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Twelve years ago . . .
The team converged on the target in silence as the last minutes of night hung over the bay. John Regent turned his eyes to the glow of dawn at the horizon. He glanced at the clock in his heads-up display. Right on schedule.
He turned off his night vision. They’d arrived under cover of darkness. They’d extract the target in daylight. He checked the map on the touchscreen in his hand. Straight ahead.
“Tower, this is Nomad. We’re in position.”
“Roger, Nomad.” It was a woman’s voice. A technician. “Proceed to target.”
SOCOM had outfitted them each with a special sensor: a small black node on the side of their helmet. The individual relays connected wirelessly to the handheld display, which interpreted the data and triangulated a position. As long as they were within half a mile of their objective, they would at least get a bearing.
During the mission briefing, Regent had asked how the device worked. “With electromagnets” was the curt reply. When he asked who gave it to them, all he got was “Any other questions?”
John knew the army didn’t buy anything that wasn’t mass produced, deployable. But as he’d turned the device over in his hands, he could tell it was custom. And it didn’t look military. The interface made complete sense, for one.
But then everything about the operation was strange, right down to their choice of command. John was only first lieutenant, and his last mission hadn’t gone well. He was eager, looking to redeem himself. So he dropped the subject.
He’d assembled a five-man team: his old friend Danny at second lieutenant; Sergeant Cruz, the lone woman; Wilson, a fellow Special Forces instructor; and Derks, the big Dutchman, in case shit got bad.
They moved through the slums that stretched along the steep foothills southeast of Kuala Lumpur. It was an irregular mix of squat, concrete apartment blocks, single-room shops, and tarp-roofed hovels. Half-paved roads and dirt walkways wound through it without order. Back toward the bay, the city’s famous twin towers shone in the distance. They were the bright fire around which the country’s wealth huddled. Here there was nothing but squalor.
John pulled the small binoculars from their brace on his chest. He pressed the button on top and switched to infrared. He looked. He looked again.
He lowered the binoculars and checked the bearing to target. He lifted the binoculars back.
A narrow brick house capped the end of the short alley across the street. Huddled in the far room was a group of small, warm bodies. Children. John scanned back and forth. There wasn’t one adult in the single-story structure. In fact, there wasn’t anyone else at all.
It didn’t make sense. They’d been told the target was dangerous. There was even some kind of custom-built transport waiting for them at the airport. John looked at Danny in the gray dawn light. Danny looked back, curious, but stayed silent.
Regent motioned his team down. They took crouching positions as he shuffled forward and put his back to a short block wall. “Tower, this is Nomad.” He didn’t know what to say. “We have a problem.”
“Nomad, this is Tower.” It was Colonel Sharpe’s voice, steady but impatient. “Sitrep.”
John looked again at the device. He lifted his head over the wall and looked again through his binoculars. “Tower, the target appears to be . . . a child.”
“Confirmed, Nomad. You are cleared to proceed.” There wasn’t even a pause.
Confirmed? John cursed in his head. They fucking knew. “Tower, please reconfirm target.”
“Nomad, target has been confirmed.” The colonel was obviously annoyed. “Proceed with the mission.”
John unplugged the jack from his radio and swiped his hand through the air over his ear. It was a sign to the others to do the same. They shuffled low in the dirt and gathered around John.
Danny shook his head. He kept his voice low. “Christ. Do they really want us to take a kid?”
“Shit.” Cruz looked down. “That’s messed up.” She was a stout woman, tall and muscular, with dark skin and steel eyes.
Wilson was confused. He seemed paler than usual in the aura of first light. “Gotta be a mistake. Why wouldn’t they tell us that in the briefing?”
“So that we wouldn’t refuse the mission,” Danny said quietly. “So that we wouldn’t even know until we were right on top of him.”
Derks, the big man, didn’t speak.
Cruz shook her head. She looked at John. “We’re not actually gonna do it, are we?”
Regent plugged the jack back into his radio. As soon as it clicked, he heard Tower’s frantic calls.
“—ad? Nomad? Do you copy?”
“Tower, this is Nomad. Mission is a no-go. We need to abort.”
