Wasted Fish: Chapter 1
Bethany drooled at the sight of the beautiful frosting and admired the amazing artistry and care put into the design. This year her birthday cake was simple- just a plain white cake overlaid with a delicate, precise, and perfect lace design which covered the furthest left corner of the cake as if it had been ripped from its home and laid there for her delight. The love in the cake was intoxicating and Bethany could look at it all day. Unfortunately, the wax from the candles was dripping onto the masterpiece so she closed her eyes and thought I never want this to end. With that thought, and without opening her eyes, Bethany blew the candles out.
One- a voice to speak
Two- ears to hear
Four- smiles beyond the light
Six- a new life
Eight- puppy dog eyes
Ten- stars falling from grace
Twenty- years gone by
Sighing, Bethany opened her eyes to reality and looked around Beth’s office. No more innocence, no more family, and no more cake. The wish was still there, hanging in the air above her head like an anvil, but it would never be fulfilled. Beth believed that all the wishes in the world that are impossible eventually go dark and take all hope with them. So why did Beth still wish for her innocence, family and cake back? Because her hope was already gone, so there was nothing left to take.
Standing and stretching, Beth patted the gun on her desk and strapped it to her side. Sliding smoothly like an eel into her black jacket she shook her thick black hair out into the air and trapped it in a snare that pulled it into a loose knot above her neck. Her cruel dark eye glinted dangerously in the dim lighting. Beneath the surface of her hair, and her eyes, and even her intense scowl there peaked a tiny light. To the close observer that light was the tiny remnant of a heart beating in her chest, but Beth was not a close observer. In many ways she was still floating up in the clouds, waiting to be pulled back down, and from her height the light looked like the stars. To her, the light was cold, hard, unfeeling, and unloving. It laughed at her pain and mocked her brave face.
It was time to inspect the new recruits, and Beth hated that. Stepping out of the safety and peace of her reclusive office, she looked out over her dominion. Manticore was the official name of this unofficial organization, but Beth liked to just call it “core”. This was mainly due to the fact that it was literally the core of the entire U.S. government. Of course, no one knew it existed so they got little thanks and minimal funding. In fact, the only reason they got funding at all was due to a complex arrangement of false organizations through which funding was filtered to supply the Core with all their needs.
The organization was so “top secret” that even the President only knew what he needed to know about it. Each year he met with the leader of the Core- Beth –to discuss the basics. At the end of the day, only Beth truly knew everything about the Core. Even then, she sometimes wondered if there wasn’t some dark secret hidden in a corner waiting to be found.
It seemed quite by chance that Beth had found herself sole ruler of the Core. It had all begun at the end of her life when she had been adopted by Garret Bearman. The name was not deceiving- Garret was a giant and his only son was just as powerful. Beth had taken on his last name, Bearman, as she shed her old life and his son, Jared, had grown to be like a brother to her. Sadly, Jared died of pneumonia. Garret had been training Jared to take over leading the Core but he had no back-up plan. Jared wasn’t supposed to die. With no one else he trusted Garret began to teach Beth. She rose quickly in the ranks and used her deadly eye and steady hand to form a legend around her face.
When Garret died suddenly of a heart-attack it was an easy matter for Beth to seize command. In some ways she never wanted to lead them, but she told herself they would never survive without someone pulling their strings. That was how she justified her way of living- no one would live without her.
Slowly and grandly walking down the metal stairway to the main training rooms of the Core, Beth’s eyes calmly waltzed around the room, taking in all of recruits. They were all trained from their birth for the Core, but only three of them would find their way into the organization.
They were so young; Beth hated choosing any of them. The recruitment procedure was open to a select few between the ages of eleven and thirteen. These were considered the prime ages for entry as the children were young enough to be molded, and old enough to stand the kiln. Each child was from a family with connections to the Core. Any military families were watched closely for potential recruits, but the main candidates came from directly within the Core. In particular there were five families which lent to the makeup of the organization.
The first family, the Bearmans, was the leading family of the Core. The children were raised to lead and the power of life and death in the Core was handed to them throughout the generations. It had always been this way, but they had not always been the sole leaders of the Core. That was what the Johnsons were for.
