“So can anyone tell me what the lessons learned from the Brewster event were?” Dean Ditmar stood at his podium addressing a class of freshmen that were less attentive than usual.
Of course, Angela wasn’t one of them.
She raised her hand high, but not high enough to say “pick me, pick me”. She was in college now and she had to give other kids a chance to answer.
The Dean called on Casey who looked practically asleep, but was still able to deliver a decent answer.
“Ok.” The Dean looked down at his watch and then back out at the students. “That’s enough of the progress toward artificial intelligence for today.” The class brightened up at that. “But I do need to remind you that your midterm papers are due next Monday.”
Groans rippled through the class like a wave, and the Dean made a calm down gesture with his hands. “I know what you’re all thinking. You’re all sitting there wondering ‘why oh why does the paper need to be twenty pages long’? The answer to that is simple. It needs to be twenty pages long because that is the minimum length necessary to answer the question. Since you are comparing and contrasting a Hero and a villain you should have plenty of material to work with.”
Angela wasn’t worried about the paper. She already had twenty-two pages written and still had the conclusion to go. The only thing she had minor worries about was one of the subjects.
After her father’s death, which Angela was just starting to be able to think about without drowning in guilt, shame, or anger, she dove into the DVA’s systems to find everything they had on Wraith. Now that the villain was becoming more notorious, new information was becoming available as cyber specialist dug through twenty years of footage looking for any sign of her. The mission was to find out who she was, and Angela was determined to help any way she could.
If that meant her second semester freshmen midterm project at the West Private University HCP just happened to line up with that goal, then she was fine with that. She just hoped Dean Ditmar was too.
“Any questions before I release you to your tormenters?” The brief moment of levity got a few laughs, but no takers. “Very well.” The Dean nodded and everyone got up and ready to leave.
Angela packed her bags and would have been the first one to the door if the Dean hadn’t called her name. “Please wait up a moment, Ms. Martin.”
Angela waited as the rest of the class passed her by, some giving her side-glances, while Becca just smiled and told her she’d wait for her outside. The blue-haired speedster was nothing if not a great friend.
“Ms. Martin,” the Dean started once the door had shut behind the last leaving student. “First off I wanted to check in and see how you were doing?”
Angela had heard this several times from several people since her father’s death. Truthfully, she found it irritating that everyone was treating her with kid gloves, even if most of the people were asking out of genuine concern.
“I’m coping, Sir.” The response was so quick it sounded rehearsed, so she added more for the nice Dean’s sake. “Dr. Johnson has taught me some good techniques and my friends have been there for me.”
The response served the dual purpose of answering his question and subtly reminding him that there were people waiting for her.
“Yes, that’s good.” It was clear he got the dual meaning and smiled. “Have you seen your mother recently?”
“Um. . .” She didn’t see that one coming.
Angela had only seen her mother on a few occasions. She’d come to the hospital, she’d been at the funeral, and she’d stopped by not too long ago. That last visit had been weird because she’d obviously been drinking, and all she talked about was her failure. Since the implacable Sophia Martin only ever talked about determination and victory at all costs, the conversation had been more than a little unsettling.
“Not for a few days.” Angela replied truthfully. The look in the Dean’s eyes showed that he knew all the pertinent information about the situation.
“If you do see her, or if you can get a hold of her, could you please have her check in at the Protectorate headquarters. There have been a number of. . .unsettling. . .reports coming in. Most are from some of the last remaining members of the Fist, but nevertheless the DVA needs to ensure that everyone’s rights and due process are being respected.”
Angela read between the lines. Her mom, a famous Hero, had gone slightly off the reservation in her quest for vengeance and people were starting to get nervous. Angela didn’t know what she could do to help, but she could at least make a phone call.
“I’ll do what I can.” She nodded.
“Thank you,” the Dean sighed. “Now hurry to the gym. I’ve held you up for. . .five minutes. If you are more than five minutes late then I cannot protect you from Coach Meyers.”
Angela didn’t waste any time. She jumped up from her seat and started to run. She burst through the door and almost ran straight into Becca.
“Geez Louise.” Becca moved back quicker than Angela could follow. “Where’s the stampede?”
“We’re going to be late. Sorry if I kept you waiting.”
“No worries.” Becca smiled her big, innocent smile. “Just wanted to make sure everything was ok.”
“Yeah everything is just fine. Just some family business.”
“Alright then.” Becca paused a second to see if Angela wanted to elaborate. “Well we better hurry up,” Becca replied when Angela didn’t say anything. “I’ll see you there.”
