“So you know this girl who likes a boy, but that boy likes another girl; and you want to know how that girl can get the boy to notice her?” Seth summarized the situation he was hearing.
Seth and Casey Williams, the number fourteen ranked strongwoman, were walking down a street on the outskirts of the city. If this place had really been populated with people Seth would have pegged the area as a place where young professionals would be living. The condominiums looked nice. They were less than a mile to the restaurants and entertainment of the city, which also meant they were close to the office.
<Not a real city,> Seth had to remind himself for the tenth time. <But whoever built this place did a hell of a job.>
“Yeah, the girl I know is pretty shy and doesn’t really know what to do about it,” Casey replied. Seth didn’t miss the pink in her cheeks.
Just about everyone in the class knew that Casey had a crush on Mason. The two strongmen worked together in gym most of the time. They got along really well, and Mason being oblivious to the crush wasn’t helping. Even if Seth’s roommate did know that Casey liked him, he wouldn’t know what to do.
Kyoshi was the woman for Mason, and it was eerie how good they were together. They were the relationship that other people in the class put on a pedestal, and strived to be like. <Not me,> Seth mentally shook his head at the imagery. He liked both of his roommates, but their dull lives just weren’t for him. He had Liz.
Seth was more comfortable at the foot of the pedestal, where he’d throw Liz up against it and screw her brains out; or more realistically, she’d throw him up against it. Seth shook his head quickly to dispel the imagery. Battleball was no place for a boner.
“I guess the first question would be if the boy your friend likes is happy with the other girl?” Seth approached the situation delicately.
Casey might still be a teenage girl crushing on a teenage boy, but she was a Super in the HCP. She was two inches taller than him and built like a stereotypical strongwoman. Her size and strength were enough to intimidate many confident men; which was part of the problem. Mason was probably the first crush Casey thought she had a chance with, and she was desperately clinging to it when it wasn’t going to happen. All of that meant that Seth needed to approach the situation delicately; which admittedly wasn’t his strong suite.
“They’re happy,” Casey looked dejected when she admitted it.
“Does your friend really want to break something like that up, and if she does, does she think he’s going to be happy with her for doing it,” having a melancholy partner in the middle of their final probably wasn’t the best tactically sound decision Seth could have made, but his gut told him he had to do it.
“Probably not,” Casey grunted, looking away to hide the tears forming in her eyes.
<Shit,> Seth quickly thought of something to say.
“You’re a good friend to be looking out for your friend like this,” Seth tried to pick up her spirits. “I’m sure your friend is a great person, and I know there is someone out there for them. It just takes time.”
“It’s just tough for her, ya know,” Casey wasn’t crying when she turned back to Seth, but her eyes were a little red. “People seem to be pairing up left and right around her, and she’s left alone. It really sucks…for her.”
“Love ain’t easy,” Seth grinned. “Just look at me. I fucked things up a bunch of times before I landed a good one. We’re still freshman in college after all, a lot can happen in the next three years. Hell, a lot can happen in the rest of our lives. Your friend shouldn’t give up hope based on a few months. That boy she likes might not even be with that girl later.”
<Fat chance in hell of that,> Seth didn’t believe his own words. If any couple was going to go the distance it as Mason any Kyoshi. <Are Liz and I going to make it?> Seth put his foot on the throat of that thought and quickly strangled it. This wasn’t the time or place for that type of thinking.
“Thanks, Seth,” Seth didn’t believe his own words about Mason and Kyoshi, but Casey might have. “I’m sure this advice will help my friend. I take back what I’ve said about you before. You’re not a huge asshole after all.”
“Uh…thanks,” Seth wasn’t sure how to respond to such a compliment, but thankfully he didn’t have to.
Casey held up her hand for them to stop, and then she turned her head toward a street ahead of them. “Do you hear that?”
Seth strained his hearing in the direction she indicated. A rhythmic clapping sound was echoing down the street at the next intersection. Seth couldn’t make out what it was, but he could tell it was moving closer.
“I hear it,” he hustled over to the wall of the nearby building. “What is it?”
They were about to peak around the corner to identify the sound when three panels of golden light shot up from the ground on the other side of the city. “What the fu…?” Seth began before he was interrupted.
