Author Archives: Kylie Nealon

From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

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Slipstream is a Young Adult novel, set in a parallel contemporary society, in which teenagers with ‘extra’ abilities are being recruited as part of an elite programme. At the d’Orsay Academy in central London, Scarlett, the protagonist, and her peers attend the corporation’s ‘school.’ We follow Scarlett and her three friends as they explore their new-found abilities within an organisation that is rigid about how their talents should be used. This leads to the questioning of what each of them knows about themselves, where their moral boundaries lie, and how far each of them will go to protect what is important to them. 

 

Chapter Five

‘Jeez,’ Scarlett shivered in her jacket as they gathered later that day in the courtyard, ‘this is summer?’

Conor looked a little insulted. ‘Do I look like I’m controlling the weather here? This is England, not the Outback. If you want someone to direct your complaints to, I’d suggest you blame global warming.’

He made it sound like global warming was a company with a customer services department, and she was amused by the thought. Mike interrupted them, clearly impatient to get going.

‘Why are we talking about the weather? Let’s go already,’ he said, shoving his hands into his pockets. ‘You’ve got the picture, right?’

Scarlett nodded and pulled out the folded up image of the Manhattan comic store. She’d spent the afternoon studying the picture, ignoring the algebraic equations she was meant to be doing.

‘Okay,’ she said, ignoring the niggling voice that was telling her that this was a really bad idea. ‘Take my hand,’ she told them and Conor grabbed Lena’s hand. Scarlett bit back a smile. Mike let out a dramatic sigh and took her hand. His fingers felt a little clammy wrapped around hers and Scarlett tried to ignore the dampness. Other than that, he gave no outward sign of nerves, and for a brief second, she envied him.

‘Don’t let go, no matter what.’ Scarlett took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Letting her mind relax, she recalled Mike’s picture. She saw the store with its canvas awning and battered trim take shape in her head as the sound of cars, pedestrians and faint music drifted in. So far, so good, she told herself. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. The ground shifted, and the smells of a city that ran on smoke and gasoline brought the image in her head to life. Cracking one eye open, Scarlett peered out. The other three seemed to be holding their breaths, and Mike’s grip was becoming uncomfortable.

‘Yes!’ she said, more than a little pleased with herself. ‘You guys can open your eyes.’

The other three opened their eyes, and Mike dropped his hands, breaking their circle as soon as he spotted the store. The looks on their faces confirmed they hadn’t really believed that she could pull it off. As she stood there, smug in her achievement, the others broke away, wandering off to check out their surroundings.

‘Stay connected!’ Scarlett said, sounding sharper than she intended. Even to her, her voice sounded like it was coming from somebody else. She softened it a little. ‘At least until we get to the door, okay?’

‘Don’t you think that’s going to look a little weird? I mean, I’m fine with the holding hands thing now,’ Mike said, briefly scowling at Conor as if daring him to contradict him, and then turned back to Scarlett to continue. ‘I mean, we can’t walk in there together holding hands.’

Scarlett bit her lip. ‘We have to stay together. What happens if someone wanders off and gets caught?’

He raised an eyebrow, as if to say something, but changed his mind, and nodded his reluctant consent. He grabbed Lena’s hand and shuffled over to the store’s window. A fleeting look of jealousy crossed Conor’s face. Scarlett saw the stiffness in Lena’s body as she stood there with Mike, which loosened just a smidgeon as she let out a small giggle at something Mike said. Walking over to them, Conor unwound his scarf and handed it to Mike. ‘Here, wear this. If you’ve got something of mine, you should be okay.’ Mike looked at him, surveying him, as if waiting for the sarcastic comment to follow. Lena dropped her hand, a faint blush staining her cheeks.

‘Thanks, man.’ He shrugged and wound the scarf around his neck. The biting wind was finding its way in to the nooks and crannies, and Scarlett envied the warmth he had around his neck.

‘That was nice of you,’ she said to Conor, her voice low.

He shrugged. “Nice’ wasn’t why I did it,’ he said, giving her a sly, knowing smile.

‘Um, maybe we could go inside now?’ Mike asked them, his tone plaintive.

‘Yeah, sorry. Let’s go,’ Scarlett said as Mike, finally given permission, almost took the door off its hinges in his haste to get inside. Mike headed over to the ‘new release’ section, and, having found what he was looking for, was making strangled noises of rapturous pleasure that set Lena off in a flood of giggles. Looking around, Scarlett saw that every available space of the shop was crammed with comics, posters and young guys, hanging out, flicking through the vast selection. To her relief, nobody had given them or their appearances a second glance, and she felt her shoulders sink away from her ears a few millimeters.

‘This is seriously boring,’ Conor announced. ‘What are we meant to do now? Wait for him to finish his private moment? I’m out.’ He looked at Scarlett, as if waiting for her to disagree, given her earlier warning about staying together. She said nothing, and he smiled. ‘Let’s check out next door. Some kind of music shop, I think.’

‘Yeah, but only next door,’ Scarlett warned. They made their way over to Mike, who was poring over each page in a reverential manner that Scarlett found a little uncomfortable.

‘Hey,’ Scarlett said, keeping her voice down. They’d pretty much gotten away with being here, and the last thing she needed was her accent being picked up on. ‘We’re going next door, but we’ll be back in ten minutes, okay?’ He nodded, only half hearing her and she gestured to Lena.

‘Thank you,’ she said to Scarlett as they left. ‘I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted in there.’

‘Me neither,’ Scarlett replied, ‘so not my thing.’

The record shop was next door, and they stood aside to let someone come out, an old-school LP tucked under his arm.

‘Wow, this is totally retro,’ Scarlett said to Conor. This was more like it, she thought.

‘Tell me about it,’ Conor replied. They headed over to the ‘new music’ section and began flicking through the new releases, laughing over the photos on the covers, filled with people in lurid clothing and big hair. The look of the day seemed to be girls working bows in their hair and massive skirts, with the boys rocking gelled hair and knitted cardigans. Scarlett picked up an LP of Bobby Rydel’s Greatest Hits, looking like he’d stepped out of the movie, Grease.

Dropping it back in to its slot, she picked up a smaller 45 record and scrutinised the label. ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On The Bedpost Overnight),’she read out loud. ‘Oh, come on. That can’t be real.’

