A Change of Pace – Chapter 44

It was early Sunday morning, the Sunday after a holiday, and one of the biggest travel days of the year. Right now men, women, and children were driving, flying, taking trains or buses home from their loved ones’ Thanksgivings. Despite the early hour, and the amount of people in transit, the Block was packed.

Thankfully, Hunter was wearing a mask to hide his surprise when he teleported onto the stage set up in the center of the museum. <You’ve got to be kidding me.> He waved to the crowd as they cheered his arrival.

Hunter’s publicist had set up this autograph signing when Hunter told her that he needed to talk to a member of the New York Patriots. According to her it was, “a perfect time to build your brand in the Big Apple”. Since Hunter knew and cared little about the business side of the Hero life he followed her advice. That was the last time he’d be doing that without being more involved in the planning process.

The museum section of the block held all of New York’s Hero history. It dated back to the initial revelation of Supers and the first Heroes. Behind half an inch of bomb proof glass the exhibits held things like an original Captain Starlight’s uniform, early tech genius inventions that assisted less physically powerful Supers like Mastermind and EagleEye, and trophies of defeated villains. It was a testament to the goodwill Heroes showed the city, and Hunter was here to provide more of that; even if he didn’t really want to.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm New York welcome to one half of the dynamic crime fighting duo, Hunter!” the PR head of the Patriots sounded like he was announcing the start of a boxing match.

Hunter waved as the crowd of about three hundred cheered. “Thank you for having me.”

“The pleasure is all ours,” another Hero appeared on the stage to shake Hunter’s hand.

Tomahawk was the current leader of the Patriots. He’d been handpicked by Iron Giant before the legendary Hero’s retirement. The younger Hero was tall, dark, and handsome making him any PR director’s wet dream. He was dressed in what appeared to be a mix of Samurai armor and Native American clothing that highlighted his muscles, the lower half of his face, and his perfectly white smile.

Like Iron Giant, Tomahawk was a shifter, but the team leader also had the ability to do partial shifts. His complete shifted form was an incorporeal force of energy that he could then shift at will into different constructs. The complete shifted form’s power output was potentially dangerous to anyone who didn’t have super durability, so Tomahawk preferred to do partial shifts. His name stemmed from his signature shift when his arms shifted into energy tomahawks that he could hack away at his enemies with.

Hunter always found the young man’s choice of costume a little absurd. The mixing of genres and culture could turn off to a lot of people, but Tomahawk pulled it off with a smile. Despite the positive press this little autograph session was generating, Hunter was really in New York to talk to Tomahawk and his team.

The Patriots’ PR man said a few more words, pictures were snapped of Hunter and Tomahawk shaking hands, then Hunter sat down to the grueling task of signing autographs. It was pretty standard as far as signings went. The security officers didn’t allow the fans to take up too much of Hunter’s time, but he always had a quick word with each of them. It was important to talk to them, and not just shoo them along. Part of this whole dog and pony show was to humanize the Heroes that were protecting the civilians. It eased a psychological burden in these people’s minds when they could put a face and a name to the pictures they saw on the news. It built a layer of trust that was undoubtedly thin, but thin was all Hunter needed to get people to listen to him in an emergency. That thin layer of trust could save lives.

“Oh my god, I’m your biggest fan, your biggest fan ever, Hunter,” the teenager standing in front of him was practically bouncing in anticipation.

“Good morning, what’s your name?” Hunter greeted politely, accepting the picture that the young girl had for him to sign.

“It’s uh…uh…” in the process of meeting her idol the girl forgot her name. Hunter had encountered this many times, and he knew he just needed to give her a minute.

He focused on signing the picture. <Oh no,> the girl would have seen his scowl without his mask.

It was THE picture; the picture he wished was never taken. The picture that girls, like the one in front of him, hung on their bedroom ceilings along with heartthrob boyband headshots. The picture had been taken about ten years ago. Some suicidal photojournalist had braved a Super fight to get pictures of the action, and one of the shots he got was of Hunter.

