7 Random Days in the Life of a Hero: Dani Reyes - Thurday

7 Random Days in the Life of a Hero

Subject: Dani Reyes – Thursday





"Will you stop pacing!" The annoyed shout drew 14 pairs of eyes to look in the direction of dark haired, tall, athletically-muscular young man leaning against the lecture hall's wall and utterly failing to project a look of confidence.

The target of the yelling, a slim red-haired hispanic girl of average height held the taller youth's gaze for several seconds before sticking her tongue out and turning to resume her, to all outward appearances, carefree walk around the room. The young man pushed off the wall with a force that left cracks in the concrete, but he was intercepted before he could make it more than a few steps.

"Dude, David, chill the hell out." The interceptor was slightly shorter and much lighter than the angry dark haired man, but David halted the moment the blond man stepped in his path.

“Whatever. She's not gonna make it anyways.” David glared past the shorter man at the redhead as he stepped back to lean against the wall again.

The pacing girl responded by giggling loudly. “Aw, poor Davie. It's okay to be nervous, just don't take it out on me big guy.”

The blond man sighed and raised a hand to interrupt another outburst from David as he turned to face the mocking Latina. “Dani, you've been messing with David for the past four years. You think you can MAYBE lay off for the next hour until we find out if we made it or not?”

Dani paused her pacing and seemed to consider the matter deeply. “Well, Mark, since you asked SO nicely, I guess I could make today an exception. Just for you!” The redhead linked her hands together in front of herself and leaned forward to bat her eyelashes at the blond man as she replied. She managed to hold the pose for almost five seconds before she broken down laughing, along with the rest of the room.

“Seriously girl, how can you NOT be worried about this? No one has EVER graduated from Professor Miccay's Weapons course since he started at Overton five years ago.” The question came as the laughter died down, from the only other female in the room. Slightly taller than the pacing redhead, but thinner and with plain brown hair and glasses, the girl's voice carried a heavy note of anxiety even as she recovered from the brief bout of laughter.

“What's the point in worrying? I either made it, and Kitty Style will be unleashed to claw her way through the underworld of criminal Supers tomorrow!” Several groans came from around the room as the hispanic girl actually leapt onto one of the chairs as she spoke to strike a 'heroic pose.' “Or they're going to rip my freakin' memories out of my skull, and I won't remember anything that I need to be anxious about!”

“But Dani, think about it.” A small, black-haired youth in one corner joined the conversation with a quietly deadpan voice. “Of everyone in this room, can you afford to lose ANY of the brains you claim to have in that skull of yours?”

Another round of laughter rang out in the room, with Dani sticking her tongue out again briefly before joining in.

It was to this laughter that the door of the room opened, revealing a middle aged man wearing a business suit that strained to contain the muscular body that completely filled the doorway. “Mark Gillesen, please accompany me.” The voice was not loud, but the whole room seemed to vibrate softly with the cadence of the man's words.

“Right away, Dean!” The blond man strode quickly to the doorway before spinning to bow deeply to his classmates. “Looks like this is it, one way or another! See you on the other side!”

And with that farewell, he was through the door. Most of the students turned their attention back inward, focusing on trying to project calm and confidence that few of them actually felt. The effect was rather ruined when the redhaired girl leapt up onto one of the desks and began cartwheeling across the furniture. It didn't take long for the room to break back down into laughter again when she missed the corner at the end of the second row.




“Good morning, Ms Reyes.” Dani blinked a few times in response to the greeting as her eyes adjusted to the slightly too-bright lighting in the room, the she waved cheerfully to the assembled Instructors and strolled over to drop gracelessly into the single chair facing the group.

The nonchalance from the student drew a few brief chuckles from the assembled Overton Instructors. “You seem to be in rather good spirits this morning, Ms Reyes.” Even in the larger room, the rumbling voice of Overton's Hero Certification Dean seemed to vibrate through the walls.

“Of course I'm in a good mood! I just finished four years of college and I got my god damned degree! Do you have any idea how HARD it is to study all the boring stuff?” A couple more chuckles emerged from the Dean, while the rest of the Instructors found themselves staring with more than a little disbelief. “Oh, and I get to be a Hero starting today! That's pretty awesome!”

“You seem extremely confident that you've landed above the cutoff line, Ms Reyes.” The observation from the thin man immediately to the massive Dean's left drew a dismissive wave from the student.

“Of course I'm above the line, Professor Miccay. I'm awesome!”

The response drew a pointed stare from the Weapons Professor, which the student ignored in favor of smiling at the rest of the assembled Instructors. “So, I'm a Hero now. What happens next?”

“Like I said.” There was a note of levity in the slender man's tone as he spoke again. “Completely fearless, completely irreverent, and terrifyingly skillful.”

“So we've noticed, over they years.” The interjection from the lone female Instructor at the far right of the table drew more chuckles and murmurs of assent. “In answer to your question, Ms Reyes, what happens next is we congratulate you for earning the title of 'Hero' and discuss what that will mean over the next two years.”

“Oh, I know that part! This is where I get to be a sidekick! Who am I going to be working with? Is it someone awesome? Like Diamond Glance, or Dreadnaught, OOOH! Is Captain Starlight still a Hero? I th-...”

“BEFORE the matter of your internship.” The Dean finally interrupted the rapid fire stream of chatter from the excited new Hero. “There is the matter of confirming your intended Hero Identity wi-...”

“I already did all that. Brand new Hero, Kitty Style, reporting for internship! I picked out the name two years ago, and finished my uniform design last year! All done already! So who's my Hero?”

“Dani, what Dean Hallen is trying to say with FAR too much tact for you to realize.” It was impressive that Professor Miccay could manage to begin a speech like that without sounding the least bit condescending. “Is that you might want to reconsider your chosen Hero Identity and... 'uniform.'”

“Hmmm.... Nope. I like them both!”

Sighs came from around the table, though a few heads were lowered to hide the smiles that accompanied them. “Please take this matter seriously Ms Reyes.” The Dean's voice was raised slightly this time and the floor trembled slightly as a result. “Ignoring the extremely derogatory jokes that 'Kitty Style' can be made into with no effort at all-...”

“What jokes?”

The Dean stopped speaking and stared at the graduate in front of him, mouth actually hanging open in shock. Dani managed to maintain a completely innocent, puzzled expression for almost ten seconds before she fell out of her chair laughing.

“Right, so you DO see wha-...”

“Try to convince me that Ramrod isn't turned into a sex joke just as easily.” Dani made her interrupting rebuttal from the floor as she got her laughter under control and pulled herself up into the chair again. “Tell me that Superslick or The Wondrous Orbs aren't constantly written into news articles that make fun of their names. Hell, Pants of Power has been an active Hero for almost 8 years. You really want to give me a hard time for Kitty Style? Or think it's somehow gonna be worse than a hundred other Hero names?”

“...point taken, Ms Reyes. Moving on to your uniform.” The extremely muscular Dean reached down to fiddle with a remote that looked like it was about to come apart in his massive hands at any moment, before finally getting a screen on the wall behind the Instructors to come to life. Displayed in impressively high definition, for such a large monitor, was possibly the most bizarre and eclectic collections of different traditional martial arts wear ever assembled into a single outfit.

Dani squee'd with delight at the larger than life image of her uniform, drawing a few more sighs from the table.

“The concern here, Ms Reyes.” The oldest man at the table took the lead this time, Overton's Focus Instructor was closing in on ninety and every one of the seniors had been shocked to see him back again this year. “Is that your chosen 'uniform' might be considered extremely offensive to many of those who diligently practice the martial arts you have co-opted pieces of garb from. Several of the pieces of paraphernalia included represent extreme levels of dedication and hard-work that martial artists spend YEARS achieving.”

“I know all that, Professor Yates. I earned all of them myself, that's why I want them to be part of my uniform.”

The Professor met the declaration with a steady stare, holding the look for over a minute before seeming to realize that the young Hero was not about to break down laughing a second time. “You earned, ALL of these?”

“Yep! I've been practicing martial arts since I could walk. And then once I started shifting and found out how fast I was, I started branching out into more and more styles so that I could find the pieces I needed to finish my own style. Kitty Style!”

It seemed completely impossible for anyone to make such a declaration with a straight face, but there was no sign of humor from the recently graduated HCP student. Dani Reyes made her statement wearing a proud smile and no hint of levity that could be detected.

“Well, I suppose that matter is, in fact, settled.” The Dean reached down to the table in front of him and flipped open a folder. “Ms Reyes, it would appear that you are better prepared than we believed. Having had the privilege of training you for the past four years, I suppose we REALLY should all have known better.” Unmuffled laughter came from around the table this time as Dani nodded her vigorous agreement with the statement. “So it is my pleasure to officially welcome you to the ranks of Heroes, Kitty Style. All the mentors will be meeting their interns in the Ethics lecture hall at one o'clock. I recommend grabbing some lunch and being in uniform and waiting by then.”

The Dean stood to offer a handshake to congratulate the newest Overton Hero, but was nearly bowled over when the shifter opted for a high-velocity tackle-hug instead.

“I'm a HERO!”




“C'mon Dani, you're going to be late if we don't head back soon.” Dani offered the brown haired girl a disbelieving look in response. “Okay, so you and I won't be late, but everyone else will be. C'mon girl, you can count. There's ten of us here, that's all that make it through.”

“Not always. There've been classes with eleven graduates before when all eleven were ranked in the top 50 between the programs. That's what's happened again this time, Tracy. It HAS to be.”

“Dani, if that were true then David would have been here over an hour ago. Didn't he get called out of the waiting room before you did?” The redhead jerked away as her friend tried to reach a comforting hand across the table.

“There's no way Davie didn't make it. He was ranked fourth in our class. FOURTH. He'll be here.”

Tanya sighed and settled back in her chair to wait with her friend, knowing there wouldn't be anything she could say at this point to change the redhead's mind. “Tell you what, Dani. We'll wait until a quarter til, then we'll rush back together. Maybe David DID graduate and he's just not showing up at the restaurant we picked because he wants to get back at you for all the times you messed with him over the years.”

Dani smiled and nodded in response, then turned to stare down at the tabletop in front of her. Tracy continued to engage her friend with small talk as they sat in the booth and waited, pointedly ignoring the occasional tear that dropped from Dani's downturned face to land on the table between them.




The woman that strolled, slightly late, into the largest of the Overton HCP's lecture halls drew a great many stares as she entered. Even among Supers, a six and a half foot tall red-furred anthropomorphic cheetah woman wearing a mishmash of a dozen martial arts costumes and twice that many archaic weapons was apparently enough of an oddity to stand out. Dani glanced around the room, showing real nervousness for the first time that day before slumping slightly in depression. She would have recognized the ridiculously tacky gold, green, and white body suit that David had designed for himself at a thousand yards. It was not among the costumes present in the room.


Damn, you're a TALL one aren'tcha?” The sudden, friendly voice from directly behind Dani caused her spin around quickly.

Standing in the doorway the red-furred shifter had just entered through was a woman close to a foot shorter than the cheetah-girl, wearing a full dark blue bodysuit with a partially transparent layer over it that did a remarkable job looking like a shifting block of ice whenever the woman moved. “And here I was worried that I was running a couple of minutes behind. You MUST be Kitty Style.”

Dani nodded and wracked her brain to try and figure out who the Hero in front of her was. The costume is not familiar, she is definitely not a local. “That's me! Only giant cat-woman martial artist in the HCP! I'm really sorry, but I don-...”

Don't recognize me, right?” Dani nodded with more enthusiasm than she really should have, but the shorter woman simply laughed at the response. “No worries there, I'm used to it. I'm just a LITTLE bit far from home right now. Cold Front, at your service Ms Style.”

Dani giggled as she shook the woman's offered hand. “Let me guess, you have ice powers?”

Nope!” The shifter felt her jaw drop slightly at the cheerful rebuttal.



A long pause. “What DO you do then?”

I'm a hydrokinetic. Water manipulator.” The second was added when the catlike face clouded with confusion at the first bit. “I do specialize a bit in manipulating water while it's in solid form, and I can freeze and unfreeze water but I can't get it up anywhere near a boil.”

So... Ice and water powers?”

Cold Front laughed. “Close enough! And you, Kitty, I believe that you're supposed to be a pretty fast speedster.”

A surprised look crossed Dani's feline features. “That's right! Oh! I'm probably distracting you. Who are you here to mentor?”

The short woman gave the tall shifter a penetrating stare in response, holding it for several seconds without getting any reaction from Dani before she started laughing again. “You're absolutely right, I am supposed to be meeting my new intern right now. Maybe you've seen her? Tall girl, cat-form shifter, super speed, Overton's first Weapons focus graduate in five years? Sound familiar?”

That's ME!”

The shorter Hero simply began laughing again. “How did you THINK I knew your Hero name on the day you graduated?”

Because I am awesome!”

Cold Front seemed to consider this for a moment, before shrugging. “Fair enough.” Then the shorter Hero reached up to her face and carefully peeled up the nearly full mask she was wearing.

Dani watched with a little bit of awe as the veteran Hero unmasked in front of her, actually clapping a little when the mask came free to reveal a net that had to be teased free of the shorter woman's hair, causing it to change from a navy-blue nearly the same color as her uniform to a nearly platinum blonde once the net was free. Once unmasked, the shorter woman again offered a hand to the tall shifter. “Janie Philps. Pleasure to meet you.”

Dani glanced down at the hand, then her body began to shifted slowly from six and a half foot catgirl into her less eye-catching 5'7” human form. “Dani Reyes.”

The handshake was cut short when the redhaired Latina let out a yelp and reached quickly with both hands to steady her slipping costume. She shrugged to her smiling mentor as she shifted back to her cat form. “I haven't had time to look into getting some kind of size-changing costume yet. Sorry!”

Janie responded to the apology with a dismissive wave. “Unless you're planning on going out in human-form for some reason I would skip it. Anyone trying to figure out who you really are is going to be looking at people a lot taller than your normal body this way.”


Well, you should probably say goodbye to your friends and get anything you need packed. Our plane leaves at six.”

Oh! I never remembered to ask where you're stationed! You just said that it was a long ways from here.”

I'm with the Arctic Alliance currently, based out of Anchorage.”

A puzzled look shot across Dani's face. “Where's that?”

Anchorage?” No recognition. “Alaska? The great white north?”


Yep, that's the one!”

Dani stood completely still for nearly a minute as she processed this new information, then the shifter reached across herself to rub one of her arms. “Man I hope this fur turns out to be warmer than I think it is.”




I can't believe we get our own jet!” Dani darted around the cabin now that the small plane was in the air, exploring every nook and cranny she could find on the aircraft. “I didn't think the DVA paid for stuff like this!”

They don't.” Janie chuckled at the younger woman's enthusiasm. “At least, not very often. Our team leader is from one of those fantastically wealthy families. Officially we all work for companies that he owns, so we get to use things like company cars and company jets sometimes.”

Who all is on the team?”

Well, there's me obviously. Like I said before, I'm a hyd-... water manipulator. Control graduate from Sizemore Tech. Currently I'm the team artillery since... for the past couple years.

Our current team leader is Darkstep, aka Landen Moyer. He's a Subtlety Hero, graduated from Lander seven years ago. He calls himself a 'shadowmancer,' and you have to try not to laugh when he does it. He does shadow illusions, can mess with lighting, make himself almost invisible, and he can line of sight teleport as long as there's VERY little light at his intended exit point.”

Your leader is the team sneaky guy? That seems weird.”

The blonde woman shrugged in response. “It works for us. Subtlety Heroes tend to know what's going on and are usually better lateral thinkers than the rest of us.

