All six piled into the elevator, and the massive door closed behind them. To say the elevator wasn’t much too look at would have been a lie. The walls were lined with mahogany paneling while the floor was marble tile. There were no buttons a traditional elevator would have had, there was, however, a metal panel similar to the one on the outside which Paul placed his watch over before pressing a few numbers on the illuminated keypad. The elevator reeled and began to descend. The display above the door started counted from one and increased as they went further and further into the earth.
“How far does this go?” said Lilly to Paul.
“Ah, I think this one goes some 120 feet to the uppermost level. We’re heading down to the third level, so, I guess a 150 feet or so.”
Lilly, nor the other four kids, asked any other questions on their descent. Reaching their destination with another stopping lurch of the wood box they were in Paul called into his mic to inform someone he was coming out of the elevator. The massive doors slowly opened.
“They’re bombproof,” said Nolan, the other security guard that was riding with them, to nobody in particular.
“I’m sorry?” asked Aja.
“The elevator doors, they’re bombproof and slow. This,” he said waving his hands, “is something of a bomb shelter that was created after 9/11.”
“Oh,” Aja answered with an air of being unimpressed in her voice. She didn’t mean to sound as if she was rude- she just didn’t see the impressive nature of the fact.
The group, led by Paul, stepped out of the elevator onto a catwalk platform which encircled the enormous space, an empty void that seems to have been a perfect cylinder shape. It’s as if someone took the world’s most significant core sample and left the hole. From where the group stood the diameter of the cylinder was at least one-hundred-and-fifty feet across. Along its outside edges were five-foot wide catwalks with four sets of stairs leading up and down to the next level every quarter of the way around. Only a smattering of people walking about. Along the actual walls were doors at about every twenty-feet or so. Some were glass office doors while other were heavy vault style doors that mimicked the elevator’s. The decor was utilitarian-meets-modern. There were at least three or four levels above them and another ten or more below. Aja couldn’t see the dark bottom; it was as if it just kept going.
Paul led the kids to a stairwell and went down one level to a glass door with a large waiting room on the other side. “Make yourself comfortable; I’m not sure where Mr. Holliday is at the moment. But he should be along shortly.”
As Paul was leaving Aja spoke, “Who’s Mr. Holliday?”
“He’s the Deputy of MAS,” Paul answered.
Aja nodded her understanding with pursed lips. She took the way Paul said “Deputy” as if it was supposed to mean something to her. She and her siblings were not all that well versed on this side of the Service. And though Lilly had her telepathy to keep her informed, she’d found that it wasn’t working quite as it should over the last ten minutes since they’d gotten off the elevator. There was little to nothing to share with her siblings.
The waiting room was akin to one you might find in a large, yet empty, hospital. The chairs were puffy and covered in squeaky tan pleather, which entertained Ekko and Jareth for a few squeaky moments. There was a fish tank on the far wall- with no fish.
“What is this place,” Lada finally asked breaking the silence. She was sitting closest to the door and decided to get up and have a look outside, yet, the door was locked when she attempted to open it. She let out a small sigh then sat down staring at the window.
Aja stood up to check the door herself. Indeed, it was locked. She looked over at Lada who was giving her a slight scowl. “I had to check for myself,” she said to Lada. She turned her attention to Lilly when she suddenly realized Ekko and Jareth were missing. “Where are the twins!? Ekko, Jareth!” she called out. The two instantly appeared with Jareth snickering. Aja turned to attention to Ekko, “Young lady, what have I told you about hiding?” She waited only a moment, “Well?”
“Don’t play with my power,” Ekko said looking at the floor. Jareth was no longer smiling.
“I don’t mind you were practicing, but now’s not the time to hide from me. I don’t know this place,” said Aja with a small shake in her voice. “You understand me?” she finished receiving an immediate nod from Ekko.
“We’re in, or I guess at, a place called MAS-9,” came Lilly looking between Aja and Lada. “I just heard someone mention it. There were talking about trying to link with MAS-13 but couldn’t reach them.” Aja was looking at her waiting for more information. “That’s all I got, sorry,” she said sympathetically to Aja.
Aja walked to the back of the room where Jerath and Ekko were sitting while the other two talked among themselves near the door. “How you feeling bud,” she said to Jareth who gave a little shrug. Ekko was just sitting back looking at the empty fish tank across from her. Looking back at Jareth, “How are your hands doing?”
Jareth removed his left glove to show his sister. He had to wear thick rubber gloves that looked like something you find under a kitchen sink to make sure his touch didn’t hurt anyone one. He used to have special breathable gloves but outgrew them a little more than a year ago. Because the gloves he wore now didn’t breath, at all, his fingers were often waterlogged and pruney. This made the skin on his hands and fingers susceptible to cuts and scrapes. She asked him to take both of his gloves off so she could take a look. She took his left and into hers and held it. “It’s going to be ok,” she told him squeezing his hand and kissing him on the head. Jareth was, by far, the sensitive one of the bunch.
