Chapter Fourteen: Fragile Victories

Hospitals were his least favorite place. Aaron been in them more than he’d have liked, thanks to a few bad seizures and a “psychotic episode” after his powers had developed. So he was used to the cheap armchairs, the stale coffee, and the smell of antiseptic and bedsheets a hundred other people had used.

But he wasn’t used to this. His mom looked so fragile lying there. Her hair stuck around her head like wiry corkscrews, and tiny cuts and burns peppered her arms and face. An ugly bruise swelled across her cheekbone. All he could think about, watching her sleep, was how much worse it could have been.

She’s alive. You saved her, and she’s alive. It should have felt like a victory, but it didn’t. He rubbed his eyes and dropped his head into his hands. He was exhausted, and everything hurt.

There is some excellent starch on that shirt collarConcussion notwithstanding, he’d been given an easy enough exam, accompanied by orders to rest and see his normal doctor. He considered the cooling coffee in his cup, set it on the table, and closed his eyes instead. I’ll just rest for a second, then I’ll go get something to eat.

The sound of the door slamming open startled him awake. He took a deep breath to cover his surprise and reached up to adjust his glasses before remembering they weren’t there.

“Sorry.” Carter checked the door for damage before he shut it—carefully, this time.  “Didn’t mean to do that.”

“Still a little wired?” Aaron asked.

The response was an embarrassed shrug and a deflection: “How are you?”

Aaron leaned back in the chair. “Okay. Nothing’s broken and I can walk straight again.”

“I brought your spare glasses,” Carter said, fishing them out of his pocket. They were a much older, worn out pair, but it was better than nothing.

Aaron slipped them over his nose, and squinted through them. “I forgot how much I hate these,” he said. “Everything looks weird.”

While he messed with the frames, Carter rolled the stool over to the bed, leaning over to watch their mother sleep. After a brief pause, he reached out and touched her hand, very gently, before gathering it in his to squeeze it. “She looks so small,” he said. “I never really thought of her that way before.” He reached up and touched the bruise on her face, wincing as his thumb brushed against the discolored skin.

“She’ll be okay,” Aaron said. “She’s got a cracked rib and a sprained wrist, but that’s the worst of it. None of the cuts are deep; the burns are superficial. She’ll be fine. She’s lucky,” he added, because it was something the nurses had said to him.

“She’s lucky you were with her,” Carter said.

If it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t have been there at all, Aaron thought. “I’m just glad it’s over,” he said, and Carter nodded. “Did we get out clean? Where are the others?”

“Selena cleaned out the security footage and sent a virus through to get anything she might have missed. Lucia did her mind-wipe thing on the guys we fought downstairs.”

“Good,” he said. “Wait, what guys? What happened to you?”

“We ran into some of your guy’s friends in the basement,” Carter said. “It’s a good thing Molly was with us. She fought them off.”

“Molly fought professional mercenaries?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“By herself?

“Hey, we helped,” Carter said defensively, but added; “She probably saved Lucia’s life.”

“Huh. Interesting.” He was way too tired to process it, but he knew it was important. “Everyone else? All okay?”

“Fine,” Carter said. “They went to get some food down the street. Oh, except Molly. She had to go home. Something about being sort-of-but-not-really-grounded.”

“Oh.” The mention of food had made his stomach rumble. He felt kind of nauseous and hungry at the same time, but he hadn’t eaten since lunch and it was easily past seven. Now that he’d thought of it, his brother looked a little paler than usual. “Have you eaten anything?” he asked.

“I came straight here,” Carter said. “Don’t worry. I’ll get something in a bit.”

“Go eat, Carter,” Aaron said. “It’s not going to help Mom if you pass out from hunger. She’s fine, she’ll be fine in an hour after you’ve had some food.”

“But—”

“Don’t be an idiot, Carter. Just go. I’ll meet you there after I get my discharge papers.”

Carter started to hesitate again, but he pushed himself to his feet with a huff. “Fine,” he said. “I’ll save you some tacos or something.”

* * * * *

About five minutes after Carter left, she started to stir. He scooted his chair closer to the bed so he could watch her wake up. “Hey,” he said as she blinked at him.

“Aaron,” she murmured, shifting her arm toward him, in a groggy, uncoordinated attempt to grab his hand. “You’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” he said, reaching over to clasp her hand.

She peered up at him. “Your face is scratched up.”

“I’m okay, I promise. How are you feeling?”

“Hmmm, sleepy,” she said. “Everything… okay?”

He wasn’t sure if she meant the lab, or if she was asking about him again. “Everything’s okay,” he assured her.

“Where’s your Dad?”

