A young man slips out into the street, eyes like black jewels in the darkness, and starts to run.
Black frost whispers beneath his feet as he moves. His breath falls into sync; two in, two out. It begins to rain. Sharp droplets sear his exposed skin and he increases the pace.
His thoughts, usually so precise, tonight twist inside his head – a writhing, sweating mass. He tries to clear his mind, then turns a corner and feels the subtle change of terrain. Just a few more steps now.
Finally, the lake glimmers before him and he wades in, sodden clothes pulling at his torso. He thinks of Alex, his innocent, unknowing brother, and a ragged sound is wrenched from his chest; he hasn’t done enough, he knows he hasn’t. Silent tears stream, unnoticed, down his cheeks.
The wind picks up as he sinks below the water – a low whistle which echoes through the night.
* * *
Alexander wakes to frying bacon. He sits up, grins and flattens his hair with one hand; today, he will become a Scholar.
The third in a line of highly successful Taylor men, Alexander has prepared for this day since he was very young. His father and brother have been Scholars for as long as he can remember; familial expectation was placed on him from before he was born. He has never felt more ready.
His mother opens the door and smiles at him, before brushing past the bed to open the curtains. “Sleep well?” she asks.
Alexander leans back against the headboard, stretches and returns the smile. “Better than expected.”
She glances sideways to gauge his mood, a surreptitious turn of the head when she thinks he can’t see – but he catches her in the corner of his eye.
“Breakfast’s downstairs, a car will be waiting in fifteen minutes,” she says quickly. She walks back to the door, lingers for a moment and leaves.
* * *
When Alexander arrives at the Centre, the initiates are already lined up in the courtyard. Clucking parents hover in corners of the tiled square, swooping at every spare moment to adjust a tie or straighten a collar. Alexander remains seated in the back of the car, looking out the window and steadying his nerves, which have come suddenly and unexpectedly; Gerard, the driver, wonders hesitantly whether he should give the boy a nudge.
The Centre is an imposing building, all powerful curves and burnished faces – the structure resembles a giant metallic wave, frozen at the moment it began to break. Each year, the brightest, most unique young minds attend the Centre for the Scholars Initiation, and are set on the path of scientific discovery for the rest of their lives: they would become intrepid explorers, the pioneers of the state. Their observations, which are of utmost secrecy, take place in a vast underground complex beneath the building.
Gerard the driver decides it is time for Alexander to join the queue, and goes to let him out. Gerard gives Alexander a firm handshake, and, without looking up, returns to the driver’s seat. The car leaves a vague odour of diesel in its wake as it glides from the courtyard.
Alexander, who did not think the driver as one prone to sentimentality, watches curiously as the car disappears around a corner. Then slowly, imperceptibly almost, he feels a tingle in his hand. He looks down. And in that hand, the recipient of Gerard’s firm handshake, lies a small, folded slip of paper. On that paper, in impeccable, unmistakable black handwriting, is a solitary word: Isaac.
* * *
Alexander pauses. He looks back at the queue of initiates by the gates and estimates how much time he has before they’re called. Subconsciously he decides to take a few steps back, into the shadows on the edge of the courtyard, before he opens the slip.
His brother’s handwriting is, as usual, beautiful – although in certain places the ink has become smudged and the words slant a degree too far to the right.
There is not enough time so I will make this brief. By the time you read this is will be dead because I was unprepared for the things you are about to find out…
Alexander stops reading, suddenly feeling ill. Then, after a long exhale, he continues – he knows it is important that he reads to the end.
… Do not trust them. Do not take their food, their drink, cover your mouth and nose if they leave you in a closed room. They will ask you to do awful things. You must pretend you are unaffected. The other initiates will act like they are unaffected, and you must not stand out.
I have left a vial in the dormitory – there are three doses in case they catch you.
Do you remember when your nightmares woke you? I would comfort you, remind you that the monsters were not real.
In the past few weeks I have seen more monsters than you could ever dream; they hide in plain sight. I have realised that I can no longer protect you – I couldn’t even protect myself, when the time came.
I am so sorry.
A shrill whistle cuts through the air, snapping Alexander’s attention towards the source. Feeling slightly dazed, he looks back towards the line and notices that the gates have opened. A small man in a dark suit is beaming at the initiates, whose parents are proudly backing away; the man waits patiently as they withdraw fully to the corners. Alexander folds the note into the lining of his shirt, and jogs to join the tail-end of the group.
The suited man is welcoming them, congratulating them on their success, but Alexander hears him as though underwater – a muted, buzzing drone. After a few minutes, however, he comes to himself. Be strong. The buzzing fades away, and Alexander’s eyes refocus.
“…for the remainder of your stay. You are the future of our State, the reason why we continue to progress and develop. Our great society is founded on discovery, and you, the Scholars, are at the very base of this foundation.”
The man steps aside and ushers the initiates through the gates, smiling widely. The parents clap until their hands ache, an undulating symphony of flesh which follows the line all the way to the inner door of the Centre. Then, finally, the suited man turns away and the gates swing shut behind him. His smile is gone before the edges meet.
