Prologue

Prologue:
Assembling the Players

 

The first man to step off the elevator and into the underground Hero Certification Facility wore an expression of absolute confidence. He stood significantly taller than the two men who accompanied him, dressed far more expensively than his companions who couldn't seem to manage nearly the blond leader's level of calm assuredness.

"Mr Weaver, are you sure we're supposed to come down unescorted? The facil-..." The shorter of the two followers, a middle aged and slightly portly hispanic man, was cut off mid objection by the deeper voice of his leader.

"Shut up Juan. Of COURSE we're allowed to be here. We're overseeing this entire facility to see if it will STAY a facility or not." The tall man reached the end of the entry corridor and turned right without hesitation. "Now let's go see if we can't find the Dean and introd-... OOF." The end of the statement was cut off as the blond man came around a second corner to run face first into a waiting wall of muscle.

"Good morning, gentlemen." The somewhat gravelly voice that emerged from the heavily muscled bald man that blocked the hallway came out at a volume that indicated he was far more used to yelling than normal speech. "So glad you could make it down early. Harold Weaver?" The final question was directed at the blond man in front, still a little ruffled from the unexpected collision.

"That is me. You would be James Rachd, I presume?" Harold Weaver offered a blatantly false smile and extended a hand towards the Combat Instructor. "To my left is Daniel Leen, to my right is Juan Ruiz." Each man offered a nervous smile and a small wave as they were introduced.

Rachd completely ignored the hand in front of him but nodded slightly in acknowledgment of the two men's names. "Nice of you to make the time to arrive an hour ahead of schedule Mr Weaver. You'll be coming with me and your two associates will be accompanying Professors Banning and Martinez." As the words were spoken two forms materialized in the hallway behind the three men in suits. The tall form of Anthony Banning lightly gripped the shorter hispanic man's shoulders and led him off down the corridor away from Harold. Elena Martinez simply placed a hand on the back of the man identified as Daniel Leen and both of them vanished.

Anger overtook the look of calm confidence on the blond man's face as he saw his underlings being quickly whisked away by the HCP faculty. "Now see here! I am the newly appointed Oversight Director, and I DEMAND tha-..."

"SHUT UP!" The volume and force of the muscular bald man's shout cut off Harold's tirade mid word and actually rocked the man back a step. "If you were not the new Oversight Director, you would probably be lying in a mangled heap on the floor right now Mr Weaver. Now, you will accompany me, and we will have you scanned by a highly trained telepath to insure that you are exactly who you say you are. After that, you are getting a full biometric imprint so that our automated security will recognize you and let you get where you need to go, and keep you out of where you don't."

"You're joking. You can't FORCE me to undergo anything of the sort! I am not here to dance for your amusement, I am here to determine if your program will still EXIST in three years time. I refuse to submit to either the scan OR the biometric imprint." Weaver crossed his arms confidently over his chest and stared down the larger man in front of him Let's see what you think of THAT you neanderthal.

"That is your choice, Mr Weaver. I will now escort you from the premises. If you prove at all uncooperative, I will break both of your legs and deposit you topside for the authorities to come and collect. You may lead the way." The look on Rachd's face could best be described as 'violent' as he waited to see how the blond politician would react.

"You can't DO th-..."

"I CAN do that, Mr Weaver. The decision by the previous Senate HCP Committee to not require full biometric imprinting for Oversight resulted in a major security breach that cost several Senators their careers. The new Committee has decided NOT to renew that decision. If you refuse both of these steps then you will be removed from your position, and they will have to send us someone else." A wide grin grew across the muscular man's face as he watched the confidence seep out of the other man's expression. "It is still pretty early in the summer break, they'll have PLENTY of time to get your replacement out here."

"This is... Fine. Lead on Mr Rachd."

"It's Professor Rachd, if you don't mind Mr Weaver. Have to maintain the proper decorum when dealing between the HCP and Oversight after all."

The Combat Instructor led the blond politician down several corridors and into the infirmary. Waiting there was a white haired elderly man with a polite smile on his face, a lightly build Indian man wearing a lab coat with a stethoscope hanging from one pocket, and a tall woman in a dress-blue military uniform.

"Professor Vree, I'd like to introduce you to Harold Weaver, he's consented to the telepathic scan so please begin when you're ready. Dr Saxena, if you can set the imager up so we can get the biometrics done as quickly as possible, I'm sure Mr Weaver is anxious to begin his important work." The two men nodded to Rachd in turn as he addressed them, with Weaver offering them each a polite smile and nod, though his expression was becoming somewhat visibly strained as his muscular escort had perfectly timed his own speech to interrupt the politician's attempt to introduce himself.

The military woman in the room stepped forward as the small doctor began entering something onto a nearby console and the white haired man closed his eyes in concentration. "Mr Weaver, Lieutenant Susan Witt. I'm Oversight's liaison with the Department of Defense." The attractive woman with nearly metallic blonde hair leaned in close before continuing. "Make sure any attempts to acquire military hardware or other assets for Oversight purposes goes through ME. Any of the antic perpetrated by your predecessor will NOT be tolerated.” The air around the Lieutenant and the politician grew notably warmer for a moment as the woman stared hard into the blond man's eyes. He was the first to blink, and the heat vanished as if it had never been present.

“Mr Weaver?” The now thoroughly flustered man turned in the direction of Dr Saxena as the shorter man called out to him. “Everything is ready for you. If you can step into this room here and remove your clothing, the imager will be able to get a complete biometric imprint for us to use with our security network. The process should only take about ten seconds once you've disrobed.”

The look on Harold Weaver's face looked as if it was going to be a prelude to an absolute refusal of the doctor's request, but the look fled quickly when a loud cracking noise sounded from directly behind the man as James Rachd casually cracked his knuckles and began rolling his shoulders as if limbering up for some sort of physical activity.

“Of course, Doctor. Only about ten seconds you say? Not too much of an inconvenience at all.” Insufferable bastard Supers. Every one of them. We'll see what the playing field looks like in a few months then

“Yes, I imagine we will at that, Mr Weaver.” The politician nearly tripped over his own feet in shock at the British accented voice that cut into the room. “Incidentally, you've cleared your telepathic scan. You might want to watch what you're thinking a little more carefully while you're in an HCP facility.” The older man's eyes twinkled mischievously as he spoke. “Some of the students, for example, are far more receptive telepaths than even I am, and can be less able to show restraint at times. I'm sure you understand, young people and all that.”

Harold Weaver swallowed hard to try and remove the lump from his throat, before opting to offer a less-than-sincere smile and a nod to the older British gentleman. After stepping into the room indicated by the doctor a few moments prior, the blond politician paused to bring his hands up to his temples in an attempt to massage away a budding migraine. Why the hell did I let the Senate convince me that this would be an EASY assignment?

 

...

 

Sounds of exertion, grunts of exhaustion, and the occasional startled yelp or scream of pain rang throughout the large warehouse. “Tasha, clean up in block 5, double time!”

The shout from the demonic shifter directly below the catwalk drew the attention of the petite blonde above long enough to discern that the Amazonian healer was close enough to handle whatever injury had just resulted. Alexandra Andrews shifted her attention back to the room at large and shifted her focus back to the threads of power around her that she only had to reach out and touch in order to copy the incredible abilities they represented.

Nearly the entirety of the soon to be Sophomore Overton HCP class was gathered in this off-the-beaten-path and likely condemned building. A special summer training initiative that had been put together by the class's two teleporters, and that every student save for four had managed to attend at least once. Ben Pelley, Catalina Blake, Eloise James, and Erin Casse were the only students that hadn't made it out. Ben had been incommunicado since the day after the Freshman final exam. Catalina was helping her family with the farm over the summer and, as the telepath liked to point out, training for her was far more effective the denser the population got. Eloise had simply stated that this type of training simply wasn't going to be what she needed, though the normally somewhat anti-social girl had remembered to thank the group for the offer. Erin had expressed interest, but stated that she had already made rather extensive training plans with her uncle, and didn't want to cancel them or risk over training.

Alexandra shook the distracting thoughts away and continued to focus on her surroundings. Below her and off to her right she could sense a line of power that dealt with the physical manipulation of an object's size and shape. Focusing on it a little harder, not quite touching it, she found she could hear the expected voice of Barry Jeung cursing softly as he attempted to hold his opponent at bay. A little more reaching and she located the much more intense strand nearest to the hard pressed Korean youth, a blazing aura centered around building solidity out of pure light. Almost effortlessly this time the small mimic found she could make out the heavy breathing of Jon Glenn as he swarmed his opponent with an array of hard light constructs. The skinny blond boy had made tremendous improvements over the summer, finally beginning to master the art of actually moving the constructs he created. The added motion caused them to degrade at an extremely rapid pace, but as his focus improved they became more solid, and more precise.

The girl on the catwalk gave another brief start as the timer on her watch beeped rudely at her, the audible reminder that it was already time to seize hold of yet another power. The training the girl had put herself through since first pushing her limits during the disastrous pre-final of the last year was showing some impressive results already. She had already bettered her performance then of four rapid mimics, able to push herself to a fifth now before the strain of holding on became more than she could handle.

As Alexandra scanned the area around her to determine whom her next attempt would be, the air behind her let out a loud crackling noise and a brief rush of wind ruffled her short hair. Strangely, this was the one interruption so far that elicited from the somewhat high-strung girl no startled reaction at all, instead a smile as she turned to face her roommate. A smile that quickly morphed into a look of surprise as there were now TWO dark haired middle-eastern women standing on the catwalk with the blonde.

“Alex, Hi! This is my mom. Mom, this is Alex.” The Israeli girl spoke in answer to the obvious not yet asked question on her roommate's face. “Mom volunteered to come and help with the evening shuttle service today. She said she wanted to meet some of the people her little girl is spending so much time around.” With that introduction and explanation out of the way, Beulah stepped over to the railing to shout down into the warehouse with a shockingly loud voice. “WRAP UP IS IN TEN MINUTES! IF YOU DON'T WANT TO WALK, BE READY BY THEN!”

Alexandra chuckled as the teleporter followed up her yell with an immediate blink down to the floor level to determine who would be first. Considering we're in FAIRBANKS that would be a pretty long walk. The petite girl's amusement at her friend's speeches waned as she realized that the older of the Abbott women seemed to be regarding her with an extremely intense look. A brief scan showed that Beulah's mother seemed to possess EXACTLY the same power as her daughter, to a degree that made it difficult to tell the two women apart by ability alone.

A brief moment after the silence between the two catwalk occupants had reached the 'uncomfortable' stage, the older woman spoke. “You are Alexandra, my Beulah's roommate, yes?” The elder Abbott's voice was almost lyrical, and her accent notably more pronounced than her daughters.

“Yes, that's me. You can call me Alex Mrs-...” The petite girl was cut off abruptly as the woman in front of her blinked across the distance between them and caught her in a nearly crushing hug.

“My name is Dalia, dear Alex. Thank you so much for saving my daughter.” Alexandra froze in shock at the unexpected embrace, and further at the softly spoken words forced out around the appearance of tears in the older woman's eyes. “You were willing to die for my dearest one, and for that I can never repay you.” Dalia relaxed from the embrace and pushed herself back to arm's length to look the younger woman directly in the eye. “Anything you ever need, call me and I will do everything in my power to provide it. ANYTHING.” The words were spoken just as softly as the tearful thanks, but the force behind them left Alexandra with absolutely no doubt that the woman before her was entirely sincere.

“Mrs... Dalia,” the petite blonde corrected herself as the dark haired woman waved a contradicting finger at her attempted bypass of the first name basis, “you're welcome, but it wasn't anything that special. I jus-...”

“You saved my daughter's life at great risk to your own. That is everything.” Dalia placed a business card in the younger woman's hand and pushed the girl's fingers closed. “I have enough resources that I know exactly what happened in that facility on that day, dear Alex. Fully trained Heroes in your country and mine both would have balked at what you threw yourself at on that day. You saved no fewer than four of your classmates without any sign of hesitation, and only by pushing your power so far beyond it's known limits you might well have killed yourself just in the trying. I will have no more of your humility or self-deprecation young lady. You are an amazing person, and it's time you started acting like it.”

Alexandra looked down at the card in her hand, then back up at the woman in front of her radiating both overwhelming gratitude and a steely resolve that indicated to the petite girl she would likely be best off agreeing with her friend's mother. “Thank you, Dalia.” It seemed the safest response.

“You are most welcome, and again I thank you. May I take you somewhere?”

The blonde girl shook her head in response, already having reached out with her mental 'hands' to grasp the intensely bright power in front of her. “I'll see myself out, Dalia. It's good practice for me.” Alexandra flashed a smile at the older Israeli woman as the world around her seemed to shatter and reform, the last image taken with her was that of the dark haired woman smiling widely in response.

 

...

 

Kathryn Jilles found herself hurrying through the halls of her own facility, wondering what on earth had possessed her to post summer office hours. It's all the insanity with the Oversight Committee. Somehow it just never occurred to you that with all the changes in your program that one of the students might ACTUALLY take you up on the offer in the middle of the break. The Dean shook her head a moment. And apparently the stress has you talking to yourself in second person, Kathryn. Get it together!

The face the petite woman wore as she entered the waiting room outside her office showed no indication of any of the internal stress or debate she was going through, most of which vanished quickly in the face of the tightly wound mind awaiting her arrival. “Mr Pelley, what can I do for you on this fine summer day?” A slight emphasis on the word 'summer' spoke volumes as to the Dean's lack of desire to be underground, but the tall muscular youth seemed not to pick up on it. Good lord he's nervous about something.

There was a moment's hesitation as the young man seated in front of the Dean seemed not to know how to begin, but just before she decided an earnest attempt to pry the information out of his brain directly was in order, Ben opted to simply blurt out the entirety of what he came to say. “You have to put Amelia back in the program. I'm dropping out.”

Kathryn rocked back on her heels and allowed the genuine shock she felt to color her expression vividly. In all her years teaching at the HCP she had only twice heard rumors of students dropping out with the stated goal of giving someone else a better or more 'deserved' chance to move on. She had never heard anything, or thought she would, about a student that had successfully placed into the next year of the program attempting to drop out at ALL, much less in an attempt to give his spot to someone else.

“Mr Pelley, what could have possibly brought you to make a decision like this? What made you even think something like this is possible?”

“I researched it. You guys, Overton, you gave Amelia a waiver. She's the top student from our year, but because she was injured she's getting passed over for advancement right now. The waiver says that she basically gets into a second year HCP as soon as she's sufficiently recovered.” The Dean's eyes showed a new layer of surprise that the young man in front of her had learned that much. Looks aside, he was apparently more adept with computer systems than he had ever let on. “The thing is, she's sufficiently recovered right now. She still needs her arm healed, but Ames is ten times stronger than I am, and she could LITERALLY beat me with one arm tied behind her back, or missing as the case may be. She deserves the spot more than I do.”

“Ben,” the petite woman's use of the boy's first name snapped his attention to her more effectively than even the use of her favored telekinetic nose flick could have, “do not for one SECOND think that because another Super is physically stronger than you are, that you don't DESERVE to advance. Ms Jacobson may have been at the top of the Freshman class, but you yourself were ranked 11th out of the 29 at Overton, and 50th out of ALL 140 HCP students that advanced to the second year of the program this year.”

“It's not that, or not just that anyways. Dean... I don't feel like I earned it. I'm strong, that's what I do. I'm pretty good at it, but I can't make myself feel like I'm good enough. Ames, Collin, Susan, they're ALL stronger than I am. They're better than me at my best trait, and even though I tried, I really REALLY tried, I can't shake the feeling that I really am the 'second stringer' that the little Oversight punk kept thinking at us.” Ben smiled at the woman's response to his last statement. “Towards the end of the year, Cat kept us pretty well informed of what the little asshole thought of us. But that's why I have to do this. I don't feel like this version of me, right here and now, deserves to make it any farther in the HCP. Don't get me wrong, I WILL be a Hero someday. But I obviously have some shit I need to work out first. So give my spot to Ames.”

Dean Jilles stood silently for several long moments after Ben finished speaking. The simplest truth of the matter was, he was entirely correct. There was nothing in the HCP curriculum or regulations that would prevent Amelia, still maimed or no, from continuing in the program. There had been students in the past who had been entirely incapable of even BEING healed that had still managed to make it through the program, for all intents and purposes Collin Gauge was one of them as his Shifted form was completely impervious to attempts to heal it, it simply restored itself at a drastically faster pace than a normal person would heal. Finally, the dark haired woman spoke again. “I'll make you a deal, Mr Pelley. I will offer Ms Jacobson the spot in the program for next year, but if she declines than you WILL take it. You are good enough, whether you have figured it out for yourself or not, and I don't think you want to leave us with a shorthanded class with this Oversight bullshit hanging over our heads any more than I want that to happen. Agreed?”

The muscular youth stood and offered his hand in acceptance of the proffered deal. “Deal. Honestly though, you think there's any chance in hell Ames doesn't do it?”

In response, the Dean suddenly found all she was able to do was smile and laugh.

 

...

 

“You stupid BITCH!” The elegantly dressed woman sighed with exasperation at the scream that met her entrance to the small conference room before entering and closing the door behind her,

“Lovely to have you here to visit, Patrick.” The casual greeting offered in a dismissive tone caused the large man to visibly shake as he attempted to control his rage.

“You are going to get us all killed. Were you not LISTENING when Edward told us that we were pulling our resources BACK until those freaks in Overton have a chance to relax?” Patrick managed to keep his volume in the range that wouldn't be easily overheard from outside the room, but the tone threatened terrible violence to the woman standing in front of him.

“Sit down and stop being so damned melodramatic.” The older, dark haired woman's control of her own emotion slipped a bit and the last few words came out as more of an angry hiss. “We are not committing any resources that can trace ANYWHERE near any of us, we aren't directly investigating anyone involved in the HCP, and if you can't manage to hold a civil conversation then I will not be sharing anything that we have learned.”

The final bit of the woman's statement seemed to fully penetrate the larger man's anger as he rocked back a moment with a contemplative expression, before moving to the table and dropping heavily into one of the seats. “You learned something worth this level of unnecessary risk, Joyce?” While still not exactly cordial, the tone of this question at least approached a normal conversational level.

“I have a nearly complete roster of the HCP students at Overton. All four years of active students. I also have a list of the students who did not make the cut for the upcoming year, in case any of them might be useful in the future.”

Patrick's jaw dropped in a momentary look of pure shock before he managed to collect himself. “How could you have possibly gotten that much information without tipping anyone off? Getting a hold of a few files is one thing, but a complete list? Your sources are either lying to you or you're about to walk into a very obvious trap.”

Joyce laughed at her colleague's sudden shift from rage to surprise and paranoia. “You never managed to get more than a file here and there because you always thought far too small. I didn't put a single investigator in Overton to get this information. Life begins far before college after all.”

It took a few moments before the seated man managed to comprehend what the woman in front of him was saying. “You... All of them? You did backgrounds on every student at Overton? How did you manage that without tripping every red flag in existence?” Anger was now completely absent from Patrick's voice, curiosity and envy were the only emotions that could be detected.

“My firms employ hundreds of investigators. In addition to that we make contact with thousands more. Use the right cutouts, apply the correct resources, and one extra suburban family is added to a full background file being assembled for a local development project in the vicinity. A prominent doctor and healer from upper Manhattan and his family are profiled as part of a very in depth malpractice investigation as 'possible associates of interest.' It's not that hard to find a way to connect the people you want to learn about with an ongoing investigation, and no one is good enough to watch that many angles at once.”

“They don't have to watch all of them in order to catch a couple. They're going to realize what you're doing, and when they do you'd better hope your cutouts are as good as you think they are.”

“That's the beauty of doing the investigating NOW, my dear, stupid Patrick. Our adversaries at Overton, and their politically connected allies, are on their highest alert right now. They are going to find dozens, possibly hundreds of little things like my investigations. But since we're not planning on moving forward overtly until they get a chance to relax...”

Patrick laughed as he finally caught a glimpse of Joyce's complete strategy. “Learn now, play later?”

“Of course. That is the best way to handle college after all.”

 

...

 

The auburn haired girl smiled as she approached the door to the large house before her. A cheerful “Come in!” offered from inside the house before the hispanic girl could even knock.

I know how it's possible for ME to do that. How does Scott's mom manage? Still smiling, the young woman pushed the door open and stepped across the threshold before freezing in shock. Whirring to life in front of her was a small digital display, attached to several wires and a lump of something similar to grey clay with a clear glass jar full of jagged metal bits at the forefront. ”Ummm... Mrs Jameson? Plea...-”

“Call me Anne, please, Cat. And you should hurry up, only twenty seconds!” The tall girl felt herself panicking at the bizarrely cheerful voice that interrupted her. Her ability allowed her to confirm beyond any doubt that it was, in fact, Anne Jameson in the other room But that fact seemed at odds with the apparent BOMB sitting in front of her.

As the timer clicked down to read '15' Catalina finally calmed herself enough to notice that there were several pairs of wire cutters and pliers laid out next to the device, and the petite British woman in the other room was currently looking at a disarming manual for homemade explosive devices. The current page open to a schematic remarkably similar to what was currently in front of her.

Using the images she gleaned from Anne's reading, Catalina quickly stepped forward and began to confidently dismantle the device in front of her, smiling again as she calmly clipped the final connection with three seconds still on the timer. Her smile faded as the timer continued unabated, turning for a moment to one of genuine terror as the timer reached zero.

The device in front of the girl, containing no actual explosives, did not detonate in any way. A pair of 'party poppers' loaded with confetti and cleverly hidden in the ceiling above her DID. The girl's shriek was fully audible over the two loud *POP* sounds and she found herself shaking slightly as sparkling confetti rained down on her.

“And that, my dear girl,” the petite older woman had made her way into the foyer just in time to capture a picture of the young woman in mid-terrified-shriek, “is payback for leaving my poor boy all alone with those neanderthals you call 'brothers' for two full days when he went down to visit last month.”

Catalina really wanted to be angry at the blonde woman, but Anne's smile was infectious, and she did raise a good point. ”I'm sorry Ms J-... Anne. It won't happen again.”

“Oh, it can happen again. Scott could still use some toughening up. Just make sure not to abandon him so completely next time, work or not. The poor boy is still absolutely infatuated with you Cat.”

Catalina blushed a bit as she nodded in response. ”So is Sco-...”

“He's out on the south range with Ty, still trying to get that crazy idea of theirs to work. There's a jug of tea in the fridge if you'd be so kind as to carry it out to them. The boys have been out there all morning already.” Anne wandered back into her living room as she finished speaking, surprisingly returning to her study of the explosives manual she had been reading for the prank on Catalina.

The auburn haired girl retrieved the designated bottle and began the trek out from the back of the house. When the Jamesons had moved to the US from Anne's old home in England, the family had purchased two very large neighboring properties and merged them into a single large estate. The vast acreage was required by Scott's mother as she had constructed multiple match-grade shooting ranges of various sizes to practice for her current career as a competitive marksman. The south range was the longest course, with targets set all the way out to 2km from the shooting benches, and was situated furthest from the house.

As Catalina picked up the minds of Scott and Ty, she quickened her pace to a smooth jog to hasten the meeting. Scott was projecting feelings of defeat, Ty of frustration, and the young woman pasted a brilliant smile on her face in an attempt to share some cheer.

Finally reaching the range, Scott met his girlfriend with a warm hug and quick kiss while Ty quickly claimed the jug of cold sweet tea and took a long pull. ”I did bring cups you know.”

“So you did!” Ty grinned as he made the observation, but made no move to acquire one of said cups before taking another, smaller swig directly from the bottle. Catalina giggled and Scott sighed at his friend.

”So no progress yet?”

“Plenty of progress,” Scott's tone was weary and held more than a bit of self recrimination. “As you can see by looking out at the range, I can consistently accelerate a shot to speeds that rival the most powerful rifles in the world. Aiming appears to be an ability that the good Lord has not seen fit to bless me with at this time.”

The field beyond the firing benches seemed to bear this out. Only one of the six visible targets had been struck, and there were deep pockmarks and furrows in the dirt where very high velocity impacts had gone well wide of the mark.

“It's so frustrating.” The larger black man finally passed the jug, now half empty, to his friend as he broke in. “I can see where he's getting it right and which part isn't working yet. It's like I have the perfect image in my head but I can't figure out how to show it to Scott in a way he understands. I'm not even sure that I understand it, I just know it works.”

”Show me.” The request from the telepathic girl seemed to catch Ty off guard for a moment, before he nodded and closed his eyes in concentration. ”Wow. That is... I think I haven't taken anywhere near enough math to know what that is. You're right though, you can see that it works, so I can see that it should. Keep picturing it, I want to try something.”

Scott looked between his girlfriend and friend in alarm for a moment. “Cat, are you sure you should be experim-...” Then the world for all three young people went black.

Cat groaned as she forced her eyes open. Sitting up in alarm as she realized that the sun was no longer directly overhead, but now nearly to the horizon, she found herself clutching her head as it pounded in agony in response to the sudden movement. Pushing the pain aside, the auburn haired girl managed a quick scan of her two companions and discovered that Ty had also recently regained consciousness, and Scott was not far behind.

After waiting a few minutes for everyone to force themselves upright and process that they'd been out for several hours, Catalina offered the first thought that came to mind. ”Umm... Oops? My bad.”

Both boys laughed at the chagrined voice that came into their head as they pulled themselves up, then Scott offered a hand to his girlfriend to help the taller girl to her own feet. “We should probably head back, your mom's going to be pissed at us if she cooks and we miss it.” Ty rubbed his eyes as he spoke, finding that he was still having a little bit of trouble focusing but otherwise feeling little the worse for wear after being knocked out for six hours or so.

Scott started to nod in agreement, before stopping with an odd look on his face, which transitioned quickly to a smile. “I don't think it was your bad at all, Cat.” His two friends watched as the smaller boy turned and went back to the firing bench, picking up one of the last of the magnetic slugs Ty had brought out for target practice today. With a flash of light, a loud *BOOM*, and a rush of pressure that caused the ears of all three to pop painfully; the projectile in Scott's hand vanished and the large center target more than a mile down range exploded in a cloud of wood and paper. Behind the target, visible even in the fading daylight, a large plume of dirt kicked up into the air as the slug tore into the ground with amazing force. The short brown-haired youth smiled widely as he surveyed the scene in front of him, and softly rubbed at his ears.

“Dear Lord, thank you for sending me the greatest girlfriend EVER.”

 

...

 

The tall blonde woman started blankly at the letter she clutched in her hands, having read the words a dozen times and still trying to force them to say something other than what was written. 'Due to overwhelming support from her classmates, including one student voluntarily surrendering his position in the program, Amelia Jacobson is offered the opportunity for immediate reinstatement and advancement to the second year of training with the Overton HCP. Considerations and accommodations will be made until the complete recovery of Amelia Jacobson from injuries suffered during training in the first year of this program. Please contact Overton HCP Dean Kathryn Jilles no later than August 15th if Amelia Jacobson wishes to reenter the program for her second year of training at this time.' There were several more boilerplate clauses, and even a personal letter from the Dean included.

Amanda Jacobson looked past the letter to the large digital wall clock, displaying the time, outside temperature, and date. August 12th. She found her hands involuntarily clenching even tighter around the paper, crumpling it further as she debated how she could possibly proceed from here. She knew, beyond any doubt, that her baby sister would never sit out for the year to finish recovering from her injuries if presented with this opportunity. No one who had watched the video where Amelia had literally leapt into the path of an anti-tank missile and punched it out of the air would ever believe that she would voluntarily step aside.But she almost died. She almost died, and she was perfectly healthy to start with. What if they try something else? She won't back down. After everything she went through I don't think she CAN back down. If it happens again, she'll die this time. And if I don't give her the letter and let her go back, she'll hate me. She'll truly hate me.

Amanda's introspection was interrupted by a very polite knock at her front door. Quickly composing herself to insure that there were no traces left that she had been mere seconds away from another crying fit, the young woman quickly crossed the room to reach the door and click the monitor to see who was on the other side.

The tall blonde felt her heart leap into her throat as she observed the man waiting patiently on her doorstep. Standing at average height, with short carefully maintained pale blond hair and dressed in an all white three piece suit, Amanda knew immediately who the man was, and found elation competing with dread that he had arrived so quickly after she had forwarded an offer to his agents.

Opening the door, the young woman had managed to completely compose herself, leaving no trace of her internal conflict and offering only a very professional greeting as she welcomed the guest into her home. “I'm very glad you could arrive so quickly, I'm sure the demands on your time are very extreme.”

“Even as much in demand as my time may be, when an offer is made including a two and a half million dollar retainer for a simple regeneration procedure, I assure you my attention is captured.” The man's tone was polite but carried a faint note of condescension as he continued. “You are aware that there are hundreds of specialists in this field that would likely cost you FAR less than even ten percent of the retainer you offered? I would hate to turn down such an offer, but I feel I must make that point first.”

In response Amanda acquired a small tablet computer from the nearby table and made several quick taps on the screen. “If you could examine this, please.” The blonde woman's tone was kept carefully neutral, allowing no hint of any emotion to creep into it. She did allow herself a small smile when she saw the man's eyes widen as he read off the list displayed on the screen, and the number of names crossed out with a red 'FAIL' next to them. “I see you are familiar with some of the professionals we have already consulted with.”

“You have apparently brought me an interesting challenge if this many of my... colleagues have tried and failed to assist your sister. The request stated she is a Super, are we dealing with the next Zero or a similar power nullifier? I must warn you, against an ability like that even MY expertise would not be sufficient.”

“Amelia is an extremely powerful Super, originally thought only to possess physical enhancements, primarily strength and resilience. During... training, it was discovered that she has a secondary energy resisting ability that appears so far to have only triggered reflexively when she is injured. Several of the other professionals who have examined her state that due to the extremely serious nature of the injuries she suffered, followed by the incredible amount of energy expended to stabilize her at the time, that her resistive ability is 'locked' until such time as her body can physically recover. Progress has been made, but unless someone can overcome her resistance it will be years before she is completely whole again.” Amanda's stoic expression cracked for just a moment as she continued. “You... you're supposed to be the best there is. Can you heal her?”

“You have indeed brought me a challenge most interesting. And one I am forced to admit, I look forward to far more than providing another rejuvenation treatment for an aging wealthy dilettante who will likely simply squander their newly recovered youth as they did with their first. I accept the challenge, Ms Jacobson. If it is within my power to do so, I will see you sister fully restored.” He offered his hand, and she shook it gratefully.

Chapter 1

Chapter 1:
Back to School

 

Iris Todd stood, stretched, and groaned softly as several muscles in her back complained loudly. “How the hell does someone as small as you have three times as much luggage as I do?”

“You didn't have to help me move.” The petite white-haired girl responded in a neutral tone as she carefully placed the last of the boxes on the bed in her new room and turned to offer a questioning look at the taller blonde. “Why did you?”

“We're roomies now, El. Roomies help each other out with stuff like this.” Iris grinned at the smaller girl's response.

“I don't like nicknames.”

“But I love nicknames, so you're probably stuck with this one for a while. Consider it the cost for all the assistance with your move!”

“But I didn't ASK you to help.” Eloise's tone was beginning to show signs of exasperation that didn't seem to faze the cheerful speedster in the slightest.

“Then you should be happy that it's such a bargain price. Dinner should get here in about an hour, Louise ordered Chinese.”

The shorter girl sighed as Iris made her way out of the room, closing the door softly behind her. Eloise acknowledged that it was only logical to move into a vacant space in one of the townhouse style dorms, particularly as the rumors of the HCP's second year programs all featured varying level of detail on the much enhanced leeway for students to bring outside weapons or equipment in with them. With daily classes it would have been entirely impractical to have to trek all the way out to her storage unit, and it would be both against the rules and extremely difficult to store any of her arsenal inside the main dorms.

Somehow the tall blonde girl had gotten word of Eloise's housing transfer and been awaiting her arrival, workout clothes and lifting gloves worn and a cheerful smile to accompany the information that she was “Here to help!” Iris had been friendly, helpful, and actually managed to engage Eloise in conversation for the several hours it took to move and store all of her personal luggage, plus about a literal ton of weapons and ammunition.

As the white haired girl began sorting and unpacking boxes and breaking down the remains, she tried to force herself to stay frustrated with the blonde's cheerful invasion. Eloise didn't WANT to be friends with everyone in the program, these were the people she was competing with. She didn't NEED that sort of distraction. Yet as the boxes emptied and her room resumed a semblance of order and neatness, the petite young woman found herself unable to stop smiling.

 

...

 

Henry Harmon settled back into his booth in the tiny corner diner off Main St in Overton with a sigh, and a perplexed expression. Even seated the African American man appeared massive, his three hundred fifty pounds of mass distributed seemingly evenly between muscle and fat on his six foot two inch frame making the six person table he was occupying appear more like seating for two or three at most. His gaze drifted out the window as he noted the swarming activity of a college town returning to life in preparation for the start of a new school year, and wondered. What the hell could be so important in a little backwater town in Texas that has me getting paid a full retainer plus full time and three... four... at least SIX other PI's in just one damned restaurant all sitting around looking just as bored as I do?

It was unlikely anyone would ever look at the massive man with the unkempt burst of hair radiating in all directions from his head and think the man was capable of observing nearly ANYTHING undetected. His chosen apparel for the day, a faded red Hawaiian shirt with dingy khaki shorts, definitely made him look more the deranged tourist than professional anything. Henry prided himself on being considered one of the best investigators in the country in spite of his outlandish appearance. The intellect hidden inside his huge body was the true secret to his success, and one that found itself absolutely stumped by the current puzzle. And judging from the conversations, none of the others know why we're all here chilling out and getting paid for it either. Something really, really strange is going on...

Henry's train of thought was interrupted as the waitress swung past his table to deposit another pitcher of iced tea and a platter containing a two pound burger and enough fries to feed a small family. At least there's proper amenities for me while I sort this out.

“Good afternoon, Hank.” The familiar voice from just over his shoulder shocked the large man so much that the massive burger dropped from his fingers, only to freeze in mid-fall just below the level of the table and above his lap.

Henry recovered his composure quickly enough to scoop the stationary burger back together in mid air and deposit it on his plate, and begin making angry wiping motions at his lap with the napkins as if the meal had been caught by his pants instead of a more spectacular force. He found himself freezing again as a petite asian woman patted him on the shoulder as she strode past him and sat calmly in the seat opposite him. He felt his hands tremble involuntarily a bit as he noted that the woman was wearing a casual outfit, blue jeans and a t shirt. He had honestly expected form fitting costume and a mask when he heard the voice.

“Oh God,” the strained whisper coming from the enormous man would have been humorous if not for the note of fear it held, “you're going to kill me.”

“Don't be stupid, Hank. We both know that you aren't stupid. Going to eat yourself to death someday, yes. Fashion sense of a color blind monkey, also yes. Stupid, no.”

Henry breathed a sigh of relief at the cheerful but quiet banter from the small woman across from him. “There's rumors that when... certain people show up without masks around people that might recognize them, it's kind of a final thing.”

“That's a pretty damned stupid rumor. How would anyone know?” The sweetly innocent question actually caused another involuntary tremor in the large man's hands as he easily read the implied threat in those words. “Besides, you've known who I really am for years now. I'm guessing within a few months of that time we met... On the job.”

Henry finally managed to relax a bit as he processed what the woman was telling him, and took a sip of his drink. “How did you know?”

“That you know? Because you're damned good at your job, Hank. How long did it take? Just curious.”

“Seven weeks, Ms Nguyen.”

Hai Nguyen smiled wider at the number. “Like I said, damned good at your job. So what the hell are you doing here now, Hank? And why are there over a dozen PIs crawling around Overton without any semblance of order or organization?”

“Hell if I know. As you likely know, I got here yesterday. I noticed today that I'm sharing a restaurant with at least half a dozen people in the same line of work that I'm in, and no one seems to be actually here to do any work. Everyone's just... waiting.”

“And what are you waiting for, Hank?” The cheerful tone had left the small woman's voice, and Henry found himself again rigidly nervous.

“I don't know! I swear! Darcy picked up this gig for me through some back-channel contacts that she made me PROMISE not to look at too hard when we got together. It's full retainer plus full hours compensated for a week, and no actual legwork required. I figured it would be like a paid vacation, and I get to try and solve a mystery while I'm down here.”

“And will you let me know if you solve that mystery?”

“I'd love to, Ms Nguyen, but frankly I'd rather see my wife again.” Henry took a massive bite out of his lunch and the conversation stalled while he chewed, swallowed, and took a drink to wash it down. “If a H-... someone in your line of work is investigating people in my line of work just for showing up, then whatever the fuck this mystery is can not POSSIBLY be worth the paycheck. I'm heading back north as soon as I'm done eating.”

“Are you sure, Hank?” There was a new note in Hai's voice, one that made Henry wary but not nervous as previously. He couldn't pin down exactly what it was though.

“Sure that this is dangerous? With you sitting here in the booth talking to me like this? Fuck yes.”

“But is it too dangerous if, for example, you were getting paid double your normal rate on TOP of that retainer and paycheck for sitting around doing nothing?”

Henry's eyes widened, then narrowed quickly in response to the unexpected offer. “What exactly would I be expected to do to earn such a generous paycheck?”

“Exactly what you expected to be doing when this was just a vacation to you. Solving the mystery of why dozens of private investigators are suddenly in Overton seemingly doing nothing.”

The large black man turned back to his meal and began to eat, slowly, as he turned the proposal over in his mind. For her part, the petite asian woman waited patiently for him to finish. Once the burger was no more and the fries had been properly decimated, Henry wiped his hands on the napkin, and extended one across the table.

“Ms Nguyen, consider me hired.”

 

...

 

“You really didn't have to help me move in, you know.” Collin Gauge casually tossed the last of his boxes onto his new bed as he turned to address the taller blond youth accompanying him.

Aaron glanced around at the results of the move in; three relatively small boxes, a suitcase, and a mini-fridge, before nodding in affirmation. “Yea, you seem to pack pretty damned light. Still, it would have been rude of me to just sit around watching TV while you lugged your stuff up the stairs.”

The muscular redhead nodded in acknowledgment, then turned to begin unpacking his belongings. After settling the fridge into a convenient location next to the desk and stripping the tape off the three boxes, Collin started a bit as he turned to discover that Aaron was still standing in his doorway. “Uh, so what's on your mind?”

Aaron hesitated for a long moment before answering, obviously uncomfortable with whatever it was he felt he needed to say. Finally, the blond man let out a heavy sigh and spoke quickly and softly. “You can't have your girlfriend stay the night here. It's kind of a house rule. I got nominated to be the one to break it to you.”

“The fuck? You guys have something against Tasha or so-...”

“Oh shut up, Gauge. Nothing against the Amazon, and no you can't get pissed at me for calling her that when she introduces herself that way half the time on campus.” Aaron smoothly interrupted his new roommate, then cleanly cut off the further objection as he saw it forming. “So before you flip out and accuse us of some shit, answer me a couple questions: Did you two usually hook up at your room or hers?”

“Well, normally at my dorm bu-...”

“And when you did crash at her place, was her roommate around?”

Collin's initial outrage had tapered off into a deeply confused state as he tried to figure out the point of these questions. “I... don't think so?”

“And to see if the gym rat can put the puzzle together, what's Cat's ability again? And does anyone else in our class, possibly living under this very roof, share a similar ability?”

“Oh... shit. So you mea-...”

“Yea, exactly. Michael tried not to bring it up the first couple times I had someone over, but apparently it REALLY messes up a telepath if they're asleep in close proximity to certain 'loud' activities. Dude tried to be cool about it, but there's a certain level of insomnia that a person just can't deal with. Barry hasn't had a ton of luck, so he had no issues with it, and I'm not gonna mess with the man's sleep like that and I don't exactly have a regular girl.” Aaron's light, somewhat condescending, tone hardened as he continued. “So this isn't going to be a problem for you, right?”

Collin seemed briefly like he was about to blow up at the taller youth, before he relaxed instead. “No man, no problem. I'm glad you told me, even if you did decide to be an ass about it.”

“Well, can't let any points slip past ya know. Otherwise I'll never overtake Gerard for the coveted title of biggest asshole in the class.”

The redhead laughed at that statement. “I don't know. Gerard is definitely an asshole a lot of the time, but he always gives the impression that he's trying to improve, and not doing it on purpose.”

“Yea, completely unfair. The dude is a complete natural at it. I don't know how I'll ever manage to win.”

“If it makes you feel better, you have my vote.” Aaron acknowledged the final statement with a laugh and a wave as he left the muscular youth to his unpacking.

 

...

 

The short Japanese girl let out a frustrated groan as she rounded the corner just in time to see the heavy metal elevator doors slide close. Great, going to be late for orientation. Not a great start to the sophomore year. The dark haired young woman made her way down the hallway and pressed her thumb over the concealed button that would check her fingerprint and call the HCP elevator back up.

“Glad to see I'm not the only one that overslept.” Kaori felt like she had just leapt out of her skin as she spun in startlement at the cheerful voice that had sounded just over her shoulder. And found herself looking up at the much taller girl who had just snuck up on her.

“Good morning Erin. Thanks for making sure I won't need any caffeine to stay awake through the meeting.” The smaller girl took several slow, deep breaths as she attempted to get her heart rate down to something more reasonable when she jumped again at a loud chime behind her.

Erin laughed, which earned her a glare from the asian girl as they both entered the elevator. “So how did the whole group training in Alaska work out? Learn any great new tricks?”

“A lot of practice on the old stuff, and a couple of new things. Little stuff though.” Kaori's expression changed to something that the taller girl couldn't decipher, somewhere between analytic and shocked. After a moment's hesitation, the healer stepped over to the control panel and depressed the emergency stop.

“Umm, what's up Kaori?” The taller girl looked a bit uncertain, and a small shift in stance brought her hands closer to her pockets.

“Arm, show me. Now.” The tone used by the smaller girl was one she had practiced for her entire freshman year while working in the HCP infirmary around a myriad of students that would always try and convince the healers that they were 'fine.' When Erin didn't immediately respond, Kaori pointed at the taller girl's right arm and repeated. “NOW.”

Erin offered a shrug and presented her arm, rolling the sleeve back to reveal smooth and unblemished skin as she did so. “See, it's all there. Now we should get going since we're already la-...”

“Show me what it really looks like, Erin.”

The presented arm immediately became wholly transparent, almost as if made of glass. The healer glared at the now smirking face in front of her. “Just doing as requested!”

Kaori sighed, then reached out and touched the presented arm lightly with fingertips from each hand. “This is going to be a lot harder if you make me do it blind.” The authoritative healer's tone was gone, the asian girl's voice was now quiet and plaintive as she locked her gaze with the taller girl's.

With a sigh, the arm in question faded back into a more normal skin tone. This time it was anything but unblemished. The entire surface of the arm seemed to be covered with scar tissue, some of it obviously going quite deep into the flesh. “The healer on base can't deal with scars, but I can hide them pretty well. How'd you know?”

“With that much scar tissue you HAD to know that your arm wasn't at a hundred percent. I imagine it hurts when you have to move it too much as well. Erin, what the fuck did you do to yourself?”

“Training.”

“Right, of course. Didn't you already learn your lesson about burning yourself with that light absorption thing last year?” Kaori closed her eyes in concentration, and Erin's skin seemed to almost melt together into a smooth whole before resettling into its natural transparent appearance again.

“I needed a new edge, Kaori. Every day the gap I managed to build between myself and the far more powerful Supers in this program gets narrower. After the final I'd already slipped a bit down the combat rankings, and I fully expected that. If I want to graduate a Hero at the end of this, I have to push harder and take more chances. Please don't tell anyone about my arm. Please.”

The petite healer sighed and keyed the elevator to start moving again. “What arm are we talking about? All four arms in this elevator seem to be completely healthy, and if needed I can work to make sure they stay that way.” Kaori then let out a startled yelp as the taller girl scooped her up in a hug and spun her around.

“Thank you.”

 

...

 

Kathryn Jilles hid her desire to sigh behind an impassive mask as she stood behind the podium and waited impatiently for the last few stragglers to make their way into the auditorium. With the final students making their way to sit with their respective classes, the petite woman found her eye drawn to the dark gray sophomore uniforms. Only twenty seven in the auditorium.

“Welcome all of you, the the Overton University Hero Certification Program. To all of our upper upperclassmen, congratulations. You all know how much you've overcome in order to occupy the seats you have now. Make sure you don't falter going forward. To our new crop of freshmen, my name is Dean Kathryn Jilles, and I congratulate you as well on clearing the initial hurdle in gaining acceptance into the HCP. Things are only going to get harder from here.” She offered a predatory smile in the direction of the black uniformed students, and noted with some satisfaction that she now had their complete and undivided attention.

“Now, as our three returning classes already know, Overton is under a non-ordinary situation as we are currently being evaluated by a special committee as the government is determining if the monies they are spending on the HCP are being wisely invested. I am absolutely certain that all of our students here will prove, unequivocally, that Overton is producing Heroes of the highest caliber, and the Senate's doubts are wholly unfounded.

“To that end I would like to introduce you to our Oversight Committee. These men and women will be observing us discretely while we work, and for the piece of mind of our new freshmen you should all know that they are primarily following the actions of the year ahead of yours. Oversight will be evaluating the entire four year process of that class first and foremost, and only observing the other years in order to make note of any changes or discrepancies.” The amount of tension from the black uniformed freshman students that was suddenly released almost caused the Dean to break out in laughter.

“I'll try to keep this portion of the orientation brief so our upper upperclassmen can return to their final day of freedom before the school year officially begins tomorrow. I apologize to the freshmen, you'll be stuck down here a little longer.” There were a few chuckles from the upper class groups at this announcement, and some of the tension returned to the freshmen.

“As some of you might know, there were some issues at the end of last year where the Oversight group at the time was not wholly clear on their boundaries and a few difficulties arose. We want to insure that such an event does not repeat itself, and as such the HCP staff has decided to involve the entire student body more completely in program security. All students will find added to their orientation packets, a complete list of the members of the Overton Oversight Committee. This includes photos, a brief bio, and a list of the areas where Oversight is allowed unchaperoned access. If you run across any member of the Committee in an area they are not supposed to be, you are to immediately alert the HCP staff so that the transgression can be resolved. If the person in question attempts to flee, you are fully authorized to restrain them from doing so with any non-lethal force YOU deem fit.” Kathryn paused for a long moment to let the statement sink in. Looking out across the sea of students she noted some truly gleeful expressions among the upper upperclassmen

“Are there any questions from the upper upperclassmen?” A quick scan showed no hands up, and no spontaneous utterances in the auditorium. “Very well then, junior and senior class you are dismissed for the day. Sophomores, please report to the lecture hall for your class orientation. Freshmen, settle in. This is the part where you find out what you really signed up for.” The Dean's predatory smile had returned as she looked out at the black uniformed students.

The last of the sophomore class to file out of the room noted the appearance of a familiar pair alongside the Dean as she began her next prepared speech. “Class, allow me to introduce your primary instructors for the year...”

 

...

 

“So is no one going to say it?” The tall, well groomed blond man spoke into the silence that had descended upon the sophomore class as they made their way to the lecture hall from the auditorium.

“Say what, my friend?” The tone of voice that called back from the even taller hispanic male was far less serious than the first.

“There's only twenty seven of us and there's supposed to be twenty eight.” Gerard Finne came to a stop as he spoke, and his position near the front of the crowd resulted in the rest of the class likewise coming to a halt. “We're expected to somehow impress the shit out of a new Oversight Committee, after the last one made it painfully obvious that they aren't here to evaluate us. They're here to find a way to eliminate us. And we have to somehow do this with less than a full class.”

Murmurs arose among the class as the blond man voiced the concerns that most of them were feeling. “Oh quit being such a drama queen, Gerard.” Iris Todd strode past the man as she spoke. “This year we know what's up. The Dean just basically gave us tacit permission to maim the Oversight Committee if they step out of line. We are going to kick ass, take names, and roll right on into our third year!”

There were smiles and even a brief scattering of applause in response to the blonde speedster's declaration. “Iris is right, you think these guys stand a chance now that we know they're coming?” The next girl to sweep past Gerard stated with confidence. “But in regards to the twenty seven topic, where the fuck is Ben?”

Most eyes turned towards the former roommate of the missing student in question. Collin simply shrugged in response. “I didn't hear from him all summer, and he never got back to anyone about the extra training. And this year when housing sent me the packet it said I was in a single room, so I switched over to one of the townhouses. Your guess is as good as mine, Susan.”

“My friends, we need to not worry so much about a small thing.” Ramón Carrera spoke in the same light hearted tone he had when he first responded to his roommate's question. “The HCP has stated that the number of sophomore, junior, and senior students is a thing that is set. If Ben has withdrawn from the program, then likely we will be seeing a new face from one of the other programs instead.” The tall hispanic man paused briefly to pat Gerard’s shoulder as he also made his way past.

“So we're not going to do anything?”

“We're going to go and see what's waiting for us in the Lecture Hall. Then we're going to enjoy our last day of summer. Tomorrow, when classes actually start and we know for sure how many people are in our class, that's the time to talk strategy.” There was a ripple of surprise through the crowd as Alexandra Andrews spoke with more volume and authority than any of them could remember having come from the petite mimic in the past year. “Besides, trust me when I say that we really want to get to the Lecture Hall.” Several of the students closest to the small girl noted that she seemed to be simultaneously fighting to keep a smile off her lips and tears from falling as she began to walk more rapidly down the hallway.

”She's definitely right!” The auburn haired telepath actually broke into a run as she spoke to the group. ”I don't think we're going to have anything to worry about!”

With a wide range of expressions and emotions visible, the sophomore class picked up speed and reached their destination. The door slid open, and the five occupants of the room turned to face the arriving students that piled through it. Four of the room's occupants, two men and two women, were dressed in casual outfits and lounged in chairs set up around the lectern. It was the fifth occupant of the room that resulted in the class freezing in shock as she casually waved a greeting to the group.

“The professors and I were wondering what was taking you guys so long. You guys forget where the Lecture Hall was after only one summer off?” The tall girl stood as she spoke, and turned to face the group of students. “I missed you guys.”

The surge of cheering students would likely have bowled over anyone else, but Amelia Jacobson easily stood her ground as a wave of shouts, high fives, and hugs welcomed her back to the HCP.

Chapter 2

Chapter 2:
Majors for Heroes

 

“Alright kids, I think that's enough welcoming back for now. We do have some business to take care of.” The cheerful tones of the petite redhead behind the lectern carried easily over the celebratory noises surrounding the returned Amelia, and the sophomores settled themselves into seats with surprising quickness. Possibly memories of the last occasion when Dani Reyes was in charge of their class spurred them to follow instruction quickly and without complaints.

“That's better. All of you met me last year, but in case I was too forgettable on that occasion I'm Professor Reyes, though I prefer to be informal and just go by Dani.” The speaker gave a bow with an elegant flourish as she reintroduced herself to the class, noting the combination of smirks and shocked expressions at the idea that she might be a 'forgettable' instructor. “Now the large dark skinned gentleman on my left is Professor Anthony Banning, the distinguished gentleman from the United Kingdom on my right is Professor Laurence Vree, and the only other lady on the stand with me is Professor Hai Nguyen.

“A few of you look like you've already figured this out, but for everyone else's benefit; we're the Overton discipline Instructors. Well, four of six of the discipline Instructors, but you've already met Coach Rachd and Professor Martinez, and you should know that they're busy scaring the fresh meat right now. Anyways, where was I... DISCIPLINES! Right, so this year each of you is going to be selecting three disciplines as your HCP 'majors' and your training schedule will be modified depending on which ones you choose. Next year you will select one major to drop so that you can focus on the other two more heavily. During your final year, you will select one discipline to be reduced to your Hero 'minor' and most of your training that year will focus on your one remaining major. Did I get that out right? Any questions yet?”

“Why only three?” Erin Casse asked without bothering to raise a hand first, and several others who had done so nodded their agreement with the question.

“The short answer? Time. Three HCP discipline classes plus other HCP coursework + normal college class load is going to be an average of twelve hours per day spent in classes or training of some kind. Factor in homework and the fact that MOST of you need food and sleep, and there just isn't room for a fourth discipline.”

“The other answer that my colleague has neglected in her response,” the older white haired man entered the discussion smoothly at the end of Dani's statement, making no effort at all to hide the fact that this part of the speech was apparently well-rehearsed, “is that while several forms of popular entertainment would posit that a Hero need be well rounded and capable of displaying a dizzying variety of skill and ability, the reality is that it simply doesn't work very well. Trust me when I say that exhaustive research has been done in multiple countries, and the end results show a heavy favoring of training Supers with gradually narrowing focus as opposed to the reverse. The more disparate disciplines we attempt to train you in, the slower you will progress in all of them. Three is the compromise selected so that trainees will have an opportunity to see a wider range of training before becoming more narrowly focused.” Professor Vree scanned the assembled students with a piercing look, an expression that seemed to be daring one of the students to challenge his statement.

”But you don't believe that yourself. At least, not completely. Why do you really think the limit is there?” The soft voice echoed clearly in everyone's mind, and drew a smile from the assembled professors on the stage.

“Because the powers that be want Supers to be conveniently labeled, and Heroes even more conveniently so. Make no mistake, this standardization of training produces some of the greatest Supers in the world, but the limits imposed on the HCP are largely artificial, comprised of either financial complaints or built by those who want their information served to them in easily categorized bundles.”

“Any other questions? No? Good, then on to the more detailed introductions we go!” Dani was practically bouncing behind the lectern as she redirected the discussion back on script.

“I teach the Weapons discipline here at Overton. That's primarily martial and melee focused weapons for those who are curious. The important thing with weapons is to remember that they are only tools, and can't carry you to victory on their own power. I will train you to make the weapons you may carry, find, or improvise into perfect extensions of yourself so that you can accomplish feats that would not be possible without them.” There was a pause as the animated woman suddenly adopted a deadly serious expression. “I will warn anyone considering this major right now, my course is considered the harshest of all six disciplines at Overton. Of the four years I've been an Instructor here, only two students have managed to graduate with a Weapons major, out of eleven that have made it to my fourth year course.” There was little surprise from the sophomores at the first warning, having experience Dani's teaching style for a week already in their freshman year. The numbers that accompanied the second generated more than a few shocked expressions. The redhead moved away from the lectern and claimed the seat vacated by Professor Vree as the class was still digesting the information presented.

“As my esteemed colleague has already stated, I am Professor Laurence Vree. It is my pleasure to finally formally meet all of you, and I must extend my apologies that your time here at Overton is forced to be that of a specimen under a microscope.

“I teach the Focus discipline here at Overton, and I can see by the many blank stares and minds looking back at me that a great deal of you do not know what that is.” The smile offered by the elderly Brit managed to make the statement teasing without mockery or condescension. “Since we'll have plenty of time for the long version later, the short is thus: Focus is the discipline of turning inward to draw power and precision from within. It is the discipline most likely to reveal if you have been harboring any secondary abilities that have flown under the radar in the past, and it is most often confused as being the sole province of those with mental powers. Being as my own specialties are in the fields of telepathy and telekinesis, I may not be the best example to dissuade that belief, yet I will assure you that it is NOT an accurate depiction of all Focus majors.”

“Can you actually name a Hero that came out of Focus that isn't a mental power?” The question came from Aaron Sexton, one of the few students in the class wearing the look of someone who was already familiar with the topics being discussed. “Or to make it a challenge since there's ALWAYS one exception to prove the rule, let's make it three.”

Professor Vree matched the challenging smile worn by the blond youth with victorious smirk. “Yes, I think three should be simple enough. Soundbarrier, Giga Step, and Deific.” Looks of surprise were again evident among the students, as the professor named off a pair of speedsters and a strongman.

“Back on topic, Focus is the most widely attended discipline early on as trainees attempt to learn the actual extent of their abilities. It is usually the least populated of the six disciplines during the fourth year as it is far more useful for most Supers as a springboard into their actual field of excellence, as excellence in pure Focus is easily as demanding as Professor Reyes' Weapons course.” There was some quiet murmuring from the crowd as Professor Vree finished his statement, but when no questions appeared forthcoming he relinquished the lectern to the smallest of the professors.

