Kevin was waiting for Daisy when she walked into the infirmary. Dr. Sanderson had healed the former Hero up lickety-split, but there were some things even Sanderson’s healing couldn’t fix. Namely, Kevin was just plain old, and getting shot in your mid-nineties wasn’t good for your health.
“I’m fine.” Kevin took one look at her and waved off her concerns. “I just need to get back on my feet, get some fresh air in my lungs, and walk a couple of miles in this Florida sunshine. Then I’ll be as right as rain.” He smiled, and Daisy couldn’t help but echo it.
“Sanderson will release you when he thinks you’re ready, but until then do you mind if we talk about…”
“The old team,” Kevin finished her thought.
“Yeah. I still don’t remember much about them, or what we did, or anything besides us being a team. And I only know that because you told me and showed the very beginning.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about that. All of those memories are buried so deep even I’d have trouble bringing them to the surface. The recruitment memory was simple because we hadn’t done anything yet, everything else is going to be rough.”
“Well I’ve got classes starting today so I’ll pass on the lobotomy.” Her grin didn’t hide her unease at not being able to access memories from the advanced mind sitting across from her. “How about you give me the cliff notes version. In your own words.”
“Hmmm, well you and I were on the team. I filled the advanced mind role, and you, despite your many talents, were the team’s ranged combatant.”
That made sense to Daisy. Her electrical attacks and reaping were ranged attacks.
“Our close combat specialist was Fedor Kowal, codename Berserker. Fedor’s parents survived Stalin’s takeover of Poland and the accompanying gulags for all political rivals. They immigrated here where they instilled a love of country in young Fedor. Our teammate tried to get into the HCP in the late seventies but they wouldn’t take him. It wasn’t his power but his personality that didn’t make the cut. The HCP might have not been willing to take a chance with him, but the Army was. They trained him, molded him, and then released him with us on strategic targets.”
Daisy had the whisper of a memory of a giant man, with flaming red hair, a great bushy beard, and a battle axe that looked like it could split a steel beam in half.
“Yep, that’s Fedor.” Kevin chuckled when she mentioned the imagery. “He was a classic strongman with a twist. The longer he fought the stronger he got. When he was at the height of his power there were very few people in the world that could stop him. The only one he knew he couldn’t beat, and respected, was you.”
“So, I was his leash and the ranged combatant.”
“Partially. You two had a brief fling in eighty-two.”
“Ugh…come on man. I didn’t need to know that.” If one thing stood out about the Berserker in her memory it was all the hair. Too much hair.
Kevin laughed, and those laughs turned into hacks. “Don’t worry I’m fine.” He reached for the water and sipped generously from the straw.
Daisy didn’t like the pallor look of her old friend, but she deferred to the healer’s superior judgment.
“So you handled all the mind mumbo-jumbo, I handled ranged, Fedor handled close combat; that only leaves an intel expert. Who was are secret agent Hero?”
“Her name was Night. Beyond that I don’t know.”
Daisy tried to pull anything she could remember, but came up with nothing.
“She was completely average, like any good infiltration specialist . Your eyes could pass right over her and you wouldn’t even notice. That might have been a part of her power set, the ability to go unnoticed, but her tactical gift was what she called shadow whispering.”
“That sounds ominous.” It might have been Daisy’s recent experience with shadow manipulators, but she didn’t have a warm and bubbly feeling in her gut when talking about Night.
Kevin picked up on that. “Yeah, the two of you never got along. Her shadow whispering wasn’t much more than listening through shadows at anything going on within her range. The prevailing theory about her power was that she created miniature wormholes in the shadows that allowed sound to pass through.” He shrugged. “She wasn’t HCP trained either, so we never got the full scoop on her. If I’m not mistaken I think her deal was some type of work release program.”
“Wow.” Daisy scratched her head. “So our team was two Heroes, a soldier, and a criminal. It sounds like the beginning of a bad walking into the bar joke.”
Kevin smiled. “Maybe, but we got the job done. You’ve got to remember that this was the height of the Cold War, Krezic was deep into their experiments, and there were new rogue Supers or puppet states popping up monthly across the world. Someone had to go in and clean up, and that someone was us.” Kevin’s face was serious now, and Daisy remembered how all of this started.
