Seth walked out of the classroom massaging his temples. He scooted to the side so the rest of the class could exit. He leaned against the wall and savored the cool chill than ran through him when he pressed his head against the wood.
<Fuck me, that sucked.> Mathematical equations were still dancing through his head, so he shook it to dislodge them. That only succeeded in getting another spike of pain driven into his brain. <But that was the last one.>
It was only Thursday, but he was now officially done with his freshmen year finals. At least on the regular school side of things. As far as the HCP was concerned he had no idea. He’d gone through three trials already. The first was the drunk guy on the lawn scenario. He played it cool, shot the shit, and simply talked the guy down and back into his house. The cops ended up writing him a ticket for breeching of peace, but that was it.
The second trial was the classic Hero vs. Villain test. Both the heroes and villains were supplied by HCP students, but that didn’t ruin the show. Every student faced off against the student just above or below them in the rankings. As the number ten ranking he took on the number nine ranking Freshman, Anika. He fought well, but there was a reason she was number nine and he was number ten. They destroyed a building in the process, which was going to hurt both their grades, but she came out on top. He still felt the phantom pain in his jaw where she’d shattered it.
The third trial, the most interesting one in his opinion, was the ambush trial. Ten soldiers in black armor, black masks, and black weapons jumped out of a van while he was walking around the town and tried to abduct him. Looking back on it, he could tell the purpose of the test was to see how someone reacted when faced with overwhelming force and no time to plan.
His solution was to become a living inferno. The soldiers shot him with stun rounds, which didn’t do shit against his flaming skin. Since they were shooting at him, and he was a Hero in uniform according to the scenario, that constituted using extreme force in his opinion. He threw a car at the men with hurricane force winds, blasted them with fire, and wrapped one up tight in a section of asphalt for questioning. The armed men were duplicates that dissolved when they were injured, which had been briefed to him during the fight; so he didn’t kill someone and have to live with that on his conscience.
He wasn’t really sure how he did on that final. He eliminated the threat by fighting into the ambush, which he knew was the right thing to do. He even managed to capture one of the duplicates for interrogation. He thought he got it right, but Coach Meyers just told him to get back to studying after he was done with no indication of his performance.
Since it was Thursday, and the week was coming to a close, there couldn’t be more than one of two trials left.
<Liz is going to be pissed.>
They’d made plans to get away to Cabo for a few weeks right after their finals were done. She was oddly persistent that they leave right away. He was on his way to meet her for lunch, and he knew she wouldn’t be happy that he had to sit around until midnight on Friday to make sure he had nothing left to do for the HCP.
He picked his head up off the wall. It no longer soothed the headache wracking his brain. He rubbed his eyes practically feeling the bags underneath them. He was exhausted. He hadn’t slept in a day, and all he wanted to do was go on summer break.
<Just one more day.> He pumped himself up and started the walk across campus to the dining hall.
He made it a hundred feet before his phone went off.
“You’ve got to be shitting me,” he groaned as he fished it out and saw the blocked number.
“I certainly am not shitting you, Mr. Abney,” Coach McMillian’s voice stated on the other end.
<How…? Never mind, I don’t even want to know.> Seth was too tired to know how the close combat coach was watching him right now.
“Please report down to the city. Your fourth and final trial begins in twenty minutes.” The coach hung up without another word.
“Here we go again.” Seth’s gave his whole body a shake to wake himself up.
<On the bright side, I should be able to leave with Liz soon after all.> He held onto the kernel of motivation as he sprinted out of the building and toward the nearest lift, which wasn’t close at all.
He made it down, into the HCP, into the locker room, into his black uniform, and into the waiting room with just enough time to catch his breath. Normally, he’d make that run no problem. But he’d gone straight from his last HCP final to his calculus final, and now he was here.
<It’s all part of the test.> There was no other purpose to getting a human being so exhausted.
“Dispatch.” Seth fit the earbud into his ear. He’d been instructed to keep it safe after the first trial. “What’s the situation?”
He stifled a yawn as he stood in the waiting room. All the tunnels around him were dark and giving no indication where he needed to go.
“Wait a second, Abney. Backup is arriving.” There was a mischievous undertone to the man’s voice that Seth had come to fear.
<Backup?> Seth didn’t have to wait long as the large elevator down to the underground city opened and Anna Fletcher stepped out.
