“How’d it go?” Jane asked, as he shut the dormitory door. The empath was splayed out on his mattress – they’d spent the morning before their interviews ironing out the kinks in their respective stories, and Jane had come to get Matt from his room after her own debriefing was over. She’d remained in residence, it seemed, and was laying on his bed bouncing a ball of ice off the ceiling.
“Fine,” Matt grumbled. He dropped down into his desk chair. “Winters bought the line about undue clairvoyant pressure. Except then he took it one step further and concluded that if I don’t get proper training I’ll go insane and neck myself. Now I have to stay not just for the Legion’s improvement, but for my personal health.”
“Told you, you should’ve pretended to be traumatised,” said Jane, twisting the ice ball to spin on her finger, “Only thing Winters fears more than death is a lawsuit.”
“Yes, well, we went over this,” said Matt, vaguely irritated, “I don’t like faking mental conditions. And I don’t like the idea of having to pretend to have one for, I don’t know, the indefinite rest of my life.”
“Well, we all gotta make our beds,” Jane shrugged. She melted the ball back into her fingers and sat upright. “So. Now that that’s done. What’re you thinking?”
Matt leant over, massaging his eyebrows. Truth be told, he didn’t know what he was thinking. He didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing any more. Definitely not going on any more missions. Probably trying his hardest to get expelled, except he’d just handed Cross a rock-solid reason never to do that. Goddamn lottery numbers. Matt had been carrying them around in his pocket for a fortnight since he’d got back from Albania, and as much as he wanted to write off Cassandra’s ramblings as insanity, he somehow doubted the oddly affectionate woman was attempting to screw him from beyond the grave.
“I’ve been thinking more about what she said,” he told Jane, dropping his voice a few notches – not quite a whisper, but just so there was absolutely no chance of carrying through the walls. “I don’t think she was crazy.”
“She escaped from a padded cell and gouged her own eyes out,” said Jane.
“Yes,” conceded Matt, “But in the moment, she definitely made it sound like it all made sense. Or at least made some kind of sense. I don’t know. It all happened so quickly. It’s hard to remember the exact wording.”
“You seemed to remember the lottery numbers fine.”
“Well, some things are clearer than others. Has word gotten out?”
“How the hell would I know?”
“I don’t know,” Matt grumbled, “You talk to people.”
“I talk to Wally. Maybe Giselle. That’s it.”
“You are a useless social infiltrator. Alright. Come on. Let’s go over it again.”
“Thousandth time’s the charm,” said Jane, rolling her eyes. Nevertheless, she leaned back on Matt’s bed and let out a long, huffing sigh.
“Alright. One: clairvoyants exist.”
“Right. Except maybe they don’t and maybe this lady wasn’t one of them.”
“Right, she’d just psychically… I don’t know, imprinted off one. Or something. We actually have no idea.”
“Clear as mud. Excellent. Continue.”
“Disturbing fact number two: your application to the Academy was submitted by some weird, magical teleporting child.”
“Or something that looked like one. At least that’s what it claimed.”
“Yes. Who also warned you about death.”
“And the end of the world.”
“I’m not going crazy.”
“No, you’ve been cleared by a psychologist,” Jane mused, “And, well, a woman did blow herself up in front of you.”
“In front of us.”
“I feel like I was more of a bystander. I barely saw anything.”
“No, she mentioned you by name.”
“That’s still unsettling. Still-” Jane straightened, flicking hair out of her eyes, “-what the kid said seems to be kind of coming true.”
“Kind of. But why me? Why are all these weirdos fixated on me of all people?”
“It’s got to be because you’re human,” said Jane, “It’s the only logical thing.”
“You’d think so,” said Matt, face twitching into a frown, “Except I don’t really understand why, you know? Surely if anything I’m the person least likely to cause the world to be destroyed, not the most.”
“Yeah I don’t get it either,” agreed Jane, “But the message does seem consistent.” She paused, kneading her palms. “I know we’ve already gone over this, but have you considered the possibility that she was legitimately schizophrenic? Cassandra? Schizophrenic and clairvoyant? They’re not mutually exclusive.”
