A Change of Pace – Chapter 46

“Let this be a lesson to all of you,” Coach Meyers didn’t have to try to tower over the freshman class. Half of them were lying flat on their backs. “If you think because the general public has a holiday that you can stop training, then you are dead wrong! Hero work is twenty-four-seven people. Criminals don’t sleep; in fact, the holidays are a prime time for them because they think we won’t be watching.”

Kyoshi watched as the tall alternative instructor paced in front of them like a general in front of her troops. <A general in front of her troops who just lost a major battle.> The advanced mind couldn’t help but think bitterly.

<I’ll second that,> Anika answered from across the group of students.

The unclassified Super had fared better than most, but she still looked a little green around the gills. The same was true for Mason, who was lovingly supporting Kyoshi’s exhausted body with his shoulder. The rest of the class wasn’t as lucky as the two strongmen.

Coach Meyers and Coach McMillian had spent the last three days making a point. People had slacked off and stuffed their faces on the short holiday break. Now the two sadistic former Heroes were trying to get the class to regurgitate all of that delicious home cooking on the gym floor. Judging by the stench wafting through the large room, they’d succeeded yet again.

<Fucking Nazi’s,> Anna Fletcher’s unfiltered mind was chugging along like a runaway train despite her inability to sit up.

The rest of the class’ thoughts ran along the same line as Anna’s, but with less colorful vocabulary. Kyoshi found it very difficult to disagree with the volatile electrokinetic; even though she knew the Coaches’ training was for their own good.

<I feel ya,> Anika mentally grunted as she sat up. Unlike Kyoshi, Anika was the one acting as the stable foundation for Becca. <At least they could get someone to clean this up. I’ve learned that a third of our class is in the “if I see people puke, I puke” population. Even though I’m not, this smell is going to get to me eventually.>

                Kyoshi sent an affirmative mental nod back to Anika. Kyoshi just happened to be in the former group, and had emptied her own stomach more than once during this gym session. Now all that was left was a whole lot of dry-heaving, and the occasional bit of bile. It was disgusting.

“Jackson, Kemps, Martin, Williams, Long, you’re all still standing so you’re on clean up detail. Move!” Kyoshi didn’t even bother to try and catch herself when Mason hustled to his feet and off to grab a mop. She just made sure she didn’t smack her head on the hard surface when she fell.

She was only mildly successful. <Just kill me now.> Kyoshi could already feel her stomach staring to rumble again as she saw Blake Rhodes start to heave again about twenty feet away. She rolled over onto her other side like a dead fish hoping it would help; it did a little.

Just when Kyoshi felt her eyes start to shut did the soothing sensation of Dr. Sanderson’s rejuvenating golden mist wash over her. One second she was running on empty, and about to pass out; and the next she was back to one hundred percent.

<Now that’s what I’m fuckin’ talkin’ about,> for the second time Anna Fletcher summed up how the entire class felt.

“There is water and some power bars in the corner,” Coach McMillian stated. “Everyone do a hundred pull-ups, take a ten minute break, and then meet back up here.”

The close combat coach’s kindness was met with immediate skepticism. Half the class didn’t even move towards the pull-up bars until he shooed them away. Kyoshi had a bad feeling about it.

Even at a hundred percent the hundred pull-ups were a challenge for her. Thanks to the million pull-ups they’d done through the semester, her back muscles were far stronger than on the first day. She cranked out the exercise in five sets of twenty; only feeling the burn of fatigue on the last ten of her final set.

“Great job,” Mason was waiting for her when she was finished with a smile, a bottle of water, and a vanilla flavored energy bar.

They didn’t kiss. Dr. Sanderson might have brought the class back to full health, but his healing didn’t do anything about the puke breath most of the class had. Mason and Kyoshi ate and drank in silence, just like the rest of the class. The thing on everyone’s mind was what the two coaches had in store for them next. They still had an hour left of physical training, and that left the door open for a number of physical torments that would have them all right back where they started.

<Any idea what they’re going to do to us next?> Mason covertly asked.

