Juudai had never been so excited to take a test. Normally he didn't like tests, or anything that involved having to sit still and be quiet for any length of time that didn't also involve eating or sleeping. Today, though, he was racing as fast as his feet would carry him, cutting across lawns, dodging bicyclists and dog walkers, grinning from ear to ear as he ran. All he had to do was make it to the bus station in time, and everything would fall neatly into place.
He vaulted over an ornamental shrub, cut across a parking lot, and dodged a knot of shoppers to reach the sidewalk again. As he waited for a crosswalk light to change, he glanced at his watch. He was making good time - there were still fifteen minutes before the last bus to the testing center left. If he poured on the speed, he'd get there in plenty of time. If he took a shortcut across the park and then up past the mall...
He darted around a corner and slammed into something with enough force to knock him back on his rear. Whatever he ran into went "ow". Juudai winced, rubbing his bruised posterior.
"Sorry," he said, as he hauled himself to his feet. "Didn't see you there."
"It's all right," said a soft voice.
Juudai looked to see who it was he'd slammed into. It appeared to be a boy of about his age, or maybe only a little younger. He was thin and rather pale, as if he hadn't been getting enough sun lately, and his eyes were a vivid blue-green. His hair was nearly the same shade, and there was something like a jewel at the center of his forehead. Juudai beamed. What luck!
"Hey," he said, "are you going to the tests? Do you want to come with me?"
The boy considered a moment, the nodded shyly.
"Awesome!" said Juudai. "Come on - we'd better hurry!"
He grabbed his new friend's wrist, and together, they ran.
There were a lot of ways to tell whether or not someone had been born a super, and oddly colored hair was one of them. Not that every super had it, and not that having it was a surefire indicator that you had enough power to do anything interesting with it. That was why they had to develop the blood tests. That, and the fact that not everyone showed their powers right away. There were generally three times in a person's life when they might develop superpowers. Some people had them from birth, and turned up in the world already equipped to drive their parents to distraction by sporadically turning invisible or floating up to the ceiling. The next likely time was during puberty, making what was normally an awkward time that much more difficult. Juudai had been vastly disappointed to discover that this had not happened to him yet. Still, there was one more window of opportunity, a span of time right around the age of twenty-five, when most people reached full physical maturity. That was still ten years off for him - far too long, in his opinion, to wait to find out if something interesting was about to happen.
That was why he was now hurtling down the street towards the bus station. He had finally reached the age when young supers were generally old enough to start really harnessing their powers and begin training to be a genuine superhero. You could always enter a training facility later, of course, if your powers manifested after you'd reached your fifteenth birthday, but if you didn't want to wait that long, you could take a blood test. Every super had a level of chemicals in their blood that normals didn't have - commonly known as "S-levels". Even if you didn't have any obvious talents yet, your S-levels would show what you could expect. Anyone with S-levels over a certain number could be admitted to Heroic Academy. Juudai had been dreaming of attending all his life, and if all he had to do to get in was to endure getting his finger pricked, well, the choice was obvious.
Juudai and his new friend reached the bus just as it was starting to pull away.
"Hey, let us in! We're coming too!" he shouted. He made a flying leap to grab at the door handles, and the bus squealed to a stop with an almost offended air. Juudai backed off just long enough to let the driver open the doors, and then he shoved his companion aboard before climbing on himself.
Luck was with them. The bus was not terribly crowded, and the two of them were able to find an empty seat near the back.
"You want the window seat?" Juudai asked, feeling magnanimous.
His new friend shook his head. "No. I... get carsick."
"Bummer," said Juudai sympathetically. He plunked into the cracked faux-leather seat and made himself comfortable. "Hey, I didn't get your name. I'm Juudai."
The boy gave him a shy smile. "I'm Yubel."
"Yubel, huh? Cool name," said Juudai. He peered out the window as the scenery began rolling away behind them. "Well, I guess there's nothing to do now but sit back and enjoy the ride. Man, I can't believe I'm finally going to the Academy!"
"You're a super?" Yubel asked. "What's your power?"
"I don't know yet," said Juudai. "That's why I'm getting tested. But I have to be one. I've never wanted to be anything else, you know? It's always been my dream..."