<Someone put a bullet in him.>
She put her misgivings about Night, the only flash of memory she had so far was a figure wrapped head-to-toe in black like a ninja, and concentrated on the real issue.
“So where are they now?”
Kevin just shrugged. “We all got cover identities when we left. You and I went back to Heroing. Berserker stayed in ForceOps for a bit, and Night just up and vanished for all I know.”
“So not only do we need to find them, but we need to find whoever tried to give you a new asshole.” Daisy did not like how this was going to add to her workload. “Any idea who could have done this?”
“Ex-KGB, rogue Krezic agents, what remains of the Sandinistas. Take your pick. They’ve all got resources, an axe to grind, and nothing but time on their hands.” Kevin gestured to his face. He looked old and tired, and he should be.
Kevin had been fighting his whole life. Before the Russians it had been the Nazis, and there were dozens of smaller factions in-between. If anyone deserved peace and to not be hunted, it was the Hero Mastermind.
“As we move forward you’re going to be working in a support capacity.” Daisy used her “this is not open for negotiation” voice. “You can use all of your old contacts, gather intel, figure out what the fuck is going on, and why they’re trying to off you; but any and all hands-on work gets done by me. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Kevin’s grin was infectious.
“Good. Now the first thing you need to do is get better. I’ve got classes today so we’ll talk when I’m done.” Daisy gestured for a white-uniformed senior healer to come over.
“Take care of this man, he’s a fucking legend.” She walked off leaving the senior unsure of what to do.
“Don’t worry, young man.” Kevin put the student at ease. “Just bring me one of those delicious Jell-Os. Cherry if you have it.”
Daisy barely succeeded in smothering her laughter as she went off to the beginning of the year introduction.
Isla Perko, Izzy to her few friends back at the half-dozen orphanages she’d grown up in, found it easy to move through a room without being noticed. When you were barely five feet tall you could slip in and out of tight spaces, but no matter what she did she couldn’t shake the two students who’d come to help her move in.
She briefly wondered if they were part of an anti-Super group and had found out who she was and were going to blow her cover, but it didn’t look like that was right. The girl seemed determined to help, and had helped haul half of her boxes into her new room in record time.
<There was no way I’d have gotten it done by twelve-thirty, and then I’d be late for my first day at the HCP.>
She knew the importance of a first impression. When you were an orphan looking to be adopted those first few minutes could be the difference between being chosen or passed over. Since she’d never found a family willing to take her in she knew things not to do, and common sense dictated that not showing up when you were supposed to was one of those things to avoid at all costs.
The problem was that now she was going to be late because she couldn’t get into the secret elevator because they were still following her.
<At least the guy is cute.> Hot was probably a better term, but she didn’t want to start drooling over the first boy she saw on a college campus. She was here for a reason and that needed to take priority. <Still…>
The guy, Seth something, had that brooding “I’m too cool for school” attitude that always seemed to push all the right buttons with her. His athletic build, chiseled jaw, and stunning green eyes didn’t help.
<Pull it together girl!> She shook her head. <Lose these two and get to the introduction.>
She threaded through the people crowding the students center and headed for the fake wall at the back. She stopped casually next to it and pretended to check her phone.
“The polymorphic mesh should be coded to your DNA.” The girl leaned next to her while the boy casually walked backwards through the wall.
“What! You’re…!” she hissed, cutting herself off before she drew attention to them.
“We were your welcoming committee. But now we’re going to be late, so come on.” The girl, Angela, grabbed her and pulled her through the mesh.
It was a weird sensation, like passing through a waterfall, but she didn’t have time to contemplate it. Seth was holding the door to the elevator, and he didn’t look happy that she was holding everyone up. But then again, she hadn’t seen him look happy at all since they met.
“Follow us when we get down into the HCP. We’re going to need to jog to the locker room. Once there find the locker with your name on it, it should open to your palm-print. Put on your black uniform and head to the auditorium.” Angela gave Izzy step-by-step instructions.
