A subterranean pulse shattered the rural quiet. Like the lag time between injury and pain, a single sleeping field nestled among a dark landscape of identical plots erupted in a fountain of flaming debris.
The giant, smoldering crater, lanced with the twisted remains of the building beneath, caused a great deal of commotion until the head of the local police received a phone call from a man named Vihaan Dhar.
No one knew the facility existed. Perhaps no one would have ever found out.
An hour past midnight, Heather Brophy heard her dad’s car in the driveway.
She jolted up from the couch and climbed on her knees, shoving the curtains back and peering out the window behind it. The car sat in front of the garage for several long moments. The headlights turned off, and the silhouette of her father sat in darkness.
Long night just got longer, read the last text her mom had received from him two hours ago. Don’t wait up.
But Sue had, and Heather had woken up to see light from the living room still seeping under her door, so even though it was a school night, she had waited too.
“Is it him?” Sue asked from the adjacent couch, nervous.
“Yeah, he’s just sitting there.” She perked up. “No, wait, he’s getting out.”
He wandered up the walk, idly favoring his shoulder. The porch lights caught the edge of his glasses, glinting off a jagged crack in the lens and flooding a bloody, bruising scrape on his face.
Heather pitched back, nearly catching her foot in the cushions and falling off the sofa in her haste to get to the door. She unlocked the bolt and threw it open. “Dad, whathappened?”
“Uh…” Richard Brophy ran a hand through his short black hair. Stray pieces of dirt and grass fluttered to the floor. He stepped into the house, tried to put his keys in his pocket, but he kept missing. He squeezed them in his hand instead. Tightly. “Sue, can we talk in the bedroom?”
Sue glanced from him to Heather, whose shock gave way to dismay. Sue gave him an apprehensive nod.
Richard sidestepped his daughter and ducked into the hallway, leaving Heather standing by the door, aghast and betrayed.
As soon as the door closed, the muffled voices started up. Heather waited until the cadence stabilized, and then crept forward. She snuck into the nearby doorway of her bedroom and leaned against the frame. She still couldn’t hear her parents well, but well enough.
“Please just tell me what happened,” her mother said.
“Larkspur exploded…” Richard said, his voice hoarse. “Can you believe that?” He was further from the door. She heard the faucet turn on in their bathroom.
“Exploded?” Sue gasped. “How? Why?”
“We don’t know. James was with the generator when the alarms started going off, but he didn’t get enough of a chance to figure out what had happened to it before we had to evacuate.”
“I thought you were signing off on that prototype tonight,” Sue said.
“We were. Anything with energy of that caliber is something you have to be careful with, but…” His voice turned hard and shaky. “But darn it, Sue. It wasn’t dangerous like that.” A pause. “Not like that…”
Heather held her breath. Her heart pounded so hard she worried it would give her away.
Richard spoke again, “One moment we were almost ready to go home, the next…Boom.”
“But everyone got out safely?”
“Looks like you cut it close?”
“James couldn’t bring himself to give up on it. I had to pull him away.”
Sue scoffed bitterly. “Attached, was he?”
“We all were,” Richard sighed. “He insisted he could fix it in time but—well, you can imagine. I don’t understand how this could have happened.” His throat tightened and Heather shrank further behind the doorframe. “How can it all be gone?”
“I’m sorry,” Sue said. They sounded like they were both sitting on the bed now. “But you all made it home safely. That’s what matters.”
After a long silence, she said, almost too quietly for Heather to catch, “We can’t keep Larkspur from Heather anymore.”
“I’ll tell her tonight.”
“She can do with a promise tonight. Give yourself time to gather your nerves, at least.”
“I’m okay. Sooner than later’s probably best. But I have to make a few calls first.”
The bed creaked as he stood up again, and Heather hastily took that as her cue to head back up the hallway and pretend she wasn’t a brazen eavesdropper. She couldn’t believe what was happening.
They were finally going to tell her.
James Siles stuck his hand into the darkness of his apartment, clumsily searching for the light switch.
Every muscle in his body hurt.
He thrust the door shut with his foot and kicked off his shoes. He smelled like smoke and earth. He was starting to feel the scrapes and bruises too, now that the rush and panic were wearing off. His hip especially smarted.
He had never been good at running.
James dropped his gaunt frame onto the couch with a grunt and frowned up at the ceiling fan, watching its sluggish revolutions as he gently kneaded the pain in his upper arm.
His work was gone. His equipment, prototypes, the better portion of his most recent projects that had yet to undergo routine backups…. The sketchbook he kept with him at all times had perished as well, along with his laptop, which he had babied and upgraded and enhanced since the first day of graduate school.
Everything. Burned and buried.
James stretched his arms behind his head, wincing at the sharp tweak from the affronted limb.
The matter-to-energy conversion generator had been electrochemically stable, and supplying ample, clean power to the entire underground building. That night was supposed to be the final vigil to see if their efforts to smooth minor snags in the design would hold true. I would have revolutionized the future of electrical infrastructure, had it survived.