"I'm sure you'll make it," said Yubel.
Juudai grinned. "Thanks. I know you're bound to get in. I mean, it kinda shows on you." He began rummaging in his backpack and came up with a candy bar he'd brought to help him keep up his strength on the two-hour bus ride. He peeled back the wrapper and prepared to take a bite when he noticed the look in Yubel's eyes. He was following the candy's path with a particularly fixed stare that could only mean one thing.
"You hungry?" Juudai asked.
Yubel nodded, looking guilty. "I didn't... I didn't eat breakfast this morning."
"Nerves, huh?" said Juudai sympathetically. He wrestled with his conscience for a moment before saying, "Here. I didn't really want it that much."
"Thanks!" said Yubel. He took the candy and began wolfing it down as though he hadn't eaten in a week.
Juudai went back to looking out the window. "Man, this is great - I'm not even at the school and already I'm making friends. What are the odds of meeting you on the bus like this, huh?"
Yubel looked up, briefly distracted from his snack. "Are we friends?"
"Sure!" said Juudai. "I mean, why not? It'll be good to have someone to hang with when we get to the island. Man, this is going to be all kinds of fun! We can go swimming together and have sleepovers and pillow fights..."
He went on cheerfully embroidering his plans. If Yubel thought there was anything odd about making detailed plans for the future when he didn't even know if he was going to be accepted or not, he didn't say a word about it. If anything, Yubel appeared utterly fascinated, so Juudai, pleased to have an audience, went on spinning tales of all the fun things they would do when they were at the Academy together.
Eventually, the bus pulled to a halt outside a large building that was normally a stadium. Today, however, was a special occasion, and while what was going on inside was probably a spectacle, it wasn't the sort of thing you could buy tickets to. Instead, registrars stood at all the ticket booths, helping entrants get signed in. Juudai pressed his nose against the window.
"Wow, look at all those people!" he said.
"That is a lot of people," Yubel agreed, sounding impressed.
"Everybody out who's getting out!" the bus driver shouted. "Move it along, haven't got all day!"
"I'm going, I'm going!" Juudai called back. He grabbed his backpack and hustled towards the door of the bus.
The space in front of the stadium was pure chaos. Juudai stood there on the front walk for a moment, taking it all in. He had never seen so many supers in one place before. The area in front of the doors was vivid with brightly colored hair and skin, and the occasional set of wings or glowing aura. Some of them already had costumes on.
"Whoa," said Juudai. "Would you look at all this?"
He turned around to see what Yubel's reaction was, but his friend was already gone.
"Yubel?" he called. "Where'd you go?"
He looked around, but wherever Yubel had gone, it was nowhere Juudai could find him. He waded through the crowd, dodging wings and having his eyes dazzled as the sun flashed off sparkling costumes. There were so many people everywhere, and the crowd was constantly in motion - not just side to side but up and down as well, and occasionally a teleporter or portal-user materialized out of thin air. After a while, Juudai was forced to admit that wherever his new friend had gone, he probably wasn't going to find him.
He must have gone to sign in already, he decided at last. He shrugged. Sooner or later, they were bound to catch up to each other again. If they didn't run into each other again in the testing area, then surely they'd see each other at school.
"But before I can do that, I have to get to the school," he told himself, and scrambled to get into a line.
The registrar eyed him dubiously when he presented himself at the window, but when he handed over his application form, she gave him a number and told him to get in line to be tested. He followed the rest of the motley crowd into the building. A young man with the school logo on his jacket was directing traffic, sending some students one way and some in another.
"Which way do I go?" Juudai asked him.
"If you know your powers already, head to the right," the young man told him. "If you're here for the blood test, take the left-hand corridor and go up the stairs to the stadium. You can watch the others until your number is called."
"Got it! Thanks!" Juudai replied, and went bounding off in search of stairs.
The show was already going on by the time he got there, and looked as though it had been for some time. At the moment, a pretty blonde girl was at the center of the arena, displaying her ability to deflect a variety of projectiles fired at her from several angles, all without touching them or even moving very much. Juudai thought she looked slightly bored, and felt sorry for her.
