“I’m out,” swore Matt, running his hands through his hair and surveying yet another abysmal scoreboard, “To hell with this, I’m out.”
“I warned you,” said Ed, his grin visible from between the monitors. They’d been playing for over an hour, and in that time Matt had managed exactly zero kills to Edward’s… one hundred? Two? He’d lost track. All he knew was that he’d never failed so hard at anything in his life. He’d been digitally tea-bagged so many times his mouth tasted like electronic England.
“Hacks. Gotta be hacks.”
“You just suck.”
“I don’t suck, you’re incredible.”
“Hey,” grinned Ed, “I have to do something with my stratospheric IQ.”
“How much do you play? Seriously.”
“Oh, a bit here and there.”
“Bull. Absolute bull. You must practise this like twelve hours a day. Let’s play something else, come on, mix it up, what else you got?”
Ed laughed. “Ah the audacity of noobs. Give up while you’re only a little bit behind.”
“No. Screw you. You’re going down Rakowski.”
They were pretty much completely ignoring Selwyn by now, who was still sitting in exactly the same spot, his black robes draped over his knees, eyes shut in serene meditation, seemingly unaffected by an hour’s worth of raised voices and Matt’s continuous stream of frustrated swearing.
“You ever played any Total War?”
“Yes.” Matt cracked his knuckles and shook out his shoulders. “Yes, yes, a thousand years yes. Here we go. This is me. This is my jam.”
“Look into your future clairvoyant. See your crushing, inevitable defeat.”
“I see your mom- screw it, no, let’s go, come on.”
“Come on,” demanded Professor Lun. He looked around the room at the crowd of faces staring at him from all sides of the lecture theatre. “Come on. Anybody. Individual presents with fever, shortness of breath, and atypical cardiac arrhythmia. Correct steps to diagnosis are-”
There was a burning underneath Jane’s skull and it had nothing to do with the healer having reset her nose and unfractured her eyesocket an hour ago. Everything this man said made no sense. It was like he was speaking a language she’d never heard before, except the words were still English which just made her inability to understand them even more infuriating. This was supposed to be a lecture on Responding to Emergencies but the man was going on about patients and symptoms and a thousand made-up Latin phrases which he explained briefly once and then flew straight past before she could comprehend what he was saying. She didn’t feel like she was learning, she felt like she was becoming actively stupider as everything that was said flashed briefly between her ears and incinerated her brain cells.
Professor Lun, a wiry, forty-something Mediterranean man with a hooked nose and no trace of an accent, who looked like he’d never cracked a joke in his life, stood in the centre of the amphitheatre with a fifteen-foot projection of a dying man behind him, his suede-jacketed arms crossed over his chest. His eyes swept across the room, taking in the contingent of unenthusiastic Acolytes, and then, to her horror, came to rest upon Jane.
“You there, left of centre; empath. Let’s see if you’re not entirely useless. Do you defibrillate for tachycardia?”
“This man’s life is in your hands, he’s going to die if you don’t do something, so tell me right now, yes or no, do you defibrillate him?”
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, “I-I don’t know, I’m not a healer…”
The professor shook his head at her, disgusted. “I don’t care what you are. I care about the fact that the person you came to save-” he pointed at the projected screen, “-is now dead because of your incompetence.” The whole room laughed, unkindly. “Read a textbook. Learn to do more than hit things.”
He turned to the other side of the room. “Now somebody, please; who’s done the readings? Anybody. Come on.”
“Come on!” Matt cried in despair, as a previously unseen unit of Cavalry Auxilia charged out of the woods and mowed down his Baleric Slingers like a combine harvester through schoolchildren. He clicked furiously, breaking off a unit of spearmen that had been heading to reinforce his front line, only to see their backs treated to a volley of incendiary acupuncture by a solitary unit of Cretian Archers. Ok, enough of this, go for them – at least they seemed somewhat out of formation, or so Matt thought until he tried to charge the ragtag group of archers down with his General’s Bodyguard and ran the leader of his forces straight into a wall of hidden Pikemen.
“No! What?! Come on, I- do something! Wardogs!” he shouted, as his battlelines collapsed and the bulwark of his pixelated army turned tail and fled. Not surprisingly, his words had very little impact and Matt was treated to another battle summary emblazoned with the words “CRUSHING DEFEAT”.
“Goddamnit,” he muttered, “That’s it, enough. I’m out. No more games with you.”
“Yes I’m sure. Screw you and your genius-level intellect.”
“You sure you sure?” Edward smirked the smirk of a pool hustler over the top of his monitors. “Because, you know, I’ve got a Gamecube with Smash Brothers laying around here somewhere.”
“No,” Matt declared automatically, then immediately reconsidered: “Wait, seriously?”
“Yeah man. I’m sure you’d do better at that.”
“Yeah… that could be a good… wait, no!” said Matt, waving a finger at him, “No, no, no, I know that look. You’re just going to wreck me again, no matter what we play.” He stood up, shaking his head. “No wonder nobody comes to your game nights.”
Ed’s grin faltered and he looked taken aback. “Wait really? Do you think that’s it?”
