Unexpected Visitors and Round Three
James Rachd was somewhat surprised to see a familiar silhouette waiting inside his small office as he approached. By this point in the term, the Combat Instructor had assumed that another batch of freshmen had completely missed the tiny five minute bracket of office hours stuck onto the HCP course schedule just before the start of the four hour Monday gym bracket. The tiny section labeled in almost unreadably tiny print as 'Ranking Challenges.' Seeing the figure confirmed as one Amelia Jacobson when he pushed the door open, the muscular man was forced to acknowledge that he had possibly reached his conclusion too early.
"Finally decided to try and take the top spot back, Jacobson?" Rachd barely glanced at the blonde girl as he made his way around her to seat himself behind a very neatly ordered desk.
"I'm here to challenge Erin, and to get a weapon approved for a ranking match, Coach."
"What the hell do you need a weapon for Jacobson? You don't think it's going to be enough of a challenge trying not to kill someone with your bare hands?"
Amelia's response was to place a long carrying case on the desk in front of her Instructor and produce a pair of wrapped items from inside. "Quite the opposite. I think I'm going to use a weapon to make it a bit less of a challenge."
After a cursory inspection the bald man looked up to meet the young woman's eyes. "You got Rodins to make these for you, didn't you?"
"And you don't think that's going to cause problems for the kid?"
"He could have said no."
Rachd let out a barking laugh in response to the skinny girl's apparent disregard for her supplier. "Approved. Your match is scheduled for Saturday at 8am. Elena will inform Casse of her appointment. Anything else?"
"That's all. Thanks Coach."
"Don't thank me Jacobson. You've still got to earn the title back after all."
The freshman Alternative class was just starting their normal warm ups when Elena Martinez called a halt. "Ms Casse, you have an 8am match this Saturday with Ms Jacobson for the top combat rank. Please prepare appropriately and make sure to get any equipment you plan to use in the match approved no later than Friday."
A flurry of conversation rose up from the rest of the class as Erin simply nodded her acceptance of the coach's news. Most of the excitement seemed to die down when the hispanic Instructor ordered the students back onto the track to warm up, but one showed sufficient determination to voice the question they were all asking to the person with authority to answer it.
"Coach Martinez!" The black haired woman looked to see the heavy set form of Sean Tannen waving for her attention. "We can still challenge for combat ranks?"
Elena let out a sigh in response. She really needed to stop letting James hide the damned thing on the second semester schedule and seeing which of the students were smart enough to figure it out on their own. "Check the course schedule very carefully Mr Tannen. You'll note that there is a short period allotted every Monday for exactly that purpose just before the start of the gym period."
The class's responses ran the range from excited to angry. It was quite obvious that several of the students, even though not in Combat training themselves, felt they deserved a higher ranking than they currently held.
"Everyone get on the track and start running right NOW. Whine about your missed opportunities later, you still have three more weeks to challenge for a higher spot before you have to prep for your class final." The Instructor's mention of the still mysterious final exam for the HCP class snapped everyone's attention back to their training. And speculating on what could possibly be used to test the class in new ways after everything they'd already been through.
Walter Raines was more than slightly surprised to hear the knock on his door. The expensive suite he was staying in when he felt overworked at his position with the Oversight Committee specialized in having staff sufficiently discrete to not approach a room that was flagged not to be disturbed. Jeremy would have contacted him prior to arriving in person, and even while taking one of his frequent breaks Walter could never bring himself to abandon his phone. There were too many possibilities that an underling would need to be disciplined, or that someone genuinely important might need advice or assistance that only the greasy haired politician would be in a position to provide.
Thus it was with no small amount of trepidation, mingled with resentment at being disturbed, that the dark haired man approached his own door.
"Mr Raines, my name is Donovan Verrile. I work for Mr Raines Sr and some of his associates." Walter started back from the door in surprise as the man outside apparently could either observe him or predicted his approach with perfect accuracy. "I apologize for disturbing you during your valued downtime, but there are some changes being made that must be discussed in person. If now is truly inconvenient I can return in a few hours?"