“He had to stay at the lab.”

“Oh.” She closed her eyes, and was quiet for a long time. Her hand on his arm slackened, and he thought she was falling asleep. Then she squeezed his hand. “I’m proud of you,” she said.

He was so surprised, he said: “What? Why?” without thinking.

“Because you didn’t panic. And you tried…When we were in danger, you….” She creased her brow, like she was thinking hard and couldn’t quite grasp what she wanted to say. Then she sighed. “I don’t know how you moved so fast.”

“Mom—”

“I’m just glad you’re okay. I don’t think I could bear it if something happened to you.”

“Let me know when Carter gets back,” she said, patting his arm sleepily. “I think I might fall asleep before then.” She closed her eyes and exhaled. Ten seconds later, she was sleeping again.

Aaron leaned forward on his arms and  watched her. His own exhaustion seemed to hang on him like a physical weight. He knew he wasn’t supposed to sleep yet, but he felt himself drifting off anyway.

He might have actually dozed a little before he heard the gentle knock on the door. He started, spilling about half of his cold coffee. “Yeah, hello?” he said, pushing the styrofoam cup onto the table and wiping his wet hands on his shirt.

Aaron didn’t think he’d ever used the word “frazzled” to describe someone, but that was the only word he could think of when Dr. Haley peeked his head around the door. His black hair was wild and his glasses askew; it looked like he’d put his sweater on backward.

“Oh, Aaron,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry. Are you okay? Is your mother—”

“She’s okay,” Aaron said. “I’m fine. Are you?”

“Oh, I’m just fine,” he said, rubbing at his disheveled hair. He stepped into the room and shut the door softly behind him. “I was between floors when the quarantine started. Spent the whole time trapped in the stairwell. Should I—I, um, suppose I should come back when she’s awake.”

“I’m awake.” Her voice was slurred, but she blinked at both of them and started to push herself up.

“Oh, don’t get up, Zoe. Please—” After a brief hesitation, he crossed the room and took the stool Carter had vacated. “I wanted to give you my apology in person,” he said. “If I’d had any idea something like that could happen—The, um, equipment downstairs—It shouldn’t have—hmm. We’re still not sure what caused the turbines to malfunction.”

Aaron had a theory about that, but he couldn’t mention exactly mention sabotage when he wasn’t suppose to know anything. It occurred to him to wonder whether Dr. Haley knew, and was lying to them. “What was it?” he asked instead. “What did it do?”

Dr. Haley paused, and pushed his glasses up his nose. “I, ah, I can’t tell you much about it. Even now, it’s still technically classified. But…in the interest of, um…It’s a bit complicated. Please give me a minute to explain.”

He let out a deep sigh. “The machine is based on a, um, discovery of about forty years ago, back when Lartech was… well, before Lartech was Lartech. Back when we were still part of Brackton Labs. You know, back then, it was…oh, but that’s not important right now, I guess.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, long story short, we discovered a new type of radiation.”

“Radiation?” Aaron said. “That thing is radioactive?” Belatedly, he remembered he wasn’t supposed to have seen the “thing,” but Dr. Haley didn’t seem to take much from the slip-up.

“Um, yes and no,” he said. “Technically everythig is radioactive. But, um, probably not in the sense that you’re thinking.”

Probably not?” Aaron glanced at his mother. She was staring at him with intense concentration, but he couldn’t be sure how much she was actually comprehending through the pain meds. “So that… um… that weird feeling, after it was turned on…”

“What feeling?” He looked genuinely perplexed.

“It…it felt kind of like—” Aaron didn’t really know how to describe it. “Floating? Like being…lighter than normal.”

“It was the seizure,” Mom said. Her voice was a little stronger now. “You remember? It was only for a few seconds.”  She thought he’d had a hallucination.

“Oh,” Aaron said, frowning. It hadn’t been the seizure, but Dr. Haley was nodding along with his Mom. Whatever it had been, neither of them had felt it. “Okay.”

“Well,” Dr. Haley continued, “this kind of radiation creates a field of charged particles. Do you know what quarks are?”

“Kind of,” Aaron said.

Physics...physics physics physics...“Hmm. Well, physics,” he said, waving a hand. “It’s complicated. They called it the Resson field, after Lucie Resson, the woman who discovered it. Unfortunately, they ran out of funding before they were able to reproduce it. Until about eight years ago, when we recorded it again. This time it appears to have happened naturally.” He delivered this with extra emphasis on ‘naturally.’

“Is that unlikely?” Aaron asked.

