Happy 2014!

This might be a bit early or a bit delayed for those of you in different time zones, but, to everyone in the correct time zone, Happy New Year! 😛 . I thought I’d include all three chapters in one post as a gift. Hope you enjoy it!

Chapter 1:

 

Wayne woke up from a dream-riddled sleep and smashed his head on the bunk above him. Not for the first time in his life – or the last – he groaned. Across the room Manuel sniggered.

“What’s this bed doing here?” he said in a goofy voice, miming Wayne’s collision.

The dozen or so kids that were still in the dormitory laughed. Wayne sighed. Manuel was one of the worst things about living the Orphanage, although the list of things he hated about the place went on and on.

He got up and went to the dining hall. He didn’t have to change; he slept in the sole pair of clothes he owned, a colourless T-shirt and a faded pair of shorts with a tear in the side. He tried to remember what he’d been dreaming about as he grabbed a disposable plastic plate and scooped a handful of beige-coloured soup onto it. The dream had seemed more realistic than most, but that wasn’t stopping it slipping through his fingers like sand. What he really needed was a quiet place where he could think in peace.

The grainy television across the hall blurted out a faded tune and three words flashed up across the screen; Emergan Morning News. The news team consisted of one greying male reporter. The city of Emergan had been a small inland town up until about twenty years ago. The discovery of a huge iron ore deposit several kilometres south of it had increased its population sixfold, and increased its size by at least three times that. It was a wonder that there was a whole channel dedicated to Emergan, although it generally showed the same programs as it’s parent company.

Manuel slid into the seat next to him. His plate looked a lot fuller than Wayne’s; he’d obviously forced some younger kid to abstain for the morning.

“Are you eating that?” he asked, sticking a thick finger into Wayne’s soup.

Wayne turned to look at Manuel. His usual henchmen weren’t here. He must’ve thought he could take Wayne by himself.

“Yes,” Wayne replied, looking at Manuel squarely.

Manuel seemed to realise that he wasn’t going to get anything out of this. Anything good, at least. He was far taller than Wayne, but skinny as a reed. It was his henchmen, Alvaro and Fred, who were the six-foot walls of muscle. Wayne was smaller, but solidly built.

Manuel’s eyes narrowed. He’d been in the orphanage for only two months, but during that time he’d come to expect others to follow his orders instantly and without reservation. He leaned forward and whispered in Wayne’s ear.

“The rubbish tip. Half an hour.”

Wayne raised an eyebrow.

“Or what?” he asked.

Manuel scanned the room. On the other side a group of ten year olds were watching the conflict with interest. They’d always done what Manuel had told them, but seeing Wayne they realised they could stand up to him.

“See those kids?” Manuel asked.

Wayne’s face stayed the same, but his heart missed a beat. Manuel could quite literally get away with murder in the orphanage. He could hurt or maim and say that it was an accident. No one would try to correct him. The staff of the orphanage loved Manuel; he was a charming boy, and he was a leader among his peers. It was only the orphans themselves who knew the real story.

Wayne stood up, sending his chair skidding back a few centimetres.

“You’re on,” he said.

Wayne walked away, leaving his breakfast untouched. He went through his normal morning’s routine, but there was an odd feeling about it. The knowledge of what was going to happen weighed him down like a cold stone in the bottom of his stomach.

He thought about backing out, possibly faking an injury or go to the staff. He shook his head. If he backed out, whatever happened to those ten year-olds would be on his conscience. If he faked an injury, the same thing would happen. If he went to the staff, he’d probably be laughed out of their office and they’d tell Manuel. Then he’d be an even better target. No, he’d to go.

Twenty-five minutes later, Wayne made his way to the front of the orphanage and signed out. There was no staff member at the desk, but Wayne felt a little more secure as he left the orphanage and made his way to the tip. If he didn’t come back, the staff would be able to see using the clipboard. Then they might search for him, or ask people if they’d seen him.

The tip was probably the only thing in Emergan that was worse than the orphanage. It was manned by a skeleton crew of two workers, who were in the air-conditioned office at the front entrance. It wasn’t a scorching day, but there was nothing for the workers to do around the tip and Emergan were playing some international team on the television.

Wayne entered through the car exit gate. The office had a single window, which ran right along the other entrance. Wayne was slightly amazed that the tip was so easy to enter, but he guessed that it only held rubbish and scraps.

He rounded a head-high mound of rusty wheel rims. Ahead of him were a half-dozen kids from the orphanage. Wayne felt his heart slow a little and his stomach unclench. Manuel would be less likely to do anything bad in front of the others. A few of the kids saw him. They beckoned for him to come over, splitting in two to form a pathway.

Wayne walked towards them, but when he was a few metres from entering the path, he paused and frowned.

No one overheard us, he thought, thinking back to Manuel’s summons. I didn’t tell anyone, so it must have been Manuel. But why would he? He would want secrecy, so if he injured me he could get away with it.

     Wayne studied the people in front of him again. Something seemed … not quite right. He didn’t quite recognise their faces. Their clothing was tattered, but it looked like it had been bought that way. Their shoes looked brand new, their logos still clearly visible.

“Bring him here!” a voice screeched over the heads of the crowd.

Manuel’s voice.

Wayne realised that he’d been tricked a millisecond before the crowd in front of him surged forward. The kids weren’t from the orphanage; they were from Manuel’s gang.

Wayne turned sprinted for the tip’s exit. The gang was barely metres behind him. Most of them were older than him, but their basketball shoes and various addictions meant that Wayne had increased his lead by several metres by the time he reached the mountain of rusty wheels.