He rememeber the moment of shame perfectly. He’d just been tossed ten feet by a concussive blast. Seraphim had blocked the brunt of the attack with her shifted body, so it hadn’t killed him. He’d rolled out of the toss into a kneeling firing position, brought the weapon to his shoulder, and shot the raging Powered in the chest. The bullet from his massive rifle had ended the fight, killed the Powered, and saved countless lives. What he didn’t know at the time was that his shirt had been nearly shredded, all his Hero-trained muscles were on full display for the photographer, and the camera had caught him at the moment where his entire body tensed to brace for the shot. He’d gotten countless fan mail, mostly sexual propositions, about the photo. Despite all the good he and his wife had done that day, people only remembered this photo.

Hunter didn’t lose his stride as he scribbled his Hero name in big bold print, and added a generic motivational phrase. For this girl he chose “you can do anything you put your mind to”.

“Oh my god…thank you…thank you so much…you’re so hot,” the young woman’s face turned bright red when she realized she’d said the last bit out loud. She quickly scampered away, holding the poster like it was made of gold.

Luckily, of the three hundred people present she was the only one with the embarrassing picture. After an hour and a half the crowd was shown out, and Hunter and Tomahawk were able to get down to business. They exited the museum section, went through a door that looked like it could stop a charging rhino, and then rode an elevator down into the secure center of the Block.

“Thanks for doing that,” Tomahawk pulled off his mask to reveal a handsome man, who looked young for the position he occupied. “We like to get any big name visitors in here when we can. It keeps the people happy and the merchandizing line flying off the shelves.”

“No problem,” Hunter knew that a lot of that money went to local charities. “Anything for the kids, Jason.”

Tomahawk’s real name was Jason Park, and now that they were in the Heroes’ living section of the Block, Henry felt comfortable using it. “Now down to business,” Jason switched gears from salesman to crime fighter at the drop of a dime. “I’ll go and get Firefly so you can talk to her, she just got off patrol.” Jason led Henry to a comfortable lounge, and made sure he was comfortable before leaving to find the member of his team.

Henry studied the wall while he waited. Pictures of former team members adorned the wall along with articles of their bravery and sacrifice. No picture was bigger than the memorial edition of the New York Times paying their respects when the entire team had fallen in that monstrous attack. John was in the picture, not in his shifted form, just another distraught face in the crowd. The attack had injured him so badly that his human form was affected, something that had never happened to him before. He was sitting in a wheel chair off to the side of the flag draped caskets fighting back the tears Henry knew he’d eventually shed.

“Hunter, I’d like you to meet Firefly, Firefly this is Hunter,” Jason was back with the other Hero.

“Holly, Sir,” the Hero in the bright yellow costume gave her real name. “And it’s an honor to meet you.”

“Henry,” Henry replied, pulling off his mask, and leaning the rifle against the table. “Thank you for meeting with me.”

“I’ll let you two get to work,” Jason handed over a folder to Henry, and showed himself out.

Henry opened the folder and skimmed the contents. It was the report filed by Firefly from an incident at a Harlem pawn shop that was raided several months ago. While he was reading he pulled out a picture from his pocket and slid it across the table.

“Do you recognize this person?” the footage taken from Ox’s bodycam was grainy, but it still captured Wraith’s final moments before she escaped.

Holly looked at it for a few minutes. “No, is it some cosplayer?”

“We think it is the woman you encountered when you raided that pawn shop,” Henry replied. “What can you tell me about her?”

He knew it was asking a lot for the other Hero to remember a few months back. That was the reason they wrote reports, so they didn’t have to remember all of those details. However, Henry knew from personal experience that when a bad guy got away a Hero tended to remember them better. He still had a few impressions seared into his mind that he would never forget.

“They don’t look like the same person,” Holly studied the picture closer. “The one I saw in Harlem wasn’t dressed for war.” She pointed at all the weapons visible on the photographic woman’s body. “The woman I saw was between five eight and six feet. Her hair was brown, not white, but it had green highlights in it; so I don’t know if that’s her natural hair color. She was also wearing layers, so I can’t give you a great physical description. She had a grungy jacket on top, and judging by her style she was probably wearing some form of armor beneath that. She could be a championship weight lifter or a stick figure for all I know.”

