The parasite theory. The idea stuck in Vel’s head as she washed and dressed, leaving a note for Nema that she would be gone for supper, but not stating where.
Different Enhanced people had different ways that they received their Enhancements. For some, it was accidental: they’d wake up one morning feeling different; and later they’d discover that their hearing was sharper than normal, or they could run farther and faster than everyone else, or they didn’t need to sleep anymore. Or they could suddenly sense the emotions of others, though it took time to sort them and identify them.
Others went to “Enhancement brokers,” paying good money and putting themselves through questionable rituals said to be required for the Enhancement to take hold, if it even worked at all. There was no way to guarantee which Enhancement one would come away with, but many gambled on the chance to receive one of the more coveted augmentations.
It had been observed once by those who studied such things, that there appeared to have been an exponential growth in the number of spontaneous Enhancement cases during events of mass deaths– wars, or pandemics, or natural disasters. Vel had acquired hers during the most recent plague, as she’d been caring for victims at a small hospital in her home country of Nailand. She had been twenty-one years old.
Understanding one’s Enhancement was something that seemed to come naturally over time. It wasn’t something one talked about. In fact, every time Vel had tried in the past she had found her tongue tied on all but the most basic points: “I’m an empath. I’m able to sense what others are feeling. Sometimes it overwhelms me so I can hardly cope.” No Enhanced individual could openly discuss the changes they noticed in their minds and bodies– the occasional random firings in their brains, or the aversion that overcame them from time to time when someone else came too close to discovering the truth. Whatever was causing their Enhancement, clearly didn’t want to be discovered.
Which lent some credibility to the parasite theory. Only when Oreilin had spoken the words, Vel hadn’t sensed any resistance from the thing inside her. So, not a parasite. In any case, a parasite would have slowly consumed its host from the inside, leaving nothing beneficial behind.
It had to be a symbiosis of some sort. But no one to Vel’s knowledge had come any closer to understanding it than that. Professor Norlan at the Institute was quite obsessed and thought himself close to figuring out how Enhancement worked, but he was sorely mistaken. Still, a part of her found the pursuit fascinating, in a sort of cringey, amused way. Though, Vel had to admit, there was very little amusing about trying to remove the kidneys of a living man, and so Vel was glad she’d been in a position to save Fenrick last night. The testicles he could have lived without, but not the kidneys. It made Vel’s blood run cold to realize that her teacher would resort to such callous disregard for human life when he’d once sworn to protect it.
The word “psychopath” came to mind. But so many of the students had seemed eager to participate in the butchery as well.
Then Senn’s words from that night, whispered across their shared operating space, came to Vel’s recollection: “You’ll win, won’t you.” He wasn’t wrong. If Fenrick hadn’t reacted the way he had, Vel’s next option would have been to win the “honor” of operating on him, in order to try and save him somehow.
Thank the gods it hadn’t come to that. But it disturbed Vel to think that her classmates might believe her callous enough to follow through. No wonder Senn was suspicious. Maybe he thought Vel had escorted Fenrick somewhere in order to finish the job started in the surgery theatre. Though the thought of her overtaking someone of even Fenrick’s non-Enhanced stature was laughable.
She took a deep breath, opened the door, and stepped outside into the warm late afternoon. Elsewhere in the city, people and vehicles crowded each other and noise assailed the ears; but the closer one got to the palace the quieter it became. Even the other students passing her talked to each other in hushed tones, their eyes occasionally flicking up to the tall spires of the palace just half a mile away.
It was a common superstition that Vel chose not to participate in– the belief that the Emperor’s ears were so keen they could hear through layers of walls over a mile away. Even with Enhancement, no human could hear that well; Vel knew this, because she knew a few Enhanced listeners and they all agreed on that point.
On the other hand, one had to be careful about other, closer ears and eyes. So even those who didn’t fear the Emperor directly were still careful around their neighbors. Despite Vel’s words to the princess earlier that people were generally happy here, crime was a real problem in Berea Prime, and it wasn’t uncommon for things to happen: explosions like the one on the train; vandalism; people gone missing (though Vel knew the truth about many of those); and more atrocious acts too horrible to contemplate.
With that thought, she walked a little faster. The shadows darkened and a slight rain began to trickle down from the sky. Of course no one in Berea Prime ever thought to carry a rain shield, so Vel hugged her school bag to her chest and continued on since there was nothing else to be done.
When she arrived at the palace, she kept her head down to avoid the imposing sight of the high marbled walls. She felt conspicuous mounting the steps to the large front doors, but of course that was all in her head since practically anyone was welcome to enter the outer palace at any time. The Emperor loved making a show of welcoming all to his “humble abode,” which was more akin to a small indoor city. A person could easily live within its walls their entire life and never want for anything. But doing so, Vel thought, would be an excellent way to grow entirely out of touch with the people outside.
