It had been another great show, John Shepherd thought to himself. He carefully moved the joystick on his control panel, slowly swiveling the camera mounted on the nose of his helicopter, panning it across the cheering crowds below.
Many of the onlookers were still cheering. Most were packing up their lawnchairs and blankets after a long day of watching the annual air show and fireworks display that kicked off the start of horse racing season in Louisville, KY.
Men, women and children, families and couples, friends and strangers all celebrated along the banks of the Ohio River--an all day long celebration that was one of the largest of its kind in the nation.
John Shepherd wondered what it would be like to see the huge fireworks show from the ground. For the past eight years he'd watched it from the air, working as the cameraman in a news helicopter.
High above the crowds, he'd recorded year after year of celebrations--then celebrated himself when he got his overtime check. It was hard work flying all day long in a helicopter, every day for two weeks, covering first the fireworks, then the parades, the steamboat races, and finally, the great race itself.
That was odd.
Shepherd adjusted the controls for the camera mounted on the nose of the helicopter. He'd been pulling back, getting a wider-angled view of the crowds as they slowly dispersed. He did this every year, showing the slow build of traffic as tens of thousands of people tried to make their way home.
Normally, the tired revelers shuffled slowly to their cars, some carrying coolers, some children. It was a slow exodus, everyone knowing it was futile to rush as the roads would be clogged for hours.
But this year, something was different. The crowds were running.
The fleeing crowds were in full blown panic now. Many tripping and falling--falling in the stampede of confused humanity. Shepherd imagined he could hear the screams that went with this. He had to imagine, as in a noisy helicopter, with protective headphones on, he couldn't even hear himself talk.
John pulled the camera back quickly now, looking up from his screen and out the Plexiglas door beside him. Was there a fire? Gunshots?
All he saw was a cloud of smoke drifting in from the river--the after effects of all those fireworks. This year the smoke was spreading out on both sides of the river. This year-
The smoke was brown?
Shepherd looked back to his control panel. He'd never seen brown smoke before. The smoke was always a dirty gray. And it was never this thick.
Shepherd zoomed in on the ground, just ahead of the expanding smoke cloud. The camera under his control was impressive--the best money could buy. Shepherd could read a paperback with it at a thousand feet. The news channels wanted details when they paid the high price of jetfuel to send a helicopter up.
His jaw dropped when he saw the cloud sweep over a man who had fallen to the ground. The camera clearly showed the panic in the man's face. Hell, Shepherd could make out the name of the team on the man's faded ball cap: the Wildcats.
But despite the clarity his advanced camera gave him, John Shepherd couldn't believe what he was seeing. The fallen Wildcat fan below was turning to clay.
Like the brown cloud increasing in density as it swept over the man, the fallen reveler's skin was turning brown. And his eyes. And his teeth. Even his clothes turned a dirty, clay-brown, dry and cracked. Then he was enveloped in the cloud and lost from sight.
The helicopter lurched suddenly and Shepherd's hand sent the control stick far to the right, swinging the camera around and away from shore.
Shepherd looked up and started reaching for the switch to communicate with his pilot up front. That's when he noticed the dirty brown haze in the cabin of the helicopter.
Terror filled the cameraman as he recognized the smoke from below. He glanced at his hand and shuddered. It was turning brown.
Kenji Nakayama watched the running lights of the helicopter as it spun out of control and plummeted down toward the stampeding crowd. In the thick brown haze of smoke spreading out from the river, the lights were faint, nearly masked out. Then a brilliant ball of orange flashed as the helicopter struck something on the ground and exploded.
The screams and running feet were dying out now. Kenji looked over at the woman laying broken on the pavement near his van. She had turned to brown, clay-like stone as she ran. Then she had toppled over and shattered against the hard pavement.
"Go!" Josie Winters said, tapping Kenji on the shoulder.