“Anything beside a physical description you can give me?” Henry knew it wasn’t likely he’d get a lot of new information out of Firefly, but it was just a short teleportation for him, so it wasn’t a hassle.

“She was confident and sure of herself,” Firefly was equally confident in her answer. “I only saw her for a few seconds, but I looked into her eyes. Usually people, even criminals, at least flinch when they come face to face with a Hero. This girl was nothing but defiant. She didn’t care that I was there, and then she vanished before I could say she was under arrest.”

“Did the blackness that emanated from her teleportation hurt you in any way?” Henry was looking for anything he could use.

“No,” Holly shook her head. “It was brief but total; very disorienting,” she remembered the feeling and shook her head at the uncomfortable sensation. “But aside from being weird there were no other side effects.”

“Hmm,” Henry mused, digesting the information.

The physical characteristics were non-confirmable, and the style was different, but everything about the villains demeanor and attitude matched what Absence and Ox had encountered with Wraith.

“I’m sorry I can’t be more help,” Holly looked as frustrated as Henry felt.

Firefly was a relatively new Hero, and the amount of disappointments she’d endured were few and far between. It only made it worse that her power was the antithesis of Wraith’s. While Wraith conjured darkness with her teleportations, Firefly was a light manipulator. The woman absorbed sunlight and was able to use the renewable resource in violent and nonviolent ways. She could even use the power to fly, and that was a sight to behold.

<We’ll have to bring her in if we encounter Wraith again. Her light might be able to dominate Wraith’s darkness,> it was only a theory, but it was one worth testing if they could catch the thieving criminal.

“If you need more information I would suggest visiting the guy we arrested up at Sing Sing,” Holly recommended. “I only saw her for a second, but from the police interrogations we know that they bargained for at least a half hour.”

“That’s my next stop today,” Henry had already thought of that, and arranged to meet the criminal.

“Good…well I hope you catch her,” Henry could see that she wanted to offer more, but had nothing useful to contribute.

“This has helped confirm certain things for me,” Henry tried to put her at ease. “Thank you.”

“Glad I could help,” Holly shook his hand before leaving.

<I should try and get her in on the arrest even if her power can’t counteract Wraith’s,> Henry knew the other Hero needed some closure on something that was seriously bugging her; especially since Wraith had escalated well above fencing stolen diamonds. Firefly felt responsible since she hadn’t been able to apprehend the criminal. Henry knew that feeling well.

“Thanks for letting me talk to her,” Henry met up with Jason in the hall to thank him. “I’ll keep you up to date on the investigation.”

“She’ll appreciate that,” Jason understood his point immediately.

Henry ensured his costume was in place before he rode the elevator back to the museum level. The floor was empty when he arrived, so no one saw him teleport away.

Sing Sing was very different from the Block. The infamous prison had been opened back in 1826, but had undergone a complete renovation after Supers became common knowledge. It was one of the few maximum security prisons in New York authorized to detain criminal Supers and Powereds. Therefore, it held a menagerie of specially designed cells for each Super classification. Even after twenty plus years of Hero work, places like this still gave Hunter the creeps. Thankfully, the fence he was visiting wasn’t a Super or Powered, so he didn’t need to jump through all the security hoops he would usually have to. That was one of the reasons he’d decided to make this entire trip on the Sunday before classes at West Private resumed. He knew it would be a quick in and out.

The guard jumped a little when he suddenly appeared at the entrance, but they knew he was coming. They dutifully checked ID, and then had him check all this weapons at the front desk. He was then led to a private interrogation room, where the weasel-faced fence was serving fifteen years for an assortment of crimes the DA had been able to pin on him.

“Big flashy Hero coming all the way down here to talk to little old me,” the fence’s smile revealed a few teeth that had recently been punched out of his face.

“You seem to be quite popular,” Hunter’s comment shut the fence right up. “I might be able to help with that.”

“Fat chance,” the fence snickered. “Unless you got smokes to give me then you’re shit out of luck.”

Hunter ignored the jab, instead sliding the same picture he showed Firefly across the table. “Recognize her?”

The fence barely looked at the picture. “No, but I’d give my left nut for a conjugal visit.” Hunter ignored the slimy sneer.