“Negative, Nomad. Negative. Engage target. Do your fucking job, Lieutenant.”
“Tower, there must be a mistake. Order an abort.”
Colonel Sharpe took a breath loud enough that everyone could hear. “Nomad, are you refusing to obey a direct order from a superior officer?”
John felt his teeth grind involuntarily. They’d court-martial him in a week. Or worse. “Tower . . . you’re ordering us to kidnap a child.” John had been on a couple ops that had targeted foreign nationals. But they were legitimate threats. Terrorists. Mercenaries. Adults.
“That’s not an answer, Nomad.”
John exhaled through his nose. You heard stories every now and then of guys refusing to carry out a mission, but no one he ever knew. You don’t get very far if you can’t follow orders, even the tough ones. Especially the tough ones. But then, nobody had ever been asked to take a kid.
Fuck it. “Yes, sir. I am.”
“Jesus fucking Christ,” the colonel cursed. “Lieutenant, relieve Nomad of command.”
John looked at Danny. Danny chewed his gum and looked back. He was thinking. He touched his transmitter and rocked it back and forth. Everyone heard static on the line.
“Tower, did not copy. Can you repeat that order?”
Something hard hit a wall in frustration. There were muffled voices and the shuffling of a microphone. John raised his fist and was about to signal a return to port when a different voice came over the radio.
“Nomad . . . This is Tower. I wonder if we could have a moment.”
It was a man’s voice, older, steady, patient. John looked at Danny. He shrugged.
“My name’s Burke. Call me Edmund.”
John rolled his eyes. Fake name. Agency man. Must be his op. “Go ahead, Tower.”
“I understand what you’re feeling. I do. I appreciate that men like you often have a highly cultivated moral aptitude.”
John sneered. Moral aptitude? Like it was some arbitrary measure, just another thing people could be good or bad at: a golf handicap or a standardized test score.
“It’s why I like working with the military. Keeps me honest.”
“Are you saying you don’t have a conscience, Ed?”
Danny laughed silently. Sergeant Cruz smiled at Regent. He’d get in trouble for that.
“I’m saying I like the men on my missions to be able to provide me with a variety of points of view I might not otherwise possess. We’re going to send you some images now. You’ll see them on your heads-up display. But I gotta warn you. It ain’t pretty.”
John watched as photographs appeared, one after the other, in the upper right hand corner of his visor. Bodies, most of them burned free of flesh in several places, bright red framed in black.
“This kid is responsible for the deaths of at least thirteen people, including both his parents and his little sister, age three.”
Another picture appeared. John saw the girl’s tiny body, dirty and silent. Her skin was charred in branched, winding grooves like the course of a wild river. All her hairs had shriveled to nubs. It looked like she’d been cooked in her nightgown, like she was an old doll caught in a rubbish fire. Her eye sockets were empty.
“Shit.” Derks flipped his visor up.
The man on the radio continued. “The Malaysians have been trying to kill the little bastard. Oh, they’ll tell you they want to arrest him, give him a home and all that, but you know how it goes in that part of the world. A street kid wanted for multiple homicides . . . he’d never make it before a judge. Not there.
“So here’s the deal. I’m not going to bore you with stories about how long it took to put this op together, to get funding, to get the locals on board. Even though we have the target in sight, you can refuse the mission. Come home. And you have my word, neither you nor your men will be punished for your decision.”
The corners of John’s eyes cringed. It was a lie and an underhanded warning. He looked at his team. Their welfare was his responsibility. They were stoic, but they didn’t make eye contact either.
“But consider this. Leaving him there in all that filth, it’s a death sentence. Sooner or later, they’re going to catch up with him. Or worse, someone else will. It’s a fair bet that if we know about him, other agencies do as well. Let me remind you that your mission parameters were very clear. Your country wants him alive. We intend for him to stay that way. I’m not sure anyone else will give him the same deal.
“So you tell me, son, given the size of the sharks circling him, what do you think is best for this little boy?”
Agent Burke was playing to John’s moral aptitude. He looked around at the slum. It smelled of dirt and animal feces. It was a helluva place to grow up. An even worse place to die.
