A Change of Pace – Chapter 21

                Kyoshi hurt so much she wanted to cry. Her entire body felt like a wrung out washcloth where every drop of liquid had been extracted with sheer force. Every step she took was a reminder of her mistake at the park. The relentless stabbing pain was visible to anyone watching her facial expressions. Every bruise she noticed after her shower was a symbol of her incompetence. Every time she saw the same pained expression etched in Mason’s face, she knew she had to do better. They both did.

The extra physical training session on Monday had been hell. For a moment, Kyoshi even questioned her resolve to be in the HCP. The flicker of doubt was quickly extinguished when she looked at Coach Meyers’ and Mason’s faces. The former Hero looked calm and collected, almost bored, as she beat them into submission. She wasn’t even trying and they still didn’t stand a chance against her. The big strongman buckled under the force of her blows, doggedly trying to land at least a single hit against her. He never succeeded, always catching a kick to the knee, an uppercut, or a judo throw that left him barely conscious and moaning in pain.

That was Kyoshi’s reprieve from the torturous workout. She got to watch the man she cared about beaten to a pulp. She got to see his thoughts during his attempts, and his failures, through his own eyes. It didn’t take an empath to feel the weight of failure on his shoulders. But he never gave up; he never surrendered, so how could Kyoshi even think of doing so?

When Kyoshi’s wasn’t getting the reprieve of purely psychological torment, she was busy trying to not receive the same physical beating. Coach Meyers was appropriately gentler with Kyoshi then with Mason, but it didn’t matter much. Kyoshi was skilled, trained, and a master in several disciplines. These facts didn’t help her feel any more proficient at combat than a newborn baby. She tried to land the same knee kicks, uppercuts, and judo throws that Coach Meyers landed on Mason. All she got in return were diaphragm seizing body shots, leg sweeps, and a particularly painful roundhouse kick to the head. Getting her bell rung several times didn’t help when Coach Meyers had her concentrate on her telekinesis.

First she worked on shielding, taking increasingly more powerful blows until her barriers shattered. The mental fatigue from this repeated process quickly outpaced the physical exertion she mistakenly thought was the worst thing she’d ever experienced. It didn’t stop there. Next, Coach Meyers had Kyoshi working on trapping limbs like she’d done in her first fight against Derrick. The former Hero even allowed her to think she’d trapped her successfully, but when Kyoshi moved in for a follow on strike, she received a kick in the ribs from the supposedly contained foot. The kick didn’t break anything, but it definitely bruised. Coach Meyers knew exactly how much force to apply to her strikes for them to keep going without needing healing.

To add insult to injury, the merciless sparring was punctuated with random rounds of calisthenics. She’d spar, get her barrier shattered and tossed to the ground by the force of the blow, do fifty push-ups, switch, watch Mason get pounded on, run a hundred meter sprint down and back, and repeat. Two extra hours of this left the two freshmen unable to move by the end of the training. They got healing when it was all over, but only enough to cover their outward appearance and anything serious. The aches and pains were theirs to keep, and they deserved it.

Becca was a blue-haired, pigtailed angel, and brought Kyoshi and Mason their meals over the next 24 hours. Tuesday was a bust. Kyoshi slept like a baby, but woke up as stiff as a plank of wood. The physical exertion it took to take a shower and make her way down to the common area was enough to deduce she wasn’t going anywhere today. She quickly shot off an email to her professors saying she was sick, and spent the entire morning on the couch. They might be able to skip regular classes, but they couldn’t avoid Tuesday’s training session.

It wasn’t the same intensity as Monday, but running five miles wasn’t easy when it felt like every muscle in their legs was already torn to shreds. Both Kyoshi and Mason’s times were abysmal, but no one hounded them about it. Everyone could see that they were hurting a lot more than usual, and it provided a good visual of what could happen if you were forced to do extra training.

Wednesday progressed much the same as Tuesday; blissful unconsciousness followed by a world of hurt. Unfortunately, they couldn’t miss their Ethics class at 1:00.

“We can do this, Kyoshi,” Mason limped into her room to collect her to go to class.

Mason was recovering slightly quicker than Kyoshi. Probably due to his strongman physique. That quality wasn’t endearing to her at the moment.

“Uuuugggghhhhhh!” the exasperated sigh that escaped Kyoshi’s lips surprised her.

“Let’s go,” Mason didn’t give her any more time to complain before throwing the covers off her, and scooping her into his arms. Despite his strength, she saw him wince in pain.

Thankfully she was fully clothed under the blanket. Even if she hadn’t been, she was too tired to care. “My prince charming,” Kyoshi took a second to savor the moment, but she only had a moment to do so. “Now put me down.”