“Oh, very. And that prompted us to dust off some old files and go digging. You know, metaphorically. Try to create it on purpose. I wasn’t really convinced it would work.” He delivered all of this without looking at either of them. “I’m really breaking my contract just by telling you this. But…” Here he pursed his lips and hesitated. “The shielding for the generator wasn’t finished when it was turned on, and you were directly above it. Which means you were exposed.”

“Is it dangerous?” Mom asked. She found Aaron’s hand and held onto it, like she could protect him retroactively.

“As far as we know, it won’t harm you,” he said. “The scientists who discovered it didn’t suffer any side effects, besides a few…abnormalities in their bloodwork. However, they were only exposed to it for about half a minute. This time, the generator was running for almost half an hour.” He swallowed. “If you consent, I’d like to send someone to run some tests, just to be safe.”

“What kind of tests?” Aaron said. Unwelcome images barraged his brain.

“Bloodwork, mostly,” he said, and Aaron relaxed. “Of course, if you have any strange symptoms, you should let us know.” He took off his glasses and cleaned them on his sweater. “I wish I could tell you more. I’m technically not allowed to tell you any of this. I’m going to have to ask you not to repeat it.”

Mom closed her eyes. “Does Ray know about this?”

“He has clearance to, if that’s what you mean. I don’t know how much attention he pays to the science. I’ll speak to him about it as soon as I get a chance.”

“Thank you.”

“Zoe—” He rubbed at his eyes. “If there’s anything I can do—”

She nodded.

With another sigh, he stood and headed toward the door. “Hope you feel better soon. Zoe,” he said. “Aaron.”

When he was gone, Aaron slumped back in his chair, feeling drained all over again. He felt Mom’s hand tremble, slightly, and he looked over to see tears in her eyes.

“Mom? Are you okay?”

“I’m so sorry, Aaron,” she said. “This is all my fault. You didn’t want to go, and I pressured you.” She pulled her hand ouf from under his and pressed it against her face. “You could have been killed and it would have been my fault.”

For a second, he wished he was Lucia, or Carter, or even Selena. Any of them would have known what to say to her. Aaron just felt guilty. If she knew what he’d done…

He took her hand in his. Her slender surgeon’s fingers felt frail and small. “It was an accident. And everything’s okay.” He held her hand for a minute. “You need to get some sleep,” he said. “I’ll bring Carter back after you’ve had some rest, okay? Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”

* * * * *

Aaron found the others at the Mexican place down the street—pretty much the only decent source of food close to the hospital—holed up in an booth in the back corner. “Hey guys,” Aaron said, trying to figure out if there was room for him at the table.

Selena had stationed herself into the corner with her laptop, leaving Carter wedged in the small space left over. Lucia and Brennan had claimed the other side, a bit too intimately for Aaron to intervene. Lucia looked like she might actually be asleep. He slid an extra chair up to the table.

“So what did I miss?”

“Nothing much,” Brennan said. “We just ordered food.”

“How’s Mom?” Carter asked. “Should I go see her?”

“She’s sleeping,” Aaron said. “I told her you’d see her later. Did you get Dad? What did he tell you?”

“Not much. He said he was dealing with the situation, look out for you and mom, see you later.”

“He’s going to have a lot to deal with,” Aaron said. “Explaining how this happened? How people got past security and did so much damage?”

“They’ll keep that part quiet,” Selena said from behind her laptop. “That’s my guess, anyway.”

“Based on what Dr. Haley told me, I think you’re probably right.”

“You saw my dad?” Brennan asked. “I looked for him everywhere and couldn’t find him. I eventually got a text from Mom saying he was all right.”

“Yeah, he stopped by to talk to us,” Aaron said. He filled them in on everything Dr. Haley had told them about the Resson field and the generator.

“That explains a lot,” Selena said. “I finally managed to find the files on the Resson project in the data we stole. I couldn’t understand the specs at all. Do you have any idea how frustrating that was? But it makes sense, if it involves theories I’ve never heard of.”

“Yeah,” Aaron said. “And maybe it explains why they want to steal it. A breakthrough like that has to be worth tons of money.”

“It seems weird to me,” Brennan said. “I mean, this energy field. That no one would have heard of this before, if it was discovered so long ago. Shouldn’t it have been in the media?”

“They had trouble convincing anyone it existed,” Aaron said. “I guess they wanted to keep it quiet after that?”

“That’s not really important right now, anyway,” Selena said. Aaron looked at her in surprise. Normally she was the one who immersed herself in theorizing, while the rest of them had to drag her off of it.

“Why?” he asked.

She glanced around the restaurant, and nudged her computer over so he could see the screen. “This is the security feed from the room the Resson generator was in.” He peered closer. He could make out the man in the suit, standing in front of the machine. The door slammed open, and he saw himself run out and stop cold as the man aimed a gun in his direction.

