Chapter 1: Adrift
With a low rumbling grunt, Arthur presses his shoulder against the wrought iron beam, adding the force from his legs and torso to the already formidable power his arms are providing. The metal, already quite hot against his skin from the morning sun, begins to emit a shrill squeal as it slowly starts sliding up on the concrete ramp. It is a task he has done no less than fifteen hundred times over the years.
Outdoor training is scheduled twice per week. The technicians have arranged the courtyard of the compound to be a training course for Arthur and the others. The yard is a clearing roughly three hundred feet wide and two hundred feet from the front to the back. The perimeter is surrounded by an eight foot chain link fence with three rows of barbed wire attached at the top. The Compound, the property’s only building, is located near the back of the fenced-in area, a large plain looking rectangular building. It most closely resembles an old warehouse, with two large garage doors on the left, a regular door right in the center, and no windows except for a row of small glass squares near the top of the building spanning the front wall. The yard is cleared of any trees, plant life or any other objects, except for the ramp and landing he is currently straining atop, and the ground consists only of packed dirt. The occasional piece of training equipment lying around does serve to contradict the emptiness of the enclosure, like toys a child would leave in a yard, except much larger and seemingly less fun.
His equipment is by far the largest in the yard. He has always taken pride in this fact considering his purpose is to be the strongest of any of them. Even the technicians are unable to move the beams and blocks he works with everyday. On more than one occasion, he has left one of the five hundred pound concrete slabs behind one of the technicians’ trucks. The iron beam he is currently moving was once placed right outside the main door of the Compound to inconvenience the technicians. Neither act being one he would normally have thought to do, but done mostly because Timothy convinced him it would be a good gag. He is always surprised how amusing and satisfying it is to watch the technicians argue over who was supposed to be paying attention while they attempt to move the cement away from the rather large new dent in the company truck. Not to mention, Timothy laughs for weeks from the memory. Arthur smiles to himself. A little technician inflicted pain and hunger are not so bad if it makes Timothy so happy.
Arthur is sure his life would have little joy in it if it weren’t for Timothy. Every time they are together, Timothy is doing his best to make him smile or laugh. There are twenty others here, male and female, but Arthur and Timothy are the only males in their age group. There are three sixteen year old females their age, five twelve year olds, five eight year olds and five four year olds. In his mind, Arthur groups all of them together, but in reality they are as different from each other as they are from the technicians monitoring them. A fact he never really noticed until around four years ago. Before that time, none of them were allowed to interact with the younger age groups and rarely with the others of the same age. When Arthur had just turned thirteen, James began working at the Compound and started offering them some freedom. On nights he works, James secretly releases them from their rooms and allows them to spend time with each other. None of them are sure why James risks breaking the rules to let them out, but he repeatedly assures them to let him worry about it and to enjoy their time together.
Last night, Arthur and Timothy used their time out to watch movies until it was nearly sunrise. Television and movies are still rather new to them, so whenever the chance arises, they are both quite eager to be in the viewing room. Before James worked there, they were only allowed to watch training or educational videos. Arthur’s favorite movie of the night was about a man who had fallen in love with a woman he was separated from and then spent the rest of the movie defeating villains and getting her back. It had some confusing parts involving a sick kid and his grandfather, but he liked it anyway. Timothy didn’t like it as much. He was constantly asking questions and pointing out things he thought were silly. Especially when the two main characters both fell down a huge hillside and neither one appeared to be in any discomfort. Twenty minutes of comments followed that scene. Timothy did seem to enjoy the second movie they watched, though. Arthur wasn’t sure what was supposed to be happening in the movie; to him it just looked like three guys finding different ways to beat each other up while making weird noises. In spite of his confusion, it was funny, especially when Timothy would imitate the scenes, playing all three parts. He is sure the three girls would have really enjoyed watching the movies with them, but Laila had been really upset last night and the other two were keeping her company.