He pulled at a wheel as he ran by the mound, sending a dozen wheels tumbling down the side of the heap. A gang member tripped over a rolling wheel, forcing those behind him to slow.

Wayne risked a quick glance back at the gang. They were strung out now, the ones who bothered to run more than a few metres to the toilet leading their peers.

Wayne rounded a pile of scrap metal. The brick fence of the tip was to his side, with rubbish piled up high against it. He was almost out of the tip. The exit was less than a hundred metres along the wall. He was going to make it!

Four gang members stepped through the exit. One lowered his phone from his ear and slipped it into his pocket.

Wayne stopped and felt his stomach drop. Manuel had outwitted him again. The gang members blocking the exit looked in no hurry to move. If they wanted to they would be on Wayne in seconds. Wayne could hear the sound of the other group catching up. He couldn’t go for the exit, and he couldn’t go back the way he’d came from. He could go sideways, and go deeper into the tip, but with sixteen people at his disposal, Manuel would find him in minutes.

Manuel clattered around the corner with his dozen followers arriving second later. Even from forty metres, Wayne could see the grin on Manuel’s face as he saw that his trap had worked perfectly. He advanced slowly towards Wayne, casually pulling out a switchblade. His face looked flushed. He’d been drinking.

Wayne took a step backwards. His foot hit the base of one of the mounds of rubbish that rested up against the wall.

Like a bolt from the heavens, Wayne realised how he was going to get out of this. He felt a smile return to his face.

“Yes,” Manuel slurred. “I think I’ll start with your ugly face.”

Wayne responded by turning to face the brick wall and scrambling up the mound of rubbish. Manuel let out a shout and charged towards him, but Wayne was half way up the junk pile by the time he got there. Manuel bent his arm back, and threw his switchblade at Wayne. Normally he would have hit from this range, but his aim had been effected by alcohol. The knife fell short of its target, hitting a bent piece of scrap metal and tumbling back down to the ground below.

Manuel bent to pick up his knife, but by the time he’d straightened up Wayne had reached the top of the pile. Wayne scrambled over the wall and tumbled over it. He crashed into a woody bush. Its branches whipped into him, scoring his skin with numerous cuts. His ankle twisted awkwardly as the ground rose through the bush to crash into him. A sharp pain flared up in his wrist as he desperately tried to stop his head from hitting the ground. It was lucky the wall was only two and a half metres tall; if the drop had been any further his ankle probably would have snapped.

Wayne picked himself up from the ground. He was covered in dirt but he didn’t have time to brush it off. He pushed his way through the bushes, hearing the sound of Manuel’s directions behind him. A branch snapped backwards and hit him in the face. He kept going, crunching foliage underneath his feet.

The bushes finally fell away and he tumbled onto the pathway beside the tip. The four gang members who’d been blocking the exit were barely twenty metres away. The bigger group were just coming through the gate right now.

Wayne levered himself up from the ground. His bruised muscles screamed in progress. Wincing, he sprinted in the opposite direction from the gang, crossing over the road.

Every pounding stride was agony, but if the gang caught up to him it’d be a lot worse. He cut in between two buildings into a dank alleyway. It was barely wide enough for him; hopefully it’d slow the gang down. There was a broad bin halfway down. He tugged it to one side. It slammed to the ground and rubbish flowed out. Hopefully it’d give him an extra second.

He tried to think of a plan as he shot out of the alleyway. He’d to lose the gang first and find somewhere to hide. Then … then he’d have to stay away from the orphanage for as long as possible. Hopefully by then Manuel would be sober and calm, although Wayne didn’t see how anything at the orphanage would ever be the same again.

He heard a crash behind him and turned to check it out. A half-smashed glass bottle skittered out of the alleyway. Wayne smiled. The bin had done its job.

He looked back ahead. The corner of a building was barely ten metres away. If he could get around it and out of sight before the gang came out of the alley, they’d have a hard time finding him.

Wayne doubled his stride, doubled his intensity and put everything he’d into those last few metres. He flung a hand out to catch the corner of the building, swinging around the side. He’d a brief glimpse of the alleyway’s exit before he disappeared behind the building. There was no sign of the gang.

He allowed himself a brief fist pump before sprinting towards the corner of another building. It was only when he got around it that he slowed to a walk. Even if the gang followed Wayne around the first building, they’d still have three possible routes to choose from, and from each of those routes another three choices. Hopefully it would force them to split up.

Emergan, however, wasn’t a very large city. Eventually the gang would find Wayne. He really needed to find a good hiding spot.

Maybe if I went into a shop, Wayne thought, thinking of the Palmpolis Plaza. It was the biggest shopping centre in Emergan, although that wasn’t saying much. It two stories tall and had dozens of shops. There were millions of places to hide.

If I went into one of those big stores, I could grab some clothes and hide in a change room, Wayne thought. They’re practically houses, and it’d be the last place Manuel would think to look.

     There was only one problem with his plan. The Plaza was on the opposite side of town. He needed to find a bus to take him there, but with barely anything in his pockets it would have to be a one way trip.

He turned down another street. There was a bus stop a few metres ahead and a bus in the distance. Wayne covered the last few steps to the station and quickly checked the timetable.

“Damn,” he muttered.

The bus that was coming was forty-three, but he needed eighty-seven to go to the plaza. It came every half an hour.

He sat down on the empty bench and hunched to disguise his appearance. He didn’t have a watch, so he’d no idea how long he’d to wait. Every time he spotted a bus in the distance his heart leapt, but the first, second and third busses weren’t the ones he needed.

