“Where are we going?” Tara asked after about twenty minutes of trudging through the trees. Even after they’d left town, none of her apprehension had lessened. Lucia couldn’t really blame her. If a stranger had tried to drag her into the dark woods alone, her first thought would have been to wonder if she was following a serial killer.
“I told you we’ve got a place, right? It’s not far. A little downstream of the dam.” She pointed with her flashlight, even though the trees were too dense to see anything beside more trees.
“Like a camp?”
“More of a cabin,” Lucia said. “Don’t worry; it’s abandoned. I’m pretty sure no one but us even knows it exists. But there’s heat there, and food. It’s not much further.”
It had been a long, silent hike so far. Tara was too shaken to do much talking, and only Lucia’s occasional prodding kept her moving. For her part, she was more concerned with keeping an eye out for pursuit and worrying about Aaron. Molly and Brennan had circled back to look for him, but so far no luck. And Lucia couldn’t even help. She could listen over the com, but she didn’t risk talking back more than she had to. Her trust with Tara was still paper thin.
As tired and starved as the girl was, Lucia wasn’t certain she’d make it the rest of the way without collapsing. She was tempted to take the girl’s hand and feed her a bit of extra strength, but Tara had made her opinions on that crystal clear. She’d have to resort to verbal stimulation instead.
“So your thing is earthquakes, then?”
“Not exactly,” Tara said. “I can hear vibrations. Enhance them. Stop them.”
“So not just solid objects. Air and stuff too?”
“So that’s how you heard Aaron when he was shifting time. You heard the air moving. That is crazy.”
She flinched, and Lucia could feel how much that hurt.
“Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… I meant it’s… kind of… awesome.” She paused to catch her breath, and watched Tara climb the hill beside her. She offered her hand to help her up the last stretch. Tara glared suspiciously at it, but took it, hauling herself up. The pain still bled out of her, so visceral it took all of Lucia’s self control not to drain it away.
“I really am sorry,” she said as Tara pulled free. “I mean, I don’t know what you’ve been through. But I know what it’s like to feel…like you’re going crazy.” She was aware of Tara’s attention, but she didn’t dare look up. “I’ve been there.”
Tara wrapped her arms around her stomach and started walking again. Lucia took the hint and stopped talking.
Ten minutes later, they made it to the cabin. Tara followed her down the gravel road, with a wary glance to either side, as if she expected someone to jump out and accost them. Which she probably did, judging by the way things had gone tonight.
“The lights are on,” she whispered as they grew nearer.
“We were here earlier,” she said. “Must have forgotten to turn them off. I’ll go first, if you want?” Without waiting for Tara’s answer, she went in. It was only after she shrugged her jacket off and sank into the warm, brightly lit room that Lucia shrugged off her jacket that she realized how cold and tired she really was.
Tara ventured in like a stray animal, peering into the corners as she edged over the threshold. Frowning, she paced a circle around the room, inspecting the chairs, the fridge, and the tables of electronics. She stared a long time at the screen over Selena’s desk, still lit up with the map of the town. White dots blinked at disparate spots on the map, showing each of their locations. Curious, Tara reached toward the tablet plugged into its dock.
“Uh…probably best not to touch that,” Lucia said. “It belongs to a friend of ours and she’s kind of particular about her toys.”
“A friend? Is she….you know?”
“Like us? Yeah.” As Tara wandered along the length of the table, running her fingers over the carefully organized parts of Sel’s latest build, Lucia added: “She’s a technopath. That means she can manipulate technology, basically. Hence all the computers and gadgets and stuff.”
“The way you manipulate people?” she asked.
“Uh…yeah…basically…except…you don’t really have a lot of tact, do you?”
“Well, whatever.” Lucia headed over to the mini-fridge and pored over its contents. “Selena’s kind of obnoxious, but you can trust her with the important stuff.” She pulled out the box of muffins she’d left in there earlier, a water bottle and a bag of apples. “Here, you should eat something,” she said, dumping the stuff on the table. “You’re welcome to anything you want,” she said. “Just leave the cinnamon one for Aaron. They’re his favorite.”
