Mr. Linns folded his notepaper as he cast a glance over us.
“That’s everyone, then? We’ll be heading back to the auditorium then, let’s go.”
He led us from the room, the mood slowly fading as Connor’s expression returned to disinterest, passing groups of other students that were performing their own tests in side classrooms. One was focused on a steel marble in his palm, his expression locked in concentration as veins of gold spread outwards like spiderwebs of the metal. The door to another room was open and as we passed I felt a frigid breeze accompanied by the chattering of teeth, with several blue faces staring out from the inside.
“No, don’t go up in the seats!” He said as we arrived in the auditorium and started to climb the bleachers, “Down here, in the center, stand and wait! The rest should be here in a moment.”
One by one the other classes arrived, gathering around us in a growing crowd, the teachers collecting at the front of the auditorium and passing around slips of folded paper to principal Siri who transcribed them into a small bound book.
“Welcome back!” She said, holding the book in the air, “Each of you have been measured, your initial dignity determined. Next, you shall be separated accordingly into three groups- Upper, Average, and Bottom. Uppers will congregate in the seats to my left, while Average and Bottoms will share the bleachers on my right. Bottoms, you shall not sit.
“Uppers- you are free to go after you are sorted, you only have to return tomorrow for classes. Consider today a half day for you in reward for a job well done! Averages and Bottoms, you will remain here for further instruction.”
She cleared her throat, scanning the open notebook in front of her.
“The following ten students shall be Uppers:” She said, reading from the list, though there we only two names I recognized, the last two to be spoken.
“Blake, and Connor!”
The called upon students sifted through the crowd, nudging past us to the left seats where small packs of snacks and bottled drinks waited for them. Academy and street criminal alike, all of them stood a little straighter than they had only a few minutes before. And the rest of us remained waiting as principal Siri licked a finger to turn the page, and started speaking again.
“Averages are next, starting with Kimmy,” She said, as a girl to my left sighed with relief and started to walk away, soon joined by three more students in my nearby vicinity. A slew of other names followed, each of the students grateful to depart. Arial was in the middle of them, and she left without looking back.
“And finally,” Principal Siri said, with only a fraction of students left, “SC.”
I departed, making my way into the seats as Principal Siri smiled to the remainder of the students.
“Bottoms,” She continued, staring down at them, the one boy who had made heat pour away from him and had shouted earlier glaring back up from their center, “You are the remainders. Go on, claim your area. Own it."
Then she turned to address us all, "Everyone, these are your current classifications. Know that while these were judged off of power rankings, you have the opportunity to make them change. You may move upwards, or you may fall downwards- at the end of each week, evaluations will occur to determine where you belong. But remember, your position relies entirely upon your demonstration of worth. And high worth shall be justly rewarded.
“Uppers, you are now free to go. The rest of you will assist in cleaning this facility. Averages, move down to collect your chores now from the instructors, and Bottoms, the remainder of chores belong to you. Until all are finished, no one eats except for the Uppers. And Bottoms, I suggest you employ a sense of urgency, for when they are done you will be scrubbing the dishes.”
My chore list was simple- to sweep the main hallways, then mop afterward before returning for a new assignment. And since I was mobile, I saw what tasks preoccupied the others.
The Averages were dotted around the classrooms and corridors, given chores like sorting books, dusting, or cleaning the windows. And the Bottoms congregated with cleaning chemicals in the bathrooms, their noses wrinkled as they worked, an instructor overseeing each group. Only once did I see one of the Bottoms start to pitch a fit, but in moments principal Siri was beside her and whispering in her ear, until the girl picked the sponge back up from where she had thrown it and returned to the bathroom.
The Averages arrived to dinner on time, a meal that most complained about but I found better than the school food I had endured in the past. The Uppers were there early, laughing at a table by themselves, the Bottoms arriving just in time to start clearing plates away. Then they ate what remained of dinner, the portions smaller since most of it was already consumed, sitting at a table at the far end of the room with uneven legs. The Bottom table, it was known on the first day.
By the second day, it had already been christened the Ass Table.
“Listen up!” Commanded instructor Cane, a mountain of a man with the foothills of a stomach to match, his gut warbling alongside his voice, “And quit your yawning! This is important!”
From the back a few heads snapped upwards, and I flexed the muscles in my back, trying to roll out a knot that had formed the night before. We were standing in the center of the recess field, the fence containing us, and in a circle around instructor Cane.
Of those who now lived in the rehabilitation facility, the Uppers were the most rested, with private rooms outfitted with brand new mattresses that the Averages had helped carry inside. And as an Average, I have received a narrow and lumpy padded bunk bed for the night, the room’s temperature just slightly too warm, and two out of my eight room mates carefully ensuring that not a moment passed without the sound of snoring. Still, I had it better than the Bottoms, whose room was a single one of the basement holding cells for all of them. Each sported bloodshot eyes and wavering attention as they tried to focus.
