Prologue – Acceptance
Amelia sat in front of the Dean of the St Mary’s School for highly gifted women and tried not to over analyse the silence that filled the room. Amelia was used to this particular kind of silence. It had followed her for years, its presence made known with every new introduction, during every awkward conversation, every stilted talk with adults and her ‘peers’.
Amelia used the term peers loosely since it implied that they were people on the same level as she was. They were not, hence the silence. A silence that said far more than words could ever convey. A silence that quiet clearly said “Shit. What the hell do I say next?”
“I realise that this request is a bit, unorthodox,” Amelia’s father shifted uncomfortably in his seat next to her, “however Amelia and I have come at this from every angle and can give you a solution for any problem you might think of.”
“Be that as it may Mr Edwards, the whole point of this institution is to train and produce future Hero’s, people whom the public can trust and who must, at all times be in control. Your daughter may be able to simulate a form of control, but there are many out there who’d seek to tear her down, condemn both her and the school for even trying.” The Dean’s response was better than Amelia had predicted. She could tell from the Dean’s tone that, whilst surprised and compassionate, it wasn’t dismissive, there had been no outright no as she’d feared. There was still a possibility that Amelia and her father could persuade her.
“Dean Finch, can you show me one area of the law that does not directly state that Amelia could not enter your programme, one rule, law or act that specifically says people in her position are in any way unqualified to become Heroes?
The Dean paused, the silence this time thoughtful as opposed to awkward. Amelia shifted next to her father, desperately wishing she could get a better read of the situation, a better idea of which way the Dean was leaning.
“Madam Dean,” Amelia appealed, “please, just give me one chance. It doesn’t have to be a full year, it could just be a term. Please, I want… I need to try and show the world and myself that I can be more than what everyone believes me to be. I need to show everyone out there that this label I live with does not make me inferior. Does not make us inferior.”
Amelia’s father had reached out and placed a hand on Amelia’s shoulder during his daughter’s speech. Hearing her impassioned speech now, Mr Edwards was reminded of the first time he’d heard her reason for wanting to apply for the HCP. He remembered the tears that had filled her eyes as she tried to convince him to help her. Looking at the Dean he could see what his daughter could not. That she’d hit a nerve somewhere within the stone faced woman.
“You realise a term would most likely not convince anyone of this Miss Edwards. It would probably only convince them of the opposite once you left the programme.”
Amelia’s spirit fell at the Dean’s words. She’d tried everything she could think of, logic, planning, reasoning and even a direct emotional appeal. Was her fight truly already over before she could even try?
“No Miss Edwards, I will not give you a term. It would be pointless and a waste of time, both yours and mine. No you shall just have to prove that you are worth something by lasting the full year, if not more.”
Amelia’s head snapped up as she focused on what she was hearing.
“You’ll let me try?” she asked tentatively, worried that she’d misheard or misunderstood.
“So long as I can’t find any legal reason why you can’t, yes Miss Edwards, Amelia, you may enrol and start as a lower sixth student here at St Mary’s this autumn.”
“Thank you,” Amelia whispered, her heart soaring with joy. “You won’t regret this. I’ll work twice as hard as anyone, I swear it.”
“Be prepared, no allowances will be made for you or your condition.” Warned Dean Finch, “I’ll personally be reviewing each and every aspect of your efforts to see if I can find any reason for you not to make it. I expect I won’t be the only one, however I will endeavour to ensure only I have the final say over you’re continued enrolment.”
Mr Edwards looked at the Dean nodding in agreement. “I have no doubt that the DFH will be looking over everything with a fine tooth comb Dean Finch, but we’ve already done the research and they have no grounds to contest this.”
“Be that as it may, your daughter is not going to have an easy time of it, especially once the general public get wind of this.”
“Actually Madam Dean I have the solution to that already.”
Dean Finch looked at the young girl sitting across from her. No, not a girl, a woman. Someone who’d already heard the worst of the world beating her down and was still fighting to show it she was better.
“And what would that be Miss Edwards?” Dean Finch asked.
“If I’m truly to be treated exactly like every other student, then I wish to invoke my right to privacy.”
Dean Finch nodded in understanding at the girl’s response. To be honest she likely would have suggested that Miss Edwards do just that. It would save her quite a lot of hassle and prevent the information leaking to the public any faster than bureaucracy would allow.