The thought of Laila brings Arthur back to the present. Apparently, reminiscing about the events of the night before combined with the lack of sleep had slowed the progress of the iron beam to a standstill. The returning feeling of heat on his body from the sun and from the hot iron against his skin compels him to glance up toward the treetops in hopes of finding evidence of an oncoming breeze. Seeing none, he glances further upward and is a little disappointed to find the blue sky completely empty of any clouds which might have provided a respite from the heat. A distant form above catches Arthur’s attention. Having seen the shape hundreds of times before, he instantly recognizes Laila flying overhead. Her grace up in the sky never fails to entrance him. Growing up, he spent many years being jealous of her abilities, being able to soar above the trees and feel the wind rushing over her body. For a long time, his strength didn’t seem to compare to her skills, at least not in his mind. If someone would have offered a trade five years ago, Arthur would have taken it in a second just to feel the freedom of flight. Ironically enough, if the same offer came now, he would still take it, but for entirely different reasons.
Arthur naturally assumed Laila would have been carefree and contented, much like Timothy is, but in reality, the only time she is truly at peace is up in the air. Her ability to fly relies heavily on her frame being structurally light and flexible. A diminutive body made up of fragile bones and cartilage gives her remarkable abilities in flight, but on land she is as delicate as the first ice in fall. In the last few years, since Arthur has been able to see her on a regular basis, he has noticed Laila has had to wear a cast of some sort at least a dozen times. Sometimes the injuries are due to a misstep or bad landing, but on more than one occasion, she has broken a limb due to the rough treatment of the technicians. Hearing Laila’s accounts of how the technicians act around her enrages Arthur and he is not sure what he would do to the them if he were around when they were hurting her.
Last night, Laila spent the free time James gave her in her room. She does this quite often, usually telling everyone she is tired, but Arthur can sense her fear and pain. He has never had a broken bone and his skin is impervious to most sharp objects, but he tries to understand how terrifying her world must be and assumes he would react in a similar fashion if he was as fragile. Once in a while, Laila will join them, though, and they will all describe the experiences of the day. Arthur enjoys those moments the most. When Laila is reenacting her time up in the sky, she conveys a sense of peace and contentment the rest of them can’t even fully comprehend and her smile is never as full as when she is describing each rise and turn through the air. A brief moment of sadness flows through him as he remembers James will not be working tonight, so he will not be able to listen to Laila’s description of today’s training.
Arthur brings his gaze back up toward Laila as she gracefully swims through the blue sky above. She has become a mere speck to his eyes, having risen to a height he is sure he hasn’t seen from her before. A slight anxiety begins to build in his chest at the realization of how far from the Compound Laila has flown. The technician’s have installed distance sensors into all of Laila’s flight vests to prevent her escape. If she ever goes beyond the device’s established perimeter, a continuous shock is delivered until she finds her way back within the assigned area. The sensors were added around two years ago, when she began attempting escape on a regular basis. The tracking chip installed in all of them did not allow for a very long time away however, and she was punished severely for each attempt. Since the device has been added to her vest, her escape attempts have all but ceased. According to Laila, the shock is quite painful.
Almost as an answer to his worry, Arthur notices a change in the smooth circling of the distant speck. Laila’s forward movement has ceased and she is in a downward tumble. Her shape begins to become visible again as her dive brings her toward the ground. She is somersaulting through the air, frantically attempting to regain control. Feeling helpless, Arthur glances around unsure what he should be looking for. His eyes dart back to her in time to see her straighten out and pull back into a level formation. Although she is still at a considerable height, she dropped far enough for him to be able to see the sheer terror in her eyes and the ragged, chaotic expanding and contracting of her chest as she struggles to reclaim a sense of calm.
