You know how everyone says first impressions are everything? If that's the case, then the training center would be hell for me in the long run. It looked just like a gargantuan high school or college, complete with lockers and angry-looking teenagers. One of the things that set it apart, though, is that anthros and humans were completely integrated. They left class together, went to lockers and bathrooms together, and a few were even making out when they thought no one was looking. I'm sure that this wasn't what the expression meant, but I couldn't shake the overwhelming sense of impending doom and humiliation that comes from the psychological torture that is the day-to-day interaction with hormonal teenagers.
Fenrir, Cain, and Jet led Ethan, Brandon, and me through the twisting halls and corridors toward an administration office at the center of the building. People gave Fenrir and the other two a wide berth and looked questioningly at the three humans walking behind them. Their animi lucem was barely in my view as my mind grew accustomed to the changes, but I was able to make out the tendrils of color that swayed from everyone's bodies like candle flames. All around me were the pale, blue lights of those who were awakened and in control of their abilities to some extent. I turned my gaze to Ethan and Brandon and saw their lights blazing uncontrolled. Ethan kept looking back and forth among all the people, shifting from one person to the next with a look of concentration on his face as he analyzed the environment. Brandon walked with his shoulders squared and a gaze possessed only by the strongest predators, letting anyone and everyone know that he was not to be trifled with.
Things here seemed more uniform and military-like than a legitimate school; there wasn't the atmosphere of miserable adolescent or the deep seated anxiety of a failed test or social inadequacy. Simply, teenagers here seemed more like mature adults than the punk teenagers the world has grown to . . . tolerate? Eyes followed us, taking in every minute detail with scrutiny usually reserved for wild animals on the verge of attack.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. I turned in a flash and saw a trail of light connecting me to someone in the crowd like some perverse version of an umbilical cord. I tried to follow it by sight but couldn't discern it from any of the other colors crowded into the small area. Something odd was there in addition to the tendril protruding from my own flame. Links were everywhere connecting people; and, in some cases, their flames burned in synch and stood as one rather than as separate entities.
People started to snicker as the new kid turned around looking from person to person like a fool. A few of the anthros and even one or two humans stared at me with arched eyebrows and impressed smirks as they saw me try and focus on the one strand of light. I guessed that these were those who had the ability to see the animi lucem like I did. I closed my eyes and shut out the rest of the world, leaving me in a blank universe lit by blue flickers all around me. The thin strand of light had a weight all its own as it pulled me toward its anchor. I moved forward without a second thought as I followed the pull of those concentrated thoughts. Soon, a small inferno was in front of me, blocking all awareness of anything else.
The cord detached from me and disappeared into the depths of this being, anchoring itself there. I studied the flame, trying to divine something from its depths. I opened my eyes and came face-to-chest with a horse. He was a bit smaller than Jet, standing at about 6'5". His fur was a rich brown and he had a black mane tied in intricate knots down his back. He was solid muscle but had the slightest gut to cover what was surely washboard abs. I looked up at him, and he had a stupid grin on his face. Assuming you could determine his age the same way as a regular horse, his teeth showed he couldn't have been more than three or four years-old. That put him right between 18 and 23 years in human development.
"Not bad, kid. You're going to fit in here just fine," he said in a smooth, honey-like voice. I was uncomfortable with being around him. I tried to look for the standard signs that came with me interacting with people, i.e. disgust, fear, anger, or hate. Contrary to any of that, he was still smiling like everything was a big, funny joke that never ended. It was contagious, and soon I was smiling as stupidly as he was. To the outside world, we probably looked high out of our minds, but I couldn't help it; those signs that I had braced myself for proved, to my unexplainable relief, to be unnecessary.
Fenrir appeared behind me and raised an eyebrow in question to the equine. "Care to explain what you are doing?"
The horse just smiled again and shrugged. "I was just curious," he said in reply. He then turned to me, "I hope to see you around, Aaron."
"How did you-," I broke off as it, and his shit eating grin, registered. I realized I should probably be pissed, but I just laughed. "I guess this could be fun."
Fenrir pulled me along to the office, leaving the horse behind still smiling that infectious grin of his. There are some people who are just friendly, but that guy just seemed over the top about it. I hoped I would be able to see him again. My attention was drawn to something Fenrir was whispering in my ear.