“Whilst not the first student to request this, you will be the only student to have done so in the past three years Miss Edwards. Still if you can meet the necessary payments required to fund your education through the alternative route, which I’m sure you can, then I see no reason to deny your request for privacy. Congratulations Miss Edwards, and I look forward to welcoming you to the school in September.” The Dean turned to look at Amelia’s father. “Mr Edwards, I’ll forward you the pertinent information with regards to the programme and costs. Will Amelia be boarding with us?”
“Yes Dean Finch,” David Edwards nodded. “My work takes me all over the world and due to certain circumstances at home, we think it would be best for Amelia to board.”
“We Mr Edwards? I was under the impression it was just you and Miss Edwards making this decision?”
David looked at his daughter, a pained expression lining his face. The Dean silently wished her power was sometimes less perceptive then it was.
“It was just me and Amelia making the decision. Amelia’s mother is, let us say not in the best position to have a say in this decision.”
Looking once more at the man’s expression, the Dean glanced at Amelia and saw the rigidity with which the girl now held herself, the emotion on her face was hard to determine largely in part due to the blindfold covering her eyes, but also because the Dean struggled to place the emotion. Anger? Fear? Shame?
No it was none of those. With one last glance at Amelia’s father, and one last input from her ability, the Dean recognised the expression. The look on Amelia’s face was one of regret.
Ash Lloyd was lying on his back staring up at the clouds, wondering what it would be like to be able to fly among them. He knew logically that the clouds were not giant floating balls of cotton one could land on, yet he couldn’t help but ponder how it would feel. Would they be soft and yielding like a pillow? Or maybe they only appeared that way and were actually as hard as the earth beneath him.
A loud laugh broke him from his day dreaming and he glanced towards his friends who were gathered around their phones. He sighed, the train of thought that had been occupying his mind for the past ten minutes thoroughly derailed. Getting to his feet he made his way to the trio sitting on a nearby bench.
“What’s so funny Anya?” He asked looking at the source of the laugh.
Anya looked at Ash, an exasperated smile gracing her freckled face. Anya was always complaining about those freckles, how they made her look like such the redhead stereotype. Ash personally thought them rather cute, how well they highlighted her unnaturally green eyes. Like Ash, Anya was a Super and, like him, was enjoying what might be the last sunny day of the summer.
“Neil just offered me a £100 to invoke my rights to privacy if I get in to St Mary’s. I’ve just finished informing our lunatic friend that £100 wouldn’t even cover 1% of the fees if I went anonymous.” Anya glared pointedly at the boy opposite her, who turned as bright red as Anya’s hair, a feat not to be underestimated considering Anya’s hair was a particularly brilliant shade. Like her eyes, whilst theoretically within the bounds for what normal humans could achieve naturally, both, combined with her power, were clearly Super traits.
Neil, whilst also a Super, was one of the luckier ones whose abilities did not affect his physical appearance. He was, in fact, rather non-descript with sandy brown hair, brown eyes and a very medium build.
“It was just a suggestion Anya. No one’s gone anon in, what, three years? You’d make one hell of a media splash though, especially with your power. Imagine, an anon in the top ranked spot. You’d be all they could talk about!”
Anya snorted and rolled her eyes, her expression layered with condescension. “Yeah right Neil. Whilst I might be able to beat all three of your respective assess any day of the week, yes even Sundays Ash, I doubt any of us could 100% say that I’d get the top spot, if we even get accepted.”
“Oh come on Anya,” chimed in Bruce. “Whilst my acceptance might be questionable at best, there is no doubt you wouldn’t make the cut. You’re mum’s a professor at St M’s!”
Bruce was the last of the group. Larger than most boys his age, it had nothing to do with his ability, though most people seemed to assume he was a strong man due to his size. Ash sat down next to the big guy and nodded in agreement with Bruce’s statement.
“You have to admit Anya, it’d be pretty shocking if you didn’t get in, nepotism aside,” Ash said.” You’ve been training as hard as any of us for this chance and you’re ability is perfect for being a Hero.”
Anya rolled her eyes again, but the smile had returned to her face.
“Kids!” came a yell from the edge of the garden the group were chatting in. “They’re here!”
With a start all four were on their feet and running for the house in the distance. Bruce, typically, brought up the rear of the group whilst Neil raced ahead, his super speed allowing him to blaze ahead of the group, quite literally in some places. Ash rolled his eyes, glad today was a Friday as he doused the flames left in Neil’s wake.
Once inside the four gathered around the table in the kitchen. Mrs Collins, Anya’s mother stood in one corner, a small smile playing across her face as the group dashed into the room. On the other side Mr and Mrs Golding Bruce’s parent’s stood looking just as tense as their young son.
