“Again.” Angela walked among her team watching them with a critical eye.
She was in her angelic shifted form today for training, and her armor threw streams of artificial light in different directions when it hit the gleaming metal. Something she was using effectively in the training session. Coach McMillian had given the team captains the training time again today, and Angela was taking full advantage of it.
Kyoshi charged and struck. The air shimmered around her where she wrapped herself with telekinetic energy. It was a good force multiplier, but it didn’t put her in league with a strongman. That’s where Alex came in. He barreled in like something out of a child’s worst nightmare. He was all red and white – muscle and bone – as he charged in. Bone darts flew from his knuckles fast enough to pierce light metals, and he leapt at the target. Blake mimicked Kyoshi’s martial art’s grace and converged on the target with the team.
“Halt.” Angela stopped the exercise and gave some pointers.
Blake had moved too slowly and left an opening. The entire point of this exercise was to trap someone and beat them into submission. Kyoshi had pointed out a flaw when the teams were selected. Angela had not selected the strongest team. She and Alex were the closest thing to the strongman category while the rest were versatile. Theoretically, if they were able to keep someone contained long enough Kyoshi should be able to possess their bodies, but that was more of a last resort than a common tactic. Possessions took time, and time was something in short supply in scenarios the instructors would throw at them.
Alex, Kyoshi, and Blake walked off a short distance while the rest of Angela’s team took center stage. Oliver Carpenter had a variety of mechanical gadgets attached to his uniform. Angela recognized some of them from previous sessions as offensive or defense countermeasures, but other things were new. Natalia Romanoff walked with him. She looked alert and bored at the same time. She had no physical power like most of the first group. All she was her eyes. Granted, those eyes could paralyze the strongest person in the class, but it was still a limited ability. Lastly, Fiona stepped forward with a determined look on her face. She was the key to a lot of the team’s strategies, and she’d been working hard to get where Angela needed her to be.
“Begin.” This time Angela didn’t just watch. She participated.
A bow and arrow made of energy appeared in her hand, she drew it back and fired toward the center of the group. Fiona grabbed Natalia’s shoulder and they vanished with a pop. Oliver rolled away from the strike with a surprising amount of speed for someone who looked like he spent all day laying on the beach. Angela dismissed the arrow when it hit nothing but air, and jumped into the sky. She’d sensed movement behind her and didn’t want Fiona and Natalia to be able to take their shot. Normally, the two couldn’t hurt her, but Oliver always had some tricks up his sleeve.
One of those tricks popped up when Angela fired a second arrow at him. This time he didn’t run. A large contraption on his chest started to grow as the arrow drew nearer, but when it was only a foot away it hit resistance. The arrow exploded into a hundred tiny fragments and an energy shield flared red around Oliver. The technopath and apparent genius inventor smiled at the success just before Angela dropped out of the sky with a large war hammer. Fiona appeared in the nick of time and teleported him to safety.
“Good looking out for your teammates.” Angela nodded as she dissolved the war hammer and turned to face the rest of the team. “You’ve all got a good handle on that configuration.”
That was what Angela had been drilling into her team for the last few weeks. She’d organized them into different two-team configurations. Today was a power team designed to take out opponents and an evade and surprise team to take down with alternative methods. Oliver’s bag of tricks, Natalia’s power, and Fiona’s maneuverability were perfect for that.
<It all comes down to our opponents.>
“Take five,” she instructed the team. Who were more than happy to grab some water.
Angela spent the time staring across the giant gym. The four teams had taken up training positions in the four quadrants. It was harder to see exactly what the teams on the far side of the gym were doing, but it was clear as day what the nearest team was up to.
Angela wanted to be prepared for any situation and had drilled different tactics for different scenarios. Close by, Kimberly Goodman didn’t seem to be thinking along the same route.
Angela knew better than to underestimate the blaster. Her minimal strategy wasn’t due to lack of intelligence, she just knew what her people were good at and let them focus on that. Her team doing what they did best was going to put up a hell of a fight against whoever they came up against.
Becca’s perception was heightened as she darted around her opponent. She’d let Rich grow too much and now it was coming back to bite her in the tushy.
<Crap on a cracker.> She let out the dirtiest curse word she was willing to think as she darted in for another strike.
Rich got stronger and more durable the more he grew. Currently, he was twice the size of Becca – about ten and a half feet tall – and he seemed to think that was good enough to beat her.
