Gasoline

"We are at war. We need only the best. And sometimes the best come from the worst of us."

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3. Chapter Two

The custom Jeep rolled underneath us as we left the compound.


I leaned my head back, eyes sliding shut. At least these pills seemed to be working; I could barely fight back the yawns. It didn’t help that the plush, leather innards of the car were so inviting.


The inside of the Jeep was more like a taxi, with an enormous space in the back for seats facing forwards and back. Since there was only enough room for six seats—three on either side—Junior had been subjected to the floor for years. Myles sat up front with Darren, loudly criticising his ‘eighty year old man’ driving.


A pile of black lay on the floor between all of us.  Curiously, Junior plucked one up and examined it. He wasn’t impressed—he passed it off to his brother within seconds.


“What is this garbage?” Amora scoffed, holding one between her pointed nails. She threw her free hand over her shoulder and a rush of air made the partition sweep open. “Myles! Could you not have hired a fashion advisor? These are disgusting.”


“Amora. If we had it my way, you’d be wearing bin bags. Stop complaining and just be grateful all of your special bits are covered.” Irritated, Amora slammed the partition back shut. Muffled, Myles shouted, “And don’t even think about doing that again!”


Amora De Angelis had been declared to harbour the most danger to the public out of all of us, with me coming up close behind. With her annoyingly admirable talent of warping the elements, her tendency to flood lungs in anger or burn particularly irritating therapists bad enough for them to need skin grafts had proven something of a warning sign to the compound. The government had investigated her case numerous times and eventually demanded that she be kept under watch at all times.


I pulled on a jumpsuit, unashamed as I sat bare beside the other six. Nudity didn’t bother me. Why would it? I wasn’t overly buff—I was actually quite lanky, but not to the awkward extent of Thomas. Nobody had complained about my body weight, except for maybe Myles saying I needed to ‘bulk up a bit’, so I had no intention of being unsatisfied with it myself.


Thomas, on the other hand, vanished beside me. The last I saw was the red perched high on his cheeks. I felt wriggling against my leg before he popped back into view, fully dressed.


“Your curls are all—“ Sophia shook her hands beside her head. Blushing even harder, Tom ducked his head and desperately tried to flatten down the blondness.


 The twins were dressed in an instant. Amora willingly stripped down, flashing parts nobody but her wanted to see. Junior determinedly pleated Brooke’s curls while his signature light blue fog clouded his body. When it dissipated, a jumpsuit clung to his body.


The only person other than Amora and I who didn’t have an enhancement useful for this task was Ivor. Strength didn’t do much when it came to nakedness. He tugged the tight jumpsuit over his hard muscles and I eagerly waited for the inevitable tear in the fabric.


The hour it took to get to the grounds dragged on. Every time we went over a bump, I felt my eyelids being pulled down. A gentle tug at my leg forced my eyes open. I glanced down.


Using his tiny, childish hands, Junior signed from the floor, are you okay?


Exhausted, I signed back, yeah, kid, I’m just a bit tired.


He pursed his lips to the side and nodded, looking away. I had to give it to the kid, he was more perceptive that most.
Myles banged on the partition. He was almost invisible against the darkness. “Get ready,” he said as the glass slid to the side.

“You’ve got half an hour to prepare in the centre and then you’re free.”


Nervously, Thomas asked, “Will a lot of people be watching?”


“A few thousand, sure.”


The blonde boy’s throat bobbed and he nodded stiffly, shrinking back against his seat. I nudged him, but he just shook his head, face pale.


It was even colder near the training grounds that outside the compound. Hands tucked under my armpits, I hurried toward the shadowed building.


A few years back, after finding out about our needs, the compound had asked the government for a section of land to be cornered off. They’d begrudgingly accepted. The land they’d issued bore an abandoned high school, furnished with a tarnished football pitch and empty sports centre.


We huddled in the foyer of the academy. Torn banners littered the floor, a forgotten memory of the many students who’d studied here. I hated looking at the pictures hanging up in the hallways. Hundreds of smiling faces, all ever so slightly round with that last bit of childhood. It pained me to see that so many got this chance when I didn’t. Call me selfish, but I couldn’t help myself.
Sometimes, I resented Myles and his wardens. He was the reason I was cooped up like some misbehaving child, with no rights or reason for life. But after so long, I realised it really wasn’t any of their fault. They made my life as easy as possible within the compound, and I wasn’t exactly chained down. Well, at least not all the time.


It had been about that point where I’d started directing the hate back at those who were at fault.


My family.