“Get your hands off of him! What are you doing?!” yelled Paul as he entered the room. “You’re going to get sick, all of us will…” he finished in a panic. He had his right hand on his holstered pistol when another man walked in.
“Leave ‘em be Paul,” demanded the man.
“But sir, he’s a level-”
“Mr. Riley,” the man said raising his voice over Paul’s, “I think it’s best if you wait outside.”
Paul Riley stopped in his tracks and turned to face Deputy Christopher Holliday who gestured his head to the door. Obeyed like a well-trained dog, Aja thought.
Aja was helping Jareth put on one of his gloves when Holliday spoke, “No need to put those on for me young man,” he said walking over to them and sat down in the seat across from them. “His hands need to breathe a little from the looks of ’em.” He motioned for the two people standing at the door to come over. “This is my personal assistant Anne and my son Scott,” he said remaining seated. They both continued standing next to him until he told them to sit.
“And, who are you, sir?” Aja asked already having a hunch about who he was.
“I’m sorry, I tend to do that more often than not. My name is Chris Holliday. I’m the Deputy of the Modifieds Assistance Service,” answered Holliday with his eyes transfixed on Jareth’s hand, without a glove holding Aja’s. Then he smiled looking up meeting Aja’s eyes. “You’re immune aren’t you? I mean, to him, to his touch?” he asked.
“Amazing! Absolutely amazing,” Holliday said looking over at his assistant who began writing something on her tablet. “So you don’t feel anything when you touch him?”
“If you’re asking if I get sick, no,” Aja answered.
“Well, I’ll be… and the rest of them,” he said looking around the room and pointing. “Can the rest of you touch his hands too?”
Aja answered for them, “No, they can’t touch his hands or any part of his skin or hair. He’ll have the same effect on them as they would you, sir.” Aja was beginning to get a little uncomfortable with this man. However, she didn’t know why. “Um, Mr. Holliday, why are we here?”
Pausing before he spoke, Holliday replied, “I’ve heard that about you, Ms. Keen. Straight to the point, wiser than she is old, et cetera. Fair enough question nonetheless. So, what do you know about the Modifieds Assistance Service?” He sat back in his chair and crossing his legs waiting for her answer.
“I, well, we, don’t know much about it. Anymore at least. When I was younger, I remember my parents having to register us with the… can I call it MAS?” she waited for his nod of approval. It’s what most called it- that or the Service- but she didn’t to offend the person who was second in charge. “My parents had to register us with MAS when we were younger, and people would come to our house and take blood samples, asked all of us a lot of questions and asked us to do things. They were the “good guys” my dad said,” she finished with a lump in her throat.
“I imagine as a little girl you didn’t see the political side of the Service which, now having a little guy of my own, I can understand- children don’t really understand the squabblings of adults in Washington. It shouldn’t be your burden at such a young age,” he let out a low sigh as he stood up. “The mission of the MAS was once to protect modifieds from rogue nations and the less-than-ethical scientific community. Essentially they were trying to give American Modifieds the same rights as those without powers. I can only guess you know that we’re no longer part of the U.S. government, correct?”
“I did know that sir,” Aja answered. She was starting to feel as if this was going to be a lecture.
“Good, then we can skip the politics of that mess. This is the shorter answer- let’s see, in 2003- so thirteen years ago now. When they created the Department of Homeland Security those that held the chips were known to be jealous of those with powers- certain political types- and wanted the MAS disbanded once it moved from Defense to DHS and fund other programs.” Holliday looked at Aja who was scowling slightly. “Why would they do that- you’re wondering?” With her nod he continued, “Well, there were some who thought- and some who still think- that 9/11- and this is where the politics come in- that think 9/11 could have been avoided if modifieds were under “better” control,” giving gestured air quotes. “The AGEA was the first agency under DHS to get funding after the MAS was scuttled. Their job was to locate and relocate modifieds who were seen as a threat. The only problem was- all modifieds were a threat to them. Within months it was found out that the AGEA had started experimenting on some of them without consent. Then in 2005, they deemed most of the modified a hazard to society,” Holliday finished this last part looking at Jareth.
“You’re brother here is a level-6? He’s a weapon to the governments of the world, and they’d love nothing more than to exploit him as such. Do you know what that means Aja?” he asked standing in front of her with his hands behind his back. Not waiting for an answer he finished, “That means he’s going to be hunted down like a wild beast. This,” he took his hands out waving them around, “this is why you’re here, in this place. This shelter wasn’t just to help bureaucrats- it was made so we could help protect modifieds.
