The night was dark and the halls were silent, and Jane Walker was alone.
An empty expanse of long, dim-lit room stretched out before her, haunting and still in the moonlight. Five rows of empty auditorium seats ran along the left side, facing the empty expanse and off-cream wall on the right. Junior Acolytes weren’t supposed to use the gravity chamber unsupervised – the technology was complicated. But tonight, Jane just needed a place to be hidden, somewhere to push away what was eating her.
It was 2am. The rain had stopped and a white sliver of new moon was poking its head between the clouds. Jane couldn’t sleep. Her insides gnawed with a sickly, nervous dread, the feeling of fearful surrealism that lingers a few minutes after waking from a nightmare. She’d tried to shake it, tossed and turned, but to no avail. The fearful energy wouldn’t leave. And so she’d come here, alone in the dark, to try and burn it out.
She approached the clear panel on the wall she’d watched the Ashes adjust a few times and set the gravity to two times norm. With a low whirring hum Jane felt the machine that was the room start up and a moment later an invisible weight pressed down upon her shoulders. She fell to the ground in the push-up position.
One. Two. Three…
The sound of her increasingly-ragged breathing, her creaking joints and rustling clothes as she pushed against the hardwood floor engulfed her senses. The giant chamber, usually filled with shouts and blasts and the crackle of powers, stood silent, save for her.
Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen…
She stopped, pushed to standing and broke into a run with only the smallest hesitation. Her bare feet padded quietly up and down the length of the room.
One. Two. Three…
It was a strange night. A restless night. A full moon, her Grandma would have said, except it wasn’t. She hadn’t thought about her Grandma in years, almost as long as she’d been dead. No room, she guessed, for sentiment.
Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen…
She was off and running again, the sweat from her forehead dripping into her eyes. This was why she’d come here – everything took more effort, sapped more thought. Her hand touched the far wall. She turned and turned.
One. Two. Three…
Jane ran back and forth, sweating hard but breathing steady, the laps blurring together, identical save for the dull ache slowly spreading through her legs and chest. She lost count around thirty, her mind blank and her eyes unfocused, seeing nothing but the unchanging floor.
Fourteen. Fifteen. Six-
A small, sudden noise from somewhere in her periphery snapped her out of her trance. Jane looked up – and immediately skidded to a halt, her red face blanching as white as her singlet.
“Don’t let me disturb you,” murmured Captain Dawn, his soft voice echoing down the chamber. He was standing at the other end of the room, his golden-gloved hands clasped behind his back, having appeared as if from nowhere who knows how long ago. Time seemed to freeze. The world around Jane narrowed and blurred, everything irrelevant except the white-gold figure framed impassively in the doorway. For what seemed like hours – but in reality was only a few seconds – she just stood there gawking, unable to hear anything except the erratic pounding of her heart.
“Are you alright?” Dawn asked, mild puzzlement blooming across his handsome face. A rush of panic surged through Jane as reality came crashing back in, and she became suddenly, painfully aware of how stupid she must look, standing with her mouth hanging open like she was trying to catch flies. Her jaw stammered open and shut, struggling to form words, to say any one of the million things which simultaneously seized her as being monumentally important to say, but unfortunately her brain seemed to have turned to mush and everything she could think of got all tangled up together, tripping over her tongue and catching in her throat. Dawn tilted his head slightly to one side, looking at her with an expression of some concern, and Jane resolved to commit ritual suicide at the next available opportunity.
“C-Captain!” she finally managed to get out, the word coming up like a hairball, “W-what are- I mean I’m sorry I- I was just- I couldn’t-” She jerked her hands half towards the door, half towards him in a strangled, manic gesture that she immediately tried to take back partway through and which communicated nothing to anybody. “How long… I… ah…”
“Jane,” said Captain Dawn calmly, and Jane felt suddenly faint. He knew her name.
“Y-yes sir?” she stammered.
