“I’m worried about her.”
Seth looked over at Becca. The blue-haired speedster was chewing on her bottom lip and staring intently at the wall. Give her a schoolgirl outfit and she’d be the embodiment of every Japanese businessman’s wet dream. But Seth didn’t think of her like that anymore.
Now Becca was more like a baby sister. She was loving and caring, but also naïve and annoying at times. The instinct to protect was there, but the instinct to educate was too. Seth wouldn’t claim to be a know-it-all with the answers Becca was looking for, but he had a little more experience with troubled family matters than the country girl from Iowa.
“Her dad just died, Becca.” Seth kept his voice firm, but not too firm to be insensitive. “It’s going to take her more than a week to adjust.”
The last week had flown by, and January had turned into February with it. For Seth, the time was spent getting back into the swing of things with classes, the HCP, and Liz. The latter taking up a lot of his free time. His super-hot girlfriend seemed to want to make up for their two weeks apart every chance they were alone. Seth didn’t have a problem with that, even if it made him fall behind on his homework.
“I know.” Becca pouted. “I just want her to feel better.”
<Don’t we all.> Seth thought.
Angela’s injuries had been psychological, not physical. Seth didn’t blame her for being a little out of it. Hunter was her father. Even if he and her mom seemed a little cold and distance when they’d visited over parent’s weekend they were still her parents. Losing a parent at any age was tough, but it was tougher when that parent died in the line of duty, a duty that Angela wholeheartedly wanted to embrace.
Seth probably wouldn’t have been as gung-ho to go do something if he watched a family member die doing it nearly right in front of his eyes. <Being a Hero isn’t easy.>
A lot of the freshman class was getting a dose of realism, even Seth. They’d had a Hero; a big, strong, famous, veteran Hero come in and lecture them. Not too long after that the same Hero had died in a terrible explosion in the very city their HCP was located. It had a lot of people questioning their choice.
It was one thing to be told the statistics of Hero fatalities by the Dean in a climate-controlled lecture hall, but it was another thing altogether to experience it. That fact was doubled with Angela being in their class and his roommate in the townhouse.
Seth found himself contemplating his life choices. Especially now that he’d met Liz.
Seth was a long way from popping any sort of question and looking to settle down. He was only eighteen, and even though he was from the South he wasn’t planning on marrying before college was over. Still, the idea of a life with Liz was tantalizing; and he didn’t think she’d be keen on him spending his life as a Hero. He didn’t know why, but he just got that impression from her.
The lift they were riding silently and smoothly came to a halt and opened into the metallic, futuristic walls of the HCP. Seth didn’t find the view interesting anymore. This view meant that there was going to be a certain amount of pain in his near future, and he was ok with that.
<As long as I get stronger.> Seth never wanted what happened to Hunter to happen to him or anyone he cared about.
He and Becca had caught a lift closer to the main section of the HCP, so their walk wasn’t as long as usual. They passed a few grey uniformed upperclassmen who nodded, and a white uniformed senior who actually stopped and asked Becca a few questions about speedsters. Seth waited patiently for the short conversation to finish.
The guy wasn’t hitting on her and using the questions as a pretense. Everyone in the HCP knew Becca was gay and in a relationship with Anika, and everyone respected that.
Thankfully, they’d left for the ranking matches a little early, or Seth would have been late to his own party.
Last Friday, before everything went to shit, Carson Long had challenged Seth to a ranking match for his number ten spot. Seth had fought Carson before and beaten him to the other freshman’s embarrassment. Carson was currently ranked twentieth in the class, but he had been ranked tenth before Seth took him down a notch.
Carson’s strength was close combat. His power revolved around his striking ability. His punches and kicks released kinetic ad thermal energy in a small explosion. Since the recoil on those attacks could be harmful, Carson also had some enhanced durability. It was nothing even close to Mason or Casey Williams, the class’s strongwoman, but it was formidable for someone with no physical enhancements like Seth.
Seth had to win more with his brain than his brawn, and that was exactly what he did last time. All it took was a bottle of water, which was why Carson had been thoroughly embarrassed. In Carson’s mind this match was about payback and redemption. For Seth it was about keeping his spot and testing out what his alternative training had taught him.
As much as Seth didn’t want to admit it, learning from Coach Meyers had given him a few more tricks up his sleeve.
“So, what are you planning?” Becca asked, her concern for Angela being replaced by the quivering excitement that was more common on her.
They walked into the observation area where a medium-sized group of students were waiting along with Coach Meyers and McMillian. Carson was there too, and with a serious look on his face.
“I’ve got a few ideas.”
