A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 21

“Huh.” Lilly looked at the caller ID on her cell phone.

“Who is that?” Stal sat up a little straighter from where she’d been lounging.

“Just a member of my team. Cool your jets.” Lilly shot back.

“Our employer does not want us to take outside calls.” Nightingale was removing her plastic apron splattered with blood.

“It’s a good thing that I’m a rebel then.” Lilly shot the other woman a smile before hitting the accept button.

“It’s me.” Mika maintained operational security by not saying his name. “I’ve got an interesting bit of information for you.”

“Shoot.” Lilly took a seat and relaxed. The rest of the mercenary team saw her body language and relaxed as well.

“Your old cell is getting pinged left and right.”

“So,” she shrugged, not understanding why this was worthy news. “We knew the DVA would do that after my…mistake.” She didn’t know what to call it, but Armsman had been pretty opinionated about what it was.

“True, but they stopped pulling on that thread days ago. Sure, they could be trying it again to bait you, but it’s not really their playbook.”

“Don’t let the suits get in your head and make you complacent. The Heroes and them might need to play by a set of rules, but they can be pretty creative. I’ll take a look at the call data. It’s probably nothing, but better to be informed and prepared then get caught with our pants down.”

“Ok. Are you coming back or should I send it to you?”

There was really only one option to ensure no one tracked the information back to her or Mika.

“I’ll be right there.”

“The Boss does not want us going anywhere.” Stal informed, but it didn’t sound like she cared much.

“Again,” Lilly pointed at herself, “I don’t give a shit.” With that she exploded in a wave of darkness and disappeared.

She made several jumps all over the world before teleporting back to Armsman’s private island. She never appeared inside the structure, always outside on the beach. In the off chance someone did follow her it was better to have them targeted by the island’s defenses than to be able to emerge right in the heart of their lair.

<His Fortress of debauchery.> Lilly saw a boat pulled up onto the sandy beach.

It was the weekly supply boat that brought food, fresh water, and willing women right to her uncle’s doorstep. <Now that’s what I call service.>

Just to be safe she stayed away from where their guests would be. If they recognized her then Armsman would have to kill them all, stage a boating accident, and it would just be a whole lot of hassle. She took the long way around and entered the cool server room where Mika spent all of his time. Hot pocket wrappers and empty energy drinks littered the floor around his work station where he stared unblinkingly at the screens surrounding him.

“Hey.”

“Shit, Wraith.” He jumped in his chair and knocked over a full can. Thankfully, it fell on the floor and not the computers. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“I walked right in the door, Nano. You’d be so dead if anyone ever raided this place.”

That made the teenage technopath blush, but he’d come a long way from where he’d been a year ago. She wasn’t able to make him uncomfortable like that for long.

“Here is what I’ve got?” He pulled up the call data after closing a few windows.

“What’s the number?”

“It’s a burner phone, so I can’t trace whose it is.”

“Footage of the purchase?”

“No. It purchased from some bodega down in Orlando, but they don’t have surveillance cameras.”

“Who doesn’t have surveillance cameras now-a-days?” Lilly sighed with frustration while Mika just shrugged.  “So we’ve got nothing.”

“I’ve got the locations of the calls, but none of the footage I have has good angles. Whoever is making the calls is being pretty clandestine about the whole thing.” It was Mika’s turn to sigh with frustration.

“That’s not exactly the DVA’s style.” Lilly frowned. “Could you put those on a map?”

Mika did his techno-magic and dots appeared around the city. Time and date stamps appeared next to the dots, and a line of the caller’s probable travel connected them all. Lilly stared at the map for a minute and knew she was missing something. There was a tingle at the base of her mind that she just couldn’t put her finger on.

“And we’ve got no footage at all?”

“Nope.” Mika frowned at his screens. “There’s footage of who I think the person is getting in a cab, so you could go ask the driver.”

“It could still be a trap.” Lilly dug for that hidden clue she was missing, but came up with nothing. “We aren’t going to fall for one of Hunter or Seraphim’s little tricks.”

“Definitely not.” Mika agreed. He was a hacker not a fighter. He wouldn’t last two seconds against the Heroes.

Lilly turned to leave, but looked over her shoulder at the dots on the screen one last time. “Can you pull those places up on Google Maps or something?” The tingle in her mind turned into an itch. Whatever it was she was getting closer.

“Yeah, sure.” Mika pulled up another window and quickly pulled up a photo of the location. “This looks like a place a bunch of bums would sleep.” To reinforce that point the view of the location showed several homeless people sitting under an overpass.

It might have meant nothing to Mika, but it meant everything to Lilly.

“Go to the next location.” She practically teleported back to his side.

“Ummm…ok.” He looked up at her with confusion, but he pulled up the next location.

Lilly couldn’t stop her eyes from watering as Mika flipped from location to location. Now she knew why she was getting a familiar twinge from the data. She’d been to all these locations. <With Seth.>

“What was that number that called me?” she already had her phone out and ready to dial.

“Whoa.” Mika waved his hands back and forth in front of him. “Slow your roll, Wraith.”

“Don’t tell me to slow my roll!” She didn’t even realize she was screaming and had a fistful of Mika’s t-shirt. “Sorry,” she let go, “I just need that number.”

“I don’t know…”

“Mika.” Lilly’s voice dropped an octave to low and dangerous levels. “Give me the phone number.”

Something must have perked up in Mika’s hindbrain because he quickly handed over the number.

“Thanks,” she replied as she took a deep breath. “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be just fine.” She wasn’t sure if she was talking to herself or Mika, but she quickly headed back outside before vanishing from the island.

She reappeared in an alley that smelled like piss several states away from Orlando. She quickly stripped out of her Wraith garb and became Lilly. She kept the guns and knives because she wasn’t a complete idiot, but she stuffed the rest of the clothing behind a dumpster. She might have to throw it out rather than wash it judging by the smell, but she needed a little unanimity for the call she was going to make.

She stepped out onto Bourbon Street in the French quarter of New Orleans. It wasn’t packed full of drunk people throwing beads and flashing cameras. This wasn’t spring break girls gone wild. This was the start of fall, and while it still got crowded at night, during the day it was just like any other street. She kept her head down as she headed away from the alley trying not to draw any attention. The police and several Hero teams patrolled the city, but they would be busy with other things at this time of day.

She walked several blocks until she came to a bar that was more of a café during the day. She found a seat in a corner booth with a good view of the entrance and only a few steps to an exit. She ordered a coffee and sat there watching everyone for twenty minutes. She kept an eye on everything outside and didn’t see anything suspicious. No cops drove by, no more people entered the café other than an elderly couple. If that couple worked for the DVA then she would happily return to jail because they were some of the best undercover agents she’d ever seen. Once she was sure she wasn’t being followed or surveilled she pulled out her phone.

<You can do this. Don’t be a little chicken shit.> She wasn’t going to make the same mistake as last time.

Her fingers still trembled as she hit the buttons, and she took a couple of deep breaths before hitting the green call button.

The phone rang three times before he answered. “Hello?”

It wasn’t like last time when she’d called him out of the blue. This time she felt emotion in his voice, and that emotion resonated in her.  He didn’t mention that other tramp. He wasn’t even thinking about her. She could tell his full attention was on the person he’d clandestinely sent this message to.

“S…Seth,” she whispered holding back tears.

“Liz.”

She felt a tightening in her chest as he said her fake name. Even though she wasn’t Liz, she was. She’d lived an entire life – a fantastic life – as Liz Aretino. It was arguably the best time of her life. Liz was a part of her, but she needed to stop the lying. She couldn’t lie to him anymore. More lies would only drive him further away.

“I guess you should probably call me Lilly now.” Her tone got a small laugh from Seth.

“Ok, Lilly. God that feels weird.”

“Tell me about it.” Lilly could feel them falling back into a comfortable and familiar place, and she knew how dangerous that was.

“Look, Seth…”

“No…Lilly, I need to speak.” His voice was tense and she felt her chest tighten again.

She could understand the position she’d put him in. She could understand how she’d hurt him, but she couldn’t understand or accept a life without him in it in some way. She knew things wouldn’t be the same – no matter how much she would give to have that – she’d already fucked up that chance.

“Lilly, was I just a pawn in your game? Did I ever mean anything to you?”

Lilly had been stabbed by a renowned Hero not that long ago, but these questions from Seth hurt so much more.

“Seth Abney, you have no idea how much you mean to me. I’m not going to lie and say things were always innocent between us, but I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve always been intrigued by you. From the moment I saw you stand up to those jackasses I knew there was something about you. I knew you were hot, and I knew I could use you to get what I want, but it became so much more than that. Please, if nothing else you need to believe that.”

“How?” His response felt like a bullet to the brain. “How can I believe any of this?”

Lilly was speechless. There was no way she could make him believe what she was saying. <Actions speak a shit ton louder than words,> her mind answered for her.

“What do you want me to do to prove it to you?” She asked. There wasn’t anything else she could do.

There was nothing but silence on the other end of the line.

“Seth…?”

“I’m thinking, because I can’t be unreasonable and ask you to turn yourself in, even if that would be the best thing you could do.”

“What can I do for you Seth? This is about us. What do you want?”

“Well…I want you to leave Izzy alone.”

Lilly gripped her phone so tight she thought she was going to break it. Just hearing that whore’s name was enough to get her blood boiling.

“I know you’re watching me,” Seth continued. “I know you’ve got me under a microscope, and I don’t want you to kill some misguided kid. She’s got her own issues in her life, and I think she sees me as some kind of project.”

“How could you be a project? You’re Seth fucking Abney.” She might be stroking his ego a little, but she genuinely thought he was a great man.

<I wouldn’t want to be with anything less.>

“I’m not exactly the man you left.”

<And that’s all my fault.> She knew his comment wasn’t a swipe at her. It was just the truth.

“Just tell me what I can do.” She said again. She could hear the desperation in her own voice.

There were a few more moments of silence. “Just…just don’t kill anyone. Please.”

To anyone else that would be seen as perfectly reasonable – even moral and ethical. For someone like Lilly, and her current situation, it was a bit of an issue.

<That might be the problem.> She thought before answering.

“I won’t kill anyone.” The idea didn’t bring a smile to her face, but the sense that she was making progress with the man she loved did.

“Thank you.” Seth sounded like he meant it.

“Can I see you sometime?” she asked timidly.

This time the silence didn’t feel right. “That might not be a good idea for a while. The DVA is on me like stank on shit. You’d be putting yourself in danger.”

“I can handle myself,” she answered confidently. “I still see what you’re saying, and I’ll be careful.”

“Thanks, Lilly.” The name still sounded strange on his tongue, but she knew she’d come to love it.

“I’ll call you soon from a different phone.” She went to end the call.

“Remember your promise….WAIT!” The sudden exclamation made her pause. “Did you send me a phone?”

“No.” She hadn’t, but now she wanted to know who had.

“Ok. Goodbye, Lilly.” He cut the line before she could ask any follow up questions.

She placed the phone next to her on the table and with minimal effort teleported it across the world to an active volcano. She sat at the table for another ten minutes sipping her coffee and keeping a look out. She paid her bill, left a good tip, and walked back to the alley she’d left her stuff in. She dressed back in her Wraith gear, even if it smelled faintly of stale piss, and teleported back to Orlando.

When the wave of darkness dissipated the rest of the team was moving around chaotically.

“Where the hell have you been?” Damascus stood with his arms crossed and a glare on his face.

“I’ve got other shit to do than just sit her with my thumb up my ass,” Lilly shot back.

“Well we’ve got something for you now, so suit up.” He pointed at a table where gear had appeared.

It wasn’t just any gear. It was gear that was nearly identical to the gear the DVA had seized from her.  The only thing missing was her specialized rifle, but there was no shortage of other firearms available.

“Jesus, are we storming Fort Knox?”

“Something like that.” Damascus’ smile told Lilly she wasn’t going to like whatever was about to happen.

Her promise to Seth flashed through her head and she settled for some tech genius, fancy tasers from the armory on the table.

“Be ready to go in five.” The silver-haired pyrokinetic turned to leave.

“Wait. Where are we going?” Lilly called after him. “I need a destination jackass!”

“Don’t worry. You’ve been there before.” The terrorist jumped in a SUV and exited the warehouse leaving the three-person team to do whatever it was they were supposed to do.

<Don’t kill anyone…don’t kill anyone…> she chanted over and over as she strapped on her new vest and had Nightingale do her super-mojo and cover her with the thin layer of nullifier material.

Being armed and equipped like this, it was tough to think of a target that could stand in their way. Unfortunately, the universe had a cruel sense of humor. That, or Karma was a real bitch about payback.

 

***

 

Daisy kept her eyes peeled as she drove her truck into the underground parking garage of the Orlando Police Department headquarters. She circled twice before heading for the DVA only entrance to the bottom level. If a person looked hard enough they could see where the additional countermeasures had been added.

<All that anti-terrorism money going to good use,> she thought as she saw the slightly discolored patches of concrete.

In time they would fade and mesh a little better with the rest of the structure, but right now it was painfully obvious where the mines had been placed. Anyone trying to break into the DVA motorpool, or assault the station, was literally going to get their asses blown off. Then there were the patches on the walls, and the not-so-hidden grooves. Daisy was pretty sure some automated weaponry would pop out of those spots and engage targets from a centralized control room within the station.

She couldn’t speak for the whole building, but the police and Protectorate HQ was looking like a tougher nut to crack each day.

<That’s new.> She rolled down another ramp and had to stop at a check point. She’d already gone through a police one above, but now it looked like the DVA wanted to do their own.

“ID?” The guard still looked bored as he ran her credentials through a scanner. “What is your reason for visiting?”

“I have an appointment.” Daisy replied as she gave the guard a big smile.

He didn’t buy it. “What is the purpose of the appointment.”

“That’s a whole lot of none of your fucking business.” She kept the smile in place, but fixed the guard with dagger-eyes.

“Wha…um…” He clearly wasn’t expecting that answer.

“Let’s go. Move along. I don’t have all day, and I’d rather not be late.” Daisy made a hurry up motion with her hands.

Her ID came back good and it showed she did have an appointment scheduled, so the guard let her through. He probably called in the rude, six-three blonde but she didn’t care. Mr. Morningstar and the team knew she was coming.

<They even sent down the welcoming committee.>

The single elevator into the Protectorate HQ – which also had some new concrete patches surrounding it – opened up to reveal an armored Hero. He gave Daisy a big shit eating grin that she returned.

“Galavant, how’s the head? You’ve got shit for brains so taking that bullet to the dome couldn’t have hurt that much.”

“HA! It’s amazing Seif al-Din’s beat down didn’t knock that stick out of your ass,” he replied.

Both Daisy and Ronnie Fitzpatrick – aka Galavant – had been badly injured in the attack on the city. Galavant had taken a sniper’s bullet to the head while Daisy had been thoroughly beaten by the big man himself. They were able to bond over that, and the beat down she had given him at the beginning of the previous school year. She kept the information that she made him shit his pants pretty close to the vest.

“But seriously, why are you down here? Don’t get me wrong I appreciate it, but I can find the conference room myself.” Daisy stopped joking.

“New security protocols,” he shrugged and handed her the plain gray mask. “They want a Hero escorting a VIP like you.”

“I’m a VIP now?”

“That’s what they’re telling me.” They entered the elevator. It required a security code and biometric identification before it allowed him to select the button for the top floor.

The shared some more light ball-busting on the short ride before the elevator opened, and that’s when Daisy finally got her first surprise.

“Finally someone read my memo,” she smiled.

Instead of leading right into the bullpen of cubicles there was now an enclosed space with a heavy metal door.

“I thought you’d like that,” he smiled as he underwent a second security scan.

They didn’t get a chance to talk after the door opened because there was a whirlwind of activity in the room. Dozens of DVA analysts moved around with a sense of urgency. A large central screen monitored events all over the city while keeping an eye on the larger picture of country-wide operations.

The biggest surprise was the number of Heroes in the room. It used to just be a few members of the Protectorate wandering around, but now there were half a dozen new Heroes and familiar faces. Daisy didn’t acknowledge any of them since she wasn’t in costume. Hunter was animatedly talking with Jetwash, and probably trying to impart some seasoned wisdom on the young Hero. From the look on Jetwash’s face, he wasn’t having any of it.

Whatever they were talking about would have to wait. A DVA agent called them both into an office for some sort of meeting.

“We’re in here.” Galavant led the way across the room to a large conference room filled with costumed Heroes.

He closed the door behind them and flipped a switch. Whatever newly-installed countermeasures were in the room were activated, but the men and women in the room didn’t relax.

“Please take a seat.” Mr. Morningstar was sitting at the center of a group of Heroes.

Daisy recognized KaBoom: the midrange kinetic absorber and team’s de-facto second in command. Also present was Grace in her Amped outfit, Jackhammer in his baggy red and gray costume, the big strongman Ox, and the nullifier Absence with her yellow starbursts on a royal blue skintight suit.

“Good morning.” She ignored the professional appearance of everyone sitting in front of her as she took her seat. She’d fought beside all of them, and been in the game longer than a couple of them combined.

“We are here today to evaluate the fitness of Daisy Lee Meyers, formerly known as the Hero Reaper, for return to active duty serving this city and nation as a Hero.” Mr. Morningstar stated formally as Galavant took his seat at one end of the table.

“Thank you for your consideration.” She kept her expression neutral.

“We see in your file that there is a one-year hold on any recertification. Why should we lift that restriction?”

“I see we aren’t pulling any punches.” Daisy was a little surprised that Grace had asked the question, but she was willing to roll with it. “I think the attack on the city and my contributions speak for themselves. We’re still under threat, a dangerous villain that was put in jail escaped, we have new threats emerging, and I think I can help.” She paused dramatically, “Then of course I’m the strongest person here and you might need that.”

“Thank you for that honest answer.” Grace didn’t ask any follow up questions, so Daisy took that as a good sign. She also caught the slight smile, which was another positive.

The look on Mr. Morningstar’s face wasn’t as comforting.

“Ms. Meyers…”

<Never a good thing when he doesn’t call you by your Hero name.>

“…please explain the series of events that resulted in your one-year hold on your file.”

“Sure.” Daisy organized the facts of the almost-mugging of her students and the professional kidnapping attempt at Sprout before continuing. “The first incident…”

The white florescent lighting of the conference room vanished and was replaced with a low-light red. At the same time, a shrill alarm sounded from the other room. There was no hesitation from any Hero in the room, including Daisy. They all jumped to their feet and headed to the central monitor.

“Emergency deployment!” Hunter was marching toward them with a grim look on his face.

“What’s the situation?” Mr. Morningstar took charge.

“We’ve got a break in at Florence ADMAX. Someone has smashed their way into the subterranean levels and is freeing the prisoners.”

“How the hell did that happen?” Daisy asked.

“We don’t know. The alarm was delayed going out. Just about everyone not on an active operation is being brought in for this. We’ve got a lot of bad people in there, and we need to make sure they stay there.”

“Sounds like a job for a Hero who can immobilize large groups of people with little risk.” Daisy stated while scratching her chin. “I wish we knew someone like that.”

“Dispatch?” Hunter rolled his eyes.

“Temporary Hero authorization is being given to Reaper for participation in this operation. Details will be dispensed in route.” The disembodied voice spoke through the other Hero’s earbuds loud enough for Daisy to hear.