Conor leaned over her shoulder and sniggered. ‘Where did they come up with these titles?’

Lena leaned in. ‘What do you reckon our kids will think of the stuff we listen to now?’

Scarlett shoved the LP back into the section she’d pulled it out of and pulled another one out. ‘It can’t be any worse than these,’ she told her. ‘I’m Gonna Knock On Your Door,she read. Conor joined in.

You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, he told Lena, who blushed.

They traded titles back and forth for a few minutes until they were interrupted by the arrival of Mike, who looked more than a little flustered.

‘We have to go,’ he said. His eyes were glittery and red patches had stained his cheeks. He looked like he’d run five miles, not from next door.

‘Why?’ asked Scarlett, ‘where’s the fire?’ She slid the record she’d been holding back in to its slot, a small frisson of alarm shooting up from her stomach.

He glanced around. ‘We have to go, like, now, okay? I’ll explain when we get back.’

Lena and Conor had come over to see what the fuss was about. ‘What’s the deal?’ Conor said. ‘Annoy the crap out of someone else with your comic-book back-stories?’

Mike looked a little annoyed. ‘No, I didn’t, but thanks for asking. It wasn’t my fault,’ he began to elaborate but Scarlett cut him off with a wave of her hand.

‘Just stop talking now, okay?’ She saw the scowl cross his face and knew he’d stuffed up — big time. ‘You’re an idiot,’ she stated. ‘No,’ she held up one finger, ‘that’s not up for debate. I guess we need to get out of here pretty quick, then?’

‘Yeah, like now, okay?’ He glanced over to the window and they all turned to see a few of the boys from the comic shop, peering through the glass to see if he was in there.

‘Why did we go with this choice again?’ Scarlett asked nobody in particular. ‘Come on,’ she told the other two, ignoring Mike. She nodded at Conor, and as he pushed open the door, he reached behind him and linked hands with Scarlett, who grabbed Lena. Mike was lurking at the back of them all and seemed hesitant to go back out. Lena grabbed his hand and they walked out, primary-school style, onto the sidewalk. Conor’s scarf, still around Mike’s neck, snagged on the doorframe, and tugged itself free.

The boys looked down, stunned, before picking it up and talking in excited tones that didn’t sound good at all.

‘Leave it,’ Scarlett told him, ‘just keep moving.’

‘But-’ he tried to say.

‘Well, we’re stuffed now,’ Conor said, his voice sounding a little sick. ‘I think we’re going to have to make a quick exit. And we can’t do it stuck together. When I count to three, we’re going to run for that alley, okay?’ He indicated a small opening about a hundred meters ahead of them to the left.

‘Why?’ asked Mike. ‘Why can’t you just get us back from here?’ he said to Scarlett.

‘Because I can’t just stand in the middle of a sidewalk with people walking into me, can I?’ she said. ‘I need some space. And Lena’s not up to lifting all four of us just yet. So we head for the alley.’

‘Yep,’ Lena agreed. ‘Let’s just get out of here.’ She glanced back at the boys. ‘Like now.’

‘Agreed,’ Mike said, his voice high with tension. Scarlett was seething. Angry with Mike, she was mostly annoyed with herself. So stupid, she thought. Conor broke the link and the four of them became visible again. Not the most discreet exit, Scarlett thought, looking around at the startled looks from the pedestrians who were disconcerted to find human-shaped roadblocks appearing in their paths. The group of boys spotted Mike on the sidewalk and began walking towards him as if he were some kind of Messiah. One of them was holding Conor’s scarf.

‘Jeez,’ Mike said, nervous. ‘This is not what I had in mind.’

‘Yeah?’ said Conor, ‘And what did you have in mind, exactly? Drop a few hints, look like the big man?’ They were moving along the sidewalk, trying not to run but not far from it. The boys were dodging pedestrians, their pace picking up.

‘Shut up, okay?’ Mike said, a little out of breath. ‘Maybe if you’d stayed in the shop with me instead of wanting to spend a little more time with your girlfriend, none of this would’ve happened and we wouldn’t be running along the street like criminals.’

Scarlett reached the alley and pulled Lena in, giving Mike an extra shove for his stupidity as he came past her. He stumbled, but didn’t say anything as he shot her a dirty look. They took a few seconds to get their breath back along a dirty brick wall, the entrance of which was partially concealed by large rubbish bins. It looked like the gods of time travel had come through for them, Scarlett thought. Nobody would think to come down here, surely. The first to recover, Mike ducked back to the entrance and peered around the corner, scanning the sidewalk. ‘I think they’re gone,’ he announced, a confident tone evident.

‘Not so fast,’ Conor said, pointing. The boys were beginning to gather, and they could hear the excited babble of noise and shouting as they tried to get Mike’s attention.

As the group advanced, Scarlett grabbed Conor’s hand. ‘Join hands,’ she instructed them all, ‘and stay quiet. This is going to be hard enough.’ They nodded and she shut her eyes, but couldn’t block out the sound of the strangled sounds of concern from around her. Focusing harder than she ever had before, she pictured her room at d’Orsay, and the world around them began to dissolve. The shouts from the boys began to fade and the ground disappeared and reappeared underneath her feet. She caught the lingering smell of her perfume and the wet towel she’d tossed over her desk chair earlier that morning. She opened her eyes with a sigh of relief.

‘We’re here,’ she told them, as the others opened their eyes, mirroring her relief. Mike looked around.

‘Wow,’ he said. ‘Tidiness is not your strong point, is it?’ as he took in her scattered belongings.

‘How about you keep your mouth shut?’ she countered. ‘You’re not exactly in my good books right now.’

He sat down on the edge of the bed, tossing a few clothes on to the floor as he did so. Lena took the desk chair and Conor sat on the floor, cross-legged. All three of them sat, waiting.

‘Well, that was exciting,’ Conor said, breaking the silence, sarcasm dripping from every word. ‘What’d you do to get them so wound up?’

Mike cleared his throat. ‘Nothing. I mean, I got talking to one of the guys in there and I kind of forgot they don’t know what’s going to happen. And maybe I got a bit carried away. But it’s not like I did it deliberately,’ he said to Scarlett, indignant.

