Chapter 10

The once neat and tidy apartment that Mr. Numbers and Mr. Transport shared at the back of Melbrook was now cluttered with boxes stuffed to their brims full of files and papers. These, at least, were organized carefully, many labeled with the date of first review, and of any subsequent reviews that occurred afterward. The files and pages were similarly marked. Each bore an identical number, all in the same handwriting.

Mr. Numbers made a few motions with his pen and stuffed yet another file into a box that currently bore no date. He reached for the next one, only to discover nothing remained undated. His bones crackled as he rose, lifting the box and writing numbers on it, then selecting a new unmarked one from the pile. Off went the lid and out came the first file. He’d been at this all summer, and a little bit before, thus far filling up and emptying the room twice already. The others were doing their own investigations, however this was the part that only he could execute. Lander had dozens of security systems, safeguards on top of safeguards, which made it an incredibly safe place to be. The downside was that when something did go wrong, it meant there was a truckload (literally, it had taken a truck to move all this paper) of data to sort through looking for abnormalities. Normally they could use someone with technology gifts like the Murray twins, but in this case the number of people the group could trust was far smaller than the staff and students.

Before he was gone, Nick had called their attention to the fact that Globe somehow knew Vince had freaked out and been put under while he was in the HCP area. That meant he was getting information about the school. His ability wouldn’t allow such actions outside of his field, so either he had a Super with a spying gift or he’d found a way to snoop on them through more mundane means. The Super aspect was possible, but unlikely. HCP schools were built with every known protection against things Supers could do, and upgraded quarterly. Add in the fact that Dean Blaine’s presence would be sure to make all observation dodgy at best, and it just wasn’t all that likely they had a Super who could see everyone’s actions.

That was why Mr. Numbers was slogging through all this data. He was searching any blips of irregularity that might indicate Globe or one of his minions had hacked their way into the security system. That, at least, was something that was plausible. Hard as hell, but plausible. Mr. Numbers genuinely hoped he found something too, because locating a flaw in the security was by far the preferable option. The other way Globe might be getting information was more reliable, more executable, and much harder to uncover.

The other way Globe could still be getting fed information about what was happening in the HCP was if someone in the program was still working with him.

 *              *              *

Jill finished unpacking her last box alone. Normally she liked to make a bigger deal about the final moment of a move, of when she could good and rightfully say she lived somewhere new. If she’d asked the others, they would have joined her, or at least Will would have. They didn’t begrudge her this room, quite the contrary actually. She’d taken over the missing part of the rent, which is why they were able to keep their house. They felt no anger when they saw her drifting through the halls, only a slight pang of sadness. For her part, Jill felt a bit morbid, as though she had cannibalized Stella’s room. After all, she was only here because the steel-shifting student wasn’t.

It had been hard to believe at first. How could Stella not make the cut? Her power was solid, her skill undeniable, hell even the way she’d asked questions was aggressive. She was a fighter, and a damn good one. Jill probably could have beaten her, but only because Will was always keeping her stocked with new gizmos and upgraded systems. And he was still here. That was a real brain-scrambler in its own right. She loved her brother dearly, but in a real fight Stella would mop the floor with him.

Jill took out a hammer and surveyed the wall, deciding where to hang some pictures. They didn’t need to worry about holes in the wall; Will had already built a doodad that filled them so perfectly they were impossible for the landlord to detect. He was useful, Jill had to give him that. Ultimately, she supposed, that had been Stella’s failing. Stella was strong, but far from the strongest, she was tough, however she wasn’t near the toughest, and in terms of skill she came up short compared to the best among them. Stella had never given more than a passing shit about her other courses. All she’d focused on was Close Combat, and at the end of the day that was an area where she was good. Good, not great.

Violet was about on par with her, however her ability let her do more than just punch things hard. She could float, change an object’s density, she was even trying to lower her own enough to pass through things. Really, everyone in Close Combat who did well had varied talents. Vince could do the energy thing, Shane’s shadow manipulation had endless uses, and Chad was fucking Chad. Who knew what he couldn’t do. The only person who had the same limited skill set as Stella was Roy.

His continuation was subject of plenty of whispered debate among the less accepting of their class, however Jill didn’t entertain such silly ideas. There was no conspiracy to keep the Powereds in the HCP; the difference between Roy and Stella was one of power. They had the same basic skills, yes, but Roy was doubtlessly the stronger of the two. He’d trained with Chad for half a year, there were rumors he’d even gotten a few hits on him. Not to mention, when Roy sparred with Violet and Stella they’d both later admitted his raw physical capability was higher than theirs. No, Roy wasn’t here because he had a varied set of skills, he just had one set that he did extremely well.

Jill idly wondered how long that would keep him in. Maybe it was the better strategy. Not that she had such an option. If she wanted to make it to the end then she had to cultivate a whole myriad of talents and battle options. She needed to excel in multiple fields, that was the only way she would stand on stage and hear Dean Blaine announce her as a Hero.

A few rapid blows set the nail in the wall, then Jill carefully hung the framed photo and straightened it. The picture was of a family beach trip they’d taken in high school. She was beaming at the camera, giving a smile she always tried and failed to recreate in new pictures. Will looked sullen, though that was likely because of the sunburn already spreading across his spindly frame. Strange to see him now, after two years of HCP gym even his scrawny body had packed on toned muscle. Behind them both was their father, grinning broadly and looking slightly away; he’d been worried the auto picture function had failed and was looking for some sign it was still going to go off.

She appraised her handiwork and set down the hammer. Now she was officially home.