A Change of Pace – Chapter 40

Daisy sat in a chair in John’s office trying very hard not to punch anything. It was something she realized she had to do frequently now that she was at the HCP. Whether it was the students, her own issues, or the crap that seemed to cling to her like white on rice; there was a constant itch to put her fist through something. Actually punching things usually didn’t help her mindset; her mental erosion was proof of that. Sure, it released the endorphins built up in her body, but it tended to make her thoughts more restless; not erase the memories from her past.

Sometimes, she felt bad about breaking stuff. <Deep breath,> Daisy reminded herself.

She had a flashback as she sat alone in the office. It probably wouldn’t catch anyone by surprise that Daisy had found herself in many powerful people’s offices over her considerable lifespan. There was always a sense of apprehension that accompanied those journeys. This particular memory was a visit to the principal, although he’d been called the headmaster, back when Daisy was about eight.

She looked down and saw pale, delicate hands swollen, bruised, and with split knuckles. The nuns had really gone to town on her before they sent her, <It was a different time back then, corporal punishment was normal,> Daisy thought as the flashback played out.

Daisy remembered that the lights had flickered and then blown out in her math class. Automatically the nuns assumed it was the girl with the demon eyes’ fault. This was before Supers were revealed, and Daisy was still new to her electrical absorption power, so technically it was her fault. But there was no way people could have known that.

<Everyone was superstitious back then,> the headmaster had yelled at her and whooped her more before calling her parents and sending her home.

As Supers, her parents understood, and they didn’t hold it against her. They’re response was training Daisy to control her power, and helping her through that difficult point in her life.

It was a bitter sweet memory. It coupled the torment a young girl had to go through because she was different, and the loving support of her parents. But that wasn’t the part that Daisy focused on. Instead, she focused on the difference in feeling between now, and when she was sitting in the headmaster’s office over sixty years ago.

When she was young she dreaded going to this type of office. Even if she hadn’t done anything wrong, it gave the impression of failure on some level. As Daisy got older, the trepidation became mixed with annoyance. Meetings with the DVA about something or another were more tedious than anything; but below the surface there was always that sense of failure.

As Daisy pulled herself out of her past, and refocused her attention on the present, she didn’t feel a speck of that anxiety. Now, she was pissed. Someone else had fucked up, and she was getting caught up in the backlash.

<He better not be dead, so I can put my foot up his ass,> Even if the object of Daisy’s anger wasn’t dead, putting a foot up his ass wasn’t going to be easy.

The silence weighed down the situation, making everything that much worse. John had left almost half an hour ago, and he hadn’t returned.

Her friend’s concern for her was palpable when she woke up from reliving her last vivid memory. He’d dismissed the class, and immediately wanted to take her to the infirmary. Daisy knew that wouldn’t do any good, and she told John as much. He was still adamant about have Sanderson, or at least Grace, have a look at her. Daisy declined. Instead, she asked an unusual favor.

“You know guys in ForceOps, right?” they’d been walking down the hallway towards John’s office, him half supporting her despite their size and weight differential.

“Yes, I know quite a few. Why?” John’s concern twisted with skepticism.

“I need to talk to the highest ranking one you know, and I need to do it now.” His eyebrows shot up at her request.

“Daisy, these are busy people. I can’t just…”

“John, please,” her face conveyed how serious this was.

“Ok…um,” they entered John’s office, and he gestured for her to have a seat. “Let me see what I can do. Don’t move.”

Daisy hadn’t moved. She’d been sitting her stewing in her own thoughts and emotions, and it wasn’t going to lead to anything pretty. She would definitely need to sit down with Dr. Johnson after this was all over.

The sound of footsteps and conversation caught Daisy’s attention. “…was in the middle of a briefing in Afghanistan. What is so important?” the door opened to admit John and a ForceOps officer.

“We’re about to find out,” John moved aside so the man had a clear view of Daisy. “Daisy this is Colonel Ford with ForceOps Counterterrorism. Colonel this is Daisy Lee Meyers one of my instructors.”

Daisy watched the man closely as introductions were made. The colonel hid his emotions well, and most people would have missed it, but Daisy saw the spark of recognition in the man’s eyes. The world had aged the man since Daisy’s memory, but there was no mistaking him for the officer who was on the mission with her.

<I don’t know if this is sheer dumb luck, or if the universe is finally throwing me a bone,> whatever the reason, this was the best case scenario for Daisy. Now she could get answers.

“Nice to meet you,” the Colonel reached out his hand, committing to his act of ignorance.

