The story so far:
Pete raised an eyebrow. “I can’t imagine ya’d wanna shoot me here in front of all them little buggers.” He reached down and pulled something out of his pocket. “Phone’s for you.”
I stared in confusion at the silver rectangle in his hand. A loud beep rang out, then a few more. "Please hold," a perky, pre-recorded voice sang. "You are being transferred…” The words were cut off as Robert tackled me from behind.
Son of a… I hit the cold tiles and jerked my elbow back, feeling only the slightest satisfaction when it connected. Robert wheezed and rolled off me, scrambling to reach the object on the linoleum ahead of us. Crap. My gun was no longer in my hands, jarred loose by the blow. I pulled myself up and lunged for him. Two things made me hesitate. First, the gun, which was a good two feet behind Robert. And second, Pete, who was running down the hall. I swooped down on the gun, aiming it at Robert as he rose, phone in hand.
“The tones – they’re hypnotic,” he warned. “I knew they were experimenting with this, but I didn’t know they’d perfected it.”
“What are you talking about? Seems more like a nice little distraction method to me!” I seethed. His betrayal stung. I repaid it with a right hook to the jaw. He went down hard, and I darted down the hall after Pete.
I rounded the corner and ran right into the burly man. The old janitor persona was gone, replaced by a seasoned, well-trained agent. The force of the collision stunned me long enough for him to catch my arms, spin me around, and trap my body against his. A quick pinch caused my grip on the gun to be replaced by a sharp, shooting pain. I kicked at him in vain, trying to find a target, finally connecting with a solid shin. His grip loosened only slightly. I aimed a little higher, and was rewarded with my foot trapped between his legs. In my struggle, I barely heard his hushed warning.
“Quiet, Maribel – you don’t want those creatures to hear you.”
“They’re children,” I snarled back.
“Don’t let looks fool you… Or fancy words from a long-lost husband. A human is more than a science experiment.” He glanced behind him, toward the closed doors of the cafeteria, and looked at me again. “These beings might be exact duplications of children who perished at one time or another. However, they lack one key ingredient – the soul.”
“Going religious on me now?” My voice dripped with sarcasm.
“This has nothing to do with religion. They don’t have the moral compass the rest of us come by naturally. They’re able to hold on to the personality of the child for a couple years, but over time begin to break down to raw animal instinct. We’ve had at least three killings tied to these replicants, and the bureau would rather just nip this in the bud. We’re not dealing with real people here, just some offspring of science that has given parents false hopes and squashed dreams.”
“So you plan on killing them all?”
“Not initially – We have a facility and a team of scientists ready to find an alternative option for these creatures. There may still be hope for them. Your husband was brilliant enough to create the process that brought these beings into existence – once we realized he was still alive, we begged him to join our team to help find a cure. But he’s in the Society’s back pocket, and they have him convinced that we are the enemy.”
A shudder from the cafeteria doors caught both our attention, and I used the distraction to force my arm back, into his solar plexus. With a twist and a jerk, my foot was loose, free to deliver a fierce stomp to his instep. His gasps of pain increased as I delivered a quick kick to his groin, finally freeing my arms. I reached for the gun, only to feel his hand on my back.
“Stop!” He grunted. “You don’t understand – there are at least two replicants in that room who have turned.”
Another shudder, followed by a wail.
“Damn it!” Pete pulled himself up and hobbled toward the doors. I grabbed the gun and followed, desperation flowing through my veins at the thought of my children in danger. Ahead, Pete was ducking into the door of the cafeteria. I ran to the entrance and stopped, heart in my throat. Hundreds of children sat on the floor, filling the room. Most were busy eating from brown paper bags in their laps, but some glanced my way. I carefully slipped the gun into my pocket as I scanned the room for a figure over four feet tall. But the room was void of any adult presence. How had Pete vanished so quickly? And where was the ruckus that had drawn our attention no less than a minute ago?
