“Come on, Kemps. I needed you to be faster and hit harder. Again!”
Anika wiped the sweat from her brow and focused on the gloves Coach Meyers was wearing. She’d been hitting those gloves for the last half an hour with everything she had, and it still didn’t impress the alternative instructor.
Personally, Anika was wondering why the female freshman coach was working with her in the first place, but she knew better than to ask stupid questions. The old adage when a person teaching or presenting something said ‘there were no stupid questions’ meant that person was an idiot. There were always stupid questions, and in the HCP physical training class anything that wasted time fell under that category.
<It’s like they’re trying to beat the joy of spring break right out of us.>
A gloved hand swept around and smacked Anika in the face. It wasn’t hard, but it was enough to make the unique Super stumble.
“Get your head in the game, Kemps.” Coach Meyers scowled before holding up the two gloves in front of her. “Come on! Hit it!”
Anika launched into the complex combination of punches and kicks that she’d been drilling into her muscle memory for the last half an hour. More sweat dripped down her face as she pressed the attack. She threw the punches as hard as she could, which sent echoes through the large gym; but each time she made contact with Coach Meyer’s practice gloves her fists were stopped cold.
<I really don’t ever want to have to fight any kinetic absorbers…ever.> Anika ended the combination with a kick designed to hit the person in the head and put them on their ass.
Coach Meyers brought up the glove professionally and the final hit sent a soft BOOM across the empty space. None of the other training students even looked up.
“Good.” Coach Meyers’ single word of acceptance brought on a surprising amount of satisfaction. “Are you tired?”
“Yes, Coach.” Anika put her hands on her knees and took a couple of deep breaths.
“It’s times like these were you really see the gains of your training.” The alternative coach placed her hand on Anika’s shoulder.
Anika’s grin at the Coach’s encouraging words vanished as the larger woman’s hand went from resting to gripping her shoulder.
“Defend yourself, Kemps!”
Coach Meyers used her leverage to push down on Anika while bringing her knee up toward the younger Super’s face. Anika was barely able to get her forearm up in time to take the hit.
<Son of a bitch!> The stinger she got from the hit made her entire arm numb.
“I said defend yourself, Kemps!” Coach Meyers pushed her back and lashed out with her foot.
If Anika was fresh she might have been able to dodge, but her mind was still trying to catch up, and the Coach’s kick caught her in the chest and sent her rocketing backwards.
She hit the far wall butt first, which had the unfortunate side effect of snapping her head back into the reinforced structure. Her vision blacked out for a second and then slowly returned as flashing stars of light. It only cleared when Coach Meyers was back in her face.
“This is pathetic, Kemps.” The instructor’s fists lashed out and connected for solid body blows.
All the wind was knocked from Anika’s lungs, and she wheezed painfully as she took her first swing. It was clumsy and desperate but it got the instructor to stop hitting her. Instead, Coach Meyers trapped her arms and judo threw her across the room. Even though she was flying through the air, the time not getting beaten was a needed breather for Anika. She altered her body in flight and rolled into the landing. It wasn’t graceful by any means, but it got her up and in a defensive position before Coach Meyers was on top of her again.
<That’s better, Kemps. Get your composure back, watch your footing, and fight back.> Coach Meyers instructed, so Anika’s could pick it up telepathically.
Anika lunged at the instructor as she closed. She went into a simple combination to stop the older woman’s forward momentum and create a little more space. Really, Anika wanted to move from punching range to kicking range. If Anika could get a kick in there she’d be able to do some real damage. Personally, she thought her kicks were a lot better than her punches, probably from the kickboxing workouts she’d done through her teenage years to stay in shape.
Anika threw a simple one-two, but she put her super speed behind it. Coach Meyers still dodged the first one by bobbing to the side, and deflected the second with a well-timed deflection with her hand. The instructor hopped back a half-step to reevaluate and that’s when Anika struck. She whirled around in a blur putting all her remaining strength and speed into what she hoped was a finishing blow.
