Matt looked up at Winters, the smile wiped abruptly from his face. He must have misheard – but the suited man was staring right at him.
“Matt Callaghan, welcome to the Legion of Heroes.”
Matt couldn’t move – the words didn’t seem to be penetrating his brain. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of Jane, her face frozen, wearing an expression like she’d been struck.
Winters smiled reassuringly, evidently not unused to this sort of reaction. “You’ve been selected, Mr Callaghan. By the Legion of Heroes. Congratulations.” And the room erupted in thunderous applause.
For a moment, time seemed to stand still for Matt. The world around him was a photograph; a frozen image from which he was detached, observing, a portrait comprised of a thousand pieces. The sea of people, his friends and teachers, all staring, cheering, every eye focused on him, burrowing into his skin. The polished face of Mr Winters looming large, his hand outstretched. The elated gaze of Principal Rance, his meaty hands slapping together louder than anyone’s, audible across the room. Taylor turning to look at him, wide-eyed and shocked, his arms half-raised as if he was unsure whether to hug or celebrate. Jane, devastated, deflating, her eyes and everything about her falling down. His own face the blank, confused epicentre of this insane storm. For an instant, he was outside it all, watching from afar as it happened to someone else.
Then suddenly his gut lurched forward and reality came crashing down.
“What,” he repeated, except it wasn’t a question this time. Winters mistook his coldness for confusion.
“I know it’s a lot to take in,” he said, placing a strong, affirming hand on Matt’s shoulder, “But you deserve this Matt. You should be proud.”
“No but I… I mean…” Matt started to raise his hand as if to remove Winters’, but then just sort of waved it around feebly instead, at a loss for words. He felt his face heat up. “I didn’t even apply.”
“Ah,” chuckled Winters, loudly enough for the whole room to hear, now that the applause had subsided into hushed, observant whispers, “I can assure you Matt, you most definitely did. I read it myself.” He glanced around the room. “I think this is what they call ‘shock’,” he said with a laugh, which the whole school echoed.
“But I didn’t,” protested Matt, whatever shock he was feeling being rapidly replaced by panic, “I really didn’t.”
The laughter in the room slowly faded. Winters turned his head slightly, eyes on Matt but eyebrows furrowing slightly towards the crowd. He reached into his breast pocket and removed a thin ream of folded papers.
“Matthew Callaghan,” he read, the papers unfurled, “Eighteen. Clairvoyant. Northridge High School.” The man in the dark suit paused. “That’s you, isn’t it?” And to Matt’s stunned horror, he held up a completed form, with Matt’s school photo stapled to the front.
“Where did you get that?” he whispered, staring into his own eyes with disbelief. But Daniel Winters didn’t seem to hear him.
“Look familiar?” he smiled kindly.
“Well, yes,” Matt conceded, finally tearing his gaze free from the photograph. All around, he could feel the eyes of the school burning into him, “But I swear, I didn’t…” His voice trailed off, and the room fell quiet.
Winters broke the awkward silence with a laugh.
“Well,” he admitted, “I have to say, this might be a first. Maybe a parent or teacher…” He paused, touching a contemplative finger to his lips, then shook his head. “Well whoever they are, you’ll want to thank them. Our invitation still stands.”
Matt felt a hotness swelling up in his stomach that was either panic or rage. “I’m not- how am I- my PD scores suck!”
There was a roll of laughter from the assembled students, and Winters chuckled.
“Performance rankings aren’t everything,” the recruiter responded, “The Legion looks at an applicant’s history, their personality, but most of all, we consider what they could do for the world.”
The pin finally dropped. Matt’s eyes widened and he was suddenly gripped by a rampaging, inescapable fear.
Winters leant down slightly, seeming not to notice, wearing a gentle smile. “Matt, your ability is amazing – quite possibly unique. I feel- the Legion feels- Captain Dawn-” he said the name louder, with added emphasis and an excited murmur ran around the room, “-feels, that with the proper study and training, its potential is incredible.”
They thought he was a clairvoyant.
Everyone thought he was a clairvoyant. The National Register said he was a clairvoyant. The Legion of Heroes believed he was a clairvoyant, and given everything they’d gone up against, everything they’d failed to-
Oh god. No wonder they wanted him. Despite all their powers, their strength and dedication, the Legion had still been blindsided by the biggest threat in human history and watched half a billion people pay the price. Even though they could do almost anything, beat almost anyone, they still couldn’t predict the future-
But he could. At least according to his ID.