“Tell me about the night you were arrested?” Hunter tried a different tactic.

“You mean the night I was mindin’ my own business when bright bitch busted down my door and harassed me,” the fence rephrased the question.

“The woman you’d just concluded your transaction with, what can you tell me about her?” Hunter could feel his patience already growing thin with this man.

“Hypothetically, if such a transaction and woman did exist, what would speaking about it do for me?” Hunter couldn’t help but sigh.

“If any information you provide leads to an arrest then I would appeal the DA for a reduced sentence. You might do ten or twelve years instead of fifteen.”

“That ain’t a lot of incentive,” the fence sat back and crossed his arms.

“Your choice, but three years is a long time. I bet you could think of better things to do with one thousand ninety-five days than rotting away in here.” Henry smiled when he saw the slight change in the man’s posture. Rephrasing the sentence like that always drove home the gravity of the offer.

“Hypothetically, what type of information we talking about?” the fence’s body language showed a little more openness.

“Any information you can remember about her; physical description, personality, contact information, anything that could help with our investigation,” Henry left it pretty open in the hopes of getting any type of lead.

“Well she was fuckin’ hot as hell,” the fence practically shivered at the memory. “Perky tits, ass a man could get a handful of, and legs that went on for days…”

“That’s not the type of description we’re looking for,” the hardness in Hunter’s tone cut the fence off before he could continue listing off the sexual attributes.

“She was also a bitch,” the fence’s sneer turned into a frown. “If a hypothetical deal was being made she was able to argue me up from my starting price by forty percent, and I’m a hell of a negotiator.”

Hunter decided not to point out that he hadn’t been able to get his sentence reduced from the initial fifteen years the DA fought for. “What you’re giving me is information we already know,” he started to get up to leave.

“Hold up a minute,” the fence reached out, but the handcuffs attached to the table by a thick chain stopped him for getting more than a foot above the table. “I got more.”

“Last chance,” Hunter made sure the other man knew he wasn’t going to have his time wasted.

“I might have a phone number.”

“This woman isn’t an amateur, she will have already dumped that phone,” Hunter got up to leave.

“I’ve got the number to another guy who knows a guy that he knows knows a guy who knows her,” Hunter just shook his head at the degrees of separation between this man and a possible lead.

Normally the subtlety Hero would just leave the man to sweat for a few months and then come back and see if he was more cooperative. The problem with that strategy in this situation was that there were too many unknowns, and too many important people wanting answers. Hunter didn’t like it, but he needed any lead he can get.

“Give me the number,” Hunter pulled out pen and paper and wrote down the ten digit number. “The prison’s legal office will forward the video of this conversation to your attorney. If any actionable intelligence results from this phone number than the DVA will contact the DA and something will be worked out. If no intelligence results from this number then you get nothing.”

“This ain’t my first time, Hero,” the fence sat back with a smug look on his face.

Hunter didn’t like the smug look because he knew that the fence knew he was going to find something. Hunter didn’t like giving deals to convicted criminals, human or Super. He understood the need for the practice; you needed to catch and release the small guys to get the big ones. The problem was when those small guys eventually became the big guys and those deals blew up in Heroes faces; sometimes literally.

Hunter took the paper and left the fence without another word. He had work to do before he went back to Orlando. The second he was outside the prison’s gates he teleported back to his office to find what person with a Chicago area code would know about a villain who’d hit an armored car in Nevada.

 

 

***

 

Angela sat at the table staring intently at the water glass. The water was relatively clear with a small amount of sediment still visible when the light from the candle hit it just right. She’d been doing that for the last five minutes, and it had lost its initial appeal.

She ran her hands over the edge of her skirt tying to flatten it against her legs and the chair. The compulsory action brought a funny thought to mind. <I remember the last time I did this,> she mused, the memory of the day she got her HCP acceptance letter at the forefront of her mind.

So much had changed from that day roughly three months ago. First, Angela wasn’t the nervous, fat whale that she used to be. She could practically hear Kyoshi in the back of her head telling her she wasn’t fat, but Angela knew better. Not that it mattered now. A semester of HCP physical training had finally whipped her into shape. Angela would never be on the cover of a lingerie or swim suit magazine, but she no longer had to contend with the slight layer of chub that always seemed to ooze over the edge of her clothing.