James had been calculating and recalculating the variables, but nothing about that night was adding up. The generator wasn’t supposed to be explosive. The failure of the thermoregulatory system on its own was extremely unlikely, and under normal circumstances, the generator would have simply shorted itself out. Maybe a few lightbulbs and subsidiary circuits would have been blown out in the process, but certainly not anything near the annihilation of a fifty thousand square foot facility.
The cooling system had to have been sabotaged, he thought, along with a volatile foreign contaminant introduced to the generator’s sensitive core. He had no proof, of course, but he knew it. What else could it have been?
Larkspur didn’t seem to him the type of company to attract enemies. As part of his work contract, he had to keep details about his clandestine workplace to himself, but that was just protocol. Nothing about the organization or the other engineers had raised any red flags. James certainly hadn’t worked there long enough to hear any dark secrets about why the lab was so far removed from the public eye—or why it was literally underground. He hadn’t thought it important before.
Maybe Eve could lend some insight, as soon as Richard got a hold of her. James knew her as one of the engineering team, but Evangeline Louis had co-founded Larkspur many years before, and had even been the director before Richard. If anyone knew if Larkspur was under fire, it would be her.
James dragged himself to his feet and stalked to the small kitchen to brew some tea. Listening to the kettle creak as it heated on the stovetop, he massaged his temple and contemplated the assortment of boxes in the small cabinet nearby.
Heather sat at the empty kitchen table with her legs propped on the opposite chair, waiting for her parents to reemerge, and trying to stay hopeful.
She didn’t feel sorry for eavesdropping. Over the years, she had tried both pestering them for answers and respecting their privacy, trying to be understanding of their reasons for keeping it from her. Nothing worked.
Younger kids couldn’t keep secrets, but Heather was fifteen now. Her parents were stubborn and determined to shelter her but tonight, more than ever, she had a right to know.
She didn’t look up as the door to her parents’ bedroom opened down the hallway.
“Okay, Heather,” Richard sighed, pulling out the chair across from her. She rescinded her legs, and her dad eased himself into the seat. “Tonight the secret ends.”
She glanced at her mom, then back to him. “Really?”
Richard nodded. “We can’t keep this from you any longer, especially as what happened tonight might end up—changing some things.” He folded his arms on the table. Before Heather could ask what that meant, he continued, “So—to be brief, I’m a mechanical engineer, which I’m sure you’ve already figured out by now.”
Heather bobbed her head in concession. She had long suspected her father’s work had something to do with his acute fascination with the mechanical. There was usually something around the house he was taking apart, or tinkering with. While acting as a chaperone for her fourth-grade field trip to a bread factory, he had inadvertently spent the entire tour plaguing the guide with highly technical questions about the machinery.
“I’m the director of an engineering laboratory called Larkspur,” he said. “Tonight, our latest project—a generator prototype—overloaded somehow, and it destroyed the entire facility. My workplace was stationed underground, so evacuation was…messy.”
Heather stared at him.
“But everyone was okay.” He held up his palms. “Honest.”
Silence closed in on the kitchen. Richard removed his glasses, fidgeting with the rims.
He used to be a university professor, Heather knew. Shortly after her eighth birthday, he had started working longer hours. They moved into a better neighborhood and her mom left the workforce. He’d accepted a different job, but no one would tell her what it was.
“Why did you wait until something horrible happened to tell me?” she asked finally.
“Because we had to be sure,” Richard said. “Larkspur has to be kept a secret.”
And because we couldn’t trust you, Heather wanted to add. “Why?”
“Government nondisclosure agreements, mostly. When you’re making new technology, you have to be careful no one steals an idea and patents it first,” he said.
“The whole facility has to be a secret just so you can get a patent?”
Richard hesitated. “No. Something also happened a long time ago in Larkspur’s younger days that stirred up some trouble. So, right now, the company’s obscurity is just an an all-around better situation.”
“What did you guys do?” Heather asked.
“It was before my time,” he said. “And it’s not really my story to tell, anyway.”
“But you do know the story.” Heather studied him. “How bad was it?”
“Please don’t worry, Heather. It’s all in the past and Larkspur’s moved on. It had nothing to do with what happened tonight.”
Ambiguity only triggered more questions. His workplace had some kind of past and, tonight, he was put in extreme danger by its sudden destruction. Refusing to elaborate pushed the assumption toward culpability on Richard’s part.
Heather had always trusted he meant well, but now she couldn’t be sure her warm, geeky father was all he professed to be.
“If it’s in the past,” she said, “it really shouldn’t matter if you tell me anymore, should it?”
“I’d be betraying the trust of a friend,” he answered gently, though there was a cornered edge to his voice. “Just as, now, you must honor my trust in keeping my job a secret.”
Heather folded her arms on the table. She knew honoring wishes well. The last seven years had practically suffocated in it. Don’t talk about Dad’s work. Not even about it being a secret. Because it’s important that it stays a secret. No, you can’t know why.
Nothing had changed.
“You know,” she said, staring moodily at the table, “when you said you were going to tell me about Larkspur, I thought you actually meant it.”