Kyoshi tried to stay out of people’s heads, and for the most part she was good about it. Today, she felt her resolve slipping; and it had something to do with not wanting the tasty energy bar she was devouring to end up coming back out the wrong end. If there was more torture in store for them then she wanted to know.

It was easy enough to differentiate the coaches’ minds from the students by the very fact they were well protected. They were always on alert when they were in the HCP. It made sense. There were a number of advanced minds in the program; some working on what Angela kept calling “subtetly”, which apparently involved a lot of spying on other people. Kyoshi had gotten a peak into Coach Meyers’ mind before, and that brief experience told her those defenses were just as necessary to protect the students as the coaches’ secrets. Kyoshi still saw some of those fleeting, gruesome images when she closed her eyes. Despite all of that, she still needed to know what was going to happen to them.

Kyoshi did a high level telepathic pass of the coaches’ minds. It was tough to explain what that meant to people who didn’t have telepathy, but the closest analogy was a plane or satellite taking aerial photographs. The pass would pick up any ambient or loose thoughts and emotions. Kyoshi could pull this same trick on students and get a lot of information off them, but the coaches were different. Kyoshi got two emotions and zero thoughts; amusement and irritation.

<At least Professor Livingston’s empathic classes are paying off,> Kyoshi was grateful she’d been able to learn more about her power’s new aspect over the last few weeks.

The emotions weren’t enough to determine anything without a lot of guesswork. Coach Meyers might be annoyed with the class’ performance while Coach McMillian was amused at what was to come. Or it could be the other way around, or different all together. Kyoshi needed to do more digging if she wanted those answers.

The advanced mind did a second pass, this one closer than the first. It was close enough to get some more feedback and look for any cracks she could exploit. She was almost finished when she got something.

<Want to hear the most annoying sound in the world…AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH,> Kyoshi mentally recoiled as Coach Meyers’ trademark mental defense lashed against her mind. She was only able to cringe before her whole body exploded in pain.

Kyoshi’s muscles locked and she shook violently for about a second before she tipped over and fell. Thankfully, Mason was standing close and was able to catch her convulsing body.

“Kyoshi…what…” he looked frantically around for answers, but then it all stopped.

Just as fast as the pain started, it was gone. But as that pain vanished a whole new one took its place. Everything had a mild aching to it now, like her muscles were strung out wet towels that had just been twisted to extract every last drop of water. Kyoshi didn’t feel worse than she had before Dr. Sanderson’s healing, but she was a long way from feeling great.

“Schultz,” Coach Meyer’s voice cracked like a whip though the gym. “If you’re going to try and pry into people’s thoughts you had better be ready to deal with the consequences. If I catch you trying it again I’m going to put you down a lot harder than a fifty thousand volt shock.”

<Of course she knew,> Kyoshi didn’t know why she’d thought she’d be able to sneak by the older Super’s defenses. Kyoshi wasn’t going to make that mistake again without preparing to deal with those consequences. <I’m just glad I didn’t crap my pants,> she knew enough about getting tazed to count herself lucky on that account.

“Since Ms. Schultz was so eager to figure out what’s going on, the brake is over,” Coach McMillian called out. They were only halfway through the allotted ten minutes, and the glares from her classmates told Kyoshi she’d have to deal with some pissed off people after class.

“Move it or lose it people, and trust me you don’t want to lose it this time,” Coach Meyers barked, motivating everyone to hurry over to them.

Even with Mason’s help, Kyoshi was still the last one to arrive. Coach McMillian had waved off Dr. Sanderson when he’d approached to heal her. Kyoshi would have to deal with the aching for the rest of class.

“Today we’re going to talk about your final,” it was Coach McMillian’s turn to pace in front of the class. “You are going to be the latest class to engage in a time honored West Private University HCP tradition; Battleball.”

Just about everyone in the class exuded confusion and apprehension, but Angela radiated excitement. As a legacy, Angela would know all about this Battleball tradition, so Kyoshi made a mental note to ask the shifter any additional questions she might have after this briefing. Knowing Angela, the class’ number one ranked student probably had a plethora of strategies already concocted to meet whatever the objective of this game was.

“Battleball has two parts, “Coach McMillian continued. “The first, well actually the second, part is the ball.”

