There was only so much idleness a self-respecting man could take. So despite Velvina’s admonition that he rest, Fenrick soon set about searching the apartment for a project. He found it: a broken closet in the second bedroom. He found a basic toolkit in the hallway cabinet and set to repairing the track for the sliding door. As he worked, he noticed a dark stain in the corner of the closet floor. Water damage, he thought. Or mold.
Holding his breath, he poked at the spot with the tip of his screwdriver. It didn’t give, so he determined it must be an old problem. Until he thought how seldom this place was inhabited.
It could be a recurring issue.
He followed the wall around and– as he suspected– the damage most likely originated from the plumbing below the bathing room basin. He had taken a shower that morning, but had only used the basin once to wash his hands. He turned on the tap and opened the cabinet surrounding the pipes. He got down on his knees, leaned onto his good right side, and watched as the water flowed through the pipes. He brushed his fingers along the metal, feeling for moisture. There it was: a tiny bead leak at the joint where the plumbing met the wall.
He searched, but found no plumber’s tape in the toolkit or in the cabinets. He did find cleaner, however, and a rag which he used to wipe away the mold as best he could. Afterward, he disposed of the rag and washed his hands thoroughly. He’d tell Velvina about the leak, in case she knew who to contact about the issue.
He finished fixing the closet door, and smiled with satisfaction as he opened and closed it repeatedly to test the track. Then he checked the time and frowned: he’d only managed to pass about a half-hour with these projects.
What else could he do?
If only Velvina had left him something to read. Old news, new news– anything.
He found a drawer full of old papers in the kitchen, but they turned out to be useless to him– instruction manuals for appliances that weren’t anywhere to be found. Though, that in itself was interesting: where were the appliances? Had they been stolen sometime in the past? Removed for some other reason?
Who was this Organization exactly? Fenrick had gathered from Velvina that it was a large operation, with the purpose of preserving Enhanced people and fighting the terrorists who threatened them. No, they did more than that, Fenrick thought. Velvina had told him the Organization had known about Fenrick for some time. They didn’t just protect Enhanced people– they kept tabs on them.
You’re being paranoid, Fenrick told himself. Miss Velvina trusted the Organization, so he would, too.
He longed to go out– to leave the tiny apartment, if only for a few minutes, if only to walk down the hallway and back. Velvina’s instructions had been clear, however: stay put, don’t answer the door to anyone unless they give you the pass phrase, and get some rest.
He’d already disobeyed the last order; his honor dictated he not push it any farther than that. Besides, he possessed enough of a sense of self-preservation to realize it wouldn’t do at all for him to be recognized. The way Velvina went on, his name and face could be all over the news pamphlets and missing persons reports.
He stretched, did some pull-ups, and started jogging in place; but he stopped after only a minute, worried he might disturb a neighbor and draw attention to himself. He ate more food than he should, out of sheer boredom, and thought of his two sons having lunch with their gran. Would they miss him yet? He was often away for two or three days at a time, on a longer train run to the outer provinces or even as far as Quaternus or Tertius in the other direction. How he wished now that he’d been a more attentive father, more present in his children’s lives. He’d lived to provide for them– his sole purpose, after their mother had died. And he’d provided for them well, in every material way at least.
They would survive without him. But he felt utterly directionless without them.
Now the Organization would be his life.
For whatever his life was worth.
He dozed on the long sofa, a strange sleep in which he remained partially aware of his surroundings– the hum of the coldbox, the occasional footsteps out in the hall, the opening and closing of doors, and muffled voices.
Yelling voices. Screaming voices. “What?” Fenrick fought the fog on his brain and slowly sat up, rubbing his eyes. Someone banged on his door several times. Fenrick rushed to it and poked his head out. “What’s happ–”
“Terrorists,” said a bald-headed man shorter than Fenrick. His eyes darted about as he spoke, and his feet danced as if he were on hot coals. His breathing was labored. “Lots of ‘em. Came– up– to warn– run!” he finished, taking his own advice and sprinting down the hall.
Fenrick was not so excitable, but he still felt his heart rate increase. He wouldn’t run, though. No.
He closed and bolted his door, then put on the shoes provided for him. They were stiff on his feet, but they fit. He drank some water, and then he did some more stretches as he thought about what to do.
