“And then he said he’d see me tomorrow,” Jane gushed. She looked eagerly at Matt, evidentially expecting a reaction, but Matt remained silent, his expression sceptical.
“It happened,” said Jane, souring slightly, “I’m not making this up.”
“I’m sure you’re not,” replied Matt with complete sincerity, but nevertheless keeping his real opinions to himself.
They were sitting at breakfast in the Grand Hall late the next morning, on the quieter end of one of the long tables. True to her word, Jane had gone back to bed after her meeting with Captain Dawn, for all the good it had done – she’d been too keyed up to sleep for several hours. But eventually physical exhaustion had taken its toll, and she’d finally passed out just before sunrise and slept through her morning class. Right now though, Jane didn’t care. There were more important things than classes.
Matt had been surprised to see Jane enter the Hall not long after him, and even more surprised when she’d made an enthusiastic beeline right to where he was sitting reading the paper (North Korea was being re-sanctioned, two Senators had resigned following corruption charges, and Australia had elected their first invisible prime minister) and proceeded to unload on him the events of last night in a torrent of frothing excitement. To Matt, it was slightly unnerving – he’d never seen Jane this excited about anything. The way she was gushing over the finest details, running her fingers through her hair and almost bouncing in her seat made the empath seem less like her usual battle-hardened self and more like a schoolgirl who’d been front row at an NSYNC concert.
“You don’t seem very excited,” said Jane, who had no such problem.
“I am excited,” lied Matt, “It’s very exciting.” He took a sip of orange juice and glanced discretely out of the corner of his eye to check if she was convinced. She wasn’t.
“But?” said Jane, crossing her arms.
“But nothing,” shrugged Matt, putting down the glass, “I just think you’re getting a little worked up over something that’s not that big a deal.”
“Not a big- not a big deal?!” spluttered Jane incredulously, “It’s Captain Dawn!”
“Yeah exactly, it’s Captain Dawn. He lives here doesn’t he? Everyone’s probably run into him at some point.”
“Have you?” Jane demanded.
“No,” Matt conceded.
“Well, whatever. I’m happy that you’re happy.”
“Thank you,” said Jane, although still somewhat irritably.
They were silent for a minute before Matt couldn’t help himself.
“It’s a little weird though, don’t you think?” he said, “Isn’t Captain Dawn meant to be a recluse?”
“Oh so before seeing him was normal, now it’s weird?”
“I’m just saying, guy sounds pretty friendly for a hermit.”
“He’s not a hermit,” hissed Jane, scandalised, “He’s in mourning!”
“What, for ten years?”
“You try having all your friends die, see how you feel!” Jane snapped.
“I guess,” conceded Matt, perhaps feeling a little bad at his own heartlessness, “I suppose there’s no way I can talk you out of going to the Darkest Day Service now.”
“No way in hell,” Jane replied matter-of-factly, spreading strawberry jelly over a piece of toast.
“Even if I said that you being there is probably going to mean some sort of unpleasantness?”
“Nope,” reiterated Jane, popping the toast into her mouth, “I said I’d go and I’m going.”
“Right,” Matt muttered under his breath, “Wouldn’t want to disappoint the Captain.”
“Nothing. Have you seen Ed by the way? He was supposed to be down here this morning.”
“Nope,” answered Jane, unconcerned.
“He’s probably in the lab,” said Matt, more to himself than anyone, “I should check he’s alright.”
“He’s fine,” Jane assured him, dismissing Matt’s concerns with a wave of her hand, “You worry too much.”
“Someone has to,” Matt muttered. He stood up. “Give me a sec to fill up a plate, I’m going to check he’s okay.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Jane, also standing up.
“What about classes?” said Matt, somewhat surprised. They started towards the buffet.
“I’ve already missed the morning ones. May as well take the day off.” She watched as Matt filled a plate with food then fell into step alongside him as they strode back through the Hall.
“What? I want to be fresh for tomorrow.”
“Fresh so that you look good, or fresh so that you’re good to go when someone attacks you?”