Our last member is the team Strongman, Showstopper. He's only in the medium-range for strong Supers, but when he braces he becomes effectively un-movable. You'll probably be working around him as often as me since he's Close Combat and you're Weapons.”

This is going to be great! I'm going to have a team!”

Janie just smiled as she watched the redhaired woman continue to bounce around the cabin on what must have been her tenth exploration. “So tell me, Dani, why were you looking so down just before I came up behind you?”

The shift in conversation topics froze the younger woman in place, and she moved to sit down opposite the older Hero without responding.

Someone you cared about didn't make it through, huh?”

The hispanic girl's gaze snapped up to treat the blonde woman to a suspicious glare. “Relax, Dani. I went through the HCP too, remember? It happens to all of us I think. Except the ones that try to go through the whole program as hermits or something. Who was it?”

Dani turned to stare back at her own lap again, embarrassed that she hadn't figured out why Janie had known the cause of her depression. “Davie. David Lucke.”


The redhead shook her head in response. “We were razzing each other from the first day in the program, when we ended up sitting next to each other at orientation. I was... I was going to ask him to go out with me tonight, after we both graduated.”

What's his power?”

He controls rocks and metal and stuff.”

Janie let out a low whistle at that response. “I'm going to assume he was pretty good at it?”

He was. I think he wasn't trying hard enough for the last year though. I think he could have moved up to the top spot in the class except he lost to Mark in a match back in second year, and I think he was afraid he'd lose again.”

So, knowing how the HCP works, I guess there's really only one thing you can do.”


Wait til he applies again for Hero status next year after taking things seriously, and THEN ask him out!”

Dani stared incredulously at her mentor for a long moment, before both women broke down laughing. “So I guess this means you're giving your intern some time off next June!”




That clock has GOT to be wrong.”

Welcome to the wonderful world of jet-lag!” Janie smiled at her intern as the pair moved to the cargo hatch on the small jet to unload the few pieces of luggage Dani had brought.

Is this it? Shouldn't there be more snow?” Dani looked around at the well lit runway. Amazingly well lit, considering the sky was still close to full daylight. “And shouldn't it be dark by now?”

Ah, poor Dani. You have so much to learn about this insane land you find yourself in. But first let's get you to headquarters so we can get you checked in!”

Why is it that whenever you sound consoling I feel like things are going to get worse?”

No idea. Maybe see a psychiatrist about that?” Janie smiled as the redhead stuck out her tongue at her in response. “Besides, be glad you're up here in the summer. Land of the midnight sun and all that! In the winter we have to deal with the freakin vampires.”

Dani laughed at that, then turn a curious look back at her mentor when the blonde woman didn't join in. Dani's highly expressive face continued to twitch from curiosity to panic as Janie maintained a deathly serious look. “Seriously, there aren't really vampires, right?”

Janie held her expression for another five seconds, long enough that Dani was actually starting to really panic, before she started laughing so hard she nearly collapsed on the tarmac. Dani let out a sigh of relief with the breath she hadn't realized she was holding, and grabbed her suitcases while grumbling.

C'mon now Dani, let's go get you checked in. This is going to be a FUN couple of years!”

SSS: Sophomore Siege: Chapter 18

Chapter 18:



The chaos that had settled upon the Overton sports field in the aftermath of the sonic boom and subsequent collapse of a corner of the old bleachers was momentarily silenced by the massive explosion at the corner of the campus, less than a mile away. Then the pandemonium returned tenfold as thousands of screaming people fled the small stadium and sought to put as much distance between themselves and the blast as possible.

In the panicked crowd, a few stood out as acting with more thought and less emotional reaction. Several larger students were suddenly present near the exits of the field in order to direct their less rational classmates and to prevent the hysterical mob from trampling those who fell in the rush. The two football teams, in a surprisingly fast reversal from competitor to collaborator, ascended to the crumpled bleacher section and began to wrench the steel supports into something resembling their original shape so that the few trapped there could get out, or be carried out in some cases.

Most surprising of all, none of the thousands of people on the campus tried to go and see the source of the blast. Campus safety officers arrived far faster than they'd ever previously demonstrated they could in order to start cordoning off a wide area around the blast site, none of them questioning why they were treating the area as so dangerous without any orders telling them to do so. It was this scene that three FBI Crisis Response Teams and one Special Agent in Charge Marcus Hughes discovered when they arrived to take over.

Marcus paused to take in the whole scene for only a few seconds before he began barking orders to the teams accompanying him.

“Jimenez! Round up the Campus officers on scene and get them back over to van 1 so I can interview them in a minute. Smythe! Take your and Golde's teams and take over that perimeter. Rodgers! Get the sniffer bot in there and find out what the hell blew up.” The analyst and three CRT leads immediately jumped to carry out their assignments.

The brown haired senior agent moved up to the edge of the cordon to get a better view of the actual blast site. It appeared, from this distance at least, to be an oversized drainage culvert. That makes no god damned sense at all. Put a bomb in a buried steel pipe and it's not gonna do much unless it's approaching a nuclear payload. Smoke looks weird though... “Cordon teams! Masks on! Treat this as a dirty detonation!”

Marcus turned and strode quickly back towards the van where his analyst was assembling the Campus safety officers, incidentally putting some extra distance between himself and the unusual looking smoke. At least it all seems to be stuck in that ditch, and the wind is relatively calm today. “Who's in charge here?”

The question, professional but with a brusque urgency, did not draw the same rapid response that the FBI Agent was used to from his own people. It took several moments of milling about and murmuring as the Campus officers seemed to be working that out for themselves. Finally a large man with salt and pepper hair and signs that he was working towards developing a full on beer gut stepped forward. “Reckon I'm the most senior officer on scene, sir.”

Marcus' eyes flicked down to the copper tab above the silver shield the large man wore on his uniform. “Officer David is it? Tell me what happened here.”

Just David, sir. We all know we ain't real officers or anything like that.” David offered an easygoing smile as he spoke, before his expression turned serious. “As for what happened, some crazy shit went down over at the stadium,” a large arm was waved in the direction of the steel bleachers that were easily visible at this distance, “and then a god damned bomb went off over here. Campus dispatch got flooded with calls a few minutes ago, something about a big bang over there and some bleachers collapsing, and then this over here went BOOM.”

And none of your people approached the blast site before you started putting up those barricades?”

No sir. We may only be private security for a college campus, but we have our own handbook. Any explosion or bombing on campus, unless we have strong reason to believe there are injured at the blast site we are to block off the area and keep people out until the pros can get here.” The large man gave the agent in front of him an appraising look. “Your lot sure did get here quick today, sir.”

We were actually on our way back from a wild goose chase when radio traffic went crazy about a bombing on the campus. We were only a couple miles away.” Marcus was forced to suppress a smirk at the slightly suspicious look the Campus officer gave in response to the explanation. Stare all you want big guy, the FBI is telling the truth for a change.

Agent Hughes! You need to see this!” The shout from the direction of van 3 drew the attention of all the gathered Campus officers and the Special Agent interviewing them.

Well David, unless anyone here can think of anything else I believe that concludes the interview.” The brown haired man started to turn away from the officers when he saw no sign of anyone else stepping forward, but stopped and turned back again. “Though there is something your people could do to help us out.”

As long as it's not violating any rules or laws, we're happy to help, sir.”

Marcus didn't bother suppressing a smile at the qualifier the large man had placed on his acceptance. “It shouldn't break either of those things. Being a college campus I'm going to guess that there are hundreds of cellphone videos of this morning's events amongst your students. Jimenez here can get your people set up with some fancier copying devices if your men can head out and start tracking down those videos for us. The details could be important.”

Seeing that the Campus officers were nodding their assent, Marcus glanced at his analyst to make sure he'd heard the instructions before turning to move quickly to where his bomb disposal specialists were giving him very worrying looks from the other van.

What have we got, Rodgers? Please tell me that whatever blew up over there isn't radioactive or some crazy bio-weapon.”

I have no idea, sir. But someone does.” By way of explanation, the lanky CRT lead turned his control panel for the 'sniffer' robot his team used to check chemical residue at bombing sites so that his boss could read the screen.

What the hell is a code X-88?”

It's not in the manual OR the specs anywhere we've heard of, sir. It sent back that code, the 10 digits underneath it, and then the bot burned itself out.”


Burned itself out, sir. Something else the specs didn't mention it could do, but it sparked up right after sending that message. It's completely dead as far as we can tell.”

So I guess the next step is to call the phone number it posted with the code and see if that's tech support?”

The bomb squad all gawked for a moment at the suggestion from Agent Hughes, then Rodgers slapped a hand against his forehead. “I can't believe I didn't recognize that was a phone number. That's a DC area code too.”

Marcus already had his sat-phone in hand and the the number punched in.

Please identify.” The completely apathetic female voice at the other end of the line drew a scowl from the Special Agent in Charge.

This is Special Agent Marcus Hughes with the FBI. Who am I speaking with?”

One moment, Agent Hughes.” Several seconds of silence nearly prompted the quickly angering agent to shout something unpleasant into the phone when the female voice returned. “Your voice print has been confirmed , agent. You aren't authorized for access to this number, where did you get it?”

Marcus forced himself to pause, take a breath, and respond professionally to the absolutely bored voice at the other end of the line. “With whom am I speaking?”

Staff Sergeant Lisa Morgen, US Army, Pentagon. Where did you get this number, agent?”

My team is investigating an explosive detonation and we sent in a Mark 5 – A7 ordinance disposal/chemical sniffer bot. When it reached the blast crater it sent back a code X-88 and this telephone number, and then it destroyed itself. Now can you tell me what the hell is going on?”

X-88?” Marcus blinked as the voice on the other end of the line transitioned from total apathy to borderline panic in four syllables. “That's IMPOSSIBLE, special agent.”

I can't tell you it's not some kind of glitch since I don't have the level of technical expertise to diagnose an advanced remote control robot, but that's what it sent back to the operator's control screen, at which point it fried itself. What the hell is an X-88?”

You need to move your people back from the bomb site IMMEDIATELY, Agent Hughes.”

The Staff Sergeant's near-panicked state was beginning to make Marcus very nervous. “Our cordon is more than a quarter-mile from the epicenter, Sergeant.”

Move back farther than that. What's your location?”

The brown haired agent paused his conversation long enough to bark a string of order out to move the cordon out another 50 yards from the blast site. “We're at the Overton college campus, about a half mile behind the Union building.” Marcus strained to listen as he heard several voices in the background on the other end begin yelling at once, then the line went dead.

Special Agent Hughes!” Marcus turned at the shout from behind him and felt his jaw drop open in shock. A dozen men in US Army uniforms all bearing an unusual patch of the American Eagle clutching lightning bolts in each talon.

What the fuck... Force Ops is here now? The FBI Agent shook his head for a moment to clear it and strode out to meet the short man wearing captain's bars that had called out to him. “Don't take this the wrong way, Captain, but what the hell are your people doing here?”

I don't take it the wrong way at all, Special Agent. This is one of many scenarios that should never happen.” The shorter man offered his hand as he stopped in front of the taller FBI Agent. “Captain Ray Dommeler.”

Want to tell me what the hell this particular scenario is, Captain Dommeler?” Marcus accepted the handshake, though his expression showed little aside from suspicion.

The short version, the part that I'm actually allowed to tell you, is that the chemical your sniffer bot found is BEYOND incredibly dangerous. We're basically here because we have the resources needed to quarantine the blast site before lots and lots of people die. FEMA will take over the site as soon as they can get their people in position, but we can't wait that long.”

Marcus found himself staring over the shorter military man in shock as he watched several dozen more Force Ops personnel arrive out of thin air. Teleporters, they're using groups of teleporters. What the hell IS this stuff?

Seeing the direction of Marcus' gaze, Captain Dommeler turned around to see that his people were already constructing a massive plastic 'tent' that would cover close to a square mile around the blast site. In this case the plastic was being created on the spot by a pair of uniformed military Supers and being put up by several more flying soldiers. “I'll try to get my superiors to forward as much information as possible to your investigation, special agent. I'm assuming that you're the lead on tracking down the bomber?”

Marcus snapped himself out of the daze he'd fallen into at seeing dozens of Supers swoop in and take control of his scene. Turning to look down at the Force Ops captain addressing him, he was more than a little surprised to see what looked like an earnestly sincere expression. “Yes captain, I'm currently the lead on this. Any intel your people can send my way would be greatly appreciated”

Hearing more shouting approaching the area, both men turned to observe a small group moving quickly towards them. Leading the group was a slightly overweight blond man that Marcus immediately recognized from the course of his investigation. “Looks like the University President is here and he brought friends. Is this your scene to explain or mine, captain?”

Marcus found himself suppressing a grin as the small man next to him literally vanished only to reappear much closer to where the soldiers were working. “Guess that answers that.”



A groan echoed through the cavernous office as the large man seated at the single desk attempted to force weary eyes open and was met with a stabbing pain. Several minutes of blinking and squinting followed as the well dressed man held his head in his hands and tried to piece together what was going on.

This... This is my office. Did I fall asleep? No, I wouldn't have a headache like this. Not a hangover, what the hell... The train of thought trailed off as he noticed the massive wall-mounted television to his right.

The TV was tuned to some news story about some sort of disaster somewhere with the volume turned off, but what drew the large man's attention was the neatly written letters in black marker across the screen.


Patrick Goddard surged to his feet as adrenaline rushed into his system, chasing away the last vestiges of whatever ailment had been impeding him. As he stood he saw the black letters fade away, vanishing after a few seconds as if they'd never been there at all. At the same time, the volume on the television returned.

...ust joining us you are looking at an aerial view of what appears to be a joint military and FEMA quarantine around a bombing site on the college campus in Overton, Texas. Reports at this time are still limited but sources inside the investigation have already informed this station that this attack is most likely the result of domestic terrorists, and the extreme precautions you see being taken here are due to the presence of a dangerous chemical meant to be dispersed by the device. No group has come forward to claim responsibility, and indeed the location of the blast away from the main campus near the freight access may indicate that this was a botched attack. We now go back to the studio for mo-...”

Patrick slammed a fist down on the desk console that controlled the screen, cracking the panel slightly as the TV powered off. This is impossible, we were making pushes against the HCP because... because...

The large man dropped heavily back into his chair as he shivered with sudden shock. I can't remember. I don't remember why we were pushing against the HCP... I don't even remember who WE are. I had... a partner? No, more than one, I'm sure of it. How... Leaning forward the dark haired man pulled the keyboard tray out and to the ready and began typing at an incredible speed for such fat-fingered hands.

It was hopeless. Whatever had been done to tamper with his memories, his computer had obviously not been safe. All traces of the security that SHOULD be present were gone, and while nothing seemed to be missing, he knew that there should have been some reference to the group he was certain he had been a part of.

They think I arranged the bombing, but that's far too crude an angle for me. Wasn't it? Did we get pushed that far? God damn them! I can't defend myself if I don't even know what I need to defend myself FOR! It took several minutes for the large man to pull himself back from the brink of a nervous breakdown, but when he began typing again it was with a look of steely resolve in his eyes.

So I went to far, and this is me getting cut out. Fine. But Patrick Goddard is NOT going down without a fight.



Lt Susan Witt steeled herself mentally as she approached the underground conference room. A morning meeting with the supervising General of Force Ops had not been part of the day's expected itinerary. Nor had the THREE separate press conferences she had been forced to speak at as the military's liaison officer attached to the cleanup effort in the wake of the bombing. Because apparently there were no other Lieutenants handy to throw to the wolves. Though given the option, she would gleefully walk back through that gauntlet to avoid the one waiting in front of her.

