The team camped out in the woods that night. It was discussed whether they could find another town and secure lodging, but they were thoroughly enough lost that there was no guarantee of finding anything. Worse still, the one thing they knew for sure was out there was whatever force had wasted an entire village - presumably within seconds. Not the type of thing you'd want to stumble into in the dark.
For that reason, they turned a direct ninety degrees from the road and the path of destruction, drove along an old logging road as far as the terrain would allow, and then hiked another five miles for good measure.
In later years, they'd be more likely to pursue the enemy all night rather than running and hiding. Tonight, however, they were still very young... and very scared.
As an extra precaution they decided to set a watch. Jack scooped up three dry pine needles from the forest floor. Snapping them off to different lengths, he stuck them in a closed fist, tips lined up evenly.
After all had drawn, they held out their lot to compare in the flickering firelight.
Jack's was clearly the shortest. "Blue watch." he declared, using the same Navy terminology that Ms McCready had used during training. "Figures."
"I got white." said Wendell.
"Red! Woohoo!" Misty cheered, having pulled the earliest watch.
She wasn't cheering long, however, when the boys retired and she found herself left alone with the strange sounds of the night. These seemed all the more frightening, being in a foreign land and without even a sliver of moon to shed light on whatever made them.
"This European tour is turning out nothing like the brochure." she said aloud.
The sound of her voice startled some unseen something, which ran up a tree. She decided not to speak again.
Despite jumping out of her skin every time an owl hoo'd, the time passed uneventfully.
Wendell, after much shaking and threats of personal torture, was roused at midnight and set to work. Once the strange sounds of the night hit him, however, he was wide awake. At first, he doubted that he could hear any approaching danger over the thud of his own heartbeat echoing in his ears.
As the night wore on, terror gradually gave way to boredom, and then boredom melted down into weariness.
Despite Misty's unveiled threats that military watchmen who fall asleep on duty are executed, Wendell found himself drifting.
His head sagged. His eyes drooped. Rough bark rasped along his cheek.
Like lightning he was awake and on his feet, pistol drawn and pointed at the inky void from which the sound had come.
He squinted hard into the darkness for a long time. It proved too thoroughly black for even night-adjusted eyes to pierce. No second sound ever came. The silence rang in his ears as he strained against it for some clue.
He even tried to 'use your nose' as Michael Moast had taught them all. He inhaled deeply. Well, maybe Michael could have gotten something out of this, but all Wendell could smell was enough tangy pine needles to make snorting an air freshener seem tame.
Not even Micheal could smell anything over that. he thought.
Well... maybe Michael wouldn't have camped here. his mind argued back.
And then his eyebrows shot up and mumbled. "Michael wouldn't have camped here!"
A chill ran up his spine. He glanced around.
They were on top of a hill. The fire could be seen for miles. Stupid.
The fire was made with green wood, and not enough air. It was very smoky. Stupid!
They hadn't concealed their abandoned truck, nor their footprints. Stupid, stupid!
Now that he had completely freaked himself out, Wendell was in no mood for sleeping.
He spun and fired long before he registered it as a word.
Boom! Jack and Misty's nervous systems flew out of bed, dragging the rest of their bodies with them. When they landed, Jack had his weapon cocked and pointed in both hands in perfect police officer form, where Misty reflexively dropped to a solid fighting stance.
If mind, reflex, and emotion were separate individuals, then the first member of the group finally got its lazy bones out of bed.
"Say, what's going on here?" asked Jack, now taking a good look at the scene.
Wendell stood facing a woman. She held a dainty china coffee cup in one hand, and Wendell's upraised wrist in the other. The drink and the recently-fired pistol in his hand each let off a spiraling tendril of smoke that drifted long and high into the night air.
"Irmingard..." the sound trickled from Wendell's throat.
It really was her!
She really did have coffee!
After a moment of staring like an idiot, Wendell realized that he'd started a sentence and never finished it. He didn't know what to say until he saw the smoking gun. "I could've killed you!"
"No you couldn't." said another voice from the far side of the campfire.
All heads turned.
None could make out where the voice was coming from.
Jack noticed it first. One of the surrounding bushes seemed to have inexplicably moved itself closer to the fire during the night. Not only that, but among its branches was one that was far too perfectly straight to be a product of nature. It was the barrel of a rifle! And with camouflage skills like that, there could be only one person holding onto the other end of it.
"Lola." concluded Jack.
Wendell almost asked, 'How did you find us?', but then remembered his earlier argument with himself over their poor woodcraft skills. Instead, he asked, "What happened? How did you get away from the compound?"
"We should talk about that over coffee. Aren't you going to ask me to sit down?"
Wendell stepped aside, and gestured toward the fire in a gentlemanly way.
"Thank you." she said, and moved to take her seat.
Looking up, Irmingard addressed the bush, "Lola, I'm sure we're all very impressed, but we've seen it now. Let it go, okay."
The bush grunted. With a rustle of leaves, the elder Rabishaw sister popped from the foliage and made her way to the rest of the group. They had a lot to discuss.
NEXT CHAPTER ... COMING SOON!