“I do mean it. I don’t like keeping things from you,” he said earnestly. “Don’t you think I wouldn’t love to tell you all about my work if I could? But there are rules, protocol above even my pay grade—”
Heather’s expression only darkened in exasperation.
Richard gave up. He reached under the un-cracked side of his glasses and rubbed his eye with a heavy exhale.
“Heather,” her mom said, rubbing her shoulder, “give your dad some time. He’s been through a lot tonight.”
“I know,” Heather sighed. “Sorry, Dad. It’s just…with all this, I feel like I don’t know you.”
“You do know me,” Richard said. “If I get more clearance, I can tell you more. I just really don’t want to make promises I can’t keep. We’ll just have to see, okay?”
Heather’s gaze fell. “Okay.”
After a long silence, Richard stood up, shakily. “Come here…”
Heather dragged herself out of her chair and met him halfway. He wrapped his arms around her.
“I’m glad you’re safe, Dad,” she said, hugging him back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to start grilling you.” It was sinking in that he was lucky to have come home at all.
“It’s okay,” he said softly. He kissed her head and docked his chin on top. He sighed.
Sue joined the embrace.
“Can I stay home from school tomorrow?” Heather asked.
“No, sorry,” both her parents said in imperfect unison.
“We don’t know how fast this will spread,” Sue said. “You turning up absent might not be the wisest move we could make right now.”
“No one will notice I’m gone,” Heather muttered. High school hadn’t been good to her so far. She wasn’t at all popular and her one friend from junior high had recently moved to a different state.
“They will,” Sue said. “You normally have such good attendance. It might be too much of a coincidence.”
She guessed people noticed when the overachiever of all her classes turned up absent. But overachievers got sick sometimes just like everyone else.
Maybe this really was all so much worse than anyone would ever tell her.
“Okay,” she said finally. “Whatever you need, Dad. If it’ll help.”
“Thank you.” He kissed her again and the hug fragmented. “Now, bedtime for me,” he said with a weak smile, already on his way out of the kitchen. “I’m exhausted.”
Word traveled quickly at school, incited by the students whose households watched the early morning news. Homeroom became an impromptu political club and Heather stayed silent. Whatever was going on with her dad, she didn’t want to make it worse.
“I bet it was a secret headquarters for some government agency,” one of her classmates said, perched on the desk across from her with his feet on the chair. “My dad says President Ferrens is up to something super shady these days. We’re all gonna pay for it soon.”
“Please, Beni,” Laura groaned from the desk beside Heather. “It’s too early in the morning for this.”
“Never too early!” Beni said. “It’s a strain on the economy, and we’re already practically in a dictatorship, mark my words.”
“You’re talking like you’re gonna join the Conxence yourself or something.” Another classmate who’d just arrived cuffed his arm on his way past.
Beni straightened, suddenly. He snapped his fingers. “That’s it! Mason, I’ll bet you anything it was them! Last night.” He swiveled around to face the newcomer, throwing his arms out. “What else could it be?”
Heather glanced at the doorway, but their teacher had yet to appear.
“Conxence?” Laura droned, skeptical. “This far east? Not a chance.”
Heather silently agreed with her. The Conxence—formerly the non-militarized “Conscience Movement”—was established by civilians with the purpose of calling the troubling political climate to accountability. Currently demonized as an uncontrollable rash of vigilantes and terrorists, the Conxence was mainly active in the nation’s capital, at least three time zones west.
“They do like blowing stuff up when they can,” Mason said.
“I’m sure whatever happened last night was just an industrial accident,” Laura said.
“Didn’t you see footage of the site?” asked Mason.
“It was crazy!” Beni grinned at him. He turned it on Laura, who remained unconvinced.
As Beni proceeded to describe the video coverage of the aftermath with as many sound effects as possible, Heather tried to act like her hackles weren’t raising.
A crater, he said. The facility’s demise had made a crater. In a rural area. Small towns, farmlands.
A charred, skeletal, crater.
The one that had almost claimed her dad’s life.
Heather should have thought to watch the news that morning—but she had barely caught the bus. And maybe her dad wouldn’t have let her near the TV or internet anyway. She didn’t know what she’d find when she returned home that afternoon.
She started making plans to spend her lunch hour in the library at one of the computers. Maybe it was good she was at school, where her dad couldn’t interfere.
Still, if Larkspur was tied up in the government, that first confused local news story would be all the information to get out.
Heather fidgeted with the edge of her sea green hairband. She opened her notebook and tried to look busy.
Did her parents think they were protecting her by pushing her to the margins and rejecting her from a key part of their world? Especially now, when she had no idea what they were dealing with and had no ability to prepare. Was the Conxence after her dad?
He’d probably never tell her if they were.
A short stack of printed pages slapped down on the table in front of James, over top of where he sketched cartoon robots on loose paper. The eight-year-old halted and picked up the foreign pages, reading over the impossibly long title. “What’s this?”
“Scholarly journal article,” his father said, planting himself at the table across from James with a mug of black coffee.
