes gets here? I’m hungry,” complained Miles with a yawn.
“He should be heading back now,” answered Gardner, dealing another hand.
Monica wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep losing. She was about to retire when a strange noise echoed along the corridors, blaring out from the intercom speakers.
“What the hell was that?” asked Gardner.
The noise repeated itself, this time longer. Cooper took Fawkes’ computer to connect to the system and find out the source of the sound.
“It’s coming from the basement,” she said. “How is that possible? We’re all here.”
“I’ll go check it out,” said Monica. “Keep your radios turned on!”
“I’ll go with you!” offered Miles.
They hurried toward the basement, weapons drawn. The short elevator ride seemed to last forever as the noise blared through the speakers. Monica tightened her grip on the gun when the doors opened to the pitch-black basement. Closer and no longer filtered by the speakers, the noise revealed its true identity: screams.
“Do you think there’s someone down here?” asked Miles.
At the sound of Miles’ shrill voice, the screams increased in intensity along with the sound of someone frantically knocking against metal. Monica turned on the basement lights. It was clear in the way Miles’ chest rose and fell quickly; he was afraid. Monica was also afraid, but she wasn’t going to show it to Miles. They aimed their weapons ahead, and advanced slowly between the aisles of the shipping containers.
“Tasukete kudasai!” said the muffled voice.
This time she could hear it clearly. It was a Japanese voice asking for help, and it chilled her bones to the core. Monica knew what the words meant. She had heard them many times back in Japan while she shot everyone indiscriminately. A lot of bad memories flooded her mind, and she wished she could get a hold of one of Briggs’ beers.
“Monica, did you—”
“I heard it.”
More frantic knocks echoed through the basement. Silently, Monica followed the sounds to a strange sealed container.
“Somebody in there?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
The voice answered with quick panicked Japanese that neither of them could understand. Miles opened the lid, and a small figure dashed out of it, knocking them back. It was a young man. He spoke to them with a frantic rush of words, but their Japanese had never been that good. Monica limited herself to staring petrified at the face screaming inches away from her. She didn’t know if this was real or a cruel joke from the Universe. This was America, but her mind had regressed back to Japan’s battlefield. The smell of scorched earth and the sounds of people shooting and getting shot at invaded her. She took a moment to realize she was still pointing her gun at the panicked man. She lowered it slowly, cold sweat dripping down her back.
Miles pulled the guy away from Monica. “Hey!” he said. “We know you! You’re that guy! Haru!”
“Miles?” asked the confused young man.
Monica got over her initial shock and focused on the young man’s face. Two years had passed since they had seen him, but Haru still looked like the terrified teenager who had faced them in Okinawa.
“Haru, what are you doing here?” she asked.
He resumed his panicked words, shaking her by the shoulders.
“For fuck’s sake!” Monica slapped him. “Get a hold of yourself! We don’t speak Japanese! You know this! What are you doing here?”
“The monster!” answered Haru. “It took me!”
“The monster! It. . . it. . . I don’t remember!”
Monica exchanged a worried look with Miles. It seemed that Haru had lost his mind.
“I was home. Sleeping. And then. . . someone was in the tent with me,” continued Haru. “Someone tall. . . and I couldn’t see well. . . And then he was so close. . . He had claws and I fought him and. . . and now I’m here. Where—”
“You’re in fucking Utah, Haru!” said Miles. “You’ve been missing for two weeks! Everyone thinks our government took you!”
“Somehow you ended up in a container in the basement of our military base. How?” asked Monica.
“Utah?” Haru was clearly confused. “Five minutes ago I was home. . . in Okinawa.”
“That was two weeks ago. What happened in between?”
“I don’t know. I was. . . The monster, Beasley!”
“Beasley! What’s going on down there?” asked Gardner through the radio.
“Haru’s here,” she answered.
“He was locked inside a container. Cables are coming out of it connecting it to the intercom system. It doesn’t even look like one of our containers.”
Monica examined the strange appearance of the container. It differed greatly from the standard American ones. Instead of being rectangular, it was an oval. The insides were padded and rigged with cables everywhere. She had never seen anything like it before.
“Miles, confirm!” barked the commander.
“She’s not lying, sir,” said Miles.
“Get up here, now!”
“Gardner?” asked Haru.
“The one and only,” answered Monica. “Everyone’s here. Me, Miles, Cooper, Briggs and Gardner. Now you, too. I don’t like this. Whoever took you—”
“It wasn’t a who!” said Haru. This time he seemed more coherent. “I was asleep, but I remember that it didn’t feel human. It was a monster.”
He raised his arms to show them something. When they approached, they could see the half-healed scratch wounds on his arms. It was true, they didn’t look like something a person could do. Monica and Miles shared a concerned look. Apparently, someone wanted the Okinawa Six back together. The last time that had happened, all hell was breaking loose in the world.