Jane’s only reply was a non-committal grunt as they passed through the Hall doors.
“Well at least your celebrity crush hasn’t completely melted your mind,” Matt said ruefully. Jane simply rolled her eyes and started humming.
They arrived at Ed’s computer lab to find the door closed and a fluorescent glow emanating from beneath the doorframe, despite it being close to midday. Matt sighed and rapped a knuckle on the wood.
“Ed, we’re coming in!” he called, “Be decent!”
With only a quick, despairing glance at Jane, Matt turned the stainless-steel handle and pushed the door open, instantly engulfing the pair of them in a wave of stale air. Matt coughed.
“Jesus Ed, open a window.” Over in the far corner, the genius’s messy black mop peered out from behind his workstation, adjusting his glasses with one hand. The eyes behind the lenses were bleary.
“Hey,” he said – his voice distant, somewhere between a sigh and a moan, “What’s up?”
“You said you’d be down for breakfast,” Matt reminded him, glancing around at the empty room illuminated by sickly, artificial light, “It’s almost eleven.”
“Oh,” said Ed wearily. His head moved back behind his computer. “Sorry. Lost track of time.”
“You don’t say,” muttered Matt, shaking his head. He strode over to the long window that ran down one length of the room and wrenched open the blinds. Natural light streamed in and Matt’s fingers began fiddling with the latch.
“What do you do, just sit in here all day and fart?” asked Jane, wrinkling her nose. She flopped down into a disused office chair, obviously feeling no need to help. Ed, preoccupied with whatever was on the screen in front of him, declined to answer. Matt pulled open the window and a breath of fresh air seeped into the room.
“I brought you some food,” he said, picking up the plate from where he’d set it down on a table and moving towards Ed’s workstation. The genius grunted his thanks and Matt took in Ed’s dishevelled clothes, unkempt hair and the numerous empty cans of energy drink littering his desk.
“You pulled another all-nighter didn’t you?” asked Matt, already knowing the answer.
“Sleep is for the weak,” murmured Ed, not looking up from the screen. His fingers tapped so quickly across the keyboard that the sound could have been mistaken for rain.
“Amen to that,” smirked Jane, raising an imaginary glass.
“Don’t encourage him,” berated Matt.
“Sorry,” said Jane, not sorry at all.
“Why were you up?” Ed asked flatly from over in his corner, still fixated on the computer.
“She had a sensuous midnight rendezvous with the leader of our esteemed institution,” Matt answered before Jane could say anything.
“Captain Dawn?” Ed asked in disbelief, actually looking up from his screen.
“It wasn’t sensuous, I wasn’t rendezvousing,” growled Jane, glaring daggers at Matt, which he parried with a broad smile. Although she didn’t sound too unhappy at the insinuation. “I went for a run and bumped into Captain Dawn. We talked. That’s all.”
“They’re getting married in the spring,” added Matt.
“I can hurt you,” reminded Jane.
“That’s odd though,” remarked Ed, his dark eyebrows furrowed, apparently oblivious to their back and forth, “Captain Dawn usually avoids people. I’ve been here three years, I’ve never seen him wandering the halls once.”
“Yeah, I heard he was a recluse,” said Matt, leaning on his heels, hands in his pockets.
“You guys are full of it,” said Jane, rolling her eyes, “I see him all the time.”
“All the time?”
“Well, twice,” conceded the empath, “He was walking around that night I was in the Infirmary.”
Both boys stared at her. “You never told me that,” Matt said, surprised and a little hurt.
Jane just shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant, “It’s not a big deal. We chatted a little. It was cool. What-” she turned to look at Ed, “-do you think that means something?”
“It’s just unusual,” replied the genius. He adjusted his glasses and peered at the empath with newfound interest. “Most Acolytes never see him outside of the Darkest Day. Let alone get to talk to him, twice.”
“Is that… do you think that’s bad?” asked Jane, suddenly looking worried.
