The girl was dead.
She had to be. Dead and gone, swallowed into the abyss. Fragments of her life, slivers of glass and light amongst the dark, flashed past her fading mind. Hands on her, touching her. A woman in black. A boy she knew once, Matt Callaghan, his face, standing over her, blocking out the light. She imagined her father. A photograph. Someone singing happy birthday. Cold and hot and needles.
And then she woke up.
A yelp, muffled by cloth. She couldn’t see, she couldn’t feel, it was dark, she couldn’t move, her hands…
Her hands were stiff, her arms held in place by something hard. Her legs too. She tried to move her feet but they were trapped, equally immobilised. She panted, breathing hard. She felt… aurggh. She hurt. Everything hurt. Every part of her felt like someone pressing on a bruise. She struggled, tried to break free, but there was something holding her down – she felt weak, paralysed, her muscles dead and unresponsive to her commands.
Her breathing accelerated, panic blooming in her chest. She tried to think, tried to focus, rise above the delirium and panic smothering her brain. Where was she? Why was it dark? She couldn’t think, the blurred world of dreams still entangled with reality.
It was dark. Blue dark. The muffled kind of dark when you’re alone in a room but there’s light somewhere far away around a thousand corners. No. That didn’t make sense. Think. Sit up, shake the thick water from your head. But she couldn’t move.
Slowly, in drips and drops, Jane’s faculties began to return. She blinked, clearing away the damp film from her eyes as they adjusted to the lack of light. The room she was in was large and open, with high walls and an angled ceiling. In front of her, a row of identical single beds draped in white linen stretched out through the dark in both directions, with another matching row running across five feet further along. Her eyes flicked left and right to find similar beds on either side of her, the immaculate pearl gleam of their sheets trailing off to become orderly lines of ghostly globs floating into the blackness. So many beds, she wondered. And all of them empty.
She stared blankly at the bed opposite her for a few seconds before the answer stumbled sleepily from her subconscious. Hospital, she realised. A place to heal the sick. The sick or… the injured.
Suddenly it came back to her. The Arena, James Conrad, a fight... the fight! She tensed up, straining to rise, to get back, to finish, to win- but then a moment later reality caught up to her delusions. Jane’s head slumped back down onto the pillow, hot shame spreading over her. She’d lost. Terribly. It hadn’t even been a fight, it’d been a beating. She struggled to raise her head slightly, her eyes wandering down to look at the rest of her body. But there was no body to see – only a giant plaster cast, immobile and unbroken.
God. For an instant, the thought of being locked in, trapped and vulnerable, sent a ripple of panic pulsing through Jane’s heart – but that fear quickly faded, giving way to bitter self-loathing. It didn’t matter if she couldn’t flee or fight, nobody was going to hurt her. She’d been broken, and they’d fixed her – if they’d wanted her dead they would’ve simply let her die. The mere fact that she was here in this infirmary, drugged and immobilised hours later, told her how bad her injuries had been. The Legion’s healers were the best in the world – these beds were probably barely used. Except when some fresh-faced idiot decided to challenge the Academy’s top recruit.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. She closed her eyes, willing herself to fade away, wishing she’d just die. She was so stupid, stupid to come here, to believe for an instant she could ever be anything but a complete useless failure. She’d thought she was special, deluded herself into thinking she was strong by beating children at games they didn’t want to play. Idiot. Pathetic parasite who could only ever play pale imitations of other people’s talents. She wasn’t even supposed to be here. She was worthless.
They should’ve let her die.
Jane lay alone, the darkness still and unmoving around her, the cool air licking at the warm, stuffy plaster, the restless fever of artificial sleep still lingering behind her forehead. She wanted to sleep, but she wasn’t tired. Wanted to move but couldn’t. More than anything she wanted to leave, to disappear, slink out in the dark when nobody would see her go – when no one was around to smirk and point and laugh. To vanish into the night, another dropout, another failure.
Paralysed, she lay there as the minutes ticked by – only her, her shame, and the quiet dark.
A muffled sound in the distance, far off and to her left, cut between her thoughts. “Hello?” she tried to utter, but her throat was dry and cracked, the bandages stifling any traces of the word. Her eyes darted over towards where she thought it’d come from, but the milky dark only swirled and billowed in its nothingness, throwing conjured phantoms at her fearful mind. “Hello?” she tried to say again, but it was little more than a whisper, caught and sunken between her lips.
For what seemed like hours she watched, tensed, wondering what was out there, if she’d even heard anything, wondering if she was losing her mind.