Kyoshi would have loved to be carried out of the townhouse, across the street to the dining hall lift, and down to the auditorium. She didn’t care about the stares they would get. Anyone who knew them knew they were an item now. Although she’d never admit it, she liked the visual of her laying claim to her man in such a dramatic, visual way. The imagery was all well and good, but there was a slight problem. A 6’9” man couldn’t fit a 6’7” woman through the door of her bedroom; which was clearly designed for normal-sized people. She knew he would have busted through the wall and carried her all the way if she asked. The mental sentiment was appreciated.

Mason eased Kyoshi back onto the ground, both grimacing as their muscles tried to overcome the lactic acid that seemed permanently stored within them. Using each other as support they headed out for their Ethics class. They left for class at 12:20, and barely made it before Dean Ditmar arrived precisely at 1:00.

“Today, we are going to continue our discussion of the beginning of the Hero era,” the Dean plopped a thick three ring binder on his podium, and opened to a section only a small way into it. “We’ve already discussed some of the first Heroes; Captain Starlight, Mastermind, EagleEye…” he rambled off the list of the dozen Heroes that formed the core of the government’s big reveal to the general public. “My question for you is what they all had in common…besides having super powers?” half the hands that shot into the air dropped down in embarrassment.

“They were all bad ass,” answered Anna Fletcher, the classes only electrokinetic, whose attitude was as volatile as the energy she controlled.

Despite Anna’s tendency to interrupt the Dean in class, he never punished her too severely, and it might have something to do with her ability. Unlike electrical absorbers, like the teenage psycho in the park, Anna’s ability was a little more unique. She didn’t need to take in electricity to use it in a fight. She had some sort of internal fuel source that produced the energy that she could then manipulate. At this point she was pretty limited to blunt force attacks, primarily throwing lightning bolts of energy at her opponents until they went down. It was rudimentary and crude, but it got her the number 15 ranking. Her ability was formidable, but she needed some significant improvement if she wanted to make it all the way to Hero.

“Thank you for the eloquent description Ms. Fletcher,” the Dean kept his face neutral as he looked for another raised hand. “Ms. Martin?”

“They all had prior military service,” Kyoshi watched her dorm mate answer confidently. Angela was as comfortable in the classroom answering questions as she was in her shifted form.

“Yes,” the Dean activated a projector and a PowerPoint began to show pictures of men and women in uniform, faces blurred, in various iconic battles.

“Most of the original Supers to come forth and earn the mantle of Hero fought in World War II and the Korean War. In fact, a lot of Supers in general fought during those conflicts,” the class watched the slideshow intently.

“I thought Heroes weren’t allowed to be in the military?” Mason asked, after raising his hand and being called on.

“Today that is true, but you need to remember the context of time,” the slideshow ended, and the projector faded to black. “Who remembers what year Captain Starlight came forward to the government with the existence of Supers? Not his first contact with the government, but when the government first made the announcement?”

“1959,” half the class echoed.

“Correct. When was ForceOps established? How about the first HCP? Can anyone tell me how the DVA got started?” the questions were answered with silence. The Dean smiled at the young Supers. “These are the questions we are going to cover over the next few weeks. People can speculate all that they want concerning what happened before Captain Starlight, but we’re going to be concerned with what happened directly after.”

The old shifter always felt a bit hypocritical when it came to this portion of his lecture. Students always wanted to delve into the theories behind where Supers came from, if Captain Starlight was really the first of their kind, or debate the theories of past Supers being pagan gods, or the basis for various supernatural phenomenon. It all boiled down to curriculum. The DVA wanted the HCP to teach history a certain way, and that way started with Captain Starlight and the 1959 announcement; even though he approached the government years earlier, and Dean John Ditmar knew for a fact he wasn’t the first Super. Kyoshi didn’t pick up any of these thoughts as they pushed forward with the class.

“I’ll start you off with an easy one.” The Dean kept the smile on his face despite the unobservable internal struggle. “What is the DVA?” He scanned the room. “Mr. Gibson.”

The Dean pointed to the boy sitting directly next to Kyoshi. She knew Richard “Rich” Gibson pretty well. We was ranked one step above her at number 22, and his ability to increase or decrease his size, with a corresponding increase in strength and durability, was pretty cool. Today he was sitting at his normal 5’8” with his average build. He wasn’t unattractive, but she wouldn’t call him attractive either. He was pretty average with dark blond hair and typical brown eyes. He was nice thought. He was taking notes for the both of them. Kyoshi needed to conserve every ounce of strength for the upcoming gym session.

“Umm…the DVA is the governmental body that oversees Heroes,” Rich’s voice cracked a little during his explanation.

“Correct.” The Dean gave him a nod of approval. “Mr. Carpenter, expand on that.”

“Sure, Dude,” the guy sitting next to Mason with the surfer boy looks replied.