“Like Dani said, I'm Professor Nguyen. I teach the Control discipline here at Overton. Control is the flip-side of Focus, it instructs on looking outward at the environment around you and using every piece of it to your advantage and your opponent's detriment.” The petite asian woman spoke in an emotionless, measured tone that carried quite clearly to all the students in the room. “Like Focus, Control is also a popular choice early on as the emphasis on spatial awareness and tactical understanding of your environment is a benefit regardless of your powers and abilities. Also like Focus, very few have what it takes to remain in this discipline through their fourth year in the HCP.” Professor Nguyen retired from the lectern as soon as she finished speaking, apparently not interested in seeing if the students had any questions for her.

The last of the four professors took his place at the lectern, and spent a long moment examining the sophomore class before he began speaking. “I prefer Tony to Professor Banning, but either one works. As I managed to draw the short straw today, I'm stuck explaining both my own discipline as well as those taught by Coach Rachd and Professor Martinez. Fortunately, two of those three disciplines are fairly simple to explain. My class is Ranged Combat. It is exactly what it sounds like; learning to engage and neutralize targets at range. I don't restrict in any way the tools and weapons that you can utilize in pursuing this discipline, but keep in mind that every second you need to spend setting up a weapon or trying to use a range finder will negatively impact your score. We are training you to face real world life or death challenges, and seconds matter both for Heroes and the people they are trying to protect.” The tall black man pauses and waits to see if there are any questions, looking specifically in the direction of one Eloise James as he does so. The white haired girl seems content with the information given however, and the professor moves on.

“And so that brings us to our absent pair. You've all met them already, and you'll get chances to ask them for specific details about their disciplines as you like during this first week of classes. Coach Rachd is Overton's Close Combat Instructor, a class that may be even more self explanatory than my own discipline. As should be obvious with the HCP having a separate discipline for Weapons, Close Combat focuses solely on combat with your powers and your bare hands. It is also traditionally the most heavily attended discipline in the HCP.

“Professor Martinez is our Subtlety discipline Instructor, the hardest of the six disciplines to properly define. The short version is that Subtlety is where the sneaks and spies go. It's the focus of Heroes that do most of their work outside the public spotlight and receive the fewest accolades for their efforts, while more often than not putting them in greater danger and saving more lives than the most powerful of the famous front line Heroes. Subtlety is also often maligned as the discipline that turns good Heroes rogue, so if you choose to go down that path you'll need to prove yourself far more than most of your peers and still expect sidelong glances and suspicion. Any questions?”

“When do we pick?” The tall blonde speedster that posed the question sounded eager to begin, the tone seeming to infect a portion of the class around her as thoughts turned from the abstract information presented to the reality of training in the classes described.

“That's the fun part!” Dani bounced up to her feet and came to the front of the stage in response to the question from Iris Todd, interrupting Anthony and earning a playful scowl from the taller man. “Rachd doesn't care who wants to be in Close Combat because he says everyone should be regardless. So the rest of us each get you for one day this week. For FIVE whole hours, we get to put you through the paces of our chosen disciplines, and then on Friday you guys choose your three initial majors, and then we set up your teams for the rest of the sophomore training!”

“Teams?” The question came from several directions at once as the class tried to catch up to the rapid speaking rate from the animated Weapons Instructor.

“Oh, right, we need to cover that part too. On Friday after everyone submits their major requests and gets approved, the top seven ranked students get to pick their teams for all the collaborative training events this year! Heroes are expected to work in teams, and this is where we start training you for that!” The redhead looks out excitedly over the students to watch the various expressions that form as they process this new bit of information. “And the best part of all, we get to have a bit of a show right now today because your class's top rank is currently undecided!” The shocked silence that met this statement was nearly palpable.

“There were a great many issues that resolved simultaneously with your class final last year that affected things more than a bit. Between the performances of some students during those events, and performance during the actual finals, many of you are aware that your class combat rankings were changed.” The petite Control Instructor stepped up to take over the explanation from Dani is the Weapons Instructor seemed to reach a level of excitement where speaking intelligibly was becoming difficult. “We haven't yet posted the revised rankings due to the lack of clarity on who holds the top rank, so in order to allow you the full week to consider how you wish to build your teams we are announcing the top seven today.

“Alexandra Andrews, you now hold the seventh rank in this class. Congratulations on making the largest ranking jump in Overton HCP history.” There was some brief applause for the suddenly blushing mimic, most enthusiastically coming from her roommate Beulah, at the news of her vastly revised rank. “Kyle Sawara, you hold sixth rank. Rorie Samuels, you hold fifth rank. Gerard Finne, you hold fourth rank. Erin Casse, you hold third rank.” As Professor Nguyen stopped speaking the class quickly realized the most likely pair for the undecided top two spots, and all attention turned towards those two students even as the excitable Weapons Instructor found control over her voice again.

“Amelia Jacobson and Collin Gauge, you will be competing to determine who holds first and second rank in your class. Please report immediately to the combat rooms for a match!”

 

...

 

“You sure you're ready for this?” The muscular red haired youth's tone carried a genuine note of concern as he faced off against the taller, skinny blonde in the barren concrete room.

“I seem to recall breaking limbs off of you on more than one occasion last year. This was just my turn for the experience. Bring out your better half and let's do this.” There was no hint of worry in Amelia's voice, only the calm confidence that most of the class had come to associate with the incredibly powerful girl over the freshman year.

“Not exactly the same thing, Ames. And I've had some time for a bit of extra training since then. I still can't talk while I'm shifted, so it's tapout or shift back if I'm giving up.” There was a slight inflection at the end of Collin's statement indicating a question not directly asked.

“Since I'm not made of rocks it's unconsciousness or verbal submission for me.” Amelia's expression turns from her normal smile to one of consideration for a moment before she laughs. “You know, it's only been three months since we were last in here beating on each other. It feels like a lot longer somehow.”

“Ready?”

“Just waiting for you to step up into my weight class Collin.” The blonde smiled widely as her opponent responded by shifting into a hulking crystal form. Collin had apparently been serious about getting in extra training over the summer. No longer was his shifted state a rough, vaguely humanoid shape with mismatched hands and an unfinished look, but now the jet black crystal more closely resembled a rough statue of a massive man wearing heavy armor. The massive form that had replaced Collin raised its right fist towards its opponent in a salute. Amelia smiled and returned the gesture in kind. Then the buzzer signaling the start of the match sounded.

Neither combatant wasted any time, both lunging forward with enough force to leave deep cracks in the reinforced concrete floor beneath them. Amelia rocketed across the distance faster than Collin, but her jaw dropped in shock as her large opponent deftly evaded her opening lunge and responded with a spinning backhand. The blonde girl had only a split second to brace herself before the heavy black fist crashed into her face with a deafeningly loud impact. Amelia's head snapped back, but she retreated only a half step before resetting her feet and bringing her smiling gaze back to bear on her opponent, causing her featureless crystalline foe to actually retreat several steps in surprise.

The tall girl's nose bled heavily, and from the deformed shape was likely broken, yet the incredible impact hadn't been enough to take her off her feet. “What? Did you think that being down an arm would keep me from training in the off season?” Amelia followed up her statement by immediately lunging into Collin, closing the gap too quickly this time for him to avoid and sending the much larger shifter flying the length of the room to impact the wall with thunderous force. “You definitely got faster though, I've got to give you credit for tha-...” The girl stopped speaking as her opponent pulled itself from the rubble, seemingly undamaged by the incredibly powerful hit. “Huh. Looks like this is going to be interesting then.”

Amelia spoke no more as Collin came charging back towards her, instead bringing her arms up into a defensive posture and examining his movements carefully. During their training matches freshman year, the shifted form had been bulky and slow relative to the other Super strength students at Overton, and it was hugely apparent that the shifter had worked extensively to correct that deficit. Where before the blonde girl could easily avoid the heavy crystal fists, she now found herself blocking the heavy blows more often than she could slip around them. Even more impressive to Amelia was Collin's new found resilience. He had always been incredibly durable, but not sufficiently so to stack up against Amelia's impossible strength. Now he was sent smashing into the floor, walls, and even the ceiling on one occasion, and simply came back for more. Fine cracks were visible in the 'armor' that Collin's shifted form now resembled, but the powerful young woman found time and again that the crystal no longer broke in large chunks, but instead very small sections flaked away to reveal yet more layers beneath, undamaged.

Amelia drew a deep breath as she sent her larger opponent crashing into the far wall once again, and inspected the mounting bruises on her arms. Her entire upper body felt battered, and it had been difficult to breathe through her nose since the first hit of the fight had caught her completely off guard. Blood also dripped occasionally from a small cut somewhere on her forehead, and she angrily wiped it away as Collin emerged from under another pile of rubble to reengage. The signs of damage on the shifted form were also present, if you knew what to look for, but it was far harder to tell how serious the damage was to the inhuman form.

“Come on then, Collin. You want to be number one, you're going to have to earn it.”

 

...

 

The crowd in the observation room sat in rapt awe at the battle playing out before them. Even training extensively in the months of summer, none of the students really had the opportunity to truly go all out. Seeing the two strongest in their class clash again and again, it was startling to many to see how much more powerful they had become over the short three month break. And many wondered if they had managed to improve in kind.

“How is she standing her ground like that? He should be sending her into the wall the same way she does to him.” Iris Todd's voice broke the silence with the question as yet another of Collin's charges was absorbed by his smaller opponent, with the counter sending him airborne for nearly thirty feet. “I mean I know she's stronger, but he still hits like a damned truck. How does she just stand there and take it?”

“She's bracing against the ground. Look at the area where she's standing when Collin lands a hit. The floor shattering like that is because she's literally pushing her feet into the concrete in order to have something to push off of.” Erin's attention did not waver from the screen in front of her as she absently answered the speedster's question.

“She should still be getting knocked off her feet.”

“She's negating the energy from the hits.” Attention swung towards the quiet, petite blonde who entered the conversation. “Her other power, the energy blocker. It doesn't work as well against physical impacts, but once the kinetic energy transfers she just dissipates it.”

“She can do that?” The question came from Susan Owens at barely above a whisper. “How can you tell?”

“Because I can feel what other people's powers are.” Alexandra looked away from the screen for a moment to meet the red headed girl's surprised look, before turning back to the screen. “Collin's a lot stronger than he was last year, but Ames is going to win.”

“Collin's a lot more skilled though. How can you be so sure?”

The blonde mimic didn't answer, and attention gravitated back towards the monitor. The action continued much as it had, with Collin coming in fast to land a few solid hits before Amelia again launched him away with her vastly superior strength, but each exchange seemed to wear far more on the flesh and blood girl than the crystalline shifter.

Minutes dragged on as the match continued, the blonde girl seemingly being worn down a piece at a time. Several gasps of surprise filled the room as Amelia sent her opponent flying away from her once again, but this time the skinny blonde staggered and dropped to one knee and took in several deep breaths. It seemed as if Alexandra's prediction had proven false, as Collin once again charged towards his now downed opponent, everyone in the room watched in silence for the upcoming end of the match. But instead of waiting for the shifter to reach her this time, Amelia changed tactics.

The powerful girl lunged forward with incredible speed, far surpassing her initial dash at the start of the fight. The shifter was caught off guard by the rush and Amelia tackled him back across the room where both of them slammed into the wall. The blonde did not relinquish her grip on her opponent this time, and the view on the screen became blurred as a dense cloud of dust and debris was kicked up by the repeated slams of the heavy crystal form into the wall. The massive impacts actually caused a faint tremor to be felt all the way to the observation room.

Collin fought back against Amelia's onslaught as best he could, but the smaller girl had completely cornered him. He couldn't maneuver, and even though now able to land unblocked strikes against his opponent, he couldn't brace himself to put his full strength into the blows.

The incredible barrage continued, and the monitors displayed only a dusty haze now too thick for even the highly advanced cameras in the combat room to penetrate. Suddenly the screen flickered, and the image of an empty combat chamber appeared. There was some confused murmuring from the audience, before a laughing voice called out. “Now that is a great fight my friends! They hit each other so hard, it broke the computer that was only watching!” Laughter accompanied this statement, but cut off when interrupted by a gravelly voice from the back of the room.

“The computer isn't broken, it's following the action.” The students turned in surprise to see all six of the Overton discipline Instructors seated at the back table and watching the monitors. “Keep watching, you'll want to remember this part.” There was a strange mixture of emotions in the muscular Combat Instructor's tone that the assembled students couldn't identify, but the force with which he spoke immediately turned all attention back to the screen.

“Wait, is that... Is the wall cracking?”

“That's impossible, the rooms are twenty feet apart. Even those two couldn't mana-...” The voices trailed off into silence as the wall displayed on the massive monitor exploded outwards, and the black crystal form of Collin flew into the room to slide and bounce along the floor.

Massive damage was now clearly visible on the shifter's body, with huge pieces of its armored form now missing. The black form struggled to regain its feet as the skinny silhouette of its opponent appeared, then walked out of the cloud of dust and collapsing rubble that it had emerged from moments before. Amelia was now a nearly uniform dark grey, so caked with concrete dust that she appeared almost made of stone herself. As the powerful woman strode calmly across the room towards her opponent, Collin's attempt to stand failed when his left leg cracked under his own weight and sent him falling to his back to look up at his opponent. As Amelia reached him, the shifter reverted back to flesh and blood. Collin's completely clean and unscathed human form showing in stark relief on the monitor against Amelia's battered and dirty appearance. The tall girl stopped, nodded, then offered her defeated foe a smile and a hand up.

With the fight concluded, all eyes in the observation room turned towards the blonde mimic as Alexandra smiled. “Like I said, Ames wins.”

Chapter 3

Chapter 3:
Crash Courses

 

"DAMMIT!" The curse was accompanied by several *foosh* noises and the slapping impact sounds of paintballs breaking against the padded uniform worn by the black haired youth as he hung his head in frustration.

"You're dead again, Mr Karl." The emotionless voice of the Control Instructor sounded over the speakers as the barrage of marking rounds ended.  "Please return to the staging area and try to make it a little farther next time."

Michael cursed softly the entire walk back through the bizarre obstacle course that made up Professor Nguyen's 'Introduction to Control' course.  This is complete bullshit.  If those were real opponents I'd be able to sense them.  Just because she's using remotes makes her thi-...

"You think this is unfair for YOU?  SERIOUSLY?"  The feminine voice interrupting him in his own head almost caused Michael to trip over his own feet as he started with surprise.  "There are real remote defense systems in the world, and if you think this sucks for YOU try doing it while DEAF.  Asshole..."

The dark haired young man managed a smile as he realized that at least one person in the class was having an even harder time of it than he was.  It made sense to him, Catalina relied on borrowing other people's senses and a depth of telepathic reading that still made Michael feel like a rank amateur.  He took a moment to pause and look back over the course as he reached the exit.  Rows of crates, boxes, and shelving stacked haphazardly about the massive room created a virtual labyrinth to navigate through, with the small wheeled sentry guns patrolling through seemingly at random.  Every item in the room; up to and included portions of the floor, walls, and ceiling; possessed multiple small labels in varying colors.  The objective was to traverse from a starting door to an exit while using the terrain to neutralize the remotes.

For Michael, a student who had been seriously considering Control as one of his three disciplines, the difficulty so far had proved greatly discouraging.  He simply wasn't used to dealing with threats that he could only detect with his mundane senses, and trying to keep track of the labels all around him so as to know what could be moved safely and what would result in being deluged in marker paint  was making his head swim.

The petite professor had begun the day's class with a lecture about how a Hero in the field needed to keep a more precise inventory of their surroundings than this course required, and they had to figure out how to do so without the aid of unambiguous labels.  A Strongman Hero might well decide to use any conveniently located heavy object as an improvised weapon, but if said object was priceless, load bearing, or potentially dangerous in other ways, that same Strongman could be found negligent in performance of their duty.  The asian woman had gone on to point out that in addition to these simple variables, a Hero also needed to know where any civilians were in relation to a potential combat at all times in order to properly minimize casualties.

What this translated to, as far as Michael could tell, was an impossibly complex course designed solely to humiliate the students into picking a different major.  So Focus and Ranged Combat probably then, but if I don't end up in Control, what's another good thir-...  The telepath found his thought derailed as he looked up from the towel he had acquired to remove the bright orange paint from his uniform and glanced at the leader board.

As a surprise to exactly no one, both Erin and Eloise cleared the entire course every time their turn came up, and the competition between those two now seemed to be who could come up with a shorter route and fastest clear time.  But it was the bottom of the board that captured Michael's attention, where he say his name had actually slipped beneath that of the sophomore class's other telepathic student.  Seriously, Cat is beating me?  The deaf girl that's complaining in MY HEAD about having a harder time than I am?

"Just because it's harder for me doesn't mean I'm going to let it beat me."

The black haired young man's expression hardened as he finished wiping the worst of the paint off, and quietly took his place in the line waiting to run the room.  Three hours of Control left.  I will be DAMNED if I lose to you, Cat.

He wasn't completely sure, but he thought he heard soft laughter in response.

 

...

 

“Your attention for a moment, before you're all free for the day, if you please.” The Overton HCP sophomore class turned in response to the sudden appearance of the Subtlety Instructor in their midst, though the expressions of surprise that would have been dominant in the first year had all been subsumed under masks of acceptance and fatigue. “It's a rare occasion when the HCP assigns ACTUAL homework, so you should all listen closely to this one.” The ensuing groans drew a wide smile from Elena as the nearly universal distaste for homework among students made itself loudly known.

“As the focus of the sophomore year in the HCP is team related exercises, we think it's important to not only see how you will function with a team, but to see how you would each select your teams if given the option. With that in mind the twenty one of you that will NOT be a team captain this year will turn in a written paper by the end of this week detailing exactly which of your classmates you would choose if it were your team to build, and why you choose each of them.” The much belabored groans of the students gave way to a set of almost pleasantly surprised looks, as the students had obviously not been anticipating such an 'easy' assignment. “Additionally you will have to explain, in detail, your reasoning WHY you are selecting each member of your team.” The pleasant portion of the surprised looks faded quickly. “The only restrictions on your team makeups for this assignment is the same four person teams that will be actually formed this Friday, and you may only select one of the top seven ranked students for your team.”

The still widely smiling hispanic woman noted the greatly increased tension clearly visible on the faces of seven of the sophomores as the rest of the class seemed to relax, and several began discussing the assignment as they resumed their exodus from the Control class.

“What do the top seven students have to do instead?” The clear, calm question from Amelia Jacobson resulted in an immediate silence falling over the crowd. All those students previously distracted immediately returned their attention to the professor, suddenly eager to hear the answer to a question that many of them hadn't even considered a moment ago.

Elena Martinez's smile took on a somewhat predatory appearance as she locked eyes with the top ranked sophomore before answering. “That's the really fun part, you seven will have nothing to turn in! You'll simply have to state your reasons in support of each of your team selections as you make them, in front of the entire class.”

“That's insane!” The angry voice of the tall blond man currently ranked fourth in the class rang out all the louder for the silence that still hung over the group. “If we're taking turns with the selections, we won't even know who's available until we actually make each choice! How the hell are we supposed to give a detailed accounting of why we select someone for our teams when the other six 'captains' are going to have almost as much control over it as we do?”

“The price you pay for your ranking, Mr Finne, is that you must frequently prove you have earned it. I would recommend determining a solid reasoning behind taking ALL of your classmates if you are worried about lack of preparation.” The Instructor offered a final smirk at Gerard's sputtering attempt to find a new rebuttal before vanishing as abruptly as she had appeared.

“Now sophomores, the announcement is concluded and I need to get the course properly set up for the more advanced students tomorrow morning. Unless you are volunteering to assist, I recommend moving on to whatever other plans you had for this evening.” The nearly mechanical voice of the Control Instructor from the back of the group quickly galvanized the sophomores back into their exodus from her domain, save for one.

“Ms Blake, was there something you needed?”

”I just had a question, and I'm more than willing to stay and help you take down the course and reset it if that's the cost of an answer.”

“I was under the impression that you rarely need to actually ASK in order to learn about those around you, Ms Blake.” A tiny note of stress had crept into the emotionless tone Professor Nguyen had cultivated for working with the students.

”I'm nowhere near that good. Yet.” Catalina met the shorter woman's impassive expression with a small grin. ”I think I need to take this course. I never thought of myself as having a real handicap until today, and if I try to pretend it's not there and focus only on my strengths I think it will get me or someone else killed in the future. But I have to ask first, why are you pushing so hard to not connect with any of us? I can see... Please, if it's not too personal, could you explain it to me?”

Hai sighed at the far too insightful telepath in front of her, before turning to head back into the training course. When she spoke again her tone was warm and human, though with more than a little exasperation laced through it. “Come on then. It's a long story, and you did volunteer yourself.”

 

...

 

The entire room seemed to shudder, the air wavered, followed by a blast and loud cheering. The curvy redhead sighed, pushed her safety glasses back to their proper position, and tried very hard to ignore the crowd of students.

Tara had been certain that she would be able to excel in the Ranged Combat introduction, that she could finally impress the class and springboard forward into the level of confidence that all the other Supers around her seemed to carry with them constantly. The redhead had spent the entire summer either training or designing new tools that she hoped would carry her through another year in the HCP. She had shown up to Professor Banning's intro course with gas and pellet dispensers so compact she could conceal them under a bulky jacket. She could accurately put down a cloud of knockout gas, special blend tear gas, or one of her new sensory inhibitors in a precise ten to fifteen foot radius anywhere within a hundred yards. Tara had even stolen some of the polymer restraints that Ty had been using to great effect last year and developed a new, more compact variety, that SHOULD even hold Amelia for a few seconds.

Upon arrival in the class, Professor Banning had informed them that they would begin with a brief demonstration from each student of their own personal idea of Ranged Combat. The strength students had found things to throw, several with less applicable powers had checked out firearms from the Instructor (or borrowed some from the rolling arsenal that Eloise had brought with her), and the students like Zach, Rorie, and Jon all made very dramatic usage of their abilities to directly target things at range. Tara had been all set to step up and impress, but before her turn it was Scott Jameson's.

The short youth had casually stepped up to the line, scanned the available targets, and stated confidently, “I think I'll get the tank.” None of the class was certain if the tank was genuine or not, many had already taken shots at it but the armored vehicle had been beyond the range of several of the more powerful abilities, and none of the portable weaponry had managed to dent it as yet.

Scott had held up a small metal dart, not much larger than a marble, and smiled in response to the disbelieving expressions. The dart had proceeded to hover away from his fingers in the magnetic field produced by the sandy haired boy as he pointed at the heavily armored target. The metallic projectile vanished in a flash, and the target down range crumpled around the point of impact as the tank slid backwards along the reinforced floor, armor panels on the far side of the vehicle blasted outward from the force of the impact. After a moment of stunned silence (and appropriate recovery time from the overpressure and multiple very loud *BANG*s), the entire group erupted into surprised cheering. Even the professor applauded loudly, and many began calling for an encore performance.

Tara had still dutifully followed Scott's incredible demonstration, though after watching a tank be destroyed the redhead again felt that her own abilities were falling far short of where they needed to be. Her roommates had all congratulated her and at least managed to convincingly fake impressed looks as Tara displayed her own limited capability.

As the class progressed, the red haired inventor found herself once again withdrawing towards the back of the crowd, still listening attentively to the various instructions being given as the drills for the day were described. Tara found herself looking ahead to the rest of the week with a faint sense of foreboding. Obviously I'm not going to be a shining star of Ranged Combat. Where else can I possibly be good enough to make it another year...

 

...

 

“Remind me why we're here again, Tony?” The gravelly voice from the man at the bar sounded bored, and a little anxious if one listened close enough.

“Because we need to relax, Jimmy. Get out from under the magnifying glass for awhile.” The tall black man clapped his colleague on the shoulder as he spoke, drawing a brief glower from the more muscular man. In a quieter, less jovial tone he added, “and we need to keep an eye on all of our lovely town's strange new tourists.”

“Hai's already on that.”

“She is, and the woman is good. But take a look around the bar, Jimbo.” Anthony Banning leaned back against the bar and took a sip of the amber colored liquid in his mug as he spoke.

“Please don't call me 'Jimbo' or I will break both your legs, Tony. Fucking bad enough that you have to call me 'Jimmy.'” James Rachd did, however, turn on his own stool to be looking out over the room in a similar pose to his friend as he drank a much darker brew. “So what am I looking at?”

“How many do you see?”

“Not counting Hai's supersize friend, I got seven. What's your point?” Rachd's voice had lowered significantly as the discussion seemed to be turning further in a direction he didn't want overheard.

“I only have six, we'll have to compare notes later.” Anthony's volume had also dropped similarly. “These guys have been here for almost two weeks, Jimmy. Two weeks, nothing to do, some drift out, more drift in. We're in a dive bar at 8pm on Tuesday and there's at least a half a dozen professional investigators here. We walk into any diner on this block and I bet a hundred we find at least two more.”

“Hai said she's handling it.”

“I think this is more than any one of us can handle, Jimmy. Even taking the smart play and recruiting the best of them since she used to know the guy.” There was a break in the conversation as two more men entered the bar and quickly sought an out of the way table. “And unless appearances are extra deceiving today, that makes two more.”

“Christ, they're like roaches. Alright, so what do we do about it?”

“You aren't going to like my idea.”

“When has that ever stopped you from having one?”

The black man laughed softly at the rebuttal from his larger companion. “We start doing regular sweeps and IDing our tourists, and we pass that on to someone we know has the resources to start chewing through whatever chaff exists between who sent them and who REALLY sent them.”

“You want to bring Riley in on this again.” Rachd's tone sounded like a man who had just swallowed something vile.

“They're already in on it. I don't like the fat politician much more than you do Jimmy, but the man and his wife have resources.”

“And if Hai's guy is right and all of this is really just a smokescreen to get us paranoid?”

“Then it's probably better to tie up some of the mundane resources of the Walker family, which I have no doubt are abundant, than to waste our time trying to run things through the channels we have access to individually.”

The muscular bald man considered the point for a moment before nodding and draining the rest of his drink. “Alright Tony, I'll cover the bars, you get the diners.”

Anthony's laughter followed James as he strode towards the door.

 

...

 

The thin, dark haired youth dragged himself to his feet and began limping away from the chaotic melee that raged around most of the combat room. Fortunately the rules had been VERY explicitly stated by Professor Dani Reyes that once a student was obviously injured to the point of seeking out one of the entrances and the healers located within them, further targeting of that student would result in severe consequences. As a result of the smile the red haired Instructor had been wearing when she delivered the final line, no one in the class was seriously considering pushing that limit.

Zach finally pulled himself through the doorway, cursing loudly as his foot caught against the frame and the resulting jolt of agony from the likely broken leg set him greying out for a moment. Then, as suddenly as if it had all been a very bad dream, he felt whole and refreshed again. “Go get 'em, little guy! I got twenty bucks that you manage to incapacitate SOMEONE before the end of this thing!”

The dark haired boy stared blankly at the unfamiliar face of the upperclassman who had just healed him, and allowed the words to sink in. “You guys are betting on us? What the fuck?”
“What else are we going to do while we're stuck here mending you guys for hours.” The speaker this time was a very attractively built redhead who turned a piercing look on the sophomore as the tall and lanky man who'd healed him stepped back chuckling. “Sure, it's fun for like the first hour to just watch you guys going at it, but we already get our fill on gratuitous violence EVERY DAY in our own classes. This gives us something to do.” Zach just sighed in response to the logic and turned to head back out into the maelstrom that the Weapons Instructor had dubbed 'class.'

“At least she pulled all of the TRULY physically gifted one into the 'special training' with herself.” As if in response to the boy's muttering the wall adjoining this combat cell to the 'special training' was impacted hard enough that the whole room shook briefly. With a final shake of his head at the pointlessness of this 'class,' Zach rushed back into the fray and scooped up one of the many practice weapons strewn about the floor.

Sticking to the edges of the fray this time the dark haired boy made good use of hit and run tactics, seeking only to land a distracting blow with the padded stick he'd acquired against opponents already distracted by other foes. His new strategy worked well for almost five minutes, before he turned just in time to see a mountain of muscle swinging a practice staff into his face.

This time Zach DID blackout, but even that rest was only momentary as the giant healer who'd struck him simply pulled him to his feet with a quick burst of invigorating energy and shoved him back into the fray. The parting shout of, “And no more sneaking!” was barely loud enough to be heard over the din of combat.

The lightly built youth lasted significantly less than five minutes before he found himself once again staggering off in search of healing again. This time he was intercepted by a petite form with bluish-black hair, another rush of invigorating energy and a mocking, “En guarde!”

“Dammit Kaori, you can't even let me take the two minute break I get dragging my ass in and out of this room?” Zach searched around his feet and quickly snapped up a pair of short padded sticks, and looked in dismay at the practiced grace with which his opponent readied a short staff.

“If you keep taking breaks, you'll end up behind the rest of us Zachary. We wouldn't want that!” The dark haired boy was absolutely mystified as to how the small healer could possibly be sounding like she was having fun in this hell.

Seconds later, as the ceiling slowly swam back into focus as his vision cleared once more, Zach let out an exasperated moan. “Why the fuck am I even doing this training? My ability is basically creating invisible weapons from my hands and feet, something I CANNOT DO if I am HOLDING SOMETHING!”

“Are you done bitching now?”

“Probably not, but you're going to yell at me for some reason, aren't you?”

“You think the only way a course can benefit you is if you can directly use what's being taught? How about paying some damned attention and watching what everyone ELSE is doing.” Kaori shook her head in disgust and turned to trot of in search of another opponent. “Just because you won't be using a melee weapon yourself doesn't mean other people won't. Learn about it now or learn about it when the blades are real and trying to kill you.”

Zach sat up slowly, but did not stand immediately as he mulled over the petite girl's speech. He then let out another exasperated sigh. She was right, I'm missing half the point of this exercise. Pulling himself to his feet, the dark haired boy acquired another weapon and waded back into combat. The instructions at the start of the class had forbidden the 'normal' group from using their abilities; aside Tasha, Antoin, and Kaori who helped to keep things going; and Zach had basically tuned out from that point on. But with the healer's words in mind he now observed carefully how the more skilled students were holding their weapon, the angles at which they moved, and the times when their grips were most tenuous. He might never wield a weapon himself in combat as a Hero, but it would definitely not hurt to learn everything he could about those that did.

...

 

“Have we finished reviewing the footage up through Tuesday's courses?” The Oversight Committee members gathered in the conference room responded to Harold Weaver's query with a quiet chorus of affirmatives. “And do we have the complete stress analysis back on exactly how much force Sunday's exhibition match required?”

“We're still a bit snagged there, sir.” Darlene Neal, senior most Oversight member from the previous year responded with a note of hesitation in her voice. The committee members had all grown used to dealing with the incompetence of Raines in the lead position, and everyone was still working out how to deal with leadership that seemed to be both professional AND attentive.

“Was there a problem with the footage quality? The HCP techs assured me that they could filter out most of the dust and debris that occluded the normal camera views.” The measured, polite response again surprised the veteran Oversight members. A 'snag' during the previous year would have resulted in several minutes of Walter Raines screaming about things he didn't understand, followed by instructions to work as long as needed to fix it.

“Our problem is actually with our analysts, sir.” Allan Riley, the youngest member of the committee spoke up while Darlene began typing away at the console in front of her, bringing up the footage in question on the monitor past the foot of the conference table. Everyone at the table grew silent as they watched the scene, many for the dozenth time or more, of a tall skinny girl picking up her monstrous crystalline opponent and bulldozing her way through more than twenty feet of heavily reinforced concrete using him as a battering ram. “It seems that the people assigned from DVA to do the in depth power analysis don't believe that this is real footage. In part due to the obvious editing that took place when they reconstructed approximations from the thermal and ultraviolet cameras, and in part because, and I quote: 'No trainee could possibly do that. Send us something believable next time.' End quote.”

The tall blond man sighed and sank back into his chair as he processed this information, before calmly pulling out his phone and making a quick call. “Good evening sir, I hope I haven't caught you at a bad time?

“Yes sir, these are good people and the work is going smoothly. We have a snag from your end though.

“Well apparently your analysts are accusing my people of fabricating footage for some kind of prank. They refuse to get us the extrapolated information we need.

“No sir, there are no embellishments at all. That data is as accurate as the techs here could get.

“Thank you, sir.” The rest of the room had been perfectly silent for the brief duration of Harold's phone call.

“The analysts in question will be reprimanded officially by tomorrow morning, and some new personnel will be assigned to do the job. Now I know we still have Wednesday's data to sift through, but seeing as how we're actually a bit ahead of schedule, barring the one delay we had no control over, I think it would be good to leave off here for the night and get some downtime in. Anyone opposed?” The Oversight chairman actually laughed aloud at the stunned expressions that met his suggestion.

“Let me assure you all, once again, that I am NOT Walter Raines. I got to where I am today on my own merits, not because daddy hauled me up and gave me shiny things for free. I know all of you are upset about his apparent involvement in an attempt to skew the findings of this committee, and again I must stress that I am NOT him. We are here to determine if this institution is living up to the very high standards needed to continue training this nations Heroes. I'm not going to pretend that there are not a lot of people farther up the ladder pushing one agenda or another, and I won't pretend that I am not here myself to further my own career. But I strongly believe that any reward that might be gained trying to cater to those other agendas is FAR outweighed by the risk of tainting our findings in any way. Now, who's up for drinks and actually getting to know the new boss?” A round of somewhat hesitant smiles met this suggestion, and the Oversight meeting quickly began to break up.

“Why are you so interested in that one girl, sir?” The questioner was another of the younger members of the committee, Celia Watkins. Harold had been more than a bit surprised to learn that she had volunteered to remain with the committee, as his files on the woman noted that she was more than slightly nervous to be working so closely with Supers.

“You mean Ms Jacobson I presume?” At the woman's nod, he continued. “Because she is a truly incredible example of a Super, Ms Watkins. And I want to insure that someone that exceptional will be given a chance to thrive, even if things don't turn out well for the program she's currently enrolled in.”

“Umm, meaning what, sir?”

“Looking to the future, I've been trying to make some arrangements. I feel there is no doubt that someone of Ms Jacobson's abilities will have any difficulty progressing through the HCP, but even if Overton maintains its status, its prestige is sorely lacking. Should she desire it, I've made arrangements that would allow her to transfer to the Lander program for her third and fourth year of training.” The tall man smiled at his colleague's surprised expression. “I think a person with capabilities like that should graduate from a program where the world is CERTAIN to notice her, and the program that created the Class of Legends definitely fits that criteria. Now, will you be joining us for an evening out, Ms Watkins?”

“You are most definitely a different man than Walter Raines, Mr Weaver. Unfortunately with all the work of getting set up for the new year I think I'll beg off for the evening and retire early.” The smile on the younger woman's face this time was a truly genuine one.

Harold waved his goodbye as Celia left, and began packing away his own items before leaving the conference room. After all, I can get a girl like that the recognition she deserves, get owed a very valuable favor from someone likely to be a VERY successful Hero, AND not have to worry about her skewing the results for my committee.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4:
Teaching Styles

 

"Welcome everyone, please, find a seat and get comfortable." The friendly greeting from the Overton Focus Instructor set the sophomore class on edge as they arrived for Thursday's 'Focus Intro' course. The response drew a deep chuckle from the elderly Brit. "Trust me students, this will NOT be like Professor Reyes' course yesterday. Focus is about turning your attention inward, not violently assaulting your classmates. At least not on the first day." Instead of the smirk many expected, the last statement was added with a deathly serious expression.

"Well c'mon guys, lets get this over with!" Iris Todd strode boldly into the room and took one of the seats in the center. Everyone else watched intently, as if waiting for something to erupt, explode, or engulf the speedster. When nothing particularly interesting happened, the rest of the class quickly filed in and found seats of their own.

"You expect to be bored in my class, Ms Todd?" The professor's tone sounded vaguely hurt as he posed the question to the blonde woman in the middle of the class.

"No offense Professor Vree, but I'm pretty sure I'm in Weapons, Close Combat, and Control. I think the spatial training is going to be a LOT more useful for a speedster than meditating, don't you?"

"Even after I gave examples of speedsters gone on to become fully fledged Heroes who chose Focus as their primary discipline?"

"Hey, I'm not saying I won't give it the college try. I mean, we are still in college after all. But I wouldn't hold your breath, prof."

"I suppose an open mind is the best I can truly hope for in this country. Very well everyone, please turn your attention to the small displays on the desk in front of you. Over the next several hours it will give you a series of instructions, either asking very detailed questions or prompting you to use your ability to perform a very specific small task. Try to shut out any outside distractions and focus entirely on getting through as much of the material as possible."

"That's it?" The incredulous question came from the petite white haired girl in the back corner of the room.

"Focus is about turning your attention inward, Ms James. For a few hours worth of introduction I have found this is one of the best methods for gently breaking students in to that mindset. One thing to keep in mind, there is an estimated several DAYS worth of instructions that your console will run through, and each of them is tailored to you specifically. This is to let you see how well you performed at this simple task, and should give you a much better idea on if Focus is an area you have exceptional talent in. Overton's record for this training is completion of an estimated twelve hours of instructions in the intro course period. I wish you all luck in breaking that mark! Please begin." And with his speech concluded, the white haired man sat down at his own desk facing out over the class and began reading from a thick, hardbound book.

Several of the sophomores exchanged questioning looks, and with shrugs of resignation they began their unexpectedly easy assignment. Silence descended over the classroom, punctuated by brief outbursts of ability here and there as students attempted to replicate their instructions to a degree that the apparently VERY discerning monitors would accept.

After nearly ten minutes of toiling away in front of their screens, small panels in the ceiling opened and several round black objects fell into the room. Only a few students noticed the sudden arrival of the foreign objects and none of them were fast enough to call out a warning before a nearly deafening *BOOM* resounded through the room, followed by startled shouts and pained screaming as several of those closest to the detonations clutched their hands over injured ears.

"Please focus on your assignment, class." The completely calm voice of the elderly Instructor drew incredulous stares from the class.

"You just FLASHBANGED the room and that's all you have to say?" Iris was on her feet and screaming at the Instructor, though her volume was likely in part a result of at least one ruptured ear drum.

"Concussion grenades, not flashbangs. No blinding light you see. And how can we test your ability to focus if we don't provide any distractions?" The feigned innocence of the professor's tone drew several glares from the class, but after a brief surge of energy from Antoin to repair what damage had been done to the group everyone returned their attention to the screens. Progress slowed greatly as nearly all the students kept glancing around at their surroundings, trying hard not to be taken off guard again.

Another twenty minutes past, and the elderly professor looked up from his reading to scan across the class. “You all won't make nearly enough progress like that. The objective today is not to anticipate and avoid, it is to IGNORE the distractions. I assure you there will be nothing happening in this room that is more than a moderate inconvenience, no serious injuries will result.”

“You'll forgive us if we don't take your word for it.” The muttered comment from the blonde speedster met with echoes of agreement around the room.

“Look at it as you will, but try to keep that open mind I asked for. All giving into paranoia over promoting Focus will do for any of you is slow your own development through the HCP.” With his piece apparently spoken, the professor returned to his book.

A few seconds later a deluge of water flooded the room to a depth of several inches, resulting in another series of surprised shouts and curses before the liquid drained quickly away. The class grumbled for several minutes after the water receded, but the only response from the professor was a faintly mocking smirk as he turned the page and continued reading, in spite of the book now being thoroughly soaked.

For the next hour the sophomores settled into varying degrees of concentration as the room was subjected to another round of concussion blasts, the ceiling lighting itself on fire for several seconds, and the release of a truly foul smelling gas of some kind that actually sent a couple of students fleeing for the restroom to vomit. Fortunately all of those so affected were successful in their exodus, and returned a few minutes later to glare again at the Instructor before resuming their assignments.

Now that the students seemed properly settled the white haired man at the front of the room finally abandoned his pretense of reading and began to intently scan the room, looking for signs of truly exceptional inner focus that this exercise was actually meant to bring to the fore. Laurence met with a few surprises as he began to carefully inspect the minds in the room before him. Collin Gauge and Amelia Jacobson were both fully engaged in their exercises and had reached a level of mental isolation that usually took students quite a bit longer to attain.

”Both of them being functionally indestructible since Collin shifted might be giving them a bit of a cheat though, don't you think?”

Ms Blake, shouldn't you be working on your assigned task? There was no trace of surprise in the thought formed by the older telepath and pushed out to where the auburn haired girl would have no difficulty picking it up.

”No offense professor, but this isn't exactly demanding all of my attention. I've been subconsciously sorting sensory input from everyone within about a mile of me for as long as I can remember. Carrying on a conversation while performing memory or muscle exercises isn't exactly straining my capabilities.”

The older man had to clench his teeth a bit to keep from laughing aloud at the young woman's irreverent attitude. I hope we'll be able to keep you more challenged over the course of the year. And with that thought the professor returned to scanning the rest of the class.

It was only a few seconds later before he ran into another surprise, the mind of the speedster in the middle of the classroom suddenly blinked out from his mental perception. The white haired man actually jostled his desk as he spun in surprise to look for the young woman, only to see her sitting exactly where she'd been since class began, both hand moving at an incredible blur as she apparently was using her ability to speed through her assignment. Making sure to mask any further signs of his own surprise or continued confusion, the Focus Instructor sat back once again and attempted to probe more deeply into the blonde girl's mind.

With the greater degree of focus on a single subject, the experience telepath found that he once again could detect the girl's mind, but he wasn't reading anything from it. It was almost as if her thoughts had somehow become less tangible, or...

My God. She's speeding up her perception, reaction, and train of thought. She's thinking so fast that the individual thoughts are indecipherable. That's new. For several minutes the professor devoted all of his considerable mental prowess to trying to get any kind of lock on the individual thoughts of Iris Todd, and found himself with only a developing headache for his trouble. Finally accepting the attempt as futile, he turned his focus in a new direction and managed a very loud equivalent of a mental 'cough.'

”I thought I was supposed to be focusing on my work, professor. What can I do for you?” Laurence smiled at the nonchalant mental response from the young telepath as she continued her work seemingly unfazed by his mental interruption, or the effort to communicate back to the professor.

Can you get anything from Ms Todd right now, Ms Blake? The auburn haired girl looked up with a puzzled expression, but seeing the serious look on the Instructor's face she turned her attention to her classmate.

”She's... dammit I can feel her but... What the hell is that?” Catalina suddenly flinched and brought her hands up to massage her temples as her mental contact with the professor cut out. After a long pause her voice returned, but seemed oddly unfocused and strained. ”Iris is... her thoughts are going so fast... I can only see bits and pieces... Can all speedsters do that?”

I should hope not, Ms Blake. Thank you for confirming what my own ability was telling me, NOW you should return to your assignment.

The class continued with the randomly interspersed interruptions creating less and less confusion amongst the students for another hour and a half, when all eyes shot to the middle of the room as the blonde speedster stood, stretched, and announced, “Finished!” in a cheerful tone.

Taking in the stares from all sides, Iris actually blushed slightly before looking up at the professor. “So there's no way that was several DAYS worth of material. What's next?”

“Next, Ms Todd, I believe I need to have a word with you in private regarding your abilities. I'm certain the rest of the class will be able to continue without direct supervision.” Even as the Focus Instructor spoke, most of the students had already returned their attention to the monitors in front of them, and those that hadn't did so quickly at the implied instruction.

“What do we need to talk about all the sudden?” The blonde girl looked slightly worried, but moved to follow the professor without any hesitation as he led the way from the room.

“My dear girl, you just worked your way through an estimated one hundred and seven hours of material in less than three hours. I imagine you could have done it even faster had the system been able to keep up with you. We need to discuss this emergence of your new and truly wondrous ability!”

 

...

 

“Good afternoon, Janette. I wish we really could get around to meeting regularly for strictly social reasons.” The petite HCP Dean stood and gestured to one of the comfortable chairs across from her desk as the attractive blonde woman entered her office.

“A sentiment I can agree with completely, Kathryn. At least we aren't operating in full time crisis mode, yet.”

“That word fills me with a great deal of foreboding. Would you like some coffee?”

“No thank you. And I detest the word at least as much as you do.” Janette Walker sank into the chair with a sigh. “I'm afraid we've not had much luck in finding anything actionable so far.”

“You're being a bit hard on yourself, Janette. You've only been mining through the identities of our sudden influx of PIs for a couple of days now.”

“I don't think you understand what we're looking at here. All of our town's latest wave of 'tourists' are getting dispatched from some of the largest corporations and conglomerates in the world. The paper trails all go to the correct level of each involved company, and then it terminates. Someone VERY well connected is passing verbal requests to executive personnel in these places and it's passing down the chain through God only knows how many upper and middle managers. I can confirm that out of the twenty six we have currently backtracked to the end of the paper trails, no official instructions as to what they're actually supposed to be DOING have been passed along.”

“So the most likely scenario is that it's a smokescreen to keep us from noticing whatever the REAL plan is.”

“That or they're probing to see exactly how we respond. There's more too, of course.”

“Of course.” Kathryn just managed to keep her expression neutral, though she was certain she wasn't really fooling the woman across the desk from her.

“There has been a lot of net activity 'encouraging' various anti-Super and Powered groups to mobilize against the HCPs. It's not targeting Overton specifically, but...”

“There's some subtle pushes our direction?”

“More like one of the worst groups seems to have opted to target our program, pushed or not. The president of 'Rights of Humanity' has made several speeches urging his people to travel to the 'great state of Texas' in order to 'protest the continued subversion of our resources and government by the Super menace parading behind the guise of heroics.'”

“Sounds like a lovely person. I don't recognize the name of that group though.”

“Rights of Humanity is what the whitewashed 'legitimate' side of the group calls itself. They're more famous as the Human Liberation Militia.”

The Dean sank back in her chair and massaged her temples with her fingers for a long moment before replying. “Janette, are you telling me that a known domestic terrorist group is going to be targeting MY school?”

The blonde woman's expression was steely, and her tone was cold. “It's my school too. I've made some calls already.”

 

...

 

Elena Martinez smiled and stretched as she appeared in the small, rarely used utility room almost three miles beneath the Overton campus. She always enjoyed the Subtlety introduction day for the second years. It was the closest she usually got to a day off throughout the school year. Seating herself at one of the tables set up with snacks and a cooler, she settled in to wait and see how many of this year's crop managed to decipher the various hints, clues, and riddles she had left for each of them to work to find their way here. In her opinion the material she used this early in their education was the bare minimum bar for admission; any students that couldn't manage to find where the 'Intro to Subtlety' classroom was located would not be able to succeed in the actual course.

“Woo! Treats!” The cheerful exclamation from directly behind the professor actually caused her to leap out of the chair with a surprised yelp. Recognizing the voice too late to prevent her embarrassing reaction, the hispanic woman turned to watch the form of Erin Casse fade into view with a huge smile on her face.

“Ms Casse, I have to admit you arrived slightly sooner than I expected you. It seems you've finally worked out the difficulties with becoming fully invisible?”

“Only when she's standing still.” The new voice, again from directly behind Elena, didn't elicit a startled reaction from the now more prepared Subtlety Instructor.

“Ms James, also ahead of schedule. I congratulate you both sincerely, and would request that I NOT spend the year subjected to retellings of the story of how the two of you made a veteran Hero jump nearly out of her skin?”

“Hey, if anyone else had wanted to see it, they should have gotten here early too!” Erin's response came as she searched through the cooler nearest her and pulled a bottle of flavored water out of the ice.

“Normally no one would believe us anyways, but you realize it's kind of a moot point with Cat in our class.” Eloise likewise snagged a can out of one of the coolers and began digging through the assorted snack foods the professor had brought.

”My lips are sealed!” The door to the small room opened in perfect synch with the soft feminine voice echoing through the three women's heads. ”No guys yet? I'm a little disappointed.”

“Ms Blake, you I DID expect to arrive this quickly. Did you at least attempt to work your way through the exercises left for you?”

”Considering that the stuff you left for me was a wild goose chase from the beginning, sorry but no.” The auburn haired telepath's expression didn't seem to hold any trace of actual apology as she joined the other two girl's around the table. ”I guess you can just consider me a special challenge!”

Elena sighed as she retook her seat at the table. “Normally after the students first start arriving is when I give a simple lecture on the basics of my chosen discipline, but considering the speed with which all three of you got here I think we're well past the basics. Instead if you have any questions, please ask and I'll do my best to enlighten you.”

The discussion was mostly light and had little to do with the topic at hand with just the three girls and the professor in the small room. The discussion became more interesting as more students steadily arrived across the several hour period. Ty was the fourth to arrive, and seemed inordinately pleased to be the first male student to pass Professor Martinez's test.

Aaron Sexton was the fifth to arrive, with Scott and Antoin arriving together shortly after. The girls made an overly dramatic commiserating toast as they were now outnumbered by the boys, and offered a humorous eulogy to the failure of their gender to maintain the advantage they had fought hard to start with. Elena struggled in vain to keep a professional demeanor, but when even the normally serious Eloise joined in the mourning the battle was lost.

When the next to arrive was Beulah Abbot the girls celebrated at having achieved balance again, and a betting pool was started between the two sides to see which gender would ultimately triumph.

Next to arrive were Barry, Zach, and Alexandra at nearly the same time and the room was forced into a semblance of order as the small space was rapidly becoming too full for the antics that had dominated to that point. Louise arrived with less than an hour left before the official end of the Subtlety intro 'class,' and Elena decided that it was unlikely that anyone else would be making it.

“I would like to congratulate those of you that made it here. It was easier for some of you than for others, but everyone in this room has passed the first hurdle if they want to pursue the discipline of Subtlety as one of your Heroic majors.” The Instructor paused for a few seconds to allow the students to come more to order and bask in the praise for a moment.

“Frankly if you are seriously considering this discipline as your primary Major, you are likely deluded or insane.” She smiled at the stunned expressions now visible on most of the faces in the room. “Subtlety Heroes are the cheaters, liars, and sneaks of the Super world. We face the greatest risks with no back up or recognition. We accomplish the impossible without receiving accolades or fame. We are constantly subject to the suspicions of our peers, and there is a genuine reason for that. More rogues have come from the ranks of Subtlety Heroes than any other three disciplines combined. It is a largely thankless task we do, and one that is rife with temptation with little incentive to remain on the straight and narrow. It is also the discipline that ultimately results in saving more lives, civilians AND Heroes, than the other five combined. It is the dirtiest job in the Hero world, and someone has to do it.” Closely examining the students in the room Elena wore a cold smile.

“Have I managed to convince all of you that this is a terrible idea yet?”

“Not yet, but by my watch we still have like forty minutes of class left.” Everyone in the room turned to see the skinny form silhouetted in the door frame for a moment before Amelia walked into the room and dropped haphazardly into one of the few remaining seats. “Sorry I'm late, the scavenger hunt took a bit longer than I thought it would.”

“I have to say I'm surprised to see you here, Ms Jacobson. I wouldn't have thought that Subtlety would appeal to you.”

“I heard there were snacks!”

The room dissolved into laughter at the tall girl's cheerful exclamation, and even the professor found herself chuckling along with her students.

“Alright, I guess I have another thirty eight minutes to convince you all what a terrible idea this major is. I guess we can start with some of the more famous examples of fallen Heroes...”

Chapter 5

Chapter 5:
Team Building Exercises

 

Alexandra watched with a dispassionate expression as the nearly untouched meal slid off the tray and into the garbage bin, before turning to walk quickly out of the dining hall. Internally she was practically gibbering in terror at the prospect of what awaited her down in the HCP rooms below; tonight was the night when the top seven picked their teams. In front of the whole class, with a mandated oral supporting statement of why each teammate was picked. How am I going to do this without insulting everyone I don't pick? What if the people I pick don't WANT to be on my team? Maybe I can get someone to challenge me for my rank real quick and throw the match.

“There will be no ranking challenges allowed until next week, as the format has changed. So sadly that plan is out, Ms Andrews.” The voice from directly behind the blonde girl caused her to literally jump and emit a brief high pitched sound, before recognition caught up.

“Dean Jilles, I, I mean... It's not...” Alexandra found herself stuttering her way rapidly nowhere and managed to cut off the stream of useless words as she turned to face the even shorter woman behind her.

“Every one of your fellow captains is also occupying an emotional state somewhere between nervous and terrified, if that helps any.” The Dean reached past the embarrassedly blushing girl to trigger the concealed button for the HCP elevator. “Part of the reason we give you the whole week to stew over this is to see how you respond to the emotional upheaval. If we let you choose your teams on the first day back, most of the nerves are avoided as you instead focus on the moment.”

“Then why do it this way?” The petite mimic managed to find her voice again as she stepped into the elevator alongside the older woman.

The Dean seemed to ponder the question during the elevators rapid descent into the HCP levels, before answering just as the doors opened. “For fun, mostly.” Alexandra was left gaping in surprise at the irreverent response, Kathryn smiled at her shocked expression before departing the elevator.

Several seconds later the doors opened again, and Alexandra emerged looking a fair bit more confident than she had earlier. The small bit of confidence lasted almost five minutes, when she entered the auditorium where the team selections would be made. In addition to the sophomore class, it seemed that all the Overton upperclassmen had decided to observe the process as well. I wonder if they'll still make me be captain if I pass out in front of everyone...

...

The massive black girl sat anxiously on the edge of her seat as the seven sophomore captains were ordered up onto the stage to begin picking teams. A corner in the back of Tasha's mind found itself marveling that the HCP had managed to condense the same anxiety found in an elementary school gym class and distill a far purer form. The muscular girl knew that it was extremely difficult for healers to progress all the way to the rank of Hero. As incredibly useful as the ability was, unless there was some form of offensive or controlling bent to a particular brand of healing (or in some cases an unrelated secondary ability) it usually was not considered a Hero level ability.

Tasha watched the small blonde mimic step to the mic for the first selection, surprising none of the sophomores by choosing Catalina first. With the mimic and the super-telepath on the same team, it would grant them a HUGE advantage over the others in being able to obtain and distribute information in real time. Not to mention preventing any of the other teams from having such an accurate method of spying.

Kyle stepped up second and was met with a few surprised looks when he selected Sean Tannen. Tasha quickly grasped the point the asian boy made as he supported his choice; putting an illusionist with someone that can manipulate the battlefield is a powerful combination. Rorie came up next and selected Beulah, forcing a nearly classwide cringe at the mental picture of the large Samoan rapidly being teleported around while lobbing energy blasts. Gerard followed suit by choosing Teresa, locking down the second teleporter with only the supporting argument of, “She's the highest combat rank that's available.”

The first round concluded with Erin selecting Scott, Collin picking Aaron, and Amelia choosing Michael. Tasha took a deep breath as the selected students settled in behind their captains up on the stage. It's alright, you didn't expect to go in the first round. None of the healers got picked first, everyone up there probably has a strategy and with a four man team they mig-...

“Tasha Johnson.” The muscular young woman's train of thought derailed abruptly as she realized that Alexandra had just called her name. The momentary confusion abated into shock as she realized that her name had been called from the microphone, meaning...

“Me?” It was impressive that someone as physically large as Tasha could still manage such a small voice as she responded to the blonde girl on stage.

“Yes you, Tasha. Come up here.” Behind the girl at the mic Tasha could see her roommate smiling and waving her up encouragingly, finally breaking the sense of shock enough for her to make it up onto the stage.

The tall healer found herself still floating a bit off center, not even realizing that the selection process had made its way around again until the seat next to her was suddenly occupied by a heavily tattooed, petite form. Lisa smiled at her teammates before looking out to scan the remaining six sophomores. “Who do you think is going to be last?” The asian girl whispered to the other three next to her.

“Doesn't really matter, since last picked gets the consolation prize of being on Ames' team.” Tasha looked over to her team captain and was surprised at the transformation she seemed to have undergone. The larger girl hadn't even realized how nervous the mimic had looked until now when she'd finally relaxed again.