“ATTENTION STUDENTS,” Coach Meyers’ voice sounded like God’s coming from the heavens. “By now you might have noticed that golden force fields have closed off a section of the arena. Do not attempt to attack and penetrate these force fields. You will fail, your grade will suffer, and you will look like an idiot. Students who are within the force fields remain where you are. Your exam is on pause while we investigate. Students outside the force fields, your exam continues when this announcement ends. Get back to work.” The voice that seemed to come from everywhere cut off, and the rhythmic clapping sound continued.
“What was that about?” Casey asked, scooting away from the wall to look at the golden light in the distance.
“Beats me,” while Casey looked one way, Seth took the opportunity to peak around the corner. “But we’ve got bigger problems.”
Coming down the street, less than a hundred yards away from where Seth and Casey were concealed by the building, was a marching army. The rhythmic clapping sound was the cadence of their feet hitting the ground in unison. Dozens, maybe a hundred feet carrying them toward the two hiding Supers.
“We can take ‘um,” Casey took one look at the reproaching army, and cracked her knuckles in anticipation. Sometimes Seth envied the mindset of someone who could punch through just about anything; but as a feeble human he had to approach things a little differently.
The approaching army wasn’t a conventional army. It was an army of animated objects; which meant they were dealing with Erin Fisher. Somewhere in the mass of animated office furniture, streetlights, and other assorted contraptions was the number three ranked freshman.
Seth didn’t know a lot about Erin other than her power wasn’t the only odd thing about her. The thin freshmen, who always seemed to be surprised about what was going on around her, mostly kept to herself. Seth had seen her at a few parties; which she’d probably been dragged to, but they’d never talked. He did know that she’d defeated Anika in the initial ranking challenges, which was no minor accomplishment; so they needed to take her seriously.
Erin’s ability to animate inanimate objects made everything she touched a potential weapon. Since those combat rankings she’d been working on her abilities. Just watching the approaching army told Seth she’d developed an increased control over her objects; and the sheer size of the approaching force showed that she was able to command significant numbers. An individual wooden desk charging a Super wouldn’t be something to worry about, but twenty thundering wooden constructs charging Seth was a problem.
Seth scanned the approaching formation and saw a metal fire escape shudder near the middle of the formation. Slowly, and then more quickly, the twenty foot metal ladder detached itself from the side of the building, and warped itself into a roughly two dimensional humanoid shape. It then reached up to the top of a nearby building, pulled itself up onto the roof and disappeared from view.
<Holy shit,> another scan of the army showed that a lot of the animated objects had rearranged themselves into a more humanoid appearance. It was a cosmetic change, but the psychological aspect of attacking human lampposts was just creepy.
“I think we should retreat and try and come at her from one of the alleys,” Seth suggested. “She looks like she’d in the middle of that horde. It’ll be easier to get her if we don’t have to go through half her troops.”
“This is no problem,” Casey puffed out her chest with pride. “This is what I’m built for.” Seth wasn’t even able to say another word before she charged around the corner and toward the approaching army.
The minute Casey appeared around the corner, the rhythmic marching stopped and the army charged. Seth watched it all with a sense of awe. It wasn’t a barbaric charge like some undisciplined mob. They were organized and came at Casey in waves.
The first wave looked like it was made of rolling desk chairs; about a dozen total. They’d warped themselves into a roughly human shape. The two wheeled legs that were connected at one point had separated to form two separate legs. The seat and back had rearranged themselves from a ninety degree angle into an obtuse angle with the back of the seat jutting forward like a head. The arms were now detached from seat and back, and were spinning menacingly to the sides of the chairs. In the back of his mind, Seth likened the approaching wave to roller-skating ninjas with nunchucks.
It was an impressive sight, but they were still creations of leather, plastic, and padding going up against a Super. Casey met the wave head on. With her massive forearm she swept aside two of the attackers with a single swipe. They went crashing into to side of the nearby brick building. They crumpled and broke on impact, but they didn’t give up. Their wheels were busted, and they were nearly broken in two; but they got back to their feet and walked/rolled/slipped their way back toward Casey.
Casey’s fists were flying as the rest of the chairs attacked. They hit her with their twirling arms, but Seth doubt she felt it. She backhanded her attackers left and right, sending their crumpled bodies flying into the sides of the surrounding buildings; but she couldn’t kill them. Erin’s animated objects were battered and broken, but they kept getting back up and coming back for more.