Seth walked over to the refreshment stand on the far side of the room. He made sure Carson was watching him before picking up a bottle of water and smiling at his soon-to-be opponent.
The other freshman’s face went beet-red, and he looked like he wanted to kill something.
Seth thought he saw Coach Meyers grinning out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned to look she was talking with Coach McMillian.
“Good you’re both here.” The old speedster clapped his hand together loudly. “Let’s get this show on the road. Both of you head down to…”
“Wait!” A familiar voice interrupted.
Angela strode into the room with a purpose. Her body was stiff, her eyes were hard, and her face could have been chiseled from stone. Seth thought she’d be back in her room, but apparently he’d thought wrong.
“My challenge was issued first, and I have the right to go first.” Angela stopped next to the two coaches with her hands on her hips.
Coach Meyers looked at the teenage shifter with a raised eyebrow. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure. Why wouldn’t I be sure?” Angela snapped back.
Carson looked back and forth between Angela and Seth; caught between wanting to kick the crap out of Seth and seeing what the class’s number two student was capable of after her recent loss.
“Angela.” Coach McMillian’s voice was softer and a little more tactful than Coach Meyers had been. “You don’t have to do this today. We can reschedule for when you’ve had a little more time to…” He let the sentence trail off there.”
“Why don’t we do this next weekend, or the weekend after that.” Jason Cook, her surprised opponent offered. It was clear he didn’t think he’d be fighting today.
“No.” Angela’s reply was as hard and cold as steel. “The challenge is today so we’re going to do it today, and we’re going first.”
Coach Meyers and Coach McMillian gave each other a look before nodding.
“Ok then,” the close combat coach clapped his hands together again. “Cook and Martin it is. Get suited up and head down to cell D1. You know the drill.” Both freshmen nodded and sprinted out the door.
Seth watched them go with a shrug. He gave Carson another smile, opened his water, and took a small sip. With the thought of beating Seth to a pulp farther out of reach Carson got angrier with every taunting look.
<This is going to be fun.> Seth grinned internally, but then his mind shifted to Angela. <And interesting.>
Daisy watched Martin go. Once the freshman was out of sight she stepped through a side door away from the rest of the freshman. She pulled out her phone and dialed the second speed dial.
“John, I think you should get down here.”
It wasn’t something she could explain over the phone. It was something you had to see to believe.
Angela Martin was hurting, and everyone except Martin seemed to be ready to acknowledge that. Her match with Cook really should be delayed for a week or two, but Cook suggesting that had immediately turned the teenage shifter off to the idea.
<She wants to prove herself, prove that she’s not weak or defined by what happened to her father.> Daisy sighed as she hung up the phone. <It’s a childish and just plain stupid way to look at it, but that’s how she feels.>
Daisy really couldn’t blame Martin for it. She’d been that way once.
An old memory surfaced, one that Daisy remembered before Mastermind’s reconstructive telepathic surgery, and she let it happen.
It was in the months following Miriam’s death, the Hero See Through. She wasn’t a big name Hero, her ability to go incorporeal wasn’t big and flashy so she didn’t get the press like Daisy did. Still, she and Miriam had been friends since freshman year at Lander. They’d fought side by side for years. She’d been there when Daisy killed Dave, and she’d been a shoulder to cry on for more nights than Daisy could remember.
Then some fucking blaster-nobody killed her on a rooftop after an ambush that Daisy should have seen coming. Her intern had also died in the attack. He’d been a good kid, but Daisy hadn’t known him like she did Miriam.
When Miriam died Daisy suffered a severe case of survivor’s guilt. <It should have been me not her!> Was the mantra for those next few months.
Daisy mourned, but she wouldn’t let anyone else in on the healing process. That had always been Miriam’s job. So Daisy had gone on doing her job, and she’d been more reckless than was necessary.
When you feel like you wouldn’t mind dying then you tend to not care about things like danger, and you constantly seek out the dangerous assignments. So Daisy traveled around. She looked for the bad guys and took them down, sometimes mercilessly. She put herself in dangerous situations with little thought to her well-being, and came down hard on anyone who tried to tell her otherwise.
Luckily, Daisy had survived to learn the error of her ways, and Dr. Johnson had helped her see that such recklessness was counterproductive.
That was what Martin really needed right now. She needed to sit down and talk. She didn’t need to be in a combat cell duking it out with one of the strongest telekinetic blasters ever recorded. Jason was a good guy, a humble person, and a great student. He wouldn’t step over any lines.
Daisy didn’t know if that was going to hurt or help him in this coming challenge.
