This story is by Julisa Basak and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“Do you know the serum gives you superpowers, boy? It’s a hot commodity in the black market.”
Kaleb ignored the man’s chatter beside him. He had been resisting the urge to pounce at his throat, but it did him no good to retaliate. The moonlit sky was ideal for his assignment; the man made that clear when he stopped the jeep on the cliff overlooking the research facility below.
“Now go show me what you got,” the man commanded when he came around from the driver’s seat to unlock Kaleb’s handcuffs. “You remember what I said?”
“Yes,” Kaleb responded bitterly.
“One hour,” the man pulled out a golf bag holding the parts that he needed to put his weapon together. “I’ll be on the watch. You try anything stupid…” He paused to throw in a snicker. “I’ll aim for your head.”
Kaleb flexed his fingers to force the threat out of his mind. He was used to this. Even with his small frame at the age of twelve, Kaleb had learned to defend himself in the camps where he and his family were forced to live as refugees after the nuclear war broke out. Now it was just him and his siblings, suddenly caught in an unpredictable and hellish train of events that lead them everywhere but home.
Their recent capture had thrown every hope into the dirt. Like animals, they were shoved into a cage for an alleged trafficking job. His fourteen year-old sister, Rosha, had fiercely protected their baby brother while he was strapped to her chest. Their other brother, Najah, only six, had growled and snarled to keep his terror at bay. The man found him an easy target to tease and humiliate, so much that Kaleb furiously threw a wad of spit at his cheek.
Their captor was quick to notice the wild glint in his eyes and merely responded with a booming laugh. Kaleb still remembered thinking he was going to take his last breath, that Rosha’s trembling hand on his shoulder and his brothers’ wails were going to be the last things he would see.
But he was bait to a different plan, a quest to steal a serum that was a rare object of interest. Kaleb had noted the sardonic way the man licked his lips and mused on his captives’ confusion. “More valuable than trading children, you see.”
His words had haunted him, but he was then taken here, alone, to the middle of no man’s land with nothing but a time-crunch on his shoulders.
“You get that serum for me, little viper. The truck will be transporting them from that lab any minute. Get as many vials as you can get your hands on, and get out.” the man motioned towards the grounds. “You do this for me, and I’ll let you and your siblings go.”
“What happens if I get caught?” Kaleb asked.
“If you get caught, start yelling,” he grinned. “They’ll try to hold you down. And when they do…” he patted the rifle against his lap. “I’ll shoot ‘em.”
Kaleb swallowed the bile rising in his throat. “You promise to set us free after this, right?” he curled his hands into fists, suppressing his rage. “If you break that deal, I’ll make sure you’ll regret it.”
The man let out a dry cackle. “You’re full of big talk for a little runt. But don’t make me pinky promise now,” he came forward and grabbed Kaleb by the front of his shirt. “You punks won’t make it far even if I do let you go.”
Kaleb almost gagged at the stench of old cigarettes. His next question was spontaneous. “How does the serum give you powers?”
The man’s eyes betrayed a look of sly enthusiasm, but he quickly pushed him off. “As if I’m gonna tell you. Now get moving, kid!”
Kaleb didn’t wait to watch him cock his gun. He dashed to another side of the hill and scampered down the narrow crevice that would lead him to level ground. His heart pounded against his chest as it always did when he was on the run. He could not think about failing, but something about this operation was making him uneasy.
There was no simple path through the flatlands, but Kaleb had learned of a secret entrance that was just about a yard to the left of the facility. Sweat poured down his neck when he found the designated boulder and crouched behind it. He checked his watch. Forty-five minutes. He was right on time. Just then, a rumble in the dirt turned his eyes to a spot on the ground, and sure enough, a tunnel rose like a gaping mouth, and the promised vehicle came into view.
Kaleb propelled himself onto the back of the truck as soon as it passed his hiding spot. He grabbed the edge and swung himself underneath. There was an opening, he was told, that lead up to the bed of the vehicle and was just the right size for his small body. When he found it, he wasted no time to slip through and climb up to the cargo hold.
A quake passed through his chest when his eyes fell on the rows of crates surrounding him, as if he was suddenly the center of some magnetic pull. He took a deep breath and approached the closest crate with a crowbar. The pull got stronger, but Kaleb could not hesitate.
If it had been any other time, he would have reacted differently to the contents inside after opening the lid. He had stolen before, swiping valuables through odd jobs to provide for his siblings during troubled times. But here he was caught in a stupor. The vials emanated a glow that was almost blinding and caused his heartbeat to accelerate. Kaleb thought over the man’s words, about superpowers and the serum’s high demand. He didn’t give a damn about the absurd. But his body felt frozen.
If time didn’t break his trance, the sudden screeching of the tires as the truck came to a halt did. Kaleb flew into the nearest crate, but his ears caught the two loud gunshots that rang out outside. He felt his heart stop. Dread seeped into his skin as he picked himself up and shoved as many vials as he could into his backpack.
His head spun from the rush of adrenaline as he bolted for the opening and shimmied his way under the truck. He pictured the worst; the man must have shot the drivers. But why? There was twenty minutes left. He could easily make a run back up the hill if there was no one there to stop him. He had to at all cost.
But there were voices. Kaleb dropped to the ground and noticed with horror that the drivers were still alive. One had aimed his rifle at a particular direction. It was only then when he saw it – the dead body of his captor sprawled against the side of the hill.
Nothing made sense. He didn’t have time to question anything. With a sudden surge of hope, Kaleb snuck to the other side of the truck and bolted. The trek up the hill was more bearable when he realized he and his siblings were now free. But then his eyes caught the burning jeep ahead and the three figures standing in front of it, and he fell forward with a scream.
The sight was bewildering. Rosha stood there with Najah, his fingers emanating real flames. Their baby brother floated gently above their heads. All of their eyes glowed as white as the serum in the vials.
“Don’t be afraid, brother,” Rosha spoke softly. “It was about time we were awakened. And you will soon too.”
A siren blared in the distance as Kaleb stuttered in shock. “Su-superpowers?”
“Yes. We flew here just in time. If I didn’t warn those drivers telepathically, our captor would still be alive. And if he knew about our abilities, well…he would have sold us already.” Rosha walked forward and extended her hand. “You’ve saved us many times before. Now it’s our turn to save you.”
Kaleb felt motion return to his body when he heard vehicles come out of the facility towards their direction.
“Come,” Rosha spoke one last time before pulling him to his feet. “Before they find us and take our powers for—”
“That serum.” Kaleb had no more words.
“I’ll explain everything on the way,” Rosha added. “We have to go.”
Kaleb felt the vials weigh down in his backpack and realized he had five minutes left before his hour was over. He had never hesitated to do whatever he could for his family’s safety, and he was not going to stop here.
He took one last look at the searchlights in the field below the hill, and joined them on the run.