Chapter 6 – Earth, One Year Nine Months Ago
Five curled up tightly behind the bookshelf, clutching the colorful, glossy pages in his hands and scanning the pictures hungrily. He had to finish before they got here.
“Subject 5A! You will come out and return that contraband or face serious repercussions!” Dr. Jaren snapped, tapping her toe on the linoleum. Five rolled his eyes and kept reading; he had at least another thirty seconds before she found him. Plenty of time to find out how Zap Captain would defeat Plasma Man in this month’s issue…
“Honestly, Samson, I don’t know why you bring those ridiculous comics to the facility. He always manages to get his hands on them and they’re just filling his head with garbage!” Dr. Jaren’s voice sounded peevish, as usual. Her footsteps headed towards the opposite corner, where Five had left a decoy pile of books and pillows under a blanket. “I’d almost think you were leaving them out for him on purpose, if such pollution of the Subjects’ curriculum weren’t punishable by expulsion from the program,” she added menacingly.
Dr. Samson’s carefree voice lilted from the doorway, causing Five’s neck hairs to rise. “Aw, what’s the harm, Lucy? We’re raising a bunch of supers. It’s educational!” he chuckled.
“It’s mind-rotting,” Dr. Jansen growled, her voice coming closer to Five’s position. “The education and recreation of Class A subjects must be carefully controlled for us to receive our projected goals.”
Five hated all the scientists, but he hated Dr. Samson the most. He acted all nice and buddy-buddy, letting Five steal his comics and joking with the Subjects about how neat he found their superpowers. But as soon as testing sessions started, no one was more ruthless. At least Dr. Jaren’s bad attitude was honest. Dr. Samson seemed to find his job fun. All of it.
“There you are!” Five jerked in surprise as Dr. Jaren pounced on him from around the bookcase. Out of reflex more than anything, Five’s fingers found the exposed wire that had poked through the drywall during one of 1A’s temper tantrums. He didn’t really mean to, but the electricity jumped through him to Dr. Jaren at the speed of light, and…
The lights had almost stopped flickering by the time Dr. Samson got the very shaken and frizzy-haired Dr. Jaren back on her short-heeled pumps. Five crouched in the corner, the comic book and all his earlier indifference gone. He’d messed up. He’d really messed up. The murder in the scientist’s eyes made that clear, even before she pulled a tranq pistol from her pocket and aimed it at him.
“You will regret that, Subject 5A,” she hissed, and fired the tranq into his chest. A flash of pain, followed by instant numbness sweeping through his body. He fell limp to the floor – not unconscious, merely paralyzed. Dr. Samson hove into view, leaning over the kid to pluck his comic book from the floor. He gave Five a wink. Five wished he’d been the one to get shocked.
“Get him out of here,” Dr. Jaren ordered the guards, trying in vain to tame her frizzling hair. “And tell maintenance to get some proper wall coverings in this room! Are we running a daycare or training high-class superhumans?!” She looked around the recreation room with disdain, taking in its sparse bookshelf full of textbooks, its few puzzles and games designed for mental stimulation, and its damaged chairs. “Honestly. If Research weren’t so adamant about the necessity of play’ stimulation for proper intellectual development, I’d have this room turned into a storage closet.”
As the guards picked him up and carted him through the halls, Five listened nervously for some indication of what his punishment would be. “We are far too lenient on these Class A’s,” Dr. Jaren grumbled, walking with Dr. Samson at the back of the group. “And it’s only gotten worse since that new Subject was sent to us. I don’t know what they were thinking, starting a Subject in the program when she’s already reached adolescence! And from the outside, no less!”
Whoa. That perked Five’s attention. Only 3A got to interact with Subject 6A for training since the new girl’s powers were still unstable. She hadn’t yet been allowed to meet the boys, but 4A was teaching her how to sign to them across the hallway. She really knew about the outside? Maybe he should have been paying more attention to Subject 4A’s weird sound message things.