And then out of the blackness, he came.
He emerged from the darkness without a whisper, the only sound of his existence the quiet fall of his boots atop the carpet and the rustle of his cape, the waterfall of molten gold trailing down his back. He moved slowly, his footsteps soft and measured, a figure of almost pure white, a ghost wreathed and touched in shimmering gold – his cape, his boots, his gloves, the sigil on his chest. Against the dead of night he seemed to faintly glow; a quiet glow, muted by the shadows through which he wandered.
Jane’s heart stopped. Her breath caught in her chest. It was the drugs – she was going mad. She blinked furiously, willing her eyes to carve through the gloom – but the figure didn’t fade. She wasn’t hallucinating. Even here, in the lowlight, drugged and dazed, anyone on Earth would have recognised that face carved from marble, those piercing eyes, that broad chest and golden hair.
Jane didn’t know what to do, whether to shout or cry or pretend to be asleep. She wanted to run and hide and leap and touch and hug him and shake his hand, but she couldn’t. Oh God she couldn’t move at all, stuck here in this plaster, a human paper-mache. No. Not like this, please don’t let him see me, she pleaded. But as Dawn moved closer, Jane was suddenly seized with panic that he wouldn’t see her, that he’d pass her by, that she was going to miss her one and only chance. Please let him see me, she begged. But how could he miss her, she was the only one in the room, she stood out, it was humiliating, but she had to stand out…
He was only two beds away now. Her heart racing, her breath trembling, Jane squeezed her eyes shut, desperately pretending to be asleep. She didn’t know what she was doing, but she couldn’t move and she couldn’t think.
For a few seconds, there was only silence, save for the thunderous beating of her heart. And then, from beyond the veil of her fiercely clenched eyelids, someone spoke.
“I know you’re awake.”
It was a quiet voice, low and softly-spoken, but beneath it flowed a hum, this deep resonating melody – the sound of sunlight washing over rocks. Slowly, tentatively, not daring to hope, Jane opened her eyes.
He was standing at the foot of her bed – a poster come to life, watching her with his hands behind his back, the white and gold of his uniform giving him an inhuman, almost spectral appearance in the darkness. But still real. Still standing there. Still talking. Talking to her.
She moved her mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
There was a surreal, billowing pause.
“Are you in pain?” he asked softly. Finally Jane managed to find her voice.
“N-no,” she croaked. Her hoarse throat burned around the syllable, but she uttered two more. “C…Captain.”
“Here.” He moved around until he was alongside her head, almost beyond her field of view, the white of his suit so close she could almost touch it. There was the soft gurgle of trickling water and if Jane could have moved, she would have jumped. A second later a golden glove appeared in front of her and something soft pressed on her lips. Cool water ran down her throat, soothing the burn. She coughed, spluttering.
“S-sorry…” she whispered, but Captain Dawn said nothing, just pressed the cup again gently to her lips. This time she drank more, then greedily. Without a word, the man in white and gold refilled the cup from the pitcher on her nightstand and held it back in place.
“Th-thank you…” Jane murmured, when that cup too was empty. Her throat still hurt, and her stomach felt uneasy, but the dry cracks in her mouth were sated and the acidic burning fading in her throat. Captain Dawn merely nodded. He reached behind her head and there was a soft clink of the cup atop the table, then before Jane could say anything he simply walked the few steps back to the foot of her bed and stopped, looking down at her.
“Th-thank you,” she stammered again. Again, he just nodded, white and gold against the black, a man made of moonlight. Jane felt her face getting hot. Say something, anything. He probably thought she was a moron, the way she kept stuttering, the way she’d- oh God, had she been rude? This was Captain Dawn, he was used to shaking hands with presidents and celebrities and she wasn’t- she hadn’t-
But if the Captain was offended by Jane’s actions, or if he could sense the panic rolling off her in waves, he didn’t show it. He simply stood silently at the foot of her bed, watching her with a blank expression. Long, empty seconds stretched out between them, which Jane’s drugged mind screamed at her to fill – but the Captain didn’t move or speak. Nor did he seem in any hurry to go. His eyes wandered over her and Jane could tell he was taking in the full extent of her cast.
“I lost,” she said finally, stupidly – then regretted the words immediately after she’d said them. They sounded like an excuse, a pathetic excuse, and one which only made her look even weaker in front of the most powerful man in the world.
