“I’m starting to think this was a bad idea,” Aaron said, rubbing at his shoulder. His arm was still sore, but he now had painkillers that were doctor-approved and didn’t compromise his higher brain functions.
“Well, it’s your plan,” Selena said, swinging her black case over one shoulder. She tossed her hair over her shoulder. “Bad time to get scared, now that we’re at the gates with backup.”
“Backup?” Carter asked. He folded his arms and leaned against his car. “What am I, a bodyguard?”
“At least you didn’t have to hide in the backseat the whole way here,” Lucia groused, surfacing from somewhere in the back of Selena’s car.
“You could have ridden with Carter,” Selena said.
“I was too busy doing detention because of your lousy friends,” Lucia said. “And for the record, I really don’t want to be here.” She scowled at the Lartech building. “So there better be a fantastic reason for it.”
“Where’s Brennan?” Aaron asked. “Didn’t you call him?
Lucia’s scowl deepened. “Only about eight times. He better have a good excuse for bailing on me or I’m going to kill him. So? Why are we here?”
“Well,” Aaron said, “I had a vision that something’s going to explode, and I don’t know what it is. So we need to, um, break into Lartech and find out.”
“Break into Lartech?” Carter said. “The government-sponsored biotech lab full of dangerous experiments with a secrecy clause about a mile long? Aren’t you the one always saying we need to be careful with our powers?”
“Yeah, but this is important,” Aaron said. “I’ve been thinking about it, and it won’t be that dangerous. Well, we’ve been thinking,” he said, gesturing toward Selena.
“I should have thought of it last night,” Selena said. “But we don’t need to break into the actual servers to get the data we need.”
“Last night?” Carter said. “Why were you two together last night?”
“I…uh…I had a nightmare,” Aaron said.
“Aaaww, and she came to comfort you,” Lucia said. “How sweet.”
“I’m really regretting that we have to bring her along,” Selena said. “If anyone sees us together, you better make them forget it.”
“Something we agree on,” said Lucia.
Aaron glared at them. “Let’s just get this over with,” he said, rubbing at the bridge of his nose.
“Okay,” Lucia said. “What do we have to do?”
“Two things,” Aaron said. “Selena thinks she has a way to get at the classified data, at least part of it, without having to pull it off the servers directly.”
“See,” Selena said, “each research team has their own isolated stations where they work and record data and do, like, sciency things. Every night, the data is backed up to the server. So the only place to access all the files is on that server. But each project also has a summarized file, a project brief, that can be accessed by anyone with sufficient clearance.”
“Like my dad, who’s head of security,” Aaron said.
Selena nodded. “Right. He has to sign off on any potentially dangerous projects.”
“How do you know all this?” Lucia asked.
“I got it off the main server when I hacked in last night. Lots of boring bureaucratic stuff. Employee handbook. Safety protocols. Company procedures.” She shrugged. “So I wrote a program that will act kind of like a leech on the system. It will we be dormant most of the time, but any time someone pulls a file, it will replicate it and send it to my little black box.” She patted her bag.
“Carter can distract Dad long enough for me to sneak in and download the program on his computer,” Aaron said.
“I’m a diversion?” Carter said in annoyance.
“Sorry, hon,” Selena said. “We don’t need any walls punched this time.”
“I have other skills.”
“Like eating?” Aaron asked.
Carter gave him a little shove, and Aaron winced as it jostled his injured shoulder. “Ouch.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” Lucia asked.
“Help Selena,” Aaron said. “She’s going to plant the same program on her mom’s computer. Since she’s on the board, she’ll review these projects too. And we need you to…interrogate people…see if you can pick up anything about projects in development, what might be testing soon…figure out what people are talking about.”
“You’re our people-hacker,” Selena said cheerfully.
Lucia rolled her eyes. “Great. I’ll just walk up to everyone in a lab coat and say ‘Tell me about your top secret government contracts.’ That will work out fine.”
Carter frowned. “I don’t like this idea.”
“It’s not perfect,” Aaron said.
“That’s an understatement,” Lucia muttered.
“I don’t like spying on our parents,” Carter clarified. “I don’t like the idea of breaking into Lartech. It’s dangerous, and it’s illegal.”
“We’re doing it to stop a disaster,” Aaron said. “If you can think of another way for us to prevent this from happening, please, I would love to hear it. I haven’t thought of one and I’ve been working on it all day. Unless you want to tell them about our powers?”
They all fell silent for a long moment.
At last, Lucia said: “You know, I used to think having superpowers was going to be cool. But they totally suck sometimes.”
Carter sighed. “If we’re going to do this, let’s get it over with.”
