. . . coming to you live from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, where we have just been informed that a Selfer incident has collapsed the memorial with an unknown number of tourists trapped inside. A SOC intervention team is inbound and we will continue with regular updates as the situation unfolds . . .
—Alex Brinn, SPY7 News—Washington, DC reporting on the Bloch Incident
They want me to kill a child, Lieutenant Oscar Britton thought.
The monitor showed a silent video fed from a high–school security camera. On it, a young boy stood in a school auditorium. A long–sleeved black T–shirt covered his skinny chest. Silver chains connected rings in his ears, nose, and lips. His hair was a spray of mousse and color.
He was wreathed in a bright ball of fire.
Billowing smoke clouded the camera feed, but Britton could see the boy stretch out a hand, flames jetting out past the camera’s range, engulfing fleeing students, who rolled away, beating at their hair and clothing. People were running, screaming.
Beside the boy stood a chubby girl, her dyed black hair matching her lipstick and eye makeup. She spread her arms.
The flames around the boy pulsed in time with her motions, forming two man–sized and –shaped peaks of flame. The fire elementals danced among the students, burning as they went. Britton watched as the elementals multiplied—four, then six. Wires sparked as the fire reached the stage. The girl’s magic touched them as well, the electricity forming dancing human shapes, elementals of sizzling energy. They lit among the students, fingertips crackling arcs of dazzling blue lightning.
Britton swallowed as his team shuffled uneasily behind him. He heard them make room for Lieutenant Morgan and his assaulters, who entered the briefing room and clustered around the monitor, still tightening straps on gun slings and slamming rounds into their magazines. They loaded armor–piercing, hollow–point, and incendiary ammunition. Not the standard ball or half charges normally used on a capture mission. Britton swallowed again. These were bullets for taking on a dug–in, professional enemy.
The video went to static, then looped for the fifth time as they waited for the briefing to start. The boy burst into flame yet again, the girl beside him conjuring the man–shaped fire elementals to scatter through the auditorium.
Fear formed a cold knot in Britton’s stomach. He pushed it away, conscious of the stares of his men. A leader who voiced fear instilled it in his subordinates.
The mission briefer finally took up his position beside the monitor. His blue eyes were gray flint under the fluorescent lights. “It’s South Burlington High School, about seven klicks from our position. We sent a Sorcerer to check out a tip on an unreported Latency, and these kids decided to tear the place up once they knew they were caught. The local police are already on the scene, and they’re going to refer to me as Captain Thorsson. I’ll need you to stick to call signs. Call me Harlequin at all times.
“The helos are undergoing final checks outside, and you should be on deck to assault the target in fifteen minutes from jump. South Burlington PD and a company out of the Eighty–sixth have evacuated the civilians. We should have it totally clear now, so the order’s come down to go in and bring order to the chaos.”
“Looks like Pyromancers, sir?” Britton asked.
Harlequin snorted and gave voice to Britton’s fears. “You honestly think a fifteen–year–old girl would have the control it takes to move even one elemental around like that, let alone half a dozen? Those flame–men are self–willed.”
“Just great!” Private First Class Dawes whispered loudly enough to be heard by the whole room. “A Probe! A fucking Elementalist! Jesus fucking Christ!”
Warrant Officer Cheatham turned to his man. “So, she’s a Probe! Prohibited school’s no more dangerous than a legal one to a real soldier!”
“It’s okay, Dan,” Britton said, gesturing to Cheatham. Dawes was the youngest member of their team and prone to the histrionics of youth.
Britton could feel the terror in the room. Morgan shifted uneasily, drawing glances from his team.
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Harlequin said, “but the law is clear. All Supernatural Operations Corps runs inside the United States must be integrated with regular army support. That’s not my call. That’s by presidential decree.
“But you are on perimeter, cordon, and fire–suppression duty. This is a SOC op, and you will let us handle the actual target.”
Target, Britton thought. So that’s what you call a fifteen–year–old girl and her boyfriend.
“What are you going to do, sir?” Britton asked.
“You gonna put a tornado down on ’em, sir?” Dawes asked.
The corner of Harlequin’s mouth lifted slightly. “Something like that.”
If anyone else had said it, the men would have laughed. But Harlequin was a commissioned Sorcerer in the Supernatural Operations Corps.
