It was a dark and stormy night.
At least, it had been. The moon finally shone upon Philadelphia, breaking through the wispy gray ghosts that crossed overhead, casting its signature against the black waters of the Delaware. Water in storm drains flowed along the glistening city streets, but the tempest itself had moved on, and bright flashes of violent light still ignited the starless horizon. The unexpected weather had been severe, and under normal circumstances any sane man would have sought shelter from its savagery.
But this was war.
The fury that had filled the skies had failed, at first, to stop the action.
The combatants endured the winds and blinding rain, sustaining the conflict, and only the increasing proximity and magnitude of lightning had brought the battle to a momentary halt. Claps of thunder, given birth by strikes too near for even a moment’s delay, rang sharply within scarred helmets as the men finally ran for cover.
More than half an hour had passed before calm descended. Now, with the storm’s cessation, armored warriors once again advanced into enemy territory, driving onward against all odds, all obstacles, all adversaries. They would not quit, would not retreat, would not surrender. It was no mere war. It was the National Football League.
The seventh game of the season was drawing to a close, its fourth quarter half gone. The Philadelphia Eagles had not fared well, drawing the vocal disapproval of the home-field crowd. The men in green had fallen two scores behind the archrival Washington Redskins, and the clock had become an enemy now, threatening to cut short their march to victory.
Almost a hundred thousand damp yet passionate spectators looked on from the safety of their much-coveted seats. Most had sought shelter during the downpour, finding it in the stadium’s club lounges and enclosed concourses. Fortunately, their retreat had been brief and, with the on-field action renewed, was all but forgotten.
It was not too late, not yet. All was not lost. Like the heavy scent of wet concrete, victory hung in the unmoving air, tantalizingly near. With time running out, the Eagles once again were driving, moving yard by hard-earned yard into scoring range.
Then came the big play. And like those around him, Randall Sullivan rose from his seat in Section A, Lower Bowl West, cheering the deep pass and resulting touchdown that revitalized players and spectators alike. His voice was strained and hoarse, yet still he shouted encouragements that were swallowed up into those of the thousands around him. The triumphant music of Sam Spence, barely heard above the roar, blared from the speakers.
“Sit down, Daddy,” Sullivan’s teenage daughter implored, her voice lost in the noise. She had not risen and looked up at him with scolding eyes, sweeping her chestnut hair aside. “Your throat is bad enough already.”
She tugged at his green windbreaker, and he took his seat sooner than the others. “What?” he asked, his words swept away. “What did you—?”
“I said you need to stop shouting,” she said more loudly. “Your throat is going to be in bad shape tomorrow as it is. You know you’re just getting over a cold.”
“I raised a party pooper,” he smiled. “Eat your pretzel, Janessa.”
As the crowd quieted, she turned to the seat on her other side, to the friend who sat there. Dipping her soft pretzel in a small cup of mustard, she shook her head. “He won’t take care of himself.”
“I know,” Marlene said, the wisdom of seventeen years heavy in her voice. “My brothers are the same way. You constantly have to look after guys… They’re like children all their lives.”
“Aren’t they though?”
Janessa noted the small puddles that dotted the area, reflecting the glow of the floods above. The overhead lights, mounted within their shallow overhangs, eclipsed the dark sky beyond and lent a sense of daylight to the place.
“That was some storm, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Marlene agreed, “and now, it’s so still. Not even a little breeze. Kinda weird.”
The girl looked up and around, her eyes lingering on the field before scanning the rest of the stadium around her.
“Too bad we couldn’t get seats on the rail. But you know, these are good too.”
Janessa nodded. “I guess. Daddy got them from a guy at work who couldn’t go.”
“Thanks for inviting me. I’ve never been to a football game before.”
“Didn’t you go to homecoming last year?”
“Well,” she admitted, her face a picture of playful triumph, “technically I did. But I spent the whole time on a blanket, under the bleachers with Andy. Oh girl, he is one serious kisser.”
“So you’ve told me,” Janessa smiled. “Over and over and over.”
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t double-date with us on the Fourth of July,” Marlene went on, taking a bite of her own pretzel. “We had a great time, and his brother likes you.”
Janessa winced, almost imperceptibly. “Yeah, well…I know, but he isn’t my type.”
“I’m starting to think you don’t have a type. You’ve turned down every boy I’ve sent your way.”
“I just don’t think I’m ready to…”
The girl’s tone became more serious. “Janessa, come on. Kerry broke up with you over four months ago.”
“He didn’t break up with me,” she firmly corrected her. “He just needed some space.”
“I’m sorry,” Marlene said. “I didn’t mean anything. It’s just that I hate to see you so mopey all the time.”
“I’m not mopey.”
“Okay, okay. Forget I said anything.” She took a long sip from her lipstick-stained soda straw and heard the wet, hollow echo of a drink devoid of all but ice. “I could use another one of these,” she said, raining cold drops of condensation on her knees as she rattled the empty cup.
“Wanna go with me?”
“I’ll take care of it,” Sullivan cut in. “I need to make a trip to the men’s room, anyway. What do you girls want? Just soda?”
“Same as before,” his daughter smiled. “Two Cokes, please.”
“Two Cokes, it is.”
“No, wait,” she said, the words stopping him cold as he began to walk away. “Make mine a Frank’s black cherry. And could you maybe get some of those chocolate raisin thingies?” Her dark, lovely eyes went soft as she looked into her father’s, as they always did when she wanted something— as they always had since her fourth birthday, when she became convinced that “the look” had been responsible for the shiny new tricycle he had given her that day.
Sullivan chuckled. “Coming up. You two stay put.”
