Before she had time to think, the world beneath Jane’s feet exploded. Shards of rock and dust pelted her nose, her ears, her eyes, sparing her body but showing no such mercy to her head. Pain then blood flowed freely from a gash in her eyebrow, blinding her in one eye.
Get up. She rolled over and pushed to her knees, arms screaming with the effort, her muscles turned to lead. No, not turned – smothered in lead, or iron, some other heavy metal, whatever this damn suit she was wearing was made of. A hundred pounds of super-dense material that weighed down every step, every breath.
“Battle,” Instructor Sainsbury had said, “Does not end because you tire. He who falters first falls first, and he who is tired falters often. So you will train to fight through tiredness.” They would fight in these suits until a hundred pounds of extra weight was nothing, and then they would raise it to two hundred. Fatigue would be a friend they would carry.
Another wail, another high-pitched scream of an explosive ball rocketing down towards her. Too slow, she planted her feet and pushed, trying to channel fire through her soles, trying to force herself up, out, away – too late, for the orb was already there and detonating before she could get clear, the shockwave slamming into her, winding her, pummelling. She curled her head in tight and felt her back slam into a wall of rock, then gravity caught up and threw her mercilessly to the ground. Her vision spotted and blurred, spots dancing in front of her one good eye. Nothing broken, she felt. Dazed, but not dead. Whatever weighted these suits could take a beating.
“WALKER!” Sainsbury’s voice yelled, “GET UP!” Jane could hear her palms hissing, the next orb forming within them.
Get up. Good plan. She wiped the blood from her eyes and pushed forward.
“Push forward a little. There you go. Hold still.”
It was 1:38pm, and Matt Callaghan was getting his eyes checked.
Well, scanned. The Academy had an array of discrete retinal scanners which continually scanned the retinas of everyone going through the building. Apparently Matt had already been scanned thirteen times since arriving, flagging several system alerts.
“I was ready for that though,” explained Edward Rakowski, as bright red light washed over Matt’s left eyeball, “Same with every new arrival. Annoying, but shows the system’s working.”
Edward, or Ed as he’d introduced himself, was the skinny, five-foot-nine resident genius of the Academy, whose glasses and untidy black hair obscured most of his face and gave the impression of a nervous schoolboy peeking out from behind some curtains. He was also single-handedly responsible for the Academy’s internet, cyber-safety, security systems and gaming nights, which just not enough people were coming to, Matt had been informed without any prompting.
Their mediation session complete, Selwyn had led Matt throughout a series of third floor corridors until they’d stopped in front of a door marked “317 – Computer Lab”, which for a moment, Selwyn had just stared at, as if expecting something to happen. He’d glanced down at the handle, stared at it too for a few seconds, seeming happily puzzled, before finally reaching a large, leathery hand down and turning it open. Matt watched him the whole time, unsure whether he was supposed to find this behaviour concerning or if his escort was just really, really high.
A gleaming fleet of state-of-the-art computer monitors greeted them as they entered, the screens humming with the uniform blue glow of a log-in page, beside which Ed Rakowski had been setting up a retinal scanning machine.
“Matt, this is Edward,” Selwyn hummed, “He will guide you on the next step of your journey. For now, I take my leave.” Then he sat down on the ground, crossed his legs, closed his eyes and went nowhere.
“Don’t mind him,” Ed had laughed, once he’d introduced himself and explained what was going on, “He’s a projectionist. Spent more time out of his body than in it I think.”
“He does lighting for shows?” Matt asked, confused. They were making no attempt to keep their voices down, even though Selwyn was right there – but if the strange black-clad man could hear them his expression of peaceful contentment didn’t show it.
“No, a projectionist,” said Edward. He peered through a gap between two of the three monitors pulled together in a U-shape that separated him and Matt and saw the blank look on Matt’s face. “It’s a rare ability. They can project their mind outside of their body, travel the world on the…” he waved a hand to indicate abstractness, “…astral plane or whatever.”
“Wow,” said Matt, actually impressed. He glanced over at the sitting figure. “Cool.”
“Yup,” Ed agreed, not looking up from his monitors as he typed in a rapid stream of something. “Normally they get recruited by intelligence agencies, corporate espionage, that kind of thing. Spend their lives ghosting into restricted areas, make a killing, provided a psychic doesn’t squanch em’... not Selwyn though. He never cared about money, only ever wanted to see the world.” Ed paused. “Man’s barely left Morningstar in two decades and he may be history’s greatest explorer.”
“Huh,” pondered Matt, “I wonder where he is now?”
Edward’s fingers clacked across the keyboard. “Last time we talked he was seeing how far he could get out into space. One day he could be the first man to spirit walk on the moon.” He paused and glanced at the monk. “Or he might have already and not told anyone.”
The two of them continued to chat while Ed assembled, calibrated, utilised and dismantled the retinal scanner. “All done,” the genius told him once they were finished, “No more alarms.”
“Neat,” said Matt.
“It’s not rocket science.”
“Well it’s more high tech than my old school.” He glanced around the room, trying to see if he could spot any hidden cameras. “Although I’m not sure how I feel about being eye-scanned all day long.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Ed assured him, “There’s not much to get used to, the cameras are practically invisible.”
“Feels like I’m living in the future,” Matt muttered, not exactly thrilled about the sensation. He looked back at Selwyn, still sitting cross-legged and close-eyed on the floor. “So… what happens now? Do I need to do anything else?”
“I’ll take care of the rest,” replied Ed. He followed Matt’s gaze. “You go with Selwyn.”
There was a pause. Matt glanced down at the black-robed spirit-walker, who didn’t seem to be going anywhere he could follow, then back at Edward. “Okay,” he said, keeping his expression intentionally blank. Behind his wall of computer screens, the genius’s face flushed slightly.
