Father grabbed his medical bag and rushed to the fallen boy, wondering what fool thing the child had done now. If there was a rule, Devin insisted on breaking it; if there was a warning, he would not heed it. Always, always he tested the boundaries.
“Where is he, Winslow?” he called ahead.
“He fell by the Maze.”
The Maze. Of course, with its caverns and cliffs so unstable that most tunnel-dwellers avoided it. Yet Devin had gone and was now injured and God alone knew what else and....
“Was he alone, Winslow?”
The child, frightened, shook his head. “No, Father, he wasn't.”
“Who was he with?” Father asked, though he suspected he already knew the answer. Who else would he be with, who else could climb the sheer walls with ease? Who else was not afraid of heights (or much of anything)? Who else would go with him where angels (and tunnel-dwellers) feared to tread?
Vincent. Good god. He'd gone off on this fool adventure and taken Vincent with him. Vincent, a child of five. Devin should have known better. “How badly was Devin hurt?” he asked Winslow, but the boy was already out of earshot and running faster than Father, with his injured hip, could keep up.
Eventually, he reached the Maze, and was stunned by what he saw. Devin's ankle had clearly swollen to twice its normal proportions, but that was a normal, medical thing he could treat, not at all uncommon in the tunnels where pathways were still uneven in most areas. It was Vincent's face, white and drawn under its light coating of fur, blue eyes washed almost to grey, that drew his attention. Devin was not pale, though he should have been. And Vincent, who was to Father's eye not injured at all, very much looked as though he was. His hand, lightly furred, braced Devin's ankle.
“Devin,” he said calmly, opening up his bag and taking bandages and splints out, making a mental note that they really must build up more supplies of such things. “What happened here?”
Devin tried to brazen it out. “We were running. I slipped.”
Father raised his eyebrows. “Running. Indeed. This is an impact injury, Devin, as from a fall from a great height. When you decide to tell the truth, I'll be interested to hear it.” His hands tied the last of the makeshift splint together. “That should do you until we get to the home tunnels.”
As he replaced the torn bits of bandaging and wood back into his bag, he noticed that Vincent's hand had never left Devin's ankle, and the boy was looking paler by the minute. “Vincent,” he said softly. The boy did not so much as look at him but through him with an intensity that was entirely too old for his years. “Vincent,” Father said again.
Vincent looked at him finally, gaze strangely unfocused but a little less intense. “What, Father?”
“We need to get Devin up. Do you think you and Winslow can help him?” Though Devin was three years older and Winslow five years older, Vincent was already as tall as Devin. If he continued growing at this rate.....Father put the musings aside and concentrated on the task at hand. It did not escape his notice that Vincent's color did not return until they left Devin in his bed in the hospital chamber.
Later that night, with the children settled and Devin, for once, not up planning some new mischief, Father dug through an old, worn out box hidden behind some other boxes on a very tall shelf and found a battered black notebook. It was one of four that had been salvaged from John Pater's---Paracelsus'---lab after Paracelsus had been escorted to the perimeter years earlier. The first of these notebooks, by turns disturbing and enlightening, contained Paracelsus' notes on Vincent, whom he'd had custody of during the boy's first few months in the tunnels.
Father could hardly bear to hold them or look at them most of the time, remembering those dark and dangerous days, the friendship that had been, and wondering where it all went so horribly awry. But he hadn't been able to destroy the notebooks, for whatever else Paracelsus was or had been, he had been a scientist and his knowledge---particularly of Vincent's early days---had proven medically invaluable, however much Father scalded to think of the notebooks' origins.
Paracelsus had had some suspicions about Vincent's abilities that were, quite clearly, ridiculous, and Father read those sections of the notebook through a mental filter that blocked the more fanciful assumptions. But buried in the detritus of Paracelsus' more outlandish ideas, the raw data told a story that Father, a former research physician, had no trouble interpreting. Paracelsus had thought that Vincent might be an empath (and how he planned to test that, I really don't want to know, Father thought.)
Father would have normally dismissed such conclusions as belonging to science fiction, to men on Mars and the moon made of green cheese. But he had seen Vincent tonight, had seen his son with his hand on his brother's ankle. Disturbed, Father threw the notebook back in the box and replaced the box on its high shelf.
It all made a little too much sense. One more thing that marks the boy as different, Father mused. It was not a pleasant thought; the community had done well, in the years since Vincent's discovery and John Pater's expulsion, to gloss over or pointedly not notice just how different Vincent was. Some of that was simply human nature; it was near impossible to think of the child as some alien foundling when he lived, ate, and breathed the same air as they did day in and day out.
But the fact remained: Vincent was not the same as the other children. He never would be. There were commonalities, to be sure, but eventually, some oddness would rear its head and rock the community on its collective heels. What would happen when Vincent was older, and likely stronger than the lot of them? Would the empathic abilities, another facet of the boy's differences, cause him---or another child---harm? And the quick, sudden fury that Father had seen most recently in Vincent as a toddler? What of that?
Father ran his hands through his hair, cutting off the internal debate. Speculation was fine but Vincent was a boy of five and Father's son. This community was the only home he had or would ever have. Therefore, the boy must be raised within its rules and learn to contain his differences as best he could. They would discuss it tomorrow, once Father was sure Vincent had suffered no ill-effects from Devin's injury.
Envisioning the long years alone for his son, alone because there would never be someone exactly like Vincent, Father didn't look forward to the conversation.
Click here for the next chapter....