“Great, let me get suited up and then we can cork this bad boy.”

“No time.” Hunter grabbed her and everyone else grabbed Hunter. “We’ll sort that out when we get there.”

One second the Heroes were standing as an island in the middle of the chaos and the next they were gone.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 10

Today was the day. <Or at least it better fuckin’ be.>

Lilly had trouble sleeping that night. She tossed and turned trying to ignore the restlessness, but that only made it worse. She got up in the middle of the night and started to workout. It was something to try and burn through that energy. It succeeded in making her body sweaty and tired but not her mind. She stripped out of her BO-filled prison jumpsuit and climbed back into bed.

If everything went as planned then she wouldn’t have to see this cell again.

Prison was like having an irritating itch that you could never scratch. You had to do everything everyone else told you all the time, which was not how Lilly was programmed. Then, even in your private time, you were confined to a small cell. So if you wanted to do anything to relieve that itch it got broadcasted in the security booth upstairs.

She was sure they’d watched her impromptu workout closely and wondered why she was up in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t tell them even if they asked nicely. That was another way that she was programmed.

With no sun or moon to pass the time all the prisoners were constantly at the mercy of the guards. The guards had watches which told the time. When Reggie came by she had to assume it was morning.

They went through the routine. She stood against the wall, he patted her down, and she politely instigated sexual banter which he dutifully refused. Usually he didn’t talk much at all aside from the standard commands, but today was a little different.

“You nervous?” His question caught her off-guard.

“What? Me? I’m touched Reggie, I really am, but I’m actually innocent. This is all just a big misunderstanding.” She felt the restrains go around her wrist and ankles and could practically see the strongman rolling his eyes.

He led her around the ring of level 3 and stopped at the bathroom. A female guard stood inside the door and did not look happy to be there.

“Clean yourself up, Wraith. You need to be presentable for the judge.”

There were some basic toiletries available, but nothing she could use to kill the guards and escape. The female guard watched her like a hawk as she undressed and entered the open-room showers. A dozen nozzles lined the walls and she took one in the middle. She scrubbed off her workout’s BO and did all the personal hygiene expected of a lady. Wrapped a towel over her chest and gathered her hair in another one. She brushed her teeth and gave herself one last look over.

She looked a little thinner than she’d like, but there was no getting rid of her award-winning face and priceless personality. She gave the mirror one of her thousand-watt smiles before shrugging into a clean prison jumpsuit. She’d requested a pretty dress and some heels, but they’d said no. The heels were a stabbing hazard, and they were right.

“Let’s go.” The guard grabbed her roughly by the arm and dragged her into the hall where Reggie was waiting. “She’s clear.”

Reggie made sure with another pat down before re-shackling her and heading to the surface level of the prison. Outside there was a caravan of vehicles waiting along with two Heroes.

“So much attention for little old me?” She smiled at the color-coded pair. “You shouldn’t have.”

One of the Heroes approached her, and for a second she thought the woman was actually going to take a swing at her. <I probably killed someone she cared about.> She managed to think before she placed a hand on her shoulder.

The world spun a little bit and Lilly staggered, but she shook her head and her vision came back into focus. When it did, she gave her head another shake, because she was seeing three of her.

“What the fuck?”

Outside the prison there were three naked Lilly’s. They all just stood there like statues trembling slightly in the cool breeze. The other Hero produced three different colored jumpsuits. The real Lilly was currently wearing white while the rest were dressed in orange, red, and black.

“Did you think we wouldn’t find out?” One of the Heroes got all up in her face. “Did you seriously think you were going to break out of this place under my watch?”

Lilly had no idea who this chick was, but she wasn’t about to let her see her hope shattered like a broken mirror. Instead she leaned closer and took an audible whiff.

“Hero-chick,” she took another whiff. “You stink girlfriend. You should use some mouthwash after you suck dick. Just a friendly piece of advice.”

The Hero blushed, raised her hand, balled it into a fist, and then brought it within an inch of Lilly’s face. Lilly didn’t even flinch. She just gave the woman her thousand-watt smile. “Chop chop Jeeves. I have someplace to be.”

Needless to say, the female Hero didn’t ride in the SUV with the real Lilly. That was good, because the fact that they knew something was up did not bode well for her. It was a decent trek from the prison to the federal courthouse where she was going to have to face a jury of her peers, but that gave her plenty of time to think and plan.

She knew the woman was some type of duplicator. Those were always a pain in the ass to fight, especially when you didn’t know what type of duplications she made or what her secondary powers might be. The other Hero was a complete unknown, and she hadn’t gotten any type of read off what he was. Then there was Reggie and the other three guards who came with her last time. They rode in her car. They were all low-class Supers mostly with physical enhancements. She had plans to deal with them.

All of those plans came to a sudden halt when her SUV took a right while the other three kept going straight.

“Hey, where are we going?” She turned to look at the street behind her. “Don’t get all rapey on me now Reggie. I’ve got a court time to meet.”

“You’ll make it.” Reggie hadn’t dropped his usual strong and silent mentality, so whatever was happening was part of their plan.

<Another countermeasure.> She felt that broken hope begin to seep away.

She didn’t know what her rescuers’ plan was, but they were going to have to improvise on the fly, and that was if they could even find her.

The SUV came to a halt at what looked like a water treatment facility. Her guards got out and led her inside, and down into the bowels of the city.

<Ahhhh.> She got it now. She was being brought in under the radar…literally.

They walked the subterranean passageways of the city for fifteen minutes until she felt the earth tremor around her. The radio on Reggie’s hip went insane with chatter, which he quickly turned off.

“The convoy got hit by an IED.” He announced to the team, who all drew their sidearms. “We’re to proceed to our secondary location for pickup and transport back to the prison.” He turned and gave Lilly a hard stare.

“Hey, don’t look at me. You’ve had me under lock and key for months. I’m not doing anything.” Her lips only turned up slightly at the corners.

“Let’s move. Time is of the essence.” Reggie turned to drag Lilly back the way she came.

“I agree.” One of the other guards, Lilly didn’t know who he was, turned and shot another guard point blank in the head. The guard was dead instantly and fell like a downed tree.

To his credit, Reggie didn’t hesitate. He was a professional and good at his job. He grabbed the gun as it turned toward him and crushed it in his hand. Metal screeched as it warped under his powerful grip, but it gave the traitor time to counter. His fist found Reggie’s head and the strongman stumbled back as electricity exploded around him.

Lilly made a note that this guy was some type of absorber.

With Reggie off balance and the other guard advancing on him she saw her chance. There was just one guard in the way. The guy looked to be on the younger side, and whatever his ability was it wasn’t keeping his eye on the ball. He was too busy watching the other guard and Reggie that he didn’t see Lilly coming. She lashed out with her foot and aimed for the guy’s groin.

The problem with the attack was that her ankles were shackled together. She knew that and was prepared for what she had to do. The shackles didn’t have enough give for her to reach the guard’s babymakers, so she let the force of her blow lift her other foot off the ground. It was incredibly awkward and reduced the force of her kick by about half.

But hitting a dude in the junk was still hitting him in the junk. She caught him with his legs open and totally unprepared. His eyes practically rolled into the back of his head as pain coursed through him. He collapsed and started to dry heave on the ground.

She had a moment to revel in his misfortune before gravity became her problem to worry about. She’d sacrificed her footing to land the blow and the price for that was landing hard on her back. She tried to roll with in, but she still got the wind knocked out of her. She pushed through the lung spasms and struggled to her feet.

This was her chance to escape and she wasn’t going to miss it. She’d never get another. If they caught her they’d throw her in the darkest hole they could find and throw away the key. She wouldn’t even have Reggie’s well-sculpted ass to look at every once in a while.

She grabbed the wall for support and started to shuffle down the hall. <I should have grabbed a radio. Shit!> She screamed at herself as she picked up speed as much as possible. She felt like a walrus trying to run in these shackles, but it was the best she could do. She could still hear the sounds of a brawl coming from behind her, so whoever the mysterious guard was he was buying her precious seconds. She rounded the corner and continued her flight to freedom.

The only problem was that she was in an underground labyrinth of pipes and the only exit she had was back to the water treatment plant. The workers there would find it highly suspicious if she came back out in her prison jumpsuit, handcuffed, but without the guards.

<I need something to get this shit off.> She started to look for something small enough to pick the lock with.

In addition to the many wonderful things her father had trained her to do, lock picking was one of them. It was actually pretty easy to get out of standard handcuffs as long as you had the right equipment, and thankfully the underground tunnels were bountiful. Someone left their tools out and she was able to grab some stiff wire to shove into the slot. She started with her feet and thirty seconds later she was sprinting away like her life depended on it. She entered the treatment plant as stealthy as possible and found the locker room. She stole a dude’s jacket that was way too big for her and hoped it hid her white jumpsuit from a casual glance. She pulled the collar of the jacket up high to hide the collar around her neck and walked right out the front door. The pocket of the jacket had keys so she stole the guy’s car too.

And his phone. The phone was key. She dialed a number from memory and it picked up after the first ring.

“Who the hell is this?” the voice was rushed.

“Don’t tell me you forgot about me already, Uncle Curtis.” She put on a pouty face even though no one was there to see it.

“Yes!” She heard him cheer. “Nano, Plan B worked.”

<Mika’s with him.> That caught her by surprise.

There was a ruffled sound of the phone changing hands before Mika’s voice came over the line. “Hey, Shadow!” He still sounded like the kid he was. “Glad you made it out.”

“Me too. So what’s the plan?”

“The plan if for you to get to this address.” A text appeared on the phone with the location. “But you need to get to a hardware or grocery store ASAP.”

“Why?”

“Your collar has a GPS tracker embedded in it. Right now I’m screwing with their systems, but they’re close to kicking me out. Find some aluminum and wrap it around your neck. It’ll help block the signal so you can get to the rendezvous undetected. Once you’re there I can get that thing off you.”

“Aluminum, gotcha.”

“And…hurry.”

There was a pause in the statement that she didn’t like. “Nano?”

“The aluminum will block the GPS and it’ll also stop them from detonating the explosives in the collar. If you want to keep your head I’d find some soon.”

Lilly’s foot pushed the pedal to the floor and the beat-up truck she’d stolen lurched forward.

She didn’t care how stupid she’d look with aluminum around her neck. It was infinitely better than having nothing left but a bloody stump.

“I’ll call you back in five.” Nano handed the phone over to Armsman.

“Stay safe, kid.” He cut the line.

That was exactly what Lilly intended to do. She wasn’t going to die today.

 

***

 

Seth sat in front of the computer like everyone else and waited. The small, slim, brown-haired man marched in front of the rows of computers and looked them over individually. It was kind of creepy, and Seth was not getting the best vibe from subtlety in general.

“Don’t confuse subtlety with James Bond.” Professor Willis started off the class. “Being a secret agent has nothing to do with this specialty. If anything, we’re the exact opposite. We’re the guys in the background making sure that the sexy secret agent man gets all the right information to step in and save the girl.”

Seth rolled his eyes. He really didn’t give two shits about girls right now. He’d originally said no to this class because of a girl, but then he changed his mind. What better way to discover a lying cheating bitch than to beat her at her own game. That’s why he was taking subtlety. To make sure nothing like Liz ever happened again.

“Now that I’ve wiped any illusions of subtlety grandeur from your minds, if anyone wishes to leave please feel free. I won’t hold it against you and the other professors are still accepting transfers until the end of the week.”

Seth thought about giving up, but then just shrugged. He didn’t have anything better to do. If he became a Hero this wasn’t going to be his major anyway. He just wanted to learn enough to know when someone was playing him. <I’ll stick it out. I just need to pass.>

“You need to do more than meet minimal grading requirements to pass this class.” Professor Willis continued to parade in front of them like a general marshalling his army. “You need to impress me, or show me that you have the spark of something greater inside you. Anyone can punch a wall down, but it takes a different breed to think of a way through that wall without the bad guy knowing while getting his social security number.”

<This is going to be a long class.> Seth got the feeling Miles Willis liked to hear himself speak.

“With all of that being said, today we start with the basics. That begins with an aptitude test of my own design and a simple question. What are the different types of intelligence gathering?”

A hubcap-sized hand went up from the back row. “Human intelligence and signal intelligence.”

“Very good, Mr. Jackson. Those are two of the eight types of intelligence gathering. HUMINT is what people most traditionally associate with espionage, and SIGNINT is what all of those new movies are about. Intercepting data and discovering the secrets within. Anyone else? …No…It seems pop culture is limited to those two. The other six types of intelligence gathering are: geospatial intelligence, measurement and signature intelligence, open-source intelligence, technical intelligence, cyber intelligence, and financial intelligence.”

<Shit that’s a lot of intelligences.> Seth didn’t even know the majority of those existed.

“We’ll cover each of these in some depth during the semester, but today is about finding out what you know. Please turn on your computers.”

Seth did as instructed and a blue screen with a logon appeared.

“Your first test is to figure out the password. Open the drawer to you right. There is a mix of crap in there. Somewhere buried in that crap is the password for your computer. Everyone’s is different. Piece together the puzzle and log on. You have ten minutes.”

<You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.> Seth really just wanted to light all of the crap on fire, but that wouldn’t go over well, so he got to work.

Figuring out the password wasn’t simple. He tried the birthday of the ID he found and got nothing. He looked for common trends in the drawer. One of those was cats. Whoever this imaginary person was, Seth thought they were an old cat lady who would live and die alone before being eaten by said cats. He tried the cat names he found, but none of those were good. There was a planner in the drawer as well, and he went through that trying a number of passwords. None of those worked. Eventually, he found a tab marked passwords in the planner.

<No, it can’t be that easy.> He opened to the page and several alpha-numeric combinations were written neatly and orderly.

He found the one marked Comp. ID and plugged it in. The computer booted up and brought up a screen with a giant picture of a cat’s face. There were icons on the left but he left them alone and waited for the ten minutes to elapse.

“Time!” Professor Willis called. “And what lesson did we learn today?”

<People are stupid.>

“People write down their passwords and keep those numbers close.”

“Yes. Thank you, Ms. Scarborough. We learned that the average person doesn’t have the patience or memory capacity to remember all the various passwords for logging onto their various electronic accounts. You will most likely find someone’s passwords written down somewhere near their computer. Now, our next test is going to be using the same items in the drawer to find a bit of intelligence on the hard drive. Click on the top right icon to begin. You have another ten minutes.”

Five minutes in Seth had the information. The cat lady had used the same password for half of her stuff and the security questions had been pretty easy with all the information in the drawer. Seth wasn’t by any means a computer geek, but the last two exercises told him was that he was pretty good at figuring stuff out about people. All it did was make him angrier that Liz had been able to get through his defenses so easily.

<Apparently, all you need to get by me is a rockin’ bod and to know your way around the bedroom.> It was a realization he’d come to before, but it still sucked to think about it.

“Anyone who hasn’t succeeded in their task please raise your hand.” There were a few but not many.

A year of fighting other people gave you some skill at reading them. This was just an extension of that. Seth was in the middle of wondering whether this was HUMINT or SIGNIT gathering when the door to the classroom banged open.

“Excuse our interruption, Professor.” A woman in a black suit stood in the doorway flanked by two men.

“It’s quite alright, Agent Phillips. What can I do for you today.”

“Is Mr. Abney present?”

“Yeah, I’m here.” Seth stood up and waved at the DVA goons. “What do you want?”

“Please come with us.”

Seth had his fair share of meetings with the DVA over the summer. Most of them had a lawyer present at them, and he hadn’t said much.

“I’ll need to contact my attorney if we’re gonna keep playing this game.” Seth sighed.

“No need, Mr. Abney. Please come with us.” The two big guys started moving toward him.

“Yeah, fine. I’m coming.” Seth started to move before the guys could haul him out of the room. That would just do wonders for his reputation.

“Return to class once you’re finished with the lovely Agent Phillips.” Professor Willis was laying the charm on thick. “There is a homework assignment. It would be a shame if you missed it.”

Seth didn’t give a rat’s ass about homework. He wanted to know why the DVA was pulling him out of class. The three agents were tight-lipped until they reached the teachers’ offices and they passed through a door at the end of the hallway with the Dean’s name on it. Inside Dean Ditmar sat talking with Hunter and Abyss. Seth recognized both Heroes from last year. Hunter was the one who brought in Liz; on top of being Angela’s father. Absence was a nullifier who’d come to speak to the class. She’d also had dealings with Liz when she was Wraith.

It wasn’t hard to put two and two together.

“What happened with Liz?”

The Dean’s eyes turned to regard Seth, and the young Super couldn’t puzzle what the older man was thinking.

“Please, Seth, have a seat.” He gestured.

“I don’t want to sit.”

“Fine.” Agent Phillips rounded on Seth, ignoring the three Heroes in the room. “If you want to be questioned standing that’s fine by me.”

The three Heroes might have neutral expressions, but Agent Phillips looked pissed.

“Less than an hour ago Lilly Noel, aka Liz Aretino, aka Wraith escaped from federal custody. I’m here to see if you had anything to do with it.”

“Oh.” Seth involuntarily took that seat after all. He didn’t know it was possible to feel unbelievable joy and unbearable sadness all at once.

“Mr. Abney, where were you forty-six minutes ago? Where is your personal computer and cell phone? What have you been doing since your last interview?”

The initial shock of Liz’s escape was washed away as the DVA agent dug into him. His resolve hardened and he glared back at her. “Remember that who lawyer thing? It’s in the Constitution and just about every state charter. Yeah, I thought so,” he stated when the agent’s eyes flashed with anger. “We’ll wait for my attorney to arrive, and then we’ll talk.”

“That will take time, and clearances to get him down here. It’s time we don’t have if we want to reacquire Wraith.”

“Well then, I suggest you use one of your teleporters and we take this meeting above ground because I’m not talking without counsel present.”

“Mr. Abney has rights, Agent Phillips. Please respect those in my school.” The Dean came to Seth’s defense even though he looked conflicted about it.

The DVA agent seethed for a moment before regaining her composure. “Hunter?”

“On it.” The man disappeared.

“Let’s take this meeting upstairs then.” Agent Phillips motioned for him to get up and move toward the door.

The two other DVA agents walked much closer to him this time. The only thing saying he wasn’t in custody was the lack of handcuffs around his wrists, and if Liz got away he didn’t know how long it would be until they tried to slap those on.

Seth hadn’t done anything to help Liz escape. He’d been in class forty-six minutes ago and he’d spent the summer drinking his liver into oblivion and fucking random chicks.. He wouldn’t even get out of bed to pay the pizza delivery guy much less help the woman who broke his heart. But that was all when Liz was in custody. Now that she was out, the government would be looking for scapegoats.

Seth had been around enough people with power to know they were going to pin the tail on anything related to her crimes, even some kid who was thinking with his dick more than his head.

<They aren’t going to get me.> Seth’s family had one of the best attorneys in the county on retainer since this all started, and his father would use all his influence to ensure Seth didn’t sully the family name.

Seth wasn’t going down for this bullshit. If the DVA wanted a fight they’d get a fight, and it all started now.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 81

Debora placed her elbows on the wooden conference table and shifted most of her weight onto them. She tried not to sigh, but it was difficult. She was looking over the plans to the parking garage where the meeting with Wraith was going to take place in a few hours. She did not like the tactical picture.