Tara broke of a piece of a muffin and sniffed it before taking a cautious bite. “I thought it was just two of you,” she said. After the first bite didn’t poison her, she peeled away the rest of the wrapper and shoved the whole thing in her mouth. “How many of you are there?”
“Uh…there are just, like…six,” she said with a wince.
Tara’s reaction was about what she expected. Her eyes went wide and darted toward the door like she was preparing to bolt.
“It’s okay,” Lucia started to reach for Tara’s arm, but managed to halt before she made contact. Heart pounding, she stood as still as she could, leaving her arm stretched out, fingers spread, but not quite touching. Very, very, slowly, she lowered it, turning her palm out to show she was retreating. “I’m not going to touch you,” she said. Tara’s panic raced through the room, so hard Lucia could hear it pulsing past her ears. “I’m not going to make you do anything. Just hear me out.” For a long minute, Tara stood stone-still like a cornered rabbit, her hands clenched around the armrests. But then she nodded. Even if everything coming off her still screamed run away, run away, run away, she’d decided to listen.
“My friends and I are like you,” Lucia said, doing her best to keep her voice low and even. “We all have abilities, and we’ve all had to hide them. Almost no one outside the six of us knows anything about it, and we want to keep it that way. I understand that you’re scared. I mean, I don’t know what you’ve been through, but we’ve all had to deal with these powers, what they do to us—we just want to help you.”
Tara’s anxiety hadn’t lessened. “I’ve had people help me before,” she said.
Even without her power, Lucia would have been able to see the deep wounds she was trying to hide. With it….she stared down at her hands. That kind of pain dredged up unpleasant memories. And with that thought, a lot of things clicked into place.
“Oh,” she said. “That’s…” She paused, trying to gather her thoughts. She was used to manipulating people with what they wanted to hear. This was one of those rare occasions where what she needed was honesty. A difficult thing at the best of times. She swallowed, steeling herself.
“I really do understand, you know.” Without looking up, Lucia said, “My friends and I…We have each other now, but we weren’t, like, together or anything when our powers developed. I mean we knew each other, but we went through it on our own.” She twisted the rings on her hand, wishing she could dislodge the cold rock wedged in her gut. “When I—When it started… I didn’t know what I was feeling. I just knew I was feeling too much, and it didn’t make sense. My parents had died, and they said—why do we say that? They, like it’s some disembodied force of authority? They were my teacher, my doctor, my social worker. They said I was bipolar, or maybe schizophrenic. But medication didn’t make it go away, and therapy only went so far. Even after I figured out what was going on—that somehow I was feeling what other people were feeling—I wasn’t about to tell anyone else that. I had to learn to deal with it on my own, and I was still half-convinced I was delusional. You can’t imagine what a relief it was when Aaron told me what he could do. Or, I don’t know…maybe you can?”
She did glance up then, but Tara was just watching her, with that tense, stony expression.
“I can’t turn it off,” Lucia went on. “It’s always there. Like noise in a crowd. You can tune it out, or drown it out, but it’s still there.” She paused, trying to figure out what else to say. But she decided she was done talking about herself. “We aren’t like other people, Tara. When I say we want to help, I mean it.” She sighed and rubbed her hands on the arms of the chair like she could scrub away the last couple of minutes. “I’m going to get a drink. Want anything else?”
Without waiting for an answer, Lucia stalked to the fridge and hunted down a soda. She popped the tab and guzzled half of it on the way back to the desk. She leaned back in Selena’s chair and swiveled around, looking at the map. Nothing much seemed to be happening on it; the Resson waves had all dissipated and the car Aaron had bugged was still slowly roving town.
“What is that?” Tara asked suddenly.
