Prologue

The two well dressed men materialized outside of a small white brick building. The taller of the two pulled out a small notepad, made an entry with the slash of a few pen strokes, then stowed it away once more.

“Where are we Mr. Transport?” The speaker was the shorter man, wearing a black suit with a black tie and presently putting on a pair of black sunglasses to fight back the sun’s penetrating glare.

“Arizona, Mr. Numbers,” replied the taller man, who by elimination could only be Mr. Transport, as he adjusted the sunglasses he was put on before they departed.

“I was under the impression our next case was in Colorado,” commented Mr. Numbers.

“He was, however there was an incident last week. Circumstances required he be moved to a location able to accommodate his specific needs,” answered Mr. Transport.

“I see,” said Mr. Numbers. With that the two of them walked around to the front of the building and proceeded inward. They were stopped as soon as they walked in, not by the expected poorly paid security guard, but rather by an elderly gentleman wearing a white lab coat.

“Good morning gentleman. I’ve been expecting you,” said the lab coat wearing gentleman. “My name is Dr. Hubert.”

Mr. Numbers cocked his eyebrow slightly and Mr. Transport replied with an almost imperceptible nod. This exchange took the place of the relevant conversation, which would consist of Mr. Numbers asking if the name and the call ahead checked out and Mr. Transport reporting that it did. This method was more efficient though, and had the added benefit of being able to take people by surprise when things were not quite so congruent.

“We’d like to see the boy,” said Mr. Numbers.

“Of course you would,” Dr. Hubert agreed. “However first I’d afraid I must ask you to take off anything electrical. Watches, phones, anything with a battery must go. I do hope neither of you have pacemakers.”

Neither Mr. Numbers nor Mr. Transport had pacemakers. They both did carry expensive high powered phones though, as well as top of the line watches, and a pair of taser guns. All of there were deposited into a small safe in the front lobby area with Dr. Hubert’s adamant assurances that everything would be returned once they were done. Neither Mr. Numbers nor Mr. Transport showed any concern about the safety of their valuables.

Once that was done, Dr. Hubert pulled out a small candle and lit it, then repeated the procedure with two more, until all three men were equipped with a diminutive wax lighting instrument. Dr. Hubert kept expecting one of the men to ask why they had shed their electronics, or were being handed candles in the middle of the day. They did not.

Dr. Hubert led them through the doors of the lobby, into a dimly lit hallway covered in green tile. They made their way down it, coming to a solid steel door at the end. Dr. Hubert made a quick series of punches on the keypad, and the door released, opening to reveal total darkness. As the trio stepped through, the door shut behind them, leaving them with only their candles to see by. Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport paused to remove their sunglasses.

Their eyes adjusted and they realized they had stepped into another hallway, this one solid concrete though. There were no doors to their sides, only a single metal one at the end of the hallway. Dr. Hubert began the walk down, moving more briskly than he had before. Mr. Numbers observed that the deeper into this place they went, the more nervous Dr. Hubert became. He filed that away, and then began following a few paces behind.

They made their way down the hallway without incident, then stepped through the metal door. Inside was what looked like large a concrete bunker with a large glass window into the next room. Though both strained, they could not make out anything in the pitch black on the other side of the glass.

“He’s normally more stable than this,” Dr. Hubert said. “But unfortunately a few days ago he was trying to fix a toaster and he received a nasty electrical shock.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Numbers. “So that’s why a quarter of Colorado lost power last week.”

“Yes,” admitted Dr. Hubert. “Before he was able to sever the connection he had drained his own city’s power supply along with all of those surrounding. We’re trying to help him burn off all that electricity, but it comes in spurts and is almost impossible to predict.”

“I see,” said Mr. Transport.

“It’s also affecting his natural abilities,” continued Dr. Hubert. “That’s why I had you remove all electrical devices and why we are keeping him out of the sunlight. He’s been pulling from anything that gets even remotely close to him.”

As if on cue, Mr. Number’s candle jerked violently in the direction of the window and went dark.

“I’m sorry he’s not more stable today,” Dr. Hubert apologized again.

“If he were, he wouldn’t be in consideration for our program anyway,” said Mr. Numbers, eyes still trained on his own dark candle.

“Oh, does that mean you’re still counting him as a possibility?” Dr. Hubert asked.

“There will be some preliminary testing and an interview process,” said Mr. Transport. “But if I were to offer my opinion, I would say we have a very viable candidate on the other side of that glass.”

*****************************************

Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport next materialized next to a hospital in Nevada. Mr. Transport again produced his notepad, jotted down a few scribbles, then put it back where it belonged.

“Another incident?” Mr. Numbers asked.

“Par for the course with this one, to my understanding,” replied Mr. Transport.

The duo then entered the hospital. They spoke briefly to a nurse, producing badges that rendered her silent and procuring the information they needed, then headed upstairs. It was something of a walk to get where they were heading, and by the time they were done they had crosses out of the main hospital into a more rundown attachment wing. The doctors here were fewer and more haggard, and the walls look wore down and repainted. Hospitals were never what Mr. Transport thought of as cheerful, but this area was enough to inspire one to end it all. Which very well might have been the point.

Mr. Numbers stopped at the appropriate room and the two entered. It was like the rest of the wing, wore down, beat up, and hopeless. This one had two unique additions though, a young man laying in a hospital bed and a recently exploded television that was still smoking.

“Mr. Campbell,” greeted Mr. Transport. “A pleasure to meet you.”

“Call me Nick,” said the boy. He spoke with an easy tone that matched his overly relaxed appearance. Despite the mandatory hospital gown he had still taken the time to gel his dark thick hair. “And I take it you two are my interview committee?”

“Indeed,” responded Mr. Transport. “What happened to the television?”

“Beats me, I went to turn the thing on and I guess the tubes overloaded or something,” answered Nick.

“I see,” said Mr. Transport skeptically.

Mr. Numbers had been browsing through Nick’s chart during the exchange with Mr. Transport, and chose this time to jump in. “So according to the records, you won a ten thousand dollar scratch off ticket, after which you were hit by a bus while celebrating in the street, which knocked you into a bounce house that had been set up nearby, which had the poor timing to overload and explode after your impact. Do I have everything correct?”

“Everything except that my winnings just covered my hospital bill and damages owed to the bounce house owner,” Nick added in.

“You were held accountable for the damages,” Mr. Transport said. It wasn’t a question, but Nick chose to take it as one anyway.

“Well you know how it is. People tend to blame my kind first and ask questions later,” Nick said, not quite managing to mask the bitterness in his voice.

“We know Mr. Campbell,” said Mr. Numbers. “That’s exactly what brought us here today.”

Mr. Transport walked over to the room’s entrance and shut the door firmly.

*****************************************

The two next appeared in a forest. This wasn’t a forest in the sense of parks that can seem sprawling or a cluster of trees can form on the side of an untended highway. This was a forest in an ancient and powerful sense, with trees that were massive and served as ecosystems within their ecosystem. This was a place untouched and unaware of all the progress homo sapien had made with its pitiful time upon the earth. That is, with the exception of the trailer a few feet away from Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport.

Sitting in a rocking chair, sipping a glass of lemonade, was a young girl whose file said seventeen but whose face said fourteen. She was wiry and lean, with short hair that poked up in several different directions. She stared at the two of them unblinkingly, and the two stared right back at her.

The three of them stood in silence for several minutes like that, the girl’s eyes waffling between the two of them, while theirs remaining constant on her.

At last the girl took a long sip of her lemonade and said out loud: “That sounds lovely.”

A simultaneous nod came from Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport, and then they were gone.

*****************************************

“Hershel! Come downstairs. The nice men are here to see you.” The speaker was a dowdy woman in her fifties who was setting down a kettle and cups in front of Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport. “Are you sure I can’t get you gentlemen anything to eat?”

“Thank you Mrs. Daniels, but we are quite comfortable,” said Mr. Numbers.

“Oh no need for that, please call me Sally,” Mrs. Daniels replied, her eyes lingering on Mr. Numbers and the strong figure that lived beneath the covering of his black suit.

“Good morrow,” said Hershel as he descended the stairs into the yellow painted walls of the kitchen. Hershel was a portly young man, shaggy brown hair dribbling down to his ears and a forest green shirt underneath the rich royal purple of his cape.

“Why are you wearing a cape?” Mr. Transport was unable to suppress his own curiosity.

“It’s a cloak,” Hershel corrected. “After we partake in a large lunch my men and I are taking the castle up at Rothring Ring peak and doing battle with a foul vampire lord.”

“Hershel has something of an acting bug,” Mrs. Daniels gushed. “He and his friends are active in the communities live action role playing club.”

Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport exchanged a look. There is no need for clarification on the meaning of this one.

“Well, we don’t want to keep you,” Mr. Numbers said honestly. “However, we were hoping to speak with Roy if that’s at all possible.”

“Oh,” said Hershel, disappointment sweeping across his face. “Of course, everyone wants to talk to Roy.”

“It’s just that we have some things to discuss with him,” Mr. Numbers attempted to clarify.

“I’m sorry,” Hershel said. “I don’t think he’ll be around today. He went to a country bar last night and…well he usually doesn’t come around for a while after uproars like that.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Transport. “That does explain the cleanup crew that was dispatched this morning.” Mr. Numbers shot Mr. Transport a look, but Mr. Transport merely shrugged, as if to say he didn’t find it to be of any importance.

“If that’s the case then we will be on our way,” said Mr. Numbers. “I don’t want to keep you from your…activities, and we will need to speak with Roy at a later date.”

“Wait,” Hershel said, jumping to his feet. “I know what you’re here about, and I really want to get in. I’m tired of living like this. Never knowing when it will happen, never knowing where I’ll wake up. Please, if you can really help me control it…please don’t leave.”

“It’s okay Hershel,” Mr. Transport said as he patted the large boy on his shoulder. “We aren’t giving up on you just because of a reschedule. You’re a serious candidate for our program. I promise we’ll be back once we can talk to Roy as well.”

Hershel nodded his understanding, and then turned away quickly so the two men wouldn’t see the tears forming in his eyes. He didn’t know what his chances were at the moment, but he was smart enough to guess that crying in front of the agents wouldn’t help things.

Mr. Numbers tapped impatiently on Mr. Transport’s shoulder and gestured to his watch. Mr. Transport walked over to signal his understanding, and then turned his head to Mrs. Daniels.

“Thank you for the tea,” said Mr. Transport just before they vanished.

*****************************************

The duo appeared in a sprawling garden, under a gazebo and next to a pair of wicker chairs. There was a small serving cart on the other of a stone table. Sitting down next to the cart and sipping on a cocktail was a man. He wore a white open throated shirt and a pair of khakis. This man looked to be getting on in years, but wearing them unbelievably well. It’s not that the signs of age weren’t present, but rather than they served to drawn out and enhance his fine features rather than muddle them.

“I’m glad you could make it,” said the man in a voice that said without apology that it was in charge of everything.

“Our pleasure Mr. Adair,” Mr. Numbers said hurriedly. For the first time all day, for the first time in years really, the pair was showing signs of nervousness. They had been told of their required presence for this meeting, but not about the subject matter that it concerned. That left both of them feeling something they were not accustomed to: vulnerable.

“Sit, sit,” said Mr. Adair. “Can I get you something to drink?”

“I’d like a gin and tonic, if it’s no trouble sir,” said Mr. Transport. This was their final meeting of the day, so Mr. Transport didn’t see the harm in indulging just a bit.

“Just water for me, thanks,” said Mr. Numbers. Mr. Numbers was already writing out the riot act he was going to read Mr. Transport for asking for alcohol while on the job, but facially he was working hard to keep everything upbeat and positive.

Mr. Adair pulled two glasses from the cart at his side, then a carafe from which he poured water into both. He handed the glass as it was to Mr. Numbers, but dipped his finger in to Mr. Transport’s. Immediately the liquid bubbled and fizzed, stabilizing seconds later when Mr. Adair handed the glass to Mr. Transport.

Both drinks were delicious. Mr. Transport wished his had been made in the traditional way so he could have asked for a recipe.

“I know you boys are busy, so I won’t mince words,” said Mr. Adair. “You’re here because you two are the admissions committee for the new program that is launching.”

“Well it isn’t quite that simple,” said Mr. Numbers. “There are evaluations and approvals and what not.”

“Humility is wasted on the powerful Mr. Numbers,” said Mr. Adair. “You are two of the most trusted agents in your company, and with good reason. You both had abilities that could have made you well known heroes; instead you chose to do the same work without the prestige. You are loyal, reliable, and dependable. Whoever you recommend for this program will be who gets in. You know it, I know it, and everyone who matters knows it.”

Mr. Numbers didn’t have a reply for this one. He could already see any attempts to defer responsibility on that account were a lost cause.

“So, with that said, I asked you here to meet me because there will be one addition to the program that you two will both endorse fully,” said Mr. Adair, pausing to take a sip of his cocktail.

“And who would that be, sir?” Mr. Numbers asked.

“My daughter, Alice,” said Mr. Adair. “She is a Powered, as I’m sure your thorough friend here has found out.” Mr. Adair gestured to Mr. Transport.

“My research had said that was in the non-lethal category,” said Mr. Transport. “She flies, correct?”

“You are correct Mr. Transport,” said Mr. Adair. “My daughter’s power is tethered to her emotions, so when she gets happy she winds up bouncing off the ceiling. If we’re lucky enough to have a ceiling over her at the time.”

“Forgive me for saying this,” said Mr. Numbers. “But the program’s initial testing cases are supposed to be Powereds with desirable abilities that are currently a danger to themselves and others.”

“I know,” said Mr. Adair. “That’s why I called you here to tell you that you would recommend her instead of going through the channels to submit her as a viable specimen.”

“With all due respect Mr. Adair, that would compromise both our duties to the program and the company,” said Mr. Transport.

Mr. Adair said nothing in response at first. He leaned back in his own wicker chair and stirred his drink with his finger. As he stirred the colors changed, going through a rainbow of hues and consistencies. Finally it settled on a light pink and Mr. Adair took a sip.

“Mr. Transport,” Mr. Adair began. “You know what my code name is, correct?”

“The Alchemist,” Mr. Transport answered readily.

“Right, and you know why I am called that, yes?”

“Because you have the ability to manipulate and change the properties of matter,” said Mr. Transport.

“Correct again,” Mr. Adair said. “So maybe what you are missing is my role in this world. You see while other Supers defend their homes or countries, I defend our economy. I turn radioactive sludge into oil, rocks into gold, and worthlessness into pricelessness. Most Supers garner favor from politicians and leaders. Leaders and politicians work to garner favor from me. I am one of the primary shareholders of the company you both work for, as well as several other powerful corporations. I am not going to threaten either of you, because we all know my abilities are ill-suited to a physical altercation. I am simply going to tell you that you will recommend my daughter for the first trial of the new program. End of story.”

Mr. Numbers looked at Mr. Transport. They had been partners for many years, and had learned to read each other’s cues like a second language. There was no question for Mr. Transport what Mr. Numbers was telling him right then. Time to roll over.

“Yes, sir,” said Mr. Numbers.

“Good, I’m glad we understand each other,” said Mr. Adair. “So, when will things get started?”

Chapter 1

Six Months Later

Vince adjusted his backpack to put the weight on his other shoulder. Two months since the procedure had ended and he’d been put in recovery and still his body felt like it was aching and healing. He never remembered feeling like this beforehand, but in fairness, there were plenty of other things that hadn’t existed beforehand either.

Today was an excellent example of what going through the program had yielded him. He was walking across the beautiful, sprawling college campus of Lander University, passing other kids his age and blending in like a normal person. Well, almost anyway. His damn hair still made him stand out. One of his biggest hopes had been that a side effect of the procedures would be his hair becoming a normal color, but no such luck. It was still silver like it had always been. And not old man silver, either: silver like moonbeams glinting off steel. It wasn’t that it was unattractive; in fact, it accentuated Vince’s bright blue eyes quite nicely. No, the problem was that his hair marked him as different, and after all these years, Vince was yearning to be nothing more than a face in the crowd.

“At least we’re in California,” Vince mumbled under his breath as he quickened his steps. He was getting second glances from the other students, but not as many as he was used to. Aside from that, he passed a few people whose looks made him do double takes of his own. It was comforting, in a mutual freak sort of way. By the time Vince reached his dorm assignment, he was back on the positive side of things.

After all, this was what he had worked for during those two months of recovery, studying and being tutored so that he could get his GED and come to this college. It had been hell to concentrate, especially with his body still adjusting to everything, but he had put in the time and pulled it off. It was an opportunity he couldn’t let slip away. Besides, the nurses and technicians had told him the other people from the program would be given the option to come here, too.

The building Vince walked up to looked less like a dorm and more like a medium-sized house. He didn’t see how it was possible to fit many people in this one-story brick home, but he trusted that whoever was managing housing had that in hand.

Vince walked through the front door and shifted his backpack once more. It bounced and landed on his shoulder lightly, betraying that it was far from stuffed to the brim with Vince’s few articles of clothing and worldly possessions. One of the first things every wanderer lets go of is his unnecessary items. Travel light, move quick, stay alive. That was the code that kept Vince breathing and his abilities in check. But that was behind him.

In front of Vince was a cream-colored wall with a notice welcoming him to Melbrook Hall. There was another wall to his left and a hallway to his right. The notice had an arrow directing him to follow the foyer and then take a left. Vince did as he was told and found himself looking at a sturdy door with no window or discernible handle. There was only a small box jutting out with an oval-shaped green pad on top. Vince might not have been the most up-to-date with technology, but even he could figure this one out. He pressed his thumb to the oval, and after a minute the door opened with the sound of a small beep.