He nodded and opened the doors at the rear of the big panel van. He grimaced as the brown smoke swept into the van, passing over him. But his luck held and the biological contamination suit he was wearing protected him.
Kenji could hear his breath, echoing inside the plastic helmet. It fogged the faceplate of the helmet a little. He realized he was almost hyperventilating.
"What the hell is this stuff?" Jimmy Kane asked. Like Kenji, he was wearing a full protection suit and helmet, hands and feet protected by gloves. Even the air they breathed was cycled through a backpack unit and pumped fresh into their helmets.
Jimmy, Kenji and Josie had all been waiting quietly in the plain panel van parked on the lot of a riverside restaurant. They had been there all day, enduring long, long hours of waiting, remaining hidden.
"This isn't petrification," Dr. Laura Olson said, crouched by the remains of the shattered woman nearby. She was the last member of the little team that had been stationed at the parking lot.
Dr. Olson picked at the broken pieces of the victim with tweezers, stuffing samples into a Ziploc bag.
"What about her clothes?" Josie Winters asked.
The chill the young girl felt up her back was very strange to Josie. She normally didn't feel heat or cold. But this, this was enough to make the hairs stand up on the back of her neck.
"Looks like it only affects natural fibers," Dr. Olson said, lifting up a polyester sleeve. Fragments of hardened clay-like material fell out, breaking apart on the pavement like dried clods of dirt.
"Report!" a man's voice called from out of the thick brown cloud.
Kenji looked over and saw the dense brown smoke stirring as something moved through it. Something that glowed a bright green.
Colonel Mark Kenslir was not wearing a protective suit. Kenji wondered if any would even fit him. Well over six feet tall, with broad shoulders and arms like a lumberjack he had short black hair cut in a military flattop. Piercing green-black eyes were set in what should have been a pleasant face--if only the Colonel wasn't always so serious and grim-looking. Even after all these months working together, the big soldier still scared Kenji.
When Kenslir stopped walking, the smoke around him seemed to fade away--as did the green glow coming from his exposed skin. His khaki pants and black jacket were unphased by the clay-colored smoke, just like the Colonel himself.
"I'm not sure what this is, Mark," Dr. Olson said, standing. Subconsciously, she reached up to brush at her long red hair. Instead, her gloved hand banged into her helmet and she blushed a little.
"Josie?" the Colonel asked, turning to his granddaughter--something he didn't look old enough to have.
Josie Winters, a twenty year old girl with a pretty face, jet black hair and the same green-black eyes as Kenslir nodded and concentrated on a patch of smoke nearby. The smoke moved, flowing downward to the pavement of the parking lot as it rapidly cooled. "I don't think there's any moisture, sir. Just smoke."
Kenslir reached up and tapped an earpiece he wore. "Team 2, anything?"
"Same thing over here," a voice responded. "Just like the Oracle predicted. I think we're looking at a casualty rate in excess of three hundred thousand, sir."
"We were too late!" Jimmy Kane said in frustration, clenching his gloved hands. Beneath the mop of straw-colored hair visible in his suit, his eyes went all black as he snarled in anger.
"No transforming!" Kenslir barked, startling the young man. "You rip that suit, you could be good as dead, Mister."
Jimmy's eyes resumed their normal sad, brown color and his shoulders relaxed. He took a deep breath and regained control of his temper and his body. "Thanks, boss."
"What about you?" Kenslir said, looking at Kenji. "You seen enough yet?"
The young Asian gulped. "What do I say?" Kenji asked. He felt like throwing up as he looked around at the hundreds of men, women and children dead around them, broken and shattered into dirty brown pieces.
"The fireworks, Nakayama," Kenslir said, frowning. "This happened the same time as the fireworks."
Kenji looked up into the sky, from where most of the smoke had fallen. "Yes, sir," he said. Then he closed his eyes and ended the vision.
Enjoy the Stone Soldiers series? Consider supporting it at Indiegogo, or by spreading the word!