Walter carefully considered the offer before deciding it was likely a trap. His father enjoyed holding him back for any perceived failure on the part of the younger Raines, and he wasn't going to fall for such an obvious opening. "One moment please while I make myself decent Mr Verrile." The out of shape man winded himself slightly in his sprint to the oversized bathroom to acquire a new layer of deodorant and a quick face wash. A rapid change into an appropriately impressive, though relatively casual, outfit completed the politician's transformation before he opened the door to view his guest.
Donovan Verrile was of remarkably similar height, build, and coloring to the man who opened the door to the suite. Walter paused a moment to wonder if this was some other sort of prank being played, but the completely professional demeanor of the man politely waiting on the doorstep convinced him it was worth playing along as the safe course.
"Please, come inside Mr Verrile. Can I get you a drink?"
"Thank you Mr Raines, but just a water will be adequate," several files were pulled from the briefcase the newcomer carried with him and placed on the coffee table as he spoke, "we have a great deal of things to go over in a very short time if we're to be properly prepared."
Walter appropriated a chilled bottle of water from the room's mini bar and moved to join his guest with a sense of interest. Several of the folders laid out on the table were marked with various classified stamps. Already several technical schematics were being arranged by Donovan, apparently for Walter's perusal.
"So what am I looking at here, Mr Verrile? I believe our plans to see to the failure of Overton's HCP are quite sound as they stand."
"Your plans show a great depth of creativity and ingenuity Mr Raines," the greasy haired man preened at the compliments, "but there's no reason to rely on good odds when it is wholly in our interest to stack the deck."
"I must caution you Mr Verrile, it's been terribly difficult to keep even our current proceedings secret from the HCP faculty. They may be a substandard example of the breed, but they are still quite competent when pushed into a corner."
"All concerned parties are well aware of the difficulties. That's why we must operate under the assumption that the current plan has already been compromised." A hand was raised to forestall the quick objection from Walter. "This isn't a judgement against you or your plan Mr Raines, but all parties involved have already run across the hazards of underestimating the weakest link in the HCP organization. That's why a new direction has been decided on."
"It's not... I'll still have a role to play in the new plan? I've invested a great deal of time and personal resour-..."
"Yes Mr Raines." Donovan neatly interrupted the panicking politician. "Your role will not be quite the one you anticipated playing." A panel inside the briefcase still resting in the visiting man's lap was opened to reveal the glint of something metallic hidden within. "And with so many revisions to go through in only a few short weeks, I'm afraid that we must work quite constantly, and quite close together from here on in."
The Overton faculty wasn't particularly surprised when another full staff meeting was called late Friday night. The events had become a randomly scheduled twice-weekly staples since the initial incursion of the Oversight Committee into their domain. The first two guests at the meeting were accepted without much surprise either, as Riley and Janette Walker had been invited to a significant portion of these meeting in order to best make use of the couple's political resources, and less than legal information sources, over the course of the year. The third guest was equally expected by this point in the year, as Mirror had been more or less aligned entirely with the HCP against the very committee she was technically in charge of from the very beginning. The final guest, however, registered sufficient shock from each of the entering Instructor's to make up for the casual acceptance of the other three.
"Holy shit. What the hell are you doing back here woman? Blow up another news van?"
The leather costumed Hero turned a sardonic grin in the direction of the Combat Instructor by way of response to his unusual greeting. "I heard I missed the event of the year earlier with you back in your old costume, Jim."
Rachd flushed a bit at the response, but offered a warning glare to Mayhem and a jerk of his head to indicate the civilians present at the meeting. The tall woman nodded in acknowledgement of the warning and silently mouthed the words, "Dani has pictures."