The kick was perfect. It flew right for the point where the head met the neck. It didn’t matter that Coach Meyers got her arm up to block in time, Anika just wanted to get one good hit in.
And it was a good hit. Anika’s roundhouse kick met Coach Meyer’s block with a loud SMACK, and to Anika’s surprise. It actually moved the instructor a few inches.
Coach Meyers held up her hand to signal the fight was over. Anika lowered her leg and shook it out. She also blinked rapidly and rotated her neck. Her head was still throbbing from smacking into the wall.
“Not bad, Kemps.” The alternative instructor smiled. “You’re definitely stronger than you were at the beginning of the year.”
“I guess so.” Anika shrugged.
The fact was that she really had no idea how her power worked. She didn’t know how she “learned” from other Supers, and she didn’t know what her limits were. She didn’t even know if there was an upper limit to the amount of powers she could learn, or what her body would do if she tried to adapt to contrasting abilities. She routinely had a reoccurring nightmare where she morphed into some monstrous creature as a result of her adaption.
The professors had been keeping an eye on her and routinely testing her, which was part of the reason she was being taught separately from everyone else today. So far, despite all of the Supers she was around on a daily basis she was still limited to super strength, speed, and a growing control of her telepathy.
She’d heard the theories being batted around by Coach Meyers and McMillian. They were thinking that her adaption required mastery of the new power to a certain point before it started to learn a new one, which made sense. The speed and strength back in her home town hadn’t come at the same time. She’d gotten stronger to a certain point and then started to get faster.
Anika wondered what she would get next after her telepathy reached whatever magical point her body said, “Ok, time to switch it up.”
<Based on who I hang around with I could get Seth’s elemental manipulation. That would be pretty cool. Angela is a shifter, but I don’t know if I can learn shifting like that. It might be a good question to ask the DVA scientists if I ever get to talk to one. Or I could get Liz’s teleportation.> Anika shuddered at the thought.
No matter how much Becca frowned and rebuked her, Anika did not like that other woman. Something about her just rubbed Anika the wrong way.
<Whatever.> Anika shrugged off the thought and followed Coach Meyers back to the main collection of students.
Becca gave her a concerned look. Everyone had seen her get kicked across the room into the wall and then tossed like a ragdoll. Anika put her concerned girlfriend at ease with a smile and a thumbs up. Becca didn’t completely buy it. The blue-haired, cute as a button speedster would never be a subtlety Hero. Even her trying to keep an eye on Anika out of the corner of her eye was blatantly obvious.
“We’re done for today.” Coach McMillian announced to the sighs of relief from many students.
But before they could even turn toward the locker rooms Coach Meyer cut them off. “Wait, Coach McMillian, aren’t we supposed to tell them about their final.”
“Oh, yes.” Coach McMillian feigned surprise that no one believed. “We are supposed to let them all know how they’re going to spend the last week of school.”
<Week!> Anika’s mental shriek matched Kyoshi’s as all of the students went wide-eyed at the idea of a week-long final.
“Yes, a week.” Coach Meyers’ smile was diabolical. “Think of it as your Hell Week. All freshmen at West Private University have to go through it, and it is what we use to reduce the class number down to the twenty-eight allowed back for sophomore year.”
“But what about our school finals? We have to maintain a 3.0 GPA to stay eligible for the HCP.” Ashley Bates, the lesser advanced mind that controlled bugs, couldn’t keep the hysteria out of her voice.
“Hmm.” Coach McMillian scratched his chin. “So you’re telling me that you are going to be pushed to the limit mentally and physically over the next week, not knowing when you are going to be challenged, but held to the highest standard at a moment’s notice.”
“Sounds like you hit the nail on the head.” Coach Meyers nodded.
“Good.” Coach McMillian smiled. “Because what I just described is the daily life of a Hero.” All joking vanished from the man’s face. “A Hero has to be at the top of their game every moment of the day when they’re on duty. It doesn’t matter if they’re fighting a supervillain, attending a ribbon cutting ceremony for PR purposes, or getting a cat out of a tree for a little old lady. A Hero is held to the highest standard at all times. If you can’t handle this workload for a week then you don’t deserve to be a Hero.”