Seth decided to get into the fight just at the second wave collided with Casey. This time the strongwoman’s attacks were more effective. The second wave was made up of human-desks. Casey punched, slapped, and kicked her attackers into splinters; and they didn’t get back up.
Seth stepped into the street and transfigured his whole body into flames. His perception of the world changed as he became one of the elements he controlled. He needed to keep his emotions in check to hold his human-flame form, or he risked setting the whole city on fire. That wouldn’t do his grade any good.
While Casey punched the desks into rubble, Seth set his eyes on the first wave of chair-soldiers. He threw fireballs at those farthest from him, and grabbed hold of one as it tried to attack him. He felt the impact of the twirling arms against his fire-form, but it only succeeded in setting the plastic on fire. Seth half expected the chair-soldier to screech as the flames and heat of Seth’s body melted it, but thankfully it didn’t. That would have been really weird.
Casey finished off the second wave before Seth got the last of the chair-soldiers, and that’s probably why she was targeted. Seth didn’t even see the attack coming. Seth felt the ball as it passed through the air between him and Casey. Seth was melting the last of the chairs with his bare hands, and he almost dropped the smelted object in surprise.
Seth could feel the object’s energy as it flew through the air. Seth only had time to drop the chair and dive out of the way before the shockwave hit. The sphere of energy hit Casey right in the side, picked her up off her feet, and blasted her into and through the building next to them. The shockwave from the explosion hit Seth mid-dive, and drove him into the ground hard. The asphalt beneath him bubbled as he rolled to his feet to survey the damage.
The attack had flattened the third wave of Erin’s charging objects, and all that was left was more charred wreckage. Seth expected Erin to jump on the opportunity. Casey was down, and Seth was much more vulnerable. Instead, her animated soldiers formed a perimeter and circled up around their master.
For a second Seth thought he’d caught a break, but then another voice announced its presence. “Hey, Erin,” the voice was on a nearby rooftop. “How about a temporary alliance?”
Seth watched as Kimberly Goodman leaned over the side of the building and rested her arms casually on the masonry. He’d known the blaster long enough, and been on her bad side most of that time, to understand the glint in her eye.
“You and I take down Abney over there, and then we go our separate ways. I’ll get the points for taking him down, and you get his ball. It’s a win-win,” Kimberly’s smile would have been breathtaking if it wasn’t coming from such a bad place.
Not for the first time semester Seth was regretting sleeping with Kimberly and telling all the guys about it. Now it looked like she was finally going to be able to take it out on him. She would have challenged him to a ranking match a long time ago, but she outranked him; and punching him during physical training just wasn’t as fun.
Kimberly got her response by one of the large human-streetlight animations walking forward and nodding its head up and down. “Alright then,” was the only warning Seth got before glowing balls of energy formed in her hands and she threw them straight at him.
Seth immediately dropped his fire-form, and cursed as the burning asphalt singed his black HCP uniform. Thankfully, the reinforced fabric kept him from third degree burns; and he quickly rolled away while engaging another of his elemental manipulations. Earth was his second best ability, and he did the first thing he thought of with it. As he rolled he pulled with his power. Ninety-five percent of asphalt was made of aggregates like sand, gravel, and stone; all of which he was able to manipulate. As Seth rolled and pulled, the asphalt came with him. With each roll a layer of asphalt wrapped itself around his body. With a little finesse, something he’d been practicing a lot the last few months, Seth spread the element so it covered his whole body in a protective layer.
Seth couldn’t see while he was wrapped in his asphalt armor, but he didn’t intend to. This was a last ditch attempt to protect himself, not armor to fight in. <Please let this work.> Seth got three good rolls in before Kimberly’s energy spheres hit.
The first sphere missed Seth by a good amount, but that didn’t stop the explosion from tossing his cocooned body into the air. The second sphere was more on target. The sphere clipped his protected shoulder. Seth’s whole world exploded in pain as the explosion tore through his protection, and sent his airborne cocoon flying through the same building Casey had destroyed a few moments ago.
<Fuck…fuck…fuck…fuck…fuck…> Seth’s mind repeated over and over again as stars danced in the darkness of his asphalt armor.