”Tara will be last picked.” The auburn haired girl's tone showed no hint of uncertainty. As the selections continued, it seemed she would be proven right as well when Collin stepped forward and only Barry and Tara remained.

“I feel bad for her. I was terrified that it was going to be me down there getting picked la-...” Tasha's whisper was interrupted as Collin selected Barry and Amelia let out a shout of triumph, not even bothering to approach the microphone as she called for Tara to come up on the stage. Most of the assembled students found themselves laughing at the top ranked sophomore's enthusiasm, or possibly the stunned look on the last picked red head.

”She's not faking that by the way. Ames really did want Tara on her team from the beginning.” The declaration from Catalina was met by silence from the other three as they tried to contemplate what plan the super strong girl could possibly have that needed TWO Technological Brilliance Supers.

“Well it's good she got what she wanted.” The blonde captain was the first to break out of the contemplation. “And so did I. We've got a solid team, artillery, intelligence, variable, and the secret weapon.” Alexandra pointed at Lisa, Catalina, herself, and finally Tasha as she spoke, drawing a hugely surprised look from the muscular healer.

“Wait, I'M the secret weapon?”

...

As the first Saturday of the school year arrived, it saw a great deal of activity in the underground HCP training areas at Overton. Many of the newly minted four person teams had arrived to determine their strengths and weaknesses, and work out together to get a better feel for their teammates. At least one team, however, had chosen a more relaxed environment for the day.

“So, I am officially confused as to what you were thinking, Captain.” The white haired girl leaned forward to snag a slice of pizza from the open box on the kitchen table as she spoke. “Unless this team is some kind of ego trip for you to prove you can take on anything and to spite the rank drop you only picked from the bottom half of the rankings.”

“Not ONLY the bottom half of the rankings.” Scott chimed in defensively in rebuttal of Eloise's statement, though internally he had to admit that fourteenth of twenty eight was probably close enough.

“Well this would be a pretty silly way to go about it then.” Erin leaned back in the most comfortable chair in the room, claimed as 'captain's prerogative,' and examined the three members of her team. “For starters, I seriously doubt you'll stay in the bottom half of the rankings now that you're officially in Ranged Combat and have some real leeway in what kind of equipment you can cart around. And Scott finally got his 'rail gun' thing working over the summer, and if THAT isn't the most powerful offense in the class then someone is seriously holding back.”

“What about me?” Zach Snyder, the fourth member of the team, sounded more than a little upset at his apparent exclusion from Erin's speech.

“Zach, you have a great ability. I sincerely hope that working with the three most tactically trained students in our class will finally get you to think about using it as something other than just a blunt instrument for violence.”

The lightly built youth snorted in response. “You three are supposed to be the most tactically trained in our class? Based on what?”

“My mom was Spec Ops back in England. I've been doing the same drills as an SAS recruit since I was about nine. Also completed all of the information drills, wargames, and tactical studies so if this whole thing falls through I can probably head over there and get an Officer's commission in six months or so. I also, you may remember, led the Combat Class against Force Ops in the special exercise freshman year.” Scott turned to Eloise after he answered, prompting the white haired girl to go next.

“Dad was a SEAL, mom's a survivalist nut. I grew up alternating between military drills and training to survive the whatever-apocolypse. I love 'em both, but as hardcore into this stuff as I am, those two make me look like an extreme left wing anti everything-to-do-with-violence-in-all-forms. I've done actual life or death survival training since I was twelve, and obviously I'm not dead yet.”

“I was raised by my uncle, he's a Colonel in Force Ops these days. I grew up on military bases, and always thought I'd go into the same field as him. Trained with experienced military veterans around the world since I was five. Then I got bit by the Hero bug and ended up here instead.” There was a bit of a playful glare directed at Scott as the tall girl finished her speech.

“And this still hasn't done much to answer my initial issue. Still confused.” Eloise jumped back into the conversation before Zach could manage to continue with the argument he seemed about to unleash. “I mean it's great that we probably have more tactics training than the rest of the class combined, and I can see how denying the other teams that expertise can help, but we seem to not be a very synergistic grouping.”

“This wasn't about synergy, it was about skewing to one area of strength as hard as I could with whomever was available in each round. I was worried that Scott was going to get himself snapped up in the first pick or two with him showing off at Ranged Combat earlier this week.” The sandy haired boy responded by making a rude gesture at the team captain as he acquired another piece of pizza for himself. “You were second on the list because of your expertise and WHAT it's in. And, no offense, Zach you were the best option of the three remaining for what I was looking for.”

“And what is you master plan, Erin?” Zach didn't seem much mollified by the the taller girl's 'best of what's left' description, and the dark haired boy seemed still to be mostly reacting to the perceived unfairness rather than thinking.

“Ranged Combat, Zach.” The petite girl had hit on the answer as soon as Erin had mentioned Scott's performance from earlier in the week, and her tone showed a fair amount of condescension towards her teammate for not seeing it himself. “With Scott's power and my training plus arsenal, the two of us represent about the largest concentration of long ranged firepower in our class, excluding Rorie who was out by virtue of ALSO being a captain.”

Zach seemed about to yell at Eloise, when he stopped himself and looked back at Erin instead. “Alright, so you wanted to build a team skewed heavily to favor one area. So the plan is to just overwhelm at range? And how will you be playing into that plan oh fearless leader? Or did you forget that since you didn't pick Ranged Combat you probably won't be able to get any real long range weapons checked out for matches and testing?”

Erin smiled in response to the smaller boy's litany of rhetorical questions, before deftly snatching up the last slice of pizza. “We all learned some new things over the summer, Zach. Now quit whining and let's talk some strategy.”

...

Ty looked down at the extremely nervous redhead standing next to him as the team called another break from cataloging the extensive collection of tech he and Tara had brought. This time it had been Michael needing to call a stop in order to attempt to process all the information presented by the pair of Tech Brilliance Supers rounding out team one.

“Relax, Tara. Seriously, we've got Ames on the team. I don't think there's anything to worry about.” The large black youth was relatively sure that the source of the smaller girl's nervousness centered far more on being last choice than anything to do with which team that had put her on.

“I know I'm on Amelia's team, but only because no one wanted me. What if I end up dragging the whole team down?”

“You have the same ability as I do, so if the team ends up getting dragged down by that then I figure it will be on BOTH of us. Besides, did our captain look at all disappointed to be 'stuck' with you?”

Tara found the rest of her negative argument dying in her throat as her overactive intellect again attempted to analyze Amelia's response to the final addition to her team. “She could have been faking.” Even the redhead had to admit her voice carried no certainty at all in the possibility.

“Let's ask her.” Ty's response and subsequent quick escort of the smaller girl caught her completely by surprise, and before she could manage a protest Tara found herself maneuvered over to where Amelia and Michael seemed to be attempting to decipher the information given by the two Techs into something resembling english. “Hey Ames! Tara wants to know why you wanted both the Techies on your team.”

Tara's eyes went wide at the cheerfully shouted question, but before she could think of any way to react the skinny blonde turned to face the two of them.

“Versatility.” There was no hesitation or consideration before Amelia answered. “I'm our team's blunt instrument. Michael here is no Cat, but he can provide locations and a little bit of early warning. You two are my versatility. There's no possible way to get a collection of powers onto a team of four that can cover EVERY possible selection arrayed against us, so I wanted the powers that could MAKE something depending on what we're up against.”

“But, I mean you already had Ty... Wouldn't you have preferred to get someone else and have a better base to choose from?” The redhead sounded absolutely certain of her own lack of worth as she asked the question.

“Nope. You and Ty have different specializations. I get both of you, I have the broadest range of options possible.” The immediate confidence with which the team captain answered seemed finally to begin dispelling the smaller girl's self doubt. “Now, I think Michael and I have most of the last bit figured out, let's get back to it. Though this time, could you guys PLEASE try to use normal words when you explain what your stuff does?”

...

“So... Do we actually have any strategies or are you just hoping that a higher average ranking than most of the other teams will carry us through?” Susan Owens shifted back to her human form as she directed the question to her team captain, having just completed another series of 'group exercises' that the blond youth seemed to have pulled directly from a crappy management seminar.

“You think that combat isn't going to play a notable role in the team exercises? Were you HERE for the freshman year?” Gerard's response came with not quite enough sarcasm to cover a note of defensive uncertainty.

“Of course there will be combat. Dani would never have gotten that excited if there wasn't going to be a lot of combat.” The hispanic teleporter leaned against a wall and swept her arm wide to gesture at all her team members as she continued. “But ranking won't do it alone. Erin and I proved that pretty well during last year's final when we both messed up each other's plans instead of cooperating and both of us dropped ranks over it.”

“The girls have a point, Gerard.” The captain flinched as the blond healer joined the discussion, all seemingly arrayed against him. “I mean, you literally picked your entire team with the justifications of, 'highest rank available, highest rank available, only healer left.'” Antoin dropped to a seated position near where Teresa was lounging against the wall. “So what's the actual strategy, boss?”

“The strategy is... mostly what we're here to talk about today.” Gerard's shoulders slumped into a somewhat defeated posture and he let out a deep sigh before continuing. “I spent all last night and this morning trying to come up with anything better than, 'All out blitz with Teresa dropping us into position.' The problem is, that works against maybe two or three of the other six teams. We can't blitz Collin or Ames because they're too powerful to take head on. We can't blitz against Alex's team because Cat will see us coming a day in advance. And odds are against us being able to blitz Rorie because Beulah teleports faster than you do, Teresa. No offense.”

“No offense taken, she is MUCH faster at it than I am. Her range is getting a lot better too for that matter.” The dark haired girl acknowledged her relative shortcomings with brutal, cheerful honesty. “My advantage is that I can teleport things without going WITH them. That means if we're willing to split up we can deploy faster than any of the other teams, and I can potentially take the most problematic opponents out of play.”

“You're talking about teleporting Collin or Ames out of a fight. Won't they just come back?” The red haired girl sounded a bit torn over the idea. Part of her wanted to go head to head with the other two Strongman types in her class. But her practical side knew, at least for the present, that she was vastly outmatched by either of the top two ranking students.

“Assuming we're using the simulation room, or other rooms like it, she doesn't HAVE to keep them in the same room.” The healer smiled as he considered the idea. “She could put them off in one of the lecture rooms, or the far side combat rooms, or just about anywhere in the facility.”

Gerard wore a look of surprise as the conversation seemed to take off without him, but his expression quickly changed to one of satisfaction as he settled down to contribute bits and pieces to the conversation as his own expertise became relevant. The book was right, sometimes the best way to lead is to get out of the way and let the people who know what they're doing, do it.

...

“But what about me?” Three members of Team 5 closed their eyes and rubbed at their temples in unison as the smallest member once again broke into the strategy discussion.

“Louise, we've talked about this. A LOT. You're going to be our reserve.” Beulah moved behind the smaller girl as she spoke, trying to radiate calm as she did so.

“That doesn't make sense though! I've got enough juice to take out anyone except Ames! And probably Collin. And maybe Alex if she's copying Ames...” Louise trailed off as she seemed to realize she wasn't doing her case any huge favors.

“Louise, we are not trying to exclude you from our tactics.” Ramón knelt down to make eye contact with the much shorter girl as he spoke. “But there is no benefit to Be bringing you along with Rorie for explosive hit and run strikes, and the only way you could keep up with me is if I carried you. I would be happy to carry a friend if needed, but both of us would only be hindered by this.”

“Don't think of yourself as being left behind.” The heavily built team captain chimed in to encourage the hispanic girl. “You're our ace in the hole, and with Be on our team you're never going to be more than a couple seconds away from the action if we need you.”

“It still sucks. You guys are going to get to have all the fun.” Louise found herself unable to come up with a logical rebuttal, and opted to pout instead. “If I'm not part of the battle plan, then how am I going to perform well enough to advance to next year?”

Ramón responded first, by laughing loudly at the question, drawing questioning looks from all three of his teammates. “My small friend, we will be going up against Supers that have shown the power, skill, and deviousness needed to advance to the second year of the HCP. The battle plans will likely not survive for more than a few seconds, and you will get all the chances you desire and more to try yourself in battle.”

Rorie and Beulah offered the muscular Mexican a pair of matching sour looks at his assessment of how long their plans would last, but both managed to hide their expression quickly upon seeing Louise's face light up at the prospect. “Promise?”

...

“So how's the case coming, Hank?” The petite asian woman slid into the booth opposite the massive African American as she spoke, examining her surroundings with a look of satisfaction as she greeted the PI. The restaurant chosen for this meeting was FAR higher class than the diner she had ambushed the man in originally.

“You've been mined. Hard.” The large man slid a small thumb drive across the table as he spoke, his voice pitched low so as not to carry.

“You may have to be a little less vague than that.” Hai casually palmed the drive and allowed for a pause as a waitress approached to take her order before turning her attention back to the man across from her. “Mined?”

“Data mining. Some seriously heavy duty project targeting your University.”

The dark haired woman looked doubtful. “I admit that there are ways to dig through public records to get details about the... program, but something like this would have tripped some serious red flags, Hank. We'd know.”

“Not your program specifically. Your entire University.” Another pause in the conversation came as a basket of breadsticks was dropped off at the table and summarily devoured by the huge private investigator. “This is the level of stuff you don't see very often. I can't link it all, but what you have on that drive is files showing more than 70% of Overton's student population and their families being 'shuffled' into other ongoing investigations that are just close enough to look relevant at a glance. If they got that high, it's best to just assume they got the full course.”

Hai looked shocked for a moment as she processed the scope of what Henry was describing. “Hank, there are almost thirty thousand students at Overton.”

“Yep. 28,891 to be exact.” The number was stated calmly, but the man's expression showed more than a hint of anxiety at the sheer scope of what he'd found.

“How did this link back to your investigation of the PI flood we've been having?”

Henry chuckled in response. “That's the bit of good news in this. Simple, sloppy planning. The parts of the machine are so big that whomever is manipulating them can't keep track of them all. Corporate PIs that know each other than all end up in the same place end up hanging out. A few of them get talking and realize that it's a bit of a coincidence: They're seeing college kids from families who've been investigated by their firms for random stuff over the summer. You know the saying, once is chance, twice is coincidence, three times is conspiracy. When it got to four times in two weeks, I had Darcy do some digging.” The conversation paused again as drinks and meals arrived, Henry's order requiring it's own separate server to bring to the table as the large man had apparently ordered four separate entrees.

“So Darcy started doing some pattern checks, and algorithms, and a WHOLE bunch of other shit that I do not understand at all. And she sent me that.” A gesture with a fork indicated the closed hand holding the thumbdrive.

“How could someone have done all that without us finding out sooner?”

“Scale and scope, and automation.” Seeing the questioning look from the petite Hero across from him, Henry elaborated. “Darcy explained it to me like this, most systems like this that keep an eye out for someone digging where they aren't supposed to are automated. No one is really babysitting the thing 24/7. So a flag gets tripped because someone whose records you want not looked at TOO in depth starts getting looked at, but the system traces it back and finds those records are being looked at as part of a set including hundreds or even thousands of other records. The system has basic covers in place, and it assumes from the scope of the inquiry that the important records are not being specifically targeted, and so no flags, alarms, or flares go up.”

Hai sighed and leaned back away from her untouched meal. “So we've just found a major vulnerability in our system. And if they were good enough to find it, they'll probably be able to get a pretty complete list of our program's roster from the raw data they pulled.”

“And we haven't actually gotten to the bad news yet.” The dark haired woman's attention immediately riveted on the huge man across from her, as he delayed long enough to finish half of one of his dishes. “All those investigators aren't the only professionals who are suddenly finding themselves vacationing in East Texas with seemingly nothing to do. I've spotted a few fixers and cleaners I know drifting in for brief meetups and then right back out again without any work being done. Considering how good some of these guys are, if I'm seeing any of them with a casual look then there's a lot more I'm not.”

“You think... what exactly?”

“Someone, somewhere, plans to do something drastic at some point. And they've set the playing field up with so many moving parts that I don't know how to tell when, where, or who to watch for.”

The Control Instructor sat and contemplated this information in silence as the PI worked his way rapidly through enough food for five people, pushing her own plate in his direction in response to a plaintive look as she found her own appetite had deserted her.

“Best guess, Hank. What's going to go down when it happens?”

“If it was me running a set up like this?” At the smaller woman's earnest nod the large man leaned away from the food to consider the question, running his hands through the wild shock of hair on his head as he did so.

“Whatever it is, it's not set yet. The only reason I would build a rotation this big is if I didn't know what was going to be needed whenever it's needed, and wanted to be able to get anything done on short notice.”

“How do you stop something like that? When it's not even planned out yet?”

“You pray that when it happens, you have the right person in the right place at the right time.”

Teams!

So everyone can keep track, and yell at me when I mix the characters up at some point in the future and put people in the wrong spot 

Team 1:
Amelia Jacobson - Close Combat, Focus, Subtlety
Michael Karl - Control, Focus, Ranged Combat
Ty Rodins - Control, Ranged Combat, Subtlety
Tara Warren - Focus, Ranged Combat, Weapons
Team 2:
Collin Gauge - Close Combat, Control, Focus
Aaron Sexton - Control, Focus, Subtlety
Iris Todd - Control, Focus, Weapons
Barry Jeung - Close Combat, Ranged Combat, Weapons
Team 3:
Erin Casse - Focus, Subtlety, Weapons
Scott Jameson - Close Combat, Control, Ranged Combat
Eloise James - Control, Ranged Combat, Subtlety
Zach Snyder - Close Combat, Control, Ranged Combat
Team 4:
Gerard Finne - Close Combat, Control, Focus
Teresa Montez - Close Combat, Control, Focus
Susan Owens - Close Combat, Focus, Weapons
Antoin Montaine - Control, Focus, Subtlety
Team 5:
Rorie Samuels - Control, Focus, Ranged Combat
Beulah Abbot - Close Combat, Focus, Subtlety
Ramòn Carerra - Close Combat, Focus, Weapons
Louise Garcia - Close Combat, Subtlety, Weapons
Team 6:
Kyle Sawara - Close Combat, Control, Focus
Sean Tannen - Control, Ranged Combat, Subtlety
Kaori Kimura - Control, Focus, Ranged Combat
Jon Glenn - Control, Focus, Ranged Combat
Team 7:
Alexandra Andrews - Close Combat, Focus, Ranged Combat
Catalina Blake - Control, Subtlety, Weapons
Tasha Jackson - Close Combat, Focus, Weapons
Lisa Shang - Close Combat, Control, Ranged Combat

Chapter 6

Chapter 6:
Ordinary Days

 

“And what, Mr Carerra, do you call this?” The condescension laden question from the irate, bespectacled professor was accompanied by a paper being slammed onto the desk in front of the muscular young man.

After a FAR too intense review of the paper in question, Ramòn looked back up to meet the older man's gaze with a deeply serious expression. “It looks like a C+ to me, Professor Bale.” Several other students in the lecture hall snickered at the Mexican student's absolute deadpan tone, drawing a flurry of furious glaring from the professor as he attempted to locate the sources.

“And do you think that is ACCEPTABLE, Mr Carerra?” The rest of the class had averted their faces from the confrontation, allowing the belligerent little man to return his attention to his intended target.

“Yes.” The one word response, spoken without hesitation, actually rocked the grey haired man back a step. The professor took a moment to gather himself, obviously not sure how to deal with a student that wasn't quivering in his seat.

“Think you're special, Mr Carerra?” The muscular young man couldn't quite suppress a smile in response to the first rhetorical question. “You think your physique and your charm can get you through everything? Well not my class. You might as well give up now, bec-...” The professor broke off in mid-sentence as the much larger student suddenly stood to loom over him, still maintaining eye contact. “Now you get BACK in your se-...”

“Good bye, Professor Bale.” And with that, Ramòn grabbed his bag from behind his desk and turned to stride out of the classroom.

“GET BACK HERE MR CARERRA!” The square rimmed spectacles fell from the furious little man's face as he practically frothed the words out.

The dark haired man turned back and smiled at the professor, a completely cheerful expression seemingly out of place in the current situation. “We are not in high school anymore, Professor. If you say you will not let me pass your class, I have no reason to be in this room. Thank you for letting me know on the first day of the second week, I should have no trouble dropping your class and finding a replacement Humanities credit.” And with that, the muscular youth strode out of the room.

A few moments later, the rest of the students stood and followed him, smiling and waving in response to the furious professor as the short statured man grew more and more panicked with each abandonment. The discussion the exiting students began finally caused the grey haired man to shut up as he slumped into one of the vacated chairs.

“God I hope that prick doesn't have tenure. Let's see him explain why a few dozen paying students all dropped his course on the same day.”

...

The Japanese girl felt herself snapping back to attention as she realized her partner had FINALLY stopped speaking. Blushing slightly at how completely she had zoned out, Kaori breathed out a sigh of relief when she looked down and saw that her body had continued taking notes on auto pilot while her brain had fled from the onslaught.

“...and please compile your interview notes from today and have a standard biographical article to present as if your partner was a person of note appearing at one of the five events we selected at the start of class.” The class barely acknowledged the journalism professor as they all scampered to escape the constantly long-running class in search of lunch.

“So, like I was saying during the interview,” Kaori looked up in surprise to see her bubbly bleached blonde partner following her, apparently intent on continuing the unending stream of chatter that had marked her portion of the exercise as 'interviewee,' “you should TOTALLY come check out the cheer squad with me. You're like, SUPER athletic looking, and you're hot. You'd make a great cheerleader!”

“It's not really my thing, Missi.” God, even her NAME is a cheerleader stereotype.

“Oh, but you should still try it at least once! I didn't think I'd like it before I went out back in high school, and it turned out to be one of the best things I ever did! I'm super good at it, and I could introduce you to everyone so you wouldn't have to be nervous! It'll be GREAT!” The shorter asian girl realized the blonde was steering her away from the townhouse dorms where she'd originally been heading to meet her friends for lunch, and towards the Athletics Center.

“Missi, seriously I'm flattered, but it's not for me. And I'm kinda supposed to meet my friends, so...” The black haired girl attempted to break free from the gentle but surprisingly solid grip of the taller girl and continue on her original path.

“OH! I'm sorry, I didn't know you ha-... YOU CAN INVITE THEM TOO!” Kaori winced at Missi's sudden excited increase in volume. “I mean, odds are if someone that looks like you is hanging out with them at least one of your friends will ALSO be great cheer material! And this way, you'll get your friends there for moral support while you try out!”

Oh God, it's turned from meeting them to trying out for the squad. Please, someone, anyone, SAVE ME! Kaori managed to keep a relatively genuine looking smile plastered on her face as she resorted to an actual Aikido technique to slip out of the taller girl's grip in an attempt to save herself, noticing as she did so that she accidentally knocked the blonde's cell phone into the grass as Missi had attempted to pull it from her pocket. Most likely to inform the cheer hive that she has successfully captured another to be assimilated.

Instead of reaching to pick up the dropped item as Kaori expected, the blonde girl started checking her pockets. At first casually, then frantically, before turning to the smaller girl with a wide-eyed look of abject terror on her face. “OH MY GOD, I LOST MY PHONE! WHAT IF SOMEONE IS TEXTING ME!” And with that the cheerleader took off back along the trail she and Kaori had come, heading back towards the classroom and frantically looking about for the shiny pink device that wasn't more than three feet from the supremely confused asian girl.

”One rescue, as requested. You owe me one.” Kaori jumped slightly at the unexpected voice in her head, then began to giggle almost uncontrollably as she hurried away from the scene before Missi doubled back again. Thanks Cat!

...

“Well Mr Gauge, this is definitely an... unusual request.” The short, slightly overweight man leaned back in his chair as he spoke, completely failing to keep a heavy note of condescension out of his voice.

“I don't see what's unusual about it Mr Timms. One of the requirements of my acceptance at Overton was that I would be unable to remain 'undeclared' after my first year. Is it really that unusual for a sophomore to submit their choice of major?” The heavily muscled youth balanced somewhat gingerly on the too small chair across from his Academic Counselor, giving no outward signs that he had detected anything untoward from the older man.

“Well, that's true. Many students do in fact declare a major early in their second year if they were undeclared the first. However your circumstance is slightly different, and your choice of major may not be... best.” The counselor wiped a few beads of sweat from his receding hairline as he spoke. For some unknown reason the tiny office wasn't air conditioned and the late summer in Eastern Texas made the small area stifling. “Have you considered the possible ramifications of this choice, young man?”

Collin suppressed a sigh at the obviously leading question, and attempted to divine the quickest route to the end of the conversation so he could escape the miserable little sweat box his counselor called an office. “I'm reasonably certain you're referring to the special academic program I was accepted under last year, the same program that mandates I select a major by the end of this week. I may have had trouble with my grades in High School, Mr Timms, but if you'd look at my freshman transcript you'd see that I pulled a 3.5 GPA last year. I'm absolutely certain I can do this.”

“Earth Sciences is a very demanding program, Mr Gauge. And that you ALSO wish to declare as a Mathematics minor, you can probably understand my hesitation.” An attempt at a conciliatory plastered itself across Timms face. “After all it is not in my job description to set our students up for failure. Perhaps if we could find something that would make for a good transitional area so you could SEE what you're get-...”

“I'm not interested in a transitional major, Mr Timms.” There was a very noticeable edge to the younger man's voice as he interrupted the counselor. “I'm declaring my major for Earth Sciences, and I either need you to sign that paper or I need to make an appointment with whomever is next on the chain above you so I can get them to do it instead.”

The portly man's eyes narrowed as he displayed his first genuine expression since Collin had sat down across from him. “You want to play it like that? Fine. Mr Gauge, I congratulate you on your new major.” The slip of paper was signed with a rather extravagant flourish and slid back across the desk to the student. “And I hope you enjoy the LOVELY schedule I will insure is put together for you.”

Collin laughed aloud at the final 'threat' from the Academic Counselor. The man couldn't possibly know that an attempt to seriously butcher the schedule of an HCP student would be simply ignored by the computer. Ignoring the surprised look from the balding man at his sudden laughter, Collin stood and snatched the paper off the desk. “Thank you very much for your time, Mr Timms.” And with that, he fled the oppressively hot room before the older man could get another word out.

Having reached the cooler air of the hall, Collin paused for a moment to collect himself, only to start in surprise when a familiar voice came from his side. “Earth Sciences? Really?”

The muscular youth looked over and up at his far more muscular girlfriend to see Tasha grinning down at him. “Yes, really.” With that, Collin strode off in search of the administrative offices to hand off the slip of paper.

The much taller woman followed a few steps behind her boyfriend, calmly waiting for him to complete his task and elaborate on the very short answer. After a few minutes and a walk that had taken the pair almost all the way back across campus to the residences, Tasha's patience broke down. “So WHY Earth Science? Did the whole 'Dr Who' thing last Halloween cause some kind of chain reaction and now you must embrace some deep inner nerd?” A look of feigned panic came over her face. “Are the muscles going to go away? I don't know if I could keep you if you lose the muscles.”

Collin tried to keep a serious expression, but found himself chuckling at the look on Tasha's face as she pretended to panic over the extremely unlikely scenario. “Let's head inside for lunch and I'll explain it.” The tall girl nodded in immediate acceptance. Requests like this usually meant: 'It's about the HCP, we can't talk about it in the open.'

Upon arriving at Collin's shared townhouse dorm, Tasha quickly entered the kitchen and began pulling ingredients from the fridge to make sandwiches. “So, talk.” The words were punctuated by a plate containing a very thick creation of dark bread and meat being plopped down in front of the red haired boy.

“I need to understand my power better.” Collin interrupted himself to take a bite of the sandwich, smirking at the frustrated look his girlfriend was giving him at the extremely incomplete answer.

“And you have all these wonderful classes in a billion dollar facility below ground where they SPECIFICALLY teach you that stuff. Seriously Collin, you are jumping into the intensive end of the normal majors. Most of us are Journalism, or Communications if we're feeling REALLY lazy. I know you're smart enough, but with the kind of workload are you sure you can keep the academic standard?” Tasha's frustration gave way quickly to her obvious concern, causing Collin to drop his food back onto the plate and offer a more serious look.

“Do you know how I got so much stronger over the summer? It all started from that one week of Alternative Training last year. I decided to try and alter my size and shape when I shifted as my week-long Alternative project.” Tasha nodded along, remembering her own abrupt transition for a week of Combat Training and shuddering slightly at the memory. “It was only a little bit back then, but I started to notice that as I shifted I could see kind of how the whole crystal form fit together. At first I tried to change what I could see, but it just didn't do anything. Eventually I figured out that I needed to go deeper. In order to change how I shift, I'm rearranging the crystal form at an extremely small scale.”

“How small scale are you talking about? Because your form's pretty noticeably different than it was last year.” Tasha's interruption drew a contemplative look from Collin, and the muscular young man took another bite of his sandwich as he considered.

“I don't really know, something like what would be the cell level for organics I'm guessing. It's not like I have to consciously build the whole thing from that level, it's more like changing some patterns around and my ability does the rest on its own.”

“And Earth Sciences?”

“Once I figured out a little of how the new part of my ability worked, I started experimenting. But it was just random guesswork, and I didn't really get anywhere. Then I tried looking up a bunch of stuff on natural crystal formations and tried to apply some of that.” Collin smiled as he continued. “It worked. Kind of. I had a starting point now, but there wasn't a lot I could learn on my own with some internet articles. So I need to really understand HOW mineral and crystals form. How they work, what makes them stronger or harder, everything. That's a Geology major, or here at Overton...”

“Earth Sciences.” Tasha nodded in understanding. “So you think that this will help you get a better handle on your power?”

“I don't know how much, but yeah, I do. It's not like natural crystals are known for moving on their own power so I might run into a wall pretty quickly in that respect, but I'll take any advantage I can get.”

“So you have a bunch of other forms now too?” The heavily muscled girl's face now bore an expression of intense curiosity, drawing a chuckle from her redheaded boyfriend.

“I'll show you a couple of the really weird ones later. I might have one that even Ames can't break.”

“Then why the hell didn't you use that one when you fought your match?”

Another laugh. “Because I can't actually MOVE in that form.”

After a brief shared laugh, the two opted in unspoken agreement to finish their hastily prepared lunch in silence. After the dishes were rinsed and deposited in the sink, Tasha was the next to speak. “Promise me... promise that you can do this. That you can keep up without falling behind if you do this with your major.”

Collin looked up at the taller girl and noted the worry she was trying to mask. His answer was accompanied by a confident grin. “I won't be a straight A student, but I promise. You're stuck with me until you come to your senses, Tasha.”

The heavily muscled girl laughed, and hugged her smaller boyfriend in response. “Alright then, until I come to my senses it is.”

...

“This is amazing.” The heavily built Samoan leaned back against the worn cushions behind him and stared wide eyed at his surroundings as he spoke, drawing a giggle from the smaller brunette curled up against him.

“You're missing the movie to admire the room. If you're not going to look at the screen, it should be because you're distracted by my beauty.” Vividly green eyes caught Rorie's brown orbs, and the large youth let out a laugh of his own.

“I am distracted by your beauty. ALL of this is you!” A waving gesture encompassed the massive room surrounding the couple, as they appeared to be the only occupants of a full size IMAX theater. “Your ability is amazing Jessica.”

The brunette blushed, and turned to look back at the movie playing on a 50' screen in front of her. “I'm not that amazing. I didn't make captain.”

Rorie hugged the girl closer to him as he turned he split his own attention between the screen and the attractive bundle in his arms. “Captain or not, you breezed your way into the third year of the HCP. And if you can do this,” another hand wave at the room around them, “I somehow doubt you're going to have much trouble being one of those final ten next year.”

Jessica blushed again at the compliment, and seemed about to say something when a knock from somewhere behind the pair interrupted her. With a sigh, the theater fell away to reveal the well-lived features of a large college dorm room. “Didn't you tell your roommate he needed to be elsewhere tonight?”

“That I did.” Rorie stood as he answered the rhetorical question and made his way to the door. The large man ground his teeth slightly in frustration as he peered through the peephole to see who was disturbing his evening, before pasting a neutral expression on his face and opening the door. “What can I do for you, Pete?”

Peeking over the couch Jessica saw a tall, skinny youth standing in the doorway wearing a sour expression as he looked up at the slightly taller Samoan. “You can turn your shitty movie down, Rorie. You're practically rattling the walls. SOME of us came to college for the education, not to try and bang the upperclassman bimbos.”

Both HCP students winced slightly at the realization that Jessica's illusion had apparently amplified the sounds in the room well past what was intended, but the neighboring student's last statement was met with a death glare from the brunette on the couch and an incredibly calm look from the large dark haired youth in the doorway. “Sorry about the noise, Pete. We'll make sure to turn it way down so we don't bother you.” There was no trace of anything except polite deference in Rorie's tone, drawing a smirk from the other man.

“Well th-...”

Pete was cut off mid-gloat with a strangled gasp as the much more heavily built man in front of him reached up with startling speed and caught him by the throat. “And Pete, you are never going to say another word about my girlfriend again. Nod if you understand me.” The much skinnier youth responded by clawing and slapping frantically at the larger student, but Rorie simply responded by gripping a little tighter and shaking the other man. “Understand?”

Pete finally nodded his acknowledgment, and the Samoan released his grip to allow his neighbor to stagger back several steps. “Good night, Pete.” Without waiting to see how the still gasping youth responded, Rorie simply closed the door and returned to his seat. “So once more, with less volume if you'd be so kind.” The waiting brunette offered a radiant smile and quick kiss as the room faded away and the theater returned.

“My Hero.”

“That's what they train us for.”

...

“Are there any other major items we need to resolve before we move on to planning the first round of team exercises for the Sophomore and Senior classes?” Kathryn Jilles scanned around the six other faces at the table out of habit. She knew before asking the question what was going to be brought up, but the telepath had found that even in the world of Heroes things went more smoothly when you allowed people to present their own cases.

Her gaze landed on the Focus Instructor before the elderly man could begin his prepared statement, and met his wry smile with one of her own as the two telepaths' eyes met. “As you are already aware, I feel it important to bring up what I still feel is a glaring oversight in the process for students selecting their disciplines here at Overton. A student that could excel beyond all past precedents is choosing to ignore a path that wou-...”

“Oh God.” The gravelly voice of the Close Combat Instructor interrupted the older man, though judging from the white haired professor's expression the interruption hadn't been at all unexpected. “Are you still bitching about Blake not picking your course, Laurence? It's DONE man, move on.”

“Yes James. I am, in fact, still SPEAKING in regards to one of the most gifted telepaths in this program, hell in ANY program, choosing NOT to follow the path most likely to bring her ability to it's fullest potential.”

“Laurence, the Overton HCP has always allowed the students to select which disciplines they will pursue as they continue their training. And you have to admit, some of the most successful graduates from this program did so after making selections that, at the time, the faculty disapproved of.” The petite Dean had already had this conversation with the older telepath, and expected it to recur at least two or three more times before the Brit gave up. “We've already gone outside the normal boundary in having Ms Blake come in to discuss the matter, and unless you can honestly tell me you feel that she had any doubts regarding her decision then I'm going to have to insist the matter become officially closed.”

Laurence met the calm gaze of the Dean with a steely expression, before dropping eye contact and bowing his head slightly to concede the point. “I will be the one on record this time saying our student is making a mistake then. And I must sincerely hope that Ms Blake proves to be the next graduate who shatters expectations in spite of that.”

“I wouldn't worry too much about her prospects, Laurence.” Elena Martinez joined the conversation wearing a supremely contented expression. Her second year Subtlety class was the largest it had been in her nine years as an HCP Instructor, and having the top ranked student of that class select her discipline had won her a tidy sum in the office pool. “Catalina Blake is, if unleashed on the world TODAY, one of the most terrifyingly effective Subtlety Supers I have ever encountered. And that's after a SINGLE official class in my discipline. In three years...” The hispanic Instructor actually shivered slightly in excitement.

“Moving on from Ms Blake then, are there any other points that need to be brought up?”

“What do you want me to do with Thompson?” The Close Combat Instructor wore a harder expression than even his normal look as he asked the question.

“He's the one we're getting as a Senior after he washed out of West two years ago, right?” Dani Reyes' normally animated expression was a mask of boredom and impatience as she eagerly wanted to move away from old business and onto the much anticipated fun of building the new team exercises for the year. “Call me crazy but... Train him?”

“Do you have any specific concerns, James?” The Dean seemed to ignore the input from the red haired Weapons Instructor as she turned to face Rachd.

“He washed out because he blew up at his own teammates during his Junior final and nearly killed one of them because he thought they were holding him back. The only reason he's listed as completing his third year and was eligible to reapply instead of a flat out expulsion is because his mom is Fortuna and his dad is an assistant director at the DVA. I don't like getting saddled with a problem case because his family kept him from getting expelled.”

“His family's clout may have gotten him a 'fail to advance' in place of expulsion, but the only way he got back in is on his own merit.” The Ranged Combat Instructor decided to weigh in on the issue, his tone and expression mostly similar to Dani's as Anthony also seemed interesting in moving the discussion along. “With a psych blackmark that big on his file, the kid must have SERIOUSLY improved himself where he needed it in order to make it past the review boards. Just train him like you would any others.”

“There's something else?” The Dean's tone barely managed to hold the inflection to indicate a question instead of a statement, and the Close Combat Instructor nodded in response.

“I haven't had to deal with a Senior transfer before. How the hell do I evaluate the kid for placement? He's a combat major, personal body control type, but all I've got to go on is a damned file.”

“James, since when have you felt the need to ASK before putting a student through whatever hell you deem necessary?” The Weapon's Instructor wore a shocked expression as she asked the question of her colleague.

“Since the kid's connected, and we have our government appointed babysitters watching our program and hoping we fail, I figured I'd try something new.”

The Dean actually laughed at the deadpan response from the muscular bald man. “I'll write up something official looking for you to put in the file. Just make sure you don't kill Mr Thompson. Now, if we could move on to planning the first rounds of team exercises for the year...”

Chapter 7

Chapter 7:
Free For All

 

The dark haired youth almost missed the tiny slip of paper taped to the outside of the locker room door as he hurried in to get changed for Wednesday's Close Combat class. The non-descript card was hand written and held only the words: 'All 7, Sat 9am.'

After spending the next two hours discovering how poorly his own shifted form stacked up against the truly Combat inclined students in the class, Kyle had nearly forgotten the tiny card until his attention was grabbed on the way out of the locker room; the card was no longer on the door. Great, did one of the concussions just make me imagine it, or am I going crazy?

Unable to stop thinking about the oddly out of place paper, the asian youth barely managed to make it to the topside Overton campus long enough to grab a snack before heading back down into the HCP for his Control class. A hesitant idea to discuss the phantom paper with his teammates, all of whom shared the Control course with him, hardened into a definite plan as he noted an identical card taped unobtrusively to the entry door for the Control students.

Kyle found the Control exercises much more useful to his skillset than the daily beatings in his Close Combat course. Professor Nguyen's teaching style managed to focus almost entirely on practical drills instead of the purely mental exercises that comprised most of the Focus curriculum so far, yet she accomplished it without the constant beatings from Rachd's Combat course. Or from Ranged and Weapons, if the way those classes drag themselves out after their two hours are up is any indication.

With the existence of the mysterious paper definitely confirmed for the young man, he found himself much better able to concentrate on the Control exercise for the day. A fortunate things, as the maze of small hazards and traps that the Instructor was running her students through was not forgiving to those appearing distracted.

“Ms Blake, you are falling behind your classmates again.” The emotionless tone of the professor brought the class's attention to the student struggling the most with the discipline.

”I'll get it, don't worry.” Catalina's mental voice echoed out to the entire class from her place inside the maze, though Kyle was fairly certain that underneath the confidence the telepath was trying to project he could detect the girl's fatigue.

He sympathized with the auburn haired girl's difficulties, finding himself unable to imagine even TRYING to run a course like this while deaf. It was impossible to even attempt to help Catalina out, as to keep the field level the Instructor made sure that none of the monitors displayed any information on the maze for the telepath to glean from her classmates, and since only a single student ran any given portion of the various courses Professor Nguyen created each day, she couldn't gain insight from another student in the same section.

“You're up, Mr Sawara.” Kyle smiled slightly at the still barely present hesitation when the petite Control Instructor referred to him as 'mister.' Many people found it difficult to remember that the shifter was male while he occupied his alternate form.

“A question, professor.” The dark haired woman's eyes registered only the tiniest flash of surprise when Kyle spoke instead of simply heading into the course again. “I'm an illusionist. I get the need to memorize my surroundings and keep a running reference for spatial awareness, but I need a chance to actually use my ability. When are we going to start drills that involve our power more directly?” Say something about Saturday...

“You will have plenty of opportunities to use your full suite of abilities throughout the year, Mr Sawara. For now learning the basics is what we most focus on, and even moreso for a student like you. You may think of yourself as an illusionist first, but with a shifted form that grants even limited flight you must ALSO think of your mobility at all times. Every aspect of your ability, personality, and intellect will have a role in determining what kind of Hero you one day come to be. Don't limit yourself by labeling this early in your training.”

Kyle nodded slowly as he digested the surprisingly long speech from the petite Control Instructor, noting as he did so that she had expertly avoided giving any sort of detail regarding his actual question. As the shifter moved onto the course, he shrugged and attempted to put such reflections out of his mind. I'll just remember to round the team up at the end of class and see what everyone else thinks about those mystery notes.

...

“So, oh captain my captain, we've decided that it's an announcement for some kind of team exercise.” The lanky dark haired youth leaned back on from the table as he spoke, a note of irritation and something else heavy in his voice. “Have we figured out anything useful yet, like WHERE this mystery exercise will be taking place?”

“Of course we did Barry! We just all got together to discuss that very matter because we felt that we don't see enough of your smiling face.” The sarcastic response from the tall blond male at the table drew a glare from the Korean youth, a long suffering look from the muscular team captain, and a smothered giggle from the blonde girl.

“Sniping at each other is not going to get us anywhere.” Collin looked about at his team and began to wonder if his efforts as a captain were going to be doomed by personality conflict before the tests had even begun.

“Aaron and I promise to stop taking potshots at Barry as soon as he promises to stop pouting.” The speedster gave a serious look to the other blond head at the table, and received a grudging nod in response.

“I AM NOT POU-...”

“YES, YOU ARE!” Aaron managed to interrupt his roommate with enough volume that the shorter boy nearly fell back out of his chair in response. “Seriously Barry, you have been sulking over something since you got picked. In the interest of being able to fucking FUNCTION you need to lay it out on the table so we can all deal with it.”

“It's nothi-...”

“Team vote! All in favor of Barry spilling whatever the hell it is that's bothering him say Aye. AYE!” Iris' affirmative exclamation was echoed almost immediately by Aaron.

“We have team votes now?” Collinsaw the two blond members of his team glaring at him in response to the question and immediately added; “Aye.”

“Three Ayes have it, now tell us what the fuck, Barry.”

The shorter boy looked at the attentive expressions all fixated on him, and sighed. “I'm pissed about getting picked last, alright?”

“You didn't g-...” Collin's rebuttal was interrupted by angry shushing from Aaron and Iris.

“Yeah, technically I was picked second to last. You're exact words were; 'I'll take Barry.' Amelia, on the other hand, started fucking celebrating on stage that she got Tara, so it kinda feels like I'M the one nobody wanted. It's fucking stupid, and I'll get over it, so just ignore my whiny crap or have Iris slap me when I start up or something.”

“I am completely in favor of this pl-...”

“Iris isn't slapping you.” Collin interrupted the speedster, and drew a threatening gaze in response before reconsidering his answer. “Iris isn't going to be slapping you FOR THIS. You're on your own with the other stuff.” The blonde seemed much more satisfied with the addendum, and all attention turned back to Barry.

“Look, I don't know what else to do, okay? I can't exactly take this to a therapist, ya know?”

“There's several staff therapists, psychologists, and counselors in the HCP.” Aaron's quick response drew some startled looks from his teammates, as no one else at the table seemed to realize those resources were available. “You guys seriously need to read the intro pamphlet. This stuff isn't exactly a guarded secret.”

“Well now that we've made our way back to the subject of guarded secrets, does anyone have an actual plan on how to figure ours out?” Iris looked around the table and saw no positive signs from either Barry or Aaron. The team captain, however, wore a suddenly enlightened expression.

“Okay, simple plan in two parts: First, we've still got two days of class before this Saturday thing. Who's to say that they won't put up another batch of little cards telling us where to go?” The 'wait and see' approach didn't seem to be gaining much enthusiasm from his team, but Collin pushed on unfazed. “Second, Iris can cover every testing area we're authorized to enter in about ten minutes. If we don't find anything before Saturday we all show up 20 minutes early, Iris scouts, and we all converge wherever the highest concentration of Sophomores is.”

“What if each team is being sent to a different location?” The completely reasonable objection brought up by Aaron seemed to derail Collin momentarily, before he simply shook his head.

“Then we'd better hope there's some clue we'll be able to find before then, or we're screwed.”

“We could bribe Cat to tell us.” The suggestion from Barry was met with shocked looks, followed by laughter. “No, seriously, we cou-...”

“We're not laughing at you because it's a bad idea, Barry.” The speedster was the first to control herself and respond. “It's just such a simple solution and none of us thought of it. It's funny.”

“Anyone know what she'd take as a bribe?” Aaron looked contemplative as he stopped laughing and started really looking at the plan.

“Iris, since she's in a women's dorm you're nominated. Go find out what Cat would except as a bribe in order to help us out.”

“That's a bullshit reason to make me go do it.” The blonde woman gave a mock pout as she leaned back in her chair.

“Team vote, all those in favor?” The three man sounded off quickly in response. “Motion is carried, you've been nominated, Iris.”

“Okay, so maybe 'team vote' was NOT the best idea I've ever had...”

...

“Good morning, students. Glad to see you all here and eager to go!” The bald man standing on stage of the Ethics lecture hall gazed across the assembled sophomores with a predatory look. “Welcome to your first team exercise, the Free For All.”

The class grew quiet as various groups quickly began assessing the other teams in light of this new information. Team versus team matchups had all been exhaustively analyzed by most of the students, but very few had thought to consider how the dynamics changed when ALL the teams were involved at once.

“That's right! Some variation on the Free For All is Overton's traditional first team exercise for the sophomores! And this year we're using one of my variations!” The cheerful tone accompanied by the red haired Weapons Instructor entering the room caused most of the students to shudder in involuntary dread. All those assembled remembered Dani's 'exercises' from the one week they'd been at the woman's mercy the previous year.

“The name of today's exercise is 'King of the Flag.' As you may have surmised from the name, it involves taking and holding a flag.” The gravely tone of the Close Combat Instructor resumed as the smaller woman made her way to stand beside him.

“We'll be using the main Simulation Room for this one, that's the one you took your freshman midterms in. The layout is just a little bit different than you might remember, some of the buildings needed to be repaired between the damage done during the midterms and the finals.” The highly animated woman skipped over to the wall and pressed a button, causing the overhead projector to display a rough map on the wall. “Each of your teams has a zone, as you can see here. The zones are about two blocks by two blocks, and what's in them varies quite a bit for each team.” There was an audible groan from the audience as Sean Tannen noted that team six was not assigned a zone anywhere NEAR the fully wooded park area.

“The flag will start right here.” Rachd took the explanation back over as he gestured at the map and a red dot appeared in the dead center. "It's out in the open, on top of the same building where your objectives were located last year.”

“Points will be awarded for successfully taking out opposing teams or stealing the flag from an opponent. Additionally you'll get more and more points the longer you can keep the flag in your area! Questions?” Dani looked out eagerly at the assembled sophomores.

“If we're taken out, do we get to come back in?” The calmly asked question came from the team three captain.

“Nope!”

“Not quite correct, Dani.” Rachd turned his attention out towards Erin as he continued. “Unless an injury is immediately life threatening you will be left where you land after being disabled. If your team can get you back on your feet, or you come around on your own, you're back in the game. Teams with healers, take note.” The Instructor wore a very serious look as he locked his gaze on Antoin, Tasha, and Kaori in turn. “You will only have a couple seconds to stabilize any critically injured team member if you want to keep them in the exercise. You can complain about someone getting pulled before you can get to them all you want, but it will change nothing. Clear?” The three healers and their team captains all nodded in response.

“Any other questions?” The Weapons Instructor looked bit embarrassed by her earlier incomplete answer.

“Ummm, don't take this as a challenge or anything.” The heavily built Samoan captain of team five stood as he spoke. “But this seems like a really straightforward and non-harmful exercise to have come from Professor Reyes. What's the catch?”

Rachd let out a deep laugh as the red head glared at Rorie. “First, it's Dani. Second, why would there need to be a catch? You just have to get the flag, get it to your zone, and take out twenty four other highly skilled and motivated supers who will be trying to take you down as well!” The Weapons Instructor started to turn and head back towards the projector controls when she stopped herself and looked back at the class again. “Oh, and I almost forgot. The flag will randomly emit a high pitched whistle so that people can find it. It will also occasionally zap nearby people, and sometimes emit a very powerful cloud of tear gas. But not more than once every minute or so.”

The sigh that swept across the assembled students sounded nearly relieved as the Instructor finished her statement. One last hand went up.

“Oh, question! Go ahead Ms Todd.”

“Define 'zap.'”

...

“This is a bad idea, Rorie.” The dark haired teleporter looked nervously at her team captain and then ahead to the barely visible red object atop the building they were approaching.

“Probably, but there's also probably a bonus for striking first. Ramón and Louise should be in position to defend our zone. Let's do this.”

Beulah sighed in response to the less than encouraging response from her captain, and the world around the two shattered and reformed. The distant red object now sat directly in front of the pair, and looked nothing like a flag. “Alright, so I guess we-...”

The teleporter was interrupted when her teammate shoved her to the side and threw a glowing ball of energy past her face. The detonation came less than a second later, as the dark haired girl turned just in time to see a tall blond man and a petite Latina disappear in the explosive flash.

“Hi Gerard!” The Samoan called in the direction of the quickly settling dust cloud, the distortion of the other man's barrier already visible. “Looks like great minds think alike!” A rapid flurry of smaller blasts followed the banter as Rorie moved to stand close enough to the nearly six foot red pillar that was apparently the 'flag' for Beulah to be easily able to touch both at the same time. The dark haired girl wasted no time in doing so, and the world around the pair once again shattered.

“Welcome my friends! Good to see you were successful, I saw the blasts and-...” Ramón paused his speech as he noted the thin hazy mist hanging around the red pillar as his two teammates staggered away from it, coughing. “Ah, so the tear gas seems not so bad as it was made out to be.”

“It went off right when we took it, I don't think we brought the whole cloud with us.” Rorie's response was barely comprehensible through the wracking coughs. “I'm gonna be down for a minute.” Behind the team captain, the teleporter had collapsed to her knees, though she was still surveying her surroundings between coughing fits.

“Oh good, we guessed right.” The confident female voice quickly drew the attention of the three present members of team five as a tall, skinny blonde stepped around the corner with a smile. “We figured you guys would be just a little faster than Gerard and Teresa, and we were right.”

The muscular hispanic man had just a moment to realize that Amelia showing herself so dramatically was not quite in character, before the world around him suddenly darkened with a loud *FWUMP*, accompanied by a great deal of cursing from his still coughing teammates.

“You guys will be out in twenty minutes or so, don't worry, it doesn't block you from breathing or anything.” The deep voice of the Tech Brilliance Super who had ambushed the team while they'd been distracted by the appearance of the top ranked student came from behind the group. “You want to get this thing, Ames? I don't want to get zapped.”

The skinny blonde moved forward, and the red pillar obligingly shot out a visible bolt of electricity in response, along with emitting an extremely shrill whistle for a solid two seconds.

“Tingly.” Amelia seemed completely unaffected by the electricity, though she did wince in response to the whistle. Picking up the pillar easily with one hand, she turned to jog away, pausing for just a moment to blow a kiss to the trapped Mexican behind her.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” The extremely loud cry came from just in front of the blonde as the final member of team five leapt from hiding and barreled full force into the seemingly immovable girl carrying the flag. Standing behind his captain, Ty winced and cursed at the incredibly bright flash from in front of him as Louise unleashed her full force in an attempt to drop the top ranked student.

Amelia actually staggered back from the assault, but before the tiny girl could follow up her opponent recovered and gave a swift, short kick that sent the petite Latina spinning away with a wet *crack*.

“Sorry about the leg, Louise. That was a hell of a shot though.” Amelia sounded winded as she turned to motion Ty to follow again, and began to run off through the simulated city towards her own zone. “Hell of a shot.”

...

“What are we waiting for again?” Teresa peered down from the vantage she shared with her team captain in time to see the top ranked student scoop up another huge piece of wreckage and set it as a barricade against a rain of high powered shots that had all four members of team one pinned down.

“We're waiting for three to make its move.” Gerard calmly scanned the battlefield below them, and rubbed at a large bruise on his arm from where part of Rorie's earlier barrage had made it through his barrier.

“This isn't them making a move?”

“This is Eloise and Scott keeping the most powerful student in the class pinned down to protect her teammates. I'm betting they're trying to move Zach in close enough to take out the blocks that Ames is putting up, and Erin will move in about the same time to sweep the team.”

“And they score points for every second we're sitting here?”

The neatly groomed blond man considered this point. “You think you can get us in and out down there without catching a stray round? I know Scott and Eloise are supposed to be in 'non-lethal' mode, but...”

“Get your field going and we'll have the cover we need.” The complete confidence in the hispanic teleporter's voice seemed to convince her captain.

“Alright, ready when you are.” The distortion of Gerard's barrier swam into existence behind the pair, and Teresa looked to see exactly where it was positioned and then back to the flag before nodding.

With a sudden rush of air, the two members of team four were now inches from the flag, as a pair of shots ricocheted off the shield to announce their arrival.

“FLAG!” The voice of the dark haired Advanced Mind finally grew loud enough to be heard over the din as Michael had apparently been attempting to direct his team's attention to the incoming threat unsuccessfully over the sounds of fighting.

Teresa smiled as she felt the telekinetic grasp wrap around her leg. “Too late Mike!” Gripping her captain tightly with one hand and grasping the strangely pliable surface of the 'flag' with her other, the teleporter closed her eyes in concentration even as she felt herself being spun off the ground. With another rush of air, the pair and their prize were somewhere else.

“Oof!” The dark haired girl landed with a thud as the momentum from the telekinetic attack left her off her feet in her new location. From her new position on the ground, Teresa had just enough time to recognize the prone body several feet away as Susan's shifted form before a concussive blast directly above her detonated with disorienting force.

Rolling over dizzily the teleporter noted the downed form of her blond captain, and a second blond male propped against a wall some distance away. Finishing her turn the dark haired girl looked up into a grinning face beneath a rainbow hued messy hairstyle. “Oh, that is so not fair.” The words barely made it out before a shadow loomed over her and Teresa saw the rapidly approaching, and very large, fist of one Tasha Johnson.

...

“Dammit, what the hell is he made out of?” The petite blonde fell back a step as she saw her massive crystalline opponent regain his feet and begin rushing towards her once more. It was possible that Amelia's power hadn't been the BEST choice for the mimic in this confrontation, but Alexandra didn't feel confident enough in her control of Teresa's ability to try teleporting Collin away, and the incredibly durable shifter would likely roll right over any other abilities she tried. Kinda like he's almost doing anyways...

The small girl felt her train of though cut off as another breeze whipped past her, a stinging welt was felt on her neck, and Catalina attempted to direct Lisa in another fruitless attempt to stop the team two speedster's hit and run harassment. Already Collin had closed with the blonde mimic again, and Alexandra found her full attention once again focused by the powerful opponent directly in front of her. Approximately three quarters of Amelia's incredible power was proving to be enough to hold the shifter at bay, but Alexandra couldn't figure out how to tap the incredible reserve the top ranked student had dipped into when she defeated Collin the first weekend.

