Nicholas was waiting for a fresh drink when he spotted a familiar figure practically stomping through the casino below. A thin smile touched his lips as he charted the figure’s path while watching from his balcony. The figure was male, and he was a few days later than Nicholas had expected, though he was certainly moving with haste now that he was here. Nicholas briefly entertained the idea of letting security deal with the clearly irate man, then thought better of it. For right now he needed to play a gentle hand; being too antagonistic would work against his long-term strategy. Besides, this was not a man one trifled with lightly.
“Diane,” Nicholas said as his waitress appeared with a fresh cocktail. “Bring me a glass of scotch, whatever Gerry keeps on reserve should be fine, and tell security to show the man they’re tracking up here to my table.”
“Yes sir. Anything else?”
Nicholas paused for a moment, then responded with two words: “Crab cakes.”
Orders taken, Diane dissolved into the regular area of the restaurant from which she’d emerged. Nicholas was sitting on a private section that jutted out and overlooked the casino below. It was reserved for high rollers, visiting celebrities, Heroes of a certain caliber (who were really just another type of celebrity), and friends of The Family. It was where he took most of his meals, at least the ones he ate in the public eye.
The scotch had been delivered and Nicholas’s own drink was a quarter finished when his guest finally arrived. Nicholas rose from his seat, slapped on a happy grin, and extended his hand in welcome.
“Dean Blaine, such a pleasure to see you.”
Dean Blaine, to his credit, did a better job at concealing his frustration at his former student than he had when dealing with the lackeys below. Rather than giving into the temptation to deck Nicholas right in his smug little face, Dean Blaine merely ignored the extended hand and took a seat at the table.
“What,” he began, striking the “t” against his teeth, “do you think you’re trying to pull?”
Nicholas lowered his hand and sat back down at the table. His left hand twitched as he suppressed an urge to adjust sunglasses that were not, and had not been for months, still on his face. Strange that though Nick was gone the tics he’d crafted remained.
“I’m having dinner. The drink is for you, by the way, and we should have some crab cakes here in a few minutes.”
“You know perfectly well that’s not what I’m talking about.” Dean Blaine reached into his jacket pocket and produced a folded stack of papers. He set them on the table and then pushed them across. “This is your class schedule for the coming year. At Lander.”
“I appreciate it, but I already printed out a copy when I registered for classes,” Nicholas said cheerfully.
“Which is, essentially, the core issue we seem to have. You were expelled. While most of memories of the HCP were obscured, that part should have remained very clear.”
“I remember it so well I even recalled your name, didn’t I? No, you were very clear, and I am under no misimpressions. I understand perfectly that I have been expelled…from the HCP.” The weight Nicholas put on his final words left no doubt at their implication.
“Lander and the HCP go hand in hand,” Dean Blaine replied. “We welcome back those who merely fail out of the program, however being expelled carries the understanding that you are no longer welcome on campus.”
“You’d think so, but our lawyers were able to find a surprising amount of precedent suggesting that not to be the case.” Nicholas paused while Diane returned with the plate of crab cakes, still steaming slightly and looking positively delectable. Once she was gone, he continued. “While grades at Lander can hinder one’s progression in the HCP, it seems that’s a one-way street. Leaving the HCP, situation regardless, is not in itself reason for a college to bar a student from regular classes.”
“You’re not the only one with lawyers,” Dean Blaine said stiffly. “Let me assure you, the ones we keep are good enough to make it a much cheaper and easier solution to just change schools.”
“Sadly my heart is set on Lander,” Nicholas shot back. “And the fact of the matter is that I can make a stronger case for staying than you can for me leaving. My HCP memories are gone, I can’t blow the whistle on any former Supers I was in with thanks to the memory mojo, and I’m sure you’ll make everyone aware to steer clear of me. On the other hand, all my class memories are intact, I have a community of friends and teachers outside the program I don’t want to leave, and consistency is a key factor for growing minds like my own.”
“You never talked to anyone outside the program.”