Understanding and panic flooded Matt. They wanted to train him, hone him, develop his skills. Worse, study him, figure out how his “power” worked, measure the accuracy of- crap.
He had to get out of this.
Matt looked up.
“No, um, thank you?” His throat felt reluctant to annunciate anything approaching words, but he swallowed hard and pushed through. “I’d, uh, like to decline.”
“Decline?” For the first time, a flicker of uncertainty flashed across the recruiter’s handsome face. He recovered almost instantly. “Matt, I understand this might be a bit overwhelming but-”
“I’d like to decline,” Matt repeated stubbornly. He crossed his arms across his chest, mostly to stop them from shaking. “Thank you, but I don’t think the Legion of Heroes is for me.”
A ripple of discontented muttering passed through the onlooking crowd. Everywhere, people exchanged glances, turned to whisper. Principal Rance, still standing at the head of the teacher’s table, looked like the boy had just single-handedly murdered his dog. Beside him Taylor tried to subtly tug on his sleeve, but Matt ignored him.
Winters paused, following the murmurs, then his eyes snapped back to Matt. He forced a smile. “Perhaps it’d be better if we continued this conversation in private, just so I can fully understand the concerns you-”
“Here’s fine,” interjected Matt. If he’d been given the choice, this whole mess would have occurred in private, but the suited recruiter had opted for the grand spectacle and now Matt had no choice but to follow through. “I don’t want to join. Plain and simple.” Winters’s brow furrowed. He paused for a moment and glanced around – then gave a slight shrug, as if to say ‘as you wish’, and spoke.
“If it’s danger you’re worried about,” he proclaimed, maybe slightly louder than he would have had he and Matt been alone, “I can assure you, the Legion will work tirelessly to ensure you and your gift are safe.”
“It’s not that,” replied Matt – although damn, that would’ve been a good reason, he should have thought of that. He scrambled for a reply. “I’m not afraid.”
“Then what is it?” asked Winters, looking genuinely concerned – if not by Matt’s rejection, then at least with the idea that anyone could have a problem with his beloved institution, “Mr Callaghan, I can assure you that the Academy provides an exceptional education. This isn’t a life sentence, this is the best college offer you’re ever going to get. You’ll emerge trained and empowered, with qualifications and contacts that will allow you to pursue any career you wish. We are fully furnished and ready to accommodate any needs you might have, and if you’re concerned about money, don’t be – the Legion only offers full scholarships. But even all that aside-” Winters’s voice strengthened “‑don’t you feel like you have a duty? A responsibility to use this gift you’ve been given to help people? For the good of mankind?” He paused. “I understand this may be daunting but please, Matt‑” – his voice was almost imploring – “-don’t let this chance slip by. Don’t throw away your future.” The crowd fell to a hush and all eyes turned to Matt.
“I-” Matt stammered. He looked around the room, desperately trying to think of a way out, of literally any reason to decline. Some students he didn’t know were starting to shake their heads at him. Most were looking confused; a few seemed almost angry. Across the room from him, Pat was silently mouthing ‘WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!’ interspaced with a few more profane phrases – on the other side of the table Carlos was half-frozen in an incredulous shrug. There was a sudden dryness in Matt’s mouth that seemed to be sapping his ability to think.
“Um,” he stalled, not very convincingly. Something. Anything other than the truth. Instinctively, he turned to Jane, maybe the only person who might be able to help him. But the empath wasn’t looking at him – she didn’t seem to be looking at anything. She was simply slumped, silent, wearing an expression of profound, broken defeat beyond anything Matt would’ve thought she was capable of feeling. For him, this was a nightmare, but for her, it was worse. For her, it had been a fleeting glimpse of hope.
And suddenly, Matt had an idea so monumentally stupid it couldn’t possibly fail.
“It’s not fair,” he said. He raised his head and looked up at the confused expression on the recruiter’s face. “It’s not fair. I’m no better than any of them. Why am I being selected?”
“Mr Callaghan, I can assure you that doesn’t-” began Winters, but Matt cut him off.
“I’m not Legion material,” he said. Then he paused for dramatic effect – before pointing directly at Jane, “But she is.”
A sharp intake of breath, almost a hiss, ran across the room. Winters glanced down at the girl, who had jerked upright and frozen in place with a bewildered, deer-in-the-headlights look as if unsure whether to run, speak or just start firing lightning bolts indiscriminately into the crowd. His eyes fell on the spikey ‘E’ and a shadow flashed across his face.