A door on the opposite side of the gym opened and a silver blurr flew through it. It moved quickly enough that Kyoshi had trouble tracking it, but that didn’t matter when it stopped and hovered next to the close combat coach. The “ball” as Coach McMillian referred to it, was an orb the size of a basketball. It was silver, and as reflective as any mirror Kyoshi had ever seen; which matched the overall futuristic aesthetic of the HCP. Kyoshi didn’t know why, but she got the creepy feeling that the ball was watching her as she watched it.

“This is your ball,” Coach McMillian placed his hand on the ball like anyone else would the head of their pet.

“Think of your ball as a civilian you are saving, or a diplomat you are protecting,” Coach Meyers announced. “Whatever it is that you want to protect in this world, think of the ball as that thing; that is how important the ball is.”

“The ball is the most important thing you will take into the final beside your power,” Coach McMillian continued. “The ball will observe, record, offer automated evaluation, deduce probable reasons for actions, act as a time keeper, tally your points, and count as points in your final exam.” Kyoshi wished he would elaborate more, but he didn’t.

“The real first part of Battleball is battle,” Coach Meyers smiled behind the close combat coach. “And that is what your final will be. Your final exam is a free-for-all fight in an arena being modified several floors below us.”

Kyoshi half expected Coach McMillian to do some dramatic flourish, but he didn’t. He also didn‘t say anything else. Considering the lack of information, and her telepathy, Kyoshi knew she wasn’t the only one confused. Usually, Angela would have raised her hand and asked the obvious questions by now. The class had gotten used to this, and expected it. So when Angela didn’t raise her hand, because she already knew all about Battleball, everyone just sat there for a very awkward minute.

“So this is every man for themselves?” Mason finally asked, breaking the silence.

“Yes,” Coach McMillian answered simply.

“How is that fair to those ranked near the bottom who aren’t good at hand to hand combat?” Mason asked. Kyoshi could tell he was a little upset about the situation.

“Life ain’t fair, Jackson. Get used to it.” Coach Meyers’ blunt response didn’t help.

“The rules are pretty simple,” the close combat coach continued addressing the rest of the class. “They are the same rules that you must abide by when you’re fighting ranking matches in the combat cells.”

“So as long as we don’t kill anyone we’re golden,” Anna entered the conversation. “Can we make teams?”

“As long as you don’t kill anyone,” Coach McMillian replied, eliciting a murmur of responses from the class. People were starting to strategize.

“But before we get any further we should talk about the scoring system,” the coach put an end to the talking. “First and foremost this is a combat trial. We want you to put to use all of the training we’ve imparted to you over the last few months. Battleball lasts three hours, or to the last person standing if it’s shorter than that. You get points for how long you survive, how many opponents you take out, and how many balls you capture.”

“Do not for one second think that you can hide in a corner until the clock winds down and call it a win,” Coach Meyers interjected. “How you win is just as important as winning.”

“As I said before,” Coach McMillian jumped back in. “The balls that you will have are a lot more than something your enemy wants to take from you. The balls are semi-autonomous AIs. They not only look at your actions, but they analyze what you do leading up to those actions. They’re all tied together into a network to give a three hundred and sixty degree view of everything that happens.”

“So they will know if you run out the clock by sitting in a corner. You’ll get some points, but they will be greatly diminished by your actions and thought process. Heroes don’t hide, so don’t try that strategy,” Coach Meyers spelled it out for everyone.

“Getting back to Fletcher’s point on teams,” Coach McMillian reoriented the conversation. “You can make teams, but the points you will get for what you accomplish as a team are less than what you accomplish alone. In addition, your ranking is taken into account during all of this. The balls weigh your ranking in your actions. For instance Martin wouldn’t get a lot of points for defeating Ms. Jacobsen, but she would get more if she defeated Jackson. Jackson would get a lot of points if he defeated Martin, but he would get less if he defeated Martin in a team; and that difference would depend on the composition of the team. Does everyone understand?”

“This seems really complicated,” Stephanie Jacobsen, emboldened by being included in the example, spoke up. Kyoshi could only remember a handful of times when the last ranked freshman talked in front of the rest of the class.