Becca disappeared in a blue blur leaving Angela to run the last few corridors alone. Not that the angelic shifter minded. She had enough to think about.
Daisy glanced at the clock and silently cursed. <I’m going to be late.>
She knew that, and she still didn’t give a shit.
After a lot of poking and prodding by the other HCP professors, Daisy finally relented and started to make her office more livable. It was a necessity for the job. Despite everyone having homes to go home to at the end of the day, some days never ended. Daisy had pulled more than a few all-nighters in this job, and each time Craig found her sleeping on her desk he bugged her to update.
So now Daisy had a pullout couch stuffed into one corner and a small TV sitting on the top of one of her shelves.
That small box set, which was terribly out of date if Craig was right, was the reason she was going to be tardy. Being in the secure HCP meant that she didn’t have all the normal channels a person would have in their above-ground home. But it did have some perks, including the ability to watch some of the DVA’s in-depth footage of past and present events.
Which was what had her so worried.
The destabilizing situation in Morocco was all over the news. Outlets from several different countries were covering the madness, and it wasn’t pretty. A quarter of the capital city, Rabat, was on fire; and it wasn’t normal fire.
The fire didn’t move like normal. It was spreading across the section of the city, but while some buildings were burning bright others were not. The fire was choosing its targets. In some cases, a house was being consumed by flame and its neighbor would be completely unscathed. It was weird, confusing, and clearly Super-created.
The last part was obvious since the flames themselves were a bright silver color.
<Damascus.> A memory tugged at the back of her mind and she let it sweep over her.
It was hotter than Hell, the shouts of the city were giving her a skull-numbing headache, and everything smelled like half-rotted asshole.
“So this is what my life has boiled down to.” Daisy, dressed head to toe in a black garment, took stock of her life.
“Cheers, love.” The man walking beside her whispered his response.
The man was tall, distinguished, and dashingly handsome. Something he never let her forget. He was professional though, SAS commandoes tended to be like that, but the second the mission was completed he’d start hounding her again for a pint.
She’d be able to drink his finely-sculpted ass under the table any day of the week. But that wasn’t something she advertised. She preferred to have those fools figure that out for themselves.
“Any sign of the target?” The voice in their ears asked.
“Negative, Leftenant.” Her charming British compatriot responded. “This is our third pass. Requesting new location to conduct overwatch. They’ll identify us if we make another pass.”
The joint ForceOps-SAS mission to track down a renowned terrorist in Syria was not going well. Intelligence stated he was supposed to be making an arms deal with members of a local group today, but so far he’d been a no-show.
People were starting to get antsy, Daisy could feel it. There was chatter about an attack on the UK; which was why she was here. In the spirit of international cooperation the US was sending its best to help out.
Not that any of that mattered as they passed by the foul-smelling café for the third time.
<Were just sitting out here with our dicks out pissing in the wind.> Daisy thought.
She might be covered up, but there weren’t any other women over six feet around. They had to have drawn attention by now.
“The building across the street has a good line of sight into the café and all avenues of approach.” A familiar American voice chimed in their ears.
Daisy recognized Kevin’s voice, and knew he was within a mile of their location with a quick reaction force of conventional, but still quite deadly, ForceOps soldiers.
“Moving now.” The SAS operative, acting as Daisy’s male escort, detoured across the street and into the open shop.
He closed the dirt-stained door behind him, and flipped around a piece of cardboard with Arabic writing on it. Daisy assumed the side facing out now said closed.
The man sitting behind a counter took offense to that, but before he could shout Daisy dropped him. Her partner caught him before he hit the ground and dragged him behind the counter to conceal his unconscious body.
“Bloody hell, that’s a handy trick, love.” He flashed Daisy his dimpled smile.
<Ok,> Daisy thought to herself as they climbed the back stairwell up to the roof. <Maybe I’ll fool around with him once this mission is over.>
The strapping commando might not look it, but he was an impressive strongman. Daisy just hoped she knew how to use what God gave him.
Those pleasant thoughts were baked from Daisy’s mind over the next two hours of watching and waiting in the punishing Middle-Eastern sun. Even the SAS man’s thinly-veiled sexual banter dried up after a while. They were both miserable sitting on top of the rooftop.
“Leftenant, are were supposed to sit up here and shrivel into raisins?” The commando asked after they’d just about had enough.
The other end of the line was silent.
“M?” Daisy tried her own comms with Mastermind and the QRF. “You still reading us?”