Alexandra cursed as she once again sent Collin flying away, only to be knocked off balance herself by the impact from a massive metal bar that retracted before she could respond to it. Team two had descended on the current flag holders as they were trying to fortify against an impending attack from the ranged-heavy team three, and it seemed their chosen tactic of using Collin as a blunt instrument while Barry and Iris made hit and run attacks was extremely difficult to counter. Tasha had been knocked out on Iris' first pass, and the mimic hadn't had an opportunity to try and bring her team's secret weapon back into the fight yet. There was also no sign of Aaron, though given the lack of arrival of team three as well the petite girl was assuming that he was delaying them.

Deciding on a course of action, Alexandra lunged forward to meet Collin's next assault. Putting the large shifter slightly off balance at the unexpected charge away from her teammates, the tiny girl latched onto her much larger opponent and hurled him away as far as her borrowed strength could manage. Alright, that buys us MAYBE two minutes. Cat, give me a direction!

Instead of words, the blonde girl saw a section of terrain in front of her flash into better focus for a moment. Trusting that it was her teammate at work, and that her plan had been fully digested by the powerful telepath, Alexandra drew both her fists over her head and slammed them down in the direction indicated with all the might she could muster and no hesitation.

The incredible reaction time of Iris nearly allowed her to completely avoid the suddenly destroyed terrain in front of her, but the concussive blast from the massive impact disoriented her slightly. The speedster clipped the edge of the loose rocks and went tumbling, though not badly injured as she quickly began rolling to her feet.

Another flash in Alexandra's field of vision and a large piece of rubble was flung as the petite girl rushed back towards her teammates. Cursing came from Barry as he managed to deflect the heavy projectile, leaving the mimic just enough clear time to seize hold of the power right in front of her and turn it on its owner.

Tasha came awake almost immediately, offering an apologetic smile as she realized she had been taken out, before turning her power back on the mimic that had just healed her. Alexandra smiled widely as she felt the surging boost to her ability rushing in from her amazonian teammate, and reached out to grasp the familiar power of her roommate in an attempt to relocate her entire team AND the flag in one moment. Just before she could attempt her grand exit, the bright red pillar in question launched itself into the air and away from the battle, drawing shocked looks from all present. Standing just behind where the 'flag' had been a moment ago, a short sandy-haired youth waved before raising a hand holding a metal ring in it and flying off into the distance himself.

“Holy shit, Scott can fly?” The shocked mental voice that echoed through the entire Simulation Room drew laughter from nearly all the remaining students. Apparently it was possibly to surprise the telepath.

...

The bone weary students dragged themselves through the upper levels of the HCP facility in search of the elevators, food, and sleep. Only a few of the most resilient still seemed to have any energy left at all, as the exercise had been allowed to run for nearly eight hours. The exodus paused for a moment, as one of the students at the front stopped upon seeing a large poster situated just to the left of the elevators.

 

'TEAMS RANKS'
Team 1 – 898 points
Team 3 – 890 points
Team 7 – 840 points
Team 2 – 820 points
Team 6 – 774 points
Team 4 – 772 points
Team 5 – 750 points

 

“I told you it was a bad idea, Rorie.”

“Yes. Yes you did.”

...

“Joyce, so lovely of you to drop by.” The large man seated behind the massive desk swiveled to face the extremely angry looking woman that has just slammed the oversized door open. “Won't you come and take a seat?”

The middle aged woman paused for a moment as she realized how close she was coming to playing out an exact reversal of her previous meeting with Patrick, and forced a relaxed expression as she strode into the office and took the indicated seat. “You have some explaining to do, Patrick.” Though she had mastered her expression somewhat, there was still a thick note of rage bleeding through the woman's tone.

“Please be specific, my dear,” Joyce ground her teeth slightly at the teasing familiarity, but held her silence as she was now certain the much larger man was trying to bait her. “It is always best to be specific when demanding an explanation.”

“As specific as you were when you came to my office, I suppose.” The condescending smile the dark haired woman wore to accompany the barb seemed to break through the seemingly serene look on her colleague's face. “Very well then, why are you moving ahead of schedule? We all agreed that there would be no pressure applied to the program until they've relaxed their guard.”

“Ah, so your people finally noticed my little information distribution? I do have to thank you for the idea Joyce. It wouldn't have been possible without you.”

“Please, take all the credit yourself when you explain why you've fucked everything up to Edward. What the hell are you doing, Patrick?”

“Relax, Joyce. I'm not actually doing anything yet. As you demonstrated with your rather incredible data mining operation, the way to get around the flags and alerts built into the system is to operate on an incredibly large scale, at a slow pace, and to make sure there is so much junk data buried in the results that there are dozens of more plausible false positives for anyone sifting through it.”

“You aren't data mining, Patrick.” The woman leaned forward as the earlier rage crept back into her voice. “You are seeding the information that I provided for this endeavor amongst common CRIMINALS. What do you think is going to happen?”

“Well, I would hope that those common criminals decide to act on the information coming through their regular, well used channels.”

“What?” The statement of acceptance apparently caught Joyce completely off guard. “Why would you want that to happen you IDIOT. You think their guard went up when they figured out Roger was taking out hits on active Heroes? You're targeting FAMILIES. They will burn the world down searching for us.”

“Why would they do that, Joyce? Criminals are criminals. Terrible things happen every day, and sometimes through sheer coincidence it happens to the families of, say, students attending a University and participating in the Hero Certification Program.”

“And you think, somehow, they will be stupid enough not to put it together?”

“Joyce, we aren't creating any new criminals. We aren't creating any new data channels. We are simply seeding, amongst THOUSANDS of other bits of data, information that will lead violent criminals to places where their natural proclivities will do us some good. Trust me when I say I have some extremely 'gifted' people doing the math here. They assure me that there's nothing to trace back. Hell, we aren't even creating an increase in criminal activity, just nudging the existing pattern slightly. In the long run we'll probably be making some places safer because when those horrible, terrible criminals DO strike the families of certain people, odds are they'll be taken off the street a hell of a lot faster than they would have with only local law enforcement searching for them.”

“My God, that's insane. The amount of collateral damage you're talking about doi-...”

The large man behind the desk cut his colleague off angrily. “The only collateral damage being done is to the targets WE want it done to. Everything else was all going to happen anyways. There was going to be several areas with a marked increase in crime over the next few months. All I'm doing is aiming it a tiny bit to our advantage. Because all those kids, and their professors, and whoever the fuck else is helping them out? All their attention is going to move away from that little campus, because they'll all be looking for why their families are suddenly vulnerable. And performance will slip, and their guard will be down, and then it will be YOUR turn, Joyce.”

“My turn?”

“Edward's already gotten his hands dirty. I've proven more than once that I don't mind a little blood under the nails. Even Lee and Harvin have proven they're in this all the way. All you've done is throw some money around and set up a, admittedly impressive, data mining op. So once my plan bears fruit, it's your turn Joyce. You don't get to stand on that pedestal and look down at the rest of us anymore.”

The dark haired woman met the condescending look from the large man across the desk with an intense expression of hatred that forced him to blink in surprise. “Very well Patrick. Assuming your insane scheme doesn't blow up in your face and see you joining Roger in the ground, I'll take care of the next step.”

Chapter 8

Chapter 8:

Pros and Cons

 

“I'm starting to think our government babysitter's aren't such a bad thing.” The offhand comment from James Rachd as the HCP faculty found their weekly meeting drew looks of pure incredulity from the other six in the room. The red headed Weapon's Instructor actually missed her chair as the surprise statement from the Combat Instructor seemed to echo in the suddenly silent room.

“Well, that's a bit of a reversal.” Even the telepathic Focus Instructor looked like he'd been caught off guard, and the similarly skilled Dean seemed still unable to formulate a response.

“Oh, it's still complete bullshit. Their entire case for being here is idiotic, and I'm still wholly and enthusiastically in favor of finding out who pulled the strings to start this crap and break their limbs off one at a time.” The muscular bald man wore a smirk as he looked around at his recovering colleagues. “But it would seem there are some benefits to putting a class under the microscope like this.”

The Subtlety Instructor laughed softly, having finally caught on to Rachd's point. “You're talking about all the extra training those kids took on themselves over the summer.”

“Not just over the summer. Can anyone at this table say they've seen an HCP class push themselves this hard, for this long?”

The question drew a few thoughtful looks from the other Instructors, though it was Anthony Banning who next entered the conversation. “Anyone else finding they have to accelerate the curriculum for this year's sophomores just a bit? It's only the third week and I've already got my whole group working on the third year exercises. They're all keeping up.”

“I thought it was just because they liked me so much after getting to work with me last year.” Dani Reyes had regained both her chair and her composure. “But yeah, they are DEFINITELY going above and beyond. Would it be unethical for us to make a fake Oversight group to try and get the rest of the students more motivated?”

“Extremely.” The petite Dean wore a smile as she responded, but her tone was serious. “Not only unethical, but it would likely lose its effect quickly. This is the only class in the history of the Hero Certification Program that has had to endure the added scrutiny.”

“Not to mention the implied insult from a bunch of government paper-pushers.” The tall Ranged Combat Instructor leaned back in his chair as he spoke. “The Oversight Committee being attached to that class is basically saying, 'So, we think that you all are going to prove to be so incompetent as Supers that a study of your class will allow the closure of this extremely prestigious program that you all worked so hard to get into into.'”

“They're officially evaluating the program, not just looking to shut it down.”

“Even if they didn't have a single telepath in their class, Laurence, I don't think we would have admitted those kids to the HCP if they were dumb enough to believe the official line. Especially after last year's fiasco with Raines and not-Raines.”

The white haired professor nodded in acknowledgment of Anthony's point. “At least that fiasco resulted in the Oversight Chair getting an upgrade.”

“Speaking of, how is Mr Weaver doing?” Elena's question seemed to be directed towards the two telepaths. “Nothing in his background screamed of incompetence and nepotism the way Walter's checkups did, and unlike his predecessor the new Chair seems more than able to stay the hell out of the way in our facility.”

“Harold Weaver is an almost purely political creature.” The Dean's response was accompanied by an expression of distaste. “However he is extremely competent. So far he's mostly trying to get caught up on everything he would already know if he were here last year, and building some pretty impressive dossiers on both students and staff here. He seems to know that the powers that put him here expect to see us fail, but I'm certain that he would discard them in an instant if he saw a way to gain greater political capital by our program's success.”

“The closest to an overt move against us he's made so far is some casual investigation into the logistics of getting a student transferred from one HCP to another.” The Focus Instructor's addition to the Dean's information evoked contemplative expressions on the other professor's.

“Who's he trying to transfer?” The tone of the Combat Instructor's question indicated he was fairly certain he already knew the answer.

“Amelia Jacobson.”

“Can he do that?” The Weapons Instructor's tone was extremely plaintive as she directed her question to the Dean. “Could he get her transferred? Even if she's not taking my discipline, the entire University is WAY more epic with that girl here.”

Kathryn smiled reassuringly in response to the worried look on Dani's face. “It's technically possible, but barring some extremely unfortunate circumstances that Mr Weaver is too intelligent to try and manufacture himself, it would require the approval of the HCP Dean's at both schools, as well as the consent of the student being transferred. I have no reason to believe that Ms Jacobson is unhappy at Overton, so the situation becomes even less likely.

“Now unless anyone has any additional surprise statements to work through today?” The petite woman looked directly at the Combat Instructor who had started the conversation, but the muscular man simply shrugged and shook his head in response. “Then I believe the first ACTUAL item on our agenda today is Hai's progress on the data mining discovery.”

The Control Instructor sighed deeply as attention at the table turned to her. “Are you sure we can't have James say something else completely out of character and distract us all for a bit longer? Maybe another week or so and I'll have less bad news to share.”

“Do you really think a week of distractions would help, Hai?”

A second sigh from the petite asian woman. “No, no it would not. So here's the summary; the entire Overton student population was cycled very covertly into a massive data mining operation. At the level the various unrelated investigations went to on all parties involved, unless the persons pulling the strings suddenly developed a severe case of incompetence, an unknown group has a complete roster for the Overton HCP.”

“What's the DVA doing about this? Or hell, this should qualify to get either NSA or FBI cyber divisions involved, shouldn't it?” The questions from the Subtlety Instructor were met by a less than encouraging expression on Hai Nguyen's face.

“DVA is investigating, but has almost zero resources allocated to actually backtracking anything. Everyone seems focused entirely on getting upgraded procedures in place to prevent it from happening again, instead of worrying about it having already happened.”

“Methinkst someone is pulling some more strings behind the scenes.” Laurence Vree steepled his fingers in front of his face as he spoke. “A breach like this should be receiving a tremendous amount of attention, not a simple attempt to repair the barn after the livestock has all fled.”

“The official word, or at least the official word that my contacts have passed down to me, is that since the most recent traces of the data mining took place in early July, we're 'obviously' looking at some sort of test run. The powers that be seem to think that since no one has acted on the information for a couple of months, they have no intention to do so.

“In happier news, the Walkers still hire some of the best and brightest and THEY are very interested in finding out whomever is behind all this. After the anonymous bounty sites last year trying to get random people to attack HCP students to out them on SI infractions, we've got a couple dedicated tech people in both the government and on the private side making sure that something similar doesn't crop up again now that our enemies have a more accurate list.”

“I don't suppose there's any BETTER good news than that?” The red haired professor sounded despondent as she spoke. “Isn't there someone we can just go hit?”

“You should be careful what you wish for, Dani.” The response from the dark haired Subtlety Instructor perked up her colleague's attention a bit. “Rights of Humanity has officially arrived this week, which means in all likelihood the HLM is also here. With any luck you'll get to beat up some violent supremacists by the end of the month.”

Most of the HCP staff seemed less than pleased at Elena's announcement, but the red haired Weapons Instructor wore an expression best described as 'predatory.'

 

...

 

The heavyset blond man sighed and adjusted his to better block the midday sun as he approached the throng surrounding the administration building. A quick hand signal had a pair of campus security officers flanking him, and Riley Walker began to push his way through the crowd towards the makeshift podium that had been set up in front of the steps of his building.

“And look, already they send their tools in the guise of law and order to stop us from gathering peacefully here!” The rich, charismatic voice of the brown haired man behind the podium carried easily across the crowd without need for any mechanical enhancement. Riley simply smiled widely in response to the 'introduction' and removed his hat to wave to the crowd in greeting.

“A bit of a misunderstanding on your part, my good man!” The University President's own well trained voice carried just as easily over the crowd, and seemed genuinely cheerful to those listening. “No tools of 'THEM,'” the mocking emphasis the blond man put onto the word actually drew a few brief chuckles from the edges of the throng, “just a University President making sure the rules are being followed. I'm afraid that this is not an appropriate place for your little rally, Mr...?”

The man behind the podium smiled in response to the well practiced lines from Riley, but the expression didn't manage to make it all the way to his eyes. “Clarence Dane. And you must be Overton's President, Mr Riley Walker?” Clarence was slightly taller than Riley as he stepped down from the podium to offer a handshake, but the University President was by far the larger of the two men.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr Dane. Won't you join me inside for a moment?” The blond man met his adversary's offered handshake with a grip that briefly threatened to crush the thinner man's hand, before releasing with a brief smirk.

“And already we move to a blatant attempt to silence the free speech of a simple gathering!” Dane's attempt to play to the crowd met with a thunderous response from those packed closest to the podium, a group that the University President quickly noted seemed to contain no local faces.

Not even competent enough to fire up a crowd without seeding the hell out of it. Riley resisted the urge to shake his head as he waited for a lull in the noise to reenter the fray. His wait was further prolonged when one of the younger members of the crowd pushed his way up to the heavy man and began a tirade of his own.

“You should be ashamed of yourself, Mr Walker! You bring us in to an institute of learning, and all the while you have HUNDREDS of the most dangerous creatures in the world running about, hiding in plain sight among us? What are you doing to insure the safety of the Human students while you're pandering to the Super freaks underground?”

After only a moment's thought, during which the crowd quieted enough to hear what the official University response would be, Riley came to a rapid decision on how to handle this particularly poorly planned land mine. I need to remember to buy Janette something appropriately apologetic for all the extra work I'm about to heap on her.

“What's your name, son?” The jovial response to the accusation seemed to put the seemingly enraged student off balance.

“Um, Fred Redding.”

Well Mr Redding, allow me to put you completely at ease. As you do not feel completely safe attending a University that also hosts one of the most prestigious programs in the world, we will remedy that situation with haste!” Producing his phone from an inside pocket the large man set off an extremely rapid series of brief messages as he spoke. “And that should do it, Mr Redding. You are no longer enrolled at Overton University. As this was in regards to a concern for your safety I've ensured that you will receive a complete refund for your tuition, housing costs, and even text books. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.” The blond man smiled at the dumbstruck expression on the much younger man's face as he turned back to Clarence Dane, completely ignoring the sudden babbling behind him as Fred Redding realized he was likely looking forward to some uncomfortable talks with his parents as to why he was no longer a student.

“And in regards to your concerns over the freedom of speech, you greatly misunderstand me sir!” Riley was falling into a proper political rally kind of rhythm now and had continued the conversation before his opponent could recover from the sudden and decisive manner in which an obvious plant had been dealt with. “I would never seek to stop you from SPEAKING on any subject, however this particular locale,” a sweeping gesture emphasized the fact that half the crowd was actually standing in the parking lot, “is not the best environment for such speech. If you would accompany me to my office, I'm sure that we have several open lecture halls, or even our stadium, that would better suit your little gathering than blocking the doors to my building while forcing your people to stand in the road.” Before the brown haired man could formulate a response, Riley had strode forward to clasp an arm around the thinner man's shoulders. “I know that the bureaucracy is tedious, but the rules must be obeyed after all!”

Clarence managed to plaster a triumphant expression onto his face as Riley led him into the building, even pumping his fist into the air in a sign of victory. Once through the doors his expression changed drastically.

“Get your hands off of me, Walker.”

“Nothing would please me more, Mr Dane.” The University President released the taller man and strode ahead of him after mock-dusting off the sleeve of his jacket. The two men walked in silence all the way to the large corner office where Riley dropped into a plush chair behind an oversized desk and offered the other man an expectant look.

You really think you can stand in the way of a movement like this one with petty rules and regulations?”

“Actually I'm pretty sure that all the rules and regulations do is make level the playing field for your side, Mr Dane. After all, this wouldn't be much of a challenge if I DIDN'T have to follow the rules.” The smile returned to the blond man's face as the less than subtle threat seemed to startle the brown haired visitor. “Now,” Riley produced a large leather bound binder with the word 'SCHEDULE' embroidered across the front, “let's pick some proper times and places for you to have your little get togethers while you insist on polluting my campus with your 'cause.' Stick to the rules, Mr Dane, and as an added bonus I will do my personal best to insure that those students you are so worried about don't cause you any direct trouble.”

“You keep those freaks away from me and my people, or I'll-...”

“You'll do what? This is my campus, Mr Dane. And if you and your people step out of line, I will personally make sure that you regret it for a VERY long time.”

 

...

 

“Have a good night, Mr Daye!” The overweight brunette girl giggled at the mock scowl the deli owner threw her way as she again overemphasized the natural pun her boss's name allowed for, and waved a gloved hand at the man. Settling a backpack across her shoulders, the young woman turned to start the long walk back to the Overton campus.

Everything about Andrea Chandler screamed 'Art Student!' From clothes and glasses all carrying small inky looking smudges everywhere, to her hair style and the fact that the over-packed bag she was carrying was nearly bleeding art supplies onto the street as she walked. In Andrea's three years attending Overton University, two of which working nights at the very deli she had just left, it had never once occurred to her that the streets of the small town might be somewhat less than safe after dark. The heavyset girl didn't even notice the pair of large men following her until she was grabbed by the shoulders and shoved down an alley.

Hey, what th-...” The startled exclamation was cut off as the man who pushed her followed up with a vicious kick to her stomach, dropping the girl the rest of the way to the ground and further from the lights of the street.

“Please... I don't... you can have...” Gasping for breath, Andrea managed to peel her wallet out of the back pouch of her bag and throw it in the direction of the two masked men.

The man who had kicked glanced down at the object, but his partner simply stepped past and delivered a solid stomp to the downed girl's chest, forcing the air from her lungs again as she whimpered in pain. “Don't want your money, freak. You don't belong here.”

The look of confusion that briefly mingled with the pain on the brunette's face seemed to further enrage the man, as he reached down abruptly and ripped her flannel open, exposing the somewhat faded T-shirt beneath it.

'You Think Your Life Sucks? I'm POWERED. I Win.' The white letters on the darker material actually glowed faintly, as did the humorous depiction beneath of a man with his head on fire.

“You wearing it for fun, or because you're proud to be a freak?”

The harsh tone of the question caused the girl on the ground to shake briefly, before her expression resolved into a look of desperate determination. Before either of the two men could assault her again, the girl whipped her bag up and threw it forward, using the distraction to tear off the mismatched gloves she wore. Seeing the strange movement the two men froze, suddenly hesitant to approach the Powered girl as she pulled herself to her feet.

“I'm not dangerous. I don't do anything amazing or powerful. Just this.” A hand pressed against the alley wall and dragged downward left a rainbow of random colors in its wake, and the confidence of the attackers seemed to return.

It doesn't go away though. On skin it goes at least as deep as a tattoo. So come and hurt me some more. All I have to do is get a hand on you and you will the easiest fuckers to identify EVER. Looking forward to prison?” The heavyset young woman's voice remained steady, and challenging. Even as every other part of her body trembled. Every part except the two hands that the masked men were now watching warily.

“Get out of Overton, freak.” With that parting wit, the two men quickly fled the alley, turning in separate directions as the hit the street.

Andrea slumped back to her knees, gasping again in pain as the motion jarred her likely broken ribs. Without taking her eyes off the alley entrance where the two men had disappeared, a trembling hand made its way into her pocket to retrieve the practically antique fliphone that resided there. The brunette began sobbing softly as the three digits were dialed, and the voice on the other end of the line assured her that help was on the way.

 

...

 

Jeremy Phelps laid flat on his perch atop the dorm roof overlooking the parking lot, and fought with all of his will not to cry. The lanky youth had worked as hard as he could for the past five years, training as much as his schedule would allow, making sure his grades were as high as they could be, and absorbing every bit of knowledge he could find about the world of Heroes. All in preparation for this year, and his application to the HCP.

The dark haired boy had actually fainted when he'd opened the letter from Overton and discovered it was his acceptance letter. He'd crossed the impossible hurdle and made it into the program. Jeremy had assumed, somewhat naively, that once he'd made it into the program it was simply a matter of applying himself to the same level he had for the past half-decade and he would graduate a Hero as a matter of course. The Dean's shocking blunt speech regarding the actual advancement numbers of students through the HCP had come as a horrific shock to Jeremy, and many of his fellow freshmen as well.

Then had come the week of grueling physical training, and the lanky youth had celebrated that his own intense regimen had paid off. Five of his classmates had been unable to keep pace through the first week. But then had come the Ranking Tournament. With several years of practical martial arts training under his belt and physical conditioning near the top of his class for those without physical powers, Jeremy had been confident he would place highly. Instead he was eliminated in back to back matches, totaling less than a minute between them. Attempting to rally, the dark haired youth had powered into the second week of training and set to redeem his last ranked position by challenging the full five ranks ahead. The challenge match had lasted far longer than his ranking matches, but at the end of it Jeremy awoke in the infirmary, still hanging onto the bottom rung of his class.

A commotion in the parking lot below jarred the lanky Super out of his depressed introspection long enough to right himself and peer off the roof. Down in the parking lot a group of three well built men were pushing a fourth smaller, heavier boy around between them. The object that had drawn their derision seemed to be the younger boy's multicolored hairstyle, and the official Shutterbug Fanclub shirt he was wearing. All three attackers wore matching white shirts with the letters 'ROH' emblazoned front and back in large black font. The despondent Super's expression hardened as he considered his options. The best thing to do is call Campus Security, but they could take awhile to get here. Ah fuck, the blond has got a razor, they're threatening to shave him in the fucking parking lot.

Humiliating assault aside, the presence of the shimmering blade in the altercation kicked things up to a different level in Jeremy's mind. He no longer had time to call and wait on the authorities, even if blondie was a trained barber it was unlikely he could shave a resisting man without seriously injuring him. Before he had consciously realized it, the lanky man found himself sliding quickly off the roof and down to the sidewalk. The three bullies had yet to notice his approach, so Jeremy prompted them. “HEY! BACK THE FUCK OFF!”

All four men turned startled expressions towards the abrupt shout, and Jeremy wished desperately at that moment that his voice had been deep enough to make it truly intimidating. He was taller than his opponents, but they were all much heavier than he was.

The victimized boy turned to try and flee as the distraction presented itself, but one of the three was quick enough to trip him as he ran, leaving him sprawled on the asphalt instead.

“You think you're some kind of Hero man? Fuck off.” The blond with the razor made a cutting motion towards Jeremy, before all three moved to converge back on the hapless youth on the ground.

Fuck it, I wasn't going to make it anyways. At least this way I get to go out on my terms. “HEY!” The second shout drew attention once again, but this time the dark haired boy accompanied it with a rapid approach. “You want to hate on Supers?”

The closest of the three moved to block Jeremy approach with a mocking grin and a looping punch. The thinner man stepped easily inside the slow moving strike and flipped his opponent onto the ground, following the throw up with a gentle palm strike to the man's chest. At first the disoriented attacker simply growled and attempted to pull himself to his feet, but as he found himself unable to do so his movements became more and more panicked. “What the fuck did you do to me?”

At this point the other two men had abandoned their torment of the overweight boy and turned startled expressions on the newcomer, as he smiled at them and stepped over the pinned man. “If you hate Supers so much, here's your chance. Instead of the fanboy, you get to fight the real thing.”

The blond with the razor lunged forward with an expression holding more fear than rage, slashing wildly in an attempt to force the taller man back. Jeremy evaded the first wild swing and kicked his foot forward just enough to tap the other man's shoe. During the blond's next swing, he overbalanced and fell, his ankle cracking with a wet *SNAP* as one of his feet stayed perfectly glued to the ground, and the weight of his fall did the rest.

Looking up to see where the other man had gone, Jeremy saw him fleeing desperately across the parking lot and looking back to the scene of the fight with terror written across his features. So intent on looking back at the Super behind him, he didn't think to check for hazards in front of him.

The dark haired Super winced as he saw the large fleeing man clotheslined by an even larger man that came running out from between a pair of cars. Before the suddenly downed man could begin to recover, his large assailant dropped a knee into his back and pinned his arms. Across the distance Jeremy clearly heard the growling voice of the larger man. “Try to get up and I break them both. Got it?”

“Nice moves, sir.” Jeremy started as another man seemed to materialize next to him. “Glad to see that the tradition of Overton students helping each other in need is being continued. I'm Steven, that's Phil.” A gesture indicated that the extremely large man was most likely the one known as Phil.

“Jeremy, nice to meet you.”

“That is an awesome trick, but if you don't mind my asking... Why?”

The lanky youth understood the real meaning behind the vague question asked. The Secret Identity program was as much a part of the orientation for the normal students at Overton as it was for the HCP students, it was simply more important for the latter group. “I couldn't just let them do what they were doing.” Jeremy flushed slightly at his own heavily edited response, deciding that he didn't really need to unburden his other troubles onto a random stranger in the parking lot.

“You broke my fucking ankle you FREAK!” The spittle laden shout from the downed blond attacker drew the attention of both students to the incapacitated man.

Steven stepped forward with a smile on his face, and looked down at the large man's ankle. “Sir, I'm a pre-med student. I can assure you that at this angle nothing is broken. Badly sprained and possibly dislocated, but you didn't fall hard enough to break anything.”

“Oh... thanks...?” The confused inflection from the man on the ground was met with a continued smile from the brown haired youth leaning over him.

“Now THIS,” a lightning fast kicking motion forward accompanied by a soft *CRACK* and a hoarse scream from the man on the ground, “is a BROKEN ankle.”

Jeremy found himself smiling along with his fellow 'good Samaritan' as he finally noted the approach of the dark blue uniforms of Campus Security in the distance.

“You fucking bastard, YOU broke my ankle!”

“Nah man.” Jeremy surprised himself with the level of dead calm he managed with his voice. “You did that when you fell down. Trust me.” The last two words came out with such force that the blond man actually gulped nervously in response, then nodded.

Turning to begin the statement taking process with Campus Security, Jeremy played back through the encounter in his mind and came to a conclusion. I think I'm going to apply for the SI exemption ruling and see if one of the other programs will take me. Maybe I DO have what it takes to be a Hero after all.

 

...

 

“And do you know why you're here, Ms Blake?” The question from the petite woman behind the desk was so laden with sarcasm that the auburn haired girl it was directed at didn't even bother acknowledging it. A few seconds past as the Dean locked eyes with the younger telepath before she spoke again. “There have been a large number of incidents on campus this past week, and a great many of them have been resolved in a most peculiar manner.”

What manner is that, Dean Jilles?”

The dark haired woman scowled slightly as she attempted to read more than the projected words and ran into a perfect mirror of her OWN thoughts being projected back at her. As a method to prevent other Advanced Minds from reading your thoughts went, the Dean had to admit that this one was brilliant. “When did you come up with the idea of drowning out another Advanced Mind like that?” The conversation momentarily derailed as the curiosity of a woman who had instructed in the HCP for many years pushed its way to the fore.

It was actually something that Michael mentioned when we were practicing towards the end of last year. He said that reading other Advanced Minds was always annoying because you'll pick up a little bit of feedback of your own mind while you're 'in there.' He said that me being a projective made it worse for him. I thought about it for awhile and decided to see how much 'worse' I could make it.”

“Back to the matter at hand then. Over the course of the week Campus Security has reported eleven cases, and the Overton Sheriff’s office three of their own, where an officer on duty would suddenly hear a whisper in their head directing them somewhere nearby, and they proceeded to arrive just in time to apprehend a criminal in the act. Seems odd, no?”

I don't know about odd, Dean Jilles. With all the attacks from that stupid hate group, and fourteen of those incidents were prevented by this. It seems like an incredibly good thing to me!” The mental tone projected held nothing but cheerful enthusiasm, and Kathryn dropped her face into her hands to hide the smile that crept out unbidden before remembering that trying to hide any tells from the girl sitting across from her was likely pointless.

“And you don't know where this whisper that's tipping off these officers is coming from?”

Well developed law enforcement instincts? Or possibly Angels!”

“Angels?”

All student in the HCP are entitled to complete freedom of Religious Belief.”

The verbatim quote from the HCP orientation packet drew a sigh from the Dean as she attempted again to gain any detail from the mind sitting across from her. She caught glimpses, but nothing useful, before continuing. “If this discussion were to go off the record, what would be your opinion of a Super in the HCP using their abilities to deliver those tips?”

Off the record? I would probably consider it EXCELLENT practice for any Advanced Mind thinking about using their ability as a Hero. Possibly even strenuous enough to make up for that Advanced Mind not selecting the Focus discipline, and enough to get the professor of that discipline to stop bringing up the subject.” The mental tone held no trace of anything except pure sincerity, save for the almost sing-song portion at the end which drew genuine laughter from the petite woman.

“You can head back to your classes, Ms Blake. And I'll talk to Laurence again.”

 

 

Chapter 9

Chapter 9:

Finding Ways Forward

 

Amelia didn't look up from the benchpress as the door to the extreme-weight room slip open to admit someone. She did notice when that someone strode angrily to the press she was using and pushed the bar down with an impressive amount of force. Focusing her attention on the newcomer, the skinny blonde found herself less than surprised to see the scowling expression of her Combat Instructor.

“Something I can do for you, Coach?” The sophomore pushed against the bar harder, trying to overcome the extra downward force coming from the bald man leaning over her.

“You can stop fucking sandbagging, Jacobson.” Rachd hooked a foot under the impressively large machine that the young woman was working out on, and used the leverage to force the bar back to its lowest position.

Amelia only answer was a glare of her own and a growl, as she dug down and tried to push even harder. Slowly, with both Supers straining visibly, the massive bar inched upwards until, at about halfway up, the muscular Instructor released it and turned away with a dismissive snort.

Sitting up and feeling slightly dizzy from the incredible effort she'd just put out, the blonde's voice held more than a little anger in it. “What the fuck was that, Coach? You think I'm holding back?”

“No, Jacobson. I KNOW you're holding back, and you're too fucking stupid to even REALIZE IT!” The vehemence from Rachd washed over the skinny girl, but she didn't flinch or back away. Stalking back up to the student the bald man leaned in close. “How much weight are you up to, Jacobson?”

“61 tonnes. I've been keeping on the program we developed back last year whe-...” Amelia broke off as the man was obviously no longer listening, instead he reached past and tapped the control screen for the weight machine a few times.

“Tell me what the screen says.”

Looking confused, Amelia leaned far enough over to read the display, and felt her jaw drop open in shock. That can NOT be right.

The display stated that the last workout had consisted of 27 reps, which the braided girl's internal count told her was accurate. And stated that the workout had been performed at the machine's maximum level. 101.3 tonnes.

“You didn't even notice that the machine had been reset, you just laid back and did your workout like always.” The gravelly voice seemed to be coming from farther away as the girl continued to stare blankly at the numbers on the screen, before a sharp impact on the back of her head drew her attention back to her other surroundings.

“Ow,” Amelia rubbed her head where the coach had slapped her.

“Pay. Attention.” The growled words locked the incredibly strong girl's focus back on her Instructor. “I've been waiting for you to realize this yourself since you stepped up and dismantled Gauge during the ranking match opening weekend. But you haven't. Then I reset your workout program so it would just scale to maximum resistance every time you worked out, and you still didn't notice.” The muscular man sighed and seemed to deflate a bit as he sank onto one of the other machine's benches across from Amelia. “Do you have the slightest idea of how dangerous that makes you?”

The stunned, yet defiant expression that appeared in response to the question gave Rachd all the information he needed and he continued before the girl could find her voice again. “Yes, DANGEROUS. You, all of you, are here to learn how to be Heroes. The biggest part of that is learning to use your abilities above and beyond what almost anyone else would even contemplate. And as long as you stroll blithely through life not accepting HOW powerful you are, you aren't going to learn what you need to.” The muscular man hesitated, something that shocked Amelia far more than the yelling, accusations, or even revelation of the subterfuge with the weight machine had.

After a long pause, the Combat Instructor continued. “You are skating dangerously close to the line of washing out of the program right now, Jacobson. You wouldn't be the first. Sometimes the most powerful Supers can't make it as Heroes because they can't, on some mental level, accept all of what they can do. As strong as I am, I can barely imagine what it's like for you to walk around a world so fragile. To me, a world built for normal humans is like something made of spun glass. To you, those things must barely be more solid than a soap bubble.”

“I have it under control, I've HAD it under control fo-...”

“No, you don't.” The interruption this time wasn't angry, but the gravelly voice was attempting to sound compassionate instead. Amelia found herself laughing as even the Instructor stopped at the sound of his own voice, and chuckled.

“Alright, so touchy feely shit is not my thing, glad we got that out of the way.”

“What do you mean, I don't have control?”

“You don't, because you can't. Before five minutes ago you didn't know you could press a hundred metric tonnes with barely more effort than sixty. How can you have control over your ability when you don't know what its limits are?” Rachd stood as he spoke, seemingly preparing to leave. “You have to start PUSHING yourself, Jacobson. Push until you start failing, so you know where that is. Then learn to use EVERYTHING between where you are now, and where those actual limits are.”

“How do I do that?”

“Hell if I know, Jacobson. I'm mostly just here to teach you how to hit things without dying. But I can tell you this.” The Combat Instructor waved around the room as he spoke. “You aren't going to find your limits in here. Go try to do something impossible. Pick a fight with one of your Instructors. Get one of those teleporter girls to zip you off somewhere remote and try to knock over a mountain. You've been coasting on everything except your boxing lessons with Carerra, it's time to step it up.”

Amelia sat quietly for a long time after the muscular Instructor had left the room. Finally she stood, and shook her head as if to clear it. Looking back at the monstrous weight machine the HCP had provided for the physically enhanced students, she made a note of the manufacturer. I'm not quite ready to try and punch out a mountain, though punching out a Combat Instructor might be worth trying. Let's see how big they actually make these things first.

 

 

Groaning, Iris Todd forced her eyes open to see a face leaning over hers, framed with bright red hair. “You should really try to avoid shots like that, Iris. Why do you keep letting Erin hit you?” The mocking question drew a scowl from the downed girl, even as she felt her strength returning and pain fading.

Ignoring the Instructor for a moment, Iris flashed a look of gratitude towards Tasha as she regained her feet. “Well, what's your answer Iris?”

“I'm not LETTING Erin hit me, Dani. She's just impossibly good at this, and I'm still learning.”

“But you're so much FASTER than she is.” Another scowl from the blonde girl as the Instructor threw back the words that Iris had used when she'd been told she would be paired with Erin instead of working directly with the Instructor.

“Yes, fine, it was a stupid thing to say. Happy?”

“Nope. You have to defend the honor of all speedsters everywhere, and get in there and land at least one REAL hit before the end of class!” Iris noted that, behind the animated Weapons Instructor, Erin seemed to be fighting to keep herself from laughing.

“Right.” A glance at the clock indicated that this left Iris approximately twenty minutes to accomplish her goal. Looking to her opponent the speedster wore a plaintive expression. “Don't suppose you want to give me a freebie, Erin? You already laid me out like ten times.”

“Only nine so far, Iris. You're getting better. And no, no freebies. Dani told me if I gave you any freebies that I would be her EXCLUSIVE sparring partner for the rest of the year. Not a price I'm willing to pay.”

“Oh well.” Iris accompanied her acceptance speech with a furious rush at her opponent, only to have her attack again deflected by her opponent's incredible reflexes and skill. “Worth a shot.”

As the two women closed again there were no further words, save the occasional excited cheer from the engrossed Weapons Instructor. Still, when the class ended, Erin still stood triumphantly with no more than bruises along her arms where some of Iris' high speed strikes hadn't been perfectly deflected.

Dani approached the dejected looking blonde with a conciliatory expression, then placed a white ballcap on the younger speedster's head. Iris sighed, as the hat was settled into place. Dani Reyes was definitely the oddest of the six Overton Instructors, and the cap was one of the key pieces of proof for that argument. Rather than yell, threaten, assign extra work that hadn't been announced previously, or any of the other myriad ways in which the other professors made it known you hadn't met their expectations, Dani had the failure hat.

The ballcap was plain white, adorned only with an ASCII frowny face, and a student who had the cap placed on their head was expected to wear it att all times while in the HCP facilities. For a full week. Failure to wear the failure hat resulted in Dani assigning an entire weekend of 'personal instruction' with the student in question that was rumored among the upperclassmen to have resulted in every student subjected to it washing out of the program. Needless to say, Iris was planning to wear the damned hat for the rest of the week.

How the hell do you do that, Erin? I mean how can you possibly be keeping up with me?” Iris had considered approaching the higher ranked girl several times in the past, but the hat was giving her some extra incentive to do so now. I do not want to get stuck with this damned thing again next week.

“You mean the speed difference?”

“And the reaction time difference.” Iris grabbed her bag as the class began filing towards the locker rooms and produced two bottle of water, offering one to the other girl. “I mean, I know you're stronger than I am, and faster than a normal person, and I can't do the full on perception enhancement while I'm fighting yet, but I move close to THIRTYtimes faster than a normal person and my reflexes are at least five times better. How are you keeping up with that?”

“You know what my powers are?” Erin accepted the water bottle and took a small sip, leaving her blonde companion feeling slightly more frustrated as it emphasized the fact that the slightly taller girl seemed barely tired from the strenuous workout.

“You mess with light, you see really good, and you're low end physically enhanced.”

Erin chuckled briefly at the abrupt description. “Technically accurate, but not very complete. Do you know how 'really good' I can see?” The blonde girl shrugged her response and offered a querying look. “Right now I can see the Close Combat class working out through the wall we're walking by. I can see how the sound from out footsteps, and from the conversation we're having right now, is disturbing the air. I can see the nerve impulses underneath your skin, I can tell where blood is flowing by watching for subtle changes, and I can also see certain types of radio frequencies well enough to have a primitive radar.”

Iris found her expression dropping further and further into one of shock as Erin ticked off details. “So... you can see what I'm going to do before I do it?”

“A little bit. It took a lot of practice to be able to read muscle signals very well, and it's not much of a warning against someone as fast as you are. But think, I'm seeing and interpreting all of those things ALL THE TIME. The speed I can interpret information at is probably close to the same as what you're managing right now, and as a result my reaction time is similarly heightened. If my brain COULDN'T process that much faster than normal, I'd just be a vegetable staring at all the pretty colors and shapes, never being able to completely make sense of them.”

“Jesus, when you put it like that it sounds like you almost ended up with a really awful power.” Or maybe a really awful Powered. Iris shuddered slightly at the thought.

“There were some... things last year that made me think about what my ability would be like if I didn't have the control that I always remember having.”

The blonde girl lapsed into a quietly contemplative state at this information, as the two students entered the locker room together. After showering and changing, the Iris came back alongside Erin as they exited, again wearing the hated failure hat. “So, think you have time to give me some extra lessons?”

Erin giggled at the question from her classmate. “Think that's a good idea when we're on competing teams?”

“Don't you want to make sure your team has a challenge? I mean a challenge OTHER than the ridiculously indestructible students in our class?”

The taller girl laughed again. “All right, you've convinced me. Although if you really want a big jumpstart on your training, there's an easier way.”

“What's that?”

“Throw the hat away, and wait for the weekend.” Iris laughed along with Erin at the suggestion, but one hand unconsciously crept up to check and make sure the cap was still in place as she did so.

 

 

“Mr Jameson, a word please.” Scott found himself caught off guard by the unexpected voice behind him as he had moved to exit the Control class with the rest of the students. Turning he found himself face to face with the Instructor. “I'm curious why you've remained completely ground-bound in all of my classes this week, Mr Jameson.”

The sandy haired youth's eyes widened a bit in surprise at the not-quite question. “Umm, ground-bound? As opposed to?”

The look the petite professor returned was not quite a glare, but still a bit more emotion than the young man was used to seeing on the normally expressionless face. “During your class's first team exercise you demonstrated that you can use your ability in order to fly, or a close approximation thereof. An aspect of your power that would make the exercises you are completing in my course MUCH easier, yet you haven't used it once all week. I am curious as to why this is.”

Dear Lord, she doesn't actually ASK questions does she? Don't answer that. “Well Professor, I didn't think it was really in the spiri-...”

“There is a teleporter in this course with you, Mr Jameson.” Scott's halfhearted excuse was interrupted with a bit of force from the petite woman. “And also a VERY fast speedster. Seeing as how neither of those students is being discouraged from using THEIR abilities to better master the exercises presented, I'm forced to wonder why you would feel YOUR power wouldn't be 'in the spirit.'”

Scott hesitated before answering, seeming to consider several possibilities before slumping slightly and muttering a response.

“I didn't quite catch that, Mr Jameson.”

“I can't control it accurately enough to do it in tight spaces without running into things. I haven't been doing it in class because I didn't want any of the other students to know I don't have it figured out yet.”

The impassive Instructor merely nodded in response to this information. “In that case, Mr Jameson, I will leave the obstacle course as is until later this evening. Thank you for your time.” With that, Professor Nguyen turned away from the dumbstruck young man and headed in the direction of the faculty offices.

Sweet merciful Lord, did the most emotionless Instructor at Overton just do me a favor? “Uhh... Thanks Professor!” Scott flinched a little as he spoke, realizing immediately that he sounded far more surprised than grateful, but the retreating form of his Instructor simply gave a small wave of acknowledgment without turning around.

 

 

The rapid clicking of typing on a keyboard and the soft sounds of breathing were the only things audible in the small room. Antoin watched as the information on the monitor in front of him flickered, changed, but stubbornly refused to become anything other than indecipherable garbage. A brief pause in the clicking while hands were run through short, platinum blond hair in near-universally recognized gesture of vexation.

“Where'd you get next week's assignment?” Antoin literally screeched in shock and fell out of his chair at the sudden question from right beside his ear. Managing to catch himself before a damaging landing could occur, the young man attempted to force his heart rate back under control as his brain rapidly associated the voice with its owner.

“Professor Martinez, I, um, well...”

“It's good work getting this much of it, but I don't think it matters what kind of decryption you throw at it. Might be worth some extra credit though.” The middle aged hispanic professor faded completely into view looking intently at the monitor. And not bothering to hide the wide smile she wore as her gaze flicked momentarily to the student still making his way off the floor.

“It's... why not?” Antoin gave up the battle to salvage any real dignity from the situation as lost and simply pulled himself up and back into his chair, attempting to ignore the fact that he was still flushed with embarrassment as he spoke.

“Well, mostly, because it's an incomplete file.”

“How can you POSSIBLY tell it's incomplete from what's on the screen right now?”

“Oh, that?” A hand waved at the garbled data being displayed. “That's nothing, just a bunch of junk data that goes along WITH the real assignment. I did a bit of work making it all look like legit files to see who would waste all their time trying to translate garbage into something useful. I know you don't have the real files for the exercise because I haven't actually made them yet.”

The healer felt his jaw drop open at the conclusion of the professor's matter-o-fact statement. “Wait, so all this is...”

“Yep, this is the chaff you were going to have to sort out. I guess I'll have to change it now that I know it's already out there. Maybe I'll change it up completely and have you kids play 'Watch and Spot' next week instead.” Elena trailed off as she seemed to be considering her own thought before she suddenly turned back to the blond youth. “Though you still haven't answered my question, Mr Montaine.”

Antoin flinched slightly at the intense look the professor had suddenly turned on him, and ran back mentally through the conversation as he tried to figure out which question he had failed to answer. “Ah, you mean where I got this from?”

“That would be the one, seeing as it's the only question I've actually asked.”

“I got it off the HCP computers, obviously.” Antoin motioned towards the workstation he was currently seated in front of. “The networking is pretty solid an-...”

“And there is no way a sophomore without an Advanced Mind or Technological Brilliance type ability could POSSIBLY have broken through from the student terminals to lift these files off of my personal computer.” The perfectly timed interruption was performed with a mostly playful tone, but there was a look in the older woman's eyes that indicated things were going to become a lot more serious if Antoin didn't become more cooperative.

“Ah. Well, in the spirit of the Subtlety discipline, I kinda bribed one of the other professors to let me use their terminal from inside the REALLY high end firewalls to get access to your computer.”

Elena met the young man's steady, if somewhat nervous, stare for several seconds before she burst out laughing. Antoin felt greatly emboldened by this result as he continued.

“You said it yourself on the first day; 'There's always a weak point in the security, even if it's not always in the security you're looking at.'”

Getting her laughter back under control, the professor nodded in acknowledgment of her own words. “Dani?” The Subtlety Instructor made her guess as she ran through the short list of her colleagues mentally, realizing quickly that there were only two real possibilities.

“Professor Vree, actually.”

“Let me guess, really expensive bottle of brandy and he made you promise to come tell him the full story of when I find out as his price?”

“Spiced rum, actually, but otherwise yes.”

“Well if it makes you feel any better Mr Montaine, you will be getting a small amount of extra credit for your efforts.” The hispanic woman turned her attention back to the monitor and studied what was there before speaking again. “I never realized you were this into computers. Recent change?”

Antoin remained silent for a long time after the question was asked, but Elena simply waited patiently for the young man to collect himself. Finally, he answered. “I can't think of any other way to stay with the program than Subtlety. Unless I suddenly develop a secondary power like Tasha, I'm just not the kind of healer that usually makes it in the HCP. I can't make myself almost invulnerable, I can't use my ability to harm instead. I can't even do phantom injuries like Kaori. So this stuff, spycraft for Heroes, this is my shot.”

“There are a lot of other paths you could take that would let you help just as many, if not even more people, as you could as a Hero. This is not exactly low level stuff you're working with Mr Montaine.” Elena reached out a hand and swiveled her student's chair around so that he was facing her directly. “You look like you haven't slept all week. Do you really think you can keep this up JUST to have a 'shot?'”

Antoin met the professor's questioning look with one of steely determination. “One of the things my ability can DEFINITELY make up for is sleep deprivation. As for if I can keep this up,” the youth turned back to the keyboard and brought a familiar image up on the monitor.

This particular version was mostly silhouette, but as the original image had practically become an HCP meme at Overton all the details were instantly recognizable. The skinny female form with a thick braid trailing behind it, frozen at the exact moment her outstretched fist began crushing its way through the head of an anti-tank missile. “She did that. No hesitation. So if I can't manage a little lost sleep to learn some new programming languages in my quest to be a Hero while someone in my class is willing to do THAT... Well if that's the case than I really don't deserve to ever earn the title.”

“I'm not sure if approaching everything as 'Well it's not as extreme as punching a MISSILE so I should definitely be able to do it!' is a sustainable approach, Mr Montaine.”

“It's not about punching a missile. Ames was willing to die for someone else on an instant's notice, the fact that the manner she did so is the most epic thing I've ever seen is beside the point.” Elena smiled as Antoin unconsciously made a short punching motion as he spoke. “That willingness is what set the bar so high for the rest of us. That's why I'm willing to endure a lot of discomfort to stay wit-... To earn my spot here.”

“Alright then, Mr Montaine. You've convinced me of your sincerity, if not your sanity.” The professor smirked at the mock glare the student shot her way in response. “Check your 'private' email later tonight and you should find a whole suite of new software to learn. I'll be making some of the more advanced toys available to this year's class a little early and see who decides to use them. But for now,” the older woman leaned in very close to her student, “go to SLEEP, Mr Montaine. At least a couple hours. Your ability may be able to handle the worst of your self imposed sleep deprivation, but you still LOOK like hell.”

Antoin chuckled in response, and then his form seemed to shimmer momentarily. “Better?”

Elena found it to be her turn for her jaw to drop in shock at the apparent transformation of the young man in front of her. “That is quite an impressive talent you have their, Mr Montaine. I dearly hope you do manage to find your way through the program and all the way to becoming a Hero.”

The freshly rejuvenated youth blushed slightly as he smiled in response, and rose from the chair to head out of the small room, anxious to make it back to his shared townhouse and discover what new tools the Instructor had just made available to him. I'll earn my spot and stay right alongside you, Kyle. I promised.

"Wait, what the hell is 'Watch and Spot?'"

 

 

“You need to be more aggressive with that.” The bespectacled redhead bit down on her lip slightly and forced herself not to jump in response to the surprise voice from behind her.

The Instructors must spend HALF their free time practicing how to sneak up on students with 'helpful advice' to scare the bejesus out of us with. “Good afternoon, Professor Banning.” Tara grimaced slightly as her voice came out a bit higher pitched than she'd planned. “How am I supposed to be more 'aggressive' at a target range?”

The tall African American Instructor strode up to the line beside his student. As his normal countenance included the smile he was currently wearing it was difficult for the shorter girl to tell if the grin was his normal one or a response to her not-quite control over her response to his surprise arrival.

“It's a target range, yes. And many view the various targets and dummies as simply something to aim at, but you won't get as much out of the training that way.” Tara waited patiently for the Ranged Combat Instructor to continue. And continued to wait. And smiled sweetly back at the tall professor until he finally chuckled softly before continuing.

“That cannon you're using is impressive, though we both know it's NOTHING compared to the gas in the canisters you're using it to launch. Now I look out at the range and see you're mostly working against targets at fifty to seventy yards.” The technologically gifted Super nodded along with the Instructor, hoping the continued attention would keep the conversation from stalling again. “And you're hitting right around the targets you're aiming for on the range, and that's good. But if this were a real fight, and that target out there” a finger pointed towards the dummy standing at the 75 yard marker, “was a rogue Super coming to do you harm, would you fire just one shot right at him? Think more tactically, Ms Warren. You're carrying potentially the widest array of methods to disable an opponent of any student currently at Overton. You have to be more aggressive using the tools you have at your disposal.”

“But... it's just a dummy. It's NOT coming towards me, professor.”

“Let's see... Ah! You're also with Dani in Weapons, yes?” The tall man continued without waiting for confirmation. “You have probably heard many times in that class; 'The only thing we're taking out of practice is the part where the loser dies at the end.' If you don't practice like it's a real fight, how are you going to know what to do when the fight becomes real? Having watched the team exercise from last weekend, I can tell you need to make your practices more real. You did very well when you surprised your opponents and your attacks came before they could properly respond. You did not do so well when your opponents were the ones on the offensive.”

Tara bit back the objection she felt forming in her throat and gave her overactive mind a moment to process the information before responding. “You're... right. But how do I try to translate that kind of action to a shooting range? There was just so much... chaos during the exercise.”

“Visualize the worst way in which a situation might play out and plan for how to counter it, at least in part. You have several long range aerosol sprayers, a rapid fire canister launcher, two dart guns, a telescoping baton you seem to have coated with something interesting, and...” The professor's expression turned curious as he examined the combat harness the girl was wearing. “A jet-injector?”

“Ah, that one isn't for offensive use. It's... stimulants and stuff. Combat drugs is the catch all term.”

“An impressive arsenal still. Now, assuming that your opponent is coming in offensively from the 100 yard marker, how would you best engage them if they are approaching quickly.” The tall Instructor noted as his student seemed to drop into deep contemplation of the scenario, and opted to try to move things along. “STARTING NOW!”

The shout was accompanied by a shove back up to the firing line, and Tara froze for only an instant before her body began to operate seemingly on its own. A flicked switch on the cannon and three rapid *THOOMP* sounds deployed a cloud of gas only about twenty yards in front of the young woman, before the larger weapon was dropped to hang from it's sling. One arm sporting a high velocity aerosol jet pointed down range into the nearly opaque field of paralytic gas, while the other hand drew the baton from its holster and snapped it out to full extension.

“And there you have it.” Tara blinked in surprise as the Instructor's voice snapped her out of the odd spell that seemed to have briefly taken over her body. “You have good tactical instincts, Ms Warren. You need to practice acting more, and thinking less. You ability may be centered in your brain, but all the benefits of your ability should be happening AWAY from the battlefield. Not to discourage you from thinking during a fight, but you must learn to draw the line firmly between thinking and overthinking.”

With this last bit of wisdom imparted, the Ranged Combat Instructor turned to walk away from the range. Tara, lost in a new line of thinking, didn't notice that the man's trademark grin was even wider than usual as he left the young Super's presence.

 

 

“Do you have a moment, Professor Vree?” The elderly British Instructor turned from the papers he'd been examining and smiled invitingly at his student.

“Perhaps even more than one for such a dedicated student as yourself, Mr Sexton. Please, sit.” As if in response to the words the chair facing the Focus Instructor's desk slid out, seemingly of ts own volition, and the door swung softly closed.

The blond youth seemed to have been anticipating the brief display of ability from his Instructor, as he slid easily into the seat and did not react to the sound of the door shutting behind him. “I'm reasonably certain you know why I'm here, professor. For some reason though, that makes it harder to figure out where I should start.”

“Advanced Minds don't know everything young man. The broad strokes, usually. The details, only when we truly have the time and energy to focus on a single person or very small group. I'm aware you have concerns regarding the program, that you are feeling a mixture of smug satisfaction and confusion regarding your efforts in profiling both your Instructors and classmates here at Overton, and you're still frequently distracted by thoughts of a spring break dalliance last year with a particular redhaired beauty.” Aaron simply nodded in acknowledgment of the first two points, though the third left him blushing and coughing as his surprise apparently caused him to forget how to breathe for a moment.

Waiting until the younger man had himself back under control, Laurence continued. “So, I would recommend picking whichever one of these three topics you are most comfortable with and starting there.”

“Only two topics, and you know it you sneaky bastard.” The Instructor accepted the description with a look indicating he felt the term to be a compliment. “But to pick one, I have to say I'm a little surprised that you don't seem to care about the profiling.”

The professor offered a dismissive wave at the idea. “Completely ignoring the fact that I would be among the greatest of hypocrites if I were to use my ability as often as I do yet object to something as mundane as psychological profiling, we are ultimately here to teach you young people how to become Heroes. I say the type of analytic thought processes needed to dissect another's personality in order to predict their likely actions is something that should be encouraged, since we cannot outright require it of our HCP candidates.”

