"Conqueror" by Elisabeth Delaney Light from the city's buildings did not reach into their alleyways, but the biting chill of the air did. A woman stood in an alley, thin coat pulled tightly around her swollen belly. Her breath frosted the air in front of her as she paused for a moment. Her only thoughts had been of escape, getting away from the sadistic man who'd held her captive these past months. It had taken some assistance, a turned head at just the right moment, and she knew without doubt that whoever her captor suspected of helping her would be dead. But so would she, very shortly now, once her usefulness was done and the child she carried born. Now she still wasn't safe, but she had to stop, figure out where she was and where she was going. A car's headlights flashed nearby and she instinctively ducked into the shadows, fear causing her stomach to constrict. The car passed the entrance to the alley slowly, but kept on going. She let out a brief sigh of relief, but it quickly turned into a hiss of pain as the tightness in her belly didn't ease but grew stronger. The first contractions had hit her earlier that afternoon, before her escape, and they had steadily increased since. She knew she had to find shelter and soon. The hospitals were not safe, surely he would have his men combing them all. That was the way he was, ruthless and thorough. * * * * * She had first gone to his house, an impressive villa on Long Island, to apply for a job as a nanny. Tall and angular, the man had acted pleasant, insisted that she call him by his first name, Julian, but something about his dark eyes disturbed her. He introduced her to his son, an colicky toddler named Gabriel. She desperately needed the money, so accepted the job despite her uneasy feelings. Three weeks later the father had apprehended her as she was on her way out the door. "Come with me, please," he requested firmly. Thinking she had done something wrong, she hesitantly followed him into his office. "Sir, have I done anything--?" Julian laughed. "No, on the contrary. You've done quite an impressive job with my son. That is why I've selected you for a special assignment." He gestured her to a seat. She sat, the stiff leather creaking beneath her. He turned his back to her and began mixing a drink. "On my staff I have doctors, scientists...working at my behest to create a new type of man. Do you know anything about genetics, my dear?" "Uh, no. Not really," she admitted, confused by his words. "That's all right, you don't need to. Drink?" He handed her a small tumbler full of an amber liquid. She sipped at it, grimacing at the bite but swallowing anyway. A tight smile curved his mouth as he observed her for a moment. "They've devised a way to combine DNA, human with...various others. But as of yet they've had no success at incubation. That's why I've chosen you." "I don't understand. DNA?" She shook her head then groaned as the room started to tilt around her. Julian stared closely at her, then pushed a button on his desk. The doors opened behind them, and three men walked in, two in white smocks. "Take her." Barely able to protest, she was led away. The next few weeks were a blur, filled with vague memories of being strapped to a table, injected over and over again, a burning in her abdomen that never seemed to go away...but that was then, and now she needed to get out of this cold wind. Pushing away from the damp brick wall, she started walking. * * * * * The faintest trace of light smudged the east horizon as she sank to the dew-soaked pavement and leaned heavily against a trash dumpster. Pain contorted her face, her voice worn out from trying to keep her moaning quiet despite the fact that her insides felt as though they were being ripped apart by the massive contractions. Wave after wave of searing pain swept through her, paying no heed to her exhaustion. Then, all at once the pain stopped. A moment of utter peace, then the urge to push consumed her utterly but painlessly. The child emerged within seconds in a gush of fluid. She quickly pulled it toward her to shield it from the wind, but paused in fear when she noticed its features. Tears filled her eyes, and she shuddered, realizing just how evil Julian really was. The baby's face was almost feline in appearance, a flattened nose leading down to a cleft lip. Its fingernails were longer and thicker than they ought to have been and a soft but thick down covered its entire body. It was breathing, but shallowly, and made no cry. She doubted it would survive long. Around her, the sky began to lighten ever so slightly and she despaired. A part of her felt tied to the strange infant. She had carried it within her, birthed it. But it would not live, and she could escape detection easier without the burden of a dying newborn, possibly even making it out of town. Julian and his men would be looking for a pregnant woman, or one with a baby. If they caught her, she would die