Nicholas Campbell walked through the opulent lobby of the casino and tossed a set of car keys to a man in a red vest.
“Park it somewhere way in the back; I don’t want to see that thing again unless I need it,” he instructed. The valet scampered off without a word, efficiency incarnate. Truthfully, Nicholas would have preferred to have the car demolished, retribution for the ridiculously uncomfortable drive from the Lander campus; however, a car was a car and there was no sense in being wasteful. Maybe he’d need it again one day for a different character. He certainly hoped not. What had possessed him to decide on a Bug in the first place was a mystery, but then again, so was the vast majority of his past two years.
He made it to the elevator where Gerry was waiting. A brief nod passed between the two as they passed the polished metal doors, then they were rising through the world.
“How do you feel?” Gerry asked after a few moments.
“It’s hard to gauge. I can’t really tell a difference, but since I don’t know what I was like before the wipe, that’s not surprising.”
“I see. So is it like there’s a hole in your memories?”
“No, it’s all still there, I just can’t access it,” Nicholas told him. “How can I describe this... it’s as if all the HCP memories have been covered with fog, or ice. They’re blurry, and when I try to focus on them everything slips away.”
“Strange. Ms. Pips will want you to get some tests done just in case,” Gerry informed him.
“I assumed as much. Try and buy me a day, if you can. Did you get all the files together like I asked?”
“Pulled up from storage at your request,” Gerry said. “The last addition arrived by courier two days ago. You’ve got quite a bit of reading ahead of you.”
“At least I enjoy the author’s style,” Nicholas replied with a grin. The elevator dinged and he departed, leaving Gerry to return to his duties.
“Hey, Campbell,” Gerry called before the doors closed. “Ms. Pips wanted me to tell you that it’s good to have you back.”
“Tell her I said, ‘Good to be back’,” Nicholas replied. Once the doors shut he resumed his path down the luxurious hallway to his room. The day was young and he had a lot of work to do.
* * *
Sean Pendleton - he wouldn’t think of himself as a professor again until the new school year began - was lying on his bed, staring at the television. The screen was dark, not due to any underlying technical issue, but because the power was off. He’d worked his way through more whiskey than was healthy last night, intending it to just be a few drinks to settle his brain. That plan had gone out the window when he’d read Nick’s card. It had actually been a birthday card; Sean assumed Nick had used it because the thick paper made it less likely someone like Mr. Numbers would be able to deduce the contents by feeling for a pen’s impression. That was Nick, going five miles further to obfuscate than anyone would ever consider following.
It had been a birthday card with four words written inside, below the cartoon duck wishing the recipient a “flocking good” birthday. Four words was all it had taken to send Sean’s wheels off the track. Four words that begged so much for explanation, for clarification, for verification, all of which was now impossible. He finally understood Nick’s apology. His former student was apologizing because whatever bit of information had allowed him to write those words was gone now, and Sean was stuck with only this echo of might-be truth.
The effort was grueling, but Sean slowly raised himself from his bed and walked over to his kitchen table. On it were two pieces of paper, one being the birthday card that had been such a large factor in the hangover Sean was currently dealing with. The other was the piece of paper Blaine had shown him in his cell all those months ago. The paper had a large picture taking up half the space, the rest was used for bits of information about the subject in the photograph. Sean had taken great care of it, even though now it was almost a year out of date. They grew up so fast.
He sat down at the table and pulled both papers over to him. The photo drew his attention first. It truly was amazing how much Alice looked like her mother. His half-sister had always had her own look: Shelby never resembled him and only bore a passing similarity to her fraternal twin, Blake. Both Sean and Blake had taken their features from the mother they all shared, while Shelby took hers from her and Blake’s father. The young girl in the picture definitely took after Shelby, which had just made being around her this year all the harder.
The photo went down as the card came up. Sean had poured over it already, searching for some clue, some hidden message Nick might have left him. He came up short yet again. Nothing but a cartoon duck, a bad pun, and those same four words that filled him with hope and uncertainty in nearly equal measures. Four simple words that changed the entire course of his plans:
“Shelby is still alive.”
* * *
Hershel and his mother made it nearly an hour into the drive before he brought up a thought that he’d been lingering on for some time.
