The reinforced metal door clanged closed behind Mason. He looked around and recognized the same combat cell he’d fought multiple battles in. <But that was one-on-one.> He watched Casey and Anika as they spread out around the room. <This should be interesting.>
Mason and Casey were relatively similar. They were both strong and tough. In Casey’s case, she was tougher than she was strong, but Mason was still the strongest. And then there was Anika. She was stronger than the average human, but she just basically passed into the low-level strongman category. He briefly thought it was going to be an unfair fight. After all, how were you supposed to beat someone if you can’t hurt them, but then he saw the look in her eye.
There was a reason Anika was ranked eighth in the class. She had speed and telepathy on her side.
<You’re going down, Mason.> She projected into his mind. Literally playing mind games with him.
<Bring it.> It was too bad he was used to having someone else inside his head.
“Three…two…one…begin.” The professors cut off any thoughts the three combatants might be having with the start of the free-for-all.
Mason got down in a fighting stance and waited. He was ready. He’d been training all summer with Wilhelm. He was stronger, faster, and had picked up a few tricks from taking a backseat to Kyoshi. It turned out that even if someone else was controlling your mind, muscle memory still existed.
He didn’t take the initiative and go on the offensive. He waited to see who would strike first. Anika was the fastest, so he expected her to get the first punch in, but again her lack of strength was going to be a disadvantage.
Anika did make the first move – in a way. Casey turned her head and looked at Anika, and then looked over at Mason. She turned back to Anika and gave a nod.
<Crap.> Mason didn’t need to be tapped into their telepathic wavelength to know what had just happened.
Both woman spread out and came at him from different sides. He didn’t wait this time, he struck first. He charged Casey. The strongwoman didn’t flinch as he charged. She deftly avoided his first few punches. Weaving from side to side and back peddling to get more room. She threw a few jabs to try and create more distance. He battled them aside and then landed his first punch. Casey was smashed backwards into the wall causing a few pieces of reinforced concrete to crumble and collapse to the floor. She struggled to get up, shaking her head to clear the cobwebs, which gave Mason the first feedback that he really had improved since the summer. A punch from him would never have messed Casey up like that before.
He pushed his satisfaction aside and advanced. He didn’t make it. He took a low hit from Anika. She slid into him like a baseball player going about fifty miles an hour. If he was weaker she might have wrecked his knee or worse, but instead the attack sent him tumbling. It bought Casey a few seconds to get her head back in the game and counterattack.
Mason was still on the ground about to get up when Casey charged forward and did her best impression of a field goal kicker. He tried to roll when he saw it coming, but he only got partially out of the way. Anika’s attack had sent him tumbling, but Casey’s sent him flying. Now it was his turn to check out the integrity of the concrete. He hit it hard, knocking some of the wind out of his lungs. He took a deep breath when they stopped spasming and got a lungful of dust. He coughed, waved away the airborne debris, and promptly took a punch to the jaw.
“Awwwww son of a bitch!”
The air cleared and he saw Anika jumping up and down shaking out her fist.
“Damn you’ve got a thick skull.” She sped away so he couldn’t get her, but it also served to draw his attention away from the real threat.
Casey hit him like a freight train. She smacked into him, which sent the debris on the ground rumbling. She got her arms around him as he tried to recover, pivoted, and tossed him like a rag doll. This time he hit the top corner of the cell and fell the thirty-something feet to the ground.
While the attack looked cooler to anyone watching, it lacked the same punch as the punt to the gut. He stuck the landing, and pushed off hard back toward Casey. Anika read the writing on the wall and skedaddled to the opposite side of the cell. Casey wasn’t as quick, and he hit her like a super-strong missile.
She folded over him from the impact. He felt things break inside her, and added insult to injury when they both collided into the opposite wall. He used her as a buffer, but even then, he still felt the impact.
He pulled himself out of the hole he’d created with Casey’s now unconscious form and waved away the dust that was now obscuring the room. He tried to peer through the thick fog, but he couldn’t find Anika anywhere.