and the child would be a prisoner for however long it lived, a specimen to be gawked at and experimented on. Cradling the silent baby with one arm, she tied a dirty piece of string around the umbilical cord and used a rock to sever the cord, flinching even though the child made no sound. Looking carefully, she could detect no breath. Grieved and with tears stinging her eyes, she made her decision. Unwilling to leave a baby exposed to the icy wind, even one that was not alive, she glanced around the wide alleyway. The dumpster she had been leaning against bore the name of a hospital, so she rummaged through it hoping to find a discarded hospital gown, but found only some torn hand-towels and cleaning rags. Working rapidly against the dawn, she bundled the infant in the ragged cloths, then placed him amid the bagged garbage piled alongside the dumpster. A fleeting prayer, then she walked away as fast as she could. * * * * * Two men walked side by side in the grayness of the early morning. One was quite tall and broad shouldered, the other hadn't nearly the height and walked with a pronounced limp and cane. Neither was elderly, appearing to be perhaps in their mid-thirties. "We should be heading back down I think, John," suggested the shorter man, his breath visible in the cold air. Pre-dawn walks were one of the few pleasures that they still enjoyed in the world Above, but they had to be cautious. "Oh, Jacob," replied the other. He walked calmly, his pace slow as to allow his friend to keep up. "Has anyone ever told you that you are an incessant worrier?" Smiling wryly, Jacob took comfort in the familiar banter with his friend. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure of receiving that particular insult before. Thank you for pointing it out. But it is getting lighter." John studied the barely visible skyline. "You're right as usual, Jacob." He glanced around at their surroundings, and noticed the back of the hospital ahead. "Saint Vincent's. There is an entrance just beyond." Jacob looked at the building with a cross between longing and anger. It hadn't been even two years since he had been blacklisted and ostracized, barred from practicing medicine. Barely more than a year since he had dropped off the face of the earth, relocated to a secret place with a handful of others. A new world, safely hidden below the streets of the city, away from the prying eyes and accusing voices of those Above. "You still miss it?" asked John as they strode quietly behind the hospital. Jacob nodded slowly. "In a way, yes." He stopped and cocked his head. "Do you hear that?" A few feet ahead, John stopped and turned around. He shook his head impatiently. "I hear nothing. Its getting lighter by the moment, you know." "Yes, yes. I know. But I could have sworn...there!" he exclaimed. "There it is again." He peered at the pile of trash near a large dumpster. "Oh, come on, Jacob," the taller man insisted. "Its probably nothing more than a stray cat." He sighed disapprovingly, as his friend was already poking through the garbage with his cane. Jacob pushed aside crumpled newspapers and biohazard containers, searching for the source of the faint mewling. "My god," he whispered when he uncovered the tiny child. With a tentative finger he touched its face. It only took him a second to realize the urgency of the situation. "John, give me your coat," he barked, the doctor in him taking control. John recognized his friend's tone of voice and didn't argue, striping off his jacket even as he asked, "What is it, Jacob?" Jacob stepped away from the dumpster, a small bundle in his arms. "A child." He glanced up and down the alley, making sure that no one was around. "We have to get Below immediately." It didn't take them long to find the entrance, a manhole no longer in use by the city, and soon they were safe in one of the many tunnels that lay abandoned beneath the streets. As they made their way down the dimly lit passages, John placed a hand on Jacob's shoulder. "Here, let me carry it. You can barely manage," he indicated the cane that his friend was leaning heavily on. Setting down the lantern he'd been carrying, he held his arms out for the baby. "Look at it, John," Jacob said, reluctantly handing the infant over. "Isn't it amazing?" John peered at the baby's face. "My god, what an ugly child." "No, no!" Jacob shook his head and his voice turned soft. "Its beautiful. A miracle." "But a miracle from who? It looks like the devil's own." "Nonsense." He picked up the lantern and started walking again at an increased pace, eager to get the child to the chamber he had set up as an infirmary. As they passed deeper into the tunnels, nearing the inhabited areas, Jacob idly thought about installing a sentry system. He voiced the suggestion, explaining, "It would prevent any unwanted guests from getting this far unnoticed." Nodding, John agreed. "But we haven't the people to spare, yet. Pascal is busy