<I’m strong and powerful now,> she smiled at the water glass; which only brought to mind something else that had changed.

Her father was late. Her father was never late, and she was beginning to get worried. In the back of her mind she consciously knew that nothing bad could possibly happen to the legendary Hunter, but that still didn’t stop a girl from being worried about her daddy.

<Stop acting like a child,> she chided herself, pulling her attention away from the water glass and scanning the room.

The restaurant was a midrange establishment. She saw a few couples who were taking the weekend off from cooking after Thanksgiving, and there were a few families mixed in as well. For the most part this was a family restaurant, but she saw a couple single men sitting at the bar and hitting on the bartender. She’d even seen one of the men glance her way a couple of times. On his last look over she’d made and held eye contact with him; he hadn’t glanced over since.

Angela and her father could have afforded a lot better, but neither of the Supers was up for getting all dressed up for the classy establishments. That was her mother’s domain. With nothing else to do but wait, Angela resumed her inspection of the table. This time she focused on the bread.

“Angela, right?” the voice came from behind her.

Years and years of practice kept Angela from jumping up, shifting on the spot, and pulverizing the man who’d snuck up behind her. Despite her dedication to training, she hadn’t trained her expressions well enough to fool him.

“Sorry if I frightened you,” the tall man in black slacks, a white button down, and sport coat took a step backwards with an apologetic smile. “I just recognized you from across the room, and thought I would introduce myself.”

Angela wracked her memory for the identity of the man who’d moved around to stand in front of her. He was tall, a few inches over six feet, with a slim, lean build. His hair had probably been a rich brown or black ten years ago, but he had enough white in it now to give him a salt and pepper look. What stood out most were his eyes. They were a striking silver that clearly identified him as a Super.

Angela starred at the man for a few seconds longer than was socially acceptable. She couldn’t place him, but he knew her, and his abilities were unknown. In Angela’s mind that made him a danger, if not an outright threat.

The man read all of this on her face. “I must apologize again,” he shook his head at his own stupidity. “We haven’t actually met, but I’ve heard a lot about you. You are a friend of my daughter Elizabeth, Elizabeth Aretino.”

The name put everything into perspective for Angela. She could see a little bit of Liz in this man, so that alleviated some of her concerns, but not all of them. He was still an unknown factor.

“I’m Al Aretino,” the man extended his hand, and Angela shook it after only a slight hesitation. It was one thing to be cautious but another thing entirely to be rude.

“Nice to meet you Mr. Aretino,” Angela catalogued the man’s firm, confident grip away in the mental folder she was creating on him.

“Please call me Al, Mr. Aretino makes me feel old,” he smiled a salesman’s smile.

“Would you like to have a seat?” Angela gestured at the empty chair her father would have been sitting in if he was on time.

“I don’t want to bother you,” Al put up his hands in mild protest. “I’m just passing through town, and saw the opportunity to meet one of Elizabeth’s friends. It was not my intention to intrude.”

Angela was fine with that. She wasn’t particularly close with Liz, not even close to considering her a friend, and having an extended conversation with Liz’s father wasn’t something she was comfortable with.

“It was nice to meet you,” Angela ended the conversation politely. “I’ll tell Liz you stopped by.” Al waved, passed through the doors, and was gone.

“Who was the man you were speaking to?” another voice asked in Angela’s ear.

Angela had a steak knife in her hand, and was half rotated to stab the new speaker when she got control of herself. One person sneaking up on her was bad enough, but two was downright embarrassing.

“He was the father of my roommate’s girlfriend,” Angela watched as her own father stepped around in front of her and took his seat. “He spotted me and wanted to introduce himself.”

Henry looked over his shoulder and the doors with a pensive look before turning back to Angela. “What was your impression of him?”

“I spoke with him for thirty seconds,” Angela snapped back. She didn’t feel like being interrogated by a man who couldn’t be on time for dinner. “I have no impression other than a pleasant greeting.”

