A sudden jolt woke Paul from his slumber. He startled and sat up properly, unsure what really woke him, but couldn’t find anything that should have unsettled him; and he was quite sure that nothing physically shook him.
The train was rumbling along between cities in the Rhein/Ruhr-Megaplex. The whole Ruhrgebiet had always felt like a particularly big city, but since those reforms a couple of years ago after the housing expansion, the whole area has been officially merged into one big municipality.
Buildings were flashing past the windows, too fast for the eye to discern any more than fleeting details. Paul dug in his pockets for his mobile phone, which told him that he was somewhere between Düsseldorf and Duisburg. Nobody new could have boarded since he was awake when they stopped in Düsseldorf itself.
Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was looking for him, and he could’t just pretend this was any kind of normal paranoia.
After all, there’s no such thing as random paranoia when you know that there really were people out to get you.
All of this could only mean one thing: this probably is a stealth grab, and they’re going to get Paul before the train arrives in Duisburg.
Again he checked the crowd, almost too casually, with an eye open for anyone who might already be eyeballing him. But there wasn’t even one remotely suspicious person around.
But then again, that would make it way too easy, wouldn’t it.
He briefly considered that this was just a seeking entanglement produced by an especially vigorous conductor starting his round of checking the traveler’s tickets, but no – this felt way too specific for that and this wasn’t like any of the other ticket checks he’d been in. [In general, most ticket checks were way more intense than airport security checks, too – even the employees didn’t seem to think very much of those.]
Besides, he had a valid ticket. Luckily for him, these weren’t personalized yet, or else he’d be in all kinds of shit by now.
Paul came to a decision. It started with standing up.
Shuffling sideways to the aisle came next, and heading down to the toilet followed suite.
And there the problems began. Paul had to dodge a pair of retirees which were suddenly standing up without looking around or bothering to check if they’ll bump into anyone, as they usually do, and almost knocked him over. Next was a pile of baggage that he could have sworn was not there before and which required some elaborate climbing to cross. Clambering down, he barely managed to dodge a stream of puke suddenly erupting from a child next to him, which had been noticeably happy and obnoxiously un-sick just a few moments ago.
So. Now he could definitely tell someone was on to him, and they weren’t messing with their obstruction field – else going down the aisle to the toilet, of all places, wouldn’t have triggered such a strong reaction.
The toilet itself was stuck – of course – but mercifully, it wasn’t occupied. Then again, this might just be the field’s ploy to lock him inside and leave Paul as a nice package for his pursuers, but he had to take that risk.
With a bit of manhandling, he got the door open and locked himself inside. The almost tranquil calm of the mostly sound-proof toilet washed over him, and Paul tried his best to relax. Then he opened his senses to the world.
In the first rush, he contemplated the fact that they were putting up such an effort to capture him. With such a blatantly strong alteration active, it meant that they were either very cocky – or very effective. Possibly both, but let’s not explore that avenue. At least they were confident enough to assume that they’d catch him before the train arrived in Duisburg and didn’t assume that there’s a need to hide from their prey.
He then chose to actually perceive with his heightened senses, opening his consciousness to the perception. He was flooded by impressions of all kind, with images being the strongest due to the fact that he was suffering from something called being human. Other thing that were swamping his mind included that he could feel the thoughts of the people around him, hear their breathing and their heart beating, smell their movement (which was something where he couldn’t even remotely figure out how those two are related) and taste their emotions.
All in all, Paul was handling more information that any normal human brain could have any hope of handling. The key word in that sentence is the “normal”, though.
And without a doubt, he could also feel the gravity-like pull of the reality alterations his pursuers were employing. He still couldn’t believe that normal people weren’t able to feel this.
A mayor precaution against being now was to practice emission control. Paul clamped down hard on any “signals” he gave off to the environment which would immediately register as irregular. There was always a kind of background static produced by him not fitting quite into the “normal” reality of the world, but its effects were all but undetectable from a few metres away.
At the moment, Paul and his pursuers were engaging in something which could closely be described as something like a World War II submarine fight, with Paul being a lone submarine and the others the circling destroyers above him, hunting for any sign of their quarry.
Which means that as long as he wasn’t being obvious, the enemies needed to use some kind of sensor to find them, and that sensor also gives them away. In historical cases, this role was filled by sonar scanners, which worked by sending out sound waves through water and then measuring where the signals came back earlier than expected.
But also, when it hit the submarine the sonar was trying to find, it registered with a characteristic “ping” sound heard in all kinds of submarine-themed movies. And if you heard that sound, you knew that your situation just went from bad to worse, but at least you’d know about it.
And could initiate counter-measures like hugging the ground, running silent and similar methods.
