Her name was Cassandra Atropos and she left neither body nor mourning nor name.
She’d had friends once, a family. A white-walled cottage in Thessaloniki, a collection of orchids, a ginger‑haired cat, a guitar. All long-since sold or repurposed or forgotten, save for the cat, who still prowled the Macedonian alleyways, irritated and unaware that its mistress had died. Unintentionally, this was her strongest remaining connection. Cassandra had not been a good friend, a good sister, a good relative. She had not been much good at anything once telepathy came to her, and her composure had slowly been eroded beneath wave after wave of thought. She’d hated herself for it, but the truth was inescapable – some people were just born sensitive, eyes too open, nerves too raw. She retreated from society, then solitude, then sanity, and at no point was it enough. She’d prepared to end her life feeling like a failure for her failings, and most of all for giving up.
Of course, no one knew any of this. Nor would it ever be discovered. By the time she blew herself to pieces, five years after the date on her death certificate, Cassandra Atropos was a memory faded into acceptance to all those who had once known her, and her disappearance would be marked by neither notice nor suspicion. The life she had lived and the end she had chosen would never be connected, the only potential link residing solely in the mind of a young human, who held such secrets ever-tightly to his chest. It was a mystery none would ever solve, a guess nobody could ever make.
Though it did not stop them trying.
In a farmstead in rural Albania, men and women in black clothes donned white full-body safety suits and stepped gingerly into a ruined basement, to scour amongst rocks and ash. They found only meaningless pieces; bits of bone and wood and tooth, residue and marks for calculations which together added to nothing beyond chemicals, temperature and yield. They searched with superhuman eyes and heightened senses, with fine telekinetic fingers and the power to separate earth on command. And all of it, in summary, amounted to the same forensic dead-end – there had been a woman; she had waited; and she had blown herself up.
Eventually, the Ashes would give up their searching. Eventually, they would one by one grimace and shake their heads, pack up their equipment, and leave the mystery of the dead “clairvoyant’s” identity and motivations in a pile on a laboratory bench – less an autopsy than a jigsaw, where the pieces were incinerated and no one knew what the picture was supposed to be. All that were left were guesses, and arrangements for a burial beneath an anonymous tree.
And finally, when no one was left to see it, for a man who would be king to look down upon Cassandra Atropos’ ashes and seethe with silent rage.
How dare they still deny him? How dare they make him wait? No longer. He had spent too long on fruitless searches, hunting dreams of endless sight. No. No more patient waiting, no more appearances and charades. The cogs were in motion and soon the reckoning would come. He would burn down Dawn and everything he stood for and grind his legacy to dust.
You achieved nothing, he told the ashes on their cold and silent slab. Keep your name, your face, your secrets. They were meaningless, as were you, as were all of you. Go, you filthy gnats – throw yourselves against my tempest, smear your blood across my stone. You failed to keep my birthright. You failed to take my prize. You prevented nothing.
The pale smile faded and he left the remains of Cassandra Atropos alone to their eternity.
He had what he wanted.
“Mr Callaghan. Thank you for coming.”
They always started these meetings the same way, Matt mused internally. By thanking him. It was a neat little psychological trick, he supposed, a little bit of predispositional politeness to make you feel like your existence was appreciated and your attendance was optional. Like you had some choice in goings on.
Across the table from him, Director Daniel Winters leaned forward, his kind, diplomatic eyes staring at Matt over entwined fingers. Hillary Cross sat to Winters’ left, and to his right a third woman who Matt didn’t recognise, with long curly black hair, tan skin and thick eyebrows. They were in a room on the third floor, some kind of boardroom which wasn’t normally utilised by students, with a long oval table ringed by identical yet surprisingly comfy office chairs and a smartboard on the far wall. Most of the chairs were not in use. Matt was the only one sitting on his side, and Winters and his two companions were the only ones sitting on theirs.
Across the table from him, Winters’ face moved into a mask of genuine concern.
“How are you?”