Jane drew in a long, shaky breath, feeling her chest expand. She closed her eyes and opened them again.
“Better?” asked the Captain.
“Y-yes sir. Th-thank you sir.”
They looked at each other, the hero with a small smile on his face, the empath clutching nervously at her arm and wishing she was wearing something other than a ratty singlet. A silence spread throughout the room and Jane wondered if it was awkward, if she was supposed to say something. Captain Dawn seemed in no hurry to speak.
“D-do you nee- want the gravity- I mean, the room, Captain, do you want the room?” she stammered, then added hurriedly “Because if you- just say so, I can-”
“No thank you,” Dawn replied. His eyes had wandered behind her. “Are you training?”
“Yes. I mean no! Not really, I’m not, there’s not, like, an exercise, I’m just …” She laughed, an unnaturally high almost barking sound. Oh God what was she doing please make it stop. “Up-push- push-ups. Sir. I can’t sleep,” she added, as if that somehow made it better.
“I see,” said the Captain, his face deliberately blank. Jane couldn’t tell if he was angry. She felt a sudden surge of panic swell up in her guts.
“Sir, I know I’m not supposed to be in here-” she started desperately, but before she could try to explain Dawn cut her off.
“Why?” he asked. Jane blinked.
“Why are you not allowed here?” He seemed genuinely curious.
“I… ah…” replied Jane, confused at the direction the conversation was taking and struggling to find a reply, “Because of the, ah, artificial gravity. We aren’t supposed to…” Her voice trailed off.
“Ah,” murmured Captain Dawn, glancing around the empty space as if seeing the weight pressing down around them. Then without any sound or warning he began to rise, floating gently up, his arms open, his palms upturned. Jane watched in wonder as he rose above her, detached, the golden waterfall of his cape waving softly in the dim light.
“You’re right,” he said finally, looking up at the ceiling, “The air is heavy here.” Three feet above Jane’s head, standing as if supported by some invisible platform, he glanced down at her and smiled. “The wonders of our age.”
He floated back down, coming to land not two feet in front of her. Jane felt herself become very, very still.
“Why can’t you sleep, little empath?” asked Captain Dawn. There was no hostility in his words, only honey and music. From up close, Jane could drink in every detail of his face – his emerald eyes, his perfect skin, his proud, defined jawline. A face she’d looked up at every night for years, but which was now somehow so different from the poster, so much more amazing in real life.
Jane struggled to form an answer, her cheeks flushing with an uncomfortable heat that had nothing to do with running. “I… uh… it’s… just n-nerves. It’s two days- I mean, technically tomorrow, now, is the… um… you know… the Darkest Day.” She spoke the last part in a very small voice, averting her eyes.
“Ah,” said Dawn softly.
“Not that I’d… not that you didn’t…”
“Of course. A sad day for all of us.”
“Yeah,” Jane said ineffectually. She stole a glance up at the Captain, whose face remained smooth and impassive.
“And this concerns you?” he asked after a moment’s silence, “This drives you from your rest?”
“I don’t know,” she replied – but that wasn’t right and the truth gnawed at her chest. Dawn was watching her, she knew, as if able to see right through her evasion.
“I just… it’s never a good day for me,” she finally confessed.
“For any of us,” corrected the Captain. Jane blanched, horrified – here she was, talking about the Darkest Day being bad for her to Captain Dawn, the man from whom it had taken literally everyone.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t- of course it would be-”
Dawn raised a hand, silencing her fumbling mid-sentence. “What is lost is lost,” he said simply, “Grief cannot bring back the dead-”
“I know sir, I’m so sorry, I can’t imagine what-”
“-and nor can sympathy,” he finished, ignoring Jane’s fumbling, “Believe me, I have received enough of both over the years. So please, let neither sadness nor thoughts of the departed keep you from your sleep.”
“Yes sir,” said Jane, lowering her gaze.
“There is a time for mourning, and a time for remembrance. This is neither.”