They lapsed into uncomfortable silence. Matt rocked back and forward slowly on his chair, flossing his teeth with his tongue and looking around at the computer lab’s empty walls. Ed shifted awkwardly where he was sitting, but otherwise did nothing to acknowledge Matt’s presence, letting the rhythmic clicks and clatters of his keyboard and mouse stretch out into the silence. Matt rubbed the back of his head and frowned slightly.
“So… should I, like, shake him or something?” he asked finally. Ed shrugged, not looking up.
“If you want?” he answered unhelpfully.
Matt glanced over at Selwyn again. He seemed so peaceful, and Matt spied an opportunity to procrastinate. “I don’t really feel comfortable… you know…”
“Yeah no problem, I just…”
“Just met him, not sure if it’s like… cool, you know…”
“Yeah, I get it, totally, I’m just…”
“Might just wait a while… you know… if that’s cool… check my email…”
“Yeah, no, that’s fine-”
“Long as I’m not, you know, taking up space or...?”
“No, yeah, no problem, I’m just, you know, got to, doing, computer… work… stuff…” Ed’s voice trailed off, his face now quite red. He bent down low over his keyboard so Matt could only see the top of his head. They lapsed once more into silence. Matt opened his Hotmail and spent five minutes deleting various spam offers and twice-daily newsletters from websites he’d signed up to years ago. Then, with that done and Selwyn still not showing any signs of life, he started faffing about on the internet, looking at funny pictures and animal gifs.
“Is he dead?” he asked Ed eventually, when the soppy tentacles of boredom began weighing heavily upon his brain. The genius hadn’t said a word the entire time.
“No, he’s breathing,” Ed replied, not looking up.
“Alright,” said Matt. He nodded back and forward, twiddling his thumbs.
“What‘cha working on?”
“It’s… complicated,” Ed answered, “Just… projects and… things…” Matt let it be and the room went quiet again.
“Do you want a sandwich? I could go get a sandwich, if you want one.”
“Cool. Might wait then.”
And silence again.
“Hey, these computers got any games on them?”
For the first time in thirty minutes, Edward looked over the top of his monitors at him – cautiously, like a meerkat poking out its head to survey the savannah.
“What sort of games were you after?” he asked warily.
Matt shrugged. “I don’t know man, what’ve you got?”
“I’ve got Counter-Strike.”
“Yeah dude, I’m keen for Counter-Strike. You want to play? Or do you have to work?”
Ed paused, his eyes visible through his lank dark hair.
“I mean, I suppose I could take a break,” he conceded slowly, “It’s just…”
“I’m pretty good.”
“Well hey, I’m not bad myself.”
“No, I mean I will destroy you.”
“I’m hearing a lot of talk there, genius.”
“I’m not hearing much talk there Blue!” snapped Higgins. Jane glared with gritted teeth up at where the wiry-haired woman was floating effortlessly, thirty feet above them and the surface of the water. She could barely concentrate on keeping a steady stream of fire going continually down, let alone actually talking with her moronic teammates.
“This is not about hovering!” roared their instructor, “This is not about endurance! This is about communication! This is about all of you, working under pressure, as a team!”
This was goddamn water polo, essentially. Two teams on either side of an arena filled entirely with water, a single ball and a goal at either end. Rules were simple: touch the water, you’re out. Move with the ball, you’re out. Your whole side gets out, you lose the round. Ball goes in your goal, you lose the round. Use your powers to stay up and whatever concentration you’ve got left to intercept passes.
Jane hated ball games. She hated teams. She hated being new and she hated being picked last and most of all she hated stupid mouth-breathing Josephine Higgins, who just flew there yelling at her while she failed.
“Mark her!” called one of her teammates, a muscular Japanese man with a name not worth remembering. He wasn’t talking to her. They were never talking to her. But even if he wasn’t talking to her, the red Acolyte he was talking about was close. Jane snarled and pushed downwards and forward, fire streaming from her fists and feet.
Too slow. She wasn’t used to this, this sustained burn, not a burst but a constant unwavering effort. Every person in the arena was running rings around her, better trained, better prepared, better practised. And every one of them aching to see her fall. In reality, the teams were an illusion – she was the real enemy and she could see it on every face. Only Higgins’ eagle-eyed presence and maybe the natural competitiveness of the other Blue team Acolytes kept the exercise being any semblance of a competition.
Her eyes twitched across the room to where the blonde Red team girl was floating, eyeing off her mark, the grey medicine ball bouncing in her hands. Jane’s mouth formed into a wordless roar and she slammed down everything she had, pushing forward towards her quarry, this smug smiling red scumbag holding herself aloft with her goddamn telekinesis-
She turned in the direction of the voice in time to see a dark shape hurtling towards her but too late to stop the sickening crunch as it slammed into her face an instant later. Jane fell, arms flailing wildly, blood pouring from her nose – she hit the water with a crash, suddenly engulfed in freezing, murky silence. The pitch depths of the abyss opening up beneath her, a gaping maw of black-blue darkness – Jane’s heart stammered and she thrashed her arms, trying to move upright, away from the endless deep, a ringing in her ears and a burning in her nose as she writhed, panicking, sucking in water, unable to breathe, unable to swim and-
Her head broke the surface and Jane gulped in fresh air, coughing and spluttering and wretching the water from her lungs. She shook and shivered, feeling the darkness of the deep clutching at her legs, flailing her arms to stay afloat. A figure floated over her, blotting out the sunlight coming in through the dome.
“OUT!” Higgins roared, as the telekinetic girl sniggered.
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).