“Nomad?” There was a pause. “Bring him in unharmed and I will personally write a letter of commendation for you and each member of your team.”
So much for moral aptitude. Now the agency was buying them. John swiped his hand through the air over his ear and his team unplugged their radios. He looked at their faces, one by one. He stopped at Danny.
The second lieutenant shrugged. “Follow your lead.”
Wilson, Derks, and Cruz nodded each in turn.
John clicked his radio back on. “Tower, keep your damned commendations. Proceeding to target.” He raised his fist and motioned his team forward.
Out of habit, everyone raised their weapons, although they all wondered why. Light was coming. Dawn was here.
Agent Burke came over the radio. “Nomad, remember your briefing. Target is highly dangerous. Proceed with maximum caution.”
Regent heard a scuffle. He turned and saw the hind end of a barefoot kid disappear around a corner.
They’d broken silence. They’d been made.
John ran forward and burst through the door of the hovel, but the children had already scattered through a dug-out hole at the back.
“Shit!” He took out the device and got a new bearing. The target was still close but on the move. Regent raised his hand and ordered the team forward.
Their target was a child, not likely to think tactically, let alone in three dimensions. John needed eyes up top. Cruz was the lightest on her feet. He pointed to her and tossed her the device. He motioned for her to climb the rooftops and follow the base of the hill in front of them. The others would move in an arc and drive the target to her. Cruz nodded and took off. Everyone else ran through the narrow streets. John swung wide to keep the target from making a break for the city.
After several minutes sprinting with a suit full of gear, John was breathing hard. He heard Sergeant Cruz on the radio. “Target acquired. He’s a wiry little shit. Black hair, red shirt. Come hard right and you got him.”
The team converged. Derks, the big man, broke through a plaster wall in front of John in a puff of white powder. Danny and Wilson fired several shots in the air to keep the target scared and drive him—wherever he was—closer to Cruz, who was hiding on a roof nearby.
Locals poked their heads through windows and then disappeared. There was shouting and a few screams as the rifle shots cracked the still morning air.
John ran full speed down a narrow road irregularly covered in dirt and worn asphalt. He saw Cruz leap down from the roof of a small shop and disappear around a corner.
She came over the radio. “Got him!”
John passed a row of short palms as he approached. The others were closer and had beaten him there. They made a circle around their colleague. She held the target down with one hand. It was a scrawny kid.
Before Cruz could pull him up, the boy bit her hand.
“Ow!” She let go by reflex. The kid hadn’t just pierced her skin. He had ripped into her, torn her flesh away like an animal. “Fuck.”
The boy jumped to his feet, red-toothed and angry, and made a break for the hill at the end of the road, but Cruz grabbed him again and pinned him down. He struggled against her as she pulled a zip-tie restraint from a small Velcro pack on her waist. He snarled.
Children emerged from alleys and corners. Derks, Wilson, and Danny took up a defensive posture around Sergeant Cruz and the target. They kept their rifles down but their hands close to their triggers. Everyone stared. There had to be at least a dozen kids in dirty, castoff clothes.
John was about to open his mouth when the chanting started, a dozen tiny voices in unison.
“Ki-lat. Ki-lat. Ki-lat.”
“The hell?” Wilson turned in a circle.
Derks went down on one knee as if preparing for a firefight. “This can’t be good,” he mumbled.
“Ki-lat. Ki-lat.” The chanting continued as the children shuffled closer.
The boy tensed. His eyes rolled back into his head. John stepped in for a closer look. He opened his mouth to order Sergeant Cruz to step away, when
There was a shock. John felt himself knocked down as if pushed in the chest. Pain shot through his left arm. The muscles had locked. He grabbed it but immediately let go. It stung like a burn. He held his left fist to his chest and stood.
His entire team was on their backs. Danny and Derks and Wilson had been closer than John. They were grimacing, fighting to open their own muscles. Cruz was motionless in the middle of the road. Her body was contorted and frozen as if locked in yoga. Her eyes were blank.
John fought his own stiff muscles and walked over, but he already knew.
She was dead.
“Shit.” He lowered his head.