“As I was saying, it is in your best interest to listen carefully,” he continued, tapping an ear, “Because this pertains directly to your current status! Your performance from here forward determines who shall eat dessert, and who shall clean the plates upon which it is served! Your first chance for change comes this Saturday, and in all my years of teaching I have yet to see a more ill prepared lot. Soft, but I can change that!” He laughed, rubbing his own stomach as he watched our blank expressions, then continued.
“Much of your success depends on your own power. But first, we focus on your physical stamina! What use is it to have the strength of ten men if you tire out after only fighting two? This is why each morning before breakfast you will report here, to me, so I can scrub the fat off of your bones!”
A few students groaned, which only broadened instructor Cane’s smile.
“I see you are eager to begin! Well, who am I to delay you any longer? Remember, no powers today, only muscles and will power. We’ll start with a three mile run around the perimeter, that’s thirty laps. The first ten to finish mile one do not have to run the next two, and the first ten to finish mile two do not have to run the third! The rest of you will continue until mile three. Ready? No? Good. Let’s go!”
He blew a whistle and the class started off at a sprint, maintaining that pace for the first half mile until the wheezing of out of shape students far outweighed the easy breathing of the top athletes. I fell to the back of the middle pack as the days of malnourishment and nights of little sleep slowed my steps, my chest heaving as the first group finished, Blake among them.
“Let’s go!” he shouted as a group of us jogged by. “You’re holding back the class!” A few muttered swears were returned his way, and Connor rounded the corner behind us, coming alongside Blake as sweat poured from every inch of exposed skin on his body.
“Come on, Fatass!” Blake jeered, kicking a mound of dirt towards him. “Hurry up before I come catch you!” Head down, Connor increased his speed to escape, the next lap only bringing him back to Blake and the other finished students.
“Taking your damn sweet time!” Blake shouted as Connor stopped, one hand against the fence and the other on his stomach, his chest heaving. Then he retched, the night before’s dinner coming up to splatter on the dirt.
“Like I said!” Blake gloated. “What a-“
But then he stopped, his face suddenly green along with anyone else in Connor’s vicinity. And he doubled over, instantly nauseous, the sound of dry heaving populating their end of the field. Each lap afterwards, I sprinted by them to avoid Connor’s effects, until I finished with the majority of the class on the third mile.
“Push ups and sit ups, let’s go!” snapped Cane, allowing only a minute’s rest, “On my mark. Now!”
Together, the class dropped as he counted, each student struggling to keep up with his cadence as arms and legs quivered.
“Jump squats!” he commanded next, pulling aside a still shaky Blake to demonstrate. Then came a slew of other exercises engineered to use our body weight against us, from lunges to pull ups and abdominals.
Sprints came last, several of the students collapsing at the end, their breaths coming in gasps.
“You’re welcome for going easy on your first day,” said instructor Cane, “Now, ten minutes until breakfast, be changed beforehand. Then fifteen until your next class. I look forward to seeing each of you tomorrow! Don’t worry if you miss me throughout your day, it will be here soon enough.”
Class one was with instructor Linns. Not for everyone, of course- that was simply for the Averages. The uppers has their own teacher next door with a far smaller class size, while the Bottoms had been escorted somewhere else in the building by instructor Cane.
"I see you enjoyed your morning session, some of you certainly smell like it," he remarked as we filed in. "From now on, showers prior to class are mandatory. I would have thought that would be common sense, but it appears many of you are not well versed on the subject. Take your seats, let's begin."
He brought out copies of textbooks from the back of the class, letting them drop with a thud in groups of ten on the first student's desk, and instructing them to distribute them down the row.
Even lifting the books was a strain for students that now could barely move, their muscles protesting against the hard seats after the morning workout. Several groaned as they picked them up, while others attempted to move them with as little effort as possible.
"Now, you are aware that the first session of the day is physical. Second session shall be mental. And third will focus on individual power development. Here, we will study how to outsmart your opponent, rather than how to outlast or overpower them. Now, before we begin, who here knows the strongest power ever to exist?"
His eyes sparkled as he asked the question, and he walked to the board, waiting with the marker poised against blank white space. He waved his hands, encouraging answers from the silent class.
"Hurricaners!" Shouted a student in the back. "When I was five one leveled an entire block when he got too drunk and had the spins!"
"Hurricaners," repeated Linns as he wrote the word on the board, "Interesting, but not quite. Like the actual storms, their powers wane, so they are easy to defeat on a downswing. Next!"
"Electro sparks!" said Arial from several seats to my right. We still had not spoken, and she had been in the group that had finished the second mile early, though I noticed her feet didn't always touch the ground. "Hard to fight back against a bolt of lightning!"
"Another good suggestion, but again not quite. With proper grounding, it's actually quite easy to defeat one of them. More, anyone?"
A few students scratched their heads, and then gave up answers summoned from watching incidents on the news. And Instructor Linns added Dashers, Quakers, Magmas, and a dozen more to the list on the board. Then he took his marker and drew an "X" through them all, and turned back to face the class.