“Well duh Sherlock, obviously,” replied Matt, although not unkindly. He pulled out a different chair on the other side of Ed’s desk and swivelled around to face him. “Thought you were meant to be a genius. Word to the wise, most people don’t enjoy an evening of getting thoroughly demolished. Well, not digitally, anyway,” he added under his breath.
“Sorry,” murmured Ed, his face downcast.
“Hey, don’t apologise, I said ‘most people’, not me. I thought it was hilarious. You’re insane.”
“Ah,” replied the genius, looking embarrassed and waving away Matt’s compliment, “It’s just my power. I didn’t earn being smart.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” said Matt, “Talents are talents man.” Nevertheless, Ed still looked uncomfortable, so Matt changed the subject.
“Do you think he’s ever coming back?” he asked, pointing at the still-sitting still-stationary Selwyn.
“I presume he has to eat,” shrugged Ed. He craned his neck to get a better view of the black-clad man. “So… eventually?”
“Well that’s reassuring,” Matt muttered. He flicked his phone out of his pocket then flicked it back in again.
“You posed an interesting case, training-wise,” mused Edward, sinking back down into his seat. He began clicking and typing as he spoke, doing God-knows-what on his triple-screened computer, which Matt took less as rudeness and more just a superhuman ability to multitask. “The Ashes were at quite a loss how best to cultivate a clairvoyant.”
“You don’t say,” said Matt, very uncomfortable broaching the subject of his “abilities” with someone with an inhumanly high IQ.
“Yeah. They don’t come to Selwyn for much, but I guess they felt this something he was suited for.”
“Well, we’ll see how that turns out,” said Matt. He rose to leave before all this clairvoyancy talk turned inquisitive. “Sorry man, I should get out of here. I’ve been in your hair long enough.”
“Oh,” said Ed, stopping typing. He peered up over the central monitor and to Matt’s surprise looked fractionally disappointed. “Yeah sure, no problem. I mean if you want, you don’t have to-”
“Don’t you have to work to do?” Matt wondered, raising an eyebrow, “Important genius stuff, inventions that’ll save the world, that sort of thing?”
“Well… I mean yes,” admitted Ed, though he sounded unenthused, as though he found the prospect of irrevocably improving mankind somewhat dull, “I just…” He trailed off then just sort of sat there staring at his computer. Matt blinked.
“If you want me to stay here and play games, I will stay here and play games.”
“No don’t worry about it,” Ed stammered, hiding his face as it turned red, “Get going, it’s good, I’m sure you’ve got-”
“Dude, I’m going to stay here and play games with you.”
“No really, that’s not-”
“Shut up,” Matt commanded, “Go get the Gamecube.”
The cube was perfectly formed, exactly one inch on every side, or so Jane had been told. At this distance all she could see was a dot. A smudge, a fraction of a blur, a single, greyed-out pixel in her exhausted field of vision. She drew her fingers inwards and released, a bolt of lightning crackling across the range.
The light above her station flashed red and a jarring foghorn siren blared, but there was no time for Jane to curse her failure because another horn had already sounded and another cube had already launched. She drew back and fired again, sending another bolt down the line.
Red light, horn. Another.
Red light, horn. Another.
Red light, horn. That one she didn’t even see properly, just threw out a fork of lightning in the vain hope that it might connect. Another.
Red light, horn. There was sweat in her eyes and on her fingers but there was no time to wipe it away. Another.
Green light, bing. That one had gone long and low, travelling through the air in a flat-hanging arc. Her bolt had been on point, straight down the line – but it’d been an easy shot. Another.
Red light, horn. She was panting now, her breath coming in ragged draws. Another.
Red light, horn. Her vision was blurring, the single grey pixel no longer standing out amongst the wavering haze. Another.
Red light, horn.
“Ee-nuff,” came the voice and Jane fell to one knee. Her left hand grasped clumsily for support against the wooden railing, the fingers on her right hand still billowing smoke.
“You’re not here to praciss missin,” Mac said quietly. He smacked his black-stained lips together, the scent of chewing tobacco and dust rolling off him in waves.
“I’m sorry,” muttered Jane. The ground blurred beneath her eyes. “I’m not used to… this far… normally… stationary…”
Mac spat into the dirt and pocketed his hands inside his long brown travelling coat. “Useless empaf. I look fo’wad to tha day tha Legion gows up aginst summun thet do not move,” he drawled, “But until thet time you well not demonstrait such incompehtence on muh raynge. Unda’stand?”
“Understood,” growled the girl. She pulled herself up, the coarse wood of the railing digging splinters into her hand, then began to hobble slowly back towards Morningstar in the fading light, her firing arm held limply to her chest.
Everything hurt – every muscle, every bone, her joints, her eyes, her brain. The things that didn’t hurt she couldn’t feel. She needed sleep, she needed water, she needed food. But right now mainly sleep. She limped towards a side entrance, the cramp in her right calf refusing to shift, too exhausted to go the long way around, too exhausted to avoid the corridors – no energy to care if she lived or died. She just needed to sleep.
Everything else would have to wait.
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).