Let me explain. No, is too difficult. Let me sum up.
Jay is a foster kid who is brought to Heights Genetics, a facility that is working to engineer superhumans. After undergoing genetic experiments that give him heightened strength, he becomes part of a team of teens with similar genetically engineered abilities funded by Heights Genetics. The team works for the government, making a show of superhuman heroics, with the entirety of the United States as their audience, not to mention fans across the globe. But Jay's teammate, Zachary, doesn't want to be used as a pawn. Possessed of superhuman intelligence, Zachary decides to escape from Heights in search of his biological mother, dragging an unwilling Jay along with him. On the journey that follows, the two boys learn to trust in one another and what it really means to be a hero.
Kids are resilient. Jason Murphy heard that phrase all of his life, spoken by adults who thought they had Jason’s best interests at heart when they moved him from one foster home to another. Jason hadn’t seen his biological mother since he was eight, not that he had much interest in a family reunion. His connection to Alaina Murphy was severed after a neighbor found the woman passed out in her own front yard, drunk off her ass as per usual, and finally called child protective services. It wasn’t the first strike against Alaina’s parenting skills and Jason was not surprised when his mother didn’t try to get him back. He’d always been a burden for her, a child herself when he was born, and she was relieved when she was told she was unfit to raise a child.
She was the first in a long line of adults who couldn’t be bothered with Jason. By twelve, he was acting out. He smashed mailboxes and spraypainted dicks on stop signs with friends from school before he moved on to shoplifting, which he was bad at, and that got him sent to a juvenile detention center at age fourteen. Juvie sucked worse than just about any other place Jason had been, but in truth, every place felt the same to him. He’d been passed around from family to family, stupidly hoping for a while that one day he’d end up with people who wanted him to stick around. They never did. At least in Juvie, people told him he belonged there, even if it was because he was a thief and a vandal.
Jason was smart, sort of a genetic lucky break. No one took the time to foster his intelligence and most adults who knew him didn’t know that the kid could score above average on any test he took if he put his mind to it. Most of the time, he couldn’t be bothered with school. He’d never had a teacher take any special interest in him, his bad rep preceding him in each new school, labeled a bully and a troublemaker. He figured they all thought he was a lost cause anyway, and after a while, Jason figured they were probably right. He’d seen enough other kids who were too screwed up to be fixed, watched a few crash and burn, especially in Juvie. Kids are resilient, people said. What a load of bullshit, he thought. Kids weren’t anything special, just extra mouths to feed, and drains on an already taxed system that didn’t have time to care about any of them, let alone Jason.
One thing Jason had going for him was that he was athletic. Smarts didn’t count for much as a foster kid, but if you could shoot ball, you might impress the other kids at school enough for them to overlook you being a poor as shit orphan with no future. When he was younger, Jason learned to do whatever he had to do to fit in. Otherwise, kids were cruel, and they didn’t care if you didn’t have a mom to go home and cry to about it. He learned to hit back, scrap it out if he had to, to prove that he couldn’t be pushed around. But sports was the best recourse and he was good at just about any sport he tried his hand at. He was a tall kid with broad shoulders and a take no shit attitude that made him formidable on the football field.
The detention center had a basketball court, and that was about all they had, except for a shelf of used books in the lobby. Jason read every book on that shelf, mostly Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and a few classics like The Great Gatsby, not because he especially liked reading. You could only shoot hoops for so long before you were bored out of your skull.
He had high hopes for when he turned eighteen and aged out of the system. It was true that he wouldn’t have a chance in hell of making anything of himself, but at least he could order his own life. He was used to feeling powerless, but he didn’t like it. A man needed control of himself, he thought. And what chance did he have stuck in Juvie? If he was sleeping on the streets, at least he wouldn’t have to share a room with three other boys anymore. At least he could wake up in the morning knowing that he could go wherever he wanted to go.
As it turned out though, Juvie was the place where his life took a turn for the better. It was the place where he met Dr. Hammond.