“She seems to be falling in line just fine,” Dr. Samson said airily, strolling along with his lab coat unbuttoned. “We’re getting her under control.”
“Maybe. But if I hear that she’s behind these rumors of the Subjects giving themselves ‘names’, we’ll see just how in control she is when I’m done with her.”
“Fair enough,” Dr. Samsom laughed as they stopped by Five’s room. The guards tossed him onto his bunk like a limp rag, and the glass door slid shut on the blonde scientist’s last words. “See you tomorrow, Five!”
Normally, the friendly words would have sent a chill down Five’s spine. But he was too busy thinking about what he’d just overheard.
He couldn’t wait to talk to this new girl.
That night, once the lights were out and the guards reached the far ends of the hall, Five slipped out of his bunk, careful not to wake Subjects 2A and 1A. 1A especially could be super grouchy. Just to be safe, Five did his trick – stirring the natural electrical field in the air. It was weak, and it didn’t do much, but he hoped it made the cameras a little staticy. Creeping to the glass partition, he rapped out a quick code. It was 2A’s code – he and 4A were super close – but 4A rolled out of bed anyway and came over to look at him. He gestured at his mouth, and she nodded and wiggled her hands in that weird way she did. She could hear him now.
“Hey, is it true the new girl is handing out names?!” he whispered excitedly.
Subject 4A glanced left and right, more out of reflex than anything. If anyone was watching them right now, it was on a camera none of them knew about. But they’d been exchanging messages like this for as long as Five had been at the facility, and no one had ever scolded them for it. Finally, she grinned slightly, and nodded.
“What’s yours?” he asked excitedly. But she only frowned; it must not be a word she had a sign for. Five tried a different tack. “Is she any good at it?”
4A instantly nodded, and this time, the smile spread all the way across her face. Five felt a warmth of amazement. She looked so… happy. Contented. Come to think of it, she’d seemed less shy and spiritless for a few weeks now. Was it really because of a good name? He’d tried giving himself names before, something all his own, but nothing felt right. Even Five was just a mutation of the label that passed for his name around here.
Suddenly, he wanted nothing more than to have one of those names. A name that made him not feel like a little electrical lab rat, always poked and prodded and tested and talked down to… and hurt…
“Can you wake her up for me?”
4A didn’t even hesitate. It was only a few steps from her bunk to the other girl’s partition wall, and then a few finger taps on the surface. Whatever noise she’d transformed it into, it made the new girl startle up in bed, looking around so wildly that her chin-length hair flapped. When she finally realized what was happening, she slipped off her bunk and came to the glass, looking between 4A and Five with curiosity.
She jumped again when Five said excitedly, “So you’re giving out names, right? Are they good? Can I have one?”
The new girl stared at him, blinking a few times as she adjusted to her surprise. “You can hear me?” Her voice was muted, as if she spoke underwater.
Five grinned and bobbed his head. “Yeah, it’s 4A’s trick. You can call me Five. Or, no, I want you to call me something else! Something COOL!” His smile slipped a little. “Something, y’know… something just for me.”
A small smile crossed the girl’s face. She looked kinda sad. “How old are you?”
The concerned question confused Five. Why did that matter? “Nine, I think. How old are you?”
“Fourteen… maybe fifteen now.” She shook her head, eyes flashing for a moment. Five thought back to Dr. Janer’s words from earlier. It was kinda weird for them to send a new Subject to Class A who was already so old…
“Sure,” she said at last, a smile replacing her grim expression. Five bounced on his toes while the girl tapped her chin in exaggerated thought, a playful tilt to her brow. “Well, we certainly want to find something just right. First, tell me a little bit about yourself. What do you like to do?”
Five thought hard. There wasn’t much to do around here that wasn’t testing and training, and he didn’t like those much, even though he did get to use his powers. “I like comic books,” he said slowly. “Um… and my power. I like my power. I can control electricity. Well, kinda-sorta,” he admitted sheepishly. It would be awesome to show her one of his lightshows, but there were quite intentionally no accessible electrical outlets in his room. He brightened suddenly. “And superheroes! I want to be a superhero someday! Like Zap Captain!”