“Well, no,” blinked Ed, as Matt watched, “I don’t know. Probably the opposite, maybe – by the sound of it, I’d say he’s taken a liking to you.”
“You think?” said Jane, and it wasn’t difficult to hear the excitement in her voice. Matt rolled his eyes so hard the sockets hurt.
“So what happened Ed?” he asked, changing the subject, “What could possibly be so important that you’d just leave me hanging?”
“Sorry,” muttered the genius. He shot one last curious glance at Jane before swivelling in his chair to face Matt, “I lost track of time.”
“You know this isn’t good for you man. You need sleep.”
“I know,” Ed sighed. He lowered his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I just get caught up.”
“Caught up in what? What’re you doing?” Matt leaned over and glanced at the indecipherable jargon littering Ed’s screens. “I swear to God if you’ve been up all night playing Counterstrike, I may have to call off this friendship.”
“No it’s not, I wasn’t, I’m-” the genius stammered.
“Relax Ed,” said Matt, patting him on the shoulder, “I’m just giving you a hard time.” He tilted his head slightly to one side, trying to make sense of the kaleidoscope of colours, code and numbers that Ed had open on multiple windows. “But seriously, what is this stuff?”
The genius hesitated for a second then glanced at Jane, who was half-listening, half rocking on her chair.
“It’s fine man, she’s cool,” Matt assured him. He looked over at the empath. “If Ed tells us what he’s working on, you won’t go spreading it around, right?”
Jane shrugged. “Who would I even tell?”
“Exactly,” said Matt, turning back to the computers, “I’m your friend and she’s got no friends, you can trust us.”
Ed seemed to wrestle internally for a second or two before sighing. “Alright,” he conceded, “Fine. It’s one of my major projects.” He paused, then gave both of them meaningful looks. “I’m mapping the human genome.”
Across the room, Jane made a face. “Didn’t they already do that?” she asked insensitively. “What?” she added defiantly as Matt shot her a furtive ‘shut up’ glance.
Ed brushed off the implied insult. “No,” he answered with a patient smile – the kind an adult might have when explaining something basic to a child, “They’ve mapped the superhuman genome – at least a few of them.”
“A few of them?” remarked Matt.
“We’re all different – each power configuration is supported by a different genetic structure. But that’s peasant stuff – point and click, rote learning.” Ed’s voice was gaining momentum, growing more excited as he carried on. Matt couldn’t help wondering if they were the first people he’d spoken about this to out loud. “Any college lab can map a superhuman genome, given enough time. Why couldn’t they, it’s just note-taking, the sequence is right there.”
“So what’re you doing then?” asked Matt, “If you’re not doing that?”
“I told you,” replied Ed, turning and smiling up at him, “I’m mapping the human genome.”
A sudden, icy pit punched into Matt’s stomach. “The what?”
“The human genome. The pre-superhumanism layout of DNA.” He looked over at Jane, who had her head cocked and her eyes narrowed. “See, before the Aurora genetics as a field hadn’t really taken off, at least not in terms of gene mapping. We were getting there – no disrespect to the old‑world scientists – but it hadn’t happened. And then after the Aurora hit, sure, we’ve come leaps and bounds – but everyone’s superhuman. Now all our genes are different, all hodge-podges of unrelated code. Even as babies. Did you know that?” he added enthusiastically, all tiredness forgotten. “Even years before someone’s powers manifest, technically you can tell what they’re going to be just from looking at their genes.” He scoffed, more to himself than anyone else. “Of course, at this stage it’d take years and cost millions, so why would you bother, but still-” Ed’s eyes gleamed, “-it’s possible.”
“But,” he continued, unfazed by Matt and Jane’s stunned silence, “Here’s the thing. We’re all superhuman. A hundred percent. There’s literally not a single scrap of original recipe human left on the planet. It’s all lost to history, mutated by the Aurora before we could get a proper look. So that’s it.” He shot significant glances at both of them. “That’s what I’m trying to figure out.”
“What are you trying to figure out?” asked Jane, still a little lost.