Roger Hammond was a tall, thin man in his mid-forties. His dark hair had already started to turn gray and his eyes were sort of watery behind his large eyeglasses. He wore sweater vests and Jason pointed and jeered at him the first time he ever saw the man. Even when the man was introduced to the center’s inmates as a prominent geneticist, Jason lost interest and escaped the assembly to shoot hoops on the court. He couldn’t stand to sit still for very long. His attention span wasn’t very long.
That first time Dr. Hammond visited the center, he left without ever talking to Jason. From the court, Jason watched the doctor’s car drive away with only mild interest. He had no way of knowing then that Dr. Hammond had anything to offer.
He didn’t expect to see the man again, but Dr. Hammond was back at the center a couple of weeks later. Instead of addressing the inmates in an assembly, the doctor wandered amongst them, talking to individual boys. Jason wondered what the man was up to, seeing as how no one came to the center a second time without an agenda. A priest talking to his fellow inmates one on one would have been different, but a geneticist? What could the guy possibly want with a bunch of reject teenage boys in Juvie?
At lunchtime, Hammond cornered Jason, taking a seat across from him at Jason’s table. Jason’s friends caught sight of the doctor and avoided the table, choosing other cliques to hang with until the meal was over. Several of them had already been forced to talk to the man and the word was the conversations were about as interesting as watching paint dry.
“He asked what my blood type was,” said Miguel, who’d had to talk to Hammond all through free time. “Whatever that guy’s damage is, I don’t want nothing to do with it, man.”
Jason was inclined to agree, but what could he do? He thought about moving to another table but Hammond caught his gaze and gave him a thin smile, and Jason knew he wasn’t getting out of talking to the doctor.
“You’re Jay, right?” Hammond asked, using the nickname most people at the center called Jason. “I’m Dr. Roger Hammond.”
“Yeah, the geneticist,” Jason acknowledged without much interest as he used his plastic fork and knife to carve up his serving of mystery meat and gravy. “Saw you last time you were here.”
Dr. Hammond didn’t seem surprised. “Yes, I remember. You cut out halfway through my assembly to play basketball, as I recall. I’m told that you’re quite the athlete.”
“Well, I’ve been hoping to talk to you since I got here, but I get the sense you’re avoiding me. I was hoping you could tell me a little about yourself. The workers here tell me that you’re bright as well. Seems odd for a boy who’s smart and good at sports to end up in a place like this.”
The doctor smiled again and turned his gaze to his own tray of mystery meat. He grimaced and pushed the tray aside. “I must say, the food here alone with inspire me to do my best to get back out.”
“And go where?” Jason muttered, despite having promised himself that he wasn’t going to be goaded into talking about himself. He just hated it when people acted like life would be so much better for him somewhere else. Foster homes were just another form of imprisonment. School wasn’t much better. Why not spend the last few years of his childhood here? At least the food was guaranteed and there wasn’t much that could disappoint you.
“Fair point.” Hammond leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “I’ve been told you don’t have any family. Your mother died a couple of years back, didn’t she? An automotive accident.”
“Car crash, yeah,” said Jason, feeling a little wary of the man. “So what?”
“Oh, just making conversation,” said Hammond. “Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m beating around the bush here when I should just get to the point. Jay, I came here to talk to you. In fact, you’re the only person here I have any interest in talking to, and let me tell you why. I have a proposition for you that I believe you will find quite appealing.”
This set off warning bells in Jason’s mind, but he schooled his expression. He didn’t know what this guy wanted, but he didn’t trust adults at the best of times and he’d learned that it wasn’t usually a good thing when they wanted something from you.
“Not interested,” he said and shoved a forkful of mystery meat into his mouth.
“Hear me out,” Hammond said, his mouth setting into a grim line. “You have no family. No home. But you’re smart, you’re talented. Haven’t you ever wished for something more than this?”
Jason swallowed his food and shook his head. “Whatever you’re selling, man, I’m not buying. I just wanna do my time and when I’m eighteen, I’m hitting the road.”
Was there ever a time in his life when he wished for more? Sure, of course there was, but Jason had been disappointed too many times now to start hoping again. And he didn’t much like Dr. Hammond, with his graying hair and watery eyes and sweater vests.