The Walkers, for their part, showed no more than politely detached interest in the sudden breakdown into angry glares from the large bald man, shrieking giggles from the athletic red haired Latina, and a soft chuckle from the tall Hero in brown and red.
"Everyone settle down. Dani, Mayhem, stop teasing James." The Dean finally intervened to restore a semblance of order to the room. "Mayhem, you requested this meeting, which considering your normal modes of operation was more than sufficient to pique my curiosity. So please enlighten us all as to why you needed to meet with 'all concerned parties on the HCP side of the bullshit politics at Overton.'"
"How careful am I going to need to be about what I'm talking about with the University President and his wife in the room?"
"Riley, please impress Mayhem sufficiently that we can get this show on the road." All eyes turned to Riley Walker in response to the petite Dean's interesting challenge.
"The Hero Mirror, aka Deanne Trenn. Graduated from Overton University eight years ago, took five years to successfully complete the HCP course." Mirror's eyes went wide with shock as the slightly overweight blond man casually identified her. "The Hero Mayhem, aka Linda Scoven. Graduated from Lander University eleven years ago under the assumed identity of Kacey Smith after being forced out of the West HCP as a result of an SI infraction. You beat a rapist nearly to death on campus and the woman you saved outed your ability if I recall correctly." Riley's tone and posture remained carefully neutral during his entire bit of exposition. Both costumed Heroes were now staring at the civilian couple at the table as if they were some newly discovered and dangerous species.
"With the amount of connections we have, pulling active Hero identities requires some effort, but isn't especially challenging." It was Janette Walker that spoke into the thick silence that had descended after her husband finished speaking. "As we are just as fully invested in stopping whomever declared this little war on our campus as you are, we aren't taking anything as assumed. We've independently vetted every single person that is supposed to be on our campus, from the coffee cart baristas in the quad all the way up to visiting or appointed Heroes."
"Well then, I guess that settles my concerns." Mayhem seemed slightly unsettled still by the Walkers' knowledge, but the she was nothing if not resilient. "I assume that everyone at this table is aware that the people on the other side of the aisle are not exactly playing by the rules?" There was no actual pause for affirmatives before the tall woman continued. "Have you all been keeping track of the unusually high incidence of serious line of duty injuries and fatalities amongst the sidekicks this year?"
Elena, Kathryn, and Laurence responded to the question with grim faced nods. The rest of those present demonstrated various degrees of open shock and outrage at the question. "What the fuck are you saying Linda? Is someone really fucking stupid enough to declare war on every Hero out there?"
"I can't tell you that Jim. I can tell you that I finally tracked down one Chase Lorenz. He's the fucker that killed your student back in January." Rachd's expression darkened at the reminder though a grim smile lightened his features slightly at the news that Rick's murderer had not made good on his initial getaway. "He was a fucking professional hitman people. He wasn't on that crew to rob banks. He was hired by a presently unknown party to insure that the first Heroes on the scene didn't make it out in one piece. The man was a gravity manipulator, and a very good one too. If he'd been a little bit less full of himself he'd still be out there somewhere and I wouldn't be here telling you this story." The tall Hero paused to take a deep breath before continuing.
"Those of us who've been out in the field know it, but I'll explain a bit for the civilians. A lot of people want to confess their sins to someone when they're about to shuffle off. Even if you're the person that killed them, if you're present and able to listen you can sometimes learn all kinds of shit. A lot of the time, not so much as it's not a predilection shared by all, but Mr Lorenz apparently needed to confess his sins before he finished bleeding to death."
"Please just tell us the damned story already." At some point around the suggestion that someone was actively assassinating Heroes, Dani Reyes had Shifted into her more beastial form. Mayhem acknowledged the literally growled request with a nod and pressed forward.