<This is a nightmare.> The blue and white blueprints stared back at her mockingly.

<Ingress and egress are shit. One way in and out. We’re going to have to stage SWAT way back and rush in…again. There are too many unknowns once we get inside, too many corners to cover, too much open space, and we still don’t have much actionable intel on the target.>

It was all shaping up to be another clusterfuck.

The soft squeak of the door’s hinges rubbing together brought the DVA agent out of her sour mood. Into the room walked the last person she wanted to see. The man was smartly dressed in a fitted, expensive suit, his teeth were too white, his hair was coiffed, and he seemed to have a permanent smile. She recognized the DVA PR director for the area, and he was the bane of her existence right now.

“Are those the blueprints?” he asked, pointing to the paper she was trying to set fire to with her eyes.

“Yes.” She deliberately didn’t look up at him to avoid showing her contempt.

The man could be absolutely no help in the planning of this operation. He probably hadn’t fired a weapon since the academy, and had probably never served in a field position. He was just another one of those spineless bureaucrats who were making her already difficult mission impossible.

“I just wanted to check something.” He pulled out his smart phone, hit some buttons, looked at the blueprint, and hit some more. “Ah…just what I thought. This just won’t do.”

“Excuse me?” Debora kept the growl out of her throat. “What do you mean this won’t do?”

“The location for the meeting.” The DVA pencil-pusher scoffed. “The parking garage is right in the center of Orlando. We can’t have another fiasco like last time. A heavy police presence two nights in a row is going to get the media talking. Plus, we’re still getting a lot of flak for the failed operation.

“Failed operation?” Debora breathed heavily and tried to keep her fist from shaking.

“What else would you call that circus that left a dozen clubbers dead and twice as many wounded?”

Debora tried very hard not to smack the self-righteous prick right in the face. What he had called a failed op had singlehandedly dismantled a large portion of the Fist’s leadership. They were keeping a lid on it until the current op was completed, but soon the damage would reverberate through the city. The gang would panic without its leaders, which would lead to mistakes, or they’d try and skip town. Either way the local PD and DVA would be able to clean up the streets.

Debora didn’t like the fact that a dozen people had died in the raid, but it could have been a hell of a lot more. She considered the drugs they found on site, along with the weapons, and women that were being trafficked as lives saved. It was an ugly mathematical equation, but it was one Debora had to believe in. Something good had to come from all the bad. If it didn’t then that was a failure.

All of this was beyond the desk-weenie who was trying to tell her how to do her job.

“Let’s move the operation here.” He pointed at the map. “Much more remote with less chances of collateral damage and hopefully no cameras.”

“We can’t.” Debora tried to keep her voice as pleasant as possible.

“Why not?” The man’s feathers were ruffled now, and she took a little bit of pleasure in that.

“The meet is already set for this location. The meetings between the target and the Fist have always been at this location. If the location were to change we would likely lose the target, and then the target would learn the scope of last night’s operation. The likelihood that we’d find the target again are almost zero. So we have to do it here and now.”

Debora ignored the strange noises coming from the man and concentrated on the blueprints.

He starting and stopping what he was going to say a few times before he finally spit it out. “I will not be responsible for this public relations nightmare.” He stated dramatically.

“Fine by me.”

<Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.> She kept that part to herself.

The man left muttering to himself and Debora got back to work. Ten minutes later, she still didn’t have a good plan to make this operation work.

The problem was that the meeting place was on the bottom level, underground. The Fist members would just walk right in, and she was confident Wraith would be getting their early. Everything she’d read about the young supervillain said that Wraith was competent.

Wraith could either walk in like the Fist, which was unlikely, or she could just teleport into the structure. Either way they needed eyes in that parking garage.

“Commander Jenkins,” she called, beckoning the big SWAT commander. “We need eyes and ears in there ASAP.”

“We’ve already got a team in route,” the commander grinned. If Debora didn’t know any better she’d think the man was flirting with her.

“ETA two minutes.”

“Good,” she nodded with a small smile.

<He is my type of guy.> She shook her head and pushed her love life to the back of her mind. There were more important things to deal with.

To get SWAT and DVA agents in there they’d either have to plant them in the garage beforehand, or run them down through the maze of concrete once positive identification was made. Either plan was risky. If they preplaced and then got ID’d, then that was game set match. Wraith would disappear and they wouldn’t see her again for years. Running in after ID wasn’t much better. The targets would hear them coming and be gone before the army of cops arrived. They’d might be able to snag the Fist members, but Wraith was too slippery to get caught that way.

<We really need a nullifier.> Problem was that there were no ranged nullifiers available on such short notice.

Absence was in town, but she had to touch her target to null their powers. Absence and Wraith had already faced off before, and the Hero hadn’t come away unscathed. Deborah didn’t like sending the Hero in without backup. It was too risky

Daisy was the best option, and Debora lobbied for the famed Hero’s inclusion in this op, but that had been shot down immediately. ForceOps was already pissed that she’d been heavily involved in the club raid. Now, they weren’t asking for cooperation anymore. They were telling the DVA what to do with Reaper.

Those conversations were way above her paygrade though, so she focused on the mission. Unfortunately, that left only one option.

She made a call.

Twenty minutes later, she was watching the camera’s being set up in the parking garage and Seraphim walked in.

Despite being a well-known and accomplished Hero, the woman was slightly terrifying. Her wings and poison barbed tail twitched with agitation as she walked into the Protectorate’s HQ with a lethal grace. Her eyes scanned the room through the slits in her tech genius designed armored helmet, and she smiled at the gathered people. Despite the wings and name, Seraphim was more demon than angel.

“Agent Phillips,” Seraphim’s voice was seductively feminine, which did not match her appearance. “You have information for me?”

“Yes. Thank you for coming. Please sit.”

“I prefer to stand.” Seraphim crossed her arms in front of her expectantly.

“Ok then.” Debora pointed at the blueprints. “We’ve got reliable intelligence that Wraith will be meeting with members of the Fist in a few hours. The meeting will be on the bottom level of an underground parking garage.”

Debora looked back and had to force herself not to recoil. Seraphim’s face had split into a sneer that fully barred her longer-than-they-looked fangs. Her talon-like fingernails were digging into the wood as she leaned over and intently inspected the plans.

“We’ve ruled out preplacing SWAT and rushing in once positive identification is made.” Debora continued to explain. “We’re out of ideas, and wanted some advice from a veteran Hero.”

<Stroking their ego is always a good tactic.> Debora kept her face neutral as she watched Seraphim look over the plans.

The shifter’s twitching wings and tail had gone utterly still.

“I’ll go in here.” It was an order not a statement from the Hero.

Debora looked where the shifter was pointing. It was the roof.

“Um. . .”

“Have a structural engineer take a look. Once we get positive confirmation that Wraith is there I’ll hit this spot like a Hellfire missile. I’ll be able to break through the concrete layers with minimal damage to myself or the structure. I’ll engage Wraith, take her down, and hopefully bring her in.” Debora knew Seraphim’s reputation, so she hoped “bringing her in” didn’t involve a body bag.”

“Have Absence standing by to take custody, I hear she’s in town.” The plan didn’t do much to alleviate the DVA agent’s suspicions.

“What if she runs?” Debora played devil’s advocate. “She is a teleporter.”

“She won’t,” Seraphim sounded supremely confident. “Our intel states she is a young woman, late teens, early twenties, and a woman like that is going to have something to prove. I’ve been going around the city for a while now, kicking down doors and disrupting the order of things. If Wraith is half the person I think she is, she’ll stand and fight. She won’t be able to resist the idea of taking down two Heroes.”

“Can you take her?” Debora wouldn’t be doing her job if she didn’t ask the question.

“I can if I can get in close, am quick enough, and have luck on my side. Fighting teleporters is like trying the catch air in your bare hands, and Wraith has some additional abilities on top of that. I’ve trained to fight a teleporter, but not one like her.”

If Debora didn’t know better she could have sworn she heard a hint of doubt in the Hero’s voice.

“Reports also say she travels heavily armed, so the potential for collateral damage will be high. I’d advise that you keep your people back until I give the all clear.”

Somehow in the last half-hour there had been a role swap. Debora was now the DVA weenie in the way and Seraphim was the field operative that was going to get the job done. The difference was that Debora realized this and knew what to do.

“We’ll give you all the support we can.” Debora gave the Hero a nod. “I’ll let you prep. We’ll get our people into position to secure the perimeter, and radio you when we have a positive ID on Wraith.”

“Very well, Agent Phillips.” For a moment Seraphim looked grateful and relieved, but then it was gone, and the shifter was stalking out of the room.

Debora headed straight for the surveillance equipment.

Things moved quickly after Seraphim left. Commander Jenkins had to get his team together to be ready to go when Seraphim gave the all clear. He wasn’t happy about playing second string to the Hero, but Debora was able to calm him down. She might have even agreed to a date when things settled down.

Next, she put in the request to get Absence on scene to handle Wraith once she’d been neutralized. After that, she established communications. She got in touch with Dispatch and relayed all the information so the communication’s Hero could relay it through the proper channels. When that was all completed she was still nervous, but she’d done everything she could.

Despite the DVA PR moron’s idiotic suggestions, the man had one valid point. Press had been bad for the DVA in Orlando. The nightclub raid made national news, and the DVA brass were playing defense with the media. Thankfully, a few of the guys at the top had spent more than enough time in the field. They knew that even the best laid plans ended with casualties. So they had Debora’s back.

“Anything yet?” Debora was pacing in the back of a large utility truck filled with equipment and analysts.

It was time to get the party started. The area had been discretely blocked off, Seraphim was circling far overhead, and the Fist members were approaching the garage.

<She has to be there.> Debora knew enough about the supervillain to feel uneasy about things so far.

They’d been watching the garage for hours and nobody had come or gone since then. Either Wraith had been in there all day and had watched them install the small cameras, she wasn’t showing, or she was there and they couldn’t see her.

“Run through the different views again.” Debora was agitated, and she knew it was rubbing the tech the wrong way, but the guy knew his job and followed orders.

“Nothing on regular,” several cameras started panning left and right. “Nothing on IR.” That was the most concerning. “Night vision isn’t showing anything either.”

“Here come the Fist guys.” Debora pointed as a small contingent of gang members walked into sight.

They milled about in the center of the space looking just as confused as Debora. The man’s mouth started to move on the screen, but the audio was barely audible.

“Clean that up. I want to hear what he’s saying.”

The tech went to work hitting switches, fiddling knobs, and doing things beyond Debora’s comprehension to get the audio. While he did that she continued to watch the video closely. There was still no sign of Wraith.

“Wait what was that?” Something seemed to come loose from the ceiling and fall on the Fist member’s head. “Rewind and zoom.”

The tech was probably irritated, but he was a professional. He could multitask. “And I’ve got sound.” He completed it all and hit play.

“…for our money.” The gang member was saying while posturing.

There was a short pause and then what was clearly a stack of money dropped from the ceiling onto his head.

“That’s her,” Debora pointed uselessly at the screen. “She’s there we just aren’t seeing her for some reason.” She pressed her ear to activate the Hero communications device. “Seraphim we’ve got a tentative ID. Proceed at your discretion.”

Debora hadn’t see Wraith with her own two eyes, so this could only be classified as “tentative”. But both Debora and Seraphim knew that Debora wouldn’t waste the Hero’s time by calling in false alarms.

“Roger that.”

Debora could hear the anger in the Hero’s voice. And then she watched the exterior cameras as Seraphim did one last circle, climbed high into the air, and shot down toward the garage like a rogue tomahawk. The impact echoed through the concrete and killed the audio, but Debora had a front row seat to a chunk of the roof crushing the Fist member like a piece of rotten fruit.

 

***

 

“WRAITH! COME OUT AND FACE ME!”

A few rapid teleports around the room and Wraith had a full rundown of what was happening. The detail offered from her darkness feedback was much more precise than the normal mark-one eyeball.

The infamous Hero was still standing where she had landed, on top of the jagged concrete block that had turned the Fist leader into puree. She had two daggers clutched in each hand, and was spinning them agitatedly. Those Wraith needed to stay away from.

The battle plan was a simple one in theory but difficult to execute. The bottom line was that Wraith couldn’t win this fight. Seraphim was too tough to be killed by a teleporter, even a teleporter with exploding ammunition and grenades. Wraith knew it and so did Seraphim, so that wasn’t what this was all about. This was all about ego and perception. Seraphim was there to say that Wraith couldn’t hang with the big girls, that she wasn’t supervillain enough to stand up to a first-class Hero when they were ready for her.

<If you knew what was good for you, you’d get the hell out of here.> The more rational side of Wraith, the Liz side that had friends, a boyfriend, and a dinner to get back to argued.

But that rational side didn’t hold much weight at the moment. Liz was gone for the time being. This was Wraith’s show.

“Yeah, I’m here.” Wraith replied nonchalantly, but while still keeping a thick concrete pillar between her and Seraphim.

Good thing she did because one of the daggers came zipping through the air and buried itself handle deep in the concrete.

“Wooo! That’s some hot shit right there.” Wraith couldn’t help but laugh.

Seraphim didn’t throw the second dagger, but she kept spinning it in her hand agitatedly.

“Why don’t we talk and get to know each other a little bit. After all we have a lot in common.”

Wraith stuck her head out from behind the pillar for just a moment before teleporting away. The second dagger didn’t miss her by much.

“Use your words, big gal. I wouldn’t want to think you were being impolite. I’d hate to start doing some serious damage to this place.” Wraith laughed as the darkness cleared.

“We don’t have anything in common, little girl,” Seraphim used the inverse of the insult Wraith had just lobbed her way.

And if Wraith was being honest with herself it pissed her off a little. After all she had killed this demon-looking motherfucker’s husband. A piece of ammunition she would keep for later use to really throw the Hero off balance.

“Maybe…maybe not, but I’ve got to respect your body count. I am big enough to admit that I’m small time compared to you.”

Seraphim might have used her throwing daggers already, but she could still move like a bat out of hell when she wanted to.

Black exploded outward when the Hero was only a few feet from where Wraith had been. Wraith saw through the dissipating darkness the Hero turn and reorient herself back toward where Wraith might be, so she didn’t see the little present Wraith had left behind.

The grenade went off with a loud BOOM and a brilliant flash. Seraphim was flung forward by the concussive blast and landed on her face. The Hero wasn’t down for long. She rolled to the side and sprang to her feet like a gymnast without even flapping her wings.

As far as scoring any damage went, it was a failure. But it was embarrassing for the Hero to be caught off guard like that. That was what made Wraith laugh.

“You’ve got to learn to take a compliment.” She teleported after the statement, but before Seraphim crashed through the pillar she was hiding behind. “Or does that make you angry? A person like me wanting to be just like you. That must irk you?”

A wing slashed up into the rafters she was hiding in. The metal beam didn’t offer much resistance as the wing sliced through it easily.

“That must be an awesome party trick.” Wraith came out of her teleport all the way across the room.

The Hero was moving at amazing speeds, and despite the bravado Wraith was barely keeping ahead of her. That was what this entire fight was about, reaction time.

“You should try that on a bottle of champagne.” Wraith teleported again, but changed it up this time. Instead of just teleporting around she used her perception in the darkness to aim and fire an explosive round directly into Seraphim’s head.

Since all senses were drowned out by the overwhelming darkness, the Hero didn’t even see it coming. One second she was turning to reacquire Wraith’s location, and the next she was staggering sideways as a small fireball bloomed around her ear.

“Tsk…tsk…tsk… you need to play better with others.”

Seraphim responded with a predatory growl that made the reptilian portions of Wraith’s brain quiver in fear.

“I’m going to rip you in half little girl.”

Wraith gulped, and teleported again for good measure. “That’s not very nice. And we were having such a good talk.”

Wraith pulled the pin on two of her grenades and teleported them into the shadow of the rafters. The plan was to have them blow up right around Seraphim’s head, causing the Hero more pain and embarrassment. Several parts of the Hero’s costume were already singed, so there was no question that there had been a good fight. That was all Wraith could hope for.

Instead of the tactic going as planned, it backfired. Instead of falling and exploding next to the Hero’s head, Seraphim spun in anticipation. Her tail whipped out and struck the grenades dead on. A hollow whack, like a baseball player hitting a home run, echoed through the parking garage as the grenades went flying back in the direction of Wraith.

<Oh fucknuggets.> Wraith was able to teleport away, but not before she felt the heat of the explosion on her face. <That was too close.>

But it was just the beginning of the tides turning.

Wraith was off balance from the near miss and Seraphim took full advantage of it. She came charging after the blooms of darkness that signaled Wraith’s teleportations. Wraith dropped more grenades, but she either batted them aside or shrugged them off. Seraphim was pressing her advantage, and sooner or later she was going to catch Wraith.

<Stupid bitch! Why won’t you at least stumble when I shoot you in the fucking head.> The Glock bucked in Wraith’s hand before she teleported, but the darkness feedback showed it hadn’t done much more than smack Seraphim’s head to the side. <I can’t keep this up for much longer.>

“Come out come out wherever you are.” The verbal banter had also taken a serious turn for the worse.

Seraphim was now the one mocking as she ran through the parking garage stalking the defenseless teleporter.

“Fuck you lady.” Wraith growled as Seraphim’s claws missed by inches.

“No thank you.” Came the dignified response. “This is much more fun.”

“I bet so,” Wraith teleported twice, once to either side of her for long enough to put a round into each of her temples.

“You’re more of a challenge than your husband. He died way too quick to have any fun with.”

Instead of going into a rage like Wraith expected, Seraphim stopped and just stood there. She was pissed as hell, one look into the Hero’s eyes showed the supervillain that, but this was a cold fury. Wraith realized that goading her about her dead husband wasn’t the way to throw the Hero off balance.

“I’m going to make you eat those words. Preferably through a straw because I’ve knocked all of your teeth out.” Seraphim was still standing oddly still.

Wraith was thirty feet away with half a destroyed concrete pillar between her and the Hero. “Could we not hit the face?” Wraith knew the statement was defensive, but she felt a sudden need to protect the beauty beneath the mask.

<Would Seth still love me if I had all my teeth knocked out and was eating through a straw?> It was a horrible time to have that thought as Seraphim charged again.

Wraith got out of the way in time, but left behind a little surprise. A surprise that wasn’t meant for Seraphim. Wraith had a new plan. <Time for the final act.>

Wraith started to teleport all over the room; none of them close to the vengeful Hero, and sometimes not even facing her. But there was a pattern to them. Each time Wraith teleported she appeared next to one of the support pillars. She’d done this before which was why it took a few teleports for Seraphim to catch onto the plan.

Because each time Wraith appeared and disappeared she left behind a grenade.

<If you can’t beat them then blow some shit up.>

As Wraith reached the last few pillars on the floor the first grenades started to go off. The whole structure started to groan like a drunken hobo as all of the weight started to shift to other supports; which quickly disappeared in explosions of fire and concrete shrapnel.

After those first explosions Seraphim figured out the plan. Wraith was vulnerable now. The Hero’s speed carried her across the floor in a blur just as Wraith appeared and dropped the last grenade.

As fast as the Hero was she still wasn’t able to get to Wraith in time to stop her, but the seasoned veteran still had a trick up her sleeve.

Wraith dropped her last grenade, turned to see the destruction, and instead saw Seraphim whipping her barbed tail in her direction. It happened so fast Wraith didn’t even see it.