“I understand. What if I told you, I’m offering you the opportunity to trade up in life? You see, Jay, I’m looking for young people like yourself. My colleagues and I have devoted the last fifteen years to designing a special program for kids like yourself, kids who have nothing left to them but raw talent. I think you would fit in.”
Jason thought the good doctor was off his rocker, but only rolled his eyes in response.
Hammond watched him for a long moment, as though considering whether or not to continue with this impromptu interview. At last he said, “It’s a nice facility. We have basketball and tennis courts, and a full library. I’m told you like to read. And you’d have your own room.”
That caught Jason’s attention and he perked up a little. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something weird about this. “I’m not into any freaky stuff, man, so if you get your rocks off with kids, you can just keep looking.”
“Good Lord, no.” Hammond looked scandalized at the suggestion, maybe even a little distressed. “I can’t explain it to you here, you understand, but my interests are purely scientific. This is your chance. I can take you with me today if you say the word. What is there for you here? You said yourself that you’re planning to strike out on your own when you’re eighteen. If you come to my facility and you still want to leave when you turn eighteen, you’ll be free to go.”
Jason didn’t know it at the time, but that was just the first of many lies Dr. Hammond would feed to him over the next few years. But the doctor was right, Jason didn’t want to stay in Juvie. Getting his own room sounded like a great deal, especially if the guy really wasn’t a pervert, and Jason didn’t think that he was.
He didn’t say anything for a while, but he watched Hammond with a thoughtful expression while he finished his meal, considering the offer. It wasn’t likely that he’d get another chance like this.
“What if I want to stay when I turn eighteen?” he asked, expecting to be told that he’d be on his own at that point.
“Then you can stay,” Hammond assured him. “In fact, I think you will want to stay. You’re meant for great things, Jay, even if you don’t see it yet. I’ve met with many young people like you and I know raw talent when I see it. You have all the skills required for our program at Heights. Ah, that’s the name, Heights Genetics. Here’s the card.”
The man handed over a business card to him, and Jason turned it over in his hands, examining it. It didn’t say much, just the name Heights Genetics in raised blue letters, followed by an address and phone number. Jason couldn’t find anything on it that explained this mysterious invitation. Hammond beamed at him when Jason tucked the card into his pocket.
“Okay, but why me?” Jason couldn’t make himself believe that the guy was doing this out of the goodness of his heart, nor did he believe all that crap about talent. Jason was only pretty good at anything he did, not outstanding, and certainly he wasn’t impressive enough to catch anyone’s attention. It just didn’t make sense that Hammond had picked him for this. “Did all the other boys turn you down?”
“No one else has been offered what I’m offering to you.” Hammond looked dead serious and Jason couldn’t help but believe him. “Let me ask you something. Have you ever wanted to be special?”
So much, Jason thought to himself, but he didn’t say it out loud. But he wasn’t special. He wasn’t good enough, never had been. He wasn’t good enough for his mom, but worse, he was never good enough to stay with a family and form a bond with them. At first, he’d cried every time he was moved to a new home. Over time, he realized that there was no point in crying. No one cared about him enough to keep him and that was that.
“Everybody wants to be special,” he said instead, keeping his expression surly so Hammond wouldn’t be able to tell that Jason was starting to take this offer seriously.
“I can make you special, Jason. I’m going to make you into a person the world can’t look away from. You will be the most special.”
The doctor’s offer sounded too good to be true but Jason felt the want curling in his gut. That base need for approval that had never been met was desperate to take the chance. It was a gamble. He still wasn’t sure he could trust the doctor, but the other option was to stay in Juvie, to never amount to anything. He knew what it meant to grow up in foster care. Hammond’s offer might be total bullshit, but at least there was a chance for something better.
He wasn’t leaving anyone behind. The friends he had here were not close friends, he had no bonds with them, they were just the group he ran with to keep from being the odd man out. There were no biological family members out there looking for him. They were all dead or didn’t give a shit. Who the hell knew where his dad was. Jason didn’t know the first thing about the guy.