* * * * *
Maybe it was the pain meds, but as he walked through the front door of Lartech, Aaron felt weirdly relaxed. Maybe deciding to do something had taken away some of the tension of doing nothing. Beside him, Carter seemed to be feeling enough anxiety for both of him. He kept glancing aside and tapping his fingers restlessly against his legs.
“Don’t act nervous,” Aaron said in a quiet voice. “Someone will get suspicious.”
“I’m not nervous,” he said defensively, and crossed his arms. After a moment, he started tapping his fingers against his arm instead. “Won’t they be suspicious if a bunch of teenagers all decide to visit the lab at the same time?”
“No, they get visitors all the time,” Aaron said. “They have an exhibition room where they give tours, and a cafe. Selena says she goes there sometimes for the wi-fi. She probably has a crush on a barista or something.”
“When did you two do all this planning? Last night?” he asked. “I can’t believe you two were plotting and let me sleep through it.”
“She was only there for about five minutes,” Aaron said. “We’ve been texting. I was at the doctor and she was in class and we were both bored. You know it drives her crazy when she has a problem to fix.”
“She’s not the only one,” Carter said. They stepped into the elevator, and he leaned against the mirrored wall with a sigh. He was quiet until as the door slid shut and the elevator started up. Then he looked at Aaron. “The vision you had. Was it really that bad?” he asked.
“Okay.” That was the last question he asked. They stepped off the elevator and headed toward their Dad’s office in silence.
* * * * *
Selena breezed through Lartech’s front doors like she’d had the best day of her life. She waved to a few people she recognized and smiled at the rest, orchestrating her gait so that her skirt swished just right around her thighs.
She’d picked this outfit carefully: the skirt was just short enough to be interesting, the sweater the perfect fit to be modest but hint at all the curves underneath. Everyone who saw here would remember the clothes and the smile, and not the suspiciously bulky case she carried. As she walked, she brushed against coats and purses, collecting stray sparks of static. Each charge added the field of energy around her, pulsing against her skin like an ever-present itch.
Lucia walked nearby, but not close enough that anyone would assume they were together. She’d tied up her hair and managed to hide most of the pink streaks under a baseball cap, but she was still dressed like a groupie for an 1980’s metal band, so it didn’t do much to disguise her.
Selena sighed. The talents that girl was wasting.
“Hi there, Milton,” she said cheerfully as she reached the metal detector.
“Afternoon, Miss Marquez,” he said. “Your bag?”
“Oh, right! I almost forgot!” She giggled as she laid it on the belt. The contents of the bag didn’t matter; Milton was too busy watching her skirt to check what was in the bag.
He nodded amiably and motioned her into the metal detector. She focused on the charge she’d collected, manipulating it around the screwdrivers and lock picks so that the detector wouldn’t pick up the metal in her pockets. She didn’t really need them, but their presence was comforting.
“Wow, that’s heavy,” he said as he retrieved it.
“Textbooks,” Selena said with a shrug. “So annoying, but I’ve got tons of homework.”
“Well, good luck,” Milton said. “Don’t hurt yourself carrying that big bag.”
She laughed as she shouldered the bag, and rolled her eyes as soon as she was out of sight.
Lucia caught up with her halfway down the hall. “You missed the elevators,” she said.
“We’re not going upstairs,” she said. “In here.” Selena ducked into the women’s bathroom, and checked all the stalls to make sure they were empty. She opened her bag and pulled out the clothes she’d stashed under her laptop.
Lucia leaned against the bathroom sink and smirked. “You need to change clothes to go to your mom’s office?”
“We’re not going to my mom’s office,” Selena said, throwing her a lab coat and a button-up shirt. “We’re going to the server room.”
* * * * *
Aaron stopped Carter before they reached the office. “Dad can’t see me with you,” he said. “I can’t sneak past him if I’m standing out here talking to him.”
His brother looked around the crisp hallway. “Where are you going to hide?”
Aaron had to admit, there weren’t many options. It looked more like a modern art museum than a laboratory. White walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, intensely bright lighting, and minimal decoration.
“Around the corner?” Aaron suggested. He gauged the distance at about six feet. “I just need you to get him in the hallway with the door open for…maybe two seconds. I can get past him fast enough that he won’t see me. Then keep him in the hallway long enough for the program to download. Selena said it would take about five minutes, so make it good.”
“What am I supposed to talk to him about?”
“I don’t know. Sports? Just make something up.” Before Carter could object, Aaron ducked around the corner. He pressed his back up against the wall and took a deep breath. A moment of silence passed, and he heard a soft knock. Aaron held his breath, straining to listen.
“Carter?” Dad said. “What are you doing here?”
“I, uh, needed to talk to you.”
“You couldn’t have used a phone?”
