Jane hadn’t slept much. Or well. She could feel it taking its toll. But she didn’t care. She hadn’t come this far to sleep.
The learning here was self-guided, the pace dictated by the endurance of the applicant. For her, she knew that meant all of it, everything, all the time. She’d already memorised the timetable, figured out the best schedule to maximise the amount of face to face hours. Any gaps she’d spend self-training. She wouldn’t falter there.
She’d brought a box of Pop-Tarts from home, which she cooked over her open palm and ate silently in her room before the sun came up. Not nutritious, but it was the calories that counted. There was food down in the Grand Hall, but…
Jane glanced at her door.
All night she’d been glancing at that door. At her window. Ready, waiting, turning on every squeak, every creak and meaningless groan in the timber. All nothing – just normal noises that any building makes, because here she was, alive, eating Pop-Tarts. Still she kept glancing, as if expecting at any moment for the door or window or wall to explode and for something, someone, to come through to kill her. She hoped that wouldn’t happen. But she didn’t know.
So she hadn’t slept much.
Jane ate breakfast in her room alone, with the lights off. But then the sun came up, and suddenly she was faced with the reality that eventually she had to leave, that she wasn’t here to sit and hide.
And so, heart pounding in her chest, Jane left.
She walked through the corridors quietly, her feet sinking slow and deliberate into the carpet, her breathing barely a shudder, as if by lessening the noise she made she could somehow mitigate her presence. It was idiotic, of course – she was here, she had a right to be here – but still, Jane moved as silently as she could, her footsteps the padding of cat’s feet through snow.
She encountered her first person halfway down the second flight of stairs.
It was a large woman, dark and Amazonian, taller and broader than her by a half, with black pupils and white eyes that shone porcelain out from a body of carved obsidian. They passed each other on the staircase, the woman’s imposing frame filling the space in a way that rendered its previously adequate width narrow and confined. For a moment, there was a pause, a brief heartbeat of frozen time, as the woman’s cold black eyes took in the girl’s face, the all-meaning mark on her cheek. Jane saw her breath catch and her chest rise, her face rend in anger – but whatever rage the sight of Jane invoked, it was insufficient to push this unknown woman to attack a complete stranger unprovoked. They passed like enemy ships in the night on opposite sides of a border, no one firing the first shot.
Jane only truly started breathing again once she reached the bottom of the stairs.
She hurried as quickly as she could through the entrance gallery and out into the cold autumn air, almost sprinting to avoid making eye contact. Her hands trembled slightly as she pulled the folded map from within the pockets of her hoodie. Firedome. Far away, on the other side of the grounds. She breathed, faster than she would have liked, eyes darting from wall to tree to twitching blade of grass. She rounded a corner, and suddenly yelped as a gust of wind crashed into her right side, almost slamming her into the jagged sandstone wall, sending her scrambling, firing up her powers-
But it was nothing. Or more accurately, she realised as she steadied, pushing herself off the grass, her hands and trackpants wet with dew, it was gone. Whatever had rushed passed – no, come on, obviously a speedster – whoever the speedster was, they were long gone, vanished in the blink of an eye. She was fine, she wasn’t hurt. They’d just been running, running a bit too close. It wasn’t an attack, she told herself, she just wasn’t used to this. Powers used with reckless abandon. But it was normal here, she reminded herself, normal and okay and nothing to be worried about.
She kept walking, breathing hard.
Though the sun had barely been up half an hour, Morningstar’s grounds were already abuzz with activity. As she got further away from the front entrance, Jane was struck by the amount of seemingly ad-hoc additions the Legion had built around their institute – from the front, the Academy was simply Morningstar, a Victorian manor home, but once you rounded the corner the green lawns descended into a sprawling mess of trenches, ranges, arenas and a host of other structures whose purposes she couldn’t properly place. She passed a long metal shed which as she watched shattered into splinters and reformed into a tower around the woman inside; a circular pit in the ground where a small south-east Asian terrapath was directing a swarm of flying rocks at a tall Latino man, who was blasting rings of energy out of his hands; and a square field of what looked like corn which before her eyes reared and mutated into giant twisting stalks of bulging pods and gnashing teeth at the command of a boy in a trench-coat who, a second later, shook his head and disintegrated the fifteen-foot green monstrosities with a disinterested wave. “Pods not glands!” he shouted at another boy sitting nearby taking notes, who called back something about it not being his fault, he just supplied the poison. It was fascinating and chaotic, with little connection between what was where or what was happening, but Jane supposed that was the point. The Academy was where the best could do what they needed to do without rules or limitations. Get an idea, find space, do what you want – and when you’re done, she thought as she watched a man refracting the light from his palms through an increasingly complex maze of mirrored shards, leave it behind for someone else to reuse or reform.
