Authors: Ben Wise
Per usual, tonight is another fucking long night. The rain has eased; the wet keeping most of the usual menagerie away. A line of crows huddle in black silhouette on a roof across the street as they suffer their watery fate together in the cold drizzle. Below them, a couple of traders are sticking it out, selling their chosen products; nothing of value. A few food stalls remain open, the ones that never close no matter the weather. But even they seem quiet tonight. The usual gang of younger abandoneds are making the usual nuisance of themselves and of course tonight’s scene wouldn’t be complete without the usual old guy acting in his usual creepy way sitting on his usual bench at the stall he never seems to leave. I’m fairly certain I’ve never actually seen him move from it.
Aine and I lean against the dirty red brick wall of our usual haunt – an empty alley corner within sight of anything worth seeing on the main road that acted as the focal point for our broken little community. Rain pours onto the street from a tin roof above us; the water pooling around a mess of debris filling the street, the remains of a society not long lost. The suburb still wears the aftermath of the war, like it ended yesterday. Even after twenty years. I figure most of us have simply tuned out the debris. To me it’s just part of the landscape.
But as children growing up, it meant there was always something to explore. Always things to scavenge. And these days it’s home, comfort in its lack thereof. I haven’t ever really felt any desire to travel beyond this place. Perhaps one day I’ll visit other abandoned suburbs, but now? I can never manage to justify the effort to myself. What difference is there between one broken suburb and another? I won’t pretend like it’s always been easy to live here. Perhaps it’s comfort in the familiar?
Of course, the inner city is out of the question. I hear about the people who live there, all crammed together in high-rises and apartments. It must be stifling to live so close to one another like that. Here, there are enough derelict buildings that we could each have one to live in if we wanted. But even if I did consider trying to survive in the inner city, how long would it be before I was detected? Why risk it? There’s nothing there for me.
There mustn’t be enough of us out here for the government to see us as a problem. The inner city dwellers consider the suburbs across the Virdis River abandoned. The provisional law enforcement doesn’t bother with us. On purpose, I suspect. Too much work. Sure they know we exist but nobody cares about us anymore. I guess they’d rather pretend we didn’t exist. It could have turned out worse for me. We don’t cross the river into the inner suburbs where all the non-talented flocked during the war and they don’t cross it to come out here. Not that the government would let them. Still, it doesn’t hurt to avoid drawing attention to ourselves, despite the fact that it’s been a long time since individuals of our nature have been an issue.
Aine had been pouring out her thoughts to me all afternoon, a stream of desire, boredom and the paranoia people of our position in society have. I had given up even nodding and pretending to listen a good 15 minutes ago. She has such a short attention span that I’m not sure she’s even noticed. Maybe she’s just looking for someone to pay attention to her. It’s a common theme among us abandoneds. We’re all looking for somebody to pay attention to us, one way or another. Even in this community, and that word must get used lightly, we are all ultimately on our own. The younger kids show their lack of parental figures, but by our age, we’ve mostly gone past that. For us, it’s all about companionship.
So I can’t really blame her. She does get a lot more attention than I do. And it’s always complicated with her. My love life, on the other hand, is pretty simple. It doesn’t exist. Most girls, like Aine, are lucky with the fact that a lot more boys than girls were abandoned when we were children. Things have turned out less favourably for me. There are few girls around here that share my romantic interests. None, in fact. And it’s not like there’s a lot of new girls coming into the community that might change the balance up. So, I end up spending a lot of time by myself. But I enjoy being with Aine regardless, I enjoy her company.
It’s strange how we ended up friends. I guess we just gravitated towards each other since we could scrape together some small bit of commonality with our close ages. There really aren’t many other girls around here. We don’t really have much in common beyond age and we certainly don’t think alike. But she is a good person; beautiful in her own way. We get along.
Like everybody in this community of outcasts, we had all tested positive for talent and been abandoned early in our childhood. By parents who just couldn’t bring it upon themselves to hand over their children to the government and ‘do the right thing’ for society. Talented, hah, once upon a time it used to be a positive word. With the fall of the talented government and its subsequent destruction, now it’s just a stigma attached to those of us unlucky enough to be born this way.
At least Aine knows her switch; I can’t say the same for me. Around the age of five every child is tested for the potential to develop talents, not that I remember anything back that far. It’s a series of tests, where each test measures a child for an affinity to a particular type of talent, called a birth switch. I couldn’t tell you what happens in them though; frankly I don’t remember anything before being here, on the streets of this abandoned suburb. Around 9 percent of children test positive and as far as I know, nobody has been found to have more than one switch. It’s genetic in some way but I can never remember the details. The switch you’re born with is the anchor around your neck for the rest of your life. At least, that’s how Aine sees it.