It was busy inside the palace this time of day, and people passed her by without even a glance. The palace housed hundreds of servants, serving the Emperor and his many guests. Each Berean noble, and each foreign dignitary, retained rooms within the palace for their use whenever they came to visit. Oreilin would be housed in the Octavian Suite, and Vel went to the large map displayed near the entrance to look for it, even though she knew it was unlikely to be labeled for security purposes.
“Can I help you?” A stout man in the garb of the supervising staff greeted her.
“I was invited here to visit Princess Oreilin.”
“Ah, yes. We were informed. This way, please.”
Their route was long and indirect, but Vel carefully filed away each step, turn, and ascent. She’d been in the palace before to visit her uncle, but that didn’t mean much in this maze of a place. Anyhow, Bourra would probably ask her later for the directions in case they ever became useful to the Organization.
The Octavian rooms were on the ninth floor in the south wing. Her uncle’s rooms were two floors below in the west wing. Maybe she could stop in for a visit later, if Oreilin didn’t keep her too long before class.
It was so odd, Vel thought, the way the princess had just come up to her like that in the museum, as if she could see her even though she was blind. Vel hadn’t been making any noise, either. Octavians were known for their faith in the gods, however, and claimed a certain sense of the spiritual within them. Vel didn’t know about that– she’d given up on the gods long ago herself. But if Oreilin had been particularly in tune, maybe… Maybe it meant they had been supposed to meet that way?
Vel shook her head. There had to be a more logical explanation.
Then it struck her and she stopped in front of the princess’ door, finger hovering at the bell.
Oreilin was Enhanced!
Anything else was conjecture at this point and Vel pushed aside the urge to think any further on it for the time being. Maybe Oreilin would reveal it herself or maybe she wouldn’t. But Vel had very mixed feelings about it all. Glad to have that one thing in common with the princess. But also worried for Oreilin’s sake, should she be found out. Vel would have to figure out some discrete way to warn her of the danger she was in, assuming she didn’t already know. It couldn’t happen here in the palace; servants’ eyes and ears were everywhere, and Vel wasn’t entirely certain there wasn’t some sort of audio-surveillance system installed in even the rooms. Octavia was a low-tech nation compared to Prime, and it might not have occurred to Oreilin to be cautious with her private conversations.
She rang the bell and announced herself, and within seconds the door flung open. Oreilin beamed. Vel pushed down her sense of urgency and managed to speak smoothly enough: “I thought maybe I’d show you one of my favorite places,” she said. “Outside the palace.”
“Oh. Umm.” Taken by surprise, Oreilin stammered. “I– wanted you to meet Rodget,” she said. A tall, dark man came up behind her. Berean, Vel surmised, with some Secondian blood as well. He looked young, but experienced. Vel probed and felt an inner pain which he fought to suppress. Quite the contrast to Oreilin’s openness and general optimism.
“Rodget,” said Vel, greeting him with a smile. “Call me Vel.”
Rodget nodded. A man of few words, apparently. Vel had ways of getting people to open up, though.
“Be friendly, Rodge,” Oreilin scolded.
“Pardon, Ma’am, but how do you know you can trust this woman?”
“We’ve been over this already.” Oreilin sighed at her guide and then turned to Vel, pulling her inside. “Don’t mind him,” she said. “He’s surly because I made a new friend without him there to approve of you first.”
Vel laughed because it seemed warranted. But she also couldn’t help secretly agreeing with Rodget. “He cares deeply for your safety,” she said.
“Yes,” agreed Oreilin. “Sometimes a bit too much.”
Vel could have told Oreilin that Rodget’s care extended far beyond concern for her bodily security, but she sensed that his feelings for the princess weren’t hers to reveal. She likewise realized that Oreilin was all but oblivious to her guide’s passion. If the princess ever had any suspicions on the subject she had very carefully filed them away out of her conscious thought.
Instead, Vel reached out a hand. “My name is Vel,” she said. “Tertian by birth, Berean by necessity.” As most Bereans expressed pride in where they lived, Vel hoped this small concession would help Rodget warm up to her.
“Rodget,” the man replied, shaking her hand. “Berean/Secondian by birth, Alturian by choice.”
“Noted,” said Vel, with a smile. “I understand Alturia is quite different from here. I’d like to see it for myself one day.”
It was a test– a dance. Rodget had thrown the name “Alturia” at Vel to see how she’d respond, and Vel had thrown it back smoothly enough. She saw his shoulders lower slightly, and felt the tension wane.