Opening the door, the blonde officer entered a room that was completely silent. Eleven sets of eyes stared expectantly at Susan as she moved to take the last available seat, and she found the expectant silence FAR more disconcerting than screams and demands for information would have been.

Before we begin, I'm going to have to ask that the Walkers and Mr Weaver exit the room. I haven't been cleared to share this informa-...”

You've been cleared to share this information with the HCP senior staff and additional persons on a need to know basis. Everyone in this room NEEDS to know the real story about what happened this morning, Lieutenant.” The completely calm, level tone from the HCP's petite Dean held no hint of threat, but the look in the dark haired woman's eyes that accompanied the statement forced Susan's objection to die before it could reach her throat.

Very well then. As everyone is aware, there was a terr-...”

Skip to the part that everyone ISN'T aware of.” The gravelly demand from the military woman's right almost caused her to jump in her seat at the interruption.

Good lord, and I thought dealing with a room full of Force Ops brass was nerve wracking. Heroes are scary. Susan found herself ducking her face behind her metallic blonde hair for just a moment as she realized that both telepaths in the room had probably heard THAT thought quite clearly, but she recovered quickly.

Alright then. The reason for the complete quarantine of the area around the blast is that the chemical added to the device is known to the US military as extremely dangerous. We made it ourselves, about 37 years ago, and it's not supposed to exist anymore. Anywhere. Had the bomb gone off in the stadium, the projection shows 100% casualties for all those attending the game, and likely more than half the rest of the campus would also have been dead within twelve hours. All told, this attack would likely have resulted in somewhere between twelve and twenty thousand dead, had it been successful.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from those seated around the table at the matter-of-fact way the alarming casualty numbers were stated.

What the hell was that stuff?” The Weapons Instructor was the first to find her voice, though her question was little more than a loud whisper.

This portion is completely classified. Please don't let it get out of this room as if it does you will likely be charged with treason, and so will I as I'm not OFFICIALLY allowed to know any of it.” Susan took a deep breath to steady herself before continuing.

In the late 70's a research project was started in conjunction with the first major expansions of Force Ops with the express purpose of developing a rapidly deployable weapon capable of suppressing Super abilities, similar to the powers of a null-type Super. Approximately ten years into the project, the lead researcher claimed to have a breakthrough in the form of a chemical mixture that could be easily aerosolized but would oxidize and lose potency very rapidly.

The problem came when the team realized that there was no effective way to prove that the simulations were safe enough to begin any form of human testing, and since there are no known animal Supers, the project suddenly seemed destined to die an ignoble death. The lead researcher, and don't ask me for his name because it was redacted in all the files I was shown, had some sort of breakdown at the idea that his project would never be allowed to even reach the proper testing phase, so he concocted his own test.

The researcher took his chemical mix out of the lab and up to one of the Force Ops training barracks on site in the middle of the night, sealed the building, and pumped the aerosolized mix directly into the ventilation.”

I take it we can all assume that the chemical did not function as advertised?” The dry injection from the Focus Instructor came after the lieutenant had paused for several seconds without continuing.

That would be a completely accurate assumption. The chemical was designed to temporarily shut down certain portions of the brain that the research team believed allowed Supers to control their powers. The idea was that with no way to control their abilities, they wouldn't be able to turn them on in the first place. The problem with that approach is that no scientist has EVER been able to identify a single unified area of the brain that can be linked with Super's ability to have or control their powers. So instead of a Super nullifying chemical, all the team really managed to create was a horribly effective way to cause rapid, massive brain damage. Nothing temporary about it.

Of the 228 recruits and base personnel that were exposed, only two Strongman type Supers survived, apparently due to their resilience not allowing the chemical to metabolize in the first place.”

How the hell did RoH get ahold of a forty year old chemical weapon that isn't supposed to exist anymore?” The angry question from the University President was met with a helpless shrug from the military liaison.

There was a sample kept under extreme security at the Army MRICD. They claim that any breech there would have been impossible without detection and haven't been particularly cooperative with attempts to confirm that their sample is still present, but that's the only place it could have come from.”

Something like this is way beyond what RoH or their militia is capable of on their own. This has got to be our unseen opponents making a more direct attack, and the second time they've stolen military materiel to do it with.” The Subtlety Instructor leaned forward as she spoke, the words coming out softly and heavily laden with grief and anger. “And this time they got one of our students.”

Susan almost fell out of her chair at the final statement. The lieutenant hadn't heard anything about casualties.

One of the sophomore HCP students went under the bleachers to locate an extremely annoying cellphone that someone dropped. She discovered the bag containing the bomb while searching, and got it to a safe location for the detonation. She didn't have time to get away from the blast herself.” Kathryn Jilles answered the question before the blonde officer could get the words out, and gave a curt shake of her head that interrupted condolences Susan was about to offer.

We aren't the ones in need of your sympathy, Lieutenant Witt. Heroes have buried their own many times before, and we are all going to make DAMN sure that this Hero receives full honors for her sacrifice. Then we are going to track down the people behind all of this, and we are going to watch them burn.”

We have some calls to make.” Janette Walker stood as she spoke, accompanied by her husband. “I think we are wholly finished in playing conservatively.”

I have some contacts to go shake up as well.” Harold Weaver was nearly to the door as he spoke, the blond man moving quickly to exit the room. “With shit like this going down, maybe I can finally get this stupid Oversight crap called off so I can get back to some real work.”

Susan Witt sat frozen in her chair at the almost palpable aura of anger that seemed to flow from the HCP Instructors. Who the hell would be stupid enough to challenge the entire Hero community? These people are fucking INSANE.



It's over! All lost, time to pack up and pretend none of this EVER happened.” The short man in an expensive business suit sounded already on the verge of hysteria as he pushed his way into the opulently decorated conference room and let the door slam heavily behind him.

Lee, so good of you to join us so quickly. Please, have a seat.” The older man sitting at one of the three chairs surrounding the massive conference table smiled politely at the younger as he spoke.

How the fuck can you pretend to be so calm, Edward? Joyce and Patrick... they've RUINED us. We were supposed to be poking and prodding, keeping the program off balance and unable to perform at full capacity. Instead those lunatics are starting a WAR with every Hero in the country!”

You're being a little over-dramatic, Lee.” The tall man off to the side appeared to be pouring three scotches as he spoke casually over his shoulder. “I admit, it was a near thing when Joyce's pawns quite nearly succeeded at actually destroying the entire program. That woman has a truly remarkable way of getting ahold of things she shouldn't be able to, and then getting them to people who will use them without a second thought.” Harvin returned to the table and set one of the drinks down at the last empty chair, then began the long trek around the room to deliver drinks to his two associates.

Wait, you WANTED them to do something like this?” Lee stood next to his chair, too high-strung to sit down. “You're both insane!”

No, Lee. Not insane. Just very careful planners.” Edward paused to take a sip of the drink just delivered to him. “Although I will admit that it was mostly good fortune that the student who went in search of our planted phone was capable of getting the bomb clear in time. Another two seconds and we would have had to ruin the game by sending in a specialist of our own, and that could have set things back DRAMATICALLY.”

Lee stared at the older man, calmly seated and sipping the expensive scotch as if he was discussing a recent corporate merger. Then looked down at the drink Harvin had finally managed to deposit in front of him. “You... you wanted the HCP provoked, but not damaged. Why? All you've done is create a scenario where the Heroes will be out for our blood!”

Yes, things will likely be a great deal more difficult from here on in. I honestly wasn't expecting Joyce's chosen lackeys to be capable enough to actually kill even ONE of the students. So now the plan has to be altered slightly.”

As Edward finished speaking, Lee jerked as a sharp, shooting pain lanced into his right butt cheek. The smaller man attempted to turn, but his legs gave out and dropped him to the floor instead. His already blurry vision could barely make out the shape of the large hypodermic needle Harvin had injected him with, and the last words he heard from Edward before blackness claimed him shot enough terror into his system that it almost fought through the drug. Almost.

Now we have to give Overton's Heroes THREE targets to chase instead of just two.”

The Devil You Know - Chapter 2

        Skylar O'shaughnessy was currently hesitating. It was a situation the Boston native, and daughter of a tough street smart beat cop, had never found herself in before. The youngest of five and the only girl among them, Skylar had learned to be tougher than her older brothers even before the emergence of her super abilities; she had to to survive (ask any girl with four older brothers). After her powers emerged and she started growing, it was clear she had only one choice and that was to become tougher still. The thing about power, especially in rough neighborhoods, is that there is always someone wanting to make use of it, and if you aren't of a mind to allow them then they want that power out of their sandbox. Skylar could deal with a straight up fight; she'd been in more than a few. But this situation was completely outside her comfort zone.


    Being a six foot two busty red head was attention grabbing, but her natural physique was very Sports Illuminated swim suit edition.  Right down to mile long legs, high and tight bottom, and full g-cup (though on her scaled up frame, they looked more like full D's). It didn't bother her when guys drooled over her, she liked guys drooling over her, since it made them easier to manage for the most part. Back home everyone knew that, unless specifically invited, crossing certain lines would bring pain. She liked her men strong, confident, and most of all respectful. These beered up baboons were none of the above. The false confidence they were projecting, prompted by a mob mentality and liquid courage, turned Skylar's stomach.


    The four men, juniors if she had gauged their ages right, had lit on to the fact that yes, she was six foot two; yes, she possessed large breasts; yes, she had long ivory legs; and yes, even a bottom that most Brazilians would envy. But what really seemed to piss them off was that she was a “fake” super. She wasn't, she was the real deal, nothing on or about her was fake thank you very frigging much. Her hair when it grew out had naturally occurring metallic gold tips the length of which was proportional to the length of her hair. That, coupled with a fiery red color with natural copper highlights, made it striking. More striking still, she currently had it cut in ragged layers giving it a sheet of flame look. The other oddity that she didn't think the goons had noticed was her eyes, while hazel, were metallic so much so that her iris would glint at night if the light was right. The oddities of hair and eyes and even some variant types of skin and skin conditions were well documented in the Super world. So well in fact that an entire fashion look was predicated on emulating the various oddities. Which was the reason for the showy hair cut; if she looked to be affecting a look people would think it was an affectation. If she tried to hide her hair and eyes people would know from the word go she was a super. Strange but true.


    Some people thought it was others trying to make themselves special, that being human wasn't good enough for them. That they thought the variant-humans were better than them. That jealousy lead to anger and resentment. Couple that with the fact that each one of these goobers had probably been sat down hard at some point when they got too grabby with a female super, and it wasn't surprising that the pent up frustration came out like this. She understood and even empathized a little it didn't mean she liked being called a poser by these dicks.


    None of that understanding was helping Skylar with her current predicament. Skylar wasn't in the HCP, she had applied and been put on a waiting list and encouraged to proceed with her cover major at L.U.. Implied in her waiting list letter was that she just needed to be a little stronger, that they didn't want to lose her to another program. After all a potentially famous alumni usually meant attention, which meant more famous and possibly wealthier alumni, maybe even generous wealthy alumni. But while at L.U. she would still expected be discreet and comport herself in the tradition of maintaining a secret identity.


    So no flaunting her super status by pounding these d-bags into monkey-paste. It was growing more difficult to show restraint with each passing moment as currently they were taking turns grabbing at her bottom displayed in her compression shorts. The extra snug custom made support sports bra, and tight compression shorts, were not essential to her running exercises, but they did offer large amounts of comfort. The only trouble was her warm up jog  through town to get to her secluded exercise spot away from prying eyes, where she could run flat out without drawing attention. Since she had to hoof it without a car. She COULD run flat out at one of the university jogging trails or at one of the tracks, but a six foot two red head going flat out at thirty-five to forty miles per hour for oh fifty or sixty miles would break that precious secret identity rule all to hell. All of which meant she didn't have a locker room, or a place to change, or even a training partner. The hero life she wanted to live required hard, serious, near religious devotion to strict training methods. And these a-holes were trying to ruin it for her, trying to ruin her dream before it even started.


    She could fight them and put them down with force equal to that of human normal. After all the one upside to growing up with bratty alpha male brothers was she learned how to control her strength extremely well, after all they were still alive. But if she beat the ass of these obviously, at least to her, insecure dicks they'd do one of two things; sober up and make trouble for her or sober up and complain to someone else to make trouble for her. Either of which would escalate her problems to the next level, she needed deescalation. Even blowing them away with just enough speed to out run them might cause it. If Skylar was being honest and objective her fear of being unmasked, figuratively speaking, was overpowering her good sense. The university even knowing she was a super would cover for her defending herself, within reason, if it was a clear case of sexual assault. But like a lot of would be heroes she was slightly irrational with the fear of loosing her potential slot next semester, and it stayed her hand.


    “Oh come on bubble-butt,” One of the men sneered. “Don't you wanna play with us?” He made a gross grab at his junk. Bubble-butt, just the pet name to sweep a girl off her feet. That was right up there with sweet-tities which some other shit had yelled at her last summer from a passing car.


    “We just want to party Jugz, surely you aren't too good for regular vanilla humans right?” Scuzball number two swatted her on the butt. Jugz? Oh hell no..


    “Of course she thinks she is, with that hair. Shes a super-groupie. Bet she'd spread those mile long legs if we could shoot fire at our asses or some such nonsense.” Another said splashing beer out of his bottle towards her. Not even if you were Titan's better looking straight twin with a pocket full of diamonds and chocolate..


    “We could enlighten her to what REAL men could do for her..” said the fourth..


    And I could enlighten you to what a real woman could do to your squishy-vanilla-soft-serve  asses. Skylar thought, inches away from a drastic overreaction of breaking news proportions. She was a red head after all, there were limits. Just as she made her decision to show them the magnitude of their mistake, Skylar heard a dark mind approaching. If these guys knew what was coming they'd piss themselves, apologize, and run like hell; in that order. Hell, Skylar wasn't sure she didn't want to run too.


    The tall dark stranger approached the first goon from behind, they didn't even realize he was there. He didn't say stop or back off, or hell even boo. He just drew his foot up delivered a full force kick right to the first guys balls from behind. Skylar heard the cartilage in the pelvis break, but even before the guy went down her rescuer had an overhand right connecting with the side of the second douche's head, and then he went down faster than a drunken prom queen. The third guy had just about enough time to drop his beer and get an angry “What the fuc..” when the mystery man smashed an elbow into the mans orbital bone before delivering a near skull crushing knee to the mans chin as he went down and out. The fourth guy started to turn to run but her hero whipped her tall frame across his body out of his way so he could deliver a looping round house kick to the side of the mans head to make a complete matching set of douche bags on the ground.


    Skylar was impressed, it couldn't of been more than ten or fifteen seconds from first blow to last. The man had dirty fighting down pretty solid. She turned from the downed men with a look of a person appreciating the work of an artist to find him walking rapidly away. What the hell? Skylar thought, as she trotted up behind him intending to thank him properly.


    “Wait up, let a woman than..” She was going to say thank you properly but he cut her off, hard..


    “Listen lady you want to thank me? Next time deal with that shit yourself..” His voice was rough, deep, and had a the slow draw from somewhere in the deep south. But clearly he was no gentleman.


    “I'm sorry?” She asked perplexed..


    “No fewer than six times did I see you tense or shift position slightly but perfectly to put those meat-puppets down. Which tells me you could of done it anytime your little ole heart desired. Next time lady you are on your own, because that was my ever loving last bit of stupid.” He stormed off and left a speechless Skylar gaping at him. Was it odd that she found his forceful beating, and subsequent rant putting her in her place kind of hot? He shouted back over his shoulder, “Oh and run in the morning with friends for fuck's sake..”