That was all the proof that Daisy needed.

“We’ve met before, Colonel,” Daisy kept a firm grip on the man’s hand when he tried to pull away. “But you were a Major back then.”

“You must be mistaken, ma’am. This is the first time we’ve met. I would remember if I’d met a woman like you before,” his attempt at misdirection through charm and flattery was admirable, but Daisy didn’t fall for it.

“Let me refresh your memory then,” Daisy smiled back, causing the man to flinch. “It was five or ten years ago, the objective was to secure a target in a desert camp. We started by taking out the humans with the combination of an energy blaster and small arms fire. They had a pyrokinetic or fire absorber, but I took care of him. Then we infiltrated the camp…”

“Ok…ok, that’s enough, Reaper,” the Colonel was disgruntled, but it quickly transformed into a weary sigh. “If you say too much more we’re all going to end up in front of a Senate subcommittee.”

“Perhaps you would like the fill the rest of us in,” John stated, his arm crossed in displeasure. “I don’t think I like what I’m hearing.”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know,” Ford gave him a serious look.

“Try me, Tom,” John replied, not even flinching.

The old soldier gave another weary sight. “If you have any recording devices I need you to disengage them now.” John didn’t like it, but the Colonel wouldn’t begin until his request was met.

“There. Now what is the big secret?”

“On occasion,” the Colonel started slowly, cautiously. “ForceOps requires certain talents to deal with international problems. While our own personnel are usually up to the task, sometimes we need to bring in consultants with specialized skills.” Daisy knew where this was going, and by the look on John’s face so did he. “On occasion, we appropriate those willing to volunteer for additional duties in the interest of national security.”

“That’s a very diplomatic way of saying that you get Heroes to go abroad and conduct special operations missions,” John’s face was red with anger. “What the hell are you thinking, Tom?” John cursing took this conversation to a whole new level of seriousness. “That directly violates god only knows how many laws. I can already think of three off the top of my head.”

The Colonel looked upset that John was upset, but Daisy didn’t see an ounce of contrition in the man’s eyes. “John…” he started, but John cut him off.

“How long has this been going on, Tom? Did you start up this illegal program? If this ever gets out they’re going to crucify you and anyone attached to you. Have you thought about how this will impact your soldiers? How could you be so reckless?” John was firing questions and accusations faster than the Colonel could respond.

Daisy just sat back and watched the two men go at it. She planned to let John wear the soldier down before she moved in for the kill. Then she’d get her answers.

“Jesus, John! Will you put your righteousness on hold for a second and let me explain,” the Colonel yelled when John stopped to take a breath. “We’ve known each other for decades, and you know what I stand for,” the officer had a hurt look in his eye. “Do you honestly think I would do something this big without the big guys not being on board?”

That put a stop to John’s tirade, and caught Daisy’s attention.

“You’re right,” John walked to the other side of his desk, and gestures for the Colonel to take the seat beside Daisy. “Please explain yourself.”

The Colonel took his seat, and paused a second to collect his thoughts. “Might as well start from the beginning,” he sighed. “So back in sixty-five Congress establishes ForceOps and legislated the jurisdictions for Heroes.”

“I teach this to my freshmen every year,” John replied, looking a little riled at the history lesson. “Heroes operate domestically and ForceOps internationally. Everyone knows that.”

“That’s the gist of the bill that was passed, but people stop thinking about the issue there. No one thinks back to what that meant at the time,” Daisy could hear the passion in Colonel Ford’s voice. This wasn’t the first time he had to explain this. For all Daisy knew, she’d gotten this same speech.

“One day we have Heroes fighting alongside our troops in Vietnam, and the next they’re all pulled out. That was how quickly the act took effect,” anger crossed the Colonel’s face. “The American public was so concerned about their Heroes that they didn’t think about what was going to happen to the soldiers who were relying on those Heroes for support. And since the war was so unpopular, neither did the politicians. Sure, Supers signed up for ForceOps, but we couldn’t just throw them directly into the deep end and hope they could swim.” Daisy could see where the man’s anger stemmed from.

“The DVA has Heroes go through four years of training while in college, and then another two internship years before they are allowed to work independently. Time wasn’t a resource we had back then, and you both know it is the most precious resource even today,” both Daisy and John nodded. “So we needed to train our Supers to go up against our enemy’s Supers; Supers who had fought through multiple wars. Our soldiers might have been better equipped, but the enemy had the experience.” Daisy had a fleeting memory of the heavy casualties American forces suffered during the time right after the Heroes were withdrawn. But it was only fleeting; a perfect example of what the Colonel stated the problem was.