Oreilin clapped her hands together for attention. “Now that we’re all acquainted, where was it you wanted to show me, Vel?”
“Oh.” Vel had nearly forgotten. She racked her brain for an appropriate suggestion. “A park,” she said at last. “Though, it is raining outside…”
“What if you showed me the Institute?”
Was her school any safer than the palace?
“I’ll order us a car,” Oreilin added, making for the servants’ bell.
“It’s not raining too hard,” Vel said quickly. “We should be fine with rain shields.”
“Alright.” Oreilin lowered her hand and smiled. “Rodget, would you fetch us three shields, please?”
Rodget grunted his agreement and left the room with only one backward glance at Vel.
“Oh, at last!” said Oreilin, sitting on one end of a small sofa to the side of the room and patting the other end for Vel. Vel joined her, and Oreilin said, “It really is nice once in a while to be in the private company of another woman. Now, I’ve been dying to bring this up with someone and you’re the first suitable person I’ve had the opportunity to speak with. Do you think the Emperor intends to marry me?”
Vel didn’t need empathy to see the apprehension in Oreilin’s face. “Oh,” she said, a bit taken aback by the suddenness of the question. “I don’t know,” she said. “He’s had plenty of foreign visitors, of both sexes.”
“True. But things have been so strange ever since I arrived here. I’ve been lavished with fine clothes and food, and everything I ask for. And this morning, I spent four hours in a room simply being observed. Or so I gather was the intention. It was just me, Rodget, and occasionally a servant in there, while I was told to just ‘do whatever I usually do with my time.’ I was provided books, musical instruments, art supplies… I’m not at all convinced the Emperor realizes I’m blind,” she said with a derisive snort. “In the end I strummed the harp awhile, and passed time with the modeling clay. Rodget and I chatted about nothing of consequence. He read to me until his voice grew hoarse. By the end I was so frustrated. I come all this way because my parents tell me I’ve been summoned for a purpose which they can’t or won’t disclose; then when I arrive expecting to see the Emperor to explain himself I get nothing! Not even an apology for what happened on my way here.”
“What… happened?” Vel asked, gently, though she already knew the answer.
Oreilin gaped. “Surely it’s been in the news pamphlets.”
“No,” said Vel. “Though…” she paused for effect. “I did hear rumors of a train car explosion yesterday evening.”
More agitation, and… perhaps Oreilin was reliving the event, as she grew quiet and terror overcame her. “It was horrible,” she murmured. Then, seconds later, she shook her head and said, “I’m sorry. I should be relieved to be alive and safe. But others weren’t so lucky. And, there was a man left behind– Fenrick. He was my train driver, and he’s the one who helped me and all my servants to safety.” Then she paused and gaped again. “You,” she said, extending a finger to Vel.
“Me, what?” Vel asked.
Oreilin opened her mouth, then closed it again, re-opened it, like a fish. “Nevermind.” She shrugged. Vel knew Oreilin had just realized something, but was likely uncomfortable speaking of it aloud.
They sat in silence a few moments, until Rodget returned with the rain shields.
They walked from the palace to the Institute, and though Vel had intended to dedicate the time to some serious and covert conversation, she found herself quite unable to formulate what she wanted to say for some time. Should she tell Oreilin she knew she was Enhanced? Would Oreilin benefit from political commentary on the state of affairs in Berea?
“Fenrick is alive,” she murmured at last, moving as close to her ear as possible without tangling their shields. Fortunately, the rain would help mask their words.
Oreilin paused a moment, then continued walking, face ahead. “How do you know?”
“I know him,” Vel said, simply. “I met him last night.”
“Was he safe?”
“He is now.”
“Good,” Oreilin replied, shortly. But Vel felt the relief and release of worry that radiated from the young woman. “I don’t suppose there would be some way for me to send word of my thanks?”
“I’ll think about it. He has to be careful right now; authorities are looking for him.” As soon as she’d spoken, Vel knew she’d said too much.
“Um…” She floundered. Then, unable to think of a convincing lie, she decided to risk the truth– or enough of it. “He revealed his Enhanced strength by breaking open the train car with the children in it. The Emperor will want to question him.”
“Would it really be so bad, to answer a few questions?”
“Worse,” replied Vel. “It wouldn’t end at that.”
“Oh.” Oreilin was pensive. Then she shuddered internally. “I’ve heard rumors, of course, but… I didn’t want to believe they were true.”
“It’s not safe for Enhanced people here,” said Vel. “The Emperor has everyone convinced that they’re dangerous, volatile, a threat to law and order. He blames nearly all crime on Enhancement– either the possession of it, or else the desire for it.”
“How would Enhancement explain the car explosion?”
