Daisy moved slowly and cautiously through the night. She was in full-on stealth mode. Kinetic energy absorbed into her from all angles. Her footsteps made no sound. The humid air didn’t rustle her clothing. Everything was drawn into the Hero and stored for later use.
<There.> Her target wasn’t that difficult to spot. <One step at a time.>
She kept her head on a swivel as she approached. She was squatting down to not be seen. She felt cold metal on her hand and she ran it up the side toward the handle up front. She crouched even lower for the final few steps and then acted. Hesitation would only lead to discovery.
“Ahah!” She pulled open the door causing Topher to jump a foot in the air. His gun was halfway out of his holster before he realized it was Daisy.
“Shit.” He gave a long exhale as he holstered his weapon. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.”
“You’re young and fit. I’m sure you would’ve survived.” She plopped into the passenger seat and brought out a bag she’d been carrying. “I’m surprised I was able to get this close. I’m sure these would have given me away.”
“Now that’s what I’m talking about.” Topher’s face split into a grin as the smell of cooked meat and fried potatoes filled the car’s interior.
Daisy handed over his burger and they both sat back to enjoy a late dinner.
“Anything?” She asked between chomps.
“Nope,” he replied with a mouth full of grilled cow.
Currently, they were sitting on a stakeout. Normally, Daisy as a civilian wouldn’t accompany him, but since she’d already been shot by the suspects, and the location they were surveilling was her home, Topher thought they could bend the rules this one time.
“So,” he said after a few moments of chowing down. “How’d things go with my parents?”
Daisy nearly shot ketchup out of her nose when she snorted. “Well…hmm…let’s see.” She set down her burger and turned to face him. “I was late picking them up because traffic was god awful. I don’t think they’d been waiting long, if at all, but then Kevin showed up.”
“He doing ok?” Topher interrupted.
Daisy irritation was cut by the moment of sweetness in her boyfriend’s genuine concern. “He’s good. Nothing the healers couldn’t patch up.” She refocused. “Your mother was understandably not thrilled by riding in the back of my car with a gunshot victim. If she’s still at the house when we get home I’ll call that a win. Your dad was actually pretty cool about it. I think he’s got an inkling of what I did for a living and there is some respect there. At the very least there’s a foundation to build on.”
“That’s good.” Topher’s face brightened like the dawn had just arrived. “Doesn’t sound like things went too bad.”
“Well…he wasn’t happy that I put his wife in the back of my car with a guy bleeding everywhere, but it could have been worse.” Daisy glanced at her HCP assigned housing and opened her sixth sense.
She only expanded her bubble until her house came within range, but even then, she had dozens of life-threads in her mind’s eye within her sphere of influence. None of them were Supers, so she let her heightened consciousness drop.
“Nothing?” Topher guessed what she was doing.
“Nada.” She shook her head.
“Well it looks like you just get to spend more time with charming old me.” He smiled despite her smirk.
“Yeah, that’s exactly how I wanted to…”
A loud CRACK echoed through the neighborhood. Before Daisy finished her sentence she and Topher were out of the car and moving toward the house. Topher had his weapon out and pointed ahead of him. He moved tactically, covering open ground quickly, and finding cover. His frail humanity necessitated it. Daisy wasn’t quite as encumbered.
She boldly walked into the street right in front of her home and expanded her senses. She covered the whole block, but focused in specifically on her home. The crack had been the sound of countermeasures activating. Nonlethal means would be the first to deploy, and she knew they had a good chance of taking down anyone without enhanced strength.
<Nothing.> She scanned the house.
It meant one of two things. First, the intruders were down and dead, which meant a shit ton of paperwork on the second day of school. Still, that was preferable to option two. If she couldn’t see them then her and Topher might need some backup.
“You take the back, I’ll go in the front.” She ordered, taking charge of the situation.
Topher didn’t argue. He nodded and sprinted toward the back gate. She gave him a few seconds, sent a quick text to John, and then prepared to enter. She had her hand on the doorknob and everything when half the wall seemed to explode everywhere. Since her kinetic absorption was ramped up she was like Moses standing in the middle of the Red Sea. Everything exploded around her and fell limp when it made contact.
Instead of opening the door she found herself standing a few feet to the left of a familiar women. The woman from the airport had jumped through the wall to her right, and caused the little explosion. Except this time she looked different.
If Daisy didn’t know any better she would have sworn the woman was wearing some sort of black armor. There was a moment where they just stood facing each other that Daisy got a good look at it. It wasn’t armor, even though the moonlight reflected off its black sheen. It wasn’t bulky enough. It looked more compression sportswear with a sinuous quality. Whatever it was it didn’t slow the woman down, but Daisy was prepared for that.