“We lost a lot of good people,” Ford’s eyes were hard. “And even when we finally got our own Supers over there, we lost a lot of them too. It was a tough learning curve that took us years to overcome.”

“But the war ended in seventy-five,” John was back under control because he knew how sensitive the topic was. “What does this have to do with today?”

The Colonel surprised everyone by laughing. “It’s widely known that more money goes to the DVA and the HCP than ForceOps, and that the most powerful Supers try to be Heroes instead of soldiers.”

“Yes, I am aware,” it felt like rubbing salt in the wound, but it was the truth.

“In addition to money and power, Heroes get a lot more experience than the average ForceOps soldier,” this fact seemed to surprise John, and Ford saw that. “Heroes are called on daily to save people, prevent crime, and battle supervillains,” Ford explained. “ForceOps soldiers spend most of their time training, doing drills, and doing paperwork,” Daisy could argue that paperwork was a mutual demon that everyone had to deal with, but she let the man continue. “Unless we are engaged in a war, ForceOps doesn’t do a whole lot. Of course,” Ford qualified his remark. “We do have our special operations units that do a lot of clandestine mission, but that is a small percentage of our overall manpower.”

“I see where you are coming from,” John had returned to his normal, quiet, unassuming self. “But you still haven’t answered my initial question. Why this, and why now?”

“The timing has nothing to do with it,” Ford replied. “Ever since we started losing too many people in Vietnam, we’ve been going around the law to get Heroes to help us. And before you think it is me authorizing this, it takes someone way above my paygrade to sign off on one of these missions. I’m talking he sits in the White House bigger.” That revelation was something Daisy and John didn’t expect, and something they would have to keep to themselves for the rest of their lives. This was the type of knowledge that could bring down administrations.

“To answer your question about why Reaper was involved,” the Colonel pointed at Daisy. “It was because her particular set of skills were believed to be the most effective against the enemy we were facing, and the big wigs deemed it critical that we accomplish our mission.”

“And that mission was?” Daisy hated asking the question, because it showed how little she really knew; but she needed to know why she’d been dragged into a secret governmental conspiracy of subverting the law that had been going on for decades.

The Colonel surprised her by laughing. “It’s ironic that you ask that,” he collected himself. “Because the target we were sent to retrieve, is a person that you see every day.”

It took only a few seconds for Daisy to connect the dots. <Fuck me sideways,> she kept the thought to herself.

“Ms. Kemps,” John’s face was pensive as he put everything together.

The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Daisy. “So why the mind wipe?” Daisy asked, trying not to get sidetracked by the informational bombshells that had been dropped in the last ten minutes.

“Standard operating procedure for these missions,” Ford replied. “They are covert and technically illegal, so we prefer that no one who knows the truth remembers them.”

“And I bet I know the advanced mind you used,” Daisy could already imaging herself kicking the old man’s ass.

“Mastermind is our telepath of choice,” the Colonel acknowledged.

“Is, not was,” John pounced on his friend’s choice of words.

“His mind is as sharp as ever even after his retirement from Hero work, and now we can legally hire him as a consultant. It’s rather refreshing to not have to break the law more than is necessary.” Ford smiled. Daisy didn’t find anything funny.

She felt like a giant hypocrite. There was nothing more invasive than wiping a person’s memory. It was literally wiping away part of a person’s identity. Memories were more than images of past events, they were the foundation of a person’s psyche. Knowing that you’d lost part of yourself like that was difficult. She felt like a hypocrite because they did it to any Supers who didn’t make it through the HCP. It was necessary to protect those who did make it, and the program, from those who washed out. Just like it was necessary to protect the government from the possible repercussions of certain Heroes retaining memories of things they should have never been involved in.

<Does the mind wiping have anything to do with my mental state? How many times has it happened?> They were both unsettling questions.

She needed more information. “I need to meet Mastermind,” John and the Colonel exchanged a glance. “Don’t worry, I’m not going to blow the lid off your little back door dealings,” Daisy didn’t like what was happening, and it went against her instincts as a Hero; but she wasn’t blind to the big picture. This was engaging in the lesser of two evils.

“I’ve got questions, and I need answers,” her tone was pretty clear that she was politely asking for this before she went ahead and did it with or without their permission.

John and the Colonel realized that too. “I’ll see what I can set up, but it might not be until next year. He is a very busy man, and no spring chicken.”

“That’s fine,” John cut off whatever Daisy was about to say. “Professor Meyers has a lot to do with the end of the semester coming up. The final exam is particularly time consuming.” Daisy kept her mouth shut, despite what she was thinking.