Lucia glanced back to see the girl coming cautiously closer, a fresh muffin in hand. “The map? It’s the town. Selena’s been running scenarios on it. We were trying to… well, we were looking for you, to be honest.”
“Is that how you found me?” A sudden fear seized her. “Can they find me like this?”
“No. Of course not,” she said. “I don’t think so. They may be able to track our powers; they leave…impressions behind. And I don’t mean craters. But they can’t track us as long as we don’t use them.”
Tara frowned at the map. Not reassured at all. Or maybe she was memorizing streets in case she decided to bolt again.
“Hey, any chance you can explain who’s after you? What they want? It would be nice to know what we’re up against.”
“You can’t fight them.”
“Didn’t say we’d be fighting,” Lucia said. “But if they’re after you, they might come after us, too.”
Tara frowned at the map a long time. Whatever internal battle she was going through, Lucia only caught echoes of emotions swirling around as she fought it. At last she said, “They took my brother.”
“Took him? Like, out of your house? Or were you both…” she trailed off, embarrassed.
“On the street?” Tara said. “Not until they started coming after us. We were in a group home together. I…” She trailed off, and Lucia thought she’d stop talking completely. But after a pause, she gathered enough courage to keep going. “When it started, it was like…noise. Everything seemed louder than usual. And then it seemed like I could hear everything, even things that weren’t making sound. And it hurt. They called it sensory disorder. Nothing they did helped. I figured out I could turn the noise back on itself. Make it stop. Everything was quiet, but it was better than the noise. I stopped talking. Stopped listening.” She picked at a loose thread on her shirt. “Went through a bunch of homes. Some of them were nice, but no one wanted to deal with it for very long.”
Lucia tried to imagine what that was like. At least she’d had Sonia. “That’s awful, Tara. I’m sorry.”
“But then I met Kai.”
“And he has powers, right?”
“He can bend light,” Tara said, with a hesitant smile. “He used to make pictures in the air for me. I guess he figured since I didn’t talk, I wouldn’t tell.” The smile faded. “I started to trust him. Once I showed him what I could do, once we could share that…. It didn’t hurt as much. I know he wasn’t really my brother, but it felt like he was.” Her voice cracked. “Then people came for us. A tall woman and an old man in a suit. Called themselves CPS, but we knew something was wrong… Kai and I hid in a closet, and he made an illusion over the door so they couldn’t find it. That night we ran away.” She swallowed. “We had to keep running, because sometimes they would find us. And when we couldn’t hide, I had to break things.” She looked guiltily at Lucia. “I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” she said, voice trembling. Whatever wall she’d built to keep that deep pain in check had started to crumble. “A couple of weeks ago, they caught us again. I got hit with something, knocked down. Kai… Kai used his power to hide me, but…” She wiped at her eyes. “I was just trying to find him.”
“You tracked them? How?”
She stuck a hand in her sweatshirt and pulled out a stained, crumpled business card. It wasn’t much, just a logo and a phone number. On the back, someone had written a different number in blue pen.
“They left this at the home. Kai swiped it before we ran. The number on the front goes to some CPS number, but the other one comes from here. I thought, if I could just find him…” Her shoulders shook. The pain coming off her was so intense that Lucia forgot her promise and slid a hand around her shoulder. Tara tensed at the contact, but just as quickly melted into grief.
“You don’t have to say anything else,” Lucia said, pulling her into a gentle hug. “I understand. We’ll help you get him back if we can, okay? Whatever it takes.”
Maybe that was another promise she couldn’t keep, but right now Tara’s grief was so overwhelming, it felt like her own. “The bad guys,” she said softly, “are you sure they came from here? They’re the ones you’ve been running from?”
With a frown, Lucia searched the map for the dot that marked Aaron’s earpiece. After a minute, she spotted it southeast of the dam, blinking like a beacon by the big, blocky shape that marked the lab.
“Lartech,” she breathed. “Oh, shit.”