Three of the barbs snapped off of Seraphim’s tail and tore through the air toward the supervillain. They were barely a blur they were traveling so fast. One of those barbs would have gone through Wraith like a cruise missile through a cardboard box. Even her fancy armor wouldn’t have been able to save her against something with that velocity.

Wraith thought of this all after the fact, but at the moment she about shit her pants in fear. Luckily, whatever mystical forces ruled the universe decided to give her a pass. Two of the barbs completely missed. They hit the concrete wall behind Wraith like machine gun rounds, showering her with bits of concrete. But she wasn’t so lucky with the third barb.

The last barb didn’t really hit her. It just grazed her leg enough to cut through the armor, tactical pants, and the top layer of skin.

But that was enough.

Wraith felt the cold tingling sensation immediately start to work its way up her leg. She’d done enough research on Seraphim to guess what was happening. Even though nothing she read ever said she could do this.

It was a good thing that in situations like this Wraith was a doer more than a thinker. Because the near instantaneous teleportation saved her life. A second later the grenade blew, the last pillar fell, and the whole parking garage collapsed under its own weight.

Even Seraphim hadn’t stuck around to see if she’d scored a deathblow. The Hero completed her attack, unfurled her wings, and rocketed through the collapsing ceiling and into the night air; which was starting to fill with a slowly expanding cloud of dust and debris.

Liz appeared in Seth’s room as the cold continued to spread through her body faster than any poison she’d ever heard of. She was Liz now. The fire that was her Wraith persona had been extinguished by the toxin Seraphim had pumped into her body. Of course, she was still wearing the costume, which at the moment was a big problem.

<I’ve gotta get out of here.> Wraith focused on her room in the underground mansion but when she tried to teleport nothing happened. <What the shit?> She tried again, but nothing happened, and the poison finished working its way down her legs.

Liz collapsed into a heap on the floor.

“Motherfucker,” Liz grumbled. Starting to feel her tongue go numb. Soon she wouldn’t be able to speak, and she was in a very compromising position if anyone walked into the room.

Her legs didn’t respond as she tried to move them, so she used her arms to crawl to the nearest cover she could find. Her and Seth’s large bed was only a few feet away. That was her best chance.

<I feel like a fucking four-year-old.> Liz complained as she started to pull herself under the cover of the bed.

It was a tight squeeze, especially when she got to her ass. She’d always thought having a bodacious ass was a good thing; that was until she had to cram it under the bed when she was partially paralyzed and starting to lose feeling in her arms.

<Suck it in.> She commanded herself, and with a final push of effort forces her ass under the bed.

She had a few more seconds of feeling in her limbs which she used to get the rest of herself under cover. She wasn’t sure if she was totally concealed when her arms finally gave out. She’d tried to angle herself so her feet weren’t poking out, but that was hard to do when you couldn’t feel where your feet were.

<Well this is just fan-fucking-tastic.> Liz thought as she lay face down underneath the bed. <But look on the brightside; I’m still breathing and not buried in the fucking parking garage.>

Those were the only positives she could think of because right now she was still dressed in her full Wraith costume, completely paralyzed, and hiding underneath the bed in a room she shared with possibly the only person she really loved in this world. The dressing on top of that shit sandwich was that she didn’t know if the poison was going to kill her much less how long she’d be paralyzed if it didn’t.

<All I can do is wait and hope Seth forgives me if he finds me like this.>

Those were Liz’s last thoughts before the toxins reached her brain and knocked her out.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 47

“I’ve got nothing,” Becca was surprised to hear the frustrated words come out of Anika’s mouth. Over the last few days it was the speedster who’d been the down-in-the-dumps girl. Becca figured she had a least a couple more days until she had to buck up.

Anika glanced over at Becca with one eyebrow raised. Her girlfriend had clearly read her thoughts, and they were clearly not on the same page. “Fine,” Becca grumbled, mentally promising to have a better attitude. Anika’s grin showed it was a step in the right direction, but none of that helped their current problem.

“All I’ve got is the logical next step,” Anika grumbled, staring at her laptop hard enough to bore holes through it. “It would make sense that Wraith would try and steal another copy of the Marshall’s list, or start tracking down anyone she already knew was on it.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t give us a lot to go on,” Becca agreed, looking at her mostly blank word document.

The assignment of looking into the Supervillain, Wraith, was turning out to be more difficult than they both thought. The reason was obvious, even if they hadn’t figured out why yet. They were both training to be Heroes, and they both had Hero mindsets. If they had done some subtlety work then they might have more leads to follow, but even then, Anika and Becca hadn’t graduated to the point where they could think like villains. Dean Ditmar knew this about the class; which was the entire point of the project. The older Super wanted them to think outside the box. If they could do that now, then they would be able to build upon that in their three and a half remaining years in the program. If they couldn’t, then they didn’t deserve to be Heroes.

Hero work wasn’t helping little old ladies across the street, or rescuing cats from trees. Hero work was dirty work, and you needed to get your hands dirty to deal with it. The dirtiest thinking the freshmen HCP class had done revolved around bedroom activities, and even most of those were relatively tame.

“We need a fresh perspective,” Anika concluded, closing her laptop, and rubbing her eyes. It was after ten, and a thorough ass kicking in physical training wasn’t helping their stamina.

“And ice cream,” Becca added, her speedster metabolism an ever present concern in the young woman’s mind.

“And ice cream,” Anika smiled, leaned over her closed computer and planted a long, lingering kiss, on her girlfriends lips.

Becca wanted more, she needed more, but her girlfriend pulled back before she could worm her tongue through the still unclassified Super’s lips. It had been nearly a week since Becca had gotten laid, and the sexual energy was building to a frustrating point; but Anika had them on lock down. Her mindset was that they needed to focus on studying, not fooling around. The problem was that all Becca could focus on now was fooling around, so the plan was having the opposite effect.

<If that’s the biggest problem I have in the next two weeks then I should be thankful,> Becca thought, biting her inner lip to control her libido. Thankfully, Anika wasn’t listening this time.

Becca and Anika’s relationship had grown since Anika’s powers started to evolve. Getting stronger and faster was something Becca could deal with, but telepathy was something entirely different. Sometimes she didn’t know how Mason did it. Obviously, Becca didn’t spend all of her time thinking about her girlfriend naked, or them doing X rated things to one another, but those thoughts still popped up every once in a while. At the beginning Becca was blushing all the time when a dirty thought crossed her mind. But after several occasions with Anika not reacting, Becca began to relax. Like Kyoshi, Anika was doing her best not to pry into other people’s business; even the one person whose business she was allowed to pry into.

<Seth would just die,> Becca giggled thinking of her dorm mate being in a relationship with a telepath. <Or she’d probably cut of his stick and berries when he thought of other women.>

                The idea hit Becca like a lightning bolt. “Liz! We’ll talk to Liz.”

Becca didn’t need to be telepathic to decipher the frown on Anika’s face. “Come on, Ani,” Becca put her hands on her hips. “We need a teleporter’s perspective, and Liz is the only one who’s going to talk to us; unless you honestly believe that Fiona is going to slip us some teleporter secrets.”

Becca knew that Anika didn’t like Liz, but she didn’t know why. Liz had been nothing but great to all of them. She kept Seth in line, helped clean up around the house, and hadn’t spilled the beans about the HCP. No one had told her about them being in the program, but the girl wasn’t a groundhog that had stuck her head in a hole. Some things were just obvious at this point.

<Maybe that’s why she doesn’t like her,> Becca considered. After all, if Liz wanted to she could end the dreams of five Heroes in training.

It was probably a factor in it, but Becca knew the real reason was because Anika had trouble trusting and feeling. Anika had shared parts of her poop-filled early life, and those had made Becca cry like a newborn babe; but as far as she knew, Anika hadn’t opened up to anyone else. Becca knew her girlfriend well enough to know that it probably wouldn’t happen anytime soon.

“True,” Anika reluctantly admitted to Becca’s earlier point. “But we can’t tell her too much. A lot of this is still need to know.”

“We’ll just throw in a bunch of hypotheticals and be vague,” Becca brightened, skipping back over to her girlfriend and pecking her on the nose. That type of kiss never failed to elicit a smile from the taller Super.

She skipped out of the room, with Anika not far behind. “You mean right now?” Anika blanched. Seth was home, so that meant there was a fifty percent chance they were doing the no pants dance.

“There’s no time like the present,” Becca needed to get this assignment done to do some of her own pants-less dancing, so she had no intention of waiting.

The lack of “oh my gods” was a good sign as they approached Seth’s second floor room. That was good enough for Becca, so she strolled right up and knocked on the door. There was only a slight pause before Seth invited them in.

This was the first time that Becca had been into Seth’s room in a long time; actually, since they’d help Seth move in all his boxes at the start of the semester. The speedster wasn’t sure what to expect, but clothes everywhere and a funky smell were pretty typical boy expectations. Instead, she was surprised to find everything orderly and organized. There were only a handful of clothes on the floor, all female, and the bed was made with military precision.

Liz occupied the bed in nothing more than a pair of yoga pants and a sports bra. Since embracing her sexuality, Becca had started to notice things about other women that she’d repressed in the past. With that in mind Becca couldn’t stop thinking that Liz looked good, real good. Becca’s enforced dry spell wasn’t helping the situation either.

Seth sat at his desk on his laptop. He was probably working on the same project they were, but a quick glance showed that he had a lot more typed up than Becca and Anika combined.

“We’re stealing Liz,” Becca stated matter-of-factly.

Seth didn’t even turn around, and Liz just grinned. “Just bring her back in one piece,” he acknowledged the kidnapping with a wave.

“Please don’t hurt me, I’m just a poor little girl,” Liz pouted and giggled, playing the submissive captive was so not her style.

The teleporter followed them back up to Becca’s room, and settled onto Becca’s unmade bed as she closed the door behind them. “So you want some info on teleporters,” Becca couldn’t stop her eyebrows from rising in surprise. “It’s not hard to figure out, and Seth already drilled me for details,” there was something about the way Liz said “drilled” that led Becca to believe there was a lot more involved than picking the teleporter’s brain. “So fire away.”

Becca and Anika both took their seats and opened up their laptops. It took a minute to organize their thoughts and come up with a few questions.

“So I’m sure you know we’re working on a project,” Becca didn’t go into any detail about what class the project was for. “So we just want to get a look into a teleporter’s brain.”

“Well you got one,” Liz grinned, poking her temple with her index finger a couple times. “What do you want to know?”

“Tell us about your thought process?” Anika took the lead. Her attitude was all business. “Why do you do the things you do? What do you use your power for? How do those two things interconnect?”

“Wow, I feel like I’m back in psych 101,” Liz reclined back on the bed like she’s was in a therapist’s office.

“Well, I can’t speak for all teleporters,” Liz started, her eyes on the ceiling. “I’m not ashamed to admit that my power isn’t flashy or particularly useful, so I can only explain it from that limited context.”

Becca was ashamed to admit it, but she’d always thought of Liz as a bit of a…she couldn’t even think of the right word, and “bimbo” wasn’t it. Becca had never really thought of Liz as smart. She’d seen the other woman be courageous against a knife wielding drunk, she was certainly brave and strong willed for being with Seth, and she clearly had a nympho side that went well with Becca’s hyper-sexual dorm mate. But Becca was now a little ashamed to admit she hadn’t taken Liz seriously beyond her looks and flagrant personality. Sitting here and listening to Liz’s responses was showing Becca that there was a brain behind all that beauty.

Becca felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see Anika’s comforting smile. Becca’s girlfriend knew that Becca liked to get herself worked up when she underestimated or didn’t give people the attention they deserved; Becca saw it as rude. Anika’s touch and smile did a lot to make Becca calm down and continue with the interview.

“Teleportation is a power of convenience,” Liz continued without having seen the momentary interaction between Becca and Anika. “If I want something nearby I can have it,” Liz proved the point by teleporting a pen from the table to her hand. “I can’t do a lot,” Liz took a deep breath. “But being able to do little things like this is pretty awesome. Now multiply that a thousand times for the big name teleporters. Heroes like Shimmerpath can go anywhere in the world anytime they want to. Nothing can stop them. Other teleporters are in critical need throughout the world; transporting people to hospitals, ferrying business executives from one meeting to another, and even providing protection for Presidents and Prime Ministers. It goes from a convenient power to an absolutely necessary one. The world can get by without strongmen to lift heavy things; we can get machines to do that for us. But think of a world without teleporters, and tell me it wouldn’t be a worse place.”

Liz’s statement did make Becca think about it. She’d never really thought about what powers are better than others, especially since she was the only Super in her entire town. Since coming to the HCP she’d analyzed powers for strength and weaknesses, but she’d never really thought of prioritizing them from best to worst. Every power was unique, and every power could usually be effectively countered by another; but if Becca looked at it closely, teleporters were pretty special.

“I don’t feel like I’m out of line in thinking some teleporters might have a superiority complex,” Liz had propped herself up on her elbows, and Becca could see a glint in the other woman’s eye. Liz might not be a teleporter on Shimmerpath’s level, but she certainly had pride, and maybe a little ego, when it came to her ability.

“Do you think some teleporters think they can take what they want?” Becca asked. A feeling of entitlement would be a big part of the profile they were building on Wraith.

“I’m sure some of them think so,” Liz grinned, but then teleported the pen from her hand back to the desk. “But not all of us,” her smile grew bigger. “I think it’s a question of convenience versus power. Does a teleporter use their gift to make their life, and the lives of the people around them easier? Or does the person use their power to take for their selfish ambition, or to amass power.” Liz shrugged as she finished the insightful analysis. “But in the end, I think you can say that about any Super with a power.”

“Hmm,” Liz made a lot of good points, and Becca had a lot to think about.

“Thanks for that insight,” Anika was writing furiously on her laptop. Becca realized she was staring off into space, and quickly started to put her thoughts on paper.

“Full disclosure, but I told Seth a lot of the same stuff, so you might want to vary it up a bit. I don’t want your professor thinking you all cheated,” Becca just nodded as she typed away. She was sure Dean Ditmar didn’t want anyone cheating, but summarizing a primary source’s thoughts wasn’t cheating.

Becca knew the information was only a general synopsis of one Super’s view of her entire classification, but it gave the speedster some ideas. <Maybe I should challenge Fiona?> It would only be a one rank jump, but it was better than accomplishing nothing during the first semester.

“I hope that answers your questions,” Liz smiled, and hoisted herself up off the bed. “Now if you’ll excuse me I have to start on some of my own homework. I hope this helped.”

“It was great. Thanks Liz,” Becca cheerfully replied.

“Any time,” Liz smiled back and left.

Twenty minutes of typing passed before a word was spoken between the two women. “I think she falls into the latter rather than the former category.” The conversation was so long ago Becca didn’t remember which was which. Anika picked up on that and explained. “I don’t know what it is, but I’ve got a gut feeling that Liz is more the amass power than make people’s lives better type of teleporter.”

Becca couldn’t stop her frown from forming, but she attempted to be empathetic. “Have you read any mean thoughts?” Anika shook her head back and forth. “Has she ever done anything sketchy that would make you feel she can’t be trusted?”

“Well she did have that gun in her purse,” Anika’s reply was half-hearted at best.

“Angela carries a gun in her purse too, and she could dismember anyone who wanted to hurt her,” Becca picked apart Anika’s objection.

“Has she ever hurt either of us, or even been mean?” Anika reverted back to shaking her head back and forth. “So I don’t see what the problem is with her?” Becca considered another possibility, and had to work herself up to asking the question?

“Is it because I was staring at her?”

Anika’s laugh was the last thing Becca expected.

“Oh, babe,” Anika pulled Becca into a hug that made the speedster feel warm and safe. “If we weren’t together I’d probably be trying to take a bite out of that ass.”

“What!” Becca snorted, trying to pull out of the hug, but Anika wouldn’t let her.

“I know you love me, and you know I love you. That doesn’t mean your eyes aren’t going to wander to admire something as well put together as Liz,” Becca could feel Anika smiling as the taller Super kissed the top of her forehead.

“I bet Liz would let us take a bite out of her butt,” Becca’s hand went to her mouth, mortified that she’d spoken that errant thought out loud.

It just made Anika laugh harder.

Becca and Anika might be a lot of things, but they weren’t cheaters. Was a three way with Liz cheating? That was the magic question, and one neither of them had the stomach to answer at this point in their relationship.

But the thoughts had done one positive thing for them. “Ok, lock down is over. Come here,” the last two words came out in a growl, and Becca squealed with delight as Anika jumped on top of her.

A study break was just what they needed. They’d wake up tomorrow rested, refreshed, and ready to finish their project. Their only regret would be that they forgot to go get ice cream.

 

***

 

“I didn’t do it! I didn’t kill that…” Hunter closed the door behind the hitman before the racial slur could be heard. Considering everything the hired killer had said during the short interview, it would be the most pleasant designation he’d given to the now deceased Ricky Galvani.

“He still sticking to his story?” the policeman standing guard at the door asked.

Normally, a guard wouldn’t be stationed at the entrance to a suspected killer’s interrogation room. But this situation wasn’t normal; this was Chicago, and everything pointed to this being a mob hit. The Family Ricky worked for was already clamoring for blood, and half dozen rival Family soldiers had done little to satiate that bloodlust. In typical Mafioso fashion, the other Family wasn’t going to take the insult lying down. Another three of Ricky’s associates had found their way to the morgue in the past two days. This whole thing was turning into a mob war, and Ricky was at the center of it.

<And I can’t believe I believe him,> Hunter was amazed at his admission.

The evidence on the hitman was ironclad. The man had a history of “authority” issues. He had diagnosed mental problems, was a suspect in a number of other murders, a shell with his fingerprints was found at the scene, and it matched the rifle that had been recovered from his home. The man’s only defense was he was asleep, but there were no witnesses to corroborate that. It was a slam dunk, and everyone knew it.

<But the guy still swears he’s innocent, and I believe him,> Hunter was going on nothing but instinct, and that instinct hadn’t failed him yet. Still, it was tough to take his instinct’s side over the mountain of evidence.

“He’s proclaiming his innocence,” Hunter replied to the cop’s question.

The veteran Hero hoped that the cop wasn’t on one of the Families payrolls. If he was he’d either kill the hitman before he could make it to trial, or he’d end up killing whoever the other Family sent to wack him. Either way, the person guarding the prisoner was in just as much danger as the prisoner himself; and the worst part was that if the cop was clean he was in the line of fire for nothing more than his moral values and a shitty paycheck.

Being a bearer of society’s moral values, Hunter had to respect that about the young man; if he wasn’t a Mob plant. Nevertheless, Hunter made sure to keep the cop in the corner of his eye as he headed for the exit. He hated being suspicious around law enforcement, but sometimes it was a necessity. The Hero knew that went both ways, and the looks he got from half the people in the squad room confirmed that. Those uncomfortable, or downright hostile glances, were split between Hunter and the other two Heroes present.

Absence and Ox were leaning up against a far wall. Ox looking like he didn’t have a care in the world. The big strongman could destroy the building, and everyone in it, if all hell broke loose. Absence looked like she was relaxed on the surface, but Hunter saw the slight bunching of her costume at the shoulder. As another veteran Hero, she could feel the unwelcome just as much as Hunter.