The rush of footsteps outside was slowing down; Fenrick guessed– hoped– most of the people had managed to get to somewhere safe. Soon after he had this thought, however, new footsteps emerged– heavy footsteps, and surefooted. A gunshot rang out and someone screamed. They were close now.
It was too late to run, in any case. So Fenrick wielded a hammer in one hand and an iron pot in the other, stood near the door, and waited.
His injured shoulder screamed against the weight of the pot, but Fenrick held it firmly in his hand which hung at his side. When the time came, adrenaline would allow him to work past the pain and do what needed to be done. After moments that stretched on for an eternity, a knock sounded at his door.
“Open up,” a voice demanded– a woman’s voice, which surprised Fenrick. “We know this is one of your hideouts. We’ll break down this door just like we did the others.”
Were there other apartments like this one, then? In the same building? Fenrick shook his head. Fight now, think later. He let the adrenaline begin its course, but slowly. He didn’t know how much he had left in him after last night; maybe the supply was infinite, but he’d never kept it up long enough to know. Logically, there must be a limit to his Enhanced strength.
“We know you’re in there!” A new voice– male– this time, accompanied by a more insistent banging.
“But can you take all six of us?” Fenrick yelled back with bravado.
Fenrick swore; they’d called his bluff. Though, he supposed his Enhanced strength likely equalled at least that of six typical people. He wasn’t going to use all that strength, though, but just enough to keep himself alive.
His biggest concern was getting his assailants unarmed. After that, he could subdue them easily. “I won’t run like the others,” he growled through the door. “You won’t take me without a fight.”
“Suit yourself,” said the same male voice. Then he said something else unintelligible, and moments later the door exploded.
Reflexively, Fenrick raised the pot to protect his face. Splinters of wood ricocheted off the heavy metal, and others bounced off his chest and arms. Nothing pierced him, however, and he soon recovered from the surprise. He lowered the pot and swung it around, making contact with his first opponent. The woman grunted at the impact to her chest, dropped the gun in her hand, and crumpled to the floor.
There were at least two other bodies in the room, and Fenrick rounded on them next. Two men, similarly armed as the woman. One stood a moment, staring. The other, however, didn’t miss his opportunity and raised his firearm to shoot.
Fenrick felt the bullet lodge in his thigh before his ears had registered the gunshot. He fought the urge to collapse and lunged at the man who’d shot him. His hammer made contact with the man’s jaw and Fenrick heard the bones in his face as they crunched and shattered. The gun dropped to the floor.
Fenrick set down the pan and picked up the firearm, though he’d only ever wielded one once before. He sent more adrenaline to his legs to keep himself steady, then turned to face his final adversary.
As he got a closer look, Fenrick nearly gasped. He was just a boy! No, not a boy. A man. But a very young man. This young man stared at Fenrick, and his gun-wielding hand trembled.
“Lower it,” said Fenrick, “and I won’t hurt you.”
These words seemed to renew some fervor in the young man, however, as he gripped his arm with his other hand to anchor his aim at Fenrick’s chest.
“What’s your name?” Fenrick asked, as he cocked his own gun and held it ready.
“P– Patrean.” He glanced at the other two on the floor– the man barely conscious and bleeding from his mouth and nose; and the woman, doubled over and moaning weakly.
“You’ve never shot a man before, have you, Patrean?”
Patrean made no gesture to confirm or deny, but Fenrick saw the answer in the young man’s eyes.
“Neither have I,” said Fenrick. “And I’d hate for you to be my first.” He waited a beat for his words to sink in. “Alternatively,” he continued, “you could let me go.”
Patrean still stared, unmoving.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Fenrick said. “But if I have to, I will.” He willed his muscles to grow stronger, bigger. This seemed to have the desired effect upon Patrean, whose face began to bead with sweat, and his eyes widened.
Fenrick heard footsteps approaching outside, so he darted into the back rooms, well aware that he’d just lost his bargaining chip with the young man. He stood just around the corner, firearm ready. He thought about escaping out a bedroom window, but he was at least six stories up. With his strength he could probably handle it, but he did have his injured leg to think about. No. He’d only use that route as a last resort.
“What happened here?” A woman’s voice inquired in a half-angry, half-frightened voice.
“He fought back,” Patrean’s shaky voice replied. “He was– very strong.”