Seemingly ordinary, the Johnsons had been the kindest and most involved of the families as their children led alongside the Bearman children. They were there as a security net- making all the final decisions and advising the Bearmans. The Johnsons had been the true leaders of the Core, until most of them were killed. A few members of the family remained, but they were distant enough in the family tree that they had only been raised as soldiers and were unfit to lead.
The other families each had their purpose which they served from age to age. The Smiths were masters of disguise and led the “back-up identity” section of the Core. The Bergins were heads of intel and were frightening with computers. The Hills were the financiers- infiltrating the government just enough that they could avoid detection and mask their hidden funds.
All of these families were now represented in a straight and stiff line in front of Beth- waiting for her condemnation or confirmation. The concept was that, through displays of their skill and knowledge, the candidates would show what qualities they possessed. Beth viewed it somewhat like being naked in front of an audience, which was partly why she hated the entire process. The tasks were simple enough, but there was a hidden element behind each requirement.
There were six main tasks with three extra to be tackled if the contender thought he/she was ready. The first was the both the easiest and the hardest. The candidates, dressed in black and ready for combat, tackled a simple puzzle of construction. It wasn’t too complicated to figure out the pattern, but the conclusion was different for every person. Beth believed that this was due to each person’s character bleeding into their thoughts. If one thought kindly on the world, they built a platform. A wall indicated one who was cold and distant, and a tower indicated arrogance. This was the simplest task for the candidates, but Beth found it extremely difficult to decide who should continue. Kindness was necessary to retain loyalty and humanity in the Core, distance from the world was necessary for quality and safety in all operations, and arrogance indicated superior intelligence.
After thirty minutes in conference with the heads of each division of the Core, Beth eliminated all but twenty of the candidates and set them upon their next task. Beth was not required to watch this challenge as the quality of the finished piece was the only element of importance. While they attempted this challenge, Beth turned her eyes away and reviewed those who had continued and those who had been rejected.
Five children in particular caught her eye. The first was a boy of only eleven who belonged to the Smith family. His design had included elements of unique technical knowledge with corners and peaks at precise and specific angles. This was unusual in a Smith and, coupled with his choice of a wall, indicated that he would be superb in almost any area.
The next three children all belonged to the other main families of the Core and each displayed exemplary knowledge and character which was bred into their bloodlines. The fifth child, however, was strange. It was unclear how he had been recruited as he did not appear to be a member of any main family and his connections were un-extraordinary. Only twelve years old, Jethram Athanasios not only bore an unusual name but also an unusual history. Mainly it was unusual because it was empty of anything. The Core trained and utilized the greatest minds in the entire country and they were always able to find every dirty secret there was on any person, but somehow it seemed as if there was nothing to be found on Jethram Athanasios. Even stranger was his construction in the first task. Instead of using the main designs with his own variation, Jethram Athanasios had created something new and yet old. His design was a simple, yet completely perfect, circle.
Beth didn’t know what to think of this, but she knew it was something important. Unfortunately she had little time to ponder the strange boy because the candidates finished their second task and she was required to inspect their products. Every child had been given the same tools and the same time constraints to paint themselves into their surroundings. This would have seemed simple enough if there were any camouflage in the room. Every year the room was different, but this year there was only a yellow chair, a large abstract painting, and a glass floor which revealed the depths of darkness beneath them. The glass floor made the task incredibly difficult as the candidates needed to make themselves invisible through ingenuity and a glass floor allowed for a different perspective from every angle.
Seven more candidates were eliminated immediately as they had failed to more than slightly hide their presence. The rejects shuffled quietly out of the room with their heads down in shame, looking back over their shoulders occasionally like guilty puppies. As one of the rejects was leaving he tripped over a shoe, sending both he and a hidden candidate flying through the air. They landed in a heap and, in attempting to stand again, managed to pull over the chair and reveal another candidate. The chair fell away when the candidates stood up and crashed hard towards the floor, causing the painting to shift just enough to reveal two more candidates. In this manner four more candidates were rejected, leaving only nine recruits hidden in the room.
Beth picked out a young boy hidden cleverly in the convergence of the painting’s frame and the wall. The boy had clung to the frame itself so that, upon the shift in the painting’s position, he too had simply shifted and thus remained hidden. A tiny girl had simply painted herself into a corner of the room, but had somehow managed to burrow a hollow in the walls so that she was further out of sight than Beth at first imagined. John Bergin had somehow managed to paint himself into the floor so that he was invisible from most angles, and the shadows concealed him from every other angle. Five others were found in various sections of the wall and one even hid himself on the door.