Her father raised an eyebrow at her tone, but let the outburst slide. “Why were you late?” Angela pressed his leniency even though she knew she shouldn’t.

“I wasn’t late,” he answered calmly, taking a sip from the water glass Angela had spent minutes inspecting. “I’ve been over behind the bar watching you for fifteen minutes.”

Angela felt a spike of irritation, but she also felt her cheeks redden in embarrassment. <I scanned the room, how’d I missed him.>

                “You missed me because you were too busy dealing with your emotions than inspecting your environment, “Angela knew he was right, but that didn’t mean she liked it. “Is that what the instructors are teaching you?”

“The exact opposite,” Angela answered through gritted teeth. “They’ve done nothing but preach constant vigilance to us, and punished us severely if we didn’t practice it.”

“How so?” her father was intrigued now. He wanted to know what his daughter was being taught in this generation of the HCP.

“Well, three professors ambushed us at the end of an Ethics class. I fared better than most, but I still got kicked through a wall by Coach Meyers.”

“Ha,” the laugh coming from her father’s mouth stopped her story dead in its tracks. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her father laugh. “That sounds like something she would do.”

Angela saw an opportunity to get an answer to a question she’d been pondering for since the older woman had effortlessly defeated her. “Who is Coacher Meyers?”

Whatever opening Angela thought she had, she was mistaken. “That is not an appropriate question, Angela,” her father’s tone of disapproval hit hard. “Getting that answer goes way beyond simple clearances.” His stern stare wiped away all of his previous laughter. “If you were privileged to that information you’d take on the responsibility for all that it entails; including that person’s cover identity, family, friends, and a litany of other issues that a freshman cannot fathom at this point in their career.” Angela felt herself shrinking into her seat. “You have a lot to learn about the world, Angela, and a lot of that goes beyond what you learn in the classroom. Sometimes it’s best to not ask questions because you won’t like the answers, but once you know them you are forced to carry them to the grave with you.” Angela found herself feeling very nervous that she knew most of the instructor’s Hero identities.

“Yes, father,” she couldn’t think of a more submissive answer to give.

They ordered, ate the appetizer, and started their entrees without another word. Her father’s mind was elsewhere, she knew that look; and Angela had her own thoughts to occupy her time. She was halfway through her grilled chicken salad when her father finally broke the silence.

“I have a task for you,” he put down his fork with a sense of finality that stated Angela would take the assignment whether she liked it or not. “This will not interfere with your studies,” he meant HCP and academic. “But it is still important.”

Angela was glad to be talking about something other than her breech of Hero protocol, so she leaded forward with interest. “I want you to watch Anika Kemps, and report back to me on anything you find out of the ordinary.”

“Anika?” Angela was surprised by the assignment.

“Yes, Ms. Kemps is of interest to the HCP and DVA,” her father didn’t go into detail about why. “I want to know who she hangs out with, and her interactions with people outside the HCP. I trust your judgment about what you deem to be important information.”

Angela felt like she was on an emotional roller coaster. Five minutes ago she was getting berated for sticking her nose where it didn’t belong, and now she was being trusted with an assignment by a Hero, not her father. She didn’t know if she should be happy or sad. She didn’t know if she was betraying her friendship with Becca and Anika, or if she was protecting them from something she wasn’t classified to know. Odds were it was a little bit of both.

“Yes, father. I’m willing to help in any way you see fit,” she knew she couldn’t refuse.

“Excellent,” he gave a faint smile and resumed eating his lasagna.

That was basically the end of dinner. They finished their entrees, and skipped desert. Her father gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek before leaving to do something he wouldn’t tell her about; which left Angela to walk home along with her confused thoughts. She had to walk through a bad neighborhood to get back on campus, but no one approached her. It might have been her confident walk, the bulge of the gun in her purse, or the fact that even criminals took time off; whatever the reason she made it back to the townhouse without incident.

<I can’t stay here,> she was too conflicted to sit around and do nothing; so she headed over to the student center and took the lift down to the HCP.

The facility wasn’t empty. Not all of the Heroes in training went home for the short holiday break. A lot chose to stay and train, especially with finals coming up in the next few weeks. That was what she’d done.