“And if you can find a moment I’d stretch out, because you’ll need it.”
Angela shot Seth a glare, but he didn’t seem to care.
The HCP’s sci-fi halls were empty when they arrived, but they got more crowded as they got closer to wherever they were going.
“Here.” Angela practically pushed Izzy through a door with the classic sign for female on it.
The room was packed with what felt like fifty plus girls all slipping out of their casual clothes and into variously shaded uniforms.
“Freshman section is over there. Change and meet me back here in two minutes.” And just like that Angela was gone.
<Ok, you can do this. Just say hi to the person at the locker next to you.> She looked until she found the locker with her name on it and let it scan her hand. It popped open, and inside was a black uniform. She pulled it out and got to work changing.
She could tell from a quick look around that the uniforms varied depending on the person. Her uniform was skin tight, and reminded her way too much of fetish ware. Intellectually, she knew it wasn’t there for her to show off, or because whoever had put it in her locker was playing an S&M joke on her. It was so tight because of her power, but that still made it a pain in the ass to get in to.
<I’ll need to wear a thong and sports bra in the future.> She jotted down mental notes as she pulled up the tight fabric and felt stuff scrunch uncomfortably. <At least there’s extra padding around the important bits.>
With her new uniform on and zipped up she turned to the girl next to her. The girl was a solid foot taller than Izzy, had bronze skin, bronze hair, and striking blue eyes. Eyes that regarded Izzy as nonthreatening after a momentary glance. On top of all that, even though the girl’s loose uniform, Izzy could see she was shredded. Her body said “I punch things a lot and I look good doing it” loud and clear.
“Hi, I’m Izzy.” Izzy shut her locker and extended a hand in greeting.
“Martina.” The girl gave a brief shake before heading out without another word.
<I’ve had worst interactions.> Izzy followed her and met back up with Angela.
Unlike all of the other freshman, Izzy had been changing with, Angela’s uniform was gray.
Angela started to walk and talk, and Izzy had to half-jog to keep up. “When we get to the auditorium you will sit in the front with the rest of the freshman. There’s going to be little placards with assigned seating. Sit there, be quiet, pay attention, and be ready for the rest of the day.”
Izzy absentmindedly started to stretch out her shoulders as they fast-walked toward a bottleneck where everyone was funneling into a room.
“The freshman instructors are good, really good. Do what they tell you and you’ll learn a lot.” They reached the doors and separated. “Good luck.” Angela headed up the elevated seating toward a group of gray-uniformed students.
<Well here goes nothing.> Izzy went off to find her seat and start her HCP career.
<It’s the same old recycled bullshit.> Seth slouched in his chair as the Dean spoke in front of the entire HCP.
The differences between what he’d heard last year and what this year’s freshman were being told were minimal. There were only forty-nine newbies this year, down from his class’ fifty-seven. Being in the middle of a terrorist attack probably had to do with the recruitment decline. That probably carried over to every college and university in the city.
But the “only ten of you will make it to being a Hero” bit was the same word for word, so was the “one of you will die on your two-year internship, and of the remaining nine half will be lucky to see retirement” part.
<We get it. Heroes don’t have a great life expectancy. Move on already…OWWW!> A large foot came out of nowhere and collided with his shin.
“What the fuck, Mason?” Seth glared at the big man sitting next to him.
Mason just shrugged and pointed at Kyoshi, who was glaring right back at him.
<Yeesh, sorry.> He mentally apologized for his attitude and went back to focusing on the Dean.
Their educational leader had just introduced Coaches Meyers and McMillian, and Seth reigned in all his catty remarks. McMillian had his fake belly on and was breathing a little hard during his speech. Most of the freshman seemed to be buying into the act. One person wasn’t. A silver-haired girl was rolling her silver eyes as the close combat coach gave his little speech.
Then Coach Meyers stepped forward.
Seth had never liked the woman, and that hadn’t changed with his summer of misfortune. She might look like athletic coach Barbie, but he knew the snide, pretentious, asshole underneath it all.