He meant every word.
“Sir,” Britton said, trying not to let his uncertainty show. “With my bird in the air and my boys on the ground, that’s not an acceptable risk. Copters and tornadoes don’t exactly mix.”
“Your concern for your team is noted,” Harlequin said, “but if you stick to your positions and do as you’re told, you won’t get hit by any stray magic.”
Supporting the SOC and taking on a Probe. Lieutenant Morgan’s voice finally broke, along with his nerve. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Britton felt the fear leap from the lieutenant to his troops. His own team was fracturing before his eyes, the terror eating into their professionalism. He knew he should be holding them together, but he had just seen kids burning to death in the halls of the very high school he used to attend. In a few minutes, he would be landing his team on the roof where he first kissed a girl, supporting a SOC unit turning its magical might against two teenagers.
The boy, they might take alive. Selfers were sometimes pardoned for past crimes if they took the oath and joined the SOC.
But the girl had no chance. She was a Probe, and only one thing happened to those who Manifested in Prohibited magical schools. They were gunned down or carted off, hooded and cuffed, never to be seen again.
“Sir, I just want to confirm that this is a capture mission, right?” Britton asked.
Harlequin shrugged. “Of course. Rules of engagement are clear: If they engage you, escalate to deadly force. Err on the side of protecting your people.”
“They’re scared kids, sir,” Britton continued. “Maybe they’d surrender? Have we gotten in touch with their parents to see if they can talk them down? I know it sounds silly, but . . .”
“It does sound silly, Lieutenant!” Harlequin cut him off. “And we don’t have time for hand–wringing right now. Those kids had a choice. They could have turned themselves in. They didn’t. They chose to go it on their own. Remember, you’re only a Selfer if you run.
“Now, any other questions?” Harlequin asked, glaring at the assembled teams.
There weren’t any.
“Good,” Harlequin said. “Get geared up and get your asses in the air. I’m jumping now. Morgan! You’re on the ground manning relief. Britton! You jump with me. Co–ords are already in the bird. I’ll meet you on target.”
He leaned in to Britton as he left. “Look, Lieutenant. The law may require me to take you along, but you keep your men out of my way and out of the fight. You’re not trained for this. And if I ever again catch you putting doubt in the minds of an assault force about to go hot, I will personally fry your ass.”
Harlequin threw open the door and leapt skyward, flying quickly out of view.
“Sir.” Dawes tugged Britton’s sleeve. “Can’t they get another team? I don’t wanna work with no Sorcerers.”
“They’re on our side, remember?” Britton forced a smile. Terror curdled in his gut. “SOC’s still army.”
Sergeant Goodman, carrying the support weapon for Britton’s team, snorted and nervously tapped the safety on her light machine gun.
“Sir, it’s a high school,” said Dawes, sounding high–school aged himself through his thick Arkansas accent.
“Selfers or not, they’re just kids,” Goodman added.
They’re reading my mind, Britton thought, but he asked “Why do we call them Selfers, Goodman?”
She hesitated. Britton took a step forward, glaring at her. She might have a point, but she had to believe in this mission if she was going to carry it out. They all had to. “Why?”
“Because they don’t think about how their magic puts others in danger,” she gave the textbook response. “Because they only think about themselves.”
“Absolutely right,” Britton said. “There are thirty–four American corpses buried in the rubble of the Lincoln Memorial because of kids like this! Who knows how many kids, hell, or even some of my former teachers, are down there right now? If you can’t do this, say so now. Once we go dynamic and hit that roof, I need everyone in the game. I give you my word; I won’t hold it against you. If you want out, now’s the time.”
He gave them a moment to respond. No one said a word.
Britton had to get his team moving. The more they stood around, the more the fear would take hold. “Okay, you heard the man, and you know the plan!” he called out. “Let’s show the SOC how the Green Mountain Boys get the job done! We’re going to be up to our assholes in elementals up there, so gear for it. Fire suppression for the pyro. There might be lightning elementals, too, so I want everyone to suit up in as much rubber insulation as the armorer will dispense. Move with a purpose, people!”
As his team hurried to comply, Britton looked back at the looping video and suppressed a shudder.
The world’s gone mad, Britton thought. Magic has changed everything.
Even if he wasn’t required to do the deed personally, he knew what Harlequin and his men intended.