Electricity crackled in the air as a forked lightning bolt shot from Daisy into the woman’s chest. Two things happened. First, the woman didn’t do more than grunt as enough wattage to turn a human extra crispy slammed into her. Second, the black material reacted to the strike. It reacted hungrily, and the lightening vanished.
<Shit.> Daisy was already rolling out of the way as the woman came down on her previous position.
The ground cratered where her fist landed.
<Enhanced strength. No wonder the nonlethals didn’t do diddly squat.> She completed her role and jumped up again.
Again, she reached out with her sixth sense and grasped for the woman life thread. If she could take her down this fight would be over and they’d have a source of information for what the hell was going on.
The woman extracted her fist and forearm from the concrete and turned to face Daisy. Despite being right in front of the Hero, Daisy couldn’t sense this woman at all. <Oh come on!> She back peddled as the woman advanced in a fighter’s stance.
Evasion was the name of the game. Daisy didn’t have any idea what the black compression armor was, but she didn’t want to get touched by it. Getting hit, doused, or otherwise violated by a viscous material was near the top of the list for Hero no-nos.
The woman started throwing rabid combinations. It was clear she’d had training, especially when a kick nearly took Daisy’s feet out from under her. Without her perception dialed up with electrical impulses to the brain she would have had to rely on blocking some of those blows, and that wouldn’t turn out well.
Daisy got a real sense for the armor when those strikes got close. It was like a cold front was passing by. Everything around her seemed to get drained. Whatever the compression armor was it was offensive, defensive, and creepy as fuck.
Daisy cartwheeled backward to avoid another sweeping kick. The half-digested hamburger didn’t agree with that. That was about the time she heard the first gunshots.
<Topher.> She made a decision quick.
She came out of the cartwheel, bent her legs, and jumped. She sored over the strongwoman, who jumped after her, and landed with a combat-roll in the back yard. Topher was taking cover behind the shed and exchanging gunfire with two people.
<Now there’s three of them! This day is just getting better and better.>
Both of the newcomers were wearing the same black compression armor. One was the big guy from the airport, the tightness of the armor confirmed that. The third was another woman. Unlike the two people who’d tried to shoot her at the airport, whose armor only went up to their neck, this woman was completely covered in a thick layer of the stuff. On top of that, when she saw Daisy land nearby, she pulled a blob of the blackness off herself and threw it at her.
Daisy easily rolled out of the way, the third person wasn’t exactly a major-league pitcher, but the blob changed course.
<You’ve got to be shitting me!> Daisy started to move.
The blob’s maneuverability was limited, and eventually it fell uselessly to the ground. Daisy marked the spot in her mind and made mental note to check it out when this was over. And it had to be ending soon. Houses were exploding and Topher was emptying his clip at the bad guys. At the very least SWAT would be arriving soon.
No sooner had she thought about it than a giant gust of wind announced a new arrival.
<No…no…no…no…no. Why the fuck is he here?!”
“Cease and desist!” Jetstream hovered above the four battling Supers and one human.
Of course, the people trying to kill Daisy and Topher had no intention of ceasing of desisting. Another black blob got lobbed up toward Jetstream, but his simply flew higher and it fell short.”
Thankfully, the kid didn’t do any more posturing. He’d been attacked, and that meant he needed to take the bad guys down. Unfortunately, he didn’t bother to figure out who was who before he attacked.
The blast of wind took three of the five of them off their feet. Topher collided with the shed in a dull thud that really pissed her off. Ninja-looking girl and the big guy got knocked off their feet too. The strongwoman dug her extremities into the ground and rode out the hurricane force winds, and Daisy just absorbed the attack altogether.
When the howling wind died down, the compression armored gang started calling to each other in a foreign language. Daisy thought it might have been Spanish, but her ears were still ringing from the wind.
The group of three consolidated. The strongwoman kept an eye on Daisy while taking clumps of dirt and chucking them up at Jetstream. Daisy took the opportunity to rush behind the shed and check out Topher. He was out cold and there was a big bump growing on his head.
<Jetstream is gonna get my foot up his ass.> She promised the universe as she peeked back out from behind the shed.
The three intruders had finally reached each other. The two women got a hold of the man and the worlds seemed to twist around them. For a second they looking like a kaleidoscope image instead of three people. Then the image imploded and they were gone.
“Freeze!” With three of his five targets gone the flying hero turned his attention on the only moving one remaining.
“Take it easy. He’s a cop and this is my house.” Daisy inclined her head toward Topher and her now ruined abode.
“I will not tell you again. Freeze and put your hands behind your head.”
“Do you want me to put my hands behind me head or freeze?” Daisy couldn’t stop the smirk that spread across her face. “You need to work on your delivery, kid.”
