Taran awoke to a steady rhythm of mechanical beeping sounds, and a wave of room-spinning nausea washed over him as he tried to open his eyes. With a grimace, he turned his head slowly to take in his surroundings. A single overhead threw grey light over equally grey walls. Why was he in the infirmary? Taran’s movements tugged at the many sensor wires adhered to his temples and chest, all of which fed to the medbot hovering near the bed. Everything hurt like he had just run a marathon while simultaneously nursing the world’s worst hangover. Taran tried to sit up, but his trembling arms were made of jelly. He collapsed back against the pillows with a sigh.
A sound from the right caught Taran’s attention, and he was shocked to discover Ronnie and Maya dozing on a sofa in the corner. “Hey, guys,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.
Ronnie nudged Maya and quickly scooted to the chair next to the bed. He reached for Taran’s hand. “Hey! You’re awake!”
“Glad to have you back among the living. How are you feeling?” Maya asked.
“Like I got hit by a bus. What the hell happened?”
Ronnie spoke up. “You passed out in your kitchen, and I had to call for help. You were awake for a little bit as they hooked you up to the equipment but had been asleep until now.”
Taran struggled to recall the night before. He remembered being in the kitchen with Ronnie making dinner. They had talked about Ronnie’s father and how Taran was ready to let him know about their relationship. Then a LOT of kissing before Taran felt a massive power drain, like every bit of energy rushed out of his body at once.
He furrowed his brow, trying to piece together the hazy memory. “I… did something.”
“Damn right you did!” Ronnie chuckled. “That kitchen countertop will definitely need to be replaced.”
“Right. There was electricity?”
Ronnie traced a path on Taran’s fingers. “I think lightning would be more accurate. You know, like your mom?”
None of this made sense to Taran, and what Ronnie described was impossible. “Has the doctor said anything?” He asked.
“Doctor Peters said she was waiting for you to wake up. She did call your parents, though.” Maya offered.
Taran blanched. “Oh, shit.”
“Yeah, I thought you might say that.”
“Have they showed up yet?”
Maya shook her head and looked at her watch. “Ugh. I’ve got to head to a Control shift now, but I’ll be sure to let them know you’re awake. Call me if there’s anything you need, okay?” She waved goodbye and left the room.
Taran squeezed Ronnie’s hand. “Will you stay with me until they get here?”
Taran and Ronnie waited in the infirmary room, playing cards at the small bedside table. The medbot connected to Taran would beep from time to time, bringing in one of the nurses to check on him. Finally, Doctor Peters appeared in the doorway carrying her tablet.
“Good Morning, Taran. It’s nice to see you’re awake.”
“I wanted to go over some things with you and ask a few questions. As you can imagine, I also notified your parents about what happened. They’re both in the field right now but said they’d check-in as soon as they could.”
Taran looked over at Ronnie and rolled his eyes. He knew his mom was likely preoccupied in California with the earthquake recovery efforts, and she couldn’t just drop everything to be there. His father, on the other hand, could get anywhere in the world in about 20 minutes. How typical that he couldn’t be bothered to stop by and see how his hospitalized son was doing.
“Ronnie’s still here, I see. He’s been with you since you came in last night. Mr. Nolan, would you mind giving us a few minutes to talk?”
“I’d like him to stay,” Taran blurted out and motioned for Ronnie to remain seated. Doctor Peters glanced at the two of them for a moment and then nodded. She pulled up a chair and sat down at the foot of the bed.
“Taran, we went and took all of the requisite readings when you came in. Your power levels are somehow about thirty percent higher than before.”
“That was pretty much my reaction, too. I thought there was something wrong with the medbot’s calibrations, but everything checked out.”
“I’m sorry,” Ronnie chimed in from the corner. “Is that, um, normal?”
Doctor Peters shook her head. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. When we measure a power level, we track certain physiological attributes within a person: cell count, nervous system development, things like that. While you can train and become stronger over time, that change is slow and predictable. At a certain point, a hero reaches their peak abilities, and we don’t see any new skills appear. Taran’s been with the Syndicate since he was thirteen, and I was positive we had his profile all mapped out. I anticipated him honing his current skills, but lightning?” She shrugged. “This wasn’t on our radar at all.”
Doctor Peters tapped her tablet and brought up a file. “I’d like to try to get to the bottom of this, so I have a couple of questions for you: Have you been in contact with any radioactive material that might have caused a fluctuation in your abilities?”
Taran shook his head.
“Did you stumble upon any cursed artifacts or occult rituals on any recent missions?”
“Those patrols with the Magic Division have been a complete bust. Other than that, I’ve just been conducting training. Nothing high risk in a long time.”
Doctor Peters jotted down a couple more notes. She flicked the file away and eased back into her chair.