“I had enough interaction that my lawyer can paint me as the boy being victimized by the big bad HCP. I even had a girlfriend freshman year; maybe I wanted to rekindle things with her now that I have free time.”
Dean Blaine took a long drink of the scotch in front of him. It wasn’t bad, but he’d definitely had better. “So you can probably come back if you want. That still doesn’t answer the question of why you’d want to. You seem far more at home here.”
Nicholas leaned back in his chair, surveying the room around him. Dean Blaine wasn’t wrong. This was his kingdom, his domain. Here he was a prince being groomed for a throne. Here he was someone special, with or without his ability. His hand twitched again, breaking his concentration.
“My reasons are largely my own, Dean Blaine. But I’ll tell you this much: HCP or not, Lander is far from boring.”
“Far from boring,” Dean Blaine repeated.
“Indeed.” Nicholas glanced away for mere seconds to spear a chunk of the crab cakes cooling on his plate, and in doing so he missed the instantaneous flash of a smile that lighted upon Dean Blaine’s face, then vanished just as quickly.
Which just went to show, a moment’s distraction can make even the most skilled manipulator miss the clues that he is being played.
* * *
Vince coughed roughly, a few flecks of spit and blood splattering onto the ground. They were quickly absorbed by the thick layer of dust that coated everything in this awful place. He pressed his hand into the dirt and pulled himself back to his feet. A few blinks to clear more damned dust from his eyes and he was ready to go again.
The sun gleamed off George’s metallic form, a factor that he’d already used several times to blind Vince just before an attack. Unlike the younger man, he wasn’t effected by the constant, scorching heat, nor by the bits of brown dirt that swirled around them constantly. This environment was only taxing for someone made of flesh. It was one of dozens of variables specifically calculated to leave Vince weary and weak. Personally, George thought it was overkill, but he wasn’t the one calling the shots.
“Need me to get you a rock to sit on?” George taunted. “I don’t think you’re going to make it through another day. Best to call it quits and get you back to the safety of your dorm.”
There was no response from Vince; he’d learned by the third day that responding to George’s barbs only sapped him of saliva, intensifying his sense of dehydration. Periodically the robotic man would stop to demand Vince take a drink from the nearby canteen. No one wanted him to drop dead, it seemed, but he’d over-taxed himself and passed out more than a few times. He always got back up, though. He always kept going after his opponent. Not out of some sense of duty or obligation, nor even a misguided belief that there was nobility in fighting a hopeless battle.
Vince pressed on because of The Deal they’d struck on their first day here.
He charged forward, feinting right, then darting left. It wasn’t going to fool George, Vince knew that already, but it would force him to expand the field he was observing in case Vince did it again. That would dilute his attention, even if it was only by a fractional amount. Every little bit helped. Vince reached down deep in himself and grabbed some kinetic energy. Electrical was wasted on a man who could convert it to his own power source, and fire would only make this wasteland more hellish on himself. Besides, the way George was knocking him around, there was no shortage of kinetic energy to replace it with.
Vince spun forward just shy of George’s reach, dancing back a half-step, then barreling toward him with renewed intensity. It threw off the timing of the punch George had directed toward his face, catching Vince in the shoulder instead. He was ready for this one; the bone-shattering force of the blow instantly became part of Vince’s internal arsenal rather than sending him flying. His own attack was deflected by George’s nimble hand, jerking him off balance and loosening his shoulder in its socket. Vince was able to stop himself from falling over, but the momentary distraction meant he wasn’t ready for the knee George drove into his ribs.
Vince let out a soft whimper of pain and collapsed. With extreme care he poked his sides. Two ribs were broken, at least one more was bruised. That, at least, would be gone in the morning. Vince didn’t know why his broken bones vanished as he slept, nor why this healing did nothing for his everyday aches and soreness, but he’d come to accept it as just another part of this strange situation.
“Nice try kid, now how about we get you to a hospital and let things be done.” George backed off to let him recover. It might have seemed like this was a kindness, but in truth it was almost sadistic. If he’d hammered on Vince without pause the young man would have been beyond repair, he wouldn’t have been able to fight on. That would mean this deal, and his suffering, were over. Instead, George let him get back up, and the excruciating process dragged on.