Britton sat behind the helicopter’s controls and looked at the man floating in the sky.
Harlequin stood in midair, flight suit rippling in the breeze. Over a thousand feet below him, South Burlington High School glowed in the party colors of spinning police–car lights.
Behind Britton, four army assaulters looked down between their boots, dangling over the helicopter skids, shifting flame–retardant tanks and body armor out of the way for a better view.
Harlequin swooped down to land on one of the Kiowa’s skids, rocking the helicopter and forcing the assaulters to pull their feet back inside. The rotors beat the air over the Aeromancer’s head, stirring his close–cropped blond hair.
The assaulters looked nervously at Britton, and Warrant Officer Cheatham shifted in the copilot’s seat. Britton, at least twice Harlequin’s size, turned to face him. The Aeromancer was not impressed.
“All right,” he shouted loudly enough to be heard over the Kiowa’s engine, his blue eyes hard. “You’re to hold position here while we do our job.”
Britton’s brown skin concealed an angry flush. Harlequin might be a Sorcerer, but the assault order came down from on high for all of them. But the real rage came from the sense of relief. No matter how badly he didn’t want to do this, he still had to. Holding position would be tantamount to dereliction of duty.
“With all due respect, sir,” he called out over the whine of the rotors, “I have to follow the TOC’s orders. ’Big army’ has to run shotgun on this raid.”
“That’s crap,” Harlequin responded. “We’re not in the damned briefing room anymore, and I don’t care what Tactical Operations Command says. This is a real fight, with real magic. I don’t need regular pukes fucking it up. You will hold your position here until told otherwise. Is that perfectly clear?”
Britton sympathized with Harlequin’s desire to avoid unnecessary loss of life, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d flown onto Britton’s helicopter and insulted his team.
And it didn’t change the nagging feeling that if there was any chance at all those kids might be saved, Britton had to be there to make sure he saw it through.
“Negative, sir,” Britton said. “My orders are to accompany you to the target and deploy my team. That’s what I intend to do.”
“I’m giving you an order, Lieutenant,” Harlequin said through gritted teeth. He stretched an arm outside the helicopter. The brilliant stars winked out as shreds of cloud unraveled over the rotors, thudding against thickening air.
Britton’s stomach clenched as thunder rumbled, but did his best to look unimpressed. He toggled the cockpit radio. “TOC, this is support. Can someone put me through to Major Reynolds? I’m being ordered to . . .”
Harlequin conjured a gust of air that toggled the radio off. “Fucking forget it!”
Britton sighed and listened briefly to the radio static. “Sir, my orders come directly from the colonel, and last time I checked, he outranks you.”
Harlequin paused, his anger palpable. Britton gripped the controls tightly to keep his hands from shaking. He felt the tremble in the rudder pedals as the rotors spun up, slicing through the summoned clouds.
“We’re moving, sir,” Britton said. “Are you riding with us or with your own team?”
Harlequin cursed, dropped backward off the skid, righted himself, and flew off, outpacing the helicopter easily. The cloud cover around the Kiowa instantly wafted apart.
“Holy crap, sir,” Master Sergeant Young leaned in to shout over the Kiowa’s engine. “I’ve never seen anyone talk to a Sorcerer like that.”
“Seriously, sir,” Sergeant Goodman added. “The SOC don’t give a fuck if they get court–martialed. They’ll just zap you.”
“The army’s the army,” Britton said with a conviction he didn’t feel. “Latent or not, we all follow orders.”
“Thank you, sir. Seriously,” Cheatham said, “I wouldn’t want anyone talking to my people that way.”
Britton nodded, uncomfortable with the praise.
The Supernatural Operations Corps bird, another Kiowa, sleek and black, came into view as they descended. Its side was blazoned with the SOC arms—the Stars and Stripes fluttering behind the eye in the pyramid. Symbols of the four elements hovered in the corners representing legal magical schools: Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Aeromancy, and Terramancy. The red cross crowned the display, symbolizing Physiomancy, the most prized of the permitted schools. The banner beneath read: OUR GIFTS, FOR OUR NATION.
The high–school roof materialized below them, a pitted atoll of raised brick sides stretched with black tar paper. A single, brick–housed metal door led into the building.