Aaron risked a glance around the corner. Dad had halted halfway through the door, blocking any chance he had at sneaking past him. Carter edged back as he talked. “I… I was coming here with Selena. You know she comes here to go to that cafe… there’s this barista that she… well… I just… uh… can you just come talk to me a minute? It’s about…sports.”
Well, I found something Carter’s not good at, Aaron thought.
Even from here, he could read the mix of annoyance and amusement on their father’s face. “Sure, kid. Just for a minute, though. I’ve got a meeting in a few.” He started to step out of the door, and Aaron took the cue.
Time slowed and Aaron hurried down the hall, wishing he’d had the foresight to remove his shoes. He could only imagine what it sounded like sped up a thousand times. Aaron slipped inside, and ducked behind the desk to catch his breath. He let his power drop, for a second, and watched the door swing shut. He let out a breath of relief, and then took stock of the room.
With a jolt of surprise, he realized it was the first time he’d seen his dad’s office, and it wasn’t what he expected. Besides being immaculately neat—which he had expected—it was…well…comfortable. A streamlined desk and a plush, cushy office chair dominated the room, a window that overlooked the lake. The walls were lined with shelves stacked with books, binders, and pictures of him and Carter. Guilt appeared, unexpectedly. I shouldn’t be doing this.
But if it helped him save lives…. If it helped protect his father…
Aaron pushed past his doubts. It wasn’t like they were going to do anything bad with the information they got. It was Illegal, but it wasn’t really wrong. Exactly. Probably.
Anyway, he had to get that program on the computer. Aaron took a deep breath and rounded the desk to sit in his father’s chair, fingering the thumb drive with Selena’s program. Aaron felt another flush of guilt as he surveyed the touches of daily life: papers scattered over the desk, the lukewarm cup of coffee pushed off to one side.
Stop it. You’re helping him. He plugged the thumb drive in and spent a nerve-wracking few minutes in real-time, copying the program while watching the door. As soon as it finished, he yanked the drive out and pocketed it.
But as he stood, his eye caught the open file on the desk. The words “genetic therapy” and “enhancement,” especially. Intrigued, he sat back down, but he’d just started to skim over it when he heard footsteps in the hallway. Aaron pulled out his phone, snapped a few quick pictures, and shoved it back onto the desk, bolting across the room without bothering to use his power. He skid to a halt behind the door just as the handle turned. Aaron held his breath and pressed himself against the wall.
Dad stepped through, still talking to Carter. “If you keep having problems with it, we can practice this weekend,” he said. “Right now I’ve got a board meeting to get ready for.” He started to close the door.
“Yeah, okay,” Carter said, and Dad started to close the door. For a second, Aaron didn’t think he’d get a window to sneak back through, but as as Dad started to close the door, Carter pushed it open, stepping part of the way into the room. “but, uh, wait a second—”
Aaron breathed a silent thanks to his brother and twisted, slowing time almost to a complete halt. He skirted the door and ducked under Carter’s arm, hoping he was moving fast enough not to be noticed. He didn’t look back until he was around the corner. Then he collapsed against the wall and let his power go like a loosed breath.
Through the ringing in his head, he heard his brother say, “Thanks, Dad,” and close the door.
Aaron sank to the floor and wiped at the sheen of sweat across his face. Carter came around the corner and looked down at him. “You look like crap,” he said.
“Thanks,” Aaron wheezed. “I feel like I just ran eight miles.”
“Well, I just made a complete idiot out of myself in front of our dad,” he said. “Did you get what you needed?”
“Yeah, I think so,” he said. “And maybe something else. Heard anything from Lu and Selena?”
Just then his phone buzzed, and he pulled it out to see a new text from Lucia. We have a problem.
* * * * *
Molly came home to a note from Dad telling her he was working late, and she could order pizza if she wanted. It looked like he didn’t know about her detention yet, and she wasn’t looking forward to telling him. She’d spent most of her day—including detention—trying to work through that lingering anger, but even after a long shower she felt agitated. Like an overcharged battery.
She took a long drink of water and headed to the basement to work out. It had been her grandfather’s workshop, and they’d spent two days cleaning out tools and refitting it into a gym. Besides the weights and punching bag, there was a TV, which she left off, and granddad’s old record player, which they’d both been surprised to find in perfect working order.
Molly rifled through the records and put one in at random. As the music played, she worked on her punches, and it took a lot of self-control not to pretend like the bag was Kylie’s nose. She ran through the first side of the record, ordered pizza, and then started on the second while she practiced kicks. It eased her frustration some, just having something physical to abuse.
A few songs into the second side, the doorbell rang. Molly grabbed the pizza money and hurried up the stairs to answer it.
Brennan Haley stood on the other side, his hands shoved deep in the pockets of his beat-up leather jacket.
