Daisy strained against the weight. Sweat dripped from every part of her body making a dark stain on the mats around her. She growled her defiance as she thrust forward, locked out her arms and moved the weighted bar back to rack.
<Personal best.> She gave a tired smile.
Her vision wavered from the exertion, so she sat on the bench for a few moments. It felt good. Her whole body hurt from the workout, but pain was just weakness leaving her body, and she couldn’t have any weakness.
Images of silver fire and deep, evil voices haunted her dreams. Morocco had been a week ago, but that only meant the end was drawing nearer. And it would be the end. If Daisy had to face off against these monsters then only one of them would be leaving the battlefield alive.
Daisy watched the news every day for any signs. She wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for but she knew she’d notice it when she saw it. When she wasn’t watching that she was checking up on the status in Rabat. The capital of Morocco was in shambles. Some silver fires were still burning after a week. There were riots in the streets as people turned on one another. In one section of the city the plant life had even come alive and attacked the citizens. It was a disaster.
A UN peacekeeping force had been sent into stabilize the situation. International Heroes were attached to the effort, but even with them on the ground there were still daily casualties.
<And that’s only the aftereffects.> Daisy shuddered, thinking about what happened in Morocco happening in Orlando.
The only thing that stopped her from outright panicking was knowing that the DVA and ForceOps were all over the situation. If shit hit the fan here, there would be dozens of powerful Heroes taking action.
Daisy took a few deep breaths to steady herself and went to grab some dumbbells. She hoisted them over her head and started to push up and down. Immediately, she felt the burn in her shoulders. She didn’t have much left in the tank.
Despite her heavy breathing and grunts of exertion she still heard the door to the weight room open up. She didn’t look. Instead she reached out with her power for their life-thread. A strong, pulsing thread of gold appeared through her sixth sense.
“Good evening, Doctor Sanderson.” Daisy didn’t turn to look, instead focusing on the weights.
“Coach Meyers.” The HCP healer replied.
Daisy and Sanderson weren’t on the best of terms, after all, she had killed his older brother decades ago. But they’d worked some shit out and were at least on speaking terms. Neither would be asking the other for a cup of sugar anytime soon, but they made the arrangement work.
“You hear about Morocco?” Sanderson settled into a nearby machine and started his own workout.
“It’s a shit-sandwich over there,” Daisy replied. Setting down her own set of weights and thinking about what to do for her cooldown.
“People are saying it’s going to happen here.”
As the HCP healer, Sanderson wasn’t always on the same page as the rest of the staff. He had sick and injured kids to worry about. If he wasn’t on the same page as the rest of the staff then he certainly wasn’t aware of the ForceOps-HCP joint taskforce that would spring into action if said shit started raining on the city.
The plan wasn’t exactly a secret, but it wasn’t common knowledge either. It seemed rumors were unavoidable, and it spoke volumes about what type of rumors they were if Sanderson was asking her about it.
“Maybe,” Daisy conceded. “But if it does then some son of a bitch is gonna be really sorry.” She turned and gave the healer a smile.
He didn’t smile back, but he did nod respectfully.
<It’s better than him calling me a crazy psycho bitch.> Daisy took the small win and decided to do some running to cooldown.
The workout had been upper-body so it wouldn’t be so hard to do a few miles before heading back to Topher’s. She’d started staying with him most nights. Partly because she liked being around him, and partly because she wanted to keep an eye on him. The last thing she needed in this world was her boyfriend getting killed.
Daisy got up and started to walk out when a golden mist passed over her. The aches disappeared, the soreness vanished, but the wedgie she’d been dealing with still remained.
“Thought I’d top you off.” Sanderson didn’t look over as he settled back onto the bench and lifted the bar.
Daisy couldn’t help but smile a little. <Sanderson’s not a total asshole after all.> She gave her own nod in his direction before walking out of the room and toward the main gym.
Now that she was feeling better she could do more than a few warm down laps.
<I guess Topher is just going to have to wait a bit longer for some T&A.> She smiled to herself.
Sometimes the anticipation was half the fun.
<It’s been nearly two weeks. What the fuck!> Liz grumbled to herself as she rolled over in bed.
Seth was already gone. He was off to a morning workout and then an early class. They were meeting for lunch at noon, and the day was all hers until then. So it really pissed her off when she woke up dizzy and nauseous. It was not a good way to start the day.
A quick, mildly-scalding shower and breakfast helped. Then it was off to her alleyway and a teleport across the Atlantic.
The flat was just as she’d left it, complete with the electrical cage in the middle. She walked out of it, closed and armed it just in case anyone was following her. Then she went to the closet.