“Life is really complicated, Jacobsen,” Coach Meyers didn’t come down on Jacobsen as hard she could have. “Situations are difficult even when you have all the information. Most of the time you won’t have anything to go off at all, and that’s been incorporated into this exam. We want to evaluate how you handle everything, and not having the whole picture is part of that evaluation. It might not be fair, but it’s reality; and that’s what we are preparing you for.”

“The computers will monitor everything and award scores. We’ll review those scores with you in a final counseling session before you leave for break. It is in that session you’ll learn if you are going to return for next semester.” Kyoshi could feel the wave of tension wash over the gathered students. It was unthinkable contemplating not coming back after all the effort they’d put forward in the last few months.

<How can the upperclassmen handle this?> everyone knew how few spots there were in the sophomore, junior, and senior classes. For the first time, Kyoshi knew what it felt like to feel the weight of uncertainty fall on her shoulders. She was currently ranked nineteenth, but she knew there were less than thirty spots reserved for the sophomore class. A lot could happen in another semester. That was something everyone in the gym understood.

“Moving on,” Coach McMillian changed the topic as quickly as someone would expect a speedster too. “If you make it into next semester, you’ll need to know what you’re going to be dealing with.”

“As you might have deduced from our job titles, next semester the class will be split into close combat and alternative sections. The close combat class will focus on close combat, no surprise there,” no one laughed at Coach Meyers’ little joke. “While that group will be busy pounding the crap out of one another, the alternative class will be looking at the various uses of powers. There will still be plenty of ass kicking, mark my words, but the focus of the class is to figure out the best way for you to use your powers if they aren’t entirely combat oriented.” No one had any questions about the classes, they’d already figured that much out by asking other people throughout the semester.

“While some schools divide you up based by your ranking, we do it a little different here,” Coach McMillian patted the silver orb still hovered at shoulder level net to him. “We take what we’ve learned about you through the semester, the final’s data from the balls, and feed it into the HCP computer; which spits out a recommendation. For most of you, this recommendation is going to be what you are going to do,” there were a few disappointed looks in the gathered students, but they didn’t last long.

It was no secret that most in the HCP believed that all the real Heroes went through close combat instead of alternative. It didn’t matter that many famous Heroes proudly proclaimed that they’d been in alternative training during their first years in the HCP. There was something about being in all out brawls every day that developed a certain mentality in some Supers. It didn’t matter if someone in alternative could take them down or not, they would continue to believe in their dominance until someone disproved that; and even then they would take it as the exception to the rule. Unfortunately, that mentality persisted into a lot of Hero careers, and when they passed those mentalities down to their children who entered the HCP, or those Heroes became instructors, then the culture was firmly fixed in place.

Kyoshi didn’t know all of this, but she’d seen inklings from upperclassmen and from people like Long in her own class. Kyoshi had no illusions about what section she’d end up in. She knew her possession powers were rare, and she also knew that they weren’t the most useful as a frontline power. She was forced to use it as a frontline power for combat rankings, but there were much more useful aspects that she’d be able to explore in alternative training. She was fine with the recommendation she was ninety-nine percent sure she would get, but not everyone was as easily satisfied as she was.

“If you disagree with the recommendation that decades of metadata on Heroes has been incorporated into making, then you can present your case to me and Coach Meyers at the beginning of the second semester. If it is good enough then we’ll let you transfer, if not, then you will stay in your assigned class.” The tension in the room lessened, but not by a lot.

“Let’s be clear though,” Coach Meyers surveyed everyone with a critical eye. “Saying that you want to be in close combat just because you want to, or because you think you are a good fighter is not going to cut it. You need to come to us with a plan, because what we’ve seen from you so far has allowed us to develop our own plan. Your plan need to be better, and don’t think for a second I’m not going to hurt your feelings if I think you’re being stupid.”

<I don’t think anyone here would think you’d hesitate to hurt our feelings,> half a dozen freshmen had the identical thought simultaneously.

Kyoshi didn’t like that. She knew that the only thing Coach Meyers wanted to do was train them to the best of her ability so they could do great things when they left West. The coach also didn’t want their deaths on her conscience. If that meant Coach Meyers had to be a hard ass, then that was something she was willing to live with. Some freshman hadn’t come to understand that just yet.