Vince stepped out of the foyer and into what looked to him more like a living room than anything else. There were several couches and chairs set up, a metal coffee table in the center of the room, and a large, flat-screen television on the wall directly across from him. It was decorated in white and red and smelled like an odd combination of flowers and chemicals, which Vince could only assume meant they were using an artificial air freshener. He walked around the room, taking in the scene.

On each wall perpendicular to the entrance was another metal door and scanner, these with signs above them. On the one to the left of the entrance was “Boys” while the one to right said, predictably, “Girls.” Vince went over to the television, only to notice that there were open doorways on either side of this wall that one could walk through. Vince did just that and found himself in a white-tiled kitchen. It had a large sink, a stove with multiple burners and a griddle, and all kind of cooking knickknacks that Vince had neither the knowledge nor the experience to make anything out of.

At the back of the kitchen on the right was a cupboard, which Vince opened to discover a fully-stocked pantry. On the left was another metal door. This one, however, had neither a sign above it nor a fingerprint scanner.

Vince walked out of the kitchen and back into the living room, then over to the boys’ door. As he walked, he carefully skirted away from wall outlets whenever possible. He hadn’t had an accident since the procedure, but that didn’t mean he was eager to test his luck. Pressing his thumb to the scanner, the door opened and Vince walked into what he could only assume was the common room.

There was another television on the far end, along with pool and Ping-Pong tables. The other end held a set of dart boards and a wooden door with the word “Bathroom” on it. Opposite of the entrance were three more metal doors. These had scanners clearly in place, but no signs, though they were numbered 1, 2, and 3. With a shrug and a heft of his pack, Vince walked over to the middle door. He pressed his thumb down and waited for the beep, but this time all that came out was a harsh buzzer. He tried twice more before giving up and trying the room on the left, which was room one. This time the door buzzed and opened, though Vince couldn’t help noticing a chime that followed the usual opening sounds. He wasn’t sure what that meant, and the sight before him left him little free brain space in which to contemplate it.

Saying his room was luxurious would be something of an overstatement, but it was definitely more opulent than a boy who was always on the run was accustomed to. There was a large bed in one corner with a desk and computer set up in the other. Between the two was a large window with sunlight streaming through the blue curtains. The floor was carpeted, and as Vince walked across it, he saw that opposite the desk there was a closet next to a chest of drawers. Slipping his pack off, Vince walked over and pulled open a drawer, trying to figure out if he had enough clothing to warrant any kind of organizational system.

He was shocked to see that the drawer he opened already contained many, many pairs of socks. Checking the next drawer, he found shorts, then T-shirts, then he went back to the top and found boxers. That drawer he slammed shut more quickly than the others. Synapses flying, Vince came to the only logical conclusion.

“Crud; this is someone else’s room.” It only made sense; this place was too nice and too well-furnished. Why had the door let him in, though? Vince brushed that thought out of his head quickly. It was faulty equipment, not his fault, but it wouldn’t make it less awkward if this room’s inhabitant came home to find an intruder. Vince turned on his heels, snatching up his backpack and bolting for the door.

All of which landed him face to face with a taller boy standing in the doorway, wearing sunglasses and running a comb through his sandy brown hair.

Chapter 2

Vince froze in place, staring at the room’s owner and wondering how to explain the mix-up. It wasn’t his fault after all, but this still wasn’t the first impression he wanted to make on his new dorm mate. Vince groped around his head, looking for words to break the silence. Luckily, the boy in the door did it for him.

“Dude, that is some rocking hair,” he said.

“Um, thank you,” Vince replied softly. “I’m sorry I’m in your room. The door opened and I didn’t know...” Vince just trailed off, the look of confusion on the boy’s face making him more unsure with each passing second.

“You’re not in my room, neighbor; you’re in your room. I’m in two,” the boy told him. “I heard you trying to buzz into mine and realized someone else was here, so I came to say hi.”

“But this can’t be my room,” Vince said, trying to explain. “It already has sheets and clothes and everything.”

“Yeah, my guess is that’s because they thought you needed those things,” the boy with sunglasses explained. “The doors are keyed to us; they only open for the right person. If this room opened for you, then it’s because it’s your room. Did you even read the letter they gave you?”

“Letter?” Vince asked with a sense of dread. He did remember a slip of paper that had fallen out of his pack when the taxi had dropped him off, but he had just dismissed it as an old food wrapper or something.

“I’ll get mine,” said the boy. “Hang on a sec... Um, what’s your name?”

“Vince,” said Vince.

“Nice. You can call me Nick,” he said as he stepped out of the room. He came back mere moments later, holding a white piece of paper with fold lines across it.

“Here we go,” Nick said. “‘Rooms have been set up for each attending member by the program. These will be stocked for members as deemed necessary, and are keyed to each attendee’s individual fingerprints. Communal areas are open to all, but will be under the jurisdiction of your administrators. You are expected to be in the central common room promptly at seven PM on move-in day to meet with your administrators and go over dorm rules’.”

“Huh,” said Vince. “Lucky you held onto that, or I wouldn’t have even known about the meeting, let alone about my room.” Vince plunked down on his bed, shedding his pack at long last.

“Good choice of words,” Nick commented, pulling out the chair from Vince’s desk and helping himself to a seat.

“What do you mean?” Vince asked.

“Eh, it’s nothing. Just... well, you said lucky,” Nick said.

“And... What about it?” Vince kept prodding.

Instead of answering, Nick pulled a set of dice from his jeans. He closed his eyes, an act only visible despite sunglasses due to the over-exaggerated scrunching of his face, and breathed deeply for a moment, then tossed them on to the desk.

“Double sixes,” Vince observed.

Nick nodded. He then took the dice, closed his eyes once more, and a deep breath later threw them on the table again.

“Double sixes. Again,” Vince said. “So you use trick dice?”

“Try them,” Nick replied. He scooped up the dice and offered them to Vince. Vince got off the bed, took the dice from Nick’s hand, and examined them. They had six different numbers on each side and felt as though they were weighted normally. Still, Vince wasn’t sure enough in his tactile perception to trust merely holding them for an answer. He threw the dice on the desk for himself.

“Three and five,” Vince said. “So you know how to spin them?”

“Do it again,” Nick told him. This time he closed his eyes  and didn’t exhale until Vince’s throw hit the table.

“Double ones,” Vince noted. “So?”

“Again,” Nick instructed him.

Vince repeated his own throws three more times; each time, Nick closed his eyes and Vince wound up with double ones. After the third time, Vince let the dice rest on the table, then went back to his bed and sat on the edge.

“Are you telekinetic? Is that how you control the landing?” Vince asked.

Nick shook his head. “I can’t move things with my mind, at least not on purpose. My power is luck. It can be good or it can be bad, but if it’s luck then I’ve got some say over it.”

“Luck? How does that work? Not to insult, I just tend to think of luck as more of an abstract concept than a viable ability,” Vince said.

“No insult taken,” Nick assured him. “I don’t really know how it works. The docs tried to explain, something about quantum probabilities and minute alterations in the fabric of reality, but at the end of the day all I know how to say is that it’s luck. And mine is a lot better since I got it under control.”

Vince winced inwardly. “That must have been pretty terrible. Before.”

“It was and it wasn’t,” Nick said with a shrug. “At least my ability came in two flavors. You know I kissed a supermodel once? She was out with some friends and they played spin the bottle at the restaurant we were both at and, well... it pointed to me. Of course, then I went outside to find my car had caught fire, but hey, you got to take the good with the bad.”

“You’re upbeat about this,” Vince said.

“Sure I am,” Nick replied with a smile. “That’s all in the past. We’re not like that anymore. We’re the first people in history to go from being Powered to being Super. I still don’t understand what they did to us for those months and I don’t care. Far as I’m concerned, getting into that program was the best stroke of luck my ability ever gave me.”

“So, why the sunglasses?” Vince said to change the subject. He didn’t want to rain on Nick’s parade, but he been dealt too much disappointment in his life to just trust that his abilities were under control now and forever.

“If anyone in authority asks, it’s because using my power can give me headaches that leave me sensitive to light,” Nick explained. “But between you and me, I just think they make me look cool. What about your hair? Natural?”

“Unfortunately,” Vince replied. “One of those weird traits people with abilities sometimes get. The damn stuff basically drinks dye, too, so there’s no way for me to change its color.”

“You could shave it,” Nick pointed out.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” Vince countered. “I tried that once. Some guys can pull off the bald look. I am not one of those guys. I’d rather be the weirdo with silver hair than the freakish man-baby.”

“An understandable choice,” Nick conceded. “Well, with you here that rounds out the boys’ side. I wonder if any girls have gotten here yet.”

“Wait, who’s our third roommate?” Vince asked. “I haven’t met anyone but you so far.”

“Our third got here early and went out to explore campus,” Nick told him. “You’ll see him tonight at the dorm meeting. He’s an... interesting fellow.”

“That doesn’t sounds good,” Vince said.

“No, but it doesn’t sound bad either,” Nick pointed out. “Come on, you just arrived and I’m famished. Let’s go hit up a dining hall for lunch.”

“Do you know where one is?” Vince asked.

“Not really,” Nick admitted. “But I bet we get lucky.”

Chapter 3

Alice saw a pair of boys walking away from the building as she was heading towards it. They took no notice of her, clearly absorbed in their own conversation and playing catch with a pair of dice. Her new roommates, no doubt. Fantastic. At least the one with the brown hair was cute, or would be if it he weren’t wearing those ridiculous sunglasses in the shade. The other one, though, who was he trying to impress with that hair? Silver and spiky, was he trying to flunk the secret identity challenge before the semester even started?

None of that was her concern, though. Daddy had been strangely unbending in denying her desire to dorm with the regular Supers, saying that she had to stay in the dorm set up for the “special cases” like herself. She didn’t really see why she needed to be in the reinforced building; her ability was only flying, and she had suffered no uncontrolled attacks for over two months now. It was insufferable that she would have to... well, suffer through the group accommodations with a bunch of all-too-recently Powereds. Alice didn’t want to find camaraderie in their shared former disability. She wanted to forget that part of her life had ever existed.

Still, no one could say that Alice Adair didn’t make the best of a bad situation. She had taken a guiding hand in the construction of their dormitory, creating an environment that was spacious, desirable, and above all else, elite.

She breezed through the hallway, disregarding the note that hung on the entrance. A quick thumb scan took her to the central common room. She surveyed the work of the decorators critically. Yes, it would do nicely. Now at least when the other students asked her why she was in this small dorm set off at the edge of campus she could humbly explain that it was only available to those of sufficient means to afford such luxury and privacy. It wasn’t her ideal situation, but it would work.

Alice moved briskly to the girls’ side, anxious to get through lest the last boy be lounging about, hoping to sneak a peek at what members of the fairer sex would be sharing his roof space. The girls’ side was identical to the boys’, save that there were only two rooms, numbered 4 and 5 respectively. While group bathrooms were fine for males, Alice had been quite insistent with Daddy that she have her own private bathroom. The fact that this meant her fellow female received one as well was a very distant afterthought.

On that thought, Alice realized her other roommate was sitting in one of the plush pink chairs Alice had picked out, watching the television on mute. It seemed to be a game show, and the girl was as silent as the screen, just watching and occasionally cocking her head to a different angle.

The girl was... wild seemed to be the word that popped into Alice’s head first. Not wild in the sense of tequila, poor decisions, and eventual therapy, but wild in the way of the jungle. Her hair looked as though no one had even entertained the idea of touching it for years, sticking up at all angles willy-nilly. The girl’s clothing was clean at least, though it had the look of something that had been worn for many years. Ironically, Alice’s jeans had the same appearance, though hers had achieved the look through corporate innovation and the fashion demands of the public. The most disconcerting thing about the girl, though, was her eyes. While Alice had always considered her own green eyes, especially when paired with her platinum blonde hair, to be rather stunning, they held no candle to the amber irises that encircled this girl’s pupils.

“Ahem,” Alice said in her best impersonation of a throat clearing. “Good afternoon, I take it that you are my dorm mate?”

The girl swiveled her head toward Alice in a motion that seemed more owl- or hawk-like than human. She blinked those round amber eyes twice, then gave an oddly-shaped grin.

“You snuck up on me,” that girl said.

“Oh, well, I do apologize,” Alice said formally. Just because this girl seemed so uncouth didn’t mean Alice could allow her own standards to lapse.

“Don’t,” said the girl. “I just keep forgetting people can do that now. It’s a pleasant surprise every time.”

“All right, then,” Alice said, shifting on her feet uncomfortably. She knew everyone staying here had an ability, but she had been unable to wheedle Daddy into telling her precisely what to expect.  “My name is Alice. What do you go by?”

The girl blinked oddly once more, then cocked her head before answering. “I haven’t had any need to go by anything in a long time. My given name is Mary, though it might take a few tries to get my attention with it. As I said, out of practice.”

“I think Mary is a lovely name,” Alice said politely. In truth, she didn’t care one way or the other, but as she couldn’t very well go around all year referring to the girl as Freak Eyes, at least not out loud, Mary worked fine for her.

“I’ll do my best to remember its mine,” said the girl who was apparently Mary, turning her head back to the television and watching her show.

“Um, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you watching it on mute?” Alice inquired.

“I used to always watch television like this,” Mary replied without turning around. “I learned to read their lips; that way, if I wanted silence, all I had to do was shut my eyes. It was the only thing in my life on which I could actually turn the voices off, so I relished it. I guess old habits die hard.”

“Ah, well, I see,” Alice said quickly, eyeing room number four and edging her way towards it. “Well, I’ll leave you to that, then. See you tonight at the meeting.”

With those words, Alice jammed her thumb on her door scanner and popped it open. She slammed the door immediately after and rested against her wall. It was strange how uncomfortable that girl made her, how it felt like, despite being so disconnected, Mary was looking right through her with those bright amber eyes. Alice had grown up wealthy and aristocratic, and if there was one thing she could not stand, it was the sensation that someone knew what she was really thinking.

Outside Alice’s door, Mary sat in the chair, eyes still trained on her game show. “That girl is more perceptive than she thinks,” Mary whispered to a small stuffed bear that sat between her leg and the armrest of the chair.

Chapter 4

“See, I told you we’d get lucky,” Nick gloated as he munched on a thick hamburger.

“We didn’t get lucky,” Vince corrected. “We got lost. For half an hour. Until I went into a building and asked for directions.”

“And wasn’t it lucky I brought along a guy with no masculinity issues about asking for directions?” Nick pointed out.

“I think you’re stretching on this one,” Vince replied, picking at the basket of chicken fingers. Being a wanderer had given Vince a pretty ironclad stomach when it came to grease and taste, but he had also always had to subsist on whatever was available at the time. As a result, he had a small appetite and an equally small percentage of body fat. He reflected ruefully that if only he had some muscle on his wiry frame it would have been very pronounced.

“I might be,” Nick admitted. “But then again, you haven’t even told me what you can do; who knows if you’re fit to judge the skills of others?”

“Shh,” Vince hushed him quickly. “We’re in public; you know we can’t talk about that kind of stuff.”

“Oh please,” Nick said, taking another bite of his burger then guzzling down soda. “We’re at one of the only five colleges in the nation that offer certification for Supers to become the government-approved responders known as Heroes. I’m sure, like, everyone in this cafeteria is a damn Super in disguise.”

The young men paused for a moment and looked around. Besides themselves, there was a small group of ladies halfway across the dining hall, and a large table mixed up of boys and girls clear on the other end. There were also a few tables where, like Vince and Nick, only one or two occupants sat. No one in the room looked particularly Super, or even interesting for that matter. Well, with the exception of the girl with short pink and black hair sitting with her friend. Vince did notice her as he did his visual sweep. Even aside from the colored hair, something about her stood out.

“Okay, maybe half the people,” Nick conceded as he finished looking around him.

“According to the doctors at who told me about this place, less than half of one percent of the student population is enrolled in the Hero Certification Program,” Vince informed him. “So odds are pretty good you and I are the only people with abilities here.”

Nick let out a low whistle. “Less than half of one percent? That seems really low.”

Vincent shrugged. “There are a lot more humans than Supers. Even if this is only one of five schools, Lander is still a big university. A lot of people are going to come here wanting a run-of-the-mill education.”

“Poor bastards,” Nick said, shaking his head. “All kinds of awesome stuff going on around them and they have no clue about it.”

“At least they better not,” Vince said. “I heard that keeping your abilities a secret is, like, half of your grade. They say if you’re found out you have to do some kind of awful makeup courses to graduate, and that’s only an option if you’re at the top of the class.” Vince unthinkingly ran his hands through his hair. At least the campus was full of enough people with their own strange features that he might have at least half a chance of blending in.

“Don’t worry about the ‘do,” Nick told him. “I didn’t think it meant anything significant, and I already knew you had some sort of power when we met. Of course, I still don’t know what the damn thing is... But hey, that’s what friendships are built around, right? Secrets and mysteries.”

“You’re something of a drama queen, aren’t you?” Vince asked.

“Gasp! A dagger, straight into my heart,” Nick said, grasping his chest and leaning back in his chair. His breathing became labored and his hands slumped to the sides. He was dead, his life ended before its prime by the harsh words of someone he had thought of as a fast-growing friend. But hark! One of his hands lifted oh so slowly, making its way to the table and grappling the hamburger, then raising it triumphantly to his opened and waiting mouth.

