This story is by KT Morley and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
This test, on the roof of her training center and hundreds of feet above solid Terra-firma, kicked Connie’s anxiety into overdrive. The Cabal had done what it could to cure her fear of heights. Tonight’s trepidation cast a disparaging mark on their efforts. The test was a live assessment of her skills and decision process. Her examiners and peers said nothing else; gave her no clue.
Connie had watched as her classmates left the prep room to take their exams, presumably up here as well. They had all come back mumbling about the exam, their lips blue, the energy cuffs on their suits blue, and dejected. Each had then departed with a Cabal service agent.
Now it was her turn. She demanded a different fate than what awaited her peers. Connie wanted Tactical. Rumors about Tactical training regimens put the collective bookwork and gym time of her recruiting class to shame. People got hurt.
The wind clawed at her, its icy fingers chilly as they toyed with the back of her neck igniting a riot of goosebumps. She mumbled, “Constance, you’re a fool!” The self-degrading gallows humor settled her sixteen-year-old mind. She glared at her suit’s power cuff, wishing she could activate it. The suit could moderate thermals. This was an exam of her ability, though, not the suit’s and her cuffs remained dormant.
“Stupid nerves.” Talking out loud also kept her teeth from chattering.
Connie bounced from side to side on the balls of her feet, generating warmth. Which helped…right up to the point she remembered she was two hundred feet above the ground. Her well-ingrained, height-induced panic rocketed through her conscious mind and drove her into a low squat, pulse racing, cold breeze shouldered aside by true terror.
She thought of her brother, a victim of suicide almost two years ago. Had he felt the night’s chill on the bridge before he jumped? She really missed him. He had seemed so self-assured and determined to succeed in the Cabal.
“I hate you,” Connie screamed at the ebony-mantled world. The night didn’t seem to care.
The city beckoned from the dark, twinkling with soundless starlight. Neon lights flashed, too, in gaudy brilliance, promising salvation and vice. Connie stood, stilling her demons and embracing the cold as a means of overcoming her fear.
She concentrated on the exam. Her training, mastered within the confines of the tower beneath her, had pushed her to every limit: darkness, loneliness, and ill-tempered weather among them.
The memory of her brother continued toying with her.
Focusing her resolve, Connie clapped her hands together.
They sparked, a blue-white bolt snapping to life and disappearing in an instant. It surprised her. She clapped again and noticed the spark lancing between the cuffs of her suit.
Odd, she thought
Time slowed as the bank building across from her perch expanded outward in a weird bubble. Then, with incredible swiftness, the bubble burst, swallowing the bank in an orange fireball. Concrete and steel flew into the night igniting a neighboring parking garage.
The shockwave knocked her off her feet and dislodged her communication link. Smaller pieces of debris bounced around her, some of them burning brightly. Her building shook under the concussive blasts of exploding fuel tanks in the parking garage.
“Cadet? Cadet Markel? Are you okay?”
Shaking her head, Connie reached up and realigned the headset before answering the panicked controller. “Yes, I’m fine. What just happened?”
“Hold on, Cadet, I am patching you through to Central.”
Central? What the hell? Had the world lost its mind?
A calm voice reverberated through her headset. “Constance Markel? This is Duty Officer Gabriel. I have you top-side on Cabal Tower. Verify.”
“Yes, sir. Facing the explosion, sir.”
“Thank you, Cadet. The Syndicate is pushing into the heart of the city and threatening our position. I am spinning up Tactical for a response. I need all the information you can give me.”
The Syndicate? Not good. Their narcissistic worldview bordered on the maniacal. Connie watched fire and debris fall from the sky, peppering the fleeing throng in the street below. Wherever it fell, fire danced to life. The street bore the look of a kicked ant hive as emergency personnel swarmed among panicked people.
And the wind howled; always the wind howled.
“Sir, I have one building down, the bank and trust on our southwest corner. The garage next to it, due south, is a flaming mess with exploding fuel tanks. Response teams are everywhere, but they look confused.”
Her training suit hummed to life, the cuffs going a faint orange as the form-fitting fatigues pumped warmth around her cold limbs. By moving, Connie could now power the fatigues. The faster she moved, the more power they stored. Theoretically. Connie had only tested the lower limits and, like all recruits had never gotten the power gauge past orange. Rumor had it, Tactical routinely max-charged them into the blue range.
“Cadet, I’m going to need everything you can give me. The Syndicate is attacking the Tower. They might …”
Her earpiece crackled at the hiss of an energy discharge. The corner and wall in front of her disappeared in a hail of sparks and dancing lightning. The world tilted and the sound of splintering concrete drowned out the voice of Officer Gabriel in her headset. Tumbling forward toward the gap, Connie clawed desperately at the fracturing rooftop for purchase. Failing, she rolled herself face up and tried to dig her heels into the debris around her. The roof continued to disintegrate.
Her boot barely caught a piece of upturned concrete and, for a moment, her slide into oblivion stopped. Her heart thundered in her chest, driving the pulse in her ears to a screaming crescendo.
And then total silence. The comm link went dead.
“Son of a …” Connie stopped herself and looked around at the crumbling roof. Blast after blast tore into it from deep in the night. It wouldn’t be long before she was surfing the rubble to the street below. The avalanche of steel and concrete would kill her.
Or she could jump.
Jump into nothing.
Like her brother had.
She might survive.
Her mind screamed. Anxiety clawed its way back into her chest. Her brother hadn’t survived. He hadn’t wanted to go on.
She mustn’t jump.
She wouldn’t cry, either. Some of her training might even be helpful. If she could jump far enough across the street, maybe she could grab a fire escape and slow herself down.
The sound of splintering rock shattered her momentary calm. The ledge she stood on started to slide into the night.
She must choose.
With every ounce of strength Connie could muster, she leaped into the air.
Her mind tore at her.
Her heart froze.
For one, endlessly long second she floated and then gravity stretched forth its will and she fell.
Arms flailing, she tried to control her fall and direct it toward the far side of the street. The ground raced up at her too fast. As she passed the midway point, she knew her plan wasn’t working.
The cuffs on the suit slid from orange to green. Her mind reeled, remembering the sight of a spark lancing between the cuffs on the roof moments—a lifetime—ago.
She knew what she had to do!
She screamed anyway, fifty feet from the ground.
When the cuffs went blue, and with barely a dozen feet to spare, Connie slammed her hands together.
In a flash of light, the onrushing ground disappeared and the soft gray pressure-mats of the training room embraced her. A klaxon sounded in a corner of the room, matching a red-pulsed strobe. Panic returned in a rush to shove aside the euphoria of being alive. Connie pushed herself to her hands and knees, fighting the urge to throw up.
A door opened and several people entered, one girl laughing as she commented, “Well, she passes, but I’m not giving her any style points.”
“Zip it, Gibson. I remember your first landing. You got zero marks for panache.”
The second speaker, Connie knew. Her mind twisted. What happened on that bridge? A scarred hand appeared in front of her. She took it, jolting from the memory of the childhood accident that had caused the scar. She looked up, stunned. Speechless.
“Hi, Connie, welcome to Tactical. We’ve been watching your progress all year. When they told me I could add someone to my team, I insisted on you.” He paused, smiling, “I was emphatic.”
She stumbled and her benefactor put an arm around her. “Woah, been a pretty rough day.” He steadied her a moment before continuing, “Can you stand on your own?”
She nodded, still looking at him. She could see mirth in eyes she remembered. They hinted at playfulness—and pride.
Connie still couldn’t speak, but she didn’t need to; he did all the talking, “Come on now, Gibson. Say hi to my little sis.”