All Kyoshi knew about Oliver Carpenter was what Mason had told her. Mason explained that Oliver was a technopath, and had somehow fought his way to the number 18 slot. Neither Kyoshi nor Mason saw any of his fights, thanks to their own time in the infirmary, so they had no idea how he’d done so well with a typically non-combative power.

“The DVA…like…does a lot of administrative work and whatnot. They lobby Congress and tell them what legislation to pass when it comes to Heroes,” Kyoshi thought she was watching a Bill and Ted movie unfold right before her eyes.

<Is this guy for real?> The straight faced look on her boyfriend’s face said it was. <Boyfriend,> the thought brought a smile to Kyoshi’s face. Despite everything that had happened, this was the first time she’d called Mason that while thinking to herself.

“Not just Heroes, but all Supers and Powered,” the Dean added. “Good work, Mr. Carpenter, now get your feet off the desk.” The class laughed as Oliver took his flip-flop covered appendages off the furniture.

“So the DVA provides oversight for Heroes, and does administrative work like legislative proposals to Congress. What else?” only a few hands were in the air, so he pointed to the one that always seemed to be there.

“The DVA is also a law enforcement agency,” Angela responded. “They have arrest authority over Supers, Powereds, and humans working in consort with criminal Supers or Powereds.”

“Correct again, Ms. Martin,” the Dean gave the class’ number one ranked student another smile. “The last part you said is especially important. Humans that engage in criminal activity with a criminal Super, or Powered, come under the DVAs jurisdiction. Just like Heroes can step in and detain humans who are committing a crime.” The Dean turned his attention back to the classroom at large. “There is one more portion I’m looking for.” Surprisingly only one hand was still in the air.

“Go ahead, Mr. Abney,” Kyoshi was surprised as anyone that the class gigolo was prepared to answer the question.

“The DVA does intelligence work,” Seth answered with a cocky grin. “They gather intel of likely threats here and abroad.”

“Very good, Mr. Abney,” if the Dean was surprised at Seth’s insight he didn’t show it. “Despite what some Heroes in the field will tell you, not all good leads come from purely Hero sources. There are regular humans from the DVA, FBI, CIA, state, and local law enforcement that provide valuable and reliable information to Heroes. A lot of them risk their lives to gather this intelligence. Not everyone can shrug off a bullet like Mr. Jackson,” Mason jerked in his chair as his name was enunciated; an embarrassed looked on into his face.

<Wake up, Mason,> Kyoshi’s amplified her mental voice to shock her sleepy boyfriend.

“I want everyone to ensure they include their chosen Heroes’ interactions with the DVA in your midterm paper,” the Dean was already moving on. “Those are the basics concerning the DVA. What about ForceOps?”

“Ms. Kemps,” there was a slight change in the Dean’s voice when he called on Kyoshi’s newest friend. Kyoshi tried to peak into his thoughts but got nothing. It was probably just her exhausted mind playing tricks on her.

“ForceOps is the branch of the military that is comprised of Supers, and even some Powereds,” Anika’s voice was awfully detached. “A lot of people give the branch a lot of shit because it isn’t as selective as the HCPs, and their training isn’t quite as rigorous.”

Kyoshi caught flashes of thoughts from Anika. People in uniform carrying her, or a younger version of her out of a burning house. There was a lot of gunfire, and an earsplitting roar before everything seemed to vanish. Then she was somewhere bright and quiet, the only thing breaking the silence was her crying.

Kyoshi looked away; felling ashamed she’d eavesdropped on such a personal memory.

“…they’re more brave men and women working to protect not only this nation, but people all over the world.” Anika finished her statement, which Kyoshi had missed half of.

“And that is what I want to delve into,” the Dean was leaning on his podium, scanning the freshmen. “Who can tell me when ForceOps was established?” No one had an answer. “1965, at the start of the Vietnam War, and over half a decade after Captain Starlight and the government revealed Supers.”

“Why so long?” the question came from Derrick Masters, the class healer with an axe to grind with Kyoshi. His thoughts were pretty clear about that.

“Nothing in the government tends to move quickly, and the information we have from that time suggests that people didn’t think it was necessary. People thought that American Heroes could operate domestically and internationally, as policemen and soldiers.”

“That’s crazy,” Anna shook her head. “People actually believed that shit.”

“Language, Ms. Fletcher,” the Dean waved a warning finger in her direction. “Remember the context of this discussion. We are in a time when Supers are a new phenomenon, and things aren’t as defined as they are today.”

“So what happened?” everyone in the class was thinking the same thing.

“Remember that the earliest cadre of Heroes were war veterans, so some of the younger ones who fought in the Korean War took up arms in Southeast Asia.”

The students looked rightly confused at this little known fact. The lines between Heroes and ForceOps were clearly drawn now, but that hadn’t always been the case. It took the deaths of a few well known Heroes engaged on foreign soil to bring about that change.