Despite being in the middle of work or training, Jane still felt a large number of eyes following her as she passed. Heads turned – a few even stopped to glare as she walked by. Hisses interwove through angry words. Her pace quickened.
The further she progressed around the back of Morningstar, the larger and more permanent the structures throughout the grounds became. She spied a large firing range off to the left, a 3D‑fabricator generating a running stream of targets at various points down the line; a small, inconspicuous square of solid concrete on her right, little more than a steel door leading down, bearing the word “Armoury” in white paint; and an enormous carbon fibre dome criss-crossed with tessellating struts, which she knew from her reading was actually a sphere, half-embedded in the ground and almost completely filed with water. She glanced down at her map and changed direction.
She passed the front doors to the Arena just as a group of three Acolytes, talking and laughing amongst themselves, were coming out. At the sight of her their conversation skidding to an abrupt halt. The man on the right nudged and muttered to his larger friend, who sneered at her, while the girl on the left did nothing but glower as she passed. Jane kept walking, not making eye contact. The left-most man took a step forward, but stopped at his friend’s hand on his shoulder and instead just scowled and spat on the ground, where his saliva sizzled and hissed. Despite the cold, Jane felt a bead of sweat trickle across her temple. But she kept moving forward.
From a distance, the Firedome looked like half the other domes that seemed to be the design of choice for Academy facilities – a large unadorned hemisphere with a small square antechamber entrance jutting out. The difference between it and the surrounding structures, though, was plain to see, or more accurately to feel, because as Jane drew near she felt her skin growing warm from the heat radiating from the Firedome’s walls. By the time she reached the front door the air around her was so hot she’d been forced to remove her hoodie and tie it around her waist, but even that didn’t stop her feeling like her skin was crisping more and more with each step. Jane hesitated for a moment upon reaching the entrance, reluctant to touch the handles, but before her unwillingness could get the better of her, the doors pinged and slid open on automatic runners.
She stepped inside and the doors slid shut behind her.
The antechamber was cold, bracingly, artificially cold, far colder than it was outside. It also wasn’t big – and it wasn’t empty.
A dozen pairs of eyes turned to face her as she entered. There was a collective intake of breath – then silence. Utter silence, undercut only by the hum of the industrial air-conditioner, while an entire class of Acolytes in charcoal jumpsuits stared at her.
Finally one of them, a tawny-haired boy in the middle of the pack, spoke.
There was a murmur of agreement. “Get out,” repeated by a discordant cascade of voices, while others muttered “Freak” and “Parasite”. Jane kept her eyes deliberately unfocused, trying to breathe steady and let the voices roll off her – but the room was small, she was outnumbered, and they were all very, very close. The tawny-haired boy’s scowl darkened.
“I said leave.” Jane took a deep breath, her hands almost cramping as she restrained them from balling into fists.
“I’m here to train,” she stated simply, looking straight ahead, not meeting any of their eyes.
“No you’re not,” replied the boy. He cracked his neck. “Not here.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“Yes,” he corrected, “You are. You’re going to turn around and you’re going to get out of here, and we-” he gestured at the small army at his back, “-are going to forget we ever saw you. Because if you don’t we’re going to make you. And we’re going to hurt you.” He shrugged. “Maybe even kill you.”
“You’ll do no such thing,” came a new voice. The doors on the other side of the room hissed open and a burning figure, wreathed head to toe in fire, strolled inside. Without ceremony, the flames extinguished, and the middle-aged man underneath stopped a foot short of the attending crowd and placed his hands behind his back.
The crowd of Acolytes turned and the tawny-haired boy, seemingly their spokesman, pushed through to the front. “Sir,” he began, “She-”
“Charles,” the man corrected. He was a slight, wiry figure, softly spoken and dressed plainly in black, yet he commanded the attention of the entire room. “Or Mr Farrington, as you’ve been told Julio. Sir is an honorific title.”