Time ticked by at an agonisingly slow rate. Eventually, eighty-seven appeared in the distance and lumbered towards Wayne. He breathed a sigh of relief.

The bus pulled up next to the station. Wayne brought his ticket and made his way to a seat, negotiating past two parents with a tiny child. For the first time that day he relaxed. The gang couldn’t touch him on this bus; security cameras would record. The gang liked to think they were tough, but really they were a bunch of rich, bored kids. It was people like Manuel and his henchmen who didn’t care if they were caught in the act.

The bus set off, trundling merrily down the street. A huge smile spread across Wayne’s face. It was a lovely day. There wasn’t a trace of clouds in the sky. He looked out the window. The building on the corner had a small garden in front of its entrance. In front of the building were three people. One had his back to the bus. They were arguing. Wayne looked at them closely. They seemed oddly familiar. As if sensing Wayne’s presence, the one who was doing most of the shouting turned to face the bus, which had slowed to round the corner.

It was Manuel.

“Oh crap,” Wayne muttered.

An ugly grin ripped Manuel’s face open. He bent down and picked up a rock from the garden behind him, and launched it at the bus’ window.

Manuel’s aim was off again. The rock would have missed Wayne by a mile, but the family a seat in front of him weren’t so lucky. Wayne had no idea why he did what he did next. He stood up and dove over the seat in front of him, sliding his body in between the window and the family.

The rock smashed into the window a millisecond later. The window fractured into hundreds of fragments, and the rock collided with Wayne’s chest. His ribcage cracked with an acrid, shrill sound. Shards of glass rained down on him, burrowing into his skin. He looked down at his chest. Dozens of splinters poked out. His blood streamed down his chest and dripped onto the street below.

Wayne felt a sharp tug and suddenly he was falling out of the window, following the droplets of rose-red blood. He tried to tell his arms to break his fall, but they refused to move. His skull cracked dryly and he came to a halt.

Manuel’s face appeared above him. The edges of his vision was cracked and fractured like the broken window of the bus and darkness was streaming in. Manuel’s lips moved up and down, but if he was saying something Wayne couldn’t hear the words.

Manuel raised something above his head, moved his lips once more and brought it down. Wayne felt something sharp puncture his neck.

Everything went black.

 

Chapter 2:

 

Wayne’s eyelids flickered slowly open. Light flooded in. He blinked a few times, becoming accustomed to the light. There was a slow, regular beeping sound that filled the room. Wayne thought it sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place it.

Where am I? He thought, drowsily turning his head to one side.

It took him almost three seconds to move his eyesight from the white ceiling above to a window to one side. The window was blocked by curtains which diffused light into the room. He was lying on a thin bed less than a metre from the window.

He turned his head to the other side. His movements didn’t seem natural. He’d to fight to remain awake.

Next to his bed a bag hung on a tall stand. A thin plastic tube ran down from the bag underneath his sheets. A greenish liquid ran sluggishly through the tube. Curious, Wayne pulled back his sheets.

The tube ran into his arm.

Wayne’s eye’s widened. He grabbed the tube and looked away. This was going to be painful. He closed his eyes and pulled on the tube. He waited for the pain to arrive. It didn’t.

Wayne cautiously opened an eye and peered at his arm. The tube had been pulled out. There was a tiny puncture where it had been. As he watched, it tightened up on itself and faded, leaving behind perfectly smooth skin.

“What the heck?” Wayne said.

The bag must have been pumping some sort of sedative into his body. Wayne suddenly felt a lot more active. The beeping noises from the apparatus beside his bed increased. It must have been measuring his heart rate.

Wayne hurled the sheets to one side and sat up. He was stilled dressed in the same clothes he’d woken up in. He was about to stand up and go over to the door when it opened.

A middle-aged man with bags under his eyes walked into the room. He saw Wayne and smiled.

“They said the tranquiliser could keep a buffalo under,” he said, walking over to Wayne and extending his hand. “My name’s Robert Thad, but you can call me impressed. Or Rob.”

Wayne shook his hand, feeling confused.

“Where am I?” he asked. “And what the heck just happened? I thought I’d … been stabbed.”

Hurriedly, Wayne looked down at his chest, expecting to see the shards of glass still sticking out of it. There were holes in his shirt, but unbroken skin underneath. Rob pulled over a chair that had been hiding in the corner of the room.

“Emergan Hospital,” he said. “And yes, you were stabbed.”

He looked at Wayne strangely, like he was wondering how to deliver the next line.

“You were dead for twenty-three minutes,” he said, slowly.

Wayne blinked.

“Come again?” he asked.

He thought he just heard this man say he’d died.

“You died,” Rob said.

Right, so my hearing’s fine, Wayne thought.

He wanted to laugh. This was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. But at the same time he’d a feeling Rob was telling the truth. Wayne was sure that he’d been stabbed in the neck by Manuel. Surely that would kill anyone?

“Hold on,” Wayne said, his brain refusing to move out of first gear. “If I died … how come I’m not … well, you know, dead?”

Rob took a while to answer.

“This might sound a little strange to you, but hear me out,” Rob said. “Have you heard of … superheroes before?”

Wayne nodded enthusiastically. Every few nights, the news ran stories about masked vigilantes or someone who had supernatural abilities. There didn’t seem to be too many of them, though – the same ones cropped up again and again.

“Well that helps,” Rob said.

He took a deep breath and furtively glanced towards the door.