<Don’t do anything stupid, kid.>
Martin and Cook emerged into the combat cell within thirty seconds of each other. Both looked grim and determined, but Cook had a slight tell of nervousness. Daisy knew Martin would spot and exploit that.
Daisy waited to give the pre-fight speech until John arrived.
“Martin and Cook are doing their ranking challenge, Boss-man.” Craig filled in the Dean.
Daisy saw the same thought process pass through her old friend’s mind. She could see the change in his kind eyes. He’d seen a few Heroes go through this after losing a friend, and as a former team leader it was something he was both trained and had experience in. He’d gone through it himself after what happened in New York.
It was half the reason he was an HCP dean now, and not still leading the Patriots.
“Hmmm.” He looked down at the monitors.
Cook and Martin were in the reinforced combat cell. Their fight would be deadly enough that the faculty didn’t want anyone else to potentially get injured. It was a standard procedure with young Supers as powerful as them. But in this case that might cause some problems.
“Daisy, get down there and keep a closer eye on them.” John’s eyes were glued to the screen. “We’ll get you something to view the fight, but you need to be ready to move.”
“Yeah.” Daisy knew that would be the outcome. She just really hoped she wouldn’t have to step in.
Daisy left the observation room at a jog just as John announced for the two combatants that the match would start in a few minutes while they dealt with some technical difficulties.
<Technical difficulties?> Angela had never heard of anything like that before a match.
She pushed the thought to the back of her mind. She needed to focus on the task in front of her.
Jason stood across the combat cell from her looking a little anxious. <I can use that.> It would fit right into her battle plan.
The objective was simple. Angela was going to regain the number one ranked spot, and nothing was going to stand in her way. She would take down Jason Cook or she’d come as close to dying as the HCP professors would allow. There was no prize for second best, Angela knew that now.
<All it takes is a second, one single second of hesitation, not being fast enough, or not being able to cut it; just one second and you’re dead.> Tears started to form in her eyes but she stopped them by transforming.
Power rushed through her. The intoxicating brew of strength, speed, and durability that put her in the top fraction of a percent of strongest people on the planet Earth. She breathed it in like a drug, and let the tears fade away. No one could be sad when they were as strong as she was.
Jason lowered his hand from his eyes. The flash of brilliant light that preceded Angela’s transformation was as strong as any military-grade flashbang grenade without the bang. Angela hoped she’d see fear in the boy’s eyes but she didn’t. He looked sad, like he was sorry for her.
All that did was piss her off.
Angela flexed her fists, but remained rooted to where she stood. <Soon.> She’d be able to show everyone who was watching her that they didn’t need to be sorry for little old Angela. She’d show them that they needed to respect her like any other student; especially a student who was ranked number one.
She looked away from Jason’s face; that was only grating her nerves, and instead focused on the rest of the room. It was the same combat cell she’d fought Jason in back at the start of the first semester. It had been repaired since then, but it was still the reinforced combat cell that she’d likely have most of her future matches in. When she fought there was always the potential for collateral damage.
Her mind remembered the painful force behind Jason’s attacks, his defenses, and how she overcame them last time. She’d spent a lot of time studying her main opponent, and today it was going to pay off.
Jason’s power was straightforward. He was categorized as an advanced mind, but to fight him you needed to think of him like a blaster. Jason had no tactile control of his telekinesis whatsoever, and his telepathy was like a bad FM radio. He could dial in on certain “stations”, but there was always bad reception. Angela could easily disguise her thoughts from him, so she wasn’t worried about that.
What she needed to be worried about was the force of his attacks. Jason’s telekinesis was some of the most powerful she’d ever heard of. She distinctly remembered him punching a small hole through the reinforced concrete of this very combat cell. He had the ability to extend and contract the width of his blasts with different sizes corresponding to different strengths. She’d taken a powerful blast in the back during the semester final in December, and it had nearly crippled her.
For defense Jason could create a form of a shield. It wasn’t a solid telekinetic barrier he summoned in front of himself like most advanced minds. He wasn’t capable of something like that because of how his power worked. What he was able to create was a constantly spinning shell of energy. Simply put, he continuously blasted energy around himself which doubled as a defensive barrier.
Those two tricks alone were formidable, and would have given most Supers pause. You needed to have strongman level durability to withstand his strikes and a strong attack to break through the barrier. If that wasn’t bad enough she’d seen Jason start to perfect his techniques.