The combat instructor’s word reverberated through the group of freshman. Anika saw mixed emotions on the forty faces around her. Most looked determined with a hint of fear. A few looked completely overwhelmed, and a few didn’t look bothered at all. Angela was one of those. She stood close to the two instructors looking supremely confident in her abilities. Anika would have loved to know what was going through the shifter’s head, but her telepathy wasn’t good enough to see through the other woman’s mental shields.
Half the class had questions.
“It is all very simple.” Coach McMillian explained. “You all have cell phones, right?” Everyone nodded. “When one of your trials is about the start we will call you; so you will be responsible for keeping your phone on you and the ringtone turned up at all times.”
“But what about…?”
“We know your schedules,” Coach McMillian cut off Janet Ibsen, the light manipulator whose rope construct was turning into quite a formidable tool. “We will not call during those class times, but once they’re over you’d better be paying attention to your phone.”
“What about sleeping, bro?” Oliver Carpenter drawled in his surfer accent.
“You can be called at any time. Even in the middle of the night.”
“How’re we being graded?” The tech brilliant Super with a biochemistry specialty asked about the specifics.
“You will face multiple trials and each trial will have a certain amount of points assigned to it. The point totals will be gathered together at the end and you will be ranked again from one to forty. Only the top twenty-eight will be invited back.”
“If we miss the phone call?” Fiona Richardson, the class teleporter, asked.
“We will continue to call your number until the time your trial is scheduled to begin. If you miss the start-time then you forfeit the points from that trial.”
“What about an emergency?” Simon Skylar practically whined. Anika had grown to dislike the lazy limited gravity manipulator.
“We monitor all the HCP students in the school so we will know if there’s an emergency,” Coach Meyers replied. “But if for some reason we don’t know we will review the information and render a decision on whether or not you can make up your trial.”
“Anything else?” Coach McMillian asked after several seconds of silence. “Ok then. You’ll get some more information when it starts, but that’s the gist of the final.”
Anika quickly found Becca as the class broke apart and headed for the locker rooms. She gripped her girlfriend’s hand firmly and tried to push down her anxiety.
“Don’t worry.” Becca’s eternal optimism put a smile back on Anika’s face. “We’ll be fine.”
“Of course you’d say that.”
“No we will.” Becca restated confidently. “We’ll both be on edge, but since we sleep together at least one of us will hear the phone go off in the middle of the night. We are also two of the fastest people in the class, so we’ll be able to get to out trials lickety-split.”
“You’re adorable.” Anika gave her a kiss as they entered the girl’s locker room.
<I just wish it was that easy.> She kept that part to herself.
“A whole week?” Liz looked pretty put off about that specific bit of information.
After a long day of school, and the fighting after classes, Seth needed a break.
<And what better way to blow off some steam than with my special lady.> So he got dressed up and took Liz out to a nice restaurant.
“Yeah, a week. It’s ridiculous.” Seth eyes gravitated toward her low-cut blouse for the hundredth time, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“They push you really hard and take up all your free time. It’s bullshit.” Liz frowned and pushed a leftover meatball around her plate with her fork. “I don’t get to spend nearly enough time with you lately.”
“I know.” Seth reached halfway across the table and Liz’s hand automatically went in to his like they were both magnetized. “But I’m going to make it up to you.”
Liz’s pout transformed into a little smile with that little twinkle in her chocolate-colored eyes that made his heart beat a little bit faster.
“Really? It better be good.” That twinkle became a grin.
“Oh it is.” Seth grinned back. “I was thinking that after the semester is over we get away for a bit. We’ve got a few months off, and I sure as hell am not spending it with my family. I was thinking an around the world tour, but I’m open to suggestions.”
“Hmmm.” Liz tried to play hard to get, but Seth could already see the smile pulling at her lips. “That could work. I’ve always wanted to see Bangkok.”