"Could you repeat that?" I asked, repositioning myself into this plane of reality.
"He didn't even notice, or care, about your eyes. To him you were just another newbie walking along the halls," he said, smiling his own Cheshire grin.
I smiled. "You're right." The elation that came from this knowledge coursed through me like so many volts of electricity. My mind began to race as I took everything in and tried to consciously process it in a way that was less abstract than a feeling, no matter how powerful that feeling was. My thoughts buzzed around like a five-year-old kid on a caffeine rush from hell.
Fenrir rapped his knuckles against my head; something I hoped wouldn't become a habit of his. "Can you quiet it down in there?"
I didn't quite understand what he meant at first, and then I pieced it together. "I thought you weren't supposed to go into people's minds." It was a simple statement, but I was a little irked that he was listening to my head like it was a radio. Not to say that I didn't enjoy the closeness, but it was weird to realize that I no longer had any real sense of privacy. He was the first person I could share everything with; I mean, the man had already seen my dreams on a whole different level, and I didn't want to ruin that.
He deflated noticeably before he acknowledged what I said. "You're right." I felt a shifting around my mind as he pulled away from it. It occurred to me that we had been linked since before we had gotten on the plane, and I hadn't even noticed.
"It wasn't strictly a complaint, just a lot shooting off in my head is all," I muttered. I felt like I'd wounded his pride, and that he thought I didn't appreciate him.
Fenrir chuckled, seemingly over his hurt ego. "If that's the only issue, I may have a trick that could work."
Grateful that things weren't awkward, I replied. "Would I be correct in assuming that you are about to tell me to imagine the crowd naked?"
Fenrir smiled lewdly. "Not exactly." He leaned down into my ear and whispered, "Just me." He started cackling as all of my thoughts came to a crashing halt. He let out a sigh of exaggerated bliss. "Finally, some peace and quiet. I wonder what door that will be locked behind." He added the last bit with a wondering sense of curiosity.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and tried to hide the one in my pants. "That's for me to know and pray that you will never have a chance to see." I laughed nervously, trying to keep my thoughts from flaring up again.
He just shrugged and turned his attention back to something of earlier importance. "You should be a bit more careful of who you let get into your head," he said in a quiet undertone. "No one is likely to try and do anything in the facility, but you never know."
I didn't really know how to respond to that, so I opted for a thoughtful silence. Soon, we found ourselves in front of a door leading to an administrative office. Cain, Jet, Ethan, and Brandon had just gone inside. We followed suit and stood in a waiting room as we hung around for something. In the room were the six of us and four other pairs of anthros and people.
I didn't really have time to look before a female collie in an expensive suit came strutting out of the office located through the door in the back of the room. In her hand was a large folder with several large tabs. All the anthros in the room stood up and handed a small stack of papers to her, each one going behind a different tab after she wrote something on the front of it. Satisfied with what she had, she stood by the door to the office and motioned for us to go through. Ethan, Brandon, and I, along with all the other humans, made our way into the room.
Inside the office was a lot bigger than the waiting room. There were seven seats stationed in front of an enormous desk. We all grabbed a seat and waited for the collie to begin talking. Three minutes of shuffling paper later, she looked up at us with an apologetic smile.
"Sorry for the delay; this is one of the bigger groups I've had for a while," she said, putting several folders out in front of her. Each one had a name on it, and it didn't take long for me to find the one with my name on it. She indicated the folders, "First, I'm going to need you to verify the information in these folders and make sure nothing was left out."
I leaned forward and got my folder first and quickly sat back to give the others some space to grab their folders. I leafed through it at first, but stopped once I realized how much detail and information was in it. I noticed several other surprised grunts from everyone else as we all took in what we saw.
Inside was a copy of every one of my report cards and major test results, including the results of my CASEE, which I took not even a week ago. I took a moment to feel pride in the fact that I had scored in the 99th percentile. I flipped through everything else with more attention and found a lot more than I would have liked people to know about. I saw copies of all of my parent's divorce papers and even a report from my counselor where I had petitioned for emancipation, a copy of my birth certificate, and even a list of all of the schools I had been to and teachers that had taught me. It also had the details of my primary surge, supplied by Fenrir no doubt. In the back were a few pages of notes covering more personal info. In small print were comments on my personality type, general intelligence, and even sexual orientation. The overall effect was creepy with a dash of obsession.
