Will glared at the pencil that rested on the table in front of him. Why wouldn’t it move? He closed his eyes tightly and tried with all his will to make it budge. Just a centimetre would do, even a millimetre! This was his last chance to prove that he wasn’t a failure, that he was normal, though once upon a time he would have been considered normal as he was. Now everyone was ‘special,’ everyone except Will. Homo sapiens had evolved, but Will was a throwback to an older time, a time when mental abilities were not the norm.
Through the thick Perspex glass that separated him from the outside, Will gazed idly as the sun dropped below the horizon and the colour drained out of the landscape. If he could, that was where he wanted to go. It was hauntingly beautiful, but excessive pollution had forced humankind inside the complexes many years previously, though some plant and animal life had persevered. Will had only even travelled beyond this complex once, and that had been on the enclosed transport system; there was nothing to see on that.
For years, Will had desperately tried to fit in, but as he had grown older and developed into a gawky adolescent, it was becoming increasingly more difficult. While his peers were still untrained it had not been a problem, but now they were studying, increasing in skill, and Will was being left further and further behind. He was sure several of the adults, including his own parents, already suspected his lack, but so far they had kept quiet. As soon as it got out, their pity would be unbearable. He needed to find something in order to belong.
Kinetic ability was by far the rarest of the mental attributes, but it remained Will’s final hope. Empathy, the most common skill, had been the first to go out the window for him. By the time he was ten, it was clear that he was unlikely to manifest that particular facet. At the time it had never bothered him – after all, who want to feel what everyone else was feeling? – but now he would give anything to sense just a little. The other disciplines had swiftly followed: predicting the future, seeing events as they happen and telepathy. Will had made no progress on any of them.
From time to time, Will had considered leaving, but he had nowhere to go. Any other complex he could transfer to would be no different. New people, same problem. Nothing ever changed.
A beep from his watch drew Will from his thoughts. He ought to be heading home soon, though he would rather not. There he would be bombarded with constant questions about how his schoolwork was going and how he was progressing with his skills, and Will wasn’t sure he could face that after yet another failure.
Will slipped in the back door to their flat, hoping he would not be noticed. That would give him at the very least a few moments of peace. It would soon be time to eat, but Will was starving, and as he passed through the kitchen, he quietly slid open a cabinet and reached for a snack. His hand had just closed around the wrapper when the sound of his mother’s voice reached his ears. Automatically, Will snatched it back before he realised that she wasn’t speaking to him. Snack still in hand, Will tiptoed closer to the kitchen door, careful to stay out of sight.
“I thought his moods were just normal teenage hormones, but nothing seems to help. They’ve just been getting worse.”
A second voice chimed in, Miss Hall, his class teacher. “There’s reason to be concerned about Will and I’ve been sensing a lot of frustration from him. Academically he’s fine, but mentally he’s struggling. He just doesn’t seem to be trying. Is he showing anything at home?”
Fingernails dug into Will’s palms as he clenched his fists tightly. He was trying! Then a wave of fear washed over him. As soon as they started comparing stories, the game was up and his secret would be out.
“Well, no,” his mother conceded. “He tends to keep himself to himself, to be honest, and gets angry when we try to include him. He prefers his own company.”
After a rather ominous pause, the dreaded moment finally came. “Mrs. Johnson, have you considered the possibility that Will may not be… gifted? That is to say, perhaps he’s deficient?”
“I have,” she said eventually, “but I don’t want to jump to conclusions yet. There is still time for it to develop.”
“Most already have by his age,” Miss Hall pointed out. “He’s fifteen now. All of them have an inkling, except Will. Just look at young Emmie and see how far she’s come in comparison.”
“I am well aware of that,” Mrs. Johnson responded quietly. “However, I still want to give it more time.”
“As you wish. If anything changes, do let me know.”
Will used Miss Hall’s departure as a diversion and manage to cross to the bedroom area without catching his mother’s attention. The first thing he did when he got inside was to vent his anger on a number of unfortunate pieces of furniture before pulling a bag out of a cupboard and starting to pack. The destination no longer mattered.
The noise he made attracted the attention of Emmie, who came running into his room in search of her elder brother. “Will! You’ll play Guess Who with me, won’t you? Mrs MacLaren says I need to practice more, and Mummy is busy!”
“Not now, Emmie,” Will said angrily, without even looking at her. “I’m busy too.”
“You don’t look busy.”
“I said no!” he reiterated, as he continued to throw a few necessities untidily into his backpack. “Just leave me alone!”
She skipped across to stand next to him, tugging at his sleeve and looking up at him with big brown eyes. “Please, Will? I only want to play.”