Dawn said nothing, letting the uncomfortable silence stretch out between them. Even in the cool dark, Jane felt her face growing hotter. A tight ball of shame flowered in her chest and she found herself wishing she could turn away. She closed her eyes, unable to look at him.
“I… I’ll leave in the morning,” she said quietly. Saying those words, actually speaking them out loud, putting the promise into existence, hurt more than anything she’d had broken.
For a few seconds, the hero didn’t respond. Then eventually, through her self-imposed darkness, she heard him ask: “Why?”
“I… I lost…” She opened her eyes, and tentatively glanced up at him – still standing at the end of her bed. “I’m not strong enough.”
“You lost to someone strong,” said Captain Dawn. The deep melody of his voice sent shivers down her spine. “That does not make you weak.”
Jane didn’t know what to say. “But I…”
“It was a practice fight,” Dawn said simply. His voice was calm and confident, without judgement or impatience, as if he was explaining to a newborn why the leaves danced on the wind. “There will be others. Some you will win; some you will lose. But they are training. Nothing more.”
He looked at her, head tilted very slightly to the side as if pondering some strange puzzle beyond the comprehension of ordinary men. Jane felt his eyes wander towards her bandaged face, to the part of her cheek that was by law left uncovered – already knowing what he was going to find. If she could have turned away, if she could have hidden her shame, she would have.
“I’m sorry,” Jane whispered. She averted her eyes.
“Don’t be,” replied Captain Dawn, surprising her. She looked up at him, standing there at the foot of her bed, arms clasped behind his back, his expression impassive. “You have nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I just thought…” murmured Jane, “It might…”
“Bring back memories?” said Captain Dawn. Even in the low light, she saw a shadow pass across his face, and for the first time the Captain’s mouth twitched into something that could have been a smile. “My memories are my own. They are not for you to burden yourself with, young one. Nothing you can do or be can alter the past.”
“I didn’t mean…” she stammered – then stopped. Here, alone, with just them, there was no trace of animosity on his face. “You don’t… hate me?”
“Why would I hate you?” he asked quietly, as if the question was strange.
“Because…” Jane struggled to find the words, not wanting to insult him by pointing out the obvious. Eventually her medicated mind found them. “Because of… what I am…”
“You are strong,” Captain Dawn said simply, “That is all that matters.” And the way he looked at her, without the slightest trace of disapproval or disgust, made Jane believe it.
“I thought…” she started, then hesitated – unsure whether she was crossing some sort of line. But the Captain made no move to stop her, so Jane pressed on. “I thought you would’ve hated...” Her cheeks flushed. “After…”
“No,” answered Dawn, saving her from spelling it out. He paused and his eyes grew distant. “I never hated empaths. I never even hated him, to tell you the truth. He was strong. So very, very strong.” There was a detachment in the superhero’s words, but not in a cold or disinterested way –as if he was speaking through a veil, floating, disconnected from reality. “So much power. So much potential. He was a great man – could have been, if he’d chosen a different path.”
He stared off into the darkness for a moment, a ghost of white-gold. Jane marvelled at the mourning in his voice. “He killed half a billion people,” she reminded him.
“A terrible thing,” Captain Dawn agreed. The detachment on his face seemed to fade and he looked back at her. “But one which only someone great could have wrought.” He paused. “You do not have to condone an act to see the strength it requires. I respected the strength in him, as I respect the strength in you. You are strong, young one. In your body and your mind. Do not forget that.”
A momentary warmth spread through Jane’s chest – but then reality sunk back in and she glanced down at her plastered body.
“I wasn’t strong enough,” she murmured, ashamed.
“You will be,” Dawn said quietly, “Given training. Given time.”
“How do you know?” Jane replied. Immediately she regretted the pettiness, the self-pity in the question. But Captain Dawn remained undeterred, looking down at her as he did with piercing green eyes.
“You have conviction,” he answered, “It has brought you this far and it will carry you further, if you allow it.”
“I thought…” she started, then stopped. The Captain raised an inquiring eyebrow, and Jane forced herself to continue. “I thought I was only here because of Matt.”
“His gift is indeed special,” Dawn replied, and his gaze grew vague. “He will be an incredible asset.” Then he caught Jane’s onlooking eyes and seemed to refocus. “But he merely brought you to my attention. Your achievements, your strength, brought you here.”
“Rest, young one.” He turned, the gold cape billowing from his shoulders. “Tomorrow is a new day.” And then he was gone, fading into the dark, leaving Jane alone, awake, immobilised and trembling.
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).