Kyoshi might not have liked what everyone else was thinking, but that didn’t stop her from having a similar thought. Intellectually knowing that someone was doing something for your long term benefit was very different from realizing that in the moment; especially when that person had nearly shocked the poop right out of her.

“Any questions?” Coach McMillian interrupted Kyoshi’s mental process.

When no one answered the two coaches just smiled. “We’ve got thirty minutes left,” Kyoshi was thankful they’d eaten half their remaining time on the discussion, but that was still only half the time.

“Everyone in the pool!” Kyoshi had just enough time to see her boyfriend’s face pale before they were both sprinting and diving headfirst into the cool waters of the Olympic-sized pool.

“The majority of this planet’s surface is water,” Coach Meyers was pacing on the tiled pool deck. “If you can’t fight in this environment then you’re worthless.” Everyone, including Angela, was surprised.

No one liked the look on the alternative instructors face. “Everyone listen up and hold your breath.” Kyoshi had no idea thirty minutes could be so terrifying.

 

***

 

“Did you see the look on Jackson’s face,” Craig’s hearty laugh echoed throughout the section of instructor offices. “I thought he was going to faint.”

“Yeah,” Daisy thought back to the brief tutorial on water combat. “He looked like he was going to shit a chicken.”

“More like an entire coup,” Daisy smiled as Craig replayed footage from the pool on his work computer.

Technically, they were only supposed to use them for evaluation purposes, but Craig tended to do what he wanted, and had the tenacity to get away with it. He did that by sucking everyone in with his positivity; it was hard to resist that laugh and the knowledge that he’d step in front of a bullet for anyone he worked with.

<Of course, he’d step in front of it just to catch it.> Daisy didn’t know if the old speedster could do that, but she knew he had a few tricks up his sleeves.

The truth was that the water combat drill they’d conducted was largely useless. In over half a century of Hero work, Daisy had only fought in water once. <Once that you know of,> the thought sent a shiver down her spine. <Who knows what you’ve done.> An ember of rage ignited in her gut as she thought about the conversation with John and the ForceOps Colonel. She didn’t have answers yet, but she’d be getting them soon. She had her appointment scheduled with Mastermind, and she’d get the answers she wanted even if she had to beat it out of the feeble old man. Although, Daisy knew he knew her well enough to be expecting that type of approach.

<There is a reason for everything,> Dr. Johnson’s voice of reason cut through her anger. <Listen, evaluate, and then make calm decisions.>

Daisy took a deep breath and pushed the sour memory to the back of her mind. They still had a lot of work to do before the semester was over. None of the freshmen knew this, but their final was a huge undertaking; one of the biggest done by any HCP every year. Coupled with the new tech they were using meant that the DVA was looking over everything with a fine-tuned microscope. They were beta testing some pretty awesome stuff.

<It would be a lot cooler if I knew what it was,> despite co-orchestrating the entire exercise, no one had filled her in on the new equipment they were using. She hadn’t seen the new stuff on her walk-throughs either.

“I’m going to take another run through the arena before I head home,” Daisy picked up on the invitation.

“Sounds good,” she saved some files and logged off. “They’re already behind schedule, and I’ve successfully given these DVA goons a swift kick in the ass before.” She hadn’t literally done that, but Daisy had her ways to get people moving.

The instructor’s lift to the lower levels was right next to the offices. It was necessary they all have easy access to these important, expensive facilities. The lift door immediately slid soundlessly open to admit Daisy and Craig, and then slid silently closed. You had to pay close attention to notice that the lift was moving; things were just that smooth.

“So, Chrissy loved having Chris over for Thanksgiving,” Craig’s casual conversation obviously had an agenda. “And it was great to have someone to watch the games with.” Craig added as an afterthought. “How are things with you two?”

Despite all the progress Daisy had made in her therapy session with Dr. Johnson, talking openly, and in-depth, about her personal relationships wasn’t something they’d spent a lot of time on.

“We’re good,” the answer was simple and didn’t open the door anymore for conversation.