So what did it matter if he took this chance? Could it be worse than this? Could it be worse than being a nobody for the rest of his life?
“Alright,” Jason said at length. “What the hell, I’ll do it.”
Hammond grinned and reached his hand out for a shake. He squeezed Jason’s hand in a firm, slightly sweaty grip. “You’ve made the right choice. Welcome to Heights, Jay.”
Zachary Albert was a rather unusual individual. In many ways, he realized, his childhood had been a social experiment. Like most of the youth housed at Heights Genetics, Zach had been brought into the program at a very young age. He only had vague memories of his family, of his mother who gave him up at four years old, and he had been at Heights ever since.
He was a short, well-made boy with short cropped curly brown hair and round glasses that resembled headlights on a car and gave his face a sort of vacant look. But if he seemed unremarkable from the outside, the inside was a whole different story.
The most interesting thing about Zachary Albert was that he was perhaps the most intelligent person on the planet.
This was not hubris on Zachary’s part, for he didn’t see it as being all that unusual, himself. In truth, he hadn’t always been so gifted. Heights was responsible for the great improvements to Zachary’s mind. Since being brought to the program, Zach had undergone genetic experimentation. It wasn’t as horrific as it sounded. In fact, Zach was far from unhappy with his lot in life. He never went hungry, he always had something to do, and if he fell into a black mood from time to time, it could only be attributed to his personality rather than his condition.
There were other kids like him at Heights who’d been part of similar experiments. Not every experiment resulted in heightened intelligence. Zachary’s roommates each had their own unique traits that set them quite apart from the rest of humanity.
For example, there was Serena, a girl of seventeen, tall and willowy. She could shatter windows with her voice. Ignatious, the boy from Mumbai, could create and control fire with his hands. A small girl of Japanese descent, Muse, could manipulate emotions.
And there was Zion, the boy from Ohio, who could lift a car over his head with one hand.
These were all code names, of course. His roommates had real names too, but in this place code names were used more often and it became more familiar to think of his fellow “super humans” in such terms. It was easier that way.
Zachary’s own code name was Edison, and he’d long since grown accustomed to being called Eddie by Zion, who hung out with him sometimes. They weren’t close friends but there was a strange sort of bond between them that had been there since the day they met. Zion was so familiar that Zach sometimes found himself thinking of the other boy by his real name, Jay.
It was Jay who changed things for Zachary, over two years ago now, when he was brought in from the outside. Jay was already fourteen then, and no one that old was ever brought to Heights. Jay knew what life was like outside of the facility. And he was unlike anyone else Zach had ever met.
For starters, Jay was sort of rough around the edges. He smiled easy but it never quite reached his eyes. He played well with others, served as the “leader” of their little band of misfits, but he did not often seek out companionship from anyone other than Zach. He remained distant with most people, keeping a bubble of protection between him and them, but he always seemed drawn to the small laboratory where Zach spent most of his time.
Jay was not dumb, despite being the literal brawn of the outfit. He didn’t always follow everything that Zach said, though not many people could be expected to, but he was an attentive listener. After a while, he’d picked up enough to be able to serve as an assistant for Zach in the lab, though he did have a tendency to underestimate his own strength, which was sometimes disastrous.
The other interesting thing about Jay was that he had been perfectly normal before he was brought to Heights. Zach had never seen the experiments run on someone Jay’s age before, and he thought Jay struggled with the process more than any of the others or Zachary himself. It took Jay a long time to adjust to his newfound strength, and to this day Zach took care to keep his volunteer assistant away from any breakable equipment.
It seemed to Zach that Jay worked harder than anyone else to hone his abilities. He trained on a furious regimine, oftentimes working Zach under the table when they trained together. Zach had few combat skills and was not too keen on physical training, but their benefactors insisted on it. Dr. Hammond, who was in charge of the project, was always bragging on Jay’s progress but just as often tutted in disappointment in regards to Zach. Jay was the golden boy, by far Dr. Hammond’s favorite, though it never seemed to go to Jay’s head.
