Jason Cohen was the last to emerge from the plane, having made certain his men and their cargo had all exited. The flight from Atlanta to New York had taken three hours, and the long sit coupled with the sudden offloading in the dead of night made his leaden body feel as though it were never designed for movement.
Taking in the atmosphere, Jason was thankful that it had not yet started to rain and hoped the looming downpour would stay its hand just a bit longer. He followed Tom DeShane down the narrow steps and saw the offloaded passengers moving toward the New York team, who were in place and waiting by the transportation to Brandywine. The finer details regarding the one woman and five children they had scrambled out of bed at 2 AM to transport had been suppressed. They were merely the pickup crew and were to keep at a distance, allowing Jason’s team, with its higher clearance, to hold principal interaction with the subjects exposed to the compound.
Jason saw that he and Tom were alone and farther back in the procession. He felt the pressure to acknowledge their shared encounter from the prior morning when, along with Royer, they had intercepted the man named Reginald Seabolt. Seabolt had been on the run, attempting to leave Atlanta by bus. Jason and his two associates were then witness to a preternatural power, like something out of the Bible, one they never imagined was actually loose in the world and certainly not at the whim and temper of someone as unhinged as Seabolt – a man Jason Cohen and Tom DeShane had to gun down.
“How are you holding up, Tom?”
Tom stepped from the gangway and looked back at Jason. “I think I’m too damn nervous to swallow. What that lunatic did to that guy’s arm… What kind of Hell-on-Earth temper tantrum are we to expect when one of these kids sees we forgot to pack their Teddy?”
“We’ll keep them calm,” said Jason, who shared Tom’s concerns utterly.
Like Tom and all the other men under him, Jason’s red, white and blue-painted professional life unfurled into an emblem of dutiful service to his country; each post more clandestine, more critical than the last. A perpetual soldier, he rarely thought about children, and when he did it was usually of them as tokens in a very serious game or as numbers to be tallied before and after the most sensitive of missions. Now that his present assignment, one that had initially borne the promise to keep him on American soil and ease him into a less demanding existence, had placed five seven-year-old orphans under his responsibility, he seemed to recall that he was not fond of them. To a man of his discipline, children were unreasonable and irrational, unmatured intelligences with no capacity for sound judgment and, in the unique case of these five children, they were bombs, each potentially capable of the same unprecedented power that had disintegrated an Atlanta beat cop’s arm in the quick span of a second.
Jason returned his attention to his duties. “I need you to set up shifts for the team once we get to Brandywine.”
“The transport team isn’t getting pooled into this are they?” asked Tom in response.
“Yeah, I’m afraid it’s just us, Tommy.” As Jason spoke and stepped clear of the gangway, he watched a pause in the procession to the sedans. The girl named Kathy Pettis was apparently a bit overwhelmed and stopped for a cry. Barbara Heacox, the nurse, was stooping down to comfort her.
From the corner of his eye, Jason watched the interaction and said, “The whole Atlanta team will foreseeably remain principal contact. Along with whatever specialists are waiting for us at the facility, Royer believes we have enough men to…”
Jason saw what looked like a tiny flare shoot up from Kathy Pettis’s small shape. In response, the nurse flew back, landing hard on her backside. The flare rose 40 feet and then took a sharp dive back into the center of the column, scattering everyone. The white flame returned to the Pettis girl, flitting around just feet above her head. She immediately huddled into a shrieking immobile ball of misery. The thing zipped in tight circles above her, intermittently dashing out above the heads of the team, only to close the wide circuit around the girl’s huddled body — the apparent nucleus to its fitful movement.
“Tom, get everybody away from the children!”
But Tom was already moving, with his gun drawn and at the ready. The rest of Jason’s team had their weapons out and were moving back from the children, bumping into each other as they stared up at the speeding object, which darted up for another 40-foot ascent, growing brighter as it climbed. Once again, it flew down and around the heads of the team before it returned to its tight radius around the screaming Pettis girl. Jason could see the flare moving as if it were alive, like a feral creature searching to understand an unknown environment, its voice a screeching whizz that split the night’s silence as it bulleted through the air. The sound was alive like the indiscernible curses of some small, trapped animal. Its bright incandescence washed a myriad of colors over the dark, vacant airfield. The way it moved reminded Jason of a fish or some nimble swimming creature.
