Chapter 28

The hardest part about staging a break-in on Halloween was handling one's date.

Finn took a minute surveying the HCP common area's decorations to buy time to find an opportunity. The massive walls were liberally painted pumpkin and black, with big swaths of banners and various scary monsters dangling on string from the ceiling. West Private had a tradition of the senior class taking charge of the HCP's training rooms, mazes and arenas for the evening. Faculty would be largely absent. Given this year's theme was 'haunted house', at least he could hope for a ghostly distraction to separate them.

On his arm, Amara English looked darling if somewhat garishly dressed. She'd evidently chosen to be a 'Power Puff Girl' whatever that was. Finn favored a Guy Fawkes costume given the nearness of November 5th but found a surprising number of students recognized it thanks to that recent American film 'V'.

He spotted Jia and Alley approaching him as a pair. They'd come in nearly matching costumes as 'Sailor Uranus' and 'Sailor Neptune', whatever that was. Nate's idea, though Jia had enjoyed the dress up at least. Alley simply tolerated it but Finn remembered the smile on her face once Nate had whispered something to her about the relationship between the two characters. If it was what Finn suspected, he was pretty sure Jia hadn't watched the show or she'd never go through it.

Nate himself had chosen to adorn himself as Tom Baker, the fourth doctor from Doctor Who. Finn smirked at his roommate's adoration for a quintessentially British show but had no objections. Only naked curiosity at how the redhead had found a ten foot multi-colored scarf...

"We should find someone for Alley," Amara murmured at his side as the Lambert Acres crew slowly assembled in the common area.


"Well, look at her."

It took Finn a moment to see it. He wasn't the only one partnered up, though the room seemed equal parts couples and groups of the same gender. Nate fell into the former since Julie insisted on tagging along at his side dressed in a rather sexy nurse outfit. Jia fell into the latter with her close posse of Natasha Adler, Dani Wyngarde and Marie Yates. Alley drifted through the crowd, mingling easily but clearly with no one.

She was the only student here alone.

"Hey English," Alley said, pulling up to him in her white and blue costume, her bosom adorned by a bright yellow ribbon. She had two drinks in her hand, one of which she passed to Amara who accepted it without thinking. "You two having fun?"

"I'd say it's a fine Mischief Night, though sadly lacking in the practical jokes department. I'd remedy that but, you see, there's this bundle of beautiful beside me and I can't bear to leave her."

Amara beamed at the compliment and took a swallow of her drink. Finn gave his roommate a meaningful look while his girlfriend's glass was raised. Alley just lifted an eyebrow and shifted her eyes to the glass.

Ah. Vintax Synorde III, the memory erasing drug Alley had employed before. Perfect.

Finn looked Jia's way as Alley departed to give Julie a dose as well. The slim Chinese girl seemed genuinely happy surrounded by her friends. It was heartening, he had to admit. All of the Lambert Acre crew had their own baggage of course. Both Nate and Alley seemed to have come to terms with their ghosts long ago. From the first day he'd met Jia, she had a sense of raw pain to her, of painful choices too recently made. The several months of the program thus far had done much to heal her wounds.

Though Eli Amsley had probably helped with that. Finn liked the blonde bearded sophomore gently courting the quiet, conservative Christian girl. From what he knew of last year, gentle was exactly what the girl needed.

As Finn yielded to Amara's nudging him into the crowd towards one of the mazes, his eyes locked on silvery white hair so like Dani Wyngarde's. Jason wore the white robes, artificial wings and golden halo of an angel, making the most of that hair. There was little divine in the white eyes of the first-ranked Sophomore as he scanned the crowd in turn. Little doubt what he was looking for.

"Babe, you seeing what I'm seeing?" The short-haired brunette peered around the crowd and shrugged. "Jia's ex, out for blood I think. Tell you what, fetch Julie won't you? See if she can distract him while I find Jia somewhere nice and out of the way."

"Sure thing, honey."

Finn grinned as his girlfriend kissed his cheek and broke ranks. Two problems solved at the same time. Though it was nice to have someone like Amara. The girl was proving to be a wonderful partner, above and beyond being both powerful and gorgeous. If things kept going well, perhaps the Major would consider adding her into the team.

He swung by Jia's posse and extracted her with an artful excuse. Nate was summoned with a simple telekinetic poke to the cheek from across the room once Julie was pried away by Amara. The three roommates found their way into an HCP lift, only to find Alley already inside waiting for them.

"So, do we find out the plan now?" Nate asked, looking around the steel elevator walls with obvious anxiety.

"Easier if you just roll with it," Alley said.

Then the blonde Sailor Uranus flipped open the elevator lift panel and pried open an electronic badge scanner. Exposing a number pad, Alley tapped out a long sequence of numbers. Immediately, the lift shot downwards and the mission was officially underway.

Everyone backed up when Alley reached behind her and pulled out a pistol.

The dark weapon winked ominously in the elevator lighting as she doublechecked her ammo. Jia was horrified at the sight of the gun while Nate had that peculiar fascination and fear most kids who grew up glorifying action movies had when coming face to face with the real thing. Finn had seen it all before. Given Alley's super brain, she almost certainly knew the gun was fine. The effect was the point, getting her roommates to realize how serious this was.

"Listen up," Alley said as she tucked the gun back behind her. "We're going for the HCP's secure files. As far as I know, they're stored locally to minimize the risk of getting hacked. If they run their op the way most maximum security installations do, they'll have personnel onsite with memorized passwords as well as physical encrypt keys. If we're really unlucky, they'll have an offsite/onsite turnkey system but I'd be honestly surprised. Whoever built the HCP facility in Sizemore Tech was a terminal paranoiac and I'm banking on a similar methodology here."