<Sometimes being a rookie isn’t such a bad thing,> Hunter felt envious of Ox for about a second, but brushed aside the emotion when he reached the two Heroes.

“Anything new?” Absence had studied the file on their way over, and the way she asked the question told Hunter all he needed to know.

“He didn’t have anything else to say beyond his previous statements,” Hunter confirmed as he led the way out of the crowded squad room.

“Then what are we doing here?” Absence kept pace with his longer strides. “If this had nothing to do with Wraith then what’s the point.”

“A man still died,” Ox spoke up, but immediately shut up at the pointed glare Absence shot him.

“Ox is right,” Hunter agreed if for a totally different reason. “A man died, and I think the person that did it is not sitting in an interrogation room back there.”

Absence face said it all. She thought Hunter must have a screw loose. With all the evidence against the hitman the only thing left was the judge to bang the gavel and put the man behind bars. Absence probably wanted to say all of that but Hunter had a decade of experience on her, and was a subtlety Hero. If he had his doubts, then there must be a basis for them. Unfortunately, Hunter didn’t have a lot to give her.

“It’s too neat,” he replied to her unspoken question. “Everything fits into place too perfectly. Nothing ever fits into place this perfectly.” It was very thin reasoning.

“The simplest answer is often the correct one,” Absence played devil’s advocate by giving a simplified version of Occam’s razor.

“Nothing in this world is simple,” Hunter chuckled. It was his job to take the simple, make it very complicated, and find the flaw that would unravel everything.

Absence didn’t reply, and Ox smartly stayed out of the conversation. Hunter led the way from the squad room, downstairs, and into an electronic surveillance room. A decade ago this room, and its entire department, hadn’t existed. Since then a network of cameras, computers, and tracking software had been installed to blanket the city. Blanket was a relative term when referring to this particular network’s effectiveness. It was better than some cities, but worse than some; and the bottom line was the blanketing was only effective around thirty percent of Chicago, and partially effective in thirty percent more. Roughly forty percent of the Windy City wasn’t covered by anything more than good old fashion patrols.

“We’re looking into the Galvani assassination,” Hunter handed over his access pass to a tech that looked a little star struck at the Heroes’ sudden appearance.

“Um…yes, sir,” the tech dutifully scanned the pass, verified it, and then asked Hunter what he needed.

Ten minutes later Hunter exited the room with a pile of computer chips and USB drives. Fortunately for the Hero, Galvani had been on the police’s watch list for years. Unfortunately, that meant there was a lot of data to comb through. Hunter had booked some time on a DVA server to query and sort the information he needed, but all the data needed to be uploaded first, and the results looked at with the Mach-one eyeball.

“Let’s meet up tomorrow back at West,” Hunter offered, because Ox looked like he’d rather have a painful bowel movement than go through all the data in Hunter’s hands.

“Fine by me,” Absence replied, giving the big strongman another sharp look when he breathed a sigh of relief at Hunter’s offer. “Drop us off.”

“Sure,” Hunter placed the small data storage devices in one of his many pockets, grabbed the other two Heroes by the shoulder, and teleported them home.

Home for the intern and mentor was a Hero hide out just outside of Vegas. Absence worked solo, but she was well-funded, and the place had been decorated in the garish Vegas fashion that Hunter couldn’t stand.

“I’ll be back at seven,” he didn’t wait for a reply before popping halfway across the country again. He had something he wanted to look at.

Hunter popped back into existence on a windswept rooftop about five hundred meters from the site of Galvani’s death. The door to the roof was crisscrossed with yellow police tape, but it didn’t look like that had stopped any unwanted visitors. There were a few empty beer cans and sandwich wrappers blowing around, probably from some kids who wanted to get buzzed without their parents knowing. Hunter’s eyes noted all of the changes from the crime scene photos he’d studied.

The report said it took two CSI sweeps of the rooftop to find the hidden shell casing hidden in a furrow near the edge of the roof. It was plausible that the hitman would have left the shell behind; unable to find it before he was forced to leave or be discovered. But the explanation didn’t sit well with Hunter.

The Hero started to walk around the rooftop, not sure exactly what he was going to find. He engaged his super power, feeling around him for that disturbance that indicated a teleporter had been here. He didn’t expect to find anything. It had been several days since the shooting, and it was likely that anything a teleporter left behind was long gone. He had to at least try.

The irony was that if Wraith was a weaker teleporter he wouldn’t have found anything. The stronger the teleporter, and the farther they traveled, the stronger the disturbance they left behind. So it was pretty lucky that Hunter picked up the tiniest of relativistic distortions when he looked down one of the vents. No one had thought to look there, because so few people had his power or knew how it worked.

<Clever girl,> he grinned under his African mask, but that grin was short lived. <Who are you?> the countermeasures Wraith was employing were designed to elude Heroes like Hunter. Training like that was nearly impossible to come by because that knowledge was constrained to a handful of powerful people.

Of course, there was no way to prove that the smudge in reality was Wraith. It quite possibly was another teleporter all together; maybe someone the hitman hired to transport him to and from the scene of the crime. There were tons of logical explanations, all of which a defense attorney would be able to exploit.

But Hunter knew. He knew in his bones that Wraith had been here, and that she’d pulled the trigger that had killed Ricky Galvani. < Why?> That was the million dollar question.

Hunter estimated the echo of Wraith’s teleportation was only going to last another few hours; but that meant whoever she was, she was a top tier teleporter. She was probably just as powerful as him, in her own way. Nothing suggested she had a tracking aspect to her power, but the darkness she emitted was a deadly tool if used correctly. Taking into account the armaments she preferred there was no question in his mind he hadn’t seen a supervillain this dangerous since Armsman and Hellgate were running around.

The knowledge allowed Hunter to refine his suspect pool, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The last thing any Hero wanted to report was that the person they were chasing, the person that was going around breaking the law, was actually more powerful than they’d originally estimated. Someone would catch crap for the miscalculation, but that wasn’t Hunter’s problem. His mission was to catch Wraith and bring her to justice.

As far as the Rick Galvani’s case went. Nothing Hunter had seen today was going to do the hitman any good. Everything Hunter felt was a hunch, nothing more. A hunch wasn’t enough to let the man go free, and Hunter had a second hunch that said it was better the suspected hitman sit behind bars.

Five more minutes on the scene failed to reveal any more hidden insight, so Hunter quickly returned to his hotel room in Orlando. He had a long night of data input and analysis ahead of him, and if he wanted to get any sleep he needed to get started.

 

***

 

Angela sat alone in the mercifully silent library. Not the HCP library, the university library. It was late, but since it was close to finals there were still plenty of people present. Angela had found a quiet corner in the rear of the top floor. In the four hours she’d been sitting here no one had come by. The books in the section near here were obscure volumes discussing mundane scientific topics. Those were the types of classes people tried to avoid in college, so this section went largely unused.

Angela had discovered the little oasis of solitude midway through the semester, and she’d done her best to keep it her little secret. She didn’t tell any of her roommates where she was going, or ever tell them she was there when they texted. Tactically speaking it was a mistake. Lack of communication and accountability could be an issue if something happened, but Angela was willing to take that chance.

There was something calming about sitting alone and studying calculus, medieval history, and biology. She’d already finished her HCP project, and in doing so, had been able to get her Psychology 101 final paper completed as well. Tonight was shaping up to be more productive than most.

Every time she checked an item off her to do list she felt a surge of pride. She was about to complete her first semester of the HCP and college. She had straight As in all her classes, and was still the uncontested number one ranked freshman. She was exactly where she wanted to be, and everything was progressing as planned. But that didn’t mean she was without stress.

There were a lot of factors she could control. Her brains and her shifted brawn allowed her greater control of her destiny than many other normal people or Supers. But there were some things that were just beyond her control.

Once Angela typed the concluding sentence into her final History paper, her mind started churning out scenarios. <Goodman, Webb, and Romanoff could be an issue,> she played out the fight in her mind.

Goodman would fire her destructive spheres from a distance while Webb moved in close. They’d hold Romanoff in reserve if Angela defeated Webb and moved against the two female Supers.

                <I’ll have to disengage after I deal with Webb,> Angela knew she’d take damage from the battle, and it was the smart tactical decision, but that still didn’t mean she liked running from a fight. Heroes didn’t run, so why should it be any different in the HCP.

<I might be able to form a loose alliance with Becca, which will get Anika on my side too,> the possibility was intriguing. <The ranking disparity is great enough that it won’t hamper my point totals greatly.> It would be a better idea if she sought them out after defeating a few opponents in solo fights, preferably those in the top third of the class.

She felt the stress building as she saved, and sent the history paper to the printer. A popup window on her screen said that she was fifty third in the quay, so it would be a while before she could collect it. Having free time on her hands this close to the HCP final only set her mind on edge. She needed to find something to do.

The lights in the library were controlled by motion sensors in order to be more efficient. The result was that Angela’s corner was a small cone of light in an otherwise dark corner. The window at her side looked out on a section of street with broken streetlights, which only added to the sensation that darkness was pressing in all around her. If she’d had an overactive imagination, this could be a problem; but Angela was sure she could deal with anything that came at her from the darkness.

So she was surprised when she jumped at the motion lights activated, bathing the surrounding area with light and revealing a visitor. Angela’s mind immediately assessed the threat and possible courses of action.

“Um…hi,” the boy standing at the edge of where the bookshelves met the open study space stuttered.

Angela’s first mental impression was unimpressive and nonthreatening. The boy was her height, with large glasses that covered a large portion of his pale face. He had a few spots on his forehead and cheeks that were stubbornly resisting moving beyond acne inflicted puberty. He was thin with baggy clothes that only made him look even thinner in the library’s light. Angela actually believed he might pass out, he was even shaking slightly.

She automatically dismissed her automatic threat posture assessment. It wasn’t only the big, menacing enemy that you needed to worry about; but also the wolf in sheep’s clothing. The clever enemy who made you let your guard down so he could get close and strike.

“Hello,” Angela kept her voice cordial.

The boy breathed out a sigh of relief when Angela replied to him, and he took a few steps closer. “My name’s Alec.”

He looked like he wanted some sort of a response, so she gave it to him. “I’m Angela.”

This time the boy smiled. The smile did a lot to alleviate the unimpressive categorization that Angela immediately assigned him. It was a big, genuine smile. It was nice. <Stay focused,> she reprimanded herself. Unwilling to let herself be tricked by the intruder.

“I’ve seen you here a lot. It’s a good study space,” Alec held up the armful of books he was carrying. “I like the spot on the third floor over by the Greek and Roman history section. It’s a lot busier than here, but I study better with a little ambient noise.”

Angela took the statement as rhetorical, so she kept her eyes focused on Alec, and waited for him to continue. The silence wiped the smile from the boy’s face, and sent him back into awkward quivering.

“Well…um…I’m sorry to disturb you,” Alec turned on his heel and walked away into the labyrinth of shelves.

Angela watched him go, not quite sure what had just happened. She’d need to report the incident to the HCP professors. A background check would need to be done on him to make sure he wasn’t some infiltrator trying to gather intelligence on the HCP.

<You picked the wrong girl to spy on,> Angela had a plan. She was pretty good at improvising, but when she had a plan she was unstoppable.

She heard the footsteps rapidly approaching form the same direction, and reached into her purse as a precaution. She had her gun handy, but she would just use the pepper spray. It would look suspicious if Angela defeated the boy with her hand to hand skill. Cameras were everywhere, and she didn’t want to jeopardize her spot in the HCP.

Alec appeared again, stopping exactly where he’d stopped before; at the edge of the bookcases and the open study space.

“Um…sorry,” he said, then shook his head like that wasn’t what he’d meant to say. “I just…uh….wanted to know if you wanted to compare notes.”

Alec held up his binder, but he held it up only by the back cover. “Crap,” he cursed, as the unsecure contents spilled out all over the floor. He quickly dropped to one knee and started to pick everything back up. “Sorry,” he apologized for the third time.

Angela didn’t move to help him. This could be a ploy to bring her in close, and she wasn’t going to fall for it. After a few moments of scrambling, Alec was back on his feet with an unorganized pile of crumpled notes in his hands.

“So yeah…we’re in the same Biology class, and you’re really smart; so I wanted to see if you wanted to compare notes,” Alec rephrased his earlier request. “Maybe over a cup of coffee?”

Angela recalled her memory of her biology class and pulled out her phone. One the first day of class, and intermittently throughout the semester she’d taken a photo of the entire class when she walked in. She’d studied the faces of those who sat near to make sure no one new was able to sneak up on her, but she hadn’t been able to memorize all two hundred and six students.

She left him standing there awkwardly while she surveyed and zoomed in on the photo. Finally she found Alec. He sat about six rows behind her and on the far right of the room.

                <If I want good intel it’s better to get it from the source,> her father had taught her that, but unlike her father, Angela was much more capable of taking a hit if Alec attacked her.

“We can grab coffee at a place on campus,” Angela wasn’t stupid enough to go running off with the guy. They still needed to be in a public place with footage she could study later on. “I have forty-five minutes before I need to be somewhere, so that gives us thirty minutes to study after transit and ordering.”

Alec didn’t seem to be thrown by the detailed study itinerary Angela was laying out. That was another good sign. If he put up any argument then that was a clue that he was trying to maneuver her into a prearranged position to ambush her.

“Ok,” the smile reappeared, warming his otherwise sickly features.

Angela gathered her books, but reorganized everything so her pepper spray went in her pocket, and it never left her hand. She walked over to Alec, but stopped ten feet away.

“Lead the way, you have forty four minutes remaining,” Alec nodded, and then scurried off with Angela following at an acceptable distance.

Angela’s mind was busy looking for people tailing her, and judging the proper counter-interrogation techniques to employ against Alec. Not once did she ever realize that she’d just been asked on her first date.

Previous                                                                                                                                                       Next

 

A Change of Pace – Chapter 45

“Welcome back,” Dean Ditmar’s greeting and warm smile passed over the assembled freshman class of Supers. “I’m glad to see that everyone made it safely back from break. Thankfully, our only casualties were a few days of lost workouts, but that’s nothing your physical training coaches can’t fix.” His remark was met with a spattering of laughter, but mostly cringes.

“Today we begin the beginning of the end of your first semester of your HCP career,” this got cheers from everyone in the class, and another smile from the dean. “You have two major obstacles to complete before you can move on to your second semester.” The dean paused dramatically. “But before that, let’s see how you did on your midterms.”

Becca groaned along with all the others. Her adrenaline was pumping to see what the last two challenges of the year were. Now she had to wait. <Dag nabit,> she had a lot of pent up energy to get out in physical training.

Unfortunately, Becca was one of those people who hadn’t done a lot over Thanksgiving break. It wasn’t from a lack of conviction; just a lack of facilities and opportunity. Becca had gone home to her family for the first time since coming out, and it was quickly obvious that her parents hadn’t told anyone else.

<You can’t blame them,> she’d constantly told herself while her entire family and several of the townspeople sat around the stereotypical large wooden table. <You had a hard enough time explainin’ it to them, so you gotta give them the benefit of the doubt here.>

                What made the situation more difficult was that Anika hadn’t come. They’d talked about it leading up to the holiday break, but decided it was best if Becca tested the waters before they both jumped in head first. Anika had gone home to her foster family in Montana. The fact that Anika lived in Montana was a big surprise, but not bigger than the bombshell that they were all in witness protection.

Ever since the Sprout incident Becca knew that people were looking for Anika, but she didn’t know just how serious until Anika hesitated to tell her exactly where her family lived. As far as their relationship went it wasn’t a big deal. They’d already decided that they would both spend Christmas at the Whitfield farm. Becca had already informed her parents to prepare for it. The only logistical problem they had to work out was where they were going to train during their time off.

“Ms. Whitfield…Ms. Whitfield,” Becca was snapped out of her thoughts by the dean holding out a piece of paper to her.

“Oh…sorry. Thank you,” she accepted the grading sheet with a blush.

<Thank you, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph; a B!> Becca vibrated with excitement.

Becca had done her presentation on Corkscrew, a speedster of mild renown, but who had saved Becca’s town once. Corkscrew wasn’t a big flashy Hero. He’d graduated at the bottom of his class from Overton, completed a two year internship with another speedster, and then set up shop independently in Topeka. While the rest of the country wouldn’t be able to pick out Corkscrew in a line-up, everyone in Tornado Alley prayed he’d show up when they needed him. Corkscrews primary Hero duty was to counteract tornadoes and protect people and property all over the Midwest.

As such, Becca had embellished on the super-human relations aspect of her paper. The Hero had only been in a few minor altercations with criminals and villains, but he’d on average saved more people in one season than most did in a year. Corkscrew saving her town had been one of her inspirations to becoming a Hero.

<And you got me a B, you big, beautiful man you,> Becca had been nervous after watching the other students do their presentations, but it appeared that the instructors liked her different take on a Hero’s life.

“How’d ya do?” Becca leaned over to look at the grading sheet the dean had handed Rich.

“C+,” Rich looked relieved. Having spent a semester sitting next to the boy, Becca knew he wasn’t the scholastic type. “I should be able to pass with this.”

“Good,” Becca smiled, giving the boy a light punch in the shoulder.

“As you can all see,” Dean Ditmar was back at the podium. “Most of you have met or exceeded my expectations. One of you even went far beyond the call of duty,” no one needed him to clarify the outstanding job Angela had done on her Animus Rex presentation.

<No one ever answered Coach Meyers’ question to get out of gym,> the idle thought went in and out of Becca’s brain as the dean continued.

“That being said, there are a small handful of students whose academic standing is compromising their attendance at the HCP. Everyone knows that we demand a minimum of a 3.0 GPA at West Private. If you can’t maintain your academic discipline then you lack the discipline to be a Hero.” The dean’s gaze was stern as his eyes swept the room. “You all know who you are, so pay close attention to your final two assignments. Excellence is the only thing that will allow you to move onto to the second semester.”

<That’s a bit of a buzzkill,> Kyoshi’s mental voice echoed in Becca’s head. <What did you get?>

<B+.>

                <Me too!> the two Supers shared mental giggles before returning their attention to the dean. Becca noted the good mood Kyoshi was in, and jotted down a mental note to ask her about her break with Mason.

“Back to the good stuff,” the Dean clicked a remote, and the holographic projector behind him beeped to life. “You have two final assignments this semester; your Ethics final, and your Physical training final. Both examinations are widely different, so I will let Coach Meyers and McMillian explain their final to you at a later time.”

“I like to think of the Ethics final as a reward as much as a graded exercise,” the dean flipped to a slide where a figure was standing in what looked like a deliberate pose. “I think of it as a reward because it shows that the DVA and HCP staff have placed enough faith in you to show you a little more of the world you seek to enter.” The image quality was blurry, like the person who’d taken the shot had been moving while filming. “Your final will be a case study of an active case involving a wanted Supervillain.”

Conversations started up immediately. People had their notebooks out and were quickly scribbling down identifying features of the blurry image on the screen. They’d all been in the HCP long enough to know that you needed to seize an opportunity like this. Becca did what everyone else did, but wasn’t able to get too far. The picture quality was poor, and Becca was only able to discern two facts.

<Well that’s definitely a woman, and she had a ridiculously nice butt.> The speedster blushed as she quickly erased the second statement from her notebook.