“And I’m telling you to shut it, Jonas.” Her comment made the young hero freeze. “That’s a good boy. Let the adults take it from here.”
She could hear sirens in the distance. The cavalry was on the way just a little too late.
Izzy was a mess Wednesday morning, and it had nothing to do with drinking. She’d kept it to a minimum the previous night for several reasons. The most obvious was she didn’t want to get sloshed at a frat house and have some smelly unwashed man-child pawing at her all night. That was pretty high up on her list, but she also kept the HCP in mind. Wednesday was their combat ranking trials. She couldn’t be nursing a hangover when she went in to fight another Super for the first time.
Those were the two biggest reasons, but the third was personal. She couldn’t get Seth Abney out of her head. She didn’t have erotic dreams about him or anything like that, even if he was really cute. She couldn’t get him out of her head because of what he’d told her, or more importantly, what he’d left out. Whatever that was it had scarred him deeply.
Izzy remembered the pain on his face and in his voice like it had been branded into her mind. It was so vivid and memorable because it was so similar to what she’d felt, and what she’d seen dozens of others feel throughout her life.
She remembered the pain of getting all dressed up in her Sunday best. She’d be told to act natural and play with the other kids, but they all knew what was really happening. Potential parents were coming and they were being shown off. She’d been through that show and tell for years.
<And was always passed over.> She took a deep breath and pushed down the pain of rejection after rejection.
It took her a long time not to blame the potential parents or herself for not going home to a loving family. She’d concluded some things were never meant to be. The parents always went for the younger ones, and as she got older she became resigned to her fate. She’d stay where they told her to until eighteen, study everything she could, and then leave behind that part of her life and never look back. The goal of being a Hero was always on her mind, but she hadn’t truly believed she had a chance until she got the acceptance letter from West.
<Now I’ve got to prove I belong here.>
There was a loud clearing of the throat from the front of the classroom. Izzy looked up from where she’d been staring through her textbook and saw the teacher glaring at her. The History 101 professor had a stick shoved way up his ass, and he’d made that known several times over the length of their first class.
“Again, students, I will not repeat myself so pay attention.” He continued to drone on about the Neolithic Revolution and some of the first civilizations in the fertile crescent until the bell rang. Then he gave an obscene amount of reading for Friday’s class and dismissed them.
Izzy spent the next hour eating lunch alone in the dining hall, and by eating she meant pushing the food around with her fork and occasionally nibbling on pieces. She was just too nervous to fill her stomach. Fighting wasn’t something that came naturally to her, but according to the rumor mill that was what they’d be doing for a whole year.
She spotted Seth across the sea of students. He was alone at another table exactly like her’s, except he was eating his food. She almost went over to talk to him, but resisted the temptation. His body language practically screamed “fuck off” to anyone who came near him. Before she talked to him again she needed to get a better idea of what had hurt him so badly.
With plenty of time left before her ethics class she headed down into the HCP. Passing through the polymorphic barrier in the student’s center still sent a chill down her spine. She crowded into the lift with a few older students and descended toward her second day on her path to being a Hero.
“Good luck, Freshman.” An older woman gave Izzy a once over before exiting the elevator.
<That’s not foreboding or anything.> She tried not to psyche herself out but it was hard.
The Dean put some of that uneasiness to rest. He was a small guy, and it was hard to think of someone so soft-spoken as a mighty Hero. But he had to be. Only the best were allowed to teach the next generation of Heroes.
<Right?> She was pretty lost in this new world.
Her roommates hadn’t been much help. They hadn’t really gelled and Izzy blamed the upcoming combat trials. Everyone was suspicious of everyone else. The Super she gotten the closest to was Seth.
<Not again.> She pushed him out of her mind and focused on the Dean. What he was saying was important.
But it didn’t last long.
“Normally, I’d keep everyone here for the full hour of class, but since today is your combat rankings we’ll moving into that. However, before Coach McMillan and Coach Meyers take you away, I want to again reiterate the secret identity clause of your HCP contract. We have had no violations so far, but breaking that clause of your contract will lead to disciplinary action and most likely expulsion.” The Dean’s eyes swept across the room ensuring the freshmen understood the gravity of the situation. When he was satisfied, he took a step back and handed over the podium.
“Listen up,” Coach McMillan’s voice boomed through the room. “You will line up single file at the door and follow my lovely associate to the main viewing room. If you get lost and can’t complete such a simple task you fail and go home. You’d think people wouldn’t need to get threatened with expulsion in something so straight forward, but I’m not spending my whole afternoon playing find the freshman.”