I don’t know though. Most kids start showing basic signs of their switch when they start growing up. Then there’s puberty, which really sends a kid’s talent crazy; it was hard to miss that stage with Aine, which often involved dodging objects she randomly flung around the place according to her mood.
Aine’s a kine, a minor telekinetic. She can move light objects, maybe push a chair around and stuff, the usual shit, nothing special. These days, since the war and the government’s weeding out of talented children before they grow up, it’s rare for anybody to develop more than that. Sure, there are a few who manage beyond that, but nothing like they say the talented had during the war. Even the most talented paths and clairs are a shadow of their former selves. By around sixteen or so, almost everyone’s talent is fully developed.
In my case though all I had developed by sixteen was sufficient to attract the attention of boys who grew up here. Most got the hint pretty quickly. Thankfully Aine quickly caught up and now diverts most of the attention away from me. Sometimes, a little more physically convincing has been required. Such is life in this community. I deal.
Since the events of the veil war and the fall of the talented governance, parents have been required to hand over any talented children for schooling. Schooling is for the greater good of society to prevent another veil war they say. They avoid mentioning, of course, that no child has ever been returned from schooling. Nobody knows what happens to them, though I could give it a pretty good guess. Most parents are ‘convinced’, forcibly or by fear, by the new government to do the right thing by society and prevent the possibility of talents ever being in control of things ever again. They like to use phrases like ‘It’s the right thing for your child’ and ‘Do the right thing by society’. I wonder if there is anybody who believes the government. I wonder if the government cares.
Still, there are always a few parents that just can’t bring themselves to hand their children over and choose instead abandon them to the streets. If they don’t start out in the abandoned suburbs those who survive end up there. Or one of the other abandoned suburbs dotted around the outer city. Question: is being abandoned by your parents and left to fend for yourself really a better life? Hah, such a melancholic thought. Aine isn’t the only one looking for attention. It isn’t so bad, I promise. I’ve survived.
Did I mention today was boring as fuck? Emphasis on was. That creepy old guy across the street just stood up, looked across at us and started yelling. That’s the first time I think I’ve ever heard a word from the guy. Shit, it’s probably the first time I’ve ever seen him move. This is a guy old enough to have experienced the war. My mind catches this thought and runs with it for a moment. It probably should have been listening to what he’s yelling instead.
The message finally starts to sink in, forcing its way into my head. It still takes a moment for me to comprehend why he’s gesturing wildly. It’s then I notice Aine tugging on my arm. It slipped my attention, just like the police rushing towards us.
I think that’s the first word I’ve spoken today. We bolt down the alley, for what little good it does us. We make three steps when Aine slips on the wet pavement. Shit. I reach back to pull her up. My fingers brush against her arm before a hand pushes me away. My captor shoves me back against the red brick. Aine is thrown beside me. I see her squirm against a hand pressed against her chest.
Time seems to flowing wrong. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline. I don’t know why I don’t struggle, as if I’m not supposed to. I feel disconnected from reality. This feels wrong. This is all so very, very wrong. But I can’t corral my thoughts into anything meaningful. All I’m able to focus on is how distinct her blonde hair stands out from the deep red brick. How messy it looks caught against the abrasive wall. She is normally so fastidious about it.
Beyond the cop holding me, there’s an older woman; her unfamiliar ash coloured uniform implies her importance, paramilitary perhaps. She wears it far too well to be local police. It’s unadorned by anything identifiable except for a pristine white band that wraps around her upper arm. Why would one of them come all the way out here to this place? That question goes unanswered when I notice the young woman standing quietly beside her. Her attractiveness is lost in the utilitarianism of her navy outfit. Definitely not a cop. She stands diminutively next to the soldier, under her control perhaps? She massages her wrist, almost subconsciously. Then it strikes me, she’s talented. I flash a confused look at her, but her eyes just look blankly past me. Then I see her forehead form into a knot of confusion. She’s pretty, her dark hair falling over striking green eyes. What’s her purpose here?
“Well?” the woman asks impatiently.
“The blonde’s telekinetic,” the girl responds timidly.
“And this dark haired one?” the cop holding me interjects.
Our eyes meet. My mind latches onto the brilliant green of her irises, as if it’s suddenly the only thing that matters right now. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a face like it. Not since… and then the thought is lost. She hesitates, her eyes casting about as if she hopes to avoid answering the question I didn’t know to ask.
“I don’t know,” she eventually replies.
The police turn their heads as one to stare at her.
“You don’t know?” both the soldier and the cop holding me ask in unison.