“Bet you thought you’d have figured something out by now. Bet you were feeling all kinds of badass after that little spectacle you put on at Lander. Sorry kid, but you need to accept reality. Just because you were able to hold back a few sophomores for a couple of minutes doesn’t mean you’re ready to play with the big boys. Especially when you had to have Campbell brain-jack you to pull off even that. Give it up.”
Vince dragged himself back to his feet, his breathing labored as each gasp drew protest from his ribs. The first few days he’d been fired up, taking George’s barbs and coming back harder and faster. After a week or so, he’d learned to steady his emotions. George once said that inner fire might make you scary, but inner cold made you dangerous. Vince was beginning to understand what he’d meant.
An unsteady step forward confirmed that he could at least still walk under his own power. Good. As long he could keep coming then he hadn’t lost. The Deal was still in full effect.
It wasn’t a complicated bargain, neither party was that sort of thinker. George had merely made him a proposition once his seeming captive had awoken: Vince was free to go at any time, and if he ever reached a point of injury so great he couldn’t continue, he would be transported to a hospital and abandoned. The flip side was that if Vince was able to beat George, even once, then George would willingly return himself to jail. That alone might have kept Vince going, but then George had added a cherry to the top of the offer. If Vince beat George, he got more than to return a fugitive to rightful incarceration. George would also take him to see his father. With that carrot dangling in front of him, Vince never even once considered giving up. George could taunt him, beat him, and ridicule him all he wanted. Vince wasn’t quitting. And if he could at all help it, he wasn’t going to lose by injury either.
The silver-haired young man took two more weary steps forward, drops of sweat falling from his forehead into the damned dusty ground, then charged.
* * *
Mary jumped slightly at the sound of a tree being shattered into kindling. She’d gotten lost in her book and not noticed when Alice switched up her training. Looking up from the depths of the dense tome, she noticed her blonde friend had moved toward the edge of the clearing for this round of practice.
Alice’s face was furrowed in concentration as she focused on reversing, then intensifying, the flow of gravity in a defined area. The small tree she was staring at began to shiver as one of the natural forces of the universe was suddenly thrown out of whack. A quick sweep of her hand removed a lock of sweaty hair from Alice’s eyes. She’d been training for a few hours, alternating between using her body and her power, and if she followed the routine she’d established in these woods it would be several hours more before she was done. If Mary had feared allowing her to come would fill this silent sanctuary with chatter, those worries were unfounded. Whatever Alice was going through, she’d evidently found more solace in training than talking. Not to say she was unfriendly or aloof, merely constantly occupied.
The tree tore free from the ground as the upended gravity’s pull proved to be too much for even strong roots to struggle against. It drifted into the air lazily, the powerful pull reduced almost immediately to a sense of weightlessness. It had taken Alice two weeks to get a sapling out of the ground and another three days before she’d been able to keep one from flying off into the air. That had been some time ago; the tree currently suspended in mid-air was far larger than a mere sapling.
Alice took hold of both ends with opposing gravitational forces, pulling it tight and bringing its drift to a stop. She’d wasted more time than she cared to admit trying to fine-tune this trick to the point where she could actually pull the tree in half. No matter how much she put into it though, she was never able to conjure enough force to overcome the structural integrity of one of Mother Nature’s oldest designs.
Another prodigious cracking filled the air as this tree shattered at its center then fell to the ground. Alice couldn’t pull them in half, but she could now add a third pull of gravity in the middle. Once it was pulled tight not even a mighty oak could overcome the forces of physics.
A quick walk to a new target a few feet away began the cycle anew. Alice would do this for some time longer, working very hard at focusing her mind down to singular tasks. Learning to train it to blot out all other thoughts. All other distractions. All other curiosities. Learning to blur out everything but the task at hand.
Especially things related to her parents.