‘Yeah, that makes it all okay, then,’ she told him. ‘Look, Maggie told me that if I started playing around with anything when I went time-travelling, then things here would change. So I don’t know what this means, but it can’t be good.’

‘Weeeelll,’ Mike began, ‘I guess this isn’t good, either.’ He drew out the first edition of The Fantastic Four a little crumpled, from inside his jacket. For a minute, nobody spoke. Lena let out a strangled sound, and Scarlett caught her look, as though afraid of an explosion.

But Scarlett felt like someone had zapped every last bit of energy from her. All she wanted to do was throw up. Taking a few deep breaths, the others waited to see what she’d do. Lena eventually got up to sit next to her, clearly concerned at her silence, but Scarlett held up her hand to stop her, and the other girl stopped and sat down again.

‘Did I not tell you to just go and read it and then we’d come back?’ she asked Mike. ‘Why would you do that?’ All of a sudden, she felt incredibly tired. ‘That’s it for me. I’m so out of here.’ Why am I so surprised at him? He’s only doing what I knew he would. Tom would be so disappointed in her, she knew.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, sounding a little contrite. ‘I didn’t think it’d make that much of a difference. I thought that you were exaggerating.’ His voice trailed off as he finally grasped the enormity of his error.

Conor shook his head. ‘Man, for a smart guy, you are seriously slow on the uptake. Why couldn’t you just leave it there?’

Mike looked miserable. ‘I couldn’t. It’s a first edition. Does this mean that I’ll have to give it back?’

Give it back? That’s what you’re worried about? Yeah, you could say that!’ Scarlett leaned over and snatched it out of his hands. ‘Give me that!’ The comic felt like it was pulsing with some kind of energy between her hands.

A knock sounded at the door, startling them.

Scarlett swallowed and opened the door. Gil was standing there, with a look that seemed to go beyond ordinary anger. He scanned over the rest of them before coming back to rest his attention on Scarlett.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back. Scarlett, I’d like a word, please?’ The formality of his words belied the bristly body language, arms crossed, and a mottled pattern creeping up his neck as he bit back on elaborating.

‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘There’s no point delaying the inevitable. And you three,’ he said, directing his attention to the others who were now hovering in the hallway, ‘go and wait in the common room. Your Mentors are looking for you as we speak. And I’ll take that, too,’ he said, reaching for the comic. He glanced at the cover. ‘I’d have been disappointed if it’d been a DC one.’ Mike looked surprised, but closed his mouth as he saw the expression on Gil’s face. The older man sighed, as if suppressing some other emotion. ‘You just couldn’t leave it alone, could you?’ he asked them, his voice holding a thread of fear in it. He looked up at her. ‘What have you done, Scarlett?’

 

Download a pdf of ‘Slipstream’

Kylie Nealon

Having recently completed my MA at Macquarie, I thought the chance to submit to The Quarry was one that I couldn’t pass up. Working mostly in the YA genre, I spend my days surrounded by teenagers as a teacher. I’d love to say that writing conversational dialogue is a breeze as a result, but it’s not! I do love the freedom that the genre offers, and the curiosity for life that teenagers have. I’m looking forward to developing my writing further, and feel that I’ve only just started — but wow, how lucky am I to be able to do that?

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From Slipstream, Kylie Nealon

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The two men stared at the screen in front of them, disbelieving.

‘It worked,’ the older of the two whispered.

His companion’s eyes glittered under the lab’s eerie artificial lights. ‘This changes everything,’ he said. ‘Everything.’

The older man shook his head. ‘It makes no difference at all. We still can’t guarantee the subject’s safety, or the reliability of the transfer. I don’t want to take this to the committee yet.’

The younger man stood up, his athletic frame rigid with fury. ‘Your overcautious mentality is absurd, Richard. We’ve tested and retested, and we get the same result. Every. Single. Time.’ His voice rose to a half-shout on the last word.

Richard fixed his stare on his colleague of more than a decade. ‘Harry, do you understand the implications in saying something if we’re wrong?’

His voice was flat; he was weary of having the same argument they’d had dozens of times before. In the past, they’d always managed to resolve it, at least for the sake of appearances in front of the lab staff. Not this time, Richard thought. Something seemed to have shifted irrevocably in Harry. 

The latter strode to the security door as if unable to speak, clearly unwilling to break the impasse.

Don’t don’t do this, Harry!’ Richard attempted to appeal to the only thing he knew would reach him – a slim shard of morality that remained within an otherwise corrupted conscience. ‘You can’t inflict this on them. They aren’t ready. You’ll regret it, I promise!’

The younger man turned, his face hard. ‘The only thing I’ll regret, Richard, is that I wasted so many years listening to you.’

Harry slammed the ‘exit’ button, leaving Richard alone. His exhalation echoed around the room, save only for the beeping coming from the panel in front of him. He knew there was no longer any point in delaying. Touching the console in front of him, he waited. A woman’s face appeared in front of him, her concern evident. ‘Cerys? We have a problem.’

 

‘Miss Hambleton?’

The assertive query came amidst the shrieks of joy and garbled announcements over the loudspeakers. Even at 7:00am, Heathrow was mental. Sixteen-year-old Scarlett pushed her overloaded trolley towards a small man holding a ‘D’Orsay Academy’ sign with her name on it.

‘Hi, that’s me,’ she managed, holding her wayward trolley with one hand.

He smiled, and took hold of the trolley as it threatened to mow down a group of old aged pensioners who’d also come off her flight.

‘Welcome to London, Miss. Come with me – you’re the last one to come through.’ He began weaving through the throngs of waiting relatives and friends with an ease that spoke of many such previous trips.

Scarlett followed, tripping over feet and earning a few scowling looks in the process. As she drew closer to the exit door, the air shimmered and she felt a familiar wave of nausea rooting her to the spot.

Multi-hued auras began appearing around people who were eyeballing her with wary expressions. Please, not here, she pleaded with the universe. She closed her eyes and took a few breaths, hoping it might disappear. These weird episodes, which appeared out of nowhere, had become more frequent over the last six months. Scarlett had no idea what was causing them, but she was pretty sure that the last thing she wanted was another one in the middle of the world’s busiest airport. The deep breathing was making her hyperventilate, and a cold sweat broke out between her shoulder blades, sticking her already grubby t-shirt to her back. Behind her, someone let out a harsh string of curses under his breath.