Her costume had been cleaned by her father, and repairs made. The only indication that one of Seraphim’s barbs had nearly poisoned her to death was a slight dimple in the fabric caused by the repair.
Liz reached for the black fabric and stopped. A shudder went through her as she remembered the night. <So many mistakes. I was such a stupid arrogant ass.> There were a hundred things she could have done differently. One of which was not teleporting to Seth’s room instead of somewhere more secure.
<My father taught me better than that.> She felt stupid for her panicked reaction. It could have blown everything.
Another mistake was fighting in the first place. <Pride and ego.> She shook her head as she stepped away from the black costume fabric.
She knew she couldn’t kill Seraphim. She could only hurt her a little and wound the demon-Hero’s pride. The Hero had taken that and turned it around against Liz. She’d kept Liz fighting when she should have run. She let Liz run her mouth, flaunt what she’d done, and basically act like a corny villain. Seraphim had gotten into Liz’s head and then capitalized on it.
Liz knew how lucky she was to be alive, and if she wanted to stay that way she needed to be ready next time. <No more fighting for something stupid. I fight to win or to complete my mission. Nothing else.>
To be ready for the next time she needed to be better equipped, better armed, and able to get what she needed at a moment’s notice. So…she’d made another real estate investment.
With a deep breath Liz focused on the new place and disappeared.
She reappeared in another blast of darkness. There was no natural light here, only the LED motion-activated bulbs. They blinked once and then snapped on. The room was larger than an average room. It had concrete floors, concrete walls, and a concrete ceiling. Stack of MREs lined the back quarter of the room while only partially-filled weapons racks lined the walls.
Liz walked over to a number of crates, grabbed a crowbar, and jimmied open the lid. Inside and packed securely with Styrofoam were neatly organized grenades. She counted ten, and judging by the depth of the box there would be another five layers.
She smiled and closed the lid.
<Never again.> She took a deep breath and savored the slightly stale smell of her new weapons lair.
After her failure, it had become perfectly clear what she needed to do. Her father had a room like this somewhere. He wouldn’t tell her where it was or allow her to come with him when he rarely visited it. She didn’t think she needed one until she almost died, but lying paralyzed underneath a bed like a scared four-year-old girl acted as a pretty good wake-up call.
She wasn’t going to be unprepared to face a stronger opponent again.
She’d found the place through some of her less-reputable contacts. The former owner was a doomsday survivalist who’d been gathering up food and weapons for the coming zombie apocalypse. Then a much more menacing creature had reared its ugly head, the IRS. He needed to get the property out of his name quick and with no questions asked. Liz bought it cheap and with cash with one request: that it be sold as is.
Now she had her own private arsenal and a begrudging respect for the man who’d been able to get his hands on this military grade weaponry.
There had to be two dozen M4s, a half-dozen SAWs, and even an M-240B. The heavy machine gun would be a welcome addition to any operation she had planned; so she’d taken that weapon to Mika to get it digitized. A self-operating machine gun would be a wonderful distraction.
There were also hundreds of grenades, dozens of gas masks, and of course, enough MREs to constipate a small town for a year. Her father had always made her eat the military meals ready to eat when they did training outside the home; so she knew the constipation and bloating they caused all too well.
The property was a great investment, and it was in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. The only indication there was even anything there was a small concrete shack with a steel-reinforced door to serve as the above ground entrance. That shack was surrounded by an electric fence and barbed wire. Liz had added motion sensors and a few well-placed landmines when she’d bought the place. Any unwelcome visitors were going to have a very shitty day.
<It’s not like I have to worry about using the front door.> Liz chuckled to herself.
She cleared off a large table at the center of the room. This was going to be her operations table. Anything she might need for an operation would be placed on the table and memorized before the operations. That way, with a thought, she could bring more weapons to the party than her normal combat load.
That was her mission for today. She was picking up a new weapon. Something that might be able to punch a hole through Seraphim’s smug face.
With one last look to make sure everything was good Liz pulled on her black, grinning volto mask, gloves, and the special forces scarf she still thought looked bad ass. It was going to be fucking cold where she was going. A grunge jacket went over her cyberpunk t-shirt which helped conceal the Glocks in a shoulder holster, and a tiny pistol tucked into the small of her back. As an afterthought, she grabbed one of the grenades and stuck it in her pocket; just in case.
She teleported away. She made a few pit stops before appearing in the warehouse Mika owned.
Her hand went immediately for her gun. Not only was there the loud sounds of construction going on around her, there were people standing nearby with their backs turned toward her.