* * *
The first thing which strikes Alexander when he enters the Centre is the brightness. Spotless surfaces on all sides shine aggressively, forcing light into his eyes until his vision is reduced to a squint. Several of the initiates in front of him stumble as they struggle to keep up with the suited man, who has begun taking larger strides now and is walking at a less-than-leisurely pace.
The line winds left and right through seemingly endless steel tunnels, never slowing, and Alexander begins to wonder if the journey was designed to disorient them. The initiates in front have begun to turn pale, the sweat on their foreheads reflected in every direction by the walls.
Then, at last, the suited man comes to a halt. Alexander squints harder and sees that the group have come to a tinted glass door. A muttered exchange occurs between the man and a digital panel, and the door slides upwards, revealing a far more extravagant room: oak wood chairs on a plush maroon carpet, bathed in gentle gold light. Some amongst the initiates breathe an audible sigh as they cross the threshold; this is more like the welcome they imagined. They fall, exhausted, on the seats. Then, a soft voice rises slowly from behind them.
“Hello. It’s so good to see you here.”
The initiates crane their necks over their shoulders to take a look. The speaker is a stooped man with flecks of white in his hair. He is dressed in a flowing, navy robe and has a silver locket hanging from his neck.
“I do hope you’ll excuse my lateness, my joints are not what they once were.” The man’s head is still slightly bent; he speaks at the carpet, obscuring his face. “But, I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I am Doctor Reagan, the founder of this Centre. Wonderful things happen here, and I always take great pleasure in showing off to our new members. But first, you must be hungry. I know Doctor Blair likes to take little detours on his way here.”
The suited man who led them remains impassive, leaning slightly against a wall. Doctor Reagan smiles, head still tilted downwards. There is something not quite right about his expression – but in the dim room Alexander finds it hard to place.
* * *
Three tall men appear from behind the crowd, bearing silver platters of bread, grapes and water, and the initiates wait in anticipation. A large wooden table is dragged from a corner, and Doctor Reagan eases himself into a seat at its head.
“Please, eat. This is a ceremonial meal, we hold it every year. There’s a spiel I give, about breaking bread and the importance of good relations between scholars, but I don’t think we should deprive you any longer… Just use your hands, I hope you don’t mind but the ceremony doesn’t allow for cutlery.”
The initiates sit graciously and start pulling food towards them. Alexander, on the far corner of the table, takes a small loaf of bread and tears it slowly apart; the fine hairs on his neck have risen imperceptibly.
For a few minutes there is only the sound of chewing. Alexander intermittently pretends to eat a piece of bread, and surveys the room in short, flickering glances – the initiate to his left, a thickset auburn boy, is concentrated on his food. Everyone seems to be enjoying the meal, but Alexander’s hands are clenched beneath the table. Then Doctor Reagan breaks the silence.
“Well, I should think we’re about ready to begin.”
His tone has changed subtly, a harsher layer stirring beneath the silk. Alexander notices with a chill that the auburn boy beside him is sitting much stiller than before, large hands motionless beside his food; in fact, he realises, the whole room seems to have taken on a subdued quality. The only movement comes from the Doctor.
“So, to business. You’re all so young, so fresh! Who to begin with?”
He stands from the table. Alexander glimpses dark eyes moving behind the man’s white-streaked fringe – his face is still angled to the floor.
“Let’s see… You’ll do very well.”
He gestures with an open hand to the initiate two seats from his left. A slim boy with brown eyes stares blankly back.
“Hello. What’s your name?” Doctor Reagan’s tone softens again, coaxing.
The boy takes a few seconds to respond.
“A lovely name. Well, Marcus, I would like you to break your thumb.”
To Alexander’s disbelief, the boy grasps it and prepares to twist.
Nobody at the table blinks.
Alexander feels ill – there should be outrage, disbelief. He glances to his left, praying for a reaction, but sees only passive, contended faces; his heart begins to beat unevenly, an erratic quickening of the pulse. But he knows he must blend in. And so he watches as Marcus breaks his thumb.
* * *
The digit makes a dull snap as it is pulled from the hand, a sound muffled further by the soft interior of the room. It dangles limply at an unnatural angle. Nobody moves to help.
Lines of perspiration gather on Alexander’s forehead as he watches Marcus’ broken hand jerk away from the other; a reflex reaction, natural except he is withdrawing from himself, an animal scared of its own tail. And yet his face remains calm, no sound escapes his lips…
Alexander cannot stop the shake of his exhale when it comes. He rapidly rearranges his face, regulates his breathing, desperately tries to rectify the incongruity. But it is too late. He can already sense a presence approaching him from behind, steady footsteps across the carpet.
The suited man’s arm comes over his face before he can react. A dark fabric is pressed roughly against his nose and Alexander feels something break, sending hot liquid dripping into his mouth. He has time to register a sharp smell before the world retreats to the edges of his vision and he loses consciousness.
The suited man’s face looms over Alexander as he lies unmoving by the table.
“It was quicker to eat the bread.”
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