‘What is it with you tourists? Want to take a few pictures? Move, already!’ The sarcasm was unmistakable, made more prominent with an American twang. A tall, lean boy of about her own age, sidestepped Scarlett, his bright blue eyes glaring down at her. His movie star looks were spoiled by a scowl that tore up his face.

‘Geez, okay,’ Scarlett said. She wiped her sweaty palms on her jeans and straightened up.

The boy huffed. ‘Spare me your redundant apologies.’ His eyes flicked over her. Scarlett pushed her slightly damp hair back and looked up at him, nausea forgotten.

‘I don’t think I did apologise,’ she replied, stung by his rudeness. ‘I’m so sorry that I stopped you getting your,’ she glanced at the solitary bag slung over his shoulder, ‘duffel bag out of here. I can imagine how inconvenient it must be for you having to get all of that luggage out of here.’

The duffel bag was definitely a step down, for someone who looked like he wasn’t short of a bob or two, as her granny would say. She noticed that the boy’s knuckles were turning white as she spoke, an unexpected anxiety that was at odds with the arrogant attitude.

‘Whatever.’ He hoisted the bag closer to his body and brushed past her, leaving a whiff of leather and something metallic hanging in the air. Scarlett watched him climb into a car that must have cost more than her parents made in a year.

‘Uh, Miss?’ her driver’s voice called out to her from the kerb. ‘Gotta go, love, the traffic’ll be a nightmare if we wait any longer.’

Scarlett nodded and walked over. The boy’s car melted into the traffic and she realised that her ‘episode’ had been cut short by his unexpected intervention.  Cheered by the thought, she boarded her bus and put him completely out of mind.

 

On the D’Orsay bus, Scarlett met three other new students who’d arrived around the same time she had. They seemed nice, though she couldn’t imagine that she’d find a friend like Sass, who’d been her best friend since they were five. Determined to soak in as much detail for her first missive home, Scarlett studied the landscape, fascinated by how different everything looked here. It was so green and tidy, compared to the desiccated wild dryness of home.

‘First time away from home?’ Mike, a student from the States, leaned over as if able to read her thoughts.

‘Yep,’ she said. ‘You?’

‘Nah.’ He scooted closer. ‘Parents are diplomats, so I’m used to it.’

‘Wow. I’m from Melbourne. The closest I’ve gotten to diplomacy in action was a school trip to the capital in Year 8.’

He laughed. ‘Yeah, I’ve done a few of those.’ Mike had an assured sense of himself and his place in the world, with the kind of skills that suggested that diplomacy as a career might extend into a second generation. He had an unlimited supply of humorous travel stories to tell, and the trip into central London passed in a blur. He was in the middle of a particularly entertaining one, involving insects dipped in chocolate as a snack in a café in Central America, when the bus took a sharp corner, pulling up at what looked like the entrance to a medieval castle planted right in the middle of London’s urban metropolis.

‘Hey, check it out.’ Mike craned his head over the top of the seat as they pulled to a stop. ‘We’re here.’

Passing through D’Orsay’s ancient doors, the building looked like a something from a film set: all weathered stone and stained-glass windows, with an enormous, modern glass tower that shot skyward from the inside of the building. There was a particular kind of energy that seemed to reverberate from its stones, but as Scarlett looked around at her travel companions, none of them seemed to be affected by it. It almost felt, she thought, that if she reached out and touched the weathered grey stone, she could feel the pulse of the building underneath her fingers. Mike grinned as he made his way past her off the bus, mistaking Scarlett’s interest in D’Orsay’s surroundings for something touristy.

As she stood in front of the bus, she couldn’t help but wonder how on earth D’Orsay had managed to build such a huge building behind what appeared to be a church, especially in central London. Her musings were interrupted by a gentle Irish accent.

‘Welcome, all of you, to D’Orsay. My name is Maggie.’

A tiny woman with jet-black hair and bright green eyes introduced herself to them, as they craned their necks to see her. Scarlett found that she was thinking of leprechauns, and blushed when Maggie fixed her with a glance that suggested she’d been able to tell what she was thinking about.

Flicking her eyes back to the rest of the group, Maggie continued. ‘Some of you have had quite a long trip, so let’s get you settled in right away. Please, follow me and try not to fall behind.’

Scarlett stepped forward to follow the group inside, but felt herself being held back as if by some weird magnetic pull. Glancing over her shoulder, she came to an abrupt halt in front of Mike, who stumbled into her. Muttering a good-natured complaint under his breath, he stopped when he saw the look on Scarlett’s face, and he followed the direction of her glance.

You have got to be kidding, she thought. The boy from the airport unfolded himself from the back of his expensive car, and stood up. Scarlett felt his gaze fix on her from behind his dark Wayfarers.

Escorted by his driver, the boy walked past, turning his head with the barest of movements, one eyebrow raised over the top of his sunglasses. He still had a pretty tight grip on that duffel bag, Scarlett noted.

‘Friend of yours?’ Mike asked her from behind. They watched the boy disappear inside, and Scarlett felt the pull begin to dissipate.

‘Uh, no. I mean, not really.’

She explained what had happened at the airport. Mike chuckled.

‘Well, whoever he is, he must be someone pretty important. Us plebs are stuck doing the group tour. Which we’re about to lose if we don’t get a move on,’ he said, grabbing her arm.

They were led on a tour that was both swift and confusing. Corridors snaked off into a vast research laboratory section, as well as to other buildings that were used for the day-to-day running of the company. Scarlett wondered how anyone found his or her way to the right place. The term ‘rabbit-warren’ didn’t even begin to cover it.

‘The student wing is through here,’ Maggie said.

Going through the massive doors, Scarlett caught her breath.

No expense had been spared in furnishing the academic wing. A large circular living area with plush furniture was arranged around a vast array of high-end technological equipment, some recognisable, some she’d never seen before. Even Mike looked impressed.