“The human genome,” repeated Ed, more excited than impatient at having to repeat himself, “See, I figure, the Aurora modified all our DNA into these crazy new structures, right? All these wildly different genetic codes? I mean, it defies science that our species can still procreate. Reproduction shouldn’t work!”
“So that’s your excuse,” needled Matt, throwing up a smile he didn’t feel.
“Shut up,” scowled Ed, “Where was I? Oh yeah, the Aurora. The Aurora heavily changed our DNA – but it changed it from something, right? It took the colours and it spun them, but the picture we’re getting now is still rooted in that first configuration.”
“You’re saying we’re all human, deep down inside?” asked Jane, looking sceptical.
Ed turned to her. “I’m saying parts of us are. We all look the same, talk the same, walk the same. The building blocks are still there. And if we can identify those base codes, put them together…”
“…we’d have the DNA of a normal human,” murmured Matt. He understood what Ed was trying to do – and he found the staggering coincidence deeply, deeply uncomfortable, especially in light of recent events. Stay hidden, the boy’s words whispered. Unbeknownst to Ed, the answer to the problem that had him working through the night was standing not three feet away, trapped in Matt’s spit, blood and follicles.
“How’re you doing it?” queried Jane before Matt could say anything. She was looking at the genius with a sort of newfound respect – but her eyes flicked to Matt’s in a way that told him she’d made the same dangerous connection he had.
Ed shrugged, oblivious to the meaningful look that had passed between Matt and Jane. “Well I’m looking at various superhuman gene sequences,” he said, rotating the computer screen so they could both see his windows of colours and code, “Trying to find the common ground. It’s not easy – a lot of trial and error, a lot of balls in the air, definitely genius work.” He paused and looked back at them. “It’s like having a whole gallery full of paintings and examining all of them to try and figure out what a plain white canvas looked like. It’s time consuming – frustrating too. You find yourself wishing someone had just kept a blank canvas around, instead of painting on all of them.”
“Yeah,” Jane agreed, with a slightly nervous laugh.
“But why?” asked Matt. The cold feeling in his guts had not abated and it took considerable effort to keep his voice level. “I mean, why go to all the trouble? What’s the point?”
Ed blinked, looking a little taken aback. “Science is the point. Discovery. Furthering mankind’s understanding of the universe. What greater purpose is there?”
“So there’s no practical application?” said Matt, trying not to sound relieved – but before his icy dread could dissipate, Ed shook his head.
“I never said that,” responded the genius, “There’re loads of practical applications, if I crack it. No, not if-” he looked back at the screens in front of him, suddenly sounding confident, “-when. When I crack it, there could be loads of potential applications.”
“Like?” Matt asked, apprehensively.
“Well, permanent neutralisation comes to mind.”
“Excuse me?” said Jane, incredulous.
“Permanent neutralisation. An anti-powers vaccine – something that strips someone of their abilities.”
“Pretty sure that’s against the Second Amendment,” Matt said with a scowl. Ed waved him away.
“The Founding Fathers wrote the Second Amendment about muskets, not mind control,” he dismissed.
“The Supreme Court disagreed. Powers are an inalienable right.”
“Itsch true,” piped up Jane, through a mouthful of toast. She’d started helping herself to Ed’s untouched food.
“Only because we have no way of permanently alienating them,” Ed retorted, “But we could. If I get this.”
Matt couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “You say that like being able to take away people’s powers is a good thing!”
“Isn’t it?” mused the genius. He offered up a pacifying hand at the look on Matt’s face. “Think about how many people have to get the death penalty because we don’t have the facilities to hold them.”
“How many criminals, you mean,” replied Matt, “And it’s less each year.”
“Still,” said Ed, undeterred, “What if there was another way? A better way?”
“A way to strip someone of their fundamental rights?”
“More than killing them?”
“Criminals make their choice,” said Matt, shaking his head, “They choose to commit serious crimes, the worst of the worst, despite all the systems we’ve got in place to help them. Telepaths make a hundred percent sure that someone is beyond saving before we resort to the needle.”