“I don’t even want to know what’s going on in your head right now,” Vince said to his slumped-back friend.

“Good call,” Nick assured him.

Vince sighed and pushed away his now-forgotten chicken strips. Nick was loud, indiscreet as could be, and showy every chance he got. But he was also the only person to try to be Vince’s friend in years, and he knew what it had been like for Vince before. Those two qualities alone made him someone Vince knew he’d need to keep around.

“Get a book of matches and meet me back at the dorm,” Vince told Nick. His words seemed to bring some life back into Nick’s hamburger-munching corpse.

“You’re supposed to wait until midterms before you go all pyro on shit,” Nick chided him.

“I’m not going pyro! I just... Look: you said you wanted to know what I can do, right?” Vince asked him.

“Why yes, yes I do,” Nick said with a series of enthusiastic nods.

“Then get a book of matches and meet me in the dorm,” Vince repeated, pulling up the remainder of his food and walking away from the table. He dumped his refuse in the bin then made his way to the exit. He was relatively certain it would take Nick at least a few minutes to find some matches, plus a few extra to finish his burger. Vince was counting on those precious extra moments, because if he was going to try and do something with his power then he needed to get prepared and focus.

And, just to be on the safe side, pray.

Chapter 5

Vince had been in his room for only a few minutes when he heard a knocking at the door.

“No way he’s that fast,” Vince muttered to himself as he hopped up from his bed and opened the door. As it turned out, yes, there was a way that Nick was that fast.

“Hey, I grot mamfes,” Nick mumbled through a mouthful of burger. In all of the scenarios that had run through Vince’s head of how Nick would finish his meal and get matches, the possibility of Nick’s curiosity overwhelming his desire to eat while stationary was one that had not occurred.

“How did you find matches so quickly?” Vince asked as he gestured for Nick to sit in the computer chair again. Mercifully, this time Nick swallowed the food in his mouth before answering.

“They were lying on the ground by the door when I left the dining hall,” Nick explained.

“Let me guess: you used your power?” Vince asked rhetorically.

“Sure did,” Nick replied with a grin. “I wanted to get this show on the road.”

“Fantastic,” Vince said dejectedly. “Just what I needed.”

“Okay, see, now I’m confused. You’re the one who volunteered to show me what you can do. What’s the problem?” Nick asked.

 “It’s... I guess it’s nothing, really. I just get nervous about using my ability,” Vince admitted.

“Still? Didn’t you go through the two months of therapy to get used to controlling it?” Nick took another bite of burger after his question, clearly banking on Vince to do some explaining.

“Yes, and I can control it... mostly. It’s just there are some aspects to it I’m still working on. Look, it should be fine. If we use matches then everything will be okay,” Vince said reassuringly, though he never could have admitted who he actually was trying to assure.

“Sweet,” Nick said as he polished off his lunch. “So what do I do?”

“Just face me and light a match, then hold it up in front of you,” Vince said. He sat down on the edge of the bed so that he was only a few feet from Nick.

“Can do,” Nick said, pulling a book of matches from his pocket and carefully extracting one from the end. Vince noticed the matchbook had a few missing from it already. It was a pretty decent guess that Nick had focused his luck and some poor smoker had dropped their matches without noticing. Much as he was hesitant to view luck as an ability, Vince had to admit it definitely had its uses.

Meanwhile, Nick had plucked his match and was trying to light it with all the skill of a drunken hobo. On his fourth try he finally got the match head to ignite and was so surprised he nearly dropped the small flame onto Vince’s carpet. He was able to keep his hold, though, and slowly moved the burning match so it was directly between himself and Vince.

Vince’s eyes were locked on the flame, focusing on it with all of his concentration. Ever so gently Vince raised his hand and opened it so that his palm was on level with the match. For a few seconds nothing happened, then the flame began to lean toward Vince’s palm. A moment later there was a small burst of heat and Nick was pinching only a tiny piece of ash between his fingers.

“Whoa,” Nick exclaimed. “What did you do?”

“I absorbed the energy of the flame,” Vince explained. “That’s my ability: I can absorb energy and store it for later.”

“What do you mean ‘for later’?” Nick said, already pulling out another match from the book.

In response Vince held up the index finger on his right hand. A small flame appeared at the tip of his finger, a flame about the same size and intensity as the he Vince had just vanquished. It burned for almost ten seconds, then vanished just as quickly as it had appeared.

“I can use the energy I absorb any time I want,” Vince continued once his finger was out. “I can use it slowly, like I did just now, or release it in controlled bursts. In this case it would have made a tiny fireball. I don’t have the ability to extend or increase it, though. However much energy I have absorbed at the moment is what I have to work with.”

“Awesome,” Nick said, nodding his head. “Now do this one.”

Vince sighed, but he couldn’t deny this was good practice anyway, so he accommodated his dorm mate’s demands for entertainment and absorbed the rest of the matches one by one.

“I have another question for you,” Nick said as Vince snuffed out the final match from the book.

“Shoot,” Vince replied. His mind had wandered off near the end of their practice session, focusing instead on how the aching weariness he had been fending off seemed to be decreasing a bit in his absorbing hand. He wondered if using a part of his body as an absorption point had pain-fighting properties.

“I get that you absorb the flame as it exists, but why is it every time you use your power, I wind up holding nothing but a fleck of ash? Does stealing the energy destroy the matchstick?” Nick was poking at the small piece of ash Vince’s last absorption had left on his fingernail.

“Yes and no,” Vince said, turning his attention back to his dorm mate. “Remember when I said I was still getting the hang of some stuff? Well, that’s what I meant. See, I don’t just absorb the existing energy: I absorb the potential energy as well. At least, I do if I don’t sever the connection.”

“Yeah, I’ve really got no idea what you’re talking about,” Nick said, flicking off the piece of ash and checking the matchbook to see if he had missed any.

“Okay... How to explain this? Look, let’s pretend that you have another match and you light it, okay?” Vince said.

“Sure, why not,” Nick agreed.

“Now, if you leave the match be, the fire will eventually consume all of the wood,” Vince said. “However, if you were to lick your fingers and put it out halfway through then you would still have some of the matchstick left. With me so far?”

“Mostly,” Nick said.

“Good,” Vince said, choosing to plow ahead and hope for the best. “Well, obviously the match that is allowed to burn all the way down produces more fire, and therefore more energy. See, that’s why the match disintegrates in your hand. When I steal the energy of the flame, I don’t just take all the energy that’s there, I also take all of the energy that has the potential to be there.”

“I don’t suppose you could break that down a little easier, could you?” Nick asked, pulling out his dice and fiddling with them. Vince took a deep breath and tried to hold his patience. This could be a confusing concept if someone wasn’t used to it; Vince needed to keep that in the front of his mind.

“Think of like this,” Vince tried again. “There is only ash in your hand because in the fraction of a second that I begin drawing the energy of the match, the whole thing burns up in a flash and is taken into my body. That make sense?”

“Actually, yeah,” Nick said. “But if it burns all at once then why aren’t my fingers singed? I mean, if I’m holding it and it burns, it should hurt.”

“You’re not totally wrong,” Vince said. “Normally that would still burn you. But heat is a form of energy, and I’m taking everything the match has to give. So, while it might flash burn in your fingers, all of the heat flows into me.”

“Dude,” Nick said. “I get it, but your power is fucking complicated.”

“This from the guy whose ability works on quantum probabilities,” Vince pointed out.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Nick said. “I just control luck. Nothing complicated about that.”

“Right,” Vince said sarcastically. “Nothing complicated at all.”

Chapter 6

Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport sat at a small café in Paris, sipping their respective coffees. They had been saddled with a busy day so far; however, they were provided with a nice gap at lunch time, so Mr. Transport had suggested they adjourn to one of their favorite dining establishments. Mr. Numbers had concurred, and they had left the sweltering plains of Africa for a more tranquil and enjoyable environment in which to dine.

As was their custom, they were reviewing the particulars of their next assignment before departing. Mr. Transport had been somewhat surprised to see that their next job was classified as “long-term.” Those assignments were quite rare, given his and Mr. Numbers’ capabilities to handle things in a prompt and efficient manner. The deeper he read into the dossier, though, the more concerned Mr. Transport grew.

“Mr. Numbers,” Mr. Transport ventured tentatively.

“Yes, Mr. Transport?” Mr. Numbers replied without looking up from his own copy of the assignment file.

“Do you feel there perhaps there was a misfile and we were given someone else’s assignment?” Mr. Transport asked, trying desperately to keep any hope out of his voice. It was very bad for one’s job and health to be heard questioning the wisdom of the company they worked for.

“The possibility crossed my mind,” Mr. Numbers admitted. “However, if you read on, you will see certain accommodations at the place of employment have been made specifically for us. It even references us by name several times.”

Mr. Transport flipped a few pages ahead, and sure enough, Mr. Numbers had been correct. “Very well,” Mr. Transport said carefully. “Just wanted to be certain we were deployed to the right area.”

“Quite understandable,” Mr. Numbers agreed. “It would be irresponsible of us as agents to allow time and resources to be wasted on a clerical error. Since that is not the case, though, it seems we have a few more hours until we begin our new assignment.”

“That it does. Perhaps we should use that time to pack and prepare so we are properly equipped for the full term of the assignment,” Mr. Transport suggested.

“Excellent idea,” said Mr. Numbers. “Would you mind depositing me first, then swinging back by in an hour or so to pick me up?”

“Not at all,” assured Mr. Transport. He reached into his wallet and pulled out a few bills. Mr. Transport kept a variety of currency for almost every country in the world available at his apartment. It was much faster than trying to haggle or work out an exchange rate every time, plus it allowed him and his partner to stay in the background, the area in which they were most comfortable. Mr. Transport set the money on the table, careful to tip generously. A moment later he and Mr. Numbers were gone.

Across the café, an elderly gentleman glanced at their table and noticed their absence. He nonchalantly folded his paper, set some money on his own table, and headed off to make a phone call. The elderly gentleman did not tip nearly as well as Mr. Transport.

*          *          *

Several thousand miles away, in the middle of the Arctic tundra, Mr. Transport and Mr. Numbers reappeared. Both began shivering almost immediately.

“How long?” Mr. Transport asked, willing his teeth to keep from chattering.

“Three minutes fourteen seconds until health problems begin to set in,” Mr. Numbers replied automatically as he felt the temperature around him, tested the speed of the wind, and added in the meager protection his black suit offered him.

 “Watch is set for three minutes,” Mr. Transport said, quickly fiddling with the high-priced device on his wrist. Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport were very careful when they wanted to talk openly. They always selected areas with no possible people to surround them, in abstract locales and with ample background noise so that listening devices and GPS would be rendered ineffective. They never used the same place twice and always kept their conversations under five minutes. Say what you will about Mr. Numbers, he was a very calculating man. No pun intended.

“Now then, what do you actually make of our new assignment? Are we being punished?”

“For what?” Mr. Numbers shot back. “Our success percentage is 98 percent, we finish our missions in the fastest time of any team, and we have had no recorded insubordination in the history of our career.”

“Then what would make them do this to us?” Mr. Transport asked, allowing the uncertainty and fear he had kept hidden away since he saw the document flood into his voice.

“We mustn’t assume the worse,” said Mr. Numbers. “Many of the reasons they had for putting us on this job are actually quite sound. They expect me to see any problems coming before they reach a critical point, and you’ll be necessary in the event we need to evacuate ourselves and any others involved.”

“I don’t imagine that’s really all there is to it,” Mr. Transport said flatly.

“Nor do I,” said Mr. Numbers. “Unfortunately, with the data I have, I don’t yet know what the ulterior motive of placing us in this position is. The only option we have is the same we’ve always had: do our jobs, stick to the books, and give me enough time to see what’s happening behind the scenes.”

“Do you think you’ll be able to figure it out before we’re stuck in whatever trap someone is planning?” Mr. Transport asked.

“I always have. Of course, that doesn’t mean I always will, but I don’t really see any other options available to us, let alone any better ones,” said Mr. Numbers.

“Agreed,” said Mr. Transport. A loud beeping began emanating from his wrist. Mr. Transport raised his watch and promptly turned it off. Without another word said, he and Mr. Numbers were gone from the sprawling white mounds of snow.

They reappeared in the apartment Mr. Numbers was currently renting under the name Mr. Digit. Mr. Transport tipped his head to Mr. Numbers then vanished to go pack his own bags. Mr. Numbers moved about his home, carefully controlling his movements so as not to show his body’s relief at entering in the heat, nor to shiver out of the residual cold still clinging to him. Instead he packed up his clothes, which consisted predominantly of suits, gathered his very few personal effects, then bagged up the remainder of his possessions, which were his toiletries. The room would need to be cleaned of all traces of him, but the company had a department for that. They would also take care of settling up the rent and making sure no one asked questions about Mr. Digit’s sudden departure.

Mr. Numbers took a moment to go to his window and pull back the thick black curtain. Looking out, he sighed as his eyes took in the splendor of Rome. From his vantage point he had an excellent view of the Coliseum. That was why he had chosen this apartment in the first place. Mr. Numbers was not the type to get caught up in sentimentality or nostalgia, but as he sat on his window sill looking out, he had to admit that he was going to miss this view. He wished he could rent this place again once his assignment was over; however, that was against protocol. Once an agent had left a place he could never return.

Mr. Transport reappeared some time later, carrying a large, brown tweed suitcase and a black duffel bag. As Mr. Transport walked toward the window, Mr. Numbers noticed a slight clinking sound coming from Mr. Transport’s bag. Mr. Numbers bit back his desire to chastise Mr. Transport for bringing along alcohol. Given what the duo would soon be doing, there was a very strong possibility that Mr. Numbers would be seeking a nip of the hard stuff himself.

“Ready?” Mr. Transport asked as he reached the window and joined Mr. Numbers.

“Of course,” Mr. Numbers replied on cue, holding his own baggage firmly so it wouldn’t be left behind.

Then the room was empty, only the slight echo of a voice filled with duty and the warm Roman sunlight left to fill it. 

Chapter 7

The silver-haired boy was fidgeting nervously. Alice noted that in the back of her mind, not particularly intrigued but not ambivalent either. Every little detail added up to the sum of who a person was, and that was information worth having if she was going to be dealing with these people on a regular basis.

The five students were assembled in the central common room scattered among various seats. Mary was off to the side on her own, save for the stuffed bear she kept perched carefully in her lap. Alice had been tempted to ask why Mary had a stuffed animal, but the moment she had looked into those amber eyes all desire had melted away in the face of the overwhelming certainty that talking to Mary was a bad idea.

The boys were clustered together for the most part. Silver hair and sunglasses were lounging on the white couch, with the third boy in the chair to their side. He was a husky one, wearing a shirt that had strangely shaped dice on the front. Alice deduced within a few moments of hearing him speak that the boy was certainly lacking the basic set of social skills. Then again, given who she was surrounded by, she could hardly say that he didn’t fit in.

Alice herself had taken a center position in the room, eager to appear eager for whatever authority figure Daddy had managed to wrangle into this baby-sitting job. Alice didn’t expect for whoever showed up to pose any real problem for her; after all, they would obviously know who her father was, but she still preferred to get her way through charm and cunning rather than threats and force. It was the way a proper lady got things done.

As the clock struck seven, a bit too loudly, Alice noted with a grimace, a pair of men appeared in front of the group of students. They dressed almost the same, save that the shorter of the two wore a tie while the taller one did not. They wore black suits and white shirts, both kept their dark hair trimmed and while the short one had bright blue eyes, the larger one had only muddy brown ones.

“Hello, students,” said the shorter of the pair. “You may call me Mr. Numbers. My friend, Mr. Transport, and I are here to oversee and assist you in your academic endeavors. Our apartment is what lies behind the steel door in the kitchen. You will not be permitted access; however, an intercom is on the counter next to the pantry  for emergency contact. Do we have any questions so far?”

Alice glanced around to test the temperature of the room. It seemed everyone but she and Mary were struck dumb by the appearance and promptness of the two men who had materialized in front of them. Alice suppressed the urge to scoff. Of course these poor dregs were surprised; their only experience with people who had abilities was undoubtedly with others like themselves. The sight of someone using precision teleportation would be truly alien to them. Alice wasn’t quite sure why Mary wasn’t more taken back, but she readily chalked that up to just another aspect of the girl’s strangeness.

“I take your silence to mean we are on the same page,” Mr. Numbers continued. “Now, I want to be clear here. We’ve met most of you already when we were selecting people appropriate for the program you all participated in. We were nice and friendly then. We will continue to maintain that same level of friendliness during our tenure as your house administrators. However, please do not misinterpret my good nature as weakness. Mr. Transport and I are here to enforce the rules, and you will find we are both excellent at our jobs.”

“Um, what rules are you talking about?” The question came timidly from the silver-haired boy.

“A full copy will be issued before the week is over,” Mr. Numbers replied. “I will touch briefly on the main three, though. First, you are to keep your identities secret at all times. This is a requirement of all those who participate in the Hero Certification Program, or HCP as we call it around here, and it is the duty of the administrators to observe who has broken it, intentionally or otherwise. That will be covered in more depth tomorrow during your first class. Secondly, there is to be no fighting with other Supers or with regular humans outside the confines of the classroom.”

“Wait,” the silver-haired boy said again. “We’re going to fighting in class?”

“Of course,” said Mr. Numbers. “You are training to be a Hero. This means you must learn to fight against time, villains, and environmental conditions to save as many people as possible in any given scenario. Combat training will be a very important part of that.”