‘Your personal rooms, dining hall, and classrooms are located off this central area,’ Maggie said. ‘Please, have a seat.’ Forty or so other students were already seated in the middle of the meeting area. A relaxed conversation was coming from the young staff gathered around the edges of the room. They were all dressed in identical blue uniforms, and appeared to have an alternative career option as high fashion models.

Scarlett slipped in near the back of the room, near a girl with platinum-blonde hair and a boy who was more interested in his cuticles than making eye contact with anyone. The girl smiled over at Scarlett as she sat down.

‘Welcome.’

Scarlett’s attention was drawn to the front of the room before she could strike up a conversation with either of them.

‘It’s lovely to have you all here, finally.’ This time, Maggie was standing on some kind of platform, so they could all see her, but instead of making her more imposing, it served to emphasise her diminutive stature even further.

‘As Head Mentor at D’Orsay, I’ll be overseeing your academic progress and psychological wellbeing during your time here with us. The mentors,’ she gestured over to the blue-clad staff, ‘are also here to provide support. Each of you has been matched to a suitable mentor, based on the psychological profile carried out prior to your departure.’ Maggie’s gaze swept the room. ‘We’ll have more time to chat later, but for now, we’ll get the initiation process underway and meet back here later this afternoon. If you’ll all make your way over to the Dispensarium, please follow the instructions once you’re inside.’ She indicated a large doorway set into the wall with misted glass doors.

One by one, the students lined up, with Scarlett, the blonde girl and Cuticle Boy bringing up the rear.

When her turn came, Scarlett stepped through the sliding doors into a booth, from which a large cylinder dropped down over the top half of her body.

‘Please look straight ahead,’ a voice said. It was a dry, hollow-sounding voice of indeterminate gender that pulsed inside the capsule as it spoke. Scarlett waited, a little unsure. Was this like those eye tests you got at the optometrist, when you weren’t supposed to blink? She wondered.

A blue strand of light streamed into her eyes, not hurting her, but not comfortable either. It felt like a tickle deep inside her brain that she couldn’t itch. The light disappeared, and she was left standing in a blue glow.

‘Please place your hand on the scanner,’ the voice prompted. Scarlett was rewarded with a stinging sensation in her forefinger as she did so.

‘Ow,’ she hissed, nursing the finger. Peering at it closely, she could see that something tiny had been embedded under the skin. What was that? And how did they do that without drawing any blood?

‘Thank you,’ the voice told her. ‘Data collection is complete. Your assigned mentor is Gil.’ A picture of a young man, no more than twenty years old, flashed on the cylinder’s surface in front of her. ‘Please leave to the left, where you will find him waiting.’

Scarlett stepped out of the room, eyes a little tender under the bright, overhead lights. She walked up to Gil, her fingertip curled up in her palm.

‘Uh, hi,’ she said.

‘Scarlett, it’s very nice to meet you.’

Gil’s upper class BBC accent was gentle. Note to self, Scarlett mentally added to her list of things to tell Sass. Those accents actually existed in real life. Gil smiled as though he knew what she’d been thinking. Damn, that was twice today already! What was going on?

‘Let’s get you organised, shall we?’ He nodded to the other mentor he’d been chatting to, and he and Scarlett set off through one of the exits. ‘I hope your trip was uneventful? You’ll notice quite quickly that we aren’t like other schools here. There are lessons here, shall we say, that your normal school won’t have offered,’ he said as they made their way out of the meeting hall. ‘But I promise, you’ll find them quite interesting.’ He was moving quite fast, and Scarlett was struggling to keep up, trying not to miss anything he was saying. ‘How’s your finger?’ he asked.

Scarlett looked at her finger, which was bright pink and a little swollen. ‘Kind of sore,’ she admitted.

Gil picked up her hand and examined the fingertip. His hands were calloused, an unexpected contrast in someone who looked like he’d never done a hard day’s work in his life.

‘It looks fine. It’s D’Orsay’s way of ID-ing you.’ He let go of her hand. ‘We don’t carry cards or tags here. It might seem a bit extreme, but actually it’s a great idea. We’ve got your DNA profile, with some other odds and ends.’

‘Odds and ends?’ she asked. ‘Like what?’

‘You know, family history, genetic predispositions, other abilities.’

Other abilities? Scarlett opened her mouth to ask, but he cut her off.

‘Naturally, all of that is encoded, so if anything should happen to you, the information won’t fall into the wrong hands. If you’ll pardon the pun.’ He smiled at her, and gestured to a doorway that looked identical to the other dozen or so lined up in the corridor. ‘You just need to wave your finger over the sensor at the entrance to each room you’re in,’ he said. ‘It’s a bit retro, but we rather like keeping the past alive here at D’Orsay.’ Gil smiled to himself, as if enjoying a private joke. ‘If you have any questions, let me know. There’s a console in your room that you can contact me through. You’re in Room B5, which means that you’re the second tier out from the main meeting area. I’ll leave you to settle in. We’ll be meeting back in the main area in an hour. Your bags will already be inside. If you have any problems, use the console.’

‘Thanks. I guess I’ll see you in a little while.’ Scarlett hesitated before waving her finger over the sensor set into the wall next to her dorm room door. The panel lit up with her photo and DNA sequence. She looked at Gil, who smiled, and left.

That was pretty impressive, if a little freaky, she thought; a bit like D’Orsay.

 

Download a pdf of Slipstream Ch1

 

 

 

Kylie Nealon

Having recently completed my MA at Macquarie, I thought the chance to submit to The Quarry was one that I couldn’t pass up. Working mostly in the YA genre, I spend my days surrounded by teenagers as a teacher. I’d love to say that writing conversational dialogue is a breeze as a result, but it’s not! I do love the freedom that the genre offers, and the curiosity for life that teenagers have. I’m looking forward to developing my writing further, and feel that I’ve only just started — but wow, how lucky am I to be able to do that?

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Playing Catch-up, Kylie Nealon

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…Scout was standing in a crackly, dry space that she didn’t recognise. For as far as her eyes could see, there were tall, sparse eucalypts undulating gently, stretching upwards to a cerulean-blue sky…This was home, but definitely no home that she recognised…

‘Playing Catch Up’ is part of a novel-length YA work, set in the not-too-distant future.  Incorporating elements of dystopian and steam-punk fiction, the novel follows the journey of Scout, an Australian girl plucked from an ordinary life to attend the Dorsay Academy. The Academy is part of a global company involved in researching and harnessing ‘extra’ mental capabilities that have been emerging around the world.  Scout, along with her friends Lily and Conor, are part of this new generation where their talents could be used for good – or for darker reasons yet to be discovered.