The boy perused the excruciatingly small print. “What’s it for?”
“It’s a primary document. I’ve told you about them,” came the curt reply. “You remember what they are, right?”
“I mean yes,” James amended. “It’s a report from research someone did themselves, isn’t it?”
His father nodded, reclining back with an air of indifference. “Very good. We’re going to go over one of these every day.”
Dread pricked at James’ insides. “Why?”
“Because you need to learn about my field. And you need stimulation worthy of your gifts.”
“Oh. Okay.” James flipped a page over and scanned the thick, unintelligible columns. Even the graphs of the results made no sense to him. “What is—” He paused as he thought about how the word might be pronounced, “Ace-till-cho-line?”
“It’s pronounced ‘uh-seetul-koh-leen,’” his father’s tone snapped slightly. “Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter.”
“Oh.” James had heard about neurotransmitters.
“It seems we have our work cut out for us,” his father sighed, looking at his watch. He stood, washed the rest of his coffee down the sink, and strode to the door. He donned his coat and shouldered his black briefcase.“We’ll go through that when I get back. Concentrate on your studies today, all right, James?”
“All right.” James watched him go, then got up and pulled the schoolwork list off the refrigerator. Words overwhelmed the strip of paper, as usual. Luckily, his mother had written this one.
She had better handwriting.
James sat pinned between the wall and the conference table, distant and disillusioned.
“Now, let’s sort all this out, then.” Vihaan Dhar, a middle-aged man with sturdy posture and a well-kept black mustache let his gaze wander around the table. “What happened?”
The engineers exchanged uncertain glances, seated across from Dhar, Richard, and Eve.
Dhar’s attention rested squarely on James. “Siles, care to start us off? Since you were most directly involved?”
“I’d love to,” James sighed. The particulars of the event had kept him awake most of the night.
“With as much detail as you can,” Eve added, pushing her square glasses higher on the bridge of her wide nose.
James laced his fingers together on the table, wondering if they were discussing a fireable offense that morning. “Okay…Well, I went in the generator room to make the last checkup of the night, and I noticed the room was warmer than it was supposed to be. I only had time to pull up the status screen for the generator and thermoregulatory system and see it had frozen up before the alarms activated.”
“What time was this?” Dhar asked.
“11:46pm.” Every feature of that glitched screen sat etched in his memory.
“So there were no prior warnings that something was malfunctioning?” Eve asked.
“Everything was fine when I’d checked it just an hour before, and none of the sensors went off,” Addie Matthews spoke up to James’ left.
“The cooling system had been damaged somehow,” James said. “The pipes were too quiet. And the automatic failsafe should have easily triggered at the temperature the core hit. I didn’t get a chance to check if it had been disconnected.”
“So, you think the safeguard had been manually deactivated?” Eve asked.
“I don’t know how, but yes,” James said. “I tried to flood the system with the emergency water valve, but even that wheel was jammed.” He gestured to Richard. “That’s when Richard found me and made me leave it.”
Richard glanced at him.
James couldn’t meet his gaze. Never in his life would he have expected his superior to have to all but drag him off the platform. James should have had more maturity, more self-restraint, even though he hadn’t realized this particular evacuation was a matter of life or death.
“I’m told you think it’s sabotage,” Eve said.
James felt like a bullseye as all attentions trained on him again. “Nothing about the generator’s design or the limits of its safeguards suggested it would behave the way it did.” He pushed aside a memory of the unresponsive valve under his desperate hands, alarms screaming in his ears, Richard’s voice failing to clear the din. “Someone had to have tampered with it. Blocked the pressure outlets, fed it an unstable source material for conversion. Something.”
“Could there have been a problem with the irrigated water supply?” Eve asked.
“Still waiting to hear back on that,” said Dhar. He looked around the table. “And where were the rest of you while this was going on?”
Greg Harper, a tree of a person with a heavily freckled face, spoke up, “We were all in the main lab powering through blueprints for the new A.I. project commissioned last week. It was James’ turn to check the generator, so he stepped away for a bit.”
“How long was he gone?”
“A few minutes?”
“Did any of you see anything out of place before this point?”
“No,” Chelo Fernandez said. She glanced around at her colleagues. “It was just the five of us out there, wasn’t it? Nobody was on security duty?”
“The last shift of the night had ended over half an hour before,” said Addie, reaching behind her head to gather her long blond braid and pull it over one shoulder. She cracked a thwarted smile. “I would suggest we check the video surveillance recordings for anything suspicious, but of course we can’t.”
A similar expression tugged at the edges of Chelo’s features.
“Larkspur doesn’t have any enemies, does it?” Richard glanced at Eve. James perked up.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Eve replied. “We don’t do anything to warrant animosity from anyone. As far as I know, most everyone who still remembers Larkspur thought we went under almost twenty years ago.”
“This is the worst sort of thing to happen if we wanted to stay behind the scenes,” Greg mused. “Did any of you see the news this morning? I agree it seems out of left field, but we have no apparent perpetrator. James, are you absolutely sure it wasn’t just an accident, because it’s perfectly fine if—”
“It wasn’t an accident,” James said. “We’re smarter than that.”