Her eyebrows shot up. “They let you read Zap Captain in here?”
Five felt a giddy rush. “You know about Zap Captain? That is AWESOME!” Remembering himself, he lowered his voice and gave what he hoped was a cool shrug. “They don’t let me read it officially, but, y’know, when you have the right sources…” He ignored Subject 4A’s eyeroll.
The new girl let out a muffled laugh. “Good to know. Electricity, huh?” She nodded to herself, tilting her head to study him. “Okay, we can work with that. She,” the girl pointed at subject 4A, “liked the name Lyra, which is based on a musical instrument, like her sound powers. And I came up with Shannon for our other roommate, because it sounds like ‘shine on’, like how she glows when she runs.” She scrunched her face in thought. “So… okay, let’s see if that theme can help us. Electric… Eli? No… Lightning… shock… Rock? Brock? Maybe—”
“Wait!” Five leaned against the glass, his excited breaths clouding the surface. “What was that last one?”
The teenage girl tilted her head, then nodded slowly. “Brock… yeah… I think you look like a Brock. Do you want to go by Brock?”
Brock had never wanted anything more in his whole life. He danced a happy jig on the floor, pumping his fist. “That’s awesome!” At least he remembered to keep his voice to a whisper, albeit a loud one. “I’ll take it! Call me Brock!” His own name, and it felt right! More right than any others he’d tried. Even if it still wasn’t as cool as Zap Captain.
The girl smiled warmly at him. He wasn’t sure he’d ever received such a genuinely happy smile from anyone before. It made him feel good. “Nice to meet you, Brock. I hope we can hang out in person soon.”
He wasn’t sure what “hang out” meant, but it probably referred to whenever they would let the new girl interact with all the Subjects during their weekly group training sessions. “So what’s YOUR name?” he asked abruptly, remembering the “manners” lesson Dr. Cadbury had been drilling them on in Behavioral Studies class. Plus, she had to have a cool name if she was this good at coming up with them!
The smile froze on the new girl’s face. She tried to cover it, but Brock could tell he’d hit a nerve. He bit his lip, ready to back off; it never paid to rile up the other Subjects, and he didn’t want his new friend mad at him. But the older girl took a deep breath and managed to retrieve her smile.
“I, um… I don’t want to use my real name,” she said, avoiding the gaze of Brock and 4A— Lyra. The new girl stared at her hands, gloved tight against that weird silvery liquid that always came off her skin and dripped onto the hallway floors and slithered around like it had a life of its own. Her silver eyes met Brock’s green ones. “Call me… call me Mercury.”
Brock grinned wide. That was definitely the coolest name.
When Dr. Samson came for Brock the next morning, he wore that usual carefree smile, coat unbuttoned, hands in his jean pockets. Brock had suspected this would be his punishment. He waited on his bunk, face blank.
“Looks like you get extra testing today, sport,” Dr. Samson said, a laughing gleam in his eyes. “Dr. Jaren’s orders. We’re going to have some fun.” He rubbed his hands together in gleeful anticipation.
Brock went obediently. Brock worked. Brock endured. Brock sweated, screamed, channeled thousands of volts through his body like a human conductor. But through it all, Brock held on stubbornly to his new, happy thought, like a bright light shining outside of the misery.
He had a name.
A/N: I really love Brock; he’s so enthusiastic and irrepressible. Plus I love the idea of a kid with powers being obsessed with superhero comics.
Dr. Samson is a textbook-case psychopath and you are free to hate his guts. He will, unfortunately, be important to the story later.
In other news, I am going to be doing a variation on NaNoWriMo with the group Hope Writers; they are having a special program called Novel November Challenge, and I have teamed up with a couple other members to encourage each other in writing more this month! 😀 Here’s hoping (and praying) I make a significant dent in this thing and finally get towards that finish line!