“Mr Callaghan. Thank you for joining us.”
Matt nodded stiffly. Across the table from him the hard-faced middle-aged woman in a jet-black pantsuit pursed her lips into a position she probably thought resembled a smile.
“My name is Hillary Cross, audio-light conversion. I believe you’re already acquainted with Mr Winters, flight, and Mr Kersey, projection.” She indicated the two men sitting either side of her. Winters gave a nod of friendly acknowledgement, which Matt returned, while Selwyn simply smiled his dreamy smile.
“We’ve met. Matt Callaghan, clairvoyant.”
“Excellent,” Cross said airily, “And I trust you’ve settled in.”
It was his second day. Matt forced himself to swallow a scathing comeback and simply nod.
“Then I won’t waste any more time,” she continued, “Mr Callaghan, we are here to discuss your powers.”
The Ashes woman had come for him around eight. Matt had barely stepped out of the shower when an impatient rap on his door had sent him scrambling for clothes. He’d opened the door to find this squat, dour woman with short blonde hair waiting outside his room, looking like the human personification of an HR department and a) ordering him to follow her immediately and b) noting that he’d cut himself shaving. Matt had scrambled out in a half-jog, struggling to keep up with the power-woman’s blistering pace, cursing his stupid blunt first-impression-ruining razor as she led him through a maze of stairs and corridors to what turned out to be Daniel Winters’ office. He now sat on one side of a large mahogany table with Cross, Selwyn and the director himself sitting on the other, staring over at him with varying degrees of imperiousness.
He could have been interviewing for a job, Matt thought wryly. He glanced around at Winters’ various diplomas and awards framed on the wall, the high-backed leather chair, silver touch lamp, sleek white computer and impeccably ordered bookshelf.
“The Legion of Heroes is very interested in you Mr Callaghan,” Cross began formally, “We wish to do everything possible to ensure you reach your full potential. And as such we have devised a specialised training schedule.”
As she spoke the last sentence, Matt was surprised to see Cross’s mouth twitch, and she blinked, though continued to stare resolutely forward. Repressed annoyance, he recognised.
Matt’s brain worked fast.
He faked a small, dry laugh. “I foresaw this,” he stated calmly, “The three of you.” Matt paused, nodding as if something finally made sense. “I thought it was weird at the time, because I didn’t know you, and you were talking about me. But this decision wasn’t unanimous, was it?”
From the looks that passed over their faces – widening surprise around Winters’ eyes and the tightening of Cross’s lips – Matt could tell he was on the money. Cross’s thin fingers curled around her pen and she took a moment before replying.
“There have been… multiple viewpoints on how best to engage your ability,” she said, diplomatically avoiding eye contact with the men either side of her, “Captain Dawn has not provided any specific instructions on how you are to be managed and there are some -” the corner of her mouth twitched towards Winters, “-who feel this implies you aren’t to be given any special treatment.” Her posture stiffened. “There are also others who feel any sort of testing… any sort of regimentation at all… is unnecessary.” Matt didn’t have to read her face to know which of the three she was talking about there.
Cross’s hawkish eyes burrowed into him. “These… opinions have been accounted for, but the undeniable fact remains. We need metrics. We need to know the use and limits of your ability, and we need to be able to track your improvement.” She paused. “If properly utilised, the benefits of your power could be phenomenal. You could-”
“-I could be a warning bell, yes,” Matt interrupted, sounding bored. Cross blinked, and Matt was pleased to see she looked mildly taken aback.
“Precisely,” said Cross, recovering, “And to that end Mr Callaghan, your schedule will be thus. You will attend daily sessions with Mr Kersey to cultivate your visions. You will attend every non‑ability‑specific course and seminar available to ensure a level of basic competency. And you will attend fortnightly assessments with myself to measure and record your predictive ability. Your first assessment will be today. Are we clear?”
“Can I have breakfast first?” Matt asked, irritable and secretly terrified. Between this and the disturbing disappearing kid, he had a lot to process. Cross opened her mouth to respond but Winters got there first.
“Of course,” the director replied amicably. He rose to his feet and reluctantly the pant-suited Ashes woman did too, leaving only Selwyn remaining seated, unconcerned with social cues. “Take your time. I’m sure if you return at say, eleven, the assessment will be ready to proceed. Does that suit you Hillary?”
Cross rankled at the use of her first name, which Matt thought Winters probably did on purpose.
“Of course,” she forced, working her jaw.
“Excellent. Mr Callaghan, you’re excused.”
Matt fled before they could change their minds.
Lost in thought, Matt made his way to the Grand Hall on autopilot, where he absent-mindedly picked up breakfast before navigating to a free bench. To his surprise, he’d barely sat down to eat his runny egg before Jane climbed into the space beside him.