"All of these are wrong, but they are also right. There is no one power that is most dangerous- rather, for each of you, there are ones that will cause far more damage than others. Weaknesses that can only be exploited of certain types, regardless of power level. In fact, some of you may be far more at risk with a low powered special than a high powered one, simply due to the nature of their power and their susceptibility."
"But surely one type is most dangerous!" said Lucio from the middle of the class. "Or at least, more a threat to most types of specials! There is a reason why some specials are classified as high powered, and need more documentation!"
"Indeed, yes, there is. Which was the point of our last lesson. The most dangerous power is the unknown power, the one that you cannot defend because you cannot identify it."
"Come on," responded Lucio, rolling his eyes. "There's no way an unknown of low power is more dangerous than someone with high power."
"Oh, really?" asked instructor Linns, stroking his chin. "I don't suppose you've heard of the Faceless Battle, have you? Many consider it legend, but I assure you it is real- I've read many first hand accounts myself. Let me tell you a story, and see if it will sway your opinion then, of the unknown power."
Long ago, before airplanes and cars, before transportation was available to the masses, the power diversity was far less than it is today. Many of you have likely visited towns known for their power, perhaps a mining town where nearly all the inhabitants can shape rock with their hands, or a oceanside town where breathing underwater is second nature. But before massive cities, that was how the majority of the world used to be. It would be extremely rare, for instance, to find opposing powers in close proximity, as that would mean that their owners likely traveled countless miles from their birth location.
Knowledge of powers, therefore, was limited. A nation knew all the powers within its own borders, and likely those next to it, but that was typically the extent of their expertise. Perhaps an anomaly would be born among them every few years to help expand their knowledge marginally, but these were few enough they may as well have been myth to the common people. We know from ancient texts that there are even societies that denounced the very existence of powers that are ubiquitous today, simply because in their region they had never interacted with them.
Now, two peoples were at war during this time, the Aeta and the Remis, both native to the Asian plains. The Remis were an expanding empire, their number far outstripping the Aetas, who had been a thorn in the side of their borders for years. Now, the Remis decided to end the Aetas, to corner them and force them into single final battle. Realize that the Remis were not only had the Aeta outmatched in number, but also in technology and in power types- this should have been a battle that would end in minutes.
To the surprise of the Remis, the Aetnas met the Remis on an open plane, with some records saying their numbers were as few as a five to one ratio. To any general, this was an easy opportunity to eliminate the enemy In a single swoop, and the Remis lept at the chance. Here, now they could finally end the nuisance that had plagued them for years.
However, the Aetas held a secret. A deadly, yet low power, secret.
Deep in their jungles there was a spring so clear it is said you couldn't see the water. And the Aetas discovered that anyone born near this spring developed the power of invisibility- a power regarded as low today due to easy detection and precaution, though it is still rare. And what the Remis did not know, was that one thousand Aeta citizens waited hidden by their own power on top of a small hill in the center of the battlefield.
When the Remis charged, they split around the hill, leaving the Aeta forces untouched. And the Aeta main force met them in defense, not attempting to attack but rather to survive, blocking the Remis with enormous shields as they waited for their brothers and sisters in the hill to creep behind the Remis forces.
The five Remis generals were slain wishing thirty seconds of each other by invisible swords, and the ranks below them eradicated moments after that. Death befell the Remis force from behind, silently cutting the throats of wave after wave of unsuspecting soldiers, and leaving only bodies in their wake, targeting high power individuals first. Wiping out any with high power levels before they had a chance to use their power.
When the Remis finally discovered what had happened, they panicked with no high level officers in command. And the Aeta force crushed them despite all disadvantages, in a move that is said to have brought about the end of the Remis empire when it collapsed a few years later.
All this occurred due to one unknown power. Today, the ways to spot Invisibles are well known- to use mirrors that reveal them, to look for footprints, or for the telltale shimmer when they moved. No general in their right mind would have conducted the attack. But to the Remis, this was knowledge came too late.
So that is why even a lesser power is most dangerous when it is unknown. The effects are too hard to predict, the battle uneven. Class, this is why knowing your opponent is more important than anything else. And why your first move should be to find out all the information you can about them.
Countless times in history this trend has repeated itself- that the first party to discover a new, secret power has a weapon of almost unimaginable strength while that power remains a mystery. And even today, the discovery of new and seeking of rare powers is predicated upon this superiority, of an ability to decimate an enemy before they can react.
It's what spurred exploration of the new world. It's the reason that empires remained empires, due to their access to varieties of powers. And it's why today, every power must be classified and documented, even if their power is so weak that they're practically a Regular.