A potentially loaded question, Matt thought wryly. Physically, Matt was the same as ever. Still a regular‑sized, brown-haired white boy, his burns from being almost incinerated completely healed and his new haircut from having his hair singed almost unnoticeable. Emotionally, well, honestly, better than he could have been. Two weeks had passed since the incident in Albania, and while Matt probably should have felt a bit more traumatised, apart from a little difficulty sleeping and occasionally having dreams about eyeless women, he was sort of… fine? He’d talked to the Legion’s resident psychotherapist, a nice man by the name of Peter Elmwood who used lots of nautical metaphors, and had engaged in therapy honestly, if with a little massaging of facts. The fundamentals had remained unchanged; he’d been kidnapped by a crazy person, she’s said a bunch of crazy things, then she’d blown herself up. It had been, naturally, a distressing experience. But when the moment of danger had come, Peter and Matt had reflected, Matt hadn’t frozen, and once he was out of it no residual fear or lingering existential dread had shown up. Matt’s mind was just kind of… resilient. He didn’t not trust people. He wasn’t afraid of the outside world. He just maintained a strong personal preference for not being blown up.
After three sessions, the psychologist diagnosed Matt as extremely well-adjusted, made some pithy remark about king tides, and discharged the supposed clairvoyant back into the wild. The Academy, perhaps smelling his less‑than‑enthusiasm, had offered him telepathic counselling too, but Matt had politely declined that idea, thank you very much.
“Can I introduce Ms Hosseini, from legal. She’ll be taking notes.” The woman in her mid-forties smiled and spread her palm over a blank sheet of paper, into which burned rows of thin, curling characters. “We’ve read your report.”
‘Report’ was a strong word for it, in Matt’s opinion. ‘Vaguely coherent essay minus all the incriminating bits’ was probably more accurate. He’d have given it a ‘B’.
“Firstly,” said Winters, straightening slightly as he fixed Matt with his movie-star gaze, “Can I commend you on your bravery. You stepped into a difficult and distressing situation, and you handled yourself admirably. That is to be commended. Well done.”
For what, Matt scowled internally. All he’d done was get kidnapped, hide behind a table and shout a lot. Nevertheless he kept his face deliberately blank and received Winters’ praise with a serious nod.
“We’re all familiar with the details,” Winters continued, with only a quick glance either side of him, “But still, it would be appreciated if you could recount your experience. So we can make sure we haven’t missed something. Get the story straight from the horse’s mouth.”
Matt was unshaken, and as always, perfectly prepared.
“We landed in Buzahishtë,” he stated, his pronunciation flawless, “Will Herd teleported us about half a mile out. We identified an abandoned farmstead nearby and approached cautiously on foot. About a quarter mile away I sensed that Jane and I should go ahead, and that it’d be dangerous if the others accompanied us. Natalia Baroque sensed not long after that there was someone hiding in a nearby structure and she alerted Jane. We proceeded with caution. We found explosive traps buried in the ground and wires designed to cut speedsters. Jane was able to disarm them before they could do any harm.”
Cross let out a small sniff, but otherwise remained silent.
“About five minutes into the ruins I sensed that I needed to be alone to bait out the other clairvoyant. I sent Jane away to make it look like I was vulnerable. The other clairvoyant sprung her trap. Literally, there was a trapdoor. I knew I was standing on it, but still, I was glad I was wearing armour.”
Winters gave him an approving nod. “And then?”
“The trapdoor led into a nearby basement,” Matt continued, “The other clairvoyant was there, waiting. She had clearly gone mad.” He shivered, perhaps unintentionally. “She’d self-mutilated her eyes.”
There was a brief silence across the room before Matt continued, veering sharply from the truth. “She was younger than she looked in the briefing. Shorter too, maybe five-six, and had lost a lot of weight. Her hair was completely brown. And her face didn’t look like it had in the photo.”
“Prosthetics,” Winters nodded, as though Matt’s words were putting everything in place rather than deliberately trying to obscure any attempt at piecing together Cassandra’s identity, “What did she say to you?”