    He was right, Skylar could of done everything he said except for train with friends. If she'd been paying closer attention, and not ogling the angry mans backside as he walked off, she might of heard another mind paying close attention to the fight. But she was too wrapped up in her confusion over the stranger and her desire to know more about him. 

Darkest Days Chapter 8

 Chapter 8:

Off the bus


Mickey was feeling a bit car sick, or perhaps a bit bus sick was more accurate. He sat in the fourth row of a beat up bus heading toward the start of his training in Force Ops. There were over twenty others on the bus with him, a very mixed group. Next to him was a young Asian American man in a polo shirt and khakis. He looked young, Mickey knew he had to be eighteen to be here but he looked even younger. He was a kid compared to Mickey, as were most of the people on the bus. He did see a few other older people before they were all herded onto the buses but he hadn’t spoken to anyone. Most of them hadn’t had the time to speak to anyone, even if they wanted to. He wasn’t sure he did, keeping to himself was probably the best thing he could do in the end.

A small convoy of three black buses containing the newest Force Ops recruits drove down a solitary road at a good clip. They were, he noted while looking out the window, in the middle of nowhere. He was on the third bus and the buzz of conversation showed that it wasn’t really clear to anyone in the bus why they were on the bus.

Mickey himself had been teleported from the recruitment center in New Mexico to the garage where the buses were waiting. He had seen others teleported in shortly after he arrived, presumably coming from whatever area of the country they signed up. Speculation as to why they weren’t directly teleported to their ultimate destination was running rampant.

“I heard the camp isn’t actually on Earth.”

“I heard it’s in another dimension.”

“I heard the area surrounding it is radioactive so we have to go in lead lined buses.”

“No that’s not it. The area can’t be teleported into, it’s part of the security system.”

The young man next to Mickey shook his head as he listened. “The only thing those reasons have in common is they’re completely made up and they’re all wrong.”

“Huh?” Mickey responded in confusion. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, I actually spent some time researching what we will be going through before I even considered signing up.”

“Yeah, is that so?” Mickey said sarcastically, “What did that tell you?”

“The reason is simpler than anyone here would credit,” he answer, either ignoring or missing the sarcasm completely. “It’s tradition. Recruits arrive at the training camp by bus because they have always arrived by bus.”

“That’s it?”

“The military is big on traditions,” he replied with a shrug, “this tradition has a purpose though. We will all arrive together, we’ll be thrown into the organized chaos of military training together.”


“Well according to Psyop… psychological operations,” he clarified when he saw the bewildered look on Mickey’s face. “It helps forge the recruits into a group not just a bunch of people all doing the same thing at the same time. If we arrived one or two at a time, we wouldn’t be a group.”

“If you say so,” Mickey shrugged unconvinced.

“Look around,” the kid suggested, “it’s already starting to happen.”

Mickey followed his suggestion. Here and there on the bus small groups were forming. Usually two people sitting next to each other, but sometimes a small cluster of people from neighboring seats. People who were now cut off from everyone and everything they knew were meeting for the first time, assuming they would be in training together, and getting to know each other.

He listened as best he could. Some were trading stories of why they were there but most were keeping their reasons to themselves. ‘I figured there would be time to meet everyone else later’, Mickey thought to himself, ‘maybe even time for new friends’. He hadn’t expected this to be that time. Even though some of the people were talking, a fair number were just too overwhelmed, or too scared, to do anything but sit numbly and wait to reach their destination.

He turned to his neighbor, the kid who actually might know what he was talking about. “I’m Mickey Hynes,” he said offering his hand for the kid to shake.

“Frank Cho,” said the kid as he took his hand and shook.

Just like I was a normal person’, thought Mickey, ‘gotta keep the constant surprise at normal human contact to a minimum. I’m a super now… well as good as’. “What do you do Frank?”

“Nothing too impressive,” he said with some self-deprecation, “not for a combat unit at least,” he added. “I’m kind of like a library, I remember everything I see or read, it’s kind of like the super version of an eidetic memory. Speed reading goes along with it. I can understand all languages, and I can pretty much break most codes. Given the current available technology, not to mention the stuff some supers pump out I’m kind of obsolete. Most people can do a lot of what I can using their cell phone.”

“I don’t know,” replied Mickey, this time actually sounding a bit impressed. “It sounds really cool to me.”

“Nah, it’s all just so much information,” Frank said, “I don’t have the context to put any of it together and just because I know the words in a textbook doesn’t mean I understand it all, reading a math text doesn’t make me any better at doing math for example.”

“Yeah I suppose,” he agreed tentatively, “but I still wish I had the textbook at my fingertips back when I was in school.”

“What about you?” Frank asked diverting the subject, “What makes you super?”

Mickey froze for a second before answering, ‘I have to avoid standing out when people ask about my powers, I can’t lose this chance’, he thought as he started to answer Frank, hoping he didn’t take any notice. “I concentrate matter and energy into specific forms.”

“What does that mean? Wait,” he said obviously recalling something from the database in his head, “are you like the Conjurer?”

“The who?”

“The Conjurer, he was a hero, then a villain a bunch of years ago. He could make things out of nothing and also make things disappear apparently.”

“Nothing so grand, there’s only one thing I really make.”

“What’s that?”


“Hmm, so you never run out of bullets?”

“Yeah, that’s part of it. I also make lots of different types of bullets.”

“Different types?”

“Well that’s where the energy part comes in,” Mickey said with a grin, “I can make them explode, deliver an electrical shock, burst into light, all sorts of neat tricks.”

“Wow!” Frank replied with the enthusiasm of a teenager. “Now that is a neat power. With a power like that I’m surprised you didn’t go HCP when you were my age.”

This time no matter how hard he tried to control it, Mickey’s face showed fear, anger and sadness all rolled into one. “I…” he started to speak but couldn’t, it felt like something was pulling the air from his chest, he couldn’t breathe.

“I’m sorry man,” Frank said rapidly, seeing how upset Mickey was getting. “We all have our reasons for being here and not in the HCP. I’d make a lousy hero myself.”

“I…” the tightness was still there, he was choking, he desperately tried to catch his breath. He reached down and caressed his gun. It was hidden at his side, unseen despite its bulk, another of the special properties it had. The action calmed him down. ‘I’m as good as a super now... I’m as good as a super now’, he kept repeating in his head, ‘Frank even thought I should have gone to the HCP’. He started to calm down. “That is, I…”

“I… that is I… I’m really sorry,” Frank stammered out. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” he said by way of apology. And then just like a teenager kept back on the same path. “Did you try HCP when you were my age?” he asked pointing out the fact that Mickey was not a kid, yet again.

Mickey looked around and changed the subject. “Interesting group of people here,” he said nodding toward a cluster of five recruits talking to each other, four were in their seats facing inward in a rough circle, the last was sitting cross-legged on the ceiling turning to face whoever was talking at the time.

Looking around he noted the diversity of the group. Men outnumbered women about five to one. Most of them were in their late teens or early twenties but here and there were older men and women, thirties, even forties. And then there were those who you couldn’t put an age to.

Frank pointed over at a pair of them and whispered “superfreaks” to Mickey.

Mickey looked over trying hard not to stare. One was huge and their skin was gnarled and horn-like, Mickey honestly wasn’t sure if it was a man or a woman. The one next to it was a woman but they were so disfigured he wished they weren’t. ‘No woman should have to live like that’ he thought to himself before he corrected it. ‘Scratch that, no one should have to live like that. I’ve known too many with similar problems’.

“None of that,” Mickey shot back at Frank with heat in his voice. “They are now our compatriots, we may depend on them to save our skins and they may depend on us for the same reasons. I have no tolerance for prejudice against our own.”

“I…” Frank started hesitantly obviously never having had to deal with issues like this and not being used to being told off like that. This time it was his turn to change the subject. “What do you think is back there?” he pointed to the very end of the bus.

The entire area in the back of the bus was actually walled off. It was a riveted steel wall and there were what looked like pressure and temperature gauges on the outside of the sealed door. If there was an occupant, they were not visible to the others on the bus.

“I don’t know,” Mickey said, “someone very dangerous I would assume. It could be someone who hasn’t learned to control his powers yet. Or maybe a powered,” he added cautiously.

“Do you think those rumors are true?” he asked at a whisper. “That Force Ops takes powereds as well as supers?”

“They aren’t rumors Frank.” Mickey responded matter of factly. “Force Ops definitely has powereds, not a large number compared to the supers, but when the ability can be controlled or is particularly useful they let them join. Actually I think it’s covered under the extension of the Americans with Disabilities Act, they are actually obligated to try and help them bring their powers under control to the point they can serve.”

“I don’t know how I feel about that.”

“Well maybe you should just think about it then,” Mickey added gruffly and turned to stare out the window ignoring Frank.

I’ve lived with this all my life’, he thought, ‘it’s only bothering me now because for the first time the person I’m facing doesn’t instantly know I’m powered’. He reached under his jacket and stroked the gun again, taking comfort from its presence. ‘Thanks Rube, to the survivors and the warriors’, it had become his mantra since that night and he would never forget it.

For the next half hour Mickey stared out the window, the view remained a lonely two lane road through rough country, there were no other vehicles anywhere in sight. Then without warning the buses took a sudden turn to the left and traveled down a rutted path that couldn’t even properly be called a road. Signs indicating “Danger,” and “No Admittance,” were seen dotted along the path.

After ten minutes of a bumpy jarring ride down this track through flat, dry, broken country, there was still nothing to be seen until suddenly the first bus disappeared from view, followed by the second. Mickey had his hand on the gun when he had a momentary visual flash and when his eyes cleared the area outside was now grassy and tree lined.

The road was smooth and they were approaching a large collection of buildings ranging from one to three stories in height. There was a low brick wall to the left of the bus on which there was a sign that read:

Camp Starlight

U.S. Force Ops Recruit Training Depot

Commanding General: Brig. Gen. A.W. Wright

Sergeant Major: Com. Sgt. Maj. D.C. Wellington


Muscle was tired, sweaty, uncomfortable, and desperately wanted a drink.

He had a farewell party last night and saw a few of his lady friends so at least he wasn’t horny too. ‘Shouldn’t have partied so hard the night before’, he thought ruefully, ‘today is gonna be a bitch. If only regeneration took care of hangovers’ he wished yet again. He had made that same wish more times than he could count over the years. He didn’t have much in the way of regeneration, just enough so he almost never got knocked out, but it didn’t do anything for the headaches afterwards.

He was on the second of three buses trudging down the road to wherever it was they were going to be trained. ‘They were kind of cagey about the where when I asked. Why the hell is it such a big secret?’ he wondered for the fourth or fifth time. ‘It seems like they would want us to know where we were going, in case we missed the bus’.

He had looked around to scope out the competition while they were waiting to get onboard but there were an awful lot of them. It was easier on the bus, no one moving around, less people. If only his stomach didn’t feel like it was about to empty itself.

He had gotten on the bus quickly when they called them all to board, he wanted a seat in the back and he got it. He also managed to glare enough at everyone who tried to sit next to him that the seat remained empty and his feet were up. Even seated in a comfortable slouch, he was tall enough to see over the backs of the seats.

It looked to him like they put most of the strongmen on this bus. About halfway down the aisle, he saw a clump of five very large men sitting or kneeling on their seats, turned to face one much smaller man.

Must have something they want’, he thought, ‘guy like that could never hold the respect of bruisers like those’. He sized them up with his fighter’s eye, you could never really tell when powers were involved but six years on the circuit let him know what to look for. He looked them over carefully for subtle indications of confidence and skill, strength and indestructability. None of them measured up to him. ‘Except maybe that one’, he admitted to himself, ‘he might give me trouble’.

The object of his scrutiny was the largest of the five; he had an expression that conveyed that he wasn’t worried about anything. No one else he saw had quite such an unconcerned appearance, others hid it well, or weren’t scared, but no one was worry free.

Just then the large man laughed, braying out loud, and Muscle changed his mind about him. It wasn’t that he had no worries, it was that he was devoid of intelligence. Stupid enemies are easy enemies. He moved his gaze further down the bus putting him out of his mind.

It was a mixed bag in this bus, mostly men but a few women too. He spotted the most obvious strong man near the front, they had modified the seats there for extra-large passengers and this guy was certainly that. Easily eight feet tall and built like a truck. He sat there with a book in hand reading. Muscle figured him for tough but slow.

No one else really stood out to him so he lay back and took a nap.

He wasn’t sure how long he slept when he was woken up by sudden bouncing and jostling of the entire bus. “God damn it,” he exclaimed loudly, several others turning to look at him. “Doesn’t this thing have any shocks?” He swallowed down his nausea, took a few minutes to wake up, rubbed his eyes to clear his vision and looked out the window.

They weren’t on the highway anymore. They were going down a long rutted road with signs every so often warning them away.  Then, suddenly they weren’t. There was a momentary flash of light and they were on smooth road again, the bumping and jarring stopping as rapidly as it started.

The buses continued on down the road passing a sign telling them they were now entering Camp Starlight, ‘Stupid name’, Muscle thought. ‘A long gone hero, just because he was a pilot or something in World War Two doesn’t mean they should name this place after him’.

Entering the camp itself they passed a guardhouse with a raised barrier, two black uniformed men stood watch at that checkpoint. Muscle only got a quick glimpse but they looked like they were wearing some kind of body armor and carrying guns. ‘Why the hell do supers need guns and vests? Damn this really is a poor man’s HCP’, he bitched at the situation he was in yet again. ‘Maybe I should have tried to follow Sam into hero training’, he thought suddenly, then made a gagging noise causing others to look at him again. ‘Hell, I ain’t no hero, never going to be, never want to be’.

They continued to wind their way down the road, he watched as barracks and other buildings blurred past. One area they passed appeared to be the start of some sort of obstacle course, in another area floating rings bobbed up and down over ground that appeared to have been torn apart by explosions. The buildings seemed varied in purpose and thus in design. Some looked like bunkers while others appeared almost fragile.

The occupants of the bus had all stood up and were glued to the windows looking out at the facility that was to be their new home for the next several months.

Muscle stopped looking out as he caught a glimpse of something of much greater interest to him. Two women he couldn’t see before, they were short enough that their heads were below the level of the seats, were now standing and a sight for his sore eyes. The two of them had become the center of his attention.

The first was pretty enough, dark hair, fit, her face had chiseled features and was just a bit too sharp for Muscle, even though he liked her smile. But the second… when Muscle saw her, he actually decided he just yet might enjoy being in Force Ops. She had a perfect figure, if he were looking at a picture of her he would have been sure it was airbrushed.  Her wealth of hair was so black it actually looked blue, ‘of course’, he thought, ‘in this crowd it might actually be blue’. And her face was perfect, flawless dark skin, red lips, dark smoldering eyes.

Ok, maybe I am horny’, he thought as he shoved his way past the others down half the length of the bus to get to her. He got some nasty looks along the way but no one had the balls to try him.

“Hi,” he said, plastering a cheesy grin on his face.

The two women turned and glanced at him briefly, glancing up and down. The sharp faced one leaned over and whispered something into the ear of Muscle’s prey and both of them broke into giggles.

“Did I say something funny?” Muscle asked actually confused. He was handsome and well-built and his reputation and notoriety generally made picking up women easy for him.

“No,” beautiful said, “just predictable.” Even her voice was perfect, just a slight Spanish accent making her sound all the more sensual.

“Predictable? Me?”

“Wait,” she said suppressing a giggle, “next you were going to tell me my power has to be how beautiful I am. No?”

“I wouldn’t dream of using so cheesy a line on you,” he feigned offense though he had been about to use almost exactly that line.

“No,” she giggled again, “of course not.”