“Eventually the administrative branch of the DVA proposed legislation to Congress,” the Dean tied the discussion back to some earlier knowledge. “Just like the CIA and FBI have separate jurisdictions, so would Heroes and ForceOps. This coincided nicely with the first graduating class of the HCPs, and is a great transition point for our discussion.” The Dean stopped to take a sip of water.

Kyoshi hoped Rich was taking good notes, because this was important stuff. Growing up she’d learned more about how the German Hero system worked, for obvious reasons. Things were a little different over there, since they didn’t engage in as many wars as the US did, so a perfect example of a difference was the lack of a clear distinction between military and law enforcement Heroes. She’d have to ask her Papa for more information, and maybe include the contrasts in her paper. Kyoshi tuned back to the Dean’s lecture, already feeling she could earn an A.

“So, Supers became common knowledge in 1959, but most of our nations Heroes at that point didn’t have a certification like we have today. Insurance companies were struggling with the amount of damage being done in Super battles, and they were lobbying the government to take action. The DVA agreed, so they set up the Hero Certification Program.” Everyone was on the same page this time, this was pretty common knowledge. “Where was the first HCP, and in what year did it start?”

Angela’s was the only hand in the air, so the Dean motioned for her to go ahead. “The first HCP was established at Lander University in 1962, so the first class of Heroes to go through the modern certification process graduated in 1966.”

“Correct.” Kyoshi knew people in the class thought that Angela was a bit of a brown noser, but they didn’t dare say anything to the woman who could definitely kick their asses.

“Lander was the first HCP, with their first class graduating in 1966; mostly due to the university’s early acceptance of Supers, its relatively large size, and non–urban campus. Sizemore Tech and Korman were the next two to be established. Having programs in highly populated areas was a good recruiting tool. Plus, they started moving the campuses underground to protect the integrity of the program, and the secret identities of the students,” the Dean gestured around him for emphasis. “We here at West were the fourth with Overton being the fifth and final.”

“Why did they stop creating HCP campuses?” Becca asked, the rapid fire tapping of her foot annoying the people around her.

“The short answer is money,” the Dean shrugged. “The cost of running a facility like this, and training young Supers like you, isn’t cheap. But the second part of that was new legislation from the DVA setting quotas.” A few people looked confused at this.

“Remember during your orientation when I said that in a best case scenario ten of you would graduate in your senior year,” heads nodded around the room. “That wasn’t just me telling you how tough this program is. We are congressionally mandated to only produce ten Heroes a year from each of the five programs.” People like Angela, with Heroes in the family, knew this. “But it didn’t always used to be this way.”

“How many people were in Lander’s first class?” Kyoshi asked the question that a few people were thinking.

“Lander’s inaugural class had sixteen graduates. Sizemore and Korman’s were over twenty. Even West’s first class was nineteen,” the Dean laid out the numbers. “At first, the thought process was the more Heroes there were on the streets, the better off citizens would be.”

“So why did people change it,” Anna interrupted again, but this time without the bad language.

“It was an issue of coverage,” the Dean didn’t like explaining this part. “The fewer certified Heroes the more maintainable the coverage…”

“So our government is fucking cheap,” Anna replied, her language back to normal.

“You need to take in the big picture,” the Dean defended the DVA’s rational, even though Kyoshi could tell he didn’t agree with it himself. “We might be the richest nation on the face of the Earth, but we aren’t a bottomless pit of money. Research was conducted by government and private agencies to determine the correct number of Heroes to produce each year to maintain a balance.”

“When was that research done?”

The Dean sighed.“1976.”

<Well that was the nail in the coffin of his rational,> Kyoshi thoughts as the Dean quickly shut down the retorts being thrown at him from around the room.

Kyoshi didn’t need to be a mind reader to see the irritation on the normally calm Dean’s face. She could tell that he’d brought this issue up with more important people than HCP students. She and her classmates had more important things to consider than politics. This was a problem he was intimately familiar with. So she remained quiet on the topic, mostly because it hurt her body too much to raise her voice.

“Last point before we break for the day,” the Dean’s booming voice drowned out the arguments. “The internship portion of the Hero training process was an important change brought about by more DVA proposed legislation. Lander’s first class in 1966 didn’t have the internship portion. It wasn’t until a decade later that the program got in motion. The primary gain from the program was the reduction in new Hero deaths,” the comment shut down anyone still sullen about the Dean’s abrupt end to the previous discussion.

“There is a lot more about the Hero world, and especially the HCP, that has changed and evolved over the last fifty years. Make sure to include your individual Heroes contributions to these changes, if they have any, in your papers.” With the closing statement the clock hit 1:50, and the Dean stepped away from the podium.