"Our first unit of this class will be on the capabilities of each special Variety, so you stand a chance defending against them," said Linns, as he paced the area in front of the board. "You'll learn the telltale signs of when Josh, the Flamethrower here, is preparing to launch an incendiary in your direction. We'll go over why Arial, our Flier, would have a hard time following you if you run a complicated zig-zag pattern. And we'll explain the rationale behind SC being unable to simply rip you limb from limb with telekinesis, rather than hurling objects at you. One day, I promise you, this education will save your life."
He returned to the book at his desk and opened it, holding it up for all to see.
"To start, turn to chapter three. Each power can be placed be placed in a group depending upon its abilities, which makes these facts far easier to remember. The same wall the will stop a Flamethrower will also stop a Tempfluxer and a Blizzarder. For this reason, they are clumped together in your studies, under the grouping Temperature Modulators. They share many of the same strengths, and many of the same weaknesses, with footnotes of exceptions at the end of each chapter. For now, I want you to memorize every group and their components, then later we will dive into the details. Study up!"
He walked back behind his desk, taking a seat and watching us pore over the pages, dozens of charts that marked power families and their members. For instance, Telekinetics and Lucio's power, Memwriters, were under the same grouping, which explained why we had been taken to the same holding cell.
Class was dismissed for lunch at eleven, then we were directed to the academy's old gym. One room over, in the auxiliary gym I could hear Blake's voice, which meant the Uppers would be in there. But since breakfast, I had yet to see a single Bottom.
The gym itself had been transformed from what I assumed had been a regular open multisports space to a training arena. Body bags hung from the ceiling on chains at varying intervals, specific ones marked with red flames or other symbols to indicate the power types they were designed to withstand. On the floor were varieties of obstacles, from nets and dirt mounds to an actual flowing creek that cut through the center of the room. The walls were padded, the windows replaced with boards, and the lights far above surrounded with protective cages.
"Welcome!" Rang out a voice from behind us after we had entered and were milling about, our eyes on tape markings that crisscrossed the ground, "To general power training. Here we will cover tactics that are common across many powers, from projectiles to strategic positioning to close combat. And here, you will learn to defeat your enemy."
We turned around to find the source of the voice, but there was only air, the space between us and the door empty. My eyebrows came together as I searched for the instructor, and the voice rang out from behind again.
"To defeat your enemy you must know how to predict his every move!"
We whipped around as a class back to the gym, but still there was no one, only the equipment swaying from the rafters and the dim shafts of light that made their way through the cracks in the boarded windows.
"You must be one step ahead every time! Always with the surprise, and always with the advantage!"
This time, the voice cascaded from directly above us, raining down from the ceiling. But yet again, as we searched we found nothing, except for a thin trail of dust that trickled down from one beam.
"Ready to strike with the perfectly times punch for absolute decimation!" Came the shout, as directly in front of Arial a figure materialized, his knuckles held an inch from her nose as he held a fist in the last stages of a strike, his body in a fighter's stance. She squeaked, throwing herself backwards and ten feet into the air, bowling over the students behind her.
"And that, that is how you defeat your enemy," Continued the man, holding his pose as Arial stayed aloft, "Only when your instinct knows their actions before your mind, when you feel their movements instead of seeing them, when you react to actions that have not yet come into existence. Only through discipline and repetition can you learn this. And I, Instructor Peregrin, shall teach you."
He disappeared before us, then materialized behind once more, his voice like a bark.
"Now, line up! Your lesson starts today, today we train your instinct, your reflexes. You animalistic nature! That's it, behind the line of tape. We start with basic exercises, those beneficial no matter your strengths and weaknesses. The first, a sense of urgency. Move! Let's go!"
"No Josh, concentrate! Thinner, more accurate!"
Instructor Peregrine flashed beside Josh the flamethrower, putting a hand under the bottom of the boy's elbow, redirecting a stream of fire slightly upwards. The target at the other end of the gym was a piece of white paper, six inches by six inches, with a red frame around it.
"Remember, you must only hit the inner target!" he commanded, as fire splashed across both red and white paper. "Fire is dangerous, destructive. You must learn to contain that danger, to control it, or it will claim many lives, including your own."
Then Peregrine stepped away from Josh and into nothingness, only to appear in front of Arial, who floated twenty yards in front of a pitching machine stocked with tennis balls.
"First precision, then power!" he said as she dodged the first projectile by launching herself several feet to her right. "Too much, too much. I want the tennis ball to just whiff the hairs on your arm, for you to just barely avoid it. You must be agile, nimble, not clumsily leaping from place to place!"
It had been three days since instructor Peregrine had given us our first lesson- three days filled with soreness courtesy of instructor Cane, mental exertion from instructor Linns, and power usage from instructor Peregrin. Day one had been easy- simple stretches he advised us to perform in the morning, bed, and before workouts.
"It's for alignment," he said, as we reached upwards, our backs arched. "You cannot be separate from your power. You must feel it within and around you, a crucial piece of you, not merely an ability. Stretch, and feel where it begins and ends. Where you begin and end."