“I have video of an encounter with this supervillain that is less than a few weeks old. She is currently wanted from grand theft, assault, and attempted theft of classified government data. If she’d succeeded you’d probably see a treason charge thrown in there.” The dean’s voice was grim as he looked over the class. “As I stated this is an active case. How you are graded is going to be entirely subjective. I will look over the results with your other professors to determine your level of effort and insight. But I want you to develop a profile of the villain, their motivations, and hypothesize about where they might strike next. If you have something truly unique it will get shared with the Heroes investigating the crime. Who knows, one of you might actually identify the shred of evidence that brings down this supervillain.” Becca didn’t know about everyone else, but this project had her energized like she’d downed a dozen Red Bulls.

“As always the resources of the HCP are at your disposal, as well as some DVA resources,” the dean listed off the library and the other resources everyone had already used in researching their midterm.

“Does anyone have any questions?” Becca looked around to see if anyone was going to ask the obvious one. When she didn’t see anyone, even Angela, raise their hand; she decided to go for it.

“Sir, who is the villain?” a couple of people snickered, but the dean just smiled.

“A very logical and potentially time saving question, Ms. Whitfield,” the dean’s gaze swept the room again. “And it just happens to be the only freebie I give out every year.”

Becca felt vindicated at the dean’s response. The people who’d snickered; Emilia Scarborough, Lorelei Gilford, and Natalia Romanoff to name a few, tried to pretend they hadn’t just been shut down by the dean. They failed.

“This, ladies and gentleman,” the dean added a little flair to his announcement. “This is the up and coming supervillain, Wraith. Get to know her well, because if we don’t catch her soon I fear she’ll be around for a very long time.”

“Any more questions?” the dean paused again, but got nothing but silence. Everyone was too concentrated on the blurry, grainy footage of Wraith. “Very well.” The dean closed his large binder and stepped away from the podium.

BANG

                The door to the auditorium flew open, but this time they were ready. Becca and every other freshman in the class had noticed something was up when the dean had closed his notes and stepped back. They were only ten minutes into class, so there was no logical reason the dean would be ending the period. That only left one possibility, an attack.

The attack a few months back had decimated class morale. After word of the surprise assaults on other classes spread, the freshmen knew it was only a matter of time before the instructors circled back around to their original targets. It hadn’t taken long for Angela to call a class meeting, and for once no one minded her perfectionist, bossy attitude. They needed a plan so the fear and humiliation they felt before wouldn’t be felt again.

The minute the sound of crashing doors hit Becca’s eardrums she was in motion. The plan was simple, but effective. They needed to get everyone into position as fast as possible in multiple defensive layers depending on the Supers power. Mason, Casey Williams, Angela, Alex Web, and Teresa Shaw were their front line. Two strongmen and three extra-durable shifters, one of which was the best fighter in the class, were their first line of defense against whatever came through that door. If they couldn’t’ deal with it, then they could hold it off long enough for everyone else to get organized.

Becca had to run half the way to her first target out of memory before the brilliant white flash of Angela’s transformation subsided. Then she was running under the angel who was flying toward the entrance with energy sword in hand.

<She’s faster,> Becca catalogued the information, not that she was looking to fight Angela anytime soon.

Becca ducked, passing just under one of the bronze-colored wings, and grabbed Nathan Flynn’s hand. She let time slow for three seconds before she sped off again. The goal was for Flynn to copy her power and start evacuating the less durable Supers with ranged powers to the back of the room.

That was easier said than done. <Poop!> Becca cursed as she had to pirouette around Rich’s growing form. The self-enhancer was in the middle defensive row. He needed time to get more powerful, but he should theoretically be able to hold off anything that slipped past the first defenders. But a growing boy in the middle of her path was a hindrance to Becca at the moment.

Becca recovered, just as Fiona Richardson teleported Kimberly Goodman to the back of the room, and she grabbed Lorelei Gilford. Becca didn’t like this assignment, but they needed the girl who could fire powerful laser beams out of her eyes in the back of the room. If the attackers got passed the first line of defenders then Lorelei and Kimberly were supposed to pin them down, with Rich acting in a close combat role, until everyone else could get into position.

Becca deposited Lorelei next to Kimberly and stopped to survey the room. Fiona appeared next to Becca with Anna Fletcher in hand. The electrokinetic already had lightning dancing between her fingers, and Becca could feel the static charge building in the air around her.

“Everyone freeze!” Dean Ditmar’s normally calm voice was full or authority and power as he ordered the class to stop. “Calm down!”

It was the first time Becca got to look at the doors. Unlike last time, they hadn’t been destroyed in an explosion. They’d just been thrown open with a lot of force. The walls behind them might need a little drywall work and a fresh coat of paint, but there wasn’t any other damage that she could see. In the door stood two costumed people; they were probably heroes but the class was so on guard she couldn’t be sure. Both of them were smiling though, and looking at the defenses arrayed against them with a critical eye.

“Everyone,” the dean had jumped down from the stage and put himself between the freshmen and the newcomers. “These are the Heroes Absence and Ox. They are the two Heroes who confronted Wraith and took the video you will be studying. I’ve asked them to come here to lecture you about the encounter, as well as answer any general questions you might have concerning Hero work.”

<Wow. I feel pretty stupid now.> Becca wasn’t sure how many other students heard Kyoshi’s telepathic statement, but a few were laughing nervously as they returned to their seats.

“That was quite a reaction,” Absence didn’t show much emotion, but Becca sped up her perception and noticed a slight comical twitch of the Hero’s lips. “My intern was a little indelicate with the doors, but that was unexpected.”

“You guys are wound tight!” the massive Hero who had to be Ox was much less skilled at hiding his emotions. He looked like he was about to burst out laughing.

“I’m afraid that is our doing,” Dean Ditmar apologized, as he gestured for the two Heroes to take the podium. “We ran an infiltration drill earlier in the year that has taught all of our classes a little more about constant vigilance.”

“The tactical response was well planned,” Absence congratulated from the podium. “I’d say you had your strongmen and durable shifters on the front lines, you’re physically weak but strong ranged powers in the rear, a quick reaction force in the middle to handle anyone that broke out of the initial melee, and most importantly everyone was moving with a purpose. No one froze or didn’t know what to do. That’s a lot more than I can say of any other freshman class who hasn’t finished their first semester yet.” Angela beamed with pride at the praise.

“But we aren’t here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about Wraith,” Becca and everyone else spotted the grim expression on the Hero’s face. “What I can tell you about Wraith is that she would have picked your defensive plan apart.” The smile on Angela’s face died away. “Wraith is a teleporter who unleashes a blast of darkness when she teleports, not too different from the shifter who has the brilliant white light when they shift.” Absence informed. “She’s a villain who’s also fond of weapons and explosives; which you’ll all see when you watch the recordings in full.”

Becca was used to fighting and being tested in the HCP. She’d been scared during the first few physical training classes and the ranking matches, but she’d thought those emotions had been beaten out of her over the last few months. She was wrong.

“Wraith would have teleported between your lines and caused chaos. She would have bypassed your strongest defenders and gone for the weak. Other teleporters and speedsters probably would be the first to go once she trapped everyone in successive blasts of darkness. She’d work on the Supers with ranged powers next before starting to pick off whoever she wanted. If she could identify the leadership they’d be near the top of the list too. The strongest defenders would be the last to be attacked, if they were even attacked at all. Wraith would probably just leave them to pick up the pieces in her wake.” The entire class was silent as Absence finished explaining just how the supervillain they were studying would cut through their carefully laid plans and kill most of them.

“Absence, ma’am,” Angela was the first to recover. “Did you engage in a lengthy battle with Wraith? How can you know that’s what she was going to do?”

“To answer your first question, no. I only engaged Wraith for a little over a minute. As for your second question, well that’s simple. That’s what I would have done.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Becca was glad Angela said it, because the speedster wasn’t following.

“You learn a lot about a person when you’re in a life or death fight with them; and despite what your coaches teach you here, not all fights are like that. Sometimes the Hero has clear superiority, and it’s a matter of avoiding too much violence to accomplish the mission,” Absence continued after Angela nodded her understanding. “I could tell early on that a fight with Wraith was a life or death fight. You will see in the footage that neither of us wanted that at the time, but if we’d committed, only one of us would have walked away. It is because of that experience that I can say fairly certainly how Wraith would approach this situation. She would approach it that way because that’s how I would approach it if I was a teleporter, and Wraith showed me in just over a minute that she was just as good as me.”

That was a shock to hear, and Becca wasn’t the only one to think so. Everyone present, despite all of the knowledge they had at their disposal, liked to view the world as a place where Heroes were always the best. They knew Heroes died, and died too often; but they still believed that a Hero could take anyone in a one-on-one fight. To have a Hero come in and say to their faces that there was a supervillain out there who could stand toe-to-toe with them was a perception altering thought on the dynamics of their personal universes.

<Son of a female dog,> the revelation made Becca’s stomach churn. <And now we need to research this person.> Becca would still do the work to the best of her ability, but now she knew she needed more work to beat back down the growing fear in her gut.

“Thank you, Absence,” the dean could tell she was losing the class. “How about we go through the video and then have a Q and A session about anything the students might want to ask.”

Absence was not the type of Hero who was built to teach in a classroom, Becca saw that much after the first few minutes. But that didn’t mean the woman didn’t know how to take a hint.

“Yes, Dean Ditmar,” she accepted the remote, and pressed the play button. “Let’s begin.”

 

***

 

“You did what!” Lilly stood with her hands on her hips, and her fiery eyes boring into the back of her father’s head.

“It was nothing,” Altair shrugged, fending off a glare that brought men to their knees with nothing more than a cocked eyebrow. “I merely put a face to a name, nothing more.”

“You told her I considered her a friend,” Lilly stated it like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “We’re not friends. Angela doesn’t do more than nod her head in my direction. We aren’t even acquaintances.”

“Relax, Daughter,” Altair took another bite of his lasagna. “It was an innocent, momentary conversation. Stop worrying about it.”

“You could have blown everything with this lie,” Lilly tried to drill her glare through her father’s skull.

It surprised her when he chuckled instead. “Please,” he waved his hand dismissively. “I probably solidified our cover story.”

“Have you blown a fucking gasket?” Lilly screeched.

“Language,” Altair growled, his calm demeanor cracking.

Lilly knew that look, and knew she needed to dial it back. “Please explain to me how you helped our situation.”

“Do you honestly think this would be the first time a daughter lied to her father?” both of Altair’s eyebrows rose as he presented the question. “I haven’t told a lie as much as I have shown your friend that you simply don’t tell your father everything. A teenager away from home for the first time is practically obligated to omit certain truths to their family. It’s practically an American tradition.”

Despite the anger in her chest, Lilly couldn’t argue against the picture her father was painting. Her persona as Liz Aretino wasn’t too different than the actual Lilly Thermopolis, and the real Lilly definitely kept secrets. Keeping secrets in her family was as normal as apple pie. Still, that didn’t mean she liked her father going behind her back when she was the lead on this operation.

“She’s not my friend,” Lilly knew the comeback was lame, but she didn’t have anything else. “And don’t jump her like that again. I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty sure her family are big name Heroes. The way Kyoshi and Becca go to her for advice also suggests that she must be near the top of their HCP class. We need to avoid arousing any suspicion from her.”

“Don’t fret,” her father took another bite. “As I said it was a momentary conversation. There was a man at the bar watching, but I didn’t interact with her any longer than a parent of a friend should.” Lilly bristled at the “friend” remark.

“But that’s enough about that incident,” her father changed the conversation. “How was your break?”

Lilly couldn’t hide the smile that split her face in two. “It was pretty awesome,” she fawned over the memory. “Seth took me to his family’s estate in North Carolina for their Thanksgiving party. I made several contacts, thoroughly embarrassed his siblings, and have been deemed unfit for their son by his father.”

Emotions warred against each other on Altair’s face. On one side there was pride in Lilly’s ability to infiltrate a family of high society, gather vital intelligence, and successfully manipulate everyone involved. On the opposite side was the urge to rip off anyone’s head who didn’t think his princess was good enough. The struggle lasted a few seconds, which gave Lilly useful insight into her father’s thoughts on the topic.

“Is everything well with you and Seth?” he asked, judging her reactions in return.

“Things are great,” she smiled, but dialed it down from the previous one that leaked out. “I’ve got him exactly where I want him. If I pushed, I bet I could cause a schism in the family that could seriously disrupt some powerful political and economic players.”

“That is good,” Altair’s reply was measured. “And how about you, what do you feel for him?”

The question took Lilly off guard. “Wha…what do you mean?” her biology betrayed her, and filled her cheeks with blood. “He’s my boyfriend…my pretend boyfriend. He’s a mark, father. He’s getting us closer to our ultimate goal.”

Lilly’s eyes searched her father’s and found them cold. “Do not allow yourself to become too close to Seth. He is a powerful Super, and a rich man,” Altair tempered his reprimand. “But as you said, he is a mark. You must be willing to do what is necessary to get our client the good they have paid for. You need to be ready for anything.”

There was weight to the final word. Lilly felt it as her father’s silver eyes bored into her chocolate brown ones. The meaning was clear. If she needed to remove Seth from the board to get Anika, she better be ready to do it.

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, Dad,” she deflected with sarcasm. “I know what my job is and how to do it. Don’t forget that you’d be pissing into the wind if it wasn’t for the groundwork I’ve done.”

The tension was palpable; master and student facing off in an incident where the student had out maneuvered the master. When those two people were supervillains things tended to get bloody. Luckily, for Lilly and Altair, they were family.

“I realize that,” Altair replied through grated teeth. “But do not grow overconfident in your success. Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” The biblical words held true for millennia, and Lilly wasn’t an exception.

The verbal clash would have continued if the soft chimes from Lilly’s cell phone hadn’t interrupted them. She pulled the slim device out of the waistline of her booty shorts to see who it was calling.

“Sorry I can’t stay and chat, but I’ve got to take this,” Lilly held up the phone, and Altair dismissive gesture told her they’d finish the conversation some other time.

In a blast of darkness Lilly left the house and reappeared on an Australian beach. “Talk to me.” The sound of the surf crashing onto the beach forced her to speak louder than usual, but it was nothing compared to the voice on the other end of the line.

“We’re fucked, we’re so fucked!” the squeaky voice of the young technopath was high pitched and irritating over the secure line.

“What…calm the fuck down, Mika,” Lilly retorted. “What’s wrong?”

“They grabbed one of my guys, Shadow. They took him and are going to torture him for information.”

Lilly was surprised that Mika had “guys”. Apparently, he was putting his loan to good use; or it would have been good use if he hired proper henchmen. Unfortunately, proper henchmen didn’t get caught and tortured; they at least had the common courtesy to die before they talked. As for who had captured the pawn, Lilly’s first guess was the pimp of the hooker Lilly had sent to get her mind wiped. That or the jewelry people were trying to hit back in retaliation.

“Take deep breaths, big guy,” she put a little sultry into her voice. “Tell me everything you know.”

“I don’t know much. Most of my guys got away, but they said it was the cops that got him.”

“The COPS!” Lilly was more irritated than fearful. Thankfully, the beach was deserted with no one to hear the odd conversation.

“Yeah,” Mika’s tone was a little more controlled now, but the kid sounded like he was going to cry. “People have been asking around the last few days, just background chatter that I’ve picked up on my cursory scans of the police channels. But then they mentioned one of my guy’s names. I tried to get him out of town, but they caught him quick.”

“Ok,” Lilly controlled herself. “What’s the damage? Do they know who I am? Do they know about us?” she added as a quick after thought. She didn’t want to come off sounding too selfish.

“They don’t know about you,” Mika confirmed to Lilly’s relief. “He knows that he was hired by Super who was good with computers, but he’s only been on payroll for a few weeks.”

“Why the hell would the cops pick him up then? You haven’t done anything in the last few weeks have you?” Lilly’s tone left no room for lies.

“No way! I’ve just advertised my services, but I haven’t taken any jobs. The services I’ve advertised are legit too,” Mika replied. Lilly could hear his feet pounding as he ran down whatever alley in Chicago he was currently in.

“If there’s no connection then you don’t need to go crawl into a hole,” Lilly tried to make him relax, but the pounding didn’t stop. “If he hasn’t done anything then why did he get picked up?”

“Something about another job,” Mika replied distractedly. “Apparently he set something up for a fence in Harlem that got busted. Nothing to do with me.”

<No…no…no…no…fuck!> Mika might not have made the connection but she had. <They must have ID’d me from that time the yellow starburst tried to arrest me. The guy who had set up the meet with the fence was from Chicago>, she retrieved the small piece of information from the back of her brain. <They’re trying to find me.>

                Having the cops close on your trail was irritating, but it was also exhilarating. The police, and probably some Heroes, were expending valuable resources to hunt her. That was a sign she’d finally made it. She’d made it to the show. <Dad will be so proud.> She’d have to get back home soon and tell him. The news would end their little fight for sure, and he’d probably take her out for ice cream. But first she had to do something.

“Mika, where are you?” she listened to his reply. “I’ll be there in five.”

 

***

 

<Research, it’s all about research,> Lilly had spent the last two days getting to know everything there was to know about Ricky Galvani.

On paper the guy was a moron; dumb as a brick, didn’t pass the eighth grade before he ran away from home, and struggled with basics like reading and writing. If Lilly hadn’t done more digging she might have felt sorry for the nitwit. After she had, she didn’t have any regrets.

While Ricky was as dense as a bag of rocks, he had a panache for violence. Low level street crime led to a starting position in the Mob, and from there his particular brand of sadistic viciousness allowed him to climb the ranks. The guy was an enforcer at his core, and despite the inconvenience of him getting arrested it was probably for the best. Mika didn’t see it yet, but Ricky was probably going to wait it out until he gained the young technopath’s trust. Once Mika let him into the inner circle the Neanderthal was going to slit Lilly’s friend’s throat and take all his programming. She knew the stuff in Mika’s office could fetch someone a small fortune. The only question was whether or not Ricky was going to share a cut with his Mob bosses or keep it all for himself.

“Is this our best move?” neither Mika nor Lilly was shivering in their perch. “Are they going to connect the dots?”

“Trust me, Nano,” they were both in full costume as they camped out in the chilly weather. “They won’t suspect a thing.”

The good thing about having a sociopath as your target was that they always had a lot of enemies. It didn’t take Lilly more than a few hours, a grand in bribes, and a few loose lipped men to get her the 411. The family Ricky worked for was fond of him, but the enforcer had pissed off a rival family and three street gangs. There was no shortage of people with motive. The only problem was opportunity.

People were rightfully scared shitless of Ricky. If someone failed to end him then Ricky would come after them, their family, their pets, and the friends they’d made on vacation in Barbados if he felt like it. No one had dared to make a move yet, even though Ricky wasn’t subtle. All that did was make Lilly’s job that much easier.

The first step was to maneuver the pieces into place. The list of people with a grudge was long, but the list of people who might have the balls to do something was short. Lilly asked around, bought some drinks for guys, and flashed a little boob to get the info she needed. After she had a name and address, a short recon, and a B and E got her what she needed.

With the tools in hand she needed to get rid of any possible alibi. Her Dad knew a guy who could help, and the price was to tell him her plan. It was a simple, elegant plan, and Hellgate wholeheartedly approved.

“It’s about time you added to your resume,” were his only words as he handed over a number.