Aaron's eyes narrowed at what sounded to be a practiced response from the British man. “You... you're intentionally staying as perfectly centered within the predicted responses as you can, aren't you? So that when you deviate you can derive more shock value from it.”

“And that is WHY this practice should be encouraged in our young Heroes-to-be.” The expression on Laurence's face became earnestly serious. “Not many can work past the next response, to see the one after that and the one after THAT. I was aware you'd received more instruction in this art than a single year at a University could possibly provide, might I inquire as to where you received your initial training in psychology?” Nearly as soon as the question was asked, the Instructor's expression flickered slightly as he processed a new piece of information. But the older man waited patiently for the vocal response from his guest.

“As I see you already know, I received a great deal of 'training' from both of my parents. They both work for different branches of federal law enforcement, and they both earnestly hoped I would follow in their footsteps.” The young man wore a slightly sour expression as he finished speaking, prompting Laurence to dig a little deeper.

“They were... not pleased that you decided to apply to the Hero Certification Program?”

Aaron sighed and leaned back in his chair before responding. “To be fair, they know the numbers a lot better than most parents. Both the failure rate for the students, and the... casualty rates for Heroes. It's not like they tried to forbid me from doing it or anything, it's just...”

“They wanted you to do good, somewhere safer.” The blond man nodded as the professor finished the thought for him. “Well, now that MY curiosity has been assuaged for the moment, what area of your profiling do you feel needs my kind of assistance?”

“Dani.” The answer, spoken without hesitation and with a great deal of frustration evident, caused Laurence to laugh in response.

“Yes, our Weapons Instructor does tend to be a bit... Erratic in some ways.”

“It's... some of her responses are perfectly predictable. And then the rest of the times it's like... Is she actually crazy?”

“Mr Sexton, you're asking if a woman, that has spent most of her adult life wearing a costume while transformed into a giant anthropomorphic cat in order to fight beings with superhuman abilities that commit crimes, is crazy. By most textbook definitions, every Hero on the planet is COMPLETELY insane.” Laurence kept his tone deadpan serious during his response, but his eyes twinkled with humor.

“Okay, point. But if you put aside the 'unusual career choice' portion, most Heroes seem to be pretty easy to analyze. Supers in general, for that matter, all tend to be easier to profile because their abilities become so much a part of the things they do that certain responses get far more weight than they do with a normal human.”

“And you were hoping I could shed some light on why Professor Reyes acts outside the boundaries you were expecting as often as she does?”

“If anyone could, I figure it would be a telepath.”

The elderly Brit laughed again at the somewhat defeated response from his student. “I fear that I cannot offer your further insights towards my colleague, Mr Sexton. However I have great confidence that as you continue to apply yourself, you will find the answer for yourself.”

“You're afraid of her too, aren't you?”

“Oh God, yes.” It was the student's turn to be surprised into laughter at the sincere response from the Focus Instructor. “She's bubbly and happy and passionate almost all the time, and I would rather face off against every other member of our faculty combined than a Dani Reyes who seriously wanted to do me harm.” The continued serious tone from the professor quieted Aaron's laughter quickly.

“Now, I believe you also have some concerns regarding the program itself that I may shed some light on?”

After pausing an extra moment to finish collecting himself, the blond man nodded. “This whole program, the way you have us simultaneously pitted against each other and relying on our classmates in order to advance; the way the exercises are handled and the amount of force we are not only allowed, but ENCOURAGED to use from day one; none of it makes any sense. It doesn't take an expert on psychology or game theory to look at the way the HCP is managed and see so much room for improvement.” Aaron ran his fingers through his hair in a sign of frustration as he continued. “The high pressure courses, the fact that the whole thing is contained within a normal college campus as part of the program's requisite, why do things this way?”

“You told me a few minutes ago that your parents are 'more aware than most' in regards to the failure rates of HCP students and casualties amongst Heroes. Are you also familiar with those numbers?” The older man paused just long enough for his student to nod before continuing. “Did you track those numbers back, say, a couple of decades?” A headshake from the blond. “The training structure within the HCPs has changed a lot over the years. The current incarnation is, to put it politely, chaotic at best. And in this current incarnation, more than ten percent of those that actually graduate never finish their internships to become full-fledged Heroes.

“If you go back a ways, you can see that number fluctuate wildly. In the earliest days, right after Captain Starlight brought Supers fully into the public eye, there was no real formal training of any kind. And the mortality rates and collateral damage were both staggering. Various countries all founded their own versions of the Hero Certification Program in order to combat both of these things. A responsible government, or even an irresponsible one that wishes to remain in power, could not stand by and allow people with these incredible abilities to simply act as they wished. Several tried to force all Supers into military programs, but the backlash from that was... unpleasant in several places.”

“History aside, professor, this doesn't really explain why the CURRENT program is still so...” The young man seemed to be groping for an appropriate word when the older man supplied an inappropriate one instead.

“Fucked? Indeed.” Aaron actually flushed slightly at hearing the proper British accent carefully enunciate the profanity. “And originally the programs were far more 'ideal' according to those who studied such things. Camaraderie was the sole focus in the training interactions between participants, the 'washout' process was far less harsh and usually simply sent someone back to repeat a portion of their training instead of sending them all the way back to the start. And the initial training programs were all carefully isolated away from everyday civilians. And for the most part, it was a disaster.” The Focus Instructor paused for a moment and stared up at the ceiling before continuing.

“I'm actually a product of the older systems, though not the ones in this country as you may have guessed. Very few of my contemporaries are still around.”

“Why was it such a failure? I mean, it shou-...”

Because the world we live in is FAR from ideal. Supers were trained, but they were given so many chances that some of the training wasn't truly ingrained. They weren't forced to deal with any REAL hardship during the early programs. And they were isolated from the very societies that they would have to live within AND protect. Trust me when I say that even the most hellish exercises that James or Dani will put you through PALE in comparison to what you will likely face in your first year after graduating from this program. Going out to face, and possibly be killed by, criminal Supers or rogue Powereds every day is to live a life fully immersed in insanity. The HCP, and its sister programs in other countries, had to adapt to try and find those that could TRULY stand up to such rigors. That is why the program is as harsh, contradictory, and whimsical as it is.

We're not just teaching you to use your abilities and minimize casualties while doing so. We're trying our best to learn if you have the mental fortitude to survive in the world that will be waiting for you on the other side, WHILE teaching you those things to the best of our abilities.”

Aaron remained silent for several long minutes as he processed the information the elderly Instructor had just unloaded on him. “If you're telling me all of this now, it's pretty obviously not a secret or anything. Why don't they just tell the students all of this?”

Laurence smiled widely before replying. “Because, Mr Sexton, the students very rarely bother to ask.”

 

 

So, In the interest of consolidating Comments to where they are easier to track, click over to the Forums to talk about this chapter! ^_^

Chapter 10

Chapter 10:

Full Contact

 

Two weeks after the sophomore team free-for-all exercise, Collin Gauge exited the elevator into the HCP facility to find another handwritten page taped to the corridor wall.

'2 v 5, 3 v 7.  1 MT, 4 VM, 6 CF.  Saturday'

The muscular youth spent several moments examining the page, even going so far as to lift it away from the wall to see if some additional hidden clue was on the back.  Nothing.  Well, 2 v 5 is easy enough to figure out, and that's the one that affects me.  What the hell are MT, VM, and CF though?

Deciding it was worth trying to find out even if it didn't directly affect his team, Collin took a picture of the page with his phone before turning to continue down the hallway.  One mystery at a time.

Navigating the now familiar hallways quickly, the sophomore checked the time as he arrived at his destination to note that he was still five minutes early.  Having nothing else to do to occupy his time, Collin pushed the classroom door open and stepped inside, a look of surprise crossing his features upon seeing who was waiting for him.

"So what the hell did you call us down here for on a Saturday, Collin?"  The brief flash of shock on the second ranked sophomore's face deepened to a look of genuine confusion as the question was posed by the skinny blonde currently outranking him.

"Nope, wrong guess Ames."  Collin actually jumped in surprise at the second voice from right next to him, recognizing it as the third ranked sophomore only after managing to embarrass himself.  "He looked like you hit him in the back of the head with a board when you asked that.  So how's your weekend going so far, Gauge?"

"Confusing."  The tone of the one word response drew giggles from Amelia and a smile from Erin.  "I'm guessing you both got an 'official' HCP meeting request too?"

"That would be a pretty safe guess."  Amelia turned to drop back into the seat she'd vacated when Collin had arrived.  "Think anyone else will be showing up?"

"Probably not, from your class at least."  The cheerful voice from the back corner of the room set the three sophomores spinning to face the unknown voice and unconsciously adopting 'ready' stances.

"Relax guys, we come in peace!  And Sam,stop showing off."  Another new voice came from the room's door as it opened abruptly, as three unfamiliar persons, two male and one female, wearing HCP uniforms entered the room.  "Were we this jumpy when we had to do this last year?"  The speaker was the lone female, wearing a broad grin and waving at the suspicious looks she was receiving from the sophomores.

"Jumpier."  The two men answered simultaneously, with one of the voices seeming to come from everywhere in the room.

"So, allow me to introduce ourselves to yourselves!"  The girl stepped forward as she spoke, and found herself looking up through her bright purple bangs at the sophomores.  "God, you guys are TALL.  Anyways, I'm Val, that's Sam, the showoff," a finger and a wave from the taller brownhaired youth identified 'Sam,' "and that's Kevin."  A second pointing finger and wave completed the initial introductions.  "And we're you guys, FROM THE FUTURE!"

Seeing the blank stares from the sophomores sent the apparent spokeswoman of the group nearly collapsing with laughter, the boy identified as Kevin stepped forward.  "She means we're the top three ranked in the third year of the program."

The three sophomores relaxed a bit as the introductions concluded, though the expressions worn still indicated they were far from understanding what, exactly, was going on.

"Yeah, it was pretty confusing to us when we went through it for the first time last year."  The brown haired youth spoke, his voice no longer resonating through the entire room but still echoing far more than it should.  "But don't worry, it's nothing bad.  I mean it's a TON of extra work getting dropped on you with no real way out of it, but it'll be fine."

"It's a tradition!"  Val had finally gotten control of herself enough to rejoin the conversation.

"What's a tradition?"  The question from the three younger students wasn't quite synchronized, but it was close enough to send the purple haired girl nearly collapsing in a fit of laughter again, until Sam elbowed her hard enough to draw a surprised yelp and a brief glare.

"Right, so you guys all remember last year's Halloween party, right?  Pretty cool?  Well this year you three are responsible for organizing the front half of it!"  The pronouncement was met with blank looks.  "The front half, you know?  The whole area by the entrance to the Labyrinth where all the drinks and food and regular party games are set up?"

"Why?"  The single syllable from Amelia seemed to take the three juniors by surprise.

"Because it's tradition?  We mentioned that part, right?"  Val seemed almost insulted by the question.

"Yeah, seriously.  The top three sophomores have to set up everything for the front half of the party, and the junior top three have to arrange for the interior of the Labyrinth to go all Haunted House style."

"How the hell are we supposed to afford that?  The party was HUGE last year?"  Collin's question seemed to be one the upperclassmen were much better prepared to answer, as Kevin was reaching into a pocket to produce a small notepad before the muscular sophomore could even finish speaking.

"Relax, you get a budget!  Here."  The notepad was flipped in the direction of the three lower classmen and snatched out of its flight by Erin.  "The program lays out a pretty solid spread, you guys just have to handle the logistics of getting everything set up and decorated!"

"Again, why?"  All eyes turned towards Amelia, causing the skinny blonde to elaborate.  "Look, the party was fun, but why make the students set it up at all?  I mean, we're kind of busy, and have a fucking Oversight Committee 'evaluating' everything we do.  Is this really something that our class should be setting up?"

"One, fuck those guys!  This isn't an official HCP function so they get no access whatsoever!"  Val actually gave a small hop and fistpump to accompany her statement.  "And two, I have it on excellent authority that the reason the top three in a class are selected is so that they don't HAVE to do any of the work if they don't want to!"

"Yeah, I mean last year we basically just made everyone else do all the labor type work.  We just placed the orders and signed stuff."  The additional details from the brown haired junior drew smiles from the sophomores.

"So it wasn't just a rumor?  The school really DOES get all the alcohol for that party?"  Collin found himself not quite able to believe it, but was finding himself warming up to the idea of planning the big Halloween bash now that it was confirmed he wouldn't have to be PAYING for it.

"Seems like a good policy to me."  The somewhat dismissive tone from the black haired youth brought another round of surprised expressions.  "Look at it this way, would you rather find out that a Super can't handle their liquor at a school party while they're still in training, or after they've been certified and out on the job, and just had a REALLY fuckin' bad day?"

"When should we have all the stuff delivered?"  Erin's question brought the conversation quickly back to logistics, with the three upperclassmen all giving advice (and the sophomores rapidly ignoring most of the advice coming from the purple haired girl) and tips on how to make the party a success.

Shortly after that, the three juniors bid their younger counterparts farewell and wished them luck, only to be halted by a final question.  "Why don't the sophomores set up the stuff inside the Labyrinth?"

All eyes turned to Collin, and he rapidly began to wonder if he'd just said something really stupid.  It was Val who stepped back into the room, and leaned in conspiratorially close to the muscular youth.  "Look, Collin right?  So Collin, it's like this:  Your class won't have done any Labyrinth exercises by Halloween.  In fact, you only go in there during the midterm and the final.  I mean yeah, you'll be in there at the party but it won't be the same.  This is very important, because Dani is in charge of setting up the sophomore midterm.  You know Dani, right?"  There was a pause to wait for Collin to nod in acknowledgment before the purple haired girl continued.  "Now Dani REALLY wants your first experience with the Labyrinth to be a surprise.  She has stated that it would make her VERY upset if someone spoiled that experience for you.  So do you understand why you guys can't help set up that part now?"

The second ranked sophomore found himself growing a little pale as his imagination provided several scenarios involving a VERY upset Weapons Instructor, and he nodded enthusiastically in response to the last question.

"Good, so we're all on the same page.  See you guys at the party!"

 

...

 

"Good morning everybody!"  The far too cheerful tone of the Overton Weapons Instructor rang out loudly in the observation lounge where four of the sophomore HCP teams had gathered at the ungodly hour of 6am.  Surveying the tired expressions the red haired professor adopted a puzzled expression.  "If you guys are always this tired when we make you come here, why don't you just bring some coffee or something?  Or make it?  You guys are weird."

The second suggestion seemed to meet with a great deal of interest from the assembled students.  The interest peaking further when the animated woman strode over to the near wall and slid open a concealed panel, behind which was a stack of styrofoam cups and a large dispenser, from which wafted the heavenly aroma of freshly brewed espresso.

Immediately after acquiring a cup for herself, Dani dodged gracefully out of the way as a pack of half asleep college aged Supers rushed the coffee bar and settled softly into a chair as she waited for the sophomores to get their caffeine fix.  "Better now?"  The question asked a few minutes later was met with nods and far more alert looks than most in the room had been wearing when the Weapons Instructor entered.

"So, I'm pretty sure you've all figured it out, but the Dean says I have to be explicit about this stuff.  The exercises for you guys today is team 2 vs team 5, and team 3 vs team 7.  Any questions about that part?"

"What will our friends on teams 1, 4, and 6 be doing?"  The question came from Ramòn Carerra, one of the few students who'd seemed fully awake prior to the revelation of the coffee.  "I think I am not the only one of us finding himself more curious as to what a VM or an MT is than the details of our own trial for the day."

"Sorry Mr Carerra, that's not part of this morning's briefing.  But I'll let you in on a secret, the reason I scheduled you guys to come in at 6 is because James isn't starting the other exercises until 8, and they run consecutively instead of concurrently."  A few of the less caffeinated students seemed to have trouble following Dani's statement, but most of the sophomores adopted suddenly eager expressions, drawing a laugh from the Instructor.  "Right then, so here's what you guys will be up to this morning!"

 

...

 

"Capture the Flag."  The disbelieving tone from the lightly built dark haired youth hadn't lessened through his numerous repetitions of the same statement.  "We're training to be Heroes, and they're having us play Capture th-..."

"Not that it seems to be sinking in, Zach," the exasperated interruption from the team Captain cut off the shorter male in mid-complaint, "but to quote our moderately insane Instructor for the day, it's 'Full Contact Combat Capture the Flag."

"It's still silly.  And why are we looking at the map of where our flag is when the other team has the world's greatest telepath?"

Zach found his three teammates staring at him with surprised looks, before Scott suddenly began a seemingly genuine slow clap.  "My prayers have been answered, and you're learning Zach!  Two weeks ago you wouldn't have spotted the problem of my girlfriend being able to read the location of our flag as a tactical disadvantage.  Now, think very carefully about what everyone on OUR team can do and see if you can figure this out too!"

"We've only got another two minutes before we get deployed into the simulation room.  Just tell him, Scott."  Eloise James didn't look up from her inspection of the automatic shotgun she was examining, a Saiga 12k loaded with rubber-taser rounds.  "Though I admit it's progress, I owe you five bucks."

"YOU GUYS ARE BETTING ON MY LEARNING CURVE?"

"Yes."  The simultaneous response from all three of his teammates rocked the dark haired youth back for a moment, but then he laughed.  "Fair enough, what am I missing?"

"My eyes, Zach."  Erin tapped a finger between the orbs in question as she spoke.  "Reading through paper isn't hard.  As soon as Dani held up our map I saw the location of our flag, and that means Cat knows it too."

"Well shit.  So we've got to sprint for our own flag and just play defense then."

"Maybe I was too hasty at conceding the bet, Scott."  Eloise chambered a round as a light in the ceiling flashed and a computerized voice began counting down from 30.

Before Zach could manage to start yelling again, the smaller sandy-haired boy put a hand on his shoulder.  "As soon as Dani held up the maps, Erin read what was on them.  Not just OUR map, Zach.  She knows where their flag is too.  And even for the super telepathy/mimic team, it's hard to catch an invisible Erin Casse."

The taller boy absorbed the information, comprehension dawning just as the door swung open to admit them to a room fashioned to look like an abandoned industrial park.  "Erin gets their flag, we defend.  It's a race."

Scott turned to look triumphantly at Eloise.  The white haired girl gave a dramatic sigh, but nodded an agreement before fading out of sight as team 3 split up and sprinted towards their objectives.

 

...

 

Lisa Shang leaned groggily against the wall and considered the degree to which she disliked the strategy her team had opted to employ.  It definitely made SENSE, of course.  Very little that came from Alexandra backed with intel from Catalina failed that litmus test.  The issue the rainbow haired girl was having was with the result of her own role in said plan.

Catalina had informed them all of their flag location being compromised immediately, and with Erin being the nominated flag-capturer of their opponents, it was quickly decided that the ONLY defense was a really good offense.  All the nearly invisible and incredibly skilled third ranked student would have to do is touch their flag and the exercise ended, meaning even if all four member of Team 7 remained on defense they were likely to lose.  So Lisa had become their team's opening gambit: a piece trade.

Alexandra had mimic'd the class's hispanic teleporter and Catalina had given her the position she needed to drop Lisa almost directly on top of Team 3's SECOND invisible woman.  The idea had been for the petite asian girl to take out the invisible gunslinger, likely be incapacitated in the process, but create enough of a diversion that the other 3 could take out either Zach or Scott and send Tasha to get Team 7's artillery back into the fray.  Unfortunately Eloise's reflexes had proven more formidable than expected, and the invisible girl had shot first.  Lisa still managed to exhale a pretty decent shockwave, and she was certain she had injured her target, but Eloise's taser round had left Lisa unable to do more than lie against the wall and try to process the ongoing combat.

Team 7's captain had apparently abandoned the idea of switching to Gerard's power upon arrival to create a screen to advance behind and gone with something a bit more offensive instead.  Energy grenades rained in volleys towards the area where Team 3's male members had taken cover, keeping the two boys pinned down while Tasha and Catalina attempted to disable their invisible opponent, or at the very least keep her away from the mimic while she kept the dangerous pair of Scott and Zach pinned.

"Just teleport in and grab the damned thing already!"  Tasha half shouted, half growled the instruction in the direction of her leader as another taser round struck her in the stomach.  At least five had hit the healer so far, but the shots didn't have enough juice to overwhelm the massive woman's incredible healing powers.

"I can't see the flag, they made a point not to look in the room it's actually IN, and Alex can't teleport into a room she's never seen inside of anymore than Be or Teresa can."  Lisa found herself glad that the telepath was keeping her in the loop for team communications.  She was surprised, however, at the next mental message.  "Lisa, if I block out most of what you're feeling from the taser, can you do another air blast?"

The disoriented girl considered the request, then attempted to nod.  It didn't quite work, but the message seemed to be received.  "Okay, here goes nothing."  Suddenly the auburn haired telepath went rigid before staggering to the ground.  Lisa found her mind suddenly clear, even if her body still refused to quite do exactly what it was supposed to.

Without hesitation the rainbow haired girl unleashed the breath she'd been trying to hold, blasting a wave of freezing cold out along the ground in front of her, drawing a surprised shriek as a ghostly form became briefly silhouetted before slipping on the suddenly frozen ground.

"GOTCHA!"  Tasha lunged forward and grabbed one of the invisible girl's ankles, only to receive yet another round to the shoulder in response.

Not the best reflex to have, in hindsight, as the completed current between the two women was far more damaging to Eloise than to the giant healer who had snared her.  A quick pull followed by a right cross, and the white haired girl faded into view, unconscious.

"ALEX!  EL IS DOWN!"  Tasha staggered slightly returning to her feet, but recovered quickly and moved to assist Lisa.

"Why... not... just..."  The rainbow haired girl tried to speak before her teammate reached her with mixed results.  Then the warm glow of the muscular woman's power enveloped her petite teammate, and Lisa tried again.  "Why didn't she just charge in as Ames?"

"Because Scott can hit hard enough to take Ames out, nevermind a 75% impression by Alex.  Now c'mon, our team needs its artillery support."

Lisa responded by taking a deep breath, then unleashing a ferocious blast of cold at the area Alexandra was still shelling with energy bombs.  Zach and Scott returned fire as best they could, but with the crossfire they were pinned down and outmatched, since the magnetic manipulator couldn't unleash any TRULY powerful attacks with the non-lethal limits of the HCP in place.  After several seconds of the girls' intense barrage, one of Alexandra's copied blasts landed almost directly on top of the sandy-haired boy.

Scott was blasted out of his cover and before he could attempt to stagger to his feet, the short boy was blasted into a wall and out of consciousness by Lisa.  Zach briefly surprised the four girls by leaping onto the offensive, actually managing to take drop Lisa for her second time of the match and force the other three back for a moment, before he too was taken out.

"Inside, quick quick quick!"  The frantic mental voice from Catalina set Alexandra to switch powers again, and she dashed into the tiny shed the boys had been guarding, her speed barely able to be tracked by her teammates as she smashed the door open.

Just a few feet in front of her, tacked to the wall, was a triangular blue pennant.  But before even her newly heightened speed could reach for it, the mimic could hear as the speakers all around the massive simulation room clicked on.

"Congratulations to team 3, they have acquired their opponent's flag and are officially victorious!"  The cheerful voice of the Weapons Instructor echoing around the chamber saw the four members of the defeated team slump visibly.

Lisa, just back on her feet for the second time, began screaming a litany of profanity at the ceiling.  Alexandra, standing not more than three feet from her objective, felt tears forming in her eyes.

"None of that now, Alex."  The petite team captain was surprised by the sudden hug from behind.  "You didn't do anything wrong.  We'll get them next time."  The mimic sighed in response, but managed to force back the tears as she went to help Tasha revive the victors so they could congratulate them.

 

...

 

"Come on, we're gonna miss it!"  The large Samoan smiled and shook his head at the unlikely scenario he found himself a part of, being dragged down the hallway by the most petite student in Overton's HCP.  "C'mon, GO FASTER!"

Suddenly the tiny girl and her large teammate found themselves standing just outside the room they had been moving towards, accompanied by a sound similar to softly shattering glass.  "You're welcome."  The statement came from Beulah Abbott, team 5's teleporter.

Louise squealed something that might have been a thanks and darted into the room, leaving all three of her teammates behind.  Rorie started to follow, but found a hand holding him back.  "We need to talk about the exercise, Rorie."  Beulah's expression was one of complete seriousness, drawing a sigh from the heavily built team captain.

"Let me guess, you want to discuss how my strategy was another, 'bad idea?'"

"It WAS a bad idea, it was completely insane and you're lucky tha-..."

The teleporter was interrupted as her last teammate draped a large arm over the smaller girl's shoulders and leaned in conspiratorially.  "My friend, you are right that our Captain's idea was of the insane variety, however there is an important rule you are forgetting here."

"What rule is that?"  Beulah tone was a mixture of suspicion and curiosity, Rorie's expression held only curiosity as to what their Mexican teammate was going to say.

"It's not a bad idea if it works."  The Samoan grinned at Ramón's response, even as the dark haired Israeli girl sighed in exasperation.

"That's no-..."

"That is NOT to say that the plan could not have been better."  The teleporter was again interrupted by the muscular hispanic man.  "But right now is not the time to discuss this.  Right now is to get in and watch the briefing the OTHER teams are receiving so we will know what to expect when it is our turn to face, whatever a VM or MT is."  Without waiting for a response from either of his teammates, Ramón pushed the group of three through the door and hurried them to a group of open seats off to the side.

"...so your objectives are two fold:  Neutralization of your opponent, and prevention of serious collateral damage."  The three late arrivals from team 5 perked up at the Close Combat Instructor's voice.  "With that being said, are there any questions?"

"Shit."  Rorie whispered the expletive as he realized that Beulah's delay had prevented them from hearing some important details.  The girl shot her captain a guilty look in response to the glare he directed her way.

"All right then, Team 4 you're up first.  Follow me."  A dozen conversations started around the room as the students not on Team 4 began discussing the upcoming exercise in hushed tones.

As Rorie was contemplating moving to one of the other groups and asking for the information he'd missed, Louise came bounding back over to the team.  "I know what the letters are!"  The words gave the tiny Super the complete attention of all three of her teammates, particularly as the petite girl was practically bouncing with excitement.

"They're HCP seniors!"

 

...

 

The lithe form of a young black woman in a white uniform strolled casually up the middle of the seemingly deserted street, humming softly to herself as she went.  I wonder if they're as nervous as I was when I was in their shoes.  God this is gonna be fun!  The relaxed stride and cheerful expression gave no indication whatsoever that the young woman was about to be engaged in serious combat.  I wonder if they're gonna ambush or go fo-...  The woman's thought trailed off as a well built blond man in a grey uniform similar to the one she wore stepped out into the street in front of her.  Guess that answers that.  Direct approach it is!

"You're surrounded, surrender and you won't be hurt."

The girl in the white uniform began laughing hysterically at the deadpan offer from her opponent.  "Of COURSE I'm surrounded, there's FOUR of you!"  The young woman barely managed to get herself sufficiently under control to get the words out.  "God you're doing this wrong.  If you're going to step up and make this a straight up battle you've gotta introduce yourself first."  The young woman noted several brief flashes of movement to her sides and realized that the 'civilians' were vanishing.  Teleporter, nice.

The blond man in front of her appeared greatly flustered at having been met with laughter, but his expression quickly returned to something at least close to the stoic look he'd worn when he first stepped out.  "Gerard Finne."

"Pleased to meet you Jerry, I'm Vicki.  Want to introduce your friends?"

"I'd rather if you surrendered."

"Yeah, but we both know that's not gonna happen here.  I mean Rachd would probably kill ALL of us if he put us in here and we didn't throw down even a little bit."  Vicki adopted something approaching a fighting stance, but still far more relaxed than her opponent.  "No hard feelings no matter how it goes though, 'kay Jerry?"

"It's Gerard."  The simple statement was accompanied by no movement, but a shimmering field formed in the air in front of the sophomore and blasted towards his opponent at high velocity.

"Ooh, force fields?"  Vicki met the attack by raising her arms defensively and letting the shield hit her.  Instead of a solid impact, the woman seemed to slide back frictionlessly, in spite of her feet tearing gouges in the asphalt as she went.  At about a hundred feet from the blond, the field flickered out and the black woman lowered her arms.  "Probably shouldn't have given away your range on the first shot though."

"You have to admire the setup though."  The raspy voice from directly above the senior snapped her attention up to see a nightmarish skeletal figure swinging an oversized, clawed fist for her head.

"EEEP!"  The startled sound cut off abruptly as the black woman avoided the swipe by dropping, sinking directly through the pavement with a crackling sound.

"The hell?"  Susan's question was answered when the ground in front of her suddenly flexed upward, forming a shaft of gray rock that struck her cleanly in the chest and sent her straight through the wall behind her.

"Alright then kids."  Vicki had reappeared, though she now stood far taller as she was surrounded by some sort of massive armor formed from the dirt and pavement she had dropped into moments ago.  "Let's do this thing!"

 

...

 

"Nicely done, Mr Foster!"  The mocking congratulation and slow clap was answered with a glare and a middle finger as the bruised and dirty white-uniformed young man dragged himself into the waiting room.

"Oh shut up, Max."  The reclining form of Vicki McCormick moved quickly out of her chair to offer it to her classmate.  "You don't get to mock Cody until you go in there and do better."

"So why aren't you mocking him?"  The tall, muscular youth broke off his taunting applause and locked eyes with the elemental manipulator.  "You won your match, after all."

"And it only took me five broken bones to do it!  Seriously Max, you may not get this since you got kicked out of the HCP once already, but those of us who've spent the last three years training right alongside each other tend to at least respect the grace period before we give each other shit for messing up."

"What's the grace period for getting molested unconscious by a giant plant?"  The deadpan tone with which Max asked the question, drew first glares, then Vicki lost the expression as she began to giggle.

Shortly after that, even Cody's laughter joined in as well.  "Since as far as I know, it's never happened before I'm going to say 24 hours.  Make fun of me all you want tomorrow."

"I'll make sure to distribute the pictures then."  The black woman's statement drew smiles from the two men.

"Right, and apparently all I have to do to keep the right to join in the fun tomorrow is win my match.  Shouldn't be too hard."  Max ran his hands up to slick back his light brown hair and then struck a heroic pose.  "Five minutes or less, time me!"  With that the confident senior strode out of the waiting room to meet his own scheduled opponents.

"You think he even considers it might be a challenge to take on the sophomore's number 1 team?"

Cody offered an incredulous look to his friend in response.  "Max Thompson, considering ANYTHING a challenge before it kicks his ass?  Maybe you should head back to the healers with me and get checked for a concussion."

Both laughed at the suggestion, but neither showed any inclination to move from the room.  Neither was willing to move away from the monitor and risk missing the show.

 

...

 

Alright, found him.  He's in the little office building.  Michael Karl focused to form small telekinetic tendrils to tug his teammates' uniforms to get their attention so he could signal he had found their target, then carefully floated himself down from the building he was concealed upon so the other three could meet up with him.

"What's the word, Michael?"  The tall form of Team 1's captain spoke quietly, and her voice held no trace of anxiety or fear in spite of the knowledge that they were facing off against one of the top ranked seniors in their HCP.

"He's on the third floor of the mini-office building two blocks down.  He's arrogant, has GREAT senses, and he's convinced that there's nothing we can throw at him that will hurt him."

"Arrogant is good."  Ty Rodins cracked his knuckles as he spoke, then began checking all the various canisters he wore attached to his belt and harness.  "Stupid is better, but we can use arrogant.  Sounds like a physical enhancement type"

"He's gonna hear us coming from a long ways off, how are we going to approach?"  The telepath's question was met with looks of serious consideration from the rest of the team, then answered by the quietest member.

"We do the special delivery.  I'll go."  Ty and Michael regarded Tara with shocked expressions as she spoke, but Amelia simply grinned hugely at the suggestion.

"We haven't exactly tested it, you sure?"  The heavy set African American youth seemed torn between excitement and nervousness at the suggested tactic.  "I mean, the ball will get you there intact, but you're probably going to be disoriented as hell when you come out of it."

The redhead held up her injection gun in response.  "I have a shot for that."

"Alright, Ty leave the ball and the breakout with Tara and you and Michael rush the building like you're going to meet him head on.  Michael, break the window closest to our target so I know where to throw, then give Tara five seconds after arrival before you go in to support her.  I'll come in ten seconds after that."  The three other members of the team nodded in acknowledgment of the plan, then the two boys took off.

Michael broke away from Ty as they approached the building, as predicted their target had heard them before they'd quite made it onto the same street and was already moving quickly towards their side of the building.  Crap, he's gonna come right out the side of the third story.  Delivery isn't going to work as well if he drops down to street level.  A burst of telekinetic energy allowed the black haired youth to accelerate out to where he could see the window he needed to hit.  A second burst of energy caused that window to shatter spectacularly.  Enough to get him to hesitate, delivery now!

As if summoned by the thought a grey sphere roughly six feet across came hurtling through the air and crashed its way straight through the wall next to the window Michael had broken.  Even as bits of rubble were still falling to the street, the telepath heard a surprised masculine shout, followed by loud coughing and cursing.  The sophomore quickly affixed the thin mask that his teammate had assured him would provide protection against the chemicals she was using, and launched himself towards the opening in the side of the building.

As the young man's somewhat unsteady flight brought him level with the gaping hole recently added to the wall, he got his first actual view of their opponent.  Well over six feet tall and athletically muscled, Michael assumed that the man usually looked far more impressive than his current posture; bent partway over and coughing uncontrollably as tears streamed from bright red eyes.  Behind their target he could see the masked form of Tara retreating from the muscular man as she blasted a continuous spray from two different high pressure jets.  Holy shit, he's getting both mixtures and he's still standing.  And he looks like he's recovering.  Fuck it, we're committed now.

As the black haired combatant landed heavily through the hole in the wall, he immediately attempted to grab his target in a web of invisible energy and pull him off his feet.  Doesn't matter if he's strong, unless he's energy resistant like Ames he can't do anything with no leverage.  For a moment, Michael thought his tactic would be a successful one as he lifted the brown haired man off his feet and held him.  Unfortunately, while the muscular Super was unable to reach the floor now, the ceiling was another matter.

The telepath barely avoided the chunk of ceiling tile his opponent hurled at him, the narrow evasion causing him to lose his focus and drop his opponent back to the floor.  Almost faster than Michael could react, the brown haired man was on him.  One hand grasped the front of his uniform and pulled the smaller student off the ground with ease.  "I'll give you guys credit, that was a pretty awesome entrance.  But you're going to have to d-..."

The monologue was interrupted as cylindrical object bounced through the hole a few feet from where the two men were standing.  Michael smiled as he read the carefully projected thought from his technologically inclined teammate down on the street.  4... 3... 2...

Before his opponent could properly analyze the new threat, a thought from Michael brought the canister hurtling over to stick to both men.  I really hope today isn't the day Ty switched from restraints to real grenades.

The canister exploded with a familiar *FWOOMP* sound, with Michael grinning as the strange foam material quickly covered both men before hardening.

"That's it?"  The telepath's grin faltered as he felt his shared prison shudder and realize his opponent had already broken one arm free.  "You think if you throw enough tricks and toys at me, I'll what?  Give up?"  The black haired youth grimaced as a large chunk of the foam around him was torn away, not a comfortable experience.  "So what else have you got?"

"Hi!"  The cheerful syllable from directly behind the muscular senior renewed the smile on Michael's face, as he watched his opponent spin to face the unexpected voice and meet the irresistible force of Amelia Jacobson's fist connecting cleanly with his jaw.

"Well that was fun."  Team 1's captain looked over to where the unconscious form of their opponent had ended up embedded in one of the interior walls.  "You okay back there, Tara?"

"I'm... fine?"  The redhead sounded genuinely surprised by her own status.

"You good, Michael?"

The telepath nodded his response, rubbing at his ears that had popped from being so close to the concussive impact of the incredibly strong woman striking something with a significant percentage of her full force.

"Well I know Ty is fine because he got to wait outside.  Let's go celebrate!"

 

...

 

The petite asian woman cursed softly as she hurried up the steps from her car towards her condo.  Cannot believe I left the files at home.  I feel like an intern instead of a junior partner.  So rushed was the woman that she failed to notice the alarm panel was already clear as she punched her code into it and rushed towards her home office.  Files have to be right on th-...

The small woman's train of thought derailed abruptly as she nearly collided with a large man coming out of her den.  An unfamiliar man wearing a leather jacket and a LOT of facial piercings.

"Ah shit, no one was supposed to be here, man."  The woman heard the words, but didn't have time to process them before she was nearly deafened by an incredibly loud bang.

Blinking a few times, the woman realized she was now lying on the floor, but couldn't figure out how she'd gotten there.

"Guys, let's MOVE!"  The strange man's voice seemed to be coming from much farther away now.  Turning her head she saw three blurry forms rushing towards her doorway.

Why aren't my eyes focusing?  I need to get up.  Get up!  But her body wouldn't obey the command, instead she found herself staying limp on the floor.  While she tried to solve this mystery, she heard another faint voice coming from a long ways off.  Turning in the direction of the voice, she attempted to call out, but only managed to cough as there was some kind of liquid in her mouth.  How did I not notice that?

The coughing seemed to have gotten the person's attention, as a shadow seemed to move across the open doorway.  "Mrs Jeung?  Mr Jeung?  Are you guys ho-...  OH MY GOD!"  The voice had gotten loud enough for Mina Jeung to identify her upstairs neighbor, but the supine woman couldn't figure out why her neighbor suddenly sounded so panicked.

"DAVE!  DAVE CALL AN AMBULANCE!"  Mina wracked her brain trying to remember the woman's name, but it just wouldn't come to her.  "Mina, it's Claire."  There it was.  "You need to hold on, can you hold on?"

Mina Jeung couldn't figure out what the woman was talking about, but everything was starting to get blurrier again.  She probably just needed some rest.  Probably just some weird illness.  A little sleep and I'll be good as new.  As the Korean woman closed her eyes, she couldn't figure out why Claire insisted on yelling at her so loudly, but it wasn't long before she couldn't hear the voice anymore.

 

 

 

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Chapter 11

Chapter 11:

Bad Things and Good People


 

"Alright boys, we need to seriously..." Iris Todd paused her carefully prepared speech as she entered the room and noted the presence of only two of her three teammates. "Where the hell is Barry?"

"You didn't hear?" The somber tone of the question asked by Collin, accompanied with an angry glare from Aaron, brought a sense of worry to the speedster that she tried to push aside.

"Hear what? Did somebody die?" The reinforced glare from the blond male, and completely flat look from the muscular red-haired youth stopped Iris' attempted dismissal cold. "Oh fuck. Somebody died." Iris leaned back against the wall and pushed the door closed.. "Who?"

"Nobody died exa-..."

"Barry's mom was shot last night. She's in the hospital and officially in a coma, but unofficially she's brain dead and there's nothing anyone can do." Aaron cut off the team captain with the rapid and blunt statement of facts, maintaining his glare on the blonde girl as he did so. “Be volunteered to blink him out there so he can see her before they pull the plug.”

“I get it, I'm a bitch. God damn I didn't think someone really... Bad day for our class I guess.”

Collin noted his (and the absent Barry's) roommate about to launch another tirade at Iris' apparent dismissal but something in her choice of words made him speak before the other man had a chance. “What do you mean, 'for our class?'”

“Ramón's out today too, visiting his dad in the hospital. Apparently his old man works as a courier for one of the big corporate banks. He got jacked yesterday afternoon.”

“How is it that you're paying enough attention to Ramón's life that you know what's up with him, but you can't bother to find out when one of your own teamma-...”

“Shut the fuck up, Aaron.” Iris finally matched the glare that the blond man was directing her way. “Barry and I have one class together, and team meetings. You two are his god damned roommates. Don't get pissed at me for not knowing something prior to the first moment I could have found out unless I was either stalking Barry or dating him. In answer to your question, rhetorical though it may have been, I know about Ramón because Cat mentioned it while we were training.”

“You're training with Cat?” Collin jumped on what he saw as an opportunity to steer the conversation AWAY from the two blondes ripping each others' throats out.

“More like she's training with me. She's trying to get up to where she can read a mind going a hundred times faster than normal.” The speedster smirk as a memory was conjured. “She's not very good at it yet. She tried her mindspeaky thing yesterday and it was like listening to a recording playing in super slow motion.”

“How's Ramón holding up? Did she say?” Aaron looked somewhat guilty, likely as his thought process had caught up to that fact that he'd been dismissing the news about the muscular Mexican student to the same degree he'd been accusing Iris of doing.

“Probably better to ask Ames, she'd be the one to know the most, but from what Cat told me I think he's proud of his old man. Apparently got his car rammed off the road, shot twice, and still took out two of the four bad guys before they made off with an empty case.”

“Empty?” Both boys asked the question at nearly the same time.

“Yeah, apparently he wasn't even on a run when it happened. Guess it proves that crime doesn't pay, at least not unless you check your intel before going and eating some return fire from a middle aged Mexican.”

“Fuck.” Iris and Collin both turned to look at their third teammate, shocked by the amount of rage he managed to express in just one syllable.

“What are you thinking?” Collin had quickly learned once Aaron had come on the team that the blond youth was generally very good at figuring out puzzles and people.

“Remember two weeks ago? They sent us that whole 'watch your ass!' memo about it being possible that whomever was behind all those attacks last year to try and force SI infractions might have gotten a more detailed class roster?”

“Oh... fuck.” Iris made the connection and joined in Aaron's sentiment just a moment ahead of Collin.

“Wait, so you're thinking that these people got that information to go after out FAMILIES?” The muscular youth's tone was incredulous, but beneath that it was loaded with an obvious layer of fear. “That's... I mean... They watch for that stuff, right?”

“Don't know.” Iris had the door opened and was nearly through it when she answered Collin's question over her shoulder.

“Where are you going?” Aaron asked as he moved quickly to keep up with the blonde girl, glad she hadn't yet decided to make THAT an impossibility.

“Dean.”

“You think they don't already know?”

“Don't care. If they know, then they can explain why the fuck they haven't told us. If they don't know, they need to.”

At that, the two men fell in behind Iris as she made her way through the HCP facility towards the Dean's office.


 


 

Fred Owens sighed in exasperation as he attempted to pull his new Miata into the family's private drive, and saw that his younger sister had, once again, left her Audi blocking the gate. As the tall man entered the smaller side gate to approach the house, he found himself running his hands through thick, reddish orange hair in exasperation as he saw the front door standing wide open.

“God DAMMIT, Samantha!” The redhead yelled for his sister as he made his way through the open door. “You need to remember that Susan is at college and I have a JOB. No one is here to pick up after yo-...” The tirade stopped as the young man took in the room he was standing in. Furniture was broken, none of the paintings were on the wall, and there was a woman tied to the stair railing leading up to the second floor. A young woman, with short red hair, and a lot of dried blood on her clothes.

“SAM!” Fred had his phone out and already dialing as he ran towards his sibling. When he got close, he nearly vomited as the smell hit him. Pressing forward as a calm, female voice came on the line asking him to state the nature of the emergency, he reached a trembling hand forward to feel for a pulse.

“My name is Fred Owens, I'm at 808 Carlisle in Rochester.” The young man stood perfectly still, his voice having lost all emotion. “Someone... someone broke into my family's home while I was away. My sister is dead. Please... please send someone.” The phone dropped from his hand as Fred looked down at his sisters body, and tears began to fall.


 


 

“Claire! Get back here and help my carry all this junk. It's mostly yours!” The shout from the driveway came from a lean, sandy haired man in his mid 40's as he attempted to juggle four large shopping bags out of the slightly too small trunk of a Mercedes all at once. The blonde teenager he was yelling at turned back towards the man with a smile and a wave, the vanished into the large house without giving any indication that she would be back to help.

Johnathon Todd sighed in exasperation at his daughter, but there didn't seem to be any surprise in his expression. Grimacing as he stretched his left arm a little farther than it wanted to go the man finally got the bags properly unwedged and out, before slamming the trunk shut with an elbow and stalking up the stairs to the door.

Dropping the bags in the foyer, he turned towards the stairs to yell another set of likely ignored instructions to his daughter, only to be interrupted by the sound of someone approaching behind him. Johnathon turned just in time to see a shorter, stockily built man coming rapidly up the steps with a hood pulled low to conceal his face. Before Johnathon could say anything, the newcomer produced a small silvery revolver from his pocket and jammed it into the taller man's stomach. Shock on Johnathon's face was replaced with agony as his body effectively muffled the sound of the point blank gunshot that ripped into his stomach. The sandy haired man collapsed weakly against the hooded intruder, who responded by quickly shoving Johnathon further into the house and away from the doorway.

The wounded man let out a loud groan as he landed, and his vision swam as he nearly blacked out, but he held onto consciousness to see two more men join the one who had shot him. The third man in closed the door.

“Alright, old man. Here's how it works; you tell me where everything worth anything is, and how to get it. We leave in time for you to call an ambulance. Make it quick enough and we won't have to 'entertain' your beautiful daughter while we're here.” A mask of rage replaced the pain on Johnathon's face at the threat to his daughter, but his assailant simply smirked and jabbed the gun barrel into the older man's wound. “None of that old man, no-...”

A loud gasp from above drew the attention of all four men in the entryway, to see a terrified looking blonde teenager looking down at the foyer from the second floor railing. “Aw, shit. Bad luck, man. Now we're gonn-...”

The gunman never finished his sentence, as Johnathon Todd let loose a screaming roar and smashed his fist into his attacker's head with the berserk strength of a father protecting his daughter. “CLAIRE, RUN!” The words were barely intelligible as the 44 year old somehow rolled to his feet and attempted to tackle the other two men.

Unfortunately for Johnathon, the other two had time to prepare for his act of defiance. The larger of the two simply caught him mid tackle, and the other man unloaded a powerful strike right on top of the gunshot wound. Johnathon collapsed in a ball of agony, the taller man spitting on him as he landed.

“You think you a Hero or something? Stupid, now we gonna do even WORSE things to you two.”

“Get away from my dad.” The two thugs looked up in surprise, seeing the tall, slender teenager had made her way downstairs and now stood across the foyer from them. The attempt at a commanding tone, even one with no trace of fear in it, was somewhat ruined by the pink outfit and cheerleading baton the girl had armed herself with. Both men exchanged a look, then started laughing.

“Take your friend, and get out. Or you'll regret it.” The second threat stopped the laughter, and the smaller man responded by producing a switchblade from his jacket.

“No girl, I think you'll regret it. Unless you treat me REAL nice.”

Claire locked eyes with the knife wielder for a long moment, then the girl smiled. THEN she disappeared.

Before either man could react, the smaller of the pair was smashed off his feet as the thirty inch metal baton crashed into the back of his head with bone breaking force. The taller man turned to barely catch a hint of blonde and pink before the girl was gone again, this time the metal baton crashing up between his legs as she reappeared directly in front of him. Claire danced back a step, then swung the baton like a baseball bat into the now doubled-over man's head. He went down with a wet *THUD.*

Then Claire screamed, as the first man dropped by her father grabbed her from behind and stripped the baton out of her hands with one arm as the other wrapped around her throat. “You think you're hot stuff then, Super bitch? Well I'm gon-...”

It was the last words the man ever said, as he was interrupted by three loud bangs. Johnathon Todd had found the revolver his attacker had dropped when the older man had laid him out with the desperate punch earlier. The moment the injured man saw his daughter's attacker drop, he felt the gun slip from his fingers as he fell back to the floor and closed his eyes. The last thing he heard before he lost consciousness was the panicked voice of his daughter yelling at a 911 operator.


 

...


 

“What the hell do you mean you won't allocate any resources to this?” The petite woman's knuckles were white as she gripped the phone and absolutely radiated rage, and truly wished that her power could reach through the phone lines as easily as her voice. “No, NO! Look, put me through to the Director. Yes, I'm aware she's busy, but if you check that little list of 'Things to Interrupt the Director For,' you MIGHT notice that an HCP Dean calling in an emergency is NEAR THE TOP.”

Kathryn Jilles slumped back against the chair she sat in as the mildly incompetent and moderately terrified DVA clerk she'd been speaking with put her on hold with a promise to transfer her as soon as possible. Looking around the conference room, the Overton HCP Dean noted that all of her faculty had arrived, as well as Janette Riley.

“Dean Jilles...” The hesitant male voice coming from the headset caused Kathryn to actually grind her teeth in frustration. “I swear, I tried to transfer you, but the Director says she's in the middle of something and to tell you she's 'working on it.'”

Some of the anger slipped away from the small woman as she noted the amount of fear in the voice on the other end of the phone. It really isn't his fault that his boss is ducking my calls. “Thank you, Trent wasn't it? Thank you for your efforts. Please relay one last message to the Director for me. 'Work quickly, or I'll see you in person.'” A smile came across her lips as Trent read her message carefully back to her. “Yes, exactly that. Thank you.” Even with a large portion of the rage she'd been seething with moments before dissipated, there was more than enough left to insure that the phone slammed back into its cradle would need to be replaced before it could be used again.

“Right, so please tell me that SOMEONE has better news than a bureaucrat's assurance that they're 'working on it.'”

“Define 'better.'” The words spoken by Overton's Subtlety Instructor after a long, uncomfortable silence did NOT bode well for the meeting.

“Alright, let's just go with news then. Information that is new to some or all of us. Do we have any of that?”

“Quite a bit, I think. I can go first, if no one else wants the spotlight?” The offer from Janette was accepted around the table unanimously, though everyone present also noted that she hadn't been stepping forward when the Dean had been hoping for 'better' news.

“Alright, Janette. How bad is it?” The Dean hung her head in her hands as she asked the question, expecting to hear the worst.

“I have no idea.” The deadpan response from the attractive blonde woman drew surprised looks from around the table. “To my knowledge there have been five attacks perpetrated against families of your sophomore students so far?”

“Technically six against sophomores at present. Also two attacks against family members of first year students, both of whom are in their second year of their normal college studies, and one attack against the family of a third year student.” Apparently not all the Overton professors were aware of the additional attacks, as looks of further surprise, and anger, appeared at the information supplied by Elena Martinez.

“Let me guess, the third year student in question entered the program early?”

“Correct, a very rare circumstance”

“Why the hell didn't we hear about more of these?” The growling question from the Close Combat Instructor was echoed by the Weapons Instructor. “I knew about four attacks, and only the ones on the actual second years.”

“Attacks might not be completely accurate. You're aware from the incidents you already knew about that there was always a 'legitimate' crime being committed in addition to the attack?” Elena waited for nods from bald male and red haired female Instructors. “Of the nine incidents we know of, only four of them resulted in serious injuries, or worse. Two are maybe technically 'attempted incidents,' as the criminals involved were subdued, and the other five were quite thorough home break-in burglaries that thankfully took place when no one was home.”

“And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we can't really tell how bad this is.” Attention turned back to Janette as she inserted a small thumb drive into the console next to her and began typing. “We look at the data point from our end and see no possibility EXCEPT our students being targeted. Am I correct in assuming that there are no other freshmen or juniors in the HCP that would appear to be second year students if one only examined their public records?” The Dean nodded in confirmation, and the monitor behind Janette lit up. “So here we have nine HCP students out of thirty one, that are publicly sophomores, whose enrollment in the program is most likely compromised by a conspiracy targeting the Overton HCP.” A series of red dots displayed on a US Map, six clustered close together along the East Coast, another three appearing relatively close together in the Midwest.

“It looks like a pretty straightforward pattern to me.” Rachd's gravelly tone indicated there were many things he would rather be doing about this problem than 'discussing.'

And I'm sure you're all in touch with the news enough to be aware that there's been a major uptick in criminal activity in several areas recently? Mostly high-end burglaries, with a great deal of focus going towards rumors that someone has set up a very thorough information for purchase system regarding security systems, insurance information on high end items, and even more ambitious things like courier and armored car routes?”

“So the bad guys are using this new crime wave as a cover.” The Weapons Instructor sounded slightly unsure as she spoke. Dani had seen enough of Riley Walker's better half to be certain that there was another shoe waiting to drop.

“The spike in criminal activity started roughly three weeks ago, the first incident involving a family member of an HCP student from Overton was approximately two weeks ago. Which would make that a logical guess, except that the criminals apprehended on scene in the two completely failed incidents involving our people are, in fact, common street criminals. In fact since this crime wave started, there have been over two dozen different 'crews' arrested.”

“Our conspirators could be the ones running this information business? Selling information to criminals, and inserting records for the families of our students to make sure they're targeted?” Janette smiled in response to the plausible idea put forth by the Control Instructor, but shook her head.

“Again, on the surface, that makes sense. However you have to look at the whole picture.” A few more keystrokes and the number of red dots on the map began to multiply at an incredible speed, rapidly turning the areas with just single blips before into huge blobs of red. “Whomever is running this info sale is not being very smart, or very picky about their clientele. A few of my technical people have postulated that it's the behavior of someone who knows a LOT about computer systems, but not much else. Now imagine the amount of effort that would go into tracking down whomever is behind this if there was no involvement with the HCP and Heroes, and even if somehow all the criminal involved were being vetted by the seller to be at least non-violent, then think about how much MORE pressure is being applied to solve this as quickly as possible because those things ARE factors. Even with someone apparently running interference with law enforcement getting its act together...” Janette paused her speech and looked around the table, waiting for everyone to work through the process and come at least close to the same conclusion she had.

“Considering that whomever we're up against has been working VERY hard to avoid leaving these kinds of tracks, to the extent that our best guess is that they murdered their own co-conspirator last year when he stepped over the line, I can't imagine they would be bold, or stupid enough to try and create a crime wave on this scale just to further their goals.”

“So what, we're supposed to believe that this really is a coincidence?” The angry tone as the Ranged Combat Instructor finally weighed in on the conversation indicated his feelings for that idea.

“Of course not. Even with several of our students living in areas where the criminal activity spikes are the highest, we shouldn't be seeing more than one or two cases this early. I'm just saying that our opponents didn't make this crime wave. I think they stumbled across whomever WAS making it, probably months ago, and very discretely manipulated the data THAT person, or persons, was collecting to make sure it included as many of our students as they could.” Janette hesitated, and sighed before continuing. “That, and the other thing.”

“Please, Janette, don't keep us in suspense.” The frustrated tone from the HCP Dean drew an apologetic smile from the blonde woman as she continued.

“Sorry, but as I mentioned briefly and I'm sure you've all noticed; all the various Federal alphabet soups that SHOULD be organizing this thing into a very rapid application of overwhelming government force seem to be running about haphazardly and working at cross purposes? The only level where anything effective is currently being accomplished is pretty much at street level, and those officers and agents pulling more criminals in is only going to help stop the problem once someone higher up the ladder gets the greenlight to correlate all that intel to track down the source.”

What possible motivation could have been manufactured to get multiple law enforcement agencies dragging their feet to this extent?” The Focus Instructor sounded genuinely confused at the idea as he asked the question.

“Credit. Someone has got the FBI, DVA, and all the politicians involved in the local and state law enforcement convinced that they, and they ALONE need to be the ones who ultimately get credit for ending this.”

“Hai, Elena, you two still have decent contacts?” The question from the Dean didn't offer any clue as to where the contacts in questions were located, but both women nodded an affirmative without needing more. “Start convincing people that looking magnanimous in letting someone else take the lead will be worth just as much good PR at the end, and it has the bonus of leaving them without any egg on their faces from the inevitable screw ups that will happen midway through the investigation. James,” the muscular Instructor looked surprised to hear his name at this point, “you still have a lot of contacts in Force Ops. They can't do anything official, but I'm willing to bet you could convince someone to set up some valuable intelligence gathering and call the whole thing a 'domestic readiness exercise' or whatever nonsense name they're slapping on it these days.” Rachd grinned an affirmative at the suggestion.

“Isn't there anything else we can do?” The plaintive question from the animated redhead was met with a long moment of silence.

“Have we informed all the families that, well...”