 

Scout was standing in a crackly, dry space that she didn’t recognise. For as far as her eyes could see, there were tall, sparse eucalypts undulating gently, stretching upwards to a cerulean-blue sky. Blackened stubby grass mounds pushed up from the dusty ground. There was a slight breeze picking up the scent of eucalyptus and hot earth, making her stomach contort with homesickness. In the distance, she heard the faint sounds of cockatoos screeching in the trees. This was home, but definitely no home that she recognised.

The sun was beating down, searing the crown of her head. She tried to shield her eyes to get a better look at where she was, but found one of her hands being held by a small child. Not just any small child – her.  A much smaller version of herself with a confident grin plastered across her face. Scout dropped her hand and stared. Okay, this was weird.

‘Uh, hey,’ Scout said to her.

‘Hey,’ Mini-Scout replied, squizzing one eye up to better look at her in the bright sunlight. She was dressed in what Scout remembered as being her favourite outfit – jeans and a red Elmo t-shirt. She’d loved Sesame Street when she was a kid and that t-shirt was a prized possession. Seeing her smaller self was bizarrely strange and familiar all at the same time.

‘Why are we – you – here?’ Scout asked the small version of herself.

‘I’ve got a message.’ The little girl drew out the last word.

‘Yeah, ok,’ Scout drawled, ‘course you do. Because why else would we be standing in the middle of nowhere?’ She fought off an overwhelming urge to laugh.

‘I have!’ Mini-Scout scowled at her.

‘Ok, keep your knickers on. So, who’s it from?’ Scout was definitely finding this amusing. A small part of her brain registered regret at not having a smaller sibling to do this to in real life.

‘Who do you think? Mum, of course,’ the little girl shrugged, looking around.

‘Sure it is,’ Scout said. Of course, she thought to herself sarcastically. Who else would it be from?

Mini-Scout peered closely at Scout, not quite sure what to make of the eye rolling that this statement induced.

‘I can’t tell you here,’ she said. ‘Come on.’ She tugged at Scout’s hand, urging her forward.

‘Where are we going?’ Scout asked her. The small hand holding hers was hot and dry. The simple touch brought back long-forgotten summer afternoons of carefree bike rides around neighbouring streets, along with the dawning realisation of her ability to see the world in a different way to everybody else.

‘You’ll see,’ Mini-Scout said and kept walking. The ground between Scout’s toes began to change to a sandy texture, and she saw the tip of a sand dune rear up out of nowhere.

Scout followed her up the incline, puffing slightly. She watched as the little girl laughed joyfully as she ran down the other side, legs and arms akimbo and she found herself laughing as well by the time she’d reached the bottom. Her small doppelganger was waiting impatiently for her, feet twitching on the hot sand.

‘Hurry up!’ She grabbed Scout’s hand again, and headed towards the water. The tide was coming in and the shining water hurt her already sun-sore eyes.

They came to a stop near the shoreline, littered with seaweed and shells dumped in piles after a recent storm. Scout glanced around, seeing nothing and no one in either direction. The sea’s mercurial surface slithered around her feet, flashing fleeting images at her. She stared at them closely, only to see them disappear as quickly as they’d appeared. Frustrated, Scout turned her attention to the little girl in front of her.

‘So, how old are you?’ Scout asked her, crouching down to make eye contact with her, ignoring the silvery water around them. Mini-Scout was humming happily as she scooped shells together in the wet sand.

She looked up at Scout steadily. ‘I’m seven,’ she said. ‘You don’t remember being seven, do you?’

‘I guess not,’ Scout shrugged. ‘I don’t remember a lot of things. But that’s okay, I mean, who’d want to remember everything anyway?’

‘I do,’ the little girl announced importantly. ‘And I know why you have to remember now,’ she told Scout.

‘Why? Is that why Mum sent you?’ It’s just a dream, she told herself, dreams are meant to be weird. But if it was just a dream, why did everything feel so real?

Mini-Scout shook her head at the older girl’s stupidity.

‘Mum says you need to remember who you are,’ she said, suddenly sounding much older than seven. ‘She said to tell you that you’re going to have to be ready.’ Mini-Scout looked pleased, as though she’d remembered the message word for word.

‘Ready for what?’ Scout had no idea what the little girl was talking about.

‘You know.’ Mini-Scout scowled at her. ‘But you have to be careful.’ She sat back on her haunches, jeans soaking into the sand and waited expectantly. Scout couldn’t find anything to say, her mind racing to try and figure out what she meant.

‘You’re such a scaredy cat,’ she said derisively, dismissing her older self. From the distance came a sharp clap of thunder. The sky on the horizon had become dark, with clouds that resembled grey waves slowly waiting to crash down. The sparkly sea had turned a bleak grey, a waiting mass of menace.

‘I have to go now,’ Mini-Scout announced.

‘Wait,’ Scout scrambled to get up, tripping over piles of shells and tangling her feet up in seaweed.

‘I can’t,’ she said. ‘But you’ve got to promise that you’ll try to remember and go back to being us. Do you promise?’ she asked fiercely, holding out her pinky for Scout to shake.

‘I promise,’ Scout said solemnly.

‘Okay then,’ she said. ‘Bye,’ and began walking away, up over the crest of the dune. She waved once from the top before disappearing behind it.

‘Wait!’ Scout called out but she didn’t hear. The clouds had crept in closer, forming a dark ring hovering above her. The waves rose up and ropes of seaweed tightened around her ankles with a swirling tug, pulling her out into the cold water.

Quickly losing her footing, she fought back with flailing arms, reaching for the surface, only to be pulled down further into the dark depths.

Entangled in the malevolent swirls, Scout gulped salt water into her protesting lungs, choking. Panic started to set in, and her lungs burned.

Scout kicked hard, freeing herself of the seaweed, reaching the surface when another giant tug pulled her even further down. She was drowning. And there wasn’t a damn thing that she could do about it.