“Very well,” the Colonel looked relieved that the conversation was winding down. “Are there any other national secrets that you’d like me to divulge while I’m still here?” It was a weak attempt at humor, but it got a smile out of John.

“Just get me the meeting time and place,” Daisy stated flatly.

The Colonel nodded his reply. “Always nice to see you, John.”

“You too, Tom. Stay safe,” the Colonel didn’t even bother getting up from his seat before he teleported away.

Daisy and John spent a few minutes just sitting in silence.

“I’ll make sure Colonel Ford follows through on his promise,” John stated. “But you should also know that one of the reasons you aren’t in more trouble with the DVA was because he pulled some strings.”

<Another revelation of something people are keeping from me,> Daisy was starting to see a pattern.

“I never asked…” she was immediately interrupted by John.

“No you didn’t, but I did,” John’s tone made it pretty clear he wasn’t going to argue with her about it. “It was in the best interest of the institution, and its students, including Ms. Kemps, that you remain an instructor here. I just did what was necessary to make sure things stayed that way.”

Daisy had a lot of colorful language to describe the whole situation, but she settled on, “Thanks.”

“It was my pleasure,” John gave a curt nod, and a soft smile. “Now I’m sure you have better things to do than sit around talking to me all afternoon.”

“Yeah,” Daisy could still make the end of physical training, but her heart wouldn’t be in it. If she wasn’t going to give those kids a hundred percent then it was better if she took the day off.

She left John and headed straight to Dr. Johnson’s office. She definitely needed to talk about this, but without actually referring to the government conspiracy. That was going to be difficult, but the most difficult part was the dialogue that was running through her head.

<…a raincheck then. I hear New York City is lovely in the fall. I’ll stop by, kill you, kill everything you’ve ever loved, and then I’ll take back what you have stolen from me.> The rich, cultured voice of the monster in the shadows replayed through her mind like football highlights on Sports Center.

That thing had sworn revenge, promised to kill everything Daisy cared about, and take back his prize. It couldn’t be a good thing that Daisy and Kemps were now in the same place for the next four years. Not when the universe had a habit of taking a dump on Daisy whenever it could.

She was at Dr. Johnson’s door before she could even begin processing the information.

<Doc is going to have his work cut out for him,> Daisy didn’t envy the psychologist.

 

***

 

“Ugh,” Becca groaned as the alarm blared right beside her head. “Christ on a cracker.” She reached out to silence it, and failed twice before finding the little button on the side.

<Why did I agree to this?> The clock showed that it was five a.m.; the fact that it was a Friday meant little to her at the moment.

Like a zombie straight out of a George Romano movie, Becca extracted herself from her bedding and stumbled toward the bathroom. Selecting the room on the top floor of the townhouse had seemed like a good idea when she first moved in, but it could be an inconvenience. She was in no shape to use her super speed this early in the morning. Luckily for her, no one else was up yet.

<Agreeing to a six a.m. ranking match. I must have gotten hit harder than I thought during physical training.> She turned the faucet to the hottest setting, and sat down on the toilet. It would take a few minutes for the water to get to the right temperature, so she might as well take care of other pressing business.

After a few minutes she tested the water. It was warm, but nowhere up to her late fall, Midwestern standards, but she needed to get moving. Fighting a challenge match on an empty stomach was not a good idea.

Becca pulled off her clothing, undid her hair, and went to pull off her ring…but it wasn’t there. <What!> Becca went from drowsy to completely awake in a nanosecond.

Becca had received the ring from Anika less than a week ago. It was simple, plain, and inexpensive; but its importance couldn’t be quantified by material worth. It was the first gift Anika had ever given to her; a token of their love, and it was jewelry. Becca loved jewelry. Along with the ring came a hand written poem that brought Becca to tears. It was one of the most touching, sentimental things anyone had ever written to her, and now she’d lost the ring.

Becca had to examine her right ring finger two times to confirm to her sleep addled brain that it wasn’t where it was supposed to be. When she knew for sure she wasn’t wearing it she turned in a circle to make sure she hadn’t dropped it. <Don’t panic, retrace your steps.>

                Becca checked the top of toilet, and the counter surrounding the small sink. Usually when she washed her hands or took a shower, Becca removed the ring and put it there. She also removed it when she was in the gym or fighting, because that was an easy way to break a finger.

Anika understood that Becca didn’t want to damage the important ring in any way, but she would be less understanding if Becca lost it due to irresponsibility.