“Yes, Janette. But 'be extra careful' can only go so far, and we don't have the resources to put security details on all of them.”

“I do.” The two words from the blonde again snapped all attention to the woman.

“You have no idea how long it will take for them to track down the information seller and shut it down, and even then...”

“Even if law enforcement decides to keep tripping over their own feet, my people are a bit more focused. Assuming it doesn't violate any obscure HCP rules or Federal laws I'm unfamiliar with, I'll arrange to have discrete security assigned to the remainder of the sophomore families. If you'll excuse me, even if I call in some favors this is going to take a few days to set up.” Janette rose to leave, but the Dean waved a hand for her to wait.

“Before you go, you mentioned that you had some solid leads on why our campus is graced with the LOVELY presence of a group like RoH?”

“Ah, that. Those leads were followed and confirmed, unfortunately it's a literal dead end.”

“Literal?” The Subtlety Instructor was the first to ask the question that had popped into most of the faculty's heads.

“All the information lines up neatly and runs directly back to a now seized and defunct account belonging to one Roger Wiels. The man who was found to be responsible for taking out contracts on Heroes last year and 'killed himself' when the net was closing in. Everything with Rights of Humanity was actually set up months before his death, he financed the whole group's move out here.”


 


 

“Juan, a moment of your time please.” The middle aged hispanic man looked up quickly from his laptop and felt his jaw drop open at the appearance of his boss.

“Mr Weaver, are you okay? Do yo-...”

In the office please, Juan.” Harold Weaver entered the aforementioned room without waiting to see what his assistant did, seeming to ignore the other members of the Oversight Committee present staring in shock at the condition of their current director.

“Mr Weaver, what happened?” The overweight man moved with surprising speed, making it into the office behind the taller blond man before Harold had even made it halfway around his desk. The office door pulled firmly shut behind him as he waited for an answer.

“I had a fascinating conversation with Overton's Close Combat Instructor today, Juan.” Harold seated himself behind his desk as he spoke, and produced a small hand mirror and a packet of wipes. His lower lip was just slightly swollen, and split on the right side, a moment's work removed the trace amount of red smear that had been left behind. The Oversight Director frowned as he noted that his shirt had also lost the top three buttons, and there was an angry looking bruise forming along his collarbone and the bottom of his throat on the right side.

“He attacked you?” The older man's tone was incredulous, but tinged with a bit of devious glee. “Mr Weaver, as unfortunate as that is, this would allow us t-...”

“Professor Rachd and I had a discussion, Juan. Not a fight.” The blond man replaced the mirror and package and produced a quick-cold compress from another drawer, which he placed gingerly against his bruises. “It was a discussion that I apparently entered lacking some EXTREMELY important information that resulted in an unfortunate misunderstanding. What I would like to know, Juan, is WHY THE FUCK DID NO ONE INFORM ME ABOUT FAMILY DEATHS IN THE PROGRAM?”

The volume of the Oversight director's shout was impressive, easily heard by the investigators working in the outer room, and likely throughout a relatively wide area around where the Committee had taken over to compile their work. The grey haired hispanic man sitting directly in front of that shout found himself cringing back in his chair, eyes closed for a long moment, before he realized that his boss had stopped and was waiting for a reply.

“I didn't, Mr Weaver, sir, we haven't been tracking any information on the students outside of the program. It was in the Declaration of Scope document, abou-...”

“I would direct you to recall paragraph 17, section 3-B of that document, Juan.” Harold ignored the shocked look on his subordinate's face as he recited chapter and verse at the man, and waited patiently for Juan to pull his reader from his jacket and begin paging through the file.

“'Pursuant to the above stated objectives, Oversight will also maintain a basic appraisal of events occurring outside the boundaries of the HCP which might impact the participants, but which the program would not be ab-...' I'm terribly sorry Mr Weaver. You're right, we should have been monitoring for this sort of thing.” Juan's face was flushed a deep red from embarrassment as he attempted to avoid his boss's gaze. “Am I correct in assuming that this is the excuse being given for the significantly reduced scores among several of the HCP sophomores for the past few weeks?”

“No Juan, you are NOT correct in assuming that is the 'excuse' being given. It is the REASON for those things, and as such we need to make sure that all of our reports reflect the weight these tragedies are laying on the young people in this program.” Harold's expression was deathly serious, and his voice still quivered slightly from suppressed rage. “You'll personally see to getting all of those updates sent out no later than tomorrow morning, Juan.”

The hispanic man's eyes widened and he actually came up out of his chair as he began his protest. “Mr Weaver, there are hundreds of documents that will need to be updated, and with the time alone it will take to determine which students are directly involved and take all the facts into consideration...”

“So you'll work all night.” The completely cold tone halted any further objections from Juan. “Keeping me appraised of things like this is your job, Juan. Because you didn't do your job it left me walking up to an extremely powerful, and notably violent, Super, and giving him a perfect justification for doing me serious bodily harm.” Harold moved the compress for a moment and gingerly felt the swollen area before replacing the cold-pack. “And from what our profiles on the Instructors have shown, I am damned fortunate that it was only Rachd that I misspoke in front of, and not Reyes, as there is a good chance she would have killed me before I realized what a mistake I made. I don't like being uninformed, Juan. Now go do your job or pack you god damned bags and get out, and I'll get someone who CAN.”

“Yes, Mr Weaver.” With that acknowledgment the older man quickly fled his boss's office, reclaiming his workstation and typing furiously before the door swung shut again and obscured him from the director's view.

Harold, now alone in the small office he had claimed for himself, sat silently for a long moment before producing his own laptop and placing it in on the desk. It's not like Juan to make a mistake like that. He misses little things sometimes, but this... Someone is trying to play me for something more than the usual games.

After a few more moments of consideration, Harold Weaver logged on to a very securely encrypted email server and began sending a string of inquiries and instructions to a few people whose loyalty he was absolutely certain of.


 

Chapter 12

Chapter 12:

Plots Beginning, Ending, and Thickening


 

"My friends, I'm glad you all could make it." Ramón Carerra stood and spoke as the last of the Overton Sophomore class entered the large lecture room they had all spent so much time in during their freshman year Ethics class. "I am also more than a little impressed, and thankful, that none of us decided to decline my invitation."

"When someone in our class calls for a meeting without the Instructors being involved, well, history indicates that there's a good reason for it." Amelia spoke calmly from her still seated position near where her boyfriend had stood, but those in the room had gotten to know the powerful young woman too well over their time in the program together. To their eyes, the skinny blonde was quite obviously nervous.

"Plus Cat told us it was important." The voice of Scott Jameson chiming in from where he sat next to the aforementioned auburn haired girl drew murmurs of agreement from the crowd, and a chuckle from the standing Mexican youth.

"In that case then I am thankful as well that my friend Catalina has decided to allow me to speak my mind instead of doing it for me." Ramón took a deep breath as his remark drew a few more smiles from around the room, though the expressions quickly turned serious as the assembled students seemed to realize that even the outspoken youth was hesitating.

"So, to cut right to the heart of the matter; five of us in this room are screwed. We will not be able to advance in the HCP, and as things currently stand we will officially wash out at the end of the semester." The muscular man paused, as his words resulted in chaos briefly breaking out in the room.

Nearly every student began speaking, or yelling, at the same time. No words were truly discernible from the noise for a long moment, before one voice easily cut through to everyone present. "He has more to say, and he's not wrong."

Where Ramón's statement had been met with anger and outcry, the telepathic message stunned the room into silence. "Myself, Barry, Kaori, Susan, and Lisa are all doomed to washout this year, due to the academic requirements."

"That's bullshit." The petite Japanese healer tried to instill conviction and rage into her words, but the telepathic declaration prevented her from mustering any real force. "The school has bereavement policies, even for cases where family members were only seriously injured and not..." Kaori trailed off as her speech summoned the memory of the funeral she had just returned from a few days ago. Her similarly grieving roommates moved to comfort the girl as she attempted to choke back a sob.

"The problem, it seems, is one of semantics. The academic requirements of the HCP stipulate, 'a student that receives a failing grade on a midterm, major project, or final will lose their standing in the HCP without prejudice.' The prejudice part simply meaning we will be free to reapply later. Even though we aren't going to have our grades impacted by the projects that the five of us have failed to complete, those grades are still officially entered into the system."

"But we aren't... How the fuck are they penalizing us for this? Now?" Barry Jeung didn't seem to be having any difficulty finding rage to infuse into HIS tone as he spoke.

"They aren't, this is another case of politics. No one had even NOTICED the discrepancy before, but this time people were waiting to pounce on it. At the end of the current year, the loophole will be closed, but that won't do us much good."

"This is that new Oversight guy, isn't it? Weaver." The hispanic teleporter's tone of voice was completely neutral, but anyone close enough to see the look in her eyes knew immediately her emotions were anything but. "I have a solution for that."

"Cat, I think you have to tell them the next part. You're the only one who could make it believable."

All eyes in the room turned to Catalina Blake as Ramón retook his seat. "Harold Weaver isn't the person pulling the strings to force the HCP to enforce the STRICTEST letter of the rules. He's the person who alerted the University President and Dean Jilles to the fact that it was being done." The hispanic girl smiled at the incredulous stares that met her statement. "Make no mistake, he isn't on our side. The plus is that he isn't on the enemy's side either. He's more like his own side. He sees that someone is trying to play him, and he doesn't approve. Since he's here with us, people who can all do TERRIBLE things to him, he's decided that he's going to even the scales so that we don't decide to do something overt. He also found an... interesting stopgap that he shared with us, via President Walker and Dean Jilles."

"Stopgap?" Lisa Shang was the first to get the word out, though it was rapidly echoed around the room. "What the hell good does a 'stopgap' do us?"

"Our opponent wishes to use word games and semantics to strip out almost twenty percent of our class." Ramón took over the presentation again, though he did not stand this time. "They know that if the HCP changes the rules mid-year to accommodate us, it will win a battle but lose the war. It will be painted in the most unfavorable light possible at the end of the Oversight in three more years. Three years of time to distance the arguments from the tragedies that would otherwise correct the skew. So instead, we deny them their opportunity to reduce the size of our class." The muscular youth wore a somewhat forced smile as he continued. "We switch our majors to 'honorary degrees.'"

"We what?" The confused question from Susan, the only one of the five names as 'doomed,' seemed to adequately express the looks worn by most of the class.

"You see my friends, many decades ago this country was not as enlightened as it is today. Many of the fine Universities that now freely allow women or minorities to enroll and pursue real academics did not do so sixty or seventy years ago. A few of them, Overton included, decided to do something that was forward thinking, for its time. They allowed women to attend classes, but only to audit them. If they audited enough, they would receive a shiny 'honorary degree' certificate to take home and show off to the other housewives."

"And the fact that this isn't sixty or seventy years ago isn't an issue because?" The sarcastic question came from the petite healer as she had recovered from her earlier emotional stumble.

"Because like so many laws, rules, and regulations; it was never taken out of the books. They just stopped doing it, but it's still there. Probably won't be after we all do this, but since the HCP is going to fix this crap at the end of the year that shouldn't be a problem."

"And this gets us what, the right to stay here until the end of the year instead of the end of the semester?" Barry's tone as he asked the question sounded bitter and defeated.

"It gets us a win. We'll be out of the running for admittance to the third year with no ACTUAL academic record at the end of this one. But it won't count against us UNTIL the end of the school year. We still finish the HCP second year training, we qualify to apply for the third year of the program after we take a year off, and most importantly; we don't let the fuckers who are trying to rip up our class win. I already finished the paperwork for mine." Ramón stood and produced four sheets of paper from the shelf beneath his desk. "I hope the rest of you will join me in supporting our friends who still can advance."


 

...


 

"Good afternoon, Dean." A somewhat frazzled looking Kathryn Jilles glanced up from the papers in front of her and attempted to offer a smile to her visitor.

"Riley, got any more surprises to drop on me?"

"A couple." Seeing the expression on the petite woman's face turn sour he actually laughed softly. "And it looks like I get the bonus of delivering surprise news to a telepath in person. Weaver's on the warpath."

"Oh? How much on the warpath does a man like Harold Weaver get?" Kathryn seemed ready to dismiss the idea, then caught something from the blond man visiting her that snapper her attention back up to him. "He's doing WHAT?"

"Did. Past tense." Riley accompanied his statement by striding across the cluttered office and turning on the wall mounted monitor across from the Dean's desk. It took a but of fiddling before the University President figured out how to get to television channels, but once that hurdle was cleared he quickly found what he was looking for; political news networks.

"...and incumbent Senator Ned Learner, a senior member of several important joint committees is facing a shocking plummet in the polls as an attack ad released just last night by a previously unknown PAC is destroying his image, and voter base." The talking heads went back and forth for several minutes before they cut to the actual ad in question.

"Senator Ned Learner, ANTI HERO." The ad was remarkably low budget, but it had several key things going for it. An image of the actual memo that the senator had apparently sent to insure that the HCP would enforce the insane semantics that would cost five promising young Supers their chances to advance in the HCP. Statements from three former staffers who had resigned in disgust, and likely because they were intelligent enough to run from political fallout THIS bad as fast as possible, verifying that the memo was real. Representing a state like New Jersey that had MORE than its share of issues with rogue Supers where the public was overwhelmingly in support of Heroes and the HCP, this was the political attack ad equivalent of a nuclear strike.

"So I'm guessing our HCP Budget Committee in the Senate will have a new chair after this year's election."

"That seems a safe bet."

"There's more?"

"In the interest of trying not to have further 'unfortunate discussions' with your Instructors, his exact words mind you, Harold Weaver has been going through all the messes that Raines made last year and has found another one he can undo, in hopes of earning some goodwill."

"Please don't ask me to guess, Riley. That is a VERY long list of messes."

"Raines, and some of his backers who are no longer a part of the HCP Budget Committee, removed the 'parents day' from Overton's HCP last year, citing numerous bullshit reasons. Weaver is bringing it back, AND he's financing transport and local accommodations out of Oversight's 'discretionary fund.'"

"He's not worried about backlash for misuse of those funds?" The Dean was smiling a bit, in spite of her wariness of the apparent support Harold Weaver, of all people, seemed to be providing.

"Direct quote once more; 'I just obliterated a 5 term incumbent's career, and they know it. I have til after the elections of doing whatever I want before any of them grow enough of a spine to come at me. This isn't me joining your side though, this is me fixing shit so I can do my job.' For what it's worth, I believe him."

"Oh?" That one syllable spoke VOLUMES of the Dean's curiosity.

"I'm every bit as much a political creature as he is, Kathryn. Someone is trying to set him up to be both a pawn and the scapegoat. He's decided that he's going to go full on offensive, and make enough overtures that WE are at least shifted to more or less neutral. He won't stand for someone using him like that, he's too proud. He'll raze his own career to the ground and drag his enemies and manipulators down with him before he lets ANYONE use him like that."

"It's good to have your perspective on this Riley. Not a friend, but possibly an ally. DEFINITELY a potential weapon. I would love to know how he got that memo." A brief flicker of telekinetic power turned the monitor off as the Dean found no interest in seeing what else the pundits had to say about the changing political landscape.

"How have your wife's efforts progressed towards safeguarding the rest of our students' families?" The Dean couldn't quite keep a note of embarrassment from her voice as she asked the question. Damn them for manipulating the politics so well, it should be US providing that protection.

"Almost all covered. We avoided setting up on the families you told us not to, I'm going to assume because you know that they're already adequately protected and try VERY hard not to speculate on why the parents of an HCP student wouldn't need any extra security against violent criminals."

"How's that 'not speculating' working for you?" The Dean was pleased to hear that Janette had been successful in arranging security in only a couple of days, and had to smile at the uncomfortable way Riley was now fidgeting.

"Just... Are all of the ones you warned me off of Heroes?"

"Not even half of them."

The overweight blond man's eyes widened slightly. "Then, wha-..."

"Trust your first instinct not to speculate. Believe me when I say that none of the people I warned you off of are in any real danger from common, or even NOT-so-common, criminals."


 

...


 

See boys? I told you this would work out. Look at the SIZE of this place!” Clem Dison was not a particularly intelligent man, but he was a VERY physically imposing one as he loomed over his two sons and directed them towards the very large house in front of them.

I don't trust it, dad. You got this all from some computer thing for like two grand? People with houses this big got big security. We should get outta here.” Dennis Dison was the smallest and youngest of the three approaching the house. He was also the only one without a criminal record (notably different from not BEING a criminal) and he wanted to keep things that way.

Shut up Den, Pa's got this one. You saw the code at the gate got us in just fine.” Alex was the older child, and looked for more like his oversized father than his younger brother. “Computer thing's legit, proved that when the gate opened and the alarm turned off. Now we just got to go in the house and find the valuable shit. Unless you're worried about the one itty bitty bitch that lives here?”

And how the fuck do we know that she'll be the only one here?”

No fucking arguing on the job, both of you.” Clem's voice was quiet, but commanding as the three approached the door. “Computer shit says she's alone, so she's probably alone. If she's not, then we handle her AND whoever she got with her.” The large man reached into his jacket to produce a very heavy looking revolver as he spoke.

“This is stupid, Dad.” Dennis's final objection was answered with a (relatively) gentle cuff to the side of his head. Considering the blow was done using the pistol, it still sent the young man sprawling on the porch.

I said no arguing.” The large man growled the words at his son, before turning and kicking the front door nearly off its hinges. “HEY LITTLE BRITISH BITCH, WE'RE HERE TO ROB YOU! GET YOUR ASS DOWN HERE AND BE GOOD ABOUT IT AND YOU DON'T GET FUCKED UP!”

Dennis cringed from his place on the ground, almost unable to believe that his father was so stupid as to actually ANNOUNCE their presence and intent. All she has to do is hide and call the police and we don't even get HALF as much stuff.

I'm really sorry you decided to bring a gun to a robbery.” The quiet, faintly accented voice came from the speaker next to the destroyed door. Clem Dison had only a moment to wear a confused expression at the calm statement, before his chest exploded apart in a spray of blood.

Almost a second later, the two surviving Dison's heard the loud *CRACK* of a high powered rifle. The two boys reacted quite differently.

YOU CRAZY BITCH!” Alex Dison produced his own handgun and spun, firing wildly in the direction he thought the shot came from.

Alex, no, she-...” The warning became irrelevant as the second shot tore through Alex's chest the same as his father a moment ago, and the second Dison dropped lifeless to the ground.

You seem like the smart one, want to stay there and wait for the police to collect you or take your chances?”

You'll go to jail too, crazy bi-... woman. You murdered my family.”

Your father and brother are career criminals, currently wanted in connection with a combined total of over thirty violent crimes. That number includes eleven murders, or suspected murders. Seeing as they were breaking into my home, armed, you really think I'M going to end up in prison?” Dennis spun to look at the doorway again as the last words were spoken in person instead of through the speaker.

Standing in the doorway, holding a bizarre looking rifle, was a petite woman with either very dark blonde or very light brown hair. The expression on her face carried some emotion the young man couldn't place, but something about it terrified him. “How did you...?”

The question cut off as the woman twitched the barrel of the rifle slightly to one side and fired, the porch next to Dennis blasting apart as the heavy slug ripped through it. No sound accompanied the shot, but a second later he heard the same rifle report as earlier.

It was a trick.” Realization dawned on the young man.

It was an opportunity to surrender. I could either trick you, or shoot all three of you down before you had a chance to do anything.” There was no note of boast, not any emotion at all in the woman's accented voice. To her, this was a simple statement of fact.

Dennis found himself actually relieved a few minutes later, when he could finally make out the sound of approaching sirens.


 


 

Kimberly Cuan jerked in surprise as she suddenly found herself in an unfamiliar room, apparently cuffed to a heavy steel chair. What the fuck? I was on my way down from the loft, and... How the fuck did I get here? Where IS here?

“Ms Cuan, it's a pleasure to meet you.” The calm, measured voice that came from behind the young woman caused her to flinch and yelp involuntarily. In response, the man belonging to the voice circled around her chair and entered her field of view.

“What the fuck is going on here? Why the hell am I tied to a chair?”

“Please, let's not insult EITHER of our intelligences by pretending you don't know the answer to that.” Kimberly stopped thrashing theatrically as she took in the icy blue eyes and expensively tailored suit of the man in front of her.

He looks like he doesn't have the slightest care in the world. Like he sees people chained up in weird rooms all the fucking time. FUCK. “So I got caught then. Alright, let me see my lawyer.”

The man did offer a small smile in response to that. “What part of this situation makes you believe that you're in the presence of law enforcement, Ms Cuan?”

Oh hell no. Fuck no, God no. “Look, we can make some kind of deal? I'm good with computers, I don't know what you need but I can prob-...”

Who supplied you with the names?”

Um...” The young woman thought for a brief moment about trying to deflect again, but something in the man's unfathomable expression told EVERY instinct she had that doing so would be a terrible idea. “I set up data mining engines, crawlers, tore through the security in social media like it wasn't there. Built trojans into insurance companies and wir-...”

I'm referring to 31 specific names.” The dark haired hacker tried to bring her hands up to run through her hair and was reminded again of the shackles she wore.

Which 31 names? If you tell me which ones I might be able to walk back through, but you have to know I was on my way OUT when you guys grabbed me. The database is slagged, irrecoverable in every sense of the word.” For a long moment Kimberly was terrified that the man with the piercing stare wasn't going to believe her. It's the truth, I swear it's the truth, if you're reading my mind or something you have to believe me!

Tell me about Jonah Frellis.”

The seeming complete change of topic pushed the girl even further off guard. “Who?” Her voice was weak, and carried genuine confusion as she wracked her brain for anything resembling that name.

Your partner.”

I don't have any partners, I'm a solo act!” The protest carried a note of pride. The young woman might be about to die, but she was NOT going to let someone else take credit for what she'd managed to do.

The outburst seemed to momentarily confuse the man, then he simply nodded and asked a new question. “What do you know about another hacker who uses the handle 'Better Than All,' spelled out in that ridiculous 'leet' crap.”

He's...” There was a pause as connections were rapidly made in Kimberly's mind. “Holy shit, that's your Jonah Frellis, isn't it?”

Please answer MY questions and I MIGHT answer some of yours.”

A sigh from the girl in the chair. “He's my competition I guess. He managed to steal about half my database while I was still compiling it. Fucked everything up to. MY plan was to set up some real PROFESSIONAL crews with unparalleled information and get rich. That fucker decided to sell my work for two to three grand a pop to anyone that would pay. Because of him I didn't get even HALF of wh-...”

Enough. How 'irrecoverable' is the original database?”

The ORIGINAL? Umm... time travel maybe? All the original components, hard and soft, are LONG gone. The rig I just took apart with the last of the backups was like... generation seven. Can't keep the originals in the information business, it makes it too easy to track.” Please oh please oh please don't let that be the answer that gets me killed.

Kimberly's interrogator spent several long moments examining her before he stalked away, and out of her line of sight. Oh god, he's going to kill me. Or call in the guy who tortures me to make sure I'm not tricking whatever he was doing and make SURE I'm not lying.

Instead of death, or the appearance of some far more monstrous individual, Kimberly heard the soft sounds of a cellphone being put into use.

Initial interrogation is concluded, we've reached a dead end on this.”

Oh god, please oh please don't let that be a literal 'dead.' Please!

No, she's much more thorough than the other one, and we couldn't get much of use from his equipment. Wasted effort.”

The other one... 'his' equipment. They already have Jonah. I bet THAT little fuck is how they found me. I hope they tortured him to death! I hope the don't torture me to death...

We could, but I would like to propose an alternative to handing her off to the authorities.”

What, NO! Give me to the authorities! No alternatives! But Kimberly's terror over what those 'alternatives' might be left her unable to find her voice to interrupt the man's phone conversation.

We recruit her. She's VERY good at what she does. It's only a matter of time before someone else with her skill set shows up, and she'll be an asset.” A pause, during which the bound girl found her spirits beginning to lift with hope again. “It's the best option, sir.  The numbers don't lie.”

Recruitment, prison, or the 'other alternatives.' “If it matters, I'd like to vote for the recruiting thing?” Best of the bad options. I hope.


 


 

“Joyce, so good of you to stop by.” The large man's greeting was jovial, but there was an easily detected edge in his voice.

Patrick, I was a bit surprised to receive your invitation so soon after our last meeting.” The middle aged woman smiled, though the expression was more reminiscent of a wild animal baring its teeth as she closed the door to her host's office behind her.

Your turn, Joyce.” All traces of the false cheer were gone from Patrick's words as soon as the door clicked shut. “I played out my part, all attention is pointing OUTWARDS. Time to prove you deserve a piece of this pie that we're all spending so many resources on.”

Upset about losing your pet senator?” The dark haired woman smiled genuinely at the glare her question produced. “I will applaud your audacity though Patrick. Credit where it's due. Your insane scheme actually produced measurable, POSITIVE results.”

You want to mock MY plans? What have you actually accomplished?”

For a start, I provided the information that made YOUR plan possible.”

Yes, you provide 'information.' Sometimes it's even ACCURATE, miracle of miracles.” Patrick took his own opportunity to grin in response to his colleague's glare. Joyce's data gathering had set them on several wild goose chases during the past year.

I learned from my mistakes, and thought BIGGER this time around. But I will acknowledge that it is INDEED my turn.” Joyce turned to leave as soon as she'd spoken, catching her co-conspirator fully off guard with her rapid acquiescence.

Oh, one thing I should check.” The woman was clearly enjoying keeping the much larger man off balance as she timed her statement to perfectly interrupt the question he was about to ask. “Do you have any plans in motion that require the continued existence of RoH or the HLM?”

“The extremists?” Patrick laughed mockingly in response. “You think you can use THEM? They're the one thing still being closely monitored inside of Overton. Hell, the FBI sent a counter-terrorism specialist just to watch that situation. The man and his team are good, by all accounts as well.”

Contrary to what little reconnaissance you may or may not be performing, Patrick, all attention is NOT focused away from Overton at present. As per the plans we ALL agreed to, I'm content to wait until the watch directly around the HCP slackens a bit.”

Even if you are right, you honestly think you can use the MOST obvious angle to attack from?”

Definitely. The obvious attack is frequently obvious because it has a great potential to be effective. The trick is figuring out the subtle way to do the obvious.”

No more word games, Joyce. What the fuck are you planning?”

Mmmm, no Patrick. No complete spoilers for you, only GOOD boys get those.”

And if I bring this to Edward, Harvin, and Lee?”

Then I let THEM laugh at you for a bit and continue on my way.” The smirk Joyce met the threat with seemed to deflate the large man a little. He had known before making the threat that it had no real weight behind it. Compartmentalizing each member's tactics was one of the best ways to insure that the whole thing couldn't implode all at once if things went wrong.  None of the others would act unless he actually brought them something to act on.

Give me something, Joyce. Give me a reason to believe you ACTUALLY have a plan and aren't about to fuck this all up, and I let you walk out of here.” The statement, spoken in an emotionless tone seemed to penetrate the woman's superior air quickly. The accompanying click as a switch in Patrick's desk sealed the door shut drove the point home the rest of the way.

“I'm not making a play yet, Patrick. No need for threats or grandstanding.” Joyce managed to keep her voice level as she turned back to the large man, but there was a heavily implied threat as she placed a hand into the small clutch she carried when she met Patrick's gaze. “Like I said, first step is to wait and let things ACTUALLY die down. I'm not suicidal.”

And the part where you actually use the RoH for something WITHOUT things getting wrecked before they even get started?”

“That's the simplest part. If you want to use a group like that, you just have to trick them into using a tool they would NEVER use on their own.” Joyce smiled as she saw the large man behind the desk still hadn't caught on. “In spite of their rhetoric, neither RoH or their Militia ever do the dirty work themselves. They contract for it. I have just the 'superb' individual in mind for this particular contract.  One that the agents watching both groups will NEVER see it coming.”

Patrick's eyes narrowed as he noted the extra emphasis on the word before they went wide with shock. “There's no possible way you could get those zealots to work with a Super.”

I don't plan on TELLING them, do you?”

You really think it's going to be that easy?”

Unlike your scheme with using a national crime wave as a cover, I'm not pretending ANY of this will be easy. But the man I have in mind comes HIGHLY recommended. He's one of the best at what he does, it'll be a shame that at the end he'll be far too much of a loose end.”

Patrick considered his colleague for several long seconds before depressing a button on the bottom of his desk, unlocking the door with an audible *clack* sound. “Then I guess all that's left is to wish you good luck.”

I thank you for that, Patrick.” Joyce managed to keep all traces of sarcasm out of her voice, and wore a polite mask over her features as she turned and exited the room.

Once she had reached the elevator, the mask dropped away to reveal a look that should have bored a hole through the steel doors in front of her. Think you can threaten me you fat pig? Won't you be surprised when you learn that it's YOUR recommendation of my chosen asset that got him picked. He'll get the job done, he'll be taken care of, but the faintest of trails will be left leading straight to YOU. And Edward will make sure you're taken care of, just like he had me take care of Roger.


 

 

Chapter 13

Chapter 13:

Promotions, Preparations, and Parents


 

"You really think this is the time to be talking about parties, Collin?" The heavily built Samoan tried to put some force behind his words, but his tone seemed to come out hollow instead. All the sophomores were feeling the emotional drain of the last couple of weeks; capped by the recent revelation that five of their friends had already lost their places in the program going beyond the present year.

“Yes.” The firm, plainly stated response took Rorie a bit by surprise. Collin waited a moment as he observed the larger man's expression, then elaborated. “We need SOMETHING that isn't more bad news, more training, or more studying. The HCP Halloween party is apparently a LONG running tradition, and the 31st is only four weeks away. Remember how hard it was for us coming in last year as freshmen? Well this new lot gets all the normal pressure of the HCP, but instead of having Oversight looming over their heads, they get the even MORE spectacular pleasure of knowing that the HCP that accepted them might cease to exist the year before they get a shot at graduating. We need it, they need it, so are you in?”

“By which you mean, 'Rorie, will you please seduce your girlfriend into helping with OUR class's preparations instead of the third year prep?'” The falsetto tone the large man used to emphasize the core question asked by the smaller sophomore drew a chuckle from Collin.

“I don't think I ever said you needed to 'seduce her into' anything, but I can definitely see why you'd want to go that route.” The red haired youth raised his hands defensively at the mock glare Rorie threw his way. “Seriously though, just ask her. Between Jessica and Kyle we could keep most of the front area under constantly changing illusions, Sean and Jon have been volunteered to provide some tactile backup to the illusionists as needed, and Erin and Eloise are going to trade off running an invisible coat check for the freshies while Cat randomly messes with people's heads.”

“So if we're going all out up front, what the hell are the third years going to be doing in the Labyrinth sections they open up for the party?”

“Hell if I know. I can confirm, however, that they HAVEN'T asked your girlfriend to play a role yet, and in the competitive nature of the HCP I say this means we take advantage of that and steal her away for our side.”

“You really think this is going to help get things back to normal?”

"No. Things are still going to suck, our evaluations are still going to be down almost across the entire class, and we're still going to be saying goodbye to some of our friends that were almost definitely going to be with us next year before all this shit. I think this will help us to cope with how shitty things are going, just a little bit.” Collin's response had lost playful banter it held from moments ago, replaced with something more akin to firm confidence in what he was saying. “The professors, the Heroes out there, the DVA and everyone else, they'll figure out who's fucking with us and our families eventually. I don't believe anyone can kick a hornet's nest THIS big and get away clean. No matter what they do to cover their tracks, it's just a stall. So while they're stalling we have to hold it together and keep advancing through this program to keep them from winning.”

Alright.” Rorie turned as he spoke, hiding the smile that crossed his face as the sudden acquiescence caught Collin off guard. “I'll try to convince Jessica to turn traitor on the juniors, but you are coming with me to absorb any incidental damage that occurs, AND you owe me one.”

The smaller youth just smiled in return and nodded his response, before following after the large Samoan.


 


 

Hello, Harvin.” Harvin Temes scowled deeply at the speaker phone on his desk. The extremely cordial tone of the female voice told him quite clearly that the woman on the other end was about to ask for a favor.

Save the buttering up for Lee or Edward, Joyce. What do you want?”

None for you OR Patrick then?” The thin man actually let out a burst of honest, uncontrolled laughter at the conjured mental image before reigning in his emotions.

You? Buttering up PATRICK?”

I imagine it will take a lot of butter when we eventually fry the fat bastard.”

Threatened you again, did he?”

I know, I know. I shouldn't take it so personally since he does it to EVERYBODY.”

Which annoys you more; another death threat from our dear colleague, or the fact that his insane scheme actually produced real results?”

The only audible sound over the speaker was a hissing intake of breath, and Harvin braced himself for the expected explosion that came from needling Joyce about the wrong issue. Instead, a long moment of silence stretched out before a reasonably calm voice spoke again. “Regardless, I do need a favor.”

It would have to be a LITTLE favor, Joyce dear. Our efforts are being kept separate for good reason, and you did volunteer to be one of the ones at the front taking the brunt of the risk for this stage.”

I wasn't expecting to be sharing that brunt with PATRICK at the time.” It was impressive the amount of venom that could be inserted into a two syllable name. “And it's both little, and not.”

So really more not than little then?”

A sigh came over the speaker. “The fat man is pressuring me to move before things are properly settled, too much attention still on the homefront in spite of a measure of success in getting it turned outwards. All I need is a little poke from the outside, something obviously a different sort of planning from the hamfisted scattergun approach of Patrick's scheme. I need a push that's subtle enough that they aren't completely sure it's a push, but precise enough that they HAVE to assume it is. Confirming that they really are facing multiple fronts is going to be my best hope for getting a window of opportunity before New Year's.”

You want me to go after one of the remaining 'unprotected' families.” The words were a statement, not a question.

Unprotected?” The emphasis on the word apparently took Joyce by surprise.

Or she's just a better actress than she's been pretending all along. “I'm a little shocked your own network didn't pick up on that bit. You're aware of Janette Wal-...”

Yes yes, the Walker bitch pulled on a ton of her family's resources and riches and got private security details for the families. What, she somehow missed a few? Or they opted out?”

There are a few families associated with our target class that never had private details assigned to them, as far as MY sources can tell. Three of those were still targeted during the wrap up of the 'augmented' crime wave. In one case two violent murderers were gunned down on the porch while their third accomplice cowered until he was arrested. The other two proved that their acceptance in the HCP apparently 'runs in the family,' as it were.”

So they didn't bother assigning extra security to the Super families.”

I don't know if they're all Supers, but essentially yes. Some of the family members appear to have been deemed capable of repelling threats like the ones Patrick placed them in front of on their own.”

I don't see the issue then, Harvin. It's obviously better if any push you make is successful, for multiple reasons, but as long as the execution is precise and subtle enough it will help make that window for me to work with.”

You're still going to owe me a pretty big favor for this one, Joyce.”

Agreed, Harvin. Just make sure to act as little like the fat fuck as you can.”

THAT shouldn't be a problem. In fact, I believe I have something in the works that can be tempered slightly to suit, provided you understand that I'm going to have to burn some valuable assets to pull this off.”

I'll buy you some replacements as soon as I get the opportunity. Thank you, Harvin.” With that last statement, the connection terminated.

Very well then, a subtle push is called for.” A predatory grin grew across the face of the thin man as he sat alone in his office, typing out messages lazily on the keyboard in front of him. “And what downfall could be less expected than from a promotion?”


 


 

I can't believe our families are coming here.” Iris sighed as her most recent roommate repeated the phrase for what must have been the hundredth time.

Parent's Day WAS part of the orientation packet, El.”

Eloise.” The correction was automatic, but becoming more halfhearted with each repetition. The blonde girl smiled at what she saw as her inevitably approaching victory with the shorter girl's nickname. “And last year the Oversight Committee canceled it. It was canceled this year too. I can't believe our families are coming here.”

They did give us a week's notice. What are you so worried about, anyways?”

The white haired girl slowly turned to offer a hard stare at her roommate. “My parents. The survival nuts that live in the wilderness in the Rockies. Are coming. Here. TODAY.”

Ah. So it's not that OUR families are going to be here, so much as YOUR family is going to be here then?”

I apparently have a little brother now. I'll be meeting him for the first time.”

Seriously?”

He's only six months old.”

Ah. That makes a little more sense. I still don't see why you're worried though. Can't you just ghost away if your parents embarrass you too much?”

No!” The level of fear in the normally confident (and frequently confrontational) Eloise drew more genuine curiosity from the blonde speedster.

Okay... and why is that?”

The petite girl seemed about to speak several times, but stopped herself before words actually made it out on each occasion. After a half dozen such false starts, a question emerged. “I'll tell you, but if you tell anyone else I will END you.”

Agreed.” There was no hesitation from the tall girl as she moved to sit closer to her roommate. “Now spill.”

My mom told me she was going to bring the Box. It's pretty much EVERY embarrassing thing you can imagine. Photographs, things I made or wrote when I was a lot younger...” Eloise's voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. “...love letters I wrote to the Spectral Avenger when I was twelve.” The white haired girl shook her head violently for a moment. “Anyways, I have to be good and introduce them to all my friends, or mom swears she's going to start passing out things from the Box.”

So you can introduce us.” Iris actually laughed at the momentary look of non-comprehension on the smaller girl's face. “Us. Me, Tara, Louise, your teammates, Cat, and anyone else you hang out with. It'll be fun, El. You can meet my family too!”

Eloise.” The white haired girl barely mouthed the automatic correction this time. “But, I mean, are we all friends? Really?”

God damn, El.”

Eloise.”

No offense, but you must have had a really fucked up life in some respects. The fact that your mom apparently knows exactly how to shame you into behaving like a normal parent tells me you can't blame it all on your parents. You seriously don't realize you have friends here?” The tall girl sounded equal parts amused, shocked, and hurt at the idea.

It's just, I mean, we're mostly nice to each other, but we're competing against each other. Some of us have to get knocked out of the program for the rest of us to move on. How can we really be friends through all that?” Eloise sounded genuinely confused by the perceived conflict.

Some people honestly can't.” Iris paused for a moment and sought out the correct words for what she wanted to say, and slowed her thought process down enough that Eloise could TELL she was giving the question proper consideration. Speedster problems no one tells you about; everyone assumes you're being flippant or casual because you can respond as soon as the other guy stops talking, never mind that for you that pause for breath could have amounted to half a minute or more to consider all the points you want to make.

I'm sure the professors could show you plenty of examples from other classes where the competition undermines the ability of most of the students to make friends, but that won't be universally true in any program I suspect. I think ultimately being this directly in competition is going to help tell who your friends REALLY are, because they'll cheer for you and congratulate you right after you kick their asses. They'll come back at you next time even harder for it, but they won't make it a personal grudge.”

Okay, I can maybe buy that. I get why you would assume that my roommates and my teammates would be my friends, or at least close enough to introduce to my parents. But why Cat?”

Iris started giggling almost uncontrollably at the question, and broke into outright laughter when it wasn't HER that got to answer. “Iris considers me as a friend to everyone in the program, because I get to see pretty much ALL the embarrassing crap that goes through everyone's head every day and I keep it all to myself.”

Eloise nearly fell off the bed from the combination surprise of Iris' burst of hysterical laughter and the unexpected voice in her brain. “So... You often just jump into other people's private conversations then?” The white haired girl tried to inject some anger into her voice, but the fact that her question seemed to cause Iris to only laugh harder made it a difficult proposition.

Hey, don't blame me for that one. Giggles McSpeedy over there was basically chanting, 'HEY CAT HEY CAT HEY CAT HEY CAT' in her head as soon as she started trying to give examples of people you should think of as friends. If it helps, I do think of all you guys as MY friends. Even the crazy blonde speedsters, who are late to an agreed upon training session.”

Oh crap.” Iris suddenly stopped laughing and dug out her phone to check the time on it. “Great, fastest girl in class is late for training.” A long, melodramatic sigh followed. “Well, I'm off then El. And stop worrying about your parents!”

With that the tall girl swept quickly out of the room, so fast that she didn't notice her roommate respond to the nickname. Not a correction this time, just a small smile.


 


 

The large figure, barely discernible from the shadows of the parking garage, paused in his approach towards the blonde woman in front of him as she stopped to answer her phone.

Hi Ames.”

...

Yeah, you guessed right, your sister is, in fact, NOT on her way to Texas.”

Hell if I know, I got a priority email from my boss telling me I had to come into the office IMMEDIATELY.”

He thinks he's the District Attorney for the city of Chicago, Ames. Look, I promise I will try to get this figured out as quickly as possible and still be down there in time to take you to dinner.”

I know I missed the flight, but I can afford to splurge a little and hire a teleporter to get me down to visit my only sis-..”

Apparently whatever reserve of patience the figure possessed had become exhausted listening to half the conversation, and an arm leapt forward with blinding speed to strike the phone out of the woman's grip. Instead of shrieking, jumping, or any of the other reactions the shadow was used to seeing at this point, the tall blonde simply turned to face it with an annoyed look on her face.

You know how expensive those damned things are? I mean yeah, I can afford it, but still. That was really fucking rude.” A wide, gaping grin became visible as the shape in the shadows solidified into a vaguely human form.

It's impressive that you aren't lying on the floor pissing yourself, counselor. How long does the bravado last, I wonder?” The voice that seemed to echo from all the shadows around the parking structure was distinctly male, and seemed equal parts intrigued and menacing.

Oh, let me guess. Another Black Jack?” Seeing the face wince, the young woman offered an almost pitying expression. “You know there are over three HUNDRED criminal supers that use that alias? I mean, I know it's hard to find a name that NO ONE has taken in this day and age, but to go that clich-...”

The faux sympathetic speech was interrupted when 'Black Jack' snarled in rage and swung an inhumanly long arm at the woman's face, the hand at the end twisted into vicious looking claws. Instead of ripping through skin and bone as he expected, the claws barely caught a few strands of hair as the blonde fell neatly back away from the blow, somehow managing to even keep her feet under her as she did.

Nice to see they gave you a little training when you signed up to prosecute 'Variant Humans,' Ms Jacobson.”

Amanda, please. Ms Jacobson makes me feel old, or like the judge is talking to me.”

You still smile and mock? Perhaps you don't understand the position you're in yet. Do you suffer from some secret mental disability, Amanda?” The shadowy form drew closer as each word came out, but Amanda managed to pace backwards almost perfectly in step with the menacing approach.

I wouldn't have thought my work primarily cutting deals with juvie Supers and working out how to handle similarly juvenile Powereds would warrant someone sending what, I'm assuming anyways, is a Super hitman after me.”

The advance paused and Black Jack let out a long, deep chuckle. “Of course, your boss had only JUST informed you that you needed to come into the office. How amusing. It seems, Amanda, that my organization's means of getting information from the DA's office is more efficient than that employed by those who are actually EMPLOYED there. Allow me to be the first to congratulate you on your promotion. You were appointed to the recently vacant position in the OSC prosecution team. A team that is, regrettably, currently seeking to incarcerate my employer for an unsustainable length of time.”

Wait, I got the Organized Super Crime spot? Seriously?” The shadowy man was taken aback once again as the lawyer responded, not with fear, but with jubilance.

You realize you're going to die before you even get to ACCEPT the promotion, yes?”

Mmmmmm, nah. Seriously, this is Chicago. If you wanted to kill an ADA you should have sent more than three guys.”

Eyes went wide in the darkness at the realization that, somehow, the lawyer must have detected not only his own presence, but that of his accomplices. Before Black Jack could get a word out however, the enclosed space of the parking garage was filled with the deafening bangs of rapid gunshots. Accompanying the first shot was a stabbing agony in the shadowy man's leg as the .38 round tore through his knee to ricochet off the pavement behind him. As he fell screaming, a small part of his mind dimly noted similarly pained yells from his left and right. Desperately, he tried to claw his way back into the shadows, but even as he reached out he knew it wouldn't work. His opponent had perfectly lured him just far enough into the open that he was well illuminated, and the dark areas under the parked cars were out of even his reach.

How... shoot so... fast?”

Lot's of practice. Now put some pressure on that damned leg so you don't bleed out before these lovely gentlemen come and arrest you.” With that statement, the blonde attorney dug her ID out of her jacket and turned to walk towards the nearest of the rapidly approaching police officers, identifying herself as she walked and holding the revolver far out to the side and by the barrel so as not to invite similar injuries as the ones she had just inflicted.

Jack didn't bother trying to follow the instructions about staunching the wound to his leg, instead he simply laid back on the asphalt and tried to figure out HOW this situation could have gone so poorly. Turning from his new position, he noted the disheveled pant leg of Amanda Jacobson that barely revealed the presence of a small ankle holster. No... How? How could she have possibly gotten to the gun so fast? Not possible... Even with the impossible riddle taunting him, Jack couldn't prevent a different sort of blackness from claiming him before it was solved.


 


 

It's too bad your uncle couldn't make it.” Ty Rodins had one arm draped comfortingly over his girlfriend's shoulder as they wound their way through dozens of introductions in the large meeting hall where the Overton HCP was hosting 'Parent Day.'

Erin looked over at her boyfriend, then burst out laughing. The black youth attempted to adopt a hurt, confused expression for a moment, before joining in with his own chuckle. “Okay, not really feeling bad about that. Your uncle Dom scares the HELL out of me, Erin.”

Decades long veteran of Army Force Ops, gone on who knows how many completely classified missions, killed probably dozens if not HUNDREDS of enemies with his bare hands. What's to be scared of, Ty?” Erin managed a sweet, almost airheaded tone as she asked the question. “I mean, you're just the guy doing horribly depraved things to the only family he cares about, the girl he treats like his own daughter.”

He, I object to that. None of the things we do are HORRIBLY depraved, and most of the kinda depraved ones are your idea in the first place.”

With a too-sweet smile Erin produced her cell phone in front of her boyfriend's face. “I'm sure hearing that would change everything.  Want to tell him?”

The heavily built young man shivered visible for several seconds before responding. “Okay, too far with that one even as a joke. As graphic as your uncle's speech, 'you hurt my niece and THIS is what I do to you in return,' was; I think that an admission like THAT would probably net me something way out past the range of the terrible, terrible threats already on the table.”

Oh calm down. He heard pretty much everything we did at my place anyways.”

Wai- Wha- HOW?”

Erin laughed again. “For someone whose power involves 'brilliance,' you can be really slow outside of your area of expertise. I guess that's part of why I love you.” The tall girl leaned in for a quick kiss before her boyfriend could recover from his surprise. “But to answer your question, Uncle Dom's a Super, remember? Major physical enhancements, including SENSORY enhancements. The man could hear your heartbeat from two rooms away. We were RELATIVELY quiet, but not THAT quiet.”

Oh God, he's gonna kill me. Someday, I won't be expecting it, then I'll turn around and BAM! He'll be standing there, and it'll be the last thing I -... Erin? What's wrong?” Ty found himself breaking off his own over-dramatic speech as his girlfriend went completely rigid next to him, her hand tightening on his hard enough to hurt. Looking out at the crowd, the heavy youth was about to call a full alarm as he couldn't see whatever it was that had the normally unflappable Erin so completely spooked, when suddenly the answer stepped around the momentarily obscuring form that had been Rorie and stood almost directly in front of the pair.

Oh Erin, sweetie, you've grown up so much!” The tone was far too sweet, too overdone. The woman spouting them was wearing makeup that seemed to have been almost caked on, then worked as much as possible to resemble only a normal skin tone. She was also wearing, by far, the most expensive dress in the room. “Don't you recognize us, pumpkin?”

Oh, she recognizes us. It's so good to see you again, dear daughter.” The man accompanying the fakely-sweet woman was also impeccably dressed, and stood eye level with Ty, just barely taller than his daughter.

Holy shit, it's her parents. Timothy and Margerie Casse. WHY THE FUCK ARE THEY HERE? It had taken quite some time before Ty had gotten the full story from Erin about her parents, and when he finally had it had required his girlfriend to physically restrain him, multiple times, to prevent him from seeking them out and doing something that would have insured that THIS scene never came to pass. Ty realized his free hand was clenched into a fist, and it took a major effort of will NOT to launch himself at the man in front of him.

I don't know how you got in here, but get the fuck out.” Erin remained perfectly still, seeming not even to breathe as she addressed her parents, but the look in her eyes was so cold that her mother took an involuntary step backwards, her skin seeming to shine momentarily through her layer of makeup.

That's right, Erin told me her mom was a Powered. Light reflection when she gets scared, that's why all the makeup. Ty offered what he hoped was a reassuring pat with the arm still draped over his girlfriend's shoulder. Wrong place to visit if you don't want THAT little quirk acting up.

We're your parents, it's Parent Day. It's really not hard to figure out, Erin. You'll have to be quicker than that once we get you transferred to a REAL school.” The condescending tone from Timothy Casse resulted in another brief internal struggle for Ty to keep control of himself.

No, you aren't. You two threw me away, along with all POSSIBLE parental rights, when I was FOUR. You don't get to come in here now and pretend you have anything to do with me. Now get. The. Fuck. OUT.”

Erin, sweetie, you wouldn't want to cause a scene here now would you? We'd much prefer if you decided to reunite WILLINGLY and bury the hatchet, but other arrangements could be made.” Margerie Casse rejoined the conversation, her tone still fakely honey-sweet, but carrying an undercurrent of threat now. “After all, I hear that the SI requirements of these programs can be BRUTAL. It would be a shame if your overly proud mother and father were to let something slip, just to make it easier to transfer you to a more... proper program. Why it wou-...”

Fuck letting THIS go for even one more second.  Forgive me for interrupting.” Ty stepped forward slightly as he spoke, causing the much smaller Margerie to scamper backwards to avoid being run over and even startling Timothy back a step. “We haven't been properly introduced, my name is Ty. I'm your daughter's boyfriend, and I must say how HAPPY I am to be meeting you in person after everything she's told me about you.” Timothy Casse looked deeply disconcerted at the seemingly genuine smile Ty was wearing. Margerie looked suspicious.

You're... happy to see us?” Ty nodded in response as he could almost feel the disbelief and outrage swelling up behind him.

Going to have to settle this quickly before Erin murders all of us. “Quite happy. I can't tell you how often I have fantasized about this moment, though I admit it was usually in more secluded circumstances.” And with those words, before either of the Erin's parents could respond, Ty swung his fist as hard as he could. The smile was still plastered across his face as the black youth felt the crushing impact with Timothy's jaw, and the older man was actually blown off his feet by the perfectly executed uppercut.

Stay back!” Margerie was now shining quite clearly through her layer of camouflaging makeup, but Ty wasn't even looking at the woman. Instead he was looking down at the unconscious, twitching form of Erin's biological father.

Remarkably, the crowd seemed completely unperturbed by the chaotic turn of events, save for a few faces that wore looks of grim satisfaction. “Assault! Assault and battery, felony is going to get you thrown RIGHT OUT boy!” Margerie's tone had grown shrill with panic, but fortunately she didn't have many words left to speak. Even as the nervous woman began looking frantically about for some authority figure to scream at, a petite hand placed itself on her shoulder. Margerie Casse collapsed immediately to the floor, seeming for all the world as if she had just suffered from a severe run in with narcolepsy.

You two owe me a VERY good explanation. And I believe Ms Blake should also be present in my office for this, as I am CERTAIN she's involved with the lack of reaction from the crowd.” It was extremely difficult for a woman who stood notably short of five and a half feet tall to be physically imposing. An angry Dean Kathryn Jilles managed to pull it off QUITE nicely, however.


 


 

Wakey, wakey!” Timothy Casse came groggily to his senses to hear an accented male voice coaxing him, and gentle taps on his forehead dragging him to wakefulness. “Ah, good, you're both awake now.”

Timothy, the-...”

Quiet, Marge. I'll do that talking.” The heavily made up middle-aged woman immediately went silent and seemed to project a much more confident aura than she had a moment ago. Her tall, dark haired husband spent several seconds ignoring the older man in the room with both of them and went through a quick set of motions to make sure he was properly settled. Jaw hurts, but not as much as it should. That kid got in a hell of a sucker punch.

To answer your unspoken question,” the British accented voice snapped Timothy out of his self inspection, “you received some basic healing as your jaw was quite well and truly shattered by our young Mr Rodins. And yes, I am an Advanced Mind, in answer to your next question.”

Then what you're doing right now is illegal, Mr Advanced Mind. I dema-...”

It's Laurence Vree, Mr Casse.” The change in tone as the white haired professor cut off the younger man's bluster was startlingly sharp. “And you don't get to demand anything. Are you aware of how SERIOUS the trouble you and your wife have thrown yourselves into is?”

My wife and I came to visit our DAUGHTER and-...”

No, Mr Casse.” The interruption this time was even colder than the last, and the fury in Vree's voice set Timothy back to a seated position as he flinched away. “You don't HAVE a daughter. Not legally, as you yourself quite thoroughly and completely severed ALL ties. That means that you conned your way into the Overton Hero Certification Program, and considering the amount of money we know you paid out in bribes to several University and DVA officials in order to gain that access, we have a VERY solid case for the charges that will be brought against you.”

Charges? What charges? That boy assaulted my husband!” Margerie was beginning to shine through her makeup again, as the seriousness of the professor's words seemed to sink in.

The pair of you conspired to gain illegal access to the restricted areas of a Hero Certification Facility. In doing so you gained extremely confidential information you aren't cleared for: the identities of MANY of our students.”

So what? That's the big charge?” Timothy let a mocking smile crawl across his face as he stood again. “So we saw some kids' faces? What's the charge for that anyways?”

Laurence met the mocking grin with a cold smile of his own. “Conspiracy to gain illegal access to a secure HCP facility is classed under the same felonies as treason against the United States. If found guilty you and your wife will be executed.”

Margerie processed the words for a moment, then passed out in the chair she still occupied. Timothy attempted to laugh the declaration away, but something in the older man's look stopped him. “You... you can't be serious. TREASON?”

Or there's an alternative.”

Ah, so that's how it is. Scare us with the impossible and then offer the bait? No thank you.”

Mr Casse, believe me when I say that few things would please me more, knowing what I have learned, than seeing you killed for your own stupidity. I believe that if we were to ask for volunteers to deliver the injection the line would stretch around a city block. In spite of this, you have inherited a great many connections from your family, and it is only due to the potential for future issues with THOSE persons that we are offering you ANY recourse.”

And what would this 'alternative' entail?”

You and your wife will have your memories of your visit to Overton completely removed. In addition you will consent to a deep telepathic scan to insure that you truly had no motive, aside from your own stupidity, in conning your way into our facility. In addition, to prevent any FUTURE stupidity that would affect the HCP, both you and your wife will have all memories of Erin Casse removed. Permanently.”

Impossible.”

I am very good at what I do, Mr Casse. It will be difficult, and it will be painful for both of us, but before you answer I would like to inform you of one additional fact you are not presently aware of.”

Oh?” The tone was an attempt to sound dismissive, but the icy serious manner of the old professor had worn on Timothy's nerves to the point where the closest he could manage was 'not terrified.'

Officially both you and your wife were caught infiltrating an extremely high security government facility WELL past the normal authorizations for lethal force on sight. If you decline, I will kill both of you here, in this room.” The taller man searched desperately for ANY sign that Laurence was bluffing. What he found searching the older man's eyes truly, deeply terrified him.

I consent. Margerie will consent as soon as you wake her up again.”

I must say I am somewhat disappointed by this resolution. Please lay down on the floor, Mr Casse. I really wasn't kidding when I told you this part is going to hurt.”


 


 

News, now.” Dean Kathryn Jilles looked quite a bit less intimidating at 6am, dragging herself towards the coffee machine, than she had the previous night dealing with the wayward Casses.

Good news!” All eyes turned to the inexplicably cheerful sounding, though exhausted looking, Focus Instructor. “Timothy and Margerie REALLY are that stupid. They found out about their biological daughter through the leaks we always suspected would form on the government side of the Oversight reporting. Somehow they came up with the idea that they could get Ms Casse transferred to Korman and ride a successful Hero daughter all the way to major political offices that have always eluded both of them.” A sadistic smile made its way onto the professor's face. “And as deep as I went I can assure you that they came up with this harebrained scheme on their own. This one was bad timing that had a happy ending for one of our best students, no further scheming from our still unknown adversaries.”