“Hey,” he muttered, “You’re not dead. Nice.”
Jane didn’t respond immediately but just sat there resting her head and arms on the table, looking like Matt felt. The black bags under her eyes seemed to have doubled since Matt had seen her two days ago.
“The Ashes ordered no one to attack me,” she mumbled finally, her head still sideways. The effect of her words was undercut somewhat by the fact that half the people in the Hall had been staring venomously at her since she’d entered.
“Always a positive,” Matt replied slightly warily, struggling to keep his eyes off an Acolyte two tables over who was glaring in their direction and telekinetically weaving a knife through his fingers with unnerving speed. He hesitated, unsure whether to tell her about the strange child and his prophecies of doom, but the sight of Jane’s drawn face and heavy eyes made him take pause. It seemed like she had enough problems.
“Yeah,” said Jane, oblivious to his internal dilemma. Then she seemed to hesitate, as if unsure how to phrase what she wanted to say next.
“Thank you,” she eventually managed to get out, “For the ice cream.”
Matt stared at her. “What ice cream? I didn’t bring you ice cream. Someone brought you ice cream? Damn. Maybe you’ve got a secret admirer.”
“Shut up,” Jane snapped, punching him in the shoulder, “I know it was you.”
“Ow, alright fine, you’re welcome.”
“Idiot,” she scowled, punching him harder.
“Stop hitting me,” Matt complained, rubbing his bicep. She stopped hitting him and instead sunk her head deeper into her hands.
“You’re an ass.”
“I was just playing,” he said kindly, trying to make peace.
Eventually she looked at him again.
“Stupid jokes aside, thank you.” She paused.
Matt shrugged. “I figured you could use it.”
“I did. I hadn’t eaten all day.” She lifted her head from the table and glanced behind her.
“You know the food here is free, right?” Matt said, indicating towards the buffet with his fork. Jane didn’t reply but just sat there looking sullen and hungry. From the way she was shifting uncomfortably in her seat Matt could tell she was in the middle of some sort of mental dilemma – either contemplating whether to risk getting food or deciding whether she was still mad at him.
After a few seconds Matt interrupted her stewing.
“So how’re you finding it?” he asked. Jane hesitated – still seeming like she was on the brink of leaving – but eventually she shrugged.
“Good. Tough. Lot of stuff I’m not used to, but I’ll get better.” She glanced around the room, as if trying to catch people watching her. A lot of them were. Matt waited a few seconds for her to ask him how his day had been, before giving up and telling her anyway.
“Well I’ve been sitting in a room on some cushions,” he told her as if she was interested, “And trying to concentrate on tapping into my innate clairvoyant abilities.”
“How’s that going?” replied Jane, smirking sidewards at him perhaps in spite of herself.
“No progress so far, but it’s early days.”
“Also, I’ve been playing a lot of video games and losing.”
“It’s a tough life,” she growled, the sarcasm lathered on thick, “I got my nose broken, my head cut and two ribs fractured. Plus everyone hates me.”
“Yeah, but I don’t think you quite understand,” replied Matt, “I lost really, really badly.” He paused, and dropped his voice to a whisper. “Also, they want to test me.”
“Damn.” Jane made a face which could have been an attempt at sympathy. “What’re you going to do?”
“Lies. Lots of lies. The real superpower.”
“Well,” she said with measured indifference, “If you get arrested, send me a postcard.”
“Hilarious.” He gave Wally a short wave as he walked by a row over. Jane followed Matt’s gaze over to the retreating psychic, then turned back.
“It’s weird,” she sighed after a few moments, “Being here. I thought…” she hesitated, “I don’t know what I thought. I guess I was so focused on getting here I never thought much about what it’d be like.” She swept a tired glance around the room, at the eyes staring venomously into her. “I guess I never really considered there’d be the same hate here as anywhere else.”
Matt didn’t know how to respond to that, but luckily Jane didn’t seem to need a response. She turned back to him, a crooked smile forcing its way across her lips. “Forget it. You know, it’s funny. This is the first time I’ve ever changed schools without getting expelled.”
Matt chuckled. “You’re right, that is funny. How many did-”
And then suddenly he froze. His eyes wide, his mouth open, suddenly awestruck – as like a divine bolt of lightning, the answer came to him.
“That’s it,” he whispered.
Jane frowned, looking mildly annoyed. “What’s what?”
“It…” breathed Matt, hardly daring to hope, unable to believe it had taken him this long to figure it out, “Jane, you’re a genius.”
“Thanks?” she replied, sounding dubious. Then, “Um… why?”
“Expelled,” Matt murmured, and he turned to face her, his face lighting up, “I’m going to get expelled!”
