Berea was one of those cities that had to be seen to be believed. Structures so tall they scraped the clouds. Cars so fast you could lose your hat as they passed by. Automatic machines on every street corner, performing a variety of functions from banking transactions to instant laundering.
And the city never slept.
Rodget hadn’t been back here in ages, and he had hoped to never see it again. But sometimes Life had other ideas. The irony.
He gazed out the window of his high palace room, mere steps away from Oreilin but it might as well have been miles. That servant, Kamelain, had made it quite clear he was not to disturb the princess under any circumstance until after the third daylight hour, and a guard had been posted outside her quarters to ensure Rodget’s compliance.
You couldn’t even see the moon from this view, and eventually Rodget tired of staring at the artificial lights. He removed his clothing and crawled into an overly-plush bed with far too many pillows. A canopy hung overhead and draped down the sides to keep the bugs at bay; this far south, there was only so much even a palace could do.
The Emperor’s palace was easily the largest indoor space Rodget had ever seen. Twice the width at least of a pike-ball stadium, and tall enough to block the noonday sun in places. All of Alturia’s population could fit inside in a pinch, without becoming overly-crowded. A map of the entire building (or at least what was open to visitors) hung on the corridor wall outside, and Rodget resolved to study it more thoroughly in the morning. After all, he had to be ready to guide Oreilin wherever she wanted to go and heck if he’d let a stranger do it.
But not all strangers were untrustworthy. That train car driver had certainly proven himself earlier that day. Rodget felt guilty for not going back to check on him, but he’d had good reason– reason which he would not explain to the princess. It would frighten Oreilin unnecessarily to know the whole truth. Rodget hoped– for Fenrick’s sake– that he had died in the aftermath, rather than face the consequence of being discovered. For one thing Rodget was certain of, and that was that Fenrick had been Enhanced. With superior strength, if Rodget were any judge.
Another thing Rodget was almost equally certain of– if the laws were the same in Berea now as they had been thirteen years ago– was that Enhanced humans were not regarded well here. Most took great care to hide their enhancements, so it must have been an agonizing decision for Fenrick to use his to rescue so many people. In the end, Rodget had to admit to himself that he hadn’t been thinking so much about Fenrick’s welfare when he’d convinced Oreilin not to go back for him, as he had been thinking about the consequences to himself and the princess if they had been discovered with the man.
Gods forgive me, he prayed. It is all for her protection.
So he tried to convince himself. But deep down he knew the truth: Rodget Malekson was a coward. His eyes stared upward, while his inner eye glared down, deep down to the recesses of his soul.
He awoke flat on his back, restrained by his arms and legs. Fenrick opened his eyes slowly against the glaring lights. White-robed figures shuffled in and out of his sight; he found he could not turn his head more than a few degrees without inducing a searing pain at the base of his skull. He winced and sucked in his breath.
One of the figures rushed to his side. “He’s awake,” she said.
“Sedate him. Now.” another voice commanded.
Something jabbed into his forearm, and he slipped again into unconsciousness.
The second time he awoke he kept his eyes closed and his mouth silent. With only the smallest flexings of his muscles, he was able to determine the width and tightness of his bonds as well as the material. Steel. Of course. Still, not an insurmountable obstacle if he was given enough time to work at it. That was unlikely to happen, though, as vigilant as these scientists were.
He became increasingly aware of several bruises up and down his body, and there was still that pain in the back of his head. An IV had been inserted in his arm, and down below a catheter. His body was naked under a thin papery sheet.
“It’s interesting,” said a voice at his left ear, and Fenrick jerked a little at the unexpected noise. Whatever the voice had been about to say was immediately interrupted, and Fenrick waited for another jab that did not come. But within moments the world grew black again.
“Now, we can get on with it,” the voice spoke again. “There’s no way he’s waking up now.”
But Fenrick was awake. Silently, he pushed adrenaline through his body, willing himself to stay alert this time. The adrenaline diluted the sedative.
“As I was saying, it’s interesting that this man seems to bear no outward markers of superior strength. His muscles are well-developed but not overly large. Yet the force required to break open that train car wall had to have been incredible. There were no tools or other blunt implements found at the site. What could account for the enhanced strength, then?”