The bad news, then.” Elena Martinez paused to take a drink from her own mug as the Dean finally made her way to the table. “The attack on Amanda Jacobson was, in all likelihood, another maneuver on the part of our enemies.”

Proof?” James Rachd sounded eager as he leaned forward and growled out the single word question.

Only circumstantial. But someone went to great lengths to manipulate a promotion for Amanda, then made sure that word of that promotion got out before even she knew about it.”

Wait, the bad guys got Ames' sister a promotion? What the hell kind of attack is that?” The Weapons Instructor wore a genuinely confused look as she leaned back in her chair and balanced a coffee mug on one finger.

Amanda was promoted to a very prominent position in the Chicago DA's office in charge of prosecuting Super criminals involved in organized, major crime. The position tends to be a very rapid rotation as the level of threat involved is extreme. Most attorneys last a few months and then transfer out to another city.”

So she was promoted, that promotion was immediately leaked, and...?” The question from the Control Instructor seemed more lucid than those from the rest of the table, Hai Nguyen was apparently a morning person.

Three hitmen, all Supers, attacked her in the parking garage used by the Chicago DA's Office on her way in to hear about her promotion.”

The bad guys found out about her new job before even SHE did? That's kinda impressive.” Dani drained the contents of her mug and let the cup roll smoothly off her hand to rest on the table. “Poor bad guys.”

What?” The startled question that came simultaneously from both Ranged and Close Combat Instructors set the animated redhead into a fit of giggling.

James, Tony, perhaps later today you should familiarize yourselves with some of our files on the families of our students.” There was the barest hint of laughter in the Dean's voice as she spoke. “I recommend starting with Amanda Jacobson's file.”

Right, we'll do that.” Anthony Banning made the declaration quickly, cutting off whatever angry retort was about to come from Rachd in response to the early morning laughter,

So that's the news from last night, anything else of note before we get into our next planning session?” Seeing negative responses around the table, the Dean took another fortifying swig of her coffee before continuing. “So, aside from a leftover and largely defunct move to get a nuisance anti-Super zealot group into our faces, all the efforts of our enemies have been focused OUTSIDE of Overton this year. They've been going after our students' families in order to impact their performance in the program in a manner that can be capitalized on through the Oversight reviews. We have also learned, relatively conclusively considering the skill of the telepaths involved, that Oversight is NOT aligned with our adversaries except for incidentally, meaning there isn't really anything we can do there. Based on the completely amoral manner in which our opponents are acting against us, it's my belief, shared by the Walkers for what that's worth, that the next series of attacks will likely be attempts on family and friends of Overton's HCP staff.” Dean Jilles waved off the sudden responses from around the conference table as she continued. “As IMPOSSIBLE as that scenario sounds, it never really occurred to us that a group could realistically compile a thorough class roster for the HCP either. As much as we hate to admit it, a great many of the security protocols that have always been in place around the HCP have never been tested because no one believed that ANYONE would EVER truly attempt an attack in this way, or any way. Even with all the political strings being pulled to slow the responses down, Heroes are beginning to get involved, which makes for a VERY short window for our adversaries to throw anything more at us before they drop back as deep as they can to wait until focus inevitably shifts away again. Almost everything that's happened since that damned Oversight Committee was assigned should have been 'impossible,' but we have to accept that the HCP and DVA were both woefully underprepared for events like these to actually happen. When this is all over, we're going to have a LOT of things that need to be changed to insure nothing like it happens again, but until then we have work to do, students to prepare, and people to protect.”


 

 

Chapter 14

Chapter 14:

Passing Time, Passing Grades


 

Sean Tannen sprinted down the short side corridor on the first floor of the Union building and barely caught the concealed elevator door before it closed. "Hey Kaori, guess you didn't hear me ask you to hold the door?" The petite Japanese girl barely seemed to register her teammate's question, her eyes remaining downcast and her posture slumped.

The heavyset brown haired youth considered his available responses to his teammate's continued depression. We've moved up to fourth place, we're going up against the third rank in less than an hour for a MAJOR chance to take over their spot. But how the hell do I try to push her to get her head in the game? None of this probably even MATTERS to her. After contemplating for the length of the trip down to the HCP levels, Sean moved to stand close to the petite girl and sank to a sitting position against the wall. “Talk to me, Kaori, talk to any of us. Tell us if there's anything we can do, ANYTHING you need, because I'm pretty sure it's killing all of us to see you like this.”

Kaori stiffened briefly around the midpoint of Sean's speech, but didn't immediately respond in any other way. The asian girl also didn't move to exit the elevator as it arrived, the door standing open for several long seconds while the two students remained stationary, before closing again.

I need...” Kaori's voice trailed off for a moment and she looked away from her teammate, trying in vain to hide the tears that had welled up again. “I need it to be right again. And no one can do that. My big brother was the safe one, the full time healer and doctor, not the crazy one running off to the HCP to try and fulfill some stupid dream or spontaneous family legacy. He never got into trouble, he was always careful, and now because someone wanted to hurt ME, any of us, for being at this school right now, he's dead. Someone put his name on a list and sold it to a bunch of damned criminals like it was nothing, and now he's dead, and so's my dream of being a Hero. I'm not even sure why I bothered to take up Ramón on his crazy loophole idea, except that I think it would hurt even more to let whoever those fuckers are win even one more inch without making them fight for it."

"I don't think any of us will blame you if you want to give it up, Kaori. If getting away from here is what you need, then every one of us will do everything we can to help you. But before you decide that, you have to remember; your dream isn't dead yet."

"Really." The petite healer looked down at her seated teammate, tears still visible in her eyes but her tone now holding an edge of sarcasm competing against the hollow grief it normally carried. "Even with the loophole, five of us are out. We can't meet the academic requisites when we don't really HAVE any classes anymore, and our only other option was to get dropped even sooner by failing scores that don't actually go into our grades. So I'm out of the HCP at the end of the year, or the end of the semester. Unless you can think of a magical way for me to graduate before June with two years of training left ahead of me."

"The dream is being delayed, Kaori, not dead. You'll finish the second year of the program, then you take a year off to get caught back up on the academic shit, then you come back to the HCP."

"Do you have ANY idea how rare it is for a dropped HCP student to EVER test into the next year of the program?"

"But you aren't a dropped student, Kaori. None of you are. You aren't getting passed over and failing to advance, you got screwed by obscure semantics and I'll bet money it'll say so right in the damned files. But you know what will REALLY help make sure you get right back in to any HCP you apply for after taking a year off?"

"I'm sure I'm about to find out." The sarcasm was still present, but the grief seemed to have faded further, and a new note could just barely be detected if one was listening hard enough for it. Hope.

"Being on the team that takes over the top ranking in the class."

A faint smile appeared on the healer's face. "And I'm sure you have some grand plan for how to beat the girl who punched a god damned anti-tank missile and secure that spot?"

"Nah, planning for Ames comes later. For today all we have to worry about is Team 3. Just enough artillery to take on an armored division, the most skilled fighter in ANY of the classes, and Zach! How hard can it be?" Sean pushed himself to his feet as he spoke and made his way over to elevator panel to reopen the doors, before turning and meeting the eyes of his smaller teammate again.

"You really think they'll take me back later?" The hope in Kaori's voice was still small, still uncertain, but definitely there now. "I need... Jiro died. I can't let that end up being in vain, so I HAVE to be a Hero now."

"Kaori, I'm more certain that YOU will one day walk out of the HCP as a Hero than I am that I will."


 

...


 

"C'mon man, you gotta give me more than that! This is seriously fucking with my head, man!" Max Thompson let out an exasperated sigh at the groveling tone coming from one of his fellow HCP seniors.

"I already told you Will, they aren't all that. I wasn't expecting all the nuisance shit they threw at me and then the blonde chick sucker punched me. You'll be FINE." What the fuck is wrong with you that you're worried about fighting the damned sophomores?

"Don't let him fool you, Will." The jovial female voice that joined the conversation drew a wince from Max and an even more slumped posture from the smaller Will. "The sophomores this year are fucking VISCIOUS. Mr Thompson here is ranked behind only myself and Danny, and he lasted less than three minutes against the team you'll be squaring off against!" The second ranked senior, Vicki McCormick, made her way to one of the open chairs in the small observation room and plopped into it. "Hell, in the six matches between them and us so far, we've only managed to win TWICE. First time a senior class has ever dipped below .500 in Overton history, so we are COUNTING on you to do better!"

"They didn't beat me, they distracted me and landed a cheap shot." The tall, muscular youth was obviously more than slightly upset over the result of his match against the number one sophomore team.

"Ummm, that kinda sounds like you got beat, Max?" The smaller male sounded a little unsure of himself, but the more he considered it the more confident his appearance became. "I mean, it's four on one where the one is expected to be a heavier hitter than any one of the four, so... Isn't that just tactics?"

"If Rachd would let me go again I could take that whole team apart in sixty seconds." The icy tone of voice and deadly glare combined to get the smaller senior to back away quickly from his classmate, but it only drew laughter from the direction of Vicki.

"Seriously Max, you should do a LITTLE research before you make claims THAT fucking stupid. I don't think any of the Instructors could take out Jacobson in under a minute, the girl is a fucking tank and THEN some. Even Danny thinks she's impressive." The tone used by the African American woman for the final bit of her speech seemed to indicate that this was something of MAJOR import in her mind.

"Who cares what Danny thinks? He's not even eligible for the cross class matches." The attempted rebuttal from Max drew more laughter from the second ranked student, and an incredulous look from the much less relaxed Will.

"Are you kidding? Danny, the guy who could probably dismantle our ENTIRE senior class in five minutes, thinks the top sophomore is impressive; and YOU don't think that's something? Fuck me, I still have to fight her in... Shit, fifteen minutes."

"Some real advice, Will?" Vicki almost resumed laughing again at the pathetically eager expression she saw in response to her query. "Take out their telepath quick, then isolate the two techies away from Jacobson long enough to eliminate. Normal human resilience on those three, so as long as you're quick and decisive you should be able to pull it off. Then you just have to whittle Jacobson down a piece at a time. She's ridiculously strong, she punched a fucking missile out last year and she's back like it never happened, and she's supposed to have some crazy power sink ability like a black hole for any energy you throw at her."

"Wait, she does WHAT? How the fuck do I fight a black hole?"

"Not a literal black hole, stupid." Max's expression still held more than a trace of rage, but his pride seemed unable to allow him to let Vicki provide all the insight. "It's a power sink, kind of like a null Super. Doesn't work very well against brute force with kinetic hits though, your power should be able to hurt her."

"Yes, only replace the idiotic 'doesn't work very well' with the more accurate 'doesn't work AS well.'" The tall girl's response to the glare resulting from her interruption was a mocking grin. "It looks like Max here has been studying the girl who knocked him out, but he doesn't seem to be actually learning the things he should from that study. There's a record of her fight against crystal monster guy from the first weekend if you want to check it out later. He hits like a truck, but he couldn't take her off her feet even when he landed clean. The silver lining is that she's not very good at actual fighting or moving yet. She trains like crazy though so I'm gonna guess that the HCP was a really late decision for her instead of the many years long approach it was for most of us.”

Well, at least I can see how I might have a chance.”

You ALWAYS had a chance Will. God damn but this class needs to stop pretending the SOPHOMORES are so fucking special.”

Good luck Will, I'll be cheering for you and I'm sure mopey here will at least be hoping you avenge his defeat!” Will managed a nervous chuckle at the farewell from Vicki, then made his way to get his final briefing from the Close Combat Instructor before his match.

So now I'm moping?”

The black girl sighed and settled into a better angle to view the monitor in response to the sullen question. “Yes Max, you are moping. You were a little whiny when they let you back into the HCP here because you thought you were 'better' than the Overton program. You sulked when I kicked your ass and you found out you WOULDN'T be at the top of the senior class. And you have been moping non-stop since Amelia Jacobson knocked you the fuck out.”

Max stood very still for quite a while, showing no response until several minutes later when the monitor flickered on to show the unfolding match between Will Denne and the sophomore Team 1. The muscular third ranked senior had to give some credit to his class's sixth ranked student. Will wasn't showing any of the nervousness or outright fear he'd been radiating while asking for advice going into the match. His ability to throw or push objects away from him at extreme speeds seemed briefly like it would allow him to operate from far enough back to pick his opponents apart the way Vicki had recommended. Max smiled as the sophomore Advanced Mind went down, but that expression changed quickly when he realized that the telepath had apparently been making himself the bait. The position needed for Will to get the shot had been a trap, as some kind of concealed mine went off as the senior sought to reposition, and the same foam substance that had briefly held Max rapidly engulfed his classmate.

Well, he lasted about thirty seconds longer than you did, and he remembered to take one of them out INSTEAD of monologuing at the kid.”

Fuck off, Vicki. I admitted I was stupid and overconfident in that fight, why are you still harping on me about this shit?”

Because you haven't LEARNED yet Max. You just tried to send Will in there with a little pep talk about how, 'they aren't that tough.' You want me to stop? Either issue a challenge and MAKE me shut up, or prove that you've actually learned your lesson from this.”

Max looked to be carefully considering the options the woman in front of him had proposed. Then he smiled. “How about option three? I prove that they aren't all that.”

Vicki sighed in response. “Kinda proving my point about not learning your lesson.”

And if I can prove that the only 'lesson' I needed was another reminder not to let my pride get the best of me?”

I must admit that I am DEEPLY curious as to how you plan to prove that. I will accept it as a third alternative to get me to stop harassing you.”

Give me a week to get it approved, and it'll all be settled before Halloween.”


 


 

Come on Collin, grab your stuff already and let's go! Cat's already ready!” The cheerful shout from the giant woman in the doorway drew laughter from Collin's three housemates as he scrambled about.

Actually Tasha, I'm not really sur-...”

“You're ready because I dressed you and sent you out the door myself.” Seeing the combination of confused and amused expressions now directed her way, Tasha sighed. “And talk to everyone when you do that to me so I don't look crazy when I respond! Now go get Scott and let's go or we will be late!”

“I'm still a little lost on what, exactly, we're going to.” Collin had managed to find appropriate 'outdoor event clothes' as requested by his girlfriend, but the lost expression on his face drew another round of laughter from his still watching roommates. “Seriously Tasha, what are the 'Wildcards,' and where are we going to watch them?”

“Honestly, you really don't bother looking around much do you Collin? As much time as you spend blowing off steam and working out in the campus gym, you never bothered to read the backs of ANY of the sweatshirts? You own two of them you know.”

Seeing the confused expression remain, one of the men watching the entertainment unfold finally took pity on the muscular redhead. “It's the Overton University mascot, Collin. Since it's October that means she's taking you to a football game.” Aaron got a private laugh as he saw the faces of Michael and Barry light up with understanding along with Collin's.

“Yes, football. The Wildcards are off to their first ever 3-0 start, and most of the experts are sayin the team we've got this year is poised to sweep every game all the way to the championship!”

“I didn't even know Overton HAD a football team. I remember the basketball stuff a little bit last year in the spring, but nothing about football.” Collin combined a wave to his roommates with flipping the three off as they all mimed whipping motions as he headed out the door. “I didn't know you were this into sports either, Tasha. I don't think you've brought it up before?”

Tasha responded to the tentative question with a grim smile, managing to hold it for several seconds and observing Collin's mounting anxiety before she lost it in a burst of giggles. “No Collin, I haven't brought it up much before. I used to be way into every sport I could get at. When I was little I used to dream about playing professionally in any or ALL of them. Then I got my powers and found out that Supers aren't allowed to compete in normal sports, and all the Super sports just emphasize the power over the athlete and I lost my dream.”

“So, at the risk of landing in dangerous territory again, why the sudden rekindling of the interest?”

Tasha giggled again, a sound that couldn't have seemed much more out of place than it did emanating from the muscular six and a half foot tall woman. “Because all this crap we're going through in the program, we need to do more normal stuff. I figure this is good because it's normal stuff we can share with our friends, unlike most of our other boyfriend/girlfriend 'activities.'”

Collin blushed deeply at the emphasis on the last word, but managed a deadpan comeback. “I don't know, we could always ASK if anyone else wanted to joi-...” The rest of whatever he'd been going to say was lost as Tasha began laughing and slapping at his shoulder and head.

“Alright, so a no go on that plan then.”

“It had BETTER not have been an actual PLAN.”

“Poor phrasing. A no go on that idea then.”

“Accepted. Now Cat is getting Scott, we just have to swing around and pick up Alex and Lisa, and see if they invited their boys along!”

“I didn't know Alexandra or Lisa were dating anyone.”

“They aren't, as far as I know, but these things can change quickly.”

From there Collin opted to simply follow the beautiful woman he was dating as she collected her friends and teammates to impose football upon, offering only helpless shrugs in response to the pleading looks many of them threw his way out of Tasha's line of sight. Eventually the six of them made their way to the small outdoor stadium, where everyone but Tasha and Catalina was briefly shocked to see the crowd that had gathered to watch the game. Uncertainty slowly melted away as the found seats, purchased sub-par and ludicrously overpriced snacks, and for a couple hours they all got to experience something like being nothing more than normal college students.

“It's an away game next week, but they're back the week after that. You guys want to come again?” All five nodded eagerly in response to Tasha's question.


 


 

“STUPID!” The shout from the entryway, followed by the slamming of the front door, quickly drew the attention of the townhouse dorm's current occupant.

“Scott? What the hell?” Erin leaned slightly over the railing to look down at her roommate, standing in the entry hall with a dejected posture.

“Hey Erin, sorry about the screaming. I forgot how much the good Lord loves fucking with my life for a bit is all. That psych midterm that was on the syllabus for Wednesday turned out to ACTUALLY be today. Professor said the changed schedule was all part of some class experiment bullshit.”

“Ah, crap. Tell me you didn't just fail out of the HCP?” The tall girl at the top of the stairs suddenly looked very nervous, and her tone was pleading.

“What? No! I wasn't COMPLETELY unprepared for the test, I just thought I had two more days. And looking back, the man was dropping hints left and right that he was planning on pulling some surprise like this, and I missed it until after the fact. This is just going to make it a pain in the ass to make sure I pull my score up by the end of the semester.”

“Wait. You're complaining because you think the test you took today is going to make it harder for you to pull your perfect A's across the board again?” Scott started to respond, but opted to flee into his room instead as Erin began hurling cushions and couch pillows down at him.

“C'mon Erin! I didn't mean to make such a big deal about it. I thought no one would be here.” The sandy haired boy poked his head out from the door to see if the barrage had truly stopped. “Besides, my mom told me back before freshman year that she would be, quote: 'VERY disappointed' if I didn't ace my way through college and come out of it with a degree no matter how the HCP goes.”

“Okay, point. Your mom is a scary woman.”

“Not HALF as scary as your uncle!”

“That still doesn't sound quite like your mom though. I mean, it's like she's hedging a bet that you're gonna fail out of the HCP.”

“Oh, yeah, that. She also told me that if I didn't graduate from the HCP after everything she helped me with to get me ready she was going to disown me and hunt me for sport.”

“Now THAT sounds a lot more like the Mrs Jameson I remember!”


 


 

“So, how goes the studying?” Antoin asked the question as he slipped into the room and took a seat on the bed behind his roommate.

“No, off the bed, now. No distractions.” Kyle Sawara turned away from his monitor only long enough to demonstrate he was wearing his most serious expression, and pointed emphatically towards a chair. The blond Canadian youth laughed in response, but moved quickly according to the instruction.

“I wasn't coming down to distract you, Kyle. I was just checking on you.”

“I should be the one checking on you, you're the one who decided you needed to take three comp sci classes on top of your normal class load.” There was a trace of anxiety in the dark haired boy's voice, but it was mostly smothered with the exhaustion present as the end result of several hours of studying.

“Yes yes, I took on too much, we've had that argument. At least I was smart about it and I'm only auditing the classes. I get all of the learning and none of the pressure!”

“You've been using your ability to stay awake for a week straight at a time, you call that 'none of the pressure,' really?”

“The pressure is from the HCP, not the extra classes. I don't exactly have the skill set most people think of when they think, 'Hero.' I knew before I came here that I would have to work harder to make it as far as the truly talented. I don't regret anything.”

“Pretend you aren't one of the 'truly talented' again and I'll come up with something for you to regret.” Kyle sighed and clicked the monitor off as he finished speaking.

“I'm distracting you, I should g-...”

“No, I've been staring at the screen for so long my eyes are having trouble focusing. Time for a break. Now, I thought we already covered this stupid inferiority thing you tried to bring up before? There's maybe a dozen known healers in the world that can heal without physical contact the way you can, and it's not like you'd be the first healer to make it through the HCP.”

“The most famous example is also the worst comparison, Kyle. I'm never going to be the next Hallow.” The words had the ring of an old and well worn argument.

“And that's a good thing.” Apparently Kyle was striking off on a new path in this argument, as his response seemed to take Antoin by surprise. “He was a great Hero, one of the Legends, and now he's just a medical mercenary selling that ability to the highest bidders. You shouldn't WANT to be like him. You can support an entire team at once, your range and selectiveness get better every day, AND you're learning all this high-tech subtlety stuff. You really going to keep pretending that you have worse odds of making it through this than I do?”

“Right, because the flying illusionist isn't an incredibly effective ability set already.” Antoin stopped, then started laughing. “My god, are we really having a 'mine's worse, no MINE!' argument?”

The asian boy started to respond, stopped, then started laughing as well. “Wow, we are way more exhausted than either one of us realized if we're having sitcom arguments.”

“Well, time for a break, healer's orders!” The taller blond youth punctuated his statement by standing and dumping his boyfriend onto the bed before the shorter man could react.

“Hey, NO! I have to study!”

“Kyle, it's a political science midterm for a class you've described as; 'a great place to catch up on sleep and still get an A.' You're worrying over nothing there, get some rest.”

“I have a trig test too!”

“Yes, but in that respect you are the stereotypical Asian college student. Seriously, you score higher on advanced math tests in your sleep than I could manage with an open book and pages of cheat sheets. Go. To. Sleep.”

“Only if you get some sleep too.”

Antoin considered the ultimatum for a moment, then shrugged. “Alright, move over!”


 


 

“Do you have a moment, Mr Weaver?” The tall blond man looked up from his laptop at the hesitant question asked from his doorway. Standing there was the Oversight Committee's youngest member, a man that Harold Weaver did not normally associate with timidness or hesitation.

“Come in, Allan. What can I do for you?”

“Thank you, ummm.” The tall dark haired man moved in and took a seat across from his boss as he collected himself. “I think... I need to resign from the committee, Mr Weaver. I can't see a way to do my job with all the bullshit politics that keep getting funneled through.”

The Oversight Chairman was surprised, and he allowed the genuine emotion to show clearly on his features. “I have to tell you that this is unexpected, Allan. What brought this on? I thought we'd been doing good work to reverse a lot of the damage the first year's 'management' had done to our committee's credibility and ability to perform its stated task.”

“We all know, Mr Weaver, that the politicians that got this thing started didn't want a fair investigation or findings. They wanted an excuse to shut down this HCP. All of us accept that politicians do stupid things a lot of the time, but we just do our job and let the people at the top worry about how bad their missteps will make them look when everything pans out. But this, we can't do our job like this.”

“I won't insult anyone's intelligence by saying that isn't the reason this committee was initially formed. I also won't insult a team of extremely incompetent investigators by pretending to have no political aspirations of my own. All that aside I am trying to do this job to the best of my ability, and I can assure you that I have no intention of throwing this program to the wolves unless or until I become convinced that they really are NOT performing up to standard.” No reason to tell him that I USED to have such intentions, until someone farther up the ladder thought I would make a good scapegoat for later.

“It's actually not you, Mr Weaver. I mean, I don't think any of us REALLY like you, no offense, but you are a politician first. You're letting us do our job, which is more than can be said about almost every other politician involved with this crap.”

“Something changed again, didn't it?” The brief flicker across the younger man's face was all the confirmation Harold needed. “Well spit it out, man! I could go digging for it myself, but I imagine it would save me some time if you told me straight.”

“We're supposed to be investigating and evaluating the Overton HCP's performance, making sure that they are operating on par with the other four programs around the country as the primary complaint filed during the creation of this committee was Overton's tendency to produce 'Second String Heroes.' We finally got a confirmed response back on all of our requests for baseline records from the other programs so we have something to compare our results to.”

“I'm going to assume that this isn't good news?”

“We were told that we weren't cleared for access to ongoing records from the other programs, and that the comparisons would be made using random records from past classes. Apparently amongst the 'randomly selected' classes that this group is going to be compared to is Lander's Class of Legends.”

“That's...” Harold actually leaned back in his chair and brought his hands up to massage his temples in anticipation of an oncoming headache. “That's actually good. Someone is being SO stupid about this that I should be able to fix it long before it becomes an issue. But I get the feeling that this is more than some idiot deck stacking that has you ready to resign, Allan.”

“The new HCP Budget committee and the DVA are confirming last year's freeze on the applicant pool. The Oversight class at Overton won't be able to draw on an outside candidate pool, and any students that fall below the cutoff line for the top 100 to advance will simply become blank spots in the roster. They aren't just going to screw this program any more, Mr Weaver. They're going to deny positions to Supers that WANT to go out and be Heroes, just to try and make this program look worse.”

The blond man sat in silence for a long moment as he absorbed that piece of information. “How well known is that right now?”

“I don't know.”

“Let's make it a little better. I want you to take what you just told me directly to Riley and Janette Walker, I'm going to take it to Dean Jilles. It looks like politics is going to force us to commit fully to one side a LOT sooner than I would have liked.  Be sure to let the rest of the committee know, we're picking the side with the most firepower.”


 


 

Chapter 15

Hey all!  Sorry about the long delay between chapters, hopefully things are settled enough that I can start churning them out a little faster again.  A brief announcement:  If you haven't been over to the Forums lately there's a poll in the Fan Content section regarding who the next 7 Random Days story will be about once the current one wraps up in three more installments.  Go vote if you haven't yet!

 

 

 

Chapter 15:

Hard Fought Battles


 

The petite hispanic girl cursed and threw herself to the floor of the combat cell just ahead of a blur that caught and ripped several strands of her trailing hair out as it passed her by. The blur resolved for a moment into the shape of a tall blonde girl as the speedster slowed to reverse direction, rocketing back towards the falling girl before she had finished landing. A flicker of light and a rush of air later, and Teresa Montez watched from her new position above as Iris Todd slammed a spring-style baton into the space occupied by the dark haired girl's abdomen a split second before.

She's gotten a lot faster since last year. The thought was pushed aside along with the mounting feeling of exhaustion that Teresa was experiencing from massive overuse of her ability in this match. Before gravity could completely reclaim the teleporter and send her falling back towards her opponent again, the petite woman brushed her outstretched fingertips against the ceiling. A loud cracking sound accompanied the brief flicker of light this time, as nearly 500 pounds of reinforced concrete blinked out of existence at the top of the room and rematerialized just above the floor, settling with a loud crashing noise.

Iris paused her movement long enough for her falling opponent to note her unfatigued expression and confident grin. Then the speedster broke off a loose piece of concrete from the most recent speedbump created by the teleporter and flung it towards Teresa.

Another brief pulse of light, another rush of wind, and the view in front of the teleporter had changed again. This time she was up against the deeply pitted wall directly above one of the entrances to the combat cell, and a curse from the blonde on the ground told Teresa that Iris had once again failed to predict where she would reappear. Iris' inability to guess where I'm going notwithstanding, I need to end this fast or she'll win when I just pass out. God but the headache from this is gonna SUCK.

Without waiting for another knowing look or challenging expression from the floor, Teresa sent another oblong chunk of the wall next to her crashing into the floor, then blinked across the room again. A second piece from the far wall landed before the first had even settled, then another piece from the ceiling came crashing down with enough extra momentum to make the impact nearly deafening. The speedster easily evaded the bombardment, smiling widely as she recognized the growing desperation of her opponent's tactics. Six rapid attacks into the barrage, Iris was barely evading the new attacks and instead looking for the spot where Teresa would eventually emerge to try and catch her breath. Eager fingers tightened around the fist sized chunk of concrete in her hand as Iris patiently waited for her shot. The seventh piece of rubble landed just to her side, close but not so close that she even needed to move to avoid it. Scanning the room rapidly, the speedster couldn't spot her opponent. An instant later, she felt fingers brushing into her side. THEN Iris felt the reinforced concrete of the wall.

Teresa smiled from where she lay exhausted on the last piece of rubble she'd teleported down, elated that her gamble had finally gotten her close enough to make contact with the speedster and launch the taller girl into the wall with a significant amount of force. Teresa felt a little guilty that she'd also sent Iris into the wall as close to the ceiling as she could reasonably aim her opponent, but as tired as she was after the long match she figured she needed as much extra impact as she could manage to make sure her opponent went down with a single blow. The smile vanished when the dark haired girl saw the blonde pull herself unsteadily to her feet and begin to march towards the downed teleporter.

Teresa struggled to her feet as quickly as she could, noting with a dim flicker of optimism that Iris seemed to be having almost as much difficulty staying on her feet as the drained teleporter was. I'm not sure if I can move myself another ten feet without passing out. And I don't think I can beat her in a fist fight, but I am NOT giving up. The petite girl set her feet firmly and pulled her hands up into a semblance of a guard stance, drawing a confused look from Iris that in turn confused Teresa.

“Uh, Teresa? Match is over right? You got me?” The question from the speedster left Teresa too shocked to speak for several seconds, her mouth actually opening and closing a few times before proper words managed to come out.

“I... don't know? You're still up, Iris.”

“Yeah, but you got a hand on me. Outside the combat rooms you could have just put me two or three miles straight up and let me make a crater, or stuck me in a holding cell like Portaller or Blue Path use. I'm not going to pretend you didn't win the fight if that's what you're worried about.”

“Oh, 'kay.” Teresa barely managed to get the words out around the surprise she was still trying to deal with. Fortunately her speechlessness was short lived, as Iris suddenly zipped across the intervening distance to slap the shorter girl in the back of the head. “OW! What the fuck, Iris? I thought you said I won?”

“You did win, but I didn't get to hit you even ONCE that match, and you tossed me into the wall. I have to get a little payback.”

Teresa was about to continue the argument, then realized that her opponent had been honest enough to award the win even though the rules of the match coupled with Teresa's own exhaustion would have easily allowed the blonde to take the victory for herself. “Alright, you got your payback. Now help me get to the infirmary before I pass out.”

Iris laughed briefly, and the two girls managed to limp out of the badly damaged combat room, leaning against each other for support.


 


 

Erin Casse danced nimbly back several steps before leaping gracefully to her right to land lightly atop the hood of a car. The ground she'd been occupying a moment before crackled briefly and then collapsed into a sinkhole. The street in the large simulation room was pockmarked with dozens of similar pitfalls, as well as a few unnaturally jutting earthen protrusion. This is definitely not going quite to plan. The tall girl glanced around from her temporary perch to note that Zach, limping slightly but still mobile, was continuing to evacuate the 'civilians' from the immediate area.

“You are a lot better at this than I thought you'd be. How can you tell where I'm attacking?” The speech generated through a vibration of the ground beneath Erin sounded far more like an ordinary female voice than it really should, considering how it was being generated.

“I can see you down there, and I can see where your power is being aimed by paying attention.” Erin's response was not in any way interrupted by the next assault which sent a pillar of stone crashing up through the bottom of the car she stood atop, the graceful young woman catapulting herself upward to land lightly on top of a streetlamp without any pause in speech or even a noticeable change in breathing.

“X-ray shouldn't be able to see me this far down.” The vibrating earth managed to sound hurt and accusatory, a combination that drew a brief giggle from Erin atop her new, higher vantage point.

“This isn't exactly an appropriate venue for getting into ALL the aspects of what I can see or do. Suffice to say that I have VERY wide spectrum vision.”

“You're trying to stall me, aren't you?”

Erin's smile could be heard clearly in her reply. “Hey, you're the one that started the conversation, I'm just being polite.”

“You still think you can win? I took out your heavy hitter, your ghost isn't carrying any ordinance big enough to make me flinch, and I don't think your other boy has enough stamina left to whittle his way in to get at me.”

The girl atop the light post frowned briefly at the reminder of how quickly Scott had been taken out of the match. But one doesn't generally associate 'Earth Manipulator' with 'really fast offensive rush' either. “And you don't think I'll have any influence in the outcome of this match? That's more than a little condescending.” Erin managed to almost perfectly mimic the mock-hurt, accusatory tone that her opponent had used a moment ago, her effort drawing a dry chuckle from the ground.

“As crazy good as you are, we both know you don't have the hitting power to get to me. You have to get too close, and it'll take too long.”

“And I think we've both learned that there's nothing you can do to me while you're trying to hide underground. Too much lag on your attacks when your opponent can see them coming.” Erin punctuated her statement by dropping from her perch and striking the ground with one of her batons, a loud chiming ringing out from directly above her concealed opponent. “So why not come up and finish this? You know you probably aren't earning any points destroying the street while completely failing to either capture OR contain your target.”

Immediately after issuing her challenge Erin rolled hard to her right, barely avoiding another stone spike; and then leapt to land atop the now mostly ruined car, beating the formation of another sinkhole. “Or we could spend the rest of the afternoon and evening avoiding each other. All my midterms are wrapped up, how about you?”

An actual growling noise came from the ground in response to Erin's last taunt, and the pavement in front of her split to allow a humanoid figure composed of earth and stone to step out of the ground. “God, classes. There's something I didn't need to be thinking about right now.”

The girl atop the car actually gaped in shock for just a moment at the form her opponent had opted for in moving up to close quarters fighting. Aside from color and texture the earth and stone form in front of Erin was nearly identical to the crystal form Collin shifted into. But she can constantly rebuild the outer body as long as she has material to pull in. Collin is more durable straight up, but her combat form can effectively regenerate AND has ranged attack and control abilities.

“You ready?” The question came as Erin pulled her thoughts back on task and began running through possible combat scenarios. Only one of them looked particularly good, and she'd been hoping to save that one.

“You have any medical conditions I should be aware of before we start fighting for real?” The completely earnest tone of Erin's question drew another chuckle from her opponent.

“Nothing that should come up. You?” The earth manipulator managed to keep her tone as earnest as the original question.

“Nope. Looks like it's go time.” Erin's statement was accompanied by a shift from her normally opaque appearance into an utter void of light as she leapt forward to close the distance with her opponent.

The earthen figure lunged forward as well, unfazed by the startling change and swinging a massive stony fist towards her elusive target. Erin spun almost casually past the attack and stepped up to where she was almost touching her target. “You know that flashbang thing won't work on me, right?” The question came as Erin pointed her left palm towards her opponent's midsection and gritted her teeth in anticipation.

“Yeah.” The response was barely a hiss that was drowned out in an iridescent flash of light from her left arm and a pained scream from the earth manipulator.

The earthen combat form fell apart as its controller lost focus, and the athletically built black woman fell to the ground in front of Erin. The older girl's right leg was nearly severed just above the knee, the glowing beam that had lanced cleanly through her having fortunately cauterized the injury as it burned through stone and flesh with equal ease, even leaving a scorched scar digging into the pavement behind its target. From both the downed senior's leg and the standing sophomore's arm came the sickening and vaguely sweet smell of burned flesh. Before her opponent could recover, Erin dropped into a mounted position over the wounded girl and placed her right palm in the center of the senior's abdomen. “Give up, now.”

Vicki stared in shock for a moment as the figure atop her again became a complete void of light that her eyes couldn't quite focus on, but after more than three years in the HCP her mind quickly caught up with the situation. The impending future was not one with any options she liked. “Yea, I give.” The words were barely a whisper, forced out between hisses of pain as the wound in her leg felt like it was still on fire.

As soon as the words were out of the older girl's mouth, Erin was on her feet yelling in the direction of the nearest microphone for a healer.

“How the hell did you do that?” Erin looked down with a little bit of surprise evident on her face, as Vicki pushed herself into a sitting position while asking the question.

“You know about my flashbang trick. That's not letting any light, or the other bits of the spectrum I can manipulate for that matter, out for a bit and then just letting it all flare out uncontrolled. This is pretty much the same thing, only it's all the energy I can hold focused out through one point.” Erin held her obviously burned arm aloft for emphasis as she replied, figuring the trick was well and truly out of the bag at this point anyways. “Not the easiest tactic to practice you understand.”

“What... what would you have done if it hadn't worked?” The older girl's voice lost its forced tone as a junior healer that Erin didn't recognize showed up with Professor Martinez to begin working on the two injured students.

“I would have hit you with a bigger one to see if that worked, and then if it didn't I'd probably give up.”

“Bigger?” The almost playful tone that had been present in the earth manipulator's earlier banter had returned as her pain and injury vanished.

“Yeah, bigger. I can go for a pretty massive blast if I'm willing to burn the whole arm off.” Vicki looked for some trace in the younger girl's face that the answer was an exaggeration in some way, but the completely earnest tone was coupled with an unreadable expression as the healer went to work on Erin.

“God damn but your class is CRAZY.”


 


 

“I'm telling you it will work just fine. Please?” The redhaired girl responded to the pleading tone of the most powerful sophomore at Overton with a look of complete blank non-comprehension.

“You want me to do what?” Susan Owens finally voiced the question when it seemed obvious that the taller blonde girl was not interpreting her expression as the request for clarification it was meant to be.

“It's simple, see I've got the machine rigged up so tha-...”

“Let me rephrase.” Susan interrupted what she expected was going to be an even longer and more detailed explanation than Amelia had offered when she had first ambushed the shifter in the extreme-weight room. “I'll be more specific; I understand that you want me to use this... apparatus you've cobbled together in order to actively push against the custom press because you want to try and measure how far past the hundred tonne limit you can push. The part I don't understand is how I would possibly think it's a good idea to potentially destroy a million plus dollar piece of HCP equipment.”

“It most likely won't break!” Susan responded to the somewhat weak defense with a patient stare and finally Amelia dropped her overly cheerful facade. “Look, it doesn't matter if this one breaks because I'm literally the only student in the HCP right now that can push past the range on the other machines. And it won't matter if they get another super strong Super next year because I'm paying, out of my own pocket, for the HCP to get an even more ridiculously overbuilt version that maxes out at 250 tonnes.”

“And the reason we aren't just waiting for your new machine to arrive?”

“Apparently when you push into the range bigger than this one they have to actually assemble it on site. Some of the parts are unsafe to transport once they've been assembled past a certain point, I'm sure Ty or Tara could make sense of all the technical stuff for you if you NEED to know that part,” both sophomores shivered involuntarily at the idea of asking one of the class's Tech Brilliance Supers for a detailed explanation of anything. “So because of all the secret clearances and stuff they can't actually come and put the thing in until summer break.”

“And the reason you can't wait until then to get a proper work out is...?”

Amelia sighed and her posture slumped slightly, her tone sounding more uncertain than Susan could ever remember hearing from the top ranked sophomore. “Because I don't know HOW strong I am, Susan. Because Rachd told me that I needed to find a way to figure out where my real limits are so I can start training with them or I could end up washing out of the program.”

The redhaired girl went silent for a long moment as she contemplated her classmate's dilemma. Odds are if Rachd was the one who told her that it really is true. I don't think he'd bother taking the roundabout route for any kind of motiva-...

“Hey, Jacobson!” The male voice shouting from the entrance to the workout room interrupted Susan's train of thought as both girls turned to look at the newcomer.

Okay, senior is rudely interrupting Ames and coming this way with an angry look on his face. To shift, or not to shift?

That's me!” Amelia's tone and posture were back to the normal calmly confident demeanor that most of her class were familiar with. “You're... Thompson? From the first week of team drills, right?”

Yeah, that's me. Glad to see you remembered the guy you sucker punched.”

Ah, that would be why he looks upset. Sucker punched by Ames has GOT to leave a mark.

“It wasn't anything personal, just trying to complete the training objective before you broke any of my teammates. If you want a shot at some payback I'm free this Saturday?” The casual offer from the blonde girl drew an incredulous stare from the redhead and obviously unsettled the brown haired senior.

He looked almost as stunned as I do for a second there...

Seriously? You're offering to go one on one with me?” The senior's tone sounded slightly suspicious, but there was a heavy undertone of gloating there as well.

Why not? I mean you've been trying to figure out a way to get me to challenge you all week so that it wouldn't look like you were bullying the lower classmen. Or did you want to go through all the speeches you've been working on?” Amelia simply maintained a steady smirk as Max's expression reverted to shock, then quickly shifted to anger. “And to answer the obvious question, you do know that I'm friends with one of the most powerful telepaths the HCP has ever seen, right?”

For just a second, Susan thought that the senior was going to lose it and actually try to kill Amelia right there. Then the rage just bled out of his expression and he began laughing, deeply and genuinely. “You know, I'd feel like I wasted most of my week, except that I got exactly what I wanted out of it. See you Saturday afternoon, Jacobson.”

Looking forward to it, Max. There's already a cross class betting pool to see if I can make it through your 'less than sixty seconds' or not. I'm getting pretty good odds.” The muscular youth simply glared at the skinny girl one last time in response before turning and walking out of the room.

Why didn't I hear anything about this betting pool?” Susan's ethereal whispery voice caused Amelia to start involuntarily before turning to face her transformed friend with a wide smile. The skeletal form that the redhead shifted into had already taken up position at the blonde's jury rigged contraption next to the hundred tonne press.

So far it's actually a pretty small group, Cat promised not to let it blow up too big until the confrontation actually got scheduled. Also you've been... distracted lately.” Amelia slid onto the bench and gripped the incredibly dense bar above her with a look of determination on her face.

Fair enough. So what are the odds this whole thing comes flying apart and kills us both?”

About zero percent.”

Susan cocked her head to the side at the immediate answer, a mannerism that looked absolutely terrifying on her shifted body, before seeing the flaw in her question. “What are the odds that this whole thing comes flying apart and breaks some very expensive equipment?”

You probably don't want to know.” As the powerful girl responded, she began pushing against the bar with all of her impossible strength.


 


 

Well that's sixty. Did anyone actually bet on Max winning in the first minute?” Cody tossed the stopwatch onto the table as he leaned back in the plush chair in the small observation room containing nearly half the Overton HCP senior class.

Max did. I think one of the juniors did too.” The response from Vicki McCormick was spoken absently and directed mostly at the monitor in front of the group. “Jesus Christ, we need to sell tickets to this stuff.”

The events unfolding on the screen showed the two physical Supers, Amelia Jacobson and Max Thompson, engaged in a brawl that looked absolutely nothing like any training match any of the assembled seniors had ever witnessed or been part of. The Combat Instructor had informed all parties earlier in the morning that the match wouldn't be taking place in the normal combat rooms, instead the two were fighting in a much more heavily reinforced room usually reserved for training massively destructive powers needing to work on control. Another collective gasp went through the room as the skinny blonde on the monitor dug her feet in to reverse direction and catapult herself at her opponent, the unnaturally dense and heavily reinforced floor cracking visibly from the force she exerted against it.

I think this will be an excellent learning experience for Mr Thompson. He's needed someone who can push him in order to improve from his current state.” The calmly analytical tone drew a few surprised looks towards the young man who was probably the least physically imposing in the room. Daniel Heyes, the top ranked senior, offered no direct acknowledgment to the looks and instead appeared to simply refocus his attention on the monitor.

Uh, Danny?” The question from a black haired senior near the back of the room was tentative and quiet. “Max is pretty clearly winning this fight, I don't think Jacobson is pushing him that hard.”

The much smaller Daniel glanced back for a moment at the source of the question, before looking forward again as he responded. “Mr Thompson hasn't had to face someone physically stronger than he is during his tenure in the HCP, even the Instructors he's worked with have been his peers in the realm of physical strength, not his obvious betters. He claims that he wants to be a 'Strongman,' like his grandfather was, and here he finally gets that chance to see what that really means.”

The truth of the white haired boy's words was driven home a moment later when the sophomore countered one of her opponent's lunging punches by setting her feet and literally driving her face INTO his fist. On the screen Max retreated quickly, the senior holding obvious edges in the categories of both speed and skill, but the high resolution cameras clearly displayed his mangled hand. Complete with jagged splinters of bone sticking out through the skin.

Holy shit, did she just break his fist with her face?” Vicki was grinning hugely at the scene in front of her.

Still, the seniors knew that the minor victory would be short lived for the top ranked sophomore. Max's ability allowed him an incredible control over his body in many different ways, resulting in more than just massively enhanced speed and strength. Within a few seconds of receiving the injury, the muscular youth's hand was fully recovered as he continued with a more measured assault against his opponent.

The fight dragged on for far longer than any of the seniors had anticipated. Max remained highly mobile and evasive while Amelia operated in short lunges and tried to catch her opponent with anything she could. The gathered seniors stopped wincing each time their classmate landed a blow that reverberated so loudly in the special combat chamber that the mic cut off briefly to keep from overloading the speakers. The impacts were becoming almost commonplace, a way to mark the time of the match instead of the major turning points they would have been against nearly any other Super at Overton. Against a vast majority of Supers in the world for that matter. Conversely although Amelia's hits grew rarer as the fight wore on, contributed to by the combination of her mounting injuries and Max becoming more familiar with her limited style, the reaction to each blow was more pronounced. It was almost frightening to see the strength of the skinny blonde girl in action, as outstretched fingertips brushing her opponent's arm contained enough force to spin him briefly to the ground with a dislocated joint.

How long can she possibly keep this up? She has to know she's losing.” The sentiment came from the back of the room, and met a mostly affirmative echo. Mostly.

Are you fucking nuts Calvin? How long can she keep this up? Until she can't anymore, that's how long. And the rest of you, don't even try to pretend you'd give up if you were in her shoes.” There was a level of steely fire in the second ranked senior's voice as she turned to glare at her classmates. “We're training to be god damned Heroes. We don't have the luxury of giving up. That girl is going to do exactly the same thing the rest of us would, she's going to keep fighting until she either wins, or she literally CAN'T fight anymore.”


 


 

Shit, I don't think she can stand up anymore.” Collin Gauge barely muttered the words aloud, but looks of pained agreement spread quickly through the assembled sophomores.

On the screen in front of the class, it looked like the fight had finally ended. A mostly one sided beating that had lasted for just short of an hour. And a collective gasp rippled through the room as the image on the monitor showed Amelia Jacobson, unable to balance on her now mangled legs, dragging herself towards her opponent. The muscular senior had stopped moving, and was now standing his ground and staring incredulously at the skinny girl that couldn't even stand as she pulled herself closer to him, her expression obviously not yet one of surrender. Then he began to laugh.

Everyone pay VERY close attention. This is why pride is the greatest enemy all Supers will ever have to deal with.” The gravelly voice of the Overton Combat Instructor from the back of the room drew brief glances of surprise, then nearly all attention focused on the monitor.

Tara Warren looked away instead, glad that she noticed that she wasn't the only person who had no more stomach for watching Amelia take a further beating as Kaori and Zach likewise directed their eyes in a direction other than the huge screen at the front of the room. As a result, those three sophomores were nearly knocked from their chairs in surprise when a cheer lit up the room. Max had stopped laughing and began to slowly stroll towards his downed opponent, apparently intent on finishing her off when something unexpected happened. Amelia kicked off the ground with both broken legs to launch herself at Max one final time, catching him slightly off guard with the unexpected maneuver, but still nowhere near fast enough to connect as he twisted out of the way. But during her crawl towards her opponent, Amelia had done something else. The powerful blonde had unclipped the belt she had added to her HCP uniform and worn since the end of her freshman year. A belt that only a couple of the sophomores had ever recognized as more than just a belt, but all of them recognized it instantly as it whipped free. Amelia had kept the elastic whip weapon she had used to reclaim the top position from Erin the previous year, and she employed it now to latch on to her opponent and pull herself to HIM.

Max wasn't quite as skilled as Erin, nor was he nearly as flexible, but he was faster and MUCH stronger. He nearly evaded the elastic cords Ty had designed. He very nearly got completely out of Amelia's way even after she altered her trajectory mid flight. For all her effort, the pain written clearly on her face from the moment she had kicked off with her broken legs, Amelia barely managed to half grab her opponents ankle as he ducked away from her. Then the incredibly powerful girl's grip tightened, and the senior collapsed with a shout of pain as bones were crushed to powder in an instant. One more half-hearted lunge forward and the sophomore brought her fist down in a wild arc that barely clipped the desperately twisting senior's head, rocking it back hard enough to send him momentarily limp and leave a divot in the floor. Again and again, Amelia flailed blindly at her opponent, each blow partially deflected or evaded but still inflicting incredible damage. A few seconds later, and Max finally went still.

Jacobson, stand up.” The enraptured class turned in shock to see that Rachd had moved to a console on the side of the room and was apparently broadcasting into the combat room.

Amelia looked up, her expression holding no sign of comprehension for a moment, then she tried to force herself upright on still broken legs. She made it almost to one knee before collapsing again and finally going still.

Healers, GET IN THERE NOW!”

Chapter 16

Chapter 16:

Campus Events


 

The world slowly blurred its way into focus in front of the young man's eyes, taking on a recognized configuration; the ceiling of the infirmary. Moving his eyes to try and look around brought another stab of pain. Blinking brought pain. God damn, I think even my hair is hurting right now.

"You going to keep laying there and feeling sorry for yourself or are you going to pick your ass up?" The harsh voice asking the question was far more familiar to the young man than the layout of the infirmary's ceiling, and pain was pushed aside long enough for seeking eyes to make out the shape of a large bald man standing a bit past the foot of the bed.

"Wor.. king... on... it..." The words felt funny as they made their way around the injured man's tongue, and he closed his eyes. Head injury, fix that first. This is first year crap, start at the top and work your way down. FOCUS. Why the hell did I tell the healers that I wanted the extra practice at fixing myself up again?

About ten seconds later, Max Thompson opened his eyes again and sat up in the infirmary bed. All traces of his injuries, save a few patches of drying blood on his skin, had vanished. "So, I guess this means I lost. Fuck."

"Yep." The Combat Instructor's tone was even harsher than usual. "You managed to do a fan-fucking-tastic job of seizing the win and then pissing it away. What the hell were you thinking with that damned 'victory stroll' at the end?"

"I was thinking there was no possible way a second year could beat me, especially as broken as she was at that point." The brown haired youth's tone was much calmer than the muscular Instructor had been expecting, drawing a questioning look in response. "I learned something, that's what the HCP is for, right?" A brief smirk appeared on the younger man's face. "Did you really think they were going to let me back in after kicking me out once if I couldn't handle getting beaten? I did something stupid, I've learned something from it, time to apologize to Vicki and move on with my final year in the program."

"Just like that?" The gravelly voice was heavily laden with disbelief. "And what the hell does McCormick have to do with this fight?"

"Not 'just like that' I guess. I'm probably going to drown my sorrows and beat my head against a wall for awhile first. And Vicki has been giving me grief for underestimating the sophomores, since I tried to prove her wrong and didn't I owe her an apology and probably two or three steak dinners if I want her to ever leave me in peace." Max shrugged with a glimmer of a smile again visible as the idea of taking the second ranked senior out for several expensive dinners was not exactly an unappealing prospect. “But in the end she won, I lost. I'd ask for a rematch bu-...”

Wrong.” The single syllable interrupting the third ranked senior drew a blank look from the young man. “You lost. She ALSO lost. Nobody won that match.”

That is BULLSHIT, Rachd. I was unconscious til about a minute ago. I don't care how far out of it she was when she took me out, she EARNED that win.”

She was unconscious too.”

Then she went out after I did and she still wins the fight.” James Rachd actually chuckled softly at the earnestness with which Max defended an opponent's victory. Particularly as he had spent a goodly amount of time over the past few weeks denigrating that same person to anyone who would listen.

One, that's not how things work here. Official or unofficial match, if you can't stand up and declare you won at the end then it's a draw at best.” The Close Combat Professor held up a forestalling hand before his student could object, and continued. “Two, by your standard YOU won the match. Technically Jacobson was unconscious first. Want to contest your loss now?”

Max sat very still for several minutes as he processed the information his Instructor had just given him. Something seemed to click into place in the young man's head, and he stood and strode quickly through the infirmary; a somewhat curious looking James Rachd trailing behind him. It wasn't difficult to figure out where his opponent was being treated, seeing as there was only one other room with the occupied light illuminated. Max noted the presence of what had to be all, or nearly all, of both Overton's sophomore AND senior HCP classes sitting in the waiting area, but he didn't approach them yet. Instead Max walked directly to the other treatment room door and entered without bothering to knock, eliciting several gasps from the crowd and spurring a few of the healer students on duty to chase him into the room.

Once across the threshold the senior was greeted by the alert gaze of his opponent, the sophomore was already sitting upright on the bed while Dr Saxena and a VERY tall black female worked on her injuries. Max ignored the protests from both the doctor and the healers following him as he walked over to stand directly in front of the injured blonde. Amelia Jacobson simply smiled confidently at him and waited to see what he would do next. Max returned the smile and extended his right hand slowly.

Good fight.”


 


 

Dean Jilles suppressed a sigh at the smell that wafted out of the conference room as she made her entrance. It would be nice to have one staff meeting involving a match review where Dani didn't bring popcorn. She didn't bother suppressing the second sigh as she noted the in-progress review was currently a looped slow-motion replay of Amelia Jacobson breaking Max Thompson's hand with her face. After seeing the complete sequence play through at the slower speed the Dean realized why this particular moment in the fight was being examined; the briefly unnatural angles of the senior's arm indicated that more than his hand had been damaged in that exchange. Christ, it looks like she broke every bone in his arm. Shoulder is at least dislocated. “As much as some of us enjoy watching extremely powerful Supers beating each other up, I believe there was a specific reason this meeting was called for?”

The HCP staff quickly turned their attention towards the Dean as she spoke, the air in the room changing from recreational to professional in a second. “Dr Bertram, I believe this was your meeting call? Please enlighten the rest of us as to what it is about this match that requires the attention of ALL the senior HCP staff.”

The HCP psychologist stood as the Dean spoke, glancing once around the room to make certain he had everyone's attention before he began. A somewhat wasted gesture as the Instructors were already fully intrigued, it was rare for the chief HCP counselor to call for a full staff conference after all. “I'll get directly to the point then. It's my recommendation at this time to temporarily pull Ms Jacobson from all combat related drills and exercises.”

Still no.” The immediate response from the Combat Instructor indicated to the room that this was a conversation the two men had had in private prior to the meeting being called. “I have no issue with extra monitoring, but I am not pulling Jacobson without a hell of a lot better reason than what you've got, Lane.”

And what do you have, Dr Bertram?” The quick interjection from the Subtlety Instructor managed to interrupt the counselor before Rachd's dismissal could start an argument.

Ms Jacobson lost consciousness during her fight with Mr Thompson, prior to rendering Mr Thompson unconscious herself.” There were a few surprised expressions around the table as obviously not all the Instructors had heard this information yet.

You're sure she just didn't hit a deeper level of her resistance ability and finally start blocking you out as well?” The question from the aged Focus Instructor had a trace of smugness in it. Laurence Vree hadn't been pleased when the top ranked sophomore's power negating ability had advanced to the point where telepaths could no longer pick up anything, but the more empathic Lane still had little difficulty getting a read from the girl.

It's faintly possible, but seeing as how I was still reading the girl I seriously doubt it. The odds that her power would advance in exactly the right way to make my ability pick her up as unconscious and not just a blank spot like the telepaths have been getting?” From the grin on the psychologist's face, it seemed this was ANOTHER old conversation he'd had before with an Instructor. The Dean found herself sighing again.

Not to disregard your advice out of hand, Dr Bertram, but this would hardly be the first time we've had a student manage one final burst of activity as they went under.” The Dean felt there was something she was missing here, but also knew that if she didn't attempt to keep the discussion steered on track the meeting could last for hours. Who'd ever have thought an empath would enjoy arguing so much?

The problem, Dean Jilles, is that Ms Jacobson didn't lose consciousness while she was throwing the fight ending barrage of strikes. The young woman lost consciousness roughly FIVE MINUTES before the fight ended.”