"Can I sit here?" asked a voice at his elbow.
"Sure!" said Juudai, looking up to see who it was. A small, bespectacled boy with pale blue-green hair was looking at him with worried gray eyes. "I'm Juudai! Who are you?"
The boy mumbled something. Juudai blinked.
"What was that?" he asked.
"Shou," said the boy. "My name's Shou."
"Nice to meet you," said Juudai. He patted the chair next to him. "Come on, sit down. I don't bite."
Shou sat down. "I guess you're getting the blood test too, huh? Man, I hate needles..."
"It won't be so bad," said Juudai. "Anyway, a guy can just look at you and tell you're a super. I mean, with that hair, what else would you be?"
"I know," said Shou, sounding miserable, "but I still don't know what my power is. If my S-levels aren't high enough, I won't get admitted at all."
"So all you've gotta do is get tested, then," said Juudai. He patted Shou's shoulder. "Cheer up! It'll just take a second, and then you'll be in. Nothing to it."
"Are you sure?" asked Shou, looking hopeful.
"Sure I'm sure," said Juudai. "If I can get in, you can get in, and I'm definitely going to get in."
"Well, if you really think so," said Shou. "I don't know. Maybe you're right. At least it'll all be over soon."
Together they sat back and watched the girl finish showing off her abilities. A new boy stepped into the ring and began demonstrating his ability to solve increasingly complex math problems in his head. Juudai was bored within seconds. He closed his eyes and started dozing. If Shou hadn't been sitting next to him, twitching every time a new number was called over the loudspeaker, he might have fallen asleep entirely.
"Number two hundred and eleven!" the voice overhead boomed.
Juudai jumped. "Whoa, that's me!"
"Good luck!" said Shou.
"Same to you!" Juudai called back. "I'll see you at the Academy!"
He bounded down the stairs and back into the hallway, where a young woman caught him by the arm and escorted him into a side room.
"Now, this isn't going to hurt but a little," she said soothingly as she pushed up his sleeve and began swabbing him with rubbing alcohol. "You aren't afraid of needles are you?"
"Not a bit," Juudai promised her. He watched with interest as she pressed the syringe to his arm and began drawing out a small amount of blood. Once she was done, she slapped a band-aid onto the pinprick.
"That wasn't so bad, was it?" she chirped. "You just wait right there, and we'll have your test results in no time."
She pranced off, high heels clicking on the floor. Juudai sat in his chair, swinging his heels back and forth, trying not to jump up and start pacing the floor in anticipation.
The nurse came back a few minutes later, looking apologetic. Juudai felt his heart sink. He hadn't passed...
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm afraid our testing machine is having a leetle tummy-ache today. Do you mind if we try this again?"
Juudai breathed a sigh of relief. "Sure. Go for it."
She rolled up his other sleeve and pricked him again. Then she patted on another bandage and trotted off again. Juudai got up and started pacing. He wondered if getting blood tests usually took this long. What if the machine was broken? What if it gave him a false negative and sent him home? He had never been a nail biter before, but now seemed like it might be time to start.
When the nurse came back, she was wearing a puzzled and slightly worried expression.
"I'm really, really sorry about this," she said. "I can't think what might be going wrong. Would you mind...?"
"But I'm out of arms!" Juudai protested.
She went back to the arm she'd drawn from the first time and jabbed him again, watching him the entire time as though she suspected he was doing something to sabotage the process.
"Third time's the charm," she muttered, and disappeared back through her door again.
Juudai sighed, looking woefully first at the door, then at his much-bandaged arms.
"They didn't even give me any cookies," he muttered.
"Chancellor, may I have a word with you?"
Chancellor Samejima looked up from his paperwork. There was always so much paperwork at the beginning of a new school year. Sometimes he felt that his entire year was spent mainly in trying to finish the paperwork he began at the beginning of the first semester, and that as soon as he was done with that, the next year was beginning. He was not sure if he was glad of the interruption or not.
"Of course, Professor. What can I do for you?" he said, managing not to sound too unenthused.
"There is a situation at the testing facility," said Professor Chronos. He rubbed his long, thin hands together, looking servile and more than slightly nervous. "We thought we should ask you to mediate."