“I work for a school,” he continued, apparently satisfied that they were alone. “It’s called the Aeon Academy. It’s a place for people who are different – people with unexplainable abilities. I’m offering you a spot.”

Wayne wasn’t sure if he’d heard right. He’d just been offered what he’d always dreamed of as a child. A chance to be spirited away from the horrible orphanage into a new and better life. He hoped that this was real and he wasn’t dreaming.

Rob took the brief silence as hesitation.

“Of course, if you want to stay here, that’s fine. I understand that you might be very attached to your friends at the orphanage.”

Wayne shook his head so fast he almost went dizzy.

“No!” he exclaimed. “I want to go. I was just thinking how much this would suck if I’m just dreaming.”

Rob laughed.

“From a legal point of view, your agreement makes things a lot easier. You see, technically you’re dead.”

Wayne raised an eyebrow.

“If you hadn’t chosen to come to the school, it would have meant a lot of paperwork for everyone concerned. As it is, our plane leaves in two hours. Follow me.”

Wayne trailed Rob out of his room. A staff member rushed to stop them, but Rob dismissed the man with a flick of an official-looking card.

“What was that?” Wayne asked.

Rob made sure no one was looking.

“A very good copy of a secret service card,” he said.

Wayne nodded.

“But won’t they notice that I’m gone?” he asked.

They passed a security camera.

“And how about the cameras?” he added.

“Very good questions,” Rob said. “Emergan Hospital store their patient details and security camera footage on the same database. The moment we are on the plane to the Academy, your details will be removed from the system.”

Wayne smiled.

“That’s so awesome. This is like being in a spy movie.”

Rob told Wayne a little bit more about the Aeon Academy and what had happened to Wayne on their way down through the hospital. The police had arrived at the street corner where he’d been stabbed five minutes after he’d been killed. From the sounds of it, Manuel’s gang had tried to run for it, but failed miserably. The thought made Wayne feel even better.

Rob went on to say how he’d been called by the school and taken a flight to Emergan, hired a car, driven to the police office, and been directed to the Emergan hospital.

They arrived in the hospital’s reception room. Instead of going over to the entrance, Rob directed Wayne into a tiny shop.

“There’s a reason why I had to get over here so quickly. The media are all clamouring to get a picture of you. Some idiot junior officer had a conversation with a friend about this boy who’d come back from the dead. In a café. At lunchtime. Anyway, a reporter must have heard because now all the papers want an interview.”

Wayne felt a tiny bit flattered, but at the same time quite annoyed. No one had shown him any interest when he’d been another reject in the orphanage, but now that he’d died, everyone was suddenly interested.

“Uh, then why did we come in here?” he asked.

Rob walked over to a rack of hoodies. He grabbed one and threw it at Wayne.

“You need a disguise. There might be more than just reporters waiting outside.”

Wayne gulped.

“You mean … super villains and that kind of thing? Why would they be interested in me? Surely I’m not a threat.”

Rob raised his eyebrows.

“That’s not what they’re thinking. They’ve just heard of a – how old are you?”

Wayne shrugged.

“I don’t know. I don’t know when I was born. The orphanage told me that I was around two when they found me, so I must be about … about twelve? Twelve or thirteen.”

Rob nodded.

“I’d go with twelve,” he said. “Generally, people with powers develop them a few months before their twelve birthday. It takes around half a year for them to fully develop from that stage, but again it can be longer or shorter. Anyway, my point is, you’ve just fully recovered from dying. You couldn’t possibly have had your powers for more than a week at most. Every two-bit villain out there’s thinking; ‘well, if this kid’s like this now, how strong will he be in six months’ time?’ Believe me, they have good reason to be afraid. I’ve been with the school the last eight years, and with one or two exceptions I’ve never seen anyone at your level. Not this early on in their development, at least.”

Wayne wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He didn’t even know what his power was. Rob bought the hoodie and gave it to Wayne.

“Put the hood up and pull the drawstring tight,” Rob said.

Wayne adjusted the hoodie and followed Rob back out into the reception room. A set of glass sliding doors opened. Hot air breathed into the foyer. Rob led Wayne outside. A half-dozen reporters sat on the side of a man-made pond. They had cameras and tape recorders at the ready, but apparently didn’t recognise Wayne. Next to the hospital was a police station, and next to that cars streamed up and down a busy road.

Wayne bit his lip as he waited for the sound of a camera snapping, but they got beyond the reporters without any fuss.

“We made it!” Wayne whispered to Rob.

Rob nodded.

“I guess I did get here quickly enough,” he said with relief.

They walked along a brick path into the car park. It was alarmingly full, which had led to some drivers parking in rather unorthodox positions. A black four wheel drive with tinted windows was mounted halfway up the pavement, tilted at an alarming angle to one side. A luxury salon had parked on top of a line of flowers. Rob walked past the first few rows of vehicles and pointed to a non-descript hatchback with his car keys. There was a clicking sound as the car’s doors unlocked and its lights flashed on and off.

Rob opened the driver’s door and was about to climb in when the baseball bat hit his head. He slumped to the ground.

Wayne, about to get in the back, turned around frantically. The four wheel drive’s doors were open and four burly men, each wearing a balaclava, stood around them. Three held a baseball bat. The other one was empty handed.

The men charged towards him, covering the distance deceptively quick relative to their large frames.

Wayne dove inside the car and across the back seats. He wiggled across them and dropped out the other side, next to the unconscious form of Rob. The four men broke into two and streamed around the car like water flowing over a rock.