“I’ve thought about it,” admitted Matt, shaking his head, “But you didn’t hear her. She answered everything I asked her. She seemed completely calm and in control. She wasn’t worried.” He paused. “And she was just so certain, you know? She didn’t seem crazy.”
“I mean, again, the eyeballs.”
“True. It’s a hard case to argue.”
They lapsed into silence.
“The big thing’s got to be the two people,” Matt said eventually, clasping his hands behind his head and drawing a long, deep breath, “That’s what I can’t stop thinking about. That’s what I don’t understand.”
“And there was definitely two of them,” Jane asked, slightly squinting her eyes at him, “Two nebulous, nameless people she kept referring to, one who-”
“Was filled with bottomless love and the other who was just, you know, the absolute worst.”
“Right.” Jane paused. “So we’re thinking one of them is the child, right? The benevolent one?”
“Yeah, except it doesn’t really line up with what she was saying,” said Matt, “Like the way she talked about the good guy, it made him sound like he was a grown-up, that he was… I don’t know, old and wise. And the way she described the bad one – weak, pale little boy – I mean the kid sure fits that description.”
“So the boy is evil,” said Jane, “Except he’s giving you warnings.”
“Except are they even warnings,” said Matt, pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes, “Or am I being manipulated.”
“Matt, I am so far out of my depth right now, I have no goddamn clue.”
“All I wanted,” Matt said through gritted teeth, his eyes still closed, “Was to finish high school, go to a nice, semi-respectable college, and drink a lot. Why is that so goddamn hard?”
“The universe hates you. Come on.” Jane got to her feet. “I’ve got to go. I’m missing too much class.”
“You still care about class?” Matt asked her, opening his eyes and looking up, “We’re looking at the end of the world here! Maybe. We almost got blown up!”
“That’s literally what I signed up for,” Jane shrugged, folding her arms into her sweater, “That’s the Academy. People trying to blow you up is normal.”
“It’s not normal to me,” Matt complained, pouting, “I want to go home.”
“Well it’s not long ‘til Thanksgiving. Everyone goes home then.”
“Great. I meant permanently.”
“I know.” Jane made a face. “Come on. It’s not so bad here.”
“You’re just happy you got to go on your first mission.”
“I know,” she grinned, “Only wish I could rub it in everyone’s face.”
“Such pure motivation.” Matt sighed and pushed himself to his feet. “Nuts to it. I’ll go with you.”
“What, to class?”
“No you idiot, the buffet. It’s almost lunch.”
“I said almost.”
They strode across the room and Jane reached to open the door.
“What.” She turned to him.
“Thanks for saving my life.”
The tall, bronze-haired girl flicked her hair over her shoulder and fixed Matt with a radiant, triumphant smile that stretched from her grey-blue eyes to her spiky tattoo. “You’re goddamn welcome,” she beamed.
It was a surreal feeling, being back at the Academy. In reality, Matt, Jane and the rest of them had barely been gone two hours before they returned, burned, bloodied and bewildered – but to Matt, it felt like he’d been gone a lifetime. It was weird how that worked. Days could fly by, weeks even, without feeling like any time had passed, but a few desperate minutes stretched out so distinctly inside your head. Yet for all the terror and excitement and for all his inability to forget, once Matt stepped foot back into Morningstar it was like nothing had ever happened. Nobody noticed they’d been gone – nobody looked at him differently. He felt changed, or like he should be changed, or should be running around waving his arms and warning people – but nobody cared. Or more accurately, nobody knew.
There were debriefings, of course, and the psychologist. Matt took a little break from meditating with Selwyn, but then found he was both missing the big monk’s company and bored with nothing to do. He kept on sort of waiting, eyeing off shadows and peering into silences, waiting for another sign of the pale child or another clairvoyant or another call. But nothing came. That was, it turned out, the worst part of living through terror – you couldn’t help but keep expecting it to happen all over again.