Matt shrugged. “Nothing coherent. Mainly ‘five billion souls, five billion souls’, over and over and over. Then she said something about the crossroads of destiny compounding over and over and…” he squinted, pretending to try and recall, “…‘no mistakes, no mistakes ever’? It was just rambling. It didn’t sound coherent.”
“Did you get her name?” Cross demanded.
“No,” Matt lied, “Like I said, she was barely coherent. Sometimes it felt like she saw me. Other times she barely knew I was there.”
There was a pause as the Cross and Winters exchanged glances. Matt continued after a moment.
“I tried to introduce myself, to explain who I was, that I wasn’t going to hurt her. But she just kept rambling. And then she opened her robe and I saw that she’d rigged herself up with explosives. That’s when I started calling for help.”
“Which Miss Walker was able to respond to,” Winters nodded. The director paused. “Could you see what was distressing her? The clairvoyant I mean.” He fixed Matt with a piercing gaze. “What was compelling her to take her own life?”
“Honestly?” Matt answered, and it was indeed honest, “Not even a little bit, no. It was clear something was upsetting her. She kept talking about love and destiny and seemed to think someone was after her. Frankly?” He shook his head. “I think she pushed herself too hard. She got too good at seeing the future. I think in the end, she saw all her life’s possibilities and just, I don’t know… sort of lost her mind.”
There were a few moments of intense, deliberative silence.
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Cross, her dour, chubby cheeks pursed into a scowl, “Why would contact with the Legion cause this kind of reaction? Why would our mere presence trigger such a negative response?”
To his surprise, before Matt could answer, Winters sprung right into his trap. “No, it fits, think about it,” he said, “Every one of these clairvoyants we’ve tried to reach has been deliberately cut off from the world, isolated. Maybe it’s a coping strategy, a way to minimise potential futures. No people to interact with, no destinies to become entangled. And then we arrive.” He paused, musing, templing his fingers. “With all modesty, the Legion stands to impact a large cross-section of humanity. Our actions affect the fate of nations, not to mention countless lives. Imagine the magnitude of anticipating that, of witnessing the ramifications of your every potential action rippling across the globe. The pressure would be enormous, the choices paralysing. No wonder they go mad.”
It seemed a different sort of madness, Matt knew, but he kept his mouth shut. Rule number one of being a clairvoyant, never interrupt when your client is doing your job for you.
“I don’t buy it,” Cross scowled, obstinate as always, “If that’s the case, why haven’t we seen the same effects in Mr Callaghan? You’ve read the psychologist’s report, he’s perfectly well-adjusted.” She spat the words out like they were sour. “Why’s he not going mad from this ‘crossroads of destiny’?”
I’m right here, thought Matt, suppressing his irritation. Nevertheless, he was quick to speak.
“I agree actually,” he said, before anyone else could properly react, “I’m concerned about my long-term wellbeing. If this is the effect being near the Legion has on clairvoyants, respectfully, I don’t know if it’s in my best interests to keep hanging around here.”
Across the table from him Cross narrowed her eyes and the legal lady, hands burning characters into a fresh sheet of paper, glanced over at Winters with a raised brow. To Matt’s surprise and frustration however, Winters did not even hesitate before shaking his head.
“Respectfully Mr Callaghan,” he said, “I have to disagree. Matt. Look.” He held out a palm to the folder in front of him, where Cassandra Atropos’ picture stared out at them from the page. “Look at what happens to clairvoyants who don’t get Legion training. Look at what happens when they try to go it alone. Your time here, I have to say, has yielded positive advancements. Well,” he added, catching the incredulous look on Cross’s face, “Perhaps not positive in a traditional sense, but a far cry removed from the isolation and derangement these other clairvoyants seem to suffer. No. We’ve consulted with Selwyn, Mr Elmwood and Captain Dawn, and the verdict is unanimous. We’ve been lucky enough to catch you early before your gift grows overwhelming. For once, we have a head start. We can’t throw that away. Least of all for your benefit.”