Wayne grabbed the bat that had knocked Rob out and swung it at the nearest man. He stepped backwards sharply, much more agile than Wayne had given him credit for. Wayne tried to press his advantage, but there was one behind him now. He swung his bat towards him, but was far too slow. The man’s bat crashed into the side of his head with the force of a hammer.

And broke.

There was a moment of stillness as Wayne and the man looked at the remaining ragged stump of the bat. Wayne, releasing that this was probably his best chance, stepped forward and put all his weight into a thundering right hook. The man crashed to the ground.

The others back off nervously, holding their bats between them and Wayne. The reporters near the entrance of the hospital had heard the noise, and came over to investigate. Next door to the hospital, a policeman ambled out of the station and looked casually towards the hospital. He saw the masked men, yelled something back into the station and sprinted towards the hospital’s car park.

The balaclava-clad men ran for their car, dragging the semi-unconscious man Wayne had hit with them. The piled into the car. It shot off onto the road and disappeared into the distance. The policeman came to an uncertain halt by the side of the road. After a few seconds he turned around and ran towards his car, parked in the secure car park underneath the station.

Wayne, still standing by the hatchback in shock, felt a hand on his shoe and jumped into the air.

“What happened?” Rob asked blearily.

Wayne brought him up to date. His hands were shaking.

Rob frowned when Wayne finished. With an effort, he hauled himself up off the ground and pulled himself into the car. The reporters, stunned by the event, hurried back to their bags to grab their cameras. Others ran across the car park towards Wayne and Rob, hoping for an interview. Both groups would be too late to get anything.

“Get in,” Rob said, starting the ignition. “We really need to go.”

 

Chapter 3:

Wayne felt worried as Rob drove him to the airport. Rob could barely sit upright, much less navigate the busy highway. The traffic in Emergan was never this bad. It was like the town was trying to keep them in, impeding them with stubborn drivers who seemed to be physically incapable of merging.

Despite his worries, they made it to the airport without a single accident. Well, apart from a rather adventurous pigeon, but Wayne felt Rob was doing pretty well for someone who had just taken a serious hit to the head.

Their flight wasn’t scheduled to leave for another few hours. Rob went to the medical centre, and came back ten minutes later, holding a bottle of painkillers and a report that cleared him of concussion.

“You want any food?” he asked.

Wayne made an awkward refusal.

“You sure?” Rob said. “It’s not my money, it’s the schools. Didn’t think I’d waste my savings on you, did you?”

Wayne laughed.

“I wouldn’t dream of it. The thing is, I’m not actually hungry at all.”

“How long ago was it since you ate?” Rob asked, frowning.

Wayne thought back to this morning. He’d had breakfast – no, wait, that had been ruined by Manuel.

“Last night,” he said slowly.

“Must be something to do with your ability,” Rob said, mystified. “You sure you don’t want something? You might get hungry on the plane.”

“Okay then,” Wayne said, shrugging. “Thanks.”

Rob smiled as he stood up. He instantly regretted it as pain flared up to his temples.

“You okay?” Wayne asked. “You should take some of those painkillers.”

Rob thought about nodding, then released that would probably make it worse. He held an upright thumb out to Wayne.

“I want to wait until we’re on the plane,” Rob said. “Then I can rest in peace.”

 

A few hours later, they got onto the plane. After another twenty minutes, the plane’s jets began to rumble. The sleek aircraft rocketed down the runway and lifted off into the air.

Wayne looked out the window. Emergan lay sprawled out below, becoming tinier by the second. He was not sure what to feel. He was pretty sure that he’d been born there, and everything he could remember had happened in it. He’d had some good times in the orphanage. Climbing onto its roof, crawling around in the air ducts, starting an epic food fight that lasted for hours and getting away with it, making a maze out of the multitude of bed mattresses, then covering the whole thing with sheets and hundreds of other little things that he struggled to remember.

But at the same time, there had been a very good reason why he’d run away from it. The staff, caring and compassionate at first, became like a totalitarian regime with the arrival of Manuel, Alvaro and Fred. Wayne lost his oldest friends and had to learn to cope with being picked on every single day, with no one for support.

A clean slate, Wayne thought, seeing Emergan shrink into a single pin on the ground below. This is a new life now.

     He shut the window, sunk back into his seat, and took in the first class cabin. Rob, using the school’s funds, had upgraded their tickets.

“I saved money with the hire care,” Rob had reasoned. “This is where it went.”

Wayne could live with that.

The first class cabin was luxury like Wayne had never seen before. Each seat seemed wide enough for two people and could recline into a bed. There was so much space between Wayne’s feet and the seat in front that he could barely touch it. Best of all, they were the only ones in the roomy, sixteen-seat cabin.

Wayne exhaled a deep, happy breath. He pulled out his complementary headphones from their plastic wrapping and turned them over in his hands. They were well padded, and weighed so little. He put them on, and found that they hardly needed any adjustment. He’d never had anything so wonderfully new before.

Wayne plugged the headphones into the in-built port in his armrest. The television screen in front of him switched from showing the plane’s journey to a list of movies and sitcoms. He’d never seen any of them before, so he chose one at random and reclined his chair back a few comfortable degrees.

 

Four hours later, the pilot announced that they were beginning their descent. Wayne switched off his screen, put his brand new headphones around his neck and opened the window.

It was dark outside. The time difference meant that it was almost eleven in the evening. Wayne turned to Rob.

“Where’s the city?” he asked.

He could see a few scattered lights, but nothing the size of the city. Rob peered out the window and grinned.

“You’ll see it in a minute,” he said.