They all turned when the darkness washed over them. Liz clearly sensed that they were all armed. When the darkness cleared, she had one hand holding a gun pointed at the newcomers, and another in her pocket with the grenade.
“Wra…Shadow!” Mika popped his head out of the group of men. He was dressed in his full Nano costume with a few new additions.
Liz clearly noticed he’s added more ballistic layers to his outfit, and she wondered just what he’d been up to in the last few months.
“Take it easy, Shadow.” Mika held up his hand and made a lowering gesture. “These are my associates who were able to procure what you requested.”
“Procure?” Liz scowled behind her mask. “I thought you were making it.”
“Sorry, Shadow.” Mika drew closer and whispered. “I didn’t have time and my new partners already had the tech. They’re giving us a good price.”
“Nano.” A tall, heavyset man spoke up. “Why don’t you introduce us.”
“Sorry, Mr. Salvatore.” Mika bowed his head meekly. “Shadow, this is Mr. Salvatore. Mr. Salvatore, my other associate, Shadow.”
Shadow noticed the particular accent when Mika pronounced “associate” she wanted to shake her head and give Mika a good slap but decided against it.
“Mr. Salvatore.” She nodded to the immaculately tailored man across the warehouse. Then she turned to Mika. “Are you fucking serious, Nano. The fucking mob.”
“They’re helping me finish my warehouse project.” Mika said defensively. “This whole neighborhood is being gentrified.” He pronounced the last word with some difficulty.
“May I say it is a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Shadow. I would also like to offer my gratitude for dealing with a particular piece of scum earlier this year.”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” She kept her voice polite. “But I’m sure all professionals approve of people who appreciate their hard work.”
Mr. Salvatore grinned at her verbal dodge. “I’m sure they do.”
Everyone stared at each other for several moments, long enough for Liz to see that a few of Mr. Salvatore’s bodyguards had their hands on their guns. None seemed to be Supers, but you couldn’t always tell by looking at a person.
“Should we get down to business?” The mob boss asked with a charming smile.
“Let’s.” Liz agreed, but kept her distance.
Since Mika had brought these guys along unannounced then he could act as the middleman.
“Ok.” Mika visibly brightened, thinking that everyone was getting along just fine now. “Shadow, you said that you wanted a weapon that could do some damage. Something that could knock down or take out someone with enhanced strength or in armor. Mr. Salvatore has this for you.”
One of the people standing with the mob boss hefted a long case up and onto a nearby table. He popped it open and turned it to face in Liz’s direction. The weapon inside was roughly rifle-shaped. The barrel was shorter than she expected but the stock of the weapon was larger and fatter than anything she’d ever seen. The optics on top looked pretty standard.
“This is an electro-magnetic rifle. Instead of chemical propellant it uses a superpowered battery to propel the bullet. The bullets themselves are depleted uranium. Anything weaker and they’d breakdown in the barrel or in flight. Either of those outcomes wouldn’t be good.” Mika grinned. “Basically, this rifle is going to hit with twice the force of an anti-armor tank round. That’s how cool it is.”
<Damn that is cool.> And it was exactly what she was looking for.
Now the only question was the price.
“This weapon is one of a small batch stolen from ForceOps. There are literally only a couple like it in the world.” Mr. Salvatore seemed to read her mind. “The price is half a million.”
Liz’s jaw dropped behind her mask. An M4 cost about five grand. She could get a hundred regular rifles for the price of this one.
“Three hundred.” Liz countered. “It might be half a mil to the Army, but anyone who uses this is going to paint a target on their back. Sorry, but it ain’t worth that much.”
“You already have a target on your back, Wraith. Being a target shouldn’t be anything new for you.”
Liz silently cursed. She didn’t want more people knowing who she was, what she was doing, or people she associated with.
“I’d pay three fifty.” Liz countered.
“Let’s call it four.” Salvatore smiled again.
He was cute in a silver fox kind of way, and Liz guessed he usually got what he wanted; whether that was women or money. That was something she could use against him in the future. Lose the battle now to win the war later.
“Four it is. I just need your account number.”
Mika walked over a slip of paper with all the information and within ten minutes the transaction was completed and untraceable.
“Pleasure doing business with you.” Liz nodded to the gangsters and approached the table only as they stepped away.
She wouldn’t take it directly to her new lair. She’d take it to a place she could run a full spectrographic analysis on it. She didn’t want the mob having any idea what places she frequented.
“The pleasure is all mine.” Salvatore just kept on smiling. “Perhaps we can enlist your services in the future.”