Beth turned to leave the room, but stopped. She recounted the recruits and smiled- Jethram Athanasios was still hidden. Looking around, Beth calmly poked in every corner, banged against every wall, and even stood in the doorway to view every inch of the room. He was not there. There was nothing left to do, so she ordered him to show himself.
A shadow appeared above her and she looked up into the blinding light of the brightest light in the room. In all of the chaos she hadn’t even noticed that the room was dimmer than it should have been, but now she saw the boy. He had clung to slight crevices in the ceiling so that he blocked out the illumination from one light but was hidden behind the glare of the others. He had not even bothered to paint himself- a punishable offense.
“Recruit,” Jethram Athanasios snapped to attention and threw a ridiculous salute that peeled away his courage to show his true age, “What have you to say for yourself?”
“Ma’am?” He looked genuinely confused.
“You were given a simple assignment- to use at least one of the tools provided and hide yourself in your surroundings. You do not appear to have used any of the tools. Thus you are the sole candidate to blatantly break the rules of an engagement.”
“Ma’am, I followed the restrictions. We were told, and I quote, ‘You must use one tool in this room to make yourself unseen.’ I used the light, which is a tool and in this room, to make myself unseen.”
Beth scowled- she didn’t like being shown up. The boy was right- he had followed their rules to the letter. And yet there was something about the boy that reminded her of a ghost and made her like him in some ways. Beth turned so that he could not see the slight smile that began to creep up her face the more she thought about his actions. Stiffly walking out of the room Beth allowed Jethram Athanasios to return to the other candidates and rejoined the other evaluators in a separate room.
The screens on the walls were all playing the footage of the task to review and reconsider the rejects. Strangely, as soon as Beth entered the room everything went silent and the footage was rewound. Unfortunately for everyone, she caught a glimpse of what they had been observing before it sped away- her smile. The fact that anyone had seen her display a weakness irked Beth beyond measure, and that put her in a bad mood which put everyone else on the edge of a cliff into insanity.
As often happened, no rejects were reentered into candidacy and the third task began. This task involved a display of combat skill and three more were eliminated. The division leaders each voted at this point to eliminate Jethram Athanasios, but Beth was beginning to notice something about him. Overruling their decision, Beth placed him back in the competition and sat watching closely throughout the rest of the assessment.
The final three tasks were completed separately in a way that they interwove with each other. Each candidate performed the tasks in a different order so that each could become a part of the others’ challenges. While Jethram Athanasios was picking the lock on a door, John Bergin stole the tip of his shoelace. While Jethram Athanasios was decoding an intense cypher, the girl who had hid in the corner, Amelia Hill, snuck behind him and stole a small knife from his pocket. And then Jethram Athanasios needed to steal something from one of his opponents. At first Beth didn’t believe he had stolen anything, because he confronted each opponent face to face as if her were searching for his opportune moment and then turned and walked away as if he had just held a casual conversation. When they were called upon to return their findings, however, she saw that she had been mistaken.
When he had been conversing with each opponent, Jethram Athanasios had stolen something of great value from each of them. As he returned the items, their owner clutched at them desperately as if they were life itself. To Andy Smith he presented a small picture of a woman who Beth recognized as Alicia Smith who had died two years before. To Amelia Hill he presented a pin which had been stuck to her sleeve near her wrist. To John Bergin he presented a button. These objects all looked so small and insignificant, but the looks of love, fear, and sorrow which filled the eyes of their owners spoke of deeper importance and gave the division leaders new respect for each of these children. But Jethram Athanasios had only hurt himself through this act.
It was clear by their skill and their family names that Andy Smith, Amelia Hill, and John Bergin were the newest members of the Core. The children were all dismissed for a moment, just long enough for the men and women in the group to agree that these three children would stay and that the rest would be dismissed. As a formality, the division leaders handed Beth a slip of paper with the names of the rejects written on one side and the names of those who succeeded written on the other.
There was a fairly comfortable room for the candidates to rest in and that was where she went. Six children, four boys and two girls, looked up at her with innocent and eager eyes. They were so young and so sure of themselves, and yet they knew nothing of the lives that awaited them- that was up to Beth. Silence descended for a moment while she waited for the group to form a line with Andy, Amelia, and John at the front and Jethram Athanasios at the end. It seemed that they had guessed who would be chosen.