"Chase gave me an escrow account number to confirm his story, and told me that killing 'that kid Hero' was a contract job. He told me he'd been offered another one previously but turned it down because it was for a kid named Lockdown, who's currently working with Providence. And apparently even dumbass contract killers are smart enough not to fuck with Providence. He told me he also had an upcoming contract for another 'kid Hero' on the east coast. He finished bleeding to death before he could give me more than that, but the back trace on his account verified part of his story. Half a mil deposit three days before shit went down in Dallas, another half mil the day after he made his getaway. A third payment showed up the day before he died, same amount."
"Do you still have the escrow account information?" All eyes in the room turned to the suddenly very intent face of Janette Walker.
"The banking organization is located out of the middle east. They won't give us jack or shit in regards to information, that lead has been exhausted lady."
"The government, and Heroes, have certain rules they have to follow when tracking down leads like this. I am not hampered by any such considerations when dealing with countries that have no formal diplomatic relations with ours."
"Give her the account information, Linda." Kathryn Jilles voice contained an incredible amount of barely suppressed rage as she spoke. "The Walkers have access to a vastly different array of resources than we do. They might not always be better resources, but they come at problems from an angle that someone trying to block us might not have considered."
"You mentioned an unusually high incidence before." The older British telepath's voice held far more grief than anger, though there was a steely resolve present in his eyes. "One contract killer successfully completing a single contract against a Hero for an unknown reason isn't a pattern."
"Look at the numbers yourselves. I ran a check after I listened to that confession, because where money like that's getting thrown around there's usually more than one asshole doing the dirty work. Any given year there are a maximum one hundred sidekicks on active duty, because that's math. Fifty graduates per year, two years on intern duty, one hundred active. Statistics say that an average of eleven interning Heroes are killed or otherwise removed from the line of duty every year. Pretty fucking frightening statistic by itself to see that more than ten percent of the newbies never even get to spread their own wings, right? On top of that another twenty one suffer serious line of duty injuries every year.
"In the past ten months, nineteen sidekicks have been killed in the line of duty, and there have been thirty eight critical injuries that were fortunately treated successfully by Healers and returned to duty."
"That's... a bit outside what you would expect for statistical fluctuation. I must assume the government is already looking into it?" Riley Walker reentered the conversation. "Is there anything to make us think that this trend is in any way related to the political play being made against the Overton HCP?"
"What are the odds that it's unrelated blondie?" The University President shrank back in his chair slightly when faced with Mayhem's angry snarl.
"I've been focusing a great deal of research on all things related to our own HCP at Overton. My people didn't note a major upswing in casualties of recent Overton graduates, just some manufactured difficulties being placed in front of their agents and some easily dealt with image smear campaigns."
"Riley, do you honestly think it could be a coincidence that someone just happens to be targeting Heroes while this is going on?" Kathryn cut in calmly before the angry Hero could respond to the blond man's statement.
"It just doesn't make sense from the standpoint of a group trying to make Overton look bad. For those numbers to be as high as they are it means that there are notably higher than normal casualties in graduates from the other programs. Taken as a data point alone, it makes us look more competent, not less." Riley reached up to rub his temples as he spoke. "I need to get some people to look at this from a bigger picture point of view. More than just the numbers themselves. Right now I can't rule it in or out, I can only say that it doesn't make sense with what we know of our opponents' objectives."
"Will you be staying in the area for long, Ms Mayhem?"
"It's just Mayhem, Ms Walker. Or I suppose Ms Scoven since you already seem to know that."
"It seems rude to refer to you by that name while you're in uniform. Will you be in the area long enough for me to finish making my inquiries?"
"Kathryn and James both know how to get a hold of me. If you get anything resembling a lead in this country, have them forward it to me and I'll bring you something new inside a week."
"Anywhere my information leads is likely to be somewhere very highly placed and protected with many layers of perfectly legal operations between the outside world and whomever is putting out contracts on Heroes."
"Next, ask me how many fucks I give about all that today. Then, look at my past record and ask if I've ever given even a single one." The tall brunette Hero carefully examined the Walkers a final time. "You two have to be the strangest allies I've ever found myself working with. I hope you're half as competent as Kathryn thinks you are."