“True, there’s no Enhancement that could accomplish that. Either someone planted a bomb, or else something went terribly wrong with the engine. My money’s on the former,” Vel concluded.
“But who would do such a thing?”
“And why would the Emperor cover it up?” Vel added.
“I hadn’t thought of that…”
“I only have theories about the latter question,” said Vel. “But as for who would do it, there are plenty of terrorists out there, who delight in frightening us and sending the message that we’re not wanted and they’re prepared to do anything to stop us– to eradicate us.”
“You mean Enhanced,” said Oreilin, pausing to face Vel with a meaningful look on her face. “I understand,” she said. “But don’t say anymore.”
Vel nodded, forgetting for a moment that Oreilin couldn’t see. “I trust you with my secret,” she said. “And I’ll keep yours.”
Something passed between them. A bonding moment, as if they were two long-lost sisters finding each other for the first time. But nobody else could ever know about it.
Rodget, walking behind a respectful distance to let the two women talk, continued to regard Vel with tolerance, but Vel knew it would take more time for him to warm up to her. She would grant him that time, and space. She wondered about him, too: what had his life been like before? And what inspired that flicker of fear she caught from him every so often? At first she thought he was responding to strangers getting too near the princess, but soon realized there was more to his anxiety than that, for the fear lasted beyond the perceived danger and was more heightened with certain people than with others.
He feared older men. More specifically, Berean men in their fifties and above.
They were on the Institute campus by now, mostly populated by young students; but punctuated by the occasional professor, of which the kind of men in question made up a fair percentage.
They encountered Professor Norlan, who saw Vel and her company and stared after them as they passed. If he was thinking of questioning her, Vel didn’t give him the chance; she steered Oreilin in a new direction, down a wide stairwell and in through a basement door. She closed her rain shield.
“What are we doing down here?” Rodget asked as he followed them inside. A bodyguard took station at the door, being trained only to keep the princess safe, not to ask questions. Lights flickered on as they sensed movement, illuminating a room lined with tables and chairs and not much else.
“This is where I like to come for privacy,” Vel lied. “Hardly anyone comes here, so it’s a good place to study.” She left Oreilin and sat at a dusty table as if to demonstrate.
“I suppose…” said Rodget, clearly unconvinced.
“They hold meetings here sometimes,” Vel added.
“It’s very dusty,” Oreilin remarked, then sneezed.
“Well, we don’t need to stay here right now, of course,” said Vel. She got up again and made her way slowly back to the door. Would Norlan be waiting? Or would he have moved on by now? She knew she’d have to face his questions sooner or later; but she didn’t want to do so in front of Oreilin. “Wait here,” she said, opened the door, and ascended the stairs.
No Norlan. Vel sighed with relief. But then her com-pad chirped and she swore, startled.
“Panni, now’s not a good time,” she hissed. “Besides, it’s supposed to be my day off.”
“I know,” Panni began. It was impossible, of course, for Vel to use her empathic senses over the pad, but she could hear the strain in the older woman’s voice. “But we need a medic, and you’re the best option right now.”
“Really,” Vel said, unbelieving. “With all your resources?”
“The rest are all… otherwise occupied.”
“Oh.” Clearly, there was something big going on that Vel didn’t know about. An operation gone wrong? Another terrorist attack? She sighed. “Where do you need me?”
“It’s actually on the Institute campus, where you happen to be right now.” Panni gave Vel directions to meet the man in need of her care and what she’d need to bring with her.
“I was just showing a new friend around the campus,” Vel said, when she’d filed away her instructions.
“I’m afraid the Octavian princess will have to find her own way back to the palace,” said Panni.
“I can’t just abandon her.” Vel wasn’t at all surprised that the Organization knew who she was with.
“There’s no time to lose,” Panni urged.
“Fine,” Vel said. “I’ll grab my med kit from my room and head right there.”
“Good,” said Panni, and ended the call.
Cursing again for good measure, Vel hesitated only a moment before dashing up the rest of the stairs and cutting for the dorms. She ran, and the people she passed were a blur to her eyes.
Nema was in their room when Vel arrived. She looked up from her studying. “Oh, good,” she said. “I was worried you wouldn’t be back in time for the lec–” she stopped, taking in Vel’s appearance, and gaped. “What’s up with you?” she asked. “Seen a ghost?”
Vel grabbed her med kit from under her bed. “Gotta run,” she said. “Emergency aid needed.”
“What? Where? Can I help?”
“No. Thank you. Shouldn’t take long. I’ll meet you later.”
“You’d better,” said Nema. “Senn’s right; you’ve been acting rather suspiciously lately.”
Vel ignored this jab, having no time to respond appropriately. She opened the door and left, the heavy med kit hitting her leg as she jogged to her next destination.