“Before I read this list, I am required to give you some words of wisdom.” Silence greeted her words, so she stood straight, avoided eye contact, and continued. “You are fools. Dead fools.” Murmurs reached her ears, “Manticore is an intense group, but you don’t even know what we do. Some of you probably didn’t even know we existed until yesterday- so why would you pledge your lives to join us? Perhaps we are a terrorist organization and you have been fed lies when you were fed at all. Perhaps we are the good guys but we simply feed you to the dragons to appease them. The truth is, you don’t know and you can’t know until you join. That being said, three of you will be sworn to our secret in a few moments and the rest will return to your pathetic and ignorant lives. If any of you wish to leave now and not know the shame of rejection or the fear of acceptance, you have three seconds.”
“As you wish, let us continue. I will now announce those of you who will leave. If your name is called, please exit through the door behind me and never look back unless you return next year. Is that understood?” Silence. “Very good. Jason Hill.” The boy stepped forward with a sigh of relief and disappointment. “Maria Thatcher.” Maria stepped forward and stretched her arm out in the empty air as if reaching for something. The girl had already moved past her and left when Beth realized she had been begging for a handshake.
There was one more name on the page of rejects, and Beth looked at it in silence. There it was, written in Marcus Smith’s barely legible scrawl. It was strange, because Beth had never disagreed with a decision of the division heads before- at least not when it came to new recruits. But something was different this time. The more she looked at the name on the page, the more she felt she needed this boy to join Manticore.
Suddenly and violently she crushed the paper between her hands as if clapping her hands to applaud a decision or smashing a spider that had bit her in the heart. Tossing the page to the side, she imagined the gasps in the observance room and listened to the confused mumblings around her.
“Amelia Hill, Andy Smith, and John Bergin please take yourselves home and pack. Your training begins in the morning.”
The children moved with joy and excitement, but their feet seemed to rebel against them with a dark dread that resembled the eye of a hurricane. Jethram Athanasios remained standing at attention in the empty room after the others had left. There was only silence to be heard for some moments.
Sighing heavily and uncertainly, Beth relaxed slightly and fell into one of the seats. Jethram Athanasios kept standing and watched her with a sense of foreboding. He was a thin boy with good build for his age, but it was hidden by the childish haircut which allowed his blond hair to flow down over his black eyes. There was something about the shape of his mouth, the size of his nose, and the off-centered crookedness of his eyes which reminded Beth of someone she used to know.
“So, here’s the deal, kid- I’m supposed to reject you now. Unfortunately, I can’t bring myself to do that. I think you’ve got potential beyond what you know and far past what they see. Even more unfortunate is the fact that I cannot allow more than three new recruits to join Manticore at a time, and I need those three to join.”
“So, does that mean I go home now?”
“I’m going to offer you a deal. You get to join Manticore and take the same classes as Hill, Smith, and Bergin.”
“I wasn’t finished yet. You will also work as my personal assistant. In the end, this will probably be more beneficial for you than for me, but I’m willing to try it. You will help me with simply tasks and train with me when you are not in your classes. To make this work, you will have to bunk with some of the other permanent residents and avoid all contact with Hill, Smith, and Bergin outside of classes. Is that understood?”
“I think so.”
“At least you’re thinking.”
“Should I go now?’
“Yeah, whatever. Go pack and be back at the entrance with the others tomorrow morning.”
Jethram Athanasios walked slowly out of the room and stopped in the doorway to look back at Beth. His eyes met hers for a moment and she suddenly felt like he was ancient. The boy had the wisdom of one much older than he was, and he seemed to know the sorrow Beth felt. The pity his eyes sent her way disgusted her. She had had enough pity in her life to drown in, and she hated the concept. To break his gaze, she stood quickly and pushed past him into the hallways. Winding around she found the stairway and bounded upwards. Bursting into her office, Beth slammed the door behind her and sat with her back against it. Her eyes closed slowly and she wished for a birthday cake. One appeared in her mind, but somehow the events she had just experienced had managed to melt the frosting so completely that it dripped in a puddle on the floor. The candles were burning again, so she shut her mind… and blew.