The first rays of sunlight peaked over the hills. Jane Walker sat with her arm resting on the windowsill, listening to the gentle clack-clack of the train flowing smoothly around them. She reclined slightly, nesting her head against the crimson carriage seating, watching the countryside go past in a rush of green and grey. It was so quiet, so peaceful – the world barely awake as they stole traceless through it.
The serenity seemed lost on Matt.
“I’m doomed,” he moaned. Jane’s eyes flicked irritably at the seat opposite her where the boy sat, chest slumped over his knees, head still buried in his hands.
“Stop being such a baby,” she muttered, shifting slightly.
Matt resolutely ignored her.
Almost a week had passed – a whirlwind of anticipation Jane could hardly remember. She’d barely slept, barely ate, overtrained to exhaustion – and then before she knew it her alarm was going off at 4am on Monday morning and the time had come.
Matt’s week had also been a whirlwind – although less “exciting change” and more “irreparably damage the barn and kill all the chickens”. In the space of an instant, Matt’s biggest concern had gone from an unfinished Chemistry assignment to being trapped in an elite university where the most powerful people on the planet would inevitably ferret out his humanity and ruin his life. He’d had no time to prepare – the Legion of Heroes wanted him and the Legion of Heroes didn’t wait. Matt found the speed at which the Academy was ready to absorb him almost unnervingly efficient, like having a pizza show up only five minutes after you’d ordered. He suspected, though he had no way to prove, that his consent had been little more than a formality – which did nothing to put his mind at ease.
Frustratingly, the information Matt had on what he was walking into was painfully sparse. Most of what was contained in the ‘Information Package’ he had received Matt already knew simply from watching cartoons. The Academy manor, Morningstar, had been gifted to the Legion by Samuel Barnes, a retired merchant banker whose family had been killed in the Year of Chaos and who, the story went, wished to leave behind a legacy of good. It had been both a home and a college for the Legion, but had been sealed off by Captain Dawn, a notorious recluse, after the African Devastation, only to be re-opened five years ago to take in new students. Currently, the brochure told him, there were no “full” Legion members (excluding the Captain) – although it failed to specify if, when, or how this was going to change. It was also infuriatingly brief on the exact nature of the “training” entrants were expected to undergo – like the organisers simply expected to be able to drop the name “Legion of Heroes” and let the rest sort itself out.
All through the week, people had kept on congratulating Matt on his so-called “achievement”, and all through the week Matt had kept scrambling for a way to escape. He’d tried to prolong the seconds, held out until the last minute for a brainwave or Hail-Mary reprieve – but instead time flew by like it was out to spite him and before Matt knew it, it was Monday morning, and he was waking up in the dark with a pounding headache to get ready to leave. After a short and not overly soppy goodbye to his family (webcams and teleporters made keeping in touch much easier these days), Matt’s father had driven him to the railway station downtown, where he’d found Jane already waiting, alone, in front of a large freight train with one old-fashioned passenger car. And thus had Matt discovered that the first step to being a superhero was a long, ceremonial and completely unnecessary train ride.
“Why are we even here?” Matt continued complaining. Even though they were the only ones in the carriage, his voice didn’t carry far beyond their seats.
“We’re going to the Academy,” Jane snapped back, sick of his whinging, “We’re joining the Legion of Heroes. Stop asking stupid questions.”
“No,” contradicted Matt, “I mean why are we on this stupid train?” He glanced up with narrowed, bloodshot eyes at the luxurious compartment as though the wood panelling and maroon upholstery had personally wronged him. “What is this, the Dark Ages? Why can’t a teleporter just jump us the entire way?”
Jane knew exactly why they were being made to travel like this, of course, but the reason involved tradition and philosophy and a very obscure book she’d once read about the Legion’s early days and European princesses. She doubted Matt actually cared.
“The journey home, savoured, is sweetest,” she quoted, glancing back out the window at the hills rolling by.
“Great,” said Matt, rolling his eyes, “So the reason is fortune-cookie bullcrap.”
“The reason is shut up,” Jane retorted irritably, “The reason is we’re supposed to use this time to reflect on ourselves and think about what’s ahead.”
“Right,” Matt snorted, laying his head back down, “Because that’s never once crossed my mind.”
Jane treated his sarcasm with indifference.
“You look bad,” she stated bluntly, changing the subject. This was the first she’d seen him in more than passing since Tuesday, and Matt’s bedraggled appearance marked him as significantly worse for wear. His hair was tangled, his clothes were a mess and he definitely hadn’t shaved.
“I feel bad,” Matt murmured, not looking up. Jane could smell the alcohol and smoke wafting off his breath from here.
“Hangover?” she accused.
The boy raised a wavering finger. “Technically, I think I’m still drunk.” To the best of her knowledge, drunk was how Matt had spent the better part of the last few days. Winters’ visit had come midweek – from there, there’d been the congratulations party, and then the weekend party, and then the going away party, the latter of which had only been last night. Jane hadn’t been invited to any of them, but she was thankful for that, she reminded herself – parties and people were a waste of time.