With so much pain, Seth’s concentration wavered, and the asphalt crumbled around him. He found himself in the destroyed remains of a restaurant. Casey was groaning about twenty feet from him, and there was a large hole in the wall about thirty feet from Seth.
<They’re coming for you. Get up and move!> Seth’s mental cadence changed as survival instincts took over.
The first thing he did was test his arm. Doing so almost made him pass out. <Ok, my arm’s fucked, what now?>
Seth didn’t have many options, so he used his good arm to crawl towards Casey’s body. <Move…move…move,> his instincts urged him on. He knew Kimberly wouldn’t wait to come after him.
Seth had just reached Casey when he saw a shadow appear in the hole in front of him. “Come on, Casey, get up,” he did his best to jostle her awake, but she was pretty messed up. Whatever Kimberly had thrown at Casey must have packed one hell of a punch.
“Game’s over, Seth,” Seth expected to hear venom in his one-time-lover’s voice, but he didn’t. There was a smugness that was present, but Kimberly wasn’t being cruel about it.
With his arm fucked up and his partner essentially defeated Seth didn’t have many options. The only thing he could think of was to make sure that Kimberly and Erin didn’t get as many points as they could.
“Sorry, Casey,” Seth muttered, as he lunged across her body and snatched the floating silver ball that was hovering above her. It was a cheap move, but he hoped the computer recognized his tactical calculation.
“Son of a…” Seth chuckled at Kimberly’s reaction. She’d hesitated, and it had cost her the ball of the number fourteen ranked student. She’d get Seth’s, but Seth was going for a small victory here.
Seth was still chuckling when the small orb full of electric energy smacked into his back. His whole body went ridged, he pissed and shit himself, and everything when a brilliant white before his lights went out.
It was far from a great final for Seth, but either way his first semester in the HCP was effectively over.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Stephanie Jacobsen hissed.
The last ranked Super in the freshman class was sitting in the middle of an intersection. She was alone, exposed, and a perfect target for anyone looking to get some easy points. And that’s what Angela wanted people to think.
“I’m confident it has the possibility to work,” Angela replied tersely from the rooftop.
Angela was able to read Stephanie’s lips from her vantage point, but the other Super didn’t hear the angelic shifter’s reply. Stephanie was basically talking to herself.
Even though Stephanie didn’t hear Angela’s statement it didn’t make it any less noncommittal. Truthfully, Angela had hoped that someone would stumble along their path, see the easy points, and spring the ambush she’d prepared. So far, either no one was coming this way, or people saw Stephanie and figured out what was really going on. Angela allowed for some margin of error in her plans. Not all of her classmates were stupid, and she expected some to stay clear; but she also knew a lot of her classmates couldn’t resist the temptation.
<Perhaps I should cut my losses, defeat Stephanie, and then go find more valuable targets,> Angela mused. She knew the silver ball hovering just over her shoulder would be evaluating this whole situation, and she wondered what the analysis would be. Would the ball determine that the plan was unsuccessful and Angela was salvaging what she could, or would it see it as a Machiavellian maneuver and count it against her? <That’s the problem with not enough information,> she huffed. <I end up overthinking things.>
Thankfully, Angela didn’t have to make the decision.
“Hey, Stephanie,” two black-uniformed freshmen rounded a corner half a block away, and started running in their direction. “What are you doing…?”
Angela made her move before they got close enough to Stephanie. With one powerful flap of her bronze wings she shot into the sky. She circled the two targets to gain speed and then dove. She shot through the air like a bullet, barely giving her victims any time to react.
Her targets only had time to look over their shoulder and scream before she was on them. Just the girl reacted fast enough. Midway through her scream of fright she popped out of existence just before Angela could get her hands on her. The boy wasn’t so lucky. Angela recognized the short stature of Sean Perez, the tech genius, and number thirty-one ranked freshman.
Based on his specialty in biochemistry, Angela changed her plan at the last second. Originally, she’d planned to clothesline her target, but there was no telling what gadget or organic, flesh eating defense Sean had prepared. So instead she summoned her energy spear and swept Sean’s legs out from under him. At her speed, sweeping his legs out from under him meant he did two flips in the air before landing on his ass.
