Chapter 8

Vince sat on one of the many benches that littered the Lander campus, looking up at the stars. The wooden slats were hard against his back and the night was still a touch too summery to be truly comfortable, but to the former wanderer these inconveniences weren’t even noticeable. He was too caught up in thought, too enraptured in the sentiment that was washing over him, one he had felt so rarely he didn’t even fully understand what it was. Vince was experiencing the warm glow of coming home after time away.

He hadn’t really believed it, hadn’t let himself believe it, for the whole summer. Every ring of the phone, every letter in the mail, each piece of contact that arrived would certainly inform him that he and his ilk were not welcome to return. That they were being booted to make room for the real Supers. That his wonderful but brief fever dream of becoming a Hero was coming to an end.

The call never came. Still, he didn’t trust it. He was sure Melbrook would be boarded up when they arrived. He was certain that the lifts would refuse them entry into the underground area. He was positive the other Supers would band together and drive them from the subterranean halls. Today was the first time that fear had finally vanished. Strangely enough, it was only after getting his head punched about by Professor Fletcher that Vince finally felt like a true HCP student again. He was reveling in that feeling.

The others had probably gone to sleep, but Vince had been unable. That was why he was out on the campus in the dead of night, body stretched out on a bench that was too small and looking up at a universe that was too big. Were he another student, he might have been concerned for his safety. Lander was a secure place; however, there is nowhere that is truly safe to be caught unaware in the middle of the night. Vince, however, had no such concerns, and nor should he have. After all, Vince Reynolds was not a regular person.

Vince Reynolds was a Super.

*    *    *

Alice Adair’s leg flew through the air and locked into position, matching the figure on her television nearly perfectly. She took a step down on the extended leg then snapped out the other one. She followed this up with a series of rhythmic punches then stepped back.

Clad in yoga pants and sports bra, Alice would have looked more appropriate in an upscale gym than her actual location, her bedroom. Playing on her TV screen was a well-built man in his early forties, taking her through a set of attacks and withdraws supposedly designed to emphasize precision over power: in other words, a fighting system built on the premise of women lacking upper body strength. This man made five separate tapes, each containing a workout that lasted about an hour. Alice was on the third one so far tonight. Over the summer she’d done all five every night. For a normal person it would have been ridiculously taxing. For someone who’d been physically conditioned by Coach George for nine months, it was well within the range of doable.

Alice’s arms, always slender, were now beginning to possess a shape more distinctive than simple cylinders of pale flesh. She was gaining tone and muscle across her frame, and it was shaping her into more than the pretty teen she had once been. Alice Adair was becoming beautiful. Not just for her fitness, but for the increasing grace with which she moved and the surety with which she carried herself. It was nice; however, it was nothing more than a side-effect.

Alice had always been pretty. Alice had always known how to carry her body to send certain signals. Alice had always been dainty. Frail. Weak.

She let loose another flurry of kicks in the solitude of her room, images of last year’s fiasco sending adrenaline through her veins. All she’d done, all Alice had ever been able to do, was run away. And she hated it.

Alice stepped forward and dealt out a series of deft jabs. She wanted to be stronger. She needed to be capable. Alice Adair didn’t want to run any more.

*    *    *

Roy lifted another set of weights, this time focusing on his biceps. At this time of night, the gym down in the HCP was nearly deserted, only an occasional upperclassman walking by to cast a curious glance at him. Let them look; Roy couldn’t give less of a shit if he tried.

Roy pulled the weight slowly upward, coming to a rest at the top of his chest and then beginning the downward descent once more. Roy sometimes felt like his right arm made the trek easier than his left. He wondered if it was him trying to compensate, to imagine his right arm was making amends for its uselessness in the fight against George. If so, it needn’t have bothered. Roy’s body had failed as a whole that day; no one part had to bear the blame on its own. Roy had fought a variety of opponents in his life, starting well before Lander. Here the quality had increased, though. He’d seen with Chad how lacking his skills were, how much refinement he needed to play on the same field as the big boys.

His strength, however, that had never been called into question. Even against the number one ranked student in the class, it was only that Roy couldn’t make contact with him, not that the fist making the contact lacked the power to hurt. So Roy had spent the year focused on developing that skill set, on learning how to fight and knowing he was already strong enough. Until the day he wasn’t.

George had shrugged off his best attacks. All that work, all that time learning to connect, and he found himself lacking in the damage department, the one area in which he’d always been unstoppable. There was no denying the truth. He had been, at best, an inconvenience to George. If not for Vince’s help, Roy didn’t even know if he would have been that. Vince, who at the beginning of the year had been nothing more than a twig who couldn't light a cigar. Nick had done the planning. Alice had been the speed. And Mary, Mary had saved them all, despite the fact that she’d originally been the one in peril. That only left Roy, who realized he was, ever so slowly, getting passed by.

Roy set down the free weights and headed for the bench. He had to have it all. He had to fight with his brain and hit with his body. He needed to be better. He needed to be faster. He would not falter again.

And next time Roy Daniels met with George, he was determined not to need anyone’s help to knock the metal head cleanly from his shoulders.

*    *    *

Mary was actually asleep. She’d had quite a long day and anticipated another tomorrow, so after a light dinner and a warm shower, she’d plopped down into bed and set sail for the shores of dreamland. If only the slumber she’d found had actually been peaceful, it would have been quite a pleasant night. Sadly, such was not the case.

*    *    *

Nick clicked on a new link, a story containing an eyewitness account of a man made of lightning wreaking havoc in Minnesota ten years ago. It was, in all likelihood, a complete waste of time, but Nick hadn’t gotten this far without being thorough. Still, he was a bit surprised. Nick would have thought that given the showy abilities of Professor Fletcher he would have been the easiest to find information on.

That title had actually gone to Professor Pendleton, it had taken Nick less than a whole minute to find the opening segments of his fascinating story. The convict aspect was somewhat interesting, especially given his previous renown, but it wasn’t particularly useful. Someone else would raise that point in class; it didn’t need to be Nick Campbell. Besides, Nick wasn’t interested in extortion material or dirty laundry. The six folders lying on his bed weren’t filled with the family secrets of their subjects. They were stuffed with the limited data he’d managed to procure so far.

Having last names wasn’t all that helpful since they would have used different handles during their Hero days. A few of them, Professor Cole especially, had distinctive appearances. Nick managed a touch of good luck with that alone. He’d know more soon; all that was required was patience. Once he saw their powers, tracking down information would be worlds easier. And Nick intended to do just that. He wanted to know every nuance of their abilities, every weakness they might possess, even when they’d first known they were Supers. Nick wasn’t strong, or fast, or particularly intimidating. He would never be the kind of person who struck fear into the hearts of his enemies just by stepping onto a battlefield.

Nick did know, that is to say he truly understood, the value of information, however. And that merely goes to show how misplaced the fears of others were, because that trait alone made Nick Campbell one of the most dangerous men in all of the school.