The truth was that things were ok with Topher. They were fine, not good or bad, just fine. The hardest thing about their relationship was finding the time to be together. Daisy had been working around the clock with the final coming up, and Topher had his regular work on top of some extra duties he was dealing with. He’d been moved to the gang squad recently, and it had doubled his workload. It was tough to find time to meet up and be together when you were both working seventy to eighty hours a week. The last time they’d been together was on Thanksgiving.

“Well, you two are always welcome at our place,” Craig sensed the end of the conversation, and left it there. It coincided nicely with them arriving at their destination.

The door to the lift slid open to reveal an antechamber. The large chamber, easily the size of the auditorium, hadn’t been involved in any of the construction. It had been used as a storage and meeting area for the crews working on the arena, so it was mostly filled with a variety of people’s crap. Despite the late hour, a large part of the workforce was still present; which was good, because they needed to have this done yesterday.

“Where’s the DVA weenie?” Daisy demanded from a man who was lifting a thousand pound steel beam over his head.

The man was huge, obviously a strongman contractor for the DVA, and from the look in his eye obviously scared of Daisy. There might have been a small incident with one of the crewmembers getting a little too mouthy with Daisy. After the chauvinist had all his teeth regrown by Dr. Sanderson, people learned to not screw with her.

The big man pointed through the big door at the opposite side of the room, and scurried away as gracefully as a big man could. Daisy and Craig navigated the seats the freshmen would sit in while they were given the specific instructions for the final, and walked through the large door that very few of the freshmen would enter the arena through.

They stepped through the doors and it seemed like they left the HCP behind. One second they were in an underground training facility, and the next they were at an intersection in the middle of a business district of a medium-sized city. The sun was shining overhead, she could hear birds chirping, car engines revving, cabbies honking and cursing at each other, and the footsteps of people walking to and from work.

<Geez,> Daisy had seen the city before, but the realistic sounds were something knew. She even felt the urge to turn around as footsteps behind her drew closer.

“Mr. Craig, Ms. Daisy,” an excited, pencil looking man was rushing toward them with a big smile on his face. “What did you think about our focused audio effects?”

“Was that what all the sounds were?” Craig did a three hundred and sixty degree turn. Despite all the sounds they were hearing there was nothing around them that could be making them.

“It’s great isn’t it,” the man, who up close looked like he couldn’t be much over twenty-five, was beaming with pride. “We just installed last of the speakers, and finished updating the targeting systems. Now you can target your students on an individual basis and make them hear what you want them to hear.”

From a teaching standpoint that was extremely valuable. Being able to create a realistic situation was a big battle in the confinment of the HCP. The more real they could make it, the better prepared the kids would be out in the real world. Daisy could already see a scenario where she had Whitfield walking down a dark, creepy alley. It would be interesting to see how the woman reacted to a realistically frightening situation.

“That’s awesome!” Craig looked like a kid in a candy shop, matching the DVA tech genius’ enthusiasm.

“When are we looking at all of this being done?” Daisy motioned at the space around her.

Daisy had to admit that the arena was beyond impressive. If she didn’t know any better she could have sworn that she was in any of a half dozen cities around the country. There were dozens of skyscrapers that reached all the way up to the ceiling, and then the holographic ceiling completed the visual. There were also shorter buildings completely constructed within the fake city, and if you went far enough, there were even the beginnings of some residential neighborhoods. The four mile long, three mile wide arena was being designed primarily for urban combat, since that was what most Heroes had to deal with; but they still wanted other options to work with.

Building an entire city in a few months wouldn’t normally be possible, even with Super assistance, but that was what the new tech was for. “Aren’t these things just awesome!” the DVA tech genius held out his hand palm up like he was receiving communion.

“What?” Craig and Daisy both looked at the young man with questioning expressions.

“My fabmites; aren’t they just awesome,” he extended his hands toward them, but Daisy didn’t see anything but specks of dirt.

“Fabmites?” Craig scratched his head. The speedster was seriously considering if the younger Super had spent too much time down here building their arena.

“Fabricating nanites,” the DVA employee gestured again, and a closer inspection showed Daisy and Craig that the dirt on the man’s hands was moving.