"I imagine that the Dean has an extremely accurate idea of exactly how competent we are."
"Does anyone else have anything to add?" Kathryn looked around the room, paying close attention to the Instructors that hadn't yet spoken up at the meeting.
"This isn't my field boss. I've done plenty of recon in the field, but this political bureaucratic crap is way outside my area of expertise. Tell me when to point and shoot." The Ranged Combat Instructor shrugged as he offered the less than stellar assessment of his applicable skills.
"Most of my contacts at this point tie back into organized crime and the Mexican and South American cartels moving things into the country." Hai Nguyen, the petite Control Instructor shook her head as she seemed to consider and discard a few ideas. "I'll start making inquiries to see if there's been a measurable increase in demand for imported hitters, but I think this is going to be as far outside my field as it is out of Anthony's."
"Then I suppose we are adjourned for now. It should go without saying, but I expect everyone to pull every resource they can into sorting through Mayhem's revelations. Until we get another lead though, I'm afraid that all we can do is let everyone still out on the front line handle the heavy lifting, and keep preparing our students as best we can for whatever comes at them."
Erin worked carefully through her breathing exercises as she waited just outside the appointed combat room for the start of her match with Amelia. Something about facing the impossibly strong blonde left the young woman with an indescribable feeling of excitement. Amelia was the first opponent Erin had encountered in a long time against whom the extremely skilled girl didn't have to hold anything back. As she entered the room at five minutes prior to the scheduled start of their third match, Erin felt a deep certainty that this would be the last time the two faced off as freshman. This match would very likely determine the highest combat rank in their class for the year, and Amelia was the only opponent Erin could think of where the conclusion couldn't be known until the dust finally settled.
Glancing at the wall display as she entered, the flexible woman drew a new pair of tactical clubs from their sheathes on her belt and began to stretch out her arms to accustom them to the greater weight of the new weapons. At just one minute to eight, the far door finally opened and Erin's opponent walked through.
Amelia smiled at her roommate as the other woman's jaw dropped to see the skinny blonde carrying an unusual collection of what seemed to be elastic straps in each hand. The powerful girl snapped her right hand to her side to send the knotted elastic bands extending to a distance of nearly fifteen feet to snap loudly into the wall before retracting and bouncing harmlessly off the durable girl.
"You brought a weapon."
"YOU. Brought a weapon."
"Ty made those for you, didn't he?"
"He asked me to let you know that you have an all expense paid spa day ticket waiting for you in your room, and reservations for a fancy dining experience this evening."
"I guess I'll only have to kill him a little bit then. You ready for this?"
"More than ready." Amelia's smile dropped to show a completely earnest expression to her opponent. "I'm finally going to get to see the full extent of what Erin Casse can do. After that speech you gave me before our first match, don't you fucking DARE hold back on me Erin."
Erin smiled in response to her opponent's request. "I never held back anything that would have made a difference Ames. But this time you're definitely going to see something new. Round three."
"GO!" The two girls cried the word in unison and both charged forward, eager to see who would emerge the victor this time.
Once again, the observation room was filled with the entire Overton freshman class. New additions this time, several of the sophomores and even a pair of curious juniors were watching the battle for the top ranked first year position unfold. Also not bothering to wait and hold a viewing party later this time were all six of the HCP Discipline Instructors, only Dean Jilles was conspicuous in her absence.
"How the hell has the clear girl not been caught by those whip things yet?" Jessica Lienne leaned in close to whisper the question to her tall Samoan companion, afraid to raise her voice any louder and somehow break the incredible spell the performance cast over the group.
"Because Erin Casse is fucking incredible. I think this is the first time anyone realized she could move like that though."
