She descended, with dampened hair and clothing, to another basement room not unlike the one she’d taken Oreilin to. Only this one was dust-free. Covertly maintained by the Organization as a “safe room” on campus, Vel had been here several times before. She knocked on the door to announce her arrival, then produced a key and inserted it into the lock.
“Hello,” she said, stepping inside.
Moans came from a sofa in the far corner. Vel closed and re-latched the door behind her, then rushed to the sofa.
And halted halfway, recognizing the man instantly. Likewise, he looked up, and his eyes grew wide. His moaning stopped a moment, and he regarded his would-be savior with restrained contempt. “You…”
“Senn?” Vel couldn’t have been more surprised, but she tried to hide it. Senn. Senn? Part of the Organization?
“Of course,” Senn grumbled. “I should have guessed.”
“Guessed what, exactly?” Vel’s indignation was peaked now, but then Senn fell into another fit of agony and she set her personal feelings aside.
“It’s. My appendix,” Senn gasped. “I think.”
“I believe you,” replied Vel. “But we’d better be sure.”
Senn nodded, and continued to moan as Vel set up her equipment on the large table in the center of the room– soon to be her operating table. Then she turned to Senn again. “Can you make it up here?” she asked, indicating the table.
Senn nodded and slowly rose, though it clearly taxed him to do so. Vel offered her assistance, but Senn swatted her away. “I’ll let you do for me only what I can’t do for myself,” he snarled. Vel stepped back, then, and gave him space. No doubt he would have attempted his own surgery if he’d thought it at all possible, she thought in a moment of indulgence. Why did Senn despise her so? His hatred for her seemed to fill the room, threatening to crush her. She pushed back, and in her mind the words “patient first” became her mantra.
As Senn climbed up and flopped onto his back, Vel produced a small scanner and flicked it on. Sure enough, the scanner affirmed Senn’s suspicion: his appendix had swollen to the size of a nanfruit. Vel put down the scanner, donned gloves, and next prepared an IV needle. Senn, knowing what to expect, offered up no resistance as she slid the needle into the vein of his forearm, then secured it with tape. “I’m giving you an antibiotic first,” she said to him.
Senn nodded. He seemed to have given up his intense dislike for the moment, having no other choice but to trust Vel with his life. Vel inserted a tube into the IV and connected the bag of antibiotics, which she hooked over the side of a chair. Then, when the drip was too slow working against gravity, she picked up the chair and set it on the table above Senn’s head. I could really use an assistant, she thought, wishing now that she’d taken Nema up on her offer to help, secrecy be hanged.
She turned to her equipment, and when she came back Senn had lifted his shirt to provide her access to his abdomen. Still intent on having her touch him as little as possible. Vel sighed, then began rubbing sanitizing gel into his skin. He winced only briefly at her touch.
Then she pulled out another needle and a bottle of anesthetic. “I’m going to need your help for this,” she said. “Since I have no assistant, you’ll have to do what you can. I’ll need someone to hold the scanner for me during the operation. That means I can only use a local anesthetic. You won’t feel any pain, but… you’ll be aware of the entire process.”
“Good,” said Senn, emphatically. Then muttered, “Wouldn’t want to fall asleep around you anyway.”
“What in the gods’ heavens do you have against me?” Vel blurted out.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Senn, his words coming out in a force of breath. “Could it be your reputation?”
But Senn’s eyes rolled back and he moaned several times in succession, each time growing louder. “Take it out!” he yelled at last. “Please!”
It was the “please” that did it. Once again, the animosity in the room drained away and Vel re-focused on her work. Within minutes, the anesthetic pumped into him was doing its work, and the moans subsided.
She worked quickly, but carefully, after a rough start. She’d only ever practiced on cadavers before and was surprised at the amount of blood that ran down Senn’s side after the first incision and pooled on the table beneath him. She interrupted her work just long enough to fetch a tablecloth from a cupboard, which she shoved under him to catch the blood. Sloppy, she scolded herself. You should have known better.
Senn was a good assistant, all things considered. He kept the scanner held steady enough, though Vel had to fetch a stack of books for him to prop up his arm. He made no comments, focusing all his energy on his task and ignoring the disconcerting tugging sensations. Except for when Vel dared to quip, “It’s a good thing you’re not squeamish,” then he gave her an icy glare.