Next Becca rifled through the clothes on the floor. She turned her shirt inside out and checked her underwear. She didn’t expect to find it there, but she wasn’t going to leave any stone unturned. <Maybe I left it downstairs. I did do the dishes last night, and I remember taking it off then.> She took a deep breath to steady herself, and convince herself it was downstairs. She still took a quick shower.

Becca did use her super speed to get back up into her room. She pulled on sweatpants and a t-shirt, because the temperature had finally dropped enough that she could break out some of the wardrobe she brought from home. Now properly clothed, Becca sped downstairs to investigate.

In a second she’d searched high and low for the ring. Every place she would have put it was check off one by one, until she had no idea where it could be. A wave of sadness crashed over Becca at the loss. <How could I be so stupid?> she’d suddenly lost her appetite, so she sped back up to her room.

Becca fought back tears as she collapsed onto her bed. She wanted nothing more than to retreat under the covers, forfeit the challenge, and spend the rest of the day wallowing in her misery. She was already yanking the covers, pulling them up over her head, when she heard the clink.

She was out of bed and honing in on the sound before the second clink of the falling ring reached her ears. Before the third clink could sound, Becca had the ring back on her finger.

“Geez, that was close,” Becca flexed her finger and stroked the cold metal to reassure herself it was really there.

Apparently, she’d taken the ring off before heading to the bathroom; or it had fallen off her finger during the night. Either way, it all turned out alright.

With one problem resolved, she had much more pressing matters to deal with.

“Becca, you up yet?” a familiar voice called up from downstairs.

Fear, anxiety, relief, and now excitement; the last fifteen minutes had been a hurricane of emotions. Becca smiled and zoomed back down the stairs.

“Hey, Ani,” she gave her girlfriend a kiss as the rush of wind blew loose bits of homework around the room.

“This is for you,” Anika handed over a paper bag that smelled of bacon and eggs. “I know that you’re going to need every bit of energy going up against her.”

“Thanks,” Becca was so happy to have found the ring, and to have Anika bring her breakfast, that she almost forgot about the challenge match.

Since Seth’s victory, Becca was now the lowest ranking person in the townhouse. Her ranking wasn’t terrible, twenty-eight out of forty-six placed her in the top sixty percent. The Becca from the beginning of the year would have been ok with that ranking. As far as she knew, she wasn’t in danger of being cut from the program. She was getting faster, and she was putting in extra hours doing additional assignments from Coach Meyers and McMillian. Being able to watch fights in slow motion, evaluate them, and then receive feedback on her analysis from seasoned veterans was invaluable training.

The Becca nearing the end of her first semester in the HCP, and the Becca from the beginning of the year were not the same person. She’d grown through literal blood, sweat, and tears into a different Super. She’d realized a lot about herself, and one of those revelations was that she did not want to be twenty-eighth of forty-six. That was unacceptable.

“You’re the best,” Becca sat down and devoured the bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich in a very unladylike fashion. Anika didn’t judge Becca as she sank her teeth into her own sandwich; Anika was well acquainted with her girlfriend’s eating habits.

“You have a plan?” Anika was only a few bites in by the time Becca was licking her fingers clean, and brewing up a cup of coffee.

“Yeah,” Becca looked over at the clock. She only had twenty minutes until the start of her match. “I’m gonna win.” Becca smiled and Anika smiled back.

Becca had been strategic in the selection of her first opponent. At this point in their Hero education everyone was strategic in their challenges. Even Seth, who seemed to have challenged Carson Long in a moment of testosterone fueled machismo, was being strategic. Seeing people like Mason get taken down by Coach Meyers and Angela showed everyone that being big and strong wasn’t enough to win every fight.

Becca hadn’t been challenged, or challenged anyone all semester. She took the time to observe and study her classmates. She watched as many challenge matches as she could, and took a ton of notes on everyone she watched. Becca didn’t know why, but people always tended to be open with her. It was something she didn’t mind one bit. She liked that people felt they could talk about anything with her, and she genuinely wanted to help them with whatever their problem was. It was one of her main motivations for becoming a Hero. However, one thing she’d been struggling with was using the information that people told her to plan how to defeat them if necessary. She felt like she was betraying them on some level, even if Anika told her she wasn’t.

“Sure we’re all friends,” Anika said when Becca confronted her with the dilemma. “But we’re all competing for ten slots. You can’t lose sight of that Becca. You need to be a Hero here,” she pointed at Becca’s heart. “And here.” She moved her finger to her head. “Heroes think of ways to win, and that isn’t always rainbows and unicorns.” The fact that Becca liked both of those things drove the point home.