The plane tilted to one side. Wayne’s mouth dropped open.

A wide river, reflecting the multitude of coloured lights, ran through the middle of the city, splitting it in two. On either side, huge buildings rose into the sky, lights outlining their countless levels.

Even these monolithic structures were dwarfed by the mountains in the far distance. The mountains rose for kilometres into the air, forming hundreds of impassable ridges. Forests and rivers filled the valleys these formed. Several kilometres beyond the mountain was the ocean, a flat expanse of black water at this time of the night.

Wayne squinted through the window. Between all the twisting masses of mountains was a huge expanse of forest that continued to the coast. Numerous lakes, rivers and rocky outcrops littered this area, but it seemed to be unusually flat and clear compared to the mountain region surrounding it.

The plane began to descend, making the region disappear as the mountain ranges rose up from the ground to cover it.

They touched down at the airport seven minutes later. The plane came to a comfortable halt. The ‘seat belts on’ sign flicked off.

“Welcome to Belpo,” the pilot said. “It is currently fourteen past eleven, and the temperature is nineteen degrees. Thanks you for flying with us.”

Rob made sure he’d his bags – he’d only brought hand luggage – and led Wayne out of the plane. They arrived at customs. Rob pushed a slip of paper over the counter. Three minutes later, they were out the front of the airport. The two security officers who had escorted them turned around and headed back inside. Wayne turned to Rob.

“What was that?” he asked.

He’d tried to keep his curiosity from reaching his face while the officers had been with them. Now that they were alone, it broke through in a huge wave.

“Magic,” Rob said, waving his hand in the air.

Wayne cocked his head to one side and raised an eyebrow.

“Okay, it’s this form they give to certain agencies. It’s sort of like diplomatic immunity; if you have one of those forms, customs can’t search your luggage, check your passport, or do any of those sort of things.”

Wayne nodded, then thought of another question

“I got it legally, okay?” Rob said, forestalling Wayne.

“So it was just the secret service card you faked?” Wayne asked, grinning.

“Yes,” Rob replied.

They caught a taxi to an average-looking motel. It was dwarfed by the buildings around it, but looked hospitable enough.

“Is this the school?” Wayne asked, confused.

Rob shook his head, grinning.

“There’s a group of students arriving in the city at ten tomorrow. We’re not in any rush, so we’ll go back to the airport and pick them up.”

Rob looked at his watch. Wayne hadn’t really noticed it before, but it seemed a lot bigger than a normal watch. Rob dropped his hand back to his side and yawned.

“That, and its past midnight.”

Wayne nodded.

They walked into the motel. Barely five room keys were missing from the board behind the concierge’s desk. Rob booked a room and barely five minutes later, Wayne collapsed onto a vaguely springy bed. He turned over, and fell asleep before he could release a single yawn.

 

The next day they left the hotel early and ate breakfast at one of the cafes in the airport. Thirty-three minutes past ten, the plane carrying the students arrived.

Rob had hired a minibus. Wayne filled into the vehicle and sat at the window. A kid wearing a T-shirt that said ‘Keep staring, I might do a trick’ slid in next to him.

“Hey, I’m Treleven,” he said, “but just call me Trev.”

“Wayne,” Wayne replied, shaking Trev’s hand.

The minibus set off. It was nearing midday, which meant that traffic was reasonably heavy. The minibus slowed to a halt.

“So, what’s your power?” Trev asked.

Wayne paused, thinking of a way to demonstrate.

“Do you have anything sharp?” he said.

Trev frowned. He grabbed his backpack from underneath his seat and rummaged through it. He pulled out a splinter of plastic that looked like remanets of a broken case.

“I tripped over my bag, and this got broken,” Trev said, handing it to Wayne. “I was lucky, though, because I’d just taken the CD out of the case.”

“That’s good,” Wayne said.

Trev nodded.

“So, you were going to do something with it?” Trev asked, expectant.

“Yup,” Wayne said.

He plunged the razor sharp shard of plastic down into his forearm. He felt a light, harmless pressure as the shard fractured into two separate pieces. Trev’s eyes widened, his eyebrows rising into the air.

“That’s awesome!” Trev said. “How strong is it? Like, have you tested it?”

“Well, I haven’t really tried it out too much yet,” Wayne said. “I did get hit by a baseball bat, though.”

Trev’s eyebrows disappeared into his tangled brown hair.

“And I got knifed in the hand,” Wayne added.

Trev’s eyebrows set off for Mars.

“Seriously? Did it hurt?”

Wayne thought back to the car park outside the police station, and to the bus. The baseball bat had felt like balsa wood – no, it hadn’t felt like anything. The only thing he’d felt was a light brush on the side of his head, just enough for him to know that something was there. He wasn’t sure how to express that. Finally, he reached over to Trev and tapped the side of his head softly.

“That’s how it felt,” Wayne said.

Trev’s eyebrows, struggling to breathe oxygen on Mars, set off for Alpha Centauri.

“A baseball bat, and that’s all it was? Man, that’s incredible. A lot better than my ability.”

He emitted a puff of white gas from the middle of his palm. Wayne could not help it. He laughed.

“What do they call you?” he asked. “Snow-man?”

Trev joined in with the laughter.

“It’s not snow, actually,” he said.

“What is it, then?” Wayne asked, laughter dying down as it was replaced by curiosity.

“Carbon dioxide,” Trev said. “Like in fire extinguishers.”

Wayne nodded, impressed.

“So what things can you do with it?” he asked. “I mean, apart from putting out fires and such.”