“I can see that,” said the woman. “Where is he now?”
“He– I– I took care of him,” said Patrean, his voice growing more firm.
“Really.” The woman sounded impressed.
“I shot him,” Patrean said. “In the back room, while he was trying to escape out the window. He fell out.”
“Out the window?”
“Yes,” said Patrean, with conviction.
“I’ll have to see this,” said the woman, eagerly. Her footsteps began to move toward the hall. Fenrick, hidden, raised his gun in preparation.
“Shouldn’t we take care of Jume and Bev? Right away? They’re pretty hurt.”
“Oh. Right… Hmm…” The woman’s steps retreated back to the front of the apartment. Several silent moments passed. “Bev,” came the woman’s voice, muffled; she must have been hunched over the woman, assessing her situation. “Can you speak?”
Bev only moaned.
“Well you’re alive,” said the woman, without emotion. “I’m afraid I can’t say the same for Jume here.”
“You think he’s dead?” Patrean asked, alarmed. “From a hammer to the face?”
“Don’t underestimate the power of the Enhanced,” replied the woman. “So, he used a hammer… What got Bev?”
“A– pot,” replied Patrean. “That one,” he added.
“Hmm. The man must’ve been holding back for her if she’s still alive; the blow could have easily crushed her lungs.” A pause. “Leave them. There’s nothing we can do.”
“What? We can’t just leave them.”
“Do you have the strength to carry either of them? No? I didn’t think so. Come on. We’ll send some guys up with stretchers and a body bag.”
“You go on,” said Patrean. “I– need to use the toilet. Urgent.”
“All the excitement’s got you loosened up, huh?” The woman laughed once, an emotionless sound. “Fine. But don’t take too long. You’ll be wanted for cleanup downstairs.”
The woman’s footsteps reatreated, and Fenrick’s ears followed them until they were no longer audible.
“Are you still here?” The voice was startlingly close, and Fenrick jumped. Patrean’s footsteps were apparently much lighter than his companions’. Reflexively, Fenrick lunged forward and grabbed Patrean around the chest, pinning his arms to his sides. Patrean let out a soft yelp.
“Shh,” said Fenrick. “I’m not going to hurt you. Just being cautious, you understand?”
Patrean nodded, but his face was buried in Fenrick’s chest and he struggled to move his head so he could breathe. Fenrick loosened his hold and Patrean stumbled back, knocking into the wall behind him.
“You lied for me,” said Fenrick. “Why?”
“I– don’t know,” said Patrean. “It seemed the right thing to do.”
As the immediate danger had passed, Fenrick felt his body beginning to return to its normal size. His thigh throbbed and he hobbled to the bathing room with Patrean following behind. “Close and lock the door,” he said, when they were both inside the small chamber.
“Why are we in here?”
“Isn’t this where you said you’d be?”
“So,” said Fenrick, taking a seat on the edge of the tub. “Seeing as we’re short on time, how about you tell me right off who you’re working for.”
“I can’t,” said Patrean, closing the toilet lid and sitting across from Fenrick. “I mean, I was hired by Jume. I suppose maybe he worked for Yanna– that’s the other woman I was just talking to– but I don’t know anything about her except her name. I was just supposed to do what I was told, and after the… operation was over… I was gonna be interviewed for a permanent position.”
“This was your trial run, then?”
“I suppose so. I suppose I failed, though…” he frowned.
“Why did you want to work for a group of terrorists?”
“We’re not terrorists,” said Patrean, indignantly. “We’re avengers.”
“It’s the Enhanced who are the terrorists,” Patrean continued with passion, not directly answering Fenrick’s question. “They’re more powerful than the rest of us, and they– lord it over us. They think they’re superior, and they want to overthrow the Empire, rule over us all, keep us afraid and compliant…” his voice trailed off, becoming uncertain as he gazed at Fenrick. “But… you’re not like that. Are you?”
Fenrick smiled, sadly. “No,” he said. “I’m not like that. And I know others like me who aren’t like that, either.”
“Then someone’s wrong,” concluded Patrean, throwing up his hands.
“It would seem so,” replied Fenrick. Then he winced.
“You’ve been shot,” observed Patrean, looking at Fenrick’s bleeding leg as if for the first time. The thick fabric of his pants had aided in clotting, but both pairs of eyes followed the drops of blood trailing from the chamber door.