The collie cleared her throat. "As you can see, we have copies of everything that has happened in your lives of any notable importance. I know this might be a little strange, but you must understand that the A.S.O. is very careful in its selection of people. This is also necessary to ensure you can get the most out of your time here at the facility. If there are any mistakes, please correct them and place them right here," she said, indicating the tray in front of her. I placed my folder into the tray without a second look; I knew everything was right, just from the sheer amount of detail put into it. Ethan was the last one to put his folder in, after crossing out a few things and writing in the correct statements.
She flashed us an award-winning stewardess smile before continuing. "As you should have been told, this is the training facility, and here you will be instructed on how to most efficiently use your abilities. That will determine how you will be assigned. Are there any questions?"
"What do you mean 'determine how we will be assigned'?" I asked.
She answered without pause, no doubt already having to answer this question hundreds of times. "There are many jobs that need to be done within the A.S.O, so depending on your type of abilities and proficiency with them, you will be asked to take on specific jobs. Examples of these are dream walkers, illusionists, and precogs. Of course, you won't be required to take a specific job; the ones presented to you will be the ones that we believe you will be most suited for. Anything else?"
A different kid raised his hand. He looked to be the youngest of us here at about 13 and reminded me of my little brother. He had short, dark hair and chocolate brown eyes standing at about 4'10''. "What job do you have?" he asked.
She smiled again. "My job was being a pensive relay. I acted as a focal point between a group of people's thoughts. My brain can handle the stress of multiple consciouses without any side effects. I took messages between people and passed them around as needed. There is more to the job besides that, but I am afraid we don't have the time to go into all of the specifics; so if there aren't any other questions, I will go ahead and show you the rest of the facility."
I guess no one had any questions that they were willing to voice. We wound our way through some twisting corridors and even went outside as we were paraded around in a weird imitation of orientation. We were shown the cafeteria, which could easily feed a couple thousand people; a full indoor gym with track, pool, and agility course; dozens of small rooms for instruction; and finally a set of dormitories. It was ridiculous how huge this place was; especially considering the whole time, we didn't pass more than a few hundred people. This place could be used to house a small town comfortably.
Finally, the nameless collie brought us to an almost empty conference room. We walked in and there were seven teenage anthros waiting for us. Apprehension gripped my stomach in an iron fist; this was too much at once; too many people and sensations to adjust to. My breathing picked up a bit as I tried to stay calm.
The collie walked forward and gave out our folders to them, seemingly at random. She turned to us before speaking. "These lovely people are going to be your mentors and guides while you adjust to everything. If you have any questions; just ask them, and they will be more than happy to help you." She smiled one more time and walked out of the room.
I pulled over to a corner while people mingled with their partners and massed into the center of the room like a small flood. A German shepherd made his way over to me, extricating himself from the mass of bodies. He was just a little taller than me at 6'0" and all muscle. He carried himself like someone who slept with a dumbbell in place of a teddy bear. He was an Adonis by all definitions. Rolling muscle was abundant everywhere, if the bulge in his pants was any indication.
"Sup? My name is Vin, and I am your guide to the strange world of the A.S.O," he said, waving my folder around to emphasize his statement.
"Nice to meet you," I replied, sidetracked with the many possible sources for the name 'Vin'. . . Vincent maybe?
He flipped through my file quickly and then with a raised eyebrow asked me, "You've already achieved primary?"
I nodded wordlessly.
He let out a low whistle. "That's pretty impressive for someone without the imprint."
I shrugged, not really sure where this was going.
"Well, that explains why they have me here," he continued, talking more to himself than me. He looked back up at me and gave me a toothy grin. "I am with the more advanced programs, and it's not very common that we get a newbie who jumps right into it."
"Damn it, even here I am an oddity," I grumbled to myself.
"I said it wasn't common, not that it didn't happen. Chill out man; and in case you haven't noticed, you are now in a compound with over 50 different sentient species who can talk to each other with thoughts. Everyone here is an oddity," he said with mirth.
"That's one way to put something in perspective," I replied halfheartedly.
He threw his arm around my shoulder. "That's the spirit. Now how about we go and get something to eat, because I am starving."