“My schedule is full right now,” Liz answered automatically, but checked herself. She didn’t want to piss off the biggest organized crime family in the Midwest. “But I’ll let Nano know when my current contracts are completed and we can talk.”
The mob boss nodded. That was good enough for him.
“Nano, I’ll call you later.” She let a bit of bite into her voice, so the teenage technopath knew she wasn’t too happy with him. “Gentleman.” She gave one last bow to the mob guys and vanished in a puff of shadow.
She reappeared in a lab at a minor university that she knew was going to be closed today. She threw the entire case and weapon into a large tube and hit a few buttons. Soon she’d know if the mob had anything up their sleeves.
An immediate beep and information scrolling along a screen told her they did.
<Fuck me sideways.> What had started out as a good day was turning into another clusterfuck.
“The way the cells react it’s just fascinating.” Alec’s eyes were looking off into the distance as he described his latest lab.
Angela smiled and nodded only half paying attention. After a few lunch dates with Alec she knew he could get like this. He was passionate about learning, he loved science, and all of that put together made him an adorable dork.
“Their cells are so different from ours.” He continued his eyes staring through her more than at her.
Angela just nodded while her own eyes swept the dining hall. She’d purposefully sat with her back to the wall so she had a good view of everything. Dr. Johnson said she was developing coping mechanisms to deal with her recent trauma, but Angela just thought she was being vigilant. When people had tried to kill you it was best to make sure no one could sneak up on you while you munched on a taco.
The hall was filled to the brim with college students. It was the normal chaos of the mid-day lunch rush. An almost endless line backed up at the door to have their meal card swiped, a traffic jam was forming from people trying to get out of the hall and onto their next class, and then there were the lines at the food stations.
There were no Taco Tuesday signs anywhere because there wasn’t a theme and it wasn’t Tuesday, but that was the longest line and people tended to show up more frequently when they learned tacos were on the menu.
Angela was still convinced they put a mild number of laxatives in everything they served but she couldn’t prove it yet.
Her eyes drifted across the crowd and she noticed a lot of HCP students from her class were present. It made sense. They had ethics in an hour and they’d be busy until dinner with physical training. Now was the last time to get any food down before severe physical exertion.
She spotted Kyoshi and Mason having a quiet conversation in a corner not too far away. They were the biggest people in the hall except for a few members of the basketball team at another table. Angela also saw Simon Skylar trying and failing to get attention from Kimberly Goodman. Even after a year of kicking ass and taking names the number four ranked Goodman was still the prettiest girl in class. But that didn’t fill Angela with jealousy anymore. If anything, Angela felt sorry for the other Super. She was clearly not welcoming Skylar’s attention, and attempting to hide behind her bubble-gum pink bangs wasn’t working.
Movement at the entrance caught her attention and she saw Liz walk in. Angela’s feeling of empathy evaporated. She’d never really liked Liz, and the constant disappearing act with Seth wasn’t winning her any bonus points. Angela didn’t like Seth moping around the townhouse when Liz disappeared suddenly.
Suspicious didn’t even begin to cover it. Angela was sure she was up to something. After all, somebody who looked like her had to have someone else on the side. Seth could be a jackass sometimes.
Angela studied the other woman’s face. Liz looked irritated. Like she’d bitten into something rotten. Seth was on the opposite side of the room from Angela and Alec, so she got to watch the entire approach. Liz took a deep breath, pulled herself together, and was a beaming beacon of positivity when she reached Seth. The couple embraced and Angela was pretty sure by Seth’s reaction that Liz had grabbed his ass.
<I don’t get it.> Angela shifted her attention back to the room at large. <She just up and leaves with no explanation and he forgives her like that.> She mentally snapped her fingers. <She must have him wrapped around her finger.> The was the only explanation for it.
“Ummm, Angela. What do you think?” Alec asked.
She’d clearly missed something. “Sorry.” Angela closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’m distracted by my next class. Ask me again?”
He smiled despite her not paying attention to anything he’d said.
“I was asking if you think Mason would mind if I studied him for my class project. I’ll keep it anonymous of course.”
“Why would you want to study Mason?” Angela asked, playing dumb.
“Because he’s a Super. And my biology class is doing comparative studies now.” Alec looked a little hurt that he had to explain his reasoning again.
Seemed like she’d missed it all the first time.
“Is he?” Angela kept her face politely interested in what Alec was saying. “I never asked.” But inside she was panicking.
It was a small leap from Mason being a Super to figuring out the whole house was Supers, and then from there that they were HCP.