I gave a start as Jake and Amy suddenly appeared before my eyes. “Ms. B?” Jake whispered cautiously, “I don’t think my cousin’s feeling too good.”
I pulled the two children back into the hall, looking for signs that they might have turned into the monsters Pete had warned me about. “Jake, do you remember where we go in a fire drill?” He nodded solemnly. “Good. Take Amy, and I’ll meet you there in a few minutes. And try to stay out of sight. There are some very bad people here.”
Jake looked down at his scuffed shoe. “I know. I heard Mr. Pete talking to my dad…” He glanced nervously around again. “He said we were dangerous, and that your husband made us that way, and that you were here to take us away, and that he’d have to kill you. But that’s not right, is it? You don’t even have a husband, and I’m not dangerous, am I?” His eyes begged me for assurance.
My heart went out to the boy. “Jake, there is nothing dangerous about you, and I’m only here to help. Now run, and stay away from Mr. Pete!” I peeked into the cafeteria, then back again, and gasped. Robert was running toward the door after the kids.
“Msssssss Beeeeeeeeeeee-eeeeeeeeee…” I whirled at the voice. Lucy was right beside me, the grin on her face not matching the look in her eye. I fought another shiver. I hadn’t heard her approach. She grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the cafeteria door. “You’re not going to leave us all alone, are you?”
Her strength was more than I’d expected, and before I could react, I was in the cafeteria. The scene that greeted me matched the commotion I’d heard with Pete. The bags were gone. Tears streaked many faces, blood streaked others. All stared in our direction.
“Where’s my mom and dad?” shouted a little boy from a couple rows back. This seemed to break the spell – voices called out for mothers and fathers and the desire to go home.
Lucy’s grip tightened, but when I looked her way, Pete stood beside me. I jerked my hand away, fumbling for the gun. To my horror, I found my pocket empty. I whirled around, looking for any sign of Lucy. But she was gone. Pete grabbed me again. “Don’t get these creatures all worked up!”
“What the hell is going on?” I asked quietly, trying not to move the plastic smile on my lips. “Lucy was right here, and now she’s disappeared with my gun.”
“Hallucinations. An unfortunate side effect from the tones on the phone.” He winced, looking around. “I’m sorry, but we didn’t know how much you knew of your husband’s work. The tones put you into an altered mental state which allowed us to reason with you a little easier.”
“And caused me to think a little girl vanished with my gun?” I asked incredulously.
“No, the hallucinations should have been very minor – affecting only perception of movement for the most part.”
“Okay,” I took a breath, listening to the cacophony around us. “So when I looked in here and saw all these kids eating lunch peacefully a couple minutes ago, that was just a hallucination?”
“Ah, I, uh…” His confident explanation faltered. “Yes, it must have been. This has been the way they’ve acted since I got in here. I’ve just been waiting…”
“Waiting to kill us!” The shrill voice was followed by a gunshot and more frightened screams. I looked from the growing red bloom on Pete’s shirt back to the voice that held the gun.
“Jake!” I breathed as he turned the gun in my direction. “Jake, put the gun down.”
A hard look set the boy’s mouth. “Mr. Robert said he was going to kill us.”
“Jake, listen to me,” I spoke gently, drawing all the confidence I could. “I don’t know what is happening with Mr. Pete, or Mr. Robert. But I do know me, and I know that I am here to help you, no matter what. And I know you. I know that you don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Why not?” Jake challenged. “He wanted to hurt me.”
“He did not!” Another voice shouted. “He was taking us to our parents!”
“Yeah,” hollered another, “I want my mom and dad!”
One angry cry piled over another and the crowd surged forward. Jake ran toward me, anger melting into fear. I grabbed his hand and we hurried back out the door. All too soon the hall was filled with the pounding of little feet. Adrenaline surged, and I half dragged Jake toward the exit. Ten feet from the door, the rumbling began. Bile rose in my throat as a spot in the sky grew larger. Then separated into two. “They have been known to use biplanes..."