The tiny cult had scattered in all directions. The target was running away, heading toward a narrow road that switchbacked up the side of the steep, jungle-covered hill before them. John looked at the tracking device on the ground. Dead. Everything electronic had been fried: their radios, their phones, their night vision. If the boy made it to the forest at the top, they’d never find him.
Regent turned to Danny, sweating on all fours and struggling to stand. “Get them back to port.”
Danny nodded, panting.
John fought through the pain in his arm and stripped his gear in seconds, just as he’d practiced in training. The boy was running to a rock-paved hill path at the end of the road. John took after him, but the boy was fast. Regent scanned the hill. As it moved up the slope, the path cut back toward him at elevation. That would be his best shot for an ambush.
Regent broke left and climbed a cracked row of concrete steps toward a pair of four-story tenements that abutted the hill. The path ran directly behind. Laundry fluttered from balconies as residents watched the commotion on the street. John could smell food being prepared.
There was a gap between the twin blocks. The buildings were cheap. They’d been erected in prefab panels with a small ledge at the seams, every five feet or so.
John hopped a fence, leapt, and grabbed the first ledge. He pulled himself up, planted his feet firmly against the wall, and launched himself into the air. Then he turned his body in open space and grabbed the next highest ledge on the opposite side. He repeated the moves, again and again, leaping upward, back and forth between the structures.
By the fourth panel, his muscles burned. If he slipped, he’d fall and break his legs. At a minimum. And the target would get away. The boy who’d killed Cruz. One of his soldiers.
John leapt again. And again. Legs shaking. Fingers raw. He reached the top with a yell and a grimace. His arm hurt. His muscles were on fire. He climbed onto the roof, ran, and leapt. He dropped seven meters through the air and landed on the wide, rocky hill path with a grunt. He pressed himself into the foliage on the far side. It smelled like jasmine.
As the kid came around the corner, Regent hoped the little killer was out of juice. John dashed forward and grabbed the boy’s arm. It was lean and thinly muscled. He looked about twelve or thirteen, but he was so undernourished that it was hard to tell. He was gaunt and filthy.
The boy’s eyes went wide. He jabbed John in the ribs over his T-shirt. There was a zap. John’s side contorted and his hand let go involuntarily.
Okay, so maybe he’d recharged a little.
Regent put his hands on his knees and caught his breath as the target stumbled back and fell on his butt, then scrambled back down the hill. The big soldier panted and shook his head. His arm stung. His side was locked. His muscles were tired. He was gassed.
He grabbed a fist-sized rock, wound up, and threw. The athlete in him remembered. It was just like riding a bike.
The rock hit the kid squarely in the back of the head. At five meters away, an adult would have taken a bruise and kept moving, but the impoverished boy went down. He winced and grabbed his skull.
John hobbled over with his arm pressed to his chest. He’d never punched a child before. In this case, it was surprisingly easy.
The curved walls of the army air transport were girded. Straps dangled next to pull-down seats. A custom-built, cross-hatched cage was the only cargo. They kept it at the back by the door so it could be jettisoned in an emergency. Just in case. The bars were made of white composite weave, a cross between rubber and plastic.
Everyone sat forward near the cockpit, as far from the kid as possible. Everyone but John. He lowered a seat flap near the cargo and buckled himself in. His left arm was strapped to his chest by a green sling. In his right hand he held Sergeant Cruz’s dog tags.
It had been several hours since the capture and the kid was awake. He sat Indian-style in the middle of his cell and stared. “Where are they taking me?” It was a dry voice, young and lean.
“You speak English.”
John nodded. “I don’t know. Somewhere safe.”
“Safe from who?”
The plane was loud and it was hard to hear. After a moment, Regent stood and walked to the cage. He knelt. “Somewhere where other people will be safe from—” He stopped. “From what you can do.”
The boy’s brow knotted in anger. “Not my fault everyone weak.”
“Weak? Is that what you think? People are weak?”
“Father said God punish. Those who die deserve.” The boy still had flecks of dried blood on his lips.