“Oh, I see, you’re a telepath or something.” He thought of icebergs, garbage scows, and the bathroom at one of the worst forums he ever fought at, everything as anti-sexual as he could. There was no way he wanted this woman to see what he had been imagining a few moments ago.

“No, not at all, I’m just the one who looks like this, surrounded by the men who act like you. I’ve gotten used to it. Harmless, but predictable.”

“Listen,” he said trying another tactic. “I’m just trying to get to know some people here. I’m not used to being another face in the crowd.”

“No I would guess not… Muscle.”

He did a double take, “wait a minute, you know who I am?” Her friend had collapsed back into her seat and was openly laughing.

“Of course I do, and you, it seems, don’t know who I am. Pity,” she said with mock sadness, “I do so love being recognized.” Her friend gasped for air next to her, she was laughing so hard at the exchange that she couldn’t breathe.

“Well then, let’s get together when we have some time off and I’ll make sure I can recognize every perfect inch of you.”

“Oh Muscle, I don’t think you’re man enough for me.”

“Baby, trust me I’m more than man enough.” He had enough flirting, it was time to go for it, and he took her by the shoulders and went in for a kiss to show her just how much of a man he was. Her friend stopped laughing and he heard a gasp from her just as he closed his eyes for the kiss.

Suddenly he had a sensation of intense pressure at his crotch, not in a good way. He felt himself lifting up into the air before his lips could make contact. He opened his eyes to see that the beautiful girl had a lock tight grip on his crotch and was holding him in the air by it with one hand.

“I told you I don’t think you’re man enough for me. Try that again and you won’t be man enough for anyone.” People all around the bus were staring at them. Some looked like they were about to get involved but the girl’s friend waved them all off.

Thank GOD I don’t feel pain’, the thought seemed to go through his mind a great many times. He changed the tension of his skin and made the area in question harder, much harder. “That’s not gonna do too much to me darling, if you really knew much about me you would know I’m not just a strong man, I control the tensile strength and recoil of my body. You have a grip on something harder than steel,” he said with a smile, “am I man enough for you now?”

She smiled up at him again and he started to feel the pressure on the area increase. He responded, increasing the tensile strength until he hit his limits and he still felt the pressure increasing. While it wasn’t painful, it was distinctly worrisome that some real damage might be done. He was just deciding how to best break loose when the bus pulled to a stop and the pressure abated somewhat.

Looking down from where he was held, he noticed they were now on the edge of what looked like a parade ground. Almost as soon as the bus came to a halt the door in front opened and a black uniformed man entered.

Standing next to the driver he started to yell at them. “Everyone off the bus now,” he ordered, “move it, move it, off, off, off.” Then, he started to slowly walk toward the back of the bus, prompting each and everyone in the bus to step off as fast as possible. For the most part everyone moved as they were told to do so. Most of the people in the bus were tired and a bit overwhelmed. Anyone giving them direction was to be listened to. One recruit took the order so literally, that when they found the path to the door still blocked with milling recruits, they dove through a now open window. He landed in a perfect tuck and roll, and stood up looking surprised at himself. The rest of the recruits weren’t quite that enthusiastic, but they began the slow push down the aisle.

The black-uniformed man, a corporal by his insignia, looked down the aisle and slightly raised an eyebrow as he saw the scene with Muscle and the woman. “Clear a path, now!” he said in a tone that brooked no question.

Seeing him coming her way, the woman almost casually tossed Muscle to the ground. “Some other time,” she said with a smile as she reached over to her seat to grab a knapsack. Turning back to him she added, “they say the army can make a man out of anyone,” she sniffed, “we’ll see,” and with a laugh she turned her back on him and started walking toward the front, smiling at the corporal as she approached.

Muscle was stunned, no one had ever swatted him aside so casually. He wasn’t hurt, aside from his pride, if anything he was even more intrigued. From his viewpoint from the floor he saw the corporal say a few words to her before she moved on passed him and he continued till he was standing above Muscle.

“Is there a problem here mister?”

“No problem at all”, he grinned, “just some rough foreplay.”

“None of that, this isn’t some sort of dating service, you are here to be a soldier. First lesson today is respect for your fellow trainees of both sexes. Am I clear?”

“Yeah yeah,” he said as he stood. He dwarfed the corporal who was, while fit, slight of build compared to him, and no more than five foot six. He looked down on him, the frown on the corporal’s face trying to drill a hole through his head. “Sir,” he added casually.

“First, yeah yeah is not an appropriate response to a question in Force Ops. Second you will address me as corporal, not sir. Is that clear?”

Muscle waved a hand over his shoulder at the corporal shrugging him off as he moved back to where he had been sitting. “Sure, whatever,” he said lazily.

“Are you just too stupid to take an order?”

“What order? Oh right, sure corporal.”

“Get off the bus,” he looked him up and down and tapped a device set on his wrist, “and give me five hundred pushups.”

“Yeah sure corporal, I’m getting my shit, give me a second.”

“I said now!” the corporal replied standing in the aisle next to Muscle’s seat where he was bent over gathering his belongings.

“When I have my shit I said!”

“Now! And make it one thousand pushups!”

Muscle was done, he was hung over, he was frustrated, and this pipsqueak was telling him what to do. Army or no army he wasn’t going to take this shit. He spun on his heel, pulled back to throw a bone shattering punch, let swing, and suddenly he was flying backwards through the air. He hit the wall of the bus and tore through it like tissue paper. Sharp edges of the glass and metal tore up his clothes though failed to draw any blood as he instinctively had strengthened his skin.

He flew twenty feet through the air, past the curb, over the paved sidewalk, and onto the actual parade ground. He narrowly missed hitting a woman with long dirty blond hair who was walking by, to land roughly on well-manicured green grass. Other recruits who were already standing on the parade ground dove out of the way to avoid his flying body. Now he lay among them, several still scrambling out of the way.

While Muscle was staggering to his feet the black-uniformed corporal flew out from the rent in the side of the bus as if shot out of a cannon and landed in front of him.

“Now that was a more appropriate speed to follow an order,” the soldier said. Twenty feet behind him another man in the standard black uniform walked over and touched the side of the bus. The hole began to seal up, the torn metal bending and twisting back into the proper shape. Fragments of glass and metal flew from the ground around them, Muscle even felt some pull away from his clothes, to fly back to their place of origin. After a few seconds, the side sealed up as if the damage was never there.

Muscle got to his feet and looked around, he was on the edge of a big open field, there were bleachers along the far edge and a platform set just forward of the bleachers. There was a podium on the platform. About a dozen people in uniform stood together on the platform, staring at him.

Other recruits surrounded the two of them like a crowd at a street fight. ‘No way I’m gonna look like the fool here’ he thought with anger welling up inside him, ‘first the girl, now this wimp, someone is gonna have to get pulped’. He stared down at the black uniformed soldier standing in front of him and planted his feet to resist… whatever it was he threw at him.

“These were nice clothes you just ruined, I think I’ll take the cost out in blood,” Muscle threatened. “You’re good with a sucker punch,” he growled, completely ignoring the fact that he had been about to deliver a sucker punch of his own. “Care to try it again with me looking? Cause this time you ain’t going to lay a hand on me.”

“I didn’t lay a hand on you last time,” he said calmly facing down the larger man. “Now, it’s time for you to drop and give me one thousand pushups.”

Muscle looked ready to fight right then and there. As he started to move forward there was a slight tremor in the ground that made him pause and look around. Everyone stood with hands out to keep balance. It felt like a mild earthquake, the kind Californians say they don’t even notice. Just as suddenly as it started, it ended.

Muscle was just turning back to face the corporal when a raised voice said “Everyone fall in! Line up by the numbers you were given at the transportation center! Attention to the reviewing stand!” The tone of that order left no room for disobedience. The recruits surrounding the imminent fight scrambled to locate their spots.

There, metal stakes with numbered flags from one to seventy-five on them were anchored into the ground in five rows of fifteen. They were set about five feet apart so the area covered was nearly half a football field in length. The new recruits slowly found their way to their numbers and faced the platform, no one seemed to know quite how to stand.

Muscle looked over at the people lining up and then back at the black uniformed soldier standing next to him. “Someday soon you and I are going to have to try that again. I guarantee a different outcome.” He then stalked off to stand next to number forty-two.

The corporal called after him as he walked off, “As soon as this is done you have an appointment with me to do a thousand pushups. After that, if you want, I’ll give you your sparing session.” It wasn’t lost on anyone that the corporal didn’t call it a fight.


Victoria stepped up the stairs onto the first of the buses with her husband Peter right behind her. They had hung back, they thought they would get on the second or third bus but they were directed to the first by a harried young man with a clipboard.

Because of that the bus was nearly full when they entered it. She looked around, unconsciously rubbing her neck where the inhibition collar had sat for the last few weeks. ‘Great’, she thought as she saw her bus mates, ‘we get to be on the island of misfit supers’. She leaned back to her husband and whispered, “So many of them are broken in so many ways.”

She watched him look around as well, the sheen of his now bald head disturbing her even more than her surroundings did. She still wasn’t used to his hair being gone, there wasn’t even any fuzz growing back yet, ‘this is pretty much the style he’s going to have to wear now anyway’, she wasn’t happy about it, she had loved tangling her fingers in his hair.  ‘At least for the foreseeable future’, she silently amended, ‘and at least they healed the scars’.

The two of them walked down the aisle looking for two seats together. There weren’t many to choose from but they saw one empty seat about halfway down and another all the way toward the back. “Well we either sit in the middle or I guess we get to sit with the cool kids,” she said to her husband as they kept moving down the aisle toward the back of the bus.

Victoria let her power loose as they walked looking at each recruit in turn. She figured there were twenty or twenty-five others in here with them and that made her a bit uncomfortable. She sought out their weaknesses, ‘just in case’ she told herself. Most of the people on the bus were run of the mill supers, but there were several powereds here as well she noted and several stood out to her.

In the seat just behind the driver was a man in his late twenties, handsome but not outstanding. She noted the extreme fitness that few people, even supers, managed to achieve. The attention he clearly paid to his exercise regimen wasn’t echoed in his grooming. His hair was unkempt, it was obvious he was overdue for a haircut, he had several days growth of beard that hadn’t even been touched up, it was extending up onto his cheeks and down toward his neck and chest. His cheeks were a bit hollow like he had lost some weight suddenly.

The most noticeable thing about him though were his eyes, he had a dead look in his eyes, like all the joy was gone from him. She would need to keep her distance from him, he was dangerous to her.

Behind him sat a pair of identical twins, usually by this age even identicals showed some divergence but these two were a dead on match for each other. Peter tapped her on the shoulder and whispered “entangled,” to her. She nodded, agreeing with his thoughts and kept walking.

Three seats further back was her next surprise. She stopped for a second, turned back to her husband flicked her eyebrows toward a young man, no more than eighteen, sitting in the fourth seat back and staring out the window. “Manhattan,” she mouthed silently, “at least.”

He leaned in and kissed her quickly while whispering, “weaknesses?”

“Not much, you can handle him though,” she whispered back, “talk more later.”

She passed another man three more seats down and whispered back, “take his cane and he’s helpless.”

An empty seat was coming up but as they got closer they heard strange sounds coming from it. Whirrs and whizzes, bangs, and pops. As they walked passed they look into the seat to see what looked like a fully three dimensional cartoon character. He was two big eyes in a mass of hair with a big red bow tie and a black top hat. No other features were visible except for two large feet stretched out on the seat which were covered in electric blue sneakers. The noises were coming from small exploding objects that leapt into existence around him and then disappeared.

“What the hell?” exclaimed Peter as he saw him. The big eyes shifted and focused on him, actually extruding out of the head and becoming larger. Peter couldn’t help it, he broke down laughing.

The… recruit… he was on the bus so he had to be a recruit, stood up to his full height, about seven and a half feet tall and looked down at Peter, his hair puffing out to make him look larger. Then a maw opened in the middle of the mass of hair that was his body and smiled in a big toothy grin. “Just remember, no one ever beat Bugs Bunny,” he said. Then his body shifted into a feminine anthropomorphic zebra, planted a big kiss on Peter’s bald head while six miniature cupids complete with tiny bows and arrows circled around their heads.

Peter was so stunned he didn’t move until Victoria dragged him on down the aisle to the sound of the cartoon character laughing. Peter looked back and saw he now looked human, with blond wavy hair and a tan, he gave off the impression of being a surfer. A small cartoon angel and devil were perched on his shoulders giving each other high fives.

Peter just shook his head as Victoria dragged him on. “What was…?”

“Talk later,” she said under her breath. “I told you broken… now shut up and watch.”

Two more seats down was a recruit that literally shifted forms from one person to another three times in the space of the ten seconds it took for them to reach his seat. Victoria paused and did a quick double take as he suddenly shifted into a female form, ‘maybe her seat?’ she corrected. The soft spots for them kept shifting with each shift, ‘I’ll have to watch them for a while, that will give me what I need’.

Finally they came to an open seat and she moved in and started to sit when a voice exclaimed “Hey!” from empty air at the top of his lungs. Parts of a person flickered in and out of sight in the seat. “Sorry, occupied,” the voice said indignantly.

Great another freaking invisible man’ she wasn’t happy with the prospect. She focused on the almost empty air and frowned. ‘This one can’t even control it’, she looked closer for a second, ‘not even capable of controlling it’, she corrected. ‘Great, he’s emotionally stunted and turns invisible when he feels out of control. We’re never going to see him he’s all one big soft spot’.

“What the hell were they thinking taking him into this crew?” her husband asked in a whisper as they moved on to the last empty seat in the bus all the way in the back right before the bench seat that went across the entire end of the bus.

As they reached the empty seat they got a good view of the three women sitting in the very back. It was a bench seat that went across most of the bus with the bathroom taking up the remaining area. In this odd collection of supers and powereds, there were several odd things about this final group. First the woman in the middle was wearing a black Force Ops uniform already, a corporal by her insignia. Second was that the other two women on either side of her looked even more frightened than anyone else she had seen either before getting on the bus or since. The one on the left was a dirty blond who, despite sitting back with her eyes closed, practically radiated fear. The third, and last, odd thing she noticed is that the corporal was holding the others hands.

Before Victoria could focus her power on them however the bathroom door opened and she had to step into the empty seat to let the woman coming out of the bathroom get by. She automatically shifted her gaze, and the focus of her power to the new woman. By this time, her mind had enough shocks to make most people comatose, her calm broke and she exclaimed out loud, “Really, the cartoon character wasn’t enough?”

The people in the seats around her turned to look at her and the woman trying to get by. The new comer looked like she was in her mid-twenties, her face was pretty but not outstanding, very pale skinned with freckles and deep red hair. She had, Victoria had to admit, a body to kill for. “What? You don’t like gingers Vicky?” she asked as she moved passed. No one noticed the pointed exchange of glares the two of them gave each other.

“What’s your name Red?”

“Vanessa,” she said in a low contralto, “Vanessa Oxbow.”

“I’ll remember it.”

“I’m sure you will. Give my regards to Harry when you see him next.”

“I’ll be sure to.”

The two of them parted and Vanessa walked back down to the front of the bus.

Victoria took her seat and Peter sat down next to her just as the bus pulled out of the garage onto the highway.

“What was that?” Peter asked.

“Trouble… more trouble… I can’t believe the sheer amount of…” she threw up her hands and groaned, “Arrrgh!” again causing the people around them to look at her.

“Advanced mind?” he asked as he thrust his chin at the retreating Vanessa.