Knowing that he was being hunted kind of streamlined his options down to two courses of action. The dramatic option would be to hide whatever’s giving you away by masking yourself with your surroundings and hoping you won’t be noticed. In your run of the mill movie, this is the point where everything is turned off, and the hushed crew just cowers inside their still watertight metal tube, waiting for the depth charges to go off around them – hoping that there won’t be the lucky charge that hits them.
Luckily for Paul, there was no such thing as an analogue to depth charges that threatened him. Unluckily, there was also no kind of depth to hide in.
Option two, of course, is to bolt away as soon as you know someone’s following you. Against superior numbers, this is actually the best course of action, since you want to be the one that decides where the show’s going to be, not have the choice forced on you. But most of these scenarios do not involve being stuck on a moving train, a fact which is known to excessively hinder escaping from said scenario.
And if you think about it, that’s probably the reason why they didn’t board the train already scanning – he could have just slipped out in Düsseldorf and lost them at the train station.
Well, there’s still option three, but from their perceived level of arrogance, fighting them right out was probably just a creative way of committing suicide. That and the fact that Paul didn’t like odds along the lines of “there’s quite a lot of them, and I’m alone”.
There might be a few select circumstances where he could overwhelm then, but if the pursuers are worth their money, they’re probably running a optimistic derivate generator, which would make it all but impossible for him to have the necessary kind of luck.
Back to option two, then. And he can already feel the pull of the searcher’s need getting stronger, which means he’s getting closer.
He surveyed the layout of the train and then dialed down his perception to a level slightly above average – which still gave him an advantage over almost everyone he would encounter. Paul got into a slight moment of panic as the toilet door wouldn’t open, but then it suddenly budged and he could get out.
Heading back to his seat again, Paul again had to struggle, but mostly with luggage this time; no animate objects actively blocking him, and even the kid was looking healthy again. (That, and everybody seems to have forgotten that he just puked all over the place.)
Paul was just leaning over to pick up his backpack as a voice behind him cleared its throat – surreptitiously, yet unmistakably directed at him.
He froze, and only when he slowly turned around he noticed that that conductor was smiling at him. “Guten Tag, die Fahrausweise bitte!” Ticket check.
At precisely that moment, the pull hit him full force, and he knew that it came from the conductor.
Slightly flabbergasted, he produced his ticket from somewhere inside his backpack and showed it to the conductor, and as soon as she nodded and thanked him, the pressure went away.
Why did he just think people were out to get him? Was he actually getting paranoid? Why was he being so oversensitive? He was convinced the Inquisition was about to get him, but it was just a bloody ticket check.
Paul relaxed and sat back down, letting his head sink back into his neck and rest against the chair.
“Nächster Halt: Duisburg Hauptbahnhof. Ausstieg links” the announcement robot said, indicating that they were close to stopping at Duisburg.
He stopped staring at the ceiling, and decided he needs to get out at Duisburg anyway. The train would drive him crazy if he stayed on any longer. Paul looked ahead, in the direction of the doors.
There were two men standing there. He was still using his heightened senses, and he noticed that they weren’t just your regular blokes waiting to get off. They were tensed and ready to move at a moment’s notice. And they were carrying.
Paul glanced back, in the general direction of the conductor.
She was holding a finger to her ear, which, he now noticed, held a small headset.
And with a sudden thunder clash, men started running in his direction.
Their pull became stronger than background level and almost tore him apart. They had managed to keep it suppressed. They were good.
Paul went into automatic mode. He pulled hard at the isolation seal of the window next to him, ripping it clean off, and with another decisive shove, the window sprang out of the frame and crashed on the track bed.
He grabbed his backpack and swung himself outside. His pursuers were still struggling their way to him, shouting and pulling weapons. Their obstruction field failed to overpower his need for survival.
Paul drew on his powers and enhanced himself – no use being subtle now. He grabbed onto the train and climbed up the side with a couple of strong pulls which sent him flying upward.
He looked around and found no-one atop the train. Silly buggers were trained good, but not good enough.
Looking forward, he saw the train slowing as it entered the station.
Paul broke out into a sprint and with one giant leap jumped over onto a small building next to the track, landing with a roll and leaving a dent in the ground. His pursuers took a few potshots at him, but they went wide.
He sighed a breath of relief. They had good men, but their tactician had sucked balls. Else he wouldn’t have gotten out of the toilet alive. Thank creation for small gifts.
Paul jumped down from the building and started running away. The adrenalin rush doesn’t float him any longer than it does any normal human, so better use it now before he crashes and starts sobbing.
He had stopped counting how often his days ended like this.
In a sense, it never got old.