“I- yes Sir, I mean Mr Farrington, but she-”
“She is here to train,” Mr Farrington interrupted again, neither making any movement nor raising his voice, yet cutting easily across the boy’s words. He paused and peered at him unblinkingly. “As she is entitled to.”
“Charles you can’t-”
“She has been admitted to the Academy,” the man said simply, “And therefore has the same right to participate as any of you.” He turned his eyes across the room, moving from one Acolyte to another until they looked down or looked away. Finally, his eyes stopped on her. The small man’s face broke into a welcoming smile. “And she has a name. Which we know. Hello Jane.”
Jane almost forgot to speak. “Hello,” she managed. Mr Farrington inclined his head towards her.
“Hello. Charles Farrington, pyromorph. Is this your first session?”
“Yuh- ah, yes si- Mr Farrington,” she stammered.
“Then we shall endeavour to make it interesting,” the man smiled kindly. He turned slightly to address the rest of the Acolytes, but Julio remained defiant.
“But Charles,” he protested, “She shouldn’t be-”
“Here?” snapped Mr Farrington, and for the first time an edge crept into his voice. Despite his unimposing stature, everyone in the room recoiled slightly. “She shouldn’t be here, is that what you were going to say?”
The tawny-haired boy swallowed, an expression of regret seeping across his face, yet nevertheless he answered: “Yes Sir.”
“I have told you, do not call me Sir,” scowled the man, and the boy flinched, “Tell me, Julio, why is she here?”
“I… I don’t…” he spluttered. He glanced nervously around him for support but the Acolytes beside him had fallen back.
“Yes you do. How does Jane come to stand in our halls? Is it by accident? By mistake? You think she crept in, and that we simply endure her trespass?”
“I… no Mr Farrington, I don’t.”
“Then why,” the man demanded, “Is she here?”
“I…” stammered Julio. His eyes fell to the floor. “She was chosen.”
“Yes,” Mr Farrington said simply. “And who chose her? Who chose any of you? All of you?”
For a few seconds, the boy could only stare at the ground. Then he murmured: “Captain Dawn.”
“Correct,” replied the man in black, “Captain Dawn.” He paused and his eyes grew hard behind his glasses. “Do you question Captain Dawn, Mr Duante?”
“No Mr Farrington.”
“Do you question his judgement, Mr Duante?”
“No Mr Farrington.”
“No,” Mr Farrington said quietly, “You do not.” He began to pace slowly, seeming to grow taller as he did. “I am only going to say this once. Jane is here because Dawn wills it. You will not hurt her, you will not malign her, and you will not lay a hand on her unless training demands it. To do otherwise is to disrespect Dawn and to disrespect the Legion and I WILL NOT-” he shouted, and everyone in the room jumped, “-abide disrespect of that nature.”
He paused, and surveyed the cowering students before him. “We are here because of Dawn. We live because of his loss, because of the Legion’s sacrifices. If any of you doubt Dawn’s choices, then you should leave, now. And if any of you-” his voice lowered, “-insults this institution by attacking those chosen by its leader, I will hurl you from these venerated grounds myself.”
He stared them down, daring another challenge, and for a moment no one seemed to breathe. Then Mr Farrington gave a small sigh and closed his eyes, and it was if a spell was broken – the dangerous, fervent being they had beheld reverted to the clean-shaven, understated man standing before them.
“Now then,” he continued, in a voice both soft and pleasant, “Vanessa, please show Jane the suits. This morning is about physical and mental perseverance.” A see-through girl with her hair held back in a headband turned wordlessly towards a grey steel cupboard, where a selection of charcoal jumpsuits was hanging. “The fires within this dome must be endured and your abilities manifested and maintained in such a way as to protect yourself for the duration of the exercise.”
“Can we extinguish the fire?” Jane said, almost hesitant to speak.
The man’s eyes flicked onto her and his lips twitched into a smile.
“Are you the White Queen?”
Jane was taken aback. “No.”
“Then I sincerely doubt it, but you are welcome to try.” He turned to the doors as Jane struggled to pull on the skin-tight jumpsuit. “As you are new Jane I request that you communicate clearly if you’re having difficulty. Do not over-exert yourself.”
The man in black blinked and was once more consumed by flames.
“It would be a shame to disappoint Dawn by burning to death on your first day.”
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).