Chapter 241

               A loud snap was all the warning they had. Nothing more than a sound like the roided-out cracking of a branch and suddenly, there was a beam plummeting toward them from the ceiling. The three women grabbed each other; there was fire on either side, and no place they could run for safety. So, in their final moments on earth, they acted on instinct. Humans, for all their vices and virtues, were herd animals deep down. When faced with impending death, these people each found that the only inclination which remained in their hearts was to reach out to one another, trying to impart just a small bit of comfort before a horrible finale. It was futile, of course, but it was also what made humanity such a rare and beautiful creature.

                The young man who leapt forward was not human, not truly, but he was also acting on instinct. Before their eyes, he slammed his palms into the burning beam, causing it to shatter on the outer ends. Splinters and cinders spun about like flurries in a snowstorm, yet the women remained unharmed. This strange young man wearing all gray, including a face-covering mask, had stopped the section that would have turned them to paste. And he’d done it with his bare hands.

                “Come on! The rest of this area is going to give out soon.” He turned away and chucked the section of burning beam still in his hands off to the side. As he faced away from them, one of the women noticed what looked like a baseball bat strapped to his back. She began to giggle, softly but continuously, as the insanity of the evening finally pushed the limits of what her sanity could bear. Sudden bombings, fires, even a man stopping a huge section of wood meant to kill them, she had somehow handled. But the idea that their savior had been on his way from the batting cages? That was the straw that caused her mind to sag, just as the beam had only moments before.

                Her friends tugged at her, yet she stayed planted on the floor. At least, she thought she did. Suddenly, the world wasn’t only heat, smoke, and flickering flames. Darkness spilled out before her eyes, and the soft wind of a late-spring night caressed her burned cheeks. She blinked, unable to comprehend the shift that had taken place, and noticed the man with the bat was carrying her in his meaty arms. They came to another man in gray, this one with hands that glowed a soothing orange color. There were more students gathered around him, and in the air overhead, a blonde woman circled about before dropping back to the ground.

                “Obi Wan just left; he said there were no more people trapped that he could find,” said the woman who had been floating through the air moments before.

                “Good Lord, we have got to do better when we actually pick our code names,” said the man who was slowly setting her down.

                “It’ll be a nice summer project,” the man with glowing orange hands agreed. “Are there any nearby patrol units?”

                “None that I could see,” said the formerly floating woman. “We’ve got a pretty big group though. Probably best to drop them off before we go looking for more.”

                “You two handle that,” said the man who’d held a beam off her. “I’ll go find Obi and see if he’s located more people yet. Our class is short on people who are fireproof, so I need to stay on rescue duty.”

                “That’s fine. Between her flight and my shields, we shouldn’t have any issue getting these folks to safety,” said the man with glowing orange hands.

                “Yeah, you get back in the game, Slugger,” agreed the blonde woman, already rising slightly off the ground.

                A loud groan escaped the biggest one’s mouth. “Tonight, and only tonight, is the one time I let a name that dumb fly.”

*             *             *

                Nick wiped the blood from his hands on a towel he’d taken out of his metal briefcase. It didn’t come off well—only strong scrubbing and powerful soap would get that job done right. This was merely a temporary measure, so that everything he touched wasn’t slippery as he continued his quest to find where the hell Nathaniel was.

                By this point, he was certain that none of the mercenaries knew anything. They’d been hired, plain and simple, and kept in the dark as much as possible. Even coming to campus, they’d been directed by phone and transported in separate groups. It was a smart play and showed a lot of planning, more than Nathaniel was possibly capable of. Nick had been cutting his old nemesis a lot of slack based on the skill in his recent game, but now, he had to face the truth that Nathaniel wasn’t his real opponent. The orange-eyed bastard had become the puppet for someone else, someone with actual cunning and skills.

                The towel, now stained red, was folded up and tucked back into the briefcase. Nick stepped over the corpse still wearing its same dark combat armor, and paused. If he was playing someone smarter than Nathaniel, then his best bet was to assume they were as smart as he was. Nick looked out into the night and thought hard about the situation at hand. If he were the one plotting this game, where would he station himself?

                One of the un-bombed buildings was the obvious first clue, though who knew how many would stay un-bombed by the end of the night? It was a shell game; sticking a pea under a cup, shuffling them around, and making the customer guess which one the pea was under. Only, in this case, looking under a cup ran the risk of finding a sudden explosion.

                Nick paused his steps as that analogy tripped something in his mind. A shell game . . . the good ones were built around speedy hands, misdirection, and subtlety. But the best ones . . . those were the ones where the shuffler slipped the pea into his hand without being seen. No matter which cup you looked under, you were wrong. Because the first assumption you’d started with, a pea being under a cup, was flawed.

                He turned his gaze to the Business building, the first one to be bombed. It had hit one of the lower floors, and the flames were slowly climbing upward. Whoever was doing this had planned out every step so far. They’d locked down communications, dropped a dome over the campus, and probably added a few safeguards Nick didn’t even know about. Why not bring along a Super with a knack for keeping fire at bay? After the initial evacuation, the Business building was the last place anyone, human or Super, was going to go.

                Hiding right in plain sight. They’d bombed the building where they wanted to set up shop. It was ingenious, assuming Nick was right. As he lifted his briefcase and began to move across campus, he had a feeling he was. It just fit so well, right along with the rest of this person’s plan. Of course, if they’d been able to think this far ahead, there was another factor Nick had to consider.

                They knew he would figure it out, and would be waiting for him to arrive.

*             *             *

                Orange light dimmed as the last of the mercenary team slipped into unconsciousness. The energy tendrils faded away, and the young man in gray turned to find his next obstacle. To his shock, it was already there, wearing a tattered red coat as it gazed down at him with familiar eyes.

                “Please tell me you borrowed that properly this time.”

                “Of course. We were in a pinch; I had pick of the powers.” Thomas’s voice sounded strange in the night air, being moved by a mouth unfamiliar with all its nuances. “But this is a good one, and easy to use without a whole lot of practice. More on topic though, what the hell are you doing here?”

                “What little I can,” the man said. From behind him, a much smaller form emerged. It greeted Thomas’s body with an uncertain wave.

                “Much as I want to charge in here, I can’t. The questions it would raise, the connections people might make . . . we’re so close, and it isn’t my right to sacrifice everything based on my own beliefs. Still, I had to do something. Shift down. We’re going to give them a helping hand.”

                “How much help?” Thomas’s voice warped and stretched mid-sentence as the vocal cords creating the words changed into that of another person. Despite the gray mask covering his face, many of the student population could still have picked out the familiar form of Adam Riley.

                “I’ll be working unseen, tweaking whatever I can, but we need someone more overt. Luckily, I have just the candidate in mind.”