“Okay, here we are,” Mom said, putting the car in park.
Aaron roused from his half-sleep and blinked groggily into the parking lot. Lartech loomed in front of him. “What are we doing here?” he asked. “This isn’t the hospital.”
“You’re just now noticing? The hospital is in the opposite direction.” She ruffled brusquely through the contents of her purse.
“I was sleeping,” Aaron said. “Stayed up late last night.” He didn’t want to tell her how bad his headaches had been over the last few days, especially since it wasn’t his seizures that caused it so much as overusing his power. Besides, she was worried enough. So far, he’d avoided having any intensive tests on his brain, mostly by being intractable and obstinate, but this time his mother was hellbent on having him examined.
She just hadn’t told him it would be here.
“I’m not sure about this,” he said.
“Dr. Vandstrom is a world-class neuroscientist, and he’s only here for a few days. He’s taking time to see you as a favor to me, but he doesn’t have time to drive to the hospital for it. Besides, Lartech has some of the most sophisticated imaging equipment available.”
And that thought dredged up all kinds of old nightmares. “No,” he said, and slouched into his seat.
Mom sighed. “Aaron, don’t do this. He might be able to figure out what’s causing your seizures.”
“You do want to get better, don’t you?”
“Not if it means having my brain scanned in Lartech.”
“It’s just a building, Aaron,” she said. “It’s not like they experiment on people.”
“That you know about.”
“Fine.” He shoved the door open, hurled himself out of the car, and slammed it shut behind him. His mother followed more slowly, and he could hear her murmuring something under her breath—probably counting or something to keep from killing him.
He knew he was being difficult.
Sometimes he wished he could just tell her why.
“I’m sorry,” he said. Sullenly.
“It’s okay, kiddo,” she said, but it was with a sigh. “You’ve been through a lot lately.”
He shrugged, and shoved his hands in his pockets. “Can we just get it over with?”
She pressed her mouth in a hard line, swallowing back whatever she wanted to say. “All right. Come on.”
* * * * *
As they walked into the building, Aaron couldn’t help comparing this trip to the one they’d made last week. That had almost been a disaster, and so far, it hadn’t helped him figure out anything he could do to avert the disaster that was still coming.
“I’ll go check in,” Mom said. “Just wait here. Sit down or something. You look exhausted.”
“Mom, I’m fine.”
“Sit down, Aaron,” she said, and headed toward the desk.
Aaron was too agitated to sit. He meandered instead, pacing a wandering circle through the thin crowd of people mingling as they left work. He paused in front of the statue in the center of the lobby and stared at it. It was some kind of abstract, modern-art thing, symbolizing science or something probably, although it just looked like a bunch of metal spikes stuck in the ground.
He was trying to figure out what it could possily be when someone bumped into his shoulder. Aaron turned to see a man in a suit striding in the opposite direction. For some reason, it triggered a sense of deja vu, but before he could place it, Mom returned with the badges.
“Here you go, kiddo,” she said. “Everything all right?”
Aaron glanced from her back to the man, but he’d moved out of sight. It was probably nothing. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m okay.”
“Your Dad’s meeting us at the elevator.”
They threaded through the crowd, and Aaron tried to shake the itching feeling that he was forgetting something important. If I wasn’t so tired, maybe I could remember.
When they reached the elevators, Dad was just rushing up, followed by a gangly, black-haired man in a labcoat. “Hey, babe,” Dad said, giving Mom a kiss on the cheek. “Listen,” he said, “I’ve got to go deal with an issue, but Terence will take you over to the med lab.”
“Hey, Zoe! Aaron! How are you folks doing?” the other man said, waving enthusiastically. “Haven’t seen you in ages!”
“Fine, thanks Terence,” Mom said, with a faintly bemused smile.
“Hey, Dr. Haley,” Aaron said, trying not to laugh. With his lab coat, crazy hair and thick glasses, Brennan’s father looked like a stereotypical mad scientist. He was also wildly excitable, a trait that Brennan tended to find annoying as much as he did endearing. Aaron liked him.
He shook both of their hands. “How are you doing, you two? I’m terribly excited about this weekend! Feels like it’s been ages since any of you kids came over, but I guess when you’re a teenager—”
“Terence,” Dad cut in. “Is anything running in the Arwell wing today?”
“Ah, not much,” he said. “Mostly mechanical stuff. The Resson’s down there, but that’s not dangerous until we turn it on—”
Aaron felt that prickle of deja vu again, like a chill up the back of his neck. The word Resson sounded familiar, but he couldn’t remember any details. One of the project files Selena had stolen?