“This is on the feed? They’ll see this?” Aaron said, alarmed. “Selena—”

“Relax. I took care of it. But I kept a copy because…well, watch.”

It was a little disturbing to see his power from the outside. He saw himself flinch, and then he vanished. Since he knew what he was watching, he saw the flicker of motion as he ran toward the man and disarmed him, and reappeared in front of the wall. The man flew backward—for no apparent reason—and slammed hard into door. But rather than be knocked out by the impact, he rolled slowly to his feet and tread softly across the room, drawing a slim baton and raising it over his head.

Aaron winced as it came down, and he saw himself crumple to the floor. He touched the tender lump behind his ear. “Hurts just watching it,” he said. “Is there a reason you—”

“Just watch.”

The man calmly tucked his baton in his suit jacket, and spent a moment regarded Aaron’s unconscious body. Then he knelt down and bent his head.

“Is he…talking to me?”

Selena nodded and handed him an earbud. “Cameras don’t have sound, but your phone was still on.” She pressed a few buttons on her laptop, and the sound of static and breathing echoed over the picture. “Sorry about that, kid,” he said. “If you knew what was going on, you’d understand. See you around.”

Then he stood up and returned to the generator. Selena took the computer back. “He has plenty of time after that to blow the charges, but he doesn’t,” she said. “He could have picked up the gun and shot you, too.”

“You think it’s because of me?” he said. “Because he saw my power…and he didn’t want to kill me?”

“I guess,” she said with a shrug. “Unless he has a thing about killing kids. But he seemed like the kind of guy that would if he had to.”

“Yeah,” Aaron said. “I don’t think he had a problem with that.”

“What bothers me,” Carter said, “is the fact that this guy saw you and got away.”

“It bothers me that he thinks we’ll see him again,” Aaron said. “Do you think they’re planning something else?”

“It would be nice to get through one catastrophe before we had to deal with another one,” Brennan said.

The food came, and they spent a few minutes sorting it out and digging in.

“So,” Selena said, wiping salsa verde from her fingertips. “Do we tell Molly about this?”

“Which part?” Carter asked. “About what the generator does or the guy who might come after Aaron?”

“No,” Lucia said suddenly. She didn’t open her eyes.

“No?” Brennan asked.

No, I don’t think we should tell her. I think we need to be really careful with Molly.”

“She saved your life,” Brennan said.

“Yes, I know,” Lucia said. “I’m glad she was there. I kind of want to trust her. But…” she sighed. “She’s still hiding something from us. When I questioned her before, any time I talked about her past, I felt…caution, avoidance. There’s something she’s not telling us.”

“You might be right,” Aaron said. “But I think everyone is entitled to some secrets. I mean, she came with you guys, and she could have gotten in serious trouble.”

“We did get in serious trouble,” Brennan said.

“I mean we could have gotten caught.”

“The other thing,” Lucia said, and hesitated. “When she fought those guys, it…the way she went after them… it was kind of scary.”

“She’s had training, that’s for sure,” Selena said. “But she admitted that to us already.”

“Yeah, but… there’s a difference between knowing how to fight, and doing it. We were all terrified. She wasn’t. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a side effect of her power—the adrenaline rush or something that she was talking about. But to me it seemed like… she might have been a little nervous, but mostly it was just…focus. And…it wasn’t all that different from the feeling I got from the mercenaries.”

“So you think she’s… what?” Brennan asked.

“I don’t know. I think there’s something she’s not telling us about. I think… we should be careful. These bad guys showed up around the same time she did.” She sighed and closed her eyes. “I don’t know what to do about it, though.”

They all fell silent. Selena stared thoughtfully at her computer, Brennan stared vacantly at the table. Carter went for another taco. Aaron dipped a chip in the cheese sauce and twirled it around, watching the strings of cheese drip back into the bowl.

“I think we have to tell her,” Aaron said. “Even if she’s not what she seems, she was there. She’ll ask questions. I think we have a better chance of figuring out what she’s hiding if we keep her close.”

“That’s kind of cold,” Carter said. “She came with us, and she didn’t have to.”

“I don’t mean it in a bad way,” Aaron said. “But none of us listened to Lucia when she said Molly was hiding something, and she was right.”

“She did go into that fire last week,” Brennan added. “I don’t know what ulterior motives she’d have for that.”

“I like her,” Selena said. “I want to keep her.”

“She’s not a puppy,” Aaron said. “And I like her too. But…” He gazed across the table and met Lucia’s half-open eyes. “We have to be careful. Especially now that someone out there knows what we can do.”

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