Anika channeling Coach Meyers did the trick, and Becca used the information she’d learned about people to challenge her first opponent.

Emilia Scarborough was the opponent that Becca set her sights on. Emilia and Becca were the same 5’2”, so there wasn’t much difference in reach. The last thing Becca needed was someone with longer arms and legs being able to hit her when she wasn’t very good at hand to hand combat. She was getting better, but people weren’t made into fighters overnight; not even Heroes.

Emilia probably had a good ten pounds on Becca, so it could be a problem if the fight got taken to the ground. It was unlikely thanks to Becca’s speed, but she couldn’t rule out the possibility. As far a personality went, Becca and Emilia were polar opposites. Becca was warm, bubbly, and loved by just about everyone in the class. Emilia Scarborough was cold, stern, and allied herself within a specific clique of girls. A group of girls that just happened to be the stuck up, snobby type.

From what Becca knew about Emilia, which was more than most, but not as much as those closer to her, was that her situation was similar to Seth’s. Emilia came from a wealthy family of accomplished humans and Supers. While her motivations for being in the HCP were probably purer than Seth’s, at least originally, she let everyone know about her pedigree. Everyone in the clique she hung out with was of similar blue blood status; which was something Becca was definitely not.

Currently, Emilia was ranked seventeenth, a full eleven spots ahead of Becca. It was a pretty big leap up the rankings for the speedster; from the top sixty to the top forty percent, but she knew she was capable of winning. Due to the nature of the power match up, when Becca did win, it would earn her a lot of attention.

With Emilia’s cold, debutant personality it was only fitting that she was a cryokinetic. When Becca made the challenge, and reported it to Coach McMillian, the older speedster had given her a “you’ve got to be kidding me” look. The first thing people thought of when they envisioned a speedster facing off against an opponent who could create and control ice, was some type of fantastic crash. The speedster slips, flies head over heels, and smashes into a wall, car, or some other hard object. That was the imagery the media had been portraying for years, and there was a reason for that.

Cryokinetics like Emilia were able to take away one of the innate requirements for speedsters like Becca, traction. What good was super speed if you couldn’t maneuver or stop? So for her first challenge, Becca was facing off against the only other Super in her class her could naturally counter her ability.

“That way the WOW factor is that much awesomer when I do win,” Becca was forced to defend her position to a worried Anika.

Becca wasn’t as worried as the people around her because she’s done her homework. Everyone else was too busy looking at the classifications than what Becca and Emilia were actually able to do. Emilia had been involved in two challenges so far. She won her first challenge, and advanced to the number seventeen ranking, but she lost her second when she tried to take down Casey Williams three spots ahead of her. Watching that fight in slow motion had given Becca a good idea of how strong her ice was. While the petite speedster didn’t have a chance at punching through the hard, frozen water; she was pretty confident she could create enough heat that she’d be able to break free if Emilia trapped her.

Becca had also been watching Emilia in their physical training classes. She’d been mapping the ice Super’s capabilities and developing counters and strategies to beat them. From all of the research Becca had done, she’d learned that Emilia’s powers were still pretty limited. She could form ice along her body, and control that ice if she threw it at her opponent; something she was fond of doing in the form of icicles. While the ice armor and ranged attack were formidable, they weren’t insurmountable. After studying her for over a month, Becca was confident she could win.

“Thanks for the pep talk, Ani, but I’ve got to run,” Becca gave her girlfriend a peck on the lips as she hurried past her and towards the door.

“I’ll see you there,” Becca smiled, as she exited the townhouse at a light jog. There was never any question in her mind that Anika would attend the match; even if it was ungodly early on a Friday morning.

Unlike some of her roommates, Becca was able to get around campus unmolested without everyone thinking she was a Super, especially if she wore a hat. Becca tucked stray strands of blue hair underneath a stylish gray beanie as she jogged towards the student center. At such an early hour the building was practically deserted, but she still did a quick look around before sliding through the high tech fake wall. The lift was there in a minute, and once down in the HCP she was able to utilize her speed. She was in her black uniform, and standing at the combat cell door with a full five minutes to spare.