“Yeah, yeah,” Dad said, waving his monologue aside. “Take them through level 5. If they have to go through the red tape, it will take an hour.”
“Sure,” Terence said.
“Great,” Dad said. “I’ll come down as soon as I’m done with this meeting. Good luck, kid.” He clapped Aaron on the shoulder and stalked down the hall. Mom cast a worried glance after him, but whatever undercurrent she picked up from his mood, she didn’t share.
“Well, come on,” Dr. Haley said. “It’s a quick trip through Arwell, and if we make a slight detour we can grab a coffee. The guys down there have the best cappuccino machine I’ve ever seen.”
* * * * *
Molly followed Carter into the living room and dropped her backpack by the couch. “So, where’s Aaron?” she asked, glancing around. Pastel blue walls, white curtains, new furniture. Tidy but not immaculate. It was kind of the dictionary definition of ordinary.
Carter kicked off his shoes and dropped onto the couch. “He’s at the doctor.”
“Why? Is he sick?”
“Nah,” Carter said. “Just another brain doctor. Mom found out he wasn’t taking his meds, so she’s going into hyper mode. It happens.”
“Oh. Okay,” Molly said frowning. Carter seemed fairly cavalier about the whole thing, so Molly decided she wouldn’t intrude. She sat on the opposite side of the couch, feeling incredibly awkward. “So, are the others coming?”
“I didn’t invite them,” Carter said. “I, uh, I just thought we were going to hang out, you know, alone. Everyone else has gotten to hang out with you, I just thought…that’s okay, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s fine” she said. Nervous excitement rippled through her stomach. “Sure. Of course.” She bit her lip. “You aren’t, like, worried about hanging out with one of the weird kids?” She said it like it meant nothing.
“I don’t care about that stuff,” Carter said. “And you’re not weird, anyway.”
I guess when everyone just naturally likes you, you can say things like that, Molly thought. “You shouldn’t let those girls get to you,” Carter said. “You’re cool, you know, in a different way. Hey, you’re pretty athletic. Maybe you should join the track team or something.”
“Probably shouldn’t. I don’t do well with competition.” Molly fell silent, wondering what she should say. When Carter had asked her to hang out, she hadn’t realize it was just her with him. Was this a date? Or was he just being nice? She wished she had more experience with these kinds of situations.
“So what do you want to do?” Carter asked eventually.
“I don’t know. What do you guys usually do?”
“I don’t know. Hang out. Play games.” He looked embarrassed, suddenly. “We could go to a movie or something instead.”
“No, hanging out here is good,” she said. “A nice relaxed afternoon is just what I need.”
* * * * *
Dr. Haley kept up a constant stream of narrative as they walked, but Aaron had a hard time keeping track of it. The nagging feeling of deja vu hadn’t left him. That, combined with the dark, cramped corridors and a pounding headache left him feeling even more tense. The hallway was drastically different than what Aaron had seen of Lartech before. Unlike the airy, stark style upstairs centers, this area was industrial grey and bare, except for the heavy security doors set every dozen yards or so. It felt like walking into a prison.
Mom reached for his hand. The sudden contact jolted him. “Don’t forget to breathe,” she said, squeezing. “We’re almost there.”
Breathe. Remember to relax. He kept his eyes down as he walked, focusing on keeping his hands unclenched.
“Are you all right, Aaron?” Dr. Haley asked. “You need to sit and take a breather?”
“It’s fine,” he said. “I’m not great with small spaces.”
“Okay. We can get a soda down the hall.”
“I’m good,” Aaron said. “I’m fine.”
“Well, it’s not that much further. We go down this corridor and hang a right, up a few stairs, and there we are. Come on.”
They stepped into a new section of the corridor, and the monotony was broken by a series of huge, plate-glass windows. Along the wall ran a single yellow stripe, six inches thick.
Aaron stopped in sudden dread, following the stripe to a plastic plaque labeled 516.
A corridor, grey, with a yellow stripe along the wall. The number 516 on a plaque. Shattered glass on the ground, tinted red with blood.
Through the window, he could see a massive room, easily ten stories high. The center of the room was dominated by a pair of massive airplane turbines raised up on a frame. As he watched, the turbines spun up, building to a roar that was almost deafening, even through soundproof glass.
“Petty cool, isn’t it?” Dr. Haley shouted, joining him. “The engineering lab. Well, one of them. There’s some neat robotics down there, lots of cuttting edge stuff.”