Everyone did as instructed, and Izzy had to jog to keep up the fast pace the speedster set. They ended up in a room where flat screen monitors covered nearly every inch of the wall, showing the reinforced combat cells in ultra-high definition. A large screen dominated the center of the room, suspended from the ceiling by steel cables. It looked like it belonged in the center of a train station, or the airport concourse at JFK, instead of in the comparatively smaller viewing room. Names and locations flashed across the screen until all the freshmen knew where their first matches would be held. That only took up half the screen. The other half was filled with a traditional looking bracket like you’d see for the NCAA tournament. It was blank at the moment, but Izzy doubted it would stay that way for long. She barely had time to take in the plethora of plush couches and refreshment bar before Coach Meyers was calling out instructions.
“Glad you all made it,” the older woman’s expression in no way conveyed glee. “The next part is still pretty simple, but has the same implications. You will find your name and what combat cell you will be fighting in on the board. You then have five minutes to get there before the doors lock. Once you complete your bout you will be evaluated on the spot by one of Dr. Sanderson’s healers. From there you will either return to the viewing room to identify your next match, or be taken to the infirmary for treatment before returning here. Any questions?”
Someone asked about rules and Izzy paid close attention. She wasn’t going to get expelled by doing something stupid on the second day. The last one surprised her, <Don’t kill my opponent.> she gulped at the need for such a rule.
“Find your assigned cell and MOVE!” Coach Meyers’ yell sent Izzy springing into action.
She got her assignment and sprinted down the hall. She was surprised that her tight black uniform was so comfortable as she hurried to her first trial, but that surprise was replaced by near terror as she found her door and pushed through it. The door on the other side was still closed, so she waited and avoided the temptation to chew on her nails.
Finally, the other door swung inward and another woman stepped in. She was half a foot taller than Izzy with silver hair and silver eyes. She moved with a sure confidence, and looked much older than eighteen.
<It’s the hormones in everything now-a-days.> She tried not to let her anxiety show, and all that got from the other woman was a grin. <Oh crap.>
<Oh crap indeed.>
The unknown voice in Izzy’s head confirmed her worst fear. She was facing a telepath. The group of Supers she was weakest against.
“This first round match is between Isla Perko and Scarlett Vaan,” announced a voice that neither student knew. “The match will begin in thirty seconds, and will only conclude with an acknowledgement of surrender or incapacitation. The use of lethal force is not authorized. Any use of such force will result in your expulsion from the HCP and possible criminal charges. Good luck.”
Izzy and Scarlett looked at each other for a moment. She didn’t know what Scarlett was going to do, but she was going to use those thirty seconds wisely. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. She focused her mind on them. She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. After three breaths, she felt the familiar sensations of peace, safety, and security fill her mind. She took those sensations and pulled. She transformed them from the abstract to the physical.
When Izzy opened her eyes, she was seeing the world through a pinkish-blue lens. Most people would find this new worldview distracting, but Izzy was able to glean more information about her environment. Scarlett was a kaleidoscope of shifting color as energy coursed through her. Ironically, the other woman’s mind was a deep scarlet color. It was different than previous advanced minds she’d known, but not too different to denote a different ability. That tidbit of information only created more questions and confusion. She’d only been in a fight twice in her life, and both were under the age of twelve. Neither involved powers, and neither had so much riding on it.
Izzy raised her fists into something approaching a boxer’s stance and focused. The enhanced vision was only a secondary aspect of her power. Her primary gift itself was the pinkish-blue, skintight, aura that surrounded her body. The defensive aura would protect her from physical attack up to a point, and it even allowed her to hit stronger and manipulate greater strength. But what it didn’t do was protect her mind.
<And thinking about it just let her know what my weakness is.> Izzy felt stupid, and Scarlett trying and failing to contain her laughter made her face flush with embarrassment.
Izzy looked over at the clock on the wall and prepared herself. <Three…two…one…> She didn’t give herself time to think she just acted.
She rushed the advanced mind determined to get in a few good hits before she used some mental voodoo to take her down. If Izzy was able to show a solid effort then maybe the professors wouldn’t hold it against her.
“I surrender.” Scarlett didn’t even move. She held up her hands.
Izzy skidded to a stop a foot from her with her fist raised and poised to strike. “Can you even do that?”
“By forfeit the winner is Ms. Perko.” The unknown voice announced and the door opened to admit a grey-uniformed healer.
The upperclassman gave Scarlett a shake of his head before confirming they were ok.
<Huh. That was easy.> Izzy dropped her defensive aura and followed the upperclassman out of the combat cell and back up to the viewing room. <But I don’t think I’m going to get a lot of points by being surrendered to.>
She was the only one in the viewing room when she arrived, so she took the time to study her opponents. That way she’d show the professors what she could really do in the next round.