<You can do this,> Becca psyched herself up as she shook out her arms and legs. She knew the action did nothing to actually loosen the muscles, but it was a nervous habit she’d developed back during her high school track and field days. <She’s going to grow her armor right away, so I need to get in and get as many hits as I can.> Becca grabbed her ankle and bent her leg in half, stretching her quadriceps. <After she grows the armor I can’t punch her without breaking my hand, so I’ll need to get a hand on her and do my super-vibrating-friction hand attack.> She knew the name could use some work, but the attack should be just as effective as it had been when she used it on Byron Hanover during the initial rankings. She just hoped it was enough, and it didn’t hurt Emilia like it had Byron. The deep gash in the shifter’s back was something Becca still dreamed about.

With a minute left before the beginning of the match Becca opened the door and entered the combat cell. Emilia was already there, leaning casually against one of the reinforced concrete walls.

“Hiya, Emilia,” despite being under sixty seconds from trying to bash each other’s skulls in, Becca still wanted to be nice.

“Hello,” Emilia’s voice held a distinguishable drawl of superiority.

Becca ignored the raised chin and the way Emilia literally looked down her nose at Becca when she greeted her. Instead, Becca focused on her opponent’s body language. Emilia looked casual, muscles loose, without an ounce of tension to be seen. <Overconfident,> Becca hid her smile. Going into any fight without a healthy respect for your opponent was a good way to get killed. Coach Meyers had drilled that into them during their first week.

No other words were exchanged as the two freshmen waited for the instructions to be ready by whoever was moderating the fight. Becca watched Emilia, and Emilia watched Becca. Like Becca, Emilia had blue hair influenced by her Super DNA. While Becca elected to style hers in pigtails, Emilia preferred perfectly straightened hair with bangs identical to those of certain Hollywood stars. It fit Emilia’s ability and personality. While Becca’s hair was blue like a warm summer day, Emilia’s shade of blue was more along the lines of what you’d see in a river covered in a thick coat of ice. It almost seemed more white than blue in some places.

Becca knew for a fact that a lot of the boys thought it was a hot look, and that Emilia was hot too, but Becca didn’t care; and not just because she didn’t like boys that way.

“Welcome to the battle of fire and ice!” Coach McMillian’s voice announced enthusiastically, followed by the humming of a certain HBO show’s theme song; which Becca only knew about because Seth and Liz loved it. “I know you’re not really a pyrokinetic, Ms. Whitfield, but you’re close enough!” Like usual the close combat instructor was getting sidetracked.

Coach McMillian seemed to catch on as both freshmen glared up at the viewer’s window. “Right…sorry,” he cleared his throat quickly. “Today’s ranking match is between number seventeen Emilia Scarborough and number twenty-eight Rebecca Whitfield,” Coach McMillian went through the usual rules and advised them that they couldn’t kill one another. “Any questions…no…good,” he didn’t even give them a chance to answer. “The fight begins in thirty seconds. May the odds be ever in your favor!” the PA clicked off, and both women shook their heads.

<The physical training plan must be brutal for this afternoon; how else could he be in such a good mood so early?> Becca shook the stray thought out of her head, and focused on the present.

There was no need to slow down her perception. Becca knew exactly what Emilia was going to do when the fighting started, so she let the clock wind down to zero.

For the people watching from the viewing room’s T.V.s, it probably looked like Becca jumped the gun. Closer review of the footage would show she didn’t, she just moved at the earliest available opportunity. Everything slowed down around Becca as she surged forward. She didn’t want to slow down her perception so much that she was barely moving, so she matched her mental processing power with her chosen level of speed.

Just like Becca expected, ice began to blossom around Emilia. It started to grow in strategic places first; head, throat, elbows, knees, ankles, private parts; and it grew fast. Becca first target was Emilia’s head, but as she reared back her punch, and drove it forward, she knew she needed to change her plan. In order to hit Emilia in the head and not kill her Becca couldn’t be moving too fast, and that hesitation bought enough time for the cryokinetic to encase her entire head in a helmet of ice.

<Darn,> Becca adjusted her blow, and put more speed behind the punch.

Becca’s fist made contact with Emilia’s collarbone with a sickening crack. Becca drove another fist into the other women’s gut, before Emilia became fully encased in her armor.

There was a muffled scream as Emilia was thrown to the ground by the force of the blows. The cryokinetic was only as durable as a normal human, while Becca had the more durable frame a speedster required to not kill themselves if they accidentally ran into something. Becca was prepared to pounce, and press the attack, when a 360 arch of frozen icicle daggers exploded from Emilia’s armor. Becca was forced to retreat, and dodge the airborne weaponry, before circling to find the best way to get her hands on Emilia.

Emilia grabbed a spear of ice that grew upward from the ground, and leaned heavily on it. Becca knew she’d broken the other women’s collarbone and maybe a rib with her stronger than normal punches.