* * *
Hershel stretched backward, listening to the soft pops from his spine as it crackled, giving him blissful but all too short relief. He’d gotten better at lifting with his legs, that much had been necessary to avoid serious injury, but even after several months of work he still hadn’t quite managed to eliminate using his back entirely. That meant by the time he was ready to change into Roy his body had acquired quite a number of throbbing aches and pains. And that was on the good days. Sometimes he didn’t even get to turn into Roy, which meant the pain persisted through the night.
With a mighty haul of effort Hershel yanked two pails loaded with feed up from the ground. There was grunting and snorting from the stalls, all reinforced with a myriad of metals designed to keep the altered animals contained. They worked well, for the most part. There had been an incident or two, but from the way everyone else shrugged them off Hershel had assumed it was par for the course around here. Of course, after the first one he began keeping an emergency container of whiskey on him at all times. Hershel was easy-going, not stupid.
“Hurry up!” Gus yelled from the arena. “We need you to check the saddles before tonight’s show!”
“Hurrying,” Hershel called back, throwing his already pained body into motion. This hadn’t really been the sort of training he was anticipating when he asked his mother to find him a teacher, but if the protesting in his muscles and the smaller waistline on his pants were any indication, it was certainly yielding results.
Roy was less optimistic about their situation, but then again what was new about that?
* * *
Sean Pendleton looked around the room anxiously. It was strange; there was a time when he’d have been filled with comfort to see so many masked faces perched atop flamboyant costumes. Then again, he would have been wearing one as well. Not so ostentatious, obviously, Subtlety Heroes tended toward more muted color schemes. When Sean had been Wisp his outfit was done in black swirls and soft grays. It didn’t have any built-in armor like many of the others, so it was thin enough to wear under street clothes when need be. The mask and gloves he could carry, but the real issue had been the boots. Those boots were a pain in the ass. Not that any of that mattered anymore. Wisp was gone, and Sean was dearly hoping no one recognized his lean face as the one that once been under a mask.
There were other people in regular clothes dotted amongst the Heroes. Some were liaisons for the Hero community, some served purposes best left unspoken, some were lawyers kept on retainer in case they were needed, and others were people who’d walked away from the spandex and the action some years earlier. Among them were Mr. Transport and Mr. Numbers, talking to a petite woman and a large man wearing suits that matched their own. Another uncostumed individual, Dean Blaine, walked through the room and sat in an uncomfortable folding chair next to Sean. Both of them were now facing the stage, a moderately sized elevated platform with a white screen behind a podium.
“Feeling awkward?” Blaine asked.
“How could you tell?”
“Let’s call it Hero’s intuition.”
The others were filtering into their seats as well, some understood signal telling them the presentation was about the start. Sean noticed a few of his fellow Lander professors among them, though they were talking to different clusters of Heroes that Sean was less familiar with. That was understandable; one always had a deep connection with the fellow graduates of their class. It was impossible not to, they’d scrapped and battled and trained alongside one another until only they were left standing. That sort of experience bonded people in a way that was nearly unbreakable.
Even when one might fervently wish to break it.
“Thank you all for coming,” said the keynote speaker, stepping up onto the stage and taking his place at the podium. Charles Adair had also come out of costume, choosing a fine gray suit instead of The Alchemist’s costume and cloak. Blake Hill was a few steps away, adorned in the deep black shades of his Black Hole costume. Though they were not the ones who had called and organized this gathering, at least not officially, then were recognized as the people most suitable to lead it, given their relationship to the subject matter. Sean might have been able to think of people who knew the subject better than Blake Hill, however Charles’ expertise was beyond reproach. Not that many people here knew why.
There was a gentle electronic hum and an audible clicking sound, then the screen behind Charles filled with a familiar image. It had been all over the news in the past weeks, the subject of many round table discussions and piles of speculations. It was of a man perched atop a floating hunk of rock, a woman at his side and a recently freed prisoner at his feet. He was the reason they were all here. He was the problem that warranted the collective attention of as many Heroes as could be mustered.