Until she dropped from above him onto his shoulders and wrapped her arm around his thick neck. It was a brilliant move. The throat was one of the most vulnerable places on an average human and Mason’s super strength didn’t change that. It would take a hell of a lot more than seven pounds of pressure to collapse his airway, but Anika could lift multiple tons. She was more than capable of choking him out.
Her form was perfect too. She had the crook of her elbow lined up with his chin, her arm wrapped around his neck and connecting to her opposite bicep. Her other arm was around the back of his head and pushing forward to tighten her grip. He felt the pressure increase and knew he only had five maybe ten seconds to act.
She was close, too close for him to use his own thick skull as a weapon to smash back into her. She had her legs wrapped around him like a boa constrictor and wasn’t letting go anytime soon. Instead he put one hand against the arm wrapped around his throat and pulled to try and get some leverage, while reaching up with his opposite hand toward her face. He needed to make her loosen her grip and fast.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have the leverage to get in between her arm and his throat and pull, and she moved her head away so he couldn’t get her that way. His vision was starting to narrow dangerously fast and he could see the black creeping in on his peripheries, so he moved on to plan B.
He only had one shot to make it work. He stumbled back away from the wall toward the center of the room. Anika must have sensed it because she tightened her grip and tried to choke him out sooner. A sick gargling noise came from his throat as it started to work. With his last bit of strength, he bent his knees into a perfect squat and launched himself into the ceiling. He made sure to bend over so Anika took the brunt of the blow.
She did and he immediately felt the grip slacken. He reacted as quickly as his discombobulated brain could. He got a hand in between her loosened grip and his throat and he made sure to twist so on the ride back to the ground Anika hit first again.
He didn’t squish her like a bug but he did knock her out cold. Golden mist started to flood into the cell quickly after that and soon everyone was back on their feet. Anika looked a little pissed but other than that everyone felt one hundred percent.
“Thank you, students. You may return to the gym and your classmates.” The disembodied voice of one of their new teachers announced as the door clicked open.
<Don’t sound so smug, big guy. I’m going to get you one of these times.> Anika thought at him as they walked the halls back toward the auxiliary gym.
<We’ll see.> He sent her a mental smile and wondered just how long it would be until she passed him.
She’d almost done it this time. Only the tried and true methods of the strongman saved him. <If in doubt use your body as the weapon.>
Daisy watched the first group of freshmen get back to their feet. Craig had nabbed two of the three speedsters in the class when he divided them up for their demonstration. From there it was a foregone conclusion. The freshmen were rich with ambition and ego, but lacking in training and common sense. It was the first time a lot of them had gone up against another Super and they were immediately taught their own limitations.
She suppressed a smile as the young men and women got taken down a peg or three. Bringing them back down to reality was the first step in the training process; before the physical torture that would eventually just be known as working out.
<These kids have a long road in front of them.> But that was true of all Heroes at the beginning.
Daisy had been mercilessly trained by World War II veterans who didn’t even think about coddling their students. These kids had nice facilities, standards, and expectations developed from what Daisy’s generation had been able to accomplish. So if anything she was just bringing back a little of the old school knowledge to this modern generation.
“Go have a seat and think about what just happened.” Craig ordered the group whose ass he just thoroughly kicked. “Next group, MOVE!”
The group popped to their feet and sprinted into the area surrounding Daisy.
“Prepare yourselves.” Daisy said the two words with a convincing amount of menace and let the freshmen’s imagination take it from there.
Despite her outward bravado, Daisy needed to keep an eye on a few of the people arraying themselves in front of her. First, there was the final speedster. All they had to do was touch Daisy, and then she’d have to fight Craig. She really didn’t want to put down the close combat instructor in front of the students, so she singled out the young man immediately. She reached out with her power and placed her metaphorical hand around his lifeline. Before he could move she’d have him on the ground.
The next target was a little more confusing. Scarlett Vaan was a freshman for HCP purposes, but topside at West she was a doctoral candidate. Since the school had vacancies because of the Calamity last spring, the DVA insisted that Vaan be given training but didn’t give up much info on her powers. All they knew was that she was an advanced mind, so Daisy had her defenses up, and singled the older woman out too.