<Not beat me, but make me fail to accomplishing my mission.>
Kimberly had them rotating from team member to team member to fight for short bouts. There wasn’t more than thirty seconds of rest between the fights, so it forced them to adapt on the fly. It was good thinking, because even Becca realized they didn’t have much else going for them other than the ability to beat the poop out of people.
Becca darted in and peppered Rich’s knees with blows. She hit stronger than a regular person, and training had taught her where to hit, but there was only so much damage she could do. Rich swiped at her in response, but she was long gone. She circled around behind him and lashed out at the back of his knee with a vicious front kick. He actually stumbled a bit on that one.
<Got you now.> She’d figured the best way to deal with Rich was hit him low until he started to anticipate that and then hit him high.
“Switch!” Kimberly’s voice cut through the gym.
“Come on!” Becca grumbled. “I almost had him.”
“You wish.” Rich grinned back as he marched off and met his next opponent three strides away.
Becca stayed where she was and waited for the next challenger to show up. <Oh no.>
“Becca…Becca…Becca…this should be electric.” Anna Fletcher walked over. Static electricity already coursed across the body of the volatile electrokinetic.
The two women had engaged in a few sparring matches already. Becca didn’t particularly like them. After all, who liked to be electrocuted. Anna loved them. She viewed Becca as the ultimate opponent. Most other people she just had to get the voltage right to take them down, but not Becca. Becca was someone she had to struggle to hit in the first place. For someone who wanted to win as much as Anna, Becca was her ideal training opponent.
Becca started running and didn’t stop through the entire fight. The air tasted funny and her hair was going crazy through the entire fight. It felt like it was fighting to break free of her head. It had been easier dealing with it when she wore braids, but the pixie cut was too short to tie it up with anything. Her hair wasn’t her only problem. Unlike Rich, there was no way for Becca to get close to Anna.
The electrokinetic was set to stun for the training, but much more powerful crackling energy forced around her in a quasi-energy armor. She’d been perfecting it over the summer, and finally had enough control to attack while simultaneously defending herself.
Becca had even overheard Professor McMillian talking about her possibly being able to completely transform into the element by graduation, if she made it that far.
<Sure feels like she could.> Becca barely dodged a small lightning bolt a second before a wave a pressure made her stumble.
She slowed to maintain her balance and that was when her whole body seized up.
“Fuck yeah!” Anna announced triumphantly as Becca face planted at moderate speeds. “Finally got you.”
“Healer.” Kimberly called out calmly as she came to check on the progress. She’d already finished off Rich.
The big guy might be tough, but the different energy blasts Kimberly was capable of had overwhelmed him.
A white-uniformed senior trotted over and gave Becca a quick exam. “Broken jaw and some pretty bad road rash.” He diagnosed. “Hold still.”
Becca stayed still because her face hurt like the dickens. There was a momentary burst of pain as her jaw was snapped back into place, but it was the itching that hurt the most. As the skin on her cheek and chin mended itself it felt like a million mosquitoes were attacking her face. For about three seconds it was nearly unbearable. It was a lot more painful than actually getting hurt had been.
“Let’s keep working, people. Show’s over.” Kimberly stepped in and shooed everyone away. “Rotate and start again.”
Becca was no exception. She got up, tested her neck and jaw mobility, and then moved on to face Carson Long. She took out the frustration of the loss on him. He was too slow to hit her, and tough enough to take the hits. His thinly veiling offensive comments didn’t help. She might have accidently kicked him a little too hard a little too close to the groin.
<But that’s what we’ve got that healer for.>
She looked around as they waited for the senior to get Carson to stop wailing in pain. She could see Angela’s team doing different drills with different groupings of people nearby. She knew Angela was smart and cunning, but Becca didn’t think she’d selected the best team; especially when Seth had been available to be picked multiple times.
Becca could understand why no one wanted him. His performance in class was inconsistent since they got back from summer break. Then there was all the mess with the DVA and Wraith. There was even a rumor spreading about how he’d attacked some random guy. Unlike everyone else, Becca was willing to look past that. She saw a powerful Super who could be an asset to any team who gave him a chance.
<It also would have been good for one of his friends to give him a hand.> Becca wished Angela had been the bigger person and reached across the aisle to him, but she hadn’t. He’d been picked last, and she was sure that was affecting him.
“Hey, Becca, focus.” Kimberly was right in front of her snapping her fingers.
“Sorry.” She blushed and turned back toward the team practice.
She also felt a bit guilty. She’d been thinking about how Seth was holding up without giving any thought to her own girlfriend. Anika’s team was on the far side of the gym, too far to see exactly what they were doing. She wished she knew. It would make facing her and beating her team that much easier. Becca might love Anika, but she was still competitive and wanted to win.