"Sounds pretty hokie," muttered Lucio as he held his hands upwards, then jumping when Peregine appeared just behind his ear, and whispered. "Far less hokie than your memory games, Lucio. But here, I teach you how to make them far more than games."
Lucio swallowed, and kept his arms stretched towards the sky as instructor Peregrin disappeared once more, flitting away to correct another student's form.
Day two had been an analysis of each of our powers, then matching us to our assigned tasks. And day three had been practicing those tasks over and over again, repeating the same motion for hours until exhausted. Soon the actions felt like chores, or boring, the repetition growing tedious.
"We are ingraining the motions past your thoughts, past your memories, into your instincts and reflexes." he said, as my breath came heavily and I prepared to repeat my assigned task once more, and he appeared on my right.
Nausea washed over me when he appeared, a feeling that occurred whenever he used his power close to me and I felt the space around me shift, a hole opening and closing in a split second where he passed through. It was similar to when i created the black spheres, the feeling alien when not generated by myself, and different than I used it. Where I pushed the space, he tore it open, a sensation similar to scratching nails on a chalkboard.
"SC, concentrate," he shouted as I focused on four tennis balls that rested on the floor. "Aim! You must have the control to strike multiple targets, you must have the precision! Practice. Ready, go!"
Flicking both my wrists upward, I raised the four balls then hurled them at the far wall. Four painted targets showed where I should have directed them, but with my ability to create only two force points the balls clustered together, striking two of the targets off center.
"SC, you are dragging the projectiles forwards. Instead, you must grip each individually, guiding their path. Do not hold back!"
"I'm trying," I hissed as the balls rolled back.
"Try harder, and practice!" he commanded, and disappeared again, this time nearly making me retch. And after a few hours, I found I could accurately direct the ball clusters, but never striking more than two targets.
After his class were dinner and chores, then another shower and bed. And bed was something I welcomed after the tiring days, humming a song as I prepared. Always the same song, though I could never quite remember where I learned it, nor the words.
Until the night I was awakened by my window blowing open, and I heard the voice singing it. And I realized there was nothing more I wanted to be than the perfect student, the strongest in all three classes. The example for all.
SC, are you listening to me?
The voice trickled down through my consciousness, echoing among my thoughts. I blinked, my eyes drooping from the night before, stifling a yawn. For three hours I had crept away in the dead of night back to the auditorium where Instructor Peregrine trained us, repeating the drills over and over deep into the night. Working on my form and my technique. Trying to become the perfect Telekinetic.
To be the perfect Telekinetic, the perfect student. And that, of course, was something I wanted above all else- to move to the rank of Upper, and join those in high favor to Siri.
I frowned as I practiced, whipping the balls past me to hit the targets, my aim improving each time but still failing to hit all four of them perfectly. A good Telekinetic would be able to do that, I thought. Since I was a mid range, I should be able to as well. What was wrong with me and my power?
Then I shook my head, laughing in the auditorium, a hand over my mouth as the sound reverberated off the walls. Of course I couldn’t hit all the targets, Telekinesis was my fake power. My secret one, not my real one. Though now, after five days at the facility, I rolled the word off my tongue. Telekinetic. It sure sounded much better than unknown, so much more welcoming. And they needed Telekinetics on the police and military forces- I would fit in well there to help them as a Telekinetic, to help the state.
My frown turned to a smile as I kept practicing, the sound of tennis balls hitting the painted targets with soft thumps akin to the ticking of a clock as the night grew deeper, and I lost more sleep. But this was more important than sleep- I knew I must become better.
SC, are you listening to me?
The voice sounded again, and I jolted out of my memory, my hands flat on my desk and my eyes on Arial who sat next to me one desk over, her sentence a hushed whisper.
“What?” I asked, stirring, seeing that Linns had momentarily left the classroom. Behind us, several of the other students were socializing, particularly those who returned home each day after school, those who had been members of the academy before it was converted. The others stared off into space, some of them holding light conversation, and many with bags under their eyes as deep as mine.
“I was saying,” She said, her voice a hiss, “I’m switching schools next week, my admission papers to my new school were held up due to the sudden change of the academy, and they don’t want to take me in until the end of the quarter. But they’ll be going through by next Friday at the latest. Father was going to pull me out entirely, but I wanted to keep coming because I saw you arrive here. He only agreed because he wants to hear what goes on in the rehabilitation facility. I’m still angry with you, by the way.”
“Oh, I’m, I’m fine,” I answered, tracing the outline of a wood knot on my desk with my index finger. “Just haven’t been sleeping well. I’m sorry for tricking you, Arial, I didn’t mean to make you mad.”
“So that’s it, then?” she asked with narrowed eyes. “You know I don’t buy what you told Linns, and I don’t buy what you’re saying now. What goes on here at night when I go home?”
“Oh, just sleeping,” I answered, and offered a grin to dissipate the inquiry.