Seth couldn’t stop the snort that drew attention for nearby tables.
“We could go there and other places.”
The smile finally broke on Liz’s face, and Seth knew the tens of thousands of dollars he was going to spend was totally going to be worth it. One of those smiles was priceless.
“I’d love to.”
“Good.” Seth smiled. “Because I might have already booked our first flight.”
“Of course you did.” Liz’s rich laugh drew more attention than his snort. “Where are we going first.”
“Frankfurt.” Seth replied nonchalantly. “I figured we could cruise around Europe for a few weeks. Then we can jet down to Thailand if you really want to check it out. We can do all the sightseeing in China too, although I’ll have to check and see what we have to do to get in first. The Chinese are a little touchy; especially involving foreign Supers entering their country.”
Liz nodded like she already knew all of that and popped the meatball she’d been playing with into her mouth. Seth had no idea such an action could be such a turn on.
“Enough about the future. What about the rest of the night?” That twinkle in her eye was back.
“I was just going to let the night take us wherever.”
That got another laugh out of Liz.
“I call bullshit. You want to get all up on this. Don’t lie.” She ran her hands down her curves.
Seth blushed crimson as more eyes focused on them.
“Yeah, duh.” He tried to play it casually, and didn’t succeed.
<Only Liz has the ability to turn you into a blubbering idiot.> Seth tried to save it all with a smile.
“You’re so cute when you try not to be a horn dog.” Liz smiled, leaned back in her seat, and took a sip of the wine.
They both had their fake IDs, and the waiter hadn’t even carded her. A blouse like the one she was wearing tended to have that effect.
That sip turned into throwing back the entire glass. “What are you waiting for?” She asked playfully. “I’ve got to make a quick pit stop back at my dorm on the way back, but then I’m all yours.”
Seth waved down the first waiter he saw. “Check please.”
“So this Hell Week.” Liz stared while they were waiting for the check. “I’m guessing it’s the last week of classes.”
“Yep. Last few days in April into the beginning of May.” Seth was still amazed that college ended so early.
“So I basically won’t get to see you at all.”
“Not necessarily. I am just on call twenty-four seven except for the time I’m in my regular class exams.” Seth said the last few words in a whisper.
Liz might know about the HCP, but he wasn’t about to ruin all his hard work over the last year by blowing his cover at dinner one night.
“Well that’s a relief. I don’t want to spend a whole week away from you.”
Seth read between the lines and agreed. The weeks she’d just up and vanished had been awful, and neither wanted to relive that again.
The check arrived, Seth paid it in cash, and they headed back toward campus. As they drove his Porsche through the city Seth could feel a tension in the air. Everyone was still walking around and going about their business of a weekday night, but there was something underlying it all. He could feel it in subtly in everyone’s actions.
<First the power plant, then the Fist, the bombings, Wraith, the nightclub and parking garage raids.> Seth shook his head. Orlando had been through a lot, and it felt like the population thought it was going to get worse before it got better.
“Do you want me to wait for you?” He pulled up in front of Liz’s dorm.
“No, that’s ok. I’ll be a little bit. Why don’t you head back and get the room ready? Set the mood if you know what I mean.” She winked, and Seth gulped.
“Ok.” She leaned over and gave him a deep kiss. “See you soon, stud.”
She got out and sauntered away.
<That’s something I could never get tired of watching.> He watched her ass sway, shook his head to clear his mind, and then headed back to the townhouse.
Liz made sure Seth had a nice view of her ass as he drove away. It was the least she could do after the expensive dinner they’d just shared. The bottle of wine alone was over a hundred dollars. She swiped her card in the door and pushed through when it beeped and gave her the green light. People sitting in the common area turned and stared. The guys eyes’ lingered and the girls judged. That was just the nature of things. Just like it was Liz’s nature to not give a shit.
She entered the elevator alone and waited for it to start ascending before teleporting away. She appeared with her usual explosion of darkness in a penthouse hotel room across town. Her expanding darkness gave her the layout of the room before it dissipated. Damascus and his two cronies were on the couch watching T.V.