Vel had chosen surgery for one reason: because when she was operating, the patient was supposed to be comatose. No consciousness meant no emotional interference.
That had been the theory.
The one thing that seemed to help her concentration the most was to narrate what she was doing. At first she did it only in her head, but after the first few steps she gave up being considerate of Senn’s feelings and began describing the work aloud. “The appendix has been successfully separated from the surrounding tissue.”… “I’m tightening the suture around the base of the organ.”… “And cut.”… “It’s clean,” she declared at last, after setting the enlarged appendix on the table and examining her work. “No internal bleeding.”
Senn merely grunted in reply, and gratefully relaxed his arm holding the scanner once Vel declared herself finished with the internal stitching. A wave of exhaustion overwhelmed her, and she wasn’t sure whether it was coming from herself or from Senn– or perhaps from both of them. When she’d recovered adequately, she finished stitching him closed.
She’d had to change her gloves six times, and discarded the final pair with a heavy sigh of relief. Senn knew better than to try moving, so she left him to dispose of the waste.
“Wait,” croaked Senn. “I want to see it.”
So Vel held up the long, swollen organ resembling a skinned seahorse. She waited patiently while Senn took a good long look. Then he laid his head back down and waved his hand dismissively.
Cleanup took some time. She had to make sure she left no traces behind; even though this room was the Organization’s well-guarded secret, there was always the small chance that someone unexpected might find their way inside. Did the campus custodians ever come here? Maybe one of the custodians was in the Organization. Yes, Vel thought. That made sense.
She couldn’t take all the mess away with her, so she called up Panni to let her know the operation had been successful, and that someone would need to come soon and finish up. “Of course,” said Panni.
Then Vel stepped into a closet and– after checking to make sure it wasn’t locked– closed the door behind her. “You didn’t tell me who I was coming to help,” she said, accusingly.
“You didn’t need to know that,” replied Panni.
“This man hates me!” Vel hissed.
“Did that get in the way of you doing your job?”
“No… Yes! It nearly did. If I were any less in control of my… ability… it could very well have interfered to devastating effect. You send me to operate on a living person– for the very first time– expecting me to work without an assistant, and to save the life of a man who can barely hold back his loathing.”
“I’m sorry. I’m only doing my job. If you have a complaint about the way things are run, you know where to take it.”
“Yes, I do. And I will! And, Panni… she trailed off a moment, her anger deflating. “I hope everyone else is safe out there.”
“We’re doing everything we can,” the woman replied.
“I know you are.”
“Get some rest, Vel. I’ll make sure no one bothers you for the next few days. Just take care of your patient. And the new recruit.”
“I will,” said Vel, before shutting off her com-pad and exiting the closet.
“Congratulations,” Senn said when Vel returned.
“You’re lucky it went so smoothly,” said Vel.
“We both were.”
“Yes.” Vel sighed, pulled up a chair, and sat heavily. She was so tired. She looked at the clock on the wall, and sighed again. So much for making the lecture tonight. She was sure to get an earful from Nema when she got home.
“Nema’s going to kill me,” Senn said, echoing Vel’s own thoughts.
“We’re in the same boat,” Vel replied.
“Isn’t that something…”
Senn closed his eyes to rest, and Vel did the same. She couldn’t leave until Senn was ready, or someone came to relieve her. She didn’t suppose it was wise to try moving him yet. Then she remembered seeing a cot and some bedding in the closet. She opened her eyes. “I’ll get you a pillow,” she said.
Senn said nothing, but Vel got up and went to the closet anyway. She returned with a pillow, which she placed under her patient’s head. Senn offered no resistance, physically or mentally. Maybe he was already asleep.
She set up the cot for herself and dimmed the lights. But she lay a long time unable to sleep, as the day’s events flashed repeatedly through her mind. So much had happened, and very little of it had been under her control. She’d passed her test, and that was the one triumph she could claim solely for herself. The rest, though…
She thought of Fenrick, alone in the safehouse. She thought of her new friend Oreilin and Rodget, abandoned, left to puzzle out Vel’s disappearance and decide what to do. She thought of Nema, wondering where her roommate and boyfriend had gone. Oh, gods. What if she thought Senn and Vel had–
Vel cut off the thought. Nema was free to suspect what she would, and Vel couldn’t change that. She had an obligation to Senn right now, and that was her primary concern. She’d face the consequences later.