“Fine,” he retorted, pulling his arm from her grasp. “If I must.”
Emmie let out a squeal of delight and dragged him away from the bed and seated him on a chair, before climbing up on to one herself. “Okay, I’ll go first. You think of a person.”
Closing his eyes so that he didn’t have to watch her, Will did as he was instructed. He generally avoided playing such games wherever possible, but Emmie could be extremely persistent. “Ready.” As if he was ever ready for this.
“I see… a woman.” Will grunted an affirmative. “With blonde hair?” Another snort. Emmie then became less sure of herself. “Is she short? And with a green dress and a hat?”
“Glasses, actually,” he replied sullenly. Even at six years old she was better at this than he was. How was that fair? And nothing made him feel worse than having her humiliate him.
Unperturbed by her error, Emmie wanted to continue. “Your go!”
“Emmie, I really don’t want to play right now.”
She shook her head at him. “Just one more game? Who do you see?
“Uh… a man?”
“Yes! Now what?”
That wasn’t entirely surprising. He had a one in two chance of guessing the gender correctly. It was from this point on that it became a problem. The game itself was derived from an older one where each person had a board with a number of pictures of people with different characteristics, and the aim was to guess which one their card showed. That version Will could have managed, but the game had evolved and now had far more scope. He was always out of his depth.
“With… red hair?”
Emmie giggled with childish glee. “Wrong again! Come on, Will, you’re not trying!”
That one small comment made Will’s blood boil. For the second time in ten minutes he had been accused of not doing the one thing he always did and it hurt deeply. “Right. I’m going.” He picked up the half packed bag and swung it over one shoulder.
“But we didn’t finish the game!” Emmie protested.
Will shrugged and said simply, “Doesn’t matter.” He swept out the room, sneaking out the front door before his mother even realised he had been home.
* * *
Will stood by the window, staring once again at the outside, but not really seeing anything. He had been gone only a short while, yet the light had already almost completely faded, and the bright lights from inside the complex made it even harder to make anything out.
This was it: they knew now. Even his mother, who was trying her hardest to believe in him, could not deny it much longer. Will didn’t even know what would happen to him. Legally he was still a child; he didn’t think they would cast him out, but he would still have to be here, inferior as always and always seeing the pity and disappointment in their eyes. He couldn’t stand it any longer.
The dark shapes outside gradually attracted Will’s attention until his eyes were entirely focused on the gnarled tree that sat about ten metres from the glass. It always amazed him how some forms of life could survive out there when the atmosphere was lethal to humans. Ecology and the outside environment was the only subject that had ever interested Will at school; the one place he had always wanted to go.
Will’s eyes flicked to the left, where a corridor led towards an airlock. He had learned how to operate the airlocks as part of his study of the environment. Would they even notice if he went outside? They would eventually, of course, but by then it would be too late. He allowed himself a small smile; their abilities couldn’t be that great if no one had predicted this outcome, and Will didn’t want to give them any more time to do so.
Leaving his bag on the table that had been part of his sanctuary, Will headed towards the airlock and punched in the code. Just before he pressed the final button in the sequence, he sighed deeply. This was it.
The door opened slowly, and the heat from the air hit Will with a blast. It wasn’t quite how he had imagined it, but exhilarating all the same. Immediately he felt a strain on his lungs, as they took in the foul air. Despite that, it was even more beautiful now that he was on the outside and Will wanted to take in everything from his vantage point.
However, that wasn’t the reason he was here. There was no point in standing in the airlock. Will took a few tentative steps, his legs already feeling slightly heavy. On the fourth step he reached soil. It was soft and spongy, completely different from the smooth, bare surfaces he was used to. That spurred him on and he managed to reach the tree before the atmosphere forced him to pause.
Will staggered around to the other side, using the trunk as a crutch. In the distance he could see a neighbouring complex, a quick glance behind showed him the bright glow of his own home. It looked so different from the outside, warmer and more peaceful. If he turned back now, he would probably suffer no ill effects, other than a week or so on the medical ward.
But Will couldn’t bring himself to do that. He sank down into the roots of the tree, the pain in his lungs becoming unbearable, and his body feeling like lead. For the first time he truly understood exactly why humans could no longer live outside the complexes. It was one thing to know, another to really feel it.
He sat there alone, just watching. Just before he lost consciousness, he caught sight of movement near to the airlock. It might have been the toxins taking their toll on his mind, but Will could have sworn he saw his mother pulling closed the airlock door, a sad smile on her face and tears rolling down her cheeks.