“I haven’t really had a whole lot of success with stopping fires, actually,” Trev said. “The biggest one I’ve stopped so far was when my brother left the toaster on.”

Wayne laughed, then composed himself, putting on a serious face.

“Toaster fires are more dangerous than you might think,” he said shaking a finger in the air. “They are no joking matter.”

Trev pushed him in the arm, sniggering.

“Since when did you join the government?”

Wayne shrugged.

“Hey, did you say you had a brother?” he asked.

Trev shook his head up and down.

“Four, actually.”

It was Wayne’s turn to raise his eyebrows.

“That many?”

Trev nodded again. He held up four fingers.

“One’s younger than me, two are older, and go to the Aeon Academy – one’s in his final year. The last one’s a few years out of school, and he’s halfway through his uni course,” he said, counting them off on his fingers.”

Trev turned around in his seat and peered along the minibus’ short aisle.

“Oi! Gerald and Lionel!” he called.

Two heads popped out from either side of the aisle and crashed into each other. One was quite lanky, and the other had a mop of frizzy hair with a streak of dyed green down the middle.

“Gah!” said green hair, rubbing his forehead.

“Watch it,” lanky said, doing the same. “What do you want, Trev?”

“Just introducing you to my friend, Wayne,” Trev said cheerfully. “Gerald’s the one with what he thinks is cool hair and Lionel’s the mess of bones. Gerald’s older.”

They glared at Trev.

“We can hear you,” Gerald said menacingly.

Trev shrugged, and turned back to Wayne. Wayne looked wistful at the easy banter between the brothers. He wished he’d family to do that with.

“What’s the matter?” Trev asked.

Wayne sighed.

“I never had any family. I grew up in an orphanage.”

Trev did not look sure how to respond.

“Don’t worry,” Trev said, patting him on the shoulder. “We’ll be your family.”

Wayne looked back at him, thankful that he’d not teased him or tried to change the topic. That was the reaction of most people, he knew. To treat it like it was nothing or ignore it completely.

“Thanks,” Wayne replied. “So, you know a bit about the school from your brothers?”

“He’d know nothing without us,” Lionel said from behind them.

“Full stop,” Gerald added.

Trev ignored them, although the smile on his face indicated he was not completely deaf.

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said.

“Everything!” Lionel yelled.

Rob turned around in the driver’s seat. The car was stuck in another wave of traffic and it looked like some passing celebrity, escorted by the police, had caused it.

“It’s not too late for me to change your exam score, Lionel Roberts,” he threatened.

Lionel shrank back in his seat, and reduced his voice to a whisper. Trev smiling broadly, gave Rob the thumbs-up.

About forty minutes later, Rob parked the car in a multistorey car park. He turned around as the others began unbuckling their seats and grabbing their luggage.

“Don’t talk about the Academy in public,” he said. “And especially don’t talk about your powers. Stay close to me. We’re going to a very public place and it’d be easy for us to get separated. If you do get lost, call this number.”

He handed everyone a business card. Wayne looked at it. It had the number for ‘K and K Pizza’ on it.

“You’ll get an answering machine. Press nine thee times, and you’ll be forwarded to the school.”

Rob popped the doors and they followed him out of the car park, stopping briefly to pay for a ticket. He led them to a crowded underground train station.

“Stay close,” Rob repeated, making his way through the bustling crowd.

“Are we getting on a train?” Wayne asked in a whisper.

“I’m not sure,” Trev replied.

Wayne looked up at the ceiling. It was a long way off, and well lit. He breathed a sigh of relief. His heartbeat dissipated a little.

Rob led them to a janitor’s closet. They were probably at the furthest western end of the station; they had been walking for some time. There were a lot less people here, queuing up next to the platform and waiting expectantly for the train to slide alongside it. Security cameras were fixed to the ceiling. Rob pointed to the various areas of the underground platform. Wayne looked at him for a second, then realised that Rob was creating the impression of a summer camp tour. It wasn’t the best cover, but it was much better than a group of adolescents and one adult loitering near a broom cupboard.

A train arrived, sweeping away the people who had been milling around the platform moments before. The platform was empty.

Rob tapped the screen of his watch. The red lights on the security cameras fizzled out, and the janitor’s closet behind him opened. He stepped inside, beckoning for them to follow.

Wayne, the last through the door, shut it behind him. The closet was exactly what he’d expected. Small. With their luggage and bags, the group filled up the entire space, like a gigantic balloon inflated inside a tiny cardboard box.

“One second,” said Rob’s voice, muffled by the bags between him and Wayne.

A few moments later, Wayne almost fell forward as Trev’s bag, which was in his face, moved towards Rob. He steadied himself using a nearby mop, and peered up towards the walking form of Trev. He gasped.

A door, wide enough to fit two people side by side, had opened in the wall. A long tunnel led off for about ten metres. Beyond that was another platform. Wayne’s stomach plummeted. He took a step back. Trev reached the end of the ten metre tunnel and turned around.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“I’m claustrophobic,” Wayne said, looking at the tunnel apprehensively.

Trev looked puzzled.

“But it’s not even small. Look, I can barely touch the top.”

He proved his point by jumping into the air and missing the roof of the tunnel. It didn’t seem to make a difference to Wayne.

“It’s not that,” Wayne said, cringing. “There’s no light. I don’t like dark places.”

Trev stoked his chin in thought. After a moment, he walked to Wayne.

“I’ll come with you,” he said. “C’mon, you’ve been hit by a baseball bat. You can do this.”