Lastly, there was Isla Perko. Daisy wasn’t sure how their abilities would interact. If reaping didn’t work, which would be a big surprise, she’d move on to electrical attacks. If that didn’t work then she’d figure something out.
<They’ve got a strongman in the class. I could probably use his body to beat her with.>
“Ready…” Craig started the countdown and Daisy focused on the present. The time for contingency plans would come soon enough.
“Set…” Daisy’s extra sense was already expanded and targeted on the freshman. It didn’t matter if there were less than last year. Her power worked equally among everyone in her half-mile range.
“Go!” Daisy gripped the life threads of everyone around her just as a stab of pressure hit her mental defenses.
<Owww. Motherfucker…!> Pain seared through her head as she clamped down on Scarlett Vaan’s life thread, but the girl still toppled to the ground and vomited all over herself.
The problem was that she had to concentrate more on the advanced mind and the speedster was able to move. Move was a strong way to put it, but he did stumble at fast speeds. Daisy clamped down on him and he finally fell and skidded across the gym floor. It was mildly funny. He skidded face first causing his body to scrunch up so he ended up with his ass in the air like in a cartoon.
What almost wasn’t funny was that he made it to within a few feet of her, and was reaching toward her with a trembling arm. A small burst of electricity put him out of his misery.
She turned to survey the rest of the combatants and saw that everyone was on the ground. Even Isla Perko was on the ground twitching. It seemed her power didn’t cancel Daisy’s out after all.
“Well that’s that!” Craig clapped cheerfully as the half of the freshman class not on the ground gaped at Daisy open-mouthed. “Healer!”
Dr. Sanderson appeared, gave a brief introduction to the freshman, and unleashed his golden mist to bring everyone back to full health. Daisy received more awe-inspiring gazes from the group she’d just put down. Perko looked thoughtful as she walked back to join the rest of the freshman while Vaan just looked pissed. She didn’t join up with the rest of her class. She stood off to the side fuming.
“Your training starts now.” Daisy stepped forward in front of the class like a general. “And it will not stop until you quit or you die.”
That got some fearful looks from the group.
“You all heard the Dean’s pick-me-up speech. The life you are all trying to live is a dangerous one. Most Heroes do not get to see retirement. This career is not for the faint of heart. It can be extremely rewarding,” she tempered the negative theme of her speech. “But it will take committed, unrelenting focus for you to get there. Constant vigilance! If you take nothing away from your time with me I want you to remember that.” She stared right into the eyes of several students before stepping back and letting Craig have to floor.
“Okeydokey. We’re going to start off today with a little jog. Behind you is a one-mile track. You will all complete a five-mile run in a minimum of thirty-five minutes. For everyone out there who isn’t a math major that means a seven-minute mile pace. Understood? Questions?”
“Do we all have to do this?” Vaan asked from her spot next to the freshmen.
“Yes.” Daisy’s answer was short and anything but sweet. She didn’t like Vaan’s attitude.
There were no other questions.
“Good. Everyone to the starting line. Ready…” The freshman rushed to the track like a bunch of sheep being herded by a dog. “Begin!”
They all took off and Daisy jogged along as the pace runner. Thirty-five minutes of easy running gave her time to think. She had Kevin, her old team, her new crop of freshman, her old crop of sophomores, whoever was trying to kill her old team, and Seif al-Din to worry about. Thirty-five minutes was hardly enough to make a dent in that to-do list.
Scarlett rounded the last corner with a stitch in her side and anger in her heart. She’d been drafting off the big blonde bimbo for the last four and a half miles and it was now time to make her move. As they rounded the final curve, she slid to the left and put a little extra effort into her stride. That little extra effort made everything burn like she’d lit her muscles on fire, but it got the job done. She pulled ahead and stayed that way.