Twenty-four hours later, Lilly was in possession of a clear, odorless gas that peacefully put people to sleep. It was also untraceable. It wasn’t untraceable because no one could find the cause, but because no one would go looking for one. A drug that just put you peacefully to sleep didn’t elicit a lot of attention from pathology specialists; that was the beauty behind it.

All it took was another B and E, and the fall guy was sleeping peacefully at home with no witnesses to vouch for his whereabouts. That was the first step, the second step was finding out how to get to Ricky. That was the most difficult part since he was in police custody.

It wasn’t in Ricky’s nature to talk about anything, even something small like a gig with a Super. Ricky might be about as competent as a ten year old in most aspects of life, but when it came to crime the guy had a master’s degree; and that included how to wait for the cops to cut him the best deal. He needed to hold out long enough to maintain his street cred; while throwing the right people under the bus so he could move up even more. It was as much an art as a science, and Ricky had the gift.

Lilly and Mika wouldn’t be able to get in without drawing a hell of a lot of attention. Since that was the opposite of what they wanted to do, that was out. The only other option they had was to wait for the right moment. Thankfully, city police forces just didn’t have the funding to keep up with technological savants like Mika; so waiting for the right opportunity wasn’t long or difficult.

“They’ve got all the prisoners tagged with bracelets that track their movements throughout the facility,” the nearly unbreakable devices had eliminated human prison breaks when they’d first been introduced years ago. It just happened that the device that kept Ricky locked up was going to be the same thing that gave Lilly the opportunity that she needed.

“He’s coming out the front door with three others and heading to the courthouse,” Mika looked over at a tablet sitting next to him on the cement rooftop.

They’d put together this whole operation in a few days, and it almost wasn’t fast enough. Mika had been able to get into the Attorney General’s office computers just in time to see Ricky was making a deal. Ricky was going to roll on someone to get released. While most people would be classified as a snitch and ostracized, Ricky would just kill anyone who gave him that label and move up in the criminal underworld. As a member of that underworld, Lilly found that unacceptable; especially if he was going to blab about her or Mika.

<Steady,> Lilly saw the white Department of Correction van pull up to the curb in front of the police station. The cops would ride with the DOC officers to the courthouse, before they signed all the paperwork and were free of Ricky for good. <Sorry to ruin your day.>

The rifle was a standard issue M40A3 sniper rifle that had undergone illegal modification when the owner had stolen it when he was dishonorably discharged. The old jarhead, who was blissfully sleeping at home, was a hired gun and a suspect in half a dozen murders in the Chicago area. Nobody would think twice of pointing the finger in his direction, and he’d be too good a collar for any cop to pass up.

“There he is,” Mika foot was tapping annoyingly against the rooftop.

“Shut up and sit still,” Lilly snapped. She needed to concentrate.

Lilly’s custom made sniper’s nest was five hundred yard, five whole football fields, away from the buildings entrance. The windy city was surprisingly calm, which was a blessing because Lilly wasn’t the greatest shot in the world. Five hundred yards was her max range, and even that wasn’t completely reliable.

Ricky was in the back of the three man group heading for the transport. He had a police officer on either side of him offering the illusion of protection. Lilly took deep breaths to steady her heartrate and focus. The red crosshairs of the site rose and fell over Ricky’s body in time with her breathing.

When her father first taught her how to shoot she’d experimented with different techniques. Her first option was to fire the weapon during the pause when your lungs were full, before you exhaled. Lilly didn’t like this method. She got the feeling that her heart was going to pound right out her chest, and if she didn’t fire fast enough, her vision would start to waver. Instead, she opted to fire after her exhale. It might not be the most common technique, but it worked for her.

Her breathing was deep and controlled as she settled the crosshairs on her target. <Breath in…breath out…breath in…breath out,” she calmly pulled the trigger.

The kick of the weapon surprised her, just like it was supposed to. She lost sight of her target during the moment, but quickly required it. Ricky was down. A bloody whole in his chest punched clean through where his rotting heart used to be. Lilly smiled as she lined up another shot. She needed two to get this plan to work.

The crack of the rifle had sent people scrambling for cover. The two cops were tucked into a crevice in the building with their weapons drawn, frantically calling for backup on their radio. The other prisoners had run for it while everyone else was distracted.

<Excellent,> Lilly smiled to herself. <The more chaos the better.> She fired another shot into Ricky’s unmoving chest.

She heard Mika gulp next to her. The technopath had never been on this side of the job before today. As a matter of fact, neither had Lilly. She tried not to kill people because it was such messy work; but sometimes someone needed to die. Today that was Ricky.

The cops were looking in her direction now. Two shots from the same place were enough for someone with training to pinpoint where they were coming from. Sirens could also be heard in the distance, and more cops were swarming out of the building behind a line of people with bulletproof shields.

“Jesus, Wraith,” Mika could see everything unfolding with binoculars he’d built into his costume.

“We’re done here,” Lilly stepped backwards out of the sniper’s nest.

In a flash of shadow the rifle disappeared. It reappeared in a sleeping man’s closet across town, but that wasn’t Lilly’s problem anymore. Instead she bent over and picked up one of the shell casings. It was hot to the touch, even through her gloves. She pocketed the shell, but gave the second one a kick. The brass casing rolled along the rooftop before falling into a small fissure near the edge.

A thorough canvasing of the scene by the cops would reveal the hidden shell complete with a partial fingerprint. The fingerprint would give them enough to get a warrant for his home, and then they would find the rifle. Since the hitman wouldn’t have an alibi he would take the fall for the assassintation, and no one would be the wiser. Any information Ricky had connecting anything to Mika or Wraith died with him.

“It was necessary,” Lilly stated nonchalantly as she grabbed Mika’s hand and ran toward the air vent.

Together they dove through the opening and began to fall. Lilly counted to three, and another explosion of shadow deposited them back in Mika’s warehouse. The technopath hit the ground hard, grunted, and fell onto his back.

“Sorry, should have told you to bend your knees,” Lilly offered a hand as she stepped over to him.

“Why did we have to dive through an airshaft again?” Mika grumbled, massaging the small of his back.

Mika wasn’t connected enough into the supervillain community to know there were certain ways to track teleporters. Hellgate had drilled the Heroes countermeasures into her head before she entered kindergarten. The best way to keep someone from tracking your teleportations was for you to teleport from the last place anyone would suspect. If the price for that was Mika looking like a fool then it was well worth it.

Lilly took Mika’s question as rhetorical. “Next time call me with better news, big guy,” she smiled under her mask. “I’ll see you later.”

Lilly gave the young man a small wave and disappeared. She had things to do. She’d missed a few days of classes, was behind on all of her work, and hadn’t seen Seth at all. The fact that she’d just killed a man didn’t even cross her mind as she reappeared back in her bedroom.

<Time to find a good outfit,> she shot Seth a moderately inappropriate text as she stripped out of her Wraith ensemble. <Something classy, but easy to slip out of.> She giggled, thinking about what her man would be thinking about for the next few hours. <Nothing appropriate that’s for sure.>

It was one of the many things she loved about her boyfriend.

The emotion she was feeling stopped everything dead in its tracks. She rewound her mental conversation, played it back, and then repeated the process several times. Every time it came back the same. Lilly had used the L-word.

<Oh, shit,> apparently her father knew what he was talking about after all.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 39

Having the full weight of a woman pressing down on top of Seth was a turn on. It didn’t matter that he was in a relationship with Liz. Having two full, soft, but firm breasts in his face was bound to induce a certain physiological reaction. <Tits get me horny, so sue me,> it didn’t help that he was basically grabbing her ass as she pressed her boobs into his face.

The fact that he knew what Kimberly Goodman’s world class assets looked like without a black HCP uniform covering them only made the situation that much more embarrassing.

“Are you hard?” she asked the mortifying question.

“Wha…no,” Seth made the fatal mistake of letting his concentration falter.

As he stammered Kimberly twisted, breaking the hold Seth was using to grapple with her. Without the hold, Kimberly was able to sit up to her full height on top of him, and began raining down punches on his face. Seth blocked most of them, but a few got through.

“Fuck!” Seth yelled after a devastating hammer fist hit him in the jaw. He felt something crack.

“Time,” Coach McMillian’s voice carried over the forty-six fighting freshman. “Anyone need a healer?”

Seth was embarrassed as he raised his hand. Kimberly just looked smug. The grey uniformed junior looked sorry for the both of them.

“It doesn’t feel good does it,” Seth was one of the few getting healed, but just about everyone was injured. “Fighting without your powers might seem unfair, but it’s good to have an appreciation for what the average person has to deal with.” Several heads around the room nodded. “Plus, you never know when you might have to fight a nullifier.” No one liked the smile that crossed Coach McMillian’s face.

Seth thought having Coach Meyers absent from physical training would be a blessing, but Coach McMillian was doing his best to make up for the difference. He didn’t even have to work hard to do it. He just put the whole class into the combat rings at the center of the gym, told them no powers, and let them duke it out for two minute rounds.

The day had just been a weird one. <And it started out so good,> thoughts of his and Liz’s carnal activities didn’t do a whole lot to help his current situation. His intention to end the day as he started it didn’t either.

<At least I didn’t have to present,> he counted his blessings.

Seth was fully ready to present his midterm report on his chosen hero, and he was confident his presentation would have kicked ass. Public speaking wasn’t an issue for Seth. He’d been talking with politicians, business tycoons, and other influential people whose actions influenced thousands of people’s daily lives for years. Giving a ten to twenty minute report on a Hero in front of teenagers was child’s play.

The only thing he was worried about was going too soon after Angela. Once again she’d outdone herself at the expense of the rest of the class. The project was to present on a Hero and focus on their contributions to society; not string together a convoluted web of action and reaction that showed a single Hero’s fall from grace. Coach Meyer’s little info dump hadn’t helped.

<What the hell is up with her?> Seth knew enough about the women to know that he didn’t want to know about the shit rattling around in her head.

Coach Meyers always struck him as the “bury your feelings deep down” type. In the span of a few hours they’d seen her cry, go off into daydream land, and then black out. The look in the older Super’s eyes when she finally came to made Seth feel sorry for whoever had pissed her off.

<Don’t know, don’t care. I just don’t want to get my ass kicked again,> the Seth who thought he was invincible because of his powerful abilities had been gone since that first day of the HCP.

Kimberly’s smug expression turned into a frown when she looked back down at his crotch. “Don’t be so flattered,” he snapped at her, still a little pissed that she’d broken his jaw. “This isn’t because of you,” the words were only half true. Her frown became a grimace, and she stalked off to her next fight.

Half the room was moving counterclockwise while the other half stayed in their combat circle. That meant that Seth’s next opponent was…<This is just perfect.>

                Angela Martin stepped across the faint red line that marked the circle’s boundary. She had a bruise on her cheek, and one of her eyes was watery. Seth wanted to give whoever had punched the woman at the top of their class in the face a high five.

Angela watched where he was looking and smiled. It was not the kind of smile Seth liked to see. “You should see the other guy.” If Seth didn’t know any better, he would have thought Angela made a joke.

He looked over at the circle next to his. It was Jacqueline Eaton, an aerokinetic who was ranked 20th in the class. Jacki, as everyone called her, was a tall, lean, black girl who looked like she’d run track and played center on her high school basketball team. She didn’t have the kind of curves Seth looked for in a woman, but she was pretty. Her limbs were long, but strong, and along with years of martial arts experience, it made her an excellent fighter. Her six foot frame had several inches in reach compared to Angela, but it still looked like Angela had thoroughly manhandled her. It even looked like the healer was regrown parts of her hair that had been torn out.

Despite the evidence of the beat down, Seth was confident as he turned back to Angela. He was taller, stronger, and had a decent training background. He hadn’t been training since he could stand, like Angela probably had, but he’d spent five years engrossed in mixed martial arts. This might be one of the only times in the near future he’d get to beat her. The thought brought a smile to his face.

Angela didn’t react, she was already coming up with a strategy to deal with his physical advantages. Seth would have put his mind to the same task if he had time.

“Ready…Set…Fight…” the red lights around the circles turned green at Coach McMillian’s command.

Angela rushed forward, dodging Seth’s punch and delivering a quick one-two combo to his body before dancing back out of range. The blows weren’t too painful, but they hadn’t been love taps.

<This is your chance,> Seth psyched himself up as he advanced on her. <Man up!>

                He threw his own combination, his superior power knocking Angela off balance. He followed it with a kick to the head, hoping to end the match by humiliating her, but he missed. Angela ducked low, kicked out, and swept Seth’s leg out from underneath him. He hit the ground with an “umph”, but immediately rolled away. He barely avoided a stomp that would have driven all the air from his lungs, and probably broken a rib or three.

Seth kicked out wildly, driving her away, while spinning on his back to keep his legs facing his circling opponent. Angela would either have to take a chance and try to get past his kicks, let him lay there for the rest of the match, or let him get back to his feet.

“Get up,” Angela walked to the opposite side of the circle to give him plenty of space.

Seth kept his smile to himself, he knew his dorm mate well enough to know she wanted a good workout more than anything else.

He’d barely gotten his feet underneath him before she charged. She threw punches and kicks, driving him back, and then countering his counters. <Damn she’s good.> She was better than good, and she was definitely better than him. <I need to use my size and strength,> they were the only advantages he had at the moment.

He kept her at a distance with jabs and feints until he had a plan. It was reckless and stupid, but hopefully he’d catch her off guard.

He charged her.

It didn’t catch Angela off guard, and his thick skull was the only thing that kept him standing long enough to wrap his arms around her. He was pretty sure he’d had his jaw broken again by a well-placed haymaker, but he was just too stubborn to go down by this point. He got both of his arms around her, pinning her arms to her side. He was about to lift her up and throw her to the ground when she brought the heel of her foot crashing down on his instep.

The sound of Seth’s foot breaking was audible to anyone within a few circles of him. The pain was enough for her to break his hold. Her elbows came down hard on his forearms, and then her palms shot forward to hit him square in the chest. Seth felt air rush out of his lungs as he stumbled backwards. He was only able to get in half a breath before Angela’s foot struck him right in the stomach.

At this point he was stumbling backwards, and doubled over in pain. His foot found the worst time to find a slick part on the mat. He slipped, unable to correct the sudden lack of traction. He came down hard on his ass and lower back, and that didn’t do a lot to help his lack of oxygen problem.

Seth wheezed, trying to fill his burning, punished lungs with air. He got another half-breath in before Angela jumped on top of him. For a second it turned him on, but they she had his arms pinned under her knees, and she was pummeling his face.

The last thought Seth had before Angela beat him unconscious was how pointless it was to think he’d ever be as good as her. Powers or no power, the woman was a force to be reckoned with.

*

“There we go, easy does it.” Seth’s eyes snapped back open. “And we’re back.”

“What…” it took a moment for his short term memory to kick in, and he didn’t like what he remembered.

He liked it even less that there was a small group gathered around the combat circle. “Nothing new to see here, you’ve seen people get their ass kicked before,” the grey uniformed junior was waving people away.

Seth tried to prop himself up on his elbow but it slipped, and he fell backwards, smacking his head against the rubber mat. “Ugh?” he groaned, moving his hand over the wet spot he was lying in. It came away sticky and red.

“That girl beat the piss out of you,” the healer pointed at Angela, who was across the gym talking with Coach McMillian. “Do I need to just stand by your combat circle for the rest of class, because you’re making a habit of getting your ass kicked by girls?” Seth glared at the older Super, who proceeded to laugh at him. “Don’t get your boxers in a twist,” the guy put up his hands defensively. “I’ve had my ass handed to me dozens of times by girls, just not back to back like that.” The junior was really starting to get on Seth’s nerves.

“Show’s over people, rotate and get ready to start again,” Coach McMillian gestured for Angela to head back over.

She passed by Seth as she walked to her next fight, and he noticed that her knuckles were split open and bleeding. “I apologize,” Angela looked at the ground, clearly uncomfortable. “I lost control and was too rough. I have no excuse.”

Seth had a witty comeback about being too rough, but he wisely kept his mouth shut. After all this woman had just beaten him senseless.

“No worries,” Seth smiled, pretty sure that the healer had to regrow some of his teeth. “It happens.”

“It doesn’t happen to me,” Angela replied defensive, leaving them in an uncomfortable silence.

“Still, don’t worry about it,” Seth reiterated that he wasn’t holding anything against her. She was about to say something else, but then Coach McMillian yelled at them for talking like little school girls.

Angela moved on to the next cell, to face an understandably scared Danny Mason, while Seth’s next opponent entered the circle.

“That looked harsh, bro,” Seth recognized the man as the technopath who sat next to Mason in Ethics. Seth knew he was ranked 4 spots higher than him, but he couldn’t remember the guy’s name.

<Probably from all the recent head trauma.>

“Ready…set…fight,” Coach McMillian ordered.

Whatever the technopaths name was, he didn’t last more than a minute against Seth. Seth would never admit it out loud, because it sounded a little sociopathic, but he was glad to have someone he could kick the crap out of and not receive a broken face for his troubles.

That was how the rest of gym class went. After two stellar defeats, Seth thoroughly mopped the floor with the rest of his opponents. The only excitement came from the surprising ferocity of Stephanie Jackson, the lowest ranked freshman; but once he adjusted his tactics he defeated her too.

“Everyone hit the showers,” Coach McMillian called an end to the physical training session after three hours of brawling. Coach Meyers was still unaccounted for.

After kicking ass, or having your ass kicked, for several hours, the locker room was pretty quiet. A lot of people had undergone multiple rounds of healing. Even though the junior healer brought everyone back to one hundred percent, there were still side effects. A human, or Super’s, body wasn’t meant to be continually healed like that. Hormones became unbalanced, and nerve endings were sending confused signals to the brain. Going from pain one second to calm the next was just as tough on the nervous system as it was on the mind, and all the fighting had left everyone mentally exhausted.

Seth showered and changed without a word to anyone else. He beaten every guy he’d come up against, and that didn’t make people want to talk to him. Overall, he was being allowed back into the HCP social circle. Becca and Kyoshi must have been spreading word of his monogamous relationship, and his mellowing when it came to all things female. Truthfully, he hadn’t really mellowed at all. He’d just found a woman who appreciated who he truly was, and focused all his efforts on her.

<And it has taken everything I have to keep up with her,> he wasn’t just talking about the bedroom. Liz was an honest to God remarkable person. The fact that she screwed him like a howler monkey in heat was a well appreciated bonus.

“Yo, Seth,” someone called out from the far side of the locker room.

Seth made sure to compose his face before turning towards the voice. Carson Long was the number ten ranked freshman, and the guy thought he was hot shit because he was in the top three in terms of guys. Carson also was one of the first guys to treat Seth like a pariah. Seth knew Carson was pissed at him for getting with Kimberly before he could, but that was only one half of the equation. The other half was that he was currently dating the number nine ranked female. It was not a healthy relationship, and if Seth was saying that, then that meant it was true.

“What’s up, Carson?” Seth kept his expression polite.

“I saw how my girl whooped your ass,” Carson and his three man entourage laughed. Seth found it pretty hypocritical since he’d embarrassingly defeated two of those three guys.

“Kimberly is a skilled fighter,” Seth answered diplomatically, not wanting to start anything. “It was a good match.”

“And that’s why she’s top ten.” Carson always made a big deal out of the top ten. It didn’t matter that he’d initially been ranked number ten, and hadn’t been able to move up.