“Mr Callaghan,” he stated as diplomatically as possible, some of the warmth draining from his voice, “I don’t know if this is an ill-conceived joke, but unfortunately, the only person I am able to offer a place to today-”
“It’s not a joke,” affirmed Matt, “She’s the one you want. She should be in the Legion. She is stronger, faster and tougher than anyone I know. She can beat a room full of people without breaking a sweat. She is the perfect candidate for the Academy, she actually applied and she-” he made sure to emphasise this part, “-has a PD rating of 12.”
There was an outburst of murmuring and a swarm of faces peered over at the girl with renewed admiration. Even the recruiter looked mildly impressed before he managed to get a hold of himself.
"Be that as it may,” he said, frowning, “Her application is not currently under consideration.”
“Well that’s some bullcrap,” replied Matt, causing another wave of muttering (one of the teachers tutted ‘language’), “Because it should be.” The man’s frown deepened and he opened his mouth to speak, but Matt was already ahead of him.
“If any other person in this school had a rank of 12, you’d be here for them too. You’d scoop them up without a moment’s hesitation. But because she-” he pointed at Jane again, and this time she stared back at him with an unfathomable expression, “-is an empath, you don’t even spare her a second thought. Well that’s. Just. Prejudice. And I won’t join a prejudiced institution.” He paused, and gazed around the room, daring the crowd to meet his eyes. “Just because she’s an empath, doesn’t mean she’s the Black Death.”
The room fell silent. For a second, Matt worried that maybe he’d crossed a line. But he couldn’t go back now – the only way through was forward.
“She should be in the Legion,” he repeated, and he gave the words a moment to sink in, “She deserves to be in the Legion. And if she can’t go, I don’t go. Plain and simple.”
Half a continent away, a man sat alone, watching in darkness lit only by a white-blue screen. In the cafeteria of Northridge High School Daniel Winters blinked, and for a second the room was plunged into blackness, the iris-camera momentarily obscured.
“…if she doesn’t go, I don’t go. Plain and simple.” The words hissed through the set, electric and distorted but still sincere.
You had to admire his loyalty – if it was that. An unusual turn of events. The man shifted ever so slightly in his seat. Through Winters’ eyes, he stared at this boy, this clairvoyant. What do you know, child? What do you see? Time would tell. But only, it seemed, if…
Winter’s gaze shifted, so now he, too, looked at the girl. An empath… a surly, unkempt, wiry specimen. But… fierce. Strong. Driven. He could see that etched into the lines of her face, the set of her jaw. Defiant perhaps, or proud. She did not speak – did not plead her case, though he remembered the intensity of her application. He had dismissed it then, of course, but now… now he saw the steel in her eyes…
He pushed a button and spoke, in a voice reverberating with power.
“Let her come.”
Winters’s finger rose to his ear.
“Sir?” he said, not to Matt nor anyone else there. An earpiece, Matt realised. Pale and translucent, almost invisible.
For a few seconds, the recruiter was silent, his eyes unfocused. A slight frown lingered on his mouth.
“Yes sir,” he said finally. Winters’s hand dropped to his side. He drew a deep breath, then looked directly at Matt.
“Ok,” the man said with a nod, “Both of you.”
It was like Matt had been hit in the head with a brick.
“What?” he gaped.
“You and her. Both of you are invited to join the Legion. Congratulations miss.” Unlike Matt, Winters didn’t extend Jane a hand. She didn’t seem to care. Jane’s arms were trembling, her mouth opening and closing long before she actually managed to articulate any words.
“Th-thank you,” she finally got out, her voice rasping from disuse. She reached up towards him. “I… I don’t…”
But Winters had already broken off and turned back to Matt. Jane’s hand hung limply in empty space.
“If you’ll come with me Mr Callaghan,” he said, calm and professional, “There are papers I need you to sign.” He turned on his heel, unflappable, and Matt, in a state of shock, had no choice but to follow. The room filled with murmurs but to Matt the words seemed a million miles away. As if in a daydream, he followed the fine coat of Daniel Winters across the room of a thousand eyes and through the waiting door.
Bio: Born and raised in Newcastle, Australia, Ben is a lifelong writer currently studying his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Technology Sydney. An avid fan of the weird and wonderful, he has wanted to be a writer since he was five years old (before which he wanted to be a dinosaur).