“Don’t worry,” Mr. Transport broke in, speaking for the first time. “All fights are strictly monitored, and there is always someone with a healing power on hand to tend to both parties afterward.”

“Mr. Transport is correct, though both he and you could stand to take a course in not interrupting,” Mr. Numbers said, staring at the silver-haired boy. “Now then, the third rule is the most important for all of you. Your powers must stay within your control at all times. This is a rule specific to your situation and certainly doesn’t need explanation. Be aware that this is the primary reason Mr. Transport and myself were selected for this assignment. Should any of you lose control, we will act quickly and decisively to ensure the safety of those around while simultaneously shutting down the problematic party.”

“Wait; I thought we all had control of our abilities. That’s why they let us enroll here.” This time the speaker was the dark-haired boy wearing sunglasses. Alice noticed he spoke with a strange accent. Not quite northern, but not quite southern, either. It seemed to be a hint of dialect from a region all its own.

“You all do have control of your abilities. Currently,” said Mr. Numbers. “The procedure you underwent was experimental, though. Those who created and performed it are certain you will remain as Supers and not drift back to your previous uncontrollable states. However, there are those who remain skeptical such a thing is possible, and the positioning of Mr. Transport and me as overseers is a compromise to assure the safety of the regular student body.”

“So what happens if someone loses control?” Alice was shocked to realize this question had come from her own mouth. It wasn’t as if she was a danger to anyone if she began floating around again, but she was concerned that the slip-ups of some of these cretins could affect her college career. At least, that’s how she rationalized the sudden nagging fear that had formed in her stomach.

“Testing,” Mr. Numbers replied simply.

“What Mr. Numbers means to say,” Mr. Transport said, jumping in as he saw the looks of distress cross his charges’ faces, “is that we will test and investigate the reason why control was lost. Maybe there was a psychological component and it doesn’t mean things failed. Maybe it’s an individual case, or maybe it just means that person will need another round of treatment. We don’t anticipate anything going wrong with any of you, but if it does then we’ll be there to find out exactly why it happened.”

“I feel testing was an adequate answer,” Mr. Numbers said. “Now, do any of you have any questions about the rules I have set down so far?”

There was silence, though this time it was less motivated by being dumbstruck at the dramatic entrance and more motivated by the sudden fear they had all presumably acquired of someone losing control and screwing the deal for everyone.

“Excellent,” Mr. Numbers said. “Then I will turn the floor over to Mr. Transport for some ‘getting to know our dorm mates’ activities.” With that, Mr. Numbers sat down in the chair directly opposite of Alice. Alice, for her part, worked very hard to avoid his observant blue eyes and focus on the tall Mr. Transport. It seemed that everyone was following her lead on that account; everyone, that is, except for Mary.

Mary was staring directly into Mr. Numbers’ big blue eyes, meeting his gaze with her own amber orbs. Since everyone was gazing intently at Mr. Transport, no one noticed the two looking at each other. If they did, though, certainly no one noticed as Mary brought both of her hands up and began clapping them together softly, engaging in a very gentle, very silent, session of applause.

Chapter 8

“Well then,” Mr. Transport said as the eyes of his charges fell curiously upon him. He was glad Mr. Numbers had allowed him to be the “good cop” in their interaction with the students, but he still felt a bit awkward dealing with a group of eighteen-year-olds. After all, Mr. Transport could scarcely remember a time when he shared the worries and concerns of an everyday teen. Of course, the reason Mr. Transport had trouble finding those memories is because they didn’t exist. Being able to pop out of nearly every situation had a profound impact on diminishing the amount of things he had to worry about in his formative years. “Why don’t we do an exercise to get to know one another better?”

Mr. Transport waited for some sign of agreement or excitement from the students. Instead he got back blank stares, so after a moment he elected to take that as the sign of their agreement. “Okay,” Mr. Transport continued. “Here is how it works. I want everyone to stand up, say their full name, what their ability is, where they are from, what their cover major is, and one interesting fact about themselves.”

Again Mr. Transport was met with silence; having settled on choosing to perceive that in the positive, though, Mr. Transport was able to keep right on trucking. “I’ll begin. My name is Mr. Transport. My power is teleportation of myself and others. My birth location is considered classified. I am not currently enrolled in Lander University, so I lack a major, and my interesting fact is that I collect bottle caps from sodas all over the world.”

“The still make soda in bottles?” Nick asked skeptically.

“Yes, they do, in other countries as well as in America,” Mr. Transport answered, gratefully to have anyone say anything. “Why don’t you pick up the ball and tell us about yourself now?” Mr. Transport had something that almost seemed like conversation momentum and he would be damned if he was going to lose it.

“No prob,” said Nick, standing from the couch. “Nick Campbell, and I’ve got the power of creating and controlling luck. I’m from Sin City itself, good old Vegas. I’m majoring in business while at Lander. My interesting fact is that I’ve been punched in the mouth by a senator.” With that, Nick plopped back down in the sofa and threw on a big, broad smile.

“Punched by a senator? Would you care to elaborate on that story, Mr. Campbell?” Mr. Transport asked.

“You’re not the only one with shit that’s classified,” Nick answered.

“Okay then,” Mr. Transport said quickly. “Who would like to go next?”

Before the word “next” was fully out of his mouth the blonde girl sitting directly opposite him and Mr. Numbers had popped up from her chair like there was a spring loaded in it. He hadn’t yet had the pleasure of meeting this young lady, but by process of elimination he knew who she was before she began to speak.

“My name is Alice Adair, and I have the power of flight. I’m from Los Angeles, California. While at Lander I will be enrolled in the communications program. An interesting fact about me is that I have been riding horses since I was five and have won several championships,” Alice said with a firm tone and a confident aura. She was a bit agitated that the sunglasses boy, or Nick as it were, had beaten her to being the first to speak, but she kept that annoyance off of her face as she returned to her seat and smiled placidly.

“Very nice to meet you, Alice,” said Mr. Transport. “Who wants to go next?” He braced, waiting for another student to pop up, but it became all too apparent he had already worked his way through the confident public speakers in his group. Well, no matter; Mr. Transport knew the default solution for problems like this.

“Well, since no one wants to volunteer anymore, how about we just start at this end of the room,” he said, pointing to Hershel, “and we’ll work our way down.”

There were some mumbling and dissatisfied tones, but slowly Hershel rose to his feet. The boy looked a bit better than when Mr. Transport had last seen him. The months of therapy and procedures had shrunken him from round to a wide husky, though the confidence of an elf lord about to siege a castle was strangely gone from his eyes and body language. Now that Mr. Transport thought about it, Hershel and that small girl, Mary, were the only two who hadn’t spoken a word since he and Mr. Numbers appeared in the room.

“My name is Hershel Daniels, and I’m from Chicago. I’m majoring in creative writing, and an interesting fact about me... is... um... well, I won a couple of writing competitions for my fantasy short stories,” Hershel said in soft tones. He moved to sit down, but Nick stopped him.

“You forgot to tell us what your power is,” Nick pointed out.

“Oh,” Hershel said. “Um... well, I guess that’s because I don’t really have any powers. I mean... I do, but... it’s complicated.”

“How complicated can it be?” Nick kept pressing. “You can either do something superhuman or you can’t.”

“Well, it’s more that I do something, and then I can do something super. Does that make sense?” Hershel asked timidly.

“He’s a shifter,” Mary said from her chair on the end.

“Oh, why didn’t you say so? So you turn into some other form that has the powers, right?” Nick asked.

“Yes,” Hershel said, nodding emphatically. “That’s how it works.”

“No shame in that,” Nick said reassuringly. “Some of the best Heroes on the record books had to go through a transformation before they were ready for business. It makes keeping your secret identity and Hero identity separate all the easier, too.”

“I guess it does,” Hershel agreed, looking thoughtful about the benefit Nick had brought up. He sat down in his chair successfully at last, the burden of speech passed off of him and on to the next poor sap.

Since the person to Hershel’s right was Nick, who had already gone, the turn skipped to Vince. It wasn’t really that Vince was scared to talk in public; it was just that everything in him was ingrained to go against the idea of volunteering. In his world, volunteering drew attention, and attention made people notice he was different. Once people noticed that, well... things always had a tendency to get far too interesting for Vince’s tastes.

Vince rose to his feet and addressed the room. “My name is Vince Reynolds. My power is the absorption, storage, and redistribution of energy. I’m from New York... originally. I’m enrolled as undecided as far as my major goes. My interesting fact is that I’ve been in forty of our fifty states.” Vince sat back down on the couch quietly.

“I have to ask, how do you get your hair that color?” Alice said once Vince had hit the couch. She didn’t really care about who his stylist was, but she was curious. The strong tone and voice that had come from Vince didn’t match up with the skittish body language she had seen all night. She wanted to hear more from him to try and reconcile that personality discrepancy.

“I don’t,” Vince said, this time a bit sheepishly. “My hair is naturally this color, and for some reason I can’t get dye to stick in it.”

“Oh,” Alice said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” That was unfortunate; she had been planning on getting a full course of dialogue from him, but if it was natural and a feature he was clearly embarrassed about, then there was no way for her to press onward from her present position.

“Don’t worry about it,” Vince said quickly. “Nick more or less asked the same thing when he first met me. It’s good that people think I dye it this way, it makes it easier to blend in as a human.”

“Very positive attitude, Vince,” Mr. Transport said. “Now then, shall we hear from our last student?”

All eyes turned to the short, wiry girl who had thus far only spoken once, on Hershel’s behalf at that, in the course of the night. Unlike the others, Mary didn’t stand. She delivered her introduction from a cross legged sitting position in her chair.

“My name is Mary,” she began. “And my power is an advanced brain which gives me telekinesis and telepathy. I was born in Louisiana, but I’ve been in the forests of Colorado for about eight years now. I’m double majoring in psychology and biology, and an interesting fact about me is that I know how to turn beavers into hats.”

“What’s your last name?” Hershel asked.

Mary blinked several times then let her gaze move around the room. She unconsciously let her hands pet the head of the stuffed bear in the lap. A few seconds of silence passed, and Mary looked back at her fellow dorm mates.

“I don’t really remember. Like I told Alice, I haven’t had any need for names in a very long time.” Mary asked.

“Thankfully we had ample need,” Mr. Numbers interjected. “Your last name is Smith. You may check the releases your parents signed if you need confirmation.”

“I have no reason to doubt you,” Mary said graciously.

“Thank you, Mary,” Mr. Transport said. “Tell me, does your bear have a name?” He was fairly certain girls who were Mary’s age didn’t name their stuffed animals, but then his understanding was that eighteen-year-olds didn’t normally keep their stuffed animals with them out in the open anyway, so he opted to ask anyway in the hopes of seeming friendly.

“No,” Mary said bluntly.

“I see, that was a silly question,” Mr. Transport said hurriedly.

“Why do you think that?” Mary asked him.

“Well, because you’re obviously old enough that you wouldn’t be naming your bear,” Mr. Transport said.

“You misunderstand,” Mary told him. “I did name my bear. His name is No.”

“Huh,” said Mr. Transport. “Why did you name him No?”

“Why not name him No?” Mary responded.

“Yes, well.” Mr. Transport paused and resisted the urge to press his fingers to his temples. He didn’t need the children seeing that he could be annoyed, gotten to, or given a headache. It was best to just get things back to business. “Since Mr. Numbers already introduced himself, that takes care of the meeting agenda for tonight. One last thing before Mr. Numbers and I retire. As you were all told, classes for Lander take place on the ground level, while classes for the Hero Certification Program take place in a special underground campus. Now, other dorms that house Supers have special elevators to convey their students between campuses. However, since ours is new and it is not yet hooked up to the network, I will be your method of travel between these two schools.”

“Why couldn’t we just get clearance to use an elevator at a nearby dorm?” Nick asked.

“Too much paperwork,” Mr. Transport said with what he hoped was a believable grin. “No, in reality it is simply that getting approval takes months and months, and since we weren’t sure if any of you would be able to attend this year, we were unable to secure that approval in time. Fear not, though, for I know all of your class schedules and I will always be around to teleport you as needed.”

“How do we get back up?” Nick said, asking yet another question.

“You can call for me on my phone or you can ride the elevator. Getting up doesn’t require clearance; only going down. Now, I’m sure you all know there is a meeting welcoming you all tomorrow at eight in the morning, so I expect to see each of you here ready to go promptly at seven forty-five. Aside from that, please intermingle, get to know one another, and have a great night.”

Mr. Transport gently kicked Mr. Numbers, who said something that might or might not have resembled “good night”, depending on the language one was using as well as the level of sarcasm tolerated before the meaning of a word was reversed.

With a nod and a smile, Mr. Transport vanished, presumably taking Mr. Numbers with him since the chair Mr. Numbers had occupied now sat empty. The students were overtaken with surprise at the disappearance once again, though this time the spectacle wore off much more quickly. The vanishing administrators did leave behind a vacuum in conversation, rendering the five gifted individuals with no idea what to say to one another. This vacuum was broken quickly by Nick, whose powers evidently included a need for attention and an utter lack of social insecurity.

“Okay,” Nick said. “I’m now officially taking bets. Gay couple or just a pair of best friends who secretly wish they were a gay couple?” 

Chapter 9

The first thing Nick did, once he had secured his door tightly shut behind him, was to shed those idiotic sunglasses. He blinked several times as his eyes readjusted, then strolled over to his desk and turned on his computer. He opened a word processing program and immediately began writing down the day’s events with as much detail as he could remember. It was a very minor challenge for him. There had been times before he had gained control of his power when he would go weeks between note-taking sessions, and he had still managed to glean information from those.

Nick made no motion to save his file as he typed. He had procured a surge protector that doubled as a battery in case of a power outage, so he was relatively certain nothing would interrupt his process or destroy his work thus far. It was probably redundant in a place like this with safeguards on top of the safeguards, but Nick hadn’t survived eighteen years of bipolar luck without learning to be a little redundant in his safety measures.

It took him only a few minutes to finish - Nick had shockingly quick hands - and then he leaned back in his chair and began reviewing the day’s events. He had done quite well and had adhered to the primary tenants of survival in a new area: speak much, say little, and see all. The glasses had been a good addition; he needed to thank Ms. Pips for that suggestion next time he was in Vegas. They kept anyone from reading what was on his face effectively, and they made him look like something of a jackass.

That suited Nick’s needs just fine. People overlooked and underestimated those they thought of as stupid, which was precisely what he wanted. Nick was a boy who could affect the outcomes of dice throws in a school for people who could lift cars and eat fire. He was going to need every advantage he could get, and surprise was an excellent one to have.

Nick continued scrolling down, rereading his own recent notes. He had befriended Vince easily enough, and Hershel was socially ignorant, so getting on his good side had only required minor encouragement. Mary was a lost cause; Nick needed a telepath hanging around him like he needed a bullet to the head. Alice, on the other hand, was a whole different story. She had some skill in reading people, but her subtlety and manipulation skills were amateurish at best. The way her eyes had been darting about during the meeting, how she tilted her head when she was trying to figure out a new aspect to someone, the clumsy way she tried to lead a conversation with Vince, all of those had been tells of a novice. Nick estimated he could get her to trust him within the span of a month. After all, there were few things as vulnerable as someone with just a little bit of knowledge.

The two agents he had babysitting him were going to be simple to get around. They had run a classic “good cop, bad cop” routine to categorize their interactions with the students. As long as he created some personal problems to ask Mr. Transport for help with and let Mr. Numbers yell at him occasionally for minor discipline issues, neither one would think to wonder what was going on behind those sunglasses.

Nick finished reading his notes, then went through them twice more. After the final pass, Nick deleted every word he had written and closed the file without saving, making sure to purge the autosave function as he did so. That done, he undressed and got into bed. He would plan for how to handle the next day for only an hour, then allow himself to get some sleep. He needed to be in top form when he met the other students, after all.

*          *          *

Mr. Transport and Mr. Numbers sat at the dining table in their new apartment. It was a spacious two-bedroom that existed behind the door in the kitchen. They would, of course, be sharing the cooking area with the children, but since the kids had meal plans and little practical experience in taking care of themselves, neither Mr. Transport nor Mr. Numbers anticipated battling with them for space on the stove.

They had also been provided with their own mini-fridge, which Mr. Numbers took as a negative sign indicating some higher up was aware of Mr. Transport’s penchant for beer and liquor. Still, the fridge was there, so Mr. Transport had put his beer and a bottle of gin in it as they unpacked. Now the two sat, still clad in their suits, going over their assignment folders one last time before the mandatory destruction of them.

“Do you think it went well?” Mr. Transport asked from his seat.

“Exceedingly,” Mr. Numbers said. “We made them perceive us in the way they were supposed to. The only exception, of course, is the telepath.”

“She shouldn’t pose a problem for us, though,” Mr. Transport said. “Remember your training. Telepaths can only read what is going through your mind at that moment. Just be careful and remember to control your thoughts around her.”

“I’m aware of the necessary techniques,” Mr. Numbers said with a slight edge to his voice. “I’m just not certain it holds true with that one. There’s something about her, something different. I worry she might be able to go deeper than most telepaths.”

“I’m sure the doctors or nurses would have made note of it in the file. Besides, why would a telepath who has spent her life without control of her ability be more adept with it than those who have honed it through a lifetime of practice?” Mr. Transport asked.

Mr. Numbers let out a small sigh. “I suppose you’re right. Still, we’ll have to stay on our toes around her. Heaven knows we have secrets we can’t afford to let some eighteen-year-old girl in on.”