“It’s quite ingenious,” Daisy rolled her eyes at the pretentious statement, but Craig shot her a “shut up” look. They were finally getting the info on the new tech. “The fabricating nanites, or fabmites, are capable of creating anything we program them to with enough time and raw material. They can convert most material based on its molecular composition, so all we need are base materials and the fabmites can convert it into stronger material as they build.” The DVA guy looked like he expected his Nobel Prize to come in the mail any day now.

“The applications of my invention are huge. We can totally revamp the construction industry, damage done by Super fights can be easily, and cost effectively fixed, we can start building space stations in space instead of on the ground and then flying them up there. There’s just so much…so much we can do now.”

Daisy had to admit that the tech genius had a winner. The technology was probably already patented, so this kid wasn’t going to remain a DVA employee for long. The only hole she saw in the plan was the obvious one.

“If this is so awesome then why aren’t they out there now doing all of those things,” her questions stopped the younger Super in his tracks.

“Funding and computing power are an issue,” he replied sheepishly, as he was brought back down to reality. “I’m working on some new processors, but it is taking longer than expected. We’re getting by with what we have now for smaller projects like this, but there’s no way we can control the trillions of fabmites necessary to achieve some of my bigger plans.”

Daisy wasn’t sure she would call building this entire city a small project, but she read through the lines of the younger Super’s answer. The DVA knew they had a winner and they were playing that card close to their vest. There was no way the tech genius could scrounge up the capital to build enough of these fabmites to start a company and start taking on big projects. The kid was stuck working with the DVA until he found a cost effective way to replicate the tiny robots.

Daisy had been around long enough that she’d seen this happen a dozen times already. Tech genius Supers had created some incredibly ingenious stuff over the years, but despite all of that the world still lived very much the same way it always had; except for mild breakthroughs that the government couldn’t control.

Daisy pushed aside how unfair it was that the DVA was hamstringing this young Super’s invention, and focused on what she was going to do with it. What happened with the fabmites outside of this room was none of her concern.

“Well thanks for the rundown,” Daisy gave the young man a smile, and an appreciative nod. “When are you going to be done?” She really needed to know when, so they could run some tests and scenarios before the final.

“We should have been done already,” the other Super’s face soured. “But the DVA insists that architects look at every floor of every structure after my fabmites finish them.” Now it was the tech genius’ turn to roll his eyes. “They’re the ones holding this up, not me, but according to their schedule they should be done in two days. They’re just finishing up the townhouses over in sector forty-seven now.”

<Two days,> Daisy didn’t let her internal grimace show, especially since it wasn’t the tech genius’ fault. <That puts them five days behind schedule, and gives us under a week to tweak our protocols for the final. Son of a bitch!> There went every one of her weekends until the end of the semester.

Daisy thought about that all the way back to her house. She wanted to have a little free time to see Topher, but it didn’t look like that would happen. It was a long shot to get together in the first place, but she’d held out a little hope until she talked with the tech genius.

Daisy was feeling a mixture of disappointment and sadness as she walked up to her house. She’d decided to take a stroll through the campus instead of just taking the lift into her bedroom closet. She needed the crisp fresh air to deal with the reality of the next few weeks. It was finally down into the forties at night, which felt more like how things should be in December. It was still twenty degrees warmer than New York, but she’d take it; although, she wasn’t holding out any hope for a white Christmas.

Daisy reached her front door, her mind still swimming in the information she’d received. She didn’t even realize that the door was open. She’d reached for her keys and was about to put them in the keyhole before she finally noticed that the doorknob wasn’t where it was supposed to be.

Daisy went from melancholy contemplation to ready for some ass whoopin’ in less than a second. She engaged her kinetic absorption so she’d be able to walk through a hailstorm of bullets without getting a scratch. She also engaged her electric abilities. Lightening charged in her hands, initiating a continued stream of white blue current that ran along her knuckles. She’d be able to throw the bolt if she needed to engage a ranged target, or she could settle for some good old hand-to-hand combat, with the added punch of several hundred thousand volts.

Daisy idly wondered what it would be like to only be able to engage one absorption ability at a time. <Having to only play offense or defense must be a pain in the ass,> She grinned. She didn’t have that problem.