“What the fuck?” The volatile electrokinetic wasted no time in making the situation awkward. “What is pretty boy doing here?”
“Ahh, you think I’m pretty.” Seth grinned, and she flashed him the finger.
“The situation is as follows.” Coach McMillian began and they both shut up. “Approximately twenty minutes ago a peaceful demonstration by Humanity First activists turned violent.
“Fuck me sideways,” Anna exhaled. They could both see the issues of an anti-Super group suddenly being confronted by two Heroes.
“So far the riot is limited to one street with approximately forty rioters. Your job is to contain the situation and neutralize any threats until the police force arrives. They are five minutes out. Any questions?”
A tunnel lit up and an exit with their names on it. They both started running.
“Any weapons?” Anna asked.
“A few rioters are armed with baseball bats. They broke into a liquor store along the street and have looted it for booze, so expect some Molotov Cocktails.”
“No problem there.” Seth shot a grin at Anna. “This should be a piece of cake.”
The exit door they were looking for wasn’t far, which meant they were going to get dumped right in the middle of the city.
“Here’s the plan.” Anna stopped at the armored hatch to catch her breath. “We go out there tell all these bitches to keep their panties on. If they don’t calm the fuck down, then I’m going to taze them all.”
“Is that going to work?” Seth wasn’t questioning her ability. He’d seen her in action before. He was more concerned about how the plan would affect their grade.
“Sure it will.” She gave Seth a pat on the cheek that was a half-pat, half-slap. “Don’t worry playboy. I’ve got this.”
She pushed open the door and Seth followed her into the lobby of a building. They couldn’t see the riot when they pushed through the door, but they could hear it. Angry yells, the sound of glass breaking, and the wrenching of metal that he assumed was them trying to flip a car. They had to be right outside the building.
Anna didn’t stop. She kept on going right through the building’s front doors and into the street. Less than fifty feet away, the mob of forty people was doing exactly what Seth thought they were doing.
But that all stopped when they saw two black-uniformed people in masks step out of the building. Every head in the group turned toward Seth and Anna, and they all looked pissed.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Anna took a step forward and put her fists on her hips in a power pose. “Stop breaking shit!” she yelled, which surprised everyone including Seth. “This is other people’s property you’re damaging. Whatever it is you are protesting about, I’m sure that person’s car and that person’s storefront didn’t do anything. All you’ve done is take away someone’s ability to provide for themselves or get from point A to point B. What you are doing is not helping your cause. So, cut it out, stand down, and wait for the cops to get here.”
<That wasn’t half bad.> Seth was surprised Anna had a speech in her that wasn’t full of four letter words.
The rioters seemed surprised too, but that only lasted a few seconds. Then the scowls were back.
“Kill the Supers!”
“Stop the oppression!” Were the first couple of things Seth heard before the first bottle of booze with a flaming rag in it was tossed in their direction.
<Here we go.>
The bottle fell about ten feet short of them. It exploded on impact, but didn’t get any closer. Seth caught the fire and redirected it back toward the rioters. His goal was containment not injury. He collected the other fires that were burning on the block and added their fuel to his fire. He drew a giant circle with the fire around the rioters and slowly started to tighten it, forcing them together into a tight space, and an easier target for Anna.
“Demons!” Several people screamed as they scrambled backward away from the flames.
“Now it’s all you, Anna. Light’em up.” He saw her grin behind her mask.
Seth could feel the static electricity building in the air. The power in the nearby buildings went out as the electrokinetic drew from other sources. Sure, she could do it from whatever internal battery her power gave her, but why waste energy when there was plenty around to spare.
“Last chance!” She yelled at the crowd. “Settle down, pop a squat, and wait for the cops or things will get interesting.”
“Bitch!” Was the most common response.
“Oh well, I tried.” Anna sighed.
Then someone shot Seth.
He could tell it wasn’t a real bullet because the HCP never would have allowed that, and it didn’t penetrate his uniform. It was a rubber bullet, but they still hurt like hell.
Seth took it in the shoulder, felt something crack, fell backward, and lost his grip on the fire. Without him holding it in place it went out of control. Thankfully, he had enough foresight to blast it all away before he barbequed the rioters alive. But that only set them free.
They cheered. Screamed, “Down with the tyrants!” And charged.
“Idiots!” Anna yelled, grabbing Seth by his uninjured shoulder and dragging him behind the cover of a car.