Neil’s father was conspicuously absent from the room, but this came as no surprise to anyone. Mr Fleming had always had a very detached relationship with his son and nothing came before his work.
Ash tried not to think about the absence of his own parents from the room. Although dead for more than six years now, the loss of his parent’s still left Ash reeling at times, though he no longer felt the depth of the depression he’d sunk into that first year.
Shaking his head free of the slowly encroaching sadness, Ash forced himself to focus on the moment and the pale yellow envelopes lying in front of him. There lay his future, the answer to his biggest dream for as long as he could remember. The past was behind him. His life lay ahead.
Together the four of them picked up the envelopes that bore their names. Despite Anya’s having come from St Mary’s and not Brashmoore it didn’t really matter as the schools were used by the same HCP. All four were identical in size and thickness. Ash hoped this was a good thing rather than an ill omen. With one final look at each other, each of the sixteen year olds opened the envelopes with a speed that an onlooker would have described as Super.
After what felt like hours but was really only seconds, Ash found the word he was looking for. Accepted. He looked to his friends and saw identical grins on all of their faces. A grin perfectly mirrored on his own face.
The cabin lay isolated in the quiet welsh forest. Well back from any main roads or signs of civilization. Its rough wooden walls were stained with age and all around the air lay still. From within the cabin a warm orange light glowed at odds with the dark and cold that lay all around.
Inside the cabin, Bethany Parks toyed with the pale yellow envelope that had been delivered earlier that morning to a village several miles from the where the cabin lay. She’s had to walk for more than two hours just to go and collect it but, studying it now, she knew it had been worth the trek. From the size and weight of the letter it could only be an acceptance letter, the bold font on the front proudly declaring exactly which school had accepted her. It wasn’t the only letter Bethany had received, applying to just one school would have drawn unnecessary attention. Acceptance letters to the other British HCPs as well as ones from France, Germany, Russia and even an early acceptance letter to Lander, all were arrayed before her.
Yet despite the missives from some of the most well-known and diverse schools on the planet, Bethany had known there really was only one school she could attend. Her partner had made that clear years ago.
Sighing Bethany leaned back into her leather chair, her eyes taking in the luxurious trappings of the living room. The quilted blanket on the bed, the paintings hanging from the walls. Against the back wall a fire blazed merrily in a worked stone hearth providing a much needed warmth to stave off the mountain chill. All around the cabin, stillness reigned. No cars, no people, not even birdsong disrupted the quiet peace of the cabin.
“Well?” she asked the empty room. “Are we still going to follow the plan?”
Behind her the crackle of the fire faded then stopped. The gentle sound of the wind also ceased and Bethany knew if she looked, all around her the world would have frozen, caught in a bubble of stillness.
In front of her a Space appeared. Bethany could never tell just how large or how far away the Space was. It could have been just a few feet away and barely a meter in diameter, or it could have been miles away and thousands of kilometres wide. Even though the Space was indoors, the laws of physics just seemed to slide off the anomaly.
From within the inky blackness of the Space a speck appeared. It grew rapidly, first a dot, then growing to the size of a ten pence piece, then fifty, before its shape started to become clearer. The change took only seconds until there, emerging from within the Space, floated Bethany’s partner.
“My dear Beth!” came the cheerful voice. To an outsider the voice would have sounded off to them. Had they kept listening they would have felt unnerved, and the longer they listened, the more disturbed they would have become. That was simply because the voice was not of this universe and, on a primal level, the listener would have known the truth. It did not belong.
“My dear Beth,” the voice repeated, “Of course the plan will continue. We’ve come too far for it not to!” Bethany watched as the figure resolved into a shape her brain could comprehend. Her partner appeared before her in the form it most commonly wore, that of a small black cat with a white five sided star emblazoned across its forehead.
The cat leapt from the Space which winked back out of existence, before alighting on the table next to Bethany’s chair.
“Whilst we could very well achieve our goals at any HCP, things will go far smoother at St Mary’s. I’ve arranged it so that you’ll be able to make certain, contacts, whilst working there.”
Bethany nodded. She placed the yellow envelope back on the table with the others and turned to her partner.
“Then I guess it’s decided, our deal has been made. Shall we shake?” Beth held out her hand and met the demon’s red gaze.
The cat looked back, meeting Bethany’s own identical red eyes. With a Cheshire cat grin it reached out its paw and the two shook, sealing a pact decades in the making.