“So you’re going full-on stalker, now,” Molly said. She was uncomfortably aware of her sweat-drenched t-shirt and the hair plastered to her face. She smoothed it back.
“You wouldn’t talk to me at school,” he said.
“That’s not really making it less creepy. Do I need to go get the shotgun?”
“You have a shotgun?”
“This is Alabama. Doesn’t everyone have a shotgun?”
“You’re thinking of Texas. Maybe Mississippi.”
“How did you know where I live?”
He shrugged. “I snuck into the principal’s office and looked at your records.”
“That’s not really helping with the stalker thing.” She settled her hands on her hips. “I’ve been avoiding you because I don’t want to talk to you. Following me home to harass me isn’t going to change that.” She stepped back to shield herself with the door. “Please just leave me alone, Brennan.”
“Wait!” He lunged forward, catching the door with his arm. “Five minutes,” he said. “Five minutes, and then I’ll leave, and I won’t bother you again. I swear.”
Something about the intensity in his voice made her pause. She thought about how he’d gone into the burning house to save the people inside. How he’d shoved her out of the way when the beam collapsed. How he’d carried her outside afterward.
He’d even gone back for the dog.
Molly sighed. “Five minutes.” She shoved the door aside and stalked through the hall. “Watch your step,” she said, stepping over the plastic tarps and carpenter tools scattered across the floor. “We’re still doing renovations.”
Brennan followed her toward the basement, glancing at the work with mild interest. “Nice music,” he noted as they headed downstairs.
“I picked it at random,” she said.
“Oh.” He sounded disappointed.
Molly grabbed her water bottle off the floor and tool a long sip. Brennan glanced around the room with a curious eye, roving over the equipment, the hand-me-down furniture, and her collection of martial arts posters plastered over the wall. When he saw the record player, his whole demeanor changed.
“Wow,” he said, running his hands over the box. “This is so cool. Is it custom made? Where did you get it?” He started flipping through the records.
“Came with the house,” Molly said. She set her bottle down and flexed her hands. “It was my grandfather’s.” She ignored him for a moment while he thumbed through the records, and went back to punching the bag. It kept her from punching him, at least.
“These are good records. And this is…wow. Is this an original?” He held up a black sleeve with gold lettering, the edges scuffed grey.
“I don’t know,” Molly said. “You’re down to three minutes, now.”
“Right,” he said, reluctantly setting the record aside. He leaned back and watched her for a second as she pummeled the bag. “I didn’t tell anyone,” he said at last.
“Thanks, I guess.”
“So…how does it work? What you can do?”
Molly punched the bag a few times and then caught it, running her fingers over the surface. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s like…an extra sense. It’s just something I know how to do.”
“Like knowing how to kick a ball or ride a bike?”
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s not a bad comparison.”
“Can you do ice? Other liquids?”
Good questions, thought Molly. He’d clearly been thinking about this. She glanced over at him, biting her lip. She gave the bag another half-hearted punch. “Not ice. I can do any liquids that are water-based. Coffee, for instance, or blood—”
“—but not like, gasoline or soap. And once it freezes or evaporates, I can’t touch it.”
“When did it start? Were you born with it, or did you, like, I don’t know…”
“Get bitten by a radioactive fish?” she finished with a smile. “No, I don’t know where it came from. It developed around the time I was nine or ten. But Dad says I was always a natural in the water, so maybe I was born with it. I don’t know.”
“Your dad knows about your power?” He sounded surprised.
“Of course. I couldn’t have managed without him. It’s…” She broke away, surprised that she’d said so much. He’d gotten past her guard somehow. Maybe it was just a relief to actually talk about it. But she couldn’t have that, especially not with Brennan. “Look, I appreciate what you did in the fire. It was really brave, and I would have…I mean, thanks.”
“Yeah, whatever,” he said, hunching his shoulders. “It was stupid to go in there, even with water powers.”
Look who’s talking. “You really need to work on your people skills.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot,” he said, in a tone that suggested he really didn’t care.
Molly rolled her shoulders back and crossed her arms. “Look, thanks for not telling anyone what you saw. But I can’t…” She swallowed against the fear rising through her voice. “We moved here so I could stop doing stuff like that. I’m supposed to be starting over. I’m trying to be normal. So please just–just leave me alone, okay?”
“Yeah, but Molly—”
“I promised you five minutes, and you’ve had it,” she said. “Just keep my secret, and leave me alone.”
“I don’t want people staring at me like I’m some kind of weird mutant or—”
“Molly,” he said, and to her surprise, he was laughing. He pulled a sheet of paper of the table, crumpling it up in his hand. He made an odd, twisting motion, like screwing the cap from a bottle.
A tiny flame sparked along the edge of the paper, and grew to a fiery orb the size of baseball. Behind it, Brennan was grinning.