“Mistakes can be made by any of us,” Greg said. “Even you.”
James bristled. “I didn’t do anything to it.”
“We didn’t say you did,” Richard said gently, pushing up on the bridge of his broken glasses. “We just have to consider every possibility.”
“You can safely consider that possibility a dead end,” James said, avoiding looking too long at Richard’s glasses.
“But you do actually believe it was sabotage?” Greg pressed. “Despite a deafening lack of evidence?”
James threw up his hands.
After a beat of charged silence, Dhar checked his phone and pushed his chair back. “Well, I’ve received word about where we’ll set up shop next. I’ve had my administrative assistant making phone calls and looking into the Bureau’s assets still invested in this little engineering lab of ours. Seems like the outlook is promising. Talk amongst yourselves until I get back.” He paused at the door. “I know you’re all shaken by this, but let’s try to work together, all right?”
Richard studied the friction between James and Greg in concern. Chelo and Addie exchanged a glance. James crossed his arms and Eve sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“Thanks, Greg,” James muttered as soon as the door closed behind Dhar. “I can always count on you to make me look bad in front of the head of the Bureau.”
“You’re the one who got defensive,” Greg said, failing nonchalance. “I haven’t gotten a rise out of you like that in quite a while. Is there something you aren’t telling us?”
James frowned at him from the corner of his eye. “Like how I’m aware that, since I largely designed that monitoring system, this makes it my fault? And that there’s no way to recover the technology to get some sort of readout of what exactly happened to it?”
“You said it, not me,” Greg retorted over Chelo and Addie’s heads.
Chelo dealt Greg a sharp elbow to the arm. “Stop bickering.”
“Sorry,” Greg mumbled, shifting away. He massaged his arm, redirecting his attention to the brooding James. “All I’m getting at, Surly, is there’s really no evidence for or against you. I don’t doubt your confidence in your work. It’s always super high quality. But accidents do happen, so you can be as adamant as you want but we’ll still never know for sure. At any rate, crying ‘sabotage’ isn’t helping you.”
“So we’re just going to ignore the possibility,” James muttered. “How responsible.”
“You’re being paranoid.”
“James…” Addie said softly as Chelo gave Greg another warning expression. “I know what it looks like, but nobody had reason—”
“I collaborated on those designs and signed off on them,” Chelo said. “For all we know this could be my fault.”
“There was nothing wrong with that system.” James leaned forward so he could see her better, his hazel eyes hard and stubborn. “You of all people should be backing me up here.”
Chelo looked at the table.
“Will we receive results of the investigation?” Addie addressed their superiors across the table.
“Yes,” Richard said. “I don’t think they’ll find anything, though.”
James crossed his arms and sat back, morose.
In the ensuing silence, Eve said, “It’s only the first day. Things will start looking up soon.”
Dhar entered with several sheets of paper in hand and said, “Looks like you’ll be moving back to the old facility near Worthing.”
He was met with blank stares.
“Worthing?” Greg said, worried. “Like west coast Worthing?”
“Afraid so,” Dhar said.
“That’s a good facility,” Eve said. “And above ground too, which sounds perfect to me.” She smiled. “Underground was nice and secretive at first, but now I’m not sure it was such a great idea in the long haul.”
Richard flashed a reserved, lopsided smile of his own. “I’ll admit I agree with you there. Though I think we’re all a little worried about the distance…”
“It’ll be advantageous to have you back near the Bureau’s main office again.” Dhar handed James copies of the location information, who received them wordlessly, took one sheet, and passed on the rest.
“The original facility’s been closed down for years.” Eve scanned the page. “How extensive will the renovations be?”
“I’ll take care of that.” Dhar returned to his seat next to him. “How much time will you all need to relocate?”
Again, silence closed in on the narrow room. Worthing was on the opposite side of the country. Over two thousand miles away.
James decided to let the others figure out what they wanted to do. By the end of the week, he’d have already gone through work withdrawal and taken up tinkering with other projects on his kitchen table. He didn’t have anyone else to move but himself. It wasn’t his call.
He didn’t feel like arguing anymore, anyway.
“Heather will be out of school for the summer in about three weeks,” Richard said, thinking. “I’d hate to pull her out that close. Would a month be too long?”
“A month should be fine.” Dhar jotted notes on a legal pad. “The danger of complete exposure isn’t particularly high. If the Dunesborough Police Department isn’t releasing information—which they have express federal orders not to—people can speculate, but nothing will be able to be traced back to us.” He considered everyone around the table. “Would a month work for the rest of you? We’ll compensate you for moving expenses and any lease breaking fees.”
James nodded. The remaining engineers confirmed, numbly.
“Great.” The head of the Federal Bureau of Science and Innovation pulled out his phone. “Mark your calendars, then, for Monday, June twenty-fourth as the date to report to the new facility. Let me know if you have any questions.”
The engineers looked at their handouts, exchanging uneasy glances.