The sound of two of the technicians exiting the Compound diverts his attention. They are across the yard from him and heading toward Laila’s designated landing area, signaling her to come down immediately. Arthur notices the shock sticks in their hands and foreseeing her impending punishment, feels a tingling sensation run down his spine as the hair on the back of his neck begins to stand. His thoughts begin to become choppy and disorderly. Her lifeless tumbling form dances back and forth in his memory. Laila could have died from their device. The images in his head become more muddled and a dark red haze begins to cloud over them. His muscles tense to the point of shaking and he finds himself letting out a screaming roar as his arms and legs explode forward in a sudden release of energy. The massive iron beam he has been slowly sliding along the ramp moves away from Arthur so swiftly it leaves him to fall to the ground in its absence. The beam continues sliding rapidly upward until reaching the level of the platform and becomes slightly airborne. After a three or four foot flight, the beam crashes back down onto the concrete platform giving off a deafening combination of crunching cement, howling metal and the clattering of chunks of wreckage falling everywhere.
Arthur’s fall to the ground along with the cacophony of sounds still echoing in the trees brings him back into the moment. Ten feet in front of him he sees the iron beam through a thin cloud of concrete dust. It is slightly lodged into the surface and the entire surroundings are littered with the newly liberated chunks of platform. The two technicians are now rapidly headed toward him instead of Laila’s landing area. The next few minutes are going to be filled with the torment of the shock sticks and surely followed by the back breaking removal of the iron beam from where it currently resides, but looking past the technicians, he observes Laila landing unnoticed and beginning to walk toward the Compound and the apparent safety of her room.
Arthur smiles to himself and braces for the first jolt.
In spite of being preceded by a punishment, removing the iron beam from the platform did give him a few more minutes outside today. When the technicians reached him at the ramp earlier, they proceeded to jab him with the shock sticks fairly mercilessly. Combining a sharpened metal tip and a significant electric shock, these devices tend to pack quite a punch. Arthur is fairly easy going and the few times in the past they have had to shock him, he has lain down on the ground after only one or two hits. He was quite worked up earlier and almost felt like grabbing the shock sticks out of their hands and flinging them over the fence. This would have done no more, though, than bring out a half a dozen more of them with the tranquilizer rifles. Besides, he wanted to give Laila time to get back to her room and, hopefully, away from the shock sticks. So, he stood up, faced the technicians with his teeth bared and arms raised and let out a growling snarl. Both technicians momentarily paused at this action, the surprise of which almost causes Arthur to exchange his mask of anger for confusion. They rapidly recovered and proceeded with two quick jabs in the gut and side. It was definitely unpleasant and Arthur did want to back down, but Laila was only halfway across the yard so far. With renewed vigor, he produced another growl and even took a step toward the closest technician. Thinking back, the forward movement might have been more than necessary, since the action seemed to raise their aggression level. Five quick jabs nearly brought him to his knees, but he managed to stand for another twelve before seeing Laila was safely in the Compound. He sunk to a sitting position and endured another four hits with the sticks before laying face down in the dirt. Once subdued to the technicians’ satisfaction, Arthur was set upon the task of removing the beam from the platform. To his dismay, little more effort than usual was required to lift the metal out of the gouge in the concrete and slide it back to its intended resting place. All too quickly, he was inside the Compound and back on schedule.
Ordinarily, the indoor part of his strength training is the most monotonous part of Arthur’s day. The early morning workout allows him to be outdoors and in the fresh air. Even the weather matters very little to him. The cold of winter is more pleasant for him, with his thick skin and huge frame, but even the heat of summer, like today, is never more than an inconvenience. While outside, Arthur feels like he is a part of nature. While indoors, he is given repetitive tasks in a very plain looking room while constantly being observed and recorded.
Now, well into the session, Arthur lets out a labored sigh. There is almost nothing he is less fond of than these workouts. Surprisingly, what he dislikes above all else about this part of his training is not the set of electrodes attached to his head and chest. Nor is it the technicians staring at him, studying him from behind their computers on one side of the room. Even the task of lifting the pair of three hundred pound slabs and carrying them around the room as long as possible, putting them down and then repeating the entire process for two hours is not the part he resents the most. It is the walls: the plain, white, unadorned walls.