Another rubber bullet stuck the vehicle with a loud SNAP.
“Sniper.” Anna popped her head up for three seconds to take a look and then ducked down just as another CRACK echoed through the air and they heard the whizz of the bullet flying overhead. “You keep the rioters contained and I’ll get this bastard.”
“What?” Seth blinked through the pain radiating through an entire side of his body, but Anna didn’t wait.
She threw a bolt of lightning into the air. It cracked loudly, triggering a primal urge in the human brain to get down, and she used that moment to sprint for a nearby office building.
That left Seth alone and only about thirty feet from the recovering rioters.
<Fuck this!> He was tired, hungry, and now he was pretty sure his shoulder was fractured. He was done with this shit.
“Dispatch, what’s the structural integrity of the city? Are buildings built to withstand a certain category of earthquake? Are we on any major fault lines?”
“Um…” Coach McMillian actually sounded uncertain. “No, but remember, Abney, you are in an underground city. So don’t bring the place down on top of us. I’ve got summer plans.”
“Understood.” Seth winced as he moved to get a better view of the charging mob.
They were only twenty feet away.
<Now or never.> He grinned, then grimaced, then drove his uninjured fist into the street.
The road split and erupted like it had been hit by a Norse god’s hammer. The angry yells turned into frightened screams as the road started to fall away. But it wasn’t wholesale destruction, Seth had a plan.
He could feel the earth through his power and occasionally popped his head up to see what was going on. Just like with the fire, he was using the rapidly deteriorating street to corral the rioters together. They screamed, pushed each other, and a few almost died as he drove them into the center of the street.
“Ok now the hard part.” Seth had to really focus now. It was a hell of a lot easier to destroy than to build.
He stopped the rapid decay of the road and started to stabilize it. He glimpsed at the panicked rioter’s location again and put the final touch on his plan. The earth gave a final rumble and then was still.
Seth looked up again to see his handiwork. Most of the road was cracked, broken, and would take some major work to become passable again. The one completely intact part was a large circle that the hyperventilating rioters were cowering on. Around them the road had completely fallen away leaving a twenty foot drop over a space about ten feet wide.
“Mission accomplished, Dispatch.” Seth grinned at the display.
He’d successfully, and by himself dug a deep trench around the rioters that they couldn’t jump over or climb out of.
“But be advised, Anna is still hunting the sniper that shot me.”
As if on cue there was a scream, and a man in black fatigues exploded out of a third story window. He limbs flailed wildly as gravity got a good hold on him and pulled him down the thirty feet to land face-first on pavement.
“All clear, Dispatch.” Anna was breathing hard. “Fucker put up a fight, but I took care of him.”
Seth could hear sirens now. It was hard to believe less than five minutes had passed. The adrenaline rush started to wear off and he felt bone-tired all of a sudden. All of the rioters and the probably dead sniper flickered and then vanished. They were never more than summoned illusions.
“Good work, team. On behalf of the entire West Private University HCP staff I want to congratulate you on the completion of your freshman year. You are now released for the summer. Your final grades will be posted in a few weeks and only then will you be invited back for sophomore year if you make the cut. You will hear from us either way, and if you are not invited back then you will have to make an appointment with Professor Livingston to get your memories wiped. If this is the case do not try and avoid the situation. We will come to your house, or hunt you down, either one if fine by me.”
It was a bit of an ominous goodbye speech, but after Seth’s performance in his trails he was sure he was going to get one of those twenty-eight sophomore year slots. But he’d think about that later. All he wanted now was to shower, take a nap, and then meet up with Liz to enjoy their vacation.
<Shit, Liz!> He was supposed to meet her for lunch with Becca and Anika, and had totally forgotten to call and cancel. <Do I still have time to make it?>
He was walking back into the building that held the sealed hatch back into the HCP when the lights all around him flickered.
“We’re done, Anna. Stop fucking around.”
“Wasn’t me.” She was looking around.
The lights flickered again and then died. They were immediately replaced by flashing amber warning lights.
Lilly appeared in a blast of darkness. Any other time it would have been conspicuous, but in the middle of the night under an overpass it wasn’t. The headlights of passing cars speeding by didn’t even come near the concealed positions her and her guest had chosen. The bearded man stumbled a bit and emptied his dinner on the concrete.
<Pussy.> Lilly shook her head and looked at their newest target.