“Are those jet engines?” Aaron asked. At this height, it was practicaly eye level. “They’re enormous.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Cool stuff. We’ve been doing some contract work for…ah…not supposed to mention it… one of the big ones. Always worried about fuel efficiency, especially in this economy. Come by sometime, and I’ll get you a closer look.”
“Uh-huh. Okay,” Aaron said, distracted. Was this the danger? Something as inocuous as airplane parts? Was there something else in that room that was going to explode? He had to get a text to Selena, get her to look into it, before—
“Aaron,” Mom called. “Come on, we’re going to be late.”
He tore himself away from the window. “Okay,” he said. “Coming.” He followed them down the hallway, studying what he could see of the lab and trying to catalogue every detail so he could record it later. It’s not too late, he thought. This will help. We’ll figure it out before it’s too late.
A shudder ran through the floor.
Dr. Haley paused, frowning. Everything was still for a second, and quiet except for the deep thrum of machinery from the turbines. “That was—” Another shudder. This one built to a deep rumbling, like distant thunder. It didn’t stop.
The floor thrummed under his feet, sending vibrations all the way through his body. A strange lightness accompanied it, like he’d become ever so slightly untethered from the earth. His brief glance at Dr. Haley was somehow even more disturbing. The phycisist looked beyond alarmed. He looked scared.
“They can’t have—” he said. “It’s not ready. They wouldn’t have—”
“Dr. Haley,” Aaron said. “What is that?”
“Not good,” he said absently, and then shook his head, as if remembering himself. “Uh, looks like someone, uh… I can’t really talk about it, but I need to, uh, stop it. Uh. Listen, you need to get back to the elevator. Go quickly, because if something goes wrong the whole section will be quarantined.” He started the other way.
“Quarantined?” Mom said. “Terence—”
“I don’t have time to explain, Zoe. Just get down that hall as fast as you can.”
She only wasted about half a second staring after him before grabbing Aaron’s arm and starting down the corridor at a rapid walk. “Come on,” she said. “I’m going to kill your father for sending us down here.”
A sudden dizziness struck him, and the whining ring in his ears that preceded a vision. “Mom,” he heard himself say, right before it hit him.
Shut it down! His father’s voice echoed over the images: a room flooded with bright light.
His mother, framed by orange light as she stood in front of the glass windows, frozen—fire and the smell of burnt wiring—the black tile littered with glass and metal—her body on the ground, peppered with shrapnel—
The vision left him so suddenly it was like being stunned. He swayed for a moment, still reeling from its awful impact. After a moment, he realized his mom had grabbed his arm started dragging him down the hall.
“Go.” He pulled his arm free and shoving her forward. “‘I’m coming. Just go.”
“Honey, you can barely stand. Let me—”
He experienced a terrible moment where everything seemed impossibly clear. He saw his mother, a step or two ahead of him. Her arm stretched out, the glass behind her. The end of the corridor seemed like miles away. The weird thrumming underfoot. The sudden, instinctual knowledge that something was about to go terribly, terribly wrong. A burst of sensation—so quick and brilliant that the light and noise were indistinguishable.
And for once, he knew exactly what to do.
He grit his teeth and twisted. Time slowed, and the scene spread in front of him like a frozen tableau: his mother, shock still registering on her face, fire billowing toward them in terrifying frozen beauty, the window, which had already started to buckle under the force of the explosion.
The windows stretched about ten yards down the hallway—easy enough for him to clear, but too far to push his mother. Well, he could push her, but the relative force would seriously injure her. If she hit her head, it could kill her.
If she stayed where she was, the explosion would kill her. Moving that fast could kill him, too. Once he shifted into real-time, he wouldn’t have any control over how he moved. But he didn’t see another choice.
The windows stretched about ten yards down the hallway—easy enough for him to clear, but too far to push his mother. Well, he could push her, but the relative force would seriously injure her. If she hit her head, it could kill her. Moving that fast could kill him, too. Once he shifted into real-time, he wouldn’t have any control over how he moved.
But if she stayed where she was, the explosion would kill her. He didn’t see another choice.
Fire and spinning metal. Glass and shrapnel. Blood on the floor.
Aaron took a deep breath. Best to do it quickly. He took a moment to guage the scene again, and then took a few quick steps toward her. He grabbed her—one hand on her shoulder, the other around her waist— threw himself to the side and dropped his power.
The force of it hurt. Aaron kept his eyes clenched shut, thinking of nothing but keeping his grip as they careened across the floor. His back slammed into something hard, then his head, and then an intense pressure of force and heat and sound washed over him. He didn’t see or hear anything past the percussive blast of glass shattering over them.