She was one of the last people in the group, but she was fine with that. <I don’t want to slug it out with criminals. I’m working to be a doctor.>
She was thankful that the DVA wasn’t forcing her to go through this whole program. Her benefactors didn’t want another Hero. They wanted a Super that could take care of themselves and be relied on. When she told her handler she didn’t think she’d be able to make it through the program, she could have sworn the other woman was glad.
<As long as they keep paying my tuition and rent I don’t really care.>
She crossed the finish line and almost immediately collapsed. A few seconds later Superhero Barbie finished and calmly walked past them all without really breathing hard.
“You ok?” A guy approached her with a cup of water.
She didn’t recognize the guy but he was big and covered in tattoos. “Yeah.” She pinched her side. “Just getting warmed up.” She knew better than to admit weakness in front of the competition.
“Cool. Here.” He handed her the cup of water and walked away.
She was glad he could take a hint.
“Good, you all made it.” Coach McMillian called out. “I hope you enjoyed the taste of what physical training will be. We will have this class Monday through Friday no matter what. I don’t care if there is a freak snowstorm that knocks out power and limits all travel in the city. You will all be here unless you get a notification from the HCP.” He wasn’t joking.
“Each class will begin with that five-mile warm up.” Bimbo Barbie took control of the conversation. “Conditioning is one of the most important tools in a Hero’s kit, so learn to love running.”
“Additionally,” the speedster stepped back in. “I want you all to look toward the door. Do you see what’s there?”
“Pullup bars.” He smiled. “Every time you are going to enter or exit this gym you will jump on those bars and do ten pullups. Understood.”
There was a mix of mumbled, grunting, and few enthusiastic answers. One from a girl who couldn’t be more than five feet tall and looked pretty fresh after running five miles. Scarlett was only mildly jealous.
“That is it for today.” Both coaches announced. “Tomorrow the real training begins. You will all undergo your initial combat rankings. So get a good night’s sleep. Don’t go out partying at the back to school parties. Take the time to mentally and physically prepare for the task ahead of you. Come here tomorrow ready to fight.”
Just like that training was over. The two coaches walked out and left the freshmen to their own devices. But not Scarlett. She had places to be. She jogged, even though her body protested every footfall, back to the locker room. A quick shower got the stink off of her, and the fresh pair of scrubs waiting in her locker put her back in an environment where she felt in control.
She had to ask directions to find her way to the infirmary, but it was impossible to miss once she arrived.
“Dr. Johnson’s office?” She asked a white uniformed senior tending to an old man in a hospital bed.
“End of the hall.”
The old man watched her go, and she felt a slight tingle in her skull. The man was a Super and he was glancing her surface thoughts. She could hardly blame him. She did the same thing to just about everyone she met. It was the best way to form a baseline impression and garner any important information before engaging them. Not reading their mind would be stupid.
“You must be Ms. Vaan.” A door opened ahead of her and a calmly man appeared. “I would ask that you enter this space with an open and neutral mind. Letting your emotions get the best of you is not wise. You’re here to understand and help others with their own emotional triggers, so it’s best if you leave your baggage outside my office.”
<Empath.> She didn’t have any empathic abilities which was why she was interning under the resident Psychologist this semester on top of all her other work.
“Are you ready?” He stood there expectantly.
Scarlett took a deep breath and pushed all of her ill-will toward Coach Meyers away. She ignored how much it bothered her that the woman was able to take her down without breaking a sweat. She ignored her own frustration about not even being able to land a mental blow, something that had never happened before. She couldn’t forgive, but she could ignore how the woman made her faceplant and start throwing up everything she’d eaten all over herself. Scarlett tried to push that all aside so she could begin her real training.
“Close enough. We’ll work on it.” Dr. Johnson smiled and stepped aside to let her enter. “Let’s begin.”
“…so I said to him, ‘Missed me. Welcome to my world!’” Lilly sat with her back against the reinforced wall as Morina, the self-proclaimed Blood Bitch, cackled in the cell next to her.
“Classic.” The blood manipulator slapped her knee. “I wish I could have been there.”
“If you’d been there we’d have gone through that room like a chainsaw through a stick of butter.”