"What sort of situation?" Samejima asked.
"With one of the children," Chronos elaborated. "His test results are... strange."
"Strange how?" Samejima asked. "For heaven's sakes, stop beating around the bush."
"The staff says they can't get a reading on him," said Chronos. "It's not that he's not registering any S-levels. It's more... do you know what the highest S-levels ever recorded were, Chancellor?"
"Eight hundred and forty-two," said Samejima promptly.
"Eight hundred and forty-two," Chronos agreed. "But every time we try to read this boy, the machines register a reading of nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine. Every single time."
"Perhaps it's a mechanical malfunction?" Samejima suggested.
Chronos shook his head. "They've taken three separate blood samples, and tried them on a total of eight different machines. They all gave the same reading. But it's impossible." Chronos's expression showed signs of displeasure. "No one has ever come close to having such a reading. It has to be some kind of fluke. The boy is as normal as they come - not even odd-colored eyes. There is no possible way he could be that powerful without even giving a hint of it."
Samejima frowned. In general, higher S-levels generally also meant greater likelihood of starting life already showing signs of powers, and of having more than one ability. It wasn't a hard and fast rule, though - the world record holder had waited until he was sixteen to suddenly develop his seemingly unlimited skill set. Still, someone over a hundred times more powerful not even showing a hint of ability seemed... unlikely.
"Perhaps it's something very minor," he said. "An innate ability to set machines on the fritz?"
"We considered that," said Chronos, "but we had the nurse ask him if he had a history of that sort of thing, and his response was - and I quote..." He fished a paper out of his pocket and began reading. "'I ran my phone through the laundry once. Does that count?'" He folded the paper and put it away. "If he has an effect on mechanical equipment, it's a very narrow and specific effect."
"I see," said Samejima. He considered. "Well, the rule is, anyone with an S-level reading over one hundred is admitted, and his numbers certainly are over one hundred."
Chronos looked shocked. "But it isn't possible! There is no way anyone could have a reading that high. It must be some sort of mistake. We just don't know what kind yet."
"Hmm," said Samejima. He drummed his fingers on his desk. "Very well. We'll write him in under Clause 214."
"Are you sure that's wise?" asked Chronos, looking scandalized.
"It seems like the best compromise to me," said Samejima. "If he has no notable powers and this is all just a fluke, then he'll either learn to adapt or he'll be removed from the school. If he does have powers, though, and they really are as extreme as those readouts lead us to believe, we need him here where we can keep an eye on him."
"Yes, but..." Chronos stammered.
"That's enough," said Samejima. "Unless you have a better idea?"
Chronos opened his mouth to say something. Then he apparently thought the better of it and closed it again. "No, sir. That... that will be all."
"Good," said Samejima. "Now, if there's nothing else, I really do have a lot of work to do, so if you'll excuse me..."
Chronos took the hint. He shuffled off, looking sullen. Samejima went back to his paperwork, but his mind wandered. How did a boy end up with a reading like that, anyway? If he was a normal, his readout would have been a flat zero. Even if he was powered, though, no one had ever gotten a reading even a tenth that high. The prevailing theory was that a level of one thousand was the theoretical limit. By all accounts, what this boy was doing shouldn't be possible. So what was going on here?
A long time ago, people born with powers had been considered blessed by the gods, or possibly even revered as gods. These days, scientists had spent millions of dollars and millions of man-hours testing, studying, and arguing over whether or not the powers were a result of genetics, environmental pressures, or something else altogether. The only firm conclusion that anyone had been able to reach was a general consensus that the S-levels were measurements of a chemical produced by the bodies of those with superpowers, but that they were a symptom, not a cause. People with superpowers produced S-chemicals, but injecting S-chemicals into someone didn't give them superpowers. All evidence available, in fact, suggested that doing so would only make an ordinary person very sick, or even kill them, and there were laws against even attempting to do so.
It was clear, however, that people with higher S-levels had more and greater powers than those with lower levels. A person with an S-level lower than a hundred was hardly different from a normal. Someone with over three hundred was a force to be reckoned with. A person with over five hundred was enough to remind you why supers had once been worshiped as gods. And this boy's readings were apparently so far off the charts as to make those numbers look trifling by comparison. If someone could understand why, it might shed some light on the entire mystery of how people ended up with powers in the first place.