“How did you fare today?” Seth couldn’t help the edge that crept into his tone. “I saw you had a little trouble against Stephanie.”

Seth hoped Carson was smart enough to make the connection. The last ranked freshman had been able to fight him to a draw. Seth had been surprised by her as well, but he’d compensated and won. The bottom line was Seth had been able to beat someone who Carson couldn’t, and the red in the other Super’s cheeks showed Seth he’d hit a nerve.

“That bitch wouldn’t last a second against me if I had my powers,” Carson retorted, his fists clenched and shaking.

You didn’t make it to number ten without having a good power, and knowing how to use it. In Carson’s case, that was the ability to deliver explosive blows. It was actually funny to watch him fight. Every time a punch, kick, or even head-butt made contact with Carson’s opponent there was a release of kinetic and thermal energy. It literally looked like a bomb was going off when he hit someone, and the end result was usually the opponent flying across the room and possibly on fire. As a result Carson was also more durable than an average human, so he didn’t break his own bones when he hit someone.

The downside was that he had trouble controlling his power. It wasn’t in a Powered sense, but so far he only had minimal control of the amount of thermal and kinetic energy he released with his attacks. Seth had seen some progress since the start of the school year, but that didn’t excuse the fact that he’d come dangerously close to using lethal force in the initial combat rankings.

<And his temper doesn’t help,> Seth thought, knowing full well that his own emotions were getting the best of him at the moment. <But I really don’t like this guy.>

“The entire point of the exercise was to evaluate how you’d fight if you didn’t have your power,” Seth kept his voice calm as he pulled on a clean pair of shorts and a t-shirt. “What today really showed us is that without your power you’d be at the bottom of the rankings.”

The fact that it was common knowledge that Carson wasn’t the most skilled fighter, and relied more on his power, only strengthened Seth’s argument.

“Fuck you, Seth. I could take you any day, any time,” Carson took the bait.

“Excellent,” Seth smiled back at his red faced classmate. “How about this Friday? I’ll make all the arrangements with Coach McMillian.”

“You’re on,” Carson didn’t hesitate, or think about what he was agreeing to.

Carson’s power made him deadly when it came to close combat, but he had nothing to counter ranged attacks. His enhanced durability had helped get him into the top ten, but it wasn’t strongman level. Still, it would allow Seth to let loose a little bit. In terms of flexibility, Seth’s power was far superior.

“Let’s keep any fightin’ to the combat cells,” Mason’s voice cut through the tension like a big ass knife. “You hear me?” Carson spared Seth a final glare before turning back to his entourage.

“What’re you up to tonight,” Mason walked over to stand by Seth, his massive frame completely blocking Carson from view.

“Just hanging with Liz,” Seth replied, pulling on his shoes, and grabbing his bag full of dirty clothes.

“Could you ‘hang with Liz’ earlier in the evening? Some of us would like to get a good night sleep,” it was tough to see Mason blush, but Seth caught it.

“Sure thing,” Seth didn’t have enough shame to blush. “Sorry about that, but Liz isn’t one to keep it down.” Mason didn’t respond to that. He just shook his head and headed toward the lifts.

Seth followed his larger roommate, but detoured to Coach McMillian’s office to schedule the challenge. The close combat instructor even looked eager to see the outcome. By the time Seth was finished with him, most of the class was already back up on campus. Seth rode the lift up alone, and emerged in the student’s center. He was careful about how he made his exit, because the center was filled with students. There were a lot of club meetings going on in the evenings, so it took him a while to find an opening. After he did, he was back at the townhouse within five minutes.

“Honey, I’m home,” Seth did his best Ricky Ricardo impression.

He didn’t get an answer. Liz wasn’t downstairs. Seth walked up to his room, and pushed open the door. “Hey,” he found Liz covered in a mound of blankets. It was pretty simiar to how he’d left her, except she was wearing clothes this time.

“You ok?” something didn’t feel right. It just felt off.

“Yeah I’m fine,” Liz sounded worn down, as she turned over to face him.

“Are you ok?” Seth’s heart dropped when he saw her face. “You looked like you just got hit by a bus.”

Liz’s eyes narrowed as she scowled at him. Seth gulped, and thought about what he’d just said. It was the first time he’d referred to his girlfriends as anything other than mind-blowingly hot.

“I’m not feeling great,” Liz replied, her face softening when she recognized the guilt on his face. “Must be one of those 24 hour bugs.” She didn’t look happy about it. “Just give me a minute and I’ll head back to my place.”

“Like hell you will,” Seth placed his hand on her shoulder and prevented her from getting up. “You are going to stay right here, in bed. What can I get you? Do you like soup? My mom always gives me soup when I’m sick; how about eggs and toast?” Seth asked when she didn’t answer right away. “Is this a head, stomach, or lady issue?” the last question coaxed a laugh out of Liz.

“It’s a stomach thing, and soup sounds great,” she smiled, and looked at Seth for what felt like a long time.

“What?” he asked, unsure what he’d done wrong?

“Nothing,” Liz smiled again, and snuggled inside the covers. “Now fetch my soup man-slave.”

Seth grinned as the Liz he knew and loved resurface. “Yes, Mistress.”

They’d have a lot of fun with roleplaying, but not tonight; and that didn’t bother Seth one bit.

 

***

 

The hotel room wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t fancy either. The door had a solid deadbolt, the reviews online only had limited references to bed bugs, and so far the cleaning staff hadn’t stolen anything. Perhaps it was his intimidating presence that stopped them. Henry Martin, a.k.a. the Hero Hunter, liked to think that might be the case. Even if people didn’t know he was a Hero, he looked like the type of person you didn’t mess around with.

Henry and Sophia Martin had stayed in much worse places when they first graduated from West Private’s HCP. They met early in their HCP careers, fell in love, and knew they wanted to be together after they graduated. The Dean at the time had sat them down before graduation and had a candid conversation with them.

<It will be healthy to have some time apart,> Henry could remember Sophia stubbornly fighting back tears.

Despite their high graduation rankings, the Heroes they were interning with operated on opposite ends of the eastern seaboard. Henry had been fortunate enough to get an internship with Stealth, but the seasoned subtlety Hero bounced around New England. Sophia had been handpicked by War Hammer, but the man operated exclusively out of Miami. That meant two years of them having to see each other whenever they could get time off, and interns didn’t get a lot of that.

<You two have only been together in this environment. The next two years will be an opportunity to test yourselves mentally, physically, and emotionally. These are they type of life problems that you can’t punch or manipulate your way out of. It will be for the best.>

Henry remembered how infuriated he was that the old Dean was making sense. Sophia had cried then, one of the few times in their twenty plus years together that he had seen her do that. Over the next two years they’d seen each other only six times, and two of those had been at large scale threats where Heroes from all over were called in to help.

Those two years had been filled with temptation for both of them. As fit, good looking people in their early twenties, they’d been propositioned by others. Henry had been forced to turn down Stealth herself when she made a play at the end of his internship. Apparently, it was a final test she did to every male she took on as an intern. He obviously passed, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. There were certain aspects of biology that even those with the best intentions couldn’t fight.

Henry never asked Sophia about what she had to face. She was beautiful, gorgeous, and powerful enough that she attracted masculine attention everywhere she went. At the time, he didn’t care if she’d been with anyone else. He was just happy they got back together. He learned later in life, when it mattered more to him, that she hadn’t strayed.

After the successful internship they’d been able to get on a small team together. Three years later she was pregnant with Angela, and after Angela was born they spent a few years working as independent Heroes. Henry’s mother had helped with the baby while they were out traveling, because there was no way in hell he was going to have his infant daughter in the flea and rat infested shitholes that they could afford; which was why his current accommodations were perfectly fine.

Now that they were successful and famous Heroes, Sophia wouldn’t be caught dead in a mediocre place like this. She preferred the Ritz, but Henry’s standards were less stringent. As a subtlety Hero, it was never a good idea to feel you were too good for some things. Getting down in the grime was part of his profession.

Henry pulled on the last pieces of his costume. He’d been on autopilot while he got dressed, and he’d put on this outfit enough that he didn’t really need to pay attention. When he started to become a big name, his agent had wanted him to try something flashier. The suggestion was something that showed off muscles; which would then sell merchandise. Henry quickly shot down the idea. He was, after all, a subtlety Hero. He didn’t want to be a teen heartthrob with his picture on bedroom walls. He hadn’t been able to avoid it entirely. There was one picture that still haunted him to this day, but overall he was happy with the level of anonymity that came with his fame.

Sophia got most of the attention anyway, and she deserved it.

Henry looked himself over in the mirror to make sure everything was in place. His outfit was less a costume and more something you’d see a big game hunter wearing on safari. Everything was tans and whites. He had long khaki pants, with multiple cargo pockets for storage. Next was a long sleeved, white button down with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. On top of the shirt was a tan vest. The vest wasn’t a tactical vest, although there were several weapons on it. Mostly it was knives and ammunition. He had one pistol strapped to his leg, and another on his opposite hip. They were both tech genius inventions, and cost more than an average car; but they were worth every penny. Their ability to fire a range of ammunition gave him the flexibility a Super with human level strength and durability needed in a fight.

He wore a tan, canvas safari hat in the British style, and a bronze mask he’d picked up in Africa. The mask had a pondering expression on it, like it was searching for something. Henry felt it fit with his chosen Hero name. The final piece of his costume, and the one that always got the most attention was the large rifle he had slung across his back. It was a modified J. Hill Percussion Elephant Gun. Henry had bought it at an antique gun dealer’s auction, and then had a tech genius modernize it, while retaining the exterior look. Is made both his pistols look cheap. While the weapon still conjured up images of elephant hunting in the 19th century, it was really meant for more modern big game. Henry’s rifle had a reputation, and it tended to make strongmen think twice. The subtlety Hero’s skill with the rifle was something people in dark places talked about in whispers.

The familiar weight, which was a lot less than people would suspect, fell into place across his shoulder and back. Henry took a deep breath and felt himself become the Hero, Hunter. His mind became singularly focused on the mission. He left all thoughts of his family behind as he teleported.

The first thing that came to mind when Hunter arrived at his destination was “HOT”. The layers of his costume were thin for bulletproof material. Still, he could feel sweat sliding down his back within a minute of arriving. The fact that there wasn’t any shade in the middle of the Nevada road didn’t help.

The desert road was packed full of emergency vehicles with flashing red, blue, and yellow lights. From a cursory glance Hunter saw the state troopers, county Sherriff, FBI, the state gaming commission, US Marshals, the DVA, and of course the media.

<Someone could try and assassinate a sitting Senator and get less attention than this,> Hunter made the mental statement from firsthand knowledge.

“Hunter, glad you could join us,” a bald, haggard man with sweat stains all over his shirt waved Hunter over. Despite the man’s sour facial expression, Hunter knew Agent Jansen was a good man. He’d been his and Sophia’s DVA liaison for the past decade.

“Robbery,” it was a statement, not a question.

Hunter didn’t have to look far to see an armored truck on its side down on the shoulder of the road, and the blackened remains of a Cadillac Escalade. He noticed the lack of tire tracks on the road, which meant the expensive SUV had been hit while still moving, and the truck hadn’t braked, but still came to a stop somewhere in the road.

<And judging by the glass and metal shards, it was hit while stationary,> Hunter took in the scene. His two plus decades of experience giving him a good idea of what happened before Agent Jansen replied.

“Robbery turned Super brawl,” Jansen clarified. “Four of ours were in the SUV when it got hit; two heroes, two suits.” He pointed at the ruined vehicle. “They say it was a teleporter who ‘ported a grenade right onto the hood of the car. Shocked them more than anything, and took them a little time to safely extract themselves from the vehicle, assess the injuries to the two agents who were driving, and then engage the villain.”

“So it’s a verified villain, not some punk with powers, or a street gang trying to make a little extra cash,” they moved around the SUV enough to see the large hole that had been ripped through the side. There was also some blood on the sandy ground next to it.

“I’ll let the Heroes answer that question,” Jansen stopped at the opening of a tent, and opened it for Hunter to enter.

The tent might have offered a refuge from the sunlight, but it was probably fifteen degrees hotter inside. Hunter bit back his grumble, and advanced across the crowded area. The tent had been commandeered by the big wigs; the special agents in charge, police captains, the Sherriff himself, whatever title the gaming commissioner’s representative had, and the two costumed Heroes in the center.

The Heroes were standing over the mobile computer station, and an analysist was playing back footage from someone’s body camera. Everyone turned as he approached.

“Holy shit,” Hunter grinned behind his mask as the guy built like a tank showed just how new he was to the Hero game.

“Hunter, this is Absence and Ox, the two heroes on scene during the incident,” Jensen made the introductions.

Hunter didn’t recognize either of the Heroes. Absence was dressed in a skintight royal blue costume with the occasional yellow starburst. She was an athletic 5’8”, the type of lean muscle you’d find on a track star. Her mask completely covered her face, so he couldn’t get a read on her age, but the way she held herself said she was competent. Ox was the exact opposite. The name was fitting for the sheer size of the man; he was a few inches taller than Hunter, but half again as wide. Muscles strained against the confines of his grey costume. His arms were bare, probably because the fabric wouldn’t contain them. Unlike Absence, Ox was shuffling nervously from foot to foot, and he was the one who was slightly star struck by Hunter’s appearance.

“Hello,” Hunter reached out to shake Ox’s hand. Ox’s hand totally engulfed Hunter’s, and a smile split the uncovered bottom half of the man’s face.

Hunter refined his estimation of Ox. <Intern, maybe first year on his first team.> The wide smile revealed a lot to a well-trained eye.

Absence didn’t extend her hand. “Nullifier,” she explained, instead giving a small bow. “Switching my power on and off takes a bit of time and effort. Considering our circumstances, I’d rather be ready for anything.” Hunter didn’t blame her.

“Thanks for the heads up,” he returned the bow. “What can you tell me about this villain?”

“We’ve run her through the database based on her outfit, estimated age, and power set,” Absence took the lead. “We think she’s young, mid-twenties maybe even younger, and she’s kept under the radar until now. Her equipment is all top of the line,” she had the analyst forward the footage to a scene for her body camera.

Hunter watched with surprise as the villain fired explosive ammunition from standard looking Glock 40s. “She also very wealthy,” Hunter threw in his two cents. “That exploding ammunition costs a few hundred bucks a round,” he patted the pistol on his hip. “And it’s really hard to come by. Only a dozen dealers in the US sell it.”

“Then we’ve got a lead,” Ox was just eager to get into the conversation.

“On top of her equipment being the best, she knows how to fight,” Absence pointed down at the ice pack she was holding to her knee. “We only faced off for a few seconds, but she got me good, and I only got her once.”

“Believe me, that’s a pretty big accomplishment,” Ox lent credence to her statement.

“If I didn’t know any better I’d say she had HCP training,” Hunter could tell she hated saying it, and he hated hearing it.

Subtlety heroes had a reputation of having the most Heroes go rogue after graduation, but not a lot of statistics were out there to see how many of the people who failed out of the HCP turned to crime. Hunter assumed the percentages got lower the further in the program Supers made it, but if Heroes could go dark, then so could almost Heroes.

“It’s worth looking into,” it would take an hour of DVA server time to do a search and filter, but it was worth it.

“If she isn’t HCP then she had fantastic training,” Hunter sensed the female Hero was a little bitter about the fight. “ForceOps, or someone who has been in the game long enough to make sure that she knew what she was doing; possibly a legacy.” Either was a viable option.

“Any leads on other crimes she might have committed?” Hunter switched topics to something other than the fight.

“Well, she’s a teleporter with the addition of some type of shadow explosion when she does it.” If being a teleporter taught Hunter anything, it was how much of a pain in the ass his own kind could be.

“Show me,” Hunter watched the failed teleportation where the villain turned into some specter looking creature leaking darkness. He fast forwarded to her escape, and the wave of blackness that exploded from where she’d been standing. Then he watched the whole thing from start to finish.

<Interesting,> there might be a lot of teleporters out there, but the number with a secondary addition to the ability were few. <That should narrow things down.>

“The only other footage the DVA has of someone matching the power set is from a jewelry store robbery in Atlanta a few months ago,” Absence pulled up the video. The costume was different, and so was the attitude, but it looked like the same woman. “The diamonds were recovered during a raid in New York, and the responding Hero claimed that a teleporter vanished in a black cloud when she stormed the pawn shop.” The report was pulled up for Hunter to read.

The description was off. This person wasn’t in the same costume. The person the New York based Hero claimed to have seen was dressed in a sexy grunge look that was unarmored and vulnerable. Still, Hunter had a hunch that it was probably the same woman. He made a mental note to visit New York soon to interview the Hero.

“What did she try to steal?”

“Now that’s the magic question,” Agent Jansen stepped back into the conversation. He pulled out an official looking piece of paper. “This transport was carrying cash from a casino, thus the gaming commission’s presence. She also got diamonds, half of which were part of an FBI smuggling case. So they’re pissed they lost all that evidence. But most importantly was that,” Jansen pointed across the room to where the US Marshals were sitting. Two big men, not as big as Ox, but still big, were standing on either side of a smaller man. The small man had a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, and he never took his eyes off it. “That is a hard copy list of everyone in the Marshal’s witness protection program.”

<Oh shit,> it was Hunter’s turn to be shocked.

In an age with technopaths who could command computers with their minds, highly classified document protection protocols had reverted to removable storage devices or old fashioned paper copies. It was a pain in the ass to get the information, but having no digital footprint meant the information was more secure.

“Ox and Absence were tasked with guarding the briefcase, even though they didn’t know what it was,” the two Heroes looked just as surprised as Hunter.

“Was anything compromised,” Hunter was here to track down the responsible party. He’d continue to do his job, but he wanted to know how much of a bureaucratic nightmare he was getting into first.

“No,” Absence answered. “The case was magnetized to the truck, and she never got it open.”

That was the good news. The bad news was that it opened up a lot more possibilities. Was it organized crime related? Was the woman an assassin of some sort? Was she searching for someone? Who out there was in danger? Or was this all just a giant coincidence? The possibilities, and the heat, were giving Hunter a headache.

“Good. Now take me to the last teleportation site,” Ox, Absence, and Jansen didn’t say anything about the sudden change of topic.

The site was nearly half a mile away, and Ox spent the time telling Hunter about the chase out there. The talk told Hunter a few things about the situation. One, Ox was Absence’s intern. Two, Ox was a fan. And three, that the unknown teleporter was smart. She stayed just out of reach until the effects of Absence’s nullification wore off.

“I think this is it,” Ox gestured at the arid area around him.

The big strongman was close; he was only off by about fifty feet. Hunter approached the spot of the teleporter’s final teleportation and reached out with his senses. There was a reason that a simple teleporter like him was so famous. No one really knew him as a teleporter; they knew him as a tracker, a hunter.

Hunter ran his hand through the air and felt the ripple in the fabric of reality; a ripple that was created by teleportation. This ripple was weak, too weak to follow. <Damn,> it had been too long.

If he got here quicker he would have been able to connect through the ripple to wherever the mystery teleporter had traveled to; essentially piggybacking on her teleportation. It was his best method for tracking teleporters, and now he’d either have to find her using other evidence, or wait for her to strike again.

<Who are you Wraith, and what are you up to?> Hunter admitted the name was fitting, and the media was going to a have a field day with it.

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