A Hard Solution

She’s got a sick look on her face, the rookie, sick and awestruck, her first time up in a balloon. The low roar of the burner, the high whistle of the weak wind at this altitude. The reflected sunlight off the bright yellow envelope shines off her face like a buttercup, looking alien and weird. I know it must be happening to me, too.

“You understand why we do this, yeah?” I check again.
“Sure. I know it’s horrible, but it’s been explained to me, and there’s no other way.”

Good girl. She breaks eye contact – it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re still only human, and this shit preys on you – and looks down at the ground far below.

“We’re almost there.” I say. “What’s your read of the conditions?”
“It’s breezy, but we should be able to drift slowly at lower altitudes.”
“How low?”
“Hopefully not too low.”

Only a rookie would consider hope.

We drop a few hundred feet, on our approach to the target, and I take the binoculars. Look down at the villages and countryside underneath us, old farms and fields that haven’t been used in a dozen years. Tiny shapes moving, following us. As we get closer, as I adjust the glasses, they come into focus. I hand her the binoculars.

“See them?”
She can’t help a small gasp. Casts the glasses around, moving across the basket to get a broader view.
“They’re so small! And there are hundreds of them!”
Little children. This is normally when it really hits the rookies, what we’re about to do. The kids, at this distance, look so normal, some instinct deep down still pushing the older ones to dress themselves, if only in rags.

GPS tells me we’ve slowed down some, and we’re only a couple of miles from the castle. We’re lucky here in Britain, if you can call it that. A lot of countryside, a lot of tall, old ruins, still easily scalable. In the US, what we do isn’t as viable – there are plenty of tall buildings, but they’re too densely packed to allow visibility, and too hard for a kid to negotiate. And the children need to see the envelope from a way off, or the exercise is a waste of time.

Course, they also have more guns over in the US, so maybe it isn’t too much worse for them. But I don’t know if I’d have the stomach for what needs doing, up that close.

Apparently possession has been happening throughout human history, but most of the time it doesn’t work out right. Adults are pretty sterile ground for whatever it is that’s tried to take us over, and up until fifteen or sixteen years ago that meant that there were so few cases of full-term acquisition that most people didn’t even know it happened, or believe that it did if they didn’t see it for themselves.

Nobody knows exactly what changed back then, but it seems that the invaders – whoever they are – started thinking tactically. Instead of wasting their time and resources on abortive broad-spectrum attempts to take over everyone, they started focussing on the kids. Only the small ones – something happens to us at puberty that blocks them out – but now, pretty much every child, from birth to around the age of eleven or twelve, is lost to them.

They’re stronger than they should be. A healthy adult can still, if he’s vicious enough, physically overpower one of them, but most people don’t have it in them to be that hard. And they’re crafty – pretty much running on animalistic instinct, but capable of extreme acts of treachery. What’s inside them doesn’t have any sort of intelligence, as we recognise it. At least none that’s shown itself to us. But in most circumstances, one of them can do a lot more damage to one of us than we could have imagined ten years ago. And they seem to be able to sniff us out.

Some people are convinced that these kids have powers. That they can read minds, or spit fire and acid. Control you with a look. As if the malevolent cunning and strength aren’t enough.

I spot Middleton Castle, in the distance, but getting closer. I tap the rookie on the shoulder. She’s transfixed by the children following us. I point out the castle, and she nods.

“There are hundreds of them. I lost count at two-fifty. How did there get to be so many?” She asks. I shrug. It’s a question for another time. She’s young, and cage-raised, and hasn’t ever seen more than a half-dozen kids in any one place.

The adults had to run from the cities and towns and villages. In less than six months, all of the children, the ones that physically could, anyway, had turned on the grown-ups. They beat us up, they tore at us. There are reports, though scattered, that they feed on us.

They never mastered vehicles, though, so we ran. And now we hide in safe havens, and our numbers drop, and we only breed in terror. Our babies are born under armed guard. Our children are kept in secure isolation until they are old enough to shake off the intruder, and their parents aren’t allowed to go near the pens. Of course, we have to be careful, and… we lose some of them. The other children realise that they’re no longer possessed before we do, and turn on them.

We have no idea how this process works in the wild, or how their numbers seem to be increasing. Our scientists and our religious leaders and our politicians probably have their theories, but scouting missions don’t ever return with anything useful, and the rest of us try not to think about it.

We’re not even sure what value missions like the one the rookie and I are on right now have. We’re just fulfilling a need to do something. Something terrible, yes. Something vile. But the only proactive thing we can do are these culls. Whether they have any long term effect on the possessed population or not.

The envelope has to be yellow. Yellow or some other bright colour. See, something in them – either in the kids, or in the monsters inside them – is drawn to the brightness and contrast. And a hot-air balloon can move slowly enough that enough of the kids can keep up.

And then when we reach some high point, like a cliff, or like this old stone tower that we’ve just arrived at, a balloon can maintain a relatively static position.

“They’re… coming up the tower.” Says the rookie.

We like Middleton Castle, because it has these towers, and it still has usable stairs. The poor little bastards can climb pretty well, but it takes a lot longer that way. And the last thing you want to do on these missions is hang around. It plays too heavy on your soul.

The rookie watches in silence, as the children make their way up the castle. As we hang there, in the air, more and more of them arrive, clustering in a swarm around the base of the castle. It’s a cloudless day, and visibility is high, so we seem to have picked up a good harvest. They crowd out in a broad arc, in the direction we came from, only starting to thin out to stragglers a mile or so from us. In the other direction, odd locals who’ve spotted us since our arrival start to appear, coming toward the big yellow ball in the sky. Like kids used to flock toward balloons and the sound of the ice-cream van.

We both know what’s coming – the rookie’s briefing will have been thorough – but that doesn’t stop each of us holding our breath as the first child makes it to the highest parapet, and falters there, pulling themselves up onto the lip. We’re out of reach, but had to drop close enough that we can see her very clearly. A blonde girl in rags, only four or five. Her hair is thin, and whisps of it move in the breeze. And then she looks up at us, hands out, and we see her eyes. Dark, red, and angry. Thwarted and horrible.

She steps forward toward us, and is gone. Over the edge, down to hard stone below, and rolling, rag-doll, away down the slope at the bottom of the wall. I’m not sure when I started breathing again, but I hear the rookie gasp out her first when the body hits the ground, far enough away that we don’t hear it.

They are stronger than children, and then us, and they may have powers, but their hosts are still fragile, and as far as we can tell, mortal.

And then more children are at the ledge, and we can hear their screams of frustration, and anguish gives way to fear. It doesn’t matter how safe we are here, the basket still feels too low. More children start to go over, until it’s hard to even see them as anything more than a heaving mass any more. The bodies gather in drifts at the bottom of the slope, high enough that the possessed coming from that direction struggle to climb over them.

But eventually they do. Eventually all of the ones that we can see make it to the top, and go over the edge.

We haven’t spoken since that first blonde girl. It’s more than two hours from then to the last straggler going over. We stay in place for the whole time, following our orders to watch every one fall, and the official reason for that is due diligence, but everyone who ever completes one of these missions knows that it’s really a sort of memorial.

These are still our children, after all.

When the last has fallen, we head for open water and higher altitude, the only secure way to return to safe haven. The rookie has done well to maintain her composure, and I tell her so.

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Nicolas Papaconstantinou
Nicolas Papaconstantinou is an enthusiastic amateur creative type, and the chap behind Elephant Words. Be nice to him. He growed up kinda wrong.

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