checking out that network of pipes, and teaching everyone the codes. Lou is helping William and Byers carve out chambers so that everyone will have their own rooms. Randolph and York are working on those hot springs that we discovered, trying to make them easier to access." Jacob chuckled in anticipation. "That will be a lot more convenient than trekking all the way to the waterfalls and bathing in that cold water." "Indeed. Here," John pointed with one hand. "I believe that pipe goes through to the main level." "Ah, yes. I'll have Pascal tell Mary to meet us at the hospital chamber." Jacob stepped up to the ancient steam pipe and tapped against it with his cane, sending the message. After a moment, a brief reply came, quiet and almost musical in its hollow clicks. "Good, let's go." A few minutes later, they rounded a bend and the corridor grew lighter. Torches burned brightly, mounted on the stone walls. A woman stepped out of a side passageway, her long sandy hair braided and wrapped around her head. "Father, there you are! Pascal said you were on your way." She led the way down the tunnels. Many looked up to Jacob as the unofficial leader of this fragile community and had begun calling him Father, as he looked out for them all, but John smirked at Mary's use of it. "An interesting title you've acquired, Jacob." "It's a lot better than that absurd nickname that you've started insisting everyone call you!" Jacob retorted. "Paracelsus was a renowned chemist centuries ago. It's fitting." "Whatever," Jacob laughed sourly. "Here we are. Ah, thank you, Mary." He smiled at her thoughtfulness for bringing his medical bag to him. Mary was a nurse specializing in midwifery, but unable to have children of her own. Loneliness and desperation had led her to join the group of castaways in this secret world where everyone had a place and was wanted. The hospital chamber was small and devoid of decoration. A high cot sat in the middle of the carved out room. Several bookcases were filled with medical journals but the cabinets were dangerously bare of supplies. Candles sat upon every available surface, filling the small room with a golden glow. John set the baby down on the cot. "I don't think it's still alive." Silently, Jacob pulled his stethoscope on and pressed it to the child's chest. He smiled. "Yes, there's a heartbeat. Thank god." Mary stared at the tiny baby in disbelief. "Father..." she looked at him in wonder, then her eyes were drawn back to the infant. "How extraordinary," she breathed. "Where did it come from?" Jacob spoke as he unwrapped the soiled rags and examined the child. "Behind St. Vincent's Hospital. Abandoned, left to die. It's a boy," he noted. Mary shook her head, her face frowned in sympathy. "The poor thing. Would you like me to fetch some of Devin's old things?" "Oh, yes, Mary, would you be so kind? He'll need to be kept very warm." She vanished, and Jacob delicately picked the infant up. John watched from the side. "What do you plan to do with it, Jacob?" Jacob looked up, startled. "Whatever do you mean? I intend to help him. Keep him safe. It will be a wonderful thing for our community. For if this child survives, we all must work together, to protect him from the world Above." "What about the scientific aspects, Jacob? There has never been anything like it before. There are tests to be run...experiments to be performed." "Absolutely not! This is a child, not an animal." Jacob cradled it to his chest as if to protect it. "Are you so sure? Look at it! It looks like an animal, borne of a beast. It's not human!" John insisted. Mary walked in and stood beside Jacob. "Of course he's human. Don't be ridiculous. It's a baby. Unique, yes, but not something to be locked away and experimented on!" She took the child from Jacob's arms, wrapping it in a crocheted blanket. "Come on, we need to heat some milk for him." "You're missing a tremendous opportunity," John warned, his voice low and somewhat menacing. The baby started to whimper from Mary's arms. Jacob shook his head and picked up his cane. "That's enough, John." He followed Mary out of the infirmary and down the passage to the kitchen area. A rusty potbellied stove sat in one corner of the large room, its fire continuously burning. Setting Jacob down at the trestle table that filled the other side of the chamber, Mary handed him the baby. "I'll just use one of Devin's bottles. He's nearly weaned off it anyhow." She busied herself fetching and warming the milk. "Father," she asked several minutes later, while waiting for the milk to cool down. "You wouldn't let Paracelsus--John--hurt the little thing, would you?" Jacob looked horrified. "Good heavens, Mary. Of course not!" He looked down at the strange yet beautiful infant in his arms. The baby's deep blue eyes opened and fixed on his face. "No harm shall ever come to this one, I swear it with my life." "Here," she handed him the warm bottle with a smile. He