From the corner of his eye, Jason caught a glimpse of the uninformed New York team, oblivious to what peril lay before them. They moved closer, curious, with their weapons also brandished for action. He ran at them barking, “Get the hell back! Stay behind the cars!” The men were confused but compliant as they stuck to their training, following Jason’s orders.
All of Jason’s team fell back now, abandoning two of the children as their perceived protectors. The exposed youths immediately began crying and instinctively huddled just a few feet from the screaming Pettis girl. The frightened wail of the trio’s unified anguish chilled the blood in everyone.
Barbara Heacox was attempting to roll the disabled boy and his wheelchair clear, but Wayne Berquist yelled for her to leave him and get behind the team. She refused, and Walter Fragasso had to add muscle to Berquist’s command, violently pulling the back of the nurse’s jacket. For a moment, Jason thought Fragasso was dragging Heacox by her long red hair, and he imagined the children thought the same. Their bawling intensified at the hard violence of the act, and the fairy-like dance of the living fire responded in kind, pulsing brighter and jerking about spastically. He saw that it was getting larger with each growing moment of distress. It quickly darted over their heads and Jason thought he could make out a fitful shape, seeing some sort of organized mass to the thing through its light. Its growth continued at an alarming rate and, even at his distance, Jason felt the thing somehow pushing and pulling at the air, drawing and venting powerful drafts in a beating maelstrom. Its high-pitched whisking had fallen to a low sucking roll, an angry, menacing growl of a sound that intensified with every second. The escalating cacophony began to drown out everyone’s screams and shouts all around.
Just as he was registering that one of the five children was unaccounted for, he saw Dr. Joi Hashimoto hunched low near a pile of ditched luggage and, in his opinion, far too close to the children. As he raced over to move her away from them, he saw the fifth child, Jack Pettis, in her arms.
“Dr. Hashimoto, leave the boy here and move back!” he yelled.
“It’s his sister, the girl named Kathy!” she cried. “That thing seems centered on her! We have to try and settle her down!” She pressed the frightened boy’s head to her chest and tried to look past Jason toward the small huddle of screaming children.
He grabbed the woman’s arm and moved to pry the child from her embrace, but she struggled against him to keep her grip on the boy. She saw Walter Fragrasso and Neil Spitznagle rush in to assist and immediately relented at their presence, not wanting to make things worse by exhibiting another disturbing struggle in front of the children. She yelled through the dense howl for the boy to run over to the huddle of children just as she was being pulled back, abandoning and exposing little Jack Pettis to the surrounding terror. He began to cry out – and all hell broke loose.
From above, the thing, which now seemed to fill the sky above them, issued such a reverberating boom, a sound belonging to some mythic undersea Leviathan. Jason lost his bearing and almost toppled to the ground from its force. Its kaleidoscope of light suddenly withdrew into itself and cast a dense solid shade of indigo; it formed into a tight ball and for a split second the air calmed and all was quiet. At once, it rocketed over their heads and directly into the plane they had all been passengers on, striking it roundly in the center, and barely missing one of the two pilots who, fortunately, had decided to exit the craft to investigate the outside dance of lights.
The aircraft lighted in a soundless explosion that split it into two great halves. Fires burst out from bright yellow seared edges of the fuselage and the thing flew out the other side of its impact, its prior fever-pitched array of incandescence now settled into a calmer radiance of slow-switching colors. Its pace was now a more composed cruise. Jason was suddenly struck with the impression of a great shark having struck at the corpse of a greater whale, and he sensed the thing was somehow momentarily satiated by the liberating mastication of the wide-bodied plane. In quick degrees, it shrunk down to a hand-sized tongue of light and dropped approximately 50 yards away from them and the ravaged plane, hovering at a static position a few feet from the tarmac. The suspended glow seemed to appraise them, waiting for their next move.
The sudden devastation left everyone, including the children, dumbstruck with faces frozen in silent horror.
Jason felt a pull on his left arm.
“We have to drop them! Now, before it comes back!”
It was Tom DeShane. Past him, Jason saw the overcome faces of his team, their eyes searching him, waiting for some decree to action. He saw them begin to move like unwilling participants acting from some hypnotic state of mind, and one by one they began pointing their hesitant weapons into the general direction of the children.
“You have got to be shitting me,” Jason heard Jared Ambrose pipe out.