“So the whore returns.” The terrorist leader stated as she strutted confidently toward him.
“Sorry if I’m interrupting your circle jerk, Damas-douche.” She replied without skipping a step.
Every time she insulted the guy it royally pissed him off. But he called her a whore every time she came to report so she figured it was all fair game.
As expected, the man bristled and silver fire licked at his fingertips. One of goons actually got up off his fat ass and took a threatening step toward her.
“Unless you want to know what it feels like to hit the ground after falling twenty stories then sit your ass back down.” There was acid in her tone and the man involuntarily took a step back. “That’s what I thought.” She met the man glare for glare. “You’re just a giant pussy.”
“Enough!” Damascus shouted, banging his hand on a table. “What do you want?”
“You told me to keep my eyes and ears open for anything that might impact your operation.” Liz reminded him. “Well, I’ve got some information.”
“Go on.” He waved her on like a king commanding his servant.
She just smiled back at him. “Yeah, here’s the thing. I’m a mercenary, not one of you delusional fucking boy-toys. You want the information you have to pay me. That’s how this relationship works.”
“I’m going to tell our leader, in detail, or your continued insolence.”
“Your leader can stick a nice big, purple dildo up his ass for all I care. Money for information. What will it be?”
Liz didn’t know if he was going to burn down the hotel or have an aneurism. <This is fun.> She stopped the smile before it reached her lips.
After a moment the terrorist leader sighed. “How much?”
“Ten grand.” Liz threw out a random number.
The terrorist nodded and one of his flunkies walked over the to the bed, pulled a large duffle bag from underneath it, reached in, and then threw a wad of cash at Liz.
<Holy shit. I should have asked for more.> Liz counted the money and made a mental note of the bags location. If things went to shit then she’d at least try to get some extra cash for her troubles.
“You have your money. Now give me the information.”
Liz momentarily considered cutting and running at this point, but that was against her professional code of ethics; at least for now. She might cut and run and leave them hanging some other time, but they’d paid her so she dished about what she’d heard.
“There is an event happening at the HCP the last few days in April and into the beginning of May. The staff is going to be busy and distracted with the event. Conducting your operation at this time might increase your odds of success. The Heroes at the local HCP will have a delayed reaction, and having more time to execute while they get organized might be worth moving back your timeline a bit.”
The terrorists pondered the information, scratching their bearded chins in unison. “We’ll consider it.” Damasucs concluded non-committedly. “Where did you get this information?”
“I have a confidential source.” Liz shrugged.
“Could it possibly be the young man you just ate dinner with?” A smile pulled at the silver-haired man’s lips.
Liz’s world went cold for a millisecond before a white-hot burning rage nearly overwhelmed her. She tried to control it, but only partially succeeded.
“Listen here, ass-faces. Don’t go fucking around with my sources. I’ve got to work this town and this country after you finished jerking off with it. Do not touch my sources. Don’t even look at my sources the wrong way, or the next time it won’t be me but a nice fat bomb that teleports into this room. Fuck with me and you’d better hope that you’re bombproof or could survive a twenty-story fall.” Her grin was nothing less than evil.
“Watch your tone, whore.”
“Watch yours, fuck face. Your boss might be some hot shit. But I could kill you all in your sleep and you’d never even see it coming.” The evilness on her face became feigned sweetness. “And if your boss reputation is correct he wouldn’t even try to avenge you. The jihad takes precedence over your death after all.”
She had them, and they knew it.
“Understood.” Damascus said through gritted teeth.
He might be conceding to her wishes at the moment, but there was no question that she’d made an enemy for life.
<Fuck if I care.> Liz didn’t even say goodbye. <If we ever meet again outside of this op then only one of us is walking away alive. And that person will be me.>
She reappeared in her usual alley and worked on calming down as she walked toward the townhouse. By the time she reached their bedroom she was her usual charming self, ready to do unspeakable things to her boyfriend.