They all did.
Anika was doing her part for her team. She was watching everybody else closely.
“What’s everyone else thinking?” Jason Cook stepped up behind her and whispered.
“If Kyoshi is paying attention then she is going to hear this conversation whether you whisper or not.” Anika stated as she continued to scan the room for anything interesting.
She’d been working on her telepathic abilities all summer, and she was starting to see the benefits. Spending time in a town where a portion of the people fundamentally hated what you were was good motivation to know what they were thinking before they could do something stupid. That was the primary role of her telepathy when she thought about how it integrated with the rest of her abilities. Her strength and speed were still her greatest assets, her telepathy just allowed her to pinpoint where to use those abilities to their fullest potential.
It was that same thinking that led Jason to pick her in the first round. He got someone strong, fast, that was able to throw down, and who could help him direct his forces. She was his number two, and they were already figuring out how to win.
“Kimberly has been drilling primarily offensive techniques, but that’s not a surprise. Her team is probably the strongest. Angela is taking a more varied approach. She’s trying different scenarios and seeing how her team reacts. Then she’ll change it up, keep them guessing, and make adjustments when necessary.”
Jason nodded. He was taking a similar approach. His team had already finished their physical drills for the day and had moved on to the mental ones. To any outside observer it would look like they were just sitting or lying on the ground with their eyes closed, but nothing could be further from the truth. Half of fighting was mental. His team was war gaming in their heads. They were matching themselves up against members from other teams and playing out how those fights would go with what they’d learned from being in the same class with them for over a year. It allowed his team to rethink their strengths and weaknesses and where they could possibly get help from their teammates.
Anika knew Jason had been thinking about a possible third match with Angela. So far, he was one for two against her, but now he was thinking about getting another heavy hitter like her or Teresa in on the action. That would tilt the fairly even odds in his favor. Even having Danny Mason’s duplicates distracting and harassing Angela was enough for him to get the win.
“I think we should hope to get paired off against Angela’s team.” Anika stated as she continued to listen and learn from the thoughts around her. “I’d be worried about Kimberly’s team overpowering us with all their blasters and Casey bringing up the rear. She’s tougher than hell and neither Teresa or I could take her alone. We’d need to double up, and that would leave us vulnerable.”
“I could take up the slack.” Jason insisted.
“Anna would probably keep you occupied alone.” Anika countered. “Do you know how close she is to transforming into a pure energy form?”
Anika did, and it was going to happen a lot sooner than the instructors realized if Anna kept gaining the ground in training that she did.
“Even having Jacqueline and Becca double teaming you from the land and air is going to require your complete concentration.” Anika had to respect Kimberly’s picks. She really did have a powerhouse team.
“I guess we’ll see what happens soon enough.” Jason shrugged.
“I guess so.” Anika nodded. The month was almost over and everyone was just waiting for the inevitable.
“Hey,” Jason stopped before walking away. “What’s going on with Erin’s team?”
<That’s the million-dollar question.>
Anika looked at him and shrugged. “Hell if I know?”
“What the hell are we even doing here?” Seth fumed as he racked the bar and sat up.
He was about fifty pounds off his normal bench press weight, and he’d been forced to do four less reps. He felt winded and his whole body hurt after the run at the beginning of class. Erin didn’t make them do five miles, but she set a grueling pace for the shorter distance. Hardly anyone else did any running during that physical training period, which already put Seth in a bad mood.
The running was just the beginning. The worst part came next. Once they were done with the run Erin just told them to work out on the machines in one corner of the room. There was no combat training, there were no strategy sessions, there was just weightlifting while Erin sat alone and starred off into Neverland.
“What the fuck is she thinking about?”
“Chill out, Seth.” Mason put a big hand out in a stopping motion. “Erin’s different, but she’s stayed number four for a reason.”
“Yeah,” Seth scoffed. “That reason is that she’s coocoo for Cocoa Puffs and nobody wants to fight a crazy person. They’re too unpredictable.”
“Maybe that’s what she’s doing. Maybe she’s being unpredictable.” Mason shrugged as he leaned back on his own weight machine and started to bench press a hundred times what Seth had been doing.
<Show off.> Seth knew Mason wasn’t showing off at all, but he was already pissed and when that happened recently things just started to snowball.
Seth added another plate – making it six total – and was determined to fuel that anger into something mildly productive. He heaved the three hundred and fifteen pounds off the rack and brought it all the way down until it touched his chest. He got the first rep done fine. The second he struggled a little at the end, but it was the third that was the real ball-breaker. He got stuck with it just a few inches off his chest, and no matter how hard he pushed it didn’t budge.