Instead of heading into the main gym, where most people trained, Angela checked out a private range. The ranges were usually reserved for people in Weapons classes, but she’d talked to Coach McMillian about her need to improve her ranged attack, and he’d approved the usage.

The range was a hundred foot long lane, surrounded by reinforced concrete, with a large metallic plate at the far end. The plate had hundreds, maybe thousands of little dings made by years of bullets impacting it. The reinforced concrete on either side of the lane had large black scorch marks on it from the absorbers throwing fire and electricity down toward their targets; and there were even chunks missing here and there from powerful blasters practicing their abilities. Angela knew there were larger and shorter ranges in the HCP complex, but this was a good one for her to practice on. She also liked the privacy.

Once she shut the door behind her she reached inside herself and pulled. The comforting embrace of her power enveloped her immediately. As always the experience was euphoric. She was immediately filled with strength, confidence, and an inner light many would relate to the angelic appearance of her shifted form. Angela knew better than to put stock in religious folklore. She knew the light she felt wasn’t some divine grace but a peace of mind, a certainty she would not fail to do what was right.

Her black freshman HCP uniform flexed and molded itself to the armor that accompanied the shift, and split to allow her great bronze wings to erupt out of her back.

<Ah…that’s better.>

                Angela had stopped thinking of herself as the fat girl since the HCP ground down her stubborn body, but there was no competing with this form. Angelic beauty was something only this form could achieve. In Angela’s mind, this was the real her.

With a trickle of thought she formed a spear of energy and tossed it at the nearest dummy. The spear cut through the metal humanoid shape with ease, reducing it to several melted parts. Through her first semester Angela had realized she could control the intensity of her energy weapons. She could create swords on par with those forged of simple steel, or she could summon sabers of light brilliant enough to cut through every man-made object that had been set in her path. She kept the latter part a secret, looking forward to the day she could use it on one of her stronger classmates.

As the dummy slumped to the ground in a simmering wreck, the spear disappeared and reappeared in her hand. That dummy was ten feet away, and that was the maximum distance she could control the intensity of her energy weapons. Anything beyond that range would be effective, but not any more effective than a regular spear; which meant it could still kill and maim if not used properly.

Angela had taken Hannah’s advice to heart after the senior class leader had easily beaten her. Focusing on one ranged energy weapon was the best option, and it was showing dividends. Although a bow and arrow would have been the best weapon; trial and error showed a simple spear to be the most reliable tool.

The next dummy at twenty five feet took the eight foot spear in the center of its chest. The weight of the weapon caused the dummy to topple over backwards, dead as an inanimate object could be. The spear disappeared and reappeared back in Angela’s hand without any problem.

The next dummy was at fifty feet, and this was where it started to get tricky. She’d been able to do thirty feet in a fight, and had steadily increased the range from there, but fifty feet was still at the upper end of what she was capable of.

<Let’s try something new,> Angela thought outside the box with her power.

She knew she could control the intensity of her weapon within ten feet. That range would grow with practice, but she used that knowledge as a starting point. <If I can increase the power initially, maybe it’ll boost the range.> Adding ten feet would be an amazing advantage in combat.

Angela fed power to the spear, feeling the energy soak into the energy construct. With a deep breath she took aim and threw. She saw the intensity of the glow disappear after the first ten feet, but the spear continued to fly straight and true toward its target. At forty feet she expected to see the tell-tale flicker of the construct losing its form, but it never came. Instead, the spear imbedded itself in the dummy’s neck with a satisfying THUMP.

“Yes!” her father’s assignment and its implication momentarily pushed to the back of her mind. “Finally, success.” She summoned the spear back to her rest the dummies, and repeated the process at sixty feet.

“Yes!” she cheered again as the satisfying THUMP of a slain dummy reached her ears.

She reset and repeated the process at sixty five feet. In the last five feet she saw the noticeable shimmer of the spear losing its form. It still hit the target, but it was weak. The blade didn’t pierce the dummy’s fake flesh, but it still knocked it over and registered a broken rib on the sensors.

“Just over sixty feet, you’ll easily be able to hit anyone in a combat cell,” the voice stated from the doorway.