returned the smile, letting his fingers brush gratefully against hers as he accepted the glass baby's bottle. She blushed, but he didn't notice, trying as he was to get the baby to take the bottle. It only took a moment for the baby to figure out what to do, and he began sucking urgently at the milk. * * * * "I vote for myself and Anna," John declared loudly. He stood next to his wife, a pale woman, still weak from a miscarriage the week before. It had been her fourth in less than a year. All of the Tunnel-dwellers and their Helpers, those who lived Above but kept the secret, were gathered in Jacob's personal chamber, a tall room with every available space crammed with books of all sorts. He planned to expand it one day, carving a second story out of the ledge above to make room for all of his journals and tomes, but for now it was cramped, even more so with the people crowded in. There was a dispute going on, one that could forever change the atmosphere of the small community, for John and his wife were claiming rights to the child found by Jacob. True, he had been present when the newborn was found among the trash behind the hospital. But it had Jacob who rescued it and cared for it ever since. "Jacob already has a son to care for," John pointed to Devin, the one year old boy whose mother had passed away in childbirth. No one knew who his father was, but Jacob had taken the responsibility of raising him. "We have none." "But would you treat him like your own child?" Mary asked. "We know that you don't even think of him as human. He shouldn't be treated like a freak his whole life." Several others agreed with her, nodding their heads and glancing at the infant that Mary held. He was three months old now, his eyes bright and wise. His hair had turned sandy colored, thickly covering his head, while thinner on his chest and arms. Everyone had grown used to his feline-like appearance, accepting it and becoming protective of him. "He is a curiosity though," John insisted. "Science demands that he be examined, tested." Many shook their heads at that, but John's wife kept silent. She loved the strange child as dearly as anyone else, but she didn't understand her husband's obsession with it. "How do you vote?" John asked, his voice loud and with an edge to it. The gathered people looked at each other and at the child. One by one, they all voiced their opinion, saying, "Father," or "Jacob". Only one or two chose John as the better parent. His face grew hot and steel-hard. "I see. Well, then, congratulations...Father." He grabbed his wife's arm. "Come along, Anna." She glanced apologetically at everyone and followed her husband out. Jacob and everyone else breathed a sigh of relief, and the unseen tension disappeared. "Have you decided on a name, Jacob?" Peter Alcott, a Helper who had gone through medical school with Jacob, stepped close and held his hands out to the baby. Gurgling, the child made no protest as he was transferred from Mary's arms to this new man's. "Ah, yes, Peter, actually I thought we'd call him Vincent, after the hospital where he was found." Jacob smiled at the boy in his friend's arms. Peter nodded in approval. "A fine name. It means 'conqueror', does it not?" "Indeed it does. And this little one had battled so much already and won. But the fight will never be over, not for him, I'm afraid." Jacob sighed and looked around his chamber. The community was growing fast, already a couple dozen strong, with a few children to brighten their lives. Devin was toddling around, getting into everything; Robert Pascal Junior was just learning the pipe codes from his father, even though he couldn't yet read; Elizabeth's daughter Sara was teenaged and the only girl, but seemed happy; and of course, Vincent, young and innocent but bringing a new hope and motivation to the people. They had to survive and make this world work now, for themselves and for this amazing child who could not live in the world Above. "You know, Peter," Jacob finally said. "I really think we're going to make it." "Did you only just figure that out Jacob?" Peter laughed and patted his friend's shoulder. Vincent had long since been taken from him, and was now being passed among the women. "I hear you got a new chess set for Winterfest. How about a game?" ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ About the Author: Elisabeth Delaney is one of three pen-names used by the author, who is not comfortable using her real name on the internet. She has been a fan of BatB since 1991 when she happened to catch the rerun episode, "China Moon", which she hasn't seen since. For three years she was insanely jealous of Catherine, but snapped out of it when meeting her own True Love in 1994. She has written several stories, including other BatB, some of which can be found by visiting Ori's Singularity: www.geocities.com/area51/vault/2090. She loves feedback and can be emailed at: firstname.lastname@example.org.