The reasoning behind pairing them together in training sessions was that Zach did poorly in combat, but would presumably be out in the field as part of their team when their training was complete. Jay watched Zachary’s back in addition to protecting himself, so they trained together to keep in sync with one another. It involved mostly ducking and running for Zach, whose main skill lay in thinking his way out of a situation.
Perhaps this was why, after a time, Zachary began to feel safest in Jay’s presence. Before Jay came, he’d never felt unsafe, but now he got jumpy when his teammate wasn’t around.
So it was no surprise to Zach when Jay turned up in his laboratory unannounced, crowing about his progress in training for the day. Jay, who delighted in his new abilities, burst into the room with a loud whoop of victory.
“I’m approved for field combat!” he announced, his ruddy cheeks red with pleasure. “Eddie, I’m going out in the field! I’m gonna be on television!”
Zachary spun around in his swivel chair to give his friend a wry smile. He felt a kinship with Jay that he couldn’t explain. Neither of them talked much about life before Heights, so it could be argued that Zach did not know Jay very well. Nonetheless, he had complete faith in Jay as the leader of the team.
“Congratulations, Zion,” he replied. His voice remained calm and almost neutral. It was not often that Zachary expressed extreme emotion. He was rather good at controlling his outward reactions, so that most people couldn’t tell how he was feeling unless he outright told them.
Jay, however, somehow always knew what Zach was feeling. He didn’t take offence at Zach’s less than enthusiastic reaction. He just grinned and wrapped an arm around the smaller boy’s shoulders as Zach rose from his chair.
“Iggie and Serena got it too,” he said. “They found out this morning. Muse says she hasn’t been told anything, but Iggie and I think it’s just a matter of time for both of you. They want us out there doing our job. You know, keeping the peace?”
All of them knew that their “superhero team” was more of a publicity thing for Heights Genetics than a real crime fighting gig. Still, Zachary had to admit that he was excited about getting out of the facility and seeing the rest of the world. He thought that Jay was right about he and Muse getting approved soon. He’d seen designs for his own uniform recently. He still wasn’t sure about those goggles they were making him wear instead of glasses. Perhaps he could make some adjustments to them, make them a little more useful.
It was clear that all of Jay’s dreams had come true with this announcement. Zachary had never seen him so happy. His eyes were bright and full of life, making him look younger than he was. Getting out in the field was all Jay ever talked about when he talked at all, and it seemed today he was bubbling over with words for a change.
“Don’t be nervous about it,” Jay told Zach, although Zach had given no suggestion that he was nervous at all. Jay knew that the world outside of Heights was new territory for Zach. He squeezed Zach’s shoulder for added reassurance. “I’ll have your back. We are going to kick some ass, man!”
“You are going to kick some ass,” corrected Zach. “I’m going to be trying to avoid getting my own ass kicked.”
“No, you did great in practice yesterday!” Jay insisted.
It wasn’t true. Zach had suffered a mild concussion trying to duck a punch. He was out like a light, but at least it put an end to training for the day.
“Just keep the criminals a fair distance from me,” he requested. “I can do my job at a distance most of the time. And I hate to admit it, but I think you can take a punch better than me.”
He quirked a grin when the comment inspired peals of laughter from the other boy. Jay slapped him on the back.
“Eddie, you’re a riot. Never change.”
Zachary felt his cheeks flush at the praise. It wasn’t uncommon for Jay to compliment him. In fact, the taller boy complimented most people whenever he got the chance. Still, it never failed to please Zachary that Jay liked him and thought highly of him.
The team was the closest thing Zachary had ever had to a family. Sometimes that seemed sad to him, but it was a distant feeling that he could ignore. He was safe at Heights, and comfortable, and that kept him from being too worried about what it was like on the outside. Jay knew about it, about families and public schools and rock concerts and fast food. But he never talked about it. Zachary didn’t pry.