We made our way to the mess hall as Vin gave me a more detailed rundown on how things worked here, going into specifics about scheduling for lessons, workouts, you name it. The mess hall was open almost 24/7 to accommodate the various schedules of the people here. Everyone was required to go to the track for at least an hour a day to make sure that nobody got lazy. Other than that, students pretty much had free reign. Since my catalyst had already formed and I already achieved primary, I wouldn't need to take some of the basic courses. I still needed to learn how to consciously tap into my abilities, but after that, I would be presented with a list of jobs that would tailor to my talents.
We finally got to the mess, and Vin ordered himself three hamburgers, a corndog, and a small steak. I decided to wait until later to get something to eat.
"So, it says here that you already know five languages," Vin said, once again flipping through my folder.
"Yep, military parents and the like," I said.
"Arabic, Spanish, and French are pretty good because those are some of the more widely spoken languages out there, but why German?" he continued.
"Dad got stationed there for a year," I replied.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I would suggest you try and learn Mandarin. After that, you are pretty much set to go anywhere in the world. That's only a suggestion though; you already know enough to get by in most European and Middle Eastern countries," he finished, apparently done with the subject and more interested in his food.
I looked at the miniature feast and couldn't contain my curiosity. "How the hell can you eat so much?"
He wolfed down the last bit of his first burger. "High metabolism combined with daily workouts and training regimens use up a lot more energy than most would care to guess. Everything requires energy; even your abilities, to some degree." I guess he saw the blank look on my face, because he swallowed his food and dug a pen out of his pocket. He drew a nearly straight line on the back of my folder. "This is where brain activity is in sleep, before REM. As you can see, nothing much is going on. These are called alpha brainwaves." He drew another wavy line above it. "This is where most sentient beings are when they are conscious. Here you have day-to-day thoughts and actions being computed and filed away. These are known as beta brainwaves." He drew a line with sharp spikes and flats like an EKG before someone flat lines. "And finally, you get this. This is called gamma brainwave activity. For humans, this is reserved for lucid dreamers when both their conscious and subconscious work in tandem and bring with it a state of hyper awareness. The important part for people like us is right here," he said, circling the highest peak on the gamma scale. "This is what makes everyone in here special. We are able to maintain brain activity at this level for extended amounts of time. This is where all our abilities stem from. We are able to keep it up for long periods of time, but that puts stress on our bodies and minds, so we burn more and more energy to keep from caving in."
I looked at the lines and tried to make sense of what was being handed to me. "So we are able to reach a certain level of brain activity, and that is what makes us so special?"
Vin shrugged his shoulders. "Yes and no; no doubt, without being able to get there, you wouldn't be able to do anything. But being part of the A.S.O. also requires a bit of ingenuity. You have to be able to solve puzzles and be able to see things from a different perspective than the rest of the general populace."
He got another blank stare for his effort.
"How about a question? On a table is a cup of hot chocolate, some ice tea, and then ice cream. Which of these items doesn't belong and why?"
I thought a bit and slowly what he was explaining to me began to click. "I would say the hot chocolate because the other two are cold while it is hot."
He snapped his fingers enthusiastically. "Exactly; a typical person may have said that ice cream was the odd one out because it was the only thing that classified as food. You took a viewpoint that is slightly different than most and still used logic to form a correct answer. A big rule stressed here is that correct and incorrect are only relative. Logic dictates how we see the world on a day-to-day basis, moments of panic and passion aside for obvious reasons."
It made sense in a weird kind of way. Vin went back to eating, seemingly pleased with his breakthrough. My head hurt a bit, and I just pressed my face to the table in defeat. This was simply too much to take in at one time.
Vin finished eating five minutes later. We got up and made our way down the corridors, which were already starting to look familiar. We walked along, seemingly without a goal in mind. Vin reintroduced me to the main areas and gave me quick tips to navigating the twisting halls. In one of those halls, we came across Fenrir just leaning against the wall like he had nothing better to do.
"Hey Aaron, enjoying everything so far?" he asked casually.
I shrugged my shoulders. "This is a pretty interesting place, but I already know I am going to get lost soon; it's inevitable," I said the last bit solemnly.
Fenrir and Vin just laughed at my dismay.
"Well, we got to go and show Aaron the dorm," Vin said, pulling me along gently.