"Not that I understand a word of what you just said," Jia commented, "But wouldn't the paranoid approach have this offsite thingie? So no one onsite can just break in like we are?"

"Who breaks into an HCP?" Nate asked, still incredulous with how their Halloween had turned out so far.

"Exactly," Alley said, pointing at him. "It's way too easy to social-engineer your way with offsite procedures. There's tens of thousands of hackers who could probably handle that part. Getting in here at all is the hard part."

"So what do I do?" Jia asked. "Thump people?"

"Nah, leave that for Nate. You're my brute force trap solution. If the ceiling tries to crush us or something, I'm hoping you'll help know, not die."

Finn just chuckled at the dismayed looks on the faces of his roommates. "And what's my job, Lola?"

"Lola?" Alley's confusion cleared an instant later. "Ah. Never seen Run Lola Run but cute nickname. I like Sarah Connor better. Anyway, I wish I could use your telepathy but it's like active sonar; pinging someone means there's a risk they can ping back and find you. I think we'll stick with the teke. Besides, I have a few ideas on combining abilities I want to play with. Now, get your game face on. We're about to go to work."

The elevator came to a stop and opened its doors. Alley took one step forward, only to pause at the entrance. "Finn, I need you to read my mind and do exactly what I show you, okay?"

With those encouraging words, Finn parted his mental defenses like a curtain parted enough for a peek, like an old-fashioned hooded lantern allowed to cast its light only in one direction. In this case, the light came to him as thoughts flooded his head. Jia's mindlessly mental recitation of scripture and Nate's surprisingly similar "Oh God please don't let me die" both vanished beneath the tsunami of Alley's mind.

How did other Advanced Minds put up with it? She was just so loud. Trying to receive thoughts from anyone else around her was like trying to have a conversation at a Birmingham Vulcan's Rugby match. Of course, trying to read minds in a crowd was a common telepathic training method. The faculty might look at Alley's presence at West's HCP as a kind of bonus weight lifting equipment for their Advanced Minds.

As Finn concentrated, the noise dialed down and the voices condensed. Surreal images flashed behind his eyes. There was a mechanism of some kind just outside the lift door. It would detect weapons, log visitors and set off alarms apparently. The door-shaped sensor systems built into the frame of the lift doors suddenly swam into a highly detailed view. Nestled behind wiring lay a tiny circuit board near the top left side of the door. He saw it snapping.

Finn nodded once to Alley, then squinted at a panel he couldn't actually see. His telekinesis let him 'feel' his way around the frame, under the wiring until he found the right circuit. With a thought, Finn snapped the line.

Satisfied, Alley stepped out of the lift and beckoned the others onwards.

The corridor was a cold gunmetal grey, plainly fabricated without the human touch given to common-use areas. Sets of doors lined the hallway. Another hallway branched off to the left, filled with more doorways. Alley led them on, walking with confidence past security cameras right up to another security door which she opened with rapid fire keystrokes.

"We're not worried about the cameras, I guess?" Jia asked, sounding half-hearted about the prospect of this mission. "Or the keypads?"

"I'll handle the camera feed later," Alley answered. "As for fingerprints..." She lifted her costumed hands, gloved in white and banded at the wrists with blue.

Then the security door unsealed. The tall blonde went first before stepping out of the way to allow the others in quickly. Inside, the interior was made up of banks of computer equipment interspersed with monitors and keyboards. Only one was in use at the moment, manned by a young man in a t-shirt and jeans. The server administrator had half an eye on a monitor of incomprehensible stats but more of his attention was on watching a video clip of some kind.

"Leave it, I'll get it later," the young man said, not even looking their way.

"Stop watching that and do everything Alley says," Nate said in answer.

Finn rubbed his skin as his arm hair lifted, an involuntary response to the sheer power that crackled through the room. Nate looked a little wistful, almost as if he wished his ability didn't work. Jia seemed nonplussed. Alley just sounded satisfied as she hummed thoughtfully while sitting down next to the server administrator.

Her fingers typed out long strings of complicated code. The screen filled with results, most of which vanished before he could read more than a word or two. Where had she learned to do all this? Alley pulled out a flash drive and plugged it into the terminal. With a triumphant key press, their leader pointed back at the entrance and said, "Get that, Jia, will you? It'll shock you but it can't knock you out."

As if on cue, some kind of heavy-duty security plate dropped down from the doorframe. Jia blurred into motion, catching it in its descent and halting the mechanism from sealing them inside. For a precious moment, nothing happened. Then a sharp snapping sound preceded a torrent of lightning that flashed over the small Chinese girl, lighting her up like a Christmas tree.

A burnt scent of ozone filled the air and Jia coughed once. Then she threw the door up into the ceiling. It stayed.

"The next few minutes are going to get awfully unpleasant, folks," Alley said. "Hang in there. I'll get us through it, I promise. Also, remember we're all friends here."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Finn asked, looking about for the next trap.

"Means the HCP has defenses I never dreamed existed," Alley said, not sparing a moment of attention from her computer screen. "I can shut it down but not before it gets in our heads."

"Say again?"

There's no need for Alley to repeat herself. Finn stiffened at the voice in his head. A quick glance confirmed everyone else heard it too. How about I just show you instead?

Then the world dissolved.