He let Jay help him in the lab for a while, avoiding his combustible experiments, of course, in case Jay’s self-control failed him. Zach’s lab had already taken plenty of abuse from Zach himself over the years, but Jay was a far more destructive force. He could casually lean against a counter and bust the countertop, shatter beakers with a touch, and the room often shook from his footsteps if he was too worked up.
For the most part, they worked in companionable silence, or Jay listened while Zach explained theories and experiments in detail. Zach was known for being long-winded and having an opinion on just about everything. That came with the territory, he supposed. His brain was always working him overtime and it was comforting to talk about his interests out loud instead of being alone with his thoughts.
If he was alone too much, the thoughts inevitably started to turn dark.
Jay kept Zach in a good mood most of the time, which might have been another reason why he preferred the other boy’s company to being alone. If he let himself, he could bog himself down. Jay kept him afloat without ever knowing it. Zach had never told him about the dark mood.
By lunchtime, Jay’s good mood had brightened Zach considerably and they chatted about the chance of going out in the field as they walked to the cafeteria. Only Zach couldn’t keep himself from glancing at the surveillance cameras that lined the hall. He remembered a time when it didn’t bother him to know that he was being monitored at all times. These days he couldn’t help but resent the invasion of privacy.
The others were already seated at the table with their meals. Ignatius looked up at them and smiled at Jay but sneered at Zach when Jay wasn’t looking. Zach had never cared for “Iggie” as Jay called him. The boy had an angel face with black curly hair and large, unassuming brown eyes, but Zach knew him to be a bad-tempered young man.
“I was approved for the field,” Muse announced when Zach and Jay joined them at the table. “Dr. Hammond just sent me the message.” She lifted her tablet to display the email.
Zachary felt a twinge of jealousy. So that was everyone except him. He wondered if he would get approval at all. The others were far ahead of him in combat skills. It wasn’t that he wanted to fight, really, but he wanted to work with Jay. He’d been training for the last two years to fight alongside the other boy and if Jay was going to the outside, so was Zach, if he had any say in it.
Iggie fixed an accusatory gaze on Zach. “Alright Edison, you’re the only one holding us back now. Maybe you’ll take training a little more seriously.”
“I’m not holding anyone back, Ignatius.” Still, Zach ducked his head, embarrassed. He didn’t like to be called out in front of other people and Iggie was always doing it. He watched, a little jealous, as Iggie formed a small flame in one hand and played with it, threading it around his fingers without burning his skin. “I’m sure I’ll get my approval soon.”
Both Iggie and Serena seemed amused by that but Jay patted Zach’s knee and smiled. “Of course you will, Eddie. Don’t let Iggie get you down, he doesn’t mean anything by it.”
Sometimes Jay could be incredibly dense, Zach thought.
Although Zach didn’t understand why Jay seemed to like Iggie, he was mollified by the knowledge that he, Zach, was Jay’s undeniable favorite. Zach had even heard Serena complain about it once, apparently wishing Jay focused his attention on her instead. She had romantic notions about their leader.
Zach didn’t miss the jealous look in Ignatius’ eyes, either, when Serena paid a little too much attention to Jay. Maybe Jay thought Iggie liked him too, but Zach wasn’t so sure. He’d never been able to fully trust Iggie.
Serena and Ignatius, though unrelated, had been raised together since they were infants, as opposed to Zach and Muse, who had both lived in relative solitude until they were about ten years old. As a result, Iggie was protective of Serena, and the girl was likewise quite ignorant of his less than brotherly affection for her.
As for himself, Zach could appreciate that Serena was a great beauty with her pale skin and bright blue eyes, but was not much intrigued by her. He supposed she wasn’t his type, though he knew Iggie and Jay both thought she was gorgeous.
He left lunch before the rest of them, assuring Jay that he should stay and chat for a while longer. The walk back to the lab was longer than usual. Despite Jay’s reassurance, Zach couldn’t help but think of Iggie’s words to him. Was it true? Was he going to hold back the whole team? Or worse yet, were they going out in the field without him?
And so it was that when he returned to his lab and found the email from Dr. Hammond approving him for field combat, Zachary Albert gave a victorious whoop of his own.