“Deserve?” John stood up. He turned the tags over in his hand. He ran a finger over the letters. “Opal Antonina Espinoza de Vega. Called herself Cruz. How ‘bout that, huh? Got four names to pick and none of them were good enough. She was that way about a lot of things. Men in particular.”
The child said nothing. He sat with his legs crossed and stared at John like he was hungry.
John raised the tags. “What about her? Did she deserve?”
“She hurt me.”
“So she deserved to die?”
“No.” The child looked away. The sides of his eyes quivered. “To suffer.”
John didn’t acknowledge the comment. He studied the boy. There was fire behind his eyes. He clutched his only possession: a small plastic figurine of a swirling Asian dragon. Most of the color had worn off. The soldier nodded and walked back to his seat.
Regent put the tags in a pocket on his thigh, leaned back, and closed his eyes. No one spoke for the rest of the flight. John slept. The kid refused to eat. John slept some more. When the red light overhead clicked on, John opened his eyes and saw the boy curled in a ball on the mat at the bottom of the cage.
Danny approached. He looked from his friend to his foe. “We’re about to land. Everything okay back here?”
John nodded and rubbed his eyes.
The child lifted his head and stared at Danny.
The second lieutenant shook his head. “He looks dead inside.”
“He’s just a kid, man. He ain’t had no kinda life.”
Danny turned. “He killed Cruz. After ripping her open with his teeth.”
John didn’t respond. Danny shook his head and walked back to the front. The plane descended. The kid stared with blank eyes as the aircraft landed in shuddering bounces. John ignored him.
Regent adjusted his sling and squinted in the setting sun as the rear of the plane lowered to make a ramp. It had been warm in Malaysia; the brisker evening air of Okinawa made his skin tingle. John could see the ocean in the distance. Three vehicles were waiting for them on the tarmac. The first two made sense: the colonel’s Humvee and a black sedan. That would be the agency men. But the third . . .
John watched as an impeccably-dressed couple stepped from a silver Mercedes parked in front of a hangar. Dark hair. Mirrored sunglasses. Neither looked Japanese.
Danny walked up and John nodded at the luxury car. “What do you make of that?”
Danny squinted in the low sun. It made no sense. “Let’s find out.”
John nodded and Danny walked down the ramp. He saluted the colonel, who barely acknowledged his presence.
The couple spoke with Colonel Sharpe as a heavyset man with a gray beard stepped from the black sedan. Must be Burke, John thought. He joined the others near the base of the ramp. Papers were exchanged.
The boy sat in his cage. “Where are they taking me?”
John didn’t move his eyes from the couple. They were dressed professionally: dark suits, white shirts. Their sunglasses were unusually shaped. “That’s a good question.”
The woman walked up the ramp and past John without taking his extended hand. “The cage won’t be necessary.” She had a Spanish accent.
John stepped out of the way. “You sure about that?” It was a safe bet the kid had recharged. Or whatever.
“It was for your safety, not his.”
The woman opened the square cell and knelt in front of the child. They spoke in whispers.
Regent glanced back toward the cars. Danny walked past the Benz as if heading for the hangar behind it. He dropped to the ground.
John turned back. After several moments of hushed conversation in a language John didn’t recognize, the child nodded and took the woman’s hand.
“See?” The woman didn’t even look at John. She and her silent companion led the boy down the ramp.
The kid turned his head and looked. His eyes were cold.
Regent squinted at the couple. They weren’t afraid. Not even a little. As if they knew he wouldn’t hurt them. Or couldn’t. John fidgeted with the dog tags in his pocket.
Danny emerged from the hangar wiping his hands as if he’d been to the bathroom. He met John at the base of the ramp and the pair watched the retreating child in silence. Everyone seemed very happy that the mission was a success.
“Can you believe Cruz died for this shit?”
“That’s the job,” John breathed. That was the standard line anyway. Truth was, John didn’t know how else to make sense of it. “What’d you find?”
“Not much. Stack of these in the center dash.” He handed John a card. “Mean anything to you?”
John took it. Black with red print. Nothing on the back. He shook his head. “Nope. You?”
Danny shook his head. Both men watched the Mercedes pull away. John looked down at the symbol on the card. Three circles connected in the center by three lines.