“Riiiight,” she scoffed. “I’m going to find out, you know, before I leave. You make about as good as a liar as a Telekinetic- mediocre. Besides, I have a bad feeling about this.” She lowered her voice, and continued to speak, her eyes darting towards the door where Linns had left. “Like I said, my father let me stay because he wants to know what’s going on inside here. I think something is going to happen, SC. He said he wants me to keep an eye out for anything unusual. And he said he wants someone else to do it for me, when I’m gone. To help the police.”
“The police?” I asked, suddenly more alert and sitting up in my char. This could be an incredible way to start contributing to society, just as we were being trained to do. To accelerate my path to Upper.
“Yes, the police, dummy. You know they contract him out for his power. Anyways, I mentioned that you were here with me, and he said he’s sorry for the way he treated you at dinner. But he wants to know if you would help report back to him. To keep him informed! He says that while the rehabilitation facilities feed into the police system, since they’re owned by another branch of government, they have no insight."
“Of course, I would be happy to!” I nearly exclaimed, as Arial tilted her head. “Just let me know when I can start!”
“You sure?” she asked. “I thought you would be reluctant, after that dinner.”
“No, no.” I answered. “He was only doing his job, Arial. And I’d like to help with that. I was lying, after all.”
“If you say so,” she sighed, and tapped her fingers on my arm. “Are you sure you are ok, SC? You’re different, even your voice sounds off.”
“Never been better,” I answered, as instructor Lynns entered the room and I opened my textbook, the motion filled with purpose as he started writing on the board.
“I’m going to find out, you know,” Arial repeated in a low voice. “Just you wait. Is this really how you want me to remember you, SC, when I'm gone? The boy who never told the truth?”
I rolled my eyes, and focused on the lesson. Halfway through, I dropped my pen, locking eyes with Lucio across the room as I bent to pick it up. Both his and Darian’s gaze focused on me, and Darian nudged Lucio just as a sudden memory flashed across my mind of Lucio speaking to me before class started.
“After class, we need to talk. Meet us as soon as you can, SC,” he had said.
To my annoyance, I remember having accepted. I was hoping to study in those moments, to make use of them, but if I already said yes to Lucio, I owed him a few minutes.
“Today, we learn of the strengths of powers and how they are directed,” Said Lynns, tapping the board, “This lesson comes courtesy of the research of Claudius Eriste, the primary contributor and collector of The Directory, whose edge experiments on the subject have been highly informative to understanding the nature of powers themselves. Now, class, we separate power into two dimensions- type, and strength. First is type- who can explain the origins of power type?”
“That’s easy!” exclaimed Lucio, “Where you are born determines the type! Everyone knows that.”
“True, but there is more to it than that,” said Lynns.
“Conditions affect it as well,” said Darian, his voice deep, “Location only affects it due to the conditions present in the location, what that location provides.”
“Yes, that is closer to the mark,” agreed Lynns. “Think of it this way- an area is not considered volcanic because of where it is on the map. Rather, it is the volcano that makes it volcanic. A region is defined by its attributes, not the attributes defined by the region. Similarly, powers are defined by attributes. Can anyone tell me why that occurs?”
The class was silent, except for a voice in the back.
“Well, they just are, aren’t they?”
“Not quite,” said Linns, and he drew a blob on the board, one the size of a person, “Here, this represents power itself. The larger the area is, the more strength a power has. Now, before birth the general size of this blob is determined- there may be slight fluctuations, but we know from Claudius’ research that these are minor. Does anyone here know how we know this?”
“The twins disparity!” said Arial, speaking up next to me. “That’s how they found it out!”
“Correct!” answered Lynns, jabbing a finger towards her. “Correct! Claudius studied identical pairs of twins around the world in what we call bimodal sites- these are regions where two power types tend to develop in equal proportions. Location only plays so strong a role in power type- for instance, ninety percent of children born in one region may be one power type, but there will always be outliers. Anyways, at these bimodal sites, there was an equal chance for two separate powers. And Claudius found pairs of twins where one twin developed one power, and the other developed another, though all factors were nearly identical such as time of birth, extraneous circumstances, and of course, location.
“And what he found was extraordinary- that despite their differences in power type, twins always had nearly the same power level in respect to their type. An Electrospark born in the center of a storm was just as strong as a Weathermancer twin, a Tempfluxer in the desert just as skilled as the twin Sandblaster. So Claudius determined that location plays near no role in power strength. Rather,” he said, and drew a square over the shape of the blob on the board. “It simply shapes it! Into power type A, or for example,” he took the marker and drew an oval over the square. “Power type B. Does that make sense?”
“Kinda,” said Lucio. “But there are some powers that are just weaker than others. How does that work?”
“This only determines strength within a type,” answered Linns. “Each power has an general known upper bound and a lower bound- initial power before formation simply determines where individual lies between them. This is why location matters so much, because individuals can jump entire power bands, in addition to some locations being potent enough to apply a minor power boost. A mid level telekinetic, mid level flier, mid level flamethrower, mid level duster, mid level anything tend to start with the same initial power, even though some are considered far more dangerous than others. That danger level is simply the way we perceive them after their shaping. Now, does anyone know the name Claudius gave to this effect of power formation?”