Their eyes were full of fear and disbelief, and he saw Gus Clardy shaking his head, a soft protest as he recognized the task before them. Jason saw all their faces reflect the same hard realization of having to complete the orders they never believed they would have to carry out.
Compared to what they were now charged with doing, that once bliss filled lark of an assignment had uncoiled into an outlandish nightmare. Oh, how delighted they were so many months ago, at the beginning of an incredibly simple (though bizarre) assignment – a surveillance job - and one on American soil to boot, well away from jungles, deserts and desperate lands full of desperate people. He and the entire team had the simple task to watch just three subjects – three American subjects at that!
Jason thought everything played out like a twist at the end of that TV show, the one with the eerie theme and smoker talking to the audience at the beginning and then at the end – that point when the rug is pulled out from under everyone.
He imagined the smoking man setting it all up for the viewers at the start, when they had been called in from their various details by this kooky government spook named Royer. He had come to them by way of the proper channels, a valid call from some place high up the command, the joke assignment in his hand. For whatever reason, his mission would require the assurance of a specific profile and caliber of operators, and they were certainly them. Just like the show, everything started with a light, easy tone; “Just take over an FBI stakeout of three acid-cooking hillbillies supposedly practicing ESP down in Atlanta.” As the show went on, the tone would have gotten heavier, not so much from their own surveillance, which had found authenticity to the hillbillies’ backyard sessions of igniting or moving objects with seemingly nothing at all, or from that one credible recorded conversation that indicated that the woman in their number could somehow send out calming mental waves to bring others to a more sedate state of mind; the more serious tone came down from the government think tank who oversaw Royer – from Brandywine – the brainbox that crunched all the numbers and drew up all the charts. It was their rising concern at what they were finding – at what was now a possibility in this world. The show goes on: Surveillance reports are sent up, the dire necessity for secrecy is pumped into them over and over, and strategies are made to finally apprehend and deliver the three individuals to the New York facility that houses Brandywine. The show escalates: The destructiveness of the power they’ve observed becomes irreversibly real at the cost of an Atlanta beat cop’s arm and is senselessly placed within the simple heads of children. And then it happens: Royer gives those orders that bear the potential to damn them all, an order they thought no chain of events would bring about. Now it’s no longer a simple instruction to quickly contain and deliver these now-exposed children – that chilling additional edict was handed down. How full of anxiety Royer had been during that briefing.
“For all we know,” he had said, “these poor children are helpless to the destruction they may bring to bear. It is an extremely unfortunate responsibility… Men, you may reach an unavoidable position and you’ll have to remove a part of yourselves. If public awareness to this power becomes unavoidable and if it cannot be contained, then the brains of the children must be destroyed with extreme prejudice.”
Que the end of the show at this the highest moment of irony, the darkest hour of their charge. Jason watched his team spread out, ready to follow directives that will surely send them to hell, weapons aimed for unidirectional fire and the effectual execution of these small harbingers of this new doom. He stared at his men, though he was compelled to scan the area for that smoker, puffing away in his dark suit, standing with his back to them, offering some closing quip, sharing some esoteric moral to an invisible audience.
“I can’t ask them to do this,” Jason said to Tom under his breath.
“It’s the Pettis girl… It’s not the others, I’ll separate her right now. I’ll do this right now. You and everybody else, get the other four children to Brandywine. Have one of the cars wait behind for me. It’s 20 minutes away, Tom. If something else happens before you get there, I need you and three other men to fire rounds into their heads. Put a small caliber to their ear and put them down. Don’t let them see the gun… do it quick.”
“Jason, what about the brother? And that thing – what if it shoots back over—"
Jason cut him off. “Did you copy what I said?” There was no time to waste on debate.
“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” answered Tom Deshane. He ran back to the group, huddling them.
Jason suddenly realized Dr. Hashimoto was standing close enough to hear everything he just said. He was mulling over the ramifications of that when she ran up close and said, “You can’t do that. She’s just a child. My God, she’s only a child!”
“I have a foundation to terminate every single one of these children right now because of that, lady.” He shot a finger toward the decimated aircraft and the light floating in the distance.
“I’m getting the rest of those kids to the specialists at Brandywine as soon as possible to save their lives. I’m sorry, but whatever that girl has created… it is my responsibility. I have no choice, Dr. Hashimoto.”
He watched her turn toward the flare, the ominous ghost light, a burning eye watching them from the quiet runway.