“I don’t know,” she stammers, “she’s talented, no doubt. She doesn’t read like any typical switch. It’s so subtle it’s barely noticeable. And there’s nobody shielding her either, it’s just…” The girl’s voice drops as the sentence trails off, head shaking. “Look,” she continues, “she’s definitely piercing the veil which confirms her as talented. But…”
“You know exactly what she is, don’t you?” the woman asks.
She just nods, as if ashamed.
“What do you want to do?” the cop holding me asks the older woman.
She nods to herself. “Bring her in.”
I pick up on how ‘her’ was emphasised.
Bring me where? Blink. The cop holding Aine presses something against her head. Blink. Aine is falling to the ground, the gun a black shadow over her. Blink. I look down but can’t seem to work out why she’s fallen. Time isn’t flowing right again. Somewhere in the back of my head, a voice recites a piece of rote knowledge learnt long ago; not even the most talented of telekinetics can affect the course of a bullet. Why this is important? I blink. Deep red paints Aine’s blonde hair away; it slowly surrenders to the wall behind her.
The cop holding me swings the butt of his gun against my head. Time stops flowing completely and I can only embrace the incoming darkness.
I wake up on a hard cot surrounded by the white walls of a tiny room. At least they used to be white; it’s been a while since they could be called white. I can’t tell if this is some nightmarish hospital room or a foul clinical prison. The fluorescent fails the room. It couldn’t get more like something out of a ghastly nightmare.
Stabbing pain hits me in the face, right where the pistol connected with my cheek. It’s not enough to stop me passing out again.
Noise. The walls are still white. Face still hurts. I’m completely naked; when did that happen? Noise. Somebody fumbling with a door. Door? As the door opens the light in the room flares intensely white, blinding me; two dark shapes against the searing light enter the room. My eyes focus as the first shape grabs me roughly by the arm and pulls me to my feet.
My sight begins to recover. The shape’s ash uniform comes into focus, aligning his allegiance with the woman at my capture. The sub machine gun strapped to his body is nothing like the handguns the local police carry. But what scares me is the half metre long scabbard that hangs by his thigh and the long knife that surely fits inside it.
The look he flashes me can only be described as wicked. His fist follows, connecting with my stomach. It doubles me over, but that isn’t what really hits me. Aine’s death finally registers. The memory of previous events come rushing back into my head. The weight of it all drops me to my knees. The guard grabs me roughly, his hands groping over me. Never seen a naked girl before? Whatever.
He lifts me by my armpits and pulls me out of the room. Heels dragging, I just let it happen. It’s a chance to take the place in. Dragged into a hallway, long and more not-white; twisted hospital indeed. The walls of this hallway have more of a green tinge than the brown of the room where I woke. There are more doors down from what was mine but our destination is just one door down, the room at the end of the hallway.
The guard throws me down near the centre of the room. A single lamp suspended from the middle of the ceiling, highlights the old hospital gurney that waits underneath but fails to breach the shadows of the corners of the room. Rusty steel rails frame the gurney, leather straps hang from each side. The nightmare gets worse.
If it wasn’t for the two guards standing stiffly at the door cradling sub machine guns and the fact that the room looks not to have been cleaned in 50 years, it’d almost seem like this was a surgery.
“Get on the bed,” the accompanying guard snaps at me.
The two guards react instantly to a returned blank stare, coming alive in sync and pointing their guns at me with obvious intent. They start to circle around me hesitantly, as if I am some wounded animal about to lash out. Can’t imagine what they think I could be capable of in the shape I’m in at the moment. Delightful; it would appear I’m not here for a general check-up. It would seem though, that arguing the point is probably not in my best interest.
Their continued stares flick a switch in my head and I start to become a lot more self-conscious. Normally I wouldn’t give a shit; privacy isn’t something one expects much of on the streets. And I’ve dealt with similar stares before but not with men of their stature.
I pull myself onto the bed. The mattress is hard foam, less a bed than a padded mat. My captor guard shoves me back impatiently, holding me down roughly with one hand while one of the door guards steps forward to fasten the leather straps over my wrists. Far too tight. Lying back as I am, the pain in my head quickly comes back to me and with it memories of Aine. Damn.
On the upper arm of the guard holding me down is a white band stained with a red cross. I’ve seen that before. I remember, when I was captured the woman’s uniform had the same band. All the guards in the room are wearing one. I don’t recognise its meaning.
“Do we bind her?” the guard appears to ask nobody.
“For the moment I don’t think that’s necessary. Let’s see what happens, no?” a voice from the corner replies.
Where the fuck did she come from? The older woman, the soldier from before materialises out of the dark and stands over me.
“Hello little one,” she starts. “You are an honoured guest of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. The Order of the Temple – The Knights Templar if you will. We’ve obviously met before, but I apologise for not introducing myself earlier. You, little one, you may call me Levia.”