“The enhancement doesn’t have to do with the size of the muscles,” chimed in another voice, and Fenrick got the impression that he had found himself the subject of a sort of object lesson for a group of medical students. “There are a lot of other factors that contribute to a person’s overall strength. Hormones, primarily– testosterone, adrenaline…”
“Just so, Torias. And what does this observation teach us about the way Enhancement works?”
“It alters the chemistry of the body first, physicality second.”
“Very good. So if our strong-man here,” the instructor paused to allow for a smattering of soft chuckles across the room, “indeed possesses something that alters his natural strength capacity, where is that something most likely to be located?”
The room was silent for several moments, save for the shifting of feet and clearing of throats. At last, a timid voice piped up, “In the kidneys?”
“Yes, if we’re looking at adrenaline. What about testosterone? Where would that come from?”
More throat-clearing and foot-shuffling. “From the… testes…” the last word was spoken softly, but all the room sniggered.
The instructor wasn’t having it. “Get used to talking about testicles and ovaries and all the rest in this class or you may as well walk out now.” The challenge in his voice was clear, and Fenrick imagined him staring down each student in turn, daring them to change their mind and leave. No-one stirred, however, and with a grunt the lecture resumed.
“We’ve narrowed it down to our two most likely locations, then. Now, I want you to divide into pairs and practice on your cadavers to remove first the testicles, and then the kidneys. Leave the organs on the trays and stand back for examination. The team that performs their operations most quickly and cleanly will have the privilege of operating on this live specimen.”
Oh no, they wouldn’t. Also, they were idiots if they thought removing a few organs would remove the source of the Enhancement. They didn’t know the truth. Not yet. And Fenrick wasn’t about to show them.
Fenrick waited for the crowd to disperse to their cadavers and he could hear the instructor’s voice some distance away, advising his students on their work. Now was his chance. He concentrated and pushed, and his muscles bulged until they strained at their bonds. But Fenrick’s aim was not to break the metal bands.
Instead, he broke the table beneath him. With a resounding crack and a thud Fenrick was on his feet, great chunks of splintered wood dangling from his arms. Should have bound my torso, too, geniuses. All (living) bodies turned, all eyes stared in his direction as he yanked out his IV and catheter. A man whom Fenrick assumed to be the instructor approached rapidly, red-faced and resolute. Fenrick shot out his hand and yanked the chain around the man’s neck from which hung a single, small key. The chain broke, the man yelled, and in a second swift movement, Fenrick punched him in the face.
He ignored the growing crowd around him as he concentrated on unlocking the shackles, first around his arms, then at his legs.
“How?” croaked the instructor as he struggled to rise and held an ineffective hand to his bleeding nose.
“You have a lot to learn,” said Fenrick, looming over him. “But you won’t be learning it from me. Now let me out of here or I’ll finish the job I started.” He held up a lion’s-paw-sized fist for emphasis.
“Stand down!” shouted the instructor to his students who had continued to close in, a few having the presence of mind to grab such instruments as were available to them. Most obeyed their instructor, but one young woman screamed and launched herself at Fenrick with a scalpel aimed to stab.
Fenrick was strong, but not always quick. The blade missed its mark as he managed to shift his body slightly, but then it sliced into the outer shoulder of his left arm. Fenrick cried out, reached for the scalpel and gripped it by the handle before it could fall to the ground. Then he took hold of the young woman with his uninjured right arm, seizing her firmly across the chest while holding the scalpel blade near to her axillary artery. “Touch me and she dies,” he growled. “Now move.”
He made his way forward with his hostage and the students parted wide-eyed before him. He made the girl open the exit with her card, they stepped outside, and then he waited for the door to close before dropping the scalpel and taking her by the shoulders to face him.
“What’s the quickest way out?” he demanded.
The girl looked up at him with surprisingly-calm eyes and said, “We should treat your shoulder first.”
It was true; blood dripped heavily down the length of his arm. And then Fenrick realized something else: He was still entirely naked. “New priority,” he said. “Get me a robe.”
The girl laughed, then. A degrading sort of sound. “Sure,” she replied. “But no need to feel embarrassed around me; I’ve seen plenty of naked men.”
“On the cadaver table, no doubt,” said Fenrick, irritated by the young woman’s attitude. Why wasn’t she afraid of him?
“Oh, no,” she said. “These men were very much alive.” She began running her hand down Fenrick’s curly-haired chest, but Fenrick swatted her away. “Alright,” she conceded with a pout that no doubt had melted the hearts of many men before. “I’ll be a good girl. For now. The name’s Velvina, by the way. You can call me Vel, if you like.”