Kyoshi noted the tension in the Dean’s shoulders, but dismissed it as residual stress from the DVA portion about the quotas. She didn’t have numbers off the top of her head, she guessed only the DVA did, but there were an awful lot of Supers out there. The fifty Heroes produced every year could only be a fraction of a fraction of that amount. Then there were the 300 million plus regular humans. There was no way so few could police so many effectively, but she also saw the government’s side of the argument. With problems like international terrorism, and domestic issues with social security and the economy, it was tough to justify throwing tens of billions of dollars toward the DVA. It was still absolutely ridiculous they were operating with numbers almost forty years old. That was the obvious place to begin the debate and start fixing the problem.

<I wonder if Germany has a comparable issue?> she had another question to ask her Papa when she called him later.

People were starting to get to their feet now. They would all have to hurry to make it to gym class. The view caused a spike of jealousy to surge through Kyoshi. Rich had already moved away toward the exit, logically thinking that she could get herself out of the chair. The problem was she couldn’t, and she was way too embarrassed to ask anyone for help. Mason’s eyes were already on her when she turned around, and she gave him a pleading look he immediately understood.

<I have the best boyfriend,> Kyoshi was smiling at her good fortune when the double door to the auditorium exploded.

“Class…” the Dean was only able to get a single word out before a body flew through the opening, collided with the him, and sent him flying across the stage to land in a tangled unconscious mess.

Kyoshi recognized the human projectile as Coach McMillian. “Mason!” she screamed, acting on instinct.

A shimmering barrier of telekinetic energy jumped into existence in front of her, blocking some of the flying splinters from the door’s destruction, and marginally protecting her eyes from the sudden white flash of Angela’s shift. She also created a second barrier, in front of the stunned Mason, who’d fallen on his back at the onset of the sudden attack.

Gun fire crackled as three masked people, decked out in black body armor, tactically advanced their way into the room, shooting at the students nearest the door. Kyoshi’s classmates screamed as bullets tore into them and they went down.

“Becca!” the speedster was instantly at her side; bits of wood in her pigtails, and her eyes wide with fear.

“What the hell is…” Becca couldn’t finish her questioning before Anna blasted a bolt of lightning at the attackers, filling the air with the distinct smell of ozone.

The metal melting blast reached the nearest attacker, flickered and died. <A nullifier?> Anna was halfway through a four letter word when the masked assailant turned the weapon on her and pulled the trigger. The electrokinetic screamed in pain as a burst of rounds tore into her, she fell limply over the back of the chair in front of her.

<What…what do we do…> Kyoshi was lost. Her mind sought answers from the attackers’ minds, only to come up blank. Who were they? Why were they doing this? What did they have to gain from attacking a bunch of kids?

A challenging roar leapt up from the remaining students. Anika and Angela were in the fight now, both charging towards the people who’d murdered their classmates. Angela charged the one who’d just shot Anna, only to have the attacker meet her halfway. Angela swung her energy weapon with enough force that she would have destroyed the stage the Dean lay unconscious on, but the attacker easily sidestepped the attack. Whoever the masked attacker was, they hit Angela with two quick jabs, driving her back, and then kicked her in the gut. The strongest member of their class went flying through the air, collided with Casey Williams, and they both went through the far wall into whatever lay beyond it. They were momentarily out of action.

Anika’s scream of defiance was heart wrenching. Her face held barely contained rage as she barreled into the two remaining attackers, scattering them. One of the attackers seemed to vibrate, before splitting off two duplicates. Kyoshi could wrap her mind around that part, but what came next stumped her. One of the duplicates fell down on all fours where the legs grew thick and developed hooves. The shoulders and chest broadened, ripping the black fabric to reveal a scaly grey skin. The human head remained, but a thick horn grew from the center. The creature let forth a roar and charged Anika.

The second duplicate grew taller and thinned out. Wings like a bat popped out of the things back, and it took to the air. Its wail made Kyoshi grimace in pain, and cover her ears for protection. The abominable creature was half way to the ceiling when Mason caught it with a flying leap. Her boyfriend drove the thing into the ceiling, destroying its wings, and pinning it into the earth above the HCP. The thing gave a strangled cry before dying, and disintegrating.

“This is messed up,” Mason fell back to the ground, destroying several seats with his landing.

Anika and the second beastly duplicate collided with a loud BOOM, cracking the ground area around them. Neither of them gave an inch, and they wrestled for control. Anika’s arms weren’t large enough to reach around the creature’s bulky legs, so she tried to bludgeon it into submission. The creature, in turn, tried to disembowel her with its horn, taking the beating in the hopes of a killing stab.