The Templars? Shit, really? The Templars have a vicious reputation for being at the forefront of persecution. Most people born post war believe them to be a myth, a scary tale told to keep children in line. Until today, I believed they were a myth as well. Their supposed methods are the subject of many rumours, none pleasant.
“You have to understand,” she continues in a manner that’s far too matter of fact, “that we have, kept almost complete control of the development of talent in the wild for some time now. Yes, even keeping a watch on those who live in the outer suburbs. We made sure that there will be noone capable of developing their talent to the extent of the traitors to humanity during the war. And yet, here you are; something else entirely. And given how we found you, it begs the question; if you are what we think you are, how did you avoid us for so long? We wiped out your kind. So we need to find out, are you what we think you are? If there’s even a small chance… well we can’t risk humanity to have somebody with such a twisted nature running around. You understand I hope?” Her face screws up in mock seriousness. “So, you could save us all a lot of heartache and just tell us.”
I give her my best attempt at a serious look back. “I have no idea.”
“That’s ok. I understand you wouldn’t have had anybody to teach you. It’ll be more fun this way. We’ll find out. The next stage is to run some, well, one might call them more advanced tests than the typical ones you’d find out there,” she motions to imply the world outside, “but we’ve found them to be pretty reliable, really. If you push anyone hard enough, eventually the body’s own fight or flight response will kick in and, for a talented person that means instinctually attempting whatever their talent allows them. For you, I expect that might be quite spectacular. It will certainly be interesting to see how you connect with the veil.
“Or, we push too hard,” she shrugs and smiles down at me, “then it stops being an issue. But don’t fear, it shouldn’t take too long and Eli is very good at what he does. We’ll work you out.”
I hear the door to the room open and slow, heavy footsteps approach.
“This is Eli. He’ll be carrying out the testing,” Levia says.
Eli follows, “Thankfully, we were able to put many of the tools your kind abandoned after the war, so we can carry out these tests. And while you might wonder how we Templars reconcile the use of the twisted tools of our enemy, in circumstances like these we must be pragmatic. We could never develop such twisted tools ourselves you see. Besides, they’re welcome to join us here and ask for them back if they want them returned,” he laughs.
He holds a section of thin copper piping above me, roughly a foot long. Down its length, copper wire is woven in a pattern over two-thirds of the pipe. The wire seems to be wound in a single direction, as if the entire pattern’s shapes point toward one end. The light in the room plays across the wiry pattern, dark shadows suggesting sinister things. He holds the wire-free end of the pipe, which I guess is the handle of whatever it is.
“The pattern maintains a construct designed to amplify suggestive elements from the sender into the mind of the receiver. The device focuses and directs that programming. It is, to give your kind some credit, an interesting telepathic device.”
He smiles as he touches the device to the inside of my wrist. I scream as searing pain shoots through every nerve in my arm. As he drags the device up, I can feel the bones in my arm shattering while the flesh around them tears off. He lifts the device off when he reaches the inside of my elbow. I’ve run out of air to keep screaming. Breathe. Down at my arm I expect to see nothing but bloody gore, but to my confusion there’s no noticeable effect at all. What the fuck is happening?
He responds to my confusion, twisted visibly on my face. “The device is only suggestive; it merely suggests the pain I think of. Your mind is kind enough to fills in the rest. We couldn’t in good conscience, as keepers of the faith, actually damage a person in our care, even a heathen like you, now could we?”
The rhetorical question is lost on me.
“It would be against our nature, quite unlike the savages of your kind, the ones who would develop such a thing in the first place.”
The device presses into my shoulder; my body twists and thrashes in a vain attempt to escape the searing pain. In my struggle my leg kicks out toward him. Not that I can control doing it. There’s nothing but blinding pain.
He flashes me an angry look and turns to the guards. “Going to have to strap this fiend in, hold her legs apart damn it.”
Each guard roughly grabs a leg as I struggle but they’re far too strong for me to help myself. Thick leather straps tighten around my ankles, left first then right. I’m left spread-eagled and exposed, too shocked to make my voice work, too shocked to say anything at all.
He drives the copper wand hard into the bones of my pelvis. The light dims and the room floods with darkness. Or is that just my mind blacking out? I can’t think straight enough to tell the difference. In the distance somebody is screaming. Me. My pelvis shatters like glass into a million pieces. The light bulb above me shatters and glass dust covers me like a mist. It’s almost beautiful.
The pain stops. I open my eyes to the room still in darkness.
“A response, good,” Levia says from over in the corner again. “That will do for the moment. Put her out and fix this damn light”
I don’t notice the needle. Everything goes dark again.