Studying her profile, in an almost accusatory tone he asked, “Do you have any idea what that is?”
“No,” she said softly, still staring at the thing.
“She literally won’t feel a thing.”
Jason saw her face change at his words, and she looked back at him. What he saw in her deep brown eyes made him feel like a monster.
“You need to get to the transport,” he said, looking away to the little girl.
“Cohen, I… I can help her,” said Dr. Hashimoto.
“Hell no. I want you out of here now.” Jason glanced over at the thing, still maintaining its calm vigil past the burning heap.
“Cohen… Jason – you’ve read the reports from that orphanage. That little girl has had nothing but misery in this life. If you’re going to do this… I… I can… I can bring her peace, remember? You can do that one thing for her.”
Jason glared at her, saying nothing.
As instructed, the rest of the team was already reaching the sedans and ushering the children inside. Jared Ambrose was loading the disabled boy’s wheelchair into the trunk of one of the vehicles. Tom was the only one who remained; he was with the Pettis girl. Jason could tell by their body language that the child desperately wanted to leave this dreadful place with everyone else, but Tom was holding her back, coaxing her to stay behind – and to run over to Jason.
Some of the men by the sedans stared at him and Jason understood that they were waiting for Dr. Hashimoto, still lingering by his side. He made a gesture, and the men knew to go on without her and quickly dipped into the vehicles. If any of them came back for her now, it might distress the Pettis girl all the more, and that was the last thing Jason wanted to do.
He then drew Dr. Hashimoto in close, his right arm around her, his right hand on her shoulder. He looked into her wet and weary eyes and, from his periphery, noted the slight frame of Kathy Pettis timidly approaching and the larger frame of Tom bolting away to depart with the rest of the team. Jason recalled that Tom had two little girls of his own, home safe somewhere in Ohio, no doubt deep in sleep under thick blankets patterned with happy cartoon characters at this hour. He wondered if Tom felt like a monster, too.
With lips firmly pressed at the edges of the woman’s ears, through her straight black hair, in a harsh whisper, he said, “Listen to me. What I have to do now is going to be… hard. We both know that it has to be done… now, if you can do what you say you can, then bring her peace… Okay?”
Jason pulled back to see the young woman’s face just as the confused little girl ran up and took him by his left hand. He saw Joi’s mouth soundlessly form the saddest yes he had ever seen.
Jason thought he heard sirens in the distance, but this was not a concern. No matter what the locals found when they reached them, it would be taken care of in the after-handling; it would not be a problem. Jason found himself wanting things to slow down now, for the airfield to somehow become a more reverent location, a sacred place of respect for the little girl. He hoped the image of the young woman standing close at his side had triggered in some subconscious place a final notion of mother and father for the orphan.
In one move, Jason released Joi from his embrace and softly nudged her to a safe orientation away from his right side – away from the trajectory of fire. With his right arm, Jason pressed the child close. He saw Joi begin to melt into short sobs. He saw her gather herself, close her eyes, tilt her head down and to the side, concentrating on the thing within her – the power. She appeared to be listening for a quiet distant sound.
Jason held the little girl close to him, cradling her head with his right hand and pressing her softly into his jacket, hiding her face. With his left hand, he produced a small revolver from its place at the small of his back. He glanced over at the shining flare, still monitoring them from its position at the center of the runway. He looked at Joi, seeing her rapt concentration, struck by her delicate features, the contours of her cheekbones. He was suddenly deeply remorseful at the thought of her being forever marred by what was about to happen. He imagined her tossing and turning in some future bed, unable to wake from the nightmares he was about to give her. He found that he hated the image and wanted to reach out to her. He shook the thought from his mind and looked down at the child buried in is embrace, his protective arms around her. He was suddenly aware of the fine locks of strawberry blonde hair in his hand, between his fingers.
He said, “It’s okay, Kathy. You’re going to ride with us,” and his voice almost broke at the sound of the child’s name. Kathy. He moved the revolver closer behind the child’s head and something welled from deep inside him – strong and fast. He felt it crash to the surface and he felt his heart breaking for the little girl, for her maligned situation, her pitiful position, her whole damn life. Jason felt his eyes and nose sting with the abrupt realization of it all. The complete bawling injustice levied upon this little innocent being screamed within every fiber of him.
This was undeserved.
The revolver shook in his hands.
End of Chapter Five