Arthur Franklin’s first memory is that of goosebumps running down the length of his arms. He shivers, opens his eyes, then immediately squeezes them shut as light burns into the back of his head. He turns his face, raising a hand to cover his eyes. He shivers, and realizes he’s only wearing a medical gown.
“Welcome back, sir.”
He doesn’t recognize the voice. It’s not the forced cheerfulness of his doctor, nor the warm kindness of that pretty nurse. The voice is soothing. He doesn’t recognize it.
“Where?” His voice rasps; he chokes on his words, and dissolves into a fit of coughing.
“Easy.” A hand grasps his shoulder—not to restrain, but to reassure. “Don’t try to speak just yet. You’ve been through a lot. Just rest here, take some time to get used to the light. In a few minutes we’ll give you some water. Talking will be easier after that.”
Arthur frowns. What was the voice talking about? It was supposed to be a simple procedure. He’d be out in time for dinner, is what they’d said. All they were going to do was—
It’s only a memory, but remembering is enough. His arms fall to his side, hands balled into fists. His eyes open wide, unfocused, unseeing, and he screams until he is hoarse.
The hand on his shoulder squeezes once, again not to restrain, but to comfort. Arthur screams, and when the screaming stops he sobs, greats wracking sobs that make his whole body shudder. The soothing voice speaks, over and over again. Eventually the words actually mean something.
Hazy shadows loom over him. He blinks trying to make the shadows sharpen. He feels something cold seeping into his veins, then he feels drowsy. The memory of the pain fades. His terror ebbs.
“I’m sorry,” the voice says again. “I’m sorry they did that to you. But you’re safe now. You’ve been rescued.”
A memory flares, unbidden: men and women in scrubs, peering down at him through a transparent cocoon of glass, talking about him as if he wasn’t there. Another, older man—definitely not a doctor—with short-cropped hair and a hard, uncaring face, staring down at him dispassionately. And then the memory of pain returns. He whimpers, still afraid, but it’s a distant fear now. He doesn’t scream.
“You’re safe,” the voice says again. A man’s voice, Arthur decides. “You’re not in that place any more.”
Arthur shudders again. He wonders if it’s a trick. His eyes focus, and the shadows vanish, replaced by brilliant white suns. He starts to blink.
“That’s it,” the man says. “Take a minute. When you’re ready, we’ll sit you up and get you something to drink.”
A few deep breaths later, Arthur nods.
The man—a young guy with reddish-brown hair, just a touch of gray at the temples—nods once to someone out of Arthur’s field of view. Immediately he feels his position change: the table he’s lying on begins to fold up, bringing him into a sitting position.
A doctor, wearing scrubs, latex gloves, and wearing a surgical mask, hands him a plastic cup of shaved ice. Arthur is keenly aware that his throat is burning: he immediately takes a mouthful of ice.
“Don’t crunch it.” The young man with the calm voice—the only one in the room, Arthur notes, who is not wearing a face mask—raises a hand in warning. “Let it melt on its own. That’s better. Yeah, just keep doing that.”
Arthur nods, and takes a look around.
At first glance it looks like they’re in a large, windowless warehouse. Rows of medical beds stretch along one wall, each with a man sitting on it, in various stages of confusion and distress. Some are screaming like he was, though the sound is muted, as if they were screaming through a wall. Other men are calmer, sitting up, sucking on ice. They all have IVs, prompting him to notice his own for the first time.
He looks down at the tube traveling into his arm and grimaces in distaste.
“You need to stay on that for a while,” the man with the calm voice says. “You need the fluids.”
Arthur sighs. “I don’t want to trust you.”
The man nods. “I understand why. How can you be sure we aren’t actually the people who were experimenting on you? Maybe this is just another trick. Something like that?”
“Yeah,” Arthur says. “Something like that. Who are you? What’s going on?”
“My name is Robert Thorpe,” the man says. “You’ve been held prisoner. We don’t know how long. They were experimenting on you. From what we’ve been able to gather, they were pretty terrible experiments.”
Arthur shudders at the faintest whisper of remembered pain. “I don’t remember much.”
“Good,” Robert says. “I hope it stays that way.”
“Yeah?” Arthur scowls. “Well I don’t.”
Arthur’s scowl deepens. “No.”
Robert nods, either understanding or not willing to press the issue. “What’s your name?”
Arthur looks at him in surprise. “You don’t know?”
Robert shakes his head. “We found you in a sealed life support device. The only information we could find identified you as ‘Test Subject 14.’”
Arthur stares at Robert for a long time. Finally he says “Art Franklin.”
Robert picks up a clipboard hanging off Arthur’s bed and starts writing. “Thank you, Mr. Franklin. We’ve been referring to you by your number up till now. It was all we had to work with, but… it didn’t feel right.”
Arthur feels himself starting to warm up to the man. “What happens now?”
“Well…” Robert thinks it over. “That’s almost entirely up to you.”
Robert sighs. “At the moment we’re in hiding. From the same people we rescued you from, as it happens, and the logistics of… well, of everything are a little complicated. As soon as we’re confident we’re safe, we’ll be able to make arrangements for all of you.”
“To send us home?”
Robert nods. “If that’s what you want. Although you might want to think twice before you do. Especially if you live alone.”
“Why?” Arthur asks.
“Because the people who did this to you probably know where you live.”
Something cold settles in the pit of Arthur’s stomach. “You figure?”
“Do you have TriHealth medical insurance?”
Arthur nods wordlessly.
“We’re pretty sure so does every other patient in this room. That’s how they chose you.”
“Those sons of bitches,” Arthur says. “It was a free clinic day. They found something interesting in my blood, entered me into a program. Free health care was part of it. Those sons of bitches!”
“Easy,” Robert says. “Try not to get too worked up right now. You’ll pull out your IV.”
“Wait…” Arthur squints, looking over the doctor closely. “Thorpe? You said your name was Thorpe?”
“Thorpe as in ‘Thorpe Industries?’”
“Yes,” Robert says.
A few seconds pass. “You’re Gladiator!”
“Was,” Robert corrects. “Not any more.”
“But you’re fighting these… the ones who did this to…” Arthur gestures to the room. “To all of us.”
Robert nods, expression grim.
“Yeah,” Arthur says. “I remember you guys. That whole, uh, Prodigy thing. They were doing experiments on kids. And you stopped ‘em.”
“That’s right,” Robert says. His voice hardens. “And we’re going to stop the ones who did this to you as well.”