Come on, she screamed at herself, just keep kicking! Every muscle screamed for mercy. Not yet, dammit, she swore to herself, I’m not going to die yet.

Scout woke up gasping, trying to draw in deep lungfuls of air. The blissful realisation that she could breathe again helped to slow her panic. Her damp hair was mashed to her head and she hastily pulled her wet pyjamas away from her, trying to rid her body of the clammy, wet feeling that they were swaddling her. Come on, she told herself, you’re okay. Breathe in, breathe out. Swinging her legs over the edge of her bed, she rested her throbbing feet on the floor, enjoying the coolness of the concrete.

Glancing a little more closely, she noticed sand stuck crusted to her toes. What the hell? Before her brain could start processing this latest detail, there was a knock at the door, startling her. Shit! She caught sight of herself in the mirror opposite her bed.  Disaster zone didn’t even begin to cover what she saw reflected back at her. She grabbed a hoodie and pulled it over the saturated pyjama top, her skin crawling at the feel of the clammy cotton fabric plastering her body.

‘Hey, Hambleton.’ A muffled voice came loudly through the door, accompanied by another set of heavy bangs on the flimsy wood. ‘Come on,’ she thought she heard the voice mutter impatiently. Hunter, by the sounds of it. Great. The last person she wanted to see.

She swung it open, embarrassed, partially hiding behind the door.

‘Wow, you’re not really a morning person, are you?’ Hunter’s eyes ran a quick scan over her, taking in the full effect of her bedraggled, literally just-washed-up look.

‘I didn’t pick you for one, either,’ Scout replied, pulling the sweatshirt closer around her. ‘What do you want?’ He was taking way too much interest in how she looked.

‘We’ve been called in to some big-deal early meeting before breakfast. Everybody’s been called in to it – students, staff, pretty much everyone in Dorsay, I think. I’m just letting people know,’ he replied.

‘Wow, that’s weird. Okay, uh, thanks. I didn’t pick you to be the messenger type. Not really your thing, is it?’ She bit her tongue. Don’t keep him talking, she scolded herself. Just shut the damn door! She suspected that there was more to this seemingly altruistic act than met the eye.

‘Yeah, sure, whatever.’ It appeared that her curiosity had got his attention in some unexpected way, given the amused look on his face. He looked at her more closely, a slight smile ghosting across his face.

‘You might want to rethink the showering with clothes on, though.’ He gestured at her with a casual sweep of his hand. ‘I’m guessing that even in places like Australia, being fully clothed isn’t what most people do – but that’s just a guess. And maybe try to ditch the sand.’ He looked pointedly at her hands, wrapped around the door.

Remnants of the sand that she’d hastily wiped off her feet had clung to her fingertips.  Scout went scarlet and opened her mouth, but before she could reply, he got there first.

‘We’re in the Atrium in half an hour.’ He walked off down the hall and she shut the door with a sigh. This day was getting weirder by the minute and she hadn’t even made it to breakfast yet.

Half an hour later, Scout was standing at the back of the Atrium, Dorsay’s central meeting hall, properly showered and stomach grumbling. She caught sight of Lily and Conor sitting near the front and made her way over to them, plonking herself gratefully on the seat that Lily had saved for her.

‘So, what’s up?’ she asked them.

‘Dunno,’ shrugged Conor, ‘but whatever it is, it won’t be good.’ His gloominess reminded Scout of Eyore, always slightly down about the world around him, regardless of the time of day or situation.

‘Maybe it’s something awesome, like an overseas field trip?’ Lily suggested, her perkiness a deliberate contrast to Conor’s phlegmatic gloom. She looked perfectly groomed in her uniform, as always. Lily always made Scout feel slightly untidy and she found herself smoothing her hair surreptitiously in response.

‘Maybe they’ve flown in our parents for an early parent-teacher conference,’ Scout suggested. After this morning’s nightmare and visit from Hunter, a bit of positive news would be a welcome relief. Conor’s face darkened and he looked away. She glanced at Lily who shook her head very slightly. What had she said?

Stealing a glance back at Conor, he’d already begun picking viciously at the edge of a nail already battered, ignoring them both.

Boys, she sighed to herself. They were so bloody complicated sometimes.

The buzz in the Atrium was beginning to pick up. Glancing around, Scout saw that it had filled up with hundreds of the company’s employees from the surrounding compound. Though Scout and the other students had seen the elegant structure many times from their wing, this was the first time that they’d actually been inside it.

Everyone in the atrium was wearing differently coloured uniforms, the Dorsay logo displayed prominently over the top left sleeve. Scout felt pretty drab in her grey uniform, compared to some of the other uniforms clustered in the large conference hall, which ranged from dark blue to red, green and black. Somehow even though the style was exactly the same on everyone, the colours made them look exotic and vibrant by comparison to the students.

Her attention was brought back to the front of the room by a judiciously placed poke in the side from Lily. Before Scout could register a protest, Lily tilted her head to the front of the room.

‘Ladies and gentleman.’ It was Cerys Westwood-Jones, CEO, Dorsay’s equivalent of the Emperor in Oz’s Emerald City. Wow, that was unexpected, Scout thought. A huge rumour mill surrounded her and, though they’d gotten a brief overview about her when they’d arrived at Dorsay as part of their orientation program, she’d remained pretty much a mystery.

Westwood-Jones stood confidently up on the podium, calmly surveying them all. A woman of relative youth, she appeared to be a woman of tight control and confidence. Her uniform, unlike everyone else’s, was white. More Glinda the good fairy than Oz, Scout thought, wondering if that she could really be that obvious in her choice of colour.

‘Thank you for coming,’ she continued when the noise had settled down. Her voice was smooth with a slight huskiness to it, as though she’d been talking or arguing for ages before she’d gotten up to address them. She had that quality that made people sit forward and take notice of her, despite her relative slightness of build.  The energy seemed to flow off her and Scout found herself leaning forward, straining to not miss a word.

Westwood-Jones swept a smile over the assembled crowd below her. The weak English sun streamed in, bathing the room in light if not warmth.