Step one of the plan was disrupting and cutting communications. The jihadists had already planted multiple bombs at local T.V. stations. They’d back-doored into some systems and would pirate the signal from a second location when the time was right. There wasn’t a lot of manpower involved in step one aside from a team that could respond to any threats by the authorities to stop the terrorists from getting their message out. Most of that team consisted of armed humans, but there were a few Supers attached.
Step two, what they were working on now, was demolishing transportations infrastructure. The overpass they’d appeared under was the target. A few well-placed explosives and the bridge would collapse onto the road below it. It would make roads inside and out of the city impassable, and was the last of a layered approach the terrorists were taking. Anyone trying to get a vehicle into the city would face many obstacles along the way. It was designed so the only way in was to go into the vegetation, or to fly stuff in.
The terrorists had that planned out too. An armed team was was going to hit the airport. They’d hired a mercenary strongman to rip up train tracks when the time was right, and Damascus was going to set the world on fire. Orlando would effectively be cut off from large scale assistance for a little while. It wouldn’t stop the Heroes, but this way they didn’t have to worry about the Feds or National Guard.
<It really is brilliant.> She begrudgingly admitted. <After a few days it will look like New Orleans after Katrina. Give it a week and I bet we have full-scale warfare going on over food supplies. The Army is gonna have to work to take back the city.>
Lilly wondered how the weakened Fist would deal with all the newfound freedom.
<Focus,> she reminded herself as she kept her eyes out for any trouble.
The man she’d teleported rigged a rope up to the overpass and began to pull himself up into the darkness. Fifteen minutes later he’d placed the charges in the places where they would do the most damage, and shimmied back down to the ground.
“Done?” She asked.
The guy looked offended at being addressed by a woman, but that didn’t stop his eyes from tracing her body. Not that it mattered. She was loaded for war and it was tough to see much past the body armor, grenades, pistols, and big-ass rifle she was hauling around with her everywhere.
It had been a few days since she’d talked with her father and Uncle Armsman back at their underground mansion, and they’d been working pretty much nonstop since then. She’d been able to take a catnap here and there, and eat takeout, but she smelled ripe and really needed a shower.
“Wraith?” A quiet voice pinged in her ear. It was the private comm system she had with her father and uncle.
“Yeah,” she subvocalized the response so the goon didn’t know she was talking to someone.
“We’ve finished rigging the water authority, internet servers, and the team is in place to take the power plant.
“Ok.” Lilly sounded like she was clearing her throat.
“All three stages are a go. The Money wants us to stand down until tomorrow and get some rest. Then you’re to get in position and get the target.
“Got it.” She cut the connection.
All three stages of the grand plan, all the destruction, all the death, all of it was merely a distraction for Lilly to get the target. Everything was planned out so she would be free and clear. They had the safe house ready to go, and Lilly had been there, so it was a simple teleport away. All the action was taking place far away from the school, so no one got suspicious. Thanks to the plans she’d stolen, they knew all about ForceOps’ own contingency plan, and she was prepared to deal with it.
Everything was planned out meticulously. All she needed to do was kick it off.
Lilly pulled out her phone and launched identical text messages to Becca and Anika.
<Breakfast tomorrow with Seth and I?> She asked with a smiley faced emoticon.
Becca’s reply was nearly instantaneous despite the late hour. She was still up studying for finals.
<Sorry! Can’t do breakfast because of final. Lunch??????> There was a sad faced emoticon after sorry.
<Lunch sounds great. Seth and I will see you at the dining hall at noon. Our treat.>
<Yay!> Followed by a hungry face and an emoticon burger sealed the deal.
Lilly slipped her phone back into a secure pocket and opened the general comms channel. “Meeting set for tomorrow at noon.”
The lack of an immediate reply told her that some people were probably bitching at having to hold their position for the next twelve hours.
“Acknowledged.” The voice of Seif al-Din didn’t sound the slightest bit perturbed. “You are released until then.”
“Roger.” She replied, reaching out to grab the demolitions guys she’d brought, and teleporting back to the hotel room.
It was empty except for a few people setting up a rather large bomb by the bed. Everyone else was out at their staging areas. Her demo guy practically skipped over to his friends and started talking excitedly. She couldn’t tell what they were saying, but whatever it was couldn’t be good for America.