* * * *
The first thing Aaron sensed was the sound of a ceiling fan, and a rustling of paper. That and a killer headache. Everything else seemed too distant to really focus on, but it was warm, and it would be so easy just to go back to sleep…
“Looks like that one really took it out of you.”
Aaron snapped awake. The rest of the fog vanished into startling clarity.
Sitting across from him, sipping tea, was Evelyn Lakefield. Even if he hadn’t seen her picture, he’d have known who she was. It was like seeing Molly aged twenty years. Dressed in a lavender sweater and jeans, she looked more like someone’s mom than a super villain. A white coat lay folded on the cheap brown sofa beside her.
He swallowed against the sudden twist in his stomach. “Evelyn.”
She smiled and leaned forward to push a glass of water across the coffee table. “Have something to drink. You sound a little dried out.”
He considered it for a second, but he was thirsty, and it wasn’t like she was going to poison him. Keeping his eyes on her, he took the glass. Her expression didn’t change—pleasant, patient—even when he took a long sip. Aaron took the brief opportunity to look around the room.
It was a cozy, cabin-like living room, wood-paneled and decorated with lake scenes and fishing paraphernalia, complete with a tiny, dated kitchen in one corner. Through the sliding glass doors, he could see the lake glistening past a cluster of branches.
His vision was still in the back of his mind, jumbled images and sounds mixed with a sense of urgency. It was hard to process now, with her watching him like a snake after a mouse.
She waited a minute before she spoke again. “I guess you’re wondering how you got here, but don’t worry. A friend of mine saw you in trouble, and was kind enough to pull you out of it. I thought this would be a safe enough place to bring you.”
“Why, is this your lair?”
She actually laughed. That sounded like Molly, too. “Sadly, my current home doesn’t have a lakeside view. This place is empty, though, and secluded.”
He set the empty glass on the table and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest. “So, this friend of yours—is he anything like our old friend Hugh, or more like the friends who attacked your granddaughter earlier tonight?”
“Neither,” she said, the smile fading. “I do love Molly, very much, and I would never bring serious harm to her. But there is much more at stake here than you realize. If you interfere, then yes, I will stop you.” There was a finality to her tone, a coldness. She may have promised not to hurt Molly, but he noted that she excluded the rest of them from such protections.
“And me? Why bring me here?” He didn’t want to put his suspicions in words—that she was holding him hostage against her “requests” for help. “If you want to threaten us again—”
“Don’t confuse me with those thugs you were running from,” Avalon said. “I only want to talk.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before.”
“I know. And again, I apologize for that. I didn’t intend for things to get so out of hand. I underestimated the extent of his…side effects.”
More than one question fluttered through his mind, but Aaron didn’t want to think about Leveille. “Apology not accepted.”
“Fair enough.” She shrugged. “But I am serious. I only want to talk, and when we’re done, I won’t keep you from leaving.”
“Do you really think you could?”
“Do you really think I couldn’t?” Something darker showed through her pleasant facade. “I’ve studied your ability. It’s impressive, but also somewhat debilitating. If you don’t get better control of it, it might well kill you.”
“Are you a neurologist now, too?”
“No. But, I have experience with powers like yours, and as you mentioned, I have friends.” She let that hang in the air for a minute. “Now, if we are done trading veiled threats, are you ready to listen?”
Aaron crossed his arms and leaned back. “Fine.”
He’d expected a monologue. Maybe even a diatribe. But instead of launching into backstory or propaganda, Avalon shifted aside her coat and pulled free a manila envelope. She tossed it across the table to him.
Despite himself, he was intrigued. Was this information about the Avalon project or the Resson field? Information on the mysterious “suits” her little minions had been so afraid of? Was it about Tara? Slowly, he opened the envelope and slid out a thick stack of paper.