It seemed to last forever. He shut his eyes and curled into a ball, unable to even think about anything except the noise and heat. Even after it settled, he didn’t move, too stunned by the violence of it to comprehend that it was real.
Not a vision. Not going away.
Then he remembered his mother. Shards of glass clattered away as he rolled away fro the wall, searching the hallway frantically until he spotted her. She’d skewed free of him toward the end of their spiral, and lay sprawled against the wall, not moving.
“Mom!” He scooted toward her, wincing as broken glass dug into his skin. “Mom!”
She was breathing. Thank God, she was breathing.
Her eyes fluttered open. “Aaron,” she said. “You’re bleeding.” Her voice faded some on the last word.
“I’m okay,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“I think I…may be going into shock…” Her eyes weren’t focusing.
“Okay,” he said, feeling for her pulse. Rapid, but steady. That was good. He was pretty sure it was good. “It’s okay. They’ll send help…Mom? Mom?” She’d lost concsiousness completely.
Aaron had no idea what to do. His basic knowledge of first aid didn’t extend much past dealing with scrapes and nosebleeds. He definitely didn’t know what you were supposed to do for shock. Aaron moved her arm closer to her body, and tried to shift her on her side so she wouldn’t choke or something. She would have help soon, he told himself. Dr. Haley would come back, or Dad would come looking for them.
Alarms sounded in the hallway outside. Aaron scrambled to his feet. On either side of the hall, the security doors were closing. There wasn’t time to get through them, unless—
He took a deep breath and twisted. It felt like he’d had the air kicked out of him, but he fought past it, and started running. His lungs burned. If he was going to get help, he had to get through them before they closed. He gasped for air, trying to push past the pressure. Just a little further…
Two feet away, he lost control and collapsed, skidding to his knees as he sucked in a lungful of fresh air. The door slammed shut, inches from his outstretched hand.
He was trapped.
* * * * *
“This game is stupid,” Molly said, glaring at the computer screen. She watched her ghostly avatar run back through the castle, looking for its corpse.
“You’ll get the hang of it,” Carter said. He’d snagged Aaron’s chair from his room and sat beside her, working through a plate of sandwiches and fruit. “Just remember that you’re a mage, and you don’t wear much armor. Stay back, and time your attacks so that you do as much damage as you can.”
“Because… doing damage is how you kill it?”
“Not what I meant.” Molly’s avatar came back to life, and she spent a moment letting it recover before running back toward the room where it had died. “Why wouldn’t a mage wear armor? Or learn to fight with a sword or something? It seems a little ridiculous. Let me run into this ancient castle infested with sword-wielding zombies with nothing but my pajamas and a walking stick.”
“It’s not a stick, it’s a staff. It, like, helps you channel the magic. And armor, like, interferes with your mana or something.” He wiped the crumbs off his mouth and took a quick sip of his milkshake. “Anyway, why would you waste time with a sword when you can shoot fireballs?”
“Because it makes you more versatile. Especially in a stupid game where you can run out of power.” She sighed, and charged a bolt of ice.
“No, use fire,” Carter said. “Undead are vulnerable to fire.”
“What? Why? I mean, zombies or mummies, maybe, with all that dry skin and linen or whatever, but skeletons? Bone doesn’t burn that easily, unless you douse it in gasoline or something.”
“Maybe we should have made you a warrior instead of a mage.”
“I’m just saying, this is nothing like a real fight.”
“Oh yeah?” he asked, clearly annoyed. “What would you do in a real fight, then?”
Molly shrugged. “Wack it in the knee with this staff, dump some of that lamp oil on him, then set it on fire.”
“I’m kind of disturbed by how much thought you’re putting into this. You know it’s just a game, right?”
Just then the door in the hall slammed open. They both jumped, and Carter was half way out of his seat when they heard Selena’s voice yelling, “Carter!”
“She’s got to stop doing that,” Carter muttered.
“Great.” Molly glowered at the door. “What is she doing here?”
“I have no idea. I’ll deal with it,” he said, just as Selena yelled his name again. “Be right back.”
Molly leaned back in the chair as he hurried out the door, chewing on her lip. It was probably natural for her to come to Carter for help; he just kind of radiated helpfulness, and of the people Selena called “friends,” he was the probably only one who genuinely fit that description. But seriously, what was their relationship? Kylie had said that they dated on and off, but apart from being together a lot, there didn’t seem to be much actual chemistry between them.
You should stay out of it, that voice in her head said. Don’t borrow trouble.
Molly slid out of the chair and maneuvered closer, keeping her foosteps as soft as possible. She hesitated at the door, still battling that inner voice. This is the kind of thing that gets you in trouble, it said.