"See ya Fenrir," I called out to him as we rounded a corner.
He waved before I lost sight of him.
Fenrir sighed as soon as the boys were out of earshot. This was getting a bit too personal, and he knew it.
As if to affirm that point, Cain and Jet both came down the hall and stopped in front of him.
"You know that's against the rules Fenrir," Cain said sympathetically. Fenrir was glad he was here; he always knew just what to say.
"I know, but he just reminds me of him so much," Fenrir said almost longingly.
Jet's usual laidback attitude was gone as he too took on a more serious role. "I know it sucks, but you have to face it, Trent's gone now. It's not fair to you, him, or Aaron to try and relive those days through him."
"I can't help it; there is something about Aaron that just screams Trent. He's different though, and I keep reminding myself he has his own life to live; but even the way he thinks is like him," Fenrir said softly.
Cain placed a hand on his shoulder. "I know how much it must suck, but you can't control what will happen," he said, trying to break through the wolf's thick skull.
Fenrir shrugged off the hand and shook his head. "I know; if I keep this up, I will just go into a rut again."
Jet shifted back to his usual chirpy manner that had brought the three of them together while they were all trainees here. "I'm sure there was a special emphasis on 'rut' somewhere in your mind," he said, lewdly grabbing his own crotch.
Fenrir's lips twitched in a ghost of a smile. "I can't help it that he's cute. Would you pass up on that opportunity?"
Neither of them deigned to answer.
"Come on, I'm sure by now Jen has something to keep us busy," Cain said and gently pushed Fenrir to the collie's office. "On the note of rutting, I'm sure Vin is probably going to beat any of us to that punch, with teenage hormones and all."
"Damn, this place just gets bigger by the minute!" I exclaimed hopelessly as I truly took in the size of the dorms. Apartment or condo would have been a more proper term, given the size of each room.
"You get used to it pretty quickly," Vin said.
"I would hope so," I muttered, weaving through a mass of bodies in my attempt to keep up with him.
He stopped in front of a door on the second level. He tossed me a key and stepped to the side. Shrugging, I fit the key to the lock and swung the door open. There were a few dishes scattered around the place and a shirt or two lying on the ground, the signs of a typical teenage guy. There was a small fridge and microwave on a counter, and a huge flat screen TV dominated the center of the living area in front of a small three-seat couch.
"If you can get past the grunge, it's not so bad," he said, scratching the back of his head.
"No worries, I'm the fourth of five children; this is nothing," I replied, looking around the area.
"Well then roomie, let me give you the full tour of our humble abode," he laughed.
There wasn't much else to see but the room; and it too rang of teenage grunge, being that it smelt like stale cum. There were two full-sized beds pushed against the back wall with a bedside table between them.
Vin flinched at the smell and smiled apologetically. "Sorry, I guess it got pretty musky while I wasn't paying attention."
"Just keep it down while I'm trying to sleep," I replied, surprised that my bag had already been placed on my bed and a little embarrassed that I forgot it in the first place.
He laughed and jumped onto his bed. "I'm not sure I can keep the beast put away."
I looked at the bulge in his pants and decided to mess with the cocky canine, pun totally intended. "Isn't that being a bit optimistic?"
He huffed indignantly. "You're in dangerous territory now."
I just smiled and got my stuff off of the bed. I wasn't paying attention when he tackled me to the bed and ground his crotch into my ass. He chuckled darkly. "I'd be more than willing to prove it."
I would have been more than happy to take that chance, but something uncomfortable was digging into my stomach. I wiggled around and pulled out a black card with my name engraved on the front.
"Is this a-" I began.
"Yep," Vin cut me off, still pinning me against the bed.
I glared at the black credit card, suspicious of its presence and aware of the possibility of a hidden camera somewhere.
"They give one to everyone to start out. When you get on the payroll, they take it back and you start making real money," he explained, finally standing up and allowing me to take a full breath.
I sat up and looked at the card. "So what now?"
"Now," he sighed. "I have to take you to get some stuff you will need," he finished contemptuously.
"Why do I get the feeling this won't be fun?" I asked, fear settling into my gut like a bunch of stones and replacing the earlier excitement.
"Now we get to brave the blood hounds," he said with all the emotion of a man sentenced to death row.
I gulped in anticipation of the coming horrors.