Cocked, locked, and ready to rock; Daisy executed a tactical ingress into her home. The lights were off, with only a soft glow coming from the kitchen. Nothing jumped out at her as she moved swiftly and silently, sweeping the room for threats. No one was in the main area of the house, but there were lights on in the back rooms. She quickly moved forward, ready to strike as the door to the bathroom opened.

Topher walked out of the room, towel still in his hands, and yelled in surprise when he came face-to-face with Daisy’s crackling fist. A volatile, less trained, electrical absorber would have probably punched a hole in Topher and lived a life of sorrow and regret. Thankfully, this wasn’t the first time someone had tried to surprise Daisy. Unfortunately, her boyfriend was going to get that same reaction as everyone else.

“What the fuck, Topher!” Daisy screamed in his face. “I nearly ended you. What the hell where you thinking?” Way too many unpleasant memories flooded Daisy’s mind.

She retreated to the family room, breathing hard. She gripped the back of the couch firmly; not caring as her kinetically enhanced strength broke the frame with a loud crack. She started taking deep breaths; in through her nose, and out through her mouth until the torrent of images stopped. She didn’t know who long she’d been sitting there trying to control her episode, but Topher had moved to the kitchen while she focused.

Daisy’s boyfriend had been trying to surprise her with a spontaneous, romantic dinner. There was a bouquet of roses on the table in a vase that Topher had brought, because Daisy didn’t have any. There was some chicken dish expertly arranged on the two plates on opposite sides of the small kitchen table. Next to the plates were two wine glasses filed with deep violet liquid. It was probably sparkling grape juice since Topher knew about Daisy’s sobriety. It was a lovely and thoughtful gesture from a man to the woman he liked. It was a shame that it had started out the way it had.

Topher sat in his seat, his head down, looking dejected at how his romantic date had started. Daisy felt bad at how she’d reacted, but she also knew that Topher should know better. He knew she was a Hero who’d been through some shit; she’d confided a little in him as they got more serious. He should have known that springing something like this on her was not going to go over well.

<How do I fix this,> Daisy’s mind quickly decided to find a solution to the shit show.

She wasn’t good at this; he knew that and she had known it for a long time. But she always had one thing working for her. Daisy walked over to Topher, lifted his chin, and planted a kiss on his lips. It wasn’t anything elaborate; her tongue didn’t part his lips to do the tango in his mouth. It was simple, meaningful, and after a few moments Topher reciprocated by wrapping her arms around her. Since he was sitting and she was standing he wrapped his arms around her hips instead of her shoudlers, but the sentiment was the same.

“I’m an idiot,” he stated flatly when their lips parted.

“Yeah,” Daisy wasn’t going to pull her punches because he was her boyfriend. “But it’s still sweet. Next time just give me a small warning so I don’t bite your head off.”

“There’s going to be a next time?”

The question caught Daisy off guard. She knew things had been a little rocky lately. They hadn’t been able to see each other a lot, and things had been a little off, but the thought of her not seeing Topher again sent her mind into overdrive.

“Of course there’s going to be a next time, don’t you want that?” if he said no, Daisy would accept it. But the bill for destruction of property in the gym would take a chunk out of her bank account. Her coping measures weren’t cheap.

“I do,” his answer released the weight form her shoulders. “I just wasn’t sure if you did or not.”

“I do,” she replied without hesitation. “I know things have been crazy lately with both of us, and I do love that you tried to carve out some time for us. I think we need to try to do this more often,” Daisy gestured at the table. “Things will calm down for me after the semester, so I’ll be able to make more time.”

“My schedule isn’t going to open up anytime soon,” Topher looked unhappy as he relayed the information.

“Well I guess I’ll just have to surprise you then,” Daisy leaned in and pressed her lips against his again.

“I’d like that,” Topher replied enthusiastically with his tongue. “Fair warning though; if you try to surprise me I might accidentally shoot you.”

“It wouldn’t do a thing,” Daisy smiled, and giggled at Topher pulled her into a bear hug.

Topher wasn’t nearly as strong as Daisy, but being in his arms made her feel safer than she had in a long time.

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