Sean was slow to get up, and by the time he did Angela had landed, snatched his ball from beside him, and had a spear pointed at his chest. She couldn’t just impale Sean like she had Derrick Masters, but minor cutting was still within the rules.
“Angela, no!” Stephanie ran toward her throwing herself between Sean and the armed angel.
“I’ve got his ball, and I’ll take those points,” Angela held up the sphere. “Defeat him and then we can move on to another ambush sight. Or we can track down Fiona, I’ll leave that up to you.”
“How about none of the above,” Stephanie spat back, surprising Angela. “Sean and Fiona are my friends, Angela. They were coming to help me, not hurt me.” Angela could see the other Super’s fists shaking with anger. “Why the hell did I agree to partner with you in the first place?”
“Stephanie…what…” Angela was lost for words. “This is Battleball,” she finally settled on.
<Does she not know how this game works? Does she not know that this is our final exam? Does she even want to be a Hero?> Angela had so many questions.
Unfortunately, she never got the chance to ask them. As it turned out, the only naïve person on the street was Stephanie. While Stephanie was berating Angela for her tactics, Sean uncorked a clear vial from his pocket, and dabbed some liquid on his hand. If Stephanie wasn’t standing directly in front of Angela, the shifter would have stopped it, put an end to the argument, and been able to save Stephanie.
“I don’t care what it is,” Stephanie’s voice dropped. “They are still my friends…” her voice dropped off with the last word, her eyes rolled into her head, and she fell flat onto her face.
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Sean looked conflicted, but actions spoke louder than words. And that included his attempt to grab Stephanie’s ball. But Angela was quicker.
Sean’s frantic lunge was met with a slash of her spear. She made sure the cut wasn’t deep, just enough to make him reel back in pain so she could grab the ball. But the tech genius Super didn’t stop there, and Angel ahad to admire his perseverance.
As Sean scrambled backward trying to staunch the flow of blood with one hand, he grabbed more vials from his uniform and tossed them at Angela. One flap of her wings sent both the vials and Sean flying backwards. The vials exploded all around him, and started to do very peculiar things. One ate right through the street below them. Another caused a plant to spring up between them. The plant looked like an oversized Venus flytrap, and Angela got a good look at it when it turned itself toward her and snapped its serrated jaws threateningly. A third vial created a fog of noxious gas, and that’s when Angela stopped paying attention. Sean was covered by the gas and not moving, so there was no point in trying to fight through the irritated plant and over the acid to defeat someone who’d just been knocked out by his own invention.
“Huh,” Angela scratched her head before shooting back into the air. “Now I need a new plan.” She’d collected two balls, taken down two people, and had employed a useful strategy that her ball had recorded and analyzed. It was a good start.
Daisy watched the screen where Whitfield, Kemps, and Romanoff stood enclosed by Robin’s golden force fields. The virtually impenetrable constructs would keep the three students contained, and her announcement would keep them from fighting or anyone trying to take them out while Dr. Sanderson looked over Nathan Flynn.
Daisy turned her attention back to the doctor, and saw Craig with a serious expression on his face. <Shit,> if Craig wasn’t in good spirits then things couldn’t be good.
Daisy wanted to go and check on things, but her place was keeping watch on the other students. She needed to make sure everything continued as planned. Sometimes Heroes went down in the line of duty, but that didn’t mean everyone else got to stop everything and go check on them. There was always a mission to complete, and that was what Daisy needed to focus on. It didn’t stop her from feeling like shit, or get rid of the bad feeling in her gut, but it was what needed to be done.
“How’s it going, Craig?” she had to keep her attention on the screens, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t ask. “Talk to me,” she added when he didn’t respond.
“He’s pretty fucked up,” Craig’s voice held none of its usual good nature or warmth.
<All he did was touch her,> Daisy was still trying to put together everything herself.
She watched Martin capture Perez’s ball, then Perez take down Jacobsen, and then Perez basically take down himself when one of his attacks backfired. She waited for Martin to clear the area before calling it out.
“Craig, head to Quadrant 12. Perez and Jacobsen need a pick up. There’s some acid, toxic fog, and a big ass plant there so watch yourself.” Craig knew his role just like Daisy knew hers, so there was no hesitation despite Flynn’s situation.