Daisy immediately went on high alert. She scanned with her specialized power but didn’t feel any unknown Supers or Powered in the half-mile around them. Just normal humans going about their day.
“We’re being jammed.” The SAS strongman looked over their equipment. “I suspect we’ll be more entertained shortly.”
Daisy just nodded as her eyes kept scanning. She kept her head on a swivel, sweeping back and forth across the crowded street, and continued to search with her power.
A man stepped around the corner with a large box cradled in his arms. His face was only visible for a second as he negotiated the corner, but that was their man.
“Target acquired.” Daisy stated, even though she knew the transmission wouldn’t get through.
She focused on the box. The box didn’t have the same feel as a Super or Powered person, but she could feel something else there. It was like walking into a room where somebody had smoked recently. You could still smell the tobacco and knew someone had been smoking, but they weren’t there anymore.
Something about the box suggested lingering powers.
“There’s something up with that box.” Daisy informed the SAS commando.
“Well then we had better check it out.” The man said as the target disappeared into the café across the street.
“Ladies first.” He gestured to the edge of the roof.
They’d gamed out a few scenarios while walking around the block and sitting on the rooftop, but no matter what they hypothesized a hard, quick entry was still the way to go. They were both very durable in their own way and were fairly confident they could resist any surprises.
“Screw that.” Daisy laughed off his attempt at chivalry. “You’re the big, strong man. You go first.”
He nodded with another dimpled smile, stood up and jumped off the second story roof. Daisy gave him a two Mississippi count and then followed.
The fall was short, but it gave a boost to her kinetic energy battery when she hit the ground. She didn’t store it though, instead choosing to release all of it in a burst of speed that broke the already cracked road as she barreled forward into the café; whose wall the SAS commando had already made a convenient hole in.
She skidded to a halt in the center of the establishment. The completely empty establishment. Empty of everything except the big box sitting on the center table.
“Check the back, love. I’ll look at the box.” It was the right move. The SAS operative was much more likely to have training for something like this. “Just like getting into a woman’s knickers; slow, steady, but you had better be able to move when the moment is right.”
Daisy couldn’t stop the snort of laughter as she headed for the back door.
She never made it.
The heat and concussive force of the explosion knocked her forward, and only her extensive HCP training and Hero work saved her. In fact, she used the same technique her father used when Armsman and Hellgate attempted to assassinate the President back in 1971.
She focused and engaged her kinetic absorption abilities enough that she took in the kinetic energy of the blast and impact of the shrapnel, but still surfed the overall wave of energy out of the kill zone.
The course of that wave did take her through the back wall and into the rear alley.
She collapsed into a spread-eagled wreck in the back of the store. She was bruised and her arm wasn’t working quite right. She hadn’t executed the maneuver as good as her father had.
<I need to work on that.>
And then she smelled the burning.
“Fuck. . .fuck. . .FUCK!” She yelled, tearing the flaming black garment off herself. “Stupid fucking pillow sack!” She screamed as heat scorched her hands, blistering her skin, and making her awful day even worse.
“Easy now.” The SAS commando appeared in the hole she’d made in the back wall.
His clothes were gone, leaving him as naked as the day he was born, but otherwise unharmed. Silver flames still licked at his body, but failed to do any damage.
“Am I in so much pain that I’m tripping balls or is that fire silver?” Daisy clutched her scorched hand to her chest as the strongman stomped out the rest of the flames.
“No, you’re quite sane, and the silver flames confirms our intelligence. This was Damascus, he just knew we’d be here.”
Daisy grimaced at the unknown terrorist Super and silently vowed to put her foot up his ass at some point for payback.
“We need to get going.” The SAS strongman looked around, jogged a short way down the alley, and jumped up three stories to grab clothing off a line hanging outside a window. “Here we go.”
The clothes weren’t big enough, but it was better than walking around naked.
“Up we go. Let’s get to the rendezvous point.”
Daisy agreed, but her body didn’t. She took a step and her knee gave out.
“Son of a cocksuckin’ bitch.” She growled, leaning on the strongman for support.
“I thought you HCP birds were supposed to be tough?” The commando grinned, using the insult to motivate.
“Easy for you to say Mr. I-Can’t-Get-Hurt.” Daisy spat back. “You must not have been pushed hard enough.” She returned his insult with one of her own.
“I will have you know that I was challenged significantly at Brashmoore, but decided that Hero-work just was not my style.” He spoke of an institution Daisy knew nothing about.