<I seriously hope I get a contract one day to take these fuckers out.> She’d betray them in a heartbeat if someone payed her to.
She daydreamed briefly of stabbing them all in the throat before pulling herself out of the pleasant fantasy and disappearing in another blast of shadow. She arrived at her flat, got out of her costume, and jumped in the shower.
The pipes protested at having water run through them for the first time in months, but it was clean and warm so she didn’t care. She dried off, blow-dried her hair, fixed her makeup, dressed in comfy study clothes, and then teleported back to her usual alleyway. From there she waked back to townhouse 117 where she looked like just another exhausted student cramming for finals.
She really wanted to do a different type of cramming. Demolitions really revved her engine, but Seth was already asleep and she needed to sleep too. Tomorrow was going to be a long and adrenaline-filled day.
She was asleep about a minute after her head hit the pillow, and it felt like she was awake a moment after that. Seth was up and moving around the room like an agitated hummingbird. He kept knocking stuff over and cursing to himself.
“Babe?” She asked through the delirium of a half-asleep mind.
“Sorry,” he grunted as he pulled on shoes. “Go back to sleep.”
“Another trial?” Her brain was already beginning to drift.
“Yeah, don’t worry I’ll be fine. Get some sleep.”
“Ok.” She mumbled.
She felt Seth kiss her forehead and then he was gone, and she was out again.
She went through a couple of REM cycles before she woke up again, but it still didn’t feel like enough. Her clock said it was ten, so she’d officially skipped her biology final. Not that she gave a shit.
<I’m about to kidnap someone and be an accessory to terrorism. Who the fuck cares about BIO 103?> She laughed a little and went to take another shower.
For whatever reason, she really wanted to be clean for today. The Big Day.
<I’ve got this. He loves you. I’ve got this. He loves you.> Was her mantra as she gamed out scenario after scenario in her head.
If A happened she would do this. If B happened she would do that. If C, D, and X happened she’d shoot this person, blow up that, grab Seth by the dick and get the hell out of dodge. It wasn’t likely things would go that sideways, but you always needed to be prepared.
<And of course there is plan Z.> Her zombie apocalypse plan, and a good plan for everything going tits up in the worst possible way. <Use every bullet, every grenade, and every RPG on anyone and everyone.> She had a few of the rocket-propelled grenades stacked on her armory table and ready to go. If she needed to, she would just destroy everything she could before running; preferably to a nonextradition country.
<But it won’t come to that.> She was confident. They’d put too much planning into all of this to fuck it up.
At 11:45 she took ten deep breaths and pulled on her running shoes. Her outfit for lunch was a black workout top and yoga pants. The casual uniform of anyone who’d just finished finals and wanted to kick back for the next three months. She had none of her Wraith gear. All of that came later. All she had was a little pea-shooter tucked securely in her purse. She had a permit for it and everything. Or at least a permit for what it looked like.
This was an example of a big things come in small packages moment. Her pea-shooter could put a hole in steel from twenty-five meters. It would be enough to stun and bruise a low-level strongwoman like Anika.
But if everything went according to plan she wouldn’t need it.
She hurried to the dining hall. She checked her phone, but hadn’t heard anything from Seth. He’d been gone since he woke her up in the middle of the night.
<It’s actually better if he isn’t here. My plan will work better if we’re lost in the madness at first. It gives me some extra cover.> However shit went down she was going to make sure he was safe.
Becca and Anika were already there when she arrived. The blue-haired speedster was bouncing around the pizza station, and Anika was grabbing a few burgers and a salad. Lilly, now fully in her Liz persona, just grabbed a turkey melt.
“Hey, Liz.” Becca was her usual cheerful self.
“Hey.” Anika grunted simply.
“How are your finals going?” Liz started the conversation while pulling out her phone.
Becca rattled off everything she’d done by the time Liz could check her text messages.
<Still nothing from him.> Liz frowned.
“Everything ok?” Anika asked, her green eyes watching Liz closely.
“Yeah.” Liz brushed it off. “Seth was just supposed to meet us here, and I haven’t heard from him yet today. He did have a trial this morning.” She lowered her voice for the last bit.
“Then he’ll be done when he’s done.” Anika replied bluntly, returning to her burgers.
“Yeah, I’ll just tell him we’re here.”
Liz punched in two letters to a number that wasn’t Seth’s.
She hit send, and then took a bite of her sandwich.