“But…” Matt spluttered feebly, “All the futures… crossroads… destiny…”
“It’s all about endurance, Matt, it has to be,” Winters insisted. With each word he sounded increasingly fervent, and Matt’s protests shrank to smaller and smaller speedbumps. “These other clairvoyants, they were obviously retreating as their powers developed. By the time we approached them, later in life, they couldn’t cope with the outside world. But they’d run away from what they could do, not towards it.” He shook his head. “A speedster builds up to running. A strongman builds up weights. Even a technopath when they first manifest their powers can’t stay connected to the entire Internet for more than a few seconds. There’s too much information, it’s overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That understanding, that filtration, the ability to process – that’s something you build up to over time. Your clairvoyance is a muscle, and it may be that your future, nay your very life depends on us helping you exercise it.”
Matt struggled not to slump and sigh. It’d been such a good excuse and Winters had swallowed it hook, line and sinker, only to somehow swim so passionately that he’d dragged Matt further down. Jesus Christ.
Cross, however, was not so easily convinced.
“Daniel, respectfully,” she said, turning to the director, “I still don’t concur. Mr Callaghan lacks the temperament to remain with the Legion. That is my formal assessment. Write that down,” she said, firing a quick glare at the lawyer lady, who Matt saw barely avoid rolling her eyes.
“In terms of attitude, Hillary,” replied Winters, his tone equally cool, “I have trouble debating against a competently and courageously conducted field operation. Don’t you?”
“My issue is not Mr Callaghan’s courage,” snapped Cross, eyeing Matt coldly, “Be that as it may. My issue is his commitment and his competence. He clearly does not possess the dedication needed to be an Acolyte, as evidenced by a mere glance at his attendance record. He is repeatedly delinquent. And the contents of his visions so far are so lacklustre that I am beginning to wonder if he is being deliberately obstructive.” And to Matt’s horror her expression infinitesimally slackened and her words began to slow. “Or, perhaps, if we are dealing with the same kind of clairvoyance at all.”
Despite his calm exterior, Matt’s heart skipped a beat. Somehow, in the course of simply venting her distaste for him, Cross had flown perilously close to the truth. Silently, Matt grit his teeth. She had been so close. So freaking, freaking close to just saying he wasn’t worth it and kicking him out. Why did she have to go that step further? Why did she have to pry?
Stay hidden or the world ends.
Because now he was going to have to do something he really, really didn’t want to, and after this there’d be no goddamn escape.
“Here,” Matt said brusquely. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a piece of folded paper, and flung it across the table at Cross. The note slid to a stop an inch from the edge. “That came to me two nights ago. Take it, if you want to doubt my predictions. Use it for a new gym hall or something. A ladder maybe, to get the hell off my back.” He stood up, scowling at the three professionals across the table. “I almost died for this place. I don’t need this.”
“You’re absolutely right,” said Winters, clambering to his feet as Matt turned to leave. He shot out his hand, almost as if he was afraid Matt would leave before shaking it, and to Matt’s eternal chagrin he was forced by years of proper parenting to turn back sourly around. Winters clasped Matt’s hands in both of his.
“I apologise Mr Callaghan. This meeting was intended to be a debriefing, not an evaluation.” He shot a sideways glare at Cross, who had remained in her seat. The dour Ashes said nothing, having unfolded the piece of paper Matt had given her and staring, stunned, at the contents. “Your time here is greatly appreciated. I think that’s all?” He glanced quickly at Ms Hosseini, who nodded and moved to pack up her papers, before turning back to Matt. “Stay strong. Keep training. We here at the Academy are here for you. All of us.” He shot Cross another glare. “If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to ask. Our goal is to keep you a happy, healthy, valued member of the Legion’s team.”
I should be so lucky, Matt thought, as he trudged from the conference room. Behind him, Cross remained silent, still staring blank-faced at the words written on the slip of paper. Matt’s insurance policy. Cassandra Atropos’ final gift.
4, 7, 13, 18, 21, 26, 32 and 3
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).