Kyoshi worried about the students who might still be alive in the fight vicinity. No sooner had she thought it then a dome of light crashed down on top of the fighting pair, containing their brawl. The split second of hope she had that someone was coming to their rescue was cut short as two rounds from the third masked attacker bounced off her shield. Her barrier held, but it felt like someone had punched her twice in the brain. She couldn’t take more of that. Hell, the room couldn’t take more of this.

The stage was largely intact, except for the damage done by Coach McMillian when he took out the Dean, and a small section destroyed by Anika and the beast. The doors to the room were just gone, where several students and chairs had fallen victim to the wooden shrapnel. A chunk of the chairs had been roasted like marshmallows from Anna’s lightening attack, and more had been destroyed by Mason. The ceiling and far wall had large holes in them where Angela, Casey, and the winged monstrosity had gone through them. Then there were the bodies.

Just about the entire freshman class was down, either defeated by the assailants, gunned down, or taken out by the door. Kyoshi and Becca were still on their feet, protected by her barrier. The much stronger telekinetic, Jason, had been one of the first gunned down by the attackers. Mason was still in fighting shape, the rounds from the attacker’s weapons bouncing off his durable skin. He might not be for much longer. The attacker who sent Angela through the wall was advancing on him now. Erin Fisher had been far enough away from the initial attack to animate some chairs around her. She was currently on the defensive, using the living furniture to protect her against the gun fire from the third assailant. That only left Anika.

Anika defeated the rhino-man by repeatedly smashing its head into the ground. Blood oozed from her gut where a few thrusts of its horn had made headway against her super durability. She was smashing her fists against the domed barrier now, and not making any progress in escaping. Tears streamed down her face as she screamed in defiance. It was a disturbing sight.

Another round ricocheted off Kyoshi’s barrier, sucker punching her brain, and causing the barrier to falter. A second round made it through, and only Becca’s super speed saved them from a mortal wound.

Mason was engaging the first attacker now. The strikes vibrated the air around them. Mason was outclassed, but he was the only thing standing between Kyoshi, Becca, and certain death. He knew that, and it gave him more strength. Mason took blow after blow, standing his ground, and doing his best to hit back. Something about the beating seemed all too familiar to Kyoshi.

“And…time!” a magically recovered Coach McMillian was on his feet, checking his watch, and surveying the room.

The precision gunfire stopped, the third attacker lowering her weapon, and removing her mask. Kyoshi didn’t recognize the glum looking woman, and didn’t understand why she was stopping. The other attacker stopped beating on Mason, easily blocking a wild haymaker he threw, sat him down in a nearby chair, and walked away.

“Mason?” Kyoshi rushed to his side, checking to make sure he was alive. His face was bloodied and bruised, but he was still breathing. She cried into his shoulder, unashamed at the display of emotion.

She didn’t see Coach Meyers take off her mask, or the regretful expression on her face as she walked to the edge of the domed shield. Anika was still pounding away, spittle flying from her mouth with every hoarse scream.

The final attacker removed his mask, and moved to Coach Meyer’s side. His expression was unapologetic and unimpressed.

“Stand down, Kemps,” Coach Meyer’s commanding voice ordered the irate teenage Super. The blows to the dome didn’t let up, and the dome showed no sign of weakening. “Stand down, Kemps! Don’t make me come in there.”

Anika smashed her bloodied knuckles a few more times against the barrier before staggering back. Her chest heaved from the effort as her wild eyes continued to scan the room. Sweat mixed with tears saturated her head down to the roots of her ragged hair.

“Keep the barrier up for another minute, just to be safe,” Coach Meyers spoke to the other woman before walking over towards Coach McMillian.

“Come on out, Martin, Williams” Coach McMillian called into the sizable hole in the wall.

Angela’s angelic form, and Casey’s super-durable body, emerged from the pile of masonry, unscathed, but coated in a thick layer of dust. Angela didn’t shift back, her eyes warily watching the professors for a double cross.

“Healers, get to work!” white and grey uniformed students entered the room along with Dr. Sanderson’s golden mist.

In less than ten minutes the entire freshman class was back on their feet. Kyoshi felt complete relief for the first time in days. The small concession didn’t fix the fact that the entire freshman class was troubled, confused, and righteously pissed about what had just happened. “What the fuck!” a revived Anna Fletcher summed it up perfectly.

“Everyone take their seats,” the Dean picked the podium up off its side and placed it back in place. “We are going to do a review of what just occurred.” 45 of the 46 freshman complied, more out of curiosity then respect for their superior’s order.

Anika Kemps remained standing, her whole body tensed. Kyoshi saw her friend involuntarily shaking, unable to control her movements, as she fought to stop the tears that continued to fall. It was a haunting sight to behold the powerful Super, who if not for the containment dome, would probably have killed people in her rage fueled state. The thought sent a shiver down Kyoshi’s spine.