“I know it’s a lot to ask of you,” Dhar said. “But I do think this will be a good move. Twenty years is a long time under the table. Maybe after relocating, Larkspur can start expanding again, resurfacing. We’ll shelve the generator for now until we have more information, but with this A.I. project you’re moving into, I think you’ll soon find a lot more resources coming your way, if I have any say in it. I’m pretty partial to this group, to be honest.”
“Thank you, Vihaan,” Eve said.
James stared at the table, pensive. He hadn’t been at Larkspur that long, so he knew nothing about its origins, or what resurfacing meant.
He guessed he would soon find out.
No sooner had Heather stepped through the front door than her mother asked her to take a seat in the living room.
A hard knot sat in the pit of her stomach as her parents settled down on the adjacent couch.
At school, she’d tried to access what the news was saying about Larkspur’s demise. Homeroom’s gossip had about summarized it, and by lunch hour, the urgency of the event had been quelled. Just a non-radioactive industrial accident, local police said. A little embarrassing, but nothing to worry about.
“I had a meeting with my coworkers and my boss today,” Richard began quietly. “There’s no way to recover anything from the remains of the facility, and we don’t want to kick up any more dust. It’s looking like it would just be better if we relocate, instead of trying to rebuild.” He adjusted his broken glasses, and looked up to meet her gaze. “We’ll be moving to a vacant facility outside Worthing, an hour south from the national capital.”
Heather straightened up. “We’re moving to the west coast?”
Richard nodded. “In a month. I’m sorry, Heather.”
“There have to be other labs around here that would work,” Heather pleaded, indignant.
“It would take too much time.”
“Too complicated and expensive, you mean.” Heather snapped. “The government can better cover for you if you’re closer to them, right?”
Richard straightened up. “What? No—I mean, sure Larkspur is federally funded, but it’s just we already own that other facility. There would be no property hunt, no leasing papers, no down payments on top of replacing all our equipment—Heather, stop looking at me like that…”
“Like what?” Heather crossed her arms.
Richard gestured at her. “Like I’m…plotting world domination or something.”
“Well how should I know you’re not?” Heather retorted. “Why won’t you tell me what’s really going on?” Her life was here. If they took that, she would have nothing but old secrets and a new barrier of anonymity to suffocate behind. “I’m part of this family too. Why am I the only one that has to be kept in the dark? Like I’d be okay with getting dragged into the fallout when your secrets come back to bite you.”
“Heather—” Sue said firmly.
“Did the Conxence destroy Larkspur?” Heather pressed. “It’s all right. You can tell me!” Richard looked up, startled. “Dad, this isn’t protecting me from anything.”
“You’re not in danger,” he said. “What happened at the lab last night was just an accident. Nothing more.” He met her gaze. “Heather, I don’t tell you everything you want to know about Larkspur because some of it just isn’t relevant anymore, and I don’t want to pull it up again. My job still requires a lot of secrecy. It’s something I didn’t put into place, but it’s something I need to honor. Please, believe me.”
Heather glanced aside, glaring at the far arm of the couch.
“I know asking you to give up your life here for something I’ve kept from you is incredibly unfair,” Richard went on. “But this is how things are right now, and I need you to trust me that things will be okay. And you know, maybe things will change for the better…”
Heather sank further into the couch, hunching her shoulders, refusing to look at him. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself too.
“We can find a nice house in a quiet area, maybe out in the country,” Sue offered, attempting a reassuring smile. “You can choose whatever school you want. What about private school? The west coast is known for its high caliber academics, and we know how bored you’ve been at school this year.”
Heather glanced at her, warily.
Academia she could get behind was tempting. She didn’t have friends anyway. But this wasn’t just about moving away. Dunesborough was what she knew. For so long, Heather had ached to be a part of her parents’ reality, but they had refused to let her in. They had created this one for her instead. They couldn’t dangle a new one in front of her face and think she’d instantly grasp for it.
She looked at her dad. He sat still, his eyes tired and melancholy behind the round lenses of his glasses. He was massaging his shoulder.
“You’re sure you’re not in trouble?” Heather asked.
He cracked a wan smile. “Not the kind you think I’m in, apparently. Things are confusing right now, but we’ll make sense of them together.”
“Yeah…” Heather stood up and went to the door. She grabbed her bag and hoisted it over her shoulder. “I have homework I need to get to.”
“Okay,” Richard said, quietly. “We’ll be sure to keep you included in the details of the moving process. We’d like your input.”
“Thanks.” Heather stepped dismally into the shadows of the hallway.
She didn’t believe him.
The night was far too warm. James opened every window in his apartment, intending to spend most of the night under the largest of the four. Glaring at the broken thermostat on his way through the living room, he planted a box fan in the window next to his desk.
Bombarded by its raucous hum, James set to work on his desktop computer sifting through the files on his backup external hard drive. He was relieved to find he’d kept it up to date with data related to their errant generator. The accident had incinerated his notebooks reserved for the project, but at least he had this. He combed through endless lines of coding having to do with the project’s regulation systems and failsafes, searching for typos, faulty logic pathways, anything.