For the third time tonight someone had snuck up on her. This time she jumped in surprise, and felt the embarrassment flood through her slightly glowing body. Thankfully, Coach Meyers didn’t give her another speech about constant vigilance. She’d be doing that to herself later tonight.

“Good evening, Coach Meyers,” Angela calmed herself with the polite greeting.

“I’m glad to see a least some of my freshman down here preparing. Finals are going to be a bitch,” it wasn’t anything the former Hero hadn’t said before, but it was a reminder to the constant pressure Angela and her class needed to thrive on.

“I’ll be ready,” Angela turned, summoned her spear, and put it through the head of a dummy at thirty feet.

Angela programmed in a sequence on the range computer for a scenario. Instead of having the targets stationary at certain distances they would now move, evade, and charge Angela’s position. It was a difficult scenario, and one Angela hadn’t passed yet.

Dummies popped out of the floor, dodged, weaved, and charged around flying spears of energy. Angela got most of them, but three still made it to the red line on the floor that indicated failure. In real life she would have switched to summoning a sword or destroyed them with her fists in close combat, but that wasn’t the objective of the exercise.

“Not bad,” Coach Meyers sat silent until the end of the scenario. “Your flaw is the speed at which you summon your throwing spear. It’s taking you too long. I’d work on that or consider concentrating on summoning multiple weapons. If you are able to do several spears to counter multiple targets when they get closer, then that should allow you to pass.”

“Thank you, Coach Meyers,” Angela hadn’t thought about summoning multiple spears yet, and she cursed herself for the oversight. She’d summoned a sword and shield together before. It wasn’t a big leap to multiple offensive weapons.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” the older Super read Angela’s facial expressions. “You’re well ahead of most freshmen, and you’d get to this training if you took Weapons next year.”

“I still should have seen it,” it wasn’t the only thing that was bugging Angela, and the Coach saw that.

“What’s up,” the alternative coach leaned against the doorframe with a “tell me what’s wrong or I’m not leaving” look on her face.

Angela knew there was no use fighting it. “Just a little moral dilemma I’m working through,” she tried to make it sound like nothing and failed.

“Those are the best type of dilemmas,” Coach Meyers smiled. “You could say I’m a bit of an expert on the subject, so spill the beans. I don’t need names, dates, or anything incriminating; just the bare bones.”

“I guess you could say it’s a question of what my needs are against someone’s needs who’s representing something greater than them or me,” Angela tried to be as nondescript as possible.

“Ah…” the older Super nodded with a sad smile. “The old ‘the needs of the many versus the needs of the few’ question. That’s one that’s bit me in the ass a few times.” She chuckled.

“Any words of wisdom?” Angela could at least take the seasoned veteran’s insight into account when making her decision.

“I’m not going to come out and say that you should ignore the needs of the many,” Coach Meyers started slowly. “As Heroes it’s our responsibility to protect the needs of innocent civilians. We are by definition guardians of the needs of the many. With that said, you can’t ignore your own needs. I know from firsthand experience that if you push them off, your own problems will interfere with your ability to protect the needs of the many.” Angela frowned, the advice wasn’t helping.

“I don’t know the specifics of what you’re going through, and I won’t pry,” the smile from Coach Meyers was genuine and a rarity. “But the best advice would be to look at the people involved and play out those scenarios in your head. Who knows, maybe a little inward focus is the best outcome.”

Angela knew the older woman’s experience was probably on a little bigger scale than what she was dealing with. Does saving leaders of countries, whose decisions affect thousands, justify the death of hundreds? <This is really a question for ethics.> Angela shook her head, feeling more informed yet more confused than before.

“Well its quittin’ time,” Coach Meyers looked at her watch and did an about face. “You know where to find me if you have any questions.” Angela just nodded as the instructor left her alone with her thoughts.

<I’m not really spying, just passing along information if anything seems off,> Angela thought. <But would Becca and Anika consider that a breach of trust?> Angela could practically imagine the blue-haired speedster fuming a shooting machine gun burst accusations at her. <Is there really any problem with keeping an eye open. It’s just practicing constant vigilance.>

                Angela’s internal debate followed her all the way back to the townhouse, and kept her up half the night.

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