“Egg in the nest syndrome,” spoke up Arial again, her voice bored. “We went over this last semester.”
“You did, but not everyone,” chastised Linns. “But that is correct. Claudius postulated that unformed powers seek to conform to their environment as soon as they enter this world. In zoos, we see examples of dogs raising lions when their natural mother is not present, and the lions pick up many attributes of common dogs. Powers are similar- upon ‘hatching’, they cling to the first identity they can find, and are thus shaped.”
On the board, he went over the edges of the square again with the marker, and erased the other shapes so that was the only outline left.
“Remember, power is the size,” he said, shading it in. “And type is the shape. Important, yet again, because what is perceived a low power type can actually hold high amounts of strength. And I fear we’ve run over on time now- go on, next class! But remember this idea, the idea of intrinsic power. That everyone starts the same, and it is only the circumstances that change us.”
We started to file out, and I felt a nudge as Lucio prodded me in the ribs and Darian took my elbow. And as the rest of the class turned left towards lunch, they dragged me right into a small side closet.
“Quiet,” ordered Darian as my eyes widened, and put his arm on my shoulder. “We only need a moment.”
“What’s going on?” I demanded as Lucio looked left and right outside before shutting the door behind us, the only light coming from underneath the crack in the door.
“We have a secret for you, SC,” whispered Darian. “But we have to know we can trust you.”
“A secret?” I repeated, feeling a broom handle jam into my shoulder blade as I stepped backwards. “What sort of secret?”
“One about what happens at night,” hissed Lucio. “The singing, have you noticed it?”
“At first,” continued Darian. “I thought it was Lucio here planting memories in my mind, trying to mess with me like usual. We were fortunate enough that I know how mischievous he is, and immediately accused him of trying to meddle with my thoughts. I wish I had been right.”
“What about it?” I asked. “I like it, it sounds beautiful.”
“Damn it,” cursed Darian, looking at Lucio, who spoke up next.
“Look, SC, that music is poison. They’re doing something to your thoughts, to all of our thoughts. They’re changing who we are, every night, without us knowing.”
“Well maybe that’s a good thing,” I protested. “They should be molding us to become better contributors.”
“SC, that’s not what they’re doing at all!” urged Lucio. “They’re trying to use us, like tools! Siri is trying to-“
“Hold on now,” I said, anger flashing across my face in the darkness. “They’re giving us an education, and lodging, and food, and you’re accusing them of not looking after us?”
“It’s not like that,” said Darian, shaking his head. “They’re not giving us anything. They’re taking from us.”
“I’ve half a mind to report you!” I retorted, my voice raising. “For your sheer ingratitude! That’s what they say to do!”
“Who says to do? Who?” Darian asked, and I bit the inside of my lip as a lyric flashed across my mind.
The protesters, the fouled mouthed room mates,
Report them away as ingrates!
Send them to Siri to show them the way,
So they can be molded today!
“I- I-“ I stuttered, blinking, before my common sense came rushing back. “Siri did, you know that as well as I do. Let me out of here, this is ridiculous. You ingrates.”
Lucio and Darian looked to each other, then turned back to me.
“Look, here is our secret,” said Lucio, changing his tone, his eyes softening, “We’ve been recruited as part of a secret team to help Siri. That was all just a test, SC. You should change your sleeping arrangements to be with us for a night, we’ll show you what we mean!”
“Exactly,” confirmed Darian, trying to place a hand on my shoulder. “She promised us it is the quickest way to become an Upper. Just for a night, you should join us.”
“After what you said,” I answered, “I’m not falling for your tricks. Let me out!” I pushed past them into the hallway, nearly tripping over their feet and stumbling over tile before turning back. “I’m not going to report you, because I’d still like to be your friend. And I hope you see the truth. But if you try this again, I will! And maybe I still might!”
I stalked away, heading to the lunch room, irritated that I would likely be eating after the Bottoms and have less food than normal. From behind me, I heard the hushed whispers of the two of them as they followed, just barely audible.
“Should we nab him?” said Lucio, and the muscles in my back tensed as I prepared to use my Telekinesis.
“No, he’s a goner. Useless,” answered Darian, and they fell away as I entered the cafeteria, taking the scraps of food on my tray before finding an empty space to sit. In moments Arial stood up from the other end of the table and joined me, her expression concerned.
“Where have you been?” she asked. “You’re late, you don’t want to get in trouble with them.” She nudged her head towards the two guards that had escorted me into the facility on the first day, that now guarded the lunch door to keep anyone from leaving early. I paused, thinking back to what had happened, the memory coming to me a bit slower than normal. But once it arrived, it was fresh.
“Rolled my ankle leaving the classroom,” I said, looking down to my foot. “Had to go to the nurse to have it looked at. Feels fine now, almost as if nothing happened.”