He heaved an exasperated sigh, and cradled his head in his hands. They’d tested and re-tested the system’s integrity before building it to scale and employing it to power the facility. It had been functional in the shorter tests in the two weeks leading up to the night it perished.
He could still picture every detail of Larkspur’s last few minutes. Checkup, rise in temperature, malfunctioning screen…
There was nothing wrong with his and Chelo’s program.
The investigation into the accident had turned up nothing helpful, as expected. Nothing salvageable remained. No trace of an explanation. James knew he was alone in thinking it was anything other than an accident.
Trying to convince them any more would only work against him. Sabotage or not, the facility’s destruction was senseless, and they were already going to increase security just in case.
He wasn’t at Larkspur to defend its interests, anyway. He was only there to create, to manufacture progress.
So, James could let it go, he told himself. He had to. He was already overzealous about his work, so he might as well keep that reputation from bleeding into straight up neurosis. He knew he was right, but he also knew that didn’t matter.
Unfortunately, accepting it also meant accepting his colleagues still wondered if it was his fault.
And wondering what Richard must think of him in that light made James sick to his stomach.
Heather knew this was a peacemaking gesture.
She peered out the car window at the yellow, two-story house and the looming cherry trees. While she appreciated the prospect of meeting one of her dad’s colleagues, the arrangement still felt patronizing.
A large white storage pod blocked the driveway at the edge of the verdant yard.
“Are you sure about this?” Heather asked as Richard killed the engine. “This seems like a breach of code to me.”
“Eve and Jida are excited to see you.” Richard opened the door.
Heather sighed and got out of the car.
“So she’s your colleague?” she muttered, following her parents up the driveway, past the pod, and to the top of the porch steps.
“Is she the ‘friend’ you’re protecting?”
“Heather…” Richard rang the doorbell. “Just forget about that, please.”
Heather’s lips tightened. Richard couldn’t tell her about the past, yet she was meeting his colleague—who didn’t even live all that far away from them. Her dad had offered Evangeline Louis’ name, but when Heather asked about other people he worked with, he had brushed aside the question with another excuse. So what was different about Eve, she wondered.
She was beginning to think her dad was making all this up as he went along.
The door opened to reveal an older woman with broad shoulders, very short coiled hair, and square glasses, whom Heather presumed to be the colleague.
“Hello there, Brophys!” she greeted. Her warm, husky voice sounded like it came straight from an old radio show. A petite woman wearing roomy overalls and a bright pink shirt appeared in the doorway beside her. Eve extended a hand. “Nice to see you again, Sue.”
As Sue shook it, Eve’s smile rested on Heather. “Hey Heather, how’s it going? You were only this tall when I last saw you!” She held her hand to knee height. “Do you remember us? I’m Eve, and this is Jida.”
Heather nodded and put on a smile. She had to have been taller than Eve’s gesture. She vaguely recognized their faces. She might have been eight years old when she met them, but at the time, she had just thought they were acquaintances or professors from where her dad used to work.
Eve threw an arm across the other woman’s shoulders as Jida extended a hand. She had a surprisingly firm handshake. “Great to see you again too, Heather. My, aren’t you grown up! How old are you now?”
“Fifteen,” Heather said.
“Wow,” she looked at Heather’s parents. “Growing up so fast.” She shoved her hands into the pockets of her overalls, glancing back into the house. “Thanks for coming over. We can definitely use the extra elbow grease.”
“Our pleasure,” Richard said brightly, as she waved them inside.
Heather’s gaze wandered the emptied walls. She almost tripped over a pile of boxes stacked in the living room.
“Careful there,” Eve reached out to catch her if she fell, but Heather stopped with her balance intact.
Jida headed toward a sunny doorway at the back of the house. “I’ve been packing up the kitchen, if Sue and Heather want to help me with that.” She glanced at her spouse. “Did you and Richard want to start hauling furniture to the pod?”
“Yes ma’am,” Eve said. Richard nodded, and Heather wordlessly followed her mom through the city of boxes to the kitchen, pulling her thick hair back into a ponytail.
Richard and Eve launched into figuring out how to haul the furniture outside and efficiently stack it in the pod. Heather helped Jida and Sue wrap dishes in newspaper, pack them into boxes and label them. Richard and Eve filtered in and out of the main room, having jumped to a completely different subject every time Heather saw them from the doorway.
She was taping up a box when they came back in for the eighth time.
“I guess the others are leaving too, in a few days,” Eve said. She and Richard disappeared down the hallway. “Haven’t heard much from James, though.”
Heather strained to hear, trying to keep the tape in her hands as soundless as possible. Her mom was talking with Jida, which made the engineers’ conversation in the other room even more difficult to make out.
“I talked to him yesterday,” Richard said. “He hasn’t started packing yet.”
Eve scoffed. “Is that so?”
A thump interrupted their conversation.
“Watch that corner—” Eve said.
Heather pushed a box aside and pulled another in front of her.
“So Heather,” Jida spoke up, making Heather jump. “Your mom tells me you’re finishing the ninth grade?”