Most of the gathered staff stared blankly at the standing counselor for several seconds as if waiting for a punchline. The notable exception, one James Rachd, simply leaned back in his chair and looked unimpressed.

You already knew this, Jim?” Anthony Banning was the first of the previously uninformed faculty to find words again. “And you don't think it merits anything more than extra monitoring?”

Not like it hasn't happened before.” The casual dismissal from the muscular Instructor drew the incredulous looks his way instead, save for the Dean who felt the puzzle click together in her head with an almost audible snap.

You're talking about the finals last year, when Ms Jacobson attempted to leave the infirmary to take the traditional final, with the rest of the class, while injured?”

You said it yourself, right? She was basically out cold on her feet and still off trying to take the test. It didn't warrant pulling her out of training then, it shouldn't now.”

We need to know if this is some trauma induced form of somnambulism or another facet of her ability!” The balding psychologist was practically shouting at the room now. “Until we know exactly what's going on we have no way of being sure that Ms Jacobson won't kill herself OR one of the other students while in such a state!”

She stopped as soon as Thompson was out.” The Combat Instructor was obviously unmoved by Lane's outburst. “And we know she's doing it now, we can monitor and work around it.” Rachd wore a grim smile as he delivered his final line. “And I'm not particularly worried about her getting killed by accident at this point. List of things that can do that on PURPOSE is getting shorter every day.”

Several discussions started around the room; Dr Saxena, Hai, Elena, and Anthony seemed unified in wanting more details while Laurence and Dani seemed far more fascinated by the idea of the top ranked sophomore as a truly unstoppable Super. James chose not to contribute any more to the discussion, and Lane simply glared at the Combat Instructor while occasionally answering direct questions from one of the others. After several minutes the Dean slammed a hand, accompanied with enough telekinetic force to make for an impressive *BANG*, into the table to get a moment of silence.

As startling and troubling as this news is Lane, I'm afraid I have to agree with James for two reasons.” The counselor opened his mouth to object, or would have if it were not held shut by some invisible force as Kathryn prevented the man from interrupting. “Firstly, even as strange as this situation is, we don't have any proof that a genuine danger DOES exist. Any more than it does for the norms of HCP training. It would be incredibly unfair to pull Ms Jacobson from the majority of her training for this, as it would make her advancement through the program infinitely more difficult. I think this young woman has had enough ordeals in her lifetime without us manufacturing more.

Secondly, politics. And I cannot stress how much I HATE that politics has to play a role in how we handle our students, but ignoring it won't fix anything. Even if we all assume that Mr Weaver is wholly on the level with his newly expressed desire to support the HCP as a retaliation for political manipulations directed against him, there's no way we could spin pulling the top ranked student of the Oversight class out of the majority of her training and not having it come back to bite us a thousand times. The issues will be fully documented and Ms Jacobson's future trainings and matches will be more closely monitored, but we are not going to look like we're afraid of the challenge a student's unique issues present to our program. Questions?”

There was a weight in the petite woman's tone that told the room the final word had been added for politeness more than any desire to entertain actual questions at this point. The room was quiet for a moment longer when the Weapons Instructor broke the silence.

Do we tell Amelia about it?”


 


 

The slightly overweight girl sighed as she and her small group of volunteers came upon yet another profanity filled piece of graffiti marring a University building. The non-dangerous Supers and Powereds attending the college had quickly learned to stay in groups with the RoH thugs wandering the town and looking for easy targets. As a result, the hate group had switched mostly to defacing anything they could get near without getting caught. Particularly around areas of the campus rumored to hold the fabled entrances to the Overton Hero Certification Program.

All right guys, we got two days to get all the haunted house stuff set up for the local kids that come here for Halloween. And we are NOT going to be explaining what ANY of those words mean to an eight year old. Let's get to work!” Andrea Chandler was already moving forward as she spoke the words, a spray bottle full of graffiti remover in one gloved hand and a scouring pad in the other. The heavily built young woman had almost reached the wall when a rock whipped past her head to bounce off the bricks in front of her, drawing a shriek from the startled girl and profanity from several of the volunteers.

The group of four students turned to see six athletically built young men, all wearing matching white shirts with a bold, black 'RoH' stenciled across the front. “Hey freak bitch! Who told you that you could mess with our art?” The speaker was by far the tallest of the group, a hispanic man wearing a vicious smile as he looked around at the suddenly frightened cleaning crew.

Andrea Chandler felt something inside herself snap. The assault in town earlier in the year, the constant stream of insults and threats from thugs like this one, it was too much for the young woman. With a growling sound like something one would expect from a feral animal, the overweight brown haired girl charged at the group's ring leader, shedding her gloves as she ran.

The muscular youth's smile widened as the much smaller girl charged towards him, and he stepped forward to meet her with a hard punch to her midsection. The force of the blow rendered Andrea breathless and gasping, but it also brought her tormenter's face low enough for her to easily reach. Without hesitation or waiting to recover her breath, the young brunette jabbed at the man's eyes with both hands.

The RoH leader fell back screaming in terror a moment later, his vision lost in a cloud of opaque colors that quickly faded to a uniform black. “What the fuck did you do to me, freak?”

Blind... eyes don't... work when... full of ink.” Andrea was still gasping to get her breath back from the punch, but she dragged a finger along the edge of her jacket as she spoke. Her uncontrollable ability dyed the lapel a variety of bright colors as she did so, and she offered her own predatory smile, a look that was almost manic, at the fear she now saw in the other five men. “Who else wants me to be the last thing they ever see?”

The continued hesitation from the supremacist thugs was all the motivation the other three members of the volunteer cleaning crew needed. Five athletic young men, all trained in basic hand to hand combat, were mobbed by the enraged students. The campus volunteer groups knew all the horror stories that had been happening around the University since Rights of Humanity had decided to come to Overton. Everyone had been pushed right up to their breaking points, and seeing the physically unassuming POWERED girl take down the group's leader and intimidate the others was the tipping point. Cleaning chemicals were employed as makeshift pepper spray, buckets were used as bludgeons, and a girl who'd been pitied for something she'd been born with all her life turned her curse into the most powerful weapon in the fight.

By the time Campus Security arrived on the scene, one of the RoH thugs had fled, three were on the ground crying and blind, and the other two were in various states of semi-consciousness; the five detained members all guarded closely by the somewhat crazed looking volunteer crew. The oldest of the three arriving security officers began laughing as he took in the scene.

I think this will be the first time I've ever been looking forward to hearing the students' answers to: 'What happened here?'”


 


 

Scott Jameson kept stealing brief glances at his girlfriend and trying very hard not to laugh. A wasted gesture when one is dating a telepath, but some social interactions had become too ingrained to break easily. The auburn haired girl finally slapped him in the back of the head after his fifth or sixth rapid glance which seemed to break down the dam and Scott began to laugh hysterically.

It's not THAT funny.” Catalina Blake mock-glared at the short, sandy haired boy in his 'mad scientist's assistant' costume. Catalina's own 'sexy mad scientist' costume had its effect slightly ruined by the cone shaped hat that had been deposited on her head by an irately cheerful HCP Counselor earlier.

The hat simply bore the words, 'Time Out.' Along with the hat had been delivered a lecture on the psychological damage the young telepath was inflicting on the freshman HCP students who were daring the already terrifying illusory maze being kept up alternatingly by the abilities of Kyle Sawara from the sophomore class and Jessica Lienne from the junior class. And considering that every student wanting to gain entrance to the semi-famed HCP Halloween party in the first place had to brave the maze, seeing as how the sophomore class had decided to set it up at the entrance, the counselor had forbidden Catalina from any projective telepathy outside of her normal 'speech.' On unspecified punishment to be enforced by Professor Reyes. The auburn haired girl had immediately agreed to 'be good.'

It really kinda IS that funny, Cat. I mean, you got to laugh at me for getting taken out in less than 30 seconds in my first team match with the seniors, I think this is just the good Lord's way of providing me with some recompense.”

I wasn't aware that you believed the Lord ever did anything to you EXCEPT mess with you?” The taller girl's mental tone was playful as she took a sip from her punch glass. “And I wasn't laughing at you getting taken out, I was laughing at the way you were bemoaning it for over an hour straight.”

And why shouldn't I complain? Everything I worked for, the gift you gave me when you went digging through Ty's crazy brain so that I could figure out how to get my power to do what I should have been able to do with it all along, and my first real chance to prove myself and I get dropped in the opening seconds. Hell, I've been taken out in practically ALL of our team exercises so far.”

There's a reason for that, and you'd see it if you'd ever turn that tactical side you've got towards yourself instead of always thinking for your teammates.”

Oh?”

Scott, you're probably the hardest hitter in the class. Hell, you might be the hardest hitter at Overton, Instructors included. And because you wanted to show off, EVERYONE knows it. You aren't a tank, Scott. You're the glass cannon, but most of the class is sure that you could take out Ames. AMES, Scott. But instead of setting up and taking shots, you have this problem where you try to be the hero all the time.”

“That is kind of what they're training us for here, no?” The sandy haired boy didn't seem to follow where his girlfriend was leading the conversation, and the telepath looked trapped somewhere between exasperation and a fit of giggling as a result.

Yes, but you have to be the kind of hero that YOU are. When you got taken out in the senior match, what were you doing?”

I was moving to intercept Vicki when she rushed us before we were ready.”

And why did you do that? Erin and Eloise are incredibly hard to pin down, and Zach's at least as good as you are at close engagement. Why didn't you fly out away from the assault and counterattack?”

“Well, I...”

I love that you always want to be the one in the front, protecting people. It's a great thing about you, Scott. But for God's sake, start fighting as smart as we all KNOW you're capable of. Take your own strategic advice instead of just giving it to your team. And your competition.” The last words came with a knowing smile and a soft kiss.

So you're saying you don't want any more tactical advice?” Scott managed such a perfectly sincere, confused tone that the telepath actually did a double take before she caught on.

You're getting better at this, Mr Jameson. I'll have to come up with something special to reward your progress with. And something even MORE special to punish your insolence!” Catalina's voice was still playful as she spoke, but there was a very serious promise in her expression as she headed away from her boyfriend towards the refreshment table. The auburn haired girl's soft brown eyes never once broke contact with Scott's own gaze as she threaded her way effortlessly through the growing crowd of partying Supers.

Lord, if you tell me that ALL the times you've been fucking with me is just payback for setting me up with her, I'm calling it the best deal ever.”


 


 

Have to admit, you guys did good work.” Collin didn't even flinch at the whispered words suddenly coming from right next to his ear, and simply turned to scan the area around himself for the source.

He didn't jump Sam, you owe me twenty bucks!” The exclamation from a purple haired girl in a Japanese schoolgirl sailor-uniform allowed the second ranked sophomore to zero in on the three approaching third year students.

He jumped a little bit.” The protest from the tall brown haired junior who seemed to have foregone a costume seemed a bit less than wholehearted.

No, he really didn't.” The almost sinister female voice coming from directly behind the junior trio caused Sam to start in shock as he found himself in the unfamiliar position of spinning to search for the source of a disembodied voice.

Erin Casse faded into opaqueness directly in front of the rapidly scanning junior, a wide grin on her face. “Boo.”

Alright, I probably deserved that.”

Definitely.” The other two juniors were almost perfectly synchronized with their response.

So what can we do for 'ourselves from the future?'” Collin managed to keep a mostly straight face as he used the purple haired junior's description. “Everything's pretty well wound down, only a few of the freshmen are scarred for life, and Antoin is making the rounds to insure that no one suffers any alcohol poisoning, or even any particularly notable hangovers.”

Val came to complain that you guys upstaged us.” The completely deadpan remark from the black haired junior wearing, of all the bizarre sights seen on a Halloween, a fairy princess costume drew smiles from the sophomores and a glare from the short purple haired girl.

I did NOT come to complain about them upstaging us. I came to complain that they stole our class illusionist for their entry maze and tell them that it is ENTIRELY unfair. We were going to use Jess!”

We just did what you recommended; we delegated. You can't really blame us that you guys never thought to delegate up as well as down.” Erin's tone was conciliatory, but her expression was far from it.

We also had another concern, not really related to the party.” Sam's re-entrance to the conversation bore a much more serious demeanor than the previous banter, and the mood between the five HCP students quickly adjusted in that direction.

Problems?” The question from Collin indicated that this idea did not at all surprise the muscular sophomore.

More like potential for problems. Why is half the sophomore class going to the Wildcards games?” Sam's tone remained serious, but the expressions on the other two juniors changed to show more exasperation.

Christ Sam, this is about your conspiracy theory? Give it a rest.” The conviction with which Val spoke seemed to imply a long running argument between the two involving the aforementioned 'conspiracy theory.'

My girlfriend likes non-Super athletics, she invited me, her teammates, and her teammates' boyfriends where applicable to go out and catch the Saturday game a few weeks ago. We had fun playing at being normal college students for a few hours, and decided to go again. A few more people got invited every time I guess.” Collin shrugged as he answered the question, actually relieved that the older boy's concern was over something so minor and, judging from the reactions of his friends, pretty safe to dismiss.

It's just a little... look, these two clowns are probably right,” a pair of irritated elbows were drawn by the word 'clowns' coming from the boy who constantly used his sound manipulating abilities to prank the unsuspecting, “but you've got to at least agree that it looks weird to have that large a chunk of students who are all THAT athletic, but not in any college sports, to be sitting together at the game. Somebody might figure something out, right?” The unspoken portion of the speech was almost clearly audible to both the sophomores; someone out there was supposed to have a complete, or nearly so, HCP roster at this point after all.

Collin glanced at Erin as if seeking advice, but the tall girl simply shrugged in response. “I'm not part of the new HCP football fanclub, so I don't really have any input here. I'd assume as long as you guys aren't having Ames benchpress the bleachers during halftime that you won't stand out THAT much. There's a couple thousand people to blend in with after all.”

That's not much of a problem. Ames and Ramòn have generally snuck off somewhere by halftime.”

Look, my position as the class conspiracy nut aside,” Sam inserted himself back into the conversation with a bit of force as he saw it spiraling away from his point, “it's still a lot of HCP students from the Oversight class in one public place at the same time. Just be careful, right?” Both sophomores nodded an affirmative, and the brown haired youth seemed to accept that.

Again, great job with the party. Maybe too good considering next year it's going to be YOU pushing the freshmen into your position.” Kevin turned to head away with a wave as he spoke. “You might have given the poor kids an act that's too tough to follow.”

Remember, be care-...” Sam's reminder was abruptly cut off as he was dragged away by his two friends to an insistent demand.

And where's my twenty, Sam?” Valerie simply waved at the two sophomores as she assisted Kevin in dragging the taller brown haired boy off.

We'll, that was interesting. Not as interesting as the last meeting though.” Collin spoke quietly to the tall girl next to him as they waved at the departing juniors. “Although that brings us to the final stage of the party...”

Yeah, good luck with the clean up Collin.” Erin smirked at the surprised look the muscular redhead threw her way. “I spent half the night playing phantom coat check, so rope someone else into helping get things put back together.” The girl's smile took on a slightly wicked caste. “And don't forget, Dani put up those notes that everything needs to be back in order by the end of the weekend. Enjoy!”

Collin groaned at the abandonment, and shivered slightly at the reminder of the overly cheerful Weapons Instructor's involvement in cleanup motivation. Then the young man pulled out his cell to send a text to his girlfriend, and went in search of stragglers to 'volunteer.'


 


 

Sir, you need to hear this.” FBI Special Agent Marcus Hughes held an emotionless expression through sheer force of will as one of his analysts approached urgently uttering five words that ALWAYS spelled trouble in his experience.

Marcus reached to take the proffered headset without a word and nodded to the nervous looking analyst as he held it up to his ear. The familiar voice of one Clarence Dane, president of Rights of Humanity, began playing. “All of our arrangements are finalized then? We've made sure that there will be sufficient media coverage without sending anyone directly to the area?” The brown haired Special Agent's eyes narrowed. This definitely sounded like something his team should have picked up on before now.

Several different voices answered affirmatively to the questions asked by Clarence, and Marcus made a cut off motion to get the analyst to pause the playback. “We have names and files on everyone else on this recording?”

Yes sir, I believe so.” Marcus made a conscious effort to relax and try to convey some measure of comforting emotion, as the rookie analyst's voice was heavily laden with anxiety, and the younger man's hands were actually shaking slightly.

Get everyone up and on those voices then, and double up on Clarence.” The veteran counter-terrorism specialist tried to offer a reassuring smile to the younger man as he spoke. “Start the playback again.”

The analyst complied, then began sending a series of text messages from the oversized smartphone he carried at a speed that drew a very brief look of startlement from Marcus. That look was completely subsumed by a different kind of surprise at the next words from the RoH president from the recording. “Very well then, our asset has received the full million dollar payment and his references are outstanding. We may consider ourselves one major step closer to opening this country's eyes to the horrors they unleash upon themselves by bending knee to the freaks of nature they call 'Super.'”

Marcus barely kept himself from destroying the headset as the recording continued, only cheers and other sounds of celebration audible as the segment the analyst had prepped for him ran to its end. “You've heard this?”

The younger agent looked nervous again, but seemed to be handling it better now that he'd been given instructions. He responded with a simple nod.

Start making phone calls. I need you to get a hold of all the local law enforcement offices and probably the mayor. I'll handle getting backup and going up the ladder to figure out how the fuck someone missed a high-priority surveillance target coming up with a million dollar payout without the people in the field getting a single heads up.”

What about the University, sir?” The simple question caught Marcus almost completely off guard, forcing the Special Agent to adopt a serious contemplative expression.

No,” the decision seemed not to sit well at all with the counter-terrorism specialist. “We got too many specific briefings reminding us that the HCP on campus puts Overton University STRICTLY under DVA jurisdiction. We don't go in there unless invited.” Marcus checked his watch and noted that it was nearly 11:00pm already. Almost midnight over in DC. “Make sure to call ALL our liaison personnel on this one though, need to make sure the DVA is taking this as seriously as we are if they're going to insist on us staying hands off the campus.”

Marcus turned to head into the small closet that his team had converted into a Records Room for the current case as his analyst began making the requested phone calls immediately, ignoring the late hour. What the hell did we miss? Why is RoH taking the lead on something that absolutely SCREAMS 'attack' when they have two HLM cells transplanted to the city? And since when does Clarence Dane hire from outside his own organization? The questions were all troubling Marcus deeply as he clicked on the light and woke up the computer attached to the neatly organized drives that catalogued each day of surveillance and analysis his team had conducted since arriving in Texas several weeks prior. Too many missing pieces, and too many actions out of character. There has got to be SOMETHING in here that makes some sense of it.

The Special Agent found himself repeating the last two sentences in his head, over and over, as he began working through the mountain of data. He didn't look up as his team's senior analyst, Tristan Mores, entered and plugged in a laptop to begin his own search. Nor when his lead field agent, Kathy Lane, entered bearing a large thermos of coffee and her own laptop to commence a search as well.  The arrival of his two senior-most team members simply reminded Marcus to pause his search long enough to send off a half dozen 'URGENT' marked emails to his immediate superiors and the nearest FBI Crisis Response Team leads.  With that chore done all three of the veteran agents worked wordlessly and tirelessly as they had reached the same conclusion; they needed to find what they had missed before something VERY bad happened.


 

 

Chapter 17

Chapter 17:

7 Seconds


 

“Harvin, so good of you to call. How have things been?” The middle aged woman leaned back in a luxuriously plush office chair behind a minimalist glass desk as she cheerfully spoke into her phone.

“Is your line secure?” There masculine voice coming over the speaker spoke in a light tone that seemed slightly out of place with the words being conveyed.

“As secure as it can be made. Are there problems?” The cheerful mood vanished as Joyce Rothschild shifted instantly to a completely serious and professional demeanor.

“Our very minor pokes at the perimeter have been met by an extremely sophisticated and vicious level of backlash. Had we invested any more or better resources our entire collaboration might have been burned. There are some extra players on the field, Joyce, and we don't know who they are.”

The new information wasn't particularly 'new' to Joyce. She'd noted the sudden manner in which Patrick's familial attack scheme had unraveled all at once and known that there was an element in play beyond the law enforcement agencies. “Considering how powerful some of the people involved with these programs are, Harvin, that can hardly be considered surprising.”

“We expected a certain amount of additional difficulties. The ghostly 'Company' that appears to be intricately involved in all matters involving Variant-Human Affairs without being publicly acknowledged anywhere for one. But someone else made some significant moves as well, and monitoring the actions we set in motion it seems clear that none of the other players were aware of the newcomers either, and still AREN'T aware for that matter.” There was a long pause before the male voice continued. “How certain are you that your plan can't carry any trails back to us?”

“Who else is with you?” Joyce managed to ask the question without sounding accusatory, even though she felt that Harvin SHOULD have kept the favor she'd requested between the two of them. She actually smiled as she heard the very faint start over the phone that indicated her question had surprised him. You should remember that only Edward enjoys speaking in the royal plural all the time, old friend.

Both Edward and Lee have offered their input on this, Edward is here now.”

Things are already fully in motion, put there by pawns who are entirely unaware that any of the plans they are implementing came from any source except themselves. The faintest of trails could be made to connect Patrick to the final asset that was put into play, but only if he proves too incompetent to remove the man before the dust settles.”

Patrick is aware that you've made use of an asset that MIGHT be traceable to him?” The voice on the other end of the line had changed.

And good to hear from you directly as well, Edward. As for what Patrick is ACTUALLY aware of, I'm afraid I can't claim expertise. I did inform him that I would be tapping some of his resources before I put anything in play, and I'm certain he knows how to clean up a mess. He's had the practice after all.”

There was a pause from the other end of the line, likely while her two partners conferred over a point privately, before Harvin's voice came again. “Everything is already committed then?”

Everything was committed almost two weeks ago. It's simply taken some time for the pawns to notice the pieces left out for them and seize the initiative.”

It's a dangerous move you've made, Joyce.” Edward's voice over the line sounded weary. “I don't think any of us have a great fondness for Patrick, but in leaving the potential for exposure out there I hope you realize the risks you're taking.”

There's less risk than there was with Roger's insane stunts, and if things fail as spectacularly again I can always clean up the mess the same way as before.”

No Joyce. Repeat performances draw too much attention. If it looks like Patrick may be exposed then MY people will handle it directly this time.” The note of finality in the oldest partner's voice drew a broad grin to Joyce's lips.

As you like, Edward. If there's nothing else we should probably limit contact as much as possible, as per the plan.”

That's all. Thank you, Joyce.” Edward's tone had returned to sounding worn and old again.

We'll all be discussing the next phases over the summer, I'm sure.” Joyce noted the slight strain in Harvin's farewell, but brushed it off without a second thought. Harvin was generally considered the most cautious of their little group after all.

As the dark haired woman clicked the button that terminated the call, she found herself contemplating the show to come, and smiled at a thought about a certain overweight bully getting his comeuppance at the end of it all.


 


 

Aaron Sexton sighed as he attempted to deal with an odd mixture of conflicting emotions. It was windy and quite a but colder than the norm for Eastern Texas, even in November. This was not a day he would normally be spending outdoors, and yet he was. He would almost never intentionally inflict the discomfort of the hard steel bleachers that surrounded the Overton football field like an oversized high school stadium, and yet he was doing exactly that. While surrounded by several thousand people all cheering over a game where twenty some odd men fought over an oblong ball. Not a single thing on this list that the blond youth would normally involve himself with.

On the other hand, the attractive form of one Iris Todd was currently curled up into him, using his slightly larger frame as a shelter from the biting breeze. The same Iris that had announced to him that since her roommates were dragging her off to see the game with them, she was choosing to drag one of her teammates along. He'd been about to object, when the tall girl had put an arm around him and begun walking, and he'd been halfway to the event before he remembered why he didn't want to go.

And I'M supposed to be the one with the ability to confuse and disorient. Aaron had given up after coming this far with the blonde speedster, not that he had any truly powerful objections in the first place when weighed again what APPEARED to be one of the most attractive girls he'd ever met forcibly taking him out for a date. I wonder what else she does forcefully...

Aaron's somewhat perverse train of thought was derailed by what had to be one of the MOST annoying ringtones he had ever heard. This wasn't the first time the mysterious and annoying phone had gone off, and there was a great deal of mumbled profanity from the immediate area as he was obviously not the only one who was not a fan.

God dammit, whoever that is just answer the damned thing and then turn it off!” The shout from directly beside him showed that Iris was at least as deep in her dislike of the annoying ringtone as Aaron.

I don't think it's anyone in the stands, no one seems to recognize it and EVERYONE in that area is annoyed by it.” Aaron kept himself from falling backwards off his narrow steel seat only by extreme force of will.

You need to not just jump into people's heads like that, Cat.

Sorry, but I get to hear it in super-ultra-surround sound, and I'm deaf. I get to vent too.” Aaron looked across to where the auburn haired telepath was sitting quite a ways off and saw the girl make eye contact and briefly stick out her tongue at him.

As if queued by the childish antics, the mystery phone began ringing again.

Alright, if it's none of us then it has to be under the stands somewhere. Wish me luck!” Iris stood as she spoke and moved the few steps to the top of the bleachers.

And where are you going?” Aaron was slightly confused as the blonde girl's statement didn't seem to mesh with going further UP into the stands.

It's faster to climb over the back than it is to try and fight my way past the crowd down at the bottom where the concession stand is. Be back shortly, keep my seat warm!”

With that the tall girl swung over the top of the bleachers and began scaling her way down, accompanied by a few cheers of; “Break the damn phone when you find it!”

Aaron just sighed again and adjusted so that he was occupying a much larger area of the bench, making a genuine effort to do as his 'date' had requested until she returned from her self-appointed quest.


 


 

Catalina Blake pressed her fingers to her temples and seriously considered the advantages of being completely deaf in public. Next to her she felt her boyfriend push in close as he noted her continued distraction from the football game her roommate had originally inflicted on the two of them.

Stupid phone still being stupid?

The telepath managed to smile at the shorter boy as he attempted to make mental communication easier. She still hadn't gotten around to letting him know how much extra information he, and all the rest of her classmates ended up giving away every time they intentionally tried to direct a thought at her. “I'll be fine, it's stopped ringing again and Iris just started climbing down on a quest to destroy the thing. Or at least turn it off.”

Scott returned the smile as he attempted to somehow make himself large enough to shield his much taller girlfriend from the persistently cold breeze that was making an otherwise great morning to be outside into a bit of a chore. “I think in the future we might mention to Tasha that we'll join her in watching sporting events depending on the weather.”

Do you really think she can't rationalize us into these bleachers for anything short of a hurricane?”

The sandy haired boy seemed to consider the point, then both were briefly distracted as the crowd went to its feet with a thunderous cheering as the Overton team on the field forced and recovered a fumble, giving them a great chance to solidly cement their lead before the end of the half.

You're probably right about that. Maybe we could pit her against Louise for the discussion? The good Lord only knows if either one of them would ever back down from a pointless argument because I don't think the rest of us have ever seen it happen.”

No good.” Catalina giggled at the image of the tallest girl in the HCP arguing in circles forever against the shortest. “Louise isn't interested unless it's 'real football,' or soccer if we're being American about it.”

Since we're in America we can probably afford to do that.” Scott nodded his agreement and seemed to momentarily go back to working on the problem in his head, only to be distracted by another cheer as the Wildcards scored a touchdown with only a few seconds left in the half.

Gah.” The auburn haired girl sat abruptly and stopped applauding, bringing her hands back up to her head.

Ringing again?” Scott asked the question so quietly that no one should have been able to actually hear the words, but his girlfriend simply nodded.

Good news though, I think Iris has zeroed in on it and it should be solved momen-...” Catalina trailed off mid-thought and got a strange look in her eyes.

Scott was just about to speak when a loud *BOOM* from the area where Iris had disappeared a minute ago cut through the crowd, shortly accompanied by several screams as a portion of the old-fashioned style steel bleachers bent and twisted, looking as if they were about to collapse.

What the hell?” Scott stared in shock at the damaged bleachers for a second, then looked at his girlfriend, still locked in a strange kind of trance. “Cat? CAT! What's going on?” The sandy haired boy began to panic as he noticed tears forming in the telepath's eyes an instant before his train of thought was interrupted once again.


 


 

God damned people picking the most annoying ringtone they can for fun. Then they drop their phone somewhere it can annoy hundreds of people. Yeah, I am definitely breaking it when I find it. Iris Todd ignored the faint telepathic laughter she heard in her head as she climbed down the bleachers to begin to hunt for the annoying device.

And of course, now it stops ringing. Iris sighed and began picking her way through the underside of the steel bleachers; making an extra careful effort to keep an eye out for any falling objects, or liquid, from up in the stands. God, no wonder the phone is lost down here. Do they EVER clean down here? Iris skirted around several moderately large trash piles that were being collected against the larger support beams by the persistent wind and sighed.

Alright, I guess I need the damned thing to ring again. And the speedster waited for the annoying sound to guide her to its source, and predictably it didn't come. Iris waited patiently for quite some time, feeling only slightly annoyed as she heard the thunderous cheering from overhead indicating that she had missed something momentous in the game.

Was more interested in my date than the game. Can't hang out with him while I'm down here either. The blonde girl smiled as she continued to slowly scan the various debris under the stands for signs of the source of her annoyance. Her ambush and subsequent dragging away of Aaron replaying in her head as she did so.

He never saw it coming. Some psychological profiler HE turned out to be. Iris sighed softly to herself as she considered abandoning her quest and heading back up to her seat. The speedster had avoided anything resembling a serious romantic relationship since her problems with Roger during the first year; choosing to keep things casual instead. She wasn't even certain yet if she was planning on trying anything more serious with her latest acquisition, though she figured Aaron would likely be game for either option.

Wait a sec, backpack! That's probably it. One of those heavy duty field pack things, probably belongs to one of the groundskeepers or something. As if on cue, the grating ringtone sounded once again from the direction of the bag Iris spotted. The speedster had to consciously force herself to walk over to the bag at a normal rate of speed, excited that the end of her self-appointed mission seemed to be in sight.

And just because PROBABLY no one can see anything down here doesn't mean DEFINITELY. I am not going to get outed for an SI infraction because I couldn't handle listening to a ringtone for a few more seconds. Iris grinned as she heard another brief telepathic giggle in her head, though she tried to send a stern sounding thought towards the telepath about the perils of eavesdropping in response.

The phone stopped ringing again shortly before the blonde reached the bag, but Iris figured it was no longer relevant as she casually loosened the drawstring holding the top flap of the large bag closed and flipped it up to look inside. The sight that greeted her sent a spike of panic racing through the blonde girl.

The sounds of the crowd dropped away with sudden silence reigning supreme. The terrified speedster couldn't even hear her own heart hammering in her chest, as time was practically frozen between beats. A moment to mentally berate herself passed, and Iris leaned in slowly to look more closely at what she had discovered.

Resting within the bag was a wire-covered device composed of what appeared to be a large brick of white clay surrounded by four glass cylinders filled with a murky liquid. Resting atop the contraption was a simple digital timer that had just blinked from '8' to '7' as Iris' massively sped up perception kicked in to effectively stop time around the girl.

Alright, that's a bomb. That is almost DEFINITELY a bomb. Control, control talked about this. Think. The lesson wasn't as applicable as Iris had hoped as she mentally reviewed what she could remember as quickly as possible. Check to see if it has an obvious motion switch... nothing obvious. No anchor switch, so it can be moved, probably. I need to get-...

The blonde girl's train of thought derailed abruptly. Who could she possibly get in the next seven seconds that could do something about this? If she was incredibly lucky she might be able to get to Teresa in the stands before the timer hit zero, but could the teleporter possibly get down here and get the bomb away before then? No. More options. Iris' mind raced frantically. Her reactions and thought processes were incredibly sped up, but even at the impossible speed her brain currently operated at she could only stretch a second into a little over two minutes of perceived time.

Back to Control, think about the area. Where could I put a bomb attached to... a lot of chemicals where it won't still kill a lot of people? Iris rapidly considered and dismissed all the nearest entrances to the HCP facilities. The elevators were likely hardened sufficiently to absorb the blast, but even though she could likely get there before running out of time, the doors only opened and closed at a normal speed.

Behind the union building, freight access, there's a drainage culvert! Iris carefully considered this possibility as she doubted she'd be able to divert to a different direction once she started out. If I remember the campus map correctly it's a little under a mile. I should be able to do that, get it into the culvert, and get clear. It's got to be close to four feet of water in there now too, with the wet weather we got through most of last month. I can do this. Iris reached forward, but immediately noticed that her hands were trembling visibly, even in the slow motion that her own extremely fast movements appeared to operate in while her perception was fully boosted.

Then the timer on the clock blinked to '6,' and Iris clenched her fists once and grabbed the bag. Don't think anymore, if you think anymore you're out of time, just go go go GO! And the speedster wrapped her arms through the heavy straps of the bag and took off through the maze of metal supports as fast as she could. The air slammed into her almost like a physical blow as she accelerated faster than she'd ever managed before, and a spike of pain shot through her left arm as she realized too late that she hadn't QUITE had enough room to squeeze through the last two beams.

The blonde ignored the pain and ran, not daring to risk a look behind her to learn if she'd been caught or not. It wasn't important anymore. Have to make it there, committed. One shot. Iris forced her legs to push harder, found herself unable to even draw breath as she forced herself to exceed the fastest she'd ever run before. Doesn't matter, can make it five more seconds without air. As if responding to her thought, the timer blinked down once again.

Iris tore her gaze away from the digital display on the top of the bomb she carried, forcing herself to watch her surroundings instead for anything that she would need to avoid in her desperate sprint to her destination. It was not as straight a shot as she'd hoped, but the speedster forced herself to turn sharply so as not to overrun and be forced to lose time backtracking. The blonde girl felt something like a tearing sensation in her legs, and new points of pain blossomed up, but she pushed them aside harshly with the experience she'd gained training in the HCP. If Ames can punch a missile, I can fucking go for a mile run.

Ir...is...?” The sudden extra voice in her head almost caused the speedster to tumble as her multiple injuries could not.

Cat??

Wha... happ...ening? Sonic boom... bleachers are fal...ling over?”

Iris felt tears forming in her eyes, though with the wind blasting in her face the moisture had no outlet. Figures you'd finally catch up to my brain NOW of all times. Iris forced her vision to focus ahead of her and saw her objective, just a brief straight run away. In the periphery of her vision, she saw the timer blink down to '1.'

Iris? Oh my god... BOMB?” The speedster felt an odd surge of pride as the telepath grew more adept at keeping up with her heightened perception speed with each passing moment.

It was under the bleachers, I found it when I went looking for the phone. Iris realized something wasn't quite right anymore, she wasn't closing on the culvert as fast as she should be. She pushed as hard as she could, but her legs simply couldn't give her quite the same speed they had before.

Iris! It says ONE on the timer! You have to get away from it now!” The mental voice of her friend was growing frantic, and Iris tried to make her thought sound reassuring.

I have to get it into the culvert, out of the open where the blast will be contained. There's chemicals on it Cat, and I don't know what they do. She was almost there, so close to her destination. And she saw as the timer blinked to '0.'

Do me a favor, Cat? Iris forced a smile onto her face as she felt a burning sensation starting to build in her arms and chest. Her feet left the ground and the speedster dove for the culvert opening, still moving at nearly the speed of sound. Tell my dad I love him, and I'm sorry. Tell my little sister I'm sorry she never got to see me go out and become a Hero. And thanks for not letting me be alone at the end. With that thought, Iris let go of her ironwilled grip on her accelerated perception, and time resumed its normal pace as the blonde crashed into the water with incredible force.


 


 

Chapter 18

Chapter 18:

Fallout


 

The chaos that had settled upon the Overton sports field in the aftermath of the sonic boom and subsequent collapse of a corner of the old bleachers was momentarily silenced by the massive explosion at the corner of the campus, less than a mile away. Then the pandemonium returned tenfold as thousands of screaming people fled the small stadium and sought to put as much distance between themselves and the blast as possible.

In the panicked crowd, a few stood out as acting with more thought and less emotional reaction. Several larger students were suddenly present near the exits of the field in order to direct their less rational classmates and to prevent the hysterical mob from trampling those who fell in the rush. The two football teams, in a surprisingly fast reversal from competitor to collaborator, ascended to the crumpled bleacher section and began to wrench the steel supports into something resembling their original shape so that the few trapped there could get out, or be carried out in some cases.

Most surprising of all, none of the thousands of people on the campus tried to go and see the source of the blast. Campus safety officers arrived far faster than they'd ever previously demonstrated they could in order to start cordoning off a wide area around the blast site, none of them questioning why they were treating the area as so dangerous without any orders telling them to do so. It was this scene that three FBI Crisis Response Teams and one Special Agent in Charge Marcus Hughes discovered when they arrived to take over.

Marcus paused to take in the whole scene for only a few seconds before he began barking orders to the teams accompanying him.

“Jimenez! Round up the Campus officers on scene and get them back over to van 1 so I can interview them in a minute. Smythe! Take your and Golde's teams and take over that perimeter. Rodgers! Get the sniffer bot in there and find out what the hell blew up.” The analyst and three CRT leads immediately jumped to carry out their assignments.

The brown haired senior agent moved up to the edge of the cordon to get a better view of the actual blast site. It appeared, from this distance at least, to be an oversized drainage culvert. That makes no god damned sense at all. Put a bomb in a buried steel pipe and it's not gonna do much unless it's approaching a nuclear payload. Smoke looks weird though... “Cordon teams! Masks on! Treat this as a dirty detonation!”

Marcus turned and strode quickly back towards the van where his analyst was assembling the Campus safety officers, incidentally putting some extra distance between himself and the unusual looking smoke. At least it all seems to be stuck in that ditch, and the wind is relatively calm today. “Who's in charge here?”

The question, professional but with a brusque urgency, did not draw the same rapid response that the FBI Agent was used to from his own people. It took several moments of milling about and murmuring as the Campus officers seemed to be working that out for themselves. Finally a large man with salt and pepper hair and signs that he was working towards developing a full on beer gut stepped forward. “Reckon I'm the most senior officer on scene, sir.”

Marcus' eyes flicked down to the copper tab above the silver shield the large man wore on his uniform. “Officer David is it? Tell me what happened here.”

Just David, sir. We all know we ain't real officers or anything like that.” David offered an easygoing smile as he spoke, before his expression turned serious. “As for what happened, some crazy shit went down over at the stadium,” a large arm was waved in the direction of the steel bleachers that were easily visible at this distance, “and then a god damned bomb went off over here. Campus dispatch got flooded with calls a few minutes ago, something about a big bang over there and some bleachers collapsing, and then this over here went BOOM.”

And none of your people approached the blast site before you started putting up those barricades?”

No sir. We may only be private security for a college campus, but we have our own handbook. Any explosion or bombing on campus, unless we have strong reason to believe there are injured at the blast site we are to block off the area and keep people out until the pros can get here.” The large man gave the agent in front of him an appraising look. “Your lot sure did get here quick today, sir.”

We were actually on our way back from a wild goose chase when radio traffic went crazy about a bombing on the campus. We were only a couple miles away.” Marcus was forced to suppress a smirk at the slightly suspicious look the Campus officer gave in response to the explanation. Stare all you want big guy, the FBI is telling the truth for a change.

Agent Hughes! You need to see this!” The shout from the direction of van 3 drew the attention of all the gathered Campus officers and the Special Agent interviewing them.

Well David, unless anyone here can think of anything else I believe that concludes the interview.” The brown haired man started to turn away from the officers when he saw no sign of anyone else stepping forward, but stopped and turned back again. “Though there is something your people could do to help us out.”

As long as it's not violating any rules or laws, we're happy to help, sir.”

Marcus didn't bother suppressing a smile at the qualifier the large man had placed on his acceptance. “It shouldn't break either of those things. Being a college campus I'm going to guess that there are hundreds of cellphone videos of this morning's events amongst your students. Jimenez here can get your people set up with some fancier copying devices if your men can head out and start tracking down those videos for us. The details could be important.”

Seeing that the Campus officers were nodding their assent, Marcus glanced at his analyst to make sure he'd heard the instructions before turning to move quickly to where his bomb disposal specialists were giving him very worrying looks from the other van.

What have we got, Rodgers? Please tell me that whatever blew up over there isn't radioactive or some crazy bio-weapon.”

I have no idea, sir. But someone does.” By way of explanation, the lanky CRT lead turned his control panel for the 'sniffer' robot his team used to check chemical residue at bombing sites so that his boss could read the screen.

What the hell is a code X-88?”

It's not in the manual OR the specs anywhere we've heard of, sir. It sent back that code, the 10 digits underneath it, and then the bot burned itself out.”

It WHAT?”

Burned itself out, sir. Something else the specs didn't mention it could do, but it sparked up right after sending that message. It's completely dead as far as we can tell.”

So I guess the next step is to call the phone number it posted with the code and see if that's tech support?”

The bomb squad all gawked for a moment at the suggestion from Agent Hughes, then Rodgers slapped a hand against his forehead. “I can't believe I didn't recognize that was a phone number. That's a DC area code too.”

Marcus already had his sat-phone in hand and the the number punched in.

Please identify.” The completely apathetic female voice at the other end of the line drew a scowl from the Special Agent in Charge.

This is Special Agent Marcus Hughes with the FBI. Who am I speaking with?”

One moment, Agent Hughes.” Several seconds of silence nearly prompted the quickly angering agent to shout something unpleasant into the phone when the female voice returned. “Your voice print has been confirmed , agent. You aren't authorized for access to this number, where did you get it?”

Marcus forced himself to pause, take a breath, and respond professionally to the absolutely bored voice at the other end of the line. “With whom am I speaking?”

Staff Sergeant Lisa Morgen, US Army, Pentagon. Where did you get this number, agent?”

My team is investigating an explosive detonation and we sent in a Mark 5 – A7 ordinance disposal/chemical sniffer bot. When it reached the blast crater it sent back a code X-88 and this telephone number, and then it destroyed itself. Now can you tell me what the hell is going on?”

X-88?” Marcus blinked as the voice on the other end of the line transitioned from total apathy to borderline panic in four syllables. “That's IMPOSSIBLE, special agent.”

I can't tell you it's not some kind of glitch since I don't have the level of technical expertise to diagnose an advanced remote control robot, but that's what it sent back to the operator's control screen, at which point it fried itself. What the hell is an X-88?”

You need to move your people back from the bomb site IMMEDIATELY, Agent Hughes.”

The Staff Sergeant's near-panicked state was beginning to make Marcus very nervous. “Our cordon is more than a quarter-mile from the epicenter, Sergeant.”

Move back farther than that. What's your location?”

The brown haired agent paused his conversation long enough to bark a string of order out to move the cordon out another 50 yards from the blast site. “We're at the Overton college campus, about a half mile behind the Union building.” Marcus strained to listen as he heard several voices in the background on the other end begin yelling at once, then the line went dead.

Special Agent Hughes!” Marcus turned at the shout from behind him and felt his jaw drop open in shock. A dozen men in US Army uniforms all bearing an unusual patch of the American Eagle clutching lightning bolts in each talon.

What the fuck... Force Ops is here now? The FBI Agent shook his head for a moment to clear it and strode out to meet the short man wearing captain's bars that had called out to him. “Don't take this the wrong way, Captain, but what the hell are your people doing here?”

I don't take it the wrong way at all, Special Agent. This is one of many scenarios that should never happen.” The shorter man offered his hand as he stopped in front of the taller FBI Agent. “Captain Ray Dommeler.”

Want to tell me what the hell this particular scenario is, Captain Dommeler?” Marcus accepted the handshake, though his expression showed little aside from suspicion.

The short version, the part that I'm actually allowed to tell you, is that the chemical your sniffer bot found is BEYOND incredibly dangerous. We're basically here because we have the resources needed to quarantine the blast site before lots and lots of people die. FEMA will take over the site as soon as they can get their people in position, but we can't wait that long.”

Marcus found himself staring over the shorter military man in shock as he watched several dozen more Force Ops personnel arrive out of thin air. Teleporters, they're using groups of teleporters. What the hell IS this stuff?

Seeing the direction of Marcus' gaze, Captain Dommeler turned around to see that his people were already constructing a massive plastic 'tent' that would cover close to a square mile around the blast site. In this case the plastic was being created on the spot by a pair of uniformed military Supers and being put up by several more flying soldiers. “I'll try to get my superiors to forward as much information as possible to your investigation, special agent. I'm assuming that you're the lead on tracking down the bomber?”

Marcus snapped himself out of the daze he'd fallen into at seeing dozens of Supers swoop in and take control of his scene. Turning to look down at the Force Ops captain addressing him, he was more than a little surprised to see what looked like an earnestly sincere expression. “Yes captain, I'm currently the lead on this. Any intel your people can send my way would be greatly appreciated”

Hearing more shouting approaching the area, both men turned to observe a small group moving quickly towards them. Leading the group was a slightly overweight blond man that Marcus immediately recognized from the course of his investigation. “Looks like the University President is here and he brought friends. Is this your scene to explain or mine, captain?”

Marcus found himself suppressing a grin as the small man next to him literally vanished only to reappear much closer to where the soldiers were working. “Guess that answers that.”


 


 

A groan echoed through the cavernous office as the large man seated at the single desk attempted to force weary eyes open and was met with a stabbing pain. Several minutes of blinking and squinting followed as the well dressed man held his head in his hands and tried to piece together what was going on.

This... This is my office. Did I fall asleep? No, I wouldn't have a headache like this. Not a hangover, what the hell... The train of thought trailed off as he noticed the massive wall-mounted television to his right.

The TV was tuned to some news story about some sort of disaster somewhere with the volume turned off, but what drew the large man's attention was the neatly written letters in black marker across the screen.

'YOU OVERSTEPPED, PATRICK. NOW YOU'RE ON YOUR OWN.'

Patrick Goddard surged to his feet as adrenaline rushed into his system, chasing away the last vestiges of whatever ailment had been impeding him. As he stood he saw the black letters fade away, vanishing after a few seconds as if they'd never been there at all. At the same time, the volume on the television returned.

...ust joining us you are looking at an aerial view of what appears to be a joint military and FEMA quarantine around a bombing site on the college campus in Overton, Texas. Reports at this time are still limited but sources inside the investigation have already informed this station that this attack is most likely the result of domestic terrorists, and the extreme precautions you see being taken here are due to the presence of a dangerous chemical meant to be dispersed by the device. No group has come forward to claim responsibility, and indeed the location of the blast away from the main campus near the freight access may indicate that this was a botched attack. We now go back to the studio for mo-...”

Patrick slammed a fist down on the desk console that controlled the screen, cracking the panel slightly as the TV powered off. This is impossible, we were making pushes against the HCP because... because...

The large man dropped heavily back into his chair as he shivered with sudden shock. I can't remember. I don't remember why we were pushing against the HCP... I don't even remember who WE are. I had... a partner? No, more than one, I'm sure of it. How... Leaning forward the dark haired man pulled the keyboard tray out and to the ready and began typing at an incredible speed for such fat-fingered hands.

It was hopeless. Whatever had been done to tamper with his memories, his computer had obviously not been safe. All traces of the security that SHOULD be present were gone, and while nothing seemed to be missing, he knew that there should have been some reference to the group he was certain he had been a part of.

They think I arranged the bombing, but that's far too crude an angle for me. Wasn't it? Did we get pushed that far? God damn them! I can't defend myself if I don't even know what I need to defend myself FOR! It took several minutes for the large man to pull himself back from the brink of a nervous breakdown, but when he began typing again it was with a look of steely resolve in his eyes.

So I went to far, and this is me getting cut out. Fine. But Patrick Goddard is NOT going down without a fight.


 


 

Lt Susan Witt steeled herself mentally as she approached the underground conference room. A morning meeting with the supervising General of Force Ops had not been part of the day's expected itinerary. Nor had the THREE separate press conferences she had been forced to speak at as the military's liaison officer attached to the cleanup effort in the wake of the bombing. Because apparently there were no other Lieutenants handy to throw to the wolves. Though given the option, she would gleefully walk back through that gauntlet to avoid the one waiting in front of her.

Opening the door, the blonde officer entered a room that was completely silent. Eleven sets of eyes stared expectantly at Susan as she moved to take the last available seat, and she found the expectant silence FAR more disconcerting than screams and demands for information would have been.

Before we begin, I'm going to have to ask that the Walkers and Mr Weaver exit the room. I haven't been cleared to share this informa-...”

You've been cleared to share this information with the HCP senior staff and additional persons on a need to know basis. Everyone in this room NEEDS to know the real story about what happened this morning, Lieutenant.” The completely calm, level tone from the HCP's petite Dean held no hint of threat, but the look in the dark haired woman's eyes that accompanied the statement forced Susan's objection to die before it could reach her throat.

Very well then. As everyone is aware, there was a terr-...”

Skip to the part that everyone ISN'T aware of.” The gravelly demand from the military woman's right almost caused her to jump in her seat at the interruption.

Good lord, and I thought dealing with a room full of Force Ops brass was nerve wracking. Heroes are scary. Susan found herself ducking her face behind her metallic blonde hair for just a moment as she realized that both telepaths in the room had probably heard THAT thought quite clearly, but she recovered quickly.

Alright then. The reason for the complete quarantine of the area around the blast is that the chemical added to the device is known to the US military as extremely dangerous. We made it ourselves, about 37 years ago, and it's not supposed to exist anymore. Anywhere. Had the bomb gone off in the stadium, the projection shows 100% casualties for all those attending the game, and likely more than half the rest of the campus would also have been dead within twelve hours. All told, this attack would likely have resulted in somewhere between twelve and twenty thousand dead, had it been successful.”

There was a sharp intake of breath from those seated around the table at the matter-of-fact way the alarming casualty numbers were stated.

What the hell was that stuff?” The Weapons Instructor was the first to find her voice, though her question was little more than a loud whisper.

This portion is completely classified. Please don't let it get out of this room as if it does you will likely be charged with treason, and so will I as I'm not OFFICIALLY allowed to know any of it.” Susan took a deep breath to steady herself before continuing.

In the late 70's a research project was started in conjunction with the first major expansions of Force Ops with the express purpose of developing a rapidly deployable weapon capable of suppressing Super abilities, similar to the powers of a null-type Super. Approximately ten years into the project, the lead researcher claimed to have a breakthrough in the form of a chemical mixture that could be easily aerosolized but would oxidize and lose potency very rapidly.

The problem came when the team realized that there was no effective way to prove that the simulations were safe enough to begin any form of human testing, and since there are no known animal Supers, the project suddenly seemed destined to die an ignoble death. The lead researcher, and don't ask me for his name because it was redacted in all the files I was shown, had some sort of breakdown at the idea that his project would never be allowed to even reach the proper testing phase, so he concocted his own test.

The researcher took his chemical mix out of the lab and up to one of the Force Ops training barracks on site in the middle of the night, sealed the building, and pumped the aerosolized mix directly into the ventilation.”

I take it we can all assume that the chemical did not function as advertised?” The dry injection from the Focus Instructor came after the lieutenant had paused for several seconds without continuing.

That would be a completely accurate assumption. The chemical was designed to temporarily shut down certain portions of the brain that the research team believed allowed Supers to control their powers. The idea was that with no way to control their abilities, they wouldn't be able to turn them on in the first place. The problem with that approach is that no scientist has EVER been able to identify a single unified area of the brain that can be linked with Super's ability to have or control their powers. So instead of a Super nullifying chemical, all the team really managed to create was a horribly effective way to cause rapid, massive brain damage. Nothing temporary about it.

Of the 228 recruits and base personnel that were exposed, only two Strongman type Supers survived, apparently due to their resilience not allowing the chemical to metabolize in the first place.”

How the hell did RoH get ahold of a forty year old chemical weapon that isn't supposed to exist anymore?” The angry question from the University President was met with a helpless shrug from the military liaison.

There was a sample kept under extreme security at the Army MRICD. They claim that any breech there would have been impossible without detection and haven't been particularly cooperative with attempts to confirm that their sample is still present, but that's the only place it could have come from.”

Something like this is way beyond what RoH or their militia is capable of on their own. This has got to be our unseen opponents making a more direct attack, and the second time they've stolen military materiel to do it with.” The Subtlety Instructor leaned forward as she spoke, the words coming out softly and heavily laden with grief and anger. “And this time they got one of our students.”

Susan almost fell out of her chair at the final statement. The lieutenant hadn't heard anything about casualties.

One of the sophomore HCP students went under the bleachers to locate an extremely annoying cellphone that someone dropped. She discovered the bag containing the bomb while searching, and got it to a safe location for the detonation. She didn't have time to get away from the blast herself.” Kathryn Jilles answered the question before the blonde officer could get the words out, and gave a curt shake of her head that interrupted condolences Susan was about to offer.

We aren't the ones in need of your sympathy, Lieutenant Witt. Heroes have buried their own many times before, and we are all going to make DAMN sure that this Hero receives full honors for her sacrifice. Then we are going to track down the people behind all of this, and we are going to watch them burn.”

We have some calls to make.” Janette Walker stood as she spoke, accompanied by her husband. “I think we are wholly finished in playing conservatively.”

I have some contacts to go shake up as well.” Harold Weaver was nearly to the door as he spoke, the blond man moving quickly to exit the room. “With shit like this going down, maybe I can finally get this stupid Oversight crap called off so I can get back to some real work.”

Susan Witt sat frozen in her chair at the almost palpable aura of anger that seemed to flow from the HCP Instructors. Who the hell would be stupid enough to challenge the entire Hero community? These people are fucking INSANE.


 


 

It's over! All lost, time to pack up and pretend none of this EVER happened.” The short man in an expensive business suit sounded already on the verge of hysteria as he pushed his way into the opulently decorated conference room and let the door slam heavily behind him.

Lee, so good of you to join us so quickly. Please, have a seat.” The older man sitting at one of the three chairs surrounding the massive conference table smiled politely at the younger as he spoke.

How the fuck can you pretend to be so calm, Edward? Joyce and Patrick... they've RUINED us. We were supposed to be poking and prodding, keeping the program off balance and unable to perform at full capacity. Instead those lunatics are starting a WAR with every Hero in the country!”

You're being a little over-dramatic, Lee.” The tall man off to the side appeared to be pouring three scotches as he spoke casually over his shoulder. “I admit, it was a near thing when Joyce's pawns quite nearly succeeded at actually destroying the entire program. That woman has a truly remarkable way of getting ahold of things she shouldn't be able to, and then getting them to people who will use them without a second thought.” Harvin returned to the table and set one of the drinks down at the last empty chair, then began the long trek around the room to deliver drinks to his two associates.

Wait, you WANTED them to do something like this?” Lee stood next to his chair, too high-strung to sit down. “You're both insane!”

No, Lee. Not insane. Just very careful planners.” Edward paused to take a sip of the drink just delivered to him. “Although I will admit that it was mostly good fortune that the student who went in search of our planted phone was capable of getting the bomb clear in time. Another two seconds and we would have had to ruin the game by sending in a specialist of our own, and that could have set things back DRAMATICALLY.”

Lee stared at the older man, calmly seated and sipping the expensive scotch as if he was discussing a recent corporate merger. Then looked down at the drink Harvin had finally managed to deposit in front of him. “You... you wanted the HCP provoked, but not damaged. Why? All you've done is create a scenario where the Heroes will be out for our blood!”

Yes, things will likely be a great deal more difficult from here on in. I honestly wasn't expecting Joyce's chosen lackeys to be capable enough to actually kill even ONE of the students. So now the plan has to be altered slightly.”

As Edward finished speaking, Lee jerked as a sharp, shooting pain lanced into his right butt cheek. The smaller man attempted to turn, but his legs gave out and dropped him to the floor instead. His already blurry vision could barely make out the shape of the large hypodermic needle Harvin had injected him with, and the last words he heard from Edward before blackness claimed him shot enough terror into his system that it almost fought through the drug. Almost.

Now we have to give Overton's Heroes THREE targets to chase instead of just two.”