“I’m not positive, but I’d say I’m about eighty percent sure. Someone his size and in as good of shape as he is, with no athletic scholarship or even on intermural sports teams, it’s a little hard to think he isn’t.” Alec shrugged. “Guys like that don’t just do nothing.”
There was a hint of insecurity in his tone that Angela could exploit. But she didn’t. She liked Alec, and digging into the point would not have helped the man’s confidence.
“Huh,” Angela played the ignorance card. “I never really thought it was any of my business.”
“Really?” Alec looked surprised at that.
“Yeah.” Angela hoped that would end the topic, but it didn’t.
“You’re really ok with not knowing anything about them?”
“Them?” Angela didn’t like where this was going.
<Please…please don’t let him be one of those Humanity First assholes.>
“Supers.” Alec looked animated again. “They’re utterly fascinating. A whole other species of humans among us. It’s the most exciting time in biology since discovering DNA. And with the help of some gifted Supers, the stuff science is capable of is mind-blowing.”
Angela exhaled slowly and relaxed a little. <Not Humanity First, just an uber-nerd.>
“I can ask him?” She answered his original question. “But he’s never brought the subject up to me before so he might not want to be labelled like that.”
“Totally understandable.” Alec held up his hands. “If he says no can you ask Kyoshi?”
Angela didn’t even want to get into that. Six foot seven, buxom, pale hair and golden eyes. Anyone who looked at the half-Japanese half-German woman could tell she was a Super. It was only her clumsiness charade that kept anyone from making a connection to the HCP.
<Speaking of which.>
“Alec, I’ve got to head out,” Angela said it apologetically. “I’ve got my next class soon and it is all the way across campus.”
“Sure, sure.” He looked down at his watch with surprise. “I’ve got some homework to start.” Then he looked up at Angela and smiled the dorky-smile she found so adorable on him. “Thanks for having lunch with me. Can we do it again another time?”
Angela felt her heart flutter and her lips pull back into a smile all on their own. “Sure. I’d like that.”
She gave him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek before heading off to her ethics class.
John stood behind the podium organizing his notes for the upcoming lecture. An introduction of how some powers trumped other powers was critical to the student’s development, but today was just an overview with a few examples. They’d get more into that in their junior and senior years with practical exercises.
What was really on the Dean’s mind was the news out of Morocco, the meeting he had with Colonel Ford after this class, and the overall chaotic state of the city around his HCP. Orlando was messy and in flux. It was the perfect time for a powerful enemy to strike.
<And me and my staff are the only thing standing between it and our students.> John gave a tired sigh. He’d thought teaching at the HCP was going to be less stressful. But ever since Daisy showed up things had been more chaotic than ever before. <That’s Reaper for you.>
The door opened and Angela walked in.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Martin.”
“Good afternoon, Dean Ditmar.”
It was a dance they did every day they had class. Angela was always one of the first ones here. And today that was a good thing.
“May I have a moment of your time, Ms. Martin?” He interrupted her unpacking.
“Of course.” She gave him her undivided attention.
“Well, you must have heard from your pare…mother that the HCP sponsors a spring break trip every year.” John almost opened up emotional wounds by referencing her parents.
Dr. Johnson said Angela was doing better, but it took time to get to a place of acceptance and closure. The young woman probably wasn’t there yet and she didn’t need anyone carelessly reminding her about her loss.
“Yes, the Beach Week.” Angela used the unofficial title of the mid-semester holiday.
“Yes,” John smiled. He’d never liked the name. “It is customary for two members of the freshman class to act as monitors during that week. Professors will be chaperoning, but since it is a multi-class event, we like to have respected members of each class with minor positions of authority to keep things from getting out of hand. I’d be honored if you’d be one of those individuals.”
There was no hesitation in Angela’s response. “I would be happy to help.” She smiled, but he could see it was slightly forced.
“Thank you, Ms. Martin. Details of the resort will be sent to your email, and there will be a planning session with the other monitors next week. With only a few weeks until the trip we need to get moving on all the preparations.”
“And this trip is HCP only?” Angela asked.
“I’m afraid so.” John replied. “We want all the students to be in a safe atmosphere where they can express themselves. That doesn’t mean the use of powers is allowed with little to no thought of their consequences. But we want people to be able to let down their hair for the week.”
“Understood.” Angela nodded. “Thank you for considering me.”
“Continue to excel, Ms. Martin, and people will continue to notice.” John smiled.
The door opened and the rest of the students started to stream in. Angela went back to unpacking, and John studied his notes. The spring break activities would be his first topic, but they really needed to get through the rest of the material today. They’d need to include it on their midterm paper; which coincidentally, was due the Friday before the aforementioned Spring Break began.