In five seconds Craig was back with the two freshmen under his arms. He deposited them on two of the beds in the infirmary section of the large room, and then returned to Dr. Sanderson’s side. Other healers went to work on Jacobsen and Perez, and a few minutes later they were both on their feet, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.
“I can’t believe you stabbed me in the back,” Jacobsen screamed in Perez’s face.
Jacobsen wasn’t tall, only 5’3”, but Perez was the shortest person in the class; and with the female Super angry she seemed to tower over him.
“It’s nothing personal, Stephanie. It’s just the game.” Perez feebly tried to calm down the irate woman.
“I though friendship went farther than some stupid game, Sean,” she spat back, venom dripping with every word. Daisy didn’t think Jacobsen had it in her to sound so mean. She was mildly impressed.
As much as Daisy wanted to hear Jacobsen speak her mind, this wasn’t the time or place. “Jacobsen, Perez, get over here now.”
The two students’ conversation cut off immediately, and they approached her like two kids who’d just got caught with their hands in the cookie jar.
“Why are you two bitching up a storm over there,” she knew what the issue was, but she wanted them to tell her in their own words.
“Sean stabbed me in the back, Ma’am.”
“Stephanie thinks I stabbed her in the back because she didn’t take Battleball seriously.”
“Hmm,” Daisy pretended to ponder the situation for a second. “Sounds like both of you are right,” that got her two confused looks. “Perez,” Daisy pointed at the tiny man. “You did stab Jacobsen in the back. You used her perception of your friendship and took advantage of that. If it had been anyone else in that arena they wouldn’t have put their back to you like she did.”
“Yeah,” Jacobsen replied, but shut up when Daisy gave her a hard glare.
“Jacobsen, you didn’t take the game seriously. If you were taking the game seriously then you would have known that you should have never put your back to an opponent. It doesn’t matter if you are buddies out here, but in the arena you are opponents,” Daisy saw comprehension dawning on both of their faces. “So you are both right and you are both wrong. If you want to be friends in the ring then make an alliance and work together towards a common goal, but you didn’t do that. Stop bitching, have a seat, and watch the rest of the final.” The two students nodded, and returned to the bleachers section humbled and in thought.
<They need to learn,> one of the objectives of the first Battleball game was to see how they’d react to facing friends in combat for the first time. Both Jacobsen and Perez had failed that part of the test, but if they learned a valuable lesson from it then Daisy had done her job.
“Good work with those two,” Craig approached her at a normal pace.
“It’s my job,” she replied flatly, but gave her partner a small smile. “How’s Flynn?”
Craig sighed, his age and the weight of his time as a Hero clearly evident in those few moments before he snapped back. “Flynn’s in a coma.”
“Shit,” Daisy cursed.
“Shit is right,” Craig nodded, closing his eyes and running his hand over his face.
“He tried to copy Kemps’ power didn’t he?”
It was the simplest answer to what had happened, but Daisy didn’t want to jump to any conclusions. Despite the simplicity of what had happened, Daisy was pretty sure curing him wouldn’t be easy.
“They’ve got him stable now, but his whole brain shut down. If I’d been too much longer in getting him to the Doc then he might not have made it.”
That revelation would have sent a shiver up any student’s spine, but Daisy and Craig had seen enough death to simply accept it. “Is he going to recover?”
“There’s history of power copiers getting overloaded by the power they’re trying to copy and going into a coma. It’s complex healing though, and they need a telepathic surgeon to help with the process.”
“They need to cut a path for Flynn to reassert himself over the power that overwhelmed him,” Daisy had seen it done before, but under different circumstances.
“Yeah. Doc is calling in a specialist to help with the procedure, but all they can do is make Flynn comfortable for the next few days.” They both nodded, silently accepting the plan of action.
“Sucks for Flynn,” Daisy sighed. After such a traumatic event, and even he wasn’t guaranteed to recover from, it was up in the air whether or not he would want to return to the HCP. “He had potential.”
“Yeah he did,” Craig solemnly nodded. “But enough of us being party-poopers.” Like a lightbulb going off the old, fun loving Craig was back. “Find me an interesting fight to watch. I want to see some of our illustrious students kick the crap out of one another.”
Daisy grinned, and swiped through different cameras until she found something both of them would like. “Damn, this should be good.”