Victoria looked down the aisle at the retreating woman, ‘I can’t believe she has such a perfect ass, her ass is nicer than mine!’ she thought ruefully. “No, not an advanced mind,” she answered. “We have a lot to talk about later.” She paused and dropped her voice to a whisper, “do you know where we are?”

“Yeah,” he whispered back conspiratorially. “Nevada, I could tell as soon as we left the garage and its interdiction field.”

“So you can fold again?”

“Yeah,” he said shaking his head no, “but it wouldn’t do any good. Unless we had everything we needed set to go it won’t help. We couldn’t get away and I wouldn’t survive it.”

“Time, it’s only a matter of time.”

“Maybe… the good news is the enhancements definitely work, I can sense the difference.”

“Great… all things considered I’d rather have you weaker but without the other additions.”

“Well I would too.”

Victoria closed her eyes for a moment wondering yet again how they got here. They were the King and Queen of the super thieves. They weren’t stupid, they never left clues to trace them back to their real identities. Hell they were buried so deep in false identities, dummy corporations, and dead end trails that sometimes she had trouble remembering who they really were.

She replayed their capture in her head again and again looking for anything they could have done to prevent it. Short of not being there or having additional automatic defenses, which came with their own set of issues, she didn’t see anything.

When that Major Alexander woman hauled them into that underground vault she was sure it was going to be both better and worse than it actually was. Inhibitor collars in place not letting them focus their thoughts enough to really activate their powers, surrounded by powerful hostile supers, and being told they were drafted into Force Ops still didn’t prepare her for the next meeting.

God damn it’, she replayed the scene in her mind again. ‘He had introduced them, eight years ago, and they hadn’t seen him again since their wedding. The whole thing was such a freak chance to begin with but right after meeting her he told her that she just had to meet Peter and almost literally dragged her into the library to meet him. He was right about that, he is the love of my life. And my only real weakness’.

The shock they had when they walked in the room to see him standing there pouring tea for them. ‘How had he been at that party again?’ she asked herself. ‘He was a friend of Peter’s uncle and picked up her mother on the side of the road when she had a flat tire. She was coming to the party and he was dropping something off with Peter’s uncle and was invited in. Wasn’t that it? What were the chances?

“Hello Victoria, Peter. It’s been quite some time. I hope you are well?”

“You know damn well we aren’t well. Were those your goons? What do you have to do with Force Ops?” She shot questions at him rapid fire, no pauses between them to give him any chance to answer.

He waited till she was done and handed her a cup of tea. She scented the air and had trouble believing it.

“Yes it’s Da Hong Pao, I know your exotic tastes. It’s actually from your cabin so don’t get overly excited. I’d actually be curious as to how you managed to get it?” he looked at her inquiringly.

She took the tea and inhaled the floral steam rising from it. She did not answer his question. Instead she asked one of her own, “So you aren’t just a kidnapper, you’re also a thief? Well that puts us on the same level doesn’t it?”

Now it was her turn to be ignored. He handed her husband a different cup. “English breakfast with cream for you Peter. Your tastes are quite different than Victoria’s. That’s probably why you make such a good couple. Diversity and all that.”

He took the cup as well. He also handed him a bottle of Tylenol. “For the headache I’m sure you have after the being knocked senseless.” He turned to Victoria, “I’m sure you won’t need it. I doubt the collar inhibits you that much.” He looked at his watch, “in fact, how much longer would you say it will even work Victoria? Seven maybe eight minutes?”

She smiled at him over the tea cup and said, “Maybe,” as her only reply.

“Well then I have that long to speak to you comfortably and inform you of your circumstances.”

“And then what?”

“Then you make a decision,” he looked at her and she could see intense fatigue behind those eyes. If only she could focus on him. “It’s a very important decision,” he continued.

She was pulled from her reverie when Peter shook her shoulder gently. The bus was making a sharp left off the road. ‘How long was I out?’ she asked herself and looked out their window at the bleak landscape, then looked across the aisle out the opposite window. She didn’t note much difference between the view out the two sides of the bus but she did notice the young man sitting in the seat next to theirs.

She had been so distracted by Vanessa that she didn’t even glance at him before. ‘What’s happening to me?’ she asked herself, ‘I’m never like this, that’s why we are so successful’, she berated herself. ‘I have to get a grip, this whole thing may be the biggest shock of our lives but the devil is in the details and this is one I shouldn’t have missed’.

She tapped her husband again and whispered, “the boy next to us, he’s the survivor.”

Peter glanced over to the other seat and then nodded agreement when he turned back to her. “He’s supposed to be under psychiatric care according to the news. What’s he doing here?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, “but like I said, so many of them are broken. He’s no different. He’s easy to tip over, he’s already tipped over in many ways.”

Suddenly she put her arms around Peter and pulled him into a tight hug. She wasn’t sure why she did it, she certainly wasn’t planning to. It wasn’t that they weren’t affectionate toward each other. She laughed to herself, ‘very affectionate’. It was that she always had better control than this. She needed him to lean on just now.

“You’re my strength to you know?” she whispered in his ear.

“And you’re mine,” he whispered back.

They sat there like that for an unclear amount of time, eyes closed, until the feel of the ride changed. They were back on paved road.

“We just passed through a distortion field,” Peter whispered to her. “We must be close. We’re still in Nevada, just hidden well.”

They looked out the window again just as they were passing a guardhouse. Just a few minutes after that, they were pulling up to a parade ground followed immediately by being ordered to get off the bus.

As they stepped off there was a loud disturbance from the second bus. One of the recruits came flying through the wall of the bus to land on the grass twenty feet away followed quickly by a black uniformed corporal, apparently the one who threw him. She and Peter joined the crowd and waited for the fight to start. “If you have to face the corporal he’s purely linear,” she whispered to Peter, “the other guy is easy for you to deal with.”

The fight never started, it was interrupted first by a tremor, then by a raised voice which ordered “Everyone fall in! Line up by the numbers you were given at the transportation center! Attention to the reviewing stand!” Everyone, including the aggressive recruit head off to their spots. Though he clearly needed to try, unsuccessfully, to get in the last word. ‘He isn’t going to fit in well here’, she thought as she walked with Peter to number fifty-four. ‘Then again neither are we’.

“Are you ready for this?” Peter asked her, looking into her eyes, searching for a glimmer of her true feelings.

“I can deal with it,” she replied flatly, “not much choice, is there?”

“The price might be worth it.”

“Never say that again. Never think it. It is not worth it now. It won’t be worth it in ten years. And it still wouldn’t be worth it even if Far From Noble leveled this place and us with it tomorrow.” This time she looked deep into his eyes. “I will never sacrifice you,” she said then kissed him deeply before walking off.

She didn’t have a number. Her designation was PG.

She walked to the front of the group, half way between the recruits and the reviewing stand where a single flag was set in the ground apart from all the others. That flag also said PG. She took her place next to it and stood hands clasped behind her back, feet shoulder width apart, her back was straight, shoulders back and chest out. ‘Well Force Ops, here I am, let’s see what you’ve got’.


Heather looked out the office window into the garage where three buses sat, their engines silent until they were ready to go. Nearly one hundred people must have been milling around waiting for someone to tell them it was time to get on their bus.

“I can’t do it!” she exclaimed suddenly, the small amount of furniture in the room started shaking and trembling in place. A cup suddenly fell off the table bouncing off the ground and spilling a small amount of herbal tea that was left in it.

“Yes you can,” said the old man waiting with her.

“Jesse, I know you want to help me, but the army? Force Ops? Hell being in a bus closed in with so many people? Please don’t make me do this,” she pled.

“Heather, you just need to stay calm, remember I’m working on a solution for you. We have some temporary solutions but a permanent one will come. But Force Ops pays the bills, and if you aren’t in Force Ops… they don’t get paid.”

The furniture started sliding across the floor pushing away from where she stood.

It’s not affecting me directly, I wonder why not?’ Jesse pondered. ‘There’s a clue in there somewhere’. He walked up to her and took her hand. “You need to stay calm. It will be OK.”

“I can sense them all out there you know, sense their nervousness, their uncertainty, their fear. It’s all repeating on me. It’s not like I understand what’s causing it, I just feel it,” she grabbed the sides of her head, “right here.” She fell to her knees crying, a chair flew into the wall and shattered, the window vibrated making a thrumming sound alongside her sobs. “How am I going to get into a rolling box with them and travel on the… roads. Can’t you just teleport me there? You teleported me here, why can’t you teleport me there?”

Jesse knelt down next to her, not letting go of her hand. “Heather… it’s just not allowed. But it’s OK, it will be safe.” He tapped his glasses and spoke aloud, “Please send Krista in.”

There were two doors to the room, one was next to the window and obviously led out to the garage area where everyone was milling around. The second door was on the opposite wall and must have led deeper into the complex. Heather sensed another person coming from behind that door. Panic came over Heather’s face and her hair began to writhe and twist forming an aura around her head. The doorknob suddenly started rattling and the door flew open pushing outward from Heather despite it being meant to open inward.

A woman in a black uniform entered the room. Her hair was in a single tight braid. “Thanks for getting the door, I’m Corporal Lambert” she said with a smile, though Heather could sense the tension from her.

“Stay away, I don’t want to hurt you.” She turned and looked at Jesse, “I told you this wasn’t a good idea. I should go back to Dignity.”

“They can’t help you Heather,” he said calmly, and surprisingly he actually felt calm to Heather, despite the difficult situation. “That’s why you came with me, remember?”

“I… I know but… I can’t… cars, buses… I don’t want it to happen again.”

“Heather, you know that wasn’t your fault. It was a drunk driver getting behind the wheel of an eighteen wheeler. They caused the accident not you. Your power flaring this way is what saved you.”

“I wish it hadn’t.” She wailed and the table slammed into the wall next to Krista who had started inching forward. “No!” Heather screamed, “Don’t come any closer!” and she stopped in her tracks.

“Heather,” Jesse said distracting her from the corporal, “focus on me. You trust me don’t you?”

“I do Jesse,” she answered realizing it was true. She couldn’t sense much from people but she knew Jesse was trustworthy despite what he did for a living.

“Then trust this. Focus and let her in.”

“It doesn’t work that way Jesse. I can’t control it.”

“No, you can’t control it, you can’t just let a threat through. But, you can see her as safe. If you see her as safe your power will ignore her. You can see for yourself. You trust me and it’s not doing anything to me.”

It was true. He knelt there next to her actually holding her hand. It was a rare thing for her now, human contact. “I… I don’t know how to do that.” Her eyes flicked toward Krista again, she was sliding backward toward the door while trying to push against the force that was moving her.

“Listen to me Heather,” Jesse said turning her head gently and looking into her eyes. “It’s OK, we are going to help you, no one here blames you for anything. Just listen to me, focus on me.”

“Jesse, I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize, just listen to me. It will be alright.” They sat there with Jesse softly speaking to her, holding her hand, rocking back and forth for the next few minutes. Slowly her tears began to lessen, her breathing became more regular, she started to calm down, and Krista took her other hand.

She looked up shocked, frightened even, but nothing happened. Nothing shook, nothing moved, and Krista wasn’t flung away into the wall.

“It will be OK now,” Krista said comfortingly.

“How? What? I…” Heather was confused. She tried to pull away but found she couldn’t let go of Krista’s hand. “I’m… I’m stuck to you.”

“It’s all right dear. It’s just part of my power. I’m going to keep you from doing anything while on route to training.”

“Oh…” she started crying again, “thank you, thank you so much. I must seem like such a baby. I don’t know why you would even want someone like me in Force Ops.”

“Heather, can I call you Heather?” a nod came in reply. “Heather, I make lots of trips just like this one. I’ve seen more supers and powereds who went through emotional upheavals and lack of control than you can imagine. I still talk to several of them. Don’t worry, they always get help. And you are far from the most emotional one I’ve seen.”

“Your name is Krista?”

“Yes. But I’m on duty and you are a recruit, so you should call me Corporal Lambert. Or if you’d like you can use my call sign, it’s Custody.”

“Custody? Does that mean I’m under arrest?”

“No,” she laughed, “don’t take the name so literally. I can shut down powers as long as I’m touching someone. And if I touch someone, I can hold on until I decide to let go. Sometimes I have to arrest a super but that’s a rare thing. I’m permanently attached to the training brigade. We have other supers who can shut down powers at more of a distance, they end up in combat units. Me I help newbies get under control.”

“So you will be there if I lose control?”

“I will sweetie,” she answered in a friendly manner.

“So,” she said drying her tears, felling a bit less worried for the first time. “Do we go now?”

“Not quite yet, Heather,” Jesse answered, “there are a couple of other things.”


“First, this is for you.” Jesse handed her a small disc.

“It’s your failsafe. It matches the wrist tracker and communicator you will be issued at training, you wear it on the opposite wrist, so you will have two discs like this.”

“What does it do?”

“It will help control your powers if they get out of control and Krista… Custody, isn’t around.”

“You can call me Krista, Colonel, it’s well within protocol.”

“First I would need to be OK with you calling me Colonel, Krista, anyway it’s Lieutenant Colonel. Back to the disc though, it contains two different drugs. I hate to use drugs to try and control situations with powereds but until we have a better handle on things that’s what we will need to do.”

“Drugs?” Heather asked numbly while also trying to wrap her mind around the fact that this nice old man, this brilliant scientist, was also a Lieutenant Colonel in Force Ops.

“Yes, the first one will dampen your emotions. It will numb you. Think of it as the ultimate anti-anxiety med. If you are feeling yourself lose control in a significant way, tap it with your finger and hold it for two seconds. It’s coded to you only, no one else can grab it and activate it.”

“Why didn’t you use it before? When I almost destroyed this place?”

“I didn’t think it was that bad a situation.”

“Not that bad?” she asked looking around in amazement at the wrecked furniture, the cracks running up the walls and in the concrete floor.

“No,” he said simply making her wonder what he did consider bad. “The drug can be habit forming if used too often and I don’t want that to happen. It’s for emergencies only not just because you are a bit worried. And yes I will know how often you are using it and deal with that if needed.”

“If you tap it twice rapidly,” he demonstrated, “the second drug releases. That one will knock you out completely in about five seconds.”

“But Jesse, knocking me out won’t help. Some of the worst problems happen in my sleep.”

“We’ve run the EEGs when they happen. You are always dreaming when they occur, nightmares that intrude on the waking world. You don’t dream when this drug knocks you out. It lasts for about ten minutes. Enough time to get Krista there or find another way to deal with an issue.”

“OK,” she said letting Jesse attach the disc to her wrist, “you said there were a couple of other things, what else?”

“There’s one more trainee that needs Krista’s help to travel.”

“Another dangerous powered?”

“No, she’s not dangerous as much as disruptive.”

“What do you mean?”

Jesse tapped his glasses again, “Send in Donna.”

About a minute later Heather sensed someone coming and then a woman walked through the door. Heather did a double take as she looked at her. She was in her mid-forties, long brown hair, an open friendly face and a few freckles across her nose. “Mom? What are you doing here?”

“No Heather, she’s not your mother,” Jesse said softly, “Donna’s as nervous about you as you are about her, that’s her desire for you to trust her and not see her as a threat.”

“She’s what?” as Heather looked closer, she realized that it clearly wasn’t her mother but she did sort of resemble her mother. She would have let her walk right up to her in need of a hug from her mommy without thinking twice and apparently so would her powers.

“Don’t blame her,” Jesse added, “she wasn’t trying to fool you. Donna is no more in control of her powers than you are. She instinctively projects what people want to see or she thinks people want to see. It gets a bit murky when trying to sort it out but that’s the basics.”

“Oh,” said Heather.

“I’m sure you can see why it might not be a good idea to drop that into a testosterone laden bus of Force Ops recruits?”