“You know how power manifests work. They’re a combination of focus and emotional control. While situations like extreme grief or anger can trigger outbursts in heroes, these are temporary, and things tend to level off once the moment has passed… your tests suggest otherwise. Frankly, it’s almost like you had a psychological block that was removed.” Doctor Peters paused, and Taran watched as she carefully formulated her next question. She glanced at Ronnie in the corner for just a moment before continuing again. “Taran, has anything happened recently that would have triggered an emotional change?”
Taran dropped his gaze, no longer able to look the doctor in the eye. The familiar ache of shame seeped into his bones. Hadn’t he been getting better at this? Doctor Peters was one of Taran’s oldest mentors and had helped him through so many difficult times. Why was the notion of telling her the truth so terrifying?
As he sat in silence, Taran became acutely aware of Ronnie on the couch in the corner, sitting with his knees to his chest, making himself small and drawn away from the conversation. The realization that his cowardice was now hurting someone else made Taran want to heave.
“I’m not sure I want to talk about this right now,” he said quietly. “I’m still pretty tired.”
“I understand that this must be scary for you,” Doctor Peters began. “Just know that as your doctor, everything you say is confidential. If something was going on that you didn’t want others to know about… I wouldn’t be able to say anything.”
Taran nodded his head but said nothing.
The doctor stood up to leave when Ronnie suddenly spoke up. “Doctor Peters, should we be expecting more of these outbursts? Is Taran going to be okay?”
“Well, we don’t exactly know what’s causing them, but I don’t have any evidence that suggests Taran is in danger.” She turned back to look at them. “You’ll want to take it easy for a bit, and don’t do anything to stress yourself out. You were brought here because that power spike totally exhausted you. Doing that too often could put a strain on your organs, but otherwise, I don’t have a reason to keep you here. You’re free to go back to your quarters once you’re feeling strong enough.” She stood at the foot of Taran’s bed for a moment before speaking again. “And Taran, when you feel ready to talk, you know where to find me.”
Taran watched the doctor leave, embarrassment rising again in his chest as he turned to Ronnie. The other boy chewed his bottom lip in concern, eyes uncharacteristically shadowed.
“I’m sorry,” Taran managed to choke out. “I know you must be disappointed.”
“I’m not — it’s not like that. I just wish you would’ve said something so the doctor could help.”
“We don’t know that this has anything to do with us.”
“Taran, I was literally on top of you when you caused an electrical fire in the kitchen. Forgive me if I think the two things are related. Not to mention you said you lo—”
“—I know what I said!” Taran cut him off. He couldn’t bear to add more fuel to his shame spiral.
“I’m sorry. I know you want to work this out on your own, but not at the expense of your health.”
They sat in silence for a long while, neither knowing the right thing to say, but Ronnie’s presence had its way of bringing things into focus. They were going to be okay, which allowed Taran to focus on the more pressing issue. These new powers were utterly perplexing, and they scared him. Taran had forgotten the fear of not having control. It was like being twelve years old all over again.
Crushing self-doubt aside, Taran decided he was physically well enough to leave the infirmary. He called for a nurse, who disconnected him from the medbot and helped him change clothes. Ronnie guided him back to the apartment, a gentle hand at his back in case Taran felt dizzy again. The bright hallways hurt his eyes, but Taran was happy to find he felt stronger with every step home. He was punching in the code to his door when Maya came dashing down the corridor toward them.
“The infirmary nurse said you had checked out, and I was hoping I would find you here. We need to talk. Now.” Maya was flushed, and Taran wondered if she just ran all the way from Control.
“Sure thing,” He motioned the other two inside while Maya took a quick glance up and down the hallway. She immediately started pacing the living room like an agitated cat, putting Taran’s nerves on edge. It wasn’t like Maya to get this worked up; something terrible had happened.
“Maya, tell us what’s going on.”
She took a breath. “I was working in Control when we got an alert about a distress call off the west coast. An oil rig had caught fire, and about two dozen workers were trapped with the whole thing set to explode. A team was mobilized from the San Francisco chapter, and I provided additional visual support for the Control staff there.”
Taran followed along but couldn’t understand why Maya was so upset. Sure this sounded serious, but it was practically routine.
“One of the closest heroes was Zephyr, piloting a Nighthawk and on her way back east. She rerouted the jet to the rig and managed to get everyone off the platform before putting out the fire. The workers were then dropped off at a nearby naval base.”
“That seems like a pretty typical day for Mom.”
“It was,” Maya continued, “Until she started making her way
back to the San Francisco headquarters. She followed the coast for a few miles and was about to kick the Nighthawk into Mach 3 when I got a weird reading at my console. Everything just froze for a second, and I couldn’t get any updates on your mom’s position. Then, just as quickly, the equipment was back to normal. We picked up the Nighthawk on the radar, just as before… except for one thing.”
Taran reached for Ronnie’s arm to steady himself as the room started to spin. He was still recovering from his incident, but the blood drained from his cheeks for another reason. He knew what Maya was about to say.
“Your mom wasn’t on board. She’s missing.”