<Now she has to fight with stabbing pain every time she takes a breath or moves,> Becca smiled despite herself, and attacked.

That’s when things started to go wrong.

More icicle daggers exploded outward, trying to skewer Becca like shish kabob, but that wasn’t the only trick Emilia had up her sleeve. As Becca circled the cryokinetic’s ice armor, a black and blue blur trying to find a place to unleash her super-vibrating-friction hand attack, Emilia thwarted every attempt. Six inch long serrated spikes of ice grew all over Emilia’s body; making her look like some medieval torture device. That was the first thing to go wrong.

Becca’s first mistake was to get cut by one of those ice spikes. She didn’t feel anything at first because she kept on running. Her blood was pumping, her adrenaline was in full throttle, and her mind was racing to find a solution to this new problem. It was when she stopped running that she started to feel it.

To start, everything in the room was cold; below zero cold. Becca’s teeth instantly began to chatter like a nutcracker on speed, and her whole body began to shake as the cold cut through the fabric.

“Cr…Cr…Cr…Crud,” Becca did her best to try and hide how much the cold was effecting her, but even her Midwestern upbringing hadn’t prepared her for this.

The next thing to go wrong was when she started to run again. She could obviously run, she was a speedster after all; but it wasn’t that simple. She felt less like a sleek Ferrari and more like a rusted old jalopy. Her muscles protested as they got moving again, everything felt weighted down, and she couldn’t feel the arm that she’d cut on Emilia’s armored spikes.

But even half-running, half-shivering, and half-stumbling Becca was still too fast for Emilia to track.

<This isn’t good,> Becca took a moment to look at the hand she’d cut, only to see it was just as black as her uniform. <Yikes, frostbite!> the realization and dread hit Becca a moment before more flying icicles rocketed in her direction.

Becca was still quick enough to dodge them, and a moment’s contemplation showed why. Of the dozens of gleaming daggers projected from Emilia’s ice armor, only a small handful had been directed at Becca. The rest had been directed at the floor around the combat cell, and on contact they formed into frozen puddles.

<No…no…no,> Becca had to start skipping around the room as Emilia began to blanket the room in ice. Now Becca had a pretty good idea how a mouse in a room full of mousetraps felt.

The frostbite was continuing its way up Becca’s arm and onto her neck and chest. First things began to tingle, and then they began to burn before going numb all together. It took everything Becca had to stay on her feet and avoid the ice traps that were beginning to dominate the room. It would have been a great time to slow down her perception of the world and think of a way out of her predicament, but Becca’s existence at the moment was nothing but burning pain and fear. It was only a matter of time.

The fight lasted a lot longer in Becca’s mind than it did in reality. Anyone watching saw the whole thing play out in just over three minutes. One second Becca was blurring around the room, chaotically avoiding the nearly entirely ice-coated floor, and the next second she was airborne. It was exactly how it looked in all of the Hollywood movies. The speedster slipped on the ice, went flying head over heels, and hit the wall hard. What the movies didn’t get right was the dead, black skin that dominated Becca’s neck and the more than half of her face. That was a scene right out of a horror movie.

Becca still fought to the end. She tried, and failed, to get back to her feet. It took two ice daggers to pin her to the ground and keep her from escaping. Emilia lumbered over once Becca was cold, helpless, and had lost enough blood that she couldn’t fight back. Even then, it took three hits to the head with the ice staff to knock the speedster unconscious.

Becca’s final moments of consciousness were less a final moment and more a long internal evaluation of what had went wrong. Becca had watched Emilia fight, and the other Super hadn’t revealed half of the abilities she’d shown in this battle. Becca had anticipated that Emilia would try to hide some of her power’s finer aspects until she needed it, so she’d talked with as many people as possible to get as much information as possible.

People had offered suggestions, and a few had sworn that they’d seen Emilia do other things, but there had been no reason to suspect that the cryokinetic had advanced this much, and been able to hide these larger aspects of her abilities.

The truth, one Becca didn’t want to believe, was that people had lied to her. They’d maneuvered Becca into a false sense of security; most likely with Emilia’s approval. With hindsight being twenty-twenty, Becca knew she’d beat herself up over this fight. Relying too much on information gathered from people closer to Emilia proved fatal. She’d overreached, and thought she could overcome some of the innate differences between the classifications.

<Ani isn’t going to let me forget this,> Anika wasn’t the type to say “I told you so”, but that’s what the other Super would be thinking.

The black oblivion of unconsciousness did nothing to stem Becca’s frustration.

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