“I thought she was seventeen,” said Mr. Transport.

“She was when we met her, but she had her birthday while she was undergoing treatment,” said Mr. Numbers.

“Oh. I do hope they did some sort of celebration for her,” said Mr. Transport.

“It is to my understanding that there was cake,” assured Mr. Numbers.

“Very good then,” said Mr. Transport. “Well, I’m ready when you are.”

“Let’s get the lighter and the bucket,” said Mr. Numbers.

 

*          *          *

Alice tossed and turned sleeplessly in her bed. A telepath! What had her father been thinking, allowing a telepath to be her dorm mate? He knew how much she valued her privacy. At least, she had thought he knew. What was she going to do? That Mary girl could be listening to her at that very moment. She would never know a moment’s peace; never know a good sleep again.

Alice had always been excellent at reading others, a skill she had first learned from watching her Daddy interact with other people. Now she was stuck with a dorm mate who had been living in the damn forest for the last few years and who was a mind reader to boot. All of Mary’s social habits had been scrubbed clean by the wilderness and the solitude, so Alice had no idea what was going on in her head. On top of that, Mary could see Alice’s thoughts plain as day.

Never had the tables been turned on Alice like this, never had she felt so exposed, so vulnerable. Her only consolation was that the others would be simple to deal with. Hershel was a big, insecure geek, Nick was a tongue-wagging idiot, and Vince was uncomfortable with his own uniqueness. They had all shown weaknesses to capitalize on for her own gain, so she was comfortable with them. As for the agents, Alice barely spared a thought for them. They worked for Daddy, because whether they knew it or not, everyone worked for Daddy in some way. She would be polite, and if they crossed her, she would handle them.

No, there was no problem with anyone else. Alice flipped over in her bed for the thousandth time, trying to figure out how to handle Mary.

*          *          *

Hershel was also thinking about Mary, though he and Alice had very different problems with the girl.

“She was so pretty,” Hershel said to no one. He used to have friends, back before Roy had begun popping up more frequently, and had even managed to hang on to some personal connections through his LARP group. Those were gone now, back in Chicago, while he lay in bed alone. He desperately wished he still had them so he could tell them about his day, about how he had gotten Roy under control, and about the beautiful girl with the amber-colored eyes he had met on his first day at college.

Hershel could do none of those, though, so instead he was talking to an empty room. He wished he could have talked to her after the meeting was over, but she went back to the girls’ side almost as soon as the two administrators were gone. Did she know he was going to talk to her and that’s why she ran? A wave of insecurity washed over Hershel, one that he was more than accustomed to. Hershel was pudgy, shy, and unremarkable. He had spent his whole life feeling those waves of insecurity crash against him. The only times they weren’t there was when he was dressed up in costume pretending to be someone else. Then he was brave, strong, and confident. Then he was someone worth being.

Hershel felt something stir in his mind. He realized he had been calling out to Roy without noticing. That seemed to happen at his lowest points, when he wanted to be anyone else in the world besides Hershel Daniels. If not for the treatment, Roy would probably have appeared already. Fortunately, that was no longer the case. Hershel could call to him all night, but until he used the trigger that had been created, Roy would stay nothing more than a tickle in the back of his head.

Still, it was hard enough to get to sleep alone. Hershel didn’t want to try and pass out with both of them stirring, so he decided to think of something besides Mary and how insecure she made him feel.

“She really is so pretty,” Hershel said once more. He rolled over and tried to visualize anything besides Mary’s amber eyes.

*          *          *

In her own room, Mary blushed.

“Yes, I think he’s very sweet, No,” she said to her bear. “I just think he needs a little more time to acclimate to college on his own. This is a big new environment, and if I were to be with him, I’d become nothing more than a security blanket.”

The bear stared back at her from his resting place on the bed.

“Okay, you got me. I also want to see what his other side is like,” Mary admitted. “Besides, there are much more interesting thoughts going on right now, don’t you agree?”

No said nothing.

“So many people thinking of little old me,” said Mary. “I feel like this is going to be a very interesting year.”

No still said nothing.

“Oh, you rascal,” Mary laughed. “Maybe after a few weeks. Right now we need to get to bed. It’s going to be very loud tomorrow unless we’re rested and in control.”

Mary scooped up No and got under the covers with him. Like turning off a light switch, Mary banished away the voices from her head. Just like that it was as though she were back in the forest, communing with the quiet. The ability to have silence on demand, that was something she would never grow tired of.

*          *          *

Vince was asleep. Unlike the others, he hadn’t had any large revelations about his roommates or sudden fears about the day to grapple with. Vince had merely come in, undressed, and gotten into bed.

Of course, before he slept, Vince had tenderly removed a gold pocket watch from his backpack and gently wound it as he did every night. He then checked the time and made sure the watch was running right then set it down in a place of honor on his bedside table.

Then he had gotten into bed himself, pausing on his direct flight toward the land of slumber only long enough to run a finger along the watch and softly whisper, “Goodnight, Father.”

After that, he was gone into a dream that seemed to feature fire more heavily than the ones he had regularly.

Chapter 10

“Welcome, freshmen!” The speaker was a tall man with glasses, black hair, and a charcoal-colored suit. He cut an impressive figure even from behind his podium, looking around the room emanating confidence and ease, as though he had made this speech dozens of times before. Which, coincidentally, he had.

“It is my pleasure as Dean of the Hero Certification Program to be the first to congratulate you on making the cut and being enrolled in our very elite little academy,” the dean continued. “My full name is Blaine Jeffries, however, I want you all to just call me Dean Blaine. It is my hope that each and every one of you grow stronger in the years ahead, and that the best of you graduate from here with full certifications and go on to become acclaimed Heroes. I want to watch all of you find the lessons you need to succeed!”

“Of course he does,” Nick muttered to Vince quietly from his seat in the middle of the auditorium. “The more prestige a Hero has, the better it looks on the school that trained them.”

“I didn’t think the five universities that ran this program were in competition,” Vince said curiously.

“Where there is money, there is competition, and these bad boys are government-funded,” Nick replied.

“Now, I know all of you are a little nervous,” Dean Blaine said in an understanding voice. “After all, most of you are from schools, if not towns, where you were the only Super present. Having peers around you who can understand and relate to what you’re going through is a new experience, and I’m here to tell you that it will be a wonderful one. You’re going to have friendships, support, and respect all built on the mutual understanding that only fellow Supers can share.”

“Is being a Super hard?” Vince whispered to Nick. “I knew a few of them, and by comparison to... everyone else, it seemed like they had it pretty easy.” Vince chastised himself internally. He had just referenced himself as something other than a Super, a taboo Mr. Transport had advised them against committing before he brought them down that morning. It wasn’t just that the program that had created them was classified, which it was, the problem was that if the other students knew what Vince and his group had once been Powereds they were almost sure to face harassment and discrimination. Of course, in a school where there were telepaths, any secret was inevitably going to come out. The goal was merely to avoid that day for as long as possible.

“It isn’t really hard, per se,” Nick responded, breezing over Vince’s near screw-up. “It’s just different. I know you were on your own most of the time, but for those of us around people it was an odd experience, always knowing you were the one who was different.” Nick was careful to try and cover for Vince, not out of friendship but out of necessity. Nick wanted every advantage he could get his hands on, and being targeted as a freak among freaks would rob him of too many opportunities for him to permit it.

“You’re going to need that support network, too,” Dean Blaine continued. “As all of you should know, becoming a Hero is a grueling task. You’ll be taking combat classes, training your tactical skills, learning to think around corners, and - possibly most importantly of all - you’ll be learning about the ethics behind having and using abilities. And, of course, you’ll be doing all of that while maintaining your secret identity up top.”

The sound of groans permeated the audience, which was about fifty people strong. Dean Blaine only gave this talk to freshmen, and despite what many conspiracy theorists believed, the portion of the population that were Supers was still remarkably small. Of course, the percentage jumped considerably if one were to include Powereds as well, but no one did.

“Now, now, none of that,” said Dean Blaine without breaking his smile. “I know many of you have lived out in the open about your abilities for years, but this is how we do things at Lander. Learning to protect a secret identity helps you hone a lot of the skills a Hero will need. Ingenuity, thinking on your feet, and planning are all major elements of keeping your secret safe. Those of you who fail at keeping your secret... well, let’s just say that fail was the operative word there.”

There was no laughter at Dean Blaine’s joke, not that he had expected any. That was a joke just for him.

“Of course, there are always extenuating circumstances, but let’s just say you should do your best to keep the fact that you’re a Super close to the vest. If you need to show off, work out, or just get the powers pumping, then you are always welcome down here, where you can be the Super we all know you are,” Dean Blaine reassured them.

“Lovely,” Alice said to no one in particular. She had opted to sit alone near the top of the tiered auditorium. She loved that sort of spot because it allowed her a vantage point above all the others, observing and noting their behavior. She had also chosen it because Mary, and for some reason Hershel, had both sat near the bottom. Alice was not about to give that girl any more time staring into her mind than she had to.

“With that settled, let’s go over today’s activities, shall we?” Dean Blaine asked rhetorically. “Since above ground classes don’t start until tomorrow, we’ll be using today to do our combat ranking. For those of you who don’t know, we do rankings among the classes at the beginning of this and end of every other year. This is so we can get a sense of where you’re starting from based on the previous test, and how much you’ve grown by the end. We won’t just be taking into account who wins each fight; we’ll be looking at how they use their abilities, bodies, and brains to make the most of every situation. Today’s will be a single elimination tournament, so the more you win, the more you fight, the better a chance you have to showcase what you can do.”

Vince felt his heart sink. All he had for energy was the half a book of matches he had absorbed yesterday while showing off for Nick. Unless he fought someone with electrical or fire abilities, he was going to be working at a big disadvantage. It was really his own fault; Mr. Numbers had warned them there would be combat. He’d even had a passing thought of trying to find a place to absorb energy, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. There was still a nagging voice in the back of his brain telling him that he would lose control and drain the whole school. Or town. Or state.

“I’d like all of you to come down now and meet the professors who will be overseeing the first battle of your college careers, the freshmen combat coaches: Coach George and Coach Persephone!” Dean Blaine announced, gesturing to the side of the stage where a pair of people, both wearing sweats, walked on and joined up with the dean in the center.

The man was dark-haired, tall and muscular. The woman, on the other hand, was blonde, lean, curvy, and just plain sexy. She looked like she wouldn’t be able to take on a sack of potatoes, let alone watch over Supers in combat. Not that that really mattered to the men in the audience, who were staring unabashedly, with only a few exceptions.

Nick was certainly not one of those exceptions. “Look at the tits on her,” he said as he and Vince rose from their seats and began making their way to the stage with the rest of their class.

“You better hope she doesn’t have enhanced hearing,” Vince warned as they descended.

“What? Like she doesn’t know she had amazing tits? I mean, we can see them through a sweatshirt, I seriously doubt me saying this would result in a groundbreaking realization for her,” Nick defended.

“No, but it could be a skull-breaking one for you. The woman teaches Supers how to fight, I can’t imagine she’s as frail as her form looks,” Vince said.

“You have a point,” Nick agreed. “On the other hand, though... Yowza.”

Fortunately for Vince, at that point they reached the stage and even Nick wasn’t dumb enough to keep chatting about their coach’s breasts with her in human earshot. At least, Vince hoped Nick wasn’t that dumb. Once all the students were together, Coach George stepped forward and addressed them.

“Good morning, new meat,” he said with a grin that was far more believable than the one the dean still had shellacked onto his face. “To the upper classman I’m a professor, but you haven’t earned that right yet, so to you my name is Coach George, and by the end of the year you are going to curse me, my mother for birthing me, and God for allowing me to exist. I am going to work every last one of you down to the bone. I am going to break you apart until you have no concept of what you can or can’t do, because I want each of you to end this year doing things you never thought possible. You will all hate me for the rest of your life, but if you are very skilled and very lucky, you will live long enough to come back here and thank me one day. You will thank me for making you strong enough to survive.”

Coach George stepped back, and Coach Persephone stepped forward. “First off, yes, eyes up at my face, gentlemen. Secondly, I’m going to be training you as well, though while my brutish counterpart will be teaching your bodies how to endure combat, I will be educating your minds. You will use your powers in new ways you never would have imagined before, and you will do it because the only options I am going to hand you are to find a way or suffer bodily harm. You should know that Coach George and I are the harshest instructors in this academy, because we have to be. This is where you are torn down and built up correctly with the building blocks that will enable you to survive the years to follow. If we do not think you can survive, we will fail you. So work hard and learn fast, or you’ll wash out and be no better than a Powered.”

The students winced visibly at that, the idea of being compared to a Powered kicking them into gear and setting their determination not to wash out firmly into place. Which, of course, was exactly what Coach Persephone had been aiming for.

“All right,” said Dean Blaine. “So, before we pair off for the first round of combat, does anyone have any questions so far?” No hands came up, so Dean Blaine continued. “Fantastic; then I want the girls to go to Coach Persephone and the boys to go to Coach George so they can pair you up.”

“Isn’t that sexist?” The question came from a girl near the front of the crowd with dirty blonde hair. Vince looked at her, and realized with pleasant surprise that the girl with pink-streaked short hair from the dining hall yesterday was standing next to the question asker.

“And what is your name, miss?” Dean Blaine asked in response.

“Julia,” the girl replied.

“Let me guess, Julia; you’re a women’s studies major, right?” Dean Blaine asked.

“Um... yes,” Julia replied.

“There’s always one,” Dean Blaine said with a sigh. “We go over this every year, so I’ll tell you the same thing, Julia. The point of this test is to get an idea of how you fight against an opponent when you are at relatively equal footing. Both you and your opponent will have an ability, so the only other difference is your physique, and sadly, boys are usually stronger than girls. This means that getting an accurate assessment requires us to pair you with people who have similar body types. If it makes you feel better, though, this is only the case for freshman year. Once you become sophomores and have been trained by George here, we’ll be setting you against anyone, regardless of sex.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Julia conceded.

“Great,” Dean Blaine said. “Okay, everyone, now report to your respective coach and get ready for a good old-fashioned tussle.”

Chapter 11

Vince was impressed at the combat cells that Lander possessed. Seventy feet by seventy feet in size, they were made of reinforced concrete that was several inches thick, with five-inch plastic serving as a window and a triple-locked door the only entrance and exit. What was truly amazing, though, was that there were so many of them. Right now, each member of the freshman class was standing in a cell just like Vince’s, staring across at some other student who they would soon be facing off against.

In Vince’s case, the boy who had entered was a few inches taller, and a few muscles broader, and a multitude of follicles shorter. His head was perfectly bald, drawing more attention to his striking face and frost-blue eyes. The only other person near them was a girl wearing a white uniform, staring down at them through the glass. She was one of the senior class, doing her duty of watching over the new recruits to make sure no one was killed. Serious injury wasn’t a concern since there were healers on hand, but no one could bring back the dead. At least, no one employed by Lander.

Vince and his opponent were both wearing black uniforms of a style similar to the girl watching them. It seemed the hierarchy at Lander was that freshmen wore black uniforms, sophomores and juniors wore grey, and the few seniors that managed to stay in class were issued white uniforms. This supposedly represented the students growing closer to the goodness and purity that all Heroes were meant to represent. Vince thought it was just that there was more training and fighting in the lower years and black didn’t stain as easily, but he kept that particular theory to himself.

“Introduce yourselves,” came a female voice from a speaker hidden somewhere in the concrete around them. It took Vince a moment, but he realized it had come from his overseer. Apparently there was some sort of intercom system set up for the rooms. It made sense; how else was someone going to talk to them through solid walls?

“My name is Michael Clark,” said Vince’s opponent, a broad and confident smile smearing across his face.

“Vince Reynolds,” said Vince.

“I like your hair,” Michael commented.

“I like your... style,” Vince reciprocated as best he could.

Michael laughed. “I know it’s a bit odd, but you know how that goes, right? What can I say; I just love feeling the cold air against my head.”

Vince said nothing, merely kept sweeping his eyes over Michael, trying to get some sense of what the boy would be doing once the metaphorical bell sounded. He didn’t have to wait long to find out.

“Begin,” said the same, crackling intercom voice. Vince resisted the urge to look around for the speaker again and that discipline was all that saved him. Before the word was even done being spoken, Michael had reared his right arm back and was punching in Vince’s direction. Granted, since there was forty feet between the two of them, it was a ridiculous gesture that shouldn’t have endangered Vince in the slightest. Vince leapt to the side anyway.

A flash of blue light roared past him, striking the wall where he had been standing only moments before. A quick peek back showed Vince that a long chunk of the wall was now coated in ice. Someone who had cold-based powers. Freaking perfect.

“I’m impressed,” Michael complimented. “Not many people think to get out of the way of a punch from across the room.”

“I try to prepare for the worst case scenario,” Vince admitted.

“Let me know if that helps you,” Michael said as he balled up both of his fists. “Because to be honest, fighting me in the first round is the worst case scenario for anyone.”

Vince didn’t respond this time; instead he took off running. Michael was a good shot with those freezing punches of his, but he was still shooting from forty feet away. Vince was quick on his feet, and more importantly he had a lot of practice at running away, so he was able to stay a few steps ahead of each punch as it went out.

