Late in the night, after another day of tests, which the doctor and the other instructors call “training,” Jack, Chris, Maya and Sabine relax in the lounge. Chris slumps in the couch throwing a small rubber ball straight up to the ceiling and then catching it with one hand. Jack is draped over another couch. Maya and Sabine sit on the floor next to each other.
“Maybe we’re going to be spies,” Maya says to everyone, rifling around in a game drawer under the coffee table.
“You think we’re in the CIA?” Chris asks, as if it couldn’t possibly be true.
“Why not?” she says hopefully. “I’ve heard they recruit secret agents from schools. Maybe even with IQ tests.”
“Not a chance.”
Maya fishes out a little box of ping-pong balls from the drawer and starts lobbing them at Chris’s rubber ball, trying to hit it out of the air.
“Cut it out,” Chris says, amused.
Maya giggles and lobs more balls.
Sabine giggles along with her. She ups the ante and finds throw pillows from the corners of each couch and starts lobbing those at Chris’s ball, mostly missing wildly, but getting close to it once or twice, and getting big laughs out of it, too.
“I’m getting ganged up on here!” Chris says.
Jack watches them play, feeling a little left out, especially when Maya begins crawling over Chris to try to grab the ball out of his hands. Everyone else is having a grand old time, but he’s not sure how to engage. He decides to ask Chris to toss him the ball, and it becomes a game of monkey in the middle, boys against girls. They don’t always catch the ball. Sometimes it bounces off walls and across the room, and everyone scampers around for it.
Sabine is enraptured, and starts making up impromptu rules for the game.
Outside, their silhouettes dance in front of a bright first-floor window, a flickering lamp on a dark night. A figure moves through the trees in a small clearing across the two-lane street in front of their townhouse, which is part of a row of military housing. The figure stands in the shadow of an oak tree just a few feet from the street, watching.
He can hear the occasional yelp and fit of laughter from the window. A car passes, drowning out the frivolous sounds for a moment.
He looks up to the second floor, and trains his focus on the inside. He closes his eyes, intensifying his inner gaze. He moves through the dark kitchen and the adjoining room. He moves out into the hall to the left, stretching to the limit of his range, as far into the structure as he can reach. He finds nothing.
He reaches back, searching each room in the building’s rear, and then explores to the right, pushing his boundary as far as he can.
He finds someone. A housekeeper. She’s just far enough away that a strong command is difficult to plant. But he can send a suggestion. He latches onto her, and feeds her a simple idea.
Come this way.
The idea takes hold, and she drops what she’s doing and walks down a hallway toward the room above the children. She enters with a key, goes to the kitchen, and turns on the lights. Standing there, she’s unaware of her master in the shadows.
Closer now, her mind is much easier to penetrate, and with a more complicated set of instructions.
Unscrew the line.
She reaches behind the stove and unscrews the gas connector hose.
He sends her to the cupboards to look for an aerosol can. She finds several. He directs her to place them in a metal bowl. She looks for cooking oil, and finds a bottle in a cupboard next to the refrigerator.
Standing against the tree now, he slowly tilts his head as she mirrors the gesture, slowly tilting the cooking oil bottle, pouring oil into the bowl, all over the aerosol cans.
He gives her the idea to take the microwave oven down from the kitchen counter and place it on the floor in front of the stove. Then he has her place the bowl of oil and aerosol cans into the microwave, close the door, and set the timer.
Finding a match is next. Once it’s in her hand, she stands and waits in the kitchen for further instructions.
He turns his attention to the children playing on the floor below. Moving through the space with his mind, he counts four of them, two teenage boys and one girl, as well as one very young girl.
He reaches into the minds of the bobbing and darting youngsters, his eyes open. He’s surprised by what he finds, and it confirms his misgivings. He could destroy them now with a single thought. But such an overt act would raise suspicion, alerting not only the agency, but his former mentor as well. His vision would be in jeopardy.
He closes his eyes again and feels two of the teenagers tugging against an object. Another is trying to break them up. The very young girl is attempting to climb onto the shoulders of one of the older ones.
He nods to the housekeeper, delivering the final command.
The microwave timer counts down from three, two, one.
She holds the match above the striking strip, and then brings it down.
He steps back from the tree.
A plume of smoke and white light erupts from the second floor window with a sharp, penetrating clap, sending glass, brick, and chucks of drywall into the air and onto the street. Some debris lands in the grass around him.
Inside, dust falls from above. The ceiling buckles and pops down a few inches on the left side.
“What was that?” Chris says.
“Is anybody hurt?”
The ceiling belches a loud, low creak as smoke begins to fills the room.
“We should get under a doorway. Could be an earthquake,” Chris offers.
He guides Maya to the doorway between the lounge and a small closet. Jack finds Sabine curled up behind one of the couches. “I’ve got her!” He picks her up. They all huddle under the doorway.
Sparks pop from the ceiling light fixtures.
“What’s going on?” Maya cries.
Then the weight of the world crashes down around them. A portion of the ceiling of the main room collapses into the center of the room. Heavy beams and appliances fall from above with terrific thuds.
In what remains of the main lounge, part of the ceiling falls on top of the couch where Sabine hid just seconds ago.
The four shield their heads. Jack hugs Sabine tightly as the sky falls around them.
An alarm sounds. Water showers from an adjoining ceiling.
Across the street, Kasym watches the smoke clear. Cars break in front, swerving to avoid debris.
He closes his eyes and mentally moves through the wreckage. In the first room, he sees the second floor kitchen appliances, the ceiling, the crushed television, and the dust in the air.
He scans the room for survivors. If any remain, he’ll have to destroy them in his customary manner. The explosion will provide cover, and misdirect.
And no one will stem his vision.
He moves his mind’s eye around the perimeter of the lounge, scanning every wall and every passageway, inching toward the closet doorway. He finds crumbled plaster, brick, and dust.
Sabine’s head pushes out of Jack’s tight embrace. She perks up with a faraway look on her face. The four kids crouch still, scrunched together in their extemporaneous cave.
“What is it, Sabine?” Jack asks
She puts her finger to her lips. “Shh. Everybody quiet.”
“Why? What’s going on?“
“Shh!” she commands forcefully. “Don’t say a word until I say, or we will all die.” Her eyes are transfixed and unblinking.
The others exchange looks, reaching a silent consensus to trust Sabine’s strong command.
Kasym’s mind creeps across the wall, into the closet, where he finds a compact mass. Is it human or debris? He determines it’s human under debris. He detects no mental activity. No living presence. No minds he can enter.
Confident his strike was a thorough success, he opens his eyes and takes a deep breath. He leans against the tree for a moment as the pain overtakes his temples.
The sound of approaching sirens and horns grows in the distance.
He steps back from the tree, rubs perspiration from his face with both hands over his head and down his long hair. He disappears into the darkness.