Of the other Acolytes that had come with him to Albania, the only one Matt hadn’t spoken to was Natalia Baroque. That suited Matt fine – he held no desire to converse with the pasty, raven‑haired English girl, and she seemed to hold no desire to see him. The rest he’d talked to, separately and on the sly. James Conrad had been oddly positive. To him it seemed getting face to face with a clairvoyant was an improvement, even if she had still blown herself up. Giselle Pixus had been more resigned about things, and they’d sort of talked their way around the topic over mimosas with Wally one night, and through that each established that the other was alright. With Will, there hadn’t been much discussion – just a shake of the head when they were both standing in line for the buffet the morning after, and the teleporter muttering in discrete commiseration, “Freaking clairvoyants man.” None of them seemed particularly surprised by the outcome, and none of them seemed particularly disappointed in Matt. When a mission sucked, it seemed you just put it behind you– notch the ‘L’, keep clearing the board, move on.
Of course, none of them knew what had truly transpired. Matt had kept that between Jane, himself and the dead.
“You’re dead Walker.”
They were in the forest. The sky wrapped overhead in a grey and rolling blanket, bringing whispering cold, dimming the light. Branches rustled above them, the scent of pine needles crushed underfoot. Somewhere, a squirrel chittered, taking shelter against the wind. And a boy who looked like he should have been in grade school pressed a gun to the back of Jane’s head.
Jane closed her eyes, trying to block out the pain. Slowly, her gloved hand touched to her chest, then her side, then the back of her neck. When she drew back, it dripped thick with liquid, red and bright.
It was paint, she knew, but that did not spare her the humiliation.
“Get on the ground.”
Jane did no such thing. Instead, she turned stiffly and walked to lean against a pine tree, careful not to wince at the bruises from where the paintballs had hit. The brown-skinned Acolyte boy, who looked like he’d hit puberty with the force of wet toilet paper, raised his faux rifle and flashed it menacingly at her.
“I mean it. I got you empath. Get down.”
“Relax,” snarled Jane. She pressed her back against the tree, the rough grate of scale-like bark. “I’m out.”
This was a field exercise, a training session deep in the woods. It was essential, their instructor claimed, that they understand firearms – that even with their powers, they appreciate the damage a piece of supersonic metal can do and what a super-powered person could do with it. Thus, those in attendance had been split into two groups: one with functioning replica firearms, one without. The former to pursue; the latter to disarm.
It was an asymmetrical exercise. Intentionally so. Jane had been placed on the team of the hunted. That too, was probably intentional.
Allegedly, Jane had teammates, but she’d seen neither hide nor hair of them since the whistle first blew, not that that surprised her anymore. She knew no one among those participating, and she expected nothing. The only surprise in the whole damn thing had been when the boy had phased out of solid rock and shot her square in the chest. Then once more in the side, thigh and back of the head, you know, just to be sure.
Even then, it was only the method of her defeat that surprised her. Not that it had come, or probably been assisted, or orchestrated.
She sat down on the forest floor, her back against the trunk. The Hispanic boy hovered over her a few feet away, gun still raised, seemingly unwilling to go.
“Take a picture,” Jane said, her voice flat with ice and venom, “It’ll last longer.”
The boy hesitated, seemingly a little perturbed by the lack of resistance, of reaction. The barrel of the gun, which Jane now recognised as a TAR-21 from stripping and reassembling them all morning, dipped. Jane stared the pubescent man-child square in his puppy-fat eyes and resolutely didn’t blink.
Eventually, the boy sneered.
“I got you,” he repeated and turned a shimmering translucent, phasing back into the ground. Alone, bruised, paint-dripping and shot, Jane rolled her eyes. The talisman she’d been holding inside her – the knowledge that she’d rode out with the Legion, that she’d up and donned armour, that she’d been on a real mission – was beginning to lose its spark. Reality was sinking in – nobody knew what she’d done, and even if they did, it didn’t seem like it mattered. Nobody outside of Giselle and Wally gave her the time of day, and most still actively loathed her. Every day that passed walked that one night of excitement further and further into nothingness – and dragged her closer and closer to the dulling, burrowing misery that loomed ahead.
The Ninth of October was coming. There was nothing she could do. And so Jane just sat and waited in silence in the dying forest light.
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).