Michael was no slouch either, though; he began looking to where Vince was running and firing ahead of him. More than once Vince was only saved by a quick roll to the side or a slide underneath. The only upside was that the more Michael fired, the more Vince began to get his timing down. Michael needed to take a deep breath between every two punches, though whether it was part of his fighting style or just a necessary moment to recharge Vince was unsure. The good thing was that every time he took that breath, Vince had a moment to pause and see where Michael’s eyes were aiming. The only real chance Vince had was to wear Michael down slowly until his endurance was thin. Using powers still seeming to require him to use physical actions, so if Vince could get Michael gasping for air then he might have a chance at getting close to him.

Unfortunately, it seemed Michael had figured that out, too.

“What the hell is your power?” Michael asked as he threw two more freezing punches that Vince leapt over. “Running away?”

Vince said nothing, conserving his air for movement, not talking.

“If this is all you can do then you should just give up,” Michael chastised him. “So you’ve got a weak power. That doesn’t mean you should jump around and make an ass of yourself because you’re up against a real opponent.” To punctuate his words, Michael let loose another flurry that crashed at Vince’s feet.

Vince hurdled over the fast-forming ice and kept moving. He realized the problem with his strategy the moment he was away from the slicked ground behind him. The more punches Michael threw, the more ice formed around the room, which made running away increasingly difficult. Already small pillars and blocks of ice were forming where more than one punch had landed. If Vince didn’t bring this to a conclusion soon, he was going to run out of room to dodge.

“Damn it,” Michael cursed. “I don’t care if you can’t fight. Just give up so I can move onto an opponent with some skill.”

Michael threw another right at Vince’s feet, forcing him up into the air, then threw a left punch toward Vince, who was suspended in the mid-jump. On instinct, Vince hurled his upper body forward, turning a midair somersault and dodging the blue blast that would be blaring down below him in mere instants. But the blast didn’t come. Vince crooked his eye back to Michael to see him standing there with an extended left fist and a pulled back right one.

Michael hadn’t used a blast out of his left hand; it had been a feint, which meant he still had one to throw. Michael’s right arm shot back out just before Vince’s feet touched the ground. The concrete below was instantly frozen, impossible to get traction on. Vince was on it only for a moment before his leftover momentum sent him flying onto and across the concrete. As he skidded along the hard surface, Vince tried to think. Michael would have to take a breath now, which meant Vince had maybe an extra second to get to safety. There was no way Vince could scramble up in time; he’d be a sitting target. What other options did that leave him?

As he rolled along the ground, he noticed he was near a moderate-sized block of ice that had been built up by Michael’s attacks. It wouldn’t be much in the way of cover, but it was a better option than anything else Vince had. Rather than trying to get up, Vince used his window to keep rolling, picking up the speed and veering his course so that he was able to stop himself directly behind the ice block.

The crashing sound of energy accompanied by the cracking sound of growing ice told Vince he had made it just in time. Several more crashes followed, ironically building more ice and reinforcing Vince’s defensive wall. Moments later the sounds stopped.

“So you’ve resorted to hiding now? Is this the best you’ve got? You must have some kind of ability or you wouldn’t be here. How about you try using it?” Michael taunted. “What is it, then, are you just scared of fighting?”

Vince let Michael talk; it bought him precious time. He checked his body and found that aside from a bloody lip, the fall had given him minimal damage. Vince knew he couldn’t stay like this for long; it left him utterly vulnerable if Michael were to come around to this side. Michael was still being a bit cautious because he didn’t know what Vince’s power was, but that wouldn’t last forever. The wear-down approach wouldn’t work; Michael could destroy the terrain before he got tired. So, in lacking any sort of reliable defense, Vince decided to use the next best thing.

Pure. Offense.

“You seem to be mistaken,” Vince said as he pulled himself up carefully from behind the ice block. “Our powers work in contrast to each other, that’s why I’ve been taking the defensive. It was the smart move until I understood your tactics. Let me assure of one thing right now, though.”

Vince slowly, deliberately wiped away the blood from his mouth with the back of his fist. “I know how to fight.”

Chapter 12

“Gaaaaah!” Vince cried as he was knocked back across the field, his small body rolling in the grass before coming to a stop.

“How many times do I have to tell you? Learn their timing and adjust your own to fit into their defensive gaps. Most people fight with patterns and that’s all they know. If you can flow through those patterns, they won’t even be able to see how you’re hitting them, let alone find a way to block you,” said a tall, dark-haired man in a tattered red coat.

“Sorry... Father,” Vince squeezed out as he gasped for air. His father’s last punch had knocked the breath out of him. He was used to it, though, and would recover quickly. Father didn’t hold back when teaching him how to fight, because no one Vince ever went up against would be holding back either.

“You’re getting better, Vince,” Father encouraged. “You landed two punches onto my arms that time before you fell into your own rhythm.”

Vince managed to pull himself to his feet. Small and slight at eight years old and wearing ragged clothing, the only thing remarkable about the boy standing in the field was his tousled silver hair. That, and the look of determination screaming out his soft blue eyes.

“How do I keep from falling into my rhythm?” Vince asked.

“Simple,” Father replied. “Don’t have one.”

“I don’t know how,” Vince admitted. Father never chastised him for admitting ignorance, saying it was the only way for Vince to find his weak spots and grow stronger.

“It’s not something that’s easy,” Father explained. “You have to be able to adapt to your opponent’s style, to work in a way that is the most detrimental to them. The only way to achieve it is through proper training and a variety of skilled opponents. However, you have a slight advantage in this area.”

“What’s that?” Vince asked curiously.

“Your power is that of absorption. You can deal in all different types of energies; that means that your core nature is an adaptive one,” Father said. “You were built to handle all kinds of different challenges, so I have faith you’ll be able to learn how to fight without a form.”

“How does my ability factor in?” Vince asked harshly. “I can’t even control it unless you’re around.”

“Just because you can’t control it doesn’t mean it doesn’t say a lot about you,” Father pointed out. “Now, the train will be pulling out in two hours, so if want to jump on a car we only have an hour and a half left. Do you want to spend it whining, or do you want to spend it training?”

Vince took a deep breath, making sure he had fully recovered from the blow to his stomach and losing his wind. He hadn’t, but it was good enough for the moment.

“Training,” Vince said with a grin.

*          *          *

Ten years later found Vince charging across partially-frozen concrete, ducking blue blast blows as they flew toward him, making a beeline for his enemy as he put all of Father’s training into use. Vince knew Michael’s pattern and knew that any freezing attack would have to be concluded in a two-punch combo. More than that and Michael needed a breath. Vince also knew that while Michael’s style so far had been long range, the way he held himself and threw his blasts were indicative of someone comfortable with close range fighting. Michael definitely had training, and from the way he had been attacking, Vince was betting it was in boxing.

Vince sidestepped another blast as he circled, closing the gap between himself and Michael. It was harder to dodge the closer Vince got, but he’d learned to dodge boxing blows at close combat range; there was no way a punch with a lag time was going to hit him. The problem would be that once Vince closed the gap entirely, he wouldn’t be able to take a single one of Michael’s punches or this match would be all over. Normally he could just count on his practice taking blows to let him work through the pain, but getting frozen solid wasn’t something you could grit your teeth and push through.

Then, all at once, Vince realized he was in range to actually strike back and every cohesive thought was gone from his mind. All he saw was his opponent’s movements, feeling the pattern that Michael wove to take down his prey. Vince flowed around Michael, using footwork to keep Michael from being able to get off a clean shot. At the same time Vince began lightly throwing his own punches. Mere taps at first, easy to recover from for both parties. Vince wasn’t trying to do damage: he was trying to see how Michael blocked. The more soft blows Michael avoided, the surer Vince was that Michael’s training was in boxing, which told Vince exactly how to take him off guard.

Vince slid to Michael’s side and threw a left directly at Michael’s face. Michael blocked it immediately, rearing back his own left to deliver an ice punch to Vince’s face. He never got the chance, though, as Vince followed the momentum of the punch through with a hard knee to Michael’s ribs. Without stopping, Vince used the force to push himself around to Michael’s back, out of range of his frozen fists, and deliver a right-handed blow to same spot on the ribs he had struck with his knee. Vince was preparing to let fly a punch to the back of Michael’s head when the ground beneath his feet suddenly went slick.

Vince backed away quickly, getting on to a part of the concrete that offered more traction at the sacrifice of his position behind Michael. This had obviously been Michael’s plan - he must have punched the ground to steal Vince’s footing - but Vince had no other option besides playing into it.

“I can’t believe it,” Michael said. “All that fucking running and it turns out you have some decent hand-to-hand skills. I’ll admit I did not see that coming.”

Vince noticed Michael was talking but not punching. Maybe he was foggy from the blows, but Vince doubted it. More likely he had either realized he couldn’t hit Vince at this range, or he was trying to lure Vince into relaxing and letting his guard down.

“Of all the things I expected today, using this on someone who hasn’t even shown me their power wasn’t one of them,” Michael said. His tone was casual but his eyes were hard. Vince had embarrassed him, and it was very clear Michael did not take kindly to that. “You got in some good shots, Vince, but that won’t work on me anymore.”

As he spoke, Michael’s body seemed to grow blue. After a second Vince realized that ice was forming over Michael’s frame, cracking and fissuring as it went to allow movement, while thickening to protect what was underneath. It seemed to take no time until Michael was almost totally covered in his ice armor. Vince could still make out his eyes through a pair of slits, but there was no way he was going to find a vulnerable chunk of Michael’s flesh to pound on this time.

“You did pretty good for being as weak as you are,” Michael goaded. “But I want you to see what a real warrior looks like. I’m going to be the number one ranked in this class, because no one is as powerful as me!” Michael tilted back his armored head and laughed, unconcerned about his worthless opponent as he stood in the invincible protection his ice offered him.

The moment Michael’s head was back, Vince began charging forward. He’d made it halfway there when Michael noticed his headlong sprint.

“You think this is for show? Or are you so dumb you really think you can punch through several inches of ice?” Michael asked, taking his stance once again as Vince drew closer.

Vince never slowed down for an instant, running right up to Michael and stopping on his left foot, letting the speed carry his right forward into a powerful side kick. Michael moved to block it, but the foot drew back a few inches before it would have struck the armor around his arm. Vince kept spinning, though, pulling off a complete three-sixty before planting his right down and launching forward on it. Michael realized that Vince was still carrying most the momentum from the run in his body, and that he was cocked back to throw a punch right at Michael’s face. It took everything Michael had not to laugh at this sad, determined idiot. So Vince wanted to break his own hand just trying to land a blow on Michael? Well, that was just fine by Michael’s standards; he knew how powerful his ice was. Michael didn’t even make a motion to block. Let Vince give it his all and fail miserably.

Vince kept moving forward, stopping just short of bouncing into Michael’s chest and throwing the rest of his momentum into his right fist, just as Michael had expected. Vince furrowed his brow in concentration; he would have to time this just right. Vince’s punch soared upward, on a dead track for Michael’s jaw. A fraction of a second before it hit, though, to Michael’s tremendous surprise, a fireball roared forth from the clenched fist, striking the icy covering an instant before Vince’s flesh.

Black and white spots flashed in front of Michael’s eyes as he landed on his back. He couldn’t understand it. Vince had hurled a fireball to melt and weaken his armor before the punch connected, that much was obvious. But if Vince had that sort of power, why had he played defensive for so long? One thing was certain; Michael was done taking it easy on this kid.

Michael rose to his feet, reinforcing the area around his chin that Vince’s fire had melted. Michael had no banter or sass this time, only unadulterated hatred in his eyes for the boy who had put him on his back.

“Crap,” Vince said from the same spot he had knocked Michael back. “I was really hoping that would put you down for the count.”

“It didn’t,” Michael replied.

Chapter 13

Vince woke up an hour or so later in the healing clinic. He blinked as his eyes adjusted to the lighting and stretched slowly to banish the discomfort that had accumulated in his back from sleeping on the hard bed.

“Oh thank god, you’re finally awake,” said a female voice to his right.

Vince pulled himself up to a sitting position and looked over. Resting on an identical bed was a tall girl wearing a black uniform similar to his. She had the lean, firm look of a track star and held herself, even while sitting, with a sense of poise and control. The most striking feature about her, though, was the bright pink steaks running through her otherwise dark hair.

“Was I out long?” Vince asked.

“Given that you were pretty much a hunk of solid ice when they brought you in, no, I’d say you slept an appropriate amount,” the girl replied as she smirked.

“Solid ice, huh?” Vince said. “I seem to have recovered pretty nicely.”

“Heat lamp and some healing. It’s a dynamite combo,” the girl quipped. “I guess sleep is part of it, too, but damn it was boring having no one to talk to.”

“Sorry about that,” Vince apologized without being sure why. “Why are you hanging around here, though? Didn’t they heal you already?”

“Yeah,” the girl said. “But they told me I had to rest in here until this afternoon at least.”

“Why?” Vince asked.

“Some bullshit about fifteen broken bones needing to rest for a few hours even with healing,” the girl explained. “I’m Sasha, by the way. And before you say anything, I know it’s an old woman name, so keep the jokes to a minimum.”

“I wouldn’t have dreamed of it,” Vince lied. “My name is Vince. How’d you break fifteen bones?”

“I lost my fight,” Sasha replied with a shrug.

“Well, that does make a certain amount of sense,” Vince said agreeably. “What type of ability were you fighting?”

“Some chick that can turn into solid steel,” Sasha said.

Vince let out a low whistle. “That’s a good one.”

“Yup, especially when she waited until I was charging her at super speed to do her little shift. Kicking steel at a few hundred miles an hour... yeah, it kind of sucks,” Sasha said. “So, how about you? I know you were fighting an ice dude, but what do you do? And while we’re not on the subject, but I’m still going to ask anyway, who does your hair?”

“I absorb and redistribute energy, like absorbing the flame from a match and then shooting it out of my thumb. As for the hair, my genetics are my stylist,” Vince said.

“Sweet ass,” Sasha said. “So if you can pack away the fire then it must have been one hell of a fight with you and Frosty.”

“Um, sort of,” Vince said awkwardly. “I kind of forgot to charge up before coming in today, so I was working with less than I would have liked.”

“Hey, no need for excuses. We’re both losers here,” Sasha said. She pulled out a lighter from the back pocket on her uniform and tossed it over to Vince.

“I don’t smoke,” Vince said.

“Which makes you look way less cool when standing around outside, but I didn’t give it to you so you could light up,” Sasha said.

“Then what’s it for?” Vince asked.

“You used all your energy in the fight, right?” Sasha said right back.

“Well, yeah. Did I tell you that?” Vince was growing more confused.

“No, but I figured you wouldn’t have been a guysicle if you had any juice left. So I thought you might need a recharge,” Sasha explained through her transparent exasperation.

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Vince said quickly. “I usually drain all the energy and fuel when I do it, so your lighter would be useless.”

“It came in a pack of twenty for five bucks. I’ll be okay with the loss. Besides, I’ve never seen that ability before. I’ll trade a lighter for a show,” Sasha said.

Vince wanted to protest more, but the truth was he did feel stiff and listless. He remembered how draining the matches had made him feel a bit better the day before and his aching muscles throbbed again. Vince had spent nearly all of his life with at least a little energy stored up. He was beginning to wonder if the recent constant fatigue had been not a side effect of the experiments done to him, but rather a side effect from constantly running on empty.

With only slight trepidation, Vince flicked the lighter on with his left hand. With his right he reached out to it, forging a connection to the energy leaking out from the metal-topped plastic container. The flame jerked toward him and began flowing in. The lighter had far more potential energy than a single match, so it took a few seconds before it ran dry and the light of the flame vanished. Vince stretched again, noting that the soreness had definitely decreased. He also felt a bit more awake and alert. The lighter had packed significantly more juice than half a pack of matches.

“That was pretty cool looking, I have to admit,” Sasha commented.

“Thanks,” Vince said. “I think I needed that more than I thought. You want the lighter back?”

“Keep it,” Sasha said. “Dead lighter isn’t much use to me, you know?”

“That I do,” Vince agreed. “So, are they going to tell us when everyone is done fighting, or do we just rest until we feel like we should go?”

“Oh, you’re free to go anytime,” Sasha told him. “If you hurry you might still catch the last of the boys’ matches.”

“What about the girls?” Vince asked.

“Those wrapped up, like, half an hour ago. My roommate already texted me some of the rankings,” Sasha said.

“How’d you do?” Vince couldn’t imagine a girl with super speed had faired too poorly.

“Nineteen out of twenty-two,” Sasha said glumly. “That steel bitch took me down in the first round. Even Julia did better than me.”

“That sucks,” Vince said. “Is Julia your roommate?”

“Yeah, and number fourteen in the ranking,” Sasha said. “She made it to the second round, but then she got put down hard. They couldn’t really dock her too many points for it, though. I mean, the broad who beat her did wind up ranked number one for the girls.”

“Who was that?” Vince asked out of curiosity.

“I haven’t met her yet,” Sasha said. “But Julia told me it was some telekinetic girl named Mary.”

Chapter 14

Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport sat at Dean Blaine’s desk, looking across the sleek mahogany surface at his unapologetic scowl. The lights in Dean Blaine’s office were fluorescent and bright, like a compromise between high beams and lamps. The décor was stark, with little more than a diploma and a few awards adorning the four walls around them. Mr. Transport had a vaguely uncomfortable feeling but was unsure how to place it. Mr. Numbers, on the other hand, had been something of a hellion during his younger days and knew immediately why this sensation was both unenjoyable and familiar. It felt almost exactly as if he was once again fourteen years old and sitting in the principal’s office, trying desperately to figure which crime he had been discovered at.