She’d performed her first live surgery with little complication. She ought to be proud of that, but she wasn’t. It had all happened so quickly she still hadn’t had time to process it. She reviewed the experience in her mind, almost convinced it hadn’t really been her doing it at all. It felt surreal. “So much could have gone wrong,” she said aloud to the ceiling.
“You’re a good doctor,” Senn replied from the table.
“Mmmm,” mumbled Senn. “I’m exhausted, though, so I’ll probably nod off again soon.”
“Thanks for your help,” said Vel.
“Sure,” said Senn. “Had to do it, anyway, or else…” he trailed off and began to snore.
Vel turned her body to face him, though she could only see his feet. Where was the animosity? No, she told herself. This wasn’t the time to confront him. Maybe tomorrow. Or the next day.
At last she slept, though not for very long. Something niggled at the back of her mind, and eventually she realized what it was and woke herself up.
Painkiller. She should have given him a painkiller.
But he wasn’t complaining of any pain. In fact, now that she thought back she didn’t recall any emotions from him revolving around pain. Was that his Enhancement, then? To not feel pain? All the moaning– had that been an act? How had Senn even known he had a problem if he couldn’t feel it?
A dangerous Enhancement, but Vel had heard of it before. Major Bourra was supposed to share the same Enhancement, and he’d somehow managed to keep himself alive even during a war.
With a jolt, Vel got up and fetched her scanner. Anxiously, she turned it on and hovered it over the surgical site, intent on spotting anything abnormal. Everything seemed alright, though. All the sutures were still in place, and the scanner detected no unexpected bleeding.
A hand rose up and gripped Vel by the wrist. She gasped at the touch and nearly dropped the scanner. “What are you doing?” Senn asked.
“Just checking over my work to make sure it’s holding up.”
“You really think that’s necessary? I’ve barely moved.” A little of his prior distaste was beginning to bleed through, though he tried harder to restrain it now.
“I just thought– It’s my first surgery, so– You didn’t ask for a painkiller,” she blurted at last. “I was worried.”
“Hnh,” Senn grunted. “My mistake.”
“You’re not going to confirm it, are you.”
Vel sighed. “Nevermind.”
“You can give me that painkiller now if it makes you feel better.” The way he emphasized the word feel made Vel wonder if he’d also figured out her secret. She decided she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of an admission, however. Especially when she realized that if he did know, then he also knew that she knew how he felt about her.
“Why do you hate me?” She asked, forgetting her previous determination not to confront him.
“I don’t hate you,” said Senn, playing innocent.
Vel just stared at him, letting the dim light reflect off her eyes and into his.
“Alright,” he relented at last. “I’ve heard some things,” he said. “And I believed them.”
“You don’t believe them now?”
“Now, I’m willing to suspend judgment.”
“Oh, how generous.” Vel’s voice dripped with sarcasm and Senn winced. He winced! “What exactly have you heard about me?”
“That you manipulated your way into the school. Flirted with some wealthy benefactor– maybe more than flirted– to get him to sponsor you. That you choreographed affair after affair with your professors to get the best placements and to improve your standing in class.”
For several moments Vel was speechless, bowled over by the accusations. She couldn’t even sit down, she was frozen in place, gaping at Senn. “That’s what everyone thinks of me?” She said at last, in a small voice.
Senn shrugged. “Not everyone. But some people.”
“Like I said, now that I know more about you, I’m willing to accept there might be some other explanation for your success.”
“Hmm. It couldn’t be because I’m actually good at what I do?”
“Judging by your performance tonight, I have to admit that could be the case. But I was referring to the favoritism all the professors seem to show you.”
“They don’t favor me.” Vel was glad it was dim so Senn couldn’t see her blush.
“Oh,” said Senn, clearly in disbelief. “You don’t see it at all?”