Then, at the table two across from me, Lucio and Darian sat down as I scowled. Hopefully, they had reformed their thoughts after cornering me in the closet yesterday. And now that I could think about it, I did remember Lucio apologizing later that afternoon. Good, I wouldn’t have to worry about them then.
“What’s your plan for the weekend tomorrow?” I asked Arial, starting to take a bite.
“Tomorrow? It’s only Thursday.” She answered, laughing, “Don’t get ahead of yourself! School isn’t that boring.”
“Thursday?” I said, and looked up towards the menu. Today, I ate lasagna, and that was marked for Thursday. “Hmmm. I guess you’re right. Strange.”
Then I finished my meal, and prepared to meet instructor Peregrine once more, hoping the last night’s secret session would show some improvement in my power.
“Josh, inside the target! No splashing, we’ve been over this!” shouted instructor Peregrine as the arc of flame leaving Josh’s fingertip’s singed the entire target, and not the white square that had been shrinking every day since we had started training. Now, it was a mere two by two inches instead of the original six by six.
“What’s the point of this?” Josh said in exasperation. “Why should I even aim at a target? Why not just make fire explode out from the target itself?”
He pointed his finger, and flame erupted from the white parchment, originating in the center instead of his hand.
“Class, stop your activities, and come here!” demanded Peregrine. “Josh has asked a question every one of you needs to hear about your powers. Let’s go, now!”
He disappeared to materialize on top of a ten foot obstacle in the center of the floor, bits of ice and frost falling from him as he appeared, and we circled around him.
“Every class, without fail, someone inquires why we do not use our powers directly upon someone else. For my own power, that would raise the question of why I don’t simply reach inside an enemy’s chest and pull out his heart still beating!” He flashed a smile, while Arial shivered, “Not that I haven’t tried. For Josh, why not start a fire inside their cranium, so that steam flies out their ears? Or SC perform a dissection from a distance, removing body parts until the target is incapacitated. The answer is quite simple.”
He disappeared, and I felt nausea again as he appeared at the base of the obstacle, a heat wave following his entrance, and his voice lowered.
“On Regulars, such tactics may work. But for Specials, it is different. Surely Linns has told you the origins of power types? A fascinating subject, with one important implication- all of us, though separate flavors, are the same. To cast your power directly upon someone else, you fight their own power that resides within their body. You infringe upon territory that is not your own, something so difficult to do it is nearly impossible. Josh, now, will illustrate. Go on, Josh. Start a fire in my chest, a real bonfire!”
“Wha- what?” stuttered Josh, stepping backwards.
“You heard me,” commanded Peregrine, following Josh. “Give it your best shot. Burn me to a crisp.”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” started Josh. “In case-“
“Do it boy, and do it now!” shouted Peregrine, appearing inches from his face, and Josh threw a hand up against Peregrine’s shirt, sweat trickling down his temple. And he gasped, his cheeks turning white as nothing happened.
“A slight pressure, and a slight increase in pressure, but look how exhausted he is,” said Peregrine. “Useless in actual combat. But for those in control of their power, such tactics do work on distant extremities. Such as you, with your forearm, Josh.”
The last few words came out low from Peregrine as he put his own hand in front of him, and his fingers disappeared into nothingness, through I felt space rip open before them. And Josh shrieked, looking down to his arm where several wiggling bulges appeared under the skin. Peregrine’s fingers, with the nails just visible, nearly breaking through the barrier.
“Stop!” Josh shouted, trying to lurch his arm away but finding it locked in place, the fingers gripping bone from the inside. “Agh, it hurts! Stop, let me go!”
Eyes flashing, Peregrine pulled his fingers back through ripped space, whipping the bloody tips in streaks against a practice dummy. Jos shrieked again as depressions formed where the fingers had been, shaking his arm as it was released.
“Relax, boy, compose yourself. You’ll see worse than that in the field. After class, report in to the nurse.”
The class was silent as Peregrine walked back up to the front, his steady footsteps contrasting the uneven wheezing of Josh’s still panicked breath, and looked back towards us.
“What are you waiting for?” he demanded. “I answered the question, return to your drills. Anthony, it’s your turn to be Lucio’s partner, it’s time we switched one out.”
The student’s rushed to break apart, hurrying back to their stations. And Anthony took a seat next to Lucio, where I heard Peregrine instructing them with the only interruptions the thumping of practice dummies and targets.
“Now Lucio,” Peregrine started. “You are progressing well, but you are still adding too much of your influence into memories. The subject should not be able to discern between your additions and their own past. Consider their minds a wild jungle- you must plant the seed of a weed, one not indigenous, and let it grow on its own. Let it draw nutrients from their soil, from their air, from their sunlight. The more you nurture it, the more foreign and well gardened it will be. That is unacceptable, the memory must be indistinguishable, because you have only created the spark. Let them fill in the blanks, let them create the rest. Begin.”