Recognisable by the hair striped with a single line of grey, Myles slammed the entrance doors shut. Zuberi came to stand with me. Still only wearing a light shirt, he seemed unaffected by the wintery night outside. Smug git, I thought, glowering up at him.
“Go freshen up if you want, but be quick about it. I want you on the football pitch in half an hour.” Myles pointedly glanced at the twins’ warden. “Make sure no more feuds break out.”


The group separated into the assigned gender changing rooms. As Ivor playfully splashed Junior at the sinks, I checked myself in the dirtied mirror. Even as a child, people knew there was something different about me. I could remember a woman pulling my mother aside while I was playing outside, whispering loudly about how I was a prince of the elves, a changeling. At the time I didn’t understand what she meant, but even I knew something was wrong purely because my mother wasn’t laughing.


Now, though, I understood what the woman meant. A crown of dark hair outlined a pointed, elfish face with high cheekbones that made my jaw seem narrower than it was. In here, my eyes dulled to a soft, bland grey. I rubbed at my cheeks to make me look a little more alive. I could’ve just cast an illusion, but the weariness weighing at my head refused to let me.


Vicious retching echoed in the changing room. I peered round into the adjoining bathroom and called, “Uh, Tom? You okay?”


His feet poked out from underneath the toilet stall. I leaned against the wall beside the urinals, humming to keep myself awake. The toilet flushed, and moments later, Thomas stumbled out. Pale, shaky and covered in a sheen of sweat, he wiped at his mouth. His eyes fell to the floor and he croaked, “I can’t do this.”


I wasn’t completely useless. All of us went to Doc, all for different reasons, but everyone knew who the Xanax in the bathroom cabinet belonged to. Anxiety was Thomas’ main problem; it blocked his ability for invisibility. It rendered his enhancement uncontrollable, and he kept popping in and out of existence without thinking about it. The sad fact was if it weren’t for its unpredictability, Tom could be living a totally normal life.


Stretching my arms out, I pulled him in for a hug. He gripped me tightly and I squeezed him once before letting go. Physical contact made my skin crawl, but for him, I could just about tolerate it.


Ivor poked his head into the bathroom. He cringed, but thankfully didn’t mention the smell. “You two ready?”


I side-eyed Thomas. “Yeah.”


The silent trek down the corridor was punctuated by the rhythmic thump, thump, thump of Junior bouncing a ball against the peeling wall. Thomas flinched at every bang, his skin almost slimy with sweat now.


My own stomach started to churn. That was a first; Trials never usually worried me. They were something I was actually good at. Target all the holographic people and tear them apart without letting them touch you. Easy. Second nature.


But with an audience? That was a whole other ball game. Outside of the six others, I couldn’t make that leap to co-operate with people. Their minds didn’t work the same as mine. My stutter pushed past the suppressant pills when I had to speak to unfamiliar people and I struggled to think straight.


Fair enough, right now I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone, but I would know. I would know they were all sitting there, watching us, scoring us. Especially me.


Exclusively me.


Light rain jarred me from my stupor. I looked around—how had we gotten outside? I stumbled after the three other boys, using the damp air to slick my hair back. Was it getting too long now? I should ask one of the girls for a bobble, or a hair band.

Anything to stop it distracting me.


Floodlights bathed the football pitch in white light. The shrouded stands emanated a gentle buzz of noise and I heard Tom whimper. Behind the caged football pitch lay miles of untended forest. Against the inky black sky, the shadowy outline of trees loomed toward us.


Moments from the pitch, Junior viciously tugged me aside. Making sure Ivor and Thomas kept walking, he raised his hands so I could see them in the darkness and signed, make an illusion for Thomas. Make him think he’s braver than he really is.


My illusions don’t work like that, I hurriedly replied, but Junior sighed like I was some dull child.


I know they don’t, but he doesn’t.


He had a point.


“Thomas!”


He turned to me as we stepped into the gaze of the floodlights. Streaks of dampness tattooed his face, but I didn’t know if that was from sweat or tears. “What?” He mumbled, miserably.


“Trust me on this,” I began and told him what I wanted to do.

 

***

Lined up side by side in the centre of the pitch, we faced one of the stands.


Most of the public wore hats and scarves, their gloved hands clutching at steaming paper cups. Children balanced precariously on father’s shoulders. The box near the top of the stand was filled to the brim with businessmen, arguing on phones or talking with one another, pointing at one of us and discussing their findings.


One of them I recognised. He stood in the dead centre of the box, his hands slipped confidently into his grey trouser pockets. Significantly younger than those surrounding him, he remained unimpressed by what lay in front of him. Our eyes met—and I looked away, gaze falling to the ground.


Reid. Somebody Reid.


He was regularly on the news. He owned something, some important business...Canmore Industries. No wonder I recognised him; his company designed the contacts I needed to see. My eye flickered with a ghost twitch as I looked back at him.