Britton set the Kiowa hovering and nodded to Cheatham to take the controls. He turned to the assaulters.
“Okay. You all got the brief,” he shouted. “Two targets barricaded inside. Keep the perimeter secure and the fires under control. Remember, one Pyromancer and one Probe Elementalist.”
“They’re Selfers, sir,” Goodman said. “Why can’t we just bomb the building? Why’s it worth risking our lives?”
“Our orders are to take them down and bring them in for justice,” Britton replied. “If the rules of engagement change, and we have to kill them, then we will. Until then, we’re on a capture mission. Everybody square?”
It’s a damned lie, he thought. Those kids are dead. Harlequin has no intention of capturing anybody.
He made eye contact with each member of his team. None looked away.
Satisfied, he nodded. “Okay, double–check your gear and let’s do this.”
He barely had time to retake the Kiowa’s controls before the commlink crackled to life with Major Reynolds’s voice in the TOC trailer on the ground below. “Full element heads up! Support element, this is TOC. Go hot. I say again, go hot and prep for entry on target.”
“Acknowledged. Support element is hot,” Britton said into the commlink. “You heard the man!” he called to his team, “Weapons free and eyes on target!” He heard the click of safeties coming off on Dawes’s carbine and Goodman’s machine gun. Hertzog and Young hefted their flame suppressors. A quick glance confirmed the assaulters’ sighting down their barrels at the roof.
Oh God, he thought. I didn’t sign up to fight children. He tried to push his doubts away. The law was the law. You didn’t negotiate with unregulated magic users.
“SOC Element,” came Reynolds’s voice over the commlink. “This is TOC. Aero–1, sweep perimeter. Pyro–1, go hot.”
Harlequin dove from the SOC helicopter and rocketed around the school. A figure leaned out of the SOC Kiowa, pumping his fist. His arm erupted in bright orange fire.
Harlequin’s voice came over the commlink, “Aero–1 pass complete. All’s quiet. South Burlington police have the perimeter secure.” A pause, then, “Pyro–1 is hot and ready. SOC Assault–1 and –2 are good to go.”
“Roger that,” Reynolds said. “South Burlington SWAT has been kind enough to provide perimeter and entry from the ground. I’m patching them through now.”
A short crackle was followed by a thick New–England–accented voice. “This is Captain Rutledge with South Burlington PD tactical. Perimeter is secure. Students and faculty are clear, fires are out, and we’ve got the first two floors locked down. Your Selfers are above there somewhere. My men are withdrawn under sniper cover. You’re good to go when ready.”
“Roger that,” said Reynolds. “Okay, Aero–1. Your show. Call ’em out.”
Harlequin streaked over the roof and lit gracefully on the SOC helicopter’s skid. He reached inside and produced a microphone.
“This is Captain Thorsson of the US Army Supernatural Operations Corps,” his voice blared over a bullhorn mounted beneath the Kiowa. “You are accused of unlawful magic use in violation of the McGauer–Linden Act. You have thirty seconds to surrender yourselves. This is your first and only warning.”
The only sounds that followed were the roaring engines of the Kiowas.
“Christ,” Cheatham whispered. He had two high–school–aged girls of his own.
“We have to do this,” Britton said, his voice hollow in his own ears. “They’re walking bombs.”
Cheatham set his jaw, “They’re probably hiding down there, scared as hell.”
Dawes was scared as hell, too. Britton put his hand on Cheatham’s shoulder. “Dan. I need you focused.”
Cheatham didn’t look at Britton. “I’ll do my job, sir.”
“’You’re only a Selfer if you run,’ Dan,” Britton parroted Harlequin’s words. “They could have turned themselves in. They had a choice.”
Cheatham framed a reply, but was cut off by Reynolds’s voice blazing over the commlink. “All right! That’s it! Element! Go dynamic!”
“To arms, Pyro–1. Let’s smoke ’em out,” Harlequin’s voice crackled over the channel. “Spare the good Captain Rutledge’s men and light her up, stories three and higher.”
The Pyromancer stepped onto the helicopter’s skid, the bright fire extending to engulf his entire body. He raised his arms, and the flames curled in on themselves, shifting from red to orange to white. The air shimmered around them, then folded in on itself as the Pyromancer thrust his arms forward. The flames rocketed outward with a roar that competed with the helicopter engines.