<Yeah…yeah…fine.> He cut off his train of thought when he saw Mason’s leg start to cock back for another strike.
“Sophomores, juniors, and seniors, thank you for being present. You are dismissed.” The Dean was back at the podium and wrapping things up. “Freshmen, if you wish to leave no one will hold it against you.”
Surprisingly one freshman did get up with the upperclassmen.
<One down forty-eight to go.> Seth wanted to give the young man a high-five. That was the smartest decision he was probably ever going to make.
“Thank you, Sir.” The Dean motioned to the leaving freshman. “This path is not for the faint of heart, and if you are not one-hundred percent committed then it is better you take your talents elsewhere.”
Seth made it out the set of double-doors clogged with students in gray and white uniforms only to come face-to-face with more professors.
“Sophomores, with us. Juniors, report to your chosen specialties for your first session. Seniors report to the viewing centers. MOVE!” The orders were backed by a mean looking guy that Seth hadn’t seen before.
The juniors and seniors skedaddled, leaving just the twenty-eight sophomores.
“Let’s move sophomores.” The angry man led the way toward the main gym, but took a right before they got there. They went down several flights of stairs and emerged in another large space. It was only about a quarter the size of the regular gym, but that was still enough to fit in everyone with considerable extra room.
The sophomores immediately fell into a line in front of the new professors, who took a moment to study the students.
“We are the West Private HCP specialty professors.” The angry man was still the only one talking. “Today we will evaluate you, and determine if you are a good fit for our specialty. You all were supposed to put considerable thought into selecting three specialties to study this year. If you haven’t done that then tough shit. You have to stick with what you pick. If you haven’t done your homework, then you probably won’t make it in this curriculum. One of these specialties will be your HCP major, and will determine your career as a Hero, so you should have chosen wisely.”
“Brief introductions before we begin.” A woman stepped forward cutting off the angry man’s tirade of the students’ perceived inadequacies, which in Seth’s case where totally justified.
He hadn’t given a second of thought to what he would be studying this year.
“My name is Professor Livingston, and I am the Focus instructor.” The professor looked over and gave Kyoshi a smile. “I’ve worked with a couple of you before and look forward to teaching any who wish to learn the Focus discipline.”
A small raven-haired woman with striking amber eyes, which only added to her bird-like, fierce appearance stepped forward next. “I am Professor Huerta, and I am the Weapons instructor.”
The well-built, angry man shouldered forward next before anyone else. “I’m Professor Kirk, and I’m the Ranged Combat instructor.”
“I am also Professor Kirk.” A slim woman with bleach-blonde hair followed the angry man, who visibly softened when she spoke. “And I am the Control Instructor.”
<Maybe try controlling your husband’s temper a little more.> Seth commented freely now that he was out of range of Mason’s kicks.
But not Becca’s pinches.
<Owww, motherfucker!> He turned and glared at the pixie-haired speedster, but it was hard to stay mad at that face.
“Good morning students,” the second to last professor moved forward gracefully. “I am Professor Miles, and I will instruct any who are willing in the arts of subtlety.” The slim, brown-haired man could have been mistaken for anyone on the street, and Seth knew that was a good thing for his profession.
The last professor to step forward was someone everyone already knew, and saw as a vital part of their HCP training. “Most of you know me already. I’m Doctor Sanderson, and I’m the chief healer for the HCP. I also instruct beginning healers, as well as teach basic medical techniques and first aid. There are no healers in this class, so if you are willing to sacrifice one of your specialties I will train you up to the equivalent of a certified EMT in the next year. Having the training to save a life on the job is sometimes worth more than being able to punch through solid concrete and blow stuff up with your eyes.”
Seth saw Mason and Lorelei Gilford blush at the comment.
“As you already know,” Professor Kirk took charge, “Coach McMillian is the Close Combat coach, and while he can’t be here he’ll see the results of today’s evaluation and make his determinations.”
<No more Coach Meyers!> It was the best news Seth had heard all day. <Maybe Sophomore year won’t be so bad after all.>
“On to the evaluation.” Professor Kirk smiled, and Seth’s elation evaporated.