Jane pursed her lips. “It’s a Monday.”
“Of that,” came the muffled reply, “I am acutely aware,”
The girl paused, considering for a moment whether to launch into a verbal assault about the evils of alcohol, but thought better of it. He wouldn’t have berated her, if the tables were turned. “Need anything?”
Matt lifted his head slightly and glazed up at her out of a single bleary eye.
Jane felt a flare of impatience. “Are you ok? Do you need water or something?” Matt just stared at her.
“Are you trying to be nice?”
“No,” spat Jane, then “Yes,” she admitted, then, “I don’t know. I’m not trying not to be nice.”
Matt lay his head back down onto his arms. “I’m definitely still drunk.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
They lapsed into silence. Finally, Matt spoke.
“Water. Water would be swell.”
Jane swivelled and silently rummaged through her backpack in the adjacent seat for her water bottle. By the time she found it, the boy was sitting somewhat more upright.
“Thanks,” he muttered, as she handed him the bottle.
“That’s mine, so give it back.”
Matt rolled his eyes. “I’m not going to steal your drink bottle.” He gulped down a full half of the water, then set it gingerly down on the seat beside him and leant back with a contented sigh.
For a few seconds neither spoke, the only sound between them the soft rhythm of the train’s wheels. It really was peaceful here, thought Jane, alone in this quiet carriage, with the morning sun streaming through the windows.
“So,” Matt said eventually, “Why the niceness?”
“What,” she replied irritably, “I can’t be nice?”
“Can’t,” Matt corrected, holding up a finger, “Is a strong word.” His hand dropped. “I’m not hating. It’s just a bit of a change.”
Her mouth twitched. “I’m grateful.”
“Yes. I’m grateful and…” she shifted uncomfortably at the next part, “…indebted.”
To her surprise, Matt snorted and laid his head back into his hands. “No you’re not.”
“I am!” Jane exclaimed, annoyed, “Screw you, don’t tell me what I feel, I am grateful!”
The boy waved a hand dismissively above his slumped head, not looking up. “I meant you don’t owe me anything.”
Jane was perplexed. “How?” she asked, “You got me into the Legion.”
“You got you into the Legion.”
“Yeah, but if it wasn’t for you saying that you wouldn’t go unless-”
“I didn’t do it for you,” Matt interjected, sighing. He looked up, massaging his temples between his thumb and forefinger.
For a second, Jane just blinked. “I don’t understand.”
“I thought they would say no,” explained Matt, looking tired and resigned. He glanced out the train window at the hills rolling past. “I hoped they would say no. I needed an excuse, a good way out.” He yawned and slumped back down, the exact opposite of her own rigid posture. “I thought there was no way the Legion wanted me in more than they wanted you kept out.”
His words sent a tight wad of pain through Jane’s chest. She kept her face blank, and the boy didn’t notice. “Well looks like you were wrong,” she said stiffly, taking pains to keep her voice level.
Matt snorted. “Thanks Sherlock, I hadn’t noticed,” he replied, head in his arms.
Jane stared at him. “Why don’t you want to join the Legion?”
“Seriously?” Matt looked up at her, incredulity written all over his face, “Seriously. The Legion of Heroes. The Legion of-” he swore, “-Heroes. The pinnacle of superhumanism, of refining and studying powers, who have selected me specifically for my clairvoyance. Oh no, why would that be a problem?”
He lowered his voice to a teeth-gritted whisper. “This whole… façade falls apart the second anyone with half a brain looks too closely at it. As soon as someone starts doing actual, objective analysis...” He let the sentence hang. “Which is exactly what the Legion is going to do,” he lamented, “They’ll want me to predict stuff. Actually predict stuff. Not just throw out some ‘results hazy, try again’ magic-eight-ball voodoo.”
Jane remained silent. He wasn’t wrong. “So what are you going to do?” she asked eventually. Matt sniffed, rubbed his temples again and shrugged.
“I don’t know. Run away. Kill myself, before they do it via septicaemia in some lab a decade from now.”
“Who’s joking?” Matt replied darkly. He paused, then let out a frustrated sigh. “Except I couldn’t do that to my folks. You should’ve seen them, they were so – ah God, just so… proud. Their kid in the Legion… well, you know what it’s like.”
“Yeah,” Jane murmured, the lie soft and sad. Then: “So what are you going to do?”
“Ugh,” answered Matt, blowing out his cheeks, “Well so far, I’ve managed to come up with ‘wing it’ and ‘lie a lot’.”
“Do you have a better plan?” he demanded. Jane had to admit she didn’t. Matt started counting on his fingers. “Can’t run, not going to kill myself, don’t have any plausible reason not to go-”
“Bit late for that now anyway,” Jane added with a smirk.