“Good day, Miss Velvina. Now, about that robe…”
“Oh, fine! There’s a storage closet next door down. We can get you a robe and a bandage at the same stop.”
“That’s the first good news I’ve had all day.”
Five minutes later they were on their way again, down an eerily silent corridor.
“It’s the middle of the night,” said Velvina by way of explanation. “Our class was called in alone for an urgent educational opportunity.”
“So you’ll go back to bed after this?” Fenrick asked without thinking, then immediately regretted the words. Predictably, Velvina took this opportunity to sidle up to him again. Her short-cropped black hair touched his chest, and Fenrick fought his arousal.
“You could come with me.”
“Thank you,” he said a bit too quickly, and stepped back. “But I’ll be going home to my own place.” Then he froze as a new realization dawned on him. “No,” he corrected himself. “I suppose that’s not an option for me right now.” He tried not to think of his family, but a tear sprang to his eye.
“Oh, dear,” said Velvina with another signature pout. “The strong man has nowhere to go. If only he knew someone who could help him.”
From somewhere in the bowels of the building an alarm suddenly began to blare.
“Guess they decided your time is up,” said Velvina, brightly. “Follow me. Quickly, now!” And she took off running to the right, giving Fenrick no choice but to follow in haste.
“No need to worry,” said Velvina once he’d caught up.
“Who said I was worried?”
“I have it all planned out,” she continued, ignoring Fenrick’s question.
“What about security cameras?”
“No problem. Al took care of those.”
“I’ll explain later. Duck.”
“What?” Suddenly, Fenrick’s forehead hit something hard and he fell flat onto the polished concrete floor. The pain flared up in the back of his head again and he groaned.
“I did tell you to duck,” said Velvina, looming over him, amused.
“You are a cold, heartless woman.”
Velvina frowned then, and looked almost close to tears for a moment. But then she set her face and put out her hands to help Fenrick stand. “The ceiling is going to be lower for a while,” she said, pulling him along despite the throbbing in his head. “This is the laundry cart shaft.”
Fenrick merely grunted in response, as he labored to keep his massive body stooped and his head low. Eventually his movement became so slow that Velvina rushed on ahead, to return minutes later with a half-empty laundry cart.
“This should make it easier,” she said. “If you can get inside.”
There wasn’t enough space between the ceiling and the rim of the cart, but Fenrick paused only a moment before gripping the side closest to him and breaking away enough of the wood frame that he was finally able to lie atop it, his upper body dipping into the cart and his legs sticking out behind. And undignified position, and uncomfortable with the rough wood digging into his thighs. But he gritted his teeth and said, “Ready.” And Velvina gave the cart a great push.
He was used to fast-moving train cars; but although the cart moved at a mere fraction of the speed, Fenrick found himself closing his eyes and praying for a safe deliverance. It wasn’t the journey he feared, but rather the destination.
The tunnel gave way to a large white room, and the cart careened for several feet before crashing into a massive pile of sheets and towels. After recovering, Fenrick extricated himself from the cart with difficulty, and by the time he was on his feet again Velvina was right there to greet him.
“Never. Again.” said Fenrick, as his body shrank back to normal. He picked at a large splinter in his thigh.
Predictably, Velvina laughed. She tossed him a pair of pants. “Here. This ought to make you more comfortable.”
Fenrick held them up for size, gave them an experimental sniff. “Are they clean?”
“Is that important right now?”
Fenrick sighed, turned around, and put on the pants. There seemed to be no shirt in sight, though, so he tucked the edge of the short robe into the pants waist to keep it out of the way, and also– by strategic placement– to reduce the chafing at his crotch.
“Come on, now,” Velvina urged. “Time for phase three.”
“Couldn’t it wait? I’m feeling light-headed…”
Velvina gaped. “I’m saving your life, and you want to lie down?”
Fenrick shrugged. “Worth asking. Let’s go.”
Velvina led him to a trapdoor in the laundry room floor. “Gentlemen first,” she said, lifting the hatch. A faint scent of sewage wafted up, and Fenrick stifled a gag. “It smells bad, but you won’t be wading in it.”