“Mmmmm butter.” Morina drifted off momentarily into her own happy place.
She did that every so often. She had a broken mind that struggled to stay focused for very long. Lilly didn’t know if she’d cracked under some Hero interrogation, driven herself crazy when she killed all those people, or was just born a few cards short of a full deck. She knew she wasn’t one to judge. The psychologist the government had hired to evaluate her had already declared her a sociopath with narcissistic tendencies and no regard for human life.
<Incorrect, just a regard for the lives that matter. Me, my dad, Seth, Uncle Curtis, me, and maybe Morina now.> Lilly thought as she ticked the people she cared about on her fingers. <Oh and Mika. Can’t forget about that little guy.>
“I miss baked potatoes.” Morina rejoined the real world.
“Yeah, I miss anything that isn’t some liquid-solid hybrid that tastes like asshole.” Lilly seconded the assessment.
“So, who’s your new lawyer gonna be?”
“Beats me.” Lilly shrugged. That little tidbit of information had been bothering her. “I guess I’ll get a court appointed one now.”
She still had money, but every time she transferred any the government backtracked it and froze the account. She was already down millions from paying her old attorney, and now he was dead. She didn’t care about him. He wasn’t one of those select few that made her list of desirables, but he’d been doing a decent job with her defense. Now she was going to get Mr. or Mrs. Nobody esquire who was going to fumble the case right into the prosecution’s hands.
<Decent opportunity for a mistrial if they fuck it up really bad. But I’d rather not sit here with my thumb up my ass for the rest of my life.> She rolled out of her seated position and started doing pushups.
She couldn’t be flabby when she got back to Seth.
“Are you working out again?” Morina’s exasperation was clear in her tone. “You’ve got a lot of built up sexual tension, Wraith.”
“This is prison. The closest I get to getting off is when Reggie pats me down. Of course I’ve got some pent-up frustration. You don’t.”
“Nah. Draining people of their blood always did it for me”
Lilly could practically see her shrug absentmindedly. <Weirdo.> Morina was the closest thing to a friend she had in this joint, but the woman was straight up loco.
“Prisoner, on your feet and place your hands against the yellow circles.”
“Oh joy.” Lilly rolled her eyes. “Hey, Max, how’s the nut doing. Sorry I flattened it last time.”
Lilly and Max had a slight disagreement the last time he was patting her down. Max thought squeezing her tits was a proper way to search her. Lilly disagreed. Her hands were encased in the yellow plastic, but her feet were unencumbered, and they found his left testicle with honed precision. She hadn’t seen him in the last couple of weeks because of it.
“Fuck you, Wraith.” Was all the warning she got before fifty-thousand volts surged through her.
Max wasn’t a strongman but he was a human taser.
The electricity made her legs stop working and she fell. Her shoulders and wrists screamed in protest as they took the full weight of her body, but she was too busy trying not to bite her own tongue in half to notice.
“Payback’s a bitch, Wraith.” He got all of her restraints on while she hung there limply, and then dragged her out of her cell and up toward the private room where her new attorney was waiting.
As she expected, the new guy was ratty-looking, worn down, and had a defeated look around the eyes. The court had seen fit to give her the guy that had checked out right before retirement. She’d probably be his last case, and by the look of it he didn’t care if he won or lost.
<Fan-fucking-tastic.> She thought as Max tossed her in the chair, bolted her in, and left.
“Read and sign these.” The lawyer handed over a stack of paperwork as big as her torso. “All of this allows me to handle your defense and requests all the information the law firm you had on retainer collected be handed over to me.”
“Jesus.” She looked at the stack which had strategically located sticky noted marking where she had to sign and date. “People say I’m a bad person, but I never killed this many trees.”
The lawyer didn’t even smile so she got to work signing.
It was about halfway through the paperwork that she found the message. She didn’t know if the lawyer knew, and if he did he gave no indication. Either way she didn’t really care. She kept signing the pages and trying to hide the smile on her face.
BE READY the post-it said, and she recognized the hand writing.