“Thank you, Daddy,” the girl said sweetly, watching as the man made his way along the row of seats.
“You’re so lucky,” Marlene said. “My father isn’t nearly that nice.”
“He’s wonderful. We can talk about anything.”
“Do you ever see your mom?”
“No. After she left, she didn’t want much to do with us.”
Marlene let the subject drop. They turned their attentions to the field and spent a few silent minutes watching the game, enjoying their pretzels and the ambiance. The Philadelphia kickoff was deep, carrying all the way into the end zone, and the crowd again stood as one as the ball was brought back into the field of play. Despite the protests of the fans, the return was a long one, finally ending at the Eagles’ thirty-two yard line.
“How do you know Andy’s brother likes me?” Janessa asked, trying not to show any real interest. “Did he say so, or…”
Her words trailed off as something in the black sky caught her attention, just above the stadium rim opposite, high and to the right. It glowed yellow, trailing fairy sparkles, a deep, brilliant gash cut into the darkness.
“Ooooh, look at that!” she pointed. As Marlene’s eyes found the object, puzzlement crossed her pretty face. Whatever the thing was, it was moving, and quickly.
“A shooting star!” she concluded. “How pretty! Or fireworks over the river.”
“I don’t think so. It’s coming closer…”
And then another one appeared.
In seconds a silvery blur trailing smoke and firelight arced downward, slamming into the southern end zone. The crack of its sonic boom was smothered by the impact, a blast that blew a thirty-yard-wide crater into the field and sent shrapnel of metal, concrete, and turf onto the players and into the stands. The concussion was still ringing as the second object struck midfield, its blow as severe as the first. A shock-twisted goalpost, thrown backward and into the end-zone seating, killed an unlucky few who had no chance of getting out of its way. Most of the players on the field, none of whom had seen the missiles coming, were killed instantly.
Some were gone altogether. Others fell hard to the ground, their helmets and armored bodies pierced by flying debris.
But there was more.
As the crowd began to panic and flood toward the exits, a dense, blue white fog rose rapidly from the twin craters. Like ethereal hands clutching for prey, it filled the still air and spread into the surrounding seats, touching those who could not escape quickly enough. Screams filled the stadium, drowning out the exultant music that still played over its public address system. Thousands were trampled and crushed as far too many tried all at once for the only avenues of flight, their survival instincts overriding all else.
Janessa and Marlene crouched low as others rushed over and around them. Marlene took a knee hard in the shoulder as one man climbed past, and another man’s boot caught Janessa in the temple. Too frightened to feel pain, the girl lifted her head and peered over the top of the seat in front of her.
Her view, though limited by the fleeing spectators, allowed glimpses of the part of their section nearer the field. A couple of dozen rows away, people were staggering and falling, their legs failing them as they were overtaken by the expanding cloud. To Janessa’s horror, she saw its victims convulse before going horribly still. Disfiguring blisters arose from their flesh and tore at them, rendering them inhuman in moments. Turning away, her focus now on the exits, she thought she smelled something oddly sweet.
“You’re bleeding,” Marlene said, indicating the smeared, twin streams coursing down the side of her friend’s face.
“Come on!” Janessa yelled, grabbing Marlene hard by the arm and leaping to her feet. “We have to get out of here! Now!”
Alone in the restroom, Sullivan rubbed his hands under the wall-mounted dryer, cursing the day the things had been invented.
“What’s wrong with paper towels?” he muttered, barely able to hear his own raspy voice above the din. “Not a thing, that’s what…”
There came a sudden, resounding thud from beyond the restroom walls, deep and alarming. Then another. The lights flickered for an instant. A shrill sound pierced the roar as a hairline crack traversed the wall mirror. Sullivan thought he felt the room shake.
Another sound filled his ears, one he could not immediately place—indistinct, higher in pitch, growing louder.
“What in the world…?”
Wiping his still-damp hands on his jeans, he rushed back out onto the concourse, only to find it flooded with the echoing screams of thousands. Before he could take more than a few steps toward his section, a deep and strengthening rumble rose up through the soles of his feet.
A rushing sea of terrorized people bore down on him, faces masked with fear, eyes wide, throats filled with deafening cries.
He dove behind a pillar as the flood surged past. Small children, their tearful faces as twisted in alarm as those of their parents, were carried or dragged like rag dolls.
“What happened?” he yelled, but he was not heard. “What happened out there?!”
Near him, away from the sanctuary of any solid obstacle, an older gentleman lost his footing and was shoved to the cold, hard floor. The stampede found his body and moved over and beyond him, crushing his glasses, breaking bone, and bruising muscle. Sullivan crouched low and tried to pull the man to safety, but the impenetrable crowd knocked him back. The thunder of desperate footfalls roared in his ears, pressing in on him, thickening the air, making it hard to breathe.
Others fell. Some managed to crawl behind pillars or to roll against the walls. Most did not.
Again, the bewildered Sullivan shouted, his hoarse words drawn under and lost in the terrified flow.
His mind flashed on a precious face.
Knowing he risked his life, Sullivan moved from behind the pillar and struggled against the current. He had to reach his daughter. Panic-driven fists, elbows, and knees found his body, smashing him, bruising him, lacerating him. One savage blow caught his brow, and within seconds blood curtained his left eye. Caught and contorted, he fell to the hard, polished floor, and others trampled him. A rib gave way—he heard the crack. With clublike force, a knee found his lower back, fracturing a vertebra, hurling knives of pain through his body. Finally, in agony, he managed to reach his feet and battle forward, gaining but a few yards, perhaps half a dozen.
But no more.
The terrified, mindless mass swept him along, carrying him away from her.