“As you all know, my former teammate, Globe, revealed himself to be alive some weeks ago with the very public jailbreak of Relentless Steel. Since he was kind enough to make his identity public before his retirement, I can tell you this prisoner’s real name is George Russell, and he was an educator in the Hero Certification Program for many years.”
The room murmured. One Hero going rogue was bad, but a teacher was far more dangerous. A single Hero would only have in-depth knowledge about the identities and weaknesses of his graduating class and possibly a few Supers who’d been in class years close to him. A Professor would have that same data on every Hero he’d ever taught.
“Yes, the implications here are very serious, yet bad as they are the reemergence of Globe is still a higher priority,” Charles continued. “Most of you know that he turned on us with the murder of Intra, and that we were only barely able to defeat him, thanks largely to Black Hole. We thought we had triumphed, however it now seems we were wrong. For any of you wondering how we made a blunder that large, that thought alone tells me you’ve never had any dealing with the man called Globe. That is largely why we have called this conclave. If you go up against him, it is imperative you know what you are dealing with.”
The clicking sound came again, and now they were staring at the same man, but decades younger. His face was lean, his mask crisp, and his eyes shining with pride. Sean recognized the photograph; it had been cropped from their graduation picture. He knew that next to Globe was Intra on one side and Shimmerpath on the other. Three people down one could find Zero and Raze, then one more over Wisp’s smiling face would beam back at them. It had been an unspeakably happy day.
“Globe was the top ranked graduate in his class, no small feat any year; however his is especially impressive given the quality of Heroes that came out along with him. It has been referred to by some as The Class of Legends, and while the name is hokey I urge you to take it seriously. The graduates of that year’s class were of exceptional power and skill, and Globe handily trumped them all.”
Sean wondered how Blaine felt about that. It had been closer than some people thought. Most believed Intra to be Globe’s main contender, but Zero hadn’t been too far behind either.
“As to how Globe managed to come out on top, that’s part of what we’ll be going over. His ingenuity, his resourcefulness, his determination, but we’ll begin with the largest factor in his, or any Hero’s, success: his power. I know there has been much speculation on exactly what Globe could do, given the variety of abilities he demonstrated during his tenure as a Hero.”
There were rapid clicks a series of images flashed before them: Globe, holding up a hand to stop a giant robot’s impending fist. Globe, walking unscathed through a river of lava that parted before him. Globe, holding a bus overhead with a single finger as he calmly knocked back a bolt of destructive energy.
“Many have theorized that Globe was a telekinetic the likes of which had never been seen. Others believed he had an ability that randomized, giving him different gifts on different days. As is policy, his true talents were kept secret, just as his identity. Since he was believed dead so soon after becoming a criminal, this data was never declassified. However, given the extenuating circumstances, we have received permission to educate you all on the actual nature of Globe’s ability. I wish I could say this was meant to be helpful, but in truth I’m just hoping it helps you stay alive.”
The slide clicked again, this time showing what appeared to be a bastardization of DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. A human silhouette was in the center, with a carefully measured radius encircling him.
“Globe’s ability was area manipulation. His body exuded a field that allowed him to control his surroundings. I don’t mean merely minor things like moving objects or melting butter. Globe’s control was total, down to the molecules. He could sunder the very laws of physics. He negated energy, he changed chemical compositions, he could even render all other Supers in his field powerless. Or merely use their bodies to do what he wanted. When it was studied originally, one of the researchers deemed Globe’s ability ‘The God Field.’ That term is more accurate than any other I’ve heard associated with his power. To all things in his sphere of influence, he was effectively God.”
If the news of George’s profession had drawn the frantic murmuring that showed nervousness, this revelation drew something far more terrifying: Silence. Each Hero in the room was comparing his own ability to one just described, trying to think of a way to overcome it. The lack of outburst meant all of them were coming up empty.
“The obvious limitation to Globe’s power was, rather self-evidently, that it only applied within the field he emitted. At graduation his sphere was estimated to be around sixteen feet in any direction from his body. Just before his supposed death it was around twenty. The growth rate slowed as he aged, however it did continue to inch forward over time. We have to assume this trend has continued in the years he has been hidden