There was silence for a few moments while Holliday waited for Aja and the others to process what he’d just said. Lilly spoke from across the room, “Mr. Holliday, if MAS was closed down, then why are you here?”
Raising his eyebrows, “Lada, is it?”
“No offense taken,” she said.
“Telepathy, that’s right. Nonetheless, my apologies. There were a lot of people who didn’t want the MAS closed down- some with vested interests in what the Service did with deep pockets. Secretary Munoz, who was the Deputy Secretary when it was closed down was asked to lead the non-profit version organization which took on the name and duties of the former service. It’s only been the last four years or so that the mission changed from helping modifies within the law to assist them outside the law. Basically, we are a privately funded to help hide modifieds, and keep them hidden.” He stopped looking at Lilly.
“Nope, that perfect,” she preemptively said.
“I’m sorry Mr. Holliday, she shouldn’t be doing that,” spoke Aja shaking her head at her sister.
“Not a big deal, really. What’s the use of having a power if you can’t use ‘eh?” he answered with a smile. He held the smile for a few moments then let it drop as if in deep thought.
Aja took this as a sign that it was her turn to speak, “So now what sir? Will we be living here now?”
“Here, oh no. Consider this a layover for a few days or so. We’re working on a plan to move the lot you. I’m not sure where yet though,” Holliday answered walking over to the door and opening it. In walked a woman wearing a white lab coat with the MAS logo on one side and a badge on the other. “This is,” he paused looking at her badge, “Ms. Mandy.”
“Mindi,” she corrected without even a hint of annoyance.
“Oh, yes, of course, Ms. Mindi. She’ll show you to your rooms.”
“We’d like to stay together if that’s all right,” spoke Aja.
“I’m sorry sweetheart, that won’t be possible right now. We don’t have any rooms that’ll hold y’all. I’ll tell ya what- I’ll see what we can do about getting one of the conference rooms set up like a big room for y’all. Ok?” answered Mindi in a high pitched southern drawl.
Aja immediately disliked this lady but agreed. She gathered up her brother and sisters as the adults worked their way out the door while she helped Jareth put on his gloves.
“Aja,” called Lilly internally getting her sister’s attention, “ every time you mentioned something about a modification he was repeating it in his head as if he’s telling someone something- and I think it’s her,” she said nodding over to Mr. Holliday’s assistant. “I can’t get into her head- like it’s blank. Same thing for the boy- nothing.”
Aja paused for a moment. “Ok, tell the other three not to talk about their powers unless you or I are around, ok?” she thought to Lilly Who nodded and immediately passed the message, telepathically, to her siblings who all nodded back.
The group, led by Holliday, his assistant, and his son, walked out the door onto the catwalk where they were met by Mr. Holliday’s security detail of six men and another four people in white lab coats. Further to the rear was another seven or eight clad-black men heavily armed. Mindi assigned each of her colleagues to one of the Keen kids and herself to Lilly then asked them to take them to their appointed rooms. Aja glanced at Ekko who looked as if she was about to cry. She moved to walk over to console Ekko when her chaperone spoke, “This way!” in an agitated tone.
Aja and her chaperone were followed by Lilly, Lada, and the twins all with their own keeper and security. Paul, the sixth security guard walk between Mr. Holliday and the group while telling them they’d be heading down one level to the visitors quarters. No words were exchanged for the next minute or so to the stairwell. Still, in the same order, they stacked up as Aja let the pack downwards.
Just as Aja’s head had disappeared at floor level Lilly unexpectedly “heard” Aja’s security guard think aloud his intentions as he slid his rifle from it’s slung position to a modified low firing position. AJA! Lilly rang out.
From behind Lada, Paul began to raise his weapon.
As if on instinct Lada threw up her hands creating a shield of matter between Aja and her assailant. As she did the guard in front of her- Lilly’s- moved to draw his thigh-holstered pistol. “Too slow,” Lada murmured as she expanded the field. Her anger flooded through her body and out through hands giving her a power she’d never felt before. The matter fields she’d made in the past were always clear or had light blue hue to them. What flowed from her now was an angry red wall of matter. Lada wasted no time in dealing with these betrayers as she pushed them with all of her powers into the rough rock walls on the outside of the catwalk- and kept driving. Their choking screams of agony were short-lived as their bodies flattened. The muffled sounds of bones breaking next to their metal weapons reshaping were received with winces from the onlookers. Lada ended it with a squeeze of her hands leading to the faint pop of crushing skulls.
What seemed seconds long took mere milliseconds. Lada was exhausted, the group was covered in blood that sprayed out from the sides of the field, and Paul had risen his weapon to the ready shooting Lada in the right shoulder.
Aja swung around at the base of the stairs to an explosion of red, the ear-piercing sounds of rapid gunfire, and a mute visual of her sister Lilly mouthing “Run!”