“I’ll hold you to that,” replied Fenrick, green-faced. He sat a moment at the edge of the manhole, breathed deeply through his mouth, then lowered himself down until his feet hit the rung of a ladder.
Velvina followed, after resealing the hatch above them. Their eyes adjusted to the dimness as they climbed down; electric track lights lined the metal catwalks, installed for maintenance crew but this night serving an unexpected purpose.
“Do you come here often?” asked Fenrick, then silently cursed. Why did every other word he said to this woman come out as flirtatious?
“More often than I care to admit,” Velvina said, joining him on the catwalk. “You’re hardly our first rescue operation.”
“You keep mentioning others working with you. What are you? Some underground organization to liberate Enhanced captives?”
“How did you learn about me?”
“We’ve been watching you for a long time, Fenrick Bayle.”
“After everything else that’s happened tonight, I’m not surprised.”
They walked a while in silence, following the large pipes through the deep tunnels. A few of the pipes leaked, and once they barely missed getting sprayed. Fenrick could hear all sorts of critters skittering around just out of sight, and occasionally a bug would fly in his face.
Was it his imagination, or were the insects bigger down here?
“So, that bit where you attacked me with the scalpel earlier, was that–”
“Part of the plan?” Velvina nodded. “I have to say, you played into it beautifully.”
“You knew I’d take you hostage.”
“The probability was high.”
“You also knew I wouldn’t hurt you.”
“I was more certain of that than the other. I sensed the whole time you wouldn’t hurt an ant.”
“I punched the instructor,” Fenrick pointed out.
“Sure. But he deserved it.”
“True.” Fenrick had stopped walking and now had to dash to catch up. “But how did you know how I’d react?”
“You’re smart. Guess.”
Fenrick stopped again. “You’re an empath.” Of course, it made sense. Who else but another Enhanced would risk her life to save him?
Velvina did not reply, but Fenrick figured by her silence that his guess was correct.
“Are all the people you’re working with Enhanced as well?”
“Nearly all. Those who aren’t themselves have friends or family members they’re trying to protect.”
“How many of you are there?”
“I don’t know. We operate on a strict ‘need-to-know.’ So no one person can’t out everyone in the organization.”
“Smart,” said Fenrick.
“You know me, but you won’t be introduced to anyone else for some time.”
“I also know about Al.”
Velvina gave him a quizzical look.
“The guy who disabled the security cameras.”
“Where are you taking me now?”
“Somewhere you’ll be safe. For a while.”
“Can I get word to my family?” Fenrick had two sons; they’d be worried about him. Thankfully they lived with Fenrick’s mother so at least they’d be taken care of. Had they heard about the train car explosion? Had news of Fenrick’s capture– or perhaps false report of his death– been circulated to the news stations yet?
“I wouldn’t recommend a direct communication at this point,” said Velvina. “But we can arrange for a covert message so they’ll know you’re alive and in hiding. Don’t worry about their physical welfare,” she added (perhaps sensing the gist of what Fenrick was about to ask next). “The organization will make sure their expenses are paid for as long as you work for us.”
“Wait. Work for you?”
“Sure. You didn’t expect something for nothing, did you?”
“I suppose not…” Still, Fenrick didn’t like the feeling of being roped into something without warning or consultation.
“The offer’s pretty simple, really: I leave you at the exit point, you forget we ever met, and live your best life as a wanted man; or you stay with me, assume a new identity, and do whatever I say.”
All this because he’d decided to play hero and rescue a train full of schoolchildren.
“You’re awfully quiet.”
“Just… I need some time,” said Fenrick, with a dismissive wave.
“No problem. You have until we emerge onto Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Second.”
They continued on for what felt like hours. It was slower going down here than it would have been on the surface, no doubt; the lights were out in places and they had to step carefully.
His heart ached to see his children– to hug them and reassure them. But he realized that merely being in their presence now would put them in danger. Velvina offered him the chance to live free from pursuit, so long as he agreed to leave his old life and connections behind. He understood without it being said, that this offer would only be extended to him once. And maybe it wasn’t entirely hopeless; maybe one day he’d be able to reunite with his family again, on a better day in better circumstances.
It was that maybe– that faint thread of hope– that at last had Fenrick decided on the matter. He eased aside the manhole cover, lifted Velvina out, then himself; and after they’d both breathed in the fresh early-morning air, he stuck out a hand to his companion and said, “I’m yours to command.”