‘As we all know,’ she began, ‘Dorsay has been at the forefront of scientific and technological advancements for over forty years. The best scientists in the world have undertaken our research and experimentation in human evolution and genetics. The next generation is here, ensuring that these advancements continue.’ At this, she swept a glance at Scout and the students who were sitting near her, lingering for a millisecond longer on Scout. ‘The progress that we have made in the last few years has shown us that we are on the brink of something spectacular.’ Looking at them all, she paused and took a breath. Scout couldn’t help but feel the defiance leaking out of Cerys’ mind, underpinned by a feeling of adrenaline, despite the tight clamp she was keeping on her thoughts.

‘The purpose of calling this meeting is to prepare you for our next step. The ultimate step for Dorsay. We will be launching Stage One of the Alpha Project.’

A collective gasp rose up from the hundreds of people gathered in the atrium.  Scout glanced at Conor who shrugged, looking as baffled has she felt. Lily, on the other hand, sat as though she’d expected every word of what she’d just been told. The pitying look she gave Scout told her that she and Conor were seriously behind the eight ball on this one. Just once, Scout thought, irritated, just once I’d like to feel as like I’ve got some idea of what the hell is going on around me.

‘I know that you will have many questions. Rest assured that the Corporation values your contribution to our shared vision.’ At this, Westwood-Jones shot a lightning-quick look in the direction of what appeared to be the Dorsay board, all wearing purple. Not a flattering colour for most of them, Scout noted, especially the short, sweaty man standing closest to the podium.

‘The next phase of Dorsay’s history will not only be challenging but immensely rewarding. For now, I will leave you in the capable hands of our Director of Strategic Planning, Will Taylor. He will be outlining our program over the next few days and weeks as we work towards the most important step that humanity will take.’ With that, she stepped down, nodded to a podgy, purple-encased man and exited through a side door, leaving behind her an increasingly excited crowd of people.

Before Scout could discuss any of this with Lily and Conor, Will Taylor stepped up to the podium and cleared his throat. The sudden silence that fell in the room spoke volumes about him. His expression was harder and more watchful than his CEO’s had been, and his tight collar made his florid face bulge even more, pushing his eye sockets into ever-smaller slits.

‘Good morning.’ His softly accented voice was at odds with the solidity of his frame.

‘Each company sector will have a follow-up briefing, immediately following this meeting. Your sector leaders will be able to answer any immediate questions that you have. This process will be taking place using clear guidelines designed to minimise disruption.’ He glanced around the massive room, enunciating his next words precisely. ‘This information must not leave the compound. Any leaks to the media or other organisations will result in swift consequences for the responsible parties.’

‘That’s all for now. I would ask that you now make your way to your sector meeting rooms.’ At that, the barely-held back murmuring broke into a surge of heated talk. Waves of palpable anticipation bounced off the walls.

‘Um, what the hell?’ Conor leaned forward to voice what Scout was also thinking.

‘I’ve got no idea.’ Scout confessed. Lily started to say something but was interrupted by the sound of mocking laughter coming from behind them.

Conor stiffened and Scout turned around to see her early morning wakeup call sitting with his elbows balanced on his knees, chuckling to himself as though amused beyond all measure by their ignorance.

‘What’s so funny?’ Scout leaned over the back of the chair and eyeballed him. What was this guy’s problem, anyway? She just couldn’t get a handle on his erratic mood swings and superior attitude.

‘I’m just not sure how you two made it in here. She,’ Hunter nodded towards Lily, ‘knows what’s going on. Didn’t you two do any research into the place that you were given a scholarship before coming? For two supposed ‘geniuses’, his fingers twitched in the air around that last word, ‘you’re working the ‘Dumb and Dumber’ angle pretty well. I’m really looking forward to seeing the pair of you get to grips with this.’ Still chuckling, he unfolded his lean frame and slipped casually out into the departing. Scout sat, dumbstruck. Did he really just say that?

‘Man, I thought I had problems, but that guy has some serious social issues,’ Conor said. ‘What’s with him anyway?’ Lily patted him on the shoulder.

‘Who knows?’ she said, dismissively. ‘Don’t listen to him, okay? He gets his kicks out of being an asshole.’ Scout and Conor burst out laughing, both shocked that something so crude could come out of someone who looked so perfect. Conor looked over at Lily, still smiling at her assessment of Hunter.

‘So, Lil, help out an imbecile. What’s Alpha One?’ he asked.

Lily sighed.

‘Please don’t call me ‘Lil.’ It makes me sound like I work in an East End chip shop,’ but Conor just shrugged.

‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I think it kind of suits you.’ Lily grimaced.

‘I’ll explain what I know as we head back. But could we please not be there late and get shamed again by the mentors?’ Her plea was interrupted by Scout’s stomach rumbling loudly.

‘I’m going to need some breakfast if I’m going to get through these next few hours,’ Scout looked pleadingly at Lily.

‘Yeah, me too,’ Conor nodded vigorously.

‘Fine,’ Lily sighed, ‘but if we’re late, then you two can explain why to Chewy.’ Conor snorted in disgust.

‘We’ve been here three months and the guy still hates me,’ he said.

‘Yeah, might have something to do with the fact that you give him shit every time you see him,’ Scout said wryly.

Conor launched into his best Star Wars impression and the girls cracked up.  Scout realized that Conor wasn’t bad looking, once he relaxed a bit. Catching Lily’s eye, she blushed and shook her head. Lily laughed and stood up.

‘Enough drama for one morning, please! Come on.’ She pushed Conor to get him moving. ‘Let’s get out of here. You two are making me more nervous by the minute.’ They left the almost empty hall in search of something to eat, Scout heaving a sigh of relief. She didn’t think that she’d have a very good answer if Lily asked her about Conor. Come to think of it, she didn’t have a great one for herself, either.

 

Download a pdf of Playing Catch-up

 

Kylie Nealon

Having recently completed my MA at Macquarie, I thought the chance to submit to The Quarry was one that I couldn’t pass up. Working mostly in the YA genre, I spend my days surrounded by teenagers as a teacher. I’d love to say that writing conversational dialogue is a breeze as a result, but it’s not! I do love the freedom that the genre offers, and the curiosity for life that teenagers have. I’m looking forward to developing my writing further, and feel that I’ve only just started — but wow, how lucky am I to be able to do that?

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