Fenrick cursed. “I didn’t think about the blood,” he said. “Didn’t your– Yanna– see it?”
Patrean shrugged. “She must have thought it was Jume’s.”
“I’m lucky she did,” Fenrick observed, dryly.
But Patrean’s mind had already moved on to another question. “How are you still able to walk?”
“Thick muscles,” said Fenrick. “Kept the bullet from penetrating too far. But–” He winced again. “I won’t be walking for long if it’s not taken care of soon. Vel left–” he caught himself. “There’s some medical supplies in the kitchen. Bring them to me, please. Then you should go.”
“And just leave you here?”
“If you stay, they’ll come back looking for you.”
It was a good point, to which Patrean had no retort. He rose, left the bathroom, and a few minutes later returned with the med kit.
“Help me into the tub,” said Fenrick. “I’ll be more stable, and the blood can be washed down the drain.”
“Sure,” said Patrean. Though Fenrick sensed he was holding back the comment that it hardly seemed to matter, considering there was already blood all over the apartment. Fenrick was thinking it, too.
Finally settled into the tub, Fenrick reached for the med kit. Patrean helped by fetching a chair from the kitchen, so the supplies could be arranged for easy access. He also brought a clean towel, which he draped over the edge of the tub. “Anything else?” he asked.
“Soap,” said Fenrick, looking at his grimy hands.
Patrean fetched the bar of soap from the basin and set it beside Fenrick. He stood a moment, hesitating.
“Go,” said Fenrick. “And thank you.”
Patrean nodded and then left, closing the door behind him.
Fenrick finally took a good long look at his leg and fought his shock. He hated the sight of blood, and could only stand it after years of forced conditioning. “You have to get used to it,” his mother used to tell him. “You might need to help someone someday– maybe even yourself. It’s a dangerous world.”
What could be so dangerous? Fenrick had wondered at the time. His life had been one of security, always with enough to eat and shelter from any threats both human and natural. Sure, he’d heard the rumors of wars beyond the Berean border, and known of a few neighborhood households who’d lost family members abroad. But that had been so far away, he’d never thought such dangers would touch him.
Until the Plague from Kellin. It had swept through the entire continent, even prosperous Berea. But not even the years-long sight of advanced plague victims could have prepared Fenrick to face a bullet in his leg.
It wasn’t the pain that bothered him, so much as the thought of having to reach inside to dig out the invasive object.
First, he washed his hands, grateful for the opportunity to postpone the operation just a bit longer. But then, he had to remove the blood-caked fabric from around the wound. More water, he thought, taking water from the tap in hands-full to pour on the area, loosening the clothing for easier manipulation. The fabric tore easily along the grain, and soon the entire pant leg lay in a heap at the foot of the tub. As the bullet wound became more exposed to the air, the pain radiating from his leg intensified so that he nearly cried out. But he stifled himself, conscious of the possibility of being overheard.
He found a dose of coagulant in the med kit, and another of anesthetic. He set the coagulant aside, and stabbed himself with the anesthetic needle unceremoniously. It went to work almost immediately, easing the throbbing.
He’d wait to use the coagulant, he thought, until after he successfully removed the bullet. He didn’t want to risk the blood clotting over where he needed access, just in case that was possible.
He’d only had a rudimentary education in first aid, a fact which he regretted now.
Taking a pair of large tweezers, and holding his breath, he next poked into his leg and probed through the layers of tissue for the bullet. The first two tries he must have hit bone, for the tweezers came up empty after he thought he’d grabbed something. But the third time, he felt the bullet moving from its resting place. Slowly, he eased the tweezers out, hissing through his teeth all the while. Once, the tweezers slipped and he had to grip the bullet again. But eventually, it popped out and clattered to the floor of the tub.
Fenrick heaved a sigh of relief, but then in the next instant became aware of blood gushing from his leg, like wine spilling out of an uncorked barrel. He cursed, and grabbed the coagulant. But his hands shook as he worked the lid of the bottle. At last he got the bottle open, and, trembling, poured its contents over the open wound. It went to work immediately, clotting the blood and creating a temporary seal.
But Fenrick had lost too much blood, and shock overtook him at last. His final thought before blacking out– for the second time in as many days– was to wish Velvina could have been there to help him.