“Spot.” He grunted, and Mason was there in a flash to help.
Despite the serious physical exertion, Seth was only more pissed. He used to do double the reps at this weight and Mason had grabbed it like it was nothing. <He probably could do pinky curls with this weight.>
“God damnit!” Seth jumped up.
A gust of wind blasted through the section of the gym knocking heavy dumbells off the rack by a mirror and sending lighter ones flying nearly fifty feet out into the track.
“Whoa!” Mason jumped in front of Seth. “Jesus, man. Calm down.”
Lorelei and Simon Skylar were paired up not too far away. They shot warning glances at Seth before moving away. Ashley Bates just gave him a glare and moved farther away. Only Rowan, who didn’t seem to know any better, walked up to them.
“You good?” he asked Seth with an annoying amount of earnestness.
Rowan was still the new guy, but he was already more accepted than Seth. That only pissed Seth off more.
“We’re good.” Mason smiled. “Just burning off some of that excess energy.”
“Cool. Let me know if you need a spot.” That was directed at Seth not Mason, and Seth didn’t know if it was a good-natured request or the new guy rubbing in Seth’s weaknesses. It was tough to tell the difference now-a-days.
“You ok?” Mason asked after Rowan walked far enough away that he wouldn’t overhear.
“I’m fine.” Seth answered stubbornly.
To that, Mason just waved his hand at the scattered dumbbells. “Doesn’t look like that.” He gave Seth a serious look. “Is this because she called?”
<Yes.> Seth wasn’t going to admit that though.
The DVA had been all up in his business since the phone call. The lawyer his family had hired had just decided to rent an apartment in town and stay because of all the crap that was cascading onto Seth. The DVA had confiscated his phone, was monitoring all of his communications, and they had a tail on him twenty-four-seven. Seth was pretty sure the guy would stand in his room and watch him sleep if he could get away with it.
His lawyer just told him to fully cooperate because he had nothing to hide. <I do have nothing to hide. Not that anyone gives a shit.> Seth was so close to dropping all of this Hero shit and telling everyone to suck a dick. It was so tempting, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it just yet.
“I’m fine.” He eventually answered Mason’s question. “Come on, we need to keep going or else our fearless leader might notice we’re talking instead of working.”
They both glanced over at Erin. Her gaze was still staring off into the distance, but now she looked like she was muttering to herself. Mason didn’t say anything. There wasn’t much he could say to paint a better impression of their leader, so instead they got back to work.
It was all they could do until it was go time.
Daisy and Craig were not present in the gym while the sophomores practiced. Daisy wouldn’t normally be there anyway, but Craig definitely would. They weren’t there physically, but they were there electronically. Like every room in the facility, the giant gym was wired with cameras so the professors could watch their students work.
“So, you’re thinking Team Two versus Four and Three versus One?” Daisy had her feet up on her desk as Craig ran the plan by her.
“I’m toying with it.” Craig scratched his chin and looked down at the pad of paper he was making notes on. “I want the first match to be as even as possible, but I want them to slug it out. I want to teach the lesson that no matter how smart or cunning you are sometimes you just can’t make up for the difference in raw physical strength.”
Daisy agreed that was a good lesson to learn. “Then I would have Three face Four.” She put in her two cents. “That’ll match up the two strongmen. Abney, despite his current predicament, is a powerful Super. Erin can bring a lot of force to bear in a fight if she’s engaged. Gilford’s blasting doesn’t match Goodman’s but it still has a hell of a kick to it. With a couple of supporting people on either side I think it has the makings of a good fight.”
“I’ve considered it. I’m putting a lot of faith in Martin and Schultz from Team One to make it a decent fight against Three, but the matchups just might not be there for the knock-down drag-out fight I’m looking for.” Craig’s sighed as he put down the pad and rubbed his eyes.
His baby was just starting to sleep through the night, but he was still trying to catch up on sleep. He wasn’t as young as he used to be, and it was showing. Burning the candle at both ends had that effect on a person when they couldn’t drain the life out of someone and stay young theoretically forever.
“So, Three versus Four and One versus Two?” Daisy asked with a grin.
“I’ll sleep on it,” Craig shot back.
“Better think fast. The match is tomorrow.” Daisy reminded him.
“That’s the beauty of being the person in charge.” Craig flashed his mischievous grin. “I make the rules.”
Daisy just shook her head and let the speedster have his little power trip. She had other things on her mind.