“Yes, thank you,” Matt said bitterly, once again glaring at the moving train. He sucked in breath between his teeth. “Guess I just hope they think I’m a bad clairvoyant.”
They lapsed into silence.
“What I want to know,” Jane said, after a few minutes had passed and staring at the countryside was starting to get boring, “Is who the hell put in your application.”
“You and me both,” Matt scowled, his eyes cold despite their redness. They flicked to her. “You’re sure it wasn’t you.”
“For the hundredth time, no. Get out your phone if you want, you can record me saying it.”
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Matt muttered, looking out the window, only half-listening. This too he’d said about a hundred times. “Mum or Dad would be gloating. Jonas and Sarah couldn’t pull it off, none of the teachers…”
“Taylor?” Jane suggested with a shrug. Matt shook his head.
“I just can’t see it,” he said, “He’s never expressed interest in any college outside the Ivy League and it’s not like we’re joined at the hip. The only person who ever even mentioned applying for the Legion was you and you say you didn’t do it.”
“Because I didn’t,” Jane repeated for the hundred and one-th time.
“I believe you,” Matt assured her, brushing the statement away with a distracted wave, “The picture they had disappeared from my backpack long before you arrived. I remember, the whole school got their photos and Mum was annoyed at me for losing mine. I thought it must’ve just fallen out somewhere.”
“Seems you were wrong.”
“Seems so,” Matt murmured. His fingers pursed on his lips. “I tell you though, if I ever find the person responsible for this, we are going to have some very unpleasant words about them sending me to this hellhole.”
“You know,” interjected Jane, a little irritated by Matt’s continual desire to reject and insult her dream, “If you’re that worried, you could have just said you didn’t want to go.”
But Matt just shook his head. “If I said no, then the question becomes why I said no. People would get suspicious, start thinking I’ve got something to hide.”
“You do have something to hide.”
“Yes but the entire point is to look like I don’t.”
“You think too much.”
“Yeah, well,” he grumbled, resting his head back down, “We can’t all be psychotically powerful.”
Jane wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or an insult.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” she said, standing up and stretching her arms over her head, “Don’t drink all my water.”
“I’ll guard it with my life,” Matt snorted, slumping back down into the seat. He closed his eyes and curled up against himself as Jane left, the sound of the compartment door sliding closed giving way to the rhythmic clacking of the train steaming steadily along. Soon, Matt felt his consciousness wavering, his addled brain lured down towards sleep by the cool semi-silence. He yawned, then, fighting tiredness, forced his eyes back open.
To find another face staring back.
“What in the-” Matt started, scrambling to pull himself upright – because in the seat opposite, exactly where Jane had been sitting mere moments before, was a child. A small, pale, blond-haired little boy, wearing a white shirt and grey shorts, staring at him with unblinking blue eyes.
Once, a few years ago, Matt had seen an ad at a bus stop about homeless children – lost, forlorn little creatures with downcast faces and clothes that didn’t fit. This kid could have stepped out of one of those – sitting there, small hands on his pale, exposed knees, staring up into Matt, imploring.
“How did you-”
The boy said nothing, but instead looked down into his lap, where his small hand clutched a notepad. Slowly, the child lifted it, until the lone word on the paper was level with Matt’s eyes.
Matt’s pulse quickened. He stammered, struggling to speak, but the boy turned, glancing at the compartment door. Then he hunched over the notepad and scribbled on it with a pencil – before again lifting it to show Matt.
Death stalks Morningstar
“I… I don’t…”
Matt clenched his eyes shut and shook his head, trying to gather himself. “Look kid, I-” he began, and opened his eyes.
The child was gone.
Matt froze. Stared, stock still at the empty seat where the child had been. He blinked rapidly, trying to clear his vision. Nothing. The kid had just vanished. Heart hammering Matt snapped his head up, sweeping his eyes over the entire carriage. It was empty.
“What the motherf-”
“You alright?” asked Jane, stepping back through the sliding door. She frowned. “You look like you’ve seen a-”
“Did you see a kid in here?” Matt interrupted, sounding slightly panicked and a little unhinged. He snapped around to look at her and Jane’s brow creased in confusion. She squinted behind her and then back out over the carriage.
“A kid? Like a kid-kid? A child?”
“Yes, a child. A small, lost-looking white-” Matt dropped to his knees and glanced underneath the seats, which were boarded, “-child.” He stopped moving all of a sudden and looked up at her from the carriage floor, his expression incredulous. “He was right here.”
“I didn’t see him.”
There was a long, long pause.
“I’m going insane,” Matt finally said, shaking his head. He pulled himself back up onto the seat and Jane sat down opposite. “I’m going… Jesus, I must’ve fallen asleep.”
“I wasn’t gone for that long.”
“It seemed so real.”
Jane looked at him with an expression of slight concern.
“How much did you drink last night?”
“Obviously too much,” Matt murmured, but still he found himself glancing around the carriage, expecting at any second to see those blue eyes staring back.
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).