Wayne looked shaky. His face was much paler than usual.

“Okay,” he said.

He took a step forward. He took another, and another, and kept his eyes on his feet. He felt his palms sweat, and resisted the urge to look up. He took another step.

“That’s it, Wayne,” Trev said, patting him on the shoulder.

Wayne looked up at the ceiling cautiously. He was out of the tunnel. He breathed a sigh of relief. The ceiling was much higher here, and there was lots of illuminating, benevolent, beautiful light.

Rob looked at him curiously.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Wayne nodded. He could feel colour coming back into his face.

“I think the cleaning product made me dizzy,” he said.

Now that he was through the tunnel, Wayne had his first proper look at the platform. It was a small slab of concrete, small but comfortably able to hold the sizeable group of students. At the end of the platform, two tracks curled in a half circle to meet each other. Apart from this, the two tracks were parallel with each other, off into the far distance. Rob glanced at his watch.

“Should be here any minute now,” he said.

As if on cue, a small speck rounded the corner in the distance. It grew larger and larger until it stopped just before the end of the platform with a soft screech of metal.

“It’s a bit small, isn’t it?” Wayne asked.

It resembled something that you would find on the rails of a rollercoaster, except that it was larger and enclosed. The cart was about two metres long and one and a half wide, with windows that wrapped around the whole vehicle. Wayne thought that it looked quite futuristic, but he didn’t see how the cart could sit any more than four people.

Rob simply pointed to the end of the tunnel. Another several carts appeared in the distance and made their way towards the platform.

“Ahh,” Wayne said.

The group boarded the carts. Wayne and Trev, near the back, were the last to board. They got into their cart with two other students who they didn’t know. The inside of the cart resembled a train cabin, albeit a very large one. The gap between the large seats – or more accurately, lounges, for they held two people each – was quite substantial.

“I’m Wayne,” Wayne said, leaning across the considerably large gap between each of their seats to one of the boys’ hands.

“Lenny,” the boy replied.

There was nothing too remarkable about Lenny, apart from the fact that he seemed to have drunk too many energy drinks. He tapped the window, ruffled his hair, and generally looked like he wished that time would go quicker.

The other boy introduced himself as Hal. In sharp contrast to Lenny, he sat perfectly still, amused by his friend’s hyperactive behaviour.

“What can you two do?” Trev asked, introductions over.

“Reflexes,” Lenny said quickly. “It’s a bugger on long trips, though. Makes it feel twice as long.”

Wayne cocked his head to the side.

“So it’s permanently switched on?” he asked.

Lenny nodded.

“How about you?” he asked.

Wayne explained his ability, leaving Lenny and Hal suitably stunned.

“A baseball bat?” Hal asked, not sure if he’d heard it right.

Trev nodded encouragingly.

Lenny had stopped fidgeting through Wayne’s story. He started again, going twice as fast to make up for any taps that he’d missed.

“You, Hal?” Trev asked.

“Mine’s basically ridiculously accurate throwing,” Hal said.

“He hit a fly out of the air on the plane trip over here,” Lenny contributed.

Trev finished the round by shooting a small burst of carbon dioxide at the window. Lenny laughed.

“You should join the fire brigade,” he said, chuckling.

Light suddenly flooded the cart as it sharply ascended above the ground, leaving the tunnel behind. Wayne’s eyes adjusted instantaneously, while the other three flinched at the brightness. Wayne looked back at the tunnel, now a fast receding hole at the base of a mountain.

This must be that mountain range I saw from the plane, Wayne realised.

They were surrounded by mountains on all sides except for a tiny gap several hundred metres ahead that the tracks passed through. Wayne looked out the windows excitedly. He’d never seen mountains before, not from this sort of distance.

They were in a shallow valley, travelling alongside a slowly running stream. The mountains on either side were gigantic. Their tops were covered in cloud and snow. Belts of pine trees circled about their lower regions like a mossy belt.

The cart passed through the gap Wayne had spotted earlier, and the mountains fell away. Ahead of them was a thick forest, changing from alpine to temperate as it neared the coast. Several kilometres before the coast the forest fell away, revealing a vast clearing of land, many kilometres wide, that extended to the ocean. It was hard to tell from this distance, but Wayne thought he could see buildings near the coast.

The cart slowed to cross over a small stream. In the distance, the stream turned into a series of rapids and then into a broad river spanned by several bridges.

He lost sight of the river as the cart plunged into the forest in earnest. Wayne had never been that deep into a forest, so it was all new to him. He peered intently through the window.

The trees, dark pillars of wood fringed with mottled green leaves, were spread out from each other. The ground was covered in a thin coating of orangey-brown leaves.

They travelled through the forest for a few more minutes, finally finding their tongues again. They talked about how they had discovered their powers – Wayne’s story easily won – and the most spectacular failures they had had using them. Trev easily outclassed the others with a recount of his failed attempt to fly, resulting in a hefty amount of property damage, many scratches and a rather shell-shocked cat.

After about twenty minutes of this, the cart began to slow. Their talk died down as the forest around them fell back. In the distance, entering a long, single-story building, was another cart. Theirs followed its route, passing through a wide entrance and docking alongside a slightly raised platform inside the building, which resembled a miniature train station. They hopped out.

The other students were already there; some sitting on their luggage, some still getting it out of the carts. Wayne, Trev, Lenny and Hal joined the latter category, extracting their various cases from the overhead cabinets in the train. Having got their luggage, they made their way up to the platform, where Rob was about to address the group.

“Welcome,” he said, “to the Aeon Academy.”

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