Heather nodded, still listening for further mention of James or others, but they weren’t talking much anymore.
“How are you liking high school so far?”
“It’s okay.” Heather took a plate from a stack on the table and wrapped it in newspaper.
She wanted to ask Jida about Larkspur’s past, but Sue was there. And Eve was near her dad. Heather didn’t dare broach the subject with her parents within earshot.
But as she continued packing and talking with Eve and Jida, an idea took shape. An idea her dad wouldn’t like, but one she decided to pursue anyway.
Erika Davenport had been trekking along an unmarked logging road for miles now. The hills between the valley and the coast held a deeply reverent place in her heart, the dark green and mossy brown of the flora, the misty hush that cradled every inch of the cold, soft soil.
So soon after her mother’s passing, more than ever, she needed this place to be her refuge. But to learn the government’s rumored gestating ground for human weaponry research lived here too, her grief twisted into a sharp black knot in her chest and she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Empetrum. 44º15’01” N 123º49’28”W
The name and coordinates were all the Conxence knew so far. Infuriatingly, it was all the information the head and second-in-command were content with for the time being.
“Your energies are better spent here,” the former had said. Kaczmarek wasn’t a mean person, but his bluntness was often frustrating. He had everything mapped out. When he looked at her, she felt as if he were looking into her brain and trying to map her out too. “There are probably dozens of similar labs hidden around. No sense stomping off into the woods after one federal stain with so little information. ”
“The facility’s got to be highly secure,” the second-in-command added, soft and earnest. Derek was a young man but an old soul, who had succeeded to his mother’s position in their ragtag resistance movement upon her abduction by the state. “It’s too much of a risk. We should wait, concentrate on more pressing concerns until we have more information.”
“Drop it,” Kaczmarek said. “You’re not combat trained, and it’s a conflict of interest besides.”
“I know this is important to you, but just give it time,” Derek said, trying to smooth it over. He was always trying to smooth everything over. “I’m sure it will show up again, and we’ll be better prepared to deal with it.”
Kaczmarek was a control freak and Derek was a worrywart, Erika thought with a huff as she trudged on. With pressure tightening, no one was sure what they were up against, what was festering under the surface. Any new development could be too late. The sheer possibility that human weaponry was becoming a variable was outrageous, and they couldn’t deny the government would keep its secrets unless someone dug them up.
Erika stepped around a large puddle in the road. The frogs were out, chirping in the saturated stillness. The air smelled so good here. She double checked her GPS. She was on track, moving closer. Soon she would have to take it much slower, leave the path and skirt a circle around the spot, moving slowly forward until she caught a glimpse.
At the very least, she needed to see what this abomination of a facility looked like.
Night had long since fallen by the time Erika got her first glance of Empetrum.
A tall, chain-link fence wrapped the perimeter in a grid punctuated by narrow brick pillars. Snarls of barbed wire stretched across the top, and the light of the waxing moon glinted off thick, ugly shards of glass set into the tops of the pillars.
Signs severely warning off trespassers dotted the fence, as if the barrier weren’t already sinister enough.
Beyond the fence lurked more trees, with no man-made sounds to disturb them. She could see no signs of installation except for a single distant light, winking in and out as the wind stirred the foliage. After skirting the fence for a while, hoping the facility was visible at some point, she came upon something even better—a fallen tree, smashed straight through a portion of the fence from a recent storm. The supports on one side had snapped free of their toothy pillar, just wide enough for her to squeeze through.
Coyotes yipped and cried, miles away. Erika pulled the cuffs of her jacket closer and stood still, listening, watching.
Another half a mile of uninhabited land and beyond another fence, at the back of an open concrete courtyard, lay the facility: a stoic bulk of brick and steel with tall, thin windows. Accessory buildings hunched in the eerie darkness beyond, still and silent, peppered with illumination from the inhabited rooms within. Crouched close to the barrier, she watched the figures of guards patrolling the grounds. Monstrous flood lights stood dark and waiting, perched on top of thick poles planted throughout the courtyard.
A sudden light from the side blinded her as a voice barked, “Hey! You there!”
Erika took off.
Footsteps pounded behind her. Two sets: one closer, one farther. The angry beam of a flashlight shone dead on her as she dodged between the thinner trees in the section, making a beeline for the breach in the fence. Her lungs were strong, the trees crowded close together beyond the fence. If she could just slip through…
She heard a pop, and something sharp embedded itself in the meat of her shoulder. She gasped, but she had no time to check for a wound.
One moment she was close to freedom, her gaze locked and determined, thinking maybe she wouldn’t tell anyone about this—especially not the Conxence. The next, her legs were buckling and she collided with dirt. Ferns and sticks whipped her face on the way down.
The guards caught up. A beam of light pointed in her face. Erika grasped fistfuls of leaves and mossy ground, trying to get her limbs to move, to drag herself forward, but her body wouldn’t respond. Her eyes lost focus. A high-pitched ringing filled her ears.
The earth pressed damp and cold against her face as she succumbed.