Darwin and KJ suffered minor scrapes and bruises as a result of the explosion. The skin of their lifesuits remained intact but Darwin’s faceplate cracked when he got slammed against the RV. Luckily there was no breach. The crack is repairable and they’ll both be sore tomorrow, but that’s about as good of an outcome that we could have hoped for.
At least for us.
The six REFC we connected to the machine were fried beyond repair. Turns out the relay switches were a good idea. We have six remaining fuel cells to power the RV and all our tankcraft. That gives us enough to maintain critical functions in the RV while we are out exploring. But we’ll have to swap cells from the tankcraft to the RV when we are back on the move.
KJ was able to find a couple of undamaged REFC^2 cells from the wreckage. She wants to dissect one, but veto that. I instruct her to find a way to integrate them into our systems. It’ll be good to have a backup if something else goes wrong.
The machine—whatever it was—was completely destroyed. Nothing more than a skeleton of twisted metal remained. As for the man who died in my arms, Bellinger has her doubts about who he was. I don’t.
As near as I can figure, whoever pulled the REFC^2s from the machine probably did so to save the President’s life. And here I come along, reactivate the machine that was keeping him alive, and kill him.
Another log in the fire that’s my life.
We didn’t quite know what to do with the body. We can’t exactly take it with us in the RV and it didn’t feel right leaving it out in the open air, so we decided to bury it under a mound of shrapnel. We’ll come back for a proper burial another time.
Bellinger wants to keep this under wraps. She’ll report the incident to the President without making any mention of the man—or anyone else—being a casualty of the mission. On the off chance it really is him, she doesn’t think it’s wise for anyone to know how or when they die. I agree.
For the past eight hours, the RV has been a tomb of silence. The only time anyone has spoken was when we detoured around the Potomac. Due to structural damage to the bridge, we ended up heading north, taking what’s left of Highway 355 through Bethesda. It’s not long after that in which the roads become undriveable, even for our RV. Junk and heavy debris are thick all around us.
Cleaner eyes a rare clear spot where all eighteen wheels can sit flat on the ground. Brooklyn suggests we grab it before someone else does. It’s a lighthearted joke that actually cracks a smile on my face, despite recent events.
Cleaner swings the RV around to face the direction we came and brings the RV a stop in the clearing. We still have an hour of daylight left so I figure we’ll hit our first destination on the Washington, DC tour.
Greaser wants us to collect samples of animal remains, hoping an analysis might give us some additional insight into the atmosphere. We’ve already passed several animal carcasses on the highway so we know the bodies have been pretty well preserved, but we didn’t stop to take samples. A quick trip to the Smithsonian Zoological Park should give us plenty to work with.
As the team suits up, I hold back to talk to Brooklyn. There’s something I want her to check out while we’re out exploring.
The tankcraft navigate over the debris easily enough, but the wind keeps throwing crap at us. We’ve opted to switch the tankcraft to the enclosed, sitting position rather than fighting against the wind.
The main gate to the zoo is wide open when we arrive, so we drive right through. We pull up to the main entrance and park the vehicles. The doors to the buildings have been locked shut with a padlock and chain, and the windows have been boarded up.
Cleaner swings a .338 MRAD rifle from off his back and fires a round at the padlock.
“Whoa!” I shout. “You could have warned us.”
He shrugs a halfhearted apology.
“Didn’t work anyway,” I tell him, noting the padlock still attached to the chain, albeit now with a hole shot through it.
He taps the lock with the rifle barrel and it falls to the ground. “Problem solved,” he says.
Darwin pulls the chain out of the door handles and pushes the doors open. We walk through the entry area and find our way into the visitor center. Aside from some leftover trash scattered about, the place has been completely cleaned out.
We find our way out and into the main tourist area. I ask Greaser if he wants a sample from any particular species.
“I’ll take a variety pack. The more we have to work with, the better. Don’t need much, just whatever fits into a sample container.”
“I say we make it easy and start with the large animals,” I say. “Bellinger, you lived here, can you tell us which way to go?”
“Sad to say, Camden, but I’ve never been to that zoo before.”
From the RV, Brooklyn comments, “You’ve lived in Washington for four years and have never visited the zoo? Shameful!”
“I was busy running half of the legislative branch of government,” Bellinger replies testily.
“Be glad you’re not here right now, Brooklyn,” GoPro says. “You’d be getting the stare of death from the boss.”
“This is an interesting conversation and all,” I say, “but can anyone help us find some animals in this place?”
“Hang on,” Brooklyn says. “I’m pulling up a map now. Looks like you want to go left. Head down the path and you should run right into the elephant cage.”
We walk up to the cage but there are no dead elephant carcasses. Continuing down the path we find an offshoot labeled for “Zoo Staff Only.” This leads us to the building the where they keep the animals for the night.
We bust through the locked door and fan out inside. I walk past several large bays checking each one. All empty. Just like the gift shop, it looks like the animals had been cleared out.
“This is weird.”
I turn but don’t see Cleaner. “Where are you?” I ask.
“The food storage area. Keep walking straight and turn left. There might not be any elephants here, but there’s enough food to feed a pack of them.”
“Parade,” KJ says.
“I’m sorry?” Cleaner asks.
“The word you’re looking for is ‘parade.’ A parade of elephants. Dogs come in packs, elephants come in parades.”
“Good to know,” Cleaner response sarcastically.
“I don’t get it,” I say seeing the food stockpile Cleaner mentioned.
“Different words are used to describe different animals,” Brooklyn says, pretending to be helpful. “School of fish, pride of lions, swarm of—”
“Thank you, Ms. Smart-Ass,” I say shutting her up. “What I mean is, if someone took the time to remove the elephants, wouldn’t they want to feed them too?”
We look around a few more minutes, but with no new information gained, KJ suggests we check out some of the other cages. “Maybe we’ll find a bask of crocodiles or a bloat of hippopotamuses,” she adds.
“Let me know if you come across a troop of kangaroos,” Brooklyn says giggling.
“Oh. My. God.” GoPro says listening in from back home. “Have these two been like this the whole time?”
“You have no idea,” Darwin deadpans.
We head back to the trail and continue walking through the park. Brooklyn tells us we should come across a sloth of bears next.
After a throughout examination of the area, we conclude the bears, like the elephants, have been removed. But once again, the food stores are fully loaded.
We continue to make our way through the zoo, seeing the same thing again and again. No dead animal carcasses as we would have expected, yet completely unexpectedly, the feed bins are stocked full.
And no clues that might tell us why.