“Yes sir,” she repeated. An uncomfortable silence stretched out between them. Jane could feel the man’s eyes studying her face.
“Except that’s not what’s keeping you up, is it?” he mused after a while.
“No sir,” admitted Jane, feeling ashamed.
“Then what is it, young one?”
“People always want to…” She sighed, hating herself for voicing this aloud, especially to him, “To… I guess… get revenge. Around this time.”
“Ah,” the Captain said quietly, “And they tend to seek you out for this revenge?”
“And so you are afraid.”
“No,” Jane lied, too quickly. On top of everything else she didn’t need Dawn thinking she was a coward. “I’ll be fine, it’ll be like every year, I’ll just wait it out-”
“Wait it out.”
“Yeah. I won’t be any trouble sir, I promise. I’ll stay in my room.”
For a few seconds, Captain Dawn was silent, one arm across his chest, one finger pressed to his lips.
“The Academy holds a memorial service at sunrise, every year, on the Darkest Day,” he said finally, “Few things are mandatory here, but that is.”
Jane blinked. “I know sir, but it’s just… I thought that-”
“Why are you here Jane?” Dawn’s voice was soft, but his question was direct.
“Why are you here?”
She hesitated. “I want to be in the Legion.”
The empath fell silent. For what seemed like an eternity she simply stood there, staring at the ground, feeling the Captain’s gaze pressing down upon her. She knew the answer of course, as she suspected did he.
“I want to be a hero,” she said finally, in a small, quiet voice.
“For how long?” Dawn asked simply.
“All my life,” Jane admitted, and it felt stupid, foolish, beyond childish to say.
“All your life,” the Captain repeated, and to Jane’s relief there was no mocking in his voice. She looked up to find him looking down, a strange, resolute expression on his face.
“And is hiding in your room, staying out of sight in the hope of not inciting fools to violence – is this what heroes do?” He said it without venom, but the words cut deep.
“No sir,” whispered Jane. She lowered her head, too ashamed to meet his gaze – but to her astonishment, Dawn’s hand reached over and gently lifted her chin so that she was staring up into his eyes. The glove’s fabric was soft, silken against her skin. All of a sudden, Jane’s heartbeat was deafening.
“Do not hide what you are,” said Captain Dawn, “Do not be ashamed. Embrace it. Be proud.” He dropped his hand but not her gaze. “Heroes do not flee because their presence disquiets the world. Heroes do what needs to be done, because they must.” He paused, his green eyes searching.
Jane’s insides squirmed, but she couldn’t look away. “But I’ll offend-”
“Your presence does not offend me,” said the Captain, cutting over her murmured protests, “And if it does not offend me, then no else can complain that it offends them. Offence is the problem of the offended. Don’t let yourself be cowed by fear of fragile feelings. Walk openly, as is your right. Stand tall amongst your equals.”
“But everyone hates-”
“They hate what they fear,” Dawn said simply, his expression resolute, his voice unwavering, “What they cannot be. You are powerful, gifted, and those that are not will always hate you for it.”
He turned away from her slightly, his eyes wandering off into nothing. “A hero is someone strong enough to change the world – strong enough to forge a path, to walk unburdened by doubt and the jealousies of those who cannot see beyond their own comfort. The world resents heroes – resents, or reveres,” he added, smiling at himself, “But never let that stop you.”
“I won’t,” Jane whispered, and this time Dawn smiled.
“Good girl.” He touched her lightly on the cheek; her marked cheek. “You are an Acolyte. Never forget that. Now get some rest.” He turned, his golden cape swishing behind him. “And I will see you at tomorrow’s ceremony.”
“Yes sir,” she smiled but he was already gone, leaving her alone in the dark, weight lifted from her shoulders despite the gravity – the skin on her chin and cheek tingling where he’d touched her, her head hot and her heart hammering for reasons entirely unrelated to any workout.
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).