Since Jason was more of a blaster he wasn’t able to blast away and have his barrier at the same time. His manipulation of his mind’s energy didn’t work like that. He was limited to offense or defense. So, like any good hero in training, he’d started to address his weak points. Essentially, it was a variant of what he’d done to Angela in their first match. He would peel away layers of his shield as it spun around him and then launch those portions of energy at his opponents. Those blasts were much less powerful, but they’d still break the bones of an average human.
The downside to the techniques was that the stripped layers of his shield became weak points that could be exploited, but that was easier said than done. The only sign of Jason’s powerful attacks and defenses was a slight distortion as his power moved through the space around him.
Thankfully, Angela’s senses in her shifted form were a little better than the average person’s and her situational awareness had been honed by years of training with her parents.
The realization sent a stab of emotional pin through her shifted form’s mind, but she immediately caught it and shoved it into the spot at the back of her mind where she stored all of her pain. There it was quickly forgotten.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is a challenge ranking match between number one ranked Jason Cook and number two ranked Angela Martin.”
<That’s the Dean.> Angela identified the voice. <Apparently he came to watch the show.>
“I expect everyone participating to conduct themselves in the manner befitting your position in this program,” the Dean’s voice was very stern for a moment. “This match will begin in thirty seconds, and will only end when one combatant is incapacitated or surrenders. The use of lethal force is not authorized. Any use of such force will result in your expulsion from the HCP and a criminal investigation. I wish you both luck. Fight well.” The Dean finished and the clock started to count down.
“Good luck, Angela.” Jason took a fighting stance across the cell from him.
Angela didn’t say anything she just nodded and did the same.
The clock counted down and Angela considered her first move. She’d underestimated Jason’s opening attack during their first match and she didn’t intend to make the same mistake twice.
The clock hit zero and they both exploded into action. Jason’s first move was obvious. He wanted to hit her hard and fast and end this quickly. An extended fight was in her favor. She had much more stamina than him.
She jumped and rolled to the side, avoiding the powerful blast the dug a shallow furrow in the floor and cracked the wall behind her. Small chunks of debris clattered to the ground, but she ignored them beyond simply knowing that they were there.
She came out of her roll, energy spear already forming, so when she reached a kneeling position her arm was already reared back with his spear ready to launch. She let the spear fly just as she took a blast to the chest.
“Oomph,” she rolled backward with the blow, doing a mental assessment.
<All good.> Her armor had absorbed a lot of the strike.
She came out of the backwards roll just as her spear reached Jason. The spear could impale and kill the physically average Super, but instead it seemed to catch on the air in front of him before being tossed upward. The force of the strike did force Jason to take a step back through.
Angela dissolved the spear, reformed it in her hand and threw it again. This time diving away just as she released it. She’d caught the small tendril of distortion that was reaching out from Jason’s pseudo-invisible shield of energy.
<Perfect.> She had him on the defensive now, which was exactly where she wanted him to be.
If he was playing defense, then his strikes would be weaker and less likely to injure her. All she had to do was wear him down now, or at least that was what Angela two weeks ago would have thought.
Today, Angela was not so benevolent in her strategic thinking. Today, Jason was a threat that needed to be utterly defeated.
She needed to prove herself.
They exchanged blows like that for a few minutes. On the monitors of the people watching them it probably looked repetitive and boring. She would throw her energy spear and roll away or get hit by one of Jason’s weaker counterattacks. Her spears would hit Jason’s shield, never penetrating, and get thrown away before dissolving.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. All of her actions were designed for a singular purpose. Get closer to Jason. If she was closer she had more options she could work with, and he didn’t have as quick of a reaction time as she did. If she got in close she could end this battle decisively in her favor.
Angela came out of another roll and took glancing blow as she reformed her spear. <Damnit.> She was forced to roll with the attack away from Jason, and farther from her main objective.
She threw her spear, hopped away from another distortion of space heading her way, and altered her battle plan. She was just getting too close to continue using her spear. It took longer to form than a smaller weapon, and she needed those extra quarter of a second to dodge and gain ground.
The spear was by far her best weapon. She’d trained on it extensivly both in close and ranged combat. She could hit a quarter on a one hundred meter target with that spear; which so far was her max distance. She’d nearly doubled her range since last semester. But she’d also foreseen situations such as this when a large spear wasn’t the best weapon to get the job done. She needed something else.
Angela jumped over Jason’s attack this time, which caught him a little by surprise. She didn’t stay airborne because she was much more maneuverable on the ground, but she hovered long enough to summon a single-edge battle ax, and throw it right at Jason’s head.
The ax was a blur of tumbling light as it spun forward toward Jason’s shield.
Angela had watched countless videos on ax throwing, and perfected it on the ranges. She still couldn’t hit anything beyond twenty yards, but the sight of a spinning blade right out of some Norse legend was enough to make anyone hesitate.