“No… Okay, I had some– inkling…”
“More than an inkling, I think.”
“Okay, you’re right,” Vel said, throwing up her hands. “I know all the creepy old men find me attractive and think they might have a chance with me. There, are you happy?”
In the shadows, Senn’s grin distorted. “When you put it that way, I guess I really shouldn’t be jealous.”
Jealous? “What. You want me, too?”
Vel knew her jab had gone too far when Senn’s wave of hurt hit her. But in the next instant she realized it wasn’t because of her that he was hurting– not directly. “You get all the attention,” he said, more meekly than she’d ever heard him speak. “I knew you’d be picked for the operation yesterday night, no matter how well the rest of us performed. Of course, I was your lab partner, but that didn’t mean much next to you– Norlan never would have noticed me.”
“But, we must have been paired together on purpose,” Vel said, with sudden realization. “It was the plan all along, wasn’t it? Orchestrated somehow. You and I would work together, win the chance to operate on Fenrick, and we were both instructed to find some way to get him out alive.”
Vel felt Senn’s interest pique briefly at the mention of Fenrick’s name, but then it subsided. “It’s pretty stupid, isn’t it?” He said. “They wouldn’t even tell us about each other when we were going to be working together on an important rescue.”
“It was colossally stupid,” Vel agreed.
Senn began to laugh– a sound she’d rarely heard from him. But when it went on too long and turned into a belly laugh, Vel placed a gentle hand on his abdomen to remind him of his danger. He sobered and grimaced. “Right,” he said.
“Well, joke’s on them now, isn’t it?” said Vel, attempting to lighten the mood.
“Yeah.” Senn turned away for a moment, then looked back at Vel. “How is the old man?”
“He’s not that old,” Vel replied. “And he’s alright. Physically, anyway.”
“Does he have family?”
“He’s taking it pretty well, all things considered. I think he’s just grateful to know they’ll be taken care of.”
“Still,” said Senn, filled with empathy for the man he’d seen so briefly. “It’s gotta be hard, knowing he might never be free to see them again.”
“Did you leave family behind?” Vel asked then, feeling emboldened by their new sense of shared purpose.
“No,” said Senn. “That is, I didn’t have any family worth missing. Mom was gone long before I can remember. And Dad was more interested in drink than in me. He beat me sometimes,” he added. “I was better off after he died. Found my way to the city when I was fourteen and worked a good job in exchange for housing. Then the Organization found me and enrolled me in school.”
Vel knew that wasn’t the whole story, but she didn’t press him. She was amazed he’d opened up so easily to her; she sensed his loneliness and hunger for someone– anyone– to finally understand him.
“I have a mom and sister,” Vel said. “Back home. They don’t know where I went. They reported my disappearance, and looked for me for a while. They must think I’m dead.”
“Hmm,” replied Senn, thoughtful, sympathetic.
“I don’t want to be tied to them, for their protection,” Vel added. “So I took on a new identity and… here I am.” She stifled a yawn and stretched her shoulders. She looked around the dark room. She went to a window and peeked through the blind at the night. “Rain’s stopped,” she said.
“Strange, us having so much rain all of a sudden,” observed Senn.
“Who knows how long it’ll continue,” Vel replied. “I’m not going to complain.”
Vel stood at the window a long while, until she thought maybe Senn had fallen asleep again. Then she returned to her cot. But Senn wasn’t asleep. “I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do,” he said.
“Your professors will understand.”
“But they’ll ask too many questions. Maybe contact the campus hospital to confirm I’m not faking it.”
“I hadn’t thought of that…” Vel frowned.
“I wonder how many there are,” Senn mused.
“How many what?”
“People like us. On campus. People working for the O.”
“More than we’d guess, probably. They won’t come forward, though, unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“I suppose not.” Senn paused. “It’s kind of nice,” he said. “Knowing at least one.” Vel couldn’t see his smile, but she sensed it.
“Agreed,” Vel said.
“It’s good to know I was wrong about you.”
“Thanks,” said Vel.
“I was wrong about you?” The question hung in the air; Senn’s suspicion was just strong enough that she sensed his struggle to let it go entirely until he knew the whole truth.