“When I agreed to host your students,” Dean Blaine began at last. “I did so with the understanding that these were unfortunate children who were being provided with an opportunity to get some measure of control in their otherwise hectic lives. These were Powereds that had been spurned by fate and society alike, yet now that they could actually use their abilities, they wanted to become Heroes and give something back to the world. That was the way your organization pitched them, correct?”

Mr. Numbers cleared his throat. “Well, we aren’t really consulted in matters of marketing and diplomacy, but I will admit that does sound like something our company would say.”

“Regardless of who said it, you two are the representatives that I have at hand, so you are going to have to be answerable for your company as a whole,” Dean Blaine said. “Which brings me to why I called you down here to my office.” He slid a piece of paper onto the smooth polished surface of his desk. “Would one of you like to guess what that is?”

Mr. Transport took the paper first, since he had the longer arms and could reach. “It appears to be a ranking of the freshman female students entering your program,” Mr. Transport said after a quick glance.

“Correct,” Dean Blaine agreed. “Now will you read for me the first name on that list?”

“Mary Smith,” Mr. Transport said. He was very thankful he had worked so hard for long at keeping all emotions, including surprise, out of his voice when needed.

“You nailed it,” Dean Blaine said with a very out-of-place smile. “Now, for the last question. Can you please explain to me how a girl who had almost no control over her abilities until a few months ago managed to wipe the floor with every other freshman we put her up against?”

“In all fairness, just because she won doesn’t mean she wiped the floor with them,” Mr. Numbers jumped in.

“I saw her last fight, which was coincidentally her longest, myself,” Dean Blaine said. “It lasted all of twenty two seconds and was against a girl who transformed into solid steel.”

“How did Mary beat that?” Mr. Numbers asked with genuine interest.

“She forced her opponent halfway through the concrete wall, face first. We were forced to remove the girl before she suffocated,” Dean Blaine explained.

“Given their respective powers, that seems like the best method she had,” Mr. Transport said.

“Oh, the strategy was sound, no one could question that,” Dean Blaine acknowledged. “The problem is that no girl her age should be able to generate that much telekinetic force, let alone one whose abilities have been fully-functioning for only a few months. Forcing a human being made of steel through several inches of concrete at point-blank range is a feat that only those who have been training for decades are able to pull off. There are certified Heroes that couldn’t have managed to accomplish that so effortlessly.”

“So, if I am to understand you, you’re concerned about why Mary is so much stronger than she should be,” Mr. Numbers said carefully. He desperately wished he had his usual calculations running through his head so he could jump ahead of the conversation, but unfortunately around Dean Blaine that was impossible.

“I am concerned that you did more than just help these children!” Dean Blaine exclaimed as he rose from his seat. “I am concerned that perhaps your company, under the guise of feeling sorry for these dregs of the world, decided that they wouldn’t just give the kids control, they would amplify the children’s powers a bit. After all, they’ve already agreed to be guinea pigs, why not run them through every experimental procedure you’ve got?”

From the way the dean was panting and gesturing it was very apparent to both Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport how much harm the dean believed a little extra testing could do.

“I can assure you that is not the case,” Mr. Numbers said. “Even if the doctors and nurses were not heavily monitored during the children’s treatment, which they were, the company has never successfully found a way to amplify a person’s natural abilities, Super or Powered.”

“Until a few months ago I was under the impression that no one had ever found a way to turn Powereds into Supers, so you’ll forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical of your assurances on the lack of existing technology,” Dean Blaine said. He did seem a bit pacified, though, at least enough to retake his seat.

“Be that as it may, it is the truth,” Mr. Numbers said. “All our company did was give Mary the ability to control the power she already had. Perhaps it was just that she was born with a very strong ability and is only now learning to use it.”

“It is... possible,” Dean Blaine conceded. “And for the girl’s sake, I hope that’s the truth of it.”

“What do you mean?” Mr. Transport said, a bit more harshness to his voice than he wanted. The dean wouldn’t notice, and Mr. Numbers would scold him for tipping his hand even slightly, but he couldn’t help it. Mr. Transport had been put here to control but also to protect the students in his dorm. Responding with harshness to a perceived threat was a natural reaction. As it turned out, though, it was an unwarranted one.

“I mean that for a girl that young to be that powerful there are only two options... if one discounts the possibility of outside enhancers,” Dean Blaine said, not without some suspicion lingering in his voice.

“Which we are,” Mr. Numbers replied without missing a beat.

“Yes... Anyway, the only ways she could be that strong are if she was born with a tremendous gift or if she put herself through an unimaginably hellish training,” Dean Blaine said.

“What sort of training?” Mr. Transport asked.

“Well, most telekinetics are also telepaths. Something to do with the part of the brain that gets the power,” Dean Blaine said. “Anyway, many of those with the advanced mind ability train up their telekinesis by learning to sharpen their focus. The better they can focus, the more power they can use and the faster it comes. One of the more popular methods of training is to open up their telepathy as much as they can bear and try to function constantly under the barrage of voices. It helps them learn to focus on tasks at hand and blot out the ambient noise that’s always assaulting them.”

“Interesting,” Mr. Numbers said, praying silently that Mr. Transport wasn’t giving anything away on his face. “I had never heard of that.”

“You wouldn’t have,” Dean Blaine said. “It’s really only something you know of if your job is training Supers day in and day out.”

“So, some of the more powerful ones must be able to blot out a lot of noise,” Mr. Numbers said casually. “What’s the most you’ve heard of someone being able to function with?”

“Well, of course I don’t know what all of them do, but the best I’ve personally witnessed was a Hero who could still function while hearing all the thoughts around him in a three mile radius,” Dean Blaine said. “He’s a top notch one, too, can do some amazing things with that brain of his.”

Neither Mr. Transport nor Mr. Numbers responded. At that moment they had glanced at each other and were having another of their standard silent conversations. There wasn’t much to say in the way of details, merely a subtle sense of panic and surprise. Unbeknownst to Dean Blaine, the company Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport worked for had done a similar radius test on Mary in their pre-program evaluation.

Mary’s range was five miles, and she was able to function perfectly normally while listening to all of that in a populated city.

Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport quickly excused themselves.

Chapter 15

“You’re sure it’s okay for you to be walking?” Vince asked as they made their way down the steel and concrete hall.

“No, but I think they were mainly worried about me breaking the sound barrier, not going to the main hall to check the results,” Sasha replied. Julia had texted her that the boys’ fights were finished, but rather than getting the results from her roommate, Sasha had cajoled Vince into seeing for himself.

“Well... okay,” Vince said reluctantly. “Just let me know if you need to lean on me or something.”

“I bet you say that to all the mending girls with super speed,” Sasha said.

“Only the ones with pink and black hair,” Vince shot back.

“Good answer, Silver. Good answer.” Sasha might have continued their verbal dance, but at that point they stepped out of the tunnel and into the main hall. It was really more of an entrance foyer than anything else. Conveyor systems that ran to the respective dorms were on one side, while an enormous screen was perched overhead on the opposite end of the room. There were various hallways like the one Vince and Sasha were emerging from branching off, and at the moment there was a tremendous cluster of black-uniformed freshmen under the screen, looking eagerly for their name in the listings.

The screen was split into two sections currently, boys’ list and girls’ list. Most of the attention was geared towards the boys’ listings, but in fairness, the girls had been finished for at least an hour or so. Vince and Sasha made their way into the rabble of freshman and began their short search of the boys’ list. It took Vince a few minutes to find his name, not because the list was enormous or complicated, but because he was looking in the wrong part of it. When he couldn’t find himself in the bottom section, he finally looked to the higher rankings, though he was utterly unprepared for what awaited him there.

“Eighth?!” Vince exclaimed. “How the hell am I eighth? There are, like, thirty guys and I went down in the first round. Was there a mistake?”

“It isn’t just about how many fights you were in,” Sasha said soothingly. “They were also evaluating how you used your abilities against the ones you were fighting, how you dealt with their techniques, and how well you thought on your feet. If you were fighting a really lopsided battle and still managed to show solid skills then that was factored in.”

“Yeah but still... eighth?” Vince sighed and tried to relax. It was a good thing; a high ranking was something he should be proud of. He’s been a Powered until two months ago and here he’d managed to show up twenty-two Supers by outdoing them. It was an accomplishment. Vince just wished it was one he felt as though he had earned.

“Didn’t you say the guy you fought was named Michael?” Sasha asked.

“Yeah.”

“Looks like he made it to number three,” Sasha said, pointing up at the list. Vince checked for himself and sure enough she was right. Michael Clark was the third strongest male there, below the number one slot, Chad Taylor, and the number two slot, Shane Desoto. Vince was about to look away when the name in the number five slot caught his eye.

“Who is Roy Daniels?” Vince asked.

“According to Julia, the sexiest man she’s seen in years,” Sasha said. “She keeps texting my ass about him. Also he’s number five.”

“I wonder if he has a brother,” Vince speculated. “One of my dorm mates is named Hershel Daniels.”

“Hershel, huh? I don’t see him up there,” Sasha said.

It was true, Vince looked and looked but Hershel’s name didn’t appear anywhere on either list. Nick was listed at number thirty on the boys’ side and Alice had come in just below Sasha at twentieth on the girls’, but try as they might, the only Daniels they could find on the board was Roy.

“Weird,” Sasha said at last. “Do you think Roy is Hershel but they messed up his name?”

“I somehow doubt it,” Vince said. “Nothing against Hershel, he seems like a really nice guy, but he isn’t the type that your roommate would be constantly texting about.”

“How do you know? Maybe he’s Julia’s type,” Sasha said, a glimmer of antagonism in her voice.

“Does she like LARP and table top games? Because that’s what Hershel told us he loves to do in his free time,” Vince countered.

“Oh. No. Totally a different dude,” Sasha agreed quickly. “Well, whatever; just ask him about it when you get back to your dorm.”

“I’ll have to,” Vince said. “Especially since none of my fellow Melbrook residents seem to have hung out after they saw their ranks.”

“No worries, I bet they lick their wounds in time for Casino Night,” Sasha said optimistically.

“Casino Night?” Vince asked.

“Yeah, there are flyers up all over the dorms,” Sasha said.

“Must have missed them,” Vince said, doing his best to sound casual in the deflection.

“It’s in the student union tonight at seven,” Sasha explained. “Free food, fake gambling with free chips that you can use for raffles, and all the karaoke you can handle. Supers and Normals are both invited.”

“That sort of sounds like fun,” Vince said.

“Yeah, we can meet more fellow freshman. Maybe we’ll even make a friend or two that can’t lift a bus or melt steel,” Sasha said.

“Very true,” Vince agreed. “I don’t really know anyone here except my dorm mates. Oh, and now you, too.”

“Same boat,” Sasha said. “I met Julia because she’s my roommate, but you’re the only other friend I’ve made so far. Combat doesn’t really engender communal feelings on the first day.”

“Maybe that’s why they do it,” Vince speculated.

“Point,” Sasha said. “Well, I’m going to head back up to the dorm. Seven is only a few hours away and I am desperate for a shower. You think you’ll go to the Casino Night?”

“Positive.”

“Sweet,” Sasha said, pulling out the “e” sound a bit. “Want to meet up at the entrance and then lose all our fake money together?”

“Absolutely,” Vince said. “I’ll see if I can talk any of my dorm mates into coming along.”

Chapter 16

Nick was already seated comfortably at a blackjack table when he noticed Vince and some pink-haired girl walk into the garishly decorated student union. They had obviously been trying for an over-the-top Vegas style décor with the gold banners and fake statues, but what the decorator had failed to realize was that Vegas’ brilliance was in the subtlety beneath the glamour. Nick took no offense to it, though; that was the signature appeal of his home town. Often imitated, never duplicated.

Nick was grateful that Vince had told him about the event at any rate. Throwing his first fight to stay off anyone’s radar had left an unpleasant taste in his mouth. Tactics and stealth were all well and good, but there was something so viscerally wrong about losing in any way. It had been necessary, though, and as Nick pulled in a few more additions to his pile of chips he felt the sourness ease from his taste buds. It didn’t matter that the chips were worthless: it only mattered that Nick was winning.

“Hit,” said a female voice next to him. Nick had been seated and working up a hot streak when Mary had plunked herself down next to him. He didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t want a mind reader so close to him, either. He had waffled for a few moments then let it be. The girl could follow him even if he did get up; besides, he had no idea how good her range was. Even being in the same building might give her free access to his head. Better to stay put and keep up appearances of friendliness toward his dorm mates. It wouldn’t fool her, but that was a lost cause anyway.

“Good play,” Nick complimented her as a ten was laid onto her queen, giving her twenty.

“The advice helps,” Mary replied without looking at him. This was the first time they had spoken all night. He took her meaning quite clearly.

“Glad to help,” Nick lied, turning his attention back to the game. He was almost immediately interrupted again.

“Whoa,” Vince said as he came up to the table. “That’s quite a stack you’ve acuminated.”

“Well, I am from Vegas, after all,” Nick said.

“And eighteen,” Vince countered. “So you couldn’t have hit the casinos. How’d you get so good at blackjack?”

“Chill, Vince, it’s a game of luck,” the pink-haired girl interrupted. There was a beat of silence as Nick could actually watch the word luck leave her lips and enter Vince’s head. Once there it plunked around a few times before finally coming to rest in a spot labeled “natural conclusion.”

“Yeah,” Vince said as his eyes narrowed. “You’re right, Sasha; it is a game of luck.” The sense of accusation wasn’t precisely dripping from Vince’s words, but there was definitely some accusatory condensation on them.

“So it’s Sasha? I’m Nick and this is Mary. We’re both in Melbrook with Vince. I do apologize for my good friend’s poor manners in not introducing us,” Nick said, switching into his usual affable mode and swinging the focus away from his blackjack success.

“Nice to meet you two,” Sasha said, giving a slight incline of her head.

“Sasha, would you mind grabbing us a seat at the craps table? I know we wanted to roll some dice, I just need to have a quick word with my dorm mate,” Vince said.

Sasha looked at the two of them for a moment, then shrugged and said, “Okay.” She wandered off towards the craps, but not without keeping an eye on them. That girl was sharper than she wanted to let on. Nick could respect that.

“Nick,” Vince whispered harshly as soon as Sasha was gone. “Do you really think it’s a good idea to be doing... what you’re doing out in the open like this?”

“You mean winning?” Nick asked innocently.

“I mean using an unfair advantage.”

“Hold your horses there, hoss,” Nick said in equally low tones. “First off, this isn’t even real money, so stay off the soapbox. Secondly, I’m not doing what you think I’m doing. I’m winning because I know how to play blackjack well. There are some basic strategies any kid who grew up around a city of gambling knows. So re-fucking-lax and go worry about your date instead of your dorm mate.”

“It isn’t a date,” Vince snapped immediately. “And... I’m sorry. You’re right. I guess I was just worried because... well, the whole secret being a big portion of your grade thing. You really haven’t been using?”

“Ask Mary,” Nick replied. “See if I’ve focused or breathed deep even once tonight.”

Vince looked at Mary, who didn’t turn toward him but shook her head to the negative anyway. “Sorry,“ Vince said once more. “I guess that whole speech and a day of fighting has gotten me paranoid.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Nick assured him. “If I were you I’d think the same thing. Now go catch up to your girl before someone else does.”

“She’s not my girl,” Vince said, but he departed from their table and made his way over to Sasha and the craps game. Nick turned back to the blackjack table, annoyed that he had missed several hands while talking to Vince and had now lost track of the cards.

“I notice you didn’t bother to mention to him that you don’t actually need to breathe deep or close your eyes to use your talent,” Mary said softly.

“It wasn’t pertinent,” Nick defended. “After all, I’m really not doing anything.”

“You don’t consider counting cards doing anything?” Mary asked.

“Fine; I’m not doing anything that others couldn’t do with skill and practice. Besides, for all you know, I do need to shut my eyes to use my talent. Maybe that’s why I wear the sunglasses.”

“No, it isn’t,” Mary said with unfaltering certainty.

Nick was ruffled by how sure she was. It was unnerving, talking to someone he couldn’t bluff. He wanted to know more about what she could see, but was afraid of how much he would be exposing of himself. He shrugged off the fear. In for a dime, in for a dollar.

“How much do you know?” Nick asked flatly as he slid several chips out to place a bet.

“Enough,” Mary replied as she followed suit and put her own chips into play. “More than you want me to, which isn’t saying much, but less than you’re scared I do, which also isn’t saying much.”

The dealer put two cards in front of each of them, so they each paused to do a quick spot of mental math.

“Have you told anyone?” Nick asked.

“No,” Mary replied. “And I won’t, either. I’ve been hearing stuff I wasn’t supposed to all my life. I learned a long time ago it’s best if I treat it like a therapist or an attorney, with ironclad confidentiality.”

“Is that supposed to assure me?” Nick asked as he rapped knuckles against the green velvet and the dealer handed him another card. An almost instantaneous calculation flew through his head and he waved off to show he was staying.

“It’s supposed to let you know where I stand,” Mary replied, tapping her own hand as well. She went for another hit after the first then elected to stay.

“And where is that?” Nick asked as the dealer began hitting his own stack, stopping once he struck eighteen.

“As your friend,” Mary replied. “Someone you can talk to and trust. Someone who understands some of the things you’ve gone through.”

“Table has eighteen,” the deal announced. The girl to Nick’s right had already busted, so Nick was first to be compared to the dealer’s numbers.

“Nineteen,” Nick announced. To Mary, he resumed his whispering tone. “You’ll forgive me if I’m a bit reluctant to take you up on that. I’ve got trust issues.”