“Mom, do you still keep in contact with any of Titan’s old training partners?”
She glanced at him from the corner of her eye, always a safe driver out of habit and necessity, then replied. “I might know of a couple. Mr. Winston down the road used to do lifting exercises with your father from time to time. As for the others, well, plenty of people in our neighborhood have gifts, but few could have trained alongside Titan. Most of his partners were out of state. They had a teleporter on the team at the time, so it wasn’t much of a bother.”
“Oh,” Herschel said, turning his eyes out the window to the passing billboards.
“I assume you wanted to do some training over the summer?”
“Yeah,” Herschel admitted. “Now that Roy is finally seeing progress, he wants to make up for lost time.”
“And what about you?”
“About me,” Hershel echoed, turning his attention back to his mother. “This year I found out that I’m actually a part of my own power. I’ve spent fifteen years feeling like the unwanted tagalong in my own body. I mean, Roy is better at pretty much everything. But now, now I know I am a critical part of it, and that my effort matters. So yeah, I want to keep going, too. I want to help make both of us stronger, because I caught a glimpse of what sort of power gets you to the top of the heap, and Roy and I have serious catching up to do.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” Ms. Daniels sighed. “I know someone I can call when we get home. No promises, but I think he’d be willing to take on a temporary student.”
“Is he strong?”
At this Hershel’s mother let out a bark of laughter that filled the car. “Honey, he’s powerful enough to go toe to toe with your father. If he agrees to train you then the question isn’t if you’ll get stronger, the question is whether you’ll last the whole summer.”
* * *
Vince crossed the line of brush and stepped out of the foliage. It had taken him most of the day to walk here, but it had been enjoyable. Of course, he could have just had Mr. Transport drop him off in this spot, but he’d needed a little physical exertion to get his head clear. Besides, he wanted to take his time.
The train tracks were the same as they always were, the metal still warped in several places from the explosion Vince now knew hadn’t claimed his father’s life. Briefly he wondered how that man had escaped, then he surmised some aspect of his power had helped him. It suddenly occurred to Vince that in all the discussion about Globe and his crimes, the silver-haired boy had never stopped to inquire what Globe’s power actually was. It seemed like a glaring oversight in review, but he’d had more pressing concerns.
Vince walked around the area slowly, not drawing attention to himself, not trying to stay hidden either. It was a longshot, he understood that, yet some part of him still demanded he come to this place. To come and see if his father would be waiting for him where their last life together ended. The chance was slim, but still as he looked around and saw nothing, he couldn’t help feeling a weight of disappointment settle in his gut.
“Well, well, looks like I owe Persephone twenty bucks,” said a familiar voice. “I bet you wouldn’t show.”
Vince turned slowly, the rock in his stomach quickly turning into magma. Twenty feet away, still in the outfit he’d been wearing on television, was the man Vince had once known as Coach George.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m the escort, if you’re willing to come,” George replied.
“Where would we be going?”
“Can’t tell you that. Can’t tell you anything. You just have to decide right now if you’re in or not.”
Vince stared at the former-teacher for several moments, then gave a small nod of his head.
“And that’s forty I’m out,” George sighed. “Oh, one more thing. You don’t get to be conscious for the trip.”
That statement set off some alarms in Vince’s head. He reached for the energy inside himself, but before he could summon even a flame, Vince’s vision went blurry and he felt his body grow weak. In a span of seconds it was all he could do to stay standing, and moments later even that was impossible. His consciousness abandoned him as he tumbled toward the ground.
A pair of strong arms caught him before he could bash his head open against a rock; George had crossed the distance between them as soon as Vince had shown signs of dizziness. He set the boy on the ground carefully then pulled the small dart Vince hadn’t even noticed out of the boy’s shoulder. That done, he produced a cell phone from his pocket and punched in a few numbers.
“Hey,” he called gruffly over the phone. “It’s George. I’ve got him, so get my ride over here.”
Almost instantly a crackling sphere of white light appeared a few feet away from him. George closed his phone and hefted the muscular form of Vince Reynolds onto his shoulder. He stepped through the light without any fuss, and moments later it vanished, leaving only a scent of electrical discharge in the air.