“I would like to begin by apologizing for what just occurred to you,” the Dean’s eyes scanned the freshmen, the unhappiness evident on his face. “But it was necessary.”

“What the boss is saying,” Coach McMillian stepped forward next to the unhappy Dean. “Is that what you just experienced is a hard, but unavoidable part of Hero life. You can be pissed at us all you want, he gestured at the professors present. “But everyone needed this to happen.”

“What you may or may not know,” the Dean reassumed control of the conversation. “Is that there has been a growing threat against HCP campuses for the least several years. Not too long ago Overton had a bombing. Just a couple years ago two instructors abducted two students from Lander.” His words were coming as a surprise to most of the freshmen class. “It is my job to ensure that you are all able to train in a safe, controlled environment. This goal can’t be accomplished unless we evaluate our weaknesses.”

Kyoshi had taken a seat, but was sitting next to Mason. A glare at Oliver had sent the technopath down to her assigned seat next to a shaken Rich. Both Oliver and Rich had been taken out within seconds of the door exploding, by what turned out to be fast acting tranquilizers rounds tipped with red dye. Both were feeling exposed and vulnerable at the moment. All of the class was feeling violated, and even though Kyoshi had been one of the few to survive, she had to watch her boyfriend take a brutal beating. It might have been identical to what happened in their Monday training session, but it felt different. The fear of death was a frightful thing to experience.

“We also took this opportunity to assess you,” Coach Meyers stepped forward, her eyes constantly checking the still slightly unhinged Anika Kemps. “This last weekend some of your classmates were stupid and got themselves into a dangerous situation. No one got hurt, but it forced us to look at how all of you would handle a dangerous situation at this point in your training.”

“Not well,” the man who had split off monstrous duplicates of himself didn’t pull any punches. “But we will rectify that.”

“As I was saying,” the Dean look frustrated at having to take back control of the conversation from his professors. “I am sorry that you all had to go through this. You might hate us for what we made you experience, but it gives you a glimpse of the life you are about to go into. For some of you it was a reminder of how feeble we really are, even though we are Supers. A bullet from a rifle is just as deadly to most of us as a regular human, always remember that.”

“We understand this was a traumatic experience for you, and you need time to cope. Your physical training is cancelled for today,” Dr. Sanderson’s words didn’t get the reaction a day off would usually have gotten. “If you need to speak to someone, Dr. Johnson, our resident psychologist, is available.”

Kyoshi saw Anika take off at a sprint in the direction of the infirmary. With a quick look at the Dean, and a nod, Coach Meyers took off after her. Kyoshi didn’t know what that was about, but she knew Anika was going to need her friends soon, and Kyoshi intended to be there for her.

 

***

 

Anika could feel the weight of him pressed against her, his foul body odor, and sour breath as he forced his lips onto hers. She was weak, she was trapped, unable to move or fight back. She cried out for her mother, but knew she wasn’t coming. If her mother tried to come to her rescue she would be beaten as punishment. Her father wasn’t home, he rarely was, and even if he had been he wouldn’t have stepped in. Her own father was friends with the man crushing her.

Anika fought against the memory of that first time. Fought against the memory of being helpless and trapped. She’d been ready to fight the attackers, to protect her new friends, and the woman she cared about. The other woman had no idea Anika felt the way she did, but that didn’t matter when people were trying to kill you.

Anika was able to separate two of the combatants, disrupt their plan of attack, only to face off against some blasphemous creation. It was tough, she felt its horn dig into her gut, cutting into muscle but not getting much further. Blood loss would be an issue, but not if she finished this fight fast. She didn’t even notice the trap being sprung until it was too late. She defeated the creature, beating it into submission, only to find herself the caged animal. Even with all her strength she couldn’t break free. Despite all her abilities and training, she was still the same weak and scared little girl.

The arms of the chair in Dr. Johnson’s office shattered with the force of her grip. Sending wooden shrapnel around the office. She tried to concentrate on the breathing techniques he’d been teaching her, tried to slow her heartrate, and rationalize what was happening to her body. It wasn’t working. The barrier had been unyielding, unwilling to let her go; just like the man.

The hand being placed on top of hers caused her to react violently. She reared up, screaming something unintelligible, before throwing a back fist at whoever was trying to trap her again. The attack failed, the power from the blow draining away like air from a popped balloon, as her new attacker enveloped her. She screamed, unwilling to be caught again.

<I’d rather die,> she beat against the body with her elbows and knees, even throwing her head against the distinctly feminine chest she was held against. Nothing worked.

Her rage spent, her attacks meaningless, Anika began to cry. She went limp, and was gently lowered to the floor, by the woman.

“It’s ok,” her attacker’s voice was strained, unsure of itself. “No one is going to hurt you.” Despite the voice’s uncertainty, Anika believed it.