I spun Jake out the door and around the corner just as the first plane hit. A shock-wave drove us to our knees, but I scrambled up and pulled him along. The air was thick with grime, coating our throats and making it impossible to see. But I kept pushing ahead. Just get to the trees, get to the trees, get to the trees!
The dwindling screams behind us were silenced completely by the second blast. Again, we fell. Again, I pulled us upward and onward. I had failed the children, but if I could just save this one… Tall silhouettes appeared through the dust ahead. We were close. A figure stepped out from the shadows. “You can stop running now, Ms. B.”
“Lucy!” The girl seemed oblivious to the disaster around us. Another form stepped behind her.
“Hello, Ms. B. I’m Dr. David Johnson. Lucy’s told me so much about you; I’m pleased to finally make your acquaintance.”
The gears were turning but I wasn’t making the connection. Judging from the snowy hair, darkened only by the debris around us, this man looked to be in his 60’s. I looked from his face to Lucy’s and back once more. “You’re…”
“Lucy’s father. And your husband’s employer. Small world, eh?”
“You work for the Society, too?” The surreal atmosphere was getting to me.
“Relatively speaking. Your husband is an impressive man. In fact, Lucy is one of Robert’s first replicants. When I heard of his success with your own daughter, I knew we finally had a chance to see our sweet Lucy again. It took years, but I finally convinced him to work his miracle on the remains of our precious daughter. And the moment I held her in my arms, heard her delighted squeal after over two decades without her, I knew that what we had here was earth-shattering. We would be able to heal the wounds of thousands of hurting parents! Give them their heart’s desire and more, for our new children would never be effected by diseases, like the one that had robbed me of my Lucy.
“But there have been a few speed bumps along the road. The government picked up on one minor issue and has blown it out of proportion. This last batch of replicants…” He looked over my shoulder at the smoldering remains of the school, and shook his head. Ice filled my veins at his indifference. “A year’s work, wasted. And all those parents, waiting desperately for their children… Well, we’ve decided to move our operation underground, so to speak. We will have our own community, and you’re going to come with us, to teach our children. We will be setting you and your husband up with new names and comfortable living arrangements.” He nodded in Jake’s direction. “You may even be inclined to take a couple children as your own. Your husband is going to keep perfecting his work, so we don’t have anymore issues arising.”
“Do I have any choice in the matter?” I asked.
“You always have a choice,” Lucy responded sweetly. “I just can’t imagine you choosing to go against us.” The gun she pulled out of her pocket negated her smile.
“If she’s as bright of a teacher as you say she is, we shouldn’t have a problem.” He winked at his daughter, then looked back at me. “You should know, Robert has not given up on enhancing the replication process to work on previously replicated genetic material. He’s still trying to find a way to bring back Danya.”
The name hit me with a tidal wave of memories. Perhaps I was still in an altered mental state, but I felt a strong desire to accept. Granted, their methods of persuasion were questionable, to say the least. But the offer... The thought of starting over one last time, this time with a family by my side, filled an ache inside that had grown with the disenchantment of my position with the FBI. I could understand the concept behind the Society’s operation, and I knew that if I had any chance of getting Danya back, I would give everything I had to make it happen. Robert would have to augment the replication process, but I could teach the children right and wrong. This had to the lesser of two evils. “Can I choose my name?”
Dr. Johnson reached out and clasped my shoulder. “Certainly! Welcome aboard. Now, hurry, there’s no time to waste.” He turned and headed deeper into the forest. The children and I followed until we reached a small clearing. A helicopter sat in the center, blades starting as we approached. Dr. Johnson extended a hand to help us inside. Entering the bird, my eyes settled on Robert, with Amy resting on his lap. His eyes lit up as they met mine.
“Oh, thank God, Maribel! You’re safe!”
A lump filled my throat as the long dead dream of a life with him was resurrected. I prayed I would not regret this choice. “Call me Rachel.”