His face was on the top page. It took a moment for the shock to fade enough to take in the text beside it. His name, his birthday, height, weight, the names of his parents. He flipped quickly through the next few pages. His grades, his medical records… A grainy screenshot of security footage from Lartech, just before the jet engine exploded, his silhouette against the window over the hangar.
Carter’s face. An old yearbook photo. Driver’s license, sports records from little league to track. A picture of the car door he’d ripped off in an accident months ago. Heart pounding, he went through the rest of the stack, searching. Lucia was there. In detail, down to her custody hearing and transcripts from her therapist. Brennan, his adoption records and school suspension, graphic photos from his surgery. Selena’s was sparser, and most of it had been redacted. Nothing of Molly explicitly, but there was a file on Azure, including reports on sightings and conjectures on her identity and abilities.
He noticed his hands were shaking. Slowly, he shuffled the files back into a neat stack and looked up at Avalon. She was watching him with something approaching sympathy.
“You aren’t as safe as you think you are,” she said.
“What—” he swallowed as his voice cracked. “You’ve been watching us?”
A faint smile. “I have, but this is not my work. This was part of the data Hugo stole. From Lartech.”
Aaron looked at the packet again, staring at the photocopied image of his own face. “I don’t believe you.” But part of him did. It was weird, but he didn’t feel afraid so much as numb.
“I’m sorry it had to come to you so abruptly,” she said, “but I don’t have the luxury of being kind. You need to understand the danger, and quickly.”
He swallowed. “My father works for Lartech. He does security, he would know about this—”
“He might,” she said. “He might not. Most of the people who work there aren’t involved, or even aware, of any of this. But that’s where it started, and it never really left. I think if you’re honest with yourself, you’ve always suspected that. I’m afraid I don’t know names, so I can’t tell you who to trust. But I would exercise caution.”
“He would never be involved in something like this.”
“If you’re so certain of that, why haven’t you approached him before?”
Aaron didn’t reply. Putting aside his complicated feelings toward his parents and his powers, he needed facts right now, not vindication. “Why now? You said you got this from the break-in at Lartech, but you’re only bringing it to us now that you want something. That’s not the best way to win our trust.”
“It was part of a much larger data grab. It didn’t come to my attention until recently. I’d have brought it to Molly, but she’s proved too hostile and emotional to really listen. I was hoping one of you could have changed her mind.” She took a long sip of her tea and set the empty cup on the table. “You went out to help the girl last night, but they could have just as easily been after you. And they could have taken you, even with your abilities. And don’t think because your Daddy works there, that he could have protected you. It’s possible he doesn’t know anything about it. You would have simply disappeared.”
“We’ve been underestimated before.”
“You’ve been lucky before,” she said. “And whatever reasons they haven’t come after you yet, if they know you have the girl, they will.”
“We don’t have her,” Aaron said. “We cornered her, but she didn’t trust us. She ran.”
Avalon gave him a long penetrating stare, and Aaron had the wild thought that she could read minds, too. But she didn’t contradict him. “Even if you don’t, they may think you do,” she said. “She would be safer with me. All of you would. I won’t waste my time arguing about it, however. That isn’t important. But it is important that we get that blood back. We can get rid of this, too,” she said, pointing at the files.
“So you’re telling me they know who we are and what we can do, and you still think we can break into Lartech.”
“I have resources you don’t,” she said. “And practice at this sort of thing. You help me get what I want, and I can help you erase all of this. We need each other.”
Aaron didn’t respond. He didn’t trust Avalon, but this new information had sent a new panic through him that he wasn’t sure how to cope with. Time. He needed time.
But it seemed Avalon was done talking, for now. She stood and began to gather her coat. “Just think about what I’ve said, Aaron. There’s a car parked outside. The driver will take you anywhere you want to go. Keep the files, look them over. Have Selena, or Codex, whatever you want to call her, look at them too. If you decide to meet, be at the bridge over Coxton Ridge, the one just outside town, tomorrow night at sunset. And please, try not to get my granddaughter in any more trouble.”