Arthur has never had a problem keeping his mind occupied, especially the last few years. The vast array of mental and visual information absorbed through the new experience of being able to watch television perplexes and fascinates him to no end. Even so, for some reason the total lack of sensory stimulation from these walls distresses him. There aren’t even noticeable patterns or textures on the surface. It is no wonder Arthur slows his pace and makes the portion of the lap last longer each time he circles around and faces the technicians at their desk. Studying every aspect of the area is the best way he can think of to pass the time while continuously cycling around the room. He has counted everything possible, from cords behind each computer to the average number of sips of coffee each technician takes per hour. The technicians themselves rarely speak during this time, but he is quite familiar with their breathing patterns and movements.
After thirty-seven minutes, he drops the slabs with a satisfied smile, increasing his previous best by five minutes. While stretching out his arms from the position they have been locked into for the better part of the last hour, Arthur turns to observe the technicians’ reactions to his newest achievement. Not only do they appear not to notice what he has done, they seem to be having casual conversation. He rolls his eyes and snorts to himself. It is not as if he did anything historical or monumentally amazing, but surely a congratulatory nod or an eyebrow raised in approval didn’t seem too much to expect. Even an extended stretch and an exaggerated straightening out of his back failed to garner their attention.
Slightly disappointed, Arthur scoops the slabs back onto his shoulders and places them off to the side. Walking over to the huge iron beam, he makes a small production of grunts and deep breaths before he starts the beam sliding and begins trudging around the room again. Looking at the technicians, he is convinced he could be walking on his hands and balancing the half ton of iron on one foot and they still wouldn’t be paying him any attention. Their conversation has every ounce of their focus.
The low whispering tones of his observers starts to become audible as he rounds the corner to face them. Boredom and sheer curiosity have definitely piqued Arthur’s interest in their words.
“...know she’s one of the freaks, but she has got it where it matters most. She’s definitely better looking than anyone I’ve ever been with.”
“That’s not saying much,” the other technician lets out a snort of a laugh. “You’re not exactly a ladies’ man, but you’re right, she is one fine specimen. Her owner is going to be one lucky guy.”
A wave of uneasiness flows through Arthur’s body. They must be talking about Jasele, Penelope or Laila and he is appalled with what he is hearing so far.
“Me and Cam are going to take her into Training Room Two late this afternoon,” the first technician begins, leaning over toward the other. “You should come, the bosses will all be gone and we like to use that time to do some private workouts with her, if you catch my meaning.”
The other technician’s response is lost to Arthur as is any semblance of control. The realization of what is being discussed sinks in, and outrage quickly takes control of his bodily functions. A deep breath is pulled in as every muscle in his body instantly flexes, causing his body to expand almost fifty percent in less than a second. His eyes have clouded over in a rage and his vision changes from a blurry red to an almost blind darkness. A combination of half growl and half scream comes out in a roar so loud that not only do the objects in the room rattle, but the walls themselves actually vibrate at the intensity. The technicians turn toward the sound with eyes open so wide they appear to be on the verge of popping out of their sockets. In one swift movement, Arthur grips and lifts the one-thousand pound beam of iron over his head and gives off a moan almost as loud as his previous outburst as he indiscriminately heaves the metal across the room. Fortunately for the technicians, the projectile is not headed in their direction but, nevertheless, the technicians throw themselves to the ground and frantically crawl toward the corner furthest from the action. The beam slams into the wall with such force it creates a hole and sparks begin to fly as wires, metal, and plaster are sent in all directions.
Arthur’s blind rage instinctively turns into survival mode as the sounds of destruction and chaos blend with the crackle and hiss of sparks igniting a fire in the newly destroyed wall. With only his subconscious guiding him, he barrels out from the training room and heads down the hall. The doors on the way out seem like little more than speed bumps to his progress as he plows through them one by one. Realization does not even reach him as he bursts out of the final doorway into the yard of the Compound. Within three seconds he reaches and tears through the perimeter fence and proceeds into the forest oblivious to everything but the screaming in his brain to continue running.