Vel sighed. Took a seat. “Are you awake enough for a long story?”
Senn grunted. “This table is hardly comfortable enough for sleep,” he replied.
“I thought you didn’t feel pain.”
“Maybe not,” Senn conceded. “But I can still tell the difference between a hard table and a soft bed. And I’m used to sleeping in a soft bed.”
“Fair enough,” said Vel. She sat back, thinking about where to begin. “I came to Berea after the plague ended,” she said. “I was recruited, offered security in exchange for service in the Organization. Changed my identity, as I said. I’d only been Enhanced for a year at that point, and was overwhelmed by it. I had a trainer who tried to help me, but they didn’t share my particular… ability… so it was hard for them to understand. I went rogue.”
“What?” Senn asked, his voice sharp with surprise.
“I’m an Empath,” Vel said, deciding that coming out with the truth would make the rest of her story easier to tell. Senn nodded, his suspicion confirmed. “For a long time, I struggled to tell the difference between others’ feelings and my own. I grew reckless, wild. I let others take advantage of me, and… I took advantage of them.”
“You had sex with them?”
“Sometimes,” said Vel. “Sometimes I just led them on a while, long enough to earn myself a hot meal, a place to sleep, new clothes…”
Some of Senn’s former distaste was re-emerging amid these confessions. Vel let him feel what he would feel; she hoped he’d think better of her again by the end.
“They rarely complained, when I left them,” Vel continued. “I knew exactly what to say or do to appease them, make them feel appreciated. I learned all the coping tricks and strategies my trainer had been unable to teach me. After a while, I grew more confident in my abilities– drew on my experience to keep unwanted emotions at bay. Learned to filter, sort, and understand.
“The last affair, before the Organization tracked me down again, was with a man who believed he could get me into the Institute. So, yes, the rumors you heard were based in truth– but only barely. The man was mistaken, and I dropped him, after forcing him to confess his mistake and his true motivation for seducing me, which was the hope that his dating me would make his wife jealous.”
Senn whistled. Vel’s face grew hot.
“No doubt he was the one who started the rumors on campus,” said Vel after she’d recovered enough to continue.
“Who was it?” Senn asked.
“He’s not here anymore,” Vel replied. “There’s no use outing him now. In any case, my old trainer found me again, and apologized for her inadequacy. She practically begged me to come back to the Organization, and offered me– on the Organization’s behalf– admittance to the Institute in the program of my choice. So I chose medicine, the Organization arranged my sponsorship, and I put my old life behind me. Everything I’ve accomplished at the Institute– and in the Organization– since then has been on my own effort and merit,” she concluded, pointedly.
Senn was quiet a long time, digesting what he’d heard. “I guess we all have secrets in our past,” he said, then looked at her meaningfully. “You’ll get no more judgment from me.”
“Likewise,” replied Vel.
“But I haven’t even told you anything yet,” replied Senn, slyly.
Vel shrugged. “No matter. I’m glad we can be friends now.”
“Me, too. Though, perhaps, for the sake of appearances…”
“I know,” said Vel, thinking of Nema.
“I hope you’re a good actor.”
“I know you are,” Vel replied. Senn chuckled, and Vel joined him. It was genuine laughter, without any of her typical self-defensive sarcasm.
“Hey, said Senn, turning serious. “You must be pretty hungry.”
“Starving,” replied Vel, who had begun feeling the effects of not having had any lunch or dinner at least four hours ago, but had tried to ignore it.
“I couldn’t eat my lunch,” Senn said. “I brought it with me. It’s in the small coldbox down the hall.”
“Are you sure?” said Vel.
“Positive. I couldn’t eat it now if I wanted to. Though, if you could find me some juice or something…”
Vel went to the coldbox and found the carton of food. Thankfully, there was also an unopened bottle of apple cider. “Do you want this through a straw or your IV?” she joked on her way back.
Senn grinned. “Why were you never this funny before?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I got the feeling it wouldn’t have been appreciated.”
“My mistake,” said Senn, and Vel knew it was the closest thing to an apology she was likely to get. She was okay with that.
She didn’t wait to reheat Senn’s lunch, but ate it cold and with relish. Leftover rice pilaf had never tasted so good.