“Yeah, I definitely can see that.”

“Donna, if you would?” Jesse asked.

Donna walked up to the group of them, carefully picking her way through the debris showing an unexpected grace of movement. She faced Heather and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t help it.” Then she reached out and took Custody’s hand.

The changes were mostly subtle. The resemblance to her mother was gone. She had been mistaken, there weren’t any freckles, her skin was flawless. And her hair was blond and short, not long and brown. She was also much younger than she had thought she was, early twenties at most. Lastly the open friendly nature changed to project almost a cynicism distinctly noticeable, especially for someone her own age.

“Wait, I know you,” Heather said with sudden realization, “you were in Starbright, that really bad biopic about Captain Starlight. You played Diamond Glance.”

“Yeah,” Donna replied, looking a bit embarrassed over it.

“You… you were good.”

“I stank,” Donna corrected her. “It’s OK, I know how bad I was in there. It has to do with my… Oh never mind, I stank. Please don’t be nice about it, you don’t have to.”

“OK,” interrupted Jesse, “now it’s time to go. You guys load up first,” he gestured toward the door leading into the garage.

The three women walked hand in hand to through the door and onto the nearest bus which was empty other than the driver. They walked straight back to the very last row where there was a bench seat set next to the bathroom that went across the rest of the width of the bus.

“Does anyone need to use the bathroom before the others get on the bus?” asked Custody. “If we wait, I’d either have to let go or the three of us need to go in together neither of which is a good answer.”

“I kinda have to go,” answered Heather, “but I don’t think we can fit,” she said looking at the booth like restroom.

“We can’t, you go, I’ll stand in the door and maintain contact. You’ll have to handle things one handed.”

“Um that’s OK, I can hold it.”

“If modesty is the problem just forget that now. Once you’re in the barracks, all expectations of modesty are gone.”


“Just go, I’m not looking forward to you having an accident halfway down the highway.”

Heather entered the tiny cubicle and did what she needed to do. Donna took the opportunity to do so as well. Custody having known what to expect didn’t need to.

When she was done, Donna shrugged and said, “I used to be a runway model, you wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve done in front of people while I had no clothes on.”

After their business was done, they all sat on the bench seat, hand in hand in hand. Custody signaled the driver and the bus started filling with people. Heather closed her eyes and simply enjoyed not sensing everyone moving around her. She wasn’t sure how she would take seeing everyone moving around and not sensing them so she decided she would just take the time for some solitude.

Before they left her solitude was interrupted by a loud exclamation of “Really, the cartoon character wasn’t enough?” She opened her eyes and a redhead had just come out of the bathroom and a tall woman with blue-black hair was facing her. The dark haired woman apparently was the one who made the comment.

She glanced at Custody and Donna. Donna glanced back at her looking just as confused. Custody looked straight ahead at the two other women until their odd conversation ended and they parted ways, the redhead moving toward the front of the bus and the other woman sitting down in the seat in front of them.

The rest of the trip was pretty dull for Heather, something she was immensely happy about. ‘It won’t stay that way once I get off this bus and let go of Krista’s… Custody’s hand’ she lamented. ‘But for now, dull is good’.

When the bus came to a stop Custody shook Heather to let her know. She hadn’t been asleep but it was easy for anyone else to think she was. She was just enjoying the peace of being unaware for a short time.

Just after stopping another soldier in the black Force Ops uniform got on the bus and ordered everyone to swiftly get off the bus. People began to move, not swift enough for the soldier who began to use fairly colorful language to describe the appearance, unsavory habits, and overall failures of not only the recruits who couldn’t move fast enough for him, but their parents, grandparents, and anyone “with the piss poor luck to have had conjugal relations with them”.

Heather and Donna both started to rise but Custody held them tight and motioned left and right with her head for them to sit back down.

Once the bus was empty of everyone but the driver and the three of them she let go of their hands. She had been holding them for so long it came as something of a surprise to suddenly have the use of both arms again. A brief tremor ran through the bus and it began to rock just slightly right after Heather was no longer holding on to Custody. She realized her powers, and Donna’s were no longer suppressed. She glanced at Donna and was surprised to find she looked a bit like the pictures she’d seen of Diamond Glance.

“Heather,” Custody broke the silence she held since the others had first boarded the bus, “you should know for the last hour or so I haven’t been suppressing you at all.”

“But… but… you were holding my hand the whole time.”

“I’m not powered,” she said curtly. “I can control who I bond and who I suppress. I kept you bonded but stopped suppressing your powers right after the bus was about half full.”

“That’s impossible. I would have sensed people.”

“No,” she disagreed, “that’s what powers linked to belief and emotion gets you. You knew I was suppressing your power so you believed there was no danger. This kept you calm and unworried, even when an argument broke out in front of you, even surrounded by over twenty five other supers. Remember this, stay calm and stay controlled. Your emotions control your power even if you don’t. Control your emotions and your power is yours to command.”

“I…” she swallowed hard and tried to calm herself. The tremor stopped but she still looked nervous. Her finger began to move toward the disc on her wrist but she held it back. ‘Too soon’, she thought, ‘I have to use it sparingly or they will take it away, maybe kick me out with no hope for a miracle’.

“Better get going. You wouldn’t want to be late for first muster.” With that, she directed them out of the bus.

Heather stepped off the bus. She was breathing deeply and evenly trying to embrace her calm. That held right to the instant another recruit came flying through the wall of the second bus no more than five feet from where she was walking and landed on his back in the grass. This was followed immediately by yet another soldier in Force Ops black who landed on his feet within arm’s reach of the fallen recruit.

Her deep breaths became ragged hyperventilation, she saw a crowd gather quickly around the two men, someone was yelling something, and then she lost it. She felt the shaking all around her, she watched the busses sway back and forth. She felt it building within her and radiating out.

Then Donna was there, looking like a cross between her mother and Custody. She tried to grab Heather’s hand but was pushed back. No one could approach when this happened, if they did, they got hurt. It was too late even if Custody came back right now she couldn’t have reached her to use her powers. There was going to be a disaster.

“Heather!” Donna screamed, “Use the failsafe! Jesse told me he was going to give you a failsafe! Use it Heather!”

She remembered now, the disc on the back of her wrist. She rolled up her sleeve, tapped the disc and held it for two seconds. Suddenly it was as if she were standing somewhere else, she was separated from all her worries and concerns. She could breathe again. She took a deep calming breath and the tremor stopped. She looked around, everyone was so focused on the fight that no one had noticed them at all.

Seconds later a raised voice ordered “Everyone fall in! Line up by the numbers you were given at the transportation center! Attention to the reviewing stand!”

She looked around, there were a bunch of flags spaced out on the grass ahead. She mouthed a thank you to Donna before the two of them split up to find their spots. She was number twenty-two, almost in the middle of the second row. Donna, she noticed, was in the first row two spaces to her right. There was a man on either side of her, ordinary looking fellows, though the one to her right was holding a flute.

She glanced around calmly for once. Almost everyone was lined up. She saw a number of individuals who stood out for one reason or another but there were two very obvious inconsistencies. The first was an empty space right in the middle of the back row. The second was a single flag set ahead of the other five rows halfway between the first row and the reviewing stand. There was no number on that flag, instead the letters PG stood out on it. The tall woman from the bus, the one with the blue-black hair who almost got in an argument with the redhead, walked up to that flag and then stood there in what Heather took as a good imitation of parade rest.

The other missing person was nowhere to be seen. As Heather watched, two soldiers came up to that space and placed down what looked to be a steel plate over the grass next to number sixty-eight. Briefly she wondered if this were a violation of “give attention to the reviewing stand”, but everyone was staring at this and no one from the reviewing stand tried to stop it.

A third soldier brought what looked like a rolled up carpet and once the plate was down, the three of them began to unroll it just like a carpet until it came to the back of the third bus. It quite obviously wasn’t a carpet but some sort of white material, there was nothing about it to indicate its purpose. Once it was completely unrolled two of the three soldiers walked away and stood at the sides of the assembled recruits. The last soldier opened the back door of the third bus.

A shimmer ran through the air as the door was opened, like those seen in above the asphalt of a highway in the summer. She was far enough away that she didn’t feel anything but she sensed discomfort from the last row of recruits. The view of the bus wavered slightly when seen through that air and from within another recruit came forth.

He was a large man wearing a white tee shirt and jeans. Around his neck and coming down onto his chest was a dark metal collar, almost a harness. Here and there flames flickered across his body glowing briefly and then going out. He was dark skinned with black hair, and a nose that looked like it had been broken and not set right.

He looked around nervously before hopping down and walking along the white pathway that had been placed for him. Each step he took left a dark footprint behind him which stayed for a few seconds before fading away and returning to the white of the material. Heather realized the  purpose of the pathway now, and assumed it was obvious to everyone there.

As number sixty-eight slid into place in the last row, a sharp whistling sound came from the reviewing stand. “Attention!” came a shout right after the whistle stopped.

Heather didn’t really know what to do though several dotting the ranks here and there appeared to stand up straight with their arms at their sides and head facing forward. So that’s what she did. She brought her arms to her side, stood up straight, and paid attention to the people on the reviewing stand.

Everyone on the stand was wearing black Force Ops uniforms with different insignias, medals, ribbons, and braid. One of them, an African American, stepped up to the edge of the platform he was a man in his absolute prime. His upper arm had three chevrons on three rockers and in the center of them was a five pointed star with wings. There was a small gold disc on his collar but the image on it was too small to be seen. He spoke with a loud and forceful voice that only gave a mild impression that he gargled with gravel.

“Attention for Orders!” he said somehow loud enough to be heard by everyone present without actually shouting.

A large man in a black uniform with a single silver star on a ribbon at each shoulder stepped away from the group and up to the podium. There were numerous ribbons and medals on his chest and he radiated calm authority. His hair was black shot through with gray. His eyes were black as well, not dark brown but actually reflective black, almost obsidian in color. This alone would have marked him as a probable super even if they weren’t standing smack dab in the center of Force Ops training command. To Heather he looked solid and conveyed a modicum of age and maturity.

In his hands he held a gold embossed leather folio. He tapped the microphone to make sure it was live, the amplified tap-tap and static radiated out from well hidden speakers. He opened the folio and began to read.

“To Colonel A.W. Wright, Fourth Armored Regiment, US Army Force Ops. By order of the Commander and Chief and the agreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, you are hereby promoted to the rank of Brigadier General with all rights, responsibilities, and privileges conveyed thereby. Furthermore you are requested and required to relinquish your command to Major Maxwell Reese and are hereby transferred to command of the newly formed Beta Tango Training Brigade, Camp Starlight, effective immediately. Signed General Joshua Glenn, Commander US Army Force Ops.”

He closed the folio and looked out at the assembled recruits.

“Gentlemen and ladies, I am General A.W. Wright and I am the commanding officer of this training brigade, that includes the entirety of those currently enlisted in Force Ops and awaiting training which is many thousands but also includes this smaller group.”

He paused for a moment and watched the recruits before continuing. “Don’t bother to salute, you don’t know how to yet.” Heather heard a small bit of laughter from various places among the recruits. No one seemed to be sure if he was making a joke.

He ignored it and continued. “I felt it was important for you to see me today, your first day as soldiers in Force Ops. To know I am present and not simply some name on an org chart who has never even stepped foot on base. I will be watching each and every one of you carefully and I will be reviewing the reports of those directly responsible for your training. I expect each and every one of you to do your absolute best. I do not,” he stressed, “expect to ever be called for a disciplinary issue, so I am glad that there have been none so far.” With that many of the trainees turned to look at the large recruit who had flown through the wall of the bus. Heather was one of those who turned and looked back at him, he was in the third row to her right. He had a sullen look on his face.

The general stepped back to the group, nodding to the African American soldier to continue.

“I am Command Sergeant Major D.C. Wellington,” he introduced himself. “I am in charge of your overall training. While you are in basic training you will address me as Drill Sergeant, not sir, not sergeant, not D.C., and not sarge.”

“If you slip and use any such form of address you will immediately drop and give me fifty pushups and that number goes up by fifty for each week we are here. For those of you who are physically enhanced don’t feel left out, you’ll wish your talents lie elsewhere should we find the need to inflict such punitive measures upon you.”

“This is the United States Military not the HCP, any of you who think this is a way to play super hero for the army will learn differently right now. You are soldiers not super heroes. We are Force Ops and you will be proud to be Force Ops by the time I am done with you.”

“Now you will have one thing in common with super heroes and that is a name befitting of one.

“Ever since Tom Cruise took to the skies with Terri Nunn singing in the background, people thought they understood great flyers and everyone wanted a call sign. Whether it’s ‘Maverick’ or ‘Titan’ everyone wants to be someone. So congratulations, it’s too much work to try and stop you from giving each other nick names. As one of the last things you get to choose for yourself, you get to pick your call sign.”

There was a titter through the group, as people started saying their names out loud and whispering to their neighbors.

“One more thing, I have veto over any name chosen and, if I have to use my veto, you will realize that all choices have consequences.  Am I clear?

“Yes, Drill Sergeant!” Heather shouted and heard the same reply echoing from nearly every voice there.

The Drill Sergeant waited for the shout of agreement to die down and continued. “On the top of the flag with your number on it you will each find a metallic disc. That is your tracker and com. Make no mistake, we will track you one hundred percent of the time you are here. You take a dump in the woods and we will track you. Two of you decide to have a little midnight rendezvous and we will track you. As of this minute, you have no privacy.”

“Take that disc and apply it to the back of your left wrist. Once there, it will not come off unless we remove it or your arm comes off with it.”

He paused and looked out at the group.

Heather picked up the disc. It did look just like the one on her right wrist. She took it and applied it to her left wrist and just like her other disc it stuck there. She looked around and saw everyone else seemed to be doing it as well.

“Now,” continued the Drill Sergeant, “when I tell you to proceed, tap the back of the disc twice and give it your name and the call sign you wish to be known by.” He waited for a good fifteen seconds and said “Proceed.”

Heather thought about it for only a few seconds before she tapped the disc twice, being careful to make sure to tap the one on her left wrist, not her right. A calm voice said, “Please state your name.”

“Heather Fines.”

“Please state your call sign.”


“Call sign accepted.”

Heather waited while her fellow recruits chose their own call signs. Sometimes she heard a quick exclamation, she assumed when a bad name was chosen. But after a few minutes the Drill Sergeant began to speak again.

“Very good,” he began, “almost record time and I didn’t have to personally get involved with any choices.”

“Now, while you are here in boot camp, you are organized in a training platoon. This platoon consists of five squads of fifteen boots each. We have chosen five squad leaders from among you as well as an overall platoon guide who will be the interface between your platoon and myself as needed.”

“You will all get to know your squad mates and the other members of the platoon over the next few weeks but right now you will be told who the leaders are among you.”

One after another the first recruit in each line stepped forward, raised their arm and gave their name and call sign. Their voices were amplified by the com discs on each of their wrists. Despite so many being there, no echo or distortions occurred. ‘The wonders of super science’, thought Heather.

From Donna’s row a slight man stepped up and said in a mild voice, “Danny Blake, Grifter.”

From her own row an incredibly well built man stepped forward and said “Cameron Burgess, Kiai.” The name was the sound someone shouted when breaking boards in karate. She wasn’t sure she liked the name and he was her squad leader. She smiled when she realized her powers didn’t fluctuate at all despite her negative thoughts. Great stuff this anti-anxiety drug. Too bad she wasn’t going to be allowed to use it all the time.