“What,” Jane growled flatly, her initial shock quickly hardening into contempt, “No.”
“Yes!” cried Matt, his voice rising with so much excitement that half of the adjacent table glanced over. Matt forced his giddiness back down. “Yes! Jane don’t you see, it’s perfect! All this time, I was so set on trying to figure out how to get out of coming here, I never once considered it the other way around.” His face flushed. “I don’t need a reason not to be here, I need to make the Legion not want me anymore!”
“No,” said Jane, holding her face in her hands.
“Yes!” crowed Matt, arms trembling in anticipation, “Oh my god, this is brilliant. I’m going to… I’m going to skip class. I’m going to drink. I’m going to do drugs. I’m going to set things on fire. I’m going to be the laziest, worst, most disruptive rule-breaker the Academy’s ever seen, and they’ll have no choice but to kick me out.”
“No…” moaned Jane, “You absolute idiot, no.” Matt ignored her.
“This is an A-grade institution,” he rambled, the ideas now gushing out like he’d struck oil, “Not just an A-grade curriculum, A-grade attitudes. All I’ve got to do is bring some D-class style, and these paragons of virtue will evict me faster than they can down a protein shake.”
“This is a terrible plan,” declared Jane, “You’re throwing away the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“For you it’s opportunity, for me it’s entrapment,” countered Matt, thinking of the weird kid and his enigmatic warnings of death.
Jane sighed. “You can’t break the rules,” she muttered, rubbing her temples.
“Really?” Matt demanded, sick of her constant negativity, “Is that so? Well I’d like to see you stop me.”
“I could,” she scowled, “But I won’t, because you don’t get what I mean. I’m saying the Academy has no rules you could break.”
“So you’re saying,” Matt responded incredulously, “That if I walked up on that stage, dropped my pants and took a leak on those glass costume cases, nobody here would have a problem.”
“I’m saying you wouldn’t be expelled,” Jane mused, her face hardening. “Because you’d be dead. Because I’d kill you. As would everyone else in this room, you disrespectful piece of crap.”
“Alright, easy, calm down,” Matt muttered, recoiling slightly.
“And anyway,” Jane continued with a haughty sniff, “It’d be obvious you were trying to cause trouble. If you did anything that crazy people would figure out you wanted to get expelled.”
Matt paused. “So what you’re saying,” he said after a moment’s consideration, “Is that I can’t seem to want it.”
“I’m not saying that at all,” Jane replied, shaking her head in despair.
“I’ve got to be smart.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Make it look like I’m naturally incompatible, not out to cause trouble.”
“By doing what?” Jane said angrily, “Sex, destruction, violence?” She held up her fingers in a checklist – Matt saw many of them were run down with small cuts. “Everyone here’s an adult. They have the best clean-up crews in the world. And half the lessons are people beating each other up!”
“I could attack you,” Matt suggested, raising a helpful eyebrow, “Not allowed to attack you outside of class, direct Ashes instruction, you said so yourself. Could punch you square in the tits.”
“You could,” admitted Jane with a resigned, deadpan expression, “I suppose. If you wanted to.”
For a few seconds, Matt seriously considered it – he stared at Jane’s sharp, tired face, her auburn hair, tattooed cheek and piercing blue eyes, sitting right there next to him. It’d be so easy to just reach out, swing at her, fake some sort of ballistic fit, yell abuse…
“I can’t,” he sighed, dropping the idea and his semi-raised fists, “I’m a ‘clairvoyant’. They’d think I’d seen you were dangerous or something and then they’d kick you out too. I can’t do that.” He sighed again, glancing around the Hall. “There’s got to be another way.”
For a few moments Jane was silent, just staring at him with a funny, conflicted look with not quite enough animosity in it to be a glare.
“Why do you care if I get kicked out?” she asked eventually.
“Oh I don’t know,” Matt replied, throwing up his arms, “Maybe because it’s your dream? And maybe because that’d make me the jerk who ruined your dream? And maybe because I’d like to think I’m better than that?” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Stupid conscience is going to be the death of me. Help me think of another way.”
“I’m not going to think up ways to get you expelled,” Jane replied coldly. She stood up. “Besides, I’ve sat here long enough. You probably don’t want to be seen associating with me.” She absentmindedly reached down to take a drink from his orange juice – but the moment she lifted the cup to her lips, the glass shattered. The empath stared numbly at her hand and breathed a defeated sigh. Matt glanced over her shoulder to where the telekinetic’s eyes were still burning a few tables over.
“I don’t care,” he said – but Jane was already walking away, shaking drops of juice and glass from her fingers. For a moment Matt considered calling out after her, but after a few seconds he just shook his head, his mind abuzz with disruptive ideas.
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).