Rorie's statement was definitely true, and several of the freshmen who had faced the young woman over the course of the year found themselves further frustrated that apparently the current number one student in the class had been holding back. Erin was practically flowing through the elastic bands as they were lashed at her by her incredibly powerful opponent. The young woman's seemingly boneless movements were completely inhuman. She was moving at speeds that the human eye could scarcely follow, and that would be if she were fully opaque during her battle. The assembled observers had also been treated to the truly disconcerting effects of witnessing the light bending woman turn into a literal void on the screen. A shape that could be perceived only by noticing where reality seemed to stop at its edges, the brain complaining sharply the whole time at trying to interpret its view of nothingness. Unlike at the time of her discovery of the new technique, Erin was not maintaining the eerie form for long; instead using it to power extremely intense bursts of light to disorient her opponent in an attempt to close the distance between them more efficiently.
To the upperclassmen that had not witnessed any of the previous matches, the two appeared incredibly evenly matched, possibly even giving the advantage to Erin as she was the only one to have landed any actual strikes so far. The freshmen knew better by this point. Amelia's odd choice of weapon was restricting her opponent's window of attack far too much for the precision strikes needed to accumulate any noticeable damage against her incredible resilience. Coupling that with the fact that each of Erin's flashbangs seemed to be growing less effective, and the students most familiar with the two fighters knew that, barring some sort of amazing breakthrough from the transparent woman, eventually Amelia was going to land the one blow she needed to take the fight.
Not nearly as long as their second match, but still an exhausting forty minutes of incredibly fast paced combat had elapsed before Erin finally made a mistake. Her left arm trailing just a few inches too low was caught by the elastic band lashing past her with enough force to unbalance the woman. Suddenly bereft of the traction she needed to complete her intricate series of evasions, Erin was abruptly fully enwrapped in whipping elastic cords and pulled airborne towards her opponent.
A final attempt to salvage the battle, Erin dropped one club to grip the remaining weapon in both hands and added a seemingly impossible spin to her aerial movement to bring the club smashing into Amelia's temple. But for the first time in the three separate matches fought between the two women, the taller girl had predicted her skillful opponent's counter. Instead of being knocked off balance by a blow that would have decapitated most of their classmates, Amelia calmly caught Erin's wrist as the airborne girl finished her rotation. The simple grip to her limb halted the shorter woman in midair as if she had suddenly lodged in a solid wall, and the entire observation room winced as the high gain microphones in the room clearly transmitted the sound of cracking bones as the captured arm was placed under vastly more stress than nature ever intended it to absorb, Super human anatomy or not.
The upperclassmen observing reacted with shock as Erin's response to the capture of her arm was to fade back into her usual coloration and offer three brief taps on her opponent's arm.
"Why the hell is she just giving up like that? That's a shitty grip, it's not that hard to break out of!" The speaker was one of the bored juniors, apparently greatly offended that his Saturday morning entertainment was ending prematurely.
"When the girl holding you by the wrist could sever your hand by squeezing, and not even strain the tiniest bit in doing so, the Lord knows you fucking give up when she gets a hold of you." The response came from the short sandy haired freshman at the front of the room, and affirmations were echoed from the twenty six other first year students present.
"Bullshit, she can't be that strong, she's just a freshman."
"Iaves, shut the fuck up." All the students present jumped a bit at the extremely reasonable volume with which Coach Rachd offered his command to the junior with. Somehow Rachd NOT yelling was more frightening than the reverse these days. "Jacobson could break any of the Super strengths at this school if she can get a solid grip on them. Myself included. Casse is just smart enough to know exactly when the fight is over."
The older student grumbled a bit, but a solid elbow to the stomach from his female companion shut him up before more ire could be drawn from the Combat Instructor.
"Well now that that's settled, everyone get the fuck out of my observation lounge and enjoy your damned weekend!" The muscular coach's volume had returned to its usual borderline yelling that had grown so familiar to all the Overton students, who quickly complied with the man's request. On the large monitor behind the exiting students, the two fighters could be seen exchanging an emotional hug as the skinny blonde cried tears of excitement, with her opponent congratulating her enthusiastically.