The next row was a smiling woman, “Elaine Hargrove, Wrath.” From her viewpoint Heather was sure Wrath was smiling up at someone on the platform. The reactions from the people on stage were strong enough that Heather sensed a tickle of amusement, along with many more of frustrated annoyance. The eyes of one of the women in the group flickered toward Wrath for a second and her mouth curled up toward a grin before she controlled it and resumed an absolutely flat expression.

Then from the fourth row came a man’s voice saying “Mickey Hynes, Bullet.” A flare of surprise and nervousness, and actual fear was coming from him so powerful that Heather easily noticed it. If not for the drugs in her system she would be beginning to push it away from her it was so strong.

The final squad leader didn’t radiate anything that Heather could pick up. He simply stepped forward and said “Kenny York, Iconic.” All of the other squad leaders had been older, at least in their mid-twenties. ‘Hell’, she thought, ‘that last one looked to be about forty’. This final squad leader was a kid, he had to be eighteen, fresh faced and ready to face the world. ‘I hope you don’t get crushed by it kid’.

After all five squad leaders had introduced themselves and stepped back into position next to their flags. The Drill Sergeant spoke again, “Your platoon guide,” was all he said.

The woman standing separately in front with the wealth of blue-black hair turned around and faced the crowd of recruits. With a smile on her face she said, “Victoria Raines, Precise.”

A flood of whispers ran through the recruits. ‘Precise?’ wondered Heather, ‘The super villain Precise? But if she…

Despite the drug in her system, another tremor briefly shook the field. Her hair began to writhe around her in the halo indicating her powers were fully active. Then, suddenly, the ring of recruits around Heather, were thrown back at least five or six feet and knocked off their feet. All except the one standing immediately behind her, the grass rippled at his feet, even the recruit in the fourth row behind him was pushed back slightly, but despite the force obviously being applied to him, he didn’t move even a fraction of an inch. His hair wasn’t even disturbed.

She looked over in horror at what she had just done, the area around her started to heave up, the grass looking like ripples passing through water and Heather was the stone dropped in to disturb the calm surface.

“I’m so sorry!” she wailed plaintively. She quickly tapped the disc on her right wrist twice and fell to the ground unconscious. 

Dance of Shadows: Chapter 34

Amara shuddered in Finn's arm as climax took her.  Literally three breaths later and he was overcome as well.  As ways to wake up went, he'd never found better.

The beautiful brunette slumped in his embrace, draping herself over Finn's broad chest and basking in the early dawn light.  Other girls might have concealed themselves modestly beneath the bed sheets but Amara was gloriously nude.  The length of her shone whitely against his ebony skin, a contrast he never failed to find pleasing. 

"Mmmmm, it's all downhill from here," Amara murmured, her soft brown eyes half-lidded with pleasure. 

Finn traced the Chinese symbol on her arm, the hanzi for 'Light'.  It was usually so apt.  "You're cheery, you are.  Not even awake thirty minutes and it's all downhill?  What's the matter, babe?"

"Did you forget they're coming, in like..."  Amara rolled slightly over his chest, pressing delightful curves against him.  "Damn, we need to get up, get showered, get some breakfast and be ready to go when they get here in the next couple hours.  I hate my life."

"I've been looking forward, you know.  Meeting your parents.  Especially since they live in Orlando.  What I still don't see is why you never-"

Amara silenced him with her mouth.  Then she rolled off of him entirely and started fishing for clothes.  Finn just lay there, flat on his back, marveling at the sheer majesty of that graceful creature.  At least until she threw his shirt over his face. 

"Come on, British boy.  If you want to meet my folks, you better move your ass.  Or I do, anyway, if I don't want Alley beating me to the shower."

Finn yawned hard enough to crack his jaw as he walked out of the bedroom after his girlfriend, who'd found the second-floor bathroom at the end of the hall empty and promptly leaped inside with a gleeful pounce.  Chuckling, he noticed Nate's room was ajar and peeked in.  The redhead was rolled up on his side, facing the window, snoring peacefully. 

Except Nate had plainly occupied only half the bed.  The sheets on the other side were empty but had held another body in the not-so-distant past.  Finn blinked.  That was unexpected. 

To confirm a suspicion, he bravely cracked Jia and Julie's door a fraction and the mystery deepened.  Julie was snug in her bed, soundly asleep.  Impossible to tell at the moment if she'd spent most of the night in Nate's bed or not but the act was convincing enough at least. 

Except Jia wasn't in her bed.  While the Asian girl woke up with the sun to do Bible study, she usually returned to her bedroom and read in the early morning.  No sign of her yet.  What was she up to? 

Finn scratched his head and cracked Alley's door open to see if the two girls had decided to have a conversation or something.  He immediately regretted it.  The bare-bones room was littered with clothes that had obviously been stripped off in a tremendous hurry.  A bra had even ended up dangling decorously from a lamp.  A much larger bra than A Cup Alley ever wore. 

Sure enough, Alley wasn't alone in bed.  For once, the blonde slumbered like the dead, probably worn out from a night of sexual theatrics he half-regretted he hadn't heard.  The real surprise was the other occupant of the bed.  Danielle Wyngarde lay in Alley's arms, unmistakably curled around the other woman and sleeping the blissful sleep of the deeply satisfied. 

"You shouldn't peek in Alley's room." 

Finn half jumped out of his skin as Jia spoke up.  The tiny Chinese girl had evidently snuck upstairs to head to her bedroom and detoured to investigate Finn's breach of the female sisterhood's privacy or however these girls thought about it.  Unfortunately, Finn's surprise was sufficient to accidently send the door crashing open. 

The most embarrassing scene all semester happened in the next ten seconds. 

When the door hit the interior wall, Alley reflexively and probably still unconsciously rolled out of bed, hit the floor and came up with a gun.  She'd also unfortunately taken the bed sheets with her, promptly exposing every naked inch of Danielle to the incredulous eyes of the onlookers.  At that instant, Jia looked into the room as she turned to head back to her own bedroom.  Lambert Acres' resident strong girl promptly froze in place and her jaw dropped. 


"Jesus, Jia!"  Dani scrambled up out of the bed, having gone from sleeping to utterly humiliated in four seconds flat.  She snatched a pillow off the bed and covered herself up.  "W-what are you-"

"English, what the fuck."  Alley groaned, rubbed a palm against her forehead and tucked the pistol away before she scared someone.  "I mean, seriously."

"I-" Finn started to say, while his mind scrambled for a coherent explanation.

"Dani, how could you?"  Jia's surprise had turned to utter horror.  "I thought you...what were you thinking?"

"I, uh, I mean-"  Practically every inch of the pale silver-haired girl went red before Finn's eyes.  "I don't-"

"I can't believe you'd sleep with...with..."  Jia's outrage seemed torn between the fact that Dani had slept with Alley, slept with a girl or maybe just slept with anyone.  "What would your brother think?!?"

"You know how it works, Sunrise," Alley said, slowly climbing to her feet with the sheet wrapped around her.  The half-lidded eyes and unsteady gait were telltale signs of a barely conscious girl.  Her voice had gone dark, though, heavy with a rising anger.  "You're doing one thing and it leads to another.  Look on the bright side, at least she picked someone who couldn't knock her up."

Finn whistled at the sheer audacity of that and promptly ducked out of the line of fire.  Ambling around the furious preacher's girl, he peeked in on Nate and found the ginger scratching his head and staring in puzzlement from his bed.  Finn made the unmistakable gesture to stay down and promptly shut Nate's door to keep the poor kid out of trouble. 

As the screaming started up behind him, he ran into Julie on her way out of her bedroom.  The bed-rumpled brunette looked pained.  And she bore a very distinct hickey mark on the juncture between neck and shoulder.  

"You might want to-" he started to say.

"Stay in my bedroom?" Julie sighed.  "Won't help.  I can hear everything anyway, with my ears and my telepathy.  At least if I'm downstairs, I only have to have one set of senses assaulted."

Finn chuckled, once more glad for his reflexive screening of all telepathic signals, incoming or outgoing.  Like the gentleman he was, he let Julie go down the stairs first while he peered back at the bathroom door.  Doubtlessly Amara could hear every word too.  So far, it seemed like she'd had the good sense to stay in the bathroom at least. 

Moving down the stairs, he was astonished to find the kitchen was already occupied.  By Eli Amsley, who was in the midst of making a large breakfast clearly intended for everyone.  The tall blonde, bearded upperclassman glanced up from the skillet of hashbrowns he'd just set on the girl and gave him an acknowledging nod. 

"So, suppose you can hear all that?" 

"The neighbors on the other side of those trees out there might not," Eli said, managing a half-hearted chuckle, one Julie shared as she hopped onto a bar stool. 

"Don't suppose you could, you know, get your girlfriend out of there, break things up?"

Eli shook his head, the chuckle dying away entirely.  "This has been a long time coming.  Jia would only bottle it up again and it's already been unhealthy.  She needs to have it out.  And Alley-"

"I wish she'd picked someone else for her first girlfriend," Julie said with a sigh.  "Someone without any personal connection to Jia."

"Be that as it may, I'm glad it's happened," Eli said.  Finn raised an eyebrow and even Julie seemed surprised.  "Alley's been hurting a long time.  As far as I know, this is the first time since Iris that she's even tried to reach out to someone.  I don't subscribe to casual sex but, out of the range of Alley's self-destructive behaviors, this is the healthiest thing I've seen her do yet."

"Self-destructive?"  Julie scratched bed-matted hair and yawned.  "Alley?  She's the most cheerful girl I've ever seen."

Eli's face hardened and, in that instant, Finn knew.  Or rather, Finn realized Eli knew something.  He'd seen something the others hadn't.  But instead of pushing the topic, Eli only asked "How would you like your eggs?"

Finn stretched, then turned when he heard feet hammering down the stairway.  Dani Wyngarde emerged into view a second later, tears streaming down her face.   She didn't bother opening the door.  Instead, the distraught girl just ran through it, insubstantial as a ghost.

Instantly he looked back at Eli.  The college junior just lifted an eyebrow, shrugged and went back to the skillet of bacon cooking in front of him.  "I know you're all in the HCP at West," Eli said to Finn.  "I knew before that girl phased through the door or whatever she did.  Don't bother and ask me how I found out, it doesn't matter.  I don't plan to report any of you, any more than I'd report Jia."

 "That's...just smashing," Finn said slowly.  "Good on you, mate.  Good on us, come to think of it."

 Finn traded relieved looks with Julie.  Then he frowned a little and sidled up close to the brunette.  She had a meaningful expression on her face that suggested she had something he needed to hear. 

 "Jason Wyngarde outed himself in a fight with Jia," Julie said quietly, the hissing of the bacon and the distance keeping the conversation from Eli's ears.  "He's telling the truth, though, Eli isn't planning on reporting any of us."

 Wiping his brow, Finn leaned back against the wall and shook his head slowly.  "We got lucky then."

 "There's something else I want to talk to you about," Julie said, in a tone of voice that suggested she was very reluctant to bring it up.  "It's about Amara."

 "What about her?"

 "I don't know what she's told you, Finn, but I can't help what I pick up and she's been broadcasting distress the whole time she's been in the shower.  If you care about her, the decent thing to do might be to come up with an excuse not to meet her family today."

 "I see."  Finn scratched the stubble on his chin as he considered the situation.  "I didn't realize it was quite that bad."

 "In her own way, Amara has as much baggage than anyone under this roof right now.  Alley's is obviously tied up in her past, and Jia's involves Jason and her son and her parents.  Nate, that's obvious."  Julie took a breath and pressed on.  "Amara's issues are entirely about her family.  From what I'm hearing, I really don't think she's capable of engaging with them without being hurt further.  Do her a favor; get her out of this meet-and-greet.  I'm sure you're curious about them but she's not ready."

 Their conversation was interrupted by the pitter-patter of angry feet.  Jia stormed down the stairwell.  When she landed at the base, she gave the wall a frustrated hit and put her hand through it.  Dismayed, Jia pulled her hand out and shook dry wall dust from her knuckles.

 Alley stumbled down after her, still wrapped in a sheet and visibly upset. 

 "Why Dani?" Jia asked, turning sharply and glaring at the taller blonde who'd stopped at the landing just above the floor. 

 "I was hurting and she was there," Alley said, eyes gleaming wetly.  "It's not like I'm planning to date her.  It was just-"

 "And does she know that?"  Jia put her hands on her hips.  "I saw how she looked when she ran out of here.  Was that the face of a girl who'd only come over for a...a booty-call?"

 "It was a mistake," Alley said, running a hand through her rumpled blonde hair.  "But, even in hindsight, it wasn't a mistake I could avoid making.  I'm not pretending this makes me a good person or that apologizing will make everything alright.  But you have my apology anyway.  It won't happen again."

 "Alley, are you into me?"

 "Jesus, you really want to know?"  Alley clenched her hands into fists and nodded.  "I'm more than into you, Sunrise.  It was love at first sight.  I'm head over heels for you.  It's not your fault.  You didn't encourage me or invite me.  A relationship with me is the furthest thing from your mind, especially with Jimney Cricket in the kitchen cooking you breakfast.  None of that matters, though.  Weird as it might sound, my love for you has nothing to do with you.  It's mine, it's my feeling, and it's enough to just feel this way again.  I've spent almost three years with a dead heart, Jia.  You make me feel.  It's usually pain but it's something.  Because if I can love you, maybe I can actually find someone again, someday.  Maybe there's more to this fucking shell of a life than duty, service and the fucking bullet I've wanted to put in my head every night for three years now.  Maybe I've got more waiting for me than a grave and a final chance to stop hurting.  Maybe.  In the meantime, I'm going to go upstairs now and get dressed.  You'll be gone by the time I'm back and that's okay.  We can pull through this, Sunrise, you and me.  It's going to be hard but we'll find a way back to being roommates and maybe even friends again.  But right now, I need to go cry because, welcome as this pain is, seeing your rejection still hurts."

 With tears streaming down her face, Alley turned back up the stairs and rapidly vanished back into her bedroom. 

 Silence reigned in the living room.  Jia stood there, utterly stunned.  It took Eli approaching her and putting an arm around her shoulders to coax her into the kitchen to get some food.  Julie gave Finn a pain-filled wince and sighed before heading upstairs, obviously intending to fetch Nate down for breakfast. 

 That left Finn alone.  He hesitated, weighing his respective options.  At last, he settled on walking up the stairs.  His room and Jia's were empty, he could hear Julie talking to Ginger in Nate's room and Alley's door was shut with barely discernable sobs making their way through the wooden barrier.  Ignoring all those options, Finn reached the end of the second floor hall, knocked once and opened it up.

 Inside the small, cramped bathroom he found Amara sitting in the bathtub, soaking up heat from a steadily pouring shower.  The beautiful girl with short hair, a fetching tattoo and a haunted expression looked his way and shivered.  "I can't seem to get warm," she said, as if an explanation was the reason he'd come in.  "I'll be done soon.  Is it over out there?"

 Finn took a seat on the edge of the tub, sighing at the look on her frightened face.  She was terrified.  So he reached out, took her dripping wet hand and squeezed it tightly.

 "Seems to me there's been enough drama today.  Let's put your family off.  What with finals coming up after Thanksgiving, let's not worry about them for a few weeks.  Sorted?"

 "It's sorted," Amara said, nodding once and cracking a smile as she sniffled.  Only then did Finn realized she'd been crying the whole time, her tears covered by the spray of the shower. 

 "How's it feel, having the healthiest relationship in this whole house?"

 "We do?"  Amara wrinkled her nose and laughed.  "We do!"

 "You and me, babe."  Finn leaned over and kissed the tip of her nose.  "I'm not leaving you, ever.  It's you and me, against the whole world if need be.  You'll always have me, babe.  Always."