Jason’s hesitation wasn’t fatal, but it did allow her to drop back to the floor unmolested and execute a combat roll that brought her within a few feet of the advanced mind.
The ax reacted much as the spears had. It hit the shield and flew off of it only to dissolve half a second later. But two more of the attacks got her in close with Jason, and allowed her to study his shield in more detail.
Angela took more blows than she was comfortable with as she dipped, dived, ducked, dogged, rolled, and jumped around Jason. But it was necessary. She needed to be close enough to see the shield react to her attack. She needed to see where it weakened.
The good news was that she saw the pattern, the bad news was the shield only weakened at the point the attack originated from and then tracked quickly upward as the telekinetic energy continued to spin.
<I’ve only got one shot.> Angela grunted as a weak strike from Jason hit her in the gut. It forced her a few steps back, but she dipped under the next attack and was able to strike the shield with the axe this time.
She didn’t need to throw it anymore. Now it hit with a lot more force than one of her throws.
Jason’s shield held, but she could see him sweating, and having to take steps backward with each successful strike.
<Don’t let up. Attack…attack…ATTACK!> Angela screamed at herself, shrugging off telekinetic hits as she continued to bash away at Jason’s shield.
Anyone watching could see that the battle had turned. Angela had the momentum, advantage, and skill to win. It wasn’t a sure thing, but nothing was in the world of Heroes. All she had to do was wear him down.
Things didn’t turn out exactly how the spectators thought it would.
<Overhead strike to the head…sidestep…spin…powerful blow to midsection…jump over counterattack…> Angela executed a series of attacks and waited for her moment. She knew she’d have to take a hit, but it would be well worth it.
She could already taste victory.
She picked her moment carefully and utilized a resource she hadn’t before. Other than a flap here and there to increase momentum Angela hadn’t used her wings at all. Even outside of combat she didn’t usually use them for more than flying. She was sure people knew about their additional properties and were coming up with counters, but even if Jason did have something she didn’t think he’d be able to use it now. She had him on the ropes.
She set it up perfectly. She lingered too long directly in front of him. It was a target he couldn’t pass up. If he wasn’t exhausted and getting continuously beaten he might have thought twice, but not today.
The moment she saw the attack coming she struck. A beam of telekinetic energy shot forward from Jason’s shield just as Angela’s wing thrust forward. She aimed just higher than where the attack originated, and it paid off. After meeting minimal resistance her wing pierced his shield and drove its tip into the place where his chest, arm, and shoulder met.
Then a wave of pain washed over her. Two things happened nearly simultaneously. First, Jason’s attack hit her in the chest. Unlike previous times when she could just roll with the barely seen punches, this time she had to brace and take it on the metaphorical chin.
She felt the crunch against her armor and her durable bones rattle before the attack subsided. She started to push the pain away, and the second wave lanced through her mind. But this time it was her own fault.
For a few moments after driving her wingtip into and through Jason’s shoulder area his shield continued to spin. The force of the telekinetic energy caught her wing and torqued it upward, easily dislocating her extra appendage. Thankfully, Jason’s own trauma kept him from maintaining the shield longer than a few seconds. If he had been able to it probably would have ripped her wing clean off.
“Son of a bitch!” Angela roared, as his shield fell.
Her wing could no longer support his weight, and with a sickening slurp he slid off it and to the ground. Blood squirted everywhere, but she didn’t stop. He was still in the fight, and he needed to be defeated.
She took two steps forward, ignoring that agonizing flair of pain in her wing, grabbed Jason by the throat, and lifted him off the ground.
He hung limply from her grasp, but she could tell he was still breathing and he hadn’t surrendered.
<Heroes never surrender. We never quit. We do the job or we die trying. He died trying!>
She didn’t even feel the light tapping of Jason’s hand against her forearm. Tapping that was growing increasingly weaker.
<I’ve got to win. I’ve got to become the strongest. Then I’m going to find her and…>
Angela’s whole world turned inside out. If felt like someone turned her upside down, inside out, and ran her on a tumble dry cycle in the world’s worst dryer. She didn’t even realize she’d dropped Jason. She was too busy falling to her knees and throwing up everything she’d ever eaten.
She didn’t even realize the door to the combat cell had opened and Coach Meyers was calmly walking towards them.
“This match is over.”
Angela barely heard the words. The world was spinning out of control and there was nothing she could do about it. She couldn’t even get to her feet. All she could think about was not puking up her internal organs.
She didn’t even notice that the alternative instructor didn’t announce the winner.