“No problem,” Mary whispered back. “Twenty,” she announced happily, smiling at all of the other players at the table. Both of them pulled in the chips they had won and pushed a few more out for the next round.

“I’m just saying,” Mary resumed in her soft tones. “I’m going to be in on just about everything you do anyway. I thought that since there is finally someone you can’t lie to, maybe you’d like to try talking to them. It’s not as if you have to worry about giving away something I don’t already know.”

Nick couldn’t think of a snappy comeback for this one, so instead he just checked his cards. He hated himself for realizing that Mary was right, and he hated her even more because the moment he thought it a small smirk crept onto her face. 

Chapter 17

Alice was bored. She had come along to the Casino Night with the rest of her dorm, with the exception of Hershel, whom no one had seen since the beginning of the day, but the truth was she had little taste or stomach for craps. There was no nuance to it: just chunk the dice and pray for the best. Alice preferred her games more... strategic.

She stood next to Vince and the pink-haired girl he seemed to be getting along with so well - Sasha was her name, if Alice recalled correctly - as they all watched and occasionally participated in the craps game. Her poor luck on her few attempts had hardly endeared her to the game, and that, coupled with the events of the day, were all contributing to her increasingly sour mood.

Alice tried to smile and keep her facade plastered up by focusing on the positive. It wasn’t as if she had really expected to fare well in the combat trials in the first place. She could only fly, while a significant majority of the girls here had abilities that were far more fighting-based. Still, she had been downed in her first round in less than a minute by some girl with sonic blasting powers. It had hurt, and despite all the preparation she had given herself to brace for the inevitable loss, Alice had found that once the match was done, her pride was stinging a bit as well. It certainly hadn’t helped matters when she learned Mary had come out as top of the class. Still, Alice was an academic at heart, and being a Hero wasn’t just about how many cars you could throw in a minute. It was also about wit, resourcefulness, and intelligence, all of which Alice was confident she could use to elevate her own status. Eventually.

Alice abandoned the craps table when she heard Vince and Sasha making plans to meet for breakfast the next morning before heading off to class. They would all be spending their mornings attending their aboveground classes, but the afternoon would find them all down in the secret levels, training up on the things that really mattered. Vince and Sasha both seemed excited about what the next day would hold, which told Alice that they knew nothing of what was actually in store. She did, and she had the good sense to dread it. Alice left the two to their slowly-blooming, obvious romance and wandered across the room to find some entertainment of her own.

She passed Nick and Mary whispering in hushed tones at the blackjack table. If it had been anyone else but Mary, Alice might have lingered to see what they were discussing. With a telepath, though, there was too much risk of giving away more information than she gained. Instead Alice trudged across the room, passing by the happy faces while wearing one of her own. Eventually she found herself at the only part of the Student Union that allowed for seating without participation: the karaoke stage. Some blonde girl Alice recognized from the program was wailing her way through a pop song as Alice gently plunked down in the back. Ignoring the warbling, Alice pulled out her phone and began checking her e-mail. It was bad form to appear so antisocial in a public place, but she needed a moment to gather her thoughts and get into the right frame of mind. A few minutes by herself would be a relatively small concession for being able to mingle and socialize the rest of the night.

Alice was so caught up in actively ignoring the poor blonde on stage that she didn’t even notice when the song ended. She didn’t notice the mild applause or the announcement of the next song either. What she, along with everyone else in range of the speakers, did notice was what followed. A husky male voice vibrated across the room, breaking into the deep opening chords of a country song. Alice didn’t listen to country, and for the life of her couldn’t have told you what the song was. At that moment, though, she couldn’t hear anything else in the room. Shoving the phone hastily back into her pocket, Alice turned all of her attention to the boy – no, the man – who had pulled a stool on stage and was seated on it as he crooned into the microphone.

He was tall, that was apparent even though he was sitting. He wore a plaid button-down shirt, a small grey cowboy hat, and a pair of clearly worn-in jeans. There was something oddly familiar about his face, Alice noted, and his body was hard and lean. He was well-muscled as his half-open shirt proudly displayed, but with the flat muscle of an athlete rather than the bulky and superficial kind that body builders acquire. If Alice had to guess, which she was actively doing, she would say he was a quarterback in high school, given his physique and frame. Alice’s eyes danced around the crowd, noting their reactions to the clear improvement in entertainment.

A large chunk of the women in the karaoke’s audience were staring at this mystery man with unabashed interest, the most fervent being the blonde who had sung before him. Many of the men were trying to seem unimpressed by him and his performance, though a few who must have recognized the song were happily enjoying his rendition. As he sang, the man’s own hazel eyes swept the crowd, lingering ever-so-intentionally on the women eagerly looking up at him. They came to rest on his blonde predecessor, who looked as though she was applying all her self-control toward not letting out a squeal.

The song finished, and the man stood from his stool and took a wide bow. There was blatantly more applause that there had been for the girl, yet as the man walked down from the small platform that was serving as a stage and tipped his hat at the blonde as way of introduction, it seemed like she neither noticed nor cared.

For her part, Alice felt a bit better. Watching a gorgeous man sing had really done nothing for her, except that it had pulled her mind out of its funk and forced her to focus on something else for a while. Settling back in, she felt her problems were somewhat less pressing than they had been before, as is usually the case, and decided she would take a cue from the singing cowboy. This was an event to meet people and make connections: in other words, a social activity. That made it Alice’s home turf. She might not be able to beat everyone in combat, but there were few who could work a room like Alice Adair.

Alice rose from her seat and set off.

Chapter 18

Vince had some trouble finding Hughes Hall the next morning. In his defense, Lander was a very large campus, and he had hardly had free time to explore it. He might have gotten up a bit earlier if he had been thinking ahead, but Casino Night had gone on a lot longer than he expected, and it turned out being frozen solid had left him drained by the day’s end. On the plus side, he had won enough chips to put his name in a few raffles. He had even managed to win a clock radio. It wasn’t quite as nice as the two hundred dollar gift card Nick had won, but it was something to be happy about.

If Vince had been a bit pettier, he might have accused Nick of rigging the raffle, but given the amount of chips his sunglasses-wearing friend had turned in, it didn’t really surprise anyone when Nick’s name was drawn. That boy was either cheating up a storm or really knew how to play blackjack. Since he was one of Vince’s few friends, Vince was opting to give him the benefit of the doubt. Had Vince been a bit more experienced in the ways of the world, it might have dawned on him that the two options were not mutually exclusive.

Vince was in a good mood, even as he scrambled to find Sasha’s dormitory. It was his second day attending Lander and the first day of real classes. He had basic math and literature classes in the morning, followed by gym and Ethics of Heroism in the afternoon. He still wasn’t sure why gym was ascribed a three-hour chunk of his time every day, but he assumed there would be a logical explanation when he got there. Besides, he and Sasha were getting breakfast before their morning classes together, which made him just a bit happier than he would admit to anyone who was asking. He did enjoy women with multi-colored hair.

Vince had been polite enough to invite his fellow dorm mates to come along. Nick had said no due to an early class, Mary had politely declined without explanation, and Alice had informed him that she would be avoiding the dorm food as much as was humanly possible. Vince had looked for Hershel as well, but to no avail. It seemed their friend hadn’t even come home last night. Vince was beginning to get worried, but he was trying to hope for the best. If he didn’t see his portly dorm mate soon, though, Vince was planning on finding Mr. Numbers or Mr. Transport.

Vince saw the bell tower and finally got a sense of where he was. With its lush foliage, sprawling campus, and large buildings, Lander was one of the largest and most scenic colleges in California. All of which sounded great on the brochure, but was somewhat less charming when trying to hustle between locations across campus. Vince was really hoping he didn’t have any classes that were too far apart when he finally saw a sign on a multistoried building that read “Hughes.”

He walked into the lobby quickly, checking the wall clock and realizing with a twinge that he was late. It wasn’t by much, but it was enough to irk him. He had been taught that punctuality was one of the most important virtues to have. He made his way through the white-tiled entryway and past the door leading into the dorm area itself. Some of the dorms were segregated into male and female, his own being one of them, but Hughes had alternating floors. The rooms were done in suites, with two rooms sharing a common living room area. It engendered a sense of community, or so Sasha had told him, since people could leave their living room doors open and still preserve a getaway in their bedroom. It occurred to Vince that whoever had built Melbrook for him and the others had clearly taken some cues from the Hughes dormitory set up.

In fact, Vince was right. Alice had toured the Lander campus (along with several others) before talking with the architects who would ultimately design Melbrook. She had found the Hughes design an excellent integration of privacy and community, though her original designs had her room set off in a separate area. Specifically, it was in an entirely separate building on the opposite campus and utterly unaffiliated with Melbrook in anyway. That attempt had failed, but she’d considered it something of a long shot anyway.

Vince bounded up the stairs to the second floor and began moving down the hallway. Since the rooms were arranged sequentially, it didn’t take him much time at all to find Sasha’s room: 216. He was about to knock when he heard shouting from the other side of the door. Vince couldn’t quite make out the words, but they definitely sounded angry. There were several voices, at least two female with one probably male. Vince was still standing there, debating on whether he should knock or wait a few moments for things to calm down, when he heard an object land heavily against the door. All thoughts of tact aside, Vince jerked the doorknob, which was fortunately unlocked, and burst into the room.

“Is everyone okay?” Vince yelled before he could take in the scene around him. As the sights the room held registered into his mind one by one, it became clear that things were undoubtedly not okay.

There were two girls and a boy here, all right. The most attention-grabbing one was the blonde that Sasha had pointed out as her roommate yesterday, Julia, who was a few steps outside of her bedroom and into the living room. She was rearing back a large black pump, clearing intending to send it flying. If Vince had bothered to look down he would have noticed its twin resting by his feet, the obvious culprit in the case of the mysterious thudding noise against the door. Julia was wearing a sizable plaid shirt, though with her arm reared back and pulling the fabric up, it was evident that the shirt wasn’t quite sizable enough.

Standing between Julia and the guy, looking haggard and unhappy but playing the referee, was Sasha, wearing a tight pink shirt and grey sleep shorts. Ordinarily Vince would have savored this image a bit more than he did. Unfortunately, his attention couldn’t help but be captured somewhat by the other male in the room. He was a heavy guy, wrapped poorly in a towel, and was hunched over in a submissive position. He was clearly trying to defend himself verbally, but from the look on Julia’s face, Vince had a feeling the boy hadn’t gotten that far.

Leaping into this chaotic scene, as all three pairs of eyes turned on him in surprise, Vince tried to look on the bright side. At least he had found Hershel. 

Chapter 19

“Who the fuck are you?!” Julia screeched at Vince.

“Um, I’m Vince,” he said lamely. “Sasha and I were meeting to go get breakfast.”

“Vince, thank God,” Hershel cried, dashing over to his dorm mate’s side and all but cowering. “This woman has gone mad, she won’t listen to anything.”

“Why are you in a blanket?” Vince asked.

“Why do you know this guy?” Sasha asked.

“WHY WERE YOU IN MY BED?” Julia thundered. Vince was impressed, he would have never thought a girl her size would have pipes like that.

“I keep trying to tell you that. You fell asleep with me,” Hershel said with as much projection as he had. It turns out that wasn’t much, but Julia’s eruption had silenced the room pretty effectively.

“Bullshit I did,” Julia denied. “I was... with... Roy last night. You know, the tall, hard-bodied man that you definitely are not!”

“Can someone please tell me what the hell is going on?” Vince tossed out, hoping to get some sense of what was happening around him.

“I’ve been listening to them for a while,” Sasha said. “I think I understand the gist of it. If you two don’t mind, I’ll recap and we can see where the disagreement is.” Both Hershel and Julia nodded their agreement, though Hershel with gratitude and Julia with barely-suppressed rage.

“Thanks,” Sasha continued. “So, Julia met Roy last night at the karaoke part of Casino Night. They came home and got busy-”

“Get busy? That’s presumptuous,” Julia butted in.

“There was a tie on the door, I slept on the living room couch, and these walls are a lot thinner than you seem to think they are,” Sasha replied succinctly.

“Oh,” Julia said, a bit of the wind leaking out of her sails.

“Whatever, I don’t give a damn, I was just recapping,” Sasha said. “So they were at it for a few hours, kudos to Roy, by the way, then finally passed out and we all got some sleep. I wake up this morning to her throwing a hissy fit and beating the shit out of the guy in the towel. It seems she and sex-man passed out last night but she and that guy were the ones that woke up together.”

“Which I can explain,” Hershel interjected before Julia could build up to another tirade. “If Vince would please shut the door.” Vince complied and Hershel continued. “I am Roy... technically. He’s the version of me with powers.”

“I thought you were a shifter,” Vince said.

“I am. I shift into Roy. He’s the part of me with abilities. Also charm and confidence,” Hershel admitted a bit sadly.

“And looks,” Julia spat out.

“Hey, now,” Vince said. “There’s no need for that. Hershel didn’t sneak into your room and crawl into your bed. You took him home and he turned back in his sleep.”

“So he couldn’t have warned me?” Julia asked.

“Roy was a bit... preoccupied,” Hershel said, blushing freely.

“Wait, so Roy is a hot, Super version of you?” Sasha asked. “I’m just trying to get a grip on this.”

“Yes and no,” Hershel said. “Same body, with the obvious alterations, but we have entirely different personalities. Roy tends to be... easily distracted.”

“So I was a distraction? Well, why the hell isn’t Roy here explaining all of this?” Julia asked.

“Roy is rarely inclined toward dealing with the morning after,” Hershel said. Without warning, Julia whipped the shoe in a straight path for his head. Sasha knocked it away faster than Vince could see, literally, and Hershel desperately tried to cool the blonde. “It wasn’t just that! There’s a certain trigger that brings Roy out and when it wears off I go back to being me. It was an unavoidable change. I know that Roy liked you very much!”

“He did?” Julia suddenly seemed to calm exponentially. “How do you know? What did he say about me?”

“Well, we don’t talk... not really. But we have access to each other’s memories and what we were thinking or feeling at any given time,” Hershel explained.

“Oh,” Julia said. “Wait, does that mean you remember everything from last night?”

“Well... yes,” Hershel said, bracing himself for assault. This time though, it was Julia’s turn to go red.

“Ummmmm, well, this clearly seems like just a giant misunderstanding,” Julia said quickly. “Hershel, I’m sorry I threw things at you why don’t you grab your pants I’m going to be in the shower I’ll see you all later.” Without a pause or a breath Julia snatched up a towel from inside her room and bolted out of the living room, on a beeline toward the showers and away from the remaining three.

“Huh,” Sasha said. “That must have been some kinky shit.”

“I’d really like not to comment,” Hershel said as he gathered up the clothes from Sasha and Julia’s bedroom floor.

“Hershel, it doesn’t look like those really fit you,” Vince pointed out.

“They don’t,” he said. “I’ll be able to get home in them, though. Besides, we make it a rule to take care of the other’s clothing whenever possible. It’s a consideration that keeps both of our wardrobes intact.”

“So... still haven’t told me how you know each other,” Sasha pointed out.

“Remember when we saw the name Roy on the boards yesterday and I told you about my dorm mate, Hershel?” Vince asked.

“Ohhh,” Sasha said. “Well, that explains why Hershel wasn’t up there at least.”

Hershel had shut the door to the bedroom and was presumably getting dressed.

“Poor guy,” Vince said. “I can’t imagine this was how he wanted to start his career at Lander.”

“I wouldn’t feel too bad for them. I got a front audio seat for last night’s show and I have a feeling the memories of that experience were worth it,” Sasha said.

“You think your roommate is that good?” Vince asked.

“Maybe, but I also know something you don’t,” Sasha said.

“Do tell.”

“I know that Julia’s power is to make duplicates of herself,” Sasha said.

“Like, illusions or dummies?” Vince asked.

“Like real live, walking, talking, capable of independent action duplicates,” Sasha elaborated.

“Well... imagine that,” Vince said.

“No need,” Hershel replied as he stepped out of the bedroom. It was an awkward ensemble that adorned his body since Roy was clearly taller and leaner, but nothing was bursting so it seemed Hershel was right and he would be able to get back to Melbrook. “I’m afraid I’ll have to apologize, but knowing she has that ability means I’m almost positive Roy will be calling on her again.”

“Just spare me the morning fiasco next time,” Sasha said. “And if possible keep Silver here awake instead of me. Melbrook is probably just as nice a place to get it on.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, but sadly I can make no promises,” Hershel said. “I’ll see you at Melbrook, Vince. Sasha, thank you for your understanding.”

“No worries,” Sasha said with a wave. “I sort of expected this. It is college, after all.”

With a nod Hershel stepped out the door, keeping his eyes peeled for fear of running into Julia, leaving Vince and Sasha alone in the living room area.

“So,” Sasha said after a moment, “you wishing you had talked to the girl that’s a walking orgy instead of the chick with the colored hair?”

“Nah,” Vince replied. “I’ve got a thing for girls in grey workout shorts, so you’re still narrowly in the lead.”

Sasha laughed then looked at what she was wearing. For the first time all morning she became all too aware of just how well her shorts lived up to their name, and the fact that her tight pink shirt wasn’t being hampered by the presence of a bra. The thought riding on the coattails of the previous two was the realization that Vince must be just as aware of these things.

“Ready for food in five!” Sasha yelped as she moved past Vince in a blur and slammed the door to her bedroom behind her. Vince wished he could have seen her mad dash for cover, but that was the sacrifice you made when you hit on a girl with super speed.