“Whatever.” She waved away his excuse. “Help me so we can get the fuck out of here.”
Daisy snapped back to reality as the TV showed a palm tree-lined boulevard consumed by the silver flames that had injured her so long ago.
<He’s coming.> She thought, forgetting all about the physical training class she was already five minutes late to.
Now, not one but two demons from her past were coming back to haunt her. And it would be her new town, friends, and students that took the hit for it.
<And Topher.> A shiver ran down her spine. <And Debora.> There wasn’t a shiver this time, but she didn’t want anything bad to happen to the DVA agent either. The woman was a kindred spirit.
She spent no more than a minute engaging in her own little pity-party before she pulled herself together.
“Woman the fuck up.” She said out loud. “They can fucking hurt them over my cold, dead body.”
She was dead serious.
And if it came to that, there would be a hell of a lot of other dead bodies around her when she drew her last breath.
<Time to get to work.>
Sophia Martin rested her head on the cold metallic surface of the table and savored the chill as it spread through her body. She exhaled heavily, took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out through her mouth. She did this a few times before looking back up at the blacked-out computer monitor.
She saw her reflection in the dark screen and it made her wince.
Sophia looked like hammered shit. Her hair was a mess, she had no makeup on, her eyes were bugging out but still had dark circles under them. It gave her a first-glance appearance of some kind of addict. She hadn’t changed in god only knew how long, and she smelled ripe. If someone walked into the professor portion of the HCP library server area they’d probably think that some hobo had found her way in and made herself at home.
<Focus.> She let out another deep breath and hit the spacebar to bring the computer back to life.
She had to go through the extensive log on process again. After a few minutes the plain blue homepage popped back to life. She looked at the bottom right side of the screen with surprise.
<I must have passed out.> She thought as she noticed the time difference.
It was probably for the best. She hadn’t slept in what felt like days and she had probably started to hallucinate near the end.
She hadn’t slept since Wraith’s escape.
<There has to be something here.> All the fervor and madness came crashing back like a tsunami. <I hit her I know I did. She should be a puking, powerless mess right now if it was a glancing blow. If I really got her then she should be dead.>
Sophia didn’t shoot her poisonous barbs at just anyone, and when she did she was playing to win. <I’ve got the advantage now. I need to capitalize.>
She opened up Hunter’s old searches, she couldn’t think of him as Henry right now, and went through them for the two-hundredth time. The searches, filters, and cross-references hadn’t changed since the first time she looked at them, and despite all the willpower in the world they weren’t revealing any new information.
Still, she went through them meticulously until she came to the last entry.
<Who the hell are you!> She started at the picture of the pretty woman who put on puppet shows with her powers.
Her fist slammed down on the tabletop, rattling the desktop computer. Pain lanced through her wrist and up to her elbow. She silently cursed her outburst and clutched her wrist with her opposite hand.
“What was that?” A voice asked from outside the secure room.
Without hesitation Sophia shifted from an athletically lean human woman to a winged creature somewhere between and angel and a demon.
Sophia did not shift the same way her daughter did. Angela was lucky. There was simply a blast of light and she was changed. Sophia had used video equipment once to cut through the light and see the change, but there wasn’t much to see. Angela’s human body simply disintegrated as her own angelic shape burst forth. It looked like it should be horribly painful, but Sophia knew better than to think that. Her own shifting was far less appealing.
Sophia’s flesh seemed to melt in the heartbeat it took her to become Seraphim. It gave the impression of the winged creature rising out of Sophia’s melted humanity. She’d learned long ago that it was unsettling to people, and made sure to always shift before going out in public.
There was another reason she always shifted in private. Unlike her daughter, Sophia shifted form appeared completely naked.
She had no time to get into the clothes she’d packed in her bag so she wrapped her wing protectively around herself to cover her modesty.
A second later the door clicked open and a woman peered in. Sophia recognized her as Force Field, the perpetually sad looking HCP Control instructor.
“Oh, hello, Seraphim.” She nodded her head. Not at all surprised to see a large winged creature sitting in a chair that was too small for it.
“Please do not disturb me.” Sophia hissed back, not taking her eyes from the computer screen.
She was starting the search again from the beginning. She noticed that other people had started to look at Hunter’s old research. The DVA, other Heroes, and basically anyone who had access to these servers was starting to pour over this intelligence. Which meant Sophia would soon have competition in killing the bitch who had killed her husband.
“I’ll leave you alone,” Robin Kirk nodded. “But you should know the Dean is looking for you. Something about cracking too many skulls.” The statement teased a smile on the woman’s lips. “Just thought you should know.”