“I don’t know if he’s okay,” she heard Selena say. “All I got was a text, and the words were so jumbled I couldn’t make sense of it.”
“Did you call him?”
“I tried in the car, but I couldn’t get through. I need something to boost the signal. Is your computer on?” The brusque sound of heels against the hardwood came closer.
Molly hurried away from the door, acting like she’d just gotten out of the chair when the other girl stalked through the door and stopped short. Selena’s eyes widened, and she rolled them toward Carter. “Really, Carter?”
“Hey, you’re the one who keeps barging in without—”
“What’s going on?” Molly asked.
“Nothing,” they both said.
Carter winced and said, “I just… Selena needs help with some… um… Math stuff?”
“You’re a terrible liar,” Molly said.
“We don’t have time for this!” Selena shoved Molly aside and planted herself at the computer. One hand slammed her phone onto the desk and the other pressed against the side of the CPU. Sparks flickered around her hand.
“What is she—?”
“She needed some extra charge, I think,” Carter said.
“Okay,” Selena said, relaxing. “That should be enough.” She scooped the phone into her palm and one stray spark flickered between her thumb and the screen. It rang a few times, then there was a click and a brief silence punctuated by heavy, hitched breathing.
Then: “Selena?” Aaron’s voice crackled through the speaker. He sounded both exhausted and relieved. “You got my message?”
“Not that it made much sense,” Selena said. “Are you okay?”
“I‘m not sure,” he said. “It happened.”
“What?” Carter lurched forward and grabbed the phone out of Selena’s hand. All his calm had vanished. “What happened? Where are you? I thought you were at the doctor?”
“Uh. I was. I was going. But… ” There was a long silence.
“Aaron?” Molly said. “Aaron, are you hurt?”
“…Molly?” A note of suspicion showed through the weariness.
“Yes,” she said. “Look, just tell us what’s happening, okay? Where are you?”
“Lartech,” he said. Another long pause.
“Aaron, are you okay?” Carter asked.
“Sorry,” he said. “Hit my head. Might have a concussion. Mom is unconscious…think she’ll be okay, but…” he trailed off again.
It definitely sounded like he had a concussion, Molly thought. “Aaron, you need to stay focused. Where are you? Can you call for help?”
He responded with a hollow sort of laugh. “I think you’re the only help I’m going to get. Tried three other numbers before I managed to get Selena. Guess I needed that underground reception after all.”
“You’re welcome,” Selena muttered.
“Why are you at Lartech?” Carter said.
Selena overrode him. “It’s not important. What exploded?”
“Airplane turbine. But there was something else. Something running that wasn’t supposed to be.” He launched into a convoluted, halting explanation, much of which Molly couldn’t follow. Selena whisked her computer into her lap and spent the whole time working rapidly. “—Earlier, Dr. Haley mentioned something called a Resson—”
“Wait, Haley?” Molly said. “Like Brennan’s…?”
“Dad, yeah. He’s a particle phycisist,” Carter explained.
“Sounded familiar,” Aaron said. “Do you recognize it?”
“Yes,” she said slowly. “I think it was in one of those project files. I can search for it—”
“That’s not important right now,” Carter said. “If the disaster’s already happened—”
“I don’t think it’s over.” A heavy sigh. “The security…security quarantine is…not because of the explosion. There were at least two minutes between the explosion and the doors closing…And the power’s off, which shouldn’t have happened. And something else is bothering me, but I’m not…not quite sure…what it is…”
“Okay,” Carter said. “Just…stay with Mom. We’ll figure something out.”
“Listen, Aaron,” Selena said, leaning over the phone. “I’m going to hang up, and call you back in a couple of minutes, okay? Try and stay focused. If there’s anything you remember, text me.”
“All right.” He sounded half asleep.
“Don’t fall asleep!” Selena shut the phone and grabbed her case. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” Molly said. “Are you sure this is a good idea?”
“Wow, caution from Molly?” Selena said, slinging the bag across her shoulder. “I thought you were supposed to be the reckless one. Didn’t you run into a burning building last week?”
“Yeah, but I’m trying to get over that.”
“You don’t have to come,” Carter said, sliding his car keys off the desk. “But Aaron needs us.”
Molly hesitated. This was exactly the sort of thing she was supposed to avoid doing. But these were her friends, the first real friends she’d had in a long time. The first people who had ever understood what she was going through. “Okay, I’m coming,” Molly said. “Just…fill me in on the way, cause I still don’t have a clue what’s going on.”