“So they say,” scoffed Ed, but Matt ignored him.
“But if you start throwing around an anti-powers vaccine, it’s not just criminals who are going to get it. How long before governments start using it to control people? How long before the old imbalances return?”
“How would mapping the human genome even help?” asked Jane, who up until now had been watching the debate in deliberative silence, “I mean cool, you know what human DNA looked like. Whoopty-doo. How does that change anything?”
“It’s purely speculative,” answered Ed, who was still glancing at the anger on Matt’s face with some degree of confusion, “But in theory if you could synthesise a replica of empathic binding – the process by which a blood-based empath absorbs and replicates new DNA at a genetic level – you could rewrite someone’s entire genetic code and replace it with a human DNA sequence.”
To both Matt and Ed’s surprise, Jane laughed. “Yeah, that won’t work,” she stated, chuckling.
Ed appeared rankled. “What do you mean?” he said, slightly irritably, “Why not?”
“Hello?” laughed Jane, “Hynes and Calford? I thought you were meant to be a genius.”
“I don’t get it,” said Matt, who genuinely didn’t, glancing from one to the other, “What’s Hynes and Calford?”
Jane turned to him, smiling and ever so slightly rolling her eyes, “Hynes and Calford were a pair of scientists who had the same bright idea Ed had a few years ago – mimic empathic absorption and use it to Velcro new traits onto criminals. Except they didn’t use human DNA, they used neutraliser.” She shook her head. “They thought it would be like having a little neutraliser running around the criminal’s bloodstream stopping them using their powers, but all it did was give them cancer.”
Matt stared at her, taken aback, unused to Jane knowing more about science than he did. “How do you know all this?”
Jane shrugged. “Just empath stuff. Keep my ear to the ground.”
“Their formula was flawed,” muttered Ed, arms crossed and defiant, “And their reasoning unsound.”
“How so?” scoffed Jane, turning back to face him, seemingly unconcerned about going toe-to-toe in a scientific argument with a genius.
“They tried to put one power on top of another,” Ed explained, adjusting his glasses, “And hoped the second would make the first go away. It’s stupid, like trying to zero an equation by throwing in a random number and being surprised when it doesn’t disappear.”
“But adding in human DNA would be different?”
“Yes. Because instead of trying to remove a person’s ability by counter-balancing it, you’d be negativing their superhumanism all together.”
“In English, please.”
“Human DNA is the baseline for all of us,” explained Ed, with only a trace of impatience, “It’s zero. If you fold it into a superhuman genetic structure, it doesn’t matter what that person is or does – the end result would be the same. It’s multiplying by zero. Big number, small, doesn’t matter – multiply by zero and you get nothing.”
He paused. “Although,” he admitted, “That’s just the theory. I haven’t even figured out human DNA yet. I could be completely off.”
“I still think mimicking empathic absorption is a pipe dream,” Jane said with a shake of her head, “Nobody’s come up with a way to replicate any powers yet, let alone empathy. The technology’s way off.”
“Well then, I guess that’s the next step after this one.”
“I still think it’s a bad idea,” Matt muttered. Ed turned to him.
“Think about the Black Death,” said the genius, “Think about what he was able to do because we didn’t have anyone who could stop him.”
“Captain Dawn stopped him,” interjected Jane almost as a reflex.
“Yes, Captain Dawn stopped the Black Death,” Ed said impatiently, “But not before the world was almost destroyed. Imagine if we’d had something like this back then! Imagine the lives we could’ve saved.”
“The Black Death is dead,” Jane said flatly. Ed just shook his head.
“And there’ll never be anyone else like him? Never be someone who gets powerful and goes crazy? It’s only a matter of time. We need to be prepared.”
Ed turned back to his computer and his windows full of unsequenced genes.
“It’s not enough to remember the Darkest Day,” he said quietly, “Not enough to remember those who died, to honour their memories. We have to learn from what happened, or they all died for nothing. We need to be ready. We need to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
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).