Reid nursed a short glass of amber liquid to his chest. Idly, he brought it up to his mouth, but didn’t drink. Tapping the rim against his lips, he skimmed over the seven of us again. He paused on me.


Nice to know I’m an animal in a zoo, I hummed. But don’t worry, Mr Reid. I’m not looking away this time.


Hands tucked neatly behind the small of my back, I tilted my head down ever so slightly so I was looking at him from under my brow. Completely still, I quirked the corner of my lips. Reid didn’t react; he stroked a hand over his closely shaven beard, not looking away, before tossing back his whiskey and turning his back to me.


Hah. I win.


“You better not be doing what I think you’re doing, Mister Fletcher.”


I shook my head, exhaling in a cloud of cold smoke. “Oh, no. No harm in taking in the scenery, right?”

 

Myles stood beside me, wrapped up tight in a thick, wool coat. The darkness of the material highlighted his stripe of greyness. “Trying to influence Henry Reid’s decisions using your talents won’t do you any favours.”


“I’ve already told you, I’m not,” I pressed, jaw tightening. “And what could I possibly influence him to do? We still don’t know why any of them are here.”


A wisp of translucent breath clouded as he said, “I’ll tell you, if any of this goes ahead. Don’t want to get your hopes up.”
“What could possibly get me excited?”


“Oh, believe me,” he answered, a smile threatening to bend at his lips. “Out of everyone, this would make you inconsolable.
The noise of the crowds pressed down on me from every side. I clenched my fist behind my back, nails digging into the softness of my palm. I needed grounding. Cameras pointed at us from each corner of the pitch and I suddenly felt tiny, like I was the reflection in each of the lenses.


“Whatever you do,” a snake-like hiss came from beside me. “Don’t look behind you. You might just break down, and we wouldn’t want that, now would we?”


She knew she was making an itch. An itch I’d be desperate to scratch.


“Amora,” I replied, calmly. “Kindly find a branch during the Trial and ram it up your—“


“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice boomed from the megaphones. “Welcome to the public viewing of the Enhanced Ability Compound Trials. We are all aware of the early timing and are grateful for the amazing turn-out.”


The crowd rolled as one, cheering loudly. I checked the box again, and saw Reid had swapped his drink for a microphone.
“Tonight,” he said. “We are investigating the ability of these seven possible recruits.”


Ivor bristled, and muttered, “Recruits for what, you bast—“


“If you look to the stand opposite you, you shall see that we have issued you screens so you can watch their progress,” Reid continued. He paused for a moment, and a note of regret entered his voice. “Instead of keeping these enhanced people in the dark, we’ve decided now is the time to fully appreciate their uses. Cheer loud and clear and we shall see who our biggest hero of the night is.”


Noise deafened me. Through the cries, I muttered, “You were right, Ivor. They’re only bothering with us because they need something.”


“You really expected any different?”


No. I didn’t.


“To them, no matter what we do, we’ll always be freaks,” Tom added quietly. “Don’t fall for it.”


I stole a glance at him. He looked better already, his skin returning to its normal golden shade and hands still by his side. Junior had been right—lies sometimes were the best bravery.


The floodlights dimmed and the crowd dulled to a quiet hum. A grip around my wrist made me jump, but a voice grumbled in my ear, “It’s me, boy.”


Zuberi.


I hurried after his hulking silhouette as he dragged me away from the rest of the group. “Do you know what’s going on?”


“Yeah.”


“Can you tell me?”


“No.”


I rolled my eyes.


The wardens had separated us all out. Three of us lined the vertical sides of the pitch while Junior stood in the middle. I could see Ivor twitching from where he stood in his corner; he hated being separated from his baby brother. They were orphans now, which made them even more attached to one another.


From where I was situated now, I could see the boxes in two of the other stands. The one that had stood behind me glowed lightly, the result of at least fifty phones recording us.


It was just as the bell rang for the Trial to start that I saw them.


Sat in the comfiest chairs, flocked at either side by waiters balancing drinks on metal platters.


Every bit the royalty their titles screamed.


My mother. The Queen.


My elder brother, Casimir. The future King.


My younger sister, Eilidh. The future of trading with a foreign country through marriage.


And Him.


The sick animal that’d shoved me in here in the first place.


My father, King Richard.


And even through the darkness, even through the haze of red that pulsed through me, I could see the ticket clutched in his hand.


As clear as day, I saw the name written across it.


Amora De Angelis.


He was betting on me to lose.


Empty anger rolled through me in waves and my muscles tensed to breaking point.


Amora De Angelis wasn’t making it out of here tonight.


Not if I could help it.

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