Anika cried, like a wolf howling at the moon, she expressed every emotion she felt. She thought she was getting better, she was getting control, she was developing friends, she was falling in love, and then in a two minute span she was tumbling back into the abyss. Her throat grew raw as she screamed, giving one last gasp before falling silent.

Anika didn’t know how long it was until she looked up into Coach Meyers’ eyes, but it felt like days. The eyes that stared back at her weren’t the angry, hard demonic pupils of her classes physical tormenter; but warm embers of understanding and solidarity. This wasn’t the woman she thought she knew.

“It’s ok,” the alternative instructor repeated, her hand hesitating, uncertain, before stroking Anika’s dark brown locks.

This brought back more memories, but fonder ones. Her mother running a comb through her hair exactly one hundred times before bed each night. Kind words when others were mean to her, and comforting reassurance that she would be a beautiful princess one day. The last memory promoted a snot fueled laugh.

“Better?” Coach Meyers’ voice was much softer than Anika had ever heard before. She glanced back up at the woman just to make sure it was really her.

“Kinda,” she sucked the snot back in as she got to her feet.

The chair she’d been sitting in, and a good portion of the office was a wreck. Anika hadn’t laid a finger on anything other than Coach Meyers, but the concussive force of the blows she’d rained down on the professor had scattered papers, knocked over books and lamps, and damaged the floor. The chair she’d been in was a gonner; arms destroyed by her grip, and the rest reduced to chunks of wood and cushioning when she’d attacked.

“Dr. Johnson is gonna kill me,” Anika’s head hung low at the trust she’d lose with the doctor. She’d promised not to lose control like this.

“Naw,” Coach Meyers’ smile was warm and uncharacteristically uncreepy. “We’ll just tell him it was me.”

“Sure,” Anika snorted again. “Like he’ll ever believe that.”

The professor shot Anika a look that said the student didn’t know the half of it. “I have a long list on transgression on my record,” she explained, gesturing for Anika to join her on the floor. “Trust me, he’d believe it.”

Anika wasn’t going to argue. She needed a win right now, so she followed the instructor’s lead. They sat together in the middle of the chaos, Anika patiently waiting. Coach Meyers obviously wanted to say something, and her face showed she was trying to discern the best way to come out with it.

“I’ve read your file, Anika,” her voice was low, and held a hint of rage. “I know what has been done to you.” Anika felt very exposed, her deepest, darkest secrets lay bare to this other woman.

“I can’t imagine going through that, but I understand what you are feeling,” Anika remembered the solidarity in Coach Meyers’ eyes, and she knew it was the truth. “How we go through our lives after all that shit is just as important as how we handled things when shit hits the fan.” The statement was a little more profound than usual for the blunt coach, but Anika didn’t interrupt. “You can be a great Hero one day, Anika, but you have to learn control.”

Anika knew this already. Military psychiatrists, specialists in rape, and normal counselors had been telling her it for years. Despite that, it felt like more coming from the unstoppable woman sitting next to her.

“I’m going to help you with this. I’m making the journey myself, so it’ll be an interesting road,” Coach Meyers smiled at her, a genuine expression. “I hope to see you a great Hero one day. You have it here,” she pointed at Anika’s heart. “You need to develop it here,” she moved her finger until it was pointing at her head.

Anika wiped away a glob of snot that had been building between her nose and upper lip. She nodded, knowing that seeing this side of her instructor was something rare.

“Good,” the older woman got to her feet and headed to the door. “And Anika,” Anika’s eyes met the instructors again. The warm embers of understanding were gone; replaced by a red hellfire ready to devour everything in its path. “When you find the sick fucks that did those unspeakable things to you, give me a call. That’s the day I hang up my cape, we go castrate those fuckers, and strangle them with their own nutsacks.”

Anika felt her own face mirror the savage, ruthless expression on her new favorite instructor. “Yes, Ma’am.” It was a promise. Signed and sealed in tears neither would ever forget.

The moment Coach Meyers broke eye contact, the door opened to reveal a hurried looking Dr. Johnson.

“I heard I had a patient…” his mouth dropped open as he took in his office. “What happened?”

“Just a little girl talk, Doc,” Coach Meyers patted him on the shoulder as she walked past him. “I’ll bring you a check during our next session.” The psychiatrist’s mouth was still open as the alternative instructor closed the door behind her.

Dr. Johnson looked back and forth between the closed door, and Anika’s grin.

“Like she said, girl talk.”

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2 thoughts on “A Change of Pace – Chapter 21

    • Hey Syndic. Use the hyperlinks I have marked “previous” and “next”. The WordPress generated ones seem to be the ones with issues and I’m not sure what’s up with that. I did notice, I think it’s chapter 18 that is missing a next. So thanks for the catch.

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