“I suggest everyone spread out and prepare yourself.”
The six professors didn’t move as the twenty-eight sophomores quickly dispersed throughout the room. They all suspected what was coming next.
“We are here to see if you’ve made any progress since the summer, and which of you have kept in shape. None of us like slackers who took months off when they could have been getting better. A person like that is a waste of time and won’t make it.”
<Tell us how you really feel why don’t you.> Seth took it personally, even if he consciously knew that none of the professors knew he’d slacked off for months. His only training had been of the alcoholic persuasion with a side of getting his knob polished by professionals. <Or maybe they do know.> Either way it pissed him off.
“So what? Are we going to fight all of you?” He couldn’t hold his tongue anymore.
He didn’t expect Professor Kirk’s smile. “No. You’re going to fight eachother…without powers.”
<What the hell?>
“Anyone with innate abilities please step out. You’re heading down to a special combat cell. Same rules as ranking challenges applies. 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.”
All the professors walked out of the room followed by Mason, Anika, and Casey Williams. Everyone else had the ability to more-or-less regulate their powers. Seth looked to his left and saw Richard Gibson. The guy was a good four inches shorter, with a much shorter reach, and a physique that had been honed by HCP training, but was still pretty average. Without his ability to grow and strengthen he would be a good first target.
Seth looked to his right and saw Janet Ibsen. The five-five athletic girl with blonde curls didn’t strike a frightening figure without her light-rope. But still, Seth wasn’t down for beating on a girl this afternoon.
<Rich it is.>
He focused on the smaller man, which telegraphed his move, but to Rich’s credit he didn’t look away. He looked determined and ready to fight.
Angela wasn’t surprised about the challenge, and she was prepared to deal with it. As the currently number one ranked student she knew she would be a target. <I’ll just have to convince people that targeting me is bad for their health.>
Angela was the best with her powers, and losing that advantage was going to hurt, but she was still a competent fighter. She was more than willing to take on her classmates powerless, especially when they didn’t have their abilities either.
She scanned the area around her and saw several people glancing her way. She stared them down with confidence and dared them to come at her. A few accepted the challenge.
Carson Long was the first to reach her. Normally his kinetic and thermal-powered punches needed to be treated with respect, but without them he was only a misogynistic, moderately capable boxer. He charged in headstrong and paid the price.
Angela caught him in the face with a roundhouse kick. To his credit, it didn’t knock him out, but he staggered like a drunk, and she moved in to finish him off. A quick combination and she broke his nose and KO’d him. He fell like a downed tree, and smacked his head hard against the ground.
She didn’t have time to think about him though, she turned around and barely got a block up in time to defend against Emilia Scarborough. A normal hit from the cryokinetic would lead to frostbite at a minimum, but as a normal fighter it just sent a slight sting through Angela’s arm.
She caught two more people coming up behind her, so she had to deal with Emilia quickly. Her hand lashed out and caught the other girl in the throat. A hideous choking sound escaped Emilia’s mouth as her hands retracted instinctually to the damaged airway. She collapsed a moment later in severe pain and would lose consciousness soon.
The people charging her from behind made the critical mistake of stopping when they saw how Angela had ruthlessly taken out the competition. Blake Rhodes and Simon Skylar were pretty nice guys, even if Skylar was lazy, and they weren’t sure how to come at her now that she was ready for them.
Angela didn’t hesitate. She jumped on them like a wrathful spider monkey. She got tagged a couple of times during the exchange, but she was faster than the two guys. She got a split lip, and an eye that was starting to swell from getting punched by Rhodes, but the guys weren’t so lucky. Skylar was on the ground crying from a nut-busting shot to the crotch, and Rhodes was screaming in pain from the knee she had savagely kicked. Just looking at it showed she had jacked him up, but the healers could fix him up just fine. They could fix everyone already on the ground. She could even see the golden mist reaching out to the more seriously injured already.
But that was not her concern. Right now, she needed to show the professors that she was as good as that ranking board said she was. She looked around, selected her next target, and pounced.
Oliver Carpenter went down screaming until a savage punch to the back of the head silenced him.