“Thank you,” Sophia replied, giving a thumbs up in the direction of the door. “I’ll try to keep people more intact next time.”
There was no reply, and when Sophia finally turned around to look the other Hero was gone.
So she went back to work.
An hour later nothing had changed. The information wasn’t going to magically change and reveal its hidden secrets. <So I need to figure out a different way to look at it.>
Unfortunately, Henry had always been better at that sort of thing. But she had picked up a few tricks along the way. What she needed was another pair of eyes, but since that wasn’t possible she did the next best thing.
The system archived the views and users who had looked at the pages. It was meant to be a tool for interaction between people who might be working on adjoining cases, but it had never really worked out that way. People like to be in control of what they thought was theirs, which meant they didn’t like to share. Then the DVA threw allocation budgets in there and what you got was a decisive lack of cooperation.
Still, the information was there, and there was one page that was getting slightly more hits than the others.
<Why are you so interesting, Amelie Noel?>
Lilly took a deep breath and raised her hand toward the door. She wasn’t one hundred percent yet, but she was a hell of a lot better than the drooling mess she’d been the last time she was in this house, and she’d take that over her father’s overprotectiveness any day of the week.
Normally, she would just walk on in, but after everything that happened this just felt better. She gave the door three good knocks and then stepped back to wait.
Barely half a second passed before the door popped open to reveal blue braids on top of an adorable face.
“Liz!” Becca practically screeched.
Liz smiled and grimaced all in one facial expression. “Hey, Becca.” It was a good thing she’d stepped back because the smaller woman threw open the screen door and pulled her into a hug.
“I heard about your uncle. I’m so sorry. Where were you? How are you? Are you caught up on your homework? Did you lose weight? Everything ok?” Rapid fire questions erupted from the girl like she was a human machine gun.
“Thanks.” Liz smiled and took a deep breath as Becca released her. “I was at home. I’m good. I didn’t know him that well. I’m good on homework.” That last part was thanks to Mika. “I did lose a bit of weight. I caught the flu at the funeral which was why I’ve been away a bit longer than I would have liked. Aside from that everything is good.” She answered all the blue-haired woman’s questions quickly to get them out of the way and get to the reason she was really here. “Is Seth upstairs?”
Becca’s smile grew a little mischievous before she could reign herself in. “Yeah, he’s in your room.” Becca had started referring to everybody’s room in the plural since multiple people tended to stay in them on a continuous basis.
“Ok thanks.” Liz grabbed her luggage and headed down the well-worn path to her room.
She stopped momentarily at the door to gather herself. She didn’t know how Seth was going to react. This was the second time she’d just disappeared on him in as many months. Even if she had a good excuse this time she’d still bailed.
She let out a deep breath, put a smile on her face, and pushed open the door. “Honey, I’m ho. . .” She abruptly stopped the cliché greeting, and dropped her bags.
“I knew you were sick so I did the best I could.”
Seth was smiling back at her. He was standing beside the bed with a white linen covered tray. On top of the tray were sick-person foods. Liz smelled the aroma of soup, but despite being sick of eating nothing but soup over the past week she was suddenly famished.
“We never got our dinner so I had to improvise.”
Liz opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. Instead tears started to leak down her face.
“Liz?” Seth’s smile was replaced by concern. “Is everything ok?”
“Yeah.” She swiped at the tears and coughed to clear her throat. “I just don’t deserve you.”
It was the truth.
“I think you’ve got that mixed up.” Seth carefully set the tray down and wrapped her up in a warm hug. “I’m pretty sure I’m the undeserving one.”
“If you knew what I’d done you wouldn’t say that.” The words slipped out before she could stop herself. She froze as panic nearly overwhelmed her.
“We’ve all done bad things,” Seth shrugged it off, not knowing how big a bullet he’d just allowed her to dodge. “Once I stole a red firetruck.”
“A firetruck, really,” she laughed with feigned intrigue. “Was it at least an expensive firetruck?”
“A whopping ten bucks, which seems like a fortune to a two-year-old starting his shoplifting career at Macy’s.”
She laughed at his successful attempt to calm her down, and she allowed him to steer her into bed. Unpacking the bags could wait until later.
“Dinner is served.” He set the tray over her legs once she was settled. “And I’ll have you know I’ve got a surprise in store for desert.”
<How’d I ever get so lucky?> Liz smiled, and made sure anyone who might be listening heard that thought.