If he had been forced to be completely truthful, he would have admitted that he'd invoked Clause 214 partly just so he'd have an excuse to see the boy himself in action, and to try to get some answers.
Yubel was still running.
He could feel a blister being rubbed onto one heel, where his left sandal didn't fit quite right. It was making him limp, and he didn't want that. He wanted to run, and run, and keep running, as far and fast as he could.
Meeting Juudai had been a blessing in more ways than one. He never would have considered taking the bus anywhere. He had no money, and would never have dared risk being taken back in the direction he had come from. The chance to ride for a solid two hours, all the way into the next city - the chance to catch his breath and rest his aching feet - had been the answer to a prayer. To actually be given something to eat was almost too good to be true. To spend even a short amount of time in the company of a true friend...
Yubel's head spun, and he stumbled on the uneven sidewalk. A few passers-by glared at him, as though suspecting he was lurching about like that on purpose. He knew how he must look: sweating, disheveled, blood running down his knees and palms, eyes wild. He'd be afraid of himself, too. There was no time to stop, no time to slow down and explain. The only thing he could do was run, run, run and keep moving.
He stumbled again, and this time, he didn't have the strength to right himself. He had been running so long, and his head spun from hunger and thirst. When he tried to push himself back to his feet, his muscles trembled so much that he gave it up. Instead, he crawled across the rough pavement to hide in an alley, leaving little streaks and blotches of blood on the sidewalk. He tucked himself between a pair of trash cans. The smell was enough to make his eyes water, but it was cool and out of sight there. Maybe he could rest, just for a minute, maybe even take a nap...
He was awakened by the feeling of someone pushing a shoe none too gently into his ribs. He groaned.
"Enough of that! On your feet!" a voice snapped.
Yubel didn't move. He hurt. He was still so tired...
Hands, not violent but not particularly gentle, hauled him to his feet. His knees didn't want to hold him, so the hands continued to hold him up. He let himself slump against the chest of the man who was supporting him, and the man gave a grunt of annoyance.
"Look at this," he muttered. "He can't even stay on his own two feet. I thought this one was supposed to be something special."
"Well, he's not dead yet," said a second voice. "That's gotta count for something."
Yubel managed to raise his bleary eyes to see a familiar guard standing in front of him, looking down at him with an expression of smug amusement. He was looking more respectable than usual in a rather rumpled business suit instead of his uniform, and with his hair neatly combed, but the mole on his jaw was unmistakable.
"Whatever," said the other man. Yubel knew him as the bad-tempered one who always smelled of beer and breath mints. "Better haul him home before someone starts calling to find out where we are. Hey, you, put that garbage down and let's go."
Rough hands tried to snatch the candy wrapper away from him. Yubel clutched at it with sudden panic. It was the only gift he could ever remember anyone giving him. It was the only thing he truly owned - even the clothes he wore had been issued to him by G.R.A.S.P.
"No!" he said. "You can't have it!" He clutched the wrapper close to his chest, and the man made a clumsy effort to pry it away with one hand while holding on to him with the other.
"Lay off," said the other man. "It's just a stupid piece of trash, like him. He might as well keep it."
Mint Man said, "But the boss said..."
"It's just a piece of paper," Mole Man sighed. "What is he going to do, origami us to death? Build an army of killer paper dolls? Give somebody a paper cut? Let's just get him back to his cell and let the inspectors sort it out."
"Fine," said Mint Man. "Come on, kid, let's get you out of here."
He began hauling Yubel - literally dragging him in places, as Yubel missed his footing and would have fallen if someone hadn't been holding him up. A short distance away, an anonymous gray car was parked on a side street. They shoved Yubel into the backseat, and then Mint Man got in next to him to make sure he couldn't try to escape, while Mole Man got into the front. The car began to roll back up the streets. Yubel stared at